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May you bring your treasures to us all
Hello! And welcome here on the other side of things. Congratulations, everybody! We’ve made it to 2021! We’ve successfully crossed over a fictional barrier in the space/time continuum and our fragile and fractured psyches cling to it like an oar in a deep-sea squall. Never have the old verities and observances mattered more. Time for a drink (truly! I’ve had all of the above over my Christmas break!).
So, it makes sense to start out the new year by laying out a few hopes and wishes for the coming 12 months. With gladness in our hearts and hope in our minds — the essential armor for human life — let us sally forth against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and wish for better things.
The great hope of 2021 — the best of those “better things” — is that we might see an end to the threat of the global pandemic that has held us suspended in its talons for nearly the entirety of 2020. More than 1 in every 1000 Americans died last year of COVID — all in all it was the deadliest year in our history. Probably every one of you knows somebody who succumbed to this plague which has killed nearly 2 million people worldwide. Many of you have lost loved ones you’ve not been able to bury or to mourn or to celebrate properly. You’ve been separated when you needed to come together. Or you’ve lost jobs or income or businesses or homes and face the ravages of an economically uncertain future. You’ve had COVID symptoms and fear the still unknown future health impacts. So much has been lost in 2020, so much has been bent out of shape.
The old song says “trouble don’t last always.” And we fervently hope that the coming year will let us feel the truth of that wisdom. That we will see our troubles lightened, our sadness eased, that we will once again feel the warmth of the sun and a light breeze kiss our skin. The disruptions of the last year won’t be undone easily or quickly. Each day has taken its toll. But the tremendous effort (and extraordinary science) that has brought us vaccines with breathtaking speed at least offer the hope that with strong distribution efforts we will all be able to return to something like normal in the not-too-distant future. And maybe we’ll appreciate how extraordinary “normal” life can be.
Coming together. Like in a bar or a theatre or a museum…or a sports’ stadium! Which reminds me that, hey! this is a baseball newsletter after all. Where’s the baseball in all this? Well, each in its appointed turn! First the big things, then the small. But yes, we have hopes for the baseball world in 2021, too. So, let’s turn to the topic at hand. What are our wishes for 2021?
That the Crack of the Bat will be followed by the Roar of the Crowd again (someday)
Since I’m being all autobiographical today, you probably don’t know this about me: about a year ago, for a variety of reasons I was feeling highly unhappy in my work life. During one discussion (of many) with my wife about the situation, she asked me to close my eyes and imagine myself in “my happy place.” Without really thinking about it too much, I did as she said and found myself, somewhat to my surprise, standing at the Giants’ spring training minor league complex, listening to the shouts and laughter of players warming up, the unmistakable sound of bat meeting ball. And I knew that “yes, this is my happy place.”
And with that sudden understanding, the way forward seemed clear. We did some downsizing, I took an early retirement (that this was actually a legitimate option for me is an incredible privilege I don’t take for granted for a moment) and began preparing to spend much, much more time in my happy place (and reporting back to you all).
But as events would have it, I’m still awaiting that first post-retirement trip to my happy place. Our annual trip to spring training last year fell on the wrong side of the great chasm in public life and like most of us, I’ve yet to stand on a baseball field since making that momentous decision. As it happened, there were compensatory pleasures. Absent long commute times and often long workdays, my wife and I have spent more time just being together than we have in years — perhaps since we dated. I’ve taken over meal cooking and we’re exploring a whole vista of new and adventuresome recipes. It’s been a great life change. But it hasn’t yet been what I hoped for.
Sometime in 2021 — maybe not as early as we hope and maybe not as often, but sometime — I hope I stand on that green field of my imagination and see the sights and hear the sounds that bring me joy and gladness of heart. And I hope I’m standing there with some of you, too. I hope we roar together!
That Spring Training Comes in the Spring
This one is slightly more complicated — the logistics behind vaccine rollout and distribution are complex and difficult. It will take time. And while doses are limited it’s important to get them to the right people first and not let money and privilege allow for line-jumping. Which is to say that baseball (or any other sport) shouldn’t return unless it does so safely and responsibly.
