This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: March 2020

The Downward Viral: Baseball Shuts Down as COVID-19 Spreads
Is Tommy John Surgery Currently “Essential?”    Farewell, Jim Wynn

February 2020    Comebacker Index    April 2020

Sunday, March 1

This Great Game wraps up a three-day tour of the Cactus League by viewing Corey Kluber’s spring debut for the Texas Rangers against the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching three innings and allowing two runs though he’s hardly hard-hit. Meanwhile, here’s some observations that will serve as an addendum to our Opinion piece on tips for enjoying Spring Training a few years back:

Tickets aren’t as cheap as they once were. Even standard tickets below $30 are now hard to find, unless you’re sitting on the grass berm behind the outfield wall. Maybe teams jack up the prices for the weekend, but these fees are getting dangerously close to those of regular season games.

Parking does remain cheap—and in some cases, free. That was the case at Surprise Stadium for a Friday game between Kansas City and San Francisco, and Camelback Ranch for the Rangers-Dodgers game on Sunday.

Have a traffic app handy on your mobile phone. It won’t be too necessary when you’re headed to a daytime spring game when the Phoenix-area morning commute has abated, but it will matter when the last out is made and you’re facing the beginning of the afternoon rush, which can be pretty awful in the Valley of the Sun.

The idea of showing up early to watch teams train on the myriad of practice fields—and the opportunity to rub elbows with players as a result—has become very popular. When we arrived nearly three hours before the first pitch for Sunday’s game at Camelback Ranch, it seemed that nearly half of the 10,000 in attendance (the vast majority of those Dodgers fans) had already showed up as well.

Want to get to know your fellow fans? Wear a T-shirt that will serve as the ultimate conversation piece. Our Ed Attanasio twice one that said “Houston Trashtros” and was stopped literally every 10 feet by others who laughed, nodded and engaged in some fun chats.

Tuesday, March 3

As the potent COVID-19 flu spreads across the United States from its origins in China, Major League Baseball sends a memo to all 30 teams with recommendations going forward. They include: Avoid touching balls and pens given to them by fans, essentially limiting their ability to sign autographs; work with local health agencies to better coordinate needed responses to the virus; have each team consult with a virus specialist who will serve as a “conduit”: and ensure that all players have received their flu shot for the season and are “up-to-date” on other vaccinations. For the moment, MLB will not cancel, postpone nor make spectator-free any upcoming games.

Wednesday, March 4

A 23-year-old bettor who made over $1 million last year in winnings is nevertheless upset that he didn’t win more. In fact, the man repeatedly sent threatening (and at times racist) social media messages directly to numerous major leaguers when results didn’t go his way. He has now been charged by the FBI and could receive up to five years in prison.

Thursday, March 5

Yoan Moncada, the highly-touted Cuban émigré who busted out with a .315 average and 25 home runs in 2019, signs a five-year extension worth $70 million with the Chicago White Sox. The deal covers three years of arbitration eligibility and his first scheduled season of free agency.

A year after removing the kitschy home run sculpture behind Marlins Park’ center-field wall, the Miami Marlins clamp down on another signature staple of sorts at the eight-year-old ballpark by shutting down the Clevelander lounge behind left field. The area will become more of a traditional bar and seating area for fans, but gone will be the pool, DJs and dancers who, when the ballpark opened in 2012, were clad only in boots, bikini bottoms and body paint.

The Los Angeles Angels fire longtime clubhouse attendant Bubba Harkins—reportedly because he provided illegal substances to players to doctor up baseballs. Asked to verify, the Angels refuse to reveal the official reason behind his departure.

Friday, March 6

The Milwaukee Brewers lock up star outfielder Christian Yelich for the next nine years at $215 million. The deal actually includes the final two seasons (2020-21) of his current deal which he signed with Miami in 2015 and was inherited by the Brewers when traded to Milwaukee in 2018. Yelich’s $23.88 million in average salary is surprisingly lean considering that he won the 2018 National League Most Valuable Player award—and was very much in the conversation for another in 2019 before breaking his hand three weeks before the end of the regular season. Still, it’s easily the largest contract ever handed out by the Brewers.

Sunday, March 8

The Rangers’ Willie Calhoun, who’s expected to emerge further upon the scene this coming season after hitting 21 homers over 83 games in 2019, has his jaw fractured after getting hit in the face by the Dodgers’ Julio Urias during a spring game at Surprise, Arizona. Calhoun is expected to miss at least a couple of months.

