Major League Baseball has had a rocky first half of the season save for one bright spot: Widespread vaccinations against the coronavirus have allowed consistency of play on the field and put thousands of people back in the seats.
Otherwise, there’s been the crackdown on pitchers using sticky substances on the baseball, not to mention issues with the new baseball itself.
“As an industry moving forward, we’re just trying to create the best version of the game we possibly can,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said about the league’s heightened enforcement of the rule, which calls for an offending pitcher to be suspended for 10 games while penalizing the team by not allowing a replacement on the roster.
“For us and kids who might want to play in the future it’s the right thing to do,” Maddon added.
Through the first five days of enhanced monitoring, no pitchers have been caught.
Meanwhile, the upcoming July 13 All-Star Game was yanked out of Atlanta and moved to Denver under a cloud of political controversy. The event will be staged with Angels two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani participating in the Home Run Derby. He’s tied for the MLB lead with 23 homers.
The revamping of the minor leagues to 120 teams has hardly transpired smoothly, with Oaktree Capital Management offering private loans to the many teams in financial distress.
Team USA just qualified for the Tokyo Olympics with nominal assistance from MLB, which won’t allow players on 40-man rosters to participate. In the deciding game, Todd Frazier, who had been cut by the Pittsburgh Pirates and was an eligible free agent, was 4-for-4 with a run-scoring double and homer in a win over Venezuela.
That team, however, won’t look the same when the Olympic tournament opens on July 28. “Some of our young kids are going to the majors,” Team USA manager Mike Scioscia said. “It won’t be the same team. We’re working on it.”
Each of the six teams going to Japan must play by MLB’s restrictive rules, which will force at least the U.S. to reconstitute its team just before the Games. Frazier, for one, said he plans to be there.
Collective bargaining for a new Basic Agreement, meanwhile, is crawling along slowly toward the Dec. 1 expiration of the current five-year contract.
“Both sides can potentially agree to suspend the deadline as a result of the progress that has been made,” said Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLB Players Association. ”There’s also the possibility of a work stoppage.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred countered by trying to play down the potential of a lockout.
“Since I’ve been at MLB, we’ve had a pretty good track record at that,” he said. “We’ve never had a dispute, and I believe, I really am optimistic, that the process will work here. We’re committed to the process. We’re open minded. We’re optimistic. We want to make an agreement. Those should be good sentiments for all baseball fans to hear.”
The overall track record of MLB avoiding another cataclysm has been less successful.
But the one area MLB has excelled has been vaccinating players and team personnel against the coronavirus, which wreaked havoc on a 2020 season shortened to 60 games.
Thus far, 22 teams have surpassed the 85% level that MLB has cited for herd immunity, thus becoming eligible for reduced COVID-19 protocols. That’s with the union recommending but not mandating vaccinations for the players.
Last year, six teams were hit hard by COVID-19 causing dozens of postponements—from two days to two weeks—with the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds most significantly affected.
There were no fans in the stands last season—except for the National League Championship Series and the World Series, each played at less than 50% capacity at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Tampa Bay Rays in six games after living and playing nearly two months in the Arlington bubble.
With 45.4% of all Americans fully vaccinated, fans are back at max capacity almost everywhere, including Dodger Stadium.
“That’s why we’re trying to do it again,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said before his 44-30 club lost three in a row this week to the division rival Padres in San Diego. “We didn’t have the thrill of winning it at home or having a parade. We want to do it for our fans at Dodger Stadium.”
The Dodgers are four games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West and only half a game ahead of the Padres. The surprising Giants, at 48-26, have the best record in baseball.
COVID-19 thus far has plagued only two teams: the Washington Nationals, who at 35-36 have struggled to overcome another very slow start after having their first four games postponed, and the New York Yankees, who had at least eight uniformed and non-uniformed personnel test positive, including coaches Phil Nevin, Reggie Willits and Matt Blake, plus shortstop Gleyber Torres, who had to go on the inactive list.
All were supposedly protected by the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, New York general manager Brian Cashman said when this all transpired in May. The team, which was one of the early teams to reach the 85% threshold, didn’t have to postpone any games because of the spread.
But the Yankees are 39-34 and currently out of the American League playoff picture despite the second highest player payroll in baseball of $200.5 million, well behind the $250 million spent by the Dodgers. The Bronx Bombers are hitting an 18th in the league .233, five points below the MLB league average of .238.
“I’m frustrated,” Cashman said. “I certainly didn’t expect to be in this position at this stage. I’m thankful there’s still a lot of season left so there’s some chance to fix it.”
And then there are the Arizona Diamondbacks, one of the eight teams that haven’t reached the threshold, a club official confirmed. There’s been no public manifestation of any internal discord that’s led to the D-backs having one of their worst seasons in history, but being stuck in restricted protocols certainly couldn’t have helped.
At the same time, they have currently lost a record 23 games in a row on the road, and only snapped an overall 17-game losing streak on Monday. Their general manager, Mike Hazen, is on leave while his wife is dealing with brain cancer. And Torey Lovullo, Hazen’s handpicked manager, is on the griddle having to deal with it all.
They own a 21-54 record after opening 15-13, the worst mark in MLB, having now lost 19 of the last 20.
“We were aware of the talk and chatter around baseball about us losing baseball games,” Lovullo said. “The losses were continuing to pile up, and it’s hard to block all that noise out. Now it’s time to turn it around and start winning baseball games on the other side. This has been an incredible journey we’ve all been on. I can’t explain it. I can’t explain why it happened.”
An injury-plagued starting rotation is a big part of the problem. But there’s still another half season yet to play to figure it all out.
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