Tampa Bay Rays welcome more than a dozen players, manager to first workout at home field

As Major League Baseball begins its most crucial week yet in hopes of salvaging a 2020 season, a quiet but not insignificant gathering took place in Florida.

Some 14 Tampa Bay Rays entered Tropicana Field in pairs, stayed away from the batting cage and weight room, but nonetheless got in a workout Monday afternoon under the watchful eye of their manager — perhaps the most formal gathering of big leaguers in their home ballpark since the COVID-19 pandemic cast the season in doubt.

The group included All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows, shortstop Willy Adames and new outfielder Manuel Margot, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The players had their temperatures checked upon entry and wore masks into the stadium, but could remove them during their workout. The team improvised a number of free weights and plyometric stations for the players, who are among a group that remained in the Tampa area after their spring training site in Port Charlotte, Florida was closed more than two months ago.

It’s good to be back. pic.twitter.com/7jx0HTN8na

“It felt good, but it was still odd,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said on a Zoom call with Tampa media, per The Athletic. “I didn’t go up and handshake anybody or give anybody a hug. When you haven’t seen someone in that long, you’re probably doing that, so that was odd.

"But we certainly respect the situation and what’s at stake. We’re going to do what we’re asked. It was a step in the right direction and it was good to see smiling faces.”

WILL YOUR MLB TEAM PLAY AT HOME?: A team-by-team look

Tuesday, MLB is expected to extend an economic proposal to players in hopes of beginning the season in early July. The sides have already reviewed a 67-page document regarding health protocols, with players expected to respond to that soon.

With a second spring training expected to commence by mid-June, some teams have opened spring facilities and home ballparks, subject to social-distancing guidelines in their areas. While an agreement on player pay and health may not be hammered out immediately, players and teams must ramp up in earnest with the anticipation that they’ll need to be ready soon.

“If those dates are actuality,” Cash told reporters, “e probably need to get going a little bit and starting some more aggressive type of routine. I think this was a really good start for a first day and a first week."

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Olney: Why many in baseball need reminder of their love for the game

  • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
  • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
  • Author of “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty”

The working theory is that the return of baseball could help the nation heal, or at least distract it, in the way that the sport did during World War II and after 9/11. The working theory is that the resumption of Major League Baseball, even in empty ballparks, could feel like a step toward normalcy.

If the owners and MLB Players Association can agree on compensation, perhaps settling on a percentage payment of the players’ prorated salary, and the safety protocols prove to be effective, there could be great moments — those shards of time when we might briefly set aside the current daily turmoil. Mookie Betts stepping into the box for his first at-bat with the Dodgers. The joy of any Max Scherzer inning. The promise inherent in a Nate Pearson fastball. A Nolan Arenado throw. A Pete Alonso home run. A Francisco Lindor smile.

Generations of baseball fans need all that.

But you know who else could use a baseball reminder of all that once was good, and that could be again (to borrow the words uttered by James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams”)?

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47 things to know about Bartolo Colon on his 47th birthday

  • Senior writer of SweetSpot baseball blog
  • Former deputy editor of Page 2
  • Been with ESPN.com since 1995

Bartolo Colon turns 47 on Sunday. In honor of his birthday, here are 47 things you need to know about one of the most improbable careers in recent history.

(Editor’s note: This story originally ran for Colon’s 45th birthday, but two years later Bartolo is still amazing us all)

1. He pitched in the majors at 45! You can probably guess that it’s pretty unusual for a 45-year-old to be pitching in the majors. Colon became just the 16th MLB pitcher since 1900 age 45 or older. How old is he? Gleyber Torres of the Yankees homered twice off him in 2018. Torres was 3 months old when Colon made his major league debut in 1997.

2. Colon has 247 wins. That’s a lot of wins! That puts him 50th on the all-time list. He passed Juan Marichal for the most by a Dominican pitcher and Dennis Martinez for the most by a Latin American pitcher.

3. He didn’t play organized baseball until he was 14. In a 2015 profile in the New York Times, Colon said he learned his work ethic from his pet donkey, Pancho, whom he used to ride to the baseball field. Colon later built a training complex for young players in his hometown of El Copey and memorialized Pancho with an illustration on a wall of the complex.

4. Colon signed with the Indians in 1993 for $3,000 — only after he was sent home three times after tryouts with the Indians and told he was too short. The Dodgers and Royals told him the same thing. (So says one profile of Colon; others make no mention of the initial rejections.) When he first signed, the Indians insisted Colon was 18, not 20. His real age was exposed in 2002.

5. With his blazing fastball, Colon rose quickly through the minors, and Baseball America ranked him as the No. 14 prospect heading into his rookie season in 1997. He was squeezed between Scott Rolen (final major league season: 2012) and Derrek Lee (final season: 2011) and was the fourth-best pitching prospect. Ahead of him: Kerry Wood (No. 3), Matt White (No. 4) and Kris Benson (No. 8).

6. The home run:

Bartolo Colon’s first home run was a historic one

On May 7, 2016, Bartolo Colon turned on an inside fastball from James Shields and launched a home run that was as improbable as it was historic. Colon became the oldest player to hit his first major league home run.

7. “Anytime I see a fastball I swing hard because I’m not a curveball hitter.” — Colon after hitting his home run off the Padres’ James Shields in 2016

8. “We all kind of said, ‘What would we do if Bartolo hit a home run?’ That made everyone’s career to witness that.” — Mets second baseman Neil Walker

9. It took 19 seasons before Colon connected for that home run. It was entertaining not just because it was a robust human being smashing a leather sphere over a fence but also because Colon is one of the worst hitters in major league history, with an .085 career average, 163 strikeouts and one walk (shame on you, Robbie Ray). The home run was completely unexpected, and that made it even more wonderful.

10. The player with the most home runs off Bartolo: Alex Rodriguez, with eight. He hit .411 and slugged 1.000 against Colon.

11. The player Colon faced the most: Ichiro Suzuki. In 118 plate appearances, Ichiro hit .299 with three home runs.

12. The biggest of those hits came in Game 4 of the 2001 division series. With the Indians leading the series and the score tied 1-1 in the seventh, Ichiro’s two-out single gave the Mariners a 2-1 lead. Seattle won that game and took Game 5 as well.

13. Of course, we joke about Colon’s weight. But check out a relatively skinny Bartolo from his first career shutout in 1998:

14. His weight, however, became a concern early in his career. When he signed a four-year extension with the Indians in 1999, the club included an incentive clause giving him $12,500 each time he weighed 225 pounds or less during four weigh-ins each season.

15. When Colon signed with the Angels in 2004, a Los Angeles Times writer asked his former GM in Cleveland about Colon’s work ethic. “Among his strengths are his mental consistency, his ability to be poised, to not get rattled or carried away, and still rise to handle the big moments,” Mark Shapiro said. “That was an evasive answer, huh?”

16. Colon’s career high in strikeouts came on May 29, 1998, when he fanned 14 in a 7-3 complete-game victory over the Blue Jays at SkyDome. Jose Canseco was in the lineup (he fanned twice), and the Toronto starter was Roger Clemens.

17. The best game of Colon’s career was a one-hit, 13-strikeout shutout of the Yankees on Sept. 18, 2000 — with Clemens again the opposing starter. That produced a Game Score of 97, the only time Colon topped 90 in his career. The only hit was Luis Polonia’s one-out single up the middle in the eighth inning. “When Polonia got that hit, I felt like I’d gotten punched in the chest,” Colon said.

18. Earlier in that game, Kenny Lofton made an iconic catch when he robbed Jorge Posada of a home run:

(OK, this item doesn’t have much to do with Colon, but it’s a proper excuse to run a Kenny Lofton highlight.)

