Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 18, 2023

Hit ’em Straight, Mike

To all of Mike’s readers, it is with profound sadness that, as close friends of his, we post this note.  Mike passed away on January 5, 2023 from a sudden illness.  He leaves behind a compendium of insight on sports and life and we all will miss the pieces he wrote twice a week for the past several years. will be active for the immediate future so that folks can access the site’s archives, and we encourage folks to provide comments in his memory.  We hope to compile a book of some of his best posts.  We’d love folks to weigh in on one or two of their favorites over the years.

Mike knew that sports are a microcosm of the joy and heartache we all experience in our lives. We will all miss his remarkably crafted vignettes, nuanced and humorous, and full of data and anecdotes that covered the landscape of the sports world, both on the field and off.  

Mike wrote a lot about America’s Pastime and this time of year he would begin to anticipate the return of players to Spring Training and the promise of Opening Day.   As the next season rolls around, I know he’ll still be somewhere in the stands rooting for his Bronx Bombers.

We last saw him when he visited for Thanksgiving this past November.  On his way back to Portsmouth, NH he got in a couple of rounds at Pinehurst, the historic golf resort in North Carolina.  In his final round of golf he shot an 83.  I’ll never forget his ultra-focused countenance when lining up a putt, knowing that sometimes the ball will find the center of the cup and sometimes it will roll out.  

His departure from this world so suddenly left us all reeling. We’ll miss reading his capture on life and sports. But mostly we miss our friend.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 22, 2022

Steve Cohen is Dragging MLB into the 21st Century

A NOTE TO READERS:  With holidays the next two Sundays and personal travel plans next Thursday, On Sports and Life will be taking a brief break.  The regular schedule will resume on Thursday, January 5th.  Whether your traditions include singing carols, eating sufganiyot, or the Airing of Grievances, may the coming days be free of stress and filled with wonder.  As always, thank you for reading.

It turns out Steve Cohen wasn’t done.  Less than a week after this space was dedicated to discussion of the New York Mets record $75-$80 million luxury tax bill, Cohen swooped in when the San Francisco Giants hesitated on finalizing their 13-year, $350 million contract with shortstop Carlos Correa, based on something – fans may never know what exactly – the team’s medical staff saw in the results of Correa’s physical.  The late-night deal that saw Correa switch from one coast to the other and from shortstop to third base is for $315 million over a dozen years, enough to drive the Mets offseason spending on free agents to more than $800 million, the franchise’s roster commitments for next season to $384 million, which with more than $111 million in luxury tax added will mean a total payroll in Queens of nearly half a billion dollars.

As has been widely reported, that tax figure alone is more than the salary commitments of one-third of MLB clubs.  The Diamondbacks, Orioles, Reds, Guardians, Royals, Marlins, A’s, Pirates, Rays and Nationals are all currently set take the field on Opening Day with a 26-man roster being paid less than $111 million.  Luxury tax bills are based on the 40-man roster and aren’t calculated until the end of the regular season, so the popular comparison making the rounds is a bit misleading, and much could change between now and then.  But there’s no reason to think Cohen will suddenly decide to try dumping salary at the trade deadline, and, sadly, even less cause to believe that those other clubs will step up and start spending.

Correa’s move, engineered by his agent Scott Boras, is unusual but not entirely unheard of.  Fans are so used to hearing the rote language “subject to a physical” when a new contract is announced that most simply ignore it.  But from time to time a deal falls apart over a medical issue, and once in a very great while a marquee contract comes undone, for that or other reasons.  Shortly before Christmas 2003, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein believed he had worked out a blockbuster three team deal to bring superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez to Boston from the Texas Rangers.  But A-Rod still had seven years left on his $252 megadeal, and Epstein didn’t want to commit to that level of spending.  Rodriguez agreed to a salary reduction in exchange for getting an annual opt-out provision in a revised contract.  However, that ran afoul of the Players Association, which is understandably never in favor of its members agreeing to a cut in pay.  The deal collapsed, and a few weeks later Boston’s archrival in the Bronx stepped into the breach, sending second baseman Alfonso Soriano and a prospect to Texas for A-Rod, with the Rangers kicking in a portion of his annual salary.  The Rodriguez comparison is especially apt because just like the 2023 Mets with Francisco Lindor, the Yankees back then already had a superstar shortstop in Derek Jeter.  Both A-Rod in 2003 and Correa next season will move to third base.

At the time, of course, there were plenty of complaints about the evil empire in the Bronx adding yet another big name and even more salary dollars, something that so many other franchises simply couldn’t do, according to the familiar old argument.  But the carping looked a little hollow when it took the Yankees six years and the 2009 addition of pitchers CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, first baseman Mark Teixeira, outfielder Nick Swisher, and the re-signing of left-hander Andy Pettitte from Houston before New York returned to the Fall Classic and captured its 27th championship.

The same is true for the Mets.  However strong the team looks on paper, it is the daily grind of the longest season that will tell the tale.  It is worth noting that for all Cohen’s spending, until the Correa signing the Mets had largely been busy either keeping current players – closer Edwin Diaz, outfielder Brandon Nimmo, or replacing departed ones – Justin Verlander for Jacob deGrom, Jose Quintana for Chris Bassitt, Kodai Senga for Taijuan Walker.  Still, the owners, executives and fans of low budget teams will continue to complain, when they should instead be looking in the mirror.  All 30 teams are in line to receive a $30 million windfall from last month’s purchase by Disney of the portion of software developer BAMTech that was still owned by MLB.  Plus, the teams on the bottom of the salary list will each receive its share of the tax paid by those teams that exceed at least the first threshold.  In addition to the Mets, that current includes the Yankees and Padres, with the Phillies, Blue Jays, and Atlanta all knocking on the door, one major trading deadline acquisition from going over the first limit.  Teams like the A’s (projected $49.5 million 26-man roster) and Pirates ($58.2) are effectively funding salaries from the Disney money and their share of the luxury tax, while putting all the usual revenue streams – tickets, concessions, local and national TV contracts – in the owner’s pocket.

The good news is that other, more enlightened owners, are starting to step up.  This has been a record offseason for player spending, and not just because of Cohen.  While the complainers cite the ten teams spending less than Cohen’s tax bill, eleven others are projected to spend more than $200 million on 40-man rosters.  That’s four more than last year.  The guess here is that just like Cohen, none of those owners will need to start a GoFundMe page to cover their spending.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 18, 2022

Lionel Messi Meets His Moment

Time.  It is an essential element of every major sporting event.  That is literally the case when the game at hand is measured by a clock, like basketball or hockey or soccer.  But even in baseball or tennis or golf, the element of time helps tell the larger story of a contest.  Is it about the past or the future, a look back, with longing, or a look ahead, with anticipation? 

This is especially true for an event, like the World Cup, that is staged only every four years.  By the time 48 teams assemble in North America for the next World Cup, some of the most familiar names in soccer will be in their dotage, as least in athletic terms.  Luka Modric will be 40, Christiano Ronaldo 41.  Lionel Messi, whose seven Ballon d’Or trophies as the best male player in European soccer – though most fans would agree that effectively means the world – place him at the top of many lists as the premier footballer of all time, will be 39.  If any of them are on their national squads for the 2026 World Cup, their role will be either ceremonial, or painful to watch. 

As is always the case in all our games, a new generation of stars is eager for the spotlight as these players prepare to leave the stage.  Richarlison, the 25-year-old Brazilian forward, who plays professionally for Tottenham Hotspur, tallied ten goals in international play this year, including three in World Cup qualifying matches and three more in Qatar before Brazil was bounced out of the tournament by Croatia in the quarterfinals.  But a broad consensus of fans and soccer journalists peg Kylian Mbappé as the heir to Messi and Ronaldo.  Still just 23, his star first shone in international play four years ago, when he joined the immortal Pele as the only teenagers to score twice in a World Cup match, and, a few days later, the only teens to tally a goal in a World Cup Final, as France claimed the trophy at the Cup’s last staging with a 4-2 win over Croatia.

So it was that from the moment the contestants were set, time became not just part of the story of this year’s Final, but its central theme.  Argentina and the veteran Messi, going for the country’s third championship but the first since 1986, against France and the youthful Mbappé, trying to become the first team to repeat as titlist since Brazil six decades ago.

For the first seventy-nine minutes on the match clock, the Final was all Argentina.  Scarcely more than ten minutes remained until Messi could finally lay his hands on the tiny trophy that had remained beyond his grasp throughout his illustrious career.  He had opened the scoring midway through the first half, easily converting a penalty kick after his teammate Ángel Di María was fouled deep in French territory.  Thirteen minutes later, Messi started a rush with an elegant little side-footed pass to Julián Álvarez near midfield.  From there a long pass went to Alexis Mac Allister, who had beaten his French defender.  At the top of the box Mac Allister sent the ball across to a wide-open Di María, whose left-footed shot beat French goaltender Hugo Lloris.

The tallies seemed inevitable, for Argentina controlled most of the play and was pressuring France throughout.  But even as the thousands of fans clad in sky blue and white were raising the decibel level at Lusail Stadium, Mbappé led a furious French rally.  A burst of speed from France’s Randal Kolo Muani forced his defender to foul or allow a clean breakaway.  Now it was Mbappé’s turn to drill a penalty kick into the net, just past the desperate reach of a diving Emiliano Martínez in goal.  Then, scarcely more than a minute later, Mbappé tallied again, this time off a give and go from the top of the box.  Just like that, Argentina’s lead was gone, and the momentum was entirely with France.

Through the final nine minutes on the clock and nearly as much stoppage time, Argentina appeared to be doing nothing more than trying to hold on and force overtime, to somehow stop a story of the capstone of Messi’s career from turning fully into one of Mbappé’s surge to greatness.  Having somehow achieved that modest goal, Argentina turned to its captain for deliverance and early in the second extra period he came through.  The central figure in a three-person advance at the French goal, Messi was perfectly positioned when Lloris blocked the first shot from Lautaro Martinez but was unable to hold onto the ball.  As if drawn by a magnet it instead went straight to Messi’s right foot, which sent it back the other way, into the French net.  But Mbappé wasn’t done, and he seized the opportunity of another foul to convert a penalty with only two minutes remaining in overtime, giving him the first hat trick in a World Cup Final since 1966.

And so, after one hundred twenty minutes, the World Cup was decided on penalty kicks, the tiebreaking mechanism loved and hated, in equal measure, by fans.  The two stars went first, and both converted, though Martínez got a hand on Mbappé’s drive.  But now both Messi and Mbappé could only stand and watch, a reminder that whatever the main story of any sporting event, there are always key parts played by lesser members of the cast.  Martínez made a clean save on the second French shot, and when the next two Argentine shooters converted around an effort by France’s Aurélien Tchouámeni that went wide, the shootout score stood at 3-1.  Kolo Muani kept French hopes flickering, but Gonzalo Montiel sent the ball to the left side of the net as Lloris guessed wrong and dove the other way.  On the field, in the stands, and more than eight thousand miles and six time zones away in Buenos Aires, Argentina celebrated.

Messi ended the match with a pair of goals, and seven in total for the World Cup.  That plus the championship earned him the award as the tournament’s best player.  Mbappé’s hat trick brought his goal total to eight, allowing him to claim the Golden Boot as the Cup’s high scorer.  But this was not a day for individual awards.  The only prize that mattered was the 14-inch gold trophy that Messi, surrounded by his teammates, was finally able to raise after so many years of chasing the moment, for his country and himself.  It is easy to believe that Kylian Mbappé will again have the opportunity to do so, in four years, or eight, or twelve.  But for now, it is still Lionel Messi’s time.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 15, 2022

The Cohen Tax Hits Home

If a new tax is named after you, a certain logic dictates that you might as well be the first one to pay it.  That, at least, appears to be the thinking of New York Mets owner Steve Cohen.  With a net worth of more than $17 billion, Cohen ranks 38th on Forbes’ list of the wealthiest Americans, more than enough to make him the richest major league baseball owner the day he acquired majority control of the Mets in the autumn of 2020.  The other twenty-nine members of the ultra-exclusive MLB franchise owners club were surely happy to see Cohen replace the Wilpon family, whose travails with Bernie Madoff had hamstrung their ability to spend at a level commensurate with the team’s place in the huge New York market.  But there was plenty of media speculation at the time that at least some other owners feared Cohen would use his fat checkbook to pay salaries far above what they could, or more accurately wanted to, afford.  

Through his first two seasons as the Mets owner, Cohn showed a willingness to spend, but arguably not in excess of what one would expect from a major market club.  The Mets’ player payroll ranked 8th in 2021 and 2nd, just behind the L.A. Dodgers and ahead of the cross-town Yankees, in 2022.  Last season was, however, the first time the Mets exceeded the threshold of MLB’s luxury tax – formally, the competitive balance tax – which requires franchises to pay a percentage of the amount by which they exceed the threshold into a central fund, about half of which is eventually redistributed to other clubs.  The rate increases for clubs remaining above the threshold over multiple years and is also subject to a surtax if the base salary level is exceeded by certain amounts.   

That surtax had always had two levels – 12% for rosters $20 to $40 million above the threshold, and 45% for anything more.  But when MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement was finally hammered out last spring, a third surtax level of 60% for payrolls more than $60 million over the luxury tax base.  That additional, third tier was quickly dubbed the Cohen tax, and now, still two months before the start of Spring Training, it is apparent that the first owner to pay it will be the tax’s eponym.

So far this offseason, the Mets front office has lavished Cohen’s largesse on closer Edwin Diaz (5 years, $102 million), righthander Justin Verlander (2 years, $86.7 million), center fielder Brandon Nimmo (8 years, $75 million), veteran reliever David Robertson (1 year, $10 million), and lefthander Jose Quintana (2 years, $26 million), along with a few lesser deals and on top of the team’s existing contract obligations.  The luxury tax calculation, based on the average annual value of contracts for players on the 40-man roster, doesn’t occur until the end of the season, but the current estimate by Fangraphs is that the Mets number will be in the range of $350 million, more than any other club and far above next season’s $233 million tax threshold.  Since this will be the team’s second year above the limit, the tax rate will be 30%.  But the surtaxes, including the Cohen tax, will add to that.  Every dollar the Mets spend above $293 million ($60 million above the base), will be subject to a total tax rate of 90%.  With a bill in the $75-$80 million range, the Queens franchise will be the first in major league baseball to incur total payroll-related costs of more than $400 million.

As those numbers came into focus in the past couple of weeks, the grumbling started again.  According to a segment of the Great Game’s fan base and, no doubt, more than a few front office types at other franchises, Steve Cohen is bad for baseball.

Of course, for as long as the old game has been around, something has always bad for baseball.  The designated hitter rule ruined the sport, which was never the same anyway after most of the schedule started being played at night.  Long before Cohen came along, George Steinbrenner was destroying the game a couple of long subway rides away from Citi Field.  Then there was Branch Rickey.  Understandably lionized for his role in confronting the Great Game’s original sin, Rickey’s more pernicious role usually goes unmentioned.  While at the helm of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he started delving into the statistics that for millions of fans have always been an elemental part of baseball’s appeal.  He employed a full-time data analyst for the Bums, and promoted a newfangled metric, on base percentage, as a more meaningful measure of a hitter’s worth than batting average.  A fan can draw a straight line from Rickey’s meddling to the advent of sabermetrics, the true and total ruination of the Great Game.  Oh, if we could only return to the dead ball days. 

Fans who dread the likes of Cohen are sincere, but their concerns are as misplaced as were those who feared all those bogeymen, and so many other supposed calamities through the sport’s long story.  The cry is that big spending will drive ticket prices even higher while leaving teams in smaller markets unable to compete.  But neither complaint is well founded.

Connecting player salaries to the price of ballpark admission reflects a distant and vanished time.  To be sure, it was once real, when the daily gate was a club’s primary revenue stream.  But today, ticket sales for the teams with the highest annual attendance, total less than the revenue from local and national television contracts for the teams with the smallest broadcast deals.  Add in the sale of other media rights, from radio to streaming, licensing revenue for all kinds of merchandise, ancillary income for many franchises for a range of non-baseball activities, and ticket proceeds no longer drive the top line of any club’s operating statement.  Yet they remain highly subject to a franchise’s performance.  If the Mets lose 100 games next season, Cohen won’t be able to raise ticket prices because fans won’t pay higher prices to watch a bad product.  Or he can go ahead and increase the price and watch the swaths of empty seats expand until a game at Citi Field starts to look a lot like one at Oakland Coliseum.

Given the roster the Mets are assembling, losing 100 games is highly unlikely.  But sailing serenely to a World Series championship and leaving small and midsize market franchises in the dust is no certainty.  In this century, only three teams have finished the year with both the highest payroll and a championship parade – the 2009 Yankees, 2018 Red Sox, and 2020 Dodgers.  Meanwhile, teams like the Tampa Bay Rays have frequently contended without huge payrolls, and the San Diego Padres franchise, in just the 27th largest media market in the country, is embarrassing every team owner who cries poverty by signing multiple huge contracts for leading free agents.  The competitiveness of a ballclub is determined not by the size of its home market, but by the priorities of its owner.

By that true measure fans in Queens know that the Mets, under Cohen, are ready to compete.  Whether they are good enough to win will be determined first over the course of the longest season, and then through the mad dash of the playoffs, and the only certainty is that there are no guarantees.  Well, there is one.  If the final out of the 2023 season elicits cheers at Citi Field, it’s guaranteed that Steve Cohen won’t mind paying the tax that bears his name, not even for a New York minute.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 11, 2022

Darkness and Light in Qatar

The World Cup will go on, of course; indeed, it already has.  On the day after American journalist Grant Wahl collapsed in the press box during the quarterfinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands and died shortly thereafter, the two remaining semifinalists were decided.  FIFA ran a brief tribute to Wahl, who was this country’s premier soccer reporter, on the giant screens at Al Bayt Stadium before Saturday’s match between France and England. 

That, at least, was more attention than was paid by the governing body of association football to any of the roughly 500 deaths among the thousands of migrant workers used by host nation Qatar to construct all the infrastructure needed for this, the most important of all soccer tournaments being played in a country with no discernable history or ties to the sport.  The most recent of those fatalities occurred even after play had begun in the Group Stage, when a Filipino worker died in a forklift accident at the training facility for the Saudi Arabian team.  Wahl reported on it in one of the last posts on his Substack site, focusing on the utter indifference of Qatari officials.  He had reported on the issue in the long runup to the World Cup, just as he covered the corruption within FIFA that led to the 2010 selection of Qatar as host nation for this year’s Cup.

Wahl loved this sport and reported on the Group Stage round-robin play and the first matches of the Knockout Stage with the enthusiasm of a true fan.  But unlike some sportswriters, who over time find it increasingly easy to gloss over issues on the business side of our games for fear of losing precious access to front office personnel and league officials, he was always willing to shine a journalistic torch on the darker side of soccer.  That is probably one of the reasons he wore a rainbow shirt to the match between the United States and Wales, an action that led to his brief detainment by officials of a country that criminalizes being gay.

The outpouring of horror by scores of his fellow sportswriters at Wahl’s sudden death, at the far too young age of just 49, was evidence of just how much he was admired by his peers.  While the suggestion that he may have been the victim of foul play, first made by Wahl’s brother, is almost certainly fueled only by understandable grief, the fact that it was not immediately dismissed speaks to the deep distrust of an event that is equal parts a celebration of the world’s most popular sport and an elaborate and shockingly expensive exercise in sportswashing. 

For those able to focus on the first part of that dichotomy, the quarterfinal matches were compelling.  On Friday, both went to penalty kick shootouts after being tied at the end of 90 minutes of regulation play and 30 minutes of overtime.  The shootouts are both a reasonable and necessary method of deciding a winner in a low-scoring sport which frequently produces ties, and an excruciating and intense denouement for both fans and participants.  Coming after two hours (plus stoppage time) of play, they also put the “sudden” in sudden death.  This weekend, they produced heartache for fans in one South American country, and relief for those in its neighbor. 

Brazil, the pre-tournament favorite, found itself locked in a scoreless contest with Croatia through 90 minutes of regulation and the first 15-minute overtime period.  But then, in stoppage time of that first extra session, Neymar broke through, scoring off a beautiful bit of back-and-forth passing as he and a teammate advanced through the Croatian defense.  The goal tied Neymar with the legendary Pele at 77 goals in international play, and meant all Brazil had to do was hold Croatia, which had yet to put a shot on goal, off the board through the final 15 minutes.  Instead, Bruno Petkovic scored from close range with only three minutes remaining.  The tally seemed to stun the favorites, who proceeded to collapse in the shootout, missing two of four kicks. 

In Friday’s other quarterfinal, Argentina netted its first score midway through the first half, and another just a bit later in the second period.  Needing only to run out the final minutes against the Dutch, Lionel Messi and company instead allowed the Netherlands to rally with a pair of late goals, the equalizer coming deep in stoppage time.  But after the mounting tension of a pair of overtime periods, Argentina jumped out to a big lead in the shootout by netting its first three shots while the Dutch misfired three times in a row.  Argentina advanced, but only after its usual dose of drama.

Saturday’s matches did not require shootouts, though Portugal and especially England will both long wish otherwise.  Morocco became the first team from the African continent and first representative of the Arab-speaking world to reach the semifinals by outlasting Portugal 1-0.  Ranked only third in its original four-team group at the start of the Cup, Morocco wasn’t favored even to advance to the Knockout Stage.  Instead, it placed first in Group F with two wins and a draw, before completing a sweep of the Iberian Peninsula with a Round of 16 win over pre-tournament second choice Spain followed by the dismissal of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal squad. 

But while Ronaldo wept on the pitch following his team’s defeat, Harry Kane’s bitter tears are likely to last much longer.  England played defending champion France evenly or better through most of its match but found itself down 2-1 with time ticking away.  Kane, England’s captain and stalwart since 2015, was given the opportunity to tie the score when England was awarded a penalty kick at the 84-minute mark.  But his attempt sailed over the net, and a few minutes later France was through to the semifinals, its hopes of becoming the first repeat champion since Brazil in 1958 and 1962 still alive.  Kane’s Miss, as it will surely be remembered years from now, adds one more sad chapter to the story of a national team that believes the Cup will “come home” every four years, even though it has not done so since 1966.

Now only four remain.  By this time next week one team will have lifted the tiny trophy, and one nation’s fans will be rejoicing, as they should, for their country’s squad will have prevailed in soccer’s most intense spectacle.  But after they are done partying, perhaps those fans will take a moment to consider not just the glory of this World Cup, but all about it that is shameful.  As Grant Wahl showed us every day, celebrating the light while exposing the dark side of a sport and trying to make it better is the strongest proof that one is a true fan.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 9, 2022

Judgement Day in The Bronx

Stress, lack of exercise, cigarette smoking, high cholesterol – most of us are at least generally aware of the leading causes of heart attacks.  But for fans of the New York Yankees, a new source was added to the familiar list Tuesday afternoon.  That’s when Jon Heyman, the veteran New York Post sports columnist, hit “send” on a tweet that rocked the Yankees’ faithful and brought the Great Game’s hot stove season to a full rolling boil.  From the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego, Heyman informed the world, or at least that part of it with a Twitter account, that “Arson Judge appears headed to Giants.” 

The news was so incendiary that some fans didn’t immediately notice the typo in Aaron Judge’s first name, a product of the app’s auto-correct feature.  Heyman fixed that quickly enough, though not before other users started filling up Twitter timelines with photoshopped images of the Yankees superstar and American League home run king in front of burning buildings.  It took several more minutes, and the rapid issuance of denials by representatives of both the Giants and Yankees that any deal was close to fruition, for Heyman to pull his original tweet and apologize for “jumping the gun.”

Baseball fans will never know if Heyman was scorched by sources that had in the past proven reliable, or if a burning desire to be first in reporting the biggest story of MLB’s offseason caused him to abandon basic tenets of reporting.  What is certain is that if the deleted tweet had been correct, Judge might as well have torched the big stadium in the Bronx.  With a home run to Monument Park in dead center field in his first big league at bat in August 2016, and 52 round-trippers in his Rookie of the Year campaign the following season, Judge quickly established his place in the proud lineage of Bronx Bombers.  The “99” on his jersey and his NFL tight end physique made Judge instantly recognizable, and his oft-stated commitment to winning a championship forged an immediate bond with fans.  This past season, in a lineup that many of those in the stands understandably disparaged as underperforming and overpaid (see Donaldson, Josh), Judge was the consistent fiery light.

And how brilliantly that light shone.  Entering his last year under team control, Judge turned down the Yankees offer of 7 years and $213.5 million during Spring Training.  Plenty of fans, and more than a few journalists, scoffed at his audacity in rejecting a contract worth more than $30 million per year.  To be sure, no matter the sport, fans have seen players make the ultimate financial bet – a high-stakes wager on their own performance – only to come a cropper often enough that the reaction wasn’t surprising.  No doubt some fans, beholden to the myth that owners are just barely scraping by financially, were even pulling for Judge to get his comeuppance when the season began in April.

By August those same partisans were likely making their way into the Stadium before a game clad in jerseys or tee shirts with a “99” on the back, ready to rise from their seats when their hero sent one more spheroid soaring into the sky.  Having pushed all his chips into the pot, over the course of the longest season Judge revealed a hand filled with aces.  The near unanimous choice as American League MVP, he led the majors in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, runs batted in, and total bases, all while passing first Babe Ruth and then Roger Maris to set the new AL home run mark.  To complete the picture, he also played above average defense patrolling both right and center field and stole sixteen bases.  No wonder Heyman’s tweet caused the hearts of Yankee fans to start palpitating at several times 99 beats a minute.   

That the report seemed believable speaks not just to Heyman’s now severely damaged credibility, but also to the deep distrust of GM Brian Cashman and owner Hal Steinbrenner felt by so many of the Yankees’ faithful.  That antipathy was on display in September during ceremonies at the Stadium honoring Derek Jeter’s enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Both the general manager, who was not on the field, and the owner, who was, were loudly booed by the capacity crowd.  For his part, Jeter told fans they should cheer, though he appeared to limit that sentiment to Steinbrenner.  Fans remembered the Yankee legend’s admonition when, a little more than twelve hours after the Heyman fiasco, multiple sources reported first that Judge was staying in pinstripes, and then that his new contract, for $360 million over nine years, was the product of personal intervention by Steinbrenner, who was in Italy, nine time zones away from San Diego.

Fans can tell themselves their catcalls helped spur Steinbrenner to action, but the truth is that keeping Judge on the payroll is enormously good for business.  The expectation is that he will soon be named the team’s first captain since Jeter retired in 2014.  Whether or not that happens, Judge has already stepped into the role of franchise icon.  His jersey and tee shirt sales far outstrip any other player on the current roster, as was the case when Jeter played, and even after he retired.  Judge is the only player whose name Paul Olden emphasizes when reading the starting lineups in the minutes before every game’s first pitch, in part because the stadium announcer knows Judge is the one name that will be greeted by raucous cheers.  All of which helps sell tickets, beers, and chicken buckets.

Of course, shoulders as big as Judge’s are needed for the expectations that are now placed on them.  More than three million paying customers every season and the added revenue of annual playoff appearances may be enough to produce a positive bottom line for the owner, but perhaps even Steinbrenner now understands that the franchise’s history, most recently embodied by his father’s single-minded pursuit, means that Yankee fans measure success by championships won. 

No single player can deliver a title, but Steinbrenner’s commitment to baseball’s highest average annual value contract for a position player, and Judge’s commitment to play out his career in the Bronx, join the two in a partnership to finally end the team’s World Series drought.  Next season will be the 14th since the Yankees last played in the Fall Classic, potentially matching the franchise’s longest absence from the Great Game’s ultimate stage since New York’s first title one century ago.  That is not a record Yankee partisans want to see tied, though for a few minutes on Tuesday, one inflammatory text made such a sad outcome seem certain.  But whether due to carefully calculated business judgment, or a storm of boos raining down from the stands last September, or the trauma engendered by a misbegotten tweet, Hal Steinbrenner did what he had not done since assuming the stewardship of sports’ most successful franchise.  He acted like his old man.  Come what may, somewhere, the Boss is smiling.  

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 4, 2022

So Many Bowls Until the Ones That Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 1, 2022

A Little Course with Big Teeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 20, 2022

The World Cup Gets the Start It Deserves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 17, 2022

MLB’s Awards Week Needs a Pitch Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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