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How Mookie Betts changed the super-sabermetric World Series into the super-fun Series

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ARLINGTON, Texas — In 1921, George Herman Ruth, better known as Babe, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. In 2020, Markus Lynn Betts, better known as Mookie, drew a walk and stole two bases in the fifth inning of a World Series game. Over the 99 years, with hundreds of games and thousands of innings between these events, nobody managed the feat in a World Series game.

That it happens to be Ruth who last mustered the deed is an inspired bit of baseball whimsy, considering the other tie that binds him to Betts. Both were traded by the Boston Red Sox: Ruth to the New York Yankees in a 1919 deal that history considers sports’ greatest all-time fleecing and Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers this year in a far-less-lopsided yet still emotionally consuming swap. Unlike with Ruth, Boston had seen Betts at his peak. The city knew what it was losing.

Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday was the Mookie Betts show. Clayton Kershaw earned a Best Supporting Actor statuette, and sundry other Dodgers earned their scale, but Betts, on baseball’s biggest stage, surrounded by some of its best players, managed to differentiate himself. He married the game of Ruth’s era with its modern version. His dynamism overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Rays, just as it did the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, just as it did all season, just as it has for a half-decade. Although he scored only two of Los Angeles’ runs in its 8-3 victory before a decidedly pro-Dodgers crowd of 11,388 at Globe Life Field, Betts left his fingerprints all over the things he stole, from bases to the series advantage.

When the Dodgers traded outfielder Alex Verdugo and shortstop prospect Jeter Downs for Betts and David Price in February, they did so with Tuesday night in mind. The Dodgers lost the World Series in 2017 and ’18. They built a player-development juggernaut, could spend money to match any team and still didn’t win. Betts was the separator.

In the fifth inning Tuesday, with the Dodgers leading 2-1, he separated. First, he drew a walk from Rays starter Tyler Glasnow. Then he stole second and became a hero to fans everywhere with the munchies by earning them a free taco through a promotion tied to stolen bases, which happen to be enough of an anachronism in baseball that seeing one in a game is double-take-worthy. A double steal, which Betts and Corey Seager then pulled off, is practically unheard of.

Betts’ greatest coup remained. There is an art to baserunning — to rounding bases properly, to leading off a base, to understanding scenarios as they unfold. The secondary lead — a few extra hops and a step toward the next base as the pitch is delivered — is something Betts does as well as anyone. When Max Muncy chopped a one-hopper that Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz fielded and wheeled home, his throw was slightly up the line, in decent shape to get a mortal running. Instead, it was Betts.

He heaved his body toward home — batting glove sticking out of his right rear pocket, sliding glove on his left hand, gold chain flopping around like it hadn’t a care in the world. Catcher Mike Zunino swept the tag. Too late. The Dodgers led 3-1. That lead expanded to 6-1 by the end of the fifth. It was 8-1 an inning later, with the first of those runs coming on a Betts opposite-field home run around the same vicinity where in NLCS Games 6 and 7 he made spectacular catches against the wall.

All of these elements, they’re Betts’ array of talent dictating what baseball can be. The one-dimensionality of the game in 2020 does not translate in Betts’ world. He hits. He fields. He runs. He plays long ball. He plays small ball. He molds himself to a moment. And the Dodgers follow.

“Mookie,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “is gonna get the best of everybody.”

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are getting the best of him, and that gives them an unmatched catalytic presence. After Betts’ slide around Zunino, the Dodgers followed with an RBI single, an RBI single and an RBI single. It was like a time warp back to the ’80s, before front offices believed that to make a stolen base worthwhile you need about an 80% success rate. In a World Series, in which every out is precious, the prospect of losing even one petrifies managers, so, by and large, they don’t run.

This series, between a Rays organization whose deftness with analytics has helped turn it into a baseball think tank and a Dodgers organization that uses similar principles but can leverage its financial advantage to weaponize them, had all the makings of a new-school, bullpen-heavy, matchup melee — and it might yet evolve into that.

Game 1, though? From Betts’ wheels to the quick-hook Rays leaving starter Tyler Glasnow in to throw 112 pitches despite his ineffectiveness, it was throwback day. The fifth inning in particular, with Betts running and Glasnow battling and the Dodgers’ lineup peppering RBI singles all over the field, might as well have been staged by players wearing flannel uniforms.

To win a World Series, it takes more than conventional wisdom or whatever passes for that today. If for a game or two or three or four it means playing the brand of baseball that the game and situation dictate, then evolve good teams will. The Rays might need to ditch the homer-or-bust ethos that got them here. Already Kevin Cash, their manager, did the exact opposite of what one would have thought with Glasnow. He’s plenty capable of more zags.

