Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 17, 2017

A Half-Century On, Honoring The Impossible Dream

They are half a century older now; most of their heads are gray and most of their waistlines are thicker. Yet when seventeen members of the 1967 Red Sox stood behind the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park on Wednesday evening and the applause and cheers poured down from the stands at the old ballyard, for those fans old enough to do so it was easy to recall that incredible golden summer now five decades gone. It was the Summer of Love in San Francisco, with as many as a hundred thousand hippies descending on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. But a continent’s width to the east, in Boston it was the summer of the Impossible Dream, with a record 1.7 million fans, more than the previous two years combined, passing through Fenway’s turnstiles to witness their team’s improbable run from the cellar to the mountaintop. It was the year that those aging men, then filled with the vitality of youth, won over a city and in so doing gave new life to a franchise.

When that season began even the hardiest Red Sox fan could not have foreseen how it would unfold. Boston had last won the American League pennant in 1946. The team had not finished within ten games of the league lead since 1950, and had suffered through eight losing seasons in a row, coming in ninth in the ten-team league both of the previous two years. As befits a team as hapless as the Red Sox were in those years, attendance had withered, topping a million only once in the preceding eight seasons. Owner Tom Yawkey was threatening to move the team out of Boston, and more than a few disillusioned Red Sox faithful would have said “good riddance” if he had.

There had been minimal changes to the roster that ran up 90 losses in 1966, with the major off-season move being the hiring of Dick Williams as manager. But it was the first big league posting for Williams, then just 37 years old, so expectations were understandably low when Boston opened at home in mid-April. Barely more than 8,300 showed up to watch Jim Lonborg record his first win of the season, 5-4 over the White Sox. Fewer than half that number were on hand the next day when Boston reverted to form, falling 8-5. When the team then traveled to the Bronx and lost three of four to the Yankees, who were in the midst of their own period of wandering in the baseball wilderness, another miserable season appeared to be underway.

But for close observers there were some early signs of hope. The one win over New York was delivered by the arm of 21-year old rookie pitcher Billy Rohr, who came within one strike of a no hitter. After the quick road trip Boston won six of seven, and finished April with a winning record. They were still above .500 at the end of May and again one month later. If not exactly world beaters, the Red Sox were at least in the top half of the AL standings for the first time in years. On July 1st Lonborg won his tenth game against just three losses. Young outfielder Tony Conigliaro, a fan favorite as a Massachusetts native, was on his way to becoming the youngest player in AL history to reach the 100 home run threshold, and Carl Yastrzemski, Boston’s most recognizable star, was having a season at the plate that would go down in history.

The Red Sox played twenty-nine games that July and won nineteen of them. A team that began the month having a respectable year ended it in the thick of the pennant race. That race, early on with as many as four other teams and in the longest season’s closing days with the Tigers and Twins, went all the way to the final weekend. As Boston piled up victories through the summer months the once empty seats at Fenway started to fill, and fans who had all but lost hope had reason to believe once again.

The year was not without adversity. On August 18th Conigliaro came to the plate in the 5th inning, facing California Angels’ right-hander Jack Hamilton. In the days when batting helmets were little more than hardened ball caps, a Hamilton fastball rode up and in and caught Conigliaro full in the face. Struck just above his left cheek bone, the Boston outfielder was knocked unconscious. He did not return for a year and a half, and his early promise was never fully realized. But as if in tribute to their fallen comrade the Red Sox won that game and the next seven that followed.

The season’s final weekend arrived with the Twins at Fenway for a two-game set, while in Detroit the Tigers were playing back-to-back double-headers against the Angels. On Saturday, the Red Sox won 6-4, erasing Minnesota’s one game lead in the standings. Detroit and California split their pair, leaving the Tigers a half game back. On the regular season’s final day, Lonborg outpitched Dean Chance in a matchup of twenty-game winners. After the Red Sox won they waited for news of the second game in the Motor City, where the Tigers had taken the first half of the twin bill. When word came of the Angels 8-5 victory, the 92-70 Boston Red Sox were champions of the American League.

Lonborg won the Cy Young and Yaz the MVP and the Triple Crown, the last man to achieve the latter for the ensuing forty-five years. But those Red Sox came up short against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1967 World Series, losing in seven games. Boston would taste defeat in the Fall Classic again in 1975 and bitterly so in 1986. More recent fans in attendance on Wednesday, familiar only with their team’s great success of late, including three championships in the past thirteen years, might have wondered why such a fuss was being made over a group of gray-haired retired players before the game against that same franchise from St. Louis.

Spoiled by success, those fans cannot possibly appreciate what it must have felt like to the Red Sox faithful in that magical year. The year when after season upon season of disappointment, a team and its fan base was transported without warning to the loftiest reaches of the Great Game. When he was introduced as Boston’s new skipper Williams, then many managerial seasons away from his eventual Hall of Fame induction, promised that his team would “win more ballgames than we lose.” A modest goal, but set against Boston’s history at the time, it seemed audacious. Until Williams and the 1967 Red Sox went out and did that and so much more, by making an Impossible Dream come true.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 13, 2017

Steady Down The Stretch, Thomas Wins The PGA

It was a bad week for the experts and handicappers, though perhaps all it proved is that trying to predict the winner of a golf tournament is a risky business at best. The PGA Championship at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club was Jordan Spieth’s first opportunity to win the career Grand Slam after his recent win at the Open Championship.  That gutty performance made him a popular pick by many pundits. The venue, usually the site of the Wells Fargo Championship on the regular PGA Tour schedule, is one that Rory McIlroy has played especially well, so naturally he joined Spieth on the short list of favorites.

But immediately after last year’s Wells Fargo, Quail Hollow underwent a significant makeover. The 1st and 2nd holes were essentially combined into one long opening dogleg par-4. To make up for the elimination of the old par-3 2nd, the 5th hole, a par-5, was reconfigured into two holes. The first of those was a par-3 that proved unpopular with many in the field, as its firm green refused to hold numerous tee shots that players thought had been well-struck. In addition all the greens were reseeded and several other holes were tweaked. Throw in the thicker rough typical of a major championship, and Quail Hollow was a decidedly different layout than what regular participants in the Wells Fargo know.

Whether because of the changes to the course or the lingering effects of his back injury, McIlroy spent most of the week in neutral, as did both Spieth and Dustin Johnson, another one of the pre-tournament favorites. Spieth never broke 70 on the par-71 layout, finishing at 2-over for the tournament. McIlroy’s only round in the 60s was a closing 68 that enabled him to post a total just one shot better than Spieth. Johnson too waited until Sunday to put up a solid score. Four over par going into the final round, he made the final circuit in 67 to get back to even par.

