This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: March 2017

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly From the 2017 World Baseball Classic
Tim Tebow’s 15 Minutes of Baseball Fame    New Rules, MLB Edition

February 2017    Comebacker Index    April 2017

Wednesday, March 1

Taking the stand as a witness in a Miami trial against alleged smugglers of Cuban baseball players, the Chicago White Sox’ Jose Abreu testifies that he ate a page of his passport while in flight to America. The ingesting was done to avoid potential trouble with U.S. authorities as he hurried to Chicago to finalize his $68 million contract with the White Sox. Abreu is testifying under immunity of potential prosecution. Also on the stand during this trial are fellow Cuban refugees Yasiel Puig, Leonys Martin and Adeiny Hechavarria. Two defendants will eventually be ruled guilty of their crimes.

Thursday, March 2

A number of subtle new rules are formally adopted by Major League Baseball for the 2017 season. As informally announced a week earlier, an intentional walk can now be given to a batter merely by a signal from the opposing dugout, not with four outside deliveries thrown by the pitcher. Also new for 2017: Managers will now have only 30 seconds to call for a replay, while review officials back in New York will have a maximum of two minutes to make a decision (with “various exceptions”); umpires now have to wait until the eighth inning (instead of the seventh) to ask for their own reviews; teams no longer will be allowed to place “markers” in the outfield as a tool to help players position themselves; pitchers can no longer hop off the mound toward home plate in the midst of their delivery (a statute nicknamed the “Carter Capps Rule” after the San Diego pitcher who threw as such); and base coaches will be told to stay within their boxes until after a ball is put in play (though it will be curious to see if this ever gets enforced.)

Saturday, March 4

David Price, one of Boston’s three aces, may start the season on the disabled list with a sore elbow—but it could have been far, far worse. He’s told by Tommy John surgeon James Andrews that he will not need the dreaded surgery but is told to rest up the elbow for a number of weeks.

According to Price, Andrews told him: “Your elbow is extremely unique. It’s found a way to kind of heel itself.”

Also going on the shelf and likely not to return by Opening Day is Los Angeles of Anaheim closer Huston Street, who’s out with a strained lat muscle suffered during a spring game a day earlier. The 33-year-old reliever is coming off an awful, injury-riddled 6.45 ERA with nine saves in 2016.

Heads up! Too late. At Surprise, Arizona, San Francisco first base coach Jose Alguacil is sitting alongside Giants skipper manager Bruce Bochy when a wicked foul ball from Kansas City’s Hunter Dozier hits him square on the nose, breaking it. He is airlifted to a nearby hospital for surgery.

Monday, March 6

The World Baseball Classic gets off to a surprising start in Korea as little-regarded Israel wins not one but two games within a span of 24 hours. It first defeats the host nation in extra innings, 2-1, then gets its sleep before returning to thrash Chinese Taipei, 15-7.

The Israeli roster is full of American-born players with major league experience who somehow claim Israel as their nation for the tournament. It includes Ike Davis, Sam Fuld and Jason Marquis, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2015 but starts and throws three shutout innings in the defeat of Korea.

Tuesday, March 7

It’s reported that Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers had his Sherman Oaks, California home broken into on February 27, with $170,000 in valuables stolen; some reports have the figure as high as $500,000. Puig, in Dodgers camp at Arizona, refuses to discuss the matter with reporters.

Wednesday, March 8

Tim Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback trying to make a go of it in the Mets’ organization, gets his first shot at playing for the parent team in a home exhibition game against Boston in Port St. Lucie, Florida. It does not go well. In four plate appearances, Tebow will strike out twice, ground into a double play and get hit by a pitch—only to be doubled off base on a line out. Tebow will not get a chance to show off his defensive aptitude—or potential lack of it—because he’s slotted in the lineup as the designated hitter.

The Mets have given Tebow his chances since signing with the club late last year, but he hasn’t proved his presence. In 110 Arizona Fall League at-bats last season, he hit .173 with no home runs.  In seven spring games, Tebow will hit .200 (four singles in 20 at-bats) before being assigned to Class-A Columbia of the South Atlantic League.

