Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 11, 2021

Matsuyama Is Masterful At Augusta National

Augusta National giveth, and Augusta National taketh away.  Perhaps some golf fans had forgotten that, given everything that has happened in major championship play over the past year.  With the pandemic raging, CBS had no lingering shots of azaleas in full flower last April.  Last year’s Open Championship was cancelled, and the U.S. Open was moved from June to September.  The PGA Championship, originally scheduled for May, became the first major of the year when it was finally contested, without fans, at San Francisco’s Harding Park in early August.  When golfers finally made their way to eastern Georgia for the 2020 Masters it was mid-November, the usual riot of color around the course replaced by falling leaves, and Augusta National played very differently than it typically does each spring.  The greens were soft and inviting, and Dustin Johnson took full advantage, setting a tournament record with a final total of 20-under par, five shots better than his closest competitor.

Finally, with vaccination numbers climbing, the expectation is that this year will see a return to the familiar rotation and schedule of golf’s biggest events, for both men and women.  A week ago, the ANA Inspiration kicked off the LPGA’s major calendar, and this weekend CBS Sports, the Golf Channel, and a variety of streaming options were all showing fans the verdant fairways, blindingly white bunkers, and flowering background that for weekend golfers in many parts of the country is the surest sign that winter is over and another season on the links is finally at hand.

As if on cue, the course that Alistair McKenzie laid out over the rolling hills of the nearly 400-acre property that was once a nursery stepped into its familiar role of being generous one moment and punishing the next.  In Thursday’s opening round, Justin Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open and a two-time runner-up at the Masters, was off to an indifferent start with two bogeys in his first seven holes.  Then he split the fairway with his drive on the par-5 8th, slung a fairway metal up the hill that bounced off the mounds to the left of the green and settled ten feet below the cup.  From there Rose sank the putt for eagle and was off to the races.  He made seven birdies in the next nine holes and posted a 65 that was the best score of the day by four shots. 

But not every player in the field was so fortunate.  On the same hole Bryson DeChambeau sent his drive sailing into the trees, well right of the broad fairway.  By the time DeChambeau’s ball found the bottom of the cup, he had a bogey-6.  Nor was that the first blemish in an opening round that would eventually require 76 strokes.  DeChambeau improved in round two, but went 75-75 on the weekend to finish the Masters at 5-over par, in a tie for 46th place.   Although that perhaps overstates the performance of golf’s self-appointed change agent.  DeChambeau has boasted that with his prodigious length off the tee, his par at Augusta National is 67, not the 72 on the course’s scorecard.  By his own standard DeChambeau was 25-over par for the tournament.  Not a good week for the four-protein-shakes-a-day training regimen.

Still, the old saw is that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday, and once again Augusta National made sure there was enough truth in that to keep the cliché alive.  By the start of the final round, early leader Rose was one of four players at 7-under, along with Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman, and Will Zalatoris.  They were all chasing Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who had charged up the leader board late on Saturday, after a one-hour rain delay, to lead by four shots. 

The momentum and mood swings began early.  When Matsuyama bogeyed the opening hole, and two groups ahead 24-year-old Zalatoris, playing in his first Masters and just his third major, began with back-to-back birdies, the lead was suddenly down to one.  But Matsuyama steadied himself, and by the time he and Schauffele walked from the 9th green to the 10th tee, he was 2-under on the day, 13-under for the tournament, and five clear of the field.  All that remained for Matsuyama to become the first Japanese male to win a major was Augusta National’s back nine, golf’s scenic stroll filled with opportunity and malice.

Having run into trouble early, Schauffele appeared to have become a bystander, sitting seven shots adrift of his fellow competitor.  But on the 12th Matsuyama sent his tee shot into the back bunker, and couldn’t get up and down to save par, while Schauffele rolled in a lengthy putt for birdie.  Then, after both saved a shot on #13, Schauffele stuck his approach next to the hole on the par-4 14th, his third consecutive birdie moving him another stroke closer to Matsuyama.  On the very next hole, after both found the fairway on the reachable par-5, the leader blew his second over the green.  The ball bounded down the slope behind the putting surface and disappeared into the pond that fronts the 16th hole.  Matsuyama did well to save a bogey, and when Schauffele recorded yet another birdie the margin was down to just two shots.  Having carried not just the lead but the weight of an entire country hoping for a major winner on his shoulders since the opening tee shot, one had to wonder if Matsuyama might be wilting.

Instead, it was the pursuer who was bitten by Augusta National.  Schauffele’s tee shot on the par-3 16th was left of his intended line.  It landed on the green, but the ball’s first bounce took it into the fringe and there was nothing to stop it until it found the water.  When his third from the drop area sailed over the green, Schauffele was well into the process of undoing all his recent progress in a single hole with a triple-bogey.  It was the first ever such tally at a major for the talented American who in fifteen such events now has two seconds, two thirds, and eight total top-ten finishes, but still no wins.

For Matsuyama, the task after #16 was to negotiate the final two holes in no worse than 1-over par to stay ahead of Zalatoris, who was in the clubhouse at 9-under.  He did that – exactly – and after his final putt dropped and the pandemic-limited crowd around the final green rose as one to cheer his victory, Matsuyama’s eyes glistened as he made the walk to Augusta National’s clubhouse to sign his scorecard.  Perhaps what viewers saw were tears of joy, or of awe at what he had accomplished for an entire nation.  Or maybe the newest Masters champion was just feeling the relief that any golfer who earns a green jacket must after surviving Augusta National.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 8, 2021

The Madness Is Done, But The NCAA’s Problems Remain

In San Antonio and Indianapolis, champions have been crowned.  On Sunday night it was the Stanford women, pre-tournament favorites.  Twenty-four hours later it was the Baylor men, in what was on paper at least a mild upset, though it hardly seemed that way given how they and their Gonzaga counterparts performed on the Lucas Oil Stadium court.  Now the confetti has flown and the television coverage of this year’s NCAA Division I basketball tournaments has concluded, as always, with CBS’s montage of men’s tournament highlights accompanied by David Barrett’s “One Shining Moment.”  Both tournaments produced stories worth telling, none greater than the simple fact that both events made it from the opening jump ball of the first game to the final celebration, albeit with one COVID-19 walkover in the men’s tourney, when multiple positive tests forced Virginia Commonwealth to forfeit its first-round game against Oregon. 

