Year: 2020

Knicks Finishing Deal with Thibs to Return to MSG as Head Coach

By Scott Mandel

The New York Knickerbockers, a discombobulated, mostly losing franchise since the Pat Riley/Jeff Van Gundy era 20 years ago, are finalizing a five-year deal to make Tom Thibodeau the franchise’s next head coach, according to ESPN.

Knicks president Leon Rose and agent Spencer Breecker of CAA Sports were working Saturday to complete contractual terms and a signed agreement is expected in the near future, sources said.

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Rose and executive VP William Wesley are completing a two-month search process with the candidate, Thibodeau, long expected to emerge with the job. Together, they’ll be tasked with the daunting challenge of restoring a forlorn franchise to NBA relevance.

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New York is counting on Thibodeau’s history in player development as a head coach and assistant to put into place a program that’ll restore a competitive infrastructure with the Knicks. For now, Rose and Thibodeau inherit a roster that needs dramatic upgrades before a return to the playoffs is even a realistic aspiration.

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New York was 21-45 this season, missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season.

Thibodeau is 11th all-time in winning percentage for coaches with 500 or more games. He has a 352-246 (.589) record in eight seasons with Chicago and Minnesota.

Thibodeau, 62, comes to the Knicks after a tumultuous two-plus seasons with the Timberwolves that included the franchise’s first playoff berth in 14 years — and an unraveling centered around All-Star Jimmy Butler‘s trade demand that led to Thibodeau’s dismissal as president and coach in 2019.

Thibodeau had five playoff seasons with the Bulls, including a trip to the Eastern Conference finals and an NBA coach of the year award in 2010. A series of injuries to MVP Derrick Rose played a role in derailing the Bulls’ championships aspirations.

Thibodeau was a Knicks assistant under Jeff Van Gundy from 1996 to 2004, and has long desired to return to New York as a head coach. He’s a native of nearby New Britain, Connecticut.

Welcome to MLB Season that Starts in the Heart of the Pennant Race

By Scott Mandel

Typically, when a major league baseball season gets to game 102, leaving only 60 games remaining to the season, we have gotten through the All-Star break in the second week of July and we are bearing down on the dog days of August. For those teams still in the pennant race, the high-pressure games of down-the-stretch baseball are about to begin.

Here, in 2020, with the condensed schedule of only 60 games instead of 162, all 30 major league teams are officially in a pennant race, with every game remaining having the impact of almost three games. If a team goes on a short losing streak while division opponents are winning games, the distance they fall behind, with fewer games remaining, puts increased pressure on every game and every pitch.

Welcome to the pennant race, from beginning to end of this unique season.

Opening day started yesterday with a Yankee win as their $324 million free agent ace, Gerrit Cole, earned part of his $36 million annual salary (pro-rated to reflect the shortened season), throwing five innings and allowing one hit and one run against the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals, in D.C. as the Bronx Bombers defeated Max Scherzer and the Nats, 4-1. In front of an empty stadium, but a huge television audience, the distinguished Dr. Anthony Fauci was unable to distinguish himself as the opening day pitcher of the First Pitch. The 79-year old Fauci, who was a high school basketball star in New York City, just missed throwing a strike by about 30 feet, with his pitch landing somewhere near the first base foul line.

Today, in front of a small crowd of smiling cardboard season ticket holders at Citi Field in New York, Jacob deGrom, the Mets ace and two-time Cy Young Award winner, threw another gem against the Atlanta Braves, allowing one hit in five innings while striking out eight Braves batters. He left the game but watched Cespedes hit a solo home run in the seventh inning as the Mets shut out the Braves, 1-0.

It sure didn’t take much time for Yoenis Cespedes to swing right into a DH role in his long-awaited return.

Cespedes came back with a bang, immediately capitalizing on the new designated hitter rule in the National League by launching a home run that sent deGrom and the Mets past the Braves in their season opener Friday.

After five dominant innings from deGrom, who was popping the catcher’s mitt with 99 mph fastballs at the start, Cespedes connected in the seventh off reliever Chris Martin (0-1) for his first long ball since his previous major league game on July 20, 2018.

“I’m very excited. It was very exciting just to be able to play again,” Cespedes said though a translator. “I don’t have words for a situation like that.”

“It proved to me that I can still be the same player that I used to be,” he added.

The 34-year-old slugger missed most of the past two seasons with a string of leg injuries, requiring surgery on both heels and then a broken ankle after a bad fall at his Florida ranch in a reported run-in with a wild boar.

“I don’t care if he took a five-year hiatus, when he gets in the batter’s box, you’re worried,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s such a presence.”

Rules changes for this shortened season delayed by the coronavirus provided a DH in NL games for the first time — giving the Mets a perfect slot for Cespedes even if left field presents a problem.

“The funny thing was I joked with him before the game, I said, `Why are you hitting for me?” deGrom said. “Really happy for him.”

With no fans at Citi Field due to the pandemic, it was easy to hear teammates exclaiming in the dugout when Cespedes sent his drive soaring into the empty left-field seats.

“They erupted. They went crazy,” rookie manager Luis Rojas said. “Obviously, it’s a big moment for Ces. He’s been waiting.”

Seth Lugo (1-0) tossed two innings, pitching out of trouble in the seventh, and Justin Wilson whiffed Ronald Acuna Jr. with a runner in scoring position to end the eighth.

Edwin Diaz, who lost his job as closer during a miserable 2019 season, struck out two in a hitless ninth for the save. He worked around a one-out walk, giving the 38-year-old Rojas a victory in his debut.

Afterward, he got a game ball from his players and a celebratory shower that Rojas said was beginning to make his uniform stink.

“I don’t know what they threw on me, but they threw a lot of stuff,” Rojas said.

