This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: April 2020

And the Games Didn’t Go On—Except in Taiwan and on MLB The Show
RIP to Too Many People  
  The Red Sox Get Their Slap on the Wrists

March 2020    Comebacker Index    May 2020

Wednesday, April 1

We awake to a new month, but March was not just a nightmare; we’re still living with COVID-19, and its effects upon baseball. Major League Baseball announces that a scheduled series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs in London—following on the successful two-game set held in 2019 between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees—will be cancelled. Meanwhile, MLB is trying to work on starting the season on July 1, with a 100-game schedule and expanded rosters so pitchers, in particular, are not overused and thus exposed to potential injury.

Six years after being launched, SportsNet LA—the regional sports carrier for the Los Angeles Dodgers—finally comes to an agreement with AT&T that will allow viewers to watch Dodgers games on the carrier’s various services. AT&T had balked at carrying SportsNet LA due to the network’s high cost—leaving up to 60% of the Dodgers’ in-market territory unable to watch their games.

Former reliever and Chicago White Sox broadcaster Ed Farmer passes away at the age of 70 in Chicago. While no cause of death is given—in this day and age, COVID-19 would be the default assumption—Farmer had been experiencing kidney issues and was so ill, he was absent from the radio booth during the latter portion of the 2019 season. In an 11-year career that lasted from 1971-83, Farmer struggled early and things only got worse with an injury that briefly sent him spiraling out of the majors from 1975-76; he returned and found his groove in a second tour of duty with the White Sox from 1979-81, earning an All-Star spot in 1980. He began his work as a broadcast commentator with the White Sox in 1990, assuming play-by-play duties in 2005.

Thursday, April 2

It’s reported that should the entire 2020 MLB campaign be cancelled, former Houston manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow—fired by the Astros in the aftermath of the sign-stealing scandal—will still be declared to have served their one-year suspension and be eligible to return in 2021. Meanwhile, players who’ve been punished for PED use still must wait until any kind of regular season play to serve their suspensions—meaning they may not be eligible to take the field until mid-2021, assuming a 2020 cancellation and regular Opening Day start next year.

We suspect that, in the event of a full 2020 shutdown, any PED suspensions will become null and void by MLB if 2021 starts on schedule.

Friday, April 3

Japan’s Nippon Baseball League, which had stood by April 24 as an opening date to its regular season—already one month later than originally scheduled—is delaying it to late May. Even if it does get started at that point, empty ballparks could accommodate the players out of overall safety.

A Federal judge dismisses a bettors’ lawsuit against the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox for the cheating scandals of 2017-18. In writing in a 32-page opinion, Jed Rakoff says: “(It can’t) be denied that an overweening desire to win may sometimes lead our heroes to employee foreign substances on their (spit) balls, their (corked) bats, or even their (steroid-consuming) selves).” Translation: There’s cheating in baseball, and the plaintiffs should understand such risks involved in their business of betting.

Saturday, April 4

President Donald Trump has a conference call with the commissioners of the major pro sports leagues and, later in his daily briefing, states that he hopes to get sports back up and running again sometime in August or September. This restart date would not be ideal for MLB, which has been hoping for a delayed Opening Day to take place no later than early July. A growing number of people, non-skeptics among them, are starting to believe that the entire 2020 baseball season might be scrubbed.

Monday, April 6

Baseball loses a Hall of Famer—and a pure gentleman—in Al Kaline, who passes at the age of 85. The Baltimore native made his major league debut for the Detroit Tigers in 1953 at the tender age of 18—and two years later won his sole batting title with a career-high .340 mark, making him the youngest to win the crown by a single day (Ty Cobb, 1907). From that point on, Kaline was a consistent if not overwhelming presence in the Detroit lineup; he never won another batting title, never won an MVP and never hit more than 29 homers—though if it wasn’t for a broken collarbone that cost him nearly 60 games in 1962, he might have hit 40 taters with well over 100 RBIs. But Kaline rarely disappointed; he was always good for a solid average (as reflected in a career .297 mark), hit .333 with three homers over 12 postseason games, won 10 Gold Gloves as an outfielder, and was named to 15 All-Star rosters—hitting .324 over 37 at-bats. With just a week left to his final season in 1974, Kaline grabbed his 3,000th career hit—and although he fell a home run shy of 400, he remains tops on the Tigers’ all-time list.

