MLB Network morning show crew still giving fans their baseball fix

On a typical April morning, the reporter, the anchor and the ex-player would gather at the MLB Network studios to recap the previous night's baseball games and discuss the day's hot topics. 

But due to the coronavirus outbreak, this year has been anything but typical for Lauren Shehadi, Robert Flores and Mark DeRosa – the hosts of the network’s popular morning show, "MLB Central." They’re still getting together, but they’re doing so from their homes – Shehadi in Maine, Flores in New Jersey and DeRosa in Georgia.

“It should be baseball season right now. I want to talk about baseball,” says DeRosa, who played 16 seasons in the majors, in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “I’m just fired up that we took this step to at least put ourselves back out there. It’s a glimmer of hope. That’s the way I look at it.”

MLB Central hosts (L-R) Mark DeRosa, Lauren Shehadi and Robert Flores can't broadcast from the MLB Network studios during the coronavirus shutdown, so they're getting together for digital segments three times per week. (Photo: MLB Network)

The digital-only version of MLB Central airs three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Unlike the full three-hour breakfast buffet that usually appears on television, this is more of an appetizer.

“Sports fans are so starved for anything to serve as a distraction to what is some really grim news,” Flores says. “I think we’ve done a good job … to give people a distraction, an escape and just put a smile on their face, even if it’s for 10 minutes.”

The discussion topics are mostly fun and light-hearted, emphasizing the trio’s chemistry.

“You’d be hard-pressed if you walked into our studios to know if we’re taping or not. It’s the same kind of banter on- or off-camera,” Shehadi says.

Which five people can @LaurenShehadi, @RoFlo, @markdero7 & the @TheMayorsOffice not wait to see back on the field? #MLBCentral

Hint: One of them is “Cookie Belltts” 😂

The main questions fans want answered these days are when baseball will return and what it will look like when it does. From his experience, DeRosa says most position players will need 40 competitive at-bats – around two to three weeks – before they’re ready to play real games. But that’s where the similarity to past seasons will likely end.

“This is an opportunity within the game to take some chances,” he says. “If there are no fans, can we mic the players? Is there going to be an electronic strike zone? Some different innovations that they can take a look at moving forward when it does return to complete normalcy?”

If the regular season has to be trimmed, Shehadi is intrigued by the possibility of expanding the playoffs.

“I don’t know that there’s anything more exciting than a wild-card game. If there’s more of those or a best-of-three (series) where the manager’s every single move has to be calculated and every single move matters … That is so much fun to watch,” she says. “Watching a wild-card game is my favorite thing in sports, so any more of that is a beautiful thing in my opinion.”

As a former player, DeRosa says working with Shehadi and Flores has helped him see the game from a different perspective. “The old-school version of me would say, ‘No, I don’t want expanded playoffs. You have to earn the right to get in.’ The new-school way of me is thinking, like Lauren, ‘Those wild-card games. There ain’t nothing better. If I can get more of that, I’m in.’ ”

Figuring out which teams will make the playoffs is always a fun topic. Flores thinks the Tampa Bay Rays will be there, possibly unseating the New York Yankees as AL East champs. Shehadi believes the Cincinnati Reds have a great shot in a “wide open” NL Central. And DeRosa can’t wait to see the excitement in Chicago, where the White Sox will be “super-interesting” and his former teammate David Ross (“I think he’ll be amazing!”) is taking over as the Cubs’ new manager.

Even though it may be a while before any of those predictions can be judged, Flores says it helps to at least be able to look ahead to when things are a bit closer to normal.

“Traditionally, baseball has had a very important role in being there for the country in various times of despair,” he says. “We all want to see the game back.” 

Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner

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New York Mets announcer Gary Cohen pokes fun at Houston Astros in ‘virtual’ broadcast

To make up for the lack of baseball, Sportsnet New York (SNY) — the television home of the New York Mets — is simulating the team's regular season on the MLB The Show 20 video game. 

On Tuesday night, with virtual Jacob deGrom toeing the rubber against the Houston Astros and their ace Justin Verlander, SNY added a wrinkle by having its broadcast team of Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez on the call. 

