This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: March, 2016
Old Guard vs. New Generation No Kiddin’: Adam LaRoche’s Controversial Exit
Is Chase Field Too Old for the D-Backs? So Long, Joe Garagiola

Wild Pitches

Yes, They Can’t Believe This Really Happened
(March 2016 Edition)

Hey Coach, the Khakis Stay in the Locker
Michigan football head coach Jim Harbaugh performed third base coaching duties for the first three innings of the Tigers’ 10-3 spring training victory on March 2 against Pittsburgh.

Just How In-Depth Are Your Interviews?
Jessica Moran, a reporter for Comcast SportsNet New England, resigned from her job after it was revealed that she had a relationship that was a bit more than professional with Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell. It’s apparently the latest in a string of amorous trysts between Red Sox members and local female reporters.

Red Socked
Boston pitching prospect Michael Kopech, who was banned for 50 games last year thanks to illegal stimulants, will miss more time this year after he broke his hand fighting a roommate.

I'm Your Car, Foolishly Parked Behind the Outfield Fence
Milwaukee prospect Jacob Nottingham launched a home run in batting practice that smashed the windshield of his own car in the players' parking lot.

For Goodness Sakes, Please Buy a Vowel
The Braves selected Evan Rutckyj in the Rule 5 draft (poaching him from the Yankees) late last year, but sent him back to New York. Perhaps it's because they couldn't pronounce his last name. (In case you're wondering, all you have to say is "root-ski" and you'll be right.)

There's Still A Little Juice in Him
Miami hitting coach Barry Bonds, 51, held an informal home run derby that included himself and Marlins star bopper Giancarlo Stanton—and Bonds won.

The Wall Around Wrigley Just Got Ten Feet Higher
Thick-haired, thin-skinned presidential candidate Donald Trump threatened attack ads on Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and family because of their donations to an anti-Trump PAC—and because they’re doing a “rotten job” with the team.

Havana Twist
Veteran ESPN reporter Bob Ley, doing a live standup from Cuba on the day the Rays and Cuban national team played in Havana, was interrupted by a Cuban dissident.

No no, Yo
Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes argued that a deep fly hit by Houston's A.J. Reed that came to a rest at the base of the wall was not playable and should be ruled a ground rule double. But umpire C.B. Bucknor almost laughably ruled Cespedes off while Reed slowly circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run.

Just When We Thought Shoe Horns Were Out of Fashion...
Milwaukee reliever Will Smith, slated to be the Brewers’ co-closer in 2016, tore a knee ligament in spring camp while taking off his cleats in the clubhouse.

You Can Duck, But You Can’t Hide
While the opposing Rays were attempting a stolen base during a spring game, Toronto pitcher Drew Hutchison crouched down to the side of the mound to avoid being hit by catcher A.J. Jimenez’s throw to second—and he got hit in the head anyway.

Now He Thinks He’s Sosa
The Cubs' Jon Lester, who last year set a major league record by going hitless in his first 66 career at-bats, hit a spring training home run—and it was an opposite field shot. As Han Solo said to Luke Skywalker after the latter blows up his first TIE fighter in Star Wars: "Great kid—don’t get cocky."

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Tuesday, March 1
Aroldis Chapman will have to wait a month before making his regular season debut for the New York Yankees. The former Cincinnati closer has been suspended 30 days without pay by Major League Baseball for a domestic violence incident in Miami this past winter. Chapman accepts the penalty—which will cost him $1.8 million in wages—and will remain eligible to play exhibition games for the Yankees before Opening Day.

Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez, about to start the final season of a very club-friendly five-year $7 million contract, is extended by the Royals for another five seasons and $52.5 million.

Perez says he signed the original deal to move her mother to a safer town in his native Venezuela. But just a few days before Perez signs the new extension, she is a victim of a carjacking (she is fine, the car is later found), and now hopes to move her and the rest of his family to America.

The Colorado Rockies announce that they are going to raise the wall height at Coors Field nearly eight feet to 16.5 from center to right-center field, matching the existing height of the out-of-town scoreboard in right; additionally, another five feet will be added to a section of the wall near the left-field foul pole.

Much has been attempted to mute the prodigious offense at mile-high Coors Field, the most interesting concept being the introduction of the humidor in the early 2000s that appeared to help. But while home runs and perhaps total runs may be reduced with the heightened fence, you can surely expect more would-be homers to become doubles and triples, which are also aplenty in Denver given the ballpark’s expansive field dimensions.

