It’s time for pitch­ers, catch­ers, cheaters

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY RON­ALD BLUM

Base­ball re­turns to the field when pitch­ers, catch­ers and cheaters re­port to spring train­ing.

Fans await the an­nual sunny scenes of fa­vorites stretch­ing on bright green grass in Florida and Ari­zona.

This year the play­ers bring along dark clouds of scan­dal – the 2017 World Se­ries cham­pion Hous­ton Astros have been tainted by their sign-steal­ing scam and the 2018 cham­pion Bos­ton Red Sox have been ac­cused of sim­i­lar sub­ver­sion.

Teams hope once work­outs start, the stain will fade.

“I think those sto­ries lines will weave in and out, but that spring train­ing is that junc­ture for in­di­vid­ual fan bases to be op­ti­mistic about what the sea­son ahead holds and it shifts back to that,” Toronto Blue Jays Pres­i­dent Mark Shapiro said. “There’s a nat­u­ral kind of rhythm to spring train­ing that di­verts to the pos­i­tive sto­ries.”

But first, con­fes­sions? Some re­gard base­ball’s blem­ish from sign steal­ing as vivid as the acne on the backs of steroids-swelled slug­gers of the 1990s and early 2000s.

None of the cur­rent mem­bers of the Astros has pub­licly ex­pressed con­tri­tion for break­ing pro­hi­bi­tions against us­ing a video cam­era to swipe signs from op­pos­ing catch­ers in 2017 and 2018. Base­ball Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred said spring train­ing might be the ap­pro­pri­ate time for a group mea culpa be­cause fes­s­ing up in­di­vid­u­ally dur­ing the off­sea­son “could be sort of a treach­er­ous road to go down.”

Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, now with Oak­land, sparked the scan­dal in Novem­ber when he went pub­lic in an in­ter­view with The Ath­letic. He took down 10% of ma­jor league man­agers and be­came for some an

MVP – Most Vir­tu­ous Player.

Hous­ton man­ager AJ Hinch and gen­eral man­ager Jeff Luh­now were sus­pended for the sea­son by Ma­jor League Base­ball on Jan. 13, and the pair were fired by the Astros later that day. Man­fred’s con­clu­sions led to the de­par­tures of Bos­ton man­ager Alex Cora, the Astros’ bench coach in 2017, and new New York Mets man­ager Car­los Bel­tran, Hous­ton’s se­nior player dur­ing the ti­tle run.

A third of the teams changed man­agers, in­clud­ing the Mets twice. Mil­wau­kee’s Craig Coun­sell, hired in May 2015, al­ready is the Na­tional League’s se­nior skip­per. New faces in­clude Dusty Baker (Astros), Joe Gi­rardi (Phillies), Gabe Kapler (Gi­ants), Joe Mad­don (An­gels), Mike Ma­theny (Roy­als), Luis Ro­jas (Mets), David Ross (Cubs), Derek Shel­ton (Pi­rates) and Jayce Tin­gler (Padres), with the Red Sox yet to an­nounce Cora’s suc­ces­sor.

Baker, at 70 the old­est big league man­ager, is tasked with keep­ing the Astros on track to be­come the first team to win 100 or more games in four straight sea­sons. He also will try to steady a core branded as vil­lains by play­ers and fans in other cities.

“You got to go for­ward and make sure that it doesn’t hap­pen again,” Baker said. “It cer­tainly is not go­ing to hap­pen on my watch here, and I don’t fore­see it hap­pen­ing ever again be­cause this has been an em­bar­rass­ment for a lot of peo­ple.”

Cora’s pun­ish­ment was delayed by Man­fred pend­ing MLB’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Red Sox, which could con­clude this week. Bos­ton’s tur­moil ex­tended to the trade mar­ket, with a deal that would send former MVP Mookie Betts and former Cy Young Award win­ner David Price to the Los An­ge­les Dodgers as part of a three-team trade in­volv­ing Min­nesota.

The de­lay in the deal be­ing fi­nal­ized prompted crit­i­cism from the play­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion, still smart­ing over the griev­ance loss of Chicago Cubs third base­man Kris Bryant, who un­suc­cess­fully claimed the team vi­o­lated the la­bor con­tract by de­lay­ing his big league de­but un­til the day his free-agent el­i­gi­bil­ity would be delayed a year.

Bryant’s trade value in­creased with ar­bi­tra­tor Mark Irv­ings’ de­ci­sion, be­cause ac­quir­ing teams can be cer­tain he can­not go free for two more sea­sons. The cost of top free agents was never more vivid than this off­sea­son.

Play­ers who switched teams in­cluded pitcher Ger­rit Cole ($324 mil­lion from the Yan­kees), third base­man An­thony Ren­don ($245 mil­lion from the An­gels), right-han­der Zack Wheeler ($118 mil­lion from the Phillies), third base­man

Josh Don­ald­son ($92 mil­lion from the Twins) and left-han­der Madi­son Bum­gar­ner ($85 mil­lion from the Di­a­mond­backs).

Right-han­der Stephen Stras­burg be­came a free agent shortly af­ter win­ning the World Se­ries MVP award, then stayed with the Na­tion­als for $245 mil­lion.

On the De­cem­ber day he signed with the Yan­kees, Cole thanked pioneer­ing player Curt Flood, former union head Marvin Miller and oth­ers who fought to gain free agency and then to pre­serve it.

“It’s so im­por­tant that play­ers know the other sac­ri­fices that play­ers made in or­der to keep the in­tegrity of the game where it is,” Cole said.

All those big bucks and pre-Christ­mas deals con­trasted with the slow mar­kets of the prior two off­sea­sons. Spend­ing fol­lowed MLB’s fourth straight at­ten­dance drop, to 68.5 mil­lion, down from 73.8 mil­lion in 2015.

“It’s a more com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment. More teams are try­ing to win,” New York Mets gen­eral man­ager Brodie Van Wa­ge­nen said.

Washington will raise the cham­pi­onship flag for the first time in fran­chise his­tory and will try to be­come the first re­peat win­ner since the Yan­kees from 1998-2000. The pre­vi­ous long­est stretch was be­tween the 1977-78 Yan­kees and the 1992-93 Blue Jays.

Hous­ton will go for its third AL pen­nant in four sea­sons, and the Yan­kees will try to reach the Se­ries for the first time since 2009 – fol­low­ing their first decade since the 1910s without a World Se­ries ap­pear­ance.

“We can all look each other in the eyes and know, when it counts, we can all count on each other,” Na­tion­als ace Max Scherzer said, “and we’re a bunch of win­ners.”

Cham­pi­ons al­ways be­lieve that. But it hasn’t worked out for any one them in two decades.

MARK LENNIHAN AP

Pitcher Ger­rit Cole agreed to a nine-year, $324 mil­lion con­tract with the Yan­kees, thank­ing pioneer­ing player Curt Flood, former union head Marvin Miller and oth­ers who fought to gain free agency and then to pre­serve it.

Madi­son Bum­gar­ner

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