Baseball

Steve Cohen, Lifelong Mets Fan (and Billionaire) Takes Over Franchise

By Scott Mandel

Today, for Mets fans, begins what they hope and believe will be viewed someday, as the golden age of the New York Mets Baseball Club. With the transfer of ownership of the team from the Wilpon/Katz families to one Steve Cohen, a financial whiz on Wall Street with a net worth of $14 billion, Mets fans are rejoicing as if Cohen had just defeated Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States.

In a wide-ranging Zoom press conference this afternoon, Cohen laid out his plans for the franchise. If his words and goals are true, the Mets, struggling for decades as an undercapitalized professional sports team in the city of New York, will no longer be limited by the silly question, “So, how much will that cost us?”

Cohen is now the richest owner in the sport, possibly the wealthiest individual owner of a sports franchise in the world. If Cohen wants to sign a free agent because he believes that player is the difference between winning a championship or not, he will not get out-bid.

New Mets owner, Steve Cohen during today’s zoom conference

“If I don’t win a World Series in the next three to five years — I’d like to make it sooner — but if I don’t do that, I would consider that slightly disappointing,” Cohen said. “We are a major market team” that “should have a budget commensurate with that.”

“I’m essentially doing this for the fans,” Cohen said. “When I really thought about this, I can make millions of people happy. What an incredible opportunity that is. That’s how I’m thinking about this. I’m not trying to make money here … it’s really about building something great, building something for the fans, winning and I just find this an amazing opportunity and I’m so excited for it.”

Astros’ Cheating Won’t be Easily Forgotten by Major Leaguers

By Scott Mandel

Baseball is burning. Opposing players are pummeling the Houston Astros as the fallout from their cheating scandal refuses to dissipate, and fans are frothing for vengeance after the players involved were spared from discipline by the league. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to wrap his arms around it all only for the anarchy to keep expanding. Every day is something new. Saturday, it was bad tattoos. Sunday, the commissioner will talk and try to explain how this all unfolded on his watch. Monday, if it came out that the Astros used furtive earpieces or Bluetooth buzzers or a robust artificial-intelligence operation to gain an advantage, it would surprise absolutely nobody.

There is no order. Just pure, distilled chaos.

It’s not going away any time soon. This is a reality every person involved should learn to understand sooner than later. Not because this is some media creation that thirsts for the mother’s milk of controversy and giddily gawks at the overnight transformation of Major League Baseball from the league of Charlie Chaplins into a full-flavored copy of the NBA, where no sacred cows exist. No, this is now about something much more primal: survival.

The tentacles of baseball’s cheating scandal are long and abundant. All of the Astros players, past and present. Their front-office members. Their opponents. Manfred and his associates. The MLB Players Association. Team owners. Fired general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch. Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, both of whom lost managing jobs on account of their involvement. It is a wide swath of characters with competing interests and self-preservation in mind, each with a story to tell. Already those involved are trying to game the timing, to ensure that their version does not find itself lost amid the morass of takes.

The prevailing narrative Saturday came from Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who originally declined comment through a team spokesman and then granted a wild interview to MLB Network in which he told the reigning National League MVP to “shut the f— up,” reiterated that the Astros’ 2017 World Series title was not won through ill-gotten gains and introduced the world to Jose Altuve ‘s unfortunate collarbone tattoo.

A quick backgrounder, since that last sentence sounds like a Mad Lib: Los Angeles Dodgers star Cody Bellinger unloaded on the Astros on Friday, a day after the beginning of their mea culpa tour turned disastrous, by saying Altuve “stole” the American League MVP award from New York Yankees star Aaron Judge in 2017 and that the Astros “stole the ring from us” by beating the Dodgers for the 2017 championship. Bellinger was the latest player to flout the game’s long-held omertà and unload a shotgun into the barrel in which the Astros swim these days. Dragging the Astros is the sport within a sport.

Correa decided to come clean with something that data compiled by an Astros fan named Tony Adams had seemed to show: Altuve did not like when his teammates banged on a trash can adjacent to the dugout to alert him of the coming pitch type. Adams logged more than 8,000 pitches from home games during the 2017 season and heard trash-can bangs on 13.2%. Of the 866 pitches to Altuve, there were bangs on only 24 — 2.8%.

MLB punishes Astros

“For [Bellinger] to go out there and defame Jose Altuve’s name like that — it doesn’t sit right with me,” Correa said. “‘Cause the man plays the game clean.”

Knowing the data, and having been told by another player on the 2017 Astros that Altuve did not engage regularly in the trash-can scheme, I had asked him Thursday to explain why.

