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NOT WATCHING SPORTS? WATCH THE RAYS

Big brains and high character are why Tampa Bay, a low-revenue miracle, should be an American treasure, having jumped on the sinister Astros and purged the haughty Yankees as a country says, “Who?”

Jay Mariotti

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The Tampa Bay Rays play ball the way America should operate. They maximize the mind and shun the ego. They won’t suffer cheats or fat cats. They waste no money, seeking efficiency by passing along their stealth DNA to identified castoffs, homegrown talent and modest free agents. They don’t bully with exit velocity, preferring finesse and earthy methods not common in a homer-or-whiff era: airtight pitching, circus catches, scratch-and-sniff run invention and deep preparation.     

Oakland A's news: Tampa Bay Rays one win away from sweeping Houston Astros  in 2020 ALCS - Athletics Nation

They are seen but not heard. The pandemic doesn’t faze them because they’re used to almost no one watching them, stuck inside a dated dome in a sleepy, forgotten town that still needs a state attached to the dateline. You inspect them for nine innings and wonder how in the hell they won the game. And even if you follow sports fairly closely, I bet you can’t name five of their players without Googling and might not know who manages them.    

Yet here they are, just the small-revenue, no-pretense franchise around which this nation can rally. Having eliminated the haughty Yankees and their bulging payroll and needing one more win to purge the scandalous Astros and their unrepentant smugness, the Rays are stalking the World Series. If you don’t care, ask why you’d prefer football when the NFL and major college conferences are losing to COVID-19, to the point Nick Saban, arguably the greatest of college coaches, contracted the virus. The Rays are anything but a fluke, winners of 17 of their last 22. And after Houston star Jose Altuve struggled with a case of the throwing yips in the American League championship series, you wonder if this is the work of the baseball gods, exacting karma and justice that benefited the type of smart, honest, humble, industrious team appreciate by the purists.     

“We have guys that play the game the right way,” said the acrobatic centerfielder, Kevin Kiermaier, the one player you might know. “We don’t have a whole lot of household names, but we have plenty of well-above-average major-league players in our clubhouse. We know we can play, and we are thriving on the big stage.”     

If nothing else in this disjointed season, October is providing fresh material for viewers who are too immersed in pre-election drama to watch sports. The Rays are worth watching. The Dodgers would be, too, if they’re finally serious about winning a championship for the first time in 32 years. But even after dropping a 15-spot on Atlanta, we still aren’t sure, their fate again dependent on the health and performance of Clayton Kershaw, whose tragi-dramas are as predictable as Halloween. Are they back on track? Or are they setting up their fans for more misery? Besides, America doesn’t want to see Los Angeles — a place it can’t stand anyway — win a World Series and NBA Finals in the same month. It feels right that an unassuming spot such as Tampa Bay might claim a pandemic double, the Rays possibly following the NHL’s Lightning while, over at the Buccaneers facility, Tom Brady is still holding up four fingers and pleading for another down. The people won’t riot in St. Petersburg, Fla., the way the clowns did the other night in L.A. That wouldn’t fit the pervasive aesthetic: the Rays’ Ways.  

Who cares if Fox Sports is dying about a likely Series between the Rays and Braves? So what if the games could be played in a peanut field on the Florida-Georgia line? The Rays feast on their arcane identity, thrilled to have buried a Yankees behemoth described as TV’s “golden child” by reliever Pete Fairbanks. Was he wrong?

“We may as well ruin their day up in Connecticut,” he said, referring to ESPN. “We’re fine with it. We love it. We’re a good club, and we’re trying to go out there and win no matter how big the market is for the team we’re playing across.”     

Hopefully, viewers will abandon marquee bias and give the Rays a shot. They are a welcome changeup in a sport that could use the antithesis of big-city arrogance and blueblood wealth. Unlike the Yankees and Dodgers, they don’t have the financial freedom and market size to throw $324 million at Gerrit Cole or commit $365 million to Mookie Betts for 12 seasons. This has been the story in Tampa Bay forever: a franchise hamstrung by local politics that prevent a deal for a new ballpark, forcing the Rays to explore playing half-seasons in Montreal as a two-nation franchise while stuck with the usual abysmal crowds in dismal Tropicana Field. Only two MLB bottom-feeders, the Orioles and Pirates, had lower payrolls this season, and in recent seasons, the Rays have been dead last. Instead of succumbing to a plebeian baseball status, they have refused to settle. They are convinced that their mantra of outworking and out-strategizing the competition is failsafe, with no better proof than their record in one-run games: 15-5.     

“Oh, I feel we have it. And I think the guys in our clubhouse feel we have it — that knack,” said manager Kevin Cash, someone else with whom we’re beginning to familiarize ourselves. “The one thing you learn with our club is, we’re in a lot of tight ball games. And tight ball games are going to teach you — or you’re going to have to teach yourself — how to win those. And that’s mistake-free. Playing clean, doing things that just don’t allow the extra 90 feet or the extra baserunner. … There’s no margin for error. And I think our guys take that approach every night when they take the field. Hopefully, it’s relentless. We show that we can do it in all facets of the game.”

Rays' Kevin Cash: 'Nobody thought we were going to be okay'

“We want to be that complete team,” Kiermaier said. “We want to be able to hit, pitch, play defense, run the bases, do it all. I think we’re pretty close to all those at the elite level.”     

So how did they get here?     

Al Gorithm got them here. That is my hybrid nickname for the analytics geekery that took over baseball front offices years ago, but the Rays are the true “Ivy Leaguers” — as Alex Rodriguez grudgingly calls them — who have mastered the art of accomplishing the most with the least by being smarter than the pack. Major-market franchises have poached Tampa Bay for executives and managers, but here’s where the success story turns fascinating. Andrew Friedman leaves for the Dodgers, with their unlimited resources, and keeps falling short. Chaim Bloom leaves for the Red Sox, helps the high-heeled owners downsize by trading Betts and dumping other big salaries — and has been targeted by a tough New England crowd as a small-timer. Joe Maddon left the dugout for Chicago, where he won the unthinkable World Series with the Cubs, then was fired before landing in Anaheim, where his first season was another disastrous waste of Mike Trout’s prime.     

Meanwhile, inside a 1989-built relic that looks like a Campbell’s soup can with its lid caved in, the same constants simply carry on — owner Stuart Sternberg, top executives Matt Silverman and Brian Auld — while Cash arguably is an upgrade over Maddon as baseball boss Erik Neander continues the work of Friedman and Bloom. We’ve seen other franchises with self-styled blueprints, from the Cardinals to the Dodgers to wherever Theo Epstein works, but the Rays’ Ways have been remarkably sustainable. This is about more than hatching trends such as an opener to replace the traditional starting pitcher and defensive shifts that drive us nuts but work within the Cash machine. This is about still using scouts — remember them? — to do investigative legwork on potential acquisitions and make sure a player’s character translates to winning. Notice how the Rays deftly unearth and project specific players for their system, don’t give up much for them, then optimize them once in uniform. That’s why the Yankees and Dodgers are seething. They spend for the Lamborghinis and Bugattis when the Rays are getting to the finish line first with Audis and even a few Kias.

“We know we have enough information about how those players can match on the field,” Cash told ESPN, “but how do they match in the clubhouse?”     

“Our front office, they understand our formula,” Kiermaier said. “If you’re going to sit here and bring in all these great pitchers, acquire guys through the minor leagues and through trades, you’ve got to have the proper guys to play behind them. We have the perfect roster for just that.”     

