Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 25, 2017

Past, Present And Future Come Together In The Bronx

The 4 Train rumbles and rattles its way north, making its ever longer express runs between East Side stops. Seventeen blocks from Grand Central to 59th Street, skipping just one local station. Then twenty-seven more to 86th Street, this time bypassing two stations at which its local cousin the 6 Train pays call. Finally, the long run of thirty-nine blocks, all the way to 125th Street in Harlem. Four more local stops are but a blur as the subway charges through on the center express track. From 125th the 4 darts under the Harlem River and into the Bronx, where it becomes a local. But there are only two of those stops, under the Grand Concourse, the broad thoroughfare built more than a century ago as an artery connecting Manhattan with the northernmost neighborhoods of Gotham’s only mainland borough. Then the cars rise into the sunlight of a Sunday morning, the 4 technically a subway no more. Now it is an elevated train that screeches around a gentle right-hand turn and slows to a stop. The familiar female voice recording tells us what we already know, “this is 161st Street – Yankee Stadium.”

On the ride from 42nd Street I sit near a group of four adults and two young boys. From their matching blonde hair and nearly matching features I assume they are brothers. The younger one is perhaps eight, the older and decidedly taller sibling maybe eleven. The adults however are my age or older, suggesting this might be an outing with grandparents rather than an immediate family excursion. As the subway makes its subterranean journey the older boy plays a game on his smartphone, his younger brother peering over his shoulder, equally engrossed in whatever is happening on the tiny screen. But when the train car is suddenly bathed in sunlight the phone is put down and both boys look up, their eyes bright with excitement. Perhaps all those experts who say the Great Game is too slow and too staid to appeal to the coming generation are not entirely correct.

It is fitting that my ride to the Stadium is in a train car filled with multiple generations, for this day is the annual celebration of generations of ballplayers, combining the present with both the recent past and an older age that has begun to fade to memory. It’s the 71st edition of the Yankees’ Old Timers’ Day. Other teams celebrate their past in one way or another, and from time to time every franchise metes out its greatest honor by retiring a former player’s number. Just last Friday evening Fenway Park was full as the Boston Red Sox retired number 34 in a moving ceremony that brought tears to the eyes of slugger David Ortiz, and no doubt to many of the Red Sox faithful in the stands as well. But with twenty-seven championships and forty trips to the World Series, no franchise has so much history to celebrate nor does so with quite the combination of grandeur and self-regard. From Monument Park beyond center field to the Yankees Museum tucked away in the southeast corner of the Stadium’s Main Level, to the massive display of retired numbers behind the left field bleachers, the Yankees go all out honoring the past.

Old Timers’ Day, now into its seventh decade, is the annual party for retired players and fans alike. The attendees are introduced one by one, beginning with the widows of four New York legends, Catfish Hunter, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer. They are followed by the former players. Some were but role players during their time in pinstripes, and not all won championships; the Yankees like every franchise have had their down years. But each is greeted warmly as his exploits are recounted by hosts John Sterling and Michael Kay, the team’s radio and television broadcasters.

The best-known players are introduced last, with first-time participant Jorge Posada walking onto the field to a deafening roar. Posada is the first of the Core Four stalwarts of recent Yankee glory to attend an Old Timers’ Day. In the stands, we are at once overjoyed to see our hero, but also reminded that the era of Yankee dominance that he and his brethren symbolize is irrevocably over.  Special recognition is also given to Tim Raines, who will enter the Hall of Fame later this summer. Raines is best known for his play with the Montreal Expos, but he spent three seasons in the Bronx from 1996 to 1998. And eight members of the 1977 championship team, led by Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, are celebrated on the 40th anniversary of the first title under the ownership of George Steinbrenner.

But on this day the loudest and most heartfelt cheers are for three players from a more distant time. Bobby Brown is the last surviving member of the 1947 championship squad. Don Larsen is more than six decades removed from his World Series perfect game. And Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, the Chairman of the Board, is the final old-timer to be introduced. The three are on either side of 90 years old, and Larsen and Ford appear especially frail. We do not hesitate to shower them with our love while we still can.

After the ceremonies, the younger retirees play four innings of exhibition ball, and as always there are a few pratfalls. But there is also some slick fielding by Willie Randolph at second, a fine running catch by Mickey Rivers in center, and a spectacular grab of a pop foul by first baseman Tino Martinez racing toward the stands.

The past yields to the present, and the current Yankees take the field for a game against the Texas Rangers. This year’s team began play at a torrid pace. In contrast, the past two weeks have been a titanic struggle. Early on today appears to be no exception to that recent theme. Starter Michael Pineda allows three runs before his offense comes to bat, and surrenders three more to Texas in the 2nd inning. By the 4th it is 7-0, and the game seems virtually out of reach.

A majority of games in the longest season remain to be played. They will determine the ultimate fate of this Yankees squad. Probably this team is not as overwhelming as its April record suggested. But likely neither is it as bad as its current rough patch implies. Whatever the final standings, the only thing that is clear is that these new look Yankees, with their preponderance of youth, have a winning and upbeat attitude. Earlier this season New York trailed Baltimore 9-1 early and 11-4 with just nine outs remaining before coming all the way back to tie the game in the 9th before scoring a walkoff win in the 10th.

Another epic comeback isn’t on tap today, but the Yankees come tantalizingly close. Aaron Judge plates New York’s first run in the 5th, and Gary Sanchez quickly adds three more with a homer to left. Ronald Torreyes lines a shot into the seats in the 7th, and a Didi Gregorius drive to the right field corner scores Judge to make it 7-6. Two innings later that becomes the final score, but shortly before it does the out-of-town scoreboard tells us that the Angels have won in Boston. The Yankees and Red Sox remain tied for the lead in the AL East.

No one predicted that during Spring Training, so we fans will take it here in late June. Whether or not it lasts we know for certain that this team is fun to watch and root for. We head for the exits remembering our franchise’s glorious past, enjoying its surprising present, and anticipating a bright future.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 22, 2017

Celtics Squander Their Draft Lottery Winnings

No team in the National Basketball Association can match the championship history of the Boston Celtics. No matter that much of the team’s story was written generations ago, when the pugnacious head coach Red Auerbach and the consummate center Bill Russell combined to win multiple championships in the old Boston Garden; Celtics fans of any age are imbued with an expectation that their team will once again ascend to the heights of playoff glory.

Given that expectation, it’s no surprise that the team’s fans reacted badly to the news that general manager Danny Ainge had traded away the first pick in this week’s NBA Draft to Philadelphia, in exchange for the number three pick this year and another first round choice in either 2018 or 2019. The Boston faithful thought their team had hit the jackpot when the Celtics won the Draft Lottery with the first round choice that came their way as part of the lopsided 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets. The Celtics worked out consensus number one pick Markelle Fultz, the one-and-done 19-year old point guard from the University of Washington. Some fans were already lining up to buy number twenty green and white jerseys in anticipation of Fultz joining the team.

