This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: June 2020

Let’s Play 60: Owners and Players Finally Agree to a 2020 Season
The George Floyd Effect Hits Baseball   
What Happened to Andrew Toles?

May 2020    Comebacker Index    July 2020

Monday, June 1

The month begins in far-from-ideal fashion: Over 100,000 have died from the COVID-19 pandemic, a staggering 40 million are out of work as America faces its first depression in 90 years, President Donald Trump seems incapable or unwilling (or both) to heal the country back together—and there still is no baseball. Major League Baseball and the players’ union continues in the midst of their most acrimonious relations since the brutal 1994-95 work stoppage that wiped out the 1994 postseason; their present public spatting at each other threatens to wipe out a 2020 campaign already crippled by the virus.

After both sides exchange proposals in the past week over how many games will be played and how much the players will be paid—with both proposals assailed by the other side—MLB offers a counter-proposal in which they’ll agree to the players’ demands to retain prorated salaries. But the catch is that the owners want only a 50-game schedule, meaning smaller wages for players than the 114-game ledger they were proposing. (MLB claims they want to finish the season before an expected second wave of COVID-19 in the Fall.) Negotiations will likely continue as the two sides chip away at each other’s demands and meet somewhere in the middle, but they better hurry; a restart is hoped for in early July with a second spring training needed sometime in mid-June, which is only a few weeks away.

Tuesday, June 2

A 40-year-old man with apparently nothing better in his life to do breaks into Milwaukee’s Miller Park and reportedly does “minor damage” to the field before being arrested. Turns out the man commandeers a ballpark tractor and attempts to carve his name into the field—in cursive.

Wednesday, June 3

It took over a week, but MLB finally releases a short, four-paragraph statement offering condolences to the families of George Floyd and other African-American citizens recently killed by police or self-professed vigilantes, further stating that “our game has zero tolerance for racism and racial injustice.” While the general public applauds the statement in principle, MLB—which was socially ahead of the game in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier—is nonetheless criticized for taking too long to respond to the worldwide protests denouncing, in particular, the death of Floyd.

Some MLB teams show their solidarity toward the Floyd movement in more palpable ways. At Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, the lights are turned on for eight minutes and 46 seconds—the exact time Floyd had a Minneapolis police officer’s knee forcibly placed upon him, literally sucking the life out of him.

If and when the 2020 season starts, Chris Archer will not be a part of it. The veteran pitcher, now employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, undergoes surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and will not be back to game health until 2021.

Two members of Japan’s Yomiuri Giants test positive for COVID-19, throwing a potential wrench into plans to start the nation’s baseball season on June 19. As a result of the results, a scheduled exhibition between the Giants and the Seibu Lions is canceled.

Thursday, June 4

Former All-Star outfielder Carl Crawford is arrested in Houston on a charge of domestic abuse against his girlfriend. It’s the continuation of a trend in which Crawford has been in the news—and not for the right reasons. A week earlier, a five-year-old boy drowned in his swimming pool while a music video was being shot on the premises—and the boy’s mother also drowned attempting to save him.

When baseball resumes—that is, if it does—it’s revealed that team broadcasters will do play-by-play for road games remotely from their home base. This is obviously a necessary step to keep the voices safe from potential COVID-19 exposure—and perhaps save some money as well.

Friday, June 5

Five youths, the two oldest being 18, attempt to break into Cleveland’s Progressive Field and burn it down. A security guard notices the activity and has the ballpark’s lights turned on to scare off the assailants, who scatter to an adjacent cemetery where they’re arrested. There’s no damage to the facility; although the youths also brought protest signs, it’s publicly unclear whether they were (violently) protesting police brutality, or the fact that MLB owners seem reluctant to start a shortened 2020 season.

Sunday, June 7

In a short op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer entitled “My Awakening”, guest columnist and veteran Reds first baseman Joey Votto writes of how he initially blew off an African-American teammate’s request to view the video of George Floyd being killed by a Minneapolis police officer—then wept when he looked at it a day later. “Everything inside me wants to go back to normal,” Votto pens, “…But I hear you now, and so that desire for normalcy is a privilege by which I can no longer abide.”

