Cubs

Albert Almora Jr. on foul ball incident in Houston: 'I hope this never happens again'

Albert Almora Jr. on foul ball incident in Houston: 'I hope this never happens again'

ST. LOUIS - The day after his foul ball line drive hit a young girl in the stands in Houston, Albert Almora Jr. didn't even get out of bed.

The Cubs had the day off after traveling to St. Louis following the conclusion of their series with the Astros Wednesday night.

Almora said he woke up to an avalanche of messages from family and friends Thursday morning lending their support. He has reached out to the family of the young fan, but they have asked for privacy on her condition.

In the two days that have followed since the incident, the conversation on protective netting around the ballpark has reached its crescendo, with many speaking out about the need to protect fans at all costs.

"I hope this never happens again, so whatever the league has to do to make that happen," Almora said as he stood at his locker in the visiting dugout at Busch Stadium. "I don't think any kid that goes to a baseball game with their parents or whoever should worry about making it out unhealthy or whatever the case may be. I don't think that should ever cross their mind. 

"Whatever the league needs to do to do that, that should be in place."

Almora isn't alone in that thought and maybe this incident will inspire some action to extend the netting beyond where it is now, which is roughly through the end of the dugout on either foul line at most MLB stadiums.

Even that has been a major improvement in recent years after debate about whether the netting affects fans' experience watching the game. But the current situation is not enough to protect children and families from foul balls whistling into the stands at 90 or 100 mph, as my colleague Doug Glanville so aptly broke down about his own firsthand experience bringing his kids to games.

"A couple years ago, there was very minimal [netting] and now there's a lot more than there had been and there's gonna be more than that," Joe Maddon said Friday. "Just goes way back. I've seen a kid at Quad Cities — when I was catching — sitting on a stoop outside the dugout probably no more than 15-20 feet to the left of home plate — a foul ball hits the kid right in the face.

"I mean, there were not nets at all back then, except for directly behind home plate. So where we're at right now is a pretty significant increase since then and it's gonna be even more than that, for sure. Typically, it always takes something to happen before people react and that's just the way we can react — not just in baseball, but as humans in general."

Maybe this situation will be the impetus behind more change. It's only been two days, but it sure seems like that's the direction it's moving. 

As for Almora, it was amazing he even moved forward and continued playing that game Wednesday night after how broken up he was. But he cited the support from his teammates and Cubs family as a major reason why and felt like he was in a good state of mind before Friday's game. The off-day probably helped give him time to process everything, too.

"[The support] has been nothing but positive," Almora said. "But at the same time, it's not about me. It's about hopefully everything's OK with the family. But yeah, there's really not much else I can say. I've been blessed with the people around me in this situation. As tough as it's been, it has made me a better person, I think, and it has opened my eyes to other things.

"I don't know. I never want it to happen again. I wish it wouldn't have happened, but you take it in stride and move forward and hopefully all is well and she's gonna make a full recovery, God willing. But it's something I'll never forget for the rest of my life. 

"I'm not saying I'm gonna try to turn it into a positive, but right now, all I've seen, all I've experienced is love and people that care and that means a lot. That means the world to me."

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Cubs fans may remember Dan Straily. The right-hander pitched for the club in 2014, making seven appearances (one start) before getting dealt to the Houston Astros the ensuing offseason in the Dexter Fowler trade.

Straily now pitches for the Lotte Giants in the KBO, South Korea's highest level of pro ball. The league kicked its season off earlier this month without fans in attendance, a model MLB will likely follow for most (if not all) of its potential 2020 season.

Jon Frankel, a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," recently interviewed current and former KBO players about the league's return during the coronavirus pandemic. In an excerpt made available via press release, Frankel asked Straily if he misses playing in front of a crowd.

MORE: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

"Of course. Like, even if you're on the road, and people are just telling you how much you suck — you thrive off it," Straily said. "You feed off that energy.”

Crowd noise obviously plays a big part in an athlete's adrenaline. Not having that factor will be an adjustment for MLB in 2020, and Straily took things a step further regarding the circumstances players face without fans in attendance.

“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch," he said. "Like, it was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we've talked about that in the dugout. Because I've never once in my life heard that.”

Not having crowds to drown out on-field noise could make for a unique viewing experience for fans at home. UFC returned on May 9, and many punches and kicks were audible on ESPN's TV broadcast.

MLB teams could play proxy crowd noise in games, but nevertheless, fans may pickup noises on their TVs previously unavailable from home.

The full episode will air Tuesday at 9 p.m. CT on HBO.

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How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.