by Ken Napzok
“That escalated quickly.” – Ron Burgundy, legendary newsman.
We all saw this storm forming far off the coast, but we just didn’t know how hard it was going to smack the shoreline. Then it hit and the winds of scandal, drama, gossip, and good ole fashion conspiracy theories slammed into the sport with the speed and ferocity of Pete Rose breaking Ray Fosse’s spirit in two.
So much for a quiet baseball offseason in which the only talking point was where Gerrit Cole and the best free agent pitching class in a while would take their wares!!
The sign stealing scandal still exploding in front of us all isn’t just going to be remembered as a passing curiosity that’s a tiny part of the game’s long and winding history. It is truly a defining moment for the sport. The Steroid Era. The ‘94 Strike. Free Agency. Collusion. Jackie Robinson Breaking The Color Barrier. The Live Ball Era. The Black Sox Scandal. The Controversial Introduction of the Curveball. The Early 90s When Every Player Wore Oakley Sunglasses. All of these moments — some bad, some historical great — are transformative chapters. Ken Burns should already be firing up his pan and scan camera tactics for this one. The Sign Stealing Era is here. The big question right now, though, is this the end? Have the cheaters been exposed, punishments handed out, and the time to forward begun?
I wrote from that vantage point last week and I still believe that we are already at the point of moving forward, regardless of what else may come to light. The band-aid has been ripped off and we’ve got a bleeder here, but the healing begins the moment it’s exposed. Yet…
This isn’t done. And it’s not done for a large swath of various, layered reasons, but the most important is that even though the Houston Astros — namely Alex Cora, Carlos Beltran, and the players that willingly took part in this little exercise — have been exposed as the poster team for this scandal there is not a lot of faith floating around that this is it. That there weren’t more clubs with similar operations.
Now, let’s pause in this age of digital media and the ability for opinions and hunches to become facts spreading like wildfire. I don’t know this. I’m not a reporter. I didn’t meet anybody in a dark parking garage to collect a briefcase of information. I’m an opinionalist. My personal wish is that this scandal stops with Houston and Boston and will vanish quicker than Carlos Beltran’s managerial career.
However, I’m a human being who has lived on this planet for more than two weeks and I’ve been a fan of baseball most of life (and always will.) It is hard for me to believe that the other humans that populate this sport haven’t looked at a room full of technology and at least thought, “Hmmm… how can we use this to help get an advantage on the field?”
There has to be more of this going on.
In fact, I have a hard time believing that any of this is new to the game — because, um, it’s not. Former Cy Young award-winning pitcher and front man of the rock band Stickfigure, Jack McDowell spoke up this week with a pretty strong allegation that the Tony La Russa-led White Sox of the 1980s literally did the same thing.
Back then it was a toggle switch, a Gatorade sign, and a light to indicate the pitch coming in, but that doesn’t make it any less of a crime. Same goes for 1951 Giants. Their story has been repeated many, many times over the last two weeks by fans, sports writers, and players alike. Their miraculous comeback that culminated in a legendary home run from Bobby Thompson was all built on a system involving telescopes, scoreboard lights, and real time, sign stealing information based on the latest tech available in 1951.
“The Giants steal the pennant, the Giants steal the pennant” just doesn’t sound as good as Russ Hodges timeless call of The Shot Heard ‘Round The World.
That’s just two stories. There are more. There will always be more. So, personally, I’m bracing for impact should more teams be involved with this type of technological gaming of the game. None of this means ANY of this cheating — current or historical — is right. It just should be a reminder to be wary of the Righteous Indignation that is flowing around the fandom and the league itself. Maybe Los Angeles City Council members should concentrate on other issues as opposed to rushing a motion through the halls of government to overturn two World Series losses.
Again — to be clear beyond clear — I’m not saying the Dodgers cheated. I’m just saying, maybe wait until all of the dust settles before you come swinging into public forums with your fire and brimstone. It’s ok in this Hot Take Era to take a breath and make sure you have all the information before pressing that tweet button.
