Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 16, 2018

Not Just Another Plunking

If timing is everything, it’s fair to say that Jose Urena’s is exceptionally bad. Wednesday night the right-handed starting pitcher for Miami’s not-quite major league franchise took the mound at Marlins Park for a game against the visitors from Atlanta. Urena’s ostensible task was to help his team end an eight-game losing streak by holding the Atlanta lineup in check, no easy task against a team that ranked first in the National League in runs scored and slugging percentage as play began. A key contributor to Atlanta’s offensive might has been rookie leadoff hitter Ronald Acuna Jr., who stepped into the batter’s box having hit eight home runs in as many games, including leadoff homers in each the three previous contests in the series against the Marlins.

In what can charitably be described as an unwise decision, Urena apparently concluded that the best way to make certain Acuna didn’t launch a fourth straight game-opening home run was to fire his very first pitch, a fastball clocked at 97.5 miles per hour, directly at the Atlanta leftfielder. The heater caught Acuna on his left elbow, doubling him over in obvious pain. It also caused both dugouts to empty, with some pushing and shoving between the two squads before the umpires restored order. Having done so the men in blue conferred and Urena was ejected, his one-pitch outing certain to be the shortest in his major league career. According to Stats.com, he is just the fourth pitcher in the live-ball era to face, and hit, a single batter, and the only one to do so on his very first pitch.

In the clubhouse Urena offered up the predictable excuse, saying “I missed my spot inside on the corner the way I wanted to start with him. I tried to get inside to move him.” But few were buying that line, and not just in the Atlanta dugout but across the Great Game. Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay said “He clearly did it on purpose. I mean, in basketball, if a guy scores 40, do you punch him in the face? That’s just an awful part of baseball.” New York manager Aaron Boone concurred, saying “It seemed pretty blatant to me. You know, I hate that.” Michael Young, the retired infielder who played fourteen seasons for the Rangers, Phillies and Dodgers, suggested that “The whole ‘make them uncomfortable, move their feet, brush ‘em back’ thing is complete BS. It doesn’t work.” And ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted “The fact that Urena dropped his glove as the Braves’ bench emptied and seemed to beckon them forward tells you all you need to know about his intent.”

The prevailing thought was that Urena didn’t lose control of his pitch, but rather was following one of baseball’s unwritten rules and delivering a message to a hot rookie. What’s unclear was whether he was acting on his own or was following orders. Marlins manager Don Mattingly said after the game that “I would never want that kid getting hit and cause that kind of problem.” But he also told reporters that his advice to Urena before the contest had been “This kid is swinging the bat good. We’ve got to figure out how to get him out, right?” While obviously not a direct order, that’s the kind of language that could be construed in multiple ways even if Mattingly’s intent was innocent.

The good news is that both an X-ray and CT scan of Acuna’s elbow proved negative, and he is back in Atlanta’s lineup for a game against the Rockies, even as this is being written. But the story could have been far different. The history of the Great Game is littered with sad stories of careers irrevocably altered after a player was hit by a pitch, from Mickey Cochrane to Tony Conigliaro to Kirby Puckett. It’s going to happen. Pitches do get away, and with deliveries coming in at ever faster speeds, batters often have literally no chance to get out of the way. Indeed, critics of Urena were quick to note that his pitch to Acuna was the fastest first pitch the starter had thrown in his career, suggesting that was not a coincidence.

The better news is that on Thursday Joe Torre, MLB’s vice president for baseball operations, announced that Urena had been suspended for six games. While several pundits and even some players had called for a suspension, none of the three pitchers who previously hit the only batter they faced received such a punishment. But MLB’s action against Urena suggests that a new and decidedly more intelligent era may finally have arrived.

That won’t sit well with Keith Hernandez, the former player and current broadcaster for the New York Metropolitans. Hernandez, who last wore a uniform in 1990, is proudly old school, and Wednesday night during the Mets broadcast he endorsed Urena playing the role of enforcer. “You’ve lost three games, he’s hit three home runs, you’ve got to hit him,” he said, adding “I’m sorry. People are not going to like that. You’ve got to hit him or seriously knock him down if you don’t hit him.” At least Hernandez did later allow that pitchers shouldn’t throw at a batter’s head.

Hernandez’s idiotic opinion drew a quick rebuke from retired Atlanta star and brand-new Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, who tweeted “So by this way of thinking, Jacob deGrom should get drilled cuz he’s the hottest pitcher on the planet? NO! I enjoy watching him pitch and I enjoy watching RAJ play the game. I’m old school just like this broadcaster, but these comments are waaay off base!”

While there will always be a Keith Hernandez out there, living in a fantasy world where a hundred mile an hour missile is just a friendly way of saying “hey young fella, don’t get too big for your britches,” the strong reaction to Acuna’s plunking throughout the Great Game, and MLB’s decisive action against Urena, are both positive signs that come at the best possible time. Yes, that’s right, Urena’s timing was horrible, and the response to his action timely. For today is August 16th, so it’s exactly 98 years since that late afternoon when a pitch from Carl Mays hit Ray Chapman in the head at the Polo Grounds. In the days before batting helmets, Chapman dropped like a stone, blood pouring out of his left ear. Twelve hours later, he was dead. Chapman remains the last baseball player to die as the immediate result of play on the field. Hopefully fans will still be able to say that in another 98 years.

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Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 13, 2018

Rodney Dangerfield Wins The PGA Championship

Now it’s time for the bonus round. Quickly, who’s the last golfer to win three major championships in six tries? Oh no, sorry to you and you and you and, well, all the very many of you who answered Tiger Woods. That is incorrect and actually not even close, so you’re out of the game.  Unfortunately we’ve run out of steak knives, but here’s a nice bag of tees as a lovely parting gift.

The correct answer of course is 28-year-old Brooks Koepka, who won the PGA Championship Sunday at a Bellerive Country Club layout softened by summer thunderstorms. The win followed Koepka’s victory at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock in June, where he defended the title he won last year at Erin Hills. Koepka’s closing 4-under par 66 was his fourth straight sub-70 circuit of the Robert Trent Jones course, good enough for a win by two over Woods and three clear of playing partner Adam Scott, who started the day two adrift and hung with Koepka until the final two holes.

From his initial major breakthrough in June of last year at that eccentric Wisconsin layout through raising the Wanamaker Trophy at the classic parkland course in Missouri on Sunday, seven men’s majors have been played, but Koepka missed the Masters in April while recovering from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left wrist. So he is three for six, supplanting as the correct answer to the trivia question not Woods, but Padraig Harrington, whose name was etched on the Claret Jug at the end of both the 2007 and 2008 Open Championships before he won the Wanamaker at the 2008 PGA on this same course.

Given the significance of Koepka’s accomplishment, surely he was followed by massive galleries during his final round even as media members with access inside the ropes jostled with each other for the best position for a photograph or to chronicle his march to glory. Actually, not so much. The throngs of fans packed ten deep along Bellerive’s fairways and beside its greens were always two groups ahead of the final pairing of Koepka and Scott, as were most of those with press credentials. That was where Woods and Gary Woodland were located. Less there be any doubt, even though he grew up in relatively nearby Topeka, Kansas, and led the tournament after both the first and second rounds, Woodland was not the attraction for the hordes.

