Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 21, 2021

The Great Game Is On The Clock

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be traveling over the upcoming holiday weekend.  There will be no post next Thursday or Sunday, with the usual schedule resuming on Thursday, December 2nd. As always, thanks for reading. A different but not insignificant means of support could come later this week. In between the turkey and the NFL, as you celebrate the generosity shown by the Wampanoags to a small group of European settlers in coastal Massachusetts four hundred years ago, take just a moment to remember how in the years that followed, the kindness was not returned. 

Ten days to go.  Just a week and a half remain until the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the Players Association, ratified in December 2016, reaches the end of its five-year term.  As the Owners Meeting that comes each year on the heels of the season’s conclusion wrapped up in Chicago last week, commissioner Rob Manfred reiterated his goal of hammering out a new agreement prior to that deadline.  The two sides have been meeting regularly, and the most positive sign has been the absence of news since that indicates both owners and players remain focused on negotiating the terms of a new agreement.  When one or both parties decide to start setting expectations and jockeying for public favor, which is to say when baseball writers with contacts in both the owners’ suites and players’ clubhouses start tweeting leaks about this unacceptable proposal or that refusal to bargain in good faith, fans will know that prospects have soured and the Great Game’s first work stoppage since the 1994-95 strike is near at hand.

Still, the absence of daily – or hourly – public posturing is no guarantee that Manfred and MLBPA head Tony Clark will be scheduling a joint press conference just as the clock approaches midnight on December 1st.  To the contrary, the odds of that happening remain exceedingly long.  Manfred appeared to acknowledge as much last week when he said, “time is becoming an issue.”  Then again, the team with the worst regular season record of all ten that made the playoffs just staged a championship parade, so one can always hope.

At a high level, the obstacles fall into two broad categories.  The first is trust, or more accurately, the lack of it.  Last year’s rancorous and ultimately failed talks on first postponing and then reconfiguring the 2020 season in response to the pandemic left leaders on both sides angry and bitter.  Whether because of a proverbial “failure to communicate” or something more sinister, the union believed MLB arbitrarily redefined the terms of the postponement deal, while Manfred was convinced that Clark reneged on a handshake agreement outlining the elements of a truncated season.

But well before those disastrous negotiations played out, the Players Association lost faith in owners who were changing the Great Game’s basic economic structure.  While the fine points have evolved, for many years the basic financial deal has kept a player under the control of his team for his first several years in the majors, including not just what uniform he can wear, or whether it belongs to the major league franchise or a minor league affiliate, but also how much he gets paid for wearing it.  As a career progresses, the player gradually gets an increased say in the terms of his livelihood through salary arbitration.  Finally, and for the typical player this happens in their early thirties, he wins the right to sell his services to the highest bidder through free agency.  That last step has always been the reward for possibly – absolutely in the case of stars – being underpaid throughout the first phase of a major league career.

The oddity in this structure was that the reward of a fat free agent contract might well come from a team other than the one that got the benefit of a player’s youthful heroics.  As advanced metrics enabled franchise front offices to develop detailed evaluations of player performance, teams shifted away from volunteering to be that “other” club, the one that paid handsomely for past performance even as a player’s skills declined during the term of his free agent deal.  While this shift made sense in terms of the statistics and economics, to players it looked like little more than theft, as the owners shut down the back end of baseball’s basic economic deal while leaving in place the team-friendly restrictions of the front end. 

One cannot overstate the level of mutual distrust created by all of that, which alone could make agreement before the deadline impossible.  Even if suspicion only complicates negotiations, it could do enough damage because the second obstacle is the sheer volume of issues included in the CBA.  While fans and much of the media focus on economic matters like the luxury tax threshold and service time required to reach free agency, the agreement extends into myriad other issues. 

This weekend On Sports and Life had a chance to discuss the future of the Great Game with several longtime fans, people who truly love baseball.  The group had dozens of ideas for expanding the sport’s appeal.  Not one dealt with how much a player gets paid.  But almost every suggestion, from lowering the mound to making the designated hitter universal to multiple thoughts on how to speed up play, require agreement between owners and players before becoming reality.  There are also big deals like the number of teams in the postseason and little details like the daily travel allowance, all of which must be discussed and agreed upon before a new CBA comes to fruition.

We fans don’t know how many of those details have already been ironed out.  We don’t know the temperature in the room as representatives from both sides continue their talks.  So much like the early days of Spring Training, fans remain hopeful and focus on the best possible outcomes.  But it would not be a bad idea to bone up on exactly how a lockout works, and perhaps consider purchasing refundable tickets for that planned trip to Spring Training.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 19, 2021

Hoopla And Hype, As A Deadline Looms

Years from now, when fans look back on the end of the 2021 baseball season, it is likely that the event they will focus on will not be Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman catching shortstop Dansby Swanson’s throw for the final out of the World Series, though that is the true marker of the campaign’s end.  Fans will instead probably think of December 1, when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, replaced in all likelihood by the acrimony and uncertainty of an owner-imposed lockout of players, as the unhappy endpoint to the season.

With no indication of significant movement in the ongoing negotiations for a new CBA, and the reality that the constant references to a quarter-century free of open conflict between owners and players gloss over the extreme amount of recent labor tension, that outcome now seems unavoidable.  But with the deadline for a deal still nearly two weeks off, at least a few minutes can be spared for Awards Week, during which the winners of the Great Game’s major individual honors, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards in both leagues are dribbled out day by day, MLB milking the simple process of announcing eight names for everything it can. 

It is easy to dismiss the manufactured drama surrounding the announcements as so much phony hoopla.  The winner of each is decided by a very select group of sportswriters, just two from the BBWAA chapter in each city that is home to one of that league’s teams.  The awards also celebrate solitary achievement in a team sport.  But fans, especially those who have a local favorite in the running for one of the honors, eagerly await the announcements while avidly offering their personal analyses of the contenders on social media and sports talk radio. 

This year much of that chatter centered on the factors that the tiny electorate for each honor should consider.  The debate is not new, but it has grown more intense in the last decade or two with the mushrooming popularity of advanced player performance metrics.  That occasionally contentious discussion was brought into sharp focus last week, when the three finalists for the various awards were revealed.  Balloting takes place at the end of the regular season, with the names of the top three vote-getters in each category unveiled in advance of the official announcements of the winners, like a starting gun going off to signal all concerned that it’s time to start furiously tweeting one’s opinion.