After his playing days, Kaline hung around within the Tigers organization, whether as a batting instructor, front office presence or broadcaster. To a man, everyone who knew him all say the same thing: Kaline was the ultimate gentleman. Said Larry Herndon, a member of the Tigers during the 1980s: “He was a golden person, along with being a great ballplayer. Gentle, kind, giving. Every good thing you ever heard about Al Kaline, it’s all true.”

Tuesday, April 7

A possible 2020 regular season scenario that has gone viral (no pun intended) in recent days has MLB having all 30 teams playing out the entire season at Chase Field and Cactus League facilities in the Phoenix area. There would be no spectators, at least initially—but there would be heat, as playing in the Valley of the Sun in mid-Summer will mean first-pitch evening temperatures above 100 degrees. Reaction to the plan, one of many being discussed by MLB as the COVID-19 situation continues to be fluid, is heartily mixed among both players and fans. Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego, for one, is okay with the idea, so long as “public health leads every single discussion.” Players, though, aren’t thrilled with the idea of separating from families, living in virtual lockdown conditions inside hotels to reduce their exposure to the virus.

An alternate proposal that trends later in the week has the 30 teams split into their usual spring training sites in Arizona and Florida, with MLB creating three divisions of five teams to play a shortened schedule. But throughout the month, the Arizona scenario seems to carry more weight.

Wednesday, April 8

Former MVP and Texas Rangers star Josh Hamilton is indicted on a felony charge of injury to a child for physically abusing his 14-year-old daughter last September; he faces 2-10 years in prison if convicted. Hamilton’s lawyer says he’s innocent; the daughter told her mother that the incident began when he became “enraged” at a comment she made.

Thursday, April 9

To no one’s surprise, the New York Yankees’ tops Forbes’ annual list of the most valuable MLB franchises for the 23rd straight year. Forbes tabs the Yankees’ value at $5 billion, a 9% increase over last year. For some unknown reason, the only team that matches the Yankees’ rate of value increase is the Baltimore Orioles, 18th on the list at $1.4 billion. In terms of total value, the Dodgers place second behind the Yankees at $3.4 billion, followed by Boston ($3.3 billion), the Chicago Cubs ($3.2 billion) and San Francisco ($3.1 billion). On the flip side, the Miami Marlins are the only team worth less than a billion according to Forbes, checking in at $980 million; they’re also one of two teams (along with Pittsburgh) that saw a decrease in value from 2019.

After 13 seasons, 298 home runs and 1,927 strikeouts, Mark Reynolds decides to call it a career at age 36. Reynolds was synonymous with the rise in strikeouts during the late 2000s, and here’s why; for three straight years (2008-10), he led the majors in whiffs, including a 2009 campaign in which he struck out 223 times—an all-time season record which still stands, despite the game’s continuous uptick in overall strikeouts since. Only eight players in the history of the game have struck out more over a career than Reynolds. But with the bad came the good, as Reynolds hit over 30 homers four times—including 44 for Arizona in the same season he set the strikeout record. Reynolds clamped down on the Ks by his own standards in the latter part of his career, but found it tough clamping down a full-time spot; a lifetime .236 batting average had much to do with that.

Only Tim Salmon hit more home runs—and barely, at 299 vs. Reynolds’ 298—without ever being named to an All-Star team.

Friday, April 10

Now that we’ve exhausted ourselves of reruns of past great games shown on ESPN, MLB Network and various regional sports networks, the shut-down baseball season is entering a new phase of entertainment: An online tournament involving a representative of all 30 MLB teams playing MLB the Show. The video game tourney starts today and is scheduled to run through April 30. Among the participants are Juan Soto (Washington), Jeff McNeill (New York Mets), Lucas Giolito (Chicago White Sox), Carlos Santana (Cleveland) and Joey Gallo (Texas).

