Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 6, 2018

The NFL’s Coaching Carousel Spins Again

Until last weekend, only fourteen men had stalked the sidelines as head coach of the Green Bay Packers in that franchise’s nearly century long history. Only three members of that select fraternity – Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, and Mike Holmgren – compiled better records than Mike McCarthy, the Packers’ fourteenth leader. Only Lambeau, the coach from the team’s inception in 1921 through 1949 managed Green Bay for more games than McCarthy and none had coached the team in more playoff games. But neither his .618 regular season winning percentage (125-77-2), nor his nine trips to the postseason in twelve full seasons, nor Green Bay’s three appearances in the NFC Championship game, nor its 31-25 victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV were enough to keep McCarthy from being the first Packers head coach to be fired in the middle of a season when team president Mark Murphy announced his dismissal after Sunday’s 20-17 home loss to Arizona.

Despite McCarthy’s accomplishments the news of his firing hardly rated as a surprise, and the fan reaction in the little city that styles itself as “Titletown” made clear that most of the Packers’ faithful considered the move long overdue. The Packers last trip to the conference title game was two seasons ago and ended badly, a 44-21 rout at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons. The 2017-18 campaign started promisingly enough, but after the team raced out to a 4-1 record Green Bay lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone in Week 6. The offense stagnated under backup Brett Hundley and the Packers managed just three more wins over the remainder of the season, missing the playoffs with a third place finish in the NFC North at 7-9.

Rodgers was fully healthy by the start of this season, but his growing disenchantment with McCarthy’s offensive schemes has been perhaps the NFL’s worst kept secret. Green Bay has put up more than thirty points just twice, and with Sunday’s loss to the lowly Cardinals was the Packers’ fifth in six games since the bye week. The defeat by a team that arrived at Lambeau Field with just a pair of victories on the year left the home team and its frustrated fans with no realistic shot at the postseason.

A fair evaluation of Green Bay’s campaign would conclude that the blame should be spread around. The usually reliable placekicker Mason Crosby had a historically bad game against the Lions, becoming the first NFL kicker in more than two decades to miss four field goals and an extra point in one game, a contest the Packers lost by eight points. A foolish decision by the since-released kick returner Ty Montgomery to run the ball out of the end zone rather than taking a knee led to a fumble that deprived Rodgers of the opportunity for a final drive against the Rams with Green Bay down by two. And each of the team’s last three losses has been by a touchdown or less.

But a constant truism across all our sports is that it’s impossible to fire an entire team, so when a season goes south it’s the head coach who pays the price. But it’s also worth noting that even before the malaise that began with last season’s injury to Rodgers, McCarthy never commanded the respect shown some of his predecessors.

As one of the franchise’s founding fathers Curly Lambeau is a seminal figure in Green Bay, honored by his name adorning the team’s stadium. The address for Lambeau Field is 1265 Lombardi Avenue, named for the legendary coach who brought fame to northeastern Wisconsin by winning five championships in seven years. That the last two of those involved beating the AFL titleholder in the nascent Super Bowls led the NFL to name its championship trophy after Vince Lombardi to go along with his broad multi-lane Green Bay boulevard. Mike Holmgren won the same number of titles as McCarthy – one – but did so with better timing, ending a quarter-century drought during which the Packers made the playoffs just twice. Holmgren Way’s multiple lanes run for more than three miles through Green Bay and neighboring Ashwaubenon. In contrast Mike McCarthy Way is a renamed three block stretch of Potts Avenue, a two-lane side street behind the team’s practice facility.

While McCarthy’s street will always be unprepossessing, odds are that the opinions of the many Packers fans who are happy to see him go will mellow with time. Many of those same fans cheered Brett Favre throughout his sixteen seasons as the Green Bay quarterback, then booed him lustily when he returned to Lambeau Field wearing a Minnesota Vikings uniform, only to renew their hosannas on the day in 2015 when the Packers retired Favre’s number 4.

If McCarthy needs proof that both fans and front offices have short memories, he can look to the speculation about his successor. Sitting atop almost very list published this week is the name of Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks’ coach for the New England Patriots. Whether or not McDaniels gets the job or is even interested, the real story is the mention of his name less than ten months after he first accepted, then declined, the head coach’s job in Indianapolis. The public embarrassment of the Colts, who had proudly announced their new hire, led any number of pundits to declare that McDaniels had permanently poisoned himself and would never be considered for any job beyond the borders of Foxborough, Massachusetts. But as Mike McCarthy learned last weekend, the truth is that in any sport, when it comes to the job of field general, nothing is permanent.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 2, 2018

A Bold Move, Or Brodie’s Big Mistake?

Time, as someone no doubt once said, will tell. Kidding aside, that is the only honest assessment that can be offered up in the immediate wake of the big trade between the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets, hinted at for days and finally confirmed this weekend by the usual unnamed sources “familiar with the deal but not authorized to speak publicly.” Seattle, having committed to a full tear-down of its existing roster after having missed the playoffs for the seventeenth straight year, is sending second baseman Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz to Queens in exchange for outfielder Jay Bruce, relief pitchers Anthony Swarzak and rookie Gerson Bautista, and the Mets third and fourth ranked prospects, Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn.

The truth is that every swap of a high-salaried veteran for minor league prospects between one team looking to build for the future and another hoping to win now can only be fairly judged after some time has passed. That’s because minor league prospects are by definition a year or two or five away from proving their worth, or lack of same. But as is always the case with the first big move that fuels the Great Game’s hot stove league, news of this trade had fans clamoring for instant analysis and pundits eager to deliver.

Necessarily the focus has been on the deal’s impact on New York. Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto had already made clear his intent to a multi-year rebuild when he dealt starter James Paxton to the Yankees for three prospects in mid-November. He may well try to flip Bruce and Swarzak, the two veterans Seattle is receiving from New York, later this offseason. How the Mariners’ farm system develops, and how Dipoto spends the millions he’s saving by shipping the bulk of Cano’s salary east will determine, not next season but in 2020, 2021, and beyond, whether this weekend’s deal is a winner for the Mariners. For the sake of Seattle’s fans, one must hope for the best. At the All-Star break in July, the Mariners were nineteen games over .500, leading the American League Wild Card race and chasing the Houston Astros in the AL West. But Seattle sagged to a sub-.500 record from there, extending the longest postseason drought in all four major North American team sports.

But at Citi Field the focus is clearly not on some future season down the road, but on the campaign that begins with the call for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training just two and one-half months from now. Since going to the World Series in 2015 the Mets have finished second, fourth and fourth in the increasingly competitive NL East. Over the past two seasons combined New York lost thirty more games than it won. With owner Fred Wilpon spending like he was in charge of the small market Kansas City Royals rather than a team playing in the biggest market of all, this offseason began with rumors that the Mets might dangle right-hander Noah Syndergaard as trade bait.

Then New York made the decidedly unconventional move of hiring Brodie Van Wagenen as their new general manager. Van Wagenen came to the job not after moving his way up through the front office ranks, but after a career as an agent, including representing Cano and several Mets players. It was a bold if risky move, and Van Wagenen now seems intent on proving himself to be a bold risktaker as a GM. At his introductory press conference, he promised the Mets would aim to win in 2019, and his first major deal is in pursuit of that goal.

The clear upside for New York appears to be Diaz. The right-hander won’t turn twenty-five until shortly before Opening Day next spring, and he’s fresh off emerging as a dominant closer in 2018. Diaz recorded 57 saves for the Mariners while posting a stingy 1.97 ERA and an equally impressive Fielding Independent Pitching stat of 1.61. About the only uncertainty with Diaz is that when he was drafted by Seattle in 2012 his signing bonus plummeted after a physical revealed the presence of bone spurs on his right elbow. To date Diaz has not been bothered by the joint problem, but the knowledge that it exists may cause some Mets fans to hold their breath every time he takes the mound.

If the Mets have gained an elite closer in Diaz, exactly what they have in Cano is less clear. On the one hand he’s an eight-time All-Star with a lifetime batting average over .300. Last year he hit .303, just one point below his career number, and posted an OPS of .845.

But he did that while appearing in just eighty games, thanks to a half-season suspension for violating MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Cano is also thirty-six years old, and still has five years remaining on the $240 million, ten-year contract that Van Wagenen negotiated for him when Cano left the Bronx for Seattle after the 2013 season. Van Wagenen’s gamble is that his former client will continue to produce close to his career numbers for another couple of years, before the inevitable decline sets in. But in a sport in which most front offices have grown leery of players in their mid-thirties, Cano is already defying the calendar, and it’s impossible to know whether his solid 2018 stats were helped by playing only half a season, albeit involuntarily.

Accounting for the portion of his salary that Seattle is sending to the Mets, and the pay of the other players involved in the trade, the Cano acquisition will cost New York $63 million over the balance of his contract. If that buys a couple of NL East titles and at least one deep postseason run, fans will likely think it money well spent. But if the career arc of the newest Met follows that of most other thirty-six-year old major leaguers, well, one can already hear the boos pouring down from the upper reaches of the big ballpark in Queens and the rabid second-guessing of the team’s new GM on sports talk radio. There is no shortage of instant analysis on both sides.  Van Wagenen has struck gold.  Van Wagenen has been taken to the cleaners by a veteran GM.  The only certainty, of course, is that time will tell.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 29, 2018

A Donald Ross Gem, Hiding In Plain Sight

Siblings Joel and Ethan, known collectively to millions of moviegoers as the Coen Brothers, have been behind many memorable films, from “Raising Arizona” and “Fargo” more than two decades ago, to “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Bridge of Spies” in just the past few years. For this viewer at least, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” won’t be joining those works in the brothers’ pantheon of greatness. Yet in the middle of their newest offering, an undistinguished muddle of six vignettes set in the “wild, wild” days of the American West, there is a scene that reminds us that keeping a sharp eye out for the slightest glimmer of something precious can yield huge rewards.

A grizzled prospector, played by the singer-cum-actor Tom Waits, happens upon a stream running through a picturesque valley. After several attempts at panning for gold, he spies a few tiny flecks in the muddy remains at the bottom of his worn tin. Up and down the stream he goes, able to count on one hand the valuable slivers in each scoop of streambed, until he finally finds “almost enough to keep” and determines that the source of the gold must be up a nearby hillside. Over several days he gradually hones in on the vein, which proves to be far larger than he dared hope. The segment ends with Waits’s character, having survived a homicidal claim jumper by an extended act of playing possum, leaving the valley, his mule loaded down with the coin of every realm from ancient times to modern day.

What is true in life can also apply to sports, though to a prospector of the links, there is little to quicken the pulse at the first sight of Palatka Golf Club. The view of aging houses along a residential street a short distance from the downtown of the small city that’s the seat of Putnam County in northeast Florida gives way, on the left, to a green expanse and a small one-story clubhouse. But even as one turns through the tiny and full parking lot before finding an empty space in an auxiliary lot across the street, the first fleck of golfing gold appears. On the front of the brick clubhouse, just below the name of the course, are the magical words “Donald Ross 1925.”

Ross was a Scotsman who apprenticed with Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews before risking his life savings on a trip to America. In 1899 he was appointed the professional at Oakley Golf Club in Watertown, Massachusetts. After laying out the course that Oakley Country Club’s members walk today, the young Scot moved to the Carolina Sandhills for a job at Pinehurst, a fledgling resort being developed by businessman James Walker Tufts. Ross eventually designed four courses at Pinehurst, with No. 2 remaining his most famous work more than a century later.

Word of his talent quickly spread, and within a few years Ross became the country’s first celebrity golf course architect, employing more than a thousand people every summer, with active projects in multiple states. Along with Pinehurst No. 2, Ross’s most memorable layouts include Aronimink near Philadelphia, Oak Hill in western New York, East Lake in Atlanta, and both Inverness and Oakland Hills in the Midwest. But the prolific Ross also designed scores of lesser known courses, lending his name to more than four hundred links in all.

Many decades later, that productivity instills caution in any golfer hoping to play a Ross design. Whether by the innocent activity of regular overseeding and top dressing of greens and fairways, or by conscious decisions to have later generations of architects alter holes and change course routings, there are more than a few Ross courses that today would be unrecognizable to their creator. Even the iconic No. 2 lost much of its original character as time passed, until a 2011 renovation by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Moore restored Ross’s original waste areas and green contours, in time for the course to become the first ever to host both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens back-to-back three years later. Anyone can put a sign on a wall, but is Palatka still a Ross design, or just so much golfing pyrite?

The answer comes as soon as one strolls up the gentle rise of the opening fairway and approaches the first green. The design is classic Ross. The putting surface is raised slightly, and while from the distance of the approach shot the green looks large, it drops off on all sides, making the actual target much smaller. The steepest drop is at the very front, meaning many golfers have thought their ball would run up near the hole only to watch it stop and roll back into the fairway. Ross greens almost always have a false front and the overall crowned affect, like nothing so much as a dinner plate turned upside down.

But even as the contours of the putting surface make the golfer’s job more difficult, Ross gives the player multiple ways to recover. The area around the green is closely mown, meaning that an approach shot that misses still leaves one with three different ways to save par. There’s the chip and run, the ball scooting up the slope towards the hole. Or one can pitch it with a more lofted club, flying over the slope. But with short grass all around, those lacking confidence in their irons can always bring out the flat stick and stroke a long putt up onto the green.

Ross holes often give golfers choices starting on the tee, though in doing so they usually force one to calculate risk versus reward. At Palatka the par-5 fifth and par-4 eleventh holes are prime examples. Both bend to the right, and the temptation on the tee is to cut off as much yardage as possible by hugging that side. But the fifth runs along the edge of the property, with the dense forest of Ravine Gardens State Park waiting to claim any shot pushed a little too far right. On the eleventh it’s an expansive waste bunker and overhanging trees that can turn a bold shot into certain doom. On both holes Ross offers golfers a safe route home by keeping to the left, though the path to the cup becomes much longer.

The short par-4 thirteenth is a good example of a Ross punchbowl, with the fairway running down to an inviting green. And then there is par-3 sixteenth, the Redan. While not a feature exclusive to Ross, it is a reminder of the age of Palatka. Popular in the 19th and early 20th century, the Redan has largely fallen out of favor. Drawing its name from the French term for a specific fortification, a Redan hole, usually a par-3, has a green complex that resembles its namesake. The green runs at an angle to the tee, from front right to back left. Its highest point is on the left, a protruding bulwark that is a stout defense against all attackers. Below that sits a yawning bunker, waiting to capture a stray tee ball. At Palatka Ross added another bunker behind and to the right of the green, making the hole even more challenging.

There are many Florida links far more famous than the old municipal layout in the northeast corner of the state. The state has many courses that are more pristine in their conditioning or more scenic in their surroundings, and certainly many that will relieve a golfer of far more than the twenty-nine dollars it costs to tour Palatka. But few offer such an opportunity to step back into another age of the ancient game, and to walk in the footsteps of a master craftsman. When the car turns back onto Moseley Avenue, headed for the Memorial Bridge crossing of the St. John’s River, there is more than just a bag of clubs in the hold. Like the lucky prospector, the golfer is loaded down with memories that are pure gold.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 18, 2018

Lexi’s Win Reminds Us That Winning Isn’t Everything

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be taking a short break while traveling over the upcoming holiday weekend. There will be no post next Thursday or Sunday. The regular schedule will resume on Thursday, November 29th. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all, and thanks as always for your support.

It is easy to forget that Lexi Thompson is just 23 years old. Because she qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open as a 12-year-old amateur. Because she turned pro at 15 and won her first professional event, a one-round tournament on a men’s developmental tour less than two weeks after her 16th birthday in 2011. Because she was tied for the lead after three rounds of her first LPGA event two months later and then romped to a five-shot win at the Navistar LPGA Classic that September, becoming at the time the youngest winner of a LPGA tournament. Because she closed 2011 by winning the Dubai Ladies Masters, a stop on the Ladies European Tour, making her the then youngest professional to capture a LET title. Because she’s been on the US squad for three straight Solheim Cups and hasn’t lost a match in the last two. Because she has nearly 400,000 Instagram followers. Because coming into the season-ending CME Group Championship she already had nine LPGA wins including a major, at least one win in five straight seasons, more than $8.5 million in career earnings and at number eight was the only American in the top ten of the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. For all those reasons golf fans understandably feel like Lexi Thompson has been an important part of the women’s game for a very long time, so she can’t possibly be so young.

But she is, and the astonishingly precocious start to her career is no reason to forget the simple fact of her youth. For despite her enormous success on the fairways and greens of the women’s tour, indeed to a significant degree specifically because of it, Thompson has struggled, for a long time privately and more recently in public, to find comfort in her own skin and to strike a balance between the public role of a professional athlete and the private life and interests of a young woman not far removed from her teenage years.

Earlier this year Thompson withdrew from the Ricoh Women’s British Open, one of five women’s majors, and announced that she was taking a break from competitive play to “work on myself.” On social media Thompson explained that she had “not truly felt like myself for quite come time,” and was “taking this time to recharge my mental batteries, and to focus on myself away from the game of professional golf.” At the time commentators noted that over the previous eighteen months Thompson had dealt with both her mother’s cancer diagnosis and the death of her paternal grandmother. More recently she revealed a long struggle with body image that led her to pursue an extreme workout regimen while privately tearing herself down for, in her mind at least, not comparing favorably to stick-thin models.

On the course even while she was posting a pair of wins in 2017 Thompson was dealing with plenty of adversity. Early last season she was headed toward a second major title at the ANA Inspiration until she became one more victim of a fan sitting at home with too much time on his or her hands. During the fourth round of the tournament the LPGA received an email from a television viewer complaining that Thompson had failed to replace her ball in the exact same position after marking on a green during the previous day’s round. When reviews of videotape determined that Thompson had in fact committed the infraction by less than an inch, the Tour assessed a four-shot penalty, two for the sin itself and two more for then signing for an incorrect score after her third round. Fighting back tears the rest of the way, Thompson ultimately lost the tournament in sudden death.

Then earlier this season, after returning from her self-imposed break, Thompson was again emotional when she missed the cut at the Evian Championship, her first missed cut at a major in five years. Just before the start of the CME Group Championship she announced a parting of the ways with caddie Kevin McAlpine. All that turmoil only underscored the fact that Thompson arrived at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida, winless in 2018.

But she professed her love for this season-ending tournament in a media session during the week, largely because it’s played within driving distance of her home in Coral Springs, which guarantees both family members and plenty of friends and supportive fans in the crowd. Yet as the tournament got underway it was hard not to feel that her affection was misplaced. For Tiburon was the site of Thompson’s most painful moment in the tumultuous past year and a half. She stood on the 18th green in the final round at last year’s CME, surveying a two-foot putt for par. Knock it in and she finishes one stroke ahead of Ariya Jutanagarn, who was playing behind her. A win would mean not just the $500,000 first prize and well as the $1 million bonus for taking the season-long points race, but also the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, the LPGA Player of the Year Award, and the number one spot in the world rankings.

Thompson’s putt barely grazed the right side of the hole, spinning out and drastically changing the story of her season. While she ultimately won the bonus money and the scoring trophy, the tournament went to Jutanagarn, the Player of the Year Award went jointly to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park, and the chance to become the first American world number one in more than four years was gone a-glimmering.

Or perhaps Thompson knew what she was talking about after all. With her older brother Curtis on the bag she opened with a 7-under par round of 65, leaving her just two off the lead of Amy Olson. After signing her scorecard Thompson said “Golf is just a game. It’s hard to say that, but you have to think that. It’s just what I’m doing.” The comment reflected her determined effort to find a new balance in her life. She claimed progress, saying “I’ve been working on myself a lot, with going to therapists, or just trying to figure myself out, off the golf course, because I’m not just the golfer Lexi.”

Fans should root for Thompson’s continued success at defining herself off the course in whatever way she desires, while also being heartened by her play this week. Proving Tiburon held no demons for her, she followed her opening round with a 67 on Friday to pull into a three-shot lead. That margin held through Saturday, when Thompson posted a 4-under 68. Sunday, she played a strategic round, opting for 3-wood off several tees to avoid trouble. By the time she came back to the 18th green, the scene of Sunday tears one year ago, Thompson was all smiles as she waved to the supportive crowd and closed out a four-shot victory, extending her streak of consecutive years with a win to six, the longest among active players. Even as they cheer for her victory, fans should also hope that some of the reasons the still very young Lexi Thompson was smiling had absolutely nothing to do with golf.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 15, 2018

Proof The Older Guys Are Good Too

The date is April 20, 2014. One week ago, Bubba Watson won his second green jacket, claiming the Masters by three strokes over Sweden’s Jonas Blixt and a 20-year-old American named Jordan Spieth, who was playing at Augusta National for the very first time. Watson and Spieth entered the final round tied for the lead, and at one point the young challenger moved two shots clear, threatening to eclipse Tiger Woods as the youngest winner of every golf season’s first major. But Watson reeled Spieth in over the tournament’s final nine holes, winning with a fine final round of 69 and an 8-under par total of 281.

Englishman Lee Westwood, long a star of the European Tour, finished in seventh place at 1-under, the last golfer to break par in a week in which Augusta National proved resistant to scoring. Westwood wasted no time in Georgia after signing his scorecard, winging halfway around to world to tee it up this week at the Maybank Malaysian Open, an event co-sanctioned by the Asian and European Tours. He is just days shy of his forty-first birthday but appears unfazed by either age or jet lag. Westwood took the lead on Thursday with an opening 65, and now coasts to a seven-shot victory over Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen. It is his twenty-third European Tour triumph. The win moves Westwood, who once topped the Official World Golf Rankings, back into the top thirty.

Many time zones away and hours after Westwood has lifted his trophy, the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage is nearing its climax. Unlike the peripatetic Westwood most of the finishers at the Masters have traveled less than 150 miles southeast to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Here at the very tip of the barrier island, Harbour Town Golf Links is the long-time site of the Heritage. It’s a Tour stop familiar to casual golf fans by the candy-striped lighthouse that sits across an inlet behind the 18th green and for the red plaid jacket given to the winner, an article of clothing even more garish than that won by Watson seven days ago.

The final round of the Heritage begins with Luke Donald in the lead, but thirty-five-year-old Matt Kuchar makes six birdies on the front nine to turn for home in just 30 strokes, then adds another at the par-4 10th hole to seize the lead. Kuchar and Donald battle on from there, until a three-putt bogey at the 17th drops the popular American back into a tie with England’s former world number one. Playing ahead of Donald, Kuchar puts his approach at the home hole into a bunker fronting Harbour Town’s final green, meaning he now needs to get up and down to save par and remain tied. Instead Kuchar’s sand shot lands softly and rolls straight and true, dead into the cup for a birdie. When Donald comes home with a string of pars, Kuchar has his seventh PGA Tour title and at number five, is solidly ensconced in the top ten of the Official World Golf Rankings.

Like Westwood, Kuchar presaged his win by playing well at the Masters, where he finished tied with Rickie Fowler for fifth place, six shots adrift of Watson and one clear of Westwood. So this weekend’s two winners, one in Kuala Lumpur and the other in South Carolina share not just a victory on their respective home Tours, but a good performance at Augusta National, a solid world ranking, and one decidedly less desirable distinction, a spot high on the list of best golfers who have never won a major.

The date is November 11, 2018. More than four years have passed since the events described above, and in all that time two things have not happened. Matt Kuchar has not won a PGA Tour event, and Lee Westwood has not triumphed on the European Tour. Neither has been entirely shut out. Kuchar topped the field at the Fiji International, a PGA Tour of Australasia event, in 2015, while Westwood won Asian Tour tournaments later in 2014 and again early in 2015. But that the success of both on their home Tours would suddenly stop could hardly have been foreseen on that spring Sunday four and a half years ago.

Kuchar, who began 2018 still ranked fifteenth, suffered through a particularly miserable season. He recorded just four top-10 finishes, missed three cuts in five tournaments from the U.S. Open to the PGA Championship, and was forced to watch the Ryder Cup from the sidelines as an assistant captain after qualifying for the American Ryder and Presidents Cup squads seven years in a row. Westwood’s slide, as he moved into his mid-forties, has been more gradual but also more sustained, the product of the slow erosion of skills that time inevitably imposes on every athlete.

The one certainty for both golfers was that little was expected of either this week, when Kuchar teed it up at the PGA Tour’s Mayakoba Golf Classic south of Cancun, Mexico, and Westwood began play at the European Tour’s Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, South Africa. But as play unfolded in the final rounds of both tournaments the two veterans turned back the clock, doing so by swapping the roles each had played four seasons earlier.

This time it was Kuchar who took command of the tournament, opening with a 7-under par 64 that was good for a share of the lead. He matched that score on Friday, and nearly did so again with Saturday’s 65, giving himself a four-shot cushion for the final round. On this Sunday the now forty-year-old needed all that edge, as he turned shaky with a pair of bogeys on the 14th and 15th holes. But Kuchar steadied himself and parred in, holing a final nervy putt from three feet at the last to keep Danny Lee at bay.

On the European Tour it was Westwood’s turn to come charging through the field as the weekend came to a close. He began the day three shots back of Sergio Garcia, the leader from the tournament’s start. But neither Garcia nor anyone else could match Westwood’s stellar play over the final 18 holes. With an eagle three at the par-5 2nd hole and six birdies from there to the clubhouse, Westwood’s closing 64 vaulted him past his competitors to a three-shot victory.

There is of course no cosmic connection between these two golfers. It is but coincidence that the pair won on the same day this week, after also doing so in their previous home Tour wins more than four years earlier. But in a sport that like so many other of our games is increasingly dominated by youth, where the current flavor of the month is monstrously long-hitting twenty-three-year-old Cameron Champ, the twin wins by Kuchar and Westwood reminded us that golf will always be a game for life. Surely neither of the two thought their 2014 wins would be their last. And just as surely, over the long months since, doubts crept into both their minds. Westwood’s raw emotion after winning Sunday was proof of that. But now, once again, both Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood can turn their thoughts to the next victory.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 11, 2018

A Bang-Up Career About To End With A Whimper

As this is written, the Rockets are about to host the Pacers at the Toyota Center in downtown Houston. It’s a welcome return home for the Space City’s NBA franchise after a five-game road trip that started well enough but ended with a pair of losses to the Thunder and the Spurs, two Western Conference rivals that the Rockets are chasing in the early season standings. Actually, Houston is looking up at almost every team in the west, its 4-7 record better than just three other franchises. If the Rockets find a way to defeat Indiana, the win will be the team’s first home victory of the season after four defeats.

That is a shocking reversal from last season, when Houston dropped just seven home games all year, and played nearly as well on the road, finishing with a record of 65-17, seven games better than the Golden State Warriors in the conference standings. The Rockets then tore through the first two rounds of the playoffs, dropping just a single contest to both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz to advance to the Conference Finals and a matchup with the defending champion Warriors. Many fans viewed that conference showdown as the league’s true championship series, believing either Houston or Golden State would dispatch the Eastern Conference representative with ease.

While it’s impossible to know what might have happened if say, Houston and Boston had met in the Finals, what is certain is that Golden State swept Cleveland aside four games to none, proof enough for those prognosticators to claim they had been right. Certainly the Western Conference Finals proved compelling, with the Rockets going up three games to two before getting blown out in Game 6 in Oakland. Then in the decisive Game 7 Houston led by eleven points at the half before being manhandled by Golden State in the third quarter, 33-15. The Rockets were unable to recover from that swing of eighteen points in twelve minutes, and eventually fell to the defending champs 101-92.

Amidst the disappointment of that loss, in which the lowlight was Houston shooters missing an NBA playoff record twenty-seven straight 3-point attempts, the future looked bright for the Rockets. The team signed Chris Paul to a four-year, $160 million contract extension during the offseason, thus assuring fans that he would continue to team with newly names league MVP James Harden. If the challenge of finding a way past Golden State remained large, at least Houston started out as the presumed second best team in the league’s dominant conference.

Or so fans thought. A losing record over the season’s opening three-plus weeks does not necessarily spell doom, but clearly the Rockets are going through some mighty struggles on offense. Last season the team was the pride of the NBA, with an offensive rating of 114.0. Entering Sunday evening’s contest against the Pacers, Houston ranked twenty-seventh in the same statistic, at 103.1. The Rockets have slipped defensively as well, but Mike D’Antoni’s team has always been more about scoring than stops.

Houston’s troubles run deeper than any one player, but the one other significant off-season move by the Rockets was to sign 34-year-old Carmelo Anthony to a one-year contract at the veteran’s minimum of $2.4 million. The move came less than a year after Anthony was traded from the New York Knicks to Oklahoma City, where he was supposed to team with Russell Westbrook and Paul George to form a new “Big Three” that would allow the Thunder to compete against the Warriors. Instead Anthony posted the worst numbers of his career, failing to average twenty points per game for the first time ever. Playing a little over thirty-two minutes per game, the lowest number in his career, he averaged just 16.2 points and visibly chafed when he was moved out of the starting rotation.

Last summer Thunder general manager Sam Presti opted to cut his losses and traded Anthony to the Atlanta Hawks as part of a three-team deal that was little more than a salary dump for Oklahoma City. Five days after the trade Atlanta waived Anthony, leaving him free to negotiate his new deal with Houston. Rockets GM Daryl Morey optimistically noted that it’s “easy to find highlights for him!” in a tweet confirming the signing.

That is certainly true. Anthony is a ten-time All Star who will one day be in the Hall of Fame. The prolific shooter has averaged 24 points per fame over a career that is now in its sixteenth season. But perhaps Morey should have taken time to look at the three-minute YouTube video before he included the link to it in his tweet. The first thing one notices about “Top 10 Carmelo Anthony Career Plays,” even before pushing “play,” is that the video is more than five years old. The second glaring feature is that nine of the ten plays show Anthony in a Denver Nuggets uniform, and thus are from the first eight years of his career. Just one play is from his time at Madison Square Garden, where he played his home games as a member of the Knicks from 2011 through 2017. Even given the age of the video, that only one play from his first two seasons in New York made the top ten would be seen by most fans as a warning sign about the direction of Melo’s career.

Now it looks like that career may be coming to an end. Anthony sat out the Rockets’ loss to San Antonio on Saturday with an unspecified illness, and Sunday afternoon word came that he would be out against Indiana as well. In his most recent game, against the Thunder last Thursday, Anthony shot just 1-for-11 from the field while missing all six of his 3-point tries. On the season his production has dropped even below the anemic levels of last year, with his scoring average down to 13.4 points per game.

Against that backdrop the Internet on Sunday afternoon was filled with rumors that Anthony had been told his brief time in a Rockets uniform was about to end, with Houston planning to waive the former star. Apart from his abysmal performance, Anthony and the Rockets are said to be at an impasse over his role, with Melo still believing that he should be a starter.

For now, general manager Morey is denying the rumors, while head coach D’Antoni is sidestepping questions from reporters. But the reports are from multiple sources, which makes it seem likely that sooner or later, and most likely sooner, Carmelo Anthony will be an aging veteran with drastically diminished skills looking for employment. It will be a sad ending for a player who in his prime was a singular scoring talent. But with Melo the emphasis, apparently right until the end, was always on “singular,” and basketball remains a team sport.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 8, 2018

But What Have You Done For Us Lately, Joel?

Joel Quenneville lost his job this week. That might not seem noteworthy unless one lives in Chicago, and even there it’s probably of particular interest only to fans of the city’s NHL franchise. Quenneville woke up Tuesday morning as head coach of the Blackhawks, but went to bed that night a man looking for work. Sometimes, as in this case, a coach’s firing wreaks collateral damage. When Chicago general manager Stan Bowman decided that a 6-6-3 record to start the season wasn’t good enough, especially when the team’s last five games had all been losses, he dismissed assistant coaches Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson as well. Bowman then asked Jeremy Colliton to take Quenneville’s place behind the Chicago bench, promoting the 33-year-old from the head coaching position at the franchise’s AHL affiliate in nearby Rockford, Illinois.

It is one of the harder truths of sports that “job security” and “head coach” are not words frequently used in the same sentence. Although the NHL season is only five weeks old, Quenneville isn’t even the first team leader to be shown the door. That dubious distinction went to John Stevens, who was axed by the Los Angeles Kings three days earlier. The NBA, the other major sports league with a season just getting started, has also seen its first firing with the dismissal of Tyronn Lue from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench late last month.

Yet even if every coach lives with the expectation of eventually being fired, the news of Quenneville’s dismissal is a reminder that even a sterling resume is no redoubt against the twin onslaught of sagging performance and a frosty relationship with a general manager. Because the one thing Joel Quenneville surely possessed was a record of great accomplishment in Chicago. Of the franchises that comprise the Original Six NHL members, only the New York Rangers have fewer championships and fewer appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals than Chicago. But before Quenneville took over early in the 2008-09 season the Blackhawks trailed even the Rangers with three titles to New York’s four, and were tied with the Broadway Blueshirts for fewest appearances with ten.

With just those three Stanley Cups in eighty-two seasons, fans in Chicago were used to disappointment. But Quenneville wasted no time in instilling a different attitude in both his players and the paying customers who finally had good reasons to fill the seats at the United Center. Named head coach after the team took just one of its first four games in the fall of 2008, he took a team that had made the playoffs just once in the past ten seasons all the way to the Western Conference Finals the following spring. One year later Quenneville’s team topped fifty regular season wins for the first time in franchise history and steamrolled to a title without facing a single elimination game in any of four playoff rounds. Three years later, in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Chicago won again, this time besting the Boston Bruins four games to two in the Finals. And just two seasons after that Chicago claimed its third Cup on Quenneville’s watch, eliminating Nashville, Minnesota and Anaheim in the Conference rounds before downing Tampa Bay in six games in the season’s final series.

Three titles in six years is a record of dominance. One must go back to the Detroit Red Wings run from 1997 to 2002 to find its equal, so the logical expectation would be that a head coach with such a record would be given considerable latitude by his front office. Fans in Chicago now know how GM Bowman defines “considerable.”

The first sign of trouble for Quenneville came at the end of the 2016-17 season, two years after his team’s last championship. Chicago appeared poised for another deep playoff run, having won fifty regular season games for the second time ever and garnered the number one seed in the Western Conference with 109 points. Instead the Blackhawks became the first top seed to be swept by a number eight seed in the opening round. Chicago skaters failed to light the lamp on home ice, shut out 1-0 and 5-0 by the Predators in the first two games. Quenneville’s team at least managed to score in Nashville, but still went down by scores of 3-2 and 4-1.

That bitter disappointment was compounded last season, when Chicago lost more games than it won and missed the playoffs for the first time during Quenneville’s tenure.

This year started hopefully, with the team skating to a 6-2-2 record over the first three weeks. But since a 4-1 victory over the Rangers on October 25th Chicago has managed just a single point in five games while being outscored 22-9.

While many coaches responsible for three championship banners hanging in an arena’s rafters would be given a chance to lead a franchise out of such a slump, Quenneville had the added burden of an often-fraught relationship with Bowman. The general manager’s calculations surely considered the reality that Chicago’s biggest problem is a roster that had to be torn apart because of the NHL’s hard salary cap. That’s a burden that isn’t going away any time soon, and one that ultimately falls not on the coach but on the front office. By firing Quenneville, Bowman is trying to point the finger of blame elsewhere. Hiring the youngest head coach in the NHL, one with no prior major league coaching experience, might also give the GM some additional job security, something that Chicago’s salary cap woes strongly suggest he’s done nothing to earn.

With those three Stanley Cups and a .627 regular season winning percentage during his time behind the Chicago bench, Joel Quenneville won’t be unemployed for any longer than he chooses. An article on listed eight teams – more than one-quarter of the league – as possible landing spots, and that number didn’t include the option of continuing to cash the Chicago paychecks due him by contract while waiting for the NHL’s next expansion into Seattle in 2020. Still, his firing is a stark reminder that in all our major leagues, few positions are as tenuous as that of head coach. The message to Jeremy Colliton is clear, don’t get too comfortable kid.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 4, 2018

Game Winner Won, Enable Was Able, And Accelerate Did

Thirty-five editions later, it is hard to imagine that the idea of the Breeders’ Cup was met with skepticism when first proposed by John Gaines at the 1982 Kentucky Derby Festival awards luncheon. The pet food heir turned thoroughbred breeder and owner was hoping to burnish the image of a fading American sport by giving the racing calendar, which for most casual fans is heavily weighted toward the spring and the trifecta of Triple Crown races, a season-ending spectacle. Gaines, who passed away in 2005, would be fully justified in proclaiming a hearty “I told you so” to all the naysayers he encountered in Louisville. First staged as a one-day card with eight races two years after he proposed it, Gaines’s concept is now run over two days, with five races for 2-year-olds on Friday and nine more for older horses on Saturday. It has also spawned the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, in which the winner of more than eighty races around the world, from January through October, automatically qualifies for one of the Breeders’ Cup stakes races.

This year the event returned to the site of its conception, Churchill Downs, for the ninth time. That ties the venerable old racecourse with Santa Anita Park as the most frequent host, at least until next November when the Breeders’ Cup will again be staged against the stunning backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains. With purses ranging from $1 to $6 million and totaling a record $28 million, and every race but the new Juvenile Turf Sprint a Grade I, the Breeders’ Cup is now widely recognized as the premier event of American thoroughbred racing.

With Friday’s focus on 2-year-olds more than 43,000 fans turned out hoping to catch an early glimpse of the contenders for next year’s Triple Crown. That naturally meant the greatest focus was on the 1 1/16 mile Juvenile, the winner of which often garners Horse of the Year honors for his or her age group and is always conferred early favorite status for the following spring’s Kentucky Derby. With Joel Rosario aboard, the Bob Baffert trained Game Winner was sent off as the even money favorite. Rosario was content to run mid-pack through the first three-quarters of a mile, while Complexity, the second betting choice, set the pace. On the far turn Game Winner moved up on the outside, and as the field turned for home Rosario may have been surprised to find his competition was not Complexity, who began to fade, but the 40-1 longshot Knicks Go. The two ran side by side into the final furlong, even bumping at one point. But in the end the favorite was just too good, pulling away to win by just over two lengths.

His shock of snow-white hair alone makes trainer Baffert the most recognizable figure in thoroughbred racing. It’s hardly a surprise that he would saddle the early Derby favorite, as he guided first American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015 and then Justify to the same horse racing glory earlier this year. But Baffert also understands the vagaries of the sport, so it’s certain that he’s not overly impressed by the accolades being tossed Game Winner’s way. It took more than ten runnings of the Juvenile before a winner went on to capture any of the three Triple Crown races the following year. That was Timber Country at the 1995 Preakness. Only two Juvenile champions have emerged victorious at the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense in 2007 and Nyquist two years ago. It’s a long way from Churchill Downs in November to the same starting gate next May.

More than 70,000 were in the stands on Saturday, making the two-day attendance the third highest in Breeders’ Cup history. As always, the richest races were the last two on the card, the $4 million Turf, run at a mile and a half, and the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, run as always at the classic American thoroughbred distance of a mile and a quarter.

The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, run at Longchamp in Paris every October, is the most prestigious horse race in mainland Europe. Eight times before a winner of the Arc, as it is popularly known, had shipped over to compete in one of the Breeders’ Cup races, and eight times the trip had been in vain. That didn’t stop the punters from making Enable, the 4-year-old filly who has dominated European racing and who won her second Arc last month, the 4-5 favorite in the Turf. Louisville saw heavy rains in the days leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, and trainer John Gosden and jockey Frankie Dettori were both concerned about the inner lanes of the turf course. Churchill’s turf layout drains inward, meaning the portion closest to the rail was likely to be the wettest.

So after breaking from the two hole Dettori quickly steered Enable toward the center of the track, three and even four spots wide of the rail, running comfortably in fifth place for much of the lengthy race. Dettori urged Enable forward and even further outside on the far turn, and she was the widest of a four-horse wall that charged into the final stretch as one. Others fell back but Magical, the only other filly in the race, kept pace with the favorite as the final yards slipped by. The two raced together down the center of the turf course until at the last Enable moved half a length clear for the victory, cementing her place in the record books as the first Arc winner to score a Breeders’ Cup win.

That left only the Classic, where Accelerate, the 5-year-old chestnut stallion, was sent off as a very slight favorite in the fourteen-horse field. Accelerate had won repeatedly throughout his career in California, but there were a few in the crowd who questioned whether he would travel well. It’s likely that more fans had doubts about his trainer. With three earlier losses at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, veteran John Sadler was an unsightly 0 for 44 at the season-ending spectacle when he gave jockey Rosario a leg up on Accelerate in the Churchill Downs paddock.

But as Sadler pointed out, it takes great skill over many years to get that many horses into Breeders’ Cup fields. He was confident that in time his efforts would be rewarded, and on Saturday that time came. It was Mendelssohn who took the early lead, as Rosario focused on moving Accelerate in from his break out of the fourteen post. The field ran a scorching first quarter before the pace moderated on the back stretch. Then just like Enable in the Turf, Accelerate moved to the outside and was one of four horses vying for the lead on the far turn. The favorite moved in front the lead at the top of the stretch, then finally began to pull clear at the sixteenth pole. Late runners Gunnevera and Thunder Snow made their charges, but too late to catch the winner.

It was a magnificent run that capped an outstanding campaign, one that has some pundits touting Accelerate for Horse of the Year. That seems unlikely in a season that featured a Triple Crown champion, and an undefeated one at that, even if Justify was retired early after a leg injury. No doubt John Sadler will be content with no longer being 0 for the Breeders’ Cup.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 1, 2018

Red Sox Are Winners, Some Fans Less So

On Wednesday, for the fourth time in fifteen years, the championship parade marking the end of the longest season rolled through the streets of Boston. Fans lined the city’s streets, striving to catch a glimpse of and cheer on their heroes, who rode in a long line of duck boats that made slow but steady progress from Fenway Park to the North End. That this year’s parade should return to New England was hardly a surprise. The Red Sox began the season with by far the fattest payroll in the Great Game, more than $30 million over the luxury tax threshold. While Boston fans have historically complained bitterly about the free-spending ways of the New York Yankees, they were somehow able to temper their moral outrage when the open checkbook belonged to Sox owner John Henry instead of a Steinbrenner.

Who could blame them? For Henry’s largesse stocked a roster with one former Cy Young Award winner in David Price, and another starter in Chris Sale who, when this year’s voting for that award is announced, will finish in the top five for the sixth straight year and who would likely have joined Price as a winner but for time lost to injury in the second half of the season. Boston also had plenty of money to lure free agent slugger J.D. Martinez away from Arizona, to pay a promising group of young homegrown talent at various positions, and to meet needs during the season by trading for first baseman Steve Pearce and right-hander Nathan Eovaldi. Pearce was named MVP of the World Series while Eovaldi delivered an ERA of 1.61 over 22 1/3 postseason innings.

Under first year manager Alex Cora the Red Sox spent exactly one day under .500, when they dropped their Opening Day contest against Tampa by a score of 6-4. Boston then reeled off nine straight wins and followed their second loss of the season with an eight game winning streak to start the campaign at 17-2. It was still April but the Red Sox already led the Yankees by 7 ½ games, with the Toronto Blue Jays between them, four games adrift of the division leaders. The fast start was important, for while the Jays faded to finish well below .500, Boston and New York essentially played to a draw from that early point on, with the final standings showing the Red Sox eight games in front of the second place Yankees.

The Sox kept right on rolling through the postseason, dropping just a single contest in each of the three playoff rounds, finally capping their run with a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series last Sunday night. Boston’s 108 regular season wins and 119 total victories both set franchise records. One year after finishing last in the American League in home runs, the Red Sox became an offensive juggernaut, leading the majors in batting average, OPS, extra-base hits, and total bases. If the team’s pitching wasn’t quite as dominant it was certainly more than good enough. Boston’s moundsmen finished third in the AL in both ERA and strikeouts. And just to complete the picture, defensively the Red Sox tied for second in the league in fielding percentage.

Despite all those gaudy numbers, Boston was constantly criticized and second-guessed. In the brief interval between the ALCS and the Series, David Waldstein penned an article in the New York Times chronicling the litany of complaints – “Their record was inflated with easy wins over inferior teams, critics charged. The bullpen middle relief is terrible, others complained. The starting pitching is suspect, and the ace of the staff is hiding a shoulder injury. There is no solid third baseman, second base is a hole, and the closer can’t throw a strike that isn’t hit into the stands or close to it.”

What Waldstein’s piece didn’t mention was the stunning extent to which the carping originated within driving distance of Fenway Park. An otherwise uninformed tourist stuck in traffic on Route 128 and listening to one of Boston’s sports talk radio stations during the season would have been excused for assuming that the local team was plunging toward the AL East cellar rather than ascending to unheard of heights. Caller after caller cast doubt on the team’s performance and predicted its demise, as if everything that was happening on the field night after night was but an illusion, perhaps some trick of the lighting thrown off by the giant Citgo sign beyond the Green Monster. Worse than the know-nothing opinions of the callers was the failure of most of the supposedly expert radio hosts to object to the dismal assessments. Fans may not have minded John Henry opening his checkbook, but throughout the summer they harbored plenty of doubts that the dollars had been well spent.  All the more remarkable is that many of these same callers, when speaking about the Patriots, display a confidence that often crosses over into arrogance.

When the season’s result proved both their fears groundless and their team’s dominance no chimera, the reactions of many fans was even more off kilter. After the final out was recorded at Dodger Stadium Sunday night, the initial cheers from the Boston fans in the crowd soon gave way to a familiar taunt, “Yankee suck! Yankees suck!” Three days later the cry again sounded at various points along the parade route, and a large banner with the same two words hung from a building.

Rivalries are an important element of every sport, and few are as enduring as the one between the denizens of Fenway and the team that calls the Stadium home. But the Yankees were of course nowhere near Chavez Ravine during the World Series, nor for that matter Minute Maid Park in Houston during the ALCS. If fans really considered outlasting New York the crowning achievement of Boston’s season, perhaps Wednesday’s parade should have been held three weeks ago (without the Commissioner’s Trophy, of course), right after the American League Division Series.

That is presumably not really the case for Red Sox fans, who this week are rightfully reveling in their team’s championship. But both the widespread doubts of so many of them throughout the campaign, and the immediate focus on their Gotham rival after the title was secured, speak volumes about the psyche of generations of the Boston faithful. For while this is the team’s fourth title in fifteen years, it is also the fourth in one hundred, and therein lies a history that is apparently still not easy to escape.

In the eighty-six year stretch between Boston’s fifth World Series championship in 1918 and its sixth in 2004, the Red Sox made just four trips to the Fall Classic. Each ended in heartbreak. In 1946 Boston squandered a three games to two lead against St. Louis. Twenty-one years later, again versus the Cardinals, the Red Sox rallied from down three games to one to tie the Series, only to badly lose Game 7 at home by a final of 7-2. In 1975 they beat the heavily favored Big Red Machine in a taut 12-inning Game 6, only to again go down to defeat at home in the decisive contest. And in 1986 the Red Sox traveled to Shea Stadium needing just one win in the Series final two contests to defeat the Mets. Then in Game 6 Boston needed just one more out in the 10th inning, then just one more strike, before it all came undone.

Over that same march of seasons, the Yankees represented the American League in the Series thirty-nine times, winning a total of twenty-six titles. For many if not most of those seasons the rivalry between the two clubs was in name only, though there was Bucky F’n Dent in the one game playoff in 1978, and Aaron F’n Boone in Game 7 of the ALCS in 2003. So when at last the Red Sox pulled off the impossible, rallying from three games down to vanquish New York in the 2004 ALCS, there was catharsis. But not, it turns out, a turning of the page.

As if stuck forever in the long years of despair, some Sox fans still habitually see the glass as half empty, even in the very best of years. And no matter what team Boston beats, there will always be an element of the fan base that responds like angst-ridden younger siblings, forever measuring achievements not by their own merit, but by how they compare to those of the more accomplished big brother. Congratulations on a tremendous season to the Red Sox and their fans. Even the ones incapable of fully appreciating the moment.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 28, 2018

Book Review: Nine Innings In The Postmodern Era

As this is written, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are getting ready to play Game 5 of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium. With Boston holding a three games to one advantage, the final out of the longest season may be just a few hours away, perhaps already recorded by the time many readers turn their attention to this post. If not, then the moment will come in Fenway Park on Tuesday or Wednesday.

With the first days of Spring Training in Florida and Arizona a distant memory, the curtain is coming down on another season of the Great Game. Or Baseball, as Rob Neyer prefers in his new book “Power Ball,” which On Sports and Life highly recommends. Not baseball, with a small “b,” but Baseball. Neyer’s capitalization, like the two-word term used in this space, distinguishes the game at its highest professional level from the underlying sport. The latter finds its origins not with Abner Doubleday but with eighteenth century stick and ball games played in England. In its evolved form baseball is played around the globe, from sandlots to side streets to schools and colleges and in countless minor league parks and numerous professional leagues on other continents.

The Great Game, Neyer’s Baseball, is the epitome of the sport, thirty Major League Baseball franchises playing a 162-game schedule leading to a multi-round tournament that culminates with the World Series. The current state of that level of the game is the subject of considerable debate. While Neyer’s book won’t end the discussion (sports fans love nothing more than a good argument), it makes a worthy contribution to it, with the added benefit of being a compelling read.

Neyer began his career working with Bill James and then STATS, LLC, before writing for ESPN, SB Nation, and later Fox Sports. Earlier this year he became commissioner of the West Coast League, the premier west coast summer college league. Given his start, it’s no surprise that he’s committed to the use of advanced analytics, even while understanding the significant changes brought on by increased reliance on sabermetrics. For Neyer the most dramatic change, as his title suggests, is the heightened importance of power; not just in the form of increased slugging, but also power on the mound with pitchers throwing ever harder, and power in the front office with general managers sifting through more data while making personnel decisions.

The book’s subtitle is “Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game,” and Neyer builds his analysis around a detailed description of a late season contest in September 2017 between the visiting Houston Astros, well on their way to the playoffs, and the home Oakland Athletics, stuck in last place in the AL West. Some fans may recognize the construct, famously used by Arnold Hano with “A Day in the Bleachers” more than six decades ago, and by Dan Okrent in “Nine Innings” in 1985. Neyer pays homage to both Hano and Okrent, as well as to Michael Lewis, whose seminal “Moneyball” introduced most fans to the concept and growing use of advanced analytics and set the stage for an entire new lexicon of statistics that have rendered familiar numbers like batting average, ERA, and a pitcher’s win-loss record increasingly obsolete. He suggests that if “Moneyball” described what was then the modern game, the current reliance on reams of data has taken the Great Game into its postmodern era, one made possible not just by stat nerds capable of making sense of the new numbers, but also by enhanced technology able to capture the data in real-time.

At the same time, and this is a welcome development coming from a committed sabermetrician, Neyer is dismissive of the growing use of statistics without context. He reports not just on the game between the Astros and A’s, but also on the television coverage by the two team’s media outlets. Both sets of announcers’ report on the launch angle and exit velocity of every well-struck ball, and Neyer rightly questions the value of such information for the average fan. What does an angle of 23.6 degrees, or a velocity of 98.7 miles per hour mean, and if the numbers can’t be given useful meaning, why bother mentioning them?

Neyer uses the unfolding game to highlight the major features of the postmodern game, from defensive shifts to uppercut swings to pitch counts and specialized relievers. But he also goes beyond the importance of analytics to discuss other ways in which Baseball is, and sometimes isn’t changing. In the latter category he notes the absence of even a single openly gay player, the halting and inadequate efforts by MLB to grow the game in the inner city, and the yawning pay gap. No, his concern on that last point isn’t about the difference between the $35 million Clayton Kershaw made this season compared to the league minimum of $545,000 paid to the Yankees’ breakout rookie Gleyber Torres, but rather the gap between Torres’s paychecks and those of most minor leaguers.

He also notes the concern of many fans and pundits over the decline in on-field action, as postmodern Baseball increasingly becomes a game of Two True Outcomes – home runs and strikeouts – neither of which results in a batted ball in play. Here Neyer has a warning for his fellow writers, suggesting that too many members of the baseball media see the game as a two-sided coin, with players on one side and owners on the other. But “they forget,” Neyer writes, “about the millions of fans who pay for all these nice things.” Attendance fell about four percent this year from 2017 and is down more than ten percent over the last decade. Those are the numbers that Neyer believes will ultimately get the attention of the Great Game’s decision-makers. When that happens, he lists several possible changes they might consider, from changes in the strike zone to smaller gloves for fielders to calling balls and strikes by technology rather than a fallible human eye.

At heart Neyer remains a fan of Baseball, and thus is confident that the Great Game will survive, as it has through myriad other challenges over its long history. That confidence is grounded in the simple truth that no amount of analytics can ever negate the randomness of a single at-bat. Like in the bottom of the 9th of a meaningless September 2017 game between a team that would shortly be crowned champion, and one mired in the cellar of its division. That was when Astros closer Ken Giles was called upon to preserve an 8-7 lead. While on the mound Giles threw four pitches at 99 MPH, and one at 100, the five fastest pitches in the entire game. Oakland batters recorded three hits in the inning, none of which were among the twenty hardest-hit balls of the contest. Home run by an unheralded rookie to tie the score. Single to right. Walk. RBI single to left center, and a walk-off win for the underdog A’s. That randomness is, and always will be, Baseball.

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