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BenFred: Alonso's conspiracy theory proves one thing — the divide between MLB players and owners isn't improving
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BenFred: Alonso's conspiracy theory proves one thing — the divide between MLB players and owners isn't improving

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Now that Major League Baseball has taken a sudden interest in checking pitchers’ hats for sticky substances that are producing wicked pitches, perhaps the league could ask an umpire to stop by the locker of Mets slugger Pete Alonso and see if he lines his cap with tin foil.

Alonso engaged in some full-blown paranoia this week when he accused MLB of adjusting baseballs in order to depress the salaries of either pitchers or hitters, depending on which one was set to dominate that season’s free-agent class.

The first baseman has convinced himself MLB has been intentionally making balls fly better when a free-agent class is stocked with star pitchers, and deadening the balls when classes tilt toward prominent sluggers.

“That’s a fact,” Alonso said Wednesday in an interview that immediately went viral and was still making waves Thursday. “Guys have talked about it. I mean, in 2019, there was a huge class of free-agent pitchers. That was the quote-unquote ‘juiced’ balls, and then 2020 was a strange year with the COVID season, but now that we are back to playing a regular season with a ton of shortstops and position players that are going to be paid a lot of money, like high caliber players, yeah, I mean, it’s not a coincidence. That’s definitely something that they do.”

For so much certainty, Alonso failed to provide any real proof.

The 2019 free-agent class did include brand name arms like Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner.

And the upcoming free-agent class, which includes slugging shortstops like Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Javier Baez and Carlos Correa, is spending this season playing with baseballs the league tweaked to stay in the park a bit more often.

Without evidence, the rest of Alonso’s theory is a connect-the-dots conspiracy that only truly proves one thing — the shocking amount of distrust that exists between MLB owners and players as the 2021 season speeds toward an offseason that will be marred by labor strife if the two sides do not agree on a new collective bargaining agreement before the start of the next spring training.

Alonso was not claiming foul play when he smacked a league-high 53 home runs as a rookie in 2019. He did not give his take on how Cole was suppressed into a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees. Alonso’s own teammate, Francisco Lindor, signed a 10-year, $341 million extension that will start in 2022 and set the pay scale for the next round of star free-agent position players, the most prominent of which are still putting up strong numbers with the baseballs the league is using this season.

Those new balls, by the way, are still leaving the park pretty often. They are still flying by hitters for strikeouts pretty often, too. Problem is, now any data examined has to leave some wiggle room, considering the numbers don’t determine which balls were covered in some sort of adhesive.

I wish Alonso would have picked a better talking point, like calling out owners for manipulating the service time of young players, or calling for a faster path to free agency. Facts support both of those opinions. Figuring out a better way to get young players who are being relied upon heavily a bigger piece of baseball’s revenue pie is the kind of topic that should be getting a lot of attention. Instead it gets ignored for this kind of noise.

At some point, the noise becomes the news.

Alonso’s willingness to fire from the hip, without a concern about the damage his megaphone comments caused, paints a troubling picture of where things stand between baseball’s two sides as a crossroad nears.

Players and owners continue to show little understanding of the damage that could be done to their sport if it loses a single day of the 2022 season to billionaires and millionaires feuding at the expense of fans. Other sports, some of which have left baseball in the dust, are preparing for 2022 seasons during the post-pandemic sports boom. Baseball can’t afford to stall, or strike.

That Alonso’s claim of a league intentionally trying to sabotage its stars was rolled out so casually and carelessly speaks to the growing sense of us-against-them that has developed as the current collective bargaining agreement nears its Dec. 1 end. Alonso is not the only player who has become convinced the league is actively working against players. Sour feelings flow both ways. (Just wait until the owners start accusing players of maximizing injury list time in 2021 due to their distaste of Manfred’s imposed 60-game season in 2020.)

Playing the role of Pollyana, I wrote when the pandemic first clouded baseball’s horizon that one silver lining could be the realization among players and owners that they must get out of their own way and find common ground before the sport’s first work stoppage since the 1994 strike arrived at the worst possible time. But when I see a prominent player like Alonso blowtorching the league for something he cannot prove, and when I read the latest headlines about the players’ union and the league filing dueling grievances against one another about the shortening of the 2020 pandemic-marred season, I can’t help but fear what’s next.

So many critical and complicated issues are being ignored. So much pettiness is piling up. So much for optimism?

I hope I’m wrong.

I hope Alonso is, too.

In this episode of Inside Pitch, sports columnists Jeff Gordon and Ben Frederickson preview the Cardinals' weekend series at Wrigley Field, where the team will attempt to make up ground on the division-leading Cubs and their fearless leader . . . Patrick Wisdom? That's right, the former Cardinals minor leaguer is swinging a big bat for the North Siders. Can Matt Carpenter's long-awaited breakthrough arrive at one of his favorite parks to hit? Ben Fred and Gordo wonder.

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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