Though, perhaps the 1951 season should be replayed. Rest in Peace, Ralph Branca.
The general inability of people to not barf up their opinions two seconds after hearing or seeing something has only helped create a tornado of chaos around this on-going story. Is that Carlos Beltran’s niece tweeting out information about buzzers being used by the Astros or not? Doesn’t matter — it’s taken as fact and then amateur sleuths everywhere started freeze framing every shot of Jose Altuve’s jersey. It is nothing short of wild — and, yes, a very big YES, perhaps true.
The league claimed to have investigated it and found nothing, but no one is going to believe it. Understandable right now. Same with Altuve and Bregman’s denials. (And Lance…. Berkman’s?) Yet that’s because in large part the “evidence” of these buzzers got tossed around the Internet like a big fish at a Pike Place market and believed by many simply because they want to believe it. The truth doesn’t matter. This was also a week in which a parody movie news site tweeted out a rumor about a Star Wars TV series being cancelled and it was taken by fact by far too many fans just ready to pounce on the next bit of Space Wizard drama.
Just hold on a second.
Let’s see where this goes.
Though, that didn’t stop many, many Major Leaguers from piling on when they might do well to sit back with the rest of us.
Funny, Aroldis. Also, Aroldis, stop shooting your gun at a family parties to intimate your girlfriend.
Trevor Bauer had some fun, too.
But also said every team’s pitcher cheats with foreign substances in a Bleacher Report AMA this week and agreed that Manfred’s punishment was fair and the 2017 title should stay in Houston quietly putting him in direct opposition of the general public.
Jose Ramirez joined in as well.
Actually… that… that is funny. Good job, Jose.
Point is, if more of this comes out, there will be a lot of pie on faces and not in the good, county fair kind of way. Just wait it out. Help dampen the deafening, hysterical wave of noise that is the reaction to this. None of it is helping.
And that includes Jessica Mendoza. We all understand the unwritten codes of clubhouses and locker rooms, but to attack Mike Fiers, the whistle-blower that helped blow the lid off of this, is not necessary any more than the rest of the league acting like nothing unsavory is going on in their clubhouses other than the special coffee. Yes, Fiers probably had something sticky on his glove during that no-hitter in Oakland, but that doesn’t automatically negate his coming forward.
I’m exhausted and we haven’t reached the Mets being involved without being involved, confetti on Josh Reddick being submitted as more evidence of wires, or how the Black Sox scandal was way WORSE than this because it was the final straw in the decades long growing influence of CRIMINAL elements in the game. It was just about cheating. It was about the game was becoming a complete facade by then.
So, let me go back to where I was at the beginning of this column. Let me go back to where I was last week. Let me go back to where I was in August of 1994 and during the fallout from the steroid saga. Baseball — this sport we love — has a very, very complicated history. Learn it. There have been a lot of mistakes and there will be a lot more because it is made up of humans… at least until the robot umpires get here. Yet each time baseball has found a way to improve itself, to grow, to change, even when it takes too long to do so. Stop getting caught up in its destruction and start hoping for a better tomorrow.
Pitcher and catchers report soon.
Lost in all the hoopla this week was the Twins signing of third baseman Josh Donaldson, the last of the big-ticket free agents out there. The former American League MVP signed a four-year deal with Minnesota worth 92 million dollars. Donaldson was a gamble of a signing for Atlanta last offseason coming off an injury ruined 2018 season. He delivered.
Now he’ll bring his power bat to the Twins, which means right now the Twins might already be on pace for a 400-home run season with the line-up they’re putting together.
Donaldson’s age is an interesting factor. He’ll be playing in his age 34 season and though we don’t think of age in baseball — or life — like we used to, it should be noted that only Kevin Brown has received a higher contract for a player 33 or older. But I can’t imagine that the Twins signed him thinking he’ll be hitting 37 bombs at 38. That’s a problem for another age. This was about 2020 and 2021. This was about a powerful Twins team wanting to get over that Divisional Round hump. They’ve added some pitching, might get more, and the time is now. Can they power they’re way to upper level of baseball? That is too be determined, but this was a smart move. A smart, fun baseball move. Refreshing news during this past week.
