Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 18, 2019

From First To Worst, In Lightning Time

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, was published in 1818. Two centuries later, it remains the sublime cautionary tale, a timeless reminder in rather loose iambic pentameter of the impermanence of human accomplishment and the dangers of hubris.

Perhaps Shelley is not required reading in the school districts of Tampa, Florida. Perhaps the Romantic era, or even philosophical poetry itself, is out of fashion in the internet age. But one couldn’t help but recall Shelley’s warning Tuesday, when the NHL’s regular season titleholders, the Presidents’ Trophy winners Tampa Bay Lightning, exited the playoffs as swiftly as possible, in four straight first-round losses to the number eight seed Columbus Blue Jackets.

To grasp the scope of the Lightning’s precipitous fall one must appreciate the franchise’s regular season accomplishments. A year ago the team and its fans believed the Lightning were good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay was the class of the Eastern Conference, topping the Atlantic Division and claiming the number one conference seed for the playoffs with 113 points, one better than the Boston Bruins and trailing only two teams in the Western Conference, Winnipeg and 2017-18 Presidents’ Trophy winner Nashville. Losing to Washington in seven games in the Conference Final was rated as a disappointing end to a fine season by players, management, and most definitely fans on Florida’s gulf coast.

But to those less emotionally attached that campaign was a rousing success. With what were then the most regular season wins in franchise history, it should rank just behind Tampa Bay’s two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, a 2004 championship and a 2015 loss to Chicago.

Yet 2017-18 was but a pale precursor to this season. After locking up star winger Nikita Kucherov with a long-term contract in the offseason, and also signing trade deadline acquisitions Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, the Lightning began their season on October 6th with a 2-1 shootout victory over cross-state rival Florida Panthers. Tampa Bay lost the next game on the schedule, but the season would be a full five weeks old before the team suffered four defeats in regulation.

The NHL’s regular season stretches over parts of seven months, but November and February were the only pages on the calendar which saw the Lightning suffer back-to-back losses, and the two February defeats were both in overtime, so even in defeat Tampa Bay at least garnered one point in the standings. As if determined to atone for the November failing, the team went almost six weeks, from late that month through early January, with just a single overtime loss, garnering 31 of a possible 32 points in sixteen games. At season’s end Tampa Bay’s record stood at 62-16-4. That mark tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in league history. The Lightning’s 128 points were the most since the NHL’s current system was put in place in 2006.

Led by 45 goals from Steven Stamkos, and a league-leading 87 assists from Kucherov, Tampa Bay netted 325 goals, almost half a score per game more than any other franchise. The defense in front of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was every bit as strong, allowing only 222 goals against, better than all but four teams. The Lightning’s plus-103 goal differential dwarfed the next best mark, Calgary’s plus-62. Numbers like those gave every fan within driving distance of downtown Tampa’s Amalie Arena reason to believe they’d be attending playoff hockey games into June.

But like the giant statue of an ancient Egyptian king crumbling in the desert, the Lightning’s season was reduced to dust, a modern collapse completed a mere ten days after that phenomenal regular season concluded.

The Lightning must have thought they had little to concern themselves with the Blue Jackets, having won all three regular season meetings against Columbus. That confidence seemed well placed when Tampa Bay raced out to a 3-0 lead in Game 1 before the first intermission. The lead was still 3-1 as the game approached the midpoint of the third period, when Columbus exploded for three goals in just over five minutes to seize the lead and ultimately the game. The journeyman major league pitcher Phil Hughes, a diehard Lightning fan, tweeted after the contest that the loss might be a good thing, since his team had dealt with so little adversity during the regular season.

That optimistic viewpoint started to fade when the Blue Jackets dominated Game 2, winning 5-1 and putting the heavily favored Lightning in a deep hole with the series moving to Ohio. In the comfort of Nationwide Arena last Saturday, Columbus took a two-goal lead through the second period of Game 3, then held on after Tampa Bay scored early in the third. A late empty net tally made the final margin 3-1. Two nights later the Blue Jackets delivered the mortal blow, though the Lightning finally at least put up a fight. After Columbus jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, Stamkos registered the first goal of the series by any of the Lightning’s stars. The one goal deficit became two, but again Tampa Bay battled back to tie, only to yield a power play goal late in the second period. The score remained at 4-3 through the third period, until a desperate coach Jon Cooper pulled Vasilevskiy for an extra attacker, only to see the Blue Jackets score three empty net goals in the game’s final two minutes, pushing the box score to a deceptively lopsided 7-3.

Hockey fans know that winning the regular season is no guarantee of capturing the Stanley Cup, as only eight Presidents’ Trophy winners have gone on to claim the title. The last to do so was Chicago in 2013. Almost as many – six winners before Tampa Bay – have been eliminated in the first round. But none of those teams were swept away in four straight games. That ugly distinction goes to the Lightning, a team that proved to be appropriately named come playoff time, with lots of flash but no staying power.

Tampa Bay’s faithful can tell themselves that much the same lineup that dominated this regular season will skate onto the ice when a new one begins next October. But that doesn’t change how the promise of 62 wins came undone so quickly, a season meant for glory turned into a colossal wreck the likes of which once inspired Shelley to take up his pen.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 14, 2019

With Help From Augusta’s 12th, Woods Puts Golf On Page One

Each of the eighteen holes at Augusta National Golf Club is named after a flowering shrub or tree, examples of which can be found along its length. It’s a reminder that the property that is now home to one of the most famous golf courses in the world was once the site of Fruitland Nursery. The shortest hole on the course, which played to just 158 yards for Sunday’s final round of this year’s Masters, is called Golden Bell, for the species of forsythia that are among the plants serving as a backdrop to the putting surface, though by the time of this year’s tournament the yellow blooms that herald spring in much of the country had given way to green leaves.

Yet for all the power that modern professional golfers regularly display, for all their 300-plus yard drives and iron shots soaring into the sky, the little 12th hole, down in the lowest corner of the course, has been a graveyard to major championship hopes over the years. In 1996 Greg Norman began the final round with a six shot lead over Nick Faldo. Through the first eight holes the Englishman chipped away at the Australian’s margin, cutting it in half. Then Norman made three straight bogeys starting on the 9th, and the pair came to the 12th tee all even at 9-under par. By the time they walked to the 13th tee Faldo was two clear after Norman dumped his tee shot into Rae’s Creek, leading to a double-bogey. Two decades later defending champion Jordan Spieth played a magnificent front nine on the tournament’s final day, turning a one shot overnight lead into a five stroke margin at the turn. But after bogeys at the 10th and 11th, Spieth put not one but two balls into the water at the 12th, gifting the lead and eventually the tournament to England’s Danny Willett.