But for as much as Cash says Randy Arozarena is the Cuban Mookie Betts … he isn’t. Betts is a singular figure, with each of the five tools abundantly clear and a level of energy that, were it calculable, surely would rate as well-above-average, too.

“Mookie’s pretty special,” Kershaw said. “He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do, and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”

That sounds a lot like the Dodgers, actually. They do things others don’t. They do those things consistently. That’s why they won 43 of 60 regular-season games. That’s why they entered the postseason as — and remain — distinct World Series favorites. That’s why their three-games-to-one NLCS deficit to Atlanta registered as such a shock and their eventual pennant rebalanced the sport’s order.

In the middle of it all is Betts, elemental. Without him, the Dodgers don’t become the first team since 1991 to homer twice and swipe three bases in a World Series game. Without him, perhaps they’re still a guy short, and this drought goes on. And it might still. Baseball is twisted that way. What it giveth in Game 1 it might taketh away in Game 2.

What won’t change is Mookie Betts. He signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers this year. Almost instantly, he embraced his position as the team’s fulcrum, even amid stars, homegrown players and others with tenure. He does it for these games, those moments, the piece of metal that allows baseball players to call themselves champions.

When he does it, those who saw all of his success in Boston can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. It’s not right, really, and it’s not reasonable, especially considering that Betts might have left via free agency anyway. But it’s the same feeling as a century ago: regret commingling with admiration, the feeling of knowing what you lost and loving it anyway because it’s impossible not to.

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MLB launches wood-bat league for draft-eligible prospects

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NEW YORK — Major League Baseball is creating a minor league for top eligible prospects leading to the summer draft.

The wood-bat MLB Draft League is launching with five teams and could add a sixth, MLB said Monday. Teams will play a 68-game regular season that includes an All-Star break that would coincide with the draft in early July.

Teams are being awarded to communities that lost franchises as MLB moved to shrink the affiliated minor leagues from 160 to 120 teams this offseason following the expiration of the Professional Baseball Agreement, which governed the relationship between the majors and minors. MLB has planned to eliminate the separate governing body of minor league baseball.

The founding members of the MLB Draft League are located in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Jersey: the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the State College Spikes, the Trenton Thunder, the West Virginia Black Bears and the Williamsport Crosscutters. MLB said it is in discussions with a sixth team that it hopes to announce soon.

The league will be operated by Prep Baseball Report — a scouting, events and media organization focused on youth ball — and former Cape Cod League coach Kerrick Jackson has been appointed president.

MLB said in a statement that players will “receive unprecedented visibility to MLB club scouts through both in-person observation and state-of-the-art scouting technology, and educational programming designed to prepare them for careers as professional athletes.”

“We are thrilled to partner with Prep Baseball Report and the founding members of the MLB Draft League to create a one-of-a-kind league that will attract the nation’s top players who are eligible for each year’s MLB draft and allow local fans to see top prospects and future big-league stars in their hometowns,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball economics and operations. “This announcement continues MLB’s commitment to preserving and growing baseball in communities around the United States.”

MLB announced in September that the Appalachian League, formerly a Rookie-level affiliated league, would be transformed into a wood-bat college summer league.

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How Adam Wainwright’s love for fantasy football has benefited more than 30 charities

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It’s that time of year, when executives are checking the waiver wires and looking to make moves to improve their teams. But in this case, the front office gurus in question are baseball players themselves and their teams consist of football players.

For many baseball players, fantasy football is their offseason vice — that and a round of golf. In both cases, the players come for the trash talk and stay for the competition.

“We’re so competitive, by nature,” free agent pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “We’ll compete on who can eat their cereal the fastest. Fantasy football has provided baseball players with a fun outlet. It brings clubhouses together. Trades, trash talking, checking scores — and it keeps players close in the offseason.”

Through his charitable foundation Big League Impact, Wainwright took things to another level this fall. He commissioned a “Players Only League” that benefits not only his own foundation but 31 other charities. Each participant, 32 MLB players in all, played for the charity of his choice. The league, which conducted drafts every week with teams having $50,000 to spend on players, had two-week running matchups and is down to the final four: Wainwright is taking on Cincinnati Reds pitcher Sonny Gray in one semifinal, while former big leaguer Matt Holliday faces off against Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed in the other.

