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Willie Mays’ first NFT to feature diploma, benefit Say Hey Foundation

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Seventy years after making his major league debut, Willie Mays is still one of the greatest baseball players of all time: the most spectacular combination of power, speed and defense the game has ever seen.

And yet, when he graduated from Fairfield Industrial High School in Fairfield, Ala,. in 1950, it read on his diploma that his assigned profession would be in “cleaning, dyeing and pressing,” the department in which he had completed his studies.

Alas, Mays did not become a dry cleaner. Instead, he became, as Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench said, “the perfect baseball player.”

Mays’ diploma is being made public for the first time in the 90-year-old’s first NFT, which will be released on Sunday, ESPN has learned. Mays’ 90th Birthday Celebrity Drop is going live on Oct. 24 — an ode to Mays’ jersey number — on the marketplace Nifty Gateway.

“I didn’t really understand how these computer tokens worked at first,” Mays told ESPN. “I had to get them explained to me. I’m used to tokens you can hold in your hand. But I guess people collect them the way they do trading cards. And those cards are worth a lot of money now. And I figure anything like that, that people can enjoy and that help me support the kids, is something worth doing.”

All proceeds from the release will be donated to the Mays’ Say Hey Foundation, which establishes baseball programs for underprivileged youth in Alabama, as well as the restoration of youth baseball facilities at Kirkwood Field, the home of the Negro League’s Birmingham Barons, for which Mays played from 1948-50.

“I know that I wouldn’t have had the life I’ve had if it weren’t for other people,” Mays said. “There were grown-ups who looked out for me when I was just a kid starting out. People who taught me and gave me a chance. And teammates. Everybody needs a team. I just want to make sure young kids get a team so they have the chance to have this kind of life — that they eat right, have good teachers, have a place to play and learn. I think that’s the best thing I can do for them. Just do what other folks did for me.”

The NFT art piece, which features several pieces of memorabilia alongside narration by Bob Costas, includes:

• Mays’s high school diploma, with his assigned profession. White students in segregated Alabama were allowed to decide on their own professions, but black students were not.

• One of Mays’ report cards from high school; he was considered the best baseball player, point guard and quarterback in the state, but received a “B” in gym class (he did get an “A” in sportsmanship).

• A scouting report on Mays, who is described as a “colored boy,” as all African-American players were before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. The scout said Mays “has the best reflexes and coordination I’ve seen in a long time.” It notes that if Mays was white, he would be considered “a franchise player.”

• The contract for $250 a month that Mays signed with the Negro League’s Birmingham Barons.

• The Western Union telegram that informed the Barons that Mays’s contract had been purchased for $10,000 by the New York Giants organization, and he would be assigned the Minneapolis Millers minor league team.

• A newspaper article with a headline that read that Mays had a chance to become “a dusky Joe DiMaggio.”

• The floor of the digital art piece is covered with 660 baseballs, the number of home runs he hit in his major league career.

The piece is being released as part of the inaugural drop of the Castacos Collection, which was founded by sports poster artist John Costacos, CEO Justin Moorad and Digital Art Leader Mike Campau. And it only came to be because Mays decided to forgo his chosen profession — although he says he could have excelled at that, too.

“I think that whatever you do, you do your very best at it, I took cleaning and pressing seriously, I got pretty good at it,” Mays said. “I just want every kid to get the chance to do their best at whatever they decide to do. I decided to do baseball.”

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Bolting Braves for Yankees or Dodgers? Top 5 free-agency fits for Freddie Freeman

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Six first basemen have attained nine-figure contracts in their 30s, and the results haven’t necessarily been great. The megadeals for Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols became problems almost immediately. So did the one for Ryan Howard. Deals for Jason Giambi and Carlos Lee started off well but fizzled in the back halves.

Then there’s Paul Goldschmidt, who signed a five-year, $130 million extension with the St. Louis Cardinals in March of 2019, a deal that wouldn’t begin until his age-32 season in 2020. He now serves as the best, most fitting comparison for Freddie Freeman, the five-time All-Star from the World Series champion Atlanta Braves, who surprisingly is still a free agent as Major League Baseball navigates an extended lockout.

Goldschmidt produced like an elite first baseman in the first two years of his deal, boasting an .881 OPS while providing typically excellent defense, and there have been no real signs of a dramatic drop-off. Those things tend to happen quickly, suddenly. But the general hesitancy to splurge on slugging first basemen in recent years doesn’t apply as strongly to Freeman, a naturally gifted hitter and a premier defender who isn’t looking for a deal to take him through his late 30s or into his early 40s.

The sticking point for Freeman, who turned 32 in September, seems to revolve around a sixth guaranteed year, which would mean getting paid among the highest at his position as late as his age-37 season. Will he deserve that kind of money by that point? Probably not. But teams know this when they break the bank for star players; the hope is to receive enough elite production on the front end to justify diminishing value on the back end.

Freeman’s track record suggests he can provide that. From 2011 to 2021, he accumulated the ninth-most FanGraphs wins above replacement (42.4) in baseball while ranking 13th in weighted runs created plus (139) and 12th in OPS (.894). He has finished each of the past nine years with at least three fWAR — including the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, which saw him earn the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. The 2021 season, which ended in a championship, was one of his most productive. Now Freeman is the best hitter in what began as a loaded free-agent class. And because the Braves have yet to lock him up, he will be among the sport’s most coveted players when business resumes.

We’ve identified his five best fits below.

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‘Drawing Mike Trout every day until the lockout is over’ — How an MLB fan’s tribute turned into an internet sensation

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NEW YORK — Three days into the MLB lockout, when New York Yankees fan Ray Sbarra checked Reddit for his baseball fix, he came up empty. So, with the lockout leaving the hot stove freezing cold and no end in sight, he decided to fill in the gap.

