Chris Davis and the world’s worst case of homesickness

Chris Davis and the world’s worst case of homesickness

In a sad state of affairs, the Washington Capitals closed out the Vegas Golden Knights in five games to win the Stanley Cup last night. I had them in six. Tonight, the Golden State Warriors can sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers, the thought of which curdles Charlie Red‘s blood. If that happens, sports fans who can’t make it through 45 minutes without a commercial and will thus skip the World Cup, will be left with two options: Major League Baseball or going to the drive-in every night to binge-watch the new Halloween reboot.

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One is a frightening prospect. Assuming you’re not an Orioles fan, that would be the drive-in. Baroness Haden-Guest, aka Jaime Lee Curtis, is still kinda hot at 59, but shouting “Don’t open the damned door!” might get old after a week or so. There’s always going to be a lunatic in a mask behind it, and he’ll never say a word.

Jaime Lee Curtis in the 2018 Halloween reboot.

Baseball gives us two lunatics in masks. The umpire speaks but its gibberish. Mostly, you understand what he means by the violent gestures he makes. The catcher crouches in front of him, frantically signalling for help that never arrives.

The most frightening thing in the 2018 baseball season, however, is seeing Chris Davis at the plate. The Baltimore first baseman is on pace to have the worst batting season in baseball history. Through 55 games his line is .152/.232/.232. His slugging percentage is equal to his on-base percentage, which is sabermetrics for the slugger is not slugging.

He has four home runs and 15 rbi, meaning he has driven in 11 teammates. ESPN’s David Schoenfeld helpfully relates 109 runners have been on base when Davis has batted. Worse, he has scored only five times when not driving himself in. That’s from 22 singles, four doubles, 19 walks and one base reached on an error. In other words, he’s picking up runners roughly 10% of the time and being driven in by his teammates at an 11% [rounding up]. Davis is bad but his teammates aren’t much better.

Baltimore is probably reluctant to send their slumping infielder to the minors on a one-way $23 million/year contract. They are hoping the problem can be solved at Camden Yards. If it isn’t, Davis may produce the worst negative Wins Above Replacement score the game has seen. Worse, he may break Leo Cardenas’ 1972 record for fewest runs scored in a season. The Angels Cuban-born shortstop touched home plate 25 times that year. Davis projects to only 24.

It’s one thing to say you can never go home in life. In baseball, though…

The data shifts on shifts

Today is my day for learning from ESPN writers. Stat geek Bradford Doolittle reported on the data upgrade for shift analysis in MLB. Before the addition, numbers were only available for balls put in play when a shift was on. Now, every pitch is documented.

Whereas the consensus had been defensive shifts produced more outs by overloading whichever side a pull hitter favors, the new numbers show more walks are surrendered than hits saved.

Seeing four infielders in their hitting zone has intimidated hitters into being more selective about swinging at inside pitches. With an imbalanced defence behind them, pitchers are reluctant to throw strikes the batter can send the opposite way. Instead, they throw off the plate and put the runner on.

Unless pitchers can find a way to get pull hitters to bite, the new numbers may result in fewer shifts being put on, if any at all. If it results in more pitches put in play, that can only be good for the game.

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If it’s June, it must be Roland Garros

If it’s June, it must be Roland Garros

When I was a kid, the most important sporting event was Play Day. With all the tests taken and report cards handed out, the fenced-in playground became an asphalt Olympic Stadium for the final morning before summer vacation. We’d compete in sack races, egg-carrying, and other elite competitions. Unfortunately, any winners ribbons did not compensate for poor grades when we made the last walk home for the year.

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Now that I’m older, I don’t sweat grades anymore. When June comes around, I do sweat finding interesting stories so I don’t have to get a real job. The Stanley Cup and NBA Finals are winding down. European football is on hiatus between seasons’ end and the World Cup. Baseball doesn’t command full attention until the All-Star Game. It’ll be hard to even do that this year. Aaron Judge has already ruled himself out of the Home Run Derby. Remember 1989 when Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins ditched the NBA Slam Dunk Contest? June is the month to remind yourself there are other sports and other stars.

