The Battle To “Save” Baseball

How many of you have ever been in a fight with someone? I am not limiting the answer to this to a question strictly about physical altercations. This isn’t the same thing as have you ever taken a punch? It could have been argument with a friend, teacher, co-worker, loved one or even stranger. I am pretty sure we have all been there. As the exchange intensifies, we begin to feel our body “tense up”, our eyes may water, our fists may clench, some of us actually take a defensive stance and our mind starts to race, sometimes out of control. During any circumstance such as this it is hard for many of us to keep our cool and make valid and pointed assertions. Our thoughts and ideas become more about how to “win”, rather than convincing the other person based upon our original logic. This is about being right. This is about making everyone else involved agree with us or even better yet, admit that they are wrong.

Now imagine you are merely a spectator to the intense struggle of wills; with no ability to influence the outcome of the debate one way or another. No-one wants to hear what you have to say, even if it will settle the argument in favor of one side, gives someone an out without admitting they are wrong or allows for a compromise to be made that would be beneficial to all parties involved. This is how I currently feel about the battle that is going on involving Major League Baseball, the MLPA and advocates for Minor League Players, with the MiLB players being in the crowd along with all of us.

Thus far some agreements have been reached. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association come to understanding on a deal pertaining to issues including service time, pay, and the amateur draft. As it stands now, players would get credited for a full year of service time for games played in 2020 and every player on an active roster will get service time whether or not there is a 2020 season. That means players; including many of the high profile free will become free agents heading into the 2021 season; including Keone Kela. If there is a season, pay will be prorated. Players will also not receive any penalties through arbitration for lesser stats in a shortened season. The MLB has to and is advancing the players $170 million for pay in April and May. In the event there is no season, the players will not be asked to return that money. Also as part of the agreement the MLB is given the right to shorten the 2020 draft to five rounds and can delay the start of the international signing period to as late as January 2021. The 2021 draft can be shortened to 20 rounds, and the 2021-22 international signing period can be pushed to anytime between January and December 2022. Finally a transaction freeze was be put into place for all MLB players. The two sides have the ability to lift this at an agreed upon time in the future, which has yet to be determined.

Anthony “Tony The Tiger” Clark is a former 1st Baseman and current Executive Director for the MLBPA.

This is a lot of information to unpack, but for the Pirates it only means a few things. Major League Players will receive a payment for their services in April and May, despite participating in no meaningful games, if you are on the active roster you accumulate a year of service time no matter if there are zero or 100 games played, someone that was supposed to a free agent at the end of the season will automatically be granted this status. So the Pirates have to pay Major League Players, they lose a year of service time/control on many players, Keone Kela could be gone at the end of the year without any ability to acquire anything for him and none of the players GM Ben Cherington acquired on 1 year deals can be “flipped” at the trade deadline.

Following this deal, Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball changed their focus and decided to address the payment of Minor League Players, who realistically have minimal representation other than a few outspoken advocates. Manfred informed minor league ball clubs and its players on March 31st that the season was currently suspended, but agreed to pay minor leaguers $400 per week through May. The $400 wage is a serious paycut for minor league veterans. many who expected to earn more than $10,000 a month at the Triple-A level. It will be a raise for minor league players in the lower levels. Minor leaguers will also continue to receive medical benefits, but they are not eligible for unemployment because they still under contract with their respective ball clubs.

Ok, it’s something, but is it enough? That’s the rub. For some it may be adequate; especially if they received a significant bonus when they signed with their parent club. For others it may not even be enough to pay the rent in their team’s hometown, where they were planning on beginning the season. Also the previous agreement between Rob and Tony could have future consequences, not only players that have yet to be drafted, but also the organizations and communities of a specifically listed 42 teams. If there are say 5 to 10 (the highest number I have seen discussed) rounds in this years MLB Amateur Draft and 20 in next years, that is a significant drop in the number of players entering the minor leagues during the next two years. This falls right in line with Manfred’s plan to dissolve 42 minor league teams and gives him an out because he would only be reacting to address some of the unfortunate consequences of COVID-19. Thanks Rob! Your such a compassionate fellow; a martyr if you will!

The Bristol Pirates are one of the 42 teams on Rob Manfred’s chopping block.

