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Amid coronavirus pandemic, Mexico’s minor leaguers juggle side jobs, concern over futures

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Most mornings this summer, Ruben Molina’s two-hour commute took him from the small Chiapas town of Palenque in southeastern Mexico to Villahermosa, where he pitches for Olmecas de Tabasco, a squad in the Triple-A-level Mexican League. Soon after clearing jungle-lined roads and driving into his destination city, the Olmecas’ home stadium emerged over the horizon.

Past the ballpark, which sits empty after the 2020 season was canceled June 30 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 24-year-old Molina pulled his rented big rig into a loading dock to work his temporary day job. Standing shoulder to shoulder with hired day laborers, Molina hauled concrete and metal lighting structures onto the truck, usually in 90 degree temperatures and 70% humidity. On every trip, the left-hander not only braved sweltering conditions but also risked injury to his throwing arm or contracting COVID-19.

“It’s risky, and it’s hard work, but you have to get used to it,” Molina said. “We have to eat.”

Only the United States, Brazil and India have recorded more coronavirus deaths than Mexico. While other countries have rallied to save their summer baseball season, the rampaging path of the virus on Mexico made it impossible to guarantee a safe, economically viable season. More than 700 Mexican League players and coaches joined countless others who lost jobs and paychecks because of the pandemic.

The latent dread of a COVID-19 infection adds another layer of difficulty to those searching for work in the absence of baseball south of the border. Though Mexico’s quarantine mandate was not as stringent compared to those of other countries, it still required creative solutions for ballplayers hoping to make money. For others, the pandemic meant leaving the country, albeit temporarily.

Like their counterparts up north, the stoppage unexpectedly thrust Mexico’s minor leaguers into the job market. About 1,500 miles north of Villahermosa, Manny Barreda spent several afternoons ducking into the shade to stay cool in Arizona’s desert sun. The 2007 New York Yankees 12th-round draft pick and current Toros de Tijuana pitcher trekked to his hometown of Tucson after Mexico’s premier summer league stopped down in lockstep with minor league circuits across North America.

To mitigate boredom and income loss, Barreda and a group of friends offered baseball classes over the summer.

“Every day with the pandemic, you couldn’t reserve any of the fields,” Barreda said. “So if we scheduled a class at a certain time, we had to arrive one or two hours before just to make sure we could use the facility.”

The parents of a few teenagers enthusiastically enrolled their kids, so Barreda & Co. expanded by reaching out directly through social media. Barreda raised enough from teaching baseball to cover his summer expenses. Still, he estimates he lost “about 90 or 95 percent” of his total income for the year.

From history to mystery

Mexican baseball was home to some of the sport’s best talent outside of the big leagues around the middle of the 20th century. Dozens of Negro League stars flocked there before the color barrier was broken, and enough MLB players were lured south that commissioner Happy Chandler threatened lifetime bans for anyone jumping ship.

At the site of what is now a popular shopping mall in central Mexico City, an ailing Babe Ruth famously put one over the wall during an exhibition in 1946. The Babe reportedly turned down an offer to become a Mexican League manager or league executive as he was undergoing cancer treatments in the United States.

Subsequent decades have been largely devoid of such spectacle and star power, though former big leaguers still abound — albeit for far less money. Last season, Chris Carter led the Mexican League in home runs with 49, as he did in the National League in 2016 for the Milwaukee Brewers. Dominican outfielder Felix Pie, previously with the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles, posted a .381 batting average, good for second in the category.

To boot, the Mexican summer league remains a seeder for MLB scouts seeking the next Fernando Valenzuela or Vinny Castilla. Houston Astros closer Roberto Osuna signed with the Toronto Blue Jays after pitching in 2011 for Mexico City’s Diablos Rojos, the same club that produced Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Julio Urias.

With Mexico’s summer season gone, so too was any chance for players to be signed up north or even make a living. That’s how Barreda went from trying to build off a 2019 season in which he posted an 8-3 record and a 4.40 ERA in Tijuana, to tutoring high schoolers on arm angles and proper windups in Tucson to make ends meet. Molina was hoping to bounce back after ending last year with a 10.03 ERA and a WHIP of 2.14 in 56 relief appearances for Tabasco.

Some minor leaguers receive a weekly stipend of $400 from Mexican teams to help keep them afloat. Clubs have offered partial advances on salaries, to be deducted come 2021. Before starting on his summer job, Molina received 20% of his income from Tabasco in June — money that quickly went to food, clothes and supplies for his newborn baby.

Despite the potential dangers in his labor, Molina considers himself one of the lucky ones. His father-in-law, with whom the pitcher and his family live, secured Molina’s job early in the summer to keep up with expenses in the absence of a steady paycheck.

