Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 14, 2022

Will’s Wait For A Win Comes To An End

Barely sixteen months ago, only close followers of golf’s Korn Ferry Tour – and let’s be honest, that’s not a long list after excluding family members of the players on the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit – would have responded with recognition at the mention of the name Will Zalatoris.  As a teenager, he won the U.S. Junior Amateur, and during three years at Wake Forest he was named the 2017 ACC Golfer of the Year and was a member of a U.S. Walker Cup team.  But like so many promising collegiate amateurs, Zalatoris struggled to make his mark after he left college one year early to turn professional.

He failed to make it past the first stage of the Korn Ferry’s qualifying school in the fall of 2018.  With no status on that Tour, the pursuit of his dream meant writing to tournament sponsors asking for exemptions while living a nomadic life driving from one event to the next, attempting to join that week’s field through Monday qualifying if his written pleas hadn’t elicited a favorable response.  It’s a hard road that has ended in disappointment and dashed dreams for countless young golfers, but the story took a happier turn for Zalatoris when he finished third at an event in July 2019.  That earned him a KFT card for the remainder of the year, and an eventual 60th place finish on the season-long Tour points standings won him full status for 2020. 

A KFT victory the following July propelled him to the top of the Tour’s points list, which in turn made him eligible for the 2020 U.S. Open and the occasional PGA Tour event.  Three top-10 finishes in the fall, at tournaments most of the big names typically bypass, earned Zalatoris a provisional card on the big tour.  More important, those results plus a tie for 10th at the 2021 Arnold Palmer Invitational moved him into the top 50 in the world rankings just before the final cutoff of that criteria for that spring’s Masters.

Which brings us to sixteen months ago, when Zalatoris first announced himself to millions of fans of the ancient game watching the drama unfold at Augusta National.  The 2021 Masters is remembered for Hideki Matsuyama’s becoming the first Japanese player to win a green jacket, and for his caddie’s symbolic salute to the golf course at the end of play.  But the second name on the leader board was the then unfamiliar one of Zalatoris, who nearly chased Matsuyama down with two late birdies, ultimately falling just one stroke short.  By season’s end Zalatoris was the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year, but because he only had provisional status, he couldn’t play in the rich FedEx Cup Playoffs.

Still, Zalatoris was no longer an unknown when he started the final round of January’s Farmers Insurance Open tied for the lead with Jason Day.  Had those two been the only contenders, Zalatoris would have scored his first PGA Tour win that day, but Luke List stormed from five shots back to force sudden death, which he won with a birdie to Zalatoris’s par on the first playoff hole.  But that result did nothing to slow the rapid growth of the young golfer’s fan base, a burgeoning popularity due in equal measure to his ability to defy logic and his exquisite sense of timing.

Fans marvel at how far Zalatoris, who is ranked just outside the PGA Tour’s top-10 in driving distance, smacks the ball despite his stature.  He is officially listed as 6 feet 2 inches and 175 pounds.  While the vertical measurements are probably close to correct, the constant worry for fans of Zalatoris is that at some crucial moment on the course a stiff breeze will blow their spindly hero away.  For all the attention paid to Bryson DeChambeau’s massive weight gain in pursuit of greater distance, Zalatoris and others, like Rory McIlroy, are powerful if diminutive reminders that the physics of hitting a golf ball are not simply about mass.

Even more impressive is Zalatoris’s penchant for playing his best at golf’s most important times.  He followed that introductory runner-up finish at last year’s Masters with another top-10 at Augusta this spring, then was tied for the lead after 72 holes at the PGA Championship.  Justin Thomas prevailed in the playoff that day, but Zalatoris was back a month later at the Country Club, where Matt Fitzpatrick needed a shot for the ages from a fairway bunker on the final hole to edge him for the U.S. Open trophy.

The finish in Brookline gave Zalatoris four silver medals in his nascent PGA Tour career, with three of them coming at majors.  But victory still eluded him, and there can come a point in a golfer’s journey where the whispers begin, the quiet words among fans and pundits and fellow players wondering if perhaps this otherwise fine fellow is not quite up to the ultimate pressure of the Tour.  If those murmurs had not yet started about Zalatoris, who is, after all, still only 25, they probably were not far away.   

Now, thanks to a wild finish at this year’s first FedEx Playoff event, they are vanquished forever.  Zalatoris won the FedEx St. Jude Championship, overcoming a 2-shot deficit on 54-hole leader J.J. Spaun to finish tied with Sepp Straka, thanks to a clutch par putt on the final hole of regulation.  Zalatoris and Straka then matched each other through two holes of sudden death, before moving to the par-3 11th at TPC Southwind.  There Zalatoris hung his tee shot just right of the green, where it bounced like a ping pong ball on a stone wall next to the green before miraculously settling in a crevice between the stones and the rough.  Straka then fared even worse, rinsing his tee shot and sending his third into a bunker behind the green.

With Straka eventually on the green and facing a putt for double-bogey, Zalatoris wisely opted to pass on a high risk shot from his impossible lie, instead retreating to the drop area.  From there he lofted a wedge to six feet, then calmly rolled in the bogey putt for victory.  Weeping as he embraced his fiancé, Zalatoris and his many fans celebrated the culmination of a long, improbable journey.  Yet for all the emotion in the moment, most golf fans believe there are even greater triumphs ahead for Will Zalatoris. That is, if the wind doesn’t come up, and blow him away.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 11, 2022

The Opening Round Goes To The PGA Tour

It is no secret that far too many of us now treat facts as fully fungible.  Such folks subscribe to the ethos voiced in the climactic scene of the 2007 movie “Shooter,” in which the late Ned Beatty, playing a very bad guy, proclaims “the truth is what I say it is.”  By this logic, if one simply maintains sufficient conviction and a straight face, even the most preposterous utterance will be accepted at face value by at least some listeners.  Robert Walters, the attorney for Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford, and Matt Jones, the three LIV Golf players who this week asked a court to force the PGA Tour to allow them to tee it up in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, appears to be an adherent of this perspective.  That at least is the logical conclusion one draws from Walters’ decision, during Tuesday’s oral arguments on the golfers’ petition for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the PGA Tour, to describe his clients as “these three poor kids.”

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman did not respond to that characterization with a sympathetic nod, an encouraging sign that she remains tethered to reality.  At age 30, Gooch is the youngest of the three, with Swafford his senior by four years, and Jones the elder of the group at 42.  They are not kids, at least by anyone’s definition other than their attorney’s.  As for their purported poverty, the trio’s winnings as PGA Tour members exceeded $36 million, a number that does not include the untold amount each pocketed from various endorsement deals.  Most fans would happily exist in such an impoverished state.

Perhaps the movie is instructive beyond Beatty’s memorable line, for his character meets a well-deserved demise very soon after making it.  In similar fashion, upon the conclusion of the dueling presentations by counsel for the LIV players and the PGA Tour, Judge Freeman wasted no time in denying the requested order, meaning the Tour did not have to shuffle the already announced tee times for the first round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship to make room for three late entrants.  But it was not until her full written opinion was released Thursday that it became clear just how thoroughly unpersuaded the judge was by LIV Golf’s arguments. 