Once upon a simpler time, the Dodgers’ Julio Urias would have been a favorite for the National League Cy Young Award, simply based on his 20-3 record.  Indeed, as the sole 20-game winner in the majors, Urias would have been ceded the prize by many old-school analysts.  But one of the earlier lessons of sabermetrics was that a pitcher’s record is not a sure indicator of his worth.  Run support from a hurler’s offense directly impacts wins and losses, as does the quality of the defense arrayed behind him. 

More than a decade ago, Felix Hernandez of the Mariners captured the 2010 AL Cy Young despite finishing the season with a decidedly middling mark of 13-12.  King Felix’s recognition was hotly debated at the time, even though he led the league in ERA and WAR.  But by 2018 and 2019, when Jacob deGrom won back-to-back NL Cy Youngs with similarly indifferent records but next to no run support from his Mets teammates, all but one of the thirty ballots in both years had deGrom in first place.  So once one moved away from the immediate vicinity of Chavez Ravine, there was neither great surprise nor much debate when Urias was not among the National League finalists.  In fact, when the full voting was revealed Wednesday, fans learned the L.A. stalwart finished in a tie for seventh place, having garnered bottom of the list mentions on just three ballots.

A less settled debate was highlighted by the six MVP finalists, as for the first time ever not one of the top three vote-getters in either league played for a franchise that made it to the postseason.  The list included Shohei Ohtani of the Angels, Blue Jays teammates Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien, the Phillies’ Bryce Harper, Nationals’ Juan Soto and Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr., all great players whose seasons ended after game 162.  The question, which of course has no definitive answer, is how one defines “most valuable.” 

Over the long history of the Great Game and these awards, the term has usually incorporated team as well as individual performance.  Eight decades ago, Ted Williams batted .406, but finished second in the MVP balloting to Joe DiMaggio.  In fairness to Joltin’ Joe, his 1941 season was pretty good in its own right, with a .357 average, a league-leading 125 RBI’s, and, oh yes, that 56-game hitting streak.  But the fact that the Yankees headed to that year’s World Series while the Red Sox finished 17 games behind New York in the American League standings undoubtedly influenced the scribes who voted.

Plenty of players whose teams did not make the postseason have won the MVP award, but the baseball writers placing no playoff-bound individual in either league within the top three led many pundits to proclaim the honor is now simply for the best individual player.  That’s a bit simplistic.  A swing of three down-ballot votes in the NL or four in the AL would have squelched the entire discussion by placing the Giants’ Brandon Belt or the Yankees’ Aaron Judge among the finalists, and as significant as this year’s voting results were, next season’s could easily see multiple players from the World Series contestants.  The debate, like so many in sports, will go on.  Assuming, of course, that the Great Game has a next season.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 14, 2021

The Best, And The Worst, Of The NFL

It has been more than half a century since Sam Huff suited up for a National Football League game, so it’s not surprising that news of his passing on Saturday was of interest only to fans of a certain age.  But for more than a decade, from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, a time when the NFL was rapidly rising in popularity and beginning to challenge baseball for the first allegiance of American sports fans, Huff was one of the leading faces of the game.  As a middle linebacker – a case can be made that the position was invented for him – Huff was at the center of defensive action in an age when football was far less reliant on the air game than is now the case.

First for the New York Giants, then for Washington, Huff did battle with the leading running backs of his era, including Cleveland’s Jim Brown and Green Bay’s Jim Taylor, but he could also drop back into pass coverage, pulling in thirty interceptions during his career.  He helped the Giants win a title in his rookie season and played in five more NFL championship games during eight years in New York, where capacity crowds at Yankee Stadium originated the now familiar chant of “dee-fense, dee-fense” when Huff and his teammates took the field.  Traded to Washington after the 1963 season when the Giants’ front office decided to remake its roster with younger players, Huff quickly became a fan favorite in the nation’s capital.  Long before players were mic’d up for ESPN or the NFL Network – for that matter, long before there was an ESPN or NFL Network – Walter Cronkite narrated a CBS special on Huff which allowed viewers to hear him on the field in practices and an exhibition game, helping to bring the sport closer to its growing fan base.  When Time magazine ran a major story on the rise of the NFL in November 1959, the edition’s cover photo was a portrait of Huff.

Still, it is likely that younger fans, especially in D.C., think of Huff only in his post-playing days role as a broadcaster.  For nearly four decades he teamed with former quarterback Sonny Jurgensen to provide color commentary of Washington’s games.  While the franchise suffered through plenty of lean years, the pair were together for all three of the team’s Super Bowl winning seasons.  

Several reports on Huff’s death referenced his acceptance speech when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.  Speaking of the prototypical NFL player, Huff said, “He may not be an All-American, but he is an example of the American way.  He is judged not for his race, nor for his social standing, or not for his finances, but by the democratic yardstick of how well he blocks, tackles and sacrifices individual glory for the overall success of his team.”

Huff could only speak from his own experience, of course, and it should be noted that others have less idealistic memories of that era.  Until just two years before Huff arrived in Washington, every member of that team’s roster was effectively judged by his race because owner George Preston Marshall refused to sign any player who was not white.  He relented only under threat of losing his lease on the federally owned D.C. Stadium.

Yet even if his recollection of the NFL was unrealistic, the picture Huff painted of that time stands in stark contrast to what fans and sportswriters assume is the portrait that emerged from the league’s recent investigation into the Washington Football Team’s workplace culture.  The key word in that sentence is “assume,” because except for emails from former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden, none of the evidence uncovered during that investigation has been made public.  As fans know, Gruden’s misogynistic and homophobic language in several messages leaked to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and his use of a racist trope to describe Players Association head DeMaurice Smith in another, led to his resignation last month.

Gruden has now filed suit against the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, claiming that his emails, the only ones of more than 650,000 messages reviewed during the Washington investigation that have so far seen the light of day, were purposely leaked in a concerted effort to force him out of the league.

Anyone looking for a sympathetic word toward Jon Gruden can move along to some other blog, but the NFL’s handling of its investigation into Daniel Snyder’s football franchise brings to mind the old saw that the coverup is always worse than the crime.  However noxious the environment may have been in Washington, the league’s decision to order the law firm it hired to deliver the report on its investigation orally rather than in writing, and its refusal to release any related evidence including that jaw-dropping number of 650,000 emails – minus a few of Gruden’s – leaves one free to imagine the absolute worst about attorney Beth Wilkinson’s findings.  The NFL’s refusal to budge from that position, despite the Gruden situation and, of far greater relevance, requests from both congressional committees and former employees whose complaints prompted the investigation in the first place, looks very much like a group of billionaires protecting a member of their little club.

