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MANFRED ASKED FOR IT: BASEBALL REDUCED TO CHIPPENDALES
In the latest reflection of MLB’s bumbling mismanagement, pitchers are unbuckling their pants — or dropping trou — in protest of between-innings searches for illegal substances
Baseball, you might say, often is caught with its pants down. So why would anyone be surprised that Rob Manfred, an ass-exposed commissioner as it is, would allow his sport to become a burlesque club? Unable to devise a sensible solution to the sticky problem of illegal foreign substances, he has ordered his umpires to all but strip-search pitchers on the field between innings.
Predictably, live Chippendales shows are breaking out in stadiums across America. Thongs and dollar bills haven’t been spotted yet, but give it time. In Philadelphia, Magic Max Scherzer was so livid about three such inspections — one demanded rather devilishly by Phillies manager Joe Girardi — that the Nationals ace unfastened his belt and dared the umps to examine his nether regions. In Texas, Studly Sergio Romo advanced the dirty deed, unzipping his A’s-issued uniform pants and yanking them down for exploration purposes.
This is family fun at the ballpark? What’s next, Bobblehead giveaways of butt-cracked players in jock straps? I keep waiting for a team to sign Ron Jeremy, but he’s in jail awaiting trial.
All of which serves Manfred right. In a leadership seat that has enabled scandal after scandal the last three decades, from collusion to steroids to tanking to electronic sign-stealing, we’re now seeing the naked truth unravel about goop as labor tensions escalate toward a December implosion. If the owners and their appointed puppet had legitimately prioritized integrity and wanted to stop pitchers from lathering balls, they could have enforced Rules 3.01 and 6.02(c) all along. If nothing else, their crackdown could have come last offseason, giving everyone time to adjust.
But the owners are conspiratorial S.O.B.s. They want hitters to be mad at pitchers — and pitchers to be mad at the world — so the unified power of the MLB Players Association erodes before the collective bargaining agreement expires. Once Manfred announced that rules enforcement would be ramped up, starting this week, hellbound chaos was inevitable. The only saving grace: For the first time in eons, baseball actually has entertainment value during these impromptu confrontations.
`”These are Manfred rules. Go ask him what he wants to do about this,’’ said Scherzer, a union activist who is well aware of the impending labor war.
The crisis centers around Scherzer and two other immensely-paid elite starters, Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. All are suspected of using illegal substances, including industrial-force Spider Tack, in gaining advantages that produced a historic rise in strikeouts and a deathly plunge in hits and action. Trying to justify years of self-inertia, Manfred went much too far in attempts to establish transparency, demanding that starting pitchers be inspected at least twice per outing and relievers at least once. These procedures not only further slow down games that continue to dawdle at an agonizingly record pace, but they rankle fans long tired of disruptions.
So when Girardi saw Scherzer repeatedly rub his pitching hand across his sweaty head, then replace his cap, aficionados didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the emerging drama. As is his right, the manager asked the umps to check Washington ace, who flipped his cap and glove to the ground and unfastened his pants in protest. He screamed at Girardi, who screamed back, and when Nationals manager Dave Martinez rushed onto the field, Girardi was ready for a piece of him, too, before he was ejected.
‘‘I've seen Max for a long time, since 2010," Girardi said. ‘‘Obviously, he's going to be a Hall of Famer. I've never seen him wipe his head like he was doing tonight, ever. It was suspicious for me. He did it four or five times. It was suspicious. I didn't mean to offend anyone. I’ve just got to do what's right for my club."
Oh, Girardi offended them. He napalmed them, actually, with Nats general manager Mike Rizzo calling him ‘‘a con artist’’ while also telling a D.C. radio station, ‘‘It's embarrassing for Girardi, it's embarrassing for the Phillies, it's embarrassing for baseball.’’ The core question is whether Girardi sensed Scherzer was gooping or using convenient gamesmanship to get inside his head. Said Rizzo: ‘‘It had nothing to do with substances. He had no probable cause to ask for it. The umps shouldn't have allowed it, but it happened and you have to deal with it. You think you're going to intimidate a Max Scherzer, it's just not going to happen. You're just going to piss him off and make him concentrate that much harder."
Girardi’s boss, Phillies president Dave Dombrowski, responded in kind. ‘‘That’s not Joe Girardi,” he said. ‘‘It’s totally improper for (Rizzo) to say that, in my opinion. I’ve known Joe Girardi for a long time. I’ve known Mike Rizzo for a long time. I’ve known Davey Martinez for a long time. I’ve known Max Scherzer for a long time. I have the utmost respect for all of them. Joe Girardi is the furthest from a con man of anybody that I know.”
Said Girardi: ‘‘Obviously, (Rizzo) is going to protect his club and is entitled to his own opinion, but so am I. That's the bottom line. That's America, right? You know what? People who know me, that's who I worry (about regarding) my character. I mean, I know Mike from friendly passing. He's always been nice to me. But Mike doesn't really know me. And I don't really know Mike. So I'm worried about what my family feels about my character.”
After earning the decision in a 3-2 victory, Scherzer insisted he wasn’t armed with the banned gunk — and decreased spin rates, his lowest since 2016, suggested he was innocent during his five-inning stint. He urged the sport to move on and play by the enforced no-substance rules. ‘‘I'd have to be an absolute fool to actually be using something tonight, when everybody's antenna is so far high," Scherzer said. ‘‘It is what it is. Whatever. Turn the page, move on. If everybody's on the same playing field, you've got to find a way to get over it. Everybody is dealing with this. When you're on the mound, you can't make any excuses."
But playing fair isn’t how ‘‘the clubhouse code’’ operates. Everyone knew hitters were juicing. Everyone knew the Houston Astros (and teams that weren’t caught) were illegally stealing signs. Everyone knew pitchers were slathering balls. Just because MLB finally conducted raids and made busts doesn’t mean the cheating has stopped. As the clouds of suspicion hover, managers will have umps routinely check pitchers for no other reason than, well, they can. Which will lead to more angry showdowns. Clayton Kershaw, the dean of modern-day pitching, thinks managers should be penalized if requested searches come up clean.
‘‘You better find something if you're going to call him out like that," he said. `’’Maybe there should be a punishment if a manager checks a guy and there (isn’t) something. You get going and in rhythm, and maybe you have a guy on base, have him check you — it throws you off, it's something that you're not used to. I think there should be some repercussions for managers doing that on a whim. Because if you call somebody out ... and you don't find anything, I think that looks pretty bad on the manager's part."
As for solutions, the pitchers have better ideas than the commissioner, the norm since Manfred took over for Bud (Lite) Selig in 2015. ‘‘Hopefully, the players across the league understand that what we're doing right now, this is not the answer," Scherzer said. ‘‘I understand that there's a problem with Spider Tack and we've got to get that out of the game. But I also think there's a way to handle this that's a better way.
‘‘Right now, we have monitoring in our clubhouses for (COVID-19) masks. I have articulated that one of my solutions is to have those monitors, instead of worrying about our masks, to be checking pitchers between innings."
Stop making sense, Magic Max. This is baseball.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.