Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 16, 2020

Blame The Cheaters, Not The Whistleblower

Thank you, Mike Fiers. The 34-year-old right-hander should hear that everywhere he goes with the Oakland Athletics this season, from fans and fellow players alike. Of course in sports, as in life, human emotions are complex, and visceral reactions to events are seldom neat and tidy. So while there will surely be fans who greet Fiers warmly and players who go out of their way to wish him well, there will also be occasions when he’ll hear catcalls as he takes the mound, or finds others wearing a major league uniform going out of their way to avoid him. For it was Fiers, a member of the Houston Astros pitching staff from the trading deadline in 2015 through the end of that franchise’s championship season in 2017, whose on the record interview with The Athletic last November broke the news of the Astros using live video feeds to steal opposing teams’ signs in violation of Major League Baseball’s rules.

That initial story, by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drelich, led to an investigation by MLB that this week resulted in some of the stiffest penalties every meted out for cheating. Commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Astros $5 million, comparative pocket change for a major league franchise but the maximum amount Manfred is allowed to assess. Far more serious than the fine was docking Houston its first and second round picks in each of the next two drafts, and suspending GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch through the end of the upcoming season. Within an hour of the release of Manfred’s report on Monday, both were fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.

The fallout from the nuclear bomb that Fiers dropped on the Great Game didn’t end there. The commissioner’s nine-page report specifically mentioned the involvement of Houston’s bench coach Alex Cora and designated hitter Carlos Beltran, the only Astros player named by Manfred. Cora, the Red Sox manager since 2018, and Beltran, named manager of the Mets last fall just days before publication of The Athletic’s article, both soon “parted ways” with their current employers, as the overused euphemism for executive beheadings so delicately puts it.

Beltran’s firing on Thursday was probably the last termination directly related to the Houston scandal. But MLB is still investigating a separate charge against the Red Sox for similar activity the year Cora arrived, and there are plenty of pundits who argue that with the placement of video feeds close to all major league dugouts to facilitate replay challenges, not to mention the ubiquity of smart phones and watches, the temptation to use technology to cheat has likely led many clubs to cross the line. If the claims against Boston are substantiated that franchise can expect to pay a similarly heavy price, and if the media speculation is borne out, still more clubs may be subject to Manfred’s discipline. Still, the assumption of widespread technology-assisted cheating is reminiscent of some of the more extreme assertions about the extent of steroid use fifteen years ago, and one of the obvious intents of the penalties doled out by Manfred on Monday was to shut down such other schemes as might exist.

Which brings us back to the journeyman pitcher who was willing to put his name to the charges he made to Rosenthal and Drelich, something three other anonymous sources referenced in their article would not do. Fiers is not a blameless hero, since whatever his personal objections at the time he did nothing in 2017 to stop the madness in the Houston dugout. He says that he did tell his new teammates in Detroit after signing with the Tigers the following year, and again when he was traded to Oakland in the middle of the 2018 season. But Fiers was two years removed from the video feed and the coded trashcan banging at Minute Maid Park before he went public.

Yet that he did so even then is remarkable. The reaction of ESPN baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza demonstrates why. Interviewed on an ESPN Radio talk show, Mendoza said, “I get it if you’re with the Oakland A’s and you’re on another team I mean heck yeah, you better be telling your teammates look, hey, heads up if you hear some noises when you’re pitching, this is what’s going on for sure. But to go public, yeah, it didn’t set well with me. Honestly it made me sad for the sport that that’s how this all got found out. This wasn’t something that MLB naturally investigated or that even other teams complained about because they naturally heard about it and then investigations happened. It came from within, it was a player that was a part of it, that benefitted from it during the regular season when he was a part of that team. That, when I first heard about it, it hits you like any teammate would right it’s something that you don’t do. I totally get telling your future teammates, helping them win, letting people know. But to go public with it and call them out and start all of this, it’s hard to swallow.”

Mendoza is a gifted analyst, but she has also put her journalistic integrity at risk by moonlighting as a paid consultant to the Mets. Whether she was speaking in that latter role during the interview, which took place before Beltran was fired, or truly believes every word she uttered, the attitude she endorsed is sadly common in team sports. The notion that players should put loyalty to their team above all else is why Fiers, while deserving of applause, will instead meet with opprobrium from some. But it is also absurd.

It seems reasonably safe to posit that Mendoza would not endorse a player going along with a plot to murder an umpire simply because his teammates decided it was a good idea. The real question is under what circumstances does one’s loyalty to the team yield to one’s moral code. By that standard, even if done belatedly, publicly calling out organized cheating doesn’t seem like a particularly tough call.

Across nine seasons with four different teams, Mike Fiers has compiled an unremarkable record of 69-59 with a career ERA just a tick above 4.00, while also throwing a pair of no-hitters. For the good of the Great Game even those two dates with unexpected glory weren’t nearly as important as what Fiers did by saying to The Athletic that what happened in Houston was “not playing the game the right way.” That, after all, is the fundamental compact with fans – that the game will be played the right way. Those who would do otherwise deserve to be fired, and Mike Fiers deserves our thanks.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 12, 2020

Pete Dye’s Perfect Legacy

When seeing it in person as a spectator for the first time, the initial thought to pass through one’s mind is some variation of “what’s the big deal?” It is beautiful of course, both visually striking and architecturally sublime. While it has since been frequently copied on courses all around the globe, at the time of its creation the design was also highly innovative. Still, at a fundamental level the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass is a very simple golf hole.

Stretched to its maximum length the hole is the shortest par-3 is course at just 137 yards long, a distance that requires no more than a pitching wedge for any member of the PGA Tour. The tee shot is played to a very large green of more than 6,000 square feet. There is just one tiny pot bunker guarding the right front of the putting surface. Put any touring pro on the practice range with a large bucket of balls and ask him to hit wedges at a target that far away, and the result will be blanket of white Titleists surrounding the flag. For most of golfing’s elite landing a shot of that distance more than ten or twelve feet from the planned target constitutes a bad miss.

