Three NBA playoff games were canceled within a matter of a few hours on Wednesday, a conversation among the Milwaukee Bucks about Jacob Blake being shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., earlier in the week touching off a league-wide protest within their Disney World bubble.
Baseball doesn’t fit in a bubble. There were 16 games in 11 states and the District of Columbia scheduled on Wednesday. Only three of those games weren’t played.
The Milwaukee Brewers, conscious of what the Bucks had done, were first to say they wouldn’t take the field against the Cincinnati Reds.
Then two games on the West Coast were postponed, players on those teams having had the time to digest the news.
Baseball caught up a bit on Thursday when seven games were called off. That 20 of the 30 teams felt compelled to act was a historic series of events for the league.
For once it was more than T-shirts and slogans on a scoreboard.
That 10 teams — the Yankees and Cardinals among them — played on is something they’ll have to assess. Suffice it to say, it can’t be comfortable to be a Black player in any of those organizations.
“For me, this is about right and wrong,” Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain said. “I know systemic change needs to happen. And we need to get there soon, because this world is definitely on a downward spiral, if I say so myself.
“With all the looting, with all the violence, everything that’s going on, I definitely don’t condone that. It’s just hard to put in words sometimes the things you’re seeing, day in and day out.”
Cain opted not to play this season because of the pandemic but stays in close contact with his teammates.
Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun said that learning about the racism Cain and teammate Devin Williams have experienced was eye-opening.
The same was true in the Red Sox clubhouse after Jackie Bradley Jr. and first base coach Tom Goodwin spoke.
“I needed to hear some of the stories they’ve had to endure and go through in their lives,” Nate Eovaldi said. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around.”
Eovaldi hugged Bradley when the meeting ended, coronavirus protocols be damned for a second. That’s great. But that players like Yelich and Eovaldi are only now hearing those stories is a sign that baseball needs to get more Black voices in those rooms.
Only 8 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters this season were Black. As Jim Rice and others have noted, gone are the days when rosters mirrored the percentage of Blacks in the country, roughly 14 percent if not higher in many seasons.
“You looked around the field when I played and there were Black players everywhere,” Rice said. “Now you look and hope to see one.”
In 1978, the All-Star teams included Rice, Vida Blue, George Foster, Reggie Jackson, Chet Lemon, Joe Morgan, Eddie Murray, Reggie Smith, Willie Stargell, Frank White, and Dave Winfield.
How many Black players would have been on an All-Star team this season?
Baseball isn’t excluding Black players. But it can add to the work it has done creating more opportunities on the amateur level and perhaps find a way to create more college scholarship opportunities, which lag compared with other sports.
Those are issues Major League Baseball has thrown financial muscle behind trying to correct, but it doesn’t come quickly or easily. Only in recent years have players who came through MLB-sponsored programs factored in the draft. One of them, Ed Howard, was a first-round pick of the Cubs in June.
Another Black player, Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, went fifth overall to Toronto.
Sport won’t fix systemic racism. But it can help start conversations, and baseball can be part of that.
“I think we’re getting better, but it’s still a ways off. And that’s the importance of trying to keep growing as a nation,” Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke said. “The only way we’re going to keep growing as a nation is if we address this and we make this a lot better.”
Sox helped out Buffalo Jays
It’s easy to look at this baseball season and see all the problems. Games are being played without fans and several teams had blocks of games postponed because of positive tests for COVID-19.
So what the Blue Jays have accomplished in Buffalo deserves to be celebrated.
The team hoped to play its home games at Rogers Centre but was denied permission by the Canadian government on July 18, only six days before the season started.
Their preference was to share a major league park with another team, but discussions with officials in Baltimore and Pittsburgh never gained traction as health and safety officials in those states had concerns.
Playing at their spring training park in Dunedin, Fla., wasn’t a reasonable option given the widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in that state.
