Closing the Show?

2020-07-31 RobManfredIt’s hard to say whether Commissioner Nero has really put his fiddle away all the way. But a coronavirus outbreak among too many Miami Marlins, a couple of St. Louis Cardinals, and perhaps a few more as yet unidentified, has Rob Manfred preparing to shut down a delayed major league season that maybe shouldn’t have been tried in the first place.

Manfred has told Major League Baseball Players Association chief Tony Clark that baseball better do a better job managing its heeding of the protocols or else. Another Marlins-like outbreak, Nero said, and we’re sending the cardboard cutout fans home, turning off the canned crowd noise, shutting down the free runners on second to open extra innings, and turning off the echo chambers on the field.

Memory recalls a television drama on which an indignantly embarrassed father sent his wisenheimer-beyond-her-years teenage daughter to her room. The girl didn’t skip a beat. “The ultimate punishment,” she snickered. “If you only knew what goes on in our rooms.” If and when Nero sends his players home for the year, it’s not as though that’s going to deprive them of anything.

For a lot of players whose early returns in the truncated season aren’t exactly the kind they’re used to delivering, it’ll be a kind of sweet relief. For them and everyone else, it’s not as though getting early return to their loved ones equals the ultimate punishment. Unless, of course, they’re in one of those baseball marriages that won’t survive all that  togetherness.

(Once upon a time, when legendary executive George Weiss was canned as the New York Yankees’ general manager, and before he was engaged to be the president of the newborn New York Mets, his wife, Hazel, proclaimed, “I married George for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”)

The Marlins have had a week’s worth of games postponed. They finally got a bus to take them from Philadelphia home to Miami. The nostalgically inclined may care to note that they may not necessarily spend the journey swapping tales of their days in the real bus leagues.

Stories arose that the Marlins outbreak began not when they spent last weekend in Philadelphia, not when they played an exhibition in Atlanta before the season started, but when a couple of Marlins players in Atlanta decided a night on the town was just what the doctor not named Fauci ordered.

A night on the town isn’t inherently a criminal act, depending on what you do on the town. A night on the town in pandemic without masking and sanitising, if that’s what they didn’t, is infection’s invitation in a state infected heavily enough. You’re thinking, yes, if those players went partying unsafely and got infected, that’s their business until or unless they bring the bugs to their teammates and possibly their opponents.

Boys will be boys and ballplayers will be ballplayers, and they’re always dreaming up new and sneaky ways to get up on the competititon.

But Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Uecker was only kidding when he said the 1964 Cardinals wanted to inject him with hepatitis to make room for calling up a promising prospect. If a couple of partying players shunning appropriate coronavirus masking and sanitising thought bringing the bug back to their team and maybe their opponents meant mirth and profit, it’d be a truly tasteless joke.

If they thought it might help get them, their teammates, their opponents, and the rest of the Show off for the rest of the season, though, that’s a slightly extreme (and prospectively dangerous way) to get vacation started early.

Considering what the short season has brought, though, you might have a hard time blaming them. If any of them has heard a replay broadcast of one of their home runs, or a tight play on the bases, or a homer-stealing catch above the fence, or an acrobatic leap on a play in the infield, they probably laughed that they might not weep when they heard the announcer holler, “And the cardboard goes wild!”

Call it penny arcade baseball if you must. Never mind that it betrays your age, assuming the penny arcade has gone the way of the typewriter. (If it hasn’t, whatever’s worth a penny now costs $10, anyway.) When Atlanta’s Adam Duvall homered off the snoot of New York’s Jeff McNeil’s Alaskan malamute puppy in cutout, it reminded old-timers of the arcades and midways where the fun included shooting metal ducks or knocking down voodoo dolls or steel milk bottles.

So far as I know, no broadcaster or writer has been tempted to holler, “Everyone’s a winner! Step right up! Everyone’s a winner! Knock down the doggies, win your sweetie a prize!” Yet.

The free runner on second to open extra half-innings has caused a few people joy and a lot of other people indigestion—especially when it collides with the experiment of requiring relief pitchers to face three batters at minimum. By temporary law, managers can’t get those poor saps out of there before they get killed. Sometimes, they’ve forgotten to get them out after batter three and after they’ve been piledriven, mugged, or shot on sight.

Until now, Commissioner Nero, I think I never really gauged the reckless cruelty that baseball had room for premeditated murder.

