This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: January 2022

Ortiz In, Bonds and Clemens Out: The Postmortem on the 2022 HOF Vote
Dream On, Tampa Bay-Montreal    Yes—The Lockout Continues

December 2021    Comebacker Index  •  February 2022

Saturday, January 1

The Los Angeles Dodgers give a minor league contract to Eddy Alvarez, who has played small bits of two major league seasons with the Miami Marlins but is more familiar to Olympic fans for winning a silver medal in speedskating at the 2014 Winter Games in Russia. It hasn’t been smooth skating for the 32-year-old infielder on the ballfield, where he’s batted .188 over 101 career at-bats with a home run and eight runs batted in.

Tyler Chatwood is the latest pitcher to seek rejuvenation in the Far East, signing a deal to play for Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. The 32-year-old pitcher looked to be on the rise in the mid-2010s with Colorado, but after a move to the Chicago Cubs, he developed control issues that in 2018 led him to rack up more walks (95) than strikeouts (85) over 103.2 innings; he has since bounced around with little success.

Sunday, January 2

Larry Biittner, a 14-year outfielder/first baseman for four different teams, passes away at the age of 75. The Iowa native was a common player’s common player, rarely the star but always the reliable supporting cast member. Essentially his only full-time season came in 1977 when he hit .298 with 12 home runs with 62 runs batted in for the Cubs. Biittner finished his career with the same franchise he began it with—the Texas Rangers, though they were the Washington Senators when he played his first major league game in 1970.

Monday, January 3

If you can’t beat them, let them buy you out. That’s the reality for Topps, the trading card icon that last summer lost its exclusive license with both MLB and the players’ union to Fanatics, starting in 2026. Seeing the writing on the wall, Topps has agreed to be bought out by Fanatics—thus meaning that Fanatics’ deal with MLB can start now.Cameron Maybin is calling it a career, retiring after 15 major league seasons. A first-round pick of the Detroit Tigers in 2007, Maybin was considered the top prospect among six Tigers dealt to the Florida Marlins in the blockbuster 2008 trade that sent star hitter Miguel Cabrera and ace Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers. But Maybin never fully blossomed, playing inconsistent baseball with fleeting displays of stardom for 10 different MLB teams—batting .254 with 973 hits, 72 home runs and 187 stolen bases.

Tuesday, January 4

Jim Corsi, a reliever of 10 major league seasons, for four different teams—including three separate stays with the Oakland A’s—passes away at the age of 60. Just a few days earlier, understanding his fate suffering from stage IV liver and colon cancer, Corsi said that he was “at peace” with his situation. The right-hander appeared in 368 games, posting a 22-24 record with seven saves and a 3.25 ERA; he started just one game, during his 1988 rookie campaign with the A’s.

Wednesday, January 5

The late great Hank Aaron is laid to rest in a ceremony in Atlanta attended by baseball notables such as former commissioner Bud Selig and Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Dave Winfield. Some of you may ask: Why did it take so long for Aaron, who died a year earlier, to be buried? The work on his gravesite apparently took time, so his body was kept in a temporary crypt until it was finished. On his tombstone, this quote is inscribed: “I am not concerned about how I am perceived as a baseball player. I am concerned about how I am thought of as a human being.”

Thursday, January 6

Shortly after its launch in 2016, The pay-to-read sports site The Athletic bragged that its mission was to bring all newspapers to its knees by stealing all their sports journalists. Now, one of those papers has bought it out. It’s announced that the New York Times is purchasing The Athletic for $550 million, absorbing (for the moment) 400 “editorial employees” to the 2,000 it already employs. How The Athletic’s 1.2 million subscribers will be affected is yet to be known.

Former Mets general manager Zack Scott, fired by the team after being arrested for a DUI offense this past August, is acquitted of the charges inside a White Plains, New York courtroom. This is a decision by judge, not jury; a remorseful Scott is relieved at the verdict, but it’s likely not going to earn his job back as the Mets have moved on.