Of course Boston already has a point guard in Isaiah Thomas, who is a two-time All-Star and a fan favorite. So many Celtics supporters, especially those who set aside the hype of the draft and expressed quite reasonable doubts about how quickly a teenager could become a leading man in the NBA, hoped that general manager Danny Ainge would use the number one overall pick as trade bait and bring an established star to Boston. There was discussion of a deal for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and talk of a trade for Indiana’s Paul George. While the Celtics have been an entertaining and steadily improving team under head coach Brad Stevens, Boston was manhandled by Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals last month, losing in five games. The Cavaliers’ average margin of victory was just shy of 26 points in their four wins, a harsh reminder to the Boston fan base that as presently constituted their team’s roster is not ready to compete with the league’s elite.

Instead Ainge announced that the best deal available was to trade down two spots and add one more future first round selection to Boston’s seemingly endless stockpile of draft picks. Celtics fans, both those looking forward to their team being the first franchise on the clock Thursday evening and those anticipating a blockbuster trade for a proven star, were left feeling understandably deflated.

As first the days then the hours wound down from news of the deal between the Celtics and 76ers last Friday to the start of the Draft, Ainge’s plan remained a mystery. Some analysts had Boston picking Kansas forward Josh Jackson, while others pointed to Jayson Tatum from Duke as Boston’s likely choice. On Wednesday, the Boston Herald reported that the player Ainge liked the most was North Carolina State freshman Dennis Smith, a 6-foot-3 point guard who analysts not named Ainge ranked in the lower half of the top ten players available.

Meanwhile the trade rumors were all renewed, this time involving the third pick and some additional players from the existing Boston roster for someone on the same list of stars discussed days earlier. Then a new wrinkle was added when Phil Jackson, president of the dysfunctional mess of a franchise known as the New York Knicks, made it known that center Kristaps Porzingus might be available. Jackson made Porzingus the fourth overall pick in the 2015 Draft, for which he was derided at the time. But the 7-foot-3 Latvian, who is still just 21, is now seen as one of the few good moves of Jackson’s time at Madison Square Garden. As a young rising star with great potential, Porzingus also seemed like the kind of player for whom Ainge might be willing to unload several of his precious future draft picks.

But as the final moments before the start of the draft ticked away, word spread that the ransom Jackson was demanding from Ainge to ship New York’s budding star up I-95 to Boston was too high. Sure enough, after the 76ers took Fultz and the Los Angeles Lakers as expected selected Lonzo Ball, there was no last second announcement of a trade. Instead NBA commissioner Adam Silver stepped to the microphone at the Barclay’s Center and told the world via ESPN that Boston had made Jayson Tatum the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. The 19-year old, who entered this year’s Draft after a single season at Duke, is regarded as a top offensive player who can man several different positions. His defensive skills are suspect, so Celtics fans can only hope that they will improve as he matures.

When the trade with Philadelphia was announced, Boston fans were reminded that they were seeing a reprise of 1980. That year the Celtics lost in the Conference Finals, had the number one pick in the Draft, and traded it to Golden State for the number three pick and a player. Substitute that player for a future pick, and 1980 mirrors 2017. But in 1980 that player was center Robert Parish, and the Celtics selected Kevin McHale with that third pick. Along with Larry Bird they formed the foundation of a team that won three titles.

Maybe Tatum will turn out to be as good as McHale. But what he almost certainly isn’t is a franchise-changing talent; what he definitely isn’t is an established star who can take the Celtics to the elite level needed to contend for a championship. And there was no Robert Parish in Ainge’s deal with Philadelphia. Given the number one overall pick, Boston parlayed that good fortune into the third selection in the Draft and yet another high draft choice down the line.

As he has stockpiled draft picks, Celtics fans have long assumed that Ainge had some master plan for utilizing them. The question has always been when that plan would be revealed. Now it’s fair to ask whether there really is a plan at all. Perhaps it’s just to wait until LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry get old and retire. As plans go, that one’s not very fan-friendly.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 19, 2017

Not All U.S. Opens Are Created Equal

A NOTE TO READERS:  As advised last week, this post was delayed by the Sunday evening finish of the U.S. Open Golf Championship.  The regular schedule resumes Thursday.

Just two years ago the USGA departed from its usual practice of holding the U.S. Open on a well-established golf course with significant tournament history, often including previous Opens. That experiment in the Pacific Northwest did not go well. Given that history, as well as the USGA’s twin debacles of mismanaged rules decisions at last year’s men’s and women’s Opens, the blue-blazered members of the American golf rules-setting body had to be feeling the pressure as this year’s Open played out on yet another unlikely venue in rural Wisconsin.

In 2015 the Open was played at Chambers Bay, on the shores of Puget Sound. The public course was less than ten years old and manifestly not yet ready to host an Open. Chambers Bay is a sprawling layout, but its many steep hills led the USGA to restrict spectator access on some holes for safety reasons. The result was sections of the golf course devoid of fans and the roars that normally punctuate a major championship. On television the treeless links looked like nothing so much as a moonscape, and player after player derided the bumpy greens. Rory McIlroy famously likened doing his job on them to trying to putt across heads of cauliflower.

Last year’s locations for both the Men’s and Women’s Opens returned to the traditional, but the headlines were as much about final round rules imbroglios, first with Dustin Johnson at Oakmont and then with Anna Nordqvist at CordeValle, as they were about the performances of the contenders. Between a course not ready for its moment in the sun and inexcusable rules snafus, the blue blazer crowd was reeling as players teed off at this year’s men’s Open on Thursday morning.

They did so at Erin Hills, a public course (to the extent that a $280 green fee counts as “public”) only a year older than Chambers Bay. The USGA granted this year’s Open to Erin Hills in 2010, just four years after the course opened, on the strength of the course’s length and appearance. Erin Hills can be stretched to more than 8,000 yards, and the mostly treeless eighteen is laid out over a rolling glacial moraine that is nature’s way of designing an inviting venue for golf. As play began USGA officials were surely hoping for a classic U.S. Open, with the top players in the world battling for the championship while having to play their very best to beat par.

Instead they got an unexpected revival of the Greater Milwaukee Open, a regular PGA Tour stop for more than four decades that was last played in 2009. The GMO was scheduled opposite the Open Championship, which meant that the world’s best players were always on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Like many weekly Tour stops it was also played on courses that the field could overpower, with the winning score regularly reaching well into double digits under par.

