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OC Register: Hoornstra: 4 players who emerged as role models despite no baseball to play

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On a conference call with Max Muncy on Wednesday afternoon, I asked the Dodgers’ first baseman what he learned about himself during the vast downtime created by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I learned I’m probably not very good company,” Muncy quipped, “without baseball.”

The same might be said by any young man who’s never questioned how to occupy his free time between March and July until now.

The absence of baseball did something else, something more public. It revealed a handful of major-leaguers as terrific role models beyond their skill and effort on the field. Some of us – most, hopefully – do not need reminding that being a good athlete isn’t enough to make a person a good role model. For everyone else, the last two months were a wake-up call.

To be clear, baseball didn’t begin offering these moments once a global pandemic struck. In November, I visited the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center to report on Kenley Jansen’s generous toy donation to the children hospitalized there. At the time, the Astros’ cheating scandal was unfolding through a series of public revelations. Jansen’s reaction to those revelations, as someone who made six appearances in the 2017 World Series, was newsworthy. He suggested lifetime bans as an appropriate measure of punishment. That got him into the daily news cycle, but it did not make him a role model by itself.

With no at-bats, no pitches, and no games, active players have been more free than ever to choose to be a public voice for good – or not. Ironically, it might have taken the absence of professional sports to reveal their character as everyday role models.

So, what can a few thoughtful baseball players do with nothing but time and myriad social issues creating a national conversation? Here are a few examples:

1. Ian Desmond

The Colorado Rockies’ utilityman penned a heartfelt essay on Instagram that suggested he has a future in journalism. (I’m doomed.) As of Wednesday, the post had more than 42,000 likes. Desmond ostensibly intended to explain why he was opting out of playing this season.

“With a pregnant wife and four young children who have lots of questions about what’s going on in the world,” he wrote, “home is where I need to be right now.”

Desmond kept going. He described a recent visit to the Little League fields of his youth in Sarasota, Florida. He recalled them as “a place where baseball could be played by any kid who wanted it.” He offered memories that ran the gamut from close-knit camaraderie to harsh racism (Desmond is a biracial man who identifies as Black).

So what will Desmond continue to do with his down time? “I’ll be right here, at my old Little League, and I’m working with everyone involved to make sure we get Sarasota Youth Baseball back on track,” he said. “It’s what I can do, in the scheme of so much. So, I am.”

2. Sean Doolittle

The Nationals’ closer has been a champion in his community for years, and one of a handful of prolific Twitter users who can never be called a “keyboard warrior.” It was no surprise, then, that Doolittle was the rare player to directly address the lousy timing of MLB’s labor dispute with its players without mincing words.

“There’s social unrest in our country amid a global pandemic,” Doolittle wrote on his Twitter account on June 8. “Baseball won’t solve these problems, but maybe it could help. We’ve been staying ready & we proposed 114 games – to protect the integrity of the game, to give back to our fans & cities, and because we want to play. It’s frustrating to have a public labor dispute when there’s so much hardship. I hate it. But we have an obligation to future players to do right by them. We want to play. We also have to make sure that future players won’t be paying for any concessions we make.”

The message exuded the best kind of honesty, one that resists pandering and voluntarily opens the speaker to criticism. It stood in direct contrast to the owner who claimed the baseball industry “isn’t very profitable.”

3. Joey Votto

The Reds’ first baseman penned a guest column in the Cincinnati Enquirer on June 7 that took an honest, self-reflective look at white privilege.

Votto described his reaction to a Black teammate sending him a video of George Floyd dying beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

“My instincts provoked an instantaneous defense of the officer,” Votto wrote. “Perhaps the man was resisting arrest? Maybe there is a story the video isn’t telling?”

A day later, Votto said he watched the video, wept, and texted his teammate to apologize for his resistance.

“Everything inside of me wants things to go back to normal,” Votto wrote. “I don’t want to protest, raise my voice, or challenge someone. I don’t want to have heated arguments, break up friendships, or challenge previous norms. But I hear you now, and so that desire for normalcy is a privilege by which I can no longer abide.”

4. David Price

Price didn’t intend to publicize his pledge of $1,000 to every Dodgers minor-league player for the month of June. When word got out via social media, Price copped to the broad act of generosity.

Major-league players have drawn criticism – at times justified – for not doing more to help their non-unionized minor-league brethren. Price put his money where his mouth is. He would go on to forfeit $11.85 million of his base salary by opting out of the 2020 season, but not before raising awareness of the minor-leaguers’ futile fight for living wages – and lifting the boat for an entire organization’s worth of players.

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