Their best everyday player, Kiermaier was drafted in the 31st round. MVP candidate Brandon Lowe was a third-round selection. Their Cy Young Award pitcher, Blake Snell, was a first-round smash hit. Otherwise, this is cutting-and-pasting as an art form. Mike Brosseau, the Yankee killer, was undrafted. Consider the shrewd trades: 6-foot-8 ace Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows arrived in a deal for Chris Archer, who has lost his way in Pittsburgh and missed 2020 after arm surgery; Willy Adames came in a three-way deal involving David Price, Yandy Diaz arrived in another three-way. While the Yankees were throwing the Bank of America at Cole, the Rays were signing playoff-seasoned Charlie Morton for two years and $30 million. What looked like minor pickups became finds — Joey Wendle, Ryan Yarbrough, Nick Anderson, Ji-Man Choi out of South Korea, Yoshi Tsutsugo out of Japan.     

But three startling maneuvers have defined the Rays this postseason. When the Cardinals deemed Randy Arozarena expendable after he filmed a clubhouse speech by manager Mike Shildt, the Rays gladly absorbed him — and watched Arozarena become Mr. October after a quarantine period with COVID-19. When productive outfielder Tommy Pham blasted the lack of fan support, the Rays shipped him to the Padres for Hunter Renfroe, who has been a better culture fit while Pham was hospitalized in San Diego this week after being stabbed outside a strip club — definitely not one of the Rays’ Ways. And Manuel Margot? You know, the right fielder who dominated Game 2 of the ALCS with a three-run homer and a tumbling catch over a right-field railing that left him sprawled on a concrete aisle in his former home, Petco Park? He arrived last offseason for reliever Emilio Pagan and now is the inspiration for a t-shirt — “I’m good! I’m good’’ — that quotes him when his teammates rushed over to make sure he was OK, bleeding leg and all. Margot could have quit on the play. He has experienced a difficult year, after all: his father’s coronavirus-related death in the Dominican Republic and a rental car that “exploded” in Florida — his word — with his family inside, requiring bystanders to rescue his three children.     “Luckily, I’m able to tell you guys about it,” he said.     

So what’s a little scrape in the first of numerous spectacular catches that symbolized the ALCS? “He sold out,” Morton said. “Those guys are all in for each other and they put their bodies on the line. They’ve been doing that all year.”     

Margot's homer, catch highlight Rays' 4-2 win over Astros - The Hour

Often, the Rays are outhit. Cash changes the batting order and lineup so often, he’s out of ink. You’d think the Braves or Dodgers would overwhelm them with their murderous lineups, but that’s what the Yankees and Astros thought. Whoever prevails in the National League Championship Series, the World Series won’t pull America from the next haywire presidential debate and all the accompanying cable news prattle. Like all sports leagues in 2020, NFL included, the ratings will crater and only the diehards and a few thousand fans — masked and otherwise in the venerable baseball hub that is Arlington, Texas — will be participating.     

It’s just as well. No one knows who the Rays are or why they’re here, except those of us who appreciate minimalism. They are the Marie Kondos of sports, and if you aren’t sure what that means, you shouldn’t be watching anyway.

BSM Writers

Is There Still a Place for Baseball Talk on National Sports Shows?

“Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Last week at the BSM Summit, I hosted a panel focused on air checks. I wish I could say we covered the topic thoroughly, but we got derailed a lot, and you know what? That is okay. It felt like real air checks that I have been on both sides of in my career. 

Rob Parker of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio was the talent. He heard thoughts on his show from his boss, Scott Shapiro, and from his former boss, legendary WFAN programmer Mark Chernoff. 

Baseball was the topic that caused one of our derailments on the panel. If you know Rob, you know he is passionate about Major League Baseball. He cited download numbers that show The Odd Couple’s time-shifted audience responds to baseball talk. To him, that proves there is not just room for it on nationally syndicated shows, but that there is a sizable audience that wants it.

Chernoff disagrees. He says baseball is a regional sport. Sure, there are regions that love it and local sports talk stations will dedicate full hours to discussing their home team’s games and roster. National shows need to cast a wide net though, and baseball doesn’t do that.

Personally, I agree with Chernoff. I told Parker on stage that “I hear baseball talk and I am f***ing gone.” The reason for that, I think, is exactly what Chernoff said. I grew up in Alabama (no baseball team). I live in North Carolina (no baseball team). Where baseball is big, it is huge, but it isn’t big in most of the country. 

