White Sox pitcher Joe Kelly’s book, “A Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America’s Pastime,” delves into many of the issues frustrating fans of major league baseball, and is on sale tomorrow wherever you get your books. Here’s an excerpt:
Chapter 5: Giving Baseball the Business
I’m not a big inspirational quotation guy. It’s not like I stare up at the placards these teams like to put on doors, walls, and windows for baseball players to soak in while coming around every single corner. The reminders are well-intentioned, for sure.
But every once in a while you come across a few words uttered by someone at some time in some place that make you stop and think. One of those just so happened to be passed on by a guy making his mark on the other side of Chicago.
His name was Phil Wrigley. (If that sounds familiar, it should. He has a pretty well-known ballpark named after his family.) These were the words he relayed that surprisingly stuck in my brain:
Baseball is too much of a sport to be a business and too much of a business to be a sport.
I started looking into this guy who gave us this saying, and I learned he was a businessman who had inherited a gum company and baseball team, the Cubs, from his father. But he also clearly cared about the game while managing the moneymaking side of things. When World War II threatened to derail baseball, he was the guy who kept baseball on the brain in this country, sponsoring the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. (The story is retold in the movie A League of Their Own.) Wrigley prioritized the kind of media coverage for the Cubs—both in print and electronically—that would make sure the Wrigley stands remained full, even when there were no baseball playoffs.
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It seemed like Mr. Wrigley had a good grasp of the unavoidable two sides of our game. Or at least he attempted to understand it. I can’t say that for most of the current owners.
The challenge that Wrigley wrestled with started when baseball officially became a business in the 1860s and it hasn’t died down since. But it’s clear some try to tackle the dichotomy more than others, with too few seeming to care all that much about the actual joy of the game.
For me, this isn’t about labor negotiations or the like. This is about actually loving all that baseball brings, and exhibiting some of that adulation along the way. Compared to other sports, our owners’ safe haven is the boardroom rather than the ball fields. And that’s sad.
With the understanding that one has to be really, really wealthy to own a Major League Baseball team, it’s time to prioritize getting some younger, more enthusiastic bodies in those owners’ chairs. Elon Musk. Mark Cuban. Mark Zuckerberg. Let’s go! We see the Steve Ballmers of the world sit courtside for his Los Angeles Clippers, living and dying with every play. I’m sure there are some in our baseball-ownership world who might secretly yearn to portray a similar image, but it certainly is hard to find them.
And it’s not just about the fist pumps or social media engagement. This is also about prioritizing ideas that will actually draw people to baseball instead of stiff-arming them with talks of bottom lines and luxury tax thresholds. These are smart people who probably got to where they are by seeing through a prism others weren’t aware of. Now is the time to start utilizing that sort of vision for the game they are supposed to be reveling in.
Call me naïve, but I want owners arguing with umpires, pouring celebratory beer down their gullets, and then eating a postgame ice cream with their buddies to revel in what they just saw. And then, to top it off, go back to their offices and figure out algorithms that help enable some better fan-friendly apps.
I’m not arguing that there isn’t a balancing act when it comes to the separation between the business side of baseball and appeasing the ball and bat crowd. But there has to be better recognition by both the check-signers and the suits in Major League Baseball that this is a partnership.
Believe me, there have been plenty of times since I entered this world of professional baseball that it felt like the suits and I were living in completely different worlds. Some really, really uncomfortable times. One, in particular, jumps to mind.
Remember the pitch to Bregman, the words with Correa, and finally the pout? Well, evidently, all of it served as the biggest reality check when it came to how quickly our game can devolve into us—the players—versus them—the guys at 1271 6th Avenue in New York City (otherwise known as the commissioner’s office).
For me, one of the greatest sins in our professional lives is the abuse of faith and trust, with the abuse of power not far behind. Thanks to the fallout from that day in Houston, all of it was put on display at my expense.
While there are hundreds of big and small decisions passed down from the offices in Manhattan every year, portraying the good and bad of whatever process big business baseball has decided to set up, I can only give you my hallmark moment, one that painted the kind of picture that makes those words from Mr. Wrigley ring through my head.
Let me take you inside the wonderful world of a Major League Baseball suspension:
Starting with a letter . . .
