Once, when Yunel Escobar offered best wishes to an Atlanta teammate on his birthday, the teammate told Escobar he knew exactly what present he wanted from the shortstop: Just play hard today.
That Braves players came to view consistent effort from the 27-year-old infielder as a gift is not a great reflection on Escobar, especially given the reputation of the Atlanta clubhouse. It's an easy place to exist, to thrive, and has been for many years. Bobby Cox likes players; some managers don't. And the most prominent veterans on the team, like Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson and Billy Wagner and Brian McCann, are all reasonable and relatively laid-back, tolerant of different personalities so long as the effort is there.
And too many times the effort from Escobar was not evident, which is why the Braves decided to trade a younger shortstop with a theoretically higher ceiling for a 33-year-old shortstop.
Alex Gonzalez has struggled to stay healthy at times, and he sometimes has a hard time finding his way on base. But he is steady defensively and less apt to make the kind of mental mistakes that Escobar was guilty of time after time after time. And this year, Gonzalez is having a strong offensive season, with 17 homers and 50 RBIs. There have been many situations this year when the No. 6 or No. 7 hitters have come up with runners on base -- Escobar, in a lot of cases -- and almost no damage is done.
Gonzalez has power, and he can do some damage, but above and beyond that, nobody is going to wonder whether he cares, whether he is going to play hard; this had become the daily question about Escobar.
Right now, the Braves appear to be the team to beat in the NL East, and in Cox's last year, they have a whole bunch of guys rowing together, in sync. Escobar was not one of those guys, and the Braves had too much at stake to be left to wonder on a daily basis whether their shortstop was going to pull along with them or leave his oar unattended.
They have a new shortstop now, and Gonzalez has an incredibly affordable $2.5 million option for 2011. "Without that," said Atlanta GM Frank Wren on Wednesday, "this would not have been a deal we would have considered."
This is a great trade for the Braves, in light of what Escobar wasn't giving them and what Gonzalez should give them, and considering the talents of the two prospects they got in the deal -- left-handed pitcher Tim Collins and shortstop Tyler Pastornicky.
Update: Reader Danny, from Newton in Massachusetts, tipped us off to this video of Collins' delivery.
Collins is 5-foot-7 and was signed by former Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who was at an American Legion game in Worcester, Mass., scouting another pitcher when he first noticed Collins. "I heard a really good fastball in the [nearby] bullpen, and I saw Collins," Ricciardi recalled Wednesday evening. "I was like, 'That fastball is coming out of that little guy's arm?'"
Ricciardi quickly signed the pitcher for $10,000, and he has taken strides toward the big leagues this year. Collins throws a 93-94 mph fastball, but his best pitch is a knee-buckling curve, Ricciardi said -- and this is why Collins has racked up a stunning 73 strikeouts in 43 innings, with just 16 walks, in Double-A this year. "He has an unusual delivery in the way that he torques his body," Ricciardi said. "He's like a little Tim Lincecum in that regard. His stuff is filthy, like a little Billy Wagner. It wouldn't surprise me if he reaches the big leagues later this year."
This was addition by subtraction, writes Mark Bradley.
The Braves' move forces the Phillies to think about making a move, writes Phil Sheridan.
Here's why I wouldn't have made the trade if I were the Blue Jays: If Escobar couldn't find contentment in the Atlanta clubhouse, there's no reason to expect he's going to turn around his effort with any other team.
The Jays were shortchanged on this deal, writes Jeff Blair.
The McCourts in Los Angeles
The judge overseeing the divorce of the Dodgers' owner spoke out loudly about the possibility of a sale of the team, as Bill Shaikin writes.
Also check out this piece from ESPN The Magazine's new issue, posted online yesterday, about the McCourt saga.
The meaning of the Midsummer Classic
In the aftermath of the ninth inning of Tuesday's All-Star Game, we went through some previous All-Star box scores and found many, many examples of stars playing whole games -- such as in 1941, when Joe DiMaggio batted third and Ted Williams batted fourth for the American League, and neither came out of the game. In the ninth inning, Williams was still in place to hit a dramatic walk-off home run.
If the All-Star Game is supposed to count for something -- like home-field advantage in the postseason -- the managers should manage the game in that vein. That doesn't mean Ubaldo Jimenez or David Price are going to throw six innings, but there really is no reason why Miguel Cabrera couldn't have remained on the field throughout the game. Or Robinson Cano. If the elite position players were kept on the field, there would never be a situation like we saw Tuesday, when Joe Girardi essentially ran out of players despite having a 34-man roster.
The culture of the event has shifted so that we're now at the every-Little Leaguer-gets-a-trophy stage, which is unnecessary. It was a really neat thing that Ty Wigginton was added to the AL All-Star team, as the Orioles' only representative; the gritty, hardworking veteran was honored over the two days. But Girardi shouldn't have felt compelled to play him, or just about everybody he had.