Today’s multi-billion-dollar National Football League has come a very long way from the growing sports enterprise that Sam Huff once personified.  This week fans were reminded that not all the ways in which the NFL has changed have been for the best.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 12, 2021

Lacking Only Players, Golf’s Renegades Plow Ahead

One presumes it was big news to fans who follow the career of Slugger White.  The problem for LIV Golf Investments, the new Saudi-funded, Greg Norman-led company with visions of creating a series of global tournaments to rival the PGA tour, is that even among hardcore golf fans the mention of White’s name is as likely to draw quizzical squints as familiar nods.  Still, LIV Golf did its best to trumpet the news that the longtime vice president of rules and competition for the PGA Tour, who retired from that role just three months ago, is joining the upstart organization in essentially the same capacity. 

White becomes the latest of several individuals with significant executive experience in the sports world to sign on to Norman’s endeavor, including former ESPN and Formula One marketing head Sean Bratches, and Ron Cross, who ran the Presidents Cup, Tour Championship, and World Golf Championships for the PGA Tour before moving to Augusta National where he developed ancillary events to the Masters.  The moves to populate LIV Golf’s front office come just a couple weeks after news of the company’s formation and its plan to invest $200 million into the Asian Tour over the next decade, though that is seen as but a precursor to the larger goal of attracting top name golfers to play in extremely lucrative tournaments all around the world. 

It is a goal shared by the Premier Golf League, a London-based organization that announced itself earlier this year with an ambitious plan to stage eighteen tournaments featuring a dozen four-player teams, beginning in 2023.  The PGL has a snazzy website and claims to have sufficient financial backing to meet its schedule, though beyond stating it has no Saudi money the League has been opaque about its funding. 

In contrast, both the PGA and European Tours have been fully transparent that they view these would-be competitors as existential threats.  Unlike players in our major team sports, golfers are not employees under contract, but independent operators who have considerable freedom to decide their playing schedule.  But “considerable” is not a synonym for “absolute.”  The Tours still exercise significant control by setting the rules for membership, which include requiring participation in a specified minimum number of events as well as mandating that any member wishing to play in a non-Tour sanctioned tournament being staged the same week as a Tour stop must apply for and receive a release before doing so.  For his part, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has made clear that no releases will be forthcoming for tournaments run by the upstart leagues, and that any member opting to play in them would thus forfeit his Tour card. 

The established tours are employing carrots as well as sticks in their responses to the nascent plans of the PGL and LIV Golf.  Earlier this year the PGA Tour announced a $40 million bonus pool to be distributed to ten players annually based on their social media popularity.  Given that criteria, it’s immediately apparent that journeyman professionals need not apply.  The pool is clearly targeted at the game’s most recognizable names, and when it was made public last April was widely seen as an attempt to discourage those golfers from even considering overtures from the presumably deep-pocketed rival organizations. Never mind that it might well have been the reason for the silly and superfluous feud between Brook Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.

Then just this week the European Tour unveiled a rebranding campaign.  Beginning next year, it will be known as the DP World Tour, in what is both a nod to the Dubai-based multinational company DP World that will be the Tour’s prime sponsor and the simple fact that for years the European Tour schedule has roamed far beyond its namesake landmass.  More important than the name change is a significant increase in total purses, with each Tour stop offering a minimum $2 million in prize money and the season-ending championship becoming the Tour’s first event with $10 million at stake.

That news was followed by a report Thursday from Eamon Lynch of Golfweek that the PGA Tour plans to start a series of four to six international team events as soon as 2023, in what sounds like a blatant pilfering of PGL’s planned format.  As with the social media bonus pool, the small fields necessary for some form of team play mean these tournaments, should they come to pass, will primarily benefit the game’s top players.

Which, of course, is the point.  As Greg Norman surely knows, no one is going to pay to see, or change the channel on their television to watch, Slugger White drive around in a golf cart to render his judgment on whether a player gets relief from a bad lie in what is perhaps ground under repair.  LIV Golf can have the most talented front office ever assembled, and the Premier Golf League can be beatifically free from the taint of Saudi money, but neither organization is going anywhere without some name golfers on board.  The established tours are pulling out all the stops to ensure that doesn’t happen, and so far, those efforts have been a complete success.

Sports fans with sufficiently long memories have seen all this before, and know that sometimes it is the upstart that has the last laugh.  That was the case in 1966, seven years after Texas oilman H. L. Hunt assembled a group of likeminded millionaires who shared his experience of being rebuffed by the National Football League in their quest for team ownership.  They formed the AFL, which went from laughingstock to competitive foe to merger partner in remarkably short order.  And once upon a very long time ago, one year after the very first, relatively informal, World Series, John T. Brush, owner of the 1904 National League champion New York Giants, deemed the AL’s Boston Americans an unworthy opponent from an inferior league and refused to participate in a renewal.  The reaction was so strong that by the start of the 1905 season an agreement for an annual World Series was in place.

But those are the exceptions.  Far more often, those with grand dreams and big plans to upend the established order in sports are shunted aside and left behind.  For every AFL, there is a WFL, an XFL, and assorted other pretenders.  Perhaps the fledgling golf leagues will beat the odds, with one of them soon attracting some major names, ready to tee it up.  But the more likely outcome is that the PGL never advances beyond its very nice website, and that with far less fanfare than he arrived, Greg Norman eventually exits LIV Golf, with Slugger White and the other proudly announced new hires quietly resuming their retirements. It is, after all, hard to stage big-time golf tournaments without big-time golfers. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 7, 2021

For Money And Fame, But Also For Something More Personal

Maybe it was the time change.  Or perhaps it was the markedly cooler temperatures in at least some parts of the country these past few days.  Both, after all, are reminders that winter is coming, which can create a sense of urgency to get things done before the onset of the months of darkness and deep freeze.  Whatever the reason, from one coast to the other, the sports world spent the weekend in one big hurry.  From west to east and back again, there was all kinds of racing.

On Friday and Saturday Del Mar Racetrack, the horse racing facility built 85 years ago by a celebrity partnership that was chaired by Bing Crosby and counted Gary Cooper and Oliver Hardy among its members, was the site of the 38th edition of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.  Del Mar sits just north of San Diego and only a few furlongs from the Pacific Ocean, all but guaranteeing pleasant conditions for the fourteen races that mark the culmination of the North American thoroughbred season.  In what has become the standard calendar for the Breeders’ Cup meet, Friday was dedicated to five events for 2-year-olds while Saturday’s nine races were for older horses.