And while the competition has been fierce, the passion comes in earning money for charitable causes. Each round resulted in more money for the winning players’ charity of choice. High point totals and a “second chance” bracket provided extra ways to earn.

“That’s one of the coolest parts about it,” Gray said. “And if you’re out early, there are still ways to make money for your charity.”

Gray has raised about $15,000 so far for Project One Four, a charity created by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price to help youth organizations. Due to the pandemic, golf tournaments, celebrity cook-offs, black tie affairs and many other fundraisers have been canceled, so creativity has been needed to raise money for worthy causes. Enter Wainwright and Big League Impact, which matched each player’s $5,000 entry fee in contributing to the pool for the charities.

“We’re starting to catch some notoriety among the players,” Wainwright said. “They know we’re going to have fun and do some cool things to help out their charities. That’s my goal. To empower players around the league, who have huge platforms but don’t know how to use those platforms just yet.”

It’s the perfect mix of passions for Wainwright, who might have a fantasy football “addiction,” according to those who know him. They were only half-kidding, as Wainwright is in five leagues this year.

“Let’s see, there’s my Triple-A team from 2005,” he said. “My home league with my best friends. The clubhouse league with the Cardinals. That’s A-1 priority because you’re looking at those guys in the face every day.”

“He’s always been more concerned with his fantasy football teams than just about anything else,” Holliday, a former teammate, said of Wainwright. “He’s Mr. Tough Guy on game days [when he’s pitching], not talking to anyone, but if you have a good trade, you can talk to him about fantasy football.”

Holliday is playing for his own foundation, Homers for Health, which has raised nearly $3 million for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.

You might think Wainwright, as a free agent, would be more concerned with where he’ll play baseball next season after spending the last 15 years with the Cardinals. But a recent 40-minute phone call produced very little baseball talk. His interest, besides fantasy football, is in helping people. After hanging up, he texted back, not about who he’s starting at quarterback this week, but to emphasize the best part of the whole tournament.

“The coolest thing about everything we do is knowing that there are people around the globe who have clean water that didn’t,” Wainwright wrote. “That have a feeding program that were hungry. That have access to doctors and medicine that had no hope of help before. That have a roof over their head for the first time. And that are free from the bondage of trafficking. All because of a bunch of baseball players working together to make a difference.”

That same sentiment was echoed by the other final four participants. The baseball players have a passion for helping, while at the same time enjoying some competition against each other. The combination wasn’t lost on Holliday, a good friend of Wainwright’s, who is hopeful they meet in the final. Holliday also openly wondered how the commissioner of the league made it to the semifinals.

“I question it,” Holliday said with a laugh. “He’s in charge of this deal, but he always finds his way into the finals. If I didn’t know him so well, and his character, I would question some of the shadiness.”

That’s just a taste of the trash talking that goes hand-in-hand with fantasy football. Wainwright beat Washington Nationals star Max Scherzer in the previous round and made sure to let him know about it.

“Max is a great trash talker,” Wainwright said. “No doubt about it. We’ve had battles on the baseball field, pre and postgame. This was big for me. It’s not as important as baseball, but it’s pretty close as far as bragging rights go.

“He’s really ticked off about it. I won a side bet off of him too.”

While Wainwright, Gray and Holliday are talking some trash, Ahmed, the fourth semifinalist, wants to be known as the “quiet assassin,” though he did question why he was the 30th seed going into the tournament. Ahmed has raised $12,000 so far for Compassion International, which sponsors children in the world’s poorest countries.

“I have to take that up with Waino,” Ahmed said of being the 30th seed. “What’s that all about?”

The Diamondbacks star might feel like he’s playing with house money after beating Clayton Kershaw in the last round.

“He [Kershaw] has beaten me so many times on the field, it’s hard to count them so it feels good to get that little revenge,” Ahmed said. “I didn’t know the format at first. First couple of weeks, I went over budget every time. I had to re-edit and adjust my lineup.”

Texas Rangers pitcher Kyle Gibson was eliminated from the main bracket in Round 1, losing to former teammate Jason Castro. Gibson has continued on in the second-chance bracket as he’s making a difference for his charitable organization, Help One Now, which is building a high school in the Haitian village of Ferrier.

“It’s really cool to see the charities impacted,” Gibson said.

Asked who the best trash talker is, Gibson picked another player eliminated in Round 1.

Lance Lynn likes to talk,” Gibson said. “When he wins, he definitely lets you hear about it. He’s not doing very well in the Rangers league either, so it’ll be a little quieter in the clubhouse.”

