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Red Sox, Braves let month full of chances slip away

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The collapses of the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves might have seemed sudden during Wednesday night’s wild action, but in reality they were a long time coming.

Red Sox fans might be tempted to blame Joe Girardi for subbing out his starters early against the Rays, or for leaving Mariano Rivera on the shelf while a host of guys like Boone Logan, Cory Wade and Scott Proctor served the AL wild-card berth to the Rays on a platter.

Maybe blame Terry Francona for failing to inspire his players or for inserting a hint of desperation into his late-season lineup selections.

Braves fans might blame the schedule-makers for allowing the Cardinals to finish in Houston while Atlanta drew the powerful Phillies. Blame the umpires or the managing or Hunter Pence’s dumb luck.

But both teams had a month to wrap things up, and they couldn’t get it done.

As Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said after Wednesday’s final insult: “I’m devastated. I’m heartbroken. To play hard for 161 games like we have and have it end like this. … It should not have gone down to the last game of the season to decide if we were going to the postseason.”

And from Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel: “It was tough to be so close and then have the feeling like it was falling out of your hands. And that’s the feeling I have now.”

Both are right. For as well as the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals finished the season, it wouldn’t have taken much to end their dreams. It’s not easy to blow a nine-game lead in the final month, as Boston did, or an 8 ½-game edge like Atlanta did. Otherwise it would have happened before.

A couple more wins in the last 30 days. One less mound meltdown. One less injury. One more lucky bounce. That’s all the Red Sox and Braves needed. They had a month to tuck away those playoff berths, and they couldn’t grab them by the throat.

For the Red Sox, it was all about pitching and injuries – and naturally, injuries to pitchers. Yes, Carl Crawford underperformed, but it was the guys on the mound who ultimately caused this collapse.

Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka went down. Josh Beckett tweaked his ankle and wasn’t the same when he returned. Jon Lester lost his touch, Daniel Bard lost his control and John Lackey lost his poise.

Tim Wakefield was thrust into a role he was no longer fit for, and Andrew Miller for one he never should have had. Erik Bedard came in and was mostly … Erik Bedard – showing flashes of brilliance, maddening inconsistency, and a brittle body.

It all added up to a complete meltdown by the pitching staff, including a 5.90 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP during September. It was a collapse that was so complete it could not make up for a truly awesome offense that featured two MVP candidates and led all of baseball in scoring at 5.4 runs per game.

The Braves didn’t have as much trouble with their pitching staff, but the problems they did have – namely injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson — were devastating, and an offense that was inconsistent all season couldn’t compensate, hitting .235/.301/.359 over the final month.

The injuries also added pressure to a bullpen that has already been ridden hard by manager Fredi Gonzalez, and the seemingly untouchable duo of Kimbrel (4.22 ERA in Sept.), Jonny Venters (5.56), simply wore out.

It was a month full of chances going unclaimed, leading to a pair of historic collapses. Neither the Red Sox nor the Braves could find that one guy to come up with the key hit, or get the key out when they needed it most. The Red Sox finished the season 7-20 and were unable to put together even a two-game win streak in their final 28 games. The Braves went 9-18 in Sept. and lost their final five games.

Both teams missed the playoffs by a single game.

“This is tough,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “This is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had coming off a baseball field.”

That feeling might not go away for a long time.

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People are getting hysterical over Dee Gordon’s positive test

FILE - This April 3, 1972 file photo shows Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, talking to reporters in New York. Miller, the union leader who created free agency for baseball players and revolutionized professional sports with multimillion dollar contracts, died Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 in New York. He was 95. (AP Photo/File)
Associated Press
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A dude testing positive for PEDs and getting suspended for 80 games should, actually, be taken as a sign that the system, however imperfect, still largely works. But the world of baseball can’t stop to acknowledge that. No, this is apparently a crisis. A crisis so dire that decades of labor developments apparently need to be scuttled.

That’s the message I’m getting from some folks in baseball media, anyway. Take this for example:

There’s a LOT going on there. For one thing, a casual dismissal of just how massively significant the concept of the guaranteed contract is in baseball. Marvin Miller is always cited as the man who brought the players free agency, but free agency would not have been valuable at all if teams could just void contracts. Just look at how the NFL and its phony salary numbers work. Miller and the MLBPA worked insanely hard to put that system in place and it’s insanely valuable to union membership. It’s not hyperbole to say that any movement on the part of the union to compromise the notion of guaranteed contracts would represent a complete and total repudiation of decades of its own work, and suggesting that it do so because we still get 5-7 PED suspensions a year is preposterous.