The French Open will reach its climax at Roland Garros this weekend. A collective “pfft mother, please” rises up from the entire United States at the thought. Tennis is the worst sport. How can it be any good if there aren’t any Americans in it and you have to get up early in the morning to watch?

Alright, I’ll give you the getting up in the morning to watch but not the no Americans. Bear with me. I know there hasn’t been a great American tennis player on the male side since Pete Sampras retired and Serena Williams hasn’t been carrying the torch for the women since she decided to get married and have a baby, as if her life was her own to do with as she pleased. But Serena has been back on the circuit in 2018, slowly rebuilding her game. She was looking like her old self at Roland Garros until she injured a pectoral muscle while closing out her third round match.

She had drawn Maria Sharapova in the fourth round. Williams, 19-2 and riding an 18-match win streak against the Russian in her career, expressed her disappointment at having to withdraw.

It’s very difficult, because I love playing Maria.”

Apparently, there is such a thing as an understatement lob.

Despite Williams’ early exit, two Americans remained in the draw: Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. The duo sport names that would attract anyone casting a Dynasty reboot but both can bring it on the court. Stephens is ranked 10th in the WTA, Keys 13th. Seeded accordingly, they met in the semifinal.

Stephens started out painting the lines in the early games. When Keys questioned one that put her opponent up 2-1 and was overruled, the 23-year-old took out her frustration by firing a serve right back into Stephens, then powering a backhand passing shot down the line. Stephens still won the first set 6-4.

She continued to control the match in the second set, as well, again winning 6-4. She couldn’t seem to hit a ball out while Keys made a few unforced errors. Stephens meets world number one Simona Halep on Saturday morning.

Del Potro, PI

On the men’s side, Argentine Juan Martin del Potro gave us a little throwback to John McEnroe in his four-set quarterfinal against Marin Cilic. When he double-faulted after being distracted by a spectator, Del Potro approached the stands to identify the culprit.

Juan Martin del Potro takes the law into his own hands at the French Open.

Who says tennis is boring?

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Seattle Mariners are can do without Robinson Cano

Seattle Mariners are can do without Robinson Cano

Thursday, December 12th, 2013 was a momentous day for the Seattle Mariners.  While I was blowing out candles on a cake in Miami, they equalled the third-largest deal in Major League Baseball history by signing New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year $240 million contract. Then-M’s general manager Jack Zduriencik may have thought it wise to get the deal done before Friday the 13th. Unfortunately, he didn’t think to send me birthday wishes for my 50th, thereby failing to avoid cursing the deal.

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In the four since-completed seasons with Cano in the lineup, the club hasn’t improved noticeably, finishing third, fourth, second and third in the American League West. When you make a signing of that magnitude, you expect to win. Or you should.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018 turned out to be the second momentous day in the marriage between the Mariners and their high-priced second-sacker. Cano was suspended 80 days by Major League Baseball for a positive result to a drug test.

You wouldn’t imagine the Mariners would take the news positively. Not the fans, not Cano’s teammates, not manager Scott Servais or current GM Jerry Dipoto. While Cano had only hit four home runs on the season, he had contributed 24 rbi and 23 runs in 39 games, projecting him into the 90s for both over an entire season. His basic numbers as a Mariner suggest the team was faced with replacing 12 hr, 45 rbi and 40 runs. That isn’t a pleasing prospect.

Robinson Cano's numbers in his first four seasons as a Seattle Mariner.

The Mariners were their typical third in the AL West on May 14th, a game-and-a-half behind the Angels, with the World Series champion Houston Astros nestled in between. Seattle’s suddenly looked like another lost season. How could they stay close until Cano returned?

Only, they’ve gone far beyond staying close. After chasing Dallas Keuchel last night, the Mariners are in first place. In the first 20 games sans Cano, they are 15-5. That’s a .750 winning percentage. With Cano, they were 23-17, or .575.

Former Yankee teammate Mark Teixeira, now an ESPN analyst claimed he wasn’t surprised by the suspension.

Alex Rodriguez got popped by Biogenesis, and Melky [Cabrera, also with the Yankees for a time] got popped. They were best friends.