There was the perseverance of the Stanford Cardinal players, fighting their way through a season in which pandemic restrictions forced them to start with practice sessions in Las Vegas, spend long periods living in hotels, and play “home” games in Santa Cruz, a time consuming forty-five-mile drive over local roads from their campus.  There was the overall high level of play at the five women’s tourney venues along the San Antonio to Austin corridor, a powerful reminder that women’s college basketball no longer begins and ends in Storrs, Connecticut.  Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies did feature prominently in arguably the best back-to-back games for television fans in either tournament.  Two weekends ago the Sweet Sixteen round featured the sport’s two freshmen phenoms, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlan Clark, going head to head in a showcase of the future.  Right after the Huskies pulled away late to win 92-72, powered as much by Bueckers’ supporting cast as by the star herself, #2 Baylor and #6 Michigan battled through four quarters and beyond.  The Wolverines never led in regulation, but knotted the score late to force overtime, and in the end came within one final heave of pulling off the upset.  No wonder that the women’s tournament, from the Sweet Sixteen on through to Sunday night’s championship tilt, saw its highest TV ratings in years.   

On the men’s side there was UCLA, in a bygone era the dominant force in the game, cast in the unlikely role of Cinderella.  The Bruins, a #11 seed that had to win one of the four play-in games to make it into the tournament’s bracket, advanced all the way the Final Four, defeating second-seeded Alabama and Michigan, the East’s top seed, along the way.  In its semifinal matchup against heavily-favored Gonzaga, UCLA proved it belong, matching the Zags shot for shot in a game that had nineteen lead changes and saw the score tied fifteen times.  For the third time in six games the Bruins played overtime, and even that looked like it wouldn’t be enough.  Tied at 90, the game appeared headed to a second extra period when Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs launched a Hail Mary from near half court as the clock went to zero.  The shot caromed off the backboard and through the net for a 93-90 win that kept the Zags’ hopes for a perfect season alive.

That dream was dashed quickly in the championship contest, where the final story of this year’s tournaments was Baylor’s dominance.  Seventy-three years after last playing in the title game, the Bears led 9-0 after two-and-a-half minutes.  The first half had not reached its midway point when the Baylor lead stretched to 15, the largest deficit Gonzaga had faced all season.  The Zags – the official nickname is Bulldogs, but it’s entirely possible that an undergraduate could complete four years of study on the Spokane campus having only heard the team referred to by the shorthand reference – were trying to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.  A high-powered offense was Gonzaga’s calling card, evidenced by its tournament average margin of victory of just under 20 points, even with the close call against UCLA.  But Baylor’s defense was stifling, and as the Bears rained three-pointers at their end of the court, it was soon obvious that the Hoosiers place in the record books was safe for another year.  After the Bears’ opening nine-point outburst, Gonzaga was never closer than eight on the way to the 86-70 final score. 

NCAA president Mark Emmert would no doubt dearly love for those tales to remain the focus as this season’s tournaments pass into memory.  But even as the confetti was being swept up in Texas and Indiana, the words of a different song than Barrett’s annual contribution to CBS’s March Madness coverage kept coming to mind.

“The party’s over, it’s time to call it a day.  They’ve burst your pretty balloon and taken the moon away.”

Even while the tournaments were going on, even as the focus should have been on final scores and busted brackets, the NCAA’s ineptitude instead put the spotlight on the organization’s institutional misogyny.  Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a video on Tik Tok showing the laughably pathetic weight training equipment in San Antonio – a single small rack of dumbbells next to a pile of yoga mats – compared to the expansive setup for the men in Indianapolis.  Prince’s video quickly garnered more than 5 million views, and as it did so the media uncovered similarly vast differences in everything from catered food to virus testing protocols.  The Association’s talking heads mumbled and fumbled before efforts were finally made to correct the disparities.  But the indelible impression left by the initial reaction was that but for a player with a smartphone, the NCAA would have been perfectly fine with the caste system embodied in the original arrangements.  As Prince said at the end of her video, “if you aren’t upset about this problem, then you are a part of it.”

“The party’s over, the candles flicker and dim.  The party’s over, it’s all over, my friend.”

With the tournaments concluded and the nets cut down, issues that have dogged the NCAA for years will now once again be front and center.  Foremost among those is the legitimacy of the business model for big-time college sports, in which schools reap vast fortunes, especially in football and basketball, while the players fans pay to see are restricted from either sharing the wealth or making their own by NCAA rules.  The realities of the pandemic, during which seasons were cancelled or games played in empty stadiums and arenas, left many athletic departments reeling financially.  But as vaccinations increase and crowds start to return to sports, state legislatures, Congress, and even the Supreme Court appear ready to act if the NCAA and its member schools will not.  For Emmert and the NCAA, there’s precious little time left to seize one shining moment, before the party is thoroughly and finally over.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 4, 2021

At Long Last, Back In The Bronx

The drive begins on the New Hampshire seacoast, just before 7 a.m.  The route is familiar, though it has not been traveled for almost a year and a half.  The air’s frosty during the quick stop for coffee in Portsmouth’s Market Square, but as the miles roll away, the path cutting across New England toward Gotham, the temperature slowly climbs, with the forecast calling for a high nudging above 50 degrees in the Bronx, though a breeze is likely to make it feel colder in the upper deck.  The sky above is free of clouds and a uniform robin’s-egg blue.  It is a postcard of a lovely early spring day.

Now the Camry passes over the seamless junction of the Wilbur Cross and Merritt Parkways in southwestern Connecticut.  But for a slight variation in the design of the exit signs, the two old roads are indistinguishable, one winding asphalt ribbon cutting through the forests of southern New England, a bit slower to traverse but far more scenic than I-95, which runs roughly parallel just a few miles to the south.  For this traveler, the start of the Merritt signals the approaching end of the automotive portion of this morning’s journey.  Less than five miles now to the exit for Route 8, which makes the short jog over to the Interstate, then the final twenty mile run down I-95 to the Metro North train station sitting hard by the highway in Stamford.  From there an express train heads straight to the 125th Street station in Harlem for the transfer to a northbound train coming out of Grand Central.  That goes back into the Bronx, turning onto the track that eventually makes its way up along the Hudson, but stops first at the endpoint of this morning’s journey for this traveler.  Half an hour before noon the train doors open at the Yankees – 153rd Street station.  After 536 days, this fan has come home.

