Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 22, 2020

Ideas For Change – Good, Bad, And Dreadful

In just a few days – by the middle of next week at the latest, and possibly as soon as Sunday night – the strangest baseball season ever will be over. Sports fans in one of two cities will celebrate their second championship of this pandemic year. Either the Dodgers will join the NBA’s Lakers in bringing a title to the people of L.A., or the Rays will match the Stanley Cup won so recently by the Lightning to the delight of the faithful in Tampa. Either way, fans of the Great Game on one coast will finally end a long, long period in the baseball wilderness. It was 1988 and a World Series forever remembered for Kirk Gibson’s Game 1 home run sailing into the right field seats at Dodger Stadium as the rear lights of an unlucky fan who left too soon glowed in the parking lot beyond the stands, when the Dodgers last captured a title. And while the wait at Tropicana Field has been a decade shorter, that’s only because the Rays, one of six franchises to have never won a Series, didn’t come into existence until 1998.

Even as the two World Series contestants battle it out in what is now a best-of-five, fans of other teams have already begun the annual ritual of speculating on the changes that the coming offseason will bring to the roster of their favorite club. The guessing game is even more fraught than usual this year, with the losses incurred by owners during an abbreviated season played without fans in the stands certain to impact the budgetary decisions of every franchise. The vitality of the free agent market and the willingness of clubs to actively engage in trade discussions will surely be affected, but the extent of a financial pullback remains unknown.

But this year other potential changes await beyond the usual ones involving the movement of players. The just concluded shortest season was played with a variety of different rules, and now MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, team owners, and in some cases the Players Association as well, must decide which of the alterations to a game that typically changes only slowly will morph from one-time, pandemic-induced experiment to permanent shift in how the Great Game is played.

The easiest bet is that the number of at-bats taken by National League pitchers will henceforth be counted on one hand, even under a full 162-game schedule. The application of the designated hitter rule to both leagues has been coming for years, and now that it’s in place the likelihood of the DH being dislodged is negligible. Less certain are the futures of expanded rosters and the gimmick of starting extra innings with runners on second. The latter has its boosters, including Manfred, but it seems fair to ask if placing a base runner halfway to home in every extra frame is an improvement, why was this 2020 rule change abandoned for the most consequential games of the year, those played in the postseason?

Then there is the very structure of the playoffs, which were expanded this year to include more than half of big league teams. Here too, the commissioner has expressed his fondness for a postseason field larger than the three division winners plus two Wild Cards that have qualified for each league’s bracket since 2012. Manfred’s giddy support, coupled with the lure of television revenue from more postseason play, may well be enough to make expanded playoffs inevitable, despite the fact that some of the first round contests this year had ratings no better than those of a regional cable network broadcasting a weekend series between division rivals during the regular season.

Hopefully, the eventual structure of baseball’s season-ending tournament will at least be more carefully thought out than this year’s wide-open free for all. For sports’ longest season to remain meaningful, for fans to want to continue to head to the ballpark in April and June and August, the standings that result from all those games must be rewarded. Giving more than half of all clubs a ticket to October greatly lessens the value of striving for many months to win a division, and, as shown in this short season, it opens the door to clubs that can’t even manage to post a winning record during regular season play finding themselves just a two-week hot streak away from playing for the Great Game’s ultimate glory.

But the worst idea of all has been advanced by player agent Scott Boras, never one to be shy with unsolicited advice. As all fans know, after the opening round, this year’s playoffs were staged at neutral sites, with the American League bracket contested at the two southern California ballparks normally home to NL franchises, while the two AL stadiums in Texas were used for the National League division and league championship series, with the Rangers new ballpark also hosting the World Series. Now Boras, who first made the suggestion privately to commissioner Bud Selig more than a decade ago, has publicly proposed making a neutral site World Series a permanent fixture of the Great Game.

This season’s setup was designed to limit travel and make it possible to play the DS and LCS without days off, both goals occasioned by the pandemic. But Boras envisions a week-long World Series extravaganza, replete with corporate parties, major entertainment, and assorted other diversions, presumably with some baseball games squeezed in for anyone who might be interested. His model is of course the Super Bowl. But from its first staging, before it had been given its superlative name, the NFL’s season-ending contest has always been played at a neutral site. So football fans have never been told, as Boras would happily tell baseball partisans, that they must sacrifice the chance to see their team play for a title on their home field for the greater good of corporate sponsors and momentary fans who arrive on private jets. And the super-agent’s grand vision ignores the minor detail that the Super Bowl is one game – the clearly defined climax – while the World Series can be anywhere from four to seven. How appealing will those grand shindigs scheduled for the end of the week be if the two teams that are supposedly the center of attention have already finished their business and headed home, one to lick its wounds and the other to plan a parade?

It’s an old idea, one that Scott Boras would no doubt have trouble grasping, though that does nothing to diminish its validity. Sometimes, less is more.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 18, 2020

For One Night, Almost Everyone Was A Rays Fan

Wow, that was a close one, wasn’t it, Rob Manfred? When the baseball commissioner pushed for an expanded field in the 2020 playoffs as a way to generate more television revenue and help mitigate the losses inflicted on all thirty franchises by the pandemic-shortened regular season without fans in ballparks, having one of the World Series contestants be a team that couldn’t manage a winning record over the sixty-game schedule surely wasn’t part of the plan. Nor could having every game of the Fall Classic be a reminder to viewers of the Houston Astros cheating scandal that was the major story of the last offseason be a result that Manfred, who would very much like to put that debacle in the rear view mirror, would have welcomed. But as the American League Championship Series gradually stretched to its full potential of seven games, that undesirable outcome appeared more and more likely.

Such a dire result, which would have hardened sentiment against Manfred pretty much everywhere beyond the 713 area code, seemed quite remote early in the series. For three games the Tampa Bay Rays, fresh off their vanquishing of AL East rival New York in the ALDS, continued their winning ways with victories over Houston. It was the Astros, of course, who were the not entirely welcome guests at Manfred’s contrived postseason party. By expanding the field for the playoffs from five to eight teams in each league, the plan gave not just the winner but also the second place club in each division a ticket to the postseason irrespective of its record, as well as two other teams with the next best records among those not already qualified.

But opening the Great Game’s tournament to more than half of major league franchises greatly increased the possibility that a team would slip in despite having a losing record. That proved true in the National League, where the Milwaukee Brewers gave new meaning to the term “next best record” by qualifying as the eighth and last seed with 29 wins against 31 losses. And it happened in the American League as well, where the AL West turned out to be Oakland and everyone else. The A’s finished 36-24 to win the division with ease since no other club managed to climb above .500. Among the Astros, Mariners, Angels, and Rangers, Houston was the least bad, completing the regular schedule two games under water at 29-31. Second place is second place though, and in this season that was sufficient to advance to the playoffs.

Under the playoff structure and 162-game schedule of any other season, equivalent results would have left the Astros missing the postseason by 16 games, also known as a country mile. In 2020 it meant they were headed off to Minnesota for a first-round best-of-three series against the AL Central winning Twins. Interestingly, Houston’s regular season record was produced by dominance at Minute Maid Park, where the team finished 20-8, more than offset by an abysmal performance on the road, where the Astros record was 9-23, the largest home versus away differential in the majors. Hopefully, the coming offseason will be free of any headlines revealing that this statistic is anything more than interesting.

Houston’s road woes led some pundits to predict an early exit against the Twins, but Minnesota has won exactly one postseason series since its championship season of 1991, and entered the playoffs having not won so much as a game in the postseason since 2004, a streak of sixteen straight losses. Soon enough the streak was eighteen, and the Astros were on to face the A’s in the ALDS. Oakland’s postseason travails rival those of the Twins, with the A’s defeat of the White Sox in the Wild Card round the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2006, when Oakland had the good fortune to play Minnesota. So perhaps the continuation of the Athletics’ October torment should have been expected, with Houston advancing to the ALCS three games to one.

With a 40-20 regular season record, second in the big leagues only to the Dodgers, and defeat of the Yankees in five games in the ALDS, Tampa Bay appeared to be a more formidable opponent. Rays’ victories in three straight low-scoring contests confirmed that. Then in Game 4, Astros manager Dusty Baker went to the mound in the 6th inning, intent on removing starter Zack Greinke. But the Astros were ahead 4-2, and Greinke made it plain he wasn’t ready to leave. That convinced Baker to leave his star pitcher in, and left pundits applauding the “old school” move when Houston went on to victory. One night later the Astros started and ended the game with home runs, a leadoff by George Springer and a walkoff by Carlos Correa. Then Houston built a big lead in the middle innings of Game 6, and suddenly all the stories were about Boston’s 2004 comeback against New York, the only time a team has rallied from a 3-0 deficit.

Despite the losing regular season record and the cheating scandal, the Astros are an elite team, even after the loss of two pillars of the starting rotation – Gerrit Cole to free agency and Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery. Indeed, the collective talent of the Astros has always made their reliance on the combination high tech and low comedy sign stealing employed during their 2017 championship run so perplexing. But it is also true that the scandal remains fresh in the minds of fans, all the more so because the strictures of this season meant the faithful of opposing teams didn’t have the chance to vent their anger with boos and catcalls when the Astros came to town.

That’s why Tim Kanter, a transplanted White Sox fan working for a software company in San Diego with an office overlooking Petco Park, became a hero to many when he used a megaphone that was easily heard on the field to call out Astros players by name during Game 4. Kanter also denounced Manfred, saying “We condemn Rob Manfred’s unwillingness to hold players accountable for bringing shame to our beautiful sport. Remember, cheating is wrong. Please do not cheat.”

Despite Kanter’s efforts, the Astros went from the brink of being swept to the edge of history, before the Rays came to the rescue of fans everywhere – well, everywhere except the Gulf Coast of Texas – Saturday evening. If Dusty Baker won by making an old school move in Game 4, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash prevailed by sticking to the Rays’ reliance on modern metrics in Game 7. Starter Charlie Morton had been brilliant, but in the 6th inning he was about to go through the Astros batting order for the third time. That was the signal for Cash to go to his bullpen, and he did so without hesitation. Tampa Bay 4, Houston 2. The Rays are in the World Series. The Astros are going home, where, for now, they belong.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 15, 2020

LeBron James, King Of The NBA’s Bubble

To a casual fan the result must have seemed preordained. Hadn’t the Los Angeles Lakers been the favorite to win the franchise’s seventeenth NBA championship since the day LeBron James arrived from Cleveland two summers ago? Yes, King James’s first season in purple and gold had been a disappointment, thanks to a combination of injuries to L.A.’s new superstar and the presence of a hodgepodge supporting cast. But during the offseason the Lakers traded three members of that crew plus three first-round draft picks to New Orleans in exchange for Anthony Davis. James signaled his approval of the reshaped roster and newly installed head coach Frank Vogel by volunteering to move to point guard. Then he led the Lakers to a 17-2 start last autumn, a record that matched the best ever beginning by the club. By early March, L.A. was comfortably ensconced atop the Western Conference standings, headed for a sixty-plus win season, and looking toward the playoffs.

Then the world changed. The NBA was the first major North American sports league to suspend play in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the initial temporary stoppage of the schedule lengthened from a few days to several weeks to multiple months, the central question for basketball fans wasn’t whether a NBA Finals between Los Angeles and Milwaukee was inevitable but if and how the season could possibly resume.

That it did is a testament to commissioner Adam Silver’s tenacity and daring. Faced with a national health emergency that wasn’t going to end anytime soon, Silver convinced both twenty-nine out of thirty team owners and Michelle Roberts, the head of the players association, to sign on to a plan to invite some but not all teams to Disney World for a limited number of regular season games followed by a full playoff schedule, all conducted in a tightly controlled environment. That the plan worked, with the NBA’s bubble keeping the coronavirus at bay from the day teams reported in early July through the Lakers’ title-clinching 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat last Sunday is a result made of equal parts “extraordinary sacrifices by everyone involved” and “a bit of luck, too,” to borrow Silver’s own words.

The successful completion of the league’s season, and that of the WNBA, which five days earlier crowned Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, and the rest of the Seattle Storm as champions in a similar environment two hours west of Orlando, proves both the wisdom and limits of the bubble approach. With strict limits on access and frequent testing of everyone admitted in, from team personnel to officiating crews to members of the media, a bubble can remained sealed. But the necessarily strict nature of those requirements effectively imposed a low ceiling on the number of participants. That was easiest for the WNBA, which is only a twelve-team league. But for the NBA it led to Silver’s arbitrary cutoff at teams within six games of a playoff spot in the standings when play was suspended. In similar fashion, the NHL, which completed its playoffs in a pair of closed environments in Toronto and Edmonton, reduced its guest list by simply declaring the suspended regular season over and proceeding directly to the Stanley Cup tournament, albeit with a few more teams than usual skating in a preliminary round.

The decisions to curtail the regular seasons of the NBA and NHL were made easier by some of Silver’s “bit of luck.” The timing of the pandemic’s onset meant that both leagues were well along in their normal schedules. While purists will wonder aloud what might have happened if a full eighty-two game slate had been played, the average of sixty-five basketball contests and seventy hockey games completed by teams at the time play was paused seems like enough to make the standings legitimate. And it is simply a convenient fact, but a critically important one to the success of all three bubbles, that basketball and hockey rosters are relatively small.

Those two factors alone foreclosed talk of bubbles for either MLB or the NFL. Baseball rosters, and especially those of football teams, are far larger, drastically increasing the number of individuals who would have to undergo months of quarantine. And it would indeed be many months, since baseball was still in spring training when games were suspended, and NFL training camps were still on the far horizon. As it is, fans of the Great Game will surely long argue about the legitimacy of a regular season that was ultimately limited to just sixty games, little more than one-third its normal length.

The validity of the Lakers title, which ties the franchise with its long-time rival in Boston for the most won by a NBA club, is unlikely to be debated, both for the reasons outlined above and because, as noted at the start, L.A. was always regarded as one of the league’s top contenders for this season’s championship. Still, despite what the casual fan might think, victory for James and company was far from automatic.

Apart from all the hurdles to even completing the season thrown up by the pandemic, the Lakers weathered a controversy over pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong while on a preseason trip to China, an episode the usually politically adroit James badly mishandled. They overcame a second stoppage in play and a strong desire on the part of many players to abandon the bubble in response to the widespread demonstrations for social justice and civil rights across the country. And of course, the Lakers endured the most shocking calamity of all, the sudden death of former great Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, among nine people killed in a helicopter crash on January 26th. All that on top of the always dicey nature of short postseason series, in which the odds are far more even than the regular season standings might lead one to believe – a lesson the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics both learned the hard way while in the Disney World bubble.

Still, fans inevitably want an issue to debate, and even as the Lakers were pulling away from the Heat in Game 6, their championship just a matter of running out the clock, this year’s argument was crystalizing in a flurry of social media posts from NBA followers. With his fourth title and fourth Finals MVP Award, James still has two less rings and trophies than Michael Jordan. But James has shown a resiliency that Jordan never had to during his glory years with the Bulls, for James has now carried three different franchises to the NBA’s peak. So, which of the two is the greatest of all time? Discuss amongst yourselves, for the next ten or twenty years.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 11, 2020

Whitey Ford Would Not Be Happy

Eras pass. Memories fade. These are the inexorable realities of time’s unyielding march. Yet in sports, as in life, history matters. It is why the subject has produced an assortment of aphorisms. We are told of the heavy price of failing to learn from history, and that military strategists generally fail to do so. Sports teams may focus on the present, sometimes to the extreme of dismissing past accomplishment as so much old news. And of course, player movement among franchises is now the norm, with the occasional athlete who wears a single uniform throughout his or her career the rare and notable exception. But for fans, many of whom remain faithful to a team for life, the previous chapters of their favorite squad’s story are integral components of their allegiance. It is a certainty that puts the lie to the old Seinfeld joke about rooting for laundry, and it’s why the lifting of the Commissioner’s Trophy by the Cubs in 2016 or the Red Sox in 2004 were both about so much more than a single championship season.

The importance of history was top of mind this week for fans of the New York Yankees, when in the space of twenty-four hours came word of the death of Whitey Ford, followed by the ending of the team’s 2020 season, as every campaign has for more than a decade, short of the World Series.

The future Hall of Famer was introduced as Eddie Ford on July 1, 1950, when he first pitched in a Yankees uniform. The 21-year-old was called upon for long relief when New York starter Tommy Byrne was shelled by the Boston Red Sox, recording just four outs. Ford didn’t fare a lot better through 4 2/3 innings of work, but soon enough he began to perfect his craft. He recorded his first major league victory a little over two weeks later, starting against the White Sox at the old Stadium, and ran off nine straight wins that year before finally taking a loss. He also secured his first World Series victory, throwing 8 2/3 innings of shutout ball against the Phillies in Game 4 of the Yankees’ sweep, before an error allowed Philadelphia to plate two unearned runs.

Two years of military service followed, but when Ford returned in 1953, he quickly became the foundation on which the Yankees starting rotation was built. By then he was also firmly and forever established as Whitey, a nickname first bestowed on the sandy-haired left-hander while in the minors. In a career that lasted until 1967, he set numerous team records, several of which still stand, including career wins with 236 and shutouts with 45. As good as he was during the regular season, like many of the Yankees of that time Ford seemed built for the World Series. More than half a century after he last threw a pitch in the Fall Classic, Ford is still the pitcher with the most career Series wins (10) and strikeouts (94), and his 33 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in World Series games remains unmatched. For New York fans the most important number associated with Ford is six, for the number of titles won while he was on the roster.

His family reported that Ford, who would have turned 92 later this month, passed away with the Yankees’ Division Series game against the Tampa Bay Rays on the television in his room. In that case, at least his old team won the final game Whitey ever saw. But one night later the Yankees wasted a fine pitching effort on short rest by Gerrit Cole, losing the decisive Game 5 when, for the second season in a row, closer Aroldis Chapman surrendered a series-clinching home run.

By the standards of many franchises, New York has been quite successful since winning the team’s twenty-seventh championship in 2009. No club won more games in the ten-year period from 2010 through 2019, and in seven of those years the Yankees qualified for the playoffs. But anyone with an appreciation of history knows that expectations in the Bronx are different. Just like 2020’s, each of those trips to the postseason tournament ended prior to the World Series. This from a franchise that when it advanced to the 105th Series in 2009 was the American League’s representative for an astonishing 40th time.

It’s tempting to cite the difficulty of building a dynasty as the Great Game is currently structured, given the tilt toward parity brought on by revenue sharing and the randomness generated by the multiple levels of short series that now comprise the playoffs. That view is supported by the truth that no team has won back-to-back titles since the Yankees captured three in a row and four in five years between 1996 and 2000. But it is also true that during New York’s prolonged absence seven teams have made multiple trips to the Series, and two of those clubs – the Dodgers and Astros – are still playing this year. Even the small market Kansas City Royals have appeared twice in the final round of baseball’s postseason since the last time the Yankees participated.

Winter has once again come early to the Bronx, and with it a host of questions. This New York squad was deep in talent on paper, but underperformed on the field, finishing the absurdly short season seven games adrift of Tampa Bay in the AL East before its ALDS collapse. Sportswriters in Gotham are already speculating on what moves GM Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone will make in the offseason. But the first question should be whether those two are the ones to be making them.

Over the years Cashman has often not gotten the credit he deserved as a general manager. But both this season and last he stood pat at the trade deadline, declaring the demands of other teams for parts the Yankees clearly needed to be too high. The obvious question is, how did that work out? As for Boone, his moves during the ALDS, from his ham-handed handling of the pitching arrangement in Game 2 to asking Chapman for a seven-out close in Game 5, were shockingly bad.

History matters, and the history of the Yankees is about winning and competing for titles. The team’s fans understand that, and Whitey Ford proved throughout his career that he certainly did. Whether Hal Steinbrenner, Brian Cashman, and Aaron Boone still do is very much an open question.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 8, 2020

Book Review: The Babe Makes His Moment

When the final out was recorded in the last of four Division Series games played Wednesday, a total of twenty-eight contests had been completed in the Great Game’s 2020 postseason. While that number is inflated by MLB’s ill-advised money grab of an expanded playoff field, it still left the potential of as many or more matchups still to be played, in the admittedly unlikely event that almost every series in the current and remaining rounds played to its maximum number of games. It’s been more than half a century since divisional play was introduced in 1969 and with it, the inaugural League Championship Series in both the NL and AL. Fans have long since grown used to the multiple levels and multitude of games in the modern playoffs. But for an even longer period of time – more than six decades – baseball’s regular season led directly to the World Series, so some years the Great Game’s entire postseason was over in what seemed like less time than it now takes to explain which teams get into the Wild Card round.

That was the case in the 1932 Series, when the New York Yankees dispatched the Chicago Cubs in four straight, winning 12-6 and 5-2 in the Bronx before traveling by train to Wrigley Field and taking two more, 7-5 and 13-6. Even with all that scoring, the entire World Series was played in eight hours and forty-five minutes, or about the same game time as a modern-day contest between the Yankees and Red Sox at Fenway Park.

But history is made of moments, and that compact Fall Classic remains more memorable than some seven-game Series at the end of a lengthy postseason trail because of a single at-bat in Game 3. Almost nine decades later, Thomas Wolf has now given readers “The Called Shot,” placing one of Babe Ruth’s most historic trips to the plate in the context of its time.

The Cubs had taken early leads in both the first two games at Yankee Stadium, only to be overwhelmed by New York’s bats. Now, in Chicago, Game 3 had reached the top of the 5th inning. An overflow crowd showed up early to Wrigley that Saturday afternoon, filling not just the regular stands but also temporary seating that had been erected beyond the outfield bleachers hours before the scheduled first pitch. They came to see Yankee heroes Ruth and Lou Gehrig take batting practice, and the two did not disappoint. New York’s first baseman launched seven balls into the stands, only to be outdone by the Babe, who hit nine practice homers. Once the game started Ruth added a round tripper that counted in his first at-bat, flipping the script of Games 1 and 2 by putting the Yankees on the board first, 3-0. Gehrig matched him with a solo shot in the 4th, but the home team chipped away and by the top of the 5th the score was tied, 4-4. Ruth was due up second for the visitors from the Bronx.

Many pages before his narrative of what happened when the Bambino stepped into the batter’s box, Wolf begins “The Called Shot” with Ruth’s previous World Series in Chicago. That was in 1918, when the 23-year-old left-hander was one of the best pitchers in baseball, the ace of the Boston Red Sox. As he would be more than a decade later, Ruth was the dominant figure of the 1918 World Series. He shut out the Cubs on five hits in Game 1, which was played at Comiskey Park because it had more seats than the Cubs’ home, then known by its original name, Weeghman Park. He then tossed another seven scoreless innings in Game 4, before finally yielding a pair of runs and finishing the Series, won by Boston in five games, with a 2-0 record and ERA of 1.06.

Wolf follows the fortunes of both the Cubs and Ruth over the intervening years until their next meeting but focuses much of the book on the 1932 season. It was a campaign played against a backdrop of the Great Depression, a bitterly contested presidential election, the waning days of Prohibition, and the aftermath of the recently convicted Al Capone’s rule of the Chicago underworld. Wolf reaches beyond a mere accounting of wins and losses and movement in the standings to weave the story of a single season into all those events.

It was a tumultuous time in the country, and the Great Game reflected that atmosphere. There were frequent fisticuffs on the field, emblematic of the general tension across the land. Teams that were preseason favorites disappointed their fans, who dealt daily with a rising tide of economic disappointment. But baseball also served as a refuge and source of hope for many, especially young fans. Wolf chronicles several, including some who would grow into well-known adults, such as author Bernard Malamud and Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens. And it was not just the back alleys and speakeasys of Chicago where violence lurked, as readers are reminded by Wolf’s account of the midseason shooting of Cubs infielder Billy Jurges by a spurned lover, a true story that may have found its way into Malamud’s debut novel “The Natural.”

Whether Malamud was inspired by the Jurges shooting or that of the Phillies’ Eddie Waitkus, also by a jilted fan and also in Chicago, though nearly twenty years later, has never been definitively settled. That makes the Pulitzer Prize winner a fitting bit player in Wolf’s book, since the central event is one that may or may not have happened. Did Ruth call his shot in Game 3 by pointing to the center field seats just before blasting a long home run in that direction, a drive that sent the Yankees on their way to victory? Fans and pundits have debated what happened on that Saturday afternoon almost since the moment Ruth’s homer left the park.

Wolf doesn’t weigh in with his own opinion, though the contemporary accounts he cites, from fans in the park like the future Justice Stevens to several newspaper reports of the game, tilt toward the affirmative. But the author grasps that provable truth has long since given way to legend. Ruth’s called shot is part of the Great Game’s lore, one of the last larger than life moments by the greatest ballplayer ever, then nearing the end of his career. Like the presidential campaign of Franklin Roosevelt, who was also in the stands that day, it was audacious and powerful, a welcome tonic when hard and bitter times had many Americans feeling timid and weak. For that alone Ruth’s final World Series home run is worth remembering all these decades later, just as Thomas Wolf’s account of a remarkable season in the Great Game’s long story is worth reading.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 4, 2020

Making The Most Of An Unexpected Opportunity

To longtime horse racing fans, the name no doubt rang a bell. As the horses and jockeys in the field of eleven for Saturday’s long-delayed running of the Preakness Stakes were introduced during the post parade, the rider on Swiss Skydiver, the sole filly in the race, surely caused some fans to wonder aloud, “where has he been?” For Robby Albarado, the answer of late would have been riding whatever mounts he could find at little, largely forgotten tracks, like Turfway Park and Indiana Grand. Both are located deep in horse country, little more than ninety minute drives from Churchill Downs. But they are more like ninety light years from the glitz and glory of the Triple Crown that in normal years begins at Churchill in May before continuing on to the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, or any of the other races that comprise what little is left of big-time thoroughbred racing in the United States.

Still, the familiarity of Albarado’s name was proof of another, earlier phase in the career of the 47-year-old veteran jockey. He was born in Louisiana to a racing family, his father riding at little tracks in the deep south. Albarado started riding at a young age and was just sixteen when he scored his first professional victory, guiding a long-forgotten horse named One Little Point around the one-mile oval at Evangeline Downs in Opelousas, Louisiana. He could have followed the path of so many in his chosen profession, eking out a living by moving from one small track to another as the season progressed, but his talent started to be recognized by trainers and owners. He won his first graded stakes race in 1995, five years after turning pro, and his first Grade I event three years later, capturing the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs aboard Joyeux Danseur.

But later in 1998 he suffered the first in a series of serious injuries that have repeatedly threatened his career. Riding accidents resulted in skull fractures both that season and the next, requiring major surgery. Over the years since there have been broken bones, dislocated joints, and a host of lesser issues that cost Albarado long stretches of time. Yet like so many others in an athletic profession that is far more dangerous than fans like to admit, he was always eager to get back up on his next mount as soon as he was able.

In 2007 trainer Steve Asmussen gave Albarado the mount on Curlin, a promising three-year-old who had gone unraced at age two and been sold to new owners after a dominating maiden win at Gulfstream Park. Albarado rode Curlin into thoroughbred history, coming back to win the Preakness after running third in the Derby, then capturing the Breeders Cup Classic that fall. Curlin was named 2007 Horse of the Year, then repeated the feat in 2008 after continuing to campaign, with Albarado aboard, as a four-year-old. By then time he was retired to stud, Curlin had earned more than $10.5 million, a record amount at that time for thoroughbred career winnings.

Albarado has lost none of his desire and little of his ability in the years since, as attested by a long list of wins. But the injuries also continued to pile up. Most notably, in 2011 he was forced to relinquish the reins of Animal Kingdom shortly before the Derby, only to watch as replacement rider John Velazquez guided Albarado’s former mount to victory and a blanket of roses. Little by little, Albarado slid down the jockey rankings, and the calls from leading trainers to ride the top horses in the sport’s premier events grew fewer and fewer.

Then along came 2020, and like so many other sports horse racing saw its calendar upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Preakness was moved from the third Saturday in May to the first weekend in October, becoming not the second Triple Crown race but the last. When Peter Callahan, the owner of Swiss Skydiver opted to have the filly compete against ten colts, trainer Ken McPeek had to find a jockey. The filly’s regular rider, Tyler Gaffalione, was committed to ride at Keeneland on the same day as the rescheduled Preakness. McPeek first approached Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who had guided Swiss Skydiver to a June victory in the Santa Anita Oaks. But Smith was also unavailable, so the trainer turned to his third choice, knowing that Albarado had ridden horses in his stable to the winner’s circle in the past.

So it was that three years after his last victory in a Grade I stakes race, Albarado eased Swiss Skydiver into the number four stall of Pimlico’s starting gate at about quarter to six Saturday afternoon. The filly sprang from the gate and was among the leaders as the field raced by the virtually empty stands for the first time. Albarado guided his horse to the rail, and that’s where Swiss Skydiver stayed, always within two or three lengths of the lead, as the horses moved to the back stretch and favorite Authentic rode to the front. Then, midway to the far turn, Albarado shifted out one lane and raced between horses, positioning himself just behind Authentic. He then drove Swiss Skydiver back to the rail, inside of the leader and with clear running room ahead. “An early move now,” exclaimed announcer Larry Collmus, “Swiss Skydiver has come through on the inside of Authentic! And the two of them are now matching strides as they race for the far turn!”

By the time they came around that turn and began the final sprint down the home stretch, Swiss Skydiver had moved in front. But Authentic and Velazquez weren’t quitting. The favorite and the filly pulled away from the rest of the field, racing neck and neck to the wire. Velazquez and his mount did their best to overtake Swiss Skydiver, but Albarado kept his horse in front, crossing the wire in first place by a head. Swiss Skydiver had come from behind to be just the sixth filly to win the Preakness, and the first since Rachel Alexandra in 2009. And Robby Albarado, he had come from out of nowhere as well, all the way back to the peak of his sport.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 1, 2020

More Misery For Minnesota

The final days of September brought no shortage of positive sports stories, highlighting the thrill of victory and the human drama of athletic competition, to borrow from the old intro to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. There was the victory by the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, allowing veteran winger Steven Stamkos, sidelined by injury for all but three minutes of the playoffs, to become the first team captain in half a century to lift the Cup without actually playing in the decisive game. There was the improbable advance to the NBA Finals of the Miami Heat, who outplayed the Boston Celtics to capture the Eastern Conference crown and earn a date with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. There was even the return to the winner’s circle on the PGA Tour of journeyman Hudson Swafford, who won the Tour’s stop in the Dominican Republic after losing the better part of two years to a foot injury.

Then there were the two baseball games at Target Field in Minneapolis. If all the above represented the thrill of victory, fans had only to look to the North Country to witness the agony of defeat. Once upon a very long time ago, the Minnesota Twins were born a thousand miles to the east as the Washington Senators, one of the American League’s eight charter franchises. For most of the team’s time in the nation’s capital, from its founding in 1901 until owner Calvin Griffith relocated the club to Minneapolis six decades later, the Senators were the doormat of the AL.

There were some better seasons in the 1910s and 20s, a period largely aligned with the career of right-hander Walter Johnson. A member of the original class of inductees into Cooperstown, Big Train Johnson won 417 games over twenty-one years in a Senators’ uniform, striking out more than 3,500 batters along the way. Washington made two World Series appearances with Johnson on the roster, winning the franchise’s only title while in DC in 1924. There was a third trip to the Fall Classic nine years later, then the Senators returned to more familiar territory at the other end of the standings, eventually spawning the taunt that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

The move to the Midwest did the newly rechristened Twins a world of good. In 1962, just the team’s second in Minnesota, the Twins won 91 games. Three seasons later their win total climbed to 102, good enough for a return to the Series, where they came up just short against Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers. At least the Twins were no longer perennial losers. A procession of stars, from Harmon Killebrew to Tony Olivia to Rod Carew to Jack Morris, produced winning seasons and eventually a pair of titles, in 1987 and 1991.

Regular season success has for the most part continued into this century. Led by a string of capable managers, first Ron Gardenhire from 2002 to 2014, then Paul Molitor for four years and now Rocco Baldelli for the last two, the Twins have won more than they’ve lost and made nine trips to the postseason since 2002, making the playoffs at a rate of about every other year.

But in the Twin Cities October, not April, is the cruelest month. Beginning with a 2006 American League Division Series matchup against the Oakland Athletics, Minnesota has compiled a woeful record in the postseason. That year the Twins did not merely lose to the A’s. That would have been bad enough for the Minnesota faithful, extending a streak that began in 2002, when after getting by the same Oakland team in the ALDS, the Twins fell to the Angels in the League Championship Series, four games to one. That was followed by mirror image Division Series losses the next two seasons, both to the Yankees and both by three games to one. At least those early playoff exits came after the Twins had managed to win a game in the series. In 2006, Minnesota didn’t come close. The A’s dispatched the Twins in three straight while never once trailing for so much as half an inning.

Those three losses were followed by three more in the 2009 ALCS, when the Twins were once again matched up against New York. The next season brought the same result, skunked by the Yankees in the Division round, three games to none. Then in the 2017 Wild Card Game, despite once again facing their nemesis in the Bronx, it appeared early on that fate was finally going to smile on the Twins. Minnesota took a quick 3-0 lead over New York in the top of the 1st inning, chasing a clearly nervous Luis Severino off the mound with just a single out. But Didi Gregorius answered for the home team in the bottom of the frame, blasting a three-run homer to right to tie the score. Soon enough, the Twins were behind, on their way to another postseason defeat. Last year it was more of the same. Once again the ALDS, once again the Yankees, and once again a quick exit, Minnesota losing in three straight. Add in three consecutive losses after an opening victory in the 2004 ALDS, and the Twins entered this postseason having lost sixteen times in a row in the playoffs.

Surely though, this year would be different. Minnesota edged both Cleveland and Chicago for the AL Central crown, meaning the best-of-three first round series would be played at Target Field. Even better, the seedings of the eight playoff squads yielded an opponent other than the Yankees. Seemingly best of all, that foe was Houston, a team that finished the short regular season two games under .500, a record that matched that of Milwaukee in the NL bracket and exposed the absurdity of MLB’s expanded playoffs. For once, as they took the field early Tuesday afternoon, the Twins began a postseason series as the favorite.

Scarcely more than twenty-five hours later, Minnesota’s season was done, it’s postseason losing streak extended to eighteen games. The Twins did manage to lead for a time in Game 1, plating a run in the bottom of the 4th on an RBI double by Nelson Cruz. But in the top of the 7th the Astros’ George Springer grounded a single up the middle that scored Josh Reddick from second base, and then Houston broke the 1-1 tie in the 9th after Minnesota shortstop Jorge Polanco threw away an easy force out at second that should have ended the inning. Less than a full turn of the clock later, the Astros added to the 4-1 Game 1 win by notching single runs in the 4th, 7th, and 9th innings of Game 2, more than enough for a 3-1 victory over a Twins squad that managed just three hits on the day.

The sorry outcome puts Minnesota alone on a page of the record books no team wants to occupy, breaking what had been a tie with the NHL’s Chicago franchise for consecutive playoff defeats. Since those sixteen straight postseason losses on the ice between 1975 and 1979, Chicago has won many playoff games and series, including three Stanley Cups. Perhaps that will provide a bit of solace and hope for the future to Twins fans. Right now, though, the thought uppermost in their minds is surely that not only did the losing streak continue, but this postseason their heroes didn’t even make it to October.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 27, 2020

With Minimal Drama, Playoff Field Is Set

In the end, no doubt to the disappointment of some fans and pundits, chaos did not reign over the final day of the Great Game’s abbreviated regular season. When Sunday dawned, forty-four different scenarios for playoff qualification and bracket position remained alive. While the eight American League clubs that will be playing this coming week were known, the only two with postseason bracket positions locked in were Tampa Bay and Houston. The Rays were assured of the best record in the league and thus the top seed, and the Astros were certain of finishing with the worst record of the three divisional runners-up, and thus headed for the sixth spot in the AL bracket. The standings were even more fluid in the National League, where four teams were still fighting for the final two National League tickets to this year’s expanded playoffs, in addition to the potential for movement within the seedings for those franchises that had already qualified. With a full slate of games, all scheduled to begin at the same time (3:00 p.m. on the East Coast), an afternoon of scoreboard watching was ready to unfold.

Much of the focus was on Busch Stadium in St. Louis, where the Cardinals hosted the Milwaukee Brewers for the fifth time in four days. The two teams had split the first four contests, alternating victories beginning Thursday evening, through a Friday doubleheader, and on into Saturday. That meant that the Cardinals were penciled into fifth position in the NL bracket and the Brewers were holding on to the eighth and final spot. But with neither club yet assured of making it to the playoffs, the key term in that sentence is “penciled in.”

Had Milwaukee won on Sunday, attention would have quickly turned to several other games, with both the Phillies and Giants keeping hopes for a postseason berth alive, and the bracket position for the Reds and Marlins still up in the air. St. Louis, which lost multiple games to a COVID-19 infection and was still short of the prescribed sixty, could have been readying for at least one and possibly two makeup games against the Tigers on Monday. The gridlock of a five-way tie for four National League playoff spots would have been lurking.

Sadly for lovers of total confusion, the Cardinals were the one franchise of the four not yet locked into the postseason that controlled its own destiny. Win on Sunday, and St. Louis was the number five NL seed. Thus, when center fielder Harrison Bader tripled to lead off the home half of the 3rd inning of a scoreless game, anyone hoping for general disarray had to be concerned. A walk, a stolen base, and a two-run single by Kolten Wong followed, and St. Louis was on its way. By the end of the inning the Cardinals led 4-0.

The Brewers teased fans with signs of an immediate comeback in the top of the 4th. Christian Yelich drew a leadoff walk on five pitches, and veteran Ryan Braun followed by looking at four straight balls from Cardinals pitcher Austin Gomber. With two on, nobody out, and first baseman Jedd Gyorko at the plate, Gomber uncorked a wild pitch that moved the runners up. But just when it appeared that the St. Louis starter was coming undone, he settled down and outdueled Gyorko, eventually striking him out to end a ten-pitch at-bat. The Brewers did plate one run on a groundout by Daniel Vogelbach, but Gomber came right back to fan second baseman Keston Hiura, ending the inning.

The eventual 5-2 St. Louis victory ensured the Cardinals of both a spot in the postseason and a winning record for the thirteenth year in a row, albeit one compiled over just fifty-eight games. But in the other dugout Brewers players didn’t have to hang their heads for too long. Even as the Cardinals were celebrating on the field, the game between the Rays and Phillies went final, with Tampa Bay winning a 5-0 shutout, ending hopes for postseason play in Philadelphia. Then less than half an hour later, in San Francisco the Padres’ Trevor Rosenthal fanned the side in the bottom of the 9th, stopping a Giants comeback that had cut a 5-1 San Diego lead through six to 5-4 two innings later. San Francisco’s loss allowed Milwaukee to back into the NL’s final Wild Card slot.

For all the variables and alternate endings possible at the start of play Sunday, by the time the regular season’s final out was recorded the National League standings were unchanged by the day’s results. The only Sunday shuffling came in the American League, where two pairs of teams swapped positions in the bracket. Minnesota began the day seeded second, but the Twins’ loss to the Reds coupled with the Athletics’ win over the Mariners allowed Oakland to move up one position and bump Minnesota down a spot. Similarly, a Cleveland win and a White Sox loss moved the former up into second place in the AL Central and made Chicago a Wild Card team, so the two clubs switched between the AL’s fourth and seventh seeds.

Just how important the seedings are can’t be known until the end of the week, when the Wild Card round is complete. This is a postseason unlike any that has gone before, and while all three games of each first round series will be played in the home park of the higher seed – the three division winners plus the second place club with the best record – the advantage of being the home team in a year without fans in the stands may be limited. Even in normal times home field is not the edge in the Great Game that is so clearly is in some other sports. Last year’s World Series, with all seven games going to the visiting squad, was the ultimate proof of that.

So the teams that are about to travel, from the fifth-seed Yankees and Cardinals down to the second Wild Cards, the Blue Jays and Brewers, have no reason to give up hope. Indeed, lovers of chaos may not have seen much on the regular season’s final day, but there’s still plenty of time for the unexpected to occur. How about a World Series title for Milwaukee, which “won” the NL’s second Wild Card with a decidedly unwinning mark of 29-31? A championship for a team making it into the playoffs with a losing record; what could be more fitting in 2020?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 24, 2020

Shortest Season, Strangest Year

So much lies between the opening of training camp and a season-ending parade to celebrate a championship. Those were the words that appeared in this space thirty-two weeks ago, when On Sports and Life paid its annual tribute to the Great Game’s moment of renewal, the date for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training. Safe to say those words have acquired new and unexpected meaning in the intervening months. Now the shortest season comes to the final weekend of its regular schedule.

It has been a year without precedent, leading to the great oxymoron of baseball in 2020. The single most significant thing that has happened, the item that tops the list of the “so much” that fans have witnessed, is how little of the sport there has been. Known for the slow unwinding of its schedule, from the midwinter convening of training camps to the last out of the World Series deep in the following autumn, baseball’s final standings for 2020 will show just sixty games played for most teams, and possibly a few less for a handful of franchises.

Miami was the first team with a significant number of pandemic-related postponements. But the infections that swept through the Marlins locker room did so at the very start of this year’s miniature schedule, so Miami had time to make up the contests that were lost. The COVID-induced pause to the St. Louis Cardinals season came a bit later and lasted much longer. As a result, the Cards are still seven games short of the planned sixty, even after playing ten doubleheaders in less than six weeks, including three just last week. At least one more remains, as St. Louis and Milwaukee square off five times in four days between now and Sunday. But that only gets the Cardinals to fifty-eight games played. If the results could impact playoff eligibility or seeding, St. Louis and Detroit will be playing two more next Monday to round out the sixty-game slate for both clubs.

The Tigers are last in the AL Central, but as this is written St. Louis sits in second place in the NL Central, seeded fifth for postseason play. However the Cardinals are just percentage points ahead of the Reds, and only a game in front of the Brewers. With Cincinnati holding the NL’s second Wild Card ticket to the postseason, and Milwaukee on the outside looking in at the playoffs, the addition of an extra day of regular season play seems likely. Whether it only involves the Cardinals and Tigers depends on the rest of this weekend’s slate avoiding any weather postponements.

If an understandably exhausted St. Louis roster manages to stagger into the postseason, their faithful will join with other fans in having to quickly adjust to significant changes. For the first time ever, a majority of teams will play on into October; an expanded playoff field that dilutes the value of regular season play. That may not matter so much in a year with such an abbreviated schedule, but MLB commissioner Rob Manfred clearly equates anything that generates revenue as being in the Great Game’s best interest, so some variation of this year’s format may well become permanent.

What presumably will remain a one-off event is a first round in which all games in the eight best-of-three series are played in one team’s ballpark. With no fans in the stands home field may not matter so much. But making all playoff participants play a short series further lessens the value of winning a division, since two quick losses can bring a sudden halt to any team’s campaign. Even the mighty Dodgers, the franchise that seems certain to finish with the best regular season record, lost back-to-back games four times this year, with three of those skids coming at Chavez Ravine.

In other ways what will be different about the playoffs is how familiar the games are, unlike the regular season. Extra inning contests won’t feature a runner at second base to start every inning, and doubleheaders won’t have games of just seven frames. But wait, there aren’t any twin bills in the postseason, are there? Don’t be so sure. With the one stadium site for each series in the first round, and the subsequent playoff rounds played at neutral sites, the postseason calendar has no travel days until the World Series, which only follows its traditional schedule to accommodate the broadcast plans of Fox Sports. The neutral sites should be safe, with domed stadiums in Texas for the National League, and the American League contenders playing in southern California. But fans should hope for good weather in multiple locations for all next week.

In the end, barring a sudden COVID-19 catastrophe, there will be a World Series, no small feat in this Twilight Zone of a year. Long after the final out, fans and pundits will debate whether the shortest season produced a truly legitimate champion. But there is no doubt how the faithful of the winning franchise will feel. Manfred will present the Commissioner’s Trophy to a very happy owner, presumably not referring to it as a “piece of metal” while doing so. Fans in the winning city will rejoice, and the parade that was promised in this space so many months ago will finally…….oh, right. 2020 strikes again.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 20, 2020

As Old As Golf, As New As A Headline

Winged Foot. The mere mention of the name has always sent competing shivers of anticipation and dread down the spines of golfers, for of all the venues used by the United State Golf Association to host the USGA’s various national championships, none has historically been so consistently difficult as the private club tucked in amongst suburban neighborhoods in the hills overlooking the New York village of Mamaroneck, just a short commuter train ride from Grand Central.

The golf club was founded almost a century ago by members of Manhattan’s New York Athletic Club who were looking to expand the organization’s offerings beyond those available in the heart of Gotham. Twin eighteen-hole layouts were routed by the prolific A.W. Tillinghast, the famed American course architect whose more than 250 designs included at least nine in Westchester County alone. While both the East and West courses at Winged Foot are stern tests, it is the West course, with its 75.7 rating and slope index of 141, that has been the site of most of the important tournaments played on the club’s grounds. Restored to Tillinghast’s original contours by designer Gil Hanse in 2018, Winged Foot West is a classic reminder of the heyday of parkland courses. Narrow, tree-lined fairways demand precision off the tee, and what appear to be large and inviting greens are heavily sloped, often with false fronts, both features that reduce expansive putting surfaces to tiny targets for a player aiming to have an approach shot finish near the hole.

The U.S. Open first came to the West Course in 1929, when Bobby Jones claimed the third of his four Open trophies in a playoff after finishing four rounds at 6-over par. Since then the men’s national championship was contested at Winged Foot on four other occasions before this week, most recently in 2006. The club has also hosted two U.S. Women’s Opens and two U.S. Amateur Championships, as well as the 1980 U.S. Senior Open and 1997 PGA Championship. Out of all of those tournaments, only twice was the winning score below par, and one of those times was David Love III’s win at the ’97 PGA, with a course setup less punishing than that typically prepared by the USGA.

Winged Foot’s difficulty first gained broad notoriety at the 1974 U.S. Open. Before Hale Irwin eventually prevailed with a 7-over par total, many of the players in the field complained bitterly about the high rough and narrow fairways. The carping led to the famous retort by Sandy Tatum, then responsible for the course setup and later president of the USGA, who said “we’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the world. We’re trying to identify them.” It was on display again in 2006, when massive galleries did their best to will Phil Mickelson to victory over a scorching hot final weekend. But Mickelson’s driver betrayed him in the final round when he sprayed tee shots around the property. His last miss was on the final hole, where a par would have meant victory and even a bogey would have been good enough for a playoff. Instead his drive sailed left into the trees, where it bounced off a hospitality tent. One double bogey later, Mickelson had one of his six runner-up U.S. Open finishes.

The expectation among both players and fans was that Winged Foot would once again prove daunting when the Open returned to the West Course’s fairways for the sixth time this week, three months later than originally scheduled and without fans in attendance, both because of the pandemic. And that proved to be true for most players in the field, or at least it did after an opening round on Thursday in which the venerable old course played surprisingly easy.

But websites and sports pages are not filled with stories about most players in the field. Headlines are understandably reserved for winners, so the narrative of the moment for golf fans, in the wake of Bryson DeChambeau’s six shot victory, is going to be how raw power has forever changed the ancient game of golf, and how venerable layouts, even ones as mighty as Winged Foot, will soon be relegated to the scrapheap. That’s because, as all golf fans know by now, DeChambeau spent last winter and the subsequent pandemic layoff bulking up by forty pounds and retooling his driver swing. The resultant obvious difference in appearance and climb up the driving distance rankings, along with his heavily promoted brand as a golfing iconoclast applying scientific principles that are beyond the comprehension of other players, created the illusion that DeChambeau is doing something unprecedented. Add a minus-6 total for four rounds at Winged Foot, and the new narrative is off and running. Perhaps time will prove that outlook correct, but like many reactions in the moment, this one just might turn out to be made up of as much hysteria as fact.

That very real possibility can’t diminish DeChambeau’s impressive performance. He didn’t shoot a single round over par, with a level par 70 on Saturday his highest score of the week. On Sunday, when the field returned seven scores of 80 or higher and only four at par or better, DeChambeau’s 3-under 67 was the only one in the “or better” category. Those are numbers that will lead to a trophy presentation at any U.S. Open venue and are particularly praiseworthy at one as tough as this year’s.

He was almost certainly helped competitively when 54-hole leader Matt Wolff ran into trouble early. Two bogeys in the first five holes by the 21-year-old playing in just his second major, along with DeChambeau’s birdie at the par-4 4th hole, quickly turned a two shot deficit into a one stroke lead for the more experienced pursuer. Then, the 2020 U.S. Open turned on the reachable par-5 9th hole. Both DeChambeau and Wolff were on in two, but the latter had a much closer look at eagle and seemingly a great chance to move into a tie with the inward nine still to play. Instead DeChambeau rolled in his forty-footer first, the eagle-3 leaving Wolff stuck in second even after he converted his own putt.

But for all the awe repeatedly expressed by the NBC announcers, DeChambeau was not in a class by himself in the power game. In fact, he ranked seventh in driving distance, a stat that was led by Dustin Johnson. Wolff, Rory McIlroy, and Jon Rahm, among others, also ranked higher than DeChambeau. He was certainly driving the ball stunningly far, just not far ahead of all his fellow competitors. Similarly, while the assertion that the power game so shortens the course that accuracy no longer matters has merit, it too is anything but new. The popular perception is that finding the rough is ruinous at the Open. But a total of 186 golfers have finished in the top five over the last thirty men’s U.S. Opens, and only twenty of those players, barely more than ten percent, also ranked in the top five for driving accuracy. DeChambeau’s method is different, and perhaps not very healthy, but neither his goal nor the results are unique.

Just like the foursome of hackers teeing it up at the local muni on a weekend morning, every Tour pro is always looking for more distance, and even at the U.S. Open with its typically penal rough is willing to trade accuracy for an extra helping of length. Courses like Winged Foot and Oakmont and even little Merion have withstood the onslaught so far, and are likely to continue to do so, even after Bryson DeChambeau’s performance this week. Especially since he delivered the knockout blow on the 9th green not with the longest club in his bag, but with the shortest.

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