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New OF Shogo Akiyama singles, tries steal in Reds debut



GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Shogo Akiyama gave Cincinnati Reds fans a small taste of what he can provide at the top of the batting order and in the outfield Sunday in his first spring training game with the team.

Akiyama, hitting leadoff and playing center field, lined the second pitch he saw from Chicago White Sox starter Dylan Cease into right field for a single. In the top of the third inning, he made a running catch going to his left on a sinking line drive from Nicky Delmonico.

The five-time Pacific League All-Star is the first player from Japan to sign a major league contract with the Reds. At least a dozen Japanese media members tracked his every move before and after his day at Goodyear Ballpark in the Reds’ spring training opener.

The perception of Akiyama in Japan is that he isn’t on the same level as Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani or former Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, both of whom took the majors by storm when they arrived in the U.S. But Akiyama holds the Japanese league record for hits in a season with 216, set in 2015.

“I was very nervous, but definitely relieved that I got my first hit,” the left-handed-hitting Akiyama said through a translator. “It was also good that I was able to see a lot of pitches.”

After four innings in the field, he grounded into a fielder’s choice in his third and final at-bat. But reaching first allowed him to try stealing a base, which he’d done 112 times in his nine-year career in Japan.

“It wasn’t a goal, but I just wanted to see if I could do it,” Akiyama said. “To see if I have a chance. It was good that I was able to run it out.”

Akiyama was thrown out at second base to end the fourth inning and his day.

The Reds signed the 31-year-old Akiyama to a three-year, $21 million contract in the offseason, winning the bidding for his services as part of a roster makeover that the team hopes will help it contend in the National League Central.

While it’s not a certainty that Akiyama will be the Reds’ regular center fielder, his ability to get on base is something Cincinnati was seeking at the top of its order.

He’s clearly still learning and adjusting both on the field and off. After his single, he was almost picked off when leaning too far off first base.

Reds fans are adjusting to Akiyama, too. He got light applause when introduced in the starting lineup, slapping hands with the Reds mascot as he took his place next to manager David Bell along the third-base line.

“He looked great. He looked comfortable,” Bell said. “I know it’s just spring training, but it’s kind of nice to get a hit in your first at-bat to kind of take the pressure off. He said he was nervous before the game. I didn’t really see that. There’s some extra feelings there for him, I’m sure, but it was nice to get into the flow of the game really quick.”

The Reds hope Akiyama can provide the kind of production — or close to it — that he put up in Japan. His career numbers include a .301 batting average, 116 home runs, 513 RBIs and 1,405 hits.

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Rob Manfred says ‘nothing off table’ regarding MLB’s return



Vowing that “baseball will be back” and “will be part of the recovery,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview Wednesday with ESPN’S Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter that “nothing’s off the table” as the sport outlines its plan to return from a coronavirus-related postponement.

Manfred, speaking from Florida on the eve of what would have been Opening Day, said he’s hopeful the sport can begin preparing for a season at some point in May but that the league will work with infectious-disease experts before determining its exact return.

“The one thing I know for sure is baseball will be back,” Manfred said. “Whenever it’s safe to play, we’ll be back. Our fans will be back. Our players will be back. And we will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country, from this particular pandemic.

“Look, my optimistic outlook is that at some point in May, we’ll be gearing back up,” he added. “We’ll have to make a determination, depending what the precise date is, as to how much of a preparation period we need, whether that preparation period is gonna be done in the clubs’ home cities or back in Florida and Arizona. Again, I think the goal would be to get as many regular-season games as possible, and think creatively about how we can accomplish that goal.”

For nearly two weeks, as MLB and the MLB Players Association have exchanged proposals over salary and service-time issues, the parties have also discussed the proper way to return — the time, place and fashion. Manfred told Van Pelt “we’re probably not gonna be able to do” a 162-game season — “I think that’s clear,” he said. What MLB can do, Manfred said, is “experiment” and “make sure we provide as many games as possible and as entertaining a product as possible.”

Baseball stands to lose billions of dollars in revenue should it miss a significant amount of the season, prompting the teams and players to unite in a desire to return as soon as safely possible.

“Nothing’s off the table for us right now,” Manfred said. “I think we are open, and we’ve had some really positive conversations with our players’ association about relaxing some of the rules that govern our schedule. They’re very focused on returning to play and playing as many games as possible. And when you have that kind of positive dialogue, it creates an opportunity to do things that are a little different. You’re not committed to them over the long term, because this year is a unique circumstance. But there’s a lot of ideas out there, and we really are open to all of them.”

The ideas, Manfred said, include an increase in doubleheaders — and he did not rule out the seven-inning variety, though players could object because it would further cut into their statistical output.

“I have said publicly before that there’s some numbers in baseball you can’t change. Nine innings is one of them,” Manfred said. “When I said that, I wasn’t thinking about this particular crisis. So I’m sure it’s something that will get some discussion.”

