Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 21, 2019

A Sad Ending Just Waiting To Happen

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, there will be no post on Sunday. The regular Thursday and Sunday schedule resumes next week. As always, thanks for your support!

Melo is back. One year and four days after his exceedingly brief time in a Houston Rockets uniform ended with a terse announcement by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that the team was “parting ways” with the ten-time All Star, 35-year-old Carmelo Anthony returned to an NBA hardcourt Tuesday night as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. His many fans will no doubt cheer the return of Anthony and his 25,551 career points, second only to LeBron James among active players and the nineteenth highest career scoring total in league history. Make that 25,561 after Anthony tallied ten points on 4-14 shooting in 24 minutes as the Blazers lost for the tenth time in fifteen games so far this season, 115-104 to the New Orleans Pelicans. Yet however much some basketball fans are rejoicing at the news that the career of one of the NBA’s most prolific shooters isn’t over just yet, it’s hard to imagine Melo’s stay with his fifth franchise ending happily.

Anthony’s return came in the third of a six-game road trip for Portland. Tuesday’s contest was on the Pelicans’ home court at the Smoothie King Center, in the shadow of the Superdome in downtown New Orleans. Like most arenas, the venue draws its name from a corporate sponsor willing to write a prodigiously large check for the right to plaster its logo all over the structure. In this case the owner of the naming rights is a privately held franchisor of outlets selling ostensibly healthy blended beverages. But not so long ago, an arena called Smoothie King would have been an aptly named location for Carmelo Anthony to put on a show. In Denver’s rarified air, where his career flowered with the Nuggets, the team that made Anthony the third overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft after his freshman year at Syracuse, and later at the beginning of his time in Gotham with the Knickerbockers, Anthony defined smooth. Gliding across the court, finding isolation opportunities against overmatched defenders, he would take the ball and shoot and shoot, and then shoot some more, in nightly performances that frequently brought fans to their feet.

But the time since an arena crowd witnessed Anthony hitting one pull-up jumper after another while mixing in the occasional bomb for three is measured by more than just the months of his recent exile from an NBA roster. He led the league in scoring average in his third season in New York, averaging 28.7 points a game in 2012-13. The Knicks won 54 games and made it to the second round of the playoffs that season, achievements the woebegone Madison Square Garden franchise has not approached since, though that story is about much more than Anthony.

Still the numbers tell the tale, and Melo’s have been in steady decline since that year. Both his accuracy and his average have spiraled down together, to barely more than forty percent and just 16.2 points a game during 2017-18, his single season in Oklahoma City. Anthony’s numbers were even worse during his ten games with the Rockets early last year, though his fans might question the sample size.

One game is a decidedly small sample, but Tuesday night’s performance was Anthony’s game of recent years in microcosm. He was in the starting lineup, appropriate for a player who have always seen himself as a star. He was on the court for 24 minutes, certainly not the most of anyone in a Blazers uniform, but not the playing time of someone just filling a role either. And there were a couple of times when Anthony caught a defender flat-footed and launched a shot that found the bottom of the net and served as a reminder of another time.

But those few moments were more than offset by the many minutes in which he turned the ball over five times, played lackadaisical defense, and committed needless fouls while failing to draw a single whistle from New Orleans defenders. Most of all, those minutes were enough for Anthony to send shot after shot to the basket, producing miss after miss, ten in all out of fourteen attempts from the field, more shots than all but one of his teammates.

It is tempting to blame the long layoff that he endured, the months of not knowing if he would ever suit up and take the court again. But Anthony moved well while in the game, and he had his share of open looks. What he did not have was the deft shooting touch that always set Melo apart. Perhaps that will come back but imagining that it will requires a conscious decision to ignore the steady decline embodied in his statistics over the past half-dozen years. It’s also fair to wonder just how long the Trail Blazers are willing to wait. After going to the Western Conference Finals last spring, Portland is off to a terrible start this season, currently sitting near the bottom of the conference standings. Should management decide to throw in the towel, Anthony might have a home for the balance of the schedule, even if his contributions are minimal. But Houston started poorly last season, and one of the reasons the Rockets jettisoned an unproductive Anthony was GM Morey’s determination to get the franchise back in the playoff race.

Melo will be in the Hall of Fame one day, and there is every reason to wish the one-time superstar a soft exit from his sport. But even the biggest stars are not guaranteed a chance to go out on their own terms. All the baskets that produced more than 25,000 points don’t necessarily buy even the semblance of a farewell tour. It is the sadder but more familiar tale that is far more likely – that of one more hero who came to believe that the cheers would never stop, that time could be defied, and who thus stayed too long. That story always ends badly.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 14, 2019

Cheating The Game Is Cheating The Fans

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling the next two weekends, so there will be no post either this Sunday or next. Thursday posts will continue as usual, and the regular twice weekly schedule will resume over Thanksgiving weekend. As always, thanks for reading!

Smart people do stupid things. Fans everywhere would readily acknowledge that truism, and more than a few of above average intelligence would, if pressed, concede that they have personally taken a less than brilliant action a time or two. Or ten. That also applies to teams, which are groups of people united in a common cause.  So perhaps no one should be surprised by this week’s story at The Athletic in which former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who now toils for the Oakland A’s, alleged that when he wore a Houston uniform in 2017 the team used a combination of modern high tech and the most rudimentary of old-fashioned noisemakers to steal signs from the opposing pitcher and relay that information to batters at the plate.  But “unsurprising” is not a synonym for “acceptable.”

As Fiers told the popular sports website, when playing at home the Astros utilized a center field camera aimed at home plate to obtain the signs given by visiting catchers. The video feed from that camera was sent to a monitor just off the dugout, and a team member would then bang a trash can to alert the Houston hitter when the catcher had called for an off-speed pitch. Shortly after the story was published the Astros released a statement saying that an internal investigation had begun “in cooperation” with Major League Baseball, and that no further comment would be forthcoming until that investigation was complete.

