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by David Newton posted Jun 13 2017 9:23AM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The past two months have been anything but a vacation for Carolina Panthers first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey because of an NFL rule that prohibits him from joining the team until Stanford's school year ends.

The former Stanford running back has spent three hours every morning training and undergoing treatment from his hometown of Denver, and the rest of his day watching film and talking on the phone with running backs coach Jim Skipper.

He insists he hasn't done anything fun, outside of going to a Rockies baseball game, while his teammates have been in voluntary offseason workouts.

"I figure the guys on my team aren't doing anything fun, so I'm trying to walk in and stay on their schedule," McCaffrey told ESPN.com. "I'm trying to put myself as much in a situation as they're in as possible."

McCaffrey arrived in Charlotte on Sunday to get acclimated to his new home. He'll begin working out with the team on Wednesday, the second day of a mandatory three-day minicamp.

"I won't be behind as far as the plays go in practice," McCaffrey said. "Getting acclimated and comfortable with the team, I'll be a little bit behind. But that will come."

McCaffrey would like to see a change in the rule Carolina coach Ron Rivera said unnecessarily punishes players like McCaffrey. Tight end Greg Olsen said the rule is backward.

McCaffrey repeatedly said it's been a "bummer" having to stay away since a rookie minicamp in early May, especially because he wasn't enrolled in classes at Stanford this quarter.

"I understand the concept of the rule," said McCaffrey, referring to the language in the collective bargaining agreement designed to allow college players to finish the school year and work toward a degree without the pressure of football.

"But at the same time, for a guy like me that is just trying to get out there and get acclimated to the team and compete, it's tough."

Outside of quarterback Cam Newton possibly throwing for the first time since March 30 shoulder surgery and an appearance from tackle Michael Oher, who hasn't participated in the voluntary workouts and remains in the concussion protocol, McCaffrey's arrival will be the biggest news of this minicamp.

McCaffrey, who lives and breathes football the same way that Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly does, can't wait.

"It's tough being away from a competitive atmosphere for that long, but I still push myself every day in my training and studies," McCaffrey said.

What McCaffrey has missed the most is the opportunity to bond with his new teammates. That's something he can't really do on the phone or in text messages.

"It's definitely a major factor," McCaffrey said. "Everyone wants to be close to your team. You don't want to have guys that don't feel comfortable in the locker room.

"But they've been so welcoming to me. The times I have been there, the vets have been so great to me, reaching out to me, texting me, giving me advice. So I know I'm not there, but I definitely feel very comfortable."

McCaffrey also is comfortable with sharing the backfield with veteran Jonathan Stewart, 30, who said last week he wasn't worried about losing carries to the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up.

"He said it best; we're trying to win a Super Bowl," said McCaffrey, referring to the quote from Stewart. "I don't care if I get no carries and just play special teams. I'm there to try to win football games and help that team win.

"Every great team has multiple backs. Very few times do you have just one back. To be able to share the backfield with him and the other guys is going to be a lot of fun."

McCaffrey will be fun to watch. He'll help the Panthers as a runner, receiver out of the backfield, slot receiver and kick returner. He'll have plenty of opportunities to make plays even when on the field at the same time as Stewart.

Countless hours of film study have only whetted his appetite to get started.

"It's an unbelievable football team across the board," McCaffrey said. "It's exciting for me, because coming in as a rookie, just being able to pick these guys' brains and learn from them, compete with them every day, is going to be a lot of fun."

McCaffrey's father, former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, has done all he can to help his son prepare for this moment.

So has Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson, who went through what Christian McCaffrey has with the rule when the Panthers selected him out of Washington in the first round two years ago.

"He just told me to enjoy the time at home and I'll be fine when I get back," McCaffrey said. "It does suck [not being there], but at the same time I've enjoyed being at my home with my family for the last time in a while."
by Chris Low posted Jun 13 2017 8:57AM
There was a lot of anticipation among scouts for Greg Holland's first spring training outing in a Colorado Rockies uniform, and there was a lot of mystery. Holland had thrown for scouts in November, as he neared the end of his summer of rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery, and in the opinion of many who were there, he did not look good. His fastball velocity was way down from his days with the Kansas City Royals, with some teams clocking him in the mid-80s.

As such, there was some surprise when the Rockies signed Holland before he hosted another army of scouts, and the incentive-laden contract had more earning power than expected by some rival executives. In the mind of some in the industry, Colorado had bet heavily on a pitcher, far more than others would have based on that workout.

But Holland looked good in that first spring training outing, and through the first 40 percent of the 2017 season, Holland has pitched exceptionally -- so good that he seems to be a shoe-in for the National League All-Star team and could be considered the best signing of the winter free-agent class (other nominees are listed below).

Holland has allowed one home run among just 10 hits in 23 2/3 innings, and he is 23-for-23 in save chances, the sort of performance that Rockies evaluators have only dreamed about through the team's tepid history of pitching.

"At the end of the day, it was a calculated risk," Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich said in a phone conversation Saturday. "A calculated risk we needed to take."

Holland's agent, Scott Boras, assumed that the best offers for his client would develop after the big three free-agent closers came off the board -- Mark Melancon, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. As the game of free-agent musical chairs played out and the big three signed, the Washington Nationals and the Rockies were the teams with the greatest need for a closer. Washington's ownership wasn't ready to commit the kind of money that Boras discussed.

The Rockies, on the other hand, went all-in learning about Holland as a person. Steve Foster, the Rockies' pitching coach, knew Holland from when both were in the Royals' organization and vouched for both the pitcher's character and his competitiveness. That Holland emerged as the closer at the back end of a bullpen that included the talented Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera said a lot about Holland, Bridich thought. The Rockies were aware that Holland even tried to pitch through a torn elbow ligament in 2015, as Kansas City worked to get back to the World Series.

The Rockies also had a unique evaluation weapon in bullpen coach Darren Holmes, who, like Holland, lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Holmes' pitching personality during his career was very similar to Holland's: no messing around, all business, attack the hitters. Plus, Holmes could relate to the particular challenges of pitching at Coors Field. Holmes and Holland talked and texted, and their communication served as another layer of understanding about Holland.

"He's a regular, hard-working Asheville, North Carolina, baseball player," Bridich said. "I know he's got the trust of everybody -- and he's got the trust in spades. This is a man who is hell-bent on getting back to where he was before he was hurt."

The Rockies saw Holland in a long-toss session in January, confirmation for them that he was healthy. Boras and Bridich negotiated an unusual deal that provided the Rockies some protection in the event that Holland got hurt but also gave Holland a chance to be paid well. Holland got $6 million in base salary and $1 million guaranteed in a possible buyout of his 2018 deal, but if Holland accumulated 30 games finished or pitched in 50 games, the 2018 contract would vest into a 2017 player option for $15 million.

Holland already has 25 games finished, and his 2018 player option should vest by the end of the month. On May 21, he picked up an extra $1 million for his 20th game finished. There is an $8 million maximum for performance bonus this year, which he could build two ways. He gets $500,000 each for 30, 35, 40, 45, 50 and 55 pitching appearances. For games finished, he gets $1 million apiece for 20 and 30 and $2 million each for 40, 50 and 60.

It's possible that he'll make $35 million in his two-year deal with the Rockies, and with Colorado in first place and Holland serving as "shade" -- to use Boras' word -- over the rest of what is a young pitching staff, the team ranks 10th in ERA.

Here are some other nominees for best free-agent signing of the winter:

2. Ivan Nova, Pittsburgh Pirates

Three years, $26 million

In 12 starts, he has a 3.04 ERA with only seven walks in 83 innings.