Other possibilities, sources said, include a neutral-site World Series — to allow the regular season to stretch into October and the championship series to be held in a warm-weather city — and an expanded playoff system.

Manfred’s juggling of a deal with the players, a proposal to pay minor league players and securing a pledge from owners not to make cost-cutting moves until May has kept him from a much-anticipated ruling on the allegations that the Boston Red Sox illegally stole signs during their championship-winning 2018 season.

“We are done with the investigation,” Manfred said. “There’s been a delay in terms of producing a written report, just because I, frankly, have not had time to turn to it with the other issues. But we will get a Boston report out before we resume play.”

Resuming, and resuming at the proper time, in the proper place, in front of the proper number of fans — which might be zero — is among the most difficult tasks to project. But Manfred sees baseball as having a greater impact, which makes simply playing games of great import to the league and players.

“I think it will mark a real milestone in the return to normalcy,” Manfred said. “I think you saw it after 9/11, in terms of the resumption of play. I was there in Shea Stadium that night we began playing. It was one of the most memorable games I’ve ever attended. It’s an honor for our sport to be regarded in a way that we have been part of our country coming back from some horrific events, and we hope that we can play a similar role with respect to this one.”

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Stubhub furloughs employees, other ticket sites face challenges in wake of pandemic



The ticketing giant Stubhub has begun furloughing employees, making it the first major ticketing company to publicly admit to significant cost-cutting moves in the wake of financial damage created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Following the postponement or cancellation of hundreds of sporting events — including 448 NBA and NHL games, along with the entirety of the MLB season and March Madness — the ticketing industry has been grappling with the massive financial implications of empty arenas and other live-event venues, including all spectator sports in the United States.

In a statement to ESPN, StubHub said, “Given the impact of the coronavirus on the live-events industry, we have made the difficult but responsible decision to furlough a portion of our employee base.” The company emphasized it will “continue to support our customers and partners.”

ESPN reported last week that Stubhub, along with other major ticketing sites, would provide fans who purchased tickets to canceled events a full refund or “a coupon worth 120% of their original order to use on a future order.”

While StubHub would not provide specifics on the number of people furloughed, the entertainment industry site Celebrity Access, citing an internal email seen by a source, reported StubHub, “furloughed as much as 67% of their workforce,” leaving less than 150 out of roughly 450 staffers until “at least June.” Stubhub did not dispute these numbers when contacted by ESPN.

TicketNetwork is another big player in the ticketing resale business, working mostly with brokers but also directly with fans. In an emailed response to ESPN’s specific questions about whether it has furloughed or laid off any employees, a company spokesman said, “As an organization, once we saw how the pandemic would affect our industry, TicketNetwork started making adjustments and cost cutting measures to ensure the stability of our organization. We continue to support our employees, customers and partners with full capabilities.” He continued, “We are doing everything we can to ensure the organization is ready to thrive when these unprecedented times are over.”

Ticketmaster and SeatGeek told ESPN they have not furloughed or laid off any employees.

Ticketmaster’s parent company, Live Nation, is now facing a credit downgrade after taking on about $3.3 billion in long-term debt last year, according to S&P Global, a financial credit rating agency. “While the extent and duration of the impact on the live events industry are uncertain, we believe Live Nation Entertainment Inc.’s operating performance could be hurt by the growing number of postponed events, lower-than-expected attendance, or any future cancellations,” S&P Global announced last week.

In an email to ESPN, a SeatGeek spokesman said, “Working in such a dynamic space, our team is used to scaling costs up and down based on demand” but pointed out that, “on the sports side we have seen some of the biggest teams and leagues in the world already make paycuts to avoid layoffs, and on the entertainment side we have seen some major promoters go as far as to layoff or furlough more than 75% of their staff. It’s certainly something every business in the industry has to think about right now.”

SeatGeek said not enough focus has been put on the impact to the live entertainment industry. “Not just the ticket providers but also the small local venues, or the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the concessions stands, or on the tour bus, or in the box office. Without government help, we suspect that many of the smaller venues and entities in the live events space are going to struggle to make it through COVID-19,” the spokesman said.

TicketNetwork agreed. “The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our industry particularly hard. With the mandate to cancel large gatherings of people, forcing live events such as sporting events, theaters, and concerts to be cancelled or postponed, our business has taken a significant hit in revenue generation. We hope Congress recognizes their opportunity to help impacted industries like ours by swiftly approving and implementing the stimulus package currently in front of them that will help our employees through these difficult times,” the spokesman said.

Vivid Seats and the international ticketing giant viagogo did not immediately respond to ESPN’s emails on Wednesaday. Viagogo dominates the resale marketplace outside the United States and just completed its $4.05 billion purchase of Stubhub from Ebay last month.