But while those three were never factors, two other golfers cited by many pundits as good bets to take home the Wanamaker Trophy instead left North Carolina with nothing more than thoughts of what might have been. Rickie Fowler’s first PGA Tour victory came at the 2012 Wells Fargo, and he opened the PGA with a 2-under par 69, better than all but seven players. But hidden in that solid number was a disastrous triple-bogey seven at the par-4 5th hole. Then in Saturday’s third round Fowler had moved to 5-under for the tournament as he came to Quail Hollow’s three closing holes, the so-called Green Mile. The three holes regularly play as the toughest closing stretch of any course on the Tour’s schedule, and relative to par they easily proved to be the hardest of any of this year’s major venues. Fowler’s Saturday turned to dust as he went bogey, double-bogey, bogey on the Green Mile. A closing 67 left him three shots adrift of the winning score and doubtless badly wishing he could replay just four particular holes.

Former world number one Jason Day was 6-under at the tournament’s midway point, but had given four of those shots back through the 13th hole of Saturday’s round. Then Day ran off three straight birdies to climb back into contention. After a bogey at the 17th Day’s drive on the 18th went wide right. Just minutes before Louis Oosthuizen had found himself in a similar position. Oostie chipped back out into the fairway and then hit a fine wedge close to the flag and made the par-saving putt. Day instead attempted an impossible hook up and over the trees. The gamble backfired when his shot wound up in a bush, leading to an unplayable lie penalty. After his drop Day’s fourth came to rest in deep rough, and his misadventure was far from over. His scorecard eventually displayed a snowman – an 8 – that ended his hopes for a second major title.

The favorites may have been flailing and failing, but the one certainty was that someone was going to win the PGA Championship. That player’s identity was very much unknown as Sunday’s final round moved to the back nine, when five players were briefly tied for the lead at 7-under par. One of those was Francisco Molinari, playing several holes ahead of the final two pairings. The Italian reach that number with four birdies in the space of five holes, but a bogey at the 16th dropped him back to 6-under. He became the clubhouse leader when he parred in to post that total.

The other four golfers who were part of that logjam were the members of those last two groups. The unlikely final pair of Kevin Kisner and Chris Stroud had eight holes to play at the time of the five-way tie. The two combined for just five pars over those holes. Kisner did make two birdies, but also three bogeys and a double to drop back to minus-4. Stroud was the last man into the tournament on the strength of a win at last week’s Barracuda Championship, a Tour stop for those golfers not in the limited-field WGC Bridgestone. His improbable spot at the top of the leader board ended with four bogeys and a double for a final nine 42, plunging Stroud all the way down to 1-under and a tie for ninth place.

The next to last pairing had two rising stars, 25-year old Hideki Matsuyama and 24-year old Justin Thomas. Fresh off his win at the Bridgestone, Matsuyama was trying to become the first Japanese to win a men’s major. But carrying the weight of an entire country’s hopes was already proving a heavy burden. Matsuyama had led alone at 8-under after a birdie at the 10th hole, but a bogey one hole later created the five-way tie. It was the first of three straight bogeys for Matsuyama. He then rallied with back-to-back birdies, but when he missed a short par putt on the 16th hole Japan’s hopes went a glimmering.

That left Thomas, who prior to this week had won four times on the PGA Tour, once each in 2015 and 2016 and twice early this year. By coincidence Matsuyama was the runner-up in two of those events, and in another oddity, none of them came on the U.S. mainland. The two wins this year were in Hawaii and the two earlier victories were at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, a tournament co-sanctioned by the Asian and PGA Tours.

Because of that Thomas may have been best known to casual fans as the golfing face of his sponsor Ralph Lauren or as one of the members of the Spring Break trips led by Spieth and Fowler. But he has plenty of game. His victory at the Sony Open in January included a 59 in the opening round. At the U.S. Open in June he charged his way into the final Sunday pairing by matching the then-record for lowest round in a major with a 63 in the third round. In both of those jaw-dropping performances he closed with an eagle-3.

There was nothing that dramatic at Quail Hollow, but Thomas had by far the steadiest back nine of any of the leaders. After a routine par at the 12th he holed a forty-foot chip from the fringe on the par-3 13th, and suddenly led by two. Three more pars followed before Thomas struck a perfect 7 iron over the water to fifteen feet at the 17th. When the birdie putt dropped he had a cushion that allowed him to play the 18th conservatively after an errant drive. It was a two-stroke victory and first major title for Thomas, who will now certainly be known for more than the Polo logo or YouTube videos from the Bahamas. At the major that’s organized by the PGA of America, the son and grandson of PGA pros may have been an unexpected winner, but he was definitely a deserving one.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 10, 2017

Change Is Coming To The PGA Tour

The PGA Championship, the final men’s major golf tournament of the year got underway on Thursday on Quail Hollow’s recently reconfigured layout. A major championship is almost never decided after the first eighteen, which is a good thing for the pre-tournament favorites, most of whom treaded water on day one. Dustin Johnson and Jason Day both finished at 1-under par, while Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy each returned a score of 1-over 72. Alone at the top of the leader board for most of the day after signing early for a 67 was 27-year old Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark, a member of the European Tour who until Thursday was surely utterly unknown to even ardent American golf fans. Olesen was joined at 4-under by one of the last players to finish, 33-year old American Kevin Kisner. Although Kisner has two PGA Tour wins including a victory in Fort Worth earlier this year, his is not exactly a household name either. The two are one shot ahead of five Americans who, apart from U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, are all similarly anonymous.

Perhaps by Sunday evening one of those virtual unknowns will have shed that status for the far more desirable rank of major champion. More likely those on the first page of Thursday’s leader board will fall back into obscurity by the time this year’s PGA Championship reaches its conclusion. With fifty-four holes to play there will be plenty of time to focus on both the golf shots that ultimately determine the winner and the quality of Quail Hollow’s redesign as a major championship venue. For now fans and pundits alike are still talking about announcements earlier in the week that heralded changes to a game that doesn’t always readily yield to alterations.

The first big change was sartorial. Because this major is organized by the PGA of America, players were allowed to wear shorts during the three days of practice rounds. The association of club professionals announced back in February that long pants were no longer mandatory during practice and pro-am rounds at any of its events. The change aligned the PGA with the European Tour, which dropped its mandatory long pants restriction during practice rounds early last year. With temperatures in the 80s and the humidity high, most players in the field took advantage of the relaxed dress code. Observers from the PGA Tour, which up until 1999 mandated long pants for not just players but caddies as well and which has steadfastly refused to alter the restriction for competitors, even at tournaments played under extreme weather conditions, were no doubt dismayed to see that the practice rounds went off without incident and that no fans fainted at the sight of Bubba Watson’s knees.

