Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 13, 2019

A Busy Week For The Coaching Carousel

They are high-profile and pressure-packed positions. They are also precious few, which helps explain their desirability. Counting the top professional leagues of the four major North American sports – the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, there are less than 125 jobs with the ultimate responsibility for guiding a team’s play on the biggest stages of our games. Add the WNBA and the top men’s and women’s soccer leagues into the mix, and the number still does not begin to approach 200, making what is often referred to as the coaching fraternity an extremely exclusive club. Whether the title is head coach or manager, whether one’s office is the sideline or the tight confines of the back row of a team box or the top step of a dugout, the job of field general is one of the most coveted in sports.

Then again, as the past week reminded fans everywhere, while these positions can and often do lead to a fair measure of fame and decidedly comfortable fortune, one attribute they lack is permanence. No matter the league or team, the first rule of a managerial or coaching opening is that candidates for whom job security is important need not apply.

On Monday Jay Gruden, who somehow managed to survive for more than five seasons the seemingly permanent dysfunction that characterizes Washington’s NFL franchise, was fired after his team began this campaign by dropping its first five games. At the end of the week Gabe Kapler, a surprising choice when he was named manager of the Philadelphia Phillies two years ago, was told he need no longer report for duty at Citizens Bank Park. In between, proving that not sacking the field leader can sometimes be as controversial as doing so, word leaked out of the Los Angeles Dodgers front office that Dave Roberts would be back next year, despite what many pundits and more than a few fans saw as one more year of costly managerial decisions at the most critical time of the year.

During his five full seasons in charge of Washington’s football fortunes, Gruden provided little evidence that he was the second coming of Joe Gibbs. Actually that should read “third coming,” since among the long list of head coaches who have spun through owner Dan Snyder’s revolving door in the two decades he’s owned the team was the great man himself, back for a four-year stint during which Washington qualified for the playoffs twice, or once more than it had in the eleven years since Gibbs’s first retirement. But in fairness to Gruden, whose previous head coaching experience was in Arena Football and the short-lived United Football League, he did manage to guide his charges to a couple of winning records while having very little say over roster decisions.

Then in 2018, with Alex Smith at quarterback and the seemingly endless soap opera of contract talks between Washington’s front office and QB Kirk Cousins finally over, Gruden’s team won six of its first nine games. The promising start included home wins over the powerful Green Bay Packers and hated division rival Dallas. But Washington fans had barely started to hope when fate, in the form of the inherent brutality of America’s favorite sport, intervened. Smith suffered a devastating injury in Week 11, and backup quarterback Colt McCoy went down with a leg broken nearly as badly as Smith’s just two games later. Washington limped to a 7-9 record, and with no established presence over center this season, the bitter beginning was almost inevitable.

What is interesting about Gruden’s dismissal is not that it occurred – the coach himself told the media he had assumed it was coming for a couple of weeks – but that he leaves town as almost a sympathetic figure. So despised are Snyder and the owner’s front office henchman Bruce Allen that fans in Washington have come to expect disarray and defeat. That’s why FedEx Field looked like Gillette Stadium during a Patriots practice when New England visited for what proved to be Gruden’s last game, with the stands mostly empty and fans who were there wearing Tom Brady jerseys by the hundreds. The center of Washington’s sports world has moved from the Maryland suburbs back downtown, where the NHL’s Capitals and WNBA’s Mystic play, and where the Nationals have come home from St. Louis with a 2-0 lead in the NLCS.

Three hours up the I-95 corridor, the dismissal of Kapler after two seasons in the Phillies dugout was also not surprising, but for very different reasons. This was not a case of a head coach taking the fall for a front office that failed to provide a contending roster. In fact, it was just the opposite. After forcing fans to suffer through three straight years of ninety-plus losses, team president Andy McPhail and GM Matt Klentak believed they had the nucleus of a contender built on youth and a handful of veteran free agents when Kapler was hired in the fall of 2017.

Philadelphia finished 80-82 in 2018, but that was a fourteen game improvement over the prior season, and both the front office and fans realized that the team was still a piece of two away from being complete. That led to a busy offseason, with trades for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto and the signings of All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson. Then the Phillies won the biggest offseason prize of all, giving Bryce Harper 330 million reasons to love the City of Brotherly Love.

But all that money and all that talent failed to coalesce into a contending team. McCutchen and Robertson suffered season-ending injuries, Segura hit below .300 for the first time in four years, and Harper’s first year in Philly made his seven-year deal look very, very long. After a season of exactly .500 ball, it was a classic case of not being able to fire the entire team, so the manager had to go.

The width of the country away, fans couldn’t possibly complain about the regular season performance of the Los Angeles Dodgers since Roberts took over as manager four years ago. L.A. has won more than ninety games each season Roberts has been filling out the lineup card, and this year’s team set a franchise record with 106 wins. After back-to-back World Series appearances ended in disappointment, this was the year that was going to be different.

That proved correct, but not in the way fans had hoped. The Dodgers didn’t make it back to the Series, or even to the NLCS, instead losing the divisional round in five games to the Washington Nationals. The Game 5 defeat was especially bitter with L.A. surrendering a 3-1 lead in the 8th and then losing in the 10th. Roberts’s decisions to let Clayton Kershaw pitch the 8th, and to send Joe Kelly out for a second inning in the 10th, were both lambasted as particularly bad calls.

Of course, if Kershaw hadn’t yielded consecutive home runs, and if Kelly hadn’t loaded the bases before serving up a grand slam ball to Howie Kendrick, the popular view might be different. But given what happened, fans and pundits quickly pulled out their lists of other real or imagined miscues by Roberts in the postseason. But to their disappointment word quickly came that Roberts would return.  It was somewhat surprising, given the usual focus on immediate results, but perhaps proof that at least sometimes the baying mob does not get its way.

While Dave Roberts lives for another day in Dodger blue, Gruden and Kapler wait for their phones to ring. That they will is really not in doubt, with Kapler already scheduled for an interview with the Giants. The coaching fraternity is elite and gaining entry is difficult. But once granted membership few ever really leave. Like itinerant preachers or the traveling salesmen of pre-internet days, they just move on to some new town.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 10, 2019

The Other Side Of Ecstasy

For every winner there is, necessarily, a loser. This is the grim and inescapable truth of our games. Oh sure, there are always situations in which a team or player does better than expected or can take some specific positive from an otherwise disappointing result. But measured by the ultimate outcome, our sports are zero sum games. That reality was brought home in especially brutal fashion Wednesday evening, when both of this year’s National League Division Series were decided, each in a climatic win-or-go-home Game 5. In the wake of an evening that both began and ended in dramatic fashion, joyous fans in St. Louis and D.C. are preparing for the Great Game’s next postseason round; in Atlanta and L.A. though, the emotions are very, very different.