“I know your question,” Altuve said. “I really appreciate your question. It’s good. But I want to take this as a team. I think we’re all at the same level right now of feeling the way we’re feeling about doing what we did. I’m not here to say you and you more than you and you. We’re a team. I’m not saying this today. I always say this is a team. And if we are something, we all are something.”

For all of the fallout from that day, particularly after owner Jim Crane’s contraction of foot-in-mouth disease, Altuve’s answer stood out as not just sincere but commendable — the sort of thing other players in baseball in different circumstances would respect and the rare instance, in this whole scandal, of someone not obviously acting in his own self-interest. Altuve could have absolved himself. He could have gone full Shaggy. He instead subjected himself to the fusillade of condemnation that would come.

Because it’s true: He didn’t stop it. No one did. And that’s a question the players lobbing grenades at the Astros ought to ask themselves, too. If they truly plumb the depths of their self-awareness, how many believe they would not simply be conscientious objectors as the data suggests Altuve was but entirely blow up a scheme being used by a team barreling toward 101 wins?

Social media vs. MLB

How the internet helped crack the Astros’ sign-stealing case.

What the Astros did was clearly cheating, clearly wrong, clearly a black mark on their championship. It is also naïve to think less hubristic versions of sign-stealing weren’t going on elsewhere and that had those been accelerated the players would have put a stop to them.

The defiance emanating from the Astros’ clubhouse, even after their apologies, is coated in this let-he-who-is-without-sin-cast-stones mentality. Correa besmirched Bellinger for suggesting Houston was cheating for the last three years, saying it occurred only in 2017. Ken Rosenthal immediately corrected him, saying Manfred’s report said the Astros had stolen signs in 2018, too. Correa danced around this, landing ultimately on a judgment of Bellinger daring to vilify Altuve and the Astros: “With me, that doesn’t sit right.”

The problem, of course, is that the moment the Astros decided to start banging on trash cans, they forfeited any sort of moral authority that allows them to differentiate between right and wrong. They might as well have KICK ME stitched across the backs of their jerseys instead of their last names, and it’s because of their collective action. So as satisfying as it feels to try and speak into existence this notion that their championship isn’t irreparably tainted, to drop F-bombs on the haters, to stand up for Altuve like Altuve stood up for him and the rest of the Astros who did think enough of the trash-can scheme to use it for months, it runs the risk of sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Correa’s defense stretched past aggrieved and into comedic during his denial that the Astros had used wearable buzzers during the 2019 season to signal the coming pitch. Bellinger and Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez had questioned why, after Altuve hit a walk-off home run to send the Astros to the World Series this year, he did not want his jersey ripped off. First, Correa said, Altuve’s wife had expressed discomfort with it when he and Kemp unclothed Altuve earlier in the season.

“The second reason that he don’t want me to talk about this, but I’m gonna say it, is because he’s got an unfinished tattoo on his collarbone, right here, that, honestly, looked terrible,” Correa said. “It was a bad tattoo. And he didn’t want nobody to see it. He didn’t want to show it at all.”

A bad tattoo. Welcome to baseball in 2020.

There’s more to come. There’s always more with this Astros story that drips out with all the efficiency of a broken faucet. The coming days, weeks, months will teem with more details, explanations, facts. Manfred’s report looks more and more like a Polaroid that needs to be shaken. The manifold characters all have their versions of the story to tell. There are reputations to be salvaged, careers to be saved, sides to be taken. This is the just the beginning.

It’s never too early to start or join a fantasy baseball league for the 2020 season.

The next step is Manfred addressing the media Sunday in North Port, Fla. As commissioner, the sport’s well-being ultimately falls on him. And while the ultimate fallout of the scandal is unclear — is it, in a perverse way, actually driving interest to baseball, or does the stench of misconduct have the opposite effect? — he must answer for his role in it reaching this point, where a new fire smolders every day.

And rest assured, potential arson abounds. What will Beltran, slimed and smeared, say when he speaks out? How will MLB, if at all, punish the Boston Red Sox, whom they’re investigating for stealing signs in 2018? What will the punishment for Cora, who is expected to be suspended, be? How can the MLBPA preach solidarity when its members attack one another on the daily? Will others join former MLB pitcher Mike Bolsinger and a daily fantasy player in filing lawsuits against the Astros and the league? Who will speak out next? What will he say?