Still, the word that MLB is preparing for a full season should be cause for celebration. What we absolutely do NOT want to see happen is a repeat of last summer’s bitter and recriminatory — and somewhat farcical — negotiations between owners and players, with MLB essentially stonewalling their position until the calendar got them to the place they wanted to be all along. There are absolutely owners who would like to do the same this year — angling for a way to shorten a season that is unlikely to start with fans in attendance. There are owners who would be happy to squeeze the calendar down to another short sprint followed by a lengthy and lucrative postseason. It’s in the best interests of the sport, I think, that that faction of owners not be given a crack through which to push their agenda — an agenda that will only serve to antagonize positions that may already be dangerously hardened.
The logistics of trying to mount a spring training and traditional season opening are going to, once again, be mind-boggling. Keeping everyone involved safe has to be the priority. The ethical questions will again abound. But the sport, the teams, the coaches, the players and all involved showed extraordinary inventiveness, flexibility, and discipline in 2020. Continuing to do so for a little while longer while waiting for the long-term solutions to be disseminated thoroughly across the society feels like a needle that might possibly be threaded — to the long-term benefit of all parties. If they can do so, it will prevent a growing uncertainty that could overwhelm the next two seasons.
It also would lead to another argument between MLB and the union over playing a 162-game season, something that multiple high-ranking officials think is inevitable. The union believes Manfred's powers during a pandemic are limited, particularly compared to other sports' commissioners'. Owners may be willing to pick that battle anyway.
Anyway, a spring without spring training is like a Christmas without Santa. And 2021 is supposed to be a year of hope, remember? So let’s hope for the best.
That We Finally Have a Minor League Season Again
Here’s where the heart of There R Giants truly resides! The year 2020, among its many other crimes, was the first in the long history of minor league baseball without a single game played. As I discussed with Britt Ghiroli recently, we are still a long way from knowing what the ramifications of this missed development time will be for players. For the Giants’ efforts to rebuild their roster to glory, it was almost surely a major step backwards.
We just can’t go through the same thing again in 2021. Players need to take the field again, face competition again, grow again. As the minor leagues themselves are downsized, there can be no doubt that careers that might have been are being lost by this inactivity. Imagine the fate on someone like Caleb Baragar had the 2019 season never happened and 2020 had been the year when there were suddenly 30 or so fewer positions in the organization.
The Giants need their prospects back developing where they can develop best. The players need to get back to showing what they can do, competing against the best of their peers. The game needs its lifeblood to start pumping again.
But if major league baseball faces outsized challenges to restarting, minor league teams are faced with obstacles they can’t hope to overcome (without some major help from above). As I’ve discussed with so many guests (most notably JJ Cooper), minor league teams simply don’t have the margin to be able to play games without fans in the stadium. They can’t afford the kinds of COVID protocols that keep personnel safe — multiple buses to the stadium to keep players socially distanced from each other, large locker rooms or workout facilities that allow players to space out. These are just not feasible for the vast majority of major league owners.
What does this mean for a 2021 minor league season? Will MLB’s new One Baseball vision mean that they will take an active part in seeing that the minor league baseball can get up and running safely and productively? Or are the minor leagues going to be stuck waiting until fans can return and players are vaccinated? Will we get 140 games? 120? Will they start in May? In June?
The Giants are hoping to be aggressive with promotions this year to help make up for lost time and push their best prospects toward the top. But being aggressive will only get you so far if the season gets squeezed down to three months.
But, as it happens, we got some clarification on this just last night from, as ever, the inestimable J.J. Cooper:
The plan, according to MLB is to start training camp for AA and below after the major league and AAA players have decamped in late March (as we’ve discussed previously this year). However, those lower levels could still get in a full season if all goes well. The memo from MLB to minor league teams let them know they should be ready to play as late as October 3rd this year (about a month later than normal) and that those leagues will not have playoffs this year. The hope, obviously, is that those two adjustments might still allow teams to get in full schedules even with a late start.
That the Prospects Will Thrive and Advance!