The Blue Jays turned to Sahlen Field, their 32-year-old Triple A ballpark in downtown Buffalo, about 100 miles away. That decision was made July 24.
In roughly two weeks, Toronto turned an aging minor league park into a surprisingly good big league facility.
The Red Sox provided some inspiration. The Jays played preseason exhibition games at Fenway Park on July 21 and 22 and were impressed with how the Sox had used all their available space, including the concourses, to create clubhouses, weight rooms, and training rooms that would allow for social distancing and good ventilation.
Red Sox assistant GM Eddie Romero gave Jays GM Ross Atkins a tour of the changes and put the team in touch with chief operating officer Jon Gilula to get details on the construction.
At the same time, Toronto put senior vice president of marketing and business operations Marnie Starkman in charge of turning Sahlen Field into a pandemic-ready facility.
“We did a lot of things similar to what they did at Fenway in terms of the concourses and putting up tents as auxiliary dugouts and bullpens,” Starkman said. “But there was a lot we had to figure out on our own.”
The Jays turned the home and visitor clubhouses into space for just the home team by incorporating the hallway as part of the room. Visiting teams use a large temporary structure in the parking lot behind the outfield. It has room for a clubhouse and food service area with a covered weight room outside.
Toronto put blue tarps over the seats to give the stadium a Blue Jays feel and brought in two light trucks to improve the illumination on the field and bring it up to broadcast quality. Every bulb in the existing lighting was replaced.
Their groundskeeper in Florida, Pat Skunda, came up and supervised replacing the infield, the area behind home plate, and 20 feet into the outfield.
The Jays also shipped four truckloads of equipment from Toronto to Buffalo, everything from training tables to the clubhouse chairs, and weight-training equipment. Even the furniture from manager Charlie Montoyo’s office at Rogers Centre was hauled in.
BaAM Productions, a Canadian company that MLB uses to prepare ballparks for special event games, worked with the Jays on the remodeling.
“It’s not perfect, but I’m proud of the work we did,” Starkman said. “It was a total collaborative effort.”
Red Sox lefthander Kyle Hart saw Sahlen Field last season while playing for Triple A Pawtucket. His experience was much different when he returned on Tuesday.
“I wasn’t expecting their setup at all,” Hart said. “Kudos to them. You come in and actually feel pretty comfortable right away. Every situation that we walk into has been different. But this one is really, really nice.”
The Sox were happy to help.
“It’s such a unique season that we were happy to share any information we could,” chief marketing officer Adam Grossman said. “It’s interesting that in the last five months clubs have worked together on a variety of different things. We’re all just trying to get through this.”
A LOST YEAR
Minor leaguers in holding pattern
Vice president of player development Ben Crockett said the Sox (like other teams) don’t know yet if there will be winter ball or instructional league opportunities for players to get some work in before next season.
The Sox have a number of prospects working out in Pawtucket but don’t have enough players for a full intrasquad game, so it’s basically live batting practice with some fielders.
The minor league players not in Pawtucket have individual programs. Some have access to professional-level facilities while others are working out in their backyards or at the local high school field.
The Sox are using video conferencing to stay connected with their players.
“We’re trying to engage guys the best we can and provide some level of engagement and education,” Crockett said.
The Sox had the Pawtucket group work out at Fenway Park last weekend while the major league team was in Baltimore. That provided a chance to collect more data on the pitchers, former first-round pick Jay Groome in particular.
But for many players, 2020 will be a lost year of development. The gap between the end of the 2019 season and the start of the 2021 season will be 19 months.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Monday is a big day for the organization. Once the trade deadline passes at 4 p.m. Eastern, the season will be considered official as far as resetting the penalties for the luxury tax.
The Sox are well below the $208 million limit for this season. Resetting the penalties, something the Dodgers and Yankees have done in recent years, allows teams to spend more over a period of time.
▪ Rafael Devers has fallen into a bad habit of slowly jogging to first base on infield popups and ground balls to second, sometimes carrying his bat halfway down the line.
