Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 4, 2022

So Many Bowls Until the Ones That Matter

This year’s college bowl schedule is set, and the debate about MLB’s expansion of its postseason to twelve teams, forty percent of major league franchises, suddenly seems positively quaint.  Eighty-four of the 131 schools that compete in the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision have received invitations to participate in postseason play.  That number is manifestly not a reflection of how many collegiate programs had seasons worthy of extending, but simply the sum needed to fill both sidelines of the 43 bowl games that now clog the calendar from mid-December to January 9th.  On that evening the College Football Playoff National Championship, the 43rd and final FBS bowl game, will pit the two winners of the Playoff semifinal contests, which this year are the Fiesta and Peach Bowls on New Year’s Eve.

The college football season won’t even end with the crowning of a national champion that Monday, for an additional half-dozen all-star games are scheduled all the way to late February.  The FBS bowl game count also doesn’t include the Celebration Bowl, played the weekend after next, which is the sole bowl game for teams from the Football Championship Subdivision, the next step down on the NCAA’s football program ladder. 

Complaining about the plethora of contests falls firmly into the “get off my lawn” category of griping from those deemed too old to appreciate modern times, for the idea that bowl games were rewards for excellence achieved over a hard-fought regular season schedule while also often serving as traditional matchups between representative of specific conferences long since succumbed, like so much else in sports and life, to the power of money.  The TV cameras may show lots of empty seats during the Hometown Lenders Bahamas Bowl, which kicks off the schedule on December 16th, but the fact that the cameras will be there means far more financially than does paid attendance. 

Still, it is at least worth noting just how rapidly the number of bowl games has increased.  Fifty years ago, or back in the days when younger fans may believe helmets were optional, the entire collegiate postseason schedule consisted of just 11 bowls, all but two of which were played in a four-day stretch culminating on New Year’s Day.  All 11 also had simple two-word names, like Rose Bowl or Sun Bowl.  By thirty years ago the number had only, and gradually, grown to 18, but rapid expansion was at hand, with another ten games added in the ensuing decade.  That number in turn grew to 32 in 2006 and has incremented by two or three every several years since.  All those games of course required sponsors, who understandably wanted recognition.  This year, the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl Presented by Stifel and the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl share pride of place for the longest names.  It will be worth tuning in on December 17th and 28th just to see how the grounds crews at SoFi Stadium and Petco Park fit those monikers into the end zones.

While the number of bowl games has mushroomed over the years, the focus for most fans has always been on just a handful.  Half a century ago attention was on the Sugar and Rose Bowls, where the national title, at that time unofficially awarded by the final polls, was at stake.  Second-ranked Oklahoma staked its claim by shutting out #5 Penn State, 14-0 in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve.  But the Sooners’ effort was for naught, as #1 USC throttled Big-10 co-champion and third-ranked Ohio State 42-17 in Pasadena the following afternoon to finish off an undefeated season.

With the College Football Playoff in place, fans have known all season that this year’s semifinals were assigned to the Fiesta and Peach Bowls on New Year’s Eve.  What wasn’t clear until Sunday afternoon’s announcement by the CFP Selection Committee was the identity of the four teams that will play for the national title, thanks to some final weekend chaos.  Southern Cal had climbed into the top four in the committee’s penultimate rankings, poised to give the Pac-12 just the conference’s third participant in the nine years of the playoffs.  But twelfth-ranked Utah, which had already handed the Trojans a one-point regular season loss, roared back from an early 17-3 deficit in the conference championship game after USC quarterback and likely Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams was injured late in the first quarter.  It was all Utah after that, with the 47-24 thrashing opening the door to either Ohio State or Alabama, fourth and fifth in the committee’s rankings.

The door appeared to open even wider on Saturday, when TCU, #3 in the committee’s previous rankings, had to stage a furious fourth quarter rally to force overtime against Kansas State, only to come up short in the extra period, losing the Big-12 championship game 31-28.  The losses by half of the four teams on the playoff list at the start of the weekend set off furious lobbying by both Ohio State and especially by Alabama coach Nick Saban, who perhaps understandably views a spot for the Crimson Tide in the CFP as a given. 

But in what must be counted as at least a mild surprise, the CFP Selection Committee disagreed.  Sunday’s final ranking as expected had undefeated and defending champion Georgia #1, and undefeated Big-10 champ Michigan #2.  The committee then kept TCU at #3 while moving Ohio State into the final spot previously occupied by USC.  Bulldogs versus Buckeyes and Wolverines versus Horned Frogs will be the New Year’s Eve matchups college football fans can look forward to, with the winners squaring off for the national title nine days later.  It’s just too bad there isn’t some way to cut out all the intervening clutter.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 1, 2022

A Little Course with Big Teeth

PGA Tour pros played the final regular tournament of 2022 the weekend before Thanksgiving.  The RSM Classic, a relatively new Tour stop, has been staged since its 2010 inception over two courses on St. Simons Island, Georgia.  While the tourney has a well-liked host in veteran pro Davis Love III, the RSM remains a middling event on the professional golf calendar, as indicated by its late autumn date.  But that doesn’t mean the two golf courses on which the deciding birdies and bogeys were made are nondescript.  To the contrary, the Sea Island Golf Club’s twin routings are set up as muscular brutes for the PGA Tour’s annual visit, with each measuring more than 7,000 yards.

While it may not have a favored spot on the schedule, the RSM is typical in that respect, for it is now the rare Tour stop that is played on a course of less than 7,000 yards.  For its part, the LPGA is not far behind.  The same week the PGA Tour’s wraparound season reached its break for all but a handful of exhibitions over the holidays, the preeminent women’s tour conducted its season-ending CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida, where the Gold Course was stretched to nearly 6,600 yards. 

Nor is it just courses vying for a spot on the weekly schedule that are adding more and more distance.  When Matt Fitzpatrick won this year’s U.S. Open at The Country Club, the layout played 7,264 yards, more than 1,000 yards longer than when amateur Francis Ouimet made golfing history and helped popularize the sport in this country with his unlikely triumph over British pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in 1913.  And as tournaments wind down until the new year, golf fans have turned their attention to analyzing aerial photos of Augusta National, where the stewards of the green jacket are finally implementing their long-rumored plan to lengthen the 13th hole, a par-5 that is woefully short for the pros at 510 yards, by building a new tee on land purchased from the adjacent Augusta Country Club.