3. Logan Morrison, Tampa Bay Rays

One year, $2.5 million

Because of his command of the strike zone and his willingness to take a walk, Morrison has long been seen as a hitter with untapped potential. But this year, the 29-year-old Morrison seems to be putting it all together: He has 10 doubles and 17 homers, an .893 OPS and an adjusted OPS+ of 143. The high volume of first base/corner outfield/DH types greatly depressed the prices on this group of players during the winter, and it might be that the Rays got the best bargain of the lot.

4. Mitch Moreland, Boston Red Sox

One year, $5.5 million

He has given Boston just about everything it hoped for with the signing: some left-handed thump (an OPS of .858) and good defense at first base. He's on pace for 46 doubles and 84 runs.

5. Koji Uehara, Chicago Cubs

One year, $6 million

Nobody can give a sound explanation for how the 42-year-old Uehara can pass his mediocre fastball through the middle of the strike zone without it being obliterated. But he keeps doing it over and over. He has 25 strikeouts and only five walks in 20 1/3 innings.

6. Matt Holliday, New York Yankees

One year, $13 million

He has been very productive for the Yankees, with 23 extra-base hits and 27 walks so far. For Aaron Judge, Holliday's arrival was perfectly timed to provide a big-bodied teammate who is very serious about hitting to act as a sounding board on mechanics and approach. The Yankees are so loaded with outfield/DH options in the big leagues and in their farm system that it seems unlikely they'll bring Holliday back -- certainly not at the current rate -- but for 2017, the investment in him has been spectacular.

7. Matt Wieters, Washington Nationals

One year, $10.5 million, with a $10.5 million player option for 2018

He has stepped into the vacancy created by the departure of Wilson Ramos and has contributed offensively and defensively.

8. Charlie Morton, Houston Astros

Two years, $14 million

Morton is currently on the disabled list, but he started well, with his fastball velocity at a career high. The Astros encouraged Morton to throw really hard early in the game, with less concern about pitching deep into his outings, and this sprinter's approach has worked for Morton: He's 5-3 with a 4.06 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings.

9. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Five years, $80 million

This signing is different than some of the others on the list in its enormity, and after the Dodgers' agreements with Rich Hill and Justin Turner, there was surprise that L.A. would extend itself to this level. But Jansen has been incredible so far this season, with 41 strikeouts, no walks and just one homer (Justin Bour of the Marlins) in 24 1/3 innings.
by Chris Low posted Apr 24 2017 10:41AM

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Basking in the coastal oasis that is the luxurious Boca Raton Resort & Club, Lane Kiffin felt a lot more like he was in football purgatory back on Jan. 9.

The newly named Florida Atlantic head coach watched helplessly from his plush room as Clemson pinned a last-second 35-31 defeat on Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship, ending the Crimson Tide's 26-game winning streak. Kiffin's television was his only outlet. He couldn't audible out of a play with one of his trademark whistles. He couldn't draw up one of his favorite plays. He couldn't tweak a formation and create the kind of mismatch that he did with regularity as Alabama's offensive coordinator.

All he could do was watch ... and agonize.

 

 

"And it became a one-play game, so of course your mind goes, 'Well, would it have made a difference [if I were there]?" Kiffin told ESPN.com.

"The hardest part was seeing [Jalen Hurts'] face, Reuben Foster, ArDarius Stewart," Kiffin added. "Some of those guys have come down here to see me since then. It was really difficult because the players at Alabama work harder and dedicate more of their life to football than anyone in America. ... So to see the look on their faces after the game was something that sticks with you."

The specter of Alabama still looms large for Kiffin, who was an integral part of the Crimson Tide's 2014-16 success, a dizzying run that included three SEC titles, a national championship and two other trips to the College Football Playoff -- with a first-year starter at quarterback each season. And yet, Kiffin was also a lightning rod for drama and controversy, culminating with Nick Saban's announcement the Monday before the title game that he was replacing Kiffin with Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. Kiffin was trying to juggle two jobs, and Saban was intent on eliminating any distractions.

Kiffin didn't help himself any leading up to the Washington game when he zinged Saban in the media, namely referencing "dog years" when describing what it was like to work for Saban and answering a question about happy moments with Saban by joking he wouldn't remember the happy moments, just the "ass-chewings."

"I got a little too loose with my mouth," said Kiffin, which wasn't the first time and probably won't be the last.

He still can't help himself, joking, "I would like to think now that I'm the head coach that the bus won't leave you anymore," referencing the two times he was left behind after postseason wins at Alabama.

It's the reason Kiffin's father, Monte, jokes that one of his primary roles as a defensive analyst on FAU's staff will be to have a roll of tape handy any time Lane is speaking to the media.

"That way, maybe I can cover up his mouth before he says something he shouldn't," Monte cracked.

To those who really know Lane Kiffin, there's a saying they use to explain some of the scenarios that have landed him in trouble over the years.

"A lot of times, it's just Lane being Lane," Monte said.

Kiffin says his mother nicknamed him "Helicopter" as a kid because he would go from room to room stirring things up. He revels in poking the bear, even if it's one who just happens to be rewriting the college football record books with four of the past eight national championships.

And while Kiffin has not kept in touch with Saban since heading to Florida Atlantic, he has brought a part of his former boss -- and his famed "process" -- to Boca.

"We joke about Coach Saban and my time there, but how dumb would I be not to copy a lot of what Nick Saban did?" Kiffin said. "He's the best head coach in college football right now, and the good thing for me is that I've had a chance to work now for Coach Saban and Pete Carroll, two guys who do it totally different, and I can combine the two and take the parts I like from both and use them here at Florida Atlantic.

"As I've said many times, there weren't a lot of people knocking on my door when Coach Saban offered me a job, so I will always be appreciative of him and having had the opportunity to work and learn under him."

"How dumb would I be not to copy a lot of what Nick Saban did?"

Lane Kiffin

Although Kiffin might have learned under Saban, nobody will ever accuse the two of them of being coaching clones. Kiffin's practices at FAU are rife with booming rap music and even a few fans and boosters watching from a tent in the center of the practice fields.

Getting into the Pentagon is easier than getting into one of Alabama's practices, which are noticeably void of any rhymes from Lil Wayne.

"It's nice to hear a little music on the practice field. That didn't happen in Tuscaloosa," said Kiffin, who was once referenced in a Lil Wayne song when Kiffin was at Tennessee.

But similar to Saban, Kiffin wanders the practice field in what is now his fourth head-coaching gig and doesn't just shadow the offense. Moreover, no detail is too small.

"Put the ball in the outside hand," he yells to one of his running backs.

He's also in the middle of special-teams drills and demands that the players do it over and over again until they get it right.

One of the staples of Saban's teams at Alabama has been head strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran running around practice (and games) with unbridled energy and passion. The players swear by Cochran, so it makes sense that Kiffin took one of Cochran's assistants, Wilson Love, with him to FAU. And just as Cochran does in Tuscaloosa, Love is all over the FAU practice field exhorting players, challenging players, even dancing with them on occasion when somebody makes a big hit or big play.

While Kiffin is heavily involved in all phases of the program, similar to Saban, he's not going to call offensive plays at FAU. Kendal Briles will be the Owls' playcaller.

"It will be a lot like what you see at Alabama with the defense there under Coach Saban," Kiffin said. "Sure, Coach Saban is involved in preparing the game plan each week, but he also realizes that he needs to be more of an overseer of the program. He lets his coaches coach. Now, as you saw on Saturdays with the two of us on the sideline, he's going to voice his opinion, a lot of times loudly. But I was the one calling plays, and it will be the same thing here with Kendal."

Kiffin's staff meetings -- featuring his father, Monte, and brother/defensive coordinator Chris -- can run long, in Saban-esque fashion, and Kiffin is quick to call out one of his assistants in front of the entire staff because a drill wasn't run the way Kiffin wants it run.

"I'm looking down there and trying to figure out what you're doing. If you're going to change it up, run it by me," Kiffin says.

