Column: Mejia’s Return Shows How Little MLB Cares

The phrase “lifetime ban” just sounds harsh. It sounds stern, sounds eternal.

Unless, of course, said ban isn’t actually for a lifetime, but just for three years — less than the normal amount of time needed to earn a college degree.

Jennry Mejia, who was given a lifetime ban from MLB just three years ago, was reinstated last year and Tuesday the Boston Red Sox have signed the right-handed pitcher to a minor-league contract. If Mejia pitches well, there’s a chance he could reach the major leagues again this season.

Mejia, a 29-year-old Dominican, was banned on Feb. 12, 2016 as punishment for his third positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, the typical penalty according to the MLB and MLB Players Association’s Joint Drug Agreement.

Jennry Mejia (Flickr)

Players are allowed to apply for reinstatement after a minimum of two years, subject to the commissioner’s discretion. Commissioner Rob Manfred approved Mejia’s reinstatement for the 2019 season on July 6 of last year.

MLB’s penalties for players who test positive for PEDs are widely considered to be the toughest in sports. But that consideration is based on the lifetime ban for the third offense, not a ban that is only three years in actuality.

The fact MLB would allow Mejia — or any three-time offender — back into their sport is appalling.

This is a man who knowingly took the banned substances stanozolol and Boldenone in an intentional effort to cheat his way to success. All three of his positive tests were within one year; the failed tests were announced April 11 and July 28 of 2015 and Feb. 12, 2016.

Here’s how blatant Mejia’s PED use was: after his 80-game suspension for his first failed test, he only pitched seven games before he was busted a second time. And his third failed drug test, the one resulting in the “lifetime ban,” came before his 162-game suspension for the second had expired.

Why would MLB want this phony back in their game? While Mejia appeared to be a good pitcher in his last full season in 2014, saving 28 games for the Mets with a 3.65 ERA, that success comes with the uncertainty of how much help he had from PEDs.

If MLB were truly serious about keeping their game as clean as possible, they wouldn’t even have read Mejia’s application for reinstatement, much less granted his return to the game.

Instead, the league showed a concerning nonchalance by allowing Mejia to pitch. There’s no good reason MLB should want Mejia playing.

Sure, he’ll be subject to six urine tests and three blood tests per year on top of the league’s random drug tests required of every player.

But the point of the penalties is to serve as a deterrent to people committing the acts in the first place. It’s the same reason those convicted of a crime are sent to prison.

Yet that deterrent is lessened when the penalty on the third offense proves to not be a lifetime ban, but instead a three-year ban. A 25-year-old — like Mejia in 2015 — having their career ended for a third positive test is far more blunt (and appropriate) a penalty than allowing the player to come back at 28, still in their physical prime.

MLB says they’re doing everything they can to keep PEDs out of baseball. But actions speak louder than words.

Advertisements

Column: Tyler Trent won

Tyler Trent, the Purdue superfan whose cancer battle inspired millions, died Tuesday. He was just 20 years old.

It will be said in the coming days that Tyler Trent “lost” his battle with the rare bone cancer osteosarcoma. But that statement utterly misrepresents Trent’s battle, even if it ended in his death.

Tyler Trent won.

tyler-trent
Purdue University superfan Tyler Trent died of cancer on Tuesday. He was 20. (Photo: Purdue Athletics)

Yes, he won spiritually — if you believe what I do and what he did, you understand what I mean by that. But beyond that, physically on this earth, Tyler Trent won by the positive way in which he battled, the faith and hope he showed each day and the inspiration he provided to all who followed his story.

The late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott once said “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live.”

By that criteria, no one won their cancer battle bigger than Tyler Trent.

Trent first fought cancer in 2014, then battled recurrences diagnosed in 2017 and last March. His story was familiar locally, but be became a pseudo-celebrity nationally — possibly the face of the disease in mainstream America — after the Purdue-Ohio State football game on Oct. 20.

ESPN featured Trent’s story on College GameDay that morning, and Trent predicted his Boilermakers would upset Ohio State.

The first miracle came when Trent, who had been so sick earlier in the week his family wasn’t sure he would live more than a few days, became well enough to travel from his Carmel, Indiana home to Purdue’s West Lafayette campus to attend the game.

