BASEBALL AND GAMBLING: MLB Has No Excuse To Not Reinstate Rose, Jackson

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson with the White Sox

This season marks a new era in Major League Baseball. MLB has announced an “official” partnership with DraftKings. Draftkings is an app for playing fantasy sports. Basically, once you download the app you can “buy in” and begin playing on a day-by-day basis, and you can win money based upon the performances of the players you select.

Why do I say this is a new era? Because for the first time, Major League Baseball is in the business of gambling on baseball. Let me repeat that…Major League Baseball is in the business of gambling on baseball.

In the past, MLB has always had a zero tolerance policy when it comes to gambling. Great players like Joe Jackson have been banned for life for merely taking money from gamblers, despite not doing anything to throw games. Pete Rose, the all-time leader in hits, has been banned for betting on his own team. As many times as Rose has asked for reinstatement, or as many times as people have petitioned on behalf of Jackson (or his teammate Buck Weaver), baseball has always refused on the basis of zero-tolerance.

Pete Rose hits the dirt in Wrigley Field

Pete Rose hits the dirt in Wrigley Field

Now that MLB has entered into a partnership with DraftKings, any attempt to justify keeping Rose or Jackson from being reinstated, and ultimately considered for the Baseball Hall Of Fame, is a false equivalency on MLB’s part.

In the past, MLB has always been able to claim a moral high ground when it comes to gambling. Now they are active participants. As such, there is now implicit approval toward gambling on baseball. In fact, as much as they may want to believe this will never find its way down to players, they have accepted the very real risk that it will.

In fact, at this point, how would they punish any players who use a product endorsed by MLB? What if some relief pitcher is in a game, 4 or 5 runs ahead or behind, facing a hitter that he picked on DraftKings? What if a manager picked one of his guys on DraftKings and leaves him in or takes him out based upon his value in fantasy points? Isn’t that exactly why Rose was suspended?

Yet here we are. MLB has decided to take the revenue from gambling, and therefore must take all the circumstances ot that revenue. And a huge circumstance is that they no longer have any justification to preserve the banishments of players who have been involved with gambling on baseball.

They’ve sold their guardianship of the integrity of the game.

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Kris Bryant Excited for Wrigley Debut Friday

The Chicago Cubs welcomed new third baseman Kris Bryant to Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon for his first big league game, and after only getting three hours of sleep as he flew in from Des Moines, the star was ready to get things underway.

“Right now, it’s a little overwhelming, but I’m ready to have fun with it,” he said in a pregame media availability.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs aren’t hesitating to throw the youngster to the wolves right away, as he will bat in the clean-up spot and play third base in Friday’s game against the San Diego Padres. With Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella both on the disabled list, Bryant has an opportunity to grab a roster spot for the long haul over the next few weeks, but he’s focused more on the day-to-day chances that his new spot gives him.

“When you start putting expectations that are way out there, you start losing sight of what’s important in this game,” he said.

High expectations can be the downfall of many players, but Bryant doesn’t seem to be one of them. He has excelled at every level of professional baseball he has played at so far, and even after he was sent down following a nine-home run stint in Cactus League play, he slugged three more home runs for the Iowa Cubs before his call-up.

Fans can count Maddon among the chorus of people who don’t believe that Bryant will be affected by the pressure surrounding him.

“I don’t think he’s going to be impacted by any of that,” he said. “Whether we batted him first or ninth, it doesn’t matter. He’s still going to play the game. I told him that my expectations are that (he) respect 90 feet and enjoy himself.”

As for what the plans are for Bryant after his initial time at third base, Cubs President Theo Epstein indicated that he believes the slugger will remain at the hot corner for the foreseeable future.

“The need right now is at third base, and we’re very comfortable with his defensive abilities,” he said. “I think this guy can play third base for a while.”

Bryant is only 23 years old, so his career with the Cubs could end up lasting a very long time. Even with that bright future ahead of him, his debut is still a moment for celebration for him and his family, and they will be in the building at Wrigley Field on Friday.