Now, I will add this. I used to LOVE baseball. It is the sport I played in high school. The Yankees’ logo was on the groom’s cake at my wedding. Then I had kids.

Forget 162 games. Even five games didn’t fit into my lifestyle. Maybe somewhere deep down, I still have feelings for the sport, but they are buried by years of neglect and active shunning.

Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance. 

Me, and millions of sports talk listeners like me, look at baseball like a toddler looks at broccoli. You probably aren’t lying when you tell us how much you love it, but damn it! WE WANT CHICKEN FINGERS!

A new Major League Baseball season starts Thursday and I thought this topic was worth exploring. I asked three nationally syndicated hosts to weigh in. When is baseball right for their show and how do they use those conversations? Here is what they had to say.

FREDDIE COLEMAN (Freddie & Fitzsimmons on ESPN Radio) – “MLB can still be talked nationally IF there’s that one player like Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani can attract the casual fan.  MLB has definitely become more local because of the absence of that SUPER player and/or villainous team.  I wonder if the pace of play will help bring in the younger fans that they need, but the sport NEEDS that defining star that is must-see TV.”

JONAS KNOX (2 Pros & a Cup of Joe on FOX Sports Radio) – “While football is king for me in sports radio, I look at baseball like most other sports. I’m not opposed to talking about it, as long as I have an angle or opinion that I am confident I can deliver in an entertaining manner. A couple of times of any given year, there are stories in baseball that are big picture topics that are obvious national discussions. 

“I think it’s my job to never close the door on any topic/discussion (except politics because I don’t know anything about it).

“But also, if I’m going to discuss a localized story in baseball or any other sport for that matter – I better have an entertaining/informed angle on it. Otherwise, I’ve let down the listener and that is unacceptable. If they give you their time, you better not waste it.”

MAGGIE GRAY (Maggie & Perloff on CBS Sports Radio) – “While I was on WFAN there was almost no amount of minutia that was too small when it came to the Mets and Yankees. On Maggie and Perloff, our baseball topics have to be more centered around issues that can be universal. For example, ’Is Shohei Ohtani the face of the sport? Is Ohtani pitching and hitting more impressive than two sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? Do you consider Aaron Judge the single-season homerun king or Barry Bonds?’ Any baseball fan or sports fan can have an opinion about those topics, so we find they get great engagement from our audience.”

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BSM Writers

Who Can Sports Fans Trust Once Twitter Ditches Legacy Verified Blue Checks?

The potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.

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As of April 1, Twitter will finally make a dreaded change that many will view as an April Fools’ prank. Unfortunately, it won’t be a joke to any user who cares about legitimacy and truth.

Last week, Twitter officially announced that verified blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that have not signed up for a Twitter Blue subscription. Previously, accounts whose identity had been verified were allowed to keep their blue checks when Twitter Blue was implemented.

But shortly after Elon Musk purchased Twitter and became the social media company’s CEO, he stated his intention to use verification as a revenue source. Users would have to pay $8 per month (or $84 annually) for a Twitter Blue subscription and blue checkmark verification. Paying for blue checks immediately set off red flags among users who learned to depend on verified accounts for accredited identities and trusted information.

The entire concept of verification and blue checks was simple and effective. Users and accounts bearing the blue checkmark were legitimate. These people and organizations were who they said they were.

As an example, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has faced criticism for how he framed domestic violence and sexual misconduct involving star NFL players, and deservedly so. But fans and media know Schefter’s tweets are really coming from him because his account is verified.

Furthermore, Twitter took the additional step of clarifying that accounts such as Schefter’s were verified before Twitter Blue was implemented. He didn’t pay eight dollars for that blue checkmark.

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The need for verification is never more vital than when fake accounts are created to deceive users. Such accounts will put “Adam Schefter” as their Twitter name, even if their handle is something like “@TuaNeedsHelp.” Or worse, some fake accounts will create a handle with letters that look similar. So “@AdarnSchefter” with an “rn” in place of the “m,” fools some people, especially at a quick glance when people are trying to push news out as fast as possible.