One thing Kiffin won't do is put a timetable on how long it will take to build a winner at FAU. He likes his staff, likes his first recruiting class and is especially heartened that FAU president Dr. John Kelly spent 28 years at Clemson and understands what a successful football program can do for an entire university.

"There's not a day that I come to work that I'm thinking about money or that I'm making less money than I've made in the business in the last 10 years," said Kiffin, whose five-year deal at FAU will pay him $950,000 per year. "Look at this place -- the weather, the people, the possibilities. I drive to work every day thinking about what's in front of us here at Florida Atlantic, not what's behind us."

Now 41, Kiffin acknowledges that too much might have come too soon for him in the way of marquee head-coaching opportunities. After all, he was named the coach of the Oakland Raiders and then the coach at Tennessee before he'd even turned 35.

"Sometimes, you need to learn from your mistakes," Kiffin said. "I guess we kind of went backward. Usually, you start and move your way up as head coach and you make your mistakes where no one really sees them, but we made those mistakes at an early stage and on a national stage. It is what it is, but at the same time, there are things that you are going to change, too, to get better as a head coach.

"But we are not going to change who we are, either."

In other words, Lane is still going to be Lane, just a somewhat more "process"-ed version.

by Buster Olney posted Apr 24 2017 10:38AM

The topic was unnecessary physical risk, and Madison Bumgarner and San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy gnawed on it in friendly conversation in Bochy's office at AT&T Park last June. Bochy leaned back in the black chair at his desk, hat off, and Bumgarner sat to his left, his legs stretched out. Bumgarner really liked the idea of joining the Home Run Derby, and, as he made his case to Bochy in his North Carolina drawl, the pitcher mentioned dryly that he had once been asked by the team to ride a horse in the ceremonies leading up to the Giants’ home opener in 2015.

If the steed had somehow managed to throw Bumgarner -- and good luck finding the horse that could launch baseball's Paul Bunyan, who weighs upwards of 250 pounds -- and the pitcher had landed on his left shoulder, some really good lawyer somewhere probably could have found that this violated his contract or grounds for a workers' compensation claim.

But Bumgarner wasn’t really serious in citing the horse thing as an inconsistency in the Giants’ handling of him; rather, he was just noting the smallest example of how the relationship between Bumgarner and the team has always contained some element of exposure to injury. Bumgarner did not utilize what might have been his greatest rhetorical weapon in his argument to participate in the Derby -- that time and again, he has taken the ball for the organization longer and more often than a lot of surgeons (and player agents) might’ve recommended.

It is probably because of that history that nobody with the Giants has raised the possibility of penalizing Bumgarner or filing some sort of grievance to recoup salary squandered during the time the pitcher will spend on the disabled list following his dirt bike accident in Colorado on Thursday. It would be incredibly shortsighted and stupid for club officials to pick a fight with Bumgarner over a few dollars, in light of how much value he has provided to the franchise. They all know his belief in his own invincibility and his willingness to plow past physical barriers (that would stop most others) is the reason why they all have 2014 championship rings.

During the 2014 Giants’ championship run, Bumgarner threw 52 2/3 innings, more than twice as many innings as any other pitcher who appeared in the playoffs and World Series that fall; he accounted for 32.9 percent of all innings the Giants pitched in the postseason. On Oct. 26, Bumgarner threw a 117-pitch complete game against the Kansas City Royals, driving San Francisco to within one victory of the title. And just three days later, Bumgarner told Bochy that he would be ready to pitch in relief in Game 7. As if there were any doubt.

Bochy made his plans for Game 7: He intended to bring Bumgarner into the game relatively early and have him work middle innings, as one of the very first options behind starter Tim Hudson. Others would be available to finish the game.

Bumgarner jogged in from the bullpen to work the bottom of the fifth inning and, as each scoreless frame passed, Bochy began to believe his ace would be able to finish the game. And so Bumgarner went back out for the ninth inning, getting the final outs. Of the 61 innings the Giants played in the World Series, Bumgarner threw 21. Throughout the postseason, he deflected any question from reporters about how he felt, insisting that he was fine.

It wasn’t until Bumgarner and Bochy embraced in the celebration that followed the last out, with both men soaked in champagne, that the left-hander finally acknowledged to his manager just how tired he was, after he had effectively hoisted the whole team on his back for a month.

Bumgarner led the National League in pitches thrown in 2016, with 3,571, amid a generation of starting pitchers that is being conditioned to believe that it’s OK to call it a day after working twice through a lineup. Only three pitchers have thrown more innings than Bumgarner in the past seven seasons: James ShieldsDavid Price and Clayton Kershaw. He has always given the Giants more than they can reasonably expect -- and far more than he’s been worth to the team.

Before the 2012 season, Bumgarner and the Giants agreed to a five-year extension that has turned out to be extremely team-friendly: In 2014, the year in which Bumgarner had the greatest postseason performance in baseball history, he made $3.75 million. In 2016, he was the lowest-paid of the Giants’ five starting pitchers at $9.75 million.

Over the winter, the Giants and Bumgarner briefly discussed a contract extension, but the organization has deferred that talk to the future, partly because of luxury tax concerns. If San Francisco had agreed to a new deal for the left-hander, a deal that more accurately reflects his true value, they probably would have been over the tax threshold. So the Giants asked Bumgarner to table that conversation until later, and as it stands today, he is tied to the team through 2019 through options and is guaranteed a total of about $12 million.

Twelve million dollars. That's it. That's a little more than what Andrew Cashner will be paid by the Rangers this year. That’s about what Kershaw will be paid for April and May of this season. It’s about 1/16th of the money the Red Sox owe to Price.

The phone call Bochy got about Bumgarner’s accident must’ve been difficult, and nobody would’ve blamed the manager if he had cussed under his breath. Riding a dirt bike in the middle of a baseball season is a terrible decision, and a choice that almost no pitchers would’ve considered. Some pitchers, in fact, will avoid doing anything with their pitching arm, to eliminate the risk.

The Giants will get more information on Bumgarner’s injury in the days ahead, and although the team announced that the pitcher suffered a Grade 1 or 2 injury to his AC joint, the lowest end of the scale, nobody really knows for sure about any lasting impact from the injury.

Bochy’s former closer Trevor Hoffman had a mid-90s fastball until he played football on a beach after the players’ strike in 1994; Hoffman recalled that when he landed on his shoulder diving for the ball, it sounded like the air going out of the tire. Hoffman never had a great fastball again and was instead forced to adapt and develop a changeup. There will probably be a measure of relief within the Giants organization when Bumgarner gets back to slinging his fastballs past hitters and posting zeroes.

It does no good for anyone in the organization to chastise him now. The damage is done, to the 2017 season, and perhaps beyond. And, as Bochy told reporters, Bumgarner feels terrible about what happened. The Giants know him, and they know that Bumgarner’s belief in his own indestructibility -- which served all of them so well for years, never more than in 2014 -- is why he and Giants are in this situation.

Around the league

Cubs take unfair shots at Thames: What was particularly surprising about how Chicago Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and pitcher John Lackey seemed to imply, in coded language, that the Brewers' Eric Thames might be benefiting from some help -- perhaps PEDs -- is that they both saw how teammate Jake Arrieta was unfairly targeted with unsubstantiated PED accusations in the past.

Thames says his plate discipline is the reason behind his tremendous success early this year, and there are statistics that support that. In 2011 and 2012, when Thames bounced from team to team, he swung at pitches out of the strike zone at a rate of about 36 percent. This season, so far: 20.8 percent. He’s swinging at strikes.

