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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 23: Those we lost

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. 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.

The baseball world lost some all-time greats, some beloved figures and players, managers and executives well-known and less-well-known in 2018. Here’s a brief look at some of the members of the baseball family who passed away this year. Click through to more thorough remembrances.

Willie McCovey: A 22-season big leaguer, 19 of which came with the Giants. He hit .270/.374/.515 with 521 home runs and 1,555 RBI in 2,588 games in the course of his legendary career. Along with being a Hall of Famer, McCovey won the 1959 NL Rookie of the Year Award, made the All-Star team six times and won the All-Star MVP award in 1969, and won the NL MVP Award in 1969 as well.

Rusty Staub: Staub starred for the Astros, Expos, Mets, Tigers and Rangers over a 23-year playing career, hitting .279/.362/.431 with 292 homers, 1,466 RBI and an OPS+ of 124. He remains 13th all-time in games played, 35th all-time in career plate appearances, 44th all-time in times getting on base and 52nd all-time in career walks. He was a beloved figure everywhere he played, but is particularly identified with the Expos, for whom “Le Grand Orange” was their first major star.

Red Schoendienst: He played in the majors for 19 seasons between 1945-63, spending 15 of those years with the Cardinals and helping them win the 1946 World Series. He later managed the Cardinals from 1965-76, winning two pennants and winning the 1967 World Series. He hit .289/.337/.387 over 2,216 career games, making the National League All-Star roster 10 times. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1989.

Dutch Rennert: National League umpire who worked from 1973 through 1992 and who possessed one of the most distinctive — and loudest — strike calls you’ll ever hear.

Davey Nelson: An All-Star infielder who played in the bigs from 1968 through 1967, Nelson also coached in the majors, worked in the Brewers’ front office and was a broadcaster in Milwaukee for several seasons.

Wayne Huizenga: Founding owner of baseball’s Florida Marlins, under whose ownership they won the 1997 World Series.

Tito Francona: A 15-year major leaguer who played for nine teams but who is best known for his time with the Indians. In 1959, his first year in Cleveland, he batted .363/.414/.566 with 20 homers and finished 5th in AL MVP voting. It also happened to be the year that his son — current Indians manager Terry Francona — was born. Nice year for old Tito, eh?

Wally Moon: 1959 was very good to Wally Moon, too, as he helped the Dodgers to their second-ever World Series title and their first in Los Angeles. Before that he came up with the Cardinals and was named NL Rookie of the Year in 1954 after hitting .304/.371/.435 with 12 homers and 18 stolen bases. He’d make the All-Star team in 1957. In Los Angeles he was famous for taking advantage of the short, short porch in left field of the L.A. Coliseum, which was only 220 feet from home plate. To compensate for the distance, the Dodgers put up a 42-foot tall net. A white monster, if you will. Moon, a lefthanded hitter, began swinging with a pronounced uppercut and attempting to push the ball the opposite way, hitting a career-high 19 dingers in 1959, 14 of which came in Los Angeles. His homers came to be called, appropriately enough, “Moonshots.”

Oscar Gamble: A fine hitter with an outstanding batting eye and plate patience who posted a career line of .265/.356/.454, for an OPS+ of 127. His trade to the New York Yankees before the 1976 season helped set the stage for the Bronx Bombers’ return to the World Series after 12 years in baseball’s wilderness. He may be best known by fans too young to remember the 1970s, however, for his AMAZING afro, which was immortalized on his 1976 Topps “traded” card.

Kevin Towers: A college baseball star who found his true calling as an executive, serving as he general manager for the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks. Under his watch the Padres won four division titles and the 1998 National League pennant. Upon moving to Arizona, the Dbacks won 94 games and the National League West Division title in his first season in charge, just one season after they finished in last place with 97 losses. He was a wheeler-dealer, making many of the more notable trades baseball saw in the mid-to-late 1990s and beyond.

Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo: Valbuena was an 11-year big leaguer who played for the Mariners, Indians, Cubs, Astros, and Angels. Castillo spent parts of five years in the majors from 2004-08 with the Pirates, Giants, and Astros. The two were playing winter ball in Venezuela when they were tragically killed in an automobile crash earlier this month that, as of this moment, appears to have been intentionally caused by men who sought to rob them.

