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The story behind Justin Verlander’s beef with the Detroit Free Press reporter

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Last week, as you no doubt know, Justin Verlander asked that Detroit Free Press reporter Anthony Fenech be barred from the clubhouse during Verlander’s postgame media availability. The Astros agreed to do so, in violation of BBWAA/MLB agreements and in violation fo the Collective Bargaining Agreement which ensures BBWAA-credentialed reporter access. It was only after MLB intervened that Fenech was admitted to the clubhouse.

In the wake of the incident Verlander tweeted that his request to have Fenech barred was based on alleged “unethical behavior in the past” on Fenech’s part. He did not elaborate on what that was. Today the Free Press details what it believes Verlander was alluding to.

You’ll want to read the whole story for full context, but the disagreement surrounds two instances of past interaction.

First, Fenech once tweeted out seemingly innocuous details about Verlander’s trip to see the big solar eclipse back in August of 2017, which Verlander considered to have been off-the-record. That happens on occasion, but it should probably be noted that nothing about that information seems like it was sensitive or secret nor did it portray Verlander in a bad light (to the contrary, actually). Yes, a mistake by the reporter, but not one, you would think, that would support a years-long grudge.

The second instance involved a somewhat confusing misunderstanding about comments Verlander gave to Fenech in response to a story in 2018. The upshot: another outlet reported Verlander’s critical words about the Detroit Tigers allegedly misdiagnosing an injury he had suffered in the past. Fenech followed up with Verlander to get quotes about all of that. Verlander later claimed the entire conversation was off the record, though that does not appear that was the case based on the tape recording of the interview described in today’s article. He also took issue with Fenech offering him his business card in case Verlander wanted to call the reporter later to clarify any quotes before press time. Initially Verlander thanked Fenech for the unusual courtesy but later he claimed Fenech gave him his card as a ploy to get Verlander’s cell phone number if/when Verlander called him.

Again, there are a lot of little details about all of that you’ll want to get from the Free Press article for full flavor. One of them, it should be noted, was that Fenech did, at one point, cross an ethical line in which he suggested to Verlander how he might best respond to questions about the injury controversy, though that does not appear to be anything that Verlander himself had a problem with (Indeed, it was probably helpful to Verlander, even if Fenech was wrong to do such a thing). The phone number thing is just weird. I expect at some point Verlander will be asked about his side of all of that.

But no matter how messy and weird all of that was, none of it really changes my view of last week’s incident. On a basic level, my take is the same: no matter what Verlander feels about Fenech — and even if they have some history with off-the-record stuff — neither he nor the Astros have the right to bar Fenech from the clubhouse. The Astros’ granting Verlander’s request to do so was totally unjustified.

More broadly, as other reporters have noted, thanks to the long season, close quarters, and the emotional ups and downs of the job, disagreements between players and the press happen fairly often. The best way to deal with them — and how almost every player/team/reporter deals with them — is for the player and the reporter to talk it out and get past the problem. If that can’t be done, the player always has the option of simply blowing off the reporter if he wants. There’s no rule that says anyone has to talk to anyone else.

Why the Astros and Verlander didn’t take that tack and simply pretend Fenech didn’t exist is beyond me.

Nats’ success shouldn’t be about Bryce Harper

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Bryce Harper turns 27 years old today. As an early birthday present, he got to watch his former team reach the World Series for the first time in franchise history. His new team finished exactly at .500 in fourth place, missing the playoffs. These were facts that did not go unnoticed as the Nationals completed an NLCS sweep of the Cardinals at home last night.

Harper spent seven seasons with the Nationals before hitting free agency and ultimately signing with the Phillies on a 13-million, $330 million contract. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract at the end of the 2018 regular season, but about $100 million of that was deferred until he was 65 which lowered the present-day value of the offer. The Nats’ offer wasn’t even in the same ballpark, really.

Nevertheless, Nationals fans were upset that their prodigy jilted them to go to the Phillies. He was mercilessly booed whenever the Phillies played in D.C. Nats fans’ Harper jerseys were destroyed, or at least taped over.

Harper, of course, was phenomenal with the Nationals. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012, then won the NL MVP Award several years later with an historically outstanding 1.109 OPS while leading the league with 42 homers and 118 runs scored. Overall, as a National, he had a .900 OPS. Pretty good. He was also productive in the postseason, posting an .801 OPS across 19 games, mostly against playoff teams’ best starters and best relievers. Furthermore, if the Nats had Harper this year, he would have been in right field in lieu of Adam Eaton. Harper out OPS’d Eaton by 90 points and posted 2.5 more WAR in a similar amount of playing time. The Nationals would have been even better if they had Harper this year.

The Nationals lost all four Division Series they appeared in during the Harper era. 3-2 to the Cardinals in 2012, 3-1 to the Giants in ’14, 3-2 to the Dodgers in ’16, and 3-2 to the Cubs in ’17. They finally get over the hump the first year they’re without Harper, that’s the difference, right? I saw the phrase “addition by subtraction” repeatedly last night, referring to Harper and the Nats’ subsequent success without him.

Harper, though, didn’t fork over four runs to the Cardinals in the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 in 2012. He didn’t allow the Dodgers to rally for four runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 in ’16 before ultimately losing 4-3. He didn’t use a gassed Max Scherzer in relief in 2017’s Game 5, when he allowed five of the seven Cubs he faced to reach base, leading to three runs which loomed large in a 9-8 loss. If certain rolls of the dice in those years had gone the Nationals’ way, they would have appeared in the NLCS. They might’ve even been able to win a World Series.

The Nationals saw how that looks this year. It was the opposing manager this time, Dave Roberts, who mismanaged his bullpen. Howie Kendrick then hit a tie-breaking grand slam in the 10th inning off of Joe Kelly to win the NLDS for the Nats. The playoffs are random. Sometimes a ball bounces your way, sometimes an umpire’s call goes your way, and sometimes the opposing manager makes several unforced errors to throw Game 5 in your lap.

Reaching the World Series, then thumbing your nose while sticking out your tongue at Harper feels like a guy tagging his ex-girlfriend on his new wedding photos. It’s time to move on.