Column: Goat Ropings and Rodeos

On May 20, 2010, the Atlanta Braves overcame a 9-3 deficit in the ninth inning to beat the Cincinnati Reds 10-9, an incredible comeback capped by a pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam by journeyman backup infielder Brooks Conrad.

Longtime Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson said of the comeback “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Sunday, eight years to the day after Conrad’s memorable hit, the 2018 edition of the Braves came back in similar fashion, using a six-run ninth inning to beat the Miami Marlins, by an identical score of 10-9.

This comeback was just as amazing as the one eight years earlier, if not more so; this one came without the benefit of a single extra-base hit, as the Braves methodically chopped away at the Marlins lead — down to their last strike 10 times — before finally winning on a bullet down the left-field line by Dansby Swanson.

Swanson’s turn as the hero was nearly as unlikely as Conrad’s — it was Swanson’s first hit since missing 15 games with a wrist injury.

After watching the Braves finish off the improbable victory on Sunday, I said to myself: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

(Ok, I’ve been to one rodeo, and haven’t been to a goat roping. But you get the point.)

But while the comeback was incredible, some of the comments made by the team afterward were perhaps even more telling about the makeup of this Braves team.

“I almost expect them to do it,” said manager Brian Snitker. “Down six in the bottom of the fifth, I felt good. I really did. I thought, ‘these guys have a lot of time to go to work here.’”

“It just shows the belief and pedigree in this team that we have this much belief in each other,” said Freddie Freeman. “It’s fun to be a part of. When you have everybody bought in to play like that, it’s truly amazing what can happen.”

After rebuilding seasons of 95, 93 and 90 losses the last three years, the Braves are back — they sit at 29-18, holding the best record in the National League and a 1 1/2 game lead in the NL East. Atlanta, the state of Georgia and the whole southeast (“Braves Country”) has a team to be excited about again.

I wasn’t around for the “worst-to-first” season of 1991, in which the Braves reached the World Series — their first since moving to Atlanta — after three straight last-place finishes in their division. I’ve always wondered how thrilling that experience must have been like for the Braves and their fans.

Perhaps this season is providing a taste of that — and hopefully, like 1991, the thrills will continue all the way into October.

Going back to those rodeos, the Braves are sitting on a bull named “First Place,” something very few expected when the season began eight weeks ago.

It’s still early — if the 162-game schedule is the fabled “eight-second ride,” we’re a little over two seconds in. Some say the Braves, as young as they are, are sure to fall off the bull before the eight seconds is up.

But given their knack for comebacks, their will and determination, and what appears from a distance to be a great team chemistry, I like their chances.

That bull is sure to try and throw the Braves off — every team goes through plenty of adversity over the course of 162 games that, if they’re not ready for it, can throw them — but I have a feeling that when the eight seconds is up, the Braves could very well be the last ones standing and advance into the goat roping known as the postseason.

And if it happens, I’ll be the first to say: “I’ve been to two goat ropings and three rodeos, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”

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Column: Waiting on Acuña The Right Move for Braves

Ronald Acuña, the Atlanta Braves outfield prospect who is the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, has been the talk of Braves spring training since the beginning of camp, tearing up the Grapefruit League and showing why there’s so much hype around him.

But on Monday, new Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos reassigned Acuña to minor-league camp, meaning he will start the season in the minors at AAA Gwinnett — and it’s a good decision by the Braves front office.

Why is it the right move for the Braves to send to the minors a player who is playing as well as anyone this spring and has proven he is ready for the major leagues? Because given the current MLB rules regarding service time and arbitration, this will actually benefit the team long-term.

In the current collective bargaining rules between the MLB and the MLB Players Association, a full season of service time is 172 days, even though the MLB’s regular season is 186 days long. As a result, even if Acuña (or anyone else) plays in the majors for 171 days in 2018, it does not count as a full year of service time and the Braves will have an extra year of contractual control in his arbitration years.

If Acuña is not called up to the major leagues before April 13, he will be a free agent after the 2024 season; were he on the Opening Day roster, he would be a free agent after 2023.

