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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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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one;  Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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Nationals could be a landing spot for Kyle Seager if Mariners make him available

Nationals could be a landing spot for Kyle Seager if Mariners make him available

It was a difficult Wednesday evening for Nationals fans, who were forced to swallow a tough dose of reality when reports surfaced that Anthony Rendon was signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

That’s thrust the team into a thin third base market headlined by Josh Donaldson but doesn’t boast many viable options beyond him. Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado were both mentioned in trade rumors during the Winter Meetings, but the Nationals would be hard-pressed to acquire either of them with the significant prospect capital that would be requested in return.

But another option emerged Thursday night when The Athletic reported that the “possibility is increasing” of the Seattle Mariners trading Kyle Seager. The 32-year-old veteran has hit just .236 since 2017 but has at least 20 home runs each of the past eight seasons. Originally thought to be untradeable, Seager has reportedly drawn the interest of “multiple teams.”

The Mariners signed Seager to a seven-year, $100 million contract after a 2014 season in which he posted a .788 OPS and won a Gold Glove. The wrinkle in Seager’s trade value, however, is a $15 million team option for 2022 that converts to a player option if traded. That would guarantee him $52 million over the next three seasons, giving pause to teams who might be wary about his ability to perform at the plate.

But with Donaldson expected to garner a four-year deal despite entering his age-34 season, Arenado signed for $234 million over the next eight years and the Chicago Cubs likely seeking top prospects in return for Bryant, Seager may be the most affordable option for a team like the Nationals.

Washington’s farm system ranks among the lower third of the league, boasting just two consensus top-100 prospects in Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia. The Nationals likely wouldn’t be able to compete with clubs that have deeper farm systems for Bryant, while Arenado is signed to a similar deal that Rendon just received. As for Donaldson, Washington is certainly in the running but is far from the only team interested and could very well lose out.

Seager presents All-Star upside and while he’d be due salaries north of $18 million each of the next two years with the 2022 player option, that would be at worst about the same average annual value Donaldson is likely to demand at two years older. In addition, Seager’s $19.5 million salary next season is just above Rendon’s 2019 total of $18.8 million, making the increase in payroll at the position would be marginal.

It’d by no means replace the production the Nationals lost when Rendon signed with the Angels, but trading for Seager would certainly be a more attractive option than signing the remaining third basemen left in free agency beyond Donaldson: Asdrubal Cabrera, Brock Holt, Todd Frazier, Pablo Sandoval and Maikel Franco, just to name a few.

Seattle doesn’t appear likely to make a trade anytime soon, but Seager’s trade availability will be worth watching as the offseason progresses.

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