VASCELLARO: Baseball has come a long way since the pandemic shut it down

The Baseball Lifer

Baseball has come a long way
since the pandemic shut it down

CHARLIE VASCELLARO

Major League Baseball sure has come a long way.

Consider where we were this time last year, at what would usually constitute Major League Baseball’s “Mid-Summer Classic” All-Star Game break, the abbreviated 2020 season had yet to begin.

Delayed for three-and-half months by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 season did not begin until July 23, cancelling the All-Star Game for the first time since 1945, when the game was called on account of wartime travel restrictions.

A shadowy 60-game season was played without fans in attendance, replaced by cardboard cutout photographs and piped in crowd noise reminiscent of a television sitcom laugh track.

Except it wasn’t funny and it wasn’t much fun.

But the game plodded on all the way through the post season. The Los Angeles Dodgers finally won the World Series after capturing eight straight National League West division titles.


The off-season was just like any off-season but it’s safe to say that there may have never been such an anxiously anticipated arrival of baseball’s new year as this one.

Opening Day with fans in attendance, even at a limited capacity, brought an early sense of normalcy to life for baseball fans across the country. And in spite of some controversial issues involving rule changes and how to proceed during the ongoing pandemic, the 2021 season has provided some compelling story lines.

MLB’s BLM Moment

Major League Baseball’s concerns with racial diversity and outreach to the African American community in particular occupied center stage at the All-Star Game in Denver, Colorado, which had been relocated from Atlanta, Georgia, in protest of the state’s newly enacted legislation restricting access to voting.

In conjunction with Opening Day, Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred explained the rationale for the decision:
“Over the last week, we have engaged in thoughtful conversations with Clubs, former and current players, the Players Association and The Players Alliance, among others, to listen to their views. I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft.

The Players Alliance is a non-profit organization founded by more than 100 Black current and former professional baseball players, which according to its mission statement, is “focused on creating an inclusive culture within baseball, providing greater opportunities for the Black community, both in our game and the places we live in, play in, and care about most.”

In a press conference during pre-All-Star Game festivities in Denver, just prior to the annual Home Run Derby, Commissioner Manfred announced that Major League Baseball would be donating as much as $150 million to the Players Alliance organization incrementally over the next 10 years.

“The relationship grew because we were united behind two really fundamental goals,” Manfred said. “First of all, we all wanted to see more young people of color playing our game. We want young people period playing the game, but particularly young people of color. Secondly, we all know that we need more diversity in our game. Not just on the field, but everywhere — front offices, commissioner’s office, everywhere. Those two goals continue to bring these two groups together.”

The funding will be distributed towards a variety of programs designed to encourage participation in baseball at all levels including employment opportunities in the industry. It is also part of Major League Baseball’s continued recognition and celebration of African Americans historic involvement in the game.

Prior to the beginning of the 2020 season, Major League Baseball announced an ongoing celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the professional Negro League, marked by a series of programs and events during the season, including a $1 million joint donation from MLB and the Major League Baseball Players association to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

The pandemic put a damper on most of the festivities, and without fans in attendance at major league games, much of the celebration was lost. However, the celebration and recognition has been extended into the 2021 season, marked by MLB’s official inclusion of the Negro Leagues as part of Major League Baseball’s historical record in December of 2020.

This means that pioneering African American players and Major League Hall of Famers like Willie Mays and Monte Irvin will have numbers added to their statistical records and that legendary Negro Leagues stars like Josh Gibson and Martin Dihigo will be identified and acknowledged as being of big-league caliber.

Bob Kendrick, the President of the of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was quoted in the New York Times expressing appreciation at the announcement while also explaining that Black baseball was big league all along.

“It gives greater context to the Negro Leagues in a quantifiable way, as opposed to the lore and legend that sometimes drives this story,” Kendrick said. “But I can tell you this: For those who called the Negro leagues home, they never questioned their own validity.”

As part of the day’s festivities, players on both the American and National League teams wore the number 44 on their respective team uniforms for the team photos in honor of the late great Hall of Fame slugger Henry “Hank” Aaron.

A celebration of Aaron’s life was scheduled to be a promoinent part of the proceedings when the game was still supposed to take place in Atlanta where Aaron played the second half of his career with the Braves and pursued and broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.

This recognition is being carried over to Coors Field in Denver.

Shohei’s Big Show On the field between the foul lines this season, no story is bigger than the emergence of two-way player (hitter and pitcher) Shohei Ohtani as the game’s most versatile and accomplished star.

Since arriving with the Angels in Los Angeles as a free-agent signee from Japan, Ohtani earned Rookie of the Year honors in his first season with the team in 2018, posting a 4-2 record with a 3.31 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 51 innings as a left-handed pitcher in 10 starts, before being removed from the pitching rotation with a UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) injury. He also hit 22 home runs with 61 RBI and a .285 batting average in 104 games as the team’s designated hitter.

After undergoing Tommy John surgery in the winter of 2018, Ohtani continued to be hampered by injuries throughout the 2019 and shortened 2020 season.

What he has accomplished thus far this year as a two-way player is completely out-of-this world and almost unprecedented in professional baseball history.

At the season’s midway point, Ohtani had already set a new home run record for Japanese players crushing (and that is the operative word) a major league leading 33 home runs surpassing Hideki Matsui’s 31 for the New York Yankees in the entire 2004 season.

He also leads the league with four triples, a .698 slugging percentage and 210 total bases. His 70 RBI rank third among AL sluggers behind Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (73) and Boston’s Rafael Devers (72).

On the mound Ohtani has compiled a 4-1 record with 87 strikeouts in 67 innings pitched, with a 3.49 ERA, evoking comparisons to young Babe Ruth in the early stages of his career before he converted to being a full-time outfielder.

In this season of Negro Leagues recognition, Ohtani’s accomplishments have also shed a light on Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo, a two-way star for multiple Negro Leagues teams for more than two decades from 1922-1945. He also played for many years in the Caribbean and Mexican Winter Leagues.

Ohtani participated in the annual All-Star Game Home Run Derby on Monday night at Coors Field and was the odds-on favorite to win the competition based on his performance thus far this season. He and Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto engaged in a spirited competition, each knocking some tremendously long blasts in excess of 500 feet, before Soto knocked Ohtani out of the competition in a first-round three swing, swing off.

New York Mets slugging first baseman Pete Alonso became the third player to win consecutive Home Run Derbies, taking home the trophy and the $1 million prize in 2019 and 2021.


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