So who does he like in to win it all and make $50,000 for his charity? (The charity of the runner-up gets $25,000.)

“[Wainwright] took out Scherzer,” Gibson said. “He was on fire all year. Waino has found his groove. I’ll go with my guy. He set [the league] up and had a big year.”

Several players kidded about the issue of Commissioner Wainwright making it to the semifinals.

“Man, it’s always a little sketchy when the host makes a deep run,” Gray said, enjoying the chance to sting his semifinal opponent. “This is the best thing to be able to trash talk about. Baseball is your career, everyone is doing their own thing and competing. But this is a different level.”

Wainwright had plenty to say on the subject of winning his own tournament, suggesting his dedication to the competition, rather than his being commissioner, has been the key.

“I don’t know how good it looks to win your own event, but I’m going to try to do it,” he said. “I don’t care about the optics because it will help our charities do a lot of great things in this world. … I won our clubhouse league last year and that’s what everyone said. ‘Oh, he sets his own rules. He does whatever he wants to win.'”

Mentioning the Cardinals’ clubhouse league gave Wainwright an opening for a shot across the bow there too.

“I’m all over [teammate] Tommy Edman right now because he has one good player, Patrick Mahomes,” Wainwright said. “Everyone else is the worst player times eight.”

Wainwright’s secret is simple. He’ll bother you until he gets what he wants.

“I’m relentless on trades,” he explained. “If I want a player and the guy says, ‘No, I’m not trading him’, by the fourth week in a row of asking, I might wear him down.”

Players find the trash talk comes much easier in fantasy football than in baseball, where livelihoods are at stake. Wainwright said there have been many times when he has faced a hitter on the same Sunday he was playing him in fantasy football, and the fantasy matchup gets much more attention. Gray loves it because nothing is off limits.

“Oh, for sure,” he said. “Everything comes up when you’re running around out there. It’ll be talked about. This is a big matchup.”

It also gives the players a bit of an understanding what baseball fans go through when they play fantasy baseball.

“I don’t take any offense to it,” Gray said. “A lot of times, baseball fantasy owners are very accurate in their statements.”

Trash talking while earning money for charity is about as good as it gets for these players. The back and forth could go on and on, but the semifinals are underway. Two weeks from now, the players only league will be down to just two.

“This is just a great way to raise awareness and money,” Ahmed said.

And what of that 30th seed?

“It’s giving me a little added motivation to win the whole thing,” he said with a laugh. “We miss that competitive outlet in the offseason, so this is good. I’m enjoying it and want to do it for years to come.”

And that’s Wainwright’s goal as well, to grow the league and earn as much money as possible, not just for his own charity but for many around baseball. If he wins his own tournament, so be it.

“It’s happened a lot over the years,” he said. “I have five leagues I play in.”

And beating Wainwright will make it that much more special for his competitors.

“That’s why you play, to beat the host, right?” Gray said. “He has the home-field advantage. And I already know it’s all over his mind so that makes it even more fun. I’ll sit back and watch Project One Four fantasy points roll up. He knows he’s going to have to bring it.”

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Sources — Mike Minor, Kansas City Royals agree to 2-year deal

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Left-handed starter Mike Minor and the Kansas City Royals are in agreement on a two-year deal that is pending a physical, sources confirmed to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

With the deal, Minor returns to the city where he revitalized his career as a reliever in 2017.

Minor, who turns 33 on Dec. 26, has since become a rotation stalwart. He was traded from the Texas Rangers to Oakland for the stretch drive as the Athletics wrapped up the American League West title last season.

Minor went 1-1 with a 5.48 ERA in his four starts in Oakland after the trade, in which Texas received two players to be named later and international slot money. Overall, he went 1-6 with a 5.56 ERA and 62 strikeouts for both teams in 2020.

His fastball velocity took a step back last season, and his propensity for giving up fly balls showed in his allowing 11 home runs in 56 2/3 innings. His average of 17.7 pitches per inning was his highest rate since his rookie season in 2010 with the Atlanta Braves.

In nine major league seasons, Minor has a 71-66 record with a 3.98 ERA and 1,048 strikeouts with the Braves, Royals, Rangers and Athletics. He missed the 2015 and ’16 seasons after having Tommy John surgery, and he was moved to the bullpen after signing with the Royals in 2017, going 6-6 with six saves and a 2.55 ERA.

The Rangers signed him prior to the 2018 season and moved him back to the rotation, and he delivered, going 26-18 in the 2018 and ’19 seasons while earning his first All-Star nod.

The Athletic was first to report the agreement.

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