If a starter is nursing a nagging injury, it makes sense to get him out of the game after an at-bat or two. But beyond that, it would be nice for the Powers That Be in baseball ask the managers to forgo the everybody-gets-to-play mentality and encourage them to keep the best players on the stage a lot longer.
Nobody paying for a Broadway show expects to see the understudy after the first act. Similarly, the All-Star Game should be about giving the biggest stars the opportunity to show what they can do -- like Ted Williams did in 1941.
Lance Armstrong and baseball
Jeff Novitzky is involved in the investigation of Lance Armstrong's cycling team. From Juliet Macur's story:
[Novitzky] is trying to determine if Armstrong, his teammates, the owners or managers of his former team conspired to defraud their sponsors by doping to improve their performance and win more money and prizes. Authorities want to know if money from the Postal Service, an independent agency of the United States government, was used to finance doping.
It's an interesting line of questioning, and you wonder if any threads that are pulled will lead to inquiries in baseball. A common refrain heard among some baseball executives over the past five years is that, in retrospect, some players used drugs to boost their performance and win more money -- and prizes. And some executives have privately asked the same open-ended question: Does that constitute fraud?
It's an investigation into the past that baseball probably should keep an eye on.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. What follows is pure speculation, and nothing more: As the Tampa Bay Rays consider ways to upgrade their lineup in the last 16 days before the trade deadline, maybe they should be the team that goes out on a limb and makes a deal for Prince Fielder, who would represent a dramatic change for their offense. The Rays could structure an offer around right-hander Wade Davis -- the kind of power pitcher Milwaukee needs -- and could have Fielder for the 2011 season, as well, before he becomes a free agent.
The Rays would trot out a hell of a core in the middle of their lineup, as they make their push for the playoffs:
No. 2 hitter: Carl Crawford
No. 3: Fielder
No. 4: Evan Longoria
2. Theo Epstein is not thinking big, writes Scott Lauber.
4. The Pirates are set to sign their third-round pick.
5. Part of what the White Sox need to do in the second half is locking up Ozzie Guillen.
8. The Royals thought it was the right time to promote a top prospect, as Terez Paylor writes.
9. Dustin Ackley was promoted to Class AAA.
Dings and dents
5. Jake Peavy's surgery could not have gone any better, writes Mark Gonzales.
The passing of The Boss
• It will be a weekend of goodbyes in the Bronx, as Ken Belson and Richard Sandomir write.
• Let's go easy on the praise for George Steinbrenner, writes Ron Borges.
• You would have liked George Steinbrenner if you had met him, writes Dan Shaughnessy.
• There were two sides to George Steinbrenner, and neither should be ignored, writes Joel Sherman.
• Brian Cashman remembers Steinbrenner's will to win.
• Here's a piece I wrote for The Magazine in August 2005 on Steinbrenner. It hadn't run online until this week.
I've noticed that on all the ESPN.com polls, Vermont voters typically vote similar to New York voters, and New Hampshire voters vote similar to Massachusetts voters. But you grew up in Vermont listening to Red Sox games, among others, so I'm wondering if you can explain the state of sport in Vermont and NH, and where or why each has loyalties the way they do?
What an opportunity to dive into the demographics of my home state. Maybe because Vermont borders New York, or maybe because Vermont fosters contrarians -- we were our own republic, after all, in the 18th century -- there are a lot of Yankees fans there. I know, because when I was a kid heartbroken by the Dodgers' World Series defeats in 1977 and '78, they picked at my emotions as if they were tearing wings off a fly. The most popular team in Vermont is the Red Sox, undoubtedly, especially in the eastern half of the state, but I wouldn't necessarily say the Red Sox own the majority; this is more like the presidential election of 1968. Red Sox fans 45 percent, Yankees fans 40 percent, others (like myself as a kid) 15 percent, or something like that. So maybe that's why the Vermont vote sometimes falls upon New York lines.
• The Orioles do not want to match the futility of the 1988 Orioles, writes Jeff Zrebiec.
• Tom Haudricourt writes about how the Brewers can turn it around.
• A big-picture look at the Indians, courtesy of Paul Hoynes.
• Some keys to fixing the Mariners' season, from Larry Stone.
• The Rays are looking forward to the second half, writes Roger Mooney.
• The Angels might not overcome Texas this time, writes Mike DiGiovanna.
• Here are five things the Padres must do to win the West, from Bill Center.
• Don Baylor wants one more swing at managing, writes Adrian Dater.
• Kirk Gibson is still figuring out his method, as Doug Haller writes.
• Health is key in the second half for the Dodgers, writes Dylan Hernandez.
• Rangers GM Jon Daniels has done the impossible, writes Jean-Jacques Taylor.
• The Giants owe a debt of gratitude to the rest of the NL, writes Henry Schulman.
• Hal McCoy watched the All-Star Game with two new friends.
• The Pirates' pitching class of 2009 is going through some hard knocks, writes Chuck Finder.
• I love big fish stories.
• Really sad news about Vanderbilt football coach Bobby Johnson, who has decided to retire.
And today will be better than yesterday.