Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 15: Bruce Maxwell takes a knee

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In the fall of 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem in silent protest of police brutality and racial inequality. He was joined by a handful of other players at first, and then by many more in 2017.  The protests led to a political firestorm, fanned by President Donald Trump and conservative news outlets, each of which willfully mischaracterized the players as protesting against the American flag and the National Anthem itself. Since then the NFL, its fans, its players and coaches and team owners, politicians, advertisers, broadcasters and commentators of every stripe have been consumed with the politics of athlete protests.

On September 23 — a day after President Trump called for all protesting NFL players to be “fired” — Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first baseball player to take a knee during the National Anthem. He would continue to do so for the final week of the season. His stated reason for doing so: to express his frustration at the Trump-led opposition to the player protests and to criticize the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.” The Oakland A’s had Maxwell’s back on the matter, saying in a statement that they “respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.” Maxwell got some boos on the road, but nothing serious came of his protest during the season.

As I wrote at the time — and as I still believe — protests during the National Anthem are highly unlikely to become widespread in baseball. Partially because baseball players, generally speaking, skew more conservative than football players do. Partially because baseball, by its nature, values and encourages a certain conformity and strongly discourages non-conformity or individuality. Even if a player feels strongly about a given matter, he’s not likely to take a knee or protest in any other conspicuous way before or during a game lest he become “a distraction.” I suspect that Maxwell himself will cease to protest in 2018 given that, after the season, he became embroiled in minor scandal and criminal charges. When you’re anything short of a superstar, you do not want to stick out if you can avoid it.

Whether or not Maxwell or anyone else kneels during the Anthem in 2018, it’s doubtful that baseball can avoid politics indefinitely. We live in an age where seemingly everything carries with it at least some political overtones and, despite the contention of many, sports are a part of society, not an escape from society. They provide a lot of entertainment, yes, but they do not provide a safe space for those seeking to ignore society’s problems. Largely because athletes are people too and the world impacts their work and their lives just as it impacts yours and mine. Also because sports owners, sports leagues, sports unions, sports advertisers and sports broadcasters are all, to various degrees, advancing their own political agendas at almost all times.

So perhaps a catcher kneels. Or perhaps a pitcher says he won’t visit Donald Trump if his team wins the World Series. Maybe a respected manager breaks out of cliches and speaks frankly. Maybe the new awareness of sexual misconduct in the workplace affects baseball executives. Maybe baseball executives speak contemptuously about their workers in public. Maybe the fallout from political strife puts the lives of players and their families in danger. Maybe something totally unexpected takes place which causes baseball to be put under the same political microscope football is under these days.

You may wish we could keep sports politics free, but given that politics do not stop at the stadium gates, such a wish is futile.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.