Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 17, 2019

Matt Kuchar’s Second Act Is A Great One

It was just two months ago that this space was devoted to a pair of forty-something professional golfers who broke long victory droughts on the PGA and European Tours on the same Sunday. By sheer coincidence, both Matt Kuchar and Lee Westwood had recorded his previous win on their respective home Tour on the same day more than four and one-half years earlier. At the time it felt like the fluke timing presented an opportunity to highlight a pair of greatly accomplished golfers, each of whom ranks very high on the dreaded list of “best who have never won a major.” It was easy to think of both Kuchar and Westwood as players entering the latter stage of their competitive careers on the regular tour, each perhaps turning at least one eye to some years hence when he turns fifty and can start competing with the seemingly ageless Bernhard Langer on the very lucrative Champions Tour.

But at least for his part Kuchar made it plain last Sunday that he isn’t just waiting around to start his second act on the senior tour. Rising above a predictably fast but dubiously factual Twitter furor over an unsourced claim that he stiffed the local caddie who was on his bag when he seized control of the Mayakoba Golf Classic right out of the gate in November, Kuchar came close to doing the same thing (owning the tournament from the start, not purportedly dissing his looper) at Waialea Country Club on the outskirts of Honolulu, site of the Sony Open in Hawaii. While the PGA Tour’s wraparound season started last October, the Sony, played on the nearly century-old Seth Raynor layout bordered by palm trees and the blue Pacific has long been the first full-field event of every calendar year.

Having suffered through a miserable 2018 campaign, Kuchar didn’t come close to qualifying for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, played the previous week on Maui and limited to tournament winners from the prior season. But that didn’t stop him from committing to the Sony, in part because he and his family, like pretty much everyone else who’s ever been there, love spending time in Hawaii. So there he was teeing it up on Thursday, and promptly posting a 7-under 63, only two shots adrift of first round leader Adam Svensson and one back of Andrew Putnam. One day later he matched that number despite recording his first bogey of the tournament, the only blemish on his card until Sunday’s final round. Kuchar’s 14-under total moved him into the lead, one clear of Putnam at the Sony’s midpoint.

A 4-under par 66 on Saturday extended his lead to two over the 29-year-old Putnam and four over fellow veteran Chez Reavie and 27-year-old Keith Mitchell, whose 63 was tied for the best round of the day. Like every other sport the PGA Tour has tilted younger in recent years, with seven of the top ten players in this week’s world rankings under the age of 30. Thus it would have been no surprise, indeed almost expected, if Putnam or Mitchell had gone low on Sunday to wrest the tournament from Kuchar’s grasp; despite the reality that between them the pair have but a single PGA Tour win – Putnam’s victory at last summer’s Reno-Tahoe Open – compared to Kuchar’s eight Tour wins and $45 million in career earnings.

Perhaps the thought of something like that happening, or just sheer incredulity at the prospect of winning for the second time in just his third start of the season, got to Kuchar’s 40-year-old nerves at the start of Sunday’s final round. Whatever the cause, after bogeying just one hole through the first fifty-four, he was over par on three of the first five holes. It was a start bad enough to erase his lead and leave him one behind playing partner Putnam. He was in danger of drifting another shot further away on the par-5 9th after playing an indifferent third shot from a greenside bunker while Putnam had a tap-in birdie. But Kuchar holed his ten-footer to match Putnam’s score, and that putt may well have been the turning point of the entire tournament.

His energy renewed, Kuchar holed putt after putt on the inward nine, recording five more birdies to pass Putnam and pull away from the entire field. His final birdie putt on the 18th sealed a four-shot victory and fell into the cup under a picturesque rainbow high above Oahu. Kuchar described the idyllic scene as “a special kind of magical moment.”

For the winner it was surely that, but for golf fans it was also a reminder that perhaps alone among our games golf is a sport where age alone does not determine greatness. There are of course individuals in every sport who excel long after most of their peers have retired. But when Tom Brady and Drew Brees take the field this weekend in the NFL’s Conference Championship games, they will be decided outliers.

Yet even as golf skews younger, there is still plenty of room for a veteran to become a central part of the sport’s conversation, not just for a weekend or two, but for an entire season. Matt Kuchar is now assured of having a tee time at next year’s Tournament of Champions, and at this admittedly early stage of the season he sits in second place in the FedEx Cup standings, his ticket not just to the Playoffs but all the way to the Tour Championship already almost certainly punched. Not bad for a golfer who just two short months ago looked to have become just one more victim of the ultimate enemy of every athlete – time.

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Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 13, 2019

For Tennis Fans, This Exit Hurts

On the other side of the world the Australian Open, tennis’s first Grand Slam event of the year, is just getting under way. Over the next two weeks there will doubtless be plenty of drama on the blue-tinted Plexicushion hard courts at Melbourne Park. But for agonizing pathos nothing that happens in the coming fortnight of play will surpass the scene that took place Friday not on a tennis court but in a media room. That was where Andy Murray, the 31-year-old Scot who forced his way into the top tier of the men’s game by will as much as by skill, first challenging then eventually joining the triad of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, thus establishing the era that will forever be known as that of the Big Four, bowed to the grim reality of injury and pain by announcing his decision to retire.

Dressed in dark blue, with a matching baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, Murray took his place at the front of the room and waited through the obligatory introduction and then for a line of reporters to come forward and place their recorders on the table at which he sat. At last came the first question, “How are you feeling, and how is the hip injury?” Murray responded, “Yeah, not, not great,” and then lapsed into silence as he struggled to maintain his composure. After nearly a minute without words, he rose and left the room.

Murray returned a few minutes later and immediately apologized to the assembled scribes, though it quickly became apparent that no apology was necessary. In 2017, shortly after rising to the number one ranking and being honored at home with a knighthood, Murray began to experience chronic pain in his right hip. While the exact nature of the injury has never been publicly revealed, it gradually became apparent that the pain was great enough to make it impossible for him to play at an elite level. Early last year, after withdrawing from a tournament, he explained on social media that rest and rehabilitation were the preferred options for recovery, because surgery, while possible, had a low chance of being successful. In retrospect those words should have been a warning sign to tennis fans when just a few days later Murray announced that he had undergone hip surgery.