Once again on Sunday, the shortest hole at Augusta National played an outsized role in the outcome of the year’s first men’s major. A threatening afternoon forecast caused tournament officials to move up tee times to early morning and send the players off both tees in groups of three, rather than the traditional weekend twosomes. The six golfers in the final two groups began play tightly bunched within four shots of 54-hole leader Francisco Molinari’s 13-under total. As the penultimate grouping of Webb Simpson, Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter prepared to hit their tee shots on the 12th, the final threesome of Molinari, Tiger Woods and Tony Finau came down the 11th fairway. Simpson, who started the round four behind, had lost a further shot to Molinari, but Woods and Koepka were still just two back, Finau three, and Poulter four, as he had started.

Simpson, first to play but furthest behind the leader, safely cleared Rae’s Creek. Then, over the course of several minutes and in excruciating fashion, the 2019 Masters was decided. First Koepka, one of the longest hitters on tour, didn’t hit his 8-iron hard enough, and watched stoically as his ball landed on the bank in front of the green and rolled back into the creek. Then Poulter did exactly the same thing. Both made double-bogey. The huge crowd behind the tee had barely stopped buzzing when the final threesome stepped up and first Molinari, then Finau, reprised the earlier two shots with the same disastrous impact on their scorecards. A television viewer might have thought CBS was showing video of a single errant tee ball on an endless loop, so nearly identical were the four shots.

Perhaps this year’s Masters was really won on the 10th hole, where Woods made bogey. That gave the honor in the final threesome to Molinari, which meant that as Woods prepared to tee off on the 12th he had already seen the Italian, who outplayed Woods in the final round of last year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie, send his ball to its watery demise. Knowing that Molinari was going to make at least bogey and probably a double, Woods took no risks at the 12th, sending his own tee shot on the safest possible line away from the pin to the fat left side of the green. With a two-putt par Woods pulled into a tie for the lead, the only player among the last five to play the 12th on Sunday with a score other than double-bogey.

There were still holes to play of course, but a generation of golf fans has grown up expecting but one result when the dominant player of his time moves to the top of the leader board late in the final round at a major. Even when there was a five-way tie at 12-under a few holes later, the expectation of most and certainly the hope of a multitude were that the golfer in the familiar red shirt would end the day alone at the top. A birdie on the par-5 15th moved Woods into that spot, and another at the 16th gave him some breathing room.

That he needed that cushion in the end, after a poor approach shot at the last didn’t come close to reaching the green takes nothing away from Woods’s triumph. Nor does his decision to play safe after that, chipping into the fat middle of the green rather than risking a heroic shot at the hole such as fans would have seen in his prime.

The win is not diminished by the reality that the Masters is the easiest of the four majors to win. It has the smallest field, just 87 players this year. That field always includes several amateurs and any past champion who wishes to tee it up, no matter his age, further reducing the number of starters with a genuine chance of capturing the title. It’s also the only major played on the same course every year, giving the advantage of familiarity to every veteran in the field.

Nor does how the tournament unfolded, a Masters as much lost by others as won by the winner, render the 15th major title on Woods’s professional resume any less important. The safe shot was the smart shot on the 12th after he saw so many other in the chase rue the risk of aiming at the flag. While a golfer controls only his own game, the final leader board at every tournament reflects a combination of brilliance and ineptitude, good luck and bad, by every player in the field over four days.

Woods is after all forty-three now, and fans have only lately learned the extent of the damage years of play did to his now surgically repaired back and knees. We now know that two years ago he seriously thought his days as a competitive golfer might be over. To come back from those depths to win again, as he did at the Tour Championship last fall, to contend in majors as he did at last year’s Open and PGA Championships, and now to capture a major after a gap of almost eleven years, is a comeback of historic proportions. It is not even diminished by the decision of CBS lead announcer Jim Nantz to laden the moment with treacle. Someone on the network’s production staff needed to whisper in Nantz’s earpiece that it was a great comeback, not the Second Coming.

The win means that Woods will be the betting favorite at the next two majors. The PGA Championship next month and June’s U.S. Open are being played at Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach, respectively, two courses where Woods has already proven his major bona fides. But among all sports gambling odds are particularly meaningless in golf, a game in which the outcome might turn, as was the case Sunday, on a poorly struck 8-iron by a player, or in this case several, other than the winner. But there is one bet that readers can take to the house. Within minutes of his final putt dropping, Tiger’s triumph was the lead story on the websites of the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and Fox News. You can bet that no other golfer could do that.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 11, 2019

Two Stories End Badly, Which Is No Surprise

A NOTE TO READERS: The unanticipated travel referenced in Sunday’s note is still taking place, but at a time that will not interfere with the regular posting schedule. Thanks as always for your support.

We come now to the crossroads of the basketball season, the point at which the hardcourt game swings between holding fans in rapt attention and watching them slowly drift away to summer pastimes.

The mad dash of the college game through the month of March has concluded, with Baylor and Virginia crowned as champions. The former gave the NCAA its fourth different women’s champion in as many years, only the second time that’s happened in two decades. The latter, with multiple assists from improbable finishes and friendly officiating throughout the tournament, proved that sometimes the sports gods do even the scales. Just twelve months ago UVA became the first number one seed to lose in the opening round in what was anything but “one shining moment.”

In the same week the NBA wrapped up its regular season, and with it the careers of at least two future Hall of Famers. Dwyane Wade played his last game for the Miami Heat, and Dirk Nowitzki scored his final points as a Dallas Maverick. Each player went out in style, netting thirty points in his final contest. Wade won three titles in Miami, and was the MVP of the NBA Finals for the first of those championships in 2006. The Heat rallied from two games down to beat Nowitzki’s Dallas squad in six that year, but five seasons later the Mavericks turned the tables on Miami, where Wade was by then playing alongside LeBron James and Chris Bosh. This time it was Nowitzki who was named MVP of the championship series.

The departures of Wade and Nowitzki were widely anticipated. But before the campus celebrations had stopped in Waco and Charlottesville and before the first round of the NBA Playoffs could begin for the sixteen teams that advanced to the postseason, fans of both college and professional basketball were stunned by the totally unexpected news of two other men stepping away from the game. On Tuesday Chris Mullin resigned as head coach at St. John’s, and just hours later Magic Johnson quit his post as the Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations.

Mullin cited a “recent personal loss” in the statement announcing his decision, presumably referring to last month’s death of his older brother Roddy after a lengthy battle with cancer. But while St. John’s athletic director Mike Cragg praised Mullin’s “deep passion” for the program that as a senior he led to the 1985 Final Four and its first number one ranking in more than three decades, the evidence on the court was that passion alone wasn’t going to restore the Red Storm to the glory days of Lou Carnesecca.

