Feb 4, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

  • Just in: ESPN will drop a special 96-page magazine on Friday dedicated to Kobe Bryant — the company's first issue since ESPN the Magazine shut down in September, SBJ's John Ourand reports.
  • Sign of the apocalypse: Sports Illustrated is getting into the CBD game, partnering with Sentia Wellness to produce SI Swim-branded CBD-infused topicals.
  • Mahomie: Pat Mahomes is having the time of his life at Disney World, giggling through the new Star Wars ride and talking selfies with Chewbacca. Love him.

Today's word count: 1,457 (5 minutes).

1 big thing: ⚾️ The baseball is lying to us

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Astros' sign-stealing scandal is a huge black eye for Major League Baseball and threatens public trust in the sport, but what if I told you there was something that poses an even bigger threat to that trust? And what if I told you it was the baseball, itself?

Catch up quick: The "juiced baseball" emerged as a storyline last season, but the inconsistency of MLB's baseballs has been a theme for years.

  • 2019: In April, Baseball Prospectus' Rob Arthur found that the ball had lower drag due to lower seam height, a result that was corroborated by MLB officials. Discussion reached a fever pitch at the All-Star Game, when Justin Verlander said MLB had intentionally "juiced" the ball, citing its purchase of Rawlings in 2018, and it re-emerged as a storyline in the postseason when balls appeared to have been "de-juiced."
  • 2018: A committee concluded in an 84-page report that increased home run rates were due to "changes in the aerodynamic properties of the baseball itself, specifically to those properties affecting the drag" — but they couldn't determine why those changes had occurred.
  • 2014: Following the lowest-scoring non-strike year since 1976, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred reportedly approached the players union about wrapping the ball tighter to make it fly farther.
  • 2000: A study funded by MLB and Rawlings found that "two baseballs could meet MLB specifications for construction but one ball could be theoretically hit 49.1 feet further."

The big picture: It would appear that baseball's most essential piece of equipment — one that affects every pitch, every player, every team, every championship — is either being intentionally modified to produce certain results or unintentionally altered from batch to batch.

  • Both are troubling: Either MLB is being untruthful, or the league is incapable of manufacturing a consistent baseball. The latter might be worse, as it makes you wonder whether the baseball has ever been consistent.
  • MLB senior VP Morgan Sword spoke to this in December, saying that the baseball world needs to "accept the fact that the baseball is going to vary" and that "the baseball has varied in its performance probably for the entire history of our sport."

What they're saying:

  • "The more we learn about the ball's uncertainty ... the more we have to confront the fact that so many of the stories we've grown up with and cheered for and cherished are more unreliable than we want to believe," writes The Ringer's Zach Kram.
  • "[I]f the 2019 postseason ball is representative of on-field production going forward, there is no guarantee that the 2020 ball will be any more predictable. And we may discover next season that 'random is the new normal,'" writes Dr. Meredith Wills, one of the data scientists who investigated the ball's composition, per The Athletic (subscription).

The bottom line: Baseball has a transparency problem, right down to its literal core.

P.S. ... In related news, the Astros hired former Rays executive James Click as their new general manager.

2. 🏀 NBA trade deadline buzz

With Thursday's trade deadline fast approaching, discussions are being had, rumors are beginning to swirl and Woj is ... probably not sleeping.

  • Iggy situation gets ugly: Following reports that Andre Iguodala is prepared to sit out the season if Memphis doesn't trade him to one of his preferred destinations, his young Grizzlies teammates took the chance to chirp him for not wanting to be a part of the team. Pretty crazy how differently he and Chris Paul have handled things.
  • Potential three-way swap: A three-team deal that would send Robert Covington to Houston, Clint Capela to Atlanta and Brooklyn's 2020 first-round pick from Atlanta to Minnesota has been discussed, per The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor.
  • Suns eyeing Kennard: The Suns and Pistons are discussing a trade that would send sharpshooter Luke Kennard to Phoenix for a future first-round pick, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
  • Meanwhile, in New York: The Knicks are more of a wild card than usual, and will probably do something very on-brand like trade assets for D'Angelo Russell when they could have just signed him this offseason.

Go deeper: Buying and selling the latest trade buzz (B/R)

3. 🏒 BU, Northeastern advance to Beanpot final
Photo: Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

BU 5, BC 4Freshman Wilmer Skoog (that name!) scored 7:20 into the second overtime against Boston College to punch Boston University's ticket to the Beanpot final next Monday, where the Terriers will be vying for their 31st title, most in the tourney's 68-year history.

Photo: Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Northeastern 3, Harvard 1 Brendan van Riemsdyk (younger brother of NHLers James and Tyler) scored the tie-breaking goal for Northeastern, which is looking to win its third straight Beanpot and sixth overall, the least of the four participating schools (BU has 30, BC has 20, Harvard has 11).

Go deeper: The Beanpot has a truly stirring history (NHL.com)

4. 🏀 Men's poll: No. 1 seeds coming into focus
Expand chart
Data: AP; Table: Axios Visuals

Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas and San Diego State remained atop the men's AP poll for the third straight week and have begun to separate themselves from the rest of the pack in the race for the four No. 1 seeds.

