Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 18, 2019

The PGA Tour’s Solution In Search Of A Problem

Perhaps PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has a low opinion of his sport’s fans. That at least is an inference one can draw from the newest format for the Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, announced more than a year ago but just being fully implemented with the start of this year’s Tour Championship next Thursday. That tournament has been around for more than three decades, originally as a rich season-ending event for the top 30 money winners, and since 2007 as the final stop in the Tour’s four, no make that three, week playoff run. Since that year’s advent of the FedEx Cup, with its massive bonus structure that includes $15 million for the winner starting this year, but pays out progressively smaller but still quite welcome dividends all the way down to number 150 in the standings, the structure of the playoffs has been altered with depressing regularity. Now even the format of the final tournament has been changed, ostensibly to make the entire system less confusing for golf fans.

The confusion, real or imagined, stems from the goal of making the FedEx Cup a recognition not of superior play over just the four days of a single 72-hole tournament, but rather of the consistently best golf throughout the PGA Tour’s year-round season. To that end points are awarded based on the order of finish at each Tour stop. The winner of the typical weekly Insurance Company or Banking Conglomerate Open garners 500 FedEx Cup points. Higher point values are distributed at the four majors and at the World Golf Championship events. The top 125 golfers on the season-long points list qualify for the playoffs, with the field steadily shrinking each week, down to the final 30 who tee it up at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club for the Tour Championship.

Almost immediately the most obvious pitfall of accumulating points over almost twelve months became apparent. In 2007 Tiger Woods was so far ahead in the standings at the start of the playoffs he was able to skip the first event entirely and still coast to victory in the inaugural FedEx Cup. One year later Vijay Singh was sufficiently far ahead entering the Tour Championship that all he had to do was not be disqualified or withdraw from the event – basically remain upright through the weekend – in order to win.

That early dearth of drama produced a series of changes over the years since, including resetting points before the playoffs to tighten the standings, increasing points available at each of the playoff events to encourage participation, and eventually introducing yet another reset of points before the tournament at East Lake, so that all 30 participants had a mathematical chance of winning the Cup.

Through all of those changes the one constant was that the Tour Championship remained a 72-hole stroke play tournament that crowned as its winner the golfer who returned the lowest score over the season’s final four days. As would be expected given that status, the Tour Championship had its own purse – $2 million back in 1987, $7 million by the time the playoffs were introduced, and finally $9 million last year, with $1.62 million going to the winner. It also had its own trophy, a sterling silver replica of “Calamity Jane,” the putter used by Bobby Jones.

But that distinction between the season’s final event and the year-long points race and playoffs meant that it was possible for a player to win the tournament but not, depending on his place in the standings and the performance of the other 29 golfers in the field, also capture the FedEx Cup. The result would be two players holding trophies on the 18th green, one with the sterling Calamity Jane and the other with the FedEx Cup. It is that outcome that the Tour decided was hopelessly confusing for the apparently simple-minded buffoons who follow golf.

The solution devised by the PGA Tour is to turn the Tour Championship into the equivalent of a country club net championship. With Sunday’s conclusion of the BMW Championship, won by Justin Thomas, the season-long FedEx Cup points race ended. The 30 golfers advancing to East Lake will now start with different scores relative to par based on those final standings. The victory by Thomas, his first in just over a year, propelled the 26-year-old major winner to the top of the standings, so he will begin play on Thursday at 10-under par. Runner-up Patrick Cantlay will tee it up at 8-under. Meanwhile Brooks Koepka, with three regular season victories including a major, and Rory McIlroy, with as many wins (two) and nearly as many top-10 finishes (13 versus 15) as Thomas and Cantlay combined, will both start further behind Thomas, having finished third and fifth respectively in the FedEx Cup points race.

For the full field, the points leader starts at 10-under, with positions two through five at 8-under down to 5-under. After that the golfers are bunched in groups of five, with each group giving up one additional stroke to the leader. The players finishing sixth through tenth in the standings will go off at 4-under, and so on down to positions twenty-six through thirty, who will start at even par.

The notion that golf fans are befuddled by a week with multiple “winners” is insulting; besides which such an outcome is hardly the norm. In the twelve years of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the winner of the season’s final event and the Cup winner have been different only four times. It’s also telling that the Official World Golf Rankings will ignore the handicapped start to the tournament. Ranking points will be awarded based on an imaginary leader board with just the actual shots of the players.

Unfortunately, half of the instances of a split result came in the last two years, spurring the misguided change in format. Thomas won the FedEx Cup during his dominant 2017 run that featured five tournament wins including the PGA Championship, but at the Tour Championship he finished second to Xander Schauffele by a single stroke. Then last season England’s Justin Rose took home the FedEx Cup trophy and the big bonus check but had to share space during the awards ceremony with Tiger Woods, who won the Tour Championship for his first victory in more than five years. Of course, had the new format been in effect back then Woods, despite taking five fewer shots over four days would have finished one stroke behind Rose, who would have started six ahead of Tiger and finished holding both trophies. That would have been so much less confusing, but just how happy would most golf fans have been?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 15, 2019

The Inescapable Reality Of Twilight

It was, of course, mere happenstance, a random confluence of three events. Still, despite being merely a coincidence of timing, the withdrawal of Tiger Woods after just one round of the first event of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs and the decisions by Serena Williams first to retire from the women’s final at the Rogers Cup in Toronto and then to drop out of the Western & Southern Open before it began, all coming within days of each other, collectively served as an especially stark reminder that time will always be the unbeatable foe of all our sports heroes.

Woods is 43 and Williams is six weeks shy of her 38th birthday, and both were felled by bad backs. At Liberty National Golf Club, this year’s site of The Northern Trust, Woods first felt pain during the pre-tournament pro-am. He responded by forgoing full swings during that round’s second nine, instead just chipping and putting while walking along with his amateur partners. But that cautionary step wasn’t enough, and after an uninspiring 75 in the opening round of competition, Woods woke up last Friday with a stiff back, the product of a strained oblique muscle. After four back surgeries in the space of three years between 2014 and 2017, Woods wisely decided not to tempt fate and pulled out of the first of three stops that comprise the Tour’s season-ending playoff series.

In Toronto, Williams had breezed into the final of the Rogers Cup, dropping only one set through her first four matches. That run included a 6-3, 6-4 win over Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals, a much less dramatic meeting between the pair than their last, when Osaka’s victory at the 2018 U.S. Open was marred by a Williams meltdown in the final at Arthur Ashe Stadium. But against Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu last Sunday, her fifth match in as many days, Williams appeared hobbled from the start. Trailing 1-3 in the first set and only a quarter-hour into the match, she asked for an injury timeout, and then told the chair umpire that she was unable to continue because of back spasms.

After that disappointment Williams headed immediately to the Cincinnati suburb of Mason for the Western & Southern, a tournament she’d won twice before. But after receiving treatment and practicing Williams withdrew just hours before her first round match on Tuesday, telling the media “unfortunately my back is still not right and I know I should not take to the court.” She also thanked “the amazing fans here in the Cincinnati area” and promised to “do my best to be back here next year.”

Athletes are forced to sit because of injury every day, and the only certainty about all careers, no matter the sport, is that they come to an end. But Woods and Williams both going down at essentially the same time carried special significance first because of the place each occupies in their game, and second because of the setbacks both have endured. In men’s golf and women’s tennis Woods and Williams have been the dominant players of their generation, and to many fans (in one of those perpetual arguments about sports that has no right answer), the best to ever play their respective games.

As much as Woods and Williams are titans in their sports, both have had to overcome serious health issues, and each has suffered self-inflicted wounds – Woods through serial infidelities during his marriage and Williams by her occasionally terrible behavior on the court. Yet against considerable odds, at ages when most of their contemporaries have either retired or seen sharp career declines, both have recently enjoyed renewed success. Woods won the Tour Championship to end last season, and then claimed his fifth Masters title and fifteenth major championship in April. For her part Williams, returning from serious post-childbirth complications, went to the finals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, and again at Wimbledon this season.

Still, fans are reminded that even the most spectacular careers do not go on forever, and there is no sure way of knowing how the final chapter will unfold. In truly unfortunate cases there is a sudden career-ending injury, such as happened to quarterback Joe Theismann during a Monday Night Football game in 1985. Every so often the skillset that has carried a star to great heights disappears with brutal speed. Alex Rodriguez slugged 33 homers and posted a .842 OPS for the Yankees in 2015. Less than a year later he was done, essentially dismissed by the team in midseason after struggling to hit .200.

For most the final years are appropriately called the twilight, mirroring that period at the end of day when light slowly fades, and night gradually encroaches. Age saps ability and little by little the hero becomes ordinary. Derek Jeter hit .256 during his final season in the Bronx, more than fifty points below his career average, but he had possessed the good sense to announce his retirement during Spring Training. Too many others cling with increasing desperation to the folly that greatness can somehow be restored. Those are the longest goodbyes, and the most painful to watch.

It is too early to contemplate the exits of either Woods or Williams. The former’s Masters win is barely four months old, and the latter’s march to three recent Grand Slam finals is still fresh in the minds of tennis fans. Both should hear plenty of cheers in the future, and not for merely sentimental reasons.

Yet after the opening round of this week’s BMW Championship, Woods is tied for 50th in a field of sixty-nine golfers. He’ll need to improve over the next three days, because he’s currently well outside the top thirty in the FedEx Cup standings, the cutoff for next week’s Tour Championship. There is also obvious concern about whether Williams will be ready for the U.S. Open, which starts a week from Monday. Uncertainty and doubt, reminding us that as it does for every athlete, the twilight time, and ultimately the end, comes for even the greatest.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 11, 2019

Distractions And Golf’s Curse Mar The Northern Trust

Patrick Reed won The Northern Trust on Sunday, besting Abraham Ancer by one stroke and both Harold Varner III and Jon Rahm by two. For golf fans that would normally be the big story of the weekend, especially because despite its chief sponsor being a financial services company, The Northern Trust is not the usual insurance company open or banking conglomerate invitational that make up much of the PGA Tour’s regular season schedule. Rather it’s the first tournament in the season-ending FedEx Cup Playoffs, now unfolding over three events instead of four. While capturing the FedEx Cup will never be mistaken for claiming a major in terms of its impact on a golfer’s career, winning the season’s championship, not to mention the $15 million bonus that one earns for doing so, makes the three-week pursuit a pretty big deal. So it seems important to mention Reed at the start, because both the victory and his resulting leap up the FedEx Cup standings from 50th to 2nd were largely overshadowed by a series of progressively greater distractions that began before anyone in the 125-man field teed off in Thursday’s opening round.

The setting for this year’s Northern Trust, Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, was itself the first thing to take the attention of both players and spectators away from the play inside the ropes. Built on the site of a former landfill, the course sits on the banks of the Hudson just across that river’s wide expanse from Manhattan. That makes for one of the most unusual and scenic backdrops in all of golf. If the sight of the Freedom Tower, Empire State Building, and Gotham’s other skyscrapers in the distance isn’t sufficiently diverting, there’s the Statue of Liberty rising just offshore, seemingly no more than a well struck 3-wood away. With the tournament scheduled to alternate between New England at TPC Boston and Long Island at Bethpage Black over the next four years, it will be at least half a decade before tournament golf is again played before such unique vistas.

Then there was the weather. Late Wednesday a series of particularly violent thunderstorms rolled through the New York metropolitan area, and Liberty National was not spared. The course was soaked and there was significant damage to the tournament’s infrastructure, including some grandstands and several hospitality tents. While the grounds crew was able to make the golf course playable in time for the first Thursday tee times, PGA Tour officials decided not to open the gates to fans until late morning, after the worst of the damage had been hurriedly repaired.

That in turn created what must surely have been one of the most unusual sights in tournament golf over the last two decades – Tiger Woods playing without a horde of spectators in tow. With an early tee time for the first round, Woods and his playing partners were on their second nine before the masses could set foot on Liberty National’s ground and begin the hunt for their hero.

When fans finally caught up with Woods what they saw was less than scintillating play, the direct result of a back injury that flared up during Wednesday’s pro-am. Woods returned a 4-over 75 for round one, and then withdrew before the start of round two on Friday. While he is safely in the 70-man field for next week’s BMW Championship, the withdrawal dropped Woods out of the top 30 on the FedEx Cup points list, meaning he’s not currently qualified for the Tour Championship. The more urgent question is whether he’ll be able to play at all.

Given his history of back and leg injuries, Woods’s withdrawal prompted a wave of speculation among the game’s media about his future. More than a few pundits predicted that this week marked the end of his time as a force in the game, with the doomsayers forecasting fewer and fewer appearances by Woods and little chance of future victories. Few of these pundits acknowledged that they were the same scribes who confidently predicted a return to the number one world ranking and victory in multiple future majors after Woods’s improbable Masters win just four months ago. The reality then and now is almost certainly somewhere in between these two extremes, but in the internet age moderation in either tone or substance apparently doesn’t generate enough clicks.

Once the Tiger speculation died down the tournament should have become the main story, but any hope of that was derailed during Friday’s second round. That’s when Bryson DeChambeau, the defending champion at The Northern Trust and one of the Tour’s young stars, became just the latest example of the disease of painfully slow play that too often sucks the interest out of even the most compelling event.

With his devotion to the physics of golf, DeChambeau is one of the slowest players on Tour. The rule, almost never enforced, is that a player has 40 seconds to execute his shot once it’s his turn to play, but the 25-year-old with five Tour wins regularly goes well over that limit. During Friday’s second round fans videoed a pair of particularly egregious instances. The first was when DeChambeau faced a 70-yard wedge shot from well off the fairway after an errant drive. Because it wasn’t a location he had previously marked in his yardage book, he walked to the green and back, pacing off the yardage, and then took time to make his mental calculations before finally swinging a club. That play was swift compared to his performance on the 8th green, the next to last hole for DeChambeau and playing partners Justin Thomas and Tommy Fleetwood. The player nicknamed the Scientist (though DeChamSlow would be better), took over two and a half minutes to survey an eight-foot putt. Thomas and Fleetwood were both visibly upset, and the Golf Channel announcers were roasting DeChambeau while he made his calculations, and again after he finally putted and missed the hole. Both videos quickly found their way onto social media, and the Twitterverse exploded with negative comments. What was most telling was the number of those that came from the accounts of other players.

DeChambeau defended himself to the media after Saturday’s third round, but the gist of his explanation was that other players hadn’t said anything directly to him and that he wasn’t the only pro guilty of slow play. Neither defense goes to the heart of the matter, which is that DeChambeau’s snail pace, as well as similar styles by too many other players, causes fans to lose interest, is unfair to other players in his group, and has become a blight on the game. What’s worse, when a dreadfully slow player is, like DeChambeau, a popular golfer who youngsters might decide to emulate, that style of play quickly spreads beyond the confines of PGA Tour events, eventually infecting country clubs and local munis.

After Reed’s victory (remember him?), the Tour announced that it would review its pace of play policy, specifically citing the two DeChambeau incidents and the reaction to them on social media. That’s only good news if the review produces change. Until current rules are enforced, and new, tougher ones put in place and enforced in turn, slow play will continue to be golf’s scourge. The Tour’s review is welcome but given the history of non-enforcement that allows DeChambeau and others to get away with spectacles like the ones at Liberty National, golf fans should remain understandably skeptical.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 8, 2019

Growing The Game Isn’t Always Black And White

The third edition of MLB’s Players Weekend is coming, and it seems that Tyler Kepner of the New York Times has mixed feelings about the event. Kepner has written about the Great Game literally since he was a childhood fan of the Philadelphia Phillies and has become one of the most astute observers of the sport. But he sounded a little cranky on Wednesday, when he used his allotted space in the Times to complain about MLB’s just announced decision to have the uniforms for Players Weekend be monochromatic, either white or black in their entirety, meaning white (or black) numbers, logos and names on an equally white (or black) jersey and cap, with matching pants.

With his press pass Kepner goes to the ballpark not just to enjoy the game but also to share his observations with readers. Thus his first complaint is that the all black or all white styles of the weekend’s uniforms will make it difficult to identify the men on the field as, in his words, “the whole sport will look almost indistinguishable, with logos, numerals and lettering all but impossible to see.” But Kepner’s bigger beef is that the entire weekend, in which players on all thirty teams doff their usual uniforms for a different look that they are free to accessorize with socks, cleats, batting gloves, compression sleeves and so on in as many colors or patterns as they like, while also being encouraged to replace the traditional last name on their jersey’s back with a (hopefully) clever nickname, is really nothing more than a marketing opportunity disguised – this year in black and white – as an effort to attract younger fans.

It should be noted that for both the inaugural edition in 2017 and again last year, the Players Weekend uniforms were multi-hued, most in bright colors that had major league rosters looking like the starting lineups for a weekend slow-pitch softball league. Perhaps because here at On Sports and Life our first allegiance is to the Yankees, with their long tradition of understated home pinstripes and road grays, with nary a name across anyone’s shoulders, the first thought on learning of this week’s announcement was that the monochromatic look would be a decided improvement. Also, given the freedom each player is granted to be as individualistic as he likes with other elements, scribes and for that matter fans should still be able to tell who’s who once they figure out which of their heroes is sporting the plaid socks.

But while the softball look may not have been fully appreciated here, we’d readily acknowledge that members of a younger generation probably found the brightly colored jerseys more to their liking. Which of course is the whole idea of Players Weekend – give professional ballplayers a chance to let their inner Little Leaguer out for a couple days, and by doing so hopefully build some connections to a new generation of fans.

Given the often-expressed concern from both many sportswriters and a significant part of baseball’s fan base that in this internet age the Great Game is too slow and too staid, such efforts ought to be applauded and encouraged. Players Weekend is harmless, and considerably less radical than moving the pitching rubber back two feet or starting extra innings with a runner on second base, to pick a couple other ideas that would purportedly modernize the sport.  Besides, after two years of clown uniforms, maybe it’s time for something different.

Is it also commercial? Of course, and why not? Like every other one of our major sports, baseball looks for ways to have fans at every stadium leave with a bagful of souvenirs. If a young Washington Nationals fan already has a Max Scherzer jersey, he’s probably wouldn’t get another one until he outgrows the first. But an all black shirt with the same number and “Brown Eye” on the back (a reminder that Scherzer has one brown and one blue eye)? What fledgling ballplayer in the D.C. area wouldn’t want one of those?

There are certainly ways in which MLB goes beyond typical marketing efforts and seems to be trying too hard. As Kepner correctly notes, the annual ritual of caps for every special day between the home opener and the World Series is the best, or perhaps more accurately the worst, example. Pink for Mother’s Day, blue for Father’s Day, camo for Memorial Day and so on through the calendar. The long list of distinctive headgear for days that have no inherent meaning to the sport is naked marketing madness, without even a fig leaf of disguise.

But with its connection to the Great Game as first played in an organized way by children and, yes, years later by their middle-aged selves on a Saturday afternoon, Players Weekend really does seem to be more about outreach than jersey sales. It’s of a piece with this season’s two-game series between the Yankees and Red Sox in London, or the recent addition of annual contests in Omaha and Williamsport, the homes of the College and Little League World Series. In the same vein, news of the monochromatic uniforms was quickly overtaken by the announcement that next year the Yankees and White Sox will meet at a new 8,000 seat ballpark to be built in the cornfield on the Iowa farm where “Field of Dreams” was filmed. It will be the first major league game played in the Hawkeye State, and it’s a safe bet that the contest will be a sellout mere minutes after tickets go on sale.

All these efforts may be imperfect, but it seems unfair to carp that the Great Game needs to reach out to new fans and then harp on the supposed flaws of attempts to do so. Whether it’s Players Weekend, the London Series, or a game in a famous cornfield, at least MLB is trying. To paraphrase that voice in the movie, if you build it, maybe they will come.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 4, 2019

The Difference Between Winning And Losing

What is the margin between victory and defeat? How does one measure the gap between winning and losing? When Chicago beat Washington 73-0 in the 1940 NFL Championship Game, or when Tiger Woods finished the 2000 U.S. Open fifteen shots clear of his closest competitor, such questions were rhetorical. In outcomes like those the difference, whether by any statistical measure or by an assessment of intangible factors like mental focus and attitude, is utterly lopsided. But there are also times when the margin is agonizingly small.

Sunday afternoon at Woburn Golf Club, a parkland course fifty miles northwest of London, the fifth and final women’s major of 2019 concluded in a dramatic fashion that was thrilling and heartbreaking in equal measure. After almost four rounds of play, seventy-one holes completed and most of the seventy-second, American Lizette Salas and Japan’s Hinako Shibuno had matched each other stroke for stroke. Within ten minutes time, both stood on Woburn’s 18th green having taken 269 shots since first teeing off on Thursday. Each was at 17-under par and facing a career-defining birdie putt. In that short span of time, golf fans saw devastating disappointment and unbridled joy, opposites separated by a hair.

That the Women’s British Open came down to Salas and Shibuno was an outcome no one would have predicted when the tournament began. Salas is a 30-year-old daughter of immigrants, born and raised in California’s San Gabriel Valley, whose childhood dream of becoming a professional golfer was boosted by a scholarship to USC. There she was named the Pac-10 player of the year in 2009 and 2010, leading her to turn pro in 2011. After a year on the developmental Symetra Tour, Salas successfully navigated the LPGA qualifying tournament and earned her Tour card for the 2012 season.

But while she has enjoyed a solid career, never ranking lower than thirty-sixth in scoring average and finishing outside of the top-50 on the money list just twice, Salas arrived at Woburn with just a single LPGA Tour victory, at the 2014 Kingsmill Championship. That thin resume was made even less impressive by her performances at the majors, where she had never threatened for victory and recorded just three top-10 finishes in thirty-six starts. One of those, a fifth-place finish at this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, was also her only top-10 finish during a lackluster 2019 season.

While fans hoping for the first American victory at the Women’s British since Stacy Lewis and Mo Martin went back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 would logically have looked elsewhere, perhaps to world number three Lexi Thompson or either of the Korda sisters, Nelly and Jessica, who together have a dozen top-10s this season, Salas was a positively easy rooting choice compared to Shibuno. The 20-year-old is in her rookie season, not on the LPGA Tour but on the JLPGA, the home tour of her native country. While she had scored a pair of wins this year, enough to have the Japanese media dub her the “smiling Cinderella,” until her first round tee time on Thursday she had never teed it up for a competitive round outside of her homeland. Playing in both her first major and first LPGA Tour event, Shibuno came to Woburn with the decidedly modest goal of playing on the weekend by making the cut.

But there she was in a tie for second, one shot behind first round leader Ashleigh Buhai of South Africa, after an opening 66. Salas’s 69 placed her just three shots further back, in a tie for eleventh place. Buhai, a veteran of the Ladies European Tour who was herself an unlikely name to top the leader board, stretched her margin to three after round two, but it was Shibuno in second and Salas in third, with the former easily meeting her goal of earning a Saturday tee time. When Buhai stalled with an even par 72 in the third round, Shibuno surged into the lead with her third straight round in the 60s, good for a 14-under par total. For her part Salas went into the final round four shots adrift of Shibuno after a 2-under 70, the highest score either player would post all week.

Then on Sunday the young tournament leader wobbled with a double-bogey on the par-4 3rd hole. While Shibuno got those strokes back with a pair of birdies, she added a bogey on the 8th to go out in 1-over 37. In contrast Salas was on fire on the front nine, scoring five birdies against a single dropped shot for a 4-under 32 that vaulted her into the lead. But Shibuno had not made a bogey all week on the back nine, and she kept that streak alive while rolling in four birdies in six holes. Salas made three of her own in that stretch, but Shibuno’s run left the pair in a tie at 17-under with three holes to play.

Both made par on the 16th and 17th, and both split the narrow 18th fairway with their drives at the last, leaving each with an iron in her hand for the final approach shot of the tournament. Playing two groups ahead, Salas put her ball on the top shelf of the two-tiered green, just six feet from the hole. She studied the putt and stood in knowing that a birdie would put her in front and force Shibuno to match her in order to force a playoff.

Salas sent her ball toward the right edge of the hole, on a line that was looking for the slightest break to the left. But the putt never wavered, catching the right lip of the cup, rolling halfway around and spinning out instead of falling in. Ten minutes later Shibuno’s approach from 163 yards just barely climbed up to the green’s top level, leaving her twenty feet from victory. Wasting no time, she took her stance and sent the ball on its way with a very solid rap. The ball sped toward the hole, destined to run at least six feet past if it missed. The speed of the putt made the hole smaller, as it stood no chance of dropping in if it caught either edge. Instead it arrived at the cup dead center, disappearing into the hole for a birdie and victory.

Had Salas’s putt been a fraction of an inch to the left, or Shibuno’s been just a hair off center cut, the result would have been reversed. Beyond those concrete measures, was it an unconscious twitch of a muscle that sent one ever so slightly offline, or the tiniest greater focus that made the other stroke true? The answer of course, will never be known. All fans can be sure of is that on the 18th green at Woburn, the difference between being a major champion or not, between happiness or heartbreak, could not have been any smaller.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 1, 2019

Change Is Always Hard For Some

Is nothing sacred? That is the question jousting fans are asking this week, following word that the English Heritage Trust, the British charity that manages over 400 historical monuments and buildings, including a number of medieval castles, is testing video review technology for jousting tournaments held at its sites. The idea is that a sport in which competitors charge at each other on horseback at speeds up to 30 miles per hour and score points by striking the shield or helmet of their opponent with a 12 foot lance will gain more accurate scoring if it doesn’t rely on the vision of the tournament’s referee, officially known as the Knight Marshall, to correctly judge the location of every hit.

Those readers who think the idea of 21st century technology being employed in support of a 14th century martial game is On Sports and Life’s idea of a joke should consider that the Trust has taken up the campaign of the International Jousting Association, which has been trying for more than a decade to have jousting included in the Olympic Games. Given that next year in Tokyo the Summer Games will include medals for trampoline and rock climbing, the success of that effort is surely only a matter of time.

Clearly jousting has come a long way since those ancient days when the king alone chose the winner. On the bright side, there are probably fewer bodies to bury at the end of each tournament. Still fans of a sport that dates back seven hundred years are likely to be wedded to the game’s traditions, and thus might not take kindly to change. Which means it’s probably best if jousting faithful, in whatever numbers they exist, are not told about what’s happening on the fringes of another sport this season.

By comparison baseball is positively newfangled, having been played in a form today’s fans would recognize only since the Civil War era, meaning the bloody American conflict and not the War of the Roses. But just like the jousting faithful, many fans of the Great Game are steadfastly resistant to change. Yet while the traditionalists are numerous, their voices are but a distant murmur compared to the loud cries of various paid pundits who have decided that baseball must take steps to speed up play and attract younger fans or face certain demise.

Over the last two winters MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has responded to these demands by suggesting a variety of possible changes to both the rules and less formalized procedures of the game at the major league level. Manfred’s ideas have sometimes been made formally, while others have appeared to be little more than out loud musings to a member of the press. But so far, the changes implemented have been minor. There is, at least in theory, less time allowed between innings and for a relief pitcher to warm up. Once in the batter’s box, hitters are supposed to stay there rather than stepping out and going through a routine of adjusting their batting gloves or helmet or whatever between every pitch. Except for an injury or to make a pitching change, visits to the mound by a catcher or pitching coach are now also limited. This tinkering has slightly reduced the average length of a major league game, though the time saved is often lost to that most modern of game delaying events, video review of an umpire’s call. Jousters take note.

In pursuit of more radical change, this season Manfred found a willing guinea pig in the clubs of the Atlantic League. The Atlantic is an independent minor league which last year celebrated its 20th anniversary. The league currently has eight teams, most of which are located along the eastern seaboard, thus giving the Atlantic its name. Without formal ties to MLB or any of its teams, the league is typically a home for young players not quite good enough to attract even a minor league contract offer from an MLB franchise, and for older players, a few of which have major league experience, hoping for one more chance at The Show. It is best described as a league where fading dreams refuse to die.

But the Atlantic’s lack of affiliation has made it a perfect laboratory for testing potential changes. MLB doesn’t have to worry about negotiating new rules with the Players Association, and the consistency of the game across all the affiliated minor leagues is maintained. For the league itself, the three-year agreement with MLB to test various new rules ensures a shot of always welcome publicity.

So, this year in little ballparks from New Britain, Connecticut, down through Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland to High Point, North Carolina and the one outlier outpost in Sugar Land, Texas, Atlantic League teams are playing a slightly different version of the Great Game.

A robot umpire, a more colorful term than radar technology, is being used to call balls and strikes. Unless the side is retired or there is an injury, pitchers are required to face at least three batters, and mound visits aren’t just limited, they’re eliminated. Infield shifts, the bane of many fans, are restricted by a rule that requires two infielders be positioned on either side of second base. Home plate remains unchanged, but the other three bases are all bigger by three inches per side. One foul bunt is permitted with two strikes, and, as of midseason, batters are now allowed to steal first base if it’s open and a pitch gets away from the catcher.

That last one, introduced after the league’s recent All-Star Game, has quickly gone to the top of the traditionalists’ hate list, despite not being that radical. The rule simply expands to every pitch of an at-bat what a hitter can already do when a third strike is dropped. But the heated reaction to the change is a reminder of how hard it will be to implement many of these proposals in the majors.

Yet individually the changes all seem small, and even collectively they don’t make Atlantic League games unrecognizable to any baseball fan. If they help to speed up the game, and perhaps add a touch more traditional offense, meaning hits and base running strategy, it’s hard to see the danger to the sport’s integrity.

On the other hand next season the Atlantic League may experiment with moving the pitching rubber back two feet from the 60 feet 6 inches it has been from home plate since the Great Game’s earliest days. Now that would be radical. Next thing you know jousters will be using pool noodles instead of lances.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 28, 2019

Time For Contenders To Roll The Dice

The Great Game is steeped in tradition, to the point of being hidebound according to some critics. Yet in the next few days fans will see the impact of a significant change in the rules introduced just this season, one that may well impact this year’s playoff races. Fans have long been familiar with the July 31st trading deadline, while also knowing that it was not absolute. Under the old rules, players could still be traded once the calendar turned to August, but only if they first cleared waivers, the system by which a contract is offered up to all twenty-nine other teams in reverse order of their place in the standings. That has sometimes meant dramatic player movement in August, as when Justin Verlander cleared waivers because no other team wanted to assume his huge contract and was then traded from Detroit to Houston in 2017.

But impact players rarely go unclaimed while on the waiver wire, so the most significant in-season trades have always been made under the July deadline. Starting this year they will have to be, because the last day of this month is now the absolute deadline for trading any player with a major league contract until the end of the World Series. This new clock is ticking, and in the next few days playoff bound franchises will be looking to shore up weak spots, cellar dwellers will be intent on acquiring prospects for the inevitable wait until next year, and general managers of teams in between will be forced to decide whether to buy or sell, all while knowing that they don’t have an extra month to make things right.

Although the deadline is just three days away, as Sunday dawned sports websites had been largely empty of reports about any significant trades. That began to change late Sunday afternoon with word that the Toronto Blue Jays had agreed to trade pitcher Marcus Stroman to New York. Rumors about that move had been floating around for some time, except it turned out those whispers were not quite accurate. For the deal that Toronto made was not, as had been expected, with the team in the Bronx, but rather with the franchise resident in Queens. It’s the Mets, not the Yankees, sending minor league prospects north of the border in exchange for the ground ball inducing right hander.

While still well ahead in the AL East standings, the Yankees have had an especially tough week during which their starting rotation has looked like it didn’t belong in AA, much less the major leagues. News that Stroman, one of just a handful of top pitchers likely to be on the move this week is going elsewhere will surely bring back memories of other hurlers rumored to be headed to the Bronx in recent years who wound up wearing some other uniform, like Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh to Houston) and Patrick Corbin (Arizona to Washington). Perhaps when Yankee fans consider that the Blue Jays were apparently asking for both Deivi Garcia, New York’s top minor league pitching prospect, and two-time All-Star infielder Gleyber Torres, they will understand why general manager Brian Cashman chose to pass.

The trade seems like an odd one for the Mets, who are currently five games under .500 and all but out of hope for even a Wild Card ticket to the postseason. Whether this is first-year GM Brodie Van Wagenen planning for 2020 or buying a replacement for one or more of his current starters who he’s about to move, Mets faithful will know by the middle of this week. For now, most of the paid pundits think it’s likely that Van Wagenen will do his best to trade Noah Syndergaard and perhaps Zack Wheeler or Jason Vargas as well. Of course, none of those pundits had Stroman going to Citi Field.

Assuming the reporting is correct, the Blue Jays’ ask of the Yankees illustrates the key dynamic that plays out in every phone call between general managers as Wednesday afternoon’s deadline draws near. Selling teams will strive to get all that they can in return for their player and buying franchises must make a quick but crucial decision about how much future talent they are prepared to lose. Fans of teams that are buying at the deadline – those in the playoff chase – are naturally focused on this year and expect their franchise’s management to deliver the key player who will make the difference down the stretch.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, and it’s a particularly dicey proposition when the trade involves pitchers, who as starters impact only one game in five, and as relievers have an even more limited role. The Great Game’s history is littered with bad deadline deals. One of the most infamous was in 1990, when Boston sent a young prospect named Jeff Bagwell to Houston for reliever Larry Anderson. Based on Wins Above Replacement posted by both players after the trade, the Red Sox gave away 79.9 future WAR from Bagwell, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017, to acquire 3.8 from Anderson. Even worse, most of Anderson’s production was for other teams, as he left Boston after just that one partial season as a free agent.

The Red Sox are by no means alone. Over the years all thirty franchises have made a deal or three along those lines, trades that aren’t highlighted in any team’s official media guide. As this year’s new single deadline approaches, every general manager of a contending franchise will be trying hard to avoid becoming the guy who makes the next one.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 25, 2019

Empty Seats And An Uncertain Future

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? That old philosophical thought experiment has been posed to untold numbers of earnest freshmen in Philosophy 101 courses at colleges across the land for decades. Perhaps it’s time to update the question, so henceforth let’s go with this: if NASCAR runs a race in New Hampshire and no one is around to hear it, do the cars make a sound? If attendance wasn’t quite that bad last weekend at N.H. Motor Speedway when the premier stock car racing circuit made its annual visit to the one mile oval set in the woods of central New Hampshire, the swaths of empty seats in all three grandstands were more than enough to create doubt about future visits by the drivers of NASCAR’s top Monster Energy Cup series.

The track’s marketing department would surely point to the weather forecast for the weekend, which predicted stifling temperatures well into the 90s combined with oppressive humidity that would make it feel even hotter. But this is New England, where forecasts are fickle, and to the extent some fans stayed home because of the predicted heat, especially for Sunday’s main event, they missed a summer day with the thermometer several degrees below expectations, and a steady breeze that kept the air moving.

Even if the spin doctors’ point has some merit, blaming the forecast alone for all the empty seats suggests that a huge number of New England race fans were suddenly possessed of an astonishingly high wimp factor. It also ignores the unpleasant reality that last weekend’s attendance continued a years-long trend of steadily declining attendance at NHMS. Veteran fans readily recall the time when the track’s capacity was more than 105,000, and the two 300-mile races of NASCAR’s top series meant full houses in both July and September.

Last decade’s recession dealt a harsh blow to stock car racing, both for the teams competing in a very expensive sport and the fans who often turned a trip to the races into a multi-day excursion. Then, like certain areas of the country, NASCAR was especially slow to recover. The number of teams fielding competitive cars declined even as conditions improved, and at tracks across the country seats that had emptied during the economy’s weakest days were not refilled. The New Hampshire speedway responded as many tracks did, by reducing capacity. Roughly half of the northern grandstand around turns three and four was removed, reducing the official capacity of NHMS to 88,000.

That’s still the official number, though as rows of empty seats have continued to spread track management has taken further steps, making the posted capacity no longer accurate. This year a new seating option, with a table surface in front of each row of bleachers, was offered in many sections at both ends of the main grandstand along the front straightaway. But that amenity was made possible by removing every other row of seating in those sections, further reducing the number that would constitute a full house by several thousand more.

Even with that Sunday’s race, the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, drew the smallest crowd in memory. In a futile attempt to paper over the sport’s declining popularity, NASCAR stopped releasing attendance figures in 2013. But officials of local emergency departments told local media that they were advised to expect a crowd of around 40,000. While the marketing folks would be quick to point out that number means NASCAR’s visit remains the highest attended single sporting event in the Granite State, one suspects that deep down they know it is no reason to celebrate. Quite the opposite, because while attendance at many other tracks has stabilized, the downward trend in New Hampshire is continuing.

What the many fans who once filled those empty seats missed was one of the best races at NHMS in years. Kyle Busch, a driver most of the NASCAR faithful love to hate, dominated the early going, giving those in the stands plenty of reason to root a driver on whenever another car came within striking distance of Busch’s Toyota. The 2015 series champion and winner of the regular season points race last year faded in the second half of Sunday’s event, giving several others a chance to run in first during a race in which six different drivers bonus earned points for leading laps. Erik Jones and Matt DiBenedetto, two of the younger drivers in the field posted top-five finishes, giving fans a taste of the future of the sport.

But it was a couple of familiar faces, veterans Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, who dueled both figuratively and literally down the stretch. Both are popular drivers in a sport that has been hurt by a bevy of retirements of stars in the last few years. Although Harvick had the lead in the late going Sunday, most fans expected Hamlin to overtake him because he was running on four new tires. Despite the worn rubber Harvick held on. As the two raced into turn one in the final lap, Hamlin ducked his car to the inside and took the lead by half a car length. But surprisingly Harvick was able to accelerate better down the back stretch, reclaiming the lead and, half a lap later, the checkered flag. The victory margin was just 0.21 seconds, the third closest finish ever at NHMS.

Still the sparse crowd meant that even as fans headed for home one had to wonder about the future of NASCAR in New Hampshire. Speedway Motorsports, the publicly traded company that bought NHMS from founder Bob Bahre in 2007, has already moved the track’s fall race to Las Vegas, after that city committed to pay SMS $2.5 million a year to add a September event to its entertainment calendar. SMS facilities in Georgia, Kentucky and California all currently have just one Monster Energy Series race, and ultimately the SMS leadership has a responsibility to the company’s shareholders. If the empty seats don’t start to fill up soon, the day may come when race day really will be silent in New Hampshire.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 22, 2019

A Lovely Day On The Links

It’s not as if those born on the second largest of the British Isles are strangers to the Claret Jug. Of the dozen Open Championships preceding this year’s tournament, four were claimed by golfers reared on Irish soil, be it in the independent republic that covers most of the island or the British province tucked away in its northeastern corner.

Padraig Harrington, a son of Dublin, defeated Sergio Garcia in a playoff at Carnoustie in 2007, and defended his title one year later at a brutally difficult Royal Birkdale. Darren Clarke, born in the Northern Ireland town of Dungannon, surprised the golfing world and quite possibly himself when he finished three stokes clear of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson at the 2011 Open, played at Royal St. George’s on England’s southeast coast. Clarke’s victory, coming a month after Rory McIlroy’s win at that year’s U.S. Open and just over a year since Graeme McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, led young McIlroy to quip that Ireland was “the golf capital of the world.” Three years later McIlroy, born and raised just outside Belfast in the town of Holywood, did his part to further that notion by going wire-to-wire at Royal Liverpool to claim the Claret Jug in 2014.

But as much as Irish fans, irrespective of their flag, exulted in those victories, this year’s Open Championship was altogether different. For just the second time ever and the first in nearly seven decades, the tournament to determine “the champion golfer of the year” was contested on the island that is home to those Open winners, all three of whom, along with McDowell and two other sons of Ireland were in this year’s starting field. In 1951 the R&A ventured across the Irish Sea for the only previous Open not played in England or Scotland. Sixty-eight years later the tournament returned to the incredibly scenic and devilishly difficult links at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

Fans swarmed the ancient links throughout the week, nearly a quarter million in all, using tickets that had been scooped up months ago in record time for an Open Championship. They were there to welcome the finest golfers in the world back to Portrush, but surely there were also many in attendance dreaming of the perfect ending to this year’s Open – a win by another native son.

As Thursday’s opening round approached the smart money supporting a local winner was on McIlroy. Currently ranked third in the world, and with a total of ninety-five weeks at number one, the 30-year-old set the Portrush course record by firing a 10-under par 61 while just a teenager in 2005. The layout had been modified for the Open, with changes to the routing and two new holes replacing the old 17th and 18th to make room for hospitality tents, but McIlory’s history, local knowledge, four major titles, and wins this year at The Players Championship and the RBC Canadian Open put him atop many lists of pre-tournament favorites.

Which only made the shock that much greater when he hooked his opening tee shot far left and out of bounds. McIlroy’s first hole got no better from there, with his next drive finishing in deep rough, an approach shot landing in a gorse bush resulting in a second penalty stroke, and two putts once he finally reached the green for a quadruple-bogey eight. Within ten minutes of beginning play his tournament was all but over. By his own assessment McIlroy’s suddenly slim chances were damaged as much by the finish to round one, when he dropped five shots to par in the final three holes, as by its disastrous beginning. After shooting 79 on Thursday he fought back with one of the best rounds of the Open on Friday, but his 6-under par 65 left him one shot outside the cut line.

While McIlroy was gone by Friday evening, somewhat surprisingly Irish hopes were not. Shane Lowry, from the little town of Clara in the midlands of Ireland, signed his scorecard for his second straight 67, good for a share of first place with American J.B. Holmes at 8-under par. The 32-year-old began the week better known to fans of the European Tour, on which he had posted five wins, than to followers of the PGA Tour, where his only previous victory was at the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. But while he wasn’t readily recognizable to U.S. fans, Lowry arrived at Portrush in decent form. He won the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January, charging over the final holes to erase a four-shot deficit. Then in May he posted a very respectable eighth place finish at the PGA Championship won by Brooks Koepka.

Every bit as important, Lowry proved early on in his golfing career that he could withstand the unique pressure of playing in front of a home crowd. While still an amateur he won the 2009 Irish Open, besting European Tour veteran Robert Rock on the third hole of a playoff. The victory was just the second “home” win at Ireland’s national championship since 1982.

The wind laid down Saturday afternoon, making Portrush vulnerable for the late starters. Playing in the final group with Holmes, Lowry took full advantage of the favorable conditions. After opening with two pars, he birdied the 3rd, 5th and 9th holes to turn in 3-under 33. Then on the inward nine Lowry couldn’t put a foot wrong. Five birdies and four pars gave him a scorching 30 for a total of 63. That was good for a course record on the new Portrush layout, the lowest 54-hole total in Open history at 197, and, most important, a four shot lead heading into the final round.

Sunday’s weather was a reminder of how quickly conditions can change in the land of links golf. The wind blew and for a time in the middle part of the round a driving rain appeared to be coming down sideways. Had this been a weekly PGA Tour stop it’s almost certain that play would have been suspended. But links courses built on sandy soil near the sea drain exceptionally well, and with lightning rarely a concern golfers in Ireland, Scotland, and England don’t think twice about playing on through driving rain.

Still the wet and windy day wasn’t for everyone. Jordan Spieth shot 77, Justin Rose and Matt Kuchar each returned a 79, and Holmes, Lowry’s one-time co-leader, staggered in with a score of 87. When Lowry made bogey at the opening hole his lead was down to three over Tommy Fleetwood, and some in the crowd may have wondered if the local favorite would also fall victim to the weather. But that was as close as any golfer chasing the leader came all day.  Birdies on the 4th, 5th and 7th put minds at ease, as the partisan cheers built through the afternoon. He made three bogeys during the worst of the weather, but by that time Lowry’s lead was secure. In the end it was a six-shot victory and a dream come true for both the winner and thousands of fans. With the hopes of an entire island on his shoulders, Shane Lowry made certain that a little rain didn’t dampen a grand day for Irish golf.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 18, 2019

The Legacy Of Pumpsie Green

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be at NASCAR’s annual stop in New Hampshire on Sunday. That day’s post will be delayed until Monday. As always, thanks for reading.

He was the last to be first. Yet Pumpsie Green, who died on Wednesday at the age of 85 after several months of failing health, never saw himself as a trailblazer or a revolutionary. All he wanted to do was play ball. That was true even when he was a youngster, like on that April afternoon in 1947 when the first to be first, Jackie Robinson, took his position at first base on the Ebbets Field diamond in Brooklyn, a continent away from the Oakland suburb of Richmond, California, where Green was growing up. The Great Game changed that day, entirely for the better, though it’s long been clear that Tom Yawkey, owner of the Boston Red Sox, would have disagreed with anyone espousing that opinion at the time.

Robinson ran onto that infield in Flatbush for the top of the 1st inning, tearing down baseball’s color barrier in the space of just a few strides. As he did so a 13-year-old Green was dividing his time between the hardcourt and the diamond, and as he later told it enjoying basketball more. But personal preference yielded to pragmatism when during his senior year in high school he was offered a baseball scholarship to Fresno State University. Green made yet another practical decision when he chose to turn down that offer and instead enroll at Contra Costa College after his high school coach was put in charge of the small school’s baseball program.

St. Louis was then the westernmost outpost of the major leagues, so Green’s favorite team was the local Oakland Oaks, one of six charter members of the Pacific Coast League. Founded in the twentieth century’s first decade, by the post-World War II years the Oaks had a distinguished history, but a steadily declining attendance at Oaks Park, the team’s dilapidated stadium. A local high school senior named Billy Martin spent the first years of his professional career in Oakland’s system, until the New York Yankees came calling. In addition to Martin the list of Oaks’ alumni includes five Hall of Famers – Casey Stengel, Mel Ott, Ernie Lombardi, Billy Herman, and Joe Gordon.

During his final year of college Green tried out for the Oaks and did well enough to earn a contract not with Oakland, but the team’s entry-level affiliate in Wenatchee, Washington. After two years there he was promoted to the Oaks’ top affiliate in Stockton, where he came to the notice of the Boston Red Sox. By the time Green’s contract was purchased by Boston during the 1955 season, the Red Sox were one of just three major league teams still refusing to add a black player to the roster.

From Albany to Oklahoma City, and on to San Francisco and Minneapolis, Green steadily made his way up Boston’s minor league affiliate ladder, even as the Phillies and Tigers brought to fifteen the number of franchises that had abandoned baseball’s venerable if always unwritten ban on African-American players, leaving Yawkey’s Red Sox as the last holdout. The Boston owner remained resolute, having already passed on the likes of Robinson and Willie Mays in prior years.

Green did well during Spring Training in 1959, but despite the predictable attention paid to him by the press, he was dispatched back to Minneapolis to start the season. That brought protests from the Boston chapter of the NAACP and a state investigation by the Commission Against Discrimination. That pressure, combined with Green’s .320 average with the Minneapolis Millers, finally forced Yawkey to accede to the inevitable. In July 1959 Pumpsie Green got the news every minor leaguer hopes to hear – he was going to the Show.

The Red Sox were on the road when Green joined the team, starting his career in the visitors’ dugout at Comiskey Park. On July 21st, more than twelve years after Robinson’s first game in a Dodgers uniform, Green entered the game against the White Sox as a pinch-runner in the top of the 8th inning, staying on to play shortstop for what little remained of that contest. The next day he was in the lineup as the starting shortstop. One week and four games after his debut, Green recorded his first big league hit, a single off Cleveland’s Jim Perry. Boston’s starting pitcher that day was Earl Wilson, the second black player to wear a Red Sox uniform. Finally back at Fenway Park in early August, Green strode to the plate for the first time in front of home fans, who responded with a standing ovation. Feeding off the energy of the fans, the 25-year-old belted a triple off Fenway’s famous left field wall.

Green’s major league career was relatively brief and, statistically speaking, of little note. Just four seasons with Boston, sometimes in a utility role, followed by what amounted to a brief cameo with the Mets in 1963. At the plate his best year was 1961, when he hit .260 with a very credible OPS of .801. But that same year was his worst in the field, where Green made sixteen errors, one third of the total miscues on his big league resume.

But as with all the other players who, team by team, tore down baseball’s wall of ignorance and prejudice, Green’s career is about more than the usual statistics. Decades later he professed to not fully grasping the significance of his role at the time. It didn’t immediately occur to him why the crowd at Fenway rose to greet him in that first home at-bat. But by that one act those fans proved they understood the significance of Green being in the Red Sox lineup. That August afternoon, six decades ago next month, surely did not mark the end of the long twilight struggle against the legacy of our country’s original sin. Not in baseball, and certainly not in American society at large. But for the Great Game, it was at least the end of the beginning.

Older Posts »