Sunday, January 9

The Athletic is reporting that the New York Yankees are hiring a woman, Rachel Balkovec, to manage the Tampa Tarpons, the team’s Class-A affiliate. The 34-year-old Balkovec, a former softball catcher, was first hired as a strength and conditioning coach for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012, moving to the Astros’ organization in 2016. She is the first female manager for an affiliated professional baseball team in North America.

Monday, January 10

Tampa Bay Rays bullpen catcher Jean Ramirez dies at the age of 28. No word is initially given as to how he died at such a young age, but his family later releases a statement explaining what happened—that he took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The statement goes on to say: “Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t see the signs. Struggling in silence is not OK. It is our commitment to honor our son’s life by helping other families. No parent should have to endure the loss of their child.”

Most mainstream news outlets reporting the story carry with it a note on how to help anyone who may be going through a similar struggle by listing the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. That number is 1-800-273-8255.

Tuesday, January 11

Keith Hernandez, who played a minority of his 17 years with the New York Mets, will nevertheless have his #17 jersey retired by the team in a ceremony this coming season. Hernandez arrived in New York in a midseason 1983 trade from St. Louis, his employer of his first nine-plus seasons; he remained with the Mets for six more full-time campaigns, earning three All-Star Game roster spots, three top-10 placements in the NL MVP race, a World Series ring in 1986, and the team captainship—the first in Mets history—in 1987. All this, while having to testify in the court case against Curtis Strong—who gave illegal drugs to Hernandez and other star players in the early 1980s. After his playing days, Hernandez has enjoyed a much longer (and still active) broadcasting tenure with the Mets, joining Gary Cohen and ex-teammate Ron Darling in the TV booth. Hernandez will be the seventh member of the Mets to have his uniform retired.

Wednesday, January 12

Jon Lester, owner of a 200-117 record, career 3.66 ERA, and rings playing for both the Red Sox and Cubs, announces his retirement—claiming that his 38-year-old body can no longer produce at a major-league level. In 2021, Lester was a combined 7-6 with a 4.71 ERA between Washington and St. Louis, finishing strong (4-1, 4.36) with the Cardinals. Though his regular season numbers are impressive, they’re even better when postseason participation becomes part of the conversation; in 26 appearances (22 starts), Lester was 9-7 with a terrific 2.51 ERA—and was 4-1 with a 1.77 figure in six World Series appearances (five starts).

Does Lester have a strong enough resume to be inducted into Cooperstown? Anyone who manages to make it to 200 wins in this day and age has to be seriously considered—and the relatively low number of career losses, along with his strong postseason efforts, only enhance his chances.

While most other ballparks have adjusted their fences over the past few years by bringing them in, the Baltimore Orioles announce that they’ll move the cozily placed left-field fence at Orioles Park at Camden Yards back by as much as 30 feet from its current distance of 364. This is likely meant to bring relief to Orioles pitchers who have been relentlessly pummeled by opposing hitters at the 30-year-old ballpark, but it will also temper the power numbers of Baltimore players such as Ryan Mountcastle (33 home runs in 2021) and Cedric Mullins (30). The last two full seasons have seen Camden Yards yield the highest home run totals in that ballpark’s history, with 289 in 2019 followed by 277 this past year.

A day after the Mets announced the retirement of Keith Hernandez’s #17 jersey, the Minnesota Twins say they will retire the #36 uniform worn for 14 years by pitcher Jim Kaat, who was recently voted into the Hall of Fame via the Veterans Committee. Kaat won 190 of his 283 career games with the Twins (and the Washington Senators before their move to Minnesota).

Thursday, January 13

The first serious negotiations between MLB owners and players since the beginning of the lockout on December 2 come and go with little progress, but at least the hope is that both sides will maintain activity at the table—or on Zoom screens, as the parties meet online.

Much of what MLB proposes is mind-bending, with all sorts of computations thrown out that fail to impress the players’ union. Among the issues discussed is a sweetening of the arbitration process, increased minimum salary, changes to a proposed draft lottery and additional postseason spots from the current 10 participants. While the players are happy that owners are bending, they’re not happy with the curve of the bend. It’s now up to the players to come back with a counterproposal.