A more profound change was announced on Tuesday, when the heads of the PGA of American and the PGA Tour confirmed what the Associated Press had first reported one day earlier, namely that beginning in 2019 the PGA Championship will move to May, and that to accommodate that shift the Players Championship will move from May back to its original date in March. Thus, the new schedule will have the Players as the leadoff event in terms of majors or near-majors, followed by the Masters in April, PGA in May, U.S. Open in June, and the Open Championship in July.

The news was greeted warmly by the players, who were especially unhappy with the schedule last year when the PGA was moved to late July, right on the heels of the Open, to make room for the Olympics. Most of them also agreed that TPC Sawgrass was generally in better condition and a more challenging layout because of the prevailing winds in March.

But the two moves announced this week are likely just the beginning of a revamping of golf’s annual calendar. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan would like to get away from having to compete with the NFL for television time and viewers. Now that the majors will conclude in July with the presentation of the Claret Jug to the “champion golfer of the year,” the next logical move will be to shift the FedEx Cup Playoff events forward so that the Tour Championship finishes by Labor Day weekend. While achieving Monahan’s goal that in turn will almost certainly mean reducing the playoffs from four tournaments to three, with either the Dell Technologies Championship in greater Boston or the BMW Championship in the Chicago area the likely loser of FedEx Cup Playoff status.

Beyond that there is the question of whether the Tour’s current wrap around season, with the first event scheduled for October, can be sustained. The fall tournaments typically have weak fields, with most stars opting for some time off. Many players contend that the PGA Tour needs a true off-season, just like the major team sports. It’s an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” for fans argument, and it has some merit. The players also contend that they need time to work on their games, although for many that contention is disingenuous. The European Tour as well as those in Asia and Australia provide golfing opportunities year-round, and unlike the PGA Tour those other organizations allow sponsors to pay appearance fees to players. If the American tour went dark for a couple of months many pros would be flying about pocketing large checks rather than pounding balls on the range or spending time with their families.

Coming from a very different angle are some in the media who note that the schedule announced this week extends the time between the final major of one season – now the PGA, soon the Open Championship – and the Masters, the first major of the following year. Their solution is to add a fifth major, played in Asia or Australia sometime in September or October. It’s a longshot idea, though it does give a nod to the reality that golf is an international sport.

Sponsorship commitments and the basic inertia of a sport steeped in tradition mean that any reduction in the PGA Tour’s schedule, much less a fifth major, will not happen soon. But from the appearance of knobby knees to a realignment of the game’s four most important events, this week in golf has been about change, with more certainly on the way. That it happened at the season’s last major, being played on a golf course that has undergone a significant redesign since PGA Tour pros last walked its fairways at the 2016 Wells Fargo Championship, seems only fitting.  Call it the Quail Hollow effect.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 6, 2017

Matsuyama Has Everything But The Acclaim

Ask a casual fan to name the leading men of the PGA Tour, and you’re likely to get a list that includes Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. Serve up the same question to a roomful of sports fans for whom golf is not a top priority, and you’ll no doubt also hear the names Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, even though the former has played exactly two rounds at a Tour event since the end of 2015 and has fallen outside the top 1,000 in the Official World Golf Rankings while the latter hasn’t won since the 2013 Open Championship. Press your interlocutors to identify the top non-Americans, and in addition to McIlroy they will probably offer up Jason Day, Sergio Garcia, and maybe Adam Scott before telling you to get lost.

Odds are you won’t hear the name Hideki Matsuyama pass the lips of a casual fan, even in response to that last question, which leaves one to wonder what the 25-year old from Shikoku, the smallest and least populous of Japan’s four main islands, must do to become a part of any conversation about the PGA Tour’s top stars.

On Sunday Matsuyama put on a ball striking clinic at the venerable Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. He dismantled the usually demanding 7,400 yard South Course, booming drives over 300 yards, dropping pinpoint approach shots close to the pins, and rolling steady putts into the holes. With seven birdies and an eagle, Matsuyama matched the course record of 9-under par 61 at the par 70 layout. The round propelled him up the leader board of the Bridgestone Invitational, a World Golf Championship event. When Matsuyama teed off the for the final round he was at 7-under par, two shots behind 54-hole co-leaders Zach Johnson and Thomas Pieters. By the time he rolled in a six-footer for birdie at the last he was five shots clear of his closest pursuer.

The win was Matsuyama’s third of the current PGA Tour season, which ties Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas for the most wins. It was also his fourth Tour victory in the last eighteen months. That matches up with any of the readily recognizable names. In the same period only Johnson has more wins with five. Spieth equals Matsuyama with four, while Day has three and McIlroy two PGA Tour victories. For good measure Matsuyama also won twice on the Japan Golf Tour last fall.

His consistent play since turning pro in April 2013 has resulted in Matsuyama steadily ascending the World Rankings. On the strength of his play in a handful of Japan Tour events while still an amateur, he was already ranked not far outside the top 100 when he turned pro. By the end of that year he was up to 23rd. He moved inside the top 20 in 2014, and up the 15th by the end of 2015. He cracked the top 10 last year, finishing at 6th. This season he moved as high as 2nd in the world after his runner-up finish at the U.S. Open in June, and he’s currently ranked 3rd, behind only Johnson and Spieth.

The only thing Matsuyama hasn’t done – yet – is win a major championship, and surely that explains why he has yet to show up on the radar of casual golf fans. Fresh off his dominating close at the Bridgestone, he and the rest of the world’s best players head to North Carolina this week for the PGA Championship, the season’s final major. It’s reasonable to ask whether we’re about to see the one item missing from Matsuyama’s golfing resume added at Quail Hollow.

We’ll know for sure a week from now, but the truth is that golf is a notoriously hard sport to handicap. Each weekly event is at a different venue, not all of which suit every player’s eye. Even if one finds a layout appealing, his fortunes can turn on the vagaries of the weather. In the first two rounds the field flip-flops starting times. Those with a morning tee time for round one go out in the afternoon for round two, and vice versa. Bad weather that moves in midday on Thursday and lingers through Friday morning before clearing can ruin the week for half the field.

What we know is that Matsuyama comes in as the hot player of the moment, and with a good track record in the majors for one still without a victory. Last year he tied for 7th at the Masters and tied for 4th at the PGA. This season he’s placed in the top 15 at each of the first three majors, including that 2nd place finish behind Brooks Koepka at Erin Hills. But by his own admission Matsuyama has not played particularly well at Quail Hollow, which is the usual site of the Wyndham Championship.

