A calm, objective look at the Mookie Monster

Mookie Betts about to take a low-five from third base coach Dino Ebel after his sixth-inning Game One bomb.

The Mookie Monster is catching more than a few waves of adulation and hype lately. Making three National League Championship Series-altering or sustaining catches in the final three games, then doing something even Babe Ruth never achieved in a single World Series game, does that for you.

“He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do,” says Game One winning pitcher Clayton Kershaw, “and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”

On Tuesday  night, Betts let a couple of other Dodgers take the defensive spotlight gladly in return for drawing one walk, stealing two bases, and hitting a home run. Ruth drew three walks, off one of which he stole second and third, in Game Two of the 1921 World Series.

This Series is only one game old, and Betts hit as many home runs Tuesday night as Ruth hit in the entire ’21 Series—one. No, we’re not comparing Mookie Betts to Babe Ruth just yet, other than to say he has something else in common with the Bambino.

Betts, too, is a former Boston Red Sox star. Betts was traded away while Red Sox Nation was still seeing him in prime time; Ruth was sold before Red Sox fans got to see his complete transition to full-time position playing and his two prime periods—in a very different game—of 1920-24 and 1926-31. And Red Sox Nation isn’t the only baseball outpost still wondering just what the Red Sox were thinking when dealing Betts.

The Ruthian mythology held for too long that then-Red Sox owner Harry Frazee dumped Ruth purely to finance his musical hit No, No, Nanette. (How a 1919 sale finances a 1925 stage production should have escaped thinking people.) Frazee did need money, but not for one of his theatrical productions. He also didn’t need the headaches that came with Ruth, behaving even then like a law unto himself.

Fast forward a century. A very different Red Sox ownership is about as financially challenged as the Saudi royal family. They’re facing Betts hitting free agency after the 2020 season and making little apparent effort to sign him. Betts himself spoke often enough about pondering his market value in that 2020 free agency class. The Red Sox didn’t want to lose him for nothing in return.

Fair enough. But why the Red Sox made no effort to keep their arguable franchise face will be debated at least as long as the old and discredited Curse of the Bambino endured. No matter what the Red Sox didn’t do otherwise last winter to keep the team from collapsing to the basement even in a pandemic-altered year, the Olde Towne Team isn’t likely to go even half as long before its next World Series triumph as they did between selling Ruth and 2004.

“The Red Sox’s payroll issues were not inconsequential,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, never mind that allowing that the Red Sox doing nothing to re-tool their pitching staff probably did as much to sink them as trading Betts. “The team needed to infuse young talent. But every rational argument club officials make pales in comparison to the importance of keeping a homegrown star, a franchise player, a role model for your organization and a potential Hall of Famer.”

Their loss is the Dodgers’ gain, even if the Red Sox did get some decent young talent in return and rid themselves, while they were at it, of the rest of David Price’s contract before Price’s decline added further miseries. Betts already had a taste of World Series conquest in 2018, even though he didn’t hit well at all while playing solid defense that postseason.

“He does all the little things right,” said Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger to Rosenthal, Bellinger having delivered a couple of key postseason hits and defensive gems himself. “You can really learn from that when a guy’s that good and wants to win and continues to do the small things that go unnoticed by a lot of people. It’s really special.”

The guy Betts is being compared to most now hasn’t even gotten more than one quick postseason taste in his rookie season. The Los Angeles Angels aren’t exactly in the poorhouse financially. They’re in the poorhouse in baseball terms, though, since they seem almost terminally unable to build a team their franchise player and the game’s best all around, still, can be proud of.

Once the Mookie Monster cranked his act into overdrive starting in NLCS Game Five, the concurrent subject became Mike Trout, his lack of postseason credentials, and even why Trout is therefore an overrated hype. The foolishness there only begins with the roll of Hall of Famers who either never got to strut in the postseason, came up too short when they got several chances, but still shook out as their generations’ best.

It only continues with ignoring that Trout wasn’t responsible for such ultimately backfiring moves as the Albert Pujols contract—which became an albatross mostly because of Pujols’s injury issues impacting his once-unshakable plate discipline—and the utter failure to develop credible pitching on both ends of the game. That may or may not have only begun with doing little to nothing to keep Zack Greinke beyond his second-half 2012 rental.

Trout’s loyalty to the organisation that brought him forward is nothing but admirable in a business for which loyalty is and has always been a disposable commodity. The only difference between pre- and post-free agency “loyalty” is that pre-free agency teams were under no such obligation and liberal to the point of libertine when it came to “loyalty” to most of their players.

