The Month That Was in Baseball: May 2020
MLB Appears Ready to Play a 2020 Season—On Its Own Terms
At Least They’re Playing in Korea • Did Pete Rose Cork His Bats?
Friday, May 1
Emmanuel Clase, the hard-throwing Cleveland pitcher who was the prime catch for the Indians in the trade that sent ace Corey Kluber to Texas, is suspended for 80 games by Major League Baseball for testing positive for the steroid Boldenone. The question now becomes: Will Clase have to serve the next 80 games, regardless of when they are played—or will he and others ready to serve suspensions once play resumes be granted reprieves in 2021 if there’s no baseball in 2020? It’s just one of many questions MLB is having to untangle as it still tries to determine a workable format for a season shortened by COVID-19.
Miguel Marte, who played five years in the Oakland farm system but never got past the Class-A level, dies at the age of 30 after contracting COVID-19. He is the youngest player, active or former, to yet succumb to the virus.
Major league umpires reach an agreement with MLB on reduced pay for the 2020 season, regardless of how many games are played—if any are played at all. Salary cuts are said to be in the 30% range, with a 20% cut in daily per diem.
Clubhouse managers tend to have baseball’s most secure jobs; once they’re given the title, they hang onto it for a long, long time and win over a lot of friends and respect along the way. Case in point: Tony Carullo, who started as a bat boy for the New York Mets in their “Amazing” championship run of 1969, took over the lead clubhouse role in 1976—and remained there until today, as he announces his retirement. Joe Torre, who managed the Mets from 1977-81, has this to say about Carullo: “He has been around forever. I see him every year. He has the biggest heart I have ever been around. He cares very deeply about what he does and how he does it. He is a great personality.”
Saturday, May 2
Matt Keough, one of a number of Oakland’s starting pitchers exhausted by manager Billy Martin from 1980-81 and whose career thus crashed as a result of it, dies at the age of 64 according to a statement released by the A’s; no cause of death is given. The Pomona, California native’s career was a reflection of the state of the A’s in general; in his early years, he struggled for traction as he and his young, no-name teammates played before almost no one at the Oakland Coliseum in the years following the exodus of the A’s championship roster from the early 1970s. Over his first three years, Keough was 11-35, including a 0-14 start in 1979 before finally picking up his first win on September 5. Then Martin came along, bringing in longtime pitching coach Art Fowler with him; the two turned Keough’s career around, as the right-hander was 26-19 from 1980-81 with a 3.09 ERA and 30 complete games—20 alone in 1980, a remarkable number for the time. But along with his rotation mates, Keough burned out from the overwork; he never came close to regaining his form, starting with a terrible 1982 campaign (11-18, 5.72 ERA, league-leading 38 home runs allowed). In later years, millennials came to know Keough as a cast member of The Real Housewives of Orange County.
Sunday, May 3
Faux baseball is better than any baseball at all, so we’ll celebrate the Tampa Bay Rays as champions of a video tournament played by top gamers representing all 30 MLB teams using MLB The Show. The Rays, led by former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, defeats the Chicago White Sox as controlled by their ace, Lucas Giolito, in a three-game sweep. The month-long tourney was frequently televised nationally on sports channels (which had nothing better to show), but there were genuine financial benefactors; the Boys & Girls Club receive $170,000 rom MLB and Sony, with $25,000 going to the St. Petersburg-Tampa branch.
Monday, May 4
A former groundskeeper for the Montreal Expos says that when Pete Rose played for the team in 1984, he was told by Olympic Stadium’s visiting clubhouse attendant that he helped cork the bats for the eventual all-time hit king. In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, Joe Jammer said that a machine was placed deep below the stands where the attendant, Bryan Greenberg, helped Rose punch up his bats; Rose didn’t want to enlist the Expos’ clubhouse guy (John Silverman) because, according to Jammer, “Pete was too smart to deal with (him).” Jammer also mentions that Rose had been corking his bats for the previous 20 years before that. Another source, who wished to remain anonymous, verifies Jammer’s story; Greenberg, reached in Florida, neither confirms or denies the report, stating, “I really can’t talk about it.”
