Remembering Buck O’Neil, Seven Years Later

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Seven years ago today, I was sitting in a conference room above the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City with my friend Buck O’Neil. It was the day that the Negro Leagues Special Committee was announcing who it had elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame … and it was widely assumed that Buck O’Neil would be one of those elected.

Maybe it should not have been widely assumed. The Hall of Fame case for Buck O’Neil is not a one-sentence exclamation. It is not “3,000 hits!” or “300 wins!” or “Hit in 56 straight games!” It is not simple or blunt or in-your-face. Buck’s case, like Buck’s life, is a patchwork quilt – he was a very good player (Negro Leagues batting champion in 1946), a very good manager (managed the dominant Kansas City Monarchs), a legendary scout (scouts, so far, are not elected to the Hall of Fame), the first black coach in the Major Leagues (for the Chicago Cubs), a joyous presence in the game (Ernie Banks said he learned “Let’s play two” from Buck O’Neil), the leading force in building the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, an unmatched baseball storyteller and a tireless champion of the Negro Leagues and the game of baseball. It is a Hall of Fame case that, from above, seems breathtakingly simple and powerful and undeniable – he profoundly impacted the game of baseball like few who ever lived. The game, without him, would be so much less.

You have to see the whole thing, though.

Point is, most people seemed to think Buck was going to be elected, and, yes, Buck too thought he was going to be elected. He sat in the conference room waiting for the good word, and reporters waited at the museum for Buck to come out and regale them with stories. When word came through that seventeen people – all of them long dead – had been elected, but Buck had not, I was looking right in his eyes. His face showed no emotion at all.

“Oh well,” he said, a little bit too quickly. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

At the time, I was working on my book, “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” I had been traveling the country with Buck for a year and watching how people responded to him, watching how much joy he passed on, watching how he simply let go of his bitterness, all of it, let it go and replaced it with good feelings and hope.

I admit, I was like most others. I thought, for sure, he was going to the Hall of Fame. Heck, I’d been told by someone who would know that one of the big reasons the Negro Leagues Special Committee had been put together was to honor Buck. I had expected this moment to would be the big ending for the book. I could imagine the movie scene (with Morgan Freeman as Buck). Sweeping music plays, and Buck gets the word that after all these years – after living a baseball life on the margins – he was going to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

And instead, Buck sat there and tried hard not to look disappointed. He was hurt. I know that. But he was not going to show that. This was a grandson of a slave, a man who was not allowed to attend Sarasota High School because of the color of his skin, a man who could not play in the Major Leagues, a man who never got to manage in the Major Leagues, a man who – even as Cubs coach – never got to coach at either first or third base. This was a man who had seen some of the worst of 20th Century America, who wore a grass skirt and put on war paint just so he could play ball, a man who told me that once his wife was in a department store, and she touched a hat. They made her buy it. That was the rule – if a black woman touched a hat, she had to buy it.

“So degrading,” he said. “So degrading.”

He had never let any of that make him hate … or lose faith … or give up hope on people. What was the Hall of Fame compared to those things?

“Let me ask you something,” he said after a long silence. “Who do you think will speak for the 17?”

“What do you mean?”

“At Cooperstown,” he said. “Who will speak on behalf of the 17 who go into the Hall of Fame?”

“I don’t know Buck. What difference does it make?”

“Well,” Buck said. “Do you think they’ll ask me?”

I looked at him then to see if he was serious. He was serious. It didn’t make sense at first.. I was angry for him. I was hurt for him. I was furious at the committee for not seeing Buck O’Neil from a high enough elevation. I was furious at the Hall of Fame and all of us for building up his hopes. In the moment, I honestly did not care who spoke for the 17 who were elected.

“You would do that?” I asked Buck. He smiled a little bit.

“Son,” he said. “What’s my life been all about?”

And he did speak for them. It was his last national public appearance … he spoke in front of the Hall of Fame on behalf of 17 people who had made the Negro Leagues robust and alive. And then, he led everyone who had gathered in Cooperstown in song. His favorite song.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

The greatest thing … in all my life … is loving you.

That was the better ending, of course.  He died about two and a half months later. The last time I saw him in the hospital, he told me that he felt loved. Well, sure, he was loved.

Mets closer Jeurys Familia receives a 15-game suspension for domestic violence

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Mets closer Jeurys Familia has received a 15-game suspension for domestic violence.

Familia was arrested in October following an incident at his home. Criminal charges were dropped in December. As we know, however, MLB’s domestic violence policy does not require criminal proceedings to be commenced, let alone completed, before the leveling of league punishment. MLB has been investigating the incident for the past several months.

Familia saved 51 games for the Mets last year while posting a 2.55 ERA. The Mets are expecting Addison Reed to fill in at closer until he returns.

Familia has released a statement:

Today, I accepted a 15-game suspension from Major League Baseball resulting from my inappropriate behavior on October 31, 2016. With all that has been written and discussed regarding this matter, it is important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed or threatened my wife that evening. I did,however, act in an unacceptable manner and am terribly disappointed in myself. I am alone to blame for the problems of that evening.

My wife and I cooperated fully with Major League Baseball’s investigation, and I’ve taken meaningful steps to assure that nothing like this will ever happen again. I have learned from this experience, and have grown as a husband, a father, and a man.

I apologize to the Mets’ organization, my teammates, and all my fans. I look forward to rejoining the Mets and being part of another World Series run. Out of respect for my teammates and my family, I will have no further comment.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has a statement as well:

My office has completed its investigation into the events leading up to Jeurys Familia’s arrest on October 31, 2016.  Mr. Familia and his wife cooperated fully throughout the investigation, including submitting to in-person interviews with MLB’s Department of Investigations.  My office also received cooperation from the Fort Lee Municipal Prosecutor.  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, on October 31, 2016.  Nevertheless, I have concluded that Mr. Familia’s overall conduct that night was inappropriate, violated the Policy, and warrants discipline.