Plenty of baseball fans have been duped over the years by fake accounts using a zero instead of an “o” or a capital “I” instead of a lowercase “l” to resemble Fox Sports and The Athletic reporter Ken Rosenthal. That trick didn’t get me. But when I covered Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report 10 years ago, I did fall for a fake Jim Salisbury account that reported the Philadelphia Phillies traded Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. Capital “I,” not lowercase “l” in “Salisbury.” Pence was, in fact, traded to the Giants two days later, but that didn’t make my goof any less embarrassing. I should’ve looked for the blue checkmark!

But after April 1, that signifier won’t matter. Legacy blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that haven’t paid for Twitter Blue. Some accounts that were previously verified might purchase a subscription to maintain that blue check. But those that were deemed legitimate prior to Musk taking over Twitter likely won’t. (There are also rumors that Twitter is considering a feature that would allow Twitter Blue subscribers to hide their blue check and avoid revealing that purchase.)

That could be even more true for media organizations, which are being told to pay $1000 per month for verification. Do you think ESPN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post will pay $12,000 for a blue check?

We’ve already seen the problems that paying for verification can cause. Shortly after Twitter Blue launched, accounts pretending to be legacy verified users could be created. A fake Adam Schefter account tweeted that the Las Vegas Raiders had fired head coach Josh McDaniels. Users who saw the “Adam Schefter” Twitter name went with the news without looking more closely at the “@AdamSchefterNOT” handle. But there was a blue checkmark next to the name this time!

The same thing occurred with a fake LeBron James account tweeting that the NBA superstar had requested a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a “@KINGJamez” handle, but a “LeBron James” Twitter name with a blue check next to it.

Whether it’s because fans and media have become more discerning or Twitter has done good work cracking down on such fake accounts, there haven’t been many outrageous examples of deliberate deception since last November. But the potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.

If that seems like an overstatement, it’s a very real possibility that there will be an erosion of trust among Twitter users. Media and fans may have to take a breath before quickly tweeting and retweeting news from accounts that may or may not be credible. False news and phony statements could spread quickly and go viral across social media.

Even worse, Musk has announced that only verified Twitter Blue accounts will be seen in your “For You” timeline as of April 15. (He can’t claim it’s an April Fools’ Day joke on that date.)

Obviously, that carries far more serious real-world implications beyond sports. Forget about a fake Shams Charania account tweeting that Luka Dončić wants to be traded to the Lakers. It’s not difficult to imagine a fake Joe Biden account declaring war on Russia and some people believing it’s true because of the blue checkmark.

We may be nearing the end of Twitter being a reliable news-gathering tool. If the accounts tweeting out news can’t be trusted, where’s the value? Reporters and newsmakers may end up going to other social media platforms to break stories and carry the viability of verification.

When Fox Sports’ website infamously pivoted to video in 2017, Ken Rosenthal posted his MLB reporting on Facebook prior to joining The Athletic. Hello, Instagram. Will someone take their following and reputation to a fledgling platform like Mastodon, Post, Spoutible, or BlueSky, even if it means a lesser outlet?

If and when that happens, Twitter could still be a community but not nearly as much fun. Not when it becomes a matter of trust that breaks up the party.

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BSM Writers

There’s a Lesson For Us All in Florida Atlantic’s Elite 8 Broadcast Struggle

“It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.”

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Ken LaVicka and Kevin Harlan probably don’t have a ton in common. Both of them were announcing an Elite Eight game over the weekend, that is one thing tying them together, but their experiences were wildly different. Harlan is on CBS with a production crew numbering in the dozens making certain all goes smoothly. LaVicka, the voice of the Florida Atlantic Owls, is a production crew himself, making certain those listening in South Florida heard the Owls punch their Final Four ticket. At least, that was LaVicka’s plan.

The Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Men’s Final Four. Even while typing that sentence, it still seems odd to say. Do you know how many college basketball teams are thinking “how can Florida Atlantic make the Final Four and we can’t?” These are the types of stories that make the NCAA Tournament what it is. There is, literally, no barrier stopping any team from this tournament going on the run of their life and making it all the way.

Everyone listening in South Florida almost missed the moment it all became real for the Owls. With :18.6 to go in Florida Atlantic’s Elite Eight game against Kansas State, the Madison Square Garden Ethernet service to the front row of media seating went completely dark. 

It was on that row that Ken LaVicka was painting the picture back to South Florida. Well, he was until the internet died on him.

Nobody does a single show away from their home studio anymore without trying to avoid the nightmare of Ethernet failure. Gone are the days of phone lines and ISDN connections, all the audio and video is now sent back to the studio over the technological miracle that is the internet. It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.

Take that anxiety and multiply it by 1,000 when that Ethernet line is connected to a Comrex unit for the most important moment of your career. LaVicka had the great fortune of a Kansas State timeout to try something, anything, to save the day. In his quick thinking, he spun around and grabbed an ethernet cable from row two which, as it turns out, still had internet access flowing through it’s cables. That cable, though, was the equivalent of an iPhone charging cord; never as long as you need it to be.

One of LaVicka’s co-workers from ESPN West Palm held the Comrex unit close enough to the second row for the cable to make a connection and the day was saved. LaVicka was able to call the last :15 of the Florida Atlantic win and, presumably, get in all the necessary sponsorship mentions.

It was an exciting end to the FAU v. Kansas State game, a great defensive stop by the Owls to seal the victory. LaVicka told the NCAA’s Andy Katz he tried to channel his inner Jim Nantz to relay that excitement. The NCAA Tournament excitement started early this year. In the very first TV window 13 Seed Furman upset 4 Seed Virginia with a late three pointer by JP Pegues, who had been 0-for-15 from beyond the arc leading up to that shot. It is the type of play the NCAA Tournament is built upon.

It was called in the manner Kevin Harlan’s career was built upon. Harlan, alongside Stan Van Gundy and Dan Bonner, called the Virginia turnover leading to the made Furman basket with his trademark excitement before laying out for the crowd reaction. After a few seconds of crowd excitement he asked his analysts, and the world, “Did we just see what I think we saw? Wow!” Vintage Kevin Harlan.

One reason we are so aware of what Harlan said, and that he signaled his analysts to lay out for the crowd reaction, was a CBS Sports tweet with video of Harlan, Van Gundy and Bonner in a split screen over the play. It gave us a rare look at a pro in the middle of his craft. We got to see that Harlan reacts just like he sounds. The video has more than six million views and has been retweeted more than 6,000 times, a lot of people seem to like it.

Kevin Harlan is not in that group. Harlan appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast after the video went public and said he was embarrassed by it. Harlan added he “begged” CBS not send the tweet out but to no avail. Harlan told Deitsch “I don’t know that I’m glad that they caught our expression, but I’m glad the game was on the air. I think I join a chorus of other announcers who do not like the camera.”

There’s a valuable announcer lesson from Harlan there; the audience is almost always there for the game, not you. Harlan went on to describe the broadcast booth to Deitsch as somewhat of a sacred place. He would prefer to let his words accompany the video of the action to tell the story. Kevin Harlan is as good as they come at his craft, if he thinks that way, there’s probably great value in that line of thought.

We can learn from LaVicka, as well. You work in this business long enough and you come to accept technical difficulties are as much a part of it as anything. They always seem to strike at the worst times, it is just in their nature. Those who can find a way to deal with them without everything melting down are those who can give their audience what they showed up for. Those who lose their mind and spend time complaining about them during the production simply give the audience information they don’t really care about.

The Final Four is an unlikely collection of teams; Miami, San Diego State, Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. You all had that in your brackets, right? Yep, the Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Final Four and Ken LaVicka will be there for it. Now, if the internet will just hold out.

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