THE BIG HIT | Punishment Time

by Ken Napzok

“I’m out it for a little while and everybody gets delusions of grandeur.” – Han Solo, hero and scoundrel.

My apologies. I was a little out of sync and finished the month’s third column a little later than planned due to an illness and a car accident. 

I’m fine. My 2004 Camry is not. 

I returned to the fold having missed most of the hot button topics of the week in Major League Baseball. Most of them revolving around how much people hate Rob Mandred or the Houston Astros. 

So in other words… all things are normal.

Except for this past week, Spring Training began and oh boy did the players show up ready to talk. Opinions and hot takes were flying around like the juiced-up baseballs many of them enjoyed last season. 

Mike Trout chimed in.

Aaron Judge admitted to deleting tweets of good tidings to Jose Altuve and called the Astros 2017 title into question. 

Cody Bellinger and Carlos Correa won’t be inviting each other over for tea and crumpets.

David Ortiz — the beloved El Papi — chimed in with a hot take on Mike Fiers and the Sanctity of the Clubhouse. 

And Nick Markakis declared open hunting season on the Astros.

And that was just the tweets I could see while waiting in the doctor’s office. It has been — to say the least — an explosive couple of weeks. I really do believe at some point very soon the simple act of playing baseball will take over and true healing will begin. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I am way more excited for this baseball season than I should be BECAUSE of all this drama. There are going to be some fireworks on par with Disco Demolition Night at old Comiskey Park and I predict now that you’ll see a ratings spike. 

Seriously.

People are mesmerized by drama. Who needs some reality show competition? Baseball will have the blow-ups and fights you want. Maybe each game should end with a rose ceremony?

But one thing that keeps emerging and dominating the sound bites and talking points is that Manfred and Company didn’t do enough to discipline the players and the Astros organization as a whole. Never mind that immunity had to be promised to the players to get their cooperation or that Manfred is rightly asking where does it stop if he takes the 2017 World Series title from the Astros? Do you then go to the Red Sox 2018 title? Sure. It makes some sense. But what about teams that won with players who’s success was based in large part on banned substances? Do you stop with the titles or go into specific wins during the season? And how far back? Should the cocaine 1980s factor in? What about decades of players fueled by Greenies? 

Maybe those are some silly questions to some, but if you stop typing your Facebook manifesto against Major League Baseball long enough you might be able to see at least some small portion of sense in it. 

However… I hear you… the Astros should be punished.

Here are some options. 

Suspensions All-Around

If you played or coached with the Houston Astros in 2017, (We won’t even WORRY about 2019… yet.) then you get a 50 game suspension. No if, ands, or buts about it. We don’t care if you tried to stop it, took a baseball bat to the cameras, and told Carlos Beltran that you wanted out of his Replay Feed Mafia, you’re gone! The suspensions begin immediately and it doesn’t matter where you play right now. No appeals either. You were there — you are gone. 

As for backfilling the rosters? Teams outside of Houston will just have to push forward those prospects on the cusp a bit sooner than planned, but the Astros Triple A team gets to move into Minute Maid Park for these games. That’s right! The Round Rock Express roster gets to chug it’s way up to the bigs!

Oh, sure the Player’s Union will be mad — so will Jose Altuve’s wife — but thems the breaks, kids. We’ll see you on the field after the suspensions are completed. 

Do-Overs

At the conclusion of the 2020 season, get ready because if we go with this punishment the entire 2017 American League playoffs will be replayed with the rosters from that season. That’s right, it will be like a rage quit in a video game or going back to save point before you blow a game on Madden. We’ll just do it all again. 

Now, some players are clearly not on the same teams anymore and some players are retired, but that doesn’t matter. In fact, it will be part of the FUN! Especially when Carlos Beltran has to suit up again! So, get ready to relive the past as the Twins, Yankees, Indians, and Red Sox get one more chance to take out the Astros.

As for the Dodgers. Well, they just have to field their exact same roster from 2017 and play the winner of the 2017 A.L. playoffs redux. If they win, then the Gods wanted it that way. It’s kind of like Trial By Combat in Game of Thrones.

Oh, sure the Player’s Union will be mad — so will Clayton Kershaw for being forced to pitch in the playoffs again — but this just seems fair. 

Beanball Bonanza

This is one is pretty simple… and wonderfully violent. Americans fans will love it.

For the entire 2020 season, every opponent of the Houston Astros gets one free beanball during every game they play against the Astros. All they have to do is decide when and who they want to plunk in the small of the back.

No headhunting, please.

After — and the after is the key part — an Astros player gets hit, the opposing team gets to decide if that beanball is the one they want to use as their freebie. This will allow for unintentional beanballs not getting in the way of their revenge. 