The world has changed in ways that could not have been imagined at the time of that last visit to the Stadium, because of a virus that was unheard of in October 2019.  The greatest impact of the pandemic on the game day experience is obvious as one walks from the train station, past the site of the old, long-gone baseball cathedral, and looks across to Babe Ruth Plaza, the broad concourse that fronts the “new” ballpark, as it will always be called by some of us.  There will be no need today to navigate one’s way through a throng of fans milling about, taking photos and looking for friends or family members.  The plaza is almost deserted, for attendance is limited to just over 10,000 ticketholders, one-fifth of capacity. 

Even with that restricted number, separated in socially distanced pods of one to four seats scattered throughout Yankee Stadium’s three decks, merely having a ticket is no guarantee of entry.  Before fans can pass through the turnstiles, each must present proof of either being fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior to today, or a negative COVID-19 test result, either a PCR test taken within three days of the game, or a rapid antigen test taken with six hours of the scheduled first pitch.  The team has sent multiple emails to ticketholders reminding them of these requirements, and even with the short lines there is a brief delay as each person’s paperwork is closely examined.  With a vaccination card attesting to doses administered in January and mid-February, this fan crosses the barriers and soon enough is back inside the Great Game’s biggest stage.  

The first visit of every season – even one separated from the last by a pandemic and a truncated campaign of sixty games played in empty houses – is a time to check out changes to the ballpark.  Some new advertisers have paid no doubt princely sums to have their names prominently displayed.  T-Mobile has replaced AT&T as the cellular carrier of choice on the massive outfield scoreboard, and UberEats is one of several companies that have ponied up for smaller placards along the outfield fence and on the walls of the bullpens.  There are new gathering spots – bars with excellent views of the action on the field below – on both the first and third base sides of the concourse behind the second deck.  But like their third deck cousins, introduced in 2018, and many other concessions and amenities, these are shuttered today, reflecting a fiscally prudent but still depressing decision that the cost of opening them cannot be justified, given so few fans in attendance.

Of course, the point of being here is to see the Yankees play, and as the team take the field this fan settles into his seat, well removed from his nearest compatriots.  Corey Kluber is on the mound, one of several members of New York’s rotation who bring both an impressive resume and considerable uncertainty to the 2021 season.  The AL Cy Young winner in 2014 and 2017, injuries limited Kluber to just seven starts in 2019 and a single inning last year.  Today he struggles with his control, but yields just two runs, and only one earned, through four-plus innings, thanks in part to a pair of double plays snuffing out two Toronto threats.  The Blue Jays refuse to roll over, scoring a run in their next at-bat after every New York tally.  But after knotting the score at 1-1 in the top of the 3rd, the next two times those single scores come after the Yankees have plated two, giving the home squad a 5-3 lead as the game enters its final phase.  Chad Green is called upon for a four out save, and the right-hander delivers impressively, setting down the Toronto lineup in order and ensuring that the familiar postgame strains of “New York, New York” will echo through the Stadium while we in the stands, and the Yankees on the field, celebrate.

As this fan makes the walk back to the train station, preparing to reverse the route that began in early morning on a day-long trip that will end back in Portsmouth just before 10 p.m., the surreal nature of the experience is inescapable.  Even from the upper deck, one could hear every call by an umpire, and one suspects, the players could hear every hosanna or insult hurled their way.  And while many members of the media who were present during last year’s games with piped-in cheers have commented on the high noise level from limited crowds, the reality is that’s true only as compared to the fakery of 2020.  Still, while it may have been surreal, and while one longs for the day when the Stadium rocks with the frenzy of a full house and anonymous neighbors high-five each other, bound only by shared joy in their team’s achievements, make no mistake.  It was good to be home.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 1, 2021

A Hopeful Beginning Amid Signs Of Caution

With Gerrit Cole’s first pitch in the Bronx, shortly after one o’clock Thursday afternoon, the longest season got underway.  From the big Stadium on the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue, on across the continental time zones like a long-haul eighteen-wheeler filled with the hopes and dreams of millions of fans, the Great Game returned to the fore of our national conversation about sports.  That it did so on the first day of April with a schedule that originally had all thirty franchises in action at fifteen ballparks in twelve states and the District of Columbia, with the ersatz cardboard cutouts of 2020 replaced by real live fans in every one, symbolized progress against the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when set against the long-delayed and truncated campaign of last year.  But if the cheers that greeted shouts of “play ball” from east coast to west were a rightful sign of hope, the extent to which this Opening Day was different from the usual was a firm reminder that a return to normal is still a distant goal.

Limits on attendance varied between jurisdictions, from Boston’s 12 percent up to 100 percent of capacity at the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Field, with 20 percent the most common ceiling.  But not every club chose to fill all the seats allowed, and there was evidence of caution among fans.  The Rangers don’t play their home opener until Monday, but an exhibition game earlier this week drew fewer than 13,000 of the stadium’s 40,300-seat capacity.  In absolute numbers, Thursday’s biggest crowd was at Coors Field, where the Rockies admitted 20,570 through the stadium’s gates to watch the home team upend the defending world champion Dodgers, 8-5.  At the other extreme, the Blue Jays are certain to have the smallest attendance once all thirty teams have played their home opener by early next week.  Because of travel restrictions to Canada, the Jays will begin the season playing home games at their Spring Training facility in Dunedin Florida, where the permitted 15 percent capacity of the little minor league park amounts to fewer than 1,300 paying customers.

Still, social media posts from members of the media who were present throughout the fanless short season of 2020 marveled at the noise and energy generated by the presence of cheering faithful, even if their numbers were just a fraction of a typical Opening Day.  Of course, we fans have known all along how important we are to the outcome of every contest, which is what has made the last year in sports so stultifying.

The hope, from franchise front offices to players to season ticket holders to families longing for a Sunday afternoon together in the outfield bleachers, is that as the schedule slowly unwinds through the long months ahead, the current attendance restrictions will gradually be relaxed.  Simply by virtue of the calendar, over the course of this season the Great Game could become the sport that symbolizes our return to an environment approximating the one we all once took for granted.