Erin Hills is thirty-five miles northwest of Milwaukee, and for most of the tournament it played not like a U.S. Open venue, but rather like one of the tracts that hosted the GMO over the years. Rickie Fowler led the way on Thursday with an opening 65, one of forty-four subpar scores on Day One. Forty-six players went low on Friday; and after the midway cut reduced the field to sixty-eight golfers, thirty-two, or nearly half the field, broke par in Saturday’s third round.

In part, the birdie fest can be blamed on the weather. Heavy overnight rains repeatedly softened up the course, and the winds that usually whip across the exposed layout failed to blow until Sunday. But one must also question the USGA’s wisdom in bringing the national championship to a course without enough history to reliably predict how it would play under various conditions. Even with gusts above 25 miles per hour on Sunday eighteen contestants broke par. Last year at Oakmont there were nineteen subpar rounds for the entire weekend.

Of course, even at a weekly Tour stop there are players who aren’t going to do well. Oddly enough, at Erin Hills that list was heavily weighted toward the best players in the world. On Thursday the top six players in the Official World Golf Rankings combined to shoot 21-over par. Most of them fared little better on Friday, and four of the six missed the cut. That number included Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, the rankings’ top three. That made the 2017 U.S. Open the first major since the rankings were instituted in which the world’s top three players all missed the cut.

Lacking in star power and playing out on a defenseless golf course, the weekend rounds felt like anything but a major championship. The lowest score in relation to par through 54 holes in U.S. Open history was Rory McIlroy’s 14-under at rain-soaked Congressional in 2011. By Saturday evening the next four places on that historical list were occupied by leader Brian Harman at 12-under and his three closest pursuers at Erin Hills. One of those was Justin Thomas, who ripped a 3-wood from the middle of the 18th fairway that settled seven feet from the hole, setting up a closing eagle on the par-5 that gave him a 9-under par score of 63. That broke the 44-year old record, set by Johnny Miller at Oakmont, for the lowest round in relation to par at the U.S. Open.

Thomas was unable to duplicate his Saturday magic in the final round, and he quickly fell out of contention with three bogeys in the first five holes. Harman’s one-shot lead disappeared even faster, as long-hitting Brooks Koepka started birdie-birdie in the penultimate pairing while Harman was scrambling to save pars in the final twosome. A close contest among Koepka, Harman, and Britain’s Tommy Fleetwood provided what little drama Sunday had to offer, and even that dissipated when the 27-year old Koepka ran off a string of three straight birdies starting on the 14th hole. As the final groups played the closing holes the only question was the size of his winning margin.

The eventual answer was four strokes, with Koepka at 16-under followed by Harman and Hideki Matsuyama at minus-12, Fleetwood at 11, and Fowler, Bill Haas, and Xander Schauffele all at 10-under par. The winner’s total matched McIlroy’s record for the most strokes under par in the history of our national golf championship. All of the others on that list posted totals that would have won all but two previous U.S. Opens and a few Greater Milwaukee Opens as well. The good news for golf fans is that the USGA has already set the venues for the next nine U.S. Opens, starting with historic Shinnecock Hills on Long Island next June, and there isn’t a Chambers Bay or an Erin Hills on the list.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 15, 2017

Under Very Different Rules Two Dynasties Rise

A NOTE TO READERS: To accommodate the scheduled Sunday evening finish of the U.S. Open Championship, as well as the possibility of a playoff the following day, the next post will be delayed until Monday. Thanks as always for reading and for your ongoing support.

The Golden State Warriors laid claim to the Larry O’Brien Trophy Monday night. The previous evening the Pittsburgh Penguins had captured the Stanley Cup. As the final curtains came down on the NBA and NHL seasons, the two teams taking their bows and planning victory parades were among the least surprising champions in the recent history of both leagues. The emerging West Coast dynasty by the Bay had been widely predicted from the moment Kevin Durant announced his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder in favor of the Warriors. But while Golden State’s 16-1 run through the NBA playoffs for a second title in three years was one for the record books, in many ways the prolonged excellence of the Steel City’s hockey team is even more impressive.

For the third season in a row the NBA Finals featured a matchup of the Warriors versus the Cavaliers. While Cleveland is clearly the class of the Eastern Conference – the Cavaliers dropped just one game through the first three rounds of the playoffs – even LeBron James seemed to concede after the Finals that his squad was no match for Golden State. “Pretty much all their big-name guys are in their 20s, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down,” James told the press after the Warriors sealed the championship with a 129-100 victory in Game Five. From Miami to Cleveland, James has led his team to the Finals eight times, including the last seven years in a row. As an individual player, he remains without peer among this generation of NBA superstars. But his record in each season’s ultimate series is just 3-5, a reminder that even the best player in the game needs a supporting cast.

At the end of last season Golden State was a well-rounded team with its own superstar in Stephen Curry, a team that failed to defend its 2016 crown only by blowing a three games to one lead over James and the Cavaliers. The addition of the 28-year old forward, the consensus top free agent on the market after last season, turned the Warriors into a super team. At the time of Durant’s signing more than a few wags suggested Golden State might go through the regular season undefeated.

The Warriors didn’t do that of course. But they nearly managed the trick in the playoffs, dropping only Game Four of the Finals to post the best NBA postseason record since the league went to its current playoff format of seven game series in all four rounds. In each of the past three years Golden State has had the best regular season record in the league, compiling a 207-39 mark over that time, unmatched in the history of the league.

As James pointed out, Golden State remains a young team; and while much of the roster is eligible for free agency, there is little doubt that all the core players will return. Both Durant and Curry have already raised the possibility of taking less money to free up salary cap space for other players. Besides, who would want to play anywhere else?

But the NBA has a soft salary cap, with the ostensible spending limit of $94.14 million and luxury tax threshold of $113.29 million both subject to myriad rules and exceptions. Golden State’s general manager Bob Myers was blessed with a significant increase in the cap limits thanks to the NBA’s burgeoning television revenue, but also used the cap’s rules, including the mid-level exception and the qualifying offer rules to make Durant’s deal work within those newly increased limits.

In Pittsburgh, the work to build a dynasty has been much more challenging. The NHL has a hard cap, a straightforward percentage of revenue that can be spent on salaries, with no exceptions or special rules, as well as a cap “floor” or minimum amount that a team must allocate to paying its players. This gives general managers considerably less flexibility in building rosters for the long term.

Owners pushed for the hard cap to ensure profitability of the league’s smaller market and less successful franchises, but one of the side effects has been to increase parity. It’s now been twelve seasons since the cap was introduced, meaning a maximum of twenty-four teams could have skated in the Stanley Cup Finals. In that time eleven teams have made it to the Finals once while three more, the Bruins, Kings and Red Wings, have two appearances each. And for those three the multiple appearances were over a maximum of three years. In short, the hard cap has made it very difficult to hold a dominant team together.

