Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 23, 2017

An Improbable Champion, An Uncertain Future

A NOTE TO READERS: As Thanksgiving winds down, I hope everyone has enjoyed a very happy holiday, filled with lots of laughter and minimal drama. Thanks as always for your support.

NASCAR’s 2017 season came to an end last weekend. When he sped past the checkered flag Sunday evening to win the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway, Martin Truex, Jr. won his first Monster Energy Cup Series championship. For the 37-year old New Jersey native, it was the capstone to a wildly successful season, one that far surpassed anything that had gone before during his fourteen years of driving in stock car racing’s premier series.

As the field took the green flag at the Daytona 500 to start the season nine months ago, Truex was just one more journeyman driver. He started that race in 35th position and ran well enough, finishing 13th. It was a predictable result for a driver who began 2017 with seven wins and one hundred thirty-five top-ten finishes in four hundred and five career races. A strong race one time in three, a checkered flag every other year; the statistics of a good but not great NASCAR driver. But just two races later Truex won the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and when he came home first in Miami it was his 8th win and 25th top-ten finish over the course of NASCAR’s thirty-six race calendar.

Truex’s year is even more amazing given his ride. He drives the number 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, a tiny iconoclast among race teams. FRR is owned by Barney Visser, an entrepreneur who started out selling pillows in the 1970s, moved on to waterbeds in the 80s and then to all manner of bedroom furniture under various retail names. By the time Visser retired to pursue his interest in stock cars, his company Furniture Row operated more than three hundred stores.

Visser based Furniture Row Racing in his home state of Colorado, making it one of just a handful of teams not headquartered in North Carolina, and the only one based west of the Mississippi. He quickly discovered that racing is an extraordinarily expensive business. FRR has never managed to field more than two cars in NASCAR’s highest series, and most years only one. After losing his ride with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2013, Truex signed on to drive the 78 beginning the following year.

This year Truex had to overcome adversity that went far beyond the limited resources of FRR. Even as he piled up wins throughout the season, his thoughts were with his fiancée Sherry Pollex, who is battling ovarian cancer. Then in October crew member Jim Watson passed away, and just weeks later Visser suffered a heart attack that kept him away from the track for the season’s final two races. Somehow Truex managed to remain focused and even draw motivation from the blows. He readily admits that the strength which Pollex has shown in her medical battle has inspired him.

Truex also had the good fortune to be driving a Toyota. It’s been a decade since the Japanese manufacturer began running in NASCAR’s top series, joining Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge. The Chrysler nameplate dropped out after the 2012 season, even as Chevy dominated on the race track. The manufacturer’s title went to the General Motors division every year from 2003 through 2014. But the last two years have seen Toyota dominate. At the midpoint of this season’s schedule, Truex’s three wins were the only victories by a Toyota in the eighteen races. But then the company’s engineers found some magic. Toyotas won thirteen of the last eighteen races, including eight of the ten in the season-ending Chase for the Championship – four by Truex, three by Kyle Busch and one by Matt Kenseth.

Truex’s unlikely title for Barney Visser’s shop is a fairy tale come true, one that the NASCAR marketing folks will no doubt focus on as the sport enters its offseason. That’s because the other main storylines about NASCAR are decidedly less positive. Even as the number 78 team was celebrating, the Monster Energy Cup Series was facing a winter of discontent and doubt.

The sport’s two most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, are leaving. Earnhardt announced his decision to retire last April, and Patrick lost her ride with Stewart-Haas Racing when owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas were unable to secure adequate sponsorship for her. Just before the race at Homestead, Patrick announced that she would close her competitive career by running in next year’s Daytona 500 for NASCAR and the Indianapolis 500 for IndyCar. It will be a fitting finale for the most prominent woman driver in both series, but without the benefit of a regular ride no fan should think that her two appearances next season will be anything other than ceremonial.

Earnhardt and Patrick aren’t the only known stars to depart. The 2000 Rookie of the Year and 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, like Patrick, was essentially forced into retirement when no owner could offer him the resources to field a competitive car. The tightening economics of the sport sidelined Greg Biffle this year, and as yet he has no sure route to returning. Kurt Busch, winner of this year’s Daytona 500 and the Cup champion in 2004, is not yet certain of continuing as a driver for Stewart-Haas, and Kasey Kahne is moving from the luxury of giant Hendrick Motorsports to the one car team of Leavine Family Racing.

All this after the recent retirements of fan favorites Stewart, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon leaves many fans without a driver on whom to pin their hopes week in and week out. Not surprisingly, attendance continues to decline at virtually every venue, along with NASCAR’s television ratings. Budgets are being slashed by both big teams and small, often by as much as fifty percent. Even with that owners are left trying to cobble together full season support by rotating multiple sponsors, where in the past one company would gladly finance a season in return for its logo on the race car’s hood.

Brian France, chief executive of what remains a family owned business, acknowledged the challenges NASCAR faces in a press conference before the season ending race last weekend. He is pinning his hopes on a new generation of drivers, most of whom are barely old enough to legally buy the liquor that the sport’s forebears ran through the Carolina mountains decades ago.

It is true in every sport that old heroes leave the stage, making way for new ones to step into the spotlight. Perhaps NASCAR fans will soon be roaring their approval for the driving of Chase Elliott or Erik Jones, Ty Dillon or Daniel Suarez, Chris Buescher or Ryan Blaney. But even France admitted that the breadth of this transition puts his sport at a turning point. Add to that the profound economic challenges facing NASCAR, and racing fans know that not even the feel-good story of Martin Truex Jr’s. improbable run to a championship can entirely remove the pall of uncertainty hanging over this offseason.

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Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 19, 2017

Among NFL Owners, Threats Of A Civil War

It’s been more than half a century since the Beatles told us that money “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Now we’ve learned that it also can’t buy tranquility among the billionaires who comprise the elite club of NFL team owners. These uber-rich are waging an increasingly public war over whether and what to pay their primary hired serf, a mere multi-millionaire, league commissioner Roger Goodell.

The combatants in this conflict are mostly old men. More than half the team owners are over 70, and half of the ones who aren’t are second generation owners. The only women with ownership stakes have similarly had it handed down from their fathers. Surely this is a group of the fabled 1% who would just as soon stay out of the public eye unless they are being handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy by Goodell as confetti rains down following a Super Bowl.

Alas for these titans, 75-year old Dallas owner Jerry Jones has made it certain that their current labors will not unfold with little public notice. The bombastic Cowboys owner has launched a very personal crusade against Goodell. In a move not seen since the good old days of the late Raiders owner Al Davis, Jones has publicly threatened to sue his fellow franchise owners if Goodell is not shown the door.

Six months ago, life was much more bucolic in the inner sanctum of the NFL. That’s when all 32 owners voted unanimously to extend Goodell’s tenure as commissioner for another five years, from the expiration of his current contract in 2019 until 2024. At that same owners meeting the task of hammering out the contract details was delegated to a six-member compensation committee chaired by Arthur Blank, the 75-year old owner of the Atlanta Falcons. The other committee members are the owners of the Chiefs, Giants, Patriots, Steelers and Texans. Initially Jones was included as a non-voting member of the committee, but he was stripped of that role two weeks ago in the wake of his litigation threat.

