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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: July 29, 2021 9:02 am PDT
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A seismic shift is happening in the early going of the 2021 season.

The balance of power has swung to the West, in both leagues, and that is a welcome change. The World Champion Dodgers lead the West Coast revival with their 14-4 record, a .778 winning percentage, heading into Thursday’s play. It should be noted the Giants are second in the NL West at 11-7 and the Padres, always the darlings of the off-season media, are playing only .500 ball with a 10-10 record with the series of the weekend beginning Thursday against the Dodgers in LA.

What really is interesting is that rivalries are back. There are fireworks and there also is a game of chess being played, the best of both baseball worlds. Fans benefit from that combination as they desperately want to go back to the ballpark and just have fun again after a year of lockdowns.

For all the crazy changes baseball is proposing, if MLB would only focus on good teams playing good competitive rivalry-based baseball, baseball’s problems would disappear overnight. Fans would flock back to the game. That is all they want.

The Dodgers and Padres went at it last weekend in San Diego and will begin Round 2 today at Dodger Stadium. Clayton Kershaw beefing it up with Jurickson Profar is what fans want to see. Kershaw had a point to be made on that catcher’s interference call and made his anger pay off by pitching six scoreless innings against the Padres.

Blake Snell calling out Trevor Bauer for his mound craters at Petco Park and Bauer, baseball’s lightning rod, responding via Twitter, is what gets the juices flowing for each fan base. This is what makes the game fun.

Fans don’t want to solve math equations while watching ballgames, fans want action and heated rivalries. It is that simple.

“Baseball needs to understand that’s all the fans want,’’ one super smart MLB talent evaluator told BallNine. “Forget all the other shit. Make the game about competition again – and rivalries. It’s okay for players to not like each other and for teams to not like each other. We need more of that.’’

The Yankees missed a golden opportunity to bring Bauer into the fold and have their own intra-pitching staff rivalry with his old UCLA teammate Gerrit Cole, which would have brought out the best in both pitchers. But the Yankees don’t think in those kind of competitive or financial terms anymore. One year of losing money after making money since 1927 has changed their Go Big or Go Home approach.

The Dodgers under president Stan Kasten, who led the effort to build successful franchises in Atlanta and Washington, did not miss on such an opportunity and Bauer has already become the voice of the Dodgers in many ways. Good for the Dodgers.

The East’s loss is the West’s gain and good for the West in both the National and American Leagues. That is the subject of this week’s Baseball or Bust, along with what could be, and should be, the start of a trend to loosen the stranglehold of shifts on the game.

It’s going to be a process, but a big step was taken this week.

In the AL, the A’s have figured it out and have won 11 in a row, the perennial rebuilding Mariners are 11-7 and the Angels, with more of a scout-based GM in Perry Minasian, are off to a 9-7 start. You’d think the division title odds would be closer by now, but give it time.

Over in the AL East, only the surprising Red Sox are playing well and in the NL East mediocrity reigns as we all wait for the Mets to get it together.

I want to delve into the West revival, but first, in case you missed it, the Texas Rangers made a basic common sense baseball play on Tuesday against the Angels and the importance of such a play cannot be overlooked as baseball battles itself over the use of shifts.

Slugger and strikeout star Joey Gallo dropped down a perfect RBI bunt against the shift that brought the Rangers to within 3-2. It was lovely to see and had fans and baseball talking. It’s a strategy play as old as the game, take what the defense gives you and make the most of it. Don’t keep spitting into the wind.

Play chess.

Of course the sad Rangers could not get any closer and wound up losing the game 6-2, but a flag was planted by Gallo and Rangers manager Chris Woodward.

Watch the video and you see that Angels reliever Mike Mayers was clearly perturbed by Gallo’s basic baseball play. Too bad. Just another whining pitcher. If hitters were smart they would do a lot more of this. And the next game Mayers gave up a three-run game winning home run to Aroldis Garcia in the eighth.

Hitters should take advantage and that would “organically’’ take care of the shift as Angels manager Joe Maddon mentioned. He said the best way to handle the shift is to attack it on the field and not legislate it out of the game like Rob Manfred and his minions want to do because they are always looking for quick fixes and gimmicks.

Instead look to baseball fixes to problems that develop in the game.

Gallo put down the bunt with ease, the runner safely came home, Gallo cruised into first base with an RBI single. On the Rangers broadcast an excuse was being put forth for those fans who wonder, ‘Geez why don’t they don’t bunt more against the shift and take what the defense gives them.’’

It was noted that bunting is not as “easy as it looks.’’

Wrong. Bunting is as easy as it looks, especially when you get a soft pitch away and you just place the baseball on all the wide-open green grass. These are the most talented players in the world. Bunting is a lot easier than hitting a home run. Tell the truth. There isn’t as much of this as there should be simply because players and teams allow their egos and their nerds to dictate their moves.

In three words: it’s too simple.

But that is part of the problem too. Baseball and many in the media always want to make the game much more analytical than it really is because they are trying to impress the nerds as well. The nerds have power. They want to be in that club.

If one team would just break away and do all the baseball things needed to win, others would follow like a cork upon a tide.

Why do you think the Red Sox are off to a good start this April? It is because Alex Cora has brought some baseball sense back to the dugout and some team pride. Will it last? Maybe, maybe not, but at least the Red Sox have stopped being a laughing stock even though they handed the Dodgers a World Series by giving them Mookie Betts.

Betts’ spectacular game-ending sprawling catch against the Padres’ Tommy Pham last weekend is the kind of play fans pay to see. They want to see a player stretch out and give everything he has for the team on defense, on the base paths and at the plate. Betts does all of that.

