THE WHOLE GAME

What Would An All African-American WBC Team Look Like?

Back in November, MLB.com hosted a roundtable program entitled the “Culture & Journey of the Black Baseball Player”. Hosted by Seattle Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims, the program brought together a handful of current African-American ballplayers, along with former manager Charlie Manuel, to discuss the unique situation facing the modern day Black baseball player. 

During the hour-long program, a variety of topics were delved into, including the lack of Black presence in the contemporary game, ways to inspire more young African-Americans to pick up a bat and ball, as well as the unique social challenges the fall on the shoulders of the few chosen players in the position in MLB today. Overall, it was a very engaging, truthful and enlightening conversation; one worth revisiting on the website today.

At a point during the program, Manuel brought up the idea of allowing an entry into the next World Baseball Classic consisting of just African-American players, to showcase the talents that are still both present, relevant and impactful in today’s game. The idea of that immediately sent my thought process going 1,000 miles per hour; what exactly would that team look like? There certainly are enough Black ballplayers to fill it out, but just what would the entirety of look like, together?

So, that is exactly what is set before you here: a 2021 version of an WBC-style African-American All-Star team. As the new year settles into the box, here’s a look at what would be one of hell of a modern day barnstorming team.

(Editor’s note: The fifth edition of the Classic was supposed to have taken place this year, but like all else, it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Shortstop: Tim Anderson, White Sox

Anderson has become one of the most exciting players in the game. In 2019, he captured the American League batting title, hitting .335. Last summer, his 45 runs scored led the AL, while he won his first Silver Slugger Award. Anderson is also one of the most outspoken, unapologetic presences in the game and would thrive in the spotlight like the WBC.

Reserve: J.P. Crawford (Mariners)

First Base: Dominic Smith, Mets

Although it was an abbreviated year, Smith had the type of season that had been awaited for a handful of seasons. He produced a .993 OPS over 50 games, with 10 home runs and 21 doubles, outdoing his cumulative numbers over the exact same number of at-bats in 2019 in nearly 40 fewer games.

Bench: Josh Bell (Nationals)

Second Base: Marcus Semien, Blue Jays

Semien will switch over from shortstop at his new stop in Toronto, a location where his value could get even greater with an easier defensive load. His 14.1 WAR ranks second among all shortstops since 2018, just a .1 behind Colorado’s Trevor Story. He finished third in AL MVP voting in 2019.

Bench: Tony Kemp (A’s)

Third Base: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pirates

Hayes made the most of his first taste of MLB action in 2020. Over 24 games, the former top prospect and son of hot corner veteran Charlie, stroked to a 1.124 OPS, with 43% of his hits going for extra bases. His presence adds a nice dash of the bright future for African-Americans around the game.

Catcher: Bruce Maxwell, New York Mets

All things being equal, this is a bit of a cheat to fill out the roster, as Maxwell was sent to the minors after recently signing with the Mets, but was out of the majors since 2018. But it also highlights a massive issue of a lack of African-American catchers throughout the upper tiers of pro baseball. For the last Black All-Star catcher? You have to go all the way back to Charles Johnson in 2001. It is a position when the Black presence is tremendously underserved.

Bench: We need to work on this, obviously.

Outfield: Mookie Betts, Dodgers; George Springer, Blue Jays; Aaron Judge, Yankees

Judge is a perennial MVP candidate, anchoring the lineup for baseball’s most storied franchise. (Photo Credit: Kim Montuoro)

This is where this collection gets especially devastating. Between the trio of Betts, Springer and Judge there are: the 2018 AL MVP (Betts), the 2017 World Series MVP (Springer) and a slugger in Judge who reached a host of records owned by Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Reggie Jackson as a rookie. Add in five Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers between them all, and this is by far the powerhouse portion of this lineup.