Major League Baseball
1271 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
July 29, 2020
Mr. Joe Kelly
Los Angeles Dodgers
1000 Vin Scully Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
I have read the Umpire Incident Report filed by Crew Chief Alfonso Marquez and reviewed the video of the Los Angeles Dodgers–Houston Astros game on July 28, 2020.
During the bottom of the sixth inning of that game, you violated Official Baseball Rule 6.02(c)(9) by intentionally throwing your fourth pitch of the at-bat in the head area of Astros batter Alex Bregman. The comment to Official Baseball Rule 6.02(c)(9) states, in part, that, “[t]o pitch at a batter’s head is unsportsmanlike and highly dangerous. It should be and is condemned by everybody.” In addition, after later striking out Carlos Correa to end the inning, you taunted Correa and directed comments and gestures toward the Astros dugout as you walked off the mound. Your actions directly contributed to the ensuing bench-clearing incident. While this behavior is unacceptable during any season, it is especially egregious when viewed in the context
of the 2020 season, when any actions that can lead to close contact between players and coaches or prolong a game can have particularly stark consequences. In the future, I implore you to be more mindful of your actions, particularly given the risks to all involved in this season.
Your actions on the field were dangerous and offensive, and showed a reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of the players on both Clubs. Your actions and comments did not conform to the high standards of personal conduct and good sportsmanship required of you as a Major League Player. Accordingly, you are hereby suspended for eight (8) games and fined $10,000.00. Your suspension is scheduled to begin during your Club’s game tonight on July 29, 2020.
During the course of your suspension, you may be in uniform and may participate in your regular pre-game routine. At game time, however, you must be out of uniform and away from team areas. You are permitted to watch the game from the suite level, but may not at any time be in the dugout, bullpen, press box or any broadcast areas.
Your personal check in the amount of $10,000.00 (made payable to either the Baseball Assistance Team or the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation) should be sent to the Department of On-Field Operations at Major League Baseball (attention: Danielle Monday) by Friday, August 7, 2020.
Chris Young, SVP, On-Field Operations
cc: LAD—Baseball Operations; MLB—On-Field
Operations, Labor Relations; Bob Lenaghan (MLBPA)
Now, let’s view the aforementioned umpire’s report:
Umpire Incident Report
Major League Baseball
245 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10167
Reporting Umpire: Marquez, Alfonso
Umpire Department Comments
LAD pitcher Kelly intentionally threw a pitch behind HOU batter Bregman. No action was taken by the Umpire Crew. Comments and gestures were exchanged at various points during the inning. During HOU batter Correa’s at-bat, Kelly threw a breaking pitch that forced
Correa to duck out of the way. The pitch was not deemed intentional by the Umpire Crew and no action was taken. Correa struck out to end the inning and words and gestures were exchanged between Kelly and Correa and other Astros. The benches cleared onto the field as this exchange escalated. Warnings were issued to both Clubs prior to the game resuming.
HP: Marquez 1B: Guccione 2B: Blaser 3B: Morales
LAD @ HOU 07/28/2020 08:11 PM ET
Game Situation 1
LAD—5 HOU-2 TOP—7TH
BALLS—O STRIKES—O OUTS—O
Warnings issued to prevent retaliation (pitch not involved in incident)
Baker Jr., Dusty
Warnings issued to prevent retaliation (pitch not involved in incident)
Other comments and gestures
Other comments and gestures
How long did this incident delay the game? 5 Mins.
Was a “Heads-Up” in place for this game? No
Was the incident reported by telephone following the game? Yes
During the bottom of the sixth inning, Alex Bregman was up to bat for the Houston Astros with one out, no runners on base.
Umpire Incident Report
Major League Baseball
245 Park Avenue
A 3–0 count. Joe Kelly was pitching for the Dodgers. The 3–0 pitch to Bregman went over and behind his head. I deemed this pitch to be intentionally thrown behind him. There was a little bit of chatter from the Houston dugout. Pitcher Kelly then threw over to first base three consecutive
times and Houston’s dugout would say something after every time but nothing that would make us say something or get together. Later on in the inning, Carlos Correa was up to bat with a runner on first and two outs. The first pitch to Correa was an off speed pitch that went over Correa’s head. I did not deem this pitch intentional and nothing was said by anyone. Correa ended up striking out to end the inning.
