Why Mark Appel, Perhaps the Biggest Bust in MLB History, Is Stepping Away at 26

HOUSTON — He was watching from his couch last November, just three miles from Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, when his friends and former team clinched the World Series. Mark Appel couldn't help but feel slightly bittersweet about it all.        

Four years ago, everyone expected Appel to be on that field right alongside them. He was the hometown kid who was supposed to become the franchise cornerstone, whose mere selection in the MLB draft was top-shelf news in the Houston Chronicle sports section. Remember that 2014 Sports Illustrated piece predicting the Astros' 2017 World Series title? Open it up, and he's right there, wearing the orange and gold alongside World Series MVP-to-be George Springer and superstar shortstop-to-be Carlos Correa.

Appel was supposed to be the centerpiece of the rebuild, the Joel Embiid to the Astros' Process.

Instead, they did it without him.

In 2013, the Astros chose Appel with the No. 1 pick, one selection ahead of Chicago Cubs MVP third baseman Kris Bryant. They signed him to a $6.35 million bonus after his senior year, when he posted a 2.12 ERA, struck out 130 batters and walked just 23 in 106.1 innings. Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated called him "as risk-free a pitcher pick as has ever been made," while Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow deemed Appel, "the most significant investment the Astros have made in their history in an amateur player," per Brian McTaggart of MLB.com.

Evaluators expected Appel to reach the big leagues quickly, perhaps within a season, given his experience as a collegiate pitcher. But five seasons in pro ball, a 5.06 ERA and a 1.519 WHIP later, he still hasn't made the major leagues and only got as high as Triple-A. The Astros traded him two years ago as one of five pieces headed to the Phillies for closer Ken Giles.

And now, Appel is leaving the game behind, he tells Bleacher Report, taking an "indefinite break" from professional baseball. Should he never return to baseball, he would become just the third No. 1 overall pick to never make the major leagues, along with Brien Taylor of the New York Yankees (1991) and Steve Chilcott of the New York Mets (1966).

"Maybe we should all get together and have a party," Appel says with a laugh in his Houston home. "I don't know what the future holds. I'm pursuing other things, but also trying to become a healthy human."

Appel is currently rehabbing shoulder inflammation that hampered his 2017 season, but he has battled injuries his whole pro career. He pitched through soreness during his first season amid expectations that came with being a No. 1 overall pick, which only further exacerbated the pain. In 2016, he underwent season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur, and this season, as he sat alone in his Florida hotel room rehabbing his latest injury, Appel began to ponder life beyond the game.

"I'm 26, I have a Stanford degree, I have many interests beyond baseball, which I still love, but I have a lot of things I care about," Appel says. "I enjoy challenging my mind. My last four years in baseball have challenged my mind."

But the long minor league bus rides, the isolation during midseason injury rehab, the time away from his family—it all started to wear him down. The game he once loved wasn't as fun as it used to be. He'd lost his place in it. The team he was destined to star on was cruising to 101 wins, and he was rehabbing yet another injury. Asking himself the same question, over and over again.

Is baseball what he is supposed to be doing with his life?


There are often two windows through which to view life: expectation and reality.

Mark Appel never expected things to go perfectly, but he did expect things to go well. Harold Reynolds said at the 2013 MLB draft that he could be in the big leagues in August, two months later, and Appel, not knowing the level of talent in pro ball, didn't see why that couldn't become reality. He was the NCAA National Pitcher of the Year. MLB.com rated him the No. 17 prospect in baseball before 2014. The Sports Illustrated Astros prediction issue included a "dispatch from the future" from when Houston would win the World Series, stating "Righthander Mark Appel, the 2013 No. 1 pick, who arrived in the big league rotation in '16 was a Cy Young contender." Appel expected that of himself, too.

The reality: "There was times when I was the worst pitcher on my team," Appel says. "In 2014, maybe the worst pitcher in professional baseball."

That season, he could just never get right. Appel underwent a surprise appendectomy before the year and pitched only five innings in spring training. Then, he was sent to Single-A Lancaster, host of—as he learned from teammates—one of the best hitting environments in baseball due to the wind currents. On top that, there was a piggybacking system, which stacked starters, making them pitch every four days. Appel couldn't adjust and accumulated a 9.74 ERA in 44.1 innings. He didn't understand what was happening. He ran, he worked out, he went to the gym and prepared as much as he could, but whenever his turn to pitch came, the results were awful.

"I go out and pitch, and it's the same thing every time. I can't get an out," Appel says. "Walk. Hit. Walk. Hit. Then I'm out of the game. What just happened? Now it's like I have four days before I get my hopes up again, get excited, build that confidence, not caring what happened in the past. Then the same thing happens again."

He was having the worst season of his life—in a league of 20- and 21-year-olds. Ten starts in, on his 23rd birthday, Appel hit the mental reset button. He was scheduled to pitch the next day against the Visalia Rawhide, a chance to move past the 9.57 ERA he had posted as a 22-year-old.

Instead, he had the worst start of his life. Appel went 1.2 innings and allowed seven hits and seven runs while striking out two and walking one. He walked off the mound and watched the next inning before returning to the locker room, tears streaming down his face. He shut the door and screamed until his voice went hoarse. Across the locker room, about the distance from the pitching mound to home plate, he noticed a particle-board panel and a baseball lying on the ground next to him. He picked it up and threw it across the locker room as hard as he could, 100 mph, aiming for the wood.

The ball broke through and hit the drywall and sheetrock behind it.

"That felt good," Appel thought. "I need to do more of that."

He grabbed a box of balls sitting above a locker. For 30 minutes, Appel threw 80 baseballs at the wall, cracking through the board and hitting the wall with a thud. When he was finished, he sat down, breathing heavily, grunting. Ten minutes after the noise ended, Appel's teammate, Josh Hader, walked out of the bathroom. He had heard the entire ordeal and was too scared to leave the stall. The pair laughed before Hader returned to the field and silence filled the room. Appel heard the crowd cheering outside, the air conditioner purring in the background. 

 

After the game, Lancaster manager Rodney Linares assured Appel he would be fine, before disclosing he needed to pay for the repairs. The handyman quoted $600. It seemed like too much money for a simple repair, Appel thought. Instead, he figured he could repair it himself for a fraction of the cost.

So the next day, Appel visited Home Depot and picked up plywood, stain to match the wood and drywall mix. As he fixed the dents behind the destroyed plywood, Appel thought about one of his favorite Bible verses, Philippians 4:13. He recited the verse over and over again in his head. "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."

It's not unusual, of course, for an athlete to cite the passage while thanking God for his or her successes. But for Appel, it was about having the strength to endure struggle. Being the worst pitcher in professional baseball didn't mark the end of the world. Life would move on.

"I was in a place where I could enjoy my teammates' company, even if I wasn't playing well," Appel says. "Just enjoying that I do get to play baseball, being thankful for so many things God had provided. I think when you're caught up in the expectation and the pressure, you forget about it."


The next three seasons didn't fare much better for Appel. He finished with ERAs of 4.37, 4.46 and 5.14 while tumbling down the prospect rankings. "Next year" is what he always heard. In 2014, 2015 would be the year he made his major league debut. In 2015, it was 2016. In 2016, it was 2017. Always one year away.

As he struggled, his friends—Springer, Correa, Jose Altuve, Lance McCullers—rose up to The Show and became stars while forming the core of a potential Astros dynasty. Meanwhile, on the North Side of Chicago, Bryant, who many reported the Astros also considered No. 1 in 2013, blossomed into one of the sport's biggest stars. Aaron Judge, chosen 31 spots behind Appel in 2013, became a 52-homer sensation. And Appel just continued to grind away in the minors.

Sometimes Appel thinks about the what-ifs. It's only natural when you watch all of your friends win the World Series. The Astros almost drafted him in 2012, when he declared as a junior, but Luhnow chose Correa instead, and Appel fell to the Pirates at No. 8 overall and returned to college instead of signing. He wonders what would have happened if the Astros selected Bryant and he went to the Cubs.

"Things are absolutely different," Appel says. "I don't know if I'm four-and-a-half years later wanting to step away from the game, but I'm sure it has to be different. I never go to Lancaster, and that was an introduction to pro ball in the worst way possible. … If they choose me over Correa, do the Astros win a World Series?"

Appel doesn't dwell long on the hypotheticals, but he has begun to tell others of his struggles and journey. On a Wednesday during the World Series, Appel shared his testimony with the Sam Houston State baseball team. As a room full of pro baseball hopefuls stared back at him, Appel talked about how even as his major league dreams drained away, he remained hopeful.

"Do I want to be in the World Series? Do I want to be the guy? I thought three years ago, I thought I would be pitching Friday night, and I wouldn't be here," Appel told the team. "That was the expectation, the goal and the dream. God does things for reasons we sometimes can't understand, and won't understand for years down the road, or maybe never in this lifetime."

Given his current status as the third player selected No. 1 overall not to make the majors, Appel freely accepts the label of biggest MLB bust of all time.

"It depends on how you define it, but I probably am," Appel says. "I had high expectations. I didn't live up to those for a number of reasons. If you want to call me the biggest draft bust, you can call it that. … If I never get to the big leagues, will it be a disappointment? Yes and no. That was a goal and a dream I had at one point, but that's with stipulations that I'm healthy, I'm happy and doing something I love. If I get to the big leagues, what's so great about the big leagues if you're in an isolated place, you're hurt and you're emotionally unhappy? How much is that worth to you?"

Mark's brother, John, says he would not be surprised if a year from now, Mark feels the desire to come back to the game. Some scouts have suggested Appel become a reliever, following in the footsteps of former starters like Andrew Miller, Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar, who found success out of the bullpen.

For now, Appel is looking for an internship, potentially in private equity and business, and he's planning on applying to business school at Rice, University of Texas, Texas A&M, Stanford, Harvard, Penn, Northwestern and University of Chicago. He's excited to play Settlers of Catan or one of his 30 other board games with Josh, with whom he shares a one-floor home. He wants to turn the garage into a media room. And he's ready to just live in his house instead of renting it out on Airbnb, as he did last season.

It's time for him to set new goals and dreams.

"I'm a guy who loves a game, who had expectations, goals and dreams and then has had everything tumbling, and then everything was unmet," Appel says. "Would I have loved to be pitching in the World Series? Absolutely. Some people have real struggles. I played baseball. I thought I was going to be great, and I wasn't."


On a Saturday evening, Mark and John meet their dad, Pat, at Southwell's Hamburger Grill. Neon green lights line the joint with a large American flag hanging over the water jug and condiments. Old photos are scattered across the wall as top-40 pop plays in the background. In a booth across the restaurant from the Appels sits a kid wearing a blue Astros cap and an orange Altuve shirsey, one that could have easily read "Appel" a few years before.

As he chews his bacon cheeseburger, Mark beings to ponder his plans for March through October, time he's never had off before.

"I can go to weddings now. I can spend time with my family. I can look for an internship. Literally nothing is on my radar because nothing has ever been on my radar for life things, entertainment things, because I knew what I was doing," Mark says. "It didn't matter what other people were doing."

"It's a little weird to have control over your own life, isn't it?" Pat asks Mark.

"Yeah." Mark says.

After dinner, Mark drives his white Ford F-150 to a local bar to watch the Boston Celtics-Golden State Warriors game with John. As he zips down the Katy Freeway, past a large sign reading "We [Heart] Houston Astros," he talks about the future and the past, the expectations never meeting reality. The Phillies sent him their spring training welcome packet a few weeks back, before he talked with the team about his intention of taking a break from baseball. He hasn't ruled out coming back one day, but that's a decision for down the road, and a day that may never come. He loves the possibilities of travel, the prospect of going back to school and the idea that he can go around the country and watch his friends play baseball. He loves his reality.

"Sometimes you wonder what would what happen if one thing changed, how different your life would be," Appel says. "It makes me realize there's great intention [in] everything that's gotten you to where you are. But sometimes, you end up exactly where you're supposed to be." 

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World Series MVP George Springer: ‘We Made a Beer Funnel out of [the Trophy]’

George Springer personifies the Astros' success in so many ways. As a first-round draft pick and highly lauded prospect, he's one of the many stars who've emerged from Houston and general manager Jeff Luhnow's rebuilding efforts. In the last month of the postseason, Springer fought through a tough slump to emerge as not only a World Series champion, but the World Series MVP.

With baseball season over and the World Series trophy in-hand, Springer found himself on a platform that extended to a world of opportunities, from Saturday Night Live to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.

On a recent visit to the Bleacher Report offices in New York, Springer sat down to talk about how his life has changed since winning the World Series, his love of Jon Snow, his passion for reggae music and the intense FIFA competitions in the Astros clubhouse.

George Springer: So, one of the guys almost dropped the World Series trophy during the parade.

      

Bleacher Report: Wait, what happened?

GS: The truck just stopped suddenly, the guy hit the brakes and he fell over the edge. We had to grab. We were like, "You drop this s--t, you're going to be in big trouble."

      

B/R: So what was your reaction?

GS: I laughed at him. But it's all good now.

        

B/R: What was the wildest thing you've seen someone do with the trophy?

GS: We made a beer funnel out of it. I watched the guys holding it up, and they poured the champagne on it and they just started to drink it.

      

B/R: What has been the most memorable thing that you've done since everything that happened?

GS: SNL was pretty wild. I met both the Bushes, which was cool. The craziest day was when we went Houston, Disney, Disney to Saturday Night Live, Saturday Night Live back to Houston, had to be at the stadium the next day to do Sports Illustrated and then I had to be at the Texans game to be with this bad boy [Springer points to the trophy]. That was the craziest 26 hours.

    

B/R: Have you taken a moment to take it all in?

GS: It's been crazy. It's hard to believe that you've played in the World Series, and then it's hard to believe you've won the World Series. On top of the World Series MVP, it's the first one in the organization's history. It makes it even sweeter.

     

B/R: And you guys are the original "Trust the Process" team.

GS: And the process worked. We got what the fans deserved.

      

B/R: You were a big part of that rebuilding process. Were you aware of the team's grand vision back then?

GS: Back in 2013, 2014, we saw what could potentially happen. … A lot of things had to happen, but there are guys who have been there the whole time. [Dallas] Keuchel, [Jose] Altuve, Marwin [Gonzalez]. Those were the guys who went through the 100-loss seasons. I went through a few down years, but the organization has come so far, it's been insane.

       

B/R: You're not really on social media. Why is that?

GS: I'm not a big technology guy. I like my privacy and being as normal as I can. I'm not an internet guy. I just don't care for it. I made a Facebook in high school and I couldn't even tell you the password to it. I couldn't even guess the password or email. I haven't been on it in four or five years. I don't like being attached to my phone. That's how I am. I'm an old-school guy. I listen to old-school music. I'm one of the only guys now when I walk out of the door, I say goodbye to my fiancee and I won't talk to her until I get home. It's how we are. It's an old-school relationship. It's not behind a phone screen.

        

B/R: So what old-school music?

GS: Depends on the day. Sometimes I go Gap Band, S.O.S. Band, or stuff from the '90s. Boyz II Men. Keith Sweat. Bell Biv Devoe. I like Drake, I like stuff like that. Future. Paul Wall. Travis Scott. I really only listen to that if I'm in the clubhouse. Otherwise, I'm a big reggae guy. That's how I am—a slow, relaxed guy. I always listened to it. I like the vibe and message. I like the feel and I stick to it.

           

B/R: What reggae do you listen to?

GS: I'm a big J Boog fan. Rebelution. Tribal Seeds. I'm a big Bob Marley fan. Landon McNamara.

      

B/R: Who's been the most unexpected person to reach out to you?