The most telling aspect of the press release is what it didn’t say. Unlike manager A.J. Hinch’s tirade to the media during the American League Championship Series against the Yankees last month, when he adamantly denied that his team was stealing signs, the franchise’s statement did not include a denial of Fiers’s charges. That alone is likely enough to ensure that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred will not allow Houston to handle this issue as if it were some internal matter.

That the Astros are a smart franchise is beyond debate. Houston was one of the pioneers of the currently popular strategy of asking fans to endure several years of losing badly in order to build up prospects and clear salary space so that in time a winning roster can be put on the field. Heralded by Sports Illustrated as a future World Series winning team early in that process, the Astros made the magazine’s writers look prescient by rolling to the title in 2017. Since that 101-win season Houston has won two more AL West titles by twice more winning more than 100 games, while going to the ALCS in 2018 and back to the World Series just last month.

Yet for all that success this is not the first time that the Astros have been the subject of an unflattering story for which they can only blame themselves. It’s not even the first such controversy this autumn. During the playoffs the franchise suffered a well-deserved black eye from its response to the news of locker room taunting of female reporters by an assistant general manager. The Astros first statement was an attack on the reporter who broke that story. Then the team dawdled through gradual backtracking to eventual acknowledgement, so that by the time the employee was fired and an apology was issued the contrition felt forced.

It would be foolish to suggest (though that hasn’t stopped a few fans of other franchises from doing so), that Houston’s success on the field is simply attributed to cheating. Still, it is worth noting that during the 2017 postseason the Astros won eight of nine games at Minute Maid Park. Even the best hitter will have a better chance of putting his bat on the ball if he knows what kind of pitch is about to be sent his way. But more important than whatever edge the sound of a bat banging against a trash can might have given Astros hitters is what not merely this story, but the emerging pattern self-inflicted damage says about the culture of the Houston franchise. Astros fans might want to use the time they had planned to spend celebrating a second championship pondering that question instead.

This story also raises a broader issue for the Great Game, and for that matter almost all our sports. Technology, and the reference here is to the real time video feed into the dugout, not the use of a trash can as a cymbal, advances at a lightning pace while becoming every more imbedded in our games. That is helpful in so many ways, but it also presents new opportunities for those who believe breaking the rules is the best way to get ahead. That includes not just those playing a sport, but also the many who might stand to gain from a particular outcome. If, for example, MLB moves to computerized scanning of the strike zone in the near future, supplanting human umpires for calling balls and strikes, will there be real and reliable safeguards against hacking the computer driving the technology? That includes protections against outside parties like gamblers, and not just the efforts of a clever nerd in the home team’s front office.

In any sport, a basic element of the compact with fans is that those who sit in the stands or subscribe to a cable package can trust the integrity of the game. We should never have to doubt that the playing field is level, both literally and figuratively. The Astros are a great team. But the Houston franchise does baseball a disservice when that becomes a question, rather than a statement.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 10, 2019

Winners, And A Whole Lot Of NFL Losers

Perhaps it’s time for a new slogan. The National Football League ascended to its current place as the country’s most popular sport in no small part on the mantra that “on any given Sunday” parity reigned. Thanks to many factors, including the limited impact of any one player in a sport requiring so many participants, the weighted schedule that gives teams with the best records one season a harder path toward duplicating that feat the next, and the salary cap’s ceiling on player contracts, not to mention the vagaries of injuries in the brutal sport, teams with poor records could always hope to turn things around while franchises on top knew their grip on excellence could easily turn slippery.

But with the current season now past it’s halfway mark, this year’s standings are notable for the number of teams sporting records at the extremes. As play began this weekend seven franchises had two or fewer losses, while eight could lay claim to just two or fewer wins. That’s basically half the league displaying either true dominance of considerable ineptitude, which is probably not what commissioner Bert Bell, who led the early growth of the league in the 1950s, had in mind when he first used the famous phrase to describe NFL play.

Some of the teams at the top are occupying familiar positions, which itself calls into question the validity of Bell’s old expression. The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the franchise that represents the antithesis of parity, are 8-1. The New Orleans Saints came into the week almost as good at 7-1 and seemed determined to avenge the conference title that was stolen from them by blatantly bad officiating last season. Then there are teams like the Baltimore Ravens, who whipped the Patriots last week behind the dynamic play of second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, and the 8-0 San Francisco 49ers, who play Monday night, that are back as serious contenders after a few seasons wandering in the football wilderness.

But as is often the case the more interesting stories are at the other end of the standings, among the many teams who now seem to be vying for the right to pick first in next spring’s draft. As with the teams worth rooting for, some of the losers are right where any fan would expect to find them, namely mired deep in the standings. Surely that’s the case in Washington, were fans have largely stopped showing up at FedEx Field. In a city that has become a town full of winners, first with the NHL’s Capitals, then the WNBA’s Mystic and most recently the World Series champion Nationals, owner Dan Snyder is so reviled by fans that his NFL team doesn’t even qualify as a lovable loser.

Then there are the teams that are just having down years (as opposed to lost decades), or so at least their fans hope. With a series of trades just as the season began, the Miami Dolphins stated their clear intention to write off this season. Yet despite their best, or is it worst, efforts the Fish aren’t even in sole possession of last place in the AFC East but are tied with the Jets for coveted title of cellar dweller. Instead the league leader in the race for the bottom, and the right to the next twenty-year-old future franchise quarterback come April, is Cincinnati. The Bengals have yet to break into the win column this season. Even an extended rest for their bye last weekend couldn’t help them, as they continued to make other teams look good, with Baltimore being the most recent beneficiary. Fans everywhere are no doubt looking forward to the next to last week of the regular season, when the Bengals travel to Miami for an epic showdown against the Dolphins.

A foretaste of that was on offer this Sunday in the Meadowlands, where the 1-7 Jets squared off against the 2-7 Giants. If ever there was good reason to avoid the traffic headaches of getting to and from MetLife Stadium every single week of the season, this year’s play by the two franchises that share the field is it. Remarkably enough, Sunday afternoon’s game was reasonably entertaining, though that may just prove that parity can also be found among lesser levels of competition. In the end Jets fans went home happy, while the Giants’ faithful were left to contemplate what might have been, this weekend’s game having been the rare instance in which the Giants were favored.