The independent Atlantic League will do away with robot umps and the 61’6” distance between the mound and home plate—one foot longer than the norm—for the upcoming season. The reason for the end of these experimental rules, in place since 2019, is that they didn’t seem to make much of a difference. The rules were initiated under an arrangement with MLB, which does not own the Atlantic League in spite of its hostile takeover of most other minor-league circuits a year ago.

Saturday, January 15

It’s the first day of the year in which MLB teams can sign international players—those outside of the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico—and although the period lasts all the way through mid-December, most teams quickly ante up and spend their allotted pool money to sign top prospects. Commanding the highest fee is 17-year-old Cuban outfielder Cristhian Vaquero, who signs with Washington for $4.9 million—practically using up all $5.179 million of the Nationals’ pool funds. While Vaquero, who goes by the nickname of The Phenomenon, is arguably considered the top international prospect, 17-year-old Dominican shortstop Roderick Arias—whom others tag at #1 on the list—signs with the Yankees for a little less, at $4 million. Overall, the top 50 prospects are all snapped up on the day; 24 of them are shortstops, 17 are outfielders—and there are only two pitchers.

Monday, January 17

Two years after throwing his most recent major league pitch, Francisco Liriano officially announces his retirement. Signed at age 16 by San Francisco, the left-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republic was dealt along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser to Minnesota in a 2003 trade that yielded catcher A.J. Pierzynski and a ton of criticism upon the Giants, as Nathan blossomed into an All-Star closer and Liriano, initially, looked to be a stunning equal to Cy Young winner Johan Santana—going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 2006 before Tommy John surgery derailed his breakout progress. Still, Liriano managed to hang in the majors for 14 seasons, winning as many as 16 games for the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates—but he simply could never capture the pre-Tommy John magic. Liriano finishes his career with a 112-114 record and 4.15 ERA.

Tuesday, January 18

For anyone who thought they were going to get free agent shortstop Carlos Correa on the cheap once the lockout ended, forget it. The 2015 AL Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star hires superagent Scott Boras as his new rep, meaning that anyone seeking to sign Correa will have to put up top dollar over other competitors, whether they’re of the mystery variety or not.

Thursday, January 20

MLB informs Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg that he will not be allowed to split the Rays’ home schedule between St. Petersburg and Montreal, something he has theoretically trying to push perhaps as incentive for local officials to build a new ballpark for him in the St. Pete-Tampa area. Sternberg refers to the decision as “flat-out deflating,” even as most pundits consider the split-city concept—one in which the two proposed homes would be separated by 1,500 miles and an international border—as fraught with many challenges.

Robot umps are coming to a Triple-A ballpark near you. MLB announces that the automatic ball and strike system will be employed in 11 Triple-A sites, 10 of them in “Triple-A West,” as renamed from the Pacific Coast League. The system was used last year in the independent, low-level Atlantic League before it was recently announced that the circuit would go back to real umpires this season.

It will be curious to see how higher-level players in Triple-A, including many with major league experience, react to the system. Atlantic League players complained about the robot umps’ inability to judge breaking balls—plus we’re still unsure of how the system will reconcile a strike zone that is naturally altered from at-bat to at-bat depending on players’ heights and the way they crouch at the plate.

Monday, January 24

After meeting for about the combined length of a couple short pop songs 11 days earlier, owners and players get back together and have a more constructive—and promising—negotiation lasting over two hours. While no deal on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached—no one expected that to happen—progress appears to be made to the point that the two sides will reconvene the next day. The counterproposal offered by the players’ union reportedly includes some give; it concedes its goal of redefining free agent eligibility by age rather than service, and significantly lowers its suggested max of revenue sharing regarding small-market teams. Although the union remains firm on other issues such as increased minimum salary, draft lottery and a heightened luxury tax threshold, its concessions could encourage owners to provide a compromise of their own.

