Feb 14, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

๐Ÿ‘‹ Happy Friday! I'm currently en route to the airport to fly from San Francisco to Orlando for this weekend's Daytona 500. If you'll be there, let me know. We'll hang out.

  • Note: No newsletter on Monday (Presidents Day). See you back here Tuesday.

Today's word count: 1,613 words (6 minutes).

1 big thing: โšพ๏ธ MLB's problems extend far beyond Houston

Josรฉ Altuve during a press conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Astros had three months to craft a thoughtful apology. Instead, Josรฉ Altuve and Alex Bregman spoke for a combined 90 seconds โ€” and owner Jim Crane questioned whether sign-stealing even helped his team win games.

  • Bregman: "I am really sorry about the choices that were made by our team, the organization and by me."
  • Altuve: "We had a great team meeting last night and the whole organization and the team feels bad about what happened in 2017. We especially feel remorse for our fans and for the game of baseball."
  • Crane: "Our opinion is this didn't impact the game. We had a good team. We won the World Series, and we'll leave it at that." ... 55 seconds later ... "I didn't say it didn't impact the game."

The big picture: While baseball grapples with this cheating scandal, don't lose sight of the many other problems the league faces as commissioner Rob Manfred enters his sixth season at the helm.

  • Juiced balls: The "juiced" and then "un-juiced" baseball was a central storyline of the 2019 campaign, raising transparency concerns.
  • Angry players: Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer called Manfred "a joke" on Twitter and followed that up with a seven-minute rant about the state of baseball.
  • Unpopular rule changes: In an effort to speed up the game, pitchers will be required to face a minimum of three batters starting this season โ€” a rule change that the MLB Players Association did not support.
  • Minor League cuts: Politicians like Bernie Sanders have been railing against MLB's proposal to slash minor league teams, which will cast a dark shadow over the upcoming season.
  • Labor unrest: Tension between the owners and the MLBPA has been brewing for years and could result in a lockout when the current CBA expires after the 2021 season.
  • Marketing problems: In 2018, only 22% of the American public knew who Mike Trout was. That's not a Mike Trout problem, that's an MLB problem.
  • Drop in attendance: Roughly 68.5 million fans attended MLB games in 2019, which continues a downward trend and represents a whopping 15% decline from a high of 79.5 million in 2007.

The bottom line: This is going to be a pivotal decade for baseball, and it's hard to imagine the 2020s getting off to a worse start.

"In his first five years on the job, Manfred changed the oil at regular intervals and kept the machine running. ... Those days are over. It is time for Manfred to act, and he knows it. He must decide on the kind of game he wants to shepherd."
โ€” Tom Verducci, SI
2. ๐Ÿ€ NBA snapshot: Eastern Conference
Expand chart
Data: ESPN; Table: Axios Visuals

The Bucks hold a 6.5 game lead over the Raptors at the All-Star break, while the Cavaliers โ€” who were in the Finals as recently as four years ago โ€” sit in dead last.

Stat leaders:

  • Points: Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL (30.0); Trae Young, ATL (29.7); Bradley Beal, WSH (29.1); Zach LaVine, CHI (25.3); Pascal Siakam, TOR (23.5)
  • Rebounds: Andre Drummond, CLE (15.8); Clint Capela, ATL (13.8); Antetokounmpo, MIL (13.5); Domantas Sabonis, IND (12.5); Joel Embiid, PHI (11.9)
  • Assists: Young, ATL (9.2); Ben Simmons, PHI (8.3); Devonte' Graham, CHA (7.8); Kyle Lowry, TOR (7.6); Malcolm Brogdon, IND (7.3)

Go deeper: The Raptors weren't supposed to be this good (FiveThirtyEight)

3. ๐Ÿ€ NBA snapshot: Western Conference
Expand chart
Data: ESPN; Table: Axios Visuals

The Lakers hold a four game lead over the Nuggets at the All-Star break, while the Warriors โ€” who were in the Finals last year โ€” sit in dead last.

Stat leaders:

  • Points: James Harden, HOU (35.3); Damian Lillard, POR (29.5); Luka Donฤiฤ‡, DAL (28.9); Russell Westbrook, HOU (27.2); Kawhi Leonard, LAC (27.2)
  • Rebounds: Rudy Gobert, UTAH (14.6); Hassan Whiteside, POR (14.1); Jonas Valanciunas, MEM (10.5); Nikola Jokiฤ‡, DEN (10.2), Donฤiฤ‡, DAL (9.5)
  • Assists: LeBron James, LAL (10.8); Donฤiฤ‡, DAL (8.7); Ricky Rubio, PHX (8.6); Lillard, POR (7.9); Harden, HOU (7.3)

Go deeper: The Nuggets and Jazz are ready to make their cases as contenders (The Ringer)

Bonus: ๐Ÿ“š Good All-Star reads
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  • Pat Connaughton, who is competing in the dunk contest, fascinates me. First of all, he's a real estate developer. And second of all, he was drafted by the Orioles in 2014, posted a 2.51 ERA in the minors and still wants to play pro baseball.
  • Bam Adebayo is the best NBA player you don't know, and his incredible journey โ€” from a trailer home in North Carolina to basketball's biggest stage โ€” will make you love him.
  • Michael Jordan jumped from the free throw line 32 years ago, and it changed the NBA forever. Here's the full story of that frigid 1988 weekend in Chicago.
  • LeBron James "eats like s--t," Tristan Thompson told The Athletic (subscription). "He has like five french toast, drowns it in syrup ... Then he has like a four-egg omelette and then he goes and just f--king dunks on somebody. It doesn't make sense. ... It's crazy how his body just burns it."
4. โ›ณ๏ธ Genesis Invitational: Course preview

The Genesis Invitational got underway yesterday at L.A.'s historic Riviera Country Club, with Matt Kuchar (-7) holding a three-shot lead over the rest of the field after 18 holes.