With $29 million in purses at stake, the Breeders’ Cup always attracts international fields, with owners and trainers from Europe and Asia happily incurring the considerable expense, and in 2021, the pandemic restrictions, to ship their qualifying mounts to the U.S. in hopes of pocketing a big reward.  The gamble worked out well for Irish-bred Modern Games, the 2-year-old favorite in Friday’s last race, the Juvenile Turf.  English trainer Charlie Appleby saddled two horses in the race, but moments before the scheduled start, Albahr reared in the starting stall and got both front legs over the top of the gate before sitting down on its haunches.  While the horse was unharmed except for some minor cuts, the incident led to an automatic scratch. 

To minimize the risk to Modern Games in the adjoining stall, the starter had opened that horse’s gate so it could walk out.  In the confusion that followed, Appleby spent several minutes thinking he had lost both his entries, as the track veterinarian initially scratched Modern Games as well.  When it became clear that the horse hadn’t broken through the front of the gate but rather had been let out on purpose, it was reinstated.  By that time however, the parimutuel betting pools had all been recalibrated, meaning no bets could be placed on Modern Games.    Naturally, with thousands of unhappy would-be backers watching from the stands, Modern Games put on a furious charge over the final furlong to win going away.

Saturday proved just as profitable for foreign entrants, with trainer Yoshito Yahagi saddling the Japanese-owned winners of both the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf and the equally rich Distaff.  Loves Only You at least went off as one of the favorites in the turf race, but Marche Lorraine prevailed in the Distaff by a nose – more like a nostril – after being sent from the gate at odds of just under 50-1.  But the winner’s share of the event’s biggest purse, the $6 million Classic, stayed stateside when 5-year-old Knicks Go led gate to wire, easily handling a trio of better known 3-year-olds, Medina Spirit, Essential Quality, and Hot Rod Charlie.

Less than 24 hours after Knicks Go won within sight of the Pacific surf, Kyle Larson captured his first NASCAR Cup Series championship in the Arizona desert.  This is the second year Phoenix Raceway has been the venue for the final race of NASCAR’s season, after nearly two decades in south Florida at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  While there is no single reason NASCAR made the switch, the fact that capacity at Phoenix is about ten percent less than at Homestead surely doesn’t hurt, as empty seats for the race that decides the year’s title are surely not desirable.  The stock car circuit is introducing a new car next year, and fans hope the updated design and engineering rules will make for more passing and overall better (and more entertaining) racing.  Even on Sunday, the decisive moment came not on the track, but along pit road.  During a late caution, Larson, who had been running fourth, combined quick work by his crew with his prime position in pit number one, at the very head of the lane, to beat everyone else back on the track and seize first just before the race’s final restart. 

In between all those speeding animals and machines out west, thousands of humans were racing through Gotham’s five boroughs Sunday morning in the New York City Marathon – actually, it’s entirely likely that some earnest but plodding stragglers are still finding their way to the finish line in Central Park West even as this is being written many hours later.  Runners from East African countries have dominated distance racing for years, and New York was no exception.  Albert Korir and Peres Jepchirchir, both Kenyans, topped the men’s and women’s fields.  It was Korir’s first major marathon win, while Jepchirchir’s victory cemented her place as distance running royalty as she became the first runner, male or female, to put both a win in New York and an Olympic gold medal on their resume.  As if that weren’t enough, she scored the double just three months apart.

Still, the unsurprising wins by the Kenyans had to share space with compelling stories involving local names.  One was Shalane Flanagan, the 40-year-old retired professional who’s upset win in 2017 was punctuated by her screaming profanities over the final yards of the race.  Flanagan has always been audacious, but when she announced she would attempt to complete six major marathons in as many weeks, the idea seemed preposterous.  It couldn’t even be attempted most years, but with so many schedules scrambled by the pandemic, the 2021 calendar aligned.  So Flanagan flew off to Europe to run in Berlin and London, then came home to compete in Chicago and Boston on consecutive days.  The Tokyo marathon was ultimately cancelled, so she ran the equivalent distance in Oregon two weeks ago.  Which brought her to New York, and late Sunday morning, Flanagan was again running through Central Park, ultimately finishing with her fastest time of all six races.

Another was Molly Seidel, who first shocked the American racing establishment by securing a place on the Olympic team with a second-place finish at the U.S. Trials in her very first marathon last year, then stunned the racing world by taking bronze in Japan this summer.  No longer an unknown, Seidel was cheered every step of the way though Gotham and finished fourth in a personal best, which was also the fastest New York Marathon time ever by an American woman.  More remarkably, as she revealed only after the race, she did so after suffering two broken ribs within the past month, during her prerace training.  In a recent interview, Seidel’s coach Jon Green praised her ability to tolerate pain, saying that “her ‘3” on the pain scale is like a ‘9’ for everybody else.”  Now fans everywhere know Green wasn’t exaggerating.

From the Pacific coast to the Sonoran desert to wave upon wave of runners crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, everywhere one looked this weekend, sports was about the quest for speed, even at the risk of pain, and injury – or worse.  Those we watched did it for prizes of course, for money and glory.  But also, as Molly Seidel told her Instagram followers, “simply to accomplish something we’ve never done before,” to which she added “Once the training is done all we can do is put out our best effort on the day and accept the results.”

Winning matters.  Our games are always about winning.  But at their best, they are never about just that.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 4, 2021

Three Guys Worth Celebrating, On Franchises That Aren’t

The only thing left is the parade.  The longest season ended half an hour shy of midnight east coast time Tuesday when Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson corralled a grounder off the bat of Houston’s Yuli Gurriel.  Swanson’s first glance was to second for a force play, but when he saw teammate Ozzie Albies wasn’t covering the bag, he immediately turned and threw to first.  There Freddie Freeman was waiting, and when Atlanta’s longtime star caught the throw for the final out, he was already grinning.  The 7-0 shutout of the Astros sealed Atlanta’s four games to two World Series win, so on Friday fans will celebrate their baseball team’s first championship since 1995.  In what must be the first ever two-part victory parade, local faithful will be able to choose between joining the party along a lengthy stretch of Peachtree Street in the heart of the city, or eleven miles to the northwest along Cobb Parkway, near the team’s suburban stadium.

Pulling off a bifurcated parade on schedule will require good timing, but then no major league club had more exquisite timing this year than Atlanta.  The team struggled through the season’s first four months, losing several key players including its biggest star to injury, while also separating itself from an outfielder charged with domestic violence.  But with vital contributions from trade deadline pickups, Atlanta stormed down the stretch, going 33-18 from August 6th on, good enough to go from .500 to winning the weak NL East.  Once into the playoffs, Atlanta refused to be typecast by its modest regular season pedigree, besting two National League opponents with far better records through the first 162 games before soundly defeating the Astros, holding the team that led the majors in scoring to a total of only four runs in the four Atlanta victories, which included two shutouts.