So how does this affect the Pirates? Right now it doesn’t. They are paying some AAA and AA players less than they would have during a regular season, while paying some A and Rookie Level players more. As I see it, this is a proverbial push for the Pittsburgh Pirates Front Office and Bob Nutting. In general it is win for the minor league players. They are actually getting paid something and they actually have jobs. The devil’s advocate perspective would be that since they are still employed, they cannot collect unemployment; which could potentially pay them more. As a player I am not sure which set of circumstances would be better and would have to examine each on a case to case basis. Although based on the statements from some of the minor league players that have been release by their teams I would have to believe they would rather have jobs. As of April 1st the Pirates have not released any of their minor league players, but ones on other teams have not been as lucky. The Cubs, Cardinals, Angels, Tiger, A’s, Giants and others went on mass dumping sprees of minor league players in the days surrounding the announcement.

In my Twitter conversation with J.J. Cooper (link below) he reported that last year between March 23rd and March 29th there were 301 MiLB players released and this year there were only 159 total between March 1st and April 1st. I understand the sentiment and the idea behind this, but this isn’t a normal season with a normal set of events and timelines. No one is operating in the same way because Rob Manfred and the MLB have not laid out any specific guidelines. I am not saying that they should because I am not sure that it would help, but then at least everyone would be doing the same thing and no one would be made to look like jerks for operating like every thing is status quo.

https://twitter.com/jjcoop36/status/1245760175623016448?s=21

I fully understand that this was not expected and none of this is an easy task. However, there is a right and a wrong way of doing business. As of right now there have been a lot of positives to come out of this unfortunate situation, but there have also been some negatives. It has not been life and death by any means; this is a sport after all. I just want everyone to remember that for some, this is their lively hood. This is how they support themselves and sometimes their families. This should be a time of togetherness in the figurative sense; where no one is left behind if it can be helped and no one feels like they are alone.

The Cost Curve is One That Won’t Be Lowered

The price we as a country and for that matter the world will pay as a result of COVID-19 will be heavy. The most obvious being loss of life, no matter how well it is ultimately contained the toll will be too great. Economically much of the world will be crippled, potentially for years to come.

Today, I’d like to discuss the impact this shutdown could have on the players we spend so much time rooting and following as they play the games we love. If you just see them all as overpaid, maybe stop reading, I’ll do nothing to convince you to care.

A typical career for one of us citizens will span 40-50 years. We’ll toil away building our reputation, skill set and hopefully paychecks as we travel that path. Every decision you make and risk you take either moves you forward or keeps you where you are. The growth is usually fairly steady and if everything goes right you retire comfortably to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Small businesses take a leap at the beginning. Choosing to work for themselves many will never do more than support their own family and a few employees for the duration of their career. An event like this is something they can ill afford. Despite popular belief, many of these folks aren’t driving Mercedes and lighting cigars with 100-dollar bills. That said, this too is a venture that can easily span a lifetime.

Baseball players suffer the same perception in many ways, people see them as millionaires who don’t deserve our concern. The average baseball career will last 5.6 years as of the latest figures and while I realize your favorite player will probably be in the league a whole lot longer than that, reality is there are far more who play closer to this number.

Yes, the average MLB salary is around 4.1 million. Over the course of a career, that’s a nice chunk of money and spent wisely they should find a way to be set for life. Take into account the debt incurred simply trying to make it to the show and it gets a bit murkier. Now imagine your average career, witch at most gives you one contract year beyond the rookie contracts and arbitration years.

Something like this is unprecedented and will affect us all in different ways. To the typical 40-50-year career person, this will be little more than a weird blip they look back on in a long life’s work. Even if you’ve been laid off, chances are when all this clears up you resume your career either were you were or a new opportunity.

For many small businesses, unless someone does something to pay their rent or mortgage, secure loans, or recover monies lost from inventory that went bad they will shutter forever. Some of these hearty entrepreneurs will surely hurt at the loss of what they’ve built, but many who are young enough to start again will do exactly that. Others will have to face the possibility of working for someone else after a lifetime of building the life they wanted to live.

Now take that 40-50-year span and condense it into 5 or 6 years. That’s how long you have to make your money, build your reputation and your brand. Chop a year out of that timeline and you can see just how crippling that could be.

Financially, of course, but it’s bigger than that for some players. Those who signed the one year “bet on yourself” contracts, will have to do it again, now two years removed from the last time they did anything productive on the field. Others will miss the opportunity all together. The agreement struck to ensure service time will cause a chain reaction of decisions to be made.

I don’t write all this so that you feel bad for baseball players or to say the game is more valuable that human life. I’m simply saying “we’re all in this together” should mean more than a cool frame on your Facebook profile picture.

