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Solving Football's Place-kicking Problem

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I, thankfully, didn’t watch all of the Week 2 matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers on Sunday. That’s the case more and more these days, when in the past I’d hardly miss a second of a Vikings game. Rookie kicker Daniel Carlson, who the Vikings selected in the fifth round of the draft five months prior to waiving him Monday, missed three field goals to waste a valiant, 13-point comeback led by new quarterback Kirk Cousins in Green Bay. I stopped watching after the first two series of the second half with the Vikings down 20–7, and I couldn’t be happier with that decision given the resulting tie.

The Problem with Place-kicking in Football

It bothers me that games featuring more than 100 athletes too big to be able to run as fast as they do repeatedly colliding into each other to obtain property like they’re at war are often decided by the least athletic of the 53 players on National Football League (NFL) rosters. NFL kickers are like generals sitting a comfortable distance from enemy lines sipping on Gatorade awaiting a request for an air strike from their foot soldiers taking heavy fire only to bomb their own troops on occasion.

Last season, 22.5 percent of all NFL games (including the postseason) were either decided by three or fewer points or featured scoring exclusively by kickers. Almost a quarter of regular season games played in 2016 were decided by three or fewer points. Between 2003 and 2015, 27.9 percent of games were decided by three or fewer points. As of this writing, 25 percent of 2018 NFL games have been decided by a field goal or less, and the average margin of victory in the NFL continues to fall. Whether it’s one in five or one in four games decided by kickers, one game decided by the least athletic player and the player seeing the least playing time is one game too many.

There were more field goals attempted and made last season than in any other time in the history of professional football, according to Pro Football Reference. The result was 3,664 points scored by kickers in 2017, or almost an even third (32.96 percent) of all NFL scoring. That’s an increase in kicker-exclusive scoring of 5.65 percent over the last 50 years.

Kickers have been ruining the game of football at all levels, especially youth levels, since the game’s inception. Finding someone who could kick and punt the ball were always the hardest positions to fill on our youth teams, and while kickers have gotten better over the years according to FiveThirtyEight, the problem of kickers over-influencing outcomes and under-entertaining fans has worsened with the implementation of longer point-after attempts and uneventful kickoffs.

Instead of stand-still kickoffs that were implemented this year, punters should simply punt the ball as they would on a free kick after a safety. Their teammates wouldn’t get a running start to protect players’ health, but free kicks would result in fewer touchbacks and a higher potential for kick return touchdowns — once the most exciting play in the sport now all but extinct. Most importantly, though, free kicks would make place-kickers entirely unnecessary.

My research found kickers were the exclusive scorers in six NFL games last year, and the touchdown-to-field-goal ratio has declined by almost an entire touchdown per successful field goal since 1975. While these ridiculous roughing-the-passer penalties will assuredly increase the touchdown-to-field-goal ratio, achieving the all-time high of 2.5 touchdowns scored per successful field goal converted is not probable unless kickers are removed from the game.

Solving Football’s Place-Kicking Problem

The more fourth-down plays there are in games, the more intriguing those games will be. Games’ outcomes need to swing on one play every series instead of one play every half. Football is not providing enough moments of perceived momentum shifting from one team to the other. Without place-kicking, fans would be on the edge of their seats more often, as the Dan Bailey bailout would be unavailable to the Vikings or anyone else, forcing coaches to utilize more forward passes — the play that saved American football from extinction and made it the behemoth it is today. There would also be fewer breaks in the action for commercials, but what’s the best option for solving football’s place-kicking problem?

Removing place-kickers from the game doesn’t necessarily mean field goals have to go away. While I think goal posts unnecessarily obstruct the views of fans, we don’t have to tear them down (although it’d be cool if they were moved behind the fans so they could go home with souvenir footballs). They are a symbol of the sport after all, and what would college students do on Saturdays after a big win if they couldn’t tear down the goalposts? They’d probably be at higher risk for alcohol poisoning if they didn’t exert that effort.

If the NFL wanted to continue employing place-kickers and make games more exciting, it could simply make field goals worth two points instead of three. How a field goal is worth more than a safety is disrespectful to defenses everywhere, even though your offense gets the ball back after the defense scores a safety. While kicking was highly emphasized when the game was conceived, the field goal’s point value decreased from five in 1883, to four in 1904 and three points in 1909, three years after what many believe to be the first legally completed forward pass.

After more than 100 years without a change to the field goal’s point value, I’d say we’re long overdue. But lowering the point value of a field goal does not affect the risk in attempting a field goal, which is the actual problem. Kicking is a bailout in football. Both punts and field goal attempts bail out an offense incapable of scoring touchdowns. I’ve got no problem with punters. I’ve seen punters make plays, but I’d prefer to watch the NFL’s place-kickers play soccer if they’re capable of running and kicking a moving ball. Removing place-kickers from football would enhance the intrigue of games by forcing coaches to be more creative and take more chances on both sides of the ball. That brings me to Rule 1 of football re-imagined without kickers.

“All teams must attempt a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown.”

That’s where games should be won and lost — in the trenches between lineman at the goal lines. The men risking the most should determine the outcomes of games, but field goals wouldn’t necessarily have to disappear. They could just be altered. The NFL simply needs to make the field goal attempt a less enticing option for coaches — make the bailout riskier.

I recommend the NFL adopt something like the drop goal in rugby, where a player can drop the ball on the ground and kick it through the uprights on any down. The quarterback could avoid a sack and dropkick the ball through the uprights on second down for three points. That might be a big enough change to eliminate field goals altogether, but punters would eventually get the hang of drop-kicking to make it a less riskier option. It’s not as though they have much else to do during practice.

To up the ante even further, the ball’s placement on the field should depend on how close you get to the goal line. The closer a team gets to scoring, the more difficult a drop goal attempt should become. That’s why I recommend the hash marks running down the middle of a football field get wider and wider as they get closer and closer to the goal line. This might even be enough to keep place-kicking in the sport while minimizing kickers’ control over games’ outcomes.

The new football field in a post-place-kicking NFL.

An American football field is 160 feet wide. NFL hash marks are 70 feet, nine inches from the sidelines. That’s where they’d remain between the 40-yard lines on each side of the field because 50-plus-yard field goals are hard enough. At the 39-yard line, however, the ball would be placed on the hash mark 69 feet, nine inches from the sideline closest to the completion of the previous play. At the 38, the ball would be spotted on the hash mark 68 feet, nine inches from the nearest sideline, and so on. At the one-yard line, the ball would be snapped 31 feet, nine inches from the sideline nearest the last completed play. This would result in some new, creative formations, more fourth down plays as well as some drop goals attempted from truly amazing angles. This would make “four-down territory” even larger, increasing excitement even if it results in less scoring.

Counteracting a Potential Decrease in Scoring

While we’re not eliminating a third of all scoring in football, points will be harder to come by in the game without kickers. A point-after attempt and two-point attempt have almost the exact same expected value, so forcing teams to go for two would result in almost the exact number of points as point-after attempts. But field goals alone accounted for 23.37 percent of points scored in 2017, and teams won’t be trading those field goals for drop goals or touchdowns at a 1:1 or even 1:2 ratio. That said, an effort should be made to counteract a potential decrease in scoring by providing more scoring opportunities.

Football and rugby are unique in that they offer multiple means of scoring points. You only score in baseball when you touch home plate. You only score in basketball when you put the ball through the hoop, and you only score in soccer and hockey by putting the ball or puck in the net. Scoring in football involves either kicking the ball through goal posts or taking it across a goal line (or downing it there in the case of a safety). But why stop at two means of scoring points? That brings me to Rule 2 of football re-imagined without kickers.

“Award one point for each sack or tackle for loss.”

Awarding one point for sacks and tackles for loss would almost replace every point scored by NFL kickers. Based on 2016 totals, there were 1,118 sacks and 2,218 tackles for loss, totalling 3,336 potential points. Kickers accounted for 3,669 points in 2016, and spreading those points around to players playing and sacrificing most makes for a more democratic game. And frankly, defensive players deserve to score more.

Defensive players seldom score, especially big defensive players. An offensive lineman can at least declare himself eligible and catch a touchdown pass. Defensive players have to either force a fumble, pick it up and run into the end zone, grab an interception and run into the end zone or tackle the ball carrier in their own end zone for a safety. And now that defensive players have to defy physics and somehow stop more than half of their body weight from falling on the quarterback during a sack, their team should at least get a point if it’s likely the sack will result in a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down for the offense.

While this rule might result in more coaches challenging the spot of the ball, I’d rather watch a replay of a quarterback sack or tackle for loss to determine if the ball carrier reached the line of scrimmage than watch a kicker come on the field and make or miss a kick sandwiched between commercials. And the NFL is far past due for placing sensors on the ends of the football and on the players’ knees and elbows to determine the exact location of the ball when the ball carrier is down by contact. But that’s another Grandstand Central story for another day.

Imagine the Vikings just scored a touchdown to tie the Packers with no time left on the clock and only the two-point conversion left to be played. With this rule, either team could win or lose the game right there at the goal line. The Vikings could either convert the two-point attempt to win or take a sack or tackle for loss to give the Packers the win. Green Bay could also intercept the ball or recover a fumble and return it for two points as well. That’s a whole lot more exciting than bringing a kicker onto the field to attempt an extra point converted 94 percent of the time in 2017. It’s also more indicative of which is the better team.

Unless the NFL takes place-kicking out of the game, I’m boycotting the league upon the end of Cousins’s tenure with the Vikings or if the Vikings win the Super Bowl — whichever happens first. And I’m not just saying that because of the Vikings’ rich history of kicking woes in big games. They are the franchise who had a kicker who shall not be named go an entire season without missing a kick only to miss one that would have sent them to the Super Bowl. More recently, they had a kicker who shall also go unnamed miss a 27-yard field goal that would have extended their playoff run in 2016. I just can’t bring myself to pay attention to the game of football anymore. The kickers keep kicking my attention elsewhere.

The one sport that stands to benefit most from advances in technology is America’s Pastime. My colleague Ben Beecken shares that sentiment and understands baseball’s big problem and how to solve it. But as a semi-traditionalist baseball fan, I’m not ready to take the umpires off the field in favor of robots. Something must be done, obviously, and Major League Baseball owners are apparently pushing Commissioner Rob Manfred to make “bold” changes to address what they believe to be a pace-of-play problem caused by the increased employment of defensive shifts. But baseball doesn’t have a pace-of-play problem; it has a lack-of-action problem that an electronic strike zone can solve without taking umpires’ jobs.

Increased Action Makes Pace of Play Irrelevant

“Time flies when you’re having fun” they say, and that goes for a three-plus-hour-long baseball game, too. Shortening the game or speeding it up isn’t going to make the game more appealing to young people. You need action to appeal to the all-time low attention spans of young people, or they’ll just find their entertainment on that computer in their pocket. MLB isn’t providing that action and hasn’t for a decade or so.

Thus far this season, MLB’s collective batting average is .248 — the 21st-worst league batting average since 1871, according to Baseball Reference. Runs are down to 1956 levels, but on-base percentages, upon which run production depends, have remained steady, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. But there’s never been more strikeouts in the bigs.

The league is on pace to break the strikeout record set last year, and the year before that, and in each of the eight years prior. That’s a decade’s worth of record-setting strikeout totals, so no one should be surprised by how often professional hitters are failing to hit. And you can’t blame defensive shifts for strikeouts.

This idea that the increased employment of defensive shifts has forced hitters to alter their approach at the plate to increase their “launch angle” and “exit velocity” to hit over the shift is ridiculous. Defensive shifts don’t force hitters to do anything except exactly what hitters have been expected to do since the game’s inception: hit it where they ain’t. If any professional ballplayer could bunt these days, and every one of them should be capable, or if managers valued baserunners over extra-base-hit potential, defensive shifts would all but disappear except for pull-happy, power hitters who aren’t paid to bunt — ever. The defense is the one taking a risk by shifting; most hitters risk nothing except their batting averages trying to hit over the shift and into the stands. We shouldn’t want more hitters bunting, however. We should want more action occurring from hitters hitting — or better yet, driving the ball.

Some of those hitters, like the Cubs’ Daniel Murphy, have explained why they don’t bunt against the shift despite having a gimme single if they can get it in play past the pitcher on the vacated half of the infield. Murphy’s reasoning is that he’s more valuable to his team pursuing extra-base hits rather than occupying first base and waiting for another two teammates to hit singles to score him given his lack of speed. “It’s really difficult to get three hits in one inning,” he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, citing “how good pitchers are now” as a reason.

The Evolution of Pitching is to Blame for Baseball’s Problem

Young fans are avoiding baseball because it’s boring. Hitters can’t hit because pitching is too good. Many hitters, like former MVP and batting champion Justin Morneau, say a hitter can expect one hittable pitch per plate appearance, and hittable pitches are fewer and farther between in today’s MLB than ever before.

Batters aren’t looking to get the ball in the air more often to avoid hitting into defensive shifts. Batters are looking to get the ball in the air more often because there are fewer pitches thrown they are physically capable of hitting hard in the air. There are fewer pitches thrown that have extra-base-hit potential.

Since 2002, swings on pitches outside the strike zone have increased 12.7 percent, resulting in an all-time low contact rate and all-time high swing-and-miss rate.

In 2010, 50.2 percent of all pitches thrown in MLB were in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs. This season it’s down to 47.9 percent, and despite the percentage of swings at pitches in the zone at an all-time high over the 11-year history of this research, the contact percentage on those strikes is at an all-time low. Contact on pitches outside the strike zone is also at an all-time low, but why?

Reliance on Relief Pitchers Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Before defensive shifts became the norm and launch angle was ever uttered, the approach to pitching had already evolved immensely in MLB. John McGraw had a dedicated relief pitcher on his New York Giants roster as early as 1905, according to the research of Bryan Soderholm-Difatte for “America’s Game.” That tactic became more popular in the 1920s after Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown’s career was shortened considerably having served as the Cubs’ ace starter and ace reliever from 1908 to 1911.

Even though the lengths of MLB pitchers’ careers were shortened by the now-incomprehensible number of innings pitched over a hundred years ago, there are still pitchers calling for starters to go longer in games and ignore pitch counts.

Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven reminding MLB’s aging audience that starters were expected to finish games as recent as the 1980s should consider how effective he and his peers were the third and fourth time through a lineup instead of calling it evidence that throwing more pitches leads to fewer injuries.

Real research conducted by real physicians found that throwing fastballs, not curveballs, is linked to Tommy John surgery, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ian McMahan. Blyleven made his living with his curveball, which is why he’s a terrible spokesperson for getting rid of the pitch count and treating today’s starting pitchers like it’s 1971.

Over his career, Blyleven allowed an OPS of .679 when pitching to opponents for a third time and a .711 OPS when seeing hitters a fourth time in a game. That’s respectable, but according to Total OPS+, or tOPS+, Blyleven’s teams, on average, would have been better off had Blyleven never pitched to a hitter a third or fourth time. That is, of course, if there was a relief pitcher on the team with a better tOPS+ when facing hitters for the first time in relief than Blyleven’s tOPS+ when facing hitters a third or fourth time in a game.

In 1971, at age 20, Blyleven’s tOPS+ against batters in their third plate appearance of a game was a fantastic 77 (the further below 100 the better a pitcher was in that particular instance). Only Minnesota closer Tom Hall was more effective in his first time facing batters as a reliever than Blyleven was facing batters a third time as a starter. And while Blyleven struggled a bit when facing batters a second time (107 tOPS+), he certainly had a good feel for his curveball when they stepped to the plate a third time.