It will be revealed a few days later that someone outside the Mets is scouting Tebow: A 26-year-old Colorado woman who’s been stalking him around camp. After being told to leave the Mets’ complex earlier in the week, she returned and was arrested by Port St. Lucie police.

Thursday, March 9

Cubs third baseman and reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant, who’s not due to become a free agent until 2022, is given $1,050,000 to play in 2017—making him the highest-paid third-year major leaguer in history. (Some say it’s the highest among “second-year” players, but Bryant is ready to start his third season, just so everybody’s straight.) The salary clips the record of an even $1,000,000 made by Mike Trout in 2014.

In WBC action, Mexico takes a 9-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth against Italy in Guadalajara, but the Italians rally for five runs—without sacrificing even one out—to pull off a 10-9 upset. Toronto closer Roberto Osuna is charged with all five runs in the ninth, while veteran reliever Oliver Perez (now with Washington) allows the final two hits.

Like the Israeli team mentioned above, the Italian team is mostly made up of major leaguers with Italian heritage—for instance, their grandparents were born in Italy—and not necessary an Italian citizenship. This remains one of the major problems with the WBC and its attempt to justify its value. Obviously, the lax regulations help balance the competitive nature of the various teams, but until then the tournament is nothing more than a costume ball for many.

Bill Hands, an 11-year veteran who won 111 games—including 20 for the Cubs during their failed run at the 1969 postseason—dies at the age of 76. The right-hander’s best years came in Chicago, before a trade to Minnesota in 1973 signaled the beginning of the end of his career. He retired after 1975 and owned a gas station on the tip of Long Island, remaining a Cubs fan; he was said to be “ecstatic” over the team’s long-overdue championship campaign of 2016.

Friday, March 10

The United States WBC baseball team opens its portion of the tournament with an exciting 3-2, 10-inning victory over Colombia in Miami. Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer starts for the Americans and retires the first 12 Colombians on 41 pitches before leaving—24 pitches shy of the mandatory maximum allowed by the WBC in the first round.

Jim Leyland, stepping out of retirement to manage the Americans, says after the tight finish: “Now you know why I’m not managing anymore.”

Chad Bettis, who underwent what he claimed was successful treatment for testicular cancer in the offseason, discovers that it wasn’t so successful after all. The Colorado pitcher is told that not only has the cancer returned, but it’s spreading. He’ll need to step away from baseball and refocus on defeating the disease once again; his ETA for a return to the Rockies is, at this point, unknown, though Bettis will publicly state a few weeks later that he hopes to be back sometime during the summer.

An exhibition game between Detroit and Toronto comes to an early end midway through the ninth inning when Blue Jays reliever T.J. House is struck in the head by a line drive hit by the Tigers’ John Hicks. House is conscious but taken off on a stretcher; he’ll be released from a hospital the next day.

Saturday, March 11

The good and the bad of the WBC is exposed as the tournament continues.

The good: Before a Marlins Park-record crowd of 37,446, a powerhouse matchup between the U.S. and Dominican Republic lives up to its billing as the D.R. bounces back from a 5-0, sixth-inning deficit to defeat the Americans 7-5 on the strength of three home runs—two of them back-to-back in a four-run eighth by Nelson Cruz and Starling Marte, both off of Cleveland reliever Andrew Miller.

It’s the first time since 2012 that Miller has allowed two home runs in one inning.

The overzealous emotions of the Dominican team—each of their home runs is treated like a walk-off blast as the entire bench comes out to greet the hitter—is in stark contrast to the Americans’ far more typical, relaxed, slap-your-hands, say-good-job and get-back-to-business mantra. Baseball fans the world over would probably look at this and suggest, hey, MLB—loosen up.

The bad: During Venezuela’s wild 11-10 victory over Italy in Mexico, All-Star catcher Salvador Perez suffers a knee injury during a home plate collision, and fears abound that he has torn an ACL muscle before it’s realized that it’s merely inflammation. Perez is ruled out of any further WBC action, but it’s hoped he’ll be fully recovered for Opening Day with his club team, the Kansas City Royals.