When events like this happen, we need to remember everyone. While we miss the game, its somehow far more than that to those who play it as a profession.

Stay safe out there everyone.

Watching It Grow: The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates

“The Freak Show” as they affectionately came to be known thanks to Pirates long time announcer, Greg Brown, have been the inspiration for a few segments on AT&T Sports Net (as well as the past incarnations of the same network), promotions at PNC Park and multiple articles over the past 20 plus years. Our own Gary Morgan even wrote about them at the previous publication we “worked” at together. They hold a very special place in Pittsburgh Pirates folklore, as well as in the hearts of many Pirates Fans that had the opportunity to see them play first hand. They were a ragtag bunch of baseball players with no expectations placed on them, mostly due to $9 million dollar payroll that was invested in their creation. The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates hold a special place in my fandom not only for what went only inside the friendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium, but also for what was going on in the life of a young man from Apollo, Pennsylvania.

As the 1997 season started I was finishing up my senior year at Apollo-Ridge High School, with plans to been college at Mercyhurst in the fall. I had a part time job at McDonald’s, spent most of my time at one of the local restaurants (Patrick’s Pub or the Mosey Inn) with my friends, midnight bowling at Lee’s Lanes on a Saturday Night or at the Country Club on Sunday’s. During the previous summer mine and my friend’s parents had also started to let us venture the hour long drive to Three River’s Stadium to let us what Our Buccos play, mostly because they pretty much knew when they could expect us to get home; even though we often tried to push the limits by stopping at Smartie Arties in Holiday Park for some wings on the way back from the game. This summer would be no different, except for the fact that we may have attempted to force our parents expectations even further beyond their boundaries due to a sense freedom on the horizon as we all looked forward to the future.

Along with the new sense of freedom we had instilled in ourselves, the Pirates were also going through some changes of their own. Gone was the Pirates Manager of 10 years, Jim Leyland. In his place stood a familiar face in the form of Pirates former 3rd Base Coach Gene Lamont, who himself had returned to the team from the a stint as the Chicago White Sox Manager during the previous year. Kevin McClatchy started to become a more familiar name to a Pirates Fans, after having purchased the team during the previous off-season in February of 1996. After his first full season as owner of the team, he took it upon himself to slash the team’s payroll from an already near league low of $21 Million in 1996 to the ridiculously low, previously mentioned, $9 Million payroll in 1997.

New Pirates Manager Gene Lamont is brought in to try to fill the shoes of the Legend Jim Leyland.

Some familiar faces remained, like Outfielder Al Martin and Pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Jon Lieber remainder and one returned; 1st Baseman Kevin Young after a year with the Kansas City Royals. The rest of the team was made up of cheap veterans and many young faces; including a 23 year old Jason Kendall and a September call-up 3 of the previous 4 years, Tony Womack. No one could have predicted what the season would hold for this team, not even the players in the Pirates clubhouse. I, myself, was just happy to have the freedom to go to see a ballgame as an “adult” and and was so wrapped in the social calendar of a recent high school graduate that it was probably about a month or so into the season before I even realized what was going on.

The first game I attended that year was a 10 inning thriller against the Marlins on Sunday in May. Midre Cummings brought the raucous crowd to their feet with a two run home run in the bottom of the 9th to take the game to extra innings, only to have our hopes dashed in the top of the tenth as the Marlins scored two runs. You know who scored the go ahead run? Marlins third baseman, Bobby Bonilla. It would be almost two full months before would attend another game because of work and graduation parties, but I still kept up with the team through radio broadcasts, my subscription to the Sporting News and games whenever they were broadcast.

My next game was a pretty infamous one; you guessed it, the 10-0 loss to the Houston Astros on Friday July 11th. The next day was one for the history and record books but unfortunately I had to work that night and didn’t even find out what had happened until later on the next day when I went to my Grandparents house and picked up the sports section of the Valley News Dispatch. The Pittsburgh Pirates Pitchers, Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon, had combined for 10 inning no-hitter, the 8th of its kind and tied for the longest combined no-hitter in history. That day I watched the game on television with my Grandparents and the Buccos won again, giving them a 1 game lead in the NL Central over the Astros.

Toward the beginning and especially in the middle of August many of my friends began to head of to college, leaving only a few of us at home, waiting for it to be our turn. On Wednesday August 20th I went to my last game with one of my high school friends before he left for school that weekend. The Pirates won 7-3 over the Padres and moved back to .500 at 63-63. Honestly I don’t remember much more about the game other than the fact that Jason Schmidt almost went the distance. I was more focused on the “end of an era” and the trip to Smartie Artie’s on the way home.