Given the opportunity to keep a player of Acuña’s talent an additional year in the prime of his career, at only the expense of two weeks out of his rookie season, why wouldn’t the Braves keep him at Gwinnett for those two weeks? Put another way, 162 games of Acuña at age 26 is worth losing 12 games of his age-20 season.

This is especially true for a club in the Braves position. The Braves’ rebuild, which began after the 2014 season and has been rooted in building a stellar farm system, has them positioned for sustained success in the coming years, but they are still likely a year away from legitimately contending, barring a surprise 2018.

A .500 season is a fair goal this year; therefore, even if they lose a game in the first two weeks that they might have won with Acuña on the roster (which, by the way, there’s no way to definitively measure), that game will likely not cost them a division title or a spot in the postseason.

This concept is not new in MLB — the Cubs did this in 2015 with Kris Bryant, who was called up on April 17 and proceeded to win Rookie of the Year in 2015 and MVP in 2016.

Like Bryant three years ago, Acuña has had a terrific spring, hitting .432 with a .519 on-base percentage and a .727 slugging percentage, with four homers and 11 RBIs.

The strong spring is an extension of his strong 2017 season across three levels of the minors, where he actually improved statistically at each level, totaling a .325 average with a .896 OPS. Acuña was also the MVP of the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.

Among those who have seen him play, there is little doubt Acuña is a legitimate five-tool talent with the ability to become a major league star. And while it would be nice for Braves fans, and for the game in general, if he were on the Braves’ Opening Day roster, to me his special talent level and potential further solidify that this is the right move.

A small faction of Braves fans are frustrated at the team’s decision to keep their Acuña in the minors to start the season.

But if this works out like most think it will — if he is, in fact, able to live up to the hype — those same fans will be thanking management when Acuña is still in left field at SunTrust Park on Opening Day 2024 for the World Series favorite Atlanta Braves.

Column: An Unexciting Super Bowl Sunday

Super Bowl LII is tonight, but I’m not excited.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still watch — it’s the Super Bowl after all — but I’m the least excited I have ever been on any Super Bowl Sunday since I started watching them 14 years ago.

A big part of the reason dates back to my maiden Super Bowl, the 38th one in 2004, when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers, birthing a distaste for the Patriots that has grown ever since.

The principals from that 2003 team are still around in quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Brady, even at 40, is as good as ever, taking home his third NFL MVP Award at last night’s NFL Honors and continuing to build his case that he may be objectively the best player to ever play the game.

Now, as the Patriots play their third Super Bowl in four years and their eighth in 17, it’s hard for me to be excited about watching the same old thing, especially since they are favored to win another Lombardi Trophy. If they do, they would have won each of those three appearances in the last four years and six of their eight since 2001.

Depending on who from Las Vegas you read, the Patriots are between four- and five-point favorites, although I think they’re even heavier favorites than that, given that they’ve been here before and seem to be able to come back from anything (see: multiple Super Bowl comebacks, this year’s AFC Championship Game, etc.).

They are facing an upstart Philadelphia Eagles team which has come from nowhere to get here. They posted a 13-3 regular season, primarily with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, then won their two NFC playoff games, with backup signal-caller Nick Foles under center after Wentz’s torn ACL cost him the season.

It’s cool to see a team that has been down recently — before this season they had one playoff appearance in the last six years, which ended in the first round — make this run to the Super Bowl.

The Eagles have relished the underdog role this postseason, as without Wentz they were underdogs to both the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.

But neither one of those games were against the mighty Patriots, the “evil empire” if you will, who are in the midst of the greatest sustained run of excellence in NFL history, dating back to Brady’s first season and Belichick’s second in 2001. This run includes a 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

As such, I am mentally preparing myself for the disappointment of another Patriots title tonight, even while hoping that my forecast is incorrect.

Perhaps it will be; eight straight MVPs to play in the Super Bowl have lost, including Brady 10 years ago in the Super Bowl XLII classic against a Giants team that was far heavier underdogs than tonight’s Eagles.