Then look at the word “option” there. Abraham wouldn’t have contracts be automatically voided. He’d only have them be voided at the option of an owner. This would give teams tremendous power to get out of bad deals and would give them no risk with respect to PED guys who happen to be on team friendly deals. If contracts were automatically void, underpaid players like Madison Bumgarner would have MASSIVE incentives to use PEDs. If they were merely voidable at the whim of the owner, the owners would have incentives with respect to drug testing other than making the game a clean one.

Finally, note how Abraham puts this all on the MLBPA. He’s not alone in this, as Buster Olney has been tweeting and writing all morning about what the union should and should not be doing to solve this problem. Obviously the union has a huge role as its players are the ones taking drugs, but to suggest that the union be the police force here and that it’s wholly incumbent upon it to solve this problem is silly.

For one thing, as I noted earlier today, a union’s purpose is to protect its members, not police them. To demand that they police them, to the point of undercutting some of their most important protections due to a disciplinary matter, is to turn the concept of a union on its head.

For another thing, as we learned throughout the height of the PED Era, ownership is not totally innocent when it comes to the permeation of PEDs in the game. The people who run baseball play a huge role in shaping the incentive structure of the game which causes some players to cheat. They are thus just as invested in and in just as good a position to help solve the problem at hand as the players are. They cannot, as these reporters would have them, sit back and demand that the MLBPA disembowel itself in order to eliminate PEDs from the game. It has to be a joint effort. Indeed, the drug rules in baseball have the word “JOINT” in the very title. It ain’t a Cheech and Chong reference, I can tell you that.

All of this reveals a certain hysteria that has always permeated the PED discussion in baseball coming to the fore once again. While they once ruled the game, PEDs are a relatively small problem now, comparatively speaking (note: neither Abraham nor Olney bother to establish that they’re actually a big problem or that things are getting worse; they merely assert it and assume it). A problem which, like drugs and cheating in every other walk of life, cannot be wholly eliminated and should not be ignored, but which can be and generally is effectively managed.

Yet here we are with two of the more influential voices in the game — and many others I’ve seen already today but didn’t bother to link here — pushing the panic button and demanding the ridiculous with no basis whatsoever. What is it about this subject, in this sport only, of course, that makes people lose their frickin’ minds?

Marlins’ Dee Gordon says he unknowingly took PEDs

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon looks into his dugout after reaching third on a double by teammate Marcell Ozuna during the third inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. The Cardinals won 4-3. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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MIAMI (AP) Reigning NL batting champion Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins says he unknowingly took the performance-enhancing drugs that led to his 80-game suspension, but he’ll accept the penalty.

The announcement of the suspension by Major League Baseball came shortly after the Marlins’ victory at Los Angeles on Thursday night. MLB said Gordon tested positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol.

“Though I did not do so knowingly, I have been informed that test results showed I ingested something that contained prohibited substances,” Gordon said in a statement released Friday by the players union. “The hardest part about this is feeling that I have let down my teammates, the organization, and the fans. I have been careful to avoid products that could contain something banned by MLB and the 20-plus tests that I have taken and passed throughout my career prove this.

“I made a mistake and I accept the consequences.”

The 28-year-old Gordon led the majors in hits and stolen bases last year. He batted .333, became an All-Star for the second time and won a Gold Glove at second base.

The big season helped him earn a $50 million, five-year contract he signed in January.

He and Marlins manager Don Mattingly were together with the Dodgers for four years, but Gordon didn’t become a regular in Los Angeles until 2014. Gordon was traded to Miami in a seven-player deal in December 2014, and Mattingly became the Marlins’ manager this season.

“Dee is always a guy we felt could play, but at that point he was 145 pounds soaking wet,” Mattingly said during spring training. “Now he has turned into a man. He has put some physical strength on him, and he’s a different player.”

Following the suspension announcement, Mattingly said the Marlins will continue to support Gordon.

