Mar 26, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

Today's word count: 1,899 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: ⚾️ Opening Day at home

Photo: Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Today should have been Opening Day, but like seemingly everything else in the world, those plans have been scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: Football and basketball might be more popular sports, but the baseball season is perhaps the most engrained in American life, with the 162-game campaign providing a certain rhythm to the spring and summer months.

  • When Opening Day arrives, it appeals to all of the senses. For me, I remember playing catch with my dad and eating sunflower seeds in little league. I can almost smell the freshly cut grass at the ballpark and hear the organ music blaring.
  • But this year, instead of home runs and hot dogs, we have closed door meetings and negotiations, as the league tries to chart a path forward through the great unknown. Seven-inning doubleheaders anyone?

Timely quotes:

  • Pete Rose: "I'd walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball."
  • Hall of Famer Roger Hornsby: "People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."
  • Journalist Mike Barnicle: "That's one of the great gifts of this, the greatest of all games, baseball: it allows you, still, to lose yourself in a dream, to feel and remember a season of life when summer never seemed to die."

📺 To fill the void: MLB is broadcasting 30 classic games across its various platforms today, including digital streaming and social media. Each team is featured in at least one game.

Courtesy: MLB
2. 🏆 MLB preview: American League
Data: FanGraphs; Table: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Note: These projections are based on a 162-game season, which likely won't happen, but it's still a great way to see how teams stack up on paper.

AL East

  • Most intriguing team → Blue Jays: They're still a few years from contending, but their infield is a who's who of former MLB stars' sons (Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio).
  • Player to watch → Andrew Benintendi (LF, Red Sox): The 25-year old impressed as a rookie in 2017, but he's taken steps backwards each of the last two years. With Mookie Betts gone, the Red Sox will need him to step up.
  • Top prospect → Wander Franco (SS, Rays): The No. 1 overall prospect batted .327/.398/.487 in the minors last year, when he was 18, and the young Dominican is expected to be the Rays' everyday SS as soon as late-2020.

AL Central

  • Most intriguing team → White Sox: They've been stuck in sub-mediocrity for a long time (last winning season was 2012), but finally seem poised to break through after an active offseason.
  • Player to watch → Adalberto Mondesí (SS, Royals): Another former player's son! Mondesí is maddeningly talented, but equally inconsistent. He needs to learn to take his walks, but with his top-five speed, could threaten 20 triples.
  • Top prospect → Luis Robert (OF, White Sox): Last year in the minors, he hit an absurd .328/.376/.624 with 32 HR and 36 SB in just 122 games. The White Sox rewarded him with a six-year/$50 million contract, and the 22-year-old Cuban phenom should be roving the outfield on the South Side soon.

AL West

  • Most intriguing team → Astros: For obvious reasons.
  • Player to watch → Joey Gallo (OF, Rangers): This latter day Adam Dunn has 110 career HR to just 105 singles, and struck out more in the last three seasons than Tony Gwynn did in his entire 20-year career. 50 HRs is well within reach, but so is a .200 average.
  • Top prospect → Jarred Kelenic (CF, Mariners): Acquired in the Robinson Canó/Edwin Diaz trade with the Mets, this 20-year-old Milwaukee native hit the cover off the ball last year in the minors.

Award predictions:

  • AL MVP: Matt Chapman, 3B, Athletics (runners-up: Mike Trout, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon).
  • AL Cy Young: Gerrit Cole, RHP, Yankees (runners-up: Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Sean Manaea, Tyler Glasnow).
3. 🏆 MLB preview: National League
Data: FanGraphs; Table: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Note: These projections are based on a 162-game season, which likely won't happen, but it's still a great way to see how teams stack up on paper.

NL East

  • Most intriguing team → Mets: Aren't they always? Their sheer unpredictability is always fun to watch unfold, and losing Noah Syndergaard at the eleventh hour only adds to that.
  • Player to watch → Bryce Harper (RF, Phillies): Year one of 13 didn't exactly go as planned for Bryce and the Phils, but for all of the overrated talk, he actually had a pretty productive season. Can he be more than that? Will he?
  • Top prospect → Carter Kieboom (3B, Nationals): Don't mind me, I'm just the guy trying to replace the recently-departed MVP finalist 3B for the reigning World Series champions. First, I'll need to prove I belong.