In a week, spring-training games begin. The Astros will play the Washington Nationals, who beat them in the 2019 World Series. Across the sport, eyes will be trained on the game to see if Nationals pitchers intentionally throw at Astros hitters. Houston manager Dusty Baker tried to preempt any retaliation Saturday, asking MLB to do all it can to prevent premeditated beanings. It only served to draw the ire of those who see the inevitability of what is to come: a pitcher who dots an Astros hitter with a fastball to send a message that what they did is indefensible will receive a longer suspension than any of the Astros did for their indefensible acts.

Yes, baseball is burning, and nobody — not the Astros, not Manfred, not the rest of the players — can stop it. Only time will slow it, and until then, as baseball’s cheating scandal metastasizes, as it dirties all it touches, remember that what caused it in the first place will guide its direction going forward: the choices of individuals looking out for themselves.

Mets’ Pete Alonso Named National League Rookie of the Year

by Scott Mandel

New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso tonight was named the 2019 National League Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).

Alonso received 29 of 30 first-place votes and garnered 148 of a possible 150 voting points. He is the second Mets position player (also, Darryl Strawberry in 1983) and sixth player in club history overall to win the award. Four Mets pitchers have also been named Rookie of the Year: Tom Seaver (1967), Jon Matlack (1972), Dwight Gooden (1984) and Jacob deGrom (2014).

The 24-year-old put together one of the greatest offensive seasons ever by a rookie, setting numerous Mets and major league records. Most notably, he became the first Met and first rookie to lead the majors outright in home runs, swatting a major league rookie-record 53 blasts.

“I am so grateful to the Baseball Writers’ Association for their recognition,” Alonso said. “I’m truly blessed and humbled to be part of a group of some of the best to ever play the game. This season was the most special time I’ve ever had on a baseball field. I’m extremely thankful to the Mets for allowing me the opportunity to prove myself at the major league level this year. I can’t wait to get back to work in the spring and make a push for the postseason in 2020.”

Alonso was a three-time NL Rookie of the Month honoree, taking home the award in April, June and September. The only other players to win three NL Rookie of the Month awards are Jason Bay (2004) and Juan Soto (2018).

In addition to setting Mets club marks for home runs, extra-base hits (85) and total bases (348) in his first major league season, Alonso also established club rookie records for hits (155), RBI (120), runs scored (103), at-bats (597), plate appearances (693), games played (161), slugging percentage (.583), OBP (.358) and OPS (.941). He tied the club rookie record with 72 walks.

“Pete’s historic rookie season created great memories and thrilled Mets fans all year,” Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said. “We are very proud of how he represents our fans, teammates and the organization on and off the field with his energy, enthusiasm and passion.”

Alonso became the first rookie position player in Mets history to be named to the NL All-Star team. He was the first rookie to win the Home Run Derby outright as well, defeating fellow rookie Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the final round. In the Midsummer Classic, he went 1-2 with a two-run single and a stolen base, making him the first rookie with multiple RBI in an All-Star Game.

“Pete was a joy to watch all season long for our passionate fans as well as all of us in the organization,” Mets Executive Vice President and General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen said. “We’re so proud to see his on-field results match his tireless work ethic.”

Alonso led the NL in extra-base hits, was second in total bases, third in RBI, sixth in slugging and seventh in OPS. He led all qualified rookies in games played, hits, home runs, RBI, OPS, extra-base hits, runs scored, walks, total bases and slugging percentage.

Alonso will receive the award during the 97th Annual New York Baseball Writers’ Dinner on January 25, 2020 at the New York Hilton Midtown Hotel.

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Mets Needed Thor to Come Up Big, Now Tonight is a Must-Win Game

By Scott Mandel – SportsReporters.com

Mets’ Noah Syndergaard on nightmarish start: ‘When you get your s— kicked in like that, it gives you a different perspective’

Noah reflects on bad start00:01:40Noah Syndergaard reflected on the 10-7 loss and said he let the team down and got his “S— kicked in”.

The Mets needed Noah Syndergaard at his best on Wednesday in a crucial game against the Cubs, but the right-hander’s outing was nothing but disastrous. 

Syndergaard, who had dazzled in his eight second half starts, was the victim of some poor defense and poor luck in the Cubs’ six-run first, but he also left hittable pitches in the zone. 

Jason Heyward went down swinging to start the inning, but things quickly went downhill from there. After Nicholas Castellanos was hit by a pitch and Kris Bryantsingled, Javier Baez grounded a slow-roller to short that Amed Rosario underhanded into shallow center field, allowing the first run to score.

Then, after a Kyle Schwarber RBI double, Addison Russell blooped a perfectly placed single into right, scoring two more. Ian Happ then provided the final two runs of the inning with an opposite-field two run homer.

Things didn’t get any better for Syndergaard in the second. Bryant lifted what should have been an easy out to shallow left, but miscommunication between Rosario and J.D. Davis allowed the ball to drop in for a double.

