Jan 17, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

🎉 Happy Friday! Laurent Hurtubise, who was born with one arm, recorded a hole-in-one during a PGA Tour event in California yesterday. Hell yeah, Laurent.

  • Note: We're off Monday for MLK Day. See you back here on Tuesday.

Today's word count: 1,919 (7 minutes)

1 big thing: ⚾️ Astros scandal claims third manager

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Carlos Beltrán, the only player named in MLB's investigation of the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, is out as Mets manager, departing less than three months into his tenure and becoming the third manager in four days to lose his job.

Why it matters: Pitchers and catchers begin reporting to spring training in 27 days, and the Astros, Red Sox and Mets don't have managers. What we've witnessed this week is unprecedented — and the fallout has only just begun.

Meanwhile, on Twitter: Speculation surfaced that Astros players José Altuve and Alex Bregman wore devices under their jerseys that buzzed to tell them what pitch was coming, turning an already wild controversy into a full-blown conspiracy theory.

  • Twitter then did what Twitter does best, finding photo and video evidence that could suggest the presence of those buzzers, generating enough noise that MLB felt compelled to respond, saying it "found no evidence" of wearable devices during its investigation.

Between the lines: The buzzer rumors aren't supported by hard proof, so I don't want to mislead you into thinking they're anything more than internet rumblings.

  • But I do believe it's important to share just how absurd things got online yesterday, because it paints a picture of where baseball currently finds itself.
  • First, it was the balls mysteriously flying farther. Then it was teams using cameras to cheat. Then it was Beltrán — arguably the most revered player of the last decade — being involved in that cheating. And now we're analyzing buzzer technology and Altuve's wardrobe.

Simply put, nobody trusts anything anymore. Fans feel betrayed and players feel cheated. Once spring training begins, the show will go on as it always does, but the stench of this scandal will linger.

  • There will be constant rumors, questions, jokes and internet memes, and fans might boo every single time an Astros player gets a hit on the road.

The big picture: Modern baseball often feels like a "business" where teams are competing to find an edge, rather than a "sport." And when you add this scandal to the mix, it makes you realize how far removed baseball is from its original descriptor: "pastime."

  • "Baseball earned a place in so many hearts on its romance. But it has begun to sound like the insurance and banking industries," writes SI's Tom Verducci.
  • "[P]layers become 'assets' or 'a two-win player.' Relief pitchers are 'fungible.' ... The chance to score a run, win a game or secure a postseason berth are defined as a finite percentage."
  • "We don't want championships that make us do mental gymnastics to decide whether they are inauthentic. We don't want player analysis to be derivative valuation. ... We want a clean game decided by fair competition. Clean it up."

P.S. ... The sign-stealing scandal is serious stuff, but it's important to remember that it's also hilarious. I just feel like that had to be said, as this is ultimately a story about grown men banging on trash cans.

P.P.S. ... In much more positive news, Alyssa Nakken became the first female coach in MLB history yesterday when she was named an assistant under Giants manager Gabe Kapler.

2. 🏈 Preview: Sunday's double-header

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Michael Zagaris, Will Newton, Peter G. Aiken, and Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Titans at Chiefs
  • Kickoff: 3:05pm ET (CBS)
  • Weather: Partly sunny, high of 25°F
  • Spread: KC -7
  • Over/Under: 53
  • Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson (sideline), Jay Feely (sideline)

Notes:

Packers at 49ers
  • Kickoff: 6:40pm ET (FOX)
  • Weather: Cloudy, high of 61°F
  • Spread: SF -7.5
  • Over/Under: 46.5
  • Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews (sideline), Chris Myers (sideline)

Notes:

Go deeper: Sure, the NFL playoffs seem chaotic, but they're actually pretty predictable (FiveThirtyEight)

3. ⚽️ Sheffield United isn't supposed to be this good
Expand chart
Data: Premier League; Chart: Axios Visuals

Sheffield United is back in the Premier League for the first time in 13 years, and through its first 22 games, the club has 32 points and sits in sixth place, just behind Manchester United and ahead of both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.

