Ready or Not, Baseball Begins Spring Training This Week


Steve Sparks is heading to spring training soon to broadcast the Houston Astros’ exhibition games on radio. But with the sport and the country still in the grip of the coronavirus, he will miss the up-close access that gives spring training its charm.“We’ll probably have some roped-off areas where we can get to a certain spot, but not like those days where you could stand right next to the bullpen, watch the prospects and listen to the teaching,” said Sparks, a former major league pitcher. “One day I was eight or 10 feet away from Justin Verlander throwing in the bullpen, seeing him look at an iPad after every pitch and making this one adjustment that I was able to talk about for half of a season because of what it did for his fastball.”Fans, too, can often get close enough for their own moments of wonder at complexes in Florida and Arizona, which open for pitchers and catchers for 15 teams on Wednesday and all teams by Friday. Most teams let fans roam the back fields with few restrictions. In Mesa, Ariz., the Chicago Cubs encourage fans to tailgate beside the players’ walkway from the training complex to the ballpark, bringing a touch of Wrigleyville to the desert.Alas, this spring will be different. Attendance will be limited to 20 to 25 percent of capacity, depending on the city. The usual ambience — crowded grassy berms above the outfield walls, fans snagging autographs — will take a hiatus. Even the minor leaguers will keep their distance; most of them will not report to spring training facilities until the big leaguers leave town.At least players in Florida will get a break from two- or three-hour bus rides. The five teams based in the east coast of the state — the Mets, the Houston Astros, the Washington Nationals, the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals — will play against only one another, and the teams that train in the Tampa area will not play the teams in the Fort Myers area.The changes make last spring training seem much longer than 12 months ago. Back then, the industry was consumed by the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Three managers and a general manager were fired over it, and the Houston players faced severe backlash from colleagues around the league and fans at exhibition games. The pandemic abruptly changed everything.During a four-month shutdown, the commissioner’s office and the union bickered over the details of the restart, an early battleground for the painstaking negotiations to replace the collective bargaining agreement that expires after this season.The sides assumed their hard lines again this winter. With support from city officials in the hard-hit Phoenix area, owners proposed pushing back spring training, staging opening day in late April and shortening the schedule to 154 games. Players would get full pay, with a universal designated hitter and expanded playoffs as part of the deal. The union rejected that plan without a counterproposal, retaining the expanded playoffs as a bargaining tool to get the larger-scale changes it wants in the next C.B.A.Barring a change, then, the league will head into an uncertain future by turning to the recent past, with pitchers hitting in National League parks and the same playoff format as was held from 2012 through 2019 — three division winners and two wild-card teams in each league. Last season, eight teams from each league qualified for the postseason, and the designated hitter was used in all games.“I don’t understand why we don’t have a D.H.,” Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said last week on MLB Network Radio. “I think for both sides, for the fans, for the game, for health and safety — there’s no reason why the D.H. shouldn’t be in there. It shouldn’t be tied to anything. The D.H. makes sense for the betterment of the game. It makes sense for the future, it makes sense for keeping pitchers healthy. Nobody wants to see Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or Kyle Hendricks hit. They want to see them strike guys out; they want to see them be the aces that they are.”Two innovations from last season will remain: Extra innings will begin with a runner on second base, and games will last seven innings during doubleheaders. (Some spring training exhibitions will be limited to five innings.) The league will also introduce a new ball that adheres closer to the middle of the existing specification range — in other words, slightly lighter and less bouncy, in hopes of curbing the majors’ home run surge.For some pitchers, this adjustment confirmed suspicions that the league had juiced the old ball to generate more homers. In any case, if last season proved anything, it was the timeless lesson that pitching usually wins. The Los Angeles Dodgers had the best earned run average in the majors and won the World Series. They beat the Tampa Bay Rays, who had the best E.R.A. in the American League.The Dodgers added to their overpowering staff by signing Trevor Bauer, who won the N.L. Cy