Only Chicago and Pittsburgh have more than two appearances in the Cup Finals under the cap. Chicago skated in the Finals in three different seasons over a six-year period. Many considered the Blackhawks to be worthy of being called a dynasty, but general manager Stan Bowman had to blow up his roster after winning in 2010, and after hurriedly rebuilding was again forced into major changes after winning the third championship two seasons ago.

That leaves the Penguins, the most successful NHL franchise in the cap era with four appearances and three wins in the Finals spread out over a decade. With the triumph last Sunday over the upstart Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh also became the first franchise since Detroit in 1997 and 1998 to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. A league-leading 467 regular season victories over the past decade is proof that the Penguins’ postseason record is not just a matter of springtime good fortune.

Pittsburgh has done it with multiple general managers and head coaches, but with a consistent approach of retaining a dynamic core of players who could probably make more elsewhere but have bought into the idea of contending every season. At $8.7 million and $9.5 million respectively, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are certainly not poor; but given their talent they are both working on bargain contracts.

The Penguins have also been willing to make business decisions without sentiment. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has spent his entire career with Pittsburgh. But 23-year old Matt Murray, whose cap hit is $2 million less than Fleury’s, was between the pipes when the final horn sounded in Nashville Sunday.  In a symbolic gesture Fleury handed the Stanley Cup to Murray during the postgame celebration. Look for Fleury to soon be a former Penguin.

What is certain is that whether working the byzantine rules of the NBA’s soft cap, or piecing together a winning franchise despite the harsh restrictions of the NHL’s hard cap, the Warriors and Penguins have both found winning formulas. They are the class of their leagues, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, both are already listed as the early favorites by Las Vegas bookmakers to add another championship to their legacies come this time next June.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 11, 2017

A Belmont Lacking In Buzz

The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the three Triple Crown races, first run at a long-forgotten racetrack in the Bronx in 1867. The inaugural runnings of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes didn’t come until the following decade. Contested every year since, save 1911 and 1912 when anti-gambling laws shut down horse racing in New York, the 149th edition of the Belmont saw a field of eleven load into the gate at Belmont Park on Long Island late Saturday afternoon.

While it is the senior member of the three, because it is also the last on each spring’s Triple Crown calendar, the level of drama at the Belmont is utterly dependent on what happens in Louisville and Baltimore over the five weeks preceding the moment when the horses set foot on the track known as the Big Sandy for the post parade. Some years the Belmont is the opportunity for a horse and jockey to race into the sport’s history books, immortalized for all time as a Triple Crown winner. In those years Belmont Park is filled to overflowing. In 2004 a record crowd of more than 120,000 packed the expansive layout, only to see Smarty Jones, winner of the Derby and Preakness, run down in the deep stretch by the 36-1 longshot Birdstone.

That attendance record would likely have been broken two years ago, when American Pharoah pulled away from Frosted and the rest of the field over the final furlong to end the nearly four decades long Triple Crown drought. But after a crowd of more than 102,000, the third largest ever, dealt with overflowing bathrooms and hours of gridlock trying to leave following the 2014 race the New York Racing Association agreed to cap attendance at 90,000.

Then there are years like this, when there is no Triple Crown at stake because different horses have crossed the wire first at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. The attendance cap is not an issue in such circumstances, and the 2017 Belmont Stakes provided an extreme example of previous events conspiring to drain as much drama as possible from Big Sandy’s day in the sun.

Not only was there no Triple Crown on the line, with the Derby going to Always Dreaming and the Preakness to Cloud Computing, but both of those horse chose to pass on the Belmont. Then on Wednesday the two-year old champion Classic Empire, who ran fourth in the Derby and second in the Preakness and who was certain to be the morning line favorite, withdrew due to a foot abscess. As if to add insult to injury, Saturday morning Epicharis, a rare entry from Japan, was scratched as well.

The role of betting favorite went by default to Irish Way Cry, a New Jersey colt trained by Graham Motion. In four races as a 3-year old the son of Curlin had alternated between outstanding and pedestrian, with wins in the Holy Bull and Wood Memorial offset by a 7th place finish in the Fountain of Youth and a 10th place result in the Run for the Roses. That disappointing showing at the Derby originally led Motion to plan on resting Irish War Cry until the Haskell Invitational in late July. But positive training results and the fact that his horse had been involved in the bumper car start to the Derby that ruined the day for several entrants led the trainer to point for the Belmont instead. Perhaps Motion was also thinking that Irish War Cry’s boom followed by bust racing pattern suggested he was due for a big run.

The announced attendance on Saturday was 57,729, down some four percent from 2016. Between no Triple Crown prospect and the number of leading horses staying away from Long Island, it is a testament to the NYRA’s aggressive marketing campaign that the decline wasn’t steeper. No longer content to let external events totally dictate turnout, in recent years the NYRA has heavily advertised a three-day weekend of racing as the Belmont Stakes Festival, with two graded stakes on Thursday, four more on Friday, and nine on Saturday’s 13-race card, including five other Grade I races in addition to the main event.

Those who did show up were more than enough to fill the long three-level grandstand that runs along the front stretch, as well as the broad apron in front of it. That at least made for good television shots, even if the paddock and expansive picnic areas behind the grandstand weren’t also filled to overflowing. They got to see the 4-year old filly Songbird return to action after a seven-month injury layoff in the Grade I Ogden Phipps. Filly of the Year as both a 2 and 3-year old, Songbird looked as good as ever. She led from the start of the mile and one-sixteenth race. On the far turn Paid Up Subscriber challenged on the inside, and briefly put her nose in front. But jockey Mike Smith asked Songbird to run as the field straightened for home, and she pulled away to win by a length, her twelfth victory in thirteen career starts.

While Songbird won as a prohibitive favorite, the day had its share of upsets as well. In the Grade I Woodward Reserve Manhattan Stakes, the smart money was on Time Test and World Approval. Run at a mile and a quarter on the turf, the Manhattan was the last race before the Belmont, and the fans got to practice their collective roar as Ascend, guided by Jose Ortiz, broke out of a four-wide wall of horses in the final strides to stun the field at 27-1.

The longshot winner was trained by Motion, leaving the crowd to ponder whether that boded well for Irish War Cry in the next race. But Ascend’s jockey Ortiz was riding Tapwrit, the second betting favorite at 5-1 in the Belmont. If the Manhattan result was an augury, it favored the jockey, not the trainer.