NL Central

  • Most intriguing team → Reds: The front office has been busy and the player development pipeline has begun to bear fruit. Will this finally be the year the Reds jump back into contention in the most crowded division in baseball?
  • Player to watch → Keston Hiura (2B, Brewers): If he can build on his wildly productive rookie season, the Brewers will have a lethal 1-2 punch in the heart of the order with Hiura and Christian Yelich.
  • Top prospect → Dylan Carlson (OF, Cardinals): His profile is similar to that of the aforementioned Jarred Kelenic. The main difference? He plays for a legitimate contender, and should be on the big league club soon.

NL West

  • Most intriguing team → Padres: They're filled to the brim with young talent, but still fighting for second place in the Dodgers' division. Manny Machado needs to shake off his poor Padres debut and recapture his MVP form.
  • Player to watch → Starling Marte (CF, Diamondbacks): He always seemed just a few clicks away from superstardom, but was stuck in Pittsburgh and shot himself in the foot with a PED suspension. The move to Arizona should suit him, and his new team, quite nicely.
  • Top prospect → Gavin Lux (2B, Dodgers): He already hit a homer in his first career postseason plate appearance, and now he'll get a chance to build on his brief, 2019 call-up. First task? Earn the starting role.

Award predictions:

  • NL MVP: Juan Soto, LF, Nationals (runners-up: Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuña, Jr., Fernando Tatís Jr.).
  • NL Cy Young: Walker Buehler, RHP, Dodgers (runners-up: Jacob deGrom, Jack Flaherty, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg).
4. 🤝 We're all in this together

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The world is hurting right now, and the sports industry is no exception. But the feeling that "we're all in this together" is very real at the moment and worth recognizing. Amid the darkness, there is light.

  • Countless athletes have donated money to support medical workers and raised millions of dollars via fundraising campaigns.
  • Other athletes, like Joel Embiid, have pledged money to support team employees impacted by pay cuts (Embiid's generosity caused Sixers ownership to do a 180 and not cut salaries after all).
  • Stadium parking lots have been turned into COVID-19 testing centers, offering drive-thru tests to local residents.

What they're saying: Joe McLean, a wealth manager for some of the NBA's biggest stars, tells me by email that "literally 100%" of his clients have inquired about how much they can afford to donate and the best places to direct the funds.

"From setting up online chess tournaments for kids, to laptop giveaways, to feeding the arena workers and kids. Everyone is stepping up!"

The big picture: McLean believes that this unprecedented suspension will give players a new sense of perspective, particularly when it comes to the people whose livelihoods depend on them playing basketball.

"Everyone all around the world is getting a crash course on how the global economy works, the cause and effect, and how critical each industry is to the other."
"The importance of every individual in that arena has been magnified, and I think when everyone steps back on the floor we will all have a greater appreciation for the people in service that bring each game to life."
"It will be a global celebration of service when play resumes. Each player can now look each arena worker in the eye and know that their job helps support thousands and thousands of other peoples' lives."
5. ⚽️ Champions League match dubbed "Game Zero"

Photo: Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On Feb. 19, Italian soccer club Atalanta played the biggest match in its history at Milan's famed San Siro Stadium, beating Spanish club Valencia, 4-1, in the Champions League Round of 16.

  • A third of the population of Bergamo, the town where Atalanta is based, are believed to have made the trip to Milan (so roughly 40,000 people), and nearly 2,500 Valencia fans flew in from Spain.
  • The game was played two days before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Italy, so fans gathered inside the stadium without much concern.

Why it matters: A month later, some experts believe that game is why Bergamo has become one of the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic — and why 35% of Valencia's team got infected. It's been dubbed "Game Zero."

The fallout: As of Tuesday, nearly 7,000 people in Bergamo had tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 1,000 people had died, making it the deadliest province in all of Italy, which has the most deaths worldwide.