Young Award for Cincinnati last season, to a three-year, $102 million contract. The deal is front-loaded with salaries of $40 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022, and Bauer can opt out after either season.Bauer, who chose the Dodgers over the Mets, will be the third former Cy Young winner in the rotation, joining Clayton Kershaw and David Price. The Dodgers also have a wave of hard-throwing homegrown starters, none older than 26, in Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Julio Urias, who threw the final pitch of the World Series.No team can match that depth, not even the division-rival San Diego Padres, who traded for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove to build off the team’s first playoff appearance since 2006. After a shortened season, it may be more important than ever to carefully manage pitchers’ workloads.“We feel like we’ve got seven proven major league starters; we’re not sure exactly how things are going to shake out on April 1, but we couldn’t be more confident that they’re going to help us through the year and also through October,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “Adding to our pitching depth was something that was really important to us, just with all the unknowns, going from a 60-game season back to 162 games.”While the Dodgers try to become the first team to repeat as champions since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000, the Padres, the Chicago White Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays moved aggressively to continue their ascent. The White Sox — under a new manager, the Hall of Famer Tony La Russa — gave three-year contracts to starter Lance Lynn and closer Liam Hendriks in free agency, while Toronto splurged for center fielder George Springer (six years, $150 million) and infielder Marcus Semien (one year, $18 million).Several other teams made multiple win-now moves, like the Yankees (Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon), the Mets (Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, James McCann, Trevor May, Aaron Loup), the Minnesota Twins, the Washington Nationals and even the Kansas City Royals, who traded with the Boston Red Sox last week for outfielder Andrew Benintendi.The Red Sox, who dealt Price and Mookie Betts to the Dodgers last winter, stumbled to 24-36 for a .400 winning percentage, their worst since 1965. Their additions have been mostly low-cost placeholders — Franchy Cordero, Enrique Hernandez, Marwin Gonzalez, Hunter Renfroe — signaling another year of rebuilding at Fenway Park.Teardown strategies are still in vogue, and not just with typically stingy teams like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. The Cubs shipped Darvish to the Padres, and the Colorado Rockies dealt Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals, less than two years after signing him to an eight-year contract extension. Several other teams, like Arizona, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Seattle, did almost nothing to improve.It is no wonder, then, that players believe the current economic system incentivizes losing while also discouraging teams from exceeding a luxury-tax limit, in effect creating a salary cap. Resolving those issues and avoiding a strike must be an off-field priority this season — because while this spring training is bound to feel different, it is surely better than no spring training at all.

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Behind the ‘Grind’ of the N.B.A. Team With the Next Big Thing


The buzzer sounded, signaling a Charlotte Hornets loss to the Indiana Pacers. Charlotte wouldn’t have to wait long to try to exact revenge.This N.B.A. season is unusual in many ways because of the coronavirus pandemic, and one of its main scheduling wrinkles is that teams are playing each other in consecutive games to reduce travel and potential virus exposure.For the Hornets (12-13), a young, rebuilding team that has turned heads with its star rookie LaMelo Ball, the two-game stands have become a time for learning. Charlotte provided behind-the-scenes access to The New York Times for 48 hours to see how its coaching staff — a team within a team — prepared for recent back-to-back home games against the Pacers. There was practice (practice?), film sessions together and apart, family time and a little bit of trash talk.“I allow my coaches — I trust them — to put together a good game plan,” Hornets Coach James Borrego said. “I take in that information, I digest it, and obviously I make the final decisions. But I trust them to help me make those decisions.”Three of the assistant coaches — Jay Triano, Ronald Nored and Nick Friedman — focus on the team’s offense, while the other three — Chad Iske, Dutch Gaitley and Nate Mitchell — prioritize defense.