It is hard to fault the fans. He hasn’t won a PGA Tour event in five years and his last major title is now a decade old, but Woods remains far and away the most popular golfer in the world. More important, on Sunday at Bellerive following Woods was not an exercise in nostalgia or wishful thinking. After opening with an even par round of 70, he posted matching 66s in the second and third rounds to move into a tie for sixth place, four behind Koepka with eighteen holes to play. Then as he had all week, Woods struck early and often on the front nine, going out in 3-under 32, closing to within a stroke of the lead at one point.

For the week Woods played the front side of the course in 13-under par, though his fine number on Sunday was achieved in unusual fashion. He failed to hit a single fairway but scrambled brilliantly. The CBS Sports commentators marveled at his putting, but his real savior was his chipping and iron play that left Woods with short putts on almost every hole. Then on the back nine, which Woods had played in 2-over par through the first three rounds, the level of his focus became more apparent. Woods started to hit a few fairways and added four more birdies coming home for another 32, closing with his best round in a major in years, a 6-under par 64.

But his hopes of catching Koepka were done in by three things. First was Woods’s play on the 14th hole. His iron off the tee faded well right into deep rough, from which a vicious swing couldn’t advance the ball all the way to the green. From the collar fifteen short of the putting surface his chip was not up to the standards he had set during his front nine scrambling. Instead it stopped ten feet short and his putt for par lipped out of the cup. Second was his play on the par-5 17th hole, where birdie was the expected score. Instead Woods again drove wildly to the right, his ball plugging in mud inside the red hazard line of a creek. Woods was able to advance the ball back into the fairway, but his third from long range found a greenside bunker, and he had to settle for par.

Had Woods hit those two tee shots straight, the story of this PGA Championship might have been very different. Or it might well have still been the same, for the third reason Woods came up short was beyond his control, and that was the play of Brooks Koepka. He began with a birdie, staggered briefly with back-to-back bogeys on the 4th and 5th holes, but then made three straight birdies to finish the front nine, going out in 33 and regaining control of the tournament. Koepka’s iron play was as fine as anyone’s, including Woods, and except for a couple of short misses on would-be birdies early on the back nine, his putting was rock solid. Perhaps most important, he was able to overwhelm the Bellerive layout with powerful tee shots that went running down fairways well past the usual landing areas.

Koepka ended his string of pars with a ten-foot birdie putt on the 15th, then laced a laser-like 4-iron on the long par-3 16th, the ball rolling to a stop six feet from the cup. When the birdie putt fell in Koepka’s lead was two and both Woods and Scott were left with only the vain hope that the leader might somehow stumble.

Earlier in the round, the CBS crew noted the lack of fans and media following the final pairing and suggested that Koepka used that as a motivating force. If true, he wouldn’t be the first athlete to do so. Like the old comedian complaining that he “don’t get no respect,” being taken too lightly can, in the right circumstances, put a healthy chip on one’s shoulder.

By that standard Brooks Koepka has plenty of motivation. Aside from the lack of attention paid at Bellerive, he’s now number two in the world golf rankings, has those three majors in six tries, and is just the fifth golfer to win the U.S. Open and PGA in the same year. The three majors are as many as Jordan Spieth, just one less than Rory McIlroy, and more than Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Jason Day and Bubba Watson, all of whom have decidedly higher profiles than Koepka.

The ultimate irony on Sunday was that having pointed out the issue CBS then contributed to it. When it looked like Woods might win analyst Nick Faldo swooned, opining that a Woods victory would be the greatest comeback in the history of golf. Making such a claim about a game that has been played for nearly six hundred years is absurd on its face. But for Faldo, golf’s history apparently starts sometime after 1950. That’s when Ben Hogan, with both his legs wrapped in bandages to prevent swelling, won the U.S. Open at Merion just 16 months after a near fatal auto accident that left many doubting he would ever again walk, much less play golf. Then CBS showed the “Shot of the Day,” which wasn’t one made by Koepka, but the birdie putt Woods holed on the 18th hole, which had exactly zero impact on the outcome of this season’s last major. Maybe Brooks Koepka will take time to look at a rerun of Sunday’s coverage before he heads to Augusta National next April. That might be all the motivation he needs for number four.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 9, 2018

Ageless Bartolo Colon Has Reason To Smile

A NOTE TO READERS:  The next post will be Monday, one day later than usual.  Thanks as always for your support.

It was a pleasantly cool spring evening in Anaheim that first Friday in April, twenty-one years ago. The Cleveland nine was in town for a three-game weekend series against the Angels, after splitting a pair of games up the California coast in Oakland to open the new season. The visitors’ starting pitcher was a 23-year-old rookie making his major league debut. Bartolo Colon faced twenty-two batters over five innings that night. He allowed two runs in the 1st inning and another pair in the 2nd. But the youngster settled down, retiring ten of the last thirteen men he faced, even as his teammates rallied to tie the game at 4-4.

The game stretched on long after Colon’s work was done. Eventually Cleveland broke the tie when Tony Fernandez sent a drive into the gap in right center in the top of the 11th inning, plating Chad Curtis and Sandy Alomar. But reliever Paul Shuey couldn’t put the Angels away in the bottom of the frame, failing to record an out as the home side rallied to win 8-6 on a walk-off grand slam by Tim Salmon.

A five inning no-decision by a burly young right-hander would scarcely be remembered more than two decades later, save for one remarkable fact. The Angels’ hero of the night, the home run belting Salmon, retired at the end of the 2006 season. He’s now an analyst for the Angels’ regional television network. The unfortunate Shuey threw his last pitch from a major league mound one year later, and can now be found competing in professional bass fishing tournaments. Alomar is now Cleveland’s first base coach, Curtis is in prison, and Fernandez is retired. Every player on both teams, in fact every player on a big league roster in 1997, has played his last game, most quite some time ago, except for Bartolo Colon.

The right-hander with a blazing four-seam fastball that occasionally touched 100 miles per hour shuttled back and forth between Cleveland and the team’s AAA affiliate in Buffalo during 1997, eventually making ten starts in the minors and seventeen plus a couple of relief appearances for the major league club. Colon’s record at the end of his first season in the bigs was an unprepossessing 4-7, his ERA+ of 83 worse than league average. But he showed flashes of the promise that had led Cleveland to sign the native of the Dominican Republic to an international free agent contract four years earlier. The following season he justified that decision by going 14-9 with six complete games, including two shutouts, and being named to the AL All-Star team.

Those days by Lake Erie, where Colon spent the first five and a half years of his major league career, are now a fading memory. This year the 45-year-old works at the back end of the rotation for the Texas Rangers. His current uniform is the eleventh different one he has worn. From Cleveland Colon’s major league journey has taken him to Montreal, Chicago’s South Side, Anaheim, Boston, back to the White Sox, the Bronx, Oakland, Queens, Atlanta, and the Twin Cities before he signed a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training with the Rangers last February. Along the way he has tacked on more than 3,500 additional innings pitched in both the regular and postseason to those now distant first five.