He has played sparingly over the past year amid ongoing efforts to rehabilitate his hip and regain the lateral motion that is essential to every tennis player. Surely to most emotionally painful moment was his decision to withdraw from Wimbledon, announced the day before the tournament began. Later he won his first round match at last summer’s U.S. Open, but lost in four sets to Spain’s Fernando Verdasco in the second round.

Friday, after returning to the media room, Murray explained in a quavering voice that the constant pain had finally become too much. “Yeah, so, not feeling good, obviously, been struggling for a long time. I’ve been in a lot of pain, for, oh it’s been probably about 20 months now. I’ve pretty much done everything that I could to try and get my hip feeling better. It hasn’t helped loads. I’m in a better place than I was six months ago, but still in a lot of pain.” Then came the words that were the hardest for Murray to say, “So my plan—kind of the middle to end of December during my training block, I spoke to my team and I told them I can’t keep doing this. I needed to have, like, an end point, because I was just sort of playing with no idea when the pain was going to stop. I felt like making that decision, I said to my team I think I can kind of get through this until Wimbledon. That is where I’d like to stop, stop playing.”

While a final appearance at the All England Club remains his hope, Murray readily acknowledged that there is no guarantee he will be able to make it that far. He conceded that it was entirely possible that the Australian Open, where he faces a challenging first round match against twenty-second seed Roberto Augut could prove to be the end of the line.

Whether Murray’s competitive career ends in the next several hours or before an adoring home crowd next June, his departure will be felt deeply by tennis fans. He was the last of the Big Four to rise to that level of prominence, and by many statistical measures the least accomplished of the quartet. But while he lost more than he won when facing the other three, and while his three Grand Slam titles are dwarfed by the fifty-one that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have claimed, Murray was always the most human of the four.

First to rise to the top, Federer was and still is the elegant artist, gliding through a match while making impossibly hard shots appear to be so much child’s play. Nadal is the aggressor, ready to take on all comers with a pugnacious style that might fit as well in a boxing ring as on a tennis court. And Djokovic may be the most complete player of them all, or at least the one with the most balanced game between offense and defense.

Murray in turn was, at his best, the ultimate counterpuncher, a player who could withstand the assault of blazing serves and blistering volleys and somehow find a way to keep a point going. Seldom the most gifted player in a tournament’s field, he was regularly the hardest worker, who would often win matches that he probably shouldn’t have by superior physical conditioning and sheer guile. Sometime churlish on the court, though mostly at himself, off it he was exceedingly generous and an outspoken advocate for pay parity between the ATP and WTA at the majors, making Murray a favorite among women players.

He defeated Djokovic in five sets at the 2012 U.S. Open to win his first Grand Slam title, and downed Milos Raonic in straight sets to win Wimbledon in 2016 on his way to becoming number one. That summer he also took the gold medal in men’s singles at the Rio Olympics, reprising his victory from four years earlier in London. He was also runner-up to Djokovic at the French Open in 2016, just as he had been at Melbourne to start that season. That finish made Murray 0-5 at the Australian Open Final, an unmatched second place record at any men’s major.

But without question Murray’s finest moment came on the grass at the All England Club in 2013. One year after losing to Federer, Murray returned to the Final at Wimbledon, this time with Djokovic on the other side of the net. With all Great Britain cheering him on, Murray produced a classic performance. After taking the first set 6-4 he faced deficits of 1-4 and 2-4 in the next two sets. Both times he rallied, winning the second set 7-5 and the third, and with it the championship, by claiming the final four games of the match. When Djokovic netted a backhand to end it, Murray became the first native of Great Britain to win the men’s title in seventy-seven years. Outside center court, the huge crowd watching the match on the massive television screen at the base of what became known as Murray’s Mound, roared their approval.

Later Murray would say that “it was tough speaking after the match.” But not as tough as Friday, when there were no words to express what it feels like to come, far too soon, to the sad end of a marvelous career.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 10, 2019

Clemson Reminds Us The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty

Less than a week ago, most sports fans and an overwhelming share of college football pundits all shared a few certainties. The Alabama Crimson Tide were, as usual, the number one team in the country, with no serious challengers. Head coach Nick Saban was the greatest gridiron teacher in the land, who while leading Alabama teams to glory somehow also found time to rehabilitate the careers of other college coaches whose careers had gone awry, such as Lane Kiffen and Mike Locksley. And when it came down to crunch time, Saban and Alabama would make the daring call that would swing the momentum of college football’s championship game in the Crimson Tide’s favor.

Taking those absolutes in order, in the runup to Monday’s finale of the collegiate football season, the New York Times ran a story about the enormous depth at Alabama under a headline suggesting that the team’s most serious challenger might well be its own second or third string roster. Saban hired Kiffen as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and Locksley as an analyst after the former’s brief appointment as USC’s head coach ended ignominiously and the latter’s career arc was sidetracked by a scandal at the University of New Mexico. And we were all reminded repeatedly of Saban’s bold genius in swapping out quarterbacks at halftime of last year’s championship tilt, when he replaced starting signal caller Jalen Hurts with backup Tua Tagovailoa at halftime, a change that ultimately led to a national title.

Supporters of the Clemson Tigers could do little to lessen the steady drumbeat of certitude. Never mind that Clemson was in the title game for the third time in four years, just one less than Alabama. Ignore the fact that the Tigers arrived at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara with a perfect 14-0 record, matching that of the Tide and marking the first time in the College Football Playoff’s short history that the season’s final game was contested by two previously unbeaten teams. Discount the 30-3 thrashing that Clemson laid on Notre Dame in its Cotton Bowl semifinal, a more impressive showing than Alabama’s 45-34 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma. The Las Vegas sportsbooks sided with the pundits, setting Clemson’s resume aside and favoring Alabama by almost a touchdown. A third national championship in four years awaited Alabama on the other side of the mere formality of sixty minutes of football.

Then, as so often happens in sports, the game intervened. For the first six plays from scrimmage all went according to the widely expected script. Clemson quickly went three-and-out after receiving the opening kickoff, and Tagovailoa began to move Alabama down the field, completing his first two passes after the Tigers punted. Then came the first inkling that perhaps the evening would not go exactly as most had assumed. Tagovailoa’s third pass was caught as well, but by the orange and white shirted A.J. Terrell rather than by the intended target, and the Clemson defender raced 44 yards down the field for a pick-six that gave the Tigers an early lead.