Blyleven’s struggles the second time through lineups persisted throughout his career, but he actually got better as the game went on because he was throwing mostly curveballs, not fastballs. In 1986, Blyleven allowed an .853 OPS to hitters in their second plate appearance. But in their third plate appearance, opponents’ OPS was down to .733 and back up to .828 in their fourth look at Bert. So Blyleven, besides a knuckleballer, is the last person who should be calling for today’s pitchers to go longer in games because he was spending the early innings “finding” his curveball so he could throw it more often and more effectively late in games while pitchers today are throwing far more fastballs and fast breaking balls than he or anyone else in his era was throwing.

Reliance on Velocity Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Since the 1980s, when the curveball gave way to the slider as the breaking ball of choice, pitchers have been throwing more fastballs and are understandably less effective against hitters a third and fourth time given that approach, losing their velocity and, in turn, movement. A curveball is difficult to track regardless of inning, but a fastball can be timed in a single plate appearance and exploited in the next. Sliders and cutters slide and cut less with less velocity, which is lost by pitchers faster in games these days due to the volume of fastballs and fast breaking balls thrown.

Since pitchers have been relying on fastballs more so than breaking balls, and rather effectively given the aforementioned statistics, pitchers ought not throw as many pitches as a curveball specialist given the medical research previously cited. Hence the advent of the pitch count.

Managers want to keep their starting pitchers healthy and able to start every five days, and the pitch count provides them with a guide for attempting to do so. But managers’ number one priority is winning ballgames, and throwing four or five electric arms at a lineup instead of one or two increases their chances to win games and preserve the health of their pitchers. But it doesn’t matter how fresh the arm or how electric the stuff if pitches thrown in the strike zone aren’t called strikes.

Reliance on Humans Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Baseball purists like my attorney and Blyleven think it’s the human element home plate umpires provide that makes the game of baseball great. Each home plate umpire having his (and “his” sadly is the proper pronoun, at least in MLB) own unique, strike zone does make the game great. It sparks dugout chatter and builds camaraderie as teammates badmouth that day’s enemy behind the plate while trying to figure out the one 60 feet, six inches in front of it.

Then questionable calls lead to looks of “whoa” directed at the home plate umpire, culminating in confrontation and eventual ejections followed by the truly inspired, laid-bare performances in response, as if these men, like all great thespians, forget they have an audience. Now that’s drama.

There’s nothing more entertaining in baseball than a player or manager getting their money’s worth after being tossed from a game. Maybe a three-homer game or a straight steal of home could rival Ron Gardenhire’s red-faced rants or the legend of Lou Piniella’s interpretive, dirt dances, but hitting for the cycle pales in comparison. An ejection can invigorate both a team and crowd for the entirety of the game like winning a fight in hockey. The cycle climaxes with a curtain call lasting a few minutes, while the ejected entertainers, also deserving of a curtain call, make for a lonely locker room to find some semblance of solace in a cold shower and comfort food.

Frankly, I think the decline in ejections has been detrimental to baseball and contributed to baseball’s problem attracting young fans, who have gravitated toward the soap operatic drama of soccer instead. Bad actors with no respect for the theatre of sport are taking advantage of baseball’s dwindling drama thanks to a surplus of soccer drama performed by characters like The Zlatan — too unreal for even MTV’s Real World.

The advent of replay has scrubbed the sport of baseball relatively clean when it comes to disputing plays on the bases, and that’s an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice to get the calls right. An electronic strike zone will have a similar effect, removing some of the drama that makes a baseball game both joyous and enraging for all involved.

I like when an incorrect call goes my team’s way as much as the next fan, and I scream at the television when an umpire or official misses one. Officiating-hating is part of the fun for fans of all sports. There’s a problem, though, when pitches outside the strike zone are called strikes in a game where even the best players fail seven out of 10 times. It makes a game ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian calls “the hardest game in the world to play” even harder for hitters.

Reliance on Spin Rate Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Pitches these days are harder to hit than they’ve ever been. On average, they’re being thrown harder than they’ve ever been. Fastballs, split-finger fastballs, sinkers, sliders and even change-ups are being thrown harder in 2018 than they have since 2007, which is where FanGraphs’ dataset starts. Pitches are moving more, too. Sliders, on average, have more horizontal movement than ever, with a focus on spin rate making pitches move more and making it harder for hitters to recognize pitches.

Not only has fastball velocity increased almost annually in MLB, but almost every pitch is being thrown faster than ever before.

So not only are we expecting MLB hitters to hit the nastiest pitches ever pitched, but we’re expecting them to hit the highest volume of nasty pitches despite an inconsistent strike zone that changes everyday, or twice daily for doubleheaders. The players are quite literally playing by different rules every game, and while Babe Ruth and Ted Williams dealt with similarly subjective strike zones in their eras, neither they nor the umpires of the day had to track an exploding slider or sinking and cutting fastballs thrown in the mid-90s all game, every game. Williams was subjected to defensive shifts, though, and they didn’t ruin the game back in the 1940s and won’t now.

The Solution to Baseball’s Problem

Baseball is a contact sport in that it requires contact between bat and ball to provide audiences action. “Strikeouts are boring. Besides that they’re Fascist,” as Crash Davis correctly claimed in Bull Durham. “Throw some ground balls. It’s more democratic.” Contact equals action, and a lack of contact is a lack of action.

Baseball’s problem attracting young fans is a result of that lack of action, not pace of play. You could shorten games to a two-hour time limit and without contact, the game would still be boring to young people. But the game wasn’t boring when Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were launching steroid-fueled bombs into the stratosphere back in the 1990s because we had contact — epic contact.

Since ending MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy is unlikely, using technology already available and already being used to train umpires to provide players with a consistent strike zone will lower chase and swing-and-miss rates, increase contact rates and, in turn, increase action. If baseball wants to attract young fans, instead of Commissioner Manfred altering the rules to limit defensive shifts or defensive positioning, he should consider implementing an electronic strike zone that’s consistent from game to game, umpire to umpire.

The most fun I have watching the lowly Twins is when Logan Forsythe runs out to left field from second base to serve as a fourth outfielder and then running back to the infield. Players are probably getting more exercise than they ever have in the history of the game, and movement is action.

Defensive shifts are the most interesting thing baseball’s had to offer since the Steroid Era. That is until Tampa Bay’s use of relief pitchers to start games becomes the norm so starters can relieve the “openers” and face hitters during their higher-leverage plate appearances the second, third and fourth time through the lineup. But instead of hitters figuring out a starting pitcher in their second or third at-bat, they’re figuring out a new pitcher in their second at-bat. If you thought strikeouts were out of control now, just wait until flamethrowing relievers are facing hitters at their most vulnerable — their first plate appearance — and then starting pitchers come in and make hitters relive the horror of their first plate appearance all over again.

Not only do both hitters and pitchers have to figure each other out throughout the course of a game, but they have to figure out the home plate umpire as well. Pitchers test the edges of the plate to see how wide the umpire’s strike zone is that day, resulting in plenty of pitches thrown out of the strike zone slowing play to a halt. A ball off the plate that doesn’t entice a swing is a complete lack of action, and a ball off the plate that does entice a swing tends to result in poor contact and little action. Until pitchers are forced to throw strikes, why would they? Greg Maddux carved out a Hall of Fame career pitching out of the strike zone, and he didn’t have the velocity or wicked movement pitchers feature today.

So what’s the answer to baseball’s problem? No, not robots, but technologically enhanced umpires. I’m not talking about creating special headgear that projects the strike zone on a see-through visor like Google Glasses and makes blue look like RoboUmp, although that’s a cool option. That way home plate umpires still feel useful and in control of the game, with technology assisting the umpire in calling a consistent strike zone instead of dictating balls and strikes. Technology is a tool humans should use to do work better; it should not be a means to do away with work altogether.

A less cool but effective option would be to put a microphone in the ear or a buzzer in the pocket of home plate umpires that indicates when a pitch is thrown in the electronic strike zone, and the technology is close to doing so accurately. That way hitters come to the plate every game knowing exactly what a strike is and is not, so they swing at more strikes instead of chasing balls incorrectly called strikes, which will result in more contact, better contact and fewer strikeouts despite defensive shifts. It will also give managers one less reason to argue with umpires, which, unfortunately, might be one of the last reasons left. But the electronic strike zone will make a three-plus-hour game more appealing to the short attention spans of young fans.

So you’ve been asked to fill out a fantasy football league at the office, but the last time you played fantasy football Colin Kaepernick was your quarterback. Your disinterest in fantasy football shouldn’t stop you from filling out your office’s league or make you the fantasy equivalent of the Cleveland Browns, like I was that year Kaepernick was my quarterback.

Kaepernick wasn’t bad. He was the 72nd-best fantasy football player in 2013, according to Pro Football Reference, and that’s about where I drafted him, if not later. I was done in by injuries and mediocre running backs and flex players, and since my Vikings only started the season marginally better than my fantasy team (1–7), there wasn’t much reason for me to pay attention to the National Football League (NFL) come November.

But that was before Kaepernick first protested racial injustices during the national anthem, providing the spark that started the President’s furious fingers tweeting and Jerry Jones’s Johnny Walker-fueled, fire-breathing mouth moving, engulfing the NFL in controversy for the entirety of yet another offseason.

The new anthem resolution adopted by NFL owners despite an official vote never taking place and without considering the input of NFL players has received backlash from both players and fans, forcing the league to finally invite the players to the negotiating table. The NFL and NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) hope to find a solution that appeases the owners, players and fans, which means, given the pace at which the NFL handled Deflategate and the anthem matter thus far, there won’t be a consensus until after the 2021 collective-bargaining agreement is negotiated during a likely lockout.

That means we’re in for another year of players protesting racial injustices during the national anthem, which is just fine by me. Not only do my Vikings have a quarterback under 40 with two good knees and a better-than-okay arm, but NFL players are going to continue protesting during the national anthem — an anthem the NFL exploited for compounding profits by selling it as an advertisement to the Pentagon that doubled as a patriotic advertisement for the league, attracting patriotic fans to the sport. Players weren’t even required to be on the field for the anthem until the NFL sold it to the Department of Defense in 2009, with taxpayers flipping a $5.4-million bill between 2011 and 2013 and another $6.7 million when the National Guard bought the “rights” to the NFL national anthem performance from 2013 to 2015.

Kaepernick didn’t profit from his protests during the national anthem like the NFL did exploiting it. His stance, or more aptly, lack thereof, has cost him mightily, but his woke moves off the field, like donating more than $1 million to 41 charities despite being unemployed, are more impressive than anything he did (or will do) on the field. So those of us more interested in players’ “reality” contributions than their fantasy contributions have a reason to play fantasy football this season.

If you’re like me, you might not be willing to do a bunch of research to try and win something as inconsequential as a fantasy football championship, especially when office bragging rights are the only reward. But you’d like to draft a team that will give you a reason to follow football when your favorite team falls from relevance. That means you can’t go 0–16 like my Kaepernick-led fantasy football team back in 2013.

You’d also like your fantasy team to consist of players you like and respect while also having some success throughout the year. Winning a fantasy football championship with a bunch of woman-beaters and performance-enhancing drug users isn’t all that impressive or entertaining. But winning a fantasy football championship with a roster of advocate-athletes using their celebrity to raise awareness for issues important to them would be worth watching and worth bragging about around the office for the next year. “Remember that time I drafted a bunch of protesters and beat the pants off your thoroughly researched fantasy team?” bears repeating for years if not decades.

I’m here to tell you that a fantasy football roster consisting exclusively of players who have protested racial injustices during the national anthem or have otherwise made woke moves and spat woke game off the field could win a fantasy football championship in any format. There are enough NFL player-protesters out there to draft a competitive, All-Woke fantasy football team.

Not only can your All-Woke fantasy football team win it all, it can do so despite all the efforts of your fantasy league owners who hate protests during the anthem (unless they collude with each other, of course). The “Woke Mofos,” “Advocate Athletes” or “Trump Sons-a-bitches” can win in spite of the limitation of drafting only “woke” players and provide entertainment to woke football fans an unwoke fantasy roster cannot.

For those of us who would rather draft our fantasy football teams with our hearts than our heads but don’t want the misfortunes of our favorite teams rubbing off on our fantasy teams, here is a strategy for woke fans to draft a competitive fantasy football team they can respect and enjoy following during the 2018 NFL season.

All-Woke Fantasy Football Draft Strategy for 2018

We’ll assume your league consists of at least 12 teams, so draft strategy for the following players considers 12 players in each round of the draft. Rankings are based on ESPN’s top-300 lists.

Round 1: Draft Your Woke RB1

Early-round option: Todd Gurley II — RB — Rams

Mid-round option: Alvin Kamara — RB — Saints

Late-round option: Kareem Hunt — RB — Chiefs

If you’ve got one of the top two picks in your fantasy draft, go ahead and draft Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley II. He’s the second-ranked, fantasy player in both PPR and non-PPR formats and has been one of the most vocal advocate-athletes, calling for all NFL players to have fully guaranteed contracts and locking arms with former teammate Tavon Austin during the national anthem in Week 17 of the 2017 NFL season. Austin won’t likely be protesting during the anthem this season, as he is now a Dallas Cowboy.

If your first-round pick is between three and seven, consider drafting New Orleans Saints sensation Alvin Kamara. He was one of nearly 200 NFL players to protest racial injustices during the national anthem in Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season, and is projected to be fourth amongst running backs and 26th overall in receptions for those of you playing in PPR formats.

If you’re drafting at the bottom of the first round, Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt awaits. He too was one of the 200 who protested in Week 3 of 2017 and is ranked eleventh overall in both PPR and non-PPR fantasy formats.

Round 2: Draft Your Woke RB2 or WR1

Early-round option: Leonard Fournette — RB — Jaguars

Mid-round option: Michael Thomas — WR — Saints

Late-round option: Mike Evans — WR — Buccaneers

If you’re drafting at the top of the second round, you could do worse than Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette. He took a knee during the national anthem in front of 100,000 London fans at Wembley Stadium on Sept. 24, 2017, and he’s remained in the locker room during the anthem thus far this preseason. Fournette is a workhorse in an offense with an inconsistent quarterback, so he might outperform the RB1 you drafted in the first round.

If you’re drafting near the middle of the second round, Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans is the 22nd-ranked player in both PPR and non-PPR formats. He’s another Week 3 protester from 2017, as is Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, who would be an okay selection at the end of the second round.

Round 3: Draft Your Woke TE1 or QB1

Early-round option: Travis Kelce — TE — Chiefs

Mid-round option: Aaron Rodgers — QB — Packers

Late-round option: Zach Ertz — TE — Eagles

Kelce would be an even better pick atop the third round of your fantasy draft if he falls that far, and he likely will. His average draft position is 26.5 in all ESPN formats, and his ranking is 24th overall in PPR formats and 29th overall in non-PPR formats. With little depth for woke players atop the third round, Kelce would be an ideal target.

Round 3 isn’t too early to draft the NFL’s most woke quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers hasn’t protested during a national anthem, but he has been the most outspoken of NFL quarterbacks on political issues. He’s the 58th-ranked player in PPR and 56th in non-PPR, but has been going 27th overall in ESPN drafts on average. Don’t be afraid to use a third-round pick on the most-woke quarterback in the draft, because he’s also the best quarterback in the draft. If you miss out on Rodgers there isn’t much depth when it comes to woke NFL quarterbacks.

