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I don’t know about you all, but I will never be so happy to read “He’s in the best shape of his life!” stories as players filter into spring training as I will be this year.

I will never be so happy to see that first video of players stretching and playing catch.

I’ll be overjoyed the first time Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton step into the batting cage to face live pitching.

This isn’t the usual “winter bad, baseball good” attitude that creeps up this time of year, especially for those of us who live in areas of icy driveways and slush-filled sidewalks. This is about talking baseball and not the offseason mess of free agency. It’s talking about great plays instead of place of play. It’s talking about who is in camp instead of who isn’t. It’s about watching Judge and Stanton break car windshields and seeing if Ronald Acuna can make the Braves and how Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria look in their new duds.

The Yankees report to camp on Tuesday as pitchers and catchers get their physicals. Aaron Boone will have his first news conference since he was introduced as the team’s manager, and one of the questions he’ll be asked will be about his batting order. He can’t go wrong no matter what he does, but it’s fun to speculate about that Opening Day lineup. All I know is that once Judge and Stanton check in, I want to see the numbers — not just their projected home run totals but also their body-fat percentages.

Of course, the number that will come up time and time again is the number of free agents still out there; somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 remain unsigned. That list includes J.D. Martinez, who slugged .690 last season with 45 home runs; 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta; Eric Hosmer, who is coming off his best season; and Mike Moustakas and Logan Morrison, who both slammed 38 home runs.

Baseball has a way of doing this, of punching itself in the face, of drawing criticism instead of celebration. We had a remarkable 2017 season that included Stanton and Judge topping 50 home runs, Jose Altuve winning an MVP Award to further show baseball is for anyone of any size and an exciting postseason that culminated in the Astros’ first championship in franchise history. The star power, especially all the young stars, means the game’s future is in good hands.

Instead, we’ve spent the winter wondering why billionaires aren’t sharing more of their money with millionaires. Whether some teams are “tanking” or just merely “rebuilding.” About the sad state of the Marlins after Derek Jeter traded away an All-Star-caliber outfield in Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. About the economics of a sport that saw the Pirates and Rays trade away the long-time faces of their franchises.

To which I point out: The Yankees released Babe Ruth, the Giants dumped Willie Mays, the Mariners traded Ken Griffey Jr.

The fact is a lot of this stuff is inside baseball. It’s interesting to the die-hards like us. The average fan just wants to go to the park, eat food that’s bad for you and not feel guilty, soak in the sun and hopefully cheer for a winning team. In these days of social isolation and political division, the ballpark still brings everyone together.

Anyway, baseball is back, and given the way this winter unfolded, spring training will feel like less of a slog than ever. Here are some camps worth paying extra attention to:

New York Yankees. I think we’ll have to get rid of the Baby Bombers nickname for 2018. Judge is now a wise old veteran who turns 26 in April. Gary Sanchez is an All-Star coming off a 33-homer season. Stanton is the reigning NL MVP and major league home run champ. The record for home runs by three teammates — 143, by the 1961 Yankees (Roger Maris 61, Mickey Mantle 54, Bill Skowron 28) — could be in play, along with the record for home runs by a team (264 by the 1997 Mariners).

Atlanta Braves. Acuna has been pegged as the game’s next great star, the No. 1 overall prospect, after he hit .325 with 21 home runs and 44 steals across three levels of the minors. The most amazing part of his season: He hit .287 in Class A, .326 at Double-A and then .344 in 54 games at Triple-A. He didn’t turn 20 until December. Along with Acuna, the Braves have a slew of pitching prospects to monitor — eight of them made it into Keith Law’s list of 100 top prospects. Giant Brazilian lefty Luiz Gohara debuted last September, while others such as Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson and Max Fried will push for midseason call-ups.

Los Angeles Angels. Welcome to America, Shohei Ohtani. His attempt to play both ways begins in Tempe, and spring training is the perfect time to get him as many at-bats as possible. At the same time, Mike Scioscia’s first priority is to get Ohtani on schedule to pitch in the rotation. If Ohtani doesn’t hit well, will that doom his chances of getting some DH time in the regular season?

San Francisco Giants. The Giants collapsed to a 64-98 record — on the heels of a terrible second half in 2016 — and will have to prove that their roster isn’t too old to compete in today’s youth-centered game. They’ve added Longoria (32 years old) and McCutchen (31 years old) to help an offense that ranked next-to-last in the NL in runs scored, but the back of the rotation and bullpen have to improve as well.

New York Mets. The Mets hope to throw last year’s soap opera of a season into the trash and start over, but all scrutiny will be on the health and production of Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz. Besides the rotation, it will be interesting to see how youngsters Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith respond after their initial big league trials.

Chicago Cubs. It was already an interesting spring for Chicago. Kyle Schwarber is going to show up in really good shape. The World Series hangover year is over, but the Brewers and Cardinals should be better in the NL Central race. The Cubs already had a lot riding on 2018 — and now, Yu Darvish is headed to Chicago.

So, yes, it’s time to talk some baseball.

P.S.: Heard anything new on J.D. Martinez?

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Vi Ripken, matriarch of famed Baltimore Orioles family, dies at 82

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ABERDEEN, Md. — Vi Ripken, matriarch of the famed Orioles family that includes Hall of Fame son Cal Ripken Jr., has died. She was 82.

Family spokesman John Maroon said Sunday that she died on Friday, a day before her birthday, in Aberdeen, where a youth stadium carries the Ripken name.

Violet and Cal Ripken Sr. married in 1957, and he spent four decades in the Baltimore system as a player, minor league coach and manager. He managed the Orioles in 1987 and early 1988, when sons Cal Jr. and Billy played infield for him.