For the top echelon of golfers, the tiny number who play their way onto the professional tours, it all makes sense.  Constantly evolving club and ball technology, a greater focus on improved conditioning, and easy access to high-tech tools that both clarify and measure the physics of striking a golf ball, have combined to make it possible for the elite to send their balls soaring prodigious distances down fairways.  But the vast majority of amateurs, be they weekend players, those just starting out, or even club champions, do not play at that level.  A recent analysis by Arccos Golf, which sells shot measuring technology, found that a golfer averaging 277 yards with his driver would outhit 98% of amateurs.  But that same player would have ranked dead last in driving distance on the PGA Tour’s season statistics for 2021-22. 

Despite the data, far too many amateurs are convinced they are hitting their shots nearly as long as the pros they watch on TV.  Suitably armed with that mistaken belief, they regularly begin a round by sticking their tee in the ground next to the marker furthest from the hole, intent on getting their money’s worth by playing from the tips.  It’s a conceit that slows down play, reduces enjoyment in the game both for those players and anyone unlucky enough to be paired with them, and perhaps explains the lack of acclaim for Pinehurst #3.

Nestled in the North Carolina sandhills, the village of Pinehurst, home to the resort of the same name, attracts golf enthusiasts from around the world.  They come to play the resort’s ten courses, nine of which are known simply by their number, assigned in order of construction, or in the case of #8 and #9, when the resort took ownership of the layout. The tenth and newest links is the Cradle, a 9-hole short course that can be viewed in its entirety from the massive putting green next to the resort’s main clubhouse.  Golfers come to play #2, the historic Donald Ross routing that has hosted a PGA Championship, a Ryder Cup, three men’s and one women’s U.S. Open, and which is now one of the USGA’s anchor courses, meaning it will host multiple Opens over the next three decades.  They come to play #4, also a Ross course, but one that has been subjected to multiple redesigns over the decades.  The most recent of those was by Gil Hanse, whose 2018 reshaping has been widely hailed, and which vaulted #4 to a spot just behind #2 as the most played Pinehurst course.

But few visitors travel to an out of the way location in rural North Carolina to play #3, for one look at the scorecard convinces those golfers that the old routing is not a “real” golf course.  After all, the layout plays to a par of just 68, and measures less than 5,200 yards from the back tees, which aren’t even the traditional blue, but rather white, the color typically signifying a distance appropriate for weekend golfers and their hacker friends.

What those players who do not deign to make the short trip from the clubhouse across Beulah Hill Road to #3’s first tee miss is both a unique example of Donald Ross’s design skills and a powerful reminder that golf is about so much more than hitting the ball a great distance.  Locals refer to #3 as a “mini #2,” and the green structures, always a signpost of a Ross course, are exactly that.  Like its more famous sibling, the greens on #3 are almost all raised, and feature sharp undulations, false fronts, and runoff areas on every side.  But they are smaller than the greens on #2, which means #3 is an even stronger example of Ross’s penchant for target golf.  An age-old golf statistic is GIR, greens in regulation, meaning the number of greens that a golfer reaches in the assigned number of shots.  The joke at Pinehurst is that the local stat is GVIR, greens that a well-struck ball visited in regulation, before rolling back down a false front or skidding off the rear of the putting surface and into an adjoining swale.

On a recent visit, Pinehurst #4 provided the best score in relation to par.  But a course marketed as very playable, which is to say not that challenging, also provided the least interesting walk.  Pinehurst #2 delivered on its promise, a stern, dramatic, and lovely test of one’s golfing skills.  Even the weekend player could see why the USGA has favored #2 with its anchor designation.  Of course, improbably sinking not one but two 60-foot putts from off #2’s greens, up, over, around, and down into the cup, made the walk immensely more enjoyable for both the golfer and his caddie.  But the real find was the little layout across the street.  Pinehurst #3 showed its teeth, not just the tiny target greens but also yawning bunkers placed in strategic locations on many fairways and the area’s trademark pines and massive holly trees encroaching from the sidelines.  By the end of the visit, it was the card from #3 that had the highest number in relation to par, a reminder that in sports, as in life, bigger isn’t always better.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 20, 2022

The World Cup Gets the Start It Deserves

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be traveling over the upcoming long weekend.  There will be no posts next Thursday or Sunday, with the regular schedule resuming on Thursday, December 1.  As you celebrate a holiday that is now largely about family and football, don’t forget its full historical context – not just the Pilgrim stories told to schoolchildren, but also the centuries of violence against this continent’s indigenous people that followed.  Had the Wampanoags known what was to come, they likely would not have been so generous.

In the end, of course, there will be a winner.  In four weeks’ time, one country’s national team will celebrate on the pitch at Lusail Iconic Stadium, the 80,000-seat ultramodern arena located a dozen miles north of Doha.  In the stands and many miles away in their homeland, the players will be joined by fans delirious with joy that their country has claimed soccer’s ultimate global prize, the FIFA World Cup. 

Perhaps it will be one of the two South American powerhouses, Brazil or Argentina.  Or maybe the victorious teammates will be wearing the colors of one of the leading European contenders, France or England or Spain.  It is possible that some other national team will surprise, combining just enough talent, a well-timed streak of exceptional play, and a healthy dose of good luck.  After all, soccer is no different than any other sport in that talent on paper and the wisdom of the oddsmakers aside, the games must still be played.  But this is not a contest among equals.  The five teams noted above are the only squads with odds of less than 10-1, and only four others, all from Europe, are given a better than 30-1 chance of raising the championship’s fourteen-inch-tall gold trophy, at once one of the most diminutive in major sports competitions and, with its $20 million value, probably the most expensive.

Yes, some team is going to win, and perhaps the victory celebration will cause fans to forget, or at least set aside for a little while, all that is dreary about this World Cup.  Until then, despite the best efforts of FIFA, its broadcast partners, assorted sponsors, and most of all the authorities of host nation Qatar, the 2022 edition of the preeminent international tournament of the world’s most popular sport seems certain to remain mired in controversy.  The game may be beautiful, but this World Cup has been ugly from the start.

That beginning was more than a decade ago, when the two dozen members of FIFA’s Executive Committee stunned the sports word by awarding this year’s competition to Qatar, a tiny nation without notable ties to or history in the sport, and one that lacked the infrastructure needed to host a month-long competition involving teams and fans from 32 countries.  The shock vote eventually led to revelations of endemic corruption within FIFA and several regional associations, but even as those investigations intensified, Qatar was moving ahead.  The need to build multiple stadiums and related support systems in record time focused widespread attention on the Gulf state’s use of migrant labor and the often-horrific conditions for many of those workers. 

Abstract concerns about anonymous workers thousands of miles away became more personal as the start of the tournament approached and fans learned of Qatar’s noxious laws on homosexuality, strict religious edicts on dress and public activity, and, horror of horrors, rules against the public consumption of alcohol.