Wednesday, March 2
So it’s only an exhibition game, but it’s impressive all the same; Atlanta’s Mallex Smith triples twice in the first inning, part of a seven-run outburst against Baltimore in an 11-4 win. Only four times in the past 100 years has a player tripled twice in one inning during a regular season game.

In his first at-bat of the spring, Detroit outfielder Cameron Maybin—projected to start in center field for the Tigers on Opening Day—is hit on the wrist by the New York Yankees’ Luis Severino and will miss roughly the next month of action.

Thursday, March 3
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brett Anderson, one of the few players to accept a one-year qualifying offer of $15.8 million for 2016 rather than opt for free agency, needs surgery on his back and will be out anywhere from three to five months.

Friday, March 4
Infielder Maicer Izturis, beset by injuries over the past few years, calls it quits after serving 11 mostly part-time seasons in the majors, primarily for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This generates a little more news than one might think, because Izturis’ retirement now leaves pitcher Bartolo Colon as the last remaining active player who can say he once played for the Montreal Expos.

Saturday, March 5
While fielding a foul ball during a spring game, veteran St. Louis shortstop Jhonny Peralta sustains what will eventually be deemed a torn ligament in his left thumb. The injury will likely sideline Peralta, a starting NL All-Star last season, for two to three months.

This is not good news for a team that’s considered, on paper, to be slipping behind the rival Chicago Cubs.

Sunday, March 6
Los Angeles infielder Chase Utley wins his appeal of the two-game suspension he received for upending the Mets’ Ruben Tejada during last year’s NLCS.

Which leaves us to ponder: MLB makes a new rule in which a slide like the one Utley broke Tejada’s leg on is illegal—yet they won’t penalize the player (Utley) who helped make it law as such?

Monday, March 7
Slugger Pedro Alvarez signs a one-year, $5.75 million deal to play for the Baltimore Orioles. The 29-year-old former Pirate finally lands where he belongs: In an American League city where he can DH after many error-filled seasons at Pittsburgh, including a 2015 campaign when he led the team in gaffes while playing the relatively easy position of first base.

As some teams prepare their ballparks with extended protective netting beyond the required major league minimum, a 59-year-old woman attending an Atlanta-Toronto game in Dunedin, Florida is struck in the head by the broken bat of the Braves’ Kelly Johnson. She is taken to a hospital with what is described as “blunt trauma”; her husband, who unsuccessfully tried to shield her, suffers an injured wrist and a shattered watch.

Tuesday, March 8
Exactly one year after a spring game involving the Kansas City Royals is interrupted by a swarm of bees, a game between the Royals and Colorado Rockies is yet again stopped when another group of bees swoops in and settles near the Royals’ dugout in Surprise, Arizona. A retired beekeeper attending the game rescues the fans and players from the bees and vice versa, insisting that bees be saved rather than killed because “there aren’t enough bees in the world.”

As noted, bee swarms at spring games in Arizona are not uncommon. It happens at least once a year.

Thursday, March 10
It’s apparently a day for baseball stars from different generations to sound off about the state of the game. In an ESPN interview with Washington’s Bryce Harper entitled “Sorry Not Sorry,” the reigning NL MVP laments about how baseball is “a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself.” “You can't do what people in other sports do. I'm not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it's the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair….Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn't care. Because you got him. That's part of the game.”

Harper might want to avoid running into Goose Gossage in the near future. The Hall-of-Fame closer also has some things to say on this day, and it clearly forms a profane counterpoint to Harper’s point. In a rant worthy of Glengarry Glen Ross, Gossage assails the very players Harper embraces, stating that showing up others on the field has no place in the game. He singles out Toronto slugger Jose Bautista for “throwing his bat and acting like a fool”; he also rages on sabermetrics, stating that the game has become a “freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it.”

Bautista and the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes, also named in the same angry breath by Gossage, both respectfully disagree with his comments when asked for a response. “I’m disappointed he made those comments,” Bautista says, “but I’m not going to get into it with him.”

A week later, more old-school legends chime in. Hall-of-Fame catcher Johnny Bench says that if Harper is okay with the bat flip and the excitement it brings, then he should be okay with the brushback and knockdown pitches that are sure to follow—and would also make for great entertainment in front of the fans.

The Oakland A’s, who have had a rough recent history of fragile starting pitchers, suffer another injurious blow when Jarrod Parker fractures the same bone in his elbow that he broke late last year in the minors while making a comeback from his second Tommy John surgery. The latest break happens just 12 pitches into a simulated game, the 27-year-old Parker’s first action this spring.

