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The "worst came to pass" for the Astros' '14 MLB draft class Friday, as top pick P Brady Aiken did not sign by the 5:00pm ET deadline, another "misfortune in a series that has turned what was once baseball's most laughable franchise into its most divisive," according to Evan Drellich of the HOUSTON CHRONICLE. Even if the front office "played by the rules, the Astros have a long road back to credibility as questions linger for all parties in a drama that could eventually bring significant change to the draft and its medical information process." The Astros, who also failed to sign fifth-round pick P Jacob Nix, are "going to take a beating in their public and professional relations." MLBPA Exec Dir Tony Clark in a statement said, "Two young men should be one step closer to realizing their dreams of becoming major league ballplayers. Because of the actions of the Houston Astros, they are not. The MLBPA, the players and their advisers are exploring all legal options." Drellich noted the Astros "were not allowed to give Aiken a physical exam until after he was drafted" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 7/19). MLB.com's Jim Callis noted the Astros and Aiken last month "agreed to terms" on a $6.5M bonus, but what was "supposed to be a routine physical led to questions about Aiken's elbow." Multiple MLB officials "believe that the circumstances surrounding Aiken will lead to eventual changes in the way Draft physicals are conducted." The current CBA "overhauled the Draft rules and called for a pre-Draft medical combine, though MLB and the MLBPA have been unable to work out the logistics" (MLB.com, 7/18). ESPN.com's Keith Law wrote the "hope within the industry is that this debacle renews the push" for a pre-draft combine, but that "would require pushing the draft back into the beginning of July" (ESPN.com, 7/19).
ASTRO-NOMICAL PROBLEMS: ESPN.com's Buster Olney wrote of the Astros, "The perception of their decisions -- in the eyes of some of their own players, players with other teams, agents and, most importantly, potential customers -- may take many years for them to overcome." The Astros have had an "incredible opportunity, having picked at the top of the draft for three straight seasons, but time and again, they have been penny-wise and pound-foolish and damaged their brand along the way." Among players and agents, they are "seen as a team that tried to strong-arm the best player in their organization," RF George Springer, into a "team-friendly extension, and then punished Springer when he didn’t agree to a new deal by sending him to the minors, again." If the Astros could have "navigated their way out of the Aiken mess somewhere along the way -- before their concerns about his medicals leaked out -- the savings in how they’re perceived, the protection of their brand, would’ve been worth a whole lot more" than $1.5M. Olney: "Fairly or not, the perception of them is shattered, and they will have to pay for its reconstruction, one way or another" (ESPN.com, 7/20). CBSSPORTS.com's Jon Heyman cited sources as saying that Aiken's agent Casey Close "berated" Astros GM Jeff Luhnow for "various perceived transgressions, accusing him of leaking the medical findings regarding Aiken." The sources added that Close suggested to Luhnow that "players don't or won't want to deal with them because of the way they handle things" (CBSSPORTS.com, 7/18). NBCSPORTS.com's Craig Calcaterra wrote Close is "not a bomb-thrower, and his reaction to all of this was pretty sharp." That he is "as angry with the team as he has been suggests some seriously toxic dealings between the parties that many may read in his favor and negatively toward the Astros" (NBCSPORTS.com, 7/18).
POINTING FINGERS: SI.com's Jay Jaffe wrote the MLBPA "shares some fault in the matter, having agreed to the draft spending limits and the bonus pool system" in the most recent CBA. The failure to sign the picks "won’t make Luhnow’s job any easier, as this will likely hurt his standing with many agents" (SI.com, 7/18). ESPN’s Eduardo Perez, on Astros failing to sign first overall pick P Brady Aiken: “Teams do not get their medical records until they draft the kids. Then after they come to an agreement the physical tells you then if you sign him or not. So it’s not just on the Astros. They're going on the medicals and you have to give the Astros credit for sticking to their guns and you have to give Aiken also credit and his representation for sticking to their guns” (“Baseball Tonight,” ESPN2, 7/19). FS1’s C.J. Nitkowski: “There were rumors going around they tried to offer $5 million with about five minutes to go to the deadline. This kid is 17 years old. You don’t put a 17 year old kid in that position” (“MLB Whiparound,” FS1, 7/18). The HOUSTON CHRONICLE's Drellich wrote Luhnow's "family vacation to Mexico presumably had no effect on the Astros' inability to sign" Aiken, but it is "easy for someone to question why the GM didn't scrap his plans, fly to San Diego and court Aiken." It "looks bad, being out of the country" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 7/19). SPORTS ON EARTH's Matthew Kory wrote under the header, "Lose-Lose Situation" (SPORTSONEARTH.com, 7/19).