GS: I got a letter from Willie Mays. It was congratulating me on the MVP and our team, and that's one of my favorite players. That was a surreal thing to get, to get a letter from one of the best players in the game. That was absolutely crazy, and that was the first MVP trophy named after him.

         

B/R: You mention you liked playing FIFA and NHL. Are those your favorite games?

GS: I don't play FIFA as much because all of the guys from Venezuela and Cuba are way better at it than I am. I just stick to NHL. Big Call of Duty [guy]. I love the old-school style of game. Modern Warfare, World War II.

          

B/R: I assume there's a lot of competition in the clubhouse. What is that like?

GS: There's been money lost, controllers broken, friendships destroyed for 20 minutes, but after that, it's all good.

         

B/R: Who's the best FIFA player?

GS: It's a tie between Keuchel and [Yuli] Gurriel or Marwin and [Carlos] Correa. It's a four-way tie.

      

B/R: Keuchel is not someone I would've expected in that group!

GS: Keuchel gets really into it. He's a big screamer. He gets mad and then doesn't care. Gurriel, Marwin and Correa, they all just play FIFA all day at the field. Altuve tries to play FIFA. I just get beat so I don't try anymore.

        

B/R: Any hobbies off the field?

GS: I am about as relaxed a guy as it gets. I like sitting on my couch, watching shows, sitting by the fire pit. I like to play golf, but I don't have a chance to play it often. Playstation. Xbox, but I'm about as boring a guy as you'll ever meet. I could sit on this couch from the time the day starts to the time the day ends.

        

B/R: What shows do you watch?

GS: I'm watching this show Mindhunter. I just finished Ozarks.

          

B/R: Did you finish Stranger Things?

GS: No. I got...this is going to sound really bad. I got six or seven episodes in and just stopped watching it. I don't know why! Honestly, one day, we were watching it and I found Mindhunter, and I was like, "Do you want to watch this one?" We started watching and I haven't gone back. We're about to finish Bates Motel. Probably every show on Netflix…

         

B/R: ...Except for Stranger Things?

GS: Except for Stranger Things! [Laughs.] I haven't finished it yet. I plan on it at some point. I just started watching The Long Road Home. I assume we've all seen Thrones.

        

B/R: I've only seen Season 1. I don't watch it, really.

GS: What? What? You haven't seen Game of Thrones? Why not?

      

B/R: I've seen up to Ned Stark getting beheaded.

GS: You need to help yourself and watch Thrones. It's the best show ever. I don't even know how to explain this why you need to watch it. You just need to watch it. There's so much stuff that happens and twists and things. Things you don't see coming. You try to figure it out and then something crazier happens.

        

B/R: Who are your favorite characters?

GS: Big Jon Snow fan. Khaleesi is a badass 'cause she's got the dragons. The ice king is really cool. I like him. I don't really have a favorite, but I'm rooting for Jon Snow.

        

B/R: What about Jon Snow connects with you?

GS: I just like him. I want him to do good. The whole show makes him out to be this outcast and this guy nobody wants or likes. Suddenly, everyone wants his respect and attention and then he tries to do what's best for his family. I like it. I just want him to dominate everyone.

         

B/R: You're someone who's clearly confident on the field. What was the point where you felt most vulnerable?

GS: This year, I went through a tough stretch and I felt like things weren't going my way. I couldn't get anything right, and I was letting the game beat me. I was not able to separate off-field from on-field. I took home an on-field performance one time. I remember being upset at the house, and it's just a game. I was at a point where I'm letting a game dictate how I'm acting around my fiancee, and I couldn't let that happen. No matter what happens, it's a game, and I was able to switch around after that.

        

B/R: What's the biggest thing you've learned about yourself in the last few months?

GS: I can push through a lot of things, whether that's failure or success. I don't know how to explain it. I've learned how to overcome things that get thrown at you. In this game, nothing's for certain, just like life. You have to roll with the punches. If you get knocked down, you need to stand up.

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Astros’ Alex Bregman on SNL, College with Odell, Alex Cora & BP in Off-Whites

Alex Bregman’s heroics are going to be all over the Astros World Series DVD.

Capping off a memorable rookie season with two homers, several standout fielding plays and a Game 5 walk-off hit in the Fall Classic has all but cemented his place in Houston Astros digital collectibles history. The 23-year-old is now recognized far and wide for his starring role in the Astros' first-ever World Series victory, as well as for his subsequent appearance on SNL's Weekend Update with Leslie Jones.

On a recent visit to the Bleacher Report offices in New York, Bregman sat down to talk about how life has changed since winning the title, his burgeoning sneaker fandom, being neighbors with Odell Beckham Jr. in college, his experience with new Red Sox manager Alex Cora and setting his sights on winning back-to-back titles with the Astros.

 

Bleacher Report: You, George Springer and Jose Altuve had the opportunity to make an appearance on Saturday Night Live. What was that experience like for you guys?

Alex Bregman: It definitely was really cool. To see all of the behind-the-scenes things that go into making SNL go was really cool. We had a great cast that was there with Miley [Cyrus] and Larry David. Met the producer of SNL, Lorne Michaels. It was a really cool day. A super special day. I watched SNL all the time when I was younger. Even now. Then being on it? It was crazy.

 

B/R: What was it like to be up on that stage? Any stories from the night?

AB: We went up there with the first run-through of our lines, and we were like: "Oh, this is going to be easy. We each got one line." We completely messed it up and went out of turn the whole time. Altuve said his line before me, I said mine before Springer and it was a complete mess. We were like, "We've got to lock this in." All three of us ended up making up our own lines on the real show. We got a little nervous and we just went with it.

 

 

B/R: Were you more nervous than you were for the World Series?

AB: I was way more [nervous] during SNL than the World Series. Way more nervous. [Laughs]. It was super cool. We didn't know until eight hours before we caught the flight when they said, "Do you want to come do SNL?" and I was like, "When and where?"

 

B/R: Besides SNL, what has been the coolest part of this experience?

AB: This morning was pretty cool—going on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts. She's a legend. I think I was telling both of my friends that we sat courtside at the Knicks game. Little kids from New York City are like, "Bro, that's Alex Bregman," and I was like: "Whoa, how do they know that? How do they know who I am at all?" My friend was like: "Bro, you hit a walk-off in Game 5 of the World Series. That was one of the best games ever." I didn't realize that. It was crazy.

 

B/R: Who’s been the coolest person to reach out to you?

AB: It's a good friend of mine, but Holly Holm. She came out to Game 6 and we had dinner. Her husband was my high school baseball coach. She was like: "You're going to win it. Don't worry."

 

B/R: Alex Cora mentioned on Monday at his introductory press conference as manager for the Red Sox that you were like a little brother to him. What was your experience like with him as a bench coach?

AB: He impacted the team immediately when he came over. Just a special knowledge for the game that you don't get from most people. His knowledge of baseball is basically why he has such a good career. It's because he knows the ins and outs of the game. He picks up stuff that other people don't pick up. If I'm trying to steal a base, I need to find a cue because I'm not the fastest guy. Alex Cora will be like: "Watch his front foot. His front foot when he picks is closed off. When he goes to the plate, it's open. You know right there, on one one-thousand, two, he's going to the plate."

He picks up stuff that other people don't pick up. He picks up other pitchers tipping, that way we know the advantage of what's coming. He knows different situations. He's always thinking and always working. The thing that is going to make him the most successful is how hard he works. He shows up early and watches more video than anybody. He loves the game so much and has dedicated his life to it. He's going to be a great manager.

 

B/R: Was there any particular instance where Cora’s help stuck out to you?

AB: I'd say the first thing, well, I kinda had the yips in spring training. I couldn't throw. He got me to be able to throw again. We went down and looked at video. This is two days after meeting him. This is his first time being a bench coach, in the first two days, we sat down with the video and threw every day. He actually put a few of us in a group text and put, "94 wins" at the beginning of the year. He sent us a text every day after every single win. "93 wins. 92. 91." We ended up winning 112 this year.

 

B/R: And what happened when you guys got past 94 wins?

AB: He just said: "Hey, let's go. Let's keep winning. Keep winning. Keep winning. Keep winning." He was right. He was special. He was a big difference-maker in us winning the World Series.

 

B/R: Did you feel his impact at any point during the World Series?

AB: [Chris] Taylor hit me one, I caught it and went home. In the back of my head the entire time, I was remembering when Cora told me, "Hey, in the World Series and it's a closer game, let's get the out at home." He had a big impact on me.

 

B/R: And I assume you guys knew he was gone after the season? Especially after all of those jobs opened up.

AB: As soon as the Mets job came open, the Red Sox job, as soon as all of these jobs, we knew he was gone. We said: "Dude, congratulations. That's unbelievable. It's going to be fun beating you in the ALCS."

 

B/R: I saw you posted a photo of the Nike Off-White Air Max 90 on your Instagram. Are you a sneakers guy?

AB: Kind of. I'm getting into it a little bit.

 

B/R: That’s one of the rarest sneaker drops of the year. How’d you get a hold of them?

AB: Jeremy Guthrie, World Series champ, he's got a vault of like a million dollars' worth of shoes. Guthrie came when we went back home after Game 2: "I got some sneakers for you. I want a younger guy in the game to rock these." I was like, "Eh, I'm not really into sneakers," but then I opened the box and I was like, "I saw Odell have these on Instagram." Odell was my next door neighbor in college. I was like: "I'm gonna rock these. I'm gonna rock these."

 

B/R: I mean, Odell has turned into somewhat of a fashion icon now.

AB: Yeah he is. He's a legend. That one catch made him a legend. So I got those ones, and I was like, "I'm never wearing these ever." Then Guthrie was like: "One of the high-up guys at Nike wants you to wear them for [batting practice] tomorrow. Virgil Abloh would be pumped if you wore them during the World Series." I wore them for BP, got 'em a little bit dirty, and I was pissed. Then they told me they were gonna send me the Jay-Z Rocafella sneakers before they were released. So I got those at the end of the World Series.

 

 

B/R: You made some hype in the sneaker community for wearing them during BP.

AB: Oh really? I didn't know that. [Laughs.]

 

B/R: So Odell was your neighbor in college. What was that like?

AB: The thing with Odell is that he's a great dude. Jarvis [Landry] too. I just laughed watching them dance. [Instagram comedian] Dancing Dan is always with them. Every time we went out when we were in college, we would watch them dance and go after it. It was pretty funny. Jarvis and Odell would play catch with my little brother. Now, I'm like, "Wow, you played catch with two of the best receivers in the NFL."

 

B/R: Was there any big plan for you guys when Carlos Correa proposed to his fiancee?

AB: He was like, "Hey, I think I'm gonna propose after Game 6 if we win." That was the night we got into L.A. And then we lost. He was like, "I'm proposing tomorrow when we win." So we win. He proposes, and then my mom's calling me every day saying that I'm in the background of Correa's proposal. She's going crazy acting like it was me proposing. My dad's like: "What's going on here? We just won the World Series. What are we doing?" It was hilarious.

 

B/R: How did he tell you guys?

AB: He just told us: "We better win tonight. I'm trying to get two rings." Everyone was pumped. He's a great teammate, a great guy, and Daniella [Correa’s fiancee] is great too. We just hope we're invited to the wedding.

 

B/R: Beyond the games and actually winning the World Series, what has been your favorite part of the major league experience?

AB: After every big win, just being able to go home and still have that high from winning the game and be able to celebrate with friends and family. That was special. It's something you always want to do, to be able to celebrate the victories with your friends and family. Being able to do that was awesome. I think also just celebrating after we won the World Series, just seeing the joy on everyone's face, everyone rocking their Astros gear at the after-party. We are world champs. We are world champs until someone can take us down.

 

B/R: Now you just gotta go back-to-back.

AB: Like Drake said, "Back to Back." We're gonna Jordan '96-'97.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Astros’ Alex Bregman on SNL, College with Odell, Alex Cora & BP in Off-Whites

Alex Bregman’s heroics are going to be all over the Astros World Series DVD.

Capping off a memorable rookie season with two homers, several standout fielding plays and a Game 5 walk-off hit in the Fall Classic has all but cemented his place in Houston Astros digital collectibles history. The 23-year-old is now recognized far and wide for his starring role in the Astros' first-ever World Series victory, as well as for his subsequent appearance on SNL's Weekend Update with Leslie Jones.

On a recent visit to the Bleacher Report offices in New York, Bregman sat down to talk about how life has changed since winning the title, his burgeoning sneaker fandom, being neighbors with Odell Beckham Jr. in college, his experience with new Red Sox manager Alex Cora and setting his sights on winning back-to-back titles with the Astros.

 

Bleacher Report: You, George Springer and Jose Altuve had the opportunity to make an appearance on Saturday Night Live. What was that experience like for you guys?

Alex Bregman: It definitely was really cool. To see all of the behind-the-scenes things that go into making SNL go was really cool. We had a great cast that was there with Miley [Cyrus] and Larry David. Met the producer of SNL, Lorne Michaels. It was a really cool day. A super special day. I watched SNL all the time when I was younger. Even now. Then being on it? It was crazy.

 

B/R: What was it like to be up on that stage? Any stories from the night?

AB: We went up there with the first run-through of our lines, and we were like: "Oh, this is going to be easy. We each got one line." We completely messed it up and went out of turn the whole time. Altuve said his line before me, I said mine before Springer and it was a complete mess. We were like, "We've got to lock this in." All three of us ended up making up our own lines on the real show. We got a little nervous and we just went with it.

 

 

B/R: Were you more nervous than you were for the World Series?

AB: I was way more [nervous] during SNL than the World Series. Way more nervous. [Laughs]. It was super cool. We didn't know until eight hours before we caught the flight when they said, "Do you want to come do SNL?" and I was like, "When and where?"

 

B/R: Besides SNL, what has been the coolest part of this experience?

AB: This morning was pretty cool—going on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts. She's a legend. I think I was telling both of my friends that we sat courtside at the Knicks game. Little kids from New York City are like, "Bro, that's Alex Bregman," and I was like: "Whoa, how do they know that? How do they know who I am at all?" My friend was like: "Bro, you hit a walk-off in Game 5 of the World Series. That was one of the best games ever." I didn't realize that. It was crazy.

 

B/R: Who’s been the coolest person to reach out to you?

AB: It's a good friend of mine, but Holly Holm. She came out to Game 6 and we had dinner. Her husband was my high school baseball coach. She was like: "You're going to win it. Don't worry."

 

B/R: Alex Cora mentioned on Monday at his introductory press conference as manager for the Red Sox that you were like a little brother to him. What was your experience like with him as a bench coach?

AB: He impacted the team immediately when he came over. Just a special knowledge for the game that you don't get from most people. His knowledge of baseball is basically why he has such a good career. It's because he knows the ins and outs of the game. He picks up stuff that other people don't pick up. If I'm trying to steal a base, I need to find a cue because I'm not the fastest guy. Alex Cora will be like: "Watch his front foot. His front foot when he picks is closed off. When he goes to the plate, it's open. You know right there, on one one-thousand, two, he's going to the plate."

He picks up stuff that other people don't pick up. He picks up other pitchers tipping, that way we know the advantage of what's coming. He knows different situations. He's always thinking and always working. The thing that is going to make him the most successful is how hard he works. He shows up early and watches more video than anybody. He loves the game so much and has dedicated his life to it. He's going to be a great manager.

 

B/R: Was there any particular instance where Cora’s help stuck out to you?

AB: I'd say the first thing, well, I kinda had the yips in spring training. I couldn't throw. He got me to be able to throw again. We went down and looked at video. This is two days after meeting him. This is his first time being a bench coach, in the first two days, we sat down with the video and threw every day. He actually put a few of us in a group text and put, "94 wins" at the beginning of the year. He sent us a text every day after every single win. "93 wins. 92. 91." We ended up winning 112 this year.