“We survived on whatever we could,” Molina said. “My wife sells cosmetics online and I’ve sold some clothes. Anything we can do to survive and pay bills.”

However, some players were left to fend for themselves financially when loan offers from their teams never came. Others still have gone months without word from their organizations, not even over the season’s official cancellation.

“No one’s called me [from Tijuana], and I’m not the only one,” Barreda said. “I found out on the internet, it just came up on my phone.”

Barreda’s teammate in Tijuana, infielder Fernando Perez, sells vitamin supplements online to make ends meet during the pandemic. Like Barreda, Perez was not offered a loan by the team, necessitating a quick pivot into another industry.

“I think I’m lucky that I can do this from the perspective of being an athlete,” Perez said. “But it doesn’t take away from the uncertainty of what’s going to happen when the winter season rolls around.”

“We survived on whatever we could. My wife sells cosmetics online and I’ve sold some clothes. Anything we can do to survive and pay bills.”

Ruben Molina, Olmecas de Tabasco pitcher who drove a big rig after the cancellation of the Mexican League season

The shaky economic climate has seen teams joining players in undertaking alternative methods to make up for lost profit. Tijuana, for instance, has transformed the parking lot at its stadium, Estadio Chevron, into a drive-in movie theater. During showings, employees sell snacks available on game day. Team executives say the efforts are more about fan engagement than recouping financial losses.

“Our budget for this season was about $6.3 million,” said Alejandro Uribe, the Toros’ executive president. “We expected to come out about even. With the virus, it’s basically a total loss.”

Despite the downturn, Uribe points out that the Toros kept on most full-time employees, and seasonal hires remained on payroll until the season was officially canceled. In regard to player loans, Uribe said they are available to any player who requested them.

“We have a lot of players who haven’t done badly [financially], they’ve earned plenty in the past and can hold out longer,” Uribe said. “Those who have needed something, because their wife is pregnant or someone in the family has COVID-19, we’ve helped.”

A cold winter ahead

Even with the Mexican League scrapped for 2020, the country’s independent winter circuit, the Mexican Pacific League, is set to begin play in October, offering players a chance at recouping lost income. Historically, the league has been a destination for big league prospects looking to get offseason playing time. Hall of Famers Mike Piazza and Larry Walker spent time in Mexico before making it big, and a 41-year-old Frank Robinson joined the Tomateros de Culiacan as a player-manager after his dismissal as Cleveland Indians manager in 1977.

But Mexico’s gradual economic reopening has moved slowly, and officials are planning for a season with limited fan entry.

In bracing for the winter, Mexican Pacific League teams have slashed payrolls. Some players are reporting offers of less than half their wages from last year.

“It’s pretty unjust,” said Barreda, who pitches for Culiacan in the winter. “I understand [the situation] is hard for owners, but it’s harder for us. No one in any league has helped us through this ordeal.”

Worse still, the fear among players is the pandemic will lead to extended pay cuts beyond 2020 in both circuits, as teams scramble to cover 2020 losses. Mexico’s pro baseball community has no organized labor union, meaning each player fends for himself. In addition, sports journalists in Mexico rarely comment on salaries and contracts in general as is common in the U.S., adding another veil of uncertainty to negotiations.

Players have resorted to text chains and messaging groups to combat misinformation and provide updates on what teams are willing to pay for the winter campaign.

“Teams are operating with the utmost respect for the players in negotiations,” said Omar Canizales, president of the Mexican Pacific League. “We understand that for health concerns, salary concerns or any other reason, players can and have opted out. Down the line, there will be no repercussions for this.”

Assurances notwithstanding, ballplayers in Mexico now mull the possibility of lower salaries beyond this year, which could force their temporary moonlighting to become a more permanent way of life.

For his part, Molina plans to keep driving up and down the Yucatán Peninsula. He’ll stick around this winter, taking on a roster spot with his 2019 team, Indios Mayas de Umán. The heavy workdays in the transport industry coupled with caring for an infant son take a toll, yet Molina finds quiet moments to hone his craft.

“I work out, I practice and I picture myself back on the mound,” he said. “We all know making a living playing baseball doesn’t last forever. But it’s unfair that it might have to end like this. I still have a lot to give.”

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World Series 2020 — Dodgers fans have taken over ‘neutral’ site with L.A. one win from a title

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Tampa Bay Rays were the home team these past three nights. If not for their white pants, you might not have known it. Over the past three weeks, as they situated themselves inside a quasi-bubble in Texas’ metroplex, the Los Angeles Dodgers have commandeered Globe Life Field and made it their own, growing weirdly comfortable with a new ballpark that still lacks an identity. Their fans have tagged along, traveling en masse, increasingly more so as the wins have stacked up and an elusive championship has drawn closer.

