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Mudville: September 29, 2022 1:07 am PDT
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From Bat Flips to Phone Flips

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Baseball is at a crossroads.

The game can continue to go down the path of least resistance and degrade itself in every way imaginable like it’s doing now or the game, and the people in charge of the game, can start to demand focus and accountability from players to begin to correct what’s wrong with it.

This was one of the worst weeks in baseball history from a performance standpoint and how the game should be played.

*****

On Sunday alone there were two plays at home plate where the catcher expertly did his job, where out calls made on the field by the home plate umpire, but both calls were reversed by umpires in the replay center – or as I like to call them: Umpire Drone in the Sky.

The calls engaged managers Rocco Baldelli of the Twins and Brandon Hyde of the Orioles. Both men knew MLB got it wrong.

What this ridiculous “Slide Rule” has created is rotten to the core of the game. Baserunners after being tagged out at home come up begging the umpire to call them safe because the catcher got in their way at home plate.

“Okay fellas, make sure you bring your glove to the field, and be sure to take the phone out of your back pocket. Who brought the snacks for after the game?’’

As a result, another part of the game the fans loved, the action of the play at home plate, has been stolen away by Rob Manfred and his minions. I’m not saying you blow up the catcher like Pete Rose blew up Ray Fosse in an All-Star Game, but the catcher must be allowed to move to make the throw and since his feet are on the ground, that may entail being in front of the plate. Baseball has lost its way in knowing how the game should be played – and more importantly, in what it takes to play the game.

Catchers are forced to go to one knee by the Nerds for framing, so much of what they did so well in the past has been lost. Their mobility has been stolen from them. The same thing is happening on throws home. Their mobility has been stolen from them. Can’t go here to catch the ball because you may get in the way of the sliding runner who will be begging for a reversal the moment the tag is applied.

“The big, bad catcher got in my way,’’ Mr. Umpire.

Essentially, catchers have been told not to catch, just get on one knee and listen to what comes through their ear piece, and push the right buttons on PitchCom. Don’t dare think about how to retire the batter, listen to the Nerd Game Plan at all costs and whatever you do, don’t block the plate.

Here is what Gary Allenson, who has a lifetime in the game and knows the art of catching like no one else, texted me after the two terrible reversals at home plate.

“I find it interesting that catchers can’t block the plate, but middle infielders can put their leg in front of the 2nd base bag blocking potential base stealers,’’ he said. “If I was stealing I’d slide feet first with my spikes aimed at the bag. They all slide head first now.’’

And many of those head first slides lead to injuries.

So to recap: middle infielders can block second base but catchers can’t catch a ball that carries into the base line because they might be called for blocking the plate by the umpire not at home plate, but the Second Guess Umpire working the MLB Eye in the Sky offices, the Drone Ump.

Drone Umps and Fake Runners, isn’t baseball great?

The rule makes no sense. At second base you can do one thing, third base too, but at home plate, the most important base, you can’t do something you can do at the other bases.

Great job, MLB.

Rocco Baldelli #5 of the Minnesota Twins argues with umpires Alan Porter #64 and Marty Foster #60 after a coach's challenge determined Whit Merrifield #1 of the Toronto Blue Jays scored a run at home plate against Gary Sanchez #24 of the Minnesota Twins due to Sanchez blocking the plate in the tenth inning of the game at Target Field on August 7, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Blue Jays defeated the Twins 3-2 in ten innings. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

*****

Hitters continue to flabbergast anyone who has experience in baseball. The Yankees were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position in a 1-0, 13-inning loss to the Mariners on Tuesday night, a game that lasted more than four hours. The Yankees struck out 14 times and for four extra innings were not able to push across the Fake Runner. The Yankees ran into five outs on the base paths, a tee-ball like accomplishment.

The Mariners finally nudged across the winning run in the 13th when pinch-hitter Luis Torrens did what should have been done much earlier – he went the opposite way with a pitch to hit a line drive single to finally score a run. He is hitting .217. Why more hitters don’t try to make contact and hit the ball the other way is beyond me and has become the ruination of the game. The Mariners struck out 10 times, left 11 men on base and were 2-for-12 with RISP. Yet, the game was labeled an “Instant Classic’’ by a breathless broadcaster after the winning run scored. It wasn’t an Instant Classic.

Yes, the starters Gerrit Cole and Luis Castillo were lights out; but the hitters never made an adjustment until Torrens’ single.

Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees pitches in the third inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on August 09, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

*****

To me, this is the worst transgression of them all. Also on Tuesday, Pirates’ Rodolfo Castro made a headfirst slide into third base and his phone came flying out of his pocket. There are no words. I only wish Earl Weaver or Billy Martin could have been managing the Pirates Tuesday night. For a player not to be focused enough to realize he has his phone in his back pocket is ludicrous. Think about that for a second. We all know when our cell phone is in our pocket. The third base umpire Adam Hamari pointed out that the phone was on the ground, Castro picked it up and handed it to third base coach Mike Rabelo. Rabelo had an exasperated look on his face but should have done more than just make a face. He should have walked over to the dugout and thrown the phone in the garbage.