As the tournament began on Sunday, Fox Sports did its best to brush aside all those concerns, as presumably did FIFA’s other broadcast partners around the globe, and advertising for the various corporations that paid huge sums for the privilege was prominently displayed around Al Bayt Stadium as the host nation’s squad squared off against Ecuador.  Adidas, Kia, McDonalds, Budweiser and Coca Cola were all present, as was Crypto.com, though one hopes FIFA got its money from that particular sponsor well in advance of this weekend.  The Coke “believing is magic” advertising was particularly ironic.  The soda giant has marketed the slogan as celebrating the “passionate journey of football fans.”  Advertising aside, those whose journey includes a trip to Qatar need to be careful not to let their passion dictate how they dress, how they celebrate, or whether and to whom they choose to display affection.  And of course, while they are free to have a Coke, they cannot drink a Budweiser at a match – unless they happen to be watching from one of the luxury boxes.

It was thus appropriate that after the gaudy opening ceremonies, the first match of this World Cup quickly turned into a desultory affair.  While neither Qatar nor Ecuador is likely to go far in the tournament – neither may make it out of the group stage – but at least on paper the two were evenly matched, with Ecuador ranked 44th in the world and Qatar 50th.  The South Americans had played six straight matches, the team’s entire slate since qualifying for the World Cup in March, without allowing a single goal.  The host team, which won the Arab World Cup in 2021, had come close to matching that record, with five straight wins prior to the tournament in which Qatar allowed a total of just two balls in its net.

But past was not prologue, for Qatar allowed that many goals in the first 31 minutes.  Enner Valencia of Ecuador appeared to score less than three minutes into the contest, but he was ruled offside by the tiniest of margins.  It hardly mattered, as Valencia netted a penalty kick a short time later, then scored on a header with the match barely a half hour old.  The Qataris seemed overwhelmed by the moment, offering little in the way of offense.  Their one good chance, just before halftime, came to naught when Almoez Ali managed to get behind Ecuador’s defense only to send his shot well wide.

No host country had ever lost a World Cup’s opening match, but the die was cast by the break, and thousands of fans chose not to return to their seats for the second half.  Ecuador was content to manage the clock over the final 45 minutes, sending even more fans to the exits and leaving a stadium devoid of all but a few thousand hardy souls from South America by the end of the match.  It was hardly the celebration the Qataris had hoped for, but this is hardly the World Cup that the globe’s most popular sport deserves.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 17, 2022

MLB’s Awards Week Needs a Pitch Clock

While the phrase can be traced to a minimalist approach to modern architectural design that became popular in the middle of the last century, “less is more” is a concept with broad applicability.  Just don’t tell that to any major sports league.  If a 16-game NFL season is good, a 17-game schedule must be better.  Surely there is no reason to limit March Madness to 64 teams, or the College Football Playoff to just four contestants, when 68 basketball squads and an even dozen teams in the football bracket mean more games and, of course, fatter TV contracts.  So too for the World Cup, where the 22nd edition of the men’s competition, kicking off this weekend in Qatar, will be the last with 32 national squads.  When the U.S., Canada and Mexico jointly host the next quadrennial championship in 2026, 48 countries will be represented.

Fans of American football weren’t clamoring for another week of regular season play, and the quality of international competition in the game that is football to the rest of the world doesn’t support a fifty percent increase in the size of the World Cup field.  But at least those examples, like the increase in the size of the collegiate playoff brackets, have an economic justification.  That was also the driving factor behind this year’s expansion of the Great Game’s postseason to 12 teams.  But it can’t possibly be the case for MLB’s insistence on stretching the announcement of its major individual award winners out over nearly a week, complete with two-hour broadcasts on four consecutive nights.  Each show is dedicated to revealing just two names, the National and American League winners of that evening’s award – Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, Cy Young, and Most Valuable Player.

The awards shows run on the MLB Network, which naturally caters to a niche audience.  Those tuning in are virtually all dedicated baseball fans already familiar with the three finalists for each award, whose identities were revealed one week earlier.  They are unlikely to learn much from the season retrospectives of the candidates, and the next bit of news that breaks from the cliché-filled interviews with MLB Network’s talking heads will be the first.  This is not Meet the Press during the glory days of the late Tim Russert.  None of which matters, because in every major sport, the “bigger is always better” crowd is not known for backing down.  As much as one might hope for retrenchment from the stultifying eight hours dedicated to these announcements, it’s more likely that some well-educated fool in MLB’s marketing department will decide that twelve hours would be an improvement.

As much as the announcements themselves are overdone, in some years fans would dearly love an extended chance to debate the results once they become known.  There’s nothing quite like an unexpected award winner or a surprisingly close vote to unleash a torrent of strongly held opinions from fans while they wait for the Great Game’s annual Winter Meetings, and the likely acceleration of free agent signings and offseason trade activity, early next month.  But this year MLB’s Award Week brought very little controversy.

Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez fell just one vote shy of being a unanimous pick for AL Rookie of the Year, and Atlanta center fielder Michael Harris II easily fended off his main competition, teammate Spencer Strider.  The voting for the two Cy Young Awards was even more decisive.  For just the second time since the prize for the best pitcher in the major leagues started being awarded separately in the AL and NL in 1967, both winners were unanimous choices by the voting members of the BBWAA.  There was some grumbling among fans in thrall to advanced metrics when the three Cy Young finalists in both leagues were also the pitchers with the lowest ERA’s.  But with Houston’s Justin Verlander and Miami’s Sandy Alcantara both receiving all 30 first place votes, it didn’t really matter who was second or third, or what statistics were most important to the two writers in each MLB city who cast votes.

The one genuinely close race was for National League Manager of the Year, with first place votes split among five different skippers – Buck Showalter (Mets), Dave Roberts (Dodgers), Brian Snitker (Atlanta), Oliver Marmol (Cardinals), and Rob Thomson (Phillies).  Showalter and Roberts each were named first on eight ballots, with Snitker just one behind.  The Mets field general became the honoree by being named second on ten ballots, three more than Roberts.  It was Showalter’s fourth award, each won in a different decade and at the helm of a different team.  More than a few fans felt Thomson was shortchanged in the voting after he took over in Philadelphia and turned a dismal season that was spiraling out of control into a campaign that didn’t end until Game 6 of the World Series.  In contrast, there were few complaints about Cleveland’s Terry Francona winning in the American League after he guided the Guardians to the postseason in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

There was also little turmoil around the naming of Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and free agent Aaron Judge, the once and possibly future face of the Yankees, winning MVP honors.  Goldschmidt had twice finished second in the balloting but left little doubt this year after leading the NL in OPS and finishing in the top five in each of the Triple Crown metrics.  There was back and forth between fans of Judge and those who favored two-way star Shohei Ohtani of the Angels for much of the season, but after the New York outfielder set the American League home run mark and came within four base hits in his 570 at-bats of winning the Triple Crown, Judge winning all but two first place votes was expected.

