Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 27, 2019

Problems That Won’t End With The Series

What a difference a couple of days make. Just as a game can look very different in the 6th inning than it did in the 2nd, come the playoffs momentum in a series can easily shift between the contestants. That’s because with so much at stake over each short series, every opportunity to put a game in the win column is vitally important. When the Nationals and Astros headed east from Houston after last Wednesday’s Game 2, the upstart Washington nine held a two games to none lead and probably didn’t really require an airplane to take flight and wing their way back to the nation’s capital. Now after two contests at Nationals Park, the World Series is knotted at two games apiece and the once-desperate Astros are the squad with the wind at their back.

As this is written the teams are getting ready for Game 5, the last contest of the year to be played on the Nationals’ home field. By the time many readers are perusing this paragraph, the results of that game will be in the books and the teams will be headed back to Minute Maid Park to put the final exclamation point on the longest season. Should Washington win on Sunday, the Nationals will still face the great challenge of closing out the Series on the road, but at least they will head back west with the lead. But if Houston wins yet again, and the Astros odds improved with late word that Washington’s Max Scherzer has been scratched from his scheduled start due to injury, then for the first time since 1996 the first five World Series games will all have been won by the visiting team. Since that was the season the Yankees took four in a row from Atlanta after losing the first two games at home, the Astros surely won’t mind the comparison. Even if the visitor win streak stops at four, only a daring gambler would have put any hard-earned cash down on a prop bet predicting that outcome.

But the warning that appeared in this space after the first two games still holds true. It was too early then to be planning a parade, and it remains too early to do so now. The only certainty is that this year’s Series is not going to end Sunday night. So, with more baseball still to be played, there’s time to step back from the action on the field and consider a couple of less pleasant topics; two unrelated and very different issues that have hung over this Fall Classic like dark clouds threatening a rainout.

The first is the inexcusable pace of play, an issue that has become all too familiar to fans of the Great Game come this time of year. The first sentence of the previous paragraph could really have two meanings. The obvious one is that the Series won’t end Sunday because neither squad faces elimination in Game 5. But even if one team was vying for its decisive fourth win, it’s still very nearly certain that with the game being played on the East Coast, the end would not come Sunday night, but rather sometime after midnight, in the nether hours of Monday morning. Two of the first four contests ran more than four hours, with the average length of the quartet being just six minutes short of that mark. That’s nearly an hour longer than the average regular season game, and that three hour-plus time is in turn hardly laudable, as evidenced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s focus on reducing it.

That focus needs to produce real results soon, whether by imposing ball or strike penalties on pitchers and hitters who dawdle, eliminating warm-up throws for relievers who have just spent ten minutes warming up in the bullpen, or requiring hurlers to face a minimum of three batters. Postseason contests are going to take longer – the commercial needs of TV networks shelling out millions of dollars for broadcast rights will always make that a certainty. But since they are also the most watched games of the year, that’s even more reason to address pace of play in areas that MLB can control.

There have been multiple commentaries on the 86-year gap between World Series games in Washington. But those historical perspectives have mostly missed one especially telling contemporaneous account of Game 3 of the 1933 Series, before which President Franklin Roosevelt threw out the first pitch. The local paper reported that FDR then stayed for the entire game, despite it running “almost two hours.” In modern playoff games, the two-hour mark usually comes in the 5th inning.

Four hour games try the patience of even the most dedicated fan. But, along with MLB’s insistence on starting every contest in its championship round after 8 p.m. East Coast time, they ensure that the young fans who baseball claims to be trying to attract are, or should be, fast asleep by the time of the final out.

The second major distraction during this Series has been the Astros’ contemptible initial response to Sports Illustrated’s account of assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s misogynistic outburst at a group of women reporters, one of who is an outspoken advocate for domestic violence victims, during the team’s post-ALCS celebration. Taubman’s profane taunting was bad enough, but it would have gone down as one fool’s idiotic ravings had the Astros not launched a scurrilous attack on Stephanie Apstein, the SI reporter who broke the story.

Once multiple witnesses put the lie to Houston’s claim that the incident as reported by Apstein never happened, Astros management started backtracking. But that process moved at a pace like that of a postseason game, and along the way general manager Jeff Luhnow conceded that the team’s original statement attacking Apstein had gone through multiple levels of review within the Astros’ organization. About the only person in authority who seemed to have a clue as to just how bad the Astros looked was manager A.J. Hinch, who immediately distanced himself and his players from the incident.

If Luhnow’s assertion is accurate and not just an attempt to spread responsibility so broadly that no action beyond the firing of Taubman is feasible, it speaks to a culture that is both defensive and benighted on a critical issue, begging the question as to whether that attitude is limited to just domestic violence. As Hannah Keyser, baseball writer for Yahoo Sports put it, the Astros should “want to know if and why journalists might not feel comfortable in their clubhouse,” adding that the team should “treat the broader societal culture that too often tolerates or downplays domestic violence as the adversary instead of the people who take issue with it.” For a franchise that may soon be celebrating its second title in three years, and as such is one of the Great Game’s most visible, it’s neither a good nor a welcome look.

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