Some thoughts on Joe Morgan

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I was reading a great interview of “Bloom County” cartoonist Berkeley Breathed yesterday, and came to the following exchange:

RUSSELL: The Internet’s biggest impact on culture has been the fragmentation of discourse — there’s no one central album or TV show or comic strip that’s a universal discussion point any more. How blessed do you feel for having gotten out of the game before that fragmentation really set in?

BREATHED: Your question is my answer. Blessed. The last hurrah. People think that things will unravel with rising sea levels. I happen to think that it’s because we won’t all ever be humming the same song at the same time around the country… or laughing at the same cartoon.

I found myself nodding my head because I realized that, no, I don’t read the same comics as everyone else anymore. I don’t watch the same shows. I don’t listen to the same music. If I didn’t work from home I wouldn’t be able to stand at the water cooler and discuss whatever the current version is of last night’s “Seinfeld,” because there isn’t such a beast anymore.

It’s not that I’m hip and have rarefied tastes. Even those of us with awful taste have our own niche interests these days thanks to the Internet and iTunes and Netflix and hundreds upon hundreds of TV channels at our disposal.  There just isn’t as much room for consensus on pop culture as there used to be. The only exceptions are a handful of reality shows.

Oh, and sports. Sports have to be one of the last great common meeting places, because why else would the news that ESPN was kicking Jon Miller and Joe Morgan to the curb make for such a common discussion point last night?  Maybe it’s only consensus within a niche, but everyone in this little niche of baseball had an opinion on the news last night.  For all of our localized rooting interests and TV work-arounds like MLB.tv or watching games  with the sound down and the Twitter feed providing silent commentary, we all pretty much watched Morgan and Miller on Sunday Night Baseball because, hell, what else are we gonna watch? “Desperate Housewives?”

And in keeping with the consensus of watching those two, there’s a consensus on ESPN’s decision to end their run: mild disappointment that Miller won’t be calling the games anymore, but considerable happiness that Morgan won’t be providing the commentary.  Not surprising. Miller is one of the best around. Morgan, well, we all know about him.

Here I break a little from the consensus. I agree that Miller was fantastic. I like his announcing style. I like his voice. I even like his corny humor. Most of all, I think he rises to the appropriate level at dramatic moments — high enough to make it clear that something big is going on, but not so big that he’d have you believe that history was being made every other damn play — and keeps things moving along.  To the extent he ever found himself in the weeds it was because he was dutifully trying to retrieve some rhetorical ball Morgan sliced in there.

About Morgan: I take no issue with any of the specific criticisms of the guy. As has been painstakingly chronicled on FJM and countless other websites, he seemed aggressively ignorant calling games at times, unwilling to acknowledge that any given bit of old school conventional baseball wisdom could be wrong or that any bit of new thinking — sabermetrics or otherwise — could have any insights.  This is not uncommon, or course, as many broadcasters are resistant to such things. But it was particularly galling from Morgan, because every account I’ve ever read about the man personally talks about how sharp he is, and everything about Joe Morgan the player suggests that he was among the smartest baseball players to ever play the game.

Indeed, Bill James even once determined that Morgan had the highest baseball I.Q. in history, measured in terms of on-field decision making when it comes to things like base running, defensive positioning, when to swing and when not to swing, etc.  Stuff that takes thought and strategy as opposed to pure athleticism. Stuff to which Morgan, as a commentator, was consistently hostile. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Morgan the announcer disdainfully discounting the skills of Morgan the player, and that’s what made us tear our hair out listening to the guy. In large part because we all suspected that he knew better and was taking contrarian positions rather than saying what he believed. We all felt, didn’t we, that if we found Morgan sitting next to us in a bar that he’d give us a wink and let us know that, no, he did not believe that a double was better than a home run because “home runs kill rallies.”

All of that said, I depart a bit from my fellow baseball fans when it comes to my reaction to the news of Joe Morgan’s departure from Sunday Night Baseball.  To be clear: it was a good move for ESPN to go in another direction. New blood is needed and I certainly won’t miss him. But at the same time, I can’t bring myself to join in to all of that “ding dong the witch is dead” nonsense I read all around the baseball web last night.  Morgan annoyed me, but never so much that I’d celebrate his departure. Mostly because, for as wrong as he could be at times, he was fairly easy to ignore. His voice wasn’t assaulting. He didn’t inject his commentary at the wrong times. He didn’t distract us from the game going on in front of us. He’d occasionally offer some good insights to go along with the bad stuff. In fact, it was often exciting to hear him say something insightful, because it was like catching someone trying to get away with something.

The point is, Morgan was never an announcer that would keep me from watching a game or who would cause me to turn off the sound. And believe me, there are a lot of guys who are that way. Guys who call baseball like they’re watching football games. Guys who seem to be paid by the cliche. Guys who think that Every. Single. Thing. That. Happens. On. A. Baseball. Diamond. Has. To. Be. Analyzed. Guys who, as they do all of that, have voices of annoying pitch and cadence who make watching a baseball game a hostile experience. Indeed, after catching some of them during  midweek games, it was almost refreshing to ease into a Miller-Morgan broadcast because, even if it wasn’t fabulous, it wasn’t openly assaulting like a lot of guys I could name but won’t.

Damning with faint praise? Nah, because my point isn’t to praise Joe Morgan. Like I said: not good, and better gone.  But I do think some perspective is due here. Morgan was not the worst guy calling games. Not by a longshot. He even had some charms.  I can’t help but think that if, at some point, maybe 15 years ago, an ESPN producer sat down and tried to work with him to reign in his worst excesses he even could have developed into a good commentator. OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but not a gigantic one.

