The MLB postseason is under way, and in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED—on newsstands now—senior writer Tom Verducci says it’s all about which team gets hot, because the playoffs are more random and chaotic than ever. Verducci writes, “With parity across the sport, no dominant team among 10 postseason entrants and four rounds of playoffs, welcome to Anybody’s October, a two-fortnight roll of the dice.” (PAGE 36)
SI’s Ben Reiter wonders if brothers B.J. and Justin Upton can get hot and power the Atlanta Braves to a World Series title. The Upton’s, along with SI Swimsuit model Kate Upton appear on the cover of this week’s issue. Kate Upton makes history as the first swimsuit model on the SI cover for a non-Swimsuit issue and joins celebrities such as Bob Hope, Brad Pitt, Stephen Colbert and Mark Wahlberg who have appeared on the cover.
As for the Bravess World Series chances, Reiter acknowledges that they do strike out a lot and have been devastated by injuries, and their highest paid player (B.J. Upton) had a really bad debut season. However, in October that may not matter, since Atlanta demonstrated for extended stretches this season that the team can get as hot as any club in baseball. “No team has demonstrated the potential to get hotter than the as-whole-as-they’re-going-to-get Braves, their beleaguered centerfielder included,” says Reiter. “It will all come down to the timing.” (PAGE 46)
Last night’s All-Star Game marked the unofficial halfway point of the baseball season, and this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, on newsstands now, previews the top story lines of baseball’s second half, including Ben Reiter’s national cover story on how the lights-out Pittsburgh bullpen has the first-place Pirates playoff-bound and is re-stirring a romance with the fans in the Steel City. All-Star closer Jason Grilli’s first SI cover appearance is also the first time a Pirate has been on the cover since Barry Bonds on May 4, 1992.
Grilli, a 36-year-old first-time closer has bounced around as a starter and middle reliever for eight teams, including stints in the minors, since 2000. Yet, he enters the second half with an NL-best 29 saves and a 2.15 ERA. Along with All-Star set-up man Mark Melancon (0.85 ERA), the duo have emerged as baseball’s top and least likely shutdown eighth- and ninth-inning combination. “Give us seven innings, and we’ll figure it out from there,” says Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle. (PAGE 36)
Grilli, who served as the Pirates’ set-up man last season says his time with the Tigers in 2006 made him think that he might want to try closing games. “I saw the rock ’n’ roll of Joel Zumaya and Todd Jones entering games, and I thought, Jeez, I’d much rather do that,” he says. “Nobody says, ‘I want to be a middle reliever in the big leagues!’ That’s like saying, ‘I want to be an offensive lineman in the NFL.’ There’s no glory in that.” (PAGE 39)
Thanks to Melancon the Pirates’ bullpen has a nickname to match its new identity—the Shark Tank. The name stuck after he told teammates in spring training that he and his wife had gone shark-cage diving two winters ago. Researchers on the same trip encountered an unfamiliar great white shark and asked Melancon if they could name it after him. “When the [bullpen] gate opens, you smell blood, just like a shark,” explains lefthander Tony Watson. “You’re going out there to attack hitters, be aggressive. That kind of symbolizes the way sharks are in the water. . . . I guess. I’m not a big oceanographer.” (PAGE 36)
The Shark Tank’s ERA of 2.89, second best in the majors, is a big reason why the Pirates enter the second half with the game’s second best record. And while skeptics will point to each of the last two seasons when Pittsburgh flirted with a winning record only to collapse in the second half, this year’s team appears primed to end the longest streak of losing seasons in major American pro sports (20 after 2012). G.M. Neal Huntington says the rejuvenated fan base now expects even more than a winning season. He says, “They’ve shifted from hoping that we could win 82 games to being angry that we didn’t make the playoffs last year, and that’s a wonderful dynamic.” (PAGE 41)
Grilli hopes to not only bring fans a championship but to also be the last guy standing. “I’d be honored to be the last guy on the hill, get that last out and celebrate,” he says. “It’d be fitting. I’d be humbled by that chance, to be a part of that. I want to see people swinging from the Clemente Bridge.” (PAGE 41)
“The deejay’s freakin’ seven feet tall!” somebody shouts at a nightclub in New York City last month. He is, to be precise, 6 ’11”. He is also Rony Seikaly, who played center for four NBA teams over 11 seasons. In SI’s Where Are They Now? issue, staff writer Ben Reiter catches up with the former NBA center, whose new career as a deejay has him playing thumping beats in front of throngs of sweaty bodies in clubs in New York, Ibiza and his adopted home of Miami. .
Seikaly, the musician, describes himself as “a progressive type of guy,” and his basketball resume corroborates the claim. Born in Lebanon, he moved to Greece at nine, played four years at Syracuse and, in 1988, was the first player drafted by the expansion Heat. When he joined Miami as the ninth pick, there were only about 20 foreign-born players in the NBA.