That sentence is necessarily conditional, because for all the progress that has been made in recent months, the future course of the pandemic remains uncertain.  As great as it was to see fans in the stands from coast to coast, the acres of empty seats on Opening Day were gaping reminders of that uncertainty.  As were first pitches played on jumbotrons rather than being thrown live, temperature checks at the turnstiles, food stands refusing to accept cash, and all the other concessions to COVID-19 at ballparks from New York to San Diego and from Miami to Seattle.

Then there was the game that wasn’t played.  Washington Nationals players and staff were tested as they broke training camp in West Palm Beach on Monday, as they had been throughout Spring Training.  On Wednesday, the team announced that those tests produced one positive result from a player, with that individual and direct contacts going into quarantine while further tests and tracing got underway.  By midday Thursday Nationals GM Mike Rizzo delivered the unhappy news that the number of players testing positive had grown to three, with a fourth considered a “likely positive.”  The evening contest between Washington and the New York Mets was scrubbed, with no immediate word on makeup plans beyond an announcement that it would not be played on Friday. 

The news was a haunting reminder of the ragged start to the shortened 2020 season last July, when the virus swept through the Miami Marlins clubhouse, ultimately infecting 21 players and coaches.  The St. Louis Cardinals also had an early season COVID-19 outbreak, and there were more limited cases involving four other clubs.  Forty games were postponed, although in the end all but two contests between the Cardinals and the Tigers were rescheduled.

Last winter’s attempt by some owners to postpone the start of play until May and shorten the season is already long forgotten. The 2021 regular season calendar stretches over the usual six months, an eternity compared to the mere ten weeks of 2020’s sixty-game novella.  There will be ample opportunity for the two NL East rivals to fill in this hole in their schedules, even if it turns out that their entire three-game opening set cannot be played.  For now, at least, the concern is not about any larger impact on the 2021 season, but rather, and appropriately, on the health of the players.  But on an Opening Day that was at once both welcomed for its familiarity and distinguished by its differences with past ones, Nationals ace Max Scherzer not taking the mound in D.C., hours after Yankees ace Cole did so in the Bronx, demonstrated that while baseball may well lead sports out of the pandemic, like so much else in life over the past twelve months, the Great Game doing so is not yet a sure thing.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 28, 2021

Butterflies And Batting Averages

Clinging to a leaf on a tree in West Africa, a butterfly beats its wings, disturbing in a barely measurable way the air around the flying insect. But that tiny perturbation is the first in a long and meandering causal chain, and three weeks later a Category 4 hurricane roars through the Lesser Antilles, leaving widespread devastation in its wake. The butterfly effect is by far the best-known metaphorical example of chaos theory, even if it is generally used inaccurately. As set forth by mathematician Edward Lorenz, the butterfly effect was meant to illustrate the inherent unpredictability of certain systems, while books and movies like to use the metaphor as proof that the smallest causal effect can be found if one only knows where to look. But as a symbol of the impact of random events, the butterfly effect is often on full display as Spring Training comes to an end and major league teams make final preparations for Opening Day. Any fan doubting that should consider what is now the certainty that Jay Bruce will be wearing pinstripes in the Bronx next Thursday.

A few days short of his 34th birthday, Bruce is the kind of ballplayer who once would have weighed multiple offers heading into this year’s Spring Training. A 13-year veteran, he broke into the big leagues with the Reds, and spent nine seasons in Cincinnati. The Reds traded Bruce to the Mets at the 2016 trade deadline, and since then he has served two stints in Queens, along with stops in Cleveland, Seattle, and Philadelphia. A left-handed hitting slugger, Bruce’s high-water mark for batting average was .281, and that came early in his career. His career average is a shade under .250, but he’s always shown plenty of power, with 318 home runs and a solid career OPS of .783, a number he bettered in 2019, the Great Game’s last full season. While he has never been a defensive standout, he can play either corner outfield spot or first base and would appear tailor-made for an American League club looking for a designated hitter who could occasionally backup the starter at one of those positions.

But with MLB front offices placing heavy emphasis on inexpensive young players, the combination of Bruce’s age and a recent decline in production at the plate left him as one of many thirty-something ballplayers scrounging for work through the winter. In the truncated 2020 season he batted an anemic .198 with the Phillies and hit just four home runs, or the equivalent of only eleven over a full 162-game schedule. As a result, Bruce remained unemployed until mid-February, when the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal with at least a theoretical chance to make the big club, assuming a strong performance at training camp.

The contract was essentially risk-free for New York, giving the club a chance to look at Bruce firsthand, knowing that on paper a left-handed power hitter should do well at Yankee Stadium. With Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier holding down the starting right and left field jobs, 2020 major league home run leader Luke Voit locked in at first base, and Giancarlo Stanton the day-to-day DH, the best Bruce could hope for was a reserve role. Even that became less likely when the Yankees finally re-signed Brett Gardner, their longest-tenured player who can fill in at all three outfield positions.

Then whatever slim chance Bruce had of making the 40-man roster appeared to slip away as February turned to March and he failed to make the most of his playing time in exhibition games. By last week, Bruce’s spring average was just .194, and his two home runs in thirteen games seemed unlikely to sway many minds. Bruce’s contract included an opt-out clause that ran until Thursday, so it was no surprise when manager Aaron Boone announced that Bruce would not play any more as of that date. While the deal also stipulated a 48-hour window for the team and the player to reach a deal, it was apparent that the brief dalliance between Bruce and the Yankees was over.

Enter the butterfly. All Spring first baseman Voit had been bothered by a sore knee. He treated it as an aggravation, continuing to play and make ready to defend his home run crown over a full season’s schedule as part of a bashing middle of the batting order with Judge and Stanton. But just as Bruce was packing up and heading home, Voit opted to have an MRI on the troublesome knee. Given what we now know was the result, had he done so earlier the Yankees would have had time to consider other free agent first baseman, or a trade, or possibly handling one of their minor league prospects differently. Or had Voit chosen to continue playing through the soreness, Bruce would likely have signed with another team, or even possibly retired, by the time the medical issue was forced.