“I’ve never seen my dad cry before. That’s what it’s all about,” Bryant said. “Now my family, friends, girlfriend get to watch me on this stage.”

 

Merry Krismas: Kris Bryant a Reminder of the Joys of Being a Fan

Kris Bryant Stands In vs. Indians

Kris Bryant Stands In vs. Indians

Throughout my life as a fan of the Chicago Cubs, I’ve seen all manner of prospects make their big league debuts. Whether it’s a player like Corey Patterson, touted for his five-tool ability, or a player like Mark Prior, who came out of college touted as the best pitcher to ever toe a slab, the team has had plenty of guys for me and my fellow fans to be excited about.

Kris Bryant is different. Kris Bryant is a different animal altogether.

Ever since the Cubs grabbed him with the second pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, I’ve kept an eye on his stats on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. I watched a few of his college games before that, but it was when the Cubs selected him in the draft that I fully grasped the enormity of what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had pulled off. This guy is a special player, and he was going to be playing for my favorite team.

Seeing him in person for the first time in spring training in 2014 was a bit of a letdown. He bobbled an easy play at third base (before he ultimately made the throw across), and he was stranded in the on-deck circle before I even got a chance to see him hit. This spring was a heck of a lot different, as I got to witness his home run against the Cleveland Indians (you know the one, as it was part of the trio of consecutive home runs by Bryant, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler) and I got to witness two more when I saw the Cubs play against the Seattle Mariners. All I could do for that second set of bombs was whistle, because I was in the press box and aggressive fist-pumping and hooting is generally frowned upon.

Today will be the first time Bryant will be in the lineup for the Cubs, and he will be batting fourth for Joe Maddon. That sentence doesn’t have any particular meaning other than this: it feels like a dream to me. Ever since Maddon led the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series in 2008, I’d harbored fantasies about him managing on the North Side. Adding a guy like Bryant to the mix only heightens the sense for me that this team is becoming something special.

At the same time that I’m salivating over the possibility of Bryant hitting in the heart of the order for the next seven years (thanks arcane MLB free agency rules!), I’m also well aware of the fact that the Cubs are a team that historically hasn’t had much to cheer about when it comes to homegrown talent. Guys like Ryne Sandberg (acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in a trade) are about as close as we can get to that, but Bryant could be this team’s Ken Griffey Jr.  He could be this team’s Mike Trout. He could become the prize that the Cubs didn’t steal. He could become the shiniest crown jewel.

Feeling the sense of giddiness that I do about Bryant becoming a member of the Chicago Cubs is an emotion that I hope I never lose. Writing about the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Bears full time for NBC, I feel like my enthusiasm for both teams has dulled over the years. That isn’t a bad thing, and is in fact beneficial as I try to dispassionately analyze both teams. I do miss that rush of adrenaline that I used to get, and baseball has become one of the only outlets I have when I’m looking to get my “fan on,” so to speak.

Bryant reminds me that sports are supposed to be fun. Bryant reminds me that it’s okay to get really excited about something in the sports world. Today is going to be a day that a lot of us are going to remember for a long time, and I hope it’s another step up the ladder toward a championship that would mean more to me than I probably realize as I type these words.

White Sox Look to Reset in Home Opener

After a dreadful start to the 2015 season in which the team scored only two runs in two of the three games against the division rival Kansas City Royals, the White Sox will face the dismal Minnesota Twins in front of a packed house, on beautiful day on the south side.

The Sox will send right-hander Hector Noesi out to the mound against a Twins team that has combined to score one run in three games in their opening series against the Tigers. In his career Noesi has a 2-1 win-loss record against the Twins with a 4.19 ERA.

The key player to watch in the Twins lineup today is an obvious one in Joe Mauer. The first baseman is the only player on the twins with more than two hits and is the Twins only run on the season. Mauer has been Mr. Consistent in his career, although he is coming off a career low .277 average last season. With the White Sox having issues getting their offense going, it’ll be important to keep Mauer from causing too much damage by keeping second baseman Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar off the bases.

