Major League Baseball is expected to ban all affiliated players from participating in the Venezuela winter league this year, a response intended to comply with President Trump’s embargo against the country’s Nicolas Maduro-led government, sources familiar with the plan told ESPN.
The potential repercussions of the prohibition, which would prevent major league and minor league players from joining the 75-year-old Liga Venezolana de Beísbol Profesional (LVBP) and was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, could be significant. Multiple sources said they feared the ban would warp the heretofore strong bond between MLB and Venezuela and spawn a similar situation to Cuba, another embargoed country whose complicated relationship with the league has festered for decades.
Dozens of affiliated players either return home to Venezuela or travel there annually to play winter ball, as many supplement paltry minor league incomes with low- to mid-five-figure sums to play in a 63-game season. The LVBP, whose champion participates with those from the Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban and Panamanian leagues in the annual Caribbean Series, is sponsored by PDVSA, the country’s state-run oil company, according to sources.
The murkiness of the LVBP’s link to a government-run business spurred MLB to consider the ban and consult with the MLB Players Association, according to sources. The fear, sources said, is that players agreeing to deals, or agents consummating them, with a government-affiliated entity would run afoul of the Aug. 5 executive order, which banned any such transactions.
Venezuela, once a bustling economic power in Latin America, has plunged into crisis, with widespread food and medicine shortages, millions of refugees leaving the country and toxic political infighting. The U.S. recognizes Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition, as president instead of Maduro, who remains in power.
One consequence of MLB’s plan, sources said, could be Maduro reciprocating by banning the league from signing amateur players in Venezuela. The country has proved to be a hotbed of talent, with Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras and New York Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres among the 95 Venezuela-born players who have logged major league time this season.
In recent years, as the economic strife worsened, teams shut down academies in Venezuela and consolidated their Latin American operations in the Dominican Republic. Top Venezuelan prospects have begun doing the same, according to sources. Some of the best players 12- and 13-year-old players in the country have moved with their families to the Dominican Republic in anticipation of signing with major league teams at 16 years old, sources said.
While all of the concerns about the executive order could be mollified by an agreement between the United States and Venezuela — both countries Thursday acknowledged recent backchannel discussions — MLB’s desire to abide by it comes at a moment when the league’s international dealings have been under scrutiny.
The Trump administration in April scuttled a deal between MLB and the Cuban government that would have allowed Cuban players to sign directly with the league instead of taking the circuitous and dangerous paths offered by traffickers. The Department of Justice continues a wide-ranging investigation into baseball’s Latin American business — including deals for Cuban defectors — that sources said have targeted a number of teams, including the Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
MLB this week contacted the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury department that imposes economic sanctions, seeking clarity on the executive order, according to a source. Teams expect to continue to sign amateur players as long as Venezuela does not prohibit it, believing that doing so would not breach the executive order because individual teenaged players are not under the Venezuelan government’s purview.
Whether that legal argument holds up is unclear and part of the complications caused by the embargo. While a number of major league and minor league players planned to play in the LVBP, contracts are typically agreed upon until September and October. With no affiliated players allowed, Luis Amaro, the general manager for the Aguilas del Zulia, said he expected Venezuela natives playing in the Mexican and Italian leagues this summer to fill out the rosters.
Until then, the MLB and the MLBPA only can wait to see the consequences of the potential action. The lockdown of the Venezuelan talent pool, while not crippling, would significantly hinder the talent base in the minor leagues, where hundreds of Venezuelans play. The lack of a winter option for young players in Venezuela concerned one agent, who said LVBP helps keep players out of trouble when they return home. Another agent, who expected multiple clients to make up for below-minimum-wage minor-league salaries by playing in Venezuela, said he hopes clients still can get jobs in the Dominican, Mexican or Puerto Rican leagues.
Giants to exclude Aubrey Huff from 2010 World Series reunion, citing ‘unacceptable’ tweets
The San Francisco Giants said on Monday that they won’t invite Aubrey Huff to a reunion of the 2010 World Series-winning team later this summer because of “unacceptable” comments made by Huff on social media.
“Earlier this month, we reached out to Aubrey Huff to let him know that he will not be included in the upcoming 2010 World Series Championship reunion. Aubrey has made multiple comments on social media that are unacceptable and run counter to the values of our organization,” the Giants said in a statement. “While we appreciate the many contributions that Aubrey made to the 2010 championship season, we stand by our decision.”
Huff played first base on the 2010 team and retired after the 2012 season. He played the final three seasons of his 13-year career with the Giants. The reunion is scheduled for August 16.
Last November, Huff posted a tweet containing a picture of him holding a shooting target with holes. The caption on the post said in part that he was “getting my boys trained up on how to use a gun in the unlikely event @BernieSanders beats @realDonaldTrump in 2020.”
