Hold on to your Grapefruits, it’s time for pitchers and catchers


The Philadelphia Phillies’ unassuming Spring Training home in Clearwater, Florida.Photo: Getty ImagesSpring training starts this week, with pitchers and catchers day arriving on Wednesday for eight teams, and the rest of the majors getting going on Thursday or Friday. Hopefully, this year’s ramp-up to the season will go more smoothly than 2020, when the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues had to shut down and all of baseball went on pause until summer.With coronavirus anything but under control in Florida and Arizona, the next month and a half are going to be a nervy time, at best. But there’s also a lot to wonder about aside from the pandemic as baseball gets ready for the 2021 campaign.The biggest question, one that faces all teams, is still pandemic-related. After a shortened season last year and having calendars thrown off in general, how will players’ health hold up? Lance Lynn led the major leagues last year with 84 innings pitched. Nobody had more plate appearances than Marcell Ozuna’s 267. The issue this season may be players hitting a wall in summer as they extend well past where they were a year ago, but players also will be showing up for spring training in different shape than they have in past years, because the recovery from last year was different. It won’t be a surprise at all to see a lot of early injuries, particularly with pitchers. You just never know who it’ll be.For the moment, at least, you know who it won’t be, because several key free agents remained unsigned, including Jackie Bradley Jr., Brett Gardner, Jake Odorizzi, Trevor Rosenthal, and Taijuan Walker.Justin Turner only over the weekend agreed to a deal to bring his infectious personality back to the Dodgers, who also added Trevor Bauer, and now we’ll all see if he can get through spring training and manage to avoid alienating his teammates and embarrassing himself and the organization before ever throwing a pitch in home whites at Chavez Ravine.G/O Media may get a commissionGenerally, the start of spring training is supposed to be as optimistic as it gets, but that’s not the case everywhere, especially with teams that have actively made themselves worse over the winter, like the Cubs and Rockies. Once they get to camp, how invested will players like Kris Bryant and Trevor Story be for clubs that aren’t doing everything they can to win? How quickly, if at all, do situations move from trying to make the best of things to actively seeking a way out via trade?And when it comes to bad feelings, will they extend across the exhibition fields? We have seen brawls in spring training before, both as a result of previous seasons’ bitterness and from happenings in the tuneup games themselves. This year, to reduce travel amid the pandemic (as if taking a chartered bus across Florida would be the straw to break the camel’s back on this whole thing), the spring training schedule has been rearranged into geographical pods. The Red Sox, for instance, will only face Atlanta, Baltimore, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay during Grapefruit League action, as part of the southwest Florida group.Best to keep cool heads, though, because another impact of the pandemic is that MLB’s safety protocols call for stern punishment for anyone involved in physical contact in a dispute. Even umpires are supposed to be given six feet of distance. And keep your masks on, everybody. There’s a long season ahead. .

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The Makur Maker experiment at Howard failed, but, that’s no reason to start ignoring HBCU sports again