Two batters later, Schwarber slammed the Cubs’ second home run of the night, extending the Cubs’ lead to 8-1.

Through the first two innings, Syndergaard allowed eight runs (seven earned), on seven hits. He walked three and struck out two.

“They capitalized on every mistake that I made, and it just seemed like tonight when it rains it pours,” Syndergaard said after the game. “When you get your sh-t kicked in like that, it gives you a different perspective on things. Definitely a terrible feeling. I’m disappointed in myself. I had the opportunity to go out there and do something big tonight, and I let the team down.”

Mickey Callaway stuck with Syndergaard in the third, but with two away, Castellanos blasted the Cubs’ third home run, ballooning the lead to 10-1. The Mets did battle back to make things interesting, but they ultimately lost the game 10-7, dropping further back in the Wild Card race.

“Obviously a few plays weren’t made,” said Callaway afterwards. “He battled, left some pitches middle, they made him pay. They didn’t miss the ones that were big mistakes. Some of the credit has to go to their offense. It’s still hard to hit even when a Noah Syndergaard makes mistakes. But he just couldn’t get into rhythm. Off night for him. He’s been pitching so well, and we know that our rotation is one of our strengths. Just an off night for one of our starters.”

Syndergaard’s night ended after three innings, allowing a career-worst 10 runs (nine earned) on nine hits. It was the first time in his career that he allowed three home runs in a start. 

by Scott Mandel

The Mets are for real.

The naysayers were saying a couple of weeks ago, when the Mets were on their hot streak after the All-Star break that this team would come back to earth when the schedule became “challenging,” The naysayers said the Mets are cleaning up against the dregs of the National League but wait till they have to play the Braves in Atlanta, and the Indians.

Last night at Citi Field, the Mets, who are 25-10 since the All-Star game was played, faced a Cleveland team that has been streaking up the American League Central division, to within two games of the Minnesota Twins. They are also managed by Terry Francona, considered by many to be the best in the game at his job. Francona’s teams are always prepared and play to their talent level, often times, above it.

“It’s August, but playoffs started today,” J.D. Davis said after the Mets started a critical nine-game homestand in style with a 9-2 win over the Indians on Tuesday at Citi Field.

But, last night, it was the Mets, considered sellers just a month ago as their season had spiraled out of control as they fell 11 games out of a wild card playoff slot, dominated the Francona-led Indians in ways they are not used to being dominated.

In front of a wildly excited home crowd, Davis and Michael Conforto hit home runs, Steven Matz spun another solid start into the seventh inning giving up just three hits to a potent lineup, and Joe Panic and Todd Frazier chipped in as the veteran role players they are to lead the Mets to a 9-2 win, beating Indians ace, Shane Bieber.

The Mets are playing the game on all cylinders, right now, with their entire roster contributing to this playoff push.

“To beat Shane Bieber in the first game to start off this homestand, to energize the fans, put ourselves in a good position to win a series against these guys is what we set out to do today,” Conforto said.

“They’re relentless,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said, referring to the Mets hitters. “Timely hitting, a key big hit usually starts it — Conforto’s homer — and then you get to their lesser pitchers and you add on. That’s what good teams do.”

Matz continued his metamorphosis since he was banished to the bullpen in June for 10 days. He’s been a different pitcher. In 16 starts, he had a 4.95 ERA and was 5-6 before his temporary stint in the bullpen. In his last seven starts, he has a 2.81 ERA and a 3-1 record. Not bad for a fifth starter.

“You just learn from your mistakes early on,” Matz said. “It’s not anything crazy. Instead of trying to feel for what I have out there, it’s being a little more aggressive in the first inning, and that’s helped.”

The Mets moved to a season-high five games over .500, at 65-60, and closed to within two games of the Chicago Cubs for the second wild card position. They remain three games behind the Nationals for the first wild card.

The season schedule favors the Mets in a big way. Of their remaining 37 games, 25 are home games. The Mets, with the second best home record in baseball at 35-21, have more home games remaining than any other team in the sport. They like their chances to use these games to make the post-season.

“We have to have that playoff mentality, that playoff atmosphere that every game counts,” J.D. Davis said. “Especially [with] the hole that we dug ourselves into. I think the elephant in the room is we got a lot of home games, but a lot of games against playoff teams. This is our playoff time. We have to play well and we have to come out ready to play.”

Say it, Mets fans. Your team is officially in a pennant race, with 37 games left to the season. Who woulda thunk it, just a month ago?

