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How MLB umpires — yes, umpires! — are stepping up their shoe game



“Dad, you’re trending.”

Hunter Wendelstedt started to get nervous. The night before, Wendelstedt — an MLB umpire since 1998 — had manned second base during a Sunday night matchup between the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. He cycled through the game in his mind, replaying all the calls he had made.

“I didn’t mess anything up last night,” he said to his two teenage daughters.

“No, you’re trending for your Jordans,” Bridget, 19, and Hailey, 18, told him. “They’re like, ‘What’s this old dude doing wearing Jordans?'”

Cameras had caught Jordan 11 Jubilees on Wendelstedt’s feet during the May 9 game, and the image of the umpire quickly circulated across social media. Some fans wondered why an umpire would need to wear the latest sneaker drop while on the job. Others celebrated the flash of style. Suddenly, Wendelstedt found himself getting some extra attention — not for any on-field flubs, but for his fashion.

“The last thing in the world I thought I’d ever be talking about in an interview is my shoes or footwear,” Wendelstedt told ESPN.

Wendelstedt, though, is far from the only ump who’s stepped up his shoe game recently. Through the end of the 2019 season, MLB umpires were contractually obligated to wear New Balance shoes, but when that contract expired and Nike became the primary uniform supplier for the major leagues, the floodgates opened for umpires to switch up their sneakers. This season, umps wearing flashy kicks has become a trend — and both fans and players are noticing.

“The first week we thought that maybe one or two guys started wearing Jordans, but then every single crew was rolling in with sick shoes,” said Chicago Cubs pitcher Trevor Williams. “Even Joe West had Nikes on that weren’t the generic Dad Nikes.”

Wendelstedt runs the Harry Wendelstedt Umpire School in Ormond Beach, Florida, named after his late father, a longtime MLB ump. A couple of offseasons ago, he started receiving snarky comments and jabs from aspiring umpires on his lack of style.

“The 18-year-olds, they were mocking my shoe game,” Wendelstedt said.

Wendelstedt, who’s 49, decided to turn to some younger MLB umpires for advice.

“What are you wearing on the field this year?” Wendelstedt asked Jansen Visconti, 33.

Visconti told Wendelstedt about the Jordan 11 Jubilees, an all-black pair of the iconic sneaker Michael Jordan wore after coming back to the NBA from his stint in the minor leagues with the Birmingham Barons. The sold-out sneakers, which now resell for around $300, align with the league’s uniform policy for umpires, which requires shoes to be either black or white. Wendelstedt downloaded StockX, a popular app for purchasing sneakers on the secondary market that was recommended to him by his fellow umpires, and flipped to the page featuring the Jordan 11 Jubilees.

“He saw them and bought them on the spot,” Visconti said.

Jordans had made their way onto the feet of at least one umpire before the Nike contract — just with some handmade adjustments. Umpire Alfonso Marquez wore Jordan 9 golf shoes while on the job but blacked out the Jumpman logo in order to make them compliant with league uniform policies and avoid raising the eyebrows of New Balance executives. Marquez owns more than 250 pairs of sneakers, which he stores in his garage, and now that it’s kosher, he regularly sports a variety of Jordans on the field.

“It’s just a different something to our game, it just adds a little something,” Marquez, 49, said. “It’s funny to see guys like Hunter, all these guys that are wearing them now. It’s pretty cool to see. We’re trying to get some of our older guys to go out there in Jordans.”

The gradual loosening of rules restricting the colors of cleats in Major League Baseball helped lead to the rise of sneaker culture on the diamond, with flashier spikes becoming a regular sight the past few seasons. That rubbed off on the umpires.

“Once we started seeing some of those, and we started to find the actual Jordan styles, we definitely got influenced,” Marquez said. “We were able to bring them out and not get into any kind of trouble.”

This growing interest in footwear birthed a text chain featuring around 25 aspiring sneakerhead umpires. In the thread, umpires regularly share photos of their latest pickups and group shots of different crews wearing Jordans together. Currently, the only place where umpires can’t wear sneakers is behind home plate, where steel-toe boots are necessary to protect from foul tips. The group, however, is trying to figure out how to get a steel-toe inserted into a Jordan.