Fixing Heyward's swing: Some evaluators and pitchers believe that the root of Jason Heyward's past hitting problems are in the first movement of his left hand, when he reflexively turned his wrist inward, toward his body -- thereby locking up his movement and setting back his mechanics as he reacted to a pitch. Through his work over the winter and this spring, Heyward has seemingly eased that issue, and he is off to a good start, hitting .286, and the underlying numbers he has generated are better, as well. He has been more aggressive, swinging at a career-high 72.2 percent of pitches in the strike zone, with his swinging-strike percentage dropping to a career-low 5.6 percent and his contact rate at a career-best 88.5 percent.

Sunday Night Baseball: The Washington Nationals' Max Scherzer starts against the New York Mets' Zack Wheeler on Sunday Night Baseball (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). The pitching WAR leaders over the past six seasons:

Kershaw: 36.5

Scherzer: 28.6

Chris Sale: 27.7

Price: 26.4

Justin Verlander: 22.8

The Nationals' Adam Eaton talked Saturday about how much he enjoys playing with Bryce Harper, although he wouldn’t want to trade places with him because of Harper's fame. Harper can’t really do anything or go anywhere, Eaton mentioned, without being besieged.

"He just wants to play baseball," Eaton said.

Harper’s plate discipline has dramatically improved since last season -- he is swinging at a career-low 24.2 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. And not surprisingly, he has a staggeringly low rate of swings-and-misses: 7.2 percent.

Yankees trying to 'stick it': New York Yankees catcher Austin Romine said through a smile recently that his goal is to perfectly frame and hold Aroldis Chapman's 103 mph fastball -- in catcher’s parlance, to "stick it." With pitches that fast, catchers do well to catch the ball and hang on, like a cowboy throwing a rope around a steer’s neck.

Chase Headley of the Yankees hit the ball to the opposite field just 20 percent of the time in 2015, and this year, he is using the whole field more, hitting the ball to the opposite field 34.9 percent of the time. Headley was batting .377 going into the Yankees' game Saturday.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

Call To The Legend: Ozzie Smith told stories from his career -- his conversation with Jack Buck after Smith’s “Go Crazy homer,” positioning against Tony Gwynn, his chat with Jeff Burroughs years after he robbed the Braves slugger with a barehanded play, and his convers

by David Newton posted Apr 24 2017 10:33AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Josh Norman wasn’t sure which of his former Carolina Panthers teammates that were invited would show up for his annual celebrity basketball fundraiser on Saturday night.

As it turned out, they all did.

Including, as the Washington Redskins cornerback said with a laugh from a hallway at Providence High School, No. 89.

No. 89 is former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, a player Norman challenged – "insult" might be a better word for it -- on and off the field as a fifth-round draft pick out of little Coastal Carolina in 2012.

“But eighty-nine is not 89. Eighty-nine is 24,” Norman said of the number he gave Smith for his Starz24 Celebrity game.

That would be the same No. 24 Norman wears on the football field, the one Panthers fans fell in love with during the 2015 Super Bowl season, when Norman emerged as a household name.

“We got him right,” Norman said of Smith. “So we’re going to have a little friendly competition battle like the old days, and see what we can do with that.”

Norman and Smith share a bond now that goes beyond their time together with the Panthers. It’s their love affair with Charlotte, where Smith lives despite spending his final three NFL seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before retiring and where Norman continues to make his offseason home.

Charlotte, Norman said, will always be home for him because this is where his NFL career began, because it’s only a few hours from where he grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina.

Unlike Smith, who burned a lot of bridges with the Panthers when he was released after the 2013 season, the 29-year-old Norman won’t rule out returning here one day before his career ends.

He only has to look at this year’s free agent moves to know it can happen. Defensive end Julius Peppers (37), who spent his first eight NFL seasons with Carolina from 2002-09, signed a one-year deal to return.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (29), who spent his first five seasons (2009-13) with the Panthers, signed a four-year deal.

“Who knows,” Norman said of returning one day. “I’m not a storyteller. ... I believe the man upstairs writes mine, and if he does see Carolina in the penmanship, then it shall be. Who knows. We still got some time to play yet.”

Norman didn’t burn bridges.

“I treated everybody with respect,” he said. “I was nice to them. Everybody be the same with me. Everything will have its time when it comes up. I don’t hold grudges.”

Norman had every right to be bitter and burn bridges. He wanted to remain with the team, and thought he would be at Carolina at least through the 2016 season, when the Panthers placed the franchise tag on him.

But when he didn’t sign the tag and didn’t report for the start of offseason workouts, and when it appeared negotiations for a long-term deal wouldn’t get done, general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded the tag.

That was on April 20, 2016. Two days later, the Redskins made Norman the highest paid cornerback (five years, $75 million) in the NFL.

Was it a coincidence Saturday’s fundraiser to benefit youth programs fell on the anniversary of his new deal?

“It was fate,” Norman said. “It was just out of the blue. ... It’s kind of crazy it all came back full circle.”

That so many former teammates from the 2015 Super Bowl team made an appearance showed how strong the circle Norman was a part of was and still is.

Among them were outside linebacker Thomas Davis, running back Jonathan Stewart, safeties Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston, and cornerback Teddy Williams.

Even cornerback Bene’ Benwikere, who was cut last season after Atlanta’s Julio Jones burned the Panthers for 300 yards receiving, was here.

Norman’s career at Carolina was defined by Jones and his ability to limit his numbers. One of his best lines, when asked why he is so effective at covering the four-time Pro Bowl receiver, was, “Julio completes me.”

So don’t think Norman didn’t pay attention to what Jones did to Benwikere and the rookie corners with which the Panthers tried to replace him.

But if you think Norman took total pleasure in that or Carolina’s overall struggles without him, you’re wrong.

“That was cool to see, but it kind of sucked because you wanted to be there to help as well,” Norman said. “Mixed emotions, obviously. But they’re going to be all right.”

All was right on this night.

Davis got to wear his favorite No. 23 (he’s a big Michael Jordan fan) and jump center. He almost had a dunk, but the ball rattled out after an explosive move to the basket.

Boston got to show off his 3-point shooting prowess. Smith got to show that at 37 he’s still got the quickness to finish off a fast break with a layup.

And Norman got to show he’s still arguably the best basketball player among them, draining a 3-pointer to start his team’s scoring.

Among those in attendance was new Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who was Norman’s position coach from 2012-15.

Wilks took as much pleasure as anyone seeing all the Carolina players support Norman. He called it a testament to the culture the organization has developed.

“It just shows you the unique thing we have with the Carolina Panthers,” Wilks said. “That locker room is phenomenal. We’ve got brotherhood, and these guys come out and show that support even beyond the years when guys have moved on.

“It really shows exactly what we have there.”

Even Wilks wouldn’t rule out Norman’s return one day, after seeing Peppers and Munnerlyn return.

“You know what?” he said with a smile. “This is the National Football League, so you can never say never.”

by David Newton posted Apr 24 2017 10:27AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Josh Norman wasn’t sure which of his former Carolina Panthers teammates that were invited would show up for his annual celebrity basketball fundraiser on Saturday night.

As it turned out, they all did.

Including, as the Washington Redskins cornerback said with a laugh from a hallway at Providence High School, No. 89.

No. 89 is former Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, a player Norman challenged – "insult" might be a better word for it -- on and off the field as a fifth-round draft pick out of little Coastal Carolina in 2012.

“But eighty-nine is not 89. Eighty-nine is 24,” Norman said of the number he gave Smith for his Starz24 Celebrity game.

That would be the same No. 24 Norman wears on the football field, the one Panthers fans fell in love with during the 2015 Super Bowl season, when Norman emerged as a household name.

“We got him right,” Norman said of Smith. “So we’re going to have a little friendly competition battle like the old days, and see what we can do with that.”

Norman and Smith share a bond now that goes beyond their time together with the Panthers. It’s their love affair with Charlotte, where Smith lives despite spending his final three NFL seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before retiring and where Norman continues to make his offseason home.

Charlotte, Norman said, will always be home for him because this is where his NFL career began, because it’s only a few hours from where he grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina.