It would have been interesting to see the reaction of the Royals and other players around baseball had Perez indeed been found to have suffered a season-ending injury. For the players, it’s not about prestige or loyalty to country, but the money; they make a hell of a lot more playing for the clubs than their chosen WBC nation.

Venezuela’s win seems like a salvaging effort at first, as it brings their pool record to 1-2; even the WBC Twitter account posts that Mexico (also 1-2 in the pool) has advanced on a tiebreaker. But as the Venezuelans are packing up in the clubhouse a few days later, the WBC erases its tweet and says that, oops, it made a mistake—and that Venezuela is still alive after all, eligible to play a tiebreaker game against Italy for which they will win, 4-3.

And what of Mexico? Of course, they’re none too happy. Especially Adrian Gonzalez: “(The WBC is) trying to become the World Cup. But they’re not even close to being the Little League World Series.”

In Tokyo, Team Israel continues to surprise, shocking Cuba 4-1. Jason Marquis has another top effort, allowing just a run on four hits through 5.2 innings. Perhaps this isn’t so shocking for Cuba, given that most of its star players have defected to the U.S. and are not allowed by the island nation to play for its WBC team.

Sunday, March 12

The Rockies, already reeling with the possible loss of Chad Bettis, are further burdened as Ian Desmond, their pricey offseason signing, has his hand broken after being hit by a pitch during a spring training game against Cincinnati in Arizona. Desmond will not return until May.

It only sounds right that the guy who hit Desmond was a rookie pitcher…named Rookie Davis.

Monday, March 13

You would think the Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners are playing football rather than baseball during a spring training game at Marysville, Arizona. The Brewers pile up 24 runs—all through the first six innings—on their way to a 24-3 rout. Ten of their 24 hits are for extra bases, including four home runs.

Tuesday, March 14

The Puerto Rico WBC team, with almost all of their players sporting bleached hair a la Roy Batty from Blade Runner, ends the Dominican Republic’s 11-game WBC win streak with a 3-1 victory in second-round action at San Diego. Yadier Molina knocks in two runs, one on a solo home run; five Puerto Rican pitchers combine to limit the dangerous D.R. offense to a run on six hits.

Tampa Bay Kevin Kiermaier, one of the game’s top defensive outfielders, is extended for six years and $50 million. The deal will cover Kiermaier’s last three years of arbitration, and his first three of free agency.

The Rockies’ camp continues to resemble a MASH unit. Tom Murphy, slotted as the team’s #1 catcher, suffers a hairline fracture on his right arm and will miss up to six weeks. Murphy is the fifth Rockie who will likely miss Opening Day after spring training mishaps—or in the case of pitcher Chad Bettis, an unexpected recurrence of his cancer.

Thursday, March 16

Investigators in Florida publicly conclude that Jose Fernandez was behind the wheel of the boat that sped and capsized upon a jetty nearly six months ago, killing himself and two others on board.

So Fernandez was drunk, high on cocaine and behind the wheel of a boat that he crashed, taking two other lives along with his own. Whoever ends up with his estate will need a chunk of it on legal fees for the wrongful death suits that are sure to come.

Friday, March 17

In a spring game at Lakeland, Florida, three New York Yankees pitchers combine to no-hit the Detroit Tigers—currently sans WBC stars Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez—in a 3-0 victory. Masahiro Tanaka pitches the first 4.1 innings—allowing the only two Tigers baserunners on walks—while Chasen Shreve and Jordan Montgomery toss 4.2 innings of perfect ball afterward.

Marcus Stroman spots Puerto Rico four first-inning runs, and a ninth-inning American rally falls short in a 6-5 WBC loss at San Diego. The U.S. has to defeat the Dominican Republic tomorrow to stay alive in the competition.

Saturday, March 18

In a rematch of a first-round game lost by the U.S., the Americans gain revenge over the Dominican Republic and stamp their ticket to the WBC final four with a 6-3 victory at San Diego. Giancarlo Stanton’s monster fourth-inning home run at Petco Park—where he won last year’s Home Run Derby—and Adam Jones’ leaping catch over the short center-field wall to deny Baltimore teammate Manny Machado of a seventh-inning homer are the game’s two memorable takeaways.