The committee went about its business with no public fanfare for months. In mid-August the Sports Business Journal reported and ESPN confirmed that a deal was nearly complete, with terms expected to be similar to Goodell’s current contract. In 2015 the commissioner was paid $32 million. That was the last year before the NFL surrendered its tax-exempt status, so the league’s tax returns are no longer public, but Goodell is believed to have made well over $200 million during his first ten years as commissioner. Whatever one thinks of his performance it has been a remarkable career arc from 23-year old administrative intern in the league office to the most powerful man in sports, as Goodell has been named in various rankings by the likes of Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News.

But even as the media was reporting that a new contract was at hand, Jerry Jones was having second thoughts about the man who he once said “has done an amazing job for the game.” The catalyst for Jones’s reconsideration was the league’s announcement on August 11th that the Cowboys’ star running back Ezekiel Elliott was being suspended for six games after a yearlong investigation into allegations of domestic violence. Elliott appealed the suspension through the NFL Players Association, and as that appeal wound its way through the league’s internal processes and eventually the courts, the status of the suspension seemed to change at every stop. Elliott continued to play until ten days ago, when a three-judge federal appeals court panel denied his request for an emergency injunction. Elliott sat out the Cowboys’ Week 10 loss to the Falcons, and then announced that he was dropping any further appeals.

As Elliot sits Jones fumes, with Goodell the target of his wrath. ESPN reported just this week that when Goodell phoned Jones to tell him about his decision to suspend Elliot last August, Jones replied, “I’m going to come after you with everything I have.” In a reference to Goodell’s suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady over Deflategate, Jones added, “If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a pussy compared to what I’m going to do.” Jones has issued the lawsuit threat to block the contract renewal, demanded that all 32 owners vote again on any contract, and has retained David Bois, one of the most respect litigators in the country. The Cowboys owner is also believed to be the source of leaks over Goodell’s contract demands, which supposedly included a $50 million annual salary and lifetime access to a private jet and health care for his family. It should be noted that compensation committee chair Blank has denied that the commissioner made such demands.

On the surface Jones seems to have consolidated support for Goodell among the other owners. League sources now say the contract should be done “shortly,” though when that was first reported three months ago it proved premature. However, the compensation committee in a letter to Jones rebuffed his suggestion that the NFL’s constitution was being violated. Earlier Jones was threatened with penalties if he continued “conduct detrimental to the league,” which could range from a loss of draft picks to a suspension. Jones mocked the threat in a radio interview.

There is no one to cheer for in this battle within the billionaire’s boys club. Overall the owners are loyal to Goodell because under his stewardship league revenue has ballooned, and the value of every franchise has grown accordingly. Billionaires tend to think kindly of those who help provide a positive return on their investments. But the owners risk being woefully shortsighted, for the reality is that there are compelling reasons to end Goodell’s tenure.

The NFL still can’t come to grips with the life-threatening aspects of its product. Just last week there were multiple instances of players appearing to be concussed, but quickly returning to the game. Chris Nowinski, director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, tweeted about the most egregious, an injury to Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Goodell has set the example for the rest of the league, remaining detached and often condescending about the dangers of concussions and the risk to football players of CTE.

He has also consistently mishandled disciplinary issues, veering wildly back and forth from extraordinarily lax in his initial Ray Rice ruling to overly tough in the cases of Brady and Elliott. His refusal to adopt clear standards have only made Goodell look impetuous.

The league’s halting and unsure response to player protests is one more problem. Goodell has appeared to want it both ways, appeasing his billionaire, conservative and white bosses while trying not to antagonize his socially conscious players, many of whom are African-American. Meanwhile the elephant in that room remains Colin Kaepernick, still unsigned despite any number of lesser quarterbacks having been given roles on various teams.

Then there are the declining television ratings, an unsurprising result given all the issues listed above. Other than a feeble effort to shorten commercial breaks, Goodell and the NFL have had no answer to that problem.

If Jerry Jones really wanted to go after Roger Goodell and block his contract renewal, he had plenty of good reasons to do so. But instead he chose to make his fight all about Goodell’s decision to suspend Elliott and the impact on the Cowboys. Of course, when one is a billionaire, everything in life is probably always about “me.”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 16, 2017

Lots Of Awards, But Only One Ring

With Thursday evening’s announcement of the 2017 Most Valuable Players in each league, baseball’s annual awards week reached its conclusion. It began Monday with the Rookies of the Year, continued Tuesday with the two Managers of the Year, and marched on into Wednesday’s revelation of this year’s Cy Young Award winners. One could reasonably ask if it’s really necessary to drag out the announcements of the results of votes cast by a very select group of members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, but then the Great Game is not immune to the fits of grandiosity that afflict all our major sports from time to time. When seized by this disease the logic seems to be that if a one-hour special on the MLB Network is good, then four one-hour specials must be truly great.

Since its founding more than a century ago, the BBWAA has done much to improve the working conditions of the scribes who sit in the press boxes of thirty stadiums across the land, writing against deadlines to bring readers news of that day’s action on the diamond. These days many Association members are as likely to reach more readers via Twitter than through the sports pages of their employer, which may be one reason why the BBWAA opened its membership to full-time web-based reporters a decade ago. Still the “W” at the middle of BBWAA remains paramount; membership remains closed to television broadcasters and radio announcers. Indeed, even a writer who doesn’t work a full-time baseball beat need not apply. That stipulation led to the oddity of the Association giving Roger Angell its highest honor, the J. G. Taylor Spink Award in 2014. Over the decades Angell has written some of the most lyrical and luminous prose on baseball, most often for the New Yorker magazine. But he remains the only non-BBWAA member to receive the Spink Award, since without a full-time baseball beat he wasn’t eligible for membership.

Given the parlous state of print journalism, those restrictions make the Association’s membership a breed whose numbers are slowly but surely declining. Yet that’s done nothing to diminish the outsize role that BBWAA members play in recognizing individual achievement in the Great Game. Members for ten years or more are entitled to cast a ballot each year for the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is certainly the Association’s most public role. A dozen or so members also comprise the Historical Overview Committee, which puts together the annual ballot for consideration by the Hall’s three 16-member committees that vote on a rotating basis for otherwise ineligible candidates from different eras. And in the role that culminated this week, thirty members – one for each major league team – vote at the end of the regular season for the four big individual awards in each league.

With but a single exception, this year’s announcements were lacking in drama. That’s not to say that the winners were unworthy; to some extent just the opposite. In most of the categories there were performances that stood out so clearly that while as is traditional the names of the top three vote-getters were announced in advance as “finalists” for each of the awards, the outcome was never really in doubt.

That was certainly the case on Monday, when Aaron Judge of the Yankees and Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers were both unanimous choices for their league’s Rookie of the Year Award. Judge broke Mark McGwire’s record for most home runs by a rookie, slugging a league-leading 52 while also topping the AL in runs and walks and finishing second in slugging percentage and OPS.

