1 big thing: ⚾️ No more batting practice?
Outdoor batting practice is nearly as old as baseball itself, but does it actually provide value to hitters? Some teams say no and are gradually phasing it out.
What's happening: The Toronto Blue Jays are one of a handful of teams that will make batting practice optional this season, preferring their hitters to focus on indoor cage work, instead, The Athletic's John Lott reports (subscription). Here's why:
- It's more beneficial: Lott interviewed six Blue Jays players and all of them said the indoor cage, where they can use pitching machines to fine-tune their sessions, helps them prepare for real at-bats better than BP, where pitchers toss meatballs over the heart of the plate.
- Technology has improved: "We have these cameras not only reading exit velocity and projected distance and launch angle, but also reading the spin on the ball and seeing if you truly hit it straight," said center fielder Kevin Pillar. "There might not even be a need to hit outside anymore."
- It reduces wear and tear: "Doing your work in the cage, you can be a little bit more disciplined and also stay off your feet a little bit," said bench coach Dave Hudgens. BP tends to be more of a hack-fest and can take a physical toll.
The other side: Plenty of hitters still prefer outdoor BP, as it lets them get a feel for the playing surface and weather conditions.
- It's also a social routine; a time to catch up with friends and former teammates, sign autographs for fans and casually try to hit moonshots into the parking lot.
Rewind: In 2015, Bryce Harper took some heat when he acknowledged that he hadn't taken BP all year because "it's about hitting homers and showing off. I don't need to show off. I don't need to hit homers then. I can do that in a game."
- So ... Bryce to the Blue Jays?! JK. But seriously, this saga needs to end. I've lost all interest at this point.
2. 🏈 JUCO football's cloudy future
From Mike: Troubling financials, negative press and NCAA rules have put the future of junior college football (or JUCO) on shaky ground. Several programs have shut down in recent years, and the fear is that this trend will continue.
Why it matters: Junior college football has long been a lifeline for players who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks, while also serving as a farm system for Division I's top programs.
- Lifeline: Four junior college players have gone on to win the Heisman (Cam Newton, O.J. Simpson, Roger Staubach, Mike Rozier), and eight participated in Super Bowl LIII. Aaron Rodgers played JUCO ball. So did Alvin Kamara.
- Farm system: An estimated 800 JUCO players join FBS programs each year, with about one-fifth of them joining Power 5 schools. Perennial powerhouse Oklahoma, for instance, has signed 18 JUCO players over the last five years.
What's happening: Junior colleges face significant hurdles just to stay afloat, and those hurdles have gotten higher in recent years.
- Dwindling financial support is putting cash-strapped schools even deeper in the red. Itawamba Community College in Mississippi spent $666,806 on football in 2016-17 but only made $17,346 in ticket sales — the program's only revenue source.
- New FBS transfer rules mean that players who would have previously transferred to JUCO are transferring to other D-I schools, instead.
- A negative perception of JUCO culture has been made infinitely worse by Netflix's Last Chance U. The Hard Knocks-esque show focuses on the drama and, thus, doesn't tell the full story. It has also been mired in controversy.
What's next: A class action lawsuit is being filed that could lead to the reinstatement of one of the recently shuttered programs, and plenty of administrators and coaches across the country are working to fix the system.
The bottom line: Junior college football is devouring itself. Fewer programs mean more travel. More travel means less money. And less money means less football.
3. 🏀 2003 NBA draft class making headlines
- Dwyane Wade (No. 5 pick in 2003): In his final game against the Warriors, Wade hit an epic buzzer-beater, which should be enjoyed from every possible angle.
- LeBron James (No. 1): Lebby (33-6-10) led the way for the Purple and Gold as they picked up a much-needed win over Anthony Davis and the Pelicans.
- David West (No. 18): West recently became chief operating officer of the Historical Basketball League, which hopes to rival the NCAA by paying players upwards of $150,000 per season.
- Kyle Korver (No. 51): He didn't score any points, but the Jazz did beat the Clippers 111-105. Fun fact: Korver trains in the offseason by running underwater while carrying a bunch of heavy boulders. It's wild.
