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How the four MLB MVP favorites unlocked their home run power

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Cody Bellinger, who damn near broke the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ home run record this season, managed only one home run as a high school senior. Alex Bregman, who belted 41 homers despite also leading his sport in walks, never once reached double-digit home runs in college. Mike Trout, on a faster home run pace for his career than all but four players, went deep every 49 at-bats in the minor leagues. Christian Yelich, who has required only 277 games to produce 80 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers, was typecast as a slap hitter as he neared his mid-20s.

Major league baseball is immersed in the most prodigious home run era of its history, a remarkable circumstance for a sport once tainted by prevalent steroid use. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever and aggressive defensive shifts are commonplace, so hitters are looking to lift, looking to pull and, mostly, looking to slug. The 2019 season, dominated by theories about juiced baseballs, produced 6,776 home runs, blowing past the previous record of 6,105, set only two years earlier.

Bellinger, Bregman, Trout and Yelich are products of that environment. But they’re more than that — they’re what happens when naturally gifted hitters evolve through a time defined by the long ball.

See, it’s not that they couldn’t hit home runs before; it’s that they didn’t care enough to. They were more concerned with the subtleties that produce great hitters, like controlling the strike zone, honing their opposite-field power and consistently meeting the baseball with the barrel of their bat. Their power wasn’t yet prevalent enough for home runs to result from all that.

Bellinger, Bregman, Trout and Yelich are now four of the game’s most complete hitters. They made up four of the top five spots in weighted runs created plus this past season, and on Thursday, they’re each expected to finish in the top two in Most Valuable Player voting for their respective leagues.

What follows is a look at each player’s path toward the most elusive part of his game — the home run.

Cody Bellinger

Cody Bellinger was always young and always small for the level at which he played. He was already scrawny before growing 8 inches during his junior year of high school, shooting from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-4. When the Dodgers made him their fourth-round pick in 2013, he weighed no more than 165 pounds. His frame was expanding too quickly. His metabolism was working too efficiently.

“He would eat and eat and eat, and he would never gain,” Bellinger’s father, Clay, said. “That’s just the way it was — it’s genetics.”

Clay, a former utility player who spent three seasons with the New York Yankees, could relate. He had the same body type when he graduated high school, then added weight later and grew stronger. He knew the same would happen for his son, and that with it, the power would ultimately emerge; those line drives Bellinger kept sending into the outfield gaps would begin to travel over the fence with more frequency. But watching his son become one of baseball’s most celebrated home run hitters was unimaginable.

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Ted Simmons, Marvin Miller finally get their due with Hall of Fame election

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SAN DIEGO — Momentous events often take place in ordinary settings. That’s what it felt like Sunday night when the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that legendary MLB Players Association head Marvin Miller and St. Louis Cardinals catching great Ted Simmons would be immortalized in Cooperstown, N.Y.

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Union executive Marvin Miller, catcher Ted Simmons elected to Baseball Hall of Fame

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SAN DIEGO — Marvin Miller, the union leader who revolutionized baseball by empowering players to negotiate multimillion-dollar contracts and to play for teams of their own choosing, was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame on Sunday along with former St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons.

After falling short in his first seven times on veterans committee ballots, Miller received 12 of 16 votes from this year’s 16-man modern committee, exactly the 75% required. Simmons was on 13 ballots. Former Boston outfielder Dwight Evans was third with eight,

Miller, who died at age 95 in 2012, led the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-82, a time when players gained the right to free agency after six seasons of big league service, to salary arbitration and to grievance arbitration. He led the union through five work stoppages and was an adviser during three more after he retired.

“The Hall of Fame is called the Hall of Fame and Museum. Imagine a museum of baseball without Marvin Miller in it,” former union chief operating officer Gene Orza said. “It’s like having a museum of modern art without Picasso in it. I guess I’m happy for all the people who are happy. But I don’t think Marvin would lose any sleep one way or the other over this.”

Simmons, an eight-time All-Star during a 21-year big league career, was a switch-hitter who batted .285 with 248 homers and 1,389 RBI for St. Louis (1968-80), Milwaukee (1981-85) and Atlanta (1986-88).

Despite his accomplishments, Simmons was up for election by voters from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America just once. He drew only 3.7 percent support in 1994 and was removed from future BBWAA ballots.

Miller and Simmons will be inducted into Cooperstown during ceremonies on July 26 along with any players chosen next month by the BBWAA from a ballot headed by former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

Miller will be inducted 12 years after Bowie Kuhn, the baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn whom Miller routinely defeated in labor negotiations, and three years after Bud Selig, the commissioner who in 1994(equals)95 presided over the longest work stoppage in baseball’s history.

In 2008, four years before he died, Miller sent a letter to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America saying he didn’t want to be considered anymore.

“These changes resulted in a vastly more competitive game, fan interest, and increased wealth for all, including the owners of baseball clubs,” his son, Peter Miller, said in 2013. “Although he enjoyed the recognition, my father did what he did not for fame and glory, but for justice and for equitable labor-management relations. To treat that as something of lesser value than personal fame, is really to dishonor him and the players.”

Miller received 44% of the votes in 2003 and 63% in 2007 when all Hall of Famers could participate on a veterans panel. After the Hall downsized the veterans committees, he got three of 12 votes later in 2007 from a committee considering executives that elected former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whom Miller routinely defeated in labor negotiations.

Miller got seven of 12 votes in 2009 and then, when the format was changed again, he got 11 of 16 from an expansion era committee in 2010 — falling one vote short. He received six votes or fewer of 16 in 2013 and seven of 16 from the new modern era committee in 2017.

“Players are pleased that Marvin will now take his rightful and long overdue place in the Hall of Fame in recognition of the monumental and positive impact he had on our game and our industry,.” current union head Tony Clark said in a statement.

Nicknamed Simba for his shoulder-length hair, Simmons was an outspoken opponent of President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. In the days before free agency, he played much of the 1972 season without a contract because of a pay dispute, finally agreeing to a two-year deal in late July.

Now 70, Simmons received 17 of 456 votes in 1994, falling shy of the 5% threshold to remain on the ballot. Simmons was on 11 of 16 ballots when the modern era committee met in 2017 and elected Jack Morris with 14 votes and Alan Trammell with 13.

Simmons has benefited from modern metrics such as a Baseball Reference WAR of 50.3. Eight other players who were primarily catchers topped 50, and they are all in the Hall: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Gary Carter, Bill Dickey, Carlton Fisk, Gabby Hartnett, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez.

Simmons hit .300 or higher seven times and finished with 2,472 hits. Among players who were primarily catchers, his RBI are second to Berra’s 1,430 and his hits are second to Rodriguez’s 2,844.

Dave Parker received seven votes, and Steve Garvey and Lou Whitaker six each. Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson and Dale Murphy all got three or fewer.

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David Ortiz makes first Dominican Republic appearance since shooting

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SANTO DOMINGO — Former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz made his first public appearance in the Dominican Republic on Sunday nearly six months after he was shot in what authorities called a case of mistaken identity.

The Dominican-born superstar was greeted by a standing ovation and raucous cheers when he entered the Quisqueya Stadium Juan Marichal for the Game of Legends, a charity exhibition and home run derby featuring Dominican major league players and retired stars.

“Praise God and long live the Dominican Republic,” Ortiz said to the thousands of fans in the country’s most important stadium.

He thanked his fans, fellow players and the press for its support after the shooting.

“I’m happy to be here with my people,” he told The Associated Press before the game. He did not play.

Also present were Dominican stars such as Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Juan Marichal, Mets second baseman Robinson Cano and Nationals outfielder Juan Soto.

A 10-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion, Ortiz helped the Red Sox end their 86-year championship drought in 2004 and batted .688 against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013 to win the Series MVP.

Ortiz retired after the 2016 season with 541 home runs, and the team retired his uniform No. 34.

He maintained a home in the Boston area and had been living part of the year in the Dominican Republic, where he was often seen getting his cars washed and hanging out with friends, including other baseball players, artists and entertainers.

He was seriously wounded June 9 when a hit man allegedly hired by a drug trafficker mistakenly shot him as he sat with friends in a Santo Domingo bar, authorities have said. They said the target was meant to be Sixto David Fernandez, a cousin of the man alleged to have arranged the attack.

Authorities said the hit men confused Ortiz with Fernandez. The two men are friends and were sharing a table.

Officials said the killing was contracted by Victor Hugo Gomez, described as an associate of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel. Authorities said Gomez wanted Fernandez killed because he believed his cousin turned him into Dominican drug investigators in 2011. They said Gomez then spent time in prison in the Dominican Republic with one of at least 11 suspects arrested in the shooting.

Gomez later resurfaced in the U.S. as one of dozens of suspects sought by federal authorities following a March 2019 drug trafficking sting in Houston.

Doctors in the Dominican Republic removed Ortiz’s gallbladder and part of his intestine after the shooting and he underwent further surgery in the U.S.

“I thought he was never going to come back here,” said Filvia Nunez, a fan who said she was surprised and delighted to see Ortiz Sunday.

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