Graham Motion had instructed his rider to let Irish War Cry run his own race, and on Saturday the horse chose to go to the lead. He ran ahead of the field all the way around the sweeping turns of the giant oval, setting reasonable fractions along the way. But none of the horses had ever raced a mile and a half before, and in the end the distance seemed too much for the favorite. Ortiz moved Tapwrit up to challenge as they headed into the final furlong. At first it looked like Irish War Cry was going to hold him off. But in the final hundred yards Tapwrit moved to the front as Irish War Cry noticeably slowed. At the wire Tapwrit was two lengths clear, with the one-eyed Patch taking third another six lengths behind.

There have now been six Triple Crown races since American Pharoah made history, and they have produced six different winners. That is a reminder of just how remarkable Pharoah and the eleven other Triple Crown champions truly were. And while Saturday’s race, and those that preceded it on Belmont Park’s card offered plenty of excitement, the crowd that was well short of a sellout and television ratings that were down more than twenty percent from last year were harsh reminders to the racing world that without the potential of history being made, thoroughbred racing remains on the fringe of attention for most sports fans.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 8, 2017

Remembering Jimmy Piersall

Jimmy Piersall died last weekend. His passing was newsworthy in New England because Piersall spent the first half of his seventeen-year major league career roaming center field at Fenway Park. During his eight seasons with the Red Sox he was twice an All-Star and won the first of his two Gold Glove Awards. In 2010 Piersall was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

After the 1958 season Piersall was traded to Cleveland, where he spent three years. The latter part of his career saw him in the uniforms of three expansion franchises, the Washington Senators, the New York Mets and finally the Los Angeles Angels. He also worked as a broadcaster for the Rangers and White Sox after his playing days were over. Despite that geographical diversity, this death of an 87-year old former ballplayer whose career ended half a century ago would normally be of little note to fans living beyond driving distance to the ancient ballyard on Yawkey Way.

But Piersall’s story was about much more than balls and strikes, or hits and errors. In a baseball uniform he was a defensive wizard. His career .990 fielding percentage ranks him 31st among center fielders with at least 500 games. Of course, fielding percentage is one of those old statistics that the sabermetrics crowd scorns. New Age statisticians point out, quite correctly, that a fielder can’t drop a ball if he can’t get to it. Piersall had plenty of speed and understood his position. Long before defensive shifts were in vogue he would position himself to account for the tendencies of hitters and he read batted balls well, covering ground efficiently.

Not surprisingly, modern statistics rate him even higher. His range factor, which is putouts plus assists divided by innings, was 0.17 higher than the league average during his career. That translates into one extra out recorded by Piersall about every six games as compared to an average center fielder. That’s better than the great Willie Mays, whose range factor advantage over the average center fielder during his career yielded one extra putout every eight games. Piersall’s career Defensive Wins Above Replacement is fifth among center fielders. He had a career Total Zone Runs number of 128, trailing only Andruw Jones, Mays and Paul Blair among center fielders in this compilation of defensive statistics.

His offensive contributions were more modest. Piersall was a career .272 hitter, with an OPS of .718, which ranks him as decidedly average. He sprayed the ball to all fields and recorded forty doubles in 1956 and twenty or more in seven different seasons. But his bat didn’t harbor great power. His home run total never reached twenty in a single year. For his career Piersall drove just 104 balls out of the park.

When he hit his hundredth home run, while playing for Casey Stengel and the Mets, Piersall ran around the bases in the correct order but while facing backwards. The stunt was one of many on-field incidents, from arguing with umpires to fighting other players to going into the stands to confront hecklers, that peppered Piersall’s career. Some were amusing while others were grim, but they were all reminders that the other part of Piersall’s story was a lifelong battle with bipolar disorder.

In the middle of the 1952 season he was diagnosed with “nervous exhaustion” in the polite vernacular of the time, and spent seven weeks undergoing treatment at a Massachusetts psychiatric hospital. Piersall would later recount his battle with mental illness in a revealing biography, “Fear Strikes Out.”

Piersall’s time in Washington was brief. Traded to the Senators before the 1962 season after batting a career-high .322 in Cleveland the previous year, he patrolled center field at the newly opened D.C. Stadium for just that season and part of the next. But his tenure as a Senator coincided with the growing interest in the Great Game of a boy from the D.C. suburbs, then not yet ten years old. That boy knew nothing of Piersall’s personal struggles, only that his woebegone local team, which would lose 100 or more games each of its first four years of existence, had a dynamic, slick fielding center fielder who led off the 1962 home opener with a triple as the Senators beat the Tigers 4-1. The Senator who wore number 37 quickly became that boy’s first baseball hero.

Late in that season, before a game in Baltimore, Piersall was arrested after charging into the stands to confront a heckler. As reported at the time, Piersall said, “This guy was on my back while we were in batting practice. He was calling me things like ‘crazy man,’ and said I should be in ‘Spring Grove.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about but later I learned that Spring Grove is a Baltimore mental institution. I told him to come down to the field and say those things. He told me: ‘You come up here.’ So I did. But I never touched him.”

A few days later a judge dismissed the charges against Piersall, calling him a “symbol of the strides a person treated for mental illness can make.” The judge added, “I feel no ballplayer should be subjected to the barrage of vilification and abuse that Piersall was. It is a fan’s privilege to heckle and ridicule players, but only as to their playing ability, not to them as an individual.”

Over the long decades since that 1962 season, as that young boy grew into adulthood his love of the Great Game deepened, and he found in it many heroes, most of whom wore pinstripes. But the memories of those early years will never entirely fade. Those Senators may have been a hapless bunch, but they were still the local team. Mickey Vernon managing the ragtag crew. Young Eddie Brinkman, a shortstop without peer in the field, but unable to buy a hit. Tom Cheney, Bennie Daniels and Claude Osteen anchoring the rotation, such as it was. And in center field, if only for a fleeting moment, a player whose perseverance in life as much as in baseball, ultimately made him a winner in both. Rest easy Jimmy Piersall.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 4, 2017

A Week Of Woods, Then Golf Gets Back To Business

The traveling road show that is the PGA Tour pulled into Muirfield Village Golf Club in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio this week for the Memorial Tournament. While not a major nor one of the four World Golf Championship events, the Memorial is decidedly more important than the weekly insurance company open. That’s because the tournament host is Jack Nicklaus, who began the event 41 years ago to support charities in the area where he grew up. The tournament’s association with the greatest golfer of his time elevated its status from the start, as did its status as just one of five stops on the Tour’s regular schedule that is an invitational, playing with a limited field of 120 starters. Nicklaus also makes a point of honoring a retired player in the runup to each year’s event.

But for much of the week the main topic of discussion wasn’t Nicklaus’s legacy, 2017 honoree Greg Norman, the condition of the layout or who in the field had the best chance of conquering the difficult golf course. Instead at Muirfield Village and beyond, the entire sports world was talking about a golfer who hasn’t played in a PGA event since February and hasn’t cashed a winner’s check since 2013.