With his rotund build, ready smile, and “Big Sexy” nickname, Colon in the twilight of a phenomenally long career can easily be made into a caricature. That was certainly true during his three seasons with the Mets, from 2014 through 2016, especially when it came to the pitcher who had spent most of his career in the American League, with its designated hitter rule, having to take his turn at the plate. More than sixty percent of Colon’s 326 career plate appearances came as a Met, with often slapstick results. Online one can readily find video of Colon twisting himself into a pretzel and losing his batting helmet while striking out, Colon holding on to the stem of a broken bat, as if not quite sure what to do with it, as he jogs to first on an infield grounder, and Colon again losing his helmet while swinging yet somehow managing to poke a liner into short right field to drive in a run. There is also Colon, just shy of his 43rd birthday, becoming the oldest player to hit his first major league home run when he launched a ball that cleared the left field wall at San Diego’s Petco Park in May 2016. His teammates celebrated the moment by quickly exiting the dugout for the clubhouse, so there was no one to greet him when he finished his trip around the bases.

But if Big Sexy with a bat in his hands is the stuff of farce, over the years Colon on the mound has been anything but. Starting with his second season he produced double-digit wins for eight straight years, a run that culminated with a 21-8 record and a Cy Young Award with the Angels in 2005. As age took miles off his fastball, he remade himself into a control pitcher, pounding the strike zone with pitch after pitch. In both 2015 and 2016 he was the league leader in fewest walks per nine innings. His four All-Star nods are evenly split between the two ends of his career.

As he nears the end of his time in the majors, Colon is finding his place in the Great Game’s record books. In June he scattered nine hits over six innings and got the win as the Rangers beat the Royals 6-3. With the victory Colon moved past Hall of Famer Juan Marichal to become the winningest pitcher from the Dominican Republic. Then on Tuesday before a home crowd his Texas teammates jumped on Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, giving Colon a cushion as he worked his way through the Mariners lineup across seven frames. The 11-4 win was Colon’s 246th, one more than the career total of Dennis Martinez, the first Nicaraguan to play in the major leagues, making Colon the record-holder for wins by a Latin American native.

His 94th and final pitch of the night, as seen here, was a slider to Dee Gordon with one man on and two out in the 7th. The Seattle second baseman ripped a low liner right back at Colon, who squatted and speared the ball with his glove. Despite the force of the drive and his ungainly position, the rotund Colon somehow managed to keep his balance, though it was a near thing. As he came to his feet and walked off the mound, Colon allowed himself a little smile. It was one more amusing moment in a long career that has produced many. But as has so often been the case for more than two decades, the last laugh belonged to Bartolo.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 5, 2018

One Last Time Around Firestone For The PGA Tour

The first eighteen holes at Firestone Country Club opened in August 1929. Harvey Firestone, founder of the tire company that still bears his name, conceived of the club as an escape for employees of his company. Nearly nine decades later, the private club in Akron, Ohio, known to golf fans everywhere by the iconic red and white water tower that looks like a golf ball sitting on a tee, boasts three courses for its members, as well as a nine-hole course open to the public. The original layout, designed by Englishman Bert Way and remodeled by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1960, is now the South Course. Jones was also responsible for the North Course, which opened in 1969. The West Course’s original routing was done by the team of Geoffrey Cornish and Brian Silva in 1989, with a major redesign by Tom Fazio in 2002. In short, Firestone’s courses are all products of legends of golf course architecture.

That helps explain why Firestone has hosted PGA Tour events for sixty-five years, and why the stop in small-market Akron has always been popular with Tour players. The Rubber City Open, later the Rubber City Invitational, was played for six years beginning in 1954. Then in 1960 Firestone hosted the first of its three PGA Championships, with the other two coming in 1966 and 1975. After that initial major, the Tour’s annual visit to Akron was renamed the American Golf Classic and staged from 1961 through 1976 except for the two years when the PGA Championship returned to Firestone.

During those years Firestone also hosted the World Series of Golf, a made-for-television thirty-six-hole exhibition featuring the reigning champions of the four majors. Starting in 1976, the tournament became an official PGA Tour event, played over the regulation seventy-two holes and with a field that started at twenty and eventually grew to include winners of tournaments from all the major global tours. The 1976 edition, played on the South Course the week following the last American Golf Classic was completed on the North Course, offered a top prize of $100,000, more than twice the payday of any of that year’s four majors. Jack Nicklaus took home the big check, one year after he had captured the PGA Championship over the same layout.

The World Series of Golf eventually morphed into one of the four annual World Golf Championships events, each of which has limited fields representing the world’s top players. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational sets its field based on world rankings, victories on the participating tours, and membership on the most recent Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. This year that resulted in a field of 71 players taking on Firestone’s South Course as well as each other.

On paper the WGC-Bridgestone looked like the ideal opportunity for the closely watched comeback of Tiger Woods to finally reach its goal of returning the greatest golfer of his generation to the winner’s circle. To say that Firestone’s South Course suits his eye is a gross understatement. Woods has won this event a record eight times, and three of those victories have been runaways. In 2000 he won for the second time and set the tournament record of 21-under par while winning by eleven shots. Seven years later his sixth WGC-Bridgestone title was by eight shots over Justin Rose and Rory Sabbatini. Five years ago, he captured his most recent win at Firestone, or anywhere else, finishing seven ahead of Keegan Bradley and Henrik Stenson.

The early signs were encouraging for Woods and the predictably huge galleries following his play. He opened with a 4-under par 66 and followed that up with a 68, to sit at 6-under at the tournament’s midpoint. That left him five adrift of a three-way tie at the top of the leader board, but Woods leads the Tour this season in third round scoring average. That stat along with his track record at Firestone had fans dreaming of a weekend surge. Instead they were reminded of both how great the challenge is for the 42-year-old Woods, and the depth of talent on the Tour. Woods made just one birdie in his third round, while dropping strokes on four holes to finish with a 3-over par 73. On Sunday he matched that number with a particularly ugly final nine that included two double bogeys. The weekend of poor play dropped him all the way down into a tie for 31st in the tournament’s final standings.

But while Woods was struggling the leader board had plenty of star power, with the likes of Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day all near the top. They were joined on Sunday by Dustin Johnson and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, both of whom posted good scores early to gain ground. But in the end, there was little drama. Thomas had moved three shots clear of the field on Saturday, and as the course hardened and scoring became more difficult Sunday afternoon, Firestone showed its teeth and made it all but impossible for anyone to mount a charge. Thomas coasted home with a 1-under 69, good for a 15-under total and a four-shot margin over Kyle Stanley.

With that the PGA Tour departed Firestone Country Club, not until next year but for good. All the club’s history with the Tour, the constant support of huge Ohio galleries and the appreciation of the layout by so many Tour players was outweighed by the demands of one of the Tour’s major sponsors. As a condition of renewing its support for the season-long points race that culminates in the awarding of the FedEx Cup, the package delivery service wanted an upgrade in the tournament held near its Memphis headquarters. The St. Jude Classic has been a fixture on the Tour’s calendar for decades, but the timing of the event has led to weak fields. Starting next season this WGC tournament will move to TPC Southwind and be renamed the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

The consolation prize for Firestone is a four-year commitment to stage the Senior Players Championship on the South Course, beginning next July. While the Senior Players is one of five majors on the Champions Tour, the reality is that the thirty million dollars that the WGC-Bridgestone annually pumped into the Akron economy is about to shrink dramatically. After his disappointing weekend Woods said “I’m going to miss playing here, I’m going to miss the people. I’ve had so many great memories and it’s just sad we’re not coming back here anymore.” No doubt golf fans in northeastern Ohio, and anyone who appreciates the history of the game, would agree.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 2, 2018

The Full Bull Durham, In Less Than A Day

It’s a sultry late afternoon on the last day of July as the Yankee Clipper, Metro North Railroad’s express service from southern Connecticut, pulls into the East 153rd Street Station in the South Bronx. Opened in 2009, the same year as the new Yankee Stadium, the station sits adjacent to Heritage Field, the public park with fields for various levels of play that occupies the footprint of the old Stadium. While it’s a short stroll past the regulation, little league, and softball diamonds that anchor three corners of the park, then across the multiple lanes of East 161st Street to the Yankees’ current home, there is enough steam in the air that fans are happy to find their seats and wait for this evening’s contest with the Baltimore Orioles to begin.

At least that is the matchup listed on the official regular season schedule. While the visiting players are clad in familiar Oriole orange, Baltimore’s roster contains a number of unfamiliar names. Mired deep in the AL East cellar with the worst record in the Great Game, the Orioles cleaned house in the days leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline which passed just a couple of hours ago. Gone are All-Star Manny Machado, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, starter Kevin Gausman and relievers Darren O’Day and Brad Bach, while Baltimore’s former closer Zach Britton is here, but is now in the home team’s bullpen wearing pinstripes.

Yankee fans can only hope their team’s chances against the Birds will improve in the wake of the Orioles’ roster makeover. Despite Baltimore’s sorry record, the visitors have played New York to a draw over the first ten meetings between the two teams. In contrast, Boston sports a record of 10-2 versus Baltimore, a difference that accounts for most of the gap between the first place Red Sox and second place Yankees.

Those hopes are realized in the first contest of the short two-game set. New York’s Masahiro Tanaka takes the mound after spinning a masterful three-hit complete game shutout against Tampa Bay in his most recent outing. While not quite as dominating this evening, but he’s close. After laboring through a 31-pitch 1st, he settles into a groove. Over six innings Tanaka surrenders just three hits while walking two and hitting a batter. Just three Baltimore base runners reach second. One is Austin Wynns who doubles to lead off the 2nd. Tanaka responds by striking out the next three batters. Another is Tim Beckham, who walks to start the 6th and moves up on a single by Adam Jones. Again Tanaka raises his game and strikes out the next two hitters, ending his night with a total of eight K’s while stretching his consecutive scoreless innings streak to 17 2/3 frames.

The early offense for New York is provided by leadoff man Brett Gardner, who reaches on a walk and a single in his first two at-bats, and by rookie second baseman Gleyber Torres and shortstop Didi Gregorius, who plate Gardner with singles in the 1st and 3rd innings. With the bases load in the 5th a sacrifice fly by Greg Bird plates Giancarlo Stanton with the Yankees’ third run. That brings up Miguel Andujar, the 23-year-old who is giving the 21-year-old Torres stiff competition for recognition as New York’s top rookie. He runs the count to 2-1, then hammers the ball into deep left. Trey Mancini starts to give chase but quickly realizes this hit will be caught by a fan. The three-run homer doubles New York’s margin to 6-0.

Andujar’s blast proves to be more than just window dressing when the New York bullpen wobbles a bit in relief of Tanaka. A.J. Cole throws a clean 7th, but in the 8th he allows a single, a walk, and a two-run double to the first three Baltimore batters. One out later Cole gives way to Dellin Betances, but backup catcher Kyle Higashioka can’t handle one of the big right hander’s first pitches, and the passed ball allows another run to score. But that’s it for the Orioles. Betances fans Chris Davis and Mancini to end the 8th, and Aroldis Chapman strikes out the side in the 9th, with five of his pitches topping 100 miles per hour. Its quarter past ten as happy Yankee fans head for the exits, some knowing they’ll be back just half a day later.

Metro North isn’t as accommodating for weekday afternoon games. There is no direct service from the New Haven line over to East 153rd, the first stop on the railroad’s Hudson line, which extends another seventy-five miles up the river to Poughkeepsie. That means this fan, headquartered in Stamford for this trip, joins others in touching Manhattan ever so briefly at the 125th Street Station in Harlem, there to change trains for the five minute ride back over the Harlem River and into the Bronx. There are only a few stray kids playing catch on the Heritage Park fields, though an adjacent play area featuring a spouting fountain is very well occupied on an extremely humid first day of August.

The Yankees send Sonny Gray to the mound for this contest, which would be enough to cause fans to sweat even if the weather was more temperate. The right hander has been a major disappointment since joining the Yankees at last season’s trade deadline. Still, after falling to 5-7 with an ERA approaching 6.00 early in July, Gray has put together three credible starts, with his best of the year coming in his previous outing when he threw five innings of shutout ball against Kansas City to start the current home stand. As he retires the side in order with two strikeouts in the first, a few skeptical fans are prepared to give Gray the benefit of the doubt.

But the good mood quickly sours when he unravels one inning later. Gray is unable to locate his curve ball, and that allows Baltimore hitters to sit on his fastball. Nine Orioles bat, one walks and six hit safely. Five of the runners eventually cross home plate. The damage might well have been worse, but the Yankees turn an unlikely double play to end the inning when a liner to right that looks like a hit is instead caught and a baserunner is doubled up. Gray manages to retire the first two men he faces in the 3rd, but then Mancini homers and the next two batters reach (one will eventually score), ending Sonny’s day. Gone too by this time is the sunny day, with dark clouds now hovering over the Stadium. With Baltimore leading 7-1 in the middle of the 3rd, those clouds let loose with a sudden torrent. The players on the field and fans in exposed seating all head for cover even as the grounds crew races for the tarp.

One of the many nice features of a stadium as large as this one is that there are plenty of sheltered locations to wait out a rain delay. Just shy of forty minutes after it stopped, play resumes. This young Yankees team doesn’t have a lot of quit in it, always playing to the final out. But while New York rallies, this afternoon Gray has dug his teammates too deep a hole, with the Orioles eventually winning 7-5.

Walking back to the train on a sultry late afternoon, off to the left one sees the familiar quotation inscribed on the outfield fence of Heritage Field. The Yankees have contributed numerous famous words to the Great Game, from Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech to DiMaggio’s gratitude for the “Good Lord making me a Yankee” to any number of Yogism’s from the most quotable Yankee of all. But the source of the quote out there is one Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh, who said he got it from his friend and mentor “Crash” Davis. Both are movie characters, the former played by Tim Robbins and the latter by Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham.” Along with “Field of Dreams” and “For the Love of the Game”, the film is part of Costner’s fabulous baseball triple play, all of which are worth seeing. The quote may be fictional, but it lives on as a perfect description of the Great Game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. And sometimes, a fan gets all three in less than twenty-four hours.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 29, 2018

One More Round For Three Friends

On a sunny July Friday the seasonal promise of heat and humidity was apparent even as the three golf bags were being loaded into the back of the car at half past seven in the morning. The drive from New Hampshire’s seacoast to the course south of Boston passed in an uneventful two hours. Like the more well-known twin 18s at nearby Pinehills, Waverly Oaks is an upscale daily fee layout in Plymouth, Massachusetts, not far from the site commemorating the first Puritan settlements in North America. Not that upscale is a requirement for this golfing threesome. Over the years most of this group’s play has been at a handful of public links in New Hampshire.

The three have been friends for well over four decades, since their first encounters on the third floor of a Dartmouth College dormitory. Even as life took them in different directions, they remained in touch and against all odds, eventually wound up back in New Hampshire, one near the capital city in the central part of the state, one in Nashua along the Massachusetts border, and one on the seacoast. The first of golfing excursions too numerous to count soon followed.