As was the long wait for fans, from the beginning of the Rookie of the Year show early Monday evening, until the week of announcements was capped with the picture of Judge, his wife, and parents learning of his award near the end of Thursday’s broadcast.  But in sports, unlike in life, less is apparently never more.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 13, 2022

A Franchise Familiar with Moves Makes All the Wrong Ones

In the fifty-five years since the franchise’s 1967 founding as a charter member of the upstart American Basketball Association, the Nets have had homes on both sides of the Hudson River.  Conceived as a Manhattan-based rival to the NBA’s Knickerbockers, the team was originally to be called the New York Americans, with home games scheduled for the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue.  But the Knicks’ front office did not take kindly to another professional team playing barely one mile from Madison Square Garden and pressured the Armory’s management into backing out of its deal with the new formed franchise from the fledgling league.  After some scrambling the renamed New Jersey Americans wound up playing in Teaneck, at least until the ABA’s first playoffs, when the team’s home arena was already booked.  That led to another move, this time out to Long Island, and subsequently another renaming when the New York Nets stayed for there the next eight seasons, shifting from one arena to another while winning a pair of ABA titles. 

The ABA and NBA merged in the summer of 1976, with the Nets and four other ABA clubs – the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, and Indiana Pacers – joining the senior league.  But while those three franchises played in cities new to the NBA, the Nets were firmly in Knicks territory, and the NBA assessed a $4.8 million territorial penalty against the club in addition to the $3.2 million joining fee paid by the other three ABA refugees.  That left the Nets strapped for cash, and after one more season of poorly attended games on Long Island, the franchise again decamped for New Jersey, after first forking over another $4 million to the Knicks for infringing on that club’s “exclusive” right to the market on the west side of the Hudson. 

All seemed settled for the next three decades, with the New Jersey Nets firmly relegated to second place in the affections of most Gotham hardcourt fans, though in truth most seasons neither club was very good.  The Knicks made it to the NBA Finals twice in the ‘90s with Patrick Ewing, and the Nets matched that in the early years of the next decade with a roster led by Jason Kidd, but championship parades eluded both franchises.  A couple years after New Jersey’s trips to the Finals, the collapse of a proposal for a new arena in Newark led to the sale of the franchise.  The new ownership group was led by real estate developer Bruce Ratner, who saw the basketball team as the principal tenant of a new arena that was to be the cornerstone of a massive project in the Prospect Park section of Brooklyn.  Local opposition and assorted lawsuits – though for once, none initiated by the Knicks – delayed the development for years, and by the time the franchise was finally able to issue uniforms with its current name and celebrate the opening of the Barclays Center in 2012, majority ownership had passed to Mikhail Prokhorov.  He in turn sold both the team and the arena, which remains the only completed piece of Ratner’s vision, to Joseph Tsai three years ago.

Through all those years, and locations, the New York media has done its best to gin up an intense rivalry between the Nets and Knicks.  Management of both teams bought into the hype a decade ago, as the Nets were skipping over Manhattan on the way from Newark to Brooklyn.  Giant posters featuring Nets stars appeared on buildings overlooking Madison Square Garden, and the Knickerbockers responded with TV ads dismissing the interlopers.  But these efforts have always felt forced, in large part because the supposed rivalry was between two middling clubs on the fringes of playoff contention.

That was true again last Wednesday, when the Knicks crossed the East River to meet the Nets for the first time this season.  Led by Kevin Durant’s triple-double, Brooklyn coasted past Manhattan 112-85.  But the win merely improved the Nets record to 5-7 while the loss pushed the Knicks mark a tick below .500 at 5-6, a half-game better than their cross-borough opponent.  Of course, the NBA season is young, so no doubt fans of both franchises remain hopeful that in the months to come their heroes will improve on these undistinguished, and barely distinguishable, early records. 

But if the action on the court and the records of both clubs was all too familiar, there was one big difference about this meeting of the Nets and Knicks.  While the Nets have moved frequently and gone through multiple owners, even as the Knicks have been housed at Madison Square Garden and been under the same corporate ownership for decades, with the same CEO for nearly a quarter-century, the Manhattan club has always generated far more off-court drama than the Brooklyn franchise, a sharp contrast that has often been because of the mercurial nature of team owner James Dolan.

Whether Dolan is slowing down, or losing interest, or just finally, in his mid-60’s, learning the limits of team ownership, the frequent eruptions that fans, and especially the Gotham media, have counted on for years have suddenly dissipated.  Fear not, tabloid headline writers, for the Brooklyn franchise is filling the breach.  A club that has demonstrated a capacity for boneheaded basketball moves, most famously the 2013 trade of five active players and the rights to four future first-round draft picks to the Celtics for over-the-hill stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, is now stacking up off-court errors.

Shortly before the Nets took on the Knicks, interim head coach Jacque Vaughn was given the permanent job, a little over a week after he had been promoted from his assistant role after Steve Nash was fired.  But in the intervening days, the Nets let it be known that the franchise intended to hire Ime Udoka, the second-year Celtics coach who was suspended for the season for what has been widely reported as an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate.  It was at best breathtakingly tone deaf, and at worst utterly callous, for anyone in Brooklyn’s front office or owner’s suite to think it was a good idea to offer Udoka a lifeline back to the head coaching ranks just weeks after such a draconian action by another club.  Yet it’s clear that was exactly what the Nets wanted to do.

That Vaughn got what even he referred to as “the write-in vote” was surely because the franchise was already dealing with the fallout from its ham-handed handling of Kyrie Irving’s social media post touting a crudely antisemitic movie.  Fans throughout the NBA have long recognized that for all his enormous ability with a basketball in his hands, Irving’s personal views are often unpredictable and harmful.  What neither Irving, his team, nor the league seemed to grasp, is that opining that the earth is flat, or even refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, can be accepted as personal choices, either silly or foolish, but promoting hate speech is an entirely different form of individual expression.  Irving’s failure to apologize, and the initially muted reaction by the Nets, the NBA, and key sponsors like Nike only intensified the understandable backlash. 

Perhaps tomorrow or next week, Dolan will do something outrageous that will shift the harsh spotlight back to the Knicks.  Or maybe next spring, if the Nets, led by Irving’s scoring and Vaughn’s adroit roster management, are making a deep run through the postseason, this autumn’s off-court drama will be forgotten.  But don’t count on it.   

