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    A Sobering Fourth, Positive Tests, and Should We Even Try to Do This?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Fourth of July normally is a celebration of all things Americana, complete with summer heat, burgers on the grill, family and friends and, of course, Braves baseball. It’s one of the landmark days on the baseball calendar, along with Memorial Day and Labor Day, when we size up where our team sits and whether it actually is good enough to make it to October.

    But not this year. And we got a stark dose of our current, cold reality splashed right into our faces as the second day of Braves summer camp unfolded Saturday morning at Truist Park.

    I had no inside information, and while some folks mentioned it on social media, I hesitated greatly to speculate on the players I did not see in pictures and videos from the Braves and various onsite media from Friday’s workouts. But I’ve watched this team as close as anybody for years, and not seeing Freddie Freeman’s face pop up in a single image Friday left me wondering if the captain of the Braves indeed had been stricken by the coronavirus.

    Those worries were confirmed by the team Saturday morning, the first baseman and linchpin of the Atlanta lineup testing positive for the virus. He has company, sadly: newly signed closer Will Smith, along with pitcher Touki Toussaint and non-roster infielder Pete Kozma, also testing positive for a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans. According to published reports Saturday, manager Brian Snitker said Freeman has been running a fever and might not be back for quite some time. Freeman’s wife, Chelsea Freeman, commented via her Instagram account that her husband, “literally never gets sick and this virus hit him like a ton of bricks.”

    In normal times, we would discuss what Freeman’s absence would mean to the Braves. Three years ago tonight, we were celebrating his return from a wrist injury (at third base, remember? Ah, the Matt Adams days). These obviously are not normal times. Heck, I should be sitting in Truist Park tonight, celebrating Independence Day with 41,000 of my closest friends, enjoying seeing Mike Trout play in person for the first time, welcoming home former Braves standouts Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran. Instead, I’m here in the Braves Room, streaming a Winnipeg Goldeyes games online (Peg City is up 9-0, by the way) while an IMSA race at Dayton plays on my muted TV.

    Normal? Nope. I don’t even know what IMSA means.

    I spent today the way I spent the previous two afternoons – fishing along the shores of Lake Lanier, burning vacation time for work that would’ve been spent at the home opener and the opening homestand and at Fenway Park two weeks ago. The only chop in my world right now comes from boat traffic lapping against the lake shore. The Braves, according to a New York Post report tonight, are scheduled to open the truncated 60-game season on Friday, July 24, at Citi Field against the Mets.

    It’s fair to wonder tonight: Will it happen?

    More importantly: Should it happen?

    Sure, it’d be great to have Braves baseball on our TVs 60 times across 66 days starting two weeks from Friday. The distraction would be welcomed. Just listening to this Goldeyes radio broadcast tonight (Winnipeg roughed up former Mississippi Braves hurler Tyler Pike for seven runs, in case you’re wondering) has provided a bit of comforting and somewhat familiar background noise on a Fourth of July that otherwise feels like no other July 4 in my memory.

    But at the same time, it feels foolish to spend much time wondering how the Braves cover for Freeman’s likely absence when the season begins at first base and the now-gaping hole in the third spot of the batting order. I mean, with everything going on right now, is investing the energy into whether it should be Austin Riley or Nick Markakis or Yonder Alonso playing first base worthwhile?

    Perhaps it is, and perhaps that’s how we keep on keeping on, right? I often come to you here with blunt opinions about this franchise and this sport, but I’m conflicted tonight. Seeing Snitker speak to the media today was difficult. You could see the pain in his eyes as he discussed not only the four positive test results, but also the fact popular first-base coach Eric Young Sr. has opted out of being onsite this season. Say what you will about Snit, but you can’t deny how much he loves this franchise he’s represented for four decades, and how much that man adores every single person who is a part of it.

