2-Time MVP Miguel Cabrera Is Stuck in Baseball Purgatory

LAKELAND, Fla. — There we were, Miggy and me, in the tunnel off the dugout, when the Detroit Tigers big man paused to explain himself.

"I'm not trying to be a dick," Miguel Cabrera says.

He was talking about what happened a couple of hours earlier on this spring day, though there was no need for an explanation. I had approached him before batting practice to say hello, and he waved me off and said he couldn't talk right then. Now, with batting practice finished, he had something to get off his chest.

"I'm not trying to be a dick," he continues. "But I have to get my back worked on."

Cabrera hasn't always been the most chatty fellow, but I've almost always found him cooperative and, often, playful.

But these are different times. Cabrera turns 35 April 18. He is coming off the worst season of his career. His 6'4", 240-pound body has been battered, and his team has been ransacked.

Gone are the years when the Tigers were annual World Series contenders. Now Cabrera is an island unto himself in a rebuilding organization that lost 98 games last year, surrounded mostly by a dugout full of hopefuls and maybes. In 2017, the Tigers traded ace Justin Verlander, slugger J.D. Martinez and second baseman Ian Kinsler. This year they may deal shortstop Jose Iglesias, starter Michael Fulmer and whomever else might net young prospects as general manager Al Avila pans for gold.

Owed $192 million through 2024, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Cabrera himself will not be afforded a shot to win somewhere else. No chance anybody takes that contract off Detroit's hands.

"I say to God, 'Thank you for giving me the chance to be here,' and that's it, you know?" Cabrera tells B/R. "I never take anything for granted. I'm thankful to be here. There's no issue about what's going on."

From a distance, an assembly line of stars exiting Motown check their rearview mirrors in the way former teammates do when they understand the competitive fire of one of their own is fenced in.

"He's trapped in it," former Tigers star Torii Hunter, now a special assistant in baseball operations for the Minnesota Twins, tells B/R. "But one thing about Miguel, he's going to go out and take care of business. I don't know if guys will walk up to this guy. He's a superstar. But all of those young position players should go up and ask him a lot of questions.

"At this point, this is where you give it back. All the winning, all the playoff experience, the Triple Crown, the home run titles, everything he's put into this game and learned, he's got to give it back to these young guys. That's how you help rebuild."

Yes, Cabrera says. He is on board.

"I'm here to play," he says. "I'm not here to give my opinion of what's going to happen. I'm here to do my job, to help win games and to help the process."

Cabrera sees the earthmovers all around him and feels the tremors. He has known Avila since he was 15. Avila signed him with the then-Florida Marlins organization in July 1999. They have a mutual trust, which is no small part of the reason Cabrera isn't about to make waves.

"He understands what his role here can be, and he's a professional," Avila says. "You know, you sign a contract, you come to play. You come to win and you're a pro."

Avila says Cabrera reported in great shape, having worked harder than ever this winter. He had to. Father Time shows no mercy. And Cabrera must be especially diligent about his back, which he injured during last year's World Baseball Classic and which wound up sabotaging his 2017 season. So when he waves off an interview en route to getting his back worked on, it's understandable.

"It's tough, man," says Justin Upton, who spent most of the last two seasons in Detroit but is now playing alongside Mike Trout and Albert Pujols with the Angels. "Miggy is a competitor. He wants to win. And when a team is going through a rebuilding process, it can be tough on a player, energy wise."

Even the smallest things can be a challenge. No, Cabrera says, he does not even know the names yet of some of his new teammates. Then again, he says with a sly smile, that's nothing new.

"I've been here for 10 years and most of my teammates, I don't even know their names," he says.

C'mon. Even in the old days, Miggy?

"No," he protests. "Even in the old days. You can ask any player if I know every name and he'll say no."

So what, then, did you call them?

"I say, 'Hey, bro. What's up, bro?'"

Hunter, in Florida, and Kinsler, in Arizona, both roar with laughter when they hear this.

"His favorite word was 'bro,'" Hunter says. "Bro, bro. And then he'd go to another guy. Bro, bro.

"That's so true. That's 100 percent true. And he has this funny way of saying it. He sticks his hand out and says, Bro…bro…broohhh."

Kinsler says, "He knew my name, but then, my locker was right next to his, so he'd better.

"But…now that you say that, maybe he didn't."

Cabrera has had his share of off-field problems during his career. He is recovering from alcoholism. He is the defendant in a child support suit. His real life has never been as easy as he makes it look between the foul lines, especially when winning AL MVP awards (2012 and 2013), AL batting titles (2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015) and racking up MLB's first Triple Crown since 1967 (2012).

On the field, he's performed with a singular determination that has boosted his luster. He played through a sports hernia for the last six weeks of the '13 season before the Tigers' last, best chance at a World Series title fizzled against Boston in the ALCS.

"He just mowed through it," Hunter says. "He should have been sidelined, but he knew we needed him in the playoffs. I've had it before. I played through it for five weeks, and I couldn't go no more. This guy played through it. I'm tough. That guy's tough."

Cabrera refused to allow trainers to examine him during that time because he knew they might order him to the sidelines. Finally, he relented on one condition: You can look at me, Cabrera told them, but you have to promise that whatever you find, you allow me to stay on the field.

"Absolutely true," Hunter says. "And some of the balls hit in the gap became singles that should have been doubles, but he was still getting clutch hits and we were still scoring runs."

As Michigan has grown to love him, so, too, has he grown to love Michigan back.

"I feel a part of Michigan, a part of Detroit," Cabrera says. "I've been here for 10 years. I can call it my home, too."

He thinks about this as he watches a reconstruction that rivals anything on the Detroit-area freeways.

"I'm here to do what they ask me to do, and they ask me to play baseball and do everything on the field, and it's worth doing," he says. "I have nothing to say about rebuilding because it's none of my business.

"I just have to be ready to play, you know?"

Cabrera worked extensively on his core over the winter because of past injuries and because he's reached the age where it is difficult to get the body to do what you ask of it. Playing catch-up for the rest of the season following last spring's back injury, he finished at .249/.329/.399 with 16 homers and 60 RBI in 130 games. In his mid-30s, Cabrera's Triple Crown-peak surely is ancient history. But as the greatest right-handed hitter of our generation and one of the best ever, Cabrera is determined to bend Father Time to his will, rather than vice versa.

"You want to see that kind of talent on contending teams," says Martinez, Cabrera's old teammate, who now is with a strong Red Sox club. "That's when you get to appreciate it."

No, this transition is not going to be easy on Cabrera's body, and it sure as hell isn't going to be easy on his psyche. Keeping himself in one piece while giving of his time and energy to the future faces of the Tigers around him will be laborious and, at times, exhausting.

Then again…

"Why not rebuild a team around Miguel Cabrera if he's going to give it all back?" Hunter asks. "What's in his mind is nothing but wisdom. If I was going to rebuild a team, it would be around a Miguel Cabrera, a Mike Trout, a Bryce Harper, so [others] can learn what is this guy doing to be the best. What does it take?

"I was in Detroit for two years and had a chance to watch him work behind the scenes. I'm thinking a guy like that doesn't have to work as hard. But he worked just as hard as anybody in that clubhouse. He came down to the cage, and it was like his office. He hit, he did what he had to do, and when it was time, it translated on the field."

Now Cabrera's influence can be just as wide-reaching, as long as he remains on board with the plan.

"For the two years I was there, we laughed so much that my abs are still hurting," Hunter says. "With Prince Fielder, Miggy, myself, Victor Martinez, Austin Jackson…we had a great time over there. As far as character and a guy who wants to laugh, check. I want him on my team no matter what."

Last year, though, was no laughing matter as Avila steered the organization and its fans into the unenviable task of rebuilding. He dug back into his past when he was with the Marlins, recalling how out of the ashes of the 1997 World Series team came the '03 world champions led by two players he signed: Cabrera and ace Josh Beckett.

"So I know it can work," Avila says. "It's just a process. Hey, we tried, right? And now you can't push the envelope any more. You hit a brick wall, the payroll got to a point where it was not sustainable anymore and you're not going to go three years over the luxury tax. [The Yankees and Dodgers aren't] doing it, and we certainly weren't going to do it. So, time to start over."

Miggy understands the process, Avila says. "He's a professional, and he's been great."

As we chat in the tunnel's darkness, Cabrera says he hopes he's still here when the light again appears. He appreciates everything he's been through in Detroit. And he appreciates the Tigers' rich history. Hall of Famer Al Kaline and former slugger Willie Horton still frequent the ballpark, and Alan Trammell and Jack Morris will be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in July.

"You're talking about big names," Cabrera says. "You've got to have respect for these guys as a player because of all the good for the city. They've already done it. … You're dreaming to make it that far," he says of the Kalines and Trammells. … Now, we're still here, and we want to do something special for the city."

So he discusses how it is not fair to talk about him or anyone else in the same breath as those who already have helped shower Detroit with World Series trophies and golden memories. No, there is no need for Miggy to explain himself, to emphasize that he's not trying to be a jerk. There is a monumental task ahead of him and, now more than ever, his work is cut out for him.

                 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.  

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

2-Time MVP Miguel Cabrera Is Stuck in Baseball Purgatory

LAKELAND, Fla. — There we were, Miggy and me, in the tunnel off the dugout, when the Detroit Tigers big man paused to explain himself.

"I'm not trying to be a dick," Miguel Cabrera says.

He was talking about what happened a couple of hours earlier on this spring day, though there was no need for an explanation. I had approached him before batting practice to say hello, and he waved me off and said he couldn't talk right then. Now, with batting practice finished, he had something to get off his chest.

"I'm not trying to be a dick," he continues. "But I have to get my back worked on."

Cabrera hasn't always been the most chatty fellow, but I've almost always found him cooperative and, often, playful.

But these are different times. Cabrera turns 35 April 18. He is coming off the worst season of his career. His 6'4", 240-pound body has been battered, and his team has been ransacked.

Gone are the years when the Tigers were annual World Series contenders. Now Cabrera is an island unto himself in a rebuilding organization that lost 98 games last year, surrounded mostly by a dugout full of hopefuls and maybes. In 2017, the Tigers traded ace Justin Verlander, slugger J.D. Martinez and second baseman Ian Kinsler. This year they may deal shortstop Jose Iglesias, starter Michael Fulmer and whomever else might net young prospects as general manager Al Avila pans for gold.

Owed $192 million through 2024, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Cabrera himself will not be afforded a shot to win somewhere else. No chance anybody takes that contract off Detroit's hands.

"I say to God, 'Thank you for giving me the chance to be here,' and that's it, you know?" Cabrera tells B/R. "I never take anything for granted. I'm thankful to be here. There's no issue about what's going on."

From a distance, an assembly line of stars exiting Motown check their rearview mirrors in the way former teammates do when they understand the competitive fire of one of their own is fenced in.

"He's trapped in it," former Tigers star Torii Hunter, now a special assistant in baseball operations for the Minnesota Twins, tells B/R. "But one thing about Miguel, he's going to go out and take care of business. I don't know if guys will walk up to this guy. He's a superstar. But all of those young position players should go up and ask him a lot of questions.

"At this point, this is where you give it back. All the winning, all the playoff experience, the Triple Crown, the home run titles, everything he's put into this game and learned, he's got to give it back to these young guys. That's how you help rebuild."

Yes, Cabrera says. He is on board.

"I'm here to play," he says. "I'm not here to give my opinion of what's going to happen. I'm here to do my job, to help win games and to help the process."

Cabrera sees the earthmovers all around him and feels the tremors. He has known Avila since he was 15. Avila signed him with the then-Florida Marlins organization in July 1999. They have a mutual trust, which is no small part of the reason Cabrera isn't about to make waves.

"He understands what his role here can be, and he's a professional," Avila says. "You know, you sign a contract, you come to play. You come to win and you're a pro."