In Saturday’s Game 4, after yet another highlight-reel play in the second inning, a “MOO-KIE” chant began and grew so loud that Mookie Betts himself couldn’t help but break character and crack a smile. In Sunday’s Game 5, a stadium of 11,437 people booed Dodgers manager Dave Roberts as he walked to the mound to take the baseball away from Clayton Kershaw in the sixth inning.

He, uh, didn’t smile.

“I didn’t get a chance to see the boos turn to cheers, but that’s OK,” Roberts, managing a smirk, said after navigating the Dodgers through the 4-2 victory that put them one win away from a championship. “It’s passion. The fans have passion, so that’s good.”

Several prominent members of the Dodgers spent the spring worried that the coronavirus pandemic would prevent an exceedingly talented team from ever playing together. As their dominant season progressed, many of them lamented that their passionate fans couldn’t truly experience this journey with them. Then the Dodgers swept through the first two postseason rounds and Major League Baseball allowed the Texas Rangers’ home ballpark to host customers at about 25% capacity.

Loyalties seemed split throughout the National League Championship Series — but then the Dodgers overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Atlanta Braves, welcomed the small-market Rays and basically took over. On Sunday night, with Kershaw on the mound in a pivotal swing game, this place was practically theirs.

“It’s a home game,” Harry Bawann, 41, said. “If it wasn’t for all the sound effects trying to help Tampa out, this would be a home game.”

Bawann and his friend, Ricardo Manzanares, acquired tickets thinking they’d be watching the Dodgers with a chance to win it all. Then came Game 4’s bottom of the ninth, a two-out single from Brett Phillips, a bobble from Chris Taylor, a stumble from Randy Arozarena, a muff from Will Smith and one of the most improbable comebacks ever.

Shortly after the Dodgers finally captured their third victory 24 hours later, ticket prices for Game 6 had increased by 48% since the start of the week, according to TickPick. The average ticket price stood at $750 about five minutes before midnight on the East Coast and would undoubtedly increase from there.

Hector Razo, 40, arrived as part of a group of at least 15 Dodgers fans from Los Angeles, each of whom paid $400 to get through the door. Jeff Murillo, a 52-year-old Dodgers fan living in Houston, was joined by his wife and two kids and paid $4,000 for all of them. Nicole Estrada, 39, paid $800 for Game 3, $500 for Game 4 and was prepared to pay a lot more for Game 5.

“This whole year has been really tough on a lot of people and for the city of L.A.,” Estrada said, “and for us to come together, in another state, it’s momentous and it’s historic.”

The concourse level of Globe Life Field has become a walking gallery of Dodgers jerseys, from Betts and Kershaw to Don Drysdale and Fernando Valenzuela to Vin Scully and Sandy Koufax. One man also wore a Dodgers-themed wrestling mask. Another sported a fake beard in honor of Justin Turner. And one woman, Alen Aivazian, rocked an Elton John-inspired Dodgers jacket that was covered in Swarovski crystals and cost five figures.

David Siegel, 62, was at the game when Kirk Gibson hit his famous pinch-hit home run for the Dodgers in 1988 at Dodger Stadium but also when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs for the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium to win Game 6 in 1977. This year, of all years, he hopes to watch the Dodgers clinch a World Series title in person for the first time.

“That,” he said, “would mean everything.”

It might mean even more to Kershaw, who has spent a dozen years working diligently in pursuit of that goal and might finally achieve it in his hometown. Through two starts against the Rays, Kershaw boasts a 2.31 ERA and two wins, putting him squarely in the conversation for World Series MVP honors. For Game 5, when he gave up only two runs in 5⅔ innings and worked out of a two-on, none-out jam, he was able to accommodate an additional 10 people or so with nosebleed seats.

“This year’s been just special — weird, special, different — in a lot of ways,” Kershaw said. “I don’t wanna say it’s working out the way I want it to because being at Dodger Stadium would be awesome, too, but to get to have family and friends, to get to have as packed a house as it can be, and make it seem like it’s all Dodger fans, is very special.”

Chris Gutierrez is a 26-year-old nursing student who said he paid more than $1,000 to sit a section up on the third-base side. The three people with him are all nurses who have been working the frontlines of a COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 225,000 American lives, an unavoidable reality that adds a layer of discomfort to all this.

They all had initial reservations about gathering this way, but they also didn’t want to miss an opportunity to watch these Dodgers. Since then, they’ve found comfort in a Globe Life Field staff that has been exceedingly diligent about cleaning surfaces, separating large groups and forcing patrons to wear their masks.