It is clear that Mr. Familia regrets what transpired that night and takes full responsibility for his actions.  Mr. Familia already has undergone 12 ninety-minute counseling sessions with an approved counselor specializing in the area of domestic violence, and received a favorable evaluation from the counselor regarding his willingness to take concrete steps to ensure that he is not involved in another incident of this type.  Further, he has agreed to speak to other players about what he has learned through this process, and to donate time and money to local organizations aimed at the prevention of, and the treatment of victims of, domestic violence.

2017 Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Milwaukee Brewers.

Every year, Major League Baseball plays host to two casts of characters: the contenders and the rebuilders. You might find slight variations — the rebuilders who stand a chance of contending, the contenders on the verge of rebuilding, or those stuck somewhere in between — but by and large, the lines are clearly drawn.

The 2017 Brewers, for better or worse, are rebuilders. Sure, you won’t find them at the bottom of the NL Central come October (that place is unequivocally reserved for the Reds), but neither will you see them snag a Wild Card berth or run away with the division title. This is the year of cultivating a fertile farm system, giving their big league prospects room to stretch and grow and figuring out whether Ryan Braun has a future in Milwaukee beyond 2017.

If the Brewers did anything right this winter, it was deepening their reserves at nearly every position. Behind the plate, Andrew Susac, Manny Pina and newly-acquired Jett Bandy bandied for the spot. Susac injured his back during camp, and while the MRI results didn’t reveal any significant damage, it doesn’t look like he’ll be healthy in time for Opening Day. Milwaukee skipper Craig Counsell has yet to identify a full-time catcher and could start the year with Pina and Bandy in a hybrid role after both backstops impressed during spring training.

Eric Thames replaced Chris Carter at first base, and while he’s expected to split duties with Jesus Aguilar, appears to be an unconventional acquisition for the Brewers. On paper, the two look miles apart. Carter slashed .222/.321/.499 with 41 home runs and an .821 OPS for the club in 2016, pairing his league-leading homers with a league-leading 206 strikeouts. Thames, meanwhile, flamed out in the majors in 2012 and has not returned to the major league stage since. Never mind that he has only ever played the outfield or that he’s technically made only 181 big league appearances in the last five years, though. Over the past three seasons, he mashed an incredible .349/.457/.721 with 124 home runs and a 1.178 OPS for the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization, and the three-year, $16 million contract he signed with Milwaukee will look like a steal if he can replicate those numbers in the United States.

The outfield posed another set of questions for the team, who was looking to fill right and center field with a combination of Keon Broxton, Hernan Perez, Domingo Santana, Lewis Brinson, Ryan Cordell, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Kyle Wren. Broxton and Santana claimed spots in center and right, respectively, with Nieuwenhuis beating out the rest of the backup candidates to secure his position as the team’s fourth outfielder. Braun will resume his station in left field after a quiet spring training, during which he declined to participate in the World Baseball Classic or most of the Cactus League competition in order to stay healthy for the upcoming season. (At least, that’s one plausible reason. He also told the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal’s Todd Rosiak, “I just don’t feel like I need at-bats to feel ready for games.”)

Of course, every team in the throes of rebuilding has at least one weak spot, and the Brewers are no exception. The starting rotation lacks clarity and talent outside of Junior Guerra and Zach Davies, both of whom flourished in their sophomore campaigns with Milwaukee in 2016. The club acquired left-hander Tommy Milone on the cheap, adding him to a lengthy list of candidates that included right-handers Chase Anderson, Wily Peralta, Matt Garza and Jimmy Nelson. Spring training did little to illuminate a clear path for the rotation: Garza imploded, Peralta shone, and Nelson and Anderson proved inconsistent at best.

The bullpen doesn’t look much better beyond newly-minted closer Neftali Feliz, who signed a one-year, $5.35 million deal with the Brewers after polishing off a healthy, productive season with the Pirates in 2016. While his bounce-back season looked like a good omen for Milwaukee, Feliz struggled through a rough spring, working 10 hits, six runs, three walks and seven strikeouts through nine innings in camp. He appears to be fully recovered from the “biceps fatigue” that curtailed his last season in Pittsburgh, and Counsell believes that he’ll improve with more reps this spring.

Elsewhere in the bullpen, the club is hurting for left-handed relief after optioning their only lefty candidate, Brent Suter, to Triple-A Colorado Springs last week. A suitable replacement for Suter has yet to be named, but there’s some chatter that Milone could assume a position in the bullpen if necessary.

Overall, the Brewers didn’t improve their major league roster as much as they stabilized it, opting for low-cost stopgaps while they condition younger, less-seasoned players waiting to break through to the bigs. A plethora of high-caliber prospects crowd the upper rungs of their farm system, so much so that the club has had difficulty trying to find enough room for all of them to develop at the appropriate level. Just take Triple-A Colorado Springs, which boasts a talented outfield of Lewis Brinson, Ryan Cordell and Brett Phillips and rotation battles among Hiram Burgos, Josh Hader, Paolo Espino, Wilkerson, Taylor Jungmann, Wei-Chung Wang and the aforementioned Brent Suter, among others.

Milwaukee is looking at a bright future, to be sure, but that future won’t be fully realized right now. The Brewers’ 2017 season will undoubtedly be more satisfying for its front office than its fans, unless those fans also have a ticket to Security Service Field. Given a few more years to develop their prospects and build out their farm system, however, these rebuilders could begin to look something like contenders.

Prediction: 4th place in NL Central.