Once a team uses their freebie the batter does NOT get to go to first base. He just has to sit there and take it like a grown-up paying their taxes. 

Oh, sure the Player’s Union will be mad — so will Yu Darvish for not pitching in the A.L. — but this just seems like a simple fix to the problem and keeps in line with baseball tradition of settling it on the field. 

Markakis Takes On The World

Borrowing a page from pro wrestling, during the All-Star Break, Nick Markakis will be in a Gauntlet Match against six Astros voted in by the fans. 

It will be a shoot fight, but pro wrestling attire and theme music will be required as well. 

The match goes as long as Markakis keeps winning, so vote wisely fans! Should Markakis win, he’ll get a guaranteed title shot at SummerSlam 2020. 

Oh, sure the Player’s Union will be mad — until the ratings for this event come in!

So, there, I think each and every one of those punishments are fair and should be considered binding if accepted. They are also better than the alternative… which is just canceling baseball so that Madison Bumgarner can compete in rodeo events loud, proud, and without an alias.

Or… you know… we can keep moving forward as fans and sport, learn from past mistakes, and get back to celebrating what is still the greatest game ever created. 

Real Fantasy Tips

Can you smell that? Can you feel that change in the air? That’s right — the 2020 Major League Baseball Spring Training games have begun. It’s time for that crack of the bat and snap of a ball hitting glove to clear out the cold winter winds and send the bad vibes of this offseason to the back of the team bus. 

But it also means that Fantasy Baseball owners everywhere have begun to put down their preview magazines and watch the actual games when they’re supposed to be working. Hope is truly springing eternal as those first pitches and swings of the season dance on your TV screen — or smartphone screen — and that means your attachments to those players you are CONVINCED will take giant steps forward is at its peak. 

Careful now… 

Don’t get too attached to those spring stats. A good season they do not necessarily make. 

This not to suggest that these stats don’t mean anything. No, no — there’s nothing wrong the players on your draft board to do good in Florida or Arizona. It’s just that you shouldn’t go too far down the path of using that .533 batting average or 4-1 record with only start going more than 4 innings as the be-all and end-all for your draft day decisions. If you have a tough choice to make at your draft, go with proven track records, guaranteed playing time, and good ole’ common sense.

After half a lifetime of playing fantasy sports, I’ve become less and less interested in the Player on the Verge with the big spring on draft day and more likely to draft them later on in their careers — when they got over the Verge. 

Case in point: Last season Garrett Hampson — a talented young player for the Colorado Rockies — had a lot of competition to make the roster out of spring training and impressed throughout the competition. Speed, some pop, and versatility in the field — he’s the type of player my co-owner and I love to slip into key rosters spots and were all aboard the Hampson Express. We held him at $2 and gave him a prized spot on our club. We knew he wasn’t going to start full-time or even making the All-Star team, but we figured he’d be good for 25 important stolen bases and get enough at-bats to be one of those important supplemental players that fake fantasy titles that mean everything to your self-esteem are built on. 

Going to baseball-reference.com right now to double-check and….  yeah… that wasn’t a great season.

Hampson batted .247, slugged .385, and those needed stolen bases? He finished with 15 while also spending some time back in Triple-A. 

Those memories of that rousing, inspiring spring training were a cold, distant memory.

But here’s the thing! The point isn’t to take jabs at a 24-year-old prospects mildly disappointing first season. This is to say that Garrett Hampson could have been drafted last year. There was certainly reason to after that spring. But it was a year too early to put all that Fantasy Baseball pressure on him. This is the season Garrett Hampson should be drafted. Early projections have him pushing 40 stolen bases and 20 home runs. He’s still “on” the verge, but that climb seems tremendously more realistic this season. Garrett Hampson is worth taking a bit of risk, good spring stats or not. 

Check those box scores, read those scouting reports, and downloaded all the fantasy apps you can fit onto your phone, but never forget to temper that spring training excitement when you stroll into your draft. 

This week in baseball history…

… Homer Simpson won the game. 

On February 20th, 1992, one of the most memorable, most quoted, and most important episodes of The Simpsons aired and gave Fox one of its first big ratings wins over NBC’s The Cosby Show and the Winter Olympics while immediately taking its rightful place among the great baseball-related pieces of media in history. 28 years ago this week, Homer stepped up to the plate in the 52nd episode of the show’s illustrious run titled “Homer at the Bat.”

The episode saw Homer and his mythical baseball bat Wonder Bat lead the Springfield Power Plant’s work softball team to win after win until Mr. Burns makes a million-dollar bet with his rival over in Shelbyville. Enter the ringers…

To win the bet, Mr. Burns has Smithers scour “all the professional leagues” to gather a can’t lose collection of Major League players to sneak onto the team. The episode was crafted in 1991 and an impressive list of big names from that era joined the team. Darryl Strawberry, Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, Ozzie Smith, Steve Sax, Mike Scioscia, and a 21-year-old Ken Griffey Jr all took jobs at the power plant and nudged Homer and his co-workers out of the starting line-up. 

