Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 23, 2021

Putting Profit Ahead Of History In The Bronx

Tuesday marked thirteen years since the New York Yankees played the 156th game on the franchise’s 2008 schedule.  September 21st was a Sunday that year, but the contest against the Baltimore Orioles was much more than a weekend diversion as summer turned to fall.  The old baseball cathedral that sat across 161st Street from the site of the current Yankee Stadium was packed, for from the moment that year’s schedule was released fans knew the final regular season game at the big ballpark that began as Ruth’s and would end as Jeter’s would be played on that Sunday.  With a week of contests remaining, the Yankees had a final road trip ahead, but the team had already ceded the AL East race to Tampa Bay, and was on the brink of elimination in the Wild Card standings.  By the time home plate umpire Angel Hernandez called “play ball,” everyone knew that after eighty-six years, it was closing time.

It was an emotional night for Yankees fans.  But the very real sense of loss that was palpable in the stands and kept most of the crowd there long after Mariano Rivera recorded the final out of a 7-3 New York victory was ultimately not about the steel skeleton covered by 20,000 cubic yards of concrete that formed the hulking mass next to the elevated #4 subway line.  Sentiment aside, in future years few fans would look back longingly on the narrow and sometimes low-ceilinged corridors that made up the public concourses of the old Stadium.  What was being mourned were the memories of all that had occurred on that singularly special piece of sports real estate. 

The Yankees did not go to the postseason in 2008, but the old Stadium hosted World Series games in thirty-seven years of the eight-plus decades it stood, and the Yankees emerged victorious from twenty-six of those season-ending showdowns.  Both numbers are unmatched records of franchise success.  The Yankees went to the World Series at least once in every calendar decade they called the old ballpark home.  There were fallow years of course, most notably 1964 to 1975, during most of which CBS owned the team and treated it as just another corporate profit center, and a similar interregnum from 1982 to 1994, when George Steinbrenner, spending freely but not wisely, consistently failed to sign a supporting cast for Don Mattingly.  But there were also dynastic periods, from the progenitor one with Ruth and Gehrig, to the fabulous fifties with Joe passing the torch to Mickey, to the Core Four years as one century turned to the next.  All of it happened there, on ground that has now been remade as public ballfields where the Great Game is played by kids.    

But time flies.  The Yankees’ current home has sat across the broad multiple lanes of 161st Street from Heritage Field, as the old site is now called, for more than a decade.  Just like its predecessor, the new Stadium was christened with a championship, the franchise’s twenty-seventh.  But since 2009, the Yankees and their fans have had no parades up New York’s Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan.  That remarkable streak of consistent greatness as measured by World Series appearances ended with the passing of the 2010’s.  And as this season winds down, the Yankees sit on the farthest edge of the playoff race, headed for the postseason one day, out of contention the next; dependent not just on the team’s own results, but also on the numbers on the out-of-town scoreboard above the right field bleachers.

It is all very unlike the history that was celebrated on that September Sunday in 2008, yet what alarms fans the most is not just their team’s place in this year’s standings, but the lengthening string of seasons without a title and a growing sense of opportunity lost.  Just a few years ago, GM Brian Cashman was hailed for his ability to remake the roster on the fly.  Faced with a down year in 2016, he traded away aging and expensive veterans to stock up on young talent.  But unlike many franchises that subject fans to multiple seasons of cellar dwelling while rebuilding, the so-called Baby Bombers formed the nucleus of a squad that went all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS the very next year, ultimately falling just short of a World Series appearance at the hands of a team fans now know cheated its way to a title. Cashman then dispatched manager Joe Girardi in favor of the less intense Aaron Boone, who was supposedly more relatable to a younger roster.  Another Bronx dynasty appeared to be taking shape.

The franchise is quick to celebrate Boone’s teams winning 100-plus games in each of his first two campaigns.  But for fans in the Bronx, the longest season is but prelude, and as the Baby Bombers have grown up, the results that matter have been lacking.  One division title in four years.  Two early postseason exits in the Division Series round, with just one trip to the ALCS.  A regular season record far short of expectations in both the truncated 2020 season and this year, all leading to dim hopes for a deep postseason run in the next few weeks, assuming the Stadium’s lights are even still on come October.  The notion of a new dynasty now seems laughable, as an ever-louder chorus calling for both Boone and Cashman to go rises from New York fans.

But there is no indication that owner Hal Steinbrenner shares their impatience.  Instead, the evidence suggests his focus is on the franchise’s balance sheet, not its pursuit of a 28th championship.  At the July trade deadline, he voiced support for both his GM and field manager while criticizing Yankee players.  Even more telling was the least noticed trade Cashman engineered that week.  In a pure salary dump, he sent pitcher Justin Wilson to Cincinnati for the ever-popular player to be named later.  Wilson pitched poorly after signing with New York last winter, but the team’s larger concern was the $2.6 million his contract counted against MLB’s luxury tax threshold.  Unloading that salary enabled Cashman to make other moves without crossing the threshold, a clearly stated priority for Steinbrenner.  However, to get the Reds to take Wilson, the Yankees had to include Luis Cessa in the deal, thus giving up a bullpen stalwart who excelled at middle relief while also giving the team a spot starter option. 

Two months later, with a relief corps worn down by heavy use, the Yankees sorely miss Cessa.  But the team remains safely under the luxury tax limit, so Steinbrenner’s priority has been met.  Based on his public pronouncements he’ll remain satisfied, irrespective of the Yankees’ place in the standings, if people are buying tickets.  Since the new Stadium is one of Gotham’s major tourist attractions, that modest goal shouldn’t be a problem.  After all, many of those visitors for a day never realize that from Babe’s Opening Day home run, to Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech, to Joe’s hitting streak, to Yogi jumping into Larsen’s arms, to Mickey homering off the façade three different times, to Reggie going back-to-back-to-back, to Jeter becoming Mister November, almost all this franchise’s storied history occurred across the street. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 19, 2021

With Playoff Drama Building, The Yankees Wilt

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.  It is the contemporary slang version of an age-old lament, the plaintive cry of those who realize too late actions that might have produced a more desirable outcome than the one that has just been experienced.  With the longest season entering its final fortnight and the onset of autumn at hand, one can’t help but think that from the front office down to the last man on the bench, members of the New York Yankees will soon be chanting the phrase as a mantra to a lost campaign, even as they face the bleak prospect of a long and bitter winter.

Like an ill-trained mutt, that possibility has been nipping at New York’s heels for most of the current campaign.  But the persistent annoyance finally sunk its teeth through four and seven-game losing streaks as August gave way to September, spirals that undid the gains of the thirteen straight victories that they followed.  And now the wound is bleeding after a less than ideal start to the season’s penultimate home stand.

With MLB returning to the playoff format in place since 2012, after a one-year expansion of its postseason bracket for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Wild Card races are the source of most of the excitement in the Great Game’s final month of play.  While no team atop the standings has yet clinched its division, four of the six leaders appear to be in prime position.  Barring a collapse on the order of the 1964 Phillies losing ten in a row from September 20th onward, the Brewers, Rays, White Sox, and Astros are all going to the postseason as division champions.  But of the four Wild Card slots – a pressure-packed prize since it guarantees the squads that earn it just a single, do-or-die game – three remain hotly contested. 

Either the Giants or Dodgers will be one of the National League Wild Cards, which will surely seem unfair to at least some of that team’s fanbase.  San Francisco and Los Angeles have the two best records in the majors, but because they cohabitate in the NL West, one franchise will see its efforts rewarded with only a must-win contest against an opponent that may well be playing free and easy as a decided underdog.  The role could be filled by one of five different teams.  The Cardinals occupy the second NL Wild Card spot as this is written, but the Phillies, Reds, and Padres are all right behind St. Louis, and Philadelphia hasn’t ceded claim to the NL East title, as it trails Atlanta by only one game.  Should the Phillies close on a hot streak, Atlanta could wind up traveling west for the postseason’s opening contest, or out of the playoffs entirely.   

The race is even more unsettled in the junior circuit, where both Wild Card slots remain up for grabs.  Five AL squads comprise the list of contenders – Boston, Toronto, Seattle, Oakland, and New York.  The Yankees climbed all the way to the top of that list during their August hot streak, but after a second straight drubbing at the hands of a sub-.500 Cleveland squad on Sunday, New York is in fourth place in the AL East and outside the playoff picture, exactly where it was more than a month ago, just when new arrivals Anthony Rizzo, Joey Gallo and Andrew Heaney helped the team seemingly turn the corner.

The new energy brought by the trade deadline acquisitions has dissipated, with Gallo slumping until the last few days and fans dreading the sight of Heaney heading for the pitcher’s mound.  In its place is a malaise that has been part of this roster’s makeup since Opening Day, an inability to put away clearly inferior teams.  The Yankees arrived back in the Bronx after dropping the final contest of a three-game set in Baltimore.  The loss prevented a series sweep, and left New York with a season record of just 11-8 against the woeful Orioles.  While Boston and Toronto each have three games remaining against Baltimore, the eight losses by New York are just two less than the number of defeats to the Orioles by the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays combined this year. 

Still, with the weak hitting Cleveland franchise coming to town, fans had reason to hope, and Friday night the “good” version of the maddeningly inconsistent Yankees sent their faithful home happy.  Five balls off New York bats sailed over The Stadium’s outfield wall, and both starter Corey Kluber and two relievers pitched effectively as the Yankees rolled to an 8-0 victory.  Less than 48 hours later, after back-to-back performances by the “bad” Yankees, Friday night’s joy was but a distant memory.

Saturday’s matchup was a tight affair through four frames, with the only run belonging to the visitors.  Then, with the leadoff batter retired, Cleveland left fielder Oscar Mercado swung under a slider from New York’s Luis Gil, sending a foul pop straight up in the air just behind home plate.  It was a routine chance for catcher Gary Sanchez, save for the harsh reality that nothing is routine for him when it comes to defense.  He settled under the ball and appeared ready to make the catch, until at the last moment Sanchez realized he was out of position and lunged for the plummeting sphere, which bounced off his glove.  Gil then hit Mercado with the next pitch, so instead of two outs and no one on base, the Cleveland offense had a man on with only one out.  The cost of the error was far more than just a base runner, though.  By the time New York reliever Albert Abreu managed to end the inning, Cleveland had plated seven runs.  Heaney followed from the bullpen, surrendering three more scores in an eventual 11-3 rout.

In his postgame comments Yankees manager Aaron Boone conceded that the play was one his catcher was expected to make, but assured fans that the team would quickly turn the page behind Gerrit Cole, who was on tap to start the rubber game of the series on Sunday afternoon.  And why not?  New York’s ace is a Cy Young contender, while Cleveland was starting Eli Morgan, who took the mound with a 2-7 record and an ERA hovering around 6.00. 

Except that in New York’s moment of need, its star pitcher delivered perhaps his worst effort of the season.  Cole was hammered for seven runs in just over five innings, while Morgan pitched like the award winner, holding the Yankees to a single score through six frames.  The bullpen did no better in Cole’s wake, with the 11-1 final score even worse than Saturday’s.

Gary Sanchez should have caught the popup.  Gerrit Cole could have delivered a dominating performance befitting a team’s ace.  And the failure of either or even both players would have been less consequential had New York manhandled the AL East’s doormat the way its division rivals did all year.  In the closing days of yet one more season that began with such promise, such is the sad lament of a franchise that is now perilously close to once again letting it all slip away.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 16, 2021

The Night Bad Teams Get To Play

Just as the most vibrant city has bad neighborhoods, it turns out that even our most successful and popular sports league has its very own backwater.  Any lingering doubt that Thursday Night Football is the NFL’s slum is now gone, given that this week’s contest features the New York Giants versus the Washington Football Team.  It’s a matchup of two teams that lost in Week 1 of the new NFL season, something that both squads have done with regularity in recent years. 

The Giants and Football Team are each starting what will likely be a fifth consecutive losing campaign, if the pundits and sabermetrics analysts prove correct.  Last year Washington finished 7-9, one game better than New York.  By the sheer luck of playing in the NFC East, a once-mighty division that has fallen on hard times, Washington’s losing record earned it a spot in the playoffs, since the league’s rules award that prize to the team with the best record in each of the eight divisions, no matter how bad that record is.  The technical term is “division winner,” but the second word seems inapt given the Football Team’s sub-.500 regular season performance. 

Those same rules dictated that despite being the only franchise in the postseason tournament with a losing record, Washington got to host a first-round game.  The Football Team’s opponent on Wild Card Weekend was Tampa Bay, and at one point in the contest the home squad cut the Buccaneers’ margin to just two.  Unfortunately for fans in the D.C. area that point was with slightly more than seventeen minutes remaining to play, and Tom Brady was the opposing quarterback.

Losing in the Wild Card round is familiar to Washington fans, as that has been their sole playoff experience, and a very rare one at that, since the 2005 season, when the Football Team managed to play exactly one week longer.  Washington hasn’t had a deeper playoff run since 1991, when Mark Rypien led a squad coached by Joe Gibbs to an NFL title over the Buffalo Bills, the team that shares with the Minnesota Vikings the unhappy record for most Super Bowl losses (four) without a victory. 

Although their team has played just one postseason game in almost a decade, fans of the Giants have enjoyed a somewhat happier thirty years since that Washington win.  New York’s made three trips to the NFL’s final matchup, losing to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV, but ending both the 2007 and 2011 seasons with dramatic and improbable victories over New England.

Those wins were engineered by Eli Manning, whose number 10 jersey will be retired by the Giants at a MetLife Stadium ceremony two Sundays from now.  Among his plethora of team records, he holds the franchise mark for most consecutive regular season starts by a quarterback at 210.  That’s third best on the NFL’s all-time list, which includes just a dozen names, and only Russell Wilson among active players, with more than 100 consecutive starts.

In a sport of highly specialized skills, no position is more important than the one Manning played, and the recent lean years for both the Giants and the Football Team can be traced directly to weakness at the quarterback spot.  In New York, fans have endured Manning’s decline due to age, followed by the slow development of 2019 first-round draft pick Daniel Jones.  Last weekend New York was soundly beaten at home by the visiting Broncos, in a game in which Jones continued his penchant for turnovers by losing a fumble deep in Denver territory while the score was still close. 

But as the playoff histories of the two franchises suggest, the quarterback malaise at FedEx Field is both deeper and more long-lasting.   When Ryan Fitzpatrick called his first play under center last weekend, he became the 31st quarterback to start a game for Washington in the three decades since Rypien’s heroics.  They have come, by trade or free agency or the draft.  And they have gone, due to injury or performance or disputes about money or disagreements with coaches.  More than a third started fewer than ten games in a Washington uniform.  Not surprisingly, given the lengthy list, only nine started more than seventeen contests, the equivalent of an NFL season.  That kind of turnover, at the position even a stranger to football, watching his or her very first game on television, would quickly discern is the most important on the field, will almost assuredly produce results like, well, like Washington’s for the past many seasons. 

Tonight’s starter is Taylor Heinicke, who also started that Wild Card contest against Tom Brady in January, and who stepped in for Fitzpatrick when Washington’s latest franchise signal-caller went down with an injury early in last Sunday’s game.  Heinicke bounced around the practice squads of four NFL and one XFL franchises after going undrafted out of Old Dominion in 2015 and was back in school when the Football Team called last December.  A month later he was starting a game in the NFL Playoffs.  It’s a lovely story, though highly unlikely to have a Cinderella finish.

Jones versus Heinicke, Giants versus Football Team, not exactly a must-see duel.  But it is Thursday night.  Since the schedule was adjusted in 2006 to include these games, they have been unloved and, for the NFL at least, largely unwatched.  The league’s own cable network is the primary television outlet, which suggests the whole reason for adding Thursday to the schedule was to attract viewers to NFL Network.  Players detest the games, since they mean a short week of practice and physical rehabilitation from the previous Sunday.  All that has been reflected in the schedule of Thursday contests, which feature a lot of matchups like this one.  Welcome to the NFL’s backwater.  If your team’s here, you know it has problems.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 12, 2021

History Denied, History Made, At Arthur Ashe Stadium

For two weeks tennis fans assumed that the historic part of this year’s U.S. Open would come on its final day, when Novak Djokovic would become the first male player in more than half a century to complete the calendar year Grand Slam, and by so doing break a three-way tie with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most career victories in the men’s tennis majors by winning his twenty-first.  Injuries and age have put the careers of his two longtime antagonists into eclipse, and the results at this year’s previous Grand Slams was seen as proof no one in the next generation of male stars was ready to dethrone the world number one.

But there is a reason why no player has won in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York in the same year since Rod Laver turned the trick in 1969.  It is, quite simply, an extraordinarily difficult task.  One bad day, an inspired opponent, a weakness on a particular surface, an untimely injury during the months over which the four tennis majors are spread out on the sport’s annual calendar – any one of these factors can derail a march to the record books.  And for as much as Djokovic had dominated the men’s game through the first three majors, there were warning signs at Flushing Meadow, at least to those not blinded by the beckoning beacon of history.

Only once in the six matches that took the top seed from the opening round through the semifinals did Djokovic win in straight sets.  That included a five-set semifinal against 4th seed Alexander Zverev, a match which Djokovic appeared to have in hand at two sets to one, before a poor service game at 1-1 in the fourth led to a break that allowed Zverev back in the match.

In contrast, 2nd seed Daniil Medvedev sailed through his half of the draw, dropping just a single set on his way to Sunday’s showdown for the championship on Arthur Ashe Stadium’s court.  Still, when Medvedev broke Djokovic in the opening game of the match and then cruised to a 6-4 first set win without facing a single break point on his own serve, fans who had bought into the media hype that dropping a set ensures that Djokovic will raise his game to an even higher level, probably assumed the favorite had his younger competitor right where he wanted him.

Instead, the men’s final turned into the last thing anyone, likely including Medvedev, expected, a straight set rout by the challenger.  Medvedev’s only serious wobble came near the end, perhaps as he realized the magnitude of what he was about to do.  Leading 6-2, 6-2, 5-2 and serving for the title at 40-30, Medvedev double faulted twice and then dumped a backhand into the net to hand the game to Djokovic.  But he still had a service break in hand, and on his next try he held his nerve, and thus his serve, to claim his first major championship.

Even had Djokovic prevailed, the remarkable achievement of a calendar year Grand Slam would have wound up sharing space in the history books.  That became certain on Thursday, when 18-year-old Emma Radacanu and 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez each won her semifinal match, setting up the first all-teenage final in Queens since 1999, and the first women’s singles Grand Slam final in the Open Era featuring two unseeded players.

Ranked 73rd in the world, Fernandez was an unlikely finalist.  But she took down defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round, former world number one Angelique Kerber in the fourth, then the 5th and 2nd seeds on the women’s side in the quarter- and semifinals.  Yet across the net from her for Saturday’s women’s final was a player who made Fernandez look like a Grand Slam veteran.  Radacanu arrived in Queens ranked 150th and was that high largely on the strength of an improbable run to the fourth round at Wimbledon.  She was a wild card entrant into that Grand Slam, having just played her first WTA tournament one month earlier.  Radacanu came to New York with no guarantee of playing in the main tournament, having to first make her way through qualifying. 

The rest of the story is history of the best kind.  As Fernandez made her unlikely journey through one side of the draw, dramatically winning three-set matches, Radacanu was steamrolling though her side, winning nine consecutive matches, three in qualifying plus the six rounds through the semifinals, without dropping a single set.

Make that ten consecutive straight set victories.  In front of a capacity crowd that seemed equally happy cheering for either contestant, Radacanu won 6-4, 6-3, in a match that could have tipped either way on multiple occasions.  That it went in favor of the Canadian-born Englishwoman only lengthens the list of historic achievements.  The first qualifier to reach a major final, and thus, the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam tournament.  The first British woman to win a major since Virginia Wade in 1977.  The first woman to reach the U.S. Open final in her debut appearance since Venus Williams in 1997.  The lowest ranked player to win a major in a dozen years.  The youngest major champion since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova triumphed at Wimbledon in 2004.

Radacanu and Fernandez made history on the same court where it would be denied one day later, and it will be a long time before either of them again toils in obscurity.  Or so fans should hope.  Tennis is one of our loneliest sports, where for all the talk of teams and coaches and game plans, the player ultimately stands alone.  It is a sport that has devoured its young, time after time, from Jennifer Capriati to Andrea Jaeger to Frances Tiafoe.  Perhaps this time will be different.  The maturity both showed on the court, and the poise each demonstrated during the awards presentation, bodes well.  But when nothing is expected, being free and easy comes naturally.  For these incredible young women who stormed into the history books of tennis over two weeks at Flushing Meadow, the hard part starts now.    

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 9, 2021

The Captain, Two Worthies, And The Man Who Changed The Game

In the little village on the south shore of upstate New York’s Otsego Lake, Wednesday of course belonged to Derek Jeter.  That much has been certain since February 12, 2014, when Jeter announced just prior to the start of Spring Training that the season to come would be his final one in pinstripes.  The popular tale, so widely shared that its accuracy quickly became almost irrelevant, is that in response to word of their hero’s pending retirement some Yankees fans immediately made hotel reservations in the Cooperstown area for late July 2020. 

If such accounts are true, one hopes the bookings did not involve nonrefundable deposits.  For while it was a safe bet that the Yankees’ longtime captain would be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot and headline his class of inductees, enterprising New York fans could not have guessed that travel plans made more than five years in advance would be upended by a global pandemic.  The ceremony welcoming the four newest members of the Hall was ultimately delayed by more than thirteen months, and in that time wound up coming full circle. 

The grounds of the Clark Sports Center, a short distance down Susquehanna Avenue from the Hall, serve as the traditional site for the celebration, which normally caps off a long weekend of festivities.  That location is used because it’s the largest open-air site in the area, and the ceremony is open to all.  But when COVID-19 ran rampant, the original July 2020 date was cancelled, with the intent of combining it with the 2021 ceremony.  Then the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association failed to elect any new Hall of Famers last December, which at least eliminated the prospect of an overcrowded stage or unpleasantly long proceeding.  But as July approached and the pandemic wore on, the Hall moved the date for the induction yet again while also scrubbing all the attendant events.  That plan had the ceremony taking place indoors in front of a small number of invited guests.  Not until fairly recently, as New York relaxed statewide COVID restrictions, was the Hall able to change plans one more time.  In the end, Wednesday’s event was back at its usual site and free to all comers, although the choice of a midweek date along with ongoing concerns about the virus eliminated the prospect of record-breaking attendance.

Still, the 20,000 who made their way to Cooperstown, and by so doing swelled the village’s population to more than ten times its normal number, looked and felt like a far larger crowd after so many months of sharply curtailed public gatherings.  When Jeter took the stage, they welcomed their hero with the familiar singsong chant that he heard countless times while standing on the Stadium’s infield at the start of games in the Bronx, when the customary roll call by the Bleacher Creatures greeted each member of the Yankees’ defense – “De-rek Je-ter! De-rek Je-ter!”  When it was his turn to speak, Jeter began by acknowledging the importance of the fans, saying “I forgot how good that feels.  It’s humbling.  It’s a special feeling, and you tend to miss it when you don’t hear it anymore.” 

The first sentence on Jeter’s Hall of Fame plaque is “Heartbeat of a Yankees dynasty.”  With 3,465 hits, a .310 career batting average, most of the franchise batting records not held by Babe Ruth, fourteen All-Star appearances, five Golf Glove Awards to irritate the haters who lacking anything else to complain about regularly decried Jeter’s defense, and, most of all, five championships, he was indeed heart and soul of the franchise for two decades.  As a consummate professional who always played hard and who wore just one team’s uniform as a major leaguer, he became a symbol of his sport that even fans who hated the Yankees respected and admired.

But there is another number that is just as important, a figure not cited on any plaque or included on lists of Jeter’s career achievements.  That number is $266.3 million.  The figure for Larry Walker, Jeter’s fellow inductee from the regular BBWAA ballot is $110.6 million.  As one would likely guess, those are their career earnings for playing the Great Game.  Ted Simmons, the third player on the stage in Cooperstown, began his career more than two decades before Jeter and Walker, and had retired before either of them first wore a major league uniform, so his total is tiny in comparison.  The vast difference is not merely a matter of time and inflation, as Simmons well knows, for he played most of the 1972 season for the St. Louis Cardinals without a contract as he contemplated challenging baseball’s reserve clause.  By the time of Simmons’ months-long holdout, Curt Flood’s lawsuit seeking to dismantle the provision that granted a franchise exclusive lifelong contract rights to a player, was before the Supreme Court.  While that case was narrowly decided in MLB’s favor, further challenges followed and in 1975, the Seitz decision brought an end to the reserve clause and opened the door to free agency.

The guiding force behind arbitrator Peter Seitz’s ruling was Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, who had also advised Simmons.  Miller, who died in 2012, was the fourth person inducted on Wednesday.  Like Simmons, he was elected by the Hall’s Veterans Committee, voting on so-called Modern Era candidates.  Were he still alive, Miller probably would not have been in Cooperstown on Wednesday, for in 2008 he had asked the Hall to stop considering his candidacy after falling short multiple times.  Respecting those wishes, his survivors declined to attend, so Miller was represented by Donald Fehr, his successor as head of the players’ union.

Despite his personal wishes, a Hall that recognizes individuals based on their contributions to the Great Game has been utterly incomplete without Miller.  The sin is not in ignoring his request, but in taking so egregiously long to acknowledge his foundational role in the modern game.  Miller’s tireless advocacy for the members of his union, his ability to maintain unity among a diverse group of athletes scattered across the country, and his legal and tactical skills remade the business of baseball, and the Great Game in turn led the way in elevating the power of players in professional sports.  During his decade and a half at the helm of the Players Association, the average ballplayer’s salary went from $19,000 to $326,000.  Four decades after he retired, because of Miller’s breakthroughs, for the best in the Great Game there are numbers like those associated with Jeter and Walker.

When told of Miller’s passing in 2012, former commissioner Fay Vincent said “I think he’s the most important baseball figure of the last 50 years. He changed not just the sport but the business of the sport permanently, and he truly emancipated the baseball player – and in the process all professional athletes.”  A dozen years earlier, when asked about Miller’s Hall of Fame candidacy, Hank Aaron said “Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame if the players have to break down the doors to get him in.”  In the end it did not come to that, though the wait was inexcusably long. 

Now, about the candidacy of Curt Flood….

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 5, 2021

The Tall Task Of Playing Against The Odds

It was an historic quip, as evidenced by how many tennis fans remember the line more than four decades later.  Before he died a tragic and accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning while staying in a friend’s guesthouse, Vitas Gerulaitis was one of those athletes casual fans know they recognize, even if they’re not quite sure why.  In 1977, the year there were two Australian Opens because of schedule changes, he lifted the trophy at the December edition of that tennis major.  Gerulaitis also twice made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon and was a finalist at both Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows, the latter in 1979, not long after the USTA relocated the U.S. Open to its now-permanent home, just across the Long Island Railroad’s busy tracks from Shea Stadium (then) and Citi Field (now).  He lost, in straight sets, to John McEnroe. 

That result was what fans expected.  Gerulaitis was seeded fourth at the ‘79 Open, the high-water mark of his career rankings.  But then as now, there was a distinct hierarchy in the game.  That was most apparent just a few months later, when the Brooklyn native was back in his home city for the 1980 Masters at Madison Square Garden.  As far as the tennis scribes were concerned, the season-ending showdown among the top eight men featured McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Bjorn Borg, with five other guys, including Gerulaitis, just filling in the bracket.  The disparity was especially pronounced when Connors and Gerulaitis faced off in the semifinals, since the previous sixteen matches between the two had all gone Connors’ way.  But against all odds, Gerulaitis prevailed, 7-5, 6-2.  At his post-match press conference, he told the scribes who had written him off before the first serve, “And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

The second-tier tennis star never took himself too seriously, and the retort to the media’s collective pre-match mindset got a good laugh.  But in a sport where so much of the attention, renown, and money go to a handful of individuals at the very top of the game, it also reflected a mindset that, then and now, is essential for the overwhelming number of players who fill the ranks of the ATP and WTA.

Fans were reminded of that on a sunny Saturday at this year’s U.S. Open.  When Gerulaitis roamed the grounds, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was decades away from being so named and looked very different then than it does today.  Opened in 1978, the headquarters of tennis in this country has expanded across the old site of two World’s Fairs to become a tennis city, with three stadiums and thirty-three courts in all, including practice areas.  For two weeks every year, as August’s heat gives way to September’s promise of autumn, the 45 acres host a throng of humanity.  Some are devoted to the game, but many are tennis fans for a day, drawn to the far end of the number 7 subway line for the chance to see a star or two in action, and stand in a long line for the chance to buy a $25 lobster roll or $20 cocktail, commemorative plastic cup included.  The crowds wouldn’t be there if the attraction was merely those stars hitting balls to themselves off walls, which means that during the first week of the tournament, as the 128-player singles brackets are winnowed through the early rounds, the competitors across the net from the famous faces on the show courts are lesser or little known, with chances that match their fame. 

Upsets happen, of course.  Women’s tennis is in a particularly unsettled state, without the usual three or four consistently dominant stars who are seemingly assured of deep runs at every Grand Slam event.  The evening sessions on both Friday and Saturday produced stunners at Arthur Ashe Stadium, with third seed and defending champion Naomi Osaka falling Friday night, and top seed Ash Barty losing Saturday evening.  But the central reason upsets are so exciting is that they are rare.  On most days of the Open’s first week, the results run true to form.  What is it then, that keeps players like Greet Minnen or Kei Nishikori going? 

Minnen is a 24-year-old Belgian whose only WTA title came three years ago in doubles.  She walked onto the court at Louis Armstrong Stadium Saturday morning ranked 104th in the world in singles.  Her opponent, Bianca Andreescu, was three years younger but far more accomplished.  The Canadian was still a teenager in 2019 when, by the literal luck of the draw, she advanced to the U.S. Open final without facing a top-10 player.  But once there, she proved her mettle by denying Serena Williams’s quest for a 24th major title, winning in straight sets to become the first teenage Grand Slam champion since Maria Sharapova in 2006.  Andreescu lost all of last year’s truncated season to injury but was back in Gotham healthy and seeded 6th.  The match was competitive for exactly three games, with both players holding their initial service games and Andreescu then doing the same her second time serving.  After that, the rout was on.  Andreescu won 6-1, 6-2, easily outpacing Minnen in virtually every statistical category.

Andreescu’s easy victory started the day’s action.  By early afternoon thousands had made their way into Arthur Ashe Stadium for the third-round appearance of world number one Novak Djokovic, who can claim the first calendar year Grand Slam in men’s singles since Rod Laver in 1969 with a victory at Flushing Meadows.  With long-time rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer fading due to age and injury, and the next generation of male stars yet to threaten his dominance, Djokovic is heavily favored to do just that.  His third-round opponent was the unseeded Nishikori, the 31-year-old from Japan who once was ranked as high as 4th, but whose career now seems to be winding down.

Much like the earlier women’s match, the contest between Djokovic and Nishikori was briefly competitive.  The challenger even broke the favorite’s serve once in the first set and held on to win it 7-6.  But Nishikori was fighting for every point on his serve, while Djokovic was often serving out his own games with relative ease.  That advantage only grew as the match went on, and in the end, fans stood and cheered when Djokovic closed out a 6-7, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 victory.

There are obvious financial incentives for players like Minnen and Nishikori.  By advancing to the third round, both earned $180,000 for their week in Gotham.  And there is the fact that upsets do happen.  But while hopes and dreams are vitally important, in a solitary sport like tennis, it is essential for players to be free of illusion.  Surely both Minnen and Nishikori knew the odds were heavily against them.  That was probably especially true for Nishikori, who walked onto the court knowing he had lost, yes, 16 times in a row to Djokovic.  Three and a half hours later, there were plenty of pundits quick to point out that someone could beat Kei Nishikori 17 times in a row.

But in their clever crowing the talking heads missed the point.  Had Gerulaitis lost that long-ago match, as Minnen and Nishikori lost theirs on Saturday, he would have readied himself for his next showdown against Connors, just as the other two now prepare for their next tournament.  Perhaps he, or they, would finally prevail against a superior opponent on the 20th or 25th try.  But had victory never come, either then or now, that mere outcome would take nothing away from the determination, drive, and courage required to walk onto the court in the first place.  That is what keeps them going.  It is why, even when there is no upset, they actually play the games.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 2, 2021

Don’t Blame The Fans

It is easy, when one is young.  The role of fan comes naturally to a child.  No time is spent weighing the responsibilities of one’s devotion or the limits of one’s allegiance, be it to an entire team or an individual athletic hero.  We quickly identify our loyalty, most often by geography, gravitating to teams and stars that are local.  Or perhaps it is a matter of heredity, attaching ourselves to the favored franchises of a parent or older sibling.  Whatever the basis, once established the bonds of fandom often last a lifetime, celebrating multiple championships or weathering years of despair with equal faith.  But the calendar turns, and in time each of us who is granted the blessed curse of growing up does as was foretold ages ago.  We put away childish things.  When we do, being a fan becomes far more complicated. 

That complex role was front and center in two sports this week.  In Queens, fans of the New York Mets began the baseball season with high hopes, thanks to a change in ownership.  Gone at last was the Wilpon family, whose stewardship had been financially hamstrung by their own fanlike devotion to the swindler Bernie Madoff.  The Mets’ new owner was hedge fund manager Steven Cohen, himself a lifelong acolyte of the Metropolitans.  Far more important to the team’s fanbase than Cohen’s historical rooting interest or his willingness to engage on social media was the fact that his enormous wealth made him the richest team owner in MLB. 

The faithful in Queens had visions of a parade of free agents arriving at Citi Field, enticed by Cohen’s open checkbook.  In truth, the new owner has proceeded cautiously, but even without wholesale roster changes the Mets emerged as the class of an admittedly mediocre NL East through the first half of the season.  But the dog days of summer have been marked by injuries and regression, with a division lead of four games at the end of July turning into a sub-.500 mark and third place by the last day of August.  The team’s souring record was matched by the attitude of those in the stands, with raucous cheers turning into waves of boos.

As the losses and the catcalls piled up, several members of the team started celebrating the occasional bit of good news, like the final out of a victory, by giving a thumbs down gesture to their teammates.  It’s not unusual for squads to have some such ritual, but the negative nature of the Mets’ chosen signal naturally prompted questions from the media.  Francisco Lindor, the team’s prize offseason acquisition, and Javier Baez, the big trading deadline pickup, eagerly explained that the gesture was directed at Mets fans, who were apparently not being sufficiently supportive of the team’s nosedive.

Meanwhile, the PGA Tour was a couple hundred miles south of Gotham, playing the second leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs in the Baltimore suburbs.  Bryson DeChambeau, who it should be noted has a very substantial fanbase, came within one missed putt on the 18th green of shooting 59 on Friday, and finished the BMW Championship with the lowest score relative to par, 27-under, of any non-winner in Tour history after losing a six-hole playoff to Patrick Cantlay.  But while thousands in the crowd were cheering DeChambeau on, there were also many fans who were openly rooting against him. 

Over the summer, a shout of “Brooksie!” became the preferred jibe at DeChambeau after he and Brooks Koepka engaged in a running feud.  As has been the case at every Tour stop for several weeks, DeChambeau heard lots of “Way to go, Brooksie!” catcalls as he missed several key putts on the way to his eventual runner-up finish.  Two days later PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced that these golf equivalent of boos amounted to harassment, and any fan uttering this newly defined slur would be removed from future tournaments.

It goes without saying, and it is said with great sadness, that fan behavior in general has coarsened over time.  It is a malady that inflicts virtually every sport.  Far too many players are subjected to language that is much more vile than booing or the derisive use of a rival’s nickname.  In his new autobiography CC Sabathia mentions, almost as an aside, fans screaming the n-word at him as he warmed up in Fenway Park’s bullpen.  And while no one knows which team will win the Ryder Cup when the teams from the U.S. and Europe engage later this month at Whistling Straits, it’s a safe bet that at some point the European team members and, worse yet, their wives and girlfriends behind the ropes, will be subjected to ugly abuse from some in the crowd.

Spectators like that – it would be linguistic homicide to use the term “fans” – should be shown the door, permanently.  But the Mets players and the PGA Tour commissioner are deluding themselves when they act as if the problem is solely with those in the stands or behind the ropes. 

For starters, the worst behavior is often fueled by alcohol, but beer and liquor sales at sports venues are controlled by the team or league or tour, all of which are loath to limit a rich revenue stream.  Not content with that money, MLB, the PGA Tour, and other leagues are eagerly signing deals with sportsbooks, giving their imprimatur to another addiction with even bigger dollars attached, in a way that until recently was unthinkable.  A year or three down the road, when DeChambeau’s missed putt costs some fan the serious money he has just wagered at the DraftKings kiosk next to the beer concession, a shout of “Brooksie!” may well be the least of the Tour’s concerns.  In that hypothetical, the betting kiosk is imaginary for now, but the sports betting giant is already the PGA Tour’s official betting partner.

But even a stone-cold sober fan is not obligated to genuflect.  Perhaps the first lesson learned when we put away childish things is that fandom is expensive.  Given the price of a day at the ballpark or the tournament, we fans have paid plenty for the right to express ourselves.  We walk in hoping that will be with cheers of joy, but if the players fail to uphold their end of the bargain, we retain the right to express our displeasure.  The inability of Lindor or Baez or other members of the Mets to grasp that reflects on them, not on the fans in Queens. 

Finally, in our social media age, it is folly for players or their leagues to imagine themselves in control of the player-fan relationship.  Early this year the PGA Tour encouraged its golfers to engage with fans by announcing a $40 million prize pool to be distributed based on various popularity metrics, including internet searches and social media interactions.  Whether it was real or not, the Koepka-DeChambeau gamesmanship surely drove up the measured results for both players.  But if either of them or the Tour thought there wouldn’t be many spectators who took the silliness seriously, they were deluding themselves.  Having done so, and now attempting to not just deflect blame but cast one of the instigators as a victim, the Tour and its commissioner have started down the slippery slope of defining harassment literally one word at a time.

Though that does open the door to one refreshing possibility.  Maybe the PGA Tour could start banning the louts who think the cleverest act known to man is to greet each player’s shot with a hearty scream of “mashed potato!”  Surely such idiocy constitutes harassment of every true fan.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 29, 2021

The PGA Tour’s Playoff Path Needs More Potholes

Patrick Cantlay won the BMW Championship Sunday, beating Bryson DeChambeau on the sixth hole of a sudden-death playoff.  The victory put Cantlay in the driver’s seat for the FedEx Cup and its $15 million payday as the PGA Tour heads to the season’s final event, the Tour Championship.  The Cup points leader heading into that tournament, Cantlay will start play at 10-under par, with the remaining twenty-nine golfers in the field teeing it up from two to ten strokes behind, based on their place in the standings.

To the casual observer, the first two events going to extra holes and that mammoth prize waiting for someone at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta next Sunday evening will be confirmation that for all the adjustments and changes that have been made to the FedEx Cup Playoffs over the years, all is well with the postseason format of golf’s preeminent professional Tour.  But like a fast green with subtle breaks, looks can be deceiving.

While the BMW and last week’s Northern Trust each gave fans the drama of sudden death, both events did so after the players at the top of the leader board scorched the two playoff courses.  This week it was Caves Valley in Owings Mills, Maryland.  The private club has hosted USGA and LPGA tournaments since opening thirty years ago, but the BMW was its first PGA Tour event.  Cantlay and DeChambeau, who began the final round tied for the lead and remained so eighteen holes later, finished regulation play at a whopping 27-under par. 

Last week the venue was Liberty National Golf Club, with its stunning views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.  The course has hosted a playoff event multiple times, sharing the duty for the Northern Trust with TPC Boston for the past few years, and was also the site of the Presidents’ Cup in 2017.  At this year’s playoff tournament, eventual winner Tony Finau and Cam Smith were both 20-under par after 72 holes.  One year ago, when the Northern Trust was played thirty minutes south of Boston, winner Dustin Johnson signed for a four-day total of 30-under par.  While Johnson all but lapped the field, runner-up Harris English’s final score of 19-under was more than good enough to win at many of the Tour’s weekly stops.

But shouldn’t the playoffs be something other than just another weekly stop for the PGA Tour’s traveling circus?  The answer to the equivalent question in other sports is “absolutely.”  Whether the trophy being sought is named after a former coach (NFL), league boss (NBA), the guy who donated it almost 130 years ago (NHL), or just for the generic position of owner’s lackey (MLB), everyone knows that come playoff time, players raise their game, and the action is even more intense than usual.  But the PGA Tour, which sets up every tournament’s course to its liking, seems content to have the venues for at least its first two postseason events play like they were hosting an Insurance Company Open in the middle of May.

To be sure, no fan is about to confuse these tournaments with the majors, and to be fair, because golf is played outdoors in a natural setting (relatively speaking), weather can disrupt the best-laid plans to have a course play tight and fast.  It’s likely that Caves Valley was softer than the Tour might have wished after the Baltimore area was visited by persistent rain in the days leading up to the tournament.  But while it should not be expected that the playoff events will serve as a late summer reprise of the U.S. Open, par should still mean something.  At the Northern Trust, a golfer had to be under par after two rounds just to make the cut.  And at the BMW, where there was no cut, every player in the field was in red numbers by the end of the tournament.

The counterpoint, that birdies and eagles are more exciting to watch than golfers scrambling to make par, is very much a matter of opinion.  Was watching DeChambeau make back-to-back eagles on Saturday, given Cave Valley’s wide fairways and soft greens, more compelling than seeing him save par by getting up and down from 150 yards out after hitting his drive into the creek to the right of the 18th hole during the playoff?  Whatever one’s answer, the reality is that a course set up for scoring turns any tournament into a putting contest.  Given that, it’s no wonder that Cantlay won, since the Tour’s putting stats had him gaining more than 3.5 strokes per round with the flatstick.  But if the purpose of the playoffs is to award the best golfer, the venues should test all aspects of the game.

That’s likely to be the case at East Lake, where the true best score, setting aside the phony starting adjustments the Tour has used since 2019, is typically around 10-under.   But since that’s true at the last stop of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the obvious question is, why does the PGA Tour wait so long?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 26, 2021

Signs Of Life In The Bronx

When last we visited the New York Yankees, both literally by traveling to the Bronx and in this space, the Bombers were playing more like bums.  As the country prepared to celebrate the Fourth of July, the Yankees were limping along at a .500 pace.  At least one loss a week seemed to come in particularly ugly fashion, to the point that manager Aaron Boone’s repeated use of the term “gut punch” to describe those recurring debacles was being derided by both fans and pundits.  In nightly chants from the stands and across various social media platforms, the faithful were screaming that both fourth-year field boss Boone and longtime GM Brian Cashman should be shown the door.  It was noted here that New York was scheduled to play fourteen of sixteen games immediately before and after mid-July’s All-Star break against three contending teams – Houston, Boston and Tampa Bay.  The suggestion was that the outcome of that stretch would indicate whether the Yankees could salvage the 2021 season.

As every fan of the Great Game knows, one should always be wary of results based on small samples.  The longest season is 162 games, in which a full-time player sees upwards of 600 plate appearances, so it is foolish to pass judgment based on his performance in a single contest, whether the day at the plate ends 4-for-5 or 0-for-4.  With one rainout, the Yankees came out of those games with seven wins and six losses, including, predictably enough, a pair of late inning gut punch defeats.  It was a better result than losing ten games and all four series, but hardly awe-inspiring.  Yet the sample size was still only thirteen games, less than one-tenth of the schedule. 

That stretch ended with a 14-0 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field on the day before this season’s trading deadline.  It was the largest shutout loss by the Yankees in fourteen years, although since Tampa Bay led 4-0 before Gerrit Cole managed to record a single out in the 1st inning, the shellacking at least didn’t qualify as a gut punch in Boone’s postgame comments.  But since then, the Yankees have won twenty-one of twenty-five games, including eleven in a row heading into a Thursday night matchup against the A’s in Oakland.  With a little help from the stumbling Red Sox and the running-in-place Athletics and Mariners, that red hot month of play has enabled New York to vault over all three of those clubs and into the top AL Wild Card spot, still behind but within sight of the Rays for the East Division lead.  A franchise that was exactly one game above .500 at the season’s halfway mark now sports the third best record in the American League.

The catalyst for the apparent turnaround was obviously not that presumably critical stretch of games against teams with eyes on the postseason.  Rather it was the July 30th closing of this year’s window for exchanging talent with other franchises.  In the final days of July Cashman made three significant deals, acquiring first baseman Anthony Rizzo from the Cubs, slugging outfielder Joey Gallo from the Rangers, and lefthanded starter Andrew Heaney from the Angels.  In each case the Yankees parted with midlevel prospects but managed to retain their most highly prized minor leaguers.  At least as important to owner Hal Steinbrenner, Cashman also managed to get the sending team to pay all or most of this year’s salary of the player being dealt to New York.  As a result, while it will be close the Yankees’ payroll should wind up under this season’s luxury tax threshold of $210 million.

For all the focus of fans and the press on the frenzy of deadline deals – and that is absolutely the right term for this year’s action, in which all thirty franchises made at least one trade, and ten players from this season’s All-Star rosters changed teams just a fortnight after representing their former club at Coors Field – not a single such deal comes with a guarantee.  The Yankees July moves certainly appear to have rejuvenated the team, but a closer look indicates it hasn’t exactly been in the way one might expect.

Rizzo’s first hit as a Yankee was a home run against the Marlins in just his third plate appearance in pinstripes, and he became the first player in franchise history with RBIs in his first six games.  Gallo recorded his initial Yankee moment with a monster home run to right field against the Mariners, and Heaney was impressive against the Red Sox last week.  But set aside selected moments and the statistics aren’t so pretty.  Since joining the team Rizzo’s batting line is .200/.311/.380, numbers that are all dramatically below the ones he put up in Chicago prior to being traded.  The same is true for Gallo, who’s hitting just .143, with an OPS more than 200 points lower than what he had in Texas.  Meanwhile on the mound, Heaney’s ERA through five starts is a full run higher than when he was pitching for the Angels.

But what the new arrivals have brought is a vastly improved attitude.  Rizzo’s outgoing personality has quickly won him fans, and he and Gallo have both played into the “Bronx Tale” hype of two Italian ballplayers suiting up for the Yankees.  Heaney won’t get any Cy Young Award votes, but he has helped stabilize a starting rotation gutted by injuries, and all three have voiced all the right sentiments about joining the Yankees.  Add in the call up from AAA of Andrew Velazquez, a 27-year-old utility player who grew up in the Bronx and who promptly starred both at the plate and in the field as New York beat Boston three times in two days last week, and suddenly a roster that spent four months looking like a group of mildly disgruntled corporate employees going through the motions of their jobs has been transformed into a team having fun.

That certainly was how things looked in last weekend’s series against the Yankees’ favorite punching bag, the Minnesota Twins.  Since 2000, including playoff contests, New York and Minnesota have now played a full season – 162 games.  The Yankees are 115-47 in those matchups, the most lopsided record between any two teams in MLB over that span.  Two of those wins came last Thursday night and Saturday afternoon.  The first victory was powered by backup catcher Kyle Higashioka, who smacked a three-run homer to left, and Velazquez, who went 2-for-3 as the Yankees won 7-5.  Then on Saturday Minnesota’s Kenta Maeda largely held the New York lineup in check for the Twins until leaving with an injury in the 5th inning, at which point the Yankees exploded against Minnesota’s bullpen, pulling away to win 7-1.

What remains unknown is which version of this year’s Bombers is real.  Is it the dominating squad of the past month, or the lethargic team that couldn’t get out of its own way through the season’s first four months?  Perhaps not much separates the two.  Seventeen games during New York’s last torrid month were decided by just one or two runs, and the Yankees posted a 14-3 mark in those contests.  The good news is that those were games the team was losing earlier in the season, often in gut punch fashion.  But close contests can turn on a single at-bat, or a manager’s decision on which reliever gets the call.  August may yet prove to be the springboard that launches the Yankees into a deep playoff run.  But it could also turn out to be just an illusory glimpse of what might have been.  The only certainty is that Cashman and Boone haven’t saved their jobs just yet.  The longest season still has a ways to go.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 23, 2021

A Golf Course For The 1%

A case can be made that Liberty National Golf Club was an entirely appropriate setting for the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust tournament.  After all, the event, which wasn’t decided until Tony Finau prevailed over Cam Smith after one hole of sudden-death early Monday evening, thanks to Hurricane Henri sideswiping greater Gotham on Sunday, was the first leg of the Tour’s three-part season-ending playoff that is open only to a select number of players.  Just the top 125 golfers, based on the year-long competition for FedEx Cup points qualified for the Northern Trust, and that number will be reduced to 70 at the BMW Championship before a mere 30 get to play for the $15 million prize that goes to the eventual FedEx Cup winner.  That fat check is in turn but a portion of the $70 million bonus pool that will be distributed to the top 150 golfers in the final standings.  Compared to the long string of zeroes on the winner’s payout, the $70,000 that goes to each player ranked from 126 to 150 seems puny.  Then again, those guys don’t even have to tee it up over these three weeks to see their bank accounts fattened by just a shade less than last year’s median U.S. family income.

While the words “exclusivity” and “wealth” aren’t embossed in gold leaf above the doors to Liberty National’s futuristic glass and steel clubhouse overlooking New York harbor, there’s no doubt they are the watchwords of the private country club, making it the perfect venue for hosting the elite of the golfing world in their quest for phenomenal riches.  Although the haul that awaits even the last golfer standing at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta two Sundays from now pales next to the earnings of the captains of finance, industry, and entertainment who comprise Liberty National’s membership.  The club is the product of Paul Fireman’s lifelong love of the game and ability to see fairways and greens where virtually anyone else would have seen an industrial wasteland.

Fireman grew up in the working-class city of Brockton, Massachusetts, where he caddied at the local club.  While working in his family’s sporting goods business he met the owner of the English running shoe company Reebok, then a relatively minor player in a U.S. market dominated by Nike.  Fireman bought Reebok’s U.S. sales rights in 1979, and by 1984 he owned the rapidly growing company.  By the time he sold his no longer little shoe company two decades later, Fireman had invested in a handful of golf courses, and, in 1995, had also purchased a mile-long strip along New Jersey’s Hudson River shoreline.  The view looking east from his acquisition was spectacular, taking in the nearby Statue of Liberty as well as the familiar skyline of Manhattan across the harbor.  But the site itself was much less scenic.  Having housed everything from a World War I ammunition dump to an oil refinery, the property was little more than acres of contaminated soil on which sat vacant warehouses and decaying oil tanks.

Not surprisingly, it took a massive investment of $300 million to make Fireman’s vision a reality.  The land was stripped clean of structures, and the contaminated soil was covered with a plastic barrier.  Six million cubic feet of clean fill was brought in, raising the site by some fifty feet.  That allowed course architects Tom Kite and Bob Cupp to sculpt a rolling layout with even a few elevated tees and greens among the eighteen holes that wind tightly around several large, man-made ponds.  The breathtaking views are omnipresent.  On days when the pin is on the left side of the green, the best targeting advice on the par-3 2nd hole is “aim for the Statue of Liberty’s torch.”  From the raised tee on the dogleg 10th, out at the farthest edge of the property from the clubhouse, the best line for one’s drive is at 1 World Trade Center, rising above all other buildings on the horizon.  Both the par-3 14th and the par-4 closing hole play along the edge of the Hudson, with the water and the sights beyond a constant distraction to any golfer, whether a Fortune 500 CEO in a weekend foursome or a touring pro fighting to advance to the next round of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Of course, anyone willing to drop $300 million on building a golf course really can’t be faulted for showing off their wealth a little bit.  At Liberty National, that excess is seen most clearly on the cart paths.  Yes, the cart paths, which for many recreational golfers are dirt or gravel lanes at their local muni, or, if one is more upscale, strips of blacktop at a private country club. Winding from the 1st tee to the 18th green, the Liberty National cart paths are extra-wide thoroughfares of individually laid paving stones.

Despite that ostentatious touch, a day spent touring Liberty National during Friday’s second round left the impression of a playable course.  To be sure, the layout can be stretched to nearly 7,400 yards when the PGA Tour stops by.  But from the green “Member” tees, it measures a little over 6,200 yards and plays to a rating of 72.2 with a slope of 134.  And from the white “Regular” tees, which one suspects are where a lot of the members actually tee it up, the course is just 5,748 yards, and rated 69.6/120, numbers that are respectable but not daunting.  Perhaps the best evidence that Liberty National is not a brute came in Saturday’s third round.  Shortly before Henri came calling and disrupted the schedule, Australia’s Smith vaulted up the leader board by shooting a course record 60, a round that was one missed birdie putt on the final green away from golf’s magic score of 59.

Come to think of it, while the initial investment of $450,000, plus $25,000 annual dues, probably rules out a Liberty National membership for On Sports and Life anytime soon, investing $300 million in golf may not be all that unusual.  That number feels close to what many duffers believe they’ve spent on new equipment over the years.  Some of us hackers just can’t resist the siren call of ad campaigns that promise this year’s technology will produce drives that fly twenty yards farther down the fairway than was possible using last season’s model.  And since year after year after year those marketing promises are always true, the 580-yard tee shot from my newest driver sure is awesome to watch. Even if it is only in my mind, and at a course with dirt cart paths.

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