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Giants, MLB now learning new cost of doing the business of politics

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Giants, MLB now learning new cost of doing the business of politics

It might well be that Major League Baseball suddenly has a fierce rooting interest in the Mississippi Senate race, and it might be for the candidate to whom it gave $5,000 to lose.

And that goes for Charles Johnson and the San Francisco Giants as well.

The people who own the 30 baseball teams give money to candidates during every election cycle as an attempt to keep its lobbyists visible and access-worthy, and they come from both sides of the aisle. It’s called hedging one's bets, and MLB does it just as the NFL, NBA and NHL do it, and just as most large corporations do it. You can’t have legislative protections without legislative protectors -- it’s the nature of democracy for sale. Noble and pure of heart, it is not.

But one of the candidates to whom Johnson, the Giants’ principal owner, and his wife gave money is Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, whose fondness for the bad old days includes a stated willingness to attend a public hanging and to suppress liberal voter turnout as part of her general view that the Confederacy is “Mississippi history at its best.” Hyde-Smith, who is running against Democrat Mike Espy and is expected to win what once was a lopsided runoff election Tuesday, will have President Donald Trump campaigning for her Monday in Gulfport and Tupelo.

Indeed, both MLB and the Johnsons made the maximum donations allowed by law, which has stirred considerable anger among the liberal segment of their fan bases and even cries for a boycott and/or player action.

The MLB political action committee has requested that its money be returned, claiming it was unaware of Hyde-Smith’s public comments, although the donation was dated Friday, just three days ago. Several other corporations, including WalMart and Union Pacific, have done the same.

In addition, the Giants put out a broader statement on the issue Monday, condemning Hyde-Smith’s words and politics without ever mentioning her by name, or for that matter the Johnsons.

But the interesting part is that the statement, attributed to Giants CEO Larry Baer, allows for diversity of opinion on political matters, which comes short of criticizing Johnson’s contribution.

“The Giants have more than 30 owners,” the statement read in part. “Many give to Democratic causes, many to Republican causes and some refrain from politics altogether. Neither I nor anyone else at the Giants can control who any of our owners support politically, just as we cannot and should not control whom any of our employees support politically.”

Whether this satisfies the audience remains to be seen. Baer is trying to delicately dance around the fact that Johnson holds the most stock in the team, and he hopes the statement alone will mollify the customers.

It probably won’t.

But there is no real remedy for the anger aimed at MLB or the Giants for a choice that might have been sloppily conceived but now is visibly offensive to a segment of its fan base. That is, unless somehow Hyde-Smith loses Tuesday.

MLB described the contribution as “made in connection with an event that MLB lobbyists were asked to attend,” which if true suggests it was one of a number of donations made to Republican candidates, just as it would do for Democratic candidates if it would help protect them from what it would consider unfriendly legislation.

In other words, the most charitable view toward Major League Baseball is that this looks like bulk donating without any kind of vetting -- a dangerous practice it would do well to discontinue. The least charitable view, of course, is that MLB sees Hyde-Smith’s general views as compatible with its own, which would be far worse.

In either event, the Giants and MLB have been confronted with a new paradigm, namely actually having to decide what level of outrage they can stomach for donating to campaigns of people whose views their customers find abhorrent, like the Hyde-Smiths of the system.

It means that pleading “oops” and asking for a refund no longer is the easy way out. And if Smith-Hyde wins, the Giants' and MLB’s particular “oops” here will be there to see for at least two more years, as the election is to fill out the term of retired senator Thad Cochran. That’s a long time to give people a reason not to patronize your particular shop, and reason for Johnson and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to hope at least a little for an Espy victory -- if not to gain a new friend but not to be saddled to a potential embarrassment.

More immediately, Johnson might have to face the fact that a mere third-party statement will not satisfy the customers, and that he will have to break his public silence on an issue for perhaps the first time in his tenure atop the Giants' organizational pyramid. Baseball, you see, might not actually be a public trust, but it acts like it often enough that its customers have come to think of it that way.

In short, there is some serious explaining to be done here by a lot of people, both locally and nationally, because business as usual in this case has been a disaster.