Sunday, March 19

Today is not a good day to be a Cleveland Indians fan. It is learned that second baseman Jason Kipnis will miss up to five weeks (including the first three of the regular season) with a bum right shoulder, and Cody Anderson, fighting for a fifth spot in the rotation, will miss the entire season after learning he will undergo Tommy John surgery.

Monday, March 20

In a hard-fought WBC semifinal, Puerto Rico remains undefeated for the tournament with a 4-3, 11-inning victory over the Netherlands at Los Angeles. Eddie Rosario’s sacrifice fly brings home the game-winner, scored by Carlos Correa—whose two-run homer in the first had begun the scoring on the night for the Puerto Ricans.

Tuesday, March 21

Tim Anderson has barely half a season’s worth of major league experience, but that’s apparently good enough for the Chicago White Sox to grant him a six-year, $25.5 million deal that will cover his entire arbitration period. The 23-year-old shortstop hit .283 with nine homers and 30 RBIs in 99 games for Chicago in 2016.

Wednesday, March 22

Marcus Stroman pitches six no-hit innings before giving up a leadoff double in the seventh, and gets plenty of offensive support from his mates as the Americans steamroll Puerto Rico 8-0 to win their first WBC title in front of 51,000 fans at Dodger Stadium. Ian Kinsler’s two-run, third-inning home run opens the U.S. scoring; Puerto Rico, coming into the game averaging nearly eight runs per WBC contest, can only muster three hits in being shut out.

For the tournament, U.S. starting pitchers amass a collective 1.25 ERA. Stroman is named WBC MVP.

Before the game, Kinsler tells reporters: “I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays. That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.” An understandable statement, yet Kinsler gets raked over the coals as being politically incorrect. Really? Kinsler was simply comparing playing styles, not race, gender or orientation. Let’s please not brand Kinsler a racist for this.

There’s also some over-sensitivity on the American side, as players remark after the game that the U.S. team was further motivated to win after learning that Puerto Rico had already made celebration plans and printed up T-shirts proclaiming their triumph. Um…isn’t that what both World Series teams do before the series is decided?

The 2017 WBC tournament is clearly the best yet, but the negatives remain. One of those—the lax eligibility rules—can easily be remedied by those in charge. But the biggest obstacle will always be that of when to play the tournament when most players—pitchers, especially—focus their careers on the six-plus months that are the MLB season. Playing during spring training forces players to ready themselves too quickly after a four-to-five-month layoff; playing after the season will catch them tired and exhausted; forcing a two-week break in the middle of the MLB season only complicates an already tight regular season schedule. And let’s face it, the MLB season is still king; by April, everyone will have forgotten about the WBC.

Unlike soccer, which only demands that players be “match-fit,” baseball is a more delicate process of players trying to get their timing down and be well-tuned, like a Jaguar that constantly needs attention. The WBC is a wonderful idea, but it remains a difficult challenge.

Dallas Green, who managed the Philadelphia Phillies to their first world title after nearly a century of trying but failing, dies at the age of 82. An intimidating and combative force, Green initially made the major league grade as a reliever and part-time starter for the Phillies from 1960-64 before bouncing around a few more years with the Washington Senators and New York Mets. After retirement as a player, Green worked his way up the managerial and front office ladder, from the low-level minors to the parent club’s pilot job late in 1979; a year later, he led a star-studded Philadelphia team to a World Series triumph over Kansas City. Green’s confrontational personality led to his dismissal from the Phillies after 1981; he was immediately plucked by the Chicago Cubs to be their general manager and executive vice president, a position he held for six years. Though he yielded only one winning season (the 1984 NL East-winning campaign), he was instrumental in lobbying the city of Chicago to ultimately allow lights to be erected at Wrigley Field. He returned to managing, first with the 1989 Yankees and then the 1993-96 Mets, both with little success.

Thursday, March 23

From Fenway Park to Wrigley Field to…the White House? Fortune Magazine makes public its list of the world’s 50 top leaders and puts Theo Epstein, the front office executive who ended the longstanding curses for both the Red Sox and Cubs, at the very top as #1. Lest you think Epstein has crashed a list otherwise exclusively made up of world politicians, the list also includes Melinda Bates, LeBron James, Samantha Bee and Chance the Rapper.