There is also one other unique factor that will weigh on Matsuyama’s chances, perhaps very heavily. No Japanese golfer has ever won a major championship. Isao Aoki’s second place finish behind Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open was as close as any player from the golf-mad country had come until Matsuyama matched that performance in June. Were he to end the drought, it is hard to imagine the extent to which Matsuyama would be feted in his homeland. But it is equally difficult to grasp the enormous pressure the challenge of becoming the first, of writing a page in golf’s long history, will impose should Matsuyama be in position to do so come next Sunday.

But watching the free swinging 25-year old make his way around one of golf’s legendary courses this Sunday, reducing Firestone to little more than a driver-wedge muni on hole after hole, one clearly saw all the talent that it takes to be a major champion. Whether it happens this week at Quail Hollow or at some future major, Hideki Matsuyama appears poised to end a nation’s long wait for golfing glory. Maybe then he’ll get the recognition he already deserves.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 3, 2017

With A Ring, Cubs Move To End Bartman’s Exile

It was a festive night on the north side of Chicago back at the start of the longest season, when the Cubs handed out World Series rings to the players who had ended a 108-year title drought the previous November. As all such championship baubles are, the Cubs’ rings are gaudy and huge. The face of each has 108 tiny diamonds encircling the team’s bulls-eye “C” logo, formed by rubies and sapphires. One shank displays the Wrigley Stadium marquee above the World Series trophy, while the other has a replica of the “W” flag flown above the field after every victory, along with ivy leaves to commemorate the distinctive outfield wall, and in a uniquely personalized touch, each player’s name and uniform number. Etched on the inner band are both the precise moment of Chicago’s victory, 47 minutes after midnight last November 3rd, as well as a goat’s head, symbolizing the laughable curse that supposedly jinxed the team for generations.

On that April evening the Cubs announced that they would distribute 1,908 rings and pins to current and former players, employees, and stadium staff, a number chosen to commemorate the year of the team’s last championship and acknowledge the record-setting wait that fans had to endure. One assumed that all of Chicago’s World Series bling was handed out on or very soon after that April evening. But now we’ve learned that four months later one last World Series ring was presented just this week. On Monday, behind closed doors at Wrigley Field the Cubs gave a championship ring to Steve Bartman, a lifelong fan whose life changed forever – and not in a good way – on a chilly October night fourteen years ago.

The ancient ballpark was the scene for Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, with the Cubs holding a three games to two lead over the visiting Florida Marlins. Mark Prior, Chicago’s hard-throwing young right-hander, had allowed just three hits through 7 1/3 innings. Solo runs in the 1st, 6th and 7th innings had built a 3-0 Cubs lead; the home team was just five outs from returning to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Wearing a dark pullover, a Cubs cap and headphones, Bartman was seated in the front row off the left field foul line. Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113, was destined to become a must-see attraction for future visitors to Wrigley.

With a runner on second and the count full, Luis Castillo of the Marlins lifted a Prior pitch high in the air down the line in left. Cubs’ outfielder Moises Alou raced over even as the fly ball drifted into foul ground toward the seats. Fans in the area, including Bartman, came to their feet. Photos show at least four different fans extending their hands toward the plummeting ball, but it was Bartman who wound up closest, directly over Alou whose glove was now reaching above the wall. Castillo’s foul ball never found its way to that glove, instead deflecting off Bartman’s hands. Alou reacted by slamming his glove against the wall and barking at the fans.

What followed was a nightmare for Cubs fans, and the beginning of something far worse for Bartman. Instead of a runner on second and two outs, Castillo’s at-bat continued. When he walked on a wild pitch from Prior, he became the first of five straight Marlins to reach base safely. Miguel Cabrera, the third on that list, did so on a routine grounder to Alex Gonzalez that looked certain to be the start of an inning-ending double play until the shortstop booted the ball. The procession of Florida batters reaching base was interrupted briefly by a sacrifice fly before three more hitters reached. By the time Castillo came up again and popped out to second to end the inning, the 3-0 Chicago lead had turned into an 8-3 advantage for the Marlins. That was the final score of Game 6, and one night later Florida again rallied from behind to score a 9-6 victory that clinched the National League pennant.

A decade before its recent renovations, Wrigley Field had no Jumbotron in 2003. But the Fox television broadcast showed repeated replays of the foul ball into the seats, and soon cell phones throughout the park were lighting up as fans at home called friends at the game to report what had happened. As the game and Chicago’s season unraveled, Bartman sat stoically in his seat while abuse began to be hurled his way, first by neighboring fans and eventually by the entire stadium, or so it seemed at the time. Eventually he and two friends were led away by security personnel as fans pelted Bartman with debris, beer, and invective.

Had it ended with Bartman’s exit from Wrigley Field the incident would have gone down as an unfortunate happenstance, the kind of thing that can take place when emotions are high and the play on the field gets too close to the fans in the stands. But Bartman’s misery was just beginning. The police were forced to station cars outside the family home to prevent harassment. His phone number was changed, the only way to cut off threatening calls. Officials who should have known better instead piled on. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich suggested Bartman enter witness protection, while Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered him asylum in a joke that surely lacked humor for its target.

Bartman quickly issued a public apology, saying that he had been focused on the flight of Castillo’s fly ball and hadn’t even been aware of Alou’s approach. He steadfastly refused to capitalize on his unwanted moment of fame, denying all requests for interviews and endorsements. The team also issued a statement absolving Bartman of any blame, saying he had done what every fan tries to do, namely catch a foul ball hit in their direction. None of that mattered, as fans continued to rail against him. Nor did those fans stop to consider that it was Cubs players, not a fan in the stands, who had thrown the pitches that Marlins batters hit and committed the costly fielding gaffe. In short order Steve Bartman became the most infamous Cubs fan since Bill Sianis, owner of the aforementioned billy goat.

Now the Cubs have done their best to write a better ending to Bartman’s saga. In a statement accompanying Monday’s ring presentation the team said, “While no gesture can fully lift the public burden he has endured for more than a decade, we felt it was important Steve knows he has been and continues to be fully embraced by this organization.”

For his part Bartman said that he did not consider himself worthy of the honor, adding that he was “deeply moved and sincerely grateful.” He also spoke of the importance of keeping our games in perspective, saying “I humbly receive the ring not only as a symbol of one of the most historic achievements in sports, but as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today’s society. My hope is that we all can learn from my experience to view sports as entertainment and prevent harsh scapegoating.”

Bartman’s sentiment is noble; sadly, in a global context it’s almost certainly futile. In the years since he instinctively reached for a foul ball and became a pariah to an entire fan base, our public discourse has only grown coarser. Social media applications like Twitter, which didn’t exist in 2003, now allow the most mean-spirited among us to spew their bile behind a cloak of anonymity. But perhaps on a smaller scale we fans can learn from Steve Bartman’s agony and maintain some perspective the next time something happens in our section of the stands. In Chicago, the reaction of the Cubs’ faithful has been strongly supportive of their team’s decision to reward its tortured fan. Of course, that may just prove that winning is the most soothing balm of all.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 30, 2017

Perseverance Prevails, On And Off The Field

The new-look Yankees were back home in the Bronx this weekend, after a long road trip that opened the season’s second half. After finishing that coast-to-coast journey with a win, they swept a quick two game series from the Reds, then took three in a row against the division rival Rays before having their winning streak stopped at six on Sunday. This is a young team that regularly sends out a starting lineup with five and sometimes as many as six position players under the age of 30.

Older veterans have been forced to find new roles. Chase Headley, who turned 33 in May, is learning to play first base on the fly after being bumped out of his customary spot at the hot corner by the recent acquisition of Todd Frazier from the White Sox. At all of 31, Frazier is himself one of the “older” Yankees, who with the trade from Chicago is, in his seventh big league season, finally living the dream of playing for the team he grew up rooting for from his home in Toms River, New Jersey.

Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, a 33-year old like Headley, had the misfortune of banging his head on the center field wall while running down a fly ball in early June. He went on the 7-day concussion disabled list and lost his starting job to a hot-hitting 27-year old Aaron Hicks. When Hicks in turn went on the DL with an oblique injury late last month, the Yankees called up 22-year old Clint Frazier rather than restore Ellsbury to his customary spot in the starting lineup. With Frazier hitting and fielding so well that sending him back down to AAA will prove difficult, the Yankees have a surfeit of outfielders as Hicks gets ready to return to action. That leaves Ellsbury, who has three years and $63 million left on the contract he signed in 2013, as one of the most expensive pinch runners in baseball history. That at least was the extent of his contribution over the weekend.

Friday night the Yankees bludgeoned the Rays 6-1. New York managed only five hits in the game, but three of them landed in the seats, including a scorching line drive off the bat of Aaron Judge that traveled from home plate to the left field stands very, very quickly. That was more than enough support for Masahiro Tanaka, who retired the first seventeen batters he faced and struck out a career-high fourteen while yielding just one run and two hits over eight innings.

Saturday afternoon the Yankees again displayed some power, but won with an equal amount of grit. New York trailed by scores of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2. New York rallied from the first two deficits to tie the game, and overcame the third by taking a 4-3 lead on a two-run pinch-hit homer by Headley in the 6th inning. After the Rays’ Lucas Duda, acquired from the Mets just before this series, knotted the game at four with a home run of his own in the 8th, the contest appeared headed for extra innings.

But the Yankee hitters had other ideas. Headley led off the 9th with a walk, which gave Ellsbury the chance for his cameo on the base paths. He moved to second when Frazier was hit by a pitch. Asked to advance the runners, 24-year old Ronald Torreyes, a utility infielder who has been hitting like an All-Star since moving into an everyday role because of an injury to starting second baseman Starlin Castro, dropped a perfect bunt between third base and the pitcher’s mound which the Rays could not handle. That loaded the bases for Brett Gardner, who looked at one called strike from Brad Jennings before ripping a grounder past the drawn-in infield and into center as Ellsbury trotted home with the winning run.

Even on Sunday, when their winning streak came to an end, the Yankees fought to the end. Trailing 5-3 in the 9th on a day in which they had managed just three hits to that point, New York put the tying runs on with a single and a walk before finally succumbing.

Playing hard to the final out is what every team is supposed to do. Yet it often seems that teams imbued with youth do so more consistently. Perhaps because they are young they do not know fear; perhaps they haven’t yet grasped that the Great Game, more than any of our sports, is supposed to be about managing failure and accepting that some impediments cannot be overcome. The point has often been made that a batting career built on hitting safely one time in three will land a player multiple trips to the All-Star Game.

As the weekend played out in the Bronx, lessons of overcoming obstacles were also on display three hours or so up I-87, for this was the annual weekend when the tiny village of Cooperstown becomes the center of the baseball world. The careers of this year’s three Hall of Fame player inductees, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez, were rich in that regard. Bagwell was but a fourth-round draft pick, and so lightly regarded as a Red Sox prospect that Boston shipped him to Houston little more than a year later. Raines was drafted even lower than Bagwell and faced doubts because of his size. Pudge Rodriguez was tabbed for stardom as a catcher early on, but playing the most demanding position on the field had to overcome both serious injuries and Jose Canseco’s claims of steroid use to make it to the Hall.

This year though, the greatest story of Hall of Fame weekend was told on Saturday, when the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, given for meritorious contributions to baseball writing, was bestowed on Claire Smith. Since its creation in 1962, the Spink Award had been given sixty-seven times prior to this weekend. When she became the sixty-eighth honoree, Smith broke the doors down on what had been a men-only club, while also becoming just the fourth African-American honoree.

Smith spent more than three decades writing about the Great Game, including for the New York Times, Philadelphia Enquirer and ESPN. But it was in her early days writing for the Hartford Courant, at a time when locker rooms were still considered male redoubts, that she faced her greatest challenges. In 1984 the San Diego Padres barred her from the clubhouse during the postseason, but Smith found an ally in first baseman Steve Garvey, who brought her quotes from his teammates so she could write her stories.

Smith has other tales of slights small and large, of bigotry subtle and direct. The story of women covering baseball is still being told, as current ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza can attest. But Smith persisted and persevered, as hopefully Mendoza will do as well, and this weekend her greatness finally got its due. At age 62 and after a career of doing so, she is proof that remaining undaunted in the face of great obstacles is not a talent found only on the field, nor one reserved exclusively for the young.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 27, 2017

Dress Code Is The Least Of The LPGA Tour’s Problems

A NOTE TO READERS: Happy July 27th birthday to Jordan Spieth, Alex Rodriguez, and me, also known as the good, the bad and the ugly! Thanks as always for your support.

The international road show that is the LPGA Tour has descended on Dundonald Links on the southwest coast of Scotland this week, for the Ladies Scottish Open. The tournament has been a fixture on the Ladies European Tour for years, but this season for the first time is co-sanctioned by both the LET and LPGA. The result is a near tripling of the event’s prize money, to $1.5 million, and a far stronger field than in previous years. The tournament has been further elevated by a three-year agreement to stage it on the same course as the men’s Scottish Open, a move pushed by Aberdeen Asset Management, the primary sponsor of both events.