Also in Cincinnati, a petition is gaining steam to rename the ballpark for the University of Cincinnati’s baseball team—which currently goes by the name of Marge Schott Stadium. In light of recent events, many behind the petition think it’s not a good idea to have the yard named after the late Reds owner who got in hot water with MLB more than once for racist and anti-Semitic tendencies, and for once quasi-defending Adolf Hitler—stating that “he was good in the beginning, but he just went too far.”

Over two weeks later, the petition will prove its worth as the university’s regents decide to strip Schott’s name from the ballpark.

Monday, June 8

After threatening to agree to no more than a thin 48-game schedule in 2020, MLB owners formally make a more relatively comprehensive counter-proposal to players, suggesting a 76-game ledger—but with a 25% pay cut off the prorated salary structure the players are firmly trying to stand behind. However, players can make more from a pool of funds based on how far they get in the postseason, which under the owners’ current plan will consist of 16 teams—over half of MLB membership. Additionally, the proposal also asks for all players to sign an “acknowledgment of risk” that conceptually would take responsibility off the owners in the event of an internal COVID-19 outbreak.

Your move, union. Although the players will initially criticize this latest proposal from the owners, it is at least a step toward a middle ground both sides need to quickly reach and agree on if baseball is going indeed start in early July as planned.

Wednesday, June 10

A reduced 2020 MLB Amateur Draft, consisting of only five rounds, takes place on Zoom feeds everywhere. With the first selection, the Detroit Tigers take Arizona State third baseman Spencer Torkelson, followed by University of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad (chosen by Baltimore) and right-handed pitcher Max Meyer (Miami). A smaller percentage of high schoolers are opted for, understandable given that they did not get a chance to impress in their senior campaigns this spring as COVID-19 shut down prep athletics everywhere.

Even a highly limited draft brings out some great names, so this year we get Slade Cecconi (pitcher, #33 by Arizona), Dillon Dingler (catcher, #38 by Detroit) and Luke Little (pitcher, #117 by the Chicago Cubs).

One name that sticks out in the final round is University of Louisville outfielder Zach Britton, selected by the Toronto Blue Jays. No, this Britton is not related to Zack Britton, the current Yankees reliever. Perhaps Zack changed his first name from Zach a few years back to make room for the new Zach.

Claudell Washington, a highly revered if not star-laden outfielder of 17 major league seasons split among seven teams, passes away at the age of 65. In his first start on July 8, 1973, Washington made nationwide news by singling in the winning run in the 10th inning before a sellout crowd at Oakland to give the A’s a 4-3 win over the Cleveland Indians and Gaylord Perry, who was seeking an American League record-tying 16th straight win. A year later, he made his first of two All-Star Game appearances with career highs in a .308 batting average and 40 steals. He would go on to become a solid supporting cast member regardless of the team he played for, whether it was the Chicago White Sox (1978-80), Atlanta Braves (1981-86) or New York Yankees (1986-88). Though he never wielded frightening power—his personal best in home runs was 17, in 1984—he twice hit three home runs in a game.

As if MLB doesn’t need to lose more revenue to heighten tensions with the players, it’s announced that Coca-Cola will not activate its annual option to continue a sponsorship with the game. The beverage giant said it will continue to be a sponsor for 16 MLB teams “on a local level.”

Friday, June 12

It’s the owners’ turn to respond in the continued, increasingly maddening negotiations toward finally getting the 2020 season off the ground. But management’s compromise component is lacking. The offer is for a 72-game season at 70% the pay rate, 80% for those players that make the postseason; in essence, MLB is sticking to not paying full salary for anything more than a 50-game schedule. The players, the next day, will reject this latest offer. Time is running short, and players begin to chant in unison on social media: “Tell us when and where.”