“Trust me, we have thought about it,” Marquez said. “And if one of us is able to do it, we will do it.”

A shared love of sneakers now regularly sparks conversations on the field between umpires and players, too. During a recent series, Wendelstedt chatted with Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins about their habits on StockX during downtime in their hotel rooms.

“He’s online, bidding on shoes too,” Wendelstedt said. “And I said, ‘Ah, we might be bidding against each other one day on a nice pair of Jordans.'”

Fans have struck up a shoe conversation of their own — with umpire Jordan Baker. At Angels Stadium recently, a group of fans grabbed Baker’s attention after spotting his Jordan 11 Jubilees.

“I pulled up my pant leg a little bit and showed them some love and they go nuts,” Baker said.

The next night, those same fans returned with a sign. Printed on it: “Air Jordan Baker.”

“Players are coming up to me and going, ‘Bake, you got a sign made for you?'” Baker said. “It’s been nothing but comedy.”

Umpires expressed surprise about the overwhelmingly positive reception they’ve received, given their typical image on the field.

“Everyone thought that the umpires were the black-hearted villains,” Wendelstedt said.

Said umpire Cory Blaser: “People might not look at us as cool or hip at all. That’s not true, and if you’re really into baseball, you know that there are a lot of younger umpires and we’re not grumpy. We’re not grumpy, old, mean guys, and there are some guys that have a little bit of swag.”

Still, old habits die hard. As is natural on the internet, some baseball fans have criticized umpires for wearing high-priced sneakers on the field, noting that Wendelstedt was getting an expensive and hyped pair of shoes dirty.

“They got back to doing what they’re supposed to do,” Wendelstedt said, “and that’s making fun of the umpires.”

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After ‘a good ride,’ Toronto Blue Jays close out stint in Buffalo with loss, eye return to Rogers Centre



BUFFALO, N.Y. — For the city of Buffalo, it was fun while it lasted.

After not hosting a Major League Baseball game since its days as a Federal League outpost in 1915, Buffalo made the most of its opportunity, hosting the Toronto Blue Jays over two seasons because of coronavirus concerns.

It all ended Wednesday night, as J.D. Martinez and Hunter Renfroe connected back-to-back to help the Boston Red Sox won a home run derby, beating Toronto 7-4 in the final MLB game to be played in the city for the foreseeable future.

In the middle of the third inning, Toronto players and coaches came out of the dugout to salute the fans at Sahlen Field.

In the end, there was no mistaking the finality of the Blue Jays’ tenure along Lake Erie as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” played on the stadium’s sound system just after Boston finished its on-field celebration.

The Blue Jays will return to Toronto on July 30 after the Canadian government granted them an exemption to the U.S.-Canada travel ban. The Blue Jays haven’t played at Rogers Centre since 2019 because of coronavirus protocols. They began the season playing home games in their spring-training ballpark in Dunedin, Florida before shifting up to Buffalo when the more reliable summer weather rolled in.

“It’s been a good ride here,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “We’re never going to forget that this was the place where we clinched the playoffs last year. The crowds have been great. It was a great idea by our crew (to thank the fans).”

Though there were many nights, especially against the Red Sox and New York Yankees this year, where the Blue Jays may have felt like the road team in Buffalo, considering the amount of fans both of those clubs brought to the stands.

Wednesday was no different. Red Sox Nation was loud and proud in the stands, as Kike Hernandez, Rafael Devers and Michael Chavis also connected for Boston. And this was after the Red Sox went deep six times in Monday’s 13-4 win over Toronto.

It was the first time the Red Sox hit at least five homers in consecutive games against one opponent since doing it to the Yankees in June 1977.

“We did an amazing job, coming here against a tough team,” said Boston manager Alex Cora, whose club scored just six runs in three games in New York against the Yankees before sweeping Toronto. “We ended up 3-2 on this road trip, so it was a positive one for how bad it supposedly looked over the weekend.”

Hernandez, who has nine homers in his last 25 games after being held without one in 23 previous games, can’t explain the turnaround.