Epstein, upon hearing the news: “Um, I can’t even get my dog to stop peeing in the house.”

Friday, March 24

The Giants may have gotten themselves a legitimate closer (Mark Melancon) for 2017, but they’ve lost one of their prime set-up relievers. Left-hander Will Smith, acquired late last season from Milwaukee, will undergo Tommy John surgery on his left elbow and will miss the entire year.

Following a breakout 2016 season in which he hit .312 with 46 doubles and 22 steals, Cleveland infielder Jose Ramirez is extended five years by the Indians through 2021 for $26 million—with team option years for 2022 and 2023 at an additional $24 million.

It takes eight pitchers, but the Angels no-hit a split-squad Seattle side in Cactus League action at Tempe, Arizona, 4-0. Bud Norris throws the first two innings for the Angels; the other seven pitchers who participate in the no-no throw one inning each.

Saturday, March 25

A day after Ramirez’s extension with the Indians, it’s the Rangers’ turn to lock up one of their infielders. Rougned Odor, who punched out 33 home runs (and Toronto’s Jose Bautista) in 2016, agrees to a six-year deal worth $49.5 million, with a seventh option year that could enrich the deal to $62 million. If fully utilized, it would cover the first four years of Odor’s free agency eligibility.

The Chicago Cubs power up and defeat Cincinnati 11-7 in an exhibition game at Las Vegas, but the Cubs are lucky to get to the game. Just as the team is leaving the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip via two buses, police swarm the area as an armed man shoots two people, killing one, aboard a double-decker tour bus. The buses leave just seconds before police declare a lockdown of the hotel.

Tuesday, March 28

Catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who last season struggled for Atlanta (hitting .219) just months shy of his 40th birthday, announces his retirement. A veteran of 19 major league seasons with 2,043 hits, 188 home runs and a career .280 batting average, Pierzynski was a master of gamesmanship, rather by intention or not, as best remembered in the 2005 ALCS won by the Chicago White Sox. He was looking to hook onto another team for 2017, but there were no takers; instead, he’ll perform work as an analyst for the Fox broadcast team, for which he has previous postseason experience.

Wednesday, March 29

The Mets learn the fate of closer Jeurys Familia, who is given a 15-game suspension to start the 2017 season after MLB’s investigation into his spousal abuse incident of late last year. Ironically, the penalty is handed down despite a statement from commissioner Rob Manfred that “The evidence reviewed by my office does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife, or threatened her or others with physical force or harm.” (Which leads one to immediately ask: Why then suspend him?)

Thursday, March 30

With their current lease set to expire, the Colorado Rockies sign a new agreement to stay at Coors Field through 2047. This means that the 22-year-old facility—already the National League’s third oldest, behind Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium—will be 52 years of age when the new lease expires. Part of the new deal allows the Rockies to purchase and develop a piece of land, currently a parking lot, south of the ballpark at a cost of $125 million over the next 99 years (yes, until the year 2116).

As Cactus League begins to fold up shop days before the start of the regular season, it appears the bees are doing their best to speed up some of the teams’ departures. During a game between the Rockies and San Diego Padres in Peoria, Arizona, a swarm of bees flies right through the infield, causing players on the field to lie down completely flat to avoid being stung. The whole thing lasts a minute or so as the swarm flies through and out the ballpark.

Friday, March 31

The Atlanta Braves play for the first time in their new home of SunTrust Park with an 8-5 exhibition win over everybody’s favorite housebreaking guest, the New York Yankees. The new ballpark, part of an extended complex that includes retail, business, hotels and residences and was controversially constructed using public funds without a public vote, is half full as only season ticket holders are invited.

Perennial All-Star catcher Yadier Molina gets his spring wish and is awarded a three-year contract extension worth between $55-65 million by the St. Louis Cardinals. Molina, who would have been a free agent after the 2017 campaign, said he would not negotiate any extension with the Cardinals during the season.

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