Reiter finds that Seikaly’s musical tastes were similarly ahead of their time. As a 14-year-old in Athens, he was unable to get into the clubs that played the dance music that he craved—he was deeply influenced early on by disco acts such as Barry White and Chic—so he installed himself as a deejay in his parents’ garage. Rony started hosting shows in his garage and charging $5 for admittance. With the revenue he gained from these mini concerts, Seiklay was able to continually upgrade his sound and light system for his venue which he came to call ‘Disco 17’.
By the time Seikaly reached the NBA, he had moved on to house music. He recalls teammates tilting their heads at the thumps emanating from his car. ‘Oh Seik, you’re still listening to this bull—-?’ Now, two decades later, house music has firmly entered the American mainstream, with acts such as Daft Punk and David Guetta having released wildly successful albums. Seiklay, who began producing his own tracks professionally about three years ago, has seen demand for his services grow in tandem.
These days, Seikaly is mostly concerned with realities of the present. “In basketball I was always looking ahead, and when it was all over with I was like, Wait a minute, that was fast,” he says. “With deejaying, I’m taking it in every day, every song, just enjoying the moment. It’s all about the music. I don’t care about people who aren’t in the club to listen—they’re there to pick up chicks, do other things. I love playing for people who love to listen, and that’s really it. I don’t know how long I am going to do this for. I’m going to do it until I don’t enjoy it anymore.” (PAGE 113)
Baseball may finally be back in Cleveland thanks to manager Terry Francona’s ability to get the most out of his imperfect parts, writes Ben Reiter in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. “Francona is not perfect,” says Reiter. “He doesn’t expect his players to be perfect, either. Which is a good thing, because they are not.” (PAGE 38)
Despite some key offseason additions, which included the signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to big contracts and the addition of less expensive veterans such as Mark Reynolds and Jason Giambi, Francona found a group of players with plenty of flaws. That’s why he has relied heavily on letting his players excel at what they are good at. “He looks for guys to be themselves, and he’s not asking them to be anything different,” says Cleveland general manager Chris Antonetti. (PAGE 39)
Francona’s Indians are in second place in the AL Central at 27-22 and rank third in the majors in runs, fourth in home runs and third in OPS. They lead the league in percentage of at bats taken with a platoon advantage, since Francona has liberally used his bench players, such as Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes and Ryan Rayburn, in key situations. “You try to take the things your guys do well, and maximize them,” says Francona. “We don’t need to remind them of the things they don’t do well, know what I mean? We try to almost make our guys feel indestructible.” (PAGE 38)
No. 1 starter Justin Masterson and the power-hitting Reynolds are two key players benefiting from Francona’s philosophy. Masterson says he has felt liberated to mix in his slider more under Francona and is off to a great 7-3 start, with an ERA of 3.20. Reynolds, who hit 164 homers between 2008 and ‘12, but also struck out a major league high 993 times, was told by Francona to simply focus on what he does best—hit homers and not worry about striking out. Reynolds has a team-leading 12 homers and 40 RBIs to go along with a career-low strikeout rate.
“Tito’s told me from Day One, you go do what you do,” Reynolds says. “Sure, we talk about maybe seeing a few pitches, approaches for different guys. But it’s mainly, you swing the bat. You hit the ball far. You can change the game.” (PAGE 40)
Fans hope that the change in clubhouse culture will result in Cleveland’s first winning season since 2007. Swisher is one who believes in the power of team unity. He says, “The camaraderie factor is monstrous for us.” (PAGE 41)
Cover Inspired by Iconic 1968 SI Cover
The St. Louis Cardinals are the most consistent franchise in baseball due to an organizational philosophy dedicated to measured and constant evolution, writes Ben Reiter in this week’s Sports Illustrated. At the forefront of their sustained success is diverse and dominant starting pitching, made up this season by a rotation of Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Jamie Garcia, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook—all of whom appear on SI’s cover. The cover is inspired by the iconic October 7, 1968, SI cover that featured Roger Maris, Tim McCarver, Bob Gibson, Mike Shannon and Lou Brock.
“When we think of the Cardinals, we think of a distinct organizational culture: Anodyne, diligent, supportive, resolute,” says Reiter. “Mostly, we think of consistency. Their 11 championships have been well distributed. No son or daughter of St Louis born since 1902 has reached the age of 25 without having lived through at least one victory parade.” (PAGE 64)
At week’s end the Cardinals sit atop the National League with just nine players from their 2012 championship team. They are there, in large measure, because of a starting rotation that has been historically good. “The Cardinals have ended up with such a rotation by doing what they’ve always done, and what any team or corporation ought to do if it seeks success in the long term. Which is to ceaselessly, though judiciously, innovate,” says Reiter. (PAGE 64)
When the game had become power crazy, former longtime St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan worked with the team’s pitchers to mix in ground ball inducing two-seam fastballs since he believed most pitchers only stood a chance by keeping their deliveries down in the strike zone. Wainwright busted on the scene as a closer late in the Cardinals 2006 title run throwing the two-seamer, and continues to use it now as the rotation’s ace and leader.