 

B/R: And what happened when you guys got past 94 wins?

AB: He just said: "Hey, let's go. Let's keep winning. Keep winning. Keep winning. Keep winning." He was right. He was special. He was a big difference-maker in us winning the World Series.

 

B/R: Did you feel his impact at any point during the World Series?

AB: [Chris] Taylor hit me one, I caught it and went home. In the back of my head the entire time, I was remembering when Cora told me, "Hey, in the World Series and it's a closer game, let's get the out at home." He had a big impact on me.

 

B/R: And I assume you guys knew he was gone after the season? Especially after all of those jobs opened up.

AB: As soon as the Mets job came open, the Red Sox job, as soon as all of these jobs, we knew he was gone. We said: "Dude, congratulations. That's unbelievable. It's going to be fun beating you in the ALCS."

 

B/R: I saw you posted a photo of the Nike Off-White Air Max 90 on your Instagram. Are you a sneakers guy?

AB: Kind of. I'm getting into it a little bit.

 

B/R: That’s one of the rarest sneaker drops of the year. How’d you get a hold of them?

AB: Jeremy Guthrie, World Series champ, he's got a vault of like a million dollars' worth of shoes. Guthrie came when we went back home after Game 2: "I got some sneakers for you. I want a younger guy in the game to rock these." I was like, "Eh, I'm not really into sneakers," but then I opened the box and I was like, "I saw Odell have these on Instagram." Odell was my next door neighbor in college. I was like: "I'm gonna rock these. I'm gonna rock these."

 

B/R: I mean, Odell has turned into somewhat of a fashion icon now.

AB: Yeah he is. He's a legend. That one catch made him a legend. So I got those ones, and I was like, "I'm never wearing these ever." Then Guthrie was like: "One of the high-up guys at Nike wants you to wear them for [batting practice] tomorrow. Virgil Abloh would be pumped if you wore them during the World Series." I wore them for BP, got 'em a little bit dirty, and I was pissed. Then they told me they were gonna send me the Jay-Z Rocafella sneakers before they were released. So I got those at the end of the World Series.

 

 

B/R: You made some hype in the sneaker community for wearing them during BP.

AB: Oh really? I didn't know that. [Laughs.]

 

B/R: So Odell was your neighbor in college. What was that like?

AB: The thing with Odell is that he's a great dude. Jarvis [Landry] too. I just laughed watching them dance. [Instagram comedian] Dancing Dan is always with them. Every time we went out when we were in college, we would watch them dance and go after it. It was pretty funny. Jarvis and Odell would play catch with my little brother. Now, I'm like, "Wow, you played catch with two of the best receivers in the NFL."

 

B/R: Was there any big plan for you guys when Carlos Correa proposed to his fiancee?

AB: He was like, "Hey, I think I'm gonna propose after Game 6 if we win." That was the night we got into L.A. And then we lost. He was like, "I'm proposing tomorrow when we win." So we win. He proposes, and then my mom's calling me every day saying that I'm in the background of Correa's proposal. She's going crazy acting like it was me proposing. My dad's like: "What's going on here? We just won the World Series. What are we doing?" It was hilarious.

 

B/R: How did he tell you guys?

AB: He just told us: "We better win tonight. I'm trying to get two rings." Everyone was pumped. He's a great teammate, a great guy, and Daniella [Correa’s fiancee] is great too. We just hope we're invited to the wedding.

 

B/R: Beyond the games and actually winning the World Series, what has been your favorite part of the major league experience?

AB: After every big win, just being able to go home and still have that high from winning the game and be able to celebrate with friends and family. That was special. It's something you always want to do, to be able to celebrate the victories with your friends and family. Being able to do that was awesome. I think also just celebrating after we won the World Series, just seeing the joy on everyone's face, everyone rocking their Astros gear at the after-party. We are world champs. We are world champs until someone can take us down.

 

B/R: Now you just gotta go back-to-back.

AB: Like Drake said, "Back to Back." We're gonna Jordan '96-'97.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Astros’ Alex Bregman on SNL, College with Odell, Alex Cora & BP in Off-Whites

Alex Bregman’s heroics are going to be all over the Astros World Series DVD.

Capping off a memorable rookie season with two homers, several standout fielding plays and a Game 5 walk-off hit in the Fall Classic has all but cemented his place in Houston Astros digital collectibles history. The 23-year-old is now recognized far and wide for his starring role in the Astros' first-ever World Series victory, as well as for his subsequent appearance on SNL's Weekend Update with Leslie Jones.

On a recent visit to the Bleacher Report offices in New York, Bregman sat down to talk about how life has changed since winning the title, his burgeoning sneaker fandom, being neighbors with Odell Beckham Jr. in college, his experience with new Red Sox manager Alex Cora and setting his sights on winning back-to-back titles with the Astros.

 

Bleacher Report: You, George Springer and Jose Altuve had the opportunity to make an appearance on Saturday Night Live. What was that experience like for you guys?

Alex Bregman: It definitely was really cool. To see all of the behind-the-scenes things that go into making SNL go was really cool. We had a great cast that was there with Miley [Cyrus] and Larry David. Met the producer of SNL, Lorne Michaels. It was a really cool day. A super special day. I watched SNL all the time when I was younger. Even now. Then being on it? It was crazy.

 

B/R: What was it like to be up on that stage? Any stories from the night?

AB: We went up there with the first run-through of our lines, and we were like: "Oh, this is going to be easy. We each got one line." We completely messed it up and went out of turn the whole time. Altuve said his line before me, I said mine before Springer and it was a complete mess. We were like, "We've got to lock this in." All three of us ended up making up our own lines on the real show. We got a little nervous and we just went with it.

 

 

B/R: Were you more nervous than you were for the World Series?

AB: I was way more [nervous] during SNL than the World Series. Way more nervous. [Laughs]. It was super cool. We didn't know until eight hours before we caught the flight when they said, "Do you want to come do SNL?" and I was like, "When and where?"

 

B/R: Besides SNL, what has been the coolest part of this experience?

AB: This morning was pretty cool—going on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts. She's a legend. I think I was telling both of my friends that we sat courtside at the Knicks game. Little kids from New York City are like, "Bro, that's Alex Bregman," and I was like: "Whoa, how do they know that? How do they know who I am at all?" My friend was like: "Bro, you hit a walk-off in Game 5 of the World Series. That was one of the best games ever." I didn't realize that. It was crazy.

 

B/R: Who’s been the coolest person to reach out to you?

AB: It's a good friend of mine, but Holly Holm. She came out to Game 6 and we had dinner. Her husband was my high school baseball coach. She was like: "You're going to win it. Don't worry."

 

B/R: Alex Cora mentioned on Monday at his introductory press conference as manager for the Red Sox that you were like a little brother to him. What was your experience like with him as a bench coach?

AB: He impacted the team immediately when he came over. Just a special knowledge for the game that you don't get from most people. His knowledge of baseball is basically why he has such a good career. It's because he knows the ins and outs of the game. He picks up stuff that other people don't pick up. If I'm trying to steal a base, I need to find a cue because I'm not the fastest guy. Alex Cora will be like: "Watch his front foot. His front foot when he picks is closed off. When he goes to the plate, it's open. You know right there, on one one-thousand, two, he's going to the plate."

He picks up stuff that other people don't pick up. He picks up other pitchers tipping, that way we know the advantage of what's coming. He knows different situations. He's always thinking and always working. The thing that is going to make him the most successful is how hard he works. He shows up early and watches more video than anybody. He loves the game so much and has dedicated his life to it. He's going to be a great manager.

 

B/R: Was there any particular instance where Cora’s help stuck out to you?

AB: I'd say the first thing, well, I kinda had the yips in spring training. I couldn't throw. He got me to be able to throw again. We went down and looked at video. This is two days after meeting him. This is his first time being a bench coach, in the first two days, we sat down with the video and threw every day. He actually put a few of us in a group text and put, "94 wins" at the beginning of the year. He sent us a text every day after every single win. "93 wins. 92. 91." We ended up winning 112 this year.

 

B/R: And what happened when you guys got past 94 wins?

AB: He just said: "Hey, let's go. Let's keep winning. Keep winning. Keep winning. Keep winning." He was right. He was special. He was a big difference-maker in us winning the World Series.

 

B/R: Did you feel his impact at any point during the World Series?

AB: [Chris] Taylor hit me one, I caught it and went home. In the back of my head the entire time, I was remembering when Cora told me, "Hey, in the World Series and it's a closer game, let's get the out at home." He had a big impact on me.

 

B/R: And I assume you guys knew he was gone after the season? Especially after all of those jobs opened up.

AB: As soon as the Mets job came open, the Red Sox job, as soon as all of these jobs, we knew he was gone. We said: "Dude, congratulations. That's unbelievable. It's going to be fun beating you in the ALCS."

 

B/R: I saw you posted a photo of the Nike Off-White Air Max 90 on your Instagram. Are you a sneakers guy?

AB: Kind of. I'm getting into it a little bit.

 

B/R: That’s one of the rarest sneaker drops of the year. How’d you get a hold of them?

AB: Jeremy Guthrie, World Series champ, he's got a vault of like a million dollars' worth of shoes. Guthrie came when we went back home after Game 2: "I got some sneakers for you. I want a younger guy in the game to rock these." I was like, "Eh, I'm not really into sneakers," but then I opened the box and I was like, "I saw Odell have these on Instagram." Odell was my next door neighbor in college. I was like: "I'm gonna rock these. I'm gonna rock these."

 

B/R: I mean, Odell has turned into somewhat of a fashion icon now.

AB: Yeah he is. He's a legend. That one catch made him a legend. So I got those ones, and I was like, "I'm never wearing these ever." Then Guthrie was like: "One of the high-up guys at Nike wants you to wear them for [batting practice] tomorrow. Virgil Abloh would be pumped if you wore them during the World Series." I wore them for BP, got 'em a little bit dirty, and I was pissed. Then they told me they were gonna send me the Jay-Z Rocafella sneakers before they were released. So I got those at the end of the World Series.

 

 

B/R: You made some hype in the sneaker community for wearing them during BP.

AB: Oh really? I didn't know that. [Laughs.]

 

B/R: So Odell was your neighbor in college. What was that like?

AB: The thing with Odell is that he's a great dude. Jarvis [Landry] too. I just laughed watching them dance. [Instagram comedian] Dancing Dan is always with them. Every time we went out when we were in college, we would watch them dance and go after it. It was pretty funny. Jarvis and Odell would play catch with my little brother. Now, I'm like, "Wow, you played catch with two of the best receivers in the NFL."

 

B/R: Was there any big plan for you guys when Carlos Correa proposed to his fiancee?

AB: He was like, "Hey, I think I'm gonna propose after Game 6 if we win." That was the night we got into L.A. And then we lost. He was like, "I'm proposing tomorrow when we win." So we win. He proposes, and then my mom's calling me every day saying that I'm in the background of Correa's proposal. She's going crazy acting like it was me proposing. My dad's like: "What's going on here? We just won the World Series. What are we doing?" It was hilarious.

 

B/R: How did he tell you guys?

AB: He just told us: "We better win tonight. I'm trying to get two rings." Everyone was pumped. He's a great teammate, a great guy, and Daniella [Correa’s fiancee] is great too. We just hope we're invited to the wedding.

 

B/R: Beyond the games and actually winning the World Series, what has been your favorite part of the major league experience?

AB: After every big win, just being able to go home and still have that high from winning the game and be able to celebrate with friends and family. That was special. It's something you always want to do, to be able to celebrate the victories with your friends and family. Being able to do that was awesome. I think also just celebrating after we won the World Series, just seeing the joy on everyone's face, everyone rocking their Astros gear at the after-party. We are world champs. We are world champs until someone can take us down.

 

B/R: Now you just gotta go back-to-back.

AB: Like Drake said, "Back to Back." We're gonna Jordan '96-'97.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Ryan Westmoreland and the Brain Surgery That Sidelined ‘Left-Handed Mike Trout’

The telemarketers won't stop calling.

Ryan Westmoreland swears this isn’t normal. Spring is the slow season at In the Zone Baseball Club, and his dad, Ron, owns the batting cage. Ryan gives lessons on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. The phone usually doesn't ring this much, but for whatever reason, this Monday in September is the day these telemarketers chose to flood the office with calls. It's a change in days that often blur together, Ryan notes. He springs toward the phone every time it rings.

"Hello, this is Ryan," he says before hanging up the phone without another word.

Westmoreland sits behind the counter organizing the cage's schedule as his dog, Pedey (named after Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia), falls asleep amid a scattering of tennis balls. He spends a lot of his time here now, splitting half the profits with his dad. The air conditioner purrs in the otherwise quiet facility. The walls are painted Fenway green, with a tarp draped over the far north wall decorated as the Green Monster.

There's a lot of time to kill, especially when the New England weather still permits players to train outside. Sometimes, Westmoreland stares at the jerseys that hang over the Pop-A-Shot in the waiting area. There are three of them. One is a Red Sox jersey, facing forward—his favorite team growing up in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The team that believed in his potential as an 18-year-old. The second is an American League Single-A All-Star jersey, from 2009, a reminder of the greatness that once landed him at No. 21 on Baseball America's list of top prospects just one season into his pro career. The third is a second Red Sox jersey, turned backward. His name and the number 25 are on the back, the future superstardom that never came.

 

"It's nice to look at sometimes," Westmoreland says.

He stares at an Excel spreadsheet for much of the day. It's organized by age group, teams and lesson instructor. Above two used Fenway Park seats (given to him as a gift by the Red Sox), between two of his Lowell Spinners jerseys, lies a small, rounded, brown wood frame with a quote from Jason McLeod, the former Red Sox scouting director who pushed the team to select Westmoreland in 2008 and who now works for the defending world champion Chicago Cubs.

"Ryan Westmoreland was the most talented player I've ever drafted," the quote reads. "He would have been Boston's lefthanded Mike Trout. A New England kid. It was a great story. He was a racehorse, 6-foot-3, strong, and as fast as can be. Raw power. Great defender. He could have been Boston's center fielder for 15 years."


He still dreams about that first home run in pro baseball. Sometimes, Westmoreland will be in bed, and as his eyes close, he'll be right back at LeLacheur Park as the Spinners public address announcer calls his name. He's watched the YouTube video so many times that it's become imprinted in his 27-year-old mind. It had been a long time since his last home run, 15 games into the start of his professional career in 2009. He was anxious to get it out of the way.

The first pitch from Tri-City ValleyCats pitcher Justin Harper was a slider up and away.

He still remembers his thought process clearly. He's going to throw a fastball in so he doesn't fall behind in the count, Westmoreland thought.

"I knew it was coming," Westmoreland says.

It came, and he smoked it. The pitch went soaring over the right-field wall. There was a sense of relief, that things were finally going the way they were supposed to. As he rounded the bases, Westmoreland heard his mom. You can hear it in the YouTube clip too. It's the high-pitched shriek Westmoreland still hears in his sleep. He's greeted by his teammates.

He gets lost in that memory, sometimes.


"Can you bring up the video on YouTube?" Westmoreland asks. "I want to make sure I remembered it correctly."

As the clip plays on an iPhone, Ryan stares intensely. Sometimes, he says, he'll see his players crowd around and watch it together. Many of them are too young to know his resume, that he agreed to a $2 million signing bonus to forgo a scholarship at Vanderbilt. How Boston buzzed about having a local star to man center field for the next decade.

In 60 games in 2009, his first season in pro ball with the Lowell Spinners, Westmoreland hit .296/.401/.484 with seven homers, 35 RBI and 19 stolen bases. His professional debut threw a mountain of coal into the hype train. At 19, he was already the Red Sox's best prospect, on the fast track to success, and one scout went as far as to compare him to Mickey Mantle.