This is not the first time that Rose has been accused of corked bat usage. In a 2001 Vanity Fair article, a former friend of Rose claimed that the banished star was corking his bats during his 1985 return season to Cincinnati.
Would a corked bat help a player like Rose, who relied on making contact versus powering the ball?
Tuesday, May 5
They’re playing ball in Korea, where the Korean Baseball Organization begins its season six weeks late—but with hopes of putting in a 144-game schedule with reduced postseason. Among the highlights of the day is a two-hit shutout hurled by former Detroit pitcher Warwick Saupold for the Hanwha Eagles over SK Wyverns, 3-0, while the Kiwoom Heroes beat up on the Kia Tigers—managed by former slugger/manager Matt Williams—11-2. No fans are allowed at the games, and players aren’t allowed to make celebratory contact with teammates or chew tobacco, but they don’t have to wear masks—while umpires and base coaches do. While this is all hope for MLB that its own season will soon rev back up, it must be reminded that the KBO schedule is being played on a tightrope; should any player test positive for COVID-19 going forward, the season will be automatically shut down for three weeks.
Wednesday, May 6
Mary Pratt, at age 101 the oldest surviving member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, passes away. Pratt was a member of the inaugural 1943 campaign of the women’s circuit, as a member of the Rockford Peaches—the team immortalized in the 1992 film A League of Their Own, though that film did not include a character under her name. The left-handed pitcher played in the first five seasons in the AAGPBL, which lasted 12 years.
Thursday, May 7
With time to kill on a podcast, Philadelphia star slugger Bryce Harper reveals his feelings about signing with the Phillies—and other teams who offered him contracts. Harper talks of a tantalizing offer from the Chicago White Sox (who were rebuilding) and the San Francisco Giants (who were deconstructing); he was also fascinated by a four-year offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers, but says he didn’t take it because it included opt outs and he didn’t want to talk about pending free agency for the rest of his career. What disappointed Harper the most was an offer from the incumbent Washington Nationals; “I got back an offer, man, and it hurt,” he says on the Starting 9 podcast, claiming that the Nationals were going to offer deferred money past his 80th birthday. Though initially hesitant about signing with the Phillies, Harper eventually said yes to a 13-year, $330 million deal that became baseball’s largest shortly before Mike Trout’s extension eclipsed it.
Friday, May 8
A small bit of baseball normalcy returns as the fans are allowed back into the stands for games in Taiwan. Required social distancing keeps crowd counts down to 1,000, and they all have to wear masks—but at least it’s progress. This year’s MLB draft will proceed on June 10, but there will be only five rounds instead of the typical 40. Some might automatically think that the reduction in rounds—and thus the number of players being added to the organizational rolls—is a response to the lack of collegiate and high school ball played this spring due to COVID-19, but it’s really tied more to cost-saving measures. By eliminating rounds 6-10, for instance, each major league team will save roughly $1 million in anticipated slot money that would have had to be paid out to draftees; additionally, MLB has announced that signing bonuses to those selected can be deferred over the next two years. The overall plan is assailed by the players’ union, by general managers who won’t have as much talent to work with within their organizations, and by Minor League Baseball—which sees this as another potential MLB-driven nail in its coffin as talks continue on whether to contract the lower circuits by as much as 25%.
If baseball goes back to normal in 2021, you can bet that there will be a surplus of walk-on’s trying to break onto rosters as a result of this.
Sunday, May 10
A testing of 5,754 MLB team employees, including players, shows that only 0.7% of them are positive for antibodies, meaning that they likely came into contact with COVID-19. Those performing the tests say that the low count is likely due to a combination of factors, including demographics—employees tend to live in more affluent settings where the virus has not spread as diligently—and vigilance in social isolating and keeping good hygiene. Four teams did not participate in the study.
Monday, May 11
MLB owners approve of a plan for salvaging the 2020 season. It calls for each team to play an 82-game schedule starting in early July, followed by a postseason that will be expanded to 14 teams and concludes in early November. An abbreviated “Spring Training 2.0” would take place beforehand in June. Games will be held at teams’ home ballparks, unless cities say otherwise (there is doubt right now in places like Toronto, New York and Seattle); undoubtedly, many if not all of the early games will be held with no fans. Regional play will prevail, with teams scheduled to play only against those within their division as well as their geographic counterparts in the opposite league (NL West vs. AL West, per example). Teams would expand rosters to 30 players, backed by a reserve group consisting of 20 more. For the first time, the National League will be allowed to use a designated hitter for what is still being termed a “regular” season.