Unlike Smith, who burned a lot of bridges with the Panthers when he was released after the 2013 season, the 29-year-old Norman won’t rule out returning here one day before his career ends.

He only has to look at this year’s free agent moves to know it can happen. Defensive end Julius Peppers (37), who spent his first eight NFL seasons with Carolina from 2002-09, signed a one-year deal to return.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (29), who spent his first five seasons (2009-13) with the Panthers, signed a four-year deal.

“Who knows,” Norman said of returning one day. “I’m not a storyteller. ... I believe the man upstairs writes mine, and if he does see Carolina in the penmanship, then it shall be. Who knows. We still got some time to play yet.”

Norman didn’t burn bridges.

“I treated everybody with respect,” he said. “I was nice to them. Everybody be the same with me. Everything will have its time when it comes up. I don’t hold grudges.”

Norman had every right to be bitter and burn bridges. He wanted to remain with the team, and thought he would be at Carolina at least through the 2016 season, when the Panthers placed the franchise tag on him.

But when he didn’t sign the tag and didn’t report for the start of offseason workouts, and when it appeared negotiations for a long-term deal wouldn’t get done, general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded the tag.

That was on April 20, 2016. Two days later, the Redskins made Norman the highest paid cornerback (five years, $75 million) in the NFL.

Was it a coincidence Saturday’s fundraiser to benefit youth programs fell on the anniversary of his new deal?

“It was fate,” Norman said. “It was just out of the blue. ... It’s kind of crazy it all came back full circle.”

That so many former teammates from the 2015 Super Bowl team made an appearance showed how strong the circle Norman was a part of was and still is.

Among them were outside linebacker Thomas Davis, running back Jonathan Stewart, safeties Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston, and cornerback Teddy Williams.

Even cornerback Bene’ Benwikere, who was cut last season after Atlanta’s Julio Jones burned the Panthers for 300 yards receiving, was here.

Norman’s career at Carolina was defined by Jones and his ability to limit his numbers. One of his best lines, when asked why he is so effective at covering the four-time Pro Bowl receiver, was, “Julio completes me.”

So don’t think Norman didn’t pay attention to what Jones did to Benwikere and the rookie corners with which the Panthers tried to replace him.

But if you think Norman took total pleasure in that or Carolina’s overall struggles without him, you’re wrong.

“That was cool to see, but it kind of sucked because you wanted to be there to help as well,” Norman said. “Mixed emotions, obviously. But they’re going to be all right.”

All was right on this night.

Davis got to wear his favorite No. 23 (he’s a big Michael Jordan fan) and jump center. He almost had a dunk, but the ball rattled out after an explosive move to the basket.

Boston got to show off his 3-point shooting prowess. Smith got to show that at 37 he’s still got the quickness to finish off a fast break with a layup.

And Norman got to show he’s still arguably the best basketball player among them, draining a 3-pointer to start his team’s scoring.

Among those in attendance was new Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who was Norman’s position coach from 2012-15.

Wilks took as much pleasure as anyone seeing all the Carolina players support Norman. He called it a testament to the culture the organization has developed.

“It just shows you the unique thing we have with the Carolina Panthers,” Wilks said. “That locker room is phenomenal. We’ve got brotherhood, and these guys come out and show that support even beyond the years when guys have moved on.

“It really shows exactly what we have there.”

Even Wilks wouldn’t rule out Norman’s return one day, after seeing Peppers and Munnerlyn return.

“You know what?” he said with a smile. “This is the National Football League, so you can never say never.”

by Buster Olney posted Apr 24 2017 10:25AM

The topic was unnecessary physical risk, and Madison Bumgarner and San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy gnawed on it in friendly conversation in Bochy's office at AT&T Park last June. Bochy leaned back in the black chair at his desk, hat off, and Bumgarner sat to his left, his legs stretched out. Bumgarner really liked the idea of joining the Home Run Derby, and, as he made his case to Bochy in his North Carolina drawl, the pitcher mentioned dryly that he had once been asked by the team to ride a horse in the ceremonies leading up to the Giants’ home opener in 2015.

If the steed had somehow managed to throw Bumgarner -- and good luck finding the horse that could launch baseball's Paul Bunyan, who weighs upwards of 250 pounds -- and the pitcher had landed on his left shoulder, some really good lawyer somewhere probably could have found that this violated his contract or grounds for a workers' compensation claim.

But Bumgarner wasn’t really serious in citing the horse thing as an inconsistency in the Giants’ handling of him; rather, he was just noting the smallest example of how the relationship between Bumgarner and the team has always contained some element of exposure to injury. Bumgarner did not utilize what might have been his greatest rhetorical weapon in his argument to participate in the Derby -- that time and again, he has taken the ball for the organization longer and more often than a lot of surgeons (and player agents) might’ve recommended.

It is probably because of that history that nobody with the Giants has raised the possibility of penalizing Bumgarner or filing some sort of grievance to recoup salary squandered during the time the pitcher will spend on the disabled list following his dirt bike accident in Colorado on Thursday. It would be incredibly shortsighted and stupid for club officials to pick a fight with Bumgarner over a few dollars, in light of how much value he has provided to the franchise. They all know his belief in his own invincibility and his willingness to plow past physical barriers (that would stop most others) is the reason why they all have 2014 championship rings.

During the 2014 Giants’ championship run, Bumgarner threw 52 2/3 innings, more than twice as many innings as any other pitcher who appeared in the playoffs and World Series that fall; he accounted for 32.9 percent of all innings the Giants pitched in the postseason. On Oct. 26, Bumgarner threw a 117-pitch complete game against the Kansas City Royals, driving San Francisco to within one victory of the title. And just three days later, Bumgarner told Bochy that he would be ready to pitch in relief in Game 7. As if there were any doubt.

Bochy made his plans for Game 7: He intended to bring Bumgarner into the game relatively early and have him work middle innings, as one of the very first options behind starter Tim Hudson. Others would be available to finish the game.

Bumgarner jogged in from the bullpen to work the bottom of the fifth inning and, as each scoreless frame passed, Bochy began to believe his ace would be able to finish the game. And so Bumgarner went back out for the ninth inning, getting the final outs. Of the 61 innings the Giants played in the World Series, Bumgarner threw 21. Throughout the postseason, he deflected any question from reporters about how he felt, insisting that he was fine.

It wasn’t until Bumgarner and Bochy embraced in the celebration that followed the last out, with both men soaked in champagne, that the left-hander finally acknowledged to his manager just how tired he was, after he had effectively hoisted the whole team on his back for a month.

Bumgarner led the National League in pitches thrown in 2016, with 3,571, amid a generation of starting pitchers that is being conditioned to believe that it’s OK to call it a day after working twice through a lineup. Only three pitchers have thrown more innings than Bumgarner in the past seven seasons: James ShieldsDavid Price and Clayton Kershaw. He has always given the Giants more than they can reasonably expect -- and far more than he’s been worth to the team.

Before the 2012 season, Bumgarner and the Giants agreed to a five-year extension that has turned out to be extremely team-friendly: In 2014, the year in which Bumgarner had the greatest postseason performance in baseball history, he made $3.75 million. In 2016, he was the lowest-paid of the Giants’ five starting pitchers at $9.75 million.

Over the winter, the Giants and Bumgarner briefly discussed a contract extension, but the organization has deferred that talk to the future, partly because of luxury tax concerns. If San Francisco had agreed to a new deal for the left-hander, a deal that more accurately reflects his true value, they probably would have been over the tax threshold. So the Giants asked Bumgarner to table that conversation until later, and as it stands today, he is tied to the team through 2019 through options and is guaranteed a total of about $12 million.

Twelve million dollars. That's it. That's a little more than what Andrew Cashner will be paid by the Rangers this year. That’s about what Kershaw will be paid for April and May of this season. It’s about 1/16th of the money the Red Sox owe to Price.

