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Can Olympic Hopeful Boris Berian Stick It to Nike?
When Boris Berian lines up to run the 800-meter event at tonight’s U.S. Olympic trials, he’ll be decked out in New Balance gear. This may seem insignificant to the casual viewer, but it’s the cause of major controversy in the track world: As recently as last week, Nike was suing Berian, essentially for the right to sponsor him. Nike filed the lawsuit in April, putting Berian’s Olympic status in jeopardy and sparking a massive debate about the way professional track contracts are structured. Although Nike dropped the case last Thursday, allowing Berian to sign with New Balance, Nike v. Berian may well prove to be a watershed moment for athletes’ rights. It will certainly make the trials more compelling.
This case was tailor-made for David and Goliath metaphors: The plaintiff was a $26 billion corporation, easily the richest brand in sports, while the defendant was less than two years removed from flipping burgers at McDonalds for $8 an hour. Berian’s rags-to-riches tale captivated the track world last year, when the 22-year-old college dropout rose from obscurity to run a U.S.-leading time of 1:43.84 at the New York Adidas Grand Prix, finishing second to world-record holder David Rudisha. Nike quickly signed him for the remainder of 2015, and despite some missteps — most notably his failure to reach the 800-meter final at the U.S. championships last June — Berian was well-positioned for the future with a sought-after contract.
When Berian’s deal expired at the end of 2015, New Balance extended him a fully guaranteed three-year, $375,000 deal, an offer he found appealing. The only problem: Nike had the right to match, which it claims to have done. But according to Berian and his agent, Merhawi Keflezighi, Nike’s resulting counteroffer was laden with reduction clauses, as is the company’s wont. For example, Nike reserved the right to reduce Berian’s compensation by a whopping 20 percent if “Mr. Berian is not ranked in the top 10 worldwide for the 800 meter event.” This set off a back-and-forth that effectively put Berian in sponsorship limbo. When Berian capped a strong winter campaign with a gold medal at the World Indoor Championships in March, he revealed the shocking news that he was competing without a shoe contract. How could aworld indoor champion not have a sponsor?
In May, we found out:
Legal issues aside, Nike’s decision to sue Berian was bad optics: Here was a corporate behemoth taking an up-and-coming athlete to court for wearing a different brand of shoes. Berian had to crowdfund his legal defense, and the response from fans was overwhelming: #FreeBoris.
Nike was never going to win this PR battle, which is why some have speculated the company ultimately dropped the lawsuit before the Olympics — the one time every four years that casual sports fans pay attention to track. Moreover, the swoosh already had a well-earned reputation as a bully in the world of pro track and field, and Berian’s origin story made him a perfect folk hero.
Despite dropping the case against Berian, Nike still wields more power than ever. In 2014, USA Track & Field and Nike inked a gargantuan sponsorship agreement through 2040, estimated to be worth $500 million. If you tune in to the trials, which start tonight and go through July 10, you’ll see swoosheseverywhere, from the Hayward Field signage to most athletes’ shoes. But you won’t find any on Berian, and his effort to ensure that is worth appreciating.
Berian went from fry cook to world-class runner to labor-rights hero. He’s one of the feel-good stories of the track world. After surviving a legal battle with Nike, qualifying for the Olympics should be a piece of cake.
How Adam Duvall Is Defying Baseball Wisdom
The Reds slugger doesn’t need to reach base often to be valuable
Matt Christopher wrote more than 120 sports books for kids, but none entranced readers quite like The Kid Who Only Hit Homers, in which Sylvester, the protagonist, excels in his youth baseball league by doing exactly what the book’s title says.
It’s a fun fictional story, nothing more. But if Sylvester actually existed, and if he grew up and maintained his hitting pattern into his late 20s, he’d look a lot like Adam Duvall, the left fielder currently blasting baseballs into orbit over Southwest Ohio.
He’s blasting them far, and he’s blasting them often, providing punch for an otherwise anemic Cincinnati lineup: Duvall leads the NL with 22 home runs, with 20 coming since May 3.
There’s a reason that Duvall isn’t already smiling at us from Wheaties boxes, though, and it’s not just because the 2016 Reds are a blend of bad and boring. It’s because Duvall hits homers or he doesn’t hit at all: He pairs a .580 slugging percentage with a woeful .291 on-base rate thanks to one of the worst batting eyes in the game. During one recent six-week stretch, Jeremy Hellickson, a pitcher with two career walks entering the season, reached base on balls more often than Duvall.
No qualified batter has ever posted an OBP below .300 while hitting for such consistent power. Nobody has really come all that close.