As radio legend Gabriel Heatter liked to open his nightly commentaries, “There’s good news tonight.” The good news is that, so far, no PA system operator has made the fateful (and possibly fatal) mistake of cranking up the wild cheering when the home team’s batter gets hit by a pitch. The bad news, unfortunately, is something baseball’s proven for almost two centuries: there’s a first time for everything.

If Commissioner Nero decides the coronavirus is still too formidable a pest to continue this truncated season safely, the good news would be that the foregoing experiments be declared failures never allowed to darken the sport’s doorstep again.

But that raises the further bad news: If it isn’t broken, this commissioner calls the repairman. If it is broken, this commissioner says, “Remain calm! All is well!” And, if he breaks it, it’s either God’s will or someone else’s fault.

A virus, a prayer, a return for Freeman

2020-07-19 FreddieFreeman

“I said, ‘Please don’t take me,’ because I wasn’t ready.”—Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, describing the worst night of his COVID-19 battle.

These days it’s fair to suggest first baseman Freddie Freeman is the face of the Atlanta Braves. He’s had a solid career thus far and— assuming baseball and American life re-discover normalcy if and when the coronavirus world tour finally dissipates—it’s safe to assume he’ll continue that way when healthy.

He’s had a few seasons interrupted by injuries and one truncated season-to-be interrupted rudely by COVID-19 itself. It was enough to make him thankful for his recovered health and the small things, considering the shake he incurred while suffering with the illness.

When baseball began its “summer camp” version of delayed spring training, Freeman was one of four Braves to test positive for the coronavirus. Pitcher Touki Toussaint showed no symptoms, though, and returned to the Braves on Friday. The other two—lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith and utility infielder Pete Kozma—haven’t returned yet.

And, there came one point where Freeman feared he’d go from incumbent Brave to dead duck. That was the day his fever spiked to 104.5, usually the level at which you’d also suffer pneumonia. (Fair disclosure: your servant has fought and beaten pneumonia twice in his adult life.) It also spiked him into prayer.

“I said a little prayer that night,” he told a Saturday conference call. “I’ve never been that hot before. My body was really, really hot . . . I said ‘Please don’t take me,’ because I wasn’t ready.”

Freeman’s coronavirus adventure began when—after he “tested negative on the intake” and felt “great” on 30 June—he awoke two days later in the wee small hours feeling a swarm of body aches. “I didn’t know,” he said. “It didn’t cross my mind that it was coronavirus when I woke up that morning.”

It’d cross his mind soon enough, alas.

“I went to bed late and didn’t get enough sleep,” Freeman continued. “So I took some Tylenol, some ZzzQuil and finally got back to bed. Then I woke up around 11:30 and I immediately grabbed my phone and texted my wife and said, ‘Something is wrong. I need you to bring a thermometer.’ They gunned my forehead and it said 102 fever. I looked at it and said, ‘I think I need to call George (Poulis, the Braves’ trainer). I think something is different’.”

It was. The Braves got him a medical appointment, on 3 July, and the test came back positive.

“The crazy thing is, [that] Friday morning, I woke up in a pool of sweat, gunned my forehead and it said 98.2, so I had no fever that morning,” Freeman said. “That was 7:30 in the morning. So I went to the field because I was waiting for the test, I hit, I threw, I worked out and I ran at my house and felt completely fine. By 2 p.m., it hit me like a ton of bricks. I came back and I was like ‘Wow. I’m not feeling very good.’ It just snowballed after that.”

He spiked that shivery 104.5 that night. “Thankfully, George wasn’t awake when I texted him because I probably would’ve gone to the hospital,” he said. “Ten minutes after that, I gunned my forehead again and I was 103.8, then 103.2, then 103.6. So I was like, ‘If I go above 104 again, I’ll probably have to start ringing the phone and try to figure this out.”

That’s about when Freeman began to pray. Awakening the following morning with a mere 101.5 temperature, he figured that much he could take and feel relief. That Friday night, he said, was the worst of it, if you didn’t count that it interfered with fatherhood over the week that followed.

“I’d stand up, get dizzy and I’d have to sit back down. Trying to tell my 3-year-old not to come around me was difficult,” he said. “I wore masks, gloves, I was playing cars with them. Ten minutes after playing cars with them I’d have to sit down. I was a little fatigued and tired. Then, every three hours it felt like I had to take a nap.”