It hasn’t come back to bite him yet, but it invariably will when a ball falls in or is fumbled and Devers is thrown out because he didn’t run.
On the plus side, Devers doubled on Friday to join Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Carl Yastrzemski as the only Sox players with 100 before their 24th birthday.
▪ Phillips Valdez makes Clay Buchholz look like The Rock. But the skinny righthander has been a standout in the bullpen, allowing two earned runs in his first 18⅓ innings and striking out 17.
Valdez was released by the Indians (2010), Rays (2011), and Nationals (2018) before the Sox claimed him off waivers from Seattle in February.
He throws primarily changeups and sinkers with an occasional slider. That has produced an average exit velocity of only 84.3 miles per hour, among the best in the majors. It’s all strikeouts and soft contact.
Hall calls time on committees
The Hall of Fame will not hold its veterans committee elections in December as planned. The Golden Era and Early Days committees will wait until 2021.
The Hall believes the voting, which is done as part of the Winter Meetings, requires in-person discussion by the 16 members of each committee as opposed to video conferencing.
The Winter Meetings are scheduled for Dallas from Dec. 6-10. MLB hasn’t announced any changes, but the event is sure to be cut way down, if not canceled.
The Golden Era ballot was expected to include Dick Allen, Jim Kaat, and Tony Oliva. When that committee last met in 2015, Allen and Oliva missed the Hall by one vote and Kaat by two. All three, in this view, are deserving.
The Modern Baseball Era committee will meet in 2023 instead of 2022. Dwight Evans was four votes shy of enshrinement when that committee met in 2019 and is expected to be on the ballot in ’23. This delay pushes back his Hall chances for a year.
Luis Tiant was not one of the 10 candidates on the Modern Era ballot in 2019. Tiant went through 15 years of BBWAA voting and was on four committee ballots without success. His chances now, unfortunately, seem slim.
Former Giants teammate Kevin Pillar on Mike Yastrzemski, an MVP candidate in the National League: “It’s always been there. It was a matter of time for him to get his opportunity to play in the big leagues. Fortunately he got it last year. He’s a perfect example of a guy who persevered through so much in the minor leagues.” Pillar called Yastrzemski this past week to wish him a happy 30th birthday. “I told him to go to win the MVP,” Pillar said. “He answered very simply with, ‘I’m going for it.’ Kind of the mind-set he has. He believes in himself.” … Jacob deGrom has gone at least seven innings and allowed one or zero runs 14 times in the last three seasons without being credited for a win. He has a 2.03 ERA in his last 70 starts and is 23-17 … The rash of pitching injuries is getting worse. Through Thursday, there were 102 pitchers on the injured list, not counting the 20 believed sidelined by coronavirus tests. There were 51 pitchers on the injured list last season through the same number of games. The Rays alone have eight pitchers on the IL, including three lost for the season. Jalen Beeks, the former Red Sox prospect, is the latest Tampa Bay pitcher to suffer an elbow injury. But the Rays have stayed in first place. Remarkably, 10 of their pitchers have at least one save and 11 have made at least one start … Bryce Harper drew his 700th career walk last week. At 27, he is the third-youngest player since 1960 to have walked that many times, trailing Mike Trout and Rickey Henderson … Toronto has not fully given up on Vladimir Guerrero Jr. playing third base. “Whatever the team needs, I’ll be ready,” he said. “Actually, the days that I DH, I go early with [third base coach] Luis Rivera and I take ground balls at third base just in case the situation comes.” Guerrero is a decent first baseman with a chance to improve. His footwork is better than it was at third base and he throws well … Happy 70th birthday to Andy Merchant, a lefthanded-hitting catcher who played three games for the Red Sox from 1975-76. With Carlton Fisk and Bob Montgomery in front of him, Merchant never got much of a chance. Merchant returned home to Alabama after a final minor league season in 1979. The Sox were the only organization he played for.