Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 18, 2018

Koepka Repeats (Good); So Does The USGA (Bad)

Since the United States Golf Association organized the first men’s U.S. Open in 1895, just seven players have won the tournament in back-to-back years. Four of those – Scotland’s Willie Anderson, who won three years in a row and four out of five in the first decade of the last century, John McDermott, the first American to win the national title, the immortal Bobby Jones, and the publicity-shy Ralph Guldahl – did so before the start of World War II.

Since then and until this weekend, only two more golfers had successfully defended a win at our Open, and no, neither of them was named Nicklaus or Woods. Rather it was Ben Hogan in 1950 at Merion and 1951 at Oakland Hills, with the first win forever known as the “Miracle at Merion,” coming as it did just sixteen months after Hogan was nearly killed in an automobile accident. Then nearly four decades later Curtis Strange prevailed in an 18-hole playoff against Nick Faldo at the Country Club in 1988, then held off a trio of challengers to win by a stroke at soggy Oak Hill in 1989.

Now, exactly forty years after Strange first nipped Faldo, 28-year old Brooks Koepka has added his name to the short list of back-to-back U.S. Open champions with his one-stroke victory Sunday at Shinnecock Hills. He did it over the closing holes with a crucial par save at the 14th after blocking his drive wide right, and a brilliant approach to the par-5 16th that left him with a gimme birdie.  It was Koepka’s first win at any tournament since last Father’s Day, when he overtook 54-hole leader Brian Harmon and eased to a four-shot victory at Erin Hills.

Years from now, when memories fade and the details are largely forgotten, the circumstances of Koepka’s twin wins will have passed into oblivion. In a sense that’s only fair. To win the Open even once is career-defining. To do so twice is literally Hall of Fame worthy, as the World Golf Hall of Fame’s eligibility criteria for male competitors is fifteen total victories OR multiple wins in majors. And to score those two wins in successive years is, quite obviously, something that in the modern era comes along just once every couple of generations. While he may have but a single other victory on the PGA Tour, Koepka’s ability to prevail in the national championship at both a course built on a glacial debris field in Wisconsin and one laid out over the windswept hills of Long Island’s south fork is a testament to a powerful combination of raw ability and mental toughness.

But while Koepka’s winning will be what is ultimately remembered, in the immediate aftermath of this year’s championship there is justifiably as much attention being paid to the USGA’s inadvertent but undeniable role in shaping the tournament’s outcome. That this has become an annual discussion among golf media and fans is an especially unwelcome fact.

Three summers ago, the USGA took the Open to the Pacific Northwest, staging the event at Chambers Bay, a young course on the shores of Puget Sound. Had the worst outcome been the fact that the treeless layout looked like nothing so much as a moonscape on television, the decision would have been excusable. But the steep hills on several holes forced the Association to restrict fan access due to safety concerns, meaning much of the play took place without the roars and crowd support that are an integral part of golf at a major. Far more significant was the condition of the immature greens, which were so bumpy and irregular that Rory McIlroy likened them to heads of cauliflower. It was not just nerves that contributed to Dustin Johnson’s decisive three-putt on the 72nd hole that handed the title to Jordan Spieth.

One year later Oakmont was a more traditional venue, but the USGA again became the story, with Johnson again the foil. While standing over a putt on the 5th green during the final round, he suddenly backed away. Discussion ensued between Johnson, his playing partner, and rules officials about whether his ball had moved as he addressed it. The decision on the scene was that if the ball moved it was not the result of anything Johnson did. But later in the round USGA officials changed their mind, informing Johnson while he stood on the 12th tee that no decision would be made until after the round. Despite having to play with that uncertainty in his head, Johnson went on to finish well clear of his closest chasers, making the eventual one stroke penalty immaterial. Both players and fans reacted scathingly to the USGA’s dithering.

Then last year USGA decided to open up Erin Hills, widening the fairways and cutting back the usually knee-high U.S. Open rough. Perhaps the organizers had no choice. Given the short history of the track that just opened in 2006 and had previously hosted only one USGA event, the 2011 U.S. Amateur, officials couldn’t be certain how the course would play. But what they got was a return to the old Greater Milwaukee Open, with birdies falling left and right. There were more than forty rounds under par on each of the first two days. On Saturday, after the cut, thirty-two players or nearly half the field broke par, led by Justin Thomas’s record-setting 62. It was called the national championship but played like a weekly Tour stop, thanks to the USGA’s decision to award the event to an inadequately vetted site.

Opened in 1891 and a founding member of the USGA, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club is nothing if not well vetted. Prior to last weekend it had hosted four previous U.S. Opens, both the Men’s and Women’s Amateur, and a Walker Cup. But as the USGA learned when the Open was last played at Shinnecock in 2004, the exposed links-style course can become dry and brutally hard when the wind blows and the sun shines. In that year the organizers were forced to water several greens between groups during Sunday’s final round, as it became almost impossible to stop a ball on the putting surfaces.

Despite that experience and a warm and windy weather forecast for Saturday’s third round this year, the USGA again set multiple pin placements on the edge of steep slopes. As the day wore on and the greens hardened, it became 2004 all over again. By the time the leaders teed off in mid-afternoon, they were playing an utterly different golf course than the early starters, one that was vastly more difficult.

Tony Finau and Daniel Berger went out early, shot matching 4-under 66s and went from a tie for 45th, eleven shots behind, to a tie for the lead and in Sunday’s final pairing. In contrast, the ten golfers who made up Saturday’s last five pairings played in a combined 67 over par. Just before those groups, Rickie Fowler alone was 14 over par, shooting his worst round ever in a major. And spectacle turned to farce when Phil Mickelson decided that a two-stroke penalty for hitting a ball while it was still moving was preferable to watching an errant putt roll who knows how far off a green and down a nearby slope. Social media responded as if Lefty had stolen both the trophy and the winner’s check and donated both to the Taliban.

In the wake of the debacle, USGA CEO Mike Davis admitted that Saturday’s setup “went too far,” and promised that the course would be “slowed down” for the final round. But the damage, which was easily foreseeable given the 2004 experience, was already done. Johnson, who by now must surely believe that someone high up in the Association really, really doesn’t like him, led by four at the tournament’s midpoint. The last golfer to lead the U.S. Open by that much and lose was Tom McNamara in 1909. But Johnson had putted just 53 times in his first two rounds combined. He needed 38 putts on Saturday afternoon’s ceramic tile greens to finish his third round 77, a score that brought Koepka, Finau, Berger and many others back into the tournament.

Twelve months from now our national championship returns to Pebble Beach, another venerable seaside course that has hosted the U.S. Open multiple times. One can hope that at Pebble the story will be about the golf and the golfers, and not about the officials in the blue blazers. But the recent track record is not promising.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 14, 2018

Rockin’ The Red In DC

A NOTE TO READERS: The usual Sunday post will be delayed until Monday. Have a great weekend and as always, thanks for reading!

In the parlance of our electoral politics, there is no voting jurisdiction in the country colored a deeper blue than the nation’s capital. Residents of Washington, D.C. have no voting representative in either house of Congress, but they do have the minimum of three votes in the Electoral College, and every four years the Democratic nominee for President can put them in his or her column without having to spend a dime on local advertising or an hour campaigning in Georgetown or Anacostia.

Despite that lopsided political persuasion and as unlikely as the voting preference of the locals might make it seem, one can only hope that no one within a thirty-mile radius of the Washington Monument has an urge to buy a red shirt any time soon, because surely every clothing store that close to D.C. is completely sold out of that color. That assumption seems entirely reasonable given that on Tuesday, the sidewalks lining a mile long stretch of Constitution Avenue and the broad swath of greenspace that is the National Mall at 7th Street all appeared to be a pulsing, living, and utterly joyous, sea of red.

Fans by the hundreds of thousands swarmed into downtown to cheer the Washington Capitals, who captured the first Stanley Cup in the team’s forty-three-year history one week ago with a come from behind 4-3 victory over the Las Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Finals. The National Park Service stopped providing crowd estimates for events in D.C. long ago, but the local Transit Authority announced that more than 840,000 people rode the subway system on Tuesday, almost forty percent higher than the daily average and the highest ridership since the day of the Women’s March in January 2017.

While the parade didn’t start until late morning, fans started gathering at first light, staking out prime positions along the route and in front of the stage set up on the Mall for the championship rally. By the time the double-decker buses carrying the players were ready to roll, the red-shirted celebrants were packed eight and ten deep on both sides of Constitution Avenue, and peering down from the rooftops of nearby buildings.

For those who were simply D.C. sports fans, it was the first chance to honor a local champion since the NFL franchise captured Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, more than a quarter century ago. For those whose first love was hockey, the faithful who had followed the Caps for years, it was a day of catharsis, a chance to at long last release all the emotion built up over so many seasons that ended in defeat, disappointment, and doubt.

Like most expansion franchises the story of the Capitals’ first few years is one of failure. In the team’s first season of 1974-75 just eight contests on the eighty game schedule ended with a Washington victory. It was nine seasons before the Capitals posted a winning record and qualified for the playoffs. Having finally done so the team became consistently competitive, though the Caps were still not one of the NHL’s elite squads. It was another seven years before Washington reached the Conference Finals, and it wasn’t until 1998 that the Capitals actually played for the Stanley Cup, losing to Detroit four games to none.

Then came a down period, with just three playoff berths in the next eight seasons. The tail end of that interregnum coincided with the 2005 arrival of Alex Ovechkin, the generational Russian talent who remains the face of the franchise. His first appearance in a Capitals’ sweater came less than three weeks after his twentieth birthday, and the young left wing quickly gave D.C. fans a taste of what was to come, netting two goals in a win over Columbus. Since that night Ovechkin has scored another 605 regular season goals and 61 more in the playoffs, and the Capitals have moved into the top tier of the league’s franchises.

Ovechkin has been the NHL’s leading goal scorer seven times and led in total scoring in 2008. He’s won three MVP Awards and is a nine-time All-Star. During his time in Washington the Capitals have won eight division titles and three Presidents’ Trophies, given to the team with the best regular season record. But time and again, after displaying such dominance during the regular season, the Caps and Ovechkin foundered in the playoffs. After winning their first Presidents’ Trophy at the end of the 2009-10 season, they were ushered out of the playoffs in the very first round by the eighth seed Canadiens. In nine trips to the postseason with Ovechkin on the roster prior to this year, Washington had never advanced past the second round.

At Capital One Arena, this season began with more modest expectations than most. Certainly the team was expected to be good, but after some key losses to free agency and in the expansion draft, Washington wasn’t a popular pick for a deep playoff run. The Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning were the choice of many pundits, and there were those who talked of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins winning a third championship in a row. While the Capitals again topped their division, across the league seven teams finished with better records.

Perhaps because they were free from the heavy weight of high hopes, the Capitals’ skaters brought a new level of resilience to this postseason. Washington lost the first two games of the opening round to Columbus, but rather than fold the Capitals stormed back to win four straight. They lost their second-round opener to the Penguins, but again rallied to finally beat their old playoff nemesis and advance to their first Conference Final since 1998. In that penultimate round the Caps went up two games to none on the Lightning, only to drop three games in a row. Facing elimination, Washington played its finest hockey of the entire year, completely shutting down the prolific Tampa Bay offense in two straight shutouts.

The Capitals then dropped Game One of the Finals to the unlikeliest opponent of all, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. But then Braden Holtby made a season-changing save to cement the win in Game Two, and Washington never looked back. When the last horn sounded the Capitals had cruised through the Finals in five games, outscoring the Golden Knights 16-8 while sweeping the last four. Ovechkin, who led all playoff skaters with fifteen goals, was named the MVP of the postseason, while Holtby had the lowest goals against average and teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov led all scorers with thirty-two points.

The championship run was, in short, a total team effort. And while the loudest cheers on Tuesday were for Ovechkin, there were plenty of plaudits for all the players, head coach Barry Trotz, GM Brian MacLellan, and for popular owner Ted Leonsis. All on the day a city celebrated the end of a long title drought, a team rejoiced over its first ever championship, a superstar gladly left the top of the list of best players to have never won a title, and the bluest city in the country turned deeply, passionately, and proudly, red.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 10, 2018

History And Greatness At Big Sandy

How does one measure greatness in sports? What are the standards that separate the very good from those whose place in the history books of their game is secure? On a warm spring afternoon at the Long Island racetrack known as Big Sandy, those questions seemed appropriate. A full house of 90,000 fans packed Belmont Park on Saturday, there to see the latest attempt at horse racing history.

Justify, the big 3-year-old chestnut colt with the distinguishing white blaze on his forehead, had romped at the Kentucky Derby and persevered at the Preakness. Now came the Belmont Stakes, the grueling mile and a half long race dubbed “The Test of the Champion.” A stern test it is. On thirty-five previous occasions, a horse had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but only twelve of those steeds went on to capture the Belmont, the most recent being American Pharoah in 2015.

Yet even before he left his barn for the long walk to Belmont Park’s paddock late Saturday afternoon, Justify had already accomplished so much. Five weeks earlier, on the first Saturday in May, he became just the second horse, and the first since Apollo in 1882, to win the Kentucky Derby despite not having raced as a two-year-old. And while his racing life had begun less than four months earlier with a seven-furlong win in a maiden race at Santa Anita, in it he was a perfect five for five. Win or lose at Big Sandy, an immaculate record that included the first two jewels of the Triple Crown certainly gave Justify the elements of a great career.

Mike Smith, the 52-year-old jockey who had been astride Justify since his second start, is known as “Big Money Mike” for good reason. While he started out racing quarter horses in New Mexico, once he switched to thoroughbreds in 1989 he quickly established himself as a dominant figure in the sport. He was the leading jockey at New York tracks from 1991 through 1993. He ventured overseas to win the Irish 2,000 Guineas aboard Fourstars Allstar in 1991. Two years later he won a record-setting 62 stakes races. That same year he won the Preakness, the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey.

When Smith was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2003, he confessed that he didn’t feel worthy of the honor. Worthy or not then, since his induction Smith has won twice at the Kentucky Derby and twice at the Belmont as well as a pair of Kentucky Oaks and sixteen Breeders’ Cup races. With more than 5,000 career wins that garnered owners more than $312 million in purses, Smith had already cemented his reputation as one of the great jockeys of his generation even before he guided Justify into the number one gate early Saturday evening.

Bob Baffert, the 65-year-old trainer of the Belmont favorite, is the most recognizable thoroughbred trainer to casual fans of horse racing by far, thanks to his shock of snow-white hair. Like Smith, Baffert was raised in the southwest and thus began his career training quarter horses. He switched to thoroughbreds in the 1980s after moving to California. He saddled his first winner of a Breeders’ Cup race before his fortieth birthday. Between 1997 and 1999 Baffert won the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer three years in a row. Prior to Saturday Baffert’s horses had won fourteen Triple Crown races, fourteen Breeders’ Cup races and both the Dubai World Cup and Pegasus World Cup, the two richest races on the planet.

Baffert’s greatest accomplishment came just three years ago, when he trained American Pharoah, the horse that broke the longest drought in Triple Crown history. As Pharoah charged down the Belmont stretch, pulling away from his pursuers, announcer Larry Collmus told the world “and here it is, the 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!” Surely his status as one of just eleven trainers to saddle a Triple Crown winner qualified Baffert as one of the greatest at his trade.

Yet for all that horse, jockey, and trainer had accomplished, the one certainty as Justify stood patiently waiting in the first stall as his nine competitors were loaded into the adjoining gates, was that if one of those other horses beat him to the wire, Justify, along with Smith and Baffert, would be remembered as having failed at their collective campaign to accomplish one of the most difficult feats in all of sports. It would not matter whether it happened because the horse had an off day, the jockey made a tactical mistake, or the trainer failed in his preparations. As months turned to years and memories of their other accomplishments faded, there would always be those who would point to that one race and question their greatness.

Then the gates sprang open, and history was made. Justify bolted away like one of Smith or Baffert’s old quarter horses. He was in the lead from the start and covered the first quarter in a quick 23.37 seconds. Longshot speedster Noble Indy had been expected to mount an early challenge, but he was held up by other horses, allowing Smith to ease Justify back into a more comfortable pace as the field moved into the sweeping first turn. Restoring Hope, another entrant sent off at long odds, loped along in second place, a length behind the leader as the horses began the long run down Belmont’s back stretch.

In just over a minute and 13 seconds Justify was halfway home and heading for the far turn, still running comfortably. Behind him Vino Rosso on the outside and Bravazo on the rail stepped up their pursuit as the field approached the mile pole. At the same time Gronkowski, who had been dead last for most of the race, also began a charge on the inside. Only when they straightened for home did Smith finally ask Justify to run, and he immediately responded, stretching his advantage over Gronkowski, Vino Rosso, and now the second betting choice Hofburg, who was racing down the middle of the lane. But the pursuers would remain just that on this Saturday. As Justify came to the wire, just under two lengths ahead of his closest challenger, it was Collmus again with the declaration of the moment, “he’s just perfect, and now he’s just immortal! Justify is the 13th Triple Crown winner!”

The horse is not just that, but also the second champion to claim the Crown with an undefeated record. And while Seattle Slew was the first to accomplish that feat in 1977, no other horse has come close to winning the Triple Crown a mere 112 days after their first race. Smith, who told NBC’s Donna Brothers immediately after the race that he now felt worthy of the Hall of Fame accolade bestowed on him fifteen years ago, becomes the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown, while Baffert is just the second trainer, after Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in the 1930s, to saddle a pair of Triple Crown champions. Justify, Mike Smith and Bob Baffert will forever be linked in the history books of horse racing, equine and human champions and record-setters. By any measure, three examples of greatness in sports.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 7, 2018

A Familiar Wish, An Even More Familiar Outcome

Maybe it was the timing. After all, in the depths of the offseason, fans hungry for news will quickly turn the smallest grain of information into a full-blown story, one complete with a happy ending. Or maybe it was the content of that first photograph that popped up on Instagram last December. Posted by Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino with the one-word caption “timmy,” it immediately went viral. That wasn’t just because the snapshot showed two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum wearing a baseball glove and obviously throwing again, but also because the pitcher dubbed “The Freak” due to his ability to generate so much heat from such a wispy frame was clad in a sleeveless workout shirt and looked to be in the best shape of his life, with bulging biceps and a ripped physique. With only the photograph to go on it was easy to imagine an odds-defying comeback by a beloved hero.

It was easy, in short, to ignore the fact that Lincecum had last been a top of the rotation starter in 2011. Easy to forget that after going 10-15 with an ERA over 5.00 and an ERA+ of just 68 in 2012 he was relegated to the Giants’ bullpen for the postseason. Two months after Ottavino’s post, Lincecum threw for scouts from fifteen teams in Arizona. His fastball was clocked in the low 90s, a significant improvement over his short-lived comeback attempt in 2016, when it averaged less than 88 mph in nine starts with the Angels. That uptick allowed one to gloss over his 2-6 record in a Los Angeles uniform, with an ERA of 9.16 and a meager ERA+ of only 44.

Two teams offered Lincecum contracts after his February showcase. But one of those franchises was the Dodgers, and after spending the first nine years of his career and winning three rings with San Francisco, Lincecum couldn’t bring himself to sign with his old team’s archrival. So he inked a one-year deal for $1 million and reported to the Texas Rangers training camp in Surprise, Arizona. There he said all the right things, telling a reporter from USA Today that he was attempting another comeback because “the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I care about the game so much. It’s part of my identity.” Lincecum’s intention was to transition to a relief role, and he was working on pitching on back-to-back days. “I had a lot of options what to do with the rest of my life, but baseball is all that I’ve known. I want to do whatever I can to keep my career going, no matter how much time I have left in the game,” he said in the same interview, adding “really, I just want to go out on my own terms.’’

Such is the wish of every athlete in all our games, but the sentiment is understandably most fervent among the handful of players who breathe the rarefied air at the very top of their sport, at Tim Lincecum has. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs while still in high school, but elected to go to college rather than turn pro. Two years later Cleveland tabbed Lincecum in one of the drafts later rounds, but he again declined the offered contract. Finally San Francisco made Lincecum the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft, and gave him a signing bonus of more than $2 million, at the time the largest the franchise had ever paid to an amateur player. Less than twelve months later he made his major league debut, fanning all three Phillies who stepped to the plate in his first inning as a big league pitcher. In July of that 2007 rookie campaign Lincecum went 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA.

The following season he won the first of back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards, collecting 23 of 32 first place votes and easily outdistancing runner-up Brandon Webb. He led the league in traditional statistics like winning percentage (.783, a record of 18-5), complete games (4) and strikeouts (265), as well as advanced metrics such as ERA+ (168) and Fielding Independent Pitching (2.62). He continued to mow down batters as his career progressed, recording 261 strikeouts in 2009, 231 in 2010, and 220 in 2011. The first two totals again were the best in the senior circuit. In 2011 he matched up against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw four times, evoking memories of the days of Juan Marichal versus Sandy Koufax. Los Angeles came out on top in all four meetings, but the scores told the real story – 2-1, 1-0, 2-1 and 2-1. In the last of those meetings the two combined for twenty strikeouts.

Along the way he became a fan favorite. The San Francisco faithful loved his flowing locks and his willingness to interact with fans. They marveled at his unorthodox delivery which features an especially long stride into the pitch. Most of all, they watched in awe as a pitcher generously listed as 5 feet 11 inches and 170 pounds flung 99 mile per hour fastballs past opposing batters.

But in 2011 he complained of soreness in his knees. He purposely lost thirty pounds during the offseason, which seemed to affect his mechanics. His fastball speed declined and his control suffered. Over the remainder of his time with the Giants there would be flashes of the familiar greatness, including a pair of no-hitters, both against the San Diego Padres. But there were also steadily declining statistics and a diagnosis of a degenerative hip injury and surgery that cut short his 2015 season.

In a reminder that baseball remains a business, the only team Lincecum had ever played for showed no interest in resigning him after his contract expired at the end of 2015. Instead he signed with the Angels, and after rehabbing from the hip surgery made his 2016 debut in mid-June. He threw six strong innings against the Oakland A’s, and hopes rose. But each successive outing in a Los Angeles uniform got worse, and in August he was designated for assignment.

Then, after Lincecum spent more than a year out of the public eye, came Ottavino’s Instagram post, the subsequent pitching showcase, and the contract with the Rangers. Had Lincecum been granted his wish of going out on his own terms, that would have led to a successful few years as a mainstay of the Texas bullpen.  Perhaps someone will write a screenplay in which that takes place.

In real life, Lincecum’s spring training preparations were cut short by a serious blister on his right middle finger. After starting the season on the disabled list, he had been rehabbing in the minors. This week his 30-day rehab period was up, and Texas had to either add Lincecum to its 25-man roster or let him go. In ten relief appearances for the AAA Round Rock Express he had posted a 5.68 ERA and struck out just one more batter than he walked. That was not a resume that warranted a spot on the big league roster, so on Tuesday the Rangers released the 33-year-old. Tim Lincecum is heading back to the West Coast, at least publicly intent on continuing his throwing program in hopes of attracting interest from some other franchise. But in stark contrast to Lincecum’s, and every athlete’s wish, the final stanza of the old T. S. Eliot poem inevitably comes to mind:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 3, 2018

Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, And Oh Yea, DeChambeau

Tiger Woods didn’t win the Memorial Tournament this weekend. It feels necessary to start with that point, because the coverage of the event was such that a casual fan would be excused for assuming that it was Woods who received the congratulatory handshake tournament sponsor Jack Nicklaus traditionally bestows on the champion next to the 18th green at the end of play. For the record, the hand Nicklaus shook belonged to 24-year-old Bryson DeChambeau.

During Thursday’s opening round, smartphones lit up with worried notifications from ESPN, CBS Sports, and the Golf Channel, advising fans that Woods was off to a slow start after he made bogey on his second hole of the tournament and later added both another bogey and a double before recording his first birdie of the week. Woods managed to fight back to even par in that first round, and when his scores improved over the next two days he took over the Memorial’s media coverage if not the actual tournament.

The New York Times reported the events of the second round under the headline “Tiger Woods Commands the Crowd, and Almost the Course, at the Memorial.” One had to read down to the story’s eighth paragraph to discover that despite his fine 67, Woods was tied for 24th place. The following day brought more of the same, with the headline in the paper of record reading “Tiger Woods Soars at the Memorial, Except on the Greens.” Other than reporting that Woods was five shots adrift of third-round leader DeChambeau, the story provided no information on the play of anyone else in the field.

Other outlets were similarly preoccupied. Perhaps most egregious was a tweet by the normally sensible Tim Rosaforte. The Golf Channel analyst sent out a screen shot of the leader board when Woods got to 11-under par late in his round, which briefly tied him for the lead. Rosaforte added the caption “What’s happening? Tiger Woods is what’s happening. Had to take a picture of this.” What Rosaforte surely knew is that Woods, who would bogey two of his final three holes to drop back to minus-9, was almost done with his round while the leaders had barely begun play. On a day where many players were going low, there was virtually no chance the screen grab would reflect the standings at the end of the day, and of course it did not.

On Sunday Woods birdied his first hole, but after that he stalled. His final round of even par 72 sent him down the leader board, into a tie for 23rd place. In one sense the fact that he received vastly more media attention than all twenty-two golfers who finished ahead of him combined is not surprising. Although almost five years removed from his last PGA Tour victory and with the ten-year anniversary of his last major triumph just a fortnight hence, he remains the best-known golfer in the world. His name in a headline will attract readers, and reports that Woods is “in the hunt” will almost certainly boost television ratings. But it doesn’t seem fair to either Tiger Woods or any of the golfers who have been at the top of the leader boards in the events that he has played this year to focus so exclusively on his play or to establish two definitions of the word “contending,” a fanciful one for Woods and a realistic one for everyone else. Nor does ignoring the play of so many outstanding golfers do anything to grow the game.

That Woods is playing at all again after his many back surgeries is a testament to modern medicine, and that his game is good and seems to be improving is certainly welcome news. Long-time readers know that On Sports and Life has predicted more than once that Woods will eventually return to the winner’s circle, and that the thought of him winning again at one of the Tour’s major stops is not far-fetched. But there will be time enough to celebrate that moment when it comes, rather than pretending it’s at hand as he plays his way into a tie for 23rd.

If much of the media coverage of the Memorial deserves criticism, one thing that CBS did right on Sunday was to go live when the main network feed started at 2:30. A threatening weather forecast pushed final round tee times up to the morning, with the leaders on the course by 9:30. Most networks would have chosen to show the play sequentially on tape delay. But with the final threesome on the 17th hole when the appointed hour arrived, CBS went directly to the action, with Jim Nantz explaining that they would show earlier segments of the round, “showing how we got here,” after a winner was determined. Given that viewers would have had multiple means of learning the tournament’s result, the network’s call made for far more compelling viewing than a three-and-a-half-hour replay.

What viewers saw was a dramatic finish in which four golfers had a chance to win. Patrick Cantlay, who had been the leader through much of the final round, was the first to fall away when he chose to hit driver off the 17th tee and found a fairway bunker. Already one back after two earlier back nine bogeys, Cantlay was unable to reach the green with his second, instead going trap to trap. His explosion shot from the greenside bunker ran well past the hole, and the ensuing bogey left his two shots behind.

Also playing in the final group, Kyle Stanley had seemed out of the tournament just a few holes earlier but had clawed back to within a shot thanks to three straight birdies at 14, 15, and 16. He seemed unlikely to extend that string at the 17th after his approach finished well right of and above the pin. But he stroked a lengthy putt that ran along the edge of the green before turning ninety degrees right and trundling down the hill and into the cup to tie DeChambeau, the third member of the grouping.

Meanwhile up ahead on the 18th green Byeong Hun An had a downhill birdie putt to make it a three-way tie, but his roll stayed just left of the hole. But Stanley’s drive at the last ricocheted off a tree and into deep rough, and DeChambeau hit a poor approach shot far from the hole. When both made bogey, they welcomed the 26-year-old Korean into a three-way sudden death playoff.

They played the 18th twice more to determine a winner. Stanley’s bad luck at the last continued in the playoff, with his drive finishing in deep rough on a steep hillside. He was barely able to advance the ball from that awkward stance, and then missed the green with his third. While his chip for par rattled the flagstick, it stayed out and Stanley was eliminated when both DeChambeau and An hit excellent chips to save a four. The two survivors both found the fairway the next time, but An blew his approach over the green, while DeChambeau’s shot finished ten feet above the hole. An hit a fantastic flop shot to three feet for a likely par, but DeChambeau rendered the heroics moot by holing the birdie. After exulting on the green, he headed for that handshake with the greatest golfer ever. As DeChambeau did so another singular talent, the greatest of his generation and the focus of so much attention this week, was not in the picture.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 31, 2018

Braden Holtby Rescues The Capitals

If the improbable run of the Vegas Golden Knights ends with a championship parade down the corridor of neon and excess that is the Las Vegas Strip, then the moment will be forgotten. The story will instead be about how Alex Ovechkin, having finally reached the Stanley Cup Finals after thirteen seasons, was denied a title by a band of misfits and castoffs who comprised the roster of a first-year expansion team. The sidebar will describe the massive financial losses for the city’s sports books, which offered preseason odds on the Golden Knights winning the Cup of 200-1.

But that outcome, which took on the first whiff of inevitability after the home squad outhustled, outhit, and outscored the Washington Capitals 6-4 in Game 1 of the Finals, is, for now, not so certain. And if in the end it is Ovechkin who lifts the Cup and his teammates and fans in D.C. who are celebrating as the NHL’s season concludes, then the moment that came with one tick less than two minutes remaining in the third period of Wednesday night’s Game 2 will become a part of Capitals’ lore, forever celebrated as the save that saved a season.

Braden Holtby has minded the net for Washington for eight seasons, the last six as the Capitals starting goalie. He’s a two-time All-Star who won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender two years ago. Last November he earned his 200th victory in his 319th game, reaching the double century mark in the second fewest games in NHL history, behind only Ken Dryden. But in Monday’s Game 1 he turned in a lackluster performance, allowing five goals (Vegas’s final score was an empty-netter). In doing so he helped Washington squander leads of 2-1 and 4-3.

He was far more resolute Wednesday night, when he finished the game with thirty-seven saves. Still, even with the Capitals leading 3-2 with one period to play, a victory by the visitors was far from assured. Two nights earlier they had gone up a goal early in the final frame, only to see Holtby beaten, first by Ryan Reeves and then by Tomas Nosek, as the Golden Knights stormed back, to the delight of their fans packing T-Mobile Arena. In a Game 2 reprise, Vegas skaters rushed the Washington net again and again, firing fifteen shots in all over the final twenty minutes. But the crucial one, the one that seemed certain to tie the game and give the home team all the momentum came as time was winding down.

With the clock approaching two minutes remaining, the Golden Knights dumped the puck into the Capitals’ zone from center ice. The long pass down the left side caromed off the end boards at an odd angle, sliding across the crease right in front of Holtby and directly to the Golden Knights’ Cody Eakin. As it did so Holtby hugged that side of the net, prepared to defend against a shot from the Vegas center. But instead Eakin whipped a pass back across the ice to Alex Tuch, who was racing in alone on the left. Even as the puck sped toward him, Tuch wound up, prepared to deliver a one-timer that would tie the score.

The action was so fast and the quarters so close that Holtby had no chance to push off on his skates and slide across the crease to defend against Tuch. What the young right winger saw as he began to whip his right-handed stick onto the ice was a vast expanse of open net. Tuch was just outside the crease and closing when his stick met ice and puck at the same moment, propelling the disk into the back of the net for the game-tying goal.

Except that the puck never made it across the goal line and into the promised land of Washington’s net. For in that crucial split second Tuch’s was not the only stick that was moving. With no time to put his body in the way, Holtby swung his right arm away from his body, flashing his goalie stick across the net in a desperate effort to prevent a seemingly certain score. The shot came from point-blank range, but Holtby’s paddle was perfectly placed. The puck was blocked by the widest part of the goaltender’s stick and bounced straight down onto the ice, where Holtby immediately smothered it, first with his glove and then with his entire body.

In the moments after the incredible save, the NBC cameras showed a dazed looking Tuch, a skater who appeared confused as to why the red goal light wasn’t on. Then they flashed to Ovechkin on the Washington bench, his mouth hanging open in disbelief. As if to confirm that emotion the Capitals’ superstar covered his face with his hands. Later Washington center Jay Beagle would initially call the play “the save of the year,” before upgrading his assessment to “maybe the save of a lifetime.”

Now the Capitals go home, not halfway to elimination as could easily have been the case, but with the series all square and having wrested home ice away from the Golden Knights. Washington returns to the Capital One Arena having won a game in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. Already in these playoffs the Capitals have overcome a two games to none deficit against Columbus in the first round, a loss in the opening contest of the second round against their old nemesis from Pittsburgh, and survived a pair of elimination games against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Finals.

As strikingly different as it is from the sad playoff history of the Capitals franchise, that resilience is no guarantee that Washington will claim the Cup. The story of this NHL season may yet be about the misfits in the Nevada desert. But if the Capitals do prevail, Holtby’s save will likely be the turning point of the series. Fittingly enough, it came in an arena where the pregame shows are must-see extravaganzas, as one would expect in Las Vegas. For the Finals, the slogan displayed at the end of the entertainment is “Welcome to Impossible.” That would aptly characterize a first-year expansion franchise seizing the Cup. But it also describes Braden Holtby’s save.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 28, 2018

Glory And Gory For Gleyber

It’s a warm Friday night in the Bronx. A crowd of more than 46,000 has filled all three decks at the Stadium, here to welcome the Yankees home from one of the stranger road trips in recent franchise history. Between a pair of scheduled off days and torrential rain in the mid-Atlantic region, the team played just five innings of baseball over the first four days of the journey. A game knotted at three with the Nationals was suspended in the top of the 6th inning, and plans to complete it and play another the following day were washed away by the weather. Then plane trouble forced the Yankees to spend the night at Dulles Airport, before they finally moved on to Kansas City and Texas. At those stops at least New York was able to play its scheduled contests, but in losing the last two games to the Rangers the Yankees dropped a series for the first time in six weeks. On top of that regrettable result more aviation issues followed, with the team’s charter forced to return to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport shortly after takeoff due to mechanical problems.

Now safe in the comfort of home, New York is facing off against the Los Angeles Angels. It’s an important three-game weekend series between two teams with designs on the playoffs, and the opener is unfolding as a taut pitchers’ duel. Yankee ace Luis Severino doesn’t look all that comfortable. He goes to the rosin bag after almost every delivery and he issues four free passes, an uncharacteristically high number. But the 24-year-old has matured quickly from the young hurler who couldn’t win as a starter and was eventually sent back to the minors just two years ago. He finished third in the AL Cy Young voting last season and comes into this game sporting a 7-1 record. Rather than growing frustrated he finds a way to manufacture outs, and holds the Angels to just one run over six innings.

Unfortunately for the Yankees and their faithful followers in the stands, L.A.’s Andrew Heaney matches Severino pitch for pitch, and when he departs with one out in the bottom of the 7th the score is tied 1-1. Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia calls on Jim Johnson to take over, and the tall righty reliever quickly retires Miguel Andujar on a liner to second.

That brings up Gleyber Torres, the 21-year-old second baseman who has quickly gone from highly touted prospect to fan favorite since being called up from AAA Scranton in late April. Torres was the prize the Yankees demanded from the Cubs in the trade deadline deal that sent Aroldis Chapman to Chicago in 2016. After helping the Cubs win a World Series, the fireballing closer returned to the Bronx as a free agent, while Torres worked his way through the Yankees farm system and overcame Tommy John surgery to his non-throwing arm.

Despite his young age and baby face, Torres has been up to the challenge of playing in the big leagues since being called up. He comes into this game batting .323 with an OPS of .998. He is also developing a power stroke, having homered in three straight games and four of the last five. Now he steps in against a veteran reliever looking to end the inning and preserve the tie score. Torres looks at a called strike, and then passes on three straight deliveries from Johnson that are low and away. The reliever’s fifth offering is a 95 mile per hour two-seam fastball that stays over the middle of the plate. Torres swings and the ball leaps off the barrel of the bat, headed toward deep right field. As one the thousands come to their feet and a unified shout begins to build as the line drive rise and the right fielder turns to give chase. But Kole Calhoun’s rapid pursuit quickly turns into a slow jog, for the only person catching this ball will be a fan in the stands. Gleyber Torres is now the youngest American Leaguer to homer in four straight games, and the Yankees have all the runs they need.

It’s a steamy Saturday night in the Bronx. This time 44,500 or so have made their way to the Stadium for the second game of this series. The contest starts well enough for the Yankees, with Brett Gardner lining a leadoff home run into the second deck in right field, and Aaron Judge following with a blast of his own. The back-to-back homers erase an early 1-0 L.A. lead, and New York adds two more in the 2nd when catcher Austin Romine’s drive down the right field line clangs off the foul pole with Andujar aboard. But Sonny Gray is unable to hold the lead. He loads the bases in the top of the 3rd, and then allows a pair of runs on a walk and a sacrifice fly. An inning later he surrenders a three-run homer to Mike Trout that puts the Angels on top 5-4. One batter later Gray’s night is done after just 3 2/3 innings.

Still it’s just a one-run game, and there is plenty of time for the Yankees to rally. Two innings later the score remains 5-4, and Tommy Kahnle walks catcher Jose Bricenco, the Angels’ leadoff batter. But Kahnle gets ahead of Zack Cozart 0-2, and then gets the L.A. second baseman to bounce a routine grounder to third. Andujar field the ball cleanly and whips a throw over to Torres, who is covering second. Bricenco will be out easily and the cheer is already starting because the young Yankee will have plenty of time to throw on to first, completing the ‘round the horn double play.

Except that the throw from Andujar is in Torres’s glove, and then it isn’t. Instead it’s on the ground, rolling slowly away as Bricenco slides into second and Cozart arrives safely at first. The cheer turns into a groan, for instead of two out and nobody on the situation is precisely reversed – no out and two on. The Angels make the most of their unexpected opportunity. Trout follows with an RBI double to left, and after Chris Young walks Albert Pujols delivers a two-run single. Shohei Ohtani grounds into a double play, but while he does so a fourth Angel crosses home plate, and the once close game is now officially out of hand.

Baseball is a team sport, and the Yankees’ rookie second baseman did not win Friday’s game all by himself with his blast to right, nor lose Saturday’s contest with the untimely error that opened the scoring floodgates for the Angels. Rather the offsetting moments, coming so close together in the nascent stage of a promising career, are just simple reminders that the Great Game always has the last word.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 24, 2018

History Awaits At The Stanley Cup Finals

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday, so the next post will be delayed until Monday. As always, thank you for your loyalty and support, and may everyone have a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day weekend.

Sometime soon, at most in just under three weeks and potentially as soon as a week from next Monday, a member of an NHL team will be handed the oldest trophy in professional sports. He will lift the nearly three-foot high, thirty-five-pound chalice, made of a silver and nickel alloy, high above his head. Then, no doubt with a huge smile on his face, he will begin a slow skate around a rink in either Washington or Las Vegas, and the celebration of a new Stanley Cup champion will begin.

As this is written, the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals is still a weekend away, so it is impossible to know whether the player skating the time-honored short program with Lord Stanley’s mug as his dance partner will be Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals, or a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that has anointed six skaters as assistant captains but has yet to sew a “C” onto any player’s sweater. What we do now know, with the Finals matchup complete following Washington’s 4-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday, is that whichever team claims the Cup will do so for the first time, writing a remarkable ending to one of two very different but equally compelling sagas.

The Capitals were one of two expansion teams that joined the NHL in 1974, when the league moved from sixteen to eighteen teams. Washington’s early years were some of the worst in NHL history. The team managed to win just eight times in its inaugural eighty-game schedule, still an NHL record for futility in a season of at least seventy games. The next year’s record of 11-59-10 was only marginally better. It took the Capitals nine seasons to make the playoffs, fifteen to reach the Conference Finals, and nearly a quarter century to play for the Stanley Cup.

In the 1998 Finals Washington faced off against Detroit. The Red Wings were the defending champions and looked the part as they swept the Capitals. While the final score in each of the first three games was close, Detroit dominated the play. Washington’s only lead of the entire series came in Game 2, and in that contest the Caps coughed up a two-goal lead in the third period, eventually losing in overtime.

Two decades later, that whitewashing by the Red Wings remains the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Finals experience. While that will change starting Monday evening at T-Mobile Arena in the Nevada desert, the real pathos in the Capitals’ story is that it has taken this long. For thirteen of those twenty years the Caps have been led by arguably the best player in the game.

Alex Ovechkin is a nine-time NHL All-Star and three-time league MVP. He’s led the league in goals seven different seasons and won the Art Ross Trophy as the total scoring leader in 2012. He played his first game in a Capitals’ sweater while still a teenager and won Rookie of the Year honors in that initial 2005-06 season. Even now, at age 32, he still possesses one of the hardest shots in the league and can put the puck in the net from almost any angle. And Ovechkin has been no one man show. Over the years he’s usually been surrounded by a strong supporting cast, from Mike Green on defense at the beginning to Nicklas Backstrom at center and Braden Holtby in goal more recently.

During the Ovechkin era the Capitals have won their division eight seasons and captured the Presidents Trophy for the NHL’s best regular season record three times. But all of Ovechkin’s skill and the team’s regular season success has meant nothing come playoff time. In 2010, the first time Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy, the Capitals were shown the door in the first round of the playoffs by the eighth seeded Montreal Canadiens. The last two years, when the Caps again sported the best regular season record, their season ended in second round defeats to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Along the way Washington compiled an especially disheartening record in Game 7s, managing to win just three of ten such contests.

But this year the Capitals finally turned the tables on their Pennsylvania rivals, beating the defending champion Penguins in six games in the second round. Then in the Conference Finals Washington rallied from a three games to two deficit against this year’s Presidents’ Cup team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Capitals won Game 6 and home and Game 7 on the road, shutting down the potent Lightning offense with a pair of shutouts.  When the final horn sounded in Tampa Wednesday night, Alex Ovechkin was finally in the Stanley Cup Finals, just four wins away from washing away the litany of disappointment that has been the Capitals postseason story during his time leading the team.

But when the puck drops for Game 1 Monday night, he will find himself up against an even more remarkable postseason story. For Washington now faces the most improbable Finals opponent imaginable, the first-year expansion team from Sin City, the Vegas Golden Knights.  The oddsmakers in the Knights’ own city, who made the new team a 500-1 longest of long shots to win the Cup before the season began, stand to take a bath if Vegas prevails, though many will have to weigh their financial fortunes against their personal rooting interest for the local franchise.

Only one other first-year expansion team has made it to the Finals, but that was a rigged affair. When the NHL first expanded beyond the Original Six in 1967, the league also split into two divisions for the first time. All six expansion teams were placed in the West, while the six old franchises comprised the East. The St. Louis Blues finished third in the West during the regular season, but edged first the Flyers then the North Stars in seven games to advance to the Finals against Montreal. Not a single Western Conference team had a winning record that year, and the result of the postseason’s last series was a predictable sweep by the Habs.

The Golden Knights are no latter-day version of those expansion teams from a half-century ago, nor did the team’s inaugural season bear any resemblance to Washington’s hapless first year. General manager George McPhee took full advantage of the NHL’s miserly and rock-hard salary cap during the expansion draft. Teams were forced to make some good players available rather than try to fit their contracts under the cap for another season. Pittsburgh opted to go with young Matt Murray in goal rather than hold onto Marc-Andre Fleury at a cost of nearly $6 million. The Florida Panthers made a similar call with top scorer Jonathan Marchessault, and just like that McPhee had a netminder with three Stanley Cups on his resume and the beginnings of an offense.

The Knights also quickly bonded, using their status as castoffs from other teams as motivation. Then they won enormous local support by rallying a stricken Las Vegas, playing their first home game just days after the horrific mass shooting there last October. Still, no one could have foreseen that Vegas would win 51 games and easily capture the Pacific Division. Fleury put up some of his best numbers ever in net, and several skaters had career years. In the playoffs Vegas has just kept rolling, losing just three games through the first three rounds.

Now the two stories collide. Will the long-suffering fans in our nation’s capital finally see their hockey hero end years of postseason disappointment by hoisting the Cup? Or will the never-suffering fans in the country’s original adult playground watch their brand new team win the most unlikely championship in NHL history? The only certainty is that when that ceremonial skate with the Cup begins sometime soon, just one of these competing fairy tales will have come true.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 20, 2018

From Out Of The Fog, Justify Has Just Enough

For many horse racing fans attendance at one of the three events comprising the American Triple Crown is a bucket list item, a trip that is looked forward to with great anticipation, producing memories that remain crystal clear in one’s mind many years after that particular Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont has been run. With that in mind one couldn’t help but feel sorry for anyone in the crowd of 134,487 at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday who had chosen this year to make such a once in a lifetime trip to the Preakness Stakes.

While that number was down slightly from last year’s record of more than 140,000, it was still the third largest crowd ever for the Triple Crown’s second jewel. But what the many thousands got for their paid admission was a day beset first by pouring rain and then by a dense fog that rolled in as post time for the day’s main event drew near. Veteran announcer Larry Colmus, given the task of calling the race for NBC’s coverage, had to rely on watching television monitors rather than peering through binoculars. But even the network’s cameras, with their wide aperture that can turn night into day well beyond the limits of the human eye, could not fully pierce the murk. Meanwhile those in the grandstands could only guess at what might be happening as the horses went around the first turn and disappeared, as if racing into a cloud.

The soggy conditions also reminded everyone in attendance of the sad condition of the facility known as Old Hilltop. Water dripped from the roof of the grandstand down onto a concourse below, and some ceiling tiles were reported to have fallen as well. The Stronach Group owns both Pimlico, in northwest Baltimore, and Laurel Park, which is situated midway between Baltimore and Washington, DC. Laurel has live racing 159 days a year; Pimlico just 12. History and tradition aside, the management of Stronach, a gambling and horse racing giant, has made plain its preference to move the Preakness twenty miles south to a track that it considers better situated and one into which it has poured more than $30 million for recent improvements. Stronach has committed to have next year’s Preakness, the 144th running of this mile and three-sixteenths race at Pimlico, but after that all bets are off.

If Old Hilltop’s days are numbered, then surely this year’s race will go down as the strangest in the history of the Preakness at Pimlico, thanks to the meteorological nightmare that descended on Baltimore. But while those in attendance might not have been able to see much of the race, and the announcer was challenged to make the right call, a field of eight still raced around the antique oval in mud the consistency of peanut butter, a sloppy track that mirrored the conditions two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs.

The favorite, as always at the Preakness, was the Kentucky Derby winner. This year that meant Justify was sent off at better than even money, while Derby runner-up Good Magic was the logical second choice. Breaking from the seven post, jockey Mike Smith quickly urged Justify into an early lead, but trainer Chad Brown had clearly told Jose Ortiz aboard Good Magic, not to let the favorite get too far in front. The punters’ second choice moved up and matched Justify stride for stride as the field raced down the front stretch for the first time.

Fans packed into the grandstands turned their attention to the nearest television as the horses came to the first turn and vanished into the fog. What they could not witness in person was a two-horse duel that quickly took on the feel of a match race, with Justify and Good Magic side by side and three lengths clear of Bravazo, who was running in third. Halfway down the back stretch Good Magic put a head in front, and one wondered whether the slight left rear hoof injury that Justify suffered in the Derby might be enough to allow the challenger to turn the tables.

On the far turn the horses became little more than shadows moving through the mist, even to the TV cameras. But as they turned for home the field at last emerged from the thickest fog, and as they did so it was Justify who began his move, edging away from Good Magic, first by half a length and then by one. But this would not be a reprise of the Derby, where Justify pulled away in the final furlong. On Saturday Good Magic gamely hung on, and in the final yards Bravazo and Tenfold, the longest shot in the field, both came charging down the middle of the lane, closing the gap with the leader. At the wire the former had closed to within half a length, with the latter a head further behind. Still, if the margin was smaller the result was the same as at Churchill Downs – the big Bob Baffert trained 3-year-old, under the able handling of Smith, had won the day.

For the 36th time a horse has laid claim to the first two legs of the Triple Crown. But only twelve of the first thirty-five managed to complete the sweep, the most recent being American Pharoah three years ago. Like Justify, Pharoah came out of Baffert’s barn, but unlike this year’s claimant, he won the middle leg of the Triple Crown in dominating fashion after a sudden deluge during the post parade turned Pimlico muddy. Justify’s performance Saturday is unlikely to scare other contenders away from Belmont Park three weeks hence. There he will have to fend off both new shooters as well as Derby horses whose trainers chose to skip the Preakness while running the longest distance he will ever race.

If Justify comes up short in the Belmont, analysts will point to the severity of the task to which he has been set – a lightly raced horse asked to run three times in just five weeks. They will point to the difficult conditions at both Churchill Downs and Pimlico and suggest that the mud and the muck took too much out of the young colt. There will be disappointment in the horse racing world, but there will be no shame for Justify and his connections for trying and failing. But if he should prevail then Justify will forever be remembered as one of the great thoroughbreds of all time, and his margin of victory in any of the three races will be forgotten. Horse racing fans will see the answer for themselves on the second Saturday in June, assuming of course there is no fog on Long Island that day.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 17, 2018

One More Hero With Feet Of Clay

From the very beginning Robinson Cano was meant to not just play the Great Game, but to be one of its stars. His father Jose was signed as an amateur free agent by the New York Yankees in 1980, two years before Robinson was born. The elder Cano spent time in the minor league organizations of both New York and Atlanta, before finally making it to the big time, ever so briefly. In 1989 Jose Cano, a right-handed pitcher, appeared in six games for the Houston Astros, three as a starter and three in relief. His major league record was 1-1, with the sole win a complete game victory in his last time on a big league mound. After that Jose spent another season in the minors and a few years pitching in Taiwan.

By that time he had already transferred his big league ambitions to his son, to whom he had given the name Robinson in honor of the Brooklyn Dodger great who tore down baseball’s color barrier. Some children might have staggered under the weight of the lofty expectations conveyed by that name, perhaps even renouncing any interest in the sport, but the young Cano met them head on. Growing up mostly in his native Dominican Republic, with a brief interlude in New Jersey, Cano played both baseball and basketball. Early in 2001 he followed in his father’s footsteps, signing an amateur free agent contract with the Yankees, for which he received a $100,000 bonus.

Cano was assigned to the Yankees’ affiliate in the rookie Gulf Coast League, from where he began a steady march towards the Bronx. From Tampa to Staten Island, where the New York Penn League team would eventually retire his number, on to Greensboro, Trenton and Columbus over the next four seasons, until he got the call every minor leaguer dreams of early in the 2005 campaign. The 22-year-old rookie batted .297 that year, finishing second in the balloting for AL Rookie of the Year. The following season Cano put up monster numbers, batting .342 with 41 doubles while gaining the first of what would eventually be eight All-Star Game selections. Cano complemented his plate presence with solid and occasionally spectacular defensive play at second base, filling the hole left by the departure of Alfonso Soriano in the trade that brought Alex Rodriguez to New York.

Over time Cano also improved his power stroke. He managed 14 home runs in his rookie year, and first topped 20 homers in the Yankees’ 2009 championship season, when he hit 25. His high while in pinstripes was 33 in 2012, by which time New York’s radio play-by-play announcer had long since perfected his Cano home run call. As the Yankees’ star second baseman glided around the bases after putting one in the seats, John Sterling would cry “Robbie Cano, don’t you know!”

But Cano was not a perfect hero. While blessed with enormous natural talent, he did not always match it with an equal measure of effort. When an at-bat produced a routine grounder hit right at an opposing infielder, Cano would sometimes barely nod in the direction of first base. And while he had good range and was capable of dramatic plays in the field, on occasion he was content to simply wave his glove at a ball that looked to be within reach to the fans in the stands. If the opposing fielder bobbled the sure out or the lackadaisical defense opened the door to a big inning, Yankee fans were happy to let their All-Star second baseman know what they thought of his casual approach. In retrospect, perhaps those moments were warning signs, early indicators of a player willing to accept shortcuts.

Still when Cano became a free agent after the 2013 season, most of the Yankees’ faithful wanted him to stay in the fold. New York offered seven years and $175 million and dangled the prospect of Cano becoming the first Dominican-born player with a plaque in Monument Park if he chose to be a Yankee for life. But Cano wanted as many years and as much money as he could get, and so headed to Seattle when the Mariners offered a decade-long contract valued at $240 million.

Through four years and the first quarter of the fifth, Cano provided a decent return on Seattle’s huge investment. While playing from age 30 to 35, his numbers were down only slightly from those he posted as a twenty-something in the Bronx. And while he hadn’t been able to end the longest postseason drought among all teams in the four major North American professional sports leagues all by himself, this year the Mariners, fortified by the additions of Nelson Cruz in 2015, Jean Segura in 2016, and most recently Dee Gordon, were hanging close to the Angels and Astros in the AL West, and as of Monday were just outside of a Wild Card spot.

Then on Tuesday came word that Cano had been suspended for 80 games after testing positive for furosemide, a diuretic better known by the brand name Lasix that is on MLB’s banned substances list. The chemicals in Lasix do nothing to improve an athlete’s performance. Rather the drug is seen as a masking agent, taken to flush out the system and expunge evidence of performance enhancers. Because of that a positive test for furosemide does not by itself trigger a suspension. Rather it leads to an investigation by the independent administrator into why the drug was taken. Only if it’s determined that it was being used as a masking agent to hide use of a PED does the suspension, in this case the mandated 80 games for a first-time offender, follow. While fans will never know what evidence the administrator found, his conclusion is clear.

In addition to the occasionally casual play, when Cano was with the Yankees his best friends on the team were Melky Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez. Cabrera was suspended for 50 games while with the San Francisco Giants in 2012, and Rodriguez, well, what more need be said? Guilt by association is never entirely fair, but it’s what led former teammate Mark Teixeira to say he wasn’t surprised by the news of Cano’s suspension, and prompted Yankees GM Brian Cashman to state that while he had no knowledge of PEDs use by Cano, “knowledge is one thing, suspicion is another.”

For his part Cano issued a statement through the Players Association, the elements of which are by now utterly familiar. The player shifts responsibility. “This substance was given to me by a licensed doctor in the Dominican Republic to treat a medical ailment.” He expresses remorse, but is it for using a banned substance or for getting caught? “I obviously now wish that I had been more careful.” Finally, he apologizes to family, friends, fans and his team. One wonders if there is a preprinted stack of these at the Association’s headquarters, only requiring that blanks for the name of the player and the team be filled in prior to their release.

When he returns later this season, Cano and the Mariners will still be wed to each other for another five years, until he is 40. Fans in Seattle will be able to watch him in decline, and wonder what might have been. A viable candidate for the 3,000-hit club and the Hall of Fame as recently as Monday, Cano has likely decimated his chances for either of those honors. Meanwhile without a key member of their lineup, the Mariners will try to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2001. To paraphrase John Sterling’s old cry, Robbie Cano, now we know.

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