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Mudville: February 26, 2024 2:47 am PDT

Can of Worms

BY KEVIN KERNAN

This story starts with a can of tuna fish. Wild caught Bumble Bee albacore, to be exact.

There I was trying to open the can with a relatively new battery operated can opener. Around and around it spun with no can being opened. Frustrated, I searched the utensils drawer and under a mess of metal, I found a silver colored relic.

Stamped on the handle: “The EKCO Miracle Can Opener 885: Performance guaranteed or MFG will replace.’’

This can opener was made in Chicago, in the good old USA. And it dates back to the early ‘60s before EKCO was sold in 1965 to American Home Products. I don’t think the manufacturer will replace it if it doesn’t work since in 1992 the factory on Cicero Ave. was shuttered.

The nearly 60-year-old can opener worked magnificently and I was soon eating a tuna sandwich. Which got me to thinking about baseball. If this product of the ‘60s still worked, why did baseball and all the Nerds throw away the fundamentals from that era?

That is the can of worms I am opening today at The Story.

All you have to do is watch the “highlights’’ every night and you can see how baseball has lost its way on the most simple of plays. Friday night in Los Angeles, the 11th inning might have held the circus play of the year in that department when Mookie Betts popped up with one out and Fake Runner Michael Busch on second. Third baseman Casey Schmitt clanked it. Giants pitcher Jakob Junis picked up the ball in front of the mound and for some reason heaved it well over the first baseman’s head as Mookie was already far across the bag.

Busch somehow did not score even though he was off the bag at second at the time of the errant throw that bounced off the wall and then into short right field before it was finally run down. Busch was caught off third base for the second out as Mookie ran to third. Mookie later fell on his sword and said it was his fault.

Busch should have scored easily on the play with the Giants leading 7-5 – to make it 7-6 – with the tying run at third and one out.

Infielders not catching an easy pop-up. Baserunners not looking up while running. Lead runners not scoring from second on a circus Little League play where the baseball is thrown all over the field. Pitchers not eating the baseball. All this with the game on the line. Just another day in Rob Manfred’s badly played baseball world. The Dodgers lost (deservedly so) in a game they had led 4-0. Again, the play was described (and rightly so) as a “circus’’ play.

As for the Giants, they have time to walk barefoot through the grass in Gabe Kapler’s world and play with therapy dogs before games; but do they ever work on pop-ups?

Another humiliating play for MLB, the Dodgers, and the Giants – two iconic franchises.

Working on fundamentals, something that used to be a baseball staple throughout the history of baseball, is lost.

Yet, that sturdy 59-year-old can opener still works.

“If you don’t teach your players all the things they can do in a game,’’ one of baseball’s top evaluators told BallNine on Saturday, “you become lost.’’

Baseball is a game of movement, anticipation, and thrills.

“You can be technologically savvy but also be traditionally, fundamentally sound,’’ the evaluator added. “Do the little things right that people did right for years.’’

Imagine that, the best of both worlds.

Nearly every team looks like it has no clue how to play baseball because working on fundamentals has become a lost art. Players are too lazy, ownership is too dumb to insist it be done, and the new wave of technology management doesn’t want to waste time on fundamentals – because they have more important things to do and fundamentals are beneath them. And a lot of managers are pretty much going along for the ride, taking the paycheck and agreeing with whatever the Nerds say.

You don’t want players to get tired, do you?

There is one team, though, that stands out in those kinds of fundamentals. A team that doesn’t cheat itself, and while the Dodgers and Giants were running around like chickens with their heads cut off on Friday night, south of the LA, in my old town of San Diego, the Rays were putting on another clinic in beating the Padres, who quite often, with all their “stars,’’ are just too cool for school.

In the fourth inning, lumbering Luke Raley took advantage of left fielder Juan ($500 million) Soto, who sat back on a Randy Arozarena single, allowing Raley to score easily. Raley ran hard. Later in the game Padres centerfielder Trent Grisham, running toward right field, dropped a line drive off the bat of Taylor Walls and was pouting instead of hustling and immediately picking up the ball, as Walls raced into second with a two-base error that was scored a hit by the most lenient official scorer.

That botched play led to a big inning against Yu Darvish, who surrendered a three-run home run to that man, Arozarena, to put the Rays on top 6-0.

The Rays ran wild on the base paths taking advantage of Darvish and slow moving catcher Gary Sanchez.

The Rays lead baseball in stolen bases because they properly evaluated the new value and ease of the stolen base under Manfred’s giveaway rules – and they have taken advantage. They teach fundamentals at every level. They also have been caught stealing the most; but they are unafraid. They are No. 1 in slugging percentage, No. 2 in on-base percentage, and No. 2 in home runs; they keep the pressure on offensively in many ways.

They don’t have the money of other teams, but they sure have the baseball smarts and the baseball fundamentals down – and no one else is close to their win total.

Throughout their system, the Rays emphasize fundamentals because they have sturdy (like that old can opener) baseball people who learned from the best, people like Mitch Lukevics. Lukevics, who was the Rays’ farm director from 2006-2019, ran the Yankees’ minor league ops from 1989-1995 when the Core Four came through the organization.

And unlike a lot of teams who merely plaster on a label of senior advisor, the Rays actually use their senior advisors and their senior knowledge, the knowledge of the extreme value of baseball fundamentals.

As a senior, I appreciate that.

“They follow a good plan,’’ one former pitcher and coach told me. “The people who laid it out are still over there in advisory roles. People like Mitch Lukevics who went over from the Yankees to the Rays. Their people respect the new stuff the Rays are doing; but fundamentally they do a lot of things.’’

