Alex Rodriguez

Posnanski: Fair or unfair, Major League Baseball making example of Alex Rodriguez

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WASHINGTON — Yes, there were lots of questions (at least 211 of them) Monday after Major League Baseball suspended a bunch of players and Alex Rodriguez for taking performance-enhancing drugs, but one question kept echoing.

Question: How many times over the last dozen years do you think Bud Selig looked jealously across the field toward those National Football League suits?

Think about how many different ways Selig has tried to tackle this PED scandal over the years.

— There was the PIDE (Pretend It Doesn’t Exist) Era. That led to disgrace, ignominy, a tainted home run record, another tainted home run record, another one after that, a dressing down from the U.S. Government, a few thousand yottabytes of bad publicity and an empty Hall of Fame ceremony. So that didn’t work too well.

— That was followed by the MCTIS (Most Comprehensive Testing In Sports) Era, where everybody seemed to think the game was dirty but the Commissioner bragged anyway about how proud he was about the way the game was cleaning itself up. This coincided with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens trials that produced almost nothing, fewer home runs and absolutely no confidence that baseball had anything under control.

— Finally, we moved into the GAROD (Get A-Rod) Era, also known as Fryin’ Ryan, in which Selig and baseball folks put on their deputy badge, loaded the single bullet into the gun, did some investigatin’, and fired serious suspensions at former MVP Ryan Braun, good players Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz, a bunch of other guys and, mostly, Alex Rodriguez, who they slammed with a 211-game suspension because, um, I think because it’s a primorial prime number.*

*Look it up! I did!

And what will be the reaction to this? Will people say: ‘Good for baseball! Cleaning up the game! I think it’s much cleaner now! I’m more of a baseball fan today than I was yesterday!’

No.

Will people say: ‘Good for Bud Selig! Yeah, maybe he was a little bit clueless or entirely negligent in the early days of the steroid scandal but he’s made up for that by punishing these cheating ballplayers and, especially, for coming up with some crazy suspension number for Alex Rodriguez that probably won’t hold up in appeal!’

No.

What will people say? Most of them will say nothing at all because they’re studying for their fantasy football draft.

Yes, how many times has Bud Selig looked across the way and grumbled bitterly about professional football. The NFL has 330-pound offensive linemen who can lift forklifts. The NFL has 250-pound linebackers who move faster than Porsches. The NFL has running backs who can sprint like Usain Bolt, then stop instantly like the Road Runner from the cartoons. And so on.

Meanwhile, if a baseball player hit four home runs in a week, Twitter is dancing with steroid allegations.

The NFL drug tests will get a few players here and there, though few stars. The punishments will be a handful of games. And generally speaking, nobody seems to care too much (or at all) about any of it. Some players have been hurt by players who were found to be using steroids – there seems almost no outrage about any of it. As more than one baseball official has muttered over the last few years: “How does football avoid all of it?”

The answers always seemed too pat to me. I’ve heard it said that the difference is record-keeping – baseball’s records are cherished while nobody cares about football records. I’ve heard it said that the difference is familiarity – fans feel like they KNOW baseball players while football players are hidden behind facemasks and under armor. I’ve heard it said the difference is the violence – football players have to endure so much pain and brutality, that it would be almost cruel to deny them PEDs just for survival.

MORE: Subdued A-Rod: ‘I’m fighting for my life’

I have another theory, but first it’s worth taking a moment to discuss Baseball getting A-Rod. It’s worth noting that for all the talk about steroids, MLB has rarely actually caught anybody. They never punished Barry Bonds (unless you believe the owners colluded to keep him out of the game at the end), never punished Roger Clemens, never punished Mark McGwire. Jason Giambi admitted using – no suspension. Gary Sheffield said he might have unknowingly used – no suspension. Andy Pettitte admitted using HGH twice … no suspension. The list goes on and on.

There are good reasons Baseball did not suspend any of these people by the way – but it still paints a picture. And the picture is of a bunch of kids trying to sneak into the ballpark without paying, and the helpless ticket guy (representative of MLB) trying to grab as many as he can, while shouting in a funny Irish accent: “You … little … squirts … get back here … oh … when … I … get … my … hands … on … you!” And in the end the guy catches one, holds up him by the scruff of his neck, and says, “I’ll make an example of this one, I will.”

So Baseball wants to make an example out of A-Rod, and he’s the obvious choice because almost nobody likes him. Well, he brought that on himself. He’s pompous, a bit delusional, strange, certainly a cheater, certainly a liar, and anyway not good enough anymore to have many Yankees fans in his corner.