But as even casual golf fans know, one other factor comes into play on the 17th at Ponte Vedra. That large inviting green is bordered by a latticework of railroad ties, because it is surrounded by water. By the simple but inspired decision to build an island green, course architect Pete Dye turned what could have been a forgettable waypoint on the way to TPC Sawgrass’s home hole into an iconic symbol of golf at its most devilish. Because it is fundamentally simple, the 17th usually ranks near the top of the list of the course’s eighteen holes for birdies scored by the pros during each year’s Players Championship. But because the water is impossible to ignore, it also always ranks at or near the top for double-bogeys and, even worse, the dreaded “other,” meaning a score so ugly that self-respecting professionals dare not whisper its name.

In Friday’s second round at last year’s Players, Tiger Woods, just a few weeks shy of his remarkable triumph at the Masters, strode from the 16th green to the 17th tee to the buzz of fans awaiting a brilliant shot worthy of their hero. That expectant hum turned first to groans as Woods watched his tee shot hit on the back half of the green and bounce once before disappearing over the edge and into the water. The general lament then gave way to stunned silence as the greatest player of his age, after walking forward to the drop zone and facing a shot of less than 100 yards, drowned a second ball, giving Woods claim to two of the more than one hundred thousand balls that are annually dredged up from the murky depths surrounding the 17th. Woods eventually made his way to the 18th tee after recording a quadruple-bogey 7, or as they say in polite company, an “other.”

The simple 17th could humble even Tiger Woods because of all the golf holes on the planet there may be no better reminder of Bobby Jones’s admonition that “golf is played on a 5-inch course – the space between your ears.” The knowledge that the penalty for an error is so extreme turns that routine practice range shot into a harrowing ordeal for even the best players. Defending Players champion Rory McIlroy readily admits that he tries to not even glance at the water but instead always looks straight ahead or at the crowd to his left while making the walk from the 16th green, a walk that McIlroy describes as being “way too long.”

The hole is Pete Dye’s most famous, and both because of it and the presence of the Players Championship for more than three decades TPC Sawgrass is probably his best known course. But Dye, who passed away on January 9th at the age of 94, eleven months after the death of his wife and longtime design collaborator Alice, was a prolific course architect whose impact on course design extended far beyond his personal portfolio. In addition to the annual return of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, Dye’s courses have hosted five PGA Championships, twenty-four of the various national championships sponsored by the USGA, a Ryder Cup, a Solheim Cup, and innumerable weekly stops on both the LPGA and PGA Tours.

From the start of his career Dye refused to be content with turning out one similar layout after another, unlike so many of his busy peers. He almost never worked from a set of finished plans, preferring instead to follow his instincts and his eye, meaning that he was on site, and frequently atop a bulldozer, throughout the construction phase of most of his projects. That personal touch and individual approach led fellow course architect Arthur Hills to liken Dye to “Picasso, somebody that created a nontraditional design.”

His design philosophy came to be called target golf, in which the preferred routing of each hole is apparent to the player, with penal results for straying too far off-line. But Dye also knew that a gambler lives in the heart of every golfer, from the weekend hacker to Phil Mickelson. His most memorable holes often provide a second option that entices the player with a shot that has the potential for great reward at the expense of high risk. His cleverness also meant Dye courses could continue to feature challenging short and medium length par-4s even as most architects were stretching their courses to greater and greater lengths in response to improved club and ball technology. Hilton Head’s Harbour Town Golf Links, which continues to challenge the pros at the RBC Heritage every spring, is but one example.

The Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee said that Dye got “in your head” and that his designs “brought out the best and worst in golfers.” That is a fair assessment of this seminal figure in modern course design, whose legacy will live for generations in courses across the country and around the globe. It is also a reminder of why a simple short hole, the penultimate one on the routing of TPC Sawgrass, is the perfect expression of Pete Dye’s work.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 9, 2020

The Turning Of A Page

Perhaps it was just one game. That’s certainly how most hockey fans would see it, just another midweek contest, one matchup out of the 1,271 that comprise the NHL’s regular season. For the visiting Colorado Avalanche and home team New York Rangers, one Tuesday evening tilt in the course of a calendar that stretches over 82 games from early October to late spring. For Avalanche players it came at the end of a few days sampling Gotham’s many diversions. The game at Madison Square Garden was the last of matches against all three New York area teams over four days. Colorado faced the Devils on Saturday, across the broad expanse of the Hudson, followed by the Islanders out in Nassau on Monday before skating against the Blueshirts one night later. For the Rangers it was a welcome return home after a western road trip that began the weekend after Christmas, a journey that started well enough with a win in Toronto, but then turned sour with three straight losses in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. In the end the evening may mean nothing more than a single mark on the record of both franchises, no more or less important than any other game.

Yet there was an unmistakable sense among the 17,082 who crammed into the arena above Penn Station that this game was of greater import, that it marked the turning of a page in the long, sometimes joyful, often frustrating, story of the New York Rangers. Any doubt that the team’s fans were of one mind was drowned out by the cheers that swept the Garden when the home team took to the ice for pregame warmups. Leading the Rangers out of the locker room was Igor Shesterkin, the 24-year-old rookie goaltender who had been called up from New York’s AHL affiliate in Hartford one day earlier.

The big crowd that greeted Shesterkin so warmly, as in keeping with tradition for players making their NHL debut he skated a solo lap around the Garden ice before being joined by his teammates, knew that the young netminder in white pads with a red “31” on the back of his blue sweater had been drafted by the Rangers in 2014 while still a teenager playing in the Russian junior leagues. He remained half a world away from the bright lights of Gotham until this year, honing his craft in both the junior MHL and more recently in the KHL, Russia’s top professional league.

Last May he finally inked a two-year contract with New York, beginning the season with the Wolf Pack in Hartford. There he posted a 15-4-3 record and a 1.93 goals against average. Those numbers plus his three shutouts made Shesterkin an easy pick to compete in the AHL’s upcoming All-Star Game. But the Rangers clearly had bigger plans for him, and Shesterkin made the short trip from central Connecticut for practice on Monday before his NHL debut on home ice Tuesday evening.

He readily admitted to rookie nerves, telling the media after the game that he had been shaking as he made his way to Madison Square Garden that afternoon. Those nerves were on full display in the early going, as Colorado’s J.T. Compher beat the rookie on the Avalanche’s very first shot on goal, a little under five minutes into the contest. Just two minutes later Nathan MacKinnon made it 2-0 Av’s on a breakaway.

Hopefully someone had warned Shesterkin about the shoddy defense of the rebuilding Rangers. Whether he had received such notice or not, the young goalie showed remarkable resolve from that point on. What could easily have turned into a disaster, a “five goals on seven shots before being pulled” kind of night, instead became a display of the talent that has made Shesterkin a beacon of hope for fans of the franchise. As his teammates rallied at the other end of the ice, eventually pulling even and finally ahead, the new goalie began turning aside Colorado’s advances. He made thirteen saves in the third period alone, including a couple from point blank range, and a late empty net goal gave the Rangers a final victory margin of 5-3. The performance was more than enough to get the crowd chanting “Igor! Igor!” in the game’s later stages.

That vocal support was heavy with symbolism, because for a decade and a half the chant ringing down onto the Garden ice has been “Henrik! Henrik!” for Henrik Lundqvist, the five-time NHL All-Star and nine-time team MVP, who has the most wins and shutouts by any netminder in the nearly century-long history of the Rangers. Lundqvist is the only goalie in league history to win thirty or more games in each of his first seven seasons and reached 400 wins faster than any other NHL goaltender. He’s won the Vezina Trophy, the league’s award for netminding excellence, but what he hasn’t done is lead his team to a Stanley Cup. For that Rangers fans must still look all the way back to 1994.

In fairness to Lundqvist, whose supporting cast has often been lacking, the long championship drought on the Madison Square Garden ice only proves that even one of the best goalies in the league can’t single-handedly deliver a Cup. But Lundqvist will turn 38 before this season ends, and with New York in the middle of a rebuild there is little doubt that the team is looking to the future. With Shesterkin’s arrival, the shadows on Henrik Lundqvist’s career have grown long.

That is why for many Tuesday night’s game seemed to carry special significance. Only in hindsight will fans be able to confirm that feeling. For all his promise Igor Shesterkin might not measure up to the high standards of the world’s premier hockey league, or he might be perfectly capable in some other setting but wilt under the harsh glare of Gotham’s bright media lights. For now, the only certainty is that when the Rangers next took to the ice on Thursday evening, it was once again the rookie in the net, and the veteran on the bench. So perhaps Tuesday’s contest was just another game. Then again, it seems far more likely to have been the latest reminder that in the zero-sum world of our sports, just as every contest has both a winner and a loser, so every game that heralds a promising career’s beginning also marks, for some other player, the beginning of the end.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 5, 2020

The Making Of A Legend, On An October Afternoon

What turns an athlete into a legend? What are the elements that will elevate a player beyond the exalted role of hero to a higher plane, one to which many aspire but precious few achieve? The obvious answer is a career filled with greatness, a highlight reel spanning many seasons of outstanding achievement that fans recall with an excited “I was there for that!” or “I was watching on TV when that happened!”

In the Bronx, on a team that is seldom short of heroes, that is the surest path to the pantheon of legends. It is the road followed by Derek Jeter, soon to be announced as a first ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame. From the first time he went snared a grounder deep in the hole between short and third and then unleashed a long jump throw to first to beat the batter to the bag, through the flip play to nab Jeremy Giambi at home in the 2001 playoffs, to diving into the stands to make a catch in foul ground, and on and on. His feats in the field were more than matched by big moments at the plate, from the leadoff home run to begin Game 4 of the 2000 World Series at Shea Stadium, to the homer into the left field bleachers at the new Stadium for hit number 3,000, to the walkoff single to right that won Jeter’s final home game.

His longtime teammate Mariano Rivera, the first player ever to be unanimously voted into the Hall, took a similar trail. Through a record 652 regular season saves, plus 42 more in the postseason, in game after game Rivera compiled a record of greatness that led Yankee fans to rise as one in salute every time the bullpen door swung open and the slight figure in pinstripes stepped onto the warning track. For the Yankees, with their overstuffed Monument Park beyond the center field wall and plethora of retired numbers, Jeter and Rivera are but the most recent names on a list that begins with the Babe, who wrenched the Great Game out of the 19th century and remade it in his own image over the course of a career that like the man remains larger than life all these decades later.

But there is another path to legendary status, a road traveled far less often. It involves not a career but a single moment so scintillating, so memorable, that time cannot dim the luster of a player’s accomplishment. That might seem easier than the daily grind of building a long career but considering how enormous the achievement must be in order to gain such status, it’s little wonder that few athletes become legends on the strength of a single event.

Yet that is exactly what happened to the tall right-hander who took the mound for the Yankees on the afternoon of October 8, 1956. It was Game 5 of the World Series, the seventh Subway Series pitting the Bronx Bombers against either the Giants or Dodgers in ten years. One season earlier the Brooklyn nine had finally ended years of torment by beating the Yankees in seven games. The ’56 Series was knotted at two wins apiece, a largely forgotten fact that may well have contributed to New York manager Casey Stengel choosing the starter he did over Bob Turley or Johnny Kucks. Had it been a must-win contest for the Yankees, Stengel probably would have wanted a more dependable hurler than the pitcher who had lost a game to the Dodgers in the ’55 Series, and who had been wild and ineffective in Game 2, squandering a 6-0 lead with four walks in the 2nd inning of an eventual 13-8 Brooklyn victory. Not to mention that just two years earlier, while wearing an Orioles uniform, he had led the league in losses, posting an unsightly record of 3-21.

There was, in short, nothing in Don Larsen’s career to that point that hinted at what was about to happen. Nor would there be anything close to a reprise over the next decade, as Larsen drifted to six other teams, never again winning as many games as the eleven victories he had notched for New York that season. No one in the packed house of 64,519 at the old Stadium came expecting to see pitching history made, and when Larsen set the Dodgers down in order in the 1st, using fifteen pitches to strike out Jim Gillian and Pee Wee Reese before getting Duke Snider to hit a soft liner to right, most were just relieved that the Yankee starter wasn’t as wild as he’d been three days earlier. What those fans could not even imagine at that hour was that the full count that preceded Reese’s strikeout was the only time that day Larsen would go to three balls on a batter.

Jackie Robinson hit a sharp liner to third to open the 2nd inning, and when the ball caromed off Andy Carey’s glove it looked like Brooklyn had its first hit. But the horsehide went right to shortstop Gil McDougald, who scooped it up and fired to first, beating Robinson by a step. Three frames later, Gil Hodges sent a fly deep into the gap in left-center, at a time when “deep” had real meaning at Yankee Stadium. But after a long run Mickey Mantle chased the ball down for second out of that inning. By that time Mantle had also staked Larsen to a lead, with a home run that hugged the right field foul line off Sal Maglie in the home half of the 4th. In the 6th Hank Bauer doubled New York’s lead, plating Carey from second base with a one-out single.

By that time fans were starting to realize the possibility of something extraordinary happening in front of them, and over the final three innings the excitement and the anxiety grew in tandem. Larsen needed only eight pitches to set the Dodgers down in order in the 7th, and ten more to retire Robinson, Hodges, and Sandy Amoros in the 8th.

Carl Furillo led off the 9th with a flyout to right, and the noise in the stands began to build. Roy Campanella was next, and he sent Larsen’s second pitch on the ground to the right side of the infield, where Billy Martin had an easy play for the second out. Now it was truly standing room only, from the box seats to the bleachers, as fans strained to see a moment that had never come before. Brooklyn manager Walter Alston sent Dale Mitchell up to bat for Maglie, and the late season acquisition, a career .312 hitter, fell behind 1-2. Larsen’s 97th pitch of the afternoon was a fastball, and Mitchell tried to check his swing. But umpire Babe Pinelli raised his right arm high, and Larsen had thrown a perfect game.

The list of numbers retired by the Yankees does not include Larsen’s 18, which most recently was worn by shortstop Didi Gregorius. There is no plaque commemorating that October day in Monument Park, and Larsen never came remotely close to joining the Great Game’s immortals in the Hall of Fame. But long after many of those players are forgotten, Larsen, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of 90, will be remembered, and deservedly so. For on one October afternoon, he earned his place in the history of the Great Game by doing what no pitcher had done in a World Series before, and none have done since. Just after 3:00 p.m., when Yogi jumped into his arms as the fans roared, Don Larsen became a legend.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 2, 2020

The Deal Of The Century Is A Century Old

If in all of sports there ever was a gift that kept on giving, surely it was the one that Red Sox Nation bestowed upon the Evil Empire in the final days of 1919, long before fans of either the Sox or Yankees or the franchises to which they are devoted had acquired those modern day nicknames. One hundred years later, on the centenary of the late December deal which shaped the character and fate of both teams for generations, fans in the Bronx still relish while those in Kenmore Square still rue the day that Babe Ruth became a Yankee.

In that distant year it was the Boston club that possessed the better pedigree. The Red Sox had won the World Series five times and might well have claimed a sixth but for the refusal of the New York Giants to recognize the champion of the upstart American League as worthy of a season-ending title series in 1904. Boston’s most recent championship was but one year old, won in September 1918, four games to two over the Chicago Cubs.

That Series was notable for several reasons, including when it was played. With the United States fully engaged in World War I by 1918, the Great Game’s regular season was cut short by the government’s “Work or Fight” order requiring draft-eligible men to sign up for a war-related job or face conscription. That led to the only edition of the Fall Classic played entirely in September. The same wartime atmosphere caused “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be played during the 7th inning stretch of Game 1, presaging the day when the song would become the national anthem and precede the start of virtually every sporting event in the land. The 1918 Series also weathered rumors of a strike by players, whose pay was threatened by low gate receipts. Finally, while it was impossible to know at the time, that Series was also the last to end with a Red Sox celebration for more than eight decades.

The winning pitcher in two of Boston’s victories was the left-handed stalwart of the Red Sox staff, 23-year-old Babe Ruth. Although he was already moving into more of an everyday role because of his bat, having started half the number of regular season games as in either of the two previous years, Ruth took the mound for Boston in Game 1 and threw a complete game shutout, holding the Cubs to just six hits, all singles. He had to be that sharp because his teammates managed to plate but one run, which came on a 4th inning RBI single by Stuffy McInnis. Four days later at Fenway Park Ruth was almost as good, holding Chicago scoreless for seven frames before finally being touched for two runs in the 8th inning. But that was a strong enough effort to secure a 3-2 Red Sox win that put the home team on the brink of a title they would finally claim two days later.

But as good as Ruth was as a pitcher, not just in that World Series but throughout those early years of his career, he was far more valuable making regular trips to the batter’s box. His eleven home runs tied Ruth for the major league lead that season, but the very next year he began to truly reshape the Great Game when he slugged the ball out of various parks twenty-nine times, setting a new major league home run record. That prodigious feat and his outsize personality brought Ruth to the attention of sports fans throughout the country, and he wasted no time using his increasing fame to pressure Red Sox owner Harry Frazee for a substantial raise over his $10,000 a year salary.

As even casual fans know Frazee had grown tired of Ruth’s demands, and was in not position to meet them had he been willing to do so. Frazee had gone into debt to buy the Red Sox in 1916, and the note was due. In New York, Colonel Jacob Ruppert, owner of the Yankees, needed to make his baseball team profitable since the brewery that was his main business was about go dry with the advent of Prohibition. Yankee manager Miller Huggins told his franchise’s owner that the answer to winning games and filling seats was to bring Ruth to Gotham. So, for the fabled sum of $100,000, Ruppert did.

The rest is history not just of two franchises that proceeded to go in very different directions, but also of the Great Game itself, which Ruth brought out of the dead ball era with each uppercut swing. He obliterated his own home run record during his first season in New York, smacking fifty-four round-trippers, a number that he would eclipse twice more during his career in pinstripes. The team’s first championship came in 1923, the opening season for the franchise’s new stadium in the South Bronx. Long after Ruth’s retirement many, many more would follow, as succeeding generations of New York players picked up the Babe’s mantle. Meanwhile in Boston the long decades in the desert unfolded, a sad tale that not even greats like Ted Williams or Carl Yastrzemski could rewrite.

In recent years of course, with ownership that’s willing to spend whatever it takes to capture a crown, the Red Sox have finally proven that they too can win championships. But the decades of doubt and despair are hard to shake, and every year that Fenway Park goes dark while the Great Game goes on in other ballyards there are fans of a certain age who shrug their shoulders, resigned to failure as if it is their predetermined fate.

Those fans will probably not be surprised to learn that as much as decades of results on the field speak to the lopsided nature of the deal that brought Ruth to the Bronx, the full financial story turns the transaction into a brazen theft. As researched by University of Wisconsin economics professor Michael Haupert and reported by Ruth biographer Jane Leavy, the $100,000 purchase price was paid in four yearly installments, making Ruppert’s cost with interest $108,750. But Frazee needed cash, so at the same time as the Ruth deal the Yankees owner gave him a personal loan of $300,000 at 7 percent, with Fenway Park as collateral. Aside from the ignominy of having the deed to the Red Sox home held hostage in Gotham, after five years Frazee had paid Ruppert $115,000 in interest, meaning the Red Sox owner had effectively paid the Yankees to take Babe Ruth off his hands. Happy 100th anniversary Red Sox fans, and thanks again!

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 26, 2019

A Special Christmas Present In The Bronx

A NOTE TO READERS: This time of year is filled with traditions, and in keeping with a well-established one here at On Sports and Life, today’s post is offered with apologies and a tip of the cap to Clement Clarke Moore, whose 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” lives on nearly two centuries later, known to young and old alike not by its formal title but by its first five words. Also, there will be no post on Sunday due to planned travel. The regular schedule resumes next Thursday. Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when in every room
Yankee fans were discouraged, the feeling was gloom;
A full decade was ending, ten years had gone past,
Since pennants were won at the Stadium last;

‘Neath team logo blankets the children did snore;
While dreaming of Bronx Bombers from days of yore;
Mamma in a Jeter shirt, I in one for Mo,
Were preparing to rest although feeling quite low,

When from off in the stands there arose a great shout,
I hurried out to see what it was all about.
Away to the cheap seats I flew like a flash,
To the third deck I ran all in a mad dash.

The lights shining down on the infield below,
Made it seem like a day game to my eyes you know,
When what did I see in that same location,
But a little red sleigh pulled by the starting rotation,

With a blue-suited driver both lively and quick,
But too tall and beardless, it wasn’t St. Nick.
More rapid than fastballs his pitchers they came,
And he shouted, and whistled, and called each by name:

“Now, Sevy! Now, Paxton! Now Tanaka and Happ!
You four are the core for the new title we map!
To the top of the mound! To the center field wall!
Now strike one! Strike two! Strike them out all!”

As Aaron Judge homers launch into the sky,
Big blasts by the big guy o’er the fence they do fly;
So into the air all those pitchers took flight
With that sleigh and the driver up into the night.

And then from the rooftop I heard the sharp beats
The prancing and pawing of players in cleats.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
Down the chimney Hal Steinbrenner came with a bound!

He was dressed in a suit and his shoes had a shine,
About what you’d expect for he owns the Bronx nine;
A bagful of deals he had flung on his back,
I was hoping the big one was down in that sack.

He gave me a wink and a nod of his head
Which led me to think I had nothing to dread;
So I ventured to speak, and this I did say:
“We need to improve, it’s for titles we pay!”

“Your sled’s pulled by four; a rotation is five,
Who will be our ace? Please don’t give me no jive!
CC has retired, he’ll be in the Hall,
But Strasburg stayed put, who will answer the call?”

“The Nats are the champs, putting Houston to shame,
They will aim to repeat, can we raise our game?”
Hal said “Not to worry, we have a good plan,
I am spending plenty, just like my old man.”

He turned from me then, pulled the prize from his sack,
The best gift of all – the top starter we lack.
“Cole in my stocking! That’s just want I wanted!
The rest of the teams will surely feel haunted!”

Hal rose up the chimney, then whistled his team,
And away they all flew as if on a light beam.
But I heard him exclaim, as they shot to the sky,
“Happy Christmas to all, for Spring Training is nigh!”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 22, 2019

Sunset Time In Foxborough

The New England Patriots have clinched the AFC East division title. As news goes, this is not exactly front-page stuff. When the Pats sewed up the division and improved their record to 12-3 by beating the Buffalo Bills 24-17 Saturday evening, it was the eleventh consecutive divisional championship and seventeenth in nineteen seasons for the tandem of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. Of course football fans know and either revel in (around New England) or despise (pretty much everywhere else) that the consistent excellence in Foxborough has also produced nine trips to the Super Bowl and six banners hanging at the west end of Gillette Stadium in that same time period. For the Patriots an AFC East championship isn’t an achievement, it’s a baseline.

All of which means one more division title would not be expected to cause raucous celebrations in either downtown Boston by exultant fans or the Patriots locker room by exuberant players. Yet while no such public displays were reported, this championship did result in a decidedly unfamiliar emotion bubbling up in the hearts of New England fans. What was widely felt throughout the region on Saturday when the last-ditch toss into the end zone by Bills quarterback Josh Allen was batted down by the New England secondary was relief.

That the Patriots are tied with the NFC’s 49ers and Saints for the league’s second best record, only one game worse than the AFC-leading Ravens, seems surreal to those who follow the team closely, for there is very little about this version of the team that would lead one to forecast it could negotiate a sixteen game schedule with only three defeats. But if the Pats turn aside the hapless Dolphins next weekend that is exactly what this middling and banged-up roster will have done.

New England has had the benefit of an extremely favorable schedule, as this year’s opponents have included teams from both the NFC East and AFC North. If the NFL were like European soccer leagues in which the worst teams are literally tossed out at the end of the season, banished to a lesser association and replaced by eager teams on the rise, fans might well be talking about the impending first ever relegation of an entire division – that’s how bad the once mighty NFC East has become. As this is written the Cowboys and Eagles are battling, to use the term loosely, to become the sole franchise in the division with a winning record. Though with a week still to go, there’s no guarantee that any of the NFC East’s clubs will finish above water. Were it not for Baltimore, the AFC North would be only marginally better, since that division counts among its members both the one-win Bengals and the NFL’s longest running soap opera in Cleveland.

Against soft opposition like that plus the dregs of its own division, New England ran off eight straight wins to start the season behind a defense that looked impenetrable. In that first half of the schedule the Patriots pitched two shutouts and allowed just barely more than one touchdown’s worth of points per game.

With that kind of play when the other team’s quarterback was on the field, the Patriots didn’t need much from Brady and the offense. Which was a very good thing, because it’s been clear from the start of the season that neither the superstar quarterback nor his supporting cast have very much to give. In fairness to Brady, retired tight end Rob Gronkowski is sorely missed, and the offensive unit has had more than its share of injuries. For most of the season the only reliable target for Tom Terrific has been Super Bowl LIII MVP Julian Edelman, though it’s not as if that has been unknown to opposing defensive coordinators, making it all that more difficult for the two to connect.

But even with allowances for a substandard roster the proverbial elephant in the room for Patriots fans all season long has been the diminished play of their beloved quarterback, who while not terrible has been anything but terrific. Over the last five years Brady’s quarterback rating has averaged 102.5, a number that would be good for a top ten ranking in almost any season. This year it’s sunk to 88.0, which has him in the bottom half of NFL starters. For years Brady has somehow seemed to defy time, the ultimate enemy of every athlete. But now the oft-stated plan of the 42-year-old, who is already the oldest non-kicker in the NFL, to continue to play until he’s 45, seems like either a delusion or a promise of scenes too painful to watch over the next few seasons.

That assortment of weaknesses, obscured for a time by the soft schedule, became plain in Week 9, when the Patriots were steamrolled by the Ravens and their dynamic young signal-caller Lamar Jackson. Baltimore ran up 37 points on the New England defense, which also yielded four touchdowns to Houston and 23 points to Kansas City in Weeks 13 and 14. Those three teams were the toughest opponents on New England’s dance card this season, and the results do not bode well for the Patriots’ chances in the playoffs.

Still there are many voices in the national media who continue to expect the team to rise to a different level once postseason play begins. Perhaps that is exactly what will happen, and Brady and company will make yet another trip to the season’s final game, to be played this time at the home of the Miami Dolphins, meaning that Hard Rock Stadium will at least host one game this season between two real football teams. But in New England fans are less sanguine. Here the largely unspoken but undeniable sense is that in Foxborough, the reign of the quarterback wearing number 12 may finally be nearing its end.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 19, 2019

Far From Broadway, A Revival Closes Early

It’s a story Broadway patrons will recognize. Whether local or from out of town, the throngs who wander the Great White Way after lining up at the TKTS booths in Time Square or Lincoln Center or the Seaport to snag discounted seats for that day’s performances know that with firm directing and a strong cast, a revival can be a show well worth seeing. Even though they may be intimately familiar with the play’s story or the musical’s songs, the right actors and good choreography will make the old production seem entirely new. There are even Tony awards given annually for the best dramatic and musical revivals, honors most recently won by the 50th anniversary return of “The Boys in the Band,” one of the first plays to put gay life in its appropriate place in the mainstream, and an innovative take on that venerable favorite of high school drama clubs, “Oklahoma.”

But those theater fans would be quick to point out that not every revival is a guaranteed box office hit. Rave reviews and smashing success in one era do not ensure a similar result at a later time. Familiarity carries the heavy burden of expectation, and if the results are in any way less than anticipated, the rebooted production can seem like nothing more than an outdated and shopworn staging, one that audiences will dismiss as a feeble attempt to profit off reflected glory.

Which brings us to this week’s news of the abrupt end to Tom Coughlin’s tenure as executive vice president of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Hoping to improve the sagging fortunes of his franchise, Jags owner Shad Khan hired Coughlin in 2017 on the strength of his earlier performance as a head coach in both Jacksonville and the Meadowlands. Coughlin was the first coach for the expansion franchise Jags, leading the team for eight seasons starting in 1995, after which he spent a dozen years on the sidelines as head coach of the New York Giants.

Through those two decades of NFL generalship, Coughlin built an imposing record of success. In just the second year of the Jaguars existence he led the team to a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, and once there guided the franchise all the way to the AFC Championship Game before Jacksonville’s season finally ended at the hands of the pre-dynasty Patriots. That was the first of four straight winning records and trips to the postseason, a run that was bookended by another appearance in the conference title game. To do so much in such a short period of time with a roster that, like all expansion teams, was initially made up of the rest of the league’s castoffs, cemented Coughlin’s reputation as a successful head coach and earned him enormous goodwill in northeast Florida.

It also made him a popular pick for the Giants coaching job when he was offered that position prior to the 2004 season. Just as he had in Jacksonville, Coughlin quickly made winners out of a team that had regressed since losing Super Bowl XXXV to the Ravens in 2001. He had New York back in the playoffs in his second year, and in his fourth season at the helm, with Eli Manning leading the offense, Coughlin’s Giants ran the postseason table, a run that was capped by David Tyree’s “helmet catch” of a Manning pass that kept the winning fourth quarter drive alive as the Giants shocked the previously unbeaten Patriots and probably ninety percent of fans watching Super Bowl XLII. Four years later Coughlin had New York back in the season’s final game, and once again the Giants brought a bitter end to the season of Belichick, Brady, and fans across New England.

But even the most successful Broadway shows don’t run forever – well, except for “Phantom of the Opera” – and when Coughlin’s second Super Bowl title was followed by four indifferent seasons and zero trips back to the playoffs, the Giants parted company with their coach. By then Coughlin was sixty-nine years old, and no one would have been surprised had he chosen to call it a career. But like many who either play or coach our games, Coughlin couldn’t walk away from the prospect of hearing the cheers of the crowd and seeing a scoreboard showing his team ahead with no time remaining. When Khan offered a renewed run at the very theater where he had first starred, this time as the franchise’s chief of football operations, Coughlin was only too ready to once again take the stage.

For one season at least, the old magic was there, and the crowds loved it. With Coughlin making management decisions, Doug Marrone on the sidelines, and the previously unheralded Blake Bortles at quarterback, the Jaguars posted a 10-6 record and returned to the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Just as the team had twice during Coughlin’s coaching tenure, Jacksonville advanced to the AFC Championship before finally losing, as New England got a bit of revenge on the man who had proven to be such a nemesis while in New York.

That quick success proved illusory, like a spirited opening number before a show goes flat. Coughlin proceeded to make several personnel decisions that would prove disastrous, starting with a $54 million contract extension for Bortles. Coughlin also passed over Deshaun Watson in the NFL Draft, and after jettisoning Bortles gave an even richer deal to quarterback Nick Foles. More critically, Coughlin proved unable to adapt to changing times. Always known as a strict disciplinarian, he was quick to impose fines and other punitive measures on players, at a time when players in all sports are becoming more assertive. Fully one-quarter of all NFL player grievances filed in the last two years came from members of the Jaguars’ roster. Just one day before Khan fired him, a mediator sided with the players union and overturned millions of dollars of fines imposed by Coughlin.

In the end Coughlin’s second act was ended as much because of his style as the Jaguars record of wins and losses. It was a revival that left audiences feeling deflated, glad that they had moved on rather than fondly remembering the good old days. In the wake of his firing Coughlin’s agent released a statement asserting that “there is plenty of football left in Tom Coughlin.” But the guess here is that there won’t be much room for Tom Coughlin in the NFL.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 15, 2019

A Predictable Result At An Unneeded Event

Team USA won the Presidents Cup this weekend. Given the relative talent on the American and International teams, that was the expected result from the four days of matches played at Royal Melbourne Golf Club on Australia’s south coast. But aside from Patrick Reed’s determined efforts to give arrogance physical form, there’s not much else for the golf media to report on in mid-December. So, between the need to fill that void and the added attention that comes with the U.S. squad being captained by Tiger Woods, Team USA’s 16-14 victory over the nominal hosts is being treated, in the golf world at least, as big news.

That the Presidents Cup, be it this edition or virtually all the previous twelve biennial stagings, doesn’t really deserve such treatment is evident for several reasons. First is the very reason for its existence. In the mid-90s there were no golfers clamoring for one more event on an already full schedule. But executives at the PGA Tour looked longingly at the publicity and revenue generated every other year by the Ryder Cup matches between the United States and Europe.

The stateside management of that exhibition is in the hands of the PGA of America, the national organization of teaching professionals which also sponsors the PGA Championship. Those matches had become highly competitive beginning in the 1980s, after the opposition for Team USA was expanded from just golfers representing Great Britain and Ireland to include all of the Continent. With that came a vastly higher public profile to matches that had been going on since 1927, mostly as a rather sedate and gentlemanly contest dominated by the U.S. Increased media attention in turn brought bigger television contracts, more sponsors clamoring for a role in the weekend’s proceedings, and, inevitably, lots and lots of cash. Anxious for a golden goose to call their own, the Tour’s leadership inserted the Presidents Cup into the golfing calendar for the years between Ryder Cup stagings, replacing Team Europe with an International squad that would be open to golfers from all non-European nations. It was, in short, a money grab; why let all those sponsorship and TV dollars sit idle every other year when they could be flowing into the PGA Tour’s bank account in Ponte Vedra?

What the Tour did not consider in its haste to cash in was that Ryder Cup history referenced above. Of the first twenty-five editions of the Ryder Cup, only three ended in defeat for Team USA. The event simply wasn’t competitive, because the depth of talent among American touring pros was far, far greater than among their counterparts from the British Isles. The spike in interest in the matches was directly tied to the decision to include golfers from mainland Europe, which was made at a time when players like Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal were coming into their prime and winning tournaments no matter where they teed it up. They in turn sparked interest in the game for succeeding generations, which has meant a steady flow of top-level Continental talent joining Britons from Tony Jacklin and Nick Faldo to Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, and the irrepressible Ian Poulter. Four of the top ten golfers in this week’s Official World Rankings would be playing for Team Europe if this were a Ryder Cup year.

While there are many more countries that could send participants to the International Team for the Presidents Cup matches, that depth of talent has never existed among players from “the rest of the world.” After a star or two from Australia, and perhaps a familiar face from South Africa and another from Japan, the pedigree of the International squad has always dropped off precipitously. This year was no exception. Team USA sported five members currently ranked in the world’s top ten. That number would have been six, or half the team, but world number one Brooks Koepka pulled out of the matches with an injury.

His replacement was Rickie Fowler, ranked all the way down at number twenty-three. That’s one spot ahead of Matt Kuchar, the lowest ranked American walking Royal Melbourne this weekend. In contrast, only three members of the International Team ranked that high – Adam Scott at number eighteen, and Louis Oosthuizen and Hideki Matsuyama at twenty and twenty-one. Those three were also the only members of the supposed home squad recognizable to casual fans in this country.

Other players on the International Team, which had seven Cup rookies among its twelve members, hailed from locations as diverse as three different Asian countries, Canada, Mexico and Chile. Team golf may be a rare event at the professional level, but when it does occur camaraderie and connection among members of the squad is as vital as in any sport. On top of multiple language barriers and vast distances separating their home countries, players on the International Team at the Presidents Cup have no obvious external connection, like the European Union, to serve as even a starting point for team building. Many members of the supposed home team this weekend doubtless felt very far from home.

What is true today has been the case since the first matches in 1994, with predictable results. The U.S. won the inaugural Cup, held at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club south of Washington, D.C., by the lopsided score of 20-12. Only once in the years since has the International Team managed to post a victory. That was in 1998 at the same site as this weekend’s matches. Most times the outcome has not been close, so much so that this year’s result counts as one of the narrowest victory margins for Team USA.

But the one virtual certainty is that whether by two points or eight, Team USA is going to win. At best the International squad gets points for boldness. Mexico’s Abraham Ancer publicly lobbied to play Woods in the Sunday singles. Woods has eighty-two PGA Tour victories and fifteen major titles. Ancer has zero and zero. Of course, anything can happen in the course of eighteen holes. In golf as in all our sports there is a reason, as someone has been known to say, why they actually play the games. But Sunday on the first tee it was just Ancer and his clubs, not David and his sling. Even if his dream had come true, it was improbable in the extreme that Ancer’s teammates could have duplicated the feat up and down the rest of the singles pairings.

That reality, which shows no sign of changing, coupled with the stories about how his leadership and 3-0-0 performance on the course made this Presidents Cup a perfect bookend to a remarkable comeback year for playing captain Tiger Woods, provide the PGA Tour with a golden opportunity. It won’t happen, but the Tour should end this biennial non-competitive nonsense, and right now it could do so in tribute to Woods, whose leadership will never be equaled. If the Presidents Cup were gone, would anyone even notice?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 12, 2019

The Hall Of Fame Becomes A Better Place

Four years and $73 million for catcher Yasmani Grandal, the biggest free agent deal in Chicago White Sox history. From the Philadelphia Phillies, five years and $118 million for Zack Wheeler, a 29-year-old righthander who lost all of 2015 and 2016 to injury and who has never topped 200 innings of work. Then the record breaker, the Washington Nationals agreeing to seven years and $245 million to retain the services of World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg. On Monday that was the richest deal ever for a pitcher, both in terms of total dollars and average annual value. By Tuesday it was a former record, as after a few seasons of relative frugality the Yankees returned to being the Evil Empire, inking the top free agent of this offseason, righthander Gerrit Cole, to a nine-year contract worth $324 million. Suddenly, the Great Game’s economic balance, tilted so heavily in favor of management for the past few years, appears to be swinging back in the direction of the players.

If that is true – and while the news so far is promising, rendering a final judgment at this point in the offseason is a little like declaring division winners based on the standings on the Fourth of July – then while still grossly overdue, the timing of the vote by the Hall of Fame veterans committee will ultimately be seen as altogether appropriate. For amid these and other announcements of rich free agent contracts came the news that many fans had resigned themselves to never hearing. With exactly the requisite seventy-five percent of the committee’s support, Marvin Miller has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The mission statement of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, to use its full name, sets the institution’s first job as preserving the sport’s history. In addition to preserving a permanent record of baseball’s story through its collections and building appreciation for the Great Game with exhibits and educational programs, the Hall honors individuals who had exceptional careers and non-players with significant achievements off the field. In the long history of the sport, no other individual who never once stood in a batter’s box or stepped onto a pitcher’s mound had an impact on the game like Miller’s.

Fans too young to remember the time can find it hard to grasp the economic realities of the sport in the late winter of 1966 when Miller, then an economist and negotiator for the United Steelworkers union, toured spring training camps seeking to be elected executive director of the Players Association. The players who voted Miller into a position he would hold until 1982 were tied to their clubs by baseball’s reserve clause. Aside from a small handful of stars, they had no ability to negotiate their salaries and their feeble association had no collective bargaining agreement. The major league minimum salary was $6,000, a number that had increased just once in two decades. Arbitration and free agency were, at most, mere concepts in Miller’s mind.

Marvin Miller changed all that, and in retrospect did so with astonishing speed. He won recognition of the MLBPA as a union and secured its first agreement with the owners. That two-year contract increased the minimum salary by more than forty percent, raised players’ expense allowance, and introduced arbitration for certain grievances. Every CBA that followed, and Miller negotiated the first five, expanded the rights of players. After Curt Flood’s lonely effort to fight the reserve clause through the courts, Miller followed the path laid out by the St. Louis Cardinals’ star and won the 1975 Seitz decision that finally eradicated the reserve clause and made free agency permanent. He wasn’t hesitant to use the ultimate union cudgel of job actions, which brought him plenty of public opprobrium but ultimately won further concessions from management. In time the economic rebalancing between players and owners that Miller was shaping in baseball spread to our other major sports.

Coverage of the contract announcements from the Owners’ Meetings in San Diego this week focused on the numbers – the millions in total value, the average annual salary and the length of each deal. But that there were any announcements to make was because of Miller’s leadership in the Players Association’s formative years. Fans in Washington were surely happy that Strasburg opted to continue to wear the only major league uniform he’s ever known. But that he had a choice whether to do so was because of Miller.

That legacy put Miller’s claim to a plaque in the Hall beyond dispute. It also made his election nearly impossible. Because of the Hall’s seventy-five percent threshold for election and the mixed membership of the various veterans committees that voted on his candidacy over the years, there was always going to be a bloc of voters with ties to the sport’s management side determined to deny Miller a spot in Cooperstown. Beginning in 2003 he was regularly on the veterans committee ballot and just as regularly fell short of election. In 2008, at the age of 92, Miller wrote to the Hall asking that he no longer be considered. But while he could never be ignored as the leader of the Players Association, the Hall chose not to honor his request. Seven times in all Miller was denied, even after his passing in 2012.

The pattern had repeated so many times that it became easy to assume it was permanent; that an institution dedicated to preserving the history of the Great Game would forever ignore someone with seminal influence on that story. But perhaps justice delayed is not always justice denied. Almost twenty years ago Hank Aaron said “Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him in.” Now at last those doors have been battered down. In keeping with his stated wishes, his family has made it clear they will not participate in his induction ceremony next summer. But then it has always been the case that Marvin Miller didn’t need the Hall of Fame. Rather it is the Hall, if it is to be true to its mission, that has needed Marvin Miller.

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