StubHub had long been the leading player in the online ticket resale business until Vivid Seats began eating away at StubHub’s market share in recent years, according to multiple sources working in the ticket industry. Vivid Seats is an advertiser with ESPN.

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Stars around globe lend support to medical world



Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James taped a message of support and gratitude for UCLA health care workers Wednesday, joining a trend of athletes finding ways to support medical staffers on the front lines of the coronavirus.

Athletes from around the world, from Pete Alonso to Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Stephen Curry, are expressing direct support and putting their dollars behind medical professionals during this international health crisis.

Some athletes are raising money to directly support medical professionals on the front lines of the outbreak while others are recording videos of support, donating protective equipment to hospitals and feeding hospital staffs working overtime.

James recorded a thank-you message for the UCLA medical staff, as Los Angeles county has reported more than 660 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The UCLA medical staff has been tasked with treating many of those patients while trying to contain the spread of the virus.

“I just want to let you know that ya’ll hard work and ya’ll dedication does not go unnoticed,” James said. “The James Gang family here thanks you guys and hopefully we can get back on our feet and we can get back to our everyday lives very soon.

“… I just want to say thank you once again. Like I said, do not think for one second that you guys are not recognized, that you guys are going unnoticed. The time and commitment you guys are putting in is truly commendable and remarkable.”

Ibrahimovic, who is now playing for A.C. Milan in Serie A after formerly playing for the Los Angeles Galaxy of the MLS, has started fundraising campaigns.

The soccer superstar opened a GoFundMe for Humanitas hospitals in Italy. The country has had more than 53,000 reported cases of coronavirus and more than 5,400 deaths, surpassing China for the country with the highest death toll.

In six days, the fundraising totals on Ibrahimovic’s pages have exceeded $300,000.

“Italy has always given me so much, and in this dramatic moment, I want to give back even more to this country that I love,” said Ibrahimovic, who’s previously played for Juventus in Serie A.

“It’s a serious issue, and we need concrete help that is not just about a video,” Ibrahimovic said in a video tweeted in both English and Italian. “I count on the generosity of my colleagues, of all professional athletes and of those who want to make a small or large donation according to their possibilities, to kick this virus away.”

Alonso, the first baseman for the New York Mets, sent individualized, personal video messages to doctors and nurses, thanking them for their sacrifices during the outbreak. In the video, Alonso says that the current pandemic has given him new appreciation for the simple freedom of playing baseball.

“I just want to thank you so much for all the time and effort that you’re putting into this,” Alonso said. “Thank you on behalf of everybody because you’re part of a bigger picture and trying to help prevent this disease. Thank you for keeping everybody safe and providing protection for everybody if you’re on the front line. Thank you and as always, let’s go Mets!”

UFC superstar Conor McGregor pledged to purchase more than a 1 million euros worth of protective gear for hospitals in Ireland battling the coronavirus pandemic. McGregor posted a text exchange with Irish politician Paschal Donohue in which he delineated his support plan.

“Today I am purchasing myself, €1 million euro worth of personal protective equipment to be deployed to all the fighting hospitals in the Leinster region,” McGregor said. “Our most affected region, to this date. …

“Where would we be without these brave men and women, I do not know. May god bless over them and keep them safe.”

Curry, meanwhile, on Thursday is scheduled to host a conversation on Instagram Live with Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading experts on the coronavirus pandemic and a top medical advisor to President Donald Trump during the White House’s response to the international crisis.

“We all have to take responsibility for ourselves and do whatever it takes to #stopthespread,” Curry wrote on his Twitter feed on March 15. “There’s a sense of urgency to flatten the curve and give ourselves and the healthcare system the best chance to get through this pandemic. Share this message and let’s protect each other!”

The Pittsburgh Pirates reached out to their local communities and delivered more than 400 pizzas from two local pizzerias to the staff at Allegheny General Hospital, and Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo teamed up with local Chicago restaurants to feed the staff at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Florida, with nearly 700 meals donated.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns pledged $100,000 in donations last week to help the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota get more tests for the coronavirus to the public. On Tuesday night, Towns took to Instagram to share the news that his mom had been placed in a medically-induced coma as a result of the virus.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid also pledged to donate $500,000 to COVID-19 medical relief efforts.

Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward and his wife Erin expressed gratitude for first responders and health care workers.

“On behalf of the Woodward family, we’d like to thank all of the first responders and healthcare workers all across the country and especially in the great state of Texas,” Woodward said.

Soccer icons Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola all made donations worth €1 million to help overburdened health care systems deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Ronaldo’s donation went towards buying equipment for the ICY at Lisbon’s Santa Maria Hospital, while Messi and Guardiola’s contributions went towards the health efforts in Spain, the second-most affected country in Europe after Italy.

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