On the White Sox side of the field, the team needs to focus on trying to find a spark against a bad team to get the offense going. Against the Twins left-hander Tommy Milone, Adam Eaton needs to get the lineup going at the top of the order. Eaton’s had only one hit in twelve at-bats and is a key to making the pitchers uncomfortable on the mound by being on base when Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu and Adam LaRoche come up to the plate.

While starting 0-3 isn’t ideal and not what every White Sox fan expected it’s also not the end of the world. However 26 out of the first 29 games are against the central division so it’s important the White Sox find their stride quicker than usual.

Lineup for the Sox according to WhiteSox.com:
1. Eaton – CF
2. Cabrera – LF
3. Abreu – 1B
4. Garcia – RF
5. LaRoche – DH
6. Ramirez – SS
7. Beckham – 3B
8. Flowers – C
9. Johnson – 2B

Noesi – SP

Random Cubs Thoughts: Opening Series Edition

Jake Arrieta warms up prior to the Cubs' September 3rd game against Milwaukee

Jake Arrieta warms up prior to the Cubs’ September 3rd game against Milwaukee

The Chicago Cubs have started out their season with a series split against the St. Louis Cardinals, getting shutout on Opening Night and then shutting out the redbirds during their first day game of the season on Wednesday.

Before the team starts out their next series against the Colorado Rockies (which we will be previewing this afternoon), we had some thoughts we wanted to share on the opening series of the season.

Jake Arrieta Still Rolling As He Opens Year With a Bang

He looked wild in the first inning of the game, but he settled down in a big way on Wednesday afternoon as he pitched seven scoreless innings, striking out seven batters and walking three in a 2-0 victory for the Cubs.

Arrieta is a player that is going to be a big key for the Cubs’ pitching rotation this season. A lot of attention is being paid to Jon Lester, and rightfully so, but the fact remains that Arrieta has the potential to make this rotation into a much stronger one if he can maintain his 2014 form, and if his effective performance against St. Louis is any indication, he’s hellbent on making sure there’s no regression on his part.

Lester’s Inability to Keep Runners Honest a Concern

A lot was made in the run-up to Opening Night about the fact that Lester hasn’t made a pick-off throw to first base since April of 2013, and that narrative gained a bit of steam on Sunday night as the Cardinals swiped three bases off of the Cubs’ hurler in the 3-0 victory.

To his credit, Lester brushed off criticism of his approach to handling base runners.

“This really wasn’t a big issue until someone brought it up on TV,” he said. “So I’m standing here answering your questions about it. Like I said, I think I had eight or nine or 10 stolen bases allowed (in 2014).”

Lester is the type of pitcher that is going to emphasize changing speeds in his delivery in order to keep baserunners off balance, but it still does seem like he should at least consider throwing over every once in a while to help keep things under control. It’s definitely a story worth keeping an eye on.

Offense Will Heat Up As Weather Does

In two games, the Cubs are now 1-for-16 on the season with runners in scoring position, with their lone hit coming on Starlin Castro’s seventh inning single that knocked in Anthony Rizzo to give the Cubs the lead. Miguel Montero also lifted a sacrifice fly to right field in the game, and Castro scored to give the Cubs their second run of the season.

Even though some fans are concerned about the team’s offensive woes so far, they have to remember two things: in the warm weather of Arizona, the ball carries farther, and the Cubs’ team power came to the forefront. The same thing should happen here. The other thing to remember is that Joe Maddon is still experimenting with lineups, and once he hits on the right combination, the team should score more runs.

Panic is premature at this point. Obviously.

Jorge Soler’s Triple a Sight to Behold

Soler stepped up to the plate in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s game with no one on base, but that didn’t stop him from putting a huge charge into the ball and picking up a splendid triple:

Accordding to JJ Cooper of Baseball America, it only took Soler 11.7 seconds to get from home plate to third on the play. About the only way he could’ve gotten there faster would have been if he had run up the third base line instead.

 

OPENING DAY: Remembering Minnie

Minnie in 1956 Spring Training, thanks to Sports Illustrated.