Around the middle innings, Cohen — the play-by-play man — couldn't help himself and made a joke alluding to the Astros' scandal-ridden offseason. 

"You can hear very little from the crowd tonight. It almost feels like you're playing in a library," Cohen said, setting up the punchline. "Which would mean that any sound that might be emanating from the dugout, say, the sound of a trash can being banged, would be quite formidable."

The shade from Gare 😂😂

An MLB investigation during the offseason revealed an elaborate, player-driven electronic sign-stealing operation used by the Astros during 2017, the year they won the World Series, and during most of 2018, including the playoffs. 

One of the scheme's techniques involved players signaling the incoming pitch to the hitter at the plate by banging a trash can near the dugout. 

The Mets won Tuesday's simulation 2-1, and 1-0 in the burn department. 

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Yankees legend Gehrig’s bat auctioned for $1M

  • ESPN staff writer
  • Joined ESPN in 2011
  • Graduated from Central Michigan

A bat used by New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig that dated back to 1924 was sold for $1,025,000 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas this past week.

The auction house initially had the item up for auction in the February lot with a $950,000 reserve.

The bat did not meet the reserve, but Director of Sports Auctions at Heritage, Chris Ivy, says a private buyer came in after the auction to purchase the item.

“We had been discussing the bat with (the buyer) over several conversations the last couple weeks,” Ivy said. “He decided to pull the trigger last week and make the purchase.”

The bat had traded hands privately before this sale, but had never been sold publicly or at auction.

Ivy says this bat is the most significant Gehrig bat in the hobby because it is the bat Gehrig sent back to Hillerich & Bradsby, who made Louisville Slugger bats, when he joined the Yankees in 1924. Gehrig sent it back to the company to use it as a model to make any other bats the company produced for him.

“He sent this one back and said, ‘like the specs, I like the length, I like this weight and I like how this bat was created in the factory,'” Ivy said. “So he sent it back, which is when they dated it on April 22, 1925 and said this is the bat I want you to use to create my future bats.”

The million dollars plus that the bat was able to sell for makes it rare in itself as Ivy says only a handful of sports items can fetch that price. The bat Babe Ruth used to hit his first home run at Yankee Stadium sold in 2004 for $1.3 million and a game worn Gehrig jersey in the February lot at Heritage Auctions sold for $870,000.

“We actually sold a 1937 Lou Gehrig jersey in a different auction. It was worn multiple games,” Ivy said. “Typically in that time, they would only wear four jerseys for an entire season; two home and two road jerseys and they would alternate. We sold that in August of last year for $2.58 million.”

As far as Gehrig bats go, Ivy says the most expensive bat the auction house had sold from the former great had been in the $400,000 range. This one eclipsing that mark made noise throughout the industry and set a new mark for valuable baseball memorabilia.

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Opinion: MLB’s crazy Arizona 2020 plan could have terrible consequences

PHOENIX — People are dying across the world.

There remains no vaccine for COVID-19.

And Major League Baseball is worried about starting a season as soon as possible, bringing in about about 3,000 players and team officials from across the nation, including dozens of countries, magically guarantee that everyone is insulated and coronavirus-free, and act like this is for the good of the country.


MLB and its players would love to have a season starting this summer. They even discussed a three-month tournament beginning in September. Anything to play some baseball before spring training commences next February.

But it’s time for a reality check.

Do you really think MLB and the players' association are about to embark on a season in which they get tested for COVID-19 whenever needed, including a result within hours, while health care workers and first responders can’t even qualify for a test?

Sure, everyone would love to get paid, but no one in their right mind is that heartless.

MLB discussed the idea of having 30 teams and its personnel assemble in Phoenix in May, insulate themselves from the rest of the world, sequestered in separate hotels, and play games in empty stadiums – Chase Field, 10 spring training sites, and three collegiate fields.

General view of Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Arizona. (Photo: Matt Kartozian, USA TODAY Sports)

Everyone would be under quarantine, allowing travel only between ballparks and hotels, requiring players and personnel to sit in the stands at least six feet from one another, with no family members permitted to even visit them while away, let alone watch them play games.

It would be a ghastly sci-fi movie coming to life, with players impersonating robots, with all of the personality and emotion sucked out of their bodies.