But by expecting Brady to end that trend before the game even starts, I’m hoping to dampen the disappointment level around 10 p.m. tonight when the Patriots are inevitably celebrating, again.

Oh well. It’s almost baseball season.

 

Prediction: Patriots 28, Eagles 20

Column: MLB Free Agency Unusually Slow This Winter

Forget the hypothetical of “what would it be like to run an MLB team” — this year I’m actually going to do it. All I need is a couple hundred million dollars and the cooperation of MLB to allow me to start an expansion team less than two months before Opening Day.

With any luck, by the first week of November I’ll be lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy as a World Series champion.

How am I going to do this, you ask? I’ll simply sign a team of current free agents, and that team will be so deep and talented that they’ll win it all this fall.

***

Of course I’m kidding about starting a team, but the fact is, even just two weeks from Spring Training, the MLB free agent market has moved so slow this winter that there still remain enough quality free agents on the market that a hypothetical team of them could win the World Series.

If you’re skeptical, check out this potential roster:

Catchers: A.J. Ellis, Jonathan Lucroy
Infielders: Todd Frazier, J.J. Hardy, Eric Hosmer, Logan Morrison, Mike Moustakas, Brandon Phillips, Neil Walker
Outfielders: Jose Bautista, Carlos Gonzalez, Jon Jay, J.D. Martinez
Starting Pitchers: Jake Arrieta, Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb, Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn
Relief Pitchers: Jeanmar Gomez, Jason Grilli, Greg Holland, Trevor Rosenthal, Koji Uehara, Tony Watson, Tom Wilhelmsen

Every position has an All-Star-caliber player on the board, with all except catcher also featuring incredible depth on a hypothetical team.

Having this many high-quality free agents available on Feb. 2 seems unprecedented (with the exception of the strike offseason of 1994-95), and due to the high volume of unsigned players, the MLB Players Association is considering running a Spring Training camp for these players to attend until they sign, and has even discussed a potential work stoppage in protest of the high number of unsigned players (more on that later).

Looking closely at the current MLB landscape, there are reasons for this offseason’s historically-slow market.

With the recent success of the Cubs and Astros, winning the last two World Series as the dividend of their massive rebuilding projects, more teams are following that model, going all-in on rebuilding — some would even call it tanking — trying to win later by building up the talent in their farm system at the expense of the current success of the major league club.

Because of this, more teams than ever are uninterested in spending the millions of dollars it takes to sign free agents. Outspoken agent Scott Boras pointed this out to The Athletic a week ago, saying “We have to get rid of the noncompetitive cancer… that is destructive to our sport because it has removed one-third of the competition.”

Those comments are quite stern, and should be taken with at least a moderate grain of salt since Boras is always brash, and here is venting frustration that his players are not yet signed. But he may have actually been under-selling the number of teams opting not to compete in the free agent market — according to Jayson Stark, 13 of the 30 MLB teams have not signed a position player to a major-league contract this offseason.

Another factor, and one less discussed than the number of teams rebuilding, is the absolutely loaded free agent class coming next winter (Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson,  Manny Machado, Charlie Blackmon, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are just the headliners, with many others also set to be free agents).

With a historically-good group set to be free agents next winter, it is entirely possible that teams are consciously not spending money now to keep funds available to offer big contracts to major players this time next year.

Unfortunately, these factors have combined to negatively impact the current free agents listed in the hypothetical team above and others, as it is February and they still don’t know where they will play in the 2018 season and beyond.

The possibility of a work stoppage by the MLBPA has reportedly been discussed, although it’s unknown how realistic that possibility actually is. Such a move would certainly not be popular among fans (See: 1994 MLB strike), but certainly is not unprecedented — remember, the first time MLB and the MLBPA went through a round of collective bargaining negotiations without a work stoppage was not until 2002.

So maybe that expansion team full of current free agents isn’t such a bad idea. If it prevents a work stoppage, and thus a black eye on baseball, it may be priceless.

Column: A Gamecock Embarrassment

I’ve followed South Carolina football closely since moving to the state in 2009.