After Effects: After Correa struck out, Dodgers’ pitcher Kelly looked toward Houston’s dugout and that’s when Houston started yelling out at Kelly. Kelly continued toward his dugout while making facial expressions at Houston. By now both teams started out of their dugouts and onto the field. Our crew got in the middle of both teams and were telling them to go back. Only words were exchanged. Once we got everybody back to their dugouts we got together and decided to issue warnings to both teams. I informed Dodgers’ Manager Dave Roberts and Chris Guccione informed Astros’ Manager Dusty Baker. Baker immediately came out of the dugout telling us that they did nothing to be warned. We told Baker that warnings were in and that it needed to be the end of it. Manager Baker then went back to the dugout and we continued and ended the game with no further incidents.
This report has been reviewed and approved for transmission by the crew chief.
• • •
So, there you have it. They suspended me for eight games and fined me $10,000 for throwing a pitch near Bregman’s head and then making a funny face. OK, then.
So much is great about being a big-league ballplayer, but one thing I have found to be the opposite of excellent is having to listen to a bunch of MLB executives tie themselves into knots suggesting that I almost caused a COVID-super-spreader brawl. And while I sat through this back-and-forth, I knew that there was an ulterior motive at play.
In the eyes of Major League Baseball, two things needed to be painted in a positive light at that place and time: Its protection of the cheating Astros and how it was handling the COVID chaos.
Other than a player’s approach to throwing or hitting or running on a baseball field, one of the most important decisions he can make is picking the right people to shield him from the big, bad world of baseball business. Fortunately, I had chosen Sam and Seth Levinson of an agency called ACES (Athletes’ Careers Enhanced and Secured Inc.).
What you notice immediately about the brothers is that, while they are diminutive in size, their presence is huge.
Intensity. Information. Opinion. They are all offered up with every conversation I have had with those guys. You can tell how much they care and how much they have worked to get to this level of sports agency prestige. Two smart kids from Brooklyn who simply loved the game of baseball so much that they dedicated their lives to helping guys like me navigate the roads we players really have no desire to venture down.
Sam and Seth care. And that was never more evident than when trying to fend off the warped world of Major League Baseball decision-makers.
In this case, Seth, who is an attorney, had five minutes—five minutes!—to right what we believed to be wrong: suspending me for no legitimate reason. I sat. I listened. And I couldn’t believe how those from Major League Baseball were representing the situation, while simply turning a blind eye to the facts before them. They were so dug in on their agenda—protecting the perceived safety of the cheating Astros while showing that MLB was preventing players from spreading COVID—that the facts bounced off their heads. At least, that’s how it seemed from where I was sitting.
Those days of worrying about how to wear my uniform seemed so far away.
Did I mention in this hearing that they let my agent speak for exactly five minutes? Five minutes! But, you know what? Seth sure squeezed a lot in those three hundred seconds. Later, my agent—a veteran of hundreds of such cases—said he hadn’t seen anything like it. Neither had I.
The first thing he reminded the group was that I was “charged” with “intentionally” throwing at Bregman’s head. Chris Young, who was the disciplinary czar for MLB, had issued an over-the-top statement about the seriousness of throwing at a player’s head, reading like an indictment. The beauty of it was that Seth actually got everyone to agree that such an action must be treated as a serious crime. In fact, it was the most serious crime that can be committed by a pitcher.
So far, so good.
Where MLB’s case all started going to crap was when Seth pointed out that the word “head” appeared nowhere in the umpire’s report. The omission of “head” in the umpire’s report, under those circumstances, was like charging someone with murder even though none of the police reports mentioned murder.
When asked to describe the offense, the umpire’s report refers to the offense as “routine.” You would have thought that throwing at someone’s head would be anything but routine. Of course, the conclusion that the offense was routine supported the umpire’s decision not to eject me.
Notably, MLB had sent a memo before the 2020 season instructing umpires to confer over any pitch that may be intentional to determine whether or not an ejection is warranted. Well, the umpires didn’t confer, which meant it was evident to the four umpires that my pitch was not thrown intentionally at Bregman’s head.
