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What lost career time means for the legacies of MLB greats

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Willie Mays was still finding himself as a player when he departed the New York Giants in late May of 1952. There was no doubt he’d already displayed one of the best skill sets anyone had seen on a Major League Baseball field, but he was very much still in the process of converting his immense talent into immense production.

Mays turned 21 years old on May 6, 1952. On May 28, Mays went 0-for-4 at Ebbets Field, then left the Giants to serve in the army during the Korean War. He missed the rest of that season and all of 1953. When he returned in time for the 1954 campaign, he was fully formed as a ballplayer, at least in part because a good bit of his military service involved playing around 180 baseball games. During his return season of 1954, Mays hit .345 while winning his first batting title, clubbed 41 homers, won the National League’s MVP Award and led the Giants to a championship.

When baseball historians get into the what-if topic of players losing time to the worthy endeavor of serving their country, Mays isn’t typically the avatar of the subject. Usually, Ted Williams comes up first, or maybe Joe DiMaggio. Part of that may be because the scope of player involvement in World War II dwarfed that of Korea. Mays, of course, went on to play into the 1970s, finishing with 660 career homers, 3,283 hits and a place on the short list of best players in baseball history. But what if Mays had not been drafted? Could his stature somehow become even more than it already is?

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Lou DiBella trying to find positives in a world without fights or baseball

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Lou DiBella has a small list. He keeps it close because he’s never quite sure when a name will pop into his head. It could be when he’s lying down to sleep or when he wakes up in the morning. Or perhaps when something reminds him of an old friend or business partner from whom the passage of time has separated him.

When the name comes up, he writes it down and finds time in his day to make a call. DiBella is a phone person, craving the connection the extrovert has recently lost in his day-to-day interactions as a storyteller in the bar, a boxing promoter and minor league baseball owner, always glad-handing and engaging with everyone.

“I make a little bit more of an effort because I do have a lot of people that were really kind to me when I was coming up in the business,” DiBella says. “I’ve had mentors and people in my life that were very helpful to me, and a lot of them now, even if I lost touch with them, they are in their late 70s and 80s.

“You think about people, but … I think maybe as a country now that this whole thing has made people — has frightened people — into making [them] think more about how fleeting this whole thing is and our mortality and our own vulnerabilities.”

It’s one of the ways DiBella has worked through his own anxiety during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

He’ll pick up the phone and call someone he hasn’t spoken to in years. In decades. Maybe a friend from Regis High in New York or a reporter or renowned boxing commentator Jim Lampley on his birthday. Reaching out to people who made a difference to him started with a call he received from someone influential in his life: 89-year-old legendary boxing commentator Larry Merchant.

“We had a very, very long conversation,” DiBella says. “Philosophical stuff and remembrances and looking back, and he said to me, when he started to call, he said, ‘I’m calling people that have been important in my life that I realize I don’t speak to enough, and this whole thing that’s going on right now made me much more conscious of reaching out to these people.'”

The talk sparked the idea for DiBella to do something similar. He has also done this with his fighters, even before his conversation with Merchant, checking in when he can. This gave the 60-year-old DiBella people to commiserate with in an otherwise difficult time for him and so many other Americans trying to figure out their own futures without any predictable knowledge of what’s to come.

“When somebody calls you and tells you, ‘I want you to know I’m only a phone call away,’ he wouldn’t say it unless he meant it, right?” says Heather Hardy, one of DiBella’s fighters. “And that’s just — it’s not like everybody I know called me and said that.

“Lou did, though.”


“My professional life has come to a screeching halt,” DiBella says. “I’ve had to spend a lot of time working [on the logistics surrounding my businesses], but none of it has been productive or pleasant.”

That is not, DiBella makes clear, a complaint. He would much rather be putting together boxing cards or promoting Wine Up Wednesdays for the Richmond Flying Squirrels or Triple Play Tuesdays for the Montgomery Biscuits. None of that is possible.

DiBella’s role is in sports entertainment, and the two sports his company handles are in flux. After trying to avoid it in the first weeks of the pandemic, DiBella had to furlough half of his employees to make sure his business stayed afloat.

Boxing promotion, other than Top Rank, Matchroom Boxing, Golden Boy Promotions and Premier Boxing Champions, often relies on live gates to help fund operations. No one is sure when fans will be able to return. Many of DiBella’s 62 fighters have second jobs, and only a few of those, including Mikkel LesPierre, who works full-time in data collection at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, still have steady income from their non-boxing gigs.