One of several bars that must be cleared to win a temporary restraining order is establishing that failure to grant it will result in irreparable harm to the requesting party.  On Tuesday, Judge Freeman said Gooch, Swafford and Jones hadn’t met that test, because the contracts they signed with the Saudi sportswashing venture had taken into account, and compensated them for, any financial losses from no longer being able to play on the PGA Tour.

Her 14-page written opinion went into greater detail and was often dismissive of LIV’s claims.  “Plaintiffs have not even shown that they have been harmed – let alone irreparably,” Freeman wrote.  She later added, “In fact, the evidence shows almost without a doubt that they will be earning significantly more money with LIV Golf than they could reasonably have expected to make through TOUR play over the same time period.”  Freeman at several points turned LIV Golf’s aggressive marketing against it.  The Greg Norman led series has styled itself as the future of the sport, offering more entertainment for fans on the course and an improved experience for those watching from home.  The judge cited those claims in rejecting the golfers’ contention that they stood to lose sponsorships and status without access to PGA Tour events, writing that the assertion “is undermined by TRO Plaintiffs’ evidence that LIV Golf offers a refreshing new ‘extremely fan-friendly’ business model that will lead to ‘an improved broadcast output and entertainment experience’ compared to the staid old golf world built by PGA TOUR.  If LIV Golf is elite golf’s future, what do TRO Plaintiffs care about the dust-collecting trophies of a bygone era?”

Freeman’s decision was a decisive win for the PGA Tour, so much so that it may have shocked at least a few of the players who defected, especially if they relied on Norman’s assurances that the Tour had no power to ban them.  As text messages between Norman and Sergio Garcia that were released this week made clear, Norman has been full of his usual hubris.  In one exchange last February, Garcia wrote, “Hi Sharky! It’s official, the Tour has told our managers this week that whoever signs with the League, is ban from the Tour for life! I don’t know how are we gonna get enough good players to join the League under this conditions.”  Norman responded, “They cannot ban you for one day let alone life. It is a shallow threat.  Ask them to put it in writing to you or any other player.  I bet they don’t.”  As all golf fans know, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan did, banning every player who has swung a club at a LIV Golf event.  In the first legal test of his actions, the “threat” proved quite substantial.

Still, this is only round one.  The main event is the antitrust suit against the PGA Tour, filed by eleven former members now on the LIV payroll.  Judge Freeman will preside over that case as well, though in this week’s ruling she included a passing note that was surely welcome news at Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra.  She wrote, “The court acknowledges that (the players) raise significant antitrust issues that are facially appealing.  But the (Tour) has responded with preliminary evidence and argument potentially exposing fundamental flaws in plaintiff’s claims,” adding “These complex issues are best resolved on a more developed record.”

That record won’t be created for at least a year, as Freeman offered dates in the fall of 2023 as the earliest time that the antitrust suit could go to trial.  For a case like this that’s considered extremely fast timing, as fans were reminded when the judge also noted that the alternative to that schedule was a trial sometime in 2025.  Between now and then some additional notable names will doubtless succumb to the lure of the Saudi checkbook.  Recent Open Championship winner Cameron Smith is widely reported to just be waiting until the end of the FedEx Cup Playoffs to announce his defection, although presumptive PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Cameron Young is said to be less likely to accept fat paydays for playing 54-hole exhibitions after this week’s court decision.

With so much time until the main antitrust suit even starts – keep in mind the eventual trial and subsequent appeals could add years to the timeline – the real power rests, as it always has, with the bodies that control the four majors.  Whatever plans some LIV golfers had to blithely skip back over to the PGA Tour whenever they wanted are gone, with any possible revival years down the road.  But if access to the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open, and Open Championship remains, the combination of life changing major victories and life changing Saudi money is sure to appeal to some.  Before the PGA Tour and LIV Golf next meet in court, organizers of each of the four men’s majors will have the chance to decide who they will welcome into their 2023 fields.      

For now, all that is certain is that on Thursday, the first of this year’s three FedEx Cup Playoff events got underway at TPC Southwind in Memphis.  The three poor kids were not in the field.  Safe to say, they were not missed.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 7, 2022

How Good, Or Bad, Are These Yankees?

Eight Saturdays ago, after blanking the Blue Jays 4-0 in Toronto, the New York Yankees had by far the best record in the major leagues, at 49-16.  Sixty-five games into the longest season, the Bronx nine had won more than three-quarters of their contests, putting New York on track to not just win the AL East, but also claim home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  With that winning percentage translating to 122 victories over an entire schedule, Yankees fans were dreaming of a truly historic 2022 campaign.

Amid the euphoria there were at least a few voices of caution, warning that maintaining such a torrid pace through the entire schedule was an extraordinarily daunting task.  In the Great Game’s modern era, only the 1906 Cubs boasted a higher winning percentage over a full season, going 116-36 for a .763 mark.  In the six decades of 162 game seasons, the 2001 Seattle Mariners set the standard of .716, with a record of 116-46.  Some of those same naysayers also pointed out that for a franchise which measures success not by regular season finishes but rather by championships won, it was worth remembering that neither Chicago nor Seattle won those seasons’ World Series.  But such calls for prudence were dismissed as the carping of cranks.

Since that June weekend, New York has played forty-four more games on the franchise’s 2022 schedule, and the many voices chattering about making history have gone silent.  In their place, and growing louder every day, are fans lamenting the club’s collapse and conjuring scenarios in which the Yankees fail to make the playoffs.  That’s because, following Sunday’s 12-9 loss to the Cardinals, which completed a St. Louis sweep of a weekend series in the heartland, New York’s record in those forty-four contests was two games below .500, at 21-23.  Were it not for Aaron Judge’s incredible season, the mark would be worse.   

Some of this is just fans being fans.  Passionate support for any club always involves a volatile and individualized mix of hoping for the best and fearing the worst.  Inevitably, especially in an age when social media gives any fan who wants it a megaphone to proclaim his or her views to the world, both extremes will be heard.  Sometimes, if one is patient, from the same voice!  For no matter how much one’s head knows that over the course of the longest season every team and every player will experience moments of great success and times of utter failure, one’s heart responds to the experience of the day.  Thus, a high becomes overly consequential and a low excessively existential.

But for the Bronx franchise, with a fanbase that must balance historical success unique in sports with an absence from the Great Game’s biggest stage, the World Series, that is now the second longest since 26-year-old Babe Ruth led the 1920 roster to the club’s first of forty appearances in the Fall Classic, something more is at work.  The rush to anoint this year’s squad as a super team reflected a need for some fans to proclaim to the world, and reassure themselves, that their favorite franchise still sits apart from the other twenty-nine members of the major league fraternity.  The other side of that coin is the dread suspicion that a roster relatively unchanged from last year’s might succumb to the indifferent play that was the too frequent pattern in 2021, and in fact for sufficiently long stretches to send the last several seasons into the nether world of disappointment and doubt.