Cano accepted responsibility for the failed test although he claimed it was prescribed in the Dominican for a medical issue rather than to cheat the system. Nevertheless, it has to create a trust issue within the organisation. When he left New York, former hitting coach Kevin Long lamented his habit of not running to first on sure outs.

When you jog down the line, even if it doesn’t come into play 98% of the time, it creates a perception. But he just wouldn’t make that choice to run hard all the time.

Cano will be eligible to play again for the Mariners’ 121st game, on August 14th in Oakland, ten weeks from now, assuming the club don’t first send him down to the minors for a conditioning assignment. Will Scott Servais be eager to plug him right into the lineup if the Mariners are still rolling along atop the division? How could he ignore an elite power hitter? If the M’s begin to slide with Cano back in the clubhouse and the batting order, what then?

It’s difficult to sit a $240 million player. It’s even harder to trade him when he has a PED suspension on his record. Seattle managed to rid themselves of the original Alex Rodriguez before he went bad. Now, too late, they may have to divorce ARod’s protegé. That’s the Emerald City for you. It never rains but it pours.

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If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

They say no one remembers who finishes second. ‘No one else’ is more accurate. The players who finish second can never forget until they finally win it all.

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Right now, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Vegas Golden Knights are having series they would rather forget in the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals respectively. If they cannot forget now, the end will arrive sooner rather than later and both will have at least a year to replay it all in their minds, wishing after what might have been.

Vegas

Last night, the team playing with house money took the game to the Washington Capitals in the opening ten minutes. Down two games to one in the series, victory would both level terms and return home-ice advantage to the Golden Knights.

The puck gods had other ideas and, apparently, all their money on the Caps. Ninety seconds in, a shot deflected off Eric Haula’s skate then the post. Reilly Smith was up next. He fanned on a shot with the net gaping. James Neal hit the post on the powerplay with Washington netminder Braden Holtby flat on his back, helpless. Those three misses may have cost Vegas the series and the rest of us an amazing Cinderella story to get us through the next lockout.

The Capitals would not miss three times in the following ten minutes, taking a commanding lead into the second period, one that would translate into a 6-2 victory and a 3-1 series advantage.

Washington Capital TJ Oshie pops in the rebound Vegas Golden Knight Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't control in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Lady Luck has caught up with irrepressible Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, too. The ever-smiling, effervescent ex-Penguin carried the club through the regular season, then the playoffs’ first three rounds. Against Los Angeles, San Jose and Winnipeg, his net was emptier than Donald Trump’s promises. Fleury boasted a .947 save percentage. At the worst possible time, he has regressed to the mean, his number in the Finals 102 points lower.

It will have to come back up and the skaters in front of him will have to start converting their chances. As hard as it is to relax when it’s win or go home, Vegas can’t afford to grip their sticks any tighter or make that one extra pass out of uncertainty.

Cleveland

It wasn’t three misses that put the Cavaliers under the cosh in the NBA Finals; it was one shot declined. Things had been going swimmingly for the Cavs in the NBA playoffs. LeBron James had been carrying the load and the supporting cast was ensuring he had a clear path to the basket against Indiana, Toronto and Boston. Matters were much the same for 47 minutes and 56 seconds or so of Game 1 in the fourth instalment of their annual NBA Finals confrontation. Then JR Smith happened.

In case you were locked in your bathroom for five days [it happens, I’m not judging], the 6’9″ Freehold, New Jersey native who the game program lists as a shooting guard suddenly declined to do so. Collecting the ball under the rim with the score tied [NHL Fan Book rule number 14: Never listen to Don Cherry], Smith dribbled to the sideline to run out the clock, apparently thinking the Cavs had the lead when the score was tied. Cleveland then lost in overtime.

Needless to say, LeBron was displeased. He’d been driving the bus for three series just to get the chance to beat the Warriors, and now JR Smith decides to hop out for cigarettes?

Game 2 was a debacle. Cleveland suddenly couldn’t trust each other while Golden State had to believe the stars were aligned and the moon was in the house of Klay and Curry. The Warriors won by 19 to take a two-games-to-none lead as the series switched to The Land.