19. After the game, Indians pitching coach Dick Pole called it one of the best pitched games he’d ever seen. “The most impressive part was his control,” Pole said. “To be throwing that hard and hitting spots the way he was, that was amazing.”

20. Colon won the Cy Young Award in 2005, when he went 21-8 with a 3.48 ERA for the Angels. It was not a good choice. Johan Santana, who finished third in the voting (also behind Mariano Rivera) should have won and would win today, as voters pay more attention to the overall picture. Santana went 16-7 with a 2.87 ERA, led Colon 238-157 in strikeouts and allowed 16 fewer runs while pitching nine more innings. He had 7.2 WAR to Colon’s 4.0.

21. Cy Young trophies fly forever, however, and in that New York Times profile, Colon said the best moment of his career was giving his Cy Young trophy to his father.

22. After his Cy Young season, Colon ran into a long string of injuries. From 2006 to 2010, he started just 47 games and went 14-21 with a 5.18 ERA. When he missed the entire 2010 season due to rotator cuff damage and a sore elbow, it appeared that his career might be over. Instead, he has won 89 games since returning with the Yankees in 2011 and making two All-Star teams (giving him four All-Star trips in his career).

23. Colon’s first All-Star appearance came in 1998. He was credited with the win, even though Barry Bonds crushed a three-run homer off him. And we have the video!

24. Other All-Stars that year included Ben Grieve, Dean Palmer, Andy Ashby, Rick Reed, Aaron Sele and Fernando Vina. When’s the last time you heard any of those names mentioned? Colon has been around forever.

25. In March 2010, he received a controversial stem cell transplant to help damaged tissues. Doctors had used human growth hormone in similar surgeries, but those who performed the surgery for Colon said they did not use it on him. MLB investigated the surgery and eventually cleared Colon.

26. Alas, in August 2012, then with the A’s, Colon received a 50-game suspension for testing positive for testosterone. As a reminder, the A’s won the AL West that year. Colon was still under suspension when the team lost to the Tigers in five games in the AL Division Series.

27. In 2016, the New York Post broke the news of Colon’s “double life” with his “secret family.” A New York woman filed a claim that Colon had failed to pay child support for the two elementary-school-age kids she had with Colon, who has been married since 1996. The two sides eventually signed a confidentiality agreement.

28. When a guy has lasted this long, I like to check out the box score for his first career game and see who played in that game. Colon debuted on April 4, 1997, for the Indians in Anaheim. One of Colon’s teammates was Julio Franco, who had debuted in 1982 with the Phillies as a teammate of Pete Rose, who had debuted in 1963. Playing for the Angels that day, however, was Eddie Murray, who was Rookie of the Year in 1977. Playing a few games for the Orioles in ’77 was Brooks Robinson, who made his debut on Sept. 17, 1955, a time when three teams had yet to integrate their first black players.

29. Who says the big guy can’t run?

30. Alas, Colon has never stolen a base. That won’t surprise you. It also probably won’t surprise you that Colon has never taken the extra base as a baserunner, such as going first to third or second to home on a single. Granted, he has had only 16 such opportunities, but he’s 0-for-16.

31. Colon’s career record at Safeco Field is an amazing 14-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 16 starts. As was pointed out on Twitter at the time of his last start there, Colon is so old that he pitched at Safeco in a playoff game (the joke being that the Mariners have the longest playoff drought in the majors, and that playoff game came in 2001).

32. Which begs the question: Colon pitched for 11 teams, but why not the Mariners?

33. Back in 2012, Colon threw 38 consecutive strikes in a start for the A’s. Here are all 38:

34. That’s what made late-career Colon so amazing. He pounded the strike zone and did it almost exclusively with fastballs. He had one of the highest rates of fastballs of any starter in the majors, at 81.4% for his career. He lost velocity over the years, but his ability to manipulate the pitch, to cut it and sink it and hit the corners, is something all young pitchers could learn from.

35. “He is the master pitcher,” Mets announcer Ron Darling once said.

36. Colon once described his key to success like this: “I stopped being a village boy, thinking I can throw any stone, any rock, through a wall, and started thinking I could be a guy who could last longer by taking something off my fastball and not depending on only throwing hard.”

37. Colon was involved in one of the best trades in Indians history. With the Indians dismantling the great team that won six division titles in seven seasons from 1995 to 2001, Colon was traded (with Tim Drew) to the Expos for Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore (and Lee Stevens). Those three minor leaguers went on to produce 101.4 WAR … yet Colon has somehow outlasted all three.

38. In a sense, Colon is the last Expo ever. He was the last active player who played with the Expos.

39. Who says the big guy can’t field his position?

40. Just for fun, a comparison to Hall of Famer Jack Morris:

Colon: 247-188 (.568), 4.12 ERA, 106 ERA+, 47.8 WAR
Morris: 254-186 (.577), 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 44.0 WAR

41. Of course, Morris was a starter for three World Series champions (’84 Tigers, ’87 Twins, ’92 Blue Jays), and he pitched for the ’93 Blue Jays, though not in the postseason. Colon appeared in seven postseasons but just one World Series, with the Mets in 2015. He’s 3-5 with a 3.49 ERA in his postseason career.

42. Colon was the losing pitcher in relief in Game 1 of that World Series, coming on in the 12th inning and losing on an unearned run in the bottom of the 14th.

43. Yes, he’s a professional athlete:

44. In that game against the Mariners, he took a 102 mph line drive from Jean Segura off his gut and still recorded the out. His comment after the game? “I have a lot of big belly, so I can take it.”

45. In September 2017, he showed no mercy … against 12-year-olds.

46. He’s an author! His book, “Big Sexy: In His Own Words,” came out this month. Watch out, Hemingway.

47. He’s making a comeback! In February, he signed a contract to pitch for the Monclova Acereros for 2020 and yearns for one more season in the majors. Keep pitching, Bartolo, keep pitching.

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These Duke doctors are working with NFL, Big 12 to mitigate coronavirus spread among teams

In the more than two months since the suspension of all NBA activities ushered in an unprecedented era without sports, professional leagues and the NCAA have turned from preventative health measures to evaluating when, where and under what conditions teams could safely return to normal activities without increasing the possibility of an outbreak of the coronavirus strain.

The question is uniquely pressing for teams in the NFL, which may have had the luxury of thus far avoiding any major, coronavirus-caused disruptions to the league's annual schedule — the April draft was held with teams working remotely — but must now create guidelines for juggling larger rosters and the physicality of practice along with the renewed daily interaction between players, coaches, trainers and support staffers.

To help steer the response to COVID-19 and provide recommendations for transitioning back into traditional team activities, the NFL has turned to Infection Control Education for Major Sports, or ICS,an independent organization run by two Duke University infectious-disease doctors, Deverick Anderson and Christopher Hostler.

Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, left and shown in 2019, may be able to hold a practice with Kyler Murray and other players in the coming weeks. (Photo: Matt York, AP)

As teams begin to ease into drastically altered preparations for the upcoming season, ICS has been the league's go-to source for how to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus through testing, disinfection and environmental distancing.

"Sports teams and leagues have an acute need at this moment, and that is specifically related to COVID and how to reopen," Anderson told USA TODAY Sports. "We believe that these teams can benefit from this type of systematic implementation of best practices moving forward."

The NFL faced a similar situation seven years ago, when a series of potentially fatal staph infections, known as MRSA, spread through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room. One of the players infected, kicker Lawrence Tynes, cited unsanitary conditions in later suing the franchise, and settled for an undisclosed sum.

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To help steer the league's response to MRSA, the NFL leaned on the expertise of the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network, or DICON, which had been providing the league with educational newsletters related to stemming the spread of infectious diseases. After pitching the NFL on installing systemic, league-wide guidelines, DICON entered into a contract as the league's infection-prevention experts.