Coming off consecutive Cy Young Awards, deGrom fanned eight and permitted only a broken-bat single and a walk. He was pulled after 72 pitches following a back-tightness scare early last week. The right-hander extended his scoreless streak to a career-best 28 innings dating to last season, the longest active streak in the majors.

Notes:

The cardboard cutout photos occupying some seats included one of former Braves star and Mets nemesis Chipper Jones.

FAVORITE DAY OF THE YEAR

The Mets improved to 39-20 in openers (despite losing their first eight), the best opening day winning percentage in the majors. They’ve won 12 of their last 15 — and 23 of the past 26 at home.

SENDING A MESSAGE

Both teams wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts for batting practice and joined in holding a long, black ribbon on the field during a pregame message on the video board from many Black major leaguers about eradicating racial injustice.

PREGAME CEREMONIES

The national anthem was performed virtually on the video board by essential workers, each singing their part, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said “Let’s play ball!” It appeared all players on the field stood for the anthem.

MONEY MAN

Because he didn’t begin the season on the IL with a foot injury, Cespedes’ salary rose from $2,222,222 prorated ($6 million before the schedule was shortened) to $4,074,074 ($11 million before the change).

Buccaneers’ Donovan Smith raises concerns about playing 2020 season: ‘I’m not a lab rat or a guinea pig to test theories on’

By Ryan Gaydos

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman Donovan Smith will have the job of protecting new quarterback Tom Brady in 2020.

But Smith is unsure whether playing in the midst of a global pandemic is worth it.

“With the start of the 2020 season fast approaching, many thoughts and questions roam my mind as I’m sure it does for many of my co-workers across the league,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “The unfortunate events of the COVID-19 pandemic have put a halt to a lot of things. Football is not one.

“To continue discussing the many UNKNOWNS do not give me comfort. Risking my health as well as my family’s health does not seem like a risk worth taking. With my first child due in three weeks, I can’t help but think about how I will be able to go work and take proper precautions around 80+ people every day, then go home to be with my newborn daughter.”

He wondered how players are going to be able to practice safe social-distancing measures when every play requires contact.

“How can a sport that requires physical contact on every snap and transferal of all types of bodily fluid EVERY SINGLE PLAY practice safe social distancing? Yes, we can get tested every day, but if it takes 24 hours to get my results, how can I know each day that I’m not spreading the virus or contracting it. The recurring issue here is how? There are too many ‘hows’ that have yet to be answered to ease player concerns and ensure the safety of not only myself but also my family. I can’t imagine how the game will be the same during these unprecedented times.”

Smith said playing this season would, at the very least, call for a pay raise.

“I’m not a lab rat or a guinea pig to test theories on. I’m a man, a son, brother, soon to be a father, and I deserve to be safe at work.”

Some of the NFL’s health and safety guidelines were reported this week. Some of the rules include no jersey swapping or postgame congregating.

Smith is entering his sixth season with Tampa Bay. He’s played in 79 out of 80 games in his first five seasons.

Craig Carton, Former Drive-Time Partner of Boomer Esiason, Released From Prison. Could He Return to WFAN?

By Scott Mandel, NY Post

Now that Craig Carton is out of prison, he should be back on the radio, according to his former partner at WFAN, Boomer Esiason.

The 51-year-old Carton was released early from prison on Tuesday after serving just over a year of a 3 ½-year sentence for his role in a ticket scam that also cost him his job at the radio station.

“He deserves another chance, in my eyes,” Esiason said on his WFAN show on Wednesday. “Whatever issues we had after this whole thing went down, they’re gone. As far as i’m concerned, they’re gone.”

The Post’s Andrew Marchand reported that Carton may have a path back to WFAN now that Chris Oliviero, his former producer, is running Entercom’s New York stations.

Carton was replaced by Gregg Giannotti and Esiason and Giannotti are expected to stay together, but other spots could open for Carton at the station.

Esiason said he heard from Carton shortly after he was released from prison.

“I get off the radio [Tuesday], I see a number pop up on my screen,” Esiason said. “I’m thinking, ‘Is this spam? What is this? I answer the phone, I say hello [and] i hear a very familiar voice saying, ‘Hey, it’s me. I’m out.’”

Carton’s release was unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic.

“What I heard was a happy and relieved Craig Carton,” Esiason said. “He did everything he possibly could in jail to mitigate his sentence and try to get out as early as he possibly could.”

Carton will either enter home confinement or a halfway house to finish out his sentence, according to sources.

“Now the real work begins for him and that’s rebuilding his life,” Esiason said. “He paid his debt to society.”

And Esiason is looking forward to hearing Carton back on the air.

“I do believe he deserves a second chance, whether it be here at our station or another station,” Esiason said. “He’s too talented not to be on the air somewhere.”

Esiason said he and Giannotti would remain a team and he didn’t expect to work with Carton again.

“Of course, when you talk about this show and moving on and me being here, it’s probably and most likely not going to be here,” Giannotti said. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be on the radio station years down the road somewhere else. But i’m happy that he’s out and i’m happy he’s going to get another opportunity.”

What’s with Bryson DeChambeau? PGA Golfer, Once Skinny Now Looks Like Canseco and McGwire

by Scott Mandel

 Bryson DeChambeau has gained size. He estimates that he’s put on about 40 pounds since he left college in 2015, and about 20 pounds over the PGA Tour’s recently ended three-month hiatus. Because of that gain, he’s gained distance. In PGA Tour events in 2020 before the break, he averaged 321.3 yards off the tee, 18.8 yards more than his 2019 average. Because of his size gain, he’s also gained two shirt sizes. He said after Friday’s second round of the Charles Schwab Challenge that he’s gone from a size medium shirt to an extra large. 

As he’s added, he’s lost. To his benefit. 