To Alabama’s credit, Saban’s squad immediately struck back. Just 1:15 after falling behind, the Tide evened the score on a bomb from Tagovailoa to Jerry Jeudy. But almost as quickly Clemson reclaimed the lead, driving 75 yards in just four plays, with Travis racing 17 yards around left end for the go-ahead touchdown. Then once again the Crimson Tide responded, this time with a methodical drive that was capped by a short touchdown toss to Hale Hentges. A missed extra point meant the Tigers still had a one-point lead, but on a night when it looked like both teams could score at will that hardly seemed to matter. When the Alabama defense finally joined the fray and stopped the next Clemson drive, and the Tide then moved into position for a field goal to take the lead for the first time, 16-14, it was natural to think that order was finally being restored.

What the nearly 75,000 in the stands and the millions watching at home couldn’t know was that the 25-yard field goal, coming less than one minute into the second quarter, was the last score that the favorite would record. For all the attention paid to Tagovailoa, the hero of the night was Clemson’s freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Installed as the starter by head coach Dabo Swinney at midseason in a call no less daring because it was made far from the spotlight of the national title game, Lawrence was unawed by either the moment or his opponent. After a slow start he took over the contest, repeatedly coming up with big plays. Lawrence converted ten of fifteen third down chances, running up more than 250 yards of offense just on those plays. For the game he completed 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns as Clemson scored thirty unanswered points to win 44-16. It was the most decisive championship game win in the five years of the College Football Playoff. The four-touchdown margin was also the biggest loss by Alabama in the Saban era, while Swinney’s team became the first college squad to win fifteen games in a season since the University of Pennsylvania Quakers in 1897.

In the wake of Clemson’s emphatic win, some of the same media mavens who were loudly singing Alabama’s praises right through the start of the second quarter Monday night have now jumped aboard the Tigers’ train, in part because both quarterback Lawrence and receiver Justyn Ross are true freshmen, with the potential to serve in starring roles for three more years. But the postgame infatuation with Clemson is as overdone as was the pregame swooning over Alabama. Both are outstanding major college programs, with all that is good and bad about that term. The Crimson Tide have a very long history of filling that role, while the Tigers have found their place in the sun more recently. Both should be part of the national championship conversation for the foreseeable future. What pundits and fans need to remember is that with the rapid turnover of rosters and the vagaries of the game itself college football, like every other sport and life itself, will always be unpredictable.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 6, 2019

The Hero Of The Year

There are many traditions associated with the turn of the calendar from one year to the next, from champagne toasts to watching a Waterford Crystal orb make its 141-foot descent down a pole atop the 25-story building at One Times Square as the final minute of the old year is counted down. For sports fans, the familiar year end rituals also include tracking the announcements by various organizations of the athlete of the year.

Though not the oldest such award, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year is surely the most familiar of these honorifics. First bestowed upon Roger Bannister in 1954, the year the British running legend produced the first sub-four-minute mile, the magazine’s year-end cover has been graced by athletes across the broad spectrum of sports, from the broadly popular like baseball and football to niche competitions like speed skating and cycling. The SI award was given exclusively to men for nearly two decades, until tennis great Billie Jean King shared the 1972 honor with UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. After winning 487 races in 1977 and becoming the first jockey to win $6 million in a single season, 17-year-old Steve Cauthen became the first and still only thoroughbred rider to win the award. Had the editors waited until the following year, when Cauthen rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown, they might have been tempted to have a non-human winner share the prize with the jockey.

Of course, hindsight being twenty-twenty, it’s likely that the magazine’s decision makers wouldn’t mind a couple of do-overs. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire seemed like obvious choices after their home run chase captivated millions in 1998, a few years before the extent of steroids use throughout the Great Game became widely known. For much the same reason the recognition given to Lance Armstrong in 2002 now rings hollow.

This year Sports Illustrated singled out an entire team, honoring the Golden State Warriors by declaring the reigning NBA champions “a generational phenomenon, the likes of which we might not see again for decades, if at all.” The magazine cited not just the Warriors’ three championship in the last four years, but also the franchise’s “commitment to service, community and the importance of taking a stand on matters beyond basketball.” From head coach Steve Kerr to superstar point guard Stephen Curry and on down the roster, the Warriors have joined with others in the NBA in their willingness to speak out on social and political issues.

Golden State is a worthy pick, and perhaps it’s a good thing SI didn’t wait any longer to recognize the Warriors. As this is written they are in third place in the Western Conference standings, trailing both the improbable Denver Nuggets and the less surprising Oklahoma City Thunder. Aside from those two, three Eastern Conference teams also sport better records than Golden State as the NBA regular season approaches its halfway point. Still the Warriors are in no danger of missing the playoffs, so there is plenty of time between now and June for Curry and company to regain their dominant form.

But perhaps Golden State’s very good but not overwhelming performance in the current NBA campaign was one of the reasons why Sports Illustrated stood alone in naming the Warriors as 2018’s top sportsperson. The Associated Press, which has named both a male and female Athlete of the Year since 1931, picked LeBron James, formerly the Warriors’ nemesis in Cleveland and now a divisional rival in L.A., for the third time and Serena Williams for the fifth. The latter choice was somewhat surprising, since Williams failed to win a grand slam tournament in 2018 and was last seen melting down in a straight set loss to Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open final. But she overcame serious complications from her pregnancy to even make it back to competitive play and surprised many by advancing to the finals both in New York and earlier at Wimbledon. For its part cable network ESPN honored the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and snowboarder and Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim with the Best Male and Female Athlete ESPY Awards.

Ultimately all these award winners are legitimate, either for specific accomplishments during the past year, or for a resume of achievement over their careers. They won championships and medals, broke records and spoke out on issues of the day. Yet for all their spectacular exploits, not one of the athletes named above had the impact on their respective sport in 2018 as did a young woman who spent not a single minute in athletic competition, a former gymnast who had not been called upon to demonstrate her balance, strength, coordination and flexibility in more than fifteen years.