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 10, 2022

MLB Races Into The Offseason

Less than 48 hours elapsed between the moment Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker sprinted into foul ground to catch a fly ball off the bat of Philadelphia’s Nick Castellanos for the final out of the 2022 World Series on Saturday night, and the start of the Astros’ championship parade along Smith Street in the city’s central business district Monday afternoon.  But that brief interval was more than enough time for various media outlets to issue their first “power rankings” of franchises for the 2023 season, and for Las Vegas oddsmakers to install the L.A. Dodgers as favorites for next year’s title.  Some of the 2 million fans who turned out to cheer the Astros no doubt kept the party going long after the parade finished its 1.7-mile route, and so were probably still recovering when the general managers from all 30 clubs assembled in Las Vegas for the start of their annual three-day meeting on Tuesday.  By late Thursday afternoon, the deadline for clubs to issue qualifying offers to newly minted free agents, the first milepost on MLB’s journey through the offseason, had passed.  Congratulations Astros, but the hot stove is already lit.

This offseason will of course be very different from the last one, which didn’t officially begin until the second week in March, with contact between teams and players or their agents barred during the 99 days of the owners’ lockout.  But early indications are that the contrast will be about more than just the calendar.  For the first time in years, the list of franchises aggressively seeking to improve appears to extend beyond the usual suspects in New York and Los Angeles.

While there are many reasons for the possibility of more trades and greater interest in free agents, two stand out.  The first is the overall financial health of MLB and its franchises.  Last week, on the same day Game 3 of the World Series was rained out, commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview with the L.A. Times that MLB’s revenues would approach $11 billion this year.  That’s close to the record high achieved in 2019 and indicates that the negative financial impact of the pandemic is now behind the sport, thanks not just to fans returning to stadiums, but also to various new media rights and sponsorship deals.  While there will always be penurious owners who happily pocket their share of the sport’s growing revenue stream while allocating as little as they can get away with to the product on the field, those skinflints are, for the moment at least, a minority.

That in turn is at least partly due to the expanded playoffs, which make dreams of postseason glory seem that much more in reach.  It is a balancing act, one that if overdone could easily turn the longest season into little more than a six-month grind for seeding.  But with a dozen clubs qualifying, the Phillies were able to overcome a dreadful start to the campaign and clinch a Wild Card spot with a win in game number 160.  Philadelphia then made the most of its first trip to the postseason in more than a decade.  The expanded bracket also kept hope alive for the Brewers, Giants, White Sox, and the upstart Orioles, long after those clubs would have been reduced to playing for pride in previous seasons.  Add those teams to the franchises that made the playoffs, toss into the mix a front office or two with something to prove after not getting the expected return from roster moves made in the rush of the last, highly compressed, offseason – the Rangers and Twins come to mind – and there is a healthy complement of clubs for which a place in next year’s bracket seems eminently attainable.

Those clubs, and perhaps a surprise franchise, because there is always a surprise franchise, will comprise the marketplace for a strong free agent class.  This year’s group is led by American League home run king Aaron Judge, who won his own version of this week’s super-rich Powerball drawing when he bet on himself and rejected the Yankees $213.5 million contract offer just before Opening Day.  Now, after surpassing Babe Ruth and Roger Maris and just missing out on a Triple Crown, Judge, through his agent Page Odle, is likely to set a starting price at least $100 million higher for his athletic services over the next seven or eight years.

The Bronx isn’t the only New York borough in danger of losing a cornerstone of its local team.  Jacob deGrom, the Great Game’s dominant hurler when healthy, has, as expected, opted out of the final year of his deal with the Mets.  Those two players are joined by an entire infield’s worth of elite shortstops, a list that includes Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, and Dansby Swanson.

While those big names will almost certainly all be very well compensated ballplayers by the time Spring Training opens, the real test of an offseason is in how lesser free agents fare.  This is the group that bore the brunt of the wholesale shift among franchises away from long-term contracts under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Efforts by the Players Association to change the basic qualifications for free agency were stonewalled by owners throughout last winter’s bitter negotiations.  Not many 32-year-old midlevel players will be signing contracts that will run until they are approaching 40.  But while the length of contracts will likely continue to be shorter than in the past, the annual salaries of the deals such players ink could once again be on the rise.  GMs without the seemingly unlimited budgets of the Mets or Dodgers, or a large amount of room under the first luxury tax threshold like the Giants, will pay to add what their analytics department assures them is the key missing piece keeping the franchise from a season-ending parade of its own. 

Across the country, fans hoping to celebrate this time next year the way 2 million did in Houston this week, will be watching through the coming weeks and months, hoping for news that their franchise has moved one step closer to glory.  The only certainty is that one shouldn’t put too much stock in those early power rankings.  There is just too much that could happen, for good or ill, to every franchise, even before next March 30, when it’s once again time to play ball.  For now, just light the kindling. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 6, 2022

A Ring For Dusty

On a breezy April evening in 1993, the visiting San Francisco Giants squared off against the St. Louis Cardinals at what is now known as Busch Stadium II.  The Cardinals home for four decades until it was replaced in 2005 by a newer facility which shares part of the same footprint, the stadium sat just west of the Mississippi River, a short walk from the city’s most famous symbol, the Gateway Arch.  The Giants had endured back-to-back losing seasons, which led to the resignation of the team’s general manager and the firing of field skipper Roger Craig at the end of the 1992 campaign.  That December, new GM Bob Quinn had named Dusty Baker as the Giants new manager. 

San Francisco got the new campaign off to a good start for the rookie manager, who after a 19-year playing career, the prime of which was spent at Dodger Stadium, had served on the Giants coaching staff for the five previous seasons.  Barry Bonds, signed away from the Pirates in free agency the same month Baker was hired, plated the winning run with a 7th inning sacrifice fly in a 2-1 San Francisco victory.  Win number one on Baker’s managerial resume was little noticed at the time, as was the success of St. Louis’s leadoff batter, who reached base in all four of his plate appearances.  With two singles and a pair of walks, Geronimo Pena ended day one of the longest season with a perfect 1.000 batting average and on base percentage.  Pena was then a 25-year-old who was midway through a 7-year career as a part-time utility player, bouncing back and forth between AAA and the big leagues in most of those seasons.

Pena’s Opening Day exploits were long forgotten by October, but Baker’s acumen in the dugout had garnered widespread respect by the end of that season.  The Giants finished 103-59, the second best record in the majors and a huge improvement over the previous year’s 72-90 record.  Unfortunately for fans in San Francisco, MLB’s best record that season belonged to another NL West team, Atlanta.  In the days of just two divisions in each league and no Wild Card teams in the playoffs, the Giants finished one game behind Atlanta and didn’t qualify for the postseason.  Instead, the franchise and its supporters had to settle for a pair of individual awards, with Bond winning his third NL MVP prize and Baker being named the senior circuit’s Manager of the Year.

