Author: Matt Imbrogno Page 2 of 13

Expectations

Expect the unexpected and you’ll never be surprised, right? Although if you’re expecting it, is it unexpected? Regardless of that philosophical quandary, it’s safe to say that when the Yankees played their final game of 2019, none of us would have expected the situation we’re in now. But here we are now, unsure of what to expect going forward.

There are some things laid out for us: an expanded roster (which was coming anyway), a universal DH (thank the baseball gods), and a condensed, sprint of a schedule against a limited spate of opponents.

Given what we know about baseball in general, combined with these unique circumstances, here are a few things I expect, some more serious than others.

I expect that the pitchers will be ahead of the hitters. This is a baseball truism that, like all baseball truisms, doesn’t always hold, uh, true, but for now, I certainly expect it. Gerrit Cole is reportedly already up to the mid-high 90’s with his fastball and I’d imagine a lot of other pitchers are pretty geared up. It’s likely been easier for them, generally speaking, to ramp up to their game shape than it has been for hitters. Despite the universal DH–more on that shortly–I think the beginning of the season, league-wide, will be a little lower scoring than normal.

As for the universal DH, I expect that fans of the NL will finally come around. First, they’ll see it’s not the unholy abomination they think it is. Second, they’ll realize how much more appealing it is to watch nine real hitters instead of eight. Third, they’ll realize that the double-switch is not the be-all, end-all of baseball strategy.

But, unfortunately, what I expect is actually…nothing. And by that I mean I don’t expect a single meaningful pitch to be thrown this year. There are still a few weeks until the start of the season, but with news trickling in every day about players testing positive for COVID and with David Price deciding to sit out the year, I feel like things are coming to a head. We even got one hell of an omen yesterday with Masahiro Tanaka taking a line drive to the head (all well wishes to him for a speedy recovery, of course). Every day, holding a season feels more and more irresponsible and less and less ethical or likely.

Do I want there to be a baseball season? I used to say yes but that I knew there shouldn’t be. At this point, I don’t even think I really want it anymore. The risks are too great and the rewards too small.

And one last expectation, though this is more for you: I’m about to be a dad a second time over, so I’ll likely be gone from this space (and the podcast) for a little bit. Please don’t miss me too much.

From a Marathon to a Sprint

On July 25, 2019, the Yankees played their 102nd game. On July 23, 2020, the Yankees will play their first game. On July 25, 2019, the Yankees had a 9.5 game lead in the AL East with 60 games left. On July 23, 2020, the Yankees will be tied for the division lead–with everyone–with 60 games left.

There will be no cushion. There will be no ramping up. There will be no marathon. There will be a sprint.

The season is no longer broken up into pieces. Rather, it is an elongated stretch run, in which important players will become even more so.

While the Yankees’ approach to team building clearly works over the course of the long regular season, it also works in the short term and the playoffs. Did it work as well without an ace? Not necessarily. Now with Gerrit Cole in tow, the Yankees have that. They also have a strong bullpen and a deep lineup, all things that lead to success in the season and October.

Of course, none of this may end up mattering. Given the situation in the country right now, I’m doubtful we see even a single meaningful pitch of baseball this year. But if we do have one, it’ll be a season unlike any we’ve ever seen.

Musing on the State of the Game

What a week, huh?

Monday saw us pretty much declare the MLB season dead. Just two days later, we were reviving it, hopeful it could happen. But now, as I write this, I don’t know how any season could be possible. Not only are the owners going to reject the players’ 70 game proposal, it seems like COVID’s continuing impact on the country is going to supersede anything else.

As if it weren’t abundantly clear already, there really shouldn’t be sports in the United States this year. The first wave that we felt here in New York is finally reaching other parts of the country, especially places that opened up early, including Florida and Arizona, necessitating that MLB teams do Spring Training–if it even happens–at their home parks, excepting the Blue Jays. That may be good for the Yankees and Mets, but it could put the Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Rays at risk, not to mention the Rangers and Astros, given the similar situation in Texas.

Other countries are enjoying sports right now because their governments and authorities handled this situation much better than ours did. For that, we as sports fans are paying the price. It’s a trivial price, sure, but this is a sports-focused site, so we’ll pretend it’s more important than it is.

