Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 30, 2020

Amid MLB’s Uncertainty, Joe Kelly Leaves No Doubt

For the moment, there are sports everywhere. As the truncated baseball season begins its second week, the NBA tips off the restart of the schedule that was suspended last March, which is itself but a brief prelude to the league’s playoffs. The NHL is warming up with exhibition games at its two Canadian hubs, preparing to start a rather complex expanded playoff format this weekend. The LPGA returns to action Friday in Ohio, while members of the PGA Tour have their final tune-up before, finally, the first major of the year, next week in San Francisco. Meanwhile the NFL, major college football conferences, men’s and women’s tennis, and Champions League soccer are all waiting just offstage.

For the moment. Those three words are the controlling clause in that hopeful list, and it is not being unduly pessimistic to say that all of those sports managing to play their respective seasons through to their planned conclusions seems more hope than expectation as July comes to an end. That much was made clear when the Great Game was unable to make it through its opening weekend without COVID-19 disrupting the schedule. While kicking off the season in Philadelphia, the Miami Marlins had a surge of coronavirus cases sweep through the roster. On Opening Day catcher Jorge Alfaro was placed on the injured list due to a positive test. By Sunday three more players, including that day’s scheduled starting pitcher Jose Urena, were also found to have coronavirus. The game went on, bringing the rest of the Marlins team into contact with the Phillies. A day later the number of infected Marlins rose to fourteen, including three members of the traveling support staff.

MLB responded by cancelling Miami’s games through this coming weekend. While the Marlins quarantined and the Phillies were tested, the schedules of the teams each franchise had been on tap to play were rearranged. After sitting in Philadelphia for two days, the Yankees headed to Baltimore for a hastily arranged set against the Orioles, who had been planning to play four in a row against the Marlins, two in Camden Yards followed by a pair in Miami. But Thursday brought renewed concern that changes in the schedule were the least of baseball’s worries, when the Phillies announced a pair of positive test results, one to a member of the team’s coaching staff and one to a clubhouse employee.

Perhaps this outbreak will be contained within the two teams already impacted. Or maybe fans of the Great Game are quickly learning that the plan to play nine hundred games in twenty-eight cities over ten weeks, followed by a month of postseason action involving a majority of MLB’s teams was ill-conceived from the start. If that proves to be the case, prospects for the NFL, with its vastly larger rosters and far greater contact, are dim. And while the two leagues playing in so-called bubbles are faring better for the moment, both basketball and hockey are just beginning their planned schedules.

So the moment may indeed be fleeting. But against that grim possibility there is at least this small solace for fans everywhere: even if the return of sports in 2020 comes crashing down around us, we’ll always have Joe Kelly.

It was Kelly, the 32-year-old right-hander, whom Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called upon in the 6th inning to hold a 5-2 lead that L.A. had built over the Astros Tuesday evening. It was the first visit by the Dodgers to Minute Maid Park since the 2017 World Series, and more tellingly, the first since Houston’s cheating during their championship run that year became the Great Game’s major story of last winter. Los Angeles is the third stop in Kelly’s MLB career, following stints in St. Louis and Boston, and since his arrival prior to last season he hasn’t exactly been a fan favorite. Kelly struggled early in the 2019 campaign, and while he eventually became a key member of the bullpen, he ended L.A.’s year by giving up a 10th inning grand slam to Washington’s Howie Kendrick in Game 5 of the NLDS. But after Tuesday night, in L.A. and every other baseball town not named Houston, surely all is forgiven.

The proceedings started innocently, with Kelly inducing a pop fly from Jose Altuve with his first pitch. But he then fell behind Alex Bregman 3-0. His fourth pitch definitely missed the strike zone as well since it was behind Bregman. While Kelly later said, as pitchers always do, that the delivery just got away from him, a pitch behind the batter is a well-established sign of contempt, a sure indication that the man on the mound was aiming not for home plate but for the opposing hitter. One out later, and with two men on, Kelly unleashed a delivery in the vicinity of Carlos Correa’s batting helmet. Headhunting is never to be condoned, and Kelly likely bought himself a suspension with that pitch, though it is worth noting that the throw was a knuckle curve ball in the mid-80s, not a 98 mile per hour heater. But after two pitches out of the strike zone Kelly recovered to strike out Correa for the third out, and then became an instant folk hero by mugging at the vanquished Astro and taunting him as he made his way to the Dodgers dugout. That in turn brought the Houston players out of their dugout for a benches-clearing, well, a benches-clearing period of standing around. Angry words were exchanged, and social distancing rules were forgotten, but there were no fisticuffs and no players were ejected.

The eventual 5-2 Los Angeles win wasn’t even in the books before the Joe Kelly memes and gifs of him pulling faces at Correa after the strikeout were spreading across the internet like a, um, virus. Players still angry about the Astros cheating, and fans similarly incensed and deprived of the chance to boo Houston whenever the team visits another stadium this year, rallied to Kelly’s side, a reaction fueled in large part by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s decision not to punish any Houston players in the cheating scandal. When the system is seen as having failed, the arrival of frontier justice should hardly be a shock.

What was surprising was Wednesday’s announcement of an eight-game suspension for Kelly. The official reasoning for the draconian punishment was that Kelly is a repeat offender, having been suspended in 2018 for throwing at and then fighting the Yankees’ Tyler Austin. But that doesn’t begin to justify the equivalent of a twenty-two-game timeout in a regular 162-game schedule. The penalty, which effectively made Kelly the first player disciplined because of the Astros cheating, was met with wholesale derision from other players, especially pitchers, on social media. Clearly antipathy toward the Astros has not subsided, and Houston batters would be well advised to stay loose.

The more likely reason for the eight games was a desire to come down hard on the perceived instigator of the on-field scrum, which was a violation of MLB’s COVID-19 guidelines. While that makes sense it’s a glaring case of selective enforcement. If the expectation is, as it should be, that MLB’s operating manual for this season will be closely followed, then players need to be fined or suspended for high-fiving and spitting and sitting too close together in the dugout. But that would require that franchises be subject to discipline as well, for doing things like playing a game and putting players in close contact with another team after four players tested positive. Of course, on that one the virus will, in the end, exact its own punishment.

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