Mullin’s predecessor Steve Lavin posted winning records in each of his four full seasons coaching St. John’s. In contrast Mullin’s first year ended with a record of 8-24, a mark that included just a single victory in Big East conference play. It took until the season that just ended for St. John’s to finally post a winning record under Mullin. Even that 21-13 finish was deceiving. The Red Storm won their first twelve games, but faded once the conference schedule began, dropping six of their last eight contests and winding up seventh in the Big East. Still the record was good enough to earn St. John’s its first invitation to the NCAA tournament under Mullin, making his decision to quit especially strange.

But it was nowhere near as bizarre as Johnson’s resignation, which he announced to a group of stunned reporters prior to the Lakers’ final game of the season. While dropping his bombshell and admitting that he “was happier when I wasn’t the president,” Johnson also revealed that he was telling the media of his decision before informing team owner Jeanie Buss.

The very un-Hollywood ending to Johnson’s tenure came even as the Lakers prepared to lose one last game in a season that had begun with great promise following the signing of LeBron James last summer. But after peaking at seven games over .500 in mid-December, an injury to James and the limited skillset of the rest of the roster exposed the Lakers as a team with very little depth. L.A.’s eventual 37-45 record was its sixth losing season in a row and ended James’s streak of fourteen straight years in the postseason. Johnson’s abrupt exit allowed him to avoid firing head coach Luke Walton, a step that’s widely expected even though the coach’s culpability is questionable given the injuries and the roster. Johnson noted this, saying “I would have to affect someone’s livelihood and their life. That’s not fun for me. That’s not who I am.” Of course, it would be part of his job.

Aside from the coincidental timing of their resignations, Mullin and Johnson share one other important trait. Both are legends at the institutions they were running, and both were hired almost exclusively because of that fact. While Mullin worked in NBA front offices after his playing career, he had no prior coaching experience at any level when he was introduced as St. John’s head coach in March 2015. Similarly, Johnson had served ever so briefly as the Lakers coach at the end of the 1993-94 season, and has had a very successful business career, but he had never worked a day in an NBA front office when Buss fired her brother and hired Johnson as L.A.’s chief executive just over two years ago.

What was obvious about the hiring of both Mullin and Johnson was that Cragg for the university and Buss for the NBA franchise each let their heart rather than their head dictate the decision. Perhaps in a sappy novel based in New York, or in a straight-to-video movie shot in L.A., such triumphs of emotion over logic work out. In two short years the school is back in the Final Four. In just one the franchise returns to the NBA Finals. But in sports, as in life, reality is seldom so accommodating. This week’s twin resignations were stunning. The real-life results that led to them shouldn’t have been.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 7, 2019

A Reminder Why Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough

A NOTE TO READERS: Some unanticipated long-distance travel may disrupt the coming week’s posting schedule. The intent is to post next Thursday and Sunday as usual, however one or both of those dates may be impacted. Thanks for your understanding, and as always, thanks for your support.

On the surface this would seem to be a great weekend for women’s sports. As this is being written the final round of the ANA Inspiration is in full swing in the California desert, with the best female golfers in the world trying to win the LPGA season’s first major. Just yesterday the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur concluded on the world’s most famous golf course. In Aqaba, Jordan, women and men played against each other in the Jordan Mixed Open, co-sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour, the European Senior Tour, and the Challenge Tour (the developmental level of the men’s European Tour). If all that weren’t enough millions of television sets were turned to ESPN, as the women’s basketball teams from Baylor and Notre Dame played for the NCAA Division I national title.

But as is too often the case when the subject is women’s sports, progress is not a straight line; steps forward are accompanied by backsliding and doubt. The Women’s Amateur, announced one year ago by Augusta National chair Fred Ridley, was designed to promote interest and participation in women’s golf. Seventy-two of the top women amateurs in the world played thirty-six holes on Thursday and Friday at Champion’s Retreat Golf Club, a half-hour’s drive from Augusta National. After the first two rounds the field was cut to the low thirty players, who played a single round at the home of the Masters on Saturday, complete with live coverage on NBC.

The imprimatur of Augusta National ensured the success of this event and made it instantly one of the most coveted women’s amateur tournaments in the world. But Ridley and his fellow members appear to have paid no attention to the LPGA’s schedule when scheduling the Women’s Amateur. They wanted it as a lead-in to their main attraction, which tees off next Thursday. But that meant stepping on a LPGA event that has been played since 1972 and has been the first women’s major of the year since 1983. It also meant ignoring the fact that the ANA Inspiration has a long history of inviting several leading amateurs to join the field every year, giving future members of the Tour the opportunity to tee it up alongside their idols.

Top-ranked amateur Jennifer Kupcho struck the first tee shot Thursday and wound up winning the tournament Saturday when she played the final six holes in five under par to fend off Maria Fassi. But Albane Valenzuela, fifth in the amateur rankings, opted to head west and acquitted herself well at the ANA, making the cut and finishing tied with Women’s British Open champion Georgia Hall and two shots ahead of former world number one Inbee Park.

The power of the male establishment in golf, embodied nowhere more fully than among the overwhelmingly male green-jacketed membership of Augusta, was displayed most explicitly by the three hours of network coverage of young amateurs, unknown beyond their families and college coaches. Meanwhile the first women’s major of the year had to be content, as usual, with broadcast coverage on the Golf Channel. The Women’s Amateur is absolutely a good thing for women’s golf. But it would be so much better if Ridley and company had picked up the phone and consulted with LPGA commissioner Mike Whan on scheduling.

Scheduling also hurt the Jordan Mixed Open, which had a relatively weak field of women players given the enticements in Palm Springs and Augusta. But England’s Meghan MacLaren had no problem keeping up with both the over-fifty set from the European Senior Tour and the young up and comers from the Challenge Tour. MacLaren led after two rounds and eventually settled for second place behind Challenge Tour player Daan Huizing. Mixed events like this one are also a fine way to promote the women’s game. But the Jordan Mixed Open will be little more than a sideshow without a better spot on the calendar.

The NCAA title game was a reprise of the 2012 championship contest and is also the first time since that year that both coaches of the two finalists are women. Most casual fans would attribute the latter fact to Geno Auriemma, the male head coach of the University of Connecticut. But while Auriemma remains the best-known coach in women’s college basketball, the Huskies haven’t played in the national title game since 2016, losing in the semifinals each of the past three seasons, this year to Notre Dame.