The tale will be told over the remaining fifty-three regular season games, with whatever conclusions are drawn from them either ratified or revoked in the postseason.  As is typically the case in a contest of extremes, the most likely outcome is somewhere in between.  Although dismissed by many at the time, those cautionary voices of springtime and early summer were always just stating the obvious.  A season record boasting 120 or more wins was never in the cards.  By the same token, given the expanded playoff field, it would take a collapse of epic proportions for the Yankees to be shut out of the postseason, though caution about the team’s chances in the playoffs is surely warranted.  Other goals, which once seemed so certain, are in doubt.  The Dodgers now own the best record in the majors, and the Mets’ mark is equal to that of their Bronx neighbors.  In the fight for home field advantage through the ALCS, the Yankees’ edge over Houston is as small as it can be, just half a game.    

If the Yankees are neither as dominant as their early play suggested nor as hapless as their recent run of futility indicates, which incarnation is closer to the truth will greatly influence the likelihood of this season ending with a parade through the Canyon of Heroes on lower Broadway.  What is clear is that GM Brian Cashman believes this roster’s true self lies closer to the former than the latter.  He was not a participant in the trading deadline’s most dramatic deals, settling for an agreement with Oakland that brought starter Frankie Montas to the Bronx, and lesser trades to bolster the bullpen. 

But Cashman revealed much by executing the strangest deal of the year.  On Tuesday he sent left-handed starter and homegrown Yankee Jordan Montgomery to St. Louis in exchange for center fielder Harrison Bader.  What makes the trade perplexing is that the loss of Montgomery elevates Domingo German to New York’s rotation, though there is nothing to suggest he’s an upgrade, and it also leaves little margin if a starter is hurt or proves ineffective over the season’s final two months.  On top of that, while Bader is statistically a major improvement to the outfield defense, he is currently in a walking boot with plantar fasciitis, and won’t be playing this season until at least September, if at all.

The apparent logic behind the trade was that as New York’s fourth or fifth starter, Montgomery was likely to be left off the postseason roster, and that even if Bader contributes nothing until next season, he will ultimately fill what has been a major hole for the Yankees in center field.  Fans of Cashman are saying it’s evidence of the general manager’s forward thinking, proof that he alone among major league GMs is playing three-dimensional chess.  But with the front offices of every other contender focused on this season, this stretch run, and this year’s playoffs, those less enamored of the longest tenured GM in baseball just see Cashman once again trying to prove he’s the smartest person in the room.  The problem of course, is that people who need to do that usually aren’t.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 4, 2022

Balancing Immediate Gratification With Lasting Joy

Fandom comes with responsibilities, one of which is to balance the natural desire for immediate results with an appreciation for all that has gone before, and especially for achievements measured not by a season, much less a game, but over the fullness of a career.  We who part with our hard-earned dollars to fill the three tiers of seats at the big Stadium in the Bronx do so with something between hope and expectation that the lads in pinstripes will provide reason to cheer and, in due time, to send us home happy.  It is the same at every other sporting venue, for it is the rare member of a franchise’s faithful who passes through the turnstiles of any park filled with a desire to see their heroes lose.  The only variable is the confidence level of the spectators, the exact mix of hope versus expectation as they take their seats.  Still, when that day’s contest ends in disappointment, as inevitably some must, the serious fan is buoyed by the longer view.  While only one club’s history includes 27 championships, every team has stories worth cheering, including many of more recent vintage than the last Yankees’ title.

Every fan of the Great Game has been reminded this week of the equal weight that must be given to both the present and the past.  The importance of the here and now was made plain on Tuesday, when MLB’s trading deadline for this season arrived at 6 p.m.  The deadline has always showcased those teams most committed to the immediate gratification of playing deep into the current year’s October.  That is even more true now, with the elimination of the old allowance for subsequent deals provided the players involved first cleared the waiver process.  Except for minor league callups, the trading deadline now cements rosters for the playoff run.

Although three of the division leaders are double-digit games in front of the runner-up, with the postseason field expanded to twelve teams every club with at least a .500 record can still conjure a not entirely fantastical scenario in which it nabs at least a Wild Card slot.  That’s a majority of MLB teams as this is written, which may have limited the number of GMs choosing to sell at the deadline.  Yet there was still plenty of action, with some three dozen trades announced between the end of last week and late Tuesday afternoon. 

The biggest of them all was of course the deal that sent Juan Soto and Josh Bell from the east coast to the west, the now former Washington Nationals traded to San Diego for what seemed like the entire Padres farm system plus first baseman / designated hitter Luke Voit.  The latter was a late addition to the package after Eric Hosmer exercised the no trade clause in his contract to remove himself from the deal as originally announced. 

Because they are expected to do so, plenty of pundits rushed to grade not just the Soto megadeal, but, in some cases, every single transaction that took place over the days leading up to the deadline.  But as has been pointed out in this space in previous years, such assessments are tentative at best.  The classic deadline trade is an established star exchanged for a package of prospects, so one team’s return is years in the future.  Certainly, if San Diego, which currently holds the National League’s second Wild Card slot, storms through the postseason to claim its first title, the Padres will be unquestioned winners of the trade.  That will be true even if such a result is delayed until 2023 or 2024.  But if Washington rebuilds around the five prospects sent to D.C. from the Padres, only two of whom have seen any major league time, it might be hard to judge the Nationals as losers in the deal come, say, 2025.

Which doesn’t mean one shouldn’t feel bad for fans in the nation’s capital right now.  Less than three seasons ago the Nationals were on top of the baseball world.  Now, virtually the entirety of the roster that turned a miserable season’s start into a World Series winning finish in 2019 is gone, and with the team up for sale the future is uncertain.  Still, like Paris for Rick and Ilsa, those fans will always have 2019.  So it is with every franchise, which is why memory plays such an important role in the lives of fans. 

Memories such as those Nats fans have of their team’s 2019 title are sweet, but best of all are stories of sustained accomplishment.  Fans in the Bronx celebrated those kinds of tales last weekend, when the Yankees brought back Old-Timers’ Day after a pandemic-induced two-year absence.  Under a bright July sun, fans cheered the heroes of another time even as the exploits of each former player was recounted.  Because the Yankees are a uniquely successful franchise, many of those resumes included championships won.  Still, the day was not without sadness.  The pause in these celebrations brought on by COVID meant the list of former greats who had passed on since the last gathering was unusually long.  Included on it were Bobby Brown, the former New York infielder who went on to serve as president of the American League, Don Larsen, of World Series perfect game fame, and Whitey Ford.

Then, even as fans in every big league city were digesting the results of this year’s trading deadline, came news of the death of Vin Scully.  For 67 seasons Scully told fans, first in Brooklyn and then in L.A., but really all across the country and around the world, when it was “time for Dodger baseball.”  He did so with grace and knowledge, and with a passion for the Great Game that was apparent to everyone listening.  He also understood that the contest on the field was the center of attention, which gave him the awesome ability, exceedingly rare in a sportscaster, to remain silent.  Listen to his most iconic call, that of Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.  After the ball sails into Dodger Stadium’s right field seats, what one hears for more than a minute is not Scully, just the frenzy of rapturous fans.  It’s the same with his coverage of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, and, for national TV, of the decisive play in the Mets comeback win over the Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 Series. 

Scully’s ability to understand both the moment and his listeners, and to excel at his craft for nearly seven decades, explains the enormous outpouring of sadness and affection from players and fans at the news of his passing.  It was a powerful reminder that while we will always celebrate the immediacy of championships, our highest honors are reserved for the timelessness of legends.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 31, 2022

The Legacy Of A Legend

The first thought, when the smartphone lit up on Sunday with the unwelcome news of Bill Russell’s passing, was not of the eleven Boston Celtics championships or the 21,620 rebounds or any of the other basketball legend’s statistics.  It was, instead, of his laugh.  Russell had a laugh worthy of the 6 foot 10 inch, 220 pound frame of his playing days.  It was big and loud, rich and rolling.  It came from his gut and could overwhelm a conversation.  When Russell found something amusing, and he often did during interviews and public appearances, everyone within earshot knew it.  In his prime, Russell would often throw up in the locker room before games.  He once explained the ritual to an interviewer as “a way for my body to get rid of all excesses.” Teammate John Havlicek remembered it as a “tremendous sound,” but allowed that it was only “almost” as loud as Russell’s laugh.

Still, that singular expression of happiness might seem an odd thing to recall when confronted with the sad news of his death at the age of 88, even before any of Russell’s on-court exploits.  But to this writer, the laugh symbolized Russell’s larger greatness as a human being.  For only a truly extraordinary person could so readily find joy in a world which presented so many examples of hate.  Had Russell become an angry and embittered former star, advancing over the years into an increasingly meanspirited old age, it would easily have been attributable to the racism he faced both growing up and while playing in the NBA.  That he refused such an easy road and instead walked the far more difficult one of unwavering commitment to the power of reason and the cause of social justice is Russell’s most powerful legacy, one that extends far beyond the boundaries of the parquet floor at the old Boston Garden.

Of course, he was also a pretty damn good basketball player.  Before he was chosen by the St. Louis Hawks with the second pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, Russell won a pair of California state championships at Oakland’s McClymonds High School.  Passed over by the major college powers, he accepted a scholarship offer from the across the bay and went on to lead the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles in his junior and senior years, a run that included 55 straight victories.  Russell then captained the U.S. men’s team to a gold medal at that year’s Summer Olympics, held in Melbourne in late November, before reporting to the NBA.  When he finally did so, it was to Boston, not St. Louis, for the Hawks had drafted him as part of a prearranged trade deal with the Celtics, who coveted Russell’s defensive skills.

His Olympic commitment meant the Celtics were a third of the way into the 1956-57 NBA schedule by the time Russell joined the team.  But he immediately moved into a starting role, and just as quickly began to remake the position of center.  Long the province of slow-moving big men, Russell brought quickness and agility to the role.  His rebounding and especially his shot blocking were crucial to a team that had been weak defensively for several years, with Russell instigating turnovers that led to repeated fast breaks by the Celtics offense.  That in turn morphed into Boston’s “Hey Bill” defense, in which a teammate about to be beat would issue that two word call for help, and Russell would fly from the paint to wherever he was needed, setting up a quick double-team.  The Celtics won the first championship in franchise history that season, sweeping Syracuse (now the Philadelphia 76ers) in the first round of the playoffs before outlasting St. Louis (now the Atlanta Hawks) four games to three in the Finals.

It would not, as every fan knows, be their last.  Boston advanced to the NBA Finals ten straight seasons, and after falling to St. Louis in 1958, claimed the league title each of the next eight years.  Prior to the 1966-67 season head coach Red Auerbach moved into a full-time front office role, naming Russell as his successor on the bench.  With their longtime center now the first Black head coach in a major American sports league, Boston won two more championships in the next three years.

But the familiar accounts of those glory years usually gloss over the ugliness that was very much a part of that time.  When Russell joined the team in 1956, his was the only black face in the team photograph.  That didn’t make the Celtics dramatically different than most NBA teams, and Russell heard all manner of vile taunts while playing on the road.  But not just on the road.  There were far too many Celtics fans who, while glad to see their team winning, were more than willing to voice their views about Russell as a person.  After his rookie season Russell settled with his family in suburban Reading, where the local police regularly followed him through town.  Years and multiple championships later, his home was vandalized by intruders who spray painted racist slurs on the walls.

Such treatment was hardly new to Russell.  He was born in Louisiana and carried memories of racist treatment of both his parents with him throughout his life.  After the family migrated west to Oakland, the only employment his father could initially find was as a janitor, because it was a “negro job.”   While at USF, Russell and his other black teammates were denied admission to the team’s Oklahoma City hotel while playing in a college tournament.  It was a moment that was repeated several years later, when black Celtics players were denied service at a Kentucky restaurant while on the road for an exhibition game. On that college road trip, Russell and the rest of the San Francisco Dons left the hotel and camped out in an empty college dorm, turning the racist incident into a bonding experience.  In Kentucky, the Celtics center led his Black teammates out of town, boycotting the exhibition game. 

But Russell never limited his actions to defending just his own rights.  In 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the military, those supporting him were themselves subjected to threats of violence.  But Russell was unfazed, joining football star Jim Brown, fellow NBA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a handful of other Black athletes in support of Ali at a meeting that came to be known as the Cleveland Summit.  Half a century later, when Colin Kaepernick and other athletes were being vilified for taking a knee during the national anthem, Russell used a more modern means of expression, tweeting a picture of himself kneeling while wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom he had been awarded in 2010.  He added the caption “proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice,” and later told ESPN he wanted the athletes to know they were not alone.

Bill Russell’s gloriously loud and engaging laugh is silent now.  If our world is a bit quieter, it is also diminished.  But the struggle continues, as Russell surely knew it would long after his role in it was over.  His record of greatness on the basketball court will be celebrated in the next few days.  But his far more important legacy will be forever honored by all those who dare to act up and speak up, countering mindless hate with reason and rectitude in the unending fight for social justice. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 24, 2022

Henderson Wrests Order From The Evian’s Chaos

A NOTE TO READERS: There will be no post on Thursday, as On Sports and Life will be watching baseball in the Bronx.  The regular schedule will resume next Sunday.  As always, thanks for your support!

The Evian Resort Golf Club, perched on the hills overlooking Lake Geneva in southeastern France, runs to slightly more than 6,300 yards as set up for the Amundi Evian Championship, the fourth women’s major of the year.  Four circuits around the rolling layout total a walk of more than fourteen miles, and that’s assuming all of a player’s shots are straight, a decidedly rare event even for the best women players in the world who comprised the field for this weekend’s tournament.  Yet after all the miles walked and shots made over the event’s four days, in the end the championship came down to its final eight feet, the distance of the putt Canadian star Brooke Henderson faced on the final green. 