Sunday, April 12

Glenn Beckert, a four-time All-Star second baseman for the Chicago Cubs, dies of natural causes at the age of 79 in Florida. The Pittsburgh native wielded little power, hitting no more than five home runs a season, but he was a tough hitter to retire with a .283 career batting average—peaking at .342, third best in the NL, for the 1971 Cubs. He also rarely struck out, whiffing no more than 25 times outside of his first two seasons. Defensively, Beckert led the NL among second basemen in errors four times but was still considered solid, winning one Gold Glove in 1968.

Also passing on this day is former manager Jim Frey, former manager and coach, at age 88 of undisclosed causes. If ever anyone lived the phrase “What have you done for us lately,” it was Frey. In 1980 he took over as manager of the Kansas City Royals and promptly led them to their first AL pennant; a year later, he was fired. In 1984, he was given the reins of the Chicago Cubs, and promptly led them to their first postseason appearance since 1945; two years later, he was fired. Before all of this, Frey spent 14 years as a minor leaguer who never broke through to the majors; after some managing in the minors, he became a loyal lieutenant to Earl Weaver, serving as an Orioles coach from 1970-79.

There’s actually baseball being played somewhere. The Chinese Professional Baseball League, based in Taiwan, gets underway with no spectators in the stands—unless you count life-sized mannequins and cardboard cutouts. Opening Day in Taiwan had been delayed four weeks from its originally scheduled date, but because the island nation was among the more proactive and successful in clamping down on the spread of COVID-19, it allowed the CPBL to become the first organized baseball circuit to restart.

Monday, April 13

COVID-19 takes another life in baseball as New York Post sports photographer Anthony Causi succumbs to the virus at age 48. Causi was a fixture at Yankees and Mets games, along with other sporting events in the New York City area—and he wasn’t just a face in the crowd to players. Former Mets infielder Todd Frazier: “God found his angel photographer, that’s for sure.”

Tuesday, April 14

Hank Steinbrenner, the elder son of former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, passes away after a long illness at age 63. In 2007, an ailing George conceding control of the Yankees to Hank and brother Hal Steinbrenner, who was quieter and less prone to outlandish statements than Hank—a trait he obviously inherited from his father. Thus, though the obits on Hank simply state that he was co-owner of the Yankees, his was virtually an absentia role as Hal has continued to be more of the primary ownership force.

Wednesday, April 15

In a month where it seems a day doesn’t go by without news of a baseball-related passing, there comes word that former infielder Damaso Garcia has died in the Dominican Republic at age 63. Though he played for four teams over 10 years, Garcia principally suited up for the Toronto Blue Jays, featuring as their starting second baseman from 1980-86—hitting a career .286 with 203 stolen bases. Garcia made two All-Star appearances in 1984-85, and twice had hitting streaks of 20 or more games for the Blue Jays. A malignant brain tumor in 1990 led to surgery, and he was never the same, as the tumor reduced his ability to function.

On Jackie Robinson Day, celebrating the day when the legendary ballplayer first took the field for the Dodgers and became the first African-American to play in the majors since the 1800s, $4.2 million is donated by Thomas Tull, one of the producers of the Robinson biopic 42. The equipment will go specifically to areas where African-Americans have been hard hit by COVID-19.

Friday, April 17

While MLB still has no plan set for when to start the 2020 season, Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league announces that it is yet again delaying the start of their campaign. Originally set to start on March 20, NPB has now backed up Opening Day to April 10, then April 24, then May—but now they’re looking at June 1 at the earliest. NPB is still hoping to get in a 125-game schedule.