Baseball media and fans continue to marvel at the owners’ sheer contempt for wanting to play. With the possible exception of Toronto, all major league cities have given the clear for MLB teams to play at their ballparks, some even with fans; it’s all up to owners and players. The players want to get going, but not at an even more reduced rate that the prorated figure they agreed to earlier this spring. Meanwhile, the owners, appear to be focused on the bottom line and have calculated what they believe is the best financial method for them to proceed without too much fiscal pain. But the public damage is potentially incalculable.

Saturday, June 13

Turner Sports (TBS and TNT) re-ups with MLB to broadcast games which will include regular season affairs and one of the two league championship series. At this time, the length of the deal is not known, though the total exchange in dollars is said to be over a billion dollars.

Monday, June 15

The uneasy momentum toward a compromised settlement between players and owners has firmly bumped into a wall. Commissioner Rob Manfred, who just a few days earlier proclaimed that there was a 100% chance of a 2020 season, now says he’s “not confident” there will be one at all. In a live interview with ESPN, Manfred calls negotiations a “disaster.” Not helping is this additional edict from MLB: That the league won’t agree to play a season until the players pledge not to file any grievances. This suggests that MLB is knowingly in the wrong on negotiations and wants assurances that it won’t eventually be slapped on the wrists with multi-million-dollar fines. Needless to say, players aren’t thrilled with Manfred’s glum assessment and rail on social media against him and MLB’s perceived stalling toward a settlement of its liking.

The public is growing so irate over Manfred’s tactics, many on Twitter are actually starting to say this: Bring back Bud Selig.

In perhaps trying to curry favor with the general public about a shorter season, MLB acknowledges to the Associated Press an internal memo that says that “several” players and staff has tested positive for COVID-19, though the identities of those people are not revealed. Like everything else MLB publicly blurts out these days, the players respond with indignance—upset over the leaked nature of this latest item.

Tuesday, June 16

Mike McCormick, an average major league pitcher with fleeting flashes of brilliance, passes away at the age of 81. A bonus baby who debuted with the New York Giants at age 17 in 1956, McCormick evolved as the team moved to California, taking the 1960 NL ERA crown with a 2.70 figure despite a less-than-impressive 15-12 record. But his shoulder went south on him—it turned out to be a torn muscle—and McCormick was exiled to the AL, where he spent four relatively lost years with the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Senators. Traded back to the Giants in 1967, McCormick relied on a recently developed screwball to replace his bread-and-butter fastball, and the results were magnificent; he won the NL Cy Young Award with a 22-10 record and 2.85 ERA. The left-hander’s fortune evaded him once more in the years to follow, as he never could find stability at a successful level.

Wednesday, June 17

Likely smarting from the brutal response the general public has given him on lack of negotiations, commissioner Rob Manfred rushes to Phoenix and meets with union head Tony Clark to hammer out a deal. Early in the afternoon, MLB officially states that the framework for a deal is in place, but the union later in the evening states ‘not so fast’—saying that significant work remains toward reaching a settlement. There is agreement on full prorated salary, a universal DH and expanded playoffs—the latter two elements for this season and next—but the union wants more than the 60-game season MLB has offered.

Thursday, June 18

The players’ union formally offers a counter-proposal to the owners for a 70-game season, 10 more than what MLB has offered. No counter-counter is presented by the owners, but it’s reported that they’re “livid” at the players’ counter-offer. Which means they’re posturing in the public and that a deal should be reached in the next few days…or that that they’ll stall and keep stalling until there’s no choice but to play a maximum of 60 games, which is MLB’s wish.

Friday, June 19

As if the ongoing “disaster” that’s negotiations between owners and players is bad enough, there comes this complication: Training camps for the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays in Florida—where COVID-19 cases are spiking—are shut down after six players and three staff members test positive between the two facilities. Citing HIPAA regulations, it’s not revealed who exactly has contracted the virus. In the wake of this news, MLB orders all camps in Florida and Arizona shut down and thoroughly cleansed with disinfectant.

In a nod to current sensitivities as street demonstrations continue decrying police brutality—especially against people of color—the Minnesota Twins take down a sculpture of former owner Calvin Griffith outside of Target Field. Griffith, whose family owned the Twins (and the Washington Senators before them) from 1920-84, caused a stir in the 1978 when he told a local gathering in Minneapolis that he moved to Minnesota from D.C. because there were more white people—and fewer blacks. At the time, Rod Carew—the team’s African-American star hitter—refused to return to the Twins once eligible for free agency because he didn’t want be “another nigger on (Griffith’s) plantation.”

In a statement, Carew says that he has long forgiven Griffith and defends him, saying that he doesn’t believe that the former Twins owner, who passed away in 1999, was a racist. “In my view, Calvin made a horrible mistake while giving that speech in 1978,” Carew writes. “I have no idea what happened that day, but who among us has not made a mistake?”

At long last, they’re playing ball in Japan after several delays due to COVID-19. All 12 teams participate on the day, with many major league ex-pats including former All-Star outfielder Adam Jones, who goes 0-for-3 in his Japan debut with the Orix Buffaloes. The plan is for the Japanese season to play a 120-game season, with the regular season’s final game slated for November 7.

Saturday, June 20

Former All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, released by the Chicago Cubs last December, signs with the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization. Russell was a rising star during the Cubs’ magical 2016 championship run, but ineffectiveness and allegations of domestic abuse have recently dogged him—and major league teams have thus been reluctant to take a chance on the free agent in this current social and politically correct environment.

The Texas Rangers state that they will not change their name after a Chicago Tribune op-ed suggests that the longstanding enforcement agency the team is named after has a legacy filled with “savagery, lawlessness and racism.” Similar calls for a rebrand are aimed at the Atlanta Braves and their fans’ cringe-inducing “Tomahawk Chop” chant.

Sunday, June 21

The players’ union is set to formally vote on—and reject—MLB’s latest counter-proposal for a shortened 2020 season, but the vote is delayed as complications of COVID-19’s resurgence into various team camps in both Arizona and Florida bring a new layer of concern to the process. It is now reported that up to 40 players/staff personnel have been infected at camps in the two states where confirmed new cases of the virus have catapulted.

Monday, June 22

Baseball appears to be back on—though not in the way it had been hoped. Hours after the union formally rejects MLB’s latest proposal by a 33-5 vote, the owners unanimously agree to proceed with the framework of a shortened 2020 season. Players will have 24 hours to let MLB know if July 1 would be a possible date to reopen camps for a “Spring Training 2.0” and if they agree with the health and safety protocols necessary to proceed with a 60-game schedule. It is expected that the players will agree; if that seems a bizarre notion given that they’ve knocked down every proposal given to them by the owners, what this scenario will allow is opportunity for the union to file a grievance against MLB for bad faith negotiations. Of course, MLB can do the same to the union.

COVID-19, not players or owners, will ultimately dictate how much baseball is played in 2020. It almost seems ironic; the three states the owners had earlier suggested as exclusive sites for a shortened season—Arizona, Florida and Texas—are currently the three hardest hit by the virus. For that reason, teams are being discouraged from using their spring training facilities in those states.

Pitcher Trevor Bauer, one of the game’s most outspoken and active Twitter users, has this to say online: “It’s absolute death for this industry to keep acting as it has been. Both sides. We’re driving the bus straight off the cliff. How is this good for anyone involved? COVID-19 already presented a lose-lose-lose situation and we’ve somehow found a way to make it worse.”

Tuesday, June 23

All the i’s are dotted, the t’s crossed, negotiations are done and there indeed will be a shortened 2020 season—coronavirus permitting. Players agree to all remaining conditions drawn up by MLB to start a 60-game schedule in late July, with a “Summer Training” to begin July 1. Some of the changes talked about in negotiations will not happen; there will be no expanded playoff structure and no advertising on uniforms. The edict to allow a designated hitter in the NL will be in effect, but only for 2020—not 2021, as had been discussed. Most embarrassingly, baseball will try out the dreaded “automatic runner on second” rule to start every half-inning in extras, all to avoid any overtime marathons that could have short- or even long-term repercussions in a shortened season schedule. And while the three-batter rule for relievers will be put into effect as planned, a return to a 15-day injury list has been nixed and will remain at 10 days.

