Opening Day of the 2020 Major League Baseball season is almost here! Temperatures are (finally) starting to warm on a consistent basis. Spring Training is in full swing (pun fully intended) in Florida and Arizona. Today, as the players prep for the grind to October, we look at some beef I have with a certain MLB team (you might know the team already), some certain proposed rule changes and something I’ve liked in spring training thus far.
Welcome to March, my birthday month and the “Mad”ness up in here.
Corny puns aside, let’s start with the ugly first, and that is the Houston Astros. For a time now, the Astros’ cheating scandal dominated headline as MLB prepared for teams to report to their respective spring training facilities. To give a little bit of background to those who do not follow baseball, late last year, media reports surfaced about the Astros electronically stealing signs and relaying upcoming pitches to batters through methods such as trashcan banging during 2017 and 2018. You may recall the Astros won the 2017 World Series in seven games over the Los Angeles Dodgers. MLB launched an investigation. The punishment from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred? A $5 million fine and two years’ worth of first and second-round draft picks surrendered. Some were clamoring for the aforementioned title to be vindicated, but Manfred swiftly shot down any prospects of that. Some people think Manfred did enough; others not enough.
There’s been a good amount uncovered and still a lot we don’t know yet and may not know the full extent of for some time. We’re not going into the wrongdoings themselves, but rather the aftermath. On the first day of spring training, the Astros organization convened at their spring training facility in West Palm Beach and, led by owner Jim Crane, issued an apology for what happened. Or, depending on your opinion, lack thereof. In short, it was a debacle, further alienating the crowd of “well, maybe they feel remorseful about what happened and will show it.” It seemed more like a let’s not talk about this and move on-type deal. There’s plenty of clips online of last month’s press conference and you can judge for yourself whether or not the apology was meant, but here’s where things went awry. Crane speaks and says “Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game.” Moments later, when questioned by a reporter, Crane responds “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.” Umm ... you kind of did. Quite literally shortly before that question. Then, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve, two of the Astros’ mainstays in the starting lineup, speak for a grand total of about 90 seconds. Again, you can judge for yourself, but it felt, scripted, as if they were not actually sorry for their actions. And that’s where the problem really sets in. This is the biggest scandal to rock the baseball world since the steroid era, maybe the largest blemish since the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and you stand up in front of the world and deliver that? Talk about a huge swing-and-a-miss. Immediately, baseball players and fans voiced their disappointments. Here’s my biggest thing. It’s one thing to get caught, admit to doing something wrong and apologize sincerely for it. It’s another to basically gloss over the tremendous wrongdoings of an organization, issue a half-baked apology and then try to sweep it under the rug. It’s disingenuous and that’s where I have my beef. For all the kids growing up now, who idolize(d) the high-profile figures on the Houston Astros’ roster, what kind of message does this send them? Cheat and no major repercussions? The franchise clearly needs sweeping changes. As an MLB organization, they should hold themselves to higher standards. Perhaps something like accountability, which, apparently, the Astros don’t have at the present. Manfred was right about one thing, though. Despite what the team may say (or not) or do (or not), the baseball world will not let the Astros forget this anytime soon. Don’t be shocked if the boo birds follow the team when they leave Houston for road games.
Stepping off the top step of my soap box, MLB announced some perspective rule changes in the hopes of making baseball even more watchable and fan enjoyable. Keep the turnstiles turning and TV ratings up. But some rule changes in particular take my beef up to a higher grade. One of the proposed alterations to the postseason is expansion from five teams per league to seven, so 14 teams qualify for the playoffs. The format goes something like this: The top overall team in each league gets a bye to the divisional series. The two other division winners (second and third, overall) in each respective league would get to choose their wild-card opponent, then the two would square off in a best-of-three series with all games hosted by the division champ. The remaining two teams would then play each other, with the team possessing the best record hosting two of the three games (likely hosting game three if applicable) in another best-of-three series. We don’t need this. The playoffs were fine just the way they were.
First, the season is already 162 games. And that’s just the regular season. It’s already a wearing year on everyday position players. Second, more games do not necessarily equal more interest. From those fan bases and baseball diehards? Yes. Others? Hard to say. Third, why should teams be allowed to choose their opponents based on the belief “yeah, we can beat these guys in a series.” It’s not like I’m picking an opponent in a video game or something. Top seeded teams should play the lower seeded teams, regardless of opponent. And for those two other wild card teams not selected, they have to go play a three-game series, including making additional travel arrangements like late-night and possibly long flights, hotels, buses, etc. Say, for example, Philadelphia, New York Mets, San Francisco and Arizona were the wild-card teams in the NL. Then imagine Philly and Arizona being selected as opponents of the two division winners playing in the wild-card round. So the Mets and SF Giants would have to potentially travel cross country for game one on little rest, then turn around and fly back across the nation for game two? It’s almost an extension of the regular season with even more lengthy travel. Of course, there’s no guarantee it turns out that way, but still. Possibly 12-18 hours of travel for a three-game series in a few days? No. Just no. Unnecessary. It’s also worth noting this would continue to bleed over into fall sports starting up such as the NHL and the NBA. Not to mention the NFL in full swing. No other league has done this before, and, before the trailblazer/added excitement argument is made, let me say this. How many casual or no-dog-in-the-fight sports fans don’t love a Cinderella story? A wild card team, or really any lower seeded team, winning a game/series is one of the linchpin aspects that makes sports exciting. Take the Washington Nationals last year. Sure, Braves fans weren’t exactly thrilled, but the Nationals beat the NL No. 1 seed LA Dodgers in a best-of-five NLDS 3-2. They cruised through the Cardinals and defeated the Astros in seven games (in Houston) to win it all. Similarly, they don’t call it March Madness because Kansas, Gonzaga, Kentucky or insert-another-strong-basketball-school-here can pick to play whoever they want. They have to play whichever team they are assigned i.e. No. 1 Virginia had to face No. 16 University of Maryland-Baltimore County in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. For non-March Madness/basketball fans, Virginia did not win. The casual fans like underdogs. It makes for an interesting story. The MLB playoff format is already exciting as is. After 162 games, a two teams play in the wild-card game, followed by best-of-five in the divisional round, then best-of-seven in the league championship and Fall Classic.
Finally, the good, and we like that, don’t we. A recent edition in spring training has been players being mic’d up for games. On social media, you can see clips from various games of the athletes more personal side. You can hear them interacting with one another, as well as conducting dugout, on-field and even at-bat interviews. Why do this? For one, spring training is more of a relaxed atmosphere. It doesn’t contain all the pressures of a regular-season contest, plus it shows the human side of baseball players. The cynic might say, “Oh, they’re just multi-millionaires.” But listen to what they have to say. Recently, Freddie Freeman was mic’d up for a spring training game. Former teammate and world champion Chipper Jones was on the broadcast crew that day and Freeman said he didn’t wish to mess up with Jones watching. Just listening is sure to bring some laughs and smiles, as we realize the athletes are more than just skilled at a particular sport. They have some interesting stories to tell.
So there you have it. We are weeks away from the start of the 2020 MLB regular season. Which teams will make it to October? And who will stand alone atop the baseball world? A breath of fresh honesty is very much welcome.