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Carlos Beltrán skates on the sign-stealing scandal, but just barely

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One of the biggest takeaways after the hammer came down on the Astros yesterday was “why weren’t the players punished?” After all, Rob Manfred specifically said in the report that it was a “player-driven” scheme. If, however, you read Manfred’s full report on the matter — and remember some recent history — you know why that is, but let’s refresh anyway:

  • Manfred, after the Red Sox Apple Watch scandal in 2017, specifically said that managers and general managers would be held responsible for future cheating, putting them on notice;
  • Manfred did this, in all likelihood, because he correctly realized that managers and general managers had the ability to (a) see electronic sign-stealing as it occurred; and (b) order it stopped if they wanted to. Both of which A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow failed to do despite being on notice;
  • Practically, Manfred could not find out the facts of the scheme without talking to players and players would not be likely to cooperate with the investigation if they risked punishment. While in the PED cases Bud Selig had drug dealers who turned snitch, Manfred had no one to do that, requiring him to give players amnesty in exchange for information; and
  • All of that aside, logistically, it’d be a nightmare to punish players given how many of them there were, given how difficult it’d be to determine how much or how little involvement they had with the system, and given the fact that many of them now play for other teams, which means that punishing them would harm teams that had nothing to do with it. Indeed, it might harm teams that were specifically victimized by the sign-stealing.

So, it makes sense no players were punished.

But one player — one former player — was mentioned by name:

Approximately two months into the 2017 season, a group of players, including Carlos Beltrán, discussed that the team could improve on decoding opposing teams’ signs and communicating the signs to the batter.

In this passage — which talks about how the sign-stealing evolved from video techs decoding signs and texting the dugout to players banging on trash cans — Beltrán is the only Astros player specifically identified. He was not punished, but he was named.

Why was he named? Part of that, one presumes, is that his name was one of the only player names that was tossed around a lot in the wake of the initial reports about the sign-stealing back in November. Originally, you’ll recall, it was said that the plan was hatched in large part by a “veteran player” who had recently come to Houston, and it was hard to deny that Beltrán fit that description. Later his name was more directly connected. Naming him here may have been Manfred’s way of addressing that speculation and keeping anyone from saying anything was missed.

It’s also worth noting that, in the wake of the initial reports, Beltrán quite obviously and quite publicly lied about it. From the New York Post on November 12:

Beltran, who is well-regarded for his baseball IQ and was named Mets manager earlier this offseason, insisted the Astros only stole signs from standing on second base.

“We took a lot of pride studying pitchers [on] the computer. That is the only technology that I use and understand,” he said. “It was fun seeing guys get to the ballpark to look for little details.”

When Manfred first announced his investigation, it was reported that people who obstruct or lie to investigators would be dealt with most harshly. That Beltrán was not blasted back to the Stone Age suggests to me that he recanted his spiel to the newspapers and spilled completely once Manfred called him in. He was wise to do so. That said, Manfred likely called him out in the report as a subtle way of flexing his muscle. People who remembered Beltrán’s initial denial can put 2-and-2 together and realize that Manfred broke him. As far as warnings go, it’s not an ineffective one.

Most significantly, I think, is that after the 2017 season Beltrán moved into positions of authority, first in the Yankees’ front office and now as the Mets’ manager. Manfred has much more leeway to talk to and punish management as opposed to players, and he can thus name a name and even do things to a guy who is a manager than he can’t do to a player. He may not have been able to punish Beltrán for things he did as a player, but he can single him out now. He can subject a guy over whom he has a lot of authority — and who no longer has the protection of the players’ union — to some public scrutiny.

That scrutiny will play out next month when spring training starts and Beltrán has to meet the press every day. I suspect that once people start caring more about Jacob deGrom‘s velocity and Pete Alonso‘s BP sessions that it will die down, but for the first few days after pitchers and catchers report, Beltrán will likely face a lot of questions from the press.

Manfred can’t punish players out of all of this, but he can make one of them uncomfortable, and that one is Carlos Beltrán. A guy who skated on the sign-stealing scandal, but just barely.

Baseball in Arizona as early as May is pure madness

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Overnight Jeff Passan on ESPN followed up on the Associated Press’ report of preliminary talks between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA about the potential resumption of the baseball season. The plan, which is nothing short of radical — and nothing short of highly-fraught — would potentially have baseball resume as early as next month. June at the latest.

The talks are highly preliminary at the moment, but Passan describes the following topics that are at least on the table:

  • All 30 teams would play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and various spring training facilities;
  • “Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium;”
  • Teams would carry significantly expanded rosters to (a) allow for players who get sick or who test positive for COVID-19 to be easily replaced; and (b) to allow for ample rest give that games would be played in the triple-digit heat of the Arizona desert;
  • There would be an electronic strike zone to allow the umpires to keep their distance;
  • There would be no mound visits;
  • There would be seven-inning doubleheaders to allow them to schedule as many games as possible;
  • On-field microphones would be used by players, “as an added bonus for TV viewers;”
  • Players and team personnel would sit in the empty stands 6 feet apart instead of in a dugout to ensure proper social distancing.

There’s a lot to chew on there, but I want to hold off a moment on that chewing. I want to resist the urge to do what we usually do when some radical new idea about sports comes up such as a rules change, the implementation of a new technology, divisional realignment or playoff expansion, or something to that effect. I’ll get to that stuff in a moment, but for now I want to take several steps back and leave the specifics of those things aside and ask a question:

What in the hell are we doing here?

Don’t get me wrong: I miss baseball. Everyone misses baseball. Setting aside the financial incentives at play for the moment, MLB exists to put on baseball games and they want baseball games. Players live to play baseball and they want to play. If we could snap our fingers and make that happen, God, it would be wonderful. If we could play baseball or any other pro sport right now, it would definitely be a pick-me-up for a large part of the nation.