Amazin’ Mets Walk Off in Ninth Against Nats, Move into Playoff Position

Conforto with clutch hit wins it for the Amazin’s

By Scott Mandel

They’ve done it again. The New York Mets continued their magic carpet ride in this very strange baseball season by coming from behind tonight with four runs in the bottom of the ninth to defeat their division rival Washington Nationals, 7-6.

Michael Conforto, whom the Mets have been waiting for most of this season if not his career to break out into the star they’ve expected, continued his recent hot streak when he turned on left-handed pitcher, Sean Gilmartin’s inside fastball and rocketed a line drive over the head of National’s right fielder, Adam Eaton. With that, Juan Legares walked in from third base as the Mets were winners for the 14th time in their last 15 games and upped their record since the All-Star break to 20-6.

This was after Todd Frazier, another player who was ticketed to be traded or released just a few weeks ago, tied the game with a three-run homer in that same ninth inning, leading to pandemonium at Citi Field.

The Mets are now a half game out of the playoff hunt. Two weeks ago, they were 11 games out, and left for dead.

Marcus Stroman, recently acquired from Toronto, made his first home start as a Met. It was an appearance he will not forget. Citi Field was literally shaking last night with a deliriously sold-out crowd on their feet for most of that last inning. Stroman, who reportedly was highly disappointed when he was not traded to the Yankees, may be changing his tune.

“It was amazing. That crowd brought it,” Stroman said. “I’m extremely grateful to have their presence there, their energy. I don’t think they realize how much we feed off of that, and how much that gets us going and allows us to elevate our game when we need to.”

Normally a guy who gets a lot of ground balls and not an elite strikeout pitcher, Stroman punched out seven of his first nine Nats’ batters. The Long Island native ended up, in front of one of the loudest Citi Field crowds in recent history, soaking in the playoff-type atmosphere of his hometown city.

“I can’t put it into words. I want to pitch [in] every single game like that,” Stroman said. “It felt, honestly, like a playoff atmosphere, like that [World Baseball Classic] atmosphere that I had, from the second I walked out there. The entire crowd was going crazy. I love energy. I love that. Keep bringing that energy New York. We’re gonna feed off of that.”

With friends and family watching from the crowd, Stroman opened looking like the ace who made his first All-Star team this season, matching Washington’s ace, Stephen Strasburg zero for zero.

“I’m just happy to be here. And it’s a great vibe that we have on this team.”

Another guy happy Stroman is here is his new manager, Mickey Callaway.

“He battles. There’s no doubt about it. This kid is gonna battle and you’re gonna have to beat him. That’s what you want out of every guy on your team,” Callaway said. “There is no doubt that Marcus Stroman has that type of personality.”

“His slider was really working. And, he was really feeding off of this crowd,” Callaway added.

After last night’s walk-off hero, Conforto, ended things with his base hit, his Mets teammates stormed out of the dugout to surround him. Pete Alonzo, a very strong man, ripped Conforto’s jersey right off his back during the celebratory scrum at second base.

“Today was probably the most fun I’ve had up here in the big leagues,” Conforto said. “It was special. The stadium was packed. It felt like the playoffs.”

“When guys’ shirts come off after the game, I’d say it’s probably been a very good day,” said Callaway.

Indeed, Mickey. It was a very good day for the Mets.

Mets Win Again Over Lowly Marlins, Pennant Race Begins This Friday at Citi Field vs. Nationals

by Scott Mandel

This is what a pennant race in New York City is supposed to feel like.

The New York Mets, left for dead just one month ago, with a manager barely clinging to his job and a new general manager under fire for a series of moves that mostly failed, are the hottest team in the sport since the All-Star break.

Today, in a matinee game at Citi Field, they won their 13th game out of their last 14, moved their record to 19-8 since the All-Star break and have moved firmly into the wild card race in the National League after sweeping the hapless Miami Marlins, including today’s 7-2 win behind Steven Matz. The Mets are now one game behind for the second wild card position, behind the Washington Nationals, who visit Citi Field this Friday.

The Mets, dead as a door nail in early July, are now firmly in the National League playoff hunt, just 30 days later. Old Mets fans may have to dig up that relic of a team moniker from 1962, the Amazin’ Mets, to describe what this 2019 team is now doing.

The metamorphosis in the Mets pitching staff continued today, as Steven Matz pitched into the seventh inning, continuing a pattern Mets manager Mickey Callaway has set for his starters.

Today, in a 12:10 matinee, Matz, the 27-year old lefty who has averaged 5 innings per start over the course of his career, was bound and determined to match his compadres by pitching more efficiently and later into games. Mission accomplished.