Like Judge, Bellinger received all thirty first-place votes in the NL Rookie balloting, after a season in which his 39 home runs set the National League rookie record, eclipsing by one the old mark held jointly by Frank Robinson and Wally Berger. Bellinger continues a proud Dodger tradition by becoming the 18th member of the franchise to be names Rookie of the Year, easily the most of any club.

Tuesday Paul Molitor of the Twins and Torey Lovullo of the Diamondbacks easily outdistanced their closest competitors in the Manager of the Year race. Given that those chasers were Cleveland’s Terry Francona and L.A.’s Dave Roberts, the results were a reminder that this award often recognizes not just winning, but changing the direction of a franchise. In Molitor’s first year as Minnesota’s skipper the Twins lost 103 games. This year they finished eight games over .500, good enough for the second Wild Card in the American League. Unfortunately for the team and its fans, that meant they had to play the Yankees, and as every baseball fan knows New York owns Minnesota in the postseason.

Lovullo’s Diamondbacks had a similar turn around, going from 93 losses in 2016 to 93 wins in 2017. Arizona fared slightly better in the playoffs, beating Colorado in the NL Wild Card Game. Unfortunately for the team and its fans, that meant that in the NLDS they had to play the Dodgers, winners of 104 games during the regular season.

Both Cy Young Award races were thought to be close, but the final results were anything but. Cleveland’s Corey Kluber took 28 of 30 first-place votes in easily outdistancing Boston’s Chris Sale, and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer was named at the top of 27 ballots in a runaway over Clayton Kershaw. It was Kluber’s second Cy Young and Scherzer’s third, making them two of nineteen pitchers in baseball history who have won the award multiple times. Sale may have been hurt by a bit of a late season slump, and Kershaw’s chances for a fourth Cy Young took a big hit when he lost extended time to a back injury.

Thursday’s NL MVP announcement finally brought some drama. For much of the season the Nolan Arenado of the Rockies was the betting favorite for the honor, but he wasn’t even named a finalist, finishing fourth. Instead the BBWAA voters honored the slugging prowess of Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton, but only by the narrowest of margins. Both Stanton and the Reds’ Joey Votto received ten 10 first-place votes. Stanton received one more second and one more third place vote than Votto, but was left entirely off one ballot, while Votto was named on all thirty. The result was a two-vote margin, 302 to 300, in favor of the 2017 home run king.

Finally, Houston’s Jose Altuve took 27 first-place votes to outpace Judge by a wide margin for the AL MVP. In 2017 Altuve pounded out more than 200 hits for the fourth straight season and led the league in batting average for the third time.  It was coincidence of course, but fitting that Altuve’s honor should be the last one to be announced. For as much as these awards can bring fame and fatter contracts to the players who receive them, the Great Game remains a team sport, with each franchise pursuing the one goal that no single player can achieve on his own – a World Series title. Of all the awards recipients named this week, the Astros second baseman is the only one who finished the season by winning a ring.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 12, 2017

History Is Made, Thanks To A Team

We think of running as a solitary pursuit. For as long as words have been written, authors have used the image of the runner as metaphor for loneliness and solitude. In one of the earliest surviving works of literature, a grief-stricken Gilgamesh runs “faster than the wind” through the underworld, in hopes of undoing the death of his friend. The very name of our premier distance race is drawn from the story of Pheidippides, who in the 5th century B.C. runs twenty-six miles from Marathon to Athens to tell his Greek leaders that their army has triumphed. Having delivered his message, the valiant courier collapses and dies. In modern times Elmore Leonard writes of runners who “become lost in the monotonous stride of their pace…thinking of nothing at all.” And of course, Allan Sillitoe’s famous short story, later a movie, is all about “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” In it, the protagonist uses cross-country racing as both a physical and emotional escape from a bleak and dismal life.

The image of solitude is so set in our minds that when real life paints a different picture, it is worthy of note. So it was at last year’s Rio Olympics, when Nicki Hamblin of New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino of the United States collided in a qualifying heat for the women’s 5,000 meters. Both went tumbling to the track. First D’Agostino pulled Hamblin back up off the ground. Then, when the seriously injured American went down again, Hamblin turned around and helped her competitor back to her feet. Social media came alive with praise for the mutual displays of the real Olympic spirit.

Given that history, a sports fan who happened to see the picture of Shalane Flanagan crossing the finish line in Central Park to win the women’s New York City Marathon one week ago, tears streaming down her face, might have thought it a moving image of individual triumph. It was that of course, but the victory by the 36-year old native of Marblehead, Massachusetts is a story that belies the conventional image of road runners.

In its first few years the New York City Marathon was a local affair. The original course, from the race’s inaugural run in 1970 until 1975, was simply multiple times around Central Park. In 1976, to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, the course was changed to include all five boroughs. That layout proved so popular that it became the race’s permanent course. From 127 competitors in 1970, New York has grown to today’s massive event, with more than 50,000 runners and upwards of 2 million spectators lining the course.

As a local race, it was no surprise that Americans dominated the podium in the early years. American men won the first thirteen NYC Marathons, with Bill Rodgers winning the race four times and Alberto Salazar three. On the women’s side Americans were also dominant at the outset. From 1972, the first year women competed, until 1977, an American woman broke the tape each year. But after Miki Gorman won her second consecutive race in 1977, Norway’s legendary Great Waitz made the race her own, winning nine times over the next eleven years.

Waitz was a singular force in women’s distance running, so her dominance disguised other changes that were happening. By the time she posted her ninth victory in 1988, the New York race was well on its way to becoming the outsize event it is today. Runners from all around the globe were starting to view New York as an important stop on the annual racing calendar. Deeper fields of outstanding international runners changed the nature of the race. On the men’s side, after Salazar’s third and final win in 1982, it was more than a quarter century until another American, Meb Keflezighi, won in 2009. For the women, the wait was even longer.

But that wasn’t just because of the quality of the international competition. In this country, a training pattern gradually emerged for female distance runners which focused on aggressive and isolated regimens. The result was runners who were like meteors streaking across the sky on a summer night. They blazed into prominence only to quickly burn out, beset by injury.

Flanagan set state records running at Marblehead High School, and won a pair of national cross-country titles while attending the University of North Carolina. Early in her professional career she set personal best marks at shorter distances – 1,500 and 3,000 meters – and established a then national record in the 5,000. She captured a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, still the only American woman to medal at that distance.

But in international races Flanagan was the exception. Because of the fractured nature of the women’s sport, in 2000 only one American woman even qualified to run in the Olympic marathon. Then in 2009 Flanagan set about to change the state of distance running for American women. She moved to Oregon to join the Bowerman Track Club, organized by noted distance running coach Jerry Schumacher. Initially the Club’s only woman, Flanagan worked tirelessly to attract other female runners. The concept was both simple and utterly different from the status quo: form a team of women distance runners who would train together and push each other to increase their collective success.

The results have been extraordinary. When then 24-year old Emily Enfeld was ready to quit after sustaining repeated injuries in 2014, it was Flanagan who was there to counsel her to stay the course. With support she would have not received even five years earlier, Enfeld pushed herself to greater heights, capturing a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the following year’s World Championships.