    The Fourth of July is here, and this is where we sit. It’s a heavy time, accentuated further by Dodgers pitcher David Price and Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman opting out of playing in 2020, by positive tests for Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola and two teammates, by positive tests that have popped up already inside the NBA and MLS bubbles. And sobering news late Saturday: Felix Hernandez, the longtime Seattle ace who impressed in his initial Braves spring starts before the shutdown, opting to sit out 2020 because of the virus.

    And can you blame him, honestly?

    Trout, the best player on the planet, would be roaming center field for the Angels at Truist Park tonight. Instead, he’s home with his pregnant wife, undoubtedly weighing the heaviness of whether putting on his No. 27 for the Halos is worthwhile in this unprecedented time. I don’t blame him one bit. Honestly, I’ll be surprised if the best player on the planet takes one AB this season.

    I want baseball back, desperately. But deep down, stripping away my Braves fandom and my insane love for this amazing sport, I must admit I’ve wondered if one day I’d reach a point when I’d say, “let’s not do this.”

    This weekend, around the most American date on the calendar and one when our national pastime shines so bright, one typically spent celebrating with family and friends while watching our beautiful game on display, I’m closer to that point than I ever thought I’d be.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Owners Deserve Your Scorn as Epic Stumble Continues

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Picture the Fourth of July weekend. Players standing 6 feet apart as the national anthem reverberates through empty ballparks on the nation’s birthday. A return to play before any other major U.S. team sport, a starved nation of sports fans tuning in for the only live baseball available outside of Asia.

    The coronavirus presented a very difficult and different landscape, but the national pastime found a way. The owners and players, who long have held an acrimonious relationship, set aside their long-standing differences, realized this was a crisis and not a collective bargaining agreement negotiation, and for the greater good got to work to bring back baseball, hopefully helping raise a nation from its knees.

    As if.

    Baseball has blown it. Big time. Like, Falcons in that-game-we-shall-never-mention big time. Even for a sport that tends to stumble all over itself in the best of times, it’s fallen flat on its face in stunningly spectacular fashion.

    The owners continue to cite the memorandum of understanding (subscription required) from late March that, if fans cannot be present in the stands, they reserve the right to renegotiate in good faith the plan to pay the players 100 percent of prorated salary for games played. Well, the union’s recent proposals have called for various numbers of games played, but all boil down to paying the players a discount that is not 100 percent of the agreed-to ratio in March.

    Good faith?

    The players association flatly refuses each proposal and provides corresponding counter-proposals, all calling for 100 percent prorated salary. The owners flatly refuse each one, and thus respond in time with another proposal that calls for fewer games, while the net-net money paid to the players remains roughly the same.

    Second verse, same as the first. Rinse and repeat.

    What’s the old saying about doing the same thing over and over again, only to get the same result?

    Insanity rules the day, a day where there are so many heavier and more meaningful issues on our hearts than whether Ronald Acuna Jr. could accomplish his “50-50” season in, say, 114 games (or 89, or 78, or 60). I’ve commented time and time again on social media that while it’s frustrating, negotiators will negotiate. That’s how these things go. Certainly at some point, there will be a breakthrough, the two sides will realize a solution is there, and will find a way to put together a season that’s not a glorified spring training.

    But here we are, with two full weeks of proposals offered and proposals rejected almost instantly. How much talking is happening? It’s not like representatives from both sides can lock themselves in a room, sit down across a table, talk late into the night, and find common ground. Somehow, looking someone in the eye on Zoom doesn’t hold the same power, but it doesn’t excuse where we sit right now.

    My frustration has reached a point I haven’t experienced through this whole shutdown. We all want baseball to return, but I really did not expect we would reach mid-June with no agreement and no return-to-play plan in place. A month ago, if you had told me this is where we’d be tonight, I would assume it would be solely because of the coronavirus.

    Not about money. It can’t be about the money. Now more than ever, it absolutely cannot be about the money.

    Guess what?