Avila says Cabrera reported in great shape, having worked harder than ever this winter. He had to. Father Time shows no mercy. And Cabrera must be especially diligent about his back, which he injured during last year's World Baseball Classic and which wound up sabotaging his 2017 season. So when he waves off an interview en route to getting his back worked on, it's understandable.

"It's tough, man," says Justin Upton, who spent most of the last two seasons in Detroit but is now playing alongside Mike Trout and Albert Pujols with the Angels. "Miggy is a competitor. He wants to win. And when a team is going through a rebuilding process, it can be tough on a player, energy wise."

Even the smallest things can be a challenge. No, Cabrera says, he does not even know the names yet of some of his new teammates. Then again, he says with a sly smile, that's nothing new.

"I've been here for 10 years and most of my teammates, I don't even know their names," he says.

C'mon. Even in the old days, Miggy?

"No," he protests. "Even in the old days. You can ask any player if I know every name and he'll say no."

So what, then, did you call them?

"I say, 'Hey, bro. What's up, bro?'"

Hunter, in Florida, and Kinsler, in Arizona, both roar with laughter when they hear this.

"His favorite word was 'bro,'" Hunter says. "Bro, bro. And then he'd go to another guy. Bro, bro.

"That's so true. That's 100 percent true. And he has this funny way of saying it. He sticks his hand out and says, Bro…bro…broohhh."

Kinsler says, "He knew my name, but then, my locker was right next to his, so he'd better.

"But…now that you say that, maybe he didn't."

Cabrera has had his share of off-field problems during his career. He is recovering from alcoholism. He is the defendant in a child support suit. His real life has never been as easy as he makes it look between the foul lines, especially when winning AL MVP awards (2012 and 2013), AL batting titles (2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015) and racking up MLB's first Triple Crown since 1967 (2012).

On the field, he's performed with a singular determination that has boosted his luster. He played through a sports hernia for the last six weeks of the '13 season before the Tigers' last, best chance at a World Series title fizzled against Boston in the ALCS.

"He just mowed through it," Hunter says. "He should have been sidelined, but he knew we needed him in the playoffs. I've had it before. I played through it for five weeks, and I couldn't go no more. This guy played through it. I'm tough. That guy's tough."

Cabrera refused to allow trainers to examine him during that time because he knew they might order him to the sidelines. Finally, he relented on one condition: You can look at me, Cabrera told them, but you have to promise that whatever you find, you allow me to stay on the field.

"Absolutely true," Hunter says. "And some of the balls hit in the gap became singles that should have been doubles, but he was still getting clutch hits and we were still scoring runs."

As Michigan has grown to love him, so, too, has he grown to love Michigan back.

"I feel a part of Michigan, a part of Detroit," Cabrera says. "I've been here for 10 years. I can call it my home, too."

He thinks about this as he watches a reconstruction that rivals anything on the Detroit-area freeways.

"I'm here to do what they ask me to do, and they ask me to play baseball and do everything on the field, and it's worth doing," he says. "I have nothing to say about rebuilding because it's none of my business.

"I just have to be ready to play, you know?"

Cabrera worked extensively on his core over the winter because of past injuries and because he's reached the age where it is difficult to get the body to do what you ask of it. Playing catch-up for the rest of the season following last spring's back injury, he finished at .249/.329/.399 with 16 homers and 60 RBI in 130 games. In his mid-30s, Cabrera's Triple Crown-peak surely is ancient history. But as the greatest right-handed hitter of our generation and one of the best ever, Cabrera is determined to bend Father Time to his will, rather than vice versa.

"You want to see that kind of talent on contending teams," says Martinez, Cabrera's old teammate, who now is with a strong Red Sox club. "That's when you get to appreciate it."

No, this transition is not going to be easy on Cabrera's body, and it sure as hell isn't going to be easy on his psyche. Keeping himself in one piece while giving of his time and energy to the future faces of the Tigers around him will be laborious and, at times, exhausting.

Then again…

"Why not rebuild a team around Miguel Cabrera if he's going to give it all back?" Hunter asks. "What's in his mind is nothing but wisdom. If I was going to rebuild a team, it would be around a Miguel Cabrera, a Mike Trout, a Bryce Harper, so [others] can learn what is this guy doing to be the best. What does it take?

"I was in Detroit for two years and had a chance to watch him work behind the scenes. I'm thinking a guy like that doesn't have to work as hard. But he worked just as hard as anybody in that clubhouse. He came down to the cage, and it was like his office. He hit, he did what he had to do, and when it was time, it translated on the field."

Now Cabrera's influence can be just as wide-reaching, as long as he remains on board with the plan.

"For the two years I was there, we laughed so much that my abs are still hurting," Hunter says. "With Prince Fielder, Miggy, myself, Victor Martinez, Austin Jackson…we had a great time over there. As far as character and a guy who wants to laugh, check. I want him on my team no matter what."

Last year, though, was no laughing matter as Avila steered the organization and its fans into the unenviable task of rebuilding. He dug back into his past when he was with the Marlins, recalling how out of the ashes of the 1997 World Series team came the '03 world champions led by two players he signed: Cabrera and ace Josh Beckett.

"So I know it can work," Avila says. "It's just a process. Hey, we tried, right? And now you can't push the envelope any more. You hit a brick wall, the payroll got to a point where it was not sustainable anymore and you're not going to go three years over the luxury tax. [The Yankees and Dodgers aren't] doing it, and we certainly weren't going to do it. So, time to start over."

Miggy understands the process, Avila says. "He's a professional, and he's been great."

As we chat in the tunnel's darkness, Cabrera says he hopes he's still here when the light again appears. He appreciates everything he's been through in Detroit. And he appreciates the Tigers' rich history. Hall of Famer Al Kaline and former slugger Willie Horton still frequent the ballpark, and Alan Trammell and Jack Morris will be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in July.

"You're talking about big names," Cabrera says. "You've got to have respect for these guys as a player because of all the good for the city. They've already done it. … You're dreaming to make it that far," he says of the Kalines and Trammells. … Now, we're still here, and we want to do something special for the city."

So he discusses how it is not fair to talk about him or anyone else in the same breath as those who already have helped shower Detroit with World Series trophies and golden memories. No, there is no need for Miggy to explain himself, to emphasize that he's not trying to be a jerk. There is a monumental task ahead of him and, now more than ever, his work is cut out for him.

                 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.  

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

How Francisco Lindor Exploded into Home Run Machine Without Getting Yoked

From inside the Cleveland Indians' clubhouse, Jason Kipnis sometimes feels the need for shade, so often is he blinded by the sheer brilliance of superstar-in-the-making Francisco Lindor's toothpaste-perfect smile.

"I hate that," Kipnis gruffly grumbles, good-naturedly. "Annoys the hell out of me."

Lindor's grin expands so much upon hearing this that you wonder what kind of lip exercises a guy must perform to smile this wide.

"He says those things a lot," Lindor says. "I enjoy my life. I enjoy the game, and I love being around the guys. I'm like a little kid around them. I play around with them a lot."

The newly platinum-blond Lindor and the Indians are especially enjoying life this spring as they look forward to contending again in 2018, but it's unclear at this moment which contains more power: Lindor's ever-present, effervescent smile or his game-changing thump.

Before smashing that memorable Game 2 grand slam in last year's American League Division Series heartbreaker to the New York Yankees, Lindor clobbered 33 home runs during the regular season. It was more than double his 2016 output (15).

And while Kipnis kids his teammate amid the calm of spring training, he was dead serious when he conducted an exit interview of sorts with Lindor two autumns ago following Cleveland's World Series near-miss against the Chicago Cubs. Kipnis told Lindor how much he admired his game, how much he loved his work ethic, and then offered one essential bit of wisdom that he hoped Lindor would take to heart.

Whatever you do this winter, Kipnis told him, please, please do not bulk up.

"I told him that because I did it to myself," Kipnis says. "I tore my oblique because I was too stiff."

Lindor listened as Kipnis told him the tale of his own lost season of 2014. Kipnis had been an All-Star in 2013, went home that winter, thought that with 17 homers and 84 RBI in his rear-view mirror that season, more muscle would only make things better.

Kipnis gained 10 pounds for 2014. He showed up ready to take on the world. And near the end of April, he swung so hard one day in Anaheim that his oblique popped.

The injury hampered him the rest of the summer. Even though he came back a month later, his batting average that season dropped 44 points from his All-Star '13 campaign, his on-base percentage tailed off 56 points and he finished with just six homers and 41 RBI.

"It was a learning experience for me and something I wanted to pass on," Kipnis says.

Lindor, as he usually is with his beloved Indians teammates, was all ears.

"I follow what he said," says Lindor, who did not become noticeably yolked either of the past two offseasons. Instead, he attributes his power surge to experience and earned wisdom in the batter's box.

He now hunts pitches he can drive, and he has slightly adjusted his swing to improve his launch angle. The adjustment is so slight that he will not even admit it is a conscious thing. But it is there.

"I try to stay within myself, get a good pitch and drive it," says Lindor, who, at 190 pounds this spring, is the same weight as he's been. "If it goes out, it goes out. And if it doesn't go out and it goes as a hit, I'm good."

His increased power output, he says, is the result of the lethal combination of piling up plate appearances and taking thorough mental notes along the way.

"Understanding yourself," he says. "Understanding what pitch you can actually swing at and drive, and what pitch you won't be able to drive. You've got a good range where you can hit the baseball. [Recognize that range], try to get a good pitch and don't miss it."

Though he is still only 24, Lindor says he is a much smarter hitter now than he was even one or two seasons ago.

"The more you play, the more teammates you talk to, the more coaches you talk to, the more pitches you see, you learn and get better," he says.

"And if you don't, then that's on you."

The open dialogue between Lindor and his teammates extends beyond just Kipnis. Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and Puerto Rican countryman Enrique Hernandez tells B/R that during the World Baseball Classic last spring, Lindor could not stop talking about what a great influence veteran Cleveland outfielder Michael Brantley has been on him.

In fact, when the Dodgers played Cleveland last June, Hernandez made it a point to seek out Brantley, and Brantley chuckles at the memory.

"All he kept saying was 'Lindor, Lindor, Lindor,'" Brantley says.

Brantley shrugs off the accolades.

"I don't want to take the credit," Brantley says, allowing only that, yes, the two of them talk hitting incessantly, and at all hours. "He just worked so hard, and he has a phenomenal swing."

Chalk it up as another winning attribute of this admirable Cleveland team that even as Brantley missed roughly half of last season with shoulder and ankle injuries, the Indians kept him around as much as possible. As club president Chris Antonetti says, "He's such a phenomenal teammate."

That, and the rest of the phenomenal teammates stocked inside one of the most likable clubhouses in the game, is no small part of the rocket fuel that has helped Lindor launch his career in such spectacular fashion. Only three years into his career, Lindor has already reached two All-Star Games and finished among the top 10 vote-getters for the AL MVP twice.

As important as his production has been, so too has been Lindor's enthusiasm and love of the game.

When middle-of-the-lineup slugger Edwin Encarnacion went down with a sprained ankle in last year's playoffs against the Yankees, a grotesque ankle turn at second base that in the moment clearly knocked the Indians off-balance, it was Lindor whom manager Terry Francona approached with a request.

"We can't act like we got hit in the stomach and got the wind knocked out of us," Francona told Lindor in the dugout, asking that his shortstop keep both Encarnacion and the team going.

"He's wise beyond his years," Francona says. "Shoot, if I had that talent, I'd like playing, too. But I mean...you can see why we like him so much."

Lindor is a fan of Francona, too, saying that the Indians manager "allows me to be myself, and that's just awesome. He keeps the clubhouse as loose as it can be, and that's a blessing to all of us."

The best advice his manager has given him, Lindor adds, is "be yourself. Don't back down from any challenges."

And so, given both the rope and the latitude, Lindor plows forward. And Francona rarely infringes upon that freedom. At most, if Lindor's exuberance carries him a step too far—say, if he is thrown out attempting to steal when maybe he should have stayed put—Francona will simply ask him why he did whatever it was he did.

