MLB HAS A SECRET AND WON’T TELL

By Murray Chass

July 6, 2014

If I had my choice, I would take baseball the way it used to be played, when everything was decided on the field. But they don’t ask me so I have to be content with accepting all of the decisions that are made in Major League Baseball offices instead of on Major League Baseball fields.

“You’re old school like I am,” Joe Torre said. “I understand your thinking.”Official Scorer 225

Torre, however, is a key person in an element of the game that has taken it off the field and dumped it in an office where Torre, the executive vice president for baseball operations, makes critical decisions. Those decisions, on the other hand, aren’t as critical and decisive as other decisions made behind closed doors that actually can determine the outcome of games.

Conceivably the outcome of those games could determine the outcome of division and wild-card races and make an impact on the outcome of the World Series.

I am not faulting Torre. In ruling on official scorers’ calls that are questioned, he is only doing the job he has been assigned. He didn’t say in our telephone conversation last week, but I am certain he would be happy not to have to do the job. He grew up playing baseball, not scoring it.

Same with the umpires who sit in an office on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. They would rather be on the field calling balls and strikes, safe or out than scrutinizing television replays to see if their colleagues on the field got their calls right.

This is what baseball has become, a game that is at the mercy of a television screen. You’d rather they get it right no matter what it takes? The game survived more than a hundred years without off-field help. It could make the next hundred the same way.

But baseball is now what it is, and old-school or not, we have to accept it or switch to soccer.

In looking into the modern system, I discovered one element of it for which there seems to be no justification. Major League Baseball will disclose to the news media no information about scoring changes. No explanation is provided for that bizarre stance.

MLB apparently doesn’t allow its official statistician, the very capable and usually helpful Elias Sports Bureau, to disclose information either.

After Phyllis Merhige, MLB’s senior vice president for club relations, who coordinates official scoring, declined to say how many scorers’ calls have been changed this season I called Elias and was told, “It’s up to MLB as to what information they want to put out.”

Unless I am missing something, this has to be MLB at its paranoid worst. I started out seeking a simple answer to what I thought was a harmless question, but it became a case worthy of questioning and probing.

Phyllis Merhige2“I don’t give out numbers on how many come in or how many have been changed,” Merhige said in an e-mail response to my e-mail request. “There is some sensitivity to these numbers vis-à-vis the group of official scorers and I am sensitive to what is public about this process.”

But she wasn’t totally unhelpful. “I will tell you,” she added, “that of those that come, in any given year, whatever the total number, approximately 1/3 of the scorers’ decision are either overturned or changed in some way.”

Another person with knowledge of the process said roughly 50 changes are made during a season. “Every week three or four changes are made,” he said.

I still wanted to get the accurate count from MLB and sent Merhige another e-mail.

“Why the secrecy?” I asked. “Scorers’ decisions are announced when they are made; why shouldn’t the changes be announced? Some apparently are. What distinguishes the announced from the unannounced? You say some scorers are sensitive to changes being announced. The umpires, who have a union, agreed to the use of replay. MLB pays the scorers. If MLB opted to announce changes, what could the scorers, who don’t have a union, do?”

“I am not sensitive to the changes being announced,” Merhige replied this time, “but I see no reason why scorers need to know how many of these come in during the year or which other scorers are involved in the request and/or changes. We made that decision at the get-go and I’m sticking to it.”

Torre said he didn’t know how many calls he had changed this season.

“Last year I overturned about one-fourth to one-third of the requests,” he said. What about specific numbers? “There were a lot. I’d rather not tell you that. The first year” – 2011 – “it was a workable number. It’s probably tripled.”Joe Torre3 225

As for disclosing changes, he said, “We don’t announce changes that are the result of reviews, but since every overturned or changed decision affects stats, they are hardly secrets.”

That would seem to support the idea of disclosures, but I found no one in MLB who was willing to make disclosures from a system that seems to have no need for secrecy.

As far as the system itself goes, a person familiar with the process said one problem with the system stems from the union’s relatively recent involvement in scoring decisions. Union officials, who frankly have not been impressive in the early stages of the new regime, would better spend their time and energy on legitimate collective bargaining matters. Somehow I can’t see Marvin Miller disputing a hit or an error

The union, however, I am told, is reacting to players’ agents, who apparently have been active in lobbying for hits for their clients, whose bonus provisions in their contracts could be affected by scoring decisions. Here, too, I think Miller would have told the agents what they could do with their scoring complaints.

Here is one of the more recent cases initiated by an agent. A month ago the Beverly Hills Sports Council appealed, through the union, a call that deprived client Tommy Medica of the first cycle in San Diego Padres history.

Martin Prado of Arizona had been charged with an error on Medica’s second-inning shot to him at third base, and in his next three at-bats Medica lashed a home run, a triple and a double. He lofted a fly to center in the ninth. His agent wanted the second-inning grounder to be ruled a single.