Jason Schmidt went 10-9 for the Pirates in 1997, including 2 complete games.

Over the next two weeks I went to four games by myself, including a rare Monday double header against the Dodgers; the second game ended in a walk off home run by Mark Smith in the bottom of the 9th, right after Joe Randa has tied the game with a two run home run the batter before. I wish I would have made that my last game, it would have been a great way to physically walk away from that season and into life as a college freshman. Unfortunately I went to a disappointing 7-3 loss to the Indians a little over a week later and only three days before I left home.

The day that I arrived on the campus at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA, the Pirates moved within 2.5 games of the Houston Astros. It was the closest they would get to the NL Central Title for the rest of the season. However, it was a sense of pride amongst all of us from the Pittsburgh area as our team was relevant with so many other baseball fans from different areas. And even though we finished 5 games back and 4 games under .500 some three weeks later, it brought me closer to some of the people I met, gave me a little bit of normalcy during a time of such change and attached me to my “hometown” when I was away from home for the first time in my life. I am eternally grateful to the boys from “The Freak Show”, my 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Friday Focus – So, What Ever Happened to the Cheating Investigation in Boston?

Well, in a nutshell, it’s over. Rob Manfred blurted to ESPN that the investigation is over into the Boston Red Sox use of electronics to cheat and that he has not had time to write the report due to all the events surrounding COVID-19.

That’s it, no hints given of the findings, no timeline for when the report would be put together short of “by the time we play baseball”. I can certainly understand this and many other things taking a back seat to the situation at hand, but if the Sox were engaged in anything close to what Houston was, it better not be buried.

There are several executives and players who will wear a permanent stain at the very least, and I truly doubt the executives will find employment in the game anywhere. Stiff penalties were leveed on the Astros and just because the news cycle has shifted from cheating to when the hell are we going to play is no reason for favoritism.

Maybe this all comes down to time and place and Mr. Manfred simply doesn’t want to get into it at this time. That’s fair honestly, and I could understand if that happens to be the motivation for not publicly stating the outcome. As it stands, I have to assume the findings were rather benign or he’d almost have to come out with it for fear of looking like he sat on it.

If that’s the case, why not deliver some good news by clearing one of the most prominent clubs in MLB? The stench of this scandal has been overshadowed, rightly, by the crisis we face as a country, but there will be a return to normalcy at some point and when we do, I’d hope the answers show that the investigation was as thorough as it was in Houston.

Or are we simply accepting that this sort of thing was more widespread than any of us wanted to see previously? Let’s say the findings in Houston had tentacles that led to Boston and New York, perhaps beyond. Does it behoove MLB to stop it in its tracks? In other words, is it best to pretend Houston is the only cheater, put our heads in the sand and claim “We Got ‘em!”

 I’ll be honest, that’s my first thought. When the news started breaking about the widespread cheating the Astros pulled off, I immediately started wondering how far this would go. When executives were pinged, I thought it has to stop here for better or worse. If not the punishment in Houston is far too severe. Essentially, they would be paying because they did it better than the competition and won.

Otherwise you end up with a league full of front offices that resemble fields of land mines. Much like Steroids where some players were outed, most were left with a passed test and the problem was all but considered eradicated.

If you can’t fathom accepting that some cheating will always play a role in sports, you might want to stop watching. It stretches back as far as competition and cheating is in the eye of the beholder. Let’s look at Sammy Sosa, here is a guy who never tested positive for steroids, but c’mon. Does anyone ever talk about the time his bat exploded and it was filled with cork? We have real evidence of one cheat, but it wasn’t the hot topic, steroids were. In other words, MLB didn’t want to have that fight, they were more than engaged in the other already. I wonder if this is the same situation with different circumstances. Time will tell, but the questions shouldn’t disappear just because we want them to.

Condensed Schedule Will Likely Mean More Pitchers on Every Roster

One of the myriad options for starting a season in MLB would cause a condensed schedule with built in double headers and far fewer off days. To combat the effects of moving forward with such a schedule one of the proposals, and it should be obvious, more pitchers would be needed. Now, for some clubs this could help them avoid a few tough decisions, for the Pirates they might be tough for a whole other reason.

The Bucs have options, as do all teams, part of what goes into the decision would assuredly be just how many pitchers you think you have. We have no real vision of a proposed schedule but if we assume at least 1 double header and sometimes 2 in a given week, a club would like to have 6 or 7 Starting pitchers.