“A big, overall philosophy for me is a developmental approach with our players, that they help our players grow and develop,” Borrego said. “And I want to have a culture as a head coach that our coaches are developing as well. They’re not just static.”Another assistant, Jay Hernandez, recently departed to coach the Greensboro Swarm in the G League’s bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla.This season is the staff’s third as a group. Triano has head coaching experience, with the Toronto Raptors and the Phoenix Suns. Nored is young enough to have shared a backcourt with Charlotte’s marquee off-season acquisition, Gordon Hayward, when the pair played together at Butler.“We blend well,” Nored said of the coaching staff. “We have a couple of 30-year-olds. Chad is in his 40s. Jay’s in his 60s, but he acts like he’s 25, so it all fits really well together.”Wednesday, Jan. 2710 p.m. — Indiana 116, Charlotte 106The coaches started filtering from the Spectrum Center following the loss to Indiana. Nored, 30, spoke to Hayward over the phone as the two drove home, dissecting the game. Indiana limited Hayward to just 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting in 40 minutes.Getting home that night provided a short decompression window for most of the coaches before they dove back into work. Gaitley, 33, caught an episode of “The Real Housewives of Dallas” with his wife, Moraya. “Made sure that I was up on everything, so that whenever we have that conversation, she knows that I was listening,” he said.At home, Nored tries to study film only after his 2-year-old daughter, Avery, is asleep. He caught up with his wife, Danielle, before plopping on his living room couch, close enough to attend to Avery or his month-old son, Kai, should they stir.Indiana’s defense was Nored’s scout, meaning he was tasked with providing the rest of the coaching staff with a report on the Pacers’ defense so they could prep Charlotte’s offense. (Gaitley had to do the opposite.)Nored watched the game again from his laptop. He jotted notes as he created the video edit that he would show the staff the next day, with clips no longer than three minutes highlighting key decisions and reads.Midnight — ‘It’s a grind.’Jordan Surenkamp, Charlotte’s head video coordinator, wrapped up his evening at the arena. The video staff coded the game as it happened, breaking it into segments — for example, all of the team’s pick-and-rolls and how Indiana defended them.When the game ended, Surenkamp reviewed the film, tightening the segments into digestible pieces before making them available to the coaches. The video staff also gathered film for the players, such as all their shots or assists, so that it would be available to them by the time they returned home. Surenkamp then moved on to his own duties, editing video and compiling statistical spreadsheets, then sending any noticeable trends to the coaching staff.“It’s really the hub of my program, the video room,” Borrego said.It’s also Borrego’s background. Long ago, he started his N.B.A. career in San Antonio’s film room under Coach Gregg Popovich. He sets high standards for Surenkamp, who tries to be the first into the arena and the last to leave.“The expectation is there to be really, really good and prompt and available at what I do,” Surenkamp said. “But I think with that being said, he does understand that it’s a grind, it’s longer days, there’s a lot of responsibilities that I’m given.”Thursday, Jan. 287 a.m. — ‘One game ahead’Surenkamp had already been at the arena for an hour by the time the assistant coaches returned and eased into their practice day. Friedman, 30, hopped on the treadmill while listening to the author Ben Greenfield’s fitness podcast. Nored had dropped Avery off at school en route to the Spectrum Center, then did some recreational reading before starting his day. Gaitley watched film on his next scout, the Miami Heat, whom the Hornets would play in four days. “You’re always working on one game ahead,” Triano, 62, said.10:30 a.m. — ‘Who was talking trash?’The defensive staff filed into a room for a coaches’ meeting, making small talk. George Rodman, Charlotte’s director of basketball analytics and strategy, opened by discussing the recent saga involving GameStop’s stock. “We’re talking about what happened the night before,” Gaitley said. “Who was talking trash or posted on Instagram? You’re joking about that, and keeping everybody up to date on everything that’s happening in the league and then you sort of organically jump into it.”The group watched the video edit that Gaitley had compiled, discussing whether they adhered to their main principles of protecting the paint, grabbing defensive rebounds and contesting 3-point shots. Nored watched, looking for points to emphasize with Ball, one of his developmental priorities and an early leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year Award.11:15 a.m. — ‘I’m going to get my game.’Pre-practice: The players who did not log many minutes in Wednesday’s game went through an extra workout session to maintain their cardio. Gaitley let the veteran Bismack Biyombo choose between playing pickup with the other players or working out individually.While Biyombo chose to work out, Malik Monk and the twins Caleb