But Westmoreland realized something was wrong at spring training, the start of his second professional season. He was playing Call of Duty on his Xbox when he felt his thumb grow numb. He wrote it off as nothing. He was a professional athlete in very good shape. He was the hometown kid whose dreams of hitting walk-off homers at Fenway Park grew more tangible by the day. It didn't hit him that this was different from a strained hamstring or torn labrum until the next day.

While stretching on the field, he felt his entire right side go numb, like it had fallen asleep. Team doctors told him to get an MRI immediately.

Doctors pointed at the big golf ball-sized blob on the scan: a cavernous malformation, they told him, a life-threatening congenital irregularity that made him susceptible to brain bleeding. If left untreated, he could've been blinded, paralyzed or killed. He decided immediately to have the surgery, March 16, 2010, a date now tattooed on his right bicep.

"I'll be fine," Westmoreland said to himself. "I've already come back from injuries before."

On the iPhone screen, Harper throws the first pitch. He'd remembered correctly, Westmoreland notes. Slider up and away, and then fastball inside for the homer. He hears his mom's shriek, making sure to point it out. The clip ends as Westmoreland is walking back to the dugout, high-fiving teammates. I turn toward him, and a single tear drips down his left cheek. That side of his face became partially paralyzed after the surgery, and his eye involuntarily wells up multiple times a day as a result. The image is no less striking.


Normal things became hard after the surgery. Tying shoes took nearly two minutes. He could no longer touch a stove because the numbness in his hand could leave his hand toasted without his feeling a thing. He struggled to walk. Balance was the real issue, especially with his right foot. Westmoreland limps today. When his right foot touches the ground, he doesn't feel the weight of the floor under his feet, making each step a balancing attack and a hobble.

The second surgery turned things for the worse. He'd fought all the way back the first time. He was hitting pitches in the cage again. Things were looking bright again, like Westmoreland could fulfill the potential that everyone knew he had. He even played in a Red Sox Dominican instructional league game in December 2011. But two years after the first surgery, in July 2012, doctors found a second cavernous malformation, bleeding. He needed a second surgery.

He woke up from the anesthesia deaf in his right ear, blind in his left eye. He knew he needed to retire, and he did officially in March 2013.

"I can't play anymore," Westmoreland told himself. "I can't try to do this anymore."

After the second surgery, he shut himself off from the rest of the world. For two months, he sat in his parents' basement eating chips and candy. He passed the days with TV, therapy and sleep. He fell in love with the show Friday Night Lights, and his favorite character became Jason Street, the paraplegic former quarterback whose in-game spine injury took away a scholarship at Notre Dame and a chance for a football career. He refused to turn on a baseball game, even his beloved Red Sox. Seeing then-Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, an abject disaster in Boston, wear his No. 25 infuriated him.

"I really didn't want to be like, 'That could be me,' or 'I'm better than him,'" Westmoreland says.

Everything he'd been working toward for years disappeared. He was 22 years old, and the future everyone told him he'd have was already gone. He'd ask himself questions: Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? He thought about endings things himself.

"Part of me just wanted to be done with it," Westmoreland says. "I didn't think I could handle it anymore, and I really didn't think I could."


He's patient with his players. At one point, one of the high schoolers Westmoreland coaches gets off balance and hits a ball off the end of the bat, way out in front of the soft-toss pitch. From behind the net, Westmoreland whispers something to the batter and tests his balance. He tosses another pitch, and THWACK, the ball zips to the opposite end of the cage.

He slowly brought himself back to the game. Three months after shutting out the world, he began to drift back. Things started to change when he saw his friends make the majors. First came guys like Will Middlebrooks and Daniel Nava. And then Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. Westmoreland wanted to support his old teammates, so he flipped on NESN to see his friends' successes.

"I loved the Red Sox, and I love those guys," Westmoreland says. "I couldn't not watch them."

A year and a half after the surgery, he decided he wanted to coach and began to work at In the Zone. He set sights on a career in the front office, something he doesn't feel quite ready to pursue. Maybe five or so more years, Westmoreland says.

"There's a part of the front office that needs a guy who knows baseball, who isn't maybe, obviously, as smart as the Harvard, Cornell, Yale, Dartmouth guys, but has a different side of knowing how players are doing and feeling," Westmoreland says. "The front office should always have a spot that is dedicated for someone who has played and knows the game."

In June 2015, Westmoreland returned to Fenway with his dad as an honored guest of the Red Sox. In front of a sold-out crowd, Westmoreland had the opportunity to throw out the first pitch. Instead, he opted to have his dad throw it out because he didn't feel comfortable. But as the pitch zipped past home plate and the Boston crowd roared, Westmoreland couldn't help but take it all in.

"I had always wanted that in a different instance, like jogging out to center field," Westmoreland says. "It wasn't that, but to be there, and get the ovation I got with the players that knew me, it was really exciting. They all knew who I was. They knew my story."


The one thing the surgery never took away was his swing. Doctors told him his swing was so ingrained in his muscle memory that any physical limitations—walking, tying his shoes—didn't extend to the plate. It's still a thing of beauty. Quick, powerful and fluid.

On this Saturday, Westmoreland takes some swings off the tee. He does this from time to time, sometimes facing the pitching machine, maxing out at 80 mph. The parents and students in the cage stop what they're doing and watch Westmoreland swing. Even four years after retirement, Westmoreland catches everyone's eye.

He still dreams about what his pro baseball career could've been. All the time. He watches the Red Sox on TV, sees Jackie and Mookie on the field and thinks, "Well, that could be me." He knows there's nothing he could do to change things. He lives a regular life now, living with his girlfriend and taking classes while working at the cage. He gets MRIs every six months to check up on himself. He loves coaching the kids too, getting excited every time his players get a scholarship offer. He appreciates everything the surgery gave him, the new outlook he received on life.

"It's easy to look back and go, 'God, that sucked. That was just the worst,'" Westmoreland says. "I obviously lived through it. Maybe if I had not gone through it, I don't have as good of appreciation for the little things that a lot of people take for granted. Right now, everything I think about how hard used to be with me, tying my shoes and how that used to take 10 minutes. Maybe if I had not gone through it and been in the big leagues for 10 years, I would not have had as great an appreciation for those things."

 

He thinks he would've been good. Real good, and a lot of people do. He could hit to all fields. He could hit balls on the outer half of the plate. At the old In the Zone location in Fall River, Westmoreland's uniform hung in a mural next to other Red Sox legends. Josh Beckett. Jerry Remy. David Ortiz. Carl Yastrzemski. Two years ago, when the Westmorelands opened the new location of the batting cage, the mural didn't make the trip.

Doctors told him the paralysis in his face and the numbness on his right side could disappear one day, but Westmoreland isn't counting on it. At this point, any positive developments are just icing on top. 

Westmoreland wraps up on the tee, and we pick up the balls together. It still feels good, that sensation, the crack of the bat hitting a baseball. He can still hit 80 mph off the pitching machine, but he usually limits himself to the tee. As we lug the bucket out of the cage, a player's father who's been watching the swings comes up to Westmoreland. 

"Ryan, it looks like you could still crank one over the center field wall at Fenway," he says. 

Westmoreland laughs. He turns around and responds. 

"And then I woke up." 

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Why Do Bobbleheads Usually Look so Terrible?

 

Nobody expects bobbleheads to look like their real-life counterparts, especially at the minor league level.

The Sacramento River Cats' 2013 Barry Zito bobblehead looks nothing like the southpaw pitcher. The figurine is more generic Sims avatar than Zito, sporting a patchy beard that looks as if it were tattooed rather than grown. The giveaway could've been a stand-in for any dark-haired baseball player, really.

But look a little bit farther down, knowing that it's supposed to be the famous Oakland A’s pitcher, and the true issue emerges. Zito made a name for himself as one the game's best lefties in the early 2000s, winning the Cy Young Award in 2002 for the River Cats' then-parent club, the Oakland Athletics.

Do you see it?

Look at the glove: It's on generic Sims-man Zito's left hand, making this stand-in a right-handed pitcher. The same pitcher the New York Times called "A Lefty's Lefty" depicted as one of the 90 percent plebeians, the right-handers.

A month before the promotion, a member of the River Cats' front office spotted the mistake, according to a source, and pointed it out to the marketing department.

"Nobody will notice," marketing said.

"It's Barry f--king Zito," the staffer said. "Of course they'll notice."

They noticed, because the mistake was as bad as making a right-handed bobblehead for Hall of Famer Lefty Grove. The promotional blunder made the rounds on the internet.

"Worst bobblehead ever," USA Today's For The Win noted. "Right-handed. Oops," one tweeter wrote. "What's wrong with his face?" another added.

The mistake was so bad that less than a year later, when one fan inquired on Twitter about a Barry Zito bobblehead, the official River Cats' account tweeted back: "Barry Zito bobblehead night was last year, and it was right-handed. That was a fun day."

Bad bobbleheads, however, are as much a part of baseball's culture as any other promotion in sports.

The San Francisco Giants gave away the first promotional bobblehead in 1999, Willie Mays, commemorating the last year at Candlestick Park. Mario Alioto, the executive vice president at the time, proposed the idea.

"The early editions looked nothing like the bobbleheads we see today," says Faham Zakariaei, Giants senior director of promotions and special events. "It was really thin; the head was not extravagant or large. We asked them to make it more like the ones you'd see in store."

For a long time, most bobbleheads resembled their real-life counterparts as much as the Tom Brady Deflategate courtroom painting did the New England Patriots quarterback. But the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that produces more bobbleheads than most other Major League teams, has also managed to make theirs some of the most accurate in professional sports.

"The Dodgers are at the top of the game when it comes to likeness for their bobbleheads," says Phil Sklar, co-founder and CEO of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum. "They've been one of the top teams we've seen with those features. If you rush them, the quality will be poor because they are hand-sculpted with the molds."

The Dodgers start planning their promotional calendar in November after the season, going through their roster, with recommendations from their vice president and chief marketing officer, before approaching the player. Some teams, like the Giants, start building out their promotional calendar as early as August.

From there, the team commissions the promotional company to create a mold, often going through four or five rounds of revisions before painting starts. The team and promotional company will often look through hundreds of photos, pinning down details from Vin Scully's lapel pin to Julio Urias' glasses.

 

Every bobblehead is handpainted, requiring a significant amount of preparation for the manufacturer. According to multiple executives, this is the step where things can often go wrong, when the mold of the figurine often looks completely different once painted.

Jay Deutsch, CEO and co-founder of BDA, the nation's largest producer of promotional sports items, says the company produces nearly six million bobbleheads annually, taking on 300 to 400 projects at $3 to $4 a figurine on average. The Dodgers, Deutsch says, are among his most meticulous clients.

"Each team tries different things, and the Dodgers have stayed true to form with the way theirs look. I like the fact that with bobbleheads you can do super-themed, and the Dodgers, in true Dodgers form, stay super-traditional," Deutsch says. "The Dodgers are very protective about that."

While the Dodgers have decided to stick with more traditional bobbleheads—throwing, hitting, standing—others have taken more creative measures. In the last five years, teams around baseball began branching out with a variety of more creative bobbleheads.

The Giants gave away a Johnny Cueto bobblehead whose torso shook, recreating his signature shimmy on the mound, while the New York Mets gave away a Noah Syndergaard figure that put the flamethrowing righty in a literal Thor costume, licensed by Marvel, the first for a major league team. Other clubs celebrate famous fans, like the St. Louis Cardinals, who created a bobblehead of actor Jon Hamm.

"A good bobblehead is getting a likeness close, which is a factor. But it's also about building something that's unique and captures the imagination of people and brings back special memories," Sklar says. "Fans will come to a game for any bobblehead, but if teams are giving away several bobbleheads throughout the year, they'll become more selective towards the more unique ones with a special pose."

Once the Giants identified Cueto as a player they wanted to "bobblehead," they brainstormed creative routes to memorialize their star pitcher. "Our headspace was that Johnny Cueto was a pretty unique guy and a special player," Zakariaei says. "The fact that he does that shimmy, it's an unheard of thing in baseball in terms of a pitcher. We wanted to integrate that into the tease."

Bobbleheads can also have a direct impact on ticket sales. Several executives mentioned that demand for tickets always goes up the night of bobbleheads giveaways, usually on weekends when more families come to games. Fans come earlier to games to pick up their collectable and, as a result, spend more money on merchandise and concessions. Bobbleheads are the number one driver of ticket sales, according to Sklar.

Chris Cameron, vice president of communications & fan experience for the Portland Sea Dogs, saw this direct impact on sales when the team announced a ticket package around a three-bobblehead set commemorating the Red Sox's Win, Dance, Repeat victory celebration, hoping to create a collector's item.

 

Cameron noticed that Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi all came through Portland, creating a reason to memorialize a signature part of the 2016 Red Sox season. The three-piece set lists on eBay for nearly $500, with individual figures ranging from $50 to $75.

"When we first posted in social media, it blew up, and we love seeing that attention on social media. The first question I asked was, 'We've seen the attention, but was it actually translating into ticket sales?'" Cameron wondered.

"I checked with our ticket office, and indeed, we saw a pretty good spike in sales within 24 hours of the social media post. I'd say we probably sold upwards of 100-plus tickets in a 100-hour span, which is pretty good for a minor league baseball team for a single game."

Bad bobbleheads still get headlines. The handcrafted and painted nature of each individual item creates room for error. Other times, lack of preparation or a time crunch will force teams to rush out a bobblehead that looks more like a 2K MyPlayer than an actual human. For many teams, it's about striking the balance of getting them right and getting them produced on time.

 

"It's a tricky thing because you approve the bobblehead based off the mold, which is unpainted, so some of the base-level features may not be as easy to tell when it's unpainted versus painted," Sklar says. "A lot of the time, in the process with teams, people will get the molds approved and the face may not look great. The eyes might be off, but it might be something that was hard to tell during the production process."

Through all the fads—snow globes, Beanie Babies, fanny packs—bobbleheads have stuck around baseball for nearly 20 years as the quintessential giveaway item.

Dodgers Vice President of Marketing and Broadcasting Erik Braverman says he regularly gets photos from fans who've created their own museums from the team's bobbleheads.

Mets Marketing Director Mark Fine says the urgency of getting to the gate for bobblehead night creates a different energy at the ballpark. It's an energy that Syndergaard says is one of the best parts of becoming a bobblehead, regardless of its likeness accuracy.

"At the end of the day," Syndergaard says, "who doesn't want to be a bobblehead?"

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Giancarlo Stanton as a HS Basketball Player Was ‘Like Watching Charles Barkley’

Giancarlo Stanton was not widely known when he transferred to Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California.

Before Giancarlo Stanton ever became Giancarlo Stanton—king of the home run, man of prodigious power, conductor of the Marlins Park dinger machine—he was Mike Stanton, a budding athlete with little fanfare hoping to land on one or more of Notre Dame's football, basketball and baseball teams.

Once enrolled at Notre Dame, Stanton showed then-Knights basketball coach Bill Bedgood his stats on MaxPreps. He'd averaged double-digit rebounds as a sophomore, but despite the strong numbers, Bedgood had no sense of what kind of basketball player the new kid was.

In the highly competitive world of California private-school athletics, which breeds Division I sports stars on an annual basis, Stanton came in as an unknown. None of the coaches at the school—Kevin Rooney (football), Bedgood, Tom Dill (baseball)—recruited the now-Miami Marlins slugger.

"Occasionally, you get someone who just drops in that we didn't know anything about," Dill said. "Mike just showed up."

