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Houston Astros’ comeback bid in ALCS falls short, ending turbulent year

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SAN DIEGO — The Houston Astros spent this odyssey of a season as baseball’s biggest villains.

When Aledmys Diaz flied out with a runner on first to end Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, the bad guys finally lost.

Ridiculed, roasted and ripped all year long, the Astros still summoned enough October heart and poise to reach the brink of another World Series. Manager Dusty Baker’s club even came agonizingly close to matching the biggest playoff comeback in baseball history in a wild ALCS.

Although they couldn’t quite conjure one more incredible postseason feat, this playoff run should be a source of pride for these Astros long after the boos stop. Although if fans are allowed back in most stadiums in 2021, this tarnished franchise probably won’t hear the end of the heckling anytime soon.

Houston fell behind early and never caught up in a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 7 on Saturday night, coming up short of an astonishing series comeback after three consecutive victories. After winning two of the previous three AL pennants and the 2017 World Series championship, the Astros played the entire season under a large, dark cloud created by revelations of the franchise’s sign-stealing tactics during 2017 and 2018.

The Astros’ wild year began in January with the firings of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. But several Astros veterans from those tainted seasons remain on the team, and the players weren’t sanctioned. They reported to spring training in February only to face widespread condemnation from their fellow major leaguers as the team that every other team loved to hate.

The Astros were relentlessly ripped by their opponents and castigated online from spring training onward. They were soundly booed and serenaded by the banging of trash cans whenever opponents’ fans were allowed to be around them during this coronavirus-shortened season. A fan even got a megaphone and broadcast his condemnation of the 2017 Astros into Petco Park from an apartment balcony beyond the outfield fence in Game 4 of this ALCS, calling them out individually by name as cheaters.

Some Astros ignored the hate, while others reveled in it. The beloved Baker took over on the bench and immediately provided a level of respectability, but the Astros were set to face a long regular season as the most reviled team in the majors — until the coronavirus pandemic upended everything.

When baseball finally got back underway in July, the Astros played in largely empty stadiums where opposing fans couldn’t boo or heckle them — although they tried. Fans gathered outside Dodger Stadium to express their displeasure when the team buses brought the Astros to Chavez Ravine for a regular-season series against the Dodgers, who lost the 2017 World Series to Houston in seven games.

After an offseason of turnover and injury losses, the defending AL champions struggled through a mediocre regular season and made the playoffs only due to the expanded field. At 29-31, they had their worst season by winning percentage since 2014. That’s when they swiftly returned to the superb big-game form they’ve displayed so consistently over the past four years — whether or not they knew what pitches were coming.

Houston swept favored Minnesota in the wild-card round and then bashed 12 homers in a four-game division series victory over Oakland. The Astros lost the first three games of the ALCS by a combined 11-5 to the deep, talented Rays. Rather than giving up, Houston became the second team in baseball history to win three straight after being down 3-0 in a playoff series.

Houston’s follow-up to its 2019 pennant is even more impressive in the absence of Gerrit Cole, who signed with the Yankees, and Justin Verlander, who needed Tommy John surgery. The Astros also went into October without much of their preseason bullpen due to injuries to closer Roberto Osuna and right-handers Brad Peacock, Austin Pruitt, Chris Devenski and Rogelio Armenteros, while veteran reliever Joe Smith opted out before the season began.

Houston’s lineup of veteran hitters simply kept slugging, and the Astros got enough solid pitching from Zack Greinke and his fellow starters to stay competitive all the way to the brink of the World Series.

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Longtime Minnesota sports columnist Sid Hartman dies at 100

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MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota sports columnist and radio personality Sid Hartman, an old-school home team booster who once ran the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers and achieved nearly as much celebrity as some of the athletes he covered, died Sunday. He was 100.

Hartman, whose first newspaper column was published in 1945, died surrounded by his family, Star Tribune sports editor Chris Carr said.

“It’s a sad day,” Carr told The Associated Press. “He is the Star Tribune in many ways, at least in the sports department. It speaks to his amazing life that even and 100 and a half years old, he passes away and we still can’t believe it.”

He kept up his age-defying pace even after his 100th birthday party on March 15 was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Hartman continued to write three columns per week for the Star Tribune as a centenarian, four during football season, and served as co-host of a Sunday morning radio show on WCCO-AM in Minneapolis.

“I have followed the advice that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” Hartman wrote in his column published on his 100th birthday. “Even at 100, I can say I still love what I do.”

Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, upon learning of Hartman’s death, expressed his condolences to Hartman’s family following Minnesota’s game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

“Obviously a Minnesota icon, and heard about the passing, so wanted to start off with that,” Thielen said. “Just heard a story from him the other day, and he was obviously a big part of this organization and was always around the facility, so we are grieving during this time.”

Hartman grew up poor on Minneapolis’ tough north side, the son of a Russian immigrant father and Latvian mother who at age 9 began selling newspapers on downtown street corners. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade for a news run, picking up papers and leaving them in drop boxes.

In 1944, the circulation manager recommended Hartman for an internship on the sports desk at the old Minneapolis Times. A year later, he was in print with a roundup of news and notes, a style he continued throughout his career. Hartman always called himself a reporter, not a writer. After the Times folded in 1948, Hartman went to work at the Minneapolis Tribune covering his beloved University of Minnesota.