A week after those first symptoms, Freeman still didn’t feel great until he had yet another nap. When he awoke, though, he felt great enough to hail his wife, Chelsea, and ask for copious carbohydrates. She obliged with some Italian food. Come Saturday morning he’d gone nine days with no further symptoms, and a lot of gratitude.

So far, no more body aches, contradictory chills, and short losses of his senses of smell and taste. While his wife and an aunt continue recovering after they, too, tested positive, Freeman returned to Truist Park after a second consecutive negative test. He said his family did everything right to avoid the virus but “it still somehow got to me.”

The Braves would love to get to him as many plate appearances as possible before the truncated regular season begins, but Freeman isn’t entirely sure just how ready he’ll be. His manager, Brian Snitker, isn’t exactly worried. “I don’t think I have to look for anything,” Snitker told reporters. “If he’s out there he’s going to be ready.”

Despite sore legs the day after a Friday workout, Freeman bopped a run-scoring triple over the head of the Braves’ face-in-training, Ronald Acuna, Jr., in Saturday’s intrasquad game. He also made an over-the-shoulder running catch of a foul pop. You’d have been hard pressed to find any Brave happier to have their first base anchorman back than Freeman himself.

“I feel like I’m a kid in a candy store again,” he told that conference. “You forget sometimes how much you love this game. I did truly miss it. I was so excited when I got to the yard.”

It didn’t come without a few painful disruptions. When outfield mainstay Nick Markakis decided to opt out of playing in 2020, Freeman in the thick of COVID-19 was a huge factor after speaking to the first baseman by telephone. “Unfortunately,” Freeman said, “that was my worst day He just wasn’t into it, and I totally, totally get it.” The followup call between the two a couple of days later totally, totally affirmed Markakis’s decision. Freeman still gets it.

Surely he also gets that his return to the Braves was a badly-needed adrenaline shot. With Markakis out of this year’s picture, the Braves took a flyer on free agent outfielder Yasiel Puig—until Puig himself tested coronavirus positive. There went that idea. And, likely, there went Puig’s 2020, until he clears the medical protocols with two consecutive negative tests.

“I am sad that this has happened,” Puig tweeted, “but I believe that everything is in God’s timing and that my return to MLB will happen in His perfect timing.” He’ll need that kind of faith now, especially, unless God has a direct advance line on which teams might turn up needing experienced outfield help after Puig recovers and stays negative.

The cliche about waking up to smell the coffee has a certain resonance with Freeman now. “It didn’t dawn on me that I lost my taste and smell until my aunt went and got me a coffee and I couldn’t taste the coffee,” he said. “So we went and grabbed barbeque sauce and I put it up to my nose and couldn’t smell anything. I tried to taste it, couldn’t taste anything. So that lasted four days. Other than that, it was just bad the first three days for me.”

Freeman will be happier when his family is back to normal and he can be ready to go come Opening Day, when the Braves open against the New York Mets in Citi Field.

“We’re going to try. That’s the whole goal, for me to be ready Opening Day,” he said. “Thankfully, it’s not like a normal spring training. We can control the games. So the whole plan, talking to (Snitker), I’m going to be getting five or six at-bats for the next five days . . . I’m trying to get potentially thirty at-bats over the next five days. I did a full workout yesterday. We’re going to take it day by day.”

Day by day. MLB’s season watchword. With no guarantee for the time being that it will proceed without further nasty surprises. At least, whether just awakening or in the mood for a cup later in the day, Freeman can smell the coffee now. In more than one way.


Rank desertion? Don’t even go there.

2020-07-11 BusterPosey

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey has opted out of playing this year for the sake of his children—an incumbent pair of twins and a pair of twin newborns freshly adopted. Some dare call it desertion—erroneously.

Whatever else you think about those major league players who have opted out of playing in 2020, or who think about doing so, here’s something that shouldn’t come into play: someone snarking about such players committing “rank desertion.” (So help me, that’s how someone phrased it in one online baseball forum.) Ignore them. Let them rant their heads off, but you’re under no obligation to listen.

That’s one of the beauties of free speech, what’s left of it. You can rant your head off any old time and place it strikes you to rant. You also bear no known mandatory obligation to listen to any particular ranter for any particular reason.

