Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 17, 2019

One Move Sends The Daytona 500 Spinning

Paul Menard has been driving race cars since he first climbed into a go-kart in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin when he was just eight years old. Growing up in a state that has real winters, Menard drove his first ice race at the age of fifteen. But while he still participates in International Ice Racing Association events every year, the now thirty-eight-year-old Menard’s day job for the past decade and a half has been a driver at the very top level of stock car racing, now named for its current sponsor, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

In 435 Cup Series races over those fifteen years, Menard has crossed the finish line first just once, at the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That was in his first of seven seasons driving for Richard Childress Racing. The hard economics of this incredibly expensive sport forced RCR to downsize from the maximum four car stable after the 2017 season, and Menard was briefly out of work before signing on with tiny Wood Brothers racing. Driving the #21 Ford, the only car the Wood Brothers can afford to field, Menard had a fairly successful 2018. While he didn’t manage to add a second victory, he did post seven top-ten finishes, starting with a sixth-place effort at last year’s Daytona 500.

For NASCAR fans Menard’s name will always be closely associated with this year’s 500, but not because he is one of the more popular drivers on the circuit (which he is), nor because he took the checkered flag (which he did not). Rather Menard will be remembered for a split-second decision with nine laps to go that completely changed the character of NASCAR’s biggest event.

For more than 480 miles this year’s Daytona 500 was a closely fought battle between what were expected to be dominant Fords and teams running either Toyotas or Chevys, who chose to team up whenever possible to offset the superior speed of the cars sporting the familiar blue oval nameplate. On lap 191 around the two-and-one-half mile tri-oval, Kyle Busch in a Joe Gibbs Chevy was out in front as the crowded field headed into turn 3. That was when Menard tried to duck underneath the #95 of Matt DiBenedetto. Like Wood Brothers, the Leavine Family Racing’s #95 Chevrolet is a one-car team, with DiBenedetto in his first season behind the wheel. Despite an undistinguished Cup Series career over parts of six seasons, DiBenedetto had led forty-nine laps of the 500, and both he and Menard were still in the top five as the race wound down.

But all that changed in an instant. The #21 just grazed the left rear of the #95, and that was enough to turn DiBenedetto sideways. At speeds approaching 200 miles an hour and running in close quarters, the carnage quickly spread through the field. As sparks flew and smoke billowed from the growing number of wrecking automobiles, race analyst Darrell Waltrip spoke for millions of racing fans on Fox when he exclaimed “Oh no! Are you kidding me?”

As the smoke slowly dissipated and damaged cars rolled to a stop, some on the track and many down on the infield, it became apparent why racing’s high-banked superspeedways are frequently the scene of “the Big One,” a massive accident involving multiple cars. Even with restrictor plates and despite the enormous skill of the drivers, a human being simply can’t react fast enough to steer out of the way.

Thus, what began with the softest kiss of sheet metal between Menard’s Ford and DiBenedetto’s Chevy ended with eighteen cars, nearly half of the original forty-car field, involved in the wreck and suffering varying amounts of damage. A handful were able to continue after hasty repairs on pit row, but most were carted off by wreckers to the infield garages. Miraculously, and in what is surely a testament to the many safety features that NASCAR has added to both cars and tracks in the last decade, all the drivers, even those in cars that were virtually destroyed, were able to walk away from the mess.

When racing resumed it was as if the Big One opened the gates for reckless driving. Just a few laps later Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers, tried to steer his #17 between the two cars in front of him, driven by Kyle Larsen and Kevin Harvick. The only problem was that there wasn’t remotely room for Stenhouse’s Ford Mustang, and the move sent Larsen up into the wall and Harvick spinning. By the time that wreck was finished a total of seven cars had been damaged. Then with just a couple laps remaining Clint Bowyer ducked under and passed Michael McDowell but moved back over before he was fully clear of McDowell’s car. The result was yet another multi-car mess, with eight contestants damaged.

By the time the 500 was over there were only eighteen cars till running, and only three of those were free of any damage. One belonged to the unlikely Ross Chastain, who had a one-race contract for the 500 and managed a very respectable tenth place. The other two were the cars of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who not surprisingly finished one-two. With teammate Erik Jones finishing third, it was a top-three sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing, the first time one team swept the top three places since Hendrick Motorsports did it behind a young Jeff Gordon in 1997.

That result made for a fitting tribute to J.D. Gibbs, the oldest son of the team owner and the family member who ran the racing operation until his untimely death just last month. Perhaps years from now that remarkable finish is what racing fans will remember about the 2019 Daytona 500. Far better that than the instantaneous and ultimately ill-advised move by a journeyman driver; a move that turned the finish of this year’s 500 into a demolition derby.

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Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 14, 2019

After A Winter Of Doubt, The Moment Of Possibility

Less than two weeks ago, thousands gathered in the early morning at Gobbler’s Knob, a park tucked away in a rural corner of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. They made the trek to the tiny borough in the western part of the Keystone State for the odd purpose of watching an assembly of men in top hats and tuxedos interpret the actions of a groundhog and thus learn how long the winter season will endure.

This year, according to his minders, Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring. To that Mother Nature’s utterly predictable response was to shortly deposit six inches of new snow here in northern New England, topped off with a fine sheen of ice that left roads better traveled by a Zamboni than an auto, as a way of reminding we mere mortals how absurd it is to look for guidance from those who, with cult-like faith, take their meteorological advice from a rodent. So now we in this frozen quadrant of the country endure a seasonal depression brought on by bone-chilling temperatures and piles of snow quickly gone from pristine white to dreary grey. Yet even in the black dog’s grip, we manage to look southward, as always at this time of year, and find reasons to hope.

Our collective gaze turns to the warmer climes of Florida and Arizona, where among the palm trees and cacti the surest signs of spring materialize like friendly spirits made corporeal by the power of our most fervent wish. Spread across the Sunshine State’s peninsula, from Tampa to Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast and from West Palm Beach to Port St. Lucie on the Atlantic, and bunched closely together in the Valley of the Sun, from Goodyear to Glendale to Mesa and Tempe, one by one the camps have opened. The compound surrounding Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Arizona was the first to do so this year, followed the next day by the main stadium and twelve practice fields at the Peoria Sports Complex, on the other side of Phoenix. The former is the spring training home of the Oakland Athletics, while the latter hosts both the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. The A’s and Mariners needed to get a jump on preparations for the new season, for those two teams will start play with a two-game set in Tokyo, where the great Ichiro Suzuki is likely to take his final big league at-bats, fully one week earlier than Opening Day for the other twenty-eight franchises.

But that head start was brief, and as this is written the call has gone out across the Great Game and the players have responded, renewing the rituals of preparation that stretch back through decades and tie this constantly evolving sport to its roots in a distant time that suddenly seems far simpler than ours. For the joy that the start of spring training always brings is tempered this year by the obvious dysfunction that has infected baseball’s fundamental economic compact. For the second year in a row winter’s hot stove never managed to ignite. Behind the frail fig leafs of advanced analytics and a new paradigm for achieving success, owners have unilaterally altered the long-standing financial bargain with players, and while the result has been dollars saved for the handful who write the checks, it has come at the cost of rapidly growing discontent among the many who cash them.

The plethora of increasingly detailed statistics has led teams to conclude that paying players well into their late thirties is a losing proposition, even though that is the established structure of the current rules relating to free agency, which delay the moment when a player can negotiate with any franchise until most are either at or approaching their thirtieth birthday. In concert with this sabermetric-induced recognition of a typical player’s career arc, the recent back-to-back championships won by the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros popularized the notion that the surest road to glory requires a detour through the potholed side streets of roster teardowns and hundred-loss seasons, during which teams have no interest in competing for either free agents or first place.  Last season a record eight teams lost more than ninety games.

Since the current collective bargaining agreement still has three years to run, there’s little the Players Association can do. But the owners’ argument that the recent decline in the share of total revenue going to team payrolls is all about a sudden awareness that committing twenty million a year or more to a forty-year-old fading star is wasted money has fallen flat this offseason, for camps have opened with both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still unsigned. Because they entered the majors far earlier than most players, the two superstars reached free agency at the tender age of twenty-six, with the reasonable expectation of many years of All-Star caliber production still ahead. But after years of speculation about the gargantuan offers both would receive, neither seems to have developed much of a market in this new era of contractual penny-pinching. Even more concerning for players is that Harper and Machado are but the two most high-profile of more than one hundred free agents still without contracts.

If this is baseball’s new reality, as some in management have suggested, it is one that has provoked many players. Veteran pitcher and seven-time All-Star Justin Verlander called the current system “broken” on Twitter, and followed that by suggesting teams are “hiding behind this rebuilding mantra,” and wondering why fans of those teams would bother coming to the ballpark.

So while the sun is shining in Florida and Arizona, this spring training begins with dark clouds on the Great Game’s horizon. Still these first days are always about hope, and perhaps there was some of that in the news that the two sides had traded ideas in recent informal discussions. Management is interested in speeding up the game, with things like a pitch clock and a requirement that relievers face at least three batters. The players, in turn, suggested expanding the designated hitter to the National League effectively adding fifteen well-paid jobs to NL rosters, changes to the draft order to incentivize winning, and service time bonuses based on performance to help young stars reach free agency sooner.

Other than the pitch clock, which MLB commissioner Rob Manfred can impose unilaterally, none of these changes are likely to become reality before 2020 at the earliest. In weighing the competing proposals, one can’t help but think that given a choice between a contest ending five minutes sooner or having their team regularly come out on top, most fans in the stands would happily stick around for a bit longer. Still any evidence that the parties who together have forged the Great Game’s long period of labor peace are at least talking is welcome news, especially after a long winter of stasis and growing resentment.

We fans will take it and allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring the storm clouds for a few days. We will focus instead on the open-ended potential that accompanies every new beginning. For that is the balm of spring training’s start, the unlimited possibilities in front of every franchise. Even if only one fan base will ultimately attend a parade, there will be others that will revel in unexpected accomplishments, be it a dramatic improvement in a team’s record, a breakout season by an unheralded rookie, or a renaissance year by a wily veteran.

The groundhog may have been no match for Mother Nature, but each year’s clarion call reminds every fan that the snows of February will melt, to be replaced by the rich brown of the base paths and the broad sweep of green that is the outfield in every ballpark across the land. And when the time comes to settle the roiling issues between management and labor, perhaps the owners will be mindful of that call. For the words that quicken the pulse and spark the flame of hope in the heart of every fan are not “owners assemble.” The command is not “general managers gather” or “analytics departments attend.” The call is to the players. The Great Game returns, with promise and possibility, on the day that “pitchers and catchers report.”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 10, 2019

The Right Way To Honor Frank Robinson

When he was terrorizing opposing pitchers throughout almost all his twenty-one-year major league career, Frank Robinson was known to have great timing. That’s a basic requirement of successfully swinging a bat at the highest level of the Great Game, and few players in history have been more accomplished at doing so than Robinson.

Through extended stretches with the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles, and shorter stays in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Cleveland, Robinson led his league in slugging percentage and OPS four times. He was a 14-time All Star who batted over .300 nine times, slugged 30 or more home runs in eleven different seasons, and at the time of his retirement as a player in 1976 ranked fourth in career home runs with 586, sixth in total bases and tenth in runs scored. Robinson remains the only player to be voted the MVP of both leagues, winning the National League award with the Reds in 1961 and the junior circuit honor with the Orioles five seasons later.

Elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1982 for his exploits as a player, Robinson became the first African-American to skipper a big league club when he served as player-manager in Cleveland in 1975. He eventually managed four different franchises, adding stints with the Giants, Orioles, and the Expos/Nationals to his resume. Robinson also served off and on in multiple front office roles, first for Baltimore and later for Major League Baseball until as recently as 2015.

Whether on the field or in the dugout Robinson was known as a fierce competitor who gave no quarter. That attitude, along with the likelihood that many pitchers concluded it was better to hit Robinson and limit him to one base before he hit one of their offerings out of the park, might explain why he also led the league in being hit by pitches seven times.

A fan couldn’t help but think that even at the end Robinson displayed that same exquisite timing when he passed away last week at the age of 83, finally losing a lengthy battle with bone cancer. For Robinson died in February, celebrated annually as Black History Month, and in 2019, the year in which throughout the coming season Major League Baseball will honor the one hundredth anniversary of the birth in a little city in southwestern Georgia of Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

Jackie Robinson, no relation to Frank, ended the long and ugly legacy of segregation in the Great Game in 1947. His too-brief career with the Brooklyn Dodgers ended in 1956, at the end of the season in which Frank Robinson played his first major league game for the Reds. A decade and a half later, and just days before his death, Jackie Robinson was honored prior to the start of Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. While he graciously accepted a plaque commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his major league debut, in his remarks Robinson also pointedly said, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” Those words, and Frank Robinson’s eventual role in opening the managerial door to African-Americans, will forever tie the two together in ways far more important than their common last name.

While the lives and legacies of these two men are celebrated as symbols of how far baseball has come, Robinson’s passing in the days just before memories of last season are finally set aside in favor of the beginning of a new campaign as marked by the first days of spring training, should also remind fans and, more important, front offices, how very far the Great Game still has to go.

Last season concluded with a World Series contested between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Managing the victorious Sox was Alex Cora, just the second native of Puerto Rico to manage a big league club. In the opposing dugout was Dave Roberts, son of an African-American father and Japanese mother. That two men of color should take their ballclubs to the longest season’s final series in the same year should be proof enough that race or ethnicity has no bearing on managerial ability.

But as equipment trucks arrive at spring training complexes in Florida and Arizona, with pitchers and catchers soon to follow, Roberts is the only African-American in charge of a major league franchise, and Cora is one of just four Latino managers. And while Hispanic countries, especially the Dominican Republic, have supplied a steadily increasing share of players, the story on the field for blacks is every bit as dire as in the managerial ranks. From a high of more than 18% of players on major league rosters, African-Americans now account for less than 8% of players.

Three decades ago Major League Baseball began Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), to reconnect the game to urban minority youth. What started as a local effort in Los Angeles has grown to over three hundred programs in more than two hundred cities across the country, and recently a Junior RBI program was initiated to reach kids as young as five. A 2017 study by the Sport and Fitness Industry Association showed baseball surpassing football and taking second place for participation by African-American young people. It will take time to fully see the impact on the field, but recent amateur drafts have regularly seen RBI alumni chosen among the top picks.

But fulfilling Jackie’s dream, and keeping the door that Frank opened ajar has proven more difficult. Last year’s Racial and Gender Report Card, released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, gave an overall grade of C+ for the hiring practices of clubs, with a slightly better mark for racial hiring practices and a slightly worse one for gender. But both scores were worse than they had been two years earlier. At best the Great Game’s hiring practices are stuck in neutral.

Even when people of color are given a chance to manage, it’s often for an inferior team. The Cleveland franchise that Robinson skippered had not had a winning record in seven years, though he gave it one in his second season at the helm. As of the start of last season, Robinson and just fifteen other black men had been given the opportunity to manage, for a total of twenty-seven different jobs, ten interim and seventeen permanent. Only two of those twenty-seven openings were for teams with records above .500 in the previous season. The numbers are better for Latino managers, but still noticeably worse than for white hires.

With owner’s suites and front offices overwhelmingly white – Derek Jeter in Miami being a rare recent exception – it will take a concerted effort to go beyond the familiar circle and institute meaningful change. But as Roberts and Cora demonstrated last fall, failing to do so doesn’t just cost clubs on a report card. In the past few days there have been many words of praise written and spoken about Frank Robinson. On his birthday in January there were eloquent tributes, which will surely multiply during the coming season, to Jackie Robinson. But were they still here, is there any doubt that both Frank and Jackie would demand that we dispense with the words? For the Great Game, it is long past time for action.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 7, 2019

Rickie Fowler’s Gutsy Win Quiets His Critics

A decade ago, when he turned pro at the age of twenty after playing on two winning Walker Cup teams and being ranked as the top amateur golfer in the world for nine months, Rickie Fowler was widely expected to become one of the most popular and successful members of the PGA Tour. The first expectation was quickly met and remains true today. His willingness to engage with people outside the ropes at tournaments won him scores of supporters, and his moptop haircut and brightly colored clothing, including a preference for orange on Sundays from his brief time as a collegiate golfer at Oklahoma State, made him hugely popular among young fans. But success commensurate with his burgeoning fan base has proven harder to achieve. After ten years on the Tour, the now thirty-year-old Fowler came to the Waste Management Phoenix Open last weekend with just four PGA Tour titles on his resume.

His first two wins came in playoffs, at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2012 over Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points, and at the Players Championship in 2015 over Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner. Later that same year Fowler outlasted Henrik Stenson at the Deutsche Bank Championship by a single stroke. He finally won with some room to spare early in 2017, posting a four-shot victory at the Honda Classic.

Make no mistake, four wins in a decade is not a bad career on the Tour. And with multiple endorsements based on his overall popularity, the next few generations of the Fowler family shouldn’t have to worry about putting food on the table. But four victories, none of them majors, was not what was expected of Fowler when he turned pro.

There have been tantalizing glimpses of greatness, like in 2014 when he finished in the top five at all four majors, a run that included runner-up spots at both the US Open and the Open Championship. But that spark of promise was quickly extinguished when he failed to post a top ten and missed three cuts at golf’s most prestigious events over the next two seasons.

Most concerning for Fowler’s many fans has been his repeated inability to close out a tournament on Sunday. Nowhere has that weakness been more painfully exposed than at the TPC Scottsdale, home of the Tour’s annual bacchanal, also known as the Waste Management Phoenix Open. In 2016, he began the final day tied for second with Hideki Matsuyama. When 54-hole leader Danny Lee stumbled early, Fowler appeared in control of the event until he hit his drive on the short par-4 17th through the green and into the pond behind it. Fowler made that ill-timed swing with his father and grandfather watching, neither of whom had ever been present for one of his victories. Forced into a playoff with Matsuyama, Fowler hooked his tee shot on the same hole into the hazard, handing the victory to his fellow competitor. He cried unashamedly in the media room afterwards as he expressed regret for letting his family down.

Then last year Fowler started the third round tied for the lead and finished play on Saturday with a flourish, recording birdies on each of the last three holes to shoot a 4-under par 67, good enough for solo first place heading into Sunday. Fowler would have needed to match that score in order to join Gary Woodland and Chez Reavie in the eventual playoff won by the former, but instead on the very part of the golf course where he had sizzled on Saturday he instead fizzled in the final round. He pulled his drive into the lake left of the par-5 15th hole, missed the green left at the par-3 16th, and sent yet another tee ball into the hazard at the 17th. The three miscues led to three straight bogeys and sent Fowler tumbling down into a tie for eleventh, six shots adrift of the eventual winner as one more Sunday went from promising to pedestrian in just a few errant swings.

That history explains why there was no great surge of anticipation when Fowler completed his first trip around TPC Scottsdale at this year’s tournament in just 64 strokes, good for a tie for first with Justin Thomas and Harold Varner. More attention was paid to world number four Thomas, who has nine wins including a major at the age of twenty-five. Even when he closed his second round with four straight birdies to shoot 65 and edge one shot ahead of Thomas, his good friend and housemate for the week, Fowler himself acknowledged “we still have a long way to go.” But when his lead swelled to four shots over Matt Kuchar on the strength of another 7-under par 64 on Saturday, most of Fowler’s fans and even many skeptics started to believe that this year he’d finally beat the last round demons that have so often bedeviled him, nowhere more so than at TPC Scottsdale.

A double-bogey at the long par-4 5th hole, where Fowler sent his approach into the desert well left of the green and needed three more strokes to get his ball on the putting surface might have been cause for alarm, but Kuchar bogeyed the hole as well so only made up one shot. By the time Fowler made his first birdie on a cold and wet day at the 10th hole, the six-footer that he rolled in expanded his lead to five shots over Branden Grace, who was charging up the leaderboard in the group ahead, and six over the struggling Kuchar.

Then, with just eight holes to play, disaster struck. Fowler’s approach at the 11th hole came up short of the green. His chip shot was struck far too hard, sailing across the green, down an embankment and into a lake. With the penalty stroke Fowler was looking at his fifth shot after dropping a ball on the slope. But while he walked up to the green to study where he wanted to land his chip, the ball he had dropped gave way to gravity and slid down the closely mown grass and into the water. Rules official Slugger White advised Fowler that once he made his drop the ball was considered in play, meaning a second penalty stroke was assessed. So it was his sixth shot that finally found the green, and a triple-bogey seven on his scorecard when Fowler sank the ensuing putt.

No doubt dazed by his sudden misfortune he promptly bogeyed the next hole, even as Grace was making back-to-back birdies. In a matter of minutes, the five shot advantage had turned into a one shot deficit, and another disastrous Sunday appeared about to be added to Fowler’s PGA Tour resume. But the too-familiar script was tossed when he instead displayed a resiliency that critics had come to assume Fowler simply lacked. At the 15th, he split the fairway with his drive, then smashed a fairway metal from 251 yards onto the green of the par-5. That set up a two-putt birdie that brought him even with Grace.

Then at the 17th it was the South African who hooked his drive into the water, leading to a bogey. When Fowler’s tee shot at the drivable par-4 rolled to a stop on the putting surface he breathed a sigh of relief, turned to his caddie and smiled. From there it was another two-putt birdie to put himself two clear heading to the home hole. His entire family, including his father and grandfather, were waiting for him there. At the end of this Sunday there were no tears, just cheers for Rickie Fowler’s fifth Tour win, and for the renewed promise of the career he might yet forge.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 4, 2019

Still Here, And Once Again The Last Team Standing

Okay, so it wasn’t pretty. Perhaps the ghost of Woody Hayes, the longtime Ohio State head coach who popularized the “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of offense, was entertained by the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever. But by any measure, from the reduced (though still massive) overnight TV ratings to the thousands of scornful comments on social media, it’s abundantly clear that most fans found little to love in the defensive struggle that finally (some would say mercifully) ended with the New England Patriots claiming a sixth title, 13-3 over the Los Angeles Rams.

As eyes glazed over all around the country given the dearth of action on the field, the national ennui colored judgments about more than just the game. Most of the extraordinarily expensive commercials were dismissed as utterly forgettable. The halftime show led by Maroon 5 was almost universally mocked as insipid, although since lead singer Adam Levine saw fit to remove his shirt fifteen years after Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” it did give rise to some tongue-in-cheek debate about whether the NFL has a double standard on exposed nipples.

But if Super Bowl LIII will never be high on anyone’s list of the most exciting editions of the Big Game, few fans in New England seemed to mind. And given the sharply divergent attitudes toward the Foxborough dynasty between this corner of the country and the other forty-four states, one can’t help but wonder if opinions on the game would be quite so caustic if the final score had been exactly the same, but with the Rams on top. Fans everywhere know that football isn’t figure skating – no style points factor into the outcome. So perhaps what really galls the faithful of thirty-one other franchises is that the one team for which they all share an antipathy is once more the team that gets to hold a parade.

For here we are, again, and this time it is not enough to say that for Patriots fans this never gets old. In fact, for many local diehards this year’s sometimes sloppy slog of a title game seems especially worthy of celebration because its imperfections were reminders of the flaws of a team that found a way to still come out on top at the end of a season that could easily have gone awry.

One year ago there was controversy in the defeat at the hands of the Eagles in the last Super Bowl, when cornerback Malcolm Butler was limited to a single appearance on special teams. Before training camp began there were rumors of disaffection among the three most important individuals in the Patriots universe – owner Bob Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady. There was doubt about the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, and a four game suspension of wide receiver Julian Edelman.

Then after a home win over Houston to start the season, New England lost back-to-back road games at Jacksonville and Detroit, falling to 1-2 for the first time since 2012. The losses were both by double-digits to franchises that would finish below .500 for the season, and suddenly the offseason departure of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to become head coach of the Lions loomed large.

Problems on defense were mitigated by the Brady-led offense getting on track, as the Patriots ran off six straight wins, scoring more than thirty points in all but one of those games. Still doubts were renewed when the team went a middling 4-3 over its last seven contests, including another set of back-to-back losses. The first of those was in Miami and featured a complete defensive collapse on the game’s final play, with the Dolphins stealing a victory on a multiple lateral play worthy of a schoolyard.

The Pats final record of 11-5 was good enough to win the AFC East for the tenth straight year, but the five losses were the most by New England in a decade and meant the team would be seeded second in the AFC for the playoffs. If the seedings held the Patriots would need to win a playoff game on the road to reach the Super Bowl, something the team had not done since 2007. That hurdle was overcome with a 37-31 overtime victory at Kansas City in the AFC Conference Championship. But with a defense that ranked in the middle of the pack during the regular season, and after surrendering four TD’s to San Diego and the thirty-one points to K.C. in the postseason, no one foresaw the New England defense that showed up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday evening.

Perhaps fans had forgotten that before he was a head coach Belichick won a pair of Super Bowl rings as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. With two weeks to prepare, he devised a masterful defensive scheme that completely shut down the second most prolific offense in the league. After playing more man-to-man pass coverage than any team in the league during the regular season, the Patriots switched to zone coverage almost half the time Sunday. They blitzed repeatedly, and Rams quarterback Jared Goff was pressured on almost forty percent of his dropbacks. The young QB completed just a quarter of his throws in those situations, tied for the worst completion percentage under pressure in Super Bowl history.

It may not have been aesthetically pleasing, but a game plan that held Los Angeles scoreless in the first half and limited the Rams to just three points all night propelled New England to yet another championship. For all that the win still didn’t come easy. Brady’s first pass was picked off and Stephen Gostkowski’s first field goal attempt was a low hook that never came close to splitting the uprights. In the end two big plays made the difference.

The first of those came midway through the fourth quarter, when New England’s offense finally started to move the ball. The Patriots ran the exact same play three times in a row, with Brady having his choice of receivers. The first time he hit Edelman for 13 yards. The second time he connected with Rex Burkhead for 7 more. Then on the third iteration of the play called Hoss Y-Juke in the Pats’ playbook, Brady found Gronkowski on a seam route for a 29-yard pickup down to the 3-yard line. After that dramatic completion Sony Michel scored on the next snap from scrimmage.

The second big play came a few minutes later, when the Rams were mounting their own drive. But Goff underthrew a long toss intended for Brandin Cooks and Stephen Gilmore leapt in front of the receiver to intercept the pass and effectively seal New England’s win.

Throughout the Belichick and Brady era, the work ethic and team approach of the Patriots has always been described, by players and coaches alike, in simple sentences. Next man up. Do your job. This season, when there were so many reasons to doubt, the rallying cry was we’re still here. To the joy of New Englanders and the dismay of many others, the Patriots reminded everyone of that one more time on Sunday.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 31, 2019

Trouble Is Brewing For The Great Game

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be delayed by one day, until Monday. The regular schedule resumes this time next week. Thanks as always for your support.

The last day of January arrives. The final game of the NFL season, with its eleven minutes of action buried deep within three and one-half hours of pageantry and multi-million dollar television advertising buys that will mostly be forgotten before the final whistle blows, is just days away. The NHL is back from its All-Star break, while the NBA is preparing for its own. With teams in both leagues having played more than sixty percent of their regular season schedules, thoughts are turning to the springtime playoffs for our two major arena sports. Yet amidst all this, when the calendar turns to the second month of the year, the Great Game nudges its way back onto the grand stage of our sports, preparing to stake its annual claim on the attention of fans in every corner of the land. For the advent of February means that the start of spring training is just a fortnight away.

But for the second year in a row, this passage on the calendar is not a time to celebrate for scores of veteran baseball players who are free agents, a list that includes both names that are instantly recognizable to even casual fans and others whose faithful are limited to immediate family members and diehard partisans of their most recent team. Of the top fifty free agents, as ranked by the pundits at CBSSports.com, fifteen remain unsigned. That number includes the two names at the top of the list, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, as well as the second-ranked starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and the number one relief hurler in the rankings, closer Craig Kimbrel. Move beyond the marquee names and the situation is worse, with exactly one-half of 274 free agents still without contracts according to ESPN, at a time when all would expect to be finalizing travel arrangements to either Florida or Arizona.

As grim as they are, those raw numbers disguise the depth of the problem facing the players. Forty-five of those who have signed have inked minor league contracts, meaning that while they now have a spring training destination they have no guarantee of breaking camp with the big club in late March. Another forty-eight have only been able to negotiate one-year deals, and thus will find themselves back among the scores of contract-seekers come next offseason. Earlier this week the front page of Major League Baseball’s website was overrun with stories of free agents agreeing to one-year contracts. There was Neil Walker going to the Marlins, former All-Star pitcher Greg Holland, who was tremendous for the Nationals down the stretch last season, signing with the Diamondbacks, shortstop Freddy Galvis joining the Blue Jays, and reliever Shawn Kelley finding a short-term home in the Rangers clubhouse. Of all the free agents who have signed contracts so far, only three – pitchers Patrick Corbin (six years, Nats) and Nathan Eovaldi (four years, Red Sox), and outfielder AJ Pollock (five years, Dodgers) – have inked deals that run longer than three years.

The owners and general managers of all thirty teams repeat the mantra that the new parsimony toward free agents is the result of all the advanced metrics now used to evaluate players. Those statistical measures tell front offices that almost every player’s peak years come before he turns thirty. Why, the men with the checkbooks ask, should they pay huge sums for steadily declining performance?

The answer is that doing so is consistent with the system of compensation that has been negotiated between the owners and the Players Association. A player is bound to his original team for his first three years of service, and even a phenom who becomes a breakout star will play for, relatively speaking, a pittance for those seasons. After three years the player is eligible for arbitration, but since he is still tied to his first team, that unpleasant process only slightly increases a player’s leverage in contract negotiations. Only after completing six years of service does one qualify for free agency. The implicit understanding of this system is that a player spends six years essentially working for whatever his club want to pay him, and in return gets rewarded in free agency.  That reward might take the form of a nine-figure contract for a superstar, or a deal far more modest financially but with a term that at least ensures several years of employment for an accomplished journeyman.

There is a legitimate debate about whether that system makes sense, since it often produces results where a free agent contract is essentially a reward for past performance, and the team paying that prize is different from the one that got the benefit of a player’s earlier heroics. But the time to have that debate is when negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

Instead owners have felt free to game the front end of the system to their advantage, by delaying the initial callup of a promising minor leaguer in order to gain an extra season of service time in his long march to the promised land of free agency. Now they are reneging on the promise at the back-end of the system, knowing that until the current agreement between MLB and the MLBPA expires in 2021 there is nothing the players can do about it.

It doesn’t take advanced metrics to know that a ten-year contract for a thirty-two-year-old player, like the ones the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez in 2007 or the Angels gave Albert Pujols six seasons ago, is going to end badly. But refusing to budge beyond a single year for a player who is twenty-nine, like Toronto’s new shortstop Galvis, is taking the advanced metrics rationale to a silly extreme.

That’s especially clear when fans see the extremely limited market for Harper and Machado, with as few as three teams reportedly bidding on either player. Because of their prodigious talent, they made The Show far earlier than most rookies. Harper played his first game for the Nationals while still a teenager, and Machado joined the Orioles just after his twentieth birthday. Both thus enter free agency at age twenty-six, three or four years sooner than is typical. An eight or even ten-year contract for either of them carries far less back-end risk than the boondoggles lavished on A-Rod and Pujols. But both Bryce and Manny remain unsigned.

The odds are still in favor of Harper and Machado doing quite well, though the once prominent talk of $400 million contracts is likely now but a memory. The biggest impact of this new reality is on the scores of players who are not superstars. The Players Association projects that as many as a dozen teams will begin the new season with smaller payrolls than last year, while only a third as many will see significant increases in total salaries. This after the percentage of revenues spent on player salaries dropped last season for the fourth year in a row, to its lowest number since 2012.

As noted earlier, for now there is nothing the players can do but seethe. But any owner or GM who thinks that this new approach to free agent negotiations doesn’t have a downside is no student of the Great Game’s history, which includes protracted and ugly labor disputes. When the current collective bargaining agreement expires, baseball will have enjoyed more than a quarter-century of labor peace. The odds of that continuing grow longer every day.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 27, 2019

This Time, Naomi Osaka Hears Cheers

When most sports fans last saw Naomi Osaka, she was filling the dual roles of champion and victim. On the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, the 20-year-old had just beaten Serena Williams, the dominant women’s player of the past twenty years, to capture last year’s U.S. Open and her first Grand Slam title. But the Open Final had veered into chaos when Williams turned a disagreement with the chair umpire into an ugly scene, leaving Osaka in tears as boos poured down from the thousands in the stands during the awards ceremony.

That the catcalls were directed not at the new champion, who had just put on an exceptional display of tennis, but rather at the official who was the target of Williams’s wrath and at the USTA in general was of little consequence in the moment. As was noted in this space at the time, “Any tears that Naomi Osaka shed should have been of joy. For all who robbed her of that, shame on them.” One couldn’t help but wonder when or even if Osaka would again have an opportunity for sheer happiness like the one that was taken away from her that night in Flushing last September.

Well it turns out that another such moment has come Osaka’s way, and as the tennis calendar goes, she didn’t have to wait very long at all for it to arrive. On Saturday, more than ten thousand miles from the USTA’s sprawling tennis home in New York, Osaka was back on court for the Final of the very next Grand Slam tournament, the Australian Open.

In the months since her U.S. Open victory, Osaka celebrated a birthday and had deep runs at both the Pan Pacific and China Opens, before bowing out of the season-ending WTA Finals with a hamstring injury. After starting 2018 ranked 72nd in the world, she finished the year ranked 4th, and that’s where she was seeded in Melbourne.

But despite her lofty new status Osaka’s journey to the Final at Rod Laver Arena was considerably more challenging than her path in New York had been. In September she dropped just a single set in all seven of her matches. In contrast over the last two weeks Osaka was pushed to the full three sets in three of her six matches leading up to the Final. In both the third and fourth rounds she dropped the opening set, first to Su-wei Hsieh, the 28th seed, and then to 13th seed Anastasija Sevastova. Both time she rallied strongly, defeating Hsieh 5-7, 6-4, 6-1, and finishing off Sevastova 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

In the quarterfinals Osaka polished off Elina Svitolina, who had won the WTA Finals that Osaka was forced to quit back in October, in straight sets. As the draw unfolded that left a pair of Czech women between the U.S. Open titlist and a second straight Grand Slam.

The first of those was the 7th seed, 26-year-old Karolina Pliskova, who had ended the Australian Open run of Williams in the quarters, in a match that Serena appeared to have in hand. With the match even at a set each, Williams stormed to a 5-1 lead in the third and was serving for victory. But she foot-faulted on match point and rolled her ankle in doing so. Whether the injury was worse than it appeared or merely a sufficient distraction, Williams didn’t win another game, eventually squandering four match points and losing to Pliskova 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. Against Osaka, Pliskova managed to push the match to three sets. But by her own admission she was behind throughout the 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 match. “There was not much I could do,” was Pliskova’s observation after going down to defeat.

Across the net from Osaka in the Final was Petra Kvitová, who triumphed at Wimbledon in 2011 when she was Osaka’s age, and won again on the London grass in 2014. That the 28-year-old was back in a Grand Slam Final was itself a wonderful story. Following the 2016 season the left-handed Kvitová was stabbed in her dominant hand by a knife-wielding robber at her home. While he didn’t tell her at the time, the initial opinion of the surgeon who operated to repair her tendon and nerve injuries was that she might not play competitively again. But less than a year later she reached the quarterfinals at the 2017 U.S. Open and she won five WTA events last year.

The result was a taut three-set match between two aggressive ball-strikers. Kvitová had the better chances in the first set, with a total of five break points. But Osaka saved them all, and the set went to a tiebreaker without either player dropping a single service game. Then Osaka quickly took control, winning a mini-break on Kvitová’s very first service, and another one after the next exchange, while holding all her own serves. The result was a 7-2 win in the tiebreak, for a 7-6 first set.

But Kvitová kept pushing in the second set, and Osaka’s emotions threatened to get the better of her. After dropping the last four games and losing the set, and in the process letting three championship points slip away, a clearly angry Osaka used her allowed break to leave the court and regroup. As she’s worked her way up the rankings over the past few seasons, Osaka has been known to beat herself. But on Saturday she tried to “turn off her feelings” and “play like a robot.”

As pep talks go that might seem a bit odd, but it worked. Osaka broke Kvitová in the third game of the final set, and several minutes later she was serving for the match. She opened that final game with an ace, her fifty-ninth of the tournament, which was twenty-two more than the next highest woman. At 40-15 Kvitová could only flail at another rocket serve, her return sailing well wide. Osaka sank into a crouch as the crowd roared its approval of her 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 win and back-to-back Grand Slam titles.

This time, the new number one player in the women’s rankings knew that it was okay to smile. As she did so, those same fans who wondered last September when Naomi Osaka would have another opportunity at a Grand Slam began to realize that she’s likely to have many, many more.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 24, 2019

Moose And Mo, Together Again

The first Thursday in the first full month of spring is a lovely day in Gotham. It’s April 5, 2001, and the sun is shining as the temperature climbs to almost sixty degrees. At the southern end of Manhattan, the twin towers of the World Trade Center stand as sentinels over the financial district. In less than six months they will be reduced to massive heaps of smoldering rubble as the arc of history shifts. But on this bright and pleasant day that future scene cannot even be conceived.

A short walk east from the Trade Center complex is the Fulton Street subway station, at which in all probability a few bankers and traders playing hooky on this workday step aboard a number 4 subway train for the trip up the east side of the island, then under the Harlem River and into the Bronx, at last emerging above ground just in time to disembark at the elevated 161st Street station. The well-heeled truants, along with more than 26,000 fellow Yankees fans, flock to the old Stadium for the third game of the new season. It’s a contest in which the home nine will be looking to sweep their opening series against the visiting Kansas City Royals.

The Yankees hand the ball to their prize offseason acquisition, right-hander Mike Mussina. After a decade of sustained success at Camden Yards, the free agent parted ways with the Orioles, the team that drafted Mussina out of high school in 1987 and, after he chose to go to college, again out of Stanford University three years later. In his first game in pinstripes, the 32-year-old Mussina pays immediate dividends on New York’s six-year, $88.5 million investment. He sends leadoff batter Luis Alicea down swinging and needs just eleven pitches in all to retire the Royals in order in the top of the 1st. Then in the bottom of the inning Paul O’Neil sends a Dan Reichert pitch into the seats, giving Mussina a 1-0 lead.

New York’s offense goes silent after O’Neil’s blast, managing just three more hits, all singles, over the remaining frames. But one run is all that Mussina needs. With two outs in the top of the 2nd he allows a pair of hits that put runners on second and third, but escapes by getting A.J. Hinch to ground right back to the mound, where the pitcher who will win seven Gold Glove Awards during his career snares the ball and throws to first to end the inning. After that Mussina keeps Kansas City at bay, with not a single runner advancing past first base.

With one on and two outs in the 8th, and the dangerous Carlos Beltran due up, manager Joe Torre decides that Mussina has done his job for this day. The starter departs to a loud ovation, and Mariano Rivera, already well established as one of the elite closers in the game, jogs in from the bullpen. Rivera needs just two pitches to retire Beltran, and then sweeps aside three Royals in the 9th to seal New York’s victory. Mussina has his first win as a member of the Yankees and Rivera his first save of the new season.

The first Sunday of autumn is gray and wet in Boston. It’s September 28, 2008, but at least the temperature is seasonable despite the intermittent drizzle. For all that has changed in the country and the world since 9/11, the American cycle of self-determination goes on, and in less than six weeks’ time history will be made at the ballot box. But even with Boston’s long tradition of political activity, on this last day of the regular season more than 37,000 take time out from following the presidential campaign to fill most of the seats in Fenway Park for an afternoon contest between the Great Game’s preeminent rivals, the Yankees and the Red Sox.

It’s the first of a planned twin bill that will close the regular season, after a Saturday rainout. Joe Girardi, New York’s rookie skipper, gives Mussina the choice of which game he will start. With a record of 19-9, the now 39-year-old veteran knows this outing probably represents his last shot at achieving a twenty-win season. Given the uncertain weather conditions, Mussina opts to take the ball for game one. He’s opposed by Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Japanese phenom who signed with Boston amid much fanfare prior to the 2007 campaign. While Matsuzaka’s career in this country will soon go sideways, in 2008 he enjoyed his finest year in the majors. He takes the mound in the top of the 1st sporting a record of eighteen wins against just two losses.

Through three innings both pitchers handcuff the other team’s batters, with both offenses managing to put just a single runner on base. Finally, in the top of the 4th New York’s bats come to life. After back-to-back walks to Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez, Matsuzaka grooves a pitch to Xavier Nady and the Yankees designated hitter sends it deep into the right field stands for a three-run homer. The next two batters single, but the Red Sox starter finally puts out the fire. Still, Mussina has been given a lead.

It’s one that he appears ready to give right back when Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz single to start the bottom of the 4th. But Mussina steadies himself and gets out of the inning on a flyout and a double play grounder. He then cruises through the 5th and uses another twin killing to erase a base runner in the 6th. While his starter has thrown just seventy-three pitches, Girardi decides to turn to the bullpen to preserve the Yankees’ lead.

The strategy nearly backfires when three relievers combine to allow a pair of Red Sox runs while only recording two outs in the 8th. With the lead down to a single run, Girardi calls on Rivera for a four-out save. He quickly ends the 8th, striking out Pedroia on three pitches. Then in the top of the 9th New York gets some breathing room when Rivera’s counterpart Jonathan Papelbon implodes. By the time Rivera takes the mound to close out the game, the lead is 6-2. Ortiz reaches on an error, but then it’s a pair of weak grounders sandwiched around a little popup, and Rivera’s thirty-ninth save of the season is in support of Mussina’s twentieth victory.

It was the career capstone for the player everyone called Moose. In announcing his retirement a short time later, Mussina acknowledged that with 270 career wins, committing to another season really meant committing to three, in order to reach 300 victories. In a career that included seventeen straight years with more than ten wins and only one losing record, he wanted no part of desperately hanging on in pursuit of a personal goal while time sapped his talent.

As for the closer teammates called Mo, he of course played on for another five years, setting records and establishing himself as the most dominant player ever at his position. Another 171 regular season saves were in his future, on the way to 652 in all. That doesn’t count forty-two in the postseason, where his 0.70 ERA is a statistical reminder of his mastery. As Derek Jeter pointed out this week, the list of men who have walked on the moon is very short, at just twelve. But that list is one longer than the list of players who have scored an earned run in the playoffs off Rivera.

Now the two are joined again, entering the Hall of Fame together, along with Edgar Martinez and the late Roy Halladay. Rivera, surely as much for his incomparable grace and humility as for his incredible talent, is the first player to be voted in unanimously; while Mussina crossed the seventy-five percent threshold with just a few votes to spare in his sixth year on the ballot.

The results are entirely fitting. Mo built a career on dominating opponents, while Moose’s time in the Great Game was filled with almosts. He almost won a World Series, almost pitched a perfect game, almost captured a Cy Young Award, and, as he laughingly said this week, almost didn’t make it into the Hall. But in the end he did, in the same year as the incomparable closer who saved his first win as a Yankee and his last. This year both the timing and the voting of the Baseball Writers Association’s members was absolutely perfect.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 20, 2019

Another Star Faces The Inevitable

By circumstance and the unfolding of events rather than by forethought or design, this space has lately seen its share of stories about the end of career arcs in several of our games. Some have been about what are likely only temporary exits – the involuntary departures of the NHL’s Joel Quenneville and the NFL’s Mike McCarthy as head coaches – and thus are really accounts of the closing of a career with a specific franchise, not truly tales of a final chapter.

Other pieces, such as those on the Mets’ trade for Robinson Cano and the Angels’ signing of free agent Matt Harvey, have highlighted the inherent risk in acquiring even a great player once he reaches a certain age; while the posts detailing the golfing exploits of Lee Westwood and Matt Kuchar have reminded us that in what is truly a sport for life greatness is still achievable at an age counted as advanced in most games.

While the Kuchar and Westwood stories evoke the eternal hope of all great athletes, most of these posts have inevitably been tinged with sadness. That was especially true of the two that were hardest to write, the chronicles of Carmelo Anthony and Andy Murray, very different young men in very different sports, both confronting the harsh truth that whether through a decline in skills or the onset of injury, no athlete has ever outraced time.

That emotion was again present when perusing this weekend’s sports headlines. There was 40-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees going from hero to goat, outplaying his far younger counterpart for most of the NFC Conference Championship, only to throw a critical interception in overtime. Brees could then only stand on the sidelines and watch as Jared Goff moved the Los Angeles Rams into position for the game winning 57-yard field goal, sending L.A. to the Super Bowl and making the 24-year-old Goff the youngest quarterback to win an NFC title game. There was 37-year-old Roger Federer, arguably the greatest men’s tennis player ever, chased from the Australian Open in the fourth round by 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas. There was 48-year-old Phil Mickelson, trying to sustain the recent magic of his two fellow forty-something golfers by going wire-to-wire at the PGA Tour’s Desert Classic, but in the end coming up one stroke short in the final round.

Then there was Lindsey Vonn. While the outcomes at the Superdome or in Melbourne or southern California may have hinted at melancholy, Brees has a contract that extends through next season, Federer will be serving again in Dubai next month, and Mickelson will next tee it up in just two weeks at the Phoenix Open. But based on her comments after failing to finish a World Cup super-G in Italy on Sunday, Vonn’s competitive career appears to be over. Arguably as important is that her performance through the weekend at Cortina d’Ampezzo provided strong evidence that at hard as it must be, it’s time for Vonn to walk away. And while there is great sadness in thinking about alpine skiing without Vonn, there is something worse – anguish – in contemplating one more star athlete attempting to remain in the spotlight for too long.

Vonn is a native of Minnesota, where her father had her on skis at the age of two. A childhood meeting with her hero Picabo Street led to a relationship that gave Vonn a valuable mentor during her early seasons on the far-flung alpine skiing tour. She made her World Cup debut in late 2000 as a 16-year-old and skied in her first Olympics in 2002. Sustained success began while she was still a teenager in 2004, when she took a silver medal in the downhill at the U.S. Championships and added her first World Cup victory in that discipline at the end of the year.

Her name became familiar to sports fans beyond the relatively few dedicated followers of alpine skiing in 2008, when she captured her first overall World Cup title, becoming the first American woman to do so in a quarter century. That fame quickly grew when the first championship was followed by another the next year, and then a third in a row in 2010. In all Vonn has won the overall championship four times, a feat matched by only one other woman skier. She also became the first American woman to win gold in the Olympic downhill with a victory at Vancouver in 2010. She’s one of just a half-dozen women to post World Cup victories across all five alpine disciplines – downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and super combined. Vonn has stood on World Cup podiums a total of one hundred thirty-seven times, and on the top step eighty-two times. That’s a record for women skiers and just four short of Ingemar Stenmark’s overall record of eighty-six World Cup victories.

In a dangerous sport where injuries are frequent, Vonn has had more than her share. At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, she was airlifted off the mountain after a horrific crash during a training run. Remarkably, despite a badly bruised hip, she returned to competition two days later. The following year an ACL sprain ended her season early. There was a cut tendon in her right hand in 2009, a broken left arm in 2010, and a concussion in 2011. Then, beginning in 2013, Vonn suffered a series of increasingly worrisome injuries to her knees and legs that kept her off the slopes for long periods. Yet every time she pushed herself through difficult rehabs and returned to competition, always with one eye on Stenmark’s record.

Last October Vonn announced that she would retire at the end of this season, although she still hoped that moment would come after at least four more victories. But following that announcement her return to racing was delayed by yet one more knee injury. Finally came this weekend at Cortina d’Ampezzo, where Vonn has won a record twelve times. But in Friday’s first downhill she finished 15th, and in a second downhill race on Saturday she could only improve to 9th. Then on Sunday came the super-G. Halfway down the course Vonn clipped a gate. Thrown slightly off-line, she couldn’t apply enough pressure on her right leg to get back on track. When Vonn failed to clear the next gate, she was out of the race. Met at the bottom by long-time rival and now close friend, the reigning Olympic downhill champion Sofia Goggia, Vonn broke into tears.

Fans saw that racing with braces on both knees means Vonn no longer has the power and strength needed in her lower body to contend for a spot on the podium. Shortly after her embrace with Goggia, Vonn acknowledged as much, telling reporters that she might retire immediately. She qualified that by acknowledging her emotional state, adding “I’ll let you guys know.” But the evidence on a mountain that has long been Vonn’s friend was plain. For the sake of both her health and her legacy, fans should hope that after taking time to think it over, her head will agree with Lindsey Vonn’s heart.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 17, 2019

Matt Kuchar’s Second Act Is A Great One

It was just two months ago that this space was devoted to a pair of forty-something professional golfers who broke long victory droughts on the PGA and European Tours on the same Sunday. By sheer coincidence, both Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood had recorded his previous win on their respective home Tour on the same day more than four and one-half years earlier. At the time it felt like the fluke timing presented an opportunity to highlight a pair of greatly accomplished golfers, each of whom ranks very high on the dreaded list of “best who have never won a major.” It was easy to think of both Kuchar and Westwood as players entering the latter stage of their competitive careers on the regular tour, each perhaps turning at least one eye to some years hence when he turns fifty and can start competing with the seemingly ageless Bernhard Langer on the very lucrative Champions Tour.

But at least for his part Kuchar made it plain last Sunday that he isn’t just waiting around to start his second act on the senior tour. Rising above a predictably fast but dubiously factual Twitter furor over an unsourced claim that he stiffed the local caddie who was on his bag when he seized control of the Mayakoba Golf Classic right out of the gate in November, Kuchar came close to doing the same thing (owning the tournament from the start, not purportedly dissing his looper) at Waialea Country Club on the outskirts of Honolulu, site of the Sony Open in Hawaii. While the PGA Tour’s wraparound season started last October, the Sony, played on the nearly century-old Seth Raynor layout bordered by palm trees and the blue Pacific has long been the first full-field event of every calendar year.

Having suffered through a miserable 2018 campaign, Kuchar didn’t come close to qualifying for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, played the previous week on Maui and limited to tournament winners from the prior season. But that didn’t stop him from committing to the Sony, in part because he and his family, like pretty much everyone else who’s ever been there, love spending time in Hawaii. So there he was teeing it up on Thursday, and promptly posting a 7-under 63, only two shots adrift of first round leader Adam Svensson and one back of Andrew Putnam. One day later he matched that number despite recording his first bogey of the tournament, the only blemish on his card until Sunday’s final round. Kuchar’s 14-under total moved him into the lead, one clear of Putnam at the Sony’s midpoint.

A 4-under par 66 on Saturday extended his lead to two over the 29-year-old Putnam and four over fellow veteran Chez Reavie and 27-year-old Keith Mitchell, whose 63 was tied for the best round of the day. Like every other sport the PGA Tour has tilted younger in recent years, with seven of the top ten players in this week’s world rankings under the age of 30. Thus it would have been no surprise, indeed almost expected, if Putnam or Mitchell had gone low on Sunday to wrest the tournament from Kuchar’s grasp; despite the reality that between them the pair have but a single PGA Tour win – Putnam’s victory at last summer’s Reno-Tahoe Open – compared to Kuchar’s eight Tour wins and $45 million in career earnings.

Perhaps the thought of something like that happening, or just sheer incredulity at the prospect of winning for the second time in just his third start of the season, got to Kuchar’s 40-year-old nerves at the start of Sunday’s final round. Whatever the cause, after bogeying just one hole through the first fifty-four, he was over par on three of the first five holes. It was a start bad enough to erase his lead and leave him one behind playing partner Putnam. He was in danger of drifting another shot further away on the par-5 9th after playing an indifferent third shot from a greenside bunker while Putnam had a tap-in birdie. But Kuchar holed his ten-footer to match Putnam’s score, and that putt may well have been the turning point of the entire tournament.

His energy renewed, Kuchar holed putt after putt on the inward nine, recording five more birdies to pass Putnam and pull away from the entire field. His final birdie putt on the 18th sealed a four-shot victory and fell into the cup under a picturesque rainbow high above Oahu. Kuchar described the idyllic scene as “a special kind of magical moment.”

For the winner it was surely that, but for golf fans it was also a reminder that perhaps alone among our games golf is a sport where age alone does not determine greatness. There are of course individuals in every sport who excel long after most of their peers have retired. But when Tom Brady and Drew Brees take the field this weekend in the NFL’s Conference Championship games, they will be decided outliers.

Yet even as golf skews younger, there is still plenty of room for a veteran to become a central part of the sport’s conversation, not just for a weekend or two, but for an entire season. Matt Kuchar is now assured of having a tee time at next year’s Tournament of Champions, and at this admittedly early stage of the season he sits in second place in the FedEx Cup standings, his ticket not just to the Playoffs but all the way to the Tour Championship already almost certainly punched. Not bad for a golfer who just two short months ago looked to have become just one more victim of the ultimate enemy of every athlete – time.

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