In the wee hours of Monday morning Tiger Woods was arrested on suspicion of DUI near his home in Jupiter, Florida. Soon enough copies of the police report, then video of Woods failing field sobriety tests, and eventually more video of Woods at the Palm Beach County jail, taking a breathalyzer test and being read his Miranda rights, all made the rounds of social media. The assorted graphics were accompanied by no shortage of opinion, most of it ranging between overheated and hysterical.

It mattered little that the police eventually corroborated Woods’s assertion that his impairment was related to a mixture of prescription medications and not alcohol. The breathalyzer results showed a reading of 0.00. Woods obviously should have known better than to drive while taking his prescriptions – it’s not as if he couldn’t afford a Uber to get home. But wild headlines like “Tiger Woods now just a ruined man,” “Tiger Woods: A lost, sorry soul,” and other similar absurdities abounded. As Will Leitch pointed out in a thoughtful piece in Friday’s New York Times, all the opinions were from those on the sidelines who can only pretend to know Woods.

It is hard to tell which activity many fans and member of the sports media enjoy more these days; the work of raising up an athlete to heroic status, elevating him or her to a lofty pedestal, or tearing that pedestal to pieces when he or she turns out to be, who would have thought it possible, merely human. Leitch got it right, that we don’t know Woods and never have. Leitch was also correct that the main factor contributing to the sharp decline in Woods’s play is not some character flaw revealed when the Palm Beach County police pulled up behind the idling Mercedes in which Woods had passed out, but the fact that he’s now 41, with a back that has been unimaginably stressed through countless rounds of golf that began literally when he was 2 years old. Time is the implacable foe of every one of our sporting heroes, and the denouement of the unending struggle between age and ability is seldom pretty.

Two-time major winner Martin Kaymer also weighed in with a video post on Twitter, asking why so many people felt it necessary to be so nasty about Woods. Kaymer pointed out how much Woods has contributed to broadening the appeal of golf and obliquely referred to what he has done for every current touring pro by raising the visibility and the finances of the sport. He concluded with a heartfelt plea for people to “be kind;” though kindness is an increasingly rare concept in this TMZ age.

Thankfully Thursday finally arrived, and once the first groups were on the course at least some of the sporting world’s attention turned to the outcome of the tournament. For two days Jason Dufner, winner of the 2013 PGA Championship, appeared determined to run away with the event. He opened with a 7-under par 65 that featured six birdies, an eagle on the par-5 7th hole, and just a single dropped shot that came when he bogeyed the last. Then Dufner matched that score in the second round when he went bogey-free and atoned for his earlier mistake on the 18th by holing out from 175 yards for an eagle two.

The twin 65s put Dufner at 14-under par and set a new scoring record for the midpoint of the Memorial. But Saturday was a different story, as the 40-year old bogeyed four of the first five holes on the way to an unsightly 77 that wiped out his five-shot lead and left him in a tie for third heading into Sunday, four shots behind Daniel Summerhays.

Sunday’s final round was interrupted by a pair of rain delays. When the skies opened for the first time there were eight players within two shots of the lead, including Dufner, who had just birdied the par-3 12th. But in the brief period between play resuming and the second interruption by electrical storms, everyone else on the first page of the leader board played like the last thing they wanted to do was win the tournament. Dufner meanwhile reached the par-5 15th in two and two-putted for birdie, then added another red number on the par-4 17th after a wedge from 119 yards stopped less than three feet from the hole.

Just six players went back out after the second delay, with Dufner having already teed off at the last, two shots clear of playing partner Rickie Fowler, the only golfer with a realistic chance to catch him. When Dufner rolled in a putt from nearly forty feet to save a final par he joined the distinguished list of winners at the Memorial. Nicklaus was there to congratulate him as he left the 18th green, and the golf world was finally free to talk about something other than amateur analyses of the psyche of Tiger Woods.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 1, 2017

A Season Comes Down To One Decision

What will Peter Laviolette do? The veteran head coach has steered the Nashville Predators on an unlikely seven-week run through the playoffs, all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Unlike the franchise that currently employs him and many of the players he now coaches, Laviolette has been here before. He coached the Carolina Hurricanes to the Cup in 2006, and guided the Philadelphia Flyers to the Finals in 2010. At age 52 he is just the fourth coach in NHL history to lead three different franchises to the ultimate round of the playoffs. Now he faces the hardest decision of his coaching career.

When this year’s playoffs began few fans outside of Tennessee believed that Laviolette’s team would still be skating on the first of June. The Predators had the worst record of all sixteen teams in the NHL’s postseason tournament. As the eighth seed in the Western Conference Nashville had to face the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round. Chicago had won the Cup three of the past six years and had beaten Nashville four of the five times the two teams faced each other during the regular season. But the Predators didn’t just win the series, they swept Chicago out of the playoffs in four straight games. The strength of Nashville is its defense, and the Predators demonstrated that by shutting out Chicago twice and allowing a total of just three goals in the four games.

Their confidence climbing with each successive win, the Predators went on to defeat the St. Louis Blues in the second round and the Anaheim Ducks in the Conference Final, both in six games. Nashville reached the Finals without ever trailing in games in any of the three previous series, and without ever losing back-to-back games.

Now both of those streaks have ended, despite Nashville largely controlling the play for both of the first two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game One the Predators did not allow a single shot on goal during the entire second period. In all the Penguins went thirty-seven minutes between shots; but the attempts that bookended that lengthy drought, one by Nick Bonino and the other by Jake Guentzel both found the back of the net, as did three other offerings off Pittsburgh sticks. That was good enough for a 5-3 Game One victory for the defending champion Penguins.

Again in Game Two Nashville carried the action, outshooting Pittsburgh 32-19 through the first two periods. But a barrage of three goals in the space of just 3:18 early in the third period, the last two coming only fifteen seconds apart, turned a 1-1 tie into a 4-1 Pittsburgh win.

There is broad agreement among analysts that Nashville owes its spot in the finals to the play of goaltender Pekka Rinne. The 34-year old native of Finland was brilliant through the first three rounds of the playoffs. There were the two shutouts against the powerhouse Blackhawks, and similarly solid play against the Blues and Ducks. Going into the Finals Rinne led starting playoff goalies in wins, save percentage and goals against average. Even before the first faceoff against the Penguins Rinne was being touted as a likely recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the MVP of the playoffs.

