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BRADENTON, Fla. — For veteran free-agent infielder Chris Johnson, the warning signs started months ago, when not only was he without a team, but the phone calls just weren’t coming in.

“After you get past New Year’s and haven’t heard anything — not even a little interest — obviously you start to worry in the offseason. You’re like, ‘Man, is this it? Am I done? Am I not gonna be able to play anymore?'” Johnson said. “[When] you don’t hear anything, and people start talking about ’20 days until pitchers and catchers [report]’ and things like that, then obviously you start to panic a little bit.”

Johnson, 33, isn’t alone. Nearly one week since Grapefruit and Cactus league play began, almost a third of the offseason’s free agents in November are still without teams, which is why many of them are taking part in the Major League Baseball Players Association camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

It’s the union’s first spring training camp since the players’ strike in 1995. Former Houston Astros manager Bo Porter is leading the workouts.

Former Astros manager Bo Porter on coaching at the MLBPA free agent camp: “The thought process was, if we’re gonna do it, let’s do it the way spring training is supposed to be run.”

Jenna Laine, ESPN Staff Writer

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“I’m just asking for an opportunity, really. I’m not asking for a million bucks,” said Johnson, who spent last season on a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles. “I’m asking to play for the bare minimum and just have an opportunity to continue my career. And I’m hearing a lot of the same stuff here.”

A lot of theories have been tossed around as to why so many talented veteran free agents remain unsigned, including pitchers Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, first baseman Lucas Duda, third baseman Mike Moustakas and outfielders Jon Jay and Carlos Gonzalez. One theory many in Bradenton suggested is that there’s now too much of a reliance on metrics, versus intangibles like leadership.

“With the value of free agency and players that have major league experience — it’s something that you can’t quantify,” Porter said. “So when you look at bringing in veteran guys that have played the game at a high level and the guys that we have here — these guys’ careers aren’t over with. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit and getting them into camp and getting them an opportunity to continue to prove their value to the game.”

MLBPA union representative Tony Clark believes that to be true with catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 32, who won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2013 and is at the camp. Clark also acknowledged that having up to one-third of teams in full-on “rebuild mode” has also transformed the way the league is doing business.

“We have teams openly suggesting that they’re not as interested in winning today’s ballgame and they’re not as interested in being the last team standing. I did not anticipate being in that world,” Clark said. “So if that is the world we are going to be in, then there are going to need to be some conversations moving forward.”

Players at the camp all wear black MLBPA jerseys. Their schedules are structured the same as a big league camp, starting with drills and fundamentals at 7:30 a.m.

The original intent wasn’t to play any games, but the numbers of unsigned players continued to be high and the talent has been competitive enough to play some exhibition games, which are open to scouts, agents and the media. They’re not sure how long the camp will run, but the hope is that all these players will be gone and signed with teams soon.

Dave Gallagher spent nine years in the big leagues, playing outfield for eight different teams. He is a coach at the MLBPA camp and has raved about the players’ professionalism and attitude despite unfavorable circumstances — but he worries about what will happen when there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

“The one thing I see, and I can see it from talking to these guys, is that they start to lose hope,” Gallagher said. “And it’s a little bit humiliating. I’m sure some of them don’t understand it. To be honest with you, I don’t understand it.”

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Toronto Blue Jays to again make temporary home in Buffalo, report says

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After two months in Florida, the vagabond Toronto Blue Jays are again ready to take flight in June and make their temporary home in Buffalo, New York, according to a report.

The Blue Jays will return to Sahlen Field on June 1 against the Miami Marlins, Sportsnet reported Wednesday. They played the first two months of the season at TD Ballpark — their spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida — because of Canadian government restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Toronto last played at home at Rogers Centre, with its 49,000-person capacity, on Sept. 29, 2019.

The Blue Jays played home games during the shortened 2020 season at Sahlen Field — home of their Buffalo Bisons Triple-A farm team — and went 17-9. The Canadian government didn’t allow the team to play at home because of the risk of spreading COVID-19 due to frequent travel required during a baseball season.

The Blue Jays, who have 10 games remaining in Dunedin, are 14-14 and are in fourth place in the AL East through Tuesday’s games.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Where does Atlanta Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa’s big night rank among other pitchers who rake?

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If only all these position players could hit as well as Atlanta Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa, we wouldn’t be hyperventilating about the feeble state of batting averages across the major leagues. The 22-year-old right-hander has now homered in consecutive starts, including a grand slam in Tuesday’s 6-1 victory over the Nationals. Two starts ago, he doubled and hit an RBI single. He’s 5-for-13 for the season with a .385 average and six RBIs.

