Craig Calcaterra

Lance Berkman

Lance Berkman on the topic of home runs being rally killers

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My conversation with Lance Berkman yesterday wasn’t exclusively about politics and transgeder rights. I mean, the dude was an elite ballplayer so it’s not like I wasn’t gonna talk to him about baseball. The highlights:

  • Berkman was pleasantly surprised about the 2015 Astros and, as a longtime member of the club when it was in the National League, amusingly noted that they exemplified “typical A.L. baseball,” with all of the “big power hackers” they had. He was most impressed with their pitching, however, and talked about Carlos Correa in awed terms. Berkman thinks they’re one starter and one reliever away from being something truly special. I think he’s right about that. Maybe more than one reliever given that a handful of their go-to bullpen arms are free agents, but still.
  • A lot of our political conversation dealt with his perception that there is some entitlement to younger people that he finds displeasing, and that extends to baseball in some ways. He talked about how so many players have individual pitching and hitting coaches these days and how that wasn’t common when he was coming into the game. But he is not under any illusions that players from the past are better than players from the present or that the game was somehow better. “Everyone says it was better back in their day,” Berkman said. “They’ve been saying it forever. They’re always wrong about that.”
  • I mentioned that the Hall of Fame ballot for 2016 had just come out in the hour before our conversation. He asked me who was on it. I read the list. He sort of gave a low whistle and said “man, I played with all of those guys” and laughed about feeling old. I told him he’s still OK as he won’t be eligible for a few years and he said “sooner than I think, probably.” What a drag it is getting old.
  • I mentioned that, if everything breaks just right, his teammate Jeff Bagwell could get elected this year. I went further and suggested that, if it wasn’t for PED whispers about him, he’d probably be in already. Berkman agreed. He seems to understand the politics of the Hall of Fame pretty well. And, like a lot of ex-players, seems to be way less hung up on it than fans and those of us in the media do. I suspect that, if you devote your life to something for 30 years or more, external validation is not really necessary, even if it is welcome.

One final topic was a bit more serious.

Berkman watched the World Series but as both a baseball coach and a baseball player he was as frustrated by the approach Mets pitchers took when things got dicey. He specifically mentioned Tyler Clippard facing Lorenzo Cain in the eighth inning of Game 4 and Matt Harvey facing Cain in the ninth inning of Game 5. Cain walked both times, helping spark rallies which led to Royals’ victories. This is when Berkman said something that made me — and would make all baseball fans of a certain disposition — stop cold in their tracks.

“Solo home runs are rally killers, man.”

I stopped. I tried to gather myself. You hear such things so often, but you never think you’ll hear it said directly to you by someone you admire. After nearly an hour of talking about some of the most controversial, hot button political issues of our time, I was about to lose my composure over an old dubious chestnut of baseball analysis. I took a deep breath and tried to think of how to challenge him on that, but thankfully I didn’t have to.

“At least from the pitchers’ perspective,” Berkman added. He noted that, obviously, there’s nothing better than a home run, but that having runners on base can rattle a pitcher in ways that a homer really can’t. He agreed, of course, that a homer is the worst thing that can happen when you’re pitching, but at least it’s over and you can go back to the windup and pitch with no one on, and there’s some benefit to that psychologically.

More specifically, his point wasn’t that it would’ve somehow been bad for the Royals if Cain had hit a homer off of Clippard or Harvey in those situations. It’s that Clippard and Harvey — especially Harvey, who threw a 3-2 breaking ball to Cain — should’ve stuck with fastballs and not gotten cute the way each of them seemed to with Cain while behind in the count. His point was that, ahead in the game 2-0 in the ninth inning, you risk the solo homer by challenging Cain with a heater rather than try to be too fine, put him on base and let a potential rally get started.

I don’t disagree with that and, upon explanation, I caught my breath and regained my equilibrium. But man, telling a baseball writer that a homer is a rally killer is like yelling “fire!” in a crowded movie house. You gotta be careful with your words, dude. Someone could get hurt.