There is equally broad agreement among those same analysts that Nashville now finds itself in a two games to none hole because of the play of goaltender Pekka Rinne. As good as he was against the three earlier opponents, Rinne has been the complete opposite against Pittsburgh. While the Penguins final score of Game One was an empty netter, Rinne allowed four goals on just twelve Pittsburgh shots. Despite the Nashville defense not allowing a single attempt on net for a stretch that ran more than half of the game, the Predators lost the opening contest. In Game Two he allowed a soft, game-tying goal by Jake Guentzel off a rebound that he should have controlled in the first period. Then in the third period Rinne gifted Guentzel the eventual game winner by kicking a rebound right to him as the Penguins began their scoring frenzy. While the second score of the three quick goals glanced off a defender, the third was a medium range shot by Evgeni Malkin that whipped past Rinne’s left shoulder before the netminder moved. At that point Laviolette benched Rinne in favor of Juuse Saros, but the damage was done.

Now the Predators face a critical Game Three on Saturday. Laviolette knows that his strategic approach has been sound, with his team controlling five-on-five play. The Predators will also have the vocal backing of their home fans at Bridgestone Arena for the first time in the Finals. But the head coach must decide who to start in goal. Does he stick with Rinne and hope that his starter rediscovers the wizardry he displayed through the first three rounds? Or does he take note of the fact that Rinne’s save percentage has steadily declined through the postseason, from .976 against Chicago, to .932 against St. Louis, to .925 against Anaheim, and finally to an unsightly .778 in the first two games of the Finals? Laviolette must also consider experience. Rinne has played in 66 playoff games over six different seasons. Saros is a 22-year old rookie whose first ice time in the postseason was when he replaced Rinne in the third period of Game Two.

For now, Laviolette isn’t saying who will be between the pipes when the puck drops on Saturday evening. The one certainty is that he knows the import of his decision. In 2006, he watched as rookie Cam Ward carried the Hurricanes to the Cup, winning a well-deserved Smythe Award. Four years later he twice had to pull a shaky starter Michael Leighton in favor of backup Brian Boucher, as Laviolette’s Flyers fell to Chicago in six games. Peter Laviolette knows all too well that when the NHL calendar turns to June a season can turn on the performance of a goaltender. The decision he’s about to make may well determine whether this year’s Stanley Cup Finals turn out to be rousing, or a rout.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 28, 2017

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose, Sometimes It Rains

Sports, like life, are not always fair; a truism as applicable to the Great Game as any other athletic endeavor. The Yankees and their fans were reminded of that on Friday, three hours after a nervous crowd of just over 39,000 filed into the Stadium on a cool evening to kick off Memorial Day weekend. While the visiting Oakland Athletics arrived in the Bronx with a record a few games below .500, their offense was potent, with the second highest number of home runs in the American League, just behind the home squad. Taking the mound to face those sluggers was Masahiro Tanaka, the putative ace of New York’s rotation.

That Tanaka was starting was the source of the crowd’s anxiety. While he entered the game with a winning record of 5-3, his ERA was a grotesque 6.56. Of his nine previous starts this season, three were horrific. On Opening Day in Tampa, he gave up seven earned runs while lasting less than three innings. That looked like an aberration over the next seven weeks as his performances ranged from solid to excellent, including a scintillating three hit, complete game shutout of the Red Sox at Fenway Park in late April. But Tanaka’s two most recent starts made the Opening Day debacle seem almost acceptable. Against Houston he allowed eight runs and four homers in just an inning and two-thirds. Then in his last start he only made it through three frames against the Rays, surrendering six earned runs while watching three more balls sail into the seats.

While both Tanaka and the Yankees insisted that his problems were mechanical, the obvious concern among fans was that he was hiding an injury; although “hiding” seems manifestly inaccurate given the plainly visible results. But the reasoning of fans is understandable. In 2014 Tanaka’s stellar first season pitching in this country was cut short when he was found to have a partial tear of the UCL in his throwing arm. The decision was to treat it with rest rather than lose a year to Tommy John surgery, but Tanaka has never again been quite as dominating as he was that first summer. He also had surgery to remove a bone spur after the 2015 season, and was shut down late last year with an arm strain.

Yet if not consistently dominant Tanaka has still by and large been very good. Since the starting rotation was the biggest area of doubt about this year’s Yankee team when the season began, a run of faltering performances by the leader of that rotation was bound to cause deep concern among fans who have been treated to the unexpected pleasure of seeing their team in first place through the first eight weeks of the longest season.

While Tanaka’s fastball can touch 94 on the radar gun, the strengths of his repertoire are a pair of off speed pitches, a slider and a splitter, both of which normally display tremendous late movement. The slider breaks down and away from a right-handed hitter and thus in on the hands of a lefty. The splitter lacks the slider’s lateral movement, but drops vertically much more dramatically. In both of his recent poor outings, as well as on Opening Day, Tanaka’s key pitches stayed straight and opposing hitters teed off like it was batting practice.

Tanaka wasted no time in helping to settle jittery nerves. Center fielder Rajai Davis, leading off for the A’s, flailed at a splitter that finished in the dirt, well below his bat, for an opening strike out. Sandwiched around a double by Jed Lowrie, Tanaka also fanned Matt Joyce and Khris Davis, both of whom swung and missed at lively sliders for strike three. The 2nd inning was more of the same, with Ryon Healy and Trevor Plouffe becoming Tanaka’s fourth and fifth strikeout victims. Catcher Stephen Vogt then grounded out to second, the first Oakland out of the game by means other than a strikeout. Tanaka added two more K’s in the 3rd and another pair in the 4th.

Finally, in the 5th inning he retired the side without benefit of home plate umpire Tim Timmons ringing anyone up. The Yankees’ ace wasn’t perfect; in addition to Lowrie’s 1st inning double Tanaka allowed a pair of singles in the 4th and a double in the 5th. But the growing sense in the stands was that he was in control of this game and had put his recent troubles behind him. Despite that, the contest itself was still very much in doubt, for the Yankees offense had decided to start the holiday weekend by taking the night off. Oakland starter Sean Manaea was not nearly as dominant as his Yankee counterpart, but the game was still scoreless.

It remained that way into the 8th inning. Tanaka began the frame facing Mark Canha, the A’s designated hitter. He quickly got ahead 1-2, but then the batter made him work. Canha fouled the fourth pitch back, then looked at two outside the strike zone to run the count full. Tanaka threw a splitter, a slider, and a sinker, all of which Canha managed to get a piece of to stay alive. Finally, on the tenth pitch of the at bat, Canha whiffed on an 87 mile per hour slider. It was Tanaka’s thirteenth strikeout, a career high.

The next batter, Oakland shortstop Adam Rosales, singled to center on Tanaka’s 111th pitch of the game, and Yankee manager Joe Girardi came to fetch his starter. As Girardi walked to the mound the applause steadily built as fans came to their feet. Tanaka exited to a loud and prolonged standing ovation.
Those fans were barely back in their seats before it all went to hell, thanks to the Great Game’s rules and an ineffective Tyler Clippard. Entering a scoreless contest, reliever Clippard was preoccupied with the runner at first. He threw over three times, and his last toss was wild, sailing out of the reach of first baseman Chris Carter. By the time the ball was retrieved Rosales had scampered to third. Rajai Davis then chopped a slow grounder to third baseman Chase Headley, who threw home for the out on Rosales.