The second came when Purdue upset the then-No. 2 Buckeyes in a 49-20 blowout. As the Boilermakers team left the field, many players and coach Jeff Brohm spoke to Trent — and some even credited their victory to his inspiration.

“His prediction that Purdue was going to beat Ohio State, as crazy as that may have sounded…I think he got everybody really believing that that could happen,” said New Orleans Saints quarterback and Purdue alum Drew Brees. “It’s amazing just how one person can make that type of impact on, not just a football team, but an entire university and everybody who has any type of affiliation with Purdue. I think that there’s some divine intervention at work here.”

From that point, Trent’s story had national attention and he received visits, letters and social media messages from dozens of current and former athletes and coaches around the country and even President Donald Trump. He made numerous television appearances and was awarded the Disney Spirit Award at ESPN’s College Football Awards show and the Sagamore of the Wabash, Indiana’s highest civilian honor.

He became the honorary team captain for the Purdue football team, lifting the Old Oaken Bucket trophy when the team beat Indiana and, despite his grave condition, traveling to Nashville for the team’s bowl game on Friday. The team’s official Twitter account posted on Tuesday night “Forever our captain” after news of Trent’s death.

Trent’s courage and spirit inspired so many who heard his story, and it’s estimated his story resulted in millions of dollars in donations to cancer research.

Trent, whose career goal was to become a sportswriter, penned a book before his death called “The Upset,” in which he tells the story of his cancer battle, Purdue’s inspired victory over Ohio State, and the future upset he hopes will happen when a cure for cancer is found. The book’s goal is to continue raise even more money for cancer research through its proceeds.

“My drive revolves around the legacy I leave,” Trent said on the book’s website. “The chances of my living to see cancer eradicated, or our finding a cure, are pretty low, but hopefully one hundred years down the line, maybe my legacy will have an impact towards that goal.”

Trent’s perspective changed over the course of his battle, helping lead to his moving final months. According to a column published Tuesday night by Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel, when Trent was diagnosed a second and third time he was determined that, if it was his fate to battle cancer, he would use his battle for good.

“I wanted to make a difference,” Trent said. “I didn’t think I’d made a difference the first time (I had cancer). That’s what I prayed for: If I’m going to have cancer, use me to make an impact.”

And have an impact he did.

“He was only 20 years old,” said SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt on Tuesday night. “But in those 20 years he made a mark and a dent, and left a legacy that’s going to outlive us all.”

Trent’s life may be over, but the finality of his battle doesn’t equate to a loss or a surrender to this horrible disease.

Because in every way, Tyler Trent won.

Column: A Most Thankful Thanksgiving

At the first Thanksgiving, the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock celebrated a feast thanking God for their newfound home and for bringing them safely there.

This year, in the spirit of the holiday’s origins, I too am thankful for a new home and the journey to get here over the last year.

I have so much to be thankful for this year, so strap in. If anyone set an over/under on my use of the word thankful here, I hope you all took the over.

Ten days ago, I began a new job at The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, North Carolina, leaving The Clayton Tribune in Rabun County, Georgia after 14 months on the job there.

I am so thankful to The Courier-Tribune for this excellent opportunity to advance my career, allowing me to move to a daily newspaper in a bigger market and giving me the chance to cover sports at a larger set of high schools, with some college sports mixed in too. I’m thankful they think enough of me to bring me back — I interned with them in the summer of 2016.

But perhaps the best part of moving to Asheboro is being closer to home and my family. I’m closer to my parents in South Carolina, but I’m now very close to my grandmother and much of my extended family in central North Carolina. I’m thankful to be within a 30-minute drive of such important people in my life, especially after being three to four hours away (depending on where I lived) for the last nine years since my parents and I moved to South Carolina.

Even as I’ve left Clayton, I’m thankful for the opportunity I had there. I very much enjoyed my time there and it was a great position to allow me to familiarize myself with the industry while covering high school sports (and even a little bit of news too) at a weekly newspaper in the beautiful northeast Georgia mountains. I developed some incredible relationships in Rabun County while getting the treat of covering three successful high school athletics programs.

And just as the pilgrims were grateful for reaching Plymouth Rock safely, I’m thankful I made it through possibly the toughest six months of my life earlier this year.