Still, the best football game of the entire weekend may well have been in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, where LSU withstood a furious rally by host Alabama to win 46-41, putting the Tigers in command of the SEC West and placing in jeopardy the Crimson Tide’s streak of six straight appearances in the College Football Playoff. Watching that game one couldn’t help thinking that one of those high-powered offenses might be more than a match for the shoddy defensive play exhibited by so many of the NFL’s also-rans. One also wondered why, given the superior quality of play, the young men on the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium, in contrast to their NFL brethren, weren’t getting paid.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 7, 2019

A New Season, But An Old Issue

Let’s give credit where it is due. With so many sources of sports information, ESPN has faced declining ratings and myriad other troubles over the past few years. As for the NCAA, headlines about the principal governing body of collegiate athletics usually range from negative to dire. But the sports network and the association together produced a winner with the Champions Classic, the doubleheader featuring four storied teams that’s kicked off the major college basketball season since 2011. Two games on one night, featuring rotating matchups between Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and Michigan State – programs with a combined total of eighteen NCAA titles – give fans a taste of the drama that is this sport at its best. It’s an atmosphere that likely won’t come again until deep into next March, when the annual madness is nearing its peak. And unlike the season-ending tournament, with its inherent vagaries, this event guarantees back-to-back games featuring four marquee competitors.

Play it at Madison Square Garden, as happened earlier this week, with the four teams ranked one through four in both the AP and Coaches polls for the first time ever, and the Champions Classic becomes a headline-grabbing preview of a potential blue-chip Final Four.

On paper at least, both games were mild upsets, with #4 Duke beating #3 Kansas 68-66 and #2 Kentucky upending #1 Michigan State 69-62. Those results will likely shuffle the rankings when the sportswriters and coaches next cast their ballots, but the truth is all four teams stand a good chance of being ranked #1 at some point over the next four months. The Spartans are the slight betting favorite to cut down the nets next spring, but all four of the teams that ran up and down the hardcourt of the World’s Most Famous Arena, along with North Carolina and Florida, are the darlings of the sports books.

Of course, a season’s worth of games between now and tournament time will yield its fair measure of surprises. Teams will rise and fall, some players will underperform while others thrive in the spotlight, and somewhere along the way a Cinderella or two will demand to be fitted for that elusive glass slipper. If that broad list encompassed all the stories that will come out of the new college basketball season, it’s likely that ESPN, and especially the NCAA, would be very happy. But even the four top-ranked teams in the land playing a doubleheader at the Garden couldn’t cause fans to entirely forget that off-court issues are virtually certain to intrude on the preferred storylines.

In California a new law, which doesn’t take effect until 2023, allows student-athletes to be paid for the use of their name or likeness, and to hire agents. In response the NCAA Board of Governors voted to move ahead with developing a plan to allow similar compensation everywhere, though the committee that’s been charged with the task of filling in the details has an extremely vague mandate. Meanwhile a former Villanova defensive back now playing in the Canadian Football League filed a class action lawsuit accusing the association of violating minimum wage laws by refusing to pay athletes.

Hovering over the various efforts to fundamentally change the relationship between schools and the young people on the fields, courts, and rinks is the question of just how much that relationship has already strayed from the pristine amateurism that is supposedly at the heart of college sports. Kansas head coach Bill Self, one of the four celebrity coaches at the Champions Classic, all of whom were far better known than any of their players, is facing the possibility of NCAA sanctions for allegedly being complicit in the payments of more than $100,000 to three basketball recruits by Adidas. Perhaps as that case unfolds the association will eventually impose severe punishment on the longtime coach of the Jayhawks. But until that happens Self remains beloved on the Kansas University campus, where no one seems to mind his annual $7.15 million salary.

The relationship between KU and its coach is by no means unusual. Auburn’s Bruce Pearl was found in violation of NCAA rules at two of his previous stops, but after taking the Tigers to last spring’s Final Four, he received a five-year, $20 million contract extension. DePaul’s coach was suspended for three games and had his program placed on NCAA probation, but that didn’t stop Dave Leitao and the school from opening negotiations on a new contract.

It is easy to look at that landscape and despair, to throw up one’s hands and conclude that the status quo is permanent. Yet while the pace of change may be unacceptably slow, it now seems inevitable that change is in fact coming. The legislature of the country’s largest state has done its part. While the federal corruption investigation into big-time college basketball has been most notable for its focus on bit players – assistant coaches and hangers on – the headlines at least served to strip away any pretense that the so-called amateur ideal is still a reality at the highest levels of college sports. As the lawsuits pile up, as other states look to follow California’s lead, and as even the NCAA, however grudgingly, acknowledges that it must act, the day when student-athletes are fairly compensated for their work draws closer.

The most recognizable figures at the Champions Classic were four men on the sidelines. Self, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski are four of the most famous head coaches in the country, and they have all become wealthy while taking teams to multiple Final Four appearances. But for all their fame, fans didn’t pack the seats at the Garden to see the coaches. In college sports, it’s long past time to start sharing the wealth.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 3, 2019

The Headline Horse Racing Didn’t Need

A quarter of a mile. The distance of countless running tracks around innumerable high school football fields in an untold number of towns across the country. It’s not very far at all, one quarter of a mile, especially in the context of the more than fourteen miles run by a total of one hundred fifty-three horses over two days of racing at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, run Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita Park. Whether it’s the first two furlongs of a race or the last, it’s a distance that a thoroughbred racehorse will cover in a few ticks over twenty seconds. Yet in the end, the final quarter mile of the season-ending racing extravaganza may prove to be just long enough to overcome the entrenched elements of a beleaguered sport that have stood in the way of badly needed reforms. If not, that quarter mile may well be remembered as all the distance it took to reduce American thoroughbred racing to little more than a memory.