In that time, the Gamecocks have certainly had their share of ups and downs, but I can’t recall any game as embarrassing for the Gamecocks program as Saturday’s rivalry-game loss to Clemson.

I’m not talking about the score. Sure, the 34-10 score wasn’t the result what the Gamecocks and their fans were looking for, but we all knew going into the game that Clemson was the better team, and Gamecock fans were hoping their team would play a strong game and have a chance to shock the world. That didn’t happen, and the Tigers dominated, so the Gamecocks will move on to the next one.

But in the process of watching their team lose a fourth straight game in the Palmetto Bowl series, some of the Gamecock fans showed a complete lack of class and respect.

After a bad call against the Gamecocks in the middle stages of the second quarter, some fans threw trash on the field in protest. They continued throwing trash — some of it aimed at Clemson players — after additional penalties, or any time Clemson did something good for the duration of the half. Furthermore, it was reported that things had been thrown at Clemson personnel before the game even started, during pregame warmups.

“That’s an embarrassment,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN at halftime. “These people are better than that. And it’s just a few people here — that’s not a majority of these South Carolina people. That’s an embarrassing situation right there. That’s how somebody gets hurt.”

I agree with Swinney — the lack of character shown by this faction of Gamecock fans is appalling. There is no excuse for this behavior, plain and simple. It is classless, disrespectful, and most importantly, it’s dangerous.

I have been to my share of live sporting events as a fan. I’ve seen my team of choice be dominated, and occasionally disagreed with calls by the officials. I’m don’t always react perfectly calmly — but the thought of showing my displeasure by throwing something on the field has never even remotely crossed my mind.

Yet the Gamecock fans not only did this, but did it multiple times, even after being asked not to by the stadium’s public address announcer — an announcement which was reportedly booed.

The result is an embarrassment for the rest of the fan base, on top of the disappointment for the team playing their worst game of the season in its biggest.

This was more embarrassing for the Gamecock program than losing 56-10 in the program’s only SEC Championship Game appearance. It was more embarrassing than consistently being unable to beat Kentucky.

This was even more embarrassing than losing to The Citadel during the 3-9 debacle of 2015.

In each of those circumstances, the on-field result was objectively bad for the Gamecocks. But Saturday night, it was the unacceptable behavior of a few fans that was objectively bad, and put a blemish on the reputation of a loyal, enthusiastic fan base.

As a result, this embarrassment is worse than it would be for any on-field result, and will last longer than the disappointment of the blowout loss, too.

Column: Finding Inspiration From a Winless Team

Today marks one month since I began working as sports and education reporter at The Clayton Tribune in Clayton, Ga.

Over the last month, I’ve grown comfortable with the job and the area, and I’ve enjoyed the stories I’ve covered and the people I’ve met.

But I’ll be honest: for the first few days, I was internally a nervous, anxious wreck.

Learning the duties of the job was almost overwhelming, while at the same time the logistical side of moving to another state and being as far away from home as I’d ever been was hanging heavily over my head.

But things changed when I found inspiration from where I least expected it: the winless Rabun County High School softball team.

On Thursday, Sept. 21, one week after I started, I went to cover their senior night game against Monticello. I had covered two of the team’s games earlier in the week, which they had lost 11-0 and 20-1. I expected more of the same on this night, especially when the Lady Cats fell behind 10-0.

In the bottom of the third, however, the team fought back. They battled, scratching and clawing for runs. The effort that coach Danette Holcombe said was missing two nights earlier was back, even though they were down big.

They got frustrated with a blatantly bad call, but channeled that emotion productively and scored five runs. Even as they still trailed by five, they were fired up as if they had tied the game.

The rest of the game had the feel of a tight game, even though the Lady Cats never got closer than five runs and eventually lost 11-6.

I was impressed how hard the team had played, how much emotion they had shown, and how genuinely they cared in a situation where many teams would have simply mailed it in. After the game, the players were disappointed they had lost, but Holcombe was, rightfully, proud of their effort.

The team honored its five seniors, then set up for a pizza party as part of their senior night celebration.