“I feel like Dee’s one of my kids, to be honest with you, because I’ve known him so long,” Mattingly said.

Shortly before the penalty was announced, Gordon hit an RBI single in the seventh inning and scored after forcing a balk as the Marlins rallied for a 5-3 win and a four-game sweep over Los Angeles.

Gordon became the seventh player to be suspended this year under the MLB drug plan. Last week, Toronto slugger Chris Colabello was penalized 80 games after testing positive for a PED.

Miami President David Samson said the Marlins “completely support the drug prevention program in every way.”

“Dee Gordon is a very important part of our team, and we all love him and support him,” Samson said. “That said, I don’t like or condone what he did.

“He will be back 80 games from now, and he will be welcomed back to this organization,” he added. “But in the interim period, we expect him, and we are positive that he will do everything that’s necessary to make it up to his fans, to his teammates and to this organization.”

The speedy Gordon is the son of former All-Star pitcher Tom Gordon.

The MLBPA continues to shoot itself in the foot regarding PEDs

Tony Clark
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Most players are adamantly anti-PEDs now. Unlike their complicit or passive predecessors, today’s players don’t, for the most part, accept PEDs as just part of the game. They’re competitors and they see PED use as their competition cheating. They consider these guys to be taking money and service time away from other players. They are legitimately angry about it. And they should be.

But the manner in which they have expressed that anger — publicly, emotionally or by being quoted at length by baseball’s top writer calling for draconian punishments — is neither the best way to address their concerns about PED use in the game nor is it in their best interests in a larger sense. Indeed, it undermines their interests and sets them up to be taken advantage of by the owners both with respect to PEDs and other matters which affect their lives and their livelihoods.

PED rules and every other rule which affect the circumstances of baseball players are the subject of collective bargaining. It’s union stuff, negotiated with ownership. And it’s a zero sum game. You make a concession, you get something in return. If you give up something for nothing, you get nothing. It’s like any other sort of negotiation. If you cease to treat it as one, you lose your leverage to get what you want. You get no points whatsoever for your personal virtue, your public position and what people not party to the negotiation think of you. Players loudly and publicly proclaiming their desire for the harshest possible PED penalties are like a man in midlife crisis walking into a Porsche dealership wearing a shirt that says “I will not leave here without a red 718 Boxter.”

Ownership knows that the players will agree to anything and will even put the anything on the table themselves. And they’ll take maximal advantage of the players. For example, maybe the players are in favor of a contract-voiding provision in the narrow case of PED use. Maybe they see it as something confined solely to drug situations. The owners could jump at that knowing full well that, for the first time, the union has caved some on the critical concept of guaranteed contracts in baseball and will use that as a basis to make further inroads later. Maybe the players want to suspend players pending their drug test appeal. The owners will nod and privately acknowledge that players will, in the right cases, negotiate away their due process protections. Once a party caves on something, even if it’s a broad concept, it’s extraordinarily difficult for them to later present a credible defense to that concept or to claim that it is sacrosanct.

At the same time, maybe there are things the players can actually GAIN if they’re more guarded in their approach. Many acknowledge that PED use is, at least in part, a function of players trying to keep their bodies together over the long grind of the baseball season. Meanwhile, players would love more off-days and changes to the schedule. Why not link these issues and, in exchange for some harsher penalties, force the owners to give them some schedule relief? Why not get something they want and need in exchange for giving something up? It’s an ideal situation for a party to a negotiation and it’s a situation lost if one spends months before the negotiation making it clear that they’ll freely give away something that would otherwise have to be paid for.

None of which is to say that the players cannot or should not try to get exactly what they want, up to and including, I dunno, an instant death penalty for PED users if they feel it’s necessary. It’s to say that, to get that, they have to be unified. They have to agree on a strategy to get what they want and execute it the same way every other strategy is executed in these situations. There is no negotiating strategy that has ever been helped by loudly signaling to your adversary what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Being guarded about what it is you value and how you value it in the context of a negotiation does not mean that you don’t value it. Demanding that the owners compensate you for an increased PED sanction does not mean that you’re pro-PEDs.