Why Giants brought in umpires for second round of bullpen sessions

Why Giants brought in umpires for second round of bullpen sessions

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Andrew Suarez kicked at the dirt on the bullpen mound Saturday and looked in at his catcher, most of what he saw was similar to every other bullpen session of his life. There was one key difference, though: An umpire in full uniform crouched behind the catcher.

Suarez fired a fastball and the umpire emphatically pointed a finger to his left, signaling a strike. 

"It was different, but I liked it," Suarez said. "You get a good feel for the plate."

The Giants have made a lot of subtle changes to drills under manager Gabe Kapler and a 13-person coaching staff. Pitchers fielded pop-ups Sunday, an extreme rarity in a sport where the default move for a pitcher is to get out of the way and let an infielder take over. The outfield drills more closely resemble the NFL combine, with cones meticulously set up and coaches focusing on change-of-direction. But the biggest difference through a week of camp has been the addition of three real professional umpires to bullpen sessions.

The Giants brought the umpires, who live locally, in for their second round of bullpen sessions. They have four mounds going at a time and pitchers could opt out if they preferred to just throw to a catcher, but they seemed to enjoy the extra touch of intensity. Kapler said it was something he did in Philadelphia. 

"The concept obviously is to try to create heightened awareness and add a little competition to it," Kapler said.

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When Andrew Bailey met with coaches earlier this month, one thing the new pitching coach preached was making sure every pitch of every bullpen session had a purpose. The Giants record every session and pitchers can stop to watch video or get the spin rate or velocity on a previous pitch. The hope was that the addition of umpires would ramp up the intensity a bit, but Kapler said it wasn't just designed for pitchers. 

"The catchers are getting some feedback," Kapler said. "The bullpen sessions are as much for the catchers as they are for the pitchers, and you see how much attention and emphasis our catching coaches are putting on receiving. I think it's been good so far."

Why Austin Slater took grounders at shortstop during Giants' workout

Why Austin Slater took grounders at shortstop during Giants' workout

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Brandon Crawford took his turn, showing off his usual defensive skills while taking a set of grounders at shortstop on a back field at Scottsdale Stadium. Then came Maurico Dubon, and then Kean Wong and Austin Slater. 

Wait, Austin Slater? 

This is Camp Versatility, but even by that standard, it was a bit surprising to see Slater getting work in as a shortstop Friday morning. He then moved on to work at second base, and manager Gabe Kapler said Slater wasn't just having fun. He'll get reps at all four infield spots this spring, along with his usual work in the outfield. 

Slater, getting ready for his fourth big league season, is into it. But what exactly is his position right now?

"I'm a Right Handed Batter's Box," he said, laughing. 

The Giants, as you might have heard a time or two, are going all-in on platoons, and Slater could be a big part of that. He had a .838 OPS against left-handed pitchers last season and could be a nice counter to Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski in the outfield and Brandon Belt at first base. 

But platoon life isn't just about the other day's starting pitcher. The Giants know they have a talent deficit. They hope to gain an edge by literally exploiting every platoon advantage they can over nine innings.

There could be times when Slater pinch-hits for Belt, or for Crawford, with a more natural shortstop like Mauricio Dubon sliding over to short and Slater getting a few innings at second base. 

"The mentality is let us over-prepare right now and see how the roster stacks up," Slater said. "I enjoy doing it."

Slater has 23 big league starts at first base but just a handful of innings at second and third. But he has nearly 900 minor league innings at second base and last year the Giants had him try third 11 times in Triple-A. He has always done extra infield work during batting practice, so this is just a natural extension for the 27-year-old. It could also be his best way onto the roster. 

It'll be an interesting spring for Slater defensively, but the real work will be done in the cages. He has more raw power than most on the roster but just nine homers in 544 plate appearances. 

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Slater made swing changes last offseason to try to increase his launch angle and is continuing to work on that this spring. He lit up when talking about the three new hitting coaches, saying they already have a good understanding of what he's trying to do.

The Giants can do all they want with defensive positioning to get Slater on the field more often, but they do need to see that pay off with more power production for the lineup. 

"I think we want to create the best possible path for Austin, so when he drives the ball he drives it in the air," Kapler said. "He definitely has raw power, dating back to his time at Stanford. We know about the pedigree and we just want to see that come out frequently in games."