While the three took their games to various courses, for many years the favored eighteen was a place called Candia Woods. It was and remains a well maintained if somewhat bland layout, but offered the clear advantage of a central location, nearly equidistant from all three golfers. More recently, moves by two of the three have brought all the group’s members to the seacoast, and most rounds were played at venerable Sagamore in North Hampton, or the newer and tougher Breakfast Hill in Greenland.

When options abound within a short drive, the decision to travel ninety miles through the heart of downtown Boston during the morning rush might seem strange. But several years ago, one member of the group ventured south looking for a round in very early spring, before the local eighteens had opened. He found and enjoyed Waverly Oaks and presented the other two with gift cards the following Christmas. Now those certificates must be used with some urgency, not just because their expiration date approaches but also because one member of the threesome is just days away from a profound life change. During their usual winter stay in Florida he and his wife decided to make St. Augustine Beach their permanent home, purchasing a beautiful newly built bungalow on a quiet side street, just four blocks from the sand and sea. Now the Hampton house is sold, the packing is nearly complete, and the first page of a new chapter is waiting to be written.

The bags are loaded onto two golf carts with surprisingly plush seating and built-in GPS systems, sure signs that this is not the kind of track the threesome typically plays. After some time on the range and a few minutes on the putting green, the round gets underway with all three players finding the fairway on the opening downhill par-4. There are no pars on the 1st, but three respectable bogeys get things off to a good start. After all, these are three weekend golfers in their sixties. While one of them once held a single-digit handicap, those days are now in the distant past; his only real connection to that bygone time is that he still pays the annual fee to maintain an official index, and religiously posts every score.

Besides, the simple truth is that every round the three have played together over the years has been only partly about the shots made or missed and the numbers recorded on the scorecard. Each time together on the links has been as much or more about reaffirming the decades-old friendships, proving through every slice and three-putt that bonds formed in youth remain resolute in late middle age. So it is that as in every round, while there is praise for shots well struck and commiseration for holes gone awry, the conversation also wanders freely, from current happenings in each of their lives to events that were shared decades ago.

One member who has promoted play at a local short course the last two seasons proves the value of that practice. He plays the four par-3 holes in just one over par. His tee shot on the 14th nearly goes in on the fly. When the trio reaches the green, he repairs a pitch mark scarcely a foot from the cup. A second player recovers from a shaky three-hole stretch in the middle of the round with, appropriately enough, a great recovery shot. He drives poorly on the par-4 12th, his tee ball flying short and left into heavy rough. But from a difficult downhill lie he lofts a magnificent iron shot high into the sky. The ball lands safely on the distant green, setting up a two-putt par. Having hit a fine drive and solid second on the same hole, the third golfer has no choice but to sink his birdie putt to avoid being upstaged.

Seventeen holes and three hot dogs later, the threesome stands on the final tee. Up a gentle slope in the distance is the 18th green, with the big clubhouse sitting off to its left. What the friends do not know is that while their outing will end magnificently, first it must descend into farce.

Halfway up the hole, one golfer readies his approach shot from a gnarly lie in the right hand rough. Perhaps the tough grass twists the clubface. Perhaps it’s just a bad swing. Whatever the cause, his shot launches like a rocket, but far left of the desired line. The cry is not “fore,” but “clubhouse!” A moment later the ball can be heard bouncing around the wooden structure before being spit back out onto the nearby grass. Fortunately, no glass is shattered, and the afternoon has become sufficiently humid that the chairs on the clubhouse porch are all unoccupied.

Once the cackling stops and the three regain a semblance of composure, the one who struck the shot offers to let the other two proceed up the hill first, and then to deny knowing him. But over the years the threesome has certainly seen more dire circumstances, and so they continue together. Once there the errant ball is found, but it is immediately dumped into a greenside bunker with the golfer’s next shot.

Then, just when the round appears reduced to low comedy, golf is played. From the apron in front of the green a chip with an 8-iron runs up some sixty feet or more, stopping just left of the hole for a tap-in par. From a position on the putting surface, but only slightly closer, another player calmly lags close to the hole for a solid two-putt. And a swing from the sand pops the third ball onto the green, where it bounces once and begins to roll toward the cup.

“Go in,” commands one of the three while the ball is still a dozen feet away. With six feet to go the order is repeated, “go in.” The edict is issued a third and final time, “GO IN!” and the ball responds as it must by disappearing into the hole.

The golf bags are stowed, and the trip north on Route 3 begins. The maelstrom of Boston rush hour traffic awaits, and on its other side, a clear run up I-95 to New Hampshire. When it’s over, the three friends separate, saying not “goodbye,” but “see you later.” The sentiment is honest, though after so many rounds together, when this threesome will tee it up again cannot be foretold.

Half a century ago, just a couple of years before the three friends first met, a Canadian songstress wrote one of her best-known numbers. While it was first popularized by Judy Collins, “Both Sides, Now” is Joni Mitchell’s property, as shown here in an especially heartfelt performance. The song reminds us that life’s events can be seen through very different lenses, so a change that is cause for celebration is also reason to lament. The blessing and the curse is described in the aching words of the song’s last verse, “but something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day.”  Safe travels, my friends.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 26, 2018

Rainy Today But Sunny Tomorrow For NASCAR

When Speedway Motorsports opted to move NASCAR’s fall date at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to Las Vegas and one of the corporation’s seven other racetracks, company founder Bruton Smith no doubt hoped that the contraction of stock car racing dates in New England would lead to larger crowds and greater enthusiasm for the remaining July NASCAR weekend at the central New Hampshire oval. To be fair, the first year of the new schedule was beset by poor weather for the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301. But the yawning acres of unoccupied grandstands on a beautiful Saturday for races in NASCAR’s lower series, followed by the rows upon rows of open seats for Sunday’s rain-delayed main event, combined to suggest that the recent pattern at every NASCAR venue of one-time racing fans taking their sporting allegiances and their wallets elsewhere continues to accelerate.

By now the steady decline in attendance at NASCAR races is an old story. When it began a decade ago the conventional wisdom was that the no-shows were a reflection of the economy. But the steady slide has not abated with better economic times, and the diminishing number of paying fans in the seats, whether at New Hampshire or Talladega, is now mirrored in declining television ratings. Earlier this year the 500 mile race at the latter track drew 4.7 million viewers to Fox, a drop of 1.2 million from 2017, and fully 2 million fewer than just two years ago. The Daytona 500 was watched by 23% fewer viewers than last year’s race, and less than half the number of a decade ago. Ratings for lesser races have suffered even more precipitous declines.

No longer able to blame the recession, analysts have pointed to NASCAR’s frequent rules changes such as dividing every Monster Energy Cup Series race into multiple stages and tinkering with the season-long points system that gets drivers into the Cup playoff as turning off some fans. While the stages make for greater interest in the early parts of a race, the fact that NASCAR mandates several laps under caution at the end of each stage decreases the action on the track. It also lengthens the time to complete a race, with some now lasting more than three and one-half hours. As for the points system, there are so many ways in which drivers can earn points that the only way to be sure of the standings each week is to wait until the list is updated after the checkered flag flies.