Former manager and coach Bobby Winkles, who turned Arizona State into a major collegiate baseball power, dies at the age of 90. A failed minor league prospect, Winkles took up coaching and quickly settled in as the boss at ASU, managing 13 years with three national titles. Among his students were Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday, Sal Bando and Larry Gura. In the 1970s, he gave the majors a shot with turbulent results; he was fired midway through his second year piloting the Angels when a feud with star player Frank Robinson boiled over, and after taking a young, no-name and gutted out Oakland team to a first-place start in 1978, he suddenly quit because he couldn’t take owner Charles Finley’s meddling any longer. He coached afterward with the Chicago White Sox, then took up a front office job in the late 1980s for the Montreal Expos. Winkles is a charter member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sunday, April 19

Social distancing doesn’t seem to apply to baseball brawls, as Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League—the only currently active circuit—shows us during a game between Rakuten and Fubon. Henry Sosa, who pitched for the Houston Astros nine years ago, keeps throwing inside to Rakuten’s Yen-Wen Kuo until he finally hits him, igniting this useless scrap.

Monday, April 20

The players’ union, already looking at reduced MLB salaries with what’s sure to be (at best) a reduced schedule sometime this season, reacts with incredulity to the suggestion made by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that players should forfeit even more wages if they play any games this year in front of closed ballparks. Tony Clark, head of the union, makes his response to Cuomo’s idea very short and succinct: “That negotiation is over.”

Korea looks to be the second pro league, after Taiwan, ready to play ball. The Korean Baseball Organization announces that it will belatedly hold its Opening Day on May 5, as the nation has been able to contain COVID-19 to a point that restrictions can be eased. Games will initially be held without spectators.

Tuesday, April 21

Some fans aren’t so sure that they’ll get full refunds for tickets they’ve bought for regular season games that may never take place. Two people in New York sue MLB and various third-party ticket dispensers such as StubHub and Ticketmaster, claiming they aren’t get refunded for tickets they’ve purchased for games that likely won’t take place on their originally scheduled dates. As of yet, none of the defendants are responding to the suit.

A-Rod and J-Lo, co-Lords of the Mets? Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez, one of baseball’s most celebrity-tinged couples, announce that they’re looking into buying the New York Mets—and have retained investment giant J.P. Morgan to help raise capital. The combined net worth of the two is said to be around $700 million; Forbes recently valued the Mets at $2.4 billion—though some believe the team could be purchased as low as $1.6 billion after a bid by hedge fund manager Steve Cohen last month to purchase it fell through.

Wednesday, April 22

MLB finally hands down its ruling on the Boston Red Sox’ cheating allegations during their 2018 championship run; rather than a beatdown (as was the case with the Houston Astros), it’s a slap on the wrist. The only vocational casualty is team replay operator J.T. Watkins, who used his job to relay opposing catchers’ signals to players. As a result, he will be suspended without pay in 2020; he can return in 2021, but in a different capacity. Additionally, the Red Sox will lose their second-round pick in the upcoming draft. And that’s it. None of the players who were in on the scheme are disciplined because they volunteered the information without fear of punishment; Alex Cora, Red Sox manager in 2018, is found to have been unaware of the scheme—but he’s already been sacked and serving a one-year suspension for his involvement in the Astros’ cheating scandal. Ron Roenicke, Cora’s replacement who served as a Boston coach in 2018, is cleared and thus has the “interim” tag removed from his title.

The report released by MLB and commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledges that Watkins “vehemently denies” the charges against him. Many on the outside reading the report believe that he’s the scapegoat in all of this—while the players who benefited from his alleged video room scheme aren’t disciplined at all. As in the case of the Astros’ scandal, this is because of their willingness to testify to MLB with immunity, thanks to negotiations with the players’ union. Message to team employees: Don’t cheat. Because without any representation, you’ll always be the ones holding the short stick.

Thursday, April 23

Dan Walters played two part-time seasons for the San Diego Padres, hitting a subpar .234 with 10 home runs from 1992-93. “Terrific person who was a great teammate,” said Bruce Bochy, a Padres coach at the time. “Could really catch and throw. He had some pop in his bat.” After being sent back to the minors where he suffered a career-ending spine injury, Walters quit and became a policeman in San Diego. In 2003, five years into this new profession, Walters responded to a domestic dispute call and was shot in the neck—and was then run over by a passing motorist. He was paralyzed from the neck down from the injuries and remained that way until his death today at the age of 53. The motorcade that accompanies his body out of the hospital consists of three SUVs and eight motorcycle officers.