Makur MakerPhoto: APIt was never going to work. Not in a million years.From the moment that Makur Maker made history last year by choosing Howard over the top college hoops programs in the country, becoming the highest-rated college basketball prospect to choose an HBCU since ESPN’s recruiting database started in 2007, it was destined to be a failure. The Bison were coming off a 4-29 season, head coach Kenny Blakeney was only in his second year, and the program hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1992.Those who looked at the facts always understood that this was going to be a bad marriage. Howard’s program wasn’t established enough to handle the immediate expectations, while Maker was never a good enough player to be HBCU basketball’s immediate savior. It all came crashing down on Tuesday, as the school announced that the program was canceling the remainder of the season due to COVID-19.“We had several team members test positive in January, and were forced to place the program on hold, cancel several games and finally cancel our season. It was and remains the right thing for us to do,” said Blakeney in a statement. “Ultimately, our number one priority is to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes, both mentally and physically. Canceling the season is in the best interest of the team at this time.”In total, Howard played all of five games as they finished the season 1-4. Over the past two seasons, their record is 5-33. Maker only appeared in two games this season — averaging 11.5 points and 6.0 rebounds — due to being shut down “indefinitely” with a groin injury in November. Last month, Maker announced that he was one of the members of the team that had COVID-19, as the virus derailed Howard’s season. On top of Maker’s situation, Howard had nationally-televised games against Notre Dame (FOX) and North Carolina Central (ESPN) canceled, as Nojel Eastern, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Purdue, opted out of the season, while three-star commit Kuluel Mading decided to reopen his recruitment.Suddenly, all of the hype that Maker’s arrival had created was gone.Ironically, it was that hype that destined this experiment for disaster. Too many people, journalists, media members, and networks that didn’t attend an HBCU, had spent any time covering HBCU sports, or had any idea how HBCUs work, were the loudest ones in the room. They led a conversation they knew nothing about. It was like watching a panel of men discuss how pregnancy changes the human body.G/O Media may get a commissionTo them, this was a “game-changer.” ESPN literally said that, while FOX Sports said the decision was “huge,” as if Maker’s commitment to Howard was going to magically change the landscape of HBCU basketball.“I definitely think it’s going to generate a lot of wealth towards our people,” Maker told told ESPN. “It’s the players that make the TV exposure. It’s the players that make these deals.”Due to COVID, none of that happened. But from the little we did see from Howard this season, there’s an argument to be made that if we did, we wouldn’t have liked what we saw on the court from that exposure. Because if Maker really wanted to be a “game-changer,” then North Carolina Central was the school he should have chosen. The Eagles have also had their season ravaged by COVID as they sit at 4-5 on the season. However, since LeVelle Moton came back to take over at his alma mater in 2009, NCCU has made the NCAA Tournament four times since 2014, as the premier basketball program in HBCU hoops.On Friday, The Undefeated and ESPN+ will debut Why Not Us, an 8-episode docu-series on NCCU’s program that’s being executive produced by North Carolina native Chris Paul and HBCU alum and ESPN voice Stephen A. Smith. The irony of this series debuting the same week that Howard and Maker are officially shutting things down can’t be ignored.If the game is ever going to change in HBCU athletics, then it will happen by investing resources and giving exposure to these schools and their athletic programs, giving them all the tools necessary to recruit and retain 3, 4, and 5-star athletes. That way they can build and sustain programs that have proven that they can not only recruit top-tier talent, but also have traditions of excellence, of winning, and of sending kids to the pros. That’s the blueprint that must be followed. Quick fixes will never work. This is why Deion Sanders’ arrival as the head football coach at Jackson State will be a cautionary tale, as the same hype and unachievable expectations that were put on Maker and Howard are starting to take form with Sanders at JSU.Between the elaborate pomp and circumstances and the excessive levels of propaganda that Sanders has already spread, people are ignoring the fact that a man that hasn’t been a head coach or coordinator on any level in college, is about to take over one of the most historically successful programs in HBCU football history. From “Good Morning America” to ESPN, Sanders has already made the media rounds discussing what he intends to accomplish at JSU without anyone bringing up his troubled past when it comes to amateur sports. In 2019, Sanders was an offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian-Cedar Hill when the school was kicked out of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools after a slew of probations and violations. In 2016, the Dallas Morning News did a deep dive into Sanders’ “Prime Prep” school that was an epic failure, as he was once fired, re-hired, fired, and re-hired again at the school. Last December, the Washington Post did a story on multiple student-athletes from Sanders’ school that had their lives upended for attending it.But yet, the cameras and fanfare are, once again, only focused on what could happen instead of what needs to happen. Makur Maker’s marriage to Howard didn’t work, and Sanders’ relationship with Jackson State could also end in an ugly divorce. But, what both situations have proven is that the desire and hunger are there for HBCU athletics to be promoted and pushed to the forefront.Given what has taken place in Washington D.C. and what could be on the horizon in Jackson, Miss., now is not the time to abandon ship. This is the moment when networks and fans should double-down on HBCU athletics. Because while the stock may be low right now, a major cash-out is coming from that investment.  .

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MLB’s biggest question answered as Twins add promising pitcher; also, Dodgers sign jerkwad Bauer


Oh yeah, this guy signed too.Image: Getty ImagesThe wait is over, and one of baseball’s top contenders can move toward spring training confident that its new addition to the pitching staff will be just the man to put them over the top.It has been a long offseason of wondering where the former Pac-12 star might wind up, with seemingly every team in play for his services. Now, though, it’s settled.Ian Hamilton is a member of the Minnesota Twins.Hamilton, an 11th-round draft pick of the White Sox out of Washington State in 2016, had been claimed on waivers by the Mariners in late September. Two and a half months later, Seattle waived the right-hander, and he was claimed by the Phillies. Then, when Philadelphia re-signed catcher J.T. Realmuto and needed to free up a 40-man roster spot, Hamilton was designated for assignment, and now once again has been claimed, this time by the defending AL Central champions.Hamilton isn’t just a promising pitcher who dominated hitters with a 1.74 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 51.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018, he’s someone that you can’t help but root for. Having gotten a cup of coffee with the White Sox in 2018, Hamilton was ready to compete for a roster spot the following year, but suffered a shoulder injury in a car accident. He made it back to pitch in 16 struggle-filled games for the Sox’s top affiliate in Charlotte, but was hit in the face by a line drive, suffering multiple fractures that ended his season.Last year, Hamilton made it back to the majors, and worked 3.2 scoreless innings over his first three appearances, with four strikeouts. His fourth and final outing of the season did sour things, as Hamilton walked the first two Tigers he faced, got one out, then threw a wild pitch and gave up an RBI single to Harold Castro before being pulled — he was charged with two runs in one-third of an inning as Steve Cishek allowed one of the inherited runners to come home.G/O Media may get a commissionNow, Hamilton goes to Minnesota to try to help hold off his old Chicago teammates in the Central, which figures to be an intriguing race to see who can beat up the most on rebuilding Cleveland, Detroit, and Kansas City.Hamilton does not appear to have a Twitter account. Instead, he’s just focused on baseball and doing all he can to improve and help his team win.In other baseball news, the defending world champion Dodgers agreed to a deal with Trevor Bauer, the human paraquat who has had one season in his career above three wins above replacement, owns a 3.90 lifetime ERA and 3.85 FIP, and had been inaccurately reported by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale to be on his way to the Mets on Thursday night. The deal is worth $102 million over three years, which is just silly for a guy who’s maybe — maybe — LA’s third-best starter now. Bauer won the 2020 National League Cy Young by posting a 1.73 ERA over 11 starts, but it’s his other kind of posting that’s troublesome, in addition to his career resume suggesting that while he’s capable of flashes of brilliance like his less-than-a-dozen starts in a pandemic year, he’s really quite average. .

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