Bills officials expect the sale of the team "to reach more than" $1.1B, meaning the groups looking at purchasing the team "can expect to pay 20% more" than Forbes' $870M estimated franchise value, according to sources cited by ESPN's Sal Paolantonio. Some interested ownership groups reportedly have talked about relocating the team, but it is "pretty clear that it's very difficult to get out of the lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium." Paolantonio, who was reporting live from Bills training camp said, "You've got to keep the team here in Buffalo." Potential bidders for the team include Sabres Owner Terry Pegula, former Sabres Owner Tom Golisano, Donald Trump and a group fronted by Jon Bon Jovi. ESPN's Ron Jaworski formerly partnered with Bon Jovi on the AFL Philadelphia Soul and noted the singer "never said he would move the Buffalo Bills out of western New York." Jaworksi: "There's been a lot of speculation to that. I know Jon Bon Jovi very well … (and he) always does the right thing. The right thing is to keep the Buffalo Bills in Western New York" ("SportsCenter," ESPN, 7/21). The AP's John Wawrow reported Bon Jovi is "part of a Toronto group" that includes Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Chair Larry Tanenbaum and the Rogers family. The group has "retained a banking firm and submitted paperwork expressing" a formal interest in buying the team (AP, 7/18). QMI AGENCY's John Kryk cited sources as saying that the Toronto group "is committed to keeping the NFL franchise in Western New York" (QMI AGENCY, 7/19).
EYEING A DECISION BY OCTOBER: Kryk cited a source as saying that prospective bidders not only have until 5:00pm on July 29 to inform Morgan Stanley "of their intention to bid, they must submit an indicative bid by then." After that date, the trust "will quickly select finalists." Presumably "by the end of that week." The source said that the "intention of the trust indeed is to choose a buyer in time for ratification by NFL owners at their next scheduled meeting, Oct. 6-8 in Detroit" (QMI AGENCY, 7/19).
The Dolphins, "spurred by a new business plan and the promise of a remade stadium," are beginning to reclaim the ground they have lost in South Florida "since the turn of the century," according to Adam Beasley of the MIAMI HERALD. A "regularly sold-out home field, and a city that fully embraces its oldest pro franchise -- doesn’t appear as far off as it once did." Ticket sales, which increased by 16% last season, are "well ahead" of the pace set in '13. Dolphins Senior VP & Chief Revenue Officer Jeremy Walls added that season-ticket sales are 15% "ahead of last year's pace." The team's renewal rate is "the highest it has been in six years." The club for a while "was a locomotive speeding in the wrong direction -- and gaining steam." Beasley: "Before it can reverse course, a train needs to be stopped. With renewed public interest and renovations to aging Sun Life Stadium finally under way, the Dolphins have probably done so." But the Dolphins’ fan base "lags behind much of the league," as home attendance ranked 21st in '13. Local TV ratings also "were the worst among any franchise that doesn’t share a city with another NFL team." Until recently, the Dolphins were "eclipsed locally" by the Heat, which "made AmericanAirlines Arena a destination." Earning public support is now the job of Dolphins Senior VP & CMO Claudia Lezcano, who "intends [to] create a local atmosphere that rallies dormant supporters and creates new ones." The team’s latest marketing campaign is "based on this 'ethos,' as Lezcano called it: Stronger Together." Residents of Miami will "see that slogan everywhere -- from roadside billboards to TV ads to banners at construction sites" (MIAMI HERALD, 7/20). In Ft. Lauderdale, Chris Perkins wrote, "The kingdom is available for the Dolphins. LeBron James abdicated the throne." The Dolphins "have a golden opportunity" to be the "savior" for South Florida sports fans in the wake of James' departure. If the Dolphins -- "once the undisputed sports leader in South Florida -- handle this the right way they could grab what's now a vacant crown" (South Florida SUN-SENTINEL, 7/20).