However, when John Mozeliak was promoted to G.M., in 2007, Duncan began to lobby him to add power pitchers to the mix, especially since home runs were on the decline. “We decided to emphasize not just pitchers who were throwing hard, but guys we thought might throw harder in the future,” says Mozeliak. (PAGE 67) Within three years they drafted Lynn, Miller and also added Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez, each of whom throw around 100 mph from the bullpen and could be future starters—perhaps very soon since Garcia and Westbrook both recently were placed on the disabled list.
The Cardinals have evolved financially, too, as they made the difficult choice to not re-sign Albert Pujols before last season. “Losing an iconic player was not easy—it was jolting,” says Mozeliak. “From a very simplistic standpoint, [once we let him go] we knew we had resources to deploy elsewhere.” (PAGE 67) The flexibility led to extensions for Wainwright and Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina.
“While an overriding ethos—the Cardinal way—has developed over the years, it is flexible enough to allow the team to capitalize on the game’s changing realities better than any other,” says Reiter (PAGE 65)
The money-conscious Oakland Athletics, a team that had one of the league’s lowest payrolls—$53 million in 2012, shelled out $9 million a year for a Cuban slugger no other team would touch at that price. Now, Yoenis Cespedes is drawing comparisons to Bo Jackson and Willie Mays—and proving yet again that the A’s know a baseball bargain when they see one. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, staff writer Ben Reiter writes on how Cespedes, whose nickname is La Potencia (The Power), has emerged into Oakland’s most important player.
In 147 games for the A’s, Cespedes has batted .284, with 28 home runs, 98 RBI’s and 16 stolen bases. The A’s have gone 96-51 with him in their lineup and 16-31 with him in their dugout. Scouts who once linked Cespedes to Raul Mondesi last spring are now comparing him to all-time greats. But how did Oakland, the definitive Moneyball team, decide Cespedes was worth the risk?
Reiter found that the A’s believed they had gone far beyond what other teams had done to evaluate him. Their scouts traveled the world—to Europe, to Japan, to Mexico, to Taiwan—so they wouldn’t miss a single at bat in more than 20 games. Also, the A’s were helped by the fact that Cespedes hit the market relatively late in the off-season when many franchises had already exhausted their budgets.
“You can spend your money on a guy like this, who’s risky but has a chance to really be a star, or you can spend three-times-seven or four-times-eight on a big leaguer who is a more certain thing but isn’t really going to swing the fate of your franchise much either way,” says Farhan Zaidi, Oakland’s director of baseball operations (PAGE 65).
Former Oakland pitcher Ariel Prieto was among the first players to leave Cuba for the U.S. When he arrived in Oakland in July 1995, he felt utterly alone. It was not until his teammates Geronimo Berroa and Stan Javier, both from the Dominican Republic, took him under their wings, to explain to him not only the workings of a new league but also an entirely new culture and country, that he began to feel comfortable. “Everyone thinks the United States is easy, but it’s not,” says Prieto (PAGE 66).
Now 43, Prieto has become Cespedes’s housemate and constant companion. Prieto has helped Cespedes quickly embrace the nuances of American culture—a process that was critical to his success on the field.
The course of Cespedes’s 2012 season was all the more impressive in that he was dealing with personal issues that extended beyond adapting to new pitchers and American customs. Members of his family, including 11 other relatives, were trapped in an immigration nightmare as they tried to join him in the U.S. In March, Cespedes’s family made it to Miami, and the A’s let him take a day off from spring training to surprise them there.“It weighed on my mind a lot last season…sometimes I went three or four days where I didn’t know where they were. They had disappeared. My mind will be completely clear knowing they are in this country,” says Cespedes (PAGE 67).
For the A’s, Cespedes looks to be the most rewarding kind of investment. “We were thorough. We calibrated everything…with all that being said, Yoenis Cespedes? La Potencia? He exceeded all expectations,” says Bill Owens, director of player personnel (PAGE 67).
It’s a perfect storm of a pinup: A last-gasp play seemingly interpreted in opposite ways by two replacement refs—patsies, really—working from a complex rule book. But the photo of the last play in the Monday Night Football game on Sept. 24 will force you to rethink the Packers-Seahawks finish, says Ben Reiter. “You never really know the life that a photograph is going to take on,” says Otto Greule, who took the photo. “That particular frame, to me it’s definitely a moment, an important moment. As far as the aesthetics, it’s kind of pedestrian. But I do like the context, showing the end zone, all the fans going ballistic page 62).”
While Greule’s photo is a fine one—clear, well-framed, exquisitely timed—it would not have been a sensation solely on its artistic merits. Context was everything. Analyzing the photo that precipitated the end of the NFL referee lockout, Ben Reiter digs into the story behind the now-iconic image, talking to the referees about why they made their decisions and how their lives have been changed by the controversy. Says Wayne Elliott, the referee who upheld the touchdown call: “It was the absolute biggest thrill of my life. I was making $225 a game in D-II football, without a travel allowance. I loved that. I would have done it forever. But if I had to sacrifice that to work seven weeks in the NFL? Man, it was amazing (page 66).”