Anderson and Hostler, who consulted extensively with the NFL as part of DICON's team of experts, formed ICS  when the coronavirus started to spread in the U.S. as a separate and distinct entity as inquiries from major sports leagues increased with the rise of COVID-19.

The company is under contract with the NFL and the Big 12 Conference, and has held conversations with at least eight other professional or college leagues, including Major League Baseball, which is considering a shortened regular season beginning in July.

"They have been part of committees and working groups that are looking really at every aspect of our operation and our response to COVID, from advising us on how we conducted the draft to how we were able to reopen clubs’ facilities to now helping us think about player safety," said Allen Sills, the NFL's Chief Medical Officer.

Through conference calls with NFL owners and with three-ring binders distributed to every team, ICS has provided "really basic but really important infection-prevention strategies," Anderson said. "In some ways, a lot of these broad strokes are applicable in other parts of society as well."

At about 360 pages, the binder includes checklists, sample policies and an appendix of additional resource materials, including posters and specific documents from the Centers for Disease Control. Anderson called the more global advice provided by ICS the "Swiss-cheese model," in that no suggestion is perfect; all have holes. If you put them together, however, the holes may match up — much like stacked slices of Swiss cheese.

The steps include constant handwashing teamed with barrier precautions as a way to provide safe separation inside locker rooms and broader football facilities. NFL teams should maximize the use of face masks even as there may be times when masks may not be feasible, such as during aerobic exercise. ICS has also provided the NFL with recommendations on environmental disinfection.

"There’s effort that has to go into changing the way that we interact with people," Anderson said. "Social-distancing, redoing a lot of the environmental spacing. That’s certainly going to be true on the training side. Again, not different from other parts of society but certainly an area of emphasis in an athletic setting."

One risk that NFL teams must confront is maintaining those distancing efforts at practice, during typical moments as mundane as huddling or route running. At some point, teams will need to perform an act that has been nearly eliminated from everyday life: passing an object from one person to another — in this case, a football — without the interception of a disinfecting wipe.

Splitting players into smaller groups at practice, likely by position, and then layering on additional activities is a way to ease into traditional team events, Anderson said.

"It is clear and I think it is appropriate that most groups we’re engaged with are really trying to move in small, short steps," said Anderson. "I think that methodical approach, where you then have some time to see how things are going, is definitely a good way to do it. If you employ that strategy, it’s true that you can’t speed up the process. You have to take it one step at a time."

The biggest step will be in formulating a testing model for identifying individuals with COVID-19 and minimizing the downstream impact of a positive test. Testing has been a primary topic of conversation between ICS and the Big 12, with the conference quizzing ICS on who, when and how frequently to test athletes set to arrive back on campus early next month.

"We had a long list of questions we presented to ICS — and they’ve been going through providing us answers," said Big 12 executive associate commissioner Ed Stewart. "It’s an evolving list. I think they would probably like for us to stop reaching out to them so they can answer the questions we’ve already given them. But we keep coming up with new questions for them."

As of now, testing for the coronavirus is "imperfect," Anderson said, and ICS and others are trying to find tests that eliminate the sort of sensitivity that could lead to false negatives. Under optimal testing conditions, ICS has advised to test frequently to find the person on the verge of having symptoms before they subsequently expose teammates or coaches to COVID-19. Even then, it's unlikely that casting such a net  would catch everyone that comes through.

"A key message we relay just about any time we get the opportunity to is, listen, there is no such thing as a zero-risk scenario. We’re going to do our best, but infections with this virus are going to happen whether or not sports occur," said Anderson. "So if we all kind of accept that’s the baseline that we’re living in, we then have to say it certainly has to be recognized that sports activities by their very nature will increase that risk."

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New 3-on-3 hockey league, ‘3ICE,’ set to debut in 2021 with star-studded group of coaches

A few years ago at Pittsburgh Penguins rookie camp, E.J. Johnston observed the delight among a couple thousand fans as they watched a tournament of 3-on-3 contests. 

"It was electric," Johnston recalled. "It was end-to-end action. It was all the creativity, and goal-scoring and tic-tac-toe passing that hockey fans love."

The NHL's five-minute, 3-on-3 overtime period, instituted in 2015, gained almost immediate popularity and praise from hockey fans. Johnston — whose father Eddie won two Stanley Cups as a goaltender with the Boston Bruins and is a longtime member of the Penguins' front office — had an idea. If unknown prospects could entertain a crowd like that, Johnston thought, it could be hockey's next innovation.

Johnston is now the CEO and founder of "3ICE," a new 3-on-3 hockey league set to debut next year across North America, with several big-name coaches (six of them Hockey Hall of Famers) serving as the coaches of the eight inaugural teams. Craig Patrick, the assistant to Herb Brooks on the 1980 U.S. men's Olympic gold squad, is the league's commissioner. 

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The logo of the new 3-on-3 hockey league set to debut in 2021. (Photo: Courtesy: 3ICE)

“A conversation I had with my dad was, ‘We’re going to need somebody at the top of this,’" Johnston said. "And his first answer was Craig Patrick.”

Patrick's excitement was evident from the start; he played with Johnston's father before E.J. was even born, and their own relationship goes back 30 years. The founders are confident the breakneck style of play will attract both prospects and a fanbase. 

"We’re anticipating that we’re going to be able to have a lot of exciting hockey," Patrick said, "even more than the NHL’s overtime format, because we’re going to go for a lot of speed and skill throughout and we’re going to look at different rules that enable that to happen more frequently in our game. It’s just an exciting venture for me."

The eight coaches are: six-time Stanley Cup winner Bryan Trottier; three-time champion Guy Carbonneau; five-time All-Star John LeClair; four-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero; four-time Stanley Cup winner Larry Murphy; three-time champion Joe Mullen; and Ed Johnston. Johnston and LeClair are the only members of the group not selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Who, exactly, these coaches will have on their rosters remains to be seen, but Johnston thinks assembling the player pool will be one of the easier aspects of the launch. Johnston points to specific body type — shorter, faster players, with elite hands and stick speed — and age (mid-20s to early to mid-30s) when describing a typical 3ICE player. 

"These guys will have NHL pedigree. If the NHL was overtime all the time, they’d still be playing in the league," Johnston said. "The creativity is really what we’re looking for.”

Patrick said the goalies will need to fit that mold, too, since they will be handling the puck more often than the game is accustomed to. 3ICE will consist of 56 players — eight teams of seven individuals, with six skaters and one goaltender per squad. 

The 3ICE schedule begins in June and lasts nine weeks, with all eight teams traveling to a different location each week. Currently, the league has whittled the list down to 15-20 metropolitan candidates, primarily in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, but also the Midwest. 

"We want the fans to chime in and make the case for their city," Johnston said. "So if we get an overwhelming response in Columbus or Pittsburgh or Erie or Toronto, that will obviously tip the scales." 

Each stop will essentially be a different tournament — seven games total, bracket-style and single-elimination. The eight-minute halves will have a running clock. Faceoffs are discouraged. There are no penalties, only penalty shots. 

"We're out to promote and sell hockey at its purest," Trottier said. 

"It's gonna have its audience," he added. "In today’s wham-bam attention span world, I think the quickness, the idea of multiple games, the idea of short periods, action action, boom boom, it’s gonna grab a lot of eyeballs." 

To help grab those eyeballs, 3ICE partnered with TSN in Canada and CBS Sports in the U.S. to broadcast games. Johnston reached out to nearly every major network's sport properties, but, "CBS just had the enthusiasm and the capability. Quite honestly, they have the brand and the assets that they’re going to put behind this that made us really excited," he said.  

Ruggiero doesn't put much stock in being the lone female coach. It's nothing new for the first woman to play in a men's pro hockey league in the U.S. (outside of the goalie position). 

"Hockey's hockey," she said. "It's the same game regardless of gender." 