Just for fun, compare Betts’ catch with the ball Yankees centerfielder Aaron Hicks let drop in front of him against the Rays that helped cost Gerrit Cole a game.

It’s not about looking in your cap to see where you should play the next hitter as if you can’t understand what is happening right in front of you on the field by reading how your pitcher is pitching, and what kind of swings batters are getting against your pitcher, it’s about making the big play and going all out for your team, for your fans in the big moments.

That’s baseball, Suzyn.

That includes how you attack defenses. Not only bunting but hitting the ball the other way for hits is as easy as it looks especially when many pitchers pitch against their own shift, going away, away, away.

No one is telling you how easy it is because they want to make it seem like it is so hard.

“Forget all the other shit. Make the game about competition again – and rivalries. It’s okay for players to not like each other and for teams to not like each other. We need more of that.”

All it takes is a little practice, a little focus and a willingness to do something for the team, and your batting average. Imagine if hitters put one-fifth of the effort in learning how to bunt and handling the bat as they do now with hundreds of swings daily trying to explode on the pitch and get that exit velo to the moon. Imagine if they played pepper.

Yet that little bunt by Gallo set off the opposing pitcher.

Mayers kept looking over at Gallo as if Gallo did something wrong. More power to Gallo for bunting. If he keeps it up, perhaps the shift won’t be as heavy in the future and if it remains so, he can pick his spots and take his chance at the Big Fly when he feels he has the advantage.

It’s not that hard. The game is built to correct itself.

Rangers manager Chris Woodward, a good guy who must be getting awfully tired of losing, said as much when asked about Gallo’s bunt.

“I thought it was great, honestly,’’ Woodward said. “We were down two at the time and everybody may say, ‘Well, Joey could hit a homer,’ but getting us another run right there is something we talk a lot about. It’s the seventh inning and we still have seven outs left. Just getting another run across adds a little bit more pressure. It’s a one-run game. One pitch can tie the game. As many home runs as Joey hits, he still doesn’t hit that many per at-bat so that was a high-probability play with him getting a hit there with nobody on the left side. It is something I am going to challenge all of our lefties to do. We had opportunities earlier and later in the game as well and taking those opportunities puts the defense in a little bit of a bind, but it also gives us a chance to maybe get a leadoff guy on, put a little pressure on them.’’

More managers, if they are allowed to think for themselves, (and that is a big if) should take that approach. If they did, the games would not be as boring to watch as they are and that is another way of getting the fans involved. Baseball is a game built on action, not swings and misses.

Baseball was made to be played like baseball, not home run derby and this season I am noticing a few more players taking the easy hit the other way on occasion, but it needs to be done so much more to really have the needed impact.

And what batter doesn’t like getting the opposing pitcher irritated? The next Rangers lefty Nate Lowe should have dropped down another bunt as well because the Angels were in the exact same shift against him as they were against Gallo. Mayers really would have gone ballistic because third base would not have been covered and Gallo could have cruised into third, making it a first and third situation in a one run game. Instead there were big swings and a strikeout.

For the most part, players don’t think like that anymore. And that is on them. They have allowed management to turn them into robots, not ballplayers. Just as managers have allowed the power of thinking to be taken away by the front office, the players are allowing it to happen to them as well.

It’s so crazy sometimes, the corner that baseball paints itself into. For the life of me, when Bloody Sock Curt Schilling was on the mound, in the 2004 ALCS, and I was at each of those games, why didn’t the Yankees just bunt against him. Joe Torre did not opt to do that and in the end it was a complete breakdown and collapse for the Yankees and turned out to be one of the most embarrassing chapters of Yankees postseason baseball.

Little things make all the difference in baseball. Never forget that. It’s not about legislating all infields must be on the dirt and balanced on the infield, it’s about taking advantage of the defense. Those in charge of the game cannot grasp that simple fact. Bring action back to the game.

The Manfred Supersonic Ball remains so juiced that the home runs will still come but there is nothing wrong with mixing it up a bit. Look at how the Angels went ahead 3-1 on Mike Trout’s 446 foot home run. Angels broadcaster Jose Mota, one of the best in the business, had just made a wonderful point about the adjustments Trout made that day in batting practice to get his foot down earlier and his timing right and boom, his timing was right on the breaking ball. By the way that was the 39th home run Trout has hit against the Rangers, he blasted his 40th the next day, still not as many as the 46 he has crushed against the Mariners.

All that is the beauty of the game, it can be a bunt or a home run that scores a run. It can be fireworks or it can be a game of chess. That is www: Why We Watch.

It is not about Obese Bases, not about #Overnerding or banning shifts or throws to first base. Baseball can be a chess match as well as a fireworks show.

The best show is definitely in the West right now as Eastern and Central teams slog along.

Out West is where it’s at and this weekend will be a joy to watch. Players are already saying that these April games between the Dodgers and Padres have a postseason feel about them. Both teams added a former Cy Young winner in the offseason, but the pressure is squarely on the Padres.

Snell must start going deeper into games.  Fernando Tatis Jr. must play better. He has already made seven errors this season and his left shoulder issues are a problem no matter how much we are told they are not a problem. He is batting .154. If the Padres don’t have a good series against the Dodgers this weekend they are in danger of being looked upon as the Same Old Padres.

That is where the Dodgers want to put them. Back in the box of being: All winter talk, no summer walk. With that on the line you can expect fireworks and a chess match this weekend at Dodger Stadium.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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