For baseball fans of a certain age, “This Week in Baseball” means one thing: Mel Allen’s voice over a week’s worth of MLB’s biggest headlines and best highlights. TWIB, as we knew it best, was an ’80s-era must-watch weekend television date with the show that introduced us to all the stars we never saw in a pre-Internet world.
Applied to present-day circumstances, however, the phrase takes on new meaning, reflecting a weird and volatile week for our national pastime. Sticky baseballs are out, but sticky situations are in. And they appear to be here to stay, at least until baseball finds a better solution (A new baseball? An acceptable mixture to improve a pitchers’ grip?) than turning umpires into de facto TSA agents doing security checks on the mound.
This week in baseball?
We had pitchers undressing, umpires investigating, managers instigating, and hitters salivating. With a midseason reset on a pitchers’ illegal use of grip-enhancing substances on the baseball, in which umpires actually began enforcing long-standing rules barring this particular form of cheating, baseball managed to make itself look ridiculous. Once again, with homage to the great thinker Benjamin Franklin, when you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Here’s hoping the long view tells a different story, and this past week will be remembered as nothing more than a few speed bumps while navigating an unfamiliar new road. But in real time, the scenes are indelible. Max Scherzer and Sergio Romo dropping their pants upon inspection for hidden stores of sticky stuff. Joe Girardi bolting out of the dugout ready to throw down with an angry Scherzer. Jacob deGrom grinning his way to dominance no matter who wants to look at his glove, hat or belt. Shohei Ohtani all but laughing too, confident his skills on the mound or in the batter’s box make him a winner either way.
This is not to knock baseball’s decision to enforce a rule that absolutely should be on the books. Yet while the wisdom of dealing with an issue of cheating is undeniable, baseball, as usual, has gone about it from back to front, reacting when they could have been so much more proactive. Just as they did with the steroid issue, they finally got serious about enforcement when it became painfully obvious they had no choice. This time, it’s been the pitchers routinely making hitters look silly rather than the other way around, a la the artificial explosions from Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. But the upshot feels eerily the same.
Baseball has to course correct, only this time they’re doing it midstream.
It took only two nights for the lack of foresight to explode into our living rooms, when Girardi charged out of the dugout to challenge Scherzer to throw down, a theater of the absurd moment that came after Scherzer nearly went full Monty (or full Steve Lyons?) after repeatedly being asked to prove his innocence. The first time was expected, the second manageable. Both of those came from an expected source: the umpires. But the third time, done at Girardi’s request? That sent Scherzer over the edge.
Who’s to say other managers won’t follow suit? Sure, they always could have. There are no rules barring managers from asking to have pitchers checked for doctoring baseballs. With the Sox and Yankees duking it out this weekend at Fenway, who can forget John Farrell having to call out Michael Pineda after ESPN cameras kept showing the black glob of substance on Pineda’s neck? That 2014 incident was too egregious for Farrell to honor the long-standing gentleman’s agreement for a sin every team knew it was committing too.
But now, managers can use the inspections as a new tool for disruption. You struck my guy out? Let me see that glove!
And if they do that, the pitchers who are doing the actual cheating can suddenly look for sympathy. The Rays’ Rich Hill called the in-game undressing “dehumanizing.” Meanwhile, Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo called Girardi a “con artist” who should be “embarrassed” for calling out Scherzer. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw had a good point that managers shouldn’t have free run of such requests, that limits similar to the NFL’s replay challenges might be a good idea, limits that also penalize managers for being wrong.
All of it amounts to a bad look for commissioner Rob Manfred, who in a one-on-one interview with The Athletic insisted the early returns had “gone very well.” Manfred will stand his ground that repeated warnings to players, managers, and owners this season told them of the crackdown if they didn’t start policing themselves. He points to last year’s pandemic-altered season as a reason for delaying the focus on a problem baseball knew was percolating to an untenable boiling point. He knows there is a labor war on the horizon, with the basic agreement expiring Dec. 1, and no one needs extra bad feelings heading into those complicated negotiations.
This is precisely why the NFL relies on its competition committee to deal with in-game issues in the offseason. Roger Goodell and Co. get plenty wrong, but that much they do right, and do well. Yes, in baseball, something had to be done. The last few years’ worth of statistics and analytics show just how much the scales had tipped toward the pitchers’ mound, with overall batting averages dropping, strikeouts rising, and home runs still leading the way as the best way to score a run.
As the New York Times pointed out, heading into Friday’s games, baseball’s overall batting average (.238) was the second lowest in history, and the strikeout rate (8.93 per team per game) was the highest. That’s not the baseball we grew up with, the game that Allen used to narrate in such a familiar way, the game built on making contact and building rallies, on working the count and swinging away.
For hitters, there’s a sense of ‘it’s about time.’ Time to interrupt the years-long slide into an all-or-nothing snoozefest of strikeouts or home runs, to change the conversations about spin rates and Spider Tack. If only baseball had done it sooner.