Among the challenges she expects is how much she will actually be able to coach in-game, given the frenetic environment 3-on-3 provides. In her opinion, nailing the draft and the conditioning aspect of coaching will translate to success. 

Because teams are guaranteed one game per weekend, the magnitude of each game will naturally be more intense, Ruggiero said. The novelty of the league should largely mitigate most competitive advantages. 

“Everyone’s going to be competitive," said Ruggiero, who recently had her first child. "Every one of these eight coaches is going to want to win this thing. But it’ll be fun. It definitely raises the profile, having so many Stanley Cup winners, gold medalists, behind the bench.”

Ruggiero spent 2010-18 as a member of the International Olympic Committee. Shortly after being elected, she attended the Youth Olympics in Singapore. There, 3-on-3 basketball became, "literally, overnight, the most popular event." 

In 2016, Ruggiero founded her company, Sports Innovation Lab — a market research company focused on the intersection of sports, technology and the future of sport. The company's findings revealed younger generations being drawn to shorter formats with more engagement. 

So when Johnston asked Ruggiero to come aboard 3ICE, it was an easy yes. 

"I love the fact that we’ve already had some exposure at the NHL level in overtime," she said. "Now, it’s kind of taking that one step further.

“Hockey’s got to do things differently to keep the next generation engaged.”

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Your quick guide to becoming a NASCAR fan with no other sports to watch

This is the Morning Win. Nick Schwartz is filling in for Andy Nesbitt today. 

With the UFC off until the end of the month, sports fans craving live action to watch have few other choices than to get into NASCAR. Fortunately, the racing schedule is now packed with the typical Sunday races along with new mid-week events, meaning there's never been a better time to get into watching cars go in circles at extreme speed.

NASCAR will stage a second consecutive Cup Series race at iconic Darlington Raceway on Wednesday night, weather permitting, part of a frenzied stretch of the revamped schedule that includes eight races in 29 days.

When you add in Xfinity and Truck Series races, there's a decent chance that there will be a NASCAR race going on whenever you turn on your TV over the next month.

What's the deal with NASCAR, anyway, and who should you root for? If you're a lapsed NASCAR fan or a complete newbie, we're here to help.

The basics you need to know:

For all its rules and regulations and draconian in-race penalties and season format redesigns, NASCAR is still a fairly simple sport for a casual observer. A field of cars begins a race, a set distance is run, the car that finishes first wins. There's obviously much more going on, but that's all you really need to know.

In recent years, each race has been subdivided into three "stages," which award points to top finishers. It remains to be seen how the NASCAR schedule will be altered for the rest of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the schedule contains a regular season and a 10-race playoff round, which eventually produces a series champion with a winner-take-all race at the end of the year.

How to pick a favorite driver (the most important part):

A common refrain from traditional ball sports fans is that NASCAR is boring. It's just a bunch of cars making left turns repeatedly. Why would you want to watch that for several hours at a time?

Those critics obviously don't have a favorite driver! Picking a favorite and rooting for them throughout the race is absolutely central to any motorsports experience. As the excellent Formula 1 series on Netflix highlighted, racing is personality-driven, and you're missing out if you don't emotionally invest in a few drivers.

Here's a quick guide to finding your new favorite:

If you prefer Thanos to any of the Avengers, you should root for….Kyle Busch.

The defending Sprint Cup champion, Busch is NASCAR's most polarizing figure, but has seemingly embraced his role as the sport's greatest villain. When he's not winning races in the Cup Series, Busch can often be found destroying the competition in lower series, to the point where there's an active $100,000 bounty on him.

If you're still in 'Last Dance' mode, you should root for…Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick.

Johnson has already established himself as one of the GOATs in NASCAR history with a record-tying seven titles, but he's retiring after the 2020 season. He's currently on the longest winless streak of his career, but if he can find victory lane again before calling it quits, it'll be an unforgettable moment. Harvick, meanwhile, just picked up his 50th career Cup Series win last Sunday. He currently has no plan to retire anytime soon, but at the age of 44, he's one of the oldest drivers in the field.

If you want your driver to be in contention to win every week, you should root for…Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin or Brad Keselowski.

All fan-favorites, you can't really go wrong with any of these drivers.

If you're only into NASCAR until MLB/NBA/NHL/NFL returns….

just pick the coolest looking car. You can check out all the paint schemes here.

Wednesday's Big Winner: Goalie cat

Goalie Cat (Photo: Screenshot)

While professional athletes have been chilling at home, Goalie Cat has been tirelessly training. The phenomenal feline, named "Meownuel Neuer" after the superstar German national team No. 1, simply can't be beat, even at close range. A supercut of Goalie Cat's ridiculous saves went viral with more than a million views on Twitter, and for good reason. All hail Goalie Cat.

Quick Hits: Horace Grant calls MJ a liar, Jordan's mysterious illness, Chad Johnson

– Former Bulls big man Horace Grant, who was traded away after the first three-peat, slammed "The Last Dance" and said Jordan lied throughout the series.

– Our Charles Curtis caught up with the man who says he delivered a pizza to MJ the night before the "Flu Game," and swears that his pizza isn't what got MJ sick.

– Former Bengals star Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson left another monster tip at a restaurant in Florida that just reopened.

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How to become a KBO diehard: What I learned in my first two weeks

  • Senior editor, MLB at ESPN.com

If you’re really going to get into this thing, you’ve gotta pick a team.

That was my first thought as rumors swirled that KBO broadcasts might be coming to ESPN and that there might be a way for this MLB editor who is very much missing the sport to watch live baseball every day while we wait for the majors to return. And that is my first bit of advice to you, because if you’re reading this, we can assume you’ve either joined me on the 2020 KBO bandwagon or you’re at least curious about climbing aboard.

Flash-forward two weeks and my mornings start with hours of live (or newly DVR’d) Korean baseball. I regularly open conversations by saying, “If you know what happened in the KBO game, don’t tell me. I recorded it.” My house is divided when my NC Dinos square off with my wife’s adopted KT Wiz — a rivalry I’m dominating thus far. And my sudden expertise has even landed me a role as a voter in ESPN.com’s now world famous weekly KBO Power Rankings.

From that initial task of picking a team and learning to appreciate breakfast baseball to discovering what’s the same — and much different — about watching the KBO from MLB (how baseball really looks in front of empty stands and, of course, the joy of a good bat flip), here’s my two-week crash course to get you up to speed on the Korea Baseball Organization.

The rules of picking a favorite KBO team

Picking a team sounds easy enough, right? The only problem: Entering the season, my entire knowledge of KBO teams consisted of remembering Eric Thames played for one called the Dinos before he joined the Brewers, and that Hyun-Jin Ryu’s old KBO images showed him in a jersey with Eagles across the front.

Luckily, ESPN happens to have an in-house KBO expert in Joon Lee, who wrote this handy guide to each team, so I set my own ground rules and headed to Joon for a final decision.

First, if you are choosing a team now, it’s because you want to actually watch them play, so I narrowed the field to teams appearing most on ESPN’s broadcasts. And while jumping on the KBO bandwagon is cool, jumping on a winning team bandwagon still seems wrong. With that in mind, I ruled out the defending champion Doosan Bears, the Kia Tigers — described as the Yankees of the KBO. No thanks. — and the Kiwoom Heroes for being No. 1 in our preseason power rankings.

All this left me with a choice between the NC Dinos and the LG Twins (yes, KBO teams have names that include corporate sponsors like Kia, LG and Samsung) to which Joon responded:

“I think it’s more fun to be a Dinos fan.”

Boom. A brand-new lifelong diehard Dinos fan is born. And if the Dinos’ 8-1 start is any indication, Joon was right.

Baseball is baseball … right?