That is smart baseball.

The Rays don’t panic about giving up an out like all the other teams panic about giving up an out on the base paths. They hit the ball the other way to score runs. Arozarena gets caught trying to steal a base but he keeps on running; the Rays keep running because they know the value of that stolen base that leads to an extra run that leads to victory.

Quite frankly, many other teams are gutless.

This Father’s Day let’s start to get back the fundies; they still work just like my vintage EKCO Miracle Can Opener 885.

The Rays, under Kevin Cash – the best manager in the game – are not gutless; and to their credit, the Arizona Diamondbacks are modeling themselves a little bit after the Rays in their theft of bases and aggressive base running. And that has helped pay off in such a big way, the mighty Dodgers and oh-so-cerebral Giants are both looking up in the NL West standings at the gutty little Diamondbacks.

Good for the Diamondbacks. Good for the Rays.

On this Father’s Day, always a great baseball day, be a good father to your baseball and softball playing children and teach them the fundamentals of the game, not the launch angle of the game.

Teach them to play with abandon. Teach them to run the bases with aggression. Teach your children well.

Teach them to slide correctly. That’s another reason why some teams don’t run as much as they can; some of their players get hurt with awkward slides so that means it’s time to throw out the baby with the bath water.

“My guys aren’t going to steal bases, they might get hurt.’’

So that is your challenge, fathers. Make this Father’s Day a new day to start really teaching fundamentals. Not only baseball fundamentals – but life fundamentals; we might be a better world and country if you do your job.

The baseball fundamentals of 1964 still work in 2023 just like that ECKO Miracle Can Opener 885 that was buried in the utensil drawer still works. It was made strong. It was made to last. Teach fundamentals to all your players at every level, and your team will remain strong and will be made to last.

The Rays were the first team to 50 wins. They make the Yankees and their huge payroll look silly.

Again, here at The Story we ask others who know what makes all this work; and when we started asking around on Saturday about the Rays’ success, as we’ve described, those were some of the answers we received.

The ECKO Miracle Can Opener 885.

Part of it is the Rays evaluate talent better than most teams. Just look, for example, at where the Cardinals are now. The Cardinals gifted Arozarena to the Rays in a trade on Jan. 9, 2020. A scout who watched the Cardinals lose to the Mets Friday night came away with this assessment:

“You talk about sleepwalking your way through a baseball game. They were hard to watch,’’ the scout said of the last place Redbirds. After that loss Paul Goldschmidt took extra batting practice. On Saturday his two-run home run helped the 28-43 Cardinals to a win.

The Rays are fun to watch. The Diamondbacks are fun to watch. Fundies are fun.

The Yankees over-achieving Isiah Kiner-Falefa showed it’s easy to steal home nowadays when no one on defense talks to each other. That’s another thing that has happened to baseball this year; because they can’t shift the middle infielders, the Nerds are shifting the third baseman so he is often nowhere near third base – so as a runner, take the base. It’s there for the taking. Ronald Acuna Jr. showed that against the Dodgers recently.

“They are playing the third baseman at shortstop,’’ one scout noted.

And how about this amazing tidbit from a well-traveled scout:

“With stolen base attempts being up, I don’t see anybody out early working on holding runners, nothing at all,’’ said the scout, who was also a coach for a number of years. “I don’t see any catchers out early. I used to bring my guys out early once a home stand because the stolen base used to be prevalent. You would work on your lead, you would work on holding runners, you would work on things like that.

“It became a nonentity.’’

This needs to be said, too. Nerds don’t know this stuff, baseball people do and they are not in power now to make those decisions to work on these aspects of the game.

Every team should be stealing a lot more bases.

IKF Steals home

New York Yankees Center Fielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa (12) steals home during the eighth inning of a game between the New York Yankees and New York Mets on June 14, 2023, at Citi Field in Flushing, NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Without a doubt,’’ the baseball man said, “but people are scared to death because we went into a world of ‘Let’s not give an out away.’ A sacrifice bunt, no you can’t give away an out. Stolen base, you can’t give away an out.

“Yes, you can; if you are good at what you do, you’ve moved the guys 90 feet.’’

The irony is outs are given away every night with ridiculous big swings.

“My gosh,’’ the scout said. “(Francisco) Lindor falls down every swing right now.’’

Hungry players on the cusp of making big money play hard for one another, like the Rays. “There are certain guys you invest in,’’ said one evaluator. “The majority of guys now, I wouldn’t invest in.’’

That’s one damning statement, but that is what Manfred Ball has wrought.

Taking balls off the bat should be another daily occurrence in the minor leagues and often in the majors; but some teams, I’ve been told, just take balls shooting out of a machine, infield and outfield. Yikes.

“The outfielders, they shoot pop-ups to them in pre-game,’’ the scout said.

Don’t dare make the players overwork. Some teams used to practice bunting every day and even put small circles on the field to make it a competition in spring training with a financial reward. I remember seeing that in Yuma. Little drills like that worked wonders.

“Get out of the weight room and get out on the field every day,’’ the scout said. “There are so many things to work on.’’

The question may be from the know-it-all players: “What do we work on?”

“Sit down, I have a list,’’ the scout said.

Scouts and experts on the fundamentals of the game, those voices are not heard like they should be heard in most organizations. Nearly every night you see the results of the ineptitude as Manfred’s circus comes to town.

This Father’s Day let’s start to get back the fundies; they still work just like my vintage EKCO Miracle Can Opener 885.

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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