If Moneyball taught us anything — or, at least, if superficial reads of Moneyballtaught us anything — it’s that not making outs is important, meaning it’s hard to be a valuable baseball player when the first digit of your on-base percentage is a two.
Duvall is defying that piece of axiomatic baseball wisdom, however. Acquired from San Francisco in the Mike Leake trade last summer, Duvall has already been worth nearly two wins above replacement this season, ranking him among the top dozen NL outfielders.
That’s quite a feat for a low-tools player who was never a top-10 prospect in the Giants’ organization (per Baseball America) and who was largely overlooked as a throw-in for Leake. Even this offseason, Duvall was anonymous to the point that FanGraphs described him as one on “a list of fake names a baseball video game would generate to fill out the low minors rosters.”
Baseball Prospectus knew Duvall a little better, describing him as a “poor man’s Mark Trumbo.” The comparison to Trumbo, who leads the AL in homers despite a similarly unsightly walk rate, is easy; FanGraphs eventually made the connection, as did Vice Sports, and on The Ringer MLB Show in mid-June, staffers transitioned seamlessly from talking about Duvall to talking about Trumbo.
That’s not high praise in today’s baseball climate, when one-dimensional power is widely shunned; long gone are the days of Juan González MVP votes and Bash Brothers fetishizing. A player like Trumbo would have been a franchise cornerstone two decades ago — but in today’s game, in which teams value multifaceted skill sets and on-base ability, he has been discarded by three clubs in as many seasons.
It’s probably for the best. Ryan Howard’s bloated contract extension has become a cautionary tale. And opposing general managers shouldn’t have to do much more than scrounge under their couch cushions for change this July if they want to trade for Matt Kemp or Jay Bruce, two replacement-level players putting up empty power numbers.
The backlash against any player seemingly resembling those long-ball-reliant husks of former All-Stars has gone too far. Duvall is dismissed preemptively, leaving him both underrated and largely anonymous nationally when, in reality, of the 15 outfielders who made last season’s All-Star Game, only Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Lorenzo Cain have been more valuable than Duvall this year (and Cain by a mere 0.1 WAR).
Part of Duvall’s quiet success has come on defense; a porous corner infielder before this year, the Red has excelled in his first stint in the outfield, by bothadvanced metrics and the eye test. He hasn’t been at it long, but he seems to hew closer to Alex Gordon and Ryan Braun, who successfully completed the infield-to-outfield transition in recent years, than he does to someone like Trumbo, who could charitably be described as an adventure in the outfield.
Even at the plate, though, Duvall generates more value than his frightful OBP might suggest. He has created runs at a rate far better than the average hitter thanks to his home run binges, exemplifying the perhaps anti-evolutionary notion that a high-power, low-OBP approach can work if the first part of the formula carries enough wattage.
Trumbo is proving the same with his three-month hot streak for the first-place Orioles, and even Billy Beane has tried to take advantage of this new market inefficiency by trading for Khris Davis in the offseason and accepting a sub-.300 OBP in exchange for top-level power numbers.
As home run totals boom across baseball, we might soon find more players who are proving sneakily useful despite anachronistic batting lines. That’s already the case with Duvall, whose success with such a single-minded offensive philosophy suggests he might do well to double down on this approach.
Except Duvall is the Red Who Only Hits Homers, so there shouldn’t be anysingles or doubles involved at all.
by Nathaniel Grow - June 30, 2016
Rightly or wrongly, minor-league baseball teams believe the ongoing, class-action lawsuit over minor-league players’ wages presents something of an existential threat. As has been previously discussed here on a variety of occasions, the litigation contends, in short, that many minor league players’ salaries — which can run as low as $3,300 per year — violate the federal minimum wage and overtime laws.
Even though minor-league teams are not actually responsible for their players’ salaries — minor leaguers are instead paid by their respective major-league franchise — they still fear that a ruling in the players’ favor could be vitally injurious to their interests. As the argument goes, if major-league teams are forced to incur higher payroll costs, then they will likely cut back on other subsidies that they may currently provide to their minor-league partners.
Moreover, the minor leagues worry that, in some cases, MLB teams may potentially even decide to terminate their relationship with one or more of their minor-league affiliates in order to reduce costs. While most of the higher-level minor-league teams would likely survive such an scenario, the minor leagues fear that a victory for the players could spell doom for some of their lower-level franchises, especially those residing in particularly small metropolitan areas.