If Aaron Rodgers doesn’t fall to you, Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz hasn’t protested during the national anthem, but he did stand up to Fox News after it used photos of him and teammates praying before games for a story about player protests during the national anthem, calling it “propaganda.”

 

Ertz also donates money to youth football programs in need, including a youth football team in Camden, N.J., where the Whitman Park neighborhood’s per capita income is lower than 97.6 percent of American neighborhoods, resulting in 85.3 percent of children living in poverty. Most recently, Ertz and his wife, Julie, donated $10,000 to Philadelphia’s Kensington High School after all of their football equipment was stolen. Ertz’s average draft position is 33.9 as of this writing.

Round 4: Draft Your Woke WR2, RB2 or QB1

Early-round option: Demaryius Thomas — WR — Broncos

Mid-round option: Josh Gordon — WR — Browns

Late-round option: Jay Ajayi — RB — Eagles

Demaryius Thomas’s average draft position has been around 41, making him a good target atop the fourth round. He’s more likely to fall in non-PPR drafts than in PPR formats, as he’s ranked 34th overall in PPR leagues and 39th overall in non-PPR leagues.

Since Cleveland’s Josh Gordon hasn’t been on the field to protest we can’t hold that against him. Although he’s struggled passing drug tests, he’s taken the time and made the effort to learn about his addiction issues, which is an honest attempt at getting woke. Gordon’s comeback is indicative of his wokeness, and he led the league in receiving playing just 14 games with Cleveland quarterbacks heaving balls in his general direction. He’s the 39th-ranked player in PPR formats and 34th-ranked in non-PPR formats but has been selected at around 50th overall in snake drafts.

At the bottom of the fourth round you’ll find Philadelphia running back Jay Ajayi, whose average draft position is also 50th. Round 4 is also your second-to-last chance to draft the NFL’s most-woke quarterback, if Rodgers is somehow still around.

Round 5: Draft Your Woke RB2, WR2 or QB2

Early-round option: Marshawn Lynch — RB — Raiders

Mid-round option: Emmanuel Sanders — WR — Broncos

Late-round option: Deshaun Watson — QB — Texans.

If you don’t get your RB2 in Round 4, Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch should be available atop and possibly in the middle of the fifth round. He’s continued to literally sit out the anthem and should get plenty of goalline opportunities, even though he’s not that good in those situations. He still running through mofos’ faces, though. Lynch had more rushing yards after contact than rushing yards from scrimmage in a game against the Dolphins last year.

 

If you have your RB2 but are missing your WR2, Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders is ranked 57th in PPR formats and 54th in non-PPR formats. Keep in mind, though, that his average draft position has been 74th thus far.

Round 5 is likely your last chance to draft the most-woke quarterback with an NFL job. It could also be your first chance to draft the next most woke quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Watson’s entire team protested the remarks of their owner, Bob McNair, during the national anthem. He’s been going around 52nd overall in ESPN drafts.

Round 6: Draft Your Woke RB2, WR2 or D/ST

Early-round option: Duke Johnson Jr. — RB — Browns

Mid-round option: Duke Johnson Jr. — RB — Browns

Late-round option: Marquise Goodwin — WR — 49ers

If you didn’t get Lynch or Ajayi or Fournette, Cleveland’s Duke Johnson Jr. could be selected atop the sixth round and could stick around into the middle of the round.

Niners wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who knelt with Eric Reid, Eli Harold and Louis Murphy throughout the national anthems last season, could be available at the end of the sixth round, but has been drafted 77th on average, so target him atop the seventh round if you can.

Round 7: Draft Your Woke WR2 or D/ST

Early-round option: Marquise Goodwin — WR — 49ers

Mid-round option: Jaguars — D/ST

Late-round option: Jaguars — D/ST

Besides Goodwin, there isn’t much for woke players available in the seventh round. It’s a great place to score a bargain QB2 if your league’s owners don’t value the position, with Newton and Watson ranked 78th and 81st, respectively.

The seventh round isn’t too early to start thinking about defense and special teams. The Jacksonville Jaguars feature seven defensive players who knelt during the national anthem in Week 3 last season, and six are regular starters. Jacksonville’s average draft position has been around 73rd overall, which actually places them atop the sixth round, but who in your league is going to draft a defense after filling just their RB1, RB2, WR1, WR2, and QB1? Make sure there aren’t any Jacksonville fans in your league and the Jaguars D/ST should fall to you in the seventh round.

Round 8: Draft Your Woke TE1 or FLEX

Early-round option: Jordan Reed — TE — Washington Racial Slurs

Mid-round option: Jamison Crowder — WR — Washington Racial Slurs

Late-round option: Josh Doctson — WR — Washington Racial Slurs

If you didn’t nab Kelce in Round 3 and went with the most woke quarterback instead, Washington Racial Slurs tight end Jordan Reed should be targeted atop the eighth round. Reed was one of the nearly 200 NFL players who protested during the anthem in Week 3 of last season. He’s ranked 90th in both PPR and non-PPR formats.

If you got both Kelce and Rodgers, Round 8 should be used to draft a FLEX player. Either of Reed’s teammates Jamison Crowder or Josh Doctson are good selections in the middle or end of the eighth round or atop the ninth. Doctson is considerably more valuable in non-PPR formats, going from 94th overall to 82nd overall.

Rounds 9–10: Draft More Woke FLEX Players

Ninth-round option: Kenny Stills — WR — Dolphins

Tenth-round option: DeSean Jackson — WR — Buccaneers

Along with Crowder and Doctson, consider Miami’s Kenny Stills, who knelt during the national anthem as recently as Week 17. Consider drafting Tampa Bay’s DeSean Jackson in the tenth round.

Round 11: Draft Your Woke Patriots Players

Early-round option: James White — RB — Patriots

Mid-round option: Patriots — D/ST

Late-round option: Patriots — D/ST

The most woke defense in the NFL by the numbers belongs to the New England Patriots. Twelve of their active players on defense knelt during the anthem in Week 3 last season, and eight of them are starters. Their average draft position has been 126.8 thus far.

If you’ve already drafted the Jaguars’ defense and special teams units, there is an RB3 to be had in James White, also of New England. He’s ranked 123rd in PPR leagues and has been drafted around 128th in ESPN leagues.

Rounds 12–13: Draft Your Woke D/ST2

Twelfth-round option: Broncos — D/ST

Thirteenth-round option: Brandon Marshall — WR — Seahawks

The Broncos have eight defensive players who protested in Week 3 last year, all of whom started at least one game last season. Their average draft position is 136.9 — the middle of the twelfth round.

It doesn’t hurt to have a pair of defenses on your roster. Sometimes you can win a matchup thanks to one of your defenses having a favorable matchup, and having two defenses doubles your odds of that happening. They can be nice trade chips, too, so target defenses early because there’s only 10 of them that are any good.

Round 13 is when you start taking flyers on comeback players like Seattle’s Brandon Marshall, who caught only 18 balls in five games with the Giants last year after suffering an ankle injury requiring surgery. It was the first time in Marshall’s career that he played less than 13 games in a season, so he’s been reliable in 10 of his 11 years in the league. He’s also just two years removed from leading the league with 14 touchdown receptions and is getting an upgrade at quarterback, leaving Eli Manning for Russell Wilson.

Round 14: Draft the Most Woke Kicker

Early-round option: Stephen Hauschka — K — Bills

Mid-round option: Stephen Hauschka — K — Bills

Late-round option: Stephen Hauschka — K — Bills

The last pick of your draft is almost always reserved for your kicker, although the best kickers have been coming off the board as early as Round 9. Lucky for us, the most woke kicker will be available in the final round of our fantasy football drafts.

Buffalo’s Stephen Hauschka has gone undrafted in most ESPN snake drafts, but finding a woke kicker is damn near impossible. Hauschka has at least said intelligent things as a result of having intelligent discussions with his former teammates in Seattle. He also has a powerful leg. He hit seven of nine field goal attempts from 50 yards or more last year, and Buffalo will likely attempt even more long field goals this season. If your league awards extra points for long field goals, Hauschka could be the difference between a win and a loss in head-to-head formats. His struggles with point-after attempts shouldn’t be a problem given how few touchdowns Buffalo will score this season.

Keep in mind that this is only a guide. Nearly 200 players protested racial injustices during the national anthem in one weekend last season, so there are plenty of players not listed here who are woke and worthy of consideration. These are just the top-ranked advocate-athletes my research revealed, but there’s probably someone out there who isn’t protesting during the anthem but making woke moves off the field worthy of All-Woke fantasy consideration.

We should be taking fantasy football about as seriously as I intend to in our Grandstand Central league. I’ve already devoted more time doing research than I wanted, but at least I now know it’s possible to draft an All-Woke fantasy football team without reaching too far for advocate-athletes. Thankfully, drafting a competitive fantasy football team and drafting players you can respect and for whom you can proudly root aren’t mutually exclusive, so draft a team of Kaepernick copycats before they’re blackballed or the anthem goes away entirely. Enjoy watching players who understand their profession doesn’t define them…who understand their advocacy is more important than the game they play and way more important than the fantasy games we play. Fantasy sports are all so ridiculous, so get ridiculous and rep your wokeness.

Update: Draft and Week 1


My fantasy football draft didn’t go as well as I would have liked. Yahoo Sports gave me a draft grade of “B.” It didn’t get off to a great start, as my first-round target Alvin Kamara came off the board right before I selected at seventh overall. Ezekiel Elliot was still on the board, but being a Dallas Cowboy and chest-grabber of women, I chose New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley with my first-round pick, who helped the Advocate Athletes to a Week 1 win over 3 Pats 1 Kupp, 156.70–146.65. In fact, the Advocate Athletes could have been the top-scoring team in the Granstand Central fantasy football league in Week 1 had I started the right tight end.

My second-round pick Mike Evans assisted the Athletes to a Week 1 win, but third-rounder Aaron Rodgers defied biology to truly carry the Athletes. Demaryius Thomas outplayed his projection, as did Kenny Stills — my 11th-round steal. My backup tight end Jared Cook is already my starting tight end with Delanie Walker out for the season, but Cook was the top tight end in fantasy points Week 1. That should continue with Derek Carr’s apparent fear of throwing to anyone else on his team.


This was originally published at Grandstand Central.

All rise. The sports court of public opinion we call Foul Play-by-Play is now in session, the dishonorable Anthony Varriano presiding over this podcast providing play-by-play and color commentary on foul play in sports, on courts and in them. The attorney of record and my co-host is Michael Haase of McLarty and Haase Law in Glendive, Montana.

Headlines

Headline 1: Maryland Football Player Dies of Heat Exhaustion; Wrongful Death Lawsuit Likely Coming Against University

After 19-year-old Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair died of apparent heat stroke from performing 110-yard sprints according to ESPN, the university placed head coach D.J. Durkin, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court and some trainers on leave while it investigates whether the staff was negligent. The McNair’s have also hired an attorney, who says a lawsuit is likely and Durkin should be fired.

ESPN conducted its own investigation, speaking to two current Maryland football players, former players and football staffers and multiple people close to the program. Here’s what they shared about the football culture under Durkin and Court:

  • There is a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation. Small weights and other objects were thrown by Court in the direction of players when Court was angry.
  • The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. A player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars while watching teammates work out.
  • Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.
  • Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively. One player said he was forced to eat until he threw up.

Durkin and Court’s coaching careers are certainly in jeopardy, but couldn’t they be charged with manslaughter at the very least, or is this just a wrongful death civil lawsuit?

Headline 2: UNC Suspends 13 Football Players for Selling Shoes

Thirteen North Carolina football players, including quarterback Chazz Surratt, were suspended between one and four games for selling school-issued shoes. The selling of the special edition Nike Jordan shoes is a secondary NCAA violation, and UNC self-reported the violation in January.

Since these shoes are uniquely manufactured for and distributed solely to UNC athletes, their rareness by His Airness can fetch upwards of $600 on Ebay, according to Joe Giglio.


Meanwhile, the NCAA changed rules to allow “elite” high school basketball prospects to hire agents and undergraduates to return to school if they enter the NBA Draft and aren’t selected. How hypocritical is it that a college basketball player can now hire an agent but not profit from his name, signature or shoes until he signs a contract and doesn’t need the money anymore?

These benefits for attending UNC don’t seem very beneficial. The NCAA has managed to make a benefit a burden. It’s often said possession is nine-tenths of the law. Well, what kind of possession is this if you can’t sell what you possess?

Headline 3: Former All-Star MLB Pitcher Esteban Loaiza Pleads Guilty to Federal Drug Charges

Former All-Star pitcher Esteban Loaiza pleaded guilty Friday to federal drug charges in California. Loaiza acknowledged that he possessed about 44 pounds, or 20 kilos of cocaine with the intent to distribute. He faces 10 years to life in prison when he’s sentenced on Nov. 2. Can we expect Loaiza to be granted leniency in this case since California prisons are still operating above capacity and at increased rates due to healthcare costs?

It might be difficult to imagine what would possess a man who made more than $43 million in Major League Baseball to risk his life trafficking cocaine, but Loaiza’s personal life is riddled with red flags. While few might remember Loaiza starting the 2003 MLB All-Star Game, Loaiza became a celebrity in Mexico after marrying Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera in 2010. This relationship likely granted Loaiza access to some of the most exclusive parties in Mexico, allowing him to experiment with drugs and meet some of the most powerful men in Mexico.

Those new relationships, both with the drugs and the drug dealers, likely persisted upon his wife filing for divorce in 2012 and then dying in a plane crash shortly after. As an addict myself, and someone who thinks we’re all addicts in some form, whether it be to drugs, alcohol, donuts or God, I can say with conviction that hard times make habits harder to break. For some people it takes a conviction to break those habits. 

What kind of sentence should Loaiza receive if the court has his best interests and the best interests of the state in mind?

Headline 4: LSU Suspends Linebacker who Allegedly Served as Getaway Driver in Burglary

Louisiana State University suspended sophomore linebacker Tyler Taylor indefinitely after being arrested for allegedly serving as getaway driver in a January burglary of a pawn shop. A months-long investigation resulted in Taylor’s arrest on May 31. He was charged with felony conspiracy to commit a crime, felony party to a crime and felony theft. He was released on $33,550 bond.

Taylor’s cell phone records indicated that he was at the pawn shop the morning of the burglary, another person arrested for the burglary gave him up, and Taylor’s mother apparently owns the getaway truck he was driving. Police also have surveillance footage of the burglary, so Taylor needs a legal miracle.

What kind of potential plea deal or sentence would allow Taylor to play football again, if not this season, someday?

Headline 5: NASCAR CEO Arrested for DUI, Oxycodone Possession

NASCAR, the sport of driving, had its CEO arrested for driving while intoxicated and possession of Oxycodone without a prescription. Brian France, grandson of NASCAR founder William France, was arrested at 7:30 p.m. last Sunday for failing to stop at a stop sign.

France was arraigned Monday morning and released on his own recognizance, having been charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated, a felony, and criminal possession of a controlled substance, a misdemeanor. The felony charge is a result of France having a blood-alcohol content of .18 percent or higher while behind the wheel in New York.

France could be suspended and required to complete a recovery program or be subject to drug testing under NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. Brian’s uncle, Jim, has taken over the duties of CEO during his nephew’s leave of absence.  