Militarily, of course, “rank desertion” equals one soldier, sailor, marine, or airman, or a group of them, walking away from their units or posts without call, usually but not exclusively in wartime. In civilian terms, “rank desertion” implies someone or a group of someones walking off the job where there’s no known option aside from a labour strike or formal resignation to do it.

The players were given the opt-out option after all those weeks of haggling between the owners trying to game them out of agreed-upon-in-March pay protocols before they finally agreed to give what remained of a 2020 season a try. Handed that option, those players exercising it cannot be accused credibly of rank desertion.

There’s a coronavirus still on world tour, to various extents, and baseball players play and sojourn in places that still present exposure risks they’re not entirely anxious to bring home. Especially when they have loved ones considered in the high-risk category.

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey may be the highest-profile player to opt out of the season to date. There but for the curse of injuries might he be in the Hall of Fame conversation; maybe two or even three more injury-free seasons on his jacket might keep him there. He could still get those seasons beginning next year.

As was his right under the current protocols, Posey thought more than twice about the twin babies he and his wife, Kristin, are adopting. They were born prematurely last week and at this writing remain in neonatal intensive care. The San Francisco Chronicle says the little girls are doing well enough in the circumstance.

Already the father of incumbent twin children, Posey weighed the risk and pondered the opt-out option that has yet to be rescinded. Then, he made his decision for the sake of his children’s health. The same decision Los Angeles Angels demigod Mike Trout continues weighing as the birth of his first child with his wife, Jessica, looms next month.

Trout isn’t exactly on poverty row so far as major league baseball players are concerned. Neither is Posey, even if Trout is above and beyond his and any other player’s pay grade. Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis has a family to consider as well, and he’s not exactly going to be among the poor by opting out of 2020, either, as he did during the week now past.

Two factors moved Markakis to opt out, the risk to his family and the very real COVID-19 infection incurred by his franchise co-face face teammate Freddie Freeman. (Braves fans have a case to make that Freeman now shares the distinction with Markakis’s fellow outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. Markakis also admits playing with no audience at first doesn’t exactly pose a thrill.)

Markakis spoke to Freeman by phone and learned fast enough. “Just hearing him, the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough,” he told reporters last Monday. “It was kind of eye-opening. With everything that’s going on, not just with baseball but all over the world, it makes you open your eyes.”

Felix Hernandez, the longtime Seattle pitching bellwether now trying to resuscitate his career with the Braves, has also opted out of 2020. So has Michael Kopech, the Chicago White Sox pitcher who’d otherwise hoped to begin his return from his 2018 Tommy John surgery. So has Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, whose teammate Charlie Blackmon was hit with COVID-19 and who has alarms about equal to health alarms for doing so.

On health terms, Desmond and his wife, Chelsey, are already parents of four young children and Mrs. Desmond is pregnant with their fifth. That’s the immediate reason Desmond exercised his opt-out option. But it provided him a chance to speak publicly enough on social and even spiritual terms.

Desmond—who is bi-racial—laments what the George Floyd murder at police hands in Minneapolis re-exposes of society in general and, from his perspective, the game he loves otherwise. “Think about it: right now in baseball we’ve got a labor war,” Desmond began in a round of jolting but thought-provoking Instagram posts.

We’ve got rampant individualism on the field. In clubhouses we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down. One African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8% Black players. No Black majority team owners.

Perhaps most disheartening of all is a puzzling lack of focus on understanding how to change those numbers. A lack of focus on making baseball accessible and possible for all kids, not just those who are privileged enough to afford it.

If baseball is America’s pastime, maybe it’s never been a more fitting one than now . . .

Other opt-outs, also for familial health concerns, include Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price (who has yet to throw a pitch in regular-season competition for them), and three Washington Nationals: first baseman and elder statesman Ryan Zimmerman, relief pitcher Joe Ross, and catcher Welington Castillo.

Baseball’s coronavirus testings have not exactly proven the epitome of consistency or coordination. Teams like the Giants, the Nationals, the Houston Astros, the St. Louis Cardinals have postponed several “summer camp” workouts over them. Astros third baseman Alex Bregman skipped a subsequent Astros workout when his test didn’t arrive back on time. That had a few of his teammates more than a little shaky.

