Kudos to the Toronto Blue Jays for realizing that future Hall of Fame slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — and yes, I expect his induction sometime around 2042 — is simply not a passable third baseman. He will move to first base, or combine that role with designated hitter duties. Guerrero underachieved at the plate as a rookie, but that happens to plenty of folks. Defensively, he was poor with little hope of significant improvement, and while I am generally loathe in acknowledging this, perhaps it did affect him at the plate. Just let the slugger slug.
MLB players on how they’ve had to adapt, from no fans in the stands to no couches in the clubhouse
Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach Brant Brown used to see his daily drive to the ballpark as an opportunity to make phone calls. But this season he has learned, as many of the team’s players and coaches have, that it’s best to stay quiet on his commute to save up enough saliva for the diagnostic/PCR test that usually awaits him.
Brown’s adjustment is a shell on a sandy beach, just one example of the countless alterations made by players, coaches, trainers and everybody else involved with making Major League Baseball games possible in a time when the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate the country.
Life has been predictably different for the 3,500-plus players, coaches and staff members who are classified as Tier 1 or 2 personnel on the 30 MLB teams during the first two weeks of this atypical 2020 season. That is especially the case for players, who have quickly modified so many of the aspects of playing a game that has encompassed most of their lives. The protocols are a nuisance but necessary, as further evidenced by recent outbreaks on the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals that forced numerous postponements and schedule adjustments.
Below is a look at some of the ways MLB has changed everything.
Watching the game
To allow for “enhanced physical distancing,” baseball’s operations manual stipulates that only players with a decent chance of entering the day’s game should sit in the dugout. The rest are free to roam — with restrictions on the use of electronic devices — and many are still adjusting.
Dodgers pitchers Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, Ross Stripling and Julio Urias basically didn’t know what to do with themselves on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium. They started in the left-field seats above the bullpen, moved to the weight room, then made their way back outside, sitting in the new seats just beyond the outfield fence. Stripling had the idea of sitting in the famous Crawford boxes when the team played at Minute Maid Park in Houston, but those seats were already taken — by cardboard cutouts.
“It was awesome to watch a game there,” Lester said. “I’m glad I did it. Then we walked around the stadium to get some different views. It’s kind of boring not being allowed in the dugout or clubhouse during games. You have to find stuff to do.”
A trip to Houston would typically mean that Stripling stays at his own place, sees his grandmother and catches up with friends.
This time, he couldn’t do any of that.
“That’s certainly weird,” Stripling said. “Normally, you would have this circled on your calendar months ahead, getting tickets for your buddies and all that stuff.”
Stripling could have stayed at his house, but he said he “didn’t want to be the guy who went about town and messed everything up.” The Dodgers were in Houston for only two days, so Stripling told everybody there that he would see them in three months. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts stayed at his place in San Diego when the team played there earlier this week, but he made it a point to keep his distance from his wife and kids.
“I can see them, but no touching,” Roberts said. “I’m sort of back to quarantine in my own house. I’ve got three dogs that I can still kind of hug on, but that’s about it.”
Life on the road
To ensure social distancing, the Dodgers used four buses to take their traveling party to the airport for the team’s first road trip. Some players wore gloves on the airplane, and all of them were told to avoid touching the remote controls and telephones in their hotel rooms. Fortnite, Call of Duty and Madden absorbed most of their downtime.
“It’s different,” Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson said. “Obviously, everything’s gonna be different.”
Rethinking gathering spots
The Los Angeles Angels had their first night off on the road on July 25 in Oakland. The players and coaches ordered food and staged a casual, socially distant gathering. Angels manager Joe Maddon said it was “pretty cool, actually.” The experience prompted Maddon to speak with the team’s traveling secretary, Tom Taylor, about booking two additional large rooms — one for the players, one for the coaches — so they could gather in groups to wind down after road games.
“Maybe that will satiate their desires to go elsewhere,” Maddon said.
Hanging out in the clubhouse
Ideally, players would be dressed in full uniform before their arrival at the ballpark, but MLB understood the unlikelihood of that from the onset. The key is to maximize the amount of time players spend outdoors, which has prompted teams to make their clubhouses as unwelcoming as possible. Angels starter Dylan Bundy arrived at the visiting clubhouse on July 24 in Oakland and realized that all the couches were gone.