Regardless of which franchise claimed the sport’s ultimate prize, for many fans without a personal attachment to either club this was a less than ideal Word Series.  L.A.-based sportswriter Molly Knight, who recently left The Athletic to start her own excellent Substack newsletter, headlined her piece on the pairing “The Chop versus the Cheaters.”  Kevin Blackstone, a frequent ESPN contributor, opined in the Washington Post that as bad as Houston was for abusing the sport while riding its 2017 cheating scheme to a title, Atlanta was worse, not just for its mocking caricature of Indigenous people, but also for abandoning the heavily black downtown neighborhood of Turner Field in favor of the white suburban location of Truist Park.

Yet for all the ample reasons a cheer for either club sticks in one’s throat, there were individuals on both teams with stories meriting the congratulations, or condolences, of fans. 

The broad smile that split Freeman’s face even as Swanson’s throw found his glove was born not just of joy but also relief, equal parts the happiness of someone who is by all accounts one of the nicest people wearing a big league uniform and the release of a franchise’s face finally achieving a long-sought goal, perhaps in his final game with Atlanta.  Freeman was drafted by Atlanta in the second round of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft and made his big league debut in September of 2010.  By the start of the following season, he was the team’s regular first baseman, and he has locked down that corner of Atlanta’s infield since.  He’s a career .295 hitter with an OPS of .893 who has surpassed 20 home runs in all but two full, 162-game, seasons.

With five All-Star selections and the 2020 National League MVP Award, Freeman has been the most recognizable and popular member of the team through most of his time in Atlanta, certainly since the 2012 retirement of Chipper Jones and until the recent arrival of Ronald Acuna Jr.  That popularity extends to opponents, for he regularly greets those who arrive safely at his station warmly, congratulating them on getting a hit, and chatting them up while they’re in his vicinity.  Freeman says he goes out of his way to be positive both because he remembers how nervous he was when he started, and because, as he told an interviewer at the start of the postseason, “I know how hard it is to get a base hit in a major league baseball game.”  Freeman also knows the weight of being the face of the franchise.  In five previous seasons he led Atlanta to the playoffs, four times as a division winner, only to exit short of the World Series.  This season was his last before entering free agency, and while Freeman says he’d like to stay in Atlanta, how Atlanta’s front office will value its 32-year-old star is unknown.  His campaign mirrored the team’s, as Freeman struggled early, carrying a sub-.200 batting average through the season’s first six weeks.  But by the time he hit for the cycle for the second time in his career in mid-August, Atlanta was rolling and so was Freeman, his average up to .301.  Tuesday night, in his potential final at-bat for Atlanta, Freeman drilled a no-doubt homer to center field for the final run of this year’s World Series. 

While Freeman, final out in his glove, started the celebration of Atlanta’s players on the field, third base coach Ron Washington was equally exuberant in Minute Maid Park’s visitors’ dugout.  Washington has spent half a century in professional baseball, but it’s likely that the last ten of those years have seemed the longest.  That’s because as manager of the Texas Rangers from 2007 through 2014, he guided his team to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011.  Both trips ended in defeat, but the second was especially painful.  Leading three games to two and 7-5 in the bottom of the 9th of Game 6, Texas was one strike away from a title, with two St. Louis runners on base and the Cardinals’ David Freese behind in the count against the Rangers’ Neftali Feliz.   But Freese hit the next pitch for a double that tied the score.  The Rangers again went up by two in the 10th, and St. Louis was again down to its final strike in the bottom of the frame.  But once again, that proved one strike too many for Texas.  The Cardinals tied the score again, won the game in the 11th, and went on to win Game 7.

Through that heartbreak and subsequent battles with personal demons, Washington has remained remarkably upbeat.  He’s viewed as a genius at coaching infield defense and has been highly regarded by his players wherever he’s been.  And now, after a decade of waiting, he finally has the title that was twice just one good pitch from being in his grasp.

Of course, not everyone gets to celebrate when the World Series ends.  While the party was just getting started for Freeman and Washington, Astros manager Dusty Baker quietly collected his things in the Houston dugout.  Like Washington, Baker has spent a lifetime in the Great Game, as a two-time All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winning player, and as a highly respected manager of five different clubs.  But while he played for the 1981 champion Dodgers, no Baker-managed team has ever won a title, even though every one of his clubs has made the postseason and despite his 12th place rank on the career wins list and three Manager of the Year Awards.  Hired by Houston in 2020 to clean up the stench of the franchise’s cheating scandal, Baker managed the Astros to the ALCS in that shortened season, and this year to Game 6 of the Series.  But the ultimate prize remains elusive.

So yes, as hard as it may have been for fans without a rooting interest to rally behind either of the franchises in this year’s Series, there were plenty of compelling individual stories.  In addition, if one subscribes to the view that there is nothing truly new under the sun, Atlanta’s triumph is a welcome omen for the faithful of at least one franchise among the twenty-nine that are not about to stage a parade.  For if history will only be so kind as to repeat itself, the near future is especially bright for the Yankees.  After all, the last time Atlanta won a championship, the team from the Bronx took four of the next five.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 31, 2021

The Naysayers And The Imaginary No-Hitter

As this is written, the first pitch of World Series Game 5 is still two hours away.  The longest season may end tonight, in which case this year in the Great Game will be remembered for the resiliency and perfect timing of Atlanta’s franchise, which will have overcome considerable adversity – most notably a season-ending injury to its franchise player – to sneak into the playoffs and then roll to a title despite posting the fewest regular season victories of any champion since the 2006 Cardinals turned the trick after winning just 83 times.  That will remain the irresistible story even if a celebration for Atlanta is delayed until Tuesday or Wednesday night, especially when the original postseason bracket included three clubs boasting triple-digit regular season victories.  But if, after a pair of dramatic losses at Truist Field, the Astros climb off the mat and rally to win the Series in seven games, the focus will shift to a debate about whether a Houston title presumably accomplished on the up-and-up expunges the stain on the franchise and the sport from the cheating scheme the Astros employed in 2017.