He has more home runs and RBIs than Francisco Lindor, as many RBIs as Mookie Betts, more home runs than DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres combined. He’s scored as many runs as Starlin Castro and Miguel Cabrera. Heck, since April, Ynoa is 5-for-8 with three extra-base hits while his MVP teammate Freddie Freeman is 8-for-41 with three extra-base hits.

Not bad for a guy who had three professional at-bats entering the season, all in the minors in 2019 (he struck out all three times).

Facing hard-throwing Nationals reliever Tanner Rainey on Tuesday with two outs, the bases loaded and Atlanta up 2-0 in the sixth inning, Ynoa crushed an 0-1, 95-mph fastball 427 feet to center field, finishing with a one-handed follow through worthy of Manny Machado. He crossed home plate with a big smile on his face.

“Truth be told, I put a lot of work on my hitting spring training. I put a lot of emphasis on it,” Ynoa said through a translator after the game.

He said he’s not swinging for the fences, though.

“All I’m trying to do is get on base and let the real hitters do their thing. Obviously, even though that one felt good, it’s the same mentality. I’m just going up there trying to get a hit.”

Ynoa’s grand slam was the first by a pitcher since Anthony DeSclafani in June 2018. He’s the first pitcher to homer in back-to-back starts since Steven Matz in September 2018.

Ynoa wasn’t the only pitcher to do damage at the plate on Tuesday. White Sox starter Dylan Cease, playing an interleague game in Cincinnati, went 3-for-3 while also striking out 11 batters and allowing only one hit in six scoreless innings. He joins Jarrod Washburn as the only American League pitchers with a three-hit game since the introduction of interleague play and is the first AL pitcher with three hits and at least 10 strikeouts since Sam McDowell in 1969.

And he did it in the first at-bats of his professional career.

Cease didn’t even have his own hitting equipment — he used Jose Abreu‘s bat and Adam Engel‘s batting gloves. He said he hadn’t seen live pitching since his senior year of high school, which would have been back in 2014, so understandably he was more thrilled with his hitting than his pitching.

As fun as the hitting results were, these are two young starters who need to perform on the mound to help their teams to the postseason. Ynoa wasn’t necessarily penciled into the rotation in the offseason, but with Mike Soroka injured at the outset of the season, he beat out Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson for the fifth spot in the rotation. He’s 3-1 with a 2.36 ERA with an impressive 38-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 34.1 innings.

The key: Throwing strikes. He averaged 4.1 walks per nine innings in his minor league career and walked 13 in 21 innings for the Braves last season. “He’s a big strong kid,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after the game. “He has no fear and he has weapons. That’s a pretty good combination.”

Cease made 26 starts in 2019 and 2020, and while he had a 4.01 ERA last season, the underlying numbers were not good. He led the AL in walks and served up 12 home runs in 58.1 innings, with a poor 1.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. After failing to go five innings in his first four starts, he’s now had back-to-back scoreless outings after throwing a seven-inning shutout against the Tigers in his previous star. Again, the key is throwing strikes: he’s had 20 strikeouts and just three walks in his past two games. Yes, the Tigers are a hapless bunch, but the Reds entered the game leading the majors in runs per game.

Still, it’s the hitting highlights that have us talking about these two — and it’s a reminder that this is likely the last season we’ll get to talk about pitchers hitting, at least other than Shohei Ohtani. It’s expected the designated hitter will return to the National League in 2022 and while we will lose moments like Ynoa and Cease provided on Tuesday, here’s where I remind you that pitchers are batting .108 this season and have struck out in over 46% of their plate appearances. Take out the sacrifice hits and that percentage trickles over 50%.

But it’s a good night to get nostalgic about memorable moments in pitcher hitting. Here are my 10 favorites, in no particular order:

1. Tony Cloninger: Two grand slams in one game

Cloninger went 3-for-5 with nine RBIs for the Braves in a 1966 game – which is tied with Adam Duvall for the franchise record for RBIs in one game. Cloninger was a pretty good hitting pitcher, hitting .192 with 11 home runs in his career (five in 1966).

2. Rick Wise: No-hitter AND two home runs

Talk about doing it yourself. Wise no-hit the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati and drove in three of the Phillies’ four runs in a 4-0 victory in a 1971 game. Wise hit .237 with six home runs that season.

3. Earl Wilson: Twice hit seven home runs in a season

A solid starter for the Red Sox and Tigers in the 1960s with 121 career wins, Wilson was one of the best hitting pitchers of all time, with a .195 average but 35 home runs in 740 at-bats. He hit .240/.299/.500 in 1966 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs and then hit .227 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs in 1968 (the Year of the Pitcher).

4. Jim Tobin: Three home runs in one game

The only pitcher to hit three in one game, Tobin did it on May 13, 1942 for the Boston Braves in a 6-5 victory over the Cubs.