"And if I have a good reason, he'll be like, 'OK, you're right, that's fine. Just make sure...you don't go over the top a bit,'" Lindor says. "If you have a good reason behind doing something, that's all he wants to know.

"He doesn't care if you make mistakes thinking. But if you go out and just run and get thrown out, then that's just pointless. That's not right."

Of course, it's spring now, and the impact of Lindor's baserunning decisions can wait. But that isn't the case regarding his newly dyed hair, at least among his teammates. One even plastered black and white photos of model Amber Rose around the Indians' complex with the word "Lindor" scrawled across them.

Brantley grins and emphasizes that taking the shortstop under his wing does not extend to the hair choice.

"Oh no," Brantley says. "The hair styling, the dressing, he does all of that himself. I'm too old for that stuff."

Lindor's maturity, he says, comes from always playing ball with the older kids back home at Puerto Rico, and from his family (he has one older brother, two older sisters and one younger sister). Soaking in the 2016 World Series didn't hurt, either. The loss was so painful that Lindor still hasn't watched any highlightsincluding from the spectacular Game 7.

The overall experience, though, helped him to understand what it takes to play and win in the month of October. The nerves, the excitement, how to channel them and how to "tunnel vision things and forget about what's happening around me and focus on the moment, on that pitch right there."

He doesn't recall specifics about the Indians' World Series run two autumns ago. Instead, in keeping within character, he remembers the fun.

"I remember a lot about how much joy we had in the clubhouse, how the practices were," says Lindor, who wasn't exactly enamored with the extra weeks off this winter after the Indians were bounced in the Division Series. "That's what I remember the most."

"So impressive," says Mets outfielder Jay Bruce, who got a taste of Lindor when the Indians added Bruce for the stretch run last year. "And just a kid, too. He definitely doesn't know what he could be as a player. Nobody does.

"My hope for him is that he continues not knowing, and that he continues to get better."

       

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

B/R's Danny Knobler also contributed to the reporting of this feature.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

How Francisco Lindor Exploded into Home Run Machine Without Getting Yolked

From inside the Cleveland Indians' clubhouse, Jason Kipnis sometimes feels the need for shade, so often is he blinded by the sheer brilliance of superstar-in-the-making Francisco Lindor's toothpaste-perfect smile.

"I hate that," Kipnis gruffly grumbles, good-naturedly. "Annoys the hell out of me."

Lindor's grin expands so much upon hearing this that you wonder what kind of lip exercises a guy must perform to smile this wide.

"He says those things a lot," Lindor says. "I enjoy my life. I enjoy the game, and I love being around the guys. I'm like a little kid around them. I play around with them a lot."

The newly platinum-blond Lindor and the Indians are especially enjoying life this spring as they look forward to contending again in 2018, but it's unclear at this moment which contains more power: Lindor's ever-present, effervescent smile or his game-changing thump.

Before smashing that memorable Game 2 grand slam in last year's American League Division Series heartbreaker to the New York Yankees, Lindor clobbered 33 home runs during the regular season. It was more than double his 2016 output (15).

And while Kipnis kids his teammate amid the calm of spring training, he was dead serious when he conducted an exit interview of sorts with Lindor two autumns ago following Cleveland's World Series near-miss against the Chicago Cubs. Kipnis told Lindor how much he admired his game, how much he loved his work ethic, and then offered one essential bit of wisdom that he hoped Lindor would take to heart.

Whatever you do this winter, Kipnis told him, please, please do not bulk up.

"I told him that because I did it to myself," Kipnis says. "I tore my oblique because I was too stiff."

Lindor listened as Kipnis told him the tale of his own lost season of 2014. Kipnis had been an All-Star in 2013, went home that winter, thought that with 17 homers and 84 RBI in his rear-view mirror that season, more muscle would only make things better.

Kipnis gained 10 pounds for 2014. He showed up ready to take on the world. And near the end of April, he swung so hard one day in Anaheim that his oblique popped.

The injury hampered him the rest of the summer. Even though he came back a month later, his batting average that season dropped 44 points from his All-Star '13 campaign, his on-base percentage tailed off 56 points and he finished with just six homers and 41 RBI.

"It was a learning experience for me and something I wanted to pass on," Kipnis says.

Lindor, as he usually is with his beloved Indians teammates, was all ears.

"I follow what he said," says Lindor, who did not become noticeably yolked either of the past two offseasons. Instead, he attributes his power surge to experience and earned wisdom in the batter's box.

He now hunts pitches he can drive, and he has slightly adjusted his swing to improve his launch angle. The adjustment is so slight that he will not even admit it is a conscious thing. But it is there.

"I try to stay within myself, get a good pitch and drive it," says Lindor, who, at 190 pounds this spring, is the same weight as he's been. "If it goes out, it goes out. And if it doesn't go out and it goes as a hit, I'm good."

His increased power output, he says, is the result of the lethal combination of piling up plate appearances and taking thorough mental notes along the way.

"Understanding yourself," he says. "Understanding what pitch you can actually swing at and drive, and what pitch you won't be able to drive. You've got a good range where you can hit the baseball. [Recognize that range], try to get a good pitch and don't miss it."

Though he is still only 24, Lindor says he is a much smarter hitter now than he was even one or two seasons ago.

"The more you play, the more teammates you talk to, the more coaches you talk to, the more pitches you see, you learn and get better," he says.

"And if you don't, then that's on you."

The open dialogue between Lindor and his teammates extends beyond just Kipnis. Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and Puerto Rican countryman Enrique Hernandez tells B/R that during the World Baseball Classic last spring, Lindor could not stop talking about what a great influence veteran Cleveland outfielder Michael Brantley has been on him.

In fact, when the Dodgers played Cleveland last June, Hernandez made it a point to seek out Brantley, and Brantley chuckles at the memory.

"All he kept saying was 'Lindor, Lindor, Lindor,'" Brantley says.

Brantley shrugs off the accolades.

"I don't want to take the credit," Brantley says, allowing only that, yes, the two of them talk hitting incessantly, and at all hours. "He just worked so hard, and he has a phenomenal swing."

Chalk it up as another winning attribute of this admirable Cleveland team that even as Brantley missed roughly half of last season with shoulder and ankle injuries, the Indians kept him around as much as possible. As club president Chris Antonetti says, "He's such a phenomenal teammate."

That, and the rest of the phenomenal teammates stocked inside one of the most likable clubhouses in the game, is no small part of the rocket fuel that has helped Lindor launch his career in such spectacular fashion. Only three years into his career, Lindor has already reached two All-Star Games and finished among the top 10 vote-getters for the AL MVP twice.

As important as his production has been, so too has been Lindor's enthusiasm and love of the game.

When middle-of-the-lineup slugger Edwin Encarnacion went down with a sprained ankle in last year's playoffs against the Yankees, a grotesque ankle turn at second base that in the moment clearly knocked the Indians off-balance, it was Lindor whom manager Terry Francona approached with a request.

"We can't act like we got hit in the stomach and got the wind knocked out of us," Francona told Lindor in the dugout, asking that his shortstop keep both Encarnacion and the team going.

"He's wise beyond his years," Francona says. "Shoot, if I had that talent, I'd like playing, too. But I mean...you can see why we like him so much."

Lindor is a fan of Francona, too, saying that the Indians manager "allows me to be myself, and that's just awesome. He keeps the clubhouse as loose as it can be, and that's a blessing to all of us."

The best advice his manager has given him, Lindor adds, is "be yourself. Don't back down from any challenges."

And so, given both the rope and the latitude, Lindor plows forward. And Francona rarely infringes upon that freedom. At most, if Lindor's exuberance carries him a step too far—say, if he is thrown out attempting to steal when maybe he should have stayed put—Francona will simply ask him why he did whatever it was he did.

"And if I have a good reason, he'll be like, 'OK, you're right, that's fine. Just make sure...you don't go over the top a bit,'" Lindor says. "If you have a good reason behind doing something, that's all he wants to know.

"He doesn't care if you make mistakes thinking. But if you go out and just run and get thrown out, then that's just pointless. That's not right."

Of course, it's spring now, and the impact of Lindor's baserunning decisions can wait. But that isn't the case regarding his newly dyed hair, at least among his teammates. One even plastered black and white photos of model Amber Rose around the Indians' complex with the word "Lindor" scrawled across them.

Brantley grins and emphasizes that taking the shortstop under his wing does not extend to the hair choice.

"Oh no," Brantley says. "The hair styling, the dressing, he does all of that himself. I'm too old for that stuff."

Lindor's maturity, he says, comes from always playing ball with the older kids back home at Puerto Rico, and from his family (he has one older brother, two older sisters and one younger sister). Soaking in the 2016 World Series didn't hurt, either. The loss was so painful that Lindor still hasn't watched any highlightsincluding from the spectacular Game 7.

The overall experience, though, helped him to understand what it takes to play and win in the month of October. The nerves, the excitement, how to channel them and how to "tunnel vision things and forget about what's happening around me and focus on the moment, on that pitch right there."

He doesn't recall specifics about the Indians' World Series run two autumns ago. Instead, in keeping within character, he remembers the fun.

"I remember a lot about how much joy we had in the clubhouse, how the practices were," says Lindor, who wasn't exactly enamored with the extra weeks off this winter after the Indians were bounced in the Division Series. "That's what I remember the most."

"So impressive," says Mets outfielder Jay Bruce, who got a taste of Lindor when the Indians added Bruce for the stretch run last year. "And just a kid, too. He definitely doesn't know what he could be as a player. Nobody does.

"My hope for him is that he continues not knowing, and that he continues to get better."

       

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

B/R's Danny Knobler also contributed to the reporting of this feature.

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Yuli Gurriel Doesn’t Dodge Questions—or Blame—as He Readies for Racist Taunt Ban

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Here it comes. Yuli Gurriel can see it just up ahead in the distance. Opening Day—and beyond—without him. More noise. More swirling emotions.

Maybe one day he can permanently slip past what happened in Game 3 of the World Series last October, when he directed an offensive gesture at pitcher Yu Darvish following a home run and appeared to mouth "chinito," a word used in some Spanish-speaking countries to refer to all people of Asian descent.

But on this warm, sunny afternoon here in Houston's camp, amid the usual spring optimism, he knows that day is not yet close enough to comfort him.

"It's tough to prepare, knowing you're not going to be able to start the year, knowing that you're going to miss the first five games," Gurriel says through a translator during a quiet clubhouse conversation with B/R.

Following Houston's historical World Series victory last fall, the Astros scattered across the United States as champions.

Gurriel went home to Miami a villain.

He was suspended for the first five games of the 2018 season and ordered by Commissioner Rob Manfred to undergo sensitivity training. Spring surgery to remove the hook of his hamate bone is expected to keep him on the Disabled List until mid-April, so now he will serve those five games when he is activated from the DL.

All winter, the part of him that knew he was a champion waged an emotional battle with the part of him that knew—or, more accurately, learned—that he had screwed up, big time.

"It would creep up, and I would think about it often," Gurriel says. "Coming from winning the World Series, it was great, but [the gesture] wasn't me and didn't reflect who I was.

"I felt terrible. Even the messages I would receive on social media, it made me really sad."          

The messages, he says, "were very aggressive."

It is behavior that Gurriel must pay for—probably for a very long time. And, because he is their teammate, the Astros will feel the reverberating aftershocks as well.

"I love him to death," says outfielder George Springer, the World Series MVP. "Everybody in here does. He made a mistake. We can admit that. It's not who he is.

"But his apology was sincere, and I hope people can move past it."

Gurriel and those who know him best say that his apology came from the heart, a heart that the Astros swear is good and pure. To a man, he is one of their very favorite teammates. He shows up at the park with a permanent smile. He makes them laugh. He helps them win.

