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After 16 years, Cuba and U.S. will play baseball

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After 16 years, Cuba and U.S. will play baseball

From Comcast SportsNet
HAVANA (AP) -- A team of college stars representing the United States faced off with a veteran Cuban national squad in Havana, reviving a series between two baseball-crazy nations 16 years after it was called off at a nadir in relations. Players and fans stood respectfully in the city's storied Latin American Stadium on Thursday night as the Cuban and then the U.S. national anthems played on loudspeakers -- the latter a rarity in the Communist-run island nation. "This is awesome. I've never been out of the country before, so this is my first time," said USA outfielder Johnny Field, a 20-year-old sophomore who won a College World Series title less than two weeks ago with the University of Arizona. "We've heard all the hype about how great the stadium is, and Cuba is at baseball, and it's already shown since we got here. ... We're fired up to be here." The last time Cuba and the U.S. played a series like this outside of tournament play was 1996, which even among 53 years of bad blood stood out as a particularly bad year for U.S.-Cuban relations: That February, Cuba shot down two small planes piloted by an anti-Castro exile group that Havana accused of entering its airspace to drop leaflets. Later, President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act, which dramatically hardened the U.S. trade embargo. USA Baseball President Mike Gaski said there was no single event that prompted the series to be suspended and decisions on funding, timing and scheduling have kept play from resuming. But he acknowledged that political concerns complicated matters, and said it took years of building relationships to bring about this weekend's games. "It wasn't for lack of trying on both people's parts. And there were probably political pressures that went on above our pay grades. ... I wasn't privy to those conversations," Gaski said. "There's always been an anxiety about defections, and maybe everybody's at a better place right now." The plan is for the Cubans to pay a reciprocal visit next summer. "The most important thing is to maintain this matchup, both in Cuba and in the United States. I would love to go play there," said Victor Mesa, the former star outfielder who's now managing Cuba's national team. There've been a number of Little League exchanges between the countries, and in 1999, the Baltimore Orioles became the first MLB team to play in Cuba since 1959. The U.S. squad of 22 players and five coaches arrived in Havana on Thursday with barely enough time to check into their hotel before it was time to head to the ballpark, where batting practice was interrupted by a downpour typical of the Caribbean summer. Groundskeepers managed to rake the field into playable condition, and the game started about 90 minutes late. In the sparsely filled stands, a few people waved American flags surrounded by horn-blowing Cuba fans. The U.S. won the opener 4-3 on Michael Conforto's grand slam and Jonathan Crawford's 6 1-3 innings of strong pitching. The series is a warm-up for both squads ahead of the upcoming Haarlem Baseball Week in the Netherlands. For the U.S. collegians, all but two of whom are freshmen or sophomores, it's also a chance to see how they perform against tougher competition. "In the past, the big stars from the United States played against us. Barry Bonds. Mark McGwire. Frank Thomas," Mesa said. "We are a measuring stick for the major leagues. We are an elite team with pitchers who could pitch at any level, so if one of these boys stands out against us, he has the talent to play in the majors." If baseball is America's national pastime, it's equally an obsession in Cuba. Stickball games are a daily sight in crowded Havana streets, and it seems everyone here knows the English words "ball," "strike," "inning" and "home run" -- pronounced "hon-ron." The U.S. and Cuba are perennial favorites at competitions such as the World Baseball Classic, and both sides express respect for what they consider a tough rival. "Whenever we've gone to a tournament, both USA Baseball and Cuba, I know we both look to see which bracket each other's in," said University of Tennessee coach Dave Serrano, manager of the USA squad. "For them to start this rivalry back up is like the Red Sox and the Yankees -- it's supposed to be part of baseball."

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Injuries to Marshall and Perine will open the door for Kapri Bibbs to make the Redskins

Injuries to Marshall and Perine will open the door for Kapri Bibbs to make the Redskins

Following the Redskins' Week 2 preseason win over the Jets on Thursday, Jay Gruden said both Byron Marshall and Samaje Perine were "OK" after the two running backs each left the game with injuries. Marshall's was labeled a lower-leg issue, while Perine's injury was called a twisted ankle.

Timetables for their recoveries were then reported on Friday, and while the two members of the backfield escaped anything too severe, they will each be sidelined for decent chunks of time.

Perine will miss a week, according to Mike Garafolo. Marshall, meanwhile, is looking at a longer two-to-four week recovery, per Tom Pelissero. Those pieces of news hurt them in more ways than one.