“It’s the bare necessities in there,” he said. “It’s your clothes and locker, and that’s about it.”
Getting “called up”
With Wood on the injured list and Kershaw not quite ready to return, the Dodgers had an open spot in their rotation for their July 31 game and needed to utilize someone from their satellite camp at USC. The team was on the road but, luckily, in Phoenix, which meant that Tony Gonsolin was a six-hour car ride from his 2020 debut.
MLB doesn’t forbid commercial travel for players under these circumstances, but it does discourage it. The Dodgers have decided not to put those players and their family members at additional risk if a sudden need arises while the team is on a road trip. If driving isn’t an option, the Dodgers have decided that they will make do with the players on their taxi squad.
Sitting through meetings
The first afternoon of the regular season provided a stark reminder of how different everything was.
“We had a hitters’ meeting that went a little longer than 15 minutes,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said, “so in the middle of it, the room had to disperse and leave the room for a couple minutes and come back in to make sure we were in line with the procedures and protocols for contact tracing. So that was a little weird.”
The Dodgers’ coaches began the season by staggering their pregame prep work in segments, divided between starters and relievers in hopes of avoiding similar interruptions. Players don’t have access to the team’s computers, which means pitchers rely on coaches and front-office executives to send them the information they need to prepare for games. Alex Wood usually has a detailed plan for how he’ll scout his opponent the day of his starts, but he will have to deviate from that.
“It’s probably going to make it so that I have to prepare more the day before in terms of who I’m facing that next day, so there’s a little bit less to do and less to worry about the day of because you don’t know how much time you’ll have or what you’ll have access to,” Wood said.
Relievers, particularly closers, thrive off the roar of the crowd. Fans help them find the extra adrenaline they need to pitch the ninth inning of tight games. Now, those men are faced with the task of manufacturing that push.
“There’s a lot of Red Bull,” Angels reliever Cam Bedrosian said.
That isn’t an option for Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.
“If I drink Red Bull,” Jansen said, “call the doctors for them to shock my heart again because I’m telling you — 100 percent sure — I’m gonna go back to AFib.”
Jansen has undergone two procedures in the past eight years to address atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes his heart to beat out of rhythm. Jansen avoids caffeine, even in situations when most people might benefit from an extra boost. Instead, he is continually learning how to internalize his focus and control his breathing, a skill that is especially crucial this season.
“It’s hard, man. I’m not gonna lie about that,” Jansen said of finding an edge in empty ballparks. “It’s so much easier to pitch with fans in the stands.”
No more “around the horn”
Much has been made about players’ not being allowed to spit or high-five, a lifelong habit that many have been unable to shake. But here’s another one, straight from baseball’s operations manual: “After an out, players are strongly discouraged from throwing the baseball around the infield.”
This one slipped past Kershaw. He made his 2020 debut against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 2 and struck out the first batter he faced, Ketel Marte, then began to roam around the mound as he normally would, waiting for the ball to be thrown around the infield. His catcher, Austin Barnes, waited to get Kershaw’s attention and instead threw the ball right back to him.
“There’s definitely some things to get used to,” Kershaw said. “Just to start the day, too. You eat your food at the hotel, and you gotta take the bus. I like to get here early on start days, and I wasn’t able to do that. So many different things. But at the end of the day, everybody’s dealing with it. And we still get to play baseball, so I’m thankful for that.”
Carter Stewart ditched the MLB draft to pitch in Japan. Then came the coronavirus
When Carter Stewart calls his parents from his apartment in Japan, it often feels as if he’s reaching out from a totally different universe.
The right-hander already was charting new territory after making an unprecedented major league gamble last year. Now, with the world in turmoil, that gamble has taken an unexpected twist.
As the coronavirus pandemic surges across the United States, and with the minor league baseball season canceled, Stewart, 20, has settled into his pitching routine. He’s preparing to soon make the jump from the minor leagues to the big club — the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Nippon Professional Baseball league, where fans slowly are being allowed back into stadiums, a far cry from Major League Baseball’s ongoing outbreaks and cardboard cutouts in the stands.
“We’re dealing with it so well as a country — that’s me speaking on behalf of Japan,” Stewart told ESPN via phone. “They are doing extremely well. Being able to get baseball back up soon is kind of a blessing. It’s just nice to be able to play and not have too many worries right now.”