If there was a surprise in how the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic unfolded, it was the identity of one of the horses in contention for much of the race. The final start on the two day card, the Classic is the Cup’s main event, typically drawing a strong field of horses with names familiar to even casual fans. But after the excitement of a pair of Triple Crown winners in just a four-year span – American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year – the 2019 three-year-old category, the celebrity tier of horse racing, was lackluster. The Kentucky Derby had the first disqualification of a winner in its long history, and each of the Triple Crown events produced a different champion. Going into this last big weekend of racing, the lack of three-year-old stars meant that the competition for overall Horse of the Year honors was between the five-year-old turf specialist Bricks and Mortar and the four-year-old filly Midnight Bisou. The connections for both opted to run them in earlier races on Saturday’s card, with Bricks and Mortar winning the mile-and-a-half Turf despite never having run that distance, while Midnight Bisou’s streak of seven straight wins ended with a second place finish in the Distaff.

While the field for the Classic lacked superstars, it did have a few horses well-known to racing fans. The Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie missed most of last year including all three Triple Crown races with a serious injury, but the colt had an impressive four-year-old campaign and was installed as the heavy favorite. The post parade also featured another well-known four-year-old in Vino Rosso, as well as Preakness winner War of Will and Travers champion Code of Honor. But as the eleven horses raced by the Santa Anita grandstand for the first time, the horse charging up to challenge War of Will for the lead was Mongolian Groom, a 15-1 longshot that had never finished better than third over the Classic’s distance.

Still the heavily raced three-year-old gamely hung on, running side by side with McKinzie, who was stalking War of Will, around the second turn and down the back stretch. Most of the nearly 70,000 fans in the stands and the millions more watching NBC’s coverage surely expected Mongolian Groom to fade. But at first, when McKinzie accelerated past War of Will on the far turn, the longshot stayed with the favorite. Then as the horses turned for home, with McKinzie opening up a small lead and Vino Rosso charging up on the outside on the way to eventual victory, Mongolian Groom began to fade.

As the field raced past the quarter pole the television cameras followed McKinzie and Vino Rosso, with Mongolian Groom almost slipping off the left of the screen. No doubt those in the stands were focused on the race to the wire over the final quarter mile as well. That meant few noticed jockey Abel Cedillo suddenly pull up, bringing Mongolian Groom to a halt as quickly as he could. At that moment perhaps only he could guess that his mount had suffered a catastrophic injury.

Later in the evening, after the television coverage had ended and the attention of sports fans turned elsewhere, but not before the headlines had been written, came word that Mongolian Groom had been euthanized, becoming the thirty-sixth horse to die at Santa Anita in just over ten months. The Breeders’ Cup organizers released a statement that read in part “The death of Mongolian Groom is a loss to the entire horse racing community. Our equine and human athletes’ safety is the Breeders’ Cup’s top priority.”

Yet the toll continues, especially at Santa Anita. About ten horse die every week at tracks in the U.S., a fatality rate anywhere from two and a half to five times greater than that of any country in Europe or Asia. The widespread use of painkillers and performance enhancers, along with the hodgepodge of state level regulation of horse racing, sets America apart from the rest of the world as well. Only a naïf would conclude that those two facts are somehow unrelated.

While many in the industry have acknowledged the long overdue need for clamping down on drug use and standardizing regulations across the country, a few powerful forces, notably the owners of Churchill Downs and various state regulatory boards with an obvious self-interest, have successfully blocked any attempts at federal action. Meanwhile the Breeders’ Cup organizers opted to continue with plans to hold this year’s event at the track that has become the symbol of equine carnage, with a likely state referendum to ban racing altogether in California just one result. Mongolian Groom’s death would have been tragic at any venue, but at Santa Anita it instantly became the latest number in an unacceptable count, highlighting the grim challenge facing horse racing.

Like the Super Bowl and three of the four men’s major golf tournaments, sites for the Breeders’ Cup are announced years in advance. Moving this year’s races from Santa Anita would have been a logistical nightmare. But board members of Breeders’ Cup Limited, the corporate operator of the event, now have plenty of time to weigh that ordeal against the far more serious and long-lasting bad dream that didn’t end when they woke up Sunday morning. Perhaps now those who have stood in the way will stand aside and allow meaningful reform. If they don’t do so soon, racing fans and those who earn a living from the sport may soon discover that they are a day late, and a quarter mile short.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 31, 2019

The Nationals End Washington’s Long Losing Legacy

There is joy in Mudville. From a city’s history of mediocrity with three different franchises, through 95 years without a championship, 86 years since playing for one and more than three decades without any team at all, to repeated postseason heartbreak, a 19-31 start this year and finally, at the end, arguably the most improbable Fall Classic ever, the Washington Nationals are World Series champions.

From first pitch to final out, this year’s World Series can only be fully grasped by those who saw or heard it, whether listening on the radio, watching on television, or, for the most fortunate, in person at the ballpark. A year or two or twenty from now, the box scores will inform readers that the Series went its full seven games, that for the first time in a playoff series that long in any of our major sports, all seven were won by the visiting team, and that in the end victory belonged to the players wearing the “Curly-W.” But in the culmination of a remarkable comeback season, the ebb and flow of this Series, its drama and context, topped by the final fightback of the Wild Card Nationals through two straight elimination games on the road against the team with the best regular season record in the majors, was far too astounding to be adequately told by statistics alone. For the Nats and their fans, as Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter wrote one year before the second team called Senators packed up and began D.C.’s long hiatus from the Great Game, “what a long strange trip it’s been.”

There is of course no direct link between the newly crowned Nationals and that hapless expansion squad that began play one year after the city’s original franchise took flight to Minnesota. Nor is there one to those earlier Senators of Walter Johnson, the team that topped the Giants in the 1924 World Series then lost to them nine years later. And the Lerner family, owners of the Nationals, certainly had nothing to do with baseball’s long interregnum in our nation’s capital that began when the second Senators fled to Texas. But for local fans the three different teams and the decades without games are all of a piece. Together they tell the story of Washington baseball, and it is mostly a tale of misery and doubt.

The arrival of the Nationals from Montreal in 2005 at least ended Washington’s long offseason, but as the Expos the team had done little to distinguish itself, so the well-established pattern of sub-.500 seasons was expected to continue. It was an expectation all too easily met until 2012, when Washington captured the NL East with 98 wins. When the Nats led the Cardinals 7-5 with two outs in the 9th inning of NLDS Game 5, cheering fans were on their feet at Nationals Park, ready to experience postseason success.