The Vikings on Friday "suspended special teams coordinator Mike Priefer for three games following a six-month investigation into accusations made by former punter Chris Kluwe that Priefer made anti-gay remarks in a team setting" during the '12 season, according to Tesfatsion & Vensel of the Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE. Priefer, who "denied the remarks earlier this year, apologized Friday in a statement." He also must "attend sensitivity training, and if he does, his suspension could be reduced to two games." In a 29-page document summarizing the findings of the Vikings’ independent investigation, law firm Littler Mendelson, "hired by the Vikings to assess the report, concluded that Priefer made an anti-gay comment to players, although there was no record of his having made any other such comments." However, the "showdown between Kluwe and the Vikings is not over." Kluwe on Friday said that because the Vikings "did not release the investigation’s full report, he plans to file a discrimination lawsuit against the Vikings early next week seeking damages in excess" of $10M. The investigation began "after Kluwe’s initial accusation in a January article he wrote" on Deadspin.com. Kluwe in his article said that Priefer before a special teams meeting said, "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows." Vikings co-Owners Mark and Zygi Wilf in a statement said, "We are very disappointed with some of the findings contained within the report. As we have said in the past, we consistently strive to create -- and believe we have -- a supportive, respectful and accepting environment for our players, coaches and staff, and we strongly disassociate the club from the statement that Coach Priefer made" (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 7/19). In St. Paul, Chris Tomasson noted Kluwe and his attorney, Clayton Halunen, had "proposed a settlement to the Vikings, which included Priefer being suspended four to eight games, the full report being made public and the Vikings donating $1 million to LGBT groups." The Vikings have "agreed to donate $100,000, but Kluwe and Halunen both called that amount unacceptable" (ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS, 7/19).
RIGHT AND WRONG: ESPN.com's Ben Goessling noted NFL Senior VP/Communications Greg Aiello "praised" the Wilfs "for ordering the investigation of Kluwe's allegations." Aiello in an e-mail wrote, "We support our clubs enforcing their workplace policies and commend the Wilfs for doing a thorough investigation and taking appropriate steps in response to the findings" (ESPN.com, 7/19). THE MMQB's Peter King writes "scorched earth" would "best describe the approach of Kluwe in the wake of the Vikings-issued report that found, basically, one confirmation of a Mike Priefer knock on gays and no evidence to suggest Kluwe was waived for his political views or outspokenness." Kluwe is a "smart and engaging person, and he fiercely defends the rights of the oppressed." King: "But I do not see how he justifies poking fun at strength coach Tom Kanavy, who formerly worked at Penn State, by cutting out the seat of his pants and, in an apparent joking way, saying he was a Penn State victim and telling Kanavy to stay away from him while his buttocks were exposed." Kluwe "so stridently fought for the right side on other issues, like gay marriage, and it’s just so sordid to join the crowd in making fun of a pedophile" (MMQB.SI.com, 7/21).
The Yankees yesterday "shot down" a N.Y. Post report from Saturday indicating that the organization "had hiked ticket prices from $16 to $250 for the Sept. 7 game honoring Derek Jeter in a pregame ceremony," according to Jason Rubinstein of the N.Y. DAILY NEWS. The Yankees in a statement said, "The New York Yankees have not, did not, and will not raise any ticket prices for the game to be played in Yankee Stadium on September 7, or for that matter, any other game to be played at Yankee Stadium this season." The Yankees called the report "absolutely and categorically untrue." They added that the report "failed to differentiate between primary and secondary ticket markets" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 7/21). In the original report, the N.Y. POST's Natalie O'Neill reported the Yankees organization "hiked the cheapest tickets on its web site from $16 to $250 before quickly selling out." Meanwhile, tickets "were topping out at $9,999 on resale sites for the Sept. 7 game." TiqIQ VP/Data & Communications Chris Matcovich said that average resale prices for the Sept. 7 game "also rose from $16 to $215 -- once news of the Jeter send-off was announced on Friday" (N.Y. POST, 7/20).
FISHY TIMING? In N.Y., Mike Vaccaro writes while the Yankees on Friday announced the Jeter ceremony will be Sept. 7, that was "after every rational fan was under the impression it would naturally be held on the last Sunday game of the year (as was Mariano Rivera’s)." So the Sept. 21 game "sells out and the secondary market for this ticket has been absurd all year." The new date "guarantees another sellout in what looks like another down year." Vaccaro: "To me, this seems like a story that Yankees ownership should have to explain" (N.Y. POST, 7/20).