In January, he posted a since-deleted tweet about kidnapping Iranian women so “we can bring them back here as they fan us and feed us grapes.” He later tweeted that his post was a joke.
“Quite frankly, shocked. Disappointed. If it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t be having a reunion,” Huff told The Athletic about the Giants’ decision. “But if they want to stick with their politically correct, progressive bulls—, that’s fine.”
Disciplining Astros not as easy for MLB as Altuve revealing a tattoo
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — This being Florida, and Florida being the cradle of American absurdity, the sight of a man peeling off his shirt, walking to a place where he was guaranteed to be noticed, pirouetting to show off the tattoo on his left collarbone, slipping on a new shirt and slinking away, satisfied, mission accomplished, felt entirely appropriate. Actually, that’s a lie. What Jose Altuve did Monday morning in front of a group of reporters was spectacular even by Florida’s standards. This is the Houston Astros ‘ existence. They have morphed into such a circus, such a farfetched big top, that they are seeing Florida and telling it to hold their Shiner Bock.
The insertion of ink into this spectacle came Saturday, when Astros shortstop Carlos Correa told MLB Network that Altuve did not want his jersey ripped off after hitting a pennant-winning home run last year because a) his wife did not like when teammates did that and b) he didn’t want to show a bad tattoo. As chef’s kiss as it would have been for Altuve’s tattoo to say NO RAGRETS, alas it was something far more innocent: Melanie, the name of his 3-year-old daughter, next to a pink heart.
This did not exactly fit Correa’s description of bad tattoo, but taste is relative — and Altuve later admitted that the original version of the tattoo he got in San Francisco last fall during a road series needed touching up, which seemed to intimate that Version 1.0 was indeed bad. The capital-M did match the sliver of a letter that peeked out from under Altuve’s jersey at times during the 2019 postseason, nullifying yet another conspiracy theory: that Altuve had gotten the tattoo over the weekend to corroborate Correa’s story. This is where we are.
Less than a week into spring training, life with the Astros and all that orbits around their sign-stealing scandal is a witch’s brew of ludicrous, sad, darkly humorous and tedious. The monotony of a typical spring has been replaced by the predictability of another big-name player lobbing Sequoia’s worth of shade at the Astros. Monday included Mike Trout, universally regarded as the best player in the baseball and the game’s ostensible face, calling it “sad for baseball.”
“When is it going to end?” one Astros player asked Monday, and the answer depressed him: No time soon.
And that’s less because of amusing little sub-stories, like the Altuve tattoo, and more due to the runaway-train nature of the fallout from Houston’s cheating in 2017 and 2018. There is anger, inside the sport and out, and it is the most intransigent sort: righteous, moral, vitriolic. The Astros and Major League Baseball have tried to stanch the bleeding and instead have only deepened the wound through a combination of ill-conceived words, questionable accountability and disproportionate punishment.
What makes this calamity so fascinating are the many layers to this lack of punishment, which in recent days has been as prevalent a complaint from players as any. That in and of itself is fascinating — the almost self-selected bifurcation of the MLB Players Association into 1,160 players on one side and the 40 Houston Astros on the other — but lost amid the criticism of the players and commissioner Rob Manfred’s grant of immunity is an important truth.
It’s a dissatisfying one, too, for those who see the incongruity in Manfred’s report calling the trash-can thwaps a “player-driven scheme” and then not disciplining the players in any form. Player-on-player crime and bad press conferences and telestrator breakdowns of tattoos are one thing. Entirely different is how the case wends its way into the murky waters of labor law, and how the decision to ignore an email placed baseball in such a precarious place.
Flash back to Sept. 15, 2017. The Boston Red Sox had been caught decoding sign sequences in their video room and using a cell phone to pass them along to those on the bench via Apple Watch. MLB fined the Red Sox — players escaped discipline from that episode, too — and sent a memo to all 30 teams. The memo, according to sources, included a line that said: “Finally, each Club’s General Manager and Field Manager will be held accountable for ensuring that the rules outlined in this memorandum are followed by players and Club personnel.”
This is a vitally important sentence, because with it MLB placed the onus on teams — and, in the Astros’ case, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch — to alert players that they would face discipline if caught using technology to steal signs. During MLB’s investigation into the Astros’ sign stealing, the league learned, according to a report Manfred issued in January, that “Luhnow failed to take any adequate steps to ensure that his Club was in compliance with the rules.” Similarly, players interviewed said Hinch had not informed them of the potential for discipline.
In doing so, the players had not received proper notice required by employers to union employees subject to actionable discipline. Notice is a key tenet of labor law, and without it, the standing of any potential discipline is flimsy.