This isn’t the first time Brian France has been accused of foul play. Twelve years ago the Associated Press reported that a witness saw a silver Lexus owned by France traveling at a "very reckless speed" into a tree near his residence, and the driver "fell over his own feet" while exiting the car. France was never charged as a result, but “the incident did lead to the requirement that the highest-ranking supervisor on duty must be called to the scene of all DUI incidents and that no officer would report off-duty until his or her reports are complete,” according to Auto Week.

France has also been accused of checking into a Betty Ford Clinic for drug rehab by Jack Flowers in his book, The Dirt Under the Asphalt: An Underground History of Stock Car Racing.

How big a blow is this for NASCAR given its struggle to fill the stands lately? And should this motivate the France family to sell NASCAR despite their unwillingness to do so?

Headline 6: Wake Forest Assistant Basketball Coach on Leave after Punching Man who Died upon Impact with Ground

Wake Forest assistant basketball coach Jamill Jones was charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, and was subsequently placed on leave by the university. Jones turned himself in on Thursday after punching a man in the face early Sunday. The man died from injuries sustained upon impact with the ground. Jones was released on his own recognizance.

Sandor Szabo was treated for fractures to the left side of his face and the rear of his skull, along with bleeding of the brain. He was taken off life support Tuesday afternoon. The confrontation in question might have been a result of Szabo drunkenly knocking on car windows in the early hours of the morning.    

There’s certainly another “wrongful death” lawsuit here, although I almost blame Jones less for the death of Szabo than I do Maryland’s Durkin and Court in the death of McNair. 

Historically Foul Play

It’s time for Historically Foul Play, when we go back in time and examine foul play of the past, when DNA evidence made nothing evident because DNA hadn’t been discovered yet.

On August 9, 1905, Ty Cobb’s mother, Amanda Cobb, was arrested on charges of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Cobb’s father, William Herschel Cobb. Amanda said she thought her husband was an intruder trying to enter their home through the bedroom window when she shot him twice. But there had been rumors in town that William suspected his wife of infidelity and had unexpectedly returned home late that evening when she believed him to be out of town.

Cobb would make his Major League debut three weeks later, appearing in 41 games and hitting just .240 with a .588 OPS at the age of 18. It was the only season Cobb would hit below .300 in his 24-year career. His mother was ultimately acquitted in 1906, and in 1907, Cobb went on to lead the majors in hits, runs batted in, stolen bases, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, obviously, OPS+ and total bases. Seems that was a big weight of Cobb’s shoulders, eh Mike?

Statistically Significant Foul Play

Alright, let’s get statistical and make some informed inferences in a segment we call Statistically Significant Foul Play, where we do an analysis of statistics indicative of foul play.

Foul Play-by-Play, its hosts, nor its partners practice nor condone the accusatory promulgation of foul play by athletes for the sake of the hot take. Cheats are innocent until proven guilty. That said, in this case of statistically significant foul play, I’d like to admit into evidence the following significant statistics indicating foul play.

Amongst the top 10 players in Major League Baseball when it comes to being hit by pitches, the Tampa Bay Rays have three, including the league leader, Carlos Gomez, with 18. C.J. Cron has been plunked 14 times and Daniel Robertson has taken 13 for the team.

The Rays’ 74 hit batters is seven more than the second-place Texas Rangers and 51 more than the last-place Minnesota Twins. 

I’m not calling the defendants cheats. I’m just sayin’ the statistics are significant indicators of foul play. I trust the jurors will make the right decision and find the defendant guilty of foul play given the evidence. I rest my case.

Worst Instances of Foul Play in Films Linked to Sports

Mike and I have each ranked films featuring both foul play and sports, with the highest ranked film featuring the most foul play in a film featuring sports. These aren’t sports movies featuring foul play, mind you. These are movies with instances of foul play that have a link to sports, however flimsy that link may be.

For instance, the Matt Damon trifecta would be:

3) Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon and the late, great Robin Williams reenact Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. The foul play, of course, is Will Hunting assaulting a police officer, with the most foul play being Will’s pushing away of Skylar.

2) Stuck On You, in which Damon’s Bob Tenor and Greg Kinnear’s Walt Tenor play goalie in an adult hockey league as conjoined twins. They’re also a good golfer and caddy combo, a switch-pitching pitcher in baseball, a terror in a boxing ring, and not bad on the tennis court, either. They’re also Martha’s Vineyard legends for their high school football legacies. The foul play in this one is Bob’s DUI resulting from Greg’s excessive drinking in order to convince his brother to have a surgery to separate them.

1) The Rainmaker, in which a softball bat is the preferred weapon of Kelly Riker’s abusive husband, whom Damon kills with said bat in self defense.

Anthony’s Top Three Films featuring Foul Play and Sports

3) The Naked Gun: Ricardo Montalban brainwashes a baseball player to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II, but Leslie Nielsen goes undercover as an umpire with a generous strike zone and emphatic third-strike calls to “get his man.”

2) A Few Good Men: Tom Cruise thinks better with his bat, and he plays softball while negotiating a plea deal with Kevin Bacon. The most foul play is Jack Nicholson covering up his involvement in the death of a Marine.

1) The Fan: A San Francisco Giants superfan and knife salesman played by Robert De Niro is thrilled to have Wesley Snipes join the team, but his early performance leaves much to be desired. So the fan solves the problem by murdering the Giants’ player wearing Snipes’s lucky number 11. While stalking Snipes, De Niro saves his son from drowning, only to kidnap him and hold him hostage until he gets some appreciation, despite Snipes being unaware of the fan’s criminal contributions. 

All rise. The sports court of public opinion we call Foul Play-by-Play is now in session, providing play-by-play and color commentary on foul play in sports on and off the field, pitch, court, and ice.

Headlines

Headline 1: Urban Meyer Placed on Paid Administrative Leave

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer was placed on administrative leave after former ESPN journalist Brett McMurphy obtained text messages and an exclusive interview showing Meyer knew in 2015 of domestic abuse allegations against his assistant coach, Zach Smith, yet retained him anyway. The university has formed what it called a “special, independent board working group” to investigate the allegations.

Meyer said had he known of the allegations, he would have fired Smith in 2015 instead of last week after the alleged domestic violence was first reported. But Meyer and Smith go way back. Smith was Meyer’s longest-serving assistant and even played for Meyer at Bowling Green before interning for Meyer at Florida, where the first domestic violence accusations surfaced.

According to McMurphy, Smith first physically abused his wife, Courtney, on June 21, 2009 in Gainesville, Florida when she was eight to 10 weeks pregnant. Meyer and his wife threw a party celebrating Florida’s second championship in three seasons. After the party, Courtney said she went home while her husband went out with friends.

Courtney said Zach returned home drunk around 3 a.m. with Meyer’s secretary at the time, whom Zach called “baby” and pleaded with Courtney to allow her to spend the night with them after reportedly breaking up with her boyfriend. Courtney refused and drove the woman home, but upon returning, a heated argument turned violent, with Zach allegedly throwing his wife against their bedroom wall. That was the Smiths’ one-year wedding anniversary.

Zach was arrested for aggravated battery on a pregnant victim, and Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days that he and his wife advised the Smiths to try counseling. A few days after the arrest, Courtney said two of Meyer’s closest friends asked her to drop the charges against her husband, and ultimately pressured her to do so. She did, thinking it would never happen again, which seems to be a common mistake of domestic abuse victims.

Courtney said she left her husband on June 6, 2015, but the abuse didn’t stop until Courtney was granted a restraining order against Zach on Nov. 10, 2015. She filed for divorce two days later. Cleveland.com reports that Powell (Ohio) police visited the Smiths’ home nine times in response to domestic disputes between January 1, 2012 and July 26, 2018.

Courtney spoke frequently with Meyer’s wife, Shelley, a nurse, about her abusive relationship, yet Meyer claimed ignorance of any abuse occurring after the 2009 incident.

Meyer, of course, is not unfamiliar with allegations of foul play brought against his football programs. During his time at Florida, Gator football players amassed 251 traffic citations, his best defensive player was suspended for a DUI prior to the SEC Championship game, and freshman foul player Aaron Hernandez suckerpunched an employee of a Gainesville bar, rupturing his eardrum. Hernandez also went unquestioned by police or his coach despite being a suspect in a 2007 shooting that left two men injured, with one shot in the back of the head. That attempted homicide remains unsolved.

Meyer mostly avoided being muddied by his Gators’ allegations, not because he won, but because he had the good guy on his side. Not God, but a God-fearing quarterback so squeaky clean and contagiously charismatic he stole the spotlight, allowing his teammates to remain in the shadows. Tim Tebow was Urban Meyer’s guardian angel. Tebow protected Meyer as he did the football. Meyer no longer has that protection and the mud is being flung.   

Meyer’s battle for his job will be fought on two fronts. While an investigation determines his knowledge of his assistant coach’s alleged transgressions, he’ll also have to address allegations of verbal and physical abuse brought by former Florida players. If his ignorance of his assistant coach’s domestic abuse history since the incident in 2009 is confirmed or unconfirmable, Meyer could still lose his job if any of the players’ stories are substantiated.

If the Bryan Colangelo Twitter scandal is any indication, Meyer’s wife can’t necessarily save her husband’s job by saying she never told him about Courtney’s claims. Colangelo’s wife took all the blame and her husband was still forced to resign. I imagine that’s what’s coming for Meyer, too, especially with the players painting him as abusive just like Smith. What are your thoughts?

Headline 2: Ex-OSU Wrestling Coach asked Ex-wrestlers to Support U.S. Representative Jim Jordan, Who They Allege Ignored Sexual Abuse Reports against Team Doctor

It gets worse for The Ohio State University, as retired OSU wrestling coach Russ Hellickson asked former Buckeye wrestlers to support former assistant coach and current U.S. Representative Jim Jordan, who they allege ignored reports of sexual abuse by a team doctor.

Jordan is seeking to succeed retiring Speaker of the House Paul Ryan if Republicans retain a majority in the House after the midterm elections. But he won’t do it with help from the two OSU wrestlers Hellickson contacted. They came forward earlier this year alleging former team doctor Richard Strauss committed sexual abuse and harassment, saying Jordan knew about it and failed to act when serving as assistant coach between 1986 and 1994.  

More than 100 former students have told independent investigators that they were victims of Strauss, who took his own life in 2005. While Strauss won’t serve the time for his alleged crimes, Jordan could face similar charges as former Penn State officials Gary Schultz, Graham Spanier and Tim Curley, who were sentenced to at least two months in jail for failing to alert authorities of Jerry Sandusky’s molestation of young boys in 2001. Judging by the number of alleged victims in this case, however, it would stand to reason Jordan would be subject to an even harsher sentence if charged and convicted.

Headline 3: Conor McGregor Avoids Jail Time with Plea Deal

UFC’s biggest star, Conor McGregor, avoided jail time by pleading guilty to a single count of disorderly conduct in an agreement reached with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office on Thursday, according to Brett Okamoto of ESPN. The charge stems from an incident occurring April 5th at Barclay’s Center, during which McGregor was caught on video throwing a metal dolly and breaking the window of a bus carrying UFC athletes and employees..

McGregor will serve no jail time, have no criminal record and his travel visa will be unaffected despite facing 12 criminal charges related to the incident, including two felony criminal mischief charges and three assault charges. Those charges carried a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, but instead McGregor could return to the octagon by the end of the year having paid restitution for damages, serving five days of community service and completing an anger management program lasting one to three days.

A potential lightweight title fight between McGregor (21-3) and current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0) could arguably be the biggest fight in UFC history. Nurmagomedov was the target of McGregor’s actions in April.

McGregor, 30, obviously got a good plea deal. Most people wouldn’t get 12 charges dropped down to one misdemeanor in exchange for paying restitution, serving five days of community service and doing a joke’s-worth of anger management therapy considering McGregor’s clear anger issues.

Headline 4: Art Briles gets Coaching Job in Italy

While Urban Meyer might be on his way out, former Baylor football coach Art Briles is on his way back into coaching. He took a job coaching an American football team in a 12-team league in Italy playing by NCAA rules. Briles is just two years removed from being removed as head coach at Baylor amidst the sexual assault scandal involving multiple football players committing crimes university officials failed to act upon after they were alleged.

If Briles is any indication of what we can expect, Urban Meyer might be coaching in the NFL next year. With crimes as egregious as those committed by players Briles recruited have him coaching again when two years ago most thought he ever would, Meyer claiming ignorance of his co-worker’s spousal abuse might not be a problem for, say, the nearby Browns. 

Headline 4: Iowa Football Players Struggle to Stay Sober

The Iowa Hawkeyes will be without two of its starters for the first game of the season against Northern Illinois on Sept. 1 due to alcohol-related citations. Defensive tackle Brady Reiff was arrested for public intoxication in Iowa City after mistaking a police cruiser for an Uber, and eight days later offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs was ticketed for driving while intoxicated. I haven’t spent much time in Iowa, but I imagine it’s not as heavenly as Field of Dreams advertises, and judging from the damage left by vandals taking a joy ride through the iconic field in January, there’s evidence indicating a lack of entertainment options besides drinking and driving. 

 

Headline 6: Cowboys’ Terrance Williams has Charge Dismissed

Terrance Williams, who allegedly crashed his Lamborghini into a light pole and then left the scene of the accident, had a public intoxication charge stemming from the incident dismissed according to his attorney. Williams somehow was never charged with leaving the scene of an accident, and the Class C misdemeanor is the equivalent of a speeding ticket requiring payment of a fine and completion of a state-mandated Alcohol Awareness Education course, which Williams has already done.

Not only did Williams avoid criminal charges, but his completion of the diversion course makes a suspension from the NFL unlikely, and even if he were to be suspended, it would likely come in 2019 and not this season. Does Jerry Jones just make a phone call to make this stuff go away or what?

Cheats of the Week

It’s time for everyone’s favorite segment, where we award the most foul cheats in sports over the past week in what we call Cheats of the Week.

Winner of the Bronze Balls award this week isn’t even an athlete, unless you consider crime a sport, and it very well could be in certain circumstances. In this case, the crime required a team of players led by ex-cop Jerome Jacobson, who rigged the McDonald’s Monopoly game and won almost every prize for 12 years until the FBI launched an investigation and sting operation. The team of “mobsters, psychics, strip-club owners, convicts, drug traffickers, and even a family of Mormons” defrauded McDonald’s of more than $24 million in cash and prizes, according to Jeff Maysh of The Daily Beast

The Silver Syringe goes to swimmer and boozing bad boy of the Rio Olympics, Ryan Lochte, who was again banned from competition by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency until July of next year for receiving an intravenous injection of permitted substances in May. While the substances weren’t prohibited, athletes can’t receive IVs without an exemption or unless it’s a result of hospitalization. Neither was the case for Lochte, who incriminated himself by posting a photo to social media while receiving the IV, making him quite possibly the worst cheat we’ve mentioned on the show. Regardless of U.S. Anti-Doping rules, why would anyone feel the need to not only photograph but publicize their intravenous injection to the world?  

Our two-bit cheat of the week is Italian cyclist Gianni Moscon, who was kicked out of the Tour de France after punching a French cyclist in the face during the first 800 meters of Stage 15 last Sunday. This isn’t the first time Moscon has been guilty of foul play, which brings us to our next segment, Historically Foul Play, when we go back in time and relive foul play and foul players of the past.