We now know that Dr. Lawrence Nassar, for more than eighteen years the national medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics while also treating scores of injured athletes at Michigan State University, used his position of power to systematically and repeatedly molest hundreds of young woman and girls who came into his care. We know that not because of action taken by USA Gymnastics, or the United States Olympic Committee, or officials on the MSU campus in East Lansing. All those institutions failed the scores of victims, choosing instead to ignore reports of abuse, bury attempts at investigation, and conveniently fail to alert law enforcement. Not that taking that last step would have ensured Nassar was exposed. Even the FBI, when informed of accusations against Nassar in 2015, proceeded to slow walk an investigation into the doctor’s crimes.

Rather Nassar’s long overdue undoing was started by a single victim who refused to be silenced. Rachael Denhollander, who just turned 34 in early December, was a club gymnast as a teenager, and was sent to Nassar for treatment of a back injury. As he did to so many others, Nassar used his time alone with the young girl to sexually abuse her. But sixteen years after he did so, Denhollander, now an attorney, chose to fight back. She lodged a complaint with the MSU police, filed a Title IX suit against the University, and, most important, went public by sharing her story with reporters from the Indianapolis Star.

As Denhollander told the New York Times last winter, “it wasn’t something I wanted to do because of the fear and the risk behind it, but it was something I knew I had to do. I didn’t want Larry Nassar to hurt one more child. I felt a responsibility to at least try to stop him.”

Denhollander’s courage, and her refusal to be silenced, opened the floodgates, with more than 300 victims coming forward so far. Nassar is in prison, likely for the rest of his life. Michigan State entered into a $500 million settlement with the victims, USA Gymnastics has filed for bankruptcy, trying to survive the hundreds of lawsuits filed against the organization, and it is now a federal crime to fail to report sexual assault in any Olympic sport. When Nassar was sentenced last January, Denhollander was the last of 156 women to give a victim impact statement.

While not named the year’s top athlete, Denhollander was honored, along with other Nassar survivors, with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY’s, and Sports Illustrated named her the Inspiration of the Year. We fans often refer to our idols on the field as heroes, a term that anoints them with powers far beyond our own. But the easy use of the word ultimately diminishes it, and we forget what true heroism really looks like. It looks like Rachael Denhollander.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 27, 2018

The Biggest Deal In Hot Stove History

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be taking a short break while traveling over New Year’s, so there will be no post next Sunday or Thursday. The regular schedule will resume on Sunday, January 6th. Thanks as always for your support, and Happy New Year!

This time of year wasn’t called the hot stove season back then, and the deal wasn’t announced to the public until shortly after the new year.  But on the day after Christmas 1919, ninety-nine seasons ago this week, the owners of two teams agreed to the terms of a transaction that would alter the future course of both franchises and be counted as one of the most historic deals in the long saga of the Great Game.  Whatever big contracts are announced in the next few weeks, it’s unlikely that any will top what happened all those years ago.

The world, and baseball, were very different then. News traveled slowly. The Great War had accelerated the development of radio, with the introduction of vacuum tubes and electronic signal amplification, but the first great commercial stations that would soon become the source of information and entertainment for the masses had yet to go on the air. Big cities like New York and Boston had multiple competing daily newspapers that were the primary source of news, be it of politics or sports, for millions of avid readers. But that meant the word of the day was updated not by the ping of a text alert, but only when the printing presses were once again set into motion.

The national pastime was about to be engulfed in scandal, for just weeks earlier the 1919 World Series had ended in unexpected fashion, with the favored Chicago White Sox, an established power that had claimed the title two years earlier, losing to the upstart Cincinnati Reds, a team that had finished atop the National League standings for the very first time. Suspicion and rumor would eventually turn into indictments and lifetime bans for eight Chicago players. But the Black Sox scandal might never have occurred were it not for the reserve clause, which tied a player to the team holding his contract for life, and for the enmity felt by members of the White Sox against miserly owner Charles Comiskey. In those days, decades before a players’ union or free agency were even conceptualized, almost all ballplayers were at the mercy of their team’s owner for each season’s contract. Just a tiny handful of the game’s biggest stars were popular enough to possess any leverage when it came time to negotiate a salary.

In the winter of 1919 one of those fortunate few was a 24-year-old left-handed pitcher who had won two games including a shutout for Boston in the 1918 World Series, which the Red Sox had taken in six games over the Cubs. That same season the star hurler, who was equally adept at the plate, had insisted on playing the field on the days between his pitching starts, in order to contribute to Boston’s fortunes with his bat. The young George Herman Ruth, known to all as Babe since his childhood days at a Baltimore reform school, promptly led the majors in home runs in both 1918 and 1919. His 29 round-trippers in the latter year set a major league record and made Ruth a national celebrity. His rapidly growing fame drew supportive fans to Fenway Park, and that increased activity at the park’s turnstiles allowed Ruth to demand a higher salary.

Unlike owners such as Comiskey, Harry Frazee, a New York theatrical producer who had purchased controlling interest in the Red Sox in 1916, had proven willing to loosen his purse strings to obtain and keep key players. Before the start of the 1919 season, extended negotiations with Ruth resulted in a three-year contract valued at $10,000 per year. But after setting the home run mark and with his newfound fame, Ruth asked Frazee to double his salary.

The legend is that Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to finance his Broadway production of “No, No, Nanette,” but as with many legends, the truth is more complex. While “No, No, Nanette” became a smash hit on the Great White Way and brought Frazee financial security, the musical comedy didn’t begin its run until 1925, long after the Ruth transaction. To the extent that Frazee’s theatrical interests factored into his decision at all, it was to finance the long-forgotten play “My Lady Friends,” which opened in 1919 with a script written by one of the eventual co-writers of the far more successful musical that came half a decade later.

But even as he tired of Ruth’s demands, Frazee faced other financial pressures. He still owed former Red Sox owner Joseph Lannin one-fourth of the $500,000 purchase price he’d agreed to three years earlier. Frazee was also in a dispute with Lannin and the Taylor family, owners of Fenway Park, over the future of the ballfield, which raised the possibility that the Red Sox, then just tenants, might be left with no place to play. He was also in a bitter struggle with American League president Ban Johnson, who was threatening to revoke Frazee’s franchise.