A guy doesn’t sign an extension equivalent to the economy of a small country if he thinks he’s been done dirty off the field. Even nice-guy Trout has his limits, though. He said not too subtly this year that he’s tired of the Angels losing. But when the game’s all-universe player says he’s fed up with falling short and shorter, will the Angels listen at last?

The show Betts is putting on this postseason is as staggering as the 99 Cent Store-budget Tampa Bay Rays bumping, grinding, flying, and diving their way to the American League’s best irregular season record and into the World Series in the first place. But if Betts’s partisans really want to go there with the Trout comparisons, well, you asked for it.

Betts has seven seasons in the Show. Here they are next to Trout’s first seven. First, looking conventionally:

First Seven Seasons BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Mookie Betts .301 .373 .522 .895 135
Mike Trout .310 .420 .579 1.000 178

Well, I tried to warn you. And, in absolute fairness, Betts’s line is astonishing for a leadoff hitter, which I’ll take a different crack at shortly.

Now—sorry, can’t resist—look at the pair using my Real Batting Average metric, which I think gives you the complete look at a player at the plate. (It also does what the traditional batting average fails to do: treats hits as they should be treated, not treating all hits as having equal value—which they don’t.) Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances:

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Mike Trout 2012-2018 4538 2171 684 86 43 63 .671

Again, Betts has a remarkable profile for a leadoff hitter. But granted that distinction versus a guy who bats second much of the time and third almost as much of the time, the Mookie Monster isn’t quite the Millville Meteor just yet. (Since you went there: Betts does have a Most Valuable Player award—to Trout’s three that should have been four.)

On the other hand, it might be a lot more prudent and accurate to compare Betts to the first seven seasons of another leadoff man of certain renown.

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Renowned Leadoff Man 4445 1639 674 24 20 23 .535

The leadoff man of certain renown is Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson. Did you figure for even one milli-second that there but for the grace of his life of crime on the bases would Henderson come up short of Betts? That the Mookie Monster in his first seven seasons is actually better at the plate than the Man of Steal?

Maybe you didn’t before, but you ought to now. Especially since Betts has a slightly better knowledge than Henderson of what to do when his bat takes unexpected time off and becomes a one-man version of the Rays’ collection of aerialists, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and tumblers.

It’s enough to make the Dodgers’ spanking new $396 million man the biggest bargain of the year. Just don’t ask Betts. All he’s ready to do is tell you the most important thing he did in Game One, and it wasn’t the jolt he hit the other way that landed in the right field seats in the bottom of the sixth. For him, it was the double steal that led to him scoring on an offline throw from first base an inning earlier.

“I think it just kept the line moving,” he told reporters. “It was a good play there, and I’ve gotta give credit to the hitters that came up after for driving in runs and keeping constant pressure. It just showed that we don’t have to hit home runs to be successful.”

Not even when it’s the aggregation that led the National League in bombs this irregular season and last full season. It ought to make for one hell of a World Series show going forward.

Take your pick: a .400 hitter, or a .700 batter

Much talk now hooks around Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon hitting (as of Friday morning) .424, and whether the short season means he’ll finish the season hitting .400 or over. I have a better piece of conversation for you.

Suppose I tell you Blackmon was really batting .648 when he woke up Friday morning?

While you reel your tongues back into your mouths from the floor and retrieve the eyes that blasted out of their sockets, I’ll begin the splainin’ I have to do by saying you might notice where I said “hitting” and where I said “batting.” Because when you say Charlie Blackmon’s hitting .424, it’s not the true, full picture of him at the plate.

The traditional batting average still has isolated value, but it’s also an incomplete statistic. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: there’s something intrinsically wrong with a stat that makes two grave mistakes. Mistake number one—it treats every hit equally. Mistake number two—it addresses official at-bats alone.

I’ve said this before, too: Should you really trust a statistic that treats all hits equally when all hits are not equal? Do you really think a single is as valuable as a double, a triple, or a home run? If you answer “yes” to both questions, you’re really cheating yourself—or you might really be Frank Lane returned to earth and living in someone else’s body.* If you answer “no,” pull up a chair and a cold drink.

Let me present to you once again, with one modification to my original concept, the formula I believe gives the most complete possible look at what a batter does at the plate:

TB + BB + IBB + SF + HBP
PA

In plain English, that’s total bases plus walks plus intentional walks plus sacrifice flies plus hit by pitches, divided by plate appearances. What the formula determines is a player’s real batting average (RBA), everything he does at the plate.