But since we don’t yet know which narrative will be the lasting one, there’s still time to dwell on what is apparently, at least for some pundits and fans, a far more important topic than winning the World Series.  That, of course, is the existential threat to the future of baseball that they saw in Game 3.  In that contest Atlanta manager Brian Snitker opted to go to his deep and talented corps of relief pitchers after starter Ian Anderson had completed five innings of work, thus robbing Anderson of his chance at immortality.  For when Snitker wielded his hook, Atlanta’s 23-year-old sophomore right-hander had not surrendered a hit, meaning he was a mere twelve outs away from tossing just the second no-hitter in World Series history, and the first since Don Larsen’s 1956 perfect game.

Never mind that Anderson was barely more than halfway to such an accomplishment, or that there is nothing “mere” about working one’s way through a powerful lineup of hitters such as Houston’s for the third and fourth time to record four more innings worth of outs.  Ignore too that Anderson needed 76 pitches to make it through five frames, meaning he was on track to require 135 or more to complete nine innings, or that such a volume of throws is something one rarely saw even in the supposedly good old days.  Or for that matter, that at 160 innings, Anderson’s season workload was already more than three times what he managed in 2020.  It’s also best not to dwell on the fact that Anderson had struggled with his control throughout the game, missing the strike zone 37 times, or nearly as often as the 39 throws that found it.  He had held Houston hitless but had walked three Astros and plunked another.  Finally, one must conveniently forget that at the time Atlanta was clinging to just a 1-0 lead.

None of those realities stopped Ken Rosenthal from opining for The Athletic that Game 3 was but “the latest example of a sport that has lost its way, valuing efficiency over entertainment.”  Rosenthal’s piece was one of the more dramatic denunciations of Snitker’s decision to relieve Anderson, but it had plenty of company.  On websites and in social media, other sportswriters and plenty of fans lamented the ruthless shunting aside of history in the making in favor of, what exactly?  For what Rosenthal called “efficiency” and lots of others decried as an overreliance on analytics, can also be described as trying to win.  Which is the point.  Yes, we fans, especially those of us without a specific rooting interest, hope these games are entertaining.  But Atlanta and the Astros aren’t Broadway troupes, and each team’s goal in the World Series is to be the first to win four games.

The critics had no choice but to concede as much, with Rosenthal acknowledging the validity of Snitker’s postgame statement that given the numbers cited above, Anderson “wasn’t going to throw a nine-inning no-hitter.”  Still, to the veteran scribe the heightened reliance of relief pitching during the postseason, with starters rarely working longer than Anderson did Friday evening, is a trend that “stinks.”  To that end, The Athletic may have just been too hasty in posting Rosenthal’s thoughts, since for both Games 4 and 5 Atlanta opted for a starter in name only.  Back-to-back bullpen games in the World Series is a first.  Saturday night Dylan Lee faced just four batters, but even if he had been effective, he would not have been asked to go more than an inning or two. 

There is no question managers now keep starting pitchers on extremely short leashes in postseason games, and the aversion to allowing a hurler to face an opposing lineup for a third time is becoming one of the sport’s unwritten rules, even during the regular season.  Some suggestions for restoring greater reliance on starting pitching have considerable merit.  These include limiting the number of pitchers a team can carry.  That is likely to be resisted by the Players Association, since it might cost some relievers their jobs, but it could be a tradeoff in the upcoming CBA negotiations for the new jobs created by extending the designated hitter rule to the National League.  If there is a universal DH, a rule stating a team loses the position once its starting pitcher leaves the game would both increase the importance of the starter and add an element of strategy in later innings, when relievers might be due to bat in key situations.  Of course, the overriding reason for finding a way for starters to consistently work deeper into games is to speed up play.

But all of that, if indeed any of it ever happens, is for the future.  This World Series will be won or lost under current rules, and both Brian Snitker and Dusty Baker will use data and analytics as it now exists to inform their decisions.  To do otherwise would be managerial malpractice.  But they will also apply their own instincts, for failing to utilize an understanding of the Great Game earned through more than ninety combined years playing and coaching at its professional level would be equally egregious.  The cries of those who see in baseball’s ultimate showcase all they deem wrong about the sport have taken on a “get off my lawn” quality.  As one fan’s social media post said of the complainers, “if they hate the game so much, why do they watch it?”  Maybe it’s because Games 3 and 4 were pretty darn entertaining.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 28, 2021

Too Little Drama, Too Much Time

We are only two games deep in a World Series that now must go at least five, so there is still time for this year’s Fall Classic to become, well, classic, but that is surely not the word that most fans would use to describe the first eighteen innings of play.  The first pitch of Tuesday’s Game 1 was at 7:11 p.m. Houston time, and by 7:12 the Astros were behind.  Atlanta then just kept pouring it on against Framber Valdez, the Houston left-hander who was so effective against the Red Sox in the pivotal Game 5 of the ALCS.  Of course, Valdez had been decidedly less impressive in his two previous postseason outings, putting up an unsightly 7.71 ERA over a combined seven innings of work against the White Sox in the ALDS and Boston five days prior to his lights-out performance, so perhaps his implosion should not have been a total surprise. 

Then, one night after enduring the 6-2 thrashing, the Astros returned the favor, quickly tallying a run against Max Fried in the opening frame, and eventually touching the Atlanta left-hander for five more scores on the way to a 7-2 victory.  Fried dominated for Atlanta down the stretch, as the team rallied from a mere .500 record in the first week of August to overtake the Phillies and collapsing Mets and claim the NL East.  But like Valdez, he’s now had a couple of shaky playoff starts, though in fairness he was victimized in this one by several soft hits and poor defensive play, including his own wild pitch, while yielding four runs in the pivotal 2nd inning.

To make matters worse, all this poor play proceeded at a ponderous pace.  The wish, recently made in this space, for games ending before midnight East Coast time went unfulfilled when Game 1 dragged on for more than four hours.  Game 2 managed to wrap up before the witching hour but could be called speedy only in comparison to the previous night’s affair.  At three hours and eleven minutes, it was longer than the average game this season, a number that was already a record MLB surely didn’t need.  But then one can hardly expect decent game times when, in the wisdom of managers Dusty Baker and Brian Snitker, 21 pitchers are needed to record 105 outs.   

Yet the Great Game remains unpredictable, because each contest is made up of countless individual moments, thousands of decisions by those on the field and in the dugout, each of which can nudge the outcome toward one of just two possibilities.  Most important, the decisive push might not be from a choice made at center stage.   One player on a ten-inch hill decides what kind of pitch to throw to a batter sixty feet, six inches away, who in turn must choose in an instant whether to swing at the offering.  But while thousands focus on that, a distant outfielder responds to a signal from the dugout by moving forward two steps as the pitcher begins his windup.  It is that small adjustment to his position that allows him to make a diving catch of the short fly ball that follows.  Or it ensures that the long drive over his head will just barely elude his outstretched glove before bouncing all the way to the wall.