Now, the umpire’s report does state that the pitch was thrown “intentionally behind the batter.” Guess what? There is absolutely nothing in the Official Rules of Major League Baseball that prohibits a pitcher from throwing behind a hitter, which only underscored the conclusion that I didn’t violate any rule or commit any offense that was deserving of a suspension.
And to top it all off, the MLB attorney wanted Seth’s argument to be stricken from the record. That would have been an interesting approach . . . if there was actually a record being taken.
Reminder: No batter was hit by a pitch. There were no ejections. No warnings were issued before the pitch. And there was no fight after the pitch. Never, in the history of baseball, has there ever been a pitcher suspended without any of the aforementioned four events taking place.
What MLB was saying was that the pitch to Bregman was far too inside. (That was MLB, not the umpires.)
So, what we did was submit an exhibit that demonstrates that since 2018 there had been fifteen pitches thrown that were further inside than my offering to Bregman, and seven that were
thrown as far inside without the pitcher being disciplined. In other words, the whole suspension was completely arbitrary.
My perspective on this charade was that every bit of evidence we threw at them was simply brushed aside, with their counterarguments based only on my character. For instance, when the benches cleared and the Astros confronted me just feet from the Dodgers’ dugout, MLB Senior Counsel Justin Wiley accused me of putting the season at risk and jeopardizing the health and safety of the umpires because the chance that COVID would spread without social distancing had now increased. Huh?!
Here was what we desperately tried to explain to them: The pitch to Bregman was unintentional, I had been effectively wild throughout my career, and this pitch wasn’t unlike so many others I had thrown throughout my career.
Hell, I threw seventeen pitches without throwing a single fastball for a strike, and I had only one pitch (a curveball) called for a strike. I walked two hitters on eight pitches, threw a wild pitch, and got Correa out by throwing six consecutive breaking balls. How could I intentionally throw a pitch at anyone that day, considering I had no idea where any of the pitches were going?
The next problem for MLB was a ridiculous exhibit they presented. It demonstrated that over the course of my career I had hit seventeen right-handed batters with fastballs. When asked about the fraudulent exhibit, Wiley held his ground and said it accurately reflected my fastball location to right-handed hitters in my career.
So, we decided to take it one step further to see how much of a joke this was going to be.
Seth and company duplicated the MLB exhibit by using its own Statcast data. This was their information. The result was hysterical, leading MLB to submit a revised exhibit after the hearing. (Who knew the parties could submit evidence after both parties had rested their cases?)
MLB decided to change the period measured for fastballs over my career to fastballs spanning 2015–2020. (It was curious that they chose such a specific time period.) And finally, they eliminated the image of the batter from the exhibit so that it didn’t look so obvious that they were missing the seventeen right-handed batters I hit with fastballs.
Wiley then stated separately to the arbitrator that the exhibit was limited to only four-seam fastballs, when nowhere in the actual exhibit was the selection of pitches that specific. That was odd, considering the pitch I threw to Bregman was a two-seam fastball.
Ultimately this was the kind of kangaroo court that would have embarrassed a kangaroo. MLB had its narrative and its motivations, and it wasn’t going to let facts get in the way.
I love playing in Major League Baseball. It’s a dream come true. But, like a lot of things in life, reality isn’t quite as pristine as those childhood fantasies might suggest.
My head-butting with MLB didn’t stop with the hearing or latest suspension. The league put me at the top of the list when it came to fines for not wearing my mask during the shortened
2020 season. We’re talking $1,000 a pop. But what was bizarre about those reports was that even though there was supposedly an official in the dugout and clubhouse assigned to monitor such things, they never approached me or presented a photo of my supposed transgressions.
Heck, one time they wrote me up for an incident in a game where I had pulled my mask down to drink water. Sigh.
All of this comes back to my biggest problem with MLB and, in some cases, the teams it oversees: the abuse of power. Can we please start doing the right thing without players having to push and push and push? Some of it is just flat-out common sense.
For instance, Major League Baseball has access to all of these Wall Street executives, so why in the world can’t it set up a committee for players who are retired or about to be retired that can help them with investment information? The unfortunate fact is that 60 percent of MLB players who retire have financial problems.