    Baseball’s history is littered with work stoppages, lockouts and strikes. We haven’t experienced one since the nuclear bomb of 1994 destroyed the postseason and the public trust. And while the players typically bear the brunt of the public rage in these situations, that’s not fair this time. Players want to play. First and foremost, they want to be safe. Players who have pre-existing medical conditions, such as Braves outfielder Adam Duvall (diabetes), must have assurances they will be safe. Players who have high-risk family members (Eireann Dolan, wife of Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, has a long history of respiratory problems) or players whose wives are pregnant (Jessica Cox, wife of Angels star Mike Trout, is expecting the couple’s first child in August) have legitimate concerns. And let’s face it, there are plenty of coaches and managers who are higher-risk based on age and underlying health factors – including four Braves coaching staff members (including manager Brian Snitker) who are age 60 or older (subscription required).

    But the players want to play. Pay them what they are owed for each game they play. If a player makes $10 million a year and 81 games are played (one-half a season), that player should make $5 million. Play 65 games (40 percent of the season), pay that player $4 million. Why is this so hard? After all, the players are the ones taking the risk. They are the ones traveling, staying in hotels, coming in contact with each other breaking up double plays at second base or tagging out baserunners in a rundown or in the locker room. And let’s face it: the average career – and thus, the window to earn money in baseball – is finite.

    Contrast that with the owners, all of whom are worth far more than any one player will make in their career. Owners don’t become billionaires just by buying sports teams. A professional sports franchise is merely one part of their portfolio, a portfolio that can generate money not just for a few short years, but for decades and decades on end. And I don’t expect any owners will fight to be in attendance or jump on the team charter when the games begin, either.

    Sure, owners will lose money for every game that’s played without fans in the stands, fans who otherwise would be buying tickets and parking passes and hot dogs and beers and souvenirs. And I realize the other parts of their portfolio may not be raking in cash right now, either. But owners assume the risk when they purchase an asset, be it a baseball team or a local pizza parlor. And when the revenue stream generates more than expected, I don’t see baseball owners bending over backward to give players a bonus (while the pizza place owner might reward their employees at the end of the year with a little extra for Christmas).

    I can’t side with the owners here, I just can’t. And what the owners have missed through all of this is the scenario we discussed at the beginning of this piece. Yes, owners would lose more money by playing 81 games that started on the Fourth of July instead of a 50-game season. But that extension of good will, of doing it for the country and for the good of the people, would have paid off in a big way down the road, for years and years to come. It would be an investment into a business unit under their umbrella, a temporary shortfall that in my opinion would have paid off ten-fold moving forward.

    Instead, owners would rather pay the players 100 percent of prorated salary but only for the number of games they feel is appropriate (read: the cheapest outlay of cash), which would result in a season that lasts approximately 50 games. And, if somebody hits .407 across those 50 games, are we going to proclaim them the greatest hitter since Ted Williams?

    Do I even need to mention what the Nationals record was after 50 games last season? (Please stop throwing stuff at your computer.)

    Baseball had a tremendous opportunity to smash a 2-0 fastball into the upper deck, to be the first team sport back, on Independence Day weekend no less, to help the nation rally again, as baseball did during World War II, as baseball did after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Nope. That pitch sail right down the middle and right on by.

    That’s on the owners.

    There are far, far more important things on our hearts and minds right now than a professional sports league that constantly makes us shake our heads in frustration even in the salad days. We continue losing our fellow citizens from the virus – a 42-year-old friend and former neighbor of mine died last week from COVID-19; his funeral is Saturday morning – more and more people are struggling financially, and our nation’s streets are full of protestors rightly voicing their opinion that systemic racism and police brutality must stop now.

    The deeper we go into this summer without baseball, when I see the NBA and NHL and MLS moving forward with plans to return, I care that much less about this grand old game. I just hope history doesn’t look back at this time as the moment when baseball put itself in a place from which it could not recover.

    If that happens, direct your ire accordingly. Not at those in uniform. At those wearing suits.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Braves snap interleague losing streak, welcome Phillies

    Where the Braves struggled in strike outs and scoring runs last season, an immense frustration for followers of the team and the players themselves, they’ve upped that struggle this season and have added to it inconsistencies on defense as well as out of the bullpen. Despite their frustrations, the Braves took 2 of 3 from the visiting Angels.

