New Nike shoe: No ‘Jelly Fam’, just grapes?

Nike recently released its PG1 shoes in kid sizes, but initially there was some dispute about the origin of the design.

Slam posted a story online earlier Friday (since taken down) suggesting the shoes — PG1 is part of the line from NBA star Paul George — were designed to capitalize on the “Jelly Fam” movement created by incoming Gophers point guard Isaiah Washington.

Washington’s moves — including the jelly layup — have made him a social media and brand star with more than a quarter of a million Instagram followers already.

Plenty of people reacted to the since-deleted Slam story and Twitter link about the design — including Washington himself as well as Brooklyn Nets point guard Isaiah Whitehead, who like Washington is a New York native.

But a representative from Nike’s media relations staff responded to a request for comment saying the design has nothing to do with Washington or Jelly Fam.

Rather, the spokesman said, “Nike recently released a kids-only PG1 inspired by Paul George’s love for fresh grapes and graphics to let the next generations score in bunches.”

Indeed, there is a long and extensive Internet history of George and his love of grapes. And indeed, Slam’s initial story — which caused the reaction from Washington and co. — has been changed. Washington has since deleted his tweet that said, “It’s crazy bro they know I can’t so they just take advantage.”

So no jelly. Just (sour?) grapes, it seems. Carry on with your Friday.

TCF Bank Stadium getting huge food upgrades for Gophers football

When Target Field opened in 2010, it revealed itself as more than just a ballpark. Among other things, it almost instantly became one of the best open air summer dining destinations in the Twin Cities.

Partnering with local institutions such as Murray’s (steak sandwich) gave fans extra reasons to check out the new ballpark and keep coming back.

“It was designed to be a really large restaurant in many ways,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said Thursday.

It also changed the game for pretty much every other sporting venue in the area.

Soon after, the Wild and Timberwolves were taking a page from the Twins’ playbook by attempting to lure fans (and media members before them with preview tastings) with restaurant quality options that went beyond the standard stadium fare of hot dogs and popcorn.

U.S. Bank Stadium, the new home of the Vikings, did an extensive rollout of specialty food items before opening in 2016.

It was only a matter of time, then, until the University of Minnesota jumped into the game in earnest. On Thursday, TCF Bank Stadium hosted a food tasting event designed to showcase some of the new foods that will be offered at Gophers football games this season.

“I think (other teams) prodded us forward,” said John Cunningham, Gophers deputy athletic director. “We looked around the city and realized we have to step up our game and increase value.”

If you’re going to get into this game, you’d better do it right. The Twins model, St. Peter said, was built on picking the right brands and making their food partners feel like it was special and valuable to be inside Target Field. It appears the Gophers duplicated that nicely with their choices of both partners and food options.

Ike’s Restaurant, Pimento Jamaican Kitchen, Curds & Cakes, and Jax Cafe will offer a menu of items while operating in what Gophers officials is a revamped west end of the stadium on gamedays. That area, which is open to all fans in the stadium, will also include a standing room drink rail and new beer options (to be announced soon).

Every item sampled Thursday had appeal. None of the meal-sized items were more than $12, while the smaller items were more in the $6-8 range. The loaded tater tots ($10) from Jax Café and the jerk chicken and pork bowls ($11-12) from Pimento Jamaican Kitchen were particularly good.

It makes sense, of course. Teams can correctly pitch such upgrades as initiatives that cater to fans’ changing expectations and needs. The modern fan doesn’t always have time for separate trips to a restaurant and a game. If you can combine the experiences, though, it’s win-win. Teams, meanwhile, can reap additional revenues from specialty food items that are in demand and typically more expensive than regular stadium fare but no more pricey than, say, what a fan would find at a restaurant.

“This is really focused on the fan experience,” Cunningham said. “Hopefully, any revenue would come just because we were offering a better experience. We want people to come into the stadium and feel really good about the food options.”

Should Twins go from buyers to sellers … back to buyers again?

The Twins are part of a cluster of several teams with a reasonable chance of grabbing a postseason spot in the American League as a Wild Card team. They entered play Thursday just one game behind the Angels (and actually ahead of the Angels and everyone else they’re chasing in the loss column given how many rainouts they’ve had, resulting in fewer games played).

They are also scheduled to use their 32nd pitcher of the season Thursday night when Aaron Slegers makes his MLB debut against Cleveland in the second game of a doubleheader. That game will be part of a stretch of seven games in five days for the Twins thanks to two doubleheaders and no off days — and almost certainly will result in even more pitchers making their 2017 debuts, their MLB debuts, or both.

When the Twins were pretty much in this same position in the standings a week before the non-waiver trade deadline, bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine executed a deal to bring in veteran starter Jaime Garcia. Previously, they had bolstered the starting rotation by adding 44-year-old Bartolo Colon. One bad week later, the Twins suddenly became sellers. Garcia was dealt to the Yankees and All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler was dealt to the Nationals.

The new bosses showed the flexibility to be nimble once, changing the course from buyers (albeit modest deals without giving up much by way of prospects) to sellers when the team’s position in the standings dictated such a thing.

Could (should?) they now turn back into buy mode given the Twins’ sudden re-entry into the Wild Card chase — sparked by an offense that’s been on a tear — and given the predicament of this lack of pitching depth?

If Glen Perkins — activated Thursday — can provide quality innings, that’s an addition without a subtraction. Hector Santiago might have done the same for the rotation, but his injury rehab has stalled. Who knows how long Adalberto Mejia will be out. In two weeks, the Twins can call up as many reinforcements as they want as a means for trying to piece together games. But two weeks is a long time enough time for their tenuous position in the standings to collapse. Heck, it only took a week each — one bad, one good — for the Twins to fall out of the chase and then climb back in.

It becomes trickier to make deals in August because players must clear waivers, but it’s hardly impossible.

Our guy La Velle seemed to hint that a deal could be in the offing when he looked ahead to the Twins’ options for their next doubleheader Monday in Chicago and wrote, “Or the Twins might have something else up their sleeves. Stay tuned, because this could get really interesting.”

Minnesota has about a one in five chance of making the postseason — long odds, sure, but a reasonable chance. It’s hard to say who they could add with impact without giving up much — again, the type of move they should make given the need to keep at least one eye on the future — but if there’s a veteran starter available for rent in the next six weeks it sure might be worth it.

If nothing else, it would be pure entertainment to see a team go from buyers to sellers to buyers all in the span of a few weeks.

Wolves guard Jamal Crawford tweets at Shabazz Muhammad: “C’mon back home’

Shabazz Muhammad is finding out what a lot of mid-level NBA veterans have found out this offseason: While there might be a lot of money to go around in the NBA, much of it is concentrated at the top. Indeed, the NBA economy kind of mirrors the U.S. economy these days with a widening income gap (relatively speaking, of course, since even those on the bottom of the NBA food chain make millions) and a shrinking middle class.

Muhammad, a scoring/slashing wing for the Wolves, became an unrestricted free agent in early July after Minnesota renounced his rights. He’s played four years with the Wolves — the fourth of which was largely inconsistent and followed an offseason during which he and the organization failed to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

Still, Wolves boss/coach Tom Thibodeau offered the word “optimistic” when asked about signing Muhammad entering this offseason, though it was couched with the phrase “we’ll see how it works out.”

How it worked out was this: the Wolves overhauled their roster with the Jimmy Butler trade and major signings of Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. Other teams have made the majority of their big moves as well — and none have involved Muhammad.

So now it’s mid-August and Muhammad — a 24-year-old who can score and should still be improving — remains a free agent and shows up on a lot of those “best remaining NBA free agent” lists. If he was hoping to cash in this offseason, that prospect seems far less likely by the day. Muhammad might be in a spot soon where he has to take a short-term “prove-it” deal in hopes of improving his leverage the next time he’s a free agent.

That makes a tweet last night from another new Wolves signee — guard Jamal Crawford — pretty interesting. In it, he implores Muhammad to “c’mon back home,” presumably meaning back to the Timberwolves.

The Wolves have roster spots and limited cash to spend. Muhammad is an imperfect and incomplete player, but he is a known commodity who can make threes and score off the bench — things the Wolves can use.

What’s particularly interesting is that a return by Muhammad would probably cut into whatever playing time the 37-year-old Crawford would garner since they would both figure to get minutes off the bench as wings. Maybe that’s just a sign of what a professional Crawford is? In any event, his tweet seemed to have a purpose.

We’ll see where it goes from here.

Here are some hints about the next Timberwolves uniform to be revealed

Timberwolves and Lynx CEO Ethan Casson, who has been on the job for a little over a year, is playing a significant role in the rebranding of both franchises.

I’ll get into some of the broader efforts in a Q&A with Casson that will run in Sunday’s newspaper (and online), but for now let’s drill down on a couple interesting things he had to say about one of the efforts that is garnering a lot of attention from fans: the release of the Wolves’ new Nike uniforms.

Nike and the Wolves released two of the four new designs — the darker “Icon” version and the lighter “Association” version — last week, with blue and white serving as the primary colors in each.

That satisfied some clothes fanatics (and disappointed others), but it led inevitably to curiosity about what the final two designs — to be revealed at a later date — will look like.

There is a leaked version of a Wolves jersey that features a whole lot of bright green, so I asked Casson about it.

Casson (pictured above with Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune) called the leaks “unfortunate” but said it’s been “fun to watch all the different versions everyone has.” That said, while he wouldn’t speak directly to the next new look he did offer this:

“I will say that from what you’ve seen in the Association and Icon — the navy and the white — we’re going to take a hard turn into something much more unique. It will kind of complete the story. … It will be much more bold and a lot more playful.”

The third uniform revealed will be called the “Statement” edition and it will be out in September. The fourth will come later and will be called the “City” edition.

Home teams will decide which of the uniforms they want to wear on a given night — with the flexibility to choose dark or light — and the road team will respond accordingly. Now that the NBA schedule is out, Casson said, those decisions can start to take shape.

“It will be fascinating to watch how each team decides to interpret that flexibility,” he said. “With the schedule just coming out, we’ll sit down as a marketing staff and determine if there are some themes we can come up with — and what the basketball side wants to do.”

Casson said the Icon, Association and Statement uniforms will be used in a primary rotation, while the City uniforms will be used “only a handful of times.”

Tigers’ Ian Kinsler rips umpire Angel Hernandez in coldest way imaginable

In a long but controlled rant Tuesday — one day after he was ejected for arguing balls and strikes — Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler ripped umpire Angel Hernandez in the coldest way imaginable.

Kinsler didn’t just object to the call that led to the argument that led to the ejection. He didn’t even say he was particularly mad at Hernandez. He did say this, per the Detroit Free Press:

I’m just saying it’s pretty obvious that he needs to stop ruining baseball games.. … Candidly, leave the game. No one wants you behind the plate anymore. No one in this game wants you behind the plate any more, none of the players.”

Also, this:

They’re not perfect and we all know that. And if they’re trying hard to do well, then they at least have the respect of the players. But when an umpire is blatantly missing calls — blatantly, not like, ‘Oh, that could have been a strike,’ or the guy caught it well or visually it looks like a strike and he just missed it — when it’s blatant, like a number of calls yesterday, probably eight pitches that were thrown that were not and some right down the middle that were called balls.”

At the heart of the matter are two things, really:

1) It is easier than ever to see when a home plate umpire is subpar thanks to the Pitch f/x tool in every stadium that tracks the flight of a pitch and accurately measures balls and strikes. That technology has led to a movement suggesting balls and strikes should be called solely using that data instead of by humans, but so far tradition is winning.

2) There exists the idea that it is hard to discipline bad umpires — or at least that such discipline is not made public. Indeed, Kinsler spoke of that particular frustration the other day — suggesting he would likely be suspended for speaking out against an umpire while Hernandez — who has been poorly regarded by those around baseball for years — continues to work. We see that in other sports, too, where coaches and players are penalized for criticizing officials.

“I don’t know how to do it or if the players association or MLB has thought of ways to accomplish that, to try to figure out a system where umpires are graded properly and there’s some sort of accountability,” Kinsler said. “If I didn’t get thrown out last night, nobody would have said a word about Angel Hernandez.”

It is worth noting that Kinsler and Hernandez have a decade-old history that’s detailed in the Free Press story. Kinsler insisted that had nothing to do with what happened this week, but anyone who watched a Twins game involving manager Ron Gardenhire and umpire Hunter Wendelstedt knew that a baseline for agitation was already set at the start.

Regardless of all the circumstances, Kinsler’s takedown of Hernandez was icy. There is no colder rebuke of someone as a professional than to say calmly and unequivocally that they are bad at their job and need to try a new line of work.

ESPN faces backlash for fantasy football auction resembling slave auction

ESPN has been flooding your eyeballs with fantasy football coverage lately, and as part of that the network did a live “auction” in which they had a real fast-talking auctioneer hold up pictures of players on sticks and had audience members bid on them.

Sure, yes, there is a popular fantasy football auction format in which fantasy players get a set amount of money to spend on their roster.

But it’s still hard to imagine who at the network decided that the prospect of a white auctioneer holding up pictures of black men for (mostly) white men to bid on was something that would look good on television.

Because, you know, it sure looked like a slave auction — at least to some people, who are not wrong. Take a look for yourself below:

ESPN released a statement to The Big Lead that read basically as a “sorry if we offended anyone” sort of thing.

Here it is: “Auction drafts are a common part of fantasy football, and ESPN’s segments replicated an auction draft with a diverse slate of top professional football players,” the network said. “Without that context, we understand the optics could be portrayed as offensive, and we apologize.”

Hey, ESPN: You’re in the television business. How things appear is your reality. Do better.

Here’s your master plan for watching the Timberwolves and Wild this year

The NBA schedule came out Monday, and the NHL schedule is already out. That means my yearly obsession with comparing the Timberwolves and Wild schedules is in full swing.

I will now attempt to transform a bunch of notes, circles and scribbles into some coherent information you can use (or choose to ignore, whatever, it’s your life).

*Let’s start with some good news: After the Wolves and Wild played on the same date a whopping 41 times last season — yes, that’s half the schedule in both the NBA and NHL — things are quite a bit better for fans of both teams who don’t want to have to choose which one to watch on a given night. This year, they only have 30 shared dates. That’s 11 fewer than last year and three fewer than two seasons ago.

What that means is there are 134 dates from early October until mid-April in which either the Wolves, Wild or both are slated to play. Last year, there were only 123 such dates because of all the overlap.

Of those 30 shared dates, 11 of them are home games for both teams while 19 involve one or both of them being on the road. But of those 11 shared home dates, the Wild plays in the afternoon twice while the Wolves have night games: Nov. 24, which is the Friday after Thanksgiving (Colorado at Wild, 3 p.m., Miami at Wolves, 7 p.m.) and Saturday, Dec. 16 (Edmonton at Wild, 2 p.m., Phoenix at Wolves, 7 p.m.). Go ahead and try a day-night doubleheader.

*Back-to-back: The NBA started its schedule earlier this year to prevent teams from having to play as often on back-to-back nights, but the Wolves actually increased their back-to-backs from 14 last year to 15 this year. That said, their 14 back-to-backs were among the fewest in the league last season and 15 is a common number this year. The Wild also has 15 back-to-backs this season. The Wolves will rack up plenty of air miles, though. Per this site, they will travel 55,319 miles on road trips this season — the most in the NBA.

*Road trip: Speaking of the road, fans of the Wild and Wolves have a couple of good options for dual getaways this season. The Wild plays in Los Angeles against the Kings on Tuesday, Dec. 5; the Wolves play at the L.A. Clippers the next night, Dec. 6; then the Wild plays at Anaheim on Dec. 8. Or, if you’d rather wait until early April, there’s this: Wild at Anaheim on April 4; Wild at Kings on April 5; Wolves at Lakers on April 6 (Wednesday through Friday).

*Circle your calendar: Here are five interesting games for each team:

Wolves: Oct. 20 vs. Utah (home opener, Ricky Rubio’s return); Nov. 15 vs. San Antonio (good early test vs. perennial Western Conference contender); Jan. 8 vs. Cleveland (only home game vs. LeBron James and maybe Kyrie Irving); Feb. 9 at Chicago (Jimmy Butler’s first game back in Chicago vs. the Bulls); March 11 vs. Warriors (only home game this season vs. Golden State).

Wild: Oct. 28 vs. Pittsburgh (only visit from defending Stanley Cup champs); Nov. 4 vs. Chicago (first home game against rival Blackhawks); Nov. 25 at St. Louis (first game against the Mike Yeo-coached team that knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs last year); Dec. 14 vs. Toronto (only visit from fun young East team); Dec. 16 vs. Edmonton (up-and-coming, exciting team in the West).

*Season-defining date: On Jan. 10, around the midpoint of both the Wolves and Wild seasons, the Wolves have a home game vs. Oklahoma City and the Wild plays at Chicago. The outcome of either/both won’t make or break the season, but each should be good measuring sticks and markers of progress for two teams with playoff aspirations. Remember, the Wolves and Wild have only made the playoffs in the same year one time in their dual history: the 2002-03 season. Vegas, by the way, has the over-under for wins set at 46.5 for the Wild and 45.5 for the Wolves. Will I be dumb enough to do this again? Stay tuned.

Experts suggest Wolves in line for biggest improvement in NBA

The ingredients for a significant bump in victories from last season to this season are certainly there for the Timberwolves.

Minnesota underachieved last year in winning 31 games (just two more than the previous year despite a young team maturing) and added several key new pieces to this year’s roster — the most notable being star Jimmy Butler in a trade with the Bulls.

As such, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see that ESPN’s panel of 44 experts has tabbed the Wolves for the biggest victory total increase in the NBA. Votes were tabulated on a first place (five points), second (three) and third (one) system, and Minnesota easily outpaced the second-choice 76ers (134 points to 78) as well as the Nuggets, Bucks and others.

Per the itemESPN’s Real Plus-Minus projects the Timberwolves to win 50 games after they went 31-51 a season ago. The projected jump of 19 wins is nearly twice as large as any other team and would be the second largest in franchise history.

(That last part might be technically true, though the biggest increase was from 25 wins in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season to 50 wins the next year. The biggest jump otherwise was 14 wins, from 26 to 40 wins between Kevin Garnett’s first and second seasons).

Notably, Garnett was also part of the largest improvement in NBA history when he joined the Celtics in 2007 and Boston jumped from 24 wins the year before to 66 that season (a 42-win leap).

Back to the Wolves, though. They were projected to finish around .500 (if not a little better) last season and it didn’t happen. So the burden of proof is squarely on their shoulders.

The turnaround could look very dramatic, though, if everything finally comes together.

ESPN’s experts also picked Karl-Anthony Towns as the most likely first-time NBA All-Star and had Butler third in the rankings of best player on a new team (behind Chris Paul and Paul George).

Has Byron Buxton turned the corner, or is this just a hot streak?

Byron Buxton has fooled us before, so let’s proceed with caution here even though the question is worth asking: Is the Twins center fielder figuring things out at the plate for good and turning a corner offensively, or is this just a hot streak?

It’s worth being careful because similar questions were being asked late in 2016, when Buxton cracked nine home runs and had an OPS of 1.011 in 29 games after coming back to the Twins starting Sept. 1. Enthusiasm over Buxton’s production carried over into the spring of 2017, when he hit .283 with a .908 OPS in Florida — numbers impressive enough for manager Paul Molitor to pencil Buxton into the No. 3 spot in the batting order at the start of the year.

And yet we know what has happened to that optimism in previous stints: it has caused us to look foolish in retrospect when Buxton slides backward. He started this season 1-for-18 with 11 strikeouts while batting third, earning a quick demotion to lower spots in the order. From there, the strikeouts piled up as Buxton often once again looked lost at the plate — bereft of a workable approach to hitting major league pitching, particularly anything that broke away from him.

With that as a preamble, let’s talk again about Buxton. Because for as hot as other Twins hitters have been lately (Eddie Rosario and Brian Dozier chief among them), Buxton has perhaps a little more quietly put together a very impressive run of games.

If we go back to July 4 — a span of just 19 games for Buxton because of an injury and the All-Star break — he’s hitting .371 in that stretch with a .920 OPS. If we look only at the last 13 games since Aug. 1 when he returned from injury, we still find Buxton hitting .317. He’s also crept up in the batting order to No. 6 a couple times in that span — the first times since the first four games of the season that he’s batted even that high.

Just as important as the change in his numbers — Buxton was hitting below .200 and striking out at a ridiculous rate through the first half of the season — is Buxton’s change in approach. The last two games in Detroit provided a microcosm: on Saturday, Buxton drove a pitch down the middle to right field for an opposite-field home run (his first, in fact, since July 4).

On Sunday, in an exceedingly impressive at-bat, on a 2-2 pitch Buxton hit a 92 mph fastball at the knees on the outside corner up the middle for an RBI single that broke a late tie and gave the Twins a vitally important victory over Detroit. (Frame grab shown here).

His plate coverage is light years ahead of where it was earlier this year as he allows the ball to travel farther and uses all fields. The change is intentional: “I did some work in the cage,” Buxton said recently. “Kind of got myself back on track, letting the ball travel to me a little more” before swinging.

But is it sustainable? Buxton is putting more balls in play, but even with his speed his .400 average on balls in play this month will flatten out at some point. That said, this feels like the most sustainable version of “good” Buxton we have seen in his parts of three years with the Twins. You can explain away a September tear against mediocre pitching or a strong spring far more easily than a bunch of hits to right and center — many off of good pitches.

The next step, of course, is replication instead of regression. And the step after that will be attempting to mix the power from the end of last year with the all-field approach of this year.

One thing is for sure: Buxton is already a game-changing player on defense. If Buxton has turned a corner at the plate, it changes the entire lineup. That’s how dynamic Buxton can be — and has been lately.