“I don’t have a secret,” Hernandez said. “I’m just trying to get good at-bats, make good decisions at the pitches that I want to swing at. And it’s going well for me right now. I’m just going to try and do my job.”

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit his 32nd homer for Toronto. George Springer added a two-run shot in the sixth and Teoscar Hernandez followed with a homer for Toronto, which finished its residency in Buffalo with a 12-11 record this season.

Including games played at the home of their Triple-A team in Florida, the Blue Jays ended with a 29-20 mark as a home team playing in the United States. Their game against Boston on Tuesday night was rained out.

Before the game, Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro presented a check for $25,000 to the Buffalo Bisons Charitable Foundation in thanks for the support provided by Toronto’s top minor league affiliate.

Buffalo fans returned the favor, as crowds in excess of 10,000 turned out for six of Toronto’s last eight home games, with Wednesday’s attendance of 14,607 topping the ledger.

Hernandez hit a two-run shot in the third inning, and Devers and Chavis hit leadoff drives in the fourth and fifth innings. Martinez and Renfroe connected in the eighth as Boston raised its AL-leading road record to 30-19.

Garrett Richards (6-5) allowed four hits in 5 2/3 innings and won a second straight start for the first time since mid-May. He struck out four.

Garrett Whitlock pitched 1 1/3 innings and Adam Ottavino worked the eighth. Matt Barnes pitched a perfect ninth for his 20th save.

“We pitched well the whole road trip,” Cora said. “The bullpen was amazing. (Richards) was pounding the strike zone, changing speeds, using both sides of the plate. We loved what we saw.”

Robbie Ray (8-5) allowed the first three Boston homers and struck out four over five innings in the loss, his shortest outing since a 4 2/3-inning stint on June 18 at Baltimore.

Toronto’s Danny Jansen left the game after his seventh-inning double, pulling up after rounding first with hamstring tightness. On the hit, Boston’s Danny Santana stumbled in left field after trying to reach for the ball and left the game with right groin tightness.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Chicago White Sox’s Yermin Mercedes, recently demoted to Triple-A, ‘stepping aside’ from baseball



Chicago White Sox rookie Yermin Mercedes wrote in an Instagram post on Wednesday night that he is “stepping aside” from baseball indefinitely while also apologizing to the team for not “accepting some of their decisions.”

The post was accompanied with a picture of the words “it’s over.”

“I want to apologize to all those who I inadvertently offended as a consequence of my immaturity like members of the radio, television, and press,” Mercedes wrote in his post. “To all the team’s members where I was involved with, I’m sorry for failing as a human being and for not accepting some of their decisions. I’m stepping aside from baseball indefinitely.”

It’s unclear what decisions Mercedes was referencing in his post.

Earlier Wednesday, on his Instagram story, Mercedes had posted “El Retiro” — or retirement — with a thinking emoji.

Mercedes, 28, earned AL Player of the Week to open the season and hit .415 with five homers and 16 RBIs in 22 games in April, but he struggled after that. His batting average dropped to .271 before he was demoted to Triple-A Charlotte at the beginning of July.

The White Sox were seemingly caught off guard about Mercedes’ intentions Wednesday night.

“The White Sox are aware of tonight’s Instagram post by Yermín Mercedes, who is currently on the active roster of our Class AAA team in Charlotte, NC,” the team said in a statement. “At this point in time, the White Sox have not received any official notification from Yermín concerning his future plans.”

Mercedes wore his emotions on his sleeve, playing with swagger as an older rookie, but he was the subject of controversy in May when White Sox manager Tony La Russa criticized him for swinging at a 3-0 pitch late in a blowout victory over the Minnesota Twins. Mercedes responded that he wasn’t going to change as he endeared himself to White Sox fans after making the team when left fielder Eloy Jimenez got injured in spring training. A local eatery even named a hamburger named after him: the “Yerminator.”

Mercedes ran into other issues besides swinging at a 3-0 pitch. He was benched in an early May game for arriving to the ballpark late, and he expressed disappointment after being sent down to the minors.