The players' association listened to MLB officials explain the concept that’s been batted around for a week on a conference call Monday. They hung up, promised to get feedback, engage again in conversations, and were left wondering how in the world it could possibly work?

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The first deal-breaker, before the two sides even start talking about logistical concerns that would fill the Grand Canyon, is money.

The players, by agreeing to sacrifice their health, and willingness to be away from their families for at least four months, would want to be paid their full salary, at least a pro-rated share of their remaining salary for the games missed.

Sorry, two MLB owners told USA TODAY Sports they would never approve any deal if there are no fans without requiring players to take a significant paycut – perhaps as much as 40%. Why, with no fans in the stands, no parking revenue, and no concessions, that wipes out about $4 billion of the $10.7 billion in revenue MLB generated last year.

Owners also stress that their local TV money will be slashed by playing in Phoenix. You can’t have every team playing in prime time. And who wants to stay up until 1 a.m. every night if you’re a fan for an East Coast team, unless you get sadistic pleasure watching your favorite players endure 110-degree heat in the Phoenix summer months?

You’re also talking about the loss of corporate sponsorships, and stadium naming rights considering no games are being played at their ballparks.

Major League Baseball knows it has plenty of friends in powerful places. They are is in daily contact with federal agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health and Human Services, who are supportive in efforts to bring sports back.

Certainly, it would be a great boost to the Phoenix economy when the oppressive summer heat suffocates businesses. Yet, local government officials are wary about untested players suddenly arriving into town with the pandemic yet to reach its apex in Phoenix. And even if the government allows MLB the privilege of having unlimited tests, how do you explain that to the locals who lack the resources to get tested?

Baseball is trying everything to keep their hopes alive of a 2020 season, discussing a myriad of ideas, but the risk of playing any time soon should dwarf the idea that entertainment in our lives will make this deadly virus any less tolerable.

“The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount,’’ MLB said in a statement Tuesday, “and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.”

You really want a pennant race at the risk of others?

Go ahead, but you better brace yourself for the consequences, ones that could damage the sport and haunt its leaders forever.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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Opinion: Cal Ripken Jr. to share his memories of historic 2,131 game, and just when we need a boost

It was the night the baseball world stood still.

Now, 25 years after Cal Ripken Jr. helped restore our love for baseball, he’s back again, reminding us that as we endure these tough times, hope awaits, and we can celebrate together again, just like the night of Sept. 6, 1995.

“This is such a tough time for all of us,’’ Ripken tells USA TODAY Sports, “but even with all of the challenges, I’m pretty optimistic. I look at the innovation. Distilleries have turned into hand-sanitizing plants. Automakers have turned into ventilator makers. People have pushed their ideas towards resources to help.

“Everyone is working together.’’

It has been 159 days since we last had a real Major League Baseball game, and it will be at least a few months longer, perhaps even until 2021, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the sports world.

But Tuesday night on ESPN, Ripken will try reviving those feelings, emotions and romanticism that made us fall in love with baseball, playing in his 2,131st consecutive game, eclipsing legendary Lou Gehrig.

“It was a night bigger than Cal and Lou Gehrig,’’ said Hall of Fame broadcaster Chris Berman, who worked the game for ESPN. “It was a sacred night for not only baseball, for not only sports, but it was a night for America."

Ripken and Berman will celebrate the game with the ESPN launch of BBTN Live (Baseball Tonight Live), a weekly digital pregame show that will air classic baseball games called MLB Encore Tuesdays. Ripken and Berman will discuss their memories before the game, and Ripken again in the fifth inning on ESPN’s social media platforms. The game will re-air on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET.

Ripken, in turn, will enter the Twitter universe for the first time as @CalRipkenJr. He’ll use the platform to announce that the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation will be launching the Strike Out Hunger campaign during this pandemic, contributing $250,000 with their partners.

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“This reminds you in a way of 9/11,’’ Ripken says, of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011, just three weeks before the end of his career. “It shook everyone to the core. You’re sitting there in disbelief. You want to do everything you can to help in any way you can.

“I think if baseball can come back, like we did back then, it can provide some healing, a distraction, and let people focus on some of the good things on life.’’