The owners’ agreement is the easy part; the hard part will be to get the players on board. The players’ union, which had already agreed to play a shortened season at a prorated salary, is not happy that MLB is suggesting that they instead share in a 50-50 revenue split—which would result in less wages, given the lack of money that would be deposited via radically reduced ticket and ancillary (parking, concessions etc.) revenue. Washington reliever Sean Doolittle, one of the game’s more outspoken Twitter hounds, starts a thread stating that player concerns doesn’t revolve so much around money as it does their health, asking how they’ll be protected in clubhouse, dugouts and by doctors who are hoped to keep players (and others, from the front office to maintenance workers to staff at hotels where teams will be staying) routinely tested.
So what happens should even one player test positive? Does only he get quarantined while MLB crosses its fingers and hope no one else is affected—or do they shut down the whole team, causing chaos to the reconfigured system? MLB has a plan for that, according to an MLB exec who tells SNY’s Andy Martino that if other players have to be quarantined, they’ll be replaced by those listed on the expanded non-playing roster.
NL teams could be at a disadvantage with the designated hitter allowed—since many have not retooled their rosters to include someone who fits the DH mold.
Meanwhile, it’s announced that the 2021 World Baseball Classic will be postponed two years as Baseball otherwise tries to return to normal. For us, this is hardly sad news; we’ve never been big fans of the tournament, which disrupts spring training, messes with the seasonal routine of players (pitchers, especially) who have to ramp up a little more in advance of the regular season, and has bogus eligibility requirements (“I have an aunt who lived in Tuscany, so I’ll play for Italy”). Others will certainly disagree, but if they ever permanently pull the plug on the WBC, no tears will be shed on this side.
Tuesday, May 12
As the 10th anniversary of Armando Galarraga’s perfect game that wasn’t nears, the former pitcher and the umpire (Jim Joyce) who denied him history with a blown call on the 27th batter now wants baseball to officially anoint his effort as a perfecto. “Why not? Why wait for so long?” says Galarraga to The Athletic. “I don’t want to die, and then they’ll be like, ‘You know what, he threw a perfect game.’” For those who don’t remember, Galarraga was an out away from perfection for the Detroit Tigers on June 2, 2010, and appeared to have it in the bag when a ground ball retired Cleveland’s Jason Donald—except Joyce inexplicably ruled him safe. Baseball was still four years away from comprehensive video review, so the play stood without the possibility of a challenge from Galarraga and the Tigers.
Should MLB grant Galarraga his wish—and it’s highly unlikely it will—you can bet the St. Louis Cardinals will ask to be given the 1985 championship trophy away from the Kansas City Royals after Don Denkinger’s bad call at first robbed them of a world title.
Wednesday, May 13
The states of Arizona and Florida give the go-ahead for pro sports to resume, initially without fans—giving MLB a safety valve in case it needs to enact its spring training locale scenario for playing out a shortened 2020 regular season. For now, MLB is hoping to initiate its proposed 82-game schedule in regular major league yards.
Thursday, May 14
Bob Watson, one of the toughest outs of his time and a successful front office employee after his playing years, passes away at the age of 74. Over a 19-year career, Watson batted .295 and, although he never hit more than 22 homers, was feared by pitchers who viewed him as a dangerous threat with power neutered by the thick indoor Astrodome air at Houston. (He averaged only 12 home runs per 162 games at the Astrodome, but 20 elsewhere.) After 14 years with the Astros, Watson was traded to Boston midway through 1979—hitting .337 in 84 games for the Red Sox—then moved on to the Yankees, where he was particularly effective in the postseason with a .371 average and a pair of homers over 17 games. He became baseball’s second black general manager in 1993 when the Astros brought him on—and three years later became the first to win a World Series working a similar job for the Yankees. Of his 802 career runs scored, one was historically memorable as it was officially the one millionth to cross the plate in major league history, tallying for the Astros in a 1975 game at San Francisco.