Along the way, all of the players are beset by a series of unfortunate events that keep all but Darryl Strawberry off the team. This leads to Homer getting the chance to win it all for his team after Mr. Burns “plays the percentages” and pinch hits for Strawberry with America’s favorite power plant Safety Inspector from Sector 7G. And Homer comes through in a way only Homer can… and in the process creates one of the best baseball moments in the sport’s history. 

This episode was one of the first big episodes of The Simpsons — the one that created social media trending of the day, watercooler conversations — and set the tone for not just celebrity casting on the show going forward, but Simpsonized celebrities. 

For baseball fans, the episode was an instant classic full of memorable quotes and moments that followed the players throughout their careers. It was hard to not see Clemens pitching without the image of him clucking like a chicken, yell for Mattingly to shave his sideburns, or to wonder if Ozzie Smith every found his way back to our dimension after falling into the Springfield Mystery Spot. Knowing those quotes also brought you a bit closer together with the baseball fans that you’ve met along the way that share your love and understanding when you yell “Pitt the Elder” at Wade Boggs or say, “Some of these players have a bad attitude, skip.” Knowing this episode made you feel like you were on a team of your own. 

Looking back now the episode is both a time capsule of the era and, in typical Simpson’s fashion, an insightful look into the game itself and many things to come. Rising player salaries, analytics, and even performance-enhancing… brain tonics. We should have been paying attention just as much as laughing along with the episode! Even one of its more famous bits was a prediction. Don Mattingly’s battle with Mr. Burns over his unruly hair seemed to be a great dig at the real-life feud between Donnie Baseball, Yankee manager Stump Merrill, and owner George Steinbrenner. In truth, Mattingly’s dialogue was recorded weeks before the feud started. Legendary showrunner Al Jean had put that sequence into the show as an ode to his hardware store owning grandfather who detested long hair on his employees. Yet another unprecedented successful prediction that the show gets credit for. 

For its 25th anniversary, “Homer at the Bat” was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame and the episode took its place next to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” and even the grand poem from which the episode takes its title from, Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.” And it’s well deserved. Homer Simpson definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Tony Fernandez

On Sunday, February 16th, Tony Fernandez passed away after suffering a stroke in the middle of a long battle with kidney disease. He was 57. News like this just doesn’t seem right to a baseball fan that grew up in the 1980s when Fernandez was the American League’s answer to Ozzie Smith while slapping hits all around Exhibition Stadium for the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s surreal and sad.

Tony Fernandez was from another era of baseball. This is easy to grasp and to celebrate. Baseball is infinitely more interesting because it stretches across different periods of history but those separate chapters can sometimes lessen a player’s value when placed up against the eras that followed. The statistical accomplishments of Tony Fernandez would not place him among the elites today. He never had an OPS higher than .877, he only had one two hundred hit season, only notched two league-leading stats (17 triples in 1990 and 687 at-bats in 1986), and he didn’t even cross 100 career home runs. Yet when the much-celebrated San Diego-Toronto trade in the winter of 1990 happened, it was the Padres that seemed to have gotten the better of the deal when they acquired Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar. Fernandez was just that dazzling a shortstop to watch play and carried that much value.

I always enjoyed pulling a Fernandez card out of a wax pack that showed him in the field. Particularly the 1998 and ‘89 Score and ‘88 Fleer cards. The photos popped off the cardstock because he looked so nimble and ready to pounce on any ball hit near him. It’s no wonder he won four straight Gold Gloves from 1986 to 1989. 

After the trade to the Padres, baseball began to change. Power became the name of the day and players were measured more by the number of baseballs that they smacked around the park than by the amount of baseballs they stopped dead in their tracks. Fernandez settled into a second-tier role on many rosters including the 1995 Yankees and 1997 Indians teams. (He was injured all season for the ‘96 Yanks run.) His time at the top started to fade, but his name carried the memories and respect of those summers in Toronto. 

He would return to the Blue Jays three times. He helped them in their 1993 championship run and drove in 9 runs against the Phillies in the World Series. He returned again in 1998 and had two of his best offensive seasons, including a return to the All-Star game in 1999. It was like old times. Tony Fernandez in an All-Star game as a Blue Jay… and that’s how I’ll always remember him. 

Thanks, Tony. 

Walk Off Quote

“You, Strawberry, hit a home run.” – C. Montgomery Burns, softball manager

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Ken Napzok never thought Mattingly should have shaved those sideburns, but he is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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