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Baseball is back — and in a weird spot

For the first time in a long time, it feels like the sport is having an identity crisis

9:44 AMFor some people, Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season is amateur hour. Like New Year’s Eve, driver’s ed courses and cooking classes. You show up, complete the task, then claim for the rest of that particular time cycle that you’re good because you’ve completed the requirements of being a baseball fan.

But for me, Opening Day is a tradition that I’ll probably hold on to longer than any other. Not because I want to eat a hot dog and drink a beer with a bunch of other people, but because of the journey it represents. Hack sportswriters will all tell you that everyone starts at the same place and thus everyone can conceivably have hope for a successful season. That’s a false utopia, but whatever.

This year, though, baseball is in a weird spot. People who grew up watching the game as casual fans now feel alienated from the game because it’s too specialized, too long and too boring. All are understandable feelings. For the first time in a long time, it feels like the actual sport itself is having an identity crisis.

Minor League Baseball is experimenting with putting a runner on second in extra innings to make things more exciting, apparently. MLB is putting a limit on mound visits as a way to try to shorten games. One franchise, the Arizona Diamondbacks, is bringing back the bullpen car to liven up pitching changes, and in Baltimore, the team is letting kids age 9 and under into games for free because that’s what they’ve come to.

If I’m being real, it’s heartbreaking. The sport has understandably turned to various gimmicks to try to improve ratings and attendance, and at the risk of sounding like the oldest man in Oldmanistan, it’s sad. To be clear, bullpen carts are incredible and letting kids into the park is even better. It’s not about the specificity of the gimmick, it’s about the fact that baseball is no longer good enough.

Look around the league and tell me who the people are who move the needle the most. The guys with the personalities, who play like they don’t care what opponents think and just want to have a good time playing. You can see it in the World Baseball Classic when players represent their home nations, and you can see it at lower levels of the game, where the notion of decorum and code are a little less rigid.

As a kid who grew up a baseball fanatic in a city without a big league team, I fell in love with the characters on the field, doing my best to connect with their personalities as humans and players, far more than my allegiance to the success of any one team. And those years of the ’80s and ’90s, there was a large swag element that was noticeable, and from far more people than just the stars. Now, if a team has a manager who curses a lot and a player who wears his hat askew, they’re looked at as loose cannons.

All this is to say that it’s an important season for the big league product. When I sat on a panel at the winter meetings in Orlando, Florida, I was asked what big league teams could do to improve the television experience of baseball. There’s a monumental focus on time, when the reality is about the game. If people don’t want to watch guys field ground balls, make throws and foul off pitches, then they just don’t.

Throwing bells and whistles into random parts of the sport is not going to draw people to the yard or their television sets. Baseball has become too monolithic in style, with the personality of the game we’re told to draw on as a child to endear ourselves to the game erased by adulthood with the wholly idiotic phrase “that’s not how you play the game.”

I’ve been to probably 10 ballgames already this season. None of them in the big leagues, but the passion was equally present. The Opening Day crowds across the nation are an interesting indicator of who the big leagues are trying to draw. There are those who show up for the experience and those who show up for the game, while most people do both. But are pitch clocks and batter’s box restrictions going to bring them back to the park? Unlikely.

If a game is entertaining, it doesn’t really matter how long it is. That’s the whole point of the sport. And the players are the ones who make it so. But as long as those in the ranks are operating on a code that strips the diamond of what originally made it delightful, the fans will know better. Everyone who shows up this weekend to watch hardball is there to have fun. Whether they do or not will likely be on the guys in uniform, not the ones in the commissioner’s office.


New rule aimed at eliminating lowering of head to make contact could change the way football is played

The wording of the rule will be finalized later this offseason

6:44 PMThe rules changes coming out of the NFL owners’ meetings in Orlando, Florida, are aimed at addressing a few of the league’s most controversial issues from recent seasons. Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday discussed catch rule adjustments that we all knew were coming, and most fans believe are overdue. The hope is that simplifying criteria for a catch will lead to less ambiguity and fewer Monday morning controversies.

Those alterations will have a substantial impact on the game, but the impact will be minor compared with the potential effect of a rule meant to eliminate lowering of the helmet to initiate contact for any player. The penalty for violators can range from 15 yards to ejection or even suspension. Depending on the wording of the rule, which will be finalized later this offseason, it could completely change how football is played. But it also might ensure that the NFL football will continue to be played for decades to come.

Andy Reid on diversity in coaching: Just do the right thing

Kansas City coach has the league’s only black offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, on his staff

6:20 PMORLANDO, Florida — During the Super Bowl, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged that the NFL has too few coaches of color in the pipeline on offense. That’s a problem during an era in which owners prefer to pick from that side of the ball to fill openings.

“The trend now is offensive coaches,” Goodell said.

And Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs is the league’s only African-American offensive coordinator. So how can the gap be bridged?

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has some thoughts. Reid was recently honored by the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group that helps the NFL oversee compliance with the Rooney Rule, for his contributions to furthering opportunities for candidates of color in coaching, front-office and scouting roles.

The answer to improving diversity in the ranks on offense, and coaching in general, is simple: Just do the right thing.

“I’m into good coaches,” Reid said. “I don’t get caught up in all the color. I don’t do all that. I can’t speak for other people on that. I talk to everybody. When you see me at the Senior Bowl, I’ve always got people coming up [to me] and I talk to ’em. Young guys. I don’t care what color they are, let’s talk some ball.

“As long as a guy loves ball, he’s got aptitude and is willing to work, I’m all in on him, man. And that’s what Eric Bieniemy is. That’s what I like. Just open your heart, man. Do what’s best for the game. I don’t care what color you are. Do what’s best for the game.”