Despite the oppressive humidity, Matz came within one out of completing that objective as the Mets won their fifth game in a row and their 13th out of their last 14 games.

Matz gave up a run in the second and escaped further damage that inning due to some brutal base running by the Marlins, as both Lewis Brinson and Starlin Castro were thrown out on the basepaths. He also allowed a solo shot to Brian Anderson in the sixth, but manager Mickey Callaway praised Matz’s ability to slow down on the mound, which he has struggled with at times.

“We’ve talked about this a lot the past couple years,’’ the manager said. “He continued to understand he needs to focus on the next pitch and tonight in particular, I think he did a good job of stepping back.”

“It was definitely a conscious effort,’’ Matz said of taking an occasional breather. “The heat and humidity worked in my favor because I couldn’t rush. … Throughout the whole game, I was mindful of working quick, but also taking a second every once in a while.”

Matz wasn’t the only big contributor to today’s festivities, which was merely a prelude to the biggest month of games this franchise will be playing since their 2015 World Series season.

Michael Conforto, whom the Mets and their fans have seemingly been waiting for five years to turn into Stan Musial (Google him, young ones), hit his 24th and 25th homers of the season to lead the offensive assault against the Marlin’s helpless pitching staff. He’s been a streaky hitter throughout his still-young career, struggling to find consistency. He figures he’s picked a good time to heat up.

Pete Alonzo is coming out of his post-All-Star event funk, hitting his 37th homer in the first inning, a two-run job. He has now hit the fifth most homers in a season in franchise history, four behind Carlos Beltran and Todd Hundley, who hit 41 in 2006 and 1996, respectively. With 47 games remaining, it seems a cinch the rookie first baseman will fly past that record.

But, as is usually the case in baseball, pitching will get a team to the promised land of the post-season. Mets starters have dominated since the All-Star break, pitching to a 2.92 ERA and averaging 6.2 innings per outing, the best in the game. They are feeding off of one another.

The season takes a serious turn, now. The Mets may be 13-1 in their last 14 games, may be just 1 1/2 games out of a playoff position, and may have the best starting pitching in the sport but now, it’s time to play the big boys. Washington is up, next, on Friday, with ace Stephen Strasburg looking to set a tone for the Nationals against these upstarts from New York.

This is what a pennant race feels like.

Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu was Baseball’s Best Free-Agent Signing in 2019

by Scott Mandel

DJ LeMahieu continues to be the very best free-agent signing in Major League Baseball, prior to this 2019 season.

With Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, the two players considered the jewels of the free-agent market before this season, procuring record-breaking, practically-lifetime contracts that are virtually untradeable to another team because of their length and expense, it’s LeMahieu, as low-profile as a player could get, who is quietly leading the New York Yankees.

LeMahieu leads the American League in hitting, leads the Major Leagues in Runners in Scoring Position efficiency, and plays Gold Glove defense at three positions for the New York Yankees. And, his team is dominating the American League in ways they haven’t done so since their last championship season, 10 long years ago.

The two-year, $24 million contract LeMahieu signed with the Yankees is among the best deals Yanks’ G.M., Brian Cashman, has ever negotiated. And, when you compare his current production to that of Machado and Harper, LeMahieu is an absolute bargain, by 2019 standards.

Machado, who signed a 10-year, $300 million contract (repeat that to yourself a few times. I bet the astonishment doesn’t disappear) is hitting .268 along with an on-base pct. of .337 and a slugging pct. of .511. He’s hit 25 homers for the Padres and driven in 68 runs. Nothing to sneeze at, even at his $30 million annual salary.

Harper, 26 years old, procured himself, with the help of baseball’s super agent, Scott Boras, a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies, who are now stuck with him for the length of the contract, which has 12 !/2 years remaining on it. He’s hitting .258, with 17 homers and 70 r.b.i’s. Again, very good production, even if Harper has turned himself into a .250 hitter with an uppercut.

LeMahieu is clearly in the conversation for the Most Valuable Player award in the American League, where he never played previously. A career-long National Leaguer, for this player to come to a new franchise in a new league, facing pitchers he mostly had never seen before, his .338 batting average is astonishing. LeMahieu has 15 homers, 70 r.b.i’s, an on-base pct. of .383 and a slugging pct. of .528.

He’s outhitting those other guys by 70 and 80 points, respectively. He’s making 40% of Harper and Machado’s salaries. All he does is show up every day and quietly impacts the game on both sides of the ball. Suffice to say, the Yankees wouldn’t be leading the American League’s East Division by nine games if he wasn’t on the team.

