Hot Stove #137 – Opening Day In The Time of Coronavirus

After a league-wide 102-game rain delay, the Royals open the 2020 season tonight at Progressive Field in Cleveland.

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Starting the season in Cleveland will be a sort of homecoming for Royals owner John Sherman. He became a minority owner of the Indians in 2016. Good timing. Cleveland won the American League pennant that season and went to the World Series (where they lost to the Cubs). Below, Sherman with the 2016 AL trophy. The Indians were also in the post-season the next two years. A good run for his four seasons with the team.

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But when his hometown Royals became available for purchase this past winter, Sherman stepped up with other local investors to buy the team. He’s back and wearing Royal Blue.

Kansas City Royals finalise 'US$1bn' John Sherman takeover ...

Sherman and his fellow owners caught a bad break for their first season, but they have handled the situation with class. I look forward to the day when John again holds an AL trophy – for the Royals. And a World Series trophy too.

 MLB Network – A Welcome Back: MLB Network has produced a touching video welcoming fans back to baseball. Written by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated and narrated by actor Jon Hamm. Click here (3:44).

Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter: The MLB season kicked off with two nationally televised games last night. There were many signs of a new normal. No fans. Masks. Social distancing.

And social justice. Each game began with the players from both teams holding a long black tapestry, a socially distanced alternative to linking arms to show unity. Morgan Freeman’s voice boomed out with words written by the Phillies Andrew McCutchen and his wife Maria. “This moment signifies our charge. Our brotherhood. Our unity. Equality and unity cannot be until there is empathy.” All players took a knee before the national anthem. Some did during the anthem.

The first game was in Washington D.C. where the reigning World Champion Washington Nationals hosted the New York Yankees. Dr. Anthony Fauci, wearing #19 (as in Covid), threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Dr. Anthony Fauci throws first pitch at Nationals-Yankees MLB opener

Also on the field at Nationals Park last night: The MLB/BLM logo. Patches on a Yankees uniform sleeve (the HGS is for Hank Steinbrenner who died this year).

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 In the second game, the Giants played the Dodgers in Los Angeles. In addition to kneeling in the opening ceremony, Mookie Betts of the Dodgers took a knee during the anthem. Several Giants did the same.

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 In other baseball news, the Yankees won 4-1 in a rain-shortened game, and the Dodgers won 8-1.

 The 60-Game Schedule: With the season reduced from 162 to 60 games, the Royals will play only nine teams – their four fellow AL Central Division foes and the five NL Central Division teams.

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60-Game Team Standings: I asked some Hot Stovers to predict the number of Royals wins for this season. Steve Roling – 30, Jeb Bayer – 28, David Matson – 26, Lonnie – 25, and Bob White – 24.  We did this on Tuesday, before it was announced that two of our starting pitchers might be out longer than expected. And before Hunter Dozier tested positive for Covid-19. Sad to say, the Royals have a good chance to lead the league in Covid-19 cases. As of the Dozier news, the team accounted for 8 of the 73 reported MLB cases.

Projections by FanGraphs for all 30 teams are available here.

 60-Game Player Statistics: Season records for home runs, stolen bases and the like will be very safe this year. This is not the case for records based on percentages. A hitter or pitcher who gets on a hot streak in a truncated season has a shot to catch Ted Williams (.406 batting average in 1941) or Bob Gibson (1.12 ERA in 1968). In 1980, during George Brett’s .390 season, he had a 60-game streak when he hit .469.

So will there be asterisks if any records are broken in a short season? That’s what Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said would happen when Roger Maris hit his 61 home runs in 162 games while Babe Ruth had 60 in 154. In reality, no asterisk was ever used for the Maris record. If you think about it, the Covid-19 molecule looks like an exploded asterisk.

 Kneeling On the Field: Last night, Giants manager Gabe Kapler and several of his players took a knee during the anthem. They also did so earlier this week in an exhibition game. Tweets followed.

MLB supported the players in a tweet: “It has never been about the military or the flag. The players and coaches are using their platforms to peacefully protest.”

President Trump took offense and tweeted, “any time I witness a player kneeling…the game is over for me.” Kapler responded: “I see nothing more American than standing up for what you believe in. I see nothing more patriotic than peaceful protests when things are frustrating and upsetting.”

MLB players explain sudden choice to kneel for anthem: 'Simply put ...

A Woman On the Field: Giants manager Gabe Kapler also made news by naming a new coach. Alyssa Nakkan joined the Giants as an intern in 2014. The former college softball star worked in baseball operations, including health and wellness programs, and this year was named an assistant coach. She is the first full-time female coach in MLB history, and this week in an exhibition game, she became the first woman to coach on the field in a major league game. Check it out here.

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 Advertising On the Field: If you watched the Royals exhibition games, you likely noticed the ads on the pitcher’s mound. They are virtual and change frequently. These advertising “insertions” on the field are part of a new program established by MLB to “help the league, teams and broadcasters fulfill marketing commitments during the shortened season.”

In this screenshot of Kauffman Stadium, note the ads down both baselines. The T-Mobile ad in center field is a type of virtual ad that has been allowed in prior seasons. It is seen only on TV because that area is the “batter’s eye” location that must be unobstructed at the park.

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 In this oddball season, I’m glad to watch no matter what. But next year, please, no ads on the playing field.

Alcides Escobar and Baseball in Asia:  Former Royals shortstop (and 2015 ALCS MVP) is currently playing for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Last week, Esky hit his first homer in Japan (check out the video).

 Alcides Escobar hit four hits and towed a hairline in Japan ...