    Friday night the Braves once again saw great pitching from the unlikely Aaron Harang who has been nothing but solid for the Braves since they signed him late. Harang’s outing Friday led the team to finally snapping a 6-game losing streak in interleague play. Additionally, the team improved to 24-6 when scoring 4 or more runs. Harang finished his outing with 6 innings of 1-run ball. He allowed 4 hits, 3 walks and struck out 2.

    As the long man, David Hale got plenty of work this series.

    As the long man, David Hale got plenty of work this series. Hale entered the first 2 games of the series, pitching 3 1/3 innings.

    Aaron Harang was relieved by David Hale who saw plenty of time over the series with the Angels, particularly in the 13-inning marathon Saturday night. Over Friday and Saturday, Hale pitched 3 1/3 innings. He allowed 5 runs on 3 hits, walking 2 and striking out 1. Hale was out of sorts in the final inning of work Saturday night, but Fredi Gonzalez had only Shae Simmons and possibly Mike Minor to turn to. Fredi had said before the game that he didn’t want to use Simmons.

    Sunday afternoon Fredi Gonzalez said that Minor was in the ‘pen and ready to enter if the game had gone to the 14th or 15th inning. Minor, of course, was the scheduled starter Monday. Fredi also said that Wren was told that if Minor did enter the game then the Braves would need a reliever called up from Triple-A. The Braves didn’t end up making a roster move Sunday, despite the ‘pen logging 6 2/3 innings Saturday night. Aaron Harang was available in the ‘pen Sunday night–his scheduled ‘pen day–and would still have been available to pitch Wednesday against the Phillies. Fortunately, Harang wasn’t needed.

    One more note on Minor: Minor was, in a word, a mess at Coors Field. He contends that Coors doesn’t get to him, but it doesn’t seem that is the case. When he entered Sunday night’s game, he recorded strikes with each of the 6 breaking balls he threw. His breaking stuff was the big problem for him in Colorado and rebounded nicely at home against the Angels. Minor’s outing saw him give up his 70th career homer. 46 of those home runs, including the homers given up to Aybar and Trout in the finale, have been solo shots.

    Two bats that the Braves would love to see get hot or those of Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman. Since June 1st, Justin Upton has hit only .179 with 1 homer and 3 RBIs. He has recorded 14 strikeouts in that time. Justin could have put an end to the marathon game Saturday night in the 11th inning with a hit to right field, but yet another dramatic play in game of dramatic plays cost the Braves the win. Kole Calhoun went full extension facing the plate to rob Justin Upton of the potentially game-winning hit.

    Freddie’s bat has been slumping mightily recently. Prior to a clutch double in the 9th inning of the 13-inning game, Freeman had an 0-for-14 slump. That double may have propelled the struggling hitter back to more successful at-bats. Freeman hit a double in his first plate appearance of the series finale and through the 6th inning accounted for 2 of the 3 Atlanta hits. He has now doubled in 2 of his past 6 at-bats. Before Saturday night’s 9th inning, he had 2 extra-base hits in his previous 47 at-bats. Like Justin, Freddie has been sliding since June 1st. He has hit .163 in June with only 2 homers. His batting average dropped from .297 to .272.

    A bat that is anything but slumping is that of catcher Evan Gattis. Gattis took a 14-game hitting streak into the series finale with the Angels, a streak that has seen him hit .411. He extended his hitting streak to 15 games with an RBI-single in the 6th inning. The catcher was part of one of the more perplexing moves by Fredi Gonzalez in the series when he was pulled in the late innings of the marathon Saturday night game for pinch runner Dan Uggla. Not only is Gattis the most consistent hitter for Atlanta right now, Hale had pitched only 1 inning at that point and the bench was all but empty. Hale would go on to crumble in the top of the 13th inning, the team was without Gattis’ bat going forward and Dan Uggla’s base running skills were questionable when he was doubled off second base to end the inning (and rally). Despite the managerial snafu, Gattis remains the best hitting player on the team and the catcher with the most homers in either league. A few things worth noting about Gattis: He has 7 homers in his last 15 games and of the last 7 times Atlanta has hit back-to-back homers in a game, El Oso Blanco has been part of 6 of them.

