May 05, 2022

👋 Good morning! I'll be off for a few days, but you're in great hands with Jeff. Talk soon, friends.

Today's word count: 1,948 words (7 minutes).

Let's sports...

1 big thing: 🇷🇺 The wrongful detainee

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The U.S. government now considers Brittney Griner to be "wrongfully detained" by the Russian government — a significant shift in language that increases the odds of the WNBA star coming home.

Why it matters: After months of strategic silence, the Biden administration will now negotiate for Griner's release rather than wait for her legal case to play out in Russia.

Catch up quick: Griner, a player for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 after customs officials said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

  • Griner hasn't been charged, but the seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time gold medalist — who plays in Russia during the offseason because the pay is far better — has a hearing scheduled for May 19.
  • Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed was released last week as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia, where he'd been detained since 2019. That has emboldened families like Griner's to push for similar deals.

State of play: Griner's inner circle, fellow WNBA players and government officials have said little about her plight in the nearly three months since her arrest — all part of a strategy of quiet diplomacy.

  • The goal has been to keep Griner's case from becoming a celebrity-political cause, which experts say would add value to her as an asset and make it more difficult to secure her release.
  • "I know we're all frustrated, but we do need to be patient. The players have been amazing at following the advice they're getting," WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said during last month's draft.

Yes, but: Despite this approach, plenty of people have still been raising awareness about Griner's situation as the WNBA season approaches (the season begins tomorrow).

  • Over 100,000 people signed a "Free Brittney" petition, an Oscar winner called for her release, and Griner's Team USA teammates spoke up during training camp last month.
  • "If this was an NBA player of her caliber ... this would be on the cover of not only every sports page but every news media page in the world," said Tamryn Spruill, a journalist who's writing a book on the WNBA.

The big picture: Most Americans imprisoned abroad today aren't held by terrorist groups but by foreign governments, with whom the U.S. often has dodgy relations. These "wrongful detainees" thus become pawns.

  • "They want to use that person for political leverage [and] as a bargaining chip," special president Envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens told "60 Minutes" in February.
  • Carstens says it's his job to get creative. "What else can we possibly do without giving a direct concession? ... If there's a way I can get someone out that doesn't involve a [prisoner] swap, much better."

What to watch: Carstens is leading the interagency team charged with securing Griner's release, according to the State Department.

  • Bill Richardson, a former U.S. diplomat with ample experience as an international hostage negotiator, is also involved, "a crucial sign that [Griner's] case has moved into a new realm," per ESPN.
  • After months of uneasy silence, the WNBA will commemorate Griner with floor decals featuring her initials and number on every team's home court this season.
  • Regardless of how this all plays out, Griner could be the last American basketball star to play in Russia, which has been a lucrative resource for this generation of WNBA players.

The bottom line: Griner has been detained for 77 days and faces up to 10 years in prison. But the game has changed, with the U.S. government now indicating that it considers the legal proceedings to be irrelevant.

Go deeper:

2. ⚽️ Instant classic: Madrid stuns City

Photo: Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Manchester City were minutes away from booking their second straight ticket to the Champions League final, but Real Madrid had other plans, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Catch up quick: City entered Wednesday's match at the Bernabéu with a 4-3 aggregate lead, which they'd pushed to 5-3 as the game neared its end. Then, pure chaos.

  • Madrid's Rodrygo scored in the 90th and 91st minutes to even the score at 5-5, and Karim Benzema sealed the 6-5 aggregate win with a penalty in extra time.
  • Rodrygo is the first player in Champions League history to score in consecutive minutes of a semifinal or final. City had never conceded multiple goals in the 90th minute or later under Pep Guardiola.

What's next: Madrid and Liverpool will meet in the final later this month in Paris — a rematch of the 2018 final that Madrid won to complete their three-peat.

The big picture: City has been arguably the best team in the world over the past half decade, but Champions League success has evaded them, losing in the quarters or earlier in four straight years before finally reaching — but losing — their first final last season.

  • Madrid, on the other hand, is the most successful team in Champions League history, with a record 13 titles that nearly doubles second place Milan (7).
  • Now, they'll get a chance for No. 14 after an impressive knockout stage run that saw them take down PSG, defending champ Chelsea and City in succession.

What to watch: City lost one opportunity to win a title over Liverpool, but they still have another, leading the Reds by one point in the Premier League standings with four matches left.

3. ⚾️ MLB power rankings: Coastal elites

Note: Records do not include games from Wednesday, May 4. Table: Axios Visuals

The top six teams in our inaugural power rankings play in New York or California, and all four teams from LA and the Big Apple are currently in first place, Jeff writes.

  • The Yankees and Mets have combined to win 25 of their last 33 games, and no team has hit more HR than the Yankees nor struck out more batters than the Mets.
  • The Dodgers have the league's best run differential, while the Angels keep winning despite cold starts from Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon (that Trout guy is pretty good, though, and Taylor Ward has been a revelation).
  • The Padres and Giants, meanwhile, look poised to make the West a three team race.

By the numbers: Not every team can boast the accolades of the six above, but plenty find themselves in the top five of a few key stats four weeks into the season.