Minor league baseball has its own issues separate from the COVID-19 pandemic. Minor league baseball is potentially contracting and, perhaps more than boxing, relies on fans in the stands to pay bills. DiBella knows getting people to care about the possible future of minor league baseball in a time when American unemployment rates are at the highest levels since the Great Depression is probably unrealistic.

But these are still jobs — and teams — that will be lost. In boxing, DiBella had to cancel two cards due to the pandemic, and 13 of his fighters who were on cards not promoted by him also had their bouts scratched. He had to furlough 50% of his minor league baseball staff along with part of his boxing staff, although he’s hopeful to bring some of his furloughed boxing employees back soon.

He also doesn’t know the future of his minor league baseball clubs. He believes they won’t be part of a contraction, but he hasn’t been told that with certainty.

“I worked in boxing the last 30 years. The minor league baseball business, for me, in the last 16 years, 17 years I’ve been involved in it, has been like my happy place, like a respite,” DiBella says. “And now, facing, looking at no season, facing that in two different cities because I run two different teams, and then at the same time having these issues unsettled between Major League Baseball and minor league baseball, it’s just, it’s like an overdose of uncertainty, an overdose of anxiety, and that’s not healthy.

“It’s not healthy when you’re not in a pandemic. But it’s certainly not healthy when you are.”


To try to alleviate the stress of the unknown, DiBella gets in his car and drives the half-mile from his Long Island home to the Long Island Sound. He opens up his newspaper or listens to Howard Stern on the radio or a copy of a Grateful Dead concert he received on CD in the mail — part of being an “old school guy.”

It’s his escape, an environment change in a time when he can’t see friends or socialize. It gives him a break from the business stress and from binge watching “The Wire,” “Ozark” and “Marvel’s Luke Cage.”

He has rediscovered a love of cooking, using garlic, onions and tomatoes to make “some mean pasta sauces.” On Easter, he made racks of lamb and delivered them to his mother and sister’s homes, leaving them on porches and saying hello from a distance.

He does it to pass the time because there’s not much he can do in his business. To help his fighters, he has offered interest-free loans against future purses if they need help in the pandemic. He started those calls almost as soon as New York started to shut down.

“He called me and said, ‘I know it’s just you and Annie, you know, I know you’re a single mom,” Hardy says. “If you need anything, call me and I’ll wire you money, no questions asked.”

The call came unprompted, and Hardy said while she didn’t take DiBella up on his offer, the two have been in contact every week, often with her texting him, “Checking in. Are you alive?”

DiBella said while he’s willing to help, he knows he is somewhat limited because he has no revenue coming in, either. DiBella says his fighters understand the situation. He knows they all want to fight as soon as possible, but they aren’t haranguing him on particulars. Hardy said she hasn’t asked him about potentially fighting because she understands the situation he and other promoters are in.

Since Top Rank announced boxing would return in June on ESPN, DiBella has gotten a handful of his fighters on potential upcoming cards. He tells his fighters now if they are offered a fight on another promoter’s card, and it makes sense, to take it, because he doesn’t know how long it’ll be before another contract comes along. So far, DiBella said five of his six fighters who have been offered fights have accepted.

“They get it,” DiBella says. “… Now they understand the marketplace. They understand the situation, and they are able to make a reasoned decision. Believe me, if a guy turns down a fight now, I’m saying to them, ‘OK, just understand you have to take care of yourself and you may not be able to fight for a considerable period of time if you don’t take this particular fight.’

“I think people, what I’ve been gathering so far, is people are doing their best to understand the reality.”

A lot of fighters, across promotions and promoters, do want to fight. So it’s part of the reason DiBella is offering this advice. Plus, many of the fights his fighters are being offered are challenging ones, where if they win it could advance their careers.

He hasn’t been able to plan his own cards yet, but he said once things settle down he is going to continue to be creative to try to find ways to put on a card of his own.

“I’m planning, when things settle down a little bit, I’m going to contact the people at MSG and MSG Network, Sportsnet New York where I’ve done my series in the past,” DiBella says. “Contact some of the local New York television affiliates and see if we can get, maybe, a local grassroots New York show involving all New York fighters here.

“But in all likelihood I don’t think that would happen until August, September at the earliest. At least in the New York area right now, they are a little bit premature.”

When another promoter calls to check in or DiBella has a conversation with someone on his list in boxing, it has been largely conceptual discussions except for a handful of talks during which he has been able to land fighters on cards. In New York, at least, it’s still too soon to really plan. About when they think — when they hope — it’ll get back to some semblance of normal. How it might work. Concrete plans aren’t helpful. Everything is fluid.