Monday, March 9

After chatting with all 30 team owners, MLB releases a statement in regards to the rapidly spreading Coronavirus. It says that, for now, there will be no disruption of upcoming spring or regular season games and that fans will be allowed access to the ballparks, but clubhouses have been closed off to all but players and staff. Things are harsher in Korea and Japan, where the start of their baseball seasons have been postponed.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump apparently seems unconcerned about the deepening virus crisis; rather than go spend his valuable hours dealing with the problem, he plays a round of golf with members of the Washington Nationals down in Florida.

Wednesday, March 11

On a day in which President Trump suspends all travel to Europe, the NBA season is indefinitely suspended and popular actor Tom Hanks comes down with Coronavirus, any thought that the 2020 MLB season will go on as scheduled becomes increasingly deluded. Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state—which has been hard hit by Coronavirus—declares that public gatherings of more than 250 will be banned in Seattle through the month of March, imperiling five Mariners regular season home games scheduled before the start of April. Meanwhile, officials in San Francisco state that no events with more than 1,000 people can take place this month within its city limits; the Giants thus cancel one exhibition slated for Oracle Park on March 24.

The Mets give Pete Alonso, who led the majors last year with a rookie record-setting 53 home runs, a $90,000 raise to $652,000 for 2020. While that may sound modest and even insulting, it’s actually the highest salary ever given to a second-year player.

Thursday, March 12

Major League Baseball announces that the regular season will be delayed at least two weeks and that the remainder of scheduled Spring Training games will be cancelled. (Five Grapefruit League games are played and completed before the 4:00 EDT cutoff.) Additionally, all minor league circuits will delay the start of their campaigns, originally slated to begin on April 9. Players will be allowed to continue to work out at spring camp sites with full staffing, and intrasquad games are possible to keep players sharp.

This decision comes in the wake of other sports entities also shuttering for the time being. The NBA, NHL, MLS and PGA are postponing events through at least early April, while the NCAA has totally cancelled its March Madness basketball tournaments. These measures are acted upon to help slow the growth of the virus, which has been contracted by at least 1,600 Americans—though that number is likely underestimated and expected to rise significantly.

If and when baseball proceeds with its 2020 season, it would have to be decided how the schedule will be shortened—or if the early games postponed will be made up at the end of the season. If that latter scenario takes place, seriously look for baseball to be played through to Thanksgiving.

This will be the first time that the beginning of the major league season will be postponed for events other than labor-related work stoppages.

Baltimore slugger Trey Mancini, who bashed 35 homers in 2019, publicly acknowledges that he had a malignant tumor removed from his colon a few days earlier. The tumor was discovered during a colonoscopy check and was immediately removed. A timetable for his return is not known—but then again, neither is that of the MLB season.

Friday, March 13

Ted Cox, the only player ever to go 6-for-6 to start his major leaguer career, dies of cancer at the age of 65 in Oklahoma. Late in 1977, Cox was called up to the Boston Red Sox and batted .362 over 58 at-bats, including those first six hits to give him instant historical status. Traded to Cleveland in the offseason to follow, Cox never leveraged his impressive call-up into anything special, batting .245 with 10 homers over 272 games in a five-year career that saw him suit up for the Red Sox, Indians, Mariners and Blue Jays.

Saturday, March 14

The College World Series becomes the latest casualty of COVID-19, as the tournament to declare the national collegiate baseball champs is cancelled as a result of the NCAA quashing down on all winter and spring athletics activity. Additionally, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is shuttering its doors for an indefinite period.

Baseball may have been forced into a hiatus, but don’t let that get in the way of Trevor Bauer. The Cincinnati pitcher says he’s trying to organize a sandlot game in Arizona, where many major leaguers are still hanging around, while he’s pledged to raise over $1 million for ballpark workers likely to be financially impacted by the absence of games.

Sunday, March 15

The first official case of a professional baseball player tagged with COVID-19 is revealed with an unidentified player in the New York Yankees’ minor league system testing positive. As a result, all fellow minor leaguers in the Yankees’ system will be quarantined for two weeks as a precaution. The infected player had not intermingled with players from the parent team.

A few days later, a second Yankees minor leaguer will also test positive for the virus.

Monday, March 16

After a conference call with its 30 team owners, MLB decides to delay the start of the regular season even further, following on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s recommendation that there be no gatherings of more than 50 anywhere in the U.S. over the next eight weeks. This means that the earliest that the regular season could start—until further notice—is May 11. But there is hardly any guarantee that limited gatherings and social distancing will not be extended beyond that date—and even if an all-clear was given to resume everyday life, baseball players would have to engage in a second spring training to warm back up. Thus many baseball pundits are theorizing that a regular season wouldn’t actually start until after Memorial Day, perhaps even as late as July.