Saturday, May 16
The biggest challenge for players and coaches returning to action—if and when that happens in 2020—will be to overcome many of baseball’s unsanitary habits, such as chewing and spitting of tobacco and sunflower seeds, high-fives and handshakes after a home run, and pitchers licking their fingers to get a better grip of the ball. All of these will be disallowed in a pandemic-shortened schedule, as will the use of shared coolers, pools, and possibly clubhouse showers; players will be expected to show up to the ballpark in full uniform and depart the same way. The authors of these rules, included in a 67-page report given to teams and their players, is in first-draft form and still needs to be approved by the players’ union before there’s any agreement to resume playing ball.
Additional items in the report include: Manager and coaches must wear masks; players are discouraged to dispense with the tradition of throwing the ball around the infield between at-bats; players cannot go to restaurants while on the road and should stay on lower floors within a hotel so as not use stairs or elevators that could increase their risk of contracting the virus; they must stand six feet apart during pregame ceremonies, such as the playing of the National Anthem; and finally—oh no—team mascots will not be allowed in the ballpark.
Monday, May 18
Another hurdle MLB has struggled to clear in jumpstarting a delayed 2020 season has been getting all of the cities and states on board to allow play in team’s home ballparks. A big leap toward that is cleared today when California governor Gavin Newsom publicly announces that baseball can begin play within the state’s five MLB yards (San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego) as early as the start of June, well ahead of the majors’ planned July start. There had been some concern about the Golden State, which has been among the more tight in terms of restrictions—but its early and (largely) successful response to COVID-19 has allowed it to sensibly and slowly reopen for business.
Noelia Marte, the wife of Arizona outfielder Starling Marte (recently traded from Pittsburgh), dies of a heart attack at age 31 while awaiting surgery for a broken ankle at a hospital. Marte tweets word of his wife’s death, stating that this is “a moment of indescribable pain.”
Wednesday, May 20
The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal is still a sore point to many of the players who participated in it—and that seems to be especially true for Alex Bregman. The All-Star third baseman fires Brodie Scofield, the agent that represents him, because…Scofield’s firm (Klutch Sports) also represents basketball icon LeBron James, whose production company is currently putting together a documentary on the Astros’ cheating scandal. That Scofield nor Klutch has anything to do with the documentary apparently is neither here or there for Bregman; guilt by association, however connected or disconnected, is still guilt.
Thursday, May 21
The war of words (or leaks) escalate between MLB and its players over money. The union is apparently “livid” over a report from the New York Post’s Joel Sherman which reveals MLB internal emails suggesting that players would still be bound to negotiate with management on future financial matters beyond the agreed-to prorated salaries for a shortened 2020 season. The leaked emails, according to the union, is nothing more than a “deliberate” attempt to put public pressure on the players to cave on MLB’s proposed 50-50 revenue split that would reduce the prorated salaries. NBC Sports’ Craig Calcaterra: “When it comes to the dollars and cents of it all, things are looking dire.”
Friday, May 22
The players’ union responds to MLB’s pandemic-era list of protocols it released a week earlier, saying that many of the proposed concepts are “over the top.” The players are seeking less restrictions and more testing to keep them safe.
Saturday, May 23
As the minor leagues await their inevitable fate on the 2020 season—which is likely to be no season at all—one team is doing a very ‘minor league’ thing to raise both publicity and revenue. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos of the Double-A Southern League lists their ballpark on Airbnb for $1,500 a night. For that, you get access to the field, clubhouse, batting cage and stands. It includes 10 beds and three bathrooms—hopefully all sanitized for guest use.
Monday, May 25
Japan yet again recalibrates its targeted season opening, this time to June 19. The revised scenario calls for a 120-game schedule with no fans allowed, at least initially. If the two six-team circuits, the Central and Pacific Leagues, makes good on its promise to begin play on the scheduled date, Japan will become the third pro league to open in the wake of COVID-19, after Taiwan and South Korea.