Do the Bucs have 6 or 7? Surely, Archer, Musgrove, Williams, Brault, Keller, Holland, Ponce, Brubaker, Stratton and we could go on. Now, how many of those would you want to trot out there every fifth game? The first 5 are pretty easy, Archer, Musgrove, Williams, Keller, Brault/Holland.

I think if I’m the Pirates I go with 6 starters and keep utility stretch man Cody Ponce in Pittsburgh. Ponce would do well starting bullpen only games and may even work his way into the rotation should any of the six falter.

In many ways, this keeps the Pirates from having to answer a few tough questions, at least for now. Holland or Brault to the bullpen was going to come up and if this concept does come to pass, they will now be able to keep them both stretched out and in the rotation. It could also give them the ability to finally at long last keep opposing lineups at least a little less comfortable. Setting up the rotation to not allow the opposition lineups to get settled in by alternating lefty’s and righty’s, something like this; Musgrove, Holland, Archer, Brault, Keller and Williams.

All those options and the Bucs again would find themselves an injury or two from a very bad place. Chad Kuhl deserves to be mentioned as an option but man its so hard to ask a guy recovering from TJ and had it stunted, to go out there and start. Maybe he does, perhaps he is one of the six and the Bucs do have to answer the Holland/Brault question.

No matter what, nobody would head into the year feeling super optimistic about the 1-5 starters, its hard to imagine 1-7 would make you feel more confident. The one thing the Pirates might have over some competitors however, we always here they don’t have any number ones, instead a bunch of 4s and 5s. That very fact might actually serve them well, because they have A LOT of them. Some of the competition will have three very strong starters and a fairly weak 4 and 5.

Let’s look at the Cards because we all know they’re our dream for running an organization. Flaherty, Hudson, Mikolas OK, now that’s solid. That 1-3 is the envy of most teams outside LA. Then we head to Wainwright, would I take him as a 4 or 5 on my team? Honestly, no, I was shocked they brought him back last season. Ponce de Leon has promise, Kim is a wildcard, Martinez is either a starter or a closer and as of now they haven’t decided. Now that’s 7, if you want 8 you go Gomber. Even with a delay Mikolas could start on the IL.

In a five-man rotation, those top three can carry a team to great heights, in a six- or seven-man rotation you could very well lose the impact of your best tossing the majority of starts. This could allow a team with lesser top end talent to even the playing field a bit by trotting a more overall competent rotation in totality.

So, there it is, clear as mud huh? What I can say is on the surface it doesn’t look great, but if you look a little deeper, it could actually help the Pirates compete.

Through The Prospect Port Hole: Shendrik Apostel

Merriam-Webster’s defines a freak of nature as a person or thing that is very unusual or abnormal. In many situations this could potentially be seen as a negative, except when it comes to sports. In the sports world a freak of nature or athletic freak has attention showered on them, is celebrated at times and is often put on a higher plane. These types of athletes are known for either their size, strength, abilities or feats that can be performed with what seems to be limited effort. One such person that fits this criteria exists within the Pittsburgh Pirates Farm System and has gotten little to no attention, in spite of his 6’5” 245 pound frame. I should also mention that this young man is only 19 years old.

Shendrik Apostel was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates as an international free agent for $80,000 in July of 2017 out of Willemstad, Curaçao. His older brother Sherten had been signed by the Pirates two years earlier and given a $200,000 signing bonus to play third base. He is likely the more famous Apostel brother due to the fact that he was the Player To Be Named Later in the trade with the Rangers that brought Keone Kela to Pittsburgh in August of 2018. Earlier that year the younger Apostel, Shendrik, had made his debut for the DSL Pirates 1. The raw power that he possessed was on display from the beginning of his professional career has he smashed 6 home runs and 12 doubles, while compiling a .825 OPS and a .221 ISO in 41 games. The downside of this type of output was shown by a lack of plate discipline at times as evidenced by a 29.1% Strike Out Rate. He did balance it all out with an above average OBP of .354.

Apostel showing off his power in 2018.

At the start of 2019, the DSL Pirates first baseman was looking to build upon an impressive debut season, but was limited to just 27 games. No concrete reason(s) given for this shortened season; the whispers that have been heard all point to Apostel’s conditioning as a question mark. In 14 less games than the previous year he was able to hit 5 home runs, only one less than 2018. He also maintained an .800 plus OPS, landing at .872; mostly because of an increased OBP of .421. The big differences between years were his Strike Out Rate, which dropped significantly from 29.1% to 16.8% and his Walk Rate that rose from 10.8% to 19.6%. For a power hitter these are actually some pretty impressive and unexpected improvements; especially since his average barely changed at all, going from .250 to .256.

Going into this season the mostly likely prediction would have been Apostel starting the year with a promotion to the Bristol Pirates (Pittsburgh’s Advanced Rookie Level Affiliate) of the Appalachian League, following the same steps his older brother took two years earlier. However, with the season currently being delayed it is difficult to say what will happen with Apostel or any of the other Pirates Prospects for that matter. This alone won’t stop me from have an opinion though. Due to him turning 20 years old in less than a month I would almost want to see Apostel start the year with the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Pittsburgh’s Low A Affliate) of the South Atlantic League with the possibility of earning a mid-season promotion, if he continues to maintain his power and OBP from 2019.

Baseball is Shut Down, But Some Are Still Playing Games

Years ago, a local band, Rusted Root, put out a song called “Virtual Reality” and now I think someone in that band might be Nostradamus.

The country is essentially on lock down and with that we are stretching the definition of the word normal. I remember not even two months ago reading a full-blown argument about calling e-sports players athletes. Today, they at least provide a level of competition so sorely missed by the elimination of sports.

Some like our very own Craig Toth have taken a lighthearted approach to game simulation, in other words he’s simulating the games but not treating it like real life. Some have decided to write full game columns about the pseudo action they are generating, and to be kind, its beneath them. Times are tough.

Many are using and playing MLB The Show 2020, and others are using old school games like Strat-o-matic, the original fantasy baseball game.

Everyone has a different way of dealing with the element missing in their lives. Sports have played an underappreciated role in the lives of many. Just yesterday in my own life, my wife asked me to play a game of The Show so she could pretend she was watching baseball. Just to make it real Richard Rodriguez gave up a game tying homer in the eighth inning.

I actually saw the comments under one of these serious columns about fake baseball excoriating Bob Nutting for his virtual payroll. Hey, Nutting bashing IS baseball for some.

Everything is on the table and anything that makes you feel normal should be valued right now. Looking to the past has worked well, as networks have started re-airing games, we all hold dear. Last night the rebroadcast of the 1960 World Series winning game was on and for some it was a bright remembrance from their youth while for others it was an illustration of the memories passed down from our elders. The only thing missing is the pain of defeat, or the possibility thereof.

If you want to feel defeated, try to score some toilet paper at the grocery store next time you mask up and head out because I don’t see rebroadcasts of the most painful losses headed our way.

We should all take this time to realize what a huge part of our lives sports have been. Maybe for some of us, we’ll realize how much time we’ve used on fantasy sports and when we come out of it, we will scale back a bit. Some will perhaps come to the realization that they have taken sports for granted and will appreciate a “meaningless” game in April next year.

Do what you need to do to get through this, but I’ll tell you what I personally have learned. I just am not a fan who is interested in watching most old games. When I know the result, I struggle to focus on the game. I’ve probably given too much of my time to fantasy sports and in a way its refreshing to not have to deal with it. My wife has always liberally allowed me to monopolize the TV, especially this time of year, to watch as many sports as I like, she needed that mental break from my attention I believe.

Living in virtual reality should teach us some things, most important being that virtual is not equal to real, but it’s the best we have right now.

If MLB Plays Without Fans – Would it Ruin Your Experience?

Right this second, the height of boredom and profound need for something to distract from the unknown, most would jump at the chance to watch baseball again, with or without fans.

That eventuality is certainly on the table, players and owners both agree the possibility of playing games in empty parks or even neutral site competition could be part of the return to play. So, how would that sit with you? Not just the first game, I can already see the glut of people, even those who wouldn’t have called themselves a baseball fan, posting all over social media making hot dogs and nachos in isolation waiting for the competition to start.

As this virus moves on or around through the country, seeing a day where all restrictions are lifted to the country at large seems optimistic, but there is much money to be made and too many incentives to return to some form of play to pretend there won’t be a push to make it happen.

That said, I’m not here to argue about whether it will or won’t be back in 2020. I’m more interested in how we, the fans, feel about everything starting up without us. As I stated up there, the first games would be roundly applauded and I’d guess record ratings could also be expected.

As the game played out, the lack of cheers would become more apparent than at the beginning. See we have some frame of reference here for what it would look like and worse, sound like. Baltimore a few years back blocked fans from attending home games during riots that enveloped the city. It was surreal but you also knew it wasn’t the new normal. You knew this would end, not the issue that set the city off, but the lack of fans at games.

We’ve also seen it play out in Miami, and PNC to name a couple. There were some games just last season that could easily convince you on tape that social distancing was a thing in August 2019 here in Pittsburgh. It shouldn’t really alter a damn thing on the field, let’s face it, we didn’t make Cueto drop that ball, but somehow it does feel that way. Energy is real, feeding off it is real. It’s the same reason Playstation and XBox make the controllers vibrate in pressure situations or times of intensity in gameplay, it ratchets up your attention to detail, your sense of the moment.

Another fallacy might get exposed too. The one that pretends attendance is directly related to payroll. Maybe we’ll find out we agree with the umps a lot more when we can’t read the crowd reaction to every call. Maybe we’ll find that long term it doesn’t even feel like sports anymore.

2020, you have been one weird ride thus far.

The Seed is Planted: The 1985 Pittsburgh Pirates

Children are a finicky lot of characters to say the least. Their favorite foods change week to week, day to day and most times minute to minute, their favorite televisions ebb and flow along with the latest trends and they thrive off of instant gratification, as well as information at their fingertips. As a child I was not much different, except for the information at my fingertips; it was the mid-80’s after all. I ate pretty much nothing, but peanut butter sandwiches and LIFE cereal, my obsessions went back and forth between Transformers, G.I. Joe and Thundercats and all I wanted was Pepsi from a glass bottle or a Klondike bar as a reward for not fighting with my older sister that day or behaving at the grocery store.

As it is with most almost 6 year olds I wasn’t a very good sport, as in I didn’t want to lose any game that I played; which meant a lot less rewards for not fighting with my sister. I also wanted whatever team I was cheering for to win as well. A few months before the 1985 Major League Baseball season, my childhood heart took a pretty big hit when hometown hero, Dan Marino, was unable to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh; in the figurative sense of course. I surely didn’t want something like this to happen again when starting to cheer for a baseball team. How would I make such a tough decision? What baseball team would I put my heart behind?

Other kids my age might have had a simpler way of deciding. Maybe they would start to get behind the team represented on their T-Ball, Minor or Little League uniform. This was impossible for me as my T-Ball League chose to dawn the names of National Football League teams on their uniforms. My sister and I played for the Raiders, so that obviously wasn’t going to help me at all. In a previous article I wrote about my Grandma Caramellino’s love of the Pittsburgh Pirates and my Pap Caramellino’s love of baseball. Why not give the hometown team an opportunity; especially since their was still some luster left from the 1979 We Are Family World Series Champion Pirates. I would soon feel a 6 year old sense of regret and defeat, but not before the 1985 Pittsburgh Pirates had their hooks firmly entrenched in my young heart.

My Dad’s name is William, but everyone has always called him Bill. That year the Pirates had two Bills on their roster; the aging veteran, superstar Bill Madlock, and a journeyman utility player named Bill Almon. Did I mention that a child’s mind is also illogical and it makes connections using the silliest or simplistic reasons? Well it is and it does. These automatically became my two favorite players. Kent Tekulve was quickly added as a third due to the fact that he wore glasses that looked like my Dad’s and I thought the Submarine Pitch looked super cool. I even tried to start throwing like him. A fourth member joined the crew after I saw the name R.J. Reynolds on a pack of my Grandma Toth’s Winston cigarettes. I thought he and the Pirates part time Left Fielder were one in the same for longer than I care to admit.

As the 1985 season started I had such hope for my “new” favorite baseball team. I hadn’t looked at their record from the previous year; it was 75-87 by the way. It really wouldn’t have done me much good to look at because I am not sure if I would have known what it meant anyway. That hope was quickly squashed as the Chuck Tanner led Pittsburgh Pirates dropped the first two games of the year to the Cubs and seven of their first ten games. The Pirates did not have a winning record at any point during the entire season and finished the year 43.5 games behind the first place St. Louis Cardinals, with a record of 57-104. To tell you truth I didn’t care. Madlock hit 10 Home Runs, Almon hit 6, Reynolds batter .308 in a very small sample size and I got an autographed Kent Tekulve card. Also a player named Bob Walk started 9 games that year and had a mustache like my Dad’s. I was vey impressionable and easily excited. What can I say, I was 6 by the end of the season.

This team, no matter how bad, is stuck in my psyche forever. It was the first team I invested myself in, that I cheered for and that I have regular memories about listening to, watching on TV and attending my first game to see at Three Rivers Stadium to see play. This terrible team, record wise, holds a special place in my heart and they always will.