  • Batting average: Rockies (.262); Mets (.257); Guardians (.252); Nationals (.249); Yankees (.248)
  • Home runs: Yankees (35); Blue Jays (32); Angels (32); Braves (31); three tied with 29
  • Stolen bases: Cardinals (24); Angels (17); Rays (17); Dodgers (16); Rangers (16)
  • Starter ERA: Dodgers (1.90); Diamondbacks (2.54); Mets (2.78); Yankees (2.85); Brewers (3.08)
  • Reliever ERA: Tigers (2.26); Yankees (2.30); Dodgers (2.65); Astros (2.76); Rays (2.80)
  • Strikeouts: Mets (273); Brewers (262); Braves (241); White Sox (235); Yankees and Rays (230)

P.S. ... Shout out to Brewers 1B Rowdy Tellez for setting a franchise record with 8 RBI (4-6, 2 HR) in Wednesday's 18-4 (!) win over the Reds, who became the third team since 1900 to lose 21 of its first 24 games.

Go deeper: Grading every team (ESPN+)

4. ⚡️ Lightning round

Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

⚾️ Good baseball: A Blue Jays fan created a viral moment on Tuesday when he gifted an Aaron Judge HR ball to a boy wearing a Judge shirt. On Wednesday, Judge met both of them in the dugout before the game.

⚾️ Bad baseball: Madison Bumgarner was ejected Wednesday after one inning when his routine sticky-stuff check suddenly turned hostile. MadBum was not happy.

⚽️ Record sale: The jersey Diego Maradona wore when he scored his “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup sold for a sports memorabilia record $9.28 million Wednesday at Sotheby’s in London. $9.28 million!

🏁 Call to the Hall: NASCAR announced its 2023 Hall of Fame class on Wednesday: 2003 Cup Series winner Matt Kenseth, longtime crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine and 44-year racing veteran Hershel McGriff. Congrats, fellas.

5. 🥍 Exclusive: The PLL's global expansion

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Premier Lacrosse League games in the 2022 season will be distributed in more than 170 countries, representing a 10x increase over 2021, Jeff writes.

Why it matters: Lacrosse is pushing for inclusion in the 2028 LA Olympics, and as with the NFL and flag football, global growth is critical to achieving that goal.

  • The sport already took a huge step forward last year when its international federation was granted full recognition by the IOC. Today's news is another major milestone in that effort.

Details: In Canada, all 47 games will be streamed on TSN.ca and the TSN app, with select games also broadcast on TSN's linear channel.

  • Internationally, games will stream on Star+ (Latin America), ESPN Player (Europe, Middle East, Africa), ESPN Pacific Rim and ESPN Caribbean.
  • Stateside, ESPN will carry the PLL for the first time ever, with every game streaming on ESPN+, including 12 that will air on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. Full schedule.

The last word from PLL co-founder and president, Paul Rabil: "Having the ability to watch the PLL in 170 countries is a dream come true ... [and] will only continue to grow awareness and participation."

What to watch: The season begins June 4 in Albany, New York.

6. 🏈 NFL's international slate announced

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The NFL on Wednesday released the schedule for its 2022 International Series, Jeff writes.

Why it matters: It features a record-tying five games in a record-breaking three countries.

  • 🇬🇧 Oct. 2: Vikings vs. Saints at London's Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (9:30am ET, NFL)
  • 🇬🇧 Oct. 9: Giants vs. Packers at Hotspur Stadium (9:30am, NFL)
  • 🇬🇧 Oct. 30: Broncos vs. Jaguars at London's Wembley Stadium (9:30am, ESPN+) ... First ever NFL game exclusive to ESPN+
  • 🇩🇪 Nov. 13: Seahawks vs. Buccaneers at Munich's Allianz Arena (9:30am, NFL) ... First ever regular-season NFL game in Germany
  • 🇲🇽 Nov. 21: 49ers vs. Cardinals at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca on Monday Night Football (8:15pm, ESPN)

7. 🌎 The world in photos

sounders hoisting trophy
Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

SEATTLE — For the first time in 14 modern iterations of the CONCACAF Champions League, an MLS team has won the title after the Sounders blanked the Pumas of Liga MX, 3-0, to win the final 5-2 on aggregate.

  • Why it matters: The win also qualified the Sounders for the next FIFA Club World Cup, where they’ll be the first MLS team to participate.
tampa bay lightning celebrate
Photo: Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

TORONTO — The Lightning bounced back from their Game 1 defeat with a 5-3 win over the Maple Leafs, improving to a perfect 15-0 following a playoff loss since the start of the 2020 postseason.

  • Elsewhere: The Hurricanes (up 2-0) beat the Bruins, 5-2 ... The Wild (tied 1-1) beat the Blues, 6-2 ... The Oilers (tied 1-1) thrashed the Kings, 6-0.
suns celebrating
Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

PHOENIX — A fourth-quarter barrage turned a close game into a blowout as the Suns (up 2-0) beat the Mavericks, 129-109, behind Devin Booker (30 points) and Chris Paul (28).

  • Elsewhere: Miami again took advantage of the Joel Embiid-less 76ers with an easy 119-103 win to take a 2-0 series lead.

8. 📺 Watchlist: Star-studded hockey

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Four of ESPN's top 14 players in the Stanley Cup playoffs take the ice tonight when the Predators (down 1-0) visit the Avalanche (9:30pm ET, TNT).

  • Avalanche: No. 2 Cale Makar; No. 3 Nathan MacKinnon; No. 14 Mikko Rantanen
  • Predators: No. 9 Roman Josi

More to watch:

9. ⚽️ Champions League trivia

Photo: Alex Caparros - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Real Madrid has two of the four three-peats in Champions League history (1956–60, 2016–18).

  • Question: Which two clubs have the other two?
  • Hint: Neither is from England, Spain or Italy.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 🛹 1 fun thing: Skateboard wizardry

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Source: Giphy

I dare you to watch this fewer than 10 times. Absolute magician.

Talk soon,

Kendall "Miss you already" Baker

Trivia answer: Ajax (197173) and Bayern Munich (197476)

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