Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 7, 2022

How Good, Or Bad, Are These Yankees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 4, 2022

Balancing Immediate Gratification With Lasting Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 31, 2022

The Legacy Of A Legend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 24, 2022

Henderson Wrests Order From The Evian’s Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 21, 2022

MLB Decides To Have A Good Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 18, 2022

Smith’s Hot Putter Dashes Fairy Tales And Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 14, 2022

A Tough Season On Managers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 10, 2022

Change Was In The Air At The All England Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 7, 2022

Half A Season To Go Means There’s Still Time For Hope

We’re halfway home.  A few days later than usual, thanks to the delayed start of this year’s campaign resulting from the owners’ lockout of players, the longest season has reached its midpoint.  After Wednesday’s schedule of contests, MLB franchises averaged 82 games played, with 80 more to go.  As always happens when baseball’s calendar achieves this symmetry, fans are being flooded with a wave of midseason predictions about how things will look come October, from projected final standings to forecasts of individual achievements. 

Will the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets and Astros all win more than 100 games, as each is on track to do?  Will the Royals, A’s, Nats, and Reds all counterbalance that by running up triple-digit losses?  Will Aaron Judge outslug both the Babe and Roger Maris, setting a new franchise home run record in the Bronx?  Will Houston’s Justin Verlander continue to defy time and win his third Cy Young Award at the advanced age of 39?  Everywhere one looks there are pundits opining on these and similar topics.

But in between the high flyers, franchises with fans already making plans for the playoffs, and the cellar dwellers, clubs whose faithful are learning to accept that this season is a lost cause, lies the vast middle class of MLB.  Going into Thursday’s play, there were eleven teams with records no more than seven games above or below .500.  That mark is important for two reasons.  First, because a single weeklong winning or losing streak can restore to respectability a team on the bottom of that range or send one on its upper end crashing back to earth.  Second, because the expansion of the playoff field to twelve teams, with three Wild Card entrants from each league, means that any record with more wins than losses will give a club an excellent chance of making the postseason.  If today’s standings were the basis for determining the playoff field, only two such teams, the National League’s Cardinals and Giants, would be left out of the postseason tournament.  And as plenty of clubs have shown, including Washington, a Wild Card in 2019, and current defending champion Atlanta, the lowest 2020 seed based on regular season records, once the short series of the playoffs begin, anything can happen. 

All of which means fans of each of those eleven clubs – more than one-third of MLB’s franchises – have plenty of reason to hope.  For some teams, those that have done a bit better than expected so far, such optimism surely counts as a bonus.  But for others, squads that have failed to meet preseason predictions, those hopes take on a greater sense of urgency with each turn of the calendar.  Two teams the clearly fall into that latter category are the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels.   

This campaign began with huge expectations on Chicago’s South Side.  The White Sox ran away with the AL Central title last year, posting 93 wins to lap second place Cleveland by 13 games in the final standings.  A relatively young squad led by a 76-year-old manager in Tony LaRussa appeared overmatched against Houston in the ALDS, but Chicago was a popular preseason pick to repeat as Division champ and, with an added year of experience, make a deeper playoff run this autumn. 

So far though, this year has been a harsh reminder that Spring Training’s best laid plans seldom unfold exactly as drawn up.  Veteran right-hander Lance Lynn was expected to anchor the starting rotation after finishing third in the 2021 AL Cy Young voting and just missing enough innings pitched to qualify as the league leader in the ballpark-adjusted ERA+ stat.  Instead, he suffered a knee injury during this year’s abbreviated Spring Training and didn’t take the mound until the middle of last month.  Lynn is emblematic of this year’s White Sox, which rank fourth on the decidedly undesirable list of most contract dollars committed to players on the IL.  Injuries of course don’t account for some of LaRussa’s odd decision-making, highlighted by his order to intentionally walk Trea Turner only after the Dodger shortstop was down to his last strike in a game last month.  Max Muncy, the next man up for Los Angeles, promptly smashed a three-run homer, and L.A. went on to win 11-9.

That call along with Chicago’s underwater record of 39-41 have some fans screaming for LaRussa’s firing.  Given the manager’s close relationship with team owner Jerry Reinsdorf that seems unlikely, and besides, the schedule suggests that the most critical period of the franchise’s season is already upon it.  From last Monday through the team’s first series after the All-Star break, the White Sox play 19 straight games against AL Central opponents.  The Twins or Guardians, the two teams Chicago trails in the standings, are the opponent for all but four of those contests.  Before July is out the White Sox can be right back in the thick of the division race or facing very long odds of making the playoffs.

The road to respectability is longer for the Angels, which entered Thursday’s game against Baltimore at 38-45.  It has been a brutal fall for L.A., which peaked at 24-13 in the middle of May.  The Angels then dropped four straight, rallied for three consecutive wins, and then imploded, losing the next 14 games.  The futility cost veteran skipper Joe Maddon his job, but the elevation of Phil Nevin hasn’t really changed the team’s dynamic.  Since taking over on June 7, Nevin has seen L.A. go 11-16. 

With the immensely popular two-way star Shohei Ohtani and three-time AL MVP Mike Trout, the Angels command a fan base far beyond the club’s aging home ballpark in Anaheim.  The team’s fast start thus fueled widespread hopes that for just the second time in Trout’s career, and the first since Ohtani joined the team in 2018, L.A. would make the playoffs.  Now that thought seems almost silly, with Fangraphs giving the Angels just an 11% chance of playing in the postseason.  Losing the left side of the infield to injury has hurt – third baseman Anthony Rendon is out for the year after wrist surgery and shortstop David Fletcher is in the middle of at least a six-week absence due to a hip injury – but poor pitching has hurt L.A. the most.  Other than Ohtani, the starters rank among the AL’s worst, and after some impressive early showings the bullpen has regressed badly.  The Angels pitching woes are embodied in Reid Detmers’ season.  The left-hander threw a no-hitter on May 10, but then pitched so badly in his next several starts that he was briefly demoted to Triple-A.

L.A. has a lot of teams to pass to get back in the Wild Card conversation, but the schedule does give the Angels a number of head-to-head matchups against some of those squads, especially in the first weeks after the All-Star Game.  The flame of hope may be flickering out in Anaheim, but it hasn’t been extinguished quite yet.

The history of the Great Game is filled with stories of teams that rallied from miserable starts to storm through the summer months, turning what looked to be lost campaigns into seasons of joy.  So in Chicago and L.A., and in all the other cities with teams on the edges of the American and National League playoff races, hope, the constant currency of the longest season, is still alive.  Still, the pressure increases with each turn of the calendar. As Yogi Berra said when asked about the challenges of tracking fly balls through the lengthening afternoon shadows in left field at the old Yankee Stadium, “it gets late early out there.”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 3, 2022

The Real Powers In The Power 5

When this post was still just an idea, it began with “here we go again.”  But implicit in the familiar phrase is a suggestion that the event in question is returning after a period of absence.  That makes the wording inapt, for the recent history of college conference realignment is a story of nearly continuous movement of big-time collegiate athletic – which is to say, football – programs.  Looking back, what seemed in the moment like occasional periods of stability have really been only brief chances for the major players – athletic directors, university presidents, conference executives and television network heads – to catch their collective breath.

Once upon a very long time ago, collegiate sports were structured around conferences that were largely regional in nature, as evidenced by many of their names – Southwest Conference, Pac(ific) 8, then 10, and eventually 12, Southeastern Conference, and so on.  Whether identified by a region or its number of members, like the Big 10, the conferences fostered athletic rivalries that engaged both students and alumni, typically in multiple sports.  A lacrosse game between Ohio State and Michigan might not be played in front of 100,000 fans, but the competition was no less intense for the vastly smaller crowd.

Then in 1984, the Supreme Court tossed out the NCAA’s longstanding limitations on football broadcasts.  The more prominent conferences and especially their members that were football powers had chafed under the Association’s restrictions on both the number of games that could be shown nationally and the frequency of regional broadcasts during the season.  The 7-2 decision, authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, held the NCAA’s policy violated antitrust laws and freed conferences and individual schools to negotiate their own TV contracts.  The very next season the number of games broadcast jumped from 89 to almost 200.  While the tidal wave of college football games on television initially sent individual ratings down, the ruling strengthened the hand of conference directors and made possible the massive contracts for broadcast rights that now play an outsized role in college football.

At about the same time, the Texas-based Southwest Conference was gradually falling apart because so many of its members were constantly on NCAA probation and thus barred from appearing on television.  In 1990, scandal-free Arkansas departed for the Southeast Conference, and within a few years the other Southwest Conference members migrated to either the Big 8, leading it to be renamed the Big 12, the Western Athletic Conference, or the newly formed Conference USA.  In the same timeframe, not wanting to miss out on the TV riches of regional broadcast contracts being negotiated by newly empowered conferences, independents Pitt and Penn State joined the Big East and Big 10, respectively.  The age of realignment had begun.

While there have been multiple changes since, the one constant over the past thirty years has been the strengthening of the so-called Power 5 conferences.  The SEC, Big 10, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC have long been home to virtually every top-level football program except independent Notre Dame, and to many of the NCAA’s leading basketball programs as well.  But it now appears that realignment has moved into a new stage of consolidation that is reshaping even the familiar contours of the Power 5, as evidenced by last year’s joint decision by Texas and Oklahoma to leave the Big 12 in favor of the SEC, and this week’s announcement that UCLA and USC will decamp from the Pac-12 to become members of the Big 10.

Naming conventions aside, these moves will create two superconferences with 16 members each.  The Big 10, formed in 1896 as the Western Conference by seven universities all of which were within a few hours drive of Chicago, will stretch from sea to shining sea, from the two new California members near the beaches of Malibu, to New Jersey’s Rutgers, just a short commuter rail hop from the towers of Manhattan.  The SEC, formed in 1932 when the southernmost members of the old Southern Conference chose to form their own league, will cover that part of the country most enamored of college football.  Their size means these two conferences will account for essentially one-quarter of all the teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.  

More important, the Big 10 and SEC will count as members a dominant number of participants in the College Football Playoff.  The four-team CFP has been in place for eight season, so a total of thirty-two teams have played in it.  Twenty of those appearances have been by schools that are or soon will be in either the SEC or Big 10.  Since the ACC’s Clemson has six appearances of its own and despite a down year in 2021 should continue to be strong, that obviously leaves very little room for the now weakened Pac-12 and Big 12.

In the days since the announcements by UCLA and USC, that reality has led several commentators to predict the demise of one or both of those conferences.  Such a dire outcome seems unlikely, at least in its specificity.  Instead, the Pac-12 and Big 12 will refill their membership roles with schools from the mid-majors and other lesser leagues that are part of the Football Bowl Subdivision.  The Big 12 already responded to the departures of Texas and Oklahoma in this way, announcing that Cincinnati, Houston, BYU, and Central Florida will join the conference next year, and the Pac-12 will surely do the same.  But moves like that in turn marginalize conferences further down the collegiate sports food chain, and in the end, further conference consolidation appears inevitable.

That of course will be of no concern to the members of the two new superconferences.  With massive broadcast contracts, a lock on slots in the Football Playoff, and the lion’s share of athletic programs with large national followings, the Big 10 and SEC have set themselves apart from the rest of collegiate sports.  Now, perhaps, the music in the long-running game of college conference musical chairs can finally stop.

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