That it was Gurriel at the center of this incident speaks more to the clumsy way in which cultures sometimes bumpily blend together than it does to anything evil. What it mostly indicates is that the learning curve is still steep for all of us, and that sometimes understanding is far more helpful than, say, social media toxicity.

Gurriel, 33, was raised in Cuba, played professionally in Japan in 2014 and signed with the Astros as an international free agent in July 2016. It was the MLB international feed that picked up his Game 3 gesture in the dugout in the moments following his homer against Darvish, and it went viral before the game ended. Gurriel was stunned at how quickly he was embroiled in this raging inferno.

"I was super surprised," he says. "Not only in Japanese culture is it not a big thing, but in the Cuban culture it's even less. When I found out the magnitude of how my words were portrayed, it felt terrible and obviously it was not my intent."

Gurriel's brother, Lourdes, an infielder in the Toronto Blue Jays system, was playing in the Arizona Fall League when Yuli suddenly joined the ranks of America's Most Wanted.

"Some friends told me what happened, and then the Blue Jays called to make sure if I had any calls I knew how to deal with them," Lourdes, who lived with his brother in Miami this winter, says. "To be honest, I didn't take it as anything that big. Then we found out later, it was a big deal."

While Yuli was portrayed as a racist and worse across many segments of society, the Astros—though disapproving of what Gurriel did—mostly understood the confusion.

"It's only in America," Springer says of the disapproval. "He comes from a much different culture, and if you grow up with that [not being considered offensive], it's hard to understand that you shouldn't do it. Especially in your first year in a new country.

"He wouldn't hurt a fly, physically or verbally. I love the guy. We all do."

Those words echo throughout the Astros clubhouse.

"If ever there was a good time for the offseason, that was it," says reliever Tony Sipp. "And winning the World Series put a brighter spin on the offseason.

"Knowing how good of a guy he is, it's unfortunate we even have to come to the rescue of his character. Looking at it, it looks bad. But he's genuinely a good guy. He likes to have fun. He never struck me as a guy who would denigrate anyone's race.

"I've never had any problem with him."

During his eight-hour sensitivity training course in January, Gurriel says, he and his classmates discussed racism and how it manifests itself. He calls it "a good experience for me overall as a man."

At home in Miami this winter, not more than a few days would go by, it seemed, before someone else would bring up the incident in some form or another.

"The Cuban American population is big there, and a lot of people reached out to me and said they were shocked to see how big of a deal it was," Gurriel says.

"But I told them, 'No, things are different. It's not like it is in Cuban culture everywhere. It's a different country, with a different set of standards, and you have to respect that.'"

He has had no contact with Darvish since he apologized in the immediate aftermath of Game 3 last October, he says. He still appreciated the way the pitcher gracefully handled it.

He did, however, hear this winter from several Japanese teammates who were on his team in 2014.

"Some of the guys reached out and reassured me about my character and the kind of guy I am," Gurriel says. "They told me personally that they weren't offended, and that made me feel a little better."

From here, the Astros are hoping to take it the rest of the way in making him feel better as he prepares this spring for a season that he knows will begin late for him. Gurriel's bat is important to them. He finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting last year after hitting .299 with 43 doubles, 18 homers and 75 RBI, and since his debut in 2016, his 10.6 strikeout rate is the fifth lowest in the game (minimum 700 plate appearances). Also, his glove: Manager A.J. Hinch plans to use him at all four infield positions at times this summer, rather than keeping him at first base, to allow the club more flexibility.

But making sure he's happy and cared for is equally important to them.

Dallas Keuchel, along with the club's co-ace Justin Verlander, jokes that the team won't mind missing Gurriel for the first five games and quips, "I'm going to take over first base and be an MVP candidate."

"Yuli is one of the best teammates anyone could ever ask for," third baseman Alex Bregman adds. "He is a great guy. A family guy. He is the nicest guy in the world."

No, Gurriel is not ducking the issue this spring, instead preferring to face what he knows he must face. Same with his teammates.

"If it takes just a couple of minutes of answering questions, I don't think he minds it," Sipp says. "And we as teammates sure don't mind it.

"It was a poor decision, but I hope it's not a decision he has to live with for the rest of his career because it doesn't define who he is. Not at all."

     

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

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Tommy Pham’s Vision-Saving Surgery Sparks ‘Miracle’ MLB Superstar Breakout

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It's late Friday afternoon and Los Angeles traffic is stacking up like the snow back east. The rest of the world sprung for the weekend, Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham is in a chair at the Boxer Wachler Vision Institute.

Pham's eyes move up and down. They dart left and right. They are bright and full of life and, best of all, exactly where he needs them to be.

"My keratoconus hasn't changed from last year," he says, smiling wide. "That's great news."

Keratoconus. The word itself is like an eye-chart test waiting to happen.

It is a disease of the cornea in which the collagen is weak and, without treatment, causes the cornea to bulge out like a hernia.

"Imagine your car windshield bulging out and getting all those distortions," Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler says. "Keratoconus can be like being in a fun house, but it's not a lot of fun."

Two rooms over, Pham's baseball career was saved, literally. Following the 2011 season, Pham underwent what, at the time, was a radical new procedure, a non-invasive treatment incorporating ultraviolet light and a vitamin application that takes about 30 minutes, with the goal to stabilize a degenerative condition.

"Miracle, I think, is the best term to describe him," says Dr. Edward Bennett, professor and assistant dean for student services and alumni relations at the University of Missouri-St. Louis' College of Optometry and one of four men who essentially comprise Pham's team of eye specialists. "I've never known anybody else who played major league baseball with keratoconus. I don't know how he sees the spin on the curveball, or fastballs. You've got aberrated eyes, distorted corneas..."

And yet, on this Friday, as Pham, 29, is in the office, some breaking news comes across his phone: The St. Louis Cardinals have just traded a teammate, outfielder Randal Grichuk, to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Following a breakout 2017 season in which Pham hit .306/.411/.520 with 23 homers, 73 RBI and 25 steals, the Cardinals spent the winter shuffling things, centering them on their late-blooming star: They want him to become their everyday center fielder this summer, with Marcell Ozuna in left and Dexter Fowler moving to right. They've already spoken with Fowler, and now the pieces are tumbling.

"When you look at his athleticism, his speed, the ground he can cover, and when you're looking at how to deploy our resources, I think it makes our outfield one of the elite in the game," John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' president of baseball operations, tells B/R.

Pham learns more on this enlightening Friday: Contrary to what he's been told in recent years, he is not legally blind in his left eye.

Talk to him long enough and it is easy to ascertain that, well, Tommy Pham sees himself better than most people see themselves.


Quad Cities, Iowa, 2008. Pham smashes a home run one summer's night in a Class A game, and upon his return to the dugout, one of his teammates asks him what kind of pitch he hit out.

"Fastball," Pham replies confidently.

Some murmuring ensues. Every one of his teammates who saw the swing says, uh, no, Tommy, that was a slider.

"And when I saw the video, they were right, and I was wrong," says Pham, who immediately deduced there must be a direct correlation to the high strikeout rate (126 whiffs in 312 at-bats in Quad City that summer) and other frustrations that consistently interrupted his forward progress.

So he visited a LensCrafters near the River Bandits' ballpark and was fitted for glasses. By year's end, he abandoned them because he didn't think they were helping. Then-Cardinals farm director Jeff Luhnow asked about his vision.

"We'd been working with some eye doctors in various parts of the country because one of our high-profile Dominican signees had vision problems, we voided the contract, he signed with another team and he never made it out of A ball," Luhnow, now the Houston Astros general manager, says.

"Going through that process was really eye-opening for me, no pun intended. Because most major league hitters have above-average vision, 20/10, 20/12, 20/14. Often, even if you're 20/20, you're not good enough to be a big league hitter. It's depth perception and contrast sensitivity that make them able to see a ball in a way that most human beings just can't do. It became clear to me that vision was an incredibly important part of the formula, and if you had an elite athlete with poor vision, your chances of being a major league player were low."

Later that September, Pham was diagnosed with keratoconus by a St. Louis eye specialist. Or, as Pham understood it, kera…what?

"I knew nothing about it," Pham says.

He learned why glasses do not work for keratoconus patients: Even though a person is able to see better in certain cases, the doctor explained, with glasses, the prescription is right in the middle of the lenses.

In the batter's box, an effective hitter keeps his head still and follows the ball with his eyes. Do that while wearing glasses, and the hitters' eyes move out of the center of the lenses, thus losing the benefit of the prescription. It was no surprise, then, that Pham moved his head, rather than his eyes, while following the ball wearing glasses. And that led to frustration.

Problem is for the estimated one in 500 to 2,000 people with keratoconus, most contact lenses don't fit correctly because they are round, and the eye degeneration makes the cornea oval shaped.

Following another disappointing season for Pham in 2009 at Class A West Palm Beach, Boxer Wachler, who had read about Pham's case, reached out to the Cardinals. Pham gravitated his way for two reasons: One, the doctor was located close to Pham's Las Vegas home, and two, Boxer Wachler offered to do the procedure for free.

"I was paying out of pocket, and this stuff isn't cheap," Pham says. "[Keratoconus] wasn't covered until late last year, when the season was about to end."

The procedure was not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But Boxer Wachler had performed it many times by then, with a success rate, he says, of 99.3 percent. And as for the other 0.7 percent, Boxer Wachler says, a second operation generally works for them.

Before, the best option for those with keratoconus was a corneal transplant.


The small, black leather bag travels with him everywhere he goes, from the Cardinals' bench to road hotels to this Beverly Hills restaurant where we've occupied a booth for the last two hours.

He watches this kit the way armed guards protect a Brink's truck, because inside are the tools essential to keeping Pham seeing the world in HD: Extra contact lenses. Solution. Hand sanitizer.

He also carries a small makeup mirror in his back pocket, including that of his uniform pants during games, in case something goes awry with a lens in the middle of an inning.

To reach this point, Pham threaded his way through 809 minor league games over 12 seasons (it took 2,338 minor league at-bats before he even got his first taste of the majors in 2014). He passed several crossroads that threatened the end of his career, from eyesight issues to assorted injuries to a sometimes bumpy minor league apprenticeship. Along the way, he acquired more knowledge than he ever knew existed about the wonders of the human eye.

He wishes he would have played winter ball following the 2008 season because he had no idea how difficult it would be to go from wearing no lenses straight to gas permeable, hard lenses. There were times when he wondered if his uncomfortable eyes would ever lose their redness.

"Now, I'm used to them," he says. "Then, whew!"

The production of each pair of his contact lens requires a corneal topography machine, which makes a map of his eyes, tracing the surface of the cornea to get the most snug fit.

Sometimes, the slightest of tweaks throw him off. Someone recommended a new soft lens in 2016, just as he had his best chance with the Cardinals: For the first time in his career, he broke camp on the Opening Day roster. He had eye molds taken for the perfect fit.

While Pham saw better than ever, a thin film of fluid was required between his eyes and lenses, and when he ran, it would cause the lenses to jiggle in his eyes and blur his vision. Pham stuck with them longer than he should have, thinking maybe it would simply take an extra couple of weeks to get accustomed to them. Over 78 games with the Cardinals in '16, he hit .226 with nine homers and 17 RBI.

During that year's All-Star break, Pham returned to Iowa, this time riding shotgun. At the wheel of the car was Bennett, and their destination was the University of Iowa for a consultation with the inventor of that particular soft lensone that, ultimately, didn't end up working for him.

"During the trip, we talked booksall he reads is self-improvement booksand I said I do this StrengthsQuest exercise with my students," Bennett says of the online drill designed to help students discover and help develop their natural talents. "I'm not even done telling him that, and he pulls his StrengthsQuest results out of his backpack.

"I'm thinking, man, if that doesn't totally define Tommy Pham. He has a very bright, tremendous mental approach to the game. He is very intelligent. I don't know if he has a Ph.D. in life, but he's had to overcome so many challenges. He's always thinking."