Bedgood looked at Stanton's stats and figured, sight unseen, their new high school junior could help out the team in one way or another. Following the end of the football season, Stanton walked into practice, and Bedgood had no expectations. In the first two minutes of the team's scrimmage, Stanton grabbed every single rebound—both offensive and defensive.

"We had three college basketball players on that team and two Division I football players," Bedgood said. "Mike outshined all of them."

Everyone now knows Stanton as the man rumbling toward the 60-homer mark, with 18 just in the month of August. He broke Gary Sheffield's previous Marlins single-season record of 42 homers with more than a month-and-a-half before the end of the season. His 51 homers is 14 more than the next-highest player has, Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees.

For his prowess on the baseball field, basketball was Stanton's favorite to play, which is why Dill made sure his star outfielder played the sport his senior year when he considered quitting to prep for the MLB draft.

"He said basketball was his favorite sport to play, so I asked him, 'If you enjoy playing it the most, why would you quit playing?'" Dill said. "That was the end of the conversation."

Stanton's folk-hero strength dates back to his days in high school. Back then, Stanton stood 6'4", two inches shorter than his height today, and weighed around 200 pounds, nearly 50 pounds less than his present-day weight. That strength, while prominent on the baseball field, shined on the basketball court, where the now-27-year-old All-Star outmuscled opponents as an undersized power forward, reminding his coach of another dominating hooper who was small for his position. 

"He got so many rebounds through traffic," Bedgood said. "He was playing 6'10" guys, and I've even seen him play against 7-footers, and it made no difference. He would get his body into their body and they would bounce off. Then he would go straight up and finish.

"It would be like watching Charles Barkley play."

While several memories stick in Bedgood's head when talking about Stanton's basketball career—the 33 points and 22 rebounds against Harvard-Westlake, leading the team in scoring (19.7 points) and rebounds (13.5 boards) his senior year, the USC football coaching staff all coming to watch Stanton play basketball in an attempt to recruit him—it was "Mike's play" that sticks out.

"He asked us to run a play for one of our wings who wasn't shooting the ball great," Bedgood said. "Mike said, 'Can you run that play where our 3-man shoots the three and then misses it and then I get the rebound and put it back in?' And I was like, 'That's actually for a 3-man, and that's been what's happening, and you've been cleaning it up.'"

Dill, who is now going into his 26th season as Notre Dame's baseball coach, did not know whether Stanton's strength would translate from the football field and basketball court. Because of the habitual nature of baseball, strength and athletic ability doesn't always translate to the diamond. But Stanton quickly quieted any concerns by blasting multiple shots not just over the fences, but onto the fields of other sports at the school.

"He hit a lot of balls on the football field and hit some balls in games that far," Dill said. "I never had someone who hit balls that far in games.

"I remember one ball he hit during his senior year against Crespi, and it went by the goalpost that was on the south end of the football field. That's like 460-470 feet, left-center, center field. He hit one in a game out there. He hit a few absolute bombs that I had never seen anyone hit at this level."

Stanton felt as if football was his best sport, but baseball was his future. The scouts soon poured into Notre Dame's scenic baseball stadium. After games, teams would set up batting practice, and with a wood bat Stanton would take swings.

"Every ball was a home run," Dill said. "One thing I'd never seen before was that I felt like he hit wood better than he hit aluminum."

Everyone, including the opposing teams, stayed after games to watch Stanton's show for the scouts. He'd become why people dropped in. Everyone knew Mike Stanton.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yankees on Aaron Judge’s Wild Year: ‘If He’s Struggling, Everybody’s Struggling’

Aaron Judge has set a lot of records so far this year.

He broke Joe DiMaggio's Yankees team record of 29 homers for a rookie. He set a Statcast record for highest exit velocity by hitting a solo home run off Chris Tillman in June at 121.1 mph. He set the MLB record for most home runs through 25 games in a rookie season.

Judge also broke another record on Wednesday night against the Mets: consecutive games with a strikeout, besting Adam Dunn's MLB record by going down on strikes in 33 straight contests.

The strikeout record represents the icing on the cake for Judge's troubling second half, in which he's hit just .185/.346/.398 while striking out in 46.3 percent of at-bats heading into Wednesday night, up from 36.2 percent in the first half. Judge is going through his first extended struggles this season following a first-half in which he hit .329/.448/.691 with 30 homers, 13 doubles and 66 RBI.

Much of the Yankees' surprising performance in the standings—4.5 games back in the American League East, leading the Wild Card by three games—comes as a result of Judge's strong performance this year. Judge struggled in his first abbreviated stint in the big leagues in 2016. when he hit .179/.263/.345, but he made adjustments to his approach at the plate to fuel a breakout season.

Now, according to Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner, is a critical time for Judge to make adjustments again.

"You don't just make two or three adjustments. You need to continue to make them over the course of the season, and the course of your career," Gardner tells Bleacher Report. "Guys like myself, Matt Holliday and C.C. Sabathia, some veteran minds around the game, can really help the young guys. You talk baseball. It's always good to pick guys' brains about how they would attack certain hitters and where we're going to play on defense and how they would attack us if they were on different teams."

Just as Judge made major changes in the first half to fuel his star turn, pitchers around baseball have come back with tweaks of their own to attack the 6'7", 282-pound outfielder. According to Baseball Savant, pitchers threw Judge fastballs up in the strike zone 10.9 percent of the time in the first half. So far in the second half, that number has jumped to 14.5 percent, with more fastballs thrown up-and-away. Per ESPN.com's Mark Simon, umpires are calling more high pitches as strikes against Judge.

Since the strikeout streak started, Judge is hitting .182, third-worst among 149 players with 100 at-bats. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he's striking out in 39 percent of his plate appearances, second-worst to Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story. Since July 8, Judge has struck out 55 times. Fifteen players who qualify for the batting title, including Dustin Pedroia, Justin Turner, Buster Posey, Andrelton Simmons and Ian Kinsler, have struck out fewer times this entire season.

Multiple teammates expressed little concern to Bleacher Report about Judge finding his way out of his struggles. Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius says that Judge's even-keeled persona and his dedication to getting better will help him bounce back.

"He doesn't have to change. It's a good personality. ... You want him to stay like that," Gregorius says. "You don't want a guy to change. It's just about being himself. He stays mellow, the way he is and handles everything the right way."

Gardner, who played for nearly a decade with Derek Jeter, says he sees a similar day-to-day approach in Judge.

"There were times where [Jeter] struggled at the plate, and he would be the first to tell you that you have to block that out and that's one of the great things about baseball," Gardner says. "You may have a rough night the night before, but you've got a chance to come back out the next day and redeem yourself. It's not like football where you may have to wait a week to come back out and try to right the ship."

The Yankees hope Judge can right the ship before the playoffs. In short time, the 25-year-old has become one of the most famous baseball players on the planet and anointed the heir apparent to Jeter as the face of the Bronx Bombers. As currently positioned, the Yankees are prepared to make a run into the postseason, but a significant amount of their success depends on Judge, their lineup linchpin and their best hitter. As he figures out his current struggles, teammates will have to pick up the slack.

"It's a team and not just one guy. If he's struggling, everybody's struggling," Gregorius says. "It's a team, not just one person."

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

5 Baseball Jerseys So Swaggy You—and Chance the Rapper—Might Actually Wear ‘Em

The Cavs have those infamous T-shirt jerseys. The NFL and NHL are constantly modernizing—or throwing back—their team logos. Even college football, that bastion of traditionalism, has introduced some fire new designs this century.

Baseball? For all of its Iverson-style arm sleeves, its knee-high socks and even the sunglasses, baseball seemingly hasn’t wanted to be that cool with on-field fashion. But a new generation is trying to change that, says Tzvi Twersky, the baseball category director at Stance, which recently started its first full season as the official sock of Major League Baseball—on-field knee-highs included.

“The younger guys are getting into it,” Twersky says. “There might be resistance from some of the older guys or the traditional teams, but as teams have played each other and guys in the minors experienced the socks, it's grown on them. It's a testament to the teams having an open mind and be willing to try something new.”

MLB uniforms have barely changed since the Cincinnati Reds became the first professional baseball team in 1869. The button-down jerseys, the pants, the caps, the belts (belts!)—all have changed incrementally, but little has come close to the evolutions in football and basketball gear. As the official switch to Under Armour as MLB’s uniform supplier approaches for the 2019 season, baseball franchises are in position to capitalize on new design trends while also invoking nostalgia.

Oftentimes, baseball teams swing and miss badly with new uniforms or reverse course before a look is in style: The huge logos of the '90s have, with the exception of Detroit’s new big “D” throwbacks, largely been replaced; the neon yellow of Kansas City’s yesteryear is out in favor of the more subdued alternates from Oakland and Pittsburgh; and let’s not even talk about those shorts the White Sox wore during the first game of a doubleheader in ’76.

More so than many other sports, America’s pastime does have a large group of untouchable classics—the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox and Cardinals, just to name a few.

But with the good come the bad and unmemorable, and baseball certainly has a few of those.

B/R Mag’s effort to Make Baseball Cool Again has already heat-checked 14 bold ideas to change the game with MLB players, surveyed influencers from Ken Griffey Jr. to Bryce Harper and introduced a swaggy 17-year-old who might redesign what a superstar looks like, single-handedly.

Still, we couldn’t help taking a crack at fashioning a few new unis of our own. Not to pick on these five clubs, but our intention was to stay true to history—and add a little oomph.

            

Miami Marlins, with a Fish on Top

Yes, we know the Marlins just updated their logo this season after a complete overhaul in 2011 and that the Giancarlo Stanton jerseys are selling just fine—though they aren't exactly an in-the-club fashion statement. But a stylish city like Miami, with 25 years of franchise history in the books, deserves a more timeless look for the kings of Little Havana.

Without getting into the whole teal-and-pinstripes vest debacle of the late '90s and early 2000s, we focused on more Marlins blue while relegating that burnt orange to an accent rather than a garish dominant color. The new wordmark stems from art deco, like the hotels on South Beach, and the M is a bit more upright. We even brought back the old fish mascot because, hey, the Edgar Renteria glory days weren’t that long ago.

                 

Texas Rangers: Kickin’ It Bush Style

More than a dozen MLB teams use red, white and blue, and the Rangers are among the most boring of the bunch. While keeping the same color scheme, we changed their uniforms just enough to make them different—and added a little Lone Star flair.

Our wordmark ditches the block serif for classic cursive similar to the script style of the Dodgers, Royals and Yankees, which the Rangers actually used in the '80s and early '90s—until George W. Bush gave up ownership. The team name would now be red, which hasn’t been seen on a Rangers jersey before, across a powder blue jersey (hey, it’s working as an alternate in KC) with sleeve stripes. And we’ve added numbers to the front because, as another blue-jersey’d star of the region would say, why not?

                      

San Diego Padres: Brown and Yellow, Brown and Yellow

For years, many Padres fans have clamored for a return to the brown and gold of the ’60s, ’70s and '80s, and we’ve done here what only the occasional alternate does to hike sales.

“You have the Padres, who may not be hesitant to do things a little bit crazy, a little bit different,” Stance’s Twersky says. “With them, we came out of the gate with tie-dyes and different designs that we work closely with them on, but they can only pull off because they are willing to try things and be receiving.”

Today’s piping remains, but we’ve ditched the interlocking S and D for the Tony Gwynn-heyday wordmark, which has the best of the Cardinals and Braves unis in it. Leave the boring, old navy behind and keep it distinctive, San Diego.

                      

Chicago White Sox: Just Add Red—and C.R.E.A.M.

The White Sox are not the problem: With a statement logo and a black-and-white simplicity, they’ve still got the coolest jersey in Chi-town, rocked since an early ’90s rebrand by MCs, OGs and MJ himself. But the team’s design principles have been erratic, and it’s time for something consistent for Chance the Rapper to make truly legendary.

Here, we’ve emphasized an orangey-red from the ’70s and ’80s that the team has begun to reintroduce in some alternate looks. (Their old navy accent was a little too Red Sox.) We’ve also added a little cream for added vintage-meets-C.R.E.A.M. effect.

                      

Arizona Diamondbacks: Unleash the Snake!

When the D-backs first unveiled their purple-and-teal look as an expansion team in 1995, it looked out of place in the conservative color palette of baseball. Flash-forward a couple decades, and we kind of like the all-caps wordmark they unveiled last year. Certainly beats years of an illegible letter “A” and trying to make a rattlesnake look like the letter “D.”

Still: Something felt...missing. Gone are the gradients, the shoulders, the dark gray pants. We’ve brought back copper to pair with sedona red. For a nod to baseball’s nostalgia, we’ve taken inspiration from the Cardinals, who incorporate the bat and birds, and decided to go big on the snake. The Diamondbacks may be a sartorial travesty right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re too far gone to save.


Joon Lee is a staff writer for B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @iamjoonlee

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the new B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are. This week: Make Baseball Cool Again—a manifesto in five parts

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Hunter Greene Is Not the LeBron of Baseball. He Wants to Be Something More.

Hunter Greene opens the door in his underwear—and only his underwear. It is 5:45 a.m., but he happily offers me a glass of water and welcomes me into his family’s two-story home in Stevenson Ranch, California, with a 360-degree view of the Santa Susanas and, just south of the mountaintops, the city that breeds stars. There are African masks and sculptures all over, arcade versions of Ms. Pac-Man and Centipede upstairs, and a painting of Jackie Robinson in the dining room. On top of the kitchen cabinet, a sign: BE YOURSELF. EVERYONE ELSE IS TAKEN. Justice, the family cat, slinks from room to room before, as if programmed, appearing on the kitchen countertop.

This is where a senior at Notre Dame High, working on two hours of sleep after returning from Coachella, gets ready for school. But this particular high school senior wakes up before the sunrise every day—to eat, to take three dozen swings in his backyard batting cage and get to first period by 7:45.

Hunter and his father, Russell, have established a breakfast program by now: omelette, bacon or sausage (corned beef hash on Wednesdays), strawberries and bananas, plus a power-shake blend of chocolate Muscle Milk and spinach. As Hunter showers, exhausted, Russell flips the egg, alive. Hunter and his friends prefer Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, the new Kendrick, but as the grill sizzles, Russell’s playlist—Maxwell, Erykah Badu, Floetry—dominates the morning air.

“Hunt, you almost ready?”

“Yep.”

It’s a production all right, bringing up a baseball prospect as senior spring gives way to becoming the No. 2 pick by the Cincinnati Reds in the MLB draft. “I’m glad it’s almost over,” Russell says in the last week of April, nearly two months before the draft.

But this is no ordinary prospect. This is “Doc Gooden,” says one longtime California scout. This is the next Jose Fernandez, says a National League executive. And that’s just on the mound. At shortstop, this is “Cal Ripken, Carlos Correa, Alex Rodriguez,” the executive declares. This young man is also just 17 years old.

“He’s like a mythical legend already, Hunter Greene,” Marcus Stroman, the Blue Jays pitcher and World Baseball Classic MVP, tells B/R Mag. “People are already whispering about him: Did you see that guy throw 105 AND hit the ball 700 feet? … Oh, my God, there’s a black baseball player!” Adds another scout: “If you created a player in the video game MLB: The Show and turned up all of his attributes to 99 overall, that would be Hunter Greene.”

Hunter and Russell used to play their own kind of video game—“The Scout Game,” they call it—while scrolling through a pro player’s social media feed: “tattoos, finger flipping, foul language,” says Russell, a Hollywood private investigator who represents Justin Bieber and the Kardashians.

And then he’d ask his son: “Are we going to pay this player money?”

“No way.”

“Now,” Russell says, "I don’t really have to worry about him.”