Tuesday, January 25

David Ortiz remains the last man standing over the 75% threshold and becomes the sole inductee from this year’s general Hall of Fame vote, earning 77.9% of all votes in his first year of eligibility. He becomes the 10th player who played the majority of his career with the Boston Red Sox to enter Cooperstown. Perhaps the bigger news in regards to the Hall vote is the failure of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Curt Schilling to be inducted on their 10th and final ballot. Among the roughly half of all ballots made public before the announcement, Bonds and Clemens were trending over 75%—but when all ballots are tallied, Bonds garners 66% while Clemens captures 65.2%. Both players would have likely been inducted had they never touched steroids, but their involvement in PEDs ends up costing them the chance as enough scrutinous voters voice their disgust with a poison pen upon the ballot. Sammy Sosa is checked off on only 18.5% of all ballots—his highest total ever. Schilling, a post-career lightning rod of MAGA babble, was so upset of not having reached 75% over the past nine years that he told voters this year to not even bother checking his name. Many of them comply; he gets 58.6% of the vote, down from 71% a year ago. All four of these players can still get into the Hall via the Veterans Committee—which votes on “Today’s Era” this coming Fall.

Among the other noteworthy results from this year’s vote: Alex Rodriguez is checked on only 34% of all ballots in his first go-around; Omar Vizquel, who had gotten roughly 50% of the vote in each of the past three years, drops to 23% as he continues to be grilled in social media circles for not being worthy, on top of recent domestic abuse allegations; and among those being one-and-done by not getting the minimum 5% to make it on future ballots is two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum and closer Joe Nathan, whose career numbers are only slightly less impressive than those of Billy Wagner—who checks in with a healthy 51% of the vote.

Negotiations between players and owners continue for a second straight day with progress described by reporters as anywhere from “very little” to “significant.” But the gap between the two sides is lessening; it’s just a matter of whether they can completely bridge that gap and end the lockout in time for Spring Training to begin. The main development comes when owners agree to a bonus pool for pre-arbitration players. It appears that on the key issues, it’s just a matter of the two sides coming to an acceptable median on numbers; there’s no one issue where there’s polarized viewpoints.

Wednesday, January 26

Just four months ago, St. Louis manager Mike Shildt was riding high, taking a red-hot team into the playoffs in advance of being a finalist for the NL’s Manager of the Year award. Then he was surprisingly fired after the season, reportedly due to irreconcilable differences. Now he’s got not one, but two, new homes. One of those is MLB headquarters, where he’s been working the past few months with the commissioner’s office; and now, he’s been appointed as a consultant for the San Diego Padres in the area of player development. So while Shildt’s out of a manager’s job, don’t feel so bad for him. He’s got plenty of work.

Thursday, January 27

MLB has placed something of an iron grasp upon the minor leagues—but on the subject of vaccines, it’s reluctantly loosening the grip. The original plan for MLB was to mandate vaccines for every minor leaguer prior to the 2022 season, but in lieu of recent decisions by courts nationwide—including the Supreme Court—against mandates, it doesn’t want to risk a legal challenge. All managers, coaches and other “on-field staff” will be required to get the shot, however.

Gene Clines, an outfielder who played through the 1970s with good speed, little power and a career .277 batting average, passes away at his home in Bradenton, Florida at age 75. The Bay Area native played part-time virtually throughout his entire career, maxing out at 446 at-bats during a one-year stint for the 1976 Texas Rangers. Clines’ biggest claim to fame was being part of baseball’s first all-minority lineup in an MLB game, playing center field on September 1, 1971 along with Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Al Oliver and Manny Sanguillen.

Sunday, January 30

An historical marker honoring the birthplace of Jackie Robinson in his hometown of Cairo, Georgia, vandalized with multiple bullet holes roughly a year ago, has been restored with the help of MLB—which donated $40,000 to the effort. The beat-up marker has been sent to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Robinson was born in Cairo in 1919, but moved a year later to California after his father abandoned the family.

Monday, January 31

It’s announced that the cover guy for this year’s edition of MLB The Show will be Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ dual threat who won last year’s AL MVP. Ohtani becomes the first Asian-born person to grace the cover of a major sports video game connected to either of the four top pro sports leagues in North America.

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