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Picking up baseballs

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This fascinating interview of Tino Martinez by Kenny Rosenthal reminds me again that I planned years ago to write a book called “Moneyball.” Obviously it was going to be nothing at all like Michael Lewis’ classic. The idea was to write about the late 1990s Kansas City Royals and their, um, rather awkward efforts to win.

The name Moneyball in my title came from a game that George Brett introduced at training camp one year. Players would take batting practice with no fielders. Then, at the end of the session, players would run to the outfield and collect the baseballs. One of the baseballs were specially marked by Brett — and whoever found it would get 100 bucks of Brett’s money.

It was awesome and hilarious to watch those players race to the outfield to find the Moneyball — more so because there in the group, running as hard as anyone, was George Brett himself. “I’m going pay myself!” he yelled as he ran to the outfield.

Of the many traditions and quirks of baseball, I think my favorite is that baseball players — no matter how good or unknown or famous they might be — collect and return baseballs after batting practice. I love this tradition beyond words. I don’t mind baseball players getting hundreds of millions of dollars, not at all. They are fantastic athletes who play more games than anybody in any other sport, and they provide wonderful entertainment — they should get as much as anyone is willing to pay them. I also understand the money will change athletes like it changes everyone and baseball will never be quite as intimate as it used to be.

But I hope that they always pick up their own baseballs. It’s a small thing, I know — we’re not exactly talking about the days when baseball players had to get winter jobs. But it represents something to me. Every time a coach shouts out, “OK, get ‘em up,” and you see Barry Bonds or Derek Jeter or Chipper Jones or Dustin Pedroia or Miguel Cabrera go pick up baseballs and put them back into the bucket, I feel great. It is something that ties them to the game’s history. It is something that says, “No matter what I get paid, I’m a ballplayer — and while I might have yachts and sports cars and five homes, like all the little kids playing, I have to pick up my own baseballs.”

I don’t know if the Tino Martinez saga really comes down to a couple of Marlins players refusing to pick up baseballs like he says now. As you know, Martinez resigned under pressure as Marlins hitting coach because players said he had been verbally and physically abusive. This was surprising because Martinez had a reputation as a pretty decent guy as a player. So Martinez fought back with this Ken Rosenthal interview, and this is where he talked about guys refusing to pick up baseballs. I don’t know if that’s the story.

But it’s all complicated. This question of where the line between severe demanding coaching and abuse continues to baffle America — it wasn’t so long ago that Martinez would have been fired for NOT being verbally (if not physically) abusive for a Marlins team dead last in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

In fact, in reliving the Martinez story, my friend Chardon Jimmy remembered a football coach who yelled at him: “If you ever do that again, I will reach down your throat and pull out your heart.” And I remembered a little league coach who would throw baseballs (somewhat lightly) at me in order to teach me to not bail out as a hitter. Both of us sort of laughed about it. I’m pretty sure both qualify as abuse, at least by today’s standards.

And I don’t really know what Martinez did or did not do, how far he went, whether he really grabbed a players throat or his jersey, whether that matters, how over-the-line his comments were. Heck, it’s harder all the time to know where the line is drawn. But what Martinez said about two players refusing to pick up baseballs struck a chord with me. I don’t want a generation of players who think they’re too important to pick up baseballs. I realize that’s a silly and probably dumb thing to worry about. But I worry about it anyway.

Video: Nomar Mazara crushes a 491-foot home run

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 27:  Nomar Mazara #30 of the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on April 27, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Rangers rookie outfielder Nomar Mazara crushed the longest home run of the season to date, according to Statcast, with a 491-foot shot to the upper deck in right field against the Angels on Wednesday afternoon. With the bases empty and no outs in the second inning, Angels lefty Hector Santiago threw a 1-1 off-speed pitch, which did not fool Mazara in the slightest.

Statcast measured it at 491 feet. Giancarlo Stanton previously had the longest home run at 475 feet off of Hector Neris on May 6. Franklin Gutierrez hit a 491-foot shot on Saturday against Reds pitcher John Lamb.

Mazara entered the afternoon hitting a terrific .317/.364/.483 with seven home runs and 18 RBI in 162 plate appearances.

Blue Jays activate Devon Travis from the disabled list

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 22: Devon Travis #29 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates scoring a run in the third inning against the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum on July 22, 2015 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
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The Blue Jays announced on Wednesday afternoon that the club has activated second baseman Devon Travis from the disabled list. To create roster space, ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte has been optioned to Triple-A Buffalo.

Travis, 25, last played on July 28 last year. He battled a shoulder injury for which he would undergo season-ending surgery. He burst onto the scene as a productive rookie, batting .304/.361/.498 with eight home runs and 35 RBI in 239 plate appearances before being sidelined.

Thus far, Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney have handled second base for the most part for the Jays. But the club has gotten a meager .585 OPS out of the position, the lowest mark in the league. The return of Travis should be quite a boon. He is batting eighth in Wednesday night’s lineup against the Yankees.

Adam Wainwright is not a fan of the proposed strike zone changes

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 09:  Adam Wainwright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrates defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 6 to 1 in Game Five of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium on October 9, 2013 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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It’s probably not a big shocker that a pitcher is not a big fan of the strike zone being made smaller, but Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals and he tells the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he is not a fan of the proposed changes to the strike zone we wrote about recently, calling the proposal “a horrible, horrible idea.”

Horrible, he acknowledges, because he’s a pitcher with a vested interest so, yes, let’s give Wainwright credit for self-awareness and for disclosing his self-interest. But he thinks it’s a bad idea for another reason too: more hits will lead to more balls in the gap and thus longer games.

I get the intuitive nature of that — the longer it takes to retire a side the longer games go — but it doesn’t necessarily follow that offense and game times are related in the way Wainwright implies. There was a lot more scoring in the 1990s and early 2000s and games were actually shorter then than now. Partially because of other factors (i.e. there were not quite as many pitching changes and because guys played at a faster clip). Partially, I suspect, because there were fewer strikeouts and strikeouts take a longer time than guys grounding out or having some of those balls in the gap caught on the run by a fast outfielder.

As I said last week, I suspect that we’ll see fewer balls in the gap than Wainwright implies and, rather, a lot more walks as pitchers test umpires to see if they’re really taking away that low strike. In the short term that’ll actually make games longer, though not for the reason Wainwright thinks.

 

 

Report: Jonny Gomes has retired

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 28:  Jonny Gomes of the Kansas City Royals looks on before Game Two of the 2015 World Series between the Royals and the New York Mets at Kauffman Stadium on October 28, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
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SB Nation’s Chris Cotillo hears from a source that former major leaguer Jonny Gomes has decided to retire from baseball. The 35-year-old spent the 2016 season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japan Pacific League, but he struggled at the plate, batting .169/.280/.246 in 75 plate appearances. Gomes left the Eagles by mutual consent back on May 11.

Gomes won a championship with the Red Sox in 2013 and the Royals last year. He ends a 13-year major league career having hit .242/333/.436 with 162 home runs in 4,009 trips to the plate.

Gomes was known as a clubhouse leader during his playing career, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he ends up coaching or managing in some capacity in the future.