Top Ten Reasons Comparing Players Across Eras is Sticky

I love lists about baseball. Comparing players and having light-hearted arguments with people defending their stance is incredibly fun. I never take it too seriously though because I refuse to compare beyond a surface level across eras. Here are my top ten reasons why.

10. The Ball Parks
While Wrigley and Fenway still stand most of the old ballparks have long since been replaced for better or worse. You need look no further than those two in order to see how quirky these playing fields were. The Astros’ Minute Maid park is a modern example of these quirks from today. Each one lends advantages and disadvantages; each one offers something a home player an opportunity to embrace and turn into their version of the friendly confines. Sometimes it can be more than the ballpark, and the location itself, like the swirling winds of old Candlestick and the altitude in Denver. No matter how you look at it, where all the players have practiced their craft is the most prevalent reason to not try to equalize the playing field.

9. Skills Have Changed
The simplest of these is possibly average fastball velocity. During the Babe Ruth era for instance the records are shady, but the average is 82-85. Yes, just like today there were exceptions like Walter Johnson who could hit 95, although again not modern radar technology. Today’s average fastball is at least 90, depending on who you believe. There is a real difference there and while I’m sure The Babe could adjust, but who knows how much.

8. Modern Athletes
This one is pretty easy to understand because we citizens have evolved ourselves. We’ve learned what we should eat to be healthy, not that we listen all the time, but so too have athletes. Gone are the days of smoking in the locker room and pitching through what surely could have been repaired with modern medicine. Now players are on nutrition plans and workout scheduled. Babe Ruth by the end had throat cancer and still went off in his last game in Pittsburgh. Who knows?

7. The Playing Surface
From clay, to crab grass and on to the concrete Astroturf of the dual-purpose stadiums. Eventually landing on the plush surfaces and manicured base paths of today baseball has changed multiple times. A simple ground ball on Astroturf was a rocket compared to the home team decision of how tall to make the infield turf. If anything, it shines a bit of light on just how damn good Ozzie Smith must have been to have patrolled short stop while on Astroturf for so much of his playing career.

6. Modern Pitching
In one thought, pitch counts. How can you possibly use complete games as a measurable when it’s all but been eliminated from the modern game? There was no closer, at least not in the modern sense. There certainly weren’t 7 pitching changes in a single contest. We also don’t value the win any longer. 200 wins used to be a prerequisite for entering the HOF, now it might get you a statue.

5. The Pitching Mound
After the season of 1968, often referred to as the year of the pitcher, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10. Immediately the offense rebounded, and the numbers forever are skewed. Can you imagine Gerrit Cole throwing heat from 15 inches? Fundamental changes like this always have effects that can’t be overlooked.

4. Our Racial and Continental Divides
I often hear the name Josh Gibson when discussions of “best ever” come up. His numbers certainly show that. Witness accounts sure say that. But because evolving on race took longer than it should have, we never got to see how he would handle major league pitching. I don’t say that to argue that pitchers in the Negro Leagues were inferior, in fact no Major Leaguer got to face any of them either. Latin players again weren’t involved and that is a multi-factored reason, race and the game started in America, took a bit to spread. Bottom line, it altered the direct competition of these players. None of that denigrates the greatness of players in that era, but it does make direct comparisons difficult.

3. Performance Enhancing Drugs
Believe it or not, Steroids aren’t the only option. Greenies were prevalent in the 70’s. Cocaine and LSD in the 60’s. Let’s just say this, we have no idea with any reasonable assurance who all took them. We have no idea in totality the actual effect. For instance, Bonds may have looked like one of the Space Jam Monsters by the time he retired but he still had to hit the ball. We’ll never know the exact cocktail Doc was using to throw that no-hitter.

2. Modern Medicine
This one mainly speaks to the longevity question. The medicine of today could have fixed Kirk Gibson’s knees, and fixed the pitching elbow of countless pitchers throughout baseball history. That’s it really, who knows how much longer some of the greats could have played.

1. Equipment Has Changed
This is obvious. Name something used to play the game of baseball and it’s changed. Gloves, hell they didn’t even have ‘em when the game started! Bats, many players used one for the better part of a season. No paint, no symmetry, no weight balancing, no composite materials, to make bats. How can you ever have an intelligent comparison of exit velocity?

Those are my top ten reasons comparing players across eras is sticky. Do you have any to add?