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Why Sean Doolittle changed his jersey number to honor a family bond

Why Sean Doolittle changed his jersey number to honor a family bond

When Jan “MeMe” Urban drove to see her grandson, Sean Doolittle, pitch for the University of Virginia, she did so in a Mustang and with a lead foot.

Charlottesville is roughly 120 miles northwest from Williamsburg, where Jan and her husband, John, retired. Jan loved Mustangs. She had a red one before moving to this asphalt-gripping navy blue edition adorned with UVA baseball stickers and magnets of her grandkids’ high school teams. John drove an SUV and, supposedly, with more regard for the speed limit. Jan claimed the trip to UVA took her 90 minutes. John dawdled, dragging the journey closer to the expected two-hour mark.

Jan and John’s presence was neither uncommon or unnoticed at Davenport Field. They sat with the regular swell of team family members up the third-base side, just above the home dugout. Jan’s percolating nerves prompted her to cross-stitch in the stands when Sean played. He now has an entire tablecloth from her anxious needle-and-thread work in the bleachers. She would also later suggest watching his games bore partial responsibility for her gray hair, an affliction the 33-year-old is now becoming familiar with as some of his red follicles give over to time.

The grandparents’ UVA visits mimicked past journeys. Jan and John always paid attention to the athletic endeavors of their 10 grandkids, from when the youngsters played Wiffle ball games in the Urban’s back yard down at the house on the Jersey Shore, to high school and college. John and Jan would call for “ESPN updates” if they couldn’t watch a game in middle school. They went from northern New Jersey to the southern part, down by Philadelphia -- where Sean and his two siblings were raised -- in order to watch games. Jan and John even went to the north Chicago suburbs or western Massachusetts to watch the other grandkids compete. 

“They were always bouncing around to somebody’s sporting event, somebody’s after school activity,” Doolittle said. “They were just so incredibly proud of their grandkids and so supportive of all of us.”

Jan died unexpectedly Feb. 27. She was 84. Doolittle left spring training for about a week to go back to Williamsburg to be with his family. 

While there, a number caught Doolittle’s attention when he worked through the sadness and arrangements. Jan and John were married on June 23, 1956, in Irvington, New Jersey. Jan would often explain how she fell in love with John after spotting him at a high school baseball practice one afternoon. He, like Doolittle, was a pitcher. Jan and John went on to spend 63 years together. 

The 63 wasn’t far from Doolittle’s random jersey number of 62 handed to him in Oakland when he was called up in 2012. “I kind of just went with it because I’m a weird left-handed reliever, so it felt relatively normal to have an obscure number,” he said. Changing to 63 would serve as an outward, if silent, way to honor the bond and support of his grandparents. So, he asked to switch after returning to West Palm Beach.

“It felt like a way I could say thank you and have them with me every time on the field,” Doolittle said.

Really, the number change is a continuation since Jan and John were always there before.

All the way back to college, Jan kept a notebook of every pitch Doolittle threw. The 2018 version has two puppies on the cover, black rings and personal shorthand inside. Ruled pages are filled with her handwriting. The day and date are scripted out across the top. The opponent, score of the game when Doolittle entered, plus the inning (9th with an upward-pointing arrow for the top of the ninth) are a line below. Pitches thrown, velocity, batter’s outcome, game number and Doolittle’s ERA are all on the page. A circle surrounds a capital “S” to mark a save. John’s 85 on the golf course July 6, 2018, snuck its way into the pitch book and atop the day’s page. Otherwise, the notebook is populated by Jan’s tracking of Doolittle’s pitching.

“She knew her stuff, man,” he said.

Doolittle tucked the 2018 notebook in his backpack when the Nationals went on the road last season. He would occasionally leaf through it to look at Jan’s notes, performing an act of remembrance and gratitude. An honorary $2 bill was placed into the notebook because she would send cards containing the rare monetary note for birthdays, holidays or graduations. If you received mail from MeMe, two bucks was probably inside.

On the road, Doolittle pushed the notebook back into his backpack for safekeeping. At home, it sat in the cubby of his clubhouse locker, a place also populated by an Anthony Rendon bobblehead wearing a homemade “MVP” sash, a lightsaber and actual tools for successful participation in a baseball game. One of Jan’s rosaries was there, too. 

John, 85, came to several home and playoff games during the 2019 season as he adjusted to life without his wife for the first time in more than a half-century. He was a popular man back at his retirement community when the World Series began in Houston. Golfing buddies and friends from church joined John’s World Series watch parties. When Doolittle called John -- or “Papa” to the grandkids -- with updates, John gleefully told him about how many people came by to say good luck or, eventually, congratulations. 

John attended Games 3, 4 and 5 at Nationals Park, then basked in victory when Doolittle went to see him two days after the Nationals’ paraded through downtown D.C. During the visit, John wore a pinstriped Senators jersey, red Nationals hat and a smile when he pinched his index and thumb together along with Doolittle in their ode to the undefeated song of the season, “Baby Shark”.