There was virtually nothing in the first four contests between St. Louis and Atlanta to suggest what the capacity crowd at SunTrust Park was about to see as the scheduled time for Game 5 approached. Each of the previous games had been close. Two were decided by just a single run, and the most lopsided score, though the description doesn’t really apply, was Atlanta’s 3-0 shutout of the Cardinals in Game 2. In addition, while both teams were 1-1 on the road, the visiting team had not scored first in any game, with Atlanta’s 3rd inning tally in Game 4 two nights earlier the only run pushed across by the visitors through the first three frames in the entire series.

Against that backdrop it would not be surprising, even given Game 5’s import, if some fans were a bit slow to arrive at the suburban ballpark that took the place of downtown Turner Field in 2017. For the Atlanta faithful, perhaps being slow to find one’s seat was a blessing. That’s because before the home team even came to bat the Cardinals had opened a double-digit lead, scoring ten runs in the top of the 1st inning. Having barely begun, the decisive Game 5 was all but over.

What made the outburst even more painful for those Atlanta fans who were prompt was that their side contributed mightily to the onslaught. Much of the enormous hole in which their team found itself by the home half of the opening frame was dug by poor pitching and shoddy defense. In baseball’s year of the dinger, the Cardinals plated their ten runs without benefit of a homer. What St. Louis did have, courtesy of Atlanta, was four men on base by walks, one runner reaching on an error by first baseman Freddie Freeman, and a second safely aboard when a curveball that produced a swinging strike for what should have been the third out, instead got away from catcher Brian McCann, allowing Marcell Ozuna to race to first even as Kolten Wang trotted home with the Cardinals’ tenth run.

After that record-setting performance – most 1st inning runs in postseason history – the remainder of the game was played in front of a crowd that understandably would have been more boisterous had it been attending a funeral. But St. Louis wasn’t done, adding another score in the 2nd and two more in the 3rd to stretch the advantage to 13-0. The best Atlanta could do was avoid the final humiliation of a shutout, thanks to Josh Donaldson’s solo home run in the 4th.

If the Cardinals succeeded, like no playoff team before, in taking the home crowd out of a big game, the Dodgers’ partisans who filled the old stadium at Chavez Ravine were not similarly silenced by anything the Washington Nationals did in the early going of Wednesday’s second Game 5. Rather it was the home side that scored first in L.A. After Walker Buehler set the visitors down in order to get things started, Joc Pederson and Max Muncy greeted Washington’s Stephen Strasburg rudely, with leadoff batter Pederson lacing a ground-rule double to left that was initially ruled a home run, and Muncy following with a two-run blast to right center that didn’t need to be reviewed. When Enrique Hernandez led of the last of the 2nd with another homer, the Dodgers led 3-0 and many in the crowd were settling back for an enjoyable evening in southern California.

But as bad as the Nationals were in the first two months of the season, they were as good as any club in the majors over the final hundred-plus games. Strasburg found his groove, and Washington got on the board in the 6th on a double by Anthony Rendon and an RBI single by Wild Card Game hero Juan Soto. Perhaps a few L.A. fans had a moment of doubt when Clayton Kershaw was called upon to relieve Buehler with two outs in the 7th, since the big left-hander, for all his accomplishments, has often struggled in October. But Kershaw fanned Adam Eaton on three pitches, giving Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ample reason to send him back out for the 8th.

That’s when Kershaw was greeted by back-to-back homers off the bats of Rendon and Soto, erasing L.A.’s lead. But while the morning after analysts are having their way with Roberts for calling upon Kershaw, there was nothing in the moment to cast doubt on his management.

That’s less true about his later decision to have Joe Kelly pitch multiple innings. Signed in the offseason by the Dodgers, Kelly had a rough spring on the mound, but eventually proved reliable in one inning stints. Tuesday he quickly retired the Nationals in order in the 9th. But with the game now in extra innings, Kelly just as rapidly unraveled in the 10th. A leadoff walk to Eaton followed by a Rendon double, forced Kelly to intentionally walk Soto to set up a force play at any base. But Howie Kendrick made sure the only players touching the bases were wearing Washington uniforms by blasting a grand slam over the center field fence. In a matter of four batters and a few minutes, a taut tie was turned into a comfortable 7-3 lead for the visitors. Not long after, the stunned L.A. crowd watched their team’s season end.

A shocking beginning and a stunning finish. In the wake of both there will be pundits who point to the rosters of both Atlanta and the Dodgers and predict continued and even greater success for both franchises. Perhaps their forecasts will prove prescient, but that does nothing to ease the present pain. Atlanta and Los Angeles are warm weather cities, but winter has come early to both. For fans of the home teams, Wednesday proved a good day to arrive late and leave early.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 6, 2019

A Stand Up Win In The Bronx

Throughout the 162 games of the longest season, each major league club sets the prices for seats at its ballpark. Eighty-one times at every stadium across the land, fans go through the turnstiles having paid what the home team has decided the market will bear. Many clubs now use dynamic pricing models, with the cost of a ticket fluctuating based on demand. Fans of the powerful and popular franchises can, if they so choose, relieve themselves of several hundred dollars for just one seat in a premium location. But as much as fans love to complain about ticket prices, it is also true that at every stadium there are many value-priced sections from which one can take in a game for about the price of a visit to the local cineplex.

Then the playoffs start, and the power to set ticket prices passes from the individual teams to Major League Baseball. Once again, prices will vary, based not on demand – most postseason contests are played in front of full houses – but on the relative importance of the game. Division Series tickets are less expensive than ones for the World Series, and even within a single playoff round prices rise for the later games that are potentially decisive. The one certainty is that for any postseason game, anywhere in the ballpark, the price will be several times what the home club charged for even the most in-demand contest during the regular season.

Which brings us to one of the great oddities of sports, one of life’s eternal mysteries. Having paid an exorbitant amount for their seat at a playoff game, whether in the farthest reaches of the upper deck or down on the field level, most fans almost never use it.

That was certainly the case Friday evening in the Bronx, where the Yankees hosted the Minnesota Twins in the first game of the best-of-five American League Division Series. It was the ultimate day of each postseason for fans of the Great Game – the one day have four games, from early afternoon until late at night east coast time (as is the case this year, a second such day can occur depending on how long each series lasts). The Yankees and Twins drew the third time slot, and fans were already on their feet when New York starter James Paxton toed the rubber shortly after seven o’clock.

Paxton’s first year in pinstripes since being traded from Seattle last November was a tale of two seasons. He was very good in the early going and utterly dominant at the end, but through late spring and early summer his starts were episodes that no doubt he, and certainly Yankees fans, would be happy to forget. Fans worried about which Paxton would show up quickly learned that the answer was a bit of both. The Twins took a 1-0 lead when Jorge Polanco, the second hitter in their lineup, homered to right field. But around that mistake Paxton struck out the side in the 1st inning.

Minnesota scored again in the 3rd when Nelson Cruz mirrored Polanco’s blow, but New York fans finally had reason to cheer in the bottom of that inning. With an assist from an error by Twins first baseman C. J. Cron, the Yankees plated three to take their first lead of the postseason. The score remained 3-2 until the 5th, when Paxton yielded a double and an RBI single, once again around a pair of strikeouts. That was enough to convince New York manager Aaron Boone that it was time to call on his bullpen. Adam Ottavino was the first in an eventual parade of six relievers, each of whom was greeted by fans on their feet and cheering the new arrival’s name.

The 3-3 tie lasted only a few minutes, with New York again taking the lead on a bases loaded double by Gleyber Torres in the bottom of the frame that pushed two runs across. The Twins, who led the majors in home runs during the regular season with 307, one more than the Yankees, hit their third of the night in the top of the 6th, but all three dingers were solo shots, and 5-4 was as close as Minnesota would get. New York’s offensive power finally asserted itself, with two runs in the 6th on a pair of homers and then three more in the 7th when, after Twins reliever Kyle Gibson walked the bases loaded, D.J. LeMahieu cleared them with a double to left. The 10-4 lead was enough to cause a few fans to do something they had barely done all night, take a seat.

They didn’t remain sitting for very long. Once again, the crowd was on its feet and cheering when the bullpen door swung open and closer Aroldis Chapman began his jog in to the mound for the top of the 9th. They cheered even louder when, with one on and one out, Chapman fanned Cruz on a 98 mile-per-hour four-seamer. One pitch later it was over, when Eddie Rosario hit a pop foul that catcher Gary Sanchez caught for the final out.

It was just one victory, with ten more needed before a parade up lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes can be planned. While the Yankees used a Didi Gregorius grand slam to again bludgeon the Twins on Saturday, the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers remain the World Series favorites for most pundits. But for the jubilant though tired fans who headed for home and presumably a chance to sit down after a game that stretched to more than four hours, the obstacles to New York’s 28th championship could wait for another day. On Friday the Yankees gave their faithful just what they wanted by getting October started with a victory. Now if only MLB would price playoff tickets for what they really are – standing room only.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 3, 2019

Nationals Beat Their Demons, And The Brewers

It didn’t happen all at once. Rather, the enthusiasm and accompanying crowd noise seeped out of Nationals Park slowly but steadily Tuesday night, like a Goodyear that’s picked up a little 2-penny nail gradually deflating as it rolls along the Beltway that circumnavigates our nation’s capital. To be certain, there were those among the nearly 43,000 fans comprising the sea of red that filled the stadium’s three decks who tried hard to wave their rally towels and shout their support for the home team as this year’s National League Wild Card Game played out. But as the early innings became the middle frames and then turned to that point in the game where the remaining outs start to be counted down, more and more of their neighbors grew quiet and pensive.

After all, they had been tortured in like fashion before. This was Washington’s fifth trip to the postseason in the past eight years, and each of the previous forays into October had ended in disappointment, often in excruciating fashion. The first, in 2012, set the tone for what played out again and again at the end of subsequent seasons. The Nationals rallied from a two games to one deficit in the NL Division Series, forcing a Game Five against the Cardinals with a dramatic 2-1 walk off win in Game Four. One night later, in front of a raucous home crowd, Washington leapt out to an early lead and then held on, taking a 7-5 advantage to the 9th inning. The visitors were soon down to their final out with one runner on, when the game turned in stunning fashion. Two walks and a pair of two-run singles later, St. Louis had a 9-7 edge and was on its way to the NLCS, even as fans who only minutes before had begun to celebrate looked on in stunned silence.

Two years later it was the Giants turning hope to despair for Nats fans, followed by the Dodgers in 2016 and the Cubs in 2017. Four trips to the NLDS and still Washington was looking for its first series victory. Even more dispiriting, three of the series had ended with the visiting team celebrating at Nationals Park, where Washington had lost eight of eleven postseason contests.

It was thus entirely understandable if doubt gnawed at many in the full house when the Milwaukee Brewers led 2-0 after Washington starter Max Scherzer had thrown just seven pitches. Trent Grisham drew a leadoff walk on a full count, then Yasmani Grandal lined the first pitch he saw into the Nationals bullpen in right field. Eric Thames followed with another long ball to lead off the second as Scherzer continued to labor. National’s shortstop Trea Turner countered with a solo home run of his own in the bottom of the 3rd, getting Washington on the board.

There the score stayed, 3-1 in favor of Milwaukee, even as the innings began to click away. After his ragged start Scherzer settled down and held the Brewers in check through five frames, then Stephen Strasburg came on in the first relief appearance of his career and fired three shutout innings. But Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell countered with Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter, and Drew Pomeranz, who together shut down the Nationals’ offense through the 7th. Other than Turner’s home run Washington batters managed only two singles off the trio of Milwaukee hurlers.

That allowed Counsell to turn to flamethrowing closer Josh Hader in the bottom of the 8th, with the Nationals just six outs away from another playoff disappointment. One batter later the counter ticked down to five, as Victor Robles went down swinging. When Hader hit Michael Taylor on the hand to put a runner on first, the red-clad thousands clung to fading hope. But there was little to stop a sense of dread from spreading through the stands like a virus when Turner fanned for the second out.

Then in the time it took Hader to throw thirteen pitches to three batters, everything changed. The frustrations of postseasons past were washed away, and Nationals fans discovered that October baseball can mean something other than disappointment. Ryan Zimmerman flared a broken-bat single to center, sending Taylor to third. Anthony Rendon then worked a walk to load the bases. That brought up 20-year-old Juan Soto, runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, who was even better at the plate this season. He lined Hader’s third offering to right for a clean single. Even as Brewers right-fielder Grisham charged the ball, it was clear that Soto had likely tied the game. That was until Grisham put his glove down, and watched in horror as the ball skipped beneath it, headed for the right field fence. By the time he could wheel and retrieve it Soto’s liner had cleared the bases, giving the Nationals a lead they would carry into the 9th and ultimately to a meeting with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS.

In that moment, as energy and roars returned to Nationals Park, fans of the Great Game who may not have followed Washington closely this season saw the resilience that has come to symbolize the team. On May 23rd, after dropping a 6-4 decision to the New York Mets, Washington was twelve games under .500 at 19-31, just a game and one-half ahead of Miami and the NL East cellar. It would have been easy to give up on the year, to conclude that the departure of Bryce Harper had robbed the Nationals of the confidence needed to contend. But after that date the Nationals went 74-38, a record that matched the Dodgers and was only a half-game behind the Astros for best in the majors. While the denizens of Chavez Ravine will be favored in the next round, those who call Dodger Stadium home should take nothing for granted.

When Grisham finally retrieved Soto’s hit and fired the ball in, the Brewers managed to catch the young Nationals hero in a rundown. But by that time the go-ahead run had been plated. As TBS’s announcer Ernie Johnson Jr. rightly said, “they tag him out but nobody in this joint cares!” What they cared about was something that had been far too long coming to Nationals Park – the joy of winning in the postseason and advancing to the next round. It didn’t happen all at once Tuesday night. Until it did.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 29, 2019

Titles Don’t Buy Love Like They Used To

More than six months after the A’s and Mariners got things started with a pair of games half a world away at the Tokyo Dome, the regular portion of the longest season has come to an end. In keeping with recent practice, all fifteen games Sunday started at or very close to 3:00 p.m. Eastern time; the idea being to heighten the final day drama of remaining pennant races. It’s a fine concept rendered almost entirely moot this year. All ten playoff teams were already set, with the only outstanding question being whether the NL Central champion would be St. Louis or Milwaukee, with the team that missed out on the title, which turned out to be the Brewers, traveling to Washington for Tuesday’s Wild Card Game against the Nationals.

With many teams having so little at stake not just on the last day but for some time, several franchises had already moved into offseason mode, starting to shape the club that will take the field next spring. As is usually the case, a few didn’t even wait until the final day. The Padres dismissed manager Andy Green with more than a week of games left to play, after a second half collapse that saw San Diego go from exactly .500 at the All-Star break to the NL West cellar. Green’s firing wasn’t even the first anticipatory move of the coming winter. That dubious honor went to the Red Sox, who parted ways with Dave Dombrowski, the team’s president of baseball operations, earlier in the month. Then on Sunday, before either the Cubs or Pirates took the field for their final 2019 contest, those two clubs announced the firings of managers Joe Maddon and Clint Hurdle.

Like Green in San Diego, the 62-year-old Hurdle had the misfortune of presiding over an utterly forgettable two-plus months of baseball by the Pirates following the All-Star Game. As with the Padres, Hurdle’s team entered the break still very much part of the postseason conversation in both the NL Central and Wild Card races, only to have a horrid second half. By losing nearly two of every three games since mid-July Pittsburgh is now assured of its worst record since 2010. As with the Padres, that’s the kind of result that tends to get managers fired, if only because, as managerial defenders often point out, it’s not feasible to fire the entire team.

If the dismissals in San Diego and Pittsburgh were unsurprising, the firings of Dombrowski and Maddon were, at first glance, more mystifying. Barely ten months removed from a championship parade through downtown Boston, the Red Sox removed the executive who assembled that 108-win team. On Chicago’s North Side, in addition to winning the 2016 World Series, until the current season the Cubs had never won fewer than 92 games in Maddon’s four previous years at the helm. But a deeper look reveals that each of the two firings, one of an executive and one of a field general, says much about the nature of professional sports in our age of information overload and miniscule attention spans.

Dombrowski’s time in Boston didn’t end abruptly because the Red Sox were arguably the biggest disappointment in the majors this season, or at least not entirely for that reason. In just over four years at Fenway Park, Dombrowski did what he was hired to do, in the exact same manner that he had in Miami and Detroit – quickly deliver a winning franchise by stocking up on proven talent, either through the free agent market or by trading away minor league prospects. In Boston that meant immediately turning a team that had endured back-to-back losing seasons after capturing the 2013 World Series into a division champion with 93 wins in both 2016 and 2017. Then came the 2018 juggernaut, a team that steamrolled all opponents from Opening Day right through the final out of its five-game World Series triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While Dombrowski’s approach works – he also won a title in Miami and his Detroit teams went to the World Series twice – it carries both a high dollar price tag in the short term and a potential long term cost in terms of talent. The Red Sox and their fans used to complain long and loud about the free spending ways of that division rival down in the Bronx. Under Dombrowski Boston quickly became the team with the highest payroll in baseball. In order to procure some of that high-priced talent he also drained the team’s farm system. Now owner John Henry has expressed his wish to bring salaries down so he can escape MLB’s luxury tax. Doing that will require reshaping the roster, but Boston’s limited reserves in its minor league pipeline could mean a few seasons during which contending will be a challenge.

In Chicago team president Theo Epstein ignored Maddon’s body of work and focused instead on the trend line which the Cubs appeared to be following. Maddon was the NL Manager of the Year after leading Chicago to the NLCS in his first season on the North Side, and the almost magical end to a title drought of more than a century followed in 2016. But the following year the Cubs were soundly beaten by the Dodgers in the NLCS. Last season the team didn’t come close to the league series, losing the division in a one game playoff and then losing the Wild Card game at home. This year, a late season losing streak – Chicago lost nine in a row and ten of twelve over the last two weeks – slammed the door on a possible return to the playoffs. That steady regression, which was recently noted in this space, in turn allowed the Cubs’ front office to question Maddon’s easygoing style, which of course was considered his biggest plus when he was hired.

Within a couple days fans should get a break from news of major comings or goings, since MLB discourages teams from doing anything to distract attention from its playoffs. But it’s certain that once a World Series champion is crowned there will be others joining Maddon, Dombrowski, Hurdle and Green on the list of the unemployed. Of course, some will not be there for long. The very attributes that seemed so appealing not that long ago in Chicago and Boston (and Pittsburgh and San Diego as well), only to suddenly become liabilities, will again be viewed as assets by some other owner or front office. But the firings, especially by the Red Sox and Cubs, should remind fans that in our games, as in life, professional worth is all too often measured not by the full list of achievements on one’s resume, but by the answer to the more pointed question, “what have you done lately?”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 26, 2019

The Limits Of Losing Now To Win Later

Turn out the lights in Philadelphia. Shut it down in Chicago. But please play on in Oakland and Tampa – okay, it’s really St. Petersburg. As the longest season’s calendar turns at last to its final weekend, the closing contests offer precious little drama. Five of the six division races are decided, and whichever club loses out on the NL Central race between the Cardinals and Brewers will be, along with Washington, one of the two National League Wild Card teams. That leaves the chase for the two AL Wild Card slots as the only outcome still in genuine doubt. As this is written three teams, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland, are separated by a pair of games for the last available tickets to the postseason, albeit potentially for a mere nine innings.

But if this weekend’s concluding contests are mostly about deciding which teams have home field advantage in the three rounds of the Great Game’s playoffs, having the final standings essentially set allows for some early observations about how best to achieve every franchise’s goal of playing into October. Those standings suggest that what has become the favorite approach of front offices throughout the majors offers no certain path to success.

Thanks largely to the recent championship seasons of the Cubs and Astros, the idea that the challenge of building up is best met by first tearing down has gone from an exotic notion to conventional wisdom in just a few short years. If Moneyball was about doing more with less, that is, putting a high quality product on the field while spending less money on payroll by focusing on advanced metrics; the new scheme is to do next to nothing with as little as possible by fielding an admittedly inferior team that carries a payroll to match, while husbanding both dollars and draft picks for future seasons when a core group of young prospects finally comes into its own. As popular as it has become this approach makes the line between rebuilding and outright tanking extremely difficult to discern for fans who are expected to endure years of minor league ball at major league prices.

In Chicago a bad team got worse after Theo Epstein arrived from Boston prior to the 2012 season, but that was the plan. As Epstein, who had taken the Red Sox to a pair of titles, purged the Cubs’ roster of veterans and slashed salaries, the team lost 101 games that first year and fared barely better the next two. But just as fans were growing understandably impatient, the rebound began with a trip to the NLCS in 2015, followed by the blessed end of the Cubs’ 108-year championship drought the following season.

A thousand miles to the south, the Astros were on a similar trajectory, fielding a young and unproven roster that predictably racked up more than 100 losses for three years running starting in 2011, and improved only marginally in 2014. Then the flame of hope was lit by a trip to the playoffs in 2015, and two seasons later Houston followed Chicago’s title with one of its own. The back-to-back championships by franchises following the same path to glory convinced many front offices of the wisdom of the approach.

As this year’s playoff picture has come into focus, the one participant most clearly seeking to replicate the Cubs and Astros story is Atlanta. The franchise subjected its fans to four straight losing seasons from 2014 through 2017, including the last three in a row with at least 90 losses. Then last year, as young pitchers Max Fried and Julio Teheran, and dynamic outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr., began to realize their potential, the team surged to the top of the NL East and Acuna was named the league’s Rookie of the Year. This year Atlanta is again atop its division and will host the NL Central winner in the Division Series.

Perhaps one night in the last week of October, jubilant players wearing Atlanta uniforms will pile on one another in front of a stadium full of cheering fans, celebrating the third championship in four years won by a team espousing the lose now, win later philosophy. Maybe, but also maybe not. If Atlanta does fall short, perhaps the approach will lose a bit of its luster.

After all, while the goal of every franchise each season is to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, the broader objective is to build a team that can contend over the long haul. Against that standard, the results are less clear. Certainly Houston, winner of the NL West for the third year in a row and the team most likely to enter the playoffs with home field advantage right through the World Series, the reward for having the best regular season record, is showing considerable staying power. But the Cubs have been a different story. Following the 2016 title, Chicago made it back to the NLCS in 2017, but last year the team was one and done, losing the NL Wild Card game to Colorado after a second place division finish. This year the Cubs won’t even get that opportunity after collapsing down the stretch to third place in the NL Central standings, good for nothing more than a free pass to an early winter. What’s worse, baseball operations president Epstein has made it clear that the disappointing result will likely mean a major reshaping of the team.

The Cubs are not the only cautionary tale. After supplementing homegrown players like Aaron Nola and Scott Kingery with a trade for Miami’s young catcher J.T. Realmuto and signing superstar free agent Bryce Harper, the Phillies were primed for a title run. This after not having a winning season since 2011, and losing 91, 99, and 96 games from 2015 to 2017. But all those pieces never quite fit together in Philadelphia, and now the team must take two out of three over the final weekend to manage the modest goal of a winning record.

Maybe next season will be better for the Phillies; maybe the Orioles, Blue Jays, Marlins and Tigers, four other teams pursuing the teardown philosophy, will quickly reach the day when they stop torturing their fans and start winning. But of that group only Toronto appears close to turning things around, and as Philadelphia just proved, there are no guarantees.

Meanwhile Oakland and Tampa Bay, the two franchises vying with Cleveland for the AL Wild Card slots, have resisted the temptation to gut their rosters. Both play in subpar stadiums in smaller markets, and consistently rank near the bottom in salaries. But over the last ten seasons the A’s have had just two seasons with 90-plus losses, half the number of their years with more than 90 wins. For their part the Rays have lost more than 90 games just once while winning 90 or more six times. Both franchises have relied on the value approach that less than two decades ago was revolutionary, and now is deemed old school. Far more frequently than one would expect in those small markets, both have been contenders. Fans in Philadelphia and Baltimore and Toronto and Miami and Detroit and perhaps even on the North Side of Chicago, would surely trade years of heartache for that.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 22, 2019

After Clinching, Remembering Closing Time

A NOTE TO READERS: Thursday evening On Sports and Life had the good fortune to be in the stands at what is still referred to locally as the “new” Stadium, as the New York Yankees clinched the America League East for the first time since 2012 with a 9-1 win over the visiting Angels. Both the team and we fans now look forward to the postseason. On the same weekend eleven years ago, the Yankees had already been eliminated from the playoffs, making home game number 81 the final contest at the original Stadium. The following reflection, written after that game, is republished every year near the anniversary of that event.

One more Sunday in the Bronx. One more ride on the 4 train from midtown Manhattan up to the 161st Street station. One more winding one’s way up the ramps and along the narrow passageways of The Stadium. One more walk up the entryway directly behind home plate, and at last out into the open of the Tier, the upper deck with its vertigo-inducing pitch. Down the steep steps of Section 607 to Row A, Seat 16. Second row on the aisle, looking down on the batter’s box for left-handed hitters. All the ballpark is once again spread out before me; from the huge interlocked NY in foul ground behind home plate, out to Monument Park. It is the same routine as at all the many previous games this season, and in seasons past. It is the same, but of course it is entirely different; because this Sunday evening, it’s closing time.

Why should it really matter? The Stadium is ancient. They’ve played the Great Game here for nearly 90 years. The mid-70’s renovation made it an entirely different place that the old heroes would scarcely recognize. Long gone are the days when the monuments were in play in that deepest of centerfields, while the right field foul pole seemed but a pop fly away from home plate. It’s only concrete and steel. And the new stadium being built across the street will offer far superior creature comforts for both players and fans. But still, we all know that tonight it’s closing time.

What does it matter? The pre-game ceremonies serve to remind. The introduction of a pantheon of heroes, whether by video, by actors walking into center field, or by their presence in the flesh, brings back a flood of memories of all that has happened here. Right here, on the southwest corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx. Whatever form the concrete and steel around it may have taken, it all happened on this field.

It was here that the Babe homered in the very first game; and here was where he set the home run record that stood for almost two generations. On this field Roger broke it on an October afternoon in 1961.

At this location a still-young hero, cut down by an insidious disease, stared death in the face and pronounced himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Right here in the months before America went to war, Joltin’ Joe hit, and hit, and hit again; until a record was established that still stands and may well defy the maxim that they are all made to be broken.

In this infield, along the first baseline, Yogi leapt into Larsen’s arms to celebrate something that had never been done before in a World Series and has yet to be repeated in the Fall Classic.

Across the impossible green of this outfield Mickey ranged, for more games than any other Yankee (a record eventually broken by a certain shortstop several years after this was written).

Right here, right in that left-handed batter’s box below me, Reggie flicked his wrists three times and became Mr. October. With those three magnificent swings he brought new hope to a city rendered fearful in 1977 by the serial killer who came to be known as the Son of Sam.

And here too it was that a previously unsuccessful manager was given one more chance and found a way to lead a team to phenomenal and repeated success, as an old century ended and a new one began. We are reminded of all of that as prelude, and still we have a game to play.

That game unfolds like so many others, because the ebb and flow of the Great Game is unfailing. The visiting Orioles take the early lead, then we come back; but the question of who leads at the end is somehow more important this time. Because it is the last time. Tonight, it’s closing time.

Andy Pettitte is not dominant, but then domination is not his style. Pettitte is a grinder who pitches to contact and counts on being good enough to win. After we trail early Johnny Damon homers to bring us back. And then Jose Molina homers into the visitors’ bullpen in leftfield to put us ahead. So now we wait for the last home run at The Stadium. Because it cannot come from Molina, a .215 hitter whose most recent blast was just his third homer of the year. But after more than eight decades The Stadium appears to have its own mind; and it gives Molina a place in its history to remind us that along with the stars, there were thousands of bit players without whom 26 championships would never have been won.

So it comes down to the 9th inning, which for the Yankees and their fans means but one thing. The bullpen gate opens, he walks through a step or two before pausing a moment on the outfield warning track as always; and then Mariano Rivera, the last active player wearing number 42, begins his jog to the mound. We fans erupt, and in doing so relax; for we know that victory is at hand. Mo faces three batters, throws eleven pitches, and the final game is won.

And so, at last, it really is closing time.

But we stay. We stay and cheer for this ground and all that has happened right here. Then the captain, Derek Jeter, assembles the entire team in the middle of the infield. He acknowledges the history, the tradition, the excellence, and most of all, the fans. He invites us to bring our memories across the street, and by so doing wed them to new memories as yet uncreated and pass the whole history on to the next generation. Then he leads his team around the field in appreciation of us, all four million of us who have walked the aging ramps and passageways this final year. We are grateful for the latter, and we will of course do the former. But as the clock strikes the beginning of a new day we all know, players and fans alike, that on this side of 161st Street, it’s closing time.

But still we stay. We cheer. We take pictures. We stand silently. We gaze at the immaculate swath of green and brown through eyes moistened by a flood of remembrances. We are in awe, fans and players alike; not of each other nor of the cement and steel and cantilevered decks, but of all that has happened here. Right here. Right here. We stay in the stands. They stay on the field.

It’s closing time. But on the field and in the stands, no one is ready to leave.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 19, 2019

Field Of Memories, And Of Dreams Come True

Almost all the old places are gone now. Some of the most famous disappeared decades ago, lost to franchise relocations and the shimmery lure of commercial development. Ebbetts Field and the Polo Grounds in Gotham and Griffith Stadium in D.C. are little more than hazy memories for a dwindling few fans. Other ballfields have given way to the wrecking ball more recently, in favor of modern facilities. Some on that list, like Tiger Stadium in Detroit or Comiskey Park in Chicago or the South Bronx edifice that was the first place New Yorkers referred to simply as “the Stadium,” are remembered with entire chapters in the history of the Great Game. Others, like Shea or the Kingdome, are scarcely missed.

Of the thirty ballparks that major league teams currently call home, only six are more than three decades old. The oldest of all, of course, is the little bandbox squeezed into the Boston neighborhood named for the marshlands, or fens, that were filled in long, long ago to create buildable land for a growing city. Fenway Park has been home to the Red Sox since 1912, and if the old place were capable of human speech it would have many stories to tell. It might choose to recount more recent events, and that would be understandable. Beginning in 2004, Fenway’s decades of disappointment and doubt gave way to a recent period in which the Sox have won four world championships and taken part in the playoffs at the end of five other seasons.

That sustained success has come under the ownership of John Henry, the billionaire investor who essentially traded his majority interest in the Marlins for a similar stake in the Boston franchise in 2002. Henry was an early acolyte of Bill James and other pioneers of the advanced metrics that now dominate front office decision-making. But he has also been willing to open his very large checkbook. When the 2018 edition of the Red Sox won 108 regular season games and then rolled through the playoffs, the team did so with the Great Game’s largest payroll.

As local fans know all too well, while such largesse on the part of ownership was not unknown in the decades before Henry arrived, it rarely translated into winning on the field. Longtime owner Tom Yawkey was more than willing to sign off on fat contracts, but he and the rest of the team’s management often did so without a coherent plan for how the Red Sox would contend. For years Boston’s hopes were stymied by Yawkey’s egregious determination to field a lily white team. But even after the Red Sox became the last team in the majors to sign a black player, the fans who often had plenty of room to spread out in Fenway’s stands rarely watched a contending ballclub.

If those fans seldom had reason to celebrate the team, over the years they had plenty of worthy local heroes to cheer, from Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky to Carlton Fisk and Jim Rice. Among that list of notables, no one other than Williams came to symbolize Boston’s team as much as Carl Yastrzemski. For twenty-three seasons, nearly a quarter of a century, Yaz roamed Fenway Park’s left field in front of that imposing green wall, while at the plate slugging his way into Red Sox lore. When he retired at the end of the 1983 season, Yastrzemski had played 3,308 games in the only major league uniform he ever wore, a record that stands to this day. Not a Red Sox record, but the mark for most games played for a single franchise in the entire history of the Great Game.

But Yaz’s career was about more than longevity. He won the American League batting title three times, including 1967, when he also led the AL in home runs and RBIs to win the Triple Crown, a feat that went unrepeated for more than four decades until Miguel Cabrera accomplished it in 2012. As the employees in John Henry’s analytics department surely know, long before it was a recognized statistic Yastrzemski was also the league leader in OPS in four different seasons. With those stats plus more than 3,400 hits, over 1,800 runs batted in, and 452 homers, he was easily elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

Since his retirement Yastrzemski, who turned 80 last month, has seldom returned to Fenway, limiting his appearances to the occasional ceremonial duty. But he was there Tuesday afternoon, strolling across the outfield grass with a 29-year-old outfielder who plays for the visiting San Francisco Giants. The player walking with the Red Sox legend made his big league debut earlier this year, after more than six seasons in the minors. In 96 games since being called up, Mike Yastrzemski, Yaz’s grandson, has shown that he belongs in the bigs, slugging 19 home runs and posting a very respectable .833 OPS.

Both the Red Sox and the Giants remain mathematically alive for a Wild Card berth, though even the most passionate fans of both franchises realize that neither is going to the postseason. The midweek three game set at Fenway was an interleague series between two teams wrapping up disappointing seasons. Yet just shy of 36,000 filled most of the seats at the old ballyard, some no doubt drawn by the prospect of once again seeing a Yastrzemski in uniform, even if it was the road grays of a visiting club.

The Red Sox recognized the symbolism, inviting the elder Yaz to throw out the first pitch to his grandson. Had that been the evening’s Yastrzemski moment, all in attendance would have remembered it as a sweet reminder of the Great Game’s magical pull across generations. But then in the top of the 4th inning, with the Giants already leading 4-1, young Yastrzemski came to the plate to face Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi. Standing in the same left-handed batter’s box that his grandfather occupied more times than any other player, he looked at four straight pitches from the Red Sox hurler. The umpire called the first one a strike. The next three he called balls. Then Eovaldi offered up a 96-mile-per-hour four-seam fastball, and young Yaz swung.

There are home runs that hug the foul line, taking the shortest possible route to the stands. There are some that just sneak over the fence, barely eluding a fielder’s outstretched glove. The swing that Mike Yastrzemski put on Eovaldi’s fastball did not produce one of those. The ball left the bat on a high arc, headed for dead center field. It soared into the sky, into the night, landing several rows back in the Fenway bleachers.

Perhaps it was the quality of light, or the glare from the big modern scoreboard that looms over center field, or some trick of perspective. Perhaps it was a spell cast by the ghosts of old heroes, for such spirits surely lurk in the dark recesses of the ancient stadium. As fans came to their feet even though the blast had put the home team further behind, cheering a new generation’s Yaz, there were many who saw another player with the same last name rounding the bases, a hero from a different age of this ageless game. With one swing of the bat, they were transported back across the decades, seeing again what they hadn’t witnessed in 36 seasons – one more Yastrzemski home run at the old ballyard.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 15, 2019

Victory And Redemption At Gleneagles

At best there is a good deal of sexism among sports fans. At worst, and for far too many, the harsher and more accurate term is misogyny. Anyone who’s had even a few discussions about almost any game has heard the familiar rant that women players lack some specific physical attribute when compared to men. The list of supposed deficiencies is lengthy – women players are not as fast, not as strong, not as coordinated, not as competitive, and on and on. The conclusion of the diatribe is always that because of one or two or a dozen of these supposed shortcomings, women’s games fall somewhere on a scale that runs from not as interesting as men’s to utterly unwatchable.

It’s safe to assume that few of those who swear by these fallacies tuned in earlier this summer when Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and the other members of the U.S. Women’s National Team claimed their spot at the very peak of the world’s most popular sport, not simply as the best women’s squad but as the most accomplished team in soccer, period. There is also little doubt that on Sunday morning this group of fans could not be bothered to turn to the Golf Channel for the final day’s play at the Solheim Cup, the biennial team match between women golfers from the United States and Europe. They missed, for starters, quality play that belied their favorite canards. While that alone was reason to watch, those who didn’t also missed something far more powerful – an example of competitive fire matching that of any athletes that culminated in a stunning capstone to a career and a moment of redemption, all in the space of eight feet.

This was the sixteenth staging of the Solheim Cup since its inception in 1990, with the U.S. holding a commanding 10-5 lead in the previous encounters. That historical margin reflected the expectations of much of the golf media heading into this year’s matches at Gleneagles in central Scotland. While many of the top women professional golfers are from neither the United States nor Europe, in a competition limited to players from just those two areas the depth of the American squad far outranks that of the European contingent. That’s made plain by the current Rolex World Rankings, in which Americans outrank European players two to none in the top ten, six to one in the top twenty-five, and twelve to five among the top fifty players in the world.

The U.S. team arrived in Scotland with victories in the last two Cups, including a 16 ½ to 11 ½ drubbing of Team Europe two years ago in Iowa, and a stirring comeback victory in Germany in 2015. For many observers the sole bright spot for the home squad was that two of the earlier European wins came in 1992 and 2000, the previous times the matches were staged in Scotland. With Catriona Matthew, the Scottish golfer who won the Women’s British Open a decade ago on home soil at St. Andrews serving as captain of the European side, the faint hope as play started in chilly conditions on Friday was that Scottish luck would hold for a third time.

The American win at Golf Club St. Leon-Rot south of Heidelberg in 2015 had been especially dramatic, with the U.S. team dominating the singles matches on Sunday to overcome a 10-6 deficit. The catalyst for the American fightback was an incident on Saturday afternoon, when Alison Lee, who was playing with Brittany Lincicome, picked up her ball on the 17th green believing that the short putt that remained had been conceded by the European team of Suzann Pettersen and Charley Hull. But the veteran Pettersen, then playing in her eighth Solheim Cup, immediately claimed that no concession had been given. A match that had been all-square suddenly shifted to one-up in favor of the Europeans.

It was not the first time that gamesmanship had marred the Cup, which at times has seen both sides guilty of questionable actions. But while Pettersen’s move may have produced an immediate gain for her team, it angered the Americans and they converted that ire into inspired play one day later. In the messy aftermath Pettersen admitted she had allowed her desire for victory to trump any sense of sportsmanship.

For a time, it looked like the 2015 controversy might be Pettersen’s final moment in the Solheim Cup spotlight. In 2017 she was forced to withdraw from Team Europe just before the matches began due to a back injury. Then she missed most of the 2018 season while pregnant with her first child. While she returned to play this year, the missed time meant that Pettersen didn’t accumulate enough points to qualify on her own for the matches at Gleneagles. But Matthew added her to the team as a captain’s pick, a choice that was met with widespread surprise given Pettersen’s limited playing schedule.

Once play began on Friday, in cold, wet and windy conditions, Team Europe reminded fans that like all our games golf is not played on paper. Despite their apparent disadvantage, the underdog home squad took a one point lead after the first morning’s foursomes, then held that edge through play on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. The U.S. team finally drew even by taking 2 ½ points in Saturday afternoon’s fourballs, leaving the score at 8-8 heading into Sunday’s singles.

For much of the final day it seemed the expected would finally take place. The depth of the American team was evident, as the first nine matches to finish produced five U.S. wins and one tie. That gave the Cup holders a lead of 13 ½ to 11 ½ and meant that Team Europe had to sweep the three remaining matches to win the Cup.

But with the Scottish crowds offering vocal support, the European players refused to buckle. Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist dispatched Morgan Pressel 4&3 to pull one point closer. Then 24-year-old Bronte Law of England belied her rookie status by holding a long birdie putt on the 16th hole to go 1-up on Ally McDonald. When the American missed a shorter par try to have the 17th, the two teams were tied.

Up ahead on the final green, Pettersen and Marina Alex were locked in a match that had gone back and forth over its eighteen holes as had many on Sunday, during which five went all the way to the 18th. After falling behind early Alex had fought back to square the match at the 14th, with the players matching scores on the next three holes. At the par-5 18th both players faced birdie putts, Alex from ten feet and Pettersen from eight. Alex’s effort slid by the right side of the cup, and all eyes turned to the player who had spurred the opposing team to victory at her last Solheim Cup appearance.

As Pettersen’s ball rolled up the hill from putter to hole, it never wavered from its line tracking to the center of the cup. As it was about to disappear from view, Pettersen dropped her putter and clinched her fists in triumph. In what the 38-year-old shortly revealed was her final stroke in competitive play, Suzann Pettersen completed a stunning comeback for Team Europe, and for herself. It was all very, very watchable.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 12, 2019

Does He Stay Or Does He Go?

Stephen Strasburg has a decision to make. Once upon a not so distant time the choice he’ll face this offseason would have been virtually automatic, an easy call in a world of steadily growing paydays for any ballplayer who, like the 31-year-old right-handed pitcher, was among the best in the major leagues. But that was then and this is now, so whether or not Strasburg, the top pick in the 2009 draft who has spent his entire career in a Washington Nationals uniform chooses to opt out of the remaining four years of his current contract will speak volumes about how players, and baseball’s most powerful agent, view the Great Game’s current economic landscape.

Many fans were surprised – those in the D.C. area pleasantly so – when Strasburg and the Nationals announced they had come to terms on a 7-year contract extension early in the 2016 season. The deal would pay the Nats’ starter $175 million over its term, but by signing it he foreclosed the chance to test free agency when he would have first been eligible later that year. It was that latter point that made the signing especially noteworthy, because Strasburg’s agent Scott Boras was then, and remains today, well-known for encouraging his charges to at least sample the free agent waters before wading back to a familiar shore and signing an extension with their current team.

But as headlines do, the ones announcing the basic elements of Strasburg’s contract missed a couple of key points. One was that much of the money was deferred, a favorite contract term of the Lerner family that owns the Washington franchise. At times it seems like the Lerner’s are intent on surpassing the New York Mets record for paying players long after they’ve retired, set years ago when that star-crossed club saved a few short-term dollars by agreeing to pay Bobby Bonilla $1.19 million annually, starting a decade later and continuing for twenty-five years.

Still there’s little evidence that Strasburg has been forced to carpool to Nats games because his current paychecks are smaller than advertised, so the more important details of his 2016 extension were a pair of player options, giving Strasburg the freedom to walk away from the contract at the end of either the third or fourth year. The first of those opt-outs arrives this coming offseason.

As noted above, the decision, especially for a player with Scott Boras whispering in his ear, would once have been obvious. A starter with a solid record and the likelihood of several strong years ahead of him, Strasburg would have been expected to exercise his option and test the market this winter. The fact that Boras appears to have a particularly strong relationship with the Washington organization would, perhaps counterintuitively, make that even more likely, since in the worst case the agent could rely on that relationship to bring the parties back together even after the inevitable negative reaction to a potential split.

But as noted here on multiple occasions and in many other forums, the Great Game’s dynamic between players and owners has shifted strongly in the latter’s favor. Over the past few seasons free agents in their thirties have found it increasingly hard to secure contracts, and most teams have grown loathe to offer long-term deals, especially to pitchers. Even superstars, while ultimately still signing fat contracts, have had a harder time getting deals done, as evidenced by last offseason’s long quiet winter for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. In the current atmosphere, were he not an elite starter Strasburg might well decide that a hundred million in hand – the amount he’s owed over the last four years of his current deal – is too good of a payday to risk losing. Whether that caveat is relevant hinges on how Strasburg is perceived.

In the eyes of many fans he has not lived up to his promise. That’s partly because of the level of hype that accompanied Strasburg’s arrival. When he debuted in June 2010 for a team that would lose more than 90 games the contest was nationally televised. That night he recorded fourteen strikeouts in seven innings of work with a fastball that touched 100 miles per hour and a curve that fooled even wily veterans. The headline in this space was “The Phenom is Phenomenal,” and that was temperate compared to some reports. But even the best starter can only impact one game in five, and the idea that Strasburg would singlehandedly turn the last place Nationals into contenders was never realistic.

If excessive expectations weren’t enough, he has also been hampered by injuries. Little more than a month after that first, electric, evening, Strasburg went on the Injured List for the first time. Shortly after returning his career suffered a major blow when he was diagnosed with a torn UCL. Tommy John surgery and most of a season on the shelf followed. In the years since he has lost playing time to a variety of ailments.

But the focus on Strasburg’s injuries obscures what he has accomplished. Since he first donned a Washington uniform, he is one of 88 pitchers to have thrown at least 1,000 innings. Among that group Strasburg ranks fourth in Fielding Independent Pitching and strikeout rate, and eighth in ERA+. Despite ranking just thirtieth in innings pitched during that period because of time lost to injuries, he is twelfth in Wins Above Replacement. This year he leads the National League in innings pitched and has the second lowest WHIP of his career. While wins and losses are dismissed by those enamored of modern metrics, most teams would likely welcome his 17-6 record.

If Strasburg does opt out, it’s certain that Boras, famous for his voluminous binders of material on his players, will bury interested general managers with reams of statistics like those above, even as questions about Strasburg’s durability linger in the back of their minds. The question the pitcher and his agent face is whether there are teams out there willing to focus on the former and set aside the latter, to the tune of something more than $100 million.

Strasburg could wait a year and exercise his second option. But that’s rolling the dice on what next season brings, from a down year for performance to the chance of another injury. Or he could play out his current deal and test the market at age thirty-five. Good luck with that. No, what seems most likely is that Stephen Strasburg will soon become a free agent. If he doesn’t, it will be the surest sign yet that the Great Game’s dynamic between owners and players remains heavily tilted in management’s favor.

Older Posts »