When Flanagan herself ran into trouble during U.S. Olympic Marathon qualifying last year, it was teammate Amy Cragg who slowed down and paced her to the finish line, allowing Flanagan to make her fourth Olympic team. In Rio Flanagan led American women with a sixth-place finish.

On a rainy Sunday in New York, the women’s favorite was three-time defending champion Mary Keitany of Kenya, who was trying to join Waitz as the only woman with four or more consecutive wins. Early on, as they crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, and raced on into Queens, there were nine runners in the lead pack. Across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan and up First Avenue they ran. Over the Willis Avenue Bridge to the Bronx, and as the race returned to Manhattan via the Madison Avenue Bridge, with five miles to go, the lead pack shrank to three – Keitany, Flanagan, and Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia, running New York for the first time. On the long run down Fifth Avenue at last one runner broke clear. It was Flanagan.

As she ran the final strides through Central Park, now a full minute ahead of Keitany, tears of joy mixed with the raindrops on Flanagan’s cheeks. In the grandstand at the finish line sat the great American distance runner Joan Benoit Samuelson, who said in an interview after the race, “My wish was for Shalane to hit the race that she wanted to hit while the whole world was watching. And the whole world was watching. The world won’t forget, nor will Shalane.” The whole world saw a forty-year drought for American women come to an end. What they didn’t see was that Shalane Flanagan didn’t cross the finish line alone.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 9, 2017

Remembering Roy Halladay

The time you won your town the race,
We chaired you through the marketplace;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
As home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

A.E. Housman, 1896

The outpouring of tributes by present and former players and a multitude of sportswriters on Tuesday, when the news came that Roy Halladay had been killed in the crash of a single-engine recreational aircraft in the Gulf of Mexico, spoke volumes to the respect and admiration those closest to the Great Game felt for the retired right-hander. It was also a reminder of the aching loss we as humans feel when death comes calling far too soon.

Taken by the Toronto Blue Jays with their first pick in the 1995 Major League Draft, Halladay was a September call-up three years later and made his big league debut as a 21-year old with a week remaining in the 1998 season. His second career start came in Toronto’s final game that year. In it Halladay held the Detroit Tigers hitless through 8 2/3 innings, until Bobby Higginson hit his 93rd pitch over the left field fence at the SkyDome. Two pitches later Halladay had a complete game one-hitter for a 2-1 win, his first victory in the majors. It was an effort that presaged the career that followed. When he retired sixteen seasons and an additional 202 wins later, he led active major league hurlers with 67 complete games. With the increasing reliance on sabermetric matchups and the specialization of relief roles, that is more complete games than the entire starting rotation of any team has recorded so far this decade.

Yet success was not automatic. Two seasons later he sported an unsightly 10.64 ERA, and began 2001 all the way back in Single-A. There he worked with former Blue Jays pitching coach Mel Queen, who had been coaxed out of retirement to salvage Halladay’s career. Queen altered his student’s delivery, changing the arm angle and release point. The alterations gave new movement to all four pitches in Halladay’s repertoire. By midseason he was back with the big league club, his career about to take off.

For the next decade Halladay was as dominant as any starting pitcher in baseball. Whether it was a two-seam or four-seam fastball, a devastating cutter, or a sweeping curve, he threw all with precision. In that early one-hitter he not only didn’t walk a batter, he never went to a three-ball count. In 2003 Halladay started 36 games, and issued only 32 bases on balls. Seven years later, in 2010, he duplicated that remarkable feat, walking just 30 batters in 33 starts. Only nine big league pitchers have ever managed to walk less than one batter per start over a season. Only Halladay and Cy Young did it twice.

Those two seasons were perhaps his finest. He won 22 games in 2003 and 21 in 2010, most in the majors in the former and tied with C.C. Sabathia for the major league lead in the latter. Those were also the years of his two Cy Young Awards, the American League honor with the Blue Jays in ’03, and the National League trophy with the Phillies seven seasons later. But those were not his only accomplishments. Four times he led his league in innings pitched, five times in strikeout to walk ratio, and he won sixteen or more games in eight years, including six in a row. Halladay was named an American League All-Star six times, and to the National League squad for the Midsummer Classic twice.

What he didn’t do with Toronto was pitch in the postseason. In those years there was only one Wild Card team, and the AL East was regularly dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox. It wasn’t until 2010, after he agreed to a trade to Philadelphia, that Halladay got a taste of October baseball. In that first year in the National League he three nine complete games, including four shutouts. One of those, on May 29th, was a perfect game.

The Phillies topped the NL East that year, and Halladay was given the ball for the first game of the NLDS against Cincinnati. In 104 pitches he spun the first postseason no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Only a 5th inning walk to the Reds’ Jay Bruce kept Halladay from matching Larsen’s feat.

At the Phillies training camp in Clearwater during this year’s Spring Training, Halladay told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times that while in Toronto, he always wondered how he would do if he ever got the chance to pitch in the playoffs. “How would I stand up? Would it be everything that I thought it was? And it was.” Odds are that when Baseball Hall of Fame voters see his name on the ballot for the first time in 2019, most will remember that October night in Philadelphia, when Roy Halladay stood up just fine, as well as all the many other dominating days and nights he had on the mound.

He was done after the 2013 season, succumbing not to a broken-down arm, but to a bad back. But while he may have been old in baseball years when he retired at 36, we were reminded this week, reading the obituary of a 40-year old, that Halladay was still a young man.

Most of every fan’s heroes are young, because our games are largely played by young men and women. We in the stands marvel at their ability, and roar our approval of their achievements. When at last they leave the stage, we wish for each of them a long and grand retirement, filled with appearances at training camps and celebrations of bygone days, hair gradually going gray, the old uniform eventually traded in for a larger size. Then comes a week like this, with news like that which Tuesday brought us. Our simple wish is vanquished and we are left adrift, clinging to memories and the old mournful paen to an athlete, dying young.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 5, 2017

Improbable Breeders’ Cup Mirrored Horse Racing’s State

When thoroughbred owner and trainer John Gaines proposed the idea of a season-ending day of championship thoroughbred racing in 1982, his plan was met with skepticism my many in the horse racing industry. But Gaines persevered, and two years later the inaugural Breeders’ Cup was held at Hollywood Park with a card of seven races offering $10 million in total purses. The nearly 65,000 fans who crowded into the old race track and millions more watching on NBC saw 2-year old Chief’s Crown storm down the stretch to overtake Spend a Buck and Tank’s Prospect and win the very first Breeders’ Cup race, the Juvenile. The sixth win of his 2-year old campaign made Chief’s Crown a lock for the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Two-Year-Old Male Horse. The colt would go on to win another six times the following year, including both the Flamingo and Travers Stakes, and eventually became a successful sire. But Chief’s Crown is mostly remembered as one of just two horses ever to be a beaten favorite in all three Triple Crown races.