While my time at The Clayton Tribune was incredible, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t without some bumps.

During the holiday season of 2017 our editor and our publisher left within a month of each other — a tough time anywhere but a major blow at a small weekly paper — and me and one other young reporter, my friend and then-roommate Tommy Culkin (who has since taken his own excellent opportunity in Texas), were left to keep the paper running (at least from the editorial side) for two months before reinforcements could arrive.

It was a baptism by fire, a stressful time full of some long nights on deadline day and more weight on my shoulders than I felt I was capable of bearing.

But now, on the other end of it, I have come to be thankful for the positive aftereffects of this. I am a better journalist from learning how to do the job under that kind of pressure, and I’m now better-equipped to maintain composure when the job gets hectic.

During the turnover in Clayton, I lost both of my grandfathers in a 90-day span. Of course I miss them both, but I’ve also come to appreciate the influence of their lives on mine. I’m thankful to have known them both for 23 years, for both of them to have lived long, productive lives (84 and 90 years) and the comfort through my faith of knowing they’re truly in a better place.

I’ve said a lot in this space, but I’m really just scratching the surface on what I’m thankful for this year.

I’m actually working this Thanksgiving Day — somebody has to get the paper out, and it’s falling to the new guy — but it doesn’t bother me in the least.

One reason is because I’m reaping the advantages of being much closer to family by taking a long lunch break to go enjoy our meal.

But beyond that, I’ve reached a point in my life I don’t need to set aside a day to give thanks.

I’m so grateful, for all of the above and more, that every day is Thanksgiving Day.

Column: Ring the Siren

Around 5:20 p.m. on Sunday, a siren blazed from the center of Dawsonville, Georgia.

There was no fire truck responding to a call, and it wasn’t a weather siren. In fact, there was no emergency of any kind — actually, the exact opposite: Chase Elliott had won a race.

The Dawsonville native and son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott won Sunday’s GoBowling at the Glen race, taking his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory.

When “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” was in his prime, the Dawsonville Pool Room began ringing a siren to let the townspeople know their favorite son had won.

The siren rang often in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as Elliott notched 44 wins and the 1988 Cup Series championship.

Bill earned his final win in Nov. 2003, and while the siren did sound for Chase’s wins in NASCAR’s lower-tier series — including a championship in 2014 in the XFinity Series, NASCAR’s equivalent of AAA baseball — it did not for a win on racing’s grandest stage, the Cup Series, until Chase conquered Watkins Glen, a road course track in upstate New York, on Sunday.

Chase Elliott finished second in eight races before Sunday’s win, which came in his 99th career start. The 22-year-old driver has already become one of the sport’s most popular figures, but some questioned how long it would take before his breakthrough win.

That triumph came Sunday, more loud and clear than the siren blow it initiated.

Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet had to duel for the lead with 2015 series champion Kyle Busch, who has won six races this year, for much of the race. Then, with Busch out of the way due to a fueling issue, Elliott had to fend off Martin Truex Jr. over the closing laps. Truex is not only the defending series champion, but had won the circuit’s previous two road course races.

Overcoming eight runner-up finishes before earning a win is nothing new to the Elliotts — Bill did the same leading up to his first win in 1983.

If history is any indicator, more wins could be on the way for Chase, and soon. After Bill’s inaugural win in the 1983 season finale, he won three races in 1984, then 11 in 1985. Jeff Gordon, whose seat at Hendrick Motorsports Chase Elliott filled, had a similar surge after his first win.

Such a surge by Chase Elliott would be exactly what NASCAR needs. The sport has been mired in a TV ratings and attendance slump over the last several years, and the positive publicity of Elliott’s win Sunday was quickly overshadowed when news broke Monday morning of the arrest of NASCAR CEO Brian France, who was charged with DUI and possession of a controlled substance.

But if Elliott can return to the winner’s circle soon, and if he can do so often, it may inject some much-needed energy back into the sport.

That energy was there Sunday in Watkins Glen, as the partisan crowd cheered boisterously when he completed his maiden victory.

That energy was also in Dawsonville, when the siren sounded and when Elliott returned Sunday night to the applause of several dozen friends and family.

If Elliott can win more often moving forward, perhaps that energy will spread.