In the vein of pretending, let’s also imagine that things are okay enough to start baseball again and it’s just the labor issues that are holding things up. If you’ve listened to the podcast–and you obviously have, right?–you know how we here feel about the labor issues and whose side we’re on (it’s the players’ side). With that in mind, I have a question about the game that I’ve been asking myself for a while now, but wasn’t quite sure how to put my thoughts about it into words. It’s a rhetorical question, to be sure, as there isn’t quite a real answer out there.

How responsible is sabermetrics/analytics “stuff” responsible for the state of the game? There are two levels to my answer.

The first is the on-field level. Analytics have made the game much different than it was before. A prime example of this? The other day, I was watching a 1996 playoff game and Mariano Rivera was pitched. The announcers seemed awed that he was throwing around 93 at times. Nowadays, thanks to the emphasis on strikeouts, every team has multiple bullpen arms who can hit 95 with regularity.

That emphasis on strikeouts from the pitching side leads into the rest of the game’s aesthetic, which has been focused on power pitching, power hitting, and getting on base for quite a while now. In a way that’s distasteful to some (many?), this has made the game less active–fewer balls put into play–and made winning teams seem a little monolithic at times. On the whole, I’m fine with this, more or less. Striking batters out, socking dingers (and other XBH), and getting men on base is a winning formula. If you want it to change, build a better mousetrap.

But on the bigger level, the off-field stuff, I do wonder if the rise in analytics has led to more tension between players and owners. Doubtless, the owners have been trying to screw over the players since the start of the professional game. Luckily, people like Curt Flood and Marvin Miller started fighting back against those things and the players have gained much more power than their predecessors could’ve dreamed of. But the current way of thinking regarding analytics, the way it’s been for the past 20 years, really, has a laser focus on efficiency that certainly has a slightly dehumanizing effect. The teams and front offices are also farther ahead on this stuff than the players and they use that to their advantage. These consequences are unintended; the landscape of writers and thinkers who’ve moved analytics forward is chock full of almost universally pro-player, pro-labor sentiment. However, they’re consequences regardless of purpose.

Can this be undone? Probably not. But, as the players make their own personal gains in understanding and applying analytics, they can fight back with information at hand. Should this be undone? Not really. Analytics have helped us understand the game on a deeper level and that’s a good thing overall.

One last bit, again touching on the racial issues and baseball, as I’ve done a lot of recently. If you follow me on Twitter, I apologize for the repeat. If you don’t, here’s a thought I had this past week:

I’m not sure how it would look or how it would run, but at some point, there needs to be some public reckoning by white baseball players about race in baseball, beyond tweets and instagram posts.

And I don’t mean the Sean Doolittle, Lucas Giolito types who seem to have their heads on right. Maybe they run it or lead it, but there needs to be some public discussion with the “play the game the right way” crowd, which is likely overwhelmingly white and “conservative.”

We’ve heard a lot from Black players about the pain and hardship of being a Black major leaguer; now we need to hear from the white players, coaches, execs, etc. about what the hell they’re going to do to change it.

It must be a tremendous burden for Black players to constantly deal w/this stuff and the solutions, generally speaking, need to be from their ideas. But it shouldn’t also be their burden to constantly teach and lead on things. White players, coaches, execs have to take the baton at some point and make the change actually happen. It’s not just gonna happen by Good Tweets and Meaningful Statements or by Wanting It. They’ve gotta do things to change the culture of baseball in a real, tangible way. Top down, bottom up.

For myriad reasons, the state of the game is at the strangest its been in my lifetime. I have no idea what it will look like in a matter of days, let alone next season or beyond. Much like life might not look the same for a bit, I wonder if baseball with follow the same pattern.

Stay safe, folks.

More Thoughts on Baseball and Race

Remember last week when I said baseball is political? Well, it still is! And since there’s nothing else to talk about regarding baseball, we’re going to keep that discussion going. You know what, though? That last sentence…I don’t really like it. As I said last week, not talking about these things in baseball isn’t helpful. While I may prefer to be talking about actual on-field stuff in this space every week, it’s important to acknowledge these things as they come, rather than letting them boil over later on.

Former Yankee–and guy who should be in the Hall of Fame–Gary Sheffield wrote a piece for the Players’ Tribune, detailing a harrowing experience he and his uncle, Dwight Gooden, had with police in South Florida. The title of the piece–Do You Believe Me Now?–got me thinking about another racially-charged incident from Sheffield’s pace that involved the Yankees.

