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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: February 25, 2024 10:45 am PDT

BY KEVIN KERNAN

A memorable scene was delivered in the 1967 film The Graduate.

Mr. McGuire, (Walter Brooke) talks to Ben, (Dustin Hoffman) at a party about Ben’s on-rushing future.

Again, this is 1967 – 56 years ago – back when I was a freshman baseball player at David Brearley Regional High School. McGuire pulls Ben aside in a most fatherly fashion, out to the pool area and says earnestly, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.’’

“Yes sir.’’

“Are you listening?’’

“Yes, I am.’’

“Plastics.’’

“Exactly how do you mean?’’

“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?“

“Yes I will,’’ Ben says dutifully.

“Enough said. That’s a deal,’’ Mr. McGuire adds, mission accomplished, as he walks away.

Pulling aside all 30 MLB owners, out to the pool area, I have one word, just one word.

Athletes.

There’s a great future in athletes and MLB is finally beginning to once again notice the value of athletes in a game that has been overrun with un-athletic players taking mighty uppercut launch angle swings.

Athletes are the future of the game.

The Nerds running the game have lost their way with everything being about power at the plate – and power on the mound. This is not just a velocity game it’s a game of athletes. Even the great pitchers of the past were great athletes, ala Bob Gibson.

I have been saying for years baseball needs to get back to having great athletes where speed, agility, fearlessness and the desire to constantly improve, where being a good teammate is important. You are seeing the results of that with the explosive appearance of rookie Elly De La Cruz in Cincinnati. He has single-handedly brought the excitement of triple-speed and hustle out of the box back to baseball and has helped lift a team that was dead into first place in the weak NL Central. Same goes for Corbin Carroll with the Diamondbacks, lifting them to first place in a much tougher NL West.

Players like that make baseball exciting.

“Stop with the muscle-bound guys who swing out of their ass and give me some guys who can run and play and move athletically on a baseball field,’’ one of the game’s top talent evaluators told BallNine on Saturday. “Young kids who got tools and go out and play hard.’’

That is a baseball success formula.

One scout mentioned in his reports that he makes sure to address the athleticism of the pitcher or player. “One of the biggest things I put in my physical description on my pitchers and position players now,’’ he said, offering a sample: “Below-average athletically in his baseball movements. Average athletic movements as a pitcher.’’

Baseball is an athletic experience. And that is what makes it so much fun.

Elly De La Cruz #44 of the Cincinnati Reds hits a triple for the cycle in the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Great American Ball Park on June 23, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

As the politicians say, let me be clear: This is not just about the new rules gifting stolen bases and the anti-shift rules. These players could steal bases on anyone or hit against any defense in any era, put the ball in play. A scout told me that as he watched De La Cruz run around the bases on Friday to complete his cycle with a triple, and that triple brought him back to the days when he first saw Yankees minor leaguer Bernie Williams cruise around the bases for a triple.

This young Reds star could be called Elly De La “Cruise’’ because he does everything with such grace and is cruising. He also is team centered and that is worth its weight in gold.

Friday was a day the Yankees and Mets lost because their fielders could not handle simple, easy pop-ups, I watched De La Cruz cruise well beyond shortstop territory to gather in a foul fly ball well down the left field line along the wall as the Reds beat the Braves, their 12th straight win. Saturday the NL East leading Braves hung on for a 7-6 win but the “Elly! Elly!’’ chants at a sold out Great American Ballpark were something to behold.

That brings me to a notable Twitter comment Friday night made by BallNine editor Deb Seymour that got me to thinking. She wrote: “New York Major League Baseball is practically unwatchable at this point. I don’t know what happened, but it’s pretty sad…’’

It is sad.

All that money for the Yankees and Mets and where are the athletes? And if there are athletes there, why aren’t they doing athletic things?

The Mets have a shortstop in Francisco Lindor who could be like a De La Cruz with his athletic skill, but he has sold out for home runs instead of base hits and is hitting .222. Now he did pick up two hits in a 4-2 win over the Phillies Saturday, where the Mets finally played a clean game to snap a three-game losing streak.

Elly De La Cruz #44 of the Cincinnati Reds is interviewed after hitting for the cycle and defeating the Atlanta Braves 11-10 at Great American Ball Park on June 23, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Lindor’s batting average has been just one of the many problems these 2023 Mets face. They have a fast player in Brandon Nimmo, a track star in high school, but somehow – and this is incomprehensible to me – he has only three stolen bases this season.  Before the season I mentioned he must steal more bases. He is in an era where stealing a base is just about as easy as walking to home plate for players with any speed. Lindor misplayed a popup in the 4-2 Friday night loss to the Phillies in the sixth inning that led to a run, and in the first inning Nimmo misplayed a pop-up that led to two runs. Saturday Lindor was paired with Luis Guillorme at second base and the two were impressive turning three double plays.

Athleticism has not been featured as much as it should be featured by new age management for most teams. Perhaps it’s because so many un-athletic Nerds are in charge they don’t recognize the true value of athleticism. You can be sure they recognize it now with the likes of Carroll and De La Cruz putting on a speed show every night.

As for the Yankees, every year it seems like they are in an arms race to become less athletic.

For all his power, Giancarlo Stanton (.187 batting average) is pretty much a base-to-base statue. The Yankees did force feed young, athletic shortstop Anthony Volpe (.193 average) into the mix this year but he is having struggles because of his launch angle swing, pretty much like all Yankee hitters not named Aaron Judge. The latest Judge injury, a significant toe injury after running into a wall at Dodger Stadium, has halted the Yankees one-dimensional offense and the timetable for Judge’s return does not look good. The Yankees snuck away with a 1-0 win over the Rangers Saturday, thanks to a Billy McKinney home run – as 57 percent of the Yankees runs have come on home runs.