The family even has a rule: “If you’re going to text-message, everything has to be in full, complete sentences,” Russell says. “We don’t abbreviate in this house—it builds bad habits.”

But to know the real Hunter Greene—to see him unscripted in his underwear, to read his real text messages, to drive him around Los Angeles for a week—is to step into a fantasy world where celebrity fuses with conformity and the greatest of expectations only expedite the inevitability of adulthood.

By Friday, after playing three games for Notre Dame, hobnobbing with Dodgers legends past, present and future, and being declared both THE NEW BABE and BASEBALL’S LEBRON by Sports Illustrated, Hunter will admit to barely remembering Monday’s breakfast. By draft night two months later, he will be answering 140 more texts and getting briefly interrupted by more fans in the middle of Times Square, by more onlookers and after-parties, more hangers-on and hopefuls, all wanting more more more from the Hunter Greene machine, which never stops.

As Russell washes away the dirty eggs and sweeps away the cat hair, he turns to Hunter, who is wearing thigh-high socks, like he often does with his uniform, only these have Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die cover sewed on them.

“We took in a new case,” Russell says. “Black high school athlete dating white girl.”

“Oh no,” Hunter mumbles, food in his mouth.

“Sexual relationship. Now he don’t want to be her boyfriend anymore, so now there are allegations…. Then we come to find out, he’s been with six other girls—so what’s the lesson?” Russell asks. “Keep your hands to yourself. Can’t trust anybody.”

Russell puts down the pan and points at Hunter:

“In his position? No way, man.”

“It sucks, but it’s the truth,” Hunter says. “It’s reality.”


The text from his dad is simple: “Proud of You.” In the back of psychology class Tuesday morning, Hunter begins to tear up, but his classmates don’t notice, and before long the buzzing won’t stop. That’s what happens when you become the 13th high schooler on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That’s what happens when people compare you to Babe Ruth (“Come on, dude—I’m not that good,” he says) and LeBron James. That’s what happens these days, when you’re a prodigy with an iPhone, a smile and a 102-mile-an-hour fastball.

Young women begin sliding into his DMs, with over 200 requested messages on Instagram alone. “Girls who like pictures from a year ago and then DM me?” Hunter asks. “I can’t be a part of that shit, no matter how hot they are.” He has no interest in dating, at least not until he establishes himself in the majors. “I just don’t have time,” he says.

Hunter’s advisor (now agent) from Creative Artists Agency calls to see how he’s handling the attention. Two local TV stations stop by. He gets invited to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live and SportsCenter; he turns them down. Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and Jordan Brand have all made it clear they want Hunter wearing their gear come summer.

But right now, Hunter walks with a purpose past the luxury cars on the campus of Notre Dame High, holding doors open and trying to blend in, as one teacher puts it, as “a little nerdy.” But even with the younger students whispering about the legend in their midst, even with educators gawking as they, too, ask for autographs, and even as, according to his father, stalkers keep asking for his attention, Hunter keeps a very, very tight circle. “That’s going to be one of the most challenging things when I move on,” he says. “Knowing who’s real and who’s fake. Having people who actually care and are not in it for fame, money or just whatever they want.”

By design, Hunter’s catcher, Justin Rorick, is his only close friend. The family calls him Boogie.

They became friends when they were eight years old on the same baseball team. During freshman and sophomore years, while Boogie attended Birmingham Community Charter High School in Van Nuys, he caught Hunter’s bullpen sessions on the weekends, and they hung out afterward. Russell encouraged Boogie to transfer to Notre Dame so that the friends could go to school and play baseball together again. When Hunter participated in the Junior Home Run Derby at the MLB All-Star game in San Diego last July, Boogie was there. When Hunter was drafted by the Reds last month, Boogie was there.

Whenever there’s not a team lunch, Hunter and Boogie eat together, alone, on a bench outside the baseball field. They have no interest in sitting in the cafeteria. Too cramped. Too many cliques. Too much drama. Too much high school.

“If you want to stay in high school, there’s something wrong,” Hunter tells me on the way to school one morning before falling asleep in the passenger seat, which happens frequently. “It’s only the beginning.”

Eating a box of orange chicken, Hunter checks Twitter to see what people are saying about the SI cover. “Some dude thinks I look like if Russell Wilson and Tiger Woods had a baby,” he says. “Looks like Tyler the Creator.” He laughs. He checks Snapchat, then Instagram to see how many followers he’s gained: 10K, 12.5K, 14K. As for Facebook, well, that’s where he posts photos for old people in his family. But with more money, more attention, more pressure, more…everything, Hunter is feeling more like one of the olds, all of the time.

“I definitely feel like an adult 24/7,” he says. “It’s hard to be in the moment because everything is happening so fast, and I’m so young. It’s hard to slow down because everything is moving so fast.

“I have something way bigger going on than all these other people,” he says of his high school classmates. “And in a couple weeks, they’re going to be like, ‘Wow, this is what this kid was preparing for since he was seven years old.’”

Hunter says he doesn’t feel the weight of expectations from scouts or the media, but he does care about living up to them for those who have invested time in him: his fans, his teachers, his friends, his family, the Reds.

“He knows he can’t make everyone happy,” Boogie says, “but he wants to feel like he at least tried.”

At the family’s regular postgame dinner on Thursday, Hunter says he is trying very, very hard: “I just want to make everyone happy. I want to be able to be successful and show for all the effort I put in and that others put in to my career. I want to make it worth it.”

“You know you won’t make everybody happy, right?” Russell asks.

“I know,” Hunter says, looking down. He takes a bite of macaroni and cheese.

“Yep.”


Hunter Greene’s bedroom is a museum. By the door, there’s his No. 23 Team USA jersey, a bat given to him by Ken Griffey Jr., a miniature statue of him in a Yankees uniform, his 2015 Jackie Robinson National Player of the Year Award. On the right wall, two whiteboards with his previous three months planned out: games, meetings, family trips, yoga. His handwriting is as tidy as auto-tune, a product of his mom’s calligraphy lessons. Below the calendar are two hashtags, #NOCONFUSION2017 and #I’MTHEBESTINTHEWORLD! On the right, a list of goals:

  1. HEALTHY (Hunter’s never had a major injury in his life)
  2. LONG TOSS (part of a throwing program)
  3. .400 BATTING AVERAGE (finished the season at .324)
  4. 101 MPH (check, and then some)
  5. MISSION LEAGUE CHAMP (check)
  6. COMMUNITY SERVICE (Notre Dame requires 30 hours each year to graduate)
  7. FINISH STRONG ACADEMICALLY (3.5 GPA)
  8. FOCUS (private yoga lessons every week)
  9. FAMILY TIME (the postgame dinners)
  10. DMV (Hunter Greene cannot drive)

On the bed is his sister’s blanket featuring Tinkerbell from Peter Pan, rotating in for Spiderman this wash cycle. There are two framed posters of Greene hitting and pitching, a box of pins, four community service awards and his varsity letters. Next to a stack of magazines with his face on the cover, a Windows desktop computer sits on the desk, littered with baseball cards. Hunter says that if he sold his collection of autographs, he’d easily collect $300K—maybe a couple thousand for the Willie Mays ball alone.

“I don’t want to be a dumb jock,” Hunter says, as if primed. “I want to be something more.”

If Hunter Greene stays healthy and plays well enough to make the Baseball Hall of Fame, as so many already expect him to do, the curators could pretty much just up and transport this bedroom. Cooperstown is certainly on the list of career goals, but first, Hunter would “like to celebrate a playoff victory with Martinelli’s apple cider.” (Hunter Greene cannot legally drink champagne.)

Then there’s the other thing everyone expects him to do: you know, just...inspire an entire generation of young African-American kids to come back to baseball, to single-handedly power diversity in a sport lacking as much in star power as national cool—indeed, to save America’s pastime from itself.

No pressure.

“I’ve always been under the radar since I was young, since I was 13,” Hunter says on draft night. “It’s just routine, everything that is going on. I expect myself to be able to handle stuff like this if I’m going to put myself in this position. I can’t be avoiding people, avoiding interviews, avoiding whatever it is.”

This is not whatever: On Opening Day in 2016, just 8.3 percent of players in Major League Baseball, or around 60 young men, were black. In the first 16 years of this century, just 10 African-American pitchers—1.9 percent—were selected in the first round, with three—David Price, Dillon Tate and Dewon Brazelton—chosen in the top five. Hunter made four. In the past six MLB drafts, less than 20 percent of first-round picks were African-American, but baseball has a complex road ahead.

“The beauty of Hunter is that he grew up in a perfect storm,” says former MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon. “You put everything together, and it gives us a refreshing young man who can maybe change the sport from a playing standpoint and social consciousness with his maturity level and how well-spoken he is about what he’d like to do in the game.”

MLB rosters included 13 African-American pitchers on Opening Day this season, and for the last 10 years, the percentage of African-American major leaguers has stayed flat, at around seven or eight percent. Hunter, doomed and destined as a savior, wants to combine his generational talent with a willingness to be a social activist.

At 13, he won an MLB essay contest that let him meet Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon. In March, he gave a speech to the Ladera Little League, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, to encourage elementary and middle-schoolers. “Be the best version of yourself on and off the field,” he told the crowd. “On the field, every position is important and you can win the game for your team. Off the field, don’t do anything to embarrass yourself or your family.” In December, Hunter organized a sock drive for the homeless in downtown Los Angeles, collecting more than 2,300 pairs.

“Thank God he is coming,” Stroman says. “We need him.”

“He’s so vital because those kids are going to be picking up those magazines and saying, ‘Who’s this?’” Stroman continues. “A black baseball player? A pitcher? Who is throwing 102? Once you see all of that, that’s what sparks the interest in that younger culture. That’s what leads to saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to go pitch like Hunter Greene.’”

When I text Hunter from Toronto about the praise from Stroman, who is black, he texts right back: “Nah, I haven’t done shit yet 😂😂.”

Erikk Aldridge, one of Hunter’s youth baseball coaches who previously worked as the director of community relations for the Lakers and Dodgers, is not afraid of mythical comparisons.

“He’s like Magic Johnson,” Aldridge says. “He’s going to hit you with that smile until you get on the field. Then, it’s business.”

“He’s the type of guy you could see being the mayor of Los Angeles.”

"A black baseball player? A pitcher? Who is throwing 102? Thank God he is coming. We need him." —Marcus Stroman

At dinner Thursday at Granville, an organic restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, Russell Greene zips from one diatribe to another, primed to talk about everything on his mind, about the importance of teaching his son about race, about raising a “major league citizen.” Hunter sips on pink lemonade as his father reminds me that it was racism that led him to enroll Hunter at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, 50 miles away, where he could see other African-American baseball players, that he was—is—afraid for his son’s life as a black man in the United States. “I worry when my son is out and about in the streets,” Russell says. “They don’t give a shit that he’s Hunter Greene, an upper-class, middle-class kid going to private school. They see him as a black face.”

As Russell preaches, man alive, Hunter remains quiet, listening. It happens each night I have dinner with the Greenes: The more Russell opines about the world, the more Hunter opens his ears and his eyes. Whenever I turn to Hunter to ask him if he has anything to add to one of his father’s sermons, the response is similar.

“All of that sounds good to me,” Hunter says. “He’s speaking from a place of life experience.”


Russell watches the games by himself. Occasionally, he’ll cheer on Hunter and his teammates. (“Atta boy, bud!” “Good swing, kid!”) Every once in a while, he’ll shout out a coaching tip to his son. (“Keep your backside straight at the plate!” “Stop trying too hard!”) Other parents will congratulate him on his son’s success, but he keeps the conversations short. Between innings, he searches Hunter’s name on Twitter. He wants to know everything. With all they’ve gone through, Russell needs to know everything.

When Russell became a parent at 25 years old (“He came out of this nut—the right one” he says, pointing to his groin), he promised to never miss one of his son’s games. In the 17 years since, he has missed only two, and they were in Japan. “I made sure Hunter never experienced what I experienced,” he says.

Russell’s parents got divorced when he was two. He grew up with his father, a veteran of the Green Berets, in Sacramento, where they lived until Russell was in fifth grade. When Hunter’s grandfather started dating his soon-to-be second wife, he stopped regularly attending Russell’s football and baseball games. And then he stopped going to them at all, so feeling left behind, Russell decided to run away.

He called his mom, who lived in Los Angeles, and she came to pick him up. He lost contact with his dad. He smoked and transported weed. He drank. He was a good athlete, playing Division II football at Humboldt State, but had no aspirations to play sports professionally. It’s why he has no regrets about Hunter’s abnormal high school experience. “What he’s missed out on is stuff he doesn’t need to be a part of,” Russell says.

For 15 years Russell worked for Johnnie Cochran, starting at the end of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, before opening a private practice, in which he specialized in violent crimes, often homicides and sexual assaults. His work with celebrities, Russell says, helped prepare his son for what, to him, was near-certain fame: “Everything you hear about Justin Bieber, Hunter knows about. Everything about the Kardashians, he knows about it because I use them as an example, whether they are good or bad.”

Russell sports slicked-back, shiny silver hair and frequently rocks a $6,000 Rolex Submariner watch with ripped, acid-washed jeans. It only makes sense that both NBC and CBS have offered him a reality show.

“There’s a little LaVar Ball inside of me,” Russell Greene tells me as he watches his prodigal son play from behind the dugout. “I want to jump on top of this dugout and scream at the top of my lungs that my kid is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I want to yell at all the people who called him the N-word and the people who said he would never make it. I want to put the Sports Illustrated on a thumbtack on their front doorstep. I want to shrinkwrap their car with the Sports Illustrated wrap. I want to beat my chest and run up and down the street. But I can’t do that. That’s not me personally. It is on the inside.”

“I can’t judge that man,” Hunter Greene’s father says of the new Laker star Lonzo Ball’s notorious dad. “He loves his family. Does he say things he shouldn’t say? Yeah, but he’s fired up.”

"There's a little LaVar Ball inside of me. I want to scream at the top of my lungs that my kid is on the cover of Sports Illustrated." —Russell Greene, Hunter's father

As we talk, Hunter, playing shortstop, chases a dribbler in front of second base. With each giant step across the infield, he becomes more superman than boy, transforming into a kind of Optimus Prime in cleats as he grabs the ball off the grass and throws across his body, impossibly, to nail the runner by two full steps. The crowd cheers, excited to see what they came for, and one of Notre Dame’s coaches turns around from the dugout to holler at Russell.

“Which controls did you use for that one?” the coach asks, miming playing video games.

“Just messing around with the controls,” Russell yells back to the dugout, fidgeting with the invisible controller in his lap for the father’s version of MLB: The Show, in real life.

Over the phone a week later, Boogie, the catcher and confidant, says of Russell: “It’s like he knew this was going to happen a long time ago, and he made it happen.”


Hunter Greene heads for the door of the Dodger Stadium luxury box in his signature jacket—and this is no ordinary varsity jacket. It’s a resume: his Mission League MVP, Team USA baseball, All-City 2016, All-League 2016, All-Area 2016, All CIF, Under Armour All-American, UCLA. On the back is a much more muscular, cartoon version of himself, a baseball on fire in his right hand, a crushed bat in his left and his foot atop a stack of textbooks. Anyone who vaguely recognizes this young man confirms their suspicions after one glance at his jacket.

“Are you Hunter?” asks Don Newcombe, Major League Baseball’s first African-American star pitcher, who has invited him as his guest for the day.

“Yes, sir.”

“This is our suite,” Newcombe says. “It’s for special people.”

“We are special people,” Hunter says.