And when you add Charlie Blackmon’s 2020 total bases (60 entering today), walks (8), intentional walks (1), sacrifice flies (0), and times he was hit by a pitch (1), then divide the sum (61) by his plate appearances (108), you have his real batting average. Tell me now that a .648 batter isn’t as impressive as a .424 hitter. Still have questions? OK, here goes.

Total Bases—It counts a player’s hits the way they ought to be counted—unequally. A single is worth one base. A double, two; a triple, three; a home run, four. If all you see is a player with 42 hits (Blackmon led the entire Show entering Friday morning) you think that’s a lot of hits in 25 games—and it is, of course—but you’re not seeing the real value of those hits or everything he’s doing to help his team create runs.

The last I looked, the name of the game in baseball is putting more runs on the scoreboard than the other guys. A man who’s batting .648 is doing a magnificent job of creating and/or producing runs above and beyond scoring them or driving them in. To do both of the latter, it depends entirely on his teammates knocking him home or reaching base in the first place.

(Why discount runs scored and runs batted in to any degree? Easy: Find me the rule that says you can drive yourself in. Find me the player who steals three bases in one unmolested turn on the bases every time he reaches base. Find me the player who can steal home at will every time he reaches third base. Not even Rickey Henderson, the Man of Steal himself, could do that.)

Charlie Blackmon’s hits as of Friday morning were: 31 singles, seven doubles, one triple, and three home runs. That’s 31 + 14 + 3 + 12 bases each. That’s 60 total bases. We’re not talking about a fellow who’s coming up very big in the extra-base hit department (26 percent of his hits are extra-base hits so far), but we are talking about a productive fellow regardless.

Walks—You’d think the walks would be covered within the total bases, but they’re actually not. But I think a player who’s sharp enough at the plate to read the zone and the pitches in flight and take them appropriately should get particular credit for that. The walk doesn’t count as an official at-bat, of course, but unless I have been very deceived by my own eyes all these years, the last I looked the man was at bat, in the batter’s box, when he worked out the walk, and he wasn’t there without his bat.

Intentional Walks—It may seem superfluous since they’re also counted in the total walks, but there’s a damn good reason a player should get additional credit for intentional walks. Why would you not credit him for a batting situation in which the other guys would rather he take his base than their heads off? Whether it’s him taking their heads off or the guy batting behind him posing the better shot at a defensive out, that batter should get credit for being presence enough that they don’t want him swinging the bat.

Sacrifice Flies—The one change I made to my original RBA concept is removing sacrifice bunts from the equation. Not just because the bunt in general is in disfavour now but because of the basic reason it fell that way in the first place—you don’t give the other guys a free out to use against you.

So you moved the runner over? Good for you. But you also gave your team one less out to work with trying to get that man home, and your chances of getting him home just fell by 33.33 percent. Don’t get me started on the fools who think bunting a runner over with two outs is sound baseball. (And, as the invaluable Keith Law has put it, show me any crowd at the ballpark under normal circumstances who paid their way in to see all those sac bunts dropped, or flipped on the TV set to watch them.)

So why keep sacrifice flies but not sacrifice bunts in the RBA formula? Easy: sacrifice flies aren’t intentional outs and, by their very design and the rule book, they put runs on the scoreboard.

There isn’t a batter on the planet who goes up to the plate thinking, “Let me take one for the team. I’ll just hit this fly ball right to Bernie Boxorocks in left field so I can get Frankie Feetsies home from third on the cheap.” That batter kinda sorta wants to reach base himself, unless he gets to step on each base en route home plate after hitting one into the nearest cardboard cutout or stuffed animal in the seats.

Hit By Pitches—As Groucho Marx once said, this is so simple a child of five knows it, now let’s find a child of five.

It doesn’t matter whether he was just trying to push you back off the plate. It doesn’t matter if he drilled you because you took him over the International Date Line your last time up. It doesn’t matter if he did it because he’s P.O.ed that the guy just ahead of you took him there. It doesn’t even matter if he drilled you for wearing a cheating team’s uniform even though you weren’t on the team to join in the cheating.

If that pitcher wants to hand you first base on the house the hard way, let it be on his head and the plus side of your ledger.

As of this morning the Show had one other .400 hitter—D.J. LeMahieu, about whom the bad news is that he’s another hapless New York Yankee on the injured list. (Yes, children, if The New England Journal of Medicine could have been last year’s Yankee yearbook, this year’s may yet become The Journal of the American Medical Association.) RBA says LeMahieu’s really batting .556.