Or how about this? Set up an independent committee involving mental health professionals who can really help a problem that is lingering among players these days. There needs to be somebody for these guys to talk to if they don’t trust who the clubs are offering up, or if there is an issue that crops up in the middle of the night. Right now everything has to be done through the club, and that doesn’t always work for a player.
There also can’t be a paint-by-numbers approach when it comes to treatment for issues such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. I get it. Medication like Ritalin is a powerful supplement for baseball players. As one player said, it can make you immediately offer so much focus that you can make out what people are talking about in the upper deck. But some guys legitimately need it, and even if they go to a renowned psychiatrist, the disorder is diagnosed, and a prescription is written, MLB will not approve it. That doesn’t seem right.
You have all of these instances piling up, and it’s hard to not feel like MLB and its clubs are viewing the players more and more like property. Unfortunately it’s a feeling that is becoming more prevalent by the day.
All that said, I do fully appreciate the financial opportunities that come with playing baseball in the major leagues for a living. How can you not? Built on the backs of those who came well before me, the world of baseball has afforded me the chance to live life like a millionaire. And I’m getting those paychecks because of an actual game. The best game. That isn’t lost on me.
So, when my first foray into free agency came around, it was another level of surreal. Six years of service time in the big leagues had put me in the position to see if teams actually valued what I did. It turns out they did.
The feeling of being a free agent in baseball can be like college recruiting. It’s nice to have interest from schools, but all of it is semi-white noise while waiting for that top choice to give a ring. Fortunately for me, after the 2019 season ended, that call came.
Thank goodness for the Dodgers.
I loved Boston for many reasons, including how they had helped define my existence heading into my first crack at free agency. After trading for me in 2014, the expectation from everyone involved was that my world would continue to be as a starter. I had done just enough to suggest there was promise, so that when I walked over to the guys at WEEI Sports Radio in Foxwoods during the offseason prior to 2015 and told listeners I was going to win the Cy Young (the award given each year to Major League Baseball’s best pitchers), a case was actually being made.
Every pitcher wants to hold opponents to under a sub-.240 batting average and win a lot along the way. It has always been understood that if you do those two things as a starting pitcher, you’re going to make more money than the equally-as-successful relievers. The biggest contracts almost always go to the starters. That’s why relievers will gladly prioritize life as a starting pitcher if given the opportunity, and it’s also the reason middle-of-the-road starters, like myself, usually bristle at the idea of heading into the bullpen.
I was no different . . . until I was.
The transformation from starter to reliever started in 2016 and truly took root in 2017, when I ended up pitching in fifty-four games with a 2.79 ERA. By the time the 2018 season rolled around, all the feels and adrenaline I had thrived on while performing as a relief pitcher in college had surged back. I came to love it. I loved how the mind worked in those big spots, prioritizing the here and the now instead of the long haul. And I felt like I was pretty good at it, especially in the postseason where I had given up a run just once in twelve playoff games.
It wasn’t until the final weeks of the 2018 season when everything about my pitching truly changed. Dana LeVangie, the Red Sox pitching coach, finally pushed aside my final stumbling block. Grit. Guile. Stuff. Fearlessness. All welcome elements. But when LeVangie got me to understand that my curveball was my best weapon—not necessarily the much-talked-about 100 mph heater—it changed everything.
For such a sometimes-complicated game, it’s amazing how often fortunes can be defined in baseball with simple bits of information.
The alteration wasn’t really put on display until our postseason run, which culminated in the “Fuck, yeah!” moment in Game 6 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium. I had pitched in nine playoff games, allowing one earned run while striking out eleven and not walking a single batter. And it was all punctuated by those three strikeouts in the eighth inning.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Dodgers had taken notice beyond just licking their wounds from that final night of the 2018 season. They saw the change I had made and were intrigued. As it turned out, very intrigued.
When free agency rolled around and I found out the Dodgers were interested, it was a game changer. You’re talking about a ballpark I could drive to from my home, and a team that is actually going to play in important games. Then I met with Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, and there was no doubt which team had jumped to the top of the list.
For three hours we talked, with Friedman explaining in great detail how the Dodgers saw my evolution, where they wanted to build on it from there, and exactly how all of the future success was going to happen. There were analytics. There were machines. There were explanations of what was expected not only from the pitchers but also the catchers when it came to zeroing in on game plans.