Bench: Michael Brantley (Astros), Byron Buxton (Twins), Kyle Lewis (Mariners),

Utility: Ian Desmond, Rockies

While he opted out of the 2020 season, Desmond remains an accomplished and versatile talent. After starting his career at shortstop, he has shifted between first base and center field over the past few seasons. To his credit, he is a two-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger Award winner. 

Bench: Dee Strange-Gordon (Free Agent)

Starting Pitcher: Jack Flaherty, Cardinals

He didn’t have the all-universe showing in 2020 (4.91 ERA over nine starts) that he finished 2019 with, there are few pitchers on Earth as talented as Flaherty. Over his first three full seasons, Flaherty owns a 3.20 ERA, while his .198 average against is the third-lowest in baseball among starters. He also places in the MLB top 10 in WHIP (1.04) and strikeout percentage (29.7%) over the same time span.

Rotation: Marcus Stroman (Mets, 2017 WBC Most Valuable Player), David Price (Dodgers), Justin Dunn (Mariners)

Bullpen: Devin Williams (Brewers), Amir Garrett (Reds), Jeremy Jeffress (Free Agent), Jordan Hicks (Cardinals), Mychal Givens (Rockies), Triston McKenzie (Indians), Touki Toussaint (Braves), Taylor Hearn (Rangers), Demarcus Evans (Rangers), Chris Archer (Rays)

Led by the 2020 NL Rookie of the Year in Williams (one earned run over 22 appearances), and amplified by the plus arms of Garrett, Jeffress, Hicks and McKenzie, the bullpen offers a deep and diverse set of arms capable of cleaning up most any situation later in affairs as well.

Matt Whitener has been a freelance writer, radio personality and podcaster host since 2010. His work is featured on Yardbarker, The Whole Game & on the SOLC Network. Matt is based out of St. Louis, MO and is a regular and lifelong advocate for the history of African-Americans in baseball and ensuring the culture is represented in a true to the game fashion. You can follow Matt on Instagram at @CheapSeatFan and by name on Facebook.

Baylor vs. Gonzaga: Sometimes, It Is That Easy

One of the facets of the “madness” in the March Madness that is the NCAA Tournament is that typically in the men’s version, lower-seed teams upset traditional college powerhouses in the first weekend. A few, like Loyola-Chicago and Oregon State, even threaten to be a part of the third weekend. Usually, the Final Four is made up of really good teams that most knew were really good since the season started. But because of the Madness, and the idea that we can know the matchups so well that our dark horses advance further in the race than others think, a lot of us talk ourselves out of obvious choices when filling out brackets.

Gonzaga and Baylor have been the two best teams all season long. They were ranked first and second, respectively, in the AP Preseason Top 25. And while change is inevitable and most of those teams in the preseason polls do not justify those rankings – Duke and Kentucky being in the top 10 immediately comes to mind – the Bulldogs and the Bears have remained at the top of actual polls and been prohibitive favorites for months. This leads me to this idea when it comes to those who seek to predict contenders:

Sometimes, it is that easy.

Gonzaga is the best team in the country. They have every element needed to capture the men’s NCAA Championship tonight. They’re led by future NBA lottery pick freshman Jalen Suggs, sophomore Drew Timmie and senior Corey Kispert. A bigger fact then their scoring output (91.6 points per game) is that they’re beating opponents by almost 23 points per game. Gonzaga isn’t just winning, they’re dominating. This is certainly head coach Mark Few’s best group of players in the two decades the ‘Zags have been in the national spotlight.

Just over 1,900 miles southeast of Spokane, WA, Scott Drew has assembled a roster at Baylor that looks to smother on defense. Led by junior guards Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler, the Bears are only allowing their opponents to score 65 points a contest, while they score 82 a game. That margin isn’t as wide as Gonzaga’s differential but it is clear that Baylor is also tangibly better than the other teams in the nation.

