GELFAND: Scandal Makers and Conference Championship Picks

Please Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sport

For some, it’s no scandal at all. Hey, everybody does it.

For others, it places baseball just above cockfighting on the sports ladder of disgrace.

As a centrist, I see no reason we can’t have it both ways.

Yes, the sign-stealing scandal that originated in Houston in 2017 is pretty awful. But it’s hard to be shocked. It wasn’t that long ago that the likes of Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were simultaneously inflating their home run stats and their neck size.

The lords of baseball looked the other way during the steroid era and then, cornered at last, professed to be shocked and finally took action. We were all relieved that the national pastime had put an end to this lust for home runs that had demeaned the game and stripped it of its subtlety.

Except last year, it was the lords of baseball themselves who continued that lust for the round-tripper by disposing of that tired old baseball and replacing it with something that looked like a self-propelling orb. And there has been no indication that the baseball itself is going to change in 2020.

Maybe it’s not just a coincidence that no country is crazier about baseball than the Dominican Republic. And… there is a case to be made that the No. 2 sport in the Dominican is, yes, cockfighting. I mean, even Louisiana has banned cockfighting, but it’s legal and quite popular on the island of Hispaniola.

We are far from hearing the last of the baseball scandal.  But for now let’s focus on where it originated: squarely inside the Houston Astros’ quaint Minute Maid Park. Houston’s celebrated manager, A. J. “Always Jittery” Hinch, has not only been suspended by baseball commissioner Rob Manfred but summarily fired by Houston’s management, which is comfortable and accustomed to finger-pointing everywhere except in the direction of a mirror.

Houston’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, has met the same fate and almost certainly deserves a harsher penalty. To be fair, Houston’s “sophisticated” method of stealing signs aimed by catchers at pitchers will almost certainly be followed eventually by higher-tech methodology. Not to insult the Astros’ style of cheating, but Sign Stealing 2.0 will in all likelihood eliminate the use of jumbo garbage cans.

Full disclosure: I have long considered Hinch to be an incompetent drone who managed, most of all, to be (ironically) in the right place at the right time. So it does not surprise me that we can now fully understand his role as a mere conduit who was always being cuckolded by the team’s analytics department, and, finally, by the perpetrators of the cheating scandal. (Led by then bench coach Alex Cora, who leveraged his genius into a short-lived job as the Red Sox manager. Fired for now, punished very soon.)

The saga of the diseased and corrupt Astros traces all its roots to Luhnow. Not incidentally, he was the one who signed a morally leprotic relief pitcher (Roberto Osuna)  who had (allegedly) assaulted the mother of his child.

Sep 27, 2019; Anaheim, CA, USA; Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow speaks to the media in the dugout before the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Please Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

No other team would have Osuna, but Luhnow confided that he (alone, as it turned out) was moved by Osuna’s remorse and that he was pretty sure that Osuna would be a positive force in the community. Which was a WTF moment for Osuna’s former Toronto teammates.

A year later, the Astros were celebrating their playoff defeat of the Yankees and their 2019 World Series date with the Dodgers. As the champagne flowed, Luhnow’s assistant, Brandon Taubman, taunted female reporters by repeatedly chanting how effing happy he was that the Astros had signed Osuna.

Staying in character, Luhnow circled the wagon and lied about every aspect of the incident. But when the truth became unavoidable, Taubman was fired. We all know how this stuff works. (A): Malefactor behaves badly, in keeping with corporate legacy; (B) Alternative facts are presented in feeble attempt at coverup; (C) The team produces a mea culpa in which it announces that, alas, the reports were true but that (D) The Culprit’s behavior in no way reflects the team’s dedication to the highest standards of behavior and the greatest good of the community.

Hinch is a more anodyne character. As it turns out, it doesn’t seem as if he had a whole lot to do with the day-to-day operation of his team. Or the inning-to-inning issues, either. Hinch’s specialty has always been staring at a computer printout while his team played ball. He seemed to come out of his trance in time to overuse his relief pitchers, while he looked on stoically as the Astros led the league in getting runners thrown out on the basepath.

As much as I hate to admit it, Hinch is not the problem. Nor, I suspect, is he an outlier. In the future, it’s likely that all managers will simply be hired and fired at the pleasure of the data-driven wonks who devise their schemes amidst nests of computers. Managers will make no significant decisions, and, because of that, will be scorned by players who understand that managers are, at best, figureheads. When you depend on machines for moral leadership, you get something that looks like the Houston Astros.

I suppose that’s why his defenders are quick to point out that he’s a swell guy, and that aside from that, what could he do? After all, he was only the manager.

Commissioner Manfred acknowledged as much when he found that Hinch had been just plain outraged by the theft of signs and that his fury had been documented when on two occasions he damaged the monitors used to relay video of catchers’ signs.

And yet…ah, but why even ask the inevitable question? I mean, why beat a dead rooster?

So it’s onto the conference championships, and while I’m not deflated by my bandwagon wager on the Ravens last week, I’m mostly looking ahead to the Super Bowl and a rich harvest of wagering opportunities. The bankroll, which started with $1,000, now stands at $941, which means that my picks have not been awful but that The Man has juiced me and I will have to be better to post a slight profit. So, in the meantime…

Tennessee at Kansas City

Would you rather have the NFL’s best running back or its greatest passer? My initial answer was “both,” so on the first flash of the odds I  bet this game over 51. I was by no means alone. The line quickly went up to 53, so instead of taking that bad number, I’m going to assume that both offenses will be effective. Just as powerful running backs often grind down defenses and become more effective as the game goes on, the Titans’ Derrick Henry has worn down the entire league and gained more than 182 yards in Tennessee’s most recent three games.

Jan 11, 2020; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) celebrates with fans after the Titans’ game against the Baltimore Ravens in a AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at M&T Bank Stadium. Please Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

But Pat Mahomes and his talented receivers have been just as ridiculous. It wasn’t even a surprise last week when, after falling behind 24-0 to Houston, the Chiefs scored 41 straight points. The Titans won in KC 35-32 in Week 10, as Henry rushed for an almost routine 188 yards. Since then, the Chiefs’ defense has gotten healthier, but it’s hard to see either defense dominating, so, along with every square in the world, I’m taking the points.

The pick: Chiefs 30, Titans 28 — Tennessee plus-7 for a mythical $50

Green Bay at San Francisco

The 49ers get healthier and scarier every week, but they were plenty scary in a Week 11 38-7 rout of the Packers. Aaron Rodgers is without question one of the most vindictive (and best) quarterbacks of his era, but shoulder-chips go only so far. The Niners sacked Rodgers five times and held him to 104 passing yards in 33 attempts in November. I’ve seen more dramatic transformations — and lost far more money — in previous playoffs, but the best case for Green Bay is that the Niners are favored by just 7 1/2 points. Which, by the way, is a pretty good argument. But I’m making two of the three most obvious wagers in the playoffs in the hopes of splitting out. And I’m also keeping in mind that the most obvious play — the Ravens over the Titans — made a fool out of me.

The pick: 49ers 30, Packers 16 — San Francisco minus-7 1/2 for $50

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