There’s no way they could have known this, but after witnessing the team’s spirit in spite of their circumstances, I was inspired by them. I was less anxious than before, and felt more at home.

My appetite hadn’t been good for the whole week before due to nerves and anxiousness–and if you know me, you know that’s unusual–but it was back. My plan of leftovers was scrapped and, prompted by the Lady Cats, I went out and got some pizza of my own.

The athletic teams of Rabun County High School are doing some amazing things this fall. The football team is undefeated, and the volleyball team hosts their state playoff opener on Tuesday after winning the area championship.

The softball team didn’t win a game this season, but they did accomplish something.

They helped a young journalist feel better acclimated to his new home, and for me that was a victory in itself.

 

For more coverage of Rabun County High School athletics, subscribe to The Clayton Tribune or visit theclaytontribune.com.

Column: Don’t Mourn for Pitino

Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino was placed on unpaid leave on Wednesday (with the expectation that he will be fired once his contractually-required 10-day notice expires) after the Cardinals program was among several implicated by an FBI investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball.

Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach with great on-court success at multiple stops throughout his career, but that has all come to a very blunt ending.

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Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino, who was placed on unpaid leave on Wednesday. (Bradjward/Flickr)

Yet there’s no need to mourn for the legacy Pitino has lost, as his impending termination is the end of a long, winding and, to be frank, disgraceful road that got him here.

Yes, Pitino is the only coach to lead two different schools to national championships, winning them in 1996 at Kentucky and 2013 at Louisville.

Yes, he has seven Final Four appearances, and is the only coach to take three schools to the Final Four, also doing so at Providence.

Yes, he has 12 conference tournament championships (one at Boston University, five at Kentucky, six at Louisville), and been to 21 NCAA Tournaments, including 19 of the last 21 years his team was eligible.

Yes, Pitino has 770 collegiate wins, and may have 900 if not for six seasons as an NBA coach with the New York Knicks, who he took to the playoffs twice, and the Boston Celtics.

But with the revelation of the scandal that has brought Pitino’s career to a crashing end, real questions exist about Pitino’s on-court accomplishments, as the legitimacy of his players, their amateur status and their reasons for coming to Louisville (or Kentucky, Providence or Boston University) is now under a black cloud of doubt.

The FBI alleges that the family of a highly-ranked recruit (the overwhelming consensus is that the player, unnamed in the FBI report, is Louisville commit Brian Bowen) agreed to be paid $100,000 by Adidas executives–who were working in conjunction with a Louisville assistant coach–for the recruit play at Louisville. As part of the agreement, the recruit would represent Adidas when he turned professional.

This scandal reaches far beyond Louisville, as 10 individuals, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested in the case on Tuesday. But it’s Pitino who has the highest profile of anyone implicated in this case, even as he was not directly named in the FBI report (though he reportedly was listed as “Coach 2”).

Pitino was already suspended for five games this coming season as the result of his program’s previous scandal, in which former assistant coach Andre McGee had paid for the services of prostitutes and strippers for players in the team dormitory.

The program self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2015-16 season, and Pitino was suspended by the NCAA for “lack of institutional control.”

Pitino has also admitted to an extramarital sexual encounter in 2003, in which he impregnated his mistress and paid for her abortion.

In each previous case, Pitino’s job has seemed bulletproof. He downplayed both his affair and the escorts scandal, and claimed ignorance regarding the escorts.

With Pitino’s habitual refusal to accept any responsibility, and the pattern of athletic director Tom Jurich–who was also fired–releasing a passive statement of support (which he’s also done in regards to the football program’s issues), I assumed we would see the same movie this week, and Pitino would be pacing the sidelines of the KFC Yum! Center this winter.

Yet this scandal, which figures to bring down more than just Pitino over the coming months, finally ousted a man who could have, and should have, been out of college basketball years ago.

From purely an on-the-court perspective, Rick Pitino can legitimately say he has had a good career.

But don’t shed a tear for Pitino’s career coming to an end the way it did.

He’s done plenty to deserve this.