Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 4, 2020

Adam Silver Has A Plan

Michael Jordan will have to be content with big ratings for “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s fawning documentary of his final title run with the Chicago Bulls. Of course, neither he nor we will ever know how many of the nearly seven million viewers the ten-part series on Chicago’s 1997-98 season averaged in April and May were sports fans stuck at home with nothing else to do. Whether or not COVID-19 is partly responsible for the success of ESPN’s hagiography, Jordan now knows that the pandemic is entirely to blame for ending the season of the Charlotte Hornets, the NBA franchise he now owns.

Thursday, the day once set aside for Game 1 of this season’s NBA Finals, the league’s owners, including Jordan, voted 29-1 in favor of a plan to restart play at the end of July at Disney World. But in lieu of playing out the remainder of the regular schedule with all thirty franchises before proceeding to the playoffs, the plan will have just twenty-two teams decamping from their home arenas to the bubble of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex inside Mickey Mouse’s Orlando home. Invitations went to the eight teams in each division that were in playoff position when the season was suspended in March, plus all other franchises within six games of the eighth spot. Seven games adrift of the eighth-place Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference, Jordan’s Hornets were the first team left in the parking lot, looking through a proverbial chain link fence at the cool kids who get to play on.

Thirteen Western Conference teams and eight from the East are now scheduled to begin practices in their home cities later this month before flying into quarantine in Florida on July 7. After some further practice sessions, the squads will each play eight games over a two-week period starting on the last day of July to determine the playoff seeding in each conference, and to give the six teams currently lower than eighth place a chance to make one final run. Recognizing that 88 games among a select group of teams won’t truly substitute for the 259 regular season contests that remained to be played on the original schedule, the plan also envisions a possible play-in series between the eighth and ninth place teams if the two are within four games of each other once the abbreviated regular season wrap-up has concluded.

That possibility, along with the fact that standings and seedings will still be conference based, left many pundits voicing far more concern for the unlucky fate of the Memphis Grizzlies than for the Hornets, or any of the seven other franchises that saw their seasons officially end. A young team that seemingly every NBA analyst has now decided has enormous potential, Memphis is currently in eighth place in the West. But at a game under .500, the Grizzlies’ 32-33 record is well south of seventh place Dallas. With virtually no chance of improving its position, Memphis must instead fend off five challengers. To make matters worse, four of those teams will restart already close enough to force a play-in round.

Despite appearances this complicated plan was not hatched by Adam Silver because the NBA commissioner has it in for Robert Pera, the boy billionaire who owns the Memphis franchise. Rather the motivating factor, to which Pera can surely relate, is money. By expanding the initial group of teams in Orlando beyond the sixteen playoff squads based on current standings and adding some regular season contests, the NBA allows those franchises to collect on their local TV deals. An extra 88 games also increases pay for each of the players, a move that reflects the close relationship Silver has cultivated with Players Association president Chris Paul and executive director Michelle Roberts. In sharp contrast to MLB’s Rob Manfred, Silver has gone out of his way to keep players informed of the league’s thinking throughout the shutdown. That’s the main reason this plan, though it still needs the concurrence of the players, is being treated as final.

Things could still go awry, and the NBA has gotten to this point only by abandoning or softening some of its earlier positions on the conditions needed for a restart. This is, after all, the league that suspended play when a single player, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, tested positive for COVID-19 in March. Shortly after that Silver said the league would not play again until testing was available on a “large scale.” Now the NBA is content with testing being available for frontline health workers and is formulating protocols to continue play if one or more players or team personnel in the Orlando bubble contracts the virus.

Still hardcourt faithful are certainly cheering the news and even the most casual of basketball fans will hope for the best at the 220-acre athletic complex just south of the Magic Kingdom. The NBA’s plan has virtually no margin for error. If at least one series in each playoff round goes the distance, the league will crown a champion on October 12, little more than a week before the 2020-21 season would normally start. Already there is talk of pushing the beginning of next season to December, and the NBPA’s Roberts has suggested even that gives players too little time to recover. If the NBA manages to pull off Silver’s plan and crown a champion that fans acknowledge as worthy of the name while keeping everyone healthy, this season will merit its own documentary. Just don’t look for Michael Jordan in that one.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 31, 2020

The Sports World Speaks Up, But Will Anyone Listen?

As protests swept the country this week in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, athletes, teams, and even entire leagues lent their voices to the debate. Even as peaceful demonstrations gave way to burning and destruction, sometimes instigated by external forces from both extremes of the political spectrum, scores of players reminded fans that sports is part of our culture, not separate from it.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown drove 1,500 miles to his home state of Georgia to lead a peaceful protest march in Atlanta. The UConn women’s basketball team issued a statement through the squad’s official Twitter account which said in part, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed, and more people are becoming aware of the 400 years of oppression that black people have been subjected to in America…We are proud to be a team made up of diverse women who will never stop pushing for the most basic human rights for our people.” Social media was also the chosen avenue for statements from many others, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Odell Beckham Jr., while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a moving essay in the Los Angeles Times.

But given what we know and have all seen of Floyd’s death, the decision of white athletes to speak up has been especially important. Heisman Trophy winner and NFL number one draft pick Joe Burrow tweeted “The black community needs our help. They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.” Burrow was joined by others, including fellow NFL quarterback Carson Wentz, and reigning National League Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso of the New York Mets. Alonso’s Instagram post read “For the past couple of days, I’ve struggled to wrap my mind around what’s happening. I have a voice and I will not remain silent. My heart has been broken over the murder of George Floyd. I will never know what it feels like to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin. To anyone who faces this type of discrimination, I will fight for you and be an ally. I will always stand with you. There needs to be justice and change made for the better of humanity. Let words be our sword and unity be our armor. Take care of each other.”

Then there was the National Football League. America’s premier sports institution issued a statement attributed to commissioner Roger Goodell, which said in part, “The NFL family is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country. The protesters’ reaction to these incidents reflects the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel…As current events dramatically underscore, there remains much more to do as a country and as a league. These tragedies inform the NFL’s commitment and our ongoing efforts. There remains an urgent need for action. We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society. We embrace that responsibility and are committed to continuing the important work to address these systemic issues together with our players, clubs and partners.”

The words hit all the right notes, and the promise of future action is to be applauded, provided of course that the reader has spent the last several years in some alternate universe. Because in the real world it is impossible to read the responses of the sports world to what happened in Minneapolis on Memorial Day and not think of former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s lonely pre-game protests against racial oppression in 2016. Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, an individual and profoundly non-violent act, looks pretty benign when set against burning police cars.

Kaepernick was effectively drummed out of the league for his silent activism, and this week’s statement by Goodell appears to be a bet that he has been utterly forgotten by fellow players and fans. The commissioner lost that gamble, as evidenced by multiple responses, one of the most eloquent of which was from Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores. One of just four black or Latino head coaches in the league, Flores recounted losing friends over discussions about Kaepernick because some people in the NFL couldn’t see past the issue of “disrespecting the flag.” The Twitter post went on to note that he had not seen the same outrage from those people over the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Flores lamented those unwilling to raise their voices now and expressed the hope that “the tragedies of the last few weeks will open our hearts and minds to a better way of communicating.” If the NFL’s statement is a step in that direction, then it is a good thing. But it would sound more genuine and less like a product of the league’s marketing department if it were accompanied by an apology to Kaepernick.

One of the reasons that won’t happen is that, as Flores noted, there are those in the league and in the stands who remain hung up on the symbolism of Kaepernick’s kneeling. But there are many symbols that stand for various aspects of America, and not all of them are praiseworthy. That is inevitable in a country whose founding documents both extol the equality of man and institutionalize slavery by counting each human held in bondage as three-fifths of a person.

The convulsion of our cities is an announcement to the broader country what citizens of color already knew – that one such symbol is the image of a bad cop’s knee on a black man’s neck. What we all must face is the reality that this symbol is not from an antebellum daguerreotype but from a cellphone video. We have heard the words on many occasions, from eloquent and learned leaders. The arc of history is long, they have cautioned, before always assuring us that it bends toward justice. But this week even the most optimistic among us was forced to concede that right now the promise of that statement, the idea that however slowly, we will make inevitable progress toward a more perfect Union, is perilously hard to believe.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 28, 2020

A Conflict About More Than Money

At last. After months of inactivity and weeks of often rancorous negotiations that seemed headed for failure, Thursday brought word that the parties had managed to bridge their differences and this summer will see games played after all, even though there will by necessity be no fans in the stands cheering their heroes on to victory. But the certain disappointment of that hard reality will surely be leavened by the joy of having play resume, and watching, even if only on TV, one’s favorite team chase a title.

After more than ten years of publication, has On Sports and Life garnered its first exclusive? From its lonely seat high in the upper deck of sports commentary, far removed from the inside information that those down in the box seats by the dugout are fed on a regular basis, how could this little blog break the story of the Great Game’s return? Of course, the answers to those questions are “no” and “it couldn’t.” For Thursday’s good news was not for diehard fans of American baseball, but rather for the equally passionate faithful of English Premier League soccer. The EPL, the most-watched sports league in the world, announced a mid-June return to action pending final approvals from British health authorities.

But that news came only after the Premier League’s season appeared almost certainly lost several times in recent weeks. Players publicly questioned the safety of playing a sport with unavoidable contact and close quarters with both teammates and opponents during a pandemic. Local authorities fretted about the possibility of fans defying lockdown orders and gathering in large numbers outside of stadiums during games. And owners of lower ranked teams rebelled against the deep-pocketed elite of English soccer. Franchises in the bottom tier of the EPL’s standings, facing the possibility of relegation to English soccer’s equivalent of the minors, repeatedly threatened to use the league’s voting rules that require a 70% majority to block any plan for a resumption of play.

Yet in the end, and with precious little time to spare, all parties chose to back away from the abyss into which they had been staring. So, in just less than three weeks, Aston Villa versus Sheffield United and Manchester City versus Arsenal will kick off the Premier League’s return, with a full slate of games beginning the following weekend.

The twists and turns from the EPL’s suspension of play on March 13 to its planned return 100 days later are not dissimilar to the ups and downs experienced by baseball fans in this country since Spring Training came to a halt one day earlier than English soccer. This week, those fans find themselves in much the same position that their cousins in Liverpool and London occupied as recently as ten days ago. In our case, the relevant parties are the thirty team owners, represented by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s office, and the players, spoken for by their union, the MLBPA. The two sides are locked in an increasingly bitter dispute over the terms for a season that if it is to happen, surely must start by shortly after Independence Day.

It is tempting to point to this week’s good news from the Premier League as a sign that while baseball may go right up to the brink of cancelling the entire season, ultimately reasonable people on both sides – and inflammatory rhetoric aside, such souls do exist in both camps – will forge an agreement that will result in the call of “play ball.” But then if important decisions traveled across the Atlantic so easily, we’d all be driving on the left. The English soccer league’s season nearly fell apart over certain financial concerns, and then was saved by a focus on other money matters. But despite the focus on player salaries, what sets the baseball negotiations apart from the EPL, as well as from the NBA and its decision to take a trip to Disney World, and the NHL and its plan for playoffs that lacks only the minor detail of a place to play the games, isn’t money. To the contrary, money is the one common thread weaving through the pandemic responses of all major sports leagues in every country. Rather the Great Game’s conflict between owners and players is all about a lack of trust.

Like virtually all U.S. sports franchises, the thirty major league clubs are privately held enterprises, free from public scrutiny or financial disclosure. What is known is that at its top level the Great Game has seen steady financial growth, thanks in fair measure to media contracts, and certainly despite the constant chorus from doomsayers forecasting baseball’s demise from slow play or too many home runs or the designated hitter rule or the prohibition against spitballs. The most recent estimate of franchise value placed every club except the Miami Marlins at $1 billion or more. That’s a guess of course, given the lack of public records, but the recent sale of the Kansas City Royals, not exactly a major market franchise, was for exactly that number.

Players have unquestionably benefited from the money pouring into the sport. But the huge, highly publicized contracts of superstars hide the far smaller dollars doled out to younger players still under team control. Then in recent years teams in virtual lockstep discovered the value of advanced metrics, and used that to reshape the free agent market, denying players the fruits of the contract system as it is currently structured. The level of enmity that engendered in players has been clear in scores of public statements and social media posts. Equally clear for more than a generation has been the implacable opposition of the Players Association to a salary cap. Yet the owners’ widely publicized initial financial proposal in the current negotiations was to tie player salaries for 2020 to team revenues – a salary cap. When that died a quick and deserved death, they instead made an offer that was a ham-handed effort to drive a wedge between the players based on their current salaries, though it appears to have had just the opposite effect.

Despite the understandable mistrust, surely there are both players and owners who understand the consequences of a lost season, and surely there are multiple paths to an agreement that will give fans a belated Opening Day, even if it is only on their flatscreens. But the simplest and most obvious way to both overcome suspicion and spur a deal would be for the owners to open their books. Let the players see the costs of running a big-league franchise, and the exact impact of lost ticket sales and concessions. If owners want players to partner with them in absorbing losses, then treat them as partners and give them the information to make an informed decision. The bet here is that such a move would very quickly lead to Spring Training 2.0, as it’s being called. But whatever the stakes of that wager, double or nothing says it will never happen.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 24, 2020

Amateur Follies For All To See

A very, very long time ago – early February, to be exact – the PGA Tour paid its annual visit to the Monterey Peninsula for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Started more than eighty years ago by the entertainer Bing Crosby, the tournament has always been true to its name, with scores of celebrity amateurs partnered with the touring pros, not just for eighteen holes before the start of the tournament proper, as is the case at most Tour stops, but right through the main event itself. For the lucky twenty-five weekend hackers who combine with their pros for the lowest team scores after three rounds, the return on their very substantial investment is a chance to play on Sunday at a PGA Tour event.

Pebble Beach Golf Links, the superstar of the three courses used for the tournament, is one of the country’s premier tests of golf, and quite possibly its most scenic. In addition to the annual clambake, as Crosby used to refer to the tournament that bore his name for decades, Pebble has hosted six U.S. Opens, a PGA Championship, and multiple U.S. Amateur Championships. The holes along the Pacific Ocean on the latter part of the front nine and then at the finish of the layout are breathtakingly beautiful, and the swirling wind off the water often adds drama and uncertainty to the outcome.

Yet the AT&T rarely rates as appointment television for this viewer because the quality of the course and the beauty of the background cannot atone for the amount of time the CBS Sports cameras focus on those amateurs. This is especially the case if one of them happens to be an actor with a prominent role in a program that’s part of the network’s prime time lineup. During the long run of “Everybody Loves Raymond” a casual viewer of the golf tournament might well have thought Ray Romano was a regular on the Tour, at least until he swung a club. Unlike so many of the sports covered in this space, golf is a game that can be enjoyed by amateurs of all ages. But that doesn’t mean that everyone’s flying elbow swings, shanked shots, and chili-dipped chips deserve to be on national TV.

Which brings us to Tom Brady. The six-time Super Bowl champion who broke the hearts of New England Patriots fans two months ago when, a free agent for the first time in his career, he signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was on the other side of Florida Sunday afternoon for a fundraising golf exhibition along with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and old rival Peyton Manning. The Match: Champions for Charity, was a heavily hyped team event with Brady and Mickelson squaring off against Manning and Woods at a very wet Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, just north of Palm Beach.

Unlike 2018’s winner-take-all match between Woods and Mickelson, this made-for-TV spectacle had the extremely admirable purpose of raising money for several pandemic relief charities. On that score the event was a huge success, with various sponsors pledging $10 million before the first tee shot and, with contributions encouraged throughout the broadcast, $20 million raised by the final putt. The event’s sponsors deserve plenty of praise for that, and the four principals were troupers who gamely kept the show going through frequent torrential rain and near darkness at the end, either of which would have halted a Sunday round at a regular PGA Tour stop or a friendly foursome at the local club.

But that didn’t mean the golf by the amateurs was watchable. Both Brady and Manning had plenty of shots that reminded everyone why their Hall of Fame plaques will be in Canton and not St. Augustine. Of the two, Brady was especially bad at the start, spraying the ball in all directions. On the 2nd hole his drive sailed wide right into a fairway bunker.  From there he chunked his approach shot. The ball never had a chance of clearing a hazard between Brady and the green. He was no better on the 3rd, with one wit on ESPN commenting that “he might need a calculator to add up his score” on the par-5. To his credit, Brady maintained his sense of humor, wondering aloud “when does football season start” after yet another awful tee shot on the 4th hole. On Twitter, Brooks Koepka offered to donate $100,000 if Brady managed a single par on the front nine, and Jimmy Fallon weighed in with “I’ve always felt like Tom Brady and I had a lot in common, but after watching his golf game, I actually think we might have been separated at birth.”

The four came to the par-5 7th hole, where the round didn’t look to be getting any better for Brady, who found himself still in the fairway, a hundred yards short of the green, after three shots. As he pulled a wedge out of his bag, Charles Barkley, who for reasons unknown was providing analysis for TNT’s coverage, was merrily disparaging Brady’s game. Then the quarterback launched a tight spiral, make that lofted a high wedge shot, onto the green. The ball hit two yards past the hole, stopped, spun back, and rolled into the cup for a birdie.

It was the shot of the day, and as every weekend hacker knows, exactly the utterly unexpected, laughably outrageous moment that happens every so often when we’re out on a golf course. Brady jumped in his golf cart, drove up to the green, went to retrieve his ball from the hole, and split his pants as he bent over to do so. Just in case anyone thought one lucky shot was reason for putting his golf game on television.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 21, 2020

This Year, The Opens Are Closed

They are our national championships. Winning either is a career highlight for any golfer, especially if he or she is an American. The fundamental nature of the two tournaments is embodied in their names, the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, where a spot in the field is open to any player of sufficient ability to make their way through one or more qualifying rounds, whether he is a professional of longstanding tenure on the PGA Tour or she is an amateur unknown to all but her immediate family and teammates on the high school golf team. Earning a spot in the men’s tournament in particular has long served as something of a holy grail for low handicap amateurs and mini-tour pros who would never be welcomed inside the ropes at a weekly PGA Tour event.

Golf in this country was still enough of a novelty that tournament organizers had no trouble making room for local star Francis Ouimet when the 1913 Open came to The Country Club in the Boston suburb of Brookline. The 20-year-old was an accomplished golfer, having won the Massachusetts Amateur earlier that year, but in a U.S. Open field headlined by the English duo of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, he was an unknown going up against the game’s titans. By week’s end, after he had finished 72 holes tied at the top of the leader board and then vanquished both Vardon and Ray in a three-man playoff, Ouimet was the new face of American golf.

While not the last, Ouimet will forever be the first amateur to win the U.S. Open, so his improbable victory is surely on the minds of many who annually apply to the USGA for a spot in one of the local qualifying events. Little more than a decade after Ouimet’s victory, surging interest in the Open compelled the USGA to introduce a qualifying procedure. Almost a century later, the process to get into the men’s Open for anyone without an exemption now starts with more than 100 local qualifiers, at courses in almost every state. This first stage is just 18 holes of golf, with a small handful of players who post the lowest scores at each advancing to one of a dozen 36-hole sectional qualifiers. There they are joined by others, mostly professionals, who by dint of their world ranking or some other measure are able to skip the first step. Depending on the size of its field, each event at this final stage sends as few as one or two to as many as fifteen or eighteen golfers to the Open’s first tee. For nearly a decade the USGA has received more than 9,000 entries for each year’s men’s Open, with a high of 10,127 in 2014. Qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open follows a similar procedure, with a single stage played at 25 sites winnowing a field of applicants that now approaches 2,000 players a year.

Roughly half the golfers in the final fields of both championships gain entry through one of several possible exemptions, including recent wins in majors, world ranking, and PGA Tour or LPGA earnings or victories. Put another way, Tiger Woods and Lexi Thompson don’t worry about getting their applications for local qualifying postmarked on time, nor do many of their well-known compatriots. It might seem easy then to dismiss the entire qualifying process as a barnacled anachronism, a sentimental touch with no bearing on which man and woman eventually lift American golf’s most important trophies.

Just don’t tell that to Birdie Kim, who went through qualifying to make it into the women’s field in 2005. Kim played so poorly during her rookie year on the LPGA in 2004 that she had to go back to Q-School to retain her card. Six months after doing so she was part of a three-way tie for the lead on the final hole at Cherry Hills. Kim broke that tie and claimed the title by holing out from a greenside bunker.

The families of the late Orville Moody and Ken Venturi would also look askance at such a dismissive attitude toward Open participants who go the qualifying route. In 1969 Moody first overtook third-round leader Miller Barber and then held off a trio of pursuers to win at Champions Golf Club. Five years earlier Venturi was advised to withdraw after the morning round of a 36-hole final day at Congressional Country Club. The Washington, D.C. area was broiling in a fierce heat wave, and Venturi was diagnosed with dehydration. But the then 33-year-old pro, who would ultimately be far better known as a television analyst, played on, and won by four shots. Like Kim, neither Moody nor Venturi would have made it to the first tee without the qualifying process. More recently, 2009 winner Lucas Glover was in the field at Bethpage Black only after surviving a sectional qualifier.

Those stories, of unlikely dreams come true, of remote possibility turned into wondrous reality, is why this week’s news that the USGA has cancelled qualifying for both Opens, while not terribly surprising, is still disheartening. Both tournaments have already been rescheduled, with Winged Foot now slated to host the men in September rather than next month, and the women’s championship in Houston shifted from one week before the original date of the men’s tournament to the middle of December. But clearly the USGA concluded that even with added time, the health risks and logistical challenges of staging all those qualifying events, which under the original timetable would have been finishing up right about now, was simply too great.

Instead both tournaments will be limited to golfers meeting one of the exempt criteria. While those guideposts will certainly be expanded to add more players to the fields, as of now 50 men and 59 women are fully exempt into this year’s national championships. And whatever steps the USGA takes to add diversity and texture to the fields, this year’s Opens will lack a fundamental aspect of their reason for being.

But at least they will be played, which is more than can be said for ten of the USGA’s fourteen national championships. From juniors to seniors, in both individual and four-ball play, golf’s ruling body in the United States organizes tournaments that even striving for, much less winning, fulfills a lifetime goal of many amateur golfers. All but the two Opens and the U.S. Amateur and Women’s Amateur (which will also have no qualifying process), have now been cancelled. Like the elimination of qualifying for the Opens, and even further from the headlines and television cameras, these are the real losses to golf because of the pandemic, and the same is true in every sport. Later this year the Open winners will raise their trophies, both celebrating a personal dream come true. But in 2020 so very many dreams have already been lost.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 17, 2020

Pandemic Relief Efforts, Professional And Personal

It was a shot of only 120 yards. The four golfers on the tee, each an accomplished professional, had hit countless thousands of shots of that distance during their careers, from early morning practice sessions on a quiet range to pressure-filled final rounds in front of thousands of fans poised to scream their approval of a well-executed wedge or 9-iron. Yet it is the nature of golf, as it is of so many of our games, that no moment is truly routine. Every situation carries its own unique nature, be it the physical setting or the emotional import. Often, as was the case late Sunday afternoon, the moment is defined by both.

The setting was one of the most exclusive golf retreats in the country. Seminole Golf Club, hidden behind a ridge of sand dunes just off heavily traveled Route A1A in Juno Beach, Florida, was established in 1929 by investment banker Edward F. Hutton, founder of the self-named firm that for decades was one of the country’s leading brokerage houses. Hutton hired Donald Ross, the leading course designer of the time, to lay out Seminole’s 18 holes, and while the course has been tweaked by various golf architects over the years, it remains a recognizable Ross design and one of his most famous. It may well also be the least seen of any well-known Ross course. The corporate elite who have always made up Seminole’s membership value their privacy, so the club’s willingness to serve as host of a made-for-television event was as surprising as it was welcome news to golf fans longing for a peek at a course always ranked among America’s best.

The match was the TaylorMade Driving Relief, an exhibition fundraiser for two pandemic-related charities featuring world number one Rory McIlroy and major winner Dustin Johnson taking on fan favorite Rickie Fowler and PGA Tour newcomer Matthew Wolffe, winner of the 2019 NCAA Division I individual championship while at Oklahoma State University, in a team skins contest. That it was played at Seminole was due in part to McIlroy, whose father is a member of the club.

What fans watching NBC’s coverage saw was a Florida layout that looked benign enough, with several holes that the long-hitting pros could easily overpower. But Seminole has plenty of water, some significant elevation changes that are unusual for Florida (which TV cameras tended to flatten as they do at all golf courses), and of course it has eighteen Donald Ross greens. The professionals wore microphones for the round, and fans were able to hear each talking to himself more than once when a putt that looked like it broke in one direction instead veered off at a different angle once the ball was struck.

In the end the final six holes were all halved, so with light fading those skins, worth $1.1 million for the charities, were awarded by a closest-to-the-pin contest played from the forward tee of the par-3 17th hole. One swing of the club for each of the pros, from just 120 yards. As they were preparing to hit one of the four was heard commenting, “120 yards, everyone at home is saying ‘that’s easy!’”

It was not. The wind could be heard blowing in gusts, and the heavily bunkered 17th green sits at an angle to the forward tee. The pin was tucked on the rear shelf of the putting surface, which was crowned in typical Ross fashion, making the target even smaller. Then there was the considerable amount of cash on the line, an amount comparable to the winner’s share of the purse at most weekly Tour stops. That it would go to one of two foundations supporting either nurses or the CDC and not the players’ bank accounts arguably added even more pressure.

Wolffe was first to hit, and he set a mark for the others when his ball came to rest on the green, 18 feet short of the hole. Fowler followed, and viewers likely expected an even better result, as wedge play is one of the strengths of his game. But the result only reminded golf fans of the fickle nature of their sport, as Fowler’s shot sailed not on a high arc toward the pin, but on a straight line into the sandy waste area well right of the green. Johnson then showed that he too, could hit a poor shot at a crucial time, as his wedge finished short and left of the putting surface. With Wolffe’s initial effort looking better by the moment, McIlroy stepped up and lofted a wedge shot high into the air. It landed pin high and twelve feet left of the hole, on the very edge of the shelf. There, almost in defiance of gravity, it somehow remained, giving McIlroy and Johnson eleven skins and $1.85 million for the American Nurses Foundation, while Fowler and Wolffe finished with seven skins and $1.15 million for the CDC Foundation. With additional contributions based on scores under par, an earlier long-driving contest, and viewer contributions during the match, the event raised more than $5.5 million for COVID-19 relief efforts.

It takes nothing away from the enormous value of that charitable work to say that the shot the four professionals faced on the 17th at Seminole was not the only important golf shot hit on Sunday. Many miles to the north, at a decidedly less exclusive layout, two golfers also faced a shot of only 120 yards a few hours before the Florida drama unfolded. Like the pros, each had swung a club with the intent of hitting a ball that distance an untold number of times – not because they play so often or so well, but simply because the game has been part of their lives for so long.

The 14th at Sagamore on the New Hampshire seacoast has just one bunker, not several, and the wind was little more than a zephyr a few miles inland from the beach. There was no money at stake, and with the necessary restrictions in effect as New Hampshire slowly reopens, the golfer finishing closest to the pin couldn’t even demand that his partner pay for a post-round beer. One shot sailed a bit long, the other hit just short but managed to crawl up onto the putting surface.

Just two shots in the middle of a round. Two shots of, well, of a number, struck during the first time on a course together for two friends in many months. Not noteworthy at all, unlike the fundraising effort at Seminole that was just getting started about the time the two friends finished their round at Sagamore. Except that true recovery will be measured not just in dollars raised or tests administered, but also in everyday wellbeing. For that, finally being able to again experience the comfortable familiarity of golf with a friend was vastly more important than any sporting event on television.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 14, 2020

Rushing To Crank Up The Money Machine

The return of live sports continues, with this weekend featuring a real NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, just a two hour drive from the central North Carolina headquarters of most of the Cup Series racing teams, and an exhibition golf match at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, an even shorter drive from the Florida homes of the four PGA Tour stars who will be teeing it up to raise money for the American Nurses and CDC foundations. For the stock car circuit, it’s the beginning of a dramatically reshaped schedule that now features nine races in five weeks, all at tracks within driving distance of the Charlotte area, and all to be run without fans in attendance. Beyond that, for NASCAR as for most sports, nothing is certain. For golf fans, the resumption of tournament play on the PGA Tour is still four weeks away, so for now the TaylorMade Driving Relief skins match featuring the two-man teams of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson versus Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolffe will have to suffice.

The focus on NASCAR’s resumption and the PGA Tour’s made-for-TV event, along with the tidal wave of analysis and opinion on the negotiations between team owners and players over the terms under which some major league baseball might be played this summer, are reminders of just how much fans focus on professional sports, and specifically on the very top level of all our games. Clearly the great national longing for the resumption of sports, spoken about on so many platforms throughout the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, has not been about our collective desire to again be able to participate in a weekend softball tournament, even though the exercise represented by such an outing would doubtless be better for all concerned than sitting in front of a large flatscreen for a few hours watching Kyle Busch turn left or the number one golfer in the world blast 300 yard drives.

Yet there is another level of intense competition for all our sports. For many thousands of collegiate athletes an entire season has already been lost. Everyone knows that the widespread shutdown of most of our society in March led to the cancellation of the NCAA’s basketball tournaments. March was mad indeed, just not in the one way to which fans have grown accustomed. But it wasn’t just the hardcourt season that came to an abrupt halt on campuses. The entire athletic agenda for spring fell victim to the coronavirus, including hockey, baseball, softball, track and field, lacrosse, tennis, and various other sports. For the overwhelming number of participants, the seasons that ended suddenly or never started at all were the highest level of athletic achievement they could hope to reach, for in most collegiate sports even stars have no path to a professional career.

But now attention turns to football, the sport that drives the finances of the entire athletic program at most colleges. Springtime practice sessions have already given way, though not without a fair amount of grumbling from some head coaches. As university presidents and boards of trustees start to weigh in on whether there will be an on-campus academic program this fall, the potential impact on what is by any measure the most popular and widely followed college sport looms very large.

Two months ago, when the hope and the wish was that a few weeks of social distancing would halt the insidious reach of the virus, it was easy for college leaders to proclaim that fall sports – meaning football first and foremost – would only be played if classes were in session and dormitories were filled with undergraduates. But now that it is very possible those conditions will not obtain, the race to walk back such pronouncements is on. Similarly, earlier proclamations that fairness dictated that all NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision conferences should commence play at the same time, or that an individual conference would not compete unless every member school was able to do so, are being reconsidered.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was one of the first to speak up, saying early this month that he saw a “significant chance” that not all the power conferences would start their schedules together. Separately Swarbrick also raised the possibility of having the Fighting Irish football team return to a campus that was still closed to other students. Craig Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, has suggested playing a schedule with only nine of the MWC’s twelve teams, since conference members San Diego State, Fresno State, and San Jose State are located in California, where restrictions on group gatherings are likely to remain in place for an extended period. And now the SEC, the power conference among power conferences when it comes to football, home to reigning national champion LSU and perennial power Alabama, will vote next week on reopening training facilities as of June 1, irrespective of the status of the rest of the campus for any of the conference’s fourteen member schools.

If independent health experts concur that conditions permit on any campus or in any state, who wouldn’t want to see collegiate athletes, and not just football players, have the chance to at least train and practice their skills? But Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley stood out as a lonely voice of reason when he told reporters on Thursday, “All the talk about these schools wanting to bring players back on June 1 is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. We’ve got to be patient. We have one good shot at it.”

Riley’s concerns are likely to be drowned out by the much louder sound of money, which is of course what the sudden urge to get college football going again is all about. Abandoning the pretense that the big stadium with a seating capacity several times total enrollment is tied to a university’s academic purpose, or that a spirit of equity in amateur athletics requires similar treatment of all schools in a conference, or all conferences in a postseason division, has stripped away the fig leaf that always barely hid that truth. Come to think of it, this isn’t really about amateur competition at all, but just another level of professional sports.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 10, 2020

Field Of Schemes

The sports world is slowly awakening from its COVID-19 coma, with the biggest news to date coming very soon in the form of a concrete proposal for the start of the 2020 season of Major League Baseball. As initially reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, MLB owners will consider a plan on Monday and bargaining with the Players Association could commence as soon as the next day. After two earlier plans were widely panned – one to isolate teams in Arizona and the second to add additional “hubs” in Florida and Texas – it appears that commissioner Rob Manfred has accepted as impractical the idea of essentially quarantining players away from their families for the next several months.

The new proposal is expected to be for teams to play out of their home stadiums, with a significantly shortened schedule of perhaps 80 games, and an emphasis on contests against division rivals and the corresponding division of the other league to eliminate cross-country travel. As is often the case, the focus of reporting has been on these high level bullet points, but the hard negotiations between owners and players, and the extent to which this year’s season will be accepted as legitimate by fans, involve details not yet leaked to a willing scribe.

For the players, the key issues will be money and safety, with the priority between the two perhaps varying among members of the MLBPA. The union has already agreed to prorate contracts based on the number of games played in exchange for accruing a full year of service time, so if the reporting of an 80 game schedule is correct every big leaguer will be paid essentially half their published salary. But the internet has been overrun by rumors that owners will seek further pay reductions because at least initially, and possibly for much or even all of the shortened season, games will be played in empty stadiums, depriving the clubs of ticket revenue. The union’s response is that empty stands symbolize the inherent risk players are taking by agreeing to play at all. That also raises the issue of how MLB will provide the extensive testing needed.

Work stoppages have shortened past seasons, so many fans will be looking at other measures of how closely the Great Game in 2020 resembles a normal campaign. No one’s likely to object to regular double headers, but if they involve 7-inning games, or, god forbid, the possibility of ties after a limited number of extra innings, more than a few fans will start giving the season the side-eye. That will be even more true if not all teams are able to play in their home ballparks. The goal of having teams host games at the stadium their players know and live close to is admirable, but the impact of the coronavirus has scarcely been uniform. If the Red Sox and Mets cannot play in Boston and Queens in July, but the Royals and Diamondbacks are cleared by local officials for games in Kansas City and Phoenix, is the proverbial playing field still level?

These questions don’t even touch on the basic issue of what happens if a team produces multiple positive tests at some point. The plan in the KBO is for play to stop for three weeks, but by the time MLB gets going – and the rumored July start may well be optimistic – a shutdown of that duration would likely be enough to scuttle even a shortened season.

Yet amidst so much uncertainty, two decisions have been made, and neither is good for the future of the Great Game. As noted in this space early last month, the current agreement between MLB and the association representing minor league clubs expires this fall, and when negotiations on a new contract began late last year, major league owners took a hard line. MLB proposed slashing the number of affiliated minor league clubs by forty, leaving the jettisoned franchises to join the previously slender ranks of independent teams. Owners of scores of minor league teams vowed to fight the proposed contraction of their system, but that was pre-pandemic. Now there is almost certain to be no minor league season this year, and unlike MLB, the little franchises in small cities across America that are the primary live connection to the Great Game for millions of fans don’t have lucrative television deals. Faced with the same economic dislocation that countless small businesses are facing, MiLB had little choice but to accept the hard terms of MLB’s proposal.

Cutting the amateur draft was also discussed in the minor league negotiations, but now MLB has used the pandemic shutdown to announce that this year’s draft will be reduced from forty rounds to just five, saving big league clubs slightly more than $29 million. That sounds like a lot, but it is less than $1 million per franchise, and only about $500,000 in current cash based on the way signing bonuses are paid. With even the lowly Miami Marlins valued at just under $1 billion, this is pocket change to every major league team. But the effects on young players will be vast.

Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, his future Cooperstown colleague Albert Pujols, and two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom are merely at the top of a very long list of players taken in later rounds of the draft who went on to outstanding big league careers. But slashing the number of minor league contracts means hundreds of college players with a year or two of eligibility now won’t be giving up one of the very limited number of baseball scholarships allowed by the NCAA in order to pursue their dream. That in turn will limit college recruiting efforts and turn some number of multi-sport high school athletes away from baseball to some other game.

In the next day or two fans should have a good idea of just how realistic the proposal for a 2020 season is, whether owners and players appear likely to come together, and if the plan can produce a World Series champion that doesn’t require an asterisk in the record books. The proposed schedule should also reveal whether the planned “Field of Dreams” game on the famous movie site in Iowa is still on for August. But whether that marketing scheme survives, MLB has already made it clear that in the Great Game, as in life, the year of the pandemic will be remembered as the time a lot of dreams died.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 7, 2020

Moments Large And Small, And The Promise Of More

Whether it’s the live feeds of baseball from the KBO league, shown on ESPN somewhere between the dead of night and very early morning, or the announcement that teams in the Bundesliga will resume playing soccer in empty stadiums throughout Germany the weekend after next, or the NFL issuing guidelines to teams on the steps they must take to begin reopening their facilities, this week has seen concerted movement toward the return of our games. As welcome as that news is to every fan, many obstacles remain, and more than a few of the proposals reported on are still very much in the formative stage. Still, as one watched the NC Dinos wallop the Samsung Lions 8-2 while waiting for the sun to peek over the horizon Thursday morning, it was once again possible to squint just a bit and realistically imagine Aaron Judge in pinstripes at the plate, or Mookie Betts finally patrolling right field wearing Dodger blue in a meaningful game.

It will of course be a profoundly different world in which sports are once again played. Those Korean baseball broadcasts showing hauntingly empty stadiums are powerful reminders of that. Fans have long understood the impact that a loud and loyal home crowd can have on a game, not just on its atmosphere but also on the ebb and flow of play. No matter the sport, as spring gives way to summer and almost assuredly on into the fall, “ghost games,” as matches played in padlocked stadiums are aptly called in some European soccer leagues, will be the new and dispiriting normal to which both players and the absent faithful must adjust.

Yet every game will still have its moments. Even though we may be forced to witness them from afar, seeing only what a camera is available to show, every contest is built on what happens in just a few ticks of the clock, or beats of the heart. Such moments can define a player’s career – light-hitting Bucky Dent lifting a high fly to deep left at Fenway Park, David Tyree pinning a pass from Eli Manning between his hand and his helmet. Others are mostly forgotten by the time we leave the stadium. But the well-turned double play, the high, arcing swish from far beyond the three-point line, the daring three-wood over a water hazard to a heavily bunkered green, such small moments can make all the difference in deciding whether a day ends in deliverance or despair.

With the longest season in sport, the Great Game offers fans a surfeit of moments, and will so again when play resumes, even though the schedule is sure to be shortened. And while some fans lament the focus on home runs in the past few years, many of baseball’s grandest moments involve a single swing of a hitter’s bat and the subsequent hasty exit of the ball over an outfield fence. There is Babe calling his shot in the 1932 World Series. Many Fall Classics later, there is Kirk Gibson’s swing that caused Vin Scully to proclaim, “the impossible has happened.” There is the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” off the bat of Bobby Thomson. And then there is the most unexpected homer in the long history of the Great Game. It is a moment that will live forever, that single swing of the bat the night Big Sexy went deep.

Bartolo Colon is 46 now, and still planning to ply his trade in the Mexican League this year. But for more than two decades, beginning with his 1997 debut in a Cleveland uniform, Colon was an always efficient and often dominant big league pitcher. The right-hander evolved from a power hurler with both a four-seam and two-seam fastball to a finesse pitcher mixing in changeups and sliders. In stints with eleven different teams (including two turns with the White Sox), Colon won 247 games and fanned more than 2,500 batters. He was a four-time All-Star and the American League Cy Young Award winner in 2005.

What he was not was a hitter. The burly Colon, usually listed as weighing just shy of 300 pounds, evinced little interest in contributing at the plate for much of his career, with expected results. He went hitless for entire seasons, and not just in the American League where the designated hitter rule naturally limited his at-bats. His trips to the plate typically featured hapless swings which often led to his batting helmet flying off, and were seen by sportscasters, fans, and even many fellow players as comic interludes. The combination of Colon’s size, cartoonish at-bats and unfailing good humor led fellow Mets starting pitcher Noah Syndegaard to jokingly coin the “Big Sexy” nickname during Colon’s three year stay at Citi Field. But with one swing of the bat on May 7, 2016, Colon earned his moniker for real.

Colon came to the plate in the top of the 2nd inning of the Mets’ game against the San Diego Padres. New York had already staked their starter to a 2-0 lead, and catcher Kevin Plawecki was on second. But with two outs and Colon stepping into the batter’s box, everyone at Petco Park assumed the inning was about to be over. Colon however, clearly had other ideas. He looked at a ball from James Shields, and then like mighty Casey disdaining any pitch he did not regard as perfect, Colon stood and watched strike one pass by.

Then the third offering from Shields, a fastball clocked at 91, wandered over the middle of the plate, and the moment arrived. Colon swung, and the ball shot to deep left. Padres left fielder Melvin Upton Jr. gave chase, but to no avail. The ball sailed into the lower deck, making Colon, then 42 years old, the oldest major leaguer to hit his first home run. Mets radio play-by-play man Howie Rose, surely knowing that listeners would be disbelieving, proclaimed “Home run, Bartolo Colon! Repeating, home run, Bartolo Colon!” On the TV broadcast the announcer chose to recall Scully with “the impossible has happened!” Colon took nearly thirty seconds to round the bases, not because he was showing off but because that was about as fast as he could run. Padres fans, sensing that they were witnesses to one of the Great Game’s seminal moments, came to their feet to cheer Colon as he made his plodding progress.

On its fourth anniversary the moment remains fresh, as surely it will four decades hence. It was, after all, a heavy moment for the ages, or at least one for the heavy and aged. Now there are hopeful signs that sometime in the coming weeks a new season will at last begin. Before a single pitch has been thrown two things about that campaign are already certain. It will be profoundly different in so many important ways, yet it will also offer us countless special moments. Though no one should be surprised if none quite match up to that memorable night when with one swing of his bat Big Sexy became part of the Great Game’s lore.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 3, 2020

Only Bits And Bytes Ran For The Roses

It was late afternoon on the first Saturday in May, so in keeping with tradition a field of horses began the run down the long home stretch toward the finish line at Churchill Downs. Having led since early in the race, Seattle Slew remained in front, but a bevy of contenders was right behind. The first to make his run was Citation, who had charged from far off the pace by moving between horses as the field swept around the final turn. But even as his jockey, clad in the familiar red and blue silks of Calumet Farm, put Citation into high gear, he was challenged by Secretariat, who had swung wide for running room and now came barreling down the middle of the track. To the roars of the thousands looking on, Secretariat overtook Citation in the final furlong, beating him to the wire by three parts of a length, while a tiring but determined Seattle Slew held off Affirmed and American Pharoah for third.

Of course one need not be an avid follower of horse racing to recognize the names of the contenders in this race, and thus to instantly know that it was not the 2020 Kentucky Derby, but an ersatz competition, one more in the long and growing list of not quite real sporting events that fill our pandemic-emptied airwaves. With this year’s Derby postponed until September, NBC opted to fill the time slot with a computer generated simulation, pitting avatars of the thirteen Triple Crown winners against each other over the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter, at a packed cartoon Churchill Downs that stood in sharp contrast to the long rows of empty seats at the real track in Louisville.

This being an age in which advanced statistical analysis plays an outsized role in every sport, it was only appropriate that the simulation was the product of a computer algorithm based on historical performances of each of the thirteen real horses. Those statistics were fed into models developed by Inspired Entertainment, a company that produces both content and hardware for the gaming industry. The proprietary technology also factored in the evaluations of racing experts, in an effort to account for the many changes in the sport over the long period from Sir Barton becoming the first Triple Crown champion in 1919 to Justify turning the trick ninety-nine years later.

For all that it’s likely that the computer program left many of the early winners heavily handicapped. Short of a séance it’s tough to find an analyst who could speak knowingly about any of the first eight horses to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, since it’s been more than seven decades since Citation became the last of that group to do so. In addition, for much of horse racing’s history statistical recordkeeping was neither centralized nor controlled by the industry itself.

Still it’s hard to argue with the result of Inspired’s simulation. Secretariat, the big chestnut colt trained by Lucien Lauren and ridden by Ron Turcotte, set records in each of the three races (including a world record for the mile and a half distance of the Belmont) that all stand to this day, nearly half a century after he capped his Triple Crown by “moving like a tremendous machine,” in the immortal words of announcer Chic Anderson, on his way to winning the Belmont by thirty-one lengths. Had the algorithm resulted in any of the other horses crossing the wire first, there might have been a simulated foul claim rivaling the real one that upended last year’s Derby.

To be sure, there was some real racing on Saturday. Thanks to a reshuffling of the major stakes schedule in the wake of the Derby’s postponement, the Arkansas Derby, normally run in April as one of the prep races leading up to the Run for the Roses, was moved to Saturday. Then with racing options limited for the many horses vying for an eventual spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs, Oaklawn Park had so many entrants that the Arkansas Derby was split into two divisions.

As it turned out, running two races instead of one just meant an additional win for Bob Baffert. Horse racing’s most famous trainer, instantly recognizable thanks to his shock of white hair, Baffert is more strongly associated with the Triple Crown than any other trainer or jockey. He saddled American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018, becoming the first trainer since Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in the 1930s to guide two horses to racing’s biggest and most elusive prize. Baffert’s horses have been first to the finish line fifteen times in the three Triple Crown races, and barring injury he’ll likely send two of the favorites in this year’s Kentucky Derby onto the track in Louisville as the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” come September. That at least was the obvious conclusion on Saturday, as first Charlatan and then Nadal toyed with their competition in the two heats at Oaklawn.

In the first running Charlatan bolted from the inside post and was in the lead by the time the field hit the first turn in the mile and an eighth race. With no other contender pressing him for the pace, Charlatan breezed along down the back stretch, gradually turning a two-length lead into a six-length gap at the wire. Then in the second race Nadal – yes, the horse is named for the tennis star – ceded the early lead to Wells Bayou. That might have been a concern for some punters betting remotely on Baffert’s horse, since Nadal had won his first three races from the front. But Nadal had a clear path in the second lane and put his head in front midway through the far turn. King Guillermo challenged briefly at the top of the stretch, but Nadal simply motored away to win by three lengths, giving Baffert an Arkansas double.

Perhaps for some horse racing fans having two heats of a Grade I stakes race made Saturday twice as nice. But the first Saturday in May belongs to a race first won by Aristides in 1875. As much as Opening Day, or Sunday at the Masters, the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs is one more sign that another long winter has been turned aside. It is a day for big hats on women and bright suits on men. A day when millions of Americans who know absolutely nothing about horse racing tune in and make a small wager based on the name of a horse or the colors of a jockey’s silks – and some of them win. It is a day that a sport with so many problems of late sorely needed. But like those other harbingers of spring and so much else in all our games, it is a day that this year will have to wait. This year, the only good thing about the first Saturday in May was that the algorithm got it right.

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