Yankees owner Rupert Murdoch was one of only two other American League team owners who sided with Frazee against Johnson. That left the Red Sox chief with few choices when he decided to sell Ruth’s contract. The White Sox offered Frazee $60,000 and the soon to be banned Shoeless Joe Jackson, but Murdoch’s offer was much sweeter – $100,000 for Ruth’s contract, plus a loan of $300,000 to help him buy the ballpark from Lannin and the Taylors. It was enough to ensure that the player who would soon become known as the Sultan of Swat would earn the appellation wearing pinstripes.

In this case, the rest really is history. The Yankees had never finished first in the American League, never played in a World Series. After the acquisition of Ruth, the team’s first AL crown came in 1921, its first championship two years later. In all four Series wins in seven appearances came while the Babe was batting in the middle of New York’s lineup, setting a tradition of winning that has only rarely flagged over the ensuing decades as the Yankees became the most successful franchise in sports.

In Boston, of course, the story was very different. The 1918 championship was the fifth title for one of the American League’s charter teams, whose fans surely thought many more would follow in due course. Instead those fans endured an eighty-six year wait, and during that long hiatus often blamed their misfortune on a mythical curse brought on by Frazee’s sale of the Bambino in order to finance a Broadway musical.

Recent seasons have been far kinder to Red Sox fans, though there will surely always be some among the Boston faithful who will wonder what might have been had Babe Ruth remained at Fenway. But they should remember that as bad as those eighty-six years of often inept baseball were, things could always have been worse. After all, the collateral for that $300,000 loan to Harry Frazee was a mortgage on Fenway Park. Just imagine if he had defaulted, and for all those years the old iconic stadium was owned by the Yankees!

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 23, 2018

Another Visit From Saint Hal

A NOTE TO READERS: With the calendar about to turn to a new year, thank you for your continued support, and may your holidays be happy and peaceful. As is the tradition here at On Sports and Life, the post nearest to Christmas Day is offered with apologies and a tip of the cap to Clement Clarke Moore, who in 1823 authored “A Visit from St. Nicholas;” a poem far better known almost two centuries later by its first five words.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the town
Not a ball fan was stirring, all had bedded down;
The tickets were stored in a safe place with care,
For Opening Day, that so soon would be there;

‘Neath team logo blankets the children did snore;
Dreaming of presents from the Yankees team store;
Mamma in a Judge jersey, I in a Luke Voit,
Were ready for sleep after words quite adroit,

When from out in the stands there arose a great shout,
I hurried out to see what it was all about.
Away to the cheap seats I flew like a flash,
To the third deck I ran all in a mad dash.

The lights shining down on the infield below,
Made it seem like a day game to my eyes you know,
When what did I see in that same location,
But a little red sleigh pulled by the starting rotation,

With a blue-suited driver both lively and quick,
But too tall and beardless, it wasn’t St. Nick.
More rapid than fastballs his pitchers they came,
And he shouted, and whistled, and called each by name:

“Now, Sevy! Now, CC! Now Masahiro you!
On, J.A.! On, Paxton! On Montgomery too!
To the top of the mound! To the center field wall!
Now strike one! Strike two! Strike them out all!

As Giancarlo’s homers launch into the sky,
Big blasts by he and Aaron away they do fly;
So into the air all those pitchers took flight
With that sleigh and the driver up into the night.

And then from the rooftop I heard the sharp beats
The prancing and pawing of players in cleats.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
Down the chimney Hal Steinbrenner came with a bound!

He was dressed in a suit, and his shoes had a shine,
About what you’d expect, for he owns the Bronx nine;
He carried some contracts, he hadn’t been lax,
Fresh off a year without the luxury tax.

He gave me a wink and a nod of his head
Which led me to think I had nothing to dread;
So I ventured to speak, and this I did state:
An even hundred wins; last season was great!

But the Red Sox are champs, that ruined our day,
They will aim to repeat, can we bar the way?
With Didi banged up, the curse of Tommy John,
And the pitching has holes, but Corbin is gone.

Hal said not to worry, we might sign Manny,
Though we need to be sure he’ll bust his fanny;
We’ll look at free agents and our prospects too,
And consider a trade for a hurler or two.

He turned from me then, and went straight to his task,
Filling the stockings; but I had one last ask,
Is this our year, because I’d like to know soon;
But this is the Great Game, which plays its own tune.

Hal rose up the chimney, then whistled his team,
And away they all flew as if on a light beam.
But I heard him exclaim, as they shot to the moon,
“Happy Christmas to all, for Spring Training comes soon!”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 20, 2018

Riding The Matt Harvey Rollercoaster

“We count everything in baseball. God, that’s all we do.” The words came from the mouth of Kevin Costner, playing the fictional pitcher Billy Chapel in the 1999 film “For Love of the Game,” the last of the actor’s trifecta of baseball movies, after “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams.” Though the source may be a screenplay, the statement reflects a reality as old as the Great Game itself. Baseball, as every fan knows, has always been about its numbers. From the standings to the statistics, the latter running from the age-old and simple calculations of a hitter’s batting average or a pitcher’s wins and losses (Costner delivers his line in response to his character’s new love interest expressing surprise that he knows the number of games he’s lost in his career), to the complex modern metrics of WAR and FIP and ERA+, generations of fans have followed baseball by tracking its plethora of numbers.

For the modern game deep in the offseason, the numbers that attract attention this time of year are those preceded by dollar signs. The hot stove is ablaze, and even as the Yule approaches fans hang on every rumor of a free agent signing and assess every announcement of a done deal for how it impacts the likely fortunes of their favorite franchise.

Where will Manny sign? Will he or Bryce really get $400 million? Did the Nationals overpay for Patrick Corbin? Did the Red Sox get a deal bringing back Nathan Eovaldi? The real answer to all those questions is the same, namely that only time will tell. But the conventional wisdom seems to be, New York or Philadelphia, probably not, probably so, and only if everything goes right. And then there is the story behind the hot stove’s latest numbers, which are 1, 11 and 3 – one year, $11 million, with incentives that could push the deal another $3 million higher. That’s the deal the right-hander Matt Harvey, once a New York Met and more recently a Cincinnati Red, inked with the Los Angeles Angels Tuesday.