It has helped them enjoy what’s in front of them.

“This is a piece of normality,” Gutierrez said, “and it means the world.”



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World Series 2020 — Clayton Kershaw repairs his playoff legacy with Game 5 win

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Cali Kershaw, 5, a nuclear bundle of energy, jitterbugged around the room, under the table and over it, side to side, everywhere space permitted. Her little brother Charley, 3, tried to keep up, to the point that their father, Clayton Kershaw, felt the need to offer a nudge/apology. “You guys are maniacs,” he said.

It was about 30 minutes after he had won Game 5 of the 116th World Series, his second victory in it, one that pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the brink of their first championship in more than three decades. His hair long, his beard ever ratty, his face still cherubic, his resolve hardened, he hadn’t pitched his finest, and that was OK. Afterward, Cali had told him she was proud of him, and that was plenty.

A guy sticks around long enough, and you see him become the man he’s meant to be. Kershaw is 32 years old, past his prime, more craftsman than conqueror. And although there’s an almost-irresistible instinct to measure our greatest athletes against what they once were, and to nevertheless hold that as the idea of what they should be, it always felt unfair. Because for every unicorn who stares down Father Time and wins, a hundred others learn the vagaries of age, of regression, of a clock that ticks endlessly, and they don’t.

The acceptance phase is the hardest, and it’s where Kershaw, he of the worst October reputation this side of the house that gives out Mounds on Halloween, lives today. He isn’t what he once was, and he doesn’t need to be, because what he is impelled the Dodgers to a 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night that left them one victory shy of their first championship since 1988 and him oh so close to getting sized for the ring that has eluded none of his pitching peers.

Here’s what Kershaw is: good enough, which is, when one is surrounded by the talent the Dodgers possess, good enough too. He is capable of excellence, and he is prone to failure, and he is usually closer to the former than the latter. He is not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character: Kershaw and October Kershaw, transmogrifying into a fateful creature when the calendar turns. He is flawed, in need of careful handling, prone more to reliability than anything.

He is, in other words, a dad. And every October, it seems, reminds of that, because Kershaw is the sort of father who brings his kids up to the podium after good days. In 2017, when he still possessed the blessed arm that flung lightning bolts, Cali first sat alongside him at a postgame news conference. And in 2018, Charley joined them. Neither was anywhere to be seen in 2019, because Kershaw wouldn’t dare expose them to the frailty of baseball, which last year damn near broke him. He’d blown a lead, blown a series, and said: “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason.”

What they said was that he wasn’t meant for October, that he was a choker, that he didn’t have what it takes. No matter what he said, Kershaw never believed that. Nobody reaches the heights he has — three National League Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a regular-season career ERA of 2.43 — without the conviction of his ways. If there was some October bugaboo, be it mental or physical, it would not be impenetrable. He was a pitcher. And pitchers find their way.

This postseason has been his rejoinder. Altogether, 30⅔ innings, 23 hits, 5 walks and 37 strikeouts with a 2.93 ERA and four wins. In Game 5 of the World Series, 5⅔ innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and 6 strikeouts. Yeoman’s work for someone whose greatest attribute no longer is what his left arm can produce but the toil it takes to ensure it produces at its apex.

The appreciation cascaded through Globe Life Field on Sunday, with most of the 11,437 there wearing Dodger blue and bequeathing Kershaw something in what was presumably his last outing of 2020: a standing ovation. He had held the 3-0 lead the Dodgers spotted him. He worked around a rough third inning in which he yielded a pair of runs. He turned a first-and-third-with-no-outs mess in the fourth into a neat little escape act, securing the inning’s final out when he heard first baseman Max Muncy yell: “Step off!”

Behind Kershaw’s back, Rays outfielder Manuel Margot had taken off on a dead sprint, the first attempted straight steal of home in a World Series game since Lonnie Smith in 1982. Kershaw fired the ball home, just in time for catcher Austin Barnes to swipe a tag inches before Margot’s fingers slid across the plate. In the fifth, Kershaw would break the all-time record for strikeouts in the postseason. Come the sixth, he had turned two pitches into two outs when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ascended the dugout steps and walked toward the mound.

And what greeted him was fascinating: boos. Not just catcalls or hisses. Real, actual, loud boos, from all corners of the stadium. It was October, and Dodgers fans were livid that Clayton Kershaw was being taken out of a game. So were the Dodgers infielders. They asked Roberts to stick with Kershaw. He refused. They wanted to believe Kershaw was his best self. Roberts believed Kershaw had done plenty.