The phone call Bochy got about Bumgarner’s accident must’ve been difficult, and nobody would’ve blamed the manager if he had cussed under his breath. Riding a dirt bike in the middle of a baseball season is a terrible decision, and a choice that almost no pitchers would’ve considered. Some pitchers, in fact, will avoid doing anything with their pitching arm, to eliminate the risk.

The Giants will get more information on Bumgarner’s injury in the days ahead, and although the team announced that the pitcher suffered a Grade 1 or 2 injury to his AC joint, the lowest end of the scale, nobody really knows for sure about any lasting impact from the injury.

Bochy’s former closer Trevor Hoffman had a mid-90s fastball until he played football on a beach after the players’ strike in 1994; Hoffman recalled that when he landed on his shoulder diving for the ball, it sounded like the air going out of the tire. Hoffman never had a great fastball again and was instead forced to adapt and develop a changeup. There will probably be a measure of relief within the Giants organization when Bumgarner gets back to slinging his fastballs past hitters and posting zeroes.

It does no good for anyone in the organization to chastise him now. The damage is done, to the 2017 season, and perhaps beyond. And, as Bochy told reporters, Bumgarner feels terrible about what happened. The Giants know him, and they know that Bumgarner’s belief in his own indestructibility -- which served all of them so well for years, never more than in 2014 -- is why he and Giants are in this situation.

Around the league

Cubs take unfair shots at Thames: What was particularly surprising about how Chicago Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and pitcher John Lackey seemed to imply, in coded language, that the Brewers' Eric Thames might be benefiting from some help -- perhaps PEDs -- is that they both saw how teammate Jake Arrieta was unfairly targeted with unsubstantiated PED accusations in the past.

Thames says his plate discipline is the reason behind his tremendous success early this year, and there are statistics that support that. In 2011 and 2012, when Thames bounced from team to team, he swung at pitches out of the strike zone at a rate of about 36 percent. This season, so far: 20.8 percent. He’s swinging at strikes.

Fixing Heyward's swing: Some evaluators and pitchers believe that the root of Jason Heyward's past hitting problems are in the first movement of his left hand, when he reflexively turned his wrist inward, toward his body -- thereby locking up his movement and setting back his mechanics as he reacted to a pitch. Through his work over the winter and this spring, Heyward has seemingly eased that issue, and he is off to a good start, hitting .286, and the underlying numbers he has generated are better, as well. He has been more aggressive, swinging at a career-high 72.2 percent of pitches in the strike zone, with his swinging-strike percentage dropping to a career-low 5.6 percent and his contact rate at a career-best 88.5 percent.

Sunday Night Baseball: The Washington Nationals' Max Scherzer starts against the New York Mets' Zack Wheeler on Sunday Night Baseball (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). The pitching WAR leaders over the past six seasons:

Kershaw: 36.5

Scherzer: 28.6

Chris Sale: 27.7

Price: 26.4

Justin Verlander: 22.8

The Nationals' Adam Eaton talked Saturday about how much he enjoys playing with Bryce Harper, although he wouldn’t want to trade places with him because of Harper's fame. Harper can’t really do anything or go anywhere, Eaton mentioned, without being besieged.

"He just wants to play baseball," Eaton said.

Harper’s plate discipline has dramatically improved since last season -- he is swinging at a career-low 24.2 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. And not surprisingly, he has a staggeringly low rate of swings-and-misses: 7.2 percent.

Yankees trying to 'stick it': New York Yankees catcher Austin Romine said through a smile recently that his goal is to perfectly frame and hold Aroldis Chapman's 103 mph fastball -- in catcher’s parlance, to "stick it." With pitches that fast, catchers do well to catch the ball and hang on, like a cowboy throwing a rope around a steer’s neck.

Chase Headley of the Yankees hit the ball to the opposite field just 20 percent of the time in 2015, and this year, he is using the whole field more, hitting the ball to the opposite field 34.9 percent of the time. Headley was batting .377 going into the Yankees' game Saturday.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

Call To The Legend: Ozzie Smith told stories from his career -- his conversation with Jack Buck after Smith’s “Go Crazy homer,” positioning against Tony Gwynn, his chat with Jeff Burroughs years after he robbed the Braves slugger with a barehanded play, and his convers

by Chris Low posted Apr 24 2017 10:23AM

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Basking in the coastal oasis that is the luxurious Boca Raton Resort & Club, Lane Kiffin felt a lot more like he was in football purgatory back on Jan. 9.

The newly named Florida Atlantic head coach watched helplessly from his plush room as Clemson pinned a last-second 35-31 defeat on Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship, ending the Crimson Tide's 26-game winning streak. Kiffin's television was his only outlet. He couldn't audible out of a play with one of his trademark whistles. He couldn't draw up one of his favorite plays. He couldn't tweak a formation and create the kind of mismatch that he did with regularity as Alabama's offensive coordinator.

All he could do was watch ... and agonize.

 

 

"And it became a one-play game, so of course your mind goes, 'Well, would it have made a difference [if I were there]?" Kiffin told ESPN.com.

"The hardest part was seeing [Jalen Hurts'] face, Reuben Foster, ArDarius Stewart," Kiffin added. "Some of those guys have come down here to see me since then. It was really difficult because the players at Alabama work harder and dedicate more of their life to football than anyone in America. ... So to see the look on their faces after the game was something that sticks with you."

The specter of Alabama still looms large for Kiffin, who was an integral part of the Crimson Tide's 2014-16 success, a dizzying run that included three SEC titles, a national championship and two other trips to the College Football Playoff -- with a first-year starter at quarterback each season. And yet, Kiffin was also a lightning rod for drama and controversy, culminating with Nick Saban's announcement the Monday before the title game that he was replacing Kiffin with Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. Kiffin was trying to juggle two jobs, and Saban was intent on eliminating any distractions.

Kiffin didn't help himself any leading up to the Washington game when he zinged Saban in the media, namely referencing "dog years" when describing what it was like to work for Saban and answering a question about happy moments with Saban by joking he wouldn't remember the happy moments, just the "ass-chewings."

"I got a little too loose with my mouth," said Kiffin, which wasn't the first time and probably won't be the last.

He still can't help himself, joking, "I would like to think now that I'm the head coach that the bus won't leave you anymore," referencing the two times he was left behind after postseason wins at Alabama.

It's the reason Kiffin's father, Monte, jokes that one of his primary roles as a defensive analyst on FAU's staff will be to have a roll of tape handy any time Lane is speaking to the media.

"That way, maybe I can cover up his mouth before he says something he shouldn't," Monte cracked.

To those who really know Lane Kiffin, there's a saying they use to explain some of the scenarios that have landed him in trouble over the years.

"A lot of times, it's just Lane being Lane," Monte said.

Kiffin says his mother nicknamed him "Helicopter" as a kid because he would go from room to room stirring things up. He revels in poking the bear, even if it's one who just happens to be rewriting the college football record books with four of the past eight national championships.

And while Kiffin has not kept in touch with Saban since heading to Florida Atlantic, he has brought a part of his former boss -- and his famed "process" -- to Boca.

"We joke about Coach Saban and my time there, but how dumb would I be not to copy a lot of what Nick Saban did?" Kiffin said. "He's the best head coach in college football right now, and the good thing for me is that I've had a chance to work now for Coach Saban and Pete Carroll, two guys who do it totally different, and I can combine the two and take the parts I like from both and use them here at Florida Atlantic.

"As I've said many times, there weren't a lot of people knocking on my door when Coach Saban offered me a job, so I will always be appreciative of him and having had the opportunity to work and learn under him."

"How dumb would I be not to copy a lot of what Nick Saban did?"