2020 dropped the bar so low that I nearly forgot to wish for some actual… you know… development in our development! I’m so focused on baseball actually existing that I had to make a late edit to include the hope that Giants minor league players actually take some big leaps. I want to see Heliot Ramos spring board off the advances he made in 2019 and put it all together at the upper levels. I want to see Joey Bart, back in a level that makes sense, begin to close that hole on the inner half. I want to see Marco Luciano blaze like a star through A ball and make his way to Richmond before the fall.
The last time we saw Seth Corry he was putting the final touches on a truly historic second half. Where does he go in 2021 and is the magic still there? How about those we’ve never seen before? Kyle Harrison and Patrick Bailey and Casey Schmitt and even Aeverson Arteaga. The last time we had minor league baseball the Giants saw nearly universal success and improvement throughout their organization. If 2021 brings us anything like a repeat of that success — but at higher levels — then the future very suddenly becomes something more than a wispy Etch-a-Sketch that might be jostled out of existence in a moment. Another year of advances like 2019 and the paint starts brushing on the canvas.
That Labor Strife is Averted (and a better system devised for the future)
Hang on, I thought we said troubles don’t last always! The punch line to that shouldn’t be “but as soon as they’re gone a different trouble shows up!” But yes. If the game manages to weave its way through two seasons of COVID-related disruptions, instead of “I’m going to Disneyland,” we’re likely going to hear: “CONGRATULATIONS, it’s now time for a major work stoppage!”
The “rationalizations” that modern front offices have brought to the game have been universally bad for players whose share of profits have been trending down for years. While teams have all gotten religion on not overpaying for declining years, underpaying for peak years is still gospel! The Player Association has been spoiling for a fight to make some significant restructuring in the system (even hiring a new and more pugnacious lead negotiator). Rob Manfred, meanwhile, said that the owners would shut the game down rather than concede major changes to the current system — and that was before COVID hardened stances even further in 2020. With teams suffering some level of short-term losses in 2020 and likely 2021 (this is certainly true in some degree even if the hyperbole of MLB owners deserves an extreme level of skepticism), players needing a course correction, and everybody having suffered economic losses, there really does seem to be little hope that a work stoppage can be averted.
For those of you dreaming of ordering up your Carlos Correa Giants jerseys next December, that might include a lockout at the end of the 2021 postseason that freezes all offseason player movement until a new CBA is negotiated and agreed upon.
And it could well provide yet another frustrating delay in the Giants’ ability to develop their burgeoning talent. Imagine this scenario: it’s August 2021 and Heliot Ramos is putting the finishing touches on a majestic campaign. He finally gets the call to the majors where he tantalizes for September. And then….a work stoppage hits that takes up months of the 2022 season and once again the 22 year old is forced to sit in inactivity. And though the minor league season wouldn’t be affected by a major league work stoppage, since Ramos would then be a 40-man member, he wouldn’t be allowed to participate there either. And a third straight season could be lost or diminished for one of the organization’s brightest talents. A disaster scenario for sure.
Given that possibility, should the Giants delay bringing near-ready players who aren’t on the 40-man to San Francisco in 2021, so as to ensure that they could continuing getting game reps in spring of 2022 in the face of labor strife?
Ugh! It’s all too much to contemplate. And just reeks of 2020-ennui, which we’re supposed to be done with now. Since this is the season of hope, let us hope, lastly, that all parties will ultimately see the need to repair and grow together and not reek greater harm on the game. I’ll tell you honestly, this is a little more hope than my mind can generate just now, but I won’t end a hopeful post on a Scrooge-like note.
Let us all imagine that come the end of October, the World Series will be played in all its glory, culminating a full-season, which took place in tandem with a full-ish minor league season, in front of a full-throated crowd. And that before Game 7 begins, the mighty news of the bones of an agreed-upon framework for a new CBA makes the rounds. The premier talent of one of the greatest free agent classes ever starts taking phone calls… and 2022 takes on all the allure of the best year ever.
That’s the dream anyway! Happy New Year to all my There R Giants readers. I truly appreciate you sticking with me through 2020 and hope to bring you much more minor league content in 2021, including my long promised daily Minor League updates, hopefully beginning sometime in late March! My final wish is that you continue the journey along with me. And, as always, thank you so much for reading!