Which is to say, the tone of this year’s World Series can change in an instant.  The Great Game did not exist when Shakespeare had Antonio proclaim, “what is past is prologue” in Act 2 of “The Tempest.”  If it had, the plot of the Bard’s final comedy would have been totally different.  Taut and tight games, well played and well coached, could await fans who tune in when play resumes Friday evening at Truist Park in suburban Atlanta.    

Perhaps, for both the Astros and Atlanta are talented teams.  If neither would have been its league’s representative in that long-ago time when achieving the regular season’s best record meant moving directly to the World Series, they are the two teams that have played the best in October.  The Giants and Rays, putative contestants in that theoretical Series, are long gone.  So too L.A. with its absurdly rich payroll, St. Louis with its dramatic late season winning streak, New York with its pedigree, and all the rest.  Some were felled by injury and exhaustion, others by untimely poor play.  Some will blame the sport’s randomness, which is always magnified in the short series that comprise the playoffs.  Others will admit, if only to themselves, that when ten of thirty franchises get to participate in the tournament, they were one of several that really never had much of a chance.

Or perhaps fans will see three, or four, or five more games that look dispiritingly like the first two.  Randomness is unpredictable, so a satisfying result is not guaranteed.  Though in the end one team’s faithful would still get to have a parade, the Great Game will have missed an opportunity should that be how this Fall Classic plays out.  That’s especially true given the television ratings, which while still below older peaks, bumped up markedly from last year’s neutral ground Series following a truncated campaign. 

So, despite the first two games, root for a good World Series.  Root for Dusty, or root for Freddie, still the two best stories.  Or root for Ian Anderson to throw a great game Friday because you grew up listening to Jethro Tull, or for Jose Altuve to homer twice off Anderson, because you’ve always wanted to cheat and get away with it.  And, of course, root for games that end before midnight.  The Great Game really, really needs more of those.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 24, 2021

Then There Were Two

The Giants, Dodgers and Rays, this year’s 100-win teams, are all gone.  Regular season accomplishments – each set or tied a franchise mark for most wins – proved no harbinger of postseason glory.  The Wild Card entrants into MLB’s playoff tournament are done as well.  The only sure prize for being one of the two best regular season also-rans is nine innings of postseason play, and the Cardinals and Yankees didn’t advance beyond that.  Los Angeles, which had the bad luck of having to travel the long Wild Card path to the World Series despite 106 victories, and Boston, a decisive winner over New York in the AL Wild Card Game, both made it to the League Championship round.  But first in Houston, then in Atlanta, the 2021 campaigns of those two clubs ended.  So too for the seasons of the White Sox and Brewers, Central Division champions in their respective league but vanquished in the Division Series round, which seems more than just barely two weeks ago.

Now only two remain, and on Tuesday evening the climax of the longest season gets underway.  World Series Game 1, at Minute Maid Park in Houston, between the Astros and Atlanta.  By many measures, it is a matchup of contrasts.  For Houston, this will be the third World Series appearance in five years.  The Astros were victorious in 2017 against the Dodgers but fell to the Nationals in 2019.  Even in the two years the team did not make the World Series, the Astros played their way as far as the ALCS.  The last team with five straight trips to its LCS was Atlanta from 1995-1999.  No AL franchise has accomplished the feat since the mid-70’s glory days of the Oakland A’s.  Not surprisingly, Houston won its division in each full, 162-game season during this span, averaging more than 100 wins while doing so.  This year’s 95-67 mark is actually the team’s worst record of the four full seasons.  Still, it was the second highest win total in the American League behind only Tampa Bay, and more than enough to hold off wildly overperforming Seattle, which somehow tallied 90 victories despite having the solidly negative run differential one would expect from a sub-.500 club.

All that recent success makes Houston one of MLB’s elite franchises, a team that from the February day when pitchers and catchers report is tagged as a title contender.  Atlanta is, at best, in the next tier of franchises.  This year marks the fourth straight season the club has claimed the NL East crown, but the consensus across the Great Game is that Atlanta’s division is weak.  Indeed, the 88 wins that were sufficient to finish 6 ½ games ahead of the Phillies were the fewest victories of any division champion, and less than any of the four Wild Card teams, a polite way of pointing out that Atlanta had the poorest record of the ten clubs that won the right to play on into October. 

The conventional wisdom about Atlanta is fortified by its playoff record.  Until last year’s strange, truncated campaign, the team had not made it past its first playoff series since 2001, tallying eight Division Series losses and one Wild Card Game defeat.  And when the club made it to the NLCS in 2020, it promptly coughed up a three-games-to-one lead over Los Angeles, and slunk home to Georgia.  One must go all the way back to 1999, the final year of that remarkable run of five straight NLCS appearances – and eight in nine years if one looks back a bit farther – to find a World Series in which Atlanta represented the National League.

Those contrasts, both current and historical, combined no doubt with the 22-1 by which the Astros outscored the Red Sox over the final 26 innings of the ALCS, have made Houston the heavy favorite for this year’s Series, according to the oddsmakers.  But for many fans, excepting of course the understandably elated faithful of the two franchises, the question is not which team is going to win, but why should we care?  As this year’s World Series commences, there is considerable antipathy toward both clubs.

For Atlanta, the ill will has nothing to do with the players, who like everyone who dons a major league uniform are committed to try their hardest.  But there’s no escaping that Atlanta’s uniform bears a name and symbol that caricatures a race.  The casual racism with which the Atlanta franchise is comfortable is further enflamed by the crude chant which the team promoted for years, and now quite willingly tolerates.

Then there is Houston.  Ah, the Astros.  Success at the highest level of any sport demands a huge amount of confidence and self-belief, so it will always be a mystery why a group of extremely talented athletes so doubted themselves that they needed to cheat, as the Astros did on their way to that tainted 2017 title.  But the greater damage was done by MLB’s failure to punish even a single active player once Houston’s sign-stealing scheme was uncovered, and by the decidedly limited degree of remorse expressed by the players who avoided any sanction beyond the lasting enmity of millions of fans.

There will be no joy in this quarter when thousands of Atlanta fans engage in racial parody, or when thousands of Houston fans cheer cheaters who barely even acknowledged their sins.  But in sports, as in life, every moment involves multiple storylines, and this World Series has a couple for which one can cheer.