Historically Foul Play

Last year, Moscon was suspended six weeks and required to complete diversity training after berating another cyclist with racist insults. Fresh off the suspension, Moscon was accused of deliberately causing Sebastien Reichenbach to crash, fracturing his elbow and hip. He was cleared of any wrongdoing due to a lack of evidence. And a couple months after that incidental accident, Moscon was disqualified from the UCI Road World Championships for being towed too far by the team car into a 29th-place finish after a crash with just under 24 miles to go.

I wish I would have known this Italian bad boy of cycling existed prior to this week. I might have tuned into the Tour de France to see this foul play tour de force culminate in a scene straight out of Road Rash, the video game. 

All rise, and welcome to this sports court of public opinion we call Foul Play-by-Play -- the podcast that provides play-by-play and color commentary on foul play in sports on and off the field, pitch, court, and ice.

Headlines

Headline 1: Dolphins First to Release Potential Penalties for Anthem Protests

Since the Miami Dolphins are one of the first NFL teams to report to training camp, they were the first to put police brutality protest penalties in writing, as required by the league. I’m calling them police brutality protests instead of anthem protests because that’s what they are: the players are protesting police brutality against minorities, not the national anthem. Yet the media was quick to dub the protests as anthem protests, which has stuck.

If you search Google using the terms “anthem protest” you get 13.6 million hits. Using the search terms “anthem protests” you get almost 1.5 million hits. If you search “police brutality protests” you get just 187,000 hits, so simply assigning a name to these protests

The Dolphins stuffed the police brutality protests in with other acts of conduct deemed “detrimental to the club” punishable by up to four-game suspensions, but they reportedly have no intent of suspending players four games for protesting the national anthem. Co-owner of the New York Giants, Steve Tisch, has since announced that their players will not be subject to penalties for protesting police brutality during the national anthem.

The public backlash to the Dolphins’ announcement has forced the NFL to put a freeze on its national anthem protest policy, and the NFL Players’ Association and the NFL are finally working out an agreement to end the anthem feud, as should have been the case in the first place given the collective bargaining agreement.

Since the Dolphins’ announcement and resulting public backlash, Donald Trump has tweeted his displeasure with the anthem dispute, tweeting, “Isn’t it in contract that players must stand at attention, hand on heart? The $40,000,000 Commissioner must now make a stand. First time kneeling, out for game. Second time kneeling, out for season/no pay!”

To answer your question Donald, players’ contracts do not include an anthem clause and neither does the collective bargaining agreement, and the commissioner taking your recommended stand could be devastating to the league given the NFL Players’ Association membership being almost 70-percent black. That union, at least, still has power. There is no NFL if only the black players protest during the anthem, and it hasn’t been just black players protesting.

I imagine the players value their right to protest less than guaranteed contracts but more than the right to use cannabis. On the topic of guaranteed contracts...

Headline 2: Le’Veon Bell to Play Without Job Security for Third Straight Season

For a third consecutive season, running back Le’Veon Bell will play for the Steelers without a long-term contract in place, providing him no job security if he were to be injured in 2018. Pittsburgh’s final offer to Bell, which is likely to be the final contract the Steelers ever offer Bell, was reportedly worth $70 million over five years. But it only contained $10 million in guaranteed money, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport. And Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com tweeted that the deal would have been virtually identical to...the last contract” Pittsburgh offered because the boosts in value would have been based on the increase in value of the running back franchise tag.

Bell’s franchise tag with Pittsburgh will pay him $14.55 million this season, but if he were to be injured, Bell might end up with a mostly unguaranteed contract in 2019 if he’s healthy enough to play at all.

Bell isn’t the only player griping about the NFL’s non-guaranteed contracts, but running backs seem to be the loudest proponents for guaranteed contracts and for good reason. Los Angeles Rams’ running back Todd Gurley told TMZ Sports that all NFL players deserve guaranteed contracts and expects a lockout by the players to get them in 2021.

Running back DeMarco Murray chose to retire at age 30, and during his short, seven-year career, Murray amassed just over $25 million. That’s what Yu Darvish will make this season despite spending much of it on the disabled list. Murray, remember, led the league in rushing and yards from scrimmage just four years ago. So a guy who was arguably the best player in the sport at one time made the same amount of money over his career as a top-30 starting pitcher will make this season despite appearing in just eight games thus far.

Major League Baseball, though, is not a hard-capped league. Owners could theoretically spend as much as they want on players, although not without paying a hefty competitive-balance tax. The same goes for the NBA, but the NFL and NHL owners benefit from a hard salary cap that limits the earning potential of players. It seems NFL players are better positioned in bargaining than they’ve ever been given decreasing viewership and youth participation. So what are the chances the NFLPA challenges the hard cap with a 2021 lockout, and how ugly is this round of collective bargaining going to get? And will it end the way the players want, with guaranteed contracts for all NFL players?

Headline 3: Randy Gregory, Banished for Cannabis Use to Deal with Anxiety, Earns NFL Reinstatement

Dallas Cowboys pass rusher Randy Gregory has been reinstated by the NFL, ending a two-year banishment for repeat violations of the league’s Substances of Abuse Policy. Gregory’s use of cannabis while at Nebraska is well documented, and he’s told multiple media outlets that he used the drug to cope with anxiety.

With the STATES Act getting the support of Congressmen and -women on both sides of the aisle, it seems the end of cannabis prohibition will be determined by each individual state. It’s safe to say Texas might be one of the last states to adopt medical cannabis laws, but regardless of the laws in Texas, the STATES Act would still allow the NFL to prohibit cannabis use, medically or otherwise and in states where it's legal or otherwise. With cannabis remaining federally illegal, the NFL can pretty much demand what it wants of its employees regardless of state law. But the NFL Players’ Association can and should make it a point to demand cannabis prohibition end in the NFL.

On the show two months ago we talked about a high school football player whose use of CBD oil, the non-psychoactive chemical in cannabis that has healing and pain relieving properties, eased his seizures so he could play the game. But the .3 percent of THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis responsible for its euphoric effects, still present in his medicine made it impossible for him to realize his dream of playing for the Auburn Tigers due to NCAA rules. “We don’t want kids to give up their dreams of playing football for a living because there’s fewer and fewer of those kids in existence everyday due to concussion fears” seems like a strong message the NFLPA can use to get what it wants on this front.

Headline 4: Josh Hader Required to Complete Sensitivity Training for Tweets Made at 17 Years Old

Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader’s first All-Star appearance didn’t go very well, allowing three runs on four hits in a third of an inning, but what awaited him after the game was even worse.

Jeff Passan reported for Yahoo Sports that Twitter users uncovered a series of racist, sexist and homophobic tweets Hader made over an eight-month period when he was 17 years old. Hader thrice used the n-word, used the fist emoji followed by “white power lol” and another time tweeted, simply, “KKK.” “I hate gay people,” one tweet read, and two months before the Orioles drafted him in 2012, Hader tweeted, “Need a bitch that can bleep, cook, clean, right.”

Hader’s family and friends in attendance at the All-Star Game left Nationals Park with their Hader jerseys either inside-out or covered by generic, no-name National League All-Star jerseys. After the game, Hader called his comments “inexcusable” and said he was “deeply sorry” for what he said. “There’s nothing before that I believe now,” he added. “When you’re a kid, you tweet what’s on your mind.”

Regardless of age, those thoughts being on anyone’s mind should be troubling to anyone, and in my mind, it’s partially a result of just white, old-timers being white, old-timers and teaching their kids outdated and offensive habits, and partially a result of the segregation that persists in this country in the form of gentrification. Hader graduated from high school in Millersville, Maryland where 55 percent of enrolled students are minorities, according to U.S. News and World Report. But 71.3 percent of the city’s population is white.

Here in Minneapolis we have school segregation disguised as a “right to choose.” That is, parents and students have the so-called “right to choose” in which school they want to enroll, resulting in taxpayers like me paying more to bus white kids to mostly white schools further from the diverse neighborhoods in which they live.

Maryland also prides itself as a “right to choose” state, offering vouchers to low-income students to attend private and charter schools instead of public schools where the majority of students are minorities. That wasn’t the case for Hader, but he was sounding like Donald Trump before Donald Trump started sounding like Donald Trump. Hader’s tweets were published a year prior to the 2012 election that didn’t include Trump, but did see Barack Obama earn reelection by beating the pants off Mitt Romney.

So from where does this seemingly growing racist and sexist sentiment of young, white men start? Is it a direct result of the reign of white presidents coming to an end and a sense that white men’s power is finally being threatened?

Headline 5: Marcell Dareus Faces Two Sexual Assault Lawsuits

Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is facing two lawsuits alleging sexual assault. The first, brought by an unidentified Texas woman, accuses Dareus of sexual assault and transmission of a sexually transmitted disease, according to Chris Parenteau of News 4 Jacksonville.

The second lawsuit stems from an alleged incident occurring in Florida in January 2017, according to Greg Aumen of the Tampa Bay Times. Dareus rented a mansion in Florida the week of the college football national championship game and allegedly invited the accuser to an afterparty at the mansion, where she said Dareus groped her against her wishes. She then “blacked out” from drinking too much alcohol and awoke next to a naked Dareus, aware that sexual acts had been committed.

Dareus will move to have the second lawsuit dismissed on Aug. 9, but regardless of how the lawsuits are settled, Dareus would be subject to suspension by the NFL and for a considerable amount of time. The baseline suspension for sexual assault is six games, but the NFL hasn’t had to issue a punishment for multiple allegations as of yet, meaning Dareus could miss up to 12 games this season.

Headline 6: Cardinals GM Suspended After Pleading Guilty to Extreme DUI

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was suspended by the team for five weeks and fined $200,000 after pleading guilty to extreme driving under intoxication on Tuesday. The suspension stems from an incident occurring the night of July 4th. Keim was arrested, booked and released the same night, but shouldn’t NFL GMs and owners be subject to the same conduct policy as the players?

Headline 7: Olympic Figure Skating Medalist Denis Ten is Murdered

Olympic figure skating medalist Denis Ten was murdered Thursday in Kazakhstan by a man who has since confessed to the crime in the presence of an attorney. Ten was stabbed after a dispute with people who allegedly tried to steal a mirror from his car in his home city. He died in the hospital of massive blood loss from multiple wounds, the Kazinform news agency said.

Cheats of the Week

Our dishonorable mention this week is Milwaukee Bucks center Thon Maker, who was suspended three FIBA matches for delivering multiple flying kicks during a brawl between Australia and the Philippines in a World Cup qualifying match on July 2nd. Do you agree that flying kicks by a seven-footer would be considered cheating in a basketball brawl, Mike?

Winner of the Bronze Balls award this week is Jacksonville Jaguars pass rusher Dante Fowler, who was suspended for the first game of the 2018 season. Fowler’s bronze balls are massive, as he refereed a fight between his baby momma and current girlfriend in February of 2016, a video of which TMZ released. Fowler also has 10 traffic violations since December of 2015, and is charged with misdemeanor battery and mischief after an arrest on Tuesday. All of this comes in a contract year for Fowler, Mike.

The Silver Syringe goes to New York Jets receiver ArDarius Stewart, who tested positive for a substance designed to mask performance-enhancing drug use, Ian Rapoport reports. While a suspension hasn’t been announced, it’s expected to keep Stewart out for two games.

Our two-bit cheat of the week is former New York Knicks center Charles Oakley, who was arrested in Las Vegas for pulling back a $100 chip he wagered after learning he had lost his bet.

Historically Foul Play

Let’s get nostalgic and talk about foul play of the past, when news was delivered on paper and milk in reusable glass bottles. Here’s your sports-crime history lesson we call Historically Foul Play.

On July 20th, 1944, en route to a 20-win season, St. Louis Browns’ ace Nelson Potter became the first player in big-league history to be ejected and suspended for throwing spitballs. Potter denied ever loading up the ball with anything, and returned to play a big part as a reliever and spot starter in the Boston Braves’ World Series appearance in 1948.

The last player to be ejected and suspended for using a substance on baseballs is former Yankee and current Twin Michael Pineda, who was ejected and suspended for loading the ball with pine tar back in 2014. 

The Major League Baseball (MLB) Trade Deadline is July 31, and the weeks leading up to it give fans of every team at least one reason for hope regardless of the standings. Even fans of the last-place Baltimore Orioles have reason for hope at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline, despite the seemingly silly salary of Chris Davis, whom the Orioles owe $92 million over the next four years, and the depreciated value of both Zach Britton and Brad Brach. I wrote that they should have been sellers at the Trade Deadline last season, but last season’s failures could still end up successes of seasons to come. Here’s every fan’s reason for hope at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline.

The Contenders

Boston Red Sox

Reason for hope: Plenty of affordable bullpen arms available

The Red Sox are in a good place at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline, but every team’s bullpen could be deeper come August, September and October. The Red Sox have the fifth-best bullpen based on FanGraph’s version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), so adding a veteran reliever like Zach Britton to open a sixth or seventh inning instead of relying on 29-year-old Heath Hembree might give Boston’s bullpen the boost it needs to challenge the Yankees’ MLB-best bullpen.

 

Boston also has some room to improve at second base if Dustin Pedroia does indeed miss the rest of the season due to a troublesome knee. The Red Sox have been linked to Whit Merrifield, who would give them a long-term insurance plan at the position if Pedroia continues to struggle with injuries. Merrifield is cheap (for now), arbitration eligible for the first time in 2020 and comes with team-control through 2022. He will not be cheap to acquire, however. Brian Dozier could be an alternative option as an affordable rental if the Twins are still committed to selling at the deadline.

New York Yankees

Reason for hope: Manny Machado and Miguel Andujar

The Yankees look to be in need of a Game 3 starter who can swing a playoff series in their direction, but New York’s focus has been on acquiring the best player available at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline: Manny Machado.

 

The Yankees don’t need a shortstop, and they don’t look to be in need of a third baseman given Miguel Andujar’s .818 OPS at just 23 years old. But Andujar could be traded to acquire that starter the Yankees need to hang with the Astros, Indians and Red Sox, all of whom’s starters have performed better than the Yankees’ this year.

 

Toronto’s J.A. Happ is a “realistic” trade target the Yankees are considering according to Jon Heyman, and could be the Game 3 starter who swings the momentum of a playoff series the Yankees’ way. Happ earned a win over Houston allowing three earned runs over six innings earlier this season and has allowed just .938 walks/hits per inning pitched (WHIP) in two starts against Boston. His start against Seattle was a disaster, though, lasting just three and a third innings after allowing seven earned runs.

Houston Astros

Reason for hope: Bullpen buyers’ market and Wilson Ramos

The defending champions have almost everything they need to repeat as champions. The Astros’ starting rotation has been almost 14 wins better than a replacement play – the best in baseball. Houston’s starters are so good that Collin McHugh was forced into a bullpen role, where he’s amassed an incredible ERA+ of 392.

 

The Astros, like every other contender, is looking to add bullpen depth at the Trade Deadline, and like the Red Sox, they’ve shown interest in Britton according the Heyman. With Ken Giles being optioned to Triple-A, Houston has reason to acquire a reliever despite its bullpen ranking second in MLB in WAR thus far in 2018.

 

The Astros aren’t reading too much into the success of catcher Max Stassi and his .804 OPS over 177 plate appearances either. And while Brian McCann is expected to return from arthroscopic right knee surgery in September, his .606 OPS over 173 plate appearances leaves a lot to be desired, even when considering the hitting ineptitude of catchers throughout the league.

