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ESPN The Magazine 03.17.14

ESPN The Magazine is for the NEXT generation of sports fans who want to stay on top of the athletes, teams, topics and upcoming events in their own sports world. The Magazine celebrates not only sports, but the cultures and lifestyles that are an integral part of them - all with ESPN's unique personality and authority.

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spotlight marty prather

He was raised in Ohio, so Prather’s first love was the Big Red Machine. In 1981 he moved to Springfield, Mo., and Ozzie Smith and the Cards stole his heart. “I hate the Reds now—almost as much as the Cubs,” says Prather, 55, who owns 10 “Bartman” jerseys with the number of years since the Cubs have won a Series on the back. Prather makes a six-hour round-trip to Busch, carting 20 signs with phrases he has coined. The Sign Man debuted in the ’85 Series against the Royals, when his “Fat Lady Is Singing” poster was a hit on TV. But Prather’s most memorable slogan hits closer to home: “For Ozzie’s last game, I wrote, ‘St. Louis Will Always Be the Land of Oz.’ I have a photo of…

access_time3 min.
[ gasping for greatness ]

A year ago, the “It” hype machine was anointing its newest member while it was coldly reassessing its most recent inductee. Sloane Stephens, the best hope for U.S. tennis since the Williams sisters burst onto the scene, was basking in the afterglow of beating an injured Serena in the Australian Open quarterfinals. Stephens lost her semifinal match to Victoria Azarenka, but the hype machine had already been ignited. Her wonderful face, all brightness, innocence and shock and hope, had lit up flat-screens around the country. She created one moment, and these days, that’s all it takes. She was next. Simultaneously, the hype machine was on pause for Robert Griffin III, because he had torn his knee to pieces guiding his team to the playoffs. And so RG3’s camp decided to co-opt the…

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[ presto! it’s a platoon ]

I am in a fantasy baseball league that’s so hard-core, we have a minor league player draft, and I’ve had Michael Choice, a former first-round pick for Oakland, stashed among my prospects for a couple of years now. Choice may not develop the power that scouts initially forecast, but last year, at age 23, he had a .390 OBP in Triple-A, and I think he’ll be a fine major league hitter. So I was surprised when the A’s recently traded him to Texas in a four-man deal for Craig Gentry, a career .280-hitting centerfielder. Why would Billy Beane deal Choice for a fourth outfielder? Then I took a closer look at Oakland’s roster and realized the A’s, battling to remain atop their division with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball,…

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Cleo Hammonds (shorts) and Todd Harris jokingly call themselves sticker lickers, but installing race car wraps is serious business at the Decal Source, a shop in McLeansville, N.C. The arsenal for putting the 3M-made wrap onto Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide series Camaro includes a propane torch, an X-Acto knife, a squeegee and a tool called a RollePro, for smoothing the vinyl over the car’s rivets. This is one of 75 jobs that Hammonds will do this year; each takes about three hours. Still, he never rushes. “Have patience,” says Hammonds, a five-year vet. “The vinyl wrinkles up when you hurry, and you can’t get them out.” But on March 8, when Earnhardt is doing all the hurrying at the Nationwide event at Las Vegas, Hammonds can sit back and say,…

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For Yuriy Ardashnikov, beard icicles come with the territory (and weather) at the American Birkebeiner—the largest cross-country skiing event in North America. On Feb. 22, the 49-year-old was among 3,062 competitors in the men’s 50K Skate. Starting in Cable, Wis., and ending in Hayward, the race requires the agility of an ice-skater and the endurance of a marathoner, all while balancing on skinny skis. Ardashnikov finished in a little more than three hours, good for 353rd place. Not bad, considering he had a few pounds of ice on his face. $7,500 The cash prize awarded to the winner of the race, Tom Reichelt of Germany, who finished in 2:14:29.9. Awards are given to the top six. The rest? Zilch—not even a set of steak knives. 10:05:48.6 The time for the last-place finisher, Lance Scott,…

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upsets in the making

LOOKING TO PREDICT SOME TOURNEY SHOCKERS? In our ninth year identifying potential Giant Killers—teams beating an opponent that’s at least five seeds higher—we trained our statistical model on three types of squads that could put some of the beloved madness into March: flawed but dangerous power-conference teams, vulnerable Giants and those pesky Cinderellas. Let’s blow up some brackets … Statistical consultants: Liz Bouzarth, John Harris and Kevin Hutson of Furman University POWER-CONFERENCE ASSASSINS We see it every year: Some middling team from a major league barely limps to a .500 conference record and then wallops an unsuspecting favorite in March. Those sorts of upsets defy logic when you examine both teams’ bodies of work, but not if you examine the right statistical indicators for high-risk, high-reward strategies, like pressing for turnovers and shooting lots…