Whatever its source, the drop in enthusiasm has been exacerbated this season by the lack of competitiveness in NASCAR’s top series. The New Hampshire race was the twentieth in the Monster Energy Cup Series’ thirty-six race schedule, and so far just seven drivers have gone to victory lane. The season has been dominated by Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and defending champion Martin Truex Jr., who have fifteen victories between them. When Harvick bumped Busch out of the way and sped to the finish line on Sunday, it was his sixth win of the year. Busch is right behind him with five, and Truex has won four times. Not surprisingly, the latter two were close to the winner at Loudon, with Busch in second place and Truex Jr. in fourth.

With teammates of Harvick and Busch also winning, the disparity between teams is even greater. Stewart-Haas Racing (Harvick and Clint Bowyer), Joe Gibbs Racing (Busch and Erik Jones), and the one-car team of Furniture Row Racing (Truex Jr.), own eighteen of the season’s twenty wins. One can’t expect fans to purchase tickets or turn on the TV if they think their favorite driver has little chance of winning.

This is especially true for fans of any driver who sits behind the wheel of a Chevrolet. Long NASCAR’s dominant manufacturer and still the nameplate with the most wins and manufacturer championships with 779 and 39, respectively, Chevy has fallen on hard times this year with its switch to a body style based on the Camaro ZL1. Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 in the number 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing to get the season off to a good start, but Chevys haven’t seen a checkered flag since. This even though there are more full-time Monster Energy Cup teams putting more Chevrolets on the track each week than is the case for either Toyota or Ford. Those teams include Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing, both well-established stalwarts of the sport, and the four-car team of Hendrick Motorsports, long the premier garage in NASCAR.

It is not unheard of for drivers to struggle for a time with a new car. When Toyota first joined NASCAR’s top series in 2007, the brand went winless. But that season only two small teams ran the new nameplate. A year later, when Joe Gibbs Racing came on board, the manufacturer won eleven times. With the season more than half over and even deep-pocketed garages still struggling, it’s looking increasingly like Chevrolet has given NASCAR a product that is a notch below those of the other two manufacturers.

Those facts, a three and one-half hour rain delay, and a predictable finish combined to make last Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway less than exhilarating. The low cloud cover even prevented the usual flyover during the pre-race ceremony. And yet lurking behind all the negatives at Loudon’s sold NASCAR weekend were signs of a brighter future for stock car racing. The sport is in transition, with a bevy of fan favorites having climbed out of their cars for the final time in recent years. Gone are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin, while Matt Kenseth is running just a part-time schedule. In their place a new generation of young drivers is rising, but to all but these future stars have yet to establish a clear identity for most fans.

On Sunday 22-year-old Chase Elliott, son of 1998 champion Bill Elliott, blew by Truex Jr. and teammate Jimmie Johnson, led for 23 laps and won the race’s second stage. It was the first stage win of the season for Elliott, two weeks after he won his first pole at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona. At Loudon the Hendrick driver eventually finished fifth, which qualifies as a good day for a Chevy driver. Along with Elliott, who is currently 13th in the season’s points standings, Erik Jones, also 22, and 25-year old Alex Bowman stand a good chance of making the ten-race playoffs.

Even more promising was Saturday’s performance by 23-year-old Christopher Bell. He runs full-time in the developmental Xfinity Series, driving the number 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. The very purpose of the Xfinity Series, to give young drivers experience and groom them for eventual promotion to the Monster Energy Series, if always thwarted in part when both series run at the same track. Several Monster Energy drivers always step down to drive in the Xfinity race, supplanting a potential future star for at least that race and usually winning because of their greater experience and more fully developed skill. Saturday both Austin Dillon and Brad Keselowski opted to run in the Lakes Region 200. Keselowski won the pole but was forced to start at the back of the pack after missing the mandatory pre-race drivers meeting. By the end of the first stage he had climbed all the way back to fifth place, and the 2012 NASCAR champion went on to win the second stage. But Bell took the lead on a restart with eighteen laps to go, and then drove beautifully to hold off repeated charges from Keselowski over the remainder of the race, taking his third checkered flag of the Xfinity Series season.

For all the negatives hounding NASCAR, a weekend at the oval known as the “Magic Mile” also reminded one that stock car racing’s kids are all right. It’s just not clear who will be around to see them when they are ready to stand in the spotlight.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 23, 2018

From Rocca’s Magic To Molinari’s Resolve

The 1995 Open Championship was the twenty-fifth time that golf’s oldest major was contested over the Old Course at St. Andrews. That was an especially significant number for the ancient links, for it meant the home of golf finally surpassed Prestwick as the most frequently used venue in the Open rota. The latter layout, a hundred miles to the southwest, was the course upon which the first Open was played in 1860 and its sole venue for the next dozen years. After that Prestwick remained a frequent Open site for another half century, but the venerable course has not been in the rota since 1925, when it became clear that the compact links could not handle the crowds that the tournament attracts.

So when the time came for the Old Course to finally take its rightful spot atop the leader board of Open venues, fans naturally hoped for a dramatic tournament. Those desires were rewarded in unexpected fashion at the very end of play, when Italy’s Constantino Rocca came to the final hole. Rocca had begun the day in second place, a shot behind New Zealand’s Michael Campbell, with whom he was paired. Both had struggled, and each came to the short par-4 trailing John Daly, the flamboyant American who had pieced together a 1-under par 71 and who was sitting just yards away in the iconic R&A clubhouse.

Both hit their tee balls down the expansive fairway, with Campbell’s very nearly reaching the green. But he was two adrift of Daly, and when his next shot failed to find the hole his chance for the Claret Jug was gone. Rocca was just one back, and could tie for the lead with a birdie. Yet that too seemed a hope gone a glimmering when he flubbed his second, the ball coming to rest almost seventy feet from the cup at the very bottom of the Valley of Sin, the deep swale that fronts the 18th green. A look of anguish creased Rocca’s face, even as he reached for his putter. With his caddie tending the flag he took a hard swing with the flat stick, sending his ball up the steep slope, onto and then across the putting surface. It curled to the right with the slope of the green, running toward the hole as if on an invisible track. There it disappeared from view, like the climax of a magician’s trick; for surely sorcery was required for such an improbable shot to be holed. Rocca fell first to his knees and then lay prostrate, his clenched fists pounding the turf in joy. When at last he rose to the cheers of the crowd, the countenance that only moments before had been so pained was split by a joyous smile.

As magical as Rocca’s shot was it did not lead to victory. Daly prevailed in the four-hole playoff that followed, the American winning his second major title. But Rocca’s career was about much more than one impossible putt. Later that year he helped Europe win the Ryder Cup with a hole-in-one that boosted he and partner Sam Torrance to a 6&5 thumping of Davis Love III and Jeff Maggert in a foursomes match. Two years after that Rocca bested a young Tiger Woods in singles play, winning a crucial point as Europe retained the Cup 14 ½ to 13 ½ at Valderrama. And he won five times on the European Tour, including the 1996 British PGA, one of that tour’s premier tournaments. Now 61, Rocca has mentored succeeding generations of Italian golfers in his role as that country’s most accomplished professional.

His mentoring will surely continue, but the ebullient Rocca was finally displaced at the pinnacle of Italian golf this weekend. An hour’s drive north of St. Andrews, where Rocca came ever so close, 35-year-old Francesco Molinari finished the job, topping a star-studded leader board at Carnoustie to win this year’s Open Championship by two shots.

While the enduring image of the ’95 Open is Rocca’s lightning strike of high drama, Molinari’s triumph will be remembered for his weekend of steely resolve. The patron saint of this Open was not Harry Houdini, but Rudyard Kipling. For Molinari kept his head as all about him others were losing theirs; and he trusted himself even as pundits and fans had their doubts, placing their faith in more famous golfers, especially Molinari’s playing companion. Late in Friday’s second round, Molinari dropped a pair of shots at the challenging par-4 17th hole. While the double bogey was surely painful in the moment, its significance would not be clear until he was clutching the Claret Jug two days later. With his tournament not yet at its midpoint, that hole was to be the last on Molinari’s scorecard to be marked with a number greater than par.

To play bogey-free golf on Saturday was not all that surprising, as the wind laid down and Carnoustie played the role of friendly host. Like Molinari, Jordan Spieth and Kevin Kisner both turned in scorecards free of blemishes. They finished the day tied at the top with fellow American Xander Schauffele at 9-under. Kevin Chappell was two back, followed by Molinari a further shot adrift after his 65, and a logjam of seven players at 5-under, including Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Matt Kuchar and Tommy Fleetwood.

Sunday was an entirely different story, as the wind returned in earnest and Carnoustie bared its teeth. Of the eight players in the final four pairings, only Molinari traversed the layout under par. The three leaders were among the first to stumble. Kisner made double bogey at the 2nd hole and added a bogey at the 3rd. Schauffele played five, six and seven in 4-over par, and Spieth’s round unraveled with a bogey at the 5th and a double at the 6th.

Their travails allowed Woods, who was playing with Molinari, to climb the leader board, and when he claimed sole possession of first place at the turn the predictable frenzy among fans and the media was quick to erupt. But while his game shows every sign that he can win again, at age forty Woods is no longer the overwhelming force that can seize a major by the throat and make it his own. No sooner had he moved into first than horribly wayward shots at the 11th and 12th produced first a double bogey and then a bogey.

Meanwhile Molinari appeared content to let his fellow competitor hold the spotlight while he quietly went about his business. He opened with thirteen straight pars, though it was not all fairways and greens. At the par-5 6th both his drive and approach ended in pot bunkers, but a five-footer saved par. Later in the round two longer par putts both dove into their targets. Finally at the par-5 14th hole Molinari broke his string in a positive way with a two-putt birdie. He added one more at the last for a round of 69 and an 8-under total. McIlroy and Justin Rose both charged late but ran out of holes before they could catch Molinari. Finally only Schauffele stood in the 18th fairway with a short approach that had to go in to tie. But this year’s Open did not feature any 72nd hole magic, and 8-under was two better than McIlroy, Rose, Kisner and Schauffele.

And so in Italy the torch is passed, from Constantino Rocca to Francesco Molinari, from Bergamo to Turin, from Lombardy to Piedmont. While he admitted once the Claret Jug was in his grip that at Carnoustie “there was everything to make someone nervous,” on the course Molinari appeared to be anything but anxious. His reward at day’s end was hearing himself, Italy’s first major winner, introduced with that most cherished honorific, “the champion golfer of the year.”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 19, 2018

DC Gets A Home Run Derby Doubleheader

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be delayed by one day, until Monday. Thanks as always for your support.

Nearly half a century of summers has come and gone since baseball’s All-Star Game was last played in the nation’s capital. For much of that time there was no reason to stage the Mid-Summer Classic in Washington, DC, for the city was without a big league franchise. Just two seasons after the 1969 National and American League All-Stars faced off at RFK Stadium, the Senators decamped for Texas, and it was not until the 2005 arrival of the Montreal Expos, renamed the Nationals, that the Great Game was again played in the federal city.

As much as fans like to think otherwise, baseball is never static. Then as now, change was in the air. The 1969 season was the first for four new franchises, two in each league. Kansas City, having just lost the Athletics to the west coast, welcomed the Royals; while fans in Seattle turned out to watch the Pilots play at decrepit Sick’s Stadium. The poor conditions at that ancient ballpark and high ticket prices combined to produce sparse crowds, and after just one season the bankrupt Pilots were off to Milwaukee and new life as the Brewers. In the National League the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos took the field for the first time. Nearly five decades later both the Padres and the Expos/Nationals remain in search of a first championship.

The expansion to twenty-four teams meant the beginning of the divisional era and with it the introduction of the League Championship Series, then played as a best-of-five gateway to the World Series. One year after Denny McLain went 31-6 and Don Drysdale threw 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in what is still known as the Year of the Pitcher, the rules were changed to encourage more run production. In 1969 the strike zone was reduced and pitching mounds were lowered from fifteen inches to ten. The changes had an immediate impact, with the average runs scored per game jumping by almost twenty percent and homers per game increasing more than thirty percent. Among the 45,259 fans who crowded into RFK on the afternoon of July 23rd there were no doubt more than a few who were lamenting the changes as the ruination of a sport that was still four seasons shy of the designated hitter rule.

That game was played on a Wednesday afternoon because rain had soaked DC the previous evening, wiping out the original start time. Five decades on the 1969 contest remains the last All-Star tilt to fall victim to inclement weather, though it was a near thing when the game returned to Washington and Nationals Park this week. Storms lashed the area during the day on Tuesday, flooding the dugouts at the ballpark in DC’s Navy Yard neighborhood. But the rain moved out well before the game’s scheduled start time, and another line of heavy showers and strong gusts that approached from the northwest during the contest’s middle innings fell apart, in the end dropping just some brief sprinkles on the players and fans.

Both before and after Tuesday’s rain, fans were treated to displays of the raw power that fuels today’s game. That was to be expected Monday night, when the annual Home Run Derby took place. A growing number of sluggers shy away from the Derby, cognizant that many participants have struggled at the plate in the games that count after taking a turn at the exhibition. While Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber and Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman were familiar faces in this year’s lineup, the Dodgers’ Max Muncy and the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins were not exactly household names.

But the Derby’s main attraction was Bryce Harper of the Nationals, and to the delight of the home crowd, the 25-year-old who is facing free agency at the end of this season rode their cheers all the way to victory. Batting last in all three rounds of the single elimination event, Harper outslugged first Freeman 13 homers to 12, then Muncy by the same count, before facing Schwarber in the final. The Cubs’ left fielder put 18 balls over the fence in that showdown and looked like he was headed for the win as the clock ran down on Harper. But with the roars building with each swing, the Nationals’ star swatted six dingers in the final thirty seconds of his scheduled time to tie Schwarber. In each round Harper easily crossed the threshold of at least two home runs longer than 440 feet to earn an extra thirty seconds of bonus time. In the final he only needed a handful of those additional seconds to club his 19th and claim a walk-off win. Whether or not this is Harper’s final year in a Nats’ uniform, on Monday night he put on show that DC fans will remember for years.

The eight Derby participants combined for a record total of 221 homers, launched to all fields in the humid DC night. But while a record might not have been forecast, hitting home runs is the sole purpose of the Derby. What was decidedly more surprising was that one night later, on the other side of the massive rainstorm, the All-Star Game itself turned into a reprise.

It was hardly news when Aaron Judge opened the scoring in the top of the 2nd by launching the second pitch he saw from Max Scherzer into the visitor’s bullpen in left field, where it was caught by Luis Severino, Judge’s Yankee teammate who was warming up. After all, Judge set a major league record last season with 52 homers in his rookie year and has established himself as one of the Great Game’s top sluggers. Nor was it a shock when baseball’s best player Mike Trout lined a shot into the same bullpen an inning later.

But as the innings rolled by balls kept flying out of the park. First Wilson Contreras, then Trevor Story for the National League to tie the score at 2-2. Next a three-run shot by Seattle’s Jean Segura to push the AL back ahead. Then Christian Yelich in the bottom of the 8th, followed by a dramatic two-run bomb in the last of the 9th off the bat of Cincinnati’s Scooter Gennett to again tie the score and send the game into extra innings. Gennett’s was the seventh home run of the night, setting a new All-Star Game record.

It was a record that was topped three times in the 10th, when first a pair of Astros, Alex Bregman and George Springer, homered for the American League, before Joey Votto slugged the tenth round-tripper of the game in the bottom of the frame. Of the fourteen runs plated in the AL’s 8-6 victory, only one was pushed across by something other than a home run, when Michael Brantley lofted a sacrifice fly that scored Segura in the top of the 10th.

The ten dingers certainly reflected baseball’s current state, as did the twenty-five strikeouts. Last season the average number of hits per game was up just four percent from that long-ago season of 1969; while the average number of home runs per game was up a whopping fifty-eight percent. Plenty of fans lament these stats, fearing the game is becoming one-dimensional.

The culprit is easily identifiable. Extreme reliance on defensive shifts has made it increasingly hard to get a hit. Willie Keeler’s ancient admonition to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” is hard to follow when the entire side of the diamond that a batter naturally sends balls to is over-populated with defenders. Players have responded by adjusting their swings to more of an uppercut, aiming to hit the ball over the shift and into the seats. That’s produced both more home runs and more strikeouts.  Half a century ago the ever-changing Great Game altered its rules to encourage more runs. Now calls are growing for new rules limiting defensive alignments, to encourage more hits. Until that happens sit back and enjoy the show. The Great Game is not in ruins, and a good home run derby, even an unexpected one, is always fun to watch.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 15, 2018

Les Bleus Remporte La Coupe Du Monde

In the days before this weekend’s conclusion of the World Cup soccer aficionados began to debate whether the 2018 edition of this quadrennial tournament was the best one ever. There will be no effort to weigh in on that discussion in this space; On Sports and Life doesn’t pretend to follow international football closely enough nor be sufficiently familiar with all that happened in the twenty previous World Cups to offer an opinion. Apparently the 1982 tournament, played in Spain and won by Italy with a 3-1 victory over Germany in the final match, is generally accorded pride of place in the historical rankings, though no doubt there are plenty of devoted fans and seasoned analysts eager to make the case for some other year. As is always the case with any such ranking in any of our games, whether about individual players or teams or, as in this case, specific events, the actual significance of establishing a pecking order over the course of decades pales next to the nerdish enjoyment of arguing in support of one’s personal favorite.

Even if hindsight and the eventual consensus places 2018 in second or third place, that the debate is even taking place is surely good news for soccer and a welcome relief for FIFA. Any sport is boosted by a well-run showcase, filled with drama and a hearty helping of the unexpected, and this World Cup provided plenty of both. As for the organizing body, not yet free of the taint of the massive corruption scandal that has convulsed FIFA since the spring of 2015, a month in which the focus has been on the pitch and not the courtroom can only be counted as good news.

Whatever the long view of this World Cup, what immediately stands out are the ways in which it reflected a changing game. The next two tournaments, in 2022 in Qatar and 2026 in North America, will be very different tournaments, irrespective of the state of soccer. Four years from now fans will again be reminded of all the corruption allegations, as the World Cup moves to December and is staged in the tiny Persian Gulf oil state that will be by far the smallest nation ever to host the tournament. Then in 2026 the Cup will expand to 48 teams, a move that is marketed with language about growing the game, but which looks mostly like a money grab by ever voracious FIFA, one that will inevitably dilute the quality of play and, depending on decisions about Group Stage format, raise the serious possibility of collusion among teams vying for the Knockout Round.

So, before the story becomes the tournament itself, perhaps it was good to have a World Cup in which the story was the state of the game. The principal headline out of Russia was that soccer remains a team sport. For all the focus on individuals, especially at the club level of the sport where stars move from team to team for untold millions in transfer fees, team play carried the day at this World Cup.

Yes, the French teenage Kylian Mbappe emerged as a star for the eventual champions, and the veteran Luka Modric was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player after leading his Croatia side to the final. But the teams with the game’s two biggest stars, Portugal and Argentina, both limped into the Knockout Round, and neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi could carry his squad past the round of 16. Neymar and Brazil went one game further, but in the quarterfinals the Selação were outplayed by Belgium.

In Russia the team play that was rewarded was that of fully balanced squads, not the glamor franchises that were expected to prevail. Before play even began pundits predicted this weekend would be a glorious one for German sports fans. It was indeed, 1,500 miles west of Moscow at the Wimbledon women’s final, where Angelique Kerber defeated Serena Williams on Saturday. But at the World Cup pre-tournament favorite Germany finished dead last in its group. Just like Brazil, Spain also was sent to the sidelines early in the second half of the tournament. It was the less heralded teams like Belgium, England and Croatia that played on. Backers of Les Bleu no doubt thought of the French team as a global power before the tournament, but in truth it was only by winning its second World Cup that France ascended to the sports’ top tier.

It was also a World Cup decided by set pieces more than ever before. Almost half the goals were scored off a dead ball, with teams given the chance to run a predetermined play off a corner or free kick. Perhaps the prettiest set piece of all was the one that allowed Germany to escape Sweden during the Group Stage, about the only highlight of the tournament for Die Mannschaft. That increased reliance on orchestrated plays from a dead ball also levels the playing field. In the flow of a constantly moving game, the technically superior side will almost always eventually prevail. But a game decided by two or three planned plays can go either way.

That 19-year-old Mbappe was the dynamic star of the month was fitting as a reminder that, as in every sport, change is constant. If this was not the last World Cup for Ronaldo and Messi and Modric, it was surely the final time they will appear as dominant players.

Then in the end, in Sunday’s final match at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, this World Cup reminded fans of one of life’s oldest truths – that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.  If one guessed the outcome of the final by looking at the statistics of the match, the nod would go to a historic victory by Croatia, the second smallest country ever to send a squad through to the final. The Vatreni controlled play for most of the contest. Croatia dominated in ball possession with 61%, had six corner kicks to France’s two, nearly doubled Les Bleu in total shots, and committed fewer fouls.

But only one statistic determines the winner, and the ball wound up in Croatia’s net four times, while settling in France’s just twice. In the eighteenth minute Mario Mandžukić diverted a free kick into his own net to put Les Bleus in front. Ten minutes later Croatia equalized, but France took the lead for good on a penalty kick after video review clearly showed a Croatian hand ball shortly before the half. France added two more goals in the second half, the last by Mbappe, before French netminder Hugo Lloris returned the favor of Croatia’s first half gaffes by flubbing an easy clear that allowed Mandžukić to score.

That’s how a compelling World Cup ended, 4-2 for France’s second title, even as the skies opened and the two teams and their fans celebrated or mourned in the rain. Whether or not it was the best tournament ever, 2018 offered drama, upsets, and a comprehensive look at the current state of the globe’s most popular game.

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