A look at the back nine...

Screenshot: Riviera Country Club

Hole 10, par 4 (315 yards): Though reachable from the tee, only a perfect drive will hold this extremely narrow green. The smart play is a safe iron shot down the left side, but the temptation to go for the green remains eternally tantalizing.

  • Jack Nicklaus: "I love option holes and this one has more than any short Par 4 I know."
Screenshot: Riviera Country Club

Hole 18, par 4 (475 yards): The 18th begins with a semi-blind drive played to a fairway hidden beyond a steep hillside and finishes with a bunkerless green nestled in a natural amphitheater beneath the clubhouse, making it one of golf's most famous finishing holes.

ICYMI ... From yesterday's newsletter: A look at the front nine

5. ๐Ÿ“Š By the numbers
David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
  • ๐Ÿ 62nd annual race: Unlike other sports, NASCAR starts its season with its biggest race, the Daytona 500. This weekend marks the 62nd running of "The Great American Race."
  • ๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต 657 home runs: Katsuya Nomura, a Japanese baseball legend whose 657 HR and 1,988 RBI rank second on the all-time list behind the great slugger Sadaharu Oh, died this week at age 84. May he rest in peace.
  • ๐Ÿˆ 12-0 as a starter: Former Buckeye QB Cardale Jones will look to improve to 13-0 as a starter since high school when the XFL's DC Defenders host the New York Guardians tomorrow.
6. ๐Ÿˆ "The Super Bowl kid" (and other prodigies)
Screenshot: Whistle (YouTube)

Just before Super Bowl LIV, Fox aired a video commemorating the NFL's 100th anniversary. It featured a young boy running a football across America, with various NFL legends telling him to "Take it to the house, kid!"

Who is he? The star of the commercial is 13-year-old football and track prodigy, Maxwell "Bunchie" Young, who was named SI's "Sportskid of the Year" in 2017 and was recently featured on "No Days Off," a YouTube show about sports prodigies from Whistle (previously Whistle Sports).

๐ŸŽฅ More episodes:

7. Feb. 14, 1952: ๐Ÿ‡ณ๐Ÿ‡ด Olympics open in Oslo

68 years ago today, the 1952 Winter Olympics opened in Oslo, Norway โ€” the birthplace of modern day skiing.

The backdrop: Japan and Germany were making their returns to winter Olympic competition after being forced to miss the 1948 Games in the aftermath of World War II.

Starring for Team USA...

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Andrea Mead Lawrence (center), a 19-year-old from Rutland, Vermont, won both the slalom and giant slalom events and remains the only American alpine skier to earn two gold medals in the same Olympics.

Richard "Dick" Button, a 23-year-old from Englewood, New Jersey, earned his second consecutive Olympic gold medal by landing the first triple-jump in international competition.

  • ๐ŸŽฅ Watch: Since he landed the jump in the dead of night, the press had Button do it again in the morning for the cameras.
8. The Ocho: ๐ŸŒŠ Kayaking down a waterfall
Courtesy: Corey Rich/Red Bull Content Pool

On Wednesday, American kayaker Dane Jackson (see that little red dot above?) safely navigated the 134-foot Salto del Maule waterfall in the mountains of Chile โ€” the second-tallest such descent on record. Here's the video.

What he's saying: I spoke with the 26-year-old national kayaking champion, who is based in Tennessee but spends 10 months out of the year living in an RV or traveling abroad.

  • How'd you get into kayaking? "My dad was a pro kayaker and competed in the 1992 Olympics, so I was thrown into it right away. I ran my first river when I was two, and we lived in an RV full-time for most of my childhood, traveling to wherever we wanted to kayak and being around the river all day."
  • How do you train for this? "There's not a whole lot you can do, honestly, because every waterfall behaves differently. And not only that, but if you run the same waterfall 10 times, you'll have a different line every time. There are just so many variables. So for this, it was more about building up the confidence to do it."
  • What's next? "I actually head to Indonesia tonight to meet up with some friends of mine. I'll be there for two months, mostly on the island of Java, trying to find as many new waterfalls as possible."

Zoom in...

Courtesy: Corey Rich/Red Bull Content Pool
9. ๐Ÿ€ NBA trivia
Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Through 10 NBA games, Zion Williamson is averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds (while playing just 27.4 minutes per game).

  • Question: Who was the last player to average that many points and rebounds over his first 10 NBA games?
  • Hint: 1990s.
10. ๐Ÿ“… Next week on Axios Sports
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  • ๐ŸŽพ An overview of the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR), which could do for tennis what the handicap system has done for golf.
  • ๐Ÿ€ The NBA's YouTube generation, and the different approaches players are taking to create content and build their brands.
  • โšฝ๏ธ Inside Portugal's youth soccer factories, and how a similar player development model might be adopted in the U.S.

See you Tuesday.

Kendall Baker

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "Apology not accepted" Baker

Trivia answer: Shaquille O'Neal in 1992 (23.8 points and 15.8 rebounds)