Visitors brought their questions for the major leaguer in their midst. What advice would Doolittle have for their grandkids who play baseball? What’s happening with Anthony Rendon? Stephen Strasburg? What age can the grandkids start throwing a curveball?

“I was never allowed to throw curveballs when I was in Little League and I still can't really throw one now, so I don't know,” Doolittle told them.

Jan knew that. It’s there in her notebook and was right in front of her all those years: on vacation at the beach, down in south Jersey, at all those games in Charlottesville, on the road in ACC venues, across major-league stadiums, during all that time when she worked as a buoyant girder during a step-by-step process.

No. 63 will be hanging in Doolittle’s locker when he arrives at West Palm Beach in February. He plans to wear it until he is done with baseball. The jersey will provide outward recognition amid the boil of a ninth inning to show what 63 years together can mean. The notebook and rosary can deliver chances for quiet reflection. 

“It’s always special to see a major-league jersey hanging in your locker with your name on it, but the significance of the number now and what it means to me and my family, I’m going to stick with it,” Doolittle said. “I’ll be thinking about her every time I put it on.”

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Sean Doolittle says Nationals players will continue to support minor leaguers

Sean Doolittle says Nationals players will continue to support minor leaguers

Though the Nationals reversed course on their pay cut for minor-league players, Sean Doolittle still plans on lending his support.

Last week, just hours after it was reported that the Nationals would be reducing the pay rate for minor-league players from $400 per week to $300 for the month of June, Sean Doolittle announced that the major leaguers would cover those cuts.

A short time later, the team announced that it would revert back to the weekly $400 salary for the month of June. While that is good news and something that pleased Doolittle, it does not mean he and other players are done helping minor leaguers in the organization.

On Wednesday Doolittle tweeted out a statement sharing his excitement for the increased pay rates. Additionally, he noted that Nationals players will continue to offer financial help for other players in the organization.

"Nationals players are partnering with More Than Baseball to contribute funds that will offer further assistance and financial support to any minor leaguers who were in the Nationals organization as of March 1."

More Than Baseball is a non-profit organization that aims to provide minor-league baseball players across the country and world with resources to succeed both on and off the field. 

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As the back-and-forth drama plays out regarding the 2020 MLB season, it can be easy to find the negatives in the baseball community at the current moment. However, the gestures by Doolittle and the Nationals players show the good, and once again demonstrate Doolittle's ability to be a powerful voice in a complicated time

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MLB return: Schedules of other leagues show how much baseball is scrambling

MLB return: Schedules of other leagues show how much baseball is scrambling

The NBA appeared to pull things together Wednesday, following the NHL.

Basketball is expected to return July 31 in Orlando with an inventive, though truncated, format. A quick eight-game wrap to the regular season will be followed by the playoffs, according to ESPN. All in one place. The NHL will not start training camp before July 1. It has not determined when the playoffs may begin. The league shelved the regular season but will use “hub cities” for a playoff tournament when they deem it safe. No date has been set yet.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is trying to launch itself via a much quicker, and earlier, timeline.

Officials want to play at the end of June or start of July. They are currently haggling to get there.

Multiple reports earlier in the week said the league was considering a 50-game schedule. This is not an authentic pursuit of playing just 50 games. Rather, it was a fist clench from league commissioner Rob Manfred against the players’ insistence their prorated salaries will be the lone salary cut. Manfred is suggesting if that is true, then he has the right to dictate scheduling.

The players previously suggested a 114-game schedule. The number between the two proposals -- 82 -- remains the most-likely outcome.

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But, baseball continued its jousting and contorting and time loss Wednesday, jeopardizing the entire process. After rejecting the 114-game proposal, the owners said they would not send a counter, according to The Athletic. Further, the league said it has started talks with owners about playing a shorter season without fans, The Athletic reported. This brings the 50-game scenario back into play.

The calendar is not baseball’s friend in the near-term or around the bend. Pushing the season further into the fall and winter increases risk and logistical problems. It also cuts the offseason down.

Blitzing toward a start time with multiple questions about health and the coronavirus still unanswered delivers another set of problems. Baseball needs to race to a start so it can have a legitimate season and acceptable chance at a finish. Most of the prospective money for the season would be delivered by the playoffs. Playing without a postseason would fall into the “something-is-better-than-nothing” category, but barely. Playing a short season would also only amplify the risk-reward questions for the players. Why put so much on the line for 50 games? Or even 82?

And, don’t think both sides are not currently keeping score for the winter of 2021, after the current collective bargaining agreement expires. A brutish labor fight was already coming. Rule changes, perhaps league realignment, the typical eye-gouging over the splits of cash. The core of mistrust for players remains in place: The owners have not shown their full financial situation. Until that changes, both sides will be shouting from bunkers, no-man’s land in between them, whispering to each other how vile the other side is. Agreements are hard to come by in those circumstances.

Sunday marks the close to the first week of June. Players want three weeks of spring training. They also want to start the season sometime between June 30 and July 4. Which means if they can’t suddenly construct a bridge in the next handful of days, they have a week to pull everything together. The other leagues used creativity, an expanded timetable and risk reduction to present viable ways forward. Baseball has deployed none of that to this point.

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