With the LPGA’s fourth major, the Women’s British Open, scheduled for next week at Kingsbarns Golf Links on the other side of the country, the schedule now gives the world’s top female golfers back-to-back exposure to links golf, following a pattern informally set by a growing number of male players from the PGA Tour. While the men’s Scottish Open isn’t an official PGA Tour stop, because it’s scheduled just before the Open Championship many men now fly across the Atlantic early for some extra links rounds before the oldest major in golf.

The surprising leader after Thursday’s opening round was Australian legend Karrie Webb. It’s been more than twenty years since Webb’s rookie LPGA Tour season. In 1996 she posted four wins and was named the tour’s rookie of the year. By 2005, the year she was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Webb had thirty LPGA Tour wins, well on her way to her current total of forty-one, including seven majors. That latter count doesn’t include a pair of Women’s British Opens nor an Evian Championship, all won before those tournaments were designated as majors in 2001 and 2013 respectively. But Webb is 42 years old now and hasn’t posted a victory since 2014, so her sparkling 7-under par 65, which included a 30 on the inward nine, could hardly have been predicted.

Add on fifty-four holes and the leader board could look very different by Sunday, but the early standings were also positive for the U.S. contingent. World number three Lexi Thompson isn’t in the field, but six of her fellow Americans were among the twenty-five women who broke par in the first round. Two-time major winner Christie Kerr had a bogey-free 66 to sit one back of Webb. Former world number one Stacy Lewis turned in a typically steady round, finishing in a tie for 3rd with a 69. Jaye Marie Green, a 23-year old rising star who like many modern athletes commands a signficant social media following, battled back from three consecutive front nine bogeys to finish at 1-under par 71. The three were joined by Ally McDonald, Katie Burnett and Christina Kim as Americans in red numbers after one turn around the North Ayrshire links.

The six Americans of course left space in the top twenty-five for nineteen women from other countries. The Thursday leader board, and indeed the presence of the Ladies Scottish Open on the LPGA calendar are reminders of both the strengths and weaknesses of the women’s tour. The LPGA Tour truly is an international showcase of women’s golf at its highest level. Commissioner Michael Whan can point to rising purses, an increasingly full schedule, and the diverse membership of his tour as proof of that success.

But to many American golf fans the women’s tour is filled with unfamiliar faces. It’s not that fans in this country won’t support foreign-born players. On the men’s side golfers from Gary Player to Rory McIlroy have long enjoyed strong support, and plenty of American fans cheered the prolonged success of Annika Sorenstam during her reign at the top of women’s golf, as they did Inbee Park’s incredible string of three straight major wins in 2013. Unfortunately for the LPGA Tour of late, there has been no strong American presence to consistently counterbalance the foreign success. Thompson is a threat to win any time she tees it up, but she is also the only American currently ranked in the Rolex Rankings’ top ten.

The international expansion of the LPGA Tour also keeps it out of the United States. The good news is that of the seventeen weeks remaining on the Tour’s 2017 schedule, fourteen are filled with tournaments, and one of the off weeks is given over to the U.S. versus Europe Solheim Cup. But just three of those fourteen events will be held in this country. The globetrotting schedule, from Scotland to France to New Zealand to China, also makes Tour membership expensive, especially straining the budgets of young players rising from the developmental Symetra Tour with few sponsors.

For all of its recent growth, the LPGA still has much work to do to grow the women’s game locally, which makes the Tour’s recent decision to impose a dress code for both tournament play and related events like pro-am parties seem ill-advised. Any fan who has watched a tournament on television would be hard pressed to identify even a single play dressed inappropriately. While the pro-am parties aren’t televised, plenty of players post pictures from them on social media, and the participants look like young women dressed for a party.

At a time when many PGA Tour pros are showing up in collarless shirts, and Rickie Fowler regularly plays in joggers and high-top golf shoes, the LPGA policy prohibits racerback shirts without a collar, leggings except under a skirt or shorts, plunging necklines and specifies a minimum length of shorts and skirts.

Since LPGA Tour events have hardly been populated with golfers in provocative dress, it seems likely the real aim of the policy was to distance the Tour from the growing number of young women who are becoming social media stars by combining golf with good looks. Foremost among these women is Paige Spiranac, who played at San Diego State University and now toils at the mini-Tour level, with hopes of one day making the big time.

Whether the 24-year old Spiranac ever becomes a member of the LPGA Tour, she’s already better known than most current Tour players, with more than 1.1 million Instagram followers. No doubt some of those signed up for photos of Spiranac swinging a club dressed in a halter top and shorts. But having done so they soon learned that she is a tireless volunteer in the anti-bullying movement, having been subjected to cyber-bullying since her emergence on-line and in person harassment while growing up. At tournaments she plays in Spiranac also takes time to host clinics and workshops for children and young women in hopes of expanding youth participation in the sport.

Spiranac spoke out against the LPGA Tour’s new policy in an article in Fortune magazine. She and other skeptics of the dress code received an indirect boost from Thompson, who shared with her 288,000 Instagram followers a shot from a photoshoot done last year. It shows Thomson wearing an outfit from the early 1900s that covers her in multiple layers from head to toe with the caption “got my new LPGA dress code compliant outfit ready to go!” From Whan to Thomson to Spiranac, everyone’s focus should be on growing the game, not driving young players from it. Instead of spending time on a policy that does little more than body-shame young women, the LPGA should spend time developing sponsors for a few more events in the Tour’s home country.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 23, 2017

An Open Won Before Most Fans Were Even Watching

When is a golf tournament won? Is it when the final putt falls into the cup and the last shouts and applause from the fans surrounding the 18th green wash down onto the putting surface? Or does the moment come a bit later and out of sight of those fans, as technical purists would doubtless insist, when the final pairing’s scorecards have been signed and attested, making all results official? If circumstances align, might not the ending come with shots still to be struck, if each of the players still on the course has accumulated more total strokes than the leader in the clubhouse?

A case could be made for each of these alternatives. But all three moments occur on the final day of a tournament; surely there are times when the defining moment of four days of play arrives much earlier, and all that comes after is but the steady unfolding of events to a conclusion as certain as azaleas at the Masters and as inescapable as Hell Bunker on the 14th at the Old Course. Such was the case at this year’s Open Championship, played at the Royal Birkdale links on England’s west coast. There were still 36 holes to play after Friday’s second round, and there were only two strokes between the leader and his closest competitor. In theory, anything could happen. But in that second round, when the wind howled and the rain pelted down, Jordan Spieth claimed the title that would be officially awarded to him two days later, that of Champion Golfer of the Year.