When a governing body can unload on a wildly unpopular figure they tend do so with gusto and fury and all measure tossed out the window. So Baseball floated the crazy idea of a lifetime ban, cut off negotiations with A-Rod’s people, talked about keeping him off the field in the best interest of baseball and then slammed A–Rod with a suspension four-times longer (and many millions more expensive) than the others. None of it exactly seems “fair” – the guy used steroids to become a better baseball player, like many others; he didn’t torch a village — but when it comes to A-Rod, how many people care about fairness?

“Hit Da Roid!” the New York Daily News cover advised Rodriguez.

“Just Go!” the New York Post said a bit more succinctly.

So, at the moment, most people figure to side with Baseball no matter how big a suspension they give A-Rod. If they ruled that A-Rod should be imprisoned in the Tower of London, it would probably get 73 percent approval rating. But now the court shifts away from public opinion. The appeal process will probably take a while, allowing A-Rod to play. Baseball’s case against A-Rod might rely heavily on Biogenesis’ Tony Bosch, who isn’t exactly Walter Cronkite in the credibility department. They will have to make a strong case that what A-Rod did was SO much worse than what the others did. Maybe they have the goods. Maybe they don’t.

In other words, it could all still lead to another pie in the face for Bud Selig and baseball.

And this stuff never happens in football – at least not with performance enhancing drugs. My theory on that: There’s a fundamental difference in the way many people watch baseball and football. People watch football as pure spectators. Oh we get into the game. But I know of very few people who watch a football game and think, “Oh, I could see myself out there.” People may gripe when a quarterback takes a bad sack or a receiver drops a ball over the middle or a linebacker misses a tackle. But you don’t often hear them say: “Oh man, I could have done better than that.”

But in baseball, many people are more than spectators. Here in Washington at this Nationals-Braves game, for instance, I just saw Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche botch an easy ground ball. And the thought popped into my head before I could stop it: I could have made that play. Of course, I couldn’t have made the play – but I will never convince my mind of that.

I never once see a receiver have the football and his body forcibly separated by a kamikaze hit from a safety and think: “Oh, I would have held on to that.”

That’s baseball. There’s a closeness to the game that baseball fans feel, a connection to the field, a memory of a diving catch made in Little League, a lingering feeling of a softball home run, a sense that if one or two things had gone right that it might be me out there. The players out there are stand-ins for our own baseball fantasies. We want them to entertain our delusions. That’s not necessarily fair, but that’s the game.

Chipper Jones says the Mets are his pick to “go all the way”

Braves Spring baseball
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Chipper Jones may believe some weird things but he’s pretty savvy and clear-eyed when it comes to analyzing baseball.

Remember back in 2013 how he picked the Dodgers to beat the Braves in the NLDS? And how, because of his perceived “disloyalty,” Braves players had an immature little temper tantrum and refused to catch his ceremonial first pitch? Yeah, that was a great look. If I was more inclined to the hokey and irrational, I’d say that created “The Curse of Chipper” and that it condemned the Braves to two straight years of sucking. Hey, people have built careers on curses sillier than that.

Anyway, kudos to Chipper for apparently not giving a crap about that sort of thing and, instead, saying what he thinks about baseball. Stuff like how he thinks the Mets are going to win it all, saying “They’re really setting the bar and they’re my early-season pick to probably go all the way.”

Keeping in mind that anything can happen in baseball, it’s as good a pick as any other I reckon. Even if it means he has to say that the team who was his greatest rival during his playing career — and whom he thoroughly owned during that time — is better than the one that pays his salary now. Or any other one.

Did Tony La Russa screw Jim Edmonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy?

2011 World Series Game 4 -Texas Rangers v St Louis Cardinals
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Yes, that’s a somewhat provocative question. But it’s still an interesting question, the relevancy of and merits of which we’ll get to in a second. I pose it mostly so I can tell you about some neat research a friend of mine is doing and which should make Hall of Fame discussions and the general discussion of baseball history a lot of fun in the coming years. Bear with me for a moment.

There has long been a war between metrics and narrative. The folks who say that so-and-so was great because of the arc of his story and his career and those who say so-and-so was not so great or whatshisface was way, way better because of the numbers. Those views are often pitted as irreconcilable opposites. But what if they weren’t? What if there was some data which explained why some players become narrative darlings and others don’t? Some explanation for why, say, Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame while Dwight Evans isn’t despite having better numbers? An explanation, that isn’t about voters being dumb or merely playing favorites all willy-nilly? What if there was some actual quantitative reason why favorites get played in the first place?

That’s the thesis of the work of Brandon Isleib. He has just finished writing a very interesting book. It’s not yet published, but I have had the chance to read it. It sets forth the fascinating proposition that we can quantify narrative. That we can divine actual numerical values which help explain a player’s fame and public profile. Values which aren’t based on some complicated or counterintuitive formula, but which are rooted in the very thing all baseball fans see every day: games. Wins and losses. The daily standings. Values which reveal that, no, Hall of Fame voters who made odd choices in the view of the analytics crowd weren’t necessarily stupid or petty. They were merely reacting to forces and dynamics in the game which pushed them in certain ways and not others.