Minnie in 1956 Spring Training, thanks to Sports Illustrated.

When the White Sox take the field in US Cellular Field for their home opener, there will be less sunshine than there has been in years past. Part of their ceremonies will have to include saying goodbye to Minnie Minoso.

Orestes “Minnie” Minoso was born in Cuba in 1922, and began playing baseball in Cuba before coming to the United States in 1946 to play for the New York Cubans in the Negro National League. He played third base for the Cubans for three years, playing in the East-West All Star Game in his future home, Comiskey Park.

After the 1948 season, Bill Veeck signed him for the Cleveland Indians. Veeck had already signed Negro Leaguers such as Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, and the Indians won the World Series in 1948, the first integrated team to do so.

When Minoso played his first game for the Indians, he became the first black Cuban to play in the major leagues, getting the chance that greats like Martin Dihigo never got. He played a handful of games for Cleveland in 1949, and a few mre in 1951 before being traded to the Sox.

He then had an outstanding rookie season, hitting .324 with 10 home runs and 14 triples playing in cavernous Comiskey. He finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year race to Gil McDougald, despite having a statistically superior year. He also outshone another Yankee rookie, Mickey Mantle.

Minoso became one of baseball’s most exciting players, combining speed and power to become the Sox version of Mantle or Willie Mays. He never put up the huge numbers those players did, particularly home runs, but he still managed 4 years where he finished top 5 in MVP voting, and he (along with the oother members of the Go-Go Sox) were responsible for bringing the stolen base back as an offensive weapon.

He played with the Sox until December 1957, when he was traded along with Fred Hatfield back to Cleveland for Al Smith and Early Wynn. While that trade took away Minoso’s opportunity to play on the 1959 pennant winners, the team may not have made it to the World Series withut Smith or Wynn.

He was traded back to the Sox in December 1959, and his once-again owner Veeck gave him an honorary American League Champion ring. He had his last great season in 1960, hitting .311 and winning his third Gold Glove.

After the 1961 season, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent a year there, then was sold to Washington. In the 1964 season, the Sox brought him back for his third tour. He played 30 games, mainly as a pinch hitter, before being released during the season.

You’d think that would be it, right? Minnie went to Mexico and played and coached there until 1973, when he came back to the Sox as a coach. When Veeck re-bought the Sox before the 1976 season, he signed the 50 year old Minoso to a player contract. Minnie played 3 games, going 1-for-8 as a DH.

Minnie also was activated in 1980 at age 54, and was hitless in 2 at bats. This meant he played in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. He also played in the 90s for an independent minor league team owned by Veeck’s son.

After his playing days were done, he was an ambassador for the Sox, always livening up the ballpark. He was also an elder statesman among Cuban baseball players, bridging the eras between the Negro Leagues and players who came later, like Tony Oliva and Luis Tiant, then Freddy Garcia and Jose Canseco, then Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu.

He’s got a statue outside US Cellular Park, and he’ll always be beloved among Sox fans.

Thanks Minnie.

OPENING NIGHT: Remembering Mr. Cub

I kept this card in my pocket until is was just a blank wad of cardboard.

I kept this card in my pocket until is was just a blank wad of cardboard.

This winter, as we Cub fans thought about the team that was taking shape for the 2015 season and beyond, we could think about experiencing things that Cub fans haven’t experienced for decades, or even a century. However, there was one thing we hadn’t counted on.

This marks the first baseball season in over six decades without Ernie Banks. Ernie left us the night of January 23, and it makes perfect sense that he went at night. Ernie lived in the sunshine, just as the sunshine lived in him. He brought joy to a game that should always have joy. Every time you saw Ernie Banks, he was always cheerful. In fact, he once said, “I treat everyone as if they have a sign that says, ‘make me happy.'” That sunshine within Banks was why everyone, Cub fan or not, even those who were born after he no longer played, loved him.