 

That’s why the Astros contacted Tampa Bay about pending free agent and All-Star Wilson Ramos, whose proven ability to hit (.751 career OPS) will be even more evident given Houston’s deep lineup. His deficiencies behind the dish (6 defensive runs below average over 1,200 innings this season) would also be less impactful given the pitchers he’d be catching in Houston compared to those he’s catching with the Rays.

Chicago Cubs

Reason for hope: Yu Darvish or J.A. Happ

The Cubs might make the second-best addition at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline and do so without surrendering anything in a trade, but that possibility is looking less and less likely everyday. Yu Darvish experienced pain in his elbow after a bullpen session that followed a rehab start in the minors, so the Cubs don’t know when or if he’ll be available.

 

The Cubs lead the National League in run differential, and by 25 runs as of this writing, making their 23rd-ranked starting pitching WAR less of a concern. That won’t be the case against an American League contender, however. The Astros, Red Sox and Yankees all have higher run differentials than the Cubs, which is why J.A. Happ has been on Chicago’s radar according to Bob Elliot of the Toronto Sun. If Darvish gets bad news, the Cubs will have to add a starter to have a chance at winning a second World Series in three years.

Cleveland Indians

Reason for hope: Buyers’ market for bullpen arms, Andrew Miller’s return, and maybe Adam Jones

The Cleveland Indians’ bullpen, once the team’s biggest strength, has become the team’s biggest weakness. Cleveland’s Cody Allen, who was almost unhittable last season, blew a four-run, ninth-inning lead over the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday, allowing six runs in two-thirds of an inning after Trevor Bauer tossed eight shutout innings. The Indians lost 7-4, breathing new life into a Minnesota Twins team that was 11.5 games behind Cleveland in the American League Central Division and announcing the availability of its pending free agents. The Twins are just 7.5 games back as of this writing and

 

While Andrew Miller is expected to return after the MLB All-Star Break, his return won’t make Cleveland’s bullpen playoff-ready. Allen’s struggles aren’t a result of bad luck. While his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.92 is evidence that his team’s defense is at least somewhat responsible for his bloated 4.66 Earned Run Average (ERA), Allen’s soft contact percentage of 8.9 percent thus far this season is a career low and way down from the career high of 22.2 percent he set last season.

 

Allen’s not the only Cleveland reliever struggling either. The Indians are last in bullpen ERA and home run rate allowed, and second to last in bullpen WAR, according to FanGraphs. So Cleveland needs all the bullpen help it can get at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline.

 

The Indians have also shown interest in center fielder Adam Jones of the Orioles because their center fielders Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen have left much to be desired when a bat’s in their hands. The two have averaged a .576 OPS between them.

 

Baltimore is the perfect trade partner for Cleveland because the Indians could also acquire the bullpen help it needs in the form of Zach Britton, who is finally starting to look like his old self according to Jon Heyman of Fancred. Brad Brach, on the other hand, has surrendered hard contact on nearly a third of batted balls against him, a career high. Acquiring one reliever won’t likely be enough for Cleveland to contend for a championship, so they’re lucky it’s a buyers’ market for bullpen arms at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline.

The Buyers

Seattle Mariners

Reason for hope: Robinson Cano’s return, Dee Gordon’s flexibility

I said prior to Opening Day that Dee Gordon’s transition to center field would be an adventure worth watching, and it was. While Gordon’s speed and athleticism was often displayed on highlight reels, he was well below average in center field (35 runs below average per 1,200 innings). But Robinson Cano’s suspension for performance-enhancing drug use makes the acquisition of Gordon one of the best deals Seattle won’t have to make at the Trade Deadline. The acquisitions of Denard Span (.842 OPS in 124 plate appearances) and Alex Colome (16 Ks in 16.2 innings pitched) at the end of May have provided the roster depth necessary for Seattle to make a push for the postseason as well.

 

Seattle will get Cano back on Aug. 14, which will be like adding an All-Star prior to the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline. But unlike a waiver acquisition, Cano can’t participate in the postseason, so Jean Segura and Gordon will be the Mariners’ middle infielders should they make the playoffs, leaving a big hole in a lineup that struggles to score runs.

 

Recent recipient of a contract extension, Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto hasn’t been in a hurry to announce any trade targets at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline, even with both James Paxton and Felix Hernandez hitting the 10-day disabled list with minor back issues. Regardless, the Mariners’ eighth-ranked bullpen and 11th-ranked starting rotation according to FanGraphs’ WAR won’t be good enough to contend for a championship given their 20th-ranked offense in runs scored, so bringing another bat to Seattle might be necessary. Perhaps an Adam Jones reunion is in order given the Mariners’ .692 OPS from center fielders this season.

Washington Nationals

Reason for hope: Bullpen buyers’ market, Stephen Strasburg, Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton, and Matt Wieters or Wilson Ramos

Stephen Strasburg and Sean Doolittle are potentially huge additions expected to come of the DL prior to the Trade Deadline, and the Nationals have already gotten Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy and catcher Matt Wieters back from injury just in time to save their season – the last of their quickly closing World Series window.

 

Washington is still in pursuit of a catcher like Ramos to push Wieters into a backup role, and while the Nationals have the eighth-best starting rotation in baseball, their 23rd-ranked bullpen is in dire need of an upgrade. Expect Washington to pursue pending free agents to improve its bullpen to allow for maximum flexibility in free agency this offseason.

Milwaukee Brewers

Reason for hope: Eduardo Escobar and Brian Dozier...if the Twins actually sell

The Brewers were surprisingly good last year, and continue to surprise just about everyone by holding a one-game lead over the Cubs in the National League Central as of this writing. The starting rotation consists of no one you’ve heard of and the lineup is a collage of castaways, overachieving prospects and Ryan Braun. Their +55 run differential is 50 runs worse than the Cubs, but the Brewers’ bullpen is fantastic, especially Josh Hader – Milwaukee’s version of Andrew Miller.

 

Despite losing new acquisition Lorenzo Cain to injury, the Brewers continue to impress. But scoring the top bat available at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline could help them overcome their 17th-ranked offense in runs scored. They were in the bottom third of the league in runs scored last year, so the Brewers are better, but will end up fighting for a Wild Card spot regardless of what they do at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline, and they’ll need to do something big to hold off the Diamondbacks or Dodgers.

 

Milwaukee can improve most at both middle infield positions. The Brewers have been active in the Machado sweepstakes, but are unlikely to win his services according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. So the Brewers will have to hope the Twins’ recent success doesn’t deter them from trading pending free agents Eduardo Escobar and Brian Dozier, in whom Jon Morosi of MLB.com reports the Brewers’ interest.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Reason for hope: Adding another Zack to go with Greinke, Godley

Also leading their division as of this writing, the Diamondbacks will need to add at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline in order to hold off the Dodgers, who have been trending up and carry a run differential 36 runs better than Arizona’s as of July 13.

 

The Diamondbacks still have Zack Greinke, who allowed more home runs last year (25) than he had since his rookie year in 2004 (26), but the new baseball humidor in Arizona has made him even better in 2018.

 

Behind Greinke, though, only Patrick Corbin can be considered reliable for Arizona. Clay Bucholtz is on the 10-day disabled list with a strained oblique. Robbie Ray is averaging five walks per nine innings, and Zack Godley isn’t doing much better (4.7 walks per nine innings).

 

The Diamondbacks need a middle-of-the-rotation starter who can give them a chance in Game 3 of a playoff series, and adding a third Zack to the roster might be the solution. Arizona has expressed interest in the Mets’ Zack Wheeler, who is controlled through next season if Arizona loses Corbin to free agency this offseason.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Reason for hope: Clayton Kershaw once more, Manny Machado if they’re desperate, or Whit Merrifield, if they’re smart

Clayton Kershaw is back in what could be his last season with the Dodgers. He’s looked like his old self after coming off the disabled list, but the Dodgers needed more than Kershaw last season and need much more this season.

 

The Dodgers are considered a favorite to land Machado, which is the kind of addition Los Angeles would need to make at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline in order to contend for a title. If the Dodgers’ plan is to move Chris Taylor to second base for Logan Forsythe and plug Machado in at shortstop, they might be better off long-term adding Whit Merrifield given his lower cost, both in terms of prospects surrendered and salary owed. Plus, with Chase Utley retiring after the season, and Forsythe a free agent at the end of the year, the Dodgers could use a long-term, affordable second baseman who will improve the Dodgers’ 25th-ranked defense if Kershaw isn’t in LA to hide the Dodgers defensive deficiencies next year.

 

Per Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, the Dodgers are also linked to the Reds’ Scooter Gennett, who doesn’t anticipate being traded Mark Sheldon reports for MLB.com. The Mets’ Asdrubal Cabrera also has the Dodgers’ attention, as does Josh Harrison of Pittsburgh per Mike Berardino of St. Paul. LA’s exploring all options because these could be the last of Kershaw’s Dodger days.  

Philadelphia Phillies

Reason for hope: Manny Machado, bullpen buyers’ market

Prior to Opening Day, I wrote that the Phillies weren’t as far from contending as some people thought thanks to their young talent being quick studies at the MLB level. They’ve proven me right, but why the Phillies are willing to trade the farm for not even half a season of Machado is beyond me.

 

The Phillies without Machado can make the playoffs and compete with anyone in the National League thanks to its NL-best starting rotation, which might be why they’re so eager to land the best player available at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline. They think Jake Arrieta, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin can hang with the Cubs, Dodgers and Nationals, and they might be right.

 

Eflin was brilliant in one start against the Cubs, has two wins against the Brewers and one more against the Nationals. Nola allowed just two hits and one run over seven innings in a win over the Dodgers, is 2-0 with a 1.98 ERA against the Nationals and held the Cubs to three runs over six innings. And Arrieta pitched seven innings of shutout ball in a win over the Dodgers, has a .909 WHIP in two no-decisions against the Nationals and should be pretty familiar with the Cubs’ lineup.

 

Philadelphia seems to be in a hurry to take advantage of Washington’s sudden fall, but the Nationals will be even worse next year than they are this year, and Machado could be acquired without surrendering any prospects prior to the season. I think the Phillies are overreaching given their third-worst defense and 20th-ranked offense, but I’ve been wrong before.

 

Machado would certainly make the Phillies contenders for the NL pennant. I just don’t think the risk is worth the reward given the strength of the American League. If I were a Phillies fan, I’d rather hold onto our prospects and lose in the playoffs than trade those prospects to lose in the World Series and then lose Machado in free agency to the team that beat us in the World Series. But maybe I don’t know Philly fans.

Oakland Athletics

Reason for hope: Michael Fulmer

Billy Beane sees the Athletics as buyers at the trade deadline, and they need a starter, especially with Trevor Cahill a free agent after the season. Detroit’s Michael Fulmer would give Oakland a stable starter atop the rotation through 2022 to pair with 26-year-old Sean Manaea, who is under team control through 2023, as is 25-year-old Frankie Montas. Fulmer would give Oakland three-fifths of a rotation with playoff potential under team control for at least five seasons. That’s worth a lot, and besides Chris Archer, Fulmer might demand the best prospect haul of any pitcher traded at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline.

Atlanta Braves

Reason for hope: Rebuild way ahead of schedule, and Nick Markakis

The similarly surprising Braves are taking the exact opposite approach of the Phillies despite being just 1.5 games back of Philadelphia in the division. Unlike the Phillies, the Braves can really hit (sixth in MLB) and field the ball (seventh in MLB), but their pitching is middle-of-the-pack. Without any sure-fire aces available on the market, the Braves aren’t risking prospects for rentals according to Rosenthal. That’s a smart move given their situation.

 

Atlanta made an offer for Machado but isn’t likely to win his services. The Braves are looking to add controllable starting pitching at the trade deadline. They’ve scouted Nathan Eovaldi, who comes with another arbitration year beyond this one.

St. Louis Cardinals

Reason for hope: Bullpen buyers’ market, Wacha and Wainwright?

The Cardinals are taking the same approach as the Braves. They aren’t shopping for rentals. They’ll look to improve the 23rd-ranked bullpen by adding arms controlled for multiple seasons. The Cardinals’ seventh-best starting rotation will add Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright sometime in August. Whether either is any good is yet to be determined.

Colorado Rockies

Reason for hope: Bullpen buyers’ market, CarGo?

The Rockies have the 24th-ranked bullpen in baseball based on Fangraphs’ WAR. They, like the rest of the playoff contenders, stand to benefit from the vast supply of affordable bullpen options on the market.

 

Colorado also has until July 19 to trade outfielder Carlos Gonzalez before his no-trade protection begins, but that’s not likely given CarGo’s struggles on the road and against left-handers.

The Buyers/Sellers

Minnesota Twins

Reason for hope: Eduardo Escobar, Brian Dozier heating up, Nick Gordon, and, perhaps, Ervin Santana

The new Twins’ front office of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine managed to sell at the trade deadline in their rookie season last year and still made the playoffs. They’ll try to do it again. The Twins actually announced their willingness to trade their pending free agents, headlined by Eduardo Escobar, having fallen 11.5 games behind Cleveland in the American League Central. And just as they did last season, the Twins responded to the front office “for sale” announcement by winning baseball games – eight of 10 to pull within 7.5 games of Cleveland.

 

The return of Jorge Polanco from a performance-enhancing drug suspension allows the Twins to play on of their All-star snubs, Escobar, at third base while Miguel Sano figures out his swing in Fort Myers, where Twins’ top prospect Royce Lewis was recently promoted.

 

Falvey and Levine should still shop Escobar and take the best deal they can get for a player who could be a difference-maker for a contender. They could even get a difference-maker in return, albeit one a few years away, but that’s a lot more than Terry Ryan or anyone else likely expected when he moved Francisco Liriano for MLB’s current leader in doubles. Given Sano’s struggles to stay healthy and hit consistently, it might not be a bad idea for Minnesota to give Escobar some of the nearly $84 million it has coming off the books at the end of the year.

 

Making the playoffs without Escobar is a tall order for the Twins, however. He was the beating heart of last year’s playoff team and is the clubhouse leader. Ehire Adrianza can’t replace him in that regard or any other, but Byron Buxton could if he’s ever healthy.

 

Other players that might be valuable to a playoff contender are relievers Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke, second baseman Brian Dozier, who is heating up in the second half, as usual, and starters Lance Lynn and Jake Odorizzi. Remember, the Twins are expecting Ervin Santana to return someday.

 

Starter Kyle Gibson is more valuable than ever as well, and would bring a good return given his extra year of team control following this season – one in which he’s finally figured out how to use his best stuff best. Gibson’s been so good, the Twins might consider extending him. He’s finally the formidable middle-of-the-rotation starter the Twins knew he could be.

San Francisco Giants

Reason for hope: Jeurys Familia, Derek Holland, Sam Dyson

The Giants are looking to shed more salaries after dealing centerfielder Austin Jackson and reliever Cory Gearrin to the Rangers, and could do the same with Derek Holland and Sam Dyson according to Henry Schulman, because the Giants would prefer to remain under the competitive balance tax threshold. But being just three games out of the playoffs at the All-Star Break has the Giants as modest buyers at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline, too.

 

The Giants are interested in acquiring Mets’ closer Jeurys Familia to shore up their bullpen down the stretch despite him being a rental, but with Jeff Samardzija being placed on the 10-day disabled list with shoulder inflammation for the second time, the Giants will likely have to wait to deal Holland until Samardzija returns if not acquire an affordable starter at the trade deadline.