“We want to know how these test results are going to work out for us,” said outfielder Michael Brantley. “Not having Alex here today was just another day he didn’t get to prepare. As I read around the league, a lot of players are voicing their opinions that we need our test results back faster.”

You can say anything you wish about those players opting out and others yet to come who opt out of 2020 for their health’s sake first. If baseball’s testings continue being that inconsistently performed and handled, would you really be shocked to see more players deciding their health and their families’ health just can’t be entrusted to that? Regardless of their salaries?

You can also say as you wish about Desmond’s not-to-be-dismissed-out-of-hand thoughts regarding the first American team sport to end segregation officially while still having issues 73 years later accepting and assimilating non-white personnel on and off the playing field. You don’t need to demand a quota system to say baseball can, should, and must do a better job of it.

Much as we’ve missed a major league season thus far, we seem to need reminders more often than comfortable that certain things cut both ways. Things like the “human element,” for example. The traditionalists screamed blue murder over technological advances they thought (erroneously) would erode the “human element.” But it isn’t just traditionalists dismissing the opting-out as rank deserters.

That dismissal is a plain, no-further-discussion-necessary false dismissal of, what do you know, the human element. The element that says baseball players are not invincible androids who can’t be felled by or transmit disease but mere human men, prone to all manner of incurring and transmitting affliction, particularly during a pandemic that’s become as much a political football as a challenge to medicine.

The rank desertion accusers should be asked how swiftly they’d step in and take the risk for the sake of playing a game much beloved but not without risk. When they answer, “five minutes ago,” they should be asked just as promptly whether they’d like to bring an infection back to their loved ones.

The crickets should be heard playing the entirety of a classic jazz album—In a Silent Way.

A season without the Trout hitting?

2020-07-03 MikeTrout

Mike Trout and his wife, Jessica, in a photo they posted to Instagram. If push comes to shove, Trout would rather sit this season than risk infecting her and their child-to-be.

Mike Trout’s virtues include that he’s as close to a hopeless romantic as a baseball player gets. This is the Angel who proposed to his wife by hiring a skywriting team to pop the question. He is also the Angels’ franchise face who’s pondering seriously whether to opt out of playing whatever the 2020 season happens to be.

Jessica Trout expects their first child next month. And her husband the romantic would like to be as certain as a young man can be that he doesn’t bring home such unwanted gifts for mother and child as the coronarivus.

As a matter of fact, the very thought of it makes Trout quake more than any pitcher has ever made the three-(should-be-four-)time American League Most Valuable Player quake. “Honestly,” Trout has told Los Angeles Times baseball writer Mike DiGiovanna, “I still don’t feel that comfortable. It’s gonna be tough. I’ve got to be really cautious these next couple weeks. I don’t want to test positive. I don’t want to bring it back to my wife. It’s a tough situation we’re in.”

Yes, it’s a difference from when Trout was among the players pleading, “When and where,” before the impasse between the owners and the players over starting a season finished. And, yes, there are millions of other people who’ve gone to work at far less lucrative jobs than Trout performs for money some small national economies rarely if ever see.

Let’s just put that into perspective, if we dare. The Wal-Mart or 7-Eleven clerk, the gas station attendant, the Starbucks barista, the cashier or floor walker at Macy*s, the servers at the Olive Garden, the local bartender, the dealers and floor walkers at the casino, are seen doing their jobs and judged on the spot by several thousand people every day.

But not at the same time. Not concurrently on national and even international television aboard which they’re watched by several million as well as the 55,000 who would be in the ballpark in normal, non-viral times. Unless they make a mistake too egregious to ignore, and it happens within range of the nearest smartphone camera trained upon them, their errors are unlikely to go past their boss and their complaining customers.

They don’t get hammered en masse aboard social media for having the occasional 0-for-4 day or night. They don’t get massively insulted for the heinous offense of not coming with 25 clones able to lift a team its best player can’t always be proud of from the ranks of the also-rans.

Whether or not you think it’s a crime, or at least a miscarriage of justice, the clerks, attendants, baristas, cashiers, floor walkers, servers, bartenders, and dealers don’t exactly bring uncounted millions into their companies through sales of their hats, uniforms, and aprons, or other bric-a-brac of their jobs. Nobody’s in half the hurry to hit the nearest Lids, Inc. or call Amazon up on their computers to buy their favourite barista’s Starbucks shirt.