Another time-honored truism in best-of-seven series is that you’re never in trouble until you lose at home. Well, the Cavs are 48 minutes from trouble of a kind they absolutely do not want. They cannot afford to give Golden State a 3-0 or even 3-1 lead. There will be no coming back. JR Smith, at 32, may face a lifetime thinking, “I could have sworn we were up one.”

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Blue Jays and Dodgers both face lost seasons but only one is desperate for a rescue

Blue Jays and Dodgers both face lost seasons but only one is desperate for a rescue

Toronto and Los Angeles are just over 2,700 miles apart. That’s not the farthest distance between Major League cities. Seattle is baseball’s most isolated franchise. It’s over 3,000 miles away from every East Coast club, and 2,750 miles from Toronto, but I mentioned LA for a reason. The distance between Canada’s most populous city and America’s second-most is emblematic of the dichotomy between the Blue Jays and Dodgers’ respective approaches to their most prized assets.

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Two months and one-third of the way into the 2018 Major League Baseball season both teams are struggling. Toronto’s 25-31 record projects to a 72-win season. The Dodgers are a game better and on pace for 75. The Jays are two seasons removed from an ALCS series against the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. The Dodgers are the defending National League Champions.

The Dodgers pitching staff has been hit hard with injuries. Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda are on the 10-Day disabled list; Tom Koehler is on the 60. Clayton Kershaw was just activated, which I’ll get to in a minute. Corey Seager [60] and Chase Utley [10] are also on the DL.

The Blue Jays have also lost players. Troy Tulowitzki is on the 60-day DL after surgery to remove bone spurs in both heels. Josh Donaldson has been day-to-day with a calf problem. Marcus Stroman’s shoulder fatigue has him on the 10-day DL and closer Roberto Osuna’s temper has run him afoul of the league’s domestic violence policy. He is indefinitely suspended.

There are still more than a 100 games remaining for both clubs but the Dodgers, with their massive payroll, are feeling the pressure to salvage their campaign far more than the Blue Jays. For one thing, despite similar records, LA is only four games off the pace in the NL West.The Dodgers brought Clayton Kershaw back from injury too quickly.

Clayton Kershaw had missed all but the first and last days of May with a shoulder problem. when he was medically cleared this week, the club put him back on the mound. No rehab stint to shake off the rust, test all the moving parts, or build up lost strength. Just give him the ball and hope he can turn the season around.

Instead, Kershaw may turn around and head back to the DL, this time with stiffness in his back. In his return against the Phillies, manager Dave Roberts limited him to 60+ pitches in five innings. The lefty gave up just one run but ESPN’s Dave Schoenfeld highlighted a disturbing statistic.

Kershaw threw 20 four-seam fastballs. Not one reached 90 mph. Compare that to the 1100 or so he threw in 2017, of which not a one went under 90, and there is reason to be concerned. Even at 88 or 89, the Dodger ace was an effective pitcher, but he’s not Greg Maddux. Over several starts, hitters will catch up to him. He needs that dominant fastball.

If he goes on the DL again this weekend, Los Angeles should consider taking their time bringing him back to the rotation.

For their part, the Blue Jays have been resisting pressure from all sides to get a sensational player into the lineup yesterday if not sooner. For one thing, they are 13.5 games behind Boston in the AL East. For another, their potential hero is not a veteran Cy Young winning left-hander. It’s a 19-year-old third-baseman whose father will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame this summer.

Vladimir Guerrero is rated the Blue Jays' top prospect by MLB and Baseball America.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr is rated as the Jays’ top prospect by MLB’s scouting bureau and Baseball America. This season, he’s living free while opposing pitchers die as a third baseman for the New Hampshire Fishercats in the AA Eastern League.

In 49 games, Baby Vlad has 11 HRs, 53 RBI and 44 runs scored. His line reads .414/.464/.691. He has been so consistent at the plate that his OPS (1.155) is over 1 in every meaningful split, be it by the month, vs lefties or righties, or in various critical pitch counts and out situations. Unlike his heralded dad, who would swing at anything from ankles to eyebrows that was thrown between first and third base, Junior has some plate discipline. He’s walked 19 times while striking out just 21.