In an examination of DeChambeau’s 2020 and 2019 second rounds at Colonial (where the hole distances were slightly different), he lost 304 yards on the length remaining on his second shots on non-par-3s, an average of 21.7 yards per hole. Maybe an iron or two shorter. More wedges.

The average gets bigger when you take away the holes where DeChambeau did not seek distance off the tee. 

On holes 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 12, 14, 15 and 18, he lost 285 yards on the length remaining on his second shots, an average of 31.7 yards per hole. Maybe two or three irons shorter. More wedges.

This was the goal all along. DeChambeau’s not trying to win a long-drive title. He’s trying to get that next shot all the more closer. And in the Charles Schwab Challenge second-round example, closer has helped the bottom line – last year, he shot 2-over 72 and missed the cut; this year, he shot 5-under 65 and was tied for second entering the weekend.  

“There’s been a lot of holes, like for example 6, I can just drive it all the way up past those bunkers and have a nice little flip wedge in there,” he said after his Friday round. “Fifteen, fly it over the bunkers, have a nice little flip wedge in there. Fourteen, I had 100 yards in today. 

“I mean, it’s just stuff that is so beneficial when you get out here. You’ve got those bunkers and hazards in the way, and I wanted to make those obsolete.”

bryson dechambeau
Bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau is putting up ridiculous driving statsBY: DYLAN DETHIER

The numbers are plenty big off the tee, too, when looking at his 2020 and 2019 Charles Schwab Challenge second rounds. 

On the non-par-3s, he gained 288 yards off the tee, an average of 206 yards per hole. On holes 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 12, 14, 15 and 18, he gained 282 yards, an average of 31.3 yards per hole. 

Of course, if it were as simple as adding a bit of weight or swinging faster (or both), every player on Tour would try. A lot changes when you do. DeChambeau seems to have it figured out. 

“He’s looking for speed. He’s obviously trained speed,” said Justin Rose, DeChambeau’s first- and second-round playing partner. “But the other elements of his game still look in control.”

NASCAR Releases Photo of Noose Rope in Bubba Wallace’s Garage

By Scott Mandel

NASCAR released a photo of the garage pull-down rope fashioned as a noose that was found hanging in Bubba Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.

A Richard Petty Motorsports crewman noticed the noose and informed crew chief Jerry Baxter, who notified security. A photo was taken of the noose before it was cut down, and NASCAR contacted the FBI, who also viewed the picture. 

The Associated Press’s Jenna Fryer reports, “every single entity that viewed evidence—no other pull in any other stall had one like that—and ALL believed it was a noose.”

Following its investigation, the FBI announced Tuesday that the noose found in Wallace’s garage was there as early as October 2019 and the driver was not the target of a hate crime.

The Cup garage at Talladega Superspeedway was built in 2019 and had not been used again until Sunday. NASCAR president Steve Phelps said NASCAR has swept all 20 tracks, 1,648 garage stalls and found 11 total ropes that had a pull-down rope tied in a knot. Out of those 11, only one was a noose—the one found in Wallace’s garage stall.

Wallace issued a statement Wednesday afternoon regarding the FBI’s findings and said he felt “relieved that the investigation revealed that this wasn’t what we feared it was.”

Wallace, the lone Black driver in NASCAR’s top tour, added in his statement Wednesday that the findings of the investigation “should not detract from the show of unity we had on Monday, and the progress we’ve made as a sport to be a more welcoming environment for all.”

The act of unity that Wallace alludes to came Monday afternoon, ahead of the Geico 500. NASCAR drivers rallied around Wallace before the race, as they pushed his No. 43 car down the track to the front of the field in support.

Baseball Is Back, But Is It Really?

By Scott Mandel

That actual baseball is about to be back on the field under the summer sun is one small step for man…and one giant leap backward for mankind.

My god. The moon landing was a piece of cake compared to this. Negotiations are negotiations, yes, and baseball has a long, ludicrous history of turning them into drawn-out battles.

But this…this was a new low even by lower-than-a-worm’s-belly standards.

As more than two million people in the United States have contracted COVID-19, the bickering between players and owners over the path back onto the field commenced.

As more than 120,000 people in this country have died from this pandemic, the bitterness turned toxic.

Then George Floyd was killed after a police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck in broad daylight on the streets of Minneapolis two months after Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police in her own apartment in Louisville. Protesters were tear-gassed by United States Park Police on the streets outside of the White House, and the country erupted into a righteous rage.

All the while, the sport former Commissioner Bud Selig regularly referred to as a “social institution with social responsibilities”, abdicated those responsibilities. Not once, but twice—twice!—owners and players appeared to reach a deal (March 26 and June 17) and then couldn’t even agree on what that deal was or that there had been a deal.

Now, upon re-entry, the sport looks smaller and smaller. Insignificant.Videos you might like

Commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday used his power to unilaterally implement a 60-game season after three months’ worth of “negotiations” ended in a stalemate. Those early-summer dreams about the Sport Formerly Known as America’s Pastime romantically returning in a star-spangled burst around July 4 now lay in storage along with all of the nation’s canceled fireworks.

A game fighting for its patch of real estate on an ever more crowded sports landscape could have had several weeks alone in the spotlight. Instead, it will have a few days, and then the NBA and NHL playoffs will crank up.

The half-full view, of course, is that games will begin again on July 24, or thereabouts, finally releasing us from the grainy hell of replays from the distant past and giving us, finally, nightly options beyond searching the Netflix queue for the 6,000th time.

So now come the tentative first steps back, however belatedly, and we’ll see what the fan reaction is and just how much the sport alienated even its hardcore base. Of course, with no attendance, it may take a while to gauge the true effect. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around…that sort of thing.

Or, maybe by squeezing 60 games in under the wire and dodging the virus, the game will, as ever, rise up and make a disgusted clientele remember why they loved it in the first place.

So, Play Ball!

Right?

