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With the Astros punished, where does Major League Baseball go from here?

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The Astros have been dealt with. The Red Sox, and Alex Cora, who has been implicated in stealing signs with both teams, will be dealt with soon. Once that investigation is concluded, the great sign-stealing scandal is over with, right?

Hardly.

You know this intuitively, of course. You know that even if the Astros and the Red Sox are the ones that got caught that they’re not the only ones who have stolen signs via electronic means. Yesterday Tom Verducci — who is plugged in pretty well with MLB officials — wrote that the Astros investigation suggested that as many as seven or eight other teams were doing much the same as they were in 2017-18. I’d guess it’s more than that.

Which, yes, is something that angers Astros fans, many of whom are feeling like their team was singled out. And yeah, they were singled out in a sense. Not because anyone at the league office had it in for them, but because they got caught. Part of the reason it took an investigation from The Athletic to uncover it is that no one really talks about cheating out loud and the reason no one really talks about cheating out loud is because they know that if they point a finger at another team cheating that someone is going to point a finger back at them. When everyone is standing around with guns pointed at each other, sometimes one goes off. Fair? Maybe not, but it’s the business you chose when you chose to cheat. Not gonna cry for the Astros over this, singled out or otherwise. It’s done.

But where does baseball go from here with all of this?

Before we answer that, we have to answer a threshold question: is baseball more interested in stopping future illegal sign-stealing or is it more concerned with simply putting out P.R. fires like the Astros and Red Sox stories have become?

That’s not a rhetorical question born of cynicism. As you’ll recall, when the Houston allegations first hit, MLB — after an initial, apparently mistaken bit of honesty in which it said it did not plan to limit its investigation to the Astros — said that it would only be investigating Houston and had no reason to look beyond them. They’re not idiots. They know it was bigger than Houston. They just wanted to contain the fire that was currently burning. Once the allegations regarding the Red Sox came out, however, that position became untenable for Major League Baseball and they went wider. But only to Boston, it seems. They don’t seem to be following up on those seven or eight teams Verducci mentions. I am pretty confident that they’re going to blast Alex Cora with 100,000 megatons of Manfredian Justice and then declare the matter closed. At least until the next time.

Major League Baseball is, however, at least talking about the possibility of preventing a next time.

Verducci interviewed Manfred yesterday, and Manfred said that there will “absolutely” be more protocols will be in place by the start of this season to prevent the use of video feeds for illicit purposes. He suggests making the video room off-limits to players and team officials, with only the replay tech and an MLB security person having access. That makes a good degree of sense. There is no reason why players need to have real-time, in-game video available. That is what caused this problem in the first place, ushered in as it was with video replay. Baseball can revert back to something more akin to what was happening in that regard in 2014 or whatever without being accused of unreasonably trying to go backwards in time.

At the same time, there seems to be some who want to see more technology, not less. Again, Manfed, from the Verducci interview:

“Longer term, for example, the idea of having a technology solution that eliminates some guy putting fingers above his cup might be a better answer.”

He talks about lights or ear-pieces or other bits of tech that could change the way pitchers and catchers communicate beyond just traditional signs. Hannah Keyser of Yahoo wrote a column on some of these ideas a little over a week ago.

That makes little sense to me. Signs between the dugout, catcher and pitchers work and have long been part of the fabric of the game. As has, for that matter, the idea that the other team, on the field, using their eyes, can maybe swipe those signs. It’s a second level of competition that no one has ever seriously complained about. Indeed, it’s one of baseball’s interesting points. A layer of charm and intrigue that adds color to the proceedings for those who are aware of it, with a pretty reasonable bright line reining it in: technological assistance is prohibited.

If teams want to improve on that they’re welcome to do it — I’m no luddite — but the notion that it must be done to stop sign-stealing when we’re pretty aware of how signs have been stolen doesn’t track for me. Indeed, it just introduces potential new ways to steal signs in a manner not currently anticipated. Different cameras to use. Audio to hack. Any new technology is subject to exploitation in unexpected ways. A lot of old, field-tested technology — including fingers above the cup — is pretty resilient as long as you’re being at least moderately vigilant in guarding against well-known exploits and promise to smack people hard if they break a pretty clear bright line rule.

But this is baseball in the 21st century. If we’ve learned anything in the Rob Manfred Era we’ve learned that when there is a relatively simple and straightforward solution, baseball will take a more complicated one. Especially there’s a chance to make some money off of it. Which, I’m willing to bet, would somehow be baked into some new audio or light-based sign system. If Manfred were in charge of baseball in the 19th century there’d be branding on every blade of grass at Elysian Fields, so it would not shock me a bit if T-Mobile or someone like them got the signs concession.

Yesterday was a strong step by Rob Manfred that should create an effective deterrent against illegal sign-stealing. On top of that, his idea about closing off access to real time video for players would go a long way toward diminishing the risk of further transgressions. It’d be best if the league stopped there and policed the 30 clubs on it for a little while before jumping at new technology just because it’s shiny.

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.