Why it matters: It's the best 22-game start to a Premier League season for a newly promoted team since Birmingham City picked up 33 points in 2009-10, per FiveThirtyEight, and the fourth-best ever behind 2005-06 Wigan Athletic (34 points) and 2000-01 Ipswich Town (37 points).

Coming up: Sheffield United, whose nickname "the Blades" comes from the city's history of steel production, has two tough games coming up, as the club looks to become the first newly promoted team to ever qualify for the Champions League (finish top four).

  • Tomorrow: Travel to North London to play Arsenal
  • Tuesday: Host defending champion Manchester City

Also this weekend: First-place Liverpool hosts fifth-place Manchester United at Anfield.

4. 🇯🇵 Tokyo 2020 tickets are selling like crazy

The National Stadium in Tokyo during a media tour following its completion in December. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

After recent Olympics in Russia, South Korea and Brazil struggled with attendance, tickets to this summer's Tokyo Games, which open July 24, are selling like gangbusters.

  • Demand in the U.S.: Another batch of U.S.-market tickets were released yesterday after the previous batches in June, July and October all sold out within three hours. (Just checked online, almost every event is sold out).
  • Demand in Japan: "National pride also is spurring Japanese fans to fill seats and driving the sale of domestic Olympic sponsorships, which typically come with ticket allotments or the right to purchase tickets," per WSJ.

What they're saying:

"Tokyo 2020 continues to prove it is the most popular event of all time. Tickets for events like gymnastics and swimming are proving extremely difficult to obtain, even for veteran Olympic fans."
— Ken Hanscom, COO of TicketManager, tells Axios

In related news ... NBCUniversal formally unveiled its new streaming service, Peacock, to investors yesterday. There will be live sports (including Olympics coverage), and the service will be mostly free.

5. 📸 Yesterday in photos
Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — Brandon Ingram scored a career-high 49 points to lead the Pelicans past Donovan Mitchell (career-high 46 points), and the Jazz 138-132, in overtime. And to think — you could have been sitting in the lower bowl for the price of a Big Mac meal!! More scores...

  • Nuggets 134, Warriors 131 (OT): Former No. 1 overall recruit Michael Porter (18-10-5) is starting to make some noise in Denver.
  • Bucks 128, Celtics 123: Giannis Antetokounmpo (32-17-7) led the NBA-best Bucks past Kemba Walker (40-11) and the Celtics. Five straight for Milwaukee.
  • Suns 121, Knicks 98: Deandre Ayton (26 points, 21 rebounds) is the first Suns player with a 20-20 game on the road since Charles Barkley in 1994.
  • Clippers 122, Magic 95: 32 for Kawhi. Clippers grab the No. 3 spot in the West.
Photo: John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images

BALTIMORE — 19-year-old striker Sophia Smith, who helped Stanford win a national title as a sophomore last season before deciding to turn pro, was picked first overall in yesterday's 2020 NWSL draft by the Portland Thorns, making her the first teenager drafted in league history.

Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Alex Ovechkin recorded his 25th career hat trick in a 5-2 win over the Devils, and joined Mike Gartner and Jaromir Jagr as the only players to reach 30+ goals in 15 straight seasons. At 689 career goals, the 34-year-old is just one away from tying Mario Lemieux for 10th on the all-time list.

6. 📊 By the numbers
Screenshot: @YahooSports (Twitter)

🏀 Career-high 37 points

Sabrina Ionescu played arguably the best game of her stellar career in No. 6 Oregon's 87-55 drubbing of No. 3 Stanford, scoring a career-high 37 points (and adding 11 rebounds and seven assists) to become the school's all-time leading scorer.

🏈 15 new Hall of Famers

The Pro Football Hall of Fame's special Centennial Class was formally announced yesterday. The 15 new inductees include legendary coaches Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson, Eagles great Harold Carmichael, the founder of NFL Films Steve Sabol and former league commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

🚑 $250,000 in medical debt

"In the U.S., going bankrupt because of medical bills and debt is something that doesn't just happen to the unlucky uninsured, but also to people with insurance," writes Yahoo's Ethan Wolff-Mann."This is what pro cyclist Phil Gaimon discovered after a bad crash in Pennsylvania last June that left him with ... $250,000 in medical debt."