Commissioner Rob Manfred tells reporters afterward that he’s still hopeful for a 162-game schedule in 2020. Unless he’s counting on an abundance of doubleheaders, don’t count on it.

COVID-19 is threating to do what two world wars, terrorism and crippling work stoppages could not: Cancel an entire season. Just, wow. In the meantime, no players will be paid during this shutdown.

While this may be a minor inconvenience for players like Bryce Harper and Gerrit Cole, for those making minimum salary—and worse, minor leaguers who under normal everyday life are barely scraping by financially—the limbo is especially brutal because of the uncertainty of whether they can make ends meet with temporary jobs, if they can find any in this increasingly locked down economy.

Tuesday, March 17

The 30 MLB teams agree that they will each donate $1 million to ballpark employees who are essentially out of work until the delayed regular season begins. Meanwhile, a growing number of teams will continue to pay meal money to minor leaguers and allow them access to training facilities—though they, along with major leaguers, will continue to be unpaid in salary.

Houston ace Justin Verlander undergoes groin surgery that will require roughly six weeks of recovery. Good timing; MLB won’t restart baseball for at least that same period of time.

Thursday, March 19

Boston ace Chris Sale, who’s been hampered by elbow issues over the past few years, will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss all that’s left of the 2020 season—and likely the first couple months or so of 2021 as well. Sale has failed to qualify for the ERA leaderboard in each of the past two seasons, pitching 158 and 147.1 innings respectively in 2018 and 2019 as he chronically spent time on the shelf healing from elbow pains.

Sale’s decision could be part of a growing trend for players who’ve been nagged by persistent pains to take advantage of the unexpected downtime and undergo surgery—especially as many increasingly look at the 2020 campaign as a loss at this point.

In what’s considered a statement of the obvious in lieu of recent scheduling obstructions, MLB decides it will not play April games set to be held in Mexico City (between San Diego and Arizona) and San Juan, Puerto Rico (between the Mets and Miami). Even if these games are made up with a belated schedule, they’ll take place back in the States.

Friday, March 20

A nonprofit group called Advocates for Minor Leaguers is formed with the goal of having all minor leaguers paid a minimum of $15,000 per season. The group is made up of former players, labor/law sources, and a “current longtime MLB player who wishes to remain anonymous.” It’s not quite a union, but it’s the closest thing to one as minor leaguers are not represented by the major league players’ union.

Saturday, March 21

While baseball in America remains at a standstill, teams in Korea have restarted practice—and they’re even playing games in Japan, even if they’re exhibitions played at empty ballparks. This includes a game in which former Washington Nationals good luck charm Gerardo Parra makes a diving catch for the Yomiuri Giants against the Hanshin Tigers.

Sunday, March 22

MLB has yet to release its findings on cheating allegations involving the Red Sox, but one of the team’s lawyers has said that she’s seen them and disagrees—and that’s not good news for the 2018 world champions. This is only known because of an interaction between the lawyer, Lauren Moskowitz, and a judge deciding on whether a lawsuit brought on by fantasy sports sources against the Red Sox and Astros because of the sign-stealing scandal should proceed. The discussion goes like this: The judge asks, “Do you admit or not that the Red Sox violated the rules?” Moskowitz replies, “We do not admit that.” The judge: “That’s interesting. So you think the commissioner was just off base in your view.” Moskowitz’s response: “I think there are distinctions between what the Red Sox believe occurred and what the commissioner found.”

Monday, March 23

Major leaguers may be idle as far as baseball activity is concerned, but many are doing their part to support those on the front line in the fight against COVID-19. In Pittsburgh, health care workers receive 400 pizzas courtesy of Pirates players who didn’t personally deliver the pies but donated the money to two pizza joints to make it possible.

Tuesday, March 24

New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard opts for Tommy John surgery after discovering a torn muscle in his throwing elbow; he will likely not be ready to throw in real action again until early in the 2021 season. Syndergaard experienced discomfort at spring training and only recently, after camps closed, did he discover the tear.

The proliferation of reconstructive surgeries during baseball’s Coronavirus break has brought up a moral question: Should these procedures, classified as elective, even be taking place while space and supplies at hospitals nationwide are stressed to the limit because of the flood of COVID-19 patients? But in Florida, where Syndergaard will have the operation, Tommy John surgery is actually a condition that’s listed as “essential.” Okay, but please spare the masks.