In http://2007, Sheff did an interview with Andrea Kremer for HBO in which he said Joe Torre treated black players differently than he treated other players.

Sheffield, who was traded to the Detroit Tigers during the offseason, claimed that black and white players in the Yankees clubhouse were treated differently, specifically how players Tony Womack and Kenny Lofton were handled by Torre. In the interview with HBO, Sheffield says the black players on the Yankees’ roster would be “called out” in the clubhouse by Torre, while the white players would be called into Torre’s office to discuss matters.

“They weren’t treated like everybody else. I got called out in a couple of meetings that I thought were unfair,” Sheffield told Kremer.

Sheffield later added: “He had a message to get across to the whole team, so he used me to get the message across.” Sheffield said Torre didn’t use the same method with white players.

“No … I’d see a lot of white players get called in the office and treated like a man. That’s the difference.”

When asked Saturday to respond to Sheffield’s comments, Lofton said: “All I can say is, Sheffield knows what he’s talking about. That’s all I’m going to say,” Lofton told the AP in the Texas Rangers’ dugout just before the team took batting practice.

Sheffield said he doesn’t consider Torre a racist. “No. I think it’s the way they do things around there,” he said. “Since I was there I just saw that they run their ship different.”

At that point, Kremer says to Sheffield that the Yankees most high-profile player is black. “Who?” Sheffield says.

Told Jeter, Sheffield says: “Derek Jeter is black and white.”

First, a question: If Sheffield–or any player with any manager–made these comments today, how much more weight would they carry? The answer is a lot. From what I remember back then, these comments were largely derided and swept away. They definitely disappeared as the 2007 season came and went, as did Torre’s tenure with the Yankees. But in our climate today, hell, even in the one just a few years after these comments, this would get a lot more attention. I’ll admit to brushing these comments off at the time, chalking them up to Sheffield’s attitude and the fact that Womack and Lofton didn’t do well with the Yankees and were frustrated. But is it possible that a lack of comfort led to them not performing well? Yes. It’s not necessarily the reason, but it’s worth mentioning. As Sheffield says, it’s not likely that Joe Torre is/was a racist, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t implicit, unconscious biases in his head–like there are in all of us–that influenced his decision making.

The comment about Derek Jeter, followed later by “[i]t’s just [Jeter] ain’t all the way black,” doesn’t feel great, but we also have to acknowledge that colorism is a thing and that Sheffield, Womack, and Lofton all having darker skin could play into the aforementioned implicit biases.

Gary Sheffield was one of my favorite players on the team in his brief time with the Yankees. Maybe he wore out his welcome–as he did in lots of places–but that doesn’t mean we should’ve so easily brushed off his comments about the Yankees and race. While he may have been a prickly dude, when a Black man speaks up about mistreatment because of his race, no matter how big or small, we should pay more attention and give it more respect than we did to Sheff in 2007.

Expanding on this discussion, let’s jump to the Boston Globe and Alex Speier’s article about biases in scouting. This relates to what Sheffield said about Torre. The scouts in here are likely not racists. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t certain things that influence or leverage the way they talk about players or categorize players.

Public statements from MLB lately show they’re at least aware of the problem. And those statements talked about uncomfortable conversations, introspection, all that. So here are some questions for MLB that need answers in something beyond platitudes.

Why are there so few Black American/Canadian players in the game?

Why are there so few Black coaches and managers and executives?

Why are Black American/Canadian players being shut out of positions, almost entirely? From the article:

Moreover, Black players are drastically underrepresented as starting pitchers and catchers because of what Huntington and others see as the same sort of bias that for years limited opportunities for Black quarterbacks in the NFL.

That’s from Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington, and something Randy, Bobby, and I touched on during the last week’s podcast.

I used this article as a conversation-starter with some friends at work–all fellow white men who also love baseball. Their reaction was positive; they said it made them think in ways they hadn’t before, which is a step in the right direction. It also started two spinoff conversations, one about Brett Gardner and one about Gary Sanchez.

In the former, one colleague asked if Brett Gardner fits the term “grinder.” I said yes, but that’s really the default for short white guys. Were Gardner black, I posited, scouts and media probably would’ve focused on his speed. I brought up Dustin Pedroia (who I realize is one of my least favorite players ever) and how even he, unfairly, got the ‘grinder’ tag placed upon him. Pedroia was a second round pick from a NCAA baseball powerhouse, not some diamond in the rough. He was an immensely talented (if annoying) baseball player and compared to Gardner–a walk-on at his college–nothing like a grinder. I also mentioned that rare is the time when a black player is called a grinder.