7. Jan. 17, 1988: 🏈 "The Fumble"
Jeremiah Castille after recovering the fumble. Photo: E.L. Bakke/Getty Images

32 years ago today, Browns RB Earnest Byner fumbled on the Broncos' 1-yard line while trying to score the game-tying touchdown in the AFC Championship Game — a play that will be forever known as "The Fumble."

  • Why it mattered: The Broncos recovered, took an intentional safety and won, 38-33, cementing the Browns as one of the most cursed franchises in sports.

The backdrop: The same two teams had met in the previous AFC Championship Game, which also ended in victory for the Broncos following a famous five-minute, 98-yard touchdown drive led by QB John Elway — known simply as "The Drive" — to send the game to overtime.

"No other fan base has ever swung from total euphoria to total depression that quickly. And how 'bout poor Byner, who carried the Browns that game and was so tormented that he could barely walk back to the sideline? That game still haunts me, and I'm not even a Browns fan."
— Bill Simmons, ESPN (2010)
8. The Ocho: Reflections, plus finals preview

Courtesy: U.S. Squash

Welcome to the last day of Squash Week. ICYMI: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4

NEW YORK — As I sign off from the JPMorgan Tournament of Champions, I wanted to reflect on the past week inside Grand Central Terminal, writes Axios Sports reader Jordan Brail.

  • As the first major tournament of the year, the TOC brings together the sport's best players, patrons, and promoters for an event unlike any other on the calendar. The excitement, coupled with the electric Manhattan crowd, make it special.
  • The intimacy of the court and surrounding areas — with players sitting in the stands alongside fans, coaches and parents — in such a public and historic setting truly epitomizes the cohesiveness of the New York, American, and global squash communities.

Highlight of the week: Watching commuters discover squash for the first time. As they rushed home, they'd frequently pass by the court, stop, and walk back to watch a few points.

Tonight:

  • Women's final (7pm ET): No. 5 seed Camille Serme, who pulled off yet another epic come-from-behind win in the semifinals, takes on No. 2 seed Nour El Sherbini, who won her semifinal match in a much shorter, less taxing four-game match. ... Prediction: El Sherbini wins 3-0.
  • Men's final (7:45pm ET): No. 2 seed Mohamed El Shorbagy — who might be in his best form in recent years — takes on No. 4 seed Tarek Momen in what should be an electric match. ... Prediction: Shorbagy wins 3-0.

'Til next time.

9. 🏆 National title trivia
Giphy

On Monday night, the LSU Tigers and Clemson Tigers played for a national title, a rare occasion in which both finalists had the same nickname.

  • Question: The same thing happened in the 1997 college basketball national championship. Can you name the two teams?
  • Hint: You don't get a hint.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 📚 Weekend reads

🏀 'Being honest is how you change': Brandon Roy is trying to find his peace (Jason Quick, The Athletic)

"Roy is 35 now ... He doesn't know when he will do it, but he figures he is now ready to get in his car and drive south to the ... city where he became an NBA legend. Yes, eight years after leaving, Brandon Roy says he is ready to return to Portland and watch the Trail Blazers in the arena where he created so much magic."

🏒 NHL draft pick inspires dreams as big as the Yukon (Gerald Narciso, NYT)

"Hockey culture in Whitehorse is a lifelong cycle. It's a place where people begin playing as toddlers and continue until they are in 55-and-over recreation leagues. ... [But] because of Whitehorse's isolation, hockey players have been as difficult to export as NHL merchandise to ship in."
Bonus: 🚨 Hat giveaway
Credit: Axios

Last day to win a custom Axios Sports hat!!!

  • How to enter: Refer at least one friend to Axios Sports using your unique referral link (see bottom of the newsletter).
  • How to win: 1 referral = 1 raffle ticket, 2 referrals = 2 raffle tickets, etc. So whatever your "referral count" reads at the bottom of the newsletter is your current number of raffle tickets.
Kendall Baker

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "I'm in too deep" Baker

Trivia answer: Arizona Wildcats vs. Kentucky Wildcats