Former Vikings coach Bud Grant recalled attending the university after World War II and running into Hartman on Hartman’s first day as a beat writer. Grant and his wife became friends with Hartman, and when Grant announced his first retirement as Vikings coach in 1984, he shared the scoop only with Hartman.

“They’d say ‘off-the-record,’ and to Sid that was off-the-record. He never broke a confidence, with anybody I ever knew,” Grant once said.

Hartman was an unapologetic throwback to the days when the wall between sportswriters and the teams and players they covered was not as defined. Colleagues referred to “Sid’s Rules,” which applied to Hartman and no one else. “It was kind of the Wild West, and Sid was the top gunfighter,” said Dave Mona, Hartman’s “Sports Huddle” co-host since the WCCO-AM radio program debuted in 1981.

Often because of the favorable coverage he gave to local sports teams, Hartman was granted unparalleled behind-the-scenes access to players, coaches and executives. He was given free rein to roam where he wanted, when he wanted.

Hartman was instrumental in helping lure pro teams to Minnesota. In his autobiography “Sid!” (co-written with fellow Star Tribune sports columnist Patrick Reusse), Hartman wrote that in 1947 he offered $15,000 to the owner of the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League for the franchise, then went to Detroit to deliver the check. The team became the Minneapolis Lakers, and Hartman was the de facto general manager. Led by big man George Mikan, the Lakers won the NBL championship in their first season and five NBA championships. Hartman left the Lakers operation in 1957, and the team moved to Los Angeles in 1960.

He did all that while continuing his newspaper work, a blatant conflict-of-interest by today’s standards but an accepted practice in those days.

Yet he always tried to outwork other reporters for scoops. He was a familiar sight at most games and news conferences, lugging a large, clunky, outdated tape recorder and a thick, black book stuffed with pages of phone numbers. From George Steinbrenner to Bob Knight to Pete Carroll, Hartman’s rolodex has long been a who’s-who of the sports world.

Hartman’s distinctive gruff, slurred speech and malaprops made him a favorite of listeners, media colleagues and the players and coaches he covered to imitate. On the radio, Hartman would sometime hang up on or chastise callers — “geniuses,” as Hartman called them — who voiced opinions he disagreed with. Despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, Hartman was routinely approached by fans for autographs and always obliged them.

In 2010, to mark his 90th birthday, a statute showing Hartman holding a radio microphone, carrying an oversized tape recorder and with a Star Tribune tucked under his arm was unveiled on a corner outside Target Center, the home of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Part of my job was to bring him into the ’80s. Sometimes he came fairly easily and sometimes he didn’t,” said former Star Tribune editor Tim McGuire. “He always was too much of a booster, and he loved his Gophers. But he was always a newsman.”

Hartman also was a frequent critic of women’s athletics, which he thought cut into expenditures for men’s sports at University of Minnesota. “It’s archaic,” former Star Tribune sports editor Glen Crevier said of Hartman’s attitude in 2009, “but at least he doesn’t write negatively about them anymore. He just avoids them.”

Hartman’s son, Chad, followed his father into sports reporting, as play-by-play announcer for the Timberwolves and a local talk show host.

When his 100th birthday column was published, the Star Tribune put his career byline count at 21,149.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Los Angeles Dodgers starting Dustin May vs. Atlanta Braves’ Ian Anderson in Game 7 of NLCS

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Dustin May, who only threw two innings in his Game 5 start, will start Game 7 of the National League Championship Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday night, opposing Atlanta Braves right-hander Ian Anderson.

May, whose right arm has proven to be resilient, has faced only 18 batters in his two appearances in this series, the other coming in Game 1 on Monday. The Dodgers also have Tony Gonsolin on normal rest after his 88-pitch start in Tuesday’s Game 2. Julio Urias, who threw a career-high 101 pitches in his Game 3 start, might also be able to give the Dodgers an inning or two.

Those three should allow Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to save his high-leverage relievers — Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen, Victor Gonzalez, Pedro Baez and Kenley Jansen — for the later innings. The question is whether Clayton Kershaw will make a relief appearance, as he is prone to do in these situations.

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Miami Marlins parting with president Michael Hill

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MIAMI — Miami Marlins executive Michael Hill’s 19-season tenure with the franchise has ended.

Hill was president of baseball operations for the past six years and provided continuity after a 2017 change in ownership, but his contract expired and he will not be back next season, CEO Derek Jeter said Sunday.

Hill joined the Marlins’ front office in 2002, and the next year they won the World Series. But this year’s 31-29 finish was their first above .500 since 2009, and they made the playoffs for the first time in 17 years.

Hill helped steer the Marlins through a coronavirus outbreak that nearly derailed their season. The Marlins beat the Chicago Cubs in the wild-card round of the playoffs before being eliminated by Atlanta and exceeded all outside expectations with a young, patchwork roster one year after losing 105 games.

Hill was general manager for six seasons before becoming president of baseball operations. He worked for three years in the Jeter regime as the organization underwent heavy turnover.

Hill had a hand in the record $325 million, 13-year contract Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Marlins in 2014. He later was involved in trading Stanton and All-Stars Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Dee Gordon and J.T. Realmuto as the Marlins rebuilt from the farm system up under Jeter.

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