As he walked off the mound, the cheers began. They grew louder. A 5⅔-inning, two-run outing is not typically the thing of which ovations are made, and yet it is just as infrequently made of a fastball that sits in the 91 mph range, too. This was thanks not just for Game 5 but for caring enough to make Game 5 possible — for not bowing out of the weirdness that is pandemic baseball and not resigning himself to the story others wanted to write for him.

“It feels pretty good. It feels pretty good,” Kershaw said. “Anytime you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much. That is what you work for. That is what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like, too. I will definitely take it when I can get it.”

Roberts’ retreat to the dugout brought on another wave of jeers, even though this had been the plan all along, a plan Kershaw had grown to understand, because age for him might have an inverse relationship with talent but it has a direct one with wisdom. Kershaw, ever a dogged competitor, always wants more. He simply has grown to accept that more isn’t always possible or right.

The fortunes of Roberts have been inextricably tied to Kershaw. They have shared some of their worst moments, and because of that, Roberts didn’t deviate from the plan for Kershaw to face between 21 and 24 batters. After his 22nd hitter, having thrown 85 pitches, 56 of them for strikes, most on a slider that had seen far better days, Kershaw turned the ball over to Dustin May, whose fastball registers 10 mph higher on the radar gun than Kershaw’s.

“He just grinded,” Roberts said. “He willed himself to that point. And I will say, it wasn’t his best stuff, but he found a way to get outs and I give him all the credit.”

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Joc Pederson and Max Muncy hit solo home runs, while Clayton Kershaw strikes out six batters in the Dodgers’ Game 5 win vs. the Rays.

For anyone who sees this as pedestrian because it isn’t up to some standard he himself long ago abandoned, consider: What Kershaw manages to do now, diminished, is still extraordinarily impressive. It’s just in a less obvious way. It’s a three-dimensional view of the pitcher — of where he is in time, what the reasonable expectations for that are, how he has evolved — in a world that gravitates toward the easiest evaluation, which is to digest numbers and spit them out absence of context.

This is no absolution of Kershaw. He has failed in October. He has blown games, series, seasons. In Game 5 of the 2017 World Series against Houston, his implosion might have cost the Dodgers a ring. In Game 5 of the 2018 World Series against Boston, he couldn’t stop the Red Sox’s coronation. In Game 5 of the 2020 World Series, though, the day after the Rays walked off the Dodgers in gut-shot fashion, Kershaw calmly salved wounds — his teammates’ day-old and his years-old.

Now, barring Roberts going off-script and calling upon Kershaw to pitch on short rest for the first time this season in a potential Game 7, it is up to the 27 other Dodgers to give Kershaw what he has done his best to give them. Never had he won two games in postseason series until he took Games 1 and 5 of this World Series. A victory in Game 6 on Tuesday or Game 7 on Wednesday would make take him off the list of three-time Cy Young winners without a championship. He’s the only one of 10. And of pitchers who have won at least four ERA titles but no World Series title. He’s one of 10 there, too. Likewise, 10 pitchers have won an MVP in the post-1961 expansion era, and Kershaw is the only one without a ring.

Sometime in the next 72 hours, all of that can go away, and it would bring him back into that room, sitting at the table, speaking to a camera but really to the world. He’d tell them what it finally feels like to be a champion, how all of this was so worth it. And right there alongside him would be Cali and Charley, amped up like they’ve got a Red Bull IV, because their daddy, the one who has finally grown into what he’s meant to be, had made them proud.

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Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw passes Justin Verlander for postseason strikeout mark

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Say what you will about Clayton Kershaw‘s performance in October, but he now holds the record for postseason strikeouts.

The Los Angeles Dodgers‘ ace moved past Justin Verlander for the all-time lead while giving up only two runs in 5⅔ innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night. Kershaw struck out six batters, giving him 207 career postseason strikeouts in 189 innings. Verlander has 205 strikeouts in 187⅔ career postseason innings.

“Just means I’ve been on great teams that have gotten to go to the post season a lot,” Kershaw said after helping pitch the Dodgers to a 4-2 win and a 3-2 World Series lead. “And I have gotten to have a lot of starts in the postseason. Obviously a special opportunity.”

The Rays were threatening off Kershaw in the fourth, putting two on with none out while trailing by only a run, but Kershaw induced a shallow pop-up and recorded a strikeout, then threw out Manuel Margot as he attempted to steal home. The 32-year-old left-hander then retired the next five batters in order.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was booed by a very pro-Dodgers crowd at Globe Life Field while removing Kershaw in favor of Dustin May with two outs in the sixth, though at least part of their hostility was undoubtedly rooted in Roberts’ pitching decisions from Game 4.

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