The news about Missouri defensive end Michael Sam coming out in the runup to the NFL combine is the rare football story that catches my interest. And while normally it would just be my interest, I was asked on the Erik Kuselias radio show this morning how I thought such a story would play in a baseball context. I hadn’t given it any thought until the moment I was asked, but a few minutes later I’m still fairly satisfied with my gut response.
That response: I feel like baseball would handle it pretty well. I’m not naive enough to think that no one would say something dumb or awkward, but I feel like it would be far more likely to come out of simple clumsiness than animus. The reason? Jackie Robinson, mostly.
While every sport has its integration story, none is more widely known than baseball’s. Much to baseball’s credit, every player has Jackie Robinson’s history and example drilled into them. Part of that history is Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman’s (and other bigots) role in it. I think most players and coaches are well aware of what it looks like to be on the wrong side of history. I’m not saying that example would instantly change everyone’s mind and heart — there are bigots everywhere — but I feel like most people in baseball would think a lot about what they said if, for no other reason, than no one wants to be Ben Chapman in baseball’s next civil rights story.
Another reason I think baseball would do OK if the Michael Sam story were repeated here is that, unlike in the NFL, players grow into the game over time rather than show up as preexisting stars via their college exploits. There aren’t many baseball players in Michael Sam’s position — not yet in the game but famous enough to command media attention — because most amateurs are unknowns. A baseball player at the same level of Sam’s fame would have already been considered a top prospect and would be an integral part of his team’s future. No one would ask about whether he would be a distraction or whether a team would be willing to take a chance on him. He’d have already played in the futures game and a couple levels of the minors and fans would have already spent two or three years agitating for him to get a shot on the big league roster over that veteran they’re tired of seeing. Those uncomfortable threshold questions like the ones being asked about Sam this morning — who will take a chance on him? — would be moot.
Alternatively, a player could come out when he’s in high school or college. This may lead to the same sorts of “who will take a chance on him” questions, but the leverage and attention paid to a baseball draftee is so much less than in football. Each year he leveled up — to double-A, Triple-A, etc. — there would be some interest or stories in him, but it wouldn’t be a big media explosion like I suspect the Sam stuff will be over the next couple of weeks. The big league media would see how the smaller-scale media had been handling it for a couple of years and those obviously dumb initial questions and reactions will have been played out, leading to, one hopes, a more thoughtful consideration of the player.
As with any trailblazing event, there would be interest and curiosity and ignorance and some unfortunate incidents here or there. But I feel like baseball’s far less intense scrutiny of young players in general combined with the Jackie Robinson model would make a baseball player coming out less of a thing than some might suspect it would be. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my initial thought.
UPDATE: Jason Beck of MLB.com confirms that it’s a two-year, $18.5 million deal.
8:00 p.m. ET: Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish reports that the Tigers have avoided arbitration with outfielder J.D. Martinez by agreeing to a two-year contract. No word yet on the terms involved, but Robert Murray of Baseball Essential reported earlier today that he was hearing rumblings about a two-year, $18.5 million deal.
Martinez filed for $8 million and was offered $6 million by the Tigers when arbitration figures were exchanged last month. There has been some talk about a long-term extension, but we heard last week that the two sides were discussing both one- and two-year deals. This new deal will buy out Martinez’s final two years of arbitration, so as of now, he’s still on track to go into free agency after 2017.
After a breakout 2014, Martinez batted .282 with 38 home runs and an .879 OPS over 158 games last season.
Veteran reliever Eric O'Flaherty is coming off the worst season of his career, but there’s still plenty of interest in a bounceback, as ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports that he’s deciding between four teams and “should sign a deal by the weekend.”
You really can’t sugarcoat O’Flaherty’s 2015. The 31-year-old was flat-out bad, posting an 8.41 ERA and 21/18 K/BB ratio over 30 innings of work between the Athletics and Mets. Opposing batters hit .343/.427/.482 against him. I keep going back to check if that’s a misprint, but nope, it’s real. He also missed some time with shoulder inflammation. On the bright side, Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports reported last month that O’Flaherty feels healthy and believes that he has fixed his mechanics.
O’Flaherty’s career has veered off track since Tommy John surgery in 2013, but he has enjoyed plenty of success in the past and throws from the left side. He’s the kind of guy who will continue to get chances.
Veteran outfielder Roger Bernadina has agreed to a minor-league contract with the Mets that includes an invitation to spring training.
Bernadina was a semi-regular for the Nationals from 2010-2012, but never developed as much as hoped offensively and didn’t play in the majors at all last season.
At age 32 he’s a career .236 hitter with a .661 OPS in 548 games as a big leaguer and given the Mets’ outfield depth–they already have Alejandro De Aza and Juan Lagares in bench/part-time roles–Bernadina seems likely to begin the season in the minors.
Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that Twins reliever J.R. Graham has lost “roughly 30-40 pounds this offseason.” It’s not a result of workouts, though. Just a change in diet. Bollinger says that Graham cut out sugar, alcohol and foods heavy in carbs and focused on a high-protein diet with lots of salads, meats and vegetables.
That’s an awful lot of weight to lose in four months, but the dude is only 26 and guys in their 20s lose weight just by thinking about it. Which is so very annoying to those of us who aren’t guys in their 20s.
The real test, of course, will come when he is working out far more strenuously once spring training starts and gets into the season. Normal schmos like me can keep up that kind of diet without much of a hitch as long as we have the willpower. An athlete’s energy requirements are far greater and far more specialized, so he’ll need more fuel than he’s probably been getting this offseason. Word is, however, that professional sports teams have people on staff that, you know, have made monitoring that kind of thing their life’s work.
In the meantime:
“I can just feel the change,” Graham said. “The energy. Everything. I feel great. I’m excited to see how it’ll translate into spring. I know I shouldn’t have any problems because I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m faster. All that. So it’s really exciting.”
It’s very exciting indeed. Because, with that, Graham becomes the latest baseball player to be . . . In The Best Shape of His Life.