There has been no reporting on why Voit decided to have his knee looked at just now, but his timing made all the difference to Bruce. The imaging showed a partially torn meniscus, and while surgery is not a mandatory response, Voit chose that route and its minimum month-long, and more realistically two to three month, recovery period. Faster than one can say, “Bronx Bombers,” the Yankees signed Bruce to a major league contract and announced him as the team’s starting first baseman for Thursday’s opener in the Bronx against Toronto.

In the Hollywood telling of this tale, the newest member of the Yankees’ major league roster starts the season on a slugging tear, so by the time Voit is ready to return fans are busy buying Bruce’s number 30 jersey and asking, “Luke who?” Or at the other end of the spectrum, he can’t hit a lick and is released even before Voit’s knee is healthy, with DJ LeMahieu moving from second over to first and Tyler Wade getting unexpected playing time. The outcome, almost certainly between those extremes, will likely not be set in motion by the random beat of a butterfly’s wings. Rather it will turn on whether Jay Bruce, given an improbable chance on the Great Game’s biggest stage by a fortunate confluence of events, can still hit major league pitching.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 25, 2021

Getting Ready To Play, And Cheer, In A Pandemic Year

Spring Training in a pandemic is decidedly surreal. Since last March, the common assumption has been that last year’s training camp would be remembered as the one that was impacted by COVID-19. But while it is true that MLB took the unprecedented step of shutting down 2019’s Spring Training as part of the sudden and complete silencing of sports at every level, up until the day that dramatic step was taken the growing threat of the coronavirus had barely impacted baseball’s preparatory rituals. The only significant concession to the spreading virus had been the closing of clubhouses to members of the media, to lessen the chances of players being exposed.

In retrospect, even that small step demonstrated how little was known about COVID-19. For while teams went to considerable lengths to protect players, all thirty franchises continued to welcome fans into Spring Training ballparks. Capacity crowds that skewed older, given the high percentage of retirees in both Florida and Arizona, crammed into the little minor league facilities that serve as training camp stadiums right up until the day play was suspended. Meanwhile, many members of the media loudly protested the lack of access to players, oblivious to the fact that they were about to face the far more serious problem of having no sport to write about.

Twelve arduous months later, this year’s Spring Training has looked and felt different from the day pitchers and catchers reported. At most sites, the batterymates were kept apart from position players until exhibition games began. Team practices, for many fans a more important part of springtime than the preseason contests themselves, have been closed to the public. The familiar scene of kids clamoring for autographs from their heroes has fallen victim to the requirements for social distancing. As for the games, they are in so many ways unlike any that have been played in other years.

The Philadelphia Phillies have spent Spring Training in Clearwater for seventy-five years. By that measure, the team’s 2005 move to BayCare Ballpark counts as relatively recent. The little stadium, which sits next to the Phillies’ year-round training complex, was built as a replacement for dilapidated Jack Russell Stadium, which in turn had been a 1954 replacement for Clearwater Athletic Field, the franchise’s original home on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Once the big league team heads north, BayCare Ballpark is home to the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies’ Low-A minor league affiliate. The single bowl of seats that runs from one foul pole to the other is supplemented by a sitting and standing area on a grassy berm beyond the outfield fences. That open space allows for some flexibility in crowd management, so while the stadium’s official capacity is 8,500, a record attendance of 11,340 fans wedged themselves into every available spot to see the Yankees upend the home squad 7-3 on March 17, 2019.

The 2021 editions of those same two teams met on Thursday, and the most striking difference was clear driving up to the field. The expansive main parking lot across Old Coachman Road held just a smattering of cars, because the small lots adjacent to the field were more than enough to accommodate the sharply reduced attendance mandated by the city because of the pandemic. There were no lines of fans making their way through the metal detectors, up the broad steps of the ballpark’s main entrance to its Spanish mission style exterior façade, and through the gates to the concourse behind the stadium’s seats. Fewer than 2,300 tickets were sold, all in pods of two to four seats, spaced out around the seating sections or in well-separated rectangles painted on the outfield berm. Those who were able to secure tickets were told repeatedly by the public address announcer that masks were to be worn at all times. And while there were inevitably some who apparently believed that merely thinking about the possibility of having a beer constituted “actively eating or drinking” – the only time masks were to be removed – for the most part a spirit of cooperation prevailed.

Nor were the fans the only ones wearing masks. The umpiring crew, managers coming out to make pitching changes, and the coaches on either base line were similarly attired. However even with the muffling effect of the cloth coverings, the small crowd made it easy to hear sounds from the field that would normally go unnoticed in the stands. It was reminiscent, and not in a good way, of the echoes that bounced around Olympic Stadium in Montreal when the Expos, in their final year before moving to Washington, D.C., played regular season games in front of crowds that were so small as to be barely worthy of the term.

Just as Spring Training games are a chance for players to sharpen their skills before the contests that count begin next week, so this year they are an opportunity for fans to acclimate to the experience of going to a ballpark during this pandemic. Allowable attendance will vary from city to city once Opening Day arrives, but at most stadiums across the country the crowds will be sharply limited, at least through the coming season’s opening months. It will make for a vastly different and in some ways sad experience, while also making it especially hard for fans to provide the energy that can boost the fortunes of home teams. There is only so much noise that one-fifth or one-quarter of a full house can generate.

And yet it is still the Great Game. If the background is different, if the feeling is more antiseptic, it is still baseball. The Yankees and Phillies reminded fans of that on Thursday with a contest that was filled with shifts in momentum and culminated with the visitors rallying in the top of the 9th inning, erasing a six-run lead, only to have the home squad break the tie in the bottom of the final frame, sending Phillies fans home happy with a walkoff win. No matter that by then the participants were all young players who will soon be sent off to a minor league assignment. The Great Game endures, even in a pandemic.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 18, 2021

Hoping The Return Of The Madness Isn’t Insane

A NOTE TO READERS: For the first time in a year, On Sports and Life is about to do some traveling, so there will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. Stay safe, and as always, thanks for reading.

Everywhere one looks there are signs of our collective movement toward recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are national in scope, such as the steadily rising daily count of vaccine shots administered, or the gradually declining trend lines of newly diagnosed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across the country. Others are localized, with increases in capacity limits for restaurants or retail outlets in a city or state being but one example. But symbols both great and small are important, so even a very specific example of progress can carry great meaning for those who in the last year have discovered how much they missed what had long been taken for granted. So it is that for many sports fans, the prospect of songwriter David Barrett once again earning royalties is welcome news.

Barrett has written countless songs, released six albums, and won an Emmy Award for the musical score to a PBS documentary about author C.S. Lewis. But as happens not infrequently in the music business, one particular song of his long ago took on a life of its own and has since achieved a level of fame far greater than that of its composer.

In 1986, Barrett was trying to make ends meet as a folksinger, playing coffee houses and clubs to audiences who often treated his offerings as little more than background noise. After finishing a show at a Michigan pub in March of that year, Barrett stayed to catch part of an NBA game on the television behind the bar. He was struck by the intensity and focus of Boston Celtics star Larry Bird, and tried to describe the magic of an athlete playing “in the zone” to a waitress. While she showed no interest, perhaps taking the soliloquy as a ham-handed pickup attempt, Barrett was sincere in his admiration for those moments when sports become poetry, and by the next day he had the makings of a song. A few months later, he gave the finished tune to a friend, who happened to have connections at CBS Sports.

The song was “One Shining Moment,” and when its brief snare drum intro is followed by the opening horns as a new national champion men’s team celebrates less than three weeks from now, sports fans will know that one year after both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments became two of the most prominent events to be cancelled when the pandemic brought sports to an abrupt halt, March Madness returned. Barrett’s composition has accompanied CBS’s closing recap of tournament highlights since 1987, and the silence that replaced it last spring was as sure a sign of COVID-19’s upending of the sports calendar as the lack of buzzer-beaters and the absence of work colleagues lamenting their busted brackets during office coffee breaks.

The first four play-in games of the men’s tournament are being contested as this is written, with the women’s tourney scheduled to get underway this weekend. The 64 women’s and 68 men’s teams will be steadily whittled down until just two of each remain, with the championship matchups scheduled for the first Sunday and Monday in April. The NCAA’s major concession to the pandemic has been to abandon the usual national scope of these games, instead scheduling each tournament for single geographic areas – greater Indianapolis for the men and the Austin-San Antonio corridor for the women. This allows the NCAA to create a semi-bubble environment for the participants, with teams theoretically restricted to their hotels when not on the court.

That these tournaments would be played this year has been a certainty for months, even before the rollout of the coronavirus vaccines. “One Shining Moment” celebrates the nobility of sport and the capacity of an athlete to overcome adversity and excel in a single, defining instant. No wonder CBS and the NCAA love it as the musical endnote to each year’s coverage. But before getting too misty-eyed, one should remember that the NCAA recently reported a $600 million decline in revenue last year, largely because of the cancellation of the association’s two cash cows, these events. So even though college basketball’s regular season proceeded in fits and starts, with a few leagues sitting out entirely, some teams in others playing reduced schedules due to COVID-related interruptions, and a handful of prominent coaches questioning the wisdom of playing on through a pandemic, the health of its balance sheet was always going to be the NCAA’s primary consideration.

Fans understandably welcome the tipoff of these two events, even if the brackets for office pools must be filled out virtually. And bookmakers are expected to do a booming business, second only to the Super Bowl. Still, the road ahead is unlikely to be smooth, simply because of the number of people involved. With the fields for both tournaments locked, it seems almost inevitable that there will be a walkover at some point, with a team advancing automatically after its scheduled opponent is forced to drop out because of coronavirus cases. The hope is that despite the inevitable obstacles, three weekends from now the chords of “One Shining Moment” ring out, and for a short time, at least, we all think about the many positive impacts of college athletics. But make no mistake, not unlike a sports fan deciding to get on an airplane for the first time in a year, the NCAA is taking a chance.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 14, 2021

TPC Sawgrass, From Reviled To Revered

When it first hosted the Players Championship in 1982, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, which was to serve as the permanent venue of the one event on each year’s PGA Tour schedule that is wholly owned and operated by the Tour, did so to less than universal acclaim from the professionals who are the Tour’s primary constituents and the main beneficiaries of a tournament sporting the largest purse of any golfing competition in the world – $15 million this year. The Pete Dye design was derided by many pros for severely sloped greens, abundant bunkers, and the overall difficulty of a layout that sprawled across 400 acres of reclaimed swampland in Ponte Vedra, Florida, a mile inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Ben Crenshaw suggested the architect wasn’t Dye at all, but Darth Vader, a reference easily understood at a time moviegoers were anxiously waiting for “Return of the Jedi” to calm the fears raised by the cliffhanger ending of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Jack Nicklaus said the course’s firm greens didn’t suit him since he’d “never been very good stopping a 5-iron on the hood of a car.”

Some tweaks by Dye and the maturation of the landscape that only time can bring have gradually changed opinions, and today most members of the Tour sing the praises of eighteen holes that can yield a strikingly low score to one member of a pairing while punishing his fellow competitor with numbers more familiar to a weekend hacker. While TPC Sawgrass stretches to 7,245 yards, the difference between glory and the gutter is often measured in feet, with a shot landing in one spot bringing a smile to a golfer’s face, while another effort coming to earth nearby catches a slope and bounds into trouble, or worse.

As the years have passed and players’ opinions have mellowed, the elevation of the tournament to not-quite major status has ensured a big TV audience and made at least parts of the course familiar to even casual golf fans. TPC Sawgrass’s final stretch, centered around the par-3 17th with its island green, are instantly recognizable. Just before that ever-so-simple yet excruciatingly difficult short hole, the par-5 16th tempts every golfer whose tee shot finds the fairway grass to go for the green in two. But with water to the right and behind the green, and two bunkers with overhanging trees guarding the left, the penalty for a misplaced approach can be severe. Then the home hole offers no respite, with a massive lake bordering the entire length of the long, narrow, curling par-4 on the left while trees inhibit the natural tendency to bail out to the right.

Like the entire course, the final three can yield scores below par, but the loop is just as likely to ruin an otherwise pristine scorecard. That variable alone often makes for high drama on Sunday, which is exactly what Dye had in mind. In 2015’s final round, Rickie Fowler played the three holes eagle-birdie-birdie to force his way into a playoff with Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia, which he won after four holes by birdieing the 17th twice more. Seven years earlier, Garcia claimed the title in another playoff that ended practically before it began. Journeyman Paul Goydos was on the cusp of a career-defining win, but he bogeyed the 18th to fall back into a tie with Sergio. With the playoff starting on 17, Goydos hit first to the island green and put his shot in the water. Once Garcia’s tee ball finished on dry land, that year’s Players was effectively over.

It would be unfair to say that the famous closing stretch was devoid of drama at this year’s Players. But while the outcome was still in doubt as the final pairings made their way around the horseshoe formed by the final holes, the tournament was largely decided much earlier in the round. Yes, Lee Westwood missed a six-footer to save par on the 17th, an effort he surely rued after sinking a long birdie at the last to come up one short. And yes, winner Justin Thomas hit a hooking drive from the final tee box that landed perilously close to the water, but somehow bounced straight ahead instead of caroming towards the lake, as both the shot’s curvature and the fairway’s slope suggested should have happened. Instead of trying to recover from a penalty, Thomas was left with one of the day’s shortest approach shots to the 18th green.

But Westwood’s putt was no gimme, and since he hadn’t missed from inside ten feet all day, golf fans simply nodded their heads and said, “he was due.” As for Thomas’s fortunate bounce, it came long after many viewers had concluded that this was going to be his day. That’s because over a four-hole stretch in the middle of the round, on a part of TPC Sawgrass that gets far less coverage, both electronic and physical, this year’s Players Championship was decided.

While TPC Sawgrass wanders mightily, the 9th through 12th holes are not that distant from the closing troika. But unlike, say, the island green, they are seen by television viewers only when the leaders are making their way through them. The same is true for many of the fans on site. The walk from the massive parking lot through the TPC’s gates and past the merchandise tent takes spectators right to the 17th tee, quite literally the middle of the course’s famous closing stretch. Many fans never move much beyond that, content to watch in person what they know from years of flatscreen spectating.

What they miss is that every hole on the course offers both challenge and opportunity, and on Sunday Thomas made the most of the 9th through the 12th. After a bogey on the 8th, he was 1-over for his round and drifting away from the lead. Then he went birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie, slashing par by five shots in four holes and surging to the front of the pack. The eagle-3 on the 11th, a par-5 that tantalizes players to go for the green despite copious sand and water, was especially impactful when both Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau only managed to par the hole.

Along with those two, Thomas’s five closest pursuers played the same stretch in a combined 4-under, cumulatively unable to match Thomas. Individually each lost from three to six shots to the eventual winner.

Justin Thomas is arguably the best golfer of a preternaturally talented generation. Yet perhaps it’s appropriate that a player still working – from all reports seriously – to overcome the notoriety of uttering a homophobic slur at this year’s first tournament, played his best away from the spotlight. It still resulted in a win, one that reminded fans, both those on the grounds and the vastly larger number who watched from afar, that there is much more to Pete Dye’s signature creation than the handful of holes that made it famous.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 11, 2021

The Night Everyone Was A Boxing Fan

It is all but impossible to imagine now, fifty years on. These days boxing is a fringe sport, the once-vaunted heavyweight division populated by no-name fighters and, like many other weight classes, frequently splintered by the completing claims of would-be titleholders, each recognized by one or two of an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies. The sport’s long-favored means of reaching a broad audience, Pay-Per-View television, is now dominated by the faster and more vicious combat of cage fighting.

But half a century ago, on the evening of March 8, 1971, the attention of far more than just devoted boxing fans was centered on Madison Square Garden. Gotham’s great arena, perched atop what was then the recently relocated Penn Station, was the fourth venue to bear the MSG name and barely three years old. That night’s heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was easily the biggest event held at the “new” Garden since its 1968 opening.

The capacity crowd included scores of ticketholders who had never attended a boxing match and likely never would again, with the count of celebrities and politicians the equal of any Broadway premiere. Frank Sinatra, in the midst of a short-lived retirement, was unable to procure a ticket so traded on his fame to garner a press pass, playing the role of photographer for Life Magazine for the evening and winding up in front of even the front-row seats that he had been unable to buy. Throughout the city, across the country, and around the globe, demand for the closed-circuit screening of the bout dwarfed all expectations, with a worldwide audience estimated at 300 million viewers.

It was promoted as “the fight of the century,” and while there were several boxing matches before and have been at least two since that also claimed the honorific, Ali-Frazier 1, as it would come to be known, stands alone as a bout worthy of that exalted title long after its final bell. That is true in part because unlike so many heavily promoted sporting events, this one lived up to its hype. Although 48 of the two undefeated boxers combined 57 professional matches had ended by knockout, the bout went the full 15 championship rounds. Ali dominated early, stinging his shorter opponent with repeated jabs to the face. But Frazier fought back, landing a sweeping hook to Ali’s jaw at the end of Round 3. The punch marked a shift in momentum, with Frazier becoming the aggressor through the middle rounds, as Ali appeared to tire, his early movement around the ring notably diminished.

For a moment early in Round 11, it looked like Frazier’s blows might have sent Ali to the canvas. But veteran referee Arthur Mercante Sr. quickly signaled “no knockdown,” as Ali had slipped on water that had spilled onto the ring near Frazier’s corner. But in the final three-minute set there was no doubt. Just when it appeared to many observers that Ali had rallied to close the scoring gap, another Frazier hook sent him down. While Ali was up by the count of four, for many who witnessed it the knockdown was and forever will be the bout’s decisive moment, even long after the release of the judges’ cards showed that the decision would have gone Frazier’s way, albeit narrowly, even if Ali had won the 15th.

Had the unanimous decision for Frazier been the end of the story, the match would have been memorable and the legacies of both fighters likely different. But Ali-Frazier 1 ranks atop so many lists of epic boxing battles because it was just the beginning. The pair met in the ring two more times. Their next rendezvous was just under three years later, again at Madison Square Garden, and this time it was Ali emerging victorious in the non-title bout. By that time Frazier had been humbled by George Foreman and Ali had suffered a second loss and a broken jaw at the hands of Ken Norton. To some it was a match between two boxers in their twilight.

But Ali’s victory was the springboard to a title bout against Foreman. Nine months later, on a steamy night in Zaire, Ali won his title back with a brilliant strategy in a fight most of the boxing media expected him to lose badly. The improbable victory – to everyone but Ali – paved the way for the rubber match against Frazier. One year later, in the even steamier Philippine capital, they were scheduled for a 15-round title bout. For 14 of those 15 the two battled as if their lives were at stake; indeed, Ali would later say the “Thrilla in Manila” was “the closest thing to death.” Late in the bout, Ali’s hammering to Frazier’s face began to close the challenger’s eyes so he could barely see. In the 13th an Ali right sent Frazier’s mouthpiece flying, and in the next round Ali pressed his advantage. Before the bell to start the final round sounded, Frazier’s cornermen signaled the referee that they had seen enough. The troika between Ali and Frazier, an indelible part of boxing history, was complete.

Finally of course, that first match between the two, on that long-ago March night, is historic because of its context. Ali was the underdog because he had been idled for almost four years by his refusal to be drafted into the military. In an America riven by race and the war in Vietnam, he was a hero to some and a pariah to many. Inevitably, in an easy characterization that was not entirely fair, Frazier became his antithesis to many fans and writers. The result of their first fight was cast as vindication for a certain point of view. But as Ali remained unbowed, quickly appearing on late night talk shows while Frazier was hospitalized, and, over time, as the mood of the country shifted, the loser according to the judges became the winner of hearts and minds.

Fifty years ago this week, Joe Frazier won the fight. But in the moment of defeat, Muhammad Ali began a journey that won the world. For while Frazier was one of the finest fighters of his generation, a boxer with outsized determination whose devastating left hook could send any opponent crashing to the canvas, it was Ali who grasped the larger context in which the fisticuffs inside the ring played out. Ali understood the power of sports to deliver a message, and he did so with bombast and braggadocio, but also with goodness and grace. Joe Frazier was a great fighter, but Muhammad Ali realized that only one fighter could be the Greatest.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 8, 2021

Adam Silver Rolls The Dice Again

It is too early to say if the NBA holding its All-Star festivities this season, albeit a version condensed into a single day and taking place without fans present, will prove to be a good idea from the perspective of the health and safety of the participants. As everyone involved readily acknowledges, the league descended on Atlanta this Sunday for an exhibition and some made-for-TV supporting events primarily because of the most ancient and powerful motivator of all, money. Still, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the surreal few days last March when sports came to a sudden stop, it seems appropriate that the National Basketball Association was the first league to attempt this symbolic return to the familiar.

After all, it was the Utah Jazz’s center Rudy Gobert who made headlines on March 9, 2020, when he purposely touched each microphone and recording device on the podium he stood at while fielding media questions about the team’s response to the coronavirus, an illness that was just starting to become part of the daily conversation for most Americans. Two days later, Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 even as the Jazz were getting ready to play a game against the Thunder in Oklahoma City. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who earlier in the day had discussed the possibility of limiting attendance at league contests with Players Association head Michelle Roberts, made the decision to call off the Utah-OKC game. Almost immediately after doing so, Silver was told that the officiating crew who had worked the Jazz’s most recent contest was about to take the floor for a game between New Orleans and Sacramento. As the cascading nature of potential exposure became apparent, Silver realized his league was facing a decision far more consequential than restricting the number of paying customers passing through the turnstiles of NBA arenas.

Other professional leagues, the NCAA, and thousands of school districts and youth organizations across the country were in various stages of evaluating the impact of the spreading pandemic and trying to chart a path forward. But the NBA pausing its season in the wake of Gobert’s infection opened the floodgates. Within 48 hours the rhythm of the sports calendar, that reliable backdrop to the lives of fans and the source of welcome diversion for millions, had ceased. Not long after that, the unhappy awareness that the ensuing silence was not going to end in a week or two began to creep into the minds of fans everywhere.

In just a few days the calendar will have come full circle, and we are of course nowhere near to what once upon a time was simply routine. Still, sports are back, though the staging of some events remains uncertain. Tokyo Olympics, anyone? Yes, no, maybe? Every bit as important, the games that are being held are starting to have at least some live witnesses. At long last, not all the cheers are piped through the sound systems of arenas and stadiums, and not all the faces in the stands are unblinking cardboard cutouts.

But along the way, through shortened seasons and tightly restricted bubbles and countless millions of empty seats, the cancellation of All-Star games was an easy decision for every league. After the bitter fight between players and owners over terms of the truncated 2020 season, teams were still getting ready to start play when the original July date for baseball’s Midsummer Classic arrived. With the occasional last minute scheduling shift and a few teams sometimes taking the field with less than competitive rosters, the NFL made it through its season and staged the Super Bowl before a small crowd at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, but calling off the Pro Bowl was a no-brainer. Similarly, the NHL, as it tries to navigate a season played in two countries with tight border restrictions still in place, has realigned teams and reduced the total number of games, complex work that made cancelling the 2021 All-Star Game an obvious call.

Still, some league had to go first, and last month commissioner Silver announced the NBA would be that league. The financial considerations are obvious – with NBA arenas either empty or just now beginning to admit a fraction of the usual attendance, teams are losing forty percent of their revenue stream this season, on top of losses sustained last year. The All-Star contest is a huge ratings draw, so staging it keeps the league in the good graces of its broadcast partners, and allows the NBA and the networks to springboard off the improved ratings that have accompanied this season’s broadcasts.

But while Silver is in Atlanta, most of the people who stand to profit from the game are not. The players, however, are required to be present under the terms of their collective bargaining agreement. While the league’s protocols had players taking private flights to the game and everyone staying in a mini-bubble environment, many NBA stars expressed their displeasure when plans for the game were announced. Multiple teams have had COVID outbreaks this season, and numerous games have been rescheduled. While no reminder of that was needed, only hours before Sunday night’s contest Philadelphia 76ers All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were ruled out after being exposed to a barber who tested positive for the virus.

The show went on of course, an appropriate entertainment industry phrase for a game with no impact on the standings. Like other events that were once so familiar and are now longed for with such intensity, the NBA All-Star Game is a happy diversion for fans. We gladly welcomed it back, knowing that the basketball league has gotten so much right over the last year. But diversions are only worth so much. Let’s hope this doesn’t turn out to be the weekend the NBA’s luck ran out.

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