The Sellers

Baltimore Orioles

Reason for hope: Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Adam Jones?

The Orioles’ rebuilding effort should have began at the All-Star Break last year, but it will still get off to a good start with the dealing of Manny Machado and Zach Britton, both of whom will most certainly be traded by the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline. Britton won’t bring what he would have last season, but Machado will, and Adam Jones has drawn some interest from Cleveland. So it’s not all doom and gloom in Baltimore. Football season is right around the corner, Orioles fans.

New York Mets

Reason for hope: Asdrubal Cabrera

If the Mets aren’t going to move Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, according to Joel Sherman, or even Zack Wheeler, then Asdrubal Cabrera is Mets’ fans biggest reason for hope. The 32-year-old pending free agent has a career-best OPS+ of 127, and there are plenty of teams looking to improve at shortstop and second base.

 

The Brewers are especially in need of middle infield help, and Cabrera would be a nice consolation prize for the teams losing out on Manny Machado. The Phillies could have Cabrera for much less than Machado and still sign Machado in free agency.

Miami Marlins

Reason for hope: J.T. Realmuto, Brad Ziegler?

The Marlins’ steep price for their All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto is warranted. Realmuto is controllable through arbitration until 2021 and the trade market for catchers consists of Realmuto and the now-injured Wilson Ramos of Tampa Bay. That steep price might not stop the desperate Nationals from acquiring the All-Star, according to Heyman.

 

Steep prices are also attached to Kyle Barraclough, Drew Steckenrider and Adam Conley for the same reasons as Realmuto. They are all controllable for an additional three years and the trade market for relievers is deep. Brad Ziegler is a pending free agent but hasn’t been particularly good (1.362 WHIP, 6.5 K:9).

Chicago White Sox

Reason for hope: Joakim Soria

The lone trade chip on the White Sox roster is closer Joakim Soria, who at 34 is pitching like he’s 30. His 149 ERA+ and 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings both match his numbers from 2014 when he was good enough to net Texas Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson in a trade to Detroit. Soria could help another contender this season and should provide Chicago added value given his 2019 team option.

Kansas City Royals

Reason for hope: Mike Moustakas, Whit Merrifield

The Red Sox could be interested in both Mike Moustakas and Whit Merrifield, and the Braves have expressed interest in adding Moustakas along with the Yankees, according to Jerry Crasnick. Merrifield has also drawn the Dodgers’ and Brewers’ eyes, so the Royals are sitting on a wealth of proverbial riches at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline.

Cincinnati Reds

Reason for hope: Raisel Iglesias

The Reds’ closer has the Astros salivating, as if Houston needs another bullpen arm as good as Iglesias’s, but Iglesias hopes to remain a Red his entire career MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon reveals. Iglesias acknowledged that he has no control over that, however.

 

Cincinnati intends to spend in 2019, as the Reds are only a few starting pitchers away from competing for a playoff spot, of which there will be plenty available in free agency this offseason. Given that Iglesias isn’t even arbitration eligible until 2020, and Scooter Gennett isn’t a free agent until 2020, the Reds might just sit on their hands at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline, which is reason enough for hope.

Detroit Tigers

Reason for hope: Michael Fulmer, Nicholas Castellanos

Michael Fulmer could be the most valuable trade chip on the table at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline, but the Tigers might as well keep him and his affordable salary for at least another year if not three.

 

Detroit would no doubt prefer to move Nicholas Castellanos, who has just one more year of arbitration eligibility to Fulmer’s four years of team control. Castellanos is enjoying his best season at the plate but is the worst defensive outfielder in Outs Above Average, Katie Strang notes. He could help an American League contender at designated hitter, though. Houston (.748 OPS) and Oakland (.780 )PS) are getting the worst production from their designated hitters amongst the buyers at the trade deadline. The league average OPS at DH is just .759.

Los Angeles Angels

Reason for hope: Shohei Ohtani

Prior to Opening Day, I wrote that the Angels still didn’t have the starting rotation to reach the playoffs, even with Shohei Ohtani in the mix. That has turned out to be true, but Ohtani is still swinging a bat despite his grade 2 UCL strain, and doing so quite capably.

 

Ohtani’s .889 OPS is second to only Mike Trout’s on the team and has been trending up since his return from the disabled list on July 3. With most of the Angels’ starters on the shelf with injuries, and their relievers under team control for multiple seasons, Los Angeles doesn’t have much to offer buyers at the trade deadline. So enjoy watching the best player in baseball and the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball.

Toronto Blue Jays

Reason for hope: J.A. Happ, Justin Smoak?

The Blue Jays stand to benefit from a short supply of starting pitching at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline. J.A. Happ might be the best addition a team could make to their starting rotation at the deadline, so Toronto should get a nice return for the 35-year-old, first-time All-Star. Heyman tweets that the Yankees think Toronto’s asking price for Happ is too high, however. He is a pending free agent.\

 

Justin Smoak is not a pending free agent, as Toronto will likely pick up his 2019 team option, but he could provide a lot of value to a contender in need of a designated hitter, demanding a strong prospect return. Curtis Granderson is another player who could provide a playoff team with some bench depth and pinch-hitting pop.  

Texas Rangers

Reason for hope: Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels?

The 39-year-old third baseman can still hit and play the hot corner with the best of them. He could be a big help to an American League contender like the Red Sox or Yankees, but the Rangers are looking to nab the Yankees’ Andujar at the deadline, and Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman is feeling vindicated for not trading Andujar already.

 

If the Rangers can package Hamels with Beltre they might get a return on par with Andujar. Hamels is in dire need of a change of scenery. Two-thirds of his 21 home runs have come while pitching in the thin air of Arlington, so even the short porches in Boston and the Bronx would likely serve Hamels better.

San Diego Padres

Reason for hope: Tyson Ross, Kirby Yates and Brad Hand

The Yankees have inquired about starter Tyson Ross, who is uber-affordable and, therefore, attractive. The Padres should net a nice return for Ross, who they signed to a minor-league deal. That would keep New York under the luxury tax threshold.

 

Once again, Brad Hand is the Padres’ best trade chip at the trade deadline, and they probably shouldn’t trade him given he’s locked up until 2021. Kirby Yates might be expendable, though, and his value has peaked. Yates has never been as good as he has been in 2018 (.876 WHIP).

Pittsburgh Pirates

Reason for hope: Josh Harrison

An All-Star last season, Josh Harrison is having a down year, but there’s a high demand for middle infielders at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline and always a high demand for players who can play multiple positions at the trade deadline. And with Francisco Cervelli’s brain injuries sustained behind the plate, it’s doubtful he’ll draw interest from contenders in need of a catcher.

Tampa Bay Rays

Reason for hope: Adeiny Hechavarria, Nathan Eovaldi and Wilson Ramos?

Adeiny Hechavarria is a pending free agent who would look good in Milwaukee, and the Yankees, Brewers and Braves have been watching Tampa’s Nathan Eovaldi according to the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, and you can add Washington to that list, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

 

All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos would bring the Rays the best return, but he’s been shelved with a hamstring injury, further thinning the market for catchers at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline, which is just fine by the Marlins, who can only ask more for Realmuto.

At Foul Play-by-Play we provide play-by-play and color commentary of foul play in sports on and off the field, pitch, court and ice. Here are the headlines, cheats of the week and a trip back in time when foul play was fair game to John McGraw.

Headlines

NFLPA Files Grievance Against NFL Owners’ New National Anthem Policy

The NFL Players’ Association filed a non-injury grievance challenging the NFL’s new national anthem policy, Tuesday. According to our comrade Al Neal of PeoplesWorld.org, “[w]ith the league changing the policy without first negotiating with the union, it will need to rely on the broad powers given to the commissioner, Roger Goodell, through the personal conduct policy.”

What I took from the piece at People’s World is the players’ chances sort of depend on the definition of detrimental conduct and whether a majority of four, mutually-selected neutral arbitrators would consider kneeling during the national anthem to be conduct detrimental to the NFL. It seems the conduct has been detrimental to the league if you consider television ratings. A survey released in February found that 50 percent of U.S. consumers who watched less football in 2017 did so because of the anthem protests. But in-game advertising revenue actually increased, so what qualifies as evidence of detriment? Is loss of fans enough or does it have to be quantified in dollars?

And what kind of precedent would this be setting if the NFL’s national anthem policy remains unchanged? Neal mentioned prayer being challenged in his piece, but Tim Tebow proved taking a knee for Jesus is profitable for the NFL, but probably not during the anthem. And apparently taking a knee for a minority murdered by police who go free is detrimental to the league, which is just another example of American racism that didn’t go away because we had a black President; it intensified instead. I think eliminating prayer would be the last thing on the NFL’s wish list. I’m sure the old, white, can’t-dance owners, of which there are 30, would prefer to implement penalties as stiff as their hips for the hip-thrusting dancers we all love like Antonio Brown. I just don't think there's any way the NFL wins this because of the means by which they adopted the policy outside the collective bargaining agreement and without considering the players' association. But they could get an anthem win elsewhere...

NFL Seeks Early End to Kaepernick Collusion Case

In more NFL legal news, the NFL is asking arbitrator Stephen Burbank to issue a summary judgement in Colin Kaepernick’s collusion lawsuit against the league, which would bring an end to the saga and give NFL owners another win on the anthem front. Burbank’s refusal to issue a summary judgement would allow the grievance to move forward and allow Kaepernick an opportunity to collect.

The NFL, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, hopes to force Kaepernick to ‘put his cards on the table’ and prove they have enough evidence of collusion to continue the lawsuit. So even if the NFL doesn’t get the summary judgement, they’ll know the trial plan of Kaepernick’s team of lawyers. But law requires all facts to be viewed “in the most favorable light” towards Kaepernick, meaning it shouldn’t take much to force the continuation of the case. 

I’m assuming Kaepernick doesn’t have a recording of a phone call with an NFL owner saying “I can’t hire you because the other owners said I can't,” so what could Kaepernick possibly have to prove collusion besides the statistics of his last season being better than most backup quarterbacks who played, and why can't that be enough? The only chance I think Kaepernick has is if NFL owners unanimously agreed that the backlash from Donald Trump's tweets would be more damaging to their bottom line than blackballing Kaepernick.

DOJ Provisionally Approves Disney Bid for 21st Century Fox, except RSNs

Disney’s $71.3-billion offer for the movie and television assets of 21st Century Fox has been granted provisional approval by the Department of Justice as long as Disney sells the 22 regional sports networks it would acquire in the acquisition. While Comcast could still outbid Disney for Fox’s assets, they too would likely be required to sell the regional sports networks (RSNs) in order to receive DOJ approval.

With Disney’s assets already including ESPN and ABC programming – the homes of Monday Night Football, the NBA Playoffs and NBA Finals – the company that rode the coattails of a cartoon mouse to mountains of money has found plenty of new ways to invade your home. But Disney’s potential acquisition of Fox’s assets opens doors at the box office as well, uniting the Marvel Cinematic Universe to include the X-men, Fantastic Four and Deadpool along with Disney’s Avengers and Black Panther.

The condition of divesting Fox’s RSNs demanded by the DOJ is intended to preserve competition and protect consumers from monopolistic price gouging, but will it? Andrew Bucholtz of Awful Announcing expects Comcast, holder of the second-most RSNs behind Fox with seven, Charter, owner of five RSNs, and AT&T, owner of three RSNs and a minority shareholder of Seattle’s Root Sports, to be frontrunners for the 22 RSNs Disney will be forced to sell.

Sports teams could also acquire their respective RSNs. YES Network, formerly owned by the Yankees, could once again become an asset for the pinstripers. Eight professional sports teams are featured on Fox Sports Southwest, so it’s possible that a few RSNs end up owned by teams, but taking the best offer might not be the best deal for Disney.

Selling the 22 RSNs individually might result in the most money made from the sale of those networks, but packaging all or most of the RSNs together in a deal allows the buyer to set a higher price for access because of a lack of competition that would remain, which would allow Disney to, in turn, hike the price of its offerings to match that of the acquiring party, resulting in more revenue long-term despite the lower purchase price. 

Colombian Striker Falcao Accuses American Referee of Favoring England

Colombia striker Radamel Falcao accused American referee Mark Geiger of favoring England in Colombia’s World Cup loss to England in the round of 16, last Tuesday. Colombia was the recipient of six of the game’s eight yellow cards and were whistled for 23 of the 36 fouls.

Geiger was also responsible for England’s only goal during open play, resulting from a penalty he called on Colombia midfielder Carlos Sanchez. Falcao thought scheduling a referee who only spoke English for a game involving England allowed for bias and that “through small calls,” Geiger was pushing Colombia toward its own goal.

We talked a bit last week about the attitude of soccer players in our discussion of the Swedish coach complaining about the German team celebrating its win in stoppage time in front of the Swedes’ bench. And while players and coaches find a way to complain about officiating in every sport, FIFA’s history of corruption has to be considered before Falcao is labeled a crybaby. I didn’t watch the match, so I can’t comment on the calls Geiger made, but I don’t need to watch the game to make a decision in this case.

If it can be avoided, I don’t think a native English speaker, and certainly not a speaker of only English, should officiate any international contest in which native English speakers are involved. I understand that coaches and captains, not necessarily every player, should be able to communicate with officials, but FIFA is known to have its favorites, and Colombia has never been one of those. England, meanwhile, has exceeded everyone’s expectations at the World Cup. Even if the scheduling of Geiger for this game wasn’t an intentional attempt at foul play, FIFA didn’t do much to silence sceptics like Falcao and Foul Play-by-Play.

Seattle Seahawks Safety Kam Chancellor Retires, Sort Of

Kam Chancellor has announced his retirement after eight seasons as safety for the late Legion of Boom. His announcement doesn’t qualify as an official retirement, though, because he isn’t medically cleared to play and is retiring as a result.

That means the Seahawks will be required to pay Chancellor the $6.8 million he’s owed this season because he was on the roster after Feb. 10. Chancellor is also due the $5.2 million guaranteed next season, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport explains.

I think this is money Chancellor has already earned simply by sacrificing his body to play previous seasons, but some people might be up in arms over the fact Chancellor is being paid not to work, even if they qualify for workers’ compensation when they’re injured on the job. 

One-game Suspension Likely for Eagles Starting Linebacker Nigel Bradham

The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles will likely be without starting linebacker Nigel Bradham for their opening game of the 2018 NFL season against the Atlanta Falcons. Bradham, 28, just signed a five-year, $40 million extension with the Eagles.

A one-game suspension could be coming for Bradham as a result of a 2016 alleged assault at a hotel in south Florida. Bradham turned himself in and was charged with aggravated battery, but he avoided jail time. Ray Rice was only suspended two games for his third-degree aggravated assault, so do you think the NFL gave Bradham a break because of how he handled the allegation or because we don’t have a video of the alleged assault, which Bradham said has been resolved legally?

Cheats of the Week

Our dishonorable mention this week is New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, who told Newsday he wasn’t happy about being fined “thousands of dollars” for taking too long to get into the batter’s box. Gardner complained about pitchers throwing to bases to waste time while he takes “three seconds too long to get in the box.” Gardner isn’t the first or only player fined for pace of play violations. Adam Jones told MLB Network Radio he was fined $50,000 last year for violating the rules. I don’t think Gardner has good argument here because throw-overs are necessary, legal in-game action, while Gardner tightening his batting gloves or adjusting his nut cup is simply inaction.

