Associated Press

Opening Day 2019: ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’

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Before he lost his air of invincibility — before he became a convicted rapist and then, ultimately, a side show — Mike Tyson was a greatly feared boxer. Whether it was because of his fierce style, the historic weakness of the post-Larry Holmes heavyweight division or some combination of the two, no one had an answer for him for the first four years of his career. He was simply unstoppable.

Back when Tyson was unstoppable, his opponents were invariably asked what they’d do against him. What they would do that the guy who was knocked senseless by Tyson a couple of months before did not do. They all had different answers.

Some said they’d use a lot of lateral movement. Some said they’d keep him at bay with jabs. Some said they’d get on their bike and use the whole ring in an effort to tire him out. Some said they’d tie him up. It never worked. At least it never worked until an out-of-shape and ill-prepared Tyson got knocked the hell out by Columbus, Ohio’s own Buster Douglas on February 11, 1990, but that’s another story.

One time, when Tyson was still invincible, someone asked him about his opponents’ strategies and how he intended to counter them. In response, he gave what is probably his most famous quote: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

I was never much of a Tyson fan, but my God, I love that quote. It’s a far better version of that old 19th century Prussian general’s “no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy” comment. Pithier. More visceral. If you’re organizing an army, go with Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. If you want to tell someone they’re just gonna get smashed, go with Tyson. Either way, there is some serious friggin’ wisdom in those words. And Tyson’s words always come to mind for me on Opening Day.

Opening Day follows spring training which, in turn, follows the hot stove season and if those three things have anything in common, it’s optimism. Almost every team, and almost every fan of almost every team, convinces themselves between November and March that things are gonna be better than they were last season. If things were OK last season — and if they picked up a good player or two over the winter — they convince themselves that things will be great. If a top prospect is ready to contribute too, Katy bar the door, buy the jerseys and start stashing cash for the postseason tickets.

Then Opening Day comes, their starter gets shelled, their bullpen gets exposed and the heart of their order goes 1-for-11 with five strikeouts. Even if they know better — even if they know the season is 162 games long and one day doesn’t mean a thing — a lot of people reach for the panic button by around beer-thirty on Opening Day.

And I love it. I freakin’ love it.

Don’t get me wrong: that optimism is a good thing at first. It’s a nice way to transition from winter to spring. But I’d much rather see teams and fans deal with the reality of their roster and talent than play the “if everything breaks right” game. I’d rather they all gird themselves for the long, wonderful slog that is the regular season than get totally jacked up like they do for Opening Day. I love Opening Day, but as I’ve noted many, many times, the appeal of baseball comes not from its big events — especially its one-off events — but from its everyday nature. From the notion that no one game matters that much even if all the games, as they form the soundtrack to my spring, summer and early fall, matter more than anything. There’s bliss to be found in any one baseball moment, but the good stuff is all the baseball moments, taken in manageable doses with a decent amount of reality and self-awareness about it all, in the aggregate.

This evening, by roughly 10:30PM, there will be 15 teams and 15 fan bases that got punched in the mouth. By the end of the weekend, some of them will have been punched in the mouth a few times. They’ll know that their “two legit starters and some alleged depth” is not a plan for a pitching staff. They’ll know that the 15,000 words written about Joe Shlabotnik’s offseason workout regimen and new approach has done absolutely nothing to help him lay off breaking crap in the dirt. They’ll know that all the slogans and images spit out by the wannabe Don Drapers in the marketing department and all the faux-brainy cloudspeak spit out by the wannabe Steve Jobs in the baseball operations department aren’t any match for not having a stronger roster than the one we tricked ourselves into believing in back in mid-February. Reality will begin to creep in and we’ll begin adjusting ourselves to what the baseball season is as opposed to what we erroneously convince ourselves it will be when we’re staring out of our windows all winter long, waiting for spring.

Opening Day is glorious. Not because of what it means for its own sake. But for that punch in the mouth that snaps us all back to the highs, lows and day-to-day ins and outs of glorious baseball reality.

Hit me.

 

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.