Everyone who ever met him was always treated like the most important person in the room by him. I took my wife to the 1994 Emil Verban Memorial Society luncheon (it’s a real thing, I promise), and Banks was holding court. As my wife approached, he turned and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Ernie Banks.” Of course the fact that my wife happens to be a knockout didn’t hurt either But everyone got the thrill of not only meeting this great player, but also a great man.

As a four-year-old going to his first Cub game in 1967, all I knew going in was that the Cubs wore blue hats like mine, and Ernie Banks was Mr. Cub. All I wanted was for Banks to hit a home run that day. And he did. I don’t remember much about it (again, 4 years old), but my dad told me it was pretty much the same as every Banks home run, a rope to left field that you were never quite sure would clear the wall.

My dad was actually there the day Ernie hit #500. When I heard he was blowing off work to go, I wanted to blow off school to go too. He nixed that, but I managed to let the Cubs interfere with my education enough in later years…it was their fault, putting Wrigley Field right between Uptown and Lane Tech. But I digress…#500 was, again, classic Banks. Another rope into left. In fact, one habit I picked up from my dad was this kind of lifting motion with my hands, urging the ball over the wall. Kind of how a bowler waves at his ball trying to get it into the pocket. I know Dad was doing that as soon as Banks hit the ball. In fact, one of the biggest kicks I ever got was finding that ticket stub and showing it to Banks.

The name Mr. Cub fit him perfectly too. Not only because he was the greatest player in the history of the franchise, but he embodied the hope and optimism that we all feel, particularly then. The Cubs were contending for the first time in Banks’ career, and he believed as we all did…the Cubs would be great in ’68, the Cubs would shine in ’69, the Cubs would glow in 7-0. Something about the way he’d say it, we’d all believe. Hell, he had me believing those early 80s teams weren’t all that bad.

He had the same love for the game as I felt…when you’re a kid and school’s out, who didn’t want to play two? Three? Hell, as many as you could squeeze in before either the sun went down or it was time to eat. Ernie was right there with us, he just loved playing ball. Hell, his love of the game is why now that I’m in my 50s I still wear #14 when I play softball. Ernie was also a nightmare for baseball coaches all over Chicago, as every kid mimicked that finger-wiggling thing he did when he held the bat.

It was perfectly fitting that he was a Cub. When he got bought from the Kansas City Monarchs, the Cubs narrowly won a bidding war over the White Sox and Yankees. If Banks had been a Yankee, would his desire to play two every day have had the same ring? It’s easy to want to play more when you’re winning the pennant every year. If he had plied his trade in Comiskey Park, he would have turned the 1950s Sox teams from pretty good ones to great ones.

Instead, he was a Cub. In the late 50s, as he won back-to-back MVP trophies for second-division teams, it was said, “without Banks, the Cubs would finish in Albequerque.” Then once he got some help in the form of Ron Santo and Billy Williams, he had some more of his prime wasted with the “College of Coaches”. He was a diamond on a trash heap for the majority of his career.

Finally in the twilight of his career, he had a shot at contention. But as we all know, it was never to be. Still, his career spanned a watershed period for Major League Baseball. It started with him and Gene Baker integrating the Cubs in 1953, in an era where there were 16 major league teams, and none farther west than St. Louis. By the time he retired in 1971, there were 24 teams, including 5 in California. Of course, every team was integrated. When he came to Chicago, the great Cub power hitter of the era was Hank Sauer, a tobacco-chewing behemoth who swung a 40 ounce bat. Banks swung one in the low 30s, and looked like a buggy-whip when he unleashed into a pitch.

But his career was also a great one. One of the ten greatest shortstops of all time. 512 career home runs (including one on that day in 1967). An equal to his contemporaries, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

But his joy, his optimism, it embodied what the Cubs are all about. Without that optimism, you could never endure the heartbreaks of 1969, 1970, 1984 or 2003. That optimism is what makes you believe that he’s in whatever astral plane you believe in, lobbying for cosmic intervention.

And if the time ever comes when the Cubs finally become the last team to win a baseball game in a season, you can believe a lot of us will find our thoughts going to Ernie Banks.

Thanks for that, Ernie.

Let’s play two.