Bronze Balls: Speaking of nuts, owner of the bronzest balls this week is New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman for appealing his four-game, performance-enhancing drug suspension and losing.  

Silver Syringe: Winner of the silver syringe this week is Indianapolis Colts running back Robert Turbin, who is facing a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use, which he confirmed on Twitter.

Two-bit Cheat of the Week: And our two-bit cheat of the week is my boy, Grayson Allen, who got tangled up with the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young in the final Summer League game for the Utah Jazz. A more apt description of the incident might be that Allen tied up Young, with his arms draped over Young’s shoulders in what was at least an intentional foul (VIDEO). Allen received a personal foul and then technicals were given to both players for the foul play after Allen’s foul play.I like this attitude of Allen’s showing up early in his NBA career because he can make up for some of his defensive inability by flirting with the boundaries of foul play. It’s also fun to watch given his history. 

Historically Foul Play

On July 8th, 1902, player/manager John McGraw earned his release from the Baltimore Orioles after being suspended indefinitely on June 29th because he and his players incessantly argued with umpires even after McGraw told Johnson he’d put an end to it. McGraw proceeded to protest calls by umpire Jack Sheridan by sitting down in the batter’s box until he was expelled, and continued to encourage his players to berate umpires.

Upon his release, McGraw organized the purchase of 201 shares of Orioles stock with John Brush and Andrew Freedman from Orioles president John J. Mahon for majority ownership of the franchise so they could ship players to the Cincinnati Reds or New York Giants franchises Brush and Freedman also owned. Knowing that Johnson intended to move the Orioles to New York and the American League after the season, McGraw secured the rights of four players to play for the Giants, and Brush claimed three more for the Reds, leaving the Orioles with just five players.

The Orioles had to forfeit a game to the St. Louis Browns on July 17 and borrowed players from other teams to complete their schedule. Johnson announced the intended move of the Orioles to New York and the American League, and Brush purchased the Giants from Freedman. And in the second year of its existence, the World Series was cancelled because McGraw refused to play the American League due to his feud with Johnson. He agreed to play the following season, winning the 1905 World Series. John McGraw went on to win two more World Series for the Giants in 1921 and 1922. These McGraw-inspired antics are what I miss most in this era of replay.

At Foul Play-by-Play we investigate foul play on and off the field, court, ice and pitch, giving you the week's cheats, cheap shots and alleged criminals in sports. Here are the headlines for the last two weeks ending July 1.

Headline 1: Jameis Winston Suspended Three Games for Allegedly Groping Uber Driver

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has been suspended for the first three games of the 2018 season for allegedly groping an Uber driver over two years ago. Winston has denied the allegations and negotiated a six-game suspension down to three games for issuing an apology, during which Winston never admitted guilt. He said he was sorry to have put her in that position but not for sexually assaulting her.

The suspension stems from an alleged incident that occurred in March of 2016, a couple of months after the end of Winston's rookie season in the NFL. After partying with friends in Scottsdale, Arizona, Winston ended up in an Uber. The driver of that car, whose identity still has never been revealed, alleges that Winston grabbed her crotch while they were waiting in a restaurant drive-thru lane. She did not and has not pressed charges but reported the incident to Uber, which deactivated Winston’s account shortly after.

The NFL was made aware of the incident after the accuser shared her story with BuzzFeed News. Witnesses have differing testimonies of the night in question, with Winston’s former Florida State teammate Ronald Darby saying he was in the Uber that night and that “nothing inappropriate in nature happened in the car that evening and Jameis did not have any physical contact with the Uber driver.” But former Vanderbilt football player Brandon Banks, serving a 15-year prison sentence for rape and sexual battery, said he and Darby put Winston in the Uber alone that night.

Headline 2: Outgoing Carolina Panthers Owner Fined $2.75 Million for Workplace Misconduct

In similarly ugly NFL news of foul play off the field, outgoing Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was fined $2.75 million after an investigation confirmed allegations of racial and sexual misconduct in the workplace.

In a letter to Richardson published by Sports Illustrated, one of the women said she "didn't know what to do" about alleged multiple sexual advances by Richardson, including being asked to place her feet in his lap to be rubbed from toes to crotch, being asked to turn around so Richardson could see how her jeans fit, hands placed on her breasts and lips, and being asked sexually charged questions.

The sale of the Panthers to hedge fund billionaire David Tepper was approved at the owners meetings in May for an NFL-record $2.275 billion and is expected to close in the next two weeks. Richardson and investors paid just $203 million for the franchise in 1993.

One thing I’ve taken from the Me Too movement is that the victims of sexual harassment place vastly different values on their privacy. I think I would bring charges regardless of how much money there was to be won in a sexual assault or harassment case. But some of these victims would rather remain anonymous and tell BuzzFeed for an unannounced amount of money. What would you do?

Headline 3: Detroit Tigers Fire Pitching Coach for Using “Monkey” to Describe White Pitcher

The Detroit Tigers fired pitching coach Chris Bosio for using insensitive language towards a team employee, but the whole thing could be a misunderstanding that results in legal action taken by Bosio against the team.

Bosio said he used the word  “monkey” to describe Tigers pitcher Daniel Stumpf in the team’s coaches’ room. Bosio calls Stumpf “Spider Monkey.” “That’s his nickname,” he said, “He's a skinny little white kid who makes all of these funny faces when he works out.”

Bosio believes the black clubhouse attendant thought he and the other coach were talking about him, but he insists that was not the case, swearing on his parents’ graves in an interview with USA Today.

In what could be a similar case...

Headline 4: Hanley Ramirez Victim of Misreporting of Drug Bust

Hanley Ramirez was wrongfully implicated by Michele McPhee of ABC News in connection with a drug arrest of a man who Facetime’d Ramirez during the stop, claiming some of the paraphernalia to belong to him. The accused said later that he was trying to get the cops off his back.

Ramirez was released by the Red Sox on May 25 and has been a free agent looking for work since June 1. While Ramirez’s OPS of .708 is well below his .848 career OPS, he’s likely missed out on an employment opportunity because of this ABC News crime reporter needlessly mentioning him in connection with this drug bust involving 435 grams of fentanyl and a “large amount” of crack. 

Headline 5: Janoris Jenkins’ Brother had Dispute with Man Whose Body was Found on Jenkins’ Property

The body of Roosevelt Rene was found on the property of Janoris Jenkins while he was in Florida upon the completion of the New York Giants’ training camp. William H. Jenkins, the 34-year-old brother of Janoris Jenkins, allegedly had a dispute with Rene according to a police complaint released Thursday.

The complaint says William Jenkins got into an altercation with Rene on Monday night that resulted in Rene's death. Jenkins then fled and was arrested later Monday by the New York State Police on an unrelated matter and held in Ontario County Jail. Jenkins has been charged with one count of aggravated manslaughter and remains in custody. His brother has been advised by lawyers to remain in Florida.

Headline 6: Roberto Osuna Suspended 75 Games for Violating MLB Domestic Violence Policy

Toronto Blue Jays’ closer Roberto Osuna was suspended 75 games without pay last Friday for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy. Osuna, 23, was arrested by Toronto police and charged with assaulting his girlfriend on May 8. He was placed on administrative leave by the league, which has been investigating the incident ever since.

Osuna will not appeal the suspension retroactive to May 8 and extending through Aug. 4. He will miss 89 days, which would cost him about $2.54 million of his $5.3 million salary. Osuna will plead not guilty to the charges on July 9, according to his attorney.

MLB and the players' union agreed on a domestic violence policy in 2015, a year after the National Football League adopted its domestic violence policy. Both allow the leagues to discipline a player for a domestic violence incident regardless of whether there are charges or a trial. 

Foul Play-by-Play Feelings

Let’s try something new with a segment we’re calling Foul Play-by-Play Feelings, where we talk about our feelings and the feelings of those crying foul play in sports.

Sweden coach Janne Andersson complained about the German bench for "rubbing in" their victory as they celebrated Toni Kroos' stoppage-time winner in Germany's 2-1 World Cup win on Saturday. There was a confrontation between members of both teams on the sideline at midfield, with gestures allegedly made, and the two groups had to be separated.

Basically, the Sweden’s problem with Germany was that they celebrated in front of their bench and allegedly directed gestures towards the Swedes, for which the Germans apologized. But we all know what an apology’s worth given Jameis Winston’s recent attempt.

Personally, I think these Swedish soccer players need to play some baseball to realize what a real walk-off loss feels like, because in that game they don’t even wait for you to get to your bench before celebrating. They celebrate right in front of you while you’re still on the field, hopefully tossing a bat like Jose Bautista and staring down your pitcher. They celebrate on the way to first base! What do you think? Are these Swedish soccer players softees or were the Germans in the wrong, because if there was more of this after soccer matches I’d be more likely to watch them.

When it comes to LeBron James, nothing is off the table, no player untouchable, especially on the Miami Heat roster. We must rid ourselves of all assumptions. We can’t assume LeBron doesn’t want to play with Hassan Whiteside. We also can’t assume Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman isn’t willing to take on Whiteside's massive contract spanning this year and next if he opts into his player option. Not too long ago general managers all over the league would have welcomed Whiteside, contract and all. He is still a very good defender. He may never duplicate his 2015-16 season and 2.4 VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), but he still has value, especially when Cleveland could end up losing LeBron and get nothing in return, again.

James could simply opt for free agency and leave Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert shaking his head, empty hands in the air. But LeBron makes the most money signing with Cleveland, so a sign-and-trade deal is in his best interest and the Cavaliers' best interest as well. While we don’t know and can’t assume what LeBron or the Cavaliers or Pat Riley are willing to do, we do know what Riley would have to do to make room for LeBron's potentially record-setting contract of $205 million over five years.  Riley has to move some players he'd rather not and take on contracts he'd rather not.

Getting LeBron to Miami

The Heat's current roster doesn't give LeBron many reasons to re-relocate to Miami, but Josh Richardson, 24, Justise Winslow, 21, and Bam Adebayo, 20, are the best reasons right now. LeBron likely isn't interested in waiting for them to develop, though. They also won't be on the the roster if there's going to be room for LeBron's contract in Miami. Riley is going to have to draw LeBron's eyes to Miami by trading for Kawhi Leonard.

ESPN's NBA Insiders think Richardson, Adebayo, Winslow and Goran Dragic would net Miami Leonard and Patty Mills from San Antonio. San Antonio would have to send cash in the amount of at least $75,000 for each player they receive without sending a player or draft pick in return, but the money works, cutting $1,353,382 from Miami's books and leaving the Heat $17,167,521 over the salary cap, which isn't a huge problem. The real problem is Miami is giving up a lot and has no guarantee Kawhi will stay in Miami after this season. But bringing in LeBron would be the closest thing to a guarantee they could get. Kawhi has said he wants to play closer to home on the west coast, and specifically, Los Angeles, which might be what convinces LeBron to either sign a one-year deal with Cleveland and wait or a long-term deal with Los Angeles and wait. But we're trying to get LeBron to Miami, and he won't be coming alone.

There’s one player LeBron wants to bring with him whose gravity leaves James open despite being grounded and stationary. He knows his Miami teammates would benefit from that gravity, too. That gravity belongs to Kyle Korver, the man whose very presence on the floor improves his team more so than any other player in basketball – LeBron included. 

Getting LeBron and Korver to Miami

If LeBron James is the Sun, Kyle Korver is Earth’s gravity, subtly manipulating the orbit of the Sun’s opponents, the defenders of the Outer Rim, to allow the sun to shine through limited traffic, basking Earth in superstar rays of light that literally brighten the days of everyone and everything on Earth – except gravity. And while gravity never catches nor reflects the Sun’s spotlight, gravity prefers to remain in the shadows, unnoticed, grounded, taking silent pleasure in his work regardless of whom the Sun allows to shine brightest that day, because he knows without him, they would all fall off the Earth to be lost in space, where the Sun can’t even save them. But gravity would never do such a thing because he’s a team player...and because the Sun scares the hell out of him.

There are a few ways Korver can come along with LeBron to Miami. The easiest way would be for James to take a pay cut in the amount of Korver’s $7.56 million contract, basically paying Korver out of his own pocket next season, which might be worth it to LeBron given Korver’s Gravity rating. I only know what I read and see on TV, and Korver seems to be LeBron’s favorite teammate in Cleveland, but James isn’t gifting one of these homes to Korver.

LeBron could also take a paycut in the amount necessary to make the money work for Cleveland and Miami in a sign-and-trade deal. So if Miami needs to dump $5 million in salary to make a deal work, LeBron takes a $5 million pay cut. Simple, except all of these trade details would have to be negotiated before LeBron negotiates his contract. 

So how hard is the hard way? LeBron’s and Korver’s contracts next season total $42,910,000, which necessitates the trade of Whiteside’s salary. So now Riley is asking Cleveland to take Whiteside and Tyler Johnson, who has a 15-percent trade kicker clause in his contract, boosting his salary next season to $22,132,175.50 if he's traded. That's asking a lot of Cleveland, but again, Cleveland could end up losing LeBron to free agency. So if Cleveland has to take Tyler Johnson, they can demand Miami take a similarly over-paid point guard in George Hill off their hands.

Now Cleveland and Miami just need to make the money work in a sign-and-trade deal for LeBron, Korver and Hill. LeBron, Korver and Hill make a combined $61,910,000. Considering Tyler Johnson's trade kicker, he, James Johnson and Whiteside would make $62,218,138.50 in Cleveland next season. This keeps Cleveland under the luxury tax cap and would set the Cavaliers up nicely for a run at free agents in 2020, with all three contracts potentially expiring after the 2019 season (James Johnson has a player option for 2020). In order for both teams to avoid adding to their payrolls already exceeding the salary cap, Miami would have to send $308,138.50 to Cleveland as a part of the deal, which the Heat might as well include with the first-round pick they'll need to send Cleveland to close the deal.  

The Heat will have to part with at least one of their first-rounders if not both of them to bring LeBron and Kawhi together, so this is just a means to give Cleveland some long-term value that's lacking in the players they're getting in return from Miami. With the Heat in need of a backup for LeBron, Cleveland could send over Larry Nance Jr. and cash for the Heat's first-round pick in either 2019 or 2020. 

In summation:

  • Miami receives Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills and cash from San Antonio.
  • San Antonio receives Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson from Miami.
  • Miami receives LeBron James, Kyle Korver, George Hill, Larry Nance Jr. and cash from Cleveland.
  • The Cleveland Cavaliers receive Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, James Johnson, and either a 2019 or 2020 first-round pick from Miami.

Is there a fair deal involving LeBron James? Of course. Is this it? Probably not, but it gives you an idea of how difficult it will be for LeBron to make the maximum amount of money and leave Cleveland for Miami. I imagine it’s hard for Gilbert to say no to a man who single-handedly, quite literally, delivered his franchise’s first ever championship and more than doubled the value of that franchise. And he did all this after Gilbert publicly berated him as selfish for doing nothing more than exercising a right he earned to become a free agent and choose where he wanted to live and work. Golden State needed four stars to triple the Warriors’ value.

If Gilbert is in it for the money, the time to sell is before LeBron leaves. I wouldn’t be surprised if LeBron’s plan is to leave Cleveland, wait for the Cavaliers’ value to fall in his absence before buying the franchise and becoming the first owner/player in professional sports. Then he can reap the rewards Gilbert enjoyed made off his name being attached to the franchise, and King James could finish his reign at home. For now, all we can do is speculate while we wait for The Decision: Part III.

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