Tuesday, May 26
MLB formally sends its economic proposal for a shortened 2020 campaign to the players’ union—and the response all but adds up to a universal pan. That includes a majority of thumbs down from the general public, suspecting that the owners are willing to trash the season and risk ruining the game’s reputation to save money. The financial basics of MLB’s proposal are this: The more money you’re salaried for, the bigger the pay cut will be. So the player making minimum wage ($563,000) would have 10% of his prorated salary cut, meaning he will actually earn $253,550. But if you’re Mike Trout—who under normal circumstances would be making $37,666,000 million this season—you lose a higher percentage of pay per the six-tier “sliding scale” established by MLB, meaning he would actually earn $5,748,577. (All of these computations courtesy of an analysis from ESPN’s Jeff Passan, by the way.)
The reactions of players to MLB’s proposal, mostly via social media, is not kind. Milwaukee pitcher Brett Anderson writes, “Interesting strategy of making the best most marketable players potentially look like the bad guys.” Oakland reliever Jake Diekman adds, “It’s getting very irritating that all of the information regarding the start of the baseball season is getting leaked before 95% of the players can see it.” New York Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman confesses that the season “is not looking promising.” And rising St. Louis ace Jack Flaherty simply posts a clip from Malcolm X with title actor Denzel Washington slamming his fist on a table.
An eyeing out of the social media reaction from the public shows some of the usual ‘both sides are making too much money’ argument, but by and large the majority seems to be on the side of the players, believing that the owners are less inclined to start the campaign to reduce the potential for financial losses. Bottom line is this: Serious compromise is needed between the two sides if they fully expect to reopen camps in mid-June for an early July start.
As bad as the outlook appears for major leaguers, it’s worse for minor leaguers—who have no union. The Oakland A’s become the first MLB team to announce that they’ll no longer pay its minor league players after May 31. The math was done on how much the team will save on paying those players for the remainder of the season, and it comes out to $1 million. It’s pointed out that the total is 1/2,000th of Oakland owner John Fisher’s personal net worth.
Some on social media wonder: If the minor leaguers won’t be paid, doesn’t that effectively make them free agents? Not under baseball’s antitrust exemption.
In the days to follow, other teams announce that they will continue to pay their minor leaguers. In a conference call with reporters, Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore explains the Royals’ rationale for not financially cutting off their lower-level players: “Those players have as much impact on the growth of our game than 10-year or 15-year veteran players. They have as much opportunity to influence the growth of our game as those individuals who played for a long time because those individuals go back into their communities and teach the game, work in academics, are JUCO coaches, college coaches, scouts, coaches in pro baseball. They’re growing the game constantly because they’re so passionate about it. So we felt it was really, really important not to release one minor league player during this time, a time we needed to stand behind them.”
Wednesday, May 27
Biff Pocoroba, a part-time-at-best catcher for the Atlanta Braves from 1975-84, dies at the age of 66. Despite playing over 100 games only once in 10 seasons, the switch-hitter managed to make an All-Star appearance in 1978, and hit a pedestrian .257 with 21 home runs over 596 career games. Pocoroba’s primary game highlight was a 5-for-5 night with five RBIs on July 9, 1982 at Los Angeles against the Dodgers.
Thursday, May 28
The State of Texas becomes the first since COVID-19’s wrath to allow fans at sporting venues, starting in June. However, facilities can only be at 25% capacity, and it’s possible that some of the more wary-leaning urban counties—where Houston’s Minute Maid Park and Arlington’s brand new Globe Life Field reside—could be more restrictive and stiff-arm the new allowance.
Friday, May 29
The A’s may claim to lack funds to pay a total of $1 million to their minor leaguers, but Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price either ha a bigger bank account—or a bigger heart. Per reports, Price pledges to give every Dodgers minor leaguer not on the 40-man roster $1,000 in the month of June. Price was hoping to keep the payments publicly on the down-low, but one of the minor leaguers couldn’t contain his glee and announced it online.
Sunday, May 31
The players’ union offers a counter-proposal to the owners for a 2020 restart, suggesting a 114-game season with a November postseason, playoff expansion for this year and next, and deferral of salaries to later years. They also suggest the allowance of players to opt out this year should they be considered “high risk”—though they would still continue to be paid. Within the expanse of this proposal and the one offered by owners a week earlier, hopefully some middle ground can be found between the two sides for a compromise, a deal, and a nod to finally play ball in 2020.