Lane Kiffin

Although Kiffin might have learned under Saban, nobody will ever accuse the two of them of being coaching clones. Kiffin's practices at FAU are rife with booming rap music and even a few fans and boosters watching from a tent in the center of the practice fields.

Getting into the Pentagon is easier than getting into one of Alabama's practices, which are noticeably void of any rhymes from Lil Wayne.

"It's nice to hear a little music on the practice field. That didn't happen in Tuscaloosa," said Kiffin, who was once referenced in a Lil Wayne song when Kiffin was at Tennessee.

But similar to Saban, Kiffin wanders the practice field in what is now his fourth head-coaching gig and doesn't just shadow the offense. Moreover, no detail is too small.

"Put the ball in the outside hand," he yells to one of his running backs.

He's also in the middle of special-teams drills and demands that the players do it over and over again until they get it right.

One of the staples of Saban's teams at Alabama has been head strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran running around practice (and games) with unbridled energy and passion. The players swear by Cochran, so it makes sense that Kiffin took one of Cochran's assistants, Wilson Love, with him to FAU. And just as Cochran does in Tuscaloosa, Love is all over the FAU practice field exhorting players, challenging players, even dancing with them on occasion when somebody makes a big hit or big play.

While Kiffin is heavily involved in all phases of the program, similar to Saban, he's not going to call offensive plays at FAU. Kendal Briles will be the Owls' playcaller.

"It will be a lot like what you see at Alabama with the defense there under Coach Saban," Kiffin said. "Sure, Coach Saban is involved in preparing the game plan each week, but he also realizes that he needs to be more of an overseer of the program. He lets his coaches coach. Now, as you saw on Saturdays with the two of us on the sideline, he's going to voice his opinion, a lot of times loudly. But I was the one calling plays, and it will be the same thing here with Kendal."

Kiffin's staff meetings -- featuring his father, Monte, and brother/defensive coordinator Chris -- can run long, in Saban-esque fashion, and Kiffin is quick to call out one of his assistants in front of the entire staff because a drill wasn't run the way Kiffin wants it run.

"I'm looking down there and trying to figure out what you're doing. If you're going to change it up, run it by me," Kiffin says.

One thing Kiffin won't do is put a timetable on how long it will take to build a winner at FAU. He likes his staff, likes his first recruiting class and is especially heartened that FAU president Dr. John Kelly spent 28 years at Clemson and understands what a successful football program can do for an entire university.

"There's not a day that I come to work that I'm thinking about money or that I'm making less money than I've made in the business in the last 10 years," said Kiffin, whose five-year deal at FAU will pay him $950,000 per year. "Look at this place -- the weather, the people, the possibilities. I drive to work every day thinking about what's in front of us here at Florida Atlantic, not what's behind us."

Now 41, Kiffin acknowledges that too much might have come too soon for him in the way of marquee head-coaching opportunities. After all, he was named the coach of the Oakland Raiders and then the coach at Tennessee before he'd even turned 35.

"Sometimes, you need to learn from your mistakes," Kiffin said. "I guess we kind of went backward. Usually, you start and move your way up as head coach and you make your mistakes where no one really sees them, but we made those mistakes at an early stage and on a national stage. It is what it is, but at the same time, there are things that you are going to change, too, to get better as a head coach.

"But we are not going to change who we are, either."

In other words, Lane is still going to be Lane, just a somewhat more "process"-ed version.

by David Newton posted Apr 14 2017 2:38PM

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Just off Bull Street, surrounded by remnants of the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum that was built in 1822, is a grand year-old baseball stadium named Spirit Communications Park.

Several buildings on these 181 acres in the heart of the state capital are still standing, though windows are broken or boarded up. Others have been bulldozed, leaving piles of rubble that create a somewhat surreal, somewhat spooky scene as the sun sets.

 

 

It is here on Thursday night that former University of Florida star and NFL failure Tim Tebow will begin what he hopes is his journey to the major leagues as a member of the Class A Columbia Fireflies.

It is here that the 29-year-old Heisman Trophy quarterback-turned-outfielder is being questioned for doing what Michael Jordan did in 1993-94, when he pursued a baseball career between his six NBA titles.

It is here that TebowMania has begun only a few miles from the University of South Carolina campus that a few days ago was abuzz with Final Four fever.

It is here, in the South Atlantic League, that Tebow finds comfort in his decision to chase a dream.

He knows there are skeptics, but he's been faced with those before.

"As an athlete, you always try to use negativity from outside sources as fuel, but at the same time I try to not even listen to it," Tebow said Sunday as he prepared for the opener against the Augusta GreenJackets. "I love what I do, and I'm blessed to be able to play a game that I started playing when I was 4 years old."

The circus is in town

During the first part of Tuesday's media day, Tebow stayed back in the clubhouse as teammates met with reporters. It was a move, in part, to let others get the attention he's been grabbing and, in part, to keep his focus on baseball, not the circus he knew was coming.

Tebow knows how it works, having been in front of the camera as a star and on camera as an analyst and personality for ESPN, mainly on the SEC Network. He knows his job here isn't to be good on camera but to be good on the field.

"It's about bringing that same work ethic, regardless of the situation, regardless of the hype," Tebow said. "It's not about the one day. It's about the journey, the process. It's keeping everything in perspective most of the time."

In August, Tebow announced he had been training for a sport he hadn't played full time since 2005. That process became more real when the quarterback who won two national championships at Florida (2006, 2008) and the Heisman Trophy in 2007 signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets in September, eight days after his workout. The Mets sent Tebow to the Arizona Fall League, then invited him to spring training.

That ultimately led Tebow to Columbia, where most people know him as the quarterback who went 4-0 against their beloved Gamecocks. And it brought the media circus. It's nothing like the one that surrounded Jordan in the mid-'90s, but Tebow has created quite a buzz for the Fireflies, now in their second season in Columbia.

"The Tebow name carries a lot of weight," said Kevin Fitzgerald, the team's director of media relations. "I'm excited for him to get out there so we can move past the introduction of him being here and that celebrity aspect of it, and then it gets just to baseball."

And baseball, Tebow says, is what it's all about right now.

"As an athlete you have to live with tunnel vision," he said. "You can't step back and look at the big picture and all these hypotheticals that people want to write about. They'll look at Thursday night, and they'll sensationalize it, and regardless of what happens, it'll be the best night of all time or the worst night of all time. But for me, it's just going to be one day."

More than baseball

The more than 4,000 fans who showed for Sunday's autograph session were filtering out of the stadium when Tebow noticed a familiar face among the crowd.

It was a girl he met years ago at one of his foundation events. She had driven more than seven and a half hours just to give Tebow a 5-by-7 inch photo she'd taken with him. She didn't leave disappointed.

"She just hands him the picture and gives him a hug," said Fireflies president John Katz. "When you've got someone like that who can impact people's lives to the point they're willing to get in the car seven and a half hours with no agenda other than handing him a picture, that's special. This is a guy you hope your kids aspire to be."

There was no official count on how many fans came just to see Tebow. Let's say a lot.

"The Tebow name carries a lot of weight. I'm excited for him to get out there so we can move past the introduction of him being here and that celebrity aspect of it and then it gets just to baseball."

Kevin Fitzgerald, Columbia Fireflies director of media relations

Many were dressed in Florida T-shirts and jerseys. Some wore Tebow's jersey from his brief NFL career with the Denver Broncos, where in 2011 he threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns in a playoff win against Pittsburgh.

"What was really cool was when they realized he was in the batting cage," Fitzgerald said. "You should have heard the cheers."

Tebow acknowledged the attention, occasionally waving or tipping his cap. He understands, as he has throughout his career, that what he does isn't all about competing. He wants to touch lives. That's why he sought out the girl with the photo.

"It's special because it transcends the game of baseball," Tebow said. "That's something I've always tried to do is bring something that means more than just playing football or baseball."