Pham's biological father is in prison in Maryland, having been incarcerated for most of his life because of drugs and violence. He's close with his mother, stepfather and two sisters, but the last time he visited his father in prison was a decade ago, when he was 18 or 19.

"I'm grown now," Pham told his father. "You were never there. This relationship is over. Don't call me."

"I haven't talked to him in 10, 11 years," Pham says. "He's called, and I decline all calls. He's just another person.

"It happens to a lot of people. I'm not the only one. I'm good now. I can't complain."

He is here in Los Angeles on this January weekend for a few days to sharpen his hitting with Robert Van Scoyoc and Craig Wallenbrock, a couple of local hitting gurus who have worked with J.D. Martinez, Yoenis Cespedes and Paul Goldschmidt. What he learned is that his back—right—elbow must lead his hands on a path to the ball. His elbow must come through first and his hands second.

In a few days, he will fly to Ocala, Florida, to work on his speed at the Innovative Athletic Performance Institute.

"I really want to be the best me," he says simply.

All of it, though, revolves around his eyes. Annually, he visits Boxer Wachler in Los Angeles to ensure all is good. He's an ambassador for the National Keratoconus Foundation and likely will speak to a group in late July in Chicago when the Cardinals play the Cubs.

"I think the word 'perseverance' is sometimes overused in sport, but in this particular case it fits him perfectly," Mozeliak says. "Here's a young man that literally so many times was counted out."

Aside from eyesight issues, he's suffered significant hand, shoulder, quad and oblique injuries over the years too. But every time the Cardinals considered giving up on Pham, John Vuch, the club's director of baseball administration, would hold his hand up and say no, don't do that. The admiration in Mozeliak's voice is evident as he tells the story.

As for Pham, just two weeks ago, he finally brought himself to dispose of the cutting-edge lenses he experimented with in 2016. Even though they became useless to him, they cost $11,500.

He gulped big when tossing them, but it's the only way Pham knows: He must live his life looking forward, always.

                                      

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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‘I Need a Miracle Every Day’: Jake Peavy Picks Up Pieces of a Shattered Life

MOBILE, Ala. — The famous duck boat sits motionless in the quiet of a shed at the center of the property.

Where cheers and world champion ticker tape once rained down on its triumphant ride through Boston's streets, on this day there is only the rustling of an icy wind and Claude, the aging Texas Longhorn, grazing off in the distance here at the Southern Falls Plantation in the town of Catherine, population 22.

Two hours south, in Mobile, the rapper Ugly God has just closed out an all-night session in Dauphin Street Sound's Studio A. Nearly three million Instagram followers need feeding, and three squares aren't always served at the usual times in this world.

"How late were you guys here last night?" the owner of the recording studio asks Molly Thomas, who was working the overnight shift with her own band, The Rare Birds, in Studio B.

Four this morning, he is told. Maybe five. It was dark. It was late. Who can be sure? Jake Peavy, cup of Starbucks in hand, nods. After a while, it all blurs together. Where today ends and tomorrow begins.

Once, Peavy rode that duck boat like a bronco, soaked in the applause like a rock star and brushed the ticker tape from his shoulders like a world champion. Hell, he was a world champion, twice. With Boston in 2013 and again with San Francisco in 2014. And a Cy Young Award winner (2007), and a Gold Glove winner (2012).

"When you're in the baseball world, you're in a bubble," Peavy says, speaking slowly and choosing his words carefully on this chilly January morning. "You get to where the San Francisco Giants' baseball game that day is the biggest thing in the world.

"There's a lot of life going on around you that you can be blind to if you're not careful."

Two days into San Francisco's 2016 spring training camp, the bubble burst: Peavy learned that a financial advisor to whom he had entrusted his retirement savings had siphoned away some $15 million to $20 million in a Ponzi-like scheme. The rest of that season, he was buried under an avalanche of depositions, lawyers and numbers he didn't fully understand, reeling from the shattered trust of a man he thought was his friend.

Then three days after that season ended, the five-alarm financial fire already raging all around him, he came home to divorce papers served by his high school sweetheart, Katie. It effectively was a lit stick of dynamite blowing apart what he treasured most in this world: family life with his four boys, now ranging in age from three to 16.

"It rips your soul out," Peavy says.

Forced to the sidelines to pick up the pieces of his once-idyllic life, Jacob Edward Peavy, 36, is regaining his balance, charging into his greatest comeback.

"My friends, people around the league…I've had so many reach out and offer support in all kinds of ways," he says. "I don't know if it's a pride thing or what, but I'm so reluctant in a lot of ways to even take somebody's ear when times are bad.

"It's not a fun thing to talk about or to put on anybody else's plate. It's my burden to carry. I went dark the past couple of years to get back to where we are today: full-steam ahead."

The divorce became final Nov. 28, with Peavy winning 50 percent custody of his boys (who stay with him every other week). The endless stream of meetings with lawyers regarding what he calls his "financial debacle" appears near the finish line, too: He hopes for a resolution by the spring. Maybe, best case, he can recover half of the money he lost. Maybe.

He is working out, throwing regularly with his old high school team, where No. 22 will be un-retired this spring for his son Jacob, 16. And if Jake has his way, Jacob will not be the only Peavy pitching this year: Jake is gearing his workouts for a showcase for big league scouts sometime around May 1, because Jacob has opted to live with him full time and isn't out of school until then. Jake's hope is that he can resume his career and go out on his own terms, not the world's.

"I'm truly as happy as I've been in all my life," says Peavy, who adds time away from the game has done wonders for him both physically and mentally. "I truly realize that the most important thing in my life is my relationships."

One of the game's most beloved players, known from San Diego to Chicago to Boston to San Francisco for his competitive fire and outsized generosity, Peavy has survived these past two years by channeling himself into revitalizing his beloved home city, one to which even his closest family thought he'd never return.

"When he first went to San Diego, he said he would never come back to Alabama," Jake's mother, Debbie, says from her kitchen table on the Southern Falls property. "He was only 21. [San Diego] was mind-blowing to us. It really was.

"It's a beautiful city, but we felt like the Clampetts out in San Diego. It panicked me because I thought, Oh Lord, he's never coming back to Alabama."

Now, however, in addition to the recording studio, Peavy's company owns two bars down the street in Mobile and recently purchased an entire city block—77,000 square feet—for $1.3 million.

"Mobile has given him something to be passionate about," says Chad Sprinkle, 39, his best friend since boyhood.

Says Peavy: "I lost some people I trusted more than my own family. That happens and, man, it puts you in a dark place for a minute."

                   

CHRISTIANITY WAS NEVER a question to him, and the irony that a rapper who calls himself "Ugly God" works in his building is not lost on Jake Peavy. Because for much of the past two years, Peavy wrestled with the notion of what the artist in Studio A was named.

Ugly…God?

Three years into his career, Peavy says he had saved up $1 million and invested it with a big, well-established investment firm. But as time went on, he never felt like there was a personal connection. So he began searching, and what he found was a financial advisor who appeared to share his values: Christian, charitably inclined, family man. An elder-statesman teammate of Peavy's at the time, Mark Loretta, used him. So, too, did one of Peavy's buddies from Mississippi, pitcher Roy Oswalt.

Ash Narayan was deeply involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Peavy remembers that in their first email exchange, there was some reference to a child in need Narayan helped. Perfect, Peavy thought.

Narayan regularly organized Christian-based father-son retreats. In 2007, Peavy joined him as part of a missionary group that traveled to the Dominican Republic. Narayan spent time with Peavy and his family at the Southern Falls ranch.

"Before this happened, if you asked me about the most positive person in my life, it would have been Ash," Peavy says. "He didn't speak a cuss word."

Over in the shadows, though, unbeknownst to Peavy and several other athletes—including Oswalt and NFL quarterback Mark Sanchez—things weren't as they seemed. And the Feds were hot on the trail. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit in May 2016, alleging that Narayan put more than $33 million of his clients' money into an Illinois-based online sports and entertainment ticket business while portraying a low-risk investment strategy to them. The SEC also asserted that The Ticket Reserve paid Narayan nearly $2 million in finder's fees to steer that money its way.

"He told me what happened, and I almost threw up," says Tim Flannery, a mentor throughout much of Peavy's career both as a coach in San Diego and San Francisco and as a musician. "For that to happen to someone like Jake, who had given so much, who had made enough for himself and his family to be set up…it crushed me."

The SEC suit played out in a Dallas courtroom throughout the '16 season. Peavy, who also learned that Narayan additionally had taken out some $5 million or more in loans in Peavy's name, was required to fly in several times. Sometimes it would be during an off day between starts. At least once, he wound up flying from Dallas to San Francisco on the day of one of his starts. Ultimately, all of the numbers were a horror show.

On the field, Peavy produced the worst season of his career, going 5-9 with a 5.54 ERA and was demoted to the bullpen by season's end.

In the moment, he says, he thought he did well compartmentalizing things. Looking back, however, he realizes he failed miserably. His mind spinning, he kept thinking back to the hours he spent with Narayan, talking about his family, his future and the best retirement strategies.

"And every minute was complete and utter B.S.," he says. Narayan eventually agreed to a settlement and was barred by the SEC.

Peavy is not seeking sympathy. He has earned close to $130 million playing baseball. He points out that others have been defrauded far worse than him. He is neither bankrupt nor anywhere close.

No, the worst part, he says, is thinking of all those missed T-ball games and milestone moments he was absent for in his children's lives while roped to his own baseball schedule, working for their future that isn't what he thought it would be. He flashes to the time Jacob asked why Daddy couldn't just skip one game to come see him play, especially on a night when Jake wasn't starting anyway?

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't shake my faith," Peavy says.

"In the South, you're raised in a different manner. Where I live, if a guy looks you in the eye and shakes your hand, that's his word."

And Narayan's false word submarined a retirement plan Peavy had been working on soon after he tore his latissimus dorsi muscle while pitching with the Chicago White Sox in 2010. Doctors told him it could be career-ending. His contract at the time ran through 2012 and, suddenly, the rest of his life needed to come into focus, fast. Through that point, he hadn't thought much about retirement; he simply did what a lot of those in their 20s do: poured his earnings into cool things that excited him. Once he finally did start setting aside money for retirement, poof, it disappeared.

"It's changed my perspective," Peavy tells B/R over a dinner of Gulf Coast seafood and cheeseburgers. "It's shaped me in a way I truly believe I needed to be shaped, if that makes sense."

In the end, Jake's faith was shaken but not broken.

Echoes from Ugly God somewhere off in the distance, Peavy quotes the words the late American poet and essayist John Perry Barlow wrote years ago for the Grateful Dead:

"One more thing I just got to say

I need a miracle every day"

"That's the God's honest truth," Peavy says. "I need a miracle every day."

             

AS HE HOWLED his way through 377 career starts and 152 wins, as emotional and demonstrative an ace as you'll ever see, he found part of the secret in a tube of Icy Hot.

Roger Clemens lathered himself with it from head to toe before starts and once told Peavy it was because he never liked to take the mound feeling too comfortable. Peavy was all ears.

"He told me to take a little and put it on no-man's land down there," Peavy says wryly.

So over the next 12 years, you might say, Peavy regularly pitched with his balls on fire. Yep, it kept him uncomfortable. Generally, it kept the hitters he faced more uncomfortable.

That's Peavy: always one part ultra-competitive, one-part off-kilter and three parts generous to a fault.

Last summer, when Jacob's baseball team of 16-and-unders he helped coach won an Alabama state championship, he purchased 35 bottles of champagne after obtaining the parents' permission. "If we're going to be champions, we're going to act like champions!" he told the kids before they popped the corks and sprayed each other down just like real, live World Series winners.

In the spring of '16, he sprung for a dozen tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert in Phoenix, inviting a bunch of young Giants teammates because he thought it was something they should experience, watching a master at work.