We refer to the career arc of athletes, but that conjures an image of a rising line curving smoothly up to a peak, before starting a gradual decline as time, the enemy of every one of our sporting heroes, takes its inexorable toll. Rollercoaster would be a far more accurate description of Harvey’s path through the major leagues. Like a fully loaded string of cars chugging up a coaster’s initial climb, Harvey moved straight up through the minors after being selected by the Mets as the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft. Just two summers later he was making his big league debut, filling in for an injured Johan Santana. He set a franchise record by fanning eleven batters in that initial outing and averaged nearly that many per nine innings over the balance of his rookie campaign.

With a four-seam fastball that regularly flirted with triple digits on the radar gun, Harvey had established himself as the ace of starting rotation by the very next season. He was the National League Pitcher of the Month in April, when he took a no-hitter into the 7th inning of a contest early in the month and then a perfect game into the same frame a couple of weeks later. The Mets were the hosts of that year’s All-Star Game, and Harvey got the start for the NL before adoring fans at Citi Field. But his first stomach-churning career plummet came before season’s end, when Harvey was diagnosed with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm. Tommy John surgery swiftly followed.

The usual year-long recovery period stretched longer when the Mets front office chose not to bring Harvey back toward the end of the 2014 season, since the team was hopelessly out of the playoff race. The decision displeased the pitcher, who had been aggressively rehabbing in hopes of taking the mound before that year’s campaign ended. It would not be the last dispute between Harvey and Mets management.

Back in the rotation in 2015, Harvey again seemed destined for greatness when he debuted with six scoreless innings against the Nationals while striking out nine. Gotham “Dark Knight,” as he had been dubbed by Sports Illustrated, continued to post impressive numbers all season long. But as his innings count climbed after more than a year on the shelf, first his agent Scott Boras and then Harvey complained about the workload. The carping dented his tough guy image and soured a segment of the team’s fans on their one-time hero, marking another downward turn in his image.

But once again Harvey rebounded, this time by throwing well in the postseason as New York worked its way to the World Series. He beat the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS, and the Cubs in Game 1 of the NLCS. He took a no-decision in the first game of the Series against Kansas City, and was back on the mound for Game 5, with the Royals looking to close out the Mets and claim the title. With a capacity crowd of 45,000 cheering him on, Harvey handcuffed the Royals through eight scoreless innings, while his teammates pushed across one run in the 1st and another in the 6th for a 2-0 lead. When he walked off the mound at the end of that effort, his pitch count up over one hundred, Mets faithful stood as one and saluted their hero. It was to be Harvey’s final highlight moment in a New York uniform.

In the dugout Harvey convinced manager Terry Collins to let him pitch the 9th. He surrendered a leadoff walk and a run-scoring double before Collins came to get him. The Mets bullpen allowed another run in to tie the score, and Kansas City eventually tasted glory in the 12th. Over the next two seasons his fastball velocity plummeted even as his ERA rose while Harvey shuffled on and off the disabled list with various injuries. Along the way he incurred the wrath of management, his teammates and fans by failing to show up for a game after a night out on the town. In 2018 he went 0-2 with an unsightly ERA before the Mets relegated him to the bullpen. He was no better in a relief role, and New York tried to demote him to the minors. But Harvey had sufficient seniority that he had to consent to being sent down, and he refused. Shortly thereafter New York traded the one-time superhero to Cincinnati.

Where he staged yet one more comeback. Just when it seemed like his career was destined for the junkpile, Harvey was, if not the dominant pitcher of old, certainly serviceable. He went 7-7 for the Reds with his best strikeouts per nine innings number since 2015.

That was enough to convince the Angels to give the first-time free agent, who will have just turned 30 when next season starts, what on its face looks like a generous deal. The warning signs in Harvey’s story meant L.A. was going to limit its exposure, thus the one-year term. But even for just a season, is Matt Harvey worth $11 million (if he makes the various incentive milestones, the Angels and their fans will be happy to pay him the extra $3 million)? The real answer of course, is that only time will tell. But whether he ascends to new heights or plunges to even greater depths, L.A.’s gamble means that in the game that counts everything, Matt Harvey can now count to eleven million.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 16, 2018

Quantum Theory And The NFL Standings

The NFL’s regular season winds down, and the league’s standings suggest that change is in the air. Seven of the ten spots in the last five Super Bowls have been occupied by just three teams. New England has made three appearances and both Denver and Seattle two each. As this is written the Broncos have already been eliminated from this year’s postseason, and while the Patriots and Seahawks are both in now, neither has locked down a playoff spot with just two regular season games to go, and New England has now lost back-to-back contests. Of the three other franchises to make it to the big game in that timeframe, the Atlanta Falcons already know their season ends in two weeks, and both the Carolina Panthers and defending champion Philadelphia Eagles need to run the table and get some help in order to squeeze into the playoff bracket.

The teams at the top of that projected bracket are Kansas City and Houston in the AFC, and the Saints and Rams in the NFC. It’s been nearly half a century since K.C. played in a Super Bowl, and the Texans haven’t done so in their history. The two NFC franchises have been only slightly more successful, with a single Super Bowl appearance each in this century.

Because of the single elimination format, the NFL playoffs are more unpredictable than any of the other three major North American sports leagues; on any given Sunday, as they say. Perhaps the season-long heroics of 23-year-old Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes or Houston’s remarkable turnaround after an 0-3 start won’t matter come January, and the Foxborough dynasty will represent the AFC one more time. Perhaps the Rams’ Jared Goff will come back to earth and the Saints’ Drew Brees will be bothered by turning forty during the postseason, and the Seahawks, will slip through on the NFC side. A repeat of Super Bowl XLIX, moved from the Arizona desert to Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the retractable roof edifice that just hosted Major League Soccer’s championship match. Perhaps order will be restored.

Before fans learn whether than will be the case, they must first navigate the season’s final two weeks, a period in which the focus in on the top of the standings, but much of the drama is down in the middle of the pack. That’s where a knot of clubs that range from barely to not quite good enough battle for the final playoff spots, and a chance to extend their season for at least one week.

The Chargers, or perhaps Kansas City, will be one of the four Wild Cards. Like the Rams, Los Angeles’s other team is having an unexpectedly good season, sporting a record of 11-3 that is a match for Kansas City. Thursday night the Rams went into Arrowhead Stadium and stunned the home crowd by going for a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown in the final minute, rather than kicking the extra point to tie the game and wait for overtime. When a wide-open Mike Williams cradled Goff’s toss in the end zone, L.A. had a 29-28 win. But the Rams remain in second place because K.C. has the better division record at 4-1, over L.A.’s 3-2. If Oakland upsets Kansas City and Los Angeles beats Denver in the regular season’s final week the division winner will be decided by going deep into the NFL’s tiebreaking procedures.

The other three Wild Card spots are currently held by decidedly less impressive teams, with several equally middling squads in what passes for hot pursuit. After being upset by the 49ers on Sunday, the Seahawks are just above .500 at 8-6, and thus half a game ahead of the Vikings at 7-6-1. Washington’s .500 record has it just behind Minnesota, with Carolina and Philadelphia both alive as this is written with matching records of 6-7. However, the Eagles must contend with the Rams Sunday night, and the Panthers play the Saints on Monday, so the slim hopes of both franchises could shortly be reduced to a thread.

It’s a similarly tight battle for the remaining AFC Wild Card spot, with three teams currently at 8-6. Baltimore and its quarterback controversy is the squad that’s in for now, based on the tiebreaking criteria. But one slip by Lamar Jackson, who resurrected the Ravens season after replacing an injured Joe Flacco in Week 11, and either the Colts or Titans will be happy to take Baltimore’s spot. Also still clinging to hope are the Browns at 6-7-1.

Yes, it’s true. With just two games remaining, the Cleveland Browns have not yet been eliminated from the postseason. While it’s unlikely the Browns will be playing in January, that it is still possible after 1-15 and 0-16 records the past two years has fans along the banks of Lake Erie in a state of happy shock. The second biggest surprise on this list is Washington, which lost both starting quarterback Alex Smith to a gruesome leg injury and backup Colt McCoy to a less stomach-churning broken leg. The team then decided that Mark Sanchez, last seen fumbling the ball after running into the rear end of a New York Jets teammate, and Josh Johnson, who hadn’t started an NFL game in seven years, were the best quarterback options available, presumably because neither was named Colin Kaepernick. Johnson managed to beat the woeful Jaguars 16-13 on Sunday, snapping a four-game losing streak and keeping Washington in the hunt. Or so it says on the NFL’s website.

In truth all the teams outside the playoff bracket but still technically alive, as well as three of the four currently holding down Wild Card spots, are like Schrodinger’s cat. The thought experiment, designed in 1935 by an Austrian physicist for whom it’s named, illustrates the paradox inherent in popular theories of quantum mechanics. Those theories hold that at the subatomic, at the smallest scales of nature, things can exist in different states until they are observed, at which point an outcome results. Schrodinger postulated a cat inside a sealed box with a radioactive source, a Geiger counter, and a flask of poison. If a single atom of the radioactive source decays, the Geiger counter detects it and triggers the breaking of the flask, killing the cat. The unknown is the rate of decay, so under quantum theory until one opens the box, the cat is both alive and dead.

Of course, we all know felines can’t be both alive and dead at the same time, though they can act that way. But in the middle ranks of the NFL as the schedule nears its end, perhaps “on any given Sunday” now has a new meaning

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 13, 2018

The Hall Of Fame Will Survive Harold Baines

Oh, the humanity! One could not help but think of radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s anguished cry as he witnessed the 1937 Hindenburg disaster earlier this week, when news came that the National Baseball Hall of Fame had exploded in a conflagration every bit as dramatic and devastating as the one that brought down the great German dirigible as it attempted to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst all those decades ago. The accelerant for the Hall of Fame catastrophe was not hydrogen, but the election of Harold Baines to Hall membership by the Today’s Game Era committee, one of four variants of the revamped Veterans Committee, charged with considering candidates no longer eligible for election by the regular balloting by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Or at least it sure seemed like the Hall and perhaps much of the upstate New York village of Cooperstown must have been destroyed based on the reaction of many sportswriters to the announcement of Baines’s election. In the Washington Post, Neil Greenburg wrote “while this is a time to celebrate for Baines, it’s also a time to mourn for the standards of the Hall of Fame.” Kyle Koster used his column inches in USA Today to dismiss the vote as “a joke,” and suggested that the committee members had used their ballots to say “’screw you’ to the analytical community or any other sane person.” The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn added “I don’t want to diminish Baines, but it’s unavoidable. He passes no Hall of Fame tests.” And Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg admitted that “I feel a bit for Baines, who earned the ultimate compliment only to be told he didn’t remotely deserve it,” before adding “This is because he didn’t remotely deserve it.”

Showing somewhat more restraint as befits a writer at the newspaper of record, the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner suggested that the induction of Baines might open the Hall to a far wider range of candidates. Citing a long list of names from the reasonably well-known like Don Mattingly and Dwight Evans to the more obscure like Bobby Grich and Andy Van Slyke, all of whom had either modern metrics like WAR or OPS+, or in Mattingly’s case traditional statistics such as batting average and both offensive and defensive awards far greater than Baines, Kepner was left to wonder, “where the line for induction now sits.”

The answer of course, is that it sits exactly where it always has, namely wherever the requisite number of voters decide that it does on any given ballot. By most standards, Harold Baines does not measure up as a Hall of Famer. While he started out as a right fielder, Baines played exclusively in the American League and his 22-year career was made possible by the junior circuit’s designated hitter rule. From 1987 through his retirement after the 2001 season he played defense in just 82 games, barely half a season in total. Historically designated hitters have had difficulty winning support from the BBWAA voters. That may explain in part why Baines topped out at 6.1% of the vote while on the regular Hall ballot, from which he was dropped after just five years when his total fell below the 5% threshold to remain.

But his one-dimensional play was not the only reason Baines drew so little support. His career batting average was a respectable but hardly dynamic .289, and while he recorded nearly 2,900 career hits, that number was more about longevity than anything else. Baines didn’t have a single 200-hit season. He received MVP votes just four times and never finished higher than ninth in the voting for the game’s top award. He led the league in any traditional statistical field exactly once, when his .541 slugging percentage was the AL’s best in 1984. The average Hall of Famer was a league leader in one or more important stats nine times.

But the Veterans Committee process is very different from the regular balloting by writers. Each year’s committee, which is charged with considering candidates from a specific period of the Great Game, is made up of a mix of Hall of Famers, baseball executives, and journalists. Just as with the regular balloting, a candidate must receive 75% of the vote, but that means twelve out of sixteen votes rather than three-quarters of several hundred. While the BBWAA members may have some interaction, they cast their votes largely in isolation. In contrast, the Veterans Committee members meet together to consider and discuss each year’s list of candidates before eventually casting their ballots.

Baines received twelve of the sixteen votes from this year’s committee, exactly the number needed. He began his career with the Chicago White Sox, whose owner Jerry Reinsdorf was one of the committee members. Another member was the Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa, who managed Baines in both Chicago and Oakland. The committee also included Pat Gillick, voted into the Hall for his success as a general manager, including time in Baltimore which happened to coincide with the years Baines wore an Orioles uniform.

Was there cronyism in the result, after some lobbying in the privacy of a closed-door meeting by one or two or three people who knew Baines well during his career? LaRussa’s angry, bitter, and repeated denunciations of the very idea in the days since the committee’s decision was announced sure sound like that suggestion may have struck the proverbial chord. If that were the case, history shows quite clearly that 2018 was not the first such time the Veterans Committee demonstrated a bit of favoritism.

But in the end, so what? The Great Game’s Hall has always been an imperfect assembly, and the criteria for election have always been fluid. The famed character clause meant nothing at all when it came to elevating a rabid racist like Ty Cobb, but at least so far, it bars the door to the hitter with the most career home runs and the pitcher with the most career Cy Young Awards. And there are fans who suggest that a Hall of Fame without Pete Rose is not worthy of the name. But Cooperstown will survive all this, because in full it still reminds us of the best of the Great Game, and its imperfections also remind that it is the exceedingly rare nine innings, in sports or in life, that become a perfect game.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 9, 2018

Have The Celtics Righted The Ship?

Now that’s more like it. The Boston Celtics trampled the Chicago Bulls 133-77 on Saturday, winning their fifth straight game. The 56-point margin set a franchise record, surpassing a 51-point trouncing of the Philadelphia Warriors in March 1962. Perhaps it was the embarrassment of that debacle that drove the Warriors out of Philly and all the way across the continent to northern California later that same year. While the Bulls may not be forced to relocate, they will join the 1986 Houston Rockets in the NBA record books as a home team losing a game by the most points in the history of the league.

The victory gives Boston its longest winning streak of the season, and none too soon for the team’s increasingly nervous fans. After cheering their team as it overcame the horrific season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward five minutes into last season’s very first contest and went all the way to Game 7 of the Conference Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston faithful saw this year’s edition of the Celtics as a favorite in the conference and a legitimate threat to defending champion Golden State and other western powerhouses.

Instead through the first quarter of the schedule Boston’s play was often uninspired and the offense rarely seemed in sync. After an early four-game winning streak pushed the Celtics’ record to 6-2, Boston dropped eight of its next twelve to sit at .500 after twenty games. That 10-10 mark left the Celtics in a tie for sixth place in the Eastern Conference two weeks ago, a lot closer to being outside of the playoff-bound top eight than to the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

That start was in contrast to last year, when all seemed lost less than halfway into the first quarter of the first game, with Hayward writhing in agony on the floor of Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. Instead rookie Jayson Tatum and second year man Jaylen Brown stepped up and provided the support Kyrie Irving needed to propel the Celtics on a sixteen-game early season winning streak. That was the kind of play fans expected this year, with Hayward back and the roster fully restored. But Brown regressed through the first eight weeks of the new campaign, and while Tatum was not quite so missing in action, he fell into the bad habit of playing isolation basketball, going one-on-one too often rather than relying on his teammates.

Coach Brad Stevens also struggled to put a consistently effective group on the floor, juggling lineups from game to game in a frustrating effort to get 48 minutes of solid play from his charges. That began to change when Stevens moved Hayward into a sixth man role, using the player he coached in college as an offensive spark off the bench. In New Orleans on the Monday after Thanksgiving the Celtics stormed to an early 10-2 lead over the Pelicans, and never looked back, rolling up a 124-107 victory. Four nights later Boston trampled Cleveland 128-95 to the delight of a packed TD Garden, with seven players scoring in double digits.

Since then the Celtics have added a 9-point road win against Minnesota and a 28-point home dismantling of New York, avenging an ugly loss to the Knicks that happened on the parquet just two weeks earlier, before traveling to Chicago for the historic win over the Bulls. The winning streak, currently the longest in the league, has nudged Boston up the Eastern Conference standings. While the Celtics are still five games adrift of the Raptors, with the 76ers, surprising Bucks, and the Pacers in the way, Boston finally has some momentum in what has been an unpredictable early season throughout the NBA.

Toronto and Philadelphia were expected to battle with Boston for supremacy in the East, but Milwaukee has clearly improved over the team that snuck into the playoffs with the seventh seed last spring. Giannis Antetokounmpo is proving to be not just the “Greek Freak,” but a legitimate MVP candidate. Much farther down the standings, the Washington Wizards are trying to save a season that appears in greater jeopardy than Boston’s ever did. With John Wall trying to play through an injury, Bradley Beal has been carrying Washington, but every time the Wizards put together a couple of games where they look like the team that showed so much promise last year, they follow it with a clunker like Saturday’s 15-point loss to Cleveland.

The Western Conference has its own set of surprises. Golden State is on top, but the Warriors have looked anything but invincible amid public sniping between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Last year’s number one playoff seed Houston has collapsed to a sub-.500 record and a spot near the bottom of the division, while the Los Angeles Clippers, perpetually the “other” team playing at the Staples Center behind the glitz and glamour of the Lakers, are just a single game out of first place.

Roughly seventy percent of the NBA’s schedule remains to be played, so there’s plenty of time for early surprises, both positive and negative, to give way to predictability. Still in Boston at least, the last two weeks have had a calming effect on a fan base that was expressing its collective anxiety loudly enough to cause guard Terry Rozier to suggest “everybody can shut up, because everybody can be very annoying.” It’s true that the C’s winning streak hasn’t come against the toughest of foes. Only two of their recent opponents are .500 teams. But wins are wins, and five in a row has fans in New England breathing again, and even daring to dream.

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