Comparing Josh Donaldson's numbers with Vladimir Guerrero Jr through May 31st 2018

Slowed by injury, Josh Donaldson’s big league numbers pale in comparison. He’s hitting 180 points lower, with 40% of the hits, half the homers and runs scored, a third as many driven in.

There’s a school of thought that advises trading the 32-year-old while his value is still high and letting Vlad show what he can do at the big league level. In a throwaway year, there would be less pressure on the teenager.

On the other hand, he’s doing fine in AA. Not only would he have to adjust to big league pitching in Toronto, he’d be exposed to a negative culture. It’s no fun coming to work when you’re 11 games under .500 going into June.

More importantly, Donaldson is a much better fielder. Toronto GM Ross Atkins has already stated he wants Guerrero to stay on the farm to improve his defence. If he can’t, he’d still have to stay down to learn a new position. Right field, like dear old Dad?

Either way, it’s a sound decision. It’s never a good sign for your major league career if you’re a DH before you can legally drink.

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Are you ready for LeBron versus the Gang of Three, Chapter Four?

Are you ready for LeBron versus the Gang of Three, Chapter Four?

We live in an age of instant gratification. Our attention spans have dwindled to almost nothing. Virtually everyone’s kids–look at me when I’m talking to you–are diagnosed with ADD, ADHD or ADWTF. They’re all heavily medicated. Moms and dads take out one-year leases on cars built to last a decade. We trade in our old phones for the newest on a monthly basis. Nothing is ever good enough. In the immortal words of Freddie Mercury, we want it all and we want it now.

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Except when it comes to the NBA. Then, we’re happy to slog through an 82-game season listening to Charles Barkley make no sense, followed by four rounds of playoff action just so we can get to what everyone knows is coming: another episode of the LeBron and Steph Show known as the NBA Finals.

Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors deserve credit. They tried to throw us off the scent, teasing us that maybe this was the year a new team would step up to move the NBA forward by taking their respective conference finals to seven games. Golden State even let a Houston Rockets side without Chris Paul run out to a double-digit lead in the first half before pulling out another patented shock-and-awe third quarter to put the series to bed.

In the end, though, there will be a fourth consecutive final between the Cavs and Warriors, and people couldn’t be happier. If LeBron can somehow drag his supporting cast of cable repairmen and UPS drivers to a title, it could tie this best-of-seven-years series at two and force it to at least a sixth season. And the fans would eat it up. So would the television executives. Guaranteed ratings for the foreseeable future.

The opening matchup of this year’s series is tonight in Oakland. Golden State open as 12.5 point favorites. My gut wants to buy into that line by taking Golden State. I can see Steph, KIay Thompson and Kevin Durant outshooting King James. Both teams won on the road to close out but the Warriors went last and have the momentum.

On the other hand, I remember that opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West. The planks on the train platform are too rotted and warped to dribble a ball, but the tension in the three-against-one gunfight is dead-on. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) asks Not Frank (Jack Elam) if he brought a horse for him. Not Frank laughs and says, “Looks like we’re shy one horse.” Harmonica shakes his head and replies, “You brought two too many.” Then he outdraws Not Frank and his two cohorts, gunning them all down.

I worry that LeBron James is feeling his inner Harmonica coming into Game One. He certainly felt it in Games 6 and 7 against Boston, when he ripped off 81 points.

Is he still up to it? Maybe, but he’ll definitely be alone. Kevin Love remains doubtful as he undergoes Concussion Protocol. Larry Nance Jr isn’t likely to be effective simply because Golden State doesn’t go inside as often as Boston. He should be around to clean up for James at the other end, however.

The critical point in this series will come when Golden State starts strongly. If they are even or ahead going into the half, how will Cleveland respond in the third quarter? If they have an answer for the Warriors berserker onslaught, it will be a long series. If they don’t, well, LeBron will have to take Harmonica lessons in the off-season.

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Do a new owner and player alter the Carolina Panthers’ chemistry?

Do a new owner and player alter the Carolina Panthers’ chemistry?

Even though we’ve moved on from the atomic to the information age, we all have a basic understanding of atoms. There are three components. Protons and neutrons cuddle together in the nucleus. Electrons buzz around on the outside. In simple terms, and NFL team can be likened to an atom.