Pick a favorite team. Check. Now it’s time to actually watch some baseball! From the first pitch on Opening Day on, just tuning in to live baseball right now feels incredible, but it doesn’t take long to notice what’s different from MLB.

When you turn on a major league game, the odds are pretty good you’re going to see a pitcher pumping high-90s heat. That’s not going to happen in the KBO. In fact, the average KBO fastball velocity this season sits at 88.6 mph compared to the 93.1 mph average in MLB last season. What does baseball look like without a Noah Syndergaard or Aroldis Chapman touching triple digits on the radar gun?

A lot like MLB looked not that long ago actually. Without blazing heat coming in from the mound, hitters attack with a focus on putting the ball in play and strike out far less (batters strike out once per 5.71 plate appearances in the KBO compared to 4.36 in MLB last season) and batting averages are higher (.273 in the KBO to .252 in 2019 MLB). But that’s not to say the long ball doesn’t exist in South Korea — it just doesn’t occur quite as much as we’ve gotten used to in the majors.

Add it all up and you get a game with a little more constant action — balls in play are exciting! — and you actually see just over a run a game more than we did in MLB last season.

Some of these names are very familiar

No, this isn’t Major League Baseball. In fact, it’s the equivalent of somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A in terms of the level of play. But there are plenty of players who evoke a “Wait, he’s still around?” reaction while you watch.

One of my favorite messages to wake up to in the past two weeks was from a friend declaring “Aaron Altherr is gonna be Eric Thames 2.0” after the Dinos slugger hit one out of the stadium last week. If the name sounds only slightly familiar to you, ask a Phillies fan what they thought the ceiling was for Altherr, the outfielder once nicknamed “The Fresh Prince of Altherr,” when he hit 19 home runs in limited action for Philadelphia in 2017.

Nobody in the KBO has a better MLB transaction history than LG Twins ace Casey Kelly. The son of ex-major leaguer Pat Kelly and a former first-round draft pick by the Red Sox, Casey was once the centerpiece of a trade that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Boston from the Padres. You might have heard of another then-prospect in the deal: a young first baseman named Anthony Rizzo.

Former A’s/Cubs/Astros/Reds/Marlins/Orioles right-hander Dan Straily is one of the league’s elite pitchers. Preston Tucker, brother of Kyle, is one of the league’s best hitters. Tyler Saladino is suiting up for the Samsung Lions after playing for the Brewers as recently as last year. Dixon Machado, Warwick Saupold, Ben Lively, Aaron Brooks and Odrisamer Despaigne are some other names you might recognize.

With three foreign players allowed on each KBO roster, and many of those being American players who had a least a cup of coffee in The Show, watching a game is sort of like opening up an old pack of baseball cards and suddenly remembering a player you haven’t thought about in years.

You just might see baseball’s next big thing

While that walk down memory lane is fun, there’s a much better reason to watch the KBO: You just might get in on the ground floor on a budding star. Remember what I said about the league being the equivalent of Double- or Triple-A baseball? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. The top players in the KBO can really play; it’s just that the depth in the league isn’t nearly as good as MLB or even Japan’s pro league.

That means if you tune into a game and someone putting up big numbers is hitting in the middle of the lineup, it means he’s at least a borderline MLB player in terms of ability.

One name stands out from the rest in that regard: Baek-Ho Kang, a 20-year-old with easy power who is crushing KBO pitching despite being nearly a decade younger than the average player in the league. He’s younger than Fernando Tatis Jr. and he’s also the reason my wife is sticking with her KT Wiz fandom choice (telling me, “I don’t jump ship”) despite their 1-7 start.

Kang’s age and tools caught the attention of our MLB draft expert Kiley McDaniel, who said Kang would go in the top half of the first round if he were eligible for next month’s MLB draft. If you play fantasy baseball, that’s stock you buy. If you just want to be able to tell your friends you saw a star player before they did, that’s a reason to watch the KT Wiz.

What about the bat flips?

If you heard anything about the KBO before this season, it was probably about the league’s epic bat flips. And there’s a good reason for that: KBO bat flips are epic. Each is its own work of art and adds flair to a home run in the way slapping the backboard after a dunk or spiking the football after a great catch spices up those games.

But I’ll raise you one for all the bat-flip talk. My favorite thing is something I witnessed during Friday’s Doosan Bears-Kia Tigers game: a sixth-inning ground ball bat flip. That’s right, a Doosan Bears batter flipped his bat after swatting a five-or-so hopper to the shortstop. And it wasn’t followed by a bench-clearing brawl, a brushback pitch or a lecture from a veteran player about the right way to play the game. Baseball is supposed to be fun and this kind of expression on the field is really fun.

And what about baseball without fans?

One thing Joon Lee keeps telling me is that we’re not getting the full experience because the crowd atmosphere is part of what makes the KBO so much fun. He says it’s a mix of going to a rowdy college football, basketball or hockey game combined with the jubilation and cheer of a BTS concert. Yeah, that sounds awesome. When they can start filling the stadiums again, I can’t wait to see it.

But for now, the no-fans experience is a pretty good preview of what baseball might look like if MLB can return in front of empty stadiums this summer. And here’s the surprising thing: It doesn’t seem nearly as strange on TV as you might think.

So much of the TV baseball experience revolves around the center-field camera view in at the pitcher-batter matchup and, especially in the KBO where stadiums have high backstop fences behind the plate, that doesn’t look all that different.

Do I miss seeing the crowd go wild after a big play or hearing boos after a missed call? Of course. But after watching a couple of weeks of KBO games, I can confidently say that if games start with no fans in the seats here, watching baseball is still going to feel like watching baseball.

There is one thing missing from the KBO experience so far though. Merchandise! I would love to get my hands on a Dinos hat or a KT Wiz shirt — and have heard from many others looking for some KBO gear as they watch the games. They’re currently nearly impossible to get in the U.S. though — the KBO says it’s working on it — so if any readers in South Korea want to hook me up, well … your favorite team’s spot in the Power Rankings can’t be bought, but a little goodwill never hurts.

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Bauer uses leaked number to create giveaway

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer organized a giveaway after his phone number was mistakenly shown during an ESPN broadcast of the Korea Baseball Organization.

Bauer was being interviewed over FaceTime early Sunday morning and his number was visible on the top of his screen for several seconds during a game being shown on ESPN2.

“It was an unfortunate mistake and we sincerely apologize to Trevor,” ESPN said in a statement.

Bauer made light of the situation over Twitter, sharing a screenshot with his number appearing on the screen and saying that rules for the giveaway can be found on his voicemail.

The giveaway includes a pair of signed cleats and an autographed baseball, which Bauer says will be awarded over the next 48 hours.

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MLB to return in 2020? For some players, the financial stakes are higher than others

  • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
  • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
  • Author of “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty”

The new normal in Major League Baseball is slowly taking shape, in a business currently shuttered.

At least one team ownership has already dictated a budget rollback in 2021, and front-office executives from other organizations believe they will get similar orders. Some scouts expect a wave of furloughs to come down after the June draft, and expect that many baseball lifers sidelined might never again find work under the MLB umbrella. The revenue spigot is turned off and almost everyone is impacted.

Through serendipity and an unexpected consequence of their respective contract negotiations or circumstances, however, some players have more protection than others — and some players are taking a more significant hit than their peers.

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Pedro, Pujols and Trout: The 21 most iconic MLB seasons of the 21st century … so far

  • Senior writer of SweetSpot baseball blog
  • Former deputy editor of Page 2
  • Been with ESPN.com since 1995

So, following the rousing success of the eight amazing seasons of the 1980s and the Oscar-nominated 90 seasons for the ’90s, we conclude our three-part docudrama with 21 seasons for the 21st century.

