THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
In my opinion, it's pretty annoying when players, fans, and anyone else have to say or do something to "psyche" themselves up for what might be considered a big game. What's worse is when it backfires.
At the beginning of May, the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros met for the first time in the baseball season. The Rangers and Astros are both inter-state and inter-division rivals, playing in the American League West. So there is already a bit of juice to the series.
So why did Astros third baseman Alex Bregman decide to fire off a Tweet to fire people up and tick off the Rangers? Your guess is as good as mine.
Bregman has been in the big leagues for all of five minutes. He played for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, only to ride the bench in favor of other established stars. He is certainly not the established leader of the team. When he Tweeted an obscene (but coded) battle cry to intimidate and beat Texas, the Rangers decided to print copies of it and put them up all over their clubhouse as motivation.
So what did Texas do? Pitcher Andrew Cashner hit two batters, including Jose Altuve to start off the bottom of the first inning. So Houston's pitcher, Lance McCullers, then threw behind the back of the Rangers' Mike Napoli. That's when the benches cleared and everyone congregated in a pushing and shoving match.
These attempts to "fire up your squad" are nothing more than pep rallies, which are pointless from the get-go; if you need to motivate people with some "pep," rather than assume they will find the motivation themselves, then there is a bigger concern at hand.
Is it done to try to scare or intimidate the opponent? Do you honestly think that this type of behavior will psychologically affect other competitors?
But consider the outcomes of these attempts to intimidate opponents as if they were categorized like Descartes' Wager:
-If your opponent cowers in fear from the intimidation attempts and you beat them, did you really beat them fair and square? Did you really need to give your all to win over a compromised opponent? It doesn't seem very satisfying.
-If your opponent cowers in fear but still beats you, then you look like an idiot.
-If your opponent gets angry and fights harder but you win, why did you make it harder on yourself? I'm sure it's nice to be able to achieve victory by raising your game to immense levels, but was it worth the risk?
-If your opponent gets angry and fights harder and beats you, then you look like an idiot.
There's really no victory worthy of trying to intimidate your opponent. The cost/benefit ratio is absurd. Your best bet is to keep your mouth shut and just go do your job.
But the worst part of all this is not that it happened between the Astros and Rangers. Rather, the problem is that this type of behavior is practiced with our youth as described in pep rallies and other types of scenarios. Rivalries between high schools and colleges do nothing more than endanger our impressionable youth by exposing them to practices and traditions that do nothing more than cause detriment rather than teach good sportsmanship and morals and focus on the good experience of the game instead of the need to win.
Remind your young ones that it's about the good experience of playing the game, not about demeaning or defeating someone else.
Back in April, respected baseball journalist Jon Heyman released a list he created of 50 current baseball players to admire or follow. It's a good thing he added the clause "or follow" because a good chunk of this list includes players who should not be admired.
In fairness, as I perused the list, I saw a lot of names of people I did admire: Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, and Matt Szczur jumped out immediately. (Originally, I was going to include both Mike Trout and Anthony Rizzo on this list, but both have made some dumb decisions to already make me think twice about them.) But the majority of the rest of the names were questionable to me, and a lot of it comes down to one thing: attitude/sportsmanship.
Right off the bat, here are the names of people you can follow, but should not admire: Manny Machado, Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner, Miguel Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes, Bryce Harper, Robinson Cano, Chris Sale, Josh Donaldson, Yadier Molina, Joey Votta, Jose Bautista, Javier Baez, and Aroldis Chapman. Great players? Sure. But each one has something in their character that should be a huge red flag. If your child idolizes one of these players, that kid is going to be let down one day.
Further, how does Andrew Miller only make the "on the bubble" list? The guy is one of the most dominant relievers in the game today, and his comments about being team-first have made Yankee fans cry when he was traded.
The bottom line is that these lists are always flawed and subjective and usually fall into the category of "having to write something just to fill up the space" (which we covered recently). But combining a list of people to admire with a list of people to follow irks me, especially when the people to admire is a small faction compared to the people to follow.
(Post Script: I had to go back and edit this post numerous times and remove names from the list of players that jumped out at me to admire. It's amazing how people you think are worthy of admiration can so easily disappoint you.)