and Cody Martin played three games of four-on-four with Gaitley and the assistant video coordinators. “When you’re playing with Gordon Hayward, you’re not going to get 25 shots,” Gaitley said. “But when you play against the video guys, that’s where you’re like: ‘All right, I’m going to get some shots. I’m going to get my game. Get into rhythm.’”The moment afforded Gaitley a chance to connect with the players. He is the son of Stephanie Gaitley, the women’s basketball coach at Fordham University. As a child, he often accompanied her on recruiting visits. Occasionally, she handed him a binder that listed tidbits about the recruit and he’d quiz her on the drive about the name of the recruit’s boyfriend or favorite movie.His mother’s attention to detail stayed with him.“We don’t recruit at our level, but you are still showing the guys that you care every single day, because if you don’t build a personal relationship with them, then it’s going to be hard to coach them hard,” Gaitley said.Noon — ‘I try to be efficient in everything.’Practice: “You want to give them two or three things that they’re going to be able to remember and translate,” Triano said.In previous stops, Triano would list the team’s principles on the whiteboard with an addendum stating that any player who read the board could come into his office to collect $50. Few ever did.Homework: Some coaches stayed in the building throughout the afternoon, working with players and watching film on upcoming opponents. Others resumed their personal lives, like picking up their children from school. Still, they would often text one another through the night.“I think it happens a lot in our culture where it’s just, ‘I’m going to spend every waking moment thinking about basketball and watching every drop of film,’ ” Nored said. “And I could do that, but my daughter would be missing out on time with her dad, my wife would be missing out on time with her husband. And so they’re my priorities as well. And so I try to be efficient in everything that I do.”Friday Jan. 298:30 a.m. — ‘It’s always a good chess match.’The defensive scout meeting was shorter than the previous day’s, a reinforcement of the principles heading into the rematch. “It’s the battle of the adjustments to a degree and what can win out,” said Iske, 44. “Can you prepare for their adjustments, and on the other side of it, what they might do ahead of time? I think it’s always a good chess match to a degree, and exciting because it reminds you of the playoffs.”Afterward, the offensive coaches’ meeting included a 20-clip edit of how Indiana would most likely guard Charlotte on key plays, from screen-and-rolls to pin downs and dribble handoffs.9 a.m. — ‘Vitamins’To limit potential exposure to the virus, the Hornets bypass traditional team morning shootarounds in favor of individual sessions with coaches, called vitamins. “A big thing for us is our player development,” Triano said. “How are we going to get these guys better?”Mitchell, 34, started his day working with Hayward on his ball-handling and finishing at the rim. Later, he would also work with Biyombo, P.J. Washington and Devonte’ Graham. The goal was for Hayward not to settle for midrange shots when there was a path to the basket.Mitchell hopes Hayward’s free-throw attempts will soon rival his career high of 6.1 during the 2014-15 season. He’s averaging 4.8 per game this season.“It’s almost to the point now where he’s pointing out the opportunities more than it is me,” Mitchell said.Noon — ‘I just like to cram some work in.’The coaches filled the middle of the game day as they saw fit. Iske played a shooting game with Surenkamp before finishing his scout of the Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte’s opponent the following evening. Some, like Triano and Mitchell, took a brief nap, after having watched film late the previous night.Friedman squeezed in another workout before preparing for his next scout. “It’s hard for me to nap on game days,” he said. “I just like to cram some work in. It’s basketball at the end of the day, so you’re not really overworking yourself.”4:30 p.m. — ‘The best version of himself’Walk-through: The players and coaches gathered on the practice court for a walk-through of the night’s matchup. The session included an offensive breakdown, defensive scout and a review of plays. Then the assistants worked on the court with players, pulling some aside to watch quick video clips.Friedman played a short montage for guard Terry Rozier of his first start of the 2017-18 season, when he was with Boston. It was a triple-double effort against the Knicks. “It’s more for helping him envision the best version of himself right before we play,” Friedman said.7:10 p.m. — Tipoff vs. IndianaThe Hornets won the rematch, 108-105. “We made more plays down the stretch than we did the night before,” Borrego said, adding: “And I love this setup. I love playing two games against the same team in such a short period. This is a great way to teach.”

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