Late in the 2013 season, the Red Sox were scheduled for a Sunday Night Baseball game in Boston against the Yankees followed by a Monday night contest in San Francisco. The team sent Peavy, Jon Lester and David Ross west a day ahead so they'd be rested. Knowing how tired and grumpy his Red Sox teammates would be upon arrival at AT&T Park that August Monday, Peavy was looking for something to rally around as he walked to the ballpark when he saw a big, wooden American Indian in a gift shop.

Told the figure wasn't for sale, Peavy changed the shop owner's mind with a dose of Southern charm and $500. "I threw it over my shoulder and brought it to the clubhouse and made a spectacle of who he was and the healing powers he had," Peavy says.

"That dude went everywhere the team went [the rest of the year]."

Though far from a politically correct symbol, the statue fit in the strange subculture of a major league clubhouse. Peavy even has a photo from the Red Sox's victory parade of himself, his brother Luke, their father and the wooden statue, which he nicknamed "Chief," together on the duck boat. Today, Chief resides in a place of honor at his Southern Falls ranch.

Then there was the time he gave Flannery a $5,000 1934 Gibson guitar a few years ago, over Flannery's strong objections, because he never forgot it was Flannery who gave him his first guitar.

"Heart of gold," Flannery says. "His generosity's always been over the top. It's probably why he trusts so many people and has gotten himself in a little trouble as well. He's done so much, and not all of it's been told. He's helped a lot of people without anybody knowing."

The largesse has extended to a variety of charitable causes, from helping wounded military veterans in San Diego to poverty-stricken kids in Mobile to terminal children in San Francisco. Most of it channels through the Jake Peavy Foundation, and some of it he does on his own.

And then there's his ranch, located in what former Alabama Governor Robert J. Bentley in 2014 called the nation's poorest county. At one point as he was building out the property, Peavy employed more than two dozen local construction workers. He used local builders, local artists, the local hardware store. Sprinkle tells of a man known as Mr. Ben, 70, who was living in a house on the property when Peavy acquired it several years ago…and Jake continues to allow the man to keep living there today.

"One day this winter, Mr. Ben came to Jake and said, 'Boss man, Santa Claus didn't come see me this year," Sprinkle says. "So Jake gave him $100 and bought him groceries."

When a pickup truck recently died on an employee at the ranch, Jake put him in another one. When a sponsor pulled out of a local home for children with special needs, Peavy and his foundation stepped in.

"It's endless," Flannery says. "His financial guys were worried early because he gives so much, not only monetarily but emotionally and physically. I don't think he plans on changing, either.

"He might have learned some lessons but, for me, that's beauty of it. For him to get stung the way he did, to lose that kind of money, most people will say 'I'll never give another penny or trust another person.'

"That's just not Jake's way."

Says Sprinkle: "It's opened up his eyes, but he can't change who he is. Much as he wants to put up a wall, he can't do it."

                  

SOME NIGHTS NOW, Luke Peavy's phone buzzes and he picks up to hear his brother Jake's voice on the other end filled with awe: "I'm home with the boys. It's just us!"

These days, the biggest thing going is not a baseball game. It's just hanging out with Jacob, Wyatt, Judd and Waylon. Maybe there is a diaper to change or homework to solve.

Even without a baseball season's demands, time and boundaries blur into one another. There's running his recording studio, an annual music festival to help organize and even Silicon Valley CEOs to woo into doing business in Mobile. When Ben Jernigan, 35 and in charge of artist relations at the studio, jokes that he quit his job as a Mobile firefighter and paramedic and ran away to join the circus, he's only partly kidding.

As packed as his days are, though, Peavy schedules his business around the boys' soccer practices and music lessons. He says he's still in the dark regarding reasons for the divorce. Was the financial stress the root of it? A part of it?

"I've never been told," he says. "I guess the stress of what we were going through takes a toll on everyone.

"She was in a relationship shortly after [the divorce papers were served]. I hope she's happy now. I don't understand a lot of it. I don't understand the financial stuff.

"I want to understand why Ash did what he did."

Several months ago, a band called Needtobreathe recorded a song called "Hard Love" at Peavy's ranch, right there with Jake singing background. And in another moment of plowing through what his father calls the "bulls--t of the past two years" and his mother refers to as the "heartbreaking" time, he took a minute to sit his boys down and make sure they paid close attention to the chorus:

"Hold on tight a little longer

What don't kill ya makes ya stronger

Get back up 'cause it's a hard love

You can't change without a fallout

It's gonna hurt but don't you slow down

Get back up 'cause it's a hard love"

         

TO REACH SOUTHERN Falls from Mobile, you take the 65 freeway for many miles to a county road, take that for many more miles until you reach another county road, keep your eyes peeled for mile marker No. 29, turn right when you see the antique farming equipment on your left and then follow the dirt road all the way down. From the ranch, the nearest grocery store is a 30-minute drive. The nearest anything else is even farther.

This is Peavy's sweet spot. Here, the quiet goes on for miles and the air is medicinal. So crisp. So clean. At the height of the financial mess and divorce, he often found his daily miracles here.

"Growing up in the South, my family belonged to a hunting club, the men," Peavy says. "The best way I can describe it is it was like a country club membership to play golf. It's a big way families down here get meat all year long. It's a cultural thing I end up doing. Weekends in the fall and winter, you go to hunting camp. You're on the land, enjoying guy time.

"I wanted to build something where our family could come, and the women could come, too, and feel comfortable."

Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, children…his family alone, it's as if they stepped from the pages of Mark Twain. Luke, who turns 33 in April, is the first Peavy to graduate from college. His degree is from Samford University in business administration with a minor in nonprofit entrepreneurship. Luke will tell you he veered in that direction because he could sort of see Jake's future. Jake will tell you his brother is one of those miracles he depends on.

Their grandfather Sonny is a feisty man everyone knows as "Poppa." He's 85 and still chews tobacco, regularly walking around with an empty soda can lodged in his shirt pocket as his spittoon and a cold bottle of beer stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans.

Their father, Danny, an expert cabinetmaker who built the beds in the lodge, watched most of his grandson's state title game from the parking lot last summer. He was ejected from the stands when an umpire blew a crucial call early, got tired of taking an earful, looked at Danny and said, "One more word…" and, well, you don't challenge a Peavy. It runs in the family: Poppa once was ejected from one of Jacob's T-ball games.

"Those Peavys," Jernigan says, chuckling. "You don't ever want to get into a fight with 'em. They'll kill you. They're cut out of a different cloth of scrappiness."

The spread here is over some 5,500 acres and includes Jake's home, his parents' home, a bunkhouse that eventually will have 22 rooms and sleep well over 80 people, a music room displaying dozens of guitars (including autographed models from, among others, Kenny Chesney, Kid Rock, Toby Keith, Hank Williams Jr., Eric Church, Alabama and the 2013 world champion Red Sox). There's also a gym that rivals your local 24 Hour Fitness, an amphitheater, a baseball/softball field complete with a replica Green Monster and a fence cut to Fenway Park's dimensions, a spectacular waterfall and plenty of hunting (deer, coyote, birds, wild boar) and fishing. Recording artists Kid Rock, Church and Chris Stapleton and many of Jake's old teammates are among those who have spent time with the Peavys at the ranch.

The stand-alone tavern, Mill Creek Saloon, might be the greatest retreat ever. Besides the fully stocked bar, there is a two-lane bowling alley, arcade games like Pop-A-Shot and Skee Ball, World Series memorabilia, Peavy's Cy Young and Gold Glove awards and a wall of framed, autographed jerseys that goes on forever. Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Mariano Rivera, Willie Mays, Nolan Ryan, Trevor Hoffman and more.

"It makes for fun birthday parties and New Year's Eves," Peavy says. Eventually, the plan is to host a summer camp for kids and corporate events for businesses, too.

He wrote a check for $75,000 to purchase the duck boat and had it shipped down from Boston. He also talked publicly about purchasing a cable car from the Giants' 2014 parade, but "the act of purchasing it proved too difficult."

Though he hasn't given up on the idea, a cable car, he says, "can't be as special as the duck boat. The duck boat is the duck boat."

It's already been repainted. Peavy hosted a guys' weekend in January 2014 that included several Red Sox teammates and, well, as Peavy says, they were "world champs coming in hot off the press," and as often happens, things got a little out of control.

Pieces of Peavy's vast array of memorabilia have gone missing after particularly rowdy guys' weekends over the years, one more example of someone taking advantage of his bottomless generosity, causing one more spark of anger for those close to him.

"It pisses you off," says Sprinkle, whose family has its own quarters at the ranch, as he shows a visitor around. "When people disrespect the place and walk off with stuff, it hurts."

His friends zealously have his back because, as Jernigan says simply, "Jake's spent his life taking care of everybody." They figure the least they can do is be there for him.

So as a timeout from baseball that's dragged on longer than he ever imagined continues, they are. Worst-case scenario, Jake says, he figured he would have been back by midseason last year. But life moves at its own pace.

"I just hope he can go back and finish on a good note," Debbie Peavy says while delivering a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches to her visitor at the kitchen counter, one just like Jake likes them: with a touch of garlic salt. "I think he will. It's just going to be hard leaving his kids, I know that." If only all of life's troubles could be fixed with grilled cheese sandwiches, the world would be a far better place.

Meanwhile, down in Mobile, a handful of musicians and friends gather as they do on most Tuesday nights at the Cedar St. Social Club. This is another joint Peavy owns, and he relishes the time as the drinks pour, the chatter flows and the guitars strum.

His stuff is better than it was when he exited the game because of the time off, he says. He's been able to rest in a way he never has.

"To go through what I've gone through…to be around some of the people you've been around, there's not a chance in the world you feel sorry for yourself," Peavy says.

"You have to do in your own life what you preach to children in hospital beds or to soldiers with PTSD: You get back on your feet, and you keep truckin' on."

May 1 will be here soon enough, and it isn't the money he's seeking. He knows he will need to sign a minor league contract and prove himself all over again. It's just that he desperately wants to write a different ending, a better ending. There are innings left in his arm, he promises, before picking up his guitar and joining three others, who teach him the chords to Bob Seger's "Against the Wind." As the freezing rain falls outside and their voices harmonize, it's easy to close your eyes and imagine warmer times…

"Caught like a wildfire out of control

Till there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove

And I remember what she said to me

How she swore that it never would end

I remember how she held me oh so tight

Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then…"

              

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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‘The Game’s Better When They’re Hated’: MLB Reacts to Yankees’ Stanton Trade

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Late night. Chatter echoing. Beers cold and bourbon neat. Psst, wanna know what the industry really thinks of the mighty New York Yankees flexing their considerable financial muscle to trade for Giancarlo Stanton?

"Yeah, they're going to be…hated," one American League executive says in a dark hallway off of the packed lobby above the clinking of the ice cubes at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort.

"The game's better when they're hated."

   

FROM RAGE TO RHAPSODY, amazement to amusement, the Yankees' acquisition of Stanton and their inheritance of the remaining 10 years and $265 million on his deal have sent Major League Baseball into orbit. Hammered into Boston is the realization that defending its AL East title just got tougher. Pounded into the American League is the reality that the Yankees' supposed rebuild was completed at warp speed.

Drilled into everybody is the reminder that there are few constants in this game, but always, always at the top of this list is that few can play on the same economic field as the Damn Yankees.

Over the course of the week, Bleacher Report spoke with some 20 or so baseball figures ranging from owners to players to executives to scouts to managers to media members, and the honest-to-pinstripes reaction truly is all over the map:

Within the industry, there mostly is grudging respect.

Within the game's Haves, it's business as usual. It's the way they live.

Within the Have-Nots, there is resignation combined with the small comfort of knowing that when a backwoods franchise like Miami gets itself into a financial bind, it's nice to know there is a club like New York that offers a soft landing. The Marlins, by the way, are only on the hook for $30 million of the $295 million left on Stanton's deal.