For much of the tournament’s first three days, as Henderson steadily established herself as the class of the field through 54 holes, it seemed unlikely that the final 18 would produce anything that might lead to such a nerve-wracked outcome.  But as every weekend hacker knows, each round of golf – indeed, sometimes each hole within a round – exists independently of those that have gone before and all that will follow.  In keeping with that truth, Sunday at the Evian was filled with unexpected twists and unpredictable turns, right up until Henderson finally stood over that eight foot putt. 

Fans will be excused for not seeing the wild final round coming.  After all, Henderson, who had opened with a 7-under par round of 64 on Thursday, good for joint second place, one shot behind Japan’s Ayaka Furue, had been leading the Evian since early in Friday’s second round, when she started her walk with two quick birdies.  By day’s end she had fired another 64 to open a three shot advantage over American Nelly Korda and a fat five stroke edge over her next closest competitors.  An early bogey on Saturday, just her third of the tournament, was quickly offset by a birdie on the 3rd hole, and she added three more over the balance of her round to return a 68, good for 17-under through 54 holes and a two shot lead over So Yeon Ryu.  A two-time major winner, the 32-year-old Ryu was certainly a potential threat, but less was expected of Sophia Schubert, an American rookie who toiled on the developmental Epson Tour for three full seasons before finally earning her LPGA card, who was alone in third, two shots further adrift.  It was yet another one or two strokes, five and six back of Henderson, to a pair of more experienced competitors in joint fourth and a pack of five golfers tied for sixth place.

But golf tournaments are won by the play on the course, not the pronouncement of conventional wisdom.  At this week’s PGA Tour stop, the 3M Open, journeyman Scott Piercy appeared to have his fifth Tour win, and first in four years, well in hand.  Until he didn’t.  Piercy coughed up a four shot lead over the final 18 holes, finishing well behind winner Tony Finau after recording six bogeys and a triple from the 8th hole on.

It wasn’t that ugly for Henderson, but her day didn’t start well when she began with a bogey while fellow competitor Ryu was making an opening birdie.  One hole in, and her lead was gone.  But Ryu gave the stroke back on the par-4 3rd, and then suffered a shocking four-putt at the 5th, walking off the green of the par-3 with a double-bogey five.  Fans had barely recovered from that stunner when Henderson duplicated the ignominious feat on the very next hole. 

Still, as demoralizing as needing four putts to get her ball in the hole may have been, at least Henderson knew exactly where her ball was on the 6th green throughout the ordeal.  Just a few minutes earlier, while playing the same hole, Korda flared her approach out to the right, where the ball rolled to a stop along the rope line.  A woman spectator, hopefully attending her first golf tournament, immediately picked up the ball and started walking towards the nearest marshal, proudly displaying her find.  Rather than the reward she may have been expecting, she received a tongue lashing as the ball was hastily replaced as near as possible to its original location.  Korda might have preferred a different spot, as she dumped her next shot into a greenside bunker and wound up making double-bogey.  But three holes later the world number three had a far happier result from a bunker, holing her third shot at the par-5 9th to finish the front side with an eagle.

All this chaos eventually produced the most improbable outcome of all.  When Henderson failed to get up and down from the rough next to the 11th green, she was 3-over for the day and back to 14-under for the tournament.  Within moments, as other scores were posted around the course, the leader board showed not just Henderson, and not just two or three, but seven golfers at that number, all tied for the lead.

While it might not have seemed it at the time, given how her round was going, the good news for Henderson was that she still had seven holes to play.  While still only 24, Henderson has been a professional golfer for eight years.  She won her first major, the Women’s PGA Championship, at the age of 18, and had scored eleven previous LPGA wins, including one earlier this season.  Drawing on all that experience, Henderson first steadied, then elevated her game down the stretch. 

First though, it wasn’t Korda or any of the familiar names, but Schubert who broke the logjam at the top, becoming the unlikely sole leader with a birdie at the 12th, and later adding another at the par-5 15th.  But Henderson caught her with back-to-back birdies on 14 and 15.  Schubert had a chance at the home hole, but her birdie try slid by the side of the cup.  That left the stage to Henderson, who promptly hooked her final tee shot, the ball headed for the woods to the left of the fairway.  But the Evian had one last unexpected twist.  Rather than disappearing into the foliage, Henderson’s ball ricocheted off a tree and came back into play, settling into the rough.  From there she laid up on the par-5, then hit her approach to that final eight feet from the hole.

A three putt from that distance?  The ball hitting the flagstick, which Henderson leaves in when putting, and bouncing away?  Given the zaniness of the day, neither would have surprised.  Instead, the three-time Canadian Female Athlete of the Year restored order, draining the winning effort and securing her twelfth LPGA victory and second major title.  Exactly as expected.  Well, maybe not exactly.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 21, 2022

MLB Decides To Have A Good Time

The matchup was one fans of the Yankees and Dodgers hope to see again later this year, in a setting in which far more will be on the line.  New York’s Giancarlo Stanton in the batter’s box at Dodger Stadium, with L.A.’s Tony Gonsolin on the mound.  On Tuesday night, at the 92nd All-Star Game, the Yankee slugger flicked his wrists at an off-speed offering from the Dodger right-hander and sent the ball sailing into Chavez Ravine’s left field bleachers for a two-run homer.  When Minnesota’s Byron Buxton followed with a solo shot in the same direction, the American League had erased a 2-0 deficit and claimed a narrow lead that would hold up, giving the junior circuit its ninth consecutive victory in baseball’s Midsummer Classic.  The 3-2 final score tagged the 11-0 Gonsolin with a result he has yet to experience in games that count this season, namely seeing an “L” next to his pitching line for the evening.

The loss won’t show up on Gonsolin’s stats page at Baseball Reference, nor will it ever appear on the back of his baseball card, and it’s doubtful that he lay awake Tuesday night fretting over the outcome.  For his part, Stanton went home with a crystal bat as the game’s MVP.  He will also surely have fond memories of starring not far from his boyhood home, at the same stadium where a young Stanton and his father used to arrive early and take up positions in, yes, the left field bleachers, hoping to snag some batting practice home runs.

Still, for both batter and pitcher, and for all their fellow All-Stars, Tuesday night’s game was just an exhibition, a welcome break from the longest season’s daily grind and the gradually increasing tension of pennant races.  These days there is more pressure associated with the Home Run Derby, in which the winner earns $1 million, than with the main event of what has become a multi-day extravaganza that includes the Futures Game among top minor league prospects, and, since last season, the MLB Draft.  And if that longed for (at least in some quarters) rematch between Stanton and Gonsolin comes to pass at this autumn’s World Series, the drama will be many times Tuesday night’s level. 

As the regular season schedule resumes, the Yankees and Dodgers boast the Great Game’s two best records, though the Astros in the American League and the Mets and Atlanta in the NL are all not far behind.  But it would take a monumental collapse for either New York or Los Angeles to miss out entirely on the playoffs, so the possibility of a reprise of the most common World Series matchup – Yankees versus Dodgers – but the first between the two clubs since 1981, will remain alive into October.  After that, who knows?  With the postseason bracket expanding to twelve teams, ten AL and eight NL franchises come out of the All-Star break within 3½ games of a spot in the postseason.  Every club with at least a .500 record remains very much in the playoff picture, and baseball’s recent history includes many examples of teams with poorer regular season records dispatching presumably superior clubs in the short series of the postseason.

Given the pressure that is to come, it’s a sure bet that the players on both rosters were happy that MLB, with willing cooperation from Fox Sports, went to great lengths to turn Tuesday’s contest into a tension free affair.  Not all that long ago, the All-Star Game was taken all too seriously by some, though it didn’t begin that way.  The first one, held in Chicago in 1933 while a World’s Fair was in progress down the street, was purely a marketing ploy, the brainchild of Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward.  A former publicity director for Notre Dame’s football team and founder of the Golden Gloves boxing tournament, Ward had a keen eye for events with broad appeal to sports fans.  His guess that a game between two lineups of the best players in both leagues would be a hit with fans of what was then the unquestioned national pastime proved correct, so much so that what was conceived as a one-time event became a fixture on the Great Game’s calendar.

Perhaps inevitably, over the years there have been teams, fans, players, and a commissioner, who couldn’t resist the temptation to turn the exhibition into something more.  In 1957, fans of the Cincinnati Reds, with the support of a local newspaper and a wink and a nod from the team, turned fan voting for the starting lineups into a civic exercise, effectively stuffing the national ballot box and electing a National League starting lineup made up of Reds at every position except first base.  Commissioner Ford Frick was not amused, arbitrarily replacing three of the elected starters and ending the fan vote.  That ban lasted until 1970, which was also the year Pete Rose came barreling around third in the bottom of the 12th inning of a tie game, crashing into AL catcher Ray Fosse at home plate as if a pennant hung in the balance, instead of trying to simply slide away from the tag.  That contest was one of several that was tied after nine frames, and when in 2002 both squad’s rosters were depleted after 11 innings, fans pelted the field with bottles and other debris at the announcement that the game would end in a tie.  Commissioner Bud Selig then made things worse by decreeing that henceforth the All-Star Game’s outcome would determine which league had home field advantage in the World Series, a misbegotten idea that remained in effect for fourteen seasons.

This year there were probably fans rooting for a tie score.  That’s because for the first time, such a result would have led not to extra innings, but to a mini Home Run Derby featuring three batters from each side, with the side hitting the most dingers declared the All-Star Game’s winner.  It’s a clever and fan friendly way of bringing the contest to a close without exhausting players and is sure to be in place in future years.  Other innovations included more players on the field being mic’d up, with that feature applying to pitchers and catchers for the first time.  That produced the highly entertaining spectacle of Toronto’s Alek Manoah taking pitch requests from 8-time All-Star John Smoltz in the Fox Sports booth, and the even more fascinating interplay between regular batterymates Nestor Cortes and Jose Trevino of the Yankees.

Not every idea was successful.  A segment with David Ortiz in the AL dugout was amusing and reminded fans of how much Boston’s newest Hall of Famer loves the game, but its timing deprived fans at home of the chance to see Miguel Cabrera’s final appearance at an All-Star Game.  And this year’s special uniforms, which for the second time were worn in place of each player’s usual team outfit and exist for the sole purpose of selling copies to fans, were even more hideous than last year’s inaugural threads.  Overall though, from the pregame tributes to Jackie and Rachel Robinson to the postgame presentation of the crystal bat to Stanton, it was an All-Star evening that returned to its roots of entertaining fans.   

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 18, 2022

Smith’s Hot Putter Dashes Fairy Tales And Dreams

There are places, surely, where fairy tales come true.  An alternate universe perhaps, or a different timeline, or maybe just long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.  For why else would the golfing gods deign to create an environment such as existed in the ancient town of St. Andrews this past week?  The area along Scotland’s eastern edge, fronting the North Sea just south of the River Eden and a bit north of the Firth of Forth, has been populated for more than 6,500 years, the town as we now know it for nearly nine centuries.  The University of St. Andrews, third-oldest behind only Oxford and Cambridge in English-speaking lands, remains a distinguished center of learning more than 600 years after its founding.  But it is a relatively new attraction by local standards, the complex of six golf courses just a few blocks up North Street from the University’s traditional campus, that today draws visitors from around the globe.

Local history says that townsfolk have played the ancient game on the grounds of what is now St. Andrews Links since the 1400’s.  What is certain is that in 1552 the resident archbishop signed a charter ensuring public access to the grounds, and two centuries later the Society of St. Andrews Golfers, predecessor to the R&A, was formed.  Around that time – the mid 1700’s – the layout had 22 holes, though only about half that many fairways since most were played twice, once going out from town to the end of the public property, and then again coming back in.  Because some holes were considered too short, the 22 was reduced to 18 in 1764, the new number creating a lasting standard for a golf course.  A hundred years later, further modifications by Old Tom Morris, newly appointed as Keeper of the Green, made the links recognizable to a modern golfer, with fourteen double greens and the 1st tee and 18th green right next to the R&A’s clubhouse. 

Through all that time, the routing was simply known as the Links.  Then, in 1895, a second layout, designed by Morris, opened for play.  Long before the days when a marketing department would have spent time and money testing the commercial appeal of various names, the two neighboring courses were simply distinguished as Old and New.  Today, those two, plus three more 18’s and a 9-holer that sit adjacent, along with a seventh layout on the seaside cliffs just south of town, comprise the Home of Golf.

An estimated 300,000 fans swarmed into the old town for the 150th Open Championship, more than fifteen times the permanent population.  They came to the Home of Golf hoping to see a story unfold that would forever be deemed worthy of this symbolically numbered tournament.  Perhaps in time, as Cameron Smith’s career unfolds, those fans will look back and tell themselves that is exactly what they witnessed.  But it takes nothing away from Smith’s remarkable performance, which featured a pair of 8-under par rounds over the Open’s four days, the second of which included a string of five straight birdies that thrust him into the lead Sunday afternoon, that in the moment, most of those fans were left thinking of what might have been, longing for a golden moment that was ultimately not to be.

Their first dose of reality blew in, like a hard wind off the North Sea, during the Open’s first two rounds.  Once it became clear, as he recovered from the February 2021 car crash that nearly cost him his right leg, that Tiger Woods intended to return to competitive golf, many observers (including On Sports and Life) declared this year’s Open Championship as the most likely event for him to do so.  As the final major on this season’s calendar, its July date gave him the longest time to rehabilitate his body and sharpen his game.  More important, the largely flat Old Course, with its closely bunched holes and short walks from one green to the next tee, was by far the least physically taxing of this year’s major venues.