Since 2010, the men’s NCAA Championship Game had at least one team ranked in the AP Preseason Top 10. There are outliers, such as UConn’s Kemba Walker-led Tournament run in 2011 in which the Huskies started the season unranked. But there are also instances like 2013 where both participants Louisville and Michigan started the season ranked in the top five. So the data shows that it is certainly likely one title game contender will be near the top of the polls white the other will play better than the consensus projects. Most times, actually playing out the season helps us gather information on how we shape the end of our brackets. And other times, that conventional thinking can be set aside to pick number one and number two.

The two teams with the biggest differential and the most ways to win a game are meeting in the championship game. And while the choice between these two and 66 other teams seems to favor the field, this time it was easy to predict who’d be looking to cut down the nets tonight. Good luck to both teams and may the game be worthy of the caliber of both programs.

Connor McDavid Deserves Star Treatment From the NHL

The long-standing argument over the existence of ‘star treatment’ in sports gained another exhibit on February 6 courtesy of Edmonton Oilers winger Connor McDavid. During a second-period power play against the rival Calgary Flames, McDavid drove wide around Mark Giordano and cut toward the net. Chris Tanev tripped him, sending McDavid into Calgary netminder Jacob Markstrom. The resulting collision earned the Oilers’ center, and not Tanev, two minutes in the penalty box for goaltender interference.

As if the call wasn’t bad enough, the whole scene eerily resembled the low point of McDavid’s young career when on a similar play against the same opponent, Giordano, beaten again, dove at his feet. McDavid crashed into the post, hurting his knee so badly he thought his leg was in two pieces

Then there was the time Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning shoved an off-balance McDavid 20 or so feet away from the boards following a rush. That subsequent impact left Edmonton’s then prized rookie with a fractured clavicle, causing him to miss 37 games.

Now, McDavid’s resilience is worth celebrating. The return from the knee injury quickly became the stuff of a legend: after months of intense rehab, he was back on the ice opening night doing stuff like this. And in his first game following the broken collarbone, McDavid turned the Columbus Blue Jackets inside out.

But there’s also something to be said about how little the NHL has done to protect an all-time great player. Tom Brady tore his ACL, and the NFL changed what constituted roughing the passer so that defending players couldn’t dive at a quarterback’s legs. Connor McDavid escaped the same collision that threatened his career at 22 unharmed and was penalized for his troubles. 

Let’s give McDavid the Brady treatment, then, and propose a new rule. If a player trips an opponent into the goal, they should be assessed a five-minute major. That sort of punishment should dissuade defensemen from the sort of desperation dives that send forwards flying (and their goalies would thank them, too). Of course, that only speaks to a singular issue of a larger problem. 

The NHL has never been more skilled, hockey has never been played at a faster pace, and McDavid still routinely makes professionals look utterly silly. Having just turned 24, he may already have more highlight-reel goals and assists than any other player in league history. (This is from 2019-20 alone). 

You owe it to your fans, players, and the league as a whole to keep that kind of star healthy and on the ice as much as possible. The NHL has failed at this before. In fact, it was a specialty of theirs in the 90s. 

Consider the unofficial anointing of young Canadian hockey prodigies in the modern era. It started with Wayne Gretzky. Then came Mario Lemieux and soon after him, Eric Lindros. Sidney Crosby was the first can’t-miss prospect of the 21st century before McDavid became the first Gen Zer to join the lofty group. 

It’s fair to say all of those players lived, or have lived, up to the considerable hype. The only exception might be Lindros. Why? In large part because the NHL did very little to curtail head shots, and a series of concussions severely shortened his prime. 

Lemieux’s career deserves a closer examination, too. He battled and beat cancer, was slowed by a bad back, and yet it was the clutching and grabbing that pushed him to retire (the first time) at 31. Lemieux had called the NHL a “garage league” in 1992 and stated, “The advantage is to the marginal players now. They can hook and grab, and the good players can’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

The NHL finally cracked down on obstruction penalties prior to the 2005-06 season, a full 13 years after the best player on a team headed to a second consecutive Stanley Cup publicly voiced his displeasure. Even then it took a year-long lockout to happen. (It’s also worth noting Lemieux, this time as owner of the Penguins, wrote a letter to Gary Bettman in 2011, outlining a plan to address suspensions and player safety as he watched Crosby play just 63 regular season games as a 23- and 24-year-old). 