If you're looking for pure, high-octane hatred, well, mostly, that'll have to be left to the fans of 29 other teams. The baseball people have enough to worry about trying to get their own teams in order to dwell on the deal.

"It's not the first time that teams with that economic power have done this," Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter says, noting that AL East rival Boston acquired ace Chris Sale at last year's winter meetings after signing ace David Price as a free agent the year before. "The Yankees have done it and are probably going to do it again. God bless 'em. They should."

    

LUNCHTIME. EXECUTIVES SCATTERING FROM their high-floor suites. Midday sun shining through the resort windows, obscured only by the long, tall shadow of Stanton.

Will he hit 60 home runs next summer? Will he and Aaron Judge lead the Yankees to their 28th World Series title in a blast of shock and awe?

Might they force the cancellation of a game simply because they will knock the Yankees' entire supply of baseballs out of the park during batting practice?

What in the world can we anticipate? What should we anticipate?

"I think it's great for the game," says David Ross, the retired longtime catcher now serving as a special assistant to baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. He is working (and attending) his first winter meetings, and already he's gotten an eyeful.

"It reminds me a lot of the NBA where you get a lot of power teams," he continues. "It's going to make everybody else step up their game. I don't look at it as the Evil Empire. When you see the Yankees getting back to what you expect them to be, it just seems normal."

Normal, of course, is open to interpretation.

"It's the Evil Empire, right?" Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says, eyes twinkling, smile cracking. "It is good for baseball. I'm a fan of the balanced schedule, especially with two wild cards. We play each other too much. But in our division, a lot of people like the way it is because people see those teams more and they bring their big-star players.

"So from a financial end, they love it."

Los Angeles Angels general manager Billy Eppler helped orchestrate his own blockbuster this winter, signing Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani. Before taking control of the Angels for the 2016 season, Eppler worked in New York under Yankees GM Brian Cashman from 2004-2015, the last four seasons as an assistant GM.

The Angels' moment in the spotlight with Ohtani lasted about two blinks of an eye before the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants both announced Stanton would not waive his no-trade clause for them, allowing the Yankees to swoop in for the kill.

"It's a team just trying to be great," says Eppler, who regularly communicates with his old boss. "That's it. … Just like all of us are trying to do."

   

AS MUCH CHATTER AS the Stanton deal has generated, it's hard to imagine anyone is truly surprised.

This is what the Yankees always do.

Survey the landscape. Scour the bushes. Do what it takes, from making creative three-way deals (the way they acquired Didi Gregorius, Derek Jeter's replacement at shortstop, in a deal with Detroit and Arizona following the 2014 season) to ransacking badly run franchises begging to be looted.

"We've seen one of our MLB jewelry stores become a pawn shop," agent Scott Boras says, slamming the Marlins and their new ownership group, battering Jeter in particular, who skipped the winter meetings yet was widely visible attending a Miami Dolphins game during the week. Talk about bad optics.

Meanwhile, the Yankees' acquisition of Stanton has interrupted all of the talk that dominated last year's winter meetings, that Bryce Harper, the star of next winter's free-agent market, will command a deal of at least $400 million and that the Yankees will be the ones to scoop him up.

But even Harper's agent finds it difficult to fault the Yankees for cranking up their economic engine, what with all of that smooth humming and whirring.

"I'm never going to fault a good jeweler," Boras says. "When there's diamonds to be had, they're in the diamond business and [they] know they can go out and get a great deal. ... You tip your cap to how Cash and all of them [work]. That's going to make an exciting process. … I think they're in position to have a wonderful Bronx opera."

And as the week closed, the Yankees were among the small handful of teams engaged with the Orioles to gauge the cost of Manny Machado.

"Cash and his group in the baseball ops department are always looking for opportunity," Eppler says. "They're not afraid to make bold moves. They're not afraid to make unpopular moves. One thing I've always marveled at with Brian is his focus on what's going to help this organization, not what's going to help me or so on and so forth. He is so focused on doing what's right for the organization. 

"That's been his lighthouse and his beacon for 20 years, even before he was GM. That consistency has put them on this path of [being] a formidable organization with a [formidable] lineup. That's the common denominator in this thing."

THE 1970s. JIMMY NEDERLANDER, then a limited partner of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, tells the Boss that New York is a town of stars. Nederlander knew, of course. He founded the family company that went on to become the largest owner of theater property in the country. And as such, of course, he was a giant on Broadway.

"I know the city we're in and I know that our fans love the big marquee players," Hal Steinbrenner, who inherited the Yankees from his Boss dad, says during a press conference to introduce Stanton on Monday.

He continues, pointing out how the club's fans this year learned to love homegrown players who they can follow over the course of entire careers as Yankees every bit as much as any imported or purchased player. He points out how youngsters like Judge and Gary Sanchez knocked it out of the park with the "varsity" last year, and how exciting that was. But as he finishes, he notes….

"This is New York City. These are the Yankees."

This has been the internal battle waged in the offices of Yankee Stadium for the past few years, insiders tell B/R: Cashman reached a point in which he recognized the Yankees' need to get younger and more athletic. Insiders describe times of tension within the front office relating to Cashman's desire to rid the club of old, dead weight like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and restock the organization with bright young talent. Steinbrenner was skeptical of a Yankees team without stars.

That Cashman was given latitude to do it his way became evident during the summer of 2016, in which the club shed Rodriguez, Teixeira and others. Trading relief ace Andrew Miller to Cleveland for a package of young prospects including pitcher Justus Sheffield and outfielder Clint Frazier was a highlight of what turned out to be a lightning-fast rebuild.

The Baby Bombers, as the group led by Judge, Sanchez and Greg Bird came to be called, pushed the Yankees all the way to Game 7 of this year's American League Championship Series.

But as they did, in a billion-dollar incarnation of the latest Yankee Stadium, there is no escaping one harsh reality: Attendance in the Bronx during the past two yearsa per-game average of 38,851 last summer and 37,820—was the lowest in back-to-back seasons since 1997-98.

Beginning in 1999, the year the Yankees won the second of three consecutive World Series titles, they've now drawn three million or more fans annually over 19 consecutive seasons (they were over four million between from 2005 through 2008). The streak, though, barely survived over the past two seasons, when the Yankees drew 3,063,405 in 2016 and 3,146,966 this year.

"I think Stanton was too big of an opportunity for them to walk away from," an owner of a rival club tells B/R. "He's a hell of a guy, the MVP of the NL and they're not drawing the way they hoped to. They're not making any money. They've got so much debt tied to the stuff they've done."

Now, the new Twin Towers of the Bronx, Stanton (6'6", 245 pounds) and Judge (6'7", 282), come as if designed by engineers to fuel a team that will pack that stadium and, if things turn out as planned, whip the Bronx denizens back into a frenzy not seen since they left the old ballpark next door.

    

MONDAY AFTERNOON. THE PODIUM in the front of the press room is still warm from a couple of hours earlier, when new Hall of Famers Alan Trammell and Jack Morris spoke of the agony and the ecstasy of grinding through a two-decade wait to land in Cooperstown. Now Stanton, Cashman and new manager Aaron Boone hover before a standing-room only crowd of industry typesmedia, executivesand a live broadcast on MLB Network. It's the first sighting of Stanton in a Yankees cap.

And it is the last time all week the podium will be used. Amid a winter meetings of much talk and little action, the Yankees swallow up most of the oxygen. Stanton says he thought this day always would come, even when he signed the 13-year, $325 million deal ludicrously offered by now former Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who had all of the enthusiasm of a baseball expert and none of the knowledge during his tenure running, to use Boras' term, Miami's pawn shop.

"I overthink, and think again on all possibilities that can happen," Stanton says. "So with the history of everything, yeah, of course it was in my mind and I knew I had to be prepared."

He declined offers to play in both St. Louis and San Francisco, he says, because he thinks the Yankees are ready to win now and ready to win for a longer period of time. Whenever he saw them play, they impressed him. Though as his agent, Joel Wolfe, points out, Stanton hasn't seen them play in October, because the slugger wants to win so badly that he annually scheduled European vacations during the postseason because he wanted to get as far away from it as possible if he wasn't participating.

"Just watching them from afar, seeing their young, dynamic group, the way they flow together on the field, how they never give up, never quit, the atmosphere, the storied franchise," Stanton says. "There's not much you can say about why you wouldn't want to be there.

Boone had barely been named to replace Joe Girardi as manager before he suddenly was gifted with a fearsome middle-of-the-lineup hitter.

"You wake up and you're not sure that we were necessarily in on Stanton, but [with] how quick it kind of came together … sure, that catches you off guard," Boone says.

"But you also understand it's the New York Yankees."

Says Hal Steinbrenner: "I've always said that New York's a marquee town, and I think it's important to have marquee players. But more important than that ... [is] to have veteran players that could be mentors for the young kids. And we've got a lot of young kids."

Legendary New York sports columnist Red Smith once wrote that "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel." Little has changed more than half a century later. The Yankees brand it ubiquitous, like Starbucks and CVS. They gobble up the mom and pop shops where they can.

Even if you're already a formidable opponent, they keep your attention. New Boston manager Alex Cora, a friend of Boone's, was at home in Puerto Rico when he learned that the Yankees now employ a run producer that will make his rookie season as manager even more difficult.

"I saw the rumors on Friday night going to bed," Cora says. "I got up in the morning and saw it."

He attended a charity event hosted by Yadier Molina that Saturday, and there was a moment when Cora looked up and saw a horde of reporters coming at him.

"And the first thing I said is, 'I ain't talking about Stanton,'" says Cora, who played in this rivalry as a Red Sox player from 2005-08 and understands that the day is coming when he will not be able to escape the subject.

   

DINNERTIME. WEDNESDAY. HALLWAYS EMPTYING. The lack of action brings a sort of malaise over these meetings as the week crawls to a wrap, but New York's gold rush keeps the adrenaline stoked.

What is it about hating that keeps us coming back for more?

"When teams are stacked, they're always hated," another American League executive says. "That's all sports, but being the Yankees doesn't hurt."

Several industry types chuckle thinking back to last December's winter meetings in Washington, D.C., when the Red Sox landed Sale from the Chicago White Sox and it was Cashman who likened Boston to a superteam like the NBA's Golden State Warriors.

"Unfortunately, that's what it seems like now, doesn't it?" says a manager from a Have-Not American League team. "Four or five superteams, like basketball."

But this is baseball, and as we all know, baseball is not foolproof. The Red Sox did steal the show last winter, but they were wiped out in the first round of the playoffs by Houston. A couple of winters ago, the San Diego Padres became the darlings of the winter meetings, and that didn't go so well, either. And as one owner notes, the Yankees' Stanton deal takes the focus off of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have spent some $500 million over the past five years (including international bonuses) more than anybody else. The Dodgers still haven't won a World Series since 1988.

"It's all part of it," A.J. Hinch, manager of the world champion Houston Astros, says. "The good news about stuff like that is it's above our pay grade. Obviously, each team has its own challenges, each team has its own things it's going to address and its own resources, and to each their own. In our sport. you don't have to make the most to be the best."

"There's going to be a lot of strikeouts in that lineup, but it's going to be fun to watch for their fans," the AL executive says. "Who knows how many home runs Stanton will hit in that ballpark?"

Says Showalter: "If you make real good pitches to those guys, you'll get them out. If you make bad pitches, they'll go a little further than everyone else is hitting them."

He pauses, then cracks: "I'm glad they haven't changed the rule where the further you hit it you get a run-and-a-half, or a run-and-a-quarter. Can you imagine if they had one of those Skee-Ball things where the further you get it the more points you get?

"Don't give them any ideas in the Competition Committee. In Yankee Stadium, as little as that ballpark is, they don't need any help."

No, they don't. But to New York's credit, the Yankees keep helping themselves. It's easy for fans to hate them, but how many falso wish their team's owner were as hell-bent on winning as the Steinbrenners have been for as long as they've been in the game?