At the other end of that first meet’s card, the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic had a $3 million purse that made it the richest race in the world. Three horses battled down the stretch, the favorite Slew o’Gold, Preakness winner Gate Dancer, and 31-1 longshot Wild Again, with Pat Day in the irons. Despite holding the lead from midway around the first turn, Wild Again had enough left in the tank to hold off his two more highly touted foes, winning by a head.

Hollywood Park is long gone, of course. Where horses once raced construction is underway on the future home of the NFL’s two recently transplanted Los Angeles franchises, the Rams and the Chargers. But the Breeders’ Cup lives on, its popularity and its purses likely far exceeding anything that Gaines dared to imagine. Expanded to two days a decade ago, this year’s event was held at Del Mar, the venerable seaside oval between San Diego and L.A. The thirteen Grade I stakes races offered total purses of $26.5 million. More than 70,000 packed the stands over the two days, with ticket sales limited because of the relatively small size of the facility. Still they managed to set a record for on-site betting, with more than $25 million wagered. The total handle from all sources was just over $166 million, up six percent or almost $10 million over last year, and the highest betting total since 2010, when the card at Churchill Downs included fifteen races.

But this year there were an unusually large number of betting slips cast aside after each race. Parimutuel betting odds are determined by the gamblers, not by the house. The horse with the most money bet on it is going to be the favorite, because that payout will be the smallest since the total pool must be spread over the greatest number of winning bets. But as Friday turned to Saturday and race after race was run, this year’s Breeders’ Cup kept harkening back to that unlikely victory by Wild Again in the very first Classic more than three decades ago.

On Friday it took until the fourth and final Breeders’ Cup race for a favorite to be first across the wire. That was Mendelssohn in the one-mile Juvenile Turf. At odds of 9-2, he was hardly a strong choice, but at least he was a favorite who won. Before Mendelssohn took the Juvenile Turf by a length with a strong stretch drive, the racing began with favorite Happily finishing dead last in the 14-horse field that contested the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Then Mor Spirit plodded home eighth in the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, before Elate managed a fourth-place finish in the Distaff. Favorites were not merely being beaten for first, they weren’t even finishing in the money.

Horseplayers determined to follow the wisdom of the crowd fared no better on Saturday. Despite the larger card of nine races, the second day again produced just a single winning favorite, the 5-2 World Approval in the Mile. The striking gray colt bided his time down the backstretch of the turf course. As the field swept around the final turn John Velasquez asked his mount to run, and World Approval swept around horses, seizing the lead at the head of the stretch and pulling away to win by a length and a half.

But by that time many in the crowd were in betting shock. It wasn’t just that favorites weren’t winning; by day’s end World Approval was one of just three winners to go off at single digit odds. The Juvenile Fillies went to 17-1 Caledonia Road. The Turf Sprint was won by 30-1 Stormy Liberal. Then 60-1 longshot Bar of Gold came home first in the Filly & Mare Sprint.

So it went throughout the card, and just like Friday the favorites in many races were finishing well up the track. That did not bode well for Arrogate, the slight favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Sure enough, in the last big North American thoroughbred race of 2017, the Bob Baffert trained horse swerved to the left coming out of the number one post. The misstep cost him right at the start, and he was never a factor, finishing in a dead heat for fifth place.

While Arrogate was stumbling around, the second choice of the punters, Gun Runner, was busy running to victory. The 4-year old took the lead the first time by the grandstand. He then went eye-to-eye with Collected around the track, the two matching strides. Only in the final furlong did Gun Runner manage to pull away, winning by two lengths. The win avenged his loss to Arrogate at the Dubai World Cup last March.

This unlikely Breeders’ Cup, with its host of beaten favorites, was a fair reflection of thoroughbred racing over the last two years. Since American Pharoah captivated the country with his Triple Crown run in 2015, to which he added a win at the Breeders’ Cup Classic, no horse old has managed any sustained dominance. If one counts the three Triple Crown races, the Classic, and the Dubai World Cup, now the richest race in the world, that’s ten major races in the last two years. That card has produced nine different winners, with Arrogate’s March win in Dubai and at last year’s Classic the only multiple victory. After the thrill of American Pharoah, the thoroughbreds have become a muddle. Exactly like this year’s Breeders’ Cup.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 2, 2017

A Wild World Series Goes To The Astros

By Wednesday evening the baseball gods were obviously tired, which is understandable.  After all, producing all the drama, the unexpected twists and unlikely turns, the multiple moments of both glory and pathos that were packed into the first six games of this year’s World Series surely required enormous exertion, even for deities. So it was that the Houston Astros won a title for a city still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-1 in a game that for almost all of its three and one-half hours had a distinct air of anticlimax compared to the contests that came before it.

Game 7’s drama lasted all of three pitches. After looking at a ball and a strike, Houston’s George Springer ripped Yu Darvish’s third offering down the left field line. Had it stayed in the air for another few feet, the curling drive might have landed in foul ground. But to the everlasting joy of Astros fans and the eternal agony of Dodgers faithful, the ball hit in fair territory and bounded to the left field corner, as Springer raced to second with a leadoff double. Alex Bregman followed with a grounder that pulled first baseman Cody Bellinger well of the bag, and his throw to the covering Darvish sailed into the Houston dugout, scoring Springer and sending Bregman to second. He promptly stole third, and then scored on Jose Altuve’s groundout.

Before many in the capacity crowd at Dodger Stadium had found their seats, the Astros had all the runs they would need to lay claim to the Commissioner’s Trophy. They added a cushion in the 2nd, on an RBI groundout and a two-run homer by Springer. The Dodgers got on the board in the bottom of the 6th, but after Andre Ethier’s RBI single to right, the final eleven L.A. batters were retired in order by right hander Charlie Morton. Houston is the fourth stop on the veteran Morton’s journey through the majors. Originally drafted by Atlanta, he made his debut in June 2008 against the Angels. His catcher in that game was Brian McCann, and multiple teams later for both of them it was McCann who leapt into Morton’s arms to start the Astros’ celebration Wednesday night. Normally a starter, Morton was credited with the Game 7 win in his first relief appearance in nine years.

From the initial best-of-nine affair between the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903, on down through the decades to now, the autumn of every year save two has brought fans the World Series. Only the haughty refusal of New York Giants’ owner John T. Brush to play the representative from the recently chartered American League in 1904, and the players’ strike ninety years later prevented the Series from taking place. Yet in all its previous one hundred twelve editions, through more than six hundred fifty games, in cliffhangers and blowouts and with all the randomness that the Great Game offers, it’s hard to imagine that any previous Series took both the participants and fans all across the country on quite the dizzying joyride that this Fall Classic did for six games, before its cut-and-dried finale.

In those first six contests ties were forged or the lead changed hands twenty-three times. Runs were scored both early and late, with the first team to score winning and losing three games each. The Dodgers’ Brandon Morrow pitched in every game. Through the first four games hitters managed a total of thirteen hits on two-strike counts. In a crazy Game 5 L.A. batters managed ten such base knocks and Houston hitters added five more.