    What many thought would eventually come appears to have with B.J. Upton–his struggles at the plate have now started dogging him in the field. B.J. committed costly errors in games 1 and 2 of the series, the error in game 2 potentially costing them the game and dragging the game into extra innings. He seems to have no sense of the strike zone, arguing with umpires about pitches that were clearly in the middle of the plate. His contract gives the Braves no leverage with the struggling center fielder. Going forward, fans can only hope that Upton is moved out of the 2-hole, possibly for La Stella.

    BRAVES OPEN SERIES AGAINST PHILLY AT HOME…

    Arriving in Atlanta Monday is the last-place team in the National League East. Jimmy Rollins surpassed the franchise record-holding Mike Schmidt for most career hits this week and now says he is open to being traded. It would appear that the Phillies are out of contention entirely.

    Look for the hot-hitting Evan Gattis to see plenty of playing time against the Phillies. Gattis has punished Philly pitching in his short career. He has a career .319 BA against Philly and has slugged .787 with 7 homers in 12 games. Evan Gattis has good numbers in limited appearances against veteran Cole Hamels. He is 2-for-3 (.667) with 2 homers in those

    One of the ongoing struggles for the Braves is consistency out of the bullpen. While the bullpen continues to struggle in high-pressure situations, they have relied heavily on closer Kimbrel for consistency in those spots. However, Kimbrel gave up a Pujols lead-off double and an RBI single to Hamilton, allowing the Angels to reclaim the lead in 10th inning Saturday night. Coming into the game, 13 of the 17 fastballs Kimbrel had thrown in his past 2 appearances registered 98 or 99 mph. The other 4 fastballs? 97 mph.

    David Carpenter continues to be the tough-luck man on the staff and with Alex Wood back in Triple-A, David Hale seems to be committed to the role of long man. Where the ‘pen had been the biggest strength of the Braves in recent years, it seems to be a liability right now. Having rejoined the team in Colorado, Jordan Walden’s presence hopefully will stabilize the ‘pen. Walden as set-up man for Kimbrel gives the Braves 2 innings they can count on. And Shae Simmons turns out to be a cool customer who doesn’t get rattled in tight spots. Hopefully Carpenter will return to the shutdown guy he came up as and Luis Avilan will continue improving against lefties.

    The Braves face growing specialty in bullpens in their division. By developing specialty arms, National League teams are averaging 8.72 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched per reliever. This was something the Braves were competitive with, sending Walden, Avilan and Kimbrel out there as well as Venters, O’Flaherty and Kimbrel the year before. They have the talent to keep up with the league, it’s simply a matter of Carpenter recovering his confidence, Walden staying healthy, Simmons introducing himself to the league and Avilan returning to the Avilan of old.

    A few notes on injuries: Heyward was hit in the hand at the plate in the first game of the series with L.A. The ball got him on his last 3 knuckles of the right hand. After treatment on the hand, Heyward was able to play Saturday. Also, Gerald Laird, who missed time following a Tulowitzki back swing in Colorado that hit Laird in the jaw and side of the head while knocking his mask off, entered the Saturday game in the late innings. Laird passed concussion tests in Colorado and was cleared by Rockies’ doctors to fly back with the team to Atlanta.

    The 3-game series against the Phillies will kick off Monday with Hamels (2-3, 3.07) vs. Teheran (6-4, 2.41). Kendrick (2-6, 4.09) is pitted against Santana (5-3, 4.09) Tuesday. And the series finale will feature Hernandez (2-5, 4.26) vs. Harang (5-5, 3.20). The Braves will then go on the road to face the Nationals.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch