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Nats' Sean Doolittle on recent protests: 'This is our generation’s civil rights movement'

Nats' Sean Doolittle on recent protests: 'This is our generation’s civil rights movement'

WASHINGTON -- Weeks elapsed without baseball, so Sean Doolittle needed to find ways to occupy himself.

He worked out for two or three hours each morning, often leaving the house to take 30-mile rides on his road bike. He lost weight, continued the workouts, lost more weight. He threw into a net in his side yard. Doolittle granted himself the title of being in “pretty good shape,” then stalled himself from espousing a cliché.

“I'm not going to say I'm in the best shape of my life as a 33-year-old,” Doolittle said. “That ship sailed a long time ago.”

He was also watching social unrest across the country -- and baseball’s response to it -- with a keen eye. Former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond wrote a powerful message on Instagram outlining bigotry he dealt with, which Doolittle called “incredible” and said he read multiple times. He listened to a podcast with CC Sabathia, Chris Young, Cameron Maybin and Edwin Jackson in which they discussed microaggressions and other untoward situations they went through. He thought about how these conversations can continue when baseball games resume, and where baseball’s spot in the landscape would exist.

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“This is our generation's civil rights movement,” Doolittle said. “There's never been a better time or a more important time to get involved and to help raise the voices of people who are trying to bring attention to some of these issues and share their experiences and go to a public demonstration, get involved -- whether it's with your voice or with your wallet. We're in a position where we can help a little bit financially with some of these causes. We still felt like we had a purpose and that there was something important that we were doing. That definitely, I think, kept us from being bored and missing baseball. There's more important things than baseball, but it's my job. So I was staying ready."

The process, and merit, of his job appears to have him concerned. Not long after Major League Baseball stopped March 12, commissioner Rob Manfred started touting the league’s return as a puff of joy for a society reeling from the onset of a pandemic. That idea has long passed. The sport spent three months bickering -- privately and publicly -- before ostensibly agreeing to what they already agreed to March 26, shifting the conversation from health and safety to finances. Doolittle called the pivot “tone-deaf” and “gross” when asked about it Sunday.

RELATED: SEAN DOOLITTLE STILL UNSURE IF HE WILL OPT-OUT

Then he talked about the increase in Black baseball players speaking out about the influence of systemic racism both in their personal and baseball lives. The MLBPA proposed a joint fund of $10 million -- split evenly between the union and league -- for social justice causes. The amount is paltry. It’s also more than zero for a sport traditionally lagging in diversity on the field and behind the scenes. Doolittle now wonders where baseball, “America’s pastime”, fits in the broader landscape of 2020.

“Is it just a distraction?” Doolittle said. “Is this like Ancient Rome [circus maximus] and stuff where we're just amusing the masses and giving them distraction from everything else that's going on in the world, all the bad things that are going on in the world?

“Or can we be a productive part of a discussion about ending racism and promoting equality and justice for everybody. I think we have reached a tipping point where over the last couple of months, guys have kind of found their voice. They've been maybe more active on social media than they have been throughout their career, and they've gotten a little bit more comfortable putting themselves out there. They've found support from other players around the league. So I think it's all culminated, and there's going to be a lot of guys that are going to continue these conversations. I'm proud to stand with those guys and try to amplify their voices and echo their message."

Doolittle uses his Twitter account to often address issues he feels compelled by. In person, he’s happy to talk extensively about a variety of topics, from books to union issues to society at-large. Sunday, he rode into the current status of the country as it relates to his profession. This is a standard approach for Doolittle. He’s a closer at work, involved human outside of it.

“ I've never wanted my entire identity to be wrapped up in baseball,” Doolittle said.

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Nationals pitcher Seth Romero put a long road behind him in his MLB debut

Nationals pitcher Seth Romero put a long road behind him in his MLB debut

Davey Martinez flagged down Seth Romero in the visitor’s clubhouse at Citi Field and called him into his office. The Nationals skipper cherishes moments like this one, but when the 6-foot-3, 240-pound pitching prospect walked through the door, Martinez’s attention briefly drifted elsewhere.

“First and foremost, the earrings gotta go,” he said, “and secondly, congratulations. You’re gonna pitch for us.”

Romero was already traveling with the Nationals as a member of their road taxi squad, though he had yet to appear in the major leagues. That finally changed Thursday, when Washington placed veteran reliever Sean Doolittle on the Injured List and selected Romero’s contract ahead of their series finale with the New York Mets. He made his debut in the fifth inning, allowing four runs over six outs of work with three hits, three walks and four strikeouts.

The big damage came on a grand slam off the bat of Mets catcher Tomás Nido. Romero was one out away from escaping the inning unscathed when he grooved an 0-2 changeup over the middle of the plate and Nido cranked it into the outfield seats for a grand slam. He then came back out for the sixth and recorded two outs around a pair of walks before being relieved by Wander Suero.

“I wasn’t too worried about it,” Romero said. “I felt good on the mound. I mean, things happen so I didn’t really think about it too much and just tried to focus about the next pitch.”

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Martinez spoke after the game about the Nationals’ decision to bring up Romero despite the fact that he hadn’t pitched in a professional game in nearly two years due to Tommy John surgery.

“Seth was here, we needed a lefty in the bullpen [and] as you can see when he throws strikes, he’s got swing and miss stuff,” Martinez said. “His stuff plays so I like it. He threw one bad changeup to Nido. Other than that, I thought he threw the ball very well. Nervous, he was really nervous. Heartbeat was going a thousand miles an hour but he’s gonna be OK.

“I thought with all the lefties coming up that that was a good spot for Romero. I thought he threw the ball good considering it’s his first outing in the big leagues. Got the early strikeout. Walks, I told him, ‘The walks is what—you’re up here you know. Walk one or two guys and these guys can all hit so just throw strikes. All I ask is you throw strikes.’ He was nervous but like I said, when he did throw strikes, he had a lot of swings and misses. It was nice, he’s got good stuff.”

It certainly wasn’t the debut Romero had dreamed about. The runs he gave up contributed to the Nationals’ eventual 8-2 loss and there were no fans in the stands to create the atmosphere that so many athletes strive to experience. But his debut marked the culmination of a difficult road that had kept him off the field and limited his ability to progress.

Washington selected Romero with the 25th overall pick in the 2017 first-year player draft. He had been one of the most electric pitchers in college baseball until the University of Houston dismissed him from the program for a series of incidents that reportedly included failing a drug test and fighting with a teammate. The questions about his character took a hit on his draft spot, which allowed him to land with the Nationals at the back end of the first round instead of being a top pick.

Romero made seven starts for the Nationals’ minor league system in 2017 and he evidently impressed the team enough to invite him to their major league spring training. However, the left-hander was sent home for violating team policy. He wouldn’t appear in a professional game until June of that season, when he made seven starts with a 3.91 ERA.

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But bad news struck again in September, this time in the form of an injury. Romero tore a ligament in his throwing elbow and required Tommy John surgery, putting an end to his 2018 campaign and forcing him to miss all of 2019 as well. By the time he started throwing again, Romero had to start from scratch; the first five balls he threw went straight into the ground. He eventually got over those "yips" and had been working his way back ever since.

“I’ve just been trusting the process, sticking to what they’ve told me, doing everything they’ve told me,” Romero said. “Just trying to stay healthy just in case they needed me.”

The Nationals hadn’t seen Romero pitch in a live game in 23 months, but they felt comfortable giving him a shot after what they’d seen from him at their alternate training site.

“We watched him progress, we watched him down in Fredericksburg and he was a guy that was throwing strikes and that’s important here,” Martinez said. “He was throwing a lot of strikes, he’s always in the strike zone, we feel like he’s got a lot of swing and miss stuff. And we need a left-handed pitcher. Right now he’s the only lefty we got with [Doolittle] going down. So we thought it’d be a perfect opportunity to get him up here and see what he can do.”

Even with the mixed results, both Martinez and Romero were happy to see him back on the mound and showing signs of potential. The former first-round pick still has a lot of work to do before he can live up to his draft status, but for now he reached a significant milestone and experienced for the first time what pitching in the major leagues can do a player’s nerves.

“Oh, I was 100 percent nervous for the first one but after the first few throws, I kind of settled in,” Romero said. “But right off the grip definitely nervous.”

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Juan Soto celebrates National Left-Handers Day in style

Juan Soto celebrates National Left-Handers Day in style

Around 10 percent of the world’s population had reason to celebrate on Thursday, and Nationals outfielder Juan Soto did so in a way he has been getting very used to lately.

Batting from his customary spot in the left-handed batter’s box, Soto connected for his third home run over the last two days against the Mets, this one traveling an approximate 435 feet. That makes five homers in eight games for Soto since he returned following a positive COVID-19 test just hours before the season opener.

RELATED: WILL SOTO FOLLOW THE LEAD OF MOOKIE BETTS?

Back and fully healthy, the left-handed hitting Soto continues to impress the baseball world while following in the Nationals' tradition of powerful left-handed hitters. His 61 career home runs from the left side of the dish already ranks 4th in franchise history among left handed hitters:

  1. Bryce Harper: 184 HR
  2. Adam LaRoche: 82 HR
  3. Adam Dunn: 76 HR
  4. Juan Soto: 61 HR
  5. Daniel Murphy: 54 HR

(courtesy: Baseball Reference)

Soto is also hitting .414 so far in 2020, and is a career .290 hitter as well. That’s the 3rd highest mark in franchise history among left-handed hitters with at least 500 at-bats in a Nationals uniform:

  1. Daniel Murphy: .329
  2. Denard Span: .292
  3. Juan Soto: .290
  4. Nick Johnson: .286
  5. Adam Easton: .284

(courtesy: Baseball Reference)

Soto also has the 2nd highest slugging percentage among Nats lefties all-time (behind only Daniel Murphy). Not-so-memorable names like Nyjer Morgan, Brad Wilkerson and Brian Schneider also show up on these lists of lefties, but Soto is making quite a name for himself on an entirely different level.

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