Now, it’s more than reasonable to suggest that MLB’s incentive for offering immunity to players had as much to do with its desire for an expedient decision as it did the lack of notice. The sooner the league wrapped up its investigation, the sooner Manfred could issue his report. The sooner Manfred issued his report, the sooner the embarrassment of a World Series champion cheating could be put to bed.
What the league didn’t figure was that indemnifying players would cause as severe a backlash as it has. The reality is MLB faced a catch-22. To illustrate that, consider an alternative course of action in which the league, believing that the on-the-record statements of Mike Fiers to The Athletic, the surfeit of video evidence confirming the banging scheme and the testimony of front-office officials, Hinch and coaches would be enough to make a strong case, sought discipline against the players.
There are two tracks here to understand. The first is the extent of such discipline. “I am a precedent guy,” Manfred said at a press conference Sunday, and what he means by that is the league’s discipline almost always adheres to prior standards. One could argue, fairly, that a disgraced World Series champion warrants a deviation from precedent, but then the ability for that to hold up in a grievance hearing that players surely would have pursued makes any discipline tenuous. Because the sign-stealing and trash-can-banging would be considered an on-field issue, and on-field issues rarely involve long suspensions, Manfred would have been hemmed in by how potentially minimal the suspensions he pursued would actually be.
Even more crucial would be the aforementioned lack of notice. Four labor lawyers with first-hand knowledge of the grievance process agreed: the lack of notice from the Astros to their players would have made any case pursued by the league practically DOA. Yes, grievance hearings do now and again end with surprising results, but the probability tilted significantly toward any potential suspension being overturned, the lawyers said.
Facing that reality, the league made a value judgment: It would offer the players immunity in hopes of gathering the full story of the Astros’ sign-stealing exploits and rely upon the details of Manfred’s report to bend the public toward the idea that the league had sought and delivered justice.
Even if this was the best of a bad situation, it has backfired catastrophically. The outspokenness of players, whose own union agreed to give Astros players immunity, has been unwavering and unflattering. The Astros players, amid apologies that in many cases offered contrition, have been steadfast in the belief that they did not deserve discipline. The league, recognizing the futility of trotting out a legal argument to satiate the frothing masses, has instead tried to rely upon Manfred to dowse a multitude of brushfires.
In some cases, the effort has been practical, but a lesson learned in times of crisis is that even the slightest misstep can color the intentions. During an interview Sunday, ESPN’s Karl Ravech asked Manfred about the possibility of stripping the Astros of their title. In the middle of his slippery-slope defense, Manfred said: “The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act.”
The blowback against Manfred was immediate. To trivialize a championship by calling it a piece of metal at a moment when everything he says will be dissected, when his motivations and intentions are in question, when his sport is in peril, gave a tanker truck of fuel to those who already think ill of him because he wants to change the game’s playoff structure and contract a quarter of the minor leagues.
Fair or not, all of these things are inextricably tied together, because Manfred is supposed to be the sport’s shepherd and his positions on those ancillary issues inform the public’s opinion of him. A strong commissioner can guide a sport through a crisis. A weak commissioner can exacerbate it.
Manfred’s ultimate story is far from told. He can rescue his reputation and tilt this scandal away from catastrophe, but it is not entirely in his hands. The league’s report on the allegations that the Boston Red Sox stole signs electronically in 2018 is imminent. Alex Cora, the former Red Sox manager and Astros bench coach, likely will face discipline. He has yet to tell his story publicly. Neither has Carlos Beltran, the former Astros player whom Manfred’s report said teamed up with Cora to implement the trash-can scheme.
All of that is to come. On Monday, the story was far less serious, silly even. Jose Altuve had a tattoo. What it may lack in beauty it makes up for in sentimentality. After Altuve finished his media availability and changed, there was a clang. A small fire extinguisher on the wall adjacent his locker had fallen to the ground. Though it was unclear whether Altuve or a nearby cameraman had knocked it over, the metaphor wasn’t lost on anyone. Monday may not have required its use, but there are plenty of brushfires to come yet.
Utilityman Brock Holt reaches deal with Brewers, source says
The Athletic first reported the news.
Holt, a versatile four-position player, spent seven years with the Boston Red Sox, becoming a fan favorite with his rambunctious style and flair for the dramatic.
A left-hander, Holt is a career .271 hitter, with 206 RBIs and 23 home runs. He’s coming off a season in which he hit .297 with a .771 OPS in 87 games after missing the first two months with a scratched cornea and shoulder impingement.
Primarily an infielder, Holt, who made $3.58 million last season, played every position except pitcher and catcher for the Red Sox.
Holt, 31, was never an everyday player and missed significant time with injuries, including a concussion in 2016 that had lingering effects in 2017.
Holt twice hit for the cycle with the Red Sox, including a memorable game against the New York Yankees in the 2018 ALDS, when he became the first player to accomplish the feat in a postseason game.
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