Saturday, March 12
It took 13 tries, but the Baltimore Orioles finally win their first game of the exhibition season, easily knocking off the Minnesota Twins by an 8-1 count. The Orioles had previously lost ten games and tied twice.

Not that it matters once the games start to count, but we were curious as to just who owns the worst spring training record ever. Online standings are hard to locate beyond 2002, but the worst we could find was the 2012 Cleveland Indians, who finished 7-22.

Monday, March 14
In his second spring start for the San Francisco Giants, pitcher Johnny Cueto survives a major scare when the very first pitch he throws against the Oakland A's is lined off his forehead and into right field. Cueto is a little dazed but continues on, tossing three innings and allowing three runs in a 7-2 loss; it is later determined that he has not suffered a concussion.

Tuesday, March 15
Veteran slugger Adam LaRoche decides to forgo $13 million and the final year of his two-year deal with the Chicago White Sox and retires from the game. Age (36) and a recent lack of production (.207 average, 12 homers in 127 games during 2015) have something to do with it, but LaRoche is also irked that the White Sox have asked him to not bring his 14-year-old son to the clubhouse every day. LaRoche finishes with a career .260 average, 1,452 hits and 255 home runs over 12 years.

The controversy over LaRoche’s son reaches silly proportions a few days later during a clubhouse meeting when White Sox ace Chris Sale reads team president Kenny Williams the riot act for being the one who told LaRoche to stop bringing the kid in. Williams apparently found out about the boy’s everyday presence when several White Sox players began complaining to him about it; the clubhouse tension reached a point where some players threatened to boycott a spring training game over the issue.

Really? Boycott a game over this? Sure, bringing the players’ kids into the clubhouse is nothing new in the majors; it’s been happening for years—but usually before batting practice, or after the game if the team is victorious. The worry from a management perspective is that, perhaps, if someone like LaRoche gets his wish to bring his kids in every day, then so should every other player-father—and that could turn a major league clubhouse into a virtual schoolroom. The White Sox’ request was reasonable; Sale’s rant, if true, is way over the top.

Fearing a prolonged saga, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf forces the last word on the topic, saying no one is at fault for all of this and that no one within the organization will have anything more to publicly say on the matter—in other words, he’s put a gag order on his players and staff.

The broken leg Ruben Tejada suffered last October after being notoriously upended by the Dodgers’ Chase Utley will turn out to be the last action the 26-year-old infielder will see with the New York Mets, who today release him. Tejada had played the last six years for the Mets, mostly as a part-time shortstop. The Mets admitted that the offseason addition of Asdrubal Cabrera deepened the middle infield to the point that they viewed the $3 million owed to Tejada as an unnecessary luxury.

A few days later, Tejada will be signed by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Wednesday, March 16
Bronson Arroyo, who hasn’t pitched in a regular season game since mid-2014 due to Tommy John surgery, is discovered to have a near-complete tear of a shoulder muscle that will likely spell the end of his career at age 39. The 15-year veteran has a career 145-131 record, 4.19 ERA and a World Series ring as part of the memorable 2004 Boston Red Sox team; he had been trying to make a comeback this spring with the Washington Nationals.

Friday, March 18
Rafael Soriano calls it a career after 14 major league seasons split among six teams, the last of those being the Chicago Cubs—for whom he appeared just six times in 2015. The Dominican native developed into a closer by mid-career and, playing for Tampa Bay, led the AL in 2010 with 45 saves; he also tallied up over 40 saves in 2012-13. Soriano finishes his career with a 2.89 ERA and 207 saves.

The Tampa Bay Rays will be without closer Brad Boxberger for at least the next eight weeks after he undergoes abdominal muscle surgery. It’s likely that the Rays will look within to find a replacement while Boxberger, who saved 41 games last season, is on the shelf.

Saturday, March 19
For a guy who wasn't even expected to be on the Oprning Day roster, Albert Pujols is doing pretty well for himself at Spring Training. In an eight-run third inning, Pujols homers twice to help the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim romp over Milwaukee at Tempe, 15-7; he now has three jacks on the spring.

Sunday, March 20
The games may not count in spring training, but the pain is just as real. Ask back-up Milwaukee outfielder Rymer Liriano, hit in the face by a fastball from the Dodgers’ Matt West during a Cactus League game. Liriano suffers multiple facial fractures and is sent to a Phoenix hospital.