The point: I think the reaction to his dismissal, like that to his commentary itself, is a bit overblown.

Something needs to change to avoid future incidents like Machado-vs.-Welke

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On Monday, Major League Baseball announced that Padres third baseman Manny Machado was suspended one game and fined an undisclosed amount for “aggressively arguing” and making contact with home plate umpire Bill Welke after a controversial strike three call in the fifth inning of Saturday’s game against the Rockies in Colorado. The clip of the incident is below, showing that Welke’s call was poor. Machado’s behavior was also poor, as he indeed made contact — inadvertently or not — with Welke and repeatedly swore at him. Machado also threw his bat, though it was not in anyone’s direction and no one was put in harm’s way.

Machado chose to appeal his suspension, as is his right. While that matter is in the process of being resolved, the Major League Umpires Association put out a lengthy statement on Facebook and a shorter but hashtag-laden post on Twitter. The statements were problematic for a number of reasons, chiefest being that the union is publicly commenting on an ongoing matter. MLB can keep Machado’s suspension at one game, which seems likely, or it can reduce his suspension to zero games. The league can also choose to reduce or remove the fine as well. Once the matter is resolved, the MLBUA should feel free to comment publicly on the matter.

MLBUA’s statement was also poorly proofread, hyperbolic, and creates a very legitimate argument for bias against Machado and/or the Padres going forward. The MLBUA described Machado as “violently” throwing his bat “with no regard to anyone’s safety.” It continued, “It is NOT okay to throw a temper tantrum and physically touch someone of authority, just because you don’t agree.”

MLBUA then moralized, asking, “What does this teach the MLB’s immense and ongoing influential youth movement trying to attract young fans to the game? Major League Baseball has to always lead by example in all cases of violent behavior, on and off the field.” It closed out, saying that the union was “extraordinarily disappointed” in MLB’s “inaction.”

Among the hashtags MLBUA used on Twitter were “#TemperTantrum,” “#RepeatOffender,” and “#Nonsense.”

Major League Baseball then released a statement on Tuesday night, saying, “…we do not believe it is appropriate for the union representing Major League Umpires to comment on the discipline of players represented by the Players Association.” The league added, “We also believe it is inappropriate to compare this incident to the extraordinarily serious issue of workplace violence.”

Whoever put out the message on behalf of the MLBUA should have asked themselves, “What is my purpose here and for whom am I posting this?” The entire purpose of a trade union is to create a cohesive unit, establishing bargaining power on behalf of labor versus capital. So, MLBUA is not writing this for fans, for players, or for MLB executives; it is publicly commenting for umpires. An ancillary benefit might be to engender public support for umpires vis-a-vis Welke.

It must then ask itself if the statement creates solidarity among umpires. And I think that’s a solid no. Machado is not the first player and will not be the last to make contact with an umpire and to throw a “temper tantrum” of that magnitude. So why single Machado out and die on this hill today? I would be shocked if more than a handful of umpires outside of Welke and his closest confidantes appreciated the MLBUA reacting the way it did. It doesn’t help them achieve any union-specific goals and might actually hurt them. Repeatedly referring to Machado’s actions as a “temper tantrum” and “nonsense,” and calling him a “repeat offender” is unprofessional. It’s something an Internet commenter would write in the heat of the moment, not the representative of a trade union in one of the most profitable industries in the country. Furthermore, in singling out Machado, Machado himself as well as his teammates have a legitimate reason to believe Welke and his crew might be biased against them not just for the remainder of the season but for the foreseeable future.

On a more pedantic note, the MLBUA wrote that it is not okay for players to act the way Machado did against “someone of authority.” It’s not the power that should shield umpires from workplace violence; it’s their humanity. Machado should no more or less scream and yell at an umpire than he should anyone else in any walk of life. However you rank umpires, coaches, front office executives, teammates, opponents, fans, etc. — they should all be treated equally.

All of this being said, there was one part of MLBUA’s statement that rang true. As mentioned, Welke did suffer violence in the workplace. I disagree with MLB that the comparison was inappropriate. There is nuance to what constitutes “workplace violence.” Is it a mass shooting? Of course not. But in no other employment setting would it be appropriate for one person to scream, curse, and throw items across the room during a disagreement. The union correctly wrote, “Physical contact simply cannot be tolerated.” The crux of all of this is that Major League Baseball doesn’t discourage altercations between umpires and players/coaches. Things have gotten better since the implementation of instant replay, but some instances — especially ball/strike judgment — can turn into very heated altercations.

MLB needs a flat rule instructing players and coaches not to argue with umpires. The team of the offending person(s) would incur an in-game penalty as well as a potential fine and suspension. In exchange for this loss of power on the part of players and coaches, the umpires should be subject to actual oversight. As it stands, umpires are almost never punished in any way for any kind of behavior towards players and coaches, nor are they often punished for poor results in terms of correct calls made. The umpires already have the advantage with their authority; their lack of oversight puts that advantage on steroids, which is why there’s often so much frustration. Umpires instigate confrontations a non-negligible amount of the time. If they felt like they would actually be held accountable for it, they might be much more reluctant to act, for example, the way Ron Kulpa did towards the Astros in early April.

MLBUA helped gain that power imbalance for its members, so it isn’t likely to give it up very easily. I don’t see my utopian dream coming to fruition anytime soon. But that’s the crux of every umpire-involved confrontation: authority. Umpires and players/coaches need to be on a level playing field in that regard, and the rules need to be crystal clear on what kind of behavior is allowed from both sides. Until that happens, we’ll be seeing a Machado-vs.-Welke incident once or twice every year ad infinitum.