This is the first time in 25 years that Major League Baseball missed its traditional opening day, but that was only because of a labor dispute between the players and owners. Ripken’s streak was two days away from being over when the owners and players ended the 232-day strike and the threat of using replacement players.

Cal Ripken waves his hat to the crowd after breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played record. (Photo: H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY Sports)

“I remember Mark Belanger (with the players association) told me he thought it would be OK if I played with the replacement players because of my streak,’’ Ripken said. “I wasn’t going to do that. I never thought about it. There was a clear sense of responsibility. If the streak was to end for that reason, that was still the right thing to do.’’

President Bill Clinton was in attendance for the record-breaking game. New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio, a teammate of Gehrig’s, was there. So was Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, his former manager. And former Orioles Hall of Fame great Earl Weaver. And, of course, his family, was among the sellout crowd of 46,272.

The game became official at the end of the fifth inning. The crowd stood on its feet, and roared, and refused to stop.

He saw his father, Cal Ripken Sr. in a suite, pumped his right fist, gestured with his left hand, and started to cry. He walked over to the stands to see his family, took off his jersey and handed it to them, revealing he was wearing the black T-shirt with white lettering they presented to him that morning: 2,130+ Hugs and Kisses for Daddy.

“I haven’t watched it much in its entirety,’’ Ripken says, “because I didn’t want to change my perspective of it. The most powerful part was that ovation, and that lap. You get reminded of so many memories along that trip. The people that I recognized by face, some by name, and the celebration just seemed to be so intimate. You could relate to the crowd individually.

“And seeing my dad in the sky box, catching his eye, you could feel a million emotions between us.’’

Berman and ESPN color commentator Buck Martinez never uttered a word during the entire celebration, letting the pictures capture the scene.

“We get paid to speak, and we won an Emmy by saying nothing,’’ Berman says. “But we couldn’t have talked if we wanted to.’’

Ripken sat back and reminisced about all of it during an hour-long telephone conversation over the weekend from his Maryland home. The truth about the streak is that it was never about catching Gehrig. Never about reaching historical numbers. It was about pride, simply getting up, getting dressed and going to work every day.

“People called me selfish at times when I continued to play,’’ Ripken says, “and I laugh. It was never about Gehrig’s record. Never once did I want to be in the lineup to break it. I grew up believing I should come every day to the ballpark ready to play, and if the manager wrote your name in the lineup, you played. I was there to win my day."

Ripken went on to play three more seasons without taking a day off after that night, with the consecutive game streak ending at 2,632 games on Sept. 28, 1998. No one has played even 550 consecutive games since the streak ended. Kansas City Royals infielder Whit Merifield has the longest active streak at 247 games, just ahead of Oakland Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien, who has started 243 consecutive games.

“It’s different now,’’ Ripken says. “The definition of an everyday player is not playing every day. It’s 145 games. Or 150. Everything is so analytic now, managers want to give their guys periodic rest to get the best out of them."

Now, here we are 25 years later, and we’ll be watching Game 2,131 again, celebrating as if it’s the first time we saw the balloons fly into the air, fireworks screaming into the night, the warehouse number changing, and Ripken trotting around the outfield.

Baseball, one day, will be played again. Maybe even this year. If they can squeeze in 81 regular-season games, Ripken says, at least that could be representative of a season.

But for now, all we have are memories, with hopes we can all celebrate together again, just as we did the night of Sept. 6, 1995.

“I hope people get the same feeling 25 years later,’’ Berman says, “a feeling of hope and togetherness. I get emotional just talking about it.

“And for that game to be shown now, with what this nation and world is going through, the timing couldn’t be any better.

“We need this.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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Former Colorado Rockies star Todd Helton sentenced to 2 days in jail over 2019 DUI arrest

Former Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton was sentenced to two days in jail over a 2019 DUI arrest in Tennessee, Knoxville assistant district attorney Sean McDermott confirmed to USA TODAY Sports on Monday. 

Following a one-car automobile accident on March 18, 2019, Helton received a misdemeanor citation for driving under the influence. According to the police report obtained by USA TODAY Sports, Helton's vehicle crashed into a pole. He claimed that he had taken an Ambien in the afternoon, however, the officer on duty wrote in the report that Helton had a cup in his car that smelled like alcohol. 