First, there is Dusty Baker.  Brought out of a reluctant retirement to manage the Astros after the sign-stealing scandal, Baker has led five franchises over almost three decades as a field general.  He ranks twelfth on the all-time wins list with 1,987, and when Houston claimed the AL West crown, he became the first manager to guide five different teams to division titles.  He’s now one of only nine men to manage teams to pennants in both leagues.  But for all his success, and despite his candor and humor in the interview room, he’s never been the manager of a World Series winner. 

In the other dugout, there is Freddie Freeman.  One of the most likable players in the majors, Freeman has been a mainstay in Atlanta since debuting with the club in 2010.  He’s a five-time All-Star who was the league MVP in 2020, and has a Gold Glove Award on his resume for his play at first base.  Freeman’s famous for chatting up and boosting up opposing players who arrive at his defensive spot, and is also selfless, ceding his role as the face of the franchise to Ronald Acuna Jr. when the budding superstar arrived in 2018.  Now Freeman, who is about to become a free agent, is set to play in his first World Series, his team’s first in more than two decades.   

Reflecting the society in which it is played, the Great Game has always included our worst elements.  But for the same reason, it has also always included our best.  So, root for Dusty, or root for Freddie.  Root for a good World Series, and for games that end before midnight.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 22, 2021

An Autumn Tease, Or History In The Making?

“We’re number two!”  Okay, there have been no reports of a mob of excited students at the University of Cincinnati exulting with a chorus of that admittedly odd proclamation, but it is certainly noteworthy that in this week’s Associated Press college football poll, the Bearcats claimed the team’s highest ranking ever, behind unanimous number one Georgia and ahead of Oklahoma.  Cincinnati switched places with the Sooners in the AFCA Coaches Poll, but in both rankings the voters placed the American Athletic Conference team among the top four programs in the country.  The significance of that lofty position, as every college football fan knows, is that the season ending playoff to determine a national champion is, at least for now, limited to four teams, none of which, other than traditionally independent Notre Dame, has ever been from a conference outside the Power 5 of the SEC, Big 10, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12.

Not only have the second-tier conferences in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, collectively known as the Group of Five, never been represented in the season-ending tournament, no member school has ever come particularly close to crashing the College Football Playoff party.  In 2014, the CFP’s first year, the final rankings by the selection committee had Boise State 20th, and Group of Five teams haven’t fared much better since, with only two placing in the top-10 in the selection committee’s season-ending assessment.  The University of Central Florida in 2018 and Cincinnati last year both wound up 8th, which is impressive to be sure, but not really within shouting distance of a playoff spot.

This season’s first CFP rankings won’t come out until another two weekends of games have been played, and the listing by the thirteen-member selection committee, which currently includes eleven members with ties to Power 5 schools, is entirely separate from the two major polls.  Still, the Bearcats’ spot in what amounts to a playoff position in the traditional rankings has caused rampant speculation that this could finally be the year for a Group of Five breakthrough.

If so, it will be just one more unlikely turn in a very strange collegiate season.  Each of the four teams that participated in the last CFP, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Notre Dame, has lost at least once, with the Tigers already tasting defeat twice.  Clemson fell to Georgia in its opening game, then was upset in overtime by North Carolina State three weeks later, ending any chance of extending coach Dabo Swinney’s record of six straight CFP appearances.  Alabama, ranked number one at the time, was stunned 41-38 by unranked Texas A&M the weekend before last, on a 28-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.  And Ohio State has poured it on against weak opponents the last four weeks, trying to erase the memory of a 35-28 loss to Oregon in mid-September.

Then there is Notre Dame.  The Fighting Irish often seem to be highly ranked on the strength of nostalgia as much as performance.  That was the case this year when the preseason polls put Notre Dame in the top-10.  That ranking quickly tumbled when the Irish began the campaign needing overtime to beat Florida State, then barely held off Toledo.  A couple of more impressive wins followed, but in a game that could wind up defining the season for both schools, on the first Saturday in October visiting Cincinnati raced out to a 17-0 halftime lead and coasted to a 24-13 victory at South Bend.

Other highly ranked teams have stumbled as well, including Iowa, Oregon, and Penn State.  Given the bias among both those with votes in the polls and especially members of the CFP selection committee, every upset to date was necessary to give the Bearcats any shot at playing in either the Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve, this season’s two CFP semifinal games.  For despite Cincinnati’s current poll standing, there’s plenty of reason to think that when it’s revealed early next month, the initial CFP ranking won’t place the school in the top four.

The committee has always made clear that it places great weight on strength of schedule, meaning the key question for contenders may not be did a team win, but what opponent did it beat?  It’s a metric that can be measured in myriad ways, as evidenced by the number of different computer programs that do so.  It’s also one that drags down the ranking of top Group of Five teams, which must play much of each year’s schedule against relatively weak conference foes.  That’s the position in which Cincinnati now finds itself.  Having completed the non-conference portion of its schedule, the Bearcats will be heavy favorites to go 12-0, and an upset loss in any AAC conference game will end the team’s hopes for a spot in the playoffs.  But even assuming it rolls up big victories over the likes of Tulane and South Florida, Cincinnati may see its strength of schedule ranking slip as the rest of the season unfolds.  And by this metric the Bearcats have no room to give.  Despite the team’s number two AP Poll position, two major rankings based on computerized strength of schedule models put Cincinnati 5th (Jeff Sagarin) and 9th (Kenneth Massey).   

The metric is not meaningless, and those who scoff at the idea that any Group of Five team could be competitive in the CFP might be correct, though we’ll never know for sure until the day finally comes when one takes the field in a semifinal.  Whether that’s this year depends not just on what Cincinnati does over its final games, but also on how Notre Dame fares.  The Bearcats’ marquee win will gain luster if the Irish also win out but will diminish each time Notre Dame loses or even struggles against an inferior opponent.  Should that happen, a one-loss Alabama or Ohio State, or a flawed ACC champion, potentially Pittsburgh, or some conference runner-up, will very likely find more favor among selection committee members predisposed to favor the Power 5.  For all the midseason speculation, the deck still seems stacked against the Bearcats.

Perhaps they already know that at Nippert Stadium.  Maybe head coach Luke Fickell and athletic director John Cunningham already concluded that the only way to beat the big boys is to join them.  After all, as part of the ongoing reshuffling among college conferences, the Bearcats have announced plans to decamp from the AAC in favor of the Big 12 as soon as 2023.  But before Cincinnati renders the issue moot by joining the Power 5, maybe this year’s team will make some long overdue history.

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