The Giants manager turned 44 in the middle of that season, an age that then and now is on the young side for someone handed the reins of a big league club.  This June Baker celebrated his 73rd birthday by guiding the Houston Astros, the fifth team he has managed, to a 9-2 win over the Texas Rangers.  For the man who is now the oldest skipper in the majors, it was the 2,025th regular season addition to that initial managerial triumph nearly three decades ago.  That win total climbed to 2,093 by season’s end, as Houston ran away with the AL West title.  When the Astros swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, edging the Mariners in a Division Series that despite the sweep could easily have tipped the other way, before crushing the Yankees in the ALCS, the American League’s dominant franchise of the past six years was back on familiar turf, playing in its fourth World Series since 2017.

Of the three previous trips, only the initial one ended with a parade, and Houston’s 2017 championship will forever carry the stench of the cheating scandal that was exposed two years later.  That the malodorous odor still lingers, despite the passage of time and the reality that inevitable roster turnover means with each new season fewer current players were participants in the scheme, is partly jealousy.  Fans love to cheer the unlikely success of an underdog, which Houston was, once upon a time.  But too much success breeds a different emotion, as fans beyond southeast Texas wonder when it will be their favorite franchise’s turn to climb to the top of the podium.  But for many fans the initial anger has also sunk deep roots because of a sense that the Astros got away with it, a viewpoint based largely on the fact that no active players were punished.      

Although Jose Altuve may hear jeers at road games for as long as he plays, fans everywhere understood that Baker was brought in as manager before the 2020 season specifically because his reputation was the opposite of the dark image that clung to the Houston franchise.  Those fans also knew that Baker arrived with a resume that included the most regular season wins by any manager in MLB history with a World Series ring.  That number continued to grow through three successful seasons in the Astros dugout, campaigns that included a loss to Atlanta in last year’s Series.  That was Baker’s second chance at the Great Game’s ultimate prize.  The first came in his last year at San Francisco’s helm, when the Giants took a three games to two lead into Anaheim for the final two contests of the 2002 World Series.  But the Angels came from behind in both Game 6 and Game 7 to deny the Giants and Baker.

At last came this year’s Series, with Baker, now the oldest manager in the Great Game, leading Houston back to baseball’s final matchup once again.  In the end, of course, a manager can only do so much.  Games are decided by the players on the field.  Over the course of this year’s Series, the most valuable of those players was Houston’s shortstop, Jeremy Pena.  The award closed a circle in Baker’s career, for the Astros rookie is the son of the utility infielder who so effectively batted leadoff for St. Louis against Baker’s San Francisco squad all those years ago.    

But if Baker couldn’t come out of the dugout and bat or throw, neither was he just another spectator.  After arguably sticking too long with Justin Verlander in Game 1, Baker’s management of his pitching staff was largely impeccable.  One can’t blame the manager if Lance McCullers Jr. was tipping his pitches in Game 3, and in any event since Houston’s hitters failed to plate a single run that game was effectively over after Bryce Harper’s 1st inning home run.  Down the stretch, Baker’s starters stifled the Phillies and his calls to the Houston bullpen were perfect.  And now, after 2,093 regular season victories, the one person wearing an Astros uniform who fans everywhere can cheer for, finally has a ring.

The end of Dusty Baker’s long wait means fans must move a few hundred career wins down the list to find the new owner of the unwanted title of active manager with the most wins without a championship.  That would be Buck Showalter of the Mets, with 1,652, followed by Bob Melvin of the Padres, with 1,435 regular season victories.  Since both franchises made this postseason and clearly have designs on a title in the very near future, perhaps fans of those clubs should take heart.  Maybe the gods of the Great Game are looking kindly on ending managerial title droughts.  But fair warning – don’t be surprised if the road to a championship runs through Houston.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 3, 2022

A Thoroughly Modern World Series

It will be this weekend before we know which team will win the World Series, but we can already say with certainty that this year’s Fall Classic accurately reflects the Great Game as it is played in the early part of the 21st century’s third decade.  Noting the timeframe seems important, for as much as some fans love to cite a prior period as an era when the style and pace of the sport was, to their mind, far superior to what is currently on display, baseball has always been subject to change.  Modern day aficionados who lament the demise of bunting and the hit-and-run as strategic staples doubtless had predecessors, a few generations ago, who decried the end of the dead ball era. 

That is not meant to denigrate any fan’s preferred style of play, only to emphasize that a sport played under the same basic rules for almost a century and a half is, despite that seeming constraint, constantly evolving.  The next stage in the Great Game’s metamorphosis is likely to come as soon as next year, when MLB drastically curtails defensive shifts.  The requirements that two infielders be stationed on each side of second base and all four have their cleats on the infield dirt will almost certainly reopen lanes for base hits that have been closed for the past several seasons.  For now, though, baseball is all about power – both at the plate and on the mound.  The importance of each role was on vivid display during Games 3 and 4.

Hitters took their turn in Tuesday’s Game 3, specifically the batters wearing the home white uniforms with red pinstripes, much to the delight of most of the nearly 46,000 fans crammed into Citizens Bank Park for the first World Series game in Philadelphia since 2009.  It had been nine days since the Phillies home had seen action.  In that last contest, Game 5 of the NLCS, Bryce Harper sent the Phils to the Series with an 8th inning blast to left field, propelling Philadelphia to a clinching 4-3 win over the San Diego Padres.  The ensuing wait proved immediately worthwhile for the local faithful when Harper smacked the very first pitch he saw from Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. into the right field seats, staking his team to a 2-0 1st inning lead.  While that would prove to be more than enough run support for starter Ranger Suarez and the four relievers who followed him to the mound, Philadelphia batters were just getting started.  Third baseman Alec Bohm and center fielder Brandon Marsh followed with solo shots in the 2nd, doubling the Phillies advantage.  Then left fielder Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Rhys Hoskins added back-to-back home runs three frames later, with Schwarber’s two-run blast sailing 443 feet to dead center.

The fine performance by Suarez and the Phillies’ bullpen was an afterthought in coverage of Game 3, which understandably focused on the homer barrage.  But one night later, there was no overlooking the even better pitching by Astros starter Cristian Javier and three Houston relievers.  The same Philadelphia hitters who had sent five spheroids sailing into the stands Tuesday could not manage so much as a single base hit against Javier and company Wednesday.  Just three walks, a pair by Javier during his six innings of work and one in the 9th by Ryan Pressly, kept the combined effort from being a perfect game.  Instead, the Astros foursome goes into the record books as having collectively tossed the second no-hitter in World Series history.