Stewart shook up the baseball world in May 2019 when he declined to re-enter the MLB draft, instead signing a six-year contract with the Hawks, worth more than $7 million. He had turned down an offer of around $2 million to sign with the Atlanta Braves the previous year, after the team selected him with the No. 8 pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Stewart chose to begin his professional career overseas, a former first-round MLB draft pick making an unprecedented leap.
Not signing with an MLB team was a risk, but it gave Stewart an opportunity to prove himself in Japan, skip the years of low pay and uncertainty in the minor leagues, and set up a potential return to the United States on a lucrative free-agent deal.
In an alternate timeline where he had signed with the Braves, Stewart would now be trying to develop on the mound under the most unusual of circumstances, whether from home or on the team’s taxi squad. Instead, he continues his development for the Hawks’ Eastern League (equivalent to the MLB’s Triple-A) squad — sharpening the curveball that has long attracted MLB teams and working on pitch sequencing — with an eye on potentially making his NPB debut this season.
His parents, girlfriend and close friends from home originally planned on making regular trips to Japan to visit, but the pandemic altered those plans indefinitely — and Stewart is planning for the possibility that he might not see anyone in his family for another full calendar year.
“I was like, damn this is going to be a long summer, a long year,” Stewart said. “If I have to stay here through spring training, then I might have to do that. I might not even get the chance to go home. If that’s my job, I have to do it. It’s going to be really hard. I think having friends, family, girlfriend come over as soon as possible will help me get through it, but I’ll have to deal with it. If they can’t come until summer of next year, then I’ll have to get through it.”
To keep in touch with friends back home, Stewart spends much of his free time playing Overwatch online in Fukuoka — one of the nation’s largest cities, located on the northern coast of Kyushu island. His mother, Pat, often sends care packages to give Stewart a taste of home, boxes that include his prescriptions, American candy and Mountain Dew, which isn’t available in Japan. When he talks with his parents, they often remind him how fortunate he is to be playing baseball at all, given the state of the world.
“I’m like, ‘You’ve been very fortunate that you did sign with a Japanese team because you get to play baseball and you’re getting paid,'” said Carter’s father, Scott. “The guys who got drafted with him that signed, they’re not getting paid anything. They’re not even playing organized ball.”
Stewart’s family lives in Eau Gallie, Florida, where COVID-19 touched their lives when Stewart’s older sister, Rachel, tested positive for the virus six weeks ago. She was asymptomatic, but their state has turned into an epicenter for the pandemic in the United States. When Pat makes trips around town, she sees how the virus is affecting those in Carter’s peer group.
“It’s amazing all these kids that normally would be at school are here or they’re all working at Home Depot and Domino’s,” Pat says. “And I mean not just the baseball kids. I’m talking about all the college kids. But yeah, I mean I think it truly is a blessing that he’s where he is right now, because he could literally be sitting here twiddling his thumbs.”
Meanwhile, Stewart marches on, receiving encouragement from Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish of the Chicago Cubs, who recently tweeted his support of Stewart’s trailblazing journey. Darvish posted a photo of Stewart to praise his performance because, according to Google Translate, “I wanted to support you in a distant country at a young age.”
— ダルビッシュ有(Yu Darvish) (@faridyu) June 21, 2020
But while Stewart slowly is picking up the Japanese language through conversations with cashiers, restaurant servers and teammates, he’s still living in a country where he’s one of few Americans adjusting to a drastically different culture. He has bonded with former major leaguer Matt Moore, who’s playing for the big league Hawks, but the reality of isolation often sets in.
“You walk outside and it’s a completely different atmosphere, language — everything,” Stewart said. “[Try to] do your work in another language. My friends will say that they understand the loneliness, but as of right now, I’ll just be like, ‘I get it, you’re lonely, but you’re not lonely, lonely.”
The reprieve from the isolation comes from the 30-minute trips on the bullet train to the team’s minor league facility in Chikugo, workouts with teammates and of course, games. When Stewart arrived in Japan, he often had fans approaching him for photos, given there aren’t many 6-foot-6 Americans walking around. He still takes those pictures, but now they are socially distant, with everyone wearing a mask.