Image result for dj lemahieu
LeMahieu has been the Yanks’ best clutch hitter this season

LeMahieu had another outstanding game, two nights ago, with three hits and a walk. He also showed his defensive versatility with fine plays at both third base and first base, after taking over for Luke Voit, who was hit in the face with a pitch in the fourth inning.

LeMahieu said he’s getting “more and more comfortable” at playing multiple positions.

“He made some special plays at first and a real good play at third,’’ manager Aaron Boone said after the Yankees beat the Rockies 11-5 on Saturday. “Wherever he goes, he plays it like a Gold Glover.”

Memories of Minor League Baseball (and Johnny Oates)

by Scott Mandel

A friend of mine, a New York Post sports columnist named Mike Vaccaro, recently posted photos on Facebook of a minor league game he attended in the baseball hotbed of Rancho Cucamonga, California. The smallish stadium and the homey atmosphere were all captured beautifully by his cell-phone camera bringing back some childhood memories for yours truly.

Rancho Cucamonga, a city of about 177,000 residents located just south of the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles National Forest in San Bernardino County, is a perfect locale for a minor league baseball franchise. It is about 37 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles, just close enough to be near a media and population center but far enough to still be described as a sleepy, relaxed town. The city’s seal, which centers on a cluster of grapes, alludes to Rancho’s agricultural history as a producer of great wines.

Seeing Vaccaro’s pictures elicited wonderful memories about the experience I had at my first minor league baseball game in 1968, when I was a puny kid who dreamed of being a baseball player, someday.

My dad, a pitcher of some renown at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, New York along with a teammate named Hank Greenberg, loved to tell stories about his pitching exploits and his days roaming the Bronx fields with the future Hall of Fame slugger when they were 18-years old.

Johnny Oates httpssabrorgsitesdefaultfilesimagesOatesJ
Oates played in the Majors from 1970 to 1981, then became a manager

I hadn’t been to many baseball games at that stage of life but found out in the Spring of ’68 that our family would be taking a plane trip to Miami Beach to visit my grandparents. When we arrived in south Florida, I was thrilled to learn we’d be going to watch the Miami Marlins, a Single-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles on one of the nights.

The Marlins were a good team, with a winning record and several players achieving high statistical objectives. I even remember some of their names, today. Stan Martin at second base. Pedro Gomez, their 33-year old slugging outfielder. Larry Johnson, the slick-fielding first baseman. Or, Mark Hershman, the righty with the 12 to 6 curve ball. I don’t know why I can remember these players, most of whom were in their late teens or early 20s. Maybe it was the close proximity to the field offered by the small Miami ballpark. But, all these years later, those names have stuck with me.

They also had a young catcher named Johnny Oates, playing in his second season of professional baseball. Johnny, as it turned out, became the key element to my whole experience that night because unlike most current-day major leaguers, minor league players make themselves accessible to the fans and to the communities they are playing in.

Before the game, as I was asking Johnny for his autograph (which must have thrilled him, too), he told me he was 21 going on 22 years of age, which seemed really old to me. He said he was the catcher and he was from Virginia. The whole conversation took about 30 seconds but my world had changed. I, too, wanted to be a catcher. The next catcher for the Yankees. And, I wanted to meet more people from Virginia. Or Florida. The world seemed so vast, at that point.

As it turned out for Johnny Oates, he made it to the major leagues less than two years later, when he was brought up in 1970 to catch for the best team in the game, the Baltimore Orioles, who had miraculously lost the World Series the previous season to the New York Mets. Becoming a major league member of the Orioles, with Hall of Famers like Frank and Brooks Robinson, guys like Boog Powell and Don Buford, and that amazing pitching staff he got to catch, had to be heady stuff for the youngster from Virginia. Jim Palmer (another Hall of Famer), Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar were his battery mates. Quite a jump up the ladder from the single-A Marlins.

Johnny carved out a terrific career in the majors, playing for 11 years and gaining the respect of the baseball community as an excellent baseball man, which led to his being named a manager in the Yankees farm system almost the day after he retired as a player, at age 35.

Oates eventually became a major league manager in 1991, replacing his former teammate, the legendary Frank Robinson as the manager of his first big league team, the Baltimore Orioles, where Johnny would win the Manager of the Year award in 1993.

Despite being let go by the Orioles’ new owner, Peter Angelos, in 1994, Oates was quickly hired by the Texas Rangers, who had just fired their previous manager, Kevin Kennedy. Oates proceeded to lead the Rangers to their first playoff appearance in team history during the 1996 season.

Oates won the American League Manager of the Year Award for a second time, in 1996, sharing honors with the Yankees’ Joe Torre and a third time, in 1998.