Countdown to the Hall of Fame
At the time of this writing, the 2020 Hall of Fame inductees are just days away from being announced. There are a lot of intriguing names on the list with Derek Jeter being the only sure thing. As stated previously in this column, Larry Walker deserves it for my money, but my ballot must have got lost in the mail. Outside of those names though, a lot of questions remain. None bigger than is this the year any of the headline makers from the Steroid Era get in?
Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa are still on the ballot. Others like Manny Ramirez, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi, Jeff Kent, and Scott Rolen were either part of those scandalous headlines or the victim of playing during that era. Clemens and Bonds have been hovering in the mid to high-50 percentile of the vote for the last few seasons. This might be their best chance, but I’ll be looking closely at their totals even if they don’t get the seventy-five percent required.
If they swing up, it just might indicate that baseball writers are ready to move forward from that confusing, aggravating, and trying time. In a way, they already have shown that. Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriquez are already in and whether proven PED users or not — their names were in enough conversations to warrant concern. Yet they’re in. So is Jeff Bagwell. (Again, not dirty but often guilty by association to the era in some eyes.) I don’t think Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens will get in this year, but a path to enshrinement is starting to emerge. It’s worth a watch this week.
This week in baseball history…
… Josh Gibson passed away at his mother’s house a few hours after suffering a stroke at a movie theater in 1947.
Josh Gibson became a myth. A name passed down through time as if it was a whisper in the wind. He was a power hitting legend and dubbed the “Black Babe Ruth.” But he was so much more. He was a legend. The best slugger of his time bar none, but he was also a painful reminder of all those who had been shut out of playing Major League Baseball for the simple and evil notion of the color of their skin being wrong. There is tragedy in his tale, yes, but much to celebrate beneath it all.
Gibson’s career statistics are hard to track simply because the Negro League stars of the day played in both official and unofficial games. They played when and where they could. Gibson is said to have hit more than 800 home runs and was credited with 72 of them during the 1932 season alone and 84 in 1936. He put on hitting displays wherever he played.
Josh, a catcher, was known by the Major League stars of the day. (No doubt all of the Negro League stars where) Dizzy Dean called him “one of the best catchers that ever caught a ball” and The Big Train himself, Walter Johnson once said, “There is a catcher that any big league club would like to buy for $200,000. His name is Gibson. He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. He catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.”
Hmph. “Too bad” is one way to describe it.
Though the long overdue integration of the game began to take shape in the mid-1940s, Gibson would never see that dream realized for him. Though he continued to play well in the early-1940s, Gibson’s health, both physically and mentally, began to decline. Headaches and seizures led to a brain tumor diagnosis in 1943. Some stories say he began to drink more during this time, leading to weight problems and more health issues. Meanwhile, Branch Rickey was about to find his man and make history.
Yet one other myth that is out there is often refuted by his son, Josh Gibson Jr. And that is the myth that Gibson died of a broken heart, his only goal being to play in the majors. While that could certainly be understood and part of the whole story, his son once said, “When I hear that stuff about how my father died of a broken heart, that pisses me off. Cause that wasn’t my father. He was the last guy to brood about something he couldn’t do nothing’ about.” That is an empowering way to look at the life of this legend. A broken heart being the sole cause of his death pits him against Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and the rest of those that did break the barrier long placed in front of them and those before them. He shouldn’t only be remembered for what he wasn’t allowed to accomplish. Josh Gibson should be celebrated for what he did accomplish. Know his name and marvel at his mythic accomplishments. Learn from his life. Dream about what should have been. He lives on that way.
Josh Gibson was only 35.
Walk Off Quote
“You can’t kill baseball because when you get ready to kill baseball, something is going to come up, or somebody is going to come up to snatch you out of that.”- Buck O’Neil, Negro League star, ambassador of the game, and the soul of baseball
Ken Napzok once hit a baseball two inches, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed.