Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 23, 2019

This Round Goes To The Players

Is a 19-year-old right-handed pitcher for a Florida community college about to upend the Great Game’s collective bargaining agreement? The short answer to that question is “no,” but the news this week, first reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, that Carter Stewart’s agent Scott Boras had negotiated a six-year, $7 million contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s equivalent of MLB, at the very least served as a warning shot across the bow of commissioner Rob Manfred’s four-masted management flagship that players and their agents are finally finding ways to strike back against the terms of the current CBA that have swung heavily in management’s favor over the past few seasons.

As a senior in high school Stewart was rated one of the top prospects in last June’s amateur draft and was eventually chosen with the eighth pick by Atlanta. However, Atlanta sharply reduced its signing bonus offer to him, citing evidence of a wrist injury. Draft bonuses are tightly regulated by slot, and Stewart ultimately chose to pass on an offer that was less than half the $4.98 million allocated to a number eight pick. Instead he enrolled at Eastern Florida State College, where he made thirteen starts, compiling a 2-2 record with a 1.70 ERA and 108 strikeouts. That made Stewart a likely second round pick next month on the boards of most draft analysts, meaning he was probably in line to receive even less than the $2 million he was offered by Atlanta twelve months ago.

Had he gone through the draft and been awarded something close to $2 million, Stewart would have been smart to bank it against future needs. Like virtually every other draftee in the second round or later, he would have probably started at his new team’s short-season Class A affiliate. Assuming he did well and followed a typical progression, one year later Stewart would likely be wearing the uniform of a AA team, with Class AAA following in 2021, and perhaps a callup to the big leagues sometime after enough games of the 2022 season had been played to prevent him from accruing a full year of service time during his first major league season. That calendar in turn would tie Stewart to the team that picked him until after the 2028 season. He’d earn at best perhaps $10,000 per year while in the minors and would almost certainly start at the major league minimum, currently $555,000, once he finally became a big league ballplayer.

That’s the structure of the current CBA, which of course the Players Association agreed to. But that agreement was always based on a tacit understanding that the reward for players toiling in the minors for less than the minimum wage and enduring years of team control in the majors was free agency, when that same player could entertain bids for multi-year contracts from multiple teams in an open and competitive market. It’s of course that back end of a player’s salary arc that front offices, armed with reams of data pointing to steady decline in performance after age thirty, have largely shut down in recent years, especially for those who are not superstars.

Now Stewart and Boras have found a way to improve his earnings in the near term and short-circuit the current heavily team-favorable negotiating calendar. In the best of worlds and assuming a significant bump in the minimum salary, Stewart might earn $4 million including that theoretical $2 million signing bonus over the next six years. His deal with the Hawks promises him $3 million more over the same time period. More important, Stewart would still not be eligible for free agency at the end of that time. But under MLB’s rules, at the end of his contract in Japan, Stewart should qualify as a “foreign professional” since he will have spent “all or part of six seasons” playing in an “MLB-recognized foreign professional league.” That means that at age 25, three years sooner than under the typical scenario outlined about, Stewart would be eligible to participate in the posting system between MLB and NPB and come back to America as a free agent, as players have done from Ichiro Suzuki to Shohei Ohtani.

It is merely stating the obvious to note that in May 2019 all that is little more than fantasy and wild-eyed speculation. Of every position on the field, none is so difficult to predict as the future of young pitchers. Stewart could get hurt. He could lose his command, or just generally regress. He could find after a few months as a stranger in a strange land that a foreign culture is simply not worth a fat bank account. Only with the passage of time will fans learn how the Carter Stewart story turns out. But it is worth noting that he signed only after an extended visit to Japan with his family, where he got both a taste of the culture and a look at the Hawks’ facilities. So while the logistics of moving 7,500 miles from home in order to play ball mean that there will be no flood of young would-be draftees decamping for Japan, neither should the deal Boras has struck be dismissed as a publicity stunt.

Rather it should be seen for the welcome news that it is: a rare blow from the players’ side against a monolithic management that has increasingly subverted the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement to its favor. The 19-year-old and his agent haven’t upended the CBA, but they have reminded owners that the players can also find ways to move the system, at least a little bit, back into balance. For that every member of the Major League Baseball Players Association owes Carter Stewart thanks.

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Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 19, 2019

A Worthy Champion, A Spirited Challenge, And A Winning Course

With its third turn at hosting a major championship, Bethpage Black finally caught a break. The USGA won well-deserved praise when it named the sprawling Long Island layout as host of the 2002 US Open, finally staging our national championship at a public course. The announcement would not have been news in Great Britain, where over the decades many of the links in the Open rota have been public courses. Most notably, the Old Course at St. Andrews, home of golf, is open to one and all (as are the six adjoining courses operated by the local Links Trust), though it’s best to plan one’s tee time months in advance.

But for the majors played in this country the story had always been very different. Augusta National, the Masters venue, is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, and both the US Open and PGA Championship had for years generally been rotated among only slightly less privileged private country clubs. Even when one of those events was staged on a publicly accessible course, it was a high-end resort like Pinehurst or Pebble Beach – accessible to anyone willing to shell out $500 or more for a round of golf. Bethpage is an entirely different animal, one that weekend hackers everywhere know very well. The Black is one of five courses in a state park in Farmingdale, twenty-five miles east of Gotham. Golfers change their shoes in the parking lot and there is no men’s grill. New York state residents can play the courses for $38 to $65 dollars during the week, with just a modest $5 to $10 weekend surcharge.

While the 2002 US Open and a return engagement seven years later were successful events, played before massive crowds of boisterous fans that fully justified the USGA’s egalitarian site selection, both events were plagued by rain. Delays at the 2009 tournament were so bad that the final round wasn’t played until Monday, and many spectator areas were closed because of mud and slippery conditions. It was thus very welcome news when the early weather forecast for this weekend’s PGA Championship proved overly pessimistic. While rain did fall during the practice rounds, the competition was mostly played in mild spring weather, with an increasing wind for Sunday’s final round that allowed Bethpage Black to show just why those signs warning that it’s “an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers” are posted near the first tee.

For the first three days of this year’s PGA the most highly skilled golfer in the field was unquestionably Brooks Koepka, the impossibly long-hitting player who avoids the spotlight and thrives at majors. Koepka opened by setting a new course record with a 7-under par 63, matching his score from the second round at last year’s PGA at Bellerive. There Koepka held off Tiger Woods on Sunday to win his third major. With the PGA Tour’s shift in schedule that moved the PGA Championship from August to May, Koepka came to Bethpage not just as the defending champion but as the winner of two of the last four major tournaments and two-time defending champion of the US Open.

He was very nearly as good on Friday, when he backed up his opening record-setter with a 5-under par 65, putting him 12-under at the midpoint of the tournament, seven shots clear of his nearest challenger. His two-day total of 128 broke the record for the lowest 36-hole score at a major by two shots. It was also seventeen shots better than the score of Tiger Woods, one of his playing partners on Thursday and Friday. If Koepka’s third round tally of even par 70 seemed pedestrian, it was only in relation to his first two rounds, not the rest of the field. His lead remained seven shots heading into Sunday, a margin that no previous 54-hole leader had ever squandered.

Yet what many presumed would be a coronation proved to be anything but once the wind freshened Sunday afternoon, with gusts approaching thirty miles per hour. For much of the final day the best player on the course was Koepka’s close friend and workout partner, Dustin Johnson. While the leader opened with a loosely played bogey and didn’t get back to level for the round until a birdie at the 4th, Johnson rolled in three birdies on the front nine to cut the overnight lead down to four shots. As the final pairings began the long walk in from the furthest reaches of the Black, Koepka appeared to restore order by sending a soaring gap wedge from 160 yards to little more than a foot for a birdie at the difficult par-4 10th hole, even as Johnson was unable to get up and down from the sand to save par at the 11th. Just like that the lead was back up to six.

That was when the seemingly unperturbable Koepka got decidedly perturbed. He followed one poor shot with another on the 11th, finally escaping with a bogey when he holed a putt from eight feet. That dropped shot was followed by three more, one on each of the next three holes. As the leader marched down the hill from the 14th green to the 15th tee, up ahead Johnson was making birdie on the uphill par-4, one of the most difficult holes at Bethpage Black, for the fourth straight day. The lead was now but a single stroke.

Just when it looked like the Koepka bandwagon had veered into a ditch, he showed the mettle of a player who arrived on Long Island having won three of the previous eight majors, turning the 15th and 16th into the decisive holes of the tournament. While Koepka didn’t match Johnson’s birdie at the first of those two holes, he did stanch the bleeding by negotiating a tricky downhill sliding two-putt par. Then shortly after Johnson found the rough at the 16th and needed a 4-iron for his approach, Koepka split the fairway with his drive and was left with just an 8-iron to the putting surface. The result was a bogey for the pursuer and a par for the leader that allowed Koepka to breath again over the final holes.

Koepka’s final round of 4-over 74 was the highest by a PGA Championship winner in fifteen years. On a more positive note he becomes the first golfer ever to win both the US Open and PGA Championship titles in back-to-back years. He also joins an elite list of golfers with four majors before his 30th birthday, and Koepka has three more such events to add to his total before he reaches that milestone early next May. Should he do so he’ll join Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones on a list of major championship aristocracy. While his Sunday best came up short, Johnson also joins an admirable short list of pro golfers – those who have taken second place at each of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Yet as Koepka readily admitted after his victory, he was just “glad we didn’t have to play any more holes.” By the time the final putt was holed, the real winner of this year’s PGA Championship was that behemoth of a muni known as Bethpage Black, which surely brought a smile to the lips of weekend golfers everywhere. Time to freshen up the paint on those warning signs.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 16, 2019

One Gentle Swish, A Long Time Coming

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life returns from a brief break necessitated by a medical issue. Apparently, an original issue part was not warrantied for the life of the vehicle. While the resulting surgery will keep me at home for a bit and forced the cancellation of plans to attend this weekend’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, I am happy to report that an expected full recovery is running ahead of schedule. Thanks as always for your support.

To anyone who hasn’t experienced it, describing the noise level inside a professional sports venue as rabid fans give voice to their heartfelt desires in the final moments of a crucial contest may well be an impossible task. It is not just the sheer volume of noise that overwhelms the senses, but also the intensity of raw emotion behind every shout and scream, as hope and despair share momentary space on a knife edge, with the only certainty that just one will survive the next few ticks of the clock, becoming forever the way the moment is remembered.

In our various games certain venues have earned reputations as particularly compelling locations for the expression of fan sentiment. There is Anfield in the English Premier League, home to Liverpool FC. CenturyLink Field in Seattle, where celebrations by fans of the NFL’s Seahawks have been known to register on nearby seismic monitors. Yankee fans in the second and third decks of the old Stadium could feel the concrete and steel shake beneath them at crucial moments in their team’s storied history. Indoor arenas, largely because of their smaller capacity, are less often cited as locations for sensory overload. But make no mistake, put eighteen or twenty thousand screaming partisans in a confined space and the result is sure to be memorable.

There is thus no lack of irony in the fact that the noise an NBA fan most wants to hear at any time, and never more so than as the clock expires in the seventh game of a playoff series, is barely discernable in an otherwise silent room. It is the softest sigh of sound, like a gentle breeze moving through pine boughs on a warm and drowsy summer’s day, the sound of a basketball finding nothing but net – swish.

That was the sound the nearly 21,000 fans crammed into Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto wanted to hear Sunday night, though it would have been impossible for them to do so, given the noise they were busy creating.

Like the entire series, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal between the Raptors and 76ers was a close, hard-fought contest. Toronto led for much of the game, and although Philadelphia refused to capitulate, when Pascal Siakam laid in a basket to push the Raptors’ lead to four with 1:14 to play – the first Toronto points by anyone other than Kawhi Leonard in almost six minutes – the home fans dared to exhale just a bit, victory and a date in the conference final against Milwaukee so very near at hand.

But the teams exchanged fouls and free throws over the next minute, and when Leonard missed one from the charity stripe with 10.8 seconds remaining, the 89-85 margin had shrunk to 90-88. That’s when the 76ers’ Tobias Harris pulled down the rebound and released an outlet pass to Jimmy Butler, who took the ball the length of the court and tied the score with a layup. For Toronto, for Philadelphia, for 21,000 screaming fans, 4.2 seconds and a collective wish for an ever-so-quiet sound remained.

Every player on both teams, every fan in the stands, every viewer watching at home knew with certainty that Toronto’s play to win the game and the series would go through Leonard. A mid-season acquisition from San Antonio, with the right to opt-out of his contract and become a free agent at season’s end, Leonard is the Raptors’ star and had already tallied 39 points.

Toronto lined up with Leonard in the paint. With just four seconds left the Raptors eschewed multiple passes. Instead Leonard ducked behind a screen and took the inbounds throw from Marc Gasol at the top of the key. He immediately began dribbling to his right, pursued by Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. As Leonard raced into the far corner of the court, Simmons gave way to Joel Embiid, the 76ers seven-footer. Leonard planted himself just inside the three-point line, and as he prepared to shoot a jumper Embiid took flight. Afterwards, Leonard acknowledged that he had thrown the shot higher than usual, knowing he had to get it over the defender.

The clock went to zero and the horn blared even as the basketball found the top of its arc and descended toward the basket. And then, amid all that noise, the sound could be clearly heard, or perhaps it was simply that everyone knew what the sound would be and so substituted thought for reality.

Clank! Not the sweet swish of success but its noisy counterpart, the ugly metallic braying of a ball hitting the basket’s rim. Leonard’s shot was half a ball short. But it was exactly half a ball short, so instead of bouncing away from the rim the ball bounded straight into the air, rising above the backboard. Down it came for a second chance. Clank! Once more leather kissed metal, and for a second time the basketball bounced, but this time the ricochet was not so high, and directed toward the opposite rim. Clank! For a third agonizing time Leonard’s shot hit the rim, but this time the contact was softer. Even as players and fans stood or in Leonard’s case squatted, all mesmerized by the slowly unfolding ballet ten feet off the ground, the denouement was now at hand. Clank! One final time off the rim, but gently now, the noise more imagined than heard. To the joy of Raptors fans, that final contact was against the inside of the rim. The ball again rebounded, but barely, just enough to center it over the basket, where gravity at last seized the day. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity spent watching a single shot, came the quietest, and for Toronto fans, the sweetest sound of all. Swish!

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 5, 2019

A Hard Call, But The Right One

A NOTE TO READERS: With this post On Sports and Life is stepping away from the keyboard for a brief sabbatical to attend to some personal matters. The regular posting schedule should resume within a couple of weeks. As always, thank you for reading and for your support. See you soon.

Despite their often-distinctive uniforms, such as striped shirts, which in some sports makes them the most noticeable individuals on the field, the goal of officials in all our games is to remain invisible. Their job is to call them as they see them while maintaining both order and legitimacy in the proceedings. Inevitably, circumstances arise in which that wished for anonymity is no longer possible. But no self-respecting official in any sport considers it a good outcome when the story of the day is about them.

In thoroughbred racing the officials are quite literally invisible. The team of stewards at every track is hidden away in a box overlooking the track, banks at video screens at hand. Most fans will spend a day at the races without every knowing the stewards are there, and even when if called upon to rule on the occasional objection from a rider, their deliberations are private and their decision delivered not in person but by a lighted sign on the tote board.

It is thus fair to say that Barbara Borden, chief steward of the Kentucky Racing Commission, Brooks Becraft, a second state steward, and Tyler Picklesimer, the steward for Churchill Downs, were in the last place they wanted to be last evening when they appeared before the press in the media center usually reserved for the connections of the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby.

Led by Borden, the three were releasing a statement explaining their decision to uphold foul claims lodged by the riders of Long Range Toddy and Country House against the horse that hours earlier had been first to cross the finish line, pre-race favorite Maximum Security. In their statement the stewards said that after interviewing all the affected riders and viewing video from multiple angles, the three had unanimously agreed that as the field swept around the final turn, Maximum Security drifted out of its lane, interfering with and impeding the progress of War of Will, Long Range Toddy, and Bodexpress. “Therefore,” the statement said, “we unanimously determined to disqualify number 7 and place him behind the 18, the 18 being the lowest-placed horse that he bothered, which is our typical procedure.” That decision dropped Maximum Security to 17th place, and made Country House, the horse that finished second, the official winner of this year’s Derby. At 65-1, Country House becomes the second longest shot to claim the Run for the Roses, behind only 91-1 Donerail’s improbable victory in 1913.

During the more than twenty minutes between the end of the race and the posting of the steward’s decision, NBC’s viewers saw repeated replays of the race’s decisive moment. It was clear that the favorite swerved suddenly, jumping a puddle on the rain-soaked track and drifting right from the second lane to the fifth. Horses running behind Maximum Security bunched together and jostled while trying to slow down and avoid a potentially disastrous multi-horse collision. One jockey rose in his irons, attempting to prevent disaster. That group of bumping horses grazed Country House, who was moving up even further outside. The leader’s jockey, Luis Saez, did his best to steer Maximum Security back in line and later said the horse had been spooked by the roar of the crowd.

But before he could do so the damage was done, ultimately giving Maximum Security an unwanted page in the record books of horse racing. In the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby, only 1968 Winner Dancer’s Image had been disqualified, and that took place not immediately after the race but days later based on results of a blood test for banned drugs. Maximum Security thus stands alone as the only apparent Derby champion to have its number taken down by the stewards.

The decision did not sit well with many fans, in large part because while Saez’s mount clearly swerved out of its lane and impeded several other runners, Country House received no more than a glancing blow in the mashup at the quarter pole. Awarding a Triple Crown jewel to the 65-1 longshot, who was manifestly unable to run down Maximum Security in the stretch, seemed inherently unfair to the thousands who took to various forms of social media Sunday night to voice their complaints.

But what that popular point of view does more than anything is serve as a reminder that on the first Saturday in May horse racing attracts millions of fans who pay the sport no heed for the rest of the calendar. They would be called fair weather fans except the quantity of rain that has fallen on Churchill Downs for the last two Derby’s makes the description ironic. Those fans understandably focus on which horse wins the race, or in this unique case which horses. But that is only a part of horse racing and ensuring the integrity of the saddle number on the tote board’s win line only part of the stewards’ job.

The first fact that critics ignore is that the melee in the mud took place after the field had run a mile, with the rest of Churchill Down’s long home stretch, fully one-fifth of the race’s distance, still left to be covered. We all know what happened on Saturday over that final quarter-mile. As Maximum Security and Country House ran on, War of Will faded to eighth, Bodexpress backed up to twelfth, and Long Range Toddy staggered home in eighteenth place, prior to each moving one spot with the disqualification. But it is impossible to know how much of that order of finish was because those three horses weren’t in the leader’s league, and how much was because three notoriously high-strung animals lost all interest in running after caroming off one another and, in the case of War of Will and Long Range Toddy, having to slam on their equine brakes.

Second, while winning gets all the attention in racing, it is not the only source of revenue for a horse and its connections. Just as bettors are paid out for horses that finish second, third, and in some exotic bets even fourth, so too the Derby’s purse is divided among the top five finishers. The stewards’ obligation is to protect the entire field, and their decision had a significant financial impact not just on Maximum Security and Country House, but also Code of Honor, Tacitus, Improbable and Game Winner.  But for the foul one of the interfered horses might have made that list.

Finally, that obligation to “protect” is not limited to the order of finish. It also applies quite literally. In a sport recently rocked by scores of equine deaths, ten per week last year, a rate far higher than in any other country in the world, all parties having anything to do with a race should see their most important job as bringing all the horses home safe.

Mark Caisse, the trainer of War of Will, said after the race, “I feel like a lucky man because I just got him out and jogged him and he’s perfect. The horse racing world should be happy War of Will is such an athlete because not every horse doesn’t go down there.” Asked about the disqualification, Caisse said “They had to take him down. A lot of people said the best horse won, you know, maybe he did. But we would have liked the chance. Should he have come down? Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Kentucky Derby or not. The horse put people’s lives in danger, he put jockeys’ lives in danger.”

Having the three stewards in the media center Saturday evening was not what they or anyone else associated with the Derby wanted. And perhaps there is no way for the broader public to see the result as anything other than a public relations disaster. That of course is a powerful blow to a sport already teetering on the edge of viability. But the truth is that the storyline out of Kentucky Derby 145 could have been so very much worse. That’s a reality that the officials would have been dead wrong to ignore.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 2, 2019

Book Review: Ruth, Who Made The Game Great

Out past the deepest reaches of center field at the new Yankees Stadium, Monument Park is getting crowded. There are now thirty-eight plaques honoring former players, coaches, announcers, and executives of the most successful franchise in sports. And that number doesn’t include bronze tributes to three Popes who celebrated Mass at the Stadium, a remembrance of 9/11, and one honoring Jackie Robinson. Yet among all the testimonials to memorable careers and moments, one stands out. For all but one of the plaques describe in detail, either by words or a listing of career statistics, the accomplishments of the honoree. That consistency makes the bronze tribute to the greatest Yankee of all time, the player who bestrode baseball like a colossus and changed the game forever, especially striking. For on the plaque honoring George Herman “Babe” Ruth there is only this: A Great Ball Player. A Great Man. A Great American.

Those ten short words, beside the plaques of other Hall of Famers describing their accomplishments at length, remind everyone who passes through Monument Park before every contest that the Yankees play of the Babe’s unique presence in the Great Game. It is one that all those fans believe they know long before they set foot on Babe Ruth Plaza outside the main entrances to the Stadium.

Given that reality, of an outsized personality who died seven decades ago and whose life has since been chronicled by multiple writers, one might wonder what a reader could gain from spending time with the most recent addition to the Babe’s biographical oeuvre. The answer, in the case of Jane Leavy’s “The Big Fella” is far more information and factual detail in place of mythic aggrandizement than one would expect, making time spent with the accomplished sportswriter’s most recent work both informative and rewarding.

While writing for the Washington Post, and even before she published best-selling biographies of Sandy Koufax (“A Lefty’s Legacy,” 2002), and Mickey Mantle (“The Last Boy,” 2010), Leavy was contemplating a biography of Ruth. But recognizing the extensive coverage of his life and career already in print, she spent years searching for an angle on his story that she could call her own. She eventually settled on basing her book in the fall of 1927, just after Ruth smashed sixty home runs, breaking his own record set six years earlier and outdistancing his young teammate Lou Gehrig, who finished the season with forty-seven. After the Yankees swept the Cardinals in the World Series, Ruth and Gehrig embarked on a cross-country barnstorming tour, which began in Providence, Rhode Island on October 10 and ended in Los Angeles three weeks later.

Christy Walsh, Ruth’s longtime business manager, claimed after the tour that Ruth and Gehrig had traveled more than eight thousand miles while playing twenty-one games in twenty cities spread across thirteen different states. Along the way the pair had autographed more than five thousand baseballs, distributed to a small portion of the more than two hundred twenty thousand fans who thronged minor league parks to catch a glimpse of the Bambino and Gehrig, who captained opposing squads made up of local ballplayers at each stop. Thirteen of the exhibition contests ended short of the regulation nine innings due to “fan enthusiasm,” a polite description of the fact that with security limited to the local police force, first youngsters and then adults often rushed the field to get truly up close and personal with the Babe.

While some of Walsh’s claims are easily verifiable, it is impossible to say whether others are true. But that is in keeping with the story of Ruth. The subtitle of Leavy’s book is “Babe Ruth and the World He Created,” a reminder to readers of the extent to which Ruth’s personality transcended his sport. Ruth’s world, even when he was alive, was a mixture of fact and fiction, a blend of reality and myth, just as the man himself was part prodigious baseball talent and part showman who, with Walsh’s help, presented a carefully crafted image to the public, at least most of the time. Was he really an orphan? No. Did he really call his shot in the 1932 World Series? Probably not. Did that 1919 spring training home run, when Ruth was still wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform, really travel 587 feet? Quite possibly. But was that his longest clout, or did that one during an exhibition tour in 1926 at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania really go more than 600 feet? Who knows?

Her account of the barnstorming tour, with a separate chapter devoted to each stop, is a tale of Ruth as the first true sports celebrity, one who earned the modern equivalent of more than $300 million during his playing career. While that might not seem like a massive amount when set against today’s huge contracts, Ruth amassed his fortune decades before free agency was even a concept. Every ballplayer’s annual salary was dictated by his team, with almost no room for negotiation. Still Ruth managed to outstrip every other fellow major leaguer by signing for as much as $80,000 a year, or well over $20 million in today’s dollars. But most of his earnings came from endorsements and offseason work in movies and vaudeville, all made possible by his fame, and in his time no other athlete came close to earning what Ruth did.

In contrast, while today’s playing contracts may be larger, when Forbes published its 2018 global ranking of sports stars’ earnings, including both salaries and endorsements, the highest ranked baseball player was Clayton Kershaw, at number 37. And this year’s ESPN World Fame 100, a list of athletes ranked by a combination of endorsements, web searches, and social media following, includes just one representative of the Great Game, Bryce Harper, at number 99.

Intertwined with the story of his three weeks on the road with Gehrig in the fall of 1927, Leavy tells the story of Ruth’s life, covering all his accomplishments on the field of course, but also painting a full picture of a life that was complex and often difficult. While not an orphan he was the product of a badly fractured family. His first marriage was an unhappy one all around, and his devotion to the woman who would become his second wife before that marriage ended had Walsh scurrying to keep scurrilous stories out of the newspapers. Often taking the role of a kid who never grew up, Ruth had his share of on-field contretemps, some of which threatened, at least for a few days or weeks, his image as a national hero. Ultimately, they also likely cost him any chance of a managerial or executive role in baseball once his playing career was done, and that sad fact likely contributed to Ruth’s 1948 death at just 53-years old as much as the rare and aggressive cancer that was the official cause.

His passing triggered a period of national mourning unimaginable for any modern athlete. But then as “The Big Fella” makes clear, no other figure in sports has ever so fully created and lived in his own world as Ruth did. In the process he put the Great Game on his broad shoulders and changed it forever, carrying it from the dead ball era into modernity. All these decades later, fans making the pilgrimage to Monument Park, those taking their seats for a Sunday afternoon game at stadiums all across the land, and all the players they have paid to see, remain Babe Ruth’s beneficiaries.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 28, 2019

A Hero Passes, But His Moment Lives Forever

What is it that turns a moment in time into a moment for all time? What is it about the setting, or the participants, or the drama, that ensures a fleeting few seconds in a single game, a miniscule number well right of the decimal point in the total hours of competition comprising an athlete’s career, will become the signature of his time on the great stage of sports? Perhaps there is no single answer, for it is really some magical combination of all three, leavened with the attitudes and expectations of the fans who witness it, that converts the ephemeral into the historic.

Young sports fans may not believe it, but there was a time not so very long ago when Boston was regarded by most as a provincial backwater when it came to success in sports. Before the recent multiple championships by the Patriots and Red Sox, and the title parades for the Celtics in 2008 and the Bruins in 2011, one fallow season piled on top of another for most of the city’s teams. Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl win in 2002 was also the first for the Patriots franchise, in its forty-second year of play. The Red Sox went more than eight and a half decades between titles, torturing fans by veering from atrocious to agonizingly close during that time. But for two championships won during the all too brief prime of Bobby Orr, the story of the Boston Bruins was seven decades of disappointment between 1941 and 2011.

The sole exception during all those years, the one team that New England fans could count on to be not just competitive but contenders, was the Celtics. Boston’s NBA franchise won sixteen titles over a three-decade span from 1957 to 1986, including eleven championships in thirteen years from that first one in ’57 through 1969, a record of dominance unmatched in the history of the league.

Scores of players contributed to the banners that now hang in the rafters of TD Garden commemorating all those titles. Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale at the end of the run. Bob Cousy and the incomparable Bill Russell, who remade the role of center into a defensive position, at the beginning. Heinsohn and Cowens, Archibald and White, and so many others, along with Red Auerbach, for years the head coach and then eventually the GM, all doing their part in furthering the success of the one Boston franchise that regularly gave fans reason to cheer.

Which brings us to the night of April 15, 1965, and the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals at the old Boston Garden. The NBA was very different then, with just nine teams divided into two conferences. Six of the nine advanced to the playoffs, with Boston and the L.A. Lakers, regular season conference champions, receiving a bye into the conference finals while the second and third place teams played a best-of-five opening series. That year the first round in the East was between the Philadelphia 76ers and Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), with the 76ers prevailing in four games. The conference finals format was to alternate the site every game, and so Boston and Philadelphia traveled back and forth for six games over nine days, with the home team winning each contest.

Like the series, the decisive Game 7 was a tight affair. When Wilt Chamberlain, who began his career in Philadelphia with the Warriors before that franchise moved west and who had returned to the city in a trade by the 76ers in the middle of the 1964-65 season, slammed home a dunk the score was 110-109 in favor of the Celtics with just five seconds left to play.

Russell took responsibility for the inbounds pass, later saying that he trusted no one more than himself to execute a clean throw. It was an ironic exercise in self-confidence, because Russell’s toss hit a stabilizing guidewire running from a corner of the backboard to the balcony high above the court. The interference made for an automatic turnover, giving Philadelphia the ball under their own basket, with five seconds to win the game and the conference championship.

The fans packed into the Garden were in shock. Russell would later be named the league’s Most Valuable Player for the fifth time. No one on the Celtics and certainly not the team’s leader made such a mind-numbing error. Other Boston franchises had their share of pratfalls, but not the NBA team that was the darling of the city. During the ensuing timeout Russell sat on the bench with his head down.

The referee handed Philadelphia’s Hal Greer the ball. On the court John Havlicek, then a 25-year-old in his third season, was guarding Chet Walker, his back to Greer. Havlicek knew that Greer had to throw the inbounds pass within five seconds or lose possession. In his mind he began counting to five, and when he reached four, he turned his head a fraction to glance back at Greer. That was the moment the ball left Greer’s hands, intended for Walker. With the split-second advantage gained by his glance, Havlicek took two steps and reached up with his long arms, deflecting the ball away from Walker and into the hands of Boston’s Sam Jones, who quickly dribbled down the court as the clock ran out. Fans stormed the parquet, lifting Havlicek onto their shoulders and ripping off his jersey.

In the decades since that night, the number of fans claiming to have been eyewitnesses to Havlicek’s steal has far exceeded the capacity of the Garden. But many times even that impossible number heard, rather than saw, the game-deciding play. Johnny Most, the Celtics gravel-voiced radio announcer for nearly four decades described the play for countless thousands throughout New England, “Alright, Greer’s putting the ball in play. He gets it out deep but Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball! Oh boy, what a play by Havlicek at the end of this ballgame!”

The Celtics went on to beat the Lakers four games to one in that year’s NBA Finals. For Havlicek, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 79, it was his third championship in as many seasons. Over a career that stretched to seventeen years, all in a Boston uniform, he would win a total of eight. Along the way Havlicek set team records which he still holds for the most games played and most points scored. But because he was not a starter for much of his career his contributions are sometimes overlooked by the broader universe of NBA fans.

In Boston the Celtics faithful know better. Red Auerbach created the concept of the sixth man, or first player off the bench. The coaching legend wanted a strong scorer to be able to come into the game as a substitute, so the team’s offense wouldn’t decline noticeably when a starter needed to rest. While he was not the first player to fill that role for Auerbach, Havlicek was undoubtedly the best. That selfless willingness to serve in any role, along with an unmatched work ethic, made Havlicek a 13-time All-Star and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. All those career accomplishments are why his number 17 hangs in the TD Garden rafters next to the championship banners. But nothing that John Havlicek did matched the moment when he rescued Bill Russell, saved his team’s season, and preserved Boston’s pride, on that long-ago night when Havlicek stole the ball.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 25, 2019

One By One, The NHL’s Elite Are Dismissed

Maybe the secret to success in the Stanley Cup playoffs is to suck during the regular season. Okay, that assessment is a bit harsh. After all, each of the sixteen squads that made the NHL’s postseason tournament finished the regular schedule at least eight games over .500. That’s decidedly better than the NBA, where in the top-heavy Eastern Conference only season-ending winning streaks of from two to four games allowed the bottom three teams in the playoff bracket to limp into the postseason with records at or just barely above break-even. Still, when the number seven seed Carolina Hurricanes rallied from a 3-1 second period deficit to eliminate the defending champion Washington Capitals with a 4-3 double overtime Game 7 victory Wednesday night, the triumph of underdogs over excellence in the first round of this year’s Cup playoffs was complete.

As previously chronicled in this space, the pattern was established early in the opening round when the Eastern Conference’s number eight seed Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the Presidents’ Trophy winners from Tampa four games to none. Skating to the best record in the league during the regular season is no guarantee of playoff success; in fact history would suggest just the opposite. But prior to the Tampa Bay Lightning being outhustled, outplayed, and decisively outscored by Columbus, no number one seed had ever been swept in the first round. It was an especially precipitous fall since Tampa Bay had tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings with 62 wins during the regular season, the most in league history.

But as it turned out the upset by the Blue Jackets was not just stunning but also a precursor of first round play. Three nights after the Lightning’s season came to its abrupt end, players for the Calgary Flames found themselves free to trade their skates for golf shoes. The Colorado Avalanche, the number eight seed in the West, completed an upset nearly as big as the one pulled off by Columbus, dispatching regular season conference champion Calgary in five games. After absorbing a 4-0 shutout in Game 1, the Avalanche rebounded with four straight wins while outscoring the Flames 17-7.

Then this week two more Wild Card teams sent the two remaining regular season division winners to early exits. Monday night the Dallas Stars closed out the Nashville Predators four games to two when John Klingberg blew a wrist shot from the left face-off circle past Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne 17:02 into overtime for a 2-1 victory in Game 6. It was the second overtime contest and fourth game decided by just one goal in the series.

Finally came the decisive match of the series between Carolina and Washington. Just last spring Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals vanquished a legacy of playoff disappointment by defeating the upstart expansion franchise from Las Vegas in five games to claim Washington’s first Stanley Cup. The Caps’ title defense started well enough, with a pair of wins at home over the Hurricanes. But back in front of friendly faces at PNC Arena in Raleigh, Carolina struck back, stifling Washington’s offense while throwing forty-five shots on Capitals’ goaltender Braden Holtby in a 5-0 Game 3 shutout. The Hurricanes then evened the series with a taut 2-1 win in Game 4.

Washington reasserted itself in Game 5, crushing Carolina 6-0 and giving D.C. fans reason to think their team would shortly be moving on. But history came back to haunt the Capitals, a team that has so often failed to deliver on its promise during the playoffs. In Game 6, leads of 1-0 and 2-1 gave way to a 5-2 loss, sending the teams back to Washington for the decider. Again in Game 7, the Capitals were up on the scoreboard, this time by 2-0 and then 3-1. But Teuvo Teravainen sliced the lead in half late in the second period, and then Jordan Staal netted the equalizer for the Hurricanes early in the third. For the next forty-eight minutes on the game clock, through the remainder of regulation and more than one and a half periods of overtime, the capacity crowd at Capital One Arena was ready to end the evening with an exultant roar that would shake the building. Instead a much quieter celebration, from the Carolina faithful scattered throughout the stands, greeted Brock McGinn’s winning tip-in of a centering pass from Justin Williams that completed Carolina’s comeback, and the Capitals’ collapse.

With that this season became the first in the six years since the current playoff format was adopted that all four Wild Card teams advanced to the second round. As the flip side of that statistic, it’s the only time since the NHL went to four divisions in 1974 that all of the regular season division winners were bounced out in the first round.

The other four opening round games, between the second and third place finishers in each division, included one more upset based on regular season records and a pair of near misses. The St. Louis Blues, third in the Central Division, beat the second place Winnipeg Jets four games to two for the upset. The Atlantic Division’s runner-up Boston Bruins had to rally from a three games to two hole to hold off the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven, although knowledgeable fans could have predicted Boston’s comeback. Toronto hasn’t won a postseason series since 2004, and the last time a player wearing a Maple Leafs sweater lifted the Stanley Cup, Lyndon Johnson was President and Americans had not yet walked on the moon. And the San Jose Sharks, second in the Pacific Division during the regular season, were forced to overcome an even larger three games to one deficit against the Vegas Golden Knights. The last two of the three straight San Jose wins were in overtime, and the final victory was only made possible by a dubious major penalty call against Vegas that opened the door for four Sharks goals during the five minutes San Jose skated with an extra man. Only the Islanders sweep of the Penguins went comfortably according to the playoff bracket seedings.

Now the survivors of an opening round filled with upsets and close escapes begin the conference semifinals. With all four of the topline teams out, fans of regular season runners-up like the Islanders, Sharks and especially the Bruins, now the betting favorite, can readily envision a path to Stanley Cup glory. But success in the first round has surely imbued the underdogs with both confidence and resolve. The only sure bet is that this year’s battle for the oldest trophy in professional sports is now wide open.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 21, 2019

Back To The Bronx For Another Season

For a dedicated fan of the Great Game, it is as much a ritual of the longest season as the call for pitchers and catchers heralding the start of Spring Training, the first meaningful at-bats on Opening Day, or the pennant pursuit through summer’s dog days. Ideally for the very first home game, but if work or life prevents that, then certainly before the new season turns a month old, comes the first of what will ultimately be several trips to the ballyard where one’s heroes roam.

For this fan, that park is of course the Stadium, the massive concrete and steel edifice that occupies the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, just across that numbered street from the site where Babe once built a house. The first visit of the year, this one on a cloudy Saturday in April, is like greeting a close friend after several months apart. The relationship is familiar enough that one immediately notices if anything has changed.

Unlike recent years, that quick inspection does not result in an involuntarily raised eyebrow. There has been no dramatic restructuring over the winter, unlike two years ago when a few thousand obstructed view bleacher seats in both left and right field were removed in favor of terraced standing room and concession areas. Concessions do change though, as do advertisers. Two years ago, cheesesteak lovers were left to rejoice or mourn depending on their personal preference, when Jersey Mike’s replaced Carl’s as the chosen purveyor of the popular sandwich. This year’s change is not as absolute, for Nathan’s, the renown Coney Island based hot dog vendor is still very much a presence here. But there are now also stands offering Sabrett hot dogs, the brand found at countless street corner carts throughout the city. In a nod to the popularity of local breweries, several regional craft beers are also now available to complete the menu of that most common of ballgame meals. As for marketing, among the plethora of signs on almost every available space are new ones for Untuckit shirts and Discovery Reserve, a specialty lager offered by that most ubiquitous of stadium advertisers, Budweiser.

But if one first notices what is different, the true comfort in renewing the relationship with a fan’s home ballpark lies in the familiarity. After all, the contests are referred to as “home games” for a reason. The walk up the ramps from the Great Hall to the tier level can be made with one’s eyes closed, though surely every fan would want to open theirs when one emerges on the upper concourse and can first see the immaculate green and brown of the field below. The three rings of blue seats and the metal bleachers in the outfield are mostly empty two hours before the game’s first pitch, but soon enough they will be filled by more than 40,000 of the Yankees’ faithful, here to see their squad take on the visiting Kansas City Royals.

The giant interlocking NY is painted on the grass behind home plate as always, just as it was on the same spot in foul ground at the old Stadium across the street. The corny rendition of “YMCA” during the top of the 7th inning, complete with the grounds crew in the role of the Village People leading the crowd in the song’s dance routine as they sweep the infield has also made the short trip from one side of 161st Street to the other. So too have many of the personnel that make the Stadium run. One is reminded of that with the first piercing cry of “Cracker Jack!” A gray-haired African-American vendor, who seemed ancient when he sold his sugar-laden peanut and popcorn confection at the old park, is still at work and still in full voice. A YouTube search will return multiple snippets of the “Cracker Jack man” announcing his wares with a lilting voice that brings smiles to all who hear it.

In this familiar setting the Yankees take the field, though this is surely not the starting lineup that manager Aaron Boone envisioned penciling onto his lineup card every day. Over the course of the longest season every franchise deals with injuries, but this season the newly renamed ten-day Injury List has been populated by pinstripes at a record pace. Already thirteen Yankees have missed time, and of that number only one, pitcher CC Sabathia, has returned to action. Before this game is done the bad news will get worse. Slugging outfielder Aaron Judge puts New York on the board first with a home run to right in the opening frame, but a few innings later he hobbles out of the batter’s box after stroking another base hit. Judge leaves the game and is later diagnosed with a strained oblique that will keep him on the shelf for an indeterminate time,

Still the Yankees roll to a 9-2 victory, on the strength of three more home runs after Judge’s and fine pitching by Masahiro Tanaka. The lineup may not be filled with familiar names, but every player who dons a Yankee uniform knows that winning is expected.

This first trip of the season includes a second game on Sunday afternoon, and this one is considerably more nerve-wracking. Young Clint Frazier blasts a long home run to left field that plates three, and New York leads 5-0 in the early going. That appears more than enough, as starter James Paxton is dominant, striking out twelve through six innings. But in the top of the 8th relievers Chad Green and Adam Ottavino cough up the entire lead, and before three outs are recorded Kansas City is in front, 6-5.

That’s when backup catcher Austin Romine, forced into a starting role by an injury to Gary Sanchez, steps into the even larger role of hero. He singles home the run that ties the score in the bottom of the 8th, and two frames later, with the game now in extra innings, Romine comes to the plate again with runners on second and third and one out. On the second pitch he hammers a long drive to deep right center field that bounces on the warning track as Mike Tauchman trots home from third with the winning run. It’s the first walk-off win of 2019 for the Yankees, and we in the stands roar our approval.

Little more than an hour later this fan has begun the drive home from the Metro North train station in Stamford, Connecticut. The next visit to the Bronx will be for a night game while in New York attending the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in three weeks. The next trip dedicated solely to the Great Game will come at the end of May. But as the miles click away and New Hampshire gradually grows closer, I know that when those dates come, like an old reliable friend, the Stadium will be waiting for me.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 18, 2019

From First To Worst, In Lightning Time

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, was published in 1818. Two centuries later, it remains the sublime cautionary tale, a timeless reminder in rather loose iambic pentameter of the impermanence of human accomplishment and the dangers of hubris.

Perhaps Shelley is not required reading in the school districts of Tampa, Florida. Perhaps the Romantic era, or even philosophical poetry itself, is out of fashion in the internet age. But one couldn’t help but recall Shelley’s warning Tuesday, when the NHL’s regular season titleholders, the Presidents’ Trophy winners Tampa Bay Lightning, exited the playoffs as swiftly as possible, in four straight first-round losses to the number eight seed Columbus Blue Jackets.

To grasp the scope of the Lightning’s precipitous fall one must appreciate the franchise’s regular season accomplishments. A year ago the team and its fans believed the Lightning were good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay was the class of the Eastern Conference, topping the Atlantic Division and claiming the number one conference seed for the playoffs with 113 points, one better than the Boston Bruins and trailing only two teams in the Western Conference, Winnipeg and 2017-18 Presidents’ Trophy winner Nashville. Losing to Washington in seven games in the Conference Final was rated as a disappointing end to a fine season by players, management, and most definitely fans on Florida’s gulf coast.

But to those less emotionally attached that campaign was a rousing success. With what were then the most regular season wins in franchise history, it should rank just behind Tampa Bay’s two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, a 2004 championship and a 2015 loss to Chicago.

Yet 2017-18 was but a pale precursor to this season. After locking up star winger Nikita Kucherov with a long-term contract in the offseason, and also signing trade deadline acquisitions Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, the Lightning began their season on October 6th with a 2-1 shootout victory over cross-state rival Florida Panthers. Tampa Bay lost the next game on the schedule, but the season would be a full five weeks old before the team suffered four defeats in regulation.

The NHL’s regular season stretches over parts of seven months, but November and February were the only pages on the calendar which saw the Lightning suffer back-to-back losses, and the two February defeats were both in overtime, so even in defeat Tampa Bay at least garnered one point in the standings. As if determined to atone for the November failing, the team went almost six weeks, from late that month through early January, with just a single overtime loss, garnering 31 of a possible 32 points in sixteen games. At season’s end Tampa Bay’s record stood at 62-16-4. That mark tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in league history. The Lightning’s 128 points were the most since the NHL’s current system was put in place in 2006.

Led by 45 goals from Steven Stamkos, and a league-leading 87 assists from Kucherov, Tampa Bay netted 325 goals, almost half a score per game more than any other franchise. The defense in front of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was every bit as strong, allowing only 222 goals against, better than all but four teams. The Lightning’s plus-103 goal differential dwarfed the next best mark, Calgary’s plus-62. Numbers like those gave every fan within driving distance of downtown Tampa’s Amalie Arena reason to believe they’d be attending playoff hockey games into June.

But like the giant statue of an ancient Egyptian king crumbling in the desert, the Lightning’s season was reduced to dust, a modern collapse completed a mere ten days after that phenomenal regular season concluded.

The Lightning must have thought they had little to concern themselves with the Blue Jackets, having won all three regular season meetings against Columbus. That confidence seemed well placed when Tampa Bay raced out to a 3-0 lead in Game 1 before the first intermission. The lead was still 3-1 as the game approached the midpoint of the third period, when Columbus exploded for three goals in just over five minutes to seize the lead and ultimately the game. The journeyman major league pitcher Phil Hughes, a diehard Lightning fan, tweeted after the contest that the loss might be a good thing, since his team had dealt with so little adversity during the regular season.

That optimistic viewpoint started to fade when the Blue Jackets dominated Game 2, winning 5-1 and putting the heavily favored Lightning in a deep hole with the series moving to Ohio. In the comfort of Nationwide Arena last Saturday, Columbus took a two-goal lead through the second period of Game 3, then held on after Tampa Bay scored early in the third. A late empty net tally made the final margin 3-1. Two nights later the Blue Jackets delivered the mortal blow, though the Lightning finally at least put up a fight. After Columbus jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, Stamkos registered the first goal of the series by any of the Lightning’s stars. The one goal deficit became two, but again Tampa Bay battled back to tie, only to yield a power play goal late in the second period. The score remained at 4-3 through the third period, until a desperate coach Jon Cooper pulled Vasilevskiy for an extra attacker, only to see the Blue Jackets score three empty net goals in the game’s final two minutes, pushing the box score to a deceptively lopsided 7-3.

Hockey fans know that winning the regular season is no guarantee of capturing the Stanley Cup, as only eight Presidents’ Trophy winners have gone on to claim the title. The last to do so was Chicago in 2013. Almost as many – six winners before Tampa Bay – have been eliminated in the first round. But none of those teams were swept away in four straight games. That ugly distinction goes to the Lightning, a team that proved to be appropriately named come playoff time, with lots of flash but no staying power.

Tampa Bay’s faithful can tell themselves that much the same lineup that dominated this regular season will skate onto the ice when a new one begins next October. But that doesn’t change how the promise of 62 wins came undone so quickly, a season meant for glory turned into a colossal wreck the likes of which once inspired Shelley to take up his pen.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 14, 2019

With Help From Augusta’s 12th, Woods Puts Golf On Page One

Each of the eighteen holes at Augusta National Golf Club is named after a flowering shrub or tree, examples of which can be found along its length. It’s a reminder that the property that is now home to one of the most famous golf courses in the world was once the site of Fruitland Nursery. The shortest hole on the course, which played to just 158 yards for Sunday’s final round of this year’s Masters, is called Golden Bell, for the species of forsythia that are among the plants serving as a backdrop to the putting surface, though by the time of this year’s tournament the yellow blooms that herald spring in much of the country had given way to green leaves.

Yet for all the power that modern professional golfers regularly display, for all their 300-plus yard drives and iron shots soaring into the sky, the little 12th hole, down in the lowest corner of the course, has been a graveyard to major championship hopes over the years. In 1996 Greg Norman began the final round with a six shot lead over Nick Faldo. Through the first eight holes the Englishman chipped away at the Australian’s margin, cutting it in half. Then Norman made three straight bogeys starting on the 9th, and the pair came to the 12th tee all even at 9-under par. By the time they walked to the 13th tee Faldo was two clear after Norman dumped his tee shot into Rae’s Creek, leading to a double-bogey. Two decades later defending champion Jordan Spieth played a magnificent front nine on the tournament’s final day, turning a one shot overnight lead into a five stroke margin at the turn. But after bogeys at the 10th and 11th, Spieth put not one but two balls into the water at the 12th, gifting the lead and eventually the tournament to England’s Danny Willett.

Once again on Sunday, the shortest hole at Augusta National played an outsized role in the outcome of the year’s first men’s major. A threatening afternoon forecast caused tournament officials to move up tee times to early morning and send the players off both tees in groups of three, rather than the traditional weekend twosomes. The six golfers in the final two groups began play tightly bunched within four shots of 54-hole leader Francisco Molinari’s 13-under total. As the penultimate grouping of Webb Simpson, Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter prepared to hit their tee shots on the 12th, the final threesome of Molinari, Tiger Woods and Tony Finau came down the 11th fairway. Simpson, who started the round four behind, had lost a further shot to Molinari, but Woods and Koepka were still just two back, Finau three, and Poulter four, as he had started.

Simpson, first to play but furthest behind the leader, safely cleared Rae’s Creek. Then, over the course of several minutes and in excruciating fashion, the 2019 Masters was decided. First Koepka, one of the longest hitters on tour, didn’t hit his 8-iron hard enough, and watched stoically as his ball landed on the bank in front of the green and rolled back into the creek. Then Poulter did exactly the same thing. Both made double-bogey. The huge crowd behind the tee had barely stopped buzzing when the final threesome stepped up and first Molinari, then Finau, reprised the earlier two shots with the same disastrous impact on their scorecards. A television viewer might have thought CBS was showing video of a single errant tee ball on an endless loop, so nearly identical were the four shots.

Perhaps this year’s Masters was really won on the 10th hole, where Woods made bogey. That gave the honor in the final threesome to Molinari, which meant that as Woods prepared to tee off on the 12th he had already seen the Italian, who outplayed Woods in the final round of last year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie, send his ball to its watery demise. Knowing that Molinari was going to make at least bogey and probably a double, Woods took no risks at the 12th, sending his own tee shot on the safest possible line away from the pin to the fat left side of the green. With a two-putt par Woods pulled into a tie for the lead, the only player among the last five to play the 12th on Sunday with a score other than double-bogey.

There were still holes to play of course, but a generation of golf fans has grown up expecting but one result when the dominant player of his time moves to the top of the leader board late in the final round at a major. Even when there was a five-way tie at 12-under a few holes later, the expectation of most and certainly the hope of a multitude were that the golfer in the familiar red shirt would end the day alone at the top. A birdie on the par-5 15th moved Woods into that spot, and another at the 16th gave him some breathing room.

That he needed that cushion in the end, after a poor approach shot at the last didn’t come close to reaching the green takes nothing away from Woods’s triumph. Nor does his decision to play safe after that, chipping into the fat middle of the green rather than risking a heroic shot at the hole such as fans would have seen in his prime.

The win is not diminished by the reality that the Masters is the easiest of the four majors to win. It has the smallest field, just 87 players this year. That field always includes several amateurs and any past champion who wishes to tee it up, no matter his age, further reducing the number of starters with a genuine chance of capturing the title. It’s also the only major played on the same course every year, giving the advantage of familiarity to every veteran in the field.

Nor does how the tournament unfolded, a Masters as much lost by others as won by the winner, render the 15th major title on Woods’s professional resume any less important. The safe shot was the smart shot on the 12th after he saw so many other in the chase rue the risk of aiming at the flag. While a golfer controls only his own game, the final leader board at every tournament reflects a combination of brilliance and ineptitude, good luck and bad, by every player in the field over four days.

Woods is after all forty-three now, and fans have only lately learned the extent of the damage years of play did to his now surgically repaired back and knees. We now know that two years ago he seriously thought his days as a competitive golfer might be over. To come back from those depths to win again, as he did at the Tour Championship last fall, to contend in majors as he did at last year’s Open and PGA Championships, and now to capture a major after a gap of almost eleven years, is a comeback of historic proportions. It is not even diminished by the decision of CBS lead announcer Jim Nantz to laden the moment with treacle. Someone on the network’s production staff needed to whisper in Nantz’s earpiece that it was a great comeback, not the Second Coming.

The win means that Woods will be the betting favorite at the next two majors. The PGA Championship next month and June’s U.S. Open are being played at Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach, respectively, two courses where Woods has already proven his major bona fides. But among all sports gambling odds are particularly meaningless in golf, a game in which the outcome might turn, as was the case Sunday, on a poorly struck 8-iron by a player, or in this case several, other than the winner. But there is one bet that readers can take to the house. Within minutes of his final putt dropping, Tiger’s triumph was the lead story on the websites of the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and Fox News. You can bet that no other golfer could do that.

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