Friday, August 14, 2020

Who Hit Manfred With the Smart Stick?

By Jeff Kallman

Mark well the date on your calendar. August 11, 2020. Until further notice, it will stand as Rob Manfred's finest hour.

Alex Cintron, the Houston Astros hitting coach who goaded Oakland Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano into charging the Astro dugout with an expletive Latinos consider grounds for justifiable homicide at most — suspended 20 games with no right to appeal.

Laureano, who'd been hit by Astro pitches three times last weekend and twice on Sunday, then had to put up with chirping from the Astro dugout after he pantomimed a slider grip following the second Sunday plunk — six games with a right to appeal. (And he should.)

Commissioner Nero using the brains he was born with for once — priceless.

USA Today's Bob Nightengale broke the news of Cintron first, Laureano immediately to follow, at about mid-day today. And while you can think that a player missing six games is a lot more critical than a coach missing 20, especially in a pandemic-truncated season that still seems more Alfred Hitchcockian than Billy Hitchcockian, Cintron hit with the heaviest hammer sends a huge message.

Several key Astros hitters aren't exactly running the table at the plate so far this year. Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, and George Springer are hitting at or below the Mendoza Line. Alex Bregman is hitting more like Alex P. Keaton. Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Correa, and Michael Brantley are hitting like themselves, more or less, but those three aren't always club carriers.

Wags, try to resist temptation to say you can't hit what you don't know in advance. But don't let Cintron off the hook. A team who needs their hitting coach to hit their reset buttons at the plate needs to lose that hitting coach about as much as Mike Trout needs to lose his batting eye.

With one moment of abject stupidity, Cintron cost the Astros badly-needed resetting. Twenty games in a 162-game season is 12% of a long season. Twenty games in a truncated, 60-game season is a full third of a season that's already been cast for an episode of The Outer Limits.

It's not that charging the Astro dugout after Cintron uncorked his insult was necessarily brilliant on Laureano's part, and Laureano knows it. But I'll say it again: A Latino especially who knows that the vulgar version of "maternal fornicator" is a pair of fighting words to most Latino men is saying something at least as stupid as a certain American president saying the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic ended World War II.

Hurling that insult at a Latino gets you pounded into hamburger at minimum. At maximum, it can get you a shot in the head, or any other portion of your body at which the gun might be aimed.

And what the hell did Cintron or the Astros expect Laureano to do when he'd been hit by a second pitch Sunday and a third all weekend long? Send flowers? Blow them to steak dinners with all the trimmings?

We're not exactly taking Commissioner Nero all the way off the hook just yet. His handling of the Astrogate scandal was a masterpiece of deferred accountability. He suspended a manager and general manager, fined an owner what amounts to tip money, and let every Astro player availing himself of the Astro Intelligence Agency's illegal electronic sign-stealing network off the hook in return for spilling the deets.

He had to know good and bloody well that the Astros versus the A's might have potential sub-stories, considering it was an A's pitcher (and former Astro), Mike Fiers, who finally got fed up at the absence of press interest, no matter how many reporters he and others in the know told, and blew the whistle to The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November.

You'd have to have been either a fool or a freshly-landed exile from the Klingon home world not to think that there was even a small chance that the Astros — who were only too notoriously un-apologetic about Astrogate this past aborted spring — might feel a little less remorse than repulsed that the A's still harbored the big snitch.

Even if the A's rotation setting meant Fiers wasn't going to face them on the weekend. Even if the Astros' pitching staff is injury-plagued enough that they lean as much on rookies such as the ones who did four-fifths of the weekend plunking. (Zack Greinke hit Robbie Grossman last Friday night.) Rookies aren't immune to persuasions from their elders that one good way to make the team's good graces is to send little messages in manners, however wrong or warped.

And, with everyone in baseball knowing that about seven-eighths of MLB players wanted if not demanded the proper Astrogate justice Manfred wouldn't administer, Commissioner Nero looked even more foolish suspending Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly eight games for sending message pitches to Bregman and Correa in the same inning.

Nobody disputes that throwing upside Bregman's head was dangerous stuff. But nobody with a mind disputes that Manfred's hammer on Kelly's head — which is still under appeal at this writing — looked even more arbitrarily punitive, with or without the truncated season, compared to the blanket amnesty he granted the Astrogaters.

He did likewise with the Boston Red Sox and their Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring, of course. And, just as the Astros' 2017 World Series title became tainted forever, so does the Red Sox's 2018 World Series title. (Managed by Astrogate co-mastermind Alex Cora, the '17 Astros' bench coach/spymater.)

But those who still think the Astros get an unfair greater volume of scorn should remember there was (and remains) a significant difference between the two. One more time: the Astros went a few dozen bridges farther with their Astro Intelligence Agency, either installing or altering a real-time camera to facilitate their underground sign-stealing television network.

The Rogue Sox merely used what was already made available, at home and on the road. Nobody supplied the replay rooms with multiple video monitors for cheating, of course, but those rooms amounted to handing teenage boys the keys to the hooch hutch and telling them to resist temptation until they were of legal age.

Our better angels would like to think Manfred figured a few things out after the Kelly hoopla. Not just because he soon got a hammer to drop on any future cheaters, but because the hoopla reminded him in his heart of hearts that he shouldn't have let the cheaters in Houston, in Boston, in the south Bronx (the Yankees were merely reprimanded for some 2017 chicanery), and perhaps elsewhere, off the hook anyway.

If our better angels are right, then for once Commissioner Nero put his fiddle down and behaved like an honest-to-God, genuine leader. For once.

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