Or is it, Play Ball…(sigh)

Unlike any other season in more than a century of Major League Baseball: a 60-game sprint, in empty ballparks, with Opening Day essentially being the start of the pennant race.

The severely reduced game calendar will be by far the shortest in the history of MLB, strike seasons included. Before now, the most abbreviated schedule ever played was in 1981 when a two-month players’ strike caused clubs to play roughly 107-110 games.

Furthermore, by playing only 37 percent of its usual 162-game schedule, this will represent the sharpest reduction of a season of any of the four major American professional sports leagues in history. No league, outside of a full cancellation, has ever played a season with less than 56 percent of its scheduled games.

As a result, the importance of each game for what amounts to the entire season will be magnified tremendously: Each game will carry the significance of nearly three in usual circumstances (2.7 to be exact). Meaning, if there are six scheduled games each week, every club’s weekly schedule will carry the weight of 16 games in a normal season. A sense of urgency will be there from the first pitch.

Because of the brevity, odds immediately increase for flukes.

Teams that get hot for a 20- or 30-game stretch will be difficult to catch. If you look at last year’s schedule on June 4—a date at which most teams had played between 58 and 60 games—the National League division winners would have been Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. Only the Dodgers, of course, won their division in 2020. (The American League division winners would have been the same as at season’s end: the Yankees, Twins and Astros).

Under the same circumstances in 2018 (June 4 cutoff, most teams at 58-60 games), Boston, Cleveland and Seattle would have won division titles in the AL—and the Mariners are currently dragging the longest playoff drought in the majors, not having played in a postseason since 2001. NL division winners would have been Atlanta, Milwaukee and Arizona. The Mariners and Diamondbacks were the outliers as the Astros and Dodgers wound up winning the Western divisions.

The schedule will be re-configured into, essentially, geographic pods: Western teams will only face Western teams, etc. The Yankees’ schedule, for example, will consist of 40 games against AL East foes with the remaining 20 games against NL East teams. That number of in-division games and interleague games will remain equal for all teams. In a shortened season and with COVID-19 concerns, the idea is to limit travel and, thus, both health and fatigue risks.

That will afford one interesting wrinkle: If you remember back to the halcyon, pre-virus days in February and early March when the Astros’ cheating scandal dominated the baseball conversation…well, the Astros weren’t scheduled to face the Dodgers, their 2017 World Series victims, this season. Now they are. But, alas, in an empty Dodger Stadium.

Rosters will be expanded early in an effort to keep pitchers healthy. Extra innings will start with a runner on second base, largely because health experts advise against games lasting hours and partly because MLB figures this is a good opportunity to test-drive some ideas without any long-term commitments. And the trade deadline will be pushed back a month to Aug. 31.

While the designated hitter will arrive in the NL this year—sorry, purists—because Manfred is implementing as much in lieu of a negotiated agreement, there will not be a DH in the NL in 2021. At least, as of now.

Also, because the season is coming by way of decree and not agreement, forget the notion of expanded playoffs (and free substitution). For now, October, if the virus allows us to get that far, will look the same, with 10 teams in the usual format.

One positive—hello again, purists—is that there will not be advertising patches on uniforms this season (one of the players’ offers to owners included the approval to sell ad space on the unis). In a storied game in which certain uniforms—Yankees, Cardinals, Dodgers, Tigers, Red Sox—are iconic, it would be like spraying graffiti on St. Peter’s Basilica.

So now the question becomes: Given that this season was called to order instead of negotiated, will it essentially be a joyless slog through three months that are simply a prelude to more ugliness when negotiations begin for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement?

There is a chance some stars will boycott in protest and decline to play this year. Unless they’re excused for legitimate health concerns, players refusing to play would not be paid, of course.

Players could display their anger and frustration in other ways. For example, in one of their proposals, they offered enhanced telecasts (essentially being mic’d up during games). Under current conditions, they have the right to decline extras like that—and many likely will.

Two things that are likely to disappear: the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby. During negotiations, the players’ union was discussing ways to hold both after the postseason concludes. Now, both will likely be canceled.

Meanwhile, there is a health crisis to manage, and the genuine concerns about the risks of playing could stretch far and wide among players. For example, the wives of both Angels star Mike Trout and Yankees ace Gerrit Cole are pregnant this summer. Will both men feel comfortable playing given those circumstances, or might one or both opt out?

Sources say MLB has accepted the notion that some players will test positive but believes as long as they can manage the situation and keep the numbers relatively low, they can get through the shortened season.

One universal thing about this season: There are myriad complications around each corner.

And there look to be more on the way.

Players vs. Owners…

MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark.

MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Neither side in this months-long dispute covered itself in glory, and there is plenty of blame to go around.

For those scoring at home, the owners probably came out as the “winners” (very loose definition there) because they were able to control their losses with a 60-game season rather than paying the players full pro-rated salaries for, say, 82 games.

But it’s hard to believe anyone in the owners’ suites are toasting what they accomplished.

Part of what made things so contentious is the fact that both players and owners have (some) valid arguments.

The players, feeling like they got played in the last Basic Agreement, point to the fact that the sport has taken in record revenues in recent years ($11 billion or so last year), and yet the average player salary has decreased in consecutive years for the first time since the MLBPA started keeping such statistics more than half a century ago in 1967.

So the general feeling from them is: If you are going to squeeze free agency and reduce our share of the pie when times are good, then why should we go out of our way to help you share the losses when times are bad?

The owners are taking a shorter-term view of things, arguing that they are hemorrhaging money (“a bloodbath,” one says) this summer and want the players to share that burden. They say that playing without fans means, without ticket revenue, parking, concessions and gift shop receipts, each team is losing (depending on market size) somewhere between $640,000 and $1 million per home game.

Multiply that by 81 home dates and, even if you quibble with the exact numbers the owners are citing, it’s difficult to argue they’re not losing a ton.

The winning play by both sides would have been to give more than they wanted now and save the big fight for the looming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations that are set to begin within months. The CBA expires after the 2021 season, and each one generally lasts five years.

So in the midst of a pandemic and with the country reeling from unemployment and social justice issues, why not look big now by sacrificing some of what you want to try to get through one partial season?

That’s the question that will be lingering for years.

The cold winter ahead…

Mookie Betts' tenure as a Dodger could be a short one if he leaves the team in free agency after this season.

Mookie Betts’ tenure as a Dodger could be a short one if he leaves the team in free agency after this season.Gregory Bull/Associated Press/Associated Press

Look out.

What we know is that the financial losses this year are enormous, and nobody has promised that things will be back to normal by next year’s season opener in March.

That will likely make for one of the coldest free-agent markets in years. Mookie Betts picked a horrible time to decline Boston’s contract overtures—he reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million offer last summer. Several industry sources say he won’t come close to that as a free agent this winter. Some expect him to settle for a one-year deal and try again later.

Other top free agents this winter—catcher J.T. Realmuto, shortstop Marcus Semien, outfielder George Springer and pitchers Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman—can also expect to find a hard time generating big offers.

Furthermore, how will arbitration even look this winter? One industry source guesses that those eligible will have to be judged on their 2019 numbers because there is no way to fairly and accurately decide contracts on a 60-game season this summer.

Also, for numbers fans: There will be no revenue sharing this season because there is too little revenue to share. Luxury-tax rules will revert back to 2019; there is no “resetting” of the luxury tax for clubs in 2020.

More trouble looms in 2021…

If only we could flip a switch and everything would be back to normal by Opening Day next year. If only.

Shaded by the effort to get the game back on the field this summer is the bleak outlook for 2021. Will a vaccine be developed, proven, approved and distributed on a large enough scale by then? Will fans be comfortable entering stadiums for mass gatherings? Heck, will governors and health experts even allow it, or will social distancing still be enforced by then?

As one owner says, speaking from the perspective of the clubs: “2021 is going to be ugly, too. A sellout could be 16,000.”

In other words, he’s expecting attendance to be capped by social distancing requirements, at least in the beginning.

Meanwhile, the negotiations for the next CBA will be playing out in the background. Given that the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement this summer, there’s no reason to believe the relationship will do anything but worsen.

The owners believe they made some offers that should have been accepted in negotiations this spring and summer and maintain that the union leaders either misled the players or lied to them. Further complicating things, sources say owners have developed a strong antipathy toward the union’s new lead labor lawyer, Bruce Meyer, and believe that agent Scott Boras overstepped his bounds by meddling in—and helping to torpedo—negotiations.

The players rejected every offer by the owners since the game was suspended in March and, in the end, valued their right to file a grievance that the owners negotiated in bad faith above all else. Not all players seem on board, and Bauer’s tweet Monday night seemed to echo what some owners think, which is that the players didn’t all receive the information they should have:Trevor Bauer@BauerOutage

So we gave up shares of playoff money, eliminating the qualifying offer for 2021, paycheck advance forgiveness, Covid 19 protections, and protection for non guaranteed arb contracts for next year in order to hold on to our right to file a grievance…🤔🤔6,918Twitter Ads info and privacy1,546 people are talking about this

Many players, however, believe the owners have allowed the erosion of competitive integrity via the handful of clubs that tank each year in order to rebuild.

Maybe the best, most positive hope that the two sides will reach an agreement on the next CBA without an interruption to a season is that they are each losing so much money this summer that it’s hard to imagine either side in the industry could sustain more massive losses in 2022 and beyond.

Of course, as we learned this summer, the danger in underestimating them is that there’s no telling how low they will go. 

NBA Fundamentals, Where Art Thou? Stat Lines Are Wacked

By Scott Mandel

Oy. The NBA. Where art thou gone? Yesteryear was so much more satisfying to us baby boomers.

Now, we are getting ridiculous stat lines in the wide open game the NBA has turned into.

Last night, Giannis Antetakoumpo compiled 40 points and 20 rebounds, from his forward position. I’m guessing not one of those rebounds were gathered through the physical act of boxing out or fundamental positioning because of the way the pro game has changed, with emphasis on the long jump shot from beyond the three-point line.

Today’s game is dominated by the three-point shot, in the way it spaces out players and opens up the lane for unobstructed drives for layups. The blocked shot or clogged lane is a thing of the past. This season, Mike D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets average 55 three point attempts per game. The lowest per game attempts of threes in the league is 27, by the Indiana Pacers. That represents anywhere from 35 to 60% of all shots coming from beyond the three-point stripe.

As soon as offensive teams throw up those 3s, nobody is crashing the offensive boards, anymore. The three goes up and all five guys head down court to play “defense” in case of the inevitable long rebound a missed 25-footer often produces. They don’t want to give up easy fast break buckets on those long rebounds, which create 2 on 1 breaks.

So, the game has turned into a run and gun, playground-style in which it is not unusual to see an offensive player come down the court ahead of his teammates, shooting a three without anyone around him to rebound a miss. These guys are going 1 on 3 and still shooting it from 25 feet.

Coaches used to be able to reign-in undisciplined players with bench time or, allowing team veterans to pull the kids aside and tell them they are messing with their all-important playoff bonus money. Those days are over, as rookie #1 draft choices are making several million dollars per year, guaranteed for at least three years. Playoff money? That’s used for tips.

To this aging eye, there are too many 19 and 20 year olds who don’t have a fundamental basketball bone in their body. It’s become very difficult to watch if you remember the sport as an exercise in strategy, fundamentals, hard-nosed defense, and driven by great coaches.

Today’s NBA players are the most graceful and powerful athletes on the planet. It’s always been like watching the ballet, except the dancers wear short shorts and bounce a ball. Today, it is, in reality, just a ballet. Less contact, less strategy and structure to the “dance,” and, less defense.

The good news? The better teams in the league play the type of fundamental basketball most of us want to see when the playoffs begin. And the teams that go furthest in the post-season play the best fundamental style of the sport, while leaning on one or two superstars on their roster to rise above everybody else. That part has not changed.

Ivy League Schools Losing Top Athletes Because of Eligibility Rules

By Scott Mandel

When the Ivy League was officially founded in 1954, one of the conference’s guiding principles was that intercollegiate athletics were a pursuit for undergraduates only.

But it’s safe to say those tenets failed to anticipate the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, which has altered the landscape of college basketball over the past decade. It’s even safer to say the Ivy League of 66 years ago never anticipated a talent like Columbia guard Mike Smith.ADVERTISEMENT

Smith, who leads the Ivy League in scoring with 21 points per game, missed most of what would have been his junior year in 2018-19 with a torn meniscus.

In every other Division I league, Smith would have been granted a medical redshirt, allowing the fifth-year athlete to play a fourth season of basketball as a graduate student at the school where he enrolled as a freshman in 2016.

Those options, however, do not exist in the Ivy League, which neither grants redshirts nor permits graduate students to play athletics. Combine that with the talent of Smith and his importance to Columbia’s roster, and you have a perfect storm of questions — primarily, should this decades-old rule be revisited and revised?

“It’s very strange. It’s different,” said Columbia coach Jim Engles, who has spent most of his season fielding calls from other programs who are openly recruiting Smith because of the player’s guaranteed ineligibility in the Ivy League next season.

“You’re focused on your season and you’ve got guys calling, ‘What’s going on with this kid?’ You’re trying to get your team to focus on the moment and the season. But it’s the way things are now.”

More than a dozen Ivy League basketball players have graduated and transferred to another school since 2015, including several who have played at the high-major level. This spring, however, the trend will hit a new peak. At least seven players — including four who are actively playing this season — will be compelled by Ivy rules to head elsewhere for their final seasons.

Smith joins teammate Jake Killingsworth, Penn’s Ryan Betley and Yale’s Jordan Bruner (who is also expected to pursue professional options) in the group of players who, because of the rule, are actively auditioning for free-agent suitors at this moment. Two others who are sitting out this season because of injury — Harvard’s Seth Towns (the 2018 Ivy Player of the Year) and Dartmouth’s Brendan Barry — will have to leave, too. Another, Columbia’s Patrick Tape, has left the team but will graduate from Columbia and transfer in the spring.

The four Ivy League basketball coaches ESPN spoke with for this story were in favor of examining a rule that seems to show little sympathy for Ivy League players who suffer serious injuries, and little regard for the academic ambitions of the conference’s players. Sure, some Ivy League players might want to transfer and play in the ACC or Big Ten if they have that opportunity, but others might have a desire to finish out their college basketball careers while attending grad school at the only college they’ve known — the same way their peers at Duke, Stanford or Vanderbilt can.Get the best of ESPN sent to your inboxThe ESPN Daily delivers the biggest sports news and moments every weekday.Sign me up!Privacy PolicyRead the Latest

“When someone who clearly values their academics, scheduled to graduate on time or early — they should be able to do what they want,” Brown coach Mike Martin said. “A lot of these guys want to see what it’s like at the highest level. But for someone who wants to stay and play at the school he’s been at for four years, I think [compelling them to leave is] unfortunate.”

Martin has experience with the issue, which arose when former Brown player Rafael Maia was attempting to remain in the program for his final season of eligibility in 2015-16. Maia had been forced by the NCAA to sit out his freshman year at Brown because of a graduation-calendar issue related to his arrival from his native Brazil, but he graduated in four years and had another year of basketball eligibility to use in 2015-16 — just not at Brown. Martin said Maia wanted to stay with the Bears but was forced to leave because of the rule, going on to average 2.0 PPG in 33 games with Pittsburgh in 2015-16.

“I think it’s unfortunate because Maia wanted to stay here, play for us,” Martin said. “He wasn’t looking to go elsewhere until he exhausted every possible situation.”

“I would love it if the kid qualifies for it,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said of the ability to stay for a fifth year in the Ivy, noting Betley would have preferred to stay. “I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. If anything, it would really show the kid’s dedication to both sides of his life. I’d be very much in favor of supporting kids that can get into these grad schools. I think it would really help. It’s the right thing to do for a lot of reasons.”

Coaches like Martin and Donahue have an uphill battle in getting the rule examined, however. First, the change needs to be proposed by a coach or administrator and put into the legislation system. The coaches in the league then vote, with a majority (at least five votes) needed to advance to the next step. It then goes on to a vote among athletic directors before moving to the Policy Committee, a group that includes school vice presidents and deans, faculty and athletic administrators. The final step would be a vote among school presidents, and both the Policy Committee and presidents need to approve the change by a supermajority (six votes).

Despite the bureaucratic red tape, Yale coach James Jones is among those who think it’s fair to ask whether the Ivy should revisit the issue.

“I think that all things are up for review that can help a student-athlete,” said Jones. “If it helps a student-athlete, I think we should look at it and see if it fits for us. It hasn’t been a blip on the radar — it’s more and more prevalent. It may be something our coaches’ group takes a look at. It may be something that gets on the table down the road. It is an issue for a lot of our teams.”

Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said she is unmoved by a call to examine the ethics of the rule, and disputes how it might impact quality of play.

“What’s the problem with it?” she said. “We’re still continuing to thrive as a league. … I think we have to have an issue to fix.

“It’s a philosophical approach that we do what’s right for college athletics and what’s right for student-athletes, as well,” Harris added. “We have other rules that maybe put us at a disadvantage competitively, and yet we continue to have about 100 ranked teams a year, continue to do well in NCAA tournaments, win national championships. … We haven’t really talked about it, because it’s one of the philosophical underpinnings of the league.”

But could it at least be argued that the rule has turned the Ivy League into a developing free-agent market, given the circumstance of players like Smith and Bruner being openly recruited as free agents?

“It’s a testament to what our coaches are doing,” Harris countered. “[The players] are able to transfer and play at some of the bluebloods. … I really think that it showcases the student-athletes.”

The rule does have a silver lining for players confronted with the situation: Because they will not have future Ivy eligibility, players such as Smith and Tape can submit their profiles directly into the transfer portal at any time during the academic year. Smith entered the portal in October and immediately became one of the most sought-after transfers on the market. (Smith declined to be interviewed for this story, with a Columbia spokesman telling ESPN he is not focusing on his recruitment until after the season.) But the fact that he is in the portal means he has likely been on the receiving end of dozens of phone calls from college coaches.

For the people on the other end of those phone calls, it’s an advantage. It’s unusual for a college coach to be able to actively recruit, without tampering, a player currently playing Division I college basketball. Coaches could have watched Smith play high-major competition during nonconference play (Columbia faced Wake Forest, Virginia and St. John’s in November) to get an immediate sense for how his game would translate to a higher level.

Midway through last season, USC coach Andy Enfield thought the Trojans needed backcourt depth and shooting for the 2019-20 season. A name from the transfer portal came up in discussion: Columbia guard Quinton Adlesh. A California native, he was a natural fit. The Trojans’ coaching staff was able to watch film and monitor his development as the season progressed, then they decided to bring him in for an official visit before landing his commitment on April 1, just a few weeks after the season ended.

“It was extremely beneficial to know that a particular player is transferring,” Enfield said. “We were able to evaluate him during the season and get to know him when we were allowed to call. The relationship was already developed, somewhat.”

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Adlesh, who missed most of his freshman season (2015-16) at Columbia with an ankle injury, estimated that 15 or 20 schools reached out to him before he settled on USC and said there was a benefit to making his intentions known early.

“I figured I’d just put it out there, so coaches knew, in case they wanted to target me or had a potential spot they wanted to fill,” Adlesh said. “I didn’t engage in any talks with coaches until the season wrapped up. I wanted to get a sense of who’s available. … I was up front. If I had any contact with a coach, I said I would love to get back in touch when the season wrapped up.”

Could we get to the point where college coaches are conducting campus visits with active Ivy League players in the middle of the season? That has been the case for Tape, who is sitting out this season while finishing up his undergraduate degree at Columbia. He tore a ligament in his toe over the summer and then aggravated the injury before the season began. Tape realized he could probably try to return after a few games, but he preferred to play a full season — even if it wasn’t in the Ivy League. Instead, Tape left the team.

It seems to be working out so far: The 6-foot-10 big man has already toured Syracuse and has visits set up with Maryland, Ohio State and USC.

“I think a lot of Ivy League players are looking to get the best of both worlds,” Tape said.

As players like Smith and Tape ponder their next moves, it will be up to Ivy League coaches to decide whether to push for reform, or risk having their talented rosters be potentially undermined by the rule.

“The league certainly loses a lot of talent from it,” Towns said. “It’s more of an ethical thing for the Ivy League; I’m not really sure how I feel about it. But the league objectively loses talent.”

Astros’ Cheating Won’t be Easily Forgotten by Major Leaguers

By Scott Mandel

Baseball is burning. Opposing players are pummeling the Houston Astros as the fallout from their cheating scandal refuses to dissipate, and fans are frothing for vengeance after the players involved were spared from discipline by the league. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to wrap his arms around it all only for the anarchy to keep expanding. Every day is something new. Saturday, it was bad tattoos. Sunday, the commissioner will talk and try to explain how this all unfolded on his watch. Monday, if it came out that the Astros used furtive earpieces or Bluetooth buzzers or a robust artificial-intelligence operation to gain an advantage, it would surprise absolutely nobody.

There is no order. Just pure, distilled chaos.

It’s not going away any time soon. This is a reality every person involved should learn to understand sooner than later. Not because this is some media creation that thirsts for the mother’s milk of controversy and giddily gawks at the overnight transformation of Major League Baseball from the league of Charlie Chaplins into a full-flavored copy of the NBA, where no sacred cows exist. No, this is now about something much more primal: survival.

The tentacles of baseball’s cheating scandal are long and abundant. All of the Astros players, past and present. Their front-office members. Their opponents. Manfred and his associates. The MLB Players Association. Team owners. Fired general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch. Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, both of whom lost managing jobs on account of their involvement. It is a wide swath of characters with competing interests and self-preservation in mind, each with a story to tell. Already those involved are trying to game the timing, to ensure that their version does not find itself lost amid the morass of takes.

The prevailing narrative Saturday came from Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who originally declined comment through a team spokesman and then granted a wild interview to MLB Network in which he told the reigning National League MVP to “shut the f— up,” reiterated that the Astros’ 2017 World Series title was not won through ill-gotten gains and introduced the world to Jose Altuve ‘s unfortunate collarbone tattoo.

A quick backgrounder, since that last sentence sounds like a Mad Lib: Los Angeles Dodgers star Cody Bellinger unloaded on the Astros on Friday, a day after the beginning of their mea culpa tour turned disastrous, by saying Altuve “stole” the American League MVP award from New York Yankees star Aaron Judge in 2017 and that the Astros “stole the ring from us” by beating the Dodgers for the 2017 championship. Bellinger was the latest player to flout the game’s long-held omertà and unload a shotgun into the barrel in which the Astros swim these days. Dragging the Astros is the sport within a sport.

Correa decided to come clean with something that data compiled by an Astros fan named Tony Adams had seemed to show: Altuve did not like when his teammates banged on a trash can adjacent to the dugout to alert him of the coming pitch type. Adams logged more than 8,000 pitches from home games during the 2017 season and heard trash-can bangs on 13.2%. Of the 866 pitches to Altuve, there were bangs on only 24 — 2.8%.

MLB punishes Astros

“For [Bellinger] to go out there and defame Jose Altuve’s name like that — it doesn’t sit right with me,” Correa said. “‘Cause the man plays the game clean.”

Knowing the data, and having been told by another player on the 2017 Astros that Altuve did not engage regularly in the trash-can scheme, I had asked him Thursday to explain why.

“I know your question,” Altuve said. “I really appreciate your question. It’s good. But I want to take this as a team. I think we’re all at the same level right now of feeling the way we’re feeling about doing what we did. I’m not here to say you and you more than you and you. We’re a team. I’m not saying this today. I always say this is a team. And if we are something, we all are something.”

For all of the fallout from that day, particularly after owner Jim Crane’s contraction of foot-in-mouth disease, Altuve’s answer stood out as not just sincere but commendable — the sort of thing other players in baseball in different circumstances would respect and the rare instance, in this whole scandal, of someone not obviously acting in his own self-interest. Altuve could have absolved himself. He could have gone full Shaggy. He instead subjected himself to the fusillade of condemnation that would come.

Because it’s true: He didn’t stop it. No one did. And that’s a question the players lobbing grenades at the Astros ought to ask themselves, too. If they truly plumb the depths of their self-awareness, how many believe they would not simply be conscientious objectors as the data suggests Altuve was but entirely blow up a scheme being used by a team barreling toward 101 wins?

Social media vs. MLB

How the internet helped crack the Astros’ sign-stealing case.

What the Astros did was clearly cheating, clearly wrong, clearly a black mark on their championship. It is also naïve to think less hubristic versions of sign-stealing weren’t going on elsewhere and that had those been accelerated the players would have put a stop to them.

The defiance emanating from the Astros’ clubhouse, even after their apologies, is coated in this let-he-who-is-without-sin-cast-stones mentality. Correa besmirched Bellinger for suggesting Houston was cheating for the last three years, saying it occurred only in 2017. Ken Rosenthal immediately corrected him, saying Manfred’s report said the Astros had stolen signs in 2018, too. Correa danced around this, landing ultimately on a judgment of Bellinger daring to vilify Altuve and the Astros: “With me, that doesn’t sit right.”

The problem, of course, is that the moment the Astros decided to start banging on trash cans, they forfeited any sort of moral authority that allows them to differentiate between right and wrong. They might as well have KICK ME stitched across the backs of their jerseys instead of their last names, and it’s because of their collective action. So as satisfying as it feels to try and speak into existence this notion that their championship isn’t irreparably tainted, to drop F-bombs on the haters, to stand up for Altuve like Altuve stood up for him and the rest of the Astros who did think enough of the trash-can scheme to use it for months, it runs the risk of sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Correa’s defense stretched past aggrieved and into comedic during his denial that the Astros had used wearable buzzers during the 2019 season to signal the coming pitch. Bellinger and Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez had questioned why, after Altuve hit a walk-off home run to send the Astros to the World Series this year, he did not want his jersey ripped off. First, Correa said, Altuve’s wife had expressed discomfort with it when he and Kemp unclothed Altuve earlier in the season.

“The second reason that he don’t want me to talk about this, but I’m gonna say it, is because he’s got an unfinished tattoo on his collarbone, right here, that, honestly, looked terrible,” Correa said. “It was a bad tattoo. And he didn’t want nobody to see it. He didn’t want to show it at all.”

A bad tattoo. Welcome to baseball in 2020.

There’s more to come. There’s always more with this Astros story that drips out with all the efficiency of a broken faucet. The coming days, weeks, months will teem with more details, explanations, facts. Manfred’s report looks more and more like a Polaroid that needs to be shaken. The manifold characters all have their versions of the story to tell. There are reputations to be salvaged, careers to be saved, sides to be taken. This is the just the beginning.

It’s never too early to start or join a fantasy baseball league for the 2020 season.

The next step is Manfred addressing the media Sunday in North Port, Fla. As commissioner, the sport’s well-being ultimately falls on him. And while the ultimate fallout of the scandal is unclear — is it, in a perverse way, actually driving interest to baseball, or does the stench of misconduct have the opposite effect? — he must answer for his role in it reaching this point, where a new fire smolders every day.

And rest assured, potential arson abounds. What will Beltran, slimed and smeared, say when he speaks out? How will MLB, if at all, punish the Boston Red Sox, whom they’re investigating for stealing signs in 2018? What will the punishment for Cora, who is expected to be suspended, be? How can the MLBPA preach solidarity when its members attack one another on the daily? Will others join former MLB pitcher Mike Bolsinger and a daily fantasy player in filing lawsuits against the Astros and the league? Who will speak out next? What will he say?

In a week, spring-training games begin. The Astros will play the Washington Nationals, who beat them in the 2019 World Series. Across the sport, eyes will be trained on the game to see if Nationals pitchers intentionally throw at Astros hitters. Houston manager Dusty Baker tried to preempt any retaliation Saturday, asking MLB to do all it can to prevent premeditated beanings. It only served to draw the ire of those who see the inevitability of what is to come: a pitcher who dots an Astros hitter with a fastball to send a message that what they did is indefensible will receive a longer suspension than any of the Astros did for their indefensible acts.

Yes, baseball is burning, and nobody — not the Astros, not Manfred, not the rest of the players — can stop it. Only time will slow it, and until then, as baseball’s cheating scandal metastasizes, as it dirties all it touches, remember that what caused it in the first place will guide its direction going forward: the choices of individuals looking out for themselves.