I look at Justin Verlander‘s public comments and the comments of other players who are angry at PED users and I understand where that anger comes from. But I also know that, if Marvin Miller or Don Fehr were running the union today, those comments would be made in communications with union leadership and fellow players for the purposes of developing a strategy, not in public for the purposes of venting anger. They would form the basis of a consensus with which a unified MLBPA could approach ownership in a way best calculated to accomplish the players’ goals. As I put it rather crudely on Twitter this morning, if players in Miller and Fehr’s day spoke publicly in a way that undermined the MLBPA’s negotiation leverage, they’d end up in body bags.

This morning I wonder what Tony Clark is doing to address the legitimate anger of players like Justin Verlander. Does he have their confidence that he can accomplish what they want to accomplish with respect to harsher PED penalties? Are their public comments actually frustration by players at what they perceive to be a union which doesn’t value their concerns? Or, alternatively, are the players simply not as invested in the sort of unanimity of voice that all unions require to be successful? And if so, why not? Is it because they’re complacent or has MLBPA leadership simply not done as good a job explaining to them the real consequences of a failure of solidarity?

Dee Gordon‘s suspension is not, in and of itself, a big deal. But it could have some big repercussions. The MLBPA and its membership had best be on the same page, publicly and privately, if they want to ride out the repercussions and shape their future in a way that best serves their interests. As opposed to the interests of ownership which, in the context of the CBA, is their adversary, even if their interests often coincide.

Dee Gordon’s suspension is likely to lead to a call for harsher PED penalties

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon celebrates after hitting a double against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Miami. Derek Dietrich scored on the double. The Tigers won 8-7. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Associated Press
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Objectively speaking there is no difference between Dee Gordon’s suspension for PEDs and anyone else’s. Abraham Almonte, for example. Or Cameron Maybin. Or David Rollins. All were guys who got their 80 games, served their time, came back and whose cases didn’t raise too much of a fuss. But Gordon’s suspension will almost certainly be talked about longer and more loudly and will likely lead to calls for harsher penalties and changes to the PED suspension rules.

Part of it is simply fame. He’s a pretty big name as far as these things go. The biggest since the Biogenesis guys a couple of years ago. He won the batting title last year. He’s the son of a famous major leaguer. There is a direct correlation between the volume and intensity of the narratives applied to one’s story and the fame of the subject of the story. For that reason alone Gordon’s story will last longer and loom larger.

Another reason — a bigger reason, I think — is timing. Gordon was seen by many to have had a breakout season in 2015 and, when it was over, he was rewarded for it with a nice five-year $50 million deal. The narrative will arise by, oh, 9AM today, that the suspension was “worth it” for Gordon and that he cashed in because of it, rendering his suspension a mere slap on the wrist. This is especially true given that his deal is severely backloaded. He’ll lose less than $2 million in salary in 2016 while collecting the other $48 million-plus. Totally worth it!

I understand why people will say that, but such a stance has some serious flaws. Among them:

  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows when Gordon began to take PEDs;
  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows how, in fact, Gordon’s performance was actually enhanced;
  • It forgets that lots and lots of people were talking about how Gordon’s “breakout season” was actually 2014, not 2015, rendering that whole “he juiced and then got his money” argument fairly problematic.

Those points will likely be ignored as arguments in favor of harsher penalties grow louder. Ken Rosenthal reminds us this morning that some have called for some form of contract voiding or clawing back of more money than just the salary earned while on suspension. Those calls too will likely grow louder. There will also be calls for changes in the appeal process. Like this one, which came moments after Gordon’s suspension was announced:

When you have an actual union member angrily call for the repeal of a collectively-bargained protection in punishment situations, you’re sort of through the looking glass. Or past a tipping point. Or something. You’re certainly in a world where the usual dynamics between employer and employee are not operative and, as a result, changes are inevitable. As we noted recently, players today are perhaps more adamantly anti-PED than the owners and the league are. They’re competitors reacting to cheating by their competition. The fuel for stronger penalties is likely to come more from them than anyone.

The union and the league will be negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this year. Performance enhancing drugs and their penalties will be a part of that. Expect harsher penalties and possibly different sorts of rules altogether. Expect Dee Gordon to be the poster child for these changes, even if his case is no different in form than that of Abraham Almonte, Cameron Maybin, or David Rollins. Expect emotion, rather than logic, to lead the coming debate.