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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred defends punishment of Astros

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Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred defended his punishment of the Houston Astros for their sign stealing in 2017 and said Major League Baseball will institute new rules to police the use of technology before the 2020 season.

In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravech, Manfred explained why he didn’t punish any Astros players for their roles in the scandal, which involved illegal use of technology to decipher their opponents’ signs and relay them to Houston batters in real time.

MLB announced its discipline of the Astros last month, suspending general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the entire 2020 season while stripping the organization of four draft picks and levying a $5 million fine.

But none of Houston’s players was suspended or fined, and Manfred previously announced that MLB had no plans to strip the Astros of the 2017 World Series title — decisions that have drawn widespread criticism from the baseball community, including players from other teams.

Manfred told Ravech that any discipline of the players likely would have resulted in grievances from the players’ union, citing Luhnow’s failure to communicate to the Astros’ players the contents of a 2017 memorandum outlining MLB’s policy on the use of technology.

Manfred said that although he doesn’t absolve the Astros players, he believes that Luhnow and Hinch were obligated to inform the players of the memo and enforce MLB’s rules.

Manfred also said he understands the sport’s reaction to the scandal, especially after the Astros’ ill-received news conference on Thursday, when owner Jim Crane made several comments that stoked the ire of players and officials from other teams.

When asked about MLB’s plans going forward, Manfred indicated that baseball would restrict access to video during games.

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Nationals’ spring facility latest sports venue to be repurposed in response to pandemic

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Sports venues are an emerging asset in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. From staging grounds to drive-thru testing facilities to makeshift hospitals, the once-empty stadiums have become a bustle of activity again.

The Washington Nationals‘ spring facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, was the latest to be turned into a testing area. For now, there will be medical personnel in the parking lots instead of players.

“Our [spring] complex is being used as a coronavirus testing site until further notice,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Monday. “So we’re going to shut it down to all players and staff completely while the county and National Guard use it for testing.”

At first, spring training facilities were left open during the shutdown, but with more and more shelter-in-place orders, parking lots and stadiums are being re-purposed.

“The news of probably the week is that we’ve totally closed the facility here in West Palm Beach,” Rizzo said.

Scenarios like the one there are playing out all over the country.

Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, FedEx Field in Washington and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, are just a few of the others that have been turned into testing centers. The US Army Corp of Engineers, along with FEMA, have agreed to deploy a military field hospital at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field Event Center, while a soccer field in Seattle is building its own makeshift hospital as well.

The United Center in Chicago became a staging area last week.

“As Illinois goes through this together, the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks, is proud to be playing a critical role with our city, state and federal response to the pandemic,” the Center said in a statement. “Our arena and outside campus will be transformed into a logistics hub where we will be assisting front line food distribution, first responder staging and the collection of critically needed medical supplies.”

Stadium personnel say their wish is that their venues remain mostly testing centers and not makeshift hospitals — or even morgues; those scenarios would mean the situation across the country had become much worse. For now, and for the foreseeable future, sports stadiums have a new purpose, with team owners happy to pitch in wherever they’re able.

The Jacksonville Jaguars‘ TIAA Bank Field has been operating as a drive-thru coronavirus testing site since March 21.

“The Jaguars … are glad to do everything we can to assist the federal government and local healthcare workers in offering a testing site outside of TIAA Bank Field,” Jaguars senior VP of communications Dan Edwards said. “Right now, there’s no better use for this venue than caring for the people of Northeast Florida.”

It’s a sentiment being echoed from coast-to-coast, while more and more facilities are folded into the fight against the coronavirus.

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Red Sox’s Chris Sale has Tommy John surgery

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Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale had Tommy John surgery on his left pitching arm Monday, according to the team.

The procedure was performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache at the Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

Sale chose to undergo the procedure now out of fear that delaying it could have caused him to miss significant time in the 2021 season, sources told ESPN’s Jeff Passan March 19.

Recovery from ulnar collateral ligament repairs in the elbow typically takes 12-14 months, putting Sale on pace to return early in 2021. While the coronavirus pandemic-induced delay to the start of the Major League Baseball season was not a direct cause of Sale deciding to undergo the surgery, sources said, the possibility of a significant number of games missed reinforced the decision.

In a conference call earlier this month Bloom said the surgery “would have happened either way.”