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Oakland Athletics continue stadium negotiations to stay in town, still considering Las Vegas option



Oakland Athletics president Dave Kaval stood somewhere near the south side of the Las Vegas Strip on Wednesday morning, with the Cosmopolitan and Planet Hollywood within eyesight. Kaval will be there alongside his architect over the next two days, he said, sitting in on a series of meetings and analyzing where a prospective new stadium could someday reside. Meanwhile, negotiations with the city of Oakland regarding a 35,000-seat waterfront ballpark at the Howard Terminal site are in what Kaval described as “the bottom of the ninth inning.”

Oakland City Council officials voted Tuesday in favor of a non-binding term sheet for the ballpark and its surrounding development, a project that will cost up to $12 billion. But Kaval pushed back because the city voted in favor of a term sheet that differed from the one the A’s proposed three months earlier and included amendments that the team was seeing for the first time. Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred followed with a statement expressing disappointment in the outcome and promising to “immediately begin conversations with the A’s to chart a path forward for the Club.”

What, exactly, does that mean?

“I think we need to unpack what was passed and what it means,” Kaval said in a phone interview with ESPN. “The fact that the city did not vote on our proposal — I mean it’s unusual to have that positioning. We do appreciate some of the concessions that were made. I think the party had been negotiating in good faith to try to get to a mutually agreeable solution. Obviously we didn’t get there before the vote. And so we have to balance that progress with some of the stark realities of, ‘How do we move this project into an implementation phase?’ We can’t let the process be the product.”

The A’s made a public proposal in April stating they would privately finance the ballpark, which will cost an estimated $1 billion, while also providing $450 million in community benefits and arranging for an additional $11 billion in private investment to eventually build up the surrounding neighborhood with 3,000 residential units, up to 1.5 million square feet of commercial space, 270,000 square feet for retail, an indoor 3,500-seat performance center, 400 hotel rooms and up to 18 acres available for public parks.

The city countered with a plan that includes three key differences: a new financial structure that depends on only one infrastructure financing district, preventing the A’s from creating an additional one at Jack London Square; an increase in affordable housing demands to 35% of residential units; and an additional community benefits fund that isn’t solely committed to capital investments.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and other community leaders hosted a news conference near the Howard Terminal site on Wednesday morning in which they touted the city’s proposal and urged the A’s to continue negotiating. Schaaf said she’s noticing an “openness” from the A’s, adding that the city “provided the primary things that they asked for, that they have said they need to keep going on this process.”

“I respect that they’re trying to keep the heat on,” Schaaf said, “and what better place to go than Vegas for heat.”

Kaval, on the other hand, painted the Vegas trips as due diligence to cover for a project that might not materialize and provide a parallel path for a team playing in an outdated facility. Kaval said he wants more specifics about how the A’s would be reimbursed for a $352 million infrastructure payment and more specificity around when environmental clearances will be given and when a final binding vote can occur, ideally by the end of the current baseball season.

Oakland city officials see their counterproposal from Friday, and the amendments that were introduced on Tuesday, as the natural evolution of a negotiation.

A’s officials basically see it as a new agreement entirely.

“We need to know what was passed, how it relates to our original proposal,” Kaval said. “We need to understand the timeline to get the definitive vote. And we need to work really closely with the league, because they have a strong point of view on this. They wanna make sure the A’s have a home. We really are running out of time. We’re under a lot of pressure because our current facility is 10 years past its useful life. Let’s not forget that going sideways is really no longer an option.”

The A’s have spent the better part of the past two decades hoping to secure a new stadium in the Bay Area, a pursuit that took them through San Jose, Fremont and multiple sites in Oakland, most notably around Laney College. Renovations of the current Coliseum site, where the A’s have played since 1968, have been deemed nonviable largely because of the team’s stated desire for a downtown location.

Manfred said before last week’s All-Star Game that it would be a “mistake” to refer to the Las Vegas option as a bluff, calling it “a viable alternative for a major league club.” Other relocation options — including Portland, Oregon; Nashville, Tennessee; Charlotte, North Carolina; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Montreal — could materialize if the team’s deal with the city falls through.

That is not necessarily the case just yet.

“We’re focused on the two parallel paths — Oakland and southern Nevada,” Kaval said. “That’s by the direction of the league, and that will remain our focus until they give us additional direction.”

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