Woods of course was having none of such a cautionary approach, instead joining the field at the Masters in April and then traveling to Southern Hills for the PGA Championship in May.  But after appearing in obvious physical distress at both events, while fading steadily after an opening 71 at Augusta National and withdrawing after a 9-over par 79 in the PGA’s third round, Woods opted not to play in the U.S. Open.  Despite all that evidence to the contrary, there were countless fans dreaming of what would fairly be described as a miracle at St. Andrews, hopes that were fueled by breathless reports from both the media and other golfers of Tiger’s solid play and good mobility during the Open’s practice rounds.  Those dreams died a quick and ugly death once play began.  When Woods started with a double-bogey 6 on the Old Course’s benign opening par-4, it was ascribed to the bad luck of his tee shot landing in a divot.  But by the time he made the turn in 41, it was apparent St. Andrews would not be the scene of a dramatic Woods comeback.  He signed for a 78 Thursday and a 75 Friday, his 9-over total missing the cut by a wide margin and besting just seven other competitors.

Woods was overcome with emotion during his final walk up 18, as the full stands resounded with cheers for the greatest golfer of his generation.  Later, he said the tears flowed as he realized that by the time this championship returns to the Old Course, most likely in five years, he will no longer be a threat to win.  But one couldn’t help but think that for player and fans alike, there was a more immediate reason for sorrow.  Rather than being a timely opportunity, the Open confirmed what was apparent at the Masters and PGA.  The limits on Woods’s ability to adequately prepare, a product of not just the automobile accident but also multiple back surgeries over the years, combined with time’s inevitable impact on his once unmatched skills, have brought the curtain down on an era.  As with any great champion, Woods will be cheered for as long as he chooses to tee it up.  But those cheers will no longer be echoing late on a Sunday afternoon.

One other sure sign that the Age of Tiger is over is that Smith’s victory makes six consecutive men’s majors, and nine of the last ten, won by a golfer in his twenties, with only Phil Mickelson’s improbable win at last year’s PGA Championship interrupting the string.  To claim the Claret Jug, Smith had to overtake Rory McIlroy, who was himself a 25-year-old phenom when he last captured a major – his fourth – at the 2014 PGA Championship.  With sterling play and flawless putting, Smith’s win was well earned, but it came at the expense of the golfer most of those on the grounds were rooting for. 

When McIlroy holed out from a bunker for an eagle-2 at the par-4 10th hole on Saturday, the roars may well have echoed across the breadth of Scotland and the Irish Sea, all the way to his boyhood home in Holywood, Northern Ireland.  The shot propelled him to the top of the leader board, and he stayed there until almost the same point Sunday, when Smith started tearing up the Old Course’s inward nine.  McIlroy ending his long major drought with a win at the 150th Open was the ending fans wanted, but while considerably more likely than some magic from Woods, it too proved ephemeral.

Smith won the Open, which is to say McIlroy did not lose it by playing poorly, but he may well have played too conservatively Sunday on a course that had already yielded a number of low scores.  Then again, perhaps no effort would have bested Smith’s run, with consecutive birdie putts of 5, 16, 11, 18 and 5 feet, starting on the 10th green.  While not a fairy tale come true, it was enough to make Smith the champion golfer of the year.      

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 14, 2022

A Tough Season On Managers

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be spectating as NASCAR pays its annual visit to New England this weekend, while also keeping an eye on events at the Old Course in St. Andrews.  As a result, Sunday’s post will be delayed by one day.  As always, thanks for your support.

In fairness to Benjamin Franklin, when, in a 1789 letter to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, he used the manifestly incomplete phrasing, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” none of our current major sports leagues were yet in existence.  Besides, while Franklin is usually credited with originating the familiar phrase, he was actually borrowing from at least two early 18th century works in which it first appeared.  So had he been, say, a Phillies fan, and thus felt obliged to add the obvious third certainty of our existence, namely that managers and head coaches get fired, Franklin would have been defacing the good words of Daniel Defoe and Christopher Bullock.

More than two centuries later, sports fans know all too well that job security is not an attribute one attaches to the role of guiding a franchise from the sidelines or dugout.  Followers of the Great Game have been given repeated reminders of that truth in the past several weeks, with the first midseason firings of managers since exactly four years ago, when Mike Matheny was sent packing from the St. Louis Cardinals dugout on July 14, 2018.  Just like this one, that season saw more than one skipper relieved of his duties with meaningful games left to play.  Matheny’s dismissal just before the All-Star break came with the Cardinals at 47-46, but three months earlier Bryan Price’s four season tenure in Cincinnati was cut short a mere eighteen games into the schedule, after the Reds stumbled to a 3-15 start.  The Rangers’ Jeff Bannister was also fired during that season’s final days.

Late September dismissals like Bannister’s, done by teams that are long out of the playoff hunt and just playing out the string, happen almost every year and are little more than housekeeping by front offices wanting to get a jump on other franchises by announcing to prospective managerial replacements that yes, there is a job opening here.  But replacing a field general in the middle of a campaign is a riskier proposition.  In 2018, the Cardinals were in 3rd place in the NL Central when bench coach Mike Schildt took over for Matheny, and that’s exactly where they ended up.  The story in Cincinnati was the same.  The Reds tabbed bench coach Jim Riggleman to replace Price, but despite having many more games than Schildt to right his team’s ship, the new Cincinnati manager could only change doleful to woeful, with the club locked in last place through the season’s final day.

While the Cards and Reds 2018 experience is fairly indicative of what usually happens with midseason manager changes, there are exceptions.  Most notably, in 2003 the Marlins front office jettisoned Jeff Torborg after a 16-22 start.  Enter Jack McKeon, who led Florida to a 91-71 record and what was then the lone NL Wild Card spot in the postseason.  The Marlins then beat the Giants in the NLDS and the Cubs in the NLCS – a series that Chicago appeared to have in hand until a fly ball wandered down the left field foul line at Wrigley Field late in Game 6 – before finally dispatching the favored Yankees in the World Series.

Perhaps GMs and owners think of McKeon and the Marlins magical year when deciding to make a managerial change in midstream.  Or perhaps they merely want to shift the focus from their own roster-building decisions in the previous offseason.  Either way, they almost certainly want to send a message to the players on that roster, who of course have far more impact on a franchise’s fate than any manager.  This season, mixes of such thoughts have led three teams – so far – to oust skippers.  First to go was Joe Girardi in Philadelphia in early June, followed less than a week later by Joe Maddon in Anaheim, and joined this Wednesday by Charlie Montoyo in Toronto.  The common theme of the three firings has been a gap between preseason expectations and actual performance.

The first firing was the least surprising, and not just because the Phillies were seven games under .500 and fading in both the NL East and Wild Card races.  Since Girardi was hired prior to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Philadelphia has flirted with but failed to make the playoffs, missing by one game in 2020 and being eliminated with three contests remaining last year.  Given Girardi’s winning record in the Bronx that included the 2009 World Series title and five other postseason appearances, it’s reasonable to assume that team president Dave Dombrowski, with his history of “win now” roster formation, would have little patience if the team again looked to be falling short.

Maddon’s dismissal wasn’t as predictable, largely because of his lengthy tenure as a coach with the Angels early in his career and resulting close ties to the team’s ownership.  But the franchise’s front office and certainly its fans have to be intensely frustrated with repeatedly missing the playoffs despite fielding a roster built around Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.  This year looked to be different when L.A. started strong, battling Houston for 1st place in the AL West through the season’s first seven weeks.  But then things quickly spun out of control, with the Angels losing fourteen straight.  A dozen losses into that skid, Maddon was done.

If standings alone told the tale, those two firings were arguably foreseeable, since both the Phillies and Angels were under .500 when their managers were let go.  The Blue Jays, however, were 46-42 and holding on to the AL’s third and final Wild Card spot in Montoyo’s fourth year at the helm.  But expectations in Toronto were much higher, especially after the team won 91 games last season.  Many preseason forecasts, of both the computerized and “gut feeling” variety, touted the Blue Jays as the AL’s representative in this year’s Fall Classic.  By that standard, clinging to the league’s last available playoff spot didn’t look nearly so becoming.

Whether changing the manager in midseason alters the trajectory of any of these clubs remains to be seen.  The Phillies have improved under Rob Thompson, though only enough to be back in a familiar and maddening position of just outside the playoff field.  The Angels, however, have gone into a death spiral since Maddon’s firing and are on the verge of irrelevancy.  And the Blue Jays are only now adjusting to their new reality.  The surest measure will be how many of the three are among the dozen squads that play on into October, and for how long.  For now, all three franchises have opted for the high drama of a quick fix to their problems.  But in doing so they have ignored Benjamin Franklin’s warning that “great haste makes great waste.” 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 10, 2022

Change Was In The Air At The All England Club

It is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, and while all four of the sport’s Grand Slam events are given equal billing, Wimbledon remains, for players and fans alike, the most prestigious.  Aside from the history, there is the venerable setting in southwest London, the grass playing surfaces that have been abandoned save for a handful of events leading up to the third major on each year’s tennis calendar, and the assorted traditions from all white apparel for players to strawberries and cream for spectators – all of which set the fortnight of play at the All England Club apart from the national championships of Australia, France and the United States that share Wimbledon’s status as career-defining tournaments.

Yet no amount of prestige can guarantee drama on the court or joy at the outcome, and as play concluded this weekend one sensed that for many fans this year’s tournament was lacking in both.  That assessment takes nothing away from the achievements of Elena Rybakina and Novak Djokovic, winners of the single’s titles, nor from the twenty-seven other players who emerged victorious in the various doubles, juniors, seniors, and wheelchair competitions.  Rather it reflects the current state of a sport that is irrevocably moving out of a long period of dominance by a handful of heroes.  Change, as the saying goes, is hard.

It has been more than five years since Serena Williams, eight weeks pregnant at the time, won the 2017 Australian Open, her most recent Grand Slam victory.  It has been almost three years since she last appeared in the finals of a tennis major, losing the championship match of the 2019 U.S. Open in straight sets to Bianca Andreescu.  And while Williams has made it as far as the semifinals at two Grand Slam events since then, her recent record shows a pair of first round losses at Wimbledon both last year and this, sandwiched around three straight majors at which she did not play. 

The various injuries that have kept Williams off the court, declining performance when she has played, and, of course, her age – she is 40 – all strongly suggest that the era in women’s tennis that will always bear her name is over.  Yet Serena is still the center of attention whenever she does play, even if, as was the case during Wimbledon’s first week, it is only for a single match.  That is both a testament to her long dominance of the sport and a recognition of the wide open state of the women’s game.  There have been fourteen different winners of the twenty-one majors since that 2017 Williams victory in Melbourne. 

In addition to that relative parity – Williams alone accounted for ten of the twenty-one titles up to and including the 2017 Australian Open – the two women who seemed most likely to take her place as the clear leader of the sport have not done so.  Ashleigh Barty won three majors in that timeframe but stunned tennis fans by announcing her retirement shortly after triumphing at home in this year’s Aussie Open.  And Naomi Osaka has four majors and counting but has gone through her own series of physical injuries and taken breaks from tennis to deal with the emotional strain of her celebrity.

This weekend’s women’s final featured two fine players in Rybakina and Ons Jabeur, and perhaps in time one or both will become familiar names to more than just the most ardent tennis fans.  But for now, each found herself in a Grand Slam Final for the first time, just as each had been in their first major semifinal two days before.  That lack of familiarity left some fans grasping for a good storyline to root for, and many settled on Tunisian Jabeur’s status as the first Arab player to reach a Grand Slam final and the first woman from Africa to do so in the Open Era.  That, plus Jabeur’s consistently sunny personality – her nickname is “the minister of happiness” – put most of the crowd in her corner, which resulted in polite applause but hardly adulation when the stoic Rybakina pulled away for a three set victory.

If the result of the women’s draw only added to the sense of change on that side of the sport, the men’s final, at least on the surface, would appear to reflect business as usual.  The four set victory by Djokovic over Australian bad boy Nick Kyrgios was the seventh Wimbledon singles title and fourth in a row for the player who less than a year ago came within a single match of winning the calendar year Grand Slam.  The win was Djokovic’s twenty-first major title, nudging him one ahead of Roger Federer but still one behind Rafael Nadal, the two players who along with Djokovic have been the Big Three of men’s tennis for the last two decades.  The trio have won more than eighty percent of the Grand Slam singles titles since Federer first announced himself on the same Wimbledon center court in 2003. 

Yet even in victory there was the inescapable sense of change.  Djokovic won despite being generally outplayed by Kyrgios.  He was also the tournament’s top seed only because Wimbledon barred Russian players from this year’s event after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.  That meant Daniil Medvedev, the current number one who denied Djokovic that single-year Slam in last September’s U.S. Open final, didn’t compete in London.  The final matchup was also not what fans hoped to see, with Kyrgios advancing to his first ever major final on a walkover after Nadal was forced to withdraw prior to the semifinals with a torn abdominal muscle.  That injury, along with Federer’s absence as he recovers from knee surgery, reminded fans of what they already knew, that the Big Three are all trying to outrace time. 

That Djokovic won and Nadal advanced as far as he did after arriving in London having won the year’s first two majors suggests these greats don’t plan to go quietly, as does Federer’s stated determination to appear on center court in tennis whites rather than the suit he wore at a ceremony commemorating the tournament’s long history.  But he will be 41 by next year’s Wimbledon, and Nadal and Djokovic recently turned 36 and 35, respectively.  That was why a sense of change pervaded this Wimbledon fortnight.  In the long history of tennis’s oldest tournament, grand and glorious chapters for both men and women players are coming to an end.

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