As a result, the minor leagues announced 18 months ago that they would petition Congress for relief, asking the legislature to pass a law protecting the industry from the federal minimum wage and maximum hour laws. A year and a half later, these efforts finally came to fruition, when a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last week proposing to formally exclude minor-league baseball players from the federal minimum wage and overtime protections.
Specifically, the proposed bill — currently entitled the Save America’s Pastime Act — would amend the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by adding a new exception to the basic minimum wage and overtime protections afforded to most of our nation’s workers, excluding “any employee who has entered into a contract to play baseball at the minor league level.” In addition, the bill goes on to also cast some doubt regarding the status of major-league players under the FLSA, stating that the fact that minor-league players are excluded should not be read to imply that MLB players are themselves in fact covered by the minimum wage and overtime laws.
At first glance, this second portion of the bill would appear to be quite unnecessary, since it is hard to imagine a scenario in which major-league players’ salaries plummet to the point at which they would fall below the federal minimum-wage (currently set at $7.25 per hour). Instead, the provision is likely intended to help foreclose the possibility that major-league players would ever elect to sue for unpaid overtime compensation. Along these lines, it is doubtful whether players would be covered by the so-called “white collar” exception to the overtime rules, meaning that it is theoretically possible that they could someday file a lawsuit — perhaps during the midst of an extended labor stoppage — seeking one-and-a-half times their normal hourly wage for every hour worked over 40 per week.
Should Congress pass the law, the Save America’s Pastime Act states that its new proposed exceptions would apply retroactively to any lawsuit or work occurring “before, on, or after [the bill’s] date of enactment.” While this would not necessarily doom the ongoing minor-league minimum-wage lawsuit in its entirety — since the case also asserts that MLB is in violation of several state-level minimum-wage and overtime laws, rules that would not be affected by the proposed legislation — it means that the plaintiffs could no longer seek relief under the FLSA, severely hampering their hopes of securing nationwide reform in this area. (Meanwhile, the Constitution’s prohibition of so-called ex post facto laws — i.e., those applying with retroactive effect — would not apply to the new bill, as that restriction only prevents Congress from passing retroactive criminal laws.)
Notably, if enacted into law, the Save America’s Pastime Act may actually be somewhat redundant. Major-league teams have asserted in the minor-league wage case that they are already exempt from the FLSA, under the law’s existing exception for seasonal “amusement or recreational establishments.” As I’ve previously discussed, courts are split as to whether this exception — which generally applies to recreational businesses operating seven or fewer months per year — applies to professional sports teams. In the only case decided to date involving a minor-league baseball team, however, a federal appellate court concluded that the Single-A Sarasota White Sox were in fact covered by this exception, and thus did not have to pay its employees the minimum wage or overtime.
Should this same interpretation be adopted in the minor-league wage lawsuit, then the Save America’s Pastime Act would be unnecessary, as minor-league players would already be excluded from the protections of the FLSA under this preexisting exception.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether the new proposed legislation is ultimately enacted into law. On the one hand, because Congress is currently unable to accomplish much of anything at all in the current political climate, it would seem unlikely that such a bill would make it through both the House and the Senate. And even if it did, it’s not clear that President Obama (or a potential future President Clinton) would sign it into law. (A Donald Trump administration may be another story, however.)
Moreover, even though the bill originally had bipartisan support, having been proposed by Representatives Cheri Bustos (D-IL) and Brett Guthrie (R-KY), Rep. Bustos has already announced — little more than an hour ago — that she iswithdrawing her support for the legislation due to the backlash it has already received.
On the other hand, Minor League Baseball (MiLB) has historically proven to have a significant lobbying force on Capitol Hill. With more than 160 teams spread throughout 42 states, minor-league owners have routinely been able to successfully exert their influence over the years on a large and geographically diverse group of Congressional representatives.
And at the same time, MLB is likely to flex its own political muscle to help the cause, since major-league teams will be the ones forced to directly foot the bill should the minor-league players win their lawsuit. (Notably, MLB’s political action committee (PAC) made campaign donations to both of the original sponsors of the Save America’s Pastime Act.)
Should the judge in the minor-league wage lawsuit rule against MLB on the applicability of the seasonal-amusement-or-recreational-establishment exception — thus suggesting that minor-league players are in fact currently entitled to the minimum wage and overtime compensation — then one can expect that the league’s lobbying efforts in Congress will only intensify.
Considering that minor-league players have never formed their own union, it’s not clear how they will rebut these lobbying efforts without their own organized presence on Capitol Hill. That having been said, the fact that the Save America’s Pastime Act could also prevent major-league players from filing their own FLSA lawsuits may motivate the Major League Baseball Players Association to weigh in on the matter, which would help to balance the scales somewhat.