Sale, 30, is entering the first year of a five-year contract worth $145 million he signed last spring. He was shut down with elbow soreness last August after the worst season of his career, during which he went 6-11 with a 4.40 ERA in 25 starts. After an offseason of rest, Sale returned to the mound during spring training but again experienced elbow issues March 1 and was sidelined again.

Sale underwent an MRI on March 3, and the results were examined by Red Sox doctors along with renowned surgeons Dr. James Andrews and ElAttrache. Interim manager Ron Roenicke said March 5 that neither Andrews nor ElAttrache recommended surgery for Sale’s elbow.

Sale elected to undergo the procedure now having received a platelet-rich plasma injection and gone through other nonsurgical rehabilitation methods that apparently didn’t help.

The loss of Sale compounds an offseason of change for the Red Sox, who traded star outfielder Mookie Betts, replaced head of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski with Bloom, parted ways with manager Alex Cora after he was implicated in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal and was investigated after accusations of sign-stealing malfeasance during their 2018 championship. MLB hasn’t announced its results of that investigation.

Sale, who was traded from the White Sox to Boston before the 2017 season, is 109-73 with a 3.03 ERA in 312 career appearances, including 232 starts. He has struck out 30.7% of batters faced, the highest rate in the live ball era (minimum 1,000 innings pitched). After allowing 17 earned runs over his first four starts last season, he pitched to a 3.83 ERA in his final 21 starts and held opponents to a .207 batting average.

Information from ESPN’s Joon Lee was used in this report.

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As MLB ponders post-virus season, players worry about health

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As Major League Baseball and the players’ union contemplate various ways to create a schedule for whenever the coronavirus pandemic subsides, Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart raised a concern that is surely shared by others around the sport: Could trying to cram in games, and maybe extend the season into late November or December, lead to injuries?

“The player safety piece is a big thing,” Barnhart, a union representative, said Monday on a conference call with reporters.

That involves how many off-days are salvaged in 2020, how many times teams are told to play in any given week and how 2021 could be affected if there is a shorter-than-usual offseason.

“Moving forward, I don’t think you can do things that are going to compromise the integrity of next season, as well. What I mean by that is forcing the issue of getting so many games in that you risk injury, and you risk major injury to players, because you are trying to get in as many games as you can,” Barnhart said.

“This is all assumptions and thoughts from me specifically — it’s not from the union — but you’re going to have to protect us as players,” he continued. “And if you can’t do that, I think that would be where I personally would kind of draw the line.”

That’s also top of mind for Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon, who already has been ruled out for 2020 while recovering from a second reconstructive surgery on his right elbow. He’s brought up the idea of trying to return if the season goes into November, but said that’s been “shut down pretty quickly.”

Speaking more generally about the effect an altered season could have on guys around the majors, Taillon said: “This is a unique situation. We’re going to have to be careful health-wise.”

No one knows when baseball and other suspended sports will resume, because no one knows when life might return to normal in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak. Three-quarters of a million people around the world have become infected and over 35,000 have died, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University, counts that include more than 140,000 infections and more than 2,500 deaths in the U.S.

Spring training was halted on March 12; Opening Day was supposed to be last week and won’t happen any earlier than mid-May.

“At this point, it’s hard to say what can or should be done. MLB is exhausting all of their brainpower and manpower, along with the 30 clubs, to come up with some ideas and what’s the best way to play a regular season in as many games as possible and get to a playoff scenario,” said Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, whose team has turned over the grounds of its spring facility to public testing for the coronavirus.

“As the commissioner said, we’re going to need to get creative,” Rizzo added. “But beyond that, we’re just speculating on all of these things.”

MLB and its players are hoping to complete initial discussions on scheduling by April 10, and among the proposals under consideration: pushing back the end of the season, even if it involves using neutral sites and domes to avoid colder weather in many cities; increasing doubleheaders to get more games in per week than usual; playing games without spectators; changing the postseason format.

“We’ve been told,” said Taillon, a union rep, “there’s no such thing as a bad idea right now. “

Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus, also a union rep, described a recent call about scheduling options with other players this way: “We were basically talking about potential scenarios and how crazy this season will be, how challenging it will be.”

Barnhart, for one, is realistic about what is going to drive the ultimate decisions about what a season might look like.

“It goes without saying that, as players, we want to play as many games (as possible), not only because we love playing, but also we want to make as much money as possible. That’s the God’s honest truth about it,” he said. “And the same goes with ownership and all of that. So everybody wants to make money.”

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