Past meets future

South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium, where more than 80,000 fans gather on football Saturdays if the team is doing well, sits four miles from Spirit Communications Field. It was there, on Nov. 10, 2007, that Tebow, a college sophomore, launched his Heisman Trophy campaign. He rushed for 120 yards and five touchdowns and threw for 304 yards and two more scores.

"I remember having a lot of fun," Tebow said with a smile. "I love that stadium, actually. I think it's one of the more fun, underrated stadiums out there. That place gets rowdy, especially that right end zone."

Fireflies pitching coach Jonathan Hurst, a native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, wasn't a Tebow fan when the quarterback was breaking his garnet-and-black Gamecock heart. He's a fan now.

So is Fireflies rookie outfielder Gene Cone, who grew up in Columbia and played baseball for the Gamecocks.

"He's a tough guy not to like," Cone said. "I don't see any problem with the Gamecocks liking him."

Not a distraction

Tebow T-shirts are flying off the shelves in Columbia. David Newton/ESPN

Fireflies manager Jose Leger didn't know much, if anything, about Tebow before he learned the football icon was on his roster the last week of spring training. So he turned to Google.

"Being from the Dominican Republic, I'm not a big football fan," Leger said.

But he's now a big Tebow fan. He marveled Sunday as Tebow addressed the media with an ease and sense of command. He believes Tebow will help his younger players with the pressure of handling expectations -- and disappointments.

There's not much Tebow hasn't experienced in sports. He even wrote a book, "Shaken," in which he shared his faith and journey, his successes and disappointments.

"Obviously, I'm new to baseball, but I've been competing for a long time, and I've been in a lot of big situations," Tebow said. "To be able to help younger guys when they think going 0-for-4 is the end of the world or 3-for-3 is best day ever, you can share those experiences and encourage them and build them up and inspire them the best you can."

"He could have gone after the money, changed positions. That's not what he wanted. Now he wants to be a major league baseball player, and honestly, I don't know if anyone is going to stand in the way of him."

Columbia Fireflies president John Katz

Tebow's baseball journey has been one of struggles. He batted .148 with eight strikeouts in 27 at-bats during spring training. He was the only player in the Mets organization to play in at least eight spring training games without scoring a run.

But that was mostly against players with experience at levels above Class A. Leger has seen a player with good pop in the bat and solid skills in the field.

Katz, the director of media relations for the Carolina Mudcats during Jordan's baseball experience, said Tebow is at a level more "appropriate for his skills" than Jordan was when assigned to the Double-A Birmingham Barons.

Tebow will play a lot with only four outfielders on the roster. He'll start in left field Thursday night.

"Giving him that chance to be successful and putting him at this level is really the right place to be," Katz said.

And while the media focus has been on Tebow, Leger isn't worried.

"A lot of questions, yes," he said. "But a distraction? Not at all. ... We're pushing for him to get to the next level, and hopefully getting him to pursue his dream of getting to the big leagues."

Hot commodity

Matt Strader, who manages the Fireflies' team store, can't talk specific numbers as it pertains to the sale of Tebow merchandise.

"Let's just say it's been incredible," he said. "We've definitely had to reorder some things to keep up with stock. Online we ran out the first seven hours or so." The scene on opening night is expected to be incredible, as well. The more than 7,000 seats and standing room area are expected to be packed. A team conference room has been turned into an auxiliary media room.

"We've been working hard and late hours, but nobody is complaining about it," Fitzgerald said.

Tebow doesn't know exactly what to expect. He's still getting used to the subtle differences between baseball and football, beginning with being prepared on every play even though you may go several innings without having a ball hit toward you. In football, Tebow was always at the center of the action.

He also knows that while waiting for his moment, there may be boobirds in the crowd. No worries there.

"When you go to Death Valley to play LSU, you pretty much hear everything, so ... ''

Katz has read Tebow's book. He's heard Tebow talk about turning down opportunities to play for other NFL teams at a different position because he wanted to be a quarterback. He's confident Tebow can handle his new adventure.

"He could have gone after the money, changed positions," Katz said. "That's not what he wanted. Now he wants to be a major league baseball player, and honestly, I don't know if anyone is going to stand in the way of him."

by Buster Olney posted Apr 14 2017 2:34PM

About a decade ago, teams began to ignore more than a century of "That's The Way It’s Always Been Done" defensive doctrine and instead focus on an elementary idea: What is the most advantageous placement of our seven position players?

The initial success of the Tampa Bay Rays and other teams in shifting defenders around the infield is now universally copied. What seemed like mad-scientist stuff back then now seems entirely routine.

It’s possible that the extra layer of analysis could soon extend into the outfield with some teams. Some evaluators have mulled the concept of using a four-man outfield under certain circumstances as a way of reducing the odds of big damage. More and more hitters and coaches have focused on developing swing mechanics of getting the ball in the air, and the addition of one more fielder to the outfield might be increasingly considered.

"The more that I think about it," one evaluator said, "the more that I think it can make sense."

Adding a fourth outfielder in certain situations could be the next advantage teams seek. Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire

First and foremost -- and quite obviously -- the hitter would have to have demonstrated a tendency to generate fly balls to his pull side. Think about someone such as Greg Bird of the New York Yankees, whose rate of ground balls to fly balls was 0.52 in 2015, the highest of any player with at least 170 plate appearances that season. Or maybe the Minnesota Twins' Brian Dozier, who hits the ball in the air a lot and has the highest rate of pulling the ball the past two seasons.

The pitcher would have to be someone who might be more apt to induce fly balls. Probably never someone such as Marcus Stroman, who led the majors in ground ball percentage last year (60.1 percent), but more like Marco Estrada, who had the third-highest fly ball rate, at 48.2 percent.

The game situation would have to be right: mostly with two outs, some evaluators mentioned, when the odds of an extended rally are greatly diminished. If a slow, lumbering slugger opted to cut down on his swing to single through an open infield, rather than swing big, that could be a plus for the defense.

One possible example: If the right-handed hitting Dozier came to the plate with two outs, a team could shift an infielder to the outfield, perhaps with the left fielder playing closer to the foul line, the center moved to deep left-center, the right fielder now moved to center, and the infielder -- theoretically the least adept of the four in the outfield -- in right field, where Dozier is least likely to hit the ball.

You’d have to have the right personnel to make it more palatable for the defense, as one evaluator noted. The Chicago Cubs have great options to add a fourth outfielder from play to play because of the experience of Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant in the infield and outfield. On the other hand, the Twins might see less benefit in shifting Miguel Sano out of the infield in specific situations.

Placing the fielders in the spots where they most likely could catch the ball would be a priority, but the shift to four in the outfield could pressure hitters out of an emotional comfort zone. The Cubs' Joe Maddon has given voice to this, noting that every time you put in front of a hitter something he hasn't seen before, you can get into his head -- and that can serve the interests of the pitcher even before he throws a pitch.

A four-man outfield might also compel a slugger such as Bird or Dozier to make a choice. The hitter can alter his swing in an attempt to take advantage of the enormous spaces that would open up in a three-man infield, but in doing so, he would sacrifice the opportunity to do what hitters are increasingly focused on: driving the ball into the air for big damage.

 

"If you get a slugger to try to slap a single through the infield, he’s probably doing you a favor," one evaluator said. "Would you want David Ortiz trying to hit a single in the ninth inning against you rather than trying to hit a homer? Of course."

Late in close games, teams will often position their corner infielders on the lines and back up their outfielders closer to the fences in what is commonly known as a no-doubles defense. The use of a four-man outfield -- against boppers who mostly hit fly balls -- could be a similar weapon, especially with two outs.

When Maddon managed the Rays, he used a four-man outfield against Ortiz and Jim Thome. The concept has mostly been dormant since then, but it's possible that it'll be revitalized at a ballpark near you.

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