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PLAYERS VS. OWNERS, HITTERS VS. PITCHERS ... AND TORTURED FANS
Just as the owners want it, MLB’s sticky-substance scandal has divided the player ranks as labor tensions rise, yet another reason for an abused fan base to seek a happier diversion — say, a DMV trip
The real ballgame never has been on the field, of course. It’s played up in the luxury suites, where the owners sit and and plot in perpetual mischief, calculating how to beat the Players Association. Sometimes, they slip and fantasize aloud about breaking the union, such as the day Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf — his club angling toward its first World Series title since the Black Sox threw one — declared he wanted to be a labor demon.
‘‘A hawk,’’ he said, with sinister intent.
Next thing you knew, that World Series was canceled. And baseball never has been the same in American life, allowing football to dash by as the new sporting passion while Michael Jordan and subsequent basketball showmen hijacked our imagination. A phony home-run spectacle was needed to generate interest, leading to a steroids scandal that bled into more inventive ways of cheating — from electronic sign-stealing to, now, the illegal sticky gunk used by pitchers to elevate spin rate and make batters miss with historic futility.
Here we are in 2021, then, on a dark road cluttered with potholes and weeds and empty Spider Tack jars and even a few trash cans from Houston, with baseball lurching toward another dead end. A warning should be sounded: This time, the broken-down jalopy might not be capable of a redemptive U-turn.
The players do not trust the owners. They have every reason not to. So it should come as no surprise, only five months before the collective bargaining agreement expires, that the familiar war games and Machiavellian scheming have begun. Nor should it come as a shock that the fans no longer are part of the equation, except as victims of collateral damage and witnesses to another labor minefield with no pleasant ending in sight. To watch what’s about to happen is masochism best avoided. A day at the DMV is happier, and anyone returning to a ballpark after the pandemic lockdown should do so only for beers, sunshine and Bobblehead giveaways.
With the furtive blessing of commissioner Rob Manfred, who claims to seek labor peace but too is out to poison the union, the owners aim to weaken the opposition by turning the players against each other. Which is why Manfred has waited, cunningly, for the doctored-balls fiasco to inevitably explode into the current hitters-vs.-pitchers death match that threatens to swallow union solidarity. As the owners share shit-eating-grin emojis on group texts — think I’m kidding? — Josh Donaldson has emerged as their enemy-camp saboteur. Two weeks ago, the veteran third baseman blew open the scandal in a Twitter exchange with former major-league pitcher Dallas Braden.
‘‘Crazy idea here,’’ wrote Donaldson, ‘’but I’m going to throw it out there. Stop cheating!!’’ Then, he posted the killer tweet: ‘‘I have an entire catalog of video of these guys cheating … it’s coming out.’’
When he followed up by mentioning how Gerrit Cole’s spin rate had dropped amid reports of a yet-to-be-announced MLB crackdown on the goo — the same Cole who signed a record $324-million deal with the Yankees, the same Cole who is member of the union’s executive subcommittee — well, the owners were ready to have a toga party. Here was a big name in the game, calling out the game’s most expensive pitcher and all other goo-abusers as perpetrators of ‘‘the next steroids-of-baseball ordeal.’’
‘‘I don’t regret it,’’ Donaldson said Wednesday. ‘‘When I say something, it’s been thought through beforehand; it’s not on a whim. I’ll say this: Gerrit Cole was the first guy to pitch since the (crackdown talk) happened, and he’s the first guy that you could see spin rates going down. There’s been 12 or more guys already whose spin rates have drastically dropped in the last week, so it’s not just Gerrit.
‘‘If you were to give $100 fake counterfeit money to an experienced bank teller, right away within five seconds you’re going to know that that’s not real money. Just think about how many pitches I’ve seen in my career, think about (Minnesota teammate) Nelson Cruz, a lot of these guys who have seen a lot of pitches. We know when stuff’s up.”
To which Cole responded with a damning six-second pause that defined, again, why baseball is the sport integrity has forgotten. Has he ever used Spider Tack, among the substances of choice? ‘‘I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest,” said the $324 Million Man, failing the polygraph test and trying to summon baseball’s spitball past. ‘‘There are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players, from the last generation of players to this generation of players, and I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard. This is important to a lot of people who love the game, including the players in this room, including fans, including teams. So if MLB wants to legislate some more stuff, that’s a conversation that we can have. Because ultimately, we should all be pulling in the same direction on this.”
There is a better chance of Alex Rodriguez getting back together with Jennifer Lopez than hitters and pitchers — men making multi-million-dollar livings — finding common ground on cheating and manipulation. Of Cole’s stammering act, Donaldson said, ‘‘Time is going to tell what happens. I’m not in his position, so I don’t have to wear whether I sleep at night.’’ This came after he basically referred to Cole as a cheater, saying the old unwritten rules about pitchers using substances as grip-enablers has elevated into something dirty as the sport endures an untimely, unwatchable, hit-challenged slog. Said Donaldson: ‘‘Hitters have never really cared about sunscreen, rosin and pine tar. We haven’t cared because it’s not a performance enhancement. What these guys are doing now are performance-enhancing, to where it is an actual superglue-type of ordeal, to where it’s not about command anymore. Now, it’s about who’s throwing the nastiest pitches, the more unhittable pitches.”
As fate would have it, the two faced each other Wednesday evening in Minneapolis. For what’s it worth, Cole struck out Donaldson twice, staring him down both times after throwing blazing fastballs and a curveball with a high spin rate. ‘‘Probably a bit of the moment,’’ Cole admitted after striking out nine and allowing two solo home runs in a 9-6 victory. Yet we all were left to ask: Was he lathering the ball with substances? And why didn’t he answer the Spider Tack question of the previous day?
‘‘I hesitated yesterday on the specificity of the question because I just don't think this is the forum to discuss those kinds of things," Cole said. ‘‘There's an appropriate time for players to discuss those things, and I'll keep it to that forum."
The appropriate time to discuss cheating is now, assuming public trust in baseball hasn’t been destroyed entirely by all the scandals. New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso redirected the blame finger at the owners, making a claim astounding even by the we’ve-heard-it-all standards of MLB warfare: He says Manfred and the owners are manipulating baseballs to lessen the earning power of major impending free agents. Before you dismiss this as absurd, consider the class of soon-to-be-available shortstops — Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez — who will demand market value after fellow position stars Fernando Tatis Jr. ($340 million) and Francisco Lindor ($341 million) hit their jackpots. Asked about Donaldson vs. Cole, Alonso reimagined the conspiracy.
‘‘I think the biggest concern is that Major League Baseball manipulates the baseballs year in and year out depending on the free agency class — or guys being in an advanced part of arbitration,” he said. ‘‘So I do think that’s a big issue — the ball being different every single year. Maybe if the league didn’t change the baseball, pitchers wouldn’t need to use as much sticky stuff.”
Quite a hot take there, Pete. ‘‘`That’s a fact,” Alonso said. ‘‘Guys have talked about it, but I mean, in 2019, there was a huge class of free agent pitchers, and then that’s, quote-unquote, the juiced balls. Then 2020, it was a strange year with the COVID season, but now that we’re back to playing like a regular season with a ton of shortstops or position players that are going to be paid a lot of money — high-caliber player — I mean, yeah, it’s not a coincidence.”
At this point, having observed the desperate machinations of owners through time, I’d believe about anything. Especially when MLB manufactures the baseballs, having purchased a sizable stake in Rawlings Sporting Goods Company Inc. for $395 million in 2018. As future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander told ESPN in 2019, when, as Alonso noted, suspicions rose that baseballs were being juiced to pump up home-run numbers and hurt earning potential for free-agent pitchers: ‘‘It’s a f—-ing joke. Major League Baseball is turning this game into a joke. They own Rawlings, and you’ve got Manfred saying it might be the way they center the pill. They own the f—-ing company. If any other $40 billion company bought out a $400 million company and the product changed dramatically, it’s not a guess as to what happened. We know what happened. Manfred, the first time he came in, what’d he say? He said we want more offense. All of a sudden he comes in, the balls are juiced? It’s not coincidence. We’re not idiots.”
For those who still love baseball, it’s a never-ending exercise in designed institutional torture. We’d rather enjoy the two-way magnificence of Shohei Ohtani, the understated dominance of Jacob DeGrom and the continuing audacity of the Tampa Bay Rays — dead-last in payroll and attendance over the last 14 seasons — in shaming the Yankees and other bloated behemoths.
But baseball won’t let us. Baseball never lets us enjoy baseball, because baseball is a cancer wrapped inside layers of yarn and and a shell of cowhide, made not in America but offshore in Costa Rica. Let me know when the work stoppage begins.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes regular sports columns on Substack and a weekly 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 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.