Of course, to suggest that had the play been called a hit in the second inning and assume that the other hits would have followed is to be guilty of the fallacy of the pre-destined cycle.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it’s a variation on a term – fallacy of the pre-destined hit – that a Baltimore baseball writer, Ken Nigro, coined many years ago when someone suggested that had a runner not been picked off second base before the next batter singled, the team would have scored a run.

The run, Nigro noted, could not be assumed because the pitcher might have pitched the batter differently had the runner still been at second.

In Medica’s case, there’s no way of knowing what he might have done, for example in his fourth time at bat had he singled, homered and tripled in his first three at-bats.

But I digress, This is about challenges to and changes to scoring calls, and frankly it’s a selfish act of the highest order for Medica’s agent to try to get him a cycle when his team lost 12-6. Having nothing to do with the score, the appeal was denied.

Last month David Ortiz’s appeal was granted. He made it more demonstratively and vocally than most.

David Ortiz 2013 225In a tie game in Boston, Ortiz rapped a shot that Minnesota first baseman Joe Mauer failed to corral. It was scored an error, and Ortiz instantly made his objections known, gesturing at the press box, where the official scorer sits. When the game was over and Ortiz was in the clubhouse, he let his feelings known there, too.

Torre took exception to the designated hitter’s behavior and verbiage and issued a statement chastising him.

“I took offense to the fact first of all there was a process,” Torre said.

Ortiz, however, got the hit he wanted when the official scorer changed his ruling. Ortiz benefited from another scoring change, this one from the game in which Yu Darvish nearly pitched a no-hitter.

Ortiz lofted a high pop that fell untouched between two Texas fielders, and the scorer, saying he was basing the call on a scoring rule that says a play that can be made with “ordinary effort” can be judged as an error even if no player touches the ball, called it a hit. Darvish didn’t get the no-hitter because Ortiz grounded a single through the infield with two out in the ninth, but MLB subsequently ruled his popup a hit, retroactively ending the no-hit bid in the seventh inning.

When the Baseball Writers Association oversaw scoring, MLB did not serve its present function, However, the BBWAA relinquished its jurisdiction in 1979 after newspapers, initially a handful, then a steadily increasing number, barred their writers from scoring as a conflict of interest.

During my four decades covering baseball for The New York Times we were never allowed to serve as official scorers. I did, however, score a few games in 1978 when the Newspaper Guild was striking the Times and I wasn’t working.

I quickly experienced that era’s version of scoring complaints.

Graig Nettles, the Yankees’ third baseman, occasionally complained about a call on a play in which he was involved, and he would typically ask the first writer he would see in the clubhouse, “Who was the scorer tonight?” That signaled his intention to chew out the writer for a call he didn’t like.Graig Nettles

On this particular night, he asked me who the scorer was, and I said ungrammatically, “Me.”

Not even waiting for a downbeat, Nettles launched into a profanity-loaded tirade. He had hit a hard grounder to first base that he thought was a hit, but I charged Milwaukee first baseman Cecil Cooper with an error because I felt he had played the ball into an error, going down on one knee to field it.

Nettles, a .248 career hitter, batted .276 that season, highest in his 22-year career. If I had ruled that grounder a hit, his 1978 average would have been .278.

Gene Michael, the Yankees’ shortstop, who at the next locker heard Nettles’ profane diatribe, suggested to him that he should apologize. I told Nettles if he acknowledged in any way that he was wrong for what he said and how he said it I would talk to him; otherwise I wouldn’t. He did neither.

A few years later he encountered a reporter from those days on an elevator and said, “You know, Murray Chass told me he wouldn’t talk to me, and he never has.” My reporter friend said Nettles made that comment with a tone of respect.

HE WHO HAS THE HAMMER USES IT

Commissioner Bud Selig swung his big stick last week and connected on behalf of his old fraternity brother, Oakland A’s owner Lew Wolff. It’s about time Selig did something for Wolff, but his noble act shouldn’t be exaggerated. He was acting on his own behalf as well as Wolff’s.

Stepping in when it appeared that Oakland city officials might kill a 10-year stadium lease deal, Selig gave Wolff permission to seek a playground anywhere else in Oakland or anywhere else anywhere.Lew Wolff Bud Selig.jpg

Conspicuously absent from the itinerary Selig handed Wolff was a ticket to San Jose, the owner’s destination of choice. I don’t know this for a fact, but I strongly believe that when Selig told Wolff he was giving him his passage out of Oakland, if necessary, the commissioner made his long-time buddy agree not to use San Jose against him.

Selig’s public travel voucher was for one reason and one reason only: to be used as a sledgehammer to bludgeon the dim-witted Oakland officials into agreeing to sign the lease that would give the A’s a home park for the next 10 years.

Selig, who knows and has said as much that Wolff and the A’s can’t survive where they play now, did what he had to do for a temporary fix. He used his big hammer but on somebody else. Wolff can’t make Selig use it on himself to decide the San Jose issue.

If Wolff had signed that lease March 30, 2009, he would be more than halfway through it. That was the date the commissioner named a three-man committee to study the San Jose issue.

Instead of singing “Do you know the way to San Jose” Wolff should be singing another tune: “If I had a hammer.”

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