But one thing’s for sure: if he wins more often moving forward, as many think he will, the residents of Dawsonville may need to buy some earplugs.

Because the siren’s about to ring some more.

Column: Goat Ropings and Rodeos

On May 20, 2010, the Atlanta Braves overcame a 9-3 deficit in the ninth inning to beat the Cincinnati Reds 10-9, an incredible comeback capped by a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam by journeyman backup infielder Brooks Conrad.

Longtime Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson said of the comeback “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Sunday, eight years to the day after Conrad’s memorable hit, the 2018 edition of the Braves came back in similar fashion, using a six-run ninth inning to beat the Miami Marlins, by an identical score of 10-9.

This comeback was just as amazing as the one eight years earlier, if not more so; this one came without the benefit of a single extra-base hit, as the Braves methodically chopped away at the Marlins lead — down to their last strike 10 times — before finally winning on a bullet down the left-field line by Dansby Swanson.

Swanson’s turn as the hero was nearly as unlikely as Conrad’s — it was Swanson’s first hit since missing 15 games with a wrist injury.

After watching the Braves finish off the improbable victory on Sunday, I said to myself: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

(Ok, I’ve been to one rodeo, and haven’t been to a goat roping. But you get the point.)

But while the comeback was incredible, some of the comments made by the team afterward were perhaps even more telling about the makeup of this Braves team.

“I almost expect them to do it,” said manager Brian Snitker. “Down six in the bottom of the fifth, I felt good. I really did. I thought, ‘these guys have a lot of time to go to work here.’”

“It just shows the belief and pedigree in this team that we have this much belief in each other,” said Freddie Freeman. “It’s fun to be a part of. When you have everybody bought in to play like that, it’s truly amazing what can happen.”

After rebuilding seasons of 95, 93 and 90 losses the last three years, the Braves are back — they sit at 29-18, holding the best record in the National League and a 1 1/2 game lead in the NL East. Atlanta, the state of Georgia and the whole southeast (“Braves Country”) has a team to be excited about again.

I wasn’t around for the “worst-to-first” season of 1991, in which the Braves reached the World Series — their first since moving to Atlanta — after three straight last-place finishes in their division. I’ve always wondered how thrilling that experience must have been like for the Braves and their fans.

Perhaps this season is providing a taste of that — and hopefully, like 1991, the thrills will continue all the way into October.

Going back to those rodeos, the Braves are sitting on a bull named “First Place,” something very few expected when the season began eight weeks ago.

It’s still early — if the 162-game schedule is the fabled “eight-second ride,” we’re a little over two seconds in. Some say the Braves, as young as they are, are sure to fall off the bull before the eight seconds is up.

But given their knack for comebacks, their will and determination, and what appears from a distance to be a great team chemistry, I like their chances.

That bull is sure to try and throw the Braves off — every team goes through plenty of adversity over the course of 162 games that, if they’re not ready for it, can throw them — but I have a feeling that when the eight seconds is up, the Braves could very well be the last ones standing and advance into the goat roping known as the postseason.

And if it happens, I’ll be the first to say: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Column: Waiting on Acuña The Right Move for Braves

Ronald Acuña, the Atlanta Braves outfield prospect who is the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, has been the talk of Braves spring training since the beginning of camp, tearing up the Grapefruit League and showing why there’s so much hype around him.

But on Monday, new Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos reassigned Acuña to minor-league camp, meaning he will start the season in the minors at AAA Gwinnett — and it’s a good decision by the Braves front office.

Why is it the right move for the Braves to send to the minors a player who is playing as well as anyone this spring and has proven he is ready for the major leagues? Because given the current MLB rules regarding service time and arbitration, this will actually benefit the team long-term.

In the current collective bargaining rules between the MLB and the MLB Players Association, a full season of service time is 172 days, even though the MLB’s regular season is 186 days long. As a result, even if Acuña (or anyone else) plays in the majors for 171 days in 2018, it does not count as a full year of service time and the Braves will have an extra year of contractual control in his arbitration years.

If Acuña is not called up to the major leagues before April 13, he will be a free agent after the 2024 season; were he on the Opening Day roster, he would be a free agent after 2023.

