Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 25, 2016

Here Comes The Ryder Cup

Thursday’s first round of The Barclays is in the books, which means the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs are officially underway. With the first of the four playoff tournaments being played this year at Bethpage Black, that sprawling beast of a public course on Long Island, almost all of the world’s top male golfers have made their way to Farmingdale. Of the names most casual fans would recognize, only Sergio Garcia elected to pass on The Barclay’s. Currently 20th in the FedEx Cup standings, the Spaniard is assured of advancing to next week’s Deutsche Bank Championship, when the field will be cut from the top 125 down to 100.

Full attendance was of course not the case for golf’s recent reintroduction to the Olympic Games after an absence of more than a century. Many of the top men, including four of the top five in the world rankings, found various reasons to skip the long journey to Rio; a fact that wasn’t all that surprising given that gold, silver and bronze medals hold no historical significance in the game. No young lad ever stood over a putt on a practice green thinking to himself, “Here’s a ten footer for birdie and Olympic gold!” In contrast at the end of the FedEx Cup rainbow lies the $10 million bonus awarded to the winner. Now that’s a prize to which members of the PGA Tour surely can relate.

But less one surmise that all professional golfers care about is the size of their bank accounts, there is another event on the near horizon that doesn’t award any kind of individual prize at all, and the stiff competition to get into it is providing a dramatic subtext to this weekend’s play at Bethpage Black. The Barclays is not just the first playoff event, it’s also the last tournament that counts in the two-year long standings for the eight automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

The top five in the American standings going into this week’s play, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Brooks Koepka, will all head to Hazeltine National Golf Club at the end of the month as members of the 12-man U.S. squad. Brandt Snedeker and Zach Johnson, currently in 6th and 7th position, are probably safe for an automatic spot, though Johnson may want to step on the gas a bit in his second round after finishing round one tied for 69th at 2-over par. A missed cut would allow the players pursuing one of the final qualifying spots an open opportunity to overtake him.

Behind Johnson in 8th place is Patrick Reed, and behind him are a list of accomplished players including many Ryder Cup veterans who would dearly love to make the team. Johnson’s in 7th place with 4,437.973 points, less than 160 points ahead of Reed. With 1,530 points awarded to this week’s winner, anyone in the top twenty can play their way onto the team in the next few days.

Ryder Cup veterans currently on the outside looking in include Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler and Jim Furyk, 10th through 12th and 15th, respectively. Watson and Kuchar have each played on the last three U.S. teams, Fowler made the team in 2010 and 2014, and Furyk has a string of nine consecutive appearances dating to 1997. With its match play format and two days of foursomes and fourballs team play, the Ryder Cup is utterly different from the weekly 72-hole stroke play tournaments that make up the PGA Tour’s annual schedule. U.S. Captain Davis Love III would surely love to have some experienced hands to face Team Europe, which will be gunning for an unprecedented fourth straight victory.

Experience could be even more important than usual this year because of the makeup of the European squad. The continental qualification system awards nine spots automatically, based upon the European Tour money list and World Golf Ranking points. Although this is also the final week to earn points at the Made in Denmark tournament, the standings are such that all nine places are already locked in. Euro captain Darren Clarke has five rookies among those who played their way onto his team. And while Clarke has named Ian Poulter as a vice-captain, he won’t have the British golfer who has made a career out of excelling at this biennial event out on the course since Poulter had been sidelined for months with a foot injury.

While experience would be nice to have, at present Love’s list of automatic qualifiers is only slightly more seasoned than Clarke’s. Brooks Koepka will be making his maiden Ryder Cup appearance, and four others among the current top eight have been members of just one prior team.

Given those facts one can safely assume that both captains will look to veterans when making their personal selections. Clarke has three captain’s picks that he will announce next week; while Love gets to name four team members. Three of his picks will be announced following the BMW Championship, the third of the FedEx Cup Playoff events. The American captain gets to wait until after the Tour Championship to name the final member of the U.S. squad, allowing him to focus on a golfer not yet on the team who looks to be in top form just as Ryder Cup week starts.

Just as no one ever won a PGA Tour event in the first round, so none of those contending for the final automatic spots are locked into position with 54 holes of The Barclays still to go. But Patrick Reed opened with a 5-under par 66 to sit in a two-way tie for the lead, while Rickie Fowler shot 67 in his opening round and is tied for 3rd. Of all the players chasing one of the automatic spots Fowler has been most open about his desire to play his way onto the team and give Love greater flexibility in making his captain’s picks. He raced home from the Olympics to play last week’s Wyndham Championship in an effort to move up in the standings, and he’s off to a strong start on Long Island.

By Sunday evening the automatic qualifiers will be known, and Love will begin deliberating over his captain’s picks, as Clarke is already doing. When each makes his phone calls telling players they are in or out, a handful will rejoice but more will be bitterly disappointed. In like manner, when the decisive point is won at Hazeltine, one team will revel while the other sinks into despair. Whether they produce a historic win streak for Europe or redemption for the U.S. after the Medinah meltdown the last time they were played on home soil, the 41st Ryder Cup matches will offer decisive proof that at the pinnacle of the game, golf can be about something vastly more important than money.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 21, 2016

The Best And The Worst Of Rio 2016

With the closing ceremony Sunday evening the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, officially the Games of the Thirty-first Olympiad of the modern era, reach their conclusion. After a celebration of Brazilian culture the Olympic flag, with its familiar five rings on a white field will be lowered, the flame will be extinguished, and the youth of the world will be asked to reconvene four years hence in Tokyo.

For sixteen days we have watched those young men and women compete in a wide range of events, ever mindful of the Olympic Creed. It states “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing is life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

For those same sixteen days, during the occasional programming breaks between commercials, NBC has provided coverage that has focused heavily on the medal count, which with Russia largely absent tilted heavily in favor of the Unites States. Winning may not be the most important thing, but it clearly helps if one wants to get on TV.

Of course both summaries of these Games are correct. More than 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries participated in the Rio Games. Including multiple medals given in team events a total of 2,102 gold, silver and bronze medallions were awarded, with a number of stars winning multiple times. Medals went to 87 different countries, but nearly one-quarter of those won just a single prize.  For the vast majority of not just athletes but entire national delegations, the Olympics truly are about the opportunity to do one’s best against fellow competitors from around the globe.

No moment in Rio so exemplified the Olympic spirit at the one that came during the second women’s 5,000 meter qualifying heat on Tuesday. Abbey D’Agostino, a native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, became the first Dartmouth College female distance runner to win an NCAA title in 2012. Nikki Hamblin was born in England and moved to New Zealand in 2006. While her best events are the 800 and 1,500 meters, she was running for her adopted country in the 5,000. With 2,000 meters to go the packed field came onto the front stretch and D’Agostino clipped Hamblin’s heels. Both runners went down hard onto the abrasive track. As the rest of the runners raced away, the American was the first to get up.

Her coach Mark Coogan later told USA Today that he had always advised D’Agostino in the event of a fall “to get up, dust herself off, have a quick look around and then get right back to running. Obviously she did pretty much the opposite of that, and the world got to see the kind of person she is. She did the right thing.” What D’Agostino did was immediately notice that Hamblin remained on the ground, seemingly dazed. Rather than run off she bent down and helped her competitor to her feet, saying to her “Get up. We have to finish this.” With D’Agostino’s help Hamblin got up and the two resumed running. It quickly became apparent though that D’Agostino was seriously injured. Hamblin stayed with her for a while and in turned helped the American up when her knee gave out. Finally, at D’Agostino’s urging, Hamblin left her behind and started chasing the distant pack.

What no one knew, though surely the pain must have told D’Agostino, was that in the collision and fall she had suffered a complete tear of her ACL, a strained MCL, and a torn meniscus. Somehow, against all probability, she limped through the final laps to finish the race without assistance. When she finally crossed the finish line Hamblin was there, waiting to embrace the fellow competitor whom she had never met until they tumbled together at the head of the stretch.

If the story of the two women middle distance runners is a reminder of what is best about the Olympics, then its dark counterpart is surely the deceitful saga of American swimmer Ryan Lochte. As an 11-time medalist at the three previous Summer Games, Lochte was the focus of much of NBC’s attention during the swimming competition, which was given prominent play in prime time during the first week. He won his 12th overall medal and 6th gold when he swam the third leg of the men’s 4×200 freestyle relay, adding to the medal count graphic for NBC.

But with swimming having wrapped up the network’s cameras had moved on. Perhaps the 32-year old Lochte felt some need to recapture attention, because last Sunday morning he appeared in an interview on NBC claiming that he and three fellow American swimmers had been robbed at gunpoint while returning to the Olympic Village the previous night. The network did itself no favors in handling the story. The original interview was conducted by Billy Bush, whose day job is hosting “Access Hollywood.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that Bush asked Lochte no probing questions, but NBC used the interview for hard news stories on both “Nightly News” and “Today.”

The story was questionable on its face. In Lochte’s account he was cast as the hero, refusing to go to the ground when ordered by the supposed gunmen. He also noted that only some money had been taken, and not either the wallets, smart phones or credentials of the athletes. In the reality of street crime in Rio and around the world, the former would likely earn one a bullet and the latter just doesn’t happen.

The world quickly learned that it was all a Lochte lie, a self-aggrandizing tale by a narcissistic punk who made sure to quickly fly out of Brazil before the fabrication became apparent. The swimmer and his “team” have moved into damage control mode now, in what one can only hope is a vain attempt to retain his sponsors.

No matter the sport, be it one that is a part of the Olympic Games or not, there will always be participants who may be heroes to some, but in truth are little more than self-indulgent and entitled cretins like Ryan Lochte. But the good news, as Rio 2016 has reminded us, is that in all of our games there will also always be participants like Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin. Maybe they should be the ones who get a Wheaties box to call their own.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 18, 2016

Mighty Goodell Swats Away The Hapless NFLPA

Through all the many months that the NFL’s Deflategate saga dragged on and on and on, there was a decided regional bias in opinions about the matter. Here in New England, where Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is now preparing to sit for the first four games of the upcoming season, most fans firmly believe that their square-jawed hero and his team are the innocent victims of a vengeful commissioner Roger Goodell. Between innings at last Friday night’s Red Sox game at Fenway Park, a few folks began a repetitive cry of “Free Tom Brady!” The chant was quickly taken up by several thousand of their fellow New Englanders. Outside of the northeastern corner of the country, the vast majority of fans hold a starkly different view. From Seattle to Miami and from San Diego to Buffalo, the faithful followers of thirty-one other franchises remain convinced that under the regime of head coach Bill Belichick the Patriots are serial cheaters who gleefully bend rules to the breaking point in a constant quest for a competitive edge.

Lost in the passion and fervor from both sides is that the core issue in the interminable legal proceedings that followed Goodell’s original decision to suspend Brady, fine the Patriots $1 million and take away a pair of draft picks, was not whether the footballs used in the 2015 AFC Championship Game had been subjected to tampering. Rather the question was whether the NFL’s process for imposing the sanctions was fair. Hours of arguments and mountains of motions centered not on the Ideal Gas Law but on Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association.

That section outlines a player’s appeal rights when penalized by the league, and stipulates that an appeal can be heard by either the commissioner or someone he designates. In Brady’s case, despite objections from the NFLPA, Goodell chose to hear the appeal; meaning that he would decide whether his original decision to suspend Brady was correct. To no one’s surprise after due deliberation the commissioner decided that the commissioner had made the right call, which moved the ongoing saga into the federal court system.

In September 2015 District Court Judge Richard Berman ruled in Brady’s favor, writing that Goodell had “dispensed his own brand of industrial justice.” Berman found that Brady had been given no notice that his supposed “general awareness” of deflated footballs could result in a suspension, had not been given an opportunity to cross-examine the league’s lead investigator, and had been denied access to the NFL’s investigative notes.

But nearly eight months later, in April of this year, a three judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals set aside Berman’s decision, ruling that the courts could not second guess the NFL’s arbitration process. The majority opinion stated that “Our role is not to determine for ourselves whether Brady participated in a scheme to deflate footballs or whether the suspension imposed by the Commissioner should have been for three games or five games or none at all. Nor is it our role to second-guess the arbitrator’s procedural rulings. Our obligation is limited to determining whether the arbitration proceedings and award met the minimum legal standards established by the Labor Management Relations Act.” The Second Circuit acknowledged that the collective bargaining agreement grants Goodell “especially broad” authority, but added “even if an arbitrator makes mistakes of fact or law, we may not disturb an award so long as he acted within the bounds of his bargained-for authority.”

That decision may have been hailed by legions of Patriots haters last spring, but as many of those same fans are now finding out, its impact is not limited to the team that plays its home games at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. A process in which the commissioner effectively gets to pick the prosecutor and then serve as judge, jury, appellate court and executioner is inherently unfair on its fact. Yet that’s the process that now has been given the imprimatur of the federal court system; and it’s apparent that Goodell intends to continue to use that “especially broad” authority.

This week the league notified the NFLPA that four players would be suspended indefinitely because they have declined to cooperate with a news report linking them to performance enhancing drugs. Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers of the Green Bay Packers, James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers and free agent Mike Neal face suspension later this month if they won’t answer questions from the NFL about allegations made in a “documentary” broadcast last year by Al Jazeera.

Readers will note that the word documentary is set aside in quotation marks in the last sentence. That’s because shortly after the program first aired, the Texas pharmacist who was the star of the show and the sole witness to the supposed use of PEDs by these players and the recently retired Peyton Manning recanted all of his testimony. From the perspective of the players, there is no news report to investigate. As highly visible public figures, the players rightly believe that they shouldn’t have to respond to every unsubstantiated allegation or wild rumor that happens to have their names attached to it.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers slammed the NFL, saying “I think it’s pretty typical of how things have been going lately,” and later adding “they’re going to try and bully these guys into testifying.” In the same interview Rodgers also acknowledged that the players have only themselves to blame, having agreed to the language that’s in the collective bargaining agreement. For his part Harrison pointed out that the Steelers were the only team to vote against the current agreement when it was ratified in 2011, in part because of the overly broad power it gave the commissioner in matters of discipline.

But what choice did they have? Thursday afternoon Matthews, Peppers and Harrison reportedly agreed to be interviewed by the league’s investigators, meaning that the commissioner’s especially broad authority just expanded even more. Meanwhile the current deal between the league and the pretend union that is the NFLPA still has five years to run. Players on many more teams, and the fans of those franchises, could find themselves subject to the whims of the commissioner between now and then. Next time around, the NFLPA might want to act like a real union bargaining for the interests of its members. As for all the fans around the country who cheered the appeals court decision in Brady’s case, the old adage still applies. Be careful what you wish for.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 15, 2016

A Weekend For The Great Game

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, On Sports and Life was traveling Sunday evening, resulting in this post being delayed by one day. The usual schedule resumes on Thursday. Thank you as always for your support.

It’s just after 7 p.m. on Friday evening. Fenway Park is near capacity for the opener of a three game series between the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks. I am at the old ballyard under decidedly unexpected circumstances. Last weekend I received an email informing me that I was the grand prize winner of four premium tickets to this evening’s game. I had a vague recollection of entering an online contest for this particular Red Sox sponsor, and after an exchange of emails with Lumber Liquidators’ marketing department I became satisfied that I wasn’t being punked, and so invited two close friends and their teenage son, avid Sox fans all, to join me on an evening when I had originally planned to be in the Bronx.

I’ve since sold my Yankees ticket, happily at a healthy profit, and now my friends and I are making our way to the suite level of Boston’s iconic stadium. All of the northeast is caught in a sweltering heat wave, and the air-conditioned breeze that sweeps over us when we open the door to the luxury box is a welcome relief. Free food and drink, and comfortably padded seats high above the third base line for those of us who choose to venture out into the heat; now “this is how to watch a game,” as one of my friends posts to his Facebook followers.

The contest doesn’t start well for the Red Sox. Their ace David Price surrenders a two-run homer in the top of the 1st. But Boston has the most prolific offense in the league, and Red Sox hitters waste little time jumping on the hapless Arizona starter. With four runs in the bottom of the 1st and a matching four-spot in the 2nd, the home squad quickly takes command. That allows us to focus on devouring the shrimp cocktail and chicken parmesan sliders, pretending for a couple of hours to be members of a different tax bracket. As the game heads to the bottom of the 7th I prepare to take my leave. After saying goodbye to my friends I step from the seating area back into the air conditioning even as David Ortiz strides to the plate. I turn to watch through the full-length windows as Boston’s retiring hero steps in against Zack Godley and promptly sends the first pitch soaring into the night for a home run. The blast does more than just pad the Red Sox lead; it guarantees that having seen Big Papi stroke his 26th homer in a remarkable final season my friends will go home very happy.

In short order I am on the road, heading west on the Mass Turnpike out to Sturbridge, then down I-84 and I-91 through Connecticut, until the final run on I-95 into Stamford. Along the way John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman keep me company on WFAN, the Yankees flagship station. The AM signal starts out full of static, but gradually gains strength as the miles roll past. The start of the contest between New York and Tampa was delayed for an hour by a massive thunderstorm, so I wind up hearing four innings of play-by-play of Alex Rodriguez’s final game in pinstripes. By the time I tune in he has already recorded his final hit as a Yankee, a 1st inning RBI double into the gap in right center. But I listen to Sterling’s account of A-Rod’s final at-bat, a first pitch groundout to short, and a bit later hear the roar go up as Joe Girardi sends him out to man third base in the top of the 9th. One out later Rodriguez is replaced, allowing him to receive the accolades of the crowd at The Stadium one last time. How many of those cheering are thinking “he’s a bum, but he’s our bum” will never be known.

It’s almost 1:30 on Saturday afternoon. From my usual perch above home plate in the upper deck, I watch the Yankees take the field for the first of two weekend day games against the Rays. The normal start time has been pushed back a bit, as it will be again tomorrow. After the hastily arranged farewell to Rodriguez on Friday night, the Yankees are holding long-planned ceremonies before both games this weekend that do what this team does better than any other; celebrate its past. Today the honorees are the members of the 1996 team that began the most recent period of New York dominance.

We in the stands are reminded of what many baseball fans have forgotten in the wake of the three additional championships in four years that followed that ’96 glory. Namely that against the defending champion Atlanta Braves those Yankees were decided underdogs who lost the first two games of that Series at the old Stadium. But they rallied to win four straight, the most dramatic of which was a pivotal Game 5 pitchers’ duel in which a very young Andy Pettitte bested Atlanta’s John Smoltz. Almost all the members of that team are here, and each is given his due; though of course the loudest roars are for the Core Four: Pettitte, catcher Jorge Posada, shortstop and later team captain Derek Jeter, and the setup man in 1996 who became the greatest closer ever, Mariano Rivera.

On Sunday the day belongs entirely to Mo, whose Monument Park plaque is unveiled in the pregame ceremony. We celebrate his record 652 regular season saves, and marvel at the synchronicity of the last man to wear uniform number 42 having an additional 42 saves in the postseason. The other three members of the Core Four are present, as are center fielder Bernie Williams, manager Joe Torre, and several other former teammates. In addition to a framed replica of the plaque, Rivera is given a ring so diamond-laden and garish that one can’t imagine the profoundly humble born-again man from a tiny fishing village in Panama ever wearing it.

After those twin celebrations of what has gone before, this year’s Yankees still have to play two games on their current schedule. The first ends well, the second decidedly less so. Yet after becoming sellers at the trade deadline for the first time in a generation, New York has not given up on this season. Even more important, the future suddenly seems very bright.

In Saturday’s 8-4 Yankees win, the team’s fourth in a row, every run is plated by a ball sent out of the park. Five of the seven homers are struck by players in pinstripes, and all of those by Yankees age 26 or younger. The two most dramatic are hit by Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, both just called up from AAA and playing their first major league game. In the bottom of the 2nd Austin steps in for his first at-bat, and quickly falls behind 0-2. But he works the count even and then slices a drive to right that just clears the wall for a round-tripper. Judge then blasts an 87 mile per hour changeup to the deepest part of center field. With that Austin and Judge become the first teammates in MLB history to hit home runs in their first at-bats. That it was back-to-back just adds to the joy. One day later, even as Tampa is trouncing New York, Judge sends another ball into the seats. He’s joined in the home run derby by catcher Gary Sanchez, another recent call-up from the minors.

It’s just after 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. I’m headed down the main stairway to exit The Stadium, cross Babe Ruth Plaza and make the short walk under the still broiling sun to the Metro North train station. The train’s first stop is Stamford, where I’ll start my drive home. In less than 48 hours I’ve seen three major league games in two different ballparks, and listened to part of another while traveling between cities. I’ve seen one team in a playoff fight, another that desperately wants to be, and two squads that are playing for pride. I’ve seen wonderful commemorations of baseball’s history. I’ve seen or listened to portions of the final acts of two careers, and been offered tantalizing glimpses of futures full of promise. I’ve been immersed in the Great Game. Is there a better way to spend a weekend?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 11, 2016

NBC’s Mistake Of Olympic Proportions

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday evening. That day’s post may be delayed.

Have the Olympic Games on television finally jumped the shark? While the Rio Games are less than halfway into the seventeen day schedule, there have already been plenty of reasons for viewers in this country to tune into NBC’s extraordinarily extensive coverage. Certainly the network was expecting viewers to flock to their flat screens, with officials predicting in advance that the prime time audience would top that of the London Games in 2012. But despite the variety of compelling American storylines during the first week, those predictions now appear to by little more than hype. Viewership for last Friday’s opening ceremonies was off by more than a third from London’s festivities. That was followed by an audience nearly thirty percent smaller than last time for the first day of actual competition. While things have improved slightly for the peacock network since, the average audience so far is off roughly twenty percent from 2012, with the prized age 18 to 34 demographic declining even more steeply.

One can’t blame the time difference. Of course it’s impossible to schedule all events in the evening, so some amount of taping is inevitable, with viewers either knowing the results before they watch or having to go to considerable lengths to avoid learning who won. But Rio is only one hour ahead of the U.S. east coast, so there are none of the problems of many or even most events being shown on extended tape delay as was the case for the 2000 Games in Sydney or 2008 in Beijing.

What many Americans haven’t seen is already an extensive list of results that would be a sure source of national pride. The first gold medal of the Games was won by 19-year old Ginny Thrasher in the air rifle competition. The Virginia native not only became the youngest woman to win the first gold at any Olympics, she set a scoring record for her event in doing so.

Thrasher’s gold was quickly followed by more familiar American names setting records and winning medals. Michael Phelps, competing in his fifth Olympiad at the ancient age of 31, added to his stockpile of medals with an individual gold in the 200 meter butterfly and two team golds in relay events. Katie Ledecky led the American women swimmers, capturing both the 200 and 400 meter freestyle as well as a gold and a silver in relay events. Ledecky set a new world record in the 400, finishing nearly five seconds ahead of the silver medalist.

That was the type of margin in the women’s team gymnastics competition. In a sport in which matches are often determined by tenths or even hundredths of a point, the American women claimed gold by a margin of more than eight points over runner-up Russia. And 43-year old Kristin Armstrong won the women’s cycling time trial for the third consecutive time. Armstrong is both the first person to win the same cycling event three times in a row and the oldest woman to claim a cycling gold medal.

The decline in television viewership is no reflection on the accomplishments of these athletes, or the others that will follow over the next ten days, nor is it a slight against the achievements and sometimes powerful back stories of Olympians from other countries. What Thrasher and Phelps, Ledecky and Armstrong, Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and all the rest are doing is real, but on network television (and on NBC’s cable outlets and streaming feeds as well) they are doing it in a fantasy land.

The Olympics are increasingly being presented not as an athletic competition but as an extended reality show, and one packed with commercials at that. Have some of the competitors overcome hardships of one kind or another to make their national team? Of course. But not every athlete has a gripping life story to tell; though one wouldn’t know that from the network’s efforts to make it seem otherwise. John Miller, NBC’s chief marketing officer for the Olympics, admitted to this when he said “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.”

An entire column could be devoted to the patronizing sexism of Miller’s comments. But without even going there, the reality is that the Olympics, like all sporting events above the grade school level where participation ribbons are awarded, really are about the results. As Jim McKay so famously intoned at the beginning of every week’s edition of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, it’s about “the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition.” Between the back stories and the commercials, and after the mindless prattle of some of NBC’s commentators, the coverage occasionally gets around to actually showing some of that human drama. It’s no wonder many viewers are tired of having to chew their way through so much cotton candy to finally get to the meaty main course.

The Olympic Games have become bloated and absurdly expensive. That this Olympiad is being held in a country that can ill afford the enormous costs of hosting the Games borders on tragedy. But as excessive as the Games are, NBC’s coverage is even more so. Both the International Olympic Committee and NBC would benefit from the old truth. Sometimes, less is more.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 7, 2016

A Complicated Career Comes To A Close

At the end, tears were shed. Scarcely a minute into the Sunday morning press conference at which he announced that his final game as a player for the New York Yankees would be next Friday, Alex Rodriguez began to cry as he thought back to when he was an 18-year old Seattle Mariners’ draft pick, “just hoping to make the team.” He choked back sobs again when he said “Saying goodbye may be the hardest part of the job. But that’s what I’m doing today.”

There are fans who in that moment saw nothing more than crocodile tears, a final act of self-pity from a player who for much of his career seemed supremely self-obsessed. But sports, like life, can be complicated; and while there are those who will quickly reduce A-Rod to a caricature that he all too often invited upon himself, the truth is that over the last two decades there have been few superstars more complicated than Rodriguez.

He has been both a prodigy and a pariah. He was blessed with enormous natural talent, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries. Yet he was unable to resist the temptation to try to enhance that ability chemically. Scouting reports on the teenager at Westminster Christian School in Miami praised his work ethic and approach to the game. But when, in his first shot at free agency, he signed what was then the richest contract in sports history, he was condemned as greedy and selfish, caring only about his bank account at the expense of his new team’s ability to afford a complete roster. On the field he possessed an exquisite sense of timing and understanding of what was happening around him. Off it he regularly appeared tone-deaf, never more so than when he opted out of that massive contract in the middle of the 2007 World Series. More recently he spent months lashing out at all around him, suing the Players Association, Major League Baseball and the Yankees. Then one year later he became an elder statesman in New York’s clubhouse, mentoring young players and offering advice and support to all who would listen, of which there were many.

Over twenty-two seasons he has hit 696 home runs, the fourth most in the history of the Great Game. With Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron he’s one of just three players to record more than 2,000 runs and RBI. A 14-time All-Star, Rodriguez was voted the American League MVP in 2003 while with the Rangers, and in 2005 and 2007 as a Yankee. Last season he recorded his 3,000th base hit, a home run into the right field seats at The Stadium, as fans stood and cheered. He also won a pair of Gold Glove Awards for his defensive abilities, and stole 329 bases. His 24 steals in 2007 is the single-season record for any player also hitting 50 or more home runs.

Then there are the things which no fan would cheer. As harmful as the image issues noted above were on their own, they all helped feed a new narrative in the spring of 2009. That’s when the supposedly confidential list of players who had tested positive for PEDs during the 2003 season as part of a joint agreement between MLB and the Players Association was leaked to the media. Selena Roberts was the first to report in Sports Illustrated that Rodriguez’s name was on the list. He had always forcefully denied doping, and after his admission in a press conference at the Yankees’ spring training complex in Tampa, he was quickly labeled not just a cheat but also a hypocrite. Rodriguez said “I was young. I was stupid. I was naïve.” He also insisted that his PEDs use had been limited to a three-year period from 2001 to 2003.

But four years later A-Rod, or A-Roid as he was now nicknamed in the twenty-nine major league ballparks not located in the South Bronx, was at the center of the Biogenesis scandal. The Florida anti-aging clinic was eventually determined to be the center of a widespread doping ring, with thirteen players receiving various suspensions. Rodriguez’s was the most severe, banishment for an entire season. It came even as he was rehabbing from hip surgery, and he immediately appealed. As the appeal ran its course, he returned to the field for the first time in the 2013 season in August, where he was met even in New York by a mixed response, equal parts support and disdain.

Perhaps it was the healing power of time, or maybe just the fact that with the retirement of the Core Four Yankee fans didn’t have more familiar heroes for whom to cheer, but by Opening Day 2015 the boos had been muted. The fact that he had set aside his disputes with the team, the union and the game and had also issued a written apology to the fans probably helped as well. Then when he went out and put up numbers unlikely for a player turning 40 in midseason, the cheers in New York grew louder and louder. After missing the playoffs for two straight years the Yankees returned to the postseason, if only for nine innings, helped by A-Rod’s 33 home runs and 86 RBI.

Time remains the implacable foe of every athlete, and this year time came calling on the career of Alex Rodriguez. There was no reprise of his unexpected 2015 performance. While he was a respected figure in the clubhouse, at the plate he was batting just .204 with 9 homers and 29 RBI. In July he spent his 41st birthday where he has spent most days of late, on the bench. Now we know that last week owner Hal Steinbrenner reached out to Rodriguez, telling him that the team did not intend to play him again either this season or next, the last year of his contract. But then Steinbrenner offered A-Rod a new role, that of special advisor and instructor, working with the team’s young players and reporting directly to the owner. The offer gave the Yankees a chance to get something in return for the $27 million they are obligated to pay A-Rod through next year, and gave Rodriguez a chance to end his career with some dignity while remaining associated with the Yankees brand. Sunday morning, through tears, A-Rod accepted.

It is fitting that this week the Yankees travel to Boston for three games against the Red Sox before returning home for Friday night’s A-Rod farewell. If Joe Girardi pencils him in as the DH for any of the games at Fenway Park, one can be assured that most in the stands will rain down boos as Rodriguez walks to the plate. In contrast next Friday he will receive a standing ovation each time he steps out of the dugout on the first base side of the field. In their way both responses will be appropriate but too simple, and thus incomplete. After a career at once glorious and fraudulent, Alex Rodriguez deserves both the cheers and the jeers.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 4, 2016

A New Narrative For Golf

In the wake of Jimmy Walker’s victory at the PGA Championship last weekend, there has been a spate of foreboding commentary about the significance of having four first-time winners at this year’s major golf tournaments. The headline on a New York Times article by Bill Pennington was “Four Fresh Major Champions, But Still No Golf Savior.” In fairness to Pennington, who is a fine writer and close follower of golf, newspaper reporters aren’t usually responsible for the headlines atop their articles. Still he concludes his piece with the assertion that “golf still awaits Woods’s successor(s).”

The Times article was by no means the only lament about the lack of a dominant superstar transcending the game and attracting millions of new fans to the sport, as Tiger Woods did virtually from the moment he turned professional in 1996. Throw in the well documented decline in the number of people playing recreational golf and this week’s announcement by Nike that it is exiting the golf equipment business, three months after Adidas put its TaylorMade and Adams equipment brands up for sale, and a three-part series entitled “Golf Is Dying” surely must be next up on ESPN.

That would be news to the tens of thousands who were at Baltusrol Golf Club last week, at a PGA Championship that sold out all four days of competition. Those fans withstood a Friday morning weather delay and a washed out Saturday afternoon before returning to watch Walker outlast Jason Day and the rest of the field by playing bogey-free golf over the final twenty-eight holes on a marathon Sunday. The notion that golf needs a savior was certainly not top of mind to those whose roars echoed across Baltusrol’s Lower Course throughout the tournament.

Compiling all-time best lists in any sport is an obviously subjective endeavor. But it is worth noting that in surveying six different online lists of the best golfers ever, three names appeared in the top five of each one – Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. While no two fans or pundits would be likely to compile identical lists of the top ten golfers in the history of the game, there does seem to be a consensus that these three stand out as transcendent players. The peak of Hogan’s career was in the 1940s and early 1950s. Nicklaus dominated from the mid-60s through the following decade. While Woods’s career is presumably not yet over, his peak was a ten-year period from the late 1990’s through much of the last decade. That timeline should remind us that golfers who dominate the game in the manner of these three come along once in a generation at most. It’s absurd to expect the “next Woods” to appear on the first tee just as the career arc of the original edition moves well into its back nine.

While it is rare for the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA to all be claimed by a first-time major winner in the same year, it’s really no more unusual than for none of them to have a maiden winner. This year marked the third time in the past two decades that golf’s four big events all went to a player winning his first major. In the same period the number of years when none of these tournaments went to such a golfer is two, virtually the same. Overall the past twenty years have seen forty-three first time major champions, or on average just over two per year. Even between 1997 and 2008, when Woods’s dominance was presumably foreclosing many opportunities for anyone else to win, there were twenty-two first time major winners in twelve years, or just under two per season. Since in reality there aren’t any fractional winners, it’s fair to say that for the past two decades, in what will always be known as the Tiger Woods era of golf, a typical year included half the majors being won by someone who had not done so before. All those numbers suggest that the focus on four first-time winners in 2016 is much ado about very little.

As for the decline in the number of people playing golf, that’s surprising only if one believes in perpetual growth. As a transcendent figure Woods caused many people to take up the game, but as with any group of people trying something new, over time many of them decided it wasn’t for them, no doubt for a variety of reasons. The most recent statistics show the number of people playing recreational golf is almost identical to what it was before Woods turned pro. That suggests that the Tiger bubble may have burst, but hardly indicates a sport in terminal decline.

The news about the equipment manufacturers is even less surprising. Nike was never able to capture a significant share of the golf equipment market. In 2003 Phil Mickelson said, meaning it as a compliment to Woods, that he had “inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he is stuck with.” Over time recreational golfers, most of whom will think long and hard before shelling out $400 or more for a new driver, came to agree with Lefty. TaylorMade retains a healthy market share, which is why Adidas is looking to sell the brand rather than shuttering it. But sales have slumped due almost entirely to self-inflicted wounds. Several years ago some supposed genius in product development decided to greatly shorten the life of each generation of TaylorMade clubs. A couple of seasons of rapid product turnover soured many buyers on the brand. It seems that golfers don’t like the idea of spending that $400 on what is supposed to be the best technology, only to find their club in the discount bin with a drastic markdown only six months later.

On the PGA Tour purses are up 37% over the past decade, most of which has passed since Woods won his most recent major in June 2008. Since 2010 the LPGA has come back from the dead, with prize money increasing by more than 50% and the number of events rising to thirty-three from a low of twenty-four. At the professional level, by the measures that understandably matter most to those who make a living playing this game, golf is in fine shape.

The real problem for many pundits is that the current state of the game doesn’t match their chosen narrative. It’s as if the long period of Woods’s dominance left them unable to imagine any other structure to the sport. So ignoring history they have repeatedly tried to anoint the “next Tiger;” and failing that more recently have been quick to declare a new Big Three or Big Four, with the identities of the members shifting from week to week.

In reality professional golf has never had such a deep talent pool. The thousands at Baltusrol certainly opted to follow the known stars over other players, including for much of Sunday the eventual winner. But they didn’t appear at all upset about having several such stars to choose from; nor were there any complaints when the steely Walker holed his final three-footer. While parity may be in conflict with the seemingly preferred narrative of one dominant player, it’s worth remembering that the NFL rose to its current heights in the sports firmament on just that promise. “These guys are good” has gotten a lot of mileage as a marketing slogan for the PGA Tour. But maybe it’s time to try out a new one. How about “on any given Sunday?”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 1, 2016

Walker Wins The PGA’s Wet Weekend

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, this post was delayed by one day because On Sports and Life spent the weekend playing in the mud at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course. The regular posting schedule resumes on Thursday. Thank you as always for your continued support.

There are three differences between watching a golf tournament on television and attending one in person. The first, as every fan who has ever watched the Masters broadcast has been told, is that television flattens the course. For as much as technology can now give those sitting in their recliners the sharpest of high-definition pictures, it still doesn’t convey the true extent of elevation changes; and as every weekend duffer who has ever had to pull a longer club when facing an uphill approach shot, such changes are an important part of the challenge of the game. Somewhat related is the fact that the camera’s focus on individual holes often fails to reveal the routing of the links.

So those who watched the PGA Championship at home could not fully appreciate the dramatic ups and downs of some key holes at Baltusrol Golf Club. The opening drive on the Lower Course is sharply downhill from the first tee’s location next to the century old Tudor Revival clubhouse. Despite the shortening of the hole’s 478 yard length resulting from the extra carry off the tee, hole number one proved the hardest of the entire eighteen all week long. At the other end of the round, the closing par-5 is a roller coaster ride, with the tee shot even more sharply downhill to a fairway edged by a pond on the left. From there it climbs steeply back up toward the clubhouse, where the final green was backed by a massive grandstand filled with fans throughout the week.

In between those two the journey around the course features the first few holes that meander over New Jersey hillsides near the clubhouse. Then the 482-yard par-4 6th runs on a straight line away from its predecessors, out to a broad expanse of relatively flat parkland. The bulk of the golf course is laid out on this plain, the holes often doubling back against themselves in a fashion that left many spectators unsure of what direction to head next in order to find their favorite golfer. Not until the penultimate hole does the layout return to where it began, the par-5 17th paralleling the 6th but in the opposite direction.

The result is an expansive links that guarantees a full day’s ration of vigorous exercise for any acolyte determined to see all of the exploits of his or her golfing hero. Of course while plenty of fans choose to walk the course, thousands more opt to stay relatively stationary. As the PGA played out through a wet weekend, they filled the grandstands and took the prime spots in the first row along the ropes around the greens. To the viewer at home it must have seemed that the thousands on hand were spread out equally and cheering every player who came along.

But the static picture on television misses those who chose to make the often slippery and occasionally treacherous trip along paths that became increasingly muddy as overnight rains during the first two days and a lengthy afternoon downpour on Saturday saturated the grounds. Those hardy souls voted with their feet, and the results were anything but democratic. Like every sport golf has its superstars, and their bright glow attracts fans like so many summertime insects are drawn to any source of light. Ernie Els may have been the third player to tee off, and Phil Mickelson may have been far back in the pack with an early tee time as well, but their positions on the leader board didn’t deter thousands from scrambling to keep up as each made his way around Baltusrol on Saturday and Sunday.

The attraction of star power was most apparent among the final pairings. Racing to finish by late Sunday after much of Saturday was washed out, the PGA chose to begin the final round even as many players were still out on the course finishing their third. That required that pairings for the final two rounds remain the same, instead of twosomes being regrouped prior to the final 18 based on the standings after the third round. So for the final 36 holes Henrik Stenson, winner of the Open Championship just two weeks earlier, played with two-time major winner Martin Kaymer. Immediately after them, in the next to last pairing, was reigning PGA champion and world number one Jason Day. Then the last twosome on the course included 37-year old Jimmy Walker, who spent the first decade of his professional career bouncing back and forth between the PGA Tour and golf’s minor leagues.

Walker opened the tournament with a 5-under par 65 to grab the first round lead. He held at least a share of the lead at the end of each round, and on Sunday at one point stretched his margin to three shots. But a throng followed the Stenson–Kaymer pairing, and a throng redoubled craned their necks over one another in an effort to see Jason Day’s every shot. In contrast, Walker and playing partner Robert Streb could have been out for a Sunday stroll as they made their way down the fairways. This despite Walker’s position in the tournament and the fact that since finding his game late in 2013 the late bloomer had five PGA Tour wins when he arrived in New Jersey. The stark contrast in support for certain players is the second difference one sees by being in attendance.

For most fans on the grounds this weekend, the last distinction is one that argues for staying dry at home in front of the television. From that vantage point one is assured of seeing every key moment of drama during the tournament; if not live then certainly on a replay within moments. Those of us with our shoes covered in mud were always only going to see what was in front of us. This is especially true at major championships, which eschew the giant video boards which can be found at most weekly PGA Tour stops.

Sometimes fate smiles on the hardy fan however, and so it was this week on the Lower Course. Your correspondent was among the crowd next to the 10th green, watching first Stenson then Day miss putts for birdie, before Walker came along and dumped his approach into a greenside bunker, short siding himself. Leading by just one at that point, chances of a bogey suddenly loomed large. Instead I got to watch and then shout as Walker’s blast hopped onto the green and disappeared into the cup for an unlikely birdie, doubling his margin and giving him renewed confidence for the final stretch.

Later, as the final groups played the 18th in rapidly dimming light, I was along the fairway ropes when Jason Day struck a 2-iron for the ages. Trailing by two shots as he swung and needing an eagle to tie, his ball took off like a rocket and sailed up to the distant green. The crowd in the grandstands roared with delight when the ball settled just fifteen feet from the hole. They roared with redoubled volume when Day sank the eagle putt to move to 13-under. But in the time it took him to walk up to the putting surface Walker had rolled in his own birdie putt on the 17th, and struck a perfect drive at the last. Thus the leader was out in the fairway next to me, watching as Day made his heroic three, but knowing that as long as he parred the hole victory was still his.

Walker’s own approach with a fairway wood sailed wide right into the rough, but on the par-5 that meant he still had three shots to win. A safe chip ran well past the hole, and his lag putt settled three feet away. He later admitted to understandable nerves, but the putt that clinched the championship was never in doubt. As it fell into the cup Jimmy Walker became the fourth first-time major winner this year. It is true that two of the names on that list, Stenson and Dustin Johnson, have long been considered among the best golfers who hadn’t won a major. But along with Walker this year’s champions include Danny Willett, largely unknown outside Europe until he captured the Masters.

The wins by Willett and Walker, and Sunday’s dramatic finish at Baltusrol, remind golf fans that in this individual sport with its deep pool of talent there are many players who have a legitimate chance to claim one of the biggest prizes. The size of one’s gallery is a poor predictor of success, and sometimes even a 2-iron for the ages can’t overcome a bogey-free performance over the final 28 holes on a marathon Sunday. Now Jimmy Walker can celebrate his new status as a major champion, and I can start cleaning the mud off my golf shoes.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 28, 2016

Decision Time In The Major Leagues

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be attending the PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey this weekend. Sunday’s post will be delayed until Monday. Thanks to everyone for your continued support.

Two weeks ago, as all thirty major league teams prepared to resume play following the All-Star break, we noted that fans of every team with a record above .500 could tell themselves that their heroes had a genuine chance to make the postseason. With two Wild Card spots available in both leagues, and with plenty of historical precedent for a Wild Card to get hot and go deep into October, there were an unusually high number of clubs still playing meaningful games. Now the final weekend before the non-waiver trade deadline is upon us. Now the owners and general managers of some of those teams must make hard decisions. Just how genuine are those playoff chances? That’s the question being asked in front offices all around the country. Inevitably some fans aren’t going to like the answer.

Already two clubs, the White Sox and Royals, that were above .500 coming out of the break have slipped and now sport losing records as this is written. Both are looking a long ways up at AL Central division leader Cleveland. Chicago is six and Kansas City is six and a half games back of Boston for the second AL Wild Card. It’s not just the number of games that either team would have to gain over the final two months; but also the number of other teams that would have to be passed. White Sox GM Rick Hahn might convince himself that with the addition of a player or two his team could get back on track and move up in the standings. But is it really logical to believe that Chicago can overtake not just Boston, but all of the other four teams that currently sit closer to that second Wild Card than do the White Sox? No great surprise then, that baseball’s rumor mill has both the White Sox and Royals looking to sell at the deadline.

For some clubs the last two weeks has brought decidedly better news. The Houston Astros, despite just dropping a series to the Yankees, continue their determined climb back from a dreadful April. At the end of the longest season’s first month the Astros were ten games under .500 at 7-17. Since then Houston has been winning at a 101 game full-season rate. The Astros go into the weekend just a game back of Boston, but also just two and a half behind Texas for the AL West lead, having cut their division deficit by three games in a fortnight.

Three other division races have also tightened since the break. Cleveland and Washington still lead the AL Central and NL East respectively, but Detroit and Miami have crept closer, giving the leaders something to think about. Meanwhile the NL West is now a tight battle between the two teams that took their old rivalry from Gotham to the West Coast more than half a century ago.  That’s thanks in large part to a road trip that San Francisco fans would surely like to forget. The Giants lost seven of eight in San Diego, Boston and New York.  Things didn’t get better when they returned home at the start of this week. San Francisco just dropped two of three to the lowly Reds. The Dodgers are now just two and a half back in the division and comfortably atop the NL Wild Card race, and have gotten there without the services of the Great Game’s best pitcher.

Teams that are clearly in the thick of the pennant races will be strongly tempted to shore up any weak spots in the next few days. Already the Cubs have paid a king’s ransom to the Yankees for a two month rental of closer Aroldis Chapman, who is a free agent at the end of the year. To acquire Chapman’s hundred mile an hour 9th inning fastball, Chicago had to send its top prospect, 19-year old infielder Gleyber Torres, the versatile right-handed swingman Adam Warren, and two more promising prospects to New York.

But what about clubs like the Yankees, which remain on the fringes of the race? New York GM Brian Cashman could honestly assert that the Chapman deal did not represent a decision by the Yankees to become trade deadline sellers, something they haven’t been in a generation. The back end of New York’s bullpen is formidable, with both Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances more than capable of assuming the role of closer. Starting with a series in Cleveland just before the All-Star Game, the Yankees have gone 11-6 and won four of five series against the Indians, Red Sox, Orioles, Giants and Astros – all teams very much in the playoff race.

The temptation will be strong for Cashman to add rather than subtract, and it’s been reported by the Gotham media that even before this latest stretch of wins that’s exactly what Hal Steinbrenner wanted to do. But if the Yankees go that route they will have committed the old sin of drawing big conclusions from a small sample size. They may improve their long-shot chances for making it to this year’s postseason. But in doing so they will miss an opportunity to build for a brighter long-term future.

Manager Joe Girardi gets the most out of his players. This year, as in three of the last four, the Yankees have been outscored by their opponents. The Pythagorean expectation formula developed by Bill James uses run differential to project wins. Over the years it has been a remarkably good method of forecasting results. Simply put, a team that gets outscored shouldn’t wind up with a winning record. Somehow Girardi’s Yankees have defied the formula, and perhaps they will do so again this season. But their team OPS of .702 is last in the American League, and their normal starting lineup features just two players under the age of 30.

This is not a team built to win a World Series; and that, not simply making the playoffs, is the perennial goal of the fans who flock to the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx. So Brian Cashman, here’s a plea from a lifelong Yankee fan: don’t yield to temptation. Carlos Beltran is having a great year at the plate. Surely an AL contender will part with some good prospects to get a slugging DH for the stretch run. Neither Ivan Nova nor Nathan Eovaldi are Cy Young candidates, but teams can never have too much pitching. And of course, either Miller or Betances, who aren’t about to be free agents, could command a package even better than what you got for Chapman.

So sell Brian, sell, sell, sell. Stock up on youth, cut the payroll, and let’s clear the decks for that ever so appealing free agent class of 2018. Jose Fernandez on the mound at the Stadium? Bryce Harper in pinstripes? Yankee fans may be the only ones who won’t be disappointed if their team becomes a trade deadline seller, but our expectations are unique. We aren’t interested in tickets to a single Wild Card game. Yankee fans are only interested in championship number twenty-eight. That was always management’s goal when the Boss was alive. Is it still?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 24, 2016

Weird Things Happen Under The Dome

It was a strange weekend to be in Gotham. For starters the city was sizzling. The massive heat dome that sent temperatures soaring toward 100 from the upper Midwest to the Mississippi Valley earlier in the week finally settled over the Atlantic seaboard on Friday. The meteorological event is caused by high pressure in the upper atmosphere serving as a lid. Rising hot air is prevented from escaping and is instead forced back to the surface, warming still more as it descends. Even as the thermometer rose toward triple digits the hygrometer strove to keep pace, adding stifling humidity to the already dangerous heat.

Manhattan is an eclectic place, where one is likely to see all manner of dress on the streets. But this weekend there was a decided preference for attire more common at the end of a long ride on the D Train to Brooklyn, down on the beach at Coney Island. As light and as little as possible was the order of the day for many, and no one else either gawked or deemed those so attired as indecorous.

The oppressive weather also served to slow Gotham’s normal frantic pace. Languor seemed decidedly less sweat inducing. So it was only appropriate that the 4 Train, normally an express bullet rumbling up the East Side from Midtown to the Bronx in but minutes, was relegated by construction to the local track. On its usual schedule the 4 stops just twice between Grand Central and 125th Street in Harlem, last call on the island before darting beneath the Harlem River and into the Bronx, New York’s only mainland borough. This weekend the two became nine, and the quick trip became a slow roll north. But eventually the line of silver cars climbed back into the steamy air, ascending above River Avenue even as it slowed to a stop at 161st Street. Once more, back to the Stadium.

The weirdness continued for two games against the visitors from San Francisco. The Giants, in the midst of a potential fourth successive even-year run to glory, went into the recent All-Star break with the best record in the majors at 57-33. But they arrived in New York having lost that distinction, along with five straight games since play resumed. Still they seemed poised to end their slide. The Yankees have been a decidedly middling team all season long. Two days earlier they had climbed two games above .500 for just the second time this year and the first since the longest season was barely a week old. Having matched that decidedly un-Yankee like high water mark, they promptly lost the final contest of a series against the Orioles to fall back to 48-47.

In addition to the obvious disparity between records, the Giants sent Madison Bumgarner to the hill, he of epic achievements in the 2014 postseason. But the Yankees did not play the role of accommodating hosts. Instead left fielder Brett Gardner sent Bumgarner’s second pitch into right field for a single, and second baseman Starlin Castro followed that with a double to the gap in left center. The speedy Gardner scored easily and Castro moved to third when the relay throw of San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford sailed wide of catcher Buster Posey. In all seven of the first twelve Yankees to face the Giants’ formidable left-hander reached base safely.

If the barrage was unexpected, less so was the result of just two runs scoring. As much as the durability and effectiveness of the Yankees starting rotation was a concern during Spring Training, the reason for the team’s fourth place standing in the AL East has been a lack of offense. Still fans had reason to hope that two runs might be enough, for on Friday evening Masahiro Tanaka was giving New York a fine pitching effort. He needed just five deliveries to set down the side in the 1st inning, and continued to hold the Giants at bay thereafter. Tanaka was helped in the 3rd by a 102 mile per hour strike from right fielder Carlos Beltran to catcher Austin Romine, a throw that arrived just in time to double up Gregor Blanco, trying to score from third on a fly out by Angel Pagan.

Manager Joe Girardi’s formula when the Yankees hold a slim lead is to go to his shutdown bullpen trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman for the final three innings. Through six Tanaka had thrown just 81 pitches, but despite the light workload Girardi stuck to the game plan, and on a weekend of strange happenings it nearly cost him. Betances surrendered a run in the 7th, and Miller allowed the tying tally in the 8th. But in the bottom of the inning the Yankees put two runners on against Giants reliever Josh Osich, and the eventual winning tally scored when the Giants’ Crawford committed his third error of the day on a potential double play grounder. It was in keeping with the theme; the shortstop having arrived at the Stadium with just five errors all season and the best sabermetric statistic of overall defense – defensive runs above average – in the majors.

Saturday afternoon the big crowd arrived early for Military Day, New York’s annual salute to our servicemen and women. The main attraction each year is a parachute jump into the Stadium by the Army’s Golden Knights. Naturally a mechanical problem with the aircraft scrubbed the jump, leaving thousands to swelter as the gala ceremony was reduced to two dozen new recruits taking their enlistment oaths on the field.

When play began it was as if the weather had finally gotten to both squads. New York nicked 13-game winner Johnny Cueto for a run in the 1st, but Ivan Nova surrendered a long ball to Giants right fielder Mac Williamson in the 2nd. Both teams had multiple chances after that, but it was as if the effort required to get a runner that final ninety feet from third to home was too much on a simmering later afternoon under the heat dome.

Surely that appeared to be the case in the top of the 11th. With two outs and the go-ahead run at third in the person of Pagan, Girardi ordered Betances to intentionally walk Crawford. The reliever knows how to strike out opposing hitters, but has given just three free passes in his career. His first toss sailed to the backstop, but Pagan was either not paying attention or too hot to be bothered with the exertion of racing home.

In the end it didn’t matter, as the Giants finally went in front one inning later, and the extra inning, 2-1 contest came to a close almost four and a half hours after it began. Oddly for such a long game, and especially on a day when the city was sizzling, most of the 47,000-plus who had been present when Nova delivered the game’s first pitch were still there when Beltran grounded the last one to shortstop Crawford. Or at least it would have been strange on any other weekend. On this one it was routine; as was, at last, the handling of that grounder by the best defensive player in the game.

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