After my visit with Friedman, in my mind, the Dodgers were the future. They were my future.
Decisions would be made at the upcoming Baseball Winter Meetings, the four-day event held every December and attended by representatives of all thirty Major League Baseball teams and the 120 minor league teams to discuss business, offseason trades, and so on.
There were other teams trying to do what the Dodgers were doing when it came to information and approach, but it sure seemed like Los Angeles was a few steps ahead of the rest of the pack. For me it was: This is the pitch you should throw, where you should throw it, when you should throw it, and here are the hitters you will be throwing it to. There were other layers of suggestions and observations; for example, they identified that my triple-digit fastball was getting hit so often because I was throwing it with one finger instead of two. To say all of it was eye-opening is an understatement.
And, did I mention, they played really close to my house?
So, that’s why when I sat down for dinner on the last night of the Baseball Winter Meetings at my California home and got the message from Sam and Seth that it seemed like we might be getting our wish, I went to bed a happy camper. The guys told me to keep my ringer on, and they would be getting back, we hoped, not too long into the night.
Little did I know what was transpiring in a suite in Vegas.
The best baseball general managers identify the guy or guys they want, and they do everything they can within reason to get them. It’s not that complicated, but you would be surprised how many take the passive approach. This was one of the reasons Friedman is so good. He saw what I could do, how I would fit into his team, and he made his move, which included meeting me face-to-face.
And while it would seem to be common sense to meet the player in person—out of uniform—to talk, observe, and digest, you would be surprised how many decision-makers don’t take that approach. You have executives who think they can get a read on a player simply by looking at some analytics, and maybe hearing some sort of scuttlebutt from one of their scouts to paint what they probably think is a pristine picture. Not Andrew.
Friedman did his homework, understood what I was all about, and also valued looking me eye to eye before talking numbers. He took the right approach. He didn’t want to fall short. He didn’t want the second or third choice because he understood that was no way to live life as a team-builder. What happens when you lose because you fell just short with your top priority, having to ride with the second or third option? That is a reality the Dodgers’ brass seemed to grasp thoroughly.
So, by the time the rubber was ready to meet the road in Vegas, the Dodgers had shown their interest, and we had reciprocated. Now came the cat-and-mouse. We couldn’t tip our hand that we viewed the Dodgers as the be-all, end-all, but we also couldn’t risk missing this opportunity for fear of needing to turn to teams that were further down the list.
The Dodgers also had to realize that’d I’d join them at what they viewed as palatable terms. Sure, they had gone down the laundry list of reasons why I was their guy, but they had other laundry lists and other guys, as well.
So, starting about midnight Vegas time, the games began, with Sam and Seth telling Friedman nobody was leaving until there was a deal done. (And there were a lot of people on both sides hunkering down in that suite.)
Among the Dodgers posse Friedman rolled in with was a former ACES client, Raúl Ibañez, who was now working with the club. Seth and Sam were supposed to feel the presence of Ibañez, along with the five other Dodgers executives. So, the Levinsons countered, hailing another one of their guys, former Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, to hang out. They weren’t about to be outnumbered.
“I thought we were playing cards,” Lowell said upon entering the room. Little did he know that for a good chunk of the next six hours he would be privy to what Seth later told his son Zack (who was also in the suite) was one of the most unusual, all-night negotiating sessions the longtime agents had ever experienced. And, believe me, they had experienced a lot.
They offered two years. We thought they were crazy. We asked for four years. They thought we were nuts. And so it went. From our end, we had stats and stats and stats, and, more important, that last image against the Dodgers.
About three in the morning, my phone rang. It was Seth. “We’re close. Not quite there yet, but close. Keep the ringer on.” Free agency can be fun . . . until it isn’t. This was somewhere in between.
Finally, at about 6:30 a.m., I got the call. The Dodgers had agreed to three years and a club option for $25 million. And, to make it official, the two sides had documented the arrangement on a napkin. Yes, all of those years of ups and downs and hard work was now immortalized on one of the last remaining unsoiled items in that suite.
True to their proclamation more than six hours earlier, Friedman and the Levinsons made sure a deal was done before anybody left that suite. Baseball careers aren’t easy, and neither are the moments that help punctuate them. Another Vegas all-nighter proved that.