Javier, who is just 25 and in his third big league season, has given fans glimpses of his enormous potential.  He finished third in the voting for 2020 AL Rookie of the Year, and in an outing early in the 2021 season struck out the first eight batters he faced. This season, he was the starter in another combined no-hitter, that one coming against the Yankees back in June.  Because of its extremely high spin rate, Javier’s fastball appears to rise on its way to the plate, an illusion that often leaves hitters flailing.  Before Pressly mopped up, Javier was followed to the mound by Bryan Abreu and Rafael Montero, both of whom have fastball speeds that nudge up against triple-digits.  The quartet combined for 14 strikeouts, a common enough outcome when power pitchers are on the mound.  

Not surprisingly, there were scattered voices protesting the no-hitter designation, since the effort involved multiple moundsmen.  But whether accomplished by one pitcher over nine innings or nine throwing an inning apiece, the outcome – a line of zeroes for the opposing team – is the same.  To be sure, the achievement by the four Astros is not the same as Don Larsen’s 1956 outing, and not just because of the three walks.  A combined no-hitter is not identical to one thrown by a single hurler, but it is still worthy of celebration. 

It is also a far more likely outcome in the modern game.  While 100-mile-per-hour fastballs and high spin rates are now common, the counterbalance to that power and the strikeouts it produces is fewer innings pitched.  Larsen needed 97 pitches to complete his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.  Javier threw the same number navigating six frames, a pitch count that is by no means abnormal these days.  More strikeouts almost certainly mean more pitches, since each at-bat that ends in a “K” requires at least three offerings from the mound, and usually more.  Larsen fanned just seven Brooklyn Dodgers.  And while modern power hitters may ultimately be overwhelmed, some will surely not go down without a fight, fouling off multiple pitches as they try with uppercut swings to lift the ball over the heads of shifted defenders. No manager interested in staying employed would allow a starter’s pitch count to climb to 134 in pursuit of a no-hitter, as the Mets Terry Collins did in 2012 with Johan Santana in the first and, until a combined one involving five pitchers last April, only no-hitter in that franchise’s history.

Power hitters driving the ball deep into the night in Game 3.  Power pitchers mowing down the opposing lineup in Game 4.  Whether next week’s championship parade is in Houston or Philadelphia, this year’s World Series has already been a victory for the current state of the sport.  Love it or hate it, this is the way the Great Game is played these days.  At least until next season.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 30, 2022

The Conventional Wisdom Wobbles Into Philly

Like Pavlov’s dogs, we fans start salivating at the mere mention of expert predictions on our favorite games, our involuntary response triggered by the expectation of some reward that, unlike feeding time for pets, is often vague.  Perhaps we hope to gain advantage in a fantasy league or win a serious return wagering for real, or maybe we just think the knowledge of insiders will allow us to sound authoritative when discussing sports with friends.  Whatever the reason, fan interest compels even reluctant sportswriters to try the impossible by predicting the outcome not just of individual games but of entire seasons.  A few even publicly acknowledge the absurdity of the exercise, though if such a member of the media lucks into a correct forecast – and make no mistake, happenstance and good fortune always play an outsized role in making a writer appear prescient – he or she is usually quick to boast.

Predictions are especially perilous in the Great Game, with the inevitable ups and downs of its long and winding season.  That much is clear by a review of the bold predictions made seven months ago by scores of scribes who earn a living covering baseball.  Fans were inundated with forecasts in the days before the longest season began.  Looking back on all those printed words from the safety of late October, two things stand out.  One is how despite the enormous volume so many of the predictions were the same, and the second is how thoroughly wrong the consensus choices for World Series opponents, and the eventual champion, were.

Based on what we were told in late March, our eyes have deceived us the last two nights.  What appeared to be Minute Maid Park in Houston during the first two games of the Series was in fact the Rogers Centre in Toronto.  Further, while one may have read reports that the last two teams standing traveled east on Sunday to prepare for Game 3, in fact the journey was westbound, for the Series will resume Monday evening at Dodger Stadium.  For those with commitments the next few days that will prevent them from tuning in, rest assured that the die is already cast – the Blue Jays are going to win the World Series.  Sorry Dodgers fans.  So said the collective voice of four writers at the Ringer, five at CBS Sports, and a whopping seventy-three at MLB.com, to pick just a handful of the sites that engaged in this annual ritual.

This is not to poke fun at the writers who offered up their opinions back in the Spring.  As noted, predictions like these amount to little more than a parlor game.  But the extent to which Toronto was the overwhelming choice to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, and Los Angeles nearly as popular a call to win the National League pennant, are reminders that even in an empty exercise like this there is a tendency toward herding.  While the occasional tweeted hot take may drive clicks, few writers really want to go too far out on a limb.  Following the crowd can make one look good when the consensus proves correct.  Virtually everyone asked picked the Astros to win the AL West, though that was also one of the easier predictions given both the recent history of that division and the state of its teams going into the season.  But among all those forecasts just one lonely writer had Houston advancing to the World Series, and the popular predictions included other major misses beyond the overconfidence in the Blue Jays.  The Giants safely in the postseason as a Wild Card?  The Brewers and White Sox as division champs?  No, no and not even close.  And only a tiny number of writers were bold enough to put the Phillies in their postseason brackets.

While the preseason predictions are mostly just something to talk about instead of fixating on results from small sample sizes in the early days of the season, they sometimes create a narrative for the campaign that lives on despite results on the field.  The White Sox muddled along all year, but as the popular pick to win the AL Central, the franchise was always deemed on the verge of breaking out, until suddenly it was cast aside as a profound disappointment.  Maybe Chicago was just a .500 team all along, regardless of who was making out the lineup card or which players were on the field.

Now we have come to the end.  By next weekend, and maybe sooner, either the Astros or Phillies will celebrate a title.  Naturally, the season concludes as it began, with scores of predictions.  Though it does not always happen this way, this year those forecasts yielded a consensus nearly as overwhelming as the preseason one, and that in turn meant a narrative for the World Series was firmly set before the first pitch was thrown.

The Astros began the Series as heavy favorites, on the strength of a 106-win season and an unblemished record through the team’s first two playoff rounds.  Given that, it was perhaps out of necessity that the Phillies were cast as the unlikely upstarts, unexpected party crashers who would spend the winter being happy to have made it this far once Houston finished them off.

That narrative looked altogether correct through the first three innings of Game 1, as the Astros jumped out to a 5-0 lead and likely AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander retired the Phillies in order the first time through the batting order.  But by the time Verlander trudged off the mound two frames later the score was tied, and it remained that way through nine, with Philadelphia’s defensively challenged right fielder Nick Castellanos snatching a walkoff win away from Houston with a fine sliding catch of a Jeremy Pena blooper as Jose Altuve was racing home from second in the bottom of the 9th.  Philadelphia catcher J.T. Realmuto then led off the 10th by driving a full count fastball from Luis Garcia into the right field seats.  David Robertson wobbled in the bottom of the frame, but true to his “Houdini” nickname from days with the Yankees, escaped to earn the save.