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Think of the stadium as the nucleus. The various non-playing personnel, such as trainers, marketers, and maintenance staff are the neutrons. They perform essential tasks that keep the team functioning. Although there is turnover in the ranks, it’s an anonymous group that is easily interchangeable. Owners, GMs and coaches are the protons. Their collective energy is directed inward. Owners finance the team. GMs recruit players and coaches. The coaches organise and direct the players. The players’ energy is directed out. They buzz around the perimeter competing with other teams, driving away other electrons. As such, they are the most vulnerable. Their careers tend to be the shortest unless the coach is ineffective.

As well, there is magnetism to consider. Neutrons are neutral. Protons are positive. Electrons are negative. Neutrality equates to anonymity, rendering a football team’s support staff irrelevant to this conversation. Owners, as protons, are positive solely in the context of the team’s existence. Until they decide to sell, they are wholly committed to the nucleus, investing their money and influence to improve the team’s value. Players are negative in two ways. They buy into the team concept on the field, allowing positive and negative to attract, but their primary interest is in furthering their own careers, supporting their families, improving their own lives. Unlike a real electron, they can resist the magnetism to walk away at any time.

In terms of labor relations, two observations can be made:

  1. Owner/protons and player/electrons are polarised opposites whose attraction remains at a distinct distance.
  2. It’s little surprise that fans [permanently vested in their team’s welfare] side with the owners who share that interest over the players, who [like them] are ordinary working stiffs.

At the moment, the NFL comprises 32 atoms. One is the Carolina Panthers. It’s been a busy offseason in Charlotte. It’s main proton, owner Jerry Richardson, cuddled a little too close to some attractive neutrons and made a disparaging remark about another. The controversy forced the franchise founder to sell the team to a new proton, hedge-fund manager David Tepper.  Meanwhile, the Panthers traded electrons with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Cornerback Daryl Worley went to Philly. Receiver Torrey Smith came to Carolina.

As protons go, Tepper is a pretty big one. Forbes values his net worth at $11.4 billion. In 2012, he was the highest paid hedge fund manager in the US, collecting $2.2 billion. This year, he paid $2.275 billion for the Panthers. The man is playing with house money.

New Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper was eager to discuss the NFL anthem rule with his players.

Even though his stewardship doesn’t begin for another month, Tepper flew into Charlotte to meet with players regarding the league’s new anthem rule. No one involved is divulging what was said but North Carolina is a very pro-military state. Among others, Fort Bragg, Pope Air Force Base, and Camp LeJeune are all within a few hours drive of Bank America Stadium. When defensive end Julius Peppers remained in the dressing room during the anthem last year, Richardson personally intervened and it did not happen again. Nor has any Panther ever knelt during the Star Spangled Banner.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is notoriously liberal in his political views and fully supported his players when they were outspoken. Torrey Smith, while moderate in his approach, supports the anthem protests. Many Carolina fans may consider him a highly charged electron. He responded to those who hold the belief the movement disrespects veterans.

He followed up when accused of not seeing both sides of the issue.

They didn’t ignore the reasons why folks thought it was disrespectful but they told you what their intentions were. Folks are ignoring why men were protesting and [that] they have facts that prove this country doesn’t treat everyone the same. One [group has] an opinion, the other has facts.

Smith was even clearer on the Panthers website.

I think when you see a reactive policy, and when I say that I mean something that’s done in response to what guys have done in the past, I always think that’s a problem, especially when the [original] message has been changed. Guys aren’t against the military. [Colin Kaepernick] originally started it against police brutality. It was never against the military, it was never about the military, but that narrative changed.

In the early going, Tepper and Smith seem to be giving each other space. The new owner hasn’t complained that the player’s views are on the official team website. The player has embraced the owner’s proactive approach.

It’s awesome that (Tepper) has come in right away and embraced the community. And keep the main thing the main thing, which is winning.

For now, it seems proton and electron can cohabit the same atom in Carolina, but if tensions rise, bet that politics will win out over chemistry and the electron will be cut loose.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.