Three years later, we were back at it. Same open market, dramatically different landscape.
Whereas before I was hitting free agency shot out of the cannon that was a World Series win and career-altering postseason run, this time would be different. My evolution with the Dodgers had been what I was hoping for when coming away from that first meeting with Friedman—winning another World Series while playing a key role in all three of my seasons with Los Angeles.
But there was that matter of a torn biceps during the 2021 postseason that put a damper on my free agent optimism. I wasn’t the first or last player to brace himself for the uncomfortable feeling that comes with an uneven last impression heading into the open market. So be it. I was ready to show whatever team that signed me it was going to be a big winner.
As the lockout ended, there were a couple of one-year offers and a couple of two-year offers but from clubs that I did not expect to be serious playoff contenders. I wasn’t going to be ready for Opening Day, so I got it. But then came that call while I was cruising through the Miguel’s Jr. for some Mexican food.
It was Seth. “The White Sox are the best club, and they are offering you two years and have now distinguished themselves from the competition.”
Through all the teams that I had heard were showing interest, not once was Chicago brought up. The Cubs? Yes. The White Sox? Nope.
The first thing I thought of was how weird it was that just the day before I was telling someone that the White Sox had the sickest uniforms in the major leagues. In fact, they were neck-and-neck with the Raiders for best in all of sports. There was something about that badass black-and-white.
Uniforms weren’t going to be the difference-maker, but having a good one never hurts.
It’s funny to think back on how your priorities change since those first few years in Little League. Back then, the uniform could be everything. “I’m not going to play for that team because they have lousy uniforms!” That is something a kid would say.
Even jersey numbers. Some guys obsess over making sure they can secure their lucky digits in whatever team they’re going to. Not me. When I went to the Red Sox I was going to wear No. 58 because that’s what they gave me in St. Louis when I showed up as a rookie. (Back then, they never let you pick your number.) But Jonathan Papelbon, a favorite closer in Boston up until 2011, had worn that number so I went with No. 56. In Little League and high school my numbers were always five or six, with my dad having worn No. 6 as a football player at Vanderbilt.
Now, it’s No. 17. Why? Because that’s what they gave me in college and it seemed to work out pretty well back then. Digits on the back of a uniform were never going to be part of any negotiations.
All I want is a jersey top where the sleeve isn’t too long so it doesn’t get caught up on my elbow, and tight pants because that’s how I wear my regular clothes. Justin Turner might insist on a presentation that includes two buttons always unbuttoned, a cut undershirt, and pine tar on his right shoulder every single time. But that’s not me.
Still, I’m not going to lie. I did like some badass black-and-white uniform.
The second thing I thought of after being hit with flashbacks to my recent uniform conversation was . . . “Holy crap, La Russa!”
I knew the White Sox’s Tony La Russa from when he was a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski during our 2018 championship season in Boston. Obviously, everybody understood what he represented in the game of baseball—the Hall of Fame manager who first managed the White Sox at the age of thirty-four back in 1979 and went on to win championships with both Oakland and St. Louis. He was an innovator, and yet he was still old school.
In some ways, Tony was the big league version of my youth baseball coach Rich Krzysiak. “Tough nuts, kick butts!” I knew what La Russa wanted, and he knew I could deliver.
There was no hemming or hawing. No demand for a medical evaluation. The White Sox had a need—a reliever who could pitch on the big stage, had a championship pedigree, was fearless, and could pitch in the back end of their bullpen when the lights were the brightest. I was checking off all their boxes.
The White Sox, a club that I believed could play deep into October, appeared completely out of nowhere.
Two hours. Give us two hours. That’s all we asked, just to do due diligence that some of these other interested parties were going to jump up and make a case like the White Sox were. Nope. I looked at Ashley. She looked at me. And just as the order of Mexican food arrived, we came to the conclusion: Chicago was going to be our next stop.
St. Louis. Boston. Los Angeles. Chicago. How lucky am I?
The dollars, cents, and suspensions can get complicated. But, for me, it always comes back to those words from one of my favorite players of all time, Ken Griffey Jr.: “It’s a game, and that’s how I am going to treat it.”