This one play highlights so much that is wrong with the game. You can laugh it off and say it was a “dropped call’’ but really this shows that being focused on the game enough to leave your phone in your locker is now too much to ask of pampered, entitled players. In covering for his player, Pirates manager Derek Shelton said, “This was just a kid who made a mistake. It’s just one of those things we just move forward from and tell him, ‘You can’t do that.’”

Really, Derek Shelton?

We now have to remind players not to play with phones in their back pockets. The bar and the calls have been dropped so low players have to be reminded, “Okay fellas, make sure you bring your glove to the field, and be sure to take the phone out of your back pocket.”

“Who brought the snacks for after the game?’’

Give me a break. The people in charge of baseball are so afraid of hurting someone’s feelings that they look the other way on everything now: Bad base-running, phones flying out of pockets. The inability to drive in a Make Believe Runner inning after inning, even the thought of having to put a Fake Runner in scoring position should be an embarrassment to people in the game, but they all love it (except for pitchers) because there is less work to be done to score. And to top it all off, on the rare occasion a good baseball play is made and a runner is tagged out at home, Manfred’s Umpire Drones reverse the call.

*****

The overall batting average for MLB this season is .243, the worst in history. Yet, we have people saying, “Gee, I wonder why?’’ The answer is simple: hitters no longer hit for the team, they takes swings for themselves trying to hit balls out of the ballpark all the time and strikeouts don’t matter to the Nerd Crowd.

The overall batting average is much worse than .243, by the way. No one’s taking into account all the innings that have been “pitched’’ by Fake Pitchers over the course of the season. Consider all those hits and home runs that have come as a result of a position player lobbing the ball over the plate in blowouts. Take away those “hits’’ and the batting average is even lower than .243. Baseball just looks the other way, though; and nightly “highlights’’ include position players throwing the ball over the plate as if they were pitching batting practice to a neighbor’s kid.

Perhaps this brand of 2022 baseball has reached the point of no return. Perhaps these players and the Nerds throughout the game have no possibility of being embarrassed. Perhaps Rob Manfred even likes the product he is pushing.

Manfred’s game has gone from Bat Flips to Phone Flips overnight.

The game is decaying before our very eyes.

*****

There are still some teams playing Team Baseball and they are lapping the field. The one team I want to highlight (and there are a few more than one) for today’s purposes is the Mets, and what Buck Showalter has done.

Buck has brought team pride back into vogue. He has demanded accountability from his players and the funny thing is he has received accountability back tenfold. Most players want to do what’s right in the game if you make it clear the garbage will not be tolerated.

Showalter has made that clear from Day 1. That day early in the season I saw Starling Marte thrown out on the bases after making a bad decision and Showalter immediately said that can’t happen, I knew the Mets would be on the right accountability path. To his credit, Marte took that constructive criticism in stride.

Players can handle the truth.

Players want to improve, they want to get better; but if you do not have the courage to lead, it will be the inmates running the asylum and that is where baseball is at right now.

Remember this truth. Momentum is created by men who lead, not by managers who look the other way.

Players will follow the manager’s lead and that is what the Mets are doing. Showalter is lucky, too, to have leaders like Max Scherzer, Francisco Lindor (who has come a long way under Showalter), and others who play the game right, no excuses. By the way, have you noticed the Mets now have a better record than the Yankees?

The Yankees, for the most part, have done a much better job playing the game right this year, but they still have their issues with RISP, and they have recently gone backwards on the base paths. Injuries have hurt them and that is a familiar theme with this team. Gerrit Cole finally used his fastball with authority in that 1-0 loss to the Mariners Tuesday night after giving up six runs in the first inning the last time out against the Mariners because he was into the trickery of breaking balls and changeups, probably following Nerd orders. The light bulb went on Tuesday night in Seattle that it was time to throw the fastball and not out-think the hitter. Good old country hardball still has a place in the game.

While we are talking to baseball men like Gary Allenson, I also reached out to another baseball man who spent time managing in the minors and is a terrific instructor and is still a young man in coaching terms. I asked about the Castro Cell Phone Flip and what should be the ramifications of such a play.

This qualified baseball man told it like it was and said that the mistake of bringing your cell phone onto the field of play “could not disrespect the game or your teammates more than that. Absolutely embarrassing. Send his ass to the bench or Indy.’’

That would be AAA Indianapolis. I concur.

There has to be an expectation of focus to do your job. Lack of focus is one of the biggest problems in baseball now, and pretty much in real life, too.

Bring accountability back to baseball.

I asked someone who knew Earl Weaver what Weaver would have done in that situation and he said, “Earl would have sent one of his coaches over to tell this kid to get his head out of his ass or else he would be back at AAA,’’ the baseball man said.

Then he offered these chilling words.

“There is nobody left to teach them what is right and what is wrong. When they do wrong there is nobody there to say, ‘Hey you can’t do that.’ If you have a veteran player who knows and who will speak up, then you are lucky.’’

Baseball is at a crossroads. Will the game and those in charge continue down the path of least resistance?

Reverse course immediately, demand focus and accountability.

And keep your damn phone in your locker.

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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