Nobody loves the idea that those folks plus particular farmers, factory or warehouse labourers, repair people, waterfront workers, or airport workers can be replaced simply enough. Replacing a Mike Trout is something else entirely. It’s not his fault the Angels have been a nowhere team for his entire career to date. Good luck asking them (as some social media meatheads have) to just pay the ingrate off and find another player with even a passing resemblance.

Baseball’s paradoxes include one enunciated best by Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, when he returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers as a pitching instructor in the late 1970s/early 1980s. “You are part of an entertainment, but you are not an entertainer,” he told Thomas Boswell, reflecting on his pitching career. (The article was re-published in Boswell’s anthology, How Life Imitates the World Series.) “But I enjoyed it, probably more than the fans enjoyed watching. I thank them for enjoying it with me.”

To this day people rub their eyes in amazement that Koufax walked away from baseball at the absolute height of his pitching career, at age thirty, because the thought of living without full use of his left arm—which is exactly what doctors told him he risked if he tried to pitch even one more season—troubled him that deeply. Koufax earned $125,000 in his final season, 1966. That salary in today’s dollars would be about $2 million short of what Trout stands to earn just pro-rated for the 2020 season.

Today there are probably people enough rubbing their eyes in amazement that Trout would even think of walking away from just that salary because the idea of becoming infected with a grave disease he might transmit to his wife and his child-to-be offends him as deeply as the idea of crippling himself for life on behalf of just one more season offended Koufax.

After almost three months worth of the owners trying to game the players out of their previously-agreed pro-rated season salaries for whenever a season might be played, the coronavirus world tour shows few if any signs of winding down. The least sensible among us accuse them of malingering while injured; the completely witless have been known to accuse them of inviting the injuries.

When Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. incurred a few too many injuries during his Cincinnati years, I had a few too many arguments with a few too many Reds fans accusing him of failing to stay in proper shape and thus leaving himself injury prone. As if the most perfectly conditioned athlete could yet avoid three season-ending injuries in four years and their impact on his swing, bat speed, and outfield range.

We see ballplayers as wealthy sport savants and forget more often than we should that they’re human men. (How often do you hear the least sensible fans accuse them of malingering while injured, simply because proper recovery time is longer than fans like?) We barely accept when they’re injured on the field; we wrestle with them now wrestling between their itch to play, our itch to watch them play, and their too real need to safeguard themselves reasonably and their families profoundly.

The most fearless player on the planet finds no reason to quake facing a 100-mph fastball, or running to haul down a fly ball only a foot between himself and disaster against a particularly unforgiving outfield wall. A virus with a particular penchant for death makes him fearful for his family and for himself. Trout knows it.

“I got to be really cautious these next few weeks,” he told an online news conference Friday morning. “I think the biggest thing is obviously I don’t want to test positive and I don’t want to bring it back to my wife. We thought hard about all this, still thinking about all this. It’s a tough time, tough situation we’re in, everyone’s in, and everybody’s got a responsibility in this clubhouse to social distance, stay inside, wear a mask, and keep everybody safe.”

ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez cites an unidentified major league infielder’s concern “how the quick ramp-up to what MLB is calling ‘Summer Camp’ might prevent teams from having the logistics in place to ensure proper social distancing at their respective facilities. He also expressed doubt that all those people making up Tiers 1 and 2 — up to 125 per team, consisting of players, coaches, trainers, front-office executives, public-relations employees and clubhouse personnel, among others — will care enough to consistently adhere to all the health-and-safety protocols.”

Later Friday, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced 38 of the first 31,185 people going through its screening process tested positive for the coronavirus, and 31 were players. Thirty-eight overall out of 31,185 is .001 percent. Thirty-one out of 38 is eight points higher than Hall of Famer Rickey (The Man of Steal) Henderson’s lifetime stolen base percentage. (.808, if you’re scoring at home.)

Previously, it became known that Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon and twelve members of the Philadelphia Phillies were infected. Today, the Atlanta Braves revealed first baseman Freddie Freeman tested COVID-19 positive.

The game’s government and players have developed protocols for testing and social distancing. But Gonzalez warns, “It will come down to discipline, accountability and self-policing. Positive cases are inevitable; the hope is to avoid the type of outbreaks that might postpone or even cancel the season. If one person wavers, the entire system might collapse. And even if players adhere to monklike sensibilities over the next three to four months, the realities of a pandemic that forges on might render their efforts meaningless. It’s why so many players are hesitant.”