Here’s the direction I took with this one: I chose the most iconic seasons over the past two decades. These aren’t necessarily the best seasons of the decade — although all are certainly great seasons — but the ones we remember with a little more sharpness than others that might have been just as statistically impressive. I then broke down each player’s performance into four categories to help define the iconic nature of that particular season:

Statistical dominance: How great was he, compared to other great seasons of that year and all time? Postseason play can be part of the consideration.

Historical significance: Did the player set some records? Did he lead the league in anything? Was it one of the best seasons in franchise history? Was he a key performer on a great team?

Aesthetic quality: How enjoyable was the player to watch? Did he play the game in a singular style or with a particular elegance? Was he popular? Did you feel like you had to watch him play?

Cultural impact: How big was he beyond his home city? Did he resonate with fans of other teams? Did he resonate with non-baseball fans? Did his team achieve something out of the ordinary?

All, of course, are subjective. And I could choose each player only once.

Pedro Martinez, 2000 Red Sox (18-6, 1.74 ERA, 217 IP, 284 K’s)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 19

We concluded our 90 seasons for the 1990s with Pedro, and we begin this list with Pedro, which is fitting because his 1999 and 2000 seasons are arguably the two most dominant for a starting pitcher. FanGraphs gives the edge to 1999, with 11.6 WAR, Baseball-Reference to 2000, with 11.7 WAR. In 1999, his 2.07 ERA was 1.37 runs better than the No. 2 pitcher in the American League. In 2000, his 1.74 ERA was 1.96 runs better than the No. 2 pitcher. His .167 batting average allowed and .213 OBP allowed remain records.

“Three pitches,” Pedro wrote in his autobiography. “My fastball up and in or spotted on the outside corner, down or up; my changeup, thrown with the same arm action and speed as the fastball but thrown about 10 to 12 miles per hour slower and with nasty tailing action away from a lefty, in on a righty; and my breaking ball, which I was able to command at another level in 1999 and 2000.”

Pedro loses one point on our 20-point scale only because the Red Sox failed to make the postseason. Otherwise, it was about as perfect a season as a pitcher could have, with Pedro starts not only must-watch events at Fenway Park but for all baseball fans. Pedro put it simply: “In 2000, I was the alpha male of the American League.”

Barry Bonds, 2001 Giants (.328/.515/.863, 73 HR, 137 RBI)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 2 | Impact: 2 | Total: 14

While the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase in 1998 was joyous and wonderful, the Bonds chase was like a slog up the side of a muddy mountain. First, McGwire and Sosa had just broken Roger Maris’ record. We didn’t need somebody to do it again so soon — and we certainly didn’t need the unlovable Bonds to do it. So, yes, he holds the single-season records for home runs and slugging percentage, and this season kicked off an unprecedented four-year run of batting prowess the likes of which we had never seen from even Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, but when it was all over we just felt cold and dirty.

Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 Mariners (.350/.381/.457, 242 hits, 56 SB)

Statistical: 3 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 5 | Total: 18

Here came Ichiro, the first position player from Japan in the majors, this small, skinny guy in the midst of all these pumped-up sluggers of the era, playing this different kind of game — beautiful and brilliant and utterly unique. “He does seem to have an old soul,” wrote David Shields in the New York Times Magazine. “Before every pitch during every at-bat, he swings the bat over his head clockwise, points his right arm directly at the pitcher, stretches his left arm, bends his elbow to touch his right shoulder and tug on his uniform, holds that position and then releases and cocks the bat to hit. While he’s doing this, the world seems to stop momentarily, and we seem to be going back in time to — or is this only my very Western projection? — some ancient purification rite.”

He made The Throw, “something out of Star Wars,” as Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus exclaimed. Ichiro received the most votes for the 2001 All-Star Game, the first rookie ever to do so. On Ichiro bobblehead night at Safeco Field, fans arrived four hours before the game in a line that stretched six city blocks. The section of seats in right field became known as Area 51 (for his uniform number) and was filled with Japanese and Japanese-American fans (and other Asian-American fans), many holding up signs such as “Ichi-Hero,” some in English, some in Japanese. He was the MVP on a team that won 116 games and so much more.

Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, 2001 Diamondbacks (43 wins, 665 strikeouts)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 3 | Total: 16

With apologies to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, baseball had never seen a 1-2 punch like these two. They finished 1-2 in the National League in ERA, 1-2 in strikeouts, 1-2 in innings pitched, 1-2 in WAR and 1-2 in the Cy Young voting. Their biggest test came in the World Series, where they had to dethrone the evil Yankees, winners of three straight titles and four in five years. Asked about the Yankees’ mystique and aura before Game 1, Schilling responded, “Those are dancers in a nightclub.”

Schilling started Games 1, 4 and 7. He won Game 1 and left Game 4 after seven innings with a 3-1 lead. Johnson won Games 2 and 6. In Game 7, Schilling made his second career start on three days’ rest — his first had been in Game 4. He had pitched nearly 300 innings for the season. He was great, but left trailing 2-1. Johnson came on in relief, retired the final four batters, then picked up his third victory after the Diamondbacks’ dramatic rally in the bottom of the ninth. Schilling and Johnson shared World Series MVP honors. Over the entire postseason, the pair went 9-1 with a 1.30 ERA. “I just hope that was as fun to watch as it was to play in,” Schilling said after the game, “because that’s got to be one of the greatest World Series ever played.”

David Ortiz, 2004 Red Sox (.301/.380/.603, 41 HR, 139 RBI)

Statistical: 3 | Historical: 2 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 5 | Total: 15

This is more about Ortiz’s postseason heroics and helping lead the Red Sox to their curse-breaking World Series title than his regular-season dominance. While Ortiz certainly was great in the regular season, those numbers were not especially unique for that era. Even on his own team, Manny Ramirez hit more home runs and had a higher OPS. Even in the regular season, however, Ortiz had been clutch, hitting .324/.380/.634 in “late and close” situations.

Then came the postseason:

— He hit the series-ending walk-off home run to beat the Angels in the ALDS.

— In Game 4 of the ALCS against the Yankees, he had four RBIs, including the walk-off home run in the 12th inning.

— In Game 5, he homered in the eighth inning and delivered the walk-off hit in the 14th.

— He hit .308/.471/.615 in the World Series, including a three-run homer in the bottom of the first of Game 1 that got the Red Sox going in their four-game sweep.

Ortiz’s regular season might not have historical significance, but the impact of his great October run scores high. The legend of Big Papi was born.

Alex Rodriguez, 2007 Yankees (.314/.422/.645, 54 HR, 156 RBI)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 3 | Impact: 3 | Total: 14

It might have been Rodriguez’s best season, one of the best in the storied history of the Yankees, as he won his third MVP award after leading the AL in home runs, RBIs, runs, OPS, slugging percentage and total bases. Heck, he even threw in 24 stolen bases. He was the best player in the game and an early-season walk-off grand slam seemed to get Yankees fans to finally warm up to him.

In true A-Rod fashion, however, there was always something to distract from the remarkable numbers. In a May game against the Blue Jays, with the Yankees up 10-5 in the ninth inning, Jorge Posada popped up to third base. As Rodriguez ran past third baseman Howie Clark, he shouted “Ha” and Clark backed off, the ball falling for an RBI single. “It’s bush league,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “That’s not Yankee baseball.”

Then, on the night the Red Sox clinched the World Series title, Rodriguez exercised his option to opt out of his contract. As the Red Sox celebrated in Denver, a few hundred Red Sox fans gathered behind the dugout and chanted, “Don’t sign A-Rod.” He ended up going back to the Yankees.

Tim Lincecum, 2008 Giants (18-5, 2.62 ERA, 227 IP, 265 K’s)

Statistical: 3 | Historical: 2 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 3 | Total: 13

The Sports Illustrated cover said it perfectly: The Freak.