In Florida, Little & Rousos reported Lakeland city officials and the Tigers announced Friday an agreement that would "keep the team" playing Spring Training games in Lakeland for another 20 years. The team's Lakeland Spring Training tenure is "already the longest at a single city" in MLB. The deal, by its end date, would "keep the Tigers" there until they "hit the 100th anniversary of their time" in Lakeland. The deal includes a $37M "renovation of Joker Marchant Stadium" and surrounding facilities. City officials have spent between $800,000 and $1M per year "subsidizing the team's spring training." Under terms of the agreement, the team will "pay more to the city in rent and management fees and take over its own utility costs" (Lakeland LEDGER, 7/19).
STILL HOT: In Boston, Dan Shaughnessy wrote the Red Sox "enjoy a friendlier environment than almost any of the 30 teams" in MLB. The club has a chance to finish in last place for the second time in three years, win a playoff game in only one of six seasons, and "still be perceived by their fans as 'perennial contenders.’" Red Sox ownership can "pare payroll, stay well below the coveted luxury tax threshold, and listen to regional applause while fans pay the highest ticket prices in baseball." Tickets and merchandise are still "hotter than they were at this time last summer" (BOSTON GLOBE, 7/20).
BEAR CLUB: REUTERS' Daniel Wallis reported the Cubs are "suing two men accused of posing in bear costumes as mascots" for the club and "lurking around Wrigley Field, hustling fans for tips and in one case getting into a bar brawl." In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago on Friday, the team said that John Paul Weier and Patrick Weier "show up for games garbed in their 'Billy Cub' outfits, including Cubs caps and jerseys, offering to have pictures and videos taken with fans." The team said that it had repeatedly asked the Weiers to "cease their Billy Cub appearances, but that they have persisted, with behavior that has included lewd gestures and racial slurs directed at ticket-holders and others" (REUTERS, 7/20).
BITTER FEELINGS: In Chicago, Jared Hopkins noted the "bitter quarrel" between the Cubs and nearby rooftop owners over signs at Wrigley Field "remains hot, but the rooftops' political contributions have cooled off this year." Rooftop clubs and their owners have made "just five donations to politicians totaling $5,550 this year, a sharp decline from last year, when at least $80,000 went to politicians and campaigns in Illinois" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 7/20).
In L.A., Lisa Dillman reports the NHL Kings "already have sold out of season tickets" for '14-15. The team said that its season-ticket base "is 16,000 and that season-ticket renewal was in excess of 95%." The base number "includes partial season-ticket plans." The Kings "have sold out 120 consecutive games, and they've been able to raise their rates in terms of sponsorship dollars" accordingly. AEG Sports COO Kelly Cheeseman, whose company owns the Kings, said, "A lot of the newer season-ticket holders are people that had basketball and baseball tickets for years. We want to make sure they're here for the long term" (L.A. TIMES, 7/21).
WISHFUL THINKING: In Seattle, Ashley Scoby noted the Sounders and Make-A-Wish Foundation of Greater Pennsylvania & West Virginia "teamed up to give 18-year-old Xander Bailey a special moment Saturday" during the team's friendly vs. EPL club Tottenham. Bailey, who has cystic fibrosis, "had been signed by the Sounders earlier in the week, and has been going through practice sessions with the team." He "was listed in the starting lineup for Saturday’s friendly" (SEATTLE TIMES, 7/20).
A DEMANDING SITUATION: The Redskins on Friday announced "'in response to a record number of Training Camp fan invitation registrations' -- fans will need to enter and win a ticket lottery to gain entrance to Fan Appreciation Day on Aug. 2 and the three joint practice sessions" with the Patriots. In DC, Dan Steinberg noted for last year's fan appreciation day, the Redskins reported a crowd of 25,222 fans, "overwhelming the facility and resulting in overflowing portable restrooms by the end of the session" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 7/18).
AN OFFSEASON TO FORGET: In Baltimore, Peter Schmuck wrote when the Ravens "begin workouts this week, they will be the ones trying to turn the page on a disappointing 2013 season and an embarrassing offseason." Five Ravens have been arrested since the end of last season. Each time, the team "has been forced into the awkward position of defending the player and decrying the behavior" (Baltimore SUN, 7/20).