4. ⛳️ The "Florida Swing" is back
"After two years of being interrupted by a trip to Mexico, the Sunshine State has retaken its place as a four-tournament run of events as the Masters draws closer," writes ESPN's Bob Harig.
- Honda Classic, starts today at PGA National (Palm Beach Gardens)
- Arnold Palmer Invitational, Mar. 7–10 at Bay Hill Club (Orlando)
- Players Championship, Mar. 14–17 at TPC-Sawgrass (Ponte Vedra Beach)
- Valspar Championship, Mar. 21–24 at Innisbrook Resort (Palm Harbor)
Why it matters: The PGA Championship switched from its traditional mid-August time slot to mid-May this year, meaning all four majors will take place in a 15-week span between April and July.
- As a result of this change, it's more important than ever that players are at their best heading into April. It starts in Florida.
5. ⚽️ Soccer roundup
- Best goal: Liverpool's Sadio Mané is the kind of player who makes "easy things look unnecessarily difficult and impossible things look effortless," writes Deadspin's Billy Haisley. Prime example: his back-heel goal against Watford yesterday.
- Worst goal: Here is one of the worst own goals I've ever seen, courtesy of Tottenham defender Kieran Trippier. Chelsea 2, Spurs 0.
- New tournament: U.S. Soccer has invited South America's 10 soccer federations to bring their national teams to the U.S. next year for a new intercontinental tournament.
- Barcelona 3, Real Madrid 0: Weird game. Lionel Messi was a complete non-factor and Barca had just four shots to Real's 14. And yet, they won.
- USA 2, Japan 2: Despite a dominant offensive performance, the U.S. women settled for a draw after Japan leveled the score in the first minute of stoppage time. Full recap.
6. On this date: 2/28/2010
Nine years ago today, 22-year-old Sidney Crosby scored an overtime goal to lift Canada over the U.S.A. 3-2 in the gold-medal game in Vancouver.
Fun fact: The victory was the first time a host nation won a men's hockey gold medal since 1980, when a group of collegians from the U.S. defeated Finland after stunning the Soviet Union in the semifinals.
7. 🏒 NHL trivia
John Tavares returns to Long Island tonight (7 pm ET, ESPN+) for the first time since he ditched the Islanders for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
- Question: Tavares is tied for fourth in the NHL with 36 goals this season. Can you name the only three players with more?
- Hint: One is Russian, one is American and one is German.
Answer at the bottom.
8. The Ocho: Skimmin' stones
"Everyone's different. Some people make models out of matchsticks. Some people climb Everest. Some people become managing directors. And some people are stone skimming champions."
That's the opening line of the trailer for "Sink or Swim," a new BBC documentary about the World Stone Skimming Championships.
Details: The event is held each year on the tiny Scottish island of Easdale where water has filled massive quarries and created the world's first stone skimming arena.
- Watch: Trailer
P.S. The full documentary is only available in the U.K., which is annoying, but just knowing that this exists is enough. Made my week.
9. Good reads
Over 400 people applied to drive the Nationals' bullpen cart this season, and 21 of them were recently invited to the ballpark for tryouts. As SI's Emma Baccellieri learned, their job won't be nearly as easy as it looks.
"If symbolism and history are never far from each other in the South, in Mississippi they are often intertwined. And in this quaint college town, home to the state's flagship university, they seem inextricable."
🏈 The NFL is drafting quarterbacks all wrong (FiveThirtyEight)
FiveThirtyEight's Josh Hermsmeyer built a model to better identify successful QB prospects. Turns out deep throw accuracy is crucial. His top two prospects: Kyler Murray and Will Grier.
10. ⚾️ Good video
SB Nation's "Beef History" explores the long, delicate beef between Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.
- Details: A-Rod and Jeets weren't just great young shortstops at the same time, they were best friends. But that friendship got complicated — and then they became teammates.
- Watch: YouTube
Kendall "Don't leave us, Dwyane" Baker
Trivia answer: Alex Ovechkin, WAS (44); Patrick Kane, CHI (40); Leon Draisaitl, EDM (39)