Even if its ultimate prospects for passage are uncertain, however, the fact that MLB and MiLB would appear to be throwing their weight behind the Save America’s Pastime Act shows how significant a threat they perceive the minor-league wage litigation to be. Neither organization is likely to rest, then, until they have been definitively defeated on this issue both in court and in Congress.
Mark Appel has advice for Phillies' No. 1 overall pick
May 9, 2016, 9:45 am
By Corey Seidman
Most of the players projected as candidates for the Phillies to draft first overall this June are pitchers. Plenty of hype, scrutiny and expectations come along with being selected first overall in any sport, but it's a unique thing for a starting pitcher who can prove himself just once every five days.
It will be a lot of pressure for a player between 18 and 22 years old, but a former No. 1 pick new to the Phils' organization will have some words of advice for whomever they take in June.
"Looking back, it's one of those things that it's a blessing and a curse, it really is," Mark Appel said in a Phillies Clubhouse interview that airs tonight at 6:30 on Comcast SportsNet.
"Whoever the Phillies take first overall, hopefully I'll be able to meet him and share some of the things that I struggled with and failed at to make him a better player and hopefully see him realize the potential that he has."
It's taken a while for Appel to develop and he still hasn't realized his potential. It's why he was available this winter and the Phils were able to acquire him in the Ken Giles trade with Houston. The 6-foot-5 right-hander entered this season with a 5.12 ERA in 253 innings in the Astros' system. He struggled with command and was hit around at pretty much every level. The fact that Kris Bryant was taken second overall that year has only made the criticism louder and the road tougher for Appel, now 24.
"Obviously, you're paid well and you're afforded opportunities that you wouldn't have otherwise. But at the same time, there's this level of expectation and pressure that goes along with it," Appel said. "And that's kind of hard to explain to the average person. I think everybody has expectations and pressures in their own life, but first overall pick is a little bit unique. The public nature of it is unique, and so there's a lot that goes into it."
There have been many star players taken first overall but also some busts. Dating back to 2000, there have been standouts at No. 1 like Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Justin Upton, Joe Mauer and Adrian Gonzalez. But there have also been disappointments like Tim Beckham, Luke Hochevar, Matt Bush and Bryan Bullington. Beckham and Hochevar have become OK major-league players, but if you're drafted first overall and don't become an integral piece of a team, the pick is typically seen as a failure.
As for Appel, he's gotten off to a better start this season at Triple A Lehigh Valley. Even after giving up five runs in five innings on Thursday, he's 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA through five starts. He's still allowed far too many baserunners — 39 in 27 innings — but so far he's been able to get outs when he's needed them. He's not completely out of the woods, though, because any pitcher is walking a tightrope when he's putting nearly 1½ men on base per inning.
But either way, Appel says he genuinely feels more comfortable, more at ease at this point. He's not second-guessing himself and killing himself mentally every time he has a bad inning.
"If I had to go back and do it all over again, just taking pressure off myself and just not taking everything so seriously," Appel said of what he'd do differently. "Just realizing the reason I was [drafted] where I was is because of who I was and what I had done in college (at Stanford). And I don't need to try to be anyone else or be extra special or perfect every time out. Just be the player that I was. That's what I'm trying to do this year."
Appel's teammate and roommate, Zach Eflin, says he's already seen differences in Appel's repertoire and demeanor on the mound.
"I've seen him in the past years and he just looks different," Eflin said. "He looks like he's not scared to challenge a hitter."
“If I execute a pitch, great. If I don’t, OK, who cares; that pitch is done; worry about the next pitch.”
I asked Jason Motte the same question. The Rockies reliever began his professional career as a catcher, so he too knows what it feels like at each end of the 60-feet, six-inch pathway. With 13 seasons under his belt, the 34-year-old righty doesn’t dwell on results as much as he used to.
“When I was a hitter, I thought way too much,” said Motte. “Maybe that’s why I wasn’t very good? But are you more in control when you go out there and pitch? You are and you aren’t. At the end of the day, it’s all about the process. Whether you’re hitting or pitching, you don’t control the outcome; you can only control the process that goes into it. You can make a perfect pitch and give up a hit and you can smash a baseball right at someone.
“If I execute a pitch, great. If I don’t, OK, who cares; that pitch is done; worry about the next pitch. Sure, you get frustrated when you give up runs, but at the end of the day, all you can do is make pitches. I’m kind of at the point now where it is what it is.”