She also made headlines in 2012 after being the victim of a bizarre kidnapping. Police said she was kidnapped at gunpoint at her home in Aberdeen and driven around blindfolded by her abductor. She was found bound and unharmed about 24 hours later in her car near her home. The case was never solved.

Vi Ripken was involved for many years in local and charitable organizations in the Maryland area.

“We are deeply saddened to learn about the passing of Vi Ripken,” the Baltimore Ravens said in a statement. “The Ripkens are engrained in the fabric of the greater Baltimore community, and Vi played a significant role in helping establish their family’s strong legacy. We extend our heartfelt condolences to her children and grandchildren during this sorrowful time.”

She is survived by sons Cal Jr., Billy and Fred and daughter Elly. Grandson Ryan Ripken, a minor leaguer in the Baltimore system, played Sunday in the Orioles’ exhibition game against Pittsburgh.

Cal Sr. died in 1999.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Baltimore Orioles’ Trey Mancini gets standing ovation, singles in return from cancer

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Trey Mancini received a standing ovation and applause from both dugouts Sunday during his first live at-bat after missing the 2020 season while recovering from State 3 colon cancer.

When the Baltimore Orioles first baseman came up in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he drew a nice round of applause as he approached the batter’s box and waved to the crowd. The cheers kept growing, with pitcher Chad Kuhl stepping off the mound and umpire Will Little cleaning the plate to prolong the salute.

After tipping his cap in acknowledgement of the applause, Mancini then punctuated his return with a single to center in his first spring training at-bat Sunday, against the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Chad Kuhl.

“It was amazing,” Mancini told reporters when asked about the ovation. “I almost teared up a little bit, I’m not going to lie, when I was up there and everybody gave me a standing ovation and I saw all the guys on the field clapping on the Pirates, clapping in the dugout, our team and all our fans.

“It meant the world to me. It was a really, really cool moment and one of the favorite moments of my baseball career. I think it was a huge day for me, personally, getting back in a game. Just another kind of milestone that I can check off here.”

After producing 35 home runs and 97 RBIs for the Orioles in 2019, Mancini seemed primed for even bigger things. But after playing just five exhibitions last year, he needed to end his season to have surgery for colon cancer.

“It’s almost a year to the day when I was last in a game, so it definitely felt like a moment where we came full circle a little bit,” Mancini, who who turns 29 in a few weeks, said Sunday. “I thought more about everything that happened today than I have in a long time. I’ve mostly tried to in a lot of ways just move on and not think too much about last year. But today I ran through all the tough days that we had and really tried to appreciate and cherish today.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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San Diego Padres OF Tommy Pham lucky to be playing again after stabbing

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SAN DIEGO — Tommy Pham knows how lucky he was to be in the starting lineup for the San Diego Padres in their spring opener on Sunday, 4½ months after he was stabbed in the lower back during an altercation in the parking lot of a strip club.

It could have been much worse.

“The cut’s deep. The doctor here basically told me if I wasn’t so muscular, I might be dead or paralyzed,” the left fielder said during a videoconference with reporters from Peoria, Arizona.

“I’m lucky. I’m lucky to even be able to play.”

As he was being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance on Oct. 11, three nights after the Padres were eliminated from the playoffs, Pham was on the phone with general manager A.J. Preller and trainer Mark Rogow.

“I thought I wasn’t going to be able to play,” Pham recalls telling the club officials.

“When I got the CT scan, the doc was like, ‘I’ve got great news for you. You can play.’ She just said it’s going to be a little bit of a recovery.”

Pham said late last year that he needed 200 stitches to close the gash. A video posted online showed the lower part of his white shirt soaked in blood.

The San Diego Police Department is still investigating, and no arrests have been made.

Preller said Sunday that “obviously it’s not the type of news you’re expecting, ever, that type of phone call.”

Preller said Pham was “just matter of fact in terms of talking about what happened. The biggest focus for us was just making sure that we were in a position to get our doctors on the case and try to make sure we were being smart to give him every possible advantage in the care he needed at that point.”

Preller said the first thing that stood out “is how lucky he was, when you’re talking about a stab wound really in any area, but that was as deep and extensive as it was. If it was a centimeter in either direction, maybe a different outcome. Once we got past that hurdle, with his work ethic and the way he attacks things and gets in the gym and takes care of himself, he was going to give himself every possible opportunity to come back.

“He’s in great shape. Obviously he had some different injury stuff last year. I think he’s ready to go.”

Pham said his recovery included bedrest and then he flew to San Francisco every week for about six weeks to get injections of Regenokine to help with the inflammation.

“I worked with a few doctors on getting to where I’m at because it’s only been about 4½ months and the timeline is normally a little bit longer,” he said.

The injury affects him when he tries to do squats and deadlifts in the weight room.

“My norms aren’t there yet. You don’t really have to squat a lot or deadlift a lot to be a good baseball player,” he said.

After being traded from Tampa Bay Rays to San Diego, the 32-year-old Pham was limited to 31 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season due to an injury to his left hand that required surgery in mid-August. He hit .211 with three home runs and 12 RBIs. He hit .375 in the playoffs.

He had another hand surgery in October.

He says he’s at about 80%.

“I probably have the most to prove because I had a terrible year,” said Pham, who rattled off a number of analytics that were down. “Plus, this is my free agent year as well. So I feel like I have the most to prove.”

Pham said his perspective hasn’t changed since the stabbing.

“I still look at everything almost the same. If anything, I probably would just spend more money and stop saving as much, because if I died I would feel like I had too much money in the bank and I didn’t live enough.”

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