Covid-19 and baseball initially followed similar tracks in Japan and the United States. The virus hit Japan on January 16, the U.S. on January 20. Japan shut down spring training on March 9, and MLB did so three days later.

Japan started regular season games on June 19, but without fans. On July 10, fans were allowed, but limited to the lesser of 5,000 or 50% of stadium capacity. The baseball season in the U.S. started last night, and for now, no fans.

In Korea, the regular season started on May 5, and the plan is to play a full season of 144 games.

Taiwan’s response to the virus was so successful that it was able to start its baseball season on April 11. Initially, no fans were allowed, but now stadiums can be filled to 50% capacity. Below, a game on July 11 in Taiwan.

CNA photo / July 11, 2020

Llamaste Update: As you may recall from an earlier Hot Stove, Rita merged her love for llamas with her yoga regimen with a “Llamaste” shirt (as in the yoga mantra “Namaste”). Rita has now acquired a matching mask that reads “Llamastay 6 feet away.” I can assure you that she is smiling behind that mask.

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Patrick Mahomes and Hamilton: Two major events since the last Hot Stove. First, the “live capture” of Broadway’s Hamilton with the original cast began streaming on Disney+. Second, Patrick Mahomes was signed by the Chiefs for a half-billion dollars or so. Out there on Twitter, someone posted a mashup to celebrate both events.

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Birthdays This Past Month: Many happy returns to some fine athletes.

Turned 75: Royals Hall of Famer Hal McRae was the prototype for the new designated hitter rule when it was adopted by the AL in 1973. His aggressive cross-body blocks to break up double plays led to the “McRae Rule” requiring that runners slide into second base (see this takeout of Willie Randolph in the 1977 ALCS).

1979 Topps Baseball Card #585 Hal McRae - VG | eBay

This past week, another KC athlete turned 75 – Irv Blond, my law partner and condo neighbor. Irv lettered in three sports at Pem-Day. Baseball, basketball and football (nine letters in three years). Irv was a star on the Pem-Day basketball team that was ranked #2 in the city in two of his three years. In his senior year at Williams College, he was the leading scorer and captain of the basketball team.

Irv’s wife Sharyn also has a birthday this week. She is younger. Below, Irv in 1963, his senior year at Pem-Day, courtesy of Randy Leathers (Irv’s Pem-Day teammate).

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Turned 65: Willie Wilson, another Royals Hall of Famer, stole 668 bases and topped a .300 batting average five times. My favorite plays in baseball are triples and inside-the-park home runs. Willie led the league in triples five times and hit 13 inside-the-park homers.

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Turned 35: Pat Venditte. Who? Good chance you have not heard of him. He’s only pitched a total of 68 innings in small parts of four major league seasons. He is currently a free agent, and at 35, may be nearing the end of his career. But he is the namesake of the “Venditte Rule” that applies to ambidextrous pitchers. Venditte pitches lefty to left-handed hitters and switches for right-handers. A switch-pitcher in baseball vernacular.

But what to do if a switch-hitter is up? When playing in the minors, Venditte would wait and see which side the hitter was going to use and then pick an arm. But he met a challenge one night when a switch-hitter stepped out of the box and went to the other side. Venditte then switched too. It kept repeating, and the umpire stopped the dance by ruling that the hitter had to choose first and stay put. MLB established a rule later that year, but it took the opposite approach. Under MLB Rule 5.07(f), the pitcher declares first and then the batter can decide.

I did not know (or forgot) this piece of baseball trivia. But Hot Stove reader Tom Grimaldi filled me in. He told me that his son Del, who plays Special Olympics softball and is a HUGE Royals fan, throws from both sides and owns two “Venditte Gloves.” These custom six-finger gloves allow the pitcher to switch arms without getting another glove. There is a thumb slot on each end to accommodate the right or left glove hand. Click here to see Venditte pitch from both sides in his major league debut. Below, Venditte and Del Grimaldi (sporting a Royals uniform) with their Venditte gloves.

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In other birthday news, today is my son Brian’s birthday. He’s the webmaster for the Hot Stove archives (click here).

Walking the Streets: We have not done much walking in Loose Park because of the difficulty of social distancing. But we went early one day and were rewarded with a rare visitor, this grey heron.

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I’m usually too slow on the draw to get photos of rabbits, chipmunks and Cardinals. But this bunny stood still long enough.

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We always keep our eyes on the bird feeders at the Kauffman Foundation lake. I’ve run a photo of this feeder in a prior Hot Stove, but am doing another because I got a lucky shot of a couple of the birds coming in for a landing.

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Lonnie’s Jukebox – Fifty Years Ago: In 1970, the Cincinnati Reds moved in mid-season from Crosley field to the new Riverfront Stadium. They won the NL pennant, but lost to Baltimore in the World Series. These two teams also had the MVPs – Johnny Bench of the Reds and Boog Powell of the Orioles.

Other 1970 baseball highlights:

The All-Star Game, played at Riverfront Stadium, is remembered for Pete Rose scoring the winning run in a vicious collision with catcher Ray Fosse.

Hank Aaron got his 3000th hit and Ernie Banks his 500th home run.

The expansion Royals, in their second season, were 65-97.

Curt Flood filed his lawsuit to challenge the reserve clause.

And these songs were hits that year (click on the song titles to listen):

“Band Of Gold” by Freda Payne.

“25 Or 6 To 4” by Chicago

“We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters

“Fire And Rain” by James Taylor

“Joy To The World” by Three Dog Night

 GO ROYALS!