Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 29, 2022

60, 61, ….62?

Numbers are essential to the allure of all our sports, but they are utterly interwoven with the fabric of the Great Game.  In a distant time, when telephones had dials and the internet was the stuff of science fiction, generations of fans began their mornings perusing the previous day’s box scores in the sports section of the local newspaper.  The tiny agate type told the story of each game, and the statistics that mattered were either right there or could be easily calculated from the rows of numbers.

The world has turned many times since those days, and box scores are now most likely reviewed online.  That at least means larger fonts, no small advantage to aging eyes.  Metrics have changed as well.  Many of the old stats, if not quite discredited, have been deemed less meaningful than newly devised statistics based on complex formulas that can no longer be done in one’s head.  Yet even that change only emphasizes how important numbers are to baseball, and to how it measures greatness.

Fans born long after the playing days of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had ended still immediately recognize the numbers 56 and .406.  Those who rightly honor Cal Ripken’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games played are still awed by the 2,130 record that the Orioles’ hero broke in September 1995, more than half a century after Lou Gehrig set it.  And if the first thought of most fans at the mention of the 1988 Dodgers is Kirk Gibson’s improbable home run to win Game 1 of that autumn’s World Series, it takes only a little prompting to get any longtime L.A. supporter to wax rhapsodic about Oral Hershiser’s streak of 59 scoreless innings pitched over the final month of that regular season.

Which brings us to 60, a number as instantly meaningful to a fan of the Great Game as any associated with a sport.  On the next-to-last day of the 1927 season, Babe Ruth stepped to the plate at Yankee Stadium in the 8th inning of a tie game against the Washington Senators.  Having tied his own major league record of 59 home runs, set six years earlier, with a pair of blasts the previous day, Ruth established a new standard with a two-run shot off Washington’s Tom Zachary, propelling the Yankees to a 4-2 victory.  After the win an exultant Ruth proclaimed “Sixty, count ‘em, sixty!  Let’s see some other son of a bitch match that!”

There are multiple reasons why sixty homers became imbedded in the Great Game’s lore, only one of which is the fact that for 34 years, no other son of a bitch could match Ruth.  First, and this is no small thing, it’s a nice round number.  In addition, 60, along with his 715 career round-trippers, a record that stood even longer, quickly came to define Ruth and the way in which he remade his sport.  Just a decade earlier another Yankee, Wally Pipp, best known today as the first baseman whose struggles at the plate in 1925 gave a young Gehrig a chance at playing time he did not soon relinquish, led the majors in 1917 with 9 home runs.  In 1918 Ruth first appeared at the top of the homer list with 11 while working mostly as a starting pitcher for the Red Sox.  Two seasons later he moved to New York, became a fulltime outfielder, and the Great Game was changed forever.

In the ensuing decade there were several years when Ruth was the runaway leader – his 54 home runs in 1928 doubled the number hit by runner-up Gehrig.   But as baseball evolved, in time other sluggers began to catch up.  Still, except for Hank Greenberg’s 58 in 1938, no one came close to Ruth’s 60.  Only Mickey Mantle’s 52 in 1956 joined Greenberg in passing the half-century mark. 

So it was until 1961, by which time Ruth’s record had achieved mythic proportions.  That season Mantle and teammate Roger Maris fed off each other’s slugging until late in the campaign, when injuries finally slowed the Mick.  Maris kept on going however, finally hitting his 60th with three games to play, then sending his 61st into Yankee Stadium’s right field seats in the 4th inning of New York’s final regular season game.  It was a new home run record, except for fans who insisted it was not.

There were plenty of cheers for Maris and Mantle that year.  But there were also catcalls and no shortage of vitriol from fans, skepticism from sportswriters, and anonymous hatred in each day’s mail.  Most was directed at Maris, who had been traded to the Yankees from Kansas City just the previous season.  Mantle, at least, was an established hero in the Bronx.  So powerful was the mythology around Ruth that many diehards were appalled at the notion of anyone breaking his record, a viewpoint unfortunately enhanced by an ill-timed statement by MLB commissioner Ford Frick that because 1961 was the first with a 162-game schedule, a new mark set after game number 154 should be shown separately in the record books.  Many years later there were still fans insisting that the “real” record belonged to Ruth, since Maris matched and passed the Babe in games 159 and 162.

Both Ruth and Maris were passed by three National League sluggers during the steroids era.  Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds have all been strongly linked to performance enhancing drug use, though only McGwire has admitted to using PEDs.  Still, the record books are clear.  The single-season home run record was McGwire’s 70 for a time and is now the 73 hit by Bonds in 2001.  Yet those fans who have been dismissive of the past week’s events based solely on those numbers would do well to note that suspicions about all those players were more than enough to keep them out of the Hall of Fame.  Unfortunately, the same doubts didn’t bar Cooperstown’s door to Bud Selig, the commissioner who happily abetted the steroids era for the sake of higher TV ratings.

But one can readily accept that Aaron Judge did not tie the major league home run mark Wednesday night and will not set a new one if he hits another home run in the next few days while still understanding and enjoying all the attention that has been focused on him as the longest season winds down.

Above all else, 60 remains a magical, mystical number in the Great Game.  Any player’s chase to match or beat it will always elicit outsized attention, at least until some far-off future time when the sport has changed so much that the home run record approaches triple digits.  Also, Maris’s 61 in ‘61 remains the highest homer output in the history of the American League until Judge, who has now matched both of his fellow Yankees, hits another in a campaign that comes 61 years after Roger’s epic season.  Finally, in an age when the nexus between sports and gambling has become accepted and even endorsed by many professional leagues, there is the wondrous achievement of a player betting on himself and thoroughly beating the house.  Judge declined what most fans and pundits described as a very generous contract from the Yankees just before the season started, believing he could do better in free agency.  All those months ago, most reactions ranged from second-guessing to outright condemnation.  With a season for the ages, Aaron Judge has silenced all those voices.  Now, just one more majestic swing of the bat remains between Judge, the American League and Yankee record books, and a phenomenal amount of money.

On the other hand, New York’s hero did go eight days between slugging number 60, which tied the Babe a week ago Tuesday, and matching Roger with his 61st Wednesday night.  Meanwhile the longest season kept unrolling, which meant that Judge didn’t pass Ruth until the 155th game on New York’s schedule.  Any Babe diehards still drawing breath are already making their “asterisk” case, and somewhere, maybe in an Iowa cornfield, the baseball gods are laughing hysterically.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 25, 2022

The Power, And Importance, Of Memory

A NOTE TO READERS: With Albert Pujols making history and Aaron Judge chasing it, the final days of the longest season are a reminder that memories, in the structured form of history, are the context for measuring greatness in all our games.  Fourteen Septembers ago, on the night of the final game at the old Yankee Stadium, a line from the iconic speech in the climactic scene of “Field of Dreams” was especially true – the memories were so thick, fans had to brush them away from their faces.  As has often been the case in the years since, the following reflection is republished to mark the anniversary of that game.

One more Sunday in the Bronx.  One more ride on the 4 train from midtown Manhattan up to the 161st Street station.  One more winding one’s way up the ramps and along the narrow passageways of The Stadium. One more walk up the entryway directly behind home plate, and at last out into the open of the Tier, the upper deck with its vertigo-inducing pitch.  Down the steep steps of Section 607 to Row A, Seat 16.  Second row on the aisle, looking down on the batter’s box for left-handed hitters.  All the ballpark is once again spread out before me; from the huge interlocked NY in foul ground behind home plate, out to Monument Park.  It is the same routine as at all the many previous games this season, and in seasons past.  It is the same, but of course it is entirely different; because this Sunday evening, it’s closing time.

Why should it really matter?  The Stadium is ancient.  They’ve played the Great Game here for nearly 90 years.  The mid-70’s renovation made it an entirely different place that the old heroes would scarcely recognize.  Long gone are the days when the monuments were in play in that deepest of centerfields, while the right field foul pole seemed but a pop fly away from home plate.  It’s only concrete and steel.  And the new stadium being built across the street will offer far superior creature comforts for both players and fans.  But still, we all know that tonight it’s closing time.

What does it matter?  The pre-game ceremonies serve to remind.  The introduction of a pantheon of heroes, whether by video, by actors walking into center field, or by their presence in the flesh, brings back a flood of memories of all that has happened here.  Right here, on the southwest corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx.  Whatever form the concrete and steel around it may have taken, it all happened on this field.

It was here that the Babe homered in the very first game; and here was where he set the home run record that stood for almost two generations.  On this field Roger broke it on an October afternoon in 1961.

At this location a still-young hero, cut down by an insidious disease, stared death in the face and pronounced himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Right here in the months before America went to war, Joltin’ Joe hit, and hit, and hit again; until a record was established that still stands and may well defy the maxim that they are all made to be broken.

In this infield, along the first baseline, Yogi leapt into Larsen’s arms to celebrate something that had never been done before in a World Series and has yet to be repeated in the Fall Classic.

Across the impossible green of this outfield Mickey ranged, for more games than any other Yankee (a record broken several years later by Derek Jeter), while coming closer than anyone, even the Babe, to smashing a homer all the way over the three decks of seats, over the façade and roof, and on to distant River Avenue.

Right here, right in that left-handed batter’s box below me, Reggie flicked his wrists three times and became Mr. October.  With those three magnificent swings he brought new hope to a city rendered fearful in 1977 by the serial killer known as Son of Sam.

And here too it was that a previously unsuccessful manager was given one more chance and found a way to lead a team to phenomenal and repeated success, as an old century ended and a new one began.  We are reminded of all of that as prelude, and still we have a game to play. 

That game unfolds like so many others, because the ebb and flow of the Great Game is unfailing.  The visiting Orioles take the early lead, then we come back; but the question of who leads at the end is somehow more important this time.  Because it is the last time.  Tonight, it’s closing time. 

Andy Pettitte is not dominant, but then domination is not his style.  Pettitte is a grinder who pitches to contact and counts on being good enough to win.  After we trail early Johnny Damon homers to bring us back.  And then Jose Molina homers into the visitors’ bullpen in leftfield to put us ahead.  So now we wait for the last home run at The Stadium.  Because it cannot come from Molina, a .215 hitter whose most recent blast was just his third homer of the year. But after more than eight decades The Stadium has its own mind; awarding Molina a place in its history to remind us that along with the stars, there were thousands of bit players without whom 26 championships would never have been won.

So it comes down to the 9th inning, which for the Yankees and their fans means but one thing.  The bullpen gate opens, he walks through a step or two before pausing a moment on the outfield warning track as always; and then Mariano Rivera, the last active player wearing number 42, begins his jog to the mound.  We fans erupt, and in doing so relax; for we know that victory is at hand.  Mo faces three batters, throws eleven pitches, and the final game is won.

And so, at last, it really is closing time.

But we stay.  We stay and cheer for this ground and all that has happened right here.  Then the captain, Derek Jeter, assembles the entire team in the middle of the infield.  He acknowledges the history, the tradition, the excellence, and most of all, the fans.  He invites us to bring our memories across the street, and by so doing wed them to new memories as yet uncreated and pass the whole history on to the next generation.  Then he leads his team around the field in appreciation of us, all four million of us who have walked the aging ramps and passageways this final year.  We are grateful for the latter, and we will of course do the former.  But as the clock strikes the beginning of a new day we all know, players and fans alike, that on this side of 161st Street, it’s closing time.

But still we stay.  We cheer.  We take pictures.  We stand silently.  We gaze at the immaculate swath of green and brown through eyes moistened by a flood of remembrances.  We are in awe, fans and players alike; not of each other nor of the cement and steel and cantilevered decks, but of all that has happened here.  Right here.  Right here.  We stay in the stands.  They stay on the field.

It’s closing time.  But on the field and in the stands, no one is ready to leave.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 22, 2022

From Agony To Ecstasy, By Way Of History

There are more than 40,000 fans at Yankee Stadium on this Tuesday night, and for almost all of them, the last three hours have been painful.  Okay, the young couple in the adjacent seats who are wearing Pittsburgh Pirates gear seem quite cheerful, but over the course of 8 1/2 innings and three-plus hours of play, the home partisans have gone from hopeful, to concerned, to surly.  Though there have been moments that elicited cheers from the crowd, those earlier highlights have by now been largely forgotten.

It seems like ages ago that Nestor Cortes, the season’s great and wonderful surprise in the starting rotation, threw five effective innings.  He was not dominant, but Cortes scattered five hits and a couple of walks, ultimately yielding just a lone run while striking out four.  And New York set him up for the win by answering the Pittsburgh tally with a pair of runs in the bottom of the 5th.  Oswaldo Cabrera led off that frame with a long drive that Pirates center fielder Bryan Reynolds misplayed, an error that allowed the rookie to race all the way to third.  Harrison Bader, the trade deadline pickup who is finally playing his first game in pinstripes after a long stint on the IL, then scored Cabrera with a single to left.  After moving to second on a ground out, Bader made a daring dash to home when catcher Jose Trevino lofted a soft fly to short center that just eluded the glove of a diving Reynolds.  The center fielder was up quickly and threw to the plate, but Bader’s headfirst slide beat the tag and put the Yankees on top, 2-1.

Sadly, for most fans other than the happy Pirates pair, New York’s bullpen promptly gave the lead right back.  The normally redoubtable Ron Marinaccio allowed two of the four batters he faced in the top of the 6th to reach, and when Yankee manager Aaron Boone sent for the less capable Lou Trivino the move promptly backfired, as Trivino’s second pitch was hammered for a two-run double.  The batsmen again answered in the home half, with Bader once more donning the hero’s cape by knocking in a pair.  But Boone stuck with Trivino for the 7th, and this time it was the right-hander’s very first offering that was smoked into the second deck in right field.  The solo shot, off the bat of Pittsburgh’s Reynolds, knotted the score at 4-4.

Still, a tie game in the late innings, while not what the crowd had expected against an opponent with fewer wins than all but one major league franchise, was imminently winnable.  Or so it seemed until the top of the 8th.  That’s when a walk, some sloppy fielding by first baseman Anthony Rizzo, an RBI single, and a three-run homer, propelled the visitors to an 8-4 lead.  That the home run came at the expense of reliever Clay Holmes was especially alarming.  Earlier this year Holmes looked like the answer to the dreams of fans in the Bronx, when he excelled as the team’s closer after Aroldis Chapman seemingly forgot how to throw a strike.  But this is September, not May or June, and with repeated bad outings Holmes has lost the trust of Yankee fans.  He’s serenaded with boos as he walks to the dugout after finally ending the brutal 8th inning.

Now the home squad is down to its final three outs.  Were this not September, but say May or June, many of those in the three tiers of seats would have headed for the exits an inning ago, right after giving Holmes an earful.  But the reason there are 40,000-plus paying customers on a school night in September against a last-place team from the NL Central, is due to lead off for New York in the last of the 9th.  Aaron James Judge is walking to the plate, and his pursuit of history, even more than a single Yankee win over the course of the longest season, is what the crowd has come to see.  No one has left the building.

Reaching base one time in four might satisfy some players, but by Judge’s standards it has been an off night.  Two groundouts and a walk, followed by a bases loaded strikeout in the 7th.  But no one, in the stands or press box or either dugout, doubts the potential he always brings to the batter’s box.  So we rise as one, every smartphone camera in the place focused on the trio at home plate, umpire, catcher, and Judge.  Fifty-nine times this season, this scene has ended with a ball off Judge’s bat flying over the fence of one stadium or another.  The two most recent occasions were in Milwaukee on Sunday.  Now the 30-year-old is on history’s doorstep.  For more than a generation Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs were an unreachable record.  Then, when Roger Maris hit 61, the new mark stood for nearly four decades.  No American League player has matched those numbers, and some fans insist that no clean player – someone not associated with the steroids era – has either. 

Judge looks at a called strike, and then three straight deliveries out of the zone from Wil Crowe, the Pirates righty who is a distant relative of Red Ruffing, the Hall of Fame hurler who played with Ruth.  Knowing another ball means a walk, Crowe tries a sinker that probably catches more of the plate than he had hoped.  Judge swings, and the ball rockets deep into the left field bleachers even as the crowd erupts in a deafening roar.  Move over Babe, make room for Aaron.

Judge is a consummate team player, and he knows the Yankees still trail 8-5, so it takes considerable encouragement for him to finally step out of the dugout for a brief curtain call.  Even the nearby Pirates fans are pleased, and why not?  They got to see history, and their team is still comfortably ahead.

But the Yankees, as if awakened from a slumber by their leader’s heroics, strike.  Rizzo doubles into the gap in left-center field, Gleyber Torres walks, and Josh Donaldson moves both up with a single to right.  Bases loaded, nobody out, and Giancarlo Stanton steps in.  The rollercoaster of emotion has taken its full turn.  Hope is alive, and we are all on our feet.  A called strike, two balls, and a foul.  Then, unwisely in retrospect, Crowe tries to fool Stanton with a changeup.  Stanton is not fooled.  He connects and the ball darts like a laser towards the left field seats, arriving there even as the roar is building.  For the second time this season, the Yankees have a walk-off win on the immutable strength of an ultimate grand slam.

Two young, and very stunned, Pirates fans gape.  People around them are gracious and consoling.  Perhaps they are just being magnanimous after such an unlikely victory.  Then again, the commiseration, which is heartfelt and involves several different groups, may be more basic.  Everyone has tasted the bitter and the sweet this evening, and in the end, whatever team’s gear we wear, we all live the life of fans.  Win, lose, joy, despair, live, die, rinse, repeat.  And if we’re lucky along the way, every so often, witness history as it’s made.  

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 18, 2022

Solidarity Forever

It’s Week 2 of the NFL season, and just how many pundits had the Miami Dolphins doing a credible impersonation of the 1972 edition of that franchise?  The regional religion that is college football has already produced some stunners, especially for fans of Notre Dame.  The Las Vegas Aces, a well-traveled franchise that began life in Salt Lake City as one of the original eight members of the WNBA before moving twice, first to San Antonio and then, in 2018, to Nevada, outlasted the Connecticut Sun three games to one to win the team’s first league title.  Of arguably even greater significance, the championship was the first for a city that for years was considered off limits as a home for professional sports teams because of its association with gambling.  The Big Three of men’s tennis is, suddenly if not all that surprisingly, the Top Two, a reminder that the ever-ticking clock remains the ultimate arbiter of every athlete’s career arc.  Meanwhile, the longest season winds through its final month, the steadily shortening days of September mirroring the quickening pace of jockeying for one of the twelve golden tickets to this year’s playoffs.

The landscape of sports is full, with a wealth of stories competing for the attention of fans.  Yet amid all the heroics, the victories and defeats, the heroes basking in the spotlight and those shuffling off the stage, this week’s sports news with the most lasting impact did not alter the standings of any league, nor involve a crucial game or even a single moment on a field of play. 

Wednesday afternoon, a federal arbitrator validated union authorization cards signed by thousands of minor league baseball players.  With MLB having agreed late last week to accept that decision without forcing what would have been a perfunctory vote – a majority of minor leaguers had already signed the cards, far above the 30% threshold for holding an election – minor league ballplayers became members of the MLBPA, the association that has represented their major league compatriots since 1966.

While this year, like all others, will end with just one major league team being feted with a parade, it’s fair to say that 2022 will be worthy of celebration by every minor leaguer.  Even before this week’s organizing breakthrough, the year saw the settlement of Senne, et al. v. Kansas City Royals Baseball, et al., a class action lawsuit filed in 2014 that was the first concerted effort to improve pay and working conditions for the thousands of players who chase the dream of making it to The Show while providing sporting entertainment to millions of fans in small cities and large towns across the country. 

The focus of Senne was the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and similar state statutes, with the plaintiffs alleging that MLB and its teams were violating wage and hour laws with their pay of minor league players.  MLB’s attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed was itself brusquely turned aside in 2020, a judicial decision that spurred this year’s settlement.  The agreement was announced in May, but terms were not revealed until July.  They include a payment of $185 million, $120 million of which will be divided among the members of the class action, as well as ending the practice of not paying minor leaguers during Spring Training or Instructional Leagues.

Of course, the union recognition opens the door to even more significant advances.  With the Players Association now in charge of the fledgling bargaining unit, negotiations over the first-ever minor league collective bargaining agreement are expected to begin later this Fall.

While the MLBPA is the right organization to handle the very heavy lifting that lies ahead, the rapid changes that have improved the living standards of minor league ballplayers in the past couple of years are largely the work of Advocates for Minor Leaguers.  The little nonprofit was founded just two years ago by three former players and a longtime trade union organizer.  From a standing start, Advocates forced teams and fans to pay attention to the miserable conditions that were a longstanding given of a minor league player’s existence.  Not just poor pay – at a time when the federal poverty level is $12,800, the median annual salary for a minor league player is less than that, and the minimum salary isn’t even one-third of that number – but also living conditions, including the absence of housing allowances or even the certainty of any housing at all.  It was Advocates, using little more than a relentless public focus on the issue, that forced MLB to finally require minor league affiliates to provide housing to players, starting just this year.

Given this week’s developments, it could be said that the work of Advocates for Minor Leaguers is done.  But as all those who have been part of the organization surely know, such an outlook would be the very definition of naivete.  The coming CBA talks will surely include fraught moments, precisely because they will be making precedent for this new group of unionized ballplayers.  That’s why it is especially good news that all the Advocates staff have accepted offers to join the MLBPA. 

Minor league baseball has been a part of the Great Game since its earliest days as a professional sport.  Against that timetable the progress since the filing of Senne, and especially in the past two years, seems to have come at lightning speed.  Despite that, further advances are never a given, and the only certainty is that the struggle continues.  Still, at long last, minor league ballplayers can join with their major league brethren in the chorus of the old organizing song. The union makes us strong.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 15, 2022

Revenge Weekend Falls Flat

So much for revenge weekend.  That was how the first week of the new NFL season was characterized by fans and pundits alike in the days leading up to kickoff, as soon as they realized that offseason transactions involving quarterbacks combined with the Week 1 schedule to create three games in which a signal-caller would line up against his former team.  Whether a quarterback had been run out of town or had conspired to force a change in scenery, the spectacle of a one-time hero cast adrift, with a chance to make fans of his former franchise regret that recent move and long for the good old days, seemed the stuff of high NHL drama.  Joe Flacco’s Jets entertaining the Ravens, the franchise the 37-year-old led to glory in Super Bowl XLVII!  Baker Mayfield, hailed as the savior of the long-suffering Browns when Cleveland made him the first pick in the 2018 Draft, facing his old team while wearing the blue and white of the Carolina Panthers!  Finally, to wrap up Week 1 on Monday night, Russell Wilson, now leading the Broncos, returning to his old haunts in the Pacific Northwest to battle the Seahawks!

As is all too often the case when manufactured hype is disguised as sporting drama, events on the field failed to deliver the high tension and cathartic release that had been advertised.  That the very notion of three high-stakes revenge games was little more than marketing was apparent from the start, since the first of the contests listed above scarcely qualified as such.  Flacco’s time in Baltimore did not end within the past few months, but more than three years ago, when the Ravens traded him to Denver in 2019.  Injured midway through that season, Flacco was supplanted by rookie Lamar Jackson, who provided a needed spark.  After several middling seasons from the one-time Super Bowl hero, when Jackson went 6-1 to cement a playoff spot for the Ravens, no one, including Flacco, was surprised that he was deemed expendable. 

Since then, Flacco has usually played a backup role with multiple teams, most recently the Jets.  Indeed, it was only shortly before Sunday’s game that New York coach Robert Saleh committed to Flacco as his starter in place of Zach Wilson, who is still recovering from a knee injury.  In addition, the Ravens are a popular pick to supplant the Bengals atop the AFC Central Division standings, while the Jets are, well, the Jets.  It’s likely just being competitive was more of a priority for Flacco than exacting some measure of revenge against his old team.

By that diminished standard Flacco had at least a modicum of success in the first half.  The teams headed to the locker room with Baltimore leading by only a touchdown, 10-3, though the Ravens first points did come on a chip shot field goal after a Flacco interception that caused social media to light up with suggestions that he may have thrown to a purple jersey out of habit.  Any thoughts of a close contest dissipated when play resumed however, as Baltimore pulled away to a 24-9 victory. 

Despite the axiom, originally French, that revenge is best served cold, immediacy is key to the allure of revenge games.  For maximum effect, the reunion should occur while feelings are still raw and before fans have time to judge its true impact.  By that important standard, the other two highlighted contests at least fit the profile.  In the end though, they too were lacking.     

What was not in short supply was Mayfield’s willingness, alone among the three quarterbacks, to buy into the popular narrative.  While the result of his four seasons in Cleveland were middling, which is not what one looks for from a first overall pick, he had led the Browns to the team’s first playoff appearance in nearly two decades at the end of the 2020 campaign.  But he followed that up by throwing nearly as many interceptions – 13 – as touchdowns – 17 – last season, and when Cleveland had a chance to acquire Deshaun Watson from Houston during the offseason, Mayfield’s time by Lake Erie was over.  Still, the price that the Browns were willing to pay to have someone other than him as the franchise’s quarterback had to be galling.  To acquire Watson, along with a sixth-round pick in 2024, Cleveland parted with three number one picks, a third rounder, and two fourth round selections.  The club then gave Watson a five-year, $230 million contract that, contrary to most NFL deals, is fully guaranteed.  All this for a player who refused to take the field for the Texans last season and was under investigation by the league for nearly two dozen claims of sexual assault. 

Given all that plus his general demeanor, it was hardly surprising when Mayfield told a sideline reporter during a preseason game that he would “f— them up” when he faced his former team, or that in the days before Sunday’s contest the quarterback’s officially licensed merchandise included t-shirts denigrating the visiting Browns.  Unfortunately for the Panthers, Mayfield’s professional resume is long on talk and short on performance.  For most of the game he was outplayed by Cleveland backup Jacoby Brissett, under center since Watson is unavailable for the first eleven games while serving a conduct suspension stemming from the assault allegations. 

Mayfield did rally the Panthers late, fighting back from a 20-7 deficit to briefly take the lead, 24-23.  But he did so with still over a minute to play, a lifetime in the NFL, as the cliché goes.  With help from a roughing the passer penalty, Brissett quickly moved the Browns just far enough that rookie kicker Cade York could convert a lengthy field goal with 13 seconds remaining.  Instead of revenge, Mayfield and the Panthers had an opening game home loss.

For his part, Wilson steadfastly denied any thought of getting even against the Seahawks.  Perhaps that is understandable, since he was the party instigating the divorce, having concluded that the Seattle franchise wasn’t going to give him the resources for another deep playoff run.  Still, Wilson had to feel some mix of emotions when the boos rained down from the packed stands at Lumen Field as he took the field for pregame warmups Monday evening.   Dismissed by many analysts as too short for his position at the NFL level, Wilson was the sixth quarterback taken in the 2012 Draft when Seattle chose him in the third round.  But he guided the team to a Super Bowl victory in just his second season, and the following year came within a timely read by Patriots’ cornerback Malcolm Butler from making it two titles in a row.

That was then, this is now, and there is no passion quite like that of a lover, or fan, scorned.  Still, Wilson threw for 340 yards and a touchdown, but was hampered by his own penalty-prone defense, which consistently drew yellow flags that allowed the underdog Seahawks to extend drives.  In the end, trailing 17-16, Wilson led the Broncos on one last drive.  Or he did until, faced with a 4th-and-5 near midfield with over a minute remaining and all three timeouts available, Denver’s first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett decided he had better odds trying to nearly match the NFL record for longest field goal rather than trusting his 9-time Pro Bowl quarterback to convert.  Hackett let the clock run down, finally called time, and sent out his kicking unit.  When the 64-yard try missed, he may have been the only person in the stadium who was surprised.  Or perhaps he was the only one who saw all along the silliness of the revenge game narrative.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 11, 2022

New Heroes For A New Age In Tennis

Deep underneath midtown Manhattan, several stories below the soaring ceiling of Grand Central Station’s main concourse with its iconic depiction of the constellations, the number 7 subway train begins its journey east, headed for the far reaches of Queens.  Burrowing beneath the East River, the subway makes two underground stops before emerging into the open air.  The track climbs towards the bright blue sky, up to the fourth story of the skyscrapers around it.  The glass facades of the towering buildings return shimmering reflections of the train’s cars as it sweeps through the S-curve that marks the approach to Court Street station.  Another broad turn before Queensboro Plaza, and then the subway begins its long, straight run to Flushing.

As the local stops roll by, the borough becomes more residential.  Office high rises give way to three and four-story dwellings, some with street level storefronts.  The 7 train is passing through Queens at roof level, the view out the windows a jumble of satellite dishes and ancient TV antennas, occasionally interspersed with patio furniture and gas grills.  One wonders how many of those one-time electronic marvels are still connected to the modern flatscreens that no doubt now sit in the apartments below.  But whether the residents acquire the signal through streaming or by one of the older methods, surely some of the televisions will be later be tuned into the women’s final at the U.S. Open, taking place later this afternoon just a short distance away.

Half an hour after pulling out of Grand Central, the train slows to a stop at Mets – Willets Point, the next to last stop on the 7 line.  To the left of the tracks sits Citi Field, home of the Mets, while to the right looms the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the centerpiece of which is Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest facility dedicated solely to tennis in the world.  The Metropolitans are on the other end of the eastern seaboard this weekend, playing a set against the Miami Marlins.  That means everyone who gets off turns right, crossing the long boardwalk over multiple tracks of the Long Island Railroad.  Another trainload of fans has come to watch our national championship of tennis.

The complex at Flushing Meadows surely rates as nirvana to devoted followers of the sport.  To more casual fans, it can seem overwhelming.  Almost fifty acres devoted to tennis, with 22 courts (plus another dozen on adjoining property), practice facilities, and three stadiums.   Both Louis Armstrong Stadium, which seats 14,000, and the Grandstand with its capacity of more than 8,000, would do many tennis facilities proud.  But here they are both dwarfed by the hulk of Ashe, its original brick walls now partially obscured by the steel spiderweb of the superstructure added less than a decade ago to support the retractable roof.

With this year’s U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam on the calendar, in its closing weekend, most fans are headed for one of the nearly 24,000 seats in Ashe.  Most, but not all.  There are still a few other matches being played, as the junior and wheelchair tournaments are wrapping up.  But while some fans without tickets to the show court gravitate to those matches, a few thousand gather in the broad courtyard outside Ashe’s main gate, apparently content to pay absurd concession prices while watching the women’s final on giant screens.

What both they and those inside the stadium will see is a match that starts out as a rout but turns into a slugfest.  Tennis is a sport in transition.  For the men, the age of the Big Three is drawing to a close, an ending perhaps hastened by Novak Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a stance that kept him out of the Open.  Unbeknownst to those in the stands today, 24 hours later the main court will see 19-year-old Carlos Alcarez of Spain capture his first Grand Slam title and ascend to the top of the men’s rankings.  If that change is unsettling to fans who focus on the men’s game, it is familiar turf for followers of the WTA.  Women’s tennis has been in flux for some time, with a wide cast of leading characters.

The finalists are two of that number, though if their names are not familiar to some, they are clearly worthy of their roles.  Iga Swiatek has won a pair of French Open titles and came to New York ranked number one in the world.  In June, when she lost to Alize Cornet in Wimbledon’s third round, the defeat ended a run of 37 straight match victories, the longest winning streak in this century.  Well after Swiatek left London, Ons Jabeur played on, all the way to Wimbledon’s finals, where the Tunisian became the first Arab and first player from Africa to play for a Grand Slam trophy in the Open Era.  Jabeur lost to Elena Rybakina, but has continued to shoot up the rankings, and walks onto the court as the fifth seed.

The first set is lopsided.  Jabeur seems tentative from the start, and Swiatek pounces on every opportunity, closing out a 6-2 win in a mere thirty minutes.  Four months ago, the two met in the final at the Italian Open, and Swiatek dropped just four games in a straight set win.  But just when fans are thinking they are watching a reprise, Jabeur finds her game.  The fourth game of the second set is key, as the underdog fights back, saving three break points and holding serve.  Jabeur then adds to her momentum by breaking Swiatek to get back on serve.

But Swiatek, supported by scores of fans dressed in red and white and waving Polish flags and scarves, has not gained her number one ranking by accident.  Time and again, just when it appears the match is turning in Jabeur’s favor, she rises to the occasion.  The second set goes to a tiebreak.  Jabeur fights back from 2-4 down to take a 5-4 lead.  But three points later, it is over, and Swiatek is the champion.  The second set takes nearly three times as long as the first, but ultimately the result is the same.

Yet if an event can be accurately described as one in which there are no losers, this feels like it.  Both women have raised their profile in the sport, as well as their ranking.  Swiatek, with that remarkable winning streak and a pair of Grand Slams, will surely be the WTA’s Player of the Year.  For her part, Jabeur leaves Flushing Meadow ranked second in the world, seemingly on the verge of a major title.  A casual fan might dismiss them as two more names in the alphabet soup of recent leading figures on the women’s tour.  But then a casual fan, like an old unused satellite dish up on the roof, is sadly disconnected. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 8, 2022

Now Comes The Home Stretch

The longest season is winding down.  In four weeks’ time, the final out of the regular campaign’s last game will have been recorded, and a dozen squads, having earned the right to play on into October, will be making final preparations for the playoffs.  Eight of those teams, the three Wild Card entrants from each league plus the AL and NL division champions with the lowest regular season winning percentage, will start the best-of-three Wild Card round on Friday, October 7.  Not quite one month later, on one of the first five nights of November, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred will hand the trophy he once idiotically – an adverb Manfred has since agreed is appropriate – described as “a piece of metal” to the owner of the 2022 World Series champion.

As this is written, only the Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals have been officially eliminated from playoff contention, with the last two dozen or so games on the schedule an undesirable exercise in playing out the string.  The woeful records of both franchises are reminders of how quickly fortunes can turn.  The A’s are just two seasons removed from a run of three straight years in the playoffs, and the Nats but three from that improbable run through the postseason that ended in the 2019 title.  Yet as bad as both franchises have performed this year, six months from now fans will find cause to rekindle hope, perhaps because of progress toward a new stadium on the West Coast, or a new owner on the East.

Of course, “officially eliminated” is a construct, a statistical artifact appropriate in a sport that has always thrived on metrics, even as the numbers and calculations in vogue have grown more complex and esoteric over the years.  No fan of the other twelve clubs that currently sport losing records seriously expects their heroes to suddenly go on a tear through September and vault into a treasured Wild Card slot.  One by one over the next days, this season will reach its meaningful end for all those franchises.

Yet even as those campaigns end in disappointment and doubt, plenty of drama remains at the other end of the standings.  For a fortunate few, the tension is about playoff positioning, not postseason relevance.  For example, barring an epic collapse, both of the top two teams in the NL East will make the playoffs.  Heading into Friday’s action, when both teams open series on the road, the Mets hold the narrowest of margins – a mere half game – over Atlanta.  But the defending World Series champions are ten and a half games clear of the Phillies and Padres, the two teams currently tied for the NL’s remaining Wild Card spots, and those squads have a further four game edge on the Brewers.  If either the Mets or Atlanta are shut out of the postseason, it will be the result of one of the worst Septembers in the history of the Great Game.

Still, playoff position matters.  Just ask fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had to watch last year as their team, despite 106 regular season wins, went into the playoffs as a Wild Card since that number, while gaudy, was one less than the 107 recorded by division rival San Francisco.  That meant L.A. had to survive both a four-hour-plus Wild Card game against St. Louis and a grueling five-game Division Series, without home field advantage, against the Giants, in order to face Atlanta in the NLCS.  Despite entering the postseason with eighteen fewer wins, Atlanta claimed home field for that series as a division winner, and ultimately prevailed over an L.A. squad that looked spent.  So fans in both Queens and the northwest suburbs of Atlanta will be anxiously following their heroes over these final weeks.  The good news for the former group, who have watched their team’s 10 1/2 game lead on June 1 dwindle away, is that the Mets have an exceptionally soft schedule down the stretch, with eighteen of the team’s final twenty-five games coming against opponents with losing records.  Then again, New York began this week by losing three straight, two to the Nats and one to the Pirates, while being outscored 22-4, a reminder that they still must play the games.

The stakes are higher in the AL Central, where the Guardians are a mere two games in front of the Twins and White Sox.  All three teams are just barely above .500, so the two that miss the division crown are longshots at best for a Wild Card spot.  Back in the bucolic days of Spring Training, most pundits tagged Chicago as the team to beat in this division.  However, the Sox have scuffled all season.  Only a recent surge – six wins in eight games over the last week – has nudged Chicago just over the breakeven mark at 69-68 and kept hope alive on the South Side.  In the end, the AL’s weakest but also most competitive division will likely be decided the old-fashioned way, in head-to-head matchups between the principals.  The remaining regular season calendar includes four games between Cleveland and Chicago, six between Chicago and Minnesota, and eight matchups between the Guardians and Twins.

Whichever team claims the AL Central crown will almost certainly be the league’s number three seed, since both Houston and New York, and for that matter Tampa Bay, which still has hopes of catching the Yankees, are on track for measurably better regular season records.  So despite winning a division, the franchise will still have to play in the Wild Card round.  Gone is the single elimination Wild Card Game in each league.  In its place is a best-of-three series, with the games played on consecutive days and all in the higher seed’s stadium. 

Winning a series on the road can be a challenge during the regular season.  Doing so in front of a hostile crowd in a playoff atmosphere, against an opponent that will, on paper anyway, be at least comparable to the visiting squad, seems especially daunting.  Yet with four such series on tap to start the postseason, it seems likely at least one of the road warriors will turn the trick.  The team that does will then face a well-rested one or two seed that will have used its bye past the first round to line up its pitching rotation to optimal effect for the five game Division Series.  In short, an even steeper hill to climb.  But as the Great Game’s recent history has shown, once the playoffs start, anything can happen.  The first step, over the next four weeks, in Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Queens, and every other MLB city where hope still lives, is getting there.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 4, 2022

The Torch Is Passed, But To Whom?

By this time next week, a new U.S. Open women’s singles champion will have been crowned at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the hulking focal point of the nearly 50-acre tennis playground that is the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.  Early next Saturday evening nearly 24,000 fans packed into Ashe’s multiple tiers of seats, and many, many times that number watching at home, will salute the last woman standing after two weeks of matches at the final Grand Slam event of the year. 

We know she will be a new champion, because Emma Raducanu’s defense of her 2021 title was short-lived.  This time last year Raducanu, then just 18 years old, was the talk of the tennis world.  She seized the attention of fans at Wimbledon with an utterly improbable run to the fourth round as a wild card entrant playing in the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time ever.  Then in Queens she proved her London performance was no fluke.  Once again making the main draw as a qualifier, Raducanu became the first such contestant to win a Slam in the Open Era, and did so without dropping a set.  But the twelve months since have been difficult ones for Raducanu, filled with coaching changes, injuries, and a bout of COVID-19.  She was bounced out in the second round at each of this season’s first three Grand Slams and could not even match that result in Gotham.  Entering the tournament as the 11th seed, she lost in straight sets to Alize Cornet in the first round.

While we know there won’t be a repeat champion, much of the eventual winner’s identity remains guesswork.  It could be the number one seed, for the first time in eight years.  Poland’s Iga Swiatek has barely been tested through the first three rounds and is set to meet unseeded Jule Niemeier of Germany in her fourth round match Monday.  At the other extreme, it could still be an unseeded player, though only three remain in the women’s bracket, and Niemeier will need to upend Swiatek to advance, while the other two play each other in a fourth round match late Sunday evening. 

Fans might yet wind up cheering for an American winner.  That has not happened since Sloane Stephens bested Madison Keys in an all American final five years ago.  Coco Gauff, the 12th seed and a fan favorite, advanced to the quarterfinals with a gritty 7-5, 7-5 victory over Shuai Zhang Sunday afternoon.  Jessica Pegula and Danielle Collins have also played their way into the fourth round.  Both will try to move on to the quarters on Monday, so for another day at least, fans in this country can dream of a final eight that includes three Americans. 

There is, of course, one other certainty about this year’s women’s titlist, a truth that is related to the decidedly parochial hope in an exceedingly international sport, that multiple Americans get to play on.  That list will not include, and this year’s champion will not be, Serena Williams.

By any objective measure that was an expected outcome even before the first serve in the first match of the main draw last Monday.  Williams will turn 41 later this month, and her last Grand Slam victory came at the 2017 Australian Open.  Unbeknownst to fans at the time, Williams claimed her 23rd Grand Slam title while two months pregnant with her first child.  She has played somewhat sporadically since the birth of daughter Alexis, mixing the occasional strong run through a major tournament with long periods away from competition with an assortment of injuries.  After losing to Naomi Osaka in the semifinals of the 2021 Australian Open, Williams demurred when asked about retirement.  But coming into the U.S. Open she had played in only three of six majors since then and had lost in the first round twice.

Given her far-flung interests and equally broad influence, it was not surprising that Williams chose an interview with “Vogue” magazine to announce that she was “evolving away from tennis, to other things that are important to me.”  While Williams could not bring herself to use the word “retirement,” her intent was clear, as was her statement that she would travel to Flushing Meadow intent on winning.

That single-minded desire combined with the thought of this Open being the final tournament for the dominant player of the last quarter-century understandably fueled dreams of Williams making a deep run through the draw.  The reality was more prosaic, though not for lack of trying by Serena or cheering by thousands of fans packed into Ashe.  She downed Danka Kovinic in a scrappy, error-filled first round match that seemed better suited for one of the outer courts.  She was up, then down, then finally up again against Anett Kontaveitt in the second round, eventually winning 7-6, 2-6, 6-2.  Then, Friday evening, Williams was resilient and resourceful, but ultimately not dominant, against Ajla Tomljanovic.

A 29-year-old Croatian who plays under the Australian flag, Tomljanovic could have played the part virtually all the 24,000 in the seats and millions at home wanted.  She could have melted under the hot lights of center stage or succumbed to the collective will of all those wanting Williams to advance.  Instead, playing within herself and staying in the moment, she broke Serena three times to win the first set.  Then, crucially, she rallied after Williams had gone up 5-2 in the second set, eventually forcing a tiebreaker.  Williams prevailed, but the extra games, the added steps, the expended energy, all mattered in the third set to the 40-year-old body of a generation’s champion.  The spirit, as the old saying goes, was willing, but in the end, fans were asking too much of an aging hero.  

Serena’s impact beyond tennis is immeasurable.  We will never know how many young girls she inspired to take up a sport, how many young women she helped overcome obstacles, how many people deemed different by those with power found strength in her story.  We do know that at long last, she has chosen to lay down her racket, and move on.  By this time next week, someone else will be the story of the tennis world.  Whoever it is will deserve the accolades.  But she won’t be Serena Williams. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 1, 2022

An August To Forget

It’s verging on panic time in the Bronx.  If that’s not yet true in the New York Yankees’ clubhouse, nor in the team’s executive offices, it is surely the case among many of the paying customers who fill the three tiers of seats at Yankee Stadium, and absolutely the prevailing emotion on social media, where fans of the AL East leaders are busy reinforcing one another’s expressions of anger and dismay.  Those who chose to stay up late on Wednesday rued the decision on a bleary-eyed Thursday morning, after their heroes fell 3-2 to the Angels in far-off Anaheim.  The loss gave New York a record of just 3-4 on the West Coast portion of its current road trip, which continues with a three-game series this weekend against the second-place Tampa Bay Rays, now only six games adrift in the division standings. 

A roughly .500 mark on the road might be deemed acceptable against stiff opposition, but prior to stopping in southern California the Yankees were at the other end of the state, in Oakland.  The Angels and A’s are a combined 50 games under .500.  Oakland signaled it would not be competitive this season back in the winter months when it traded away talent, a decision reinforced by a further fire sale at the trade deadline.  In Anaheim, a promising start to this year’s campaign dissolved in an extended losing streak and eventual managerial firing before the first day of summer.  But the Yankees were unable to post a winning record against the dregs of the AL West, falling short by a single run in three of the four defeats.  The last of those, on Wednesday, brought to an even dozen the team’s one-run losses since the All-Star break, by far the most in the majors in that timeframe. 

Fans searching for something to cheer might hitch their hopes to that stat and suggest it shows the Yankees are ever so close to righting the ship and becoming again the franchise that dominated the Great Game through the first half of the season.  But a more jaundiced and assuredly more popular view is that the number exposes a lack of timely hitting.  What is certain is that except for Aaron Judge, Yankee batters up and down the lineup have disappointed fans.  For some players, like Aaron Hicks and Josh Donaldson, that has been true throughout the season.  Others, such as Gleyber Torres and Anthony Rizzo, waited until the heat of summer to go ice cold at the plate.  A third group, led by Giancarlo Stanton and DJ LeMahieu, can blame nagging injuries for throwing them off their game.

Then there is shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who went from the Rangers to the Yankees by way of the Twins during the last offseason.  IKF, as he is known, spent about a minute and a half in Minnesota before being shipped to the Bronx, along with Donaldson and a minor league catcher, in exchange for Gary Sanchez and Gia Urshela.  Yankee fans had spent the winter debating which of the high-priced free agent shortstops on the market would look best in pinstripes.  By March it was apparent that general manager Brian Cashman had decided against opening owner Hal Steinbrenner’s checkbook for a glamorous signing and was instead looking for a stopgap at the infield’s most critical position, since the Yankees had not one but two promising shortstop prospects in the franchise’s farm system.

Fans who had imagined Carlos Correa or Corey Seager playing short in the Bronx on Opening Day were thus predisposed to find IKF lacking, and to be eager for the callup of Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe from the minors.  It was a tough position for IKF from his first day as a Yankee, but he has done little to win over doubters.  While his batting average briefly hovered near .300 early in the season, it has since settled into the .260 range, and his hits, on a team known for the past century as the Bronx Bombers, are overwhelmingly of the single base variety.  He only recently managed his first home run of the campaign, and his OPS is a meager .625 and OPS+ a below-league-average 81.  Fans might tolerate that if the tradeoff was stellar defense, but in the field IKF, who began his career as a third baseman, has been a liability.  His most recent error, a muff of a routine grounder in Wednesday’s game, set the stage for the three-run homer that turned a New York lead into a deficit.

The faithful in Gotham have had plenty of targets for their growing ire, and the team’s woeful 10-18 mark in the month of August, its worst single month record in more than three decades, has exhausted the patience of much of the franchise’s fanbase.  The first of those ten wins, on the very first day of the month, was New York’s 70th victory of the season, a number then unmatched by any other franchise.  One month later, the Dodgers have 90 wins, and the Mets, Astros, and Atlanta have at least 80, all passing the Yankees by.  In New York, fans are suddenly cognizant of how few changes there have really been to a roster that underperformed time and again in recent seasons.

The few remaining cheerleaders point to the 1996 squad, which wasn’t much better during the same month, finishing that August with 13 wins and 17 losses.  Or they look to the 2000 Yankees, a roster that stumbled to the finish, losing 14 of its final 17 games.  Both those teams managed to win the AL East, and, of far greater importance, both ended the year riding up New York’s Canyon of Heroes in a celebratory parade.

Perhaps this season will have a similar denouement, with the travails of high summer nothing more than loose ends easily explained away in the triumphant final scene.  The catcalls that players have heard, the boos at the mention of Cashman or Steinbrenner or manager Aaron Boone, all forgotten in the championship glow.

If that is where the path through the regular season’s final month and the playoffs that follow is going to lead, this weekend would be an excellent time for the Yankees to start down it.  Winning two or all three at Tropicana Field, perhaps with the help of Peraza, who finally got his call to join the big club on Thursday, would help deflate the Rays’ rising hopes and tamp down fans’ increasingly vocal disquiet.  But if the series against Tampa Bay goes the other way, then an unexpected division race will be on, and the team’s likely reception when it returns home on Labor Day may make the Yankees wish they could stay on the road. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 28, 2022

The Season’s Final Roars Are For Rory

While he has never chosen to wear a specific color during the final round of tournaments, such as the red shirts that have always instantly identified Tiger Woods, over the years Rory McIlroy has often favored blue on Sundays.  Perhaps that’s been mere chance, or maybe it’s been a quiet nod to the blue shirt he wore during the final round of the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, when McIlroy nearly lapped the field in claiming his first major title.  Whatever the reason, the color, in various hues, has appeared often enough on Sundays to be noticeable while not so regularly as to become a trademark.  So, it was not shocking, but at least mildly surprising, when McIlroy arrived at East Lake Golf Club’s 1st tee for the final round of this year’s Tour Championship wearing not blue, but green. 

That is, of course, the color of money, which made the sartorial selection entirely appropriate for the concluding 18 holes of the PGA Tour’s 2021-22 season.  In the broadest sense, money has been part of the conversation about professional golf throughout the year, thanks to the insane sums being handed out by Saudi-financed LIV Golf to entice top pros into signing up for its schedule of 54-hole exhibitions.  The former chair of the Player Advisory Council and current player director on the PGA Tour’s Policy Board, McIlroy has been the leading public voice defending the Tour against LIV’s assault.  Fans now know that he has also worked behind the scenes to both dissuade players from defecting and pressure commissioner Jay Monahan to make the Tour’s economic model more generous for top players and more stable for those just starting out.  The fruits of both efforts became clear this week, first with Monahan’s announcement of major change to the Tour’s financial structure, and then on Sunday with likely Rookie of the Year Cameron Young’s decision to turn down LIV’s entreaties.  

But money, lots of it, is also what the Tour’s season-long race for the FedEx Cup is all about.  When introduced in 2007, the winning bonus was $10 million, paid not in cash but as an annuity.  That latter feature has since been abandoned, and the total bonus pool this year is $75 million, with $18 million going to the champion.  Not even the Saudis have offered up a first-place check to match that – at least not yet.

The Tour has frequently tinkered with the format of the playoffs in an attempt to balance the season-long nature of the FedEx Cup race with the immediacy of the schedule’s final tournament.  Unhappy that this duality sometimes produced two champions, one of the golf tournament and the other of the points race and its massive bonus, the most recent revision in 2019 changed the tournament’s format by assigning “starting strokes” under par based on each golfer’s place in the FedEx Cup standings.  The “starting strokes” are the reward for twelve months of accumulating points, and the winner of the Tour Championship is now also the FedEx Cup titlist.  As the points leader, Scottie Scheffler teed off Thursday already 10-under par, with the rest of the field of twenty-nine anywhere from two to ten shots behind him. 

Shirt color aside, McIlroy admitted in a post-round interview that he thought little of his chances as the final round began.  That’s because through 54 holes Scheffler had played outstanding golf, expanding the two-stroke paper advantage he started with on Thursday to six by the end of the third round.  Scheffler’s strongest play actually came earlier on Sunday.  The third round had been suspended when thunderstorms approached East Lake late Saturday afternoon.  When the horn sounded, stopping play, Scheffler’s lead was down to just one stroke.  But he still had six holes to play, and when he returned to the course to finish Sunday morning, the world number one recorded four birdies over those final six holes to move to 23-under par, a half-dozen shots clear of McIlroy and Xander Schauffele, who had been tight with the leader a day earlier but couldn’t keep pace Sunday morning.

As the first to post 17-under, McIlroy was paired with Scheffler in the last group, and had to be buoyed by the knowledge that he had played just as well as the leader through the first three rounds.  Seventh in the points race coming into the Tour Championship, McIlroy had been allotted four “starting strokes” to Scheffler’s ten, so his deficit was entirely on paper and not the result of either’s play.  Still, six shots are a lot to make up in just 18 holes.  Until, that is, they aren’t.  A McIlroy birdie on the 3rd cut the lead to five, then a Scheffler bogey on the 4th made it four.  Another birdie by McIlroy on the 5th was followed by a birdie-bogey two-shot swing at the par-5 6th hole when Scheffler dumped his chip from the greenside rough into a bunker.  When McIlroy notched his third straight birdie with a 17-foot putt at the next, the daunting lead had disappeared entirely after just seven holes.

From there two of the game’s top players were effectively locked in match play.  Scheffler regained the advantage with a birdie at the 8th, but that would prove to be the only circle on his scorecard.  McIlroy tied it up again at the 12th, bobbled two holes later, and then caught Scheffler for the third time at the 15th when his curling long-range putt found the bottom of the cup for yet another birdie.

The decisive twist on a day full of turns came on the next hole.  McIlroy drove into a fairway bunker, from where he sailed his second into the gallery behind the green.  That appeared to give Scheffler the advantage, even though his own approach had found a greenside bunker.  But an indifferent sand shot by Scheffler left both with par putts in the ten-foot range.  Scheffler went first and missed.  McIlroy’s was straight and true, and the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup race had a new leader.

There was some final drama at the last, but another bunker play that was worse than indifferent by Scheffler effectively ended that.  With the focus on the final pairing, somewhat forgotten was Sungjae Im in the group ahead, whose final round 66 earned him a tie for second with Scheffler, but only after he had a look at a birdie putt on the 18th that would have brought him even with McIlroy.

There will surely be victories ahead for Im, on top of the two PGA Tour titles he’s already claimed.  And there will certainly be many wins in Scheffler’s future.  He burst into the consciousness of most golf fans with four victories in two months this spring, capped by his Masters win, where McIlroy was the runner-up.  But he also has five other top-10 finishes in majors and is still just 26 years old.  His number one ranking is no fluke.

But there was something unmistakably fitting about the PGA Tour’s massive year-end prize going to its strongest and most vocal defender.  This tournament was not a major.  It was not the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews.  It was not the Masters, which remains the roadblock to McIlroy’s career grand slam.  But it is the Tour’s ultimate financial reward, and this edition came at the end of a season dominated by talk of money.  An attorney for LIV Golf, in trying unsuccessfully to get his clients who had defected from the PGA Tour into this year’s playoffs, recently described the FedEx Cup as “the Super Bowl of golf.”  Well LIV, your worst enemy just won the Super Bowl, for a record-setting third time. 

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