Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 17, 2022

Fans Hope, Managers Manage, And Owners Take

Seven perfect innings.  Twenty-one batters up, twenty-one batters down, thirteen by strikeout and all on just eighty pitches.  That’s what the box score told fans who tuned in late to Wednesday afternoon’s contest between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins.  Clayton Kershaw, the longtime Dodgers’ mainstay was making his first start of the young season on a frigid day in Minneapolis, and clearly making the most of it.  Until he wasn’t.  For after seven frames, right at the point when the thoughts of the 17,000-plus at Target Field and the many times that number watching from home shifted from “impressive performance” to “this could be historic,” L.A. manager Dave Roberts went to his bullpen, ending Kershaw’s bid for MLB’s twenty-fourth perfect game just as it became a distinct possibility.

The reaction was predictably swift and overwhelmingly negative.  Social media lit up with outrage from fans, and many members of the baseball media were equally quick to pile on.  Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski saw the manager’s decision as proof of baseball’s “irrelevancy” to most sports fans.  Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson tweeted “WHAT THE!”  Another Twitter user, presumably a lifelong Dodgers fan, opined that he couldn’t “see Sandy or Don D coming out under the same circumstances,” referring to team legends Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

There were initially few voices on the other side.  Journalist Molly Knight let the tweeting fan know he was correct for reasons he likely didn’t intend, since Kershaw is 34 years old, and Koufax was forced into retirement at age 30 by arm trouble.  She could have added that Drysdale was also out of baseball by age 32 after a rotator cuff injury.  Then, over the next day or two, other observers started to weigh in with support for the obviously difficult call that Roberts made, especially after L.A. pitching coach Mark Prior, the one-time Cubs star whose own career was wrecked by injury, made it clear that Kershaw was involved in the decision.  For his part, the three-time Cy Young Award winner said he felt bad for fans who were deprived of the chance to witness history but agreed with Roberts’s call because the team was focused on “bigger things man, bigger things.” 

Kershaw was of course referring to a World Series championship, which has never been won during the regular season’s first week.  Roberts also emphasized the long view, both immediately after Wednesday’s game and again on Friday as the Dodgers were getting ready for the franchise’s home opener at Chavez Ravine.  It’s an especially salient point to both men.  The free-spending Dodgers have been a popular preseason pick as the National League representative in the Series for most of the last decade.  The team won the NL West eight years in a row before finishing a single game behind the surprising Giants last season, although with 106 wins the 2021 Dodgers set the mark for the most victories by a non-division winner.  But regular postseason appearances and three trips to the World Series have produced just one title, at the end of 2020’s pandemic-shorted schedule.  Last year Kershaw was shut down for long stretches, and missed L.A.’s postseason run, by a forearm injury.  Treatment for that problem also prevented him from maintaining his usual winter training regimen, and the owner-imposed lockout then resulted in an abbreviated Spring Training.

In short, Roberts could cite a lengthy list of Kershaw-specific reasons for handling his veteran lefthander with extreme care, without even calling to mind a more general problem the Dodgers encountered last October.  That was when, with Kershaw already on the shelf, the team also saw midseason pickup Max Scherzer miss a start in the NLCS and suffer a sharp decline in effectiveness when he did pitch, because his arm went dead from overuse.  To his credit, the Dodgers manager recognized the disappointment felt by fans, saying he was one as well, but “I can’t manage a ballclub and players with my fan cap on.”

None of which appeased some fans, who cited the decision to pull Kershaw as just the latest evidence of how the Great Game is being ruined by analytics.  But that argument is the proverbial square peg in the round hole, trying to make a set of facts conform to one’s existing bias. 

Besides, while the heavy reliance on advanced metrics by virtually every front office is certainly sapping the sport of needed spontaneity, the question of what might be “ruining” baseball was answered loudly at the same time fans and pundits were arguing over Kershaw’s putative perfect game.  That declaration came not from Target Field or Dodger Stadium, but Cincinnati, just prior to the Reds home opener, when team owner Phil Castellini told fans unhappy with the franchise’s offseason fire sale of players, that they had no other club to root for and the best option for him to make more money was to relocate.

Despite the storm of social media posts and the click-bait opinion of a Philadelphia sportswriter after Roberts removed his starting pitcher, the Great Game is surely not going away.  The very outpouring proved that, for why bother commenting on something irrelevant?  But there is a festering sore infecting baseball.  The source of this insidious wound is not fans hoping to see history or a manager making an unpopular decision, but selfish owners who, like a certain Dickens character, care only about profit.  Odds are the other members of that little club did not appreciate Phil Castellini speaking the quiet part out loud.

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