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John Keuler


A preview of the College Football Hall of Fame

On Tuesday, the College Football Hall of Fame held its media preview, inviting the press to get the full Chick-fil-A Fan Experience before the attraction opens on Saturday. Upon arrival, grunting silhouettes in full pads jogged and skipped down the tunnel-like entrance, leading attendees into the lobby. These animated shadows set the tone for how well the museum utilizes technology.

The lobby, which smelled as new as a fresh pair of cleats, houses the 768 helmets of every school that fields a team across the nation, regardless of their level of play. A false fire alarm sounded just before the press conference got under way on the 45-yard indoor field—long enough for a mid-range field goal but not tall enough to contain a well-struck punt—but no one moved toward the door; we all wanted a glimpse of the $68.5 million structure that stretches across 94,256 total square feet.

“This used to be a surface lot,” recalled John Stephenson, the Hall of Fame’s CEO. “There were about 100 spaces, and now there are 350 parking spaces in the deck. So at the end of the day, the state will actually make more off of this 2.7 acres than before.” But the state has a lot more to gain than just parking change. Expected to draw an estimated 500,000 visitors per year, the attraction could pump approximately $12.7 million into Georgia’s economy annually.

Kent Stephens, the curator of the Hall, led our tour—as best he could. “This is definitely like herding cats,” he said after discovering only two of his charges were still keeping his pace. The allure of college football history had reduced grown men to wandering children.

The juxtaposition of interactive activities and athletic artifacts make the Hall captivating for visitors on any end of the spectrum. The casual fan can watch Lou Holtz explain the schematics of Oklahoma’s wishbone offense of the 50s, while the football historian takes in one of Holtz’s handwritten play sheets. Exhibits celebrate the full fan experience—from tailgating to rivalries to bands, cheerleaders, and uniforms. But the playful atmosphere and color scheme melt away once you enter a shrine to the sport’s most hallowed players. Distanced from the buzz of the games and activities by a staircase, the room became a baptismal font as everyone hushed their voices, showing reverence to the 1,139 names listed around the room.

The College Football Hall of Fame is a Cooperstown built for the smartphone generation. Although the technology is impressive, Stephens hopes people aren’t distracted from the history and artifacts. “There’s so much to do. The interactive stuff, as the historian, sort of bothers me. People are so into all this other stuff and I keep thinking, “Hey there’s Red Grange’s jersey!”

Can Bonifacio and Russell give the Atlanta Braves the jolt they need?

For both millenials and long-time fans, this Braves season is starting to bring flashbacks. Young fans recall the collapse of 2011 as the long-sufferers fight off visions of the late 1980’s. The team has lost six straight games—falling to three games behind the first-place Nationals. Despair over this slump is mitigated by a trade with the Cubs that could give the team a needed jolt.

Last week, the Braves and Cubs made a last-second deal to acquire left-handed reliever James Russell and speedy utilityman Emilio Bonifacio, while sending catching prospect Victor Caratini to the Chicago organization. The trade plugs up a pair of holes that has needed mending all year.

After the recent demotion of a disappointing Luis Avilan to the Gwinnett Braves on July 19, Atlanta has operated without an experienced lefty arm out of the bullpen for weeks. The team temporarily filled the void with 24-year-old rookie Chasen Shreve – but has found a much more stable solution in Russell.

Russell, a Longhorn out of the University of Texas, is a four-year veteran who has managed to appear in 318 games since his debut in 2010 without ever spending time on the disabled list. A reliable reliever who can avoid injury while handling a workload of that magnitude is a valuable asset. Russell could serve as a lefty setup man to close the door on any eighth-inning comeback effort just before Craig Kimbrel slams it shut in the ninth.

The other half of the trade included Emilio Bonifacio, a utilityman with the speed to hit leadoff. Atlanta has not had a player like Bonifacio since the departure of fan favorite Martin Prado. Like Prado, Bonifacio can play a number of positions, giving Fredi Gonzalez the ability to manage his lineup with a flexibility he hasn’t had in some time.

The 29-year-old is a switch-hitter who excels against lefties, hitting .403 against them this year. If he can maintain that level of play, he should be used often in lieu of B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward, outfielders who struggle against lefties. Additionally, Bonifacio could relieve those two from trying to bat leadoff; although they have each had success at times in the role, Heyward’s power is better suited to a run-producing role, and Upton strikes out too much to be put in a contact hitter’s position.

Bonifacio brings versatility, speed, and a hashtag to Atlanta. You will often see players throw a hand gesture or sign to their dugout after a hit to keep their team’s energy up. During his time in Miami, Bonifacio spearheaded the spread of “Lo viste,” which means “See that?” in Spanish. The gesture is a peace sign placed diagonally over the eye; Bonifacio even had shirts made for the Marlins. Now, the phrase, gesture, and hashtag follow Bonifacio wherever he goes.

A fresh brand of energy is what the team needs most. To turn this skid around, the Braves should hope #loviste can become a trending topic in the NL East.

How Braves second basemen Tommy La Stella took the path less traveled to the bigs

After the recent one-game suspension of Dan Uggla, it seems safe to declare that Tommy La Stella will frequent Fredi Gonzalez’s starting lineup for the rest of 2014 and possibly beyond. The 25-year-old has performed serviceably, hitting .292 in 154 at-bats—a welcome jump in production from the .189 average that other Braves second basemen have collectively hit this season.

La Stella is a foil to the recent cast of Braves batters—right-handers with healthy homerun hacks who strike out when they don’t connect. He joins Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward as a lefty while complementing Andrelton Simmons as the only other contact hitter in the lineup; he has struck out only 20 times so far. As long as the Upton brothers are whiffing as often as they are, contact will be a commodity for Fredi’s team.

Tweets, selfies, and friend requests are all irrelevant to the low-profile New Jersey native. “Off the field, Derek Jeter is who I will always try to model myself after,” he told talkingchop.com in an interview. “I’m from the New York area, so I have watched from the start how he has been the consummate professional.” La Stella doesn’t have a social media presence but instead prefers to remain out of public focus, similar to Jeter, who manages to only make minor appearances in tabloids despite his role as unquestioned leader of one of the most recognized sports franchises in the world for more than a decade.

But unlike Jeter, who was drafted as the Yankees top pick out of high school, La Stella’s path to the big leagues was not direct. Instead of playing ball the summer before his senior year, as most elite players do, he spent his days working on a farm. His duties included feeding a donkey that, like Napoleon Dynamite’s llama, Tina, was not keen on eating. “Every night when I would go to feed this donkey, as I was carrying that bucket of food out there, I was thinking, ‘What am I doing? I could be playing ball, and I could be going to college the next year,’” La Stella told mlb.com about rediscovering his passion for the game.

With a fresh perspective and reaffirmed goals, La Stella graduated high school and took his talents to St. John’s University without an athletic scholarship. After only starting four games his freshman year, he was again denied a scholarship as a sophomore. An old hitting coach found him a place on the Coastal Carolina squad, but because of NCAA transfer rules, he couldn’t prove himself on the field for another year.

In his first season with the Chanticleers in 2010, La Stella hit 14 homeruns with a .378 average—numbers that earned him a spot on the First Team All-Big South squad. The following year he hit .398 and won the Big South Player of the Year award. In five years, La Stella went from feeding a stubborn donkey to being drafted in the eighth round by the Braves in 2011.

La Stella’s rise has not been meteoric. He has steadily performed everywhere he has played, but his lack of a distinguishing trait like superior speed, arm strength, or power always leaves scouts and coaches attempting to dismiss him. With the gaping hole that exists at second for the Braves, La Stella has landed on a team that needs him—giving him ample opportunity to prove himself.

The connection between UGA turf and the World Cup

Team USA is not favored to survive its placement in the “Group of Death” in the World Cup—pitted with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. But, as the global soccer spectacle prepares to, ahem, kick off tomorrow, rest assured that at least one Made in America product will last—the turf on which the matches are played.

A Bermuda grass hybrid, known as TifGrand, developed within the University of Georgia Turfgrass Breeding Program will be used on three of the twelve fields of the World Cup which will run June 12 through July 13.

The turf may not have been born near the hedges of Sanford Stadium or the tree that owns itself, but it is still a UGA product. The grass was crafted about three hours south of Athens at UGA’s Tifton campus under the direction of Wayne Hanna and Kris Braman. TifGrand is not the first Bulldog-bred turf to be used for a World Cup. In 2010, Hanna’s TifSport was used in Moses Mabhida Stadium, the field that hosted the final match of the South African World Cup in 2010.

According to Hanna, TifGrand is a darker and denser version of the previously successful TifSport that he has been working to design for decades. TifGrand’s increased density means it can handle the task of hosting a minimum of four matches during the Cup’s group stage that lasts just two weeks. Hopefully, the USMNT will be able to last as long as Hanna’s turf.

A look at Craig Kimbrel’s career highlights thus far


In the last three seasons, Craig Kimbrel has redefined the notion of pitching dominance, striking out hitters at rates never seen before. Along the way, he has collected saves with an efficiency similar to that of Braves legend John Smoltz. This past weekend, Kimbrel equaled Smoltzie’s career total of 154 saves, a franchise record.

The 5’11” flamethrower is in position to surpass the record any day now, so it’s an appropriate time to recap his career highlights thus far, and to speculate on what the future may hold for the young pitcher.

The Braves sign Kimbrel in 2007 Originally drafted by the Braves in the 33rd round of the 2006 MLB draft, Kimbrel decided to delay the start of his professional baseball career in favor of spending one more year at Wallace State Community college, hoping to improve his draft stock. His plan worked and the Braves drafted him again, this time in the third round as the 96th overall pick.

Kimbreling makes its debut In 2010, Kimbrel developed the odd stance he takes on the mound. According to an interview with talkingchop.com, his habit of dangling his arm awkwardly at his side developed because he grew uncomfortable taking his signs with his arm behind him. Now, the stance is one of the most recognizable in the league. On September 19 of that year, Kimbrel employed his weirdly intimidating oddity against the Mets, striking out the side to earn his first major league save.

National League Rookie of the Year At the age of 23, Kimbrel led the National League in saves as a rookie, with 46, smashing the previous rookie record held by Neftali Feliz by six saves. Kimbrel was unanimously named the National League Rookie of the Year, becoming the first player to garner every first-place vote since Albert Pujols in 2001.

Kimbrel strikes out hitters more often than he doesn’t In just his second season, Kimbrel seemed to have complete control over his explosive fastball and devastating curve. He struck out 116 batters—more than half the batters he faced—in just 62 2/3 innings, becoming the first pitcher to do so after throwing a minimum of 50 innings. Kimbrel was also an All-Star for the second consecutive year while again leading the league in saves with 42.

Kimbrel represents Team USA Following his dominant second season, Kimbrel was selected to be the closer for the American squad in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Hitters were still not able to figure him out as he continued his success on the mound in 2013. He represented the Braves in the All-Star game for the third time in as many seasons and once again led the league in saves. He was named the MLB Delivery Man of the Year as the best relief pitcher.

Atlanta locks up Kimbrel until 2017 In February, the Braves signed Kimbrel to a record-setting contract, giving him $42 million over four years—the largest amount offered to a non-free agent relief pitcher ever. On April 25, Kimbrel became the fastest to record 400 strikeouts, needing only 236 innings to reach the milestone. Then, on May 18, ten days before his 26th birthday, he became the youngest pitcher to reach 150 saves. (Mariano Rivera did not reach that milestone until he was nearly 30 years old, to put Kimbrel’s achievement into perspective.)

And beyond… Over three full seasons, Kimbrel has averaged 46.3 saves. Baseball’s career saves leader, Mariano Rivera, averaged 40.1 saves over 16 full seasons for the Yankees. If Kimbrel can stay healthy, the Braves may very well have the best closer of the next generation, if not of all time.

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