Newcombe and his wife guide Hunter, Russell and Boogie into the underbelly of the stadium, through the clubhouse and onto the field, where Chase Utley pushes his way through a small crowd to introduce himself. A few minutes later, Joc Pederson does the same. Heads turn, cameras click and the whispers are as loud as the crack of a bat. Dennis Haysbert—you know, from the Allstate commercials, and, not to be forgotten, Pedro Cerrano in Major League: Back to the Minors—makes small talk about Hunter’s future in the majors. Corey Seager stops by with a lesson on how to be a tall shortstop: “Don’t listen to the critics,” he says. “Do your thing.”

Yasiel Puig, in fluent English, tells Hunter about his difficulties with the cultural transition, moving from Cuba to the United States, driving down the freeway in fancy cars and facing pitchers who throw 97-mile-an-hour fastballs, seemingly unaware that the lanky high school senior next to him can throw much, much faster than that.

Russell asks Puig about how he handles all of the attention, all of the pressure, all of the…everything. “Last year, I would go into the bathroom and people would be like, ‘Why is Puig in the bathroom?’” the All-Star responds. “It’s like, ‘What, I can’t shit?’” Hunter laughs—like, [😂 😂]. “Everybody is waiting and looking for me.... Everyone wants to follow you.” There will be more reporters, Puig is saying—more young women sliding into your DMs, more fans asking for your autograph, more pressure than even your parents can prime you to overcome. “Do everything the right way and nobody can say nothing.”

Puig is crushing batting-practice pitches over the Dodger Stadium fence, into the sky that looks over the stars, when I turn to Boogie, who is busy Snapchatting the scene from through the cage.

“Wow,” I say to Hunter’s best friend. “Isn’t this all a little surreal?”

“Yeah, but it’s just another day in the life of Hunter Greene,” he says.

Over sliders, salad, pink lemonade and blondies at the Dugout Club, Newcombe tells stories of playing with Jackie Robinson. The Dodgers legend tells Hunter how building strength in his legs helped preserve his arm. Russell watches his son speak to a man who, President Barack Obama once said, “helped America become what it is.” Russell begins to tear up. “This is history,” he says. “This is history.”

 

At the end of dinner, Newcombe and Hunter sign copies of their Sports Illustrated covers for one another. “This makes me feel wonderful,” Newcombe says. “There should be more Hunters. I wish there were…. Thank God for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe and, later, Larry Doby. We showed them that we could play baseball.”

Newcombe turns and points to Hunter.

“That’s what this young man is doing again.”

As we pile into the elevator, one more fan calls out, hoping for an autograph. The elevator is full, but the door gets held open for Hunter to sign two more baseballs. “We’ve got to go!” someone calls out. But Hunter stays for five more seconds and signs everything—just to make sure everyone is happy with him, just to make sure nobody gets left behind, just to make sure he gives everybody what they want.

But as the legend grows, they’ll only ask for more.


Joon Lee is a staff writer for B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @iamjoonlee

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the new B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are. This week: Make Baseball Cool Again—a manifesto in five parts.

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Bryce Harper Is Fighting Baseball’s Unwritten Rules, Not Just Other Players

The thing with sports fights is they're typically prompted by something most responsible adults would consider petty or childish. This is especially true in baseball, where beefs between players and teams can outlast the postseason, the offseason and even cross over into the new year.

In 2016, Rangers reliever Matt Bush plunked Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista in the ribs with a 98 mph fastball as retribution for his now-iconic bat flip against Texas the year before. Bautista, in turn, slid hard into second base to break up a throw by Rougned Odor, who, in turn, socked the Toronto outfielder in the face.

This season saw an equally silly example of baseball pettiness, when Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes threw at the head of Manny Machado after the Orioles third baseman spiked Dustin Pedroia, his cleat colliding with the Red Sox infielder's leg. Some felt it was on purpose, but the motivations were, at best, ambiguous. Nevertheless, Barnes threw a 90 mph pitch at the head of one of the game's best, brightest young stars. 

On Monday, San Francisco Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland took baseball pettiness to Amber Rose vs. Kanye West levels.

Strickland fired a pitch at the hip of All-Star Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, seemingly because Harper—a great baseball player—hit two big homers off the Giants reliever in the postseason almost three years ago, a series San Francisco won. That's it. Three. Years. Ago. This would be like if Andre Iguodala went up to LeBron James and punched him in the face for blocking him in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals—in 2019.

Strickland's feeling that the unwritten rules of baseball allowed him to drill Harper is an indictment of MLB's outdated playing culture, and Harper himself has been vocal in speaking out against such standards. The whole situation is stupid, really, and any normalization of a pitcher's assaulting a fellow union member with a baseball is awful. To make things worse? Harper's only means to fight back was to, well, literally fight back.

"If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I'm going to go, 'Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time,'" Harper told ESPN in 2016. "That's what makes the game fun. You want the kids to play the game, right?"

Harper was doing what he's paid to do when he hit those home runs off Strickland in 2014, but the slugger's showmanship—the hair, the brash personality, the outspokenness—is all part of a new wave of players attempting to change the sport's culture. Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman, who views himself, along with Harper, as a leader in adapting baseball's culture for the 21st century, says young players coming into the league need to be aware of dissonance among the old and new guard. 

"Old baseball might tell you that's the wrong way to do things," Stroman told Bleacher Report. "I've always tried to be myself, but I've gotten backlash from people telling me that I'm too emotional. But people who comment on that aren't relevant enough to comment. It's about remaining yourself and not [letting] old baseball culture creep into your ways and shut you down." 

The easier thing for Harper on Monday would've been to shut down, since Harper had much more to lose from this situation than Strickland. Harper will be forced to sit four games, consider the negative impact for his sponsors and, given his reputation as a "punk" among some circles of baseball fans, will have to deal with the blowback from those who already dislike him.

Strickland, on the other hand, doesn't have endorsement deals to worry about, doesn't have a reputation to consider and is suspended for what amounts to a marginal number of games in baseball's languid 162-game schedule. After purposefully hurling a (nearly) rock-hard object 98 mph at another man.

Harper's charge at the mound and thrown punches (and feeble helmet toss) represented more than just an attempt to settle a dispute rooted in insecurity. It represented a charge at baseball's sophomoric unwritten rules of penalty and retribution. Harper has been a target since the day he became a Sports Illustrated cover boy, and Monday, he'd had enough.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and Co., since taking over for Bud Selig, have publicly and privately stated their desire to more strictly punish those who participate in this type of dangerous behavior. But, as many have pointed out, the severity of the punishments is rarely enough to curb the behavior, evidenced by Strickland's six-game penalty.

One pitch in the wrong place can dramatically change the career, let alone the life of a player (just ask Tony Conigliaro), and is it stands, the penalties rarely match the transgressions.

Harper's charge toward the mound embodies the new wave's retaliation against the establishment, against blind adherence to dangerous, outdated rules. They do not belong in today's game. Baseball needs to adapt to stay relevant. In the age where the attention span of young fans often lasts no longer than a 10-second Snapchat from a friend, the support of culture that punishes flashes of individuality or emotion only further hurts the sport's future while attempting to preserve its past.

A brawl certainly isn't the best way to showcase the game of baseball, but Harper's charge at Strickland is the biggest revolt we've seen from a star against "old baseball." According to Stroman, the culture is slowly starting to shift as more young players embrace the groundwork set by players like Harper. But baseball is an old sport, and change never comes easy, so those players will need to continue fighting back. Though, hopefully, not always with fists.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Pitching Tim Tebow: What It’s Like to Actually Pitch to Tebow

So let's get something out of the way first: Tim Tebow doesn't need a scouting report right now. He's a 29-year-old former college football star who's playing in Single-A minor league baseball where the average player is 21 years old.

At the moment, Tebow is hitting .218/.283/.364 with two homers, and although he ended last week with a couple multi-hit games, it's clear that he has not been playing well.

But Tebow has shown flashes, particularly in the first week of the season, when he hit two home runs against the Augusta GreenJackets, including one in his first at-bat of the season. It was typical Tebow: somehow finding a way to surprise us with his success, even if that success appears short-lived.

Pitchers have been trying to keep his success to a minimum, and though it's early in the former gunslinger's baseball career, there appears to be a consensus forming on how to approach pitching to the 2010 NFL first-round pick.

"Changing speeds is really effective," says GreenJackets pitcher Matt Solter. "I think for lefties, changeups are good. If you go hard in and then mix a changeup away, just to make sure it looks like a fastball as much as you can, you'll get some weak contact or a swing over a pitch."

Solter enjoyed success against Tebow in that first week of the season. He struck him out twice and induced two groundouts. GreenJackets pitcher Domenic Mazza, however, wasn't quite as lucky. Prior to giving up Tebow's first homer for the Columbia Fireflies, Mazza says he was hoping to work the former Heisman winner inside before leaving a hanging pitch over the plate.

"We were trying to establish in, but Tebow was able to hit a pretty well-located inside fastball off of my teammate," Mazza says. "I would still, as a left-handed pitcher, try to expand off the plate with the breaking ball away."

Part of the challenge (relatively speaking) of facing Tebow is the fact that, well, it's Tim Tebow in the batter's box. Tebow is arguably the most famous baseball player in America, and, combined with his football stature, he can be an intimidating opponent to face.

"I think anybody would be lying if they said they didn't at least acknowledge it a little bit. That's part of the pre-pitch," Solter says. "You clear it and, as cliche as it sounds, you attack him like any other batter and see how he reacts to different pitches and adjust accordingly to make some pitches and get an out."

The fact that Tebow isn't built like a typical baseball player also plays a role in how teams approach him at the plate. In theory, teams like to pound Tebow with inside fastballs because his frame doesn't allow him to turn on pitches as quickly as others do.

"There wasn't really a scouting report. The first day, we saw them take BP a little bit and we saw them stretching," Solter says. "You can tell, obviously, right away that he's a big guy. The power is going to be a real tool for him. Outside of that, there wasn't a whole lot we had on him."

"He's definitely bigger than most guys out here," Mazza says. "Just based off of that, you get the sense that he's going to have some power."

Mazza and Solter both laugh when asked about Tebow's first weekend against the GreenJackets, when he hit both homers.

"Everybody was just, I don't know if in awe was the right word, but I felt like that was a very Tebow thing to happen, for him to homer in his first pitch in instructs," Solter says. "There's something about the Tebow Effect that he was able to put a good swing on the pitch."

The chances that Tebow actually works his way up to the major leagues remain slim. He's already got a lot of things working against him—his age, that he hasn't played baseball since high school and that only a small percentage of pros actually make it to the show, for starters. But, for at least two of the pitchers that faced him, Tebow fits right into Single-A baseball.

"He hit those two home runs against us," Solter says. "I'm not sure what his stats are right now, but he doesn't look overmatched. He has a much better eye than we expected. We didn't know if he'd be swinging at everything, but he had a really good feel for the strike zone."

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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What Is Patriots’ Day? Your Introduction to Boston’s Greatest Holiday

Before it became the title of a less than great movie starring Mark Wahlberg, Patriots' Day was known foremost as a day that captures the spirit of Boston more accurately than any other day of the year. People across Massachusetts wake up early on the third Monday of April to watch the Boston Red Sox play at 11 a.m., root on friends and family running in the Boston Marathon and celebrate the history of one of America's oldest major cities.

Historically, Patriots' Day marks the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolutionary War, and is a state holiday in Massachusetts, Maine and Wisconsin. The history that underlies the holiday marks a point of pride for many in the Boston area, where re-enactments of the battles occur annually.

"Those of us who live here and grow up here take pride that the American Revolution began here," says Gordon Edes, Red Sox team historian. "Talk about an organic beginning to war. You had militiamen coming from all of the neighboring towns coming to Concord and Lexington lining up and facing the strongest empire in the world at the time, the British army."

The Red Sox have been scheduled to play at Fenway Park every Patriots' Day since 1959, with the 11 a.m. start time beginning in 1968. The early start time assures fans at the baseball game get out early enough in the day to cheer on Boston Marathon runners. Fenway Park, located about a mile from the finish line of the marathon, marks a prime location to watch people run by.

"I can hardly conceive of [the Red Sox] not playing on Patriots' Day," Edes says. "It's a given that on Patriots', it's all about watching morning baseball before watching the marathon. That's what makes this such a quirky holiday in New England."

At the heart of Patriots' Day is the Boston Marathon, the oldest, most important and most iconic marathon in America. Elite runners come from all around the world with dreams of winning the race, but locals are generally most excited to see their friends and family participate.

"Everyone knows someone who is running this year and every year," says T.K. Skenderian, the communications director of the Boston Marathon. "From the community involvement to the seven-year-old passing out oranges to the 70-year-old running for their best time, competing to win their age group, all of them take an enormous sense of pride in the event and the city. In many ways, this race doesn't just represent the best parts of our city and the people who live within it. It represents the best there is in mankind."

The race has taken on extra weight since the tragic events of the 2013 marathon, when terrorists set off two bombs at the finish line killing three people and injuring hundreds of others. In 2014, the field of runners grew from 26,839 to 35,671, the race's second-highest total ever, and the race now accepts up to 30,000 runners every year. Athletes must meet time standards corresponding to age and gender in another marathon to run in Boston.

But beyond watching the best long distance runners in the world run through Boston, the best moments are when the crowd picks up a runner who's struggling, and watching that runner push through and continue forward. Or when that friend who you know has been training and raising money for charity—the race accounted for nearly $31 million combined in 2016—for nearly a year finally crosses the finish.

"It's Boston's best weekend," Skenderian says. "People take this race so seriously because they've had to run another marathon damn fast to get in. Eighty percent of the field is qualifiers, and 20 percent are invitationals raising funds."

At its core, Patriots' Day represents a tribute to the city of Boston, its history, culture and people. For one day a year, longtime Bostonians, children and college students pack the streets with one shared purpose: celebrating the city they live in.

"The Boston Marathon is far more than a 26-mile race," Edes says. "It's a community street carnival. It's a welcome holiday, a harbinger of spring. It's all of those things."

"There aren't many traditions that survive from generation to generation, and this is one that has."

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Francisco Lindor Is Trying to Save Baseball from Itself

"¡VAMOS!"

The crowd in Section 18 of Estadio de Charros begins to roar. A Puerto Rico fan has challenged the gorilla mascot to a wrestling match in the middle of the aisle. This is Guadalajara, Mexico, the home of mariachi music and Pool D of the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The section has been adopted for the week by Puerto Rico fans, one of whom dukes it out with the gorilla. One armbar later, the gorilla is pinned to the ground. Another fan runs in to referee.

"¡UNO! ¡DOS! ¡TRES!"

The gorilla walks away in defeat, but the mood doesn't last long. Throughout the game, he salsa dances with another Puerto Rico fan as "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee takes over the sound system. He gives a woman a lap dance before walking through the stands and finishing abandoned beers.

Some people focus on the mascot, but the pulse of the game emanates from the crowd. A group of nearly 100 Puerto Rico supporters gathers in the concourses before games, singing, dancing and banging hand-held drums autographed by members of the national team. The music, known as plena, became popular in Puerto Rico in the 1900s as a periodico cantado, or a sung newspaper, before evolving into a tradition at sporting events.

The spirited environment is much like the one Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor grew up in. Baseball in Puerto Rico is "fun, electric and stylish," Lindor tells B/R Mag. It's no coincidence this description reflects Lindor's game on the field too.

"In Puerto Rico, baseball is played in a happy way, with music. I remember playing as a boy, here and there, with music, with our mothers singing and fighting with the umpire," Lindor told ESPN in October. "It's a different thing, and playing in Puerto Rico taught me to play with passion, with flavor, to be proud of my team ... and to play hard."

Many Puerto Rico fans say baseball is like a religion for them, a religion that elicits song and joy.

That joy translates to the field. Lindor looks loose and excited during batting practice before Puerto Rico's first game of the WBC against Venezuela. He plays catch with Javier Baez, his childhood friend, before joining the first batting practice group of Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Carlos Correa.