Others might question why the coaches’ gender matters. To that Muffet McGraw, coach of the Fighting Irish since 1987, gave a searing and eloquent answer at a press conference on Thursday. McGraw has said she would hire only female assistants, and she was asked about that and being a voice for women in sports.

McGraw replied, “Did you know that the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1967 and still hasn’t passed? We need 38 states to agree that discrimination on the basis of sex is unconstitutional. We’ve had a record number of women running for office and winning, and still we have 23 percent of the House and 25 percent of the Senate.”

“I’m getting tired of the novelty of the first female governor of this state, the first female African-American mayor of this city. When is it going to become the norm instead of the exception?”

“How are these young women looking up and seeing someone that looks like them, preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models, we don’t have enough visible women leaders, we don’t have enough women in power. Girls are socialized to know when they come out, gender roles are already set.”

“Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the men that is the stronger one. And when these girls are coming up, who are they looking up to, to tell them that that’s not the way it has to be? And where better to do that than in sports? All these millions of girls who play sports across the country, they could come out every day, and we’re teaching them some great things about life skills. But wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead? This is the path for you to take, to get to the point where, in this country, we have 50 percent of women in power. Right now, less than 5 percent of women are CEOs in Fortune 500 companies.”

“So yes, when you look at men’s basketball and 99 percent of the jobs go to men, why shouldn’t 100 or 99 percent of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women? Maybe it’s because we only have 10 percent women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them, and that’s the problem.”

On Sunday McGraw’s squad staged a stirring second half comeback against Baylor, overcoming a double-digit deficit to tie the game late. In the end Notre Dame fell just short, losing 82-81, giving Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey her third title. But Muffet McGraw had already won, by reminding fans everywhere of the fundamental reason why true progress for women’s sports means no more half-measures, no more backsliding, and no more settling for good enough.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 4, 2019

Some Fans Are Rewarded, Some Fans Are Conned

On Wednesday night, in London’s northern reaches, a football club inaugurated a new stadium. For nearly two years Tottenham Hotspur, known to its legion of faithful simply as the Spurs, had played home games at Wembley Stadium. But that magnificent edifice sits ten miles west and a lengthy Tube ride away from the Spurs natural home. As the intensely localized rooting interests of English Premier League soccer are gauged, especially in greater London, which hosts seven of the league’s twenty teams, ten miles might as well be half a world away.

So it was an eager full house of more than 62,000 fans who swarmed into the shiny new stadium, which sits on the same plot of land where the Spurs have played their home games for more than a century. The gleaming structure, built at a cost of $1 billion, looks like a giant flying saucer about to launch into space. As is often the case with such projects, whether those who live in the blocks of row houses that sit in its shadow will reap any economic benefits from the grand project is still very much an open question. But the ultimate impact on the neighborhood, one of the poorest boroughs in all of London, was hardly top of mind to fans on Wednesday. They were focused on cheering Harry Kane, Tottenham’s captain and leader of the English national team, and roaring their approval for the two Spurs goals that produced a shutout victory over Crystal Palace.

But even as those fans were celebrating both a win and a new beginning for their team, on this side of the Atlantic thousands of fans of American football were living an utterly different story. In eight cities stretching across the southern half of the United States from Orlando to San Diego, men and women and boys and girls who had attached themselves and a part of their psyche to the franchises of the new Association of American Football were discovering they had been played for fools; that in exchange for their fandom they were made victims of a giant con job.

The history of American football is littered with the carcasses of upstart professional leagues that sought to challenge the NFL. For a few years after World War II the All-American Football Conference attracted some top players to its eight teams. But in the end the AAFC couldn’t sustain itself financially, and after four seasons of play the league folded, though three franchises – the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts, and San Francisco 49ers – were invited to join the NFL. Years before Joe Namath and the New York Jets legitimized the AFL by winning Super Bowl III, the Browns stunned the NFL establishment by dominating the league in the team’s inaugural 1950 season.

A decade later the American Football League began play. The brainchild of Lamar Hunt, who had been rebuffed by NFL owners when he attempted to buy a franchise, five of the AFL’s eight teams were in the south and west, where the NFL had few franchises. Two more were in New England and upstate New York, additional areas that had no NFL connections. Hunt recruited owners with very deep pockets, who were both able to weather initial lean years and attract significant talent with rich contracts. One of those players was Namath, who signed for the then record sum of $427,000 out of the University of Alabama. Then NBC enriched the young league with a television contract. After a few seasons engaging in a costly bidding war for college talent, leaders in both leagues saw the wisdom of merging.

Since that 1966 agreement formed what has since become the modern NFL, further rivals have regularly been cast aside by the behemoth of American sports leagues. World, United States, X, United, and Fall Experimental, no matter the name of each succeeding Football League, attempts to compete with the NFL rarely lasted more than a couple of seasons. But co-founders Charlie Ebersol, son of former NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol, and Bill Polian, who served as general manager of three different NFL franchises, vowed that the AAF would be different.

The new league’s ten-week season was scheduled to begin shortly after the Super Bowl and end before the NFL Draft, filling a hole in the calendar for football fans. Ebersol and Polian negotiated broadcast deals with CBS, TNT, and even the NFL Network, ensuring visibility. And the AAF invested heavily in technology and making data available to fans, hoping to cash in on the growing number of states allowing sport betting as well as the huge market for fantasy sports.

While the TV broadcasts attracted viewers and attendance was decent, especially in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego, what the co-founders’ business plan apparently did not include was any cash. After just two weeks of play rumors circulated that the AAF couldn’t meet payroll, and those whispers were effectively confirmed when Tom Dundon, owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, was given a majority stake in the league after promising to invest $250 million. But just six weeks later Dundon apparently decided that he had seen enough. On Wednesday the AAF suspended operations and terminated all league employees via email. That message included the usual hyperbole about restructuring operations and seeking new investment capital, but the simple truth is that the AAF is done.

In the end the only thing different about the AAF was the speed with which it failed. Only Ebersol and Polian know what was in the fledgling league’s checking account when the first game, between Atlanta and Orlando, began on February 9th. But to have brought their product to market while promising so much to both fans and the young men wearing AAF team uniforms while being as illiquid as the AAF quickly proved to be borders on fraud. Fans in northern London had reason to rejoice this week, as promises made to them were delivered. But in Orlando, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, San Antonio, Tempe, Salt Lake City and San Diego, the only possible conclusion was that fans had been taken for a ride.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 31, 2019

PGA Tour’s Unique Week Thrives And Survives, For Now

A case can be made that the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship should be one of the least favorite PGA Tour stops here at On Sports and Life. The technology company that is the title sponsor is headquartered in the Austin area, and made the relocation of the tournament from the Arizona desert to Austin Country Club a condition for writing fat checks to the Tour to have its name tied to the third of four World Golf Championship events on the annual schedule. But a 2016 merger made Massachusetts-based EMC Corporation part of the Dell family shortly after EMC had signed on as chief sponsor of the Tour’s FedEx Cup playoff event hosted at TPC Boston every Labor Day weekend. With Dell committed to its hometown tournament the company sought relief from its newly acquired second sponsorship, making the New England stop the obvious casualty when the Tour looked to reduce the playoffs from four events to three.

Despite the role that the current version of the company Michael Dell founded in a college dorm room thirty-five years ago played in taking a day trip to watch the pros play off the September calendar for thousands of golf fans in this part of the country, the Match Play remains a personal favorite because of its format. As familiar as match play is to amateurs at golf clubs across the country, where every foursome playing a weekend Nassau is focused on which pairing wins every hole and not the total number of strokes, and to fans at home, who tune in to the drama of match play at either the Ryder or Presidents Cup every September, the WGC-Dell is the only time the format appears on the Tour’s regular schedule.

That uniqueness reflects the antipathy with which sponsors like Dell, television networks like NBC, and thus the PGA Tour share toward a format that ends with just the championship and consolation matches on Sunday afternoon, quite possibly involving four little known contestants. The fear of such a result is why only golf fans pushing seventy have any personal recollection of the PGA Championship as a match play event. From its inception in 1916 through 1957, the PGA stood out among the majors for its format. But as television networks began to broadcast golf the pressure to switch to stroke play, with its guarantee of more action and the likelihood of big names somewhere on the course, was too great for the PGA of America to resist.

Somehow the Dell Match Play lives on, and remarkably the PGA Tour as we know it doesn’t dry up and blow away this one week out of the year. In 2015 the format was changed, with the original 64-man single elimination tournament, mirroring the NCAA Division I basketball tournament taking place at the same time, scrapped to end the possibility of a crowd favorite going home after just one day. Now the field is divided into sixteen groups of four golfer each, and with a Wednesday start the first three days the players in each group play a round robin against one another. At the end of Friday’s play, the top golfer from each of the sixteen groups advances to the knockout stage. The final field is reduced to eight after Saturday morning, then to four that afternoon. The Dell now concludes with the semifinal matches on Sunday morning, and the championship and consolation eighteen following.

The dangers of match play, at least from a corporate perspective, became apparent this year during Saturday afternoon’s quarterfinals. That was when the two best known names in the field both came up short. Sergio Garcia fell behind Matt Kuchar midway through the front nine, and never managed to even the match.

That result wasn’t nearly as surprising as the outcome of the quarterfinal between Tiger Woods and Lucas Bjerregaard, a 27-year-old from Denmark who was seeded fiftieth in the field of sixty-four. Woods took the lead with a birdie on the 4th hole and extended his advantage to 2-up one hole later. Bjerregaard, who like so many young golfers, grew up idolizing Woods in his prime, rallied to square the match just after the turn, but after both players found trouble on the watery par-3 11th, Woods won the hole with a bogey to reclaim the lead. Knowing they were watching one of the best closers in the game, most fans understandably had penciled Woods into the Sunday morning semifinals when he was still 1-up with three to play. But after both players found the green on the par-5 16th hole in two, Bjerregaard rolled in a thirty-footer for eagle to win the hole and square the match. After both players birdied the short 17th, Woods dumped his short approach at the home hole into a greenside bunker, as Bjerregaard pulled off the stunning upset with a par. All of Denmark cheered, though the jubilant racket wasn’t quite enough to drown out the anguished wails of NBC executives.

By the time most fans turned on NBC’s coverage Sunday afternoon, the most recognizable face was Matt Kuchar, who was facing Kevin Kisner in the championship match. Up ahead of that twosome Francisco Molinari and Bjerregaard were tangling for third place. Long a crowd favorite, Kuchar’s image took a self-inflicted hit earlier this year when fans learned he gave a local fill-in caddie just $5,000 after winning the $1.3 million first prize at last fall’s Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. While he eventually upped the payout to ten times the original amount, the damage was done.

Despite that serious misstep, the next time fans fail to see Kuchar smiling during a round will be the first. Even on Sunday, when he clearly lacked his best game, sending several shots to the right and missing key putts, Kuchar remained his affable self. In contrast, the next time anyone sees the 35-year-old Kisner smile during competition will also be a first. But while he had previously won just two Tour events, Kisner’s intensity is probably an asset in match play. Unlike a stroke play event during which players have no idea what’s going on around the course beyond the occasional glance at a scoreboard, in match play what matters is at hand – the hole being played and the shots of one’s competitor. The format requires equal measures of physical ability and mental toughness.

Kisner won the very first hole with a birdie, got a break when Kuchar failed to pull even by three-putting from fifteen feet at the second, and from there never looked back. One year after reaching the final, only to be blown away 7&6 by Bubba Watson, the South Carolina native notched the biggest win of his career, 3&2 over Kuchar.

As interesting as this event always is, this format for even one week on the Tour is always under siege. As play was starting Wednesday word came that the Tour had proposed changes for next year’s event at the request of the title sponsor. The suggestion was that twice the number of players would advance out of the round robin phase, and then those thirty-two would play two rounds of stroke play on the weekend. Happily, the Player Advisory Council rejected the plan, with PAC member Paul Casey laughingly wondering “what would you call it?” It surely wouldn’t still be the Match Play.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 28, 2019

Despite New Economics, Opening Day Is Still About Hope

So we begin. Day one, inning one, at least for most fans. Admittedly, as dawn broke on Opening Day from the Bronx to Chavez Ravine, the faithful followers of the Mariners and Athletics had already seen their heroes play the first two official games of the 2019 season, last week in Japan. That short set half a world away was the utterly appropriate setting for the final trips to the plate of the most prolific batsman to post statistics in both the Puro Yakyu, as the Nippon Professional Baseball league is known locally, and the major leagues. Across nearly a quarter-century of play between two countries, Ichiro Suzuki set scores of records in both and heard roars that sound the same in any language. The cheers will be renewed a half decade hence, on a mid-July weekend in upstate New York, when Ichiro is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But for now the attention of fans turns to the present, because notwithstanding Seattle’s 2-0 head start on Oakland, all squads are equal in the standings on Opening Day. That appearance of a level playing field before wins and losses are recorded is an illusion that will be shattered soon enough. If the NFL strives to live up to the old “on any given Sunday” trope, the Great Game’s current era is very much about “wait ‘til next year” for far too many teams. The initial projections at Baseball Prospectus have nine teams finishing the longest season fourteen or more games below .500, with six losing ninety or more games. ESPN goes one club better (or worse), predicting that fully one-third of all franchises will essentially be playing out the string well before Labor Day, the same number as last season when a record eight teams wound up losing ninety-five or more games.

Just three clubs – the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs – are expected to have Opening Day payrolls above the $206 million luxury tax threshold, while eight, more than twice as many, look to begin play with less than $100 million in salary commitments. For the past few years the popular theory around what looked a lot like intentionally bad teams and contract frugality has been that first the Cubs then the Astros proved a model of tearing down a roster and rebuilding through the development of young prospects, enhanced with a few key veterans at just the right time, was the key to success. And there is no doubt that such a roadmap led both Chicago and Houston to the promised land of a world championship.

But the truth is that there is no single formula that guarantees success. The defending champion Boston Red Sox stormed through the 2018 season on the strength of the highest payroll in the majors, a bit of irony given the perpetual complaint of many Sox fans that their archrivals in the Bronx simply buy their titles. Even while choosing to pass on any attempt to resign free agent closer Craig Kimbrel, Boston will look to defend its crown from a perch still atop the team salary rankings.

Rather the new economic reality of the game is that owners can profit handsomely without putting a winning product on the field, thanks to MLB’s multiple marketing tie-ins and an extremely active online division that includes ventures not just beyond baseball but outside of sports altogether, with the resulting revenue shared among all franchises regardless of won-loss records. Add in massive regional television deals that many clubs now have, and the quality of play, the one factor that results in increased ticket sales and more money from concessions because of more fans in the stands is becoming a progressively smaller part of each franchise’s revenue equation. Then there is the sea change in the approach to paying players because of the clear evidence from advanced metrics that younger ballplayers are far better investments than free agents in their thirties.

Much has been made of the huge contracts given to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado late in the offseason, as well as the spate of extensions signed by stars on several teams even as Spring Training was ending. But the concern on the part of players has never been about the superstars, who are almost assuredly going to get their money. Rather it has been about the far larger number of competent players who make up the Great Game’s middle class, those whose only way into the Hall of Fame will be by buying a $25 ticket. This group has seen the longstanding promise of free agency evaporate over the past few offseasons. The willingness of even recognizable stars to sign extensions rather than waiting to become free agents is simply proof that players are coming to understand the changed dynamics, illustrated most tellingly by the fact that total player salaries are down from the previous year for the second Opening Day in a row, the first time that has ever happened.

On this first day, as first innings are played across the country, the consensus is that fans in the Bronx and Boston, and in Houston and L.A., will have many reasons to cheer from now until October. Cleveland may not get deep into the postseason, but the regular season should be a joy for fans near Lake Erie, in part because of the weakness of the rest of the AL Central. The NL’s East and Central divisions are expected to be season-long dogfights, but in the end, there will be World Series games at Dodger Stadium for the third year in a row, while the other Fall Classic venue is seen as a toss-up between the three American League powers. But fans in city after city face a long and disappointing schedule.

That at least is the conventional wisdom. But for fans of all those teams that are being written off by wizened sportswriters and young statistical mavens alike, there is a ray of hope. It is now exactly half a century since the other team in New York, the expansion franchise granted Queens after the Dodgers and Giants took flight to the west coast, began the 1969 season by losing on Opening Day. That was, after all, what the Metropolitans had done every year since their first season in 1962. By late May the Mets were 18-23, about what most of the experts expected. But then came an eleven-game winning streak. It was the start of a season for the ages, that didn’t end until the final out of the fifth game of the World Series, when the Miracle Mets earned their nickname and a place in the Great Game’s history with a win over the Orioles.

Day one, inning one, and those Mets remind us that every team must still play the games, all 2,430 of them, just to get to the postseason, after which anything is possible. It’s time to play ball.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 24, 2019

One Year Later, The Clouds Are Darker

From the first tipoff at one of the four play-in games to the release of confetti at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis following the conclusion of the national championship contest, the men’s NCAA Division I basketball tournament lasts one day short of three weeks. The women’s tournament lacks the play-in contests and has its championship weekend scheduled around the men’s Final Four, so it is four days shorter. CBS on the men’s side and ESPN for the women’s tourney, along with the various cable channels that carry some of the men’s games, all do their best to mine drama and suspense out of all the games, even the blowouts. But the truly crazy days of both tournaments are the first few, when multiple games are being played at the same time and national productivity slows while workers, many of whom have based their decisions on the colors of uniforms or the pedigree of mascots, feverishly check to see if their brackets have been busted.

By the end of the first weekend (Monday night for the women, Sunday for the men), 48 of the 64 women’s teams and 52 of the 68 men’s squads will have seen their seasons come to an end, their trips to the so-called Big Dance over before their dancing shoes were even broken in. Games remain to be played as this is written, so it’s still possible that four of the men’s Sweet Sixteen and five of the women’s will be teams from the bottom half of the draw, seeded ninth through sixteenth in their quarter of the bracket. But history says that by the time the final horn sounds on the opening weekend of both tournaments, almost all the would-be Cinderellas will have turned back into scullery maids.

Despite the possibilities only one lower half team is guaranteed a spot in the next round, in the men’s South Region. That’s where #12 Oregon and #13 UC-Irvine both pulled off first round upsets and now face each other late Sunday in the final game of the men’s second round. It will be Ducks versus Anteaters for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen, which should at least be an intriguing matchup for fans whose brackets are mascot-based. Aside from that outlier it is possible that two of the men’s brackets will see the top four seeds move into the next round, while a third promotes seeds one, two, three and five.

The women could see the top four seeds in all four regions advance, a reminder that while UConn may no longer be the colossus women’s program, the game on that side remains top-heavy in terms of talent, with no more than a half-dozen teams legitimate contenders for the national title. Forced to deal with the ignominy of being given a number two seed this year, the 32-2 Huskies, who at number two in both the AP and Coaches polls are ranked ahead of three teams awarded top seeds, surely have all the motivation head coach Geno Auriemma needs for a dep run at this year’s tournament.

In short, we already know that we won’t see history made like last year, when the Retrievers of UMBC carried the torch for every #16 seed in history, knocking off top seed Virginia in an opening round rout. Some of the nearly 14,000 students at Maryland’s commuter school in Baltimore County may not have even known their team was in the tournament on the morning of March 16th. But by the end of the day, as word spread of the 74-54 final score, they were no doubt claiming to be among the squad’s most devoted fans.

Nor does it seem likely we’ll see a story as heartwarming as last season’s run to the Final Four by unheralded Loyola-Chicago. In defiance of their eleventh place seeding and with the unwavering support of their 98-year-old team chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the Ramblers won their first three games by a total of four points before cruising past Kansas State in the South Regional Final. The fairytale ended against Michigan in the national semifinals, but the stories of the Rambles and the Retrievers were what CBS and ESPN would like us to believe happens all the time in March.

As both of this year’s tournaments show, even with their handful of mild upsets and Duke’s near-death experience against UCF on Sunday, reality tends to be decidedly more prosaic. That’s especially unfortunate right now, because college sports could use a feel-good story. The closest thing to one currently might be the return of Zion Williamson from a potentially serious knee injury caused by a defective shoe. But even fans of the Blue Devils would concede that when discussing college basketball “Duke” and “feel-good story” don’t fit comfortably into the same sentence.

One year ago the post in this space was headlined “The Madness Begins, Under A Cloud.” It noted multiple problems afflicting collegiate basketball, including one-and-done freshmen players and what were then recent indictments of shoe company executives, sports agents, and assistant coaches alleging widespread corruption in recruiting.

Since then there has been movement toward eliminating the one-and-done rule, but it’s still not clear exactly how that will play out. Meanwhile the corruption scandal has only gotten worse, with the first guilty verdicts read and sentences handed down. What’s clear is that there are more to come. And this week the stories about the games had to share space with one about Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who spent three years out of the game after leaving his last job under a cloud and who has had one former assistant plead guilty to bribery and another suspended while being investigated for the same crime. Then there are the problems with collegiate sports in general, like universities profiting from young men and women who are prohibited from sharing in that wealth, and this week’s admissions scandal blockbuster involving sports a bit further from center stage.

But during this first weekend we fans do our best to ignore the obvious. We squint hard at what’s going on, so we can see only what we want to see. We hope for upsets and buzzer-beaters and dream of that elusive perfect bracket. If the Anteaters don’t have a 98-year-old nun, maybe they at least have a live mascot.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 21, 2019

The Most Humbling Of Games Strikes Again

We’ve all seen the warning, the tiny graphics at the bottom of the screen as a commercial for the newest sporty coupe plays on our flat screen. “Professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt.” That’s good advice for the high-priced motorcar, and as all fans know, for sports in general. We admire the pitcher who brings high heat at more than a hundred miles an hour, and perhaps even more so the slugger who can turn on that pitch and send it over the left field wall. But only the totally deranged among us would pretend to be able to fling a ball so hard, much less stand in the batter’s box against such a missile.

The disconnect is equally true in other sports. The players in a country club tennis match can only imagine what it’s like to face Federer, the YMCA basketball game participants may pretend to be Steph Curry but they know that’s a fantasy, and pretty much no one in the weekend flag football league sees him or herself racing around the field at Gillette Stadium.

Then there is golf. Make no mistake, the disconnect between amateurs and professionals is usually as true in the sport for life as in every other one, as was demonstrated at the Players Championship last weekend. The 11th hole at TPC Sawgrass was testament to that reality. A par-5 measuring 558 yards from the championship tees, the 11th begins as a straight shot through towering loblolly pines, with a massive waste bunker on the left. The main fairway is then separated from the green by a large pond and another expansive sand trap that fronts the putting surface.

For we mere mortals playing the 11th would require two stout hits with the longest clubs in our bags, a driver off the tee and a fairway wood second. If both were well struck that would leave a mid-iron approach, a hold your breath shot over the water and sand, thankfully with a bailout area on the far side of the green.

But for the pros the 11th is a birdie hole, like many par-5s, one on which a score of par (much less anything worse), actually loses ground to much of the field. As the sun began to wester last Friday afternoon, a series of familiar faces came strolling down the 11th fairway, and as fans spread over the gentle hillock beside the green watched, most made a challenging hole for amateurs look like child’s play.

First there were a pair of Justins, Englishman Rose and American Thomas, both easily clearing the hazard with their second shots. Then came Bryson DeChambeau and Bubba Watson, the former with his idiosyncratic, upright, stiff-armed swing, and the latter just showing off by hitting an iron from 261 yards out. Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm followed, though the Friday spectators had no way of knowing that forty-eight hours later the hole would begin Rahm’s undoing in the final round. Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, and eventual Players winner Rory McIlroy were next, with Mickelson being that rarest of pro, one who was forced to lay up with his second because of a particularly wayward drive. Of all the golfers who challenged the par-5 by going for the green in two, not a single one came close to rinsing his ball in the hazard, and only a solitary shot landed in the adjacent bunker.

But unlike so many other sports, golf can be a decidedly democratic pastime. If Friday afternoon’s action at the TPC’s 11th hole reminded fans of the exceptional ability of touring pros, that morning’s play at the course’s signature par-3 served notice that the game can bring even the mighty to their knees.  Fans may never rise to the level of the pros, but sometimes the pros come crashing down to earth.

Walking through the spectator entrance from the TPC’s sprawling parking lot, fans first pass a massive merchandise tent and then various displays and kiosks of the tournament’s many sponsors. Immediately after this glut of rank commercialism, the first glimpse of the golf course is at its most famous spot, the short 17th hole with the island green that even non-golf fans would recognize. By Sunday afternoon the spectator areas surrounding the hole would be mobbed, but on Friday morning there was still plenty of space for newly arrived fans to spread out on the grass and watch the play while planning their day at the Players. In a coincidence of perfect timing, one of the first groups to appear across the pond, playing the par-5 16th hole, was the power threesome of former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, reigning Masters titlist Patrick Reed, and Tiger Woods, the most famous and popular golfer in the world.

The building crowd cheered as one when Woods rolled in a birdie putt on the 16th, and anticipation rose as the three contestants made the short walk from that green to the tee of the 137-yard 17th. While the short little hole has been known to give even the best players fits when the wind blows hard, this morning’s breeze is mild, barely ruffling the flags on the hospitality tents. Woods steps in with likely no more than a wedge in his hand, and as he does so the crowd goes quiet even as thousands of cell phone cameras are aimed in his direction. The 14-time major winner swings, and his ball launches into the sky. But the cheers that are poised in fans’ throats are never heard. Woods pulls his shot left and the ball lands near the back of the green, bounces once and rolls a short way down the grass walkway leading from the shore, then rolls over the bulkhead at the back of the island and plops into the water.

Even as Woods stares expressionless at the green, gasps compete with groans among the spectators. Once Simpson and Reed have safely navigated the watery expanse between tee and green, Woods and caddie Joe LaCava make their way to the drop area, a patch of grass hard by the gallery ropes and less than 90 yards from the green. Many in the crowd surge forward to the front of the viewing area, and once again the camera phones come out as Woods prepares to hit what will be his third stroke on the hole. From this spot Sergio Garcia once saved par by holing out after his initial shot from the regular tee met the same fate as Tiger’s just has.

No similar miracle is in store today. Woods swings again, and his ball again flies to the back of the green where it lands hard and takes one big bounce into the water, stunning the crowd into silence. Finally, after two rinsed golf balls and two penalty strokes, Woods manages to keep his fifth stroke dry, and two putts later he exits the 17th with a quadruple-bogey seven.

In his storied career Woods had just played his 1,229th hole in competition at TPC Sawgrass. Fans searching for a positive note might say that it took him that many holes to finally record a quad on this challenging layout. But every dedicated golfer, whether they play the game for fun or for a living, knows that in golf the course can rise up and smite anyone. From the weekend hacker to the greatest player of his time, we all know that we are always just one swing away from being totally and thoroughly humbled.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 14, 2019

Potential Alone Won’t Win A Roster Spot

A NOTE TO READERS: As evidenced below, On Sports and Life is currently in warmer climes than New Hampshire. Because of these travels, there will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. Thanks as always for your support.

It was quiet at the New York Yankees minor league complex on Tuesday morning. The sprawling facility, with its four fields laid out like a lucky clover, the four home plates surrounding a central observation platform where coaches and fans can watch scores of prospects pursue their dreams in multiple workouts and games all going on at once, sits adjacent to Dale Mabry Highway, the broad thoroughfare that runs north-south through Tampa as if laid out with a straightedge.

On the map it’s not far at all from this training facility to the team’s major league Spring Training camp surrounding Steinbrenner Field. The latter sits barely a half mile away on the other side of Dale Mabry, only a few long Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton home runs to the north and six busy lanes of traffic to the west. But in career terms, the two complexes are light years apart, existing in different galaxies of the Great Game. As morning turned to afternoon on Tuesday and the late winter sun worked to burn through gray cloud cover, the contrast was also reflected in the bustle of activity at the big league camp that was a far cry from the sleepy atmosphere a few blocks south.

Hours before the exhibition match between the Yankees and the visiting Orioles, throngs of fans flock the grounds, watching various workouts on the two practice fields or waiting in the outfield seats for home run balls as batting practice gets underway on the Steinbrenner Field diamond. On a field just outside the main stadium more than a dozen pitchers play catch in the outfield while fans line the fence along the foul line, clamoring for autographs. A few yards away coaches are running a large group of players through defensive drills on the infield.

The ground ball workouts continue even as the pitchers depart and groups of players take turns stepping into the cage surrounding home plate for batting practice. Because the Yankees have yet to make substantial cuts at this year’s spring training, many of those taking swings are unfamiliar even to the most devoted fan. Soon enough these hitters will receive the news they least want to hear and will pack their duffels for the short trip down the highway to the minor league facility. But one group of three is instantly recognizable. Batting in turn are backup catcher Austin Romine, first baseman Greg Bird, and outfielder Clint Frazier.

Having turned thirty during the offseason, Romine is the oldest of the trio. He’s also the one with the most time with the big club. Drafted by New York in 2007, he made his major league debut in September 2011. After missing most of the following season with a back injury, Romine shuttled between the Bronx and the Yankees AAA affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders for three years before finally winning the backup job behind starting catcher Gary Sanchez in 2016. The demands of the position mean that even backup catchers see a fair amount of action over the course of the longest season. That reality coupled with injuries to Sanchez in both 2017 and 2018 led to Romine appearing in almost half the team’s games each of the last two years. While there is nominally a competition for backup catcher at every spring training, there’s little doubt that Romine will again be with the club when it heads north in two weeks.

The potential for Romine’s two batting practice partners is much higher, but their immediate future is far less certain. Like the backup catcher, Bird has spent his entire career in the Yankees organization, having been drafted by the club in 2011. Frazier was a highly touted prospect for Cleveland, who came to New York in 2016 as part of the trade that sent reliever Andrew Miller to Ohio. With his power from the left side of the plate and capable defense at first base, Bird was tagged as the eventual replacement for Mark Teixeira, while with his five-tool skillset Frazier was touted as a “can’t miss” big leaguer when Cleveland made him the fifth overall selection in the 2013 draft.

When given the chance both have shown glimpses of their considerable upsides. Thrust into a starting role soon after his initial callup when Teixeira suffered a season-ending leg injury in 2015, Bird slugged eleven homers in just forty-six games and posted a very promising OPS of .871. But in the ensuing offseason he was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and the resulting surgery sidelined him for the entire next year. Since then he has been unable to complete a full season without further injury. In 2017 it was a broken foot and last year surgery to his right ankle. When Bird has made the Yankees lineup his numbers have not matched his promise. In limited play over the last two years his batting average has failed to eclipse .200.

Faced with that lack of production the Yankees turned to the Luke Voit down the stretch last season, and the unheralded player, acquired in a deadline trade with St. Louis, made the most of his opportunity. In just thirty-nine games Voit smashed fourteen home runs and recorded an eye-popping 1.095 OPS. As this year’s training camp opened GM Brian Cashman announced that while the competition for the starting job at first base was open, Voit had a “leg up” based on his late season heroics.

Promoted to the majors on July 1, 2017, Frazier had two hits, including his first big league home run, in his very first game. He became just the second Yankee, after some guy named DiMaggio, to start his career with nine extra base hits in less than fifteen games. But in the early days of last year’s spring training Frazier suffered what was first diagnosed as a mild concussion from running into an outfield wall while making a catch. The injury proved anything but mild, and he wound up missing most of the year while dealing with blurry vision and memory loss. Finally cleared for play at the start of this camp, Frazier now confronts a jammed Yankee outfield, with Judge, Stanton, Aaron Hicks and veteran Brett Gardner all ahead of him on the team’s depth chart.

It’s now two weeks until Opening Day in the Bronx. Cashman, manager Aaron Boone, and the rest of New York’s talent evaluators face some hard choices in the coming days. With just twenty-five roster spots, the team likely has room for only one full-time first baseman. While Bird has had a fine spring and appears to have finally overcome his injuries, Voit has been nearly as solid. Similarly, it will be hard to squeeze five outfielders into the available roster space, and the likely logic is that after missing almost all last season, Frazier can get much-needed playing time in AAA.

Batting practice ends, and the three teammates head for the Yankees clubhouse. Soon enough the major leaguers will be at home in their far more luxurious facility in the Bronx. A breakout performance in the next few days, or the intervention of fate in the form of an injury could still change minds. But for all the promise and potential of Greg Bird and Clint Frazier, when New York gets ready to again play Baltimore, this time in a game that counts, it’s likely that only the journeyman Austin Romine will have a locker in that clubhouse.

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