This plan, however, is patently absurd. Less in form than in its very conception and existence.

How, in light of all that is going on at the moment, is this at all justifiable?  How is the level of necessary logistical support to pull this off — the transportation, the isolation, and the prioritization of a few thousand baseball people for testing and attendant medical care if someone gets sick — close to rational?

Just yesterday a member of New York’s city council announced that they will be burying the city’s many dead in temporary mass graves in public parks, ten to a row, and that prison inmates will be offered $6/hour to dig the graves. The governor of Illinois said last night that states are bidding against one another to try to obtain desperately needed medical supplies to treat the national surge in the sick and the dying. Is that what everyone is going through right now? No, of course not. Most of us are bored at home. But that — the tens of thousands of dead and counting and the overarching fear and anxiety which is affecting the populace — provides the national backdrop against which these negotiations are occurring. To call it “incongruous” to be talking about a far-sooner-than-expected return of baseball is a monumental understatement.

Yes, sports have, traditionally, served as a rallying point for the nation. But this is not a war. This is not a natural disaster. This is not a situation where our defiant assertion of normality will help pull us through. We do not need a Winston Churchill figure and, in fact, attempting to be a Churchill figure, we have unfortunately learned, is precisely the opposite of sensible. This is not a situation where keeping calm, carrying on, and acting resolute in the face of peril will help us prevail. A viral pandemic is not impressed with our composure, our resolve or our symbolic gestures such as playing baseball in the face of what can only be described as horror. The only thing we can do in the face of this horror is to take sensible precautions. To collectively sacrifice. To collectively appreciate the risks, stay at home, ride it out, and provide every possible bit of support available to the sick, to those who treat the sick, and to the millions of people displaced, economically and psychologically, by the crisis.

There nothing sensible about this nascent plan currently being floated by Major League Baseball, however. And make no mistake: it is being floated. With a purpose.

This report comes two days after President Trump held a conference call with Rob Manfred and all of the other major sports league commissioners in which he expressed his desire for sports to return as soon as possible. It is in his and his administration’s political interests for that to happen. As it would be, to be fair, in the interests of any president. There was a reason FDR pressed baseball to play on as usual during World War II. My political leanings are pretty plain to those who have read this website for any length of time, but I do not begrudge Trump this impulse, in and of itself. As a leader there are very good reasons for him to want the public to be happy and entertained and, as I said, we would all love to be happy and entertained at the moment.

President Trump, however, has been demonstrably shown to have made countless missteps in his handling of the pandemic thus far. Missteps that, in at least one case, appears to be born by personal financial interest. I simply do not trust his judgment in pressing professional sports back into service and I do not trust Rob Manfred to sensibly push back against political pressure urging him to take what would, clearly, be irresponsible steps in order to make baseball happen the way it is being described in Passan’s column.

And it is irresponsible. Let’s just play this out for 30 seconds:

  • Passan describes a scenario in which players would be isolated for more than four months. Are they supposed to not see their families during all that time? How are they supposed to function under that scenario? Even worse, what if their family members get sick? What if one of their parents die? Is their season over or do they stay in Arizona?
  • No quarantine can be perfect, so there’s a non-trivial chance that despite these efforts someone gets sick. Passan mentioned that they would be removed from their teams and put into isolation. That may be fine for a physically fit 24 year-old, but many managers, coaches, trainers and clubhouse attendants are older and, as such, at far greater risk of complications if they get sick. Some players are too. Adam Duvall is Type 1 diabetic. Kenley Jansen just had heart surgery. Carlos Carrasco and Trey Mancini are cancer patients. What about them?
  • If players are quarantined in hotels or resorts, there are hundreds if not thousands of people cooking for them, cleaning for them, doing the laundry and stuff like that. They all have to be isolated too, no? Just as a virus propagates itself exponentially, so to does the support necessary to put on Major League Baseball games, even in these radically different circumstances.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many other things that infectious disease experts and people who are more involved in the details of putting on games under these circumstances could imagine. Yes, I understand that the idea behind flattening the curve and slowing the spread is not to prevent every single person from becoming infected. That’s impossible. But at the same time, Major League Baseball should not be creating conditions under which a highly infectious disease has an entryway into a in environment where 26 guys and a staff x 30 teams all share close quarters as a rule.

That’s especially true when we look at the benefits of all of this. Benefits which, as Passan freely notes in his article, are primary financial. Or, as noted above, may have some broadly inspirational or symbolic significance. And that’s before you start to assess the actual quality and integrity of the baseball which would be played under these extreme circumstances.

Could they figure this all out? Maybe. Will they do it? I don’t know. It might actually happen. Nothing would surprise me at this point. But even attempting it seems profoundly incongruous to what’s happening in the real world. And profoundly misguided.

And one more thing.

To the extent this misguided plan gains traction, it will be because a lot of us — particularly people in my industry, but fans as well — approach this idea solely through the prism of sports. It will be because, when presented with the idea of a 2020 baseball season in the Arizona Bubble League, we spend more time debating electronic umpiring and whether East Coast Bias is the reason the Yankees and Red Sox get more games in air-conditioned Chase Field and that Oakland A’s have to play more games in 105 degree heat at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa. It will because we thought of all of this as great fun or a cool intellectual and competitive exercise and judged it, as we judge so much else in sports, only on those terms.

We need to think bigger than that. We need to think smarter than that. We need to set aside our laser-focus on sports as the be-all and end-all, set aside our strong and understandable desire to have sports return as soon as possible and treat the current situation with the gravity it deserves.

And this plan ain’t it, jack.