  • The big picture: In addition to being the top four teams in the AP poll, they are also the top four in the NET rankings, the top four in ESPN's Strength of Record rankings and four of the top five in KenPom, which has Duke at No. 2.
  • 🔥 Hot streak: The Bears, Bulldogs, Jayhawks and Aztecs have gone a combined 36-1 since the calendar turned to 2020, and the sole defeat was Kansas' loss to Baylor.

In related news ... The Wooden Award Watch List has been revised and reduced from 25 to 20 players. The current candidates:

  • 7 seniors: Markus Howard, G (Marquette); Myles Powell, G (Seton Hall); Cassius Winston, G (Michigan State); Payton Pritchard, G (Oregon); Udoka Azubuike, C (Kansas); Anthony Cowan Jr., G (Maryland); Lamar Stevens, F (Penn State)
  • 3 juniors: Luka Garza, C (Iowa); Jordan Nwora, F (Louisville); Malachi Flynn, G (San Diego State)
  • 8 sophomores: Obi Toppin, F (Dayton); Saddiq Bey, F (Villanova); Jared Butler, G (Baylor); Devon Dotson, G (Kansas); Tre Jones, G (Duke); Daniel Oturu, C (Minnesota); Filip Petrusev, F (Gonzaga); Jalen Smith, F (Maryland)
  • 2 freshmen: Anthony Edwards, G (Georgia); Vernon Carey Jr., C (Duke)
5. 🏀 Women's poll: Steady at the top (but not for long)
Expand chart
Data: NCAA; Table: Axios Visuals

The top seven teams remained unchanged in the latest women's AP poll, but after what went down in Hartford last night, we already know that won't be the case next week.

Driving the news: No. 3 Oregon destroyed No. 4 UConn 74-56 in Monday's marquee matchup, handing the Huskies their first loss on campus in seven years and their worst home loss since 2005.

  • By the numbers: Led by Ruthy Hebard (22-10), pictured below, and Satou Sabally (17-10), Oregon outscored UConn 44-14 in the paint.
  • What they're saying: "They're just too good, and their big kids are too good," said Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. "We don't have anybody at that level. We just don't."
Ruthy Hebard. Photo: Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
6. 📊 By the numbers
Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images
  • ⚽️ 6 goals: The USWNT cruised to a shutout win in its final group stage match of the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship, defeating Costa Rica 6-0 behind two goals from Christen Press (above).
  • 📺 102 million viewers: Super Bowl LIV drew 102 million viewers across Fox, Fox Deportes, NFL and Verizon's digital properties, up slightly from last year's 100.7 million.
  • 🏈 13/17: Patrick Mahomes on 3rd and 15+ this season (including playoffs): 13/17, 299 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT.
7. Feb. 4, 2007: 🎸 Prince slays in the pouring rain

13 years ago today, heavy rain fell over Miami — "and for those planning the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, so did a sense of dread," writes The Ringer's Alan Siegel.

  • "It's one thing to play a football game in a storm. It's another to put on an intricately staged concert in one."

What happened next: Prince happened. Instead of ruining the show, the rain made it iconic, with drops of water creating stars on the camera lenses and a thick mist providing a dreamlike backdrop.

An oral history of his iconic performance...

Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images

Kim Berry (hairstylist): "People ask me, 'Was there an umbrella on the stage? How did he not get wet?' I said, 'That man was pure magic.' He was one that could dance underwater and not get wet."

Photo: Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Ruth Arzate (manager): "When they announced Prince, and you see the symbol light up and all of that, the crowd. It's all dark. The crowd goes nuts. And I'm like, 'Are these white people really gonna be into Prince?'"

Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Mark Caro (reporter): "Just seeing him basking in that guitar solo on 'Purple Rain,' with the rain coming down ... It just was like, 'Whoa, this is really something.' This is an artistic statement rather than just a guy pushing those buttons and promoting his product. You just were in awe of him."

RIP, legend.

8. The Ocho: 📸 Snapshots from Japan
Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Above: A local surfer near the island of Enoshima, which will host the sailing events at the upcoming 2020 Olympics. Mount Fuji, an active volcano that last erupted in 1708, sits in the background.

Below: 23-year-old American Kevin Bickner competes during the Ski Jumping World Cup in Sapporo, which hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics.

Photo: Matt Roberts/Getty Images
9. ⚾️ MLB trivia
Screenshot: @cgrand (Instagram)

Curtis Granderson, who announced his retirement on Friday, recorded the fifth-most triples of any player this century.

  • Question: Who are the only four players with more?
  • Hint: Their initials are JR, JR, CC and IS.

Answer at the bottom.

10. Poll results: ⚾️ Is he batting lefty or righty?
Source: Twitter

Yesterday's poll:

  • Lefty (71.8%)
  • Righty (28.2%)
Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "That surfing pic..." Baker

Trivia answer: Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins, Carl Crawford, Ichiro Suzuki