Spieth arrived at Royal Birkdale off a victory in his last start for weeks earlier. At the Travelers Championship he had led after every round, only to find himself tied when Daniel Berger made a late birdie on Sunday. Spieth wasted no time in the ensuing playoff, holing out for the winning birdie from a greenside bunker on the first extra hole. Starting the Open under Thursday’s benign conditions, Spieth rolled in five birdie putts with no bogeys to sit at the top of the leader board, tied with Matt Kuchar and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka at 5-under par. The three were among thirty-nine players to break par in the opening round. That number grew to forty-three in Saturday’s third round, despite the midway cut having reduced the field by half. One of those was Brandon Grace, whose 8-under par 62 set a record for the lowest single round score in any major. Even on Sunday, when the wind picked up and final round pressure came into play, twenty-five golfers returned scorecards with totals below par. That number included 21-year old Haotong Li, the only player from China in the field. Li’s 63, which featured birdies on each of the final four holes, matched the old record for lowest round in a major.

But on Friday Royal Birkdale was an entirely different story. Golfers fortunate enough to be in the morning wave endured stiff winds that made club selection difficult, blew good shots off course and turned errant strikes into disasters. Yet they still counted themselves lucky, because players with afternoon tee times dealt with not just the wind but also rain that ranged from steady to torrential. Seaside links courses are built on sand and thus able to absorb a lot of water. But late Friday afternoon the R&A was forced to briefly suspend play so that the grounds crew could squeegee standing water off the greens. Under the brutal conditions only eight golfers bettered par.

Spieth was one of those ill-fated golfers with a Friday afternoon tee time. Had he posted a 74 or 75, a typical score for the day, no one save perhaps Spieth himself would have criticized the effort. Instead he began the round with a birdie at the first. More than three rain-soaked and wind-swept hours later he and caddie Michael Greller stood in the light rough just off the 15th fairway. With three birdies and three bogeys Spieth was even on the day, an excellent score under the circumstances. Greller counseled laying up with a 3-iron, but Spieth wanted to go for the green with a 3-wood.

In this player-caddie relationship, Spieth allows Greller to veto his club choice twice each season. But before this became one of those times, he explained his thinking to his bag man, telling Greller that even if he went over the green with the fairway wood, anywhere around the putting surface other than a bunker on the left side left him with a better chance of getting up and down for birdie than trying to do so from sixty of more yards away after a layup. Greller relented and Spieth slashed the 3-wood. The result was not a shot rolling through the green but rather one that came to a stop on the soaked short grass, leaving him with a putt for eagle. Spieth converted that opportunity and even with a bogey on the 17th finished his round at 1-under par 69 to move to 6-under for the tournament.

It was a score that pushed Spieth two shots clear of the field and set him up as the heavy favorite to win the Open. Those odds got even better when the weekend weather produced far more favorable scoring conditions. As the third-ranked player in the world and a former number one, in good form off his Travelers win and with two majors already on his resume, Spieth seemed as likely as anyone to be able to take advantage of a lenient Royal Birkdale. He did so on Saturday, firing a 65, one better than playing partner Matt Kuchar, to further expand his lead.

There was drama on Sunday when Spieth’s putter, normally the deadliest weapon in his bag, deserted him on the front nine. And Spieth and Greller tested the limits of the rules by taking more than twenty minutes to figure out how to proceed when the tee shot on the 13th hole flew wildly off-line. But in the end Spieth and Kuchar both returned 69s, and the final margin was the same three strokes that had separated them on the first tee.

His victory gives Spieth three legs of the career Grand Slam, and makes him the betting favorite for next month’s PGA Championship, where he will have the chance to complete the Slam. It allowed him to supplant Tiger Woods and stand just behind Jack Nicklaus on the list of youngest players to win three different majors. In the coverage of this year’s Open Championship, much will be made of Spieth’s late charge, when he nearly holed his tee shot on the par-3 14th, sunk a monster eagle putt on the par-5 15th, and followed that with two more birdies. Plenty will also be written about Spieth nearly melting down with his front nine putting woes and the unplayable lie penalty on the 13th. That he recovered will lead the armchair analysts to declare him freed of the burden of his collapse at last year’s Masters.

But had Spieth shot 74 or 75 on Friday, a typical score for the day, he wouldn’t have been in the last pairing in the final round, and his heroics down the stretch would not have mattered. For all the Sunday drama, it was two days earlier that Jordan Spieth showed the mettle that is required to become the Champion Golfer of the Year.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 20, 2017

Buyers And Sellers, And Something Else

The All-Star break is over; the second half is well underway. As baseball teams approach the century mark of games played in the longest season, the moment is at hand when general managers must choose between filling weak spots in their team’s roster with the goal of playing deep into October, or stockpiling youth and potential in the farm system and by so doing tacitly admit that championship dreams are being deferred to another year. The Great Game’s July 31st non-waiver trading deadline is just days away.

Already several clubs have made their intentions clear. Last week the Chicago Cubs, seemingly stuck in a season-long hangover from their championship celebrations of last fall, moved to bolster their starting rotation by sending four prospects to the south side of town in exchange for White Sox starter Jose Quintana, generally regarded as the top pitcher likely to be available in this year’s summer trade market. Quintana was an All-Star last year, and while he got off to a rough start this season he’s improved of late, and is recording strikeouts at his best rate ever. He’s also signed through 2020 at team-friendly annual numbers.

As expected White Sox GM Rick Hahn demanded and got a hefty price for his star. The four minor leaguers surrendered by the Cubs included their top two prospects, one of whom, 20-year old outfielder Eloy Jimenez, was recently ranked the fifth best prospect in the game by Baseball America. Clearly Theo Epstein believes that the window for another title run by the Cubs is still open. In choosing to do all he could to seize that moment Epstein had to be willing to mortgage the future.

This is the Great Game’s annual July tradeoff. For a team like the defending champion Cubs, who on the strength of a six-game winning streak and five straight Milwaukee losses have closed the gap with the Brewers in the NL Central standings, the choice is clear. It is as well for Mike Rizzo in Washington, where the Nationals are running away with the NL East despite a dreadful bullpen. Rizzo sent right-hander Blake Treinen and a pair of minor leaguers to Oakland for relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. On the other side of those deals, it is an equally easy call for the White Sox and A’s to stockpile assets for the future, as they have the two worst records in the American League.