The statistical marvels didn’t end with Game 6. The final contest was the first Game 7 in history in which neither starter made it through three innings. Lance McCullers Jr., the Houston starter, became the first World Series pitcher to hit four batters. He also allowed three hits in just 2 1/3 innings, but somehow didn’t yield a single run. Morrow made a three-pitch appearance to maintain his perfect attendance record, only the second pitcher to do so in a seven game Series.

Game 1 was a pitcher’s duel, or as close to one as managers will allow in the playoffs these days, when even a dominant starter may not be left in beyond the 5th inning. Clayton Kershaw threw seven innings of one-run, three-hit ball while striking out eleven for the win. Dallas Keuchel was no slouch either, yielding three runs in 6 2/3. Game 6 was similar, with Justin Verlander allowing just two runs over six frames for Houston. But he was outdone by Rich Hill and a committee of Dodger relievers, who held the Astros to a single score. Both offenses had more to say in the other four contests, especially in Game 2 and Game 5, both of which went to extra innings.

Those two games defined this Series, and they did so by closely mirroring the current state of the Great Game at the major league level. In Game 2, Houston took an early lead before L.A. came back, first to tie and then to surge in front. The Astros returned the favor, knotting the score in the 9th before reclaiming the lead in the 10th. But the Dodgers struck right back, again tying things up in the bottom of the frame. In the 11th the Astros again moved ahead by two runs, and this time L.A. could only plate one in the bottom of the inning, finally falling by a score of 7-6. The teams combined for eight home runs in the game, a World Series record. Five of those came in the extra frames, a number never before reached in any big league game.

Game 5 ended with the football-like score of 13-12, again in Houston’s favor. This contest saw seven balls sail over the fence. The Dodgers led 4-0, 7-4, and 8-7, but were unable to hold those margins. Still L.A. didn’t quit. After falling behind by scores of 11-8 and 12-9 the Dodgers rallied for three in the 9th before finally succumbing in the 10th inning.

In the year of the dinger Houston and L.A. batters set a World Series mark with twenty-five home runs. Five of Houston’s fifteen homers came off the bat of Springer, who was named the Series MVP after he tied Reggie Jackson in 1977 and Chase Utley in 2009 for the most home runs in a Series.  Naturally when both teams’ hitters weren’t sending drives into the seats they were striking out, because that’s what players do now. Both squads struck out at higher than their regular season rates. Bellinger alone fanned seventeen times, and even MVP Springer started the Series with a four strikeout game.

If Springer was the hero for Houston, then Darvish filled the role of goat for L.A. Brought over from Texas at the trade deadline, he suffered through two dreadful starts. Matching a dubious record set by the Yankees’ Art Ditmar in 1960, Darvish failed to make it through two innings in either game. His ghastly 21.60 ERA was exactly what Ditmar posted decades earlier.

Finally, this Series left fans confused as to the fate of the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Three years ago, SI ran a cover story on the way the Astros were building a franchise for the future. The cover predicted a World Series title for Houston in 2017, and even featured Springer at the plate in the cover photo. Were the jinx in place, that should have resulted in the Astros losing 100-plus games this season. Instead it proved prescient. On the other hand, earlier this season SI’s cover story asked whether the Dodgers were “The Best Team Ever?” In the end, the answer to that was, nope. Still while fans in Houston prepare for Friday’s parade, Dodger loyalists can take heart. The first 2018 World Series odds out of Las Vegas list L.A. as the 6-1 favorite. Only 104 days until pitchers and catchers report.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 29, 2017

Book Review: What To Do When A Dream Comes True?

The reign of the Chicago Cubs will soon be over. Perhaps Tuesday evening at Chavez Ravine, and for certain by 24 hours later, either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Houston Astros will celebrate on the infield at Dodger Stadium, having supplanted the Cubs as World Series champions. But if Chicago’s one year atop the Great Game is coming to an end, that doesn’t mean the Cubs are going away. After the historic 108-year title drought, during much of which the Cubs level of play ranged between bad and abysmal, Chicago has become one of the National League’s premier franchises.

Over the last three seasons the Cubs averaged more than 97 wins a year, won back-to-back NL Central Division titles, and played in the NLCS three straight times. Given the random nature of baseball’s short playoff series, that last fact is particularly impressive. In the LCS era, franchises that have made more consecutive appearances than Chicago’s current streak are remembered as models of excellence – Atlanta in the ‘90s, St. Louis more recently, and in the American League the Oakland A’s of the ‘70s and the Yankee dynasty of the Core Four years.

Frequent LCS appearances do not guarantee titles; Atlanta’s sole championship in 1995 despite eight straight trips to the NLCS is a stark reminder of that. But being one of the last four teams standing means that a franchise still has a chance at claiming the Commissioner’s Trophy, and for three straight years the Cubs have been part of that conversation. Just like every other team Chicago has holes to fill in the offseason, most notably with its pitching staff. Still at this ridiculously early stage there’s every reason to think that the Cubs will be in the playoff mix in 2018.

World Champions. Repeated deep runs into the postseason. It seems fair to ask, whatever became of the Lovable Losers? A franchise that went more than a century between World Series titles and more than seventy years without even an appearance in the Fall Classic has undergone a dramatic transformation. For long-time Cubs fans, the experience has been at once exhilarating and disorienting.

That at least is the conclusion of journalist and author Rich Cohen, who attended his first Cubs game at the age of eight and grew up regularly taking the Red Line from his home in Chicago’s northern suburbs to Addison Station, which sits in the shadow of Wrigley Field. In “The Chicago Cubs – Story of a Curse,” Cohen tells the history of his favorite team, from early greatness through long decades of despair to its recent ascension to the Great Game’s heights, intermixed with the personal story of his lifelong devotion to the North Side Nine.

For those who think of the Cubs only in the context of their century of futility, punctuated by the supposed “Billy Goat Curse” in 1945, Cohen reminds us that the franchise, one of the charter members of the National League, began as a powerhouse. Originally named the Chicago White Stockings, the team won the inaugural National League title in 1876, and finished atop the standings five more times over the next ten years. After brief periods as first the Colts, then the Orphans, the renamed Cubs were regular contenders in the first decade of the 20th century, with an infield trio of shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance, whose double play prowess was immortalized in poetry. They won three straight NL titles, losing the 1906 World Series to the crosstown rival White Sox, then beating the Tigers in both 1907 and 1908.

Then, as fans everywhere know, the winning stopped. Cohen recounts the Cubs move to the new Weeghman Park in 1916, the acquisition of the team by William Wrigley Jr. a few years later, and the eventual renaming of the stadium in 1926. And focusing around one of two players in each generation of Cubs teams, whose stories are in some way always about failure, Cohen takes readers through the long decades of misery and doubt.

Along the way he recounts his first visit to Wrigley: “My favorite part was coming out of the tunnel, the field stretched before me as the grasslands must have stretched before the first trapper to make it beyond the Alleghenies. Something about all that greenery in the middle of the city. Only when you see it do you realize it’s what you’ve been craving.” It is a sentiment that anyone who can recall their first trip as a child to a big league ballpark will share. Chicago lost that game, 8-3 to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, and on the way home Cohen’s father urged him not to become a Cubs fan. When the son asked why, Herb Cohen offered this wisdom, “Because the Cubs do not win. And because of that a Cubs fan will have a diminished life determined by low expectations. That team will screw up your life.”

Naturally the only course for the younger Cohen was to become a rabid Cubs fan. Not one to believe in curses, as an adult he worked hard to understand a rationale reason for his team’s repeated failure. Cohen suggests that some of it is psychological, that a mindset of losing eventually permeated both the organization and its fans, which may be why it took an outsider, Theo Epstein, to finally turn things around.

But a large part of the blame in Cohen’s view goes to Wrigley Field itself, which for all its charm lacks a distinguishing baseball characteristic. It’s a pitcher’s park when the wind blows in off the lake, and a hitter’s paradise when the currents go the other way. Yankee general managers look for left-handed batters with power to take advantage of the Stadium short right field porch. In Boston teams are built to take advantage of the Green Monster. But Wrigley offers no such shortcut to greatness. On top of that Wrigley’s ever-so-charming experience makes the game secondary, and winning less vital. When he first offered this assessment in a Wall Street Journal article in 2012, Cohen was the brunt of harsh criticism. But in an interview for this book Epstein essentially agreed with the author’s analysis.

Finally, Cohen takes readers through the 2016 World Series, at both Wrigley and Progressive Field in Cleveland. Here he is faced with the challenge that confronted all long-time Cubs fans this time last year. What do we do now? When his team tops the Dodgers in the NLCS, Cohen suggests, only half joking, that if the Cubs win the Series the historic arc of the Great Game will have come full circle, and baseball should simply disband. What to do in this new world, where kids will think of the Cubs as a pretty darn good team? When Kris Bryant scoops up the final grounder and throws across the diamond to Anthony Rizzo, Cohen is both happy and sad: “A whole period of my life had just ended. My childhood suddenly seemed much farther away.”

The good news for Rich Cohen and every Cubs fan is that the Great Game did not disband in the wake of Chicago’s World Series triumph. One year later the drama is renewed, as it will be in next year’s playoffs, when the Cubs, who will never again be just a bunch of lovable losers, are likely to once more be part of the story. For baseball fans facing the low months between now and the start of Spring Training, Cohen’s book is a worthy read.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 26, 2017

Thanks Joe; You Deserved Better

Let us start with the old maxim, the one almost every fan and certainly every major league skipper knows by heart, the one that goes “managers are hired to be fired.” With that in mind, ten years in the Great Game’s most high-profile managerial position is a major achievement, one in which Joe Girardi will always be able to take justifiable pride. So too can Girardi, whose expiring contract the Yankees today announced would not be renewed, relish the fact that in most of those years he got everything he could out of the roster he was given, the team regularly outperforming its sabermetric win expectation. As he moves on to his next chapter, whether it be in broadcasting or another dugout, the 53-year old Girardi should look at his years as the Yankees’ skipper as a job well done.

Yet one suspects that as he cleaned out his office at the Stadium, Girardi was also feeling both hurt and surprised. That much seems clear from his choice of words in the statement he released, which begins “With a heavy heart, I come to you because the Yankees have decided not to bring me back.” He went on to offer a long list of thank you’s, to owner Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman as well as his players, but also to a variety of other team personnel who play largely invisible but crucial roles in putting a winning product on the field.

Girardi ended his statement by thanking the fans, recalling “the lasting memories of their passion and excitement during the Playoff Games, especially the final six games which will remain in my heart forever.” His reference is to the six home games New York played in this postseason, in which the Yankees went a perfect 6-0, defeating Minnesota in the Wild Card play-in game, topping Cleveland twice to rally from two games down in the Division Series, and sweeping Houston at home in the ALCS to move to within a single game of the World Series.

That potential date with the Los Angeles Dodgers never materialized, as the Astros took the final two ALCS games at Minute Maid Park. But for a team that during Spring Training was widely assessed as being in rebuilding mode, with a record a game or two on either side of .500 most likely in the offing, to win 91 contests and come within a single victory of its forty-first American League title gave the 2017 season the feeling of a fairytale come true in the Bronx.

When the Yankees’ royal coach turned back into a pumpkin with the last out of the ALCS’s Game 7, thoughts immediately turned to next season. If expectations were low when the team gathered in Tampa all those months ago, they will be profoundly different when pitchers and catchers report next February. As the Dodgers and Astros prepared for Game 1 of the Fall Classic, the headline over a story in the New York Times was “The Yankees Have a Consolation Prize: The 2018 Season.”

With New York’s dynamic young core under team control for several more years and more than $65 million in expiring contracts of aging veterans coming off the books, helping the team get under the salary cap and avoid the luxury tax penalty, the Yankees look to have a promising roster and the ability to complement it during the offseason. The Great Game does not issue guarantees, but certainly the potential to contend for the next several years seems to once again be at hand in the Bronx. It is reminiscent of 1995, when Buck Showalter led the Bombers to a Wild Card slot and a berth in the playoffs for the first time in fourteen years.

Great success followed that season, but it did so under the guidance of a new manager after Showalter resigned rather than bow to George Steinbrenner’s demand that he fire the team’s hitting coach. Now, as then, when the Yankees are introduced prior to their home opener next April 2nd, someone new will hear the cheers reserved for the team’s skipper. Two decades ago things worked out just fine under Joe Torre, and perhaps that will again prove to be the case with whomever GM Cashman hires. But just as that earlier transition did some seem fair to Showalter, so this one seems like a slap in Girardi’s face.

The often taciturn and relentlessly driven Girardi is by no means perfect. In Game 2 of the ALDS he committed a series of gaffes that likely blew the game against Cleveland, putting his team on the brink of elimination. And in the wake of today’s announcement have come a series of suggestions that the reserved Girardi was unable to communicate well with his young team.

But no field boss is perfect; part of the job is being subjected to relentless second-guessing by fans and the media. And the sudden whispering campaign questioning his empathy seems like so much after-the-fact justification, belied by the reality of the Yankees’ season and their playoff run. What was most striking to fans all year was the cohesiveness of this squad and the extent to which players remained loose and looked to be having fun. Then in the wake of Girardi’s ALDS debacle, his players roared back, picking up their manager when he most needed their help. That doesn’t seem like the work of a team grown distant from its leader.

Coaxing more wins than fans or ownership deserved out of a series of aging rosters, and leading a group of overachieving young players to the brink of greatness would seem to have earned Girardi a chance to take the final step with this edition of the Yankees. But Cashman obviously had other ideas.

Should he be interested in staying in uniform, Girardi should have little trouble finding a new team. Sportswriters in D.C. are already calling on the Lerner’s to forsake their parsimonious approach toward managerial salaries and hire Girardi to lead the Nationals. While the Nats and Phillies are the only other current managing vacancies, the offseason hasn’t even officially begun. Of course, after a decade on the Great Game’s biggest and brightest stage, Girardi may also want to take a break.