Others we lost in 2018: 17-year big leaguer Bob Bailey, Ed Charles, who played for the Athletics and Mets in the 1960s, 12-year MLB veteran John Kennedy, 114-game-winner Marty Pattin, Billy O’Dell, a two-time All-Star who won 19 games for the NL pennant-winning 1962 Giants, Pirates and Angels mainstay Bruce Kison, and 1981 ERA champ and longtime Orioles reliever Sammy Stewart.

As is always the case with these sorts of remembrances, there are no doubt some we forgot. Apologies for that but, hey, it gives you a good chance to remind us of them in the comments, where we can talk about them and what they meant to you and to baseball a bit more.

Baseball in Arizona as early as May is pure madness

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Overnight Jeff Passan on ESPN followed up on the Associated Press’ report of preliminary talks between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA about the potential resumption of the baseball season. The plan, which is nothing short of radical — and nothing short of highly-fraught — would potentially have baseball resume as early as next month. June at the latest.

The talks are highly preliminary at the moment, but Passan describes the following topics that are at least on the table:

  • All 30 teams would play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and various spring training facilities;
  • “Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium;”
  • Teams would carry significantly expanded rosters to (a) allow for players who get sick or who test positive for COVID-19 to be easily replaced; and (b) to allow for ample rest give that games would be played in the triple-digit heat of the Arizona desert;
  • There would be an electronic strike zone to allow the umpires to keep their distance;
  • There would be no mound visits;
  • There would be seven-inning doubleheaders to allow them to schedule as many games as possible;
  • On-field microphones would be used by players, “as an added bonus for TV viewers;”
  • Players and team personnel would sit in the empty stands 6 feet apart instead of in a dugout to ensure proper social distancing.

There’s a lot to chew on there, but I want to hold off a moment on that chewing. I want to resist the urge to do what we usually do when some radical new idea about sports comes up such as a rules change, the implementation of a new technology, divisional realignment or playoff expansion, or something to that effect. I’ll get to that stuff in a moment, but for now I want to take several steps back and leave the specifics of those things aside and ask a question:

What in the hell are we doing here?

Don’t get me wrong: I miss baseball. Everyone misses baseball. Setting aside the financial incentives at play for the moment, MLB exists to put on baseball games and they want baseball games. Players live to play baseball and they want to play. If we could snap our fingers and make that happen, God, it would be wonderful. If we could play baseball or any other pro sport right now, it would definitely be a pick-me-up for a large part of the nation.

This plan, however, is patently absurd. Less in form than in its very conception and existence.

How, in light of all that is going on at the moment, is this at all justifiable?  How is the level of necessary logistical support to pull this off — the transportation, the isolation, and the prioritization of a few thousand baseball people for testing and attendant medical care if someone gets sick — close to rational?

Just yesterday a member of New York’s city council announced that they will be burying the city’s many dead in temporary mass graves in public parks, ten to a row, and that prison inmates will be offered $6/hour to dig the graves. The governor of Illinois said last night that states are bidding against one another to try to obtain desperately needed medical supplies to treat the national surge in the sick and the dying. Is that what everyone is going through right now? No, of course not. Most of us are bored at home. But that — the tens of thousands of dead and counting and the overarching fear and anxiety which is affecting the populace — provides the national backdrop against which these negotiations are occurring. To call it “incongruous” to be talking about a far-sooner-than-expected return of baseball is a monumental understatement.

Yes, sports have, traditionally, served as a rallying point for the nation. But this is not a war. This is not a natural disaster. This is not a situation where our defiant assertion of normality will help pull us through. We do not need a Winston Churchill figure and, in fact, attempting to be a Churchill figure, we have unfortunately learned, is precisely the opposite of sensible. This is not a situation where keeping calm, carrying on, and acting resolute in the face of peril will help us prevail. A viral pandemic is not impressed with our composure, our resolve or our symbolic gestures such as playing baseball in the face of what can only be described as horror. The only thing we can do in the face of this horror is to take sensible precautions. To collectively sacrifice. To collectively appreciate the risks, stay at home, ride it out, and provide every possible bit of support available to the sick, to those who treat the sick, and to the millions of people displaced, economically and psychologically, by the crisis.