 

The Nationals 2016 calendar has Fenway Park on the front

fenway park seats getty
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The Washington Nationals had a bad 2015. Embarrassing, really. The Nationals’ 2016 calendar is keeping the embarrassment rolling.

Or at least it was. The first editions of it have been recalled and are being reprinted, but the initial release of it was pretty hilarious in that the cover of the thing featured Fenway Park. Which, you may have heard, is not where the Nationals play baseball:

The team itself doesn’t print the calendar so it’s not the Nationals’ fault. And hey, it IS a great picture, so let us throw stones for all manner of things but not aesthetic judgment.

With Jose Reyes’ arrest for domestic violence, Rob Manfred is on the spot

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On Halloween night, Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes was arrested for assaulting his wife. Reyes is accused of grabbing her by the throat and shoving her into the sliding glass door in their hotel room. She suffered injuries to her thigh, neck, and wrist and was treated at a local emergency room.

All reports of domestic violence are awful, but this one is different than most in that it sets the stage for a historic moment: baseball’s first application of its new anti-domestic violence policy.

In August, Major League Baseball, in conjunction with the players union, announced a comprehensive policy regarding players involved in domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse cases. Unlike the drugs policy, the domestic violence policy does not prescribe set punishments which are automatically carried out without the agency or judgment of the league. Commissioner Rob Manfred cannot simply refer to the policy, let its machinery do the work and not take a stand or make a judgement with respect to the player in question. Rather, the policy puts great responsibility on his shoulders to not just act, but to judge.

That’s because, in the absence of a minimum or maximum penalty, the Commissioner must issue the discipline “he believes is appropriate in light of the severity of the conduct.” Discipline will not be contingent on whether the player pleads guilty or is found guilty of a crime. Discipline will also not be subject to pre-policy precedent. Just because a player was not suspended or was suspended lightly in 2007, for example, does not mean that a hefty penalty leveled in 2015 can be overturned based on that precedent. We’re in new territory here.

And, at least for now, as Manfred is poised to issue his first bit of discipline under the policy, Manfred is unshackled by anything other than his conscience. He can set a strict discipline regime from the get-go without seriously worrying about being overturned or, at the very least, without being overturned absent strenuous opposition from Reyes and the union. And, of course, the discipline he does impose on Reyes will have an impact on more than just the baseball-playing fate of Jose Reyes. Pre-policy precedent is meaningless now, but Reyes’ precedent will be the standard from which all future domestic violence incidents are judged. At least roughly speaking anyway, given that the facts and circumstances of each case will be different and must be taken into account.

It’s a precarious place for Manfred to be. The risk of bad optics are legion, as his counterpart in the NFL can attest. Punish Reyes too heavily and he runs the risk of a battle with the union. Punish Reyes too lightly and he runs the risk of appearing to be soft on domestic violence. And, despite the apples and oranges nature of the domestic violence program and the drug program, the comparisons between suspensions under the two regimes will inevitably be made. After all, yesterday a Cardinals minor leaguer was suspended 50 games for smoking a joint. The fact that minor leaguers don’t have a union to protect them goes a long way toward explaining that disparity, but Manfred can’t expect all hell not to break loose if and when Reyes gets a suspension that is a fraction of that for behavior which is far more severe.

So here we are, at the brink of an historic moment. Rob Manfred is no doubt in his Park Avenue office today, surrounded by his advisors, discussing what to do with this shortstop. And knowing full well that what he does with this shortstop will have repercussions that last far longer and which loom far larger than whatever punishment is handed down in this instance.

Take your time, Rob. Get this one right. We’re all watching. No pressure.

UPDATE: Major League Baseball just released a statement about the Reyes case:

“As evidenced by our Joint Domestic Violence Policy, Major League Baseball understands the seriousness of the issues surrounding domestic violence, and our Policy explicitly recognizes the harm resulting from such acts.  Consistent with the terms of this Policy, the Commissioner’s Office already has begun its investigation into the facts and circumstances.  Any action taken by the Commissioner’s Office in this matter will be wholly in accordance with this Policy.”

Given that it’s the offseason and Reyes will neither play nor be paid for months, the league has plenty of time, fortunately, to consider this well and get this right.