“I just figured, let me make a stupid little drawing of Mike Trout,” said Sbarra, a 26-year-old former truck driver from Staten Island.

Sbarra — whose art training begins and ends with elementary school — picked up pen and paper and started drawing. As best he could, he created a picture of the Los Angeles Angels superstar making a diving catch and posted it on the r/baseball subreddit with the username “DidItForTheStory” and the title “Drawing Mike Trout every day until the lockout is over. Day 1.” Sbarra chose Trout because he wanted to draw the best player in the sport.

Just like that, Sbarra started a mini sensation, a daily series that has drawn between 5,000 and 20,000 upvotes and hundreds of comments daily, giving baseball fans a sliver of joy during a long, uneventful offseason.

Within hours, the drawing shot to the top of the page, with more than 10,000 upvotes and comments like “oh dear god end the lockout”, “Hopefully his art can change the world” and “I hope this is one of the banners outside the stadium next season (if there is a season).”

On the first six days, Sbarra replicated existing photos of Trout on the baseball field, but by the end of the initial week, he wanted to shake things up. Instead of another traditional baseball pose, Sbarra drew the Angels outfielder robbing a home run alongside the rocket from Blue Origin, the space company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. On the eighth day, he recreated the cover of the Nirvana album “Nevermind” with Trout substituting in as the baby.

“From there, it was like, what else can Mike Trout do?” Sbarra said. “He could do anything when you’re drawing. Mike Trout can be anywhere, could be anyone.”

He started getting requests, with the top ask being a drawing of Trout as a fish. He complied, sketching up an image of a fish wearing a Trout jersey with a fishing line tied to Trout. In the following days, he’s drawn Trout as Thomas the Tank Engine, as E.T. sitting in the basket of teammate Shohei Ohtani’s bike and as Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” in addition to recreations of famous paintings and other iconic movie moments.

“It’s just really whatever I feel like doing that day,” Sbarra said. “I don’t really have an idea of what it’s going to be until I sit down to draw. I’ll maybe Google a few reference images. Maybe today, I want to reference a famous painting so I’ll Google famous paintings and I’ll see one where I could see Mike Trout in it. There’s endless possibilities.”

As a novice artist, Sbarra is slowly learning techniques and receiving constructive criticism. He spends an hour every day devoted to the drawings and tries to post them between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET. He’s learning how to shade and more accurately scale people in his drawings. The most useful reply was a tip on how to draw the Angels logo, something he struggled with in his early drawings. In front of his daily audience on r/baseball, Sbarra wants to keep getting better at drawing.

“It’s really strange,” Sbarra said. “I also think everyone’s having a fun time with it, and that’s what makes it fun for me. I feel like I’m starting to develop a style.”

What has kept him going is seeing the positive feedback he receives, with people posting pictures that their kids have drawn inspired by his art journey. None of the people in Sbarra’s life know about this project — he’d hoped to keep his name hidden for as long as possible because he did not want to overthink the drawings.

“I didn’t want to put pressure on me to either keep going or not keep going,” Sbarra said. “I just felt like if I could just do this without any input from anybody around me, I would be able to get it done. But now, you know, it’s out there now. We’ll keep going. We’re not stopping.”

Sbarra also hopes that drawing Trout can help spread his love and joy for baseball.

“I’ve seen a lot of people post about how they didn’t know who Mike Trout was because they only casually followed baseball, which I think is a travesty,” Sbarra said. “If you don’t follow basketball, you know LeBron. You don’t follow golf, you know Tiger Woods. More people should know who he is. A lot of people said they’re going to check them out. At least a few new baseball fans, hopefully.”

Sbarra said he is currently thinking about starting an online store to sell prints and t-shirts to raise money for charity, sending a percentage of proceeds to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a charity that Trout publicly supports, and the Center for Asian American media for any drawings that also feature Ohtani. A league source told ESPN that Trout is aware of the ongoing art series, but Trout did not respond to a request for comment.

This hobby-turned-Reddit-sensation started because Sbarra wanted more baseball in his life, but he hopes the project ends sooner than later so he can go back to following the sport he loves.

“I hope [Trout] doesn’t think it’s weird,” Sbarra said. “I hope he likes it. I will be entertained if he has seen them. You know, I just hope to see him play a full season.”

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Death of Tampa Bay Rays bullpen catcher Jean Ramirez ruled a suicide

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The death of Tampa Bay Rays bullpen catcher Jean Ramirez near his home in Fort Worth, Texas, has been ruled a suicide.

The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office released the finding on Thursday, three days after the 28-year-old’s body was found.

The Ramirez family released a statement through the Rays, thanking the team for its support.

“The loss of our son has been the most excruciating experience we have lived. Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t see the signs. Struggling in silence is not ok,” the family said in the statement.

“It is our commitment to honor our son’s life by helping other families,” the family added. “No parent should have to endure the loss of their child.”

The Rays announced the death in a Twitter post last Tuesday but did not release details. The Tampa Bay Times reported the body was found Monday in a field near the family home.

Ramirez, a native of Puerto Rico who attended high school in Fort Worth, was a 28th-round draft pick out of Illinois State in 2016. He played three years in Tampa Bay’s minor league system before beginning a three-season stint as a bullpen catcher with the major league team in 2019.

“We are very grateful to the Tampa Bay Rays organization, whom we consider our family, for their love and support,” the family said. “Our son felt loved by all of you.”

Manager Kevin Cash paid tribute to Ramirez in a statement released by the Rays on Tuesday.

“He brought so much passion and energy each day to our clubhouse and bullpen, and his love for the Rays and baseball was evident to all who interacted with him,” Cash said.

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