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake was the first player to exercise the opt-out option on playing this year. Following suit were two World Series-champion Washington Nationals (first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, pitcher Joe Ross), another Rockies outfielder (Ian Desmond), and free-agent pitcher Tyson Ross. There could be more to follow, with or without Trout joining their number.

A third National, relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, who’s become something of a social media star with his wife, Eireann Dolan, through their articulate tweets, has said aloud that he fears baseball won’t work this year no matter the protocols. Eireann suffers chronic lung issues leaving her prone to respiratory infections and with several hospital stays on her resume.

Doolittle would love to play this year but hates to make things worse for her. He’s popular above and beyond his team’s fan base, but he’s not exactly the final face of the Nats. Neither is Leake for the Diamondbacks; they’d take a bigger blow if they lose freshly-minted Madison Bumgarner or breakout star Ketel Marte. Blackmon’s arguably the Rockies’ face (when you can see it under his hat and behind his Bunyanesque beard), but not yet baseball’s. Freeman’s one of the Braves’s two faces. (Ronald Acuna, Jr. joins him.)

Even a truncated season without Trout would shatter not just the Angels but the game itself. Even if commissioner Rob Manfred once decided the reason Trout isn’t the face of the game above and beyond just the sport itself was . . . Trout himself, considering Trout is possibly baseball’s least self-promoting young man.

It’s almost to worry, should more players such as himself finally opt out of playing this year, that Manfred might see any coming opt-outs and decide it’s all . . . Trout’s fault, for opening his big yap, and admitting that push coming to shove would mean he’d rather take the season off than infect his wife and child-to-be.

Perspective on stats lost to a virus

2020-07-01 TedWilliams

Ted Williams lost a lot more statistical enhancement serving in two wars than this year’s players stand to lose in a short or cancelled coronavirus season.

So you think you and the objects of your baseball affections will lose things irretrievable by the time the Show re-opens for regular if truncated season business? You think a pandemic bringing out the best in you and your fellow citizens but the worst in your local, state, and national leadership has robbed you and your baseball loved ones?

Viruses come, viruses go, some more stubborn than others. Wars come and go, too, but guess which of the two is easier to fight. Writing shortly before his death as World War II wound to its formal finish, the bellettrist Albert Jay Nock reminded a correspondent, “You are not going to stop war until you can change man.”

So perhaps this would be a fine time to think for a moment about what some of your baseball forebears lost when the game and their play or management of it was rudely interrupted by war:

Yogi Berra—He spent three years in the Navy and earned a number of medals for his D-Day performances on a rocket boat during and immediately after the landings at Normandy. (He was afraid to put in for his Purple Heart, though, because he feared causing his already-nervous mother a purple heart attack.)

Yogi’s Navy service cost him valuable minor league development. He might have blossomed as the Hall of Fame catcher he became a couple of years sooner than he finally did.

Lou Brissie—This lefthanded pitcher would have signed with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1941 if his father hadn’t insisted he finish school first. He enlisted in the Army in 1942, after a year at Presbyterian College, and was with the 88th Infantry when an artillery shell exploded close to him. The blast shattered most of his lower left leg.

Brissie begged Army doctors to save his leg even if it might cost his life—because he had a shot in major league baseball. Two years and 23 surgeries later, Brissie with a metal brace signed with the A’s in late 1946 and earned a September 1947 call-up. He had two fine seasons as a starting pitcher, including an All-Star team, before becoming a decent reliever, over a six-season career with the A’s and the Cleveland Indians.

We’ll never know what Brissie would have been as a pitcher if he finished college and then signed with the A’s instead of going to war? Especially since he was a mere 20 when his lower leg was almost blown off in the first place.

Hank Bauer—After a tryout and contract with a Chicago White Sox minor league affiliate, Bauer enlisted in the Marines a month after Pearl Harbour. He was deployed to the Pacific and felled by malaria on Guadalcanal. After his recovery, Bauer earned eleven campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts—the second on Okinawa.

That injury got Bauer shipped back to the United States. After his recovery, he was signed by a Yankee scout for one of their lowest-level minor league affiliates in his native Illinois. He eventually made a fine career as a Yankee outfielder and, in due course, a World Series-winning Baltimore Orioles manager. He might have remained a White Sox, though, if not for the war; he might also have made the Show far sooner.