In terms of safety, players will be asked to refrain from sharing bats, balls and rosin bags. Old baseball traditions such as chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds will be disallowed. And if you’re going to argue with the umpire, do it no closer than six feet away from him—or risk being ejected.

Active rosters for each team will initially be set at 30 players, reduced to 28 two weeks into the season and 26 two weeks after that. (A few weeks into the season, owners and players will agree to maintain the 28-player roster to the season’s finish.) Overall, the expanded roster will be set at 60 players instead of the 40 in normal times.

The MLB Network’s Jon Heyman says that nearly half of all active major leaguers will actually end up making less than $100,000 within the shortened season. That doesn’t seem to read right at first, given that the prorated figure for a minimum salary at 37% of a full season is $208,000. But MLB gave players a collective $170 million advance in March, and because there was no ultimate agreement on finances for 2020, players are being told they have to give it back—thus cutting into actual salary. The only way the players can get their money back is by having the union file a grievance and winning the case. If that doesn’t work out, expect union leader Tony Clark’s stock to take a hit from disgruntled players.

As fans and officials celebrate the return of this great game, there’s a stark reminder that the belated party may be spoiled by that which caused the delay in the first place: COVID-19. More teams, including the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners, report positive test results within their organizations—while the Denver Post is reporting that star Colorado outfielder Charlie Blackmon has contracted the virus, making him the first major leaguer announced by name to have it. As COVID-19 cases surge across the country in spite of seasonably warm-to-hot weather which typically blunts progress of such a virus, MLB will need to be extra diligent in protecting its players and keeping its shortened season from falling into chaos.

It’s been a rough year for minor league operations. First, MLB wanted to fold 42 teams. Then COVID-19 all but wiped out the entire season. Now, 15 teams are fighting back, suing insurance companies for refusing to pay claims related to the pandemic. The suit states that minor league franchises are essentially “small-business” operations that qualify for financial claims to keep them solvent.

Wednesday, June 24

Now that a 2020 schedule is in place and everyone is on the same page to move forward with the season, MLB and its teams are working out additional logistics. Some major league cities have, for the moment, given the okay to allow their teams to accept fans into the ballparks, though nowhere near capacity; in Arlington, where the Texas Rangers are eager to open up brand-new Globe Life Field, they can allow up to 50% capacity. Down in Houston—where a COVID-19 spike threatens to turn the city into the nation’s new hot spot—Astros owner Jim Crane is determined “to sell some tickets and some merchandise and some cold beer.” Then there is the complication of Canada; MLB is pressing the government there on a plan to allow the Toronto Blue Jays to play their games at Rogers Centre in spite of the current non-essential travel ban between Canada and the U.S. If nothing works out toward that end, the Blue Jays may have to play their games either at their spring camp in Dunedin, Florida, or at the home of their Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo, less than 100 miles from Toronto.

Three days later, everything will be ironed out for the Blue Jays’ return to Rogers Centre, though players will essentially be quarantined; when they aren’t playing, they’ll be sequestered at the Toronto Marriott City Centre Hotel—yes, the one that looks out onto the field from high behind the center-field wall.

Eddie Kasko, a veteran infielder of 10 seasons and manager of the Boston Red Sox from 1970-73, dies at the age of 88. A lightweight but nevertheless dependable hitter, Kasko split his playing time between four teams, principally for the Cincinnati Reds—with whom he had his most memorable season in 1961, making the All-Star team and collecting seven hits in 22 at-bats in the team’s failed World Series bid against the Yankees. Piloting the Red Sox, Kasko never suffered a losing record but never made it to the postseason, coming closest in 1972 when Boston finished a mere half-game behind the AL East-winning Tigers.

Thursday, June 25

As past incidents of police brutality are starting to pop up in light of the death of George Floyd, it’s discovered that the ballpark may not provide sanctuary. A Latino family is suing the Dodgers for an incident after the final game of the 2019 NLDS against the Washington Nationals, in which family members claim that they were mistaken for someone nearby acting “erratically” near the Dodger Stadium gates and physically abused by ballpark security detail—who sometimes consist of off-duty Los Angeles police officers. The lawsuit alleges that security used chokeholds and knees to the neck to subdue family members. The Dodgers had previously not responded to the family’s complaints, nor have they yet to respond to the lawsuit.