"It makes everybody else step up their game and spend money," Ross says. "It's healthy for the game. It fuels the fans and the rivalries.

"You want people to go watch. Go see how far they can hit the ball. It pushes other organizations to get better and I just think it's great for the game."

A couple of years ago in Arizona, Dave Stewart, the former pitcher, worked with Cashman to complete a trade. Stewart was the Diamondbacks GM who sent Gregorius to the Yankees in that three-way deal in December of 2014. A year later, Stewart lured ace Zack Greinke to Arizona on a $206.5 million deal.

Instead of sparking a playoff run, the Diamondbacks were a bust in 2016 and Stewart was fired by Arizona.

He knows the tension and pressure of a life lived on the high wire, and having returned to his previous role as a player agent, Stewart also knows the bottom line from all sides of the great divide.

"You can hate all you want to," Stewart says, "but I admired the Yankees from early on, because they were committed to winning."

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Giancarlo Stanton-Aaron Judge Duo Completes Yankees’ Next-Gen Dynasty Core

Crack open every superlative you can think of: Yankee Dynasty, Bronx Bombers, Jeter the Jerk...oh wait, that last one slipped in there somewhere from South Florida, but don't you mind that.

As the rest of baseball gnashed its teeth, seethed and split its time between being awestruck by this new New York Yankees conglomerate and blind rage as the Derek Jeter ownership group turns the Miami Marlins into a chop shop, the Yankees and the Yankees Icon cooperated on an absolutely stunning deal, sending slugger Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees just three weeks after he was named as the National League Most Valuable Player. The trade is awaiting Stanton's approval and physical examinations of those involved.

The deal sets up the incredible notion of Stanton, who ripped 59 home runs last year, and Aaron Judge, who blasted 52, batting back-to-back for new Yankees manager Aaron Boone this summer.

From Baltimore to Seattle, more than a few American League pitchers undoubtedly spent part of Saturday wetting their pants as they checked their Twitter feeds.

"Add the impact hitter Gary Sanchez, and with this young, power-hitting group, think the young A's with Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire," one American League executive told B/R on Saturday morning.

"They're going to need a lot more batting practice balls," quipped an executive with another AL team.

How unprecedented is this?

Only twice before in baseball history has a reigning Most Valuable Player been traded. The most recent was in 2004, when the Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez from Texas after a Rangers deal with Boston fell apart. The other? Way back in 1914, when Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's dealt Eddie Collins to the Chicago White Sox.

Furthermore, only two players slugged more than 50 homers last season, and now Boone will write both of them into his 2018 lineup. The Yanks now employ both the AL and NL home run champions from 2017.

Next year's Yankees will sneeze and the ball will go out of the park.

Where this team has come in just 18 or so months after dumping Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira and deciding to go full-speed ahead with a reboot is simply remarkable.

Just when other AL clubs were exhaling, thinking that at least the Yankees would go dark for awhile as they reshuffled their roster and acquired young prospects, general manager Brian Cashman put the pedal to the metal and raced past most of the rest of the AL field.

And the best thing about Stanton absolutely falling into their lap after he used his full no-trade clause to scuttle deals that were in place with both the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals is that it didn't cost them any significant pieces from their young core.

Greg Bird is still here, his ceiling still expected to be sky high after injuries wrecked much of his 2017 season. Young infielders Gleyber Torres and Ronald Torreyes. Young pitchers Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield. Outfielder Clint Frazier.

The Yankees were able to dump second baseman Starlin Castro, who is guaranteed $22 million over the next two seasons, and, essentially, some Styrofoam peanuts to the Marlins. The youngsters the Yankees are sending, according to B/R sources, are middling. The kind who fill out organizations, not boost organizations. Yeah, packing peanuts.

Of course, acquiring Stanton does not come without risk. The knock on him is durability, and while he did play in 159 games in 2017, he has made it to the opening bell for 123 or fewer games in four of the past six seasons. Tossing aside the scary end to his 2014 season, when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers pitch in Milwaukee, nagging injuries, like hamstrings, have eroded too many seasons. For the 10 years and $297 million left on his deal, the Yankees certainly hope last summer's marathon man impression was the start of something big for Stanton.

Because if he is a mainstay in the lineup, look out. Stanton and Judge could give several teams a run for their power money by themselves:

All rise, indeed: In one sense, this is a throwback to the Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris days for the Yankees:

No question, given their financial largesse, the Yankees are better positioned than nearly anybody else to catch a guy like Stanton on the rebound. Though the Giants and Cardinals tried hard to acquire him, Stanton was able to pull levers behind the scenes, using his full no-trade clause, to help place himself. One person close to him told B/R in October that wherever he decided to go, it would be to a place that guaranteed him a chance to win, that he was tired of going through rebuilds nearly every season in Miami.

The Yankees rebuild—or reboot—it turns out, lasted about as long as it takes you to blink your eyes. Open them back up, and wow. Even without Stanton the Yankees led the majors with 241 home runs in a summer in which MLB clubs combined to smash a single-season record 6,105 home runs. The bar was set high, and individually it was set by the Yankees.

Now, this.

So forget that brief time last Sunday when New York raged because Japanese icon Shohei Ohtani dared to tell the Yankees he did not want to play in their city. Shohei Who?

With Stanton and Judge together, the 2018 Yankees will absolutely terrorize pitchers from coast to coast. Facing these guys will be torture, one pitch at a time, and especially in Yankee Stadium. Only Baltimore's Camden Yards and Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark produced more homers than Yankee Stadium in 2017. Every night will be Guaranteed Home Run Night in Yankee Stadium in 2018.

Really, just one looming question remains: If Stanton and Judge combine to bring the Yankees their 28th World Series title, will Derek Jeter be awarded a sixth ring?

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Shohei Ohtani Joins Mike Trout in Perfect Spot to Maximize 2-Way MLB Stardom

It's a long way from Tokyo Disneyland to the Disneyland in Anaheim, but it's going to be an incredibly short distance now from Shohei Ohtani to Mike Trout in the Los Angeles Angels lineup.

Just when you thought maybe things seemed a little Goofy in the Ohtani Sweepstakes, what with all of the cloak-and-dagger silence and the big, bad, New York Yankees being bounced from the talks last Sunday, here came the Angels swooping in on Friday to close the deal with the highest-profile Japanese player since Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

And given Ohtani's two-way ability to provide a middle-of-the-order bat and produce a fastball reading of up to 102 mph on the radar gun, there is every reason to believe that Ohtani could become the highest-profile MLB player from Japan ever.

The news, which was announced by Ohtani's American agency, Creative Artists Agency, a little after 11 a.m. PT on Friday, came as an absolute shock around the game.

The Angels, who must pay Ohtani's Japanese team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, a $20 million posting fee, had no known ties to Ohtani and are a distant second to the Dodgers in Los Angeles Q rating. Seattle has had a Japanese player on its roster in every season since 1998 and is part-owned by Nintendo. San Diego had a working relationship with Hokkaido and employs executives who wooed him years ago when they were working for the Dodgers (Logan White and Acey Kohrogi) and a director of applied sports science who once worked with Ohtani in Japan (Seiichiro Nakagaki). Texas lured Ohtani's baseball hero, Yu Darvish, from Japan back in 2012.

Yet, the Angels.

"What mattered to him most wasn't market size, time zone or league but that he felt a true bond with the Angels," Nez Balelo, Ohtani's agent at CAA, said in a statement. "He sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals."

Both Seattle ($3.557 million) and Texas ($3.535 million) had more international pool money to offer Ohtani than did the Angels ($2.315). But Ohtani's actions never were about money, otherwise he would have waited two more years to leave Japan for MLB, when he turned 25 and would have been a true free agent able to command millions.

Instead, the 23-year-old dreamer, who initially wanted to go straight from his Japanese high school to MLB before the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters lured him in 2013 by agreeing to make him a two-way player, decided within the last year that now would be the time to chase his goals in the majors.

How the Angels set up their team to allow Ohtani to pitch and hit will be fascinating. For one thing, the rapidly aging Albert Pujols absorbed most of the designated hitter at-bats last summer, with 611 of his plate appearances coming as a DH and just 25 as a first baseman. Reports this winter are that he's dropped a few pounds and is in good shape, but he still turns 38 on Jan. 16. That hasn't changed.

If Pujols, who has had feet and leg problems in recent years, is healthy enough to play more games at first base, that would help make Ohtani's transition easier. He could DH in the days between starts, which would be less wear-and-tear on his legs. Still unanswered is the question of whether he would play a position on the day before he starts or whether he would take that day to prepare for his pitching assignment. With Hokkaido, Ohtani did not hit on the day he pitched, nor did he hit on the day before and day after pitching.

In Japan, starting pitchers work once every seven days, and teams have Mondays off. Aside from the change in cultures, on the field, that is the biggest challenge that pitchers face coming over from Japan. MLB teams play more games and travel more, so the grind of a season can result in serious fatigue during the stretch run and can be a real issue that clubs must manage. Across town, the Dodgers' Kenta Maeda was on fumes two Septembers ago.

However the Angels work it, and some of how they deploy Ohtani likely will have to be improvised as they go depending on how he is performing and how he feels, his pairing with Trout will make the Angels must-see every day of the season. One day, those two bats could put a hurt on their opponent. The next, perhaps Trout will make a game-saving leap over the fence to preserve an Ohtani victory.

In 543 innings pitched in Japan, the right-handed Ohtani produced a 2.52 ERA with 624 strikeouts. At the plate, the left-handed Ohtani batted .286 with an .859 OPS and 48 home runs in 1,170 plate appearances.

The possibilities, and creativity, seem limitless.

How unusual is this?

While the Angels finished 80-82 last summer and second to Houston in the AL West, 21 games back, they will have outfielder Justin Upton for a full season this summer along with Trout and right fielder Kole Calhoun. Ohtani has not played the outfield since 2014.

On the mound, despite a rotation decimated by injuries last season, Angels starters ranked sixth in the AL with a 4.38 ERA. Ohtani, a right-hander, should add needed depth to a front three of Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker (expected to be ready this spring following forearm surgery) and Tyler Skaggs.

And for now, Ohtani will come cheap. Beyond the signing bonus, his likely salary will be the $545,000 major league minimum next season. Of course, in a market like Los Angeles and given his already high profile, Ohtani should be able to rake in plenty of extra money through endorsements as well.

"Teams clearly put in a lot of work, and we are grateful for that," Balelo said in the statement. "The past few weeks also further demonstrated Shohei's incredible thoughtfulness, attention to detail and determination to make an informed decision. He read every page of every presentation and listened to every word in each meeting, and he was so impressed that it was not an easy choice."

He took meetings last week with seven clubs: the Angels, Dodgers, Seattle, Texas, San Francisco, San Diego and the Chicago Cubs.

Padres owner Ron Fowler characterized Ohtani to Bleacher Report as "a great young man. I'm sorry we didn't get him. Our guys made a presentation that was just unbelievable, as close as we could come to hitting it out of the park."

Among other things, general manager A.J. Preller opened San Diego's presentation by speaking to Ohtani in Japanese for several minutes.

But in the end, it was the Angels who spoke the loudest to Ohtani.

"If you become a professional baseball player, you're either a hitter or a pitcher," Takashi Ofuchi, Hokkaido's amateur scout group leader and a key figure in luring Ohtani to the Fighters in 2013, told Bleacher Report last winter. "But if a person has the possibility to do everything, we need to look at that person and his talent and bring his skills along all at the same time. It's like Michelangelo and Einstein. They could do art and science, everything."

Indeed, why put fences around genius and creativity?

"As a scout, I have to look at the person and his abilities," Ofuchi continued. "Ohtani is the player who changed my way of thinking."

Now, it is up to Ohtani and the Angels to change the thinking throughout MLB. And while they do, who better to have in place to lend an assist than Superman Trout?

Suddenly, summer seems just around the corner.

          

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

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