McDavid may never have the crossover appeal to recreate a modern ProStars alongside LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes. His starpower is probably more in line with Mike Trout, whose all-time talent is undeniable even as he’s been stuck with a mediocre franchise. 

Just as MLB could do more to properly market Trout, the NHL needs to act now to capitalize on McDavid’s prime by catering to their most gifted star. Scoring rates remain stagnant. The league is set to collectively lose billions of dollars this season. With limited spectators, and none in Canada, it’s now mostly a television-only entertainment league, and the television contract is up in the U.S. this year. Seattle enters the fray in a matter of months. 

This is all while McDavid is on pace for nearly 100 points in 56 games, skating alongside the reigning Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner in Leon Draisaitl. You can’t guarantee anyone’s health or production, but you can make significant efforts to protect your best players. To paraphrase Lemieux, let McDavid do what he’s supposed to do.

Witness to An Unusual Super Bowl

It’s the dream of just about any American sports fan. By the grace of the sporting deities, there’s a ticket for what is traditionally the biggest single-day event of the year, the Super Bowl, and it has your name on it. Whether you are a skilled schmoozer that gets in through a sponsor, a lucky season-ticket holder among the NFL’s 32 distinct fan bases who gets dibs on pre-sales months before, or this aspiring MENSA member, the league’s final offering the season is the spectacle of spectacles in these United States.

Somehow that was still the case despite the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Super Bowl LV (55) was the cap of the NFL’s most logistically challenging season in ages, arguably ever. You know the story by now: rescheduled games and bye weeks, viral clusters among teams (and the brazen flouting of the rules by some), an oft-criticized campaign centered around social justice, and a head coaching carousel that continues to enrage and confound. And the game itself was far from the ALL-CAPS EPIC matchup hoped for by the masses as Tampa Bay’s defense was the real MVP in the Buccaneers’ dismantling of Kansas City. But the event was still a party of sorts for both the local team that got to win its second Lombardi Trophy and the 22,000 fans in what was intended to be socially-distanced attendance.

For 7,500 of those revelers in particular, the Super Bowl was part-reward, part-release. These were healthcare workers from around the nation (most from the Tampa region) who were gifted tickets by the league as a “thank you” for all of the critical work they have done through the last eleven months. They were also previously vaccinated, which made the game a huge stress test for vaccination efforts as they continue to ramp up from coast to coast.

Jenny Bagg is a registered nurse and certified nurse midwife in the Tampa area. (Some disclosure: we’ve been friends since high school.) The opportunity to go to the Super Bowl while it was in her backyard – for free – was too hard to pass up, but it wasn’t easy. Days after the NFL’s announcement, Bagg learned that a couple of colleagues got tickets, but assumed that she wasn’t as lucky. “The following day I was on-call and saw the winning nurse,” the NYC native said. “When I congratulated her, she said there were still tickets available and to email the HR administrator ASAP.”

Needing to respond quickly, Bagg, who received both of her COVID vaccine shots, needed to send a copy of her immunization card. Yet there were a couple of roadblocks. One, she couldn’t find the card. Two, her actual job. “I had a patient in labor who was 8 centimeters dilated. So what to do? Run home, of course, and tear the house apart looking for the card! Luckily, I found it without too much trouble, quickly emailed a photo of it and made the 90-second drive back to the hospital with plenty of time to spare before the birth.”

“When I saw that email: “You are going to Super Bowl LV!” I was nervously excited.”

Photo courtesy of Jenny Bagg

The nerves were certainly understandable. While Bagg was vaccinated and was comforted by her understanding of the work behind the vaccines, she was about to attend the largest attended sporting event in the States since the NBA and NHL paused their seasons last spring. We are still learning about variants and what levels of protection are provided against them by the vaccines currently available. Though millions of people have been inoculated and many more wait for their shots, vaccine hesitation remains prevalent around the nation, with stories making the rounds about skepticism even among healthcare personnel.