The cheers died that night, as St. Louis scored four times to steal the game and the series. Similar early round playoff agony returned in 2014 against San Francisco, 2016 against Los Angeles, and 2017 against Chicago. Along with cooler temperatures and falling leaves, disappointment arrived every autumn.

When this year’s roster fell to twelve games under .500 in late May, playoff baseball was the last concern for most fans. Then from the depths of late spring the Nationals rallied to play as well as any team in the majors over the next four months, eventually capturing one of the NL’s two Wild Card spots. But staying in the fight was one thing; finishing it meant replacing the franchise’s postseason history with a new narrative.

Instead the familiar story seemed to be playing out when Milwaukee led the Wild Card tilt 3-1 in the 8th, with Washington down to its final four outs. That’s when it became the Nationals’ turn for late inning heroics, loading the bases before Juan Soto stroked a single to right that cleared them, giving Washington its first lead of the game, and the only one it needed. Then the Nats won two more elimination games against the Dodgers in the NLDS, the final one, in that series’ decisive Game 5, by again overcoming a 3-1 deficit with a pair of 8th inning runs to tie and four more in the top of the 10th to win.

After finally earning an easy series, a four game sweep of the Cardinals in the NLCS, Washington met Houston in what will forever be known as one of the strangest World Series ever. It was collectively taut even as the individual games were mostly lopsided. While the Series went seven games, the average margin was five runs, with only one contest decided by less than three. There was the incredible inability of either team to win at home, a pattern that once established fans on both sides surely believed would end every night. That pattern meant the Nationals jumped out to a two games to none lead in Houston, beating the two pitchers who will likely top the AL Cy Young voting, only to be thrashed three straight times at home. So it was back to Minute Maid Park, with no margin for error.

Once there, Washington overcame another early deficit and rode the right arm of Stephen Strasburg to a 7-2 win in Game 6, setting up the final showdown. In Game 7 Max Scherzer was heroic, bending but not breaking through five frames, but Zach Greinke was magnificent for the Astros, holding the Nats to just two hits through the first six innings. It was getting late, and the Nationals were once again behind and seemingly overmatched. Until, with breathtaking suddenness, they weren’t.

With only eight outs to go, Anthony Rendon stroked a long homer to left, cutting the Astros 2-0 lead in half. One at-bat later, a walk to Soto, Greinke was pulled by Houston manager A.J. Hinch, giving Astros fans a debate topic for the winter.

That was made certain when Howie Kendrick sent reliever Will Harris’s second pitch soaring down the right field line where it bounced off the foul pole for a two-run homer and the lead, the loud clank heralding the turning of the tide. The Nationals added another run in the 8th and two more in the 9th, while Patrick Corbin and Daniel Hudson held Houston at bay. When Hudson got Michael Brantley to flail at a slow slider for the final out, a new and far better chapter in D.C.’s baseball history was written, as the Washington Nationals finished the fight. Joy, joy, joy – at long last there is joy in Mudville.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 27, 2019

Problems That Won’t End With The Series

What a difference a couple of days make. Just as a game can look very different in the 6th inning than it did in the 2nd, come the playoffs momentum in a series can easily shift between the contestants. That’s because with so much at stake over each short series, every opportunity to put a game in the win column is vitally important. When the Nationals and Astros headed east from Houston after last Wednesday’s Game 2, the upstart Washington nine held a two games to none lead and probably didn’t really require an airplane to take flight and wing their way back to the nation’s capital. Now after two contests at Nationals Park, the World Series is knotted at two games apiece and the once-desperate Astros are the squad with the wind at their back.

As this is written the teams are getting ready for Game 5, the last contest of the year to be played on the Nationals’ home field. By the time many readers are perusing this paragraph, the results of that game will be in the books and the teams will be headed back to Minute Maid Park to put the final exclamation point on the longest season. Should Washington win on Sunday, the Nationals will still face the great challenge of closing out the Series on the road, but at least they will head back west with the lead. But if Houston wins yet again, and the Astros odds improved with late word that Washington’s Max Scherzer has been scratched from his scheduled start due to injury, then for the first time since 1996 the first five World Series games will all have been won by the visiting team. Since that was the season the Yankees took four in a row from Atlanta after losing the first two games at home, the Astros surely won’t mind the comparison. Even if the visitor win streak stops at four, only a daring gambler would have put any hard-earned cash down on a prop bet predicting that outcome.

But the warning that appeared in this space after the first two games still holds true. It was too early then to be planning a parade, and it remains too early to do so now. The only certainty is that this year’s Series is not going to end Sunday night. So, with more baseball still to be played, there’s time to step back from the action on the field and consider a couple of less pleasant topics; two unrelated and very different issues that have hung over this Fall Classic like dark clouds threatening a rainout.

The first is the inexcusable pace of play, an issue that has become all too familiar to fans of the Great Game come this time of year. The first sentence of the previous paragraph could really have two meanings. The obvious one is that the Series won’t end Sunday because neither squad faces elimination in Game 5. But even if one team was vying for its decisive fourth win, it’s still very nearly certain that with the game being played on the East Coast, the end would not come Sunday night, but rather sometime after midnight, in the nether hours of Monday morning. Two of the first four contests ran more than four hours, with the average length of the quartet being just six minutes short of that mark. That’s nearly an hour longer than the average regular season game, and that three hour-plus time is in turn hardly laudable, as evidenced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s focus on reducing it.

That focus needs to produce real results soon, whether by imposing ball or strike penalties on pitchers and hitters who dawdle, eliminating warm-up throws for relievers who have just spent ten minutes warming up in the bullpen, or requiring hurlers to face a minimum of three batters. Postseason contests are going to take longer – the commercial needs of TV networks shelling out millions of dollars for broadcast rights will always make that a certainty. But since they are also the most watched games of the year, that’s even more reason to address pace of play in areas that MLB can control.

There have been multiple commentaries on the 86-year gap between World Series games in Washington. But those historical perspectives have mostly missed one especially telling contemporaneous account of Game 3 of the 1933 Series, before which President Franklin Roosevelt threw out the first pitch. The local paper reported that FDR then stayed for the entire game, despite it running “almost two hours.” In modern playoff games, the two-hour mark usually comes in the 5th inning.

Four hour games try the patience of even the most dedicated fan. But, along with MLB’s insistence on starting every contest in its championship round after 8 p.m. East Coast time, they ensure that the young fans who baseball claims to be trying to attract are, or should be, fast asleep by the time of the final out.

The second major distraction during this Series has been the Astros’ contemptible initial response to Sports Illustrated’s account of assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s misogynistic outburst at a group of women reporters, one of who is an outspoken advocate for domestic violence victims, during the team’s post-ALCS celebration. Taubman’s profane taunting was bad enough, but it would have gone down as one fool’s idiotic ravings had the Astros not launched a scurrilous attack on Stephanie Apstein, the SI reporter who broke the story.

Once multiple witnesses put the lie to Houston’s claim that the incident as reported by Apstein never happened, Astros management started backtracking. But that process moved at a pace like that of a postseason game, and along the way general manager Jeff Luhnow conceded that the team’s original statement attacking Apstein had gone through multiple levels of review within the Astros’ organization. About the only person in authority who seemed to have a clue as to just how bad the Astros looked was manager A.J. Hinch, who immediately distanced himself and his players from the incident.

If Luhnow’s assertion is accurate and not just an attempt to spread responsibility so broadly that no action beyond the firing of Taubman is feasible, it speaks to a culture that is both defensive and benighted on a critical issue, begging the question as to whether that attitude is limited to just domestic violence. As Hannah Keyser, baseball writer for Yahoo Sports put it, the Astros should “want to know if and why journalists might not feel comfortable in their clubhouse,” adding that the team should “treat the broader societal culture that too often tolerates or downplays domestic violence as the adversary instead of the people who take issue with it.” For a franchise that may soon be celebrating its second title in three years, and as such is one of the Great Game’s most visible, it’s neither a good nor a welcome look.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 24, 2019

Nationals Defy All Expectations But Their Own

It is the Great Game’s great irony, the baseball gods’ inside joke that they often choose to play on us come October. From the chill days of early spring through the high heat of summer and on into the bright colors and cooler temperatures of autumn, the longest season unwinds in its slow and steady pace. One hundred sixty-two games, each of equal value in the standings; yet their sheer number minimizes the outcome of any one, shrinking it until its importance matches the agate type once used to print daily box scores on the back page of newspapers’ sports sections, back when there were newspapers with sports sections big enough to have a back page. In truth a pennant race is six months long, yet the first appearance of the phrase is far more likely to coincide with Labor Day than Opening Day. Until then it is as if the impact of any single contest is more theoretical than real. The important story is the one being told by the accumulation of all those games into a narrative of the season.

Then the playoffs come along, and all the certainties formed over the preceding months along with the predictions of pundits and fans based upon them, can crack and then crumble in the space of a few plays, a handful of at-bats, sometimes even a single swing. The sedate procession of the regular schedule gives way to the mad dash through short postseason series, and we are all reminded that there really is a reason why our heroes actually play every game.

An important lesson of that reality is that it is far too early for anyone to be planning a parade. The World Series is still best-of-seven, not first team to two. Perhaps, before it is over, the expectations born of Houston’s gaudy 107-win regular season record, the best in the majors, will be met. When the final out is recorded maybe the players leaping into each other’s arms on the infield at Minute Maid Park will be wearing Astros uniforms.

But that sentence is location-specific because it’s an outcome that can now only take place on Houston’s home turf. Through the first two contests the result between the foul lines has brushed aside conventional wisdom like an inside fastball sending a batter to the dirt. Certainty has been no match for the unexpected as the Washington Nationals have claimed a two games to none lead that is even more commanding than the numbers suggest since both victories came in Houston. With the Series shifting to D.C. the Astros will need to extend it to at least six games, and a return trip to Texas, in order to complete a comeback.

As befits the postseason’s pace, in each Washington win the game turned in just a few moments. Tuesday night it was Houston that jumped on top on the strength of a two-run double by Yuli Gurriel in the opening frame. But the Nationals battled back, knotting the score with solo homers by Ryan Zimmerman and Juan Soto. The blasts surely boosted confidence in the visitors’ dugout, proving that Houston starter Gerrit Cole, who had not lost a game since May, was not unhittable. No one seemed more possessed of that self-belief than the 20-year-old Soto, who came to the plate with two on and two out in the top of the 5th. The Nats had already pushed one run across to take a 3-2 lead. But with starter Max Scherzer closing in on a hundred pitches, that margin was unlikely to last across multiple innings of work by Washington’s bullpen.

Soto saw six pitches from Cole. He calmly watched the first four, three of which were out of the strike zone. He finally swung at the fifth, missing to run the count to full. Then on the sixth offering of the at-bat Soto hammered a line drive to left, plating a pair of runs to expand Washington’s margin. In the end the Nationals would need all of that edge in the 5-4 final. The five runs might not have been enough, but in the 8th Houston’s George Springer chose to stand in the box and admire his drive to right field, thinking it would clear the fence. Instead it bounced off the top of the wall and back into play. While Springer’s double scored the Astros’ fourth run, had he been running from the start he would have easily reached third base with just one out in the inning. Two at-bats, both of which produced doubles. But the first felt momentous, the second anticlimactic, and that difference told the outcome of Game 1.

The following night the Astros had runners on first and second with only one out in the last of the 6th. With the score tied 2-2 it was Houston’s best chance to finally break a game open. Instead Stephen Strasburg got Carlos Correa to hit a harmless infield pop, and then set Kyle Tucker down on strikes to quiet the crowd. Astros manager A.J. Hinch then sent Justin Verlander back out to pitch the 7th, after the veteran had needed 98 pitches to navigate the first six innings.   Washington catcher Kurt Suzuki hammered the second pitch he saw over the left field wall for a tie-breaking home run, and center fielder Victor Robles worked a patient at-bat through seven pitches before finally drawing a walk. That was it for Verlander, but the flood gates had opened. By the time Houston batted again the Nationals had scored six runs on the way to a 12-3 thumping of the host squad. In four consecutive at-bats against tiring starters, two by each team, the complexion of the game shifted irrevocably in Washington’s favor.

Casual fans – and there are many this time of year – are likely stunned to see the Astros leave the comfort of home in a deep hole. A desperate Houston squad will surely be geared up for Game 3 Friday night at Nationals Park. But they will also surely find a sea of red-clad Washington faithful, who have waited generations for the World Series to come to town. Those fans know that after a horrible start, the Nationals played as well as any franchise in the Great Game over the final four months of the regular season. Now their team has run off eight straight postseason victories. Two more and they can plan that parade. Those games must still be played, which means anything can happen. But who can blame Washington fans for believing that their team will finish the fight?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 20, 2019

In The Bronx, End Of A Decade To Forget

The evidence now allows us to posit a new hard and fast rule of the Great Game, certain that at the very least our assertion cannot be disproved anytime soon – as in for at least the next ninety years. Whatever outcome other periods may produce, in every century the decade of the teens is a hard time to be a fan of the New York Yankees. When Jose Altuve’s 9th inning walk-off home run sent the Houston Astros to the World Series very late Saturday night, ending the Yankees’ season, it marked the tenth straight year, from 2010 through 2019, that New York failed to reach the World Series. The last calendar decade in which the Yankees were shut out from participation in the Fall Classic was the 1910s, which was also the first full decade of the team’s existence in Gotham.

A century ago things changed rather dramatically with the arrival of a pitcher turned power-hitting outfielder by the name of Ruth prior to the 1920 season. In the 1920s the Yankees played in six World Series, winning three of them and beginning to build a winning tradition unlike any other franchise. The 2009 title was the franchise’s 27th, and its 40th appearance in MLB’s championship round. Along the way there have been droughts of more than ten years – eleven seasons from 1965 through 1975, and fourteen from 1982 through 1995 – but within the admittedly artificial construct of calendar decades, each one has seen at least one trip by the Yankees to the Series, with all but the 1980s seeing championships as well.

Which makes the current string of early winters in the Bronx a big deal, at least for Yankees fans. To be certain, given the overall success of the franchise no fans in Boston or L.A. or any other big league town will be organizing a pity party, nor will anyone be starting a GoFundMe page to help the Steinbrenner family afford a higher payroll. Any baseball writer would be quick to point out that over the past ten years no team had more regular season victories than the Yankees’ 921. The Bombers also made seven trips to the postseason including four to the ALCS. That’s more appearances in the penultimate playoff round than any other American League team.

All of which would lead many analysts to ascribe New York’s drought through the teens to greater parity across the Great Game. The standard offer of proof for that argument is the fact that no team has won consecutive titles since the Yankee’s three straight championships from 1998 through 2000. But a closer look suggests what that really proves is the inherent randomness of the short series that comprise the playoffs, from a one game Wild Card contest to the best-of-five division series to the best-of-seven format in the final two rounds. For while there may in fact be parity in the big leagues, it is among a handful of franchises that clearly stand above the rest.

In the same decade that the Yankees failed to make it to the World Series, the San Francisco Giants won three championships and the Boston Red Sox won two. Should the Astros prevail over the Washington Nationals in the Series that begins Tuesday evening, Houston will join the Giants and BoSox as winners of multiple titles. Even if the Nats prevail, Houston is already assured of being one of seven teams with multiple World Series appearances during the decade. That list includes Texas and Kansas City from the American League and St. Louis and Los Angeles from the senior circuit in addition to the Giants, Red Sox and Astros. In total those seven franchises account for three-quarters of the World Series contestants in the decade.

Yankees fans are right to wonder what has held their team back, despite all those regular season wins and ALCS appearances. The mounting evidence suggests that, as unlikely as it might seem given New York’s reputation built under the late George Steinbrenner, the answer now that the family’s next generation is in charge is a reluctance to spend money at crucial times.

Burdened with an aging and expensive roster in the early part of the decade, Hal Steinbrenner made clear his belief that a team did not need to have a $200 million payroll to win a title. He’s right, as plenty of teams on the list of championship prove. But since the Yankees were already in luxury tax territory because of prior contractual commitments, Steinbrenner’s desire to bring payroll down limited the offseason options of GM Brian Cashman. The general manager did a brilliant job of rebuilding the club, making it younger and cheaper, without the season or three of tanking that is now in vogue. But more recently, while New York’s payroll has again climbed, the Yankees remain reluctant to go beyond whatever internal guidelines they have set from season to season.

That limitation has shown most clearly in the team’s lack of quality starting pitching. New York passed on Gerrit Cole two years ago because the Pirates wanted Miguel Andujar and Clint Frazier in return, and Cashman deemed that too high a trade price. But Cole will be pitching for Houston this coming week, while after a very promising 2018 Andujar missed almost all this season following labrum surgery, and for all his talent Frazier has yet to play a role beyond occasional backup for the big league club. Then last winter the Yankees were outbid for Patrick Corbin because Cashman refused the left-hander’s demand for a six-year deal. The advanced analytics that are now de rigueur suggest that out years of a contract that long will give the team very little return. But in the present day, Corbin will be pitching for the Nationals in this year’s World Series.

Instead of the top pitchers available the last two offseasons, the Yankees signed J.A. Happ and James Paxton. And this year, Cashman asserted that the plan was to rely on a lights-out bullpen. But that was a plan born of necessity. Ultimately the team had so little confidence in Happ that he was demoted to the bullpen for the playoffs, and while Paxton was very good in Game 5 against the Astros, in Game 2 he couldn’t make it out of the 3rd inning. Meanwhile over-relying on the relief corps left several of its key members worn out by the start of the ALCS.

Meanwhile the Yankees continue to draw more than three million fans a year, and ancillary business lines like the YES network, the most-watched regional sports network in the country, add to the cash flow. That must certainly please Steinbrenner, who made clear early in his tenure that he was much more attuned to the bottom line than either his famous father or other members of his family. But Yankees fans hold their team to a higher standard, one that they have come to expect will be met given the franchise’s long and glorious history. Measured against that, Altuve’s home run put the exclamation point on a decade of failure. As yet another winter comes too soon to the Bronx, the question is whether that view is shared by Steinbrenner and Cashman.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 17, 2019

The Sound Of Joy, Loud And Clear Through The Ether

It was getting late, the tail end of a disappointing day. It had been many hours since the early morning departure from New Hampshire, the beginning of a four hour drive along the familiar route across New England and down to the Connecticut suburbs of Gotham. The trip that began on I-95 just outside downtown Portsmouth wandered off the great highway that connects the principal cities of the East Coast onto several of its Interstate brethren. I-495, the outermost of the two circumferential roads around Boston; I-90, which at the start of its 3,000 mile east-west journey from one ocean to another is better known locally as the Mass Pike; then I-84 and I-91, from Massachusetts southwest to Hartford, then due south to New Haven. Together these roads bisecting the heart of southern New England form a more direct line to New York City than simply staying on I-95, which hugs the coastline. But in New Haven the two paths come back together, so the drive to Stamford ended with twenty miles on the same highway on which it began.

After checking into a local hotel for the overnight stay, the journey continued by train, the Metro North commuter rail providing the easiest and fastest way to traverse the final thirty miles to the south Bronx, home to Yankee Stadium. There the home team faced off against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.

The Yankees were dominant in the first game of the series, played three nights earlier in Houston. But after winning that contest by a score of 7-0, New York’s offense went quiet in Game 2. Despite the 3-2, 11-inning loss, Yankees fans were optimistic after the split on the road. But those bright hopes faded with the late afternoon’s setting sun once player introductions were completed and the game began. The Astros scored one in the 1st and another in the 2nd on solo home runs by Jose Altuve and Josh Reddick, while on the mound Gerrit Cole allowed plenty of Yankees to reach base, but none to cross the plate. When Houston stretched its lead to 4-0 in the 7th, the once boisterous crowd grew quiet.

The eventual 4-1 loss, coming on the heels of the overtime defeat at Minute Maid Park, did not doom New York’s postseason hopes, but it certainly made the road to a 28th title considerably more difficult. That knowledge dampened the spirits of fans leaving the Stadium, and a couple hours spent in the constant swirl of Midtown failed to lift them. The visit ended abruptly with a sudden realization of the time, followed by a mad dash across town and down into the bowels of Grand Central, to track 105, just in time to catch the 10:44.

The sprint was worth it since this train is scheduled to reach Stamford considerably earlier than the next available option. Still the 10:44 was a local, meaning there would be more than a dozen stops along the way. Contemplating the late hour and the ride ahead as the cars emerged above ground at 90th Street, it seemed that checking on the night’s second game, the potentially decisive matchup between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals, was as good a way as any to pass the time.

A glance at a phone that is likely smarter than its owner showed the Nationals comfortably ahead. But then a closer look focused the mind and stirred even a Yankees fan out of his post-loss lethargy. As important as the 7-4 score was the game’s progress. In Washington they had played 8 innings. Quickly an app was loaded. The first screen displayed the box score, that eternally helpful summary of every Great Game contest ever played. The Nats plated seven runs in their first at-bat, an outburst that surely sent the packed house at Nationals Park into a state of delirium. In a deep hole after just one inning, the Cardinals did their best to chip away, scoring one in the 4th and three more in the 5th. What the basic numbers on the screen didn’t reveal was that after two quick outs St. Louis had loaded the bases in the 8th, generating untold anxiety in the crowd. But veteran Matt Carpenter, sent up to pinch hit, sent a grounder to second that was monetarily bobbled before being corralled by Brian Dozier, whose ensuing throw to first retired the side and ended the threat.

Fingers stabbed icons on the screen, and after a moment the voices of Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler are heard. The pair comprise Washington’s broadcast team on 106.7 The Fan, home station for the Nationals radio network. Decades from the days of and on a device infinitely more complex than the old hand-held transistor receivers, a fan is once again listening to a ballgame in real time. In the age of GameDay and Statcast and myriad other high-tech tools that instantly transmit game information, radio remains the means by which millions of fans follow the exploits of their favorite team. Nats fans who do so are intimately familiar with the voices of Slowes and Jageler. The former began his career in St. Louis, tutored by the likes of Jack Buck and Bob Costas. He has been calling Nationals games since the franchise relocated from Montreal in 2004. Jageler joined Slowes in the booth the following season. Together they have seen Washington go from a perpetual loser to a frequent contender, and they have called the heartbreaking plays of multiple postseason series that ended in defeat.

As the 9th inning begins it is immediately clear from the timbre of their voices that the two announcers are as excited as the nearly 44,000 fans in the stands. The roars from those fans becomes a steady backdrop, even as the words from Slowes and Jageler come faster and faster, threatening to tumble over one another. Kolten Wang flies to left for the first out, then Matt Wieters pops out to catcher Yan Gomes.

Now the Nationals are on the brink of ending years of playoff heartbreak. In the radio booth, his voice steadily rising to a shout, Slowes has the call as Tommy Edman bats against Daniel Hudson. “Two out, nobody on here in the top of the 9th inning! Nationals Park in a frenzy! The Nationals are one out away from a first ever trip to play for baseball’s World Championship! Here’s the kick! Now the pitch! Fastball is hit in the air to left center field! Robles calling for it! He’s under it, waiting! And he makes the catch! He makes the catch! Bang, zoom go the fireworks! The National League championship winning ‘Curly-W’ is in the books! And for the first time since 1933, we’ll have a World Series in the nation’s capital!”

The 10:44 rolls on, the miles and stations remaining to Stamford steadily dwindling. Other passengers give no thought to the celebration that is starting as Washington players storm the field a couple hundred miles down the I-95 corridor. But in the first car, one fan has captured the moment, the excitement, and the pure joy, as if he too were in the stands at Nationals Park. The long day is not so disappointing after all. Not when a fan is reminded of why our heroes play, and why we watch and listen.

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