Derrius Guice's torn ACL in Week 1 of the team's exhibition schedule meant that Marshall and Perine both had a big-time opportunity to step up and earn a spot on Washington's 53-man roster, spots that were harder to envision for them when Guice was healthy.

Overall, the two were slated to compete with Kapri Bibbs for what will likely be two spaces on the depth chart behind the absolutely safe Chris Thompson and Rob Kelley. Now, though, they'll be forced to sit until they're healed up, giving Bibbs more chances in practice and the two remaining August contests to earn Jay Gruden's trust.

Against New York, Bibbs struggled on the ground but led the offense with seven grabs, including a 29-yard gain off a screen play. That performance absolutely brought him closer in the race with Marshall, who scored vs. the Patriots a week earlier. Next, he'll need to prove he can run effectively between the tackles vs. the Broncos in Week 3, which will put some heat on Perine as well.

The 'Skins have 15 days left until they have to finalize their regular season roster. As things stand now amongst the running backs, Bibbs presently has a real shot at stealing a job from the two shelved RBs. But with the way this race has unfolded thus far, that can all change in a split second. 

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Familiarity for coach and GM should allow Capital City Go-Go to hit ground running

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Associated Press

Familiarity for coach and GM should allow Capital City Go-Go to hit ground running

Despite being a brand new franchise with a new roster and new facilities, the Capital City Go-Go will carry into their inaugural season a level of continuity. Both their general manager and head coach are familiar with what they are getting into and the people they will be working with.

GM Pops Mensah-Bonsu is no stranger to the D.C. community and the Wizards franchise. He made a name for himself starring at George Washington University, spent time with the Wizards as a player in their 2013 training camp and remained a frequent visitor to Wizards games as a scout for the Spurs in recent years.

"To be back in the community and the first general manager of the G-League team is special," Mensah-Bonsu said. "This is D.C.’s team. I want them to embrace us."

Head coach Jarell Christian played college ball in Virginia and goes back several years with Wizards coach Scott Brooks. Christian joined the Oklahoma City's G-League staff when Brooks was in his final year as head coach of the Thunder.

Christian began his coaching journey with an eye trained on how Brooks goes about his job.

"My introduction to pro basketball was under Coach Brooks and his philosophies. A lot of that stuff, I believe in wholeheartedly. That’s my foundation," Christian said. "I got a chance to know him through training camp and throughout that season. He and I developed a bond and a relationship that stood the test of time. To this day, we still talk often. It’s just another chance for me to reconnect with him and to continue to grow our relationship."

The Go-Go intend to make what they do as similar to the Wizards as possible. When guys like Devin Robinson, one of their two-way players, is called up he can step right in without a learning curve of the playbook or how they practice.

Having Christian in place will help that process in particular.

"There won’t be any issue or any slippage with guys going up and down to know what’s in store for them," Christian said. "A lot of the stuff that the Wizards will do, we will implement with the Go-Go. Just some offensive and defensive concepts. Some of the playcalls and the terminology will be the same."

"Whatever you see the Wizards doing, you will probably see the Capital City Go-Go doing, too," Mensah-Bonsu said.

The symmetry between the G-League and the NBA teams will also be helped by the fact they will share the same practice facility. Their proximity will come with many advantages from the Go-Go perspective.

"I think it’s going to help motivate these guys. We’re going to be practicing in the same place that the Wizards do and the Mystics do," Mensah-Bonsu said. "I think if these guys can see Dwight Howard and John Wall and Bradley Beal walking around every day, it will help motivate them to get to that next level."

"The exposure our players get with the Wizards [front office], the Wizards personnel, being able to watch them practice daily, watching their practice habits and what their routines may be, is really big," Christian said.

That element will also apply beyond the players. Christian, who is just 32 years old, will get to watch how an NBA coaching staff operates on a daily basis.

Christian has yet to take a tour of the new building in Ward 8, but he has seen blueprints. Among the amenities the Go-Go will enjoy that other G-League teams do not usually have is a dedicated dining area.

Many G-League teams do not go to that length.

"A lot of organizations do not provide food for their players on a daily basis, but we will. That’s the No. 1 thing in my opinion that’s gonna set us apart from our competitors," he said.

The Go-Go won't take the floor for their first game until November, but it seems like a good foundation is starting to take place.

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