5. Walter Johnson: .433 average in 1925

Arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, Johnson’s .433 average is the highest ever for a pitcher in a season (I set a cutoff of 50 plate appearances). More remarkably, it came when he was 37 years old.

6. Dave McNally: World Series grand slam

The only pitcher to hit a grand slam in the World Series, McNally home run came for the Orioles against the Reds in Game 3 in 1970. Interestingly, the only other pitcher grand slam in postseason history came 10 days earlier from Orioles teammate Mike Cuellar.

7. Terry Forster: .397 career average

David Letterman made him famous when he once called the longtime reliever a “fat tab of goo,” but Forster could hit – not that he got many opportunities. Over 16 seasons, he went 31-for-78, although he never hit a home run. He put the ball in play, striking out just nine times in 86 plate appearances.

8. Wes Ferrell: Nine home runs in 1931

A six-time 20-game winner, Ferrell is regarded as the best hitting pitcher of all time, non-Babe Ruth or Ohtani division. He hit .280 in his career with 38 home runs, including a .319/.373/.621 line in 1931 with nine home runs and 30 RBIs.

9. Mike Hampton: seven home runs in 2001

Probably the best hitting pitcher of recent decades, Hampton hit .311 for the Astros in 1999, .291 with seven home runs for the Rockies in 2001 (three of those on road, FYI), .344 for the Rockies in 2002 and even .324 in his last full season with the Astros in 2009. He hit .246 with 16 home runs in his career. Madison Bumgarner has more home runs (19 to 16), but he’s hit .177.

And finally, No. 10, the greatest hitting moment ever for a pitcher … you know what’s coming …

You know, given the way the Mets are hitting in 2021, maybe it’s time to bring a certain slugger out of retirement.



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New York Yankees fans bring inflatable trash cans, costumes and more in first chance to boo Houston Astros

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Many New York Yankees fans spent the pandemic searching for an outlet to express their anger over the trash can-banging scheme of the Houston Astros. On Tuesday night, with Houston making its first trip to the Bronx since news of the scandal broke, fans finally received their chance to rain boos down on the 2017 World Series champions.

Here are the stories behind some of the signs and sights from fans, finally able to express the resentment that has boiled up over the past year in quarantine. It didn’t hurt that New York won, 7-3.


“New York never forgets”

Jack Turner (pictured left): “They got away with no fans last year, but New York is coming out tonight. New York never forgets.”

Jack Genesi: “It’s a collective hate against the Astros and it definitely even goes deeper into the integrity of the game. They affected a lot of players outside of them cheating. It goes deeper than just winning the World Series. We brought a trash can lid that they took away at the game because they said it could be used as a weapon.”

“We want to beat the cheaters”

Chico Heano: “It’s plastic (the trash can necklace) and security let me have it. That’s what they were doing when they were getting signals when they were playing, so we wanted to show that we can do signals too. I come here every night and every game but I had to be here tonight for sure because we want to beat the cheaters. We got it from a store that was selling them. I got it in some place in the Bronx. Some girl got it for me.”

“I have been waiting to go to this game for over a year and a half”

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A passionate Yankees fan wears an Oscar the Grouch costume complete with trash can so he can bang on it while the Astros are batting. Sadly, the fan was not allowed into the stadium with the costume.

David Taub (pictured at center, holding sign up): “The costume came from Amazon. It was about $90 and I ordered it and it was three weeks in backorder so I made sure to order it early. I had this game penciled in for a long time. Since the schedule came out. I have been waiting to go to this game for over a year and a half, waiting for the Astros to come.

“I was waiting on line and they had a new policy that came today. I actually came on Sunday. I showed the manager a picture (of the costume) and he said I could bring it. I paid a lot of money for the costume. I came in today and they said they had a new policy and that they couldn’t allow costumes in and they made me leave the line and remove it. It’s hiding right now in the grass. I hid it somewhere around the stadium.”

“She’s the MVP. … She snuck it in.”

Betsy Rivera: “We actually snuck it in. I actually had to put it inside my waist trainer. I had to take off my waist trainer, put it in, put back on my waist trainer and then go to the bathroom, take off my waist trainer and re-inflate it not once but twice. He had to go up and get it back, and before the end of the game, we’re going to blow it back up one last time and show the Astros that we are the f—ing team.”

Alvin Aquino: “The first time, they told us that we have to deflate it or they are going to kick us out of the ballpark. The second time, I went to get a drink and somehow she inflated it. I came back and security told us again that we couldn’t do that. My girlfriend is a f—ing crazy Yankee fan. Security brought the manager. We got it back and they told us to deflate it front of him. She’s the MVP. … She snuck it in.”

Rivera: “They couldn’t tell me anything. I could’ve been pregnant, but I’m not that fat.”

Aquino: “I wish I had brought my Altuve stuffed doll because I wanted people to throw it in there.”

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