For the Yankees, the search begins, with no obvious candidate. Bench coach Rob Thompson and first base coach Tony Pena will be inside possibilities, though Thompson has never managed and Pena’s record in four seasons with the Royals a decade ago was undistinguished. Fans will clamor for the hiring of Don Mattingly, the current Marlins skipper. More than two decades after his playing days ended, Donnie Baseball remains a beloved legend in the Bronx. Whether Miami’s new ownership team, led by Derek Jeter, wants to part with Mattingly is unknown. Also uncertain is how long Mattingly’s revered status would last were he to return in a different role.

As noted earlier uncertainty is the nature of baseball; a fact that Cashman understands. That post-ALDS New York Times article ends with him saying “Ultimately, the future is never promised.” The Yankees head into winter with great potential, but now searching for a new field general. Whoever that turns out to be, and whether the Yankees roll to a title under him or regress and miss next year’s playoffs, this uncertain game has given Yankee fans one absolute: win or lose, these Yankees are Brian Cashman’s team now.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 22, 2017

Failure And Success, Measured By Expectations

The 2017 season ended for the New York Yankees Saturday night. Unable to muster any offense against a pair of Houston pitchers not named either Keuchel or Verlander, the Yankees dropped Game 7 of the ALCS to the Astros by the score of 4-0. Nine days earlier, the Washington Nationals’ 2017 campaign also came to an end, when the Nats wound up on the 9-8 short end of a wild Game 5 in their NL Division Series against the Chicago Cubs. Like twenty-six other clubs, the Nationals and Yankees are now spectators, as the Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers prepare for the Great Game’s final act, the World Series.

At one level it can be said that the just concluded seasons of all those clubs, and eventually for the team that loses the World Series as well, should be judged as failures. If the goal of every franchise at the start of Spring Training is to win a championship, then twenty-eight teams have already fallen short, and a twenty-ninth will join them, perhaps as early as next Saturday and at the latest by the middle of next week. The longest season always ends with only one parade.

The late George Steinbrenner certainly subscribed to this theory. Were he still alive the Yankees would have already issued a statement in his name, apologizing to the team’s fans for the collective failure of players, coaches, and management in coming up short of a World Series title. But sports, like life, is more nuanced; something that fans have always understood, even diehard Yankee faithful back when their bombastic late owner was in charge. The results of a season are measured not just in absolute terms, but also against expectations. It is that kind of measure that has prompted very different beginnings to the offseason in Washington and the Bronx.

The Nationals won 97 regular season games, two better than the previous year. Washington was the first team to clinch a playoff spot and won the NL East for the second year in a row and fourth in the last six. When the final regular season out was recorded the Nats were twenty games ahead of the second place Marlins. But as was the case in 2012, 2014 and 2016, that regular season dominance turned to dust once the playoffs began. As was the case in each of those previous years, Washington again failed to get out of the Division Series.

On Friday, a week and a day after the Cubs celebrated on the infield at Nationals Park, the Nationals announced that the contracts of manager Dusty Baker and his entire coaching staff were not being renewed for 2018. That evening, several hours after the public announcement, fans of the team received an email signed by all eight members of the Lerner family ownership group. The “letter from the Lerner family” made it clear that in Washington, winning the division is no longer good enough.

It read in part, “More than anything, we want to share with you the elation of the final out going in our favor, when we can finally bring a championship home to Washington. That “One Pursuit” is the core driving force behind everything we do, from the first day of Spring Training to the last out of the final game.” The message then described the decision to fire Baker as “incredibly difficult,” adding that he “led the team to the first back-to-back division titles in our history and represented our club with class on and off the field.” Just to make clear the expectations of ownership, the Lerner’s added a promise that “one day soon we will all line the streets of our great city together as we celebrate reaching our ultimate goal.”

Washington was a popular World Series pick by many pundits from the earliest days of Spring Training, so the expectations for greater success weren’t limited to the team’s owners. Given the generous words for Baker, the message from the Lerner’s calls to mind the adage that sometimes managers get fired because it’s impossible to fire the entire team. Still if the managerial change in Washington was meant to send a message, it was delivered at a significant cost.

Baker has succeeded at every stop in his managerial career, taking all four franchises he’s led to the postseason. As the Lerner’s noted, he guided the Nationals to back-to-back division titles for the first time in the team’s history. Critics note that he’s never won a World Series, but that says as much about the often random nature of the postseason as it does about Baker’s ability. Along with the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts, who is also part Japanese, he was one of just two African-American managers in the big leagues. For baseball in general and for a city in which African-Americans remain the largest demographic group, that’s no small deal.

Even more worrisome for Nationals fans is that Baker’s dismissal continues a disturbing trend for their team. Not counting the three games skippered by John McLaren on an interim basis in 2011 after Jim Riggleman quit in midseason, Washington is now looking for its seventh manager since the team arrived in D.C. from Montreal in 2005. Over that time Manny Acta holds the longevity record at three years. Baker was hired only after Bud Black turned down what he felt was a lowball offer from the club. With history like that, it’s not clear that Washington looks all that appealing to managerial prospects, despite the club’s glittering roster.

Meanwhile in New York the Yankees have had just two skippers over that same time, Joe Torre and, since 2008, Joe Girardi. Barring a decision by Girardi to walk away, there’s no indication that’s about to change. The contracts of both the Yankees manager and GM Brian Cashman are up, but an announcement from the Stadium in the Bronx such as came from Nationals Park on Friday about either Girardi or Cashman would be stunning news. Far more likely is that in the next several weeks the team will announce that both have agreed to new deals.

That’s because while Yankee fans are of course disappointed that their team isn’t getting ready to face the Dodgers in what would have been the twelfth renewal of the most frequent World Series matchup, the season that ended Saturday night was unexpectedly successful. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, with the new young core of the team offering promise and potential, but likely needing another year or two of seasoning before those players came into their own. At the same time, the starting rotation was filled with question marks as Spring Training ended.

Instead the Bombers won 91 games, finishing just two back of Boston in the AL East and easily winning the first American League Wild Card. Aaron Judge became a national star, smashing 52 home runs and making circus catches in the outfield. Slick-fielding Didi Gregorius set a new team record for homers by a shortstop, breaking the mark of a certain former team captain and future Hall of Famer. Gary Sanchez backed up the promise he showed in his abbreviated 2016 rookie campaign with 33 homers and 90 runs batted in. On the mound Luis Severino went from being demoted first to the bullpen then to the minors in 2016 to making the All-Star team this season, and Masahiro Tanaka found his groove down the stretch, when the Yankees needed him most. “It’s been a wild and fun ride,” Cashman said, after the Game 7 loss to the Astros ended the Yankees run. That was true for those in the stands as well, but having taken that ride next year will be a different story.

Even as fans of the Dodgers and Astros gird themselves for the Series, the faithful of all the other teams look ahead to another season, with its preparatory work commencing less than four months hence. The Nationals will assemble in West Palm Beach, with great expectations, a new skipper, and a fair measure of doubt. The Yankees will be on Florida’s Gulf Coast. They will gather in Tampa, fresh off an exhilarating run, but now facing far higher and decidedly more traditionally Yankee-like expectations.

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