Thinking about it too much — about the futures of his fighters, baseball employees and even himself — is added anxiety he doesn’t want because he can’t change any of it. DiBella just turned 60. He has lost friends to the pandemic, and he has had a lot of time on his hands to reflect. It has made him realize what he appreciates. There’s his family. His health. And his profession, which he’s hoping to get back to.

“You realize at a time like then when you work in sports how much of our lives, personally, professionally, in every way circles around our love for sports,” DiBella says. “Take away sports, take away your ability to go to a restaurant or a bar and hang out with your friends and hang out and tell stories, and what do you have left?”



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Tampa Bay Rays open Tropicana Field for limited workouts

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The Tampa Bay Rays opened Tropicana Field to limited workouts on Monday, with 14 players, including outfielder Austin Meadows and shortstop Willy Adames, taking part.

“It was good to see some smiling faces,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said on a video conference call with reporters after the workouts.

Those in attendance played catch, took part in conditioning exercises and worked out in a makeshift weight room on the field, Cash said. He said everyone at the facility was wearing a mask, but the players were allowed to take them off while they were working out.

Among other players in attendance were first baseman Jose Martinez, catcher Michael Perez center fielder Manuel Margot and pitchers Diego Castillo and Yonny Chirinos.

“It was good to see new faces,” Meadows told reporters on the call. “It’s been a while since we’ve got to see each other and hang out and be on a routine. So today was good to have that little change of scenery.”

Cash said everyone taking part — players and staff — had their temperatures taken and were asked medical questions before being approved to enter the facility.

“Obviously the main priority is being safe and stuff like that,” Meadows said. “We’ll take anything that we need to do, any precaution we need to take just to get out there and play again. I think a lot of guys can say the same thing. … I trust MLB, I trust the union just to gather a plan together to keep us safe.”

The Houston Astros also announced that they would allow players access to Minute Maid Park and their spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, beginning Monday.

“Our top priority remains the safety of our players, staff, and their families. That will never change,” Astros general manager James Click said in a statement. “It’s exciting and a very positive step for our players to return to our facilities, even on a limited basis. This will give our players the benefit of receiving individual attention from our staff, who can provide professionalism and expertise. That is significant.”

The Astros said in their announcement that all personnel entering the facilities would be screened and cleared by medical professionals and that no more than four players could be in the facility at one time.

Additionally, each pitcher will be provided with his own set of baseballs for bullpen sessions. Players must wear masks when not working out, and coaches and staff must wear personal protective equipment at all times.

Neither the Rays nor the Astros will open the workouts to the media or to spectators.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Ex-Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang suspended one year by KBO for past DUIs

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Former Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang was suspended for one year by the Korea Baseball Organization on Monday for multiple drunken driving offenses.

Kang, 33, also was ordered to complete 300 hours of community service during Monday’s hearing, which he did not attend because he is in the United States. Attorney Kim Sun-woong represented Kang, telling the Yonhap News Agency that his client is “extremely sorry to have caused trouble and that he would keep giving back to the community.”

His suspension will begin once he signs with a KBO team. The Kiwoom Heroes, for whom he played during his last season in the league in 2014 when they were the Nexen Heroes, still own his rights. A team official told the Yonhap News Agency that it was “premature” to discuss Kang’s future, indicating that Kang had not yet contacted the club. Kiwoom would have to give Kang permission to sign with another team in the league.

Kang, who was released by the Pirates last year after four seasons with the team, applied for reinstatement to the KBO from the league’s voluntary retired list last week. He issued an apology through the Leeco Sports Agency, which represents him, following the KBO’s ruling Monday.

“Over time, I came to realize just how important baseball is to me,” Kang said, according to the Yonhap News Agency. “I took putting on a uniform and getting on the field for granted, and I was a fool not to see how precious that was. I know I don’t deserve to be saying this, but I would love one final opportunity to play baseball.”

In 2016, while with the Pirates, Kang was arrested for DUI for the third time in South Korea. He received an eight-month suspended prison sentence in March 2017 after he left the scene of an accident in Seoul on Dec. 2, 2016.

The Pirates said in 2016 that they were unaware of his previous DUI offenses in 2009 and 2011 before signing him in 2015. In 2017 he entered a voluntary treatment program. He missed the 2017 season after being unable to receive a work visa to return to the United States.

Kang played in the KBO from 2006 through ’14, hitting .298 with 139 home runs and 545 RBIs. He hit .254 with 46 homers and 144 RBIs with the Pirates.

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