How did somebody his size throw that hard? “Lincecum does not throw a baseball as much as he launches it, 98 mph rockets somehow expelled, with finely tuned kinetic energy, from a batboy’s body,” wrote Tom Verducci.

In his first full season, Lincecum captured the attention of baseball fans like no young pitcher since Dwight Gooden. He did it with an unusual windup, taught to him by his dad and modeled on Sandy Koufax’s delivery. Lincecum led MLB pitchers in WAR, strikeouts and home run rate and won the first of his back-to-back Cy Young Awards. While the Giants weren’t good that season (72-90), Lincecum had helped usher in a golden era of Giants baseball.

Joe Mauer, 2009 Twins (.365/.444/.587, 28 HR, 96 RBI)

Statistical: 4 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 3 | Impact: 3 | Total: 14

Mauer had already won two batting titles, but his third one came with a career-high .365 mark and easily the best power season of his career as well. Based on current qualifying standards, the .365 mark is the highest ever for a catcher. He led the AL in OBP and slugging and was the near-unanimous MVP winner (27 of 28 first-place votes). His 7.8 WAR ranks tied for fourth all time for catchers, and he and Buster Posey are the only catchers to win MVP honors since 1976. To top it off, he was the homegrown icon playing in front of his hometown fans and his All-American image led to national commercials for PlayStation, Head and Shoulders and ESPN, not to mention more than one local commercial with his mom.

He had the simple swing with minimal movement, preferring to hit the ball to the opposite field (16 of his home runs went to left field). He rarely swung at the first pitch. “I just try to see how the ball moves, especially my first at-bat,” he said that year. “I always like to see a couple of pitches before I offer at one. I think ever since I can remember I’ve always felt pretty comfortable with two strikes.” He hit .259 that season with two strikes. Well played, Mauer.

Albert Pujols, 2009 Cardinals (.327/.443/.658, 47 HR, 135 RBI)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 3 | Total: 15

In some fashion, picking Pujols’ best season is like picking the best apple on the apple tree. His first 10 seasons he finished fourth, second, second, third, first, second, ninth, first, first and second in the MVP voting. The year he finished ninth? He led NL position players in WAR.

In 2009, he led the NL in home runs, runs, OBP, slugging, total bases and intentional walks — 44 of them. He still managed to drive in 135 runs, hitting .361 with runners in scoring position. With the bases loaded, when there was no way to pitch around him, he went 10-for-17 with five grand slams. The All-Star Game was in St. Louis that summer. “Last year, it was a celebration of Yankee Stadium,” said Derek Jeter. “This year, it almost seems like a celebration of Albert.”

The only negative? While the Cardinals made the playoffs, the Dodgers swept them in the NLDS. Pujols went 3-for-10 … with three intentional walks. The Dodgers weren’t about to let him beat them.

Jose Bautista, 2010 Blue Jays (.260/.378/.617, 54 HR, 124 RBI)

Statistical: 4 | Historical: 2 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 4 | Total: 14

Proof that it’s not always MVP seasons that make the biggest impact. The AL MVP in 2010 … Josh Hamilton. Good choice, he probably deserved it. Bautista wound up fourth for a Blue Jays team that finished 85-77. Bautista, however, was the biggest story of the regular season, because he was the most interesting story. He was 29 years old with a career high of 16 home runs entering the season. He had been a utility player for the Jays in 2009, playing left field, right field and third base, but starting just 92 games.

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But his career started to change that season. One day that summer, Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy implored Bautista that he needed his swing to be shorter and more direct. Pitchers were able to overpower him with inside fastballs to his long, looping swing. “He always had power,” Murphy said in 2010. “He just needed a couple of tweaks.” In the final month of 2009, Bautista hit 10 home runs.

The home run total didn’t match the best of the PED era, but by 2010, offense was starting to decline as the pendulum swung back to pitchers. Bautista hit 15 more home runs than Paul Konerko, the No. 2 slugger in the AL. Bautista’s impact also was greater than simply being a big season on a non-playoff team: He helped usher in the launch-angle revolution as one of the first prime examples of a player altering his swing and hitting more fly balls in the process.

Justin Verlander, 2011 Tigers (24-5, 2.40 ERA, 251 IP, 250 K’s)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 19

Verlander had been one of the better pitchers in the game since his rookie season in 2006, but his career didn’t really enter a Hall of Fame trajectory until his monster Cy Young and MVP season in 2011, when he became the first starting pitcher to win MVP honors since Roger Clemens in 1986. Verlander always had great stuff, but his breakout came as the result of maturity: doing a better job of controlling his emotions and realizing he didn’t have to throw every fastball from the first inning on at 99 mph. He learned to rein things in earlier in the game, that throwing 95 was just fine — and then cranking it up to 99 later in the game when needed. Or sometimes even hitting triple digits in the seventh or eighth inning.

Like others on the list, the only negative is the postseason. After dispatching of the Yankees in the division series, the Tigers lost to the Rangers in the ALCS, with Verlander going 1-1 with seven runs allowed in 11⅓ innings. In a fashion, however, Verlander became the spiritual father of a new generation of power pitchers. The best pitchers of the late 2000s didn’t necessarily rely on an upper 90s fastball — Roy Halladay had the diving two-seamer, Felix Hernandez threw hard when he first came up but his best pitch was a changeup, Cliff Lee sat in the low 90s. But guys like Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole are all pitchers who can crank it up. And Verlander himself. Eight years after 2011, he finally won his second Cy Young Award.

Miguel Cabrera, 2012 Tigers (.330/.393/.606, 44 HR, 139 RBI)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 4 | Total: 18

The first Triple Crown season since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 says it all, right? A historic, unprecedented season for the ages.

Except in this case, it didn’t. The story of the 2012 season became not so much Cabrera’s chase for the Triple Crown, but the MVP debate between Cabrera and Mike Trout. Even that discussion was about more than just who deserved a trophy, it was a debate at the heart of the quickly changing culture wars within the game and by those who cover it.

“There has never been anything like it. Has there?” wrote Jayson Stark on ESPN.com. “Maybe it started out as a debate over the credentials of Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. But now it’s erupted into your basic civil war between new-age and old-age thinkers. On one side, you hear the self-appointed enlightened minds of a new millennium screaming, ‘The Triple Crown is meaningless.’ On the other side, you hear the Carl Yastrzemski Fan Club roaring, ‘WAR is just a bunch of sabermetric baloney.'”

The thing I always found most frustrating about the whole debate that year is that Cabrera received extra credit in the eyes of some voters for leading the Tigers to the playoffs while the Angels fell short. But the Angels won one more game. They were just in the wrong division. Anyway, Cabrera won the MVP vote in decisive fashion, with 26 of 28 first-place votes, and the Tigers reached the World Series, where they fell to the Giants in a four-game sweep. Baseball, however, would never be the same.

Mike Trout, 2012 Angels (.326/.399/.564, 30 HR, 83 RBI)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 18

Trout has been the best player in the game since his rookie season and while he didn’t win that MVP in 2012, he has since captured it three times — and is still just 28. The interesting thing with him, however, is that, as good as he has been, there is no signature Mike Trout season. He has never really had a magic number chase — 50, 60 home runs, a .350 season, 40/40, anything to track on a daily basis or to get the casual sports fans more interested. He has never won a batting title, never won a home run title. He’s just the best player.

But 2012 was special. He had been a highly rated prospect, but we didn’t expect this, not as a rookie and not at 20 years old. Instead, after a 40-game cameo in 2011 in which he hit .220, he suddenly emerged in 2012 as a fully formed superstar. He hit .326 (still his career best) and led the AL with 49 stolen bases and 129 runs. With 10.5 WAR and nobody else close, he was the best player in the league and depending on how you want to define “valuable,” also the most valuable.

