By Jon Tayler
The end of an MLB season can feel like a flowchart sometimes—a series of decisions that lead to an inexorable outcome shaped by your personal preference. Do you prefer the last month of the year being a thrilling chase for a playoff spot, a low and steady deflation, or a lot of at-bats and innings from Triple A players? (Please choose the Rockies, Mariners or Royals, in that order.) Do you like your playoff teams to cruise into October or have to scrap for every last game? (Please pick between the Red Sox and Cardinals.) How much do you care about a functioning bullpen? (Indians fans, you can stop right here.)
A lot of teams, players and storylines are fixed in place by this point in September. While only Boston and Cleveland have locked down playoff spots, the odds of a fringe team squeaking past a favored contender gets smaller and smaller each day. So, to, does the opportunity to make a mark on an awards race, or to put a name in the history books. But with a week to go in the season, there’s still plenty to see.
Are you in the mood for some historic pitching? Both Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom likely have just two starts left on the year—beginning with this weekend’s Nationals-Mets series in Washington, D.C.—to bolster their NL Cy Young candidacies. Scherzer, the three-time winner, is looking up at deGrom, whose 1.78 ERA so far trumps his below-.500 record.
• Not getting this newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe to the Weekend Read today.
Want to be there for the culmination of an unlikely playoff run? The Cardinals were dead in the water at the All-Star break—a game above .500 and down a manager after Mike Matheny was fired for steering his team into the rocks. But behind replacement skipper Mike Shildt and thanks to a blockbuster 22-6 August, St. Louis is in playoff position—and will spend the final week trying desperately to cling onto its current wild-card spot.
Eager to see some old-school statistical history? Boston slugger J.D. Martinez is three points behind teammate Mookie Betts for the AL’s batting average title and two homers behind Oakland’s Khris Davis for the league lead in homers. He already holds the Junior Circuit’s RBI lead but needs the other two categories to secure a Triple Crown.
Do you enjoy multi-car pileups? You could make an MVP case in the NL for close to a dozen different players, all of whom have one last chance at heroics down the stretch, either on the mound or at the plate.
How about an appreciation of easy, clear dominance? Beyond deGrom, catch the last turns of Blake Snell, the skinny Rays lefty whose blistering second half has nudged his ERA below 2.00 and puts him alongside Chris Sale and Justin Verlander in the AL Cy Young race.
Dreaming of the future? Ronald Acuña, Juan Soto, Shohei Ohtani, and the rest of the game’s new bright young stars still have a few at-bats left.
Or do as you should’ve been doing all season: Tune in for Mike Trout, because there’ll be no more of him after Sept. 29. Then it’s on to a whole new set of storylines and would-be heroes.
• This week’s cover story: The untold story of the Yankees’ comeback on the Red Sox in 1978, the greatest divisional comeback in baseball history. (By Tom Verducci)
• Yoga, music, diet, gardening—after sensing his mind slipping away, former linebacker Gary Plummer embraced new therapies. His message to struggling players: There is hope. (By Chris Ballard)
• Herm Edwards has gone from Jets press conference lore to coaching America to coaching Arizona State without missing a beat. (By Jack Dickey)
• What Jimmy Butler’s trade demand says about the Knicks, Nets, Clippers, LeBron and more. (By Andrew Sharp)
• The story behind ‘Peter Pan,’ the trick punt return that a North Texas walk-on used to dupe Arkansas. (By Ross Dellenger)
BOLD FACE: NIKE IS BANKING ON COLIN KAEPERNICK
On the night the NFL opened its 2018 regular season in Philadelphia, the face of a quarterback who hadn’t played in more than 600 days was on screens across the country. Early in the second half of the Eagles’ win over the Falcons, NBC aired a two-minute commercial for Nike, with Colin Kaepernick imploring viewers to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Meanwhile, Kaepernick was on the other side of the country at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., attending the company’s 30th anniversary celebration of its Just Do It ad campaign. “Thank you for believing in me,” Kaepernick told the crowd from an outdoor stage.
So why does Nike believe in Colin Kaepernick? He last played an NFL game on Jan. 1, 2017, the same season he began taking a knee during the national anthem, in protest of police brutality and racial inequality in America. By making him the face of a major ad campaign, Nike made a statement; it also made what it clearly believes is a prudent business decision. “As much money as Nike makes off black people,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said the night the commercial aired, “it was smart for them, because they know the people who support Kaepernick and justice and equality also buy apparel.”
• Not getting this newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe to the Weekend Read today.
It was, nonetheless, a risk. Kaepernick has become a flashpoint in a national debate about protest and patriotism. Though he pledged $1 million to charitable organizations working on the very causes he supports, Kaepernick is primarily associated with his most public form of protest. Nevertheless, Nike did what large companies are often loath to do—it picked a side.
“There is going to be some cost there, but Nike is looking five, 10 years down the line,” says Henry C. Boyd III, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland. “You want a change agent, and he is the change agent for this generation.”
The short-term results were encouraging for Nike. The multibillion-dollar corporation’s stock reached an all-time high, and in the first few days after the campaign was released there was a surge in online sales compared with the same period last year, according to data collected by e-commerce intelligence company Edison Trends.
So while Kaepernick remains off the playing field, Nike has ensured we’ll still be watching him closely this season.
BEST OF THE REST
Editor’s note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week’s list is curated by Jon Tayler.
• How on earth did the flunky Mets end up with Jacob deGrom, the Best Pitcher In Baseball? This Tim Britton joint over at The Athletic is a fascinating look at how New York landed its future ace through old-school scouting and a lot of luck.
• Over at Deadspin, Albert Burneko laid waste to a poorly thought out New Yorker article on race-baiting huckster Clay Travis and whether sports can be apolitical in a terrific column.
• Joe Posnanski responds to a column from the New York Post’s Joel Sherman on advanced stats hurting baseball’s relationship with its fans with a measured and persuasive counter-argument.
• The Queen of the Celebrity Profile, Caity Weaver, is back with another banger for The New York Times Magazine on comedy goddess Maya Rudolph.
• I’m a sucker for all things Predator, the best sci-fi/action movie franchise, in which an alien hunter fights Arnold Schwarzenegger in the jungle and has to grapple with Danny Glover, rumored Beyonce-biter Sanaa Lathan, and a few desultory Xenomorphs (that’s the alien from Alien, for you less cultured folks out there). So I’m all about this excellent Rob Harvilla piece over at The Ringer on the windy road that’s led us to the latest installment of the series that won’t die.
VAULT PHOTO OF THE WEEK: YOGI BERRA, A MAN OF HIS PLAYERS
Yogi Berra will forever be cherished as a legendary catcher who amassed a whopping 10 (!) World Series titles in his 18 seasons with the Yankees. The Hall of Famer passed away three years ago this Saturday, Sept. 22.
Berra’s less remembered for his steady managerial career, but he amassed a 484-444 (.522) record in parts of seven seasons coaching the Yankees and Mets. He won two pennants—in 1964 with the Yankees and ’72 with the Mets—and still made time to stretch with his players, of course. Here he is above, seated and staring at SI photographer Neil Leifer during spring training with the Mets.
Editor’s note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let’s chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.