How about Bryce Harper, about whom everyone harped on his modest traditional batting averages in recent seasons without looking his true depth at the plate? This year, he’s hitting a traditional .338. RBA says Harper’s batting .744. Mike Trout, who plays for a team that’s still not a team its best player can be proud of? He’s hitting a traditional .338 so far. RBA says he’s batting .707.

How about Fernando Tatis, Jr., who inspired this week’s major kerfuffle when he swung on 3-0 with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a San Diego Padres blowout-in-the-making, ground salami, and infuriated the boring old unwritten rule farts including his own momentarily brain-vapourised manager? Let’s see. Tatis woke up this morning leading the Show in total bases. (77.) RBA says he’s batting .738.

Forget the race to see whether Blackmon can finish hitting .400+ in this season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents Quiet, Please! Lawrence Fechtenberger Escapes the Intergalactic Nemesis Beyond Tomorrow’s Stroke of Fate. Wouldn’t it be more fun seeing whether Blackmon, Harper, Tatis, or Trout can finish batting .700+?

If you answered “no,” tune in tonight to Chocolate Cookies with White Stuff in the Middle Presents The Wilderness Family Theater.

—————————————————–

* When Frank Lane made the notorious Rocky Colavito-for-Harvey Kuenn trade as spring training finished in 1960, among his explanations for the deal Cleveland still can’t forget was, “We’ve given up forty homers for forty doubles. We’ve added fifty singles and taken away fifty strikeouts . . . Those singles and doubles win just as many games as home runs.”

(Harvey Kuenn was better at avoiding the strikeout, but Rocky Colavito was better at it than you might remember: he never struck out more than 89 times in any season and he only ever reached that number once, in 1958.)

In 1959, Colavito led the American League with 42 home runs and 301 total bases. Kuenn in 1959 led the American League with a .353 traditional batting average and by hitting as many doubles as Colavito hit home runs. But he wasn’t even close to Colavito with 281 total bases. Colavito also produced 201 runs (scored/driven in) to Kuenn’s 170. And, 44  percent of Colavito’s hits were for extra bases against 29 percent of Kuenn’s.

RBA says Colavito batted .580 in 1959 and Kuenn, .543. I’d submit that those singles and doubles didn’t necessarily win as many games as the home runs. So did the 1959 American League standings, with the Indians finishing five games out of first place and the Detroit Tigers—who dealt Kuenn for Colavito—finishing eighteen games out.

It wasn’t Rocky Colavito’s fault the ’59 Indians finished five behind the pennant-winning White Sox, of course, and neither was it Harvey Kuenn’s fault the Tigers finished thirteen behind the Tribe. But Lane also described the trade as “hamburger for steak.” He was too thick—and, in fairness, baseball men of the time not named Branch Rickey wouldn’t have dug deep enough—to know he’d acquired hamburger for steak.

Indictment in Skaggs death, but . . .

Los Angeles Angels v. Seattle Mariners

Wearing Tyler Skaggs’ jersey as his teammates did that night, Mike Trout walks in front of the center field fence displaying a memorial to the pitcher who died of an overdose in Texas last year. A former Angels media person is now indicted for giving Skaggs the drug that helped kill him.

Beckham Aaron Trout was born 30 July. His father, a baseball player of some renown, attended his son’s birth, returned to his team, and hit a 2-2 slider over the left center field fence. This morning, Jessica Trout tweeted a photograph for her husband’s 29th birthday, their new son proclaiming himself the best present ever.

In a career that would indeed qualify him as a Hall of Famer should it end after this season, and Los Angeles Angels fans aren’t the only ones who hope devoutly that that doesn’t prove the case, Mike Trout has shown among other things a genuine human decency and a penchant for rising to particularly heartfelt occasions.

Homering his first time up after fatherhood blessed him is just one. Last year, alas, Trout did it in the middle of soul-wrenching grief.

His teammate Tyler Skaggs died unexpectedly after the Angels landed in Texas to finish a pre All-Star Game road trip. When the team returned home, to face the Seattle Mariners, a wrenching pre-game memorial to the fallen pitcher was followed by Trout opening the scoring with a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the first.