Friday, April 24

Steve Dalkowski, the wild, hard-throwing pitcher who inspired the Nuke LaLoosh character in Bull Durham as played by Tim Robbins, passes away at the age of 80 from COVID-19. How fast was Dalkowski’s fastball? “Fastest I ever saw,” the great Ted Williams once admitted after facing him in a spring training game. How wild was Dalkowski? The numbers have to be seen to be believed. In his first five of nine minor league seasons—he never made it to the majors—Dalkowski threw 498 innings, striking out 835 while walking 904. We’ll spare you the calculator; those numbers translate to 16.77 strikeouts and 18.15 walks per nine innings. Because all minor league statistics were hard to collect during those years, the above numbers are not entirely complete—but you get the picture. Dalkowski’s stats calmed over the latter half of his career—an arm injury that subdued his velocity was part of the reason—but overall progress remained elusive; when he pitched his last professional game in 1965 for the Class-A San Jose Bees, he had accumulated a 46-80 record with an estimated 5.28 earned run average. His personality matched his stat sheet, as he did anything but stay in a motel room at night. Bull Durham director-writer Ron Shelton, a former minor leaguer himself who never played alongside Dalkowski but heard much of his antics, did the research and discovered that “he had a record 14 feet long inside the Bakersfield, California police station, all barroom brawls—nothing serious…”

Monday, April 27

Baseball’s near-term future still looks awfully hazy in the crystal ball, but as we near the end of April it seems that many varied sources are predicting that a 2020 MLB season will be played at some point—it’s just a matter of when, where and how much. Political figures such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, both overseeing areas hard hit by COVID-19, share public belief that baseball will return to their domains at some point this summer, while ESPN’s Jeff Passan lays out the many scenarios of how the season might proceed—and the side effects that could accompany it, including possible financial tug-of-wars between players and owners. If anything else, it’s a good read for archivists and historians returning to this page down the line and opening up a time capsule of what we were thinking as the month comes to a close.

Tuesday, April 28

Though all MLB teams will be paying their employees through May 31, some sacrifices are starting to be revealed. The Pittsburgh Pirates announce that they’ll suspend 401(k) benefits until further notice, as general manager Ben Cherington states, “Our full expectation is that the contribution will go back into effect as soon as possible.” (But of course that would be the expectation.)

Baltimore outfielder Trey Mancini, who missed what little there was of spring training with a then-undisclosed ailment, reveals all when he writes in The Players Tribune that he’s been undergoing chemotherapy for Stage III colon cancer. If there is any kind of season to be played this year, Mancini—who belted 35 homers for the Orioles last year—will miss it. “I have bad days,” Mancini writes. “I ask, ‘Why me? Why now?’ And that’s when (wife) Sara’s been really good about kicking me in the rear. But she doesn’t have to do that too often, because I truly know how blessed I really am.”

Wednesday, April 29

The Hall of Fame announces that it’s postponing its induction ceremonies, scheduled for July, until 2021 because of COVID-19. This will give the Class of 2021—Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and someone speaking on behalf of later union head Marvin Miller—an extra year to polish their speeches.

Thursday, April 30

With no baseball today, this officially becomes the first April since 1883 without any major league games. (The reason then: The two leagues of the time—the National League and American Association—didn’t start their 100-ish-game campaigns until May 1.) The 1995 season, delayed because of the conclusion of the work stoppage that began a year earlier, started in the final week of April.

The Tampa Bay Rays become the first major league team to furlough employees, as nearly half of the team’s operational workforce is told to take forced unpaid leave for an indefinite period of time.

The month ends on a sad but inevitable note, as this year’s Little League World Series, scheduled for August in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, has been cancelled.

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