The Gary Sanchez conversation started from a place it often does with Sanchez–at least from more ‘mainstream’ fans: Sanchez is lazy because he doesn’t run out ground balls. I retorted that Sanchez is just slow and that players like Jason Giambi and Mark Teixiera–also fellow piano-draggers, but very white–were never criticized for lack of hustle on grounders. What I forgot to say was, yes, there was a time when Sanchez not busting it down the line cost the Yankees a win in Tampa…but he was already playing through pain at that point and then injured himself later on while ‘hustling’ down the line. I did, however, remember to say that hustle down the line is often eyewash, etc. My colleague–a different one than the one who brought up Gardner/grinder–saw a brown player not hustling due to lack of speed, but chalked it up to laziness. He didn’t do the same thing for white players. Does this make him racist? No, but it showed a bias, even for just a moment. That bias is (part of) what baseball needs to reckon with.

Baseball alone is not going to cure the ills of racism in American society. It’s too deeply ingrained in our systems to be undone by one relatively frivolous (in the grand scheme of things) business/whatever baseball is or is supposed to be. But it still has a responsibility to be the best it can be. I’m glad baseball is starting to reckon with this, even in a surface-level way. Hopefully they start coming up with answers to the tough questions.

Baseball, Politics, and Sticking to What’s Right

Baseball and sports are political.

That fact is inconvenient, but it’s true. I was tempted to write ‘Major League Baseball” and “professional” sports, but that falls way short. Even youth and amateur sports are rife with politics in ways both metaphorical and literal.

How many times as a kid did you hear a parent say “Oh, it’s so political!” when talking about which youth players made which teams? That may not be politics in the way we know it as adults, but it’s politics nonetheless.

Amateur sports, particularly the NCAA, are also tied up in legal battles, discussions of (lack of) pay for athletes, likeness rights, etc., not to mention the Olympics, a thinly veiled celebration of nationalism. Is it even veiled at all?

American professional sports and politics intersect at every possible, uh, intersection. MLB has an antitrust exemption. Just about every team in every sport tries to get some form of public money/assistance in building stadiums. Labor issues abound. Billions of dollars are at stake.

And when things happen, like the murder of George Floyd, players and teams are going to speak out…or should. They will do so to varying degrees of success and open themselves to criticism because of it. If that makes you uncomfortable…good. As Edwin Jackson said in this week’s (typically excellent) episode of R2C2, people need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

For too long, we’ve used sports as an apolitical refuge when it is absolutely, positively not that at all. The issues I listed above may have been swept under the rug, but they were there and festering. Ignoring issues, ignoring problems…that doesn’t make them go away; it makes them worse.

Many will say that they don’t tune into sports or follow athletes to hear their political opinions, but so damn what? Athletes are people just like us. We express our political opinions in a wide variety of ways and athletes should feel free to do the same.

CC Sabathia was easily one of my favorite players to root for during his time with the Yankees. Seeing him be vocal about race issues, attending protests, posting “Black Lives Matter,” all of that only makes me like him more. I wish he had felt comfortable enough to advocate more during his playing days, but I understand why he didn’t, considering the (political) atmosphere of baseball. That atmosphere told Torii Hunter not to make a big deal of being held at gunpoint by police in his own home. How many other players have kept or are keeping in similar stories?

That Hunter incident and the many things that the players in the R2C2 video remind us that these players are human. All of those men, to an extent, have the privilege of being supremely talented at baseball and much richer than any of us have ever been. Yet they still experience things many of us don’t have to because of the color of their skin. Their lives can and do mirror the lives of the people they’re protesting with and for, the people they’re supporting.

It’s not possible, of course, for players to speak out on every single issue, every single day. I also don’t mean to imply that an athlete’s opinion is any better than yours or mine just because it comes from an athlete. But athletes have a large platform and are capable of reaching a lot more people, generally speaking, than we are. When they feel the need to speak up, they should speak up.

When politics and sports collide–in ways beyond their already conjoined nature–athletes should feel free to speak up just as fans do. They should not shut up and play.

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