Given the opportunity to keep a player of Acuña’s talent an additional year in the prime of his career, at only the expense of two weeks out of his rookie season, why wouldn’t the Braves keep him at Gwinnett for those two weeks? Put another way, 162 games of Acuña at age 26 is worth losing 12 games of his age-20 season.

This is especially true for a club in the Braves position. The Braves’ rebuild, which began after the 2014 season and has been rooted in building a stellar farm system, has them positioned for sustained success in the coming years, but they are still likely a year away from legitimately contending, barring a surprise 2018.

A .500 season is a fair goal this year; therefore, even if they lose a game in the first two weeks that they might have won with Acuña on the roster (which, by the way, there’s no way to definitively measure), that game will likely not cost them a division title or a spot in the postseason.

This concept is not new in MLB — the Cubs did this in 2015 with Kris Bryant, who was called up on April 17 and proceeded to win Rookie of the Year in 2015 and MVP in 2016.

Like Bryant three years ago, Acuña has had a terrific spring, hitting .432 with a .519 on-base percentage and a .727 slugging percentage, with four homers and 11 RBIs.

The strong spring is an extension of his strong 2017 season across three levels of the minors, where he actually improved statistically at each level, totaling a .325 average with a .896 OPS. Acuña was also the MVP of the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.

Among those who have seen him play, there is little doubt Acuña is a legitimate five-tool talent with the ability to become a major league star. And while it would be nice for Braves fans, and for the game in general, if he were on the Braves’ Opening Day roster, to me his special talent level and potential further solidify that this is the right move.

A small faction of Braves fans are frustrated at the team’s decision to keep their Acuña in the minors to start the season.

But if this works out like most think it will — if he is, in fact, able to live up to the hype — those same fans will be thanking management when Acuña is still in left field at SunTrust Park on Opening Day 2024 for the World Series favorite Atlanta Braves.

Column: An Unexciting Super Bowl Sunday

Super Bowl LII is tonight, but I’m not excited.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still watch — it’s the Super Bowl after all — but I’m the least excited I have ever been on any Super Bowl Sunday since I started watching them 14 years ago.

A big part of the reason dates back to my maiden Super Bowl, the 38th one in 2004, when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers, birthing a distaste for the Patriots that has grown ever since.

The principals from that 2003 team are still around in quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Brady, even at 40, is as good as ever, taking home his third NFL MVP Award at last night’s NFL Honors and continuing to build his case that he may be objectively the best player to ever play the game.

Now, as the Patriots play their third Super Bowl in four years and their eighth in 17, it’s hard for me to be excited about watching the same old thing, especially since they are favored to win another Lombardi Trophy. If they do, they would have won each of those three appearances in the last four years and six of their eight since 2001.

Depending on who from Las Vegas you read, the Patriots are between four- and five-point favorites, although I think they’re even heavier favorites than that, given that they’ve been here before and seem to be able to come back from anything (see: multiple Super Bowl comebacks, this year’s AFC Championship Game, etc.).

They are facing an upstart Philadelphia Eagles team which has come from nowhere to get here. They posted a 13-3 regular season, primarily with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, then won their two NFC playoff games, with backup signal-caller Nick Foles under center after Wentz’s torn ACL cost him the season.

It’s cool to see a team that has been down recently — before this season they had one playoff appearance in the last six years, which ended in the first round — make this run to the Super Bowl.

The Eagles have relished the underdog role this postseason, as without Wentz they were underdogs to both the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.

But neither one of those games were against the mighty Patriots, the “evil empire” if you will, who are in the midst of the greatest sustained run of excellence in NFL history, dating back to Brady’s first season and Belichick’s second in 2001. This run includes a 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

As such, I am mentally preparing myself for the disappointment of another Patriots title tonight, even while hoping that my forecast is incorrect.

Perhaps it will be; eight straight MVPs to play in the Super Bowl have lost, including Brady 10 years ago in the Super Bowl XLII classic against a Giants team that was far heavier underdogs than tonight’s Eagles.

But by expecting Brady to end that trend before the game even starts, I’m hoping to dampen the disappointment level around 10 p.m. tonight when the Patriots are inevitably celebrating, again.

Oh well. It’s almost baseball season.

 

Prediction: Patriots 28, Eagles 20