Under Reid, Bieniemy is in a good spot. And that’s a big part of it, Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson said.

“Eric Bieniemy is with Andy Reid, who’s definitely about diversity and about giving guys opportunities,” said Jackson, one of the NFL’s seven African-American head coaches. “There’s a lot of head coaches that feel that way too. But you have to be in the right situation at the right time.”

Off-White founder Virgil Abloh named artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton

The Illinois-born son of Ghanaian immigrants is noted for his ‘fascination with irony, with memes, and with context’

6:56 AMThe news broke just a few moments after midnight on March 26. Virgil Abloh, founder (in 2014) of the upscale street wear label Off-White, and a former creative director for Kanye West, is the new artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton. Vuitton, a staple of fashionistas around the world, is according to The New York Times, “one of the oldest and most powerful European houses in the luxury business.”

Known for a relentless work ethic, and his deep influence within the style world, Abloh is at the cutting edge of global fashion. His collaborations alone — Nike, Vans, and Levi’s among them — seem never to be not trending, whether on Instagram, or on the glossy pages of magazines. His portfolio also includes an upcoming project with Ikea, and a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The Illinois-born son of Ghanian immigrants, Abloh is noted for his “fascination with irony, with memes and with context.”

Abloh, who has an undergraduate civil engineering degree and a master’s in architecture, is Vuitton’s first African-American artistic director. He’s in a rare but rising space for black designers: Olivier Rousteing is currently creative director of Balmain, and Ozwald Boateng was designer for Givenchy men’s 2003-07. Vuitton though, from its classic monogram to its brightest and most whimsical eras, is Vuitton.

The house captures imaginations, whether they be on relaxing on the decks of yachts or the standing in a subway platform. At a panel a few years ago, Abloh said, “My motivation is, in part, a bit of angst that comes from feeling like I don’t belong; that our generation doesn’t belong. I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t just going to be a consumer; that at least one of us would appear at the end of a Parisian runway.” Talk about speaking it into existence.

At March for Our Lives, recognizing racial inequality didn’t dilute organizers’ message — it made it more effective

Speeches by 11-year-old Naomi Wadler and others had a simple message: Gun violence anywhere is a threat to peace everywhere

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There were plenty of invocations of the words and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. His own 9-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, was among the speakers at the rally organized by survivors of the Feb. 14 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.

King highlighted her grandfather’s wish for people to be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Another speaker, 18-year-old Alex King of Chicago, channeled King’s talent for using spirituality and scripture to enhance his message.

But it was the speech of 11-year-old Naomi Wadler that revealed another lesson from King. While it wasn’t quoted explicitly, it was clearly beating within the heart of the march and seamlessly interwoven into the program: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

In her speech, Wadler told the crowd that she helped organize a walkout at her school to protest gun violence. And she added one extra minute to the 17 minutes dedicated to the victims of the Stoneman Douglas shooting to remember Courtlin Arrington, a high school junior who was shot and killed at her school in Birmingham, Alabama, three weeks after the massacre in Parkland.

“I am here today to represent Courtlin Arrington,” Wadler said. “I am here today to represent Hadiya Pendleton. I am here to represent Taiyania Thompson, who at 16 was shot dead in her home here in Washington, D.C. I am here today to represent and acknowledge the African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper. These stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls who are full of potential. … I am here to acknowledge their stories, to say they matter, to say their names because I can and I was asked to be. For far too long, these names, these black girls and women, have been just numbers. I am here to say never again for those girls too.”

Part of what’s made the Parkland kids so effective in the weeks since the tragedy at their school — aside from their undeniable authenticity, righteous fury and acumen with Twitter — is their constant appeal to the better angels of the nation’s nature. Do your job, they tell adults: Protect us. They have pleaded with the government to help them, and that in itself revealed something powerful: the ability to take for granted that the government exists to help you, that it’s on your side, that if it’s not working properly, its servants can be voted out and replaced with better ones who will do their duty.

“I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls who are full of potential.”

But those demands have been coupled with the recognition that not all Americans enjoy the same expectations of their government.

“We recognize that Parkland received more attention because of its affluence, but we share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun,” Parkland survivor Jaclyn Corin said in her speech Saturday.

The decision to include the voices of Wadler, Alex King and Zion Kelly — whose twin brother, Zaire, was shot to death in a robbery — on the same program with Parkland survivors David Hogg and Emma González showed that the march organizers understood this disparity. Rather than run from those differences or worry that messages about racial inequality would somehow dilute calls for gun policy reform, the March for Our Lives embraced them and used them to strengthen their calls for change. March organizers demonstrated an understanding that you can’t be full of moral outrage at lawmakers’ dithering on making automatic and semiautomatic weapons less easily attainable while refusing to acknowledge their dithering on the gun violence that affects predominantly black and brown communities. Instead of ignoring the reasons why one type of gun violence draws attention and calls for immediate reform while another elicits shrugs or pathologizes people of color as inherently violent, March For Our Lives speakers called out that discrepancy, and then they called BS on legislative dithering as a whole. They refused to give in to sectarianism.

“They will try to separate us in demographics. They will try to separate us by religion, race, congressional district and class,” Hogg warned in his speech of those opposed to changing the nation’s gun laws. But, he said, “they will fail.”

The result was a gathering united in the goal of ending gun violence and the grip of the National Rifle Association on gun policy. But it was also an acknowledgment that, too often, black lives matter even less than others in this country. Ultimately, that didn’t weaken the #NeverAgain movement. Instead, it powerfully illustrated a simple, underappreciated dictum: that together, we’re all stronger.