Wednesday, March 25

Bill Bartholomay, past owner of the Braves who moved the franchise from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, dies in New York at the age of 91. An insurance executive in Chicago, Bartholomay bought in the Braves in 1962 and, from the start, had no intention of keeping the team in Milwaukee; he would have moved it to Atlanta in 1965 but had to sit through an excruciating lame-duck existence for a year in Wisconsin while the courts told him he had to wait until 1966. Once in Atlanta, Bartholomay owned the Braves for another 10 years as the team descended into mediocrity with poor attendance; he most memorably made news in 1974 when he ordered the team to sit Hank Aaron—just two home runs from breaking Babe Ruth’s then-career home run mark—for the season’s first three games in Cincinnati, enhancing the odds that he’d break the record during the Braves’ first homestand. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn overruled him.

Thursday, March 26

Major league ballparks sit silent and empty in what was to be Opening Day 2020, as 15 scheduled games are sidelined due to the COVID-19 outbreak—with still no clear vision as to when action will resume. It’s the first time an entire Opening Day menu has been wiped out by anything other than a work stoppage. Sports networks do their best to fill the void by re-airing memorable games of the past, but it’s not as fun to sit through a game if you know the result.

One Twitter user suggests not to show the games we remember, but the ones we don’t—that way, we’re not likely to know the final outcome, as it will be like watching it for the first time. He’s on to something.

As if the lack of baseball is bad enough, the day brings additional sadness in that former 5’10” slugger Jim Wynn, a.k.a. The Toy Cannon, dies at the age of 78. Despite his diminutive frame, Wynn was an offensive force packing a strong bludgeon, belting 291 career home runs among 1,665 hits. He began his major league career in 1963 at age 21 with the fledgling Houston Colt .45s, and was part of a memorable all-rookie lineup toward the end of that season. Wynn’s best years with the Astros came during the late 1960s when he twice surpassed 30 homers (peaking with 37 in 1967); in 1965, he hit what’s arguably considered the longest home run at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, a tape-measured drive that ended up on an off-ramp to Interstate 75 behind the ballpark. Wynn also stole a plethora of bases and accumulated tons of walks, including a NL-high 148 in 1969. But after a streak of inconsistency to start the 1970s, Wynn was dealt to Los Angeles where he earned Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1974 with the NL pennant-winning Dodgers. A three-time All-Star, Wynn made our list of the NL’s top 10 hitters five times, is third on our list of the greatest Astros hitters, and is fourth on Houston’s all-time home run list. His uniform number #24 was retired by the Astros in 2005.

Perhaps that decision by Nippon Professional Baseball to restart the exhibition season a week ago wasn’t entirely smart. Three Hanshin Tigers players test positive for COVID-19, meaning that the entire team has to be quarantined while their home ballpark is sterilized. Despite this setback, NPB insists that the delayed regular season schedule will commence on April 24.

Friday, March 27

MLB and the players union work out an agreement related to the upcoming season. It’s decided that the season won’t restart until restrictions on mass gatherings are lifted—though they still could decide to start with empty ballparks to keep the schedule from becoming too short. A postseason might take on a different (and expanded) look and could go well into November, with the possibility of warm-weather neutral sites for games. Should the entire 2020 season be canceled, free agency for players such as Mookie Betts and Trevor Bauer wouldn’t be delayed a year—which for instance means that Betts could never end up playing an official game for the Dodgers after trading for him this past winter. Players will be paid a prorated salary based on the number of games played, and the amateur draft, delayed until July 20, will be reduced to as few as five rounds.

Saturday, March 28

As COVID-19 spreads, so does the likelihood that major leaguer personnel past and present will become affected. As such, there’s news that former All-Star outfielder Jim Edmonds is in a hospital fighting COVID-19 while 54-year-old Webster Garrison, manager of the Class-A Stockton Ports in the Oakland farm system, is on a ventilator in Louisiana, which has been hard hit by the virus over the past couple of weeks.

Tuesday, March 31

In response to recent criticism that Tommy John surgeries do not qualify as “essential” amid the Coronavirus pandemic, James Andrews—one of major leaguers’ main go-to TJ doctors—said he will temporarily halt such procedures. Andrews is based in Florida, where the state government has barred non-essential procedures or surgeries.

MLB announces that minor leaguers will be paid $400 per week through May 31, baseball or no baseball. Players will also continue to receive medical benefits.

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