Clayton Kershaw, 2014 Dodgers (21-3, 1.77 ERA, 198.1 IP, 239 K’s)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 3 | Total: 17

Here’s how good Kershaw was in 2014: He won Cy Young and MVP honors even though he made just 27 starts and pitched fewer than 200 innings. He was the first NL pitcher to win the MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968, although the historical significance loses a little luster since Verlander had broken through three years prior.

Kershaw didn’t allow an RBI to a left-handed batter until his 23rd start. He had a stretch of 41 consecutive scoreless innings. On June 18, he threw a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts — the perfect game marred only by an error. The three games he lost that year? He was bad in one of them, but in the other two he allowed three runs in seven innings and three runs in a complete game. He allowed three runs in seven innings in each of his three no-decisions. He could have gone 26-1.

From 2011 to 2017 — more than 200 games started — Kershaw went 118-41 with a 2.10 ERA. Like Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson a generation before, every start of peak Kershaw became a show, as you knew you were watching a generational talent. The postseason that year? Two losses to the Cardinals, the only blemish on his greatest season.

Madison Bumgarner, 2014 Giants (18-10, 2.98 ERA, 217⅓ IP, 219 K’s)

Statistical: 3 | Historical: 5 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 3 | Total: 15

Like David Ortiz in 2004, Bumgarner is here because of his October run — the greatest postseason a pitcher has had. His regular season? It was fine. He finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, and that may have been a little generous. The Giants weren’t a great team. They won 88 games, sneaking into the playoffs as a wild card. Then MadBum took over. A shutout in the wild-card game. A scoreless outing in Game 1 of the NLCS. One run allowed in Game 1 of the World Series followed by a shutout in Game 5. Then five more scoreless innings in relief in Game 7. For the entire postseason, he went 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA in 52⅔ innings over 29 remarkable days of pitching.

“Now he belongs to history,” Tyler Kepner wrote in the New York Times. During Game 7, manager Bruce Bochy would say he deliberately tried to avoid Bumgarner between innings. He didn’t want Bumgarner to tell him he was tired. Bumgarner wasn’t about to. “You know what?” Bumgarner would admit after the game. “I can’t lie to you anymore. I’m a little tired now.” A good tired.

Bryce Harper, 2015 Nationals (.330/.460/.649, 42 HR, 99 RBI)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 17

For one season, it all came together. The power, the batting average, the hype, the potential, the health, the hair, the approach, the swing, the flair, the Body Issue. At 22 years old, Harper led the league in home runs, runs, OBP and slugging. His OPS remains the highest of the decade — even after the home run boom of the past three seasons. The Nationals missed the playoffs that year, but he was the unanimous MVP. The future: limitless.

Jake Arrieta, 2015 Cubs (22-6, 1.77 ERA, 229 IP, 236 K’s)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 3 | Total: 15

The headline in The New York Times late in the 2015 season read: “Can it be true? The Cubs are finally creating optimism in Chicago.” The Cubs would make the playoffs that year after five consecutive losing seasons, and while the World Series title came the following season, it was 2015 that set 2016 in motion.

Arrieta was 6-5 in mid-June, but then he began an extended run of dominance that matched the best in history. Over his final 20 starts, he went 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA in 147 innings, including a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium. He allowed just two home runs over that stretch and held batters to a .150/.200/.210 line. This was peak Pedro with an exclamation point. He joined Bob Gibson as the second pitcher in 100 years to go 8-0 with a sub-0.50 ERA over eight starts.

“I look back at this season and I think, ‘This guy is single-handedly carrying us to the playoffs,'” Cubs catcher David Ross said. “He’s pitching in the best division in baseball and facing teams that have been in a playoff atmosphere, and he’s dominating them.”

Arrieta’s training regimen — and his fondness for Pilates, foam rolling and kale juice — became a story of the season. The Cubs were back, and Arrieta led the way.

Aaron Judge, 2017 Yankees (.284/.422/.627, 52 HR, 114 RBI)

Statistical: 4 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 5 | Total: 18

How popular was the Judge in 2017? He led all AL players in voting for the All-Star Game. He would end up with the top-selling jersey of the season. The broadcast of the Home Run Derby — which Judge would win — was the highest rated since 2009 and drew a rating 55% higher than the 2016 contest. Fans came early to games just to watch Judge take batting practice. Yes, it helped that he played for the Yankees, but that was part of the allure — the Yankees were interesting again for the first time in half a decade.

Judge broke Mark McGwire’s rookie record of 49 home runs — although Pete Alonso would break Judge’s record in 2019, so the historical impact didn’t last long. As Buster Olney wrote that summer, there was a little bit of the Babe in Judge. “When Ruth came to the plate, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. As one of his peers said, even his strikeouts were epic, with Ruth swinging so hard that he fell down. In the midst of his career — and even after it — fans gathered to watch him take batting practice, to see the strength and the power. Does any of this sound familiar?”

Jose Altuve, 2017 Astros (.346/.410/.547, 24 HR, 81 RBI)

Statistical: 3 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 16

Judge, however, did not claim MVP honors. Instead, the award went to his physical opposite, the diminutive Altuve, who led the AL in batting average and hits for a team that won 101 games. Much like Trout and Cabrera in 2012, it turned into a heated MVP debate. Both players were so likable, so fun to watch, you wanted both to win. After all, they represented the best of the sport: You could be big and strong and hit mammoth home runs or small and fast and powerful.

Judge led in WAR, 7.9 to 7.6, close enough to make it a coin flip. (After checking the voting results, I was surprised Altuve won so easily, with 27 first-place votes to just two for Judge. I remember it being a really good debate, but despite Judge’s enormous popularity, there was obviously an underlying narrative that favored Altuve.) Altuve followed up with a fabulous postseason, hitting .310 with seven home runs in 18 games, including a three-homer game in the ALDS. Of course, we look back now and …

Mookie Betts, 2018 Red Sox (.346/.438/.640, 32 HR, 80 RBI)

Statistical: 5 | Historical: 4 | Aesthetic: 5 | Impact: 4 | Total: 18

Oh, yeah, throw in 129 runs, 47 doubles, 30 stolen bases and a Gold Glove. He even out-Trouted Mike Trout, leading the world with 10.6 WAR (Trout was at a mere 10.2). Maybe the most shocking element in that WAR figure is that Betts played just 136 games. It was one of the best seasons in Red Sox history. The Red Sox even won the World Series.

So why doesn’t Betts get the first coveted perfect 20 score? First off, he had a lot of help that season — Chris Sale and J.D. Martinez were nearly as big a deal as Mookie that summer. Second, he didn’t quite have the same impact across baseball as Judge or even Altuve the season before. Third, he didn’t have a great postseason, hitting .210/.300/.323 and homering just once in 14 games. It was a big one, though, off Clayton Kershaw in the sixth inning of the clinching Game 5 to give the Red Sox a 3-1 lead.

Stephen Strasburg, 2019 Nationals (18-6, 3.32 ERA, 209 IP, 251 K’s)

Statistical: 3 | Historical: 3 | Aesthetic: 4 | Impact: 4 | Total: 14

A third player who makes it on the strength of his postseason performance. Strasburg went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA over 36⅓ innings, striking out 47 with just four walks. Given everything he had gone through in his career — from most-hyped pitching prospect of all time to Tommy John surgery to the controversial decision to sit out the 2012 playoffs to the various dings through the years — stepping up and leading the Nationals to their first World Series title provided one of the most memorable Octobers of the decade.

So there you go. Twenty-one iconic seasons of the 21st century. Because nobody scored a 20 under my completely arbitrary and tough grading system, that means we’re still in search of the ultimate iconic season. (We all know that will be when Felix Hernandez comes out of retirement and pitches a perfect game in Game 7 of the 2022 World Series to lead the Mariners to their first championship.)

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