That launched a 13-0 blowout and a combined no-hitter by Angels pitchers Taylor Cole and Felix Pena that electrified a game wracked in grief over Skaggs’s mortal demise. (“Absolutely incredible,” Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander tweeted. “Meant to be.”) His teammates, all of whom wore Skaggs jerseys for the game, laid those jerseys around the mound after the game, leaving only Skaggs’s number 45 behind the rubber exposed.

On the same morning Jess Trout helped her new son tell his father who was the best present ever, the news broke out of Texas that former Angels media relations employee Eric Kay was indicted by a federal court for distributing at least the fentanyl that contributed to Skaggs’s overdose death last year.

The Tarrant County, Texas coroner’s report revealed alcohol, fentanyl, and oxycodone in Skaggs’s system when he died, but, as the Los Angeles Times reports, an affidavit on behalf of the criminal complaint against Kay suggested the fentanyl presence was the likely specific cause of the asphyxiation that killed Skaggs. The Angels themselves said in a formal Friday statement that they hired a former federal prosecutor to help the team investigate their pitcher’s death.

We learned that there was unacceptable behavior inconsistent with our code of conduct, and we took steps to address it. Our investigation also confirmed that no one in management was aware, or informed, of any employee providing opioids to any player, nor that Tyler was using opioids.

As we try to heal from the loss of Tyler, we continue to work with authorities as they complete their investigation.

The statement contradicts Kay’s statement last October that team officials knew there was an opioid issue involving at least five Angels while he denied providing the fatal pills to Skaggs, a fun-loving and popular teammate who seemed to shield his issues with the drugs effectively enough until his death. (How effectively? His widow, Carli, told the Times two months ago her husband didn’t behave like an addict.)

Skaggs underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, missing the entire 2015 season rehabbing. “Keep in mind,” wrote Halos Heaven‘s Jessica DeLine, “opioid abuse often begins after surgeries, when the drug may be prescribed to the patient. Per the Mayo Clinic, opioids are highly addictive and your risk of addiction is increased after taking the drug for just a few days.”

Two years after that rehab season, Skaggs went to the old disabled list for 98 days with a strained oblique, followed by missing three months in 2018 with hip adductor muscle problems. “If he wasn’t prescribed any opiate after his Tommy John surgery,” I wrote last October, “who’s to say the pain of those injuries instead didn’t lead him to opiates’ doors?”

Kay’s remarks in his statement last fall practically accused the Angels of covering up. “I felt and continue to feel that it is time for everyone to stand up and take responsibility for their respective roles in this,” the statement began.

Nothing anyone does will ever provide closure for the Skaggs family. I can’t, the Angels can’t, and the courts can’t, regardless of what happens there. But at least I can help them “know”‘ instead of “wonder.” My hope is that there is some peace in that for them.

Recent Angels history says the team’s administration didn’t necessarily suffer drug issues gladly or sympathetically. When talented but drug-recovering outfielder Josh Hamilton signed a big free agency deal with the Angels, but saw his Angels service and performance disrupted by injuries, he relapsed infamously while watching a Super Bowl game.

As required by MLB’s drug agreement, Hamilton didn’t waste any time reporting his relapse to the Angels. They rewarded him for his forthrightness by running him out of town before sundown on the first unoccupied rail they could find. Right back to the Texas Rangers from whence he’d come in the first place. Barely caring either that Hamilton manned up or that they looked grotesque punishing him.

Angels owner Arte Moreno paid Hamilton’s entire remaining salary just to get him out of sight. Then, insult-to-injury: then-Angels manager Mike Scioscia demanded Hamilton apologise publicly when the Rangers next came to town. Don’t think there aren’t Angel personnel fearful that, if Moreno could exile a Hamilton, he might be liable to hang those aware of Skaggs’s ultimately fatal struggle.

Kay’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, said last fall that blaming Kay alone for the Skaggs tragedy was shortsighted and misguided. “When all the facts come out,” the attorney continued, “I think that what happened is a tragedy. What happened is very sad on many levels. But to say it’s any one person’s fault is not right.”

Barring any plea bargain, Kay’s trial is liable to bring at least a few such facts forward. It won’t be pleasant. It surely won’t assuage the Skaggs family’s loss and grief. But it may not leave the Angels—to whom Mike Trout plighted his baseball troth for life, and for the equivalent of a tiny island republic’s economy—smelling pleasant, either.

“When stuff comes out,” said Trout, after the Skaggs toxicology report was made public last fall, “you want to know if it’s true.” If the Angels’ administration really does have any responsibility, even if it was mere knowledge upon which the team didn’t act, Trout may not want to know.

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.