But for many clubs the choice between being a buyer or seller at the trade deadline is a tougher call. Perhaps not in the National League, where two of the division races are routs and the Diamondbacks and Rockies have opened some daylight in the Wild Card race. With two months to go no team has clinched anything, but for many NL franchises the path to the postseason is getting very narrow. The story in the junior circuit however is very different. Only the Houston Astros are running away with their division. Three teams in the AL East and four in the AL Central have a legitimate shot at their division, and the competition for the two Wild Card spots is especially fierce. As this is written the Yankees are clinging to the second Wild Card with eight teams, every franchise except the White Sox and A’s, within five games of New York.

Of course, six of those eight teams have records below .500, and whatever the standings may be today, in the end only five AL clubs will advance to the postseason. No general manager wants to be the Great Game’s equivalent of Dell Demps, GM of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. On the fringes of the playoff chase at last winter’s trade deadline, Demps brokered a blockbuster deal, giving up both players and draft picks for DeMarcus Cousins, only to see his franchise sink in the standings.

Some clubs will try to walk a middle ground, as the Yankees appear to be doing. On Tuesday Brian Cashman sent reliever Tyler Clippard and three prospects to the White Sox for infielder Todd Frazier and hard-throwing relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. The Yankees need starting pitching, and Cashman had talked to Chicago’s Hahn about Quintana, but ultimately balked at his asking price.

Instead he relinquished just one highly regarded prospect, and that a player currently in single-A so a few years away from the big leagues, along with two lesser minor leaguers while dumping Clippard’s salary. In return New York got Frazier, who should improve upon the weak offense put up so far this season by the long list of players who have appeared at the two corner infield spots, and bolstered an already strong back end of the bullpen. In refusing to part with his top prospects Cashman signaled that the Yankees are not abandoning their commitment to getting younger and nurturing home-grown talent. Whether being in Cashman’s words “careful buyers” results in October baseball in the Bronx remains to be seen.

For the next week and a half rumors will continue to fly, and as front offices make the decision to either buy or sell and trades are made, the focus will understandably be on the players who are part of those deals. But often they are not the only ones affected, and the trade deadline reminds fans that the Great Game is in fact a business, one in which hard business decisions are made every day.

The Yankees acquired three players destined for their 25-man roster in this week’s trade, but relinquished only one current member in Clippard. That meant additional roster moves were needed, and when New York designated two players for assignment one of them was Rob Refsnyder. Just two seasons ago, during 2015 Spring Training, Refsnyder was the subject of a glowing feature in the New York Times. It focused in part on his compelling backstory. Refsnyder was born in Korea and given up for adoption by his birth mother. Just five months old, he was adopted by a California couple, brought to this country, and given a new name. But the article also highlighted Refsnyder’s minor league exploits and called him “a gifted hitter” and “a top Yankees prospect,” both true statements at the time.

But Refsnyder, who made his major league debut later that year, turned out to be the classic “4-A” player, a slugger at the AAA level but never able to figure out major league pitching. Shuttled between the Bronx and the Yankees AAA affiliate for two-plus seasons, his career big league average is .241, and this season he is hitting just .135. He may have enough talent that the Yankees can work a trade with another team during the allowable ten-day period after a player is designated for assignment, but having been DFA’d, Rob Refsnyder’s days as a Yankee are over.

In sports, as in life, there are no guarantees. As a new group of young Yankees hear the cheers, the departure of a player who was so recently a “top Yankees prospect” is proof that at the trade deadline there are not just buyers and sellers, but also casualties.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 17, 2017

Fewer Fans But Better Racing

Like so many other stops on the stock car circuit, New Hampshire Motor Speedway continues to adjust to the reality of the sport’s slow but certain decline in popularity. Three years ago, several sections of the track’s north grandstand were removed, eliminating thousands of seats that had once been filled every time NASCAR’s main series raced at the Magic Mile, but which in recent years had sat largely empty. Since then seating capacity has been reduced by nearly half at the track in Richmond, and by significant amounts even in the heart of NASCAR country at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and at the home of the sport’s biggest race, Daytona International Speedway.

The first thing fans arriving at Loudon for this weekend’s races noticed was that half of what remained of that north grandstand had disappeared, further reducing NHMS’s seating. The flat ground on which those grandstand sections once stood is now a lot for RV camping, with twenty spots priced at $999 for the weekend, marketed for their exclusive location close to the action between Turns 3 and 4.

Financially the move makes sense, as lately there have been more than enough empty seats in the main and south grandstands to relocate all the fans who previously sat in the seats that were removed. That means the revenue from the RV area that is being marketed as the “Trackside Terrace” is so much gravy for Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the owner of the track. Still the elimination of more seating and the steadily shrinking capacity of not just NHMS but also many of its brethren is a stark reminder to race fans of their declining numbers.

That point was underscored on Sunday, when despite warm summer weather and blue skies fans who made the trek from across New England and eastern Canada to the one-mile oval that sits improbably on a two-lane country road in a rural hamlet eight miles northeast of New Hampshire’s state capitol building, did not do so in sufficient numbers to pack even NHMS’s diminished grandstands for the weekend’s main event. It was the Overton’s 301, the nineteenth race on this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. As the thirty-nine entrants came out of Turn 4 and the Toyota Camry pace car dove into the pits, fans came to their feet for the start of what would prove to be the third highly entertaining race of the weekend. But most of them did so with room to spare, as there were plenty of empty seats and patches of completely empty rows throughout the Speedway’s stands.

There is no shortage of analysis and opinion about what NASCAR needs to do to reinvigorate its fan base. As previously noted in this space, last decade’s recession hit stock car racing doubly hard, causing corporate sponsors to shy away from the enormous expense of supporting race teams, and making fans think twice before loading up the gas-guzzling RV for a road trip to NASCAR’s nearest venue. But for all the complaints since then about the standardization of the cars and drivers becoming little more than corporate spokespeople, hasn’t the obvious answer all along been to consistently offer more exciting racing? Isn’t that what NASCAR is supposed to be about?

If the cure is as simple as that, then among the many thousands who did make it to Loudon last weekend, and let’s not forget that NHMS’s two NASCAR weekends are still the biggest sports draw in New England, surely some left as new fans of stock car racing.

Saturday afternoon the modifieds led off the action with their usual display of highly competitive racing. The Modified Division is NASCAR’s oldest, and because the Whelen Modified Tour is based in New England many fans feel a personal connection to the drivers. The modifieds look nothing like street automobiles. With their open wheeled design and long and low front ends the cars resemble modern dragsters. In the Eastern Propane 100 26-year old Ryan Preece, the 2013 Modified Tