Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 1, 2016

Everyone Wins With The Great Game’s New Deal

With a little more than three hours to spare Wednesday night, baseball’s players and owners reached a tentative deal on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, assuring another five years of labor peace in the Great Game. In this decade alone the NFL, NBA and NHL have all experienced work stoppages in the form of lockouts initiated by owners, but baseball has now gone more than two decades since the strike that truncated the 1994 season, wiped out the World Series for the first time since 1904 and eventually delayed the start of play in 1995. When this new agreement is ratified the period of mostly harmonious relations between owners and the union will be assured of stretching to a quarter century.

That is in sharp contrast to the period leading up to the 1994 strike. From the first players’ strike in 1972 through the 1994 debacle, baseball fans waited through a total of eight different work stoppages. The last one was the longest of all, running for 232 days. Many fans, who blamed both sides in equal measure, were thoroughly soured on the game as a result. When play finally resumed for the shortened 144-game 1995 season, attendance across the majors dropped by 20% and television ratings plummeted as well. In the end it would take first Cal Ripken Jr’s. successful pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record and then the drive by sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’s single-season home run mark to eventually bring fans back to the ballparks. Of course the fact that the latter took place with chemical assistance, while most owners, players, media members and fans chose to look the other way in turn created yet more challenges to baseball’s popularity.

While the temptation of PEDs is and will remain a problem for almost every sport, the Great Game has grown enormously since the dark days of 1994. The lack of more strikes or lockouts has certainly helped, and it sometimes seems that both sides, unable to forget the searing memory of that mutual disaster, are loath to tempt fate with the possibility of another job action. Even as the clock wound down toward the Wednesday midnight expiration of the old CBA, the widespread assumption was that failure to strike a deal would result in a short-term extension of the existing agreement rather than a decision by owners to lockout the players. No such stopgap arrangement proved necessary, as after an all-night session on Tuesday and another marathon negotiation through most of Wednesday, the two sides emerged smiling shortly before 9:00 p.m.

Owners and players alike have learned the value of keeping the game going. Much is made of the massive revenue streams produced by the NFL, but over the life of the most recent CBA major league baseball quietly grew into a $9 billion business. In that same five-year period twenty-one of the thirty franchises played in the postseason, and the ten available spots in the World Series were filled by eight different clubs. The just concluded Series was the most watched in decades and featured the feel-good story of the Great Game’s longest championship drought finally ending.

In short there were many more reasons to agree than disagree, and the two sides have now settled on a CBA that seems to have a little something for everyone. That too is in sharp contrast to our other major sports, where recent labor standoffs have generally yielded results more favorable to the owners.

Baseball’s soft salary cap, which teams can exceed at the cost of paying a luxury tax, will rise significantly over the life of the new agreement, from the current $189 million to an eventual level of $210 million. That’s a win for the players who obviously want a bigger piece of the revenue pie. On the other hand the penalties for teams that exceed the luxury tax threshold will also increase significantly. New tax rates of as much as 90% for every salary dollar over the limit may discourage some free-spending owners, even with the rich regional television deals that clubs are now signing. At the very least all but the most deep-pocketed ownership groups will think long and hard before exceeding the cap.

Starting next offseason, the qualifying offer rules for free agents will also undergo major change. Currently teams that sign a free agent who turned down a qualifying offer forfeit a first round draft pick. That has depressed the market for numerous free agents. Now the cost of such a signing will be a lower level pick, and will depend on the value of the free agent’s new contract and whether his new team is over or under the luxury tax threshold.

It’s being widely reported that the owners offered to eliminate any free agent compensation, but only if the players agreed to an international draft. That concept was vehemently opposed by a large contingent of Latin American players. Instead the agreement calls for a new hard cap, most likely around $5 million, that teams will be able to spend on signing new international talent annually. That gives the owners some cost certainty in what has been a wide open and often chaotic market.

The longest season will become just a bit longer starting in 2018, with Opening Day moved up by half a week. That will allow for the 162 game schedule to be played over 187 days instead of the current 183, easing travel schedules and the sometimes frantic late season search for an off day to make up an earlier rainout. More series will also end with afternoon games if the visiting team is scheduled to play in another city the following day, eliminating overnight flights and middle of the night arrivals.

Finally, in an unexpected change that all fans should applaud, former commissioner Bud Selig’s silliest legacy is now history. Home field advantage in the World Series will no longer go to the representative of the league that wins the All-Star Game. Instead home field will go, as it should, to the team with the best regular season record. The Midsummer Classic can go back to being what it’s always been, a fun but meaningless exhibition.

With labor peace assured fans can now turn their attention to the Winter Meetings, which convene next week and are likely to feature significant movement in this year’s free agent market. It’s only another seventy-five days or so until pitchers and catchers report, and the first games of Spring Training will follow shortly after. After Wednesday night’s good news fans can rest assured that when that day comes the venerable call will ring out. It will once again be time to “play ball!”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 27, 2016

The College Football Playoff Comes Into Focus

The National Football League may be struggling with a significant decline in television ratings this season, but judging by the extent of coverage that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the game at the collegiate level. Between the national networks, major sports cable outlets and regional networks tied to specific conferences, a viewer could scarcely avoid college football games on both Friday and Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. For almost all major programs this was the final week of the regular season schedule. For those leagues large enough to have them next weekend will bring fans the conference championship games, and then it’s on to the seemingly endless parade of bowl games, eventually culminating in the three games of the College Football Playoff (CFP), the postseason tournament that will crown a national champion in January.

Since it began in 2014, the CFP has been generally well received, if for no other reason than the fact that the one game Bowl Championship Series that preceded it was so widely despised. Because it provided a shot at the national title to just two teams and relied heavily on computerized rankings to determine the championship game’s contestants, the BCS almost always resulted in controversy.

In contrast the CFP selection committee, thirteen people who are a mix of current athletic directors and former coaches, players, media members and school officials, looks at strength of schedule, head-to-head results, conference championships and that oldest measure of success, a team’s record. Beginning midway through the college regular season, the selection committee releases weekly rankings of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Once the final rankings are released after next weekend’s games, the top four teams will be headed for the two CFP semifinal games, this year at the Peach and Fiesta Bowls on New Year’s Eve. Beyond the top four the ranking will also determine the participants in the other major bowl games (Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton).

Heading into this weekend’s contests, the top four teams in the CFP rankings were Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson. But with the games of college football’s so-called rivalry weekend now complete, the one certainty is that the list will change when the new rankings are announced on Tuesday evening.

The traditional matchups that cap the regular season for many programs are always a favorite for students and alumni, and they are certainly good for TV ratings; but many of the rivalries are in fact increasingly one-sided. Number one Alabama rolled over Auburn 30-12, winning the intra-state Iron Bowl for the third straight year. USC crushed a Notre Dame squad that might best be described as hapless. But even in good times the Fighting Irish seldom put up much of a fight against the Trojans, with Southern Cal winning eleven of the last fifteen matchups. In the Big Ten Wisconsin beat Minnesota for the thirteenth consecutive time. The most closely watched game of the weekend was thoroughly entertaining, with Ohio State edging Michigan in double overtime, after knotting the score with a field goal with just one second remaining in regulation. But history suggests the outcome was not in much doubt. It was OSU’s fifth straight win over Michigan, and the fourteenth in the last sixteen games against its archrival.

Ohio State’s 30-27 victory dropped Michigan to 10-2 and all but guaranteed the Wolverines will fall out of the top four in the CFP rankings. The likely beneficiary is Washington. The Huskies began the weekend ranked fifth, and easily dispatched Washington State 45-17 to finish first in the North Division of the Pac-12 Conference. With Clemson also winning big, a 56-7 rout of South Carolina, the conventional wisdom is that the only change in the top four this week will be Washington replacing Michigan.

That leaves just next weekend’s conference championship games as the last chance for an upset to shuffle the rankings. According to the odds makers, a loss by Alabama in the SEC title tilt would be an upset of historic proportions. The early line has the Crimson Tide favored by more than three touchdowns over Florida. The only remaining undefeated team in any of the Power Five conferences, Alabama may be given similar odds right through to the national championship game, since the Tide’s suffocating defense has now gone more than fourteen quarters since last allowing a touchdown.

Clemson and Washington are also favored in the ACC and Pac-12 championship games, though not so overwhelmingly. Both are about one touchdown choices over opponents Virginia Tech and Colorado. If both emerge unscathed along with Alabama next week, the selection committee would seemingly be hard pressed to drop them from the top four (assuming of course that Washington goes into the top four this week).

Which brings us to Ohio State, and the one bit of controversy in this year’s rankings. The Buckeyes are guaranteed to not lose next weekend, because they won’t be playing. The Big 10 championship game will be between Wisconsin and Penn State, because the latter finished with an identical conference record as OSU, but won the head-to-head matchup back in October. So if the current rankings hold, one of the four participants in this year’s College Football Playoff won’t even be the champion of its own conference. No doubt that doesn’t sit well with fans of Wisconsin and Penn State, ranked sixth and seventh respectively as of last week.

But the argument for Ohio State, and it’s a strong one, is strength of schedule. The Buckeyes played half of the eight other teams in the top nine of the rankings, and emerged with a record of 3-1 against those four quality opponents. Three of those games were on the road. No other highly ranked squad, including Alabama, can boast of a similarly daunting schedule.

While the three-point loss to Penn State cost it the Big 10 East title on a tiebreaker, Ohio State likely remains the top choice of the selection committee among Big 10 teams. Perhaps if either Wisconsin or Penn State roll to a big win next weekend the conference might get two nods, but only if one of the other key conference championship games ends in an upset. Besides, until Alabama shows some sign of weakness, all of the other schools look to be playing for participation prizes. At this point the Crimson Tide would probably be favored if matched against the Cleveland Browns, and maybe two or three other NFL squads.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 24, 2016

A Life Far Greater Than One Moment In Time

As another Thanksgiving draws to a close, sports fans can be grateful for many moments. In the twelve months since their last tryptophan coma they have seen one of football’s greatest quarterbacks go out a winner in February’s Super Bowl 50. They have witnessed a compelling and dramatic World Series, stretched to its full seven games with the final contest extended into extra innings. They watched as that Series finally brought to an end a title drought of epic scale for the victorious Chicago Cubs, just as they saw another city long associated with losing write an exciting new chapter when LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA championship last spring.

For fans of the Denver Broncos, Cubs and Cavaliers, for those who count among their heroes Peyton Manning or Vonn Taylor, Anthony Rizzo or Kyle Schwarber, or King James, there are plenty of reasons to give thanks. Even those without a specific rooting interest can appreciate the thrill of games well played and dramatic endings. It’s also natural when recalling the highlights of sports over the past year to think first of the winners. Except for the occasional bettor with hard cash at stake, no fan roots for his favorite team or player to lose, and the fan bases of teams that always seem to come up short quickly earn the sympathetic description of “long-suffering.” No matter the sport, the purpose of every contest is to win.

But losing is not without value and sometimes the more important lesson can be learned from those who do not claim the prize. That simple truth seems especially important to remember on this Thanksgiving, which arrived with the sad news that Ralph Branca has passed away at the age of 90.

Branca was a three-time All-Star who won 88 games, all but eight of them with the Brooklyn Dodgers during a twelve-year career that included stints with the Tigers and Yankees. He won 21 games in 1947 when he led the National League in games started. Two years later he was the league leader in winning percentage at .722. He made it to the big leagues at the tender age of 18, but a back injury suffered during Spring Training in 1952 robbed him of his effectiveness, and he was out of the game at the age of 30.

But Ralph Branca is not remembered for his 21 victory season, a win total that matched his age in 1947. Fans do not recall the enormous potential of a tall right-hander with a blazing fastball who had 75 wins by the age of 25. The three All-Star Game selections are lost to history. For more than six decades, since 3:58 p.m. on the afternoon of October 3, 1951, Branca is remembered for one pitch. That pitch, the second of the at-bat, was a high and tight fastball to Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants. It was the 9th inning of the decisive third game of a playoff to determine the National League champion, after the Dodgers and Giants had finished the regular season with matching records of 96-58. Brooklyn was leading 4-2, but New York had runners on second and third with just one out, and had already plated one run in the inning off Dodgers’ starter Don Newcombe.

As even casual fans know, Thomson swung at that fastball and sent a line drive toward the sixteen foot high wall in left field at the Polo Grounds. Even as he turned to follow the ball Branca was saying to himself, “Sink, sink sink.” But the drive stayed up, disappearing into the left field seats for a title-winning home run. Thomson’s homer became the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” immortalized in grainy video almost always accompanied by the exultant repetitive call of the Giants’ play-by-play man Russ Hodges on WMCA-AM radio.

In the long decades since other pitchers have served up dramatic postseason home runs. The Yankees’ Ralph Terry threw the pitch that Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates sent over the left field wall at Forbes Field for a walk-off homer that won Game 7 of the 1960 World Series for Pittsburgh. Thirty-three years later in the 9th inning of Game 6 Mitch Williams of the Phillies sent an offering to Joe Carter that the Blue Jays’ outfielder hit over the fence for a three-run homer to win the Series. In between those two Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley watched as gimpy Kirk Gibson blasted one of his pitches to right at Dodger Stadium to stun the Oakland A’s in Game 1 of the 1988 Series.

The Mazeroski and Carter homers in particular, as the only two round trippers to win world championships, are arguably more notable than Thomson’s shot. But in 1951 the Great Game was still the national pastime, and Game 3 of the Dodgers-Giants playoff was the first baseball game to be televised nationally. Perhaps that is why the old scene at the Polo Grounds endures as a moment of high drama, and for the pitcher who made the fateful delivery, one of ultimate despair.

But the lesson of Branca’s life is that even a defeat that becomes a permanent part of one’s resume need not ultimately define a person. Shortly after throwing the fastball to Thomson Branca met his fiancé and a Jesuit priest in the parking lot of the Polo Grounds. “Why me?” he asked the cleric; who replied “Ralph, God chose you because He knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”

So in fact, Branca was. A man of deep faith, he quickly realized that his family was far more important to him than anything he did on the mound. He was married less than three weeks after Brooklyn’s 1951 season came to its heartbreaking conclusion, and he and his wife Ann raised two daughters. He enjoyed tremendous success in the insurance business, but also made time to serve for 17 years as president of Baseball Assistance Team, a charity dedicated to assisting members of the baseball family who fall upon hard times. Since its formation in 1986, BAT has provided more than $32 million in aid to 3,400 recipients.

He was also proud of having stood willingly next to Jackie Robinson during player introductions on Opening Day in 1947, as Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. He dismissed the concerns of friends who worried that a fanatic with poor aim might take a pot shot at Robinson and hit Branca instead. But his courage also earned him plenty of vitriol from those who wanted to keep major league lineups lily-white. Years later he served as a pallbearer at Robinson’s funeral.

Inevitably every remembrance of Ralph Branca begins with his role in the Great Game’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” But those that are complete do not end there. They speak of a full life lived well, of personal success and public service, and of the enduring importance of family and friends. They tell the story of a man who suffered one of sports’ most public defeats, and then refused to let that moment of ignominy define his life. It is a story worth remembering, and one for which all sports fans should be thankful.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 17, 2016

The Usual Awards, Plus An Especially Well Deserved One

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday, so there will be no post this weekend. The regular schedule resumes this time next week. Thanks as always for your loyalty and support.

The announcements began with the Dodgers’ Corey Seager being named National League Rookie of the Year Monday evening. They ended with the Cubs’ Kris Bryant being tapped as the NL Most Valuable Player a little over 48 hours later. In between Detroit’s Michael Fulmer joined Seager by winning the AL Rookie award, Cleveland’s Terry Francona and L.A.’s Dave Roberts took home the hardware as the top managers in each league, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer won the Cy Young Awards, and the Angels’ Mike Trout won his second MVP title as the top player in the American League. The eight awards conferred annually by the Baseball Writers Association of America, the major individual honors in the Great Game, have been announced and the annual debate about the misguided voting by the scribes can now begin.

Actually when compared to some prior seasons, this year’s results should generate relatively little heat, allowing fans to turn their attention to the more important matter of offseason free agent signings and trades. Seager won all thirty first place votes in the NL Rookie contest, easily outdistancing Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals. The 22-year old L.A. shortstop batted .308 with 26 homers and 72 RBIs while playing solid defense. His WAR rating of 7.5 ranked fifth, not just among rookies or in the National League, but in all of major league baseball.

The American League rookie balloting was closer with Fulmer, whose sparkling first half on the mound kept the Tigers in the playoff race, outpacing Gary Sanchez of the Yankees. But Sanchez wasn’t called up until early August, and while New York fans may have been dreaming of their new franchise catcher winning the award, it was never likely that most of the voting writers would weight his partial season heroics more heavily than Fulmer’s complete body of work.

In the MVP voting Bryant was nearly unanimous, missing out on only one first place ballot. Chicago’s third baseman, who fielded the final out of the World Series, is just the fourth player to be named MVP one year after winning Rookie of the Year. Trout, who took home his first MVP honor two years ago, is the first player ever to finish in the top two in the voting in each of his first five major league seasons.

In his first season managing at any level, L.A.’s Roberts beat out Joe Maddon of the champion Cubs and the National’s Dusty Baker to win the prize as the senior circuit’s top skipper. He’s the first manager of the Dodgers to be so honored since Tommy Lasorda in 1988. The fact that Los Angeles captured the NL West crown while topping the majors with 28 players placed on the disabled list over the course of the season, including an extended absence by superstar left-hander Clayton Kershaw, obviously spoke powerfully to the BBWAA’s small elite electorate about Roberts’s ability to get everything possible out of his roster.

If the Dodgers’ manager was a likely choice in the National League, then Cleveland’s Francona was the obvious one in the AL. With 22 first place votes and as the only manager to be named on all 30 ballots, the 57-year old Francona was a runaway winner over Jeff Bannister of the Rangers and Buck Showalter of the Orioles. The Cleveland franchise was nearly as beat up as the Dodgers, and unlike L.A. was not a popular preseason choice to contend. But Francona led his charges to a 94-win season, good for an eight game margin over the Tigers in the AL Central. He produced that result even after losing two members of his starting rotation for the stretch run. After winning a pair of World Series in Boston, Francona took home his third AL crown this year. Among active managers, only the Giants’ Bruce Bochy and the Nationals’ Dusty Baker have more playoff appearances, and only Bochy has more pennants and World Series titles.

Wednesday’s announcements of the Cy Young Award winners brought the closest thing to genuine controversy. Washington’s Scherzer won the NL award in a vote that wasn’t as close as expected. The 32-year old twenty-game winner, who won the AL award with Detroit in 2013, led the league in wins, starts, innings and strikeouts. He tied the Major League mark of twenty strikeouts in a nine inning game in a contest against his former team in May. But he had only one more win than Chicago’s Jon Lester, and Lester’s 2.44 ERA was more than half a run better than Scherzer’s. In turn, Lester’s mark was only good for runner-up status in that statistic, because teammate Kyle Hendricks led the league with a 2.13 ERA. Hendricks also topped all NL hurlers in opponents’ OPS. In the end the surprise wasn’t so much that the Nationals’ ace won, but that he ran away from two other worthy contenders.

Then there was the voting for the AL Cy Young, in which Boston’s Rick Porcello edged Detroit’s Justin Verlander. The Tigers’ star looked washed up two seasons ago when he struggled with injuries. But he rebounded this season to lead the league in strikeouts while finishing second in ERA and innings pitched. He also led in first place votes by the writers, taking 14 out of 30. But while nearly half of the voters picked Verlander as the best pitcher in the league, only two ranked him second and two of them didn’t put him in their top five, leaving him off the ballot entirely. That odd voting pattern allowed Porcello to claim the trophy despite being named first on only eight ballots. While it’s not unheard of for a player with the most first place votes to come up short in the overall tally, Verlander now holds the dubious distinction of having the largest edge in votes for first while failing to win.

Of course the main lesson of the annual rollout of the Great Game’s individual award winners is that baseball remains a team sport. Balloting is conducted before the playoffs begin, but just two winners, the Cubs new MVP Bryant and Cleveland skipper Francona, were involved in the World Series. Among all the names mentioned here, the Angel’s Trout is the most recognized in terms of these awards, with a Rookie of the Year, two MVP awards, and three second place MVP finishes in the past five years. But in that same time the Angels have been to the postseason only one time. In 2014 they were swept out of the ALDS in three games by the Royals.

So perhaps baseball’s most meaningful individual award announcement this week was that President Obama has decided to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to Vin Scully, who just ended his long and glorious career as the voice of the Dodgers. Fans have probably seen the video of Scully reacting during a phone call from White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “Oh my gosh. No! Are you sure?” says Scully, before adding with his characteristic modesty, “I’m just an old baseball announcer.” More like the voice of the Great Game. Scully’s new honor is one award that no fan will second guess.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 13, 2016

Eighteen Holes In Deep Autumn

The vibrant hues of early autumn have given way to muted tones of rust. The number of bare trees is growing, and the leaves on the ground outnumber those still clinging to limbs. Here in northern New England, another golfing season nears its end. A few courses have begun to shut down as some clubs elect not to deal with the start and stop uncertainty of morning frost delays. But when the thermometer stays above freezing overnight and climbs into the low fifties on a sun-splashed Sunday, the tee sheet fills quickly at those that remain open for business. There are plenty of cars in the parking lot as two of us unload our clubs and prepare to set out.

The public course has been open for more than half a century. Today it sits hard by busy I-95, the sounds of speeding traffic creating an unceasing backdrop of noise along the third, fourth and fifth holes. But when it first opened in 1962 it would have been isolated on a quiet two lane road in rural North Hampton. The six lanes of macadam filled with rushing cars and trucks are a reminder of how much has changed over the decades, while the eighteen holes that remain true to their original design provide a reassuring sense of permanence. The layout is sprawling, and by the time we make it to the further reaches of the back nine we will play in the silence of a Sunday afternoon. It isn’t the sternest test of golf in the area, with a mostly wide open front nine that provides relief to those with a tendency to spray their shots. But the greens have plenty of break, and on the inward half there are several holes hemmed in by tall trees.

Shortly after eleven we stride off the first tee, one bag on a shoulder and the other on a pull cart. A conversation about the recent election is put on hold as we temporarily part company, for our opening drives have gone to opposite sides of the first fairway. On the card it looks like a gentle opening hole, but having played here often we know despite its modest length the strength of the hole lies in a green that pitches sharply away from the fairway. It’s the rare approach shot, even with a short iron, that holds the putting surface. Sure enough, we are soon both facing chip shots, scrambling to save a respectable score.

As is the case at some point in every round, the talk turns to sports on the second hole. After all one of us writes this blog, so it seems more likely subject matter than say, particle physics. It being Sunday the week’s NFL contests are reviewed. But there will be no checking iPhones for scoring updates as the round goes on. New England’s game is set for Sunday night, and the other golfer, a lifelong Giants fan, knows that his team doesn’t play until Monday.

The first par of the day is recorded on the third hole, with an assist from lady luck. A deep creek bisects the fairway near the landing area for our tee shots. One drive sails safely over the hazard and on up the fairway, but the other is sent terribly offline to the right. The errant shot lands just short of the water, but instead of bouncing into the creek the first carom carries it over to the far bank, and the Titleist comes to rest in the rough. Give this reprieve the golfer responds with a well-struck hybrid that carries up the hill and onto the putting surface. From there two putts seal the par.

Three holes later the compatriot matches that performance. Three solid shots down the spacious sixth fairway bring him greenside on the par-5. A well-executed chip runs six feet past the hole, and the ensuing putt rattles into the bottom of the cup for a fine par save.

The course is full, with a mix of foursomes and smaller groups. At the start our twosome had been told we could go off on our own, right behind two twenty-somethings who were playing from the tips. But the pace of play is inevitably set by the foursomes, and that has meant waiting on almost every shot. As we all stand on the seventh tee, a downhill par-3, a ranger asks us if we would mind joining the two young men, thus forming our own foursome. Despite the obvious difference in age and ability, it is of course the polite thing to do. For the rest of the round we will enjoy a demonstration of the raw power of youth, as our new playing partners send towering drives into the sky, shots that come to rest fifty and sixty yards past our own best efforts.

But golf is a game for life in part because it is multifaceted. Power alone does not guarantee success. The back nine begins with one of the harder holes on the course. It’s a stern down and then up par-5, with some of the heavier rough on the property down the left side and another deep creek crossing the fairway near the spot where second shots often land. After a decent drive one of us must decide whether to lay up short of the creek or risk the danger in order to hopefully have a shorter approach. The risk is taken, and by remembering to swing easy a 7-wood is more than enough to clear the hazard and set up a 9-iron third. The long hitters are next to one another seventy yards further up the hill in two, and both execute lovely punch shots that stop just a few feet from the flag. But a blow is struck for a more experienced generation when that 9-iron approach stops ten or twelve feet past the hole. It is our curling birdie putt that rolls in first, and only one of the two three-footers falls in on top of it.

Of course golf is also a game utterly lacking in logic. Our twosome has taken four and seven shots, respectively, to play the difficult par-5 tenth hole. So of course we then take six and eight to navigate the straightforward par-3 that immediately follows.

The November sun is slipping toward the horizon as we make our way up the final fairway. We’ve learned that the young men in our company graduated from high school with a stepson of one of us, so as happens so often on the links a new bond has been formed. The late holes have not treated us kindly; to say that in this particular round we are staggering home would be charitable. Still we play the ball as it lies (while noting with some alarm that the young men do not), and we dutifully record every stroke. Our scores today are certainly much higher than those of our mid-round partners, and higher than we have had on this same course on other days.

But since we aren’t on tour this game is about things more important than the score. It’s about an unspoiled walk on a lovely autumn afternoon. It’s about a common love for the game across generations. It’s about the strength of a friendship more than four decades old. Another golf season is nearing an end; but a new one will follow. The game will go on, as will our small part in it.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 10, 2016

Time To Fire Up The Hot Stove

The final out of the final game has been recorded, and a victory parade more than a century in the making has wound its way through the streets of Chicago. But the Great Game like every other sport is in the news all year round in this age of 24/7 media coverage. This week marked the beginning of awards season, with top individual performances recognized with Golden Gloves and Silver Sluggers, while the Players Choice Awards recognized the late Jose Fernandez of the Marlins as the NL Comeback Player of the Year.

Lest one think the recognition was merely a nod to sentiment, it should be noted that the voting by players took place in mid-September, before Fernandez was killed in a boating accident late in the month. After losing most of two seasons to Tommy John surgery, the 24-year old was 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA and 253 strikeouts as the time of his death. Next week come the announcements of the BBWAA’s annual trophies – MVP, Cy Young, and Manager and Rookie of the Year.

Ultimately more important than hardware, the Hot Stove Season also got underway this week with the start of free agency, almost before the street sweepers in Chicago were done cleaning up the detritus from the Cubs party for a couple million or so of their fans. The champion Cubs will look to strengthen a lineup that dominated the most recent season from start to finish, while twenty-nine other teams will be trying to figure out what moves will give them the best shot of challenging Chicago for pride of place in baseball’s pecking order next year.

While it would be highly unusual for the first few days of free agency to produce any news of an imminent blockbuster signing or multi-player trade, there have already been two stories worthy of mention. The first was the list of prospective free agents extended qualifying offers by their current teams. While the system may change with the advent of a new collective bargaining agreement in the near future, the current qualifying offer mechanism allows a team to offer a player a one-year deal equal to the average of the top 125 major league salaries. This year that average jumped to $17.2 million, up from $15.8 million last off-season. If the player declines the offer and signs elsewhere as a free agent, his now former team receives draft pick compensation.

The concept is simple. A team that may not want to extend or be able to afford a rich multi-year offer can try to retain a player’s services with a lucrative short-term deal while at least assuring that if their star walks the franchise gets something in return. The player in turn has the chance to make a very good salary for one season while retaining the option of free agency just twelve months later. But up until last year it was a simple concept that didn’t work, because not a single qualifying offer had been accepted since the mechanism was put in place in 2012. It had come to be seen as just a means of depressing the value of any free agent saddled with the offer, since all potential new employers knew that signing him carried with it the cost of a draft choice.

Then last year Dodgers’ starter Brett Anderson, Orioles’ catcher Matt Wieters and Astros’ outfielder Colby Rasmus became the first players to accept qualifying offers. Their decisions to do so breathed new life into the system, and ultimately showed that when it works it imposes risks on teams as well as players. While Wieters performed about as expected for Baltimore, Rasmus was plagued by injuries and finished the year barely batting above .200. The news was worse in Los Angeles, where Anderson never made it through Spring Training before requiring back surgery. For their investment of nearly $16 million, the Dodgers got just four late season appearances from Anderson, and in those he had an unsightly 11.91 ERA.

Perhaps because of those cautionary tales, the number of qualifying offers extended by clubs plummeted this year, from the record twenty of last November to just ten. The two highest profile players on the list are slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets and closer Kenley Jansen, who saved 47 games for the Dodgers. Odds are this year the system will revert to form, with it more likely than not than none of the ten players tabbed by their current teams will opt for the one-year, $17.2 million contract. Perhaps the new CBA will produce a mechanism that does a better job of balancing the interests of teams and players.

The other news of note involved not $17.2 million, but $7.5. That’s the amount of the one-year deal that pitcher R.A. Dickey inked with Atlanta on Thursday. That might sound like a lot of money to throw at a 42-year old who posted a 10-15 record with Toronto and was left off the Blue Jays playoff roster, but it may actually be a good fit. In the economics of the game that is not a huge contract for a starting pitcher, even including the club option for 2018 at $8 million. And as a knuckleballer Dickey is one of those rare pitchers who could conceivably be relatively effective well into his forties. He’s an innings eater, have thrown more than two hundred five seasons in a row prior to dripping to 169.1 in 2016. For a team in the midst of a rebuild like Atlanta, Dickey might well serve as a veteran bridge until younger prospects are ready to join the rotation.

The 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner is also one of the more cerebral players in the Great Game, and author of “Wherever I Wind Up,” a compelling memoir. The only pitcher who will never have to worry about Tommy John surgery, because his right arm doesn’t have an ulnar collateral ligament, made it to the big leagues against the longest of odds. Now he gets to finish his career with a franchise that’s a relatively short commute from his Tennessee home. Dickey may not have another Cy Young season in him, but the Great Game has always in part been about its characters. The knuckleballer is certainly one of those. It’s good news for baseball fans that he’s not done yet.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 6, 2016

Chrome Finishes A Neck Short Of A Perfect Year

As the Breeders’ Cup Classic field of nine horses turned for home at Santa Anita Park late Saturday afternoon, jockey Victor Espinoza had California Chrome in front by two and one-half lengths. The five-year old chestnut colt had surged to the lead right out of the gate, leaving the other horses to chase him the first time past the packed grandstand, around Santa Anita’s sweeping turns and down the back stretch. The pace had been quick but not blazing, and Espinoza appeared to have plenty of horse left with a quarter-mile to run.

The horse’s legion of fans, self-styled as “Chromies,” came to their feet and offered their support with full-throated roars that seemed to echo off the distant San Gabriel Mountains. California Chrome, one of the most unlikely champions in the history of American horse racing, was two furlongs from claiming the winner’s share of the Classic’s $6 million purse and becoming the richest race horse ever.

No one, least of all Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, could have imagined such a scene when, in 2010, they paid $2,000 to breed Love the Chase, a mare they had purchased for $8,000, to Lucky Pulpit, a relatively unknown sire who had won three times in twenty-two starts on the track. In naming the foal they combined the state of his birth with horsemen’s slang for the white blaze on his face. When Chrome was ready for race training at age two, the low-budget owners turned to Art Sherman, an old school trainer with a small stable of horses housed at Los Alamitos Race Course, a poor cousin to the high-end Hollywood vibe of Santa Anita.

There was little to impress in the horse’s campaign as a two-year old. California Chrome won just twice in his first seven tries, often broke poorly, and showed a dislike for running in traffic. But late in 2013 Sherman decided to switch jockeys, giving the mount to Victor Espinoza. On the last day of racing before historic old Hollywood Park was shuttered for good, Espinoza and Chrome cruised to an easy victory in the King Glorious Stakes.

The new pairing continued their success in Chrome’s three-year old season. They scored a five length win in the California Cup Derby in late January, and won by more than seven at the Grade II San Felipe Stakes in early March. One month later, when California Chrome romped home by a widening margin at the Santa Anita Derby, the improbable star was made the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

Racing fans know the story from there. The horse became just the fourth California-bred to win the Derby, making the 77-year old Sherman the oldest trainer to saddle a winner of the country’s premier race. Two weeks later at the Preakness Chrome again went off as the favorite. Just as at the Derby he took the lead at the top of the stretch and went on to win comfortably. All eyes turned to the Big Sandy, the mile and a half oval at Belmont Park. But after three weeks of intense hype because of the long, long wait for a Triple Crown champion, Chrome had his heel clipped by another horse coming out of the gate, and wound up in a dead heat for fourth, less than two lengths behind the winner Tonalist. After the race the garrulous Coburn had a televised meltdown, angry over the fact that the winner had not attempted the grueling schedule of running in all three Triple Crown races.

Still Chrome went on to win another graded stakes race late in 2014 and was named the Horse of the Year. This is the point where the horse’s story veers from the norm. The lure of stud fees usually lure the owners of major stakes winners to retire their steeds after their three-year old season. But Martin and Coburn eventually decided to continue to race their horse. He was sent overseas to try his luck in the Middle East and England in 2015. Separated from his trainer for long periods, California Chrome turned in lackluster performances and was eventually diagnosed with a leg injury. He was shipped back to the United States and given three months off to rest and recuperate.

The long break proved beneficial as Chrome continued to race this year, now at the age of five. Prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he had been sent to the post six times in 2016, from his home state to Dubai and back to the west coast. All six times, at distances ranging from eight and one half furlongs to a mile and a quarter, California Chrome came home at the front of the field. The half dozen wins added to his war chest, and every Chromie knew that their hero had become the career winnings leader among North American horses, with more than $13.4 million in earnings before Saturday.

In the movie version of the horse’s story, perhaps he would have charged down the lane, crossing the wire in front and adding to his legend. But Saturday was not California Chrome’s day. Arrogate, a late-blooming three-year old who set a race record in winning the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August by thirteen lengths, swung to the outside at the top of the stretch and began to close. Espinoza urged Chrome on, and the leader responded. With a furlong to go it looked like he would hold off jockey Mike Smith and Arrogate. Then in the final hundred yards the pursuer rallied, bounding in front as the pair approached the wire. In the end it was Arrogate by a long neck.

There was disappointment for California Chrome’s many fans, but there should not be dismay. It is the nature of racing that all horses get beat. Secretariat lost. The great filly Zenyatta defeated all comers nineteen times in a row before losing her final race in 2010. Triple Crown champion American Pharoah was rightly called a “horse of a lifetime” by track announcer Larry Colmus as he romped home in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. But Pharoah had been defeated two months earlier at the Travers.

Rather than despair, the Chromies should celebrate their hero’s many accomplishments and his unmatched heart. For a $2,000 stud fee and from an $8,000 broodmare, two unlikely owners and a little known trainer have given racing fans memories that will last long after California Chrome’s final race has been called.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 3, 2016

A Series For The Ages Ends A Drought Almost As Long

In the end, in the 37th Game 7 in World Series history, the more complete team emerged triumphant. Ending a century and change of heartbreak and horror for their fans, the Chicago Cubs completed their comeback from a three games to one deficit to defeat the Cleveland nine 8-7 in 10 innings and claim the title. Yet even as the Chicago players joined in the traditional celebration near the pitcher’s mound, one couldn’t help but admire both clubs who gave their all in the most-watched Series in many years.

The joy in Wrigleyville is unbridled, as it should be. But for understandable reasons, on the Northside of Chicago, it was never a sure thing until the final out was recorded. There was the gnawing fact that only four previous times in the two decades of the Wild Card era had the team that dominated the standings throughout the regular season parlayed that excellence into a championship. Then there was all of Chicago’s sad history, the legacy of late season and playoff collapses that added to the long toll of seasons without even a chance to play for a title.

If not on the minds of players, surely that legacy was uppermost in the thoughts of fans as Game 7 progressed. The decisive contest could not have started any better for the Cubs’ faithful. Leadoff batter Dexter Fowler sent Corey Kluber’s fourth pitch, a 92 mile per hour sinker that didn’t sink, over the center field fence for a home run. Over the next four hours Chicago held leads of 1-0, 5-1 and 6-3; but every time Cleveland rallied.

The home squad had managed to plate four or more runs just three times in eleven ALCS and World Series games. Yet there was Cleveland capitalizing on a Jon Lester wild pitch that bounced off the mask of catcher David Ross in the bottom of the 5th. As the stunned Ross scrambled for the ball, two Cleveland base runners raced home to narrow Chicago’s advantage. Then in the 8th the often unhittable Aroldis Chapman was greeted by an RBI double off the bat of Brandon Guyer, followed by Rajai Davis’s screaming line drive to left that exited the playing field in a hurry and tied the game at 6-all.

Fans of both teams, with their combined 176 years of championship frustration were forced to wait out a brief rain delay before the game headed to overtime, the fifth Game Seven in Series history to feature extra innings. But then what’s an additional seventeen minutes of uncertainty for loyal supporters who have waited that long?

The denouement finally came in the 10th, but not without more tension. Kyle Schwarber, who by rights should have still been rehabbing the injuries that cut short his season in its nascent days last April, led off with a single. A pinch runner moved to second on a fly out, and scored one batter later when Series MVP Ben Zobrist doubled down the left field line. The Cubs added an insurance run, one they needed when Cleveland mounted yet one more rally, this as the American League representative was down to its final out. Davis, Cleveland’s 8th inning hero, singled home Guyer to make it 8-7. But when Michael Martinez rolled a soft ground ball to third baseman Kris Bryant, Cubs fans everywhere could finally exhale. Bryant was grinning from ear to ear as he scooped up the ball from the infield grass at Progressive Field and fired a strike to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to bring the World Series to a close.

The Cubs had the luxury of a healthy starting rotation that allowed manager Joe Maddon to go with a four-man rotation. Cleveland’s starting pitching had been decimated by late season injuries, forcing Terry Francona to ask just three starters to go on short rest, with ace Jake Arrieta taking the mound three times in eight days. The Cleveland field boss tried to offset those demands on his starters by going early and often to his bullpen. But as the innings thrown by his core relievers mounted, they too felt the strain. The usually resolute Andrew Miller yielded four hits and a pair of runs in two and one-third innings of Game 7. And by having to go to Miller and closer Cody Allen in the middle innings, Francona was left with only lesser choices at the witching hour as Wednesday night became Thursday morning.

Chicago was also the stronger team offensively. While the two squads matched total runs in the Series with 27 each, the Cubs batted twelve points higher than Cleveland, with more total hits and more for extra bases than their opponent. Chicago runners also stole twice as many bases. On defense, despite a couple of sloppy games, the Cubs finished with better fielding numbers than Cleveland as well.

So it is fair to say that the better team won, which does not always happen in a short series. Even as they revel in a championship so very long in the making, Cubs fans can look forward to a future filled with potential. While Chicago has signed expensive free agents like Lester and traded for late season rentals like Chapman, the core of the team is home-grown and young. Of the four starting infielders Rizzo is the oldest at 27, and all four are under team control through 2021. After decades of backing the Great Game’s lovable losers, Cubs fans are already thinking about a dynasty.

Yet it’s not impossible that to establish themselves as such the Cubs will have to go through Cleveland again. Yes the losers of this Series will be remembered for giving up a three games to one lead. But this was a team with a modest payroll that was besieged by injuries. Cleveland was the underdog against Boston in the ALDS, and again against Toronto in the ALCS. Few observers not living near the Cuyahoga River gave the team much of a chance in the Fall Classic. But there were Francona’s charges, refusing to go away, taking the heavily favored Cubs to seven games and the seventh game to ten innings.

Now it is Cleveland with the longest championship drought in the Great Game. Surely that will give this year’s runner-up something to think about over the winter, and added motivation come the start of Spring Training. The longest season has ended with a dramatic and exciting World Series. But for Cleveland and every other team that didn’t win this year that just means that in little more than three months, pitchers and catchers report.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 30, 2016

For The NFL, A Blip Or A Turning Point?

The calendar readies for its turn to November, taking us deep into autumn. The ghosts and goblins prepare for their annual parade, and in most parts of the country morning temperatures have begun their inevitable slide down the thermometer. As the rugged residents of the make-believe land of Westeros are fond of saying, winter is coming. In the sports world, that of course means that the National Football League reigns supreme, as millions of Americans from sea to shining sea set aside three or four hours on Sunday afternoon to watch their gridiron heroes.

Except this year something unexpected is happening. As has been widely reported, with the NFL’s regular season nearing its midpoint, television ratings are down significantly. Overall viewership through last weekend was down 12 percent compared to one year earlier. For the league’s primetime offerings the news is even worse. Ratings for the evening games broadcast by CBS on Thursdays, NBC on Sundays and ESPN on Mondays have dropped by as much as 21 percent.

League executives have been at a loss to explain the falloff, perhaps because it is so out of character with the news that usually comes out of the NFL’s marketing department. As football has risen to dominate the sports landscape in the U.S., the league’s top brass, led by Commissioner Roger Goodell, have espoused a vision of the future in which growth continues unabated. Not content with running a $10 billion sports enterprise, Goodell set a goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by the latter part of the next decade.

Television rights are a key component of meeting that goal. Two years ago, when the contracts with the networks listed above plus Fox were renewed, the multi-year package nearly doubled in value, from $20.4 billion for the previous deal to $39.6 billion for the current term that runs through 2022. For the networks’ individual contracts to make sense, each broadcaster must sell a lot of advertising at constantly escalating rates. In turn, for companies to justify that kind of marketing expense, ever higher numbers of viewers have to be watching those commercials.

Neither the NFL nor any of its billionaire team owners, nor any of the major broadcast networks, are about to go broke. Earlier this year CBS peddled ads for Super Bowl 50 at more than $5 million for a 30-second spot. But the ratings for the on-field product so far this season at the very least add a note of caution to the NFL’s always suspect projections of continuing growth on into the mists of the future.

Some of the reasons for the decline in views are probably cyclical. The NFL has pointed to the three-ring circus that is the 2016 presidential campaign as a contributing factor, and it is true that in past presidential election years ratings have dropped, though never as much as this year. Many fans blame the quality of the competition. Three of the four AFC divisions, and two of four in the NFC, have just one team with a record about .500. The Cleveland Browns have yet to win a game, and teams like Jacksonville, Chicago and San Francisco aren’t a whole lot better. But even last week’s game between New England and Pittsburgh, two elite franchises with large fan bases, attracted 11 percent fewer viewers than the comparable contest last season.

That suggests more deeply rooted problems for the NFL, of which three stand out. First is the long-term movement away from network television and expensive monthly cable packages. Younger viewers, and now even some not so young, are taking their viewing habits to the internet and to devices other than the flat screen in the family room. While those fans may still be watching, they aren’t doing so in a manner that supports those multi-billion dollar contracts between the league and the traditional broadcast networks.

Second is the necessary reliance on advertising to justify those contracts. Several years ago a Wall Street Journal study estimated that a typical NFL contest has just eleven minutes of time that the ball is in play. That limited action is increasingly interrupted by lengthy commercial breaks that make watching a game a difficult exercise in patience for fans possessing ever shortening attention spans.

The third and most difficult problem for the NFL is the changing view of many fans toward the game. The hard hitting that was celebrated for so long has been replaced by growing concern over the long-term health effects of playing a violent sport. The spate of players retiring early due to health concerns and the rising number of parents keeping their children from playing youth football should be warning signs to the league about football’s future popularity.

Along with that, Goodell and company have tarnished the NFL’s image with erratic responses to disciplinary issues. The most recent case was that of Giants kicker Josh Brown, originally suspended for one game over domestic abuse allegations.

The suspension was far less than the supposed standard for a case like Brown’s, but the league originally cited mitigating circumstances, namely the decision by Brown’s now ex-wife to press charges. As experts in the field know, this is hardly an unusual circumstance and no proof of innocence. Then Giants’ owner John Mara compounded the problem by stating that Brown had informed the club of previous incidents of abuse, but adding “what’s a little unclear is the extent of that.” Allowing that the statement was likely an unfortunate choice of words, it set Mara up for ridicule as fans asked just how much abuse was apparently acceptable to the owner and his team.

Perhaps at this time next year, when the country isn’t in the midst of an election season, or when a few more franchises are playing better football, or maybe when there isn’t a compelling World Series taking place, the ratings for NFL games will be back to their older numbers and once again climbing. But the warning signs suggest otherwise. Roger Goodell and the rest of the NFL leadership, seduced for so long by their own promises of unending growth, would do well to consider a different, and less rosy, future.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 27, 2016

A Vintage World Series Is Now Best Of Five

Just two games into the World Series and already fans have seen history made. Not just in a Series, but in all previous postseason games, no pitcher had ever struck out eight men through the first three innings of play. But there was Cleveland’s Corey Kluber on Tuesday night, striking out the first two Chicago batters he saw to start Game One, then fanning the side in both the 2nd and 3rd innings around a pair of hits. Nine outs, eight Ks and as the fans packed into Progressive Field roared their approval, Kluber earned a spot in the Great Game’s record book.

In the visitors’ dugout the Cubs had their own record-setter in the person of Kyle Schwarber. After striking out his first time up, Schwarber sent the first pitch he saw from Kluber in the 4th inning sailing to deep right field. For a moment it looked like the ball might go out, but instead it bounced off the wall as Chicago’s burly slugger lumbered into second with a double. There’s nothing extraordinary about a number five hitter smoking a two-bagger, until one considers that Schwarber was playing his first major league game since April 7th. That’s when he tore both the ACL and LCL in his left knee in an outfield collision, presumably ending his season after just two games and five plate appearances.

Schwarber went hitless with a walk in those two early season games, so with Tuesday night’s double he became the first position player ever to record his first hit of a season in the World Series. That Schwarber was able to rehab from his injury in time to play this year was remarkable, and a testament to his rigid discipline and will. But even more amazing was that he was able not just to stand in the batter’s box and swing, but do so with success against one of the game’s premier pitchers. Because the minor league season ended weeks ago, Schwarber’s only live game action during his rehab was a one for eight stint in two Arizona Fall League contests just before the World Series got underway.

The 23-year old, who smacked sixteen homers in sixty-nine games for the Cubs after a midseason call-up from AAA last year, added to his suddenly burgeoning postseason legend in Game Two. On Wednesday Schwarber went two for four with a pair of singles, a walk, and two runs batted in. Cubs fans would dearly love to have their young hero add to his list of heroics, but with the Series shifting to Wrigley Field, he will have to do it as a pinch hitter. Schwarber served as the DH for the two games in the American League park, and he has not been cleared by doctors to play the field.

Individual heroics aside, the World Series is ultimately about one team winning a championship. With two games in the books the conventional wisdom, as it was before the first pitch was even thrown, is that the advantage lies with Chicago. The Cubs led the majors with 103 regular season wins, but the best record over the first 162 games is no guarantee of success in the playoffs. There have been moments during the postseason when Chicago has looked vulnerable. The Cubs appeared headed for a Game Five in the divisional round against San Francisco, trailing 5-2 in the 9th inning of Game Four. Chicago appeared overmatched against the Dodgers’ hurlers after back-to-back shutouts in Games Two and Three of the NLCS. And after a wait of seven decades for a return to the Fall Classic, Chicago came out flat against Kluber and Cleveland in Game One.

After he scored in the 8th inning of Game 7 in 1945, the journeyman outfielder Peanuts Lowrey became the answer to the trivia question “who was the last Cub to score a run in the World Series?” for far longer than he could have ever imagined at the moment he crossed the plate at Wrigley Field in that losing effort so long ago. But once Chicago and its powerhouse lineup finally made it back to the Series, few would have guessed that Lowrey would retain his dubious distinction for another nine innings.

But Chicago rallied for four runs in the final frame against the Giants, sending San Francisco into the offseason. Then the Cubs’ bats awoke from their slumber against the Dodgers, pounding out twenty-three runs and thirty-three hits over the final three NLCS contests. The pattern was renewed in Game Two of the Series, when Chicago jumped on Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer for a 1st inning score, then added another run in the 3rd and three more in the 5th on the way to a 5-1 victory.

A powerful lineup of players who are also good fielders, strong starting pitching led by dual aces Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, with major league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks and veteran John Lackey right behind, and a fearsome closer in Aroldis Chapman, all add up to a roster that deserves to be cast in the role of favorite. If this Series does not return to Cleveland no one will be surprised, nor think poorly of the American League representative for falling short. Cleveland lost two starting pitchers in September, and was so lightly regarded earlier in the season that Milwaukee’s All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy invoked his no-trade clause to squash a proposed deal sending him to the banks of Lake Erie. Terry Francona’s ballclub has made it this far as much on guile and gumption as on raw talent.

Still the Series is tied, with the two clubs taking turns looking very good in one game and decidedly pedestrian in the other. They’ll play until someone wins four, and this being the Great Game fans know full well that the favorite on paper ultimately still has to perform on the field. The only certainty is that for one team and its fans, self-image is about to change forever. This is a Series between the two teams with the longest championship droughts in the Great Game. Over the decades both franchises have found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Soon enough one team will trade the loser label for something very different, and for fans of a certain age, somewhat disconcerting.

Before that happens the teams had to get to Chicago. Given the historic nature of this Fall Classic, it would have been appropriate had they traveled by train, like teams did the last time Cleveland won it all and Chicago had a chance to do so. After Wednesday night’s game they could have boarded the Lake Shore Limited, chugging west out of Cleveland in the wee hours, through Toledo and Waterloo, on into Indiana, past Elkhart and South Bend before finally crossing the Illinois state line and pulling into Chicago’s Union Station in mid-morning, the players disembarking before a large and enthusiastic crowd in plenty of time for a workout at Wrigley this afternoon. Of course that didn’t happen. Even in a throwback World Series that feels like it’s been made in Hollywood, the stuff of dreams and movies only goes so far.

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