“But wait!” you interject. “Jim Rice and Dwight Evans played on the same dang team! How does Brandon distinguish that?” I won’t give away all the details of it but it makes sense if you break down how the Red Sox did in certain years and how that corresponded with Rice’s and Evans’ best years. There were competitive narratives in play in 1975, 1978 or 1986 that weren’t in play in 1981 or 1987. From those competitive narratives come player narratives which are pretty understandable. When you weight it all based on how competitive a team was on a day-to-day basis based on how far out of first place they were, etc., a picture starts to come together which explains why “fame” works the way it does.

From this, you start to realize why certain players, no matter how good, never got much Hall of Fame consideration. And why others’ consideration seemed disproportionate compared to their actual performance. All of which, again, is based on numbers, not on the sort of bomb-throwing media criticism in which jerks like me have come to engage.

Like I said, the book won’t be out for a bit — Brandon just finished it — but in the meantime he has a website where he has been and, increasingly will be, talking about his quantification of narrative stuff, writing short articles posing some of the questions his book and his research addresses.

Today’s entry — which is what my headline is based on — isn’t really numbers-based. It’s more talking about the broader phenomenon Brandon’s work gets at in terms of trying to figure out which players are credited for their performance and which are not so credited and why. Specifically, it talks about how Tony La Russa, more than most managers, gets the credit for his success and his players probably get somewhat less than they deserve. In this way La Russa is kind of viewed as a football coach figure and his players are, I dunno, system quarterbacks. It’s something that is unfair, I think, to guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and will, eventually, likely be unfair to players like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday.

It’s fascinating stuff which gets to the heart of player reputation and how history comes together. It reminds us that, in the end, the reporters and the analysts who argue about all of these things are secondary players, even if we make the most noise. It’s the figures in the game — the players and the managers — who shape it all. The rest of us are just observers and scribes.

Corey Seager tops Keith Law’s top-100 prospect list

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager warms up before Game 1 of baseball's National League Division Series against the New York Mets, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
Associated Press
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Yesterday it was the top farm systems, today it’s the top-100 prospects from ESPN’s Keith Law.

As Law notes, there’s a HUGE amount of turnover on the list from last year, given how many top prospects were promoted to the bigs in 2015. Kris Bryant seems like a grizzled old veteran now. Carlos Correa too. Eleven of the top 20 from last year’s list have graduated into the bigs. Are we sure it’s only been a year?

So, obviously, there’s a new number one. It’s Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ infielder. Not that everything has changed. Byron Buxton is still number two. This will obviously be his last year on the list. If you want to see and read about the other 98, go check out Keith’s excellent work.

And yes, like yesterday’s farm system rankings, it’s Insider subscription only. There were comments about how much you all hate that and I am sure there will be many more of them today. I get that. No one likes to pay for content. I was somewhat amused, however, by comments that said things like “hey, maybe if we don’t click it, they’ll have to give it to us for free!” Maybe! Or, more likely, the content simply will cease to exist!

It’s good stuff, folks. There aren’t many paid sites I say that about.

Ozzie Guillen to manage again. In Venezuela

Ozzie Guillen Getty
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With Dusty Baker getting back into action with the Nationals and with there being at least some moderate sense that, maybe, inexperienced dudes might not be the best choice to manage big league clubs, I sorta hoped that someone would give Ozzie Guillen another look. Nah. Not happening.

Not that I’m shocked or anything. I can imagine that, under the best of circumstances, a guy like Guillen is hard to have around. He tends to find controversy pretty easily and, unlike some other old hands, Guillen never claimed to be any kind of master tactician. He famously said that he was bored during games until the sixth or seventh inning when he had to start thinking about pitching changes. Refreshing honesty, yes, but maybe not the sort of dude you bring on to, say, be a bench coach or to mentor your younger coaches or to show your hand-picked manager the ropes. Nope, it seemed like Guillen was destined to stay in broadcasting with ESPN Deportes or someone and that his days in uniform were over.

But they’re not over! Guillen was hired yesterday to manage the La Guaira Sharks of the Venezuelan Winter League next offseason. It’s not the bigs, but it is is first on-field gig since he was canned by the Marlins in 2012.

 

Guillen managed the White Sox from 2004-11 and was voted AL Manager of the Year in 2005, when Chicago won the World Series. He may be a bit of a throwback now, but he knows what he’s doing. While I can’t really say that a major league team would be wise to hire the guy — I get it, I really do — a selfish part of me really wants him back in the bigs. He was fun.