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Christy Mathewson–The Big Six didn’t lose his pitching credentials, but his accidental gassing in World War I stopped his managing career and cost the Boston Braves a principal owner.

Bob Feller—The first professional American athlete to enlist for World War II, Feller was made a Navy physical fitness instructor before he volunteered for combat. He became a gun boat petty officer serving near Britain and in the Pacific Theater, earning six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.

Feller lost his ages 23-25 seasons to the war. He resumed life as the American League’s strikeout king for a few years to follow (he set the major league season record his first full season back, the record Sandy Koufax smashed in 1965), but he might have finished his career with over 3,000 or even close to 4,000 punchouts had he not gone to war.

Christy Mathewson—The Hall of Fame pitcher looked to have a promising career as a major league manager, until duty compelled him to enlist in the Army for what proved the tail end of World War I. Oops. Mathewson was mustard-gassed accidentially during a training exercise, leaving him prone to the tuberculosis that killed him seven years later.

Among other things, the gassing and the disease it invited left Mathewson unable to remain as the principal owner and president of the Boston Braves, the team he bought with Emil Fuchs two years before his death at 45.

Warren Spahn—This Hall of Fame lefthander enlisted for World War II after a brief cup of coffee with the Braves—where then-manager Casey Stengel shipped him back to the minors after he refused to brush back the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese. It was a send-down Stengel lived to regret:

I said “no guts” to a kid who went on to become a war hero and one of the greatest lefthanded pitchers you ever saw. You can’t say I don’t miss ’em when I miss ’em.

Spahn earned a battlefield commission and decorations for service in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge. He lost his ages 22-24 seasons to the war. Some speculate it cost him a shot at 400 pitching wins, but Spahn himself was never sure about that:

I matured a lot in three years, and I think I was better equipped to handle major league hitters at 25 than I was at 22. Also, I pitched until I was 44. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise.

Ted Williams—Teddy Ballgame entered the Naval Reserve in May 1942, went on active duty in 1943, and was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant as an aviator in May 1944. He awaited orders as a replacement pilot when World War II ended in August 1945. Then, come the Korean War, Williams suited up and flew for the Marines, including 37 combat missions—about half of which involved flying wing for a pilot named John H. Glenn, Jr.

Proud enough of his Marine services, the Hall of Famer lost his ages 24-26 seasons to World War II and much of his ages 33-34 seasons to the Korean War.

Babe Ruth is said to have met Williams once and hoped to his face that he’d be the one to break the Babe’s home run records. Williams might well have gotten extremely close to breaking the career mark, at least, had he been able to play during those lost seasons. (Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci has speculated the wartime absences kept Williams from hitting 675 or more.)

All that is before mentioning twelve players (Tom Burr, Elmer Gedeon, Harry Glenn, Eddie Grant*, Newt Halliday, Bob Neighbors, Harry O’Neill, Ralph Sharman, Bill Stearns, Bun Troy) at various levels of major league accomplisment who were killed in war. And, without mentioning players (Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Willie Mays, others) who went into the military in wartime during their careers but didn’t see combat.

Yes, this nation’s leadership from top to bottom has handled the coronavirus world tour about as deftly as batted balls were handled by Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart. But do you really think today’s Mike Trouts or Justin Verlanders losing one season’s statistical time to a virus disruption compares to those who lost more than that kind of time to war?


* Eddie Grant, who’d retired in 1915, was the first former player to die in World War I, killed in action in the Argonne Forest. Grant was memorialised in his former home ballpark: the Giants erected a monument in his memory in the Polo Grounds’ center field, with a bronze plaque centered on the stone listing his baseball career and military service and death, with the rank of captain.

The stone sat 470 feet from home plate but was still considered in fair territory under the Polo Grounds ground rules. The stone stayed there, beneath the elevated clubhouse/offices structure, until the park closed for keeps after the Mets’ 1963 season.

The plaque on the stone went first to a New York police officer, somehow, whose duty involved foot patrols around the Polo Grounds area. When another New Jersey family bought his home there in due course, they discovered the plaque wrapped in blankets in the attic. They contacted the Baseball Reliquary, who have had possession of the plaque since 1999.