That unlikely outcome set the established narrative wobbling worse than Robertson had, at least for 24 hours.  Then the Astros again struck first in Game 2, and this time starter Framber Valdez delivered the performance Houston fans had been expecting from Verlander.  Astros 5, Phillies 2, World Series all square.

The teams thus headed to Philadelphia with the favored storyline more or less in place.  But that conventional wisdom misses the reality that the Phillies are a strong franchise that badly underperformed for the first two months of the season.  Only three teams have larger payrolls than Philadelphia, and Houston is not one of them.  With Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hopkins and Realmuto, the Phillies have plenty of offense, and the front line of the starting rotation would be a welcome addition to most clubs.  Aaron Nola in Game 1 and Zack Wheeler in Game 2 did not deliver, but then neither did Verlander for Houston.  The best starter by far was Valdez, whose ERA in two starts during last year’s World Series was 19.29.  Try fitting that into a conventional narrative.

Perhaps the Astros will run the table, or short of that, prevail fairly easily.  But if that is the case, it won’t be because a bunch of sportswriters forecast the result, but because of what happens on the field.  And the only certainty in what is now a short, best-of-five series, is that anything can happen.  Predictions can be entertaining, but the Phillies and Astros still have to play the games.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 27, 2022

Book Review: Jemele Hill’s Long Climb

If time has not exactly passed Andy Warhol’s future by, it has at the very least redefined it.  It was the great American pop artist who in 1968 foresaw the day when “everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.”  Although there is evidence to suggest he borrowed the phrase, it quickly and permanently became associated with Warhol.  Yet more than half a century later, now that Warhol’s future has arrived, much of popular culture is no longer measured by such conventional concepts as minutes.  So while fame – or an approximation thereof – often does seem within reach of anyone, the half-life of its radiation is as likely to be counted in tweets as in time.

Even the hyper-imaginative Warhol did not foresee the existence of Twitter, or any of the various other social media mediums that, depending on one’s view, either grace or despoil our cultural landscape.  But Jemele Hill knows what it’s like to be thrust into the public eye 140 characters at a time.  In September 2017, Hill, who after a decade at ESPN had recently taken over the six o’clock edition of SportsCenter along with co-host Michael Smith, tweeted criticism of Kid Rock, who she saw as openly pandering to racists by choosing to often perform with the Confederate flag on stage.  A day later she happened to scroll through the replies to her post and noted one that strongly defended then-President Trump. 

It had been less than a month since Trump had defended the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Hill’s visceral reaction to his declaration that the marchers included “some very fine people” and his false accusation that they had been attacked by counter-protestors from “the alt-left” was fresh in her mind.  In a string of twelve tweets Hill, in her own words, “unloaded on Trump, explaining why he was a threat to our democracy and a racist.”  But the post that was quickly pinging around the internet was the one in which she described Trump as “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.”

Her time at the leading sports network had made Hill familiar to many fans, but that level of recognition was modest compared to what followed.  Not surprisingly, in part because of the subject matter of her posts and surely in part because Hill was both Black and a woman, the reaction was both intense and extreme.  She was excoriated by some and venerated by others, the replies a mix of vile language and ugly threats interwoven with high praise and shows of support.  For its part, ESPN reprimanded Hill for violating the company’s social media policy, which prohibited employees from making political statements, but otherwise took no action.  Less than a month later however, her employer was quick to act when Hill tweeted a suggestion that fans of the Dallas Cowboys boycott the team’s sponsors to protest owner Jerry Jones’s condemnation of NFL players who were silently protesting during the national anthem, a short list that included no one on the Dallas roster.  Hill was suspended for two weeks, during which time she began to plan for life after ESPN.  Within a year, she left the network.

All that is what most fans think of when Hill’s name is mentioned.  But whether it lasts for 15 minutes or 12 tweets, the kind of fame Warhol envisioned almost never reveals the depth of an individual.  Now, Hill’s newly published memoir “Uphill” (Henry Holt and Company, 10/25/22) fills in the details of a complex and compelling life story.

It is a tale that began in Detroit, where Hill’s childhood was defined by a mother who lapsed in and out of drug dependency but who still managed to provide for her daughter’s basic needs.  But the constant challenges of existing on the economic and social edge could easily have turned Hill’s life into little more than a sad statistic.  Instead, she became both tough and independent, though at the price of developing a deep seated suspicion about the motives of almost everyone she met, a trait that Hill acknowledges she long struggled to overcome.

College at Michigan State and early forays into student journalism broadened Hill’s horizons, and natural reporting skills coupled with a lifelong love of sports led to her early jobs covering sports for local newspapers.  She eventually moved beyond Detroit, writing for the Raleigh News and Observer, and later, after returning home for a stint at the Detroit Free Press, serving as a sports columnist at the Orlando Sentinel.  It was while in Florida in 2005 that Hill learned an Associated Press survey of 305 newspapers across the country had found just one Black female sports columnist – her.

If there was justifiable pride in that distinction, there was also a clear warning about how far Hill’s chosen industry still had to go before reflecting either the fans who were its consumers or the athletes who were its subjects.  Hill found that especially true when she moved to ESPN in the autumn of 2006, a career change she was initially reluctant to make because she wasn’t interested in being on television.  While she grew more accustomed to the performative nature of her new medium, and certainly didn’t mind the much improved compensation of television reporters over those who toil in print, Hill found herself in constant battles for recognition and opportunities because of her gender and skin color, struggles she also watched being played out by production staff who happened to look like her.  Her finest work for ESPN was when she partnered with Smith on a show originally titled “His and Hers,” a talk show in which the two hosts eschewed the screaming matches that were, and remain, the staple of sports talk programs, for intelligent discussions about not just sports, but also pop culture and social issues.  With two African-American hosts, it was also a show that Hill calls “Black as hell.”

That of course would not do when the pair was tabbed for the six o’clock edition of the network’s staple, SportsCenter, and as the corporate executives sought to change Hill and Smith’s approach and style, she sensed her time at ESPN might be winding down even before she fatefully took to Twitter.

“Uphill” concludes with her departure from the sports network, but Hill has been plenty busy over the past four years.  She’s on the staff of “The Atlantic” magazine and also has a popular podcast, “Jemele Hill is Unbothered.”  The winner of the Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 2018, she has established herself as a leading voice on the intersection of sports, race, politics, and culture.  Jemele Hill’s is a voice worth listening to for far longer than 15 minutes, or even a dozen tweets.

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