“I think at the baseball field, anything around there, I’m completely fine, I’m really enjoying it. I enjoy doing my job,” Stewart said. “I think just being at home at times, I have video games, I have watching TV, I have interior designing, I have learning Japanese, I have cooking. I have a lot of things I can do, but doing that all alone, sometimes it can be a lot less fun.”
To keep up with their son, the Stewart family often watches baseball at odd hours, sometimes midnight, sometimes 5 a.m., streaming his games online.
“He’s getting paid a major league salary to pitch at the minor league level and he’s got four more years on his contract after this year,” Scott said. “Good for him is what I say. Good for him. I mean, it’s unfortunate the way it all went down. It led him to this, which he’s in a better spot than seemingly everybody, including major league players.”
Stewart and his family often debrief on his latest performance and catch up and talk about his development on the mound. For Stewart, it has an opportunity to be himself.
“It’s been a little bit of bottling things up,” Stewart said. “With them, it’s not bottling up the emotions, but just letting it all out.”
Willing to ‘leave the window open,’ an optimistic Shohei Ohtani hopes to pitch again for Angels despite arm troubles
Shohei Ohtani, recovering from an injury near his surgically repaired elbow that has all but ruled out his ability to pitch again this season, would like to continue on as a two-way player, a stance that is consistent with those expressed by the Los Angeles Angels.
“If it comes down to them telling me to just focus on hitting or focus on pitching, I will listen,” Ohtani said through his interpreter on Wednesday, two days after being diagnosed with a Grade 1-2 strain of the flexor pronator mass in his pitching arm. “But ideally I would like to leave the window open for me to do both.”
Ohtani has contributed only 53⅓ innings as a pitcher since coming over as a highly touted two-way player from Japan in December 2017. He suffered a Grade 2 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament in June 2018, then underwent Tommy John surgery four months later. Two starts into his return this summer, he recorded only five outs and complained of discomfort in his right arm, prompting the MRI that revealed what essentially is considered a forearm strain.
Ohtani, who will be the Angels’ regular designated hitter for the rest of this season and expects to return to the lineup on Thursday, described his latest ailment as “just a little inflammation” and said, “I don’t think it’s that severe.” He called the development “disappointing,” but also made mention of the idea that he was going to operate under a strict innings limit in 2020.
“I was kind of taking [this year] as like a part of my rehab process,” Ohtani said.
Ohtani was noticeably erratic through three starts against Angels hitters in intrasquad scrimmages last month. He debuted against the Oakland Athletics on July 26 — nearly 22 months after replacing his damaged UCL — but allowed five runs in the first inning and was removed before recording the first out. Before his next start, Angels manager Joe Maddon tried to ease some of the pressure off Ohtani by imploring him to have fun.
“In order to have fun, first of all, I think I need to feel 100 percent physically, which I wasn’t feeling,” Ohtani said. “Having fun wasn’t my first priority. I was trying to see how my body felt on the mound.”
Ohtani said he “didn’t feel 100 percent” in that first start, but it was “hard to actually pinpoint” how his latest injury occurred. He said he felt “tightness” in his elbow “throughout this whole rehab program,” but called it “natural.”
“It’s hard to differentiate the tightness, soreness, from the pain,” Ohtani said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to throw 100 mph again without feeling tightness, soreness or pain. So I was just taking this as part of the program.”
Ohtani’s fastball was sitting comfortably in the mid-90s in the first inning against the Houston Astros on Sunday, a game that began with a strikeout of George Springer on a nasty splitter. But Ohtani walked the first three batters to begin the second, then issued two additional walks after back-to-back strikeouts, prompting his removal after a 42-pitch half-inning. Ohtani’s last three fastballs did not break 90 mph.
“Obviously I felt some tightness while I was throwing those last three fastballs,” Ohtani said, “but earlier I think I threw 97 and I still felt the same way.”
Ohtani, 26, brings elite-level power and speed as a position player, but he also possesses a triple-digit fastball and a wipe-out splitter as a pitcher. When healthy, Ohtani has shown an ability — albeit in a small sample size — to juggle both roles effectively at the highest level. But the injuries and the setbacks continue to pile up, prompting questions about the sustainability of a role no player had taken on with regularity at the major league level since Babe Ruth.
“If the possibility is there, obviously I wanna try it,” Ohtani said. “And I think the Angels signed me thinking that I’m gonna be a two-way player. I just need to get back healthy on the mound and try to accomplish that.”
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