Friday, June 26

Former Dodgers outfielder Andrew Toles, who’s apparently lived something of a turbulent (to say nothing of mysterious) life over the last decade, is arrested in Key West for sleeping behind a building at the town’s airport and refusing to leave. An ID card listing his address as “the streets of Key West” suggests that he is homeless. Toles rose from Single-A to the Dodgers in 2017, hitting .300 every step of the way—but he tore his ACL early in 2018, and in 2019 didn’t report to the Dodgers until the end of April as he dealt with personal issues; he left the organization a month later. Before the Dodgers, Toles was suspended or dismissed by two colleges and released by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015 for disciplinary reasons.

A few days later, members of Toles’ family will tell USA Today that Toles has been suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—and the problem has gotten worse, as he’s entered and exited 20 different mental health facilities over the past 18 months.

Sunday, June 28

MLB announces PED suspensions for four minor leaguers, which seems a bit of insult to injury given that the minors are not expected to play again until 2021. Should that be the case, the four players will have to serve their suspensions at that time. Also nailed with a positive test is reliever Edgar Santana, who missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery after a decent (3.26 ERA over 69 appearances) 2018 campaign for Pittsburgh.

Monday, June 29

As players prepare to re-report to camp, some are declining to make the journey. Veteran pitcher Mike Leake, who was slated to earn $5.6 million in prorated wages this season, says he will opt out of the final year of his contract with Arizona—while in Washington, infielder Ryan Zimmerman, who’s played every year for the Nationals since their 2005 move from Montreal, also says he’s sitting out the shortened sked along will pitcher Joe Ross. Colorado’s Ian Desmond will also pass on 2020—and while the others all cite safety for themselves and their families from COVID-19, Desmond, who is biracial, also brings up the ongoing battle against social injustice as part of his reasons to skip out.

As we write this, the above four players could represent the tip of the iceberg.

While players are choosing not to play, some teams are telling coaches who aren’t exactly young: Don’t bother. The Minnesota Twins inform bullpen coach Bob McClure (age 68) and major league coach Bill Evers (66) that they won’t be able to participate in their regular jobs this year. The two will be paid and could see duty away from the players within the front office.

This, too, could be the tip of the iceberg.

Former Texas manager and current Atlanta third base coach Ron Washington, who like McClure is also 68, will be allowed to continue at his job but says he’ll be wearing a mask throughout the season so long as it’s warranted.

Tuesday, June 30

For the first time since being officially organized in 1901, the minor leagues will not move forward with any games this season. The statement from Minor League Baseball (MiLB) pegs the blame largely on COVID-19—but also on MLB, which sent note that it won’t be sending any of its players down to its teams’ affiliates.

We’ll be curious to see how many minor league teams—or even leagues—survives this forced year off when things return to normal.

As the movement to erase monuments and names of those with racist pasts continues, there is this: Numerous MVP winners are calling for the removal of Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ name from the award plaque. “I was always aware of his name and what that meant to slowing the color line in Major League Baseball, of the racial injustice and inequality that black players had to go through,” said Barry Larkin, winner of the 1995 NL MVP award. Landis is best known for saving the sport in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal by being given autonomous power as the game’s first commissioner, and even though he stiff-armed the owners on subjects such as the farm system and lifetime expulsions of players, he seemed to toe the Lords’ line on their continued disallowance of black players. It was only after he died, in 1944, that Branch Rickey began the process of integrating the Brooklyn Dodgers, which eventually led to the signing of Jackie Robinson. (The other 15 owners voted against Rickey’s move; it took Happy Chandler, Landis’ replacement, to overrule them and allow Robinson to play.) As for why Landis’ name is currently on the MVP award? He was said to give the Baseball Writers of American Association (BBWAA) permission to vote on the award starting in 1931; the writers returned the favor when, after Landis’ passing, they named the award after him.

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