Once again Rays manager Kevin Cash distinguished himself from the managerial style of Kumbaya Club President Aaron Boone.

Volpe is paired in the infield with third baseman Josh Donaldson, who at the age of 37 has lost the battle. Second baseman Gleyber Torres has athletic skill but that skill is not put to good use as he often resides in Gleyber World, forgetting the outs or whatever. Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who did a wonderful thing stealing home recently, absurdly walked off second base Friday night only to get tagged out. He also misplayed a pop-up in centerfield, but I am not putting all that on him. That’s on the Nerds for thinking the infielder is more than an emergency centerfielder and for some reason, Harrison Bader, one of the better center fielders when he actually is not on in the IL, was given the night off after playing three straight games.

Wonder what Cal Ripken Jr. thinks about that move.

Also as a side note, teams, bring back that one coach who is an expert at hitting pop-ups and get back to practicing pop-ups before games on occasion. With so much launch angle there are so many pop-ups.

Lack of athleticism is a big part of the Mets and Yankees problems.

This also was an interesting week for the athletic Rays, the team with the best record in baseball, because once again Rays manager Kevin Cash distinguished himself from the managerial style of Kumbaya Club President Aaron Boone.

Cash had the guts to bench and call-out shortstop Wander Franco, another tremendously talented athletic player when he wants to be, because of his recent play and how to handle frustration. Cash was not afraid to say the reason why and not make up some flimsy excuse like so many other managers do. The Rays don’t tolerate selfish play and Cash made that clear.

I knew Franco was a bit off the rails when he did that showboating spin flip to himself at shortstop against the Pirates a month ago.

Wander Franco #5 of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts after hitting a solo home run against the Kansas City Royals during the first inning at Tropicana Field on June 24, 2023 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Yes, “the let the kids have fun movement’’ loved the showboating, but I can guarantee it was not loved by players throughout baseball or on the Rays.

The great thing about baseball is you can show off just being a baseball player and making baseball plays. That’s enough. You don’t need to add showing up the opposition to show off.

De La Cruz showed off his talents on the triple and cycle Friday and on catching the popup way down the line. He also showed them on a play I saw him make back in AAA Louisville when he scored from first base on a slow chopper to third. De La ‘Cruise’’ went all the way to third on the infield hit, then when the throw was late to get him from first base, the third baseman threw back to second to try to get the hitter who took second.

Seeing all that going on behind him De La Cruz did not hesitate. He raced home and scored. That is what you do in baseball. You take advantage of the situation.

Defense is so bad now you can make crazy Little League plays like that happen in the minors and majors. On Saturday he stole second and went to third on the bad throw, something more players should be doing instead of sprawling out on second base like they are on the beach.

No teams work on defense like they once did. Look at the outfield throws to home and third base. The recent catcher violation issues were not helped by throws from the outfield. Padres catcher Gary Sanchez had to go 10 feet up the third base line to get right-fielder Fernando Tatis Jr.’s short throw and that helped create the ridiculous “violation.’’

Imagine what the great Roberto Clemente would think of such an inaccurate throw from such a short distance.

Kind of ironic that it is now a “violation’’ in MLB to move and catch the baseball. But that’s what has happened to the sport because this is a sport that has become stagnant waiting for the three-run home run.

Derek Jeter made one of the great athletic plays in the history of the game when he followed the throw from the outfield and flipped the ball to catcher Jorge Posada who tagged the non-sliding Jeremy Giambi.

Gary Sanchez #99 of the San Diego Padres tags out Blake Sabol #2 of the San Francisco Giants in the fifth inning on June 21, 2023 in San Francisco, California. Sabol was called safe after the Giants challenged the play for Sanchez blocking the plate, and they won the challenge. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Reds farm director Shawn Pender has done an admirable job getting the Reds young players ready as VP of player development. I have criticized the Reds in the past, mainly their ownership, but not now, now that they are taking advantage of other team’s weaknesses and are centered around young athletic players like De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Spencer Steer and young veteran Jonathan India with a reborn Joey Votto. Pender, I need to remind you, once was a Reds Major League advance scout. In fact, he once worked for the Yankees as a scout. Having scouts in positions of power can be a good thing, MLB owners.

Manager David Bell, like Boone, comes from a baseball family but is doing baseball things with the comeback Reds. That hasn’t happened since his grandfather Gus Bell – and I grew up with Gus’ baseball cards in my bike’s spokes – and his Reds teammates accomplished the feat of winning 12 in a row in 1957.

Now if only the Reds would bring back the vest from the Bell and Ted Kluszewski era.

The Reds are getting the offense but they better have some starting pitcher in the minors or make a deal because they are 28th in MLB in starters’ ERA at 5.81. That is not sustainable and their Saturday starter Graham Ashcroft gave up six runs over four innings in the loss.

Pitching has to become more than just velocity class mixed in with sweepers.

One scout who scours minor league organizations has a great feel for what is really happening on the pitching front: “Throwing harder doesn’t make you a better pitcher,’’ the scout told me. “But those are the things they work on, trying to throw harder, not having better command. Not having a better breaking ball that is more efficient where hitters don’t make good contact with it, not having a better changeup. They work on throwing harder.’’

Being velocity crazy takes away from the athleticism of a pitcher. When will owners who are blinded by numbers see that as well?

“I am enamored with athletic pitchers who have athletic flow in their deliveries because now they have balance, rhythm, timing and they are always behind the ball to make pitches,’’ the scout said.

Be athletic. At the plate, running the bases, in the field and on the pitching mound.

One word to you owners. Just one word: Athletes.

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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