There nothing sensible about this nascent plan currently being floated by Major League Baseball, however. And make no mistake: it is being floated. With a purpose.

This report comes two days after President Trump held a conference call with Rob Manfred and all of the other major sports league commissioners in which he expressed his desire for sports to return as soon as possible. It is in his and his administration’s political interests for that to happen. As it would be, to be fair, in the interests of any president. There was a reason FDR pressed baseball to play on as usual during World War II. My political leanings are pretty plain to those who have read this website for any length of time, but I do not begrudge Trump this impulse, in and of itself. As a leader there are very good reasons for him to want the public to be happy and entertained and, as I said, we would all love to be happy and entertained at the moment.

President Trump, however, has been demonstrably shown to have made countless missteps in his handling of the pandemic thus far. Missteps that, in at least one case, appears to be born by personal financial interest. I simply do not trust his judgment in pressing professional sports back into service and I do not trust Rob Manfred to sensibly push back against political pressure urging him to take what would, clearly, be irresponsible steps in order to make baseball happen the way it is being described in Passan’s column.

And it is irresponsible. Let’s just play this out for 30 seconds:

  • Passan describes a scenario in which players would be isolated for more than four months. Are they supposed to not see their families during all that time? How are they supposed to function under that scenario? Even worse, what if their family members get sick? What if one of their parents die? Is their season over or do they stay in Arizona?
  • No quarantine can be perfect, so there’s a non-trivial chance that despite these efforts someone gets sick. Passan mentioned that they would be removed from their teams and put into isolation. That may be fine for a physically fit 24 year-old, but many managers, coaches, trainers and clubhouse attendants are older and, as such, at far greater risk of complications if they get sick. Some players are too. Adam Duvall is Type 1 diabetic. Kenley Jansen just had heart surgery. Carlos Carrasco and Trey Mancini are cancer patients. What about them?
  • If players are quarantined in hotels or resorts, there are hundreds if not thousands of people cooking for them, cleaning for them, doing the laundry and stuff like that. They all have to be isolated too, no? Just as a virus propagates itself exponentially, so to does the support necessary to put on Major League Baseball games, even in these radically different circumstances.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many other things that infectious disease experts and people who are more involved in the details of putting on games under these circumstances could imagine. Yes, I understand that the idea behind flattening the curve and slowing the spread is not to prevent every single person from becoming infected. That’s impossible. But at the same time, Major League Baseball should not be creating conditions under which a highly infectious disease has an entryway into a in environment where 26 guys and a staff x 30 teams all share close quarters as a rule.

That’s especially true when we look at the benefits of all of this. Benefits which, as Passan freely notes in his article, are primary financial. Or, as noted above, may have some broadly inspirational or symbolic significance. And that’s before you start to assess the actual quality and integrity of the baseball which would be played under these extreme circumstances.

Could they figure this all out? Maybe. Will they do it? I don’t know. It might actually happen. Nothing would surprise me at this point. But even attempting it seems profoundly incongruous to what’s happening in the real world. And profoundly misguided.

And one more thing.

To the extent this misguided plan gains traction, it will be because a lot of us — particularly people in my industry, but fans as well — approach this idea solely through the prism of sports. It will be because, when presented with the idea of a 2020 baseball season in the Arizona Bubble League, we spend more time debating electronic umpiring and whether East Coast Bias is the reason the Yankees and Red Sox get more games in air-conditioned Chase Field and that Oakland A’s have to play more games in 105 degree heat at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa. It will because we thought of all of this as great fun or a cool intellectual and competitive exercise and judged it, as we judge so much else in sports, only on those terms.

We need to think bigger than that. We need to think smarter than that. We need to set aside our laser-focus on sports as the be-all and end-all, set aside our strong and understandable desire to have sports return as soon as possible and treat the current situation with the gravity it deserves.

And this plan ain’t it, jack.