Helton then pled guilty to a first-offense DUI, which gave him the sentence of 11 months and 29 days on unsupervised probation and suspended his license for one year. According to McDermott, Helton was also ordered to pay a $250 fine, attend a victim impact panel and serve "48 hours in custody." 

Helton, 46, had a previous DUI arrest in Colorado in 2013.

Helton spent all 17 seasons of his career with the Rockies. In his career, he batted .316 with 369 home runs and a .953 OPS. He's been on the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame three times and has an upward trajectory of being inducted; in 2020 he doubled his total votes.  

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Sid Bream, for the first time, plans to watch the classic 1992 NLCS game that made him a cult hero in Atlanta

Sid Bream has seen his famous slide thousands and thousands of times, but for the first time in years, maybe ever at his home, planned Friday to plop down in his living room, turn on the TV, and watch the entire baseball game.

It will be hard to miss.

Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Season between the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates is being televised three different times throughout the day Friday on MLB-TV as one of baseball’s classics, ranked as the fourth-best game in MLB history.

The game that sent the Atlanta Braves into euphoria, returning to the World Series for a second consecutive year, and breaking the hearts of Pirates’ fans, once again.

“I have an employee, a friend of mine,’’ says Bream, who is a corporate chaplain at the PGT Trucking company in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, “and every time I go to his desk, he tells me I was out.

“You were a disgrace to Pittsburgh.’’’

Atlanta's Sid Bream celebrates after scoring the winning run in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. (Photo: Rusty Kennedy, Associated Press)

They can laugh about it now, Bream told USA TODAY Sports on Friday, but 28 years ago, there was a death threat from an angry Pirates fan, threatening to kill his entire family.

Over a baseball game.

Bream, 59, was born and raised a Pirates fan himself. He played six years in their organization. One of his sons, Austin Leyland, is named after Pirates manager Jim Leyland. He cried when the Pirates didn’t make him a competitive offer to re-sign him as a free-agent, leaving him to sign with Atlanta.

But, 28 years ago, standing on second base, in the ninth inning with his team down, 2-1 in the deciding game of the NLCS, he had one job to do:

Find a way to cross home plate with the winning run.

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Pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera, at the plate facing Pirates closer Stan Belinda, hit a line drive to left field. David Justice easily scored from third base with the tying run when Pirates All-Star left fielder Barry Bonds picked up the ball. Bream, who remembers having a monstrous lead off second base, so big that he probably would have been picked off base if Belinda or catcher Mike LaValliere threw behind him, took off running.

This was a 32-year-old man, who already had six knee surgeries, and was the slowest position player on field, painfully trudging around the bases.

“I still have no recollection whether (third-base coach) Jimy Williams was giving me the stop sign or not, no idea,’’ Bream says. “I didn’t even look at him. I just know you were taught to put pressure on the defense, and getting another base hit or walk is difficult.

“Besides, there were things in my favor. There were two outs. I didn’t have to worry about where the ball was hit. I just had to take off at the crack of the bat.

“And if you look at the video, I had a tremendous lead. If they had thrown behind me, I was dead.’’

Bream rounded third and slid straight to home plate, tucked in his left knee, LaValliere slapped the tag, a split-second after Bream’s left heal touched the plate.

Home-plate umpire John McSherry, who would die four years later of a heart attack on opening-day in Cincinnati, correctly ruled safe.

And Bream laid on the ground, screaming, with Justice the first one jumping on him, and then the entire team.

“It was all a blur, that’s why I’m going to go home and watch the whole game,’’ Bream said . “I remember that ninth inning, of course, but there’s a lot more I want to recall from the game. A gentleman was telling me about David Justice throwing out Orlando Merced in the eighth inning, and how our defense was impeccable. I want to see that again. I want to feel it again.’’

Bream, who spent parts of 14 years in the major leagues, never made an All-Star team. He was never a Gold Glove winner, but four times led National League first basemen in runs saved. He was uncanny in his consistency, hitting .253 to .275 for seven consecutive years excluding his injured 1989 season, averaging 12 homers a year.

“I wasn’t a franchise player,’’ Bream said, “but I saved a lot of errors from my infielders. You could always depend on me.’’

There may not be a soul who can remember any other detail about Bream’s career, but on the evening of Oct. 14, 1992, in front of a paid crowd of 51,975 fans at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, they will forever remember the slide heard ‘round the Deep South.

“Everywhere I go, to this day,’’ Bream says, “people still want to talk about it.

 “And that’s just fine by me.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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Opinion: Will Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch work in baseball again? A jury of peers will decide

It's been pretty easy to forget about Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, who are approaching the 90-day anniversary of their one-year ban from Major League Baseball and subsequent firing as general manager and manager, respectively, of the Houston Astros. 

Since then, their former players were turned into virtual piñatas, first for a hungry media, then for jeering spring training fans all seeking some semblance of justice for their sign-stealing scheme. A few wayward Grapefruit League pitches found flesh. New manager Dusty Baker and GM James Click tried to move on. 

And then a global pandemic cast baseball almost completely from public view, with little time to ponder whether the game will be played at all, let alone wonder what the fate of its scalawags might be. 

It was confirmed this week that Luhnow and Hinch's 2020 suspensions will expire as the season does, even if no baseball is played. That's not surprising, given that they already were out anywhere from $2 million to $5 million in salary, even before owner Jim Crane decided to fire them. They were already two months into their sentences before baseball shut down spring training and delayed the season. Their bans were set to end at the conclusion of the 2020 World Series, an event that may not exist. But a season is a season, a year a year, as the players who will receive a year of service time regardless of whether they throw a pitch or take an at bat were pleased to recently discover.

Manager A.J. Hinch led the Astros to the World Series last year. (Photo: Shanna Lockwood, USA TODAY Sports)

No, the long-term fate of Hinch and Luhnow lies not in the semantics of their ban but the mercy of their brethren. 

In theory, nothing's stopping Luhnow – proud patriarch of Codebreaker – and Hinch – who dared the world to find dirt on the Astros, only to end up deepest in the mud – from finding jobs in 2021. They will be free men. 

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Whether they should ever work again in baseball – or at least serve in any "control" capacity – is another issue. 

Time has not been kind to either figure. Further reporting only deepened Luhnow's complicity. Hinch's claim that he smashed a TV monitor to send a message to his cheating players did not find corroboration in the 2019 clubhouse.

And the COVID-19 scourge has upended the world at large, let alone the very small place baseball occupies within it. 

What appetite will there be to rehabilitate and amplify shamed and easily replacable figures?

In the near term, not much. 

When baseball returns, don't expect Luhnow and Hinch to be back with it. MLB's sentence was just a year on paper. There should be sufficient distate for the de facto ban to last much longer.

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March 30, 1992: Sammy Sosa is traded to the Cubs, and his enigmatic baseball legacy begins

On this day in 1992, Sammy Sosa still had dark skin.

While the former slugger’s skin pigmentation has taken a turn for the obscure, this day in history hasn’t: because it was the day Sosa and reliever Ken Patterson were traded to the Cubs for George Bell.

Sosa was signed as a high-schooler out of the Dominican Republic, and made his debut at age 20 for the Rangers. He would be traded once to the White Sox for Harold Baines and Fred Manrique, and after a few years of disappointment with Chicago — and the White Sox determining they were a player away from really competing for a World Series — the South Side and North Side combined for a trade.

Sosa went on to hit more than 600 home runs in his career, while Bell, an established major league outfielder, would have two really bad seasons with the White Sox before retiring. There’s really not much of a debate as to who won the trade, even if it seemed like the right deal at the time for the South Siders.

But more than anything, Sosa’s legacy isn’t — or shouldn’t — solely be defined by his alleged steroid use. Of course, Sosa was part of the summer that saved baseball in 1998, when his home run chase with Mark McGwire resulted in fans coming back to the sport to watch them chase Roger Maris’ home run record. (Lest we forget, Ken Griffey Jr. finished with 56 long balls that season, too).

While Sosa’s dominance was confined over a six-year stretch, you literally cannot tell the history of baseball without him, which is why his Hall of Fame candidacy — or lack thereof — has been so confusing. For some reason, the history of the summer of ’98 tends to focus solely on McGwire. While he ended the season with 70 big flys, Sosa, too, broke the single-season home run record that year.

Sure, some of that is semantics, because McGwire got there first, but Sosa still finished the season with 66 homers, which is, frankly, a lot. And it was, in fact, a broken record.

Only eight players in baseball history have more career home runs than Slammin’ Sammy and, in hindsight, he’s being unfairly punished for juicing when steroids are arguably what saved baseball in the ’90s. People tend to focus on the negative of Sosa’s career (the congressional hearing, the Mitchell report) more than what he did (brought fans back).

Sosa got a small bump in voting percentage this past cycle, climbing to 13.9 percent — the highest his percentage has been. But he has two more years on the ballot and is roughly 60 percentage points away from election, so he’ll likely face the same fate as McGwire and live out his eligibility on the ballot before falling off.

But Sosa, like McGwire before him, deserves better. And while his career leaves behind something of an enigmatic legacy, there’s no denying that that legacy started on this day 28 years ago.

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MLB, union agree on stipulations for return

Major League Baseball owners have approved a plan to address salary and service-time issues amid the indefinite delay to the start of the regular season, according to ESPN and multiple reports.

The owners completed an agreement reached between MLB and the players’ union Thursday night, which came after nearly two weeks of morning-to-night negotiations that involved players, owners, agents, executives, union officials and commissioner’s office staff.

As part of the agreement, obtained by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the players and MLB primarily agreed that the 2020 season will not start until each of the following conditions are met:

  • There are no bans on mass gatherings that would limit the ability to play in front of fans. However, the commissioner could still consider the “use of appropriate substitute neutral sites where economically feasible”;

  • There are no travel restrictions throughout the United States and Canada;

  • Medical experts determine that there would be no health risks for players, staff or fans, with the commissioners and union still able to revisit the idea of playing in empty stadiums.

While there was no formal framework in the agreement, owners and players both want to play as many games as possible. The flexibility of both sides was seen in the willingness to extend the regular season into October, play neutral-site playoff games in November and add doubleheaders to the schedule.

Players pushed to receive a full year of service time, which counts days toward free agency, arbitration and pension, even in the event of a canceled season. When MLB agreed to grant that, the path to a deal coming together was forged, sources said.

The union agreed not to sue the league for full salaries in the event that the 2020 season never takes place, and MLB will advance players $170 million over the next two months, sources said. The MLBPA will divvy up the lump sum among four classes of players, with the majority of it going to those with guaranteed major league contracts. If games are played, the advance will count against final salaries, which will be prorated.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has the discretion to shorten the 2020 draft to as few as five rounds, and it will be moved from June to sometime in July, sources said.

Manfred also can delay the 2020 international signing period, which was supposed to run from July 2, 2020, through June 15, 2021, to at the latest Jan. 1, 2021, through Dec. 15, 2021. MLB also has the right to shorten the 2021 draft to as few as 20 rounds and push back the next international signing period as well — though international free agency might well be gone by then, as the league plans to pursue an international draft at the conclusion of the current collective bargaining agreement, which runs out in December 2021.

Sources said players drafted in 2020 will get only $100,000 of their bonus this year. The remaining amount will be split into payments made in July 2021 and July 2022.

Also, teams will be unable to trade draft picks or international slot money, sources said.

Mookie Betts, J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman, among others, are guaranteed to be free agents come November regardless of the season’s status. If the year is canceled, Betts might never play for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who traded for him this offseason.

The agreement also calls for a transaction freeze, which bars teams from signing free agents, trading players and making roster moves.

And there will be a rejiggered setting for arbitration, the system that awards players with three, four and five years of service time with higher salaries. While arbitration is a numbers- and precedent-based system typically, the sides will change that to acknowledge the shorter schedule.

Any players punished with a drug suspension will serve the penalty in 2020, even if there is no season, sources said.

While both sides believed they made concessions, they settled around an obvious point: No sports league wants to be seen as bickering about billions of dollars amid an international health and financial crisis. In addition to the agreed-upon financial particulars, the parties engaged in significant discussions about the most vital issue now and in the future: how to proceed amid the outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

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