Lindor turns his hat backward when he steps in the cage, marking an outlier on the field, and begins spraying pitches across the stadium. He doesn't hit for as much power as the others, but he's not trying to be anything he's not.

There's a certain swagger in the way Lindor plays that makes him a magnetic force in a game hellbent on rigid traditions of years gone by. He pairs quick hands, reminiscent of those of Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, for whom Lindor dons the No. 12, with endless range. He loves chatting with his opponents, pouring gum on his teammates, flashing his pearly whites and walking up to the plate to Space Jam music.

He's young, flashy and fun—everything baseball isn't right now.

"The thing with a guy like Lindor is you just get it when you see him," says Jordan Shusterman, half of Cespedes Family BBQ, a popular baseball Twitter account run by Shusterman and Jake Mintz, both college seniors who've written for MLB.com. "[Mike] Trout is amazing and the best player, but even if you see him go 4-for-5, it's not that exciting. You want everyone to play like Lindor."


The first thing you notice when meeting Lindor is his ever-present blinding white smile. The smile that served as an introduction to Lindor for many baseball fans during Cleveland's playoff run last year, when Lindor hit a two-run homer to break a scoreless tie in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. A smile that would stand out even on an Oscars red carpet replete with excessively bleached teeth.

"Million-dollar smile, man," says Tim Layden, Lindor's high school coach at Montverde Academy in Florida. "That's what we'd always tell him: ‘In case baseball doesn't work out, that smile will get you somewhere.'"

One of Lindor's first major purchases after he signed a pro contract was braces, which he wore for 11 months.

"I was smiling with messed-up teeth, but it was different once they were fixed," Lindor says. "I didn't stop smiling."

Lindor says he'd be a dentist if baseball didn't work out. It'd be a fitting backup occupation for a man who likes to help others look their best, as he does on the field for Cleveland and for baseball.

The combination of Lindor's wide smile and enthralling playing style earned him the national spotlight. He doesn't shy away from attention, regularly wearing neon-yellow hoodies and acid-washed ripped jeans while rocking a partially blond Odell Beckham Jr. hairstyle. He maintains a lively presence on Instagram, too, where he posts plenty of funny photos. That he speaks both English and Spanish only helps enlarge his fanbase.

In a sport considered America's national pastime, Lindor's identifiable, relatable personality somehow makes him an anomaly. It also makes him an appealing star to brands—including New Balance, which lured Lindor from Under Armour with a multiyear endorsement in February. New Balance is trying to promote a fresh young backward hat-wearing star in Lindor, something Major League Baseball hasn't had since the Ken Griffey Jr. era, when Nike created the Swingman brand for The Kid and released several popular lifestyle sneakers. It's something Nike's been unable to replicate with a guy like Trout, who exceeds Griffey's talent.

"Nobody brags about wearing Trouts like they would wearing Griffeys, which are still cool," Mintz says. "You feel like you would wear a Trout to dinner with your grandpa. It's really unfortunate the most dynamic and exciting player since Barry Lamar Bonds has the personality of a desk chair."

The effort to make Lindor a star beyond the baseball bubble has already started. New Balance digital brand marketing director Pat Cassidy says Lindor will play a role in the company's lifestyle and apparel lines, with the potential for a signature off-the-field sneaker that the infielder could help design.

"His inherent sense of style and personality goes a long way," Cassidy says. "There's the old adage in basketball that big men don't sell sneakers, and there's a reason for that. It's hard to relate to Shaq and Tim Duncan. Francisco is a relatable guy and looks good not only with the on-field product but in all of the lifestyle stuff as well. He's got good taste."

But for all the charm he brings—which makes him a perfect ambassador for the sport—that's exactly what he had to tone down when he turned pro. Lindor learned flamboyance is often punished with a pitch between the shoulder blades.

"In Puerto Rico, we talk a little bit more to the other team, not disrespecting them, but challenging them. [In the United States], the game is not played that way," Lindor says. "I love the way the game is played here. I have no problem with it, but I also don't like getting hit [by pitches]."

The unwritten rules of the sport dictate retaliation be accepted when a player feels someone has stepped out of line. It's a commandment within the culture that discourages individuality.

"It does not exist in Latin American baseball, for certain," longtime baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal says. "[In] Korean baseball, it seems like there's individuality with the bat flips. It's American baseball, and if you want to say it's white baseball, you could probably go as far as to say that."

These unwritten rules largely, but not exclusively, stem from those who grew up playing the game in America, and they are imposed on players from other countries.

"I hope kids watching the WBC can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays," Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers told Billy Witz of the New York Times ahead of the United States' 8-0 win over Puerto Rico in the WBC final Wednesday. "That's not taking anything away from them. That just wasn't the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way."

The discouragement of player over team isn't inherently bad or wrong, but it has surely played a role in baseball's difficulty grabbing younger fans.

"Consumers are used to having a one-on-one relationship, and they're going to have relationships with unique individuals," says Allen Adamson, a longtime brand executive. "By forcing conformity, it often leads to boredom."

Lindor may be a marketer's dream, but MLB's institutional culture could prevent him from becoming one of the faces of the sport. Poet Walt Whitman once wrote baseball is connected to America's national character of physical stoicism. While this quiet reservation is clearly reflected in "white baseball" culture, Puerto Rico believes in a completely different denomination of baseball, one in which no person could conceive of a sanctuary-like atmosphere at a game. Some noisemakers, drums and singing never hurt anyone.


Miguel Lindor drove worried. Halfway through an hour ride from a hotel to Montverde Academy, Miguel wanted to make sure his 12-year-old son, Francisco, could navigate his way through his first day of school in the United States despite not knowing any English.

The family had moved to Florida hoping to experience a new culture and receive better medical care for Francisco's then-nine-year-old stepsister, who has cerebral palsy. The family stayed at a hotel that cost $100 a week while Mari, Francisco's stepmother, worked as a front desk clerk at a Disney hotel. Miguel stayed at home to care for the kids.

Miguel knew his son wouldn't understand his teachers, so he told him to repeat the words "I don't understand" whenever he struggled to communicate with his English-speaking instructors. But Francisco couldn't memorize what his father was saying.

"I don't understand," Miguel repeated, hoping it would stick. It didn't.

Stretched to his last resort, Miguel grabbed a pen and Francisco's hand.

"I DON'T UNDERSTAND," Miguel wrote on his son's palm.

Miguel told Francisco to open his hand and show people the words whenever they said something to him.

"It's crazy how naive I was," Francisco says. "I couldn't even say 'I don't understand.'"

This period in his life forced Lindor to grow up quickly. He had left behind his mother and two older siblings in Puerto Rico. As a self-proclaimed mama's boy, the move was tough. Montverde Academy was "in the middle of nowhere," and Francisco only knew two people in the entire school, so to get by, he began living by a simple phrase.

"Be confident," he told himself.

It's his life's mantra now, and the phrase's initials are sewn onto his gloves and integrated into his social media handles, @Lindor12BC.

The confidence adds a flashiness to Lindor's game that dates back to his teenage years.

"His final year of high school is when I took over the program, and to be honest, he was the reason why," Layden says. "You came down and watched him play, watched practice, and even at that time, at 17 years old, he had superstar written all over him."

When Indians scout Mike Soper spotted Lindor at an Orlando tournament during the shortstop's sophomore year, it was immediately clear Lindor was special.

"He had all of the action, the instincts, the presence that you're looking for at such a young age," Soper says. "He just stood out."

Soper introduced himself to Lindor two years later.

"He just oozed this love of the game," Soper says.

Despite Cleveland's loss to the Chicago Cubs in last year's World Series, Lindor was still smiling at the impact he made during his second MLB season. He finished the postseason hitting .310/.355/.466 with two homers, three doubles and six RBI on top of his 15 homers, 30 doubles, 78 RBI and 19 steals in the regular season.

The combination of offensive prowess and an adroit ability to field shortstop cemented Lindor's place as a bona fide stud on the diamond. He also snagged the Platinum Glove, awarded to the best fielder in each league, which only further secured that status.

And he's having fun doing it all. You'll see it when Lindor mimes diving for a ball stuck in a Tropicana Field catwalk after initially covering his head in "fear." It comes out when he warms up in a personalized Tune Squad jersey. It also shows when he celebrates winning free Taco Bell for America and when he jokes around with Baez at second base during the World Series.

The on-field performance and charismatic demeanor give Lindor everything he needs to become a crossover star, something Indians manager Terry Francona noticed instantly. Francona, who's managed the likes of Michael Jordan and David Ortiz, knows a transcendent athlete when he sees one.

"His personality won over his teammates right away. What you see is what he is," Francona says. "He's enthusiastic, he's smart and he's a good kid. It wouldn't surprise me if he became one of the faces of baseball because he's young, like all of the things we talk about. I think baseball will be well-served for that."


"¡YO SOY BORICUA, PA'QUE TU LO SEPAS! YO SOY BORICUA, PA'QUE TU LO SEPAS!"

Puerto Rico fans shout this, during and after games, in times of strength and weakness. The phrase stems from a 1995 Taino song of the same name, and means "I am Puerto Rican, so that you know!"

The chant fills the stadium, despite the Puerto Rico fans accounting for only about one-fourth of the mostly sold-out crowd at the WBC.

"They motivate you to keep going hard," Baez says. "When I was young, listening to this music and the types of things we do over there, it made us have a lot of fun, and that's what we're doing now."

Joe Gonzalez, the editor of Latin baseball website AlBat.com, calls the WBC the most important sporting event of the year on the island.

"All of this noise is only a quarter of what it's like during the Caribbean Series," Gonzalez says. "It gets way crazier—and drunker—than this."

Fans jump on top of the dugout when Puerto Rico scores and wave the country's flag as if worshipping a higher power. Security doesn't intervene. No need to police jubilation.

In America, baseball is more rooted in tradition than any other sport. The records, the legends of yesteryear loom over every season. The culture within the sport is a relic from a time when attention spans lasted longer, when fans didn't have the alternative to flip through an Instagram or Twitter feed or watch any show they wanted on Netflix. It's a culture that dampens anything that shifts the focus onto one player over their team.

"Look at Bryce Harper. He's frowned upon because he does things that are not typical," Rosenthal says. "I don't think he does anything wrong, but when he opens his mouth, it's like, ‘Shut up. Shut up' from what I call the baseball establishment, for a lack of a better term."

Oakland Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle has been outspoken on Twitter about the need for baseball to market the individual personalities of its young, exciting stars in order to help grow the game. The difference between celebration and showing a player up can often be a fine line, but MLB needs to emphasize these unique personalities to pass the game along to the next generation.

"If you truly can't be yourself on the field and you have to suppress your energy so you don't rub someone the wrong way, it's unfortunate," Doolittle says. "Sometimes people misinterpret the rules or try to impose them when they are not required. I would like to see more personality in the game on both sides and not have people offended by it."

The retirement of Ortiz marked the beginning of a transition period for MLB. Ortiz represented the past generation's last star who engaged with mainstream pop culture, a group that included players like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, among others. With a gap in mainstream star power, baseball stands in position to pivot. Now more so than ever, players like Lindor, Correa, Harper and Mookie Betts, supremely talented young stars with engaging personalities, can leave a mark on the game's culture for the next generation.

"I don't see how the guys younger than Lindor won't eventually be looking up to him," Shusterman says. "Of course you want everyone to play like Lindor, and you want those guys to stand out. But most importantly, you don't want those guys stifled [by the unwritten rules]. I'm not asking everyone to play like Lindor, but I want the 10 percent that are like him to be able to play like him. That's why I'm hoping this generation of young players becomes that way and eventually promotes it within their own clubhouses."


"PUERTO RICO! AHÍ! PUERTO RICO! AHÍ!"

The Puerto Rico section of the crowd is already rowdy when Lindor steps to the plate in the first inning against Team Mexico on March 11. The count goes to 1-2 versus Mexico starter Miguel Gonzalez as Angel Pagan stands on first. Lindor settles into the batter's box, awaiting the next pitch. It's an 85 mph splitter that doesn't split, and Lindor turns on it. He knows it's gone as soon as he finishes his follow-through.

Lindor still grapples with trying to balance his flair and respect for the culture of baseball in America. He has no desire to disrespect American baseball culture or show up an opponent.

"The game isn't going to stop because of me, and the game isn't going to change because of me," Lindor says before the start of the tournament. "That's what you dream of growing up: celebrating. I still smile. I don't pimp home runs, though. I don't know when they go."

The crowd freezes as the ball soars over the stands, over the billboards, over everything in right field and lands way outside the stadium. Lindor takes two steps, pimping the moonshot. He turns back to the dugout, and with a smirk on his face, he flips his bat, twirling it into the ground like a corkscrew.

It's his first bat flip since he got called up to the majors, but around the people of Puerto Rico, connecting again with his baseball roots, Lindor didn't feel the need to hold back.

 

Joon Lee is a staff writer for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag.

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Meet the Man Behind Yoenis Cespedes’ Car Collection

Hanley Ramirez had one request for Alex Vega—he wanted his Lamborghini to spit fire. Vega, who owns The Auto Firm, a garage located 17 miles from South Beach specializing in the customization of cars, first pulled off the request for his notoriously flamboyant client Yoenis Cespedes, but the concept still confused him.

"I never thought an athlete would want that," Vega said. "You can't drive that fast in the areas that they play. You can't drive that crazy."

But like he's done for other athletes and celebrities in the past, Vega fulfilled the request, to the amusement of Ramirez.

"I thought it was funny he asked me, and then you actually see him play with it, shooting fire like it's a joke," Vega said. "I thought it was crazy."

Vega's business garnered a lot of attention last year when Cespedes showed up at New York Mets spring training with a different car every single day for a week. Cespedes is one of Vega's top clients, having customized 13 vehicles ranging from everyday cars to ATVs—used on the outfielder's farm—and several three-wheeled Polaris Slingshots.

The Auto Firm opened in 2004 when Vega decided to start his own business, and within a few years, he was working on the cars of Alfonso Soriano (his first MLB client), Alonzo Mourning and Akon. Gradually, word spread about Vega, who dreamed of customizing cars after watching The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider and The A-Team as a kid.

"I would always have in my mind that I would want to build a car for a movie one day, and it stayed in my heart to want to do that," Vega said. "Today I'm building cars for a lot of athletes and famous people."

The work on a car can take as short as a week to as long as a month, with costs ranging from as little as $1,000 to $75,000, the amount Cespedes spent customizing a $400,000 Lamborghini Aventador. And while he mostly does luxury vehicles, people who are interested in having more modest cars modded can still make their cars their own, though Vega seems less enthusiastic about them.

"If it's a Toyota Corolla, I'd rather set it on fire, but I could do that as well," Vega said.

Vega mentioned that while some players request a certain color scheme or come in with an idea, they usually let him do his thing. At this point, most players come into the shop knowing his body of work, already following his Instagram account which boasts 429,000 followers.

"I have a good rapport with a lot of my clients and usually, even new clients that come in, they say, 'I came to you because I see what you do and I want my car to be like Avorza,'" Vega said. "I want it to be branded by you and want you to do it the way that you do it."

The attention brought Vega the opportunity to star in a new reality show featuring his shop, which is coming to Velocity this summer. Vega's brand, Avorza (a mix of his initials and Forza), has appeared in music videos and is constantly in demand from athlete clients. But while there's certainly a lot of inherent flair that comes with building customized cars for wealthy celebrities, Vega takes his craft seriously.

"This is art," Vega said. "This is not swapping breaks and changing engines and making a car sound loud. This is about getting a car worth half a million dollars and making them look totally different."

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