A mother of two young children, Bagg had her motivations for getting the vaccine. “As healthcare professionals, we know how bad it is out there with COVID, she reflected. “We are taught to trust science. For me, it was never a question that I would get the vaccine as soon as it was available to me. I was excited by the mechanism of the mRNA vaccine, how there is NO piece of the coronavirus in it at all and that it offered such strong protection against serious disease and death.” She was mindful about reported cases of Bell’s Palsy among a few participants, especially because she was previously afflicted with the side effect in the past. Yet that was far from a deterrent. “I was so exhausted of living in fear and being at the mercy of others around me who were not and continue to not be doing things to protect themselves, my family and me.”

Armed with a Bucs mask made she purchased from loldesignsbyAngie (she spoke highly of the mask quality), she was also reassured about being in the stands because she was outdoors and that both the NFL and Raymond James Stadium staff were taking precautions that were unprecedented for the Super Bowl. Staffers enforced the mask mandate, making sure that fans always wore them unless they were eating or drinking, even if no other fans were nearby. Hand sanitizer was readily available and from the initial look, fans were socially distanced thanks to cutouts filling some seats and actual people spread throughout the stadium.

As the game went along and Patrick Mahomes kept seeing Buccaneers in his face, Bagg decided to make her way from her original seat in the 300s section to the 100s with an obviously closer view of the field. Unexpectedly, she found herself in another section of healthcare workers, all Kansas City fans. In a traditional sports sense, this sort of interaction would be awkward for a moment. “I told them that while we were on opposite sides of the game, I was so happy that they were there enjoying this with us. We’ve all had a hard year and what a way to celebrate.”

Jenny moved from here…
to here. (Photos courtesy of Jenny Bagg)

The game itself was a proper revenge game for the hometown Bucs, who entered the championship game on a seven-game winning streak after losing to the visitors on the same field in December. The non-game entertainment was divisive as always: stirring debate on social media but exciting the people in the building. Yet most of all, it was a cathartic moment for the thousands of fans who took it all in.

Yes, Florida has been open for business throughout much of the pandemic so far. The Sunshine State opened its doors to sporting leagues looking to either restart paused seasons (NBA), start new ones (WNBA, Major League Soccer) or take up long-term residency (WWE, All Elite Wrestling). And with much anger about how Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has managed the conditions, either you looked at Florida with absolute disdain or unbridled envy, views colored by both science and political leanings.

Bagg was incredibly mindful of this before, during and after the game, yet as anyone else who has found some sort of release in the time of COVID, it was hard to not fully appreciate the chance to unwind, especially considering what the working mom does for a living. “It definitely felt amazing to be “out” again after a year and to feel somewhat normal,” she said. “I felt myself dancing to Miley Cyrus (and BILLY IDOL and JOAN JETT!!!) more enthusiastically than I would have a year ago. I enjoyed the free drinks at the Tik Tok Tailgate a little more than I might have in early 2020.”

Mask up! (Photo courtesy of Jenny Bagg)

With the vaccine rollout limping along throughout the country, many Americans are more anxious about “getting back to normal” while millions have continued on as if nothing has changed. Eventually, the larger social gatherings that come from sports and other forms of entertainment will return. From a healthcare perspective, Bagg thinks that masks and social distancing won’t let up in 2021, jokingly that “I cannot imagine the horror of ever smelling someone’s breath again.”

Yet she also implores that we remain diligent and persistent in our fight against COVID-19, hoping that the pandemic “has forged ‘new normals’ that we will continue once the acute threat of COVID-19 is past us: washing our hands more, staying home when we’re sick (seriously, like how many times have we all gone to work sick and contagious), and thoughtfulness for your neighbor (I have less faith with that last one).”

“We have the power to be healthier and safer with a few adjustments to our behavior. Let’s do this, people!”