The Chase Utley rule is put into use and ends a spring game in Florida between Pittsburgh and Toronto. The Pirates are trailing in the ninth by a 3-2 count but have two runners on base with one out; Jason Rogers grounds into a force at second, but Antoan Richardson—running from first—overslides the bag and, per the new rules, is called out along with the batter, resulting in a double play and the end of the game.

Monday, March 21
It's reported that the Washington Nationals will have Nationals Park renamed for the entity that bids the highest amount of money. Why has the team waited eight years since the park opened to do this? Because, it is theorized, that the Nationals will need the money to help pay a potential blockbuster contract for Bryce Harper in the near future.

A naming rights deal for the D.C. ballpark would leave the majors with ten facilities untitled by corporate sponsors.

Tuesday, March 22
As part of President Barack Obama’s groundbreaking visit to Cuba to help restore relations between the U.S. and the island nation, the Tampa Bay Rays play an exhibition against the Cuban national team. The Rays’ 4-1 win, attended by Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro, is only the second game involving a MLB team played in Cuba since the 1959 communist takeover; the other was played in 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles visited. Also on hand are commissioner Rob Manfred, Derek Jeter, Dave Winfield and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Back in the States four days later, an angry anti-Castro protestor storms the field during a Rays-Pirates spring game in Florida and throws a beer into the Tampa Bay dugout. No one is hurt and the assailant is arrested.

More bad news for the Dodgers, who are limping through the exhibition season with one injury after another: Outfielder Andre Ethier will be sidelined between up to three months with a broken leg. This makes it nine players on Los Angeles’ 40-man roster who are likely to be unavailable for Opening Day.

A scheduled game in Utah between the Angels and their Triple-A team, the Salt Lake City Bees, serves as a reminder as to why spring training games are played only in Arizona and Florida; it’s cancelled due to snow.

Wednesday, March 23
Joe Garagiola, who began his career in baseball as a catcher but became far better known for his presence behind the mic for NBC, dies at the age of 90. The St. Louis native debuted for his hometown Cardinals at age 20 in 1946, and was 6-for-19 in the Redbirds’ World Series triumph over the Red Sox that season. He would eventually play nine seasons in the majors for four different teams, hitting .257 with 481 hits and 42 home runs; but it’s his life after a playing career where he gained his biggest popularity as a broadcaster, both nationally for NBC and locally for the Cardinals, Yankees, Angels and, from 1998-2012, with the Arizona Diamondbacks—for whom his son was a member of the front office. Garagiola’s folksy nature played well with Middle America, and that helped him transcend the baseball spotlight by being a one-time co-host of NBC’s Today Show, a game show host and, from 1994-2002, the TV host for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (a role for which he was hilariously parodied by Fred Willard in the 2000 movie Best of Show). In 1991, Garagiola was inducted into the broadcast wing of the Hall of Fame.

Forbes releases its annual estimated value for each major league team with the average at a record $1.2 billion; not surprisingly, the Yankees are tops at a whopping $3.2 billion, followed by the Dodgers ($2.4 billion), Red Sox ($2.1 billion) and Giants ($2 billion). Half of the teams are under $1 billion, bottomed out by the Miami Marlins at $675 million.

Thursday, March 24
The Arizona Diamondbacks publicly state that Chase Field, their home of 18 years, needs $187 million in publicly funded repairs and upgrades—and if they aren’t made, the team will leave the ballpark in 2024 (when the existing lease allows them to) and seek a new facility elsewhere.

Don’t be surprised to see more of this from teams who’ve built ballparks in the last 20 years; the Atlanta Braves have already made good on their threat to leave Turner Field (built in 1997) and will move to a brand new ballyard next season. In the Diamondbacks’ case, their threat may just be a mere matter of putting public pressure on local government to pay up and get the repairs done—but after the Braves, no one can be sure.

Also, there’s this: How is it that so many of the newer ballparks are suddenly outdated while Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium—baseball’s three most ancient facilities—just hum along as if there’s nary a structural issue?

Fans in Scottsdale are treated to a most bizarre, nationally televised spring training game between two of the NL’s top teams, the Giants and Cubs. Both teams’ aces—Chicago’s Jake Arrieta and San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner—are both hit hard to start a wild, sloppy night won by the Cubs, 16-14. But the most talked-about moment occurs in the Cubs’ fourth, when Bumgarner—after striking out the Cubs’ Jason Heyward looking—takes offense when Heyward talks back in his direction; a potential bench-clearing brawl is diffused when it’s all understood that Heyward was actually trying to get the ear of teammate Dexter Fowler, stationed at second base.

The controversy then becomes one of what exactly Heyward and Fowler were talking about. Heyward eagerly tells the press after the game that he was merely trying to find out from Fowler if the pitch truly was a strike; but other witnesses, including Bumgarner, believe Fowler was stealing catcher Buster Posey’s signs and Heyward was vocally miffed that he was given bad information. It would be astonishing, even in an exhibition game, to see players discussing the topic on the field without easy earshot of opponents.

Friday, March 25
MLB tells players that they no longer can place personal stickers on their bats—such as the “Duffman” graphic San Francisco third baseman Matt Duffy placed on the bottom knob of his bats last season. Our initial thought was that baseball did this because maybe there would be some sort of distraction for opponents and umpires should the stickers come off in play, but the ruling is officially created to avoid potential commercial placements.

Obviously, MLB has taken a page from the playbook of the NFL (sometimes referred to as the No Fun League) and decided to be Scrooge on a fairly innocent topic. One wonders if there was some wayward complaint from one of baseball’s bigger sponsors, worried that someone might place a sticker of a competitor on his bat.

The ban will be lifted a month later after Bryce Harper dares to challenge it.

A 1-1 game between Houston and Atlanta at Kissimmee, Florida is ended midway in the seventh due to rain being delivered by some of the most ominous looking clouds this side of Independence Day. Check this out.

Texas infielder Rougned Odor belts three homers in the Rangers’ 12-11 spring victory over the Padres at Surprise, Arizona. Overall, there are eight round-trippers hit—the final one a walk-off blast by Bobby Wilson in the ninth.

Saturday, March 26
Split squads for Houston and San Diego travel to Mexico City for the first of two exhibition games at small (5,000 seats) Fray Nano Stadium, the first game featuring a major league team here since 2004. The Astros win today’s game, 11-1; the Padres respond in more than kind the next day, scoring nine first-inning runs on their way to a 21-9 walloping.

The high scoring in both games is easily attributed to the stadium’s dimensions—410 to center, but just 325 down each line—and its exceptionally high altitude of 7,350 feet, a full 2,000 feet higher than Denver’s Coors Field.

Sunday, March 27
It’s another bizarre spring contest featuring the Cubs and outfielder Jason Heyward. In the third inning with the opposing Mariners at bat, a swarm of bees descends upon right field and Heyward gets caught in the middle of it; at one point he climbs to the top of the fence to avoid the buzz. He’ll ultimately suffer 20 bee stings and the game is delayed for several moments. The Mariners defeat the Cubs, 12-9, behind three home runs and seven RBIs from Robinson Cano.

Monday, March 28
As the final week of spring training begins, roster cuts are announced and include some familiar names. Among those being released are Jesus Montero (whose lack of progress and the occasional drama frustrated the Seattle Mariners to no end), Texas pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, Chicago Cubs outfielder Shane Victorino, Atlanta outfielder Nick Swisher and San Diego pitcher Phil Humber, who threw a perfect game just four years ago.

Montero will be picked up by Toronto; the Cubs will re-ink Victorino to a minor league deal; and Humber, who split his activity last season between Korea and the Dominican Winter League, announces his retirement at age 33.

Wednesday, March 30
The Yankees, ready to go the regular season’s first month without suspended closer Aroldis Chapman, potentially lose another third of their vaunted relief trio when a line rive breaks the right wrist of Andrew Miller in a spring game. Fortunately, Miller is a southpaw—and he hopes to play through the injury.

It’s a good day for major leaguers recently accused of beating up people. Authorities in Hawaii drop the spousal abuse charge against Colorado infielder Jose Reyes after his wife continues to be “uncooperative” toward investigators. And Delmon Young—still looking for a major league employer—has his charge of choking a valet in Miami dropped when the accused fails to show up in court.

Reyes, currently on paid leave from the Rockies, is not out of the woods yet; MLB, which has gotten tough on players charged with domestic abuse, may still suspend him.

Thursday, March 31
The Philadelphia City Council passes a resolution in which the city officially apologizes to Jackie Robinson for the harsh treatment given to him by the Philadelphia Phillies, their fans and other locals during his first major league season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson’s most harrowing on-field experience during that historic first year came from Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who led his team in unleashing an unrelenting torrent of racist vile toward him.

Detroit outfielder J.D. Martinez becomes the third player within a week to belt three homers in a spring training game, performing the feat in the Tigers’ 10-6 win over a split squad of New York Yankees.

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