The play was a fielder’s choice, reflecting the fact that Headley could have thrown to first to eliminate Davis, allowing Rosales to score. Tanaka didn’t face Davis, but under the rules the runner at first had taken the place of Rosales. Then when Clippard allowed the next three batters to reach base and two runs to score, Tanaka was potentially on the hook for the loss. That became official half an hour later, when the final score read 4-1 Oakland. The go-ahead run in the person of Davis was Tanaka’s, and the A’s took a lead of 2-0 in that inning. Although New York covered the one run charged to the team’s ace, the Yankees never erased the A’s lead from that inning. Thanks to the rules the “L” was hung on Tanaka even though he had nothing to do with the second run.

The phrase “tough luck loss” has been a part of the Great Game since long before Friday night. Masahiro Tanaka is certainly not the first pitcher to be saddled with one, nor will he be the last. Still as disappointed Yankees fans headed for the exits, they did so thinking that on this night their newly restored ace deserved a better result.  But end results are not always fair.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 25, 2017

The Consummate Role Player Hears Superstar Cheers

The National Basketball Association is a superstar-driven enterprise. Fans of every franchise know that in recent years the proven formula for winning a championship has been to build a team around a player (or better yet two or three) whose name recognition goes far beyond the confines of his (or their) home arena. As this is being written the Boston Celtics are trying to stave off elimination at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. But even the most passionate Celtics fans know that their team is outmatched by a roster featuring LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. After all, the Celtics partook of the trend with their own Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who led the team to a title in 2008 and back to the Finals two years later.

The current Boston team has an All-Star in Isaiah Thomas; but while undersized players are often fan favorites, as Thomas certainly is at TD Garden, a point guard generously listed as 5’ 9” is never going to rise to superstar status in the NBA. It’s worth remembering that the sole game the Celtics have won in this series came after Thomas was lost to injury. The rest of Boston’s roster is known for its work ethic and team play, laudable attributes that produce championships in movies like “Hoosiers” but not, on their own, in the NBA.

When the Finals begin late next week it will be James and Company versus the Golden State Warriors for the third year in a row. Led by their own glamour pairing of “Splash Brothers” Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors won the 2015 title in six games, while James led Cleveland back from a three games to one deficit one year ago, bringing joy to the faithful in a city long seen as a perennial loser, no matter the sport. This season Golden State added Kevin Durant to a roster already loaded with talent; and while the Warriors didn’t go through the regular season undefeated as some wags suggested when Durant inked his contract last July, they easily led the league in wins and have raced through the first three rounds of the playoffs without dropping a single game, the first team ever to do so.

Yet if a superstar or three is a prerequisite to laying hands on the Larry O’Brien Trophy, fans were reminded this week that the players with multi-million dollar shoe endorsement contracts don’t win titles all by themselves. The quality of the supporting cast is also critical, which is why James is hoping to win his fourth championship next month rather than his fourteenth.

The poignant reminder of that fact came Monday night, when the Warriors finished their sweep of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals with a 129-115 victory. The game was close for the first four and a half minutes. Then Golden State went on a 13-0 run to turn a lead of 8-7 into a comfortable margin. The Warriors ended the first half with that same 14-point lead, and the Spurs never got within double digits the rest of the way.

Like Boston in the East, San Antonio was simply overmatched thanks to a pair of critical injuries. Point guard Tony Parker was lost to a ruptured quadriceps tendon during the previous round, and forward Kawhi Leonard went out with a sprained ankle midway through the first game against the Warriors. The team with the second highest win total in the league during the regular season was reduced to a shadow of itself without those two stars.

Down three games to none and with no realistic hope of mounting a comeback, on Monday coach Gregg Popovich inserted Manu Ginobili into his starting lineup. Throughout his fifteen year NBA career Ginobili has been the consummate sixth man, coming off the bench time and again to ignite the Spurs offense and steady their defense. In only three seasons was Ginobili a full-time starter, and this year he had not been in the starting lineup even once, either during the regular season or in the playoffs.

But Ginobili turns 40 this summer, and he has been playing professionally for more than two decades. He started in his native Argentina and then played two years in Europe before joining the Spurs in 2002, three years after they drafted him in the second round with the 57th overall pick. Midway through his NBA career, an ESPN analyst would characterize Ginobili’s falling so far and still being available for San Antonio to draft him that late “one of the great draft heists of all time.”

San Antonio has been a consistently successful franchise throughout his time with the team, but the brightest lights have always shone on someone else. Ginobili’s first season was David Robinson’s last, and after that Tim Duncan became the face of the franchise. Ginobili isn’t even the best known international player wearing a San Antonio uniform. That distinction surely goes to Parker, who donned a Spurs uniform one year before Ginobili and who is a six-time All-Star and was named the MVP of the 2007 Finals. With Duncan now retired and Parker’s career winding down, Popovich and the Spurs will look to build around the 25-year old Leonard, the Finals MVP the last time San Antonio won a championship in 2014.

Yet if other Spurs have been more famous none have been as complete. Ginobili ranks 58th all-time in Player Efficiency Rating, a complex metric designed to combine all a player’s contributions on both ends of the floor into a single number. A simpler calculation is Net Rating, the difference between a player’s Offensive and Defensive Ratings, which measure the points produced or allowed per 100 possessions. Ginobili’s Net Rating is 10.3, meaning the Spurs could look to lead by more than 10 points whenever he was on the court for 100 offensive and defensive possessions. No one in NBA history can boast a higher number.

While Ginobili hasn’t yet decided whether he will retire, Popovich surely understood that Monday’s contest might well be his star reserve’s final game. He put Ginobili into the starting lineup, and the San Antonio fans roared when he was introduced. They cheered for all he had done over his career, but also for how he had stepped up as fellow players had gone down in this postseason. Ginobili delivered a game-saving block on James Harden in the second round, and scored 17 points in Game 1 and 21 points in Game 3 against the Warriors. Monday night he tallied the first points of the game, and finished with 15.

It wasn’t enough of course. Against Golden State, it was never going to be enough. But the fans roared again when Popovich pulled Ginobili late in the contest, and Stephen Curry joined in the applause. With little else to cheer for, the Spurs faithful contented themselves with chanting “Manu, Manu” as the clock wound down. If it was his last game, then Manu Ginobili reminded us one last time that while the NBA may revolve around superstars, championships are won by teams.

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