I wrote to Johnny Oates when he was diagnosed with cancer while managing the Rangers. I took that opportunity to remind him of how nice he had been to a wide-eyed little kid in Miami Beach, a kid who never forgot that kindness. I mentioned how life-changing an experience it had been to get to talk to a “real” baseball player.


Johnny sent back a hand-written five-page letter, when he was in the middle of his final battle with cancer. His memories of those days were sharp and brought to life again by his elegant prose and recollections of his days as a Miami Marlin, in the lowest level of minor league baseball.

Johnny Oates passed away in 2004. He was 58 years old. Even as a Single-A baseball player, he was as big league as one could get.

A final note to Mike Vaccaro: I hope you got to observe a bunch of kids talking to “real players” at that game in Rancho Cucamonga. It’s life-altering stuff.

Johnny Oates hokiesportscom
Johnny Oates in 2003 for induction to the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame

Mandel’s Musings: Mets/Matz Enjoy Day of Redemption in Win Over Brewers

by Scott Mandel

Coming off of two losses to the Brewers at home in this three-game series, the Mets were reeling a bit as their two aces, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, each got ripped by the Milwaukee lineup in their starts on Friday and Saturday nights.

Having dropped to a .500 record (13-13), the Mets needed a win. Badly.

Today’s starting pitcher, Steven Matz, was coming off a start that was easily the worst of his career. Against Philadelphia on April 16th, Matz never retired one hitter, allowing eight runs (six earned) in the first inning before Mets manager, Mickey Callaway mercifully came out to get him.

Matz needed a win, ideally, or, at least to pitch a whale of a game. Badly.

Today was redemption day for the Mets. Mission accomplished on both objectives.

Going a season-high seven innings, Matz tamed the Brewers’ hot bats — they had scored 18 runs on 28 hits over the first two games of the series — and the Mets continued an early-season trend of scoring in the late innings, leading to a 5-2 victory at Citi Field Sunday afternoon.

“[Matz] was awesome today,” first baseman Pete Alonso said after the Mets snapped a three-game losing streak and improved to 3-3 on their 10-game homestand. “He gave up a home run, but he was damn-near perfect.”

“If you look up there, it’s amazing he has an ERA that he does when he got no outs in a start and gave up that many runs,” manager Mickey Callaway said, referring to Matz’ last outing against the Phillies. “He’s pitched tremendously aside from that one start where he didn’t record an out.”

The Brewers started Gio Gonzalez today. Yes, that Gio Gonzalez of Washington Nationals fame who had been without a team this season until the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal with short-term limitations. The Yanks had to commit to bringing him up to the major leagues by April 20th or Gonzalez could choose to become a free agent again. His outings were spotty at Triple-A Scranton so the Yankees opted not to sign him for the big club.

Gonzalez was hoping to join the Mets, but instead re-joined a Brewers club he spent a couple of months with down the stretch last year.

Today, he started out extremely hittable as Mets hitters weren’t fooled by his soft tosses. Gonzalez, though, settled down enough to give the Brewers five pretty good innings, allowing only two runs while spacing six hits.

The Mets hope they don’t regret their decision not to sign the 33-year old lefty to a one-year deal to provide depth in their starting ranks, which has been shaky, so far. Gonzalez loves pitching in Citi Field, having entered today’s game with a career mark of 11-2, along with a gaudy 1.75 ERA against Mets lineups over his 12-year career.

“The Mets were huge, they were great,” Gonzalez said Saturday. “They were definitely in there. I think they had such a great rotation, a great group of guys, it was a tough decision. The Brewers came in and met my expectations, met my needs. Either way, it was a win-win for me.”

A Ben Gamel two-base error led to pinch-hitter J.D. Davis’ go-ahead single in the seventh, and backup catcher Tomas Nido, recalled earlier in the day from Triple-A Syracuse after Travis d’Arnaud was designated for assignment, stroked a two-run double in the eighth.

Working ahead and mixing his pitches well, Matz (3-1) was even better. The defensively challenged Mets, entering the day last in the National League with 22 errors, supported him in the field, turning a pair of double plays to end innings. But with two outs and a runner on in the seventh, Matz hung a 2-1 slider and Moustakas parked it, ruining the shutout. Matz snapped at the new ball he received, and proceeded to retire Hernan Perez to finish his afternoon.

“He did all those things we’ve been talking about: Getting ahead, controlling the count, executing his pitchers. He was tremendous,” Callaway said. “He just went out there and made pitch after pitch. He deserved to go seven, he deserved to get the win. He got both of those.”