Last week, we discussed an article about the unwritten rules of baseball. I was reluctant to discuss the article specifically and decided to focus on its content, namely plunking batters in retribution. However, I've gone back on that decision with new evidence.
As Yankees radio voice John Sterling has pointed out numerous times, writers and media hosts have to come up with opinions in order to talk about something. Their job is to fill the space (whether it is print/Internet media or broadcast air) with content, specifically content that will attract readers/viewers. The problem is when the opinions of those people become so ludicrous that it actually turns people away from the person producing the content.
Take Tom Gatto, for example. Gatto wrote the article about the unwritten rules of baseball. I've never met Gatto, nor do I care to. However, shortly after he wrote the article on the plunking, he produced a few other articles that were equally as ridiculous.
First, he goes on a spree about MLB umpire CB Bucknor. During a game between the Braves and the Nationals in April, Bucknor had a questionable strike zone that led Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth to immaturely charge the umpire after his team had won the game. Werth was taking a page out of the book of immaturity written by Bryce Harper, who dropped an f-bomb directed towards umpire Brian Knight the previous year after Knight ejected Harper (rightly so), only to have the Nats walk off shortly thereafter. (Harper rushed back onto the field after he had been ejected, which is not allowed, pointed at Knight, dropped the naughty word, and the cameras caught it all. Harper was suspended one game for this, which ended up being one half of a doubleheader.)
Prior to Werth's actions, however, Bucknor kicked a call that would have ended the game. On a swinging strike three that would have been the final out of the game, Bucknor actually called it foul, even though the bat missed the ball by almost a foot. The Nats were already on the field celebrating (as was the grounds crew doing its post-game work), when the umpires huddled and declared the game not over. Thankfully, the Nats won just after that, but the scene was a circus.
You know what umpires call that? A bad day. Or a bad game. Bucknor had a bad game. It happens to all of us. What we don't need is Tom Gatto (and every other sports pundit) demeaning him for his error.
It's true that CB Bucknor was notoriously known as being a poor official. He has been in the big leagues for approximately two decades, and his reputation precedes him from time to time. However, Bucknor, like fellow official Angel Hernandez, has actually worked on his craft to try and improve. The league has noticed this because Bucknor (like Hernandez) has received some postseason assignments. The problem is that the average fan or writer (read: Gatto) only sees it when an official makes a mistake. Nobody notices when an official is perfect or right. Therefore, Bucknor (like Hernandez) gets ripped when he has a bad game, not recognizing the fact that he may have had a streak of good games prior.
An umpire colleague relayed this story to me. When he was walking off the field after a game, a fan yelled at him, saying he had missed ten pitches that game. My colleague politely replied, "Thank you! That means I got the other 290 calls right!" Umpires cannot win. They are expected to be perfect, and then improve from there. And to clueless people who don't have the ability to empathize or see the big picture (like Gatto, who needs to fill space with his opinions), this is perfect banter that will attract readers.
A few days later, Gatto wrote an article about a game between the Rays and the Tigers. In the bottom of the ninth, the Rays were trailing by one run and had the bases loaded with nobody out. On a full count pitch, Steven Souza Jr. attempted to check his swing, then dropped his bat and started heading to first, assuming he had just received a base on balls. The problem? Home plate umpire Larry Vanover called it a swinging strike and pumped Souza out.
Rays manager Kevin Cash came out to argue and was immediately ejected by Vanover. After a prolonged argument, the next pitch was hit for a routine double play that was supposed to end the game. However, when Jose Inglesias tried to make the turn at second base, he slipped on second and fell down, causing his throw to go wildly past first base and allowing two runs to score, giving the Rays the win. There was no fault on the Rays for interference; Inglesias lost his footing by himself. However, the runner who was bearing down on him legally slid into second and right into Inglesias' face, causing him to lay on the ground in clear pain while the Rays celebrated a come-from-behind victory.
So what does Gatto do in his article? He rips Vanover, says the Rays win on the good "juju" from Cash's ejection, and barely mentions the fact that Inglesias was hurt.
Can we clear something up here? Whether Paul O'Neill agrees with it or not, it is the home plate umpire's call first and foremost on whether a batter swung at a pitch. If he thinks he swung, he can call it. He doesn't need to get help from a base umpire. Secondly, the home plate umpire can only go for help when he calls the pitch a ball and doesn't call the batter on a swing; only then can he honor the appeal and go to the base umpire to see if the batter actually swung. These are the damn rules of the game! Vanover got everything right! (And for what it's worth, replays show Souza swung.)
Analysis of all these plays aside, why do people like Gatto need to write this stuff? And more importantly, why does the general public eat this stuff up? Are people that stupid that they can't see into the opinions of media members and make a personal and individual decision not to believe everything they read?
I'll stop there because I could cross the line into politics, which is not my goal. The intent here is to call Gatto out for his poor choice in topics and opinions and to get people to take a step back and understand a little more about how the game of baseball works in conjunction with humanity.
Protecting your teammates might seem noble, but it can be equally dumb.
Very early in the 2017 MLB season, the Arizona Diamondbacks were visiting the San Francisco Giants. Buster Posey, the Giants' All-Star catcher and arguably best player, took a 96 mph fastball to the helmet while at bat and ended up on the 7-day concussion disabled list. It was obviously unintentional.
The next day, during the next game, Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija decided to abide by the unwritten rules in baseball. While facing Paul Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks' first baseman and best player, Samardzija threw a fastball that hit Goldschmidt in the rear end. Both players just went about their business under the assumption that this was understood due to the the recent history.
This unwritten rule is probably one of the dumbest rules in baseball.
Why does retribution hold such a high priority to ballplayers? It makes no sense whatsoever. An eye for an eye has been denounced many times in history, regardless of context of religion or politics. And yet, barbaric instincts take over and govern those who are getting paid to entertain us.
Do these athletes, who have their financial futures set for generations, really need to care about the protection of their colleagues? It sets a horrible example for the youth who watch, especially because they emulate their athletic role models.
It's time for athletes to start looking at the big picture, rather than just considering their short-sighted and selfish agenda.
An article published in Referee magazine at the end of 2016 made some rounds in early 2017 again, discussing the topic of why coaches yell, specifically at officials.
Ironically, one of the reasons the article gave regarding why coaches yell at officials is simply because the coach is often significantly far away from the official, ergo requiring raising his/her voice just to get the attention of the official. To that, I must say, "Thank you, Captain Obvious."
But the article went on to discuss other more logical reasons why coaches yell. The problem is that the reasons and examples provided as to why the coaches yell were not fully acceptable or morally sound, even if they happen to be the truth.
First, the article mentions one of the reasons being that coaches have multiple responsibilities on a team, thereby not being able to follow the game as closely as an official may. That may be true, such as tending to injured players, determining when substitutes need to be deployed, or discussing strategy. But to play devil's advocate, is that really an acceptable excuse? Doesn't a good coach have the ability to follow the game and do all these other things?
A second reason, and one more damning and popularly used (especially at professional levels, which means lower levels mimic it), is to inspire a team. Many stories have been passed down that a large majority of arguments between managers and umpires in baseball are not actually about a disagreement over a call, but as a tactic to inspire a team to perform better. A coach who comes storming out of a dugout and starts going ballistic may actually be asking the umpire about where his dinner reservations are for that evening.
There are two problems with this method. First, it rarely works, especially at youth levels. Younger athletes tend to crawl back into a shell when this type of behavior is exhibited; they begin to play in fear of getting yelled at in a similar measure. Second, why does the official have to be subject to a misnomer from onlookers? The manager or coach may not actually be mad at the official, but the fans certainly can be deceived by this action. "If the manager of my team is mad, that gives me, the fan, the right to be mad!" Or, "Perhaps I should be mad too!"
One thing that is never acceptable is when a coach uses this method in a derogatory way against an official. It's bad enough when a coach puts on a mad display when he's not actually yelling at the official; but if the coach is actually criticizing the official to motivate his team, then that's grounds for ejection.
It comes down to this: officials shouldn't have to take abuse from coaches or anyone else. If a coach has to yell just to get the attention of the official due to physical distance, that's fine. But it makes zero sense to yell at an official for any other reason. And if you are someone who still wants to yell at an official, be prepared to face the consequences.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.