  • Valencia defender Ezequiel Garay was the first Spanish league player to test positive and the club said more than a third of its squad got infected.
  • Two weeks after the game in Milan, Valencia played a Spanish league match against Alavés, which later reported 15 infections of their own.
6. 🏟 Coronavirus could delay NFL stadium openings
Sofi Stadium on Feb. 6. Photo: Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Construction of SoFi Stadium, the future home of the Rams and Chargers that sits at the center of a 298-acre development, has continued amid California's "Safe at Home" orders, but that could change at any moment.

  • The $5 billion stadium is still scheduled to open with Taylor Swift concerts July 25 and 26, but if construction is delayed, both teams could be forced to scramble for temporary homes for the fall.
Allegiant Stadium construction on March 17. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — The Raiders are set to make their Vegas debut this fall at the brand-new Allegiant Stadium, but construction could be delayed there, too, especially after a construction worker tested positive for COVID-19 last night.

  • Looking ahead: If Allegiant Stadium isn't ready in time for the NFL season and the Raiders need a temporary home, the local options are extremely limited. Can you imagine if the Raiders left Oakland ... to move to Vegas ... and ended up playing in, like, Reno?
7. March 26, 1979: 🏆 Magic beats Bird

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

41 years ago today, two of the best to ever do it faced off for the first time, with Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans defeating Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores, 75-64, in the 1979 National Championship Game.

  • Magic was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, running through the bracket with two triple-doubles and a 24/7/5 line in the title game.
  • Bird was unconscious through the tournament's first four games, averaging 29.3 points, 13.5 rebounds and six assists on 61% shooting, but could only muster 19 points (7-21 FG) in the final.

📸 A moment in time: 19-year-old Magic Johnson celebrates the win. If he only knew the places his life would take him next...

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Go deeper: The legacy of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's NCAA championship showdown (The Ringer)

8. The Ocho: 🐶 Joe Buck on the call
Screenshot: @Buck (Twitter)

Broadcaster Joe Buck has no sports games to call, so he's providing play-by-play commentary for videos that fans send to him on Twitter.

P.S. ... There's a British guy doing this too. Hilarious.

9. ⚾️ MLB trivia
Giphy

Ken Griffey Jr. hit eight Opening Day home runs during his career, which is tied with two other players for the most ever.

  • Question: Who are the other two players?
  • Hint: One also had over 1,000 wins as a manager and the other is third on the all-time strikeouts list.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 🎬 Top 50 sports movies: Nos. 20–11
Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of "Raging Bull." Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

This week, our resident film buff Jeff Tracy will be unveiling his Top 50 sports movies, nearing its end today with Nos. 2011. (ICYMI: 50–41, 40–31, 30–21)

20. He Got Game (1998) Incredible Denzel fact No. 1,562: In the climactic father-son game, Jesus Shuttlesworth was scripted to beat his father 11-0. But Denzel was feeling it, and he just kept hitting shots on Ray Allen, ultimately losing 11-5.

19. Raging Bull (1980) Martin Scorsese made a sports movie. Need I say more?

18. The Natural (1984) A little bit mystical and slightly too long. Just like baseball — and just the way I like it.

17. Space Jam (1996) One of the most underrated and overlooked aspects of this movie? It's less than 80 minutes long, and a full 25 of those are dedicated to "The Ultimate Game."

16. Breaking Away (1979) Five Oscar noms, including the win for Original Screenplay. Sometimes, a sports movie is so much more than just a sports movie.

15. Little Big League (1994) Both are great, but for me, "kid takes over a team" beats out "kid becomes a pitcher" ("Rookie of the Year"). Plus, upon re-watch — many, many re-watches — it's a legitimately funny movie.

14. Happy Gilmore (1996) One of the most successful comedic actors of the past, well, ever, at the absolute peak of his powers. Shooter McGavin = all-time villain.

13. A League of Their Own (1992) Hanks is a national treasure, and Geena Davis is incredible as Dottie, but I'll still never forgive her for leaving her team during the World Series.

12. The Mighty Ducks (1992) Is it just me, or does Gordon Bombay's tortured past and missed penalty shot off the post feel like an actual part of sports history?

11. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) We can argue all day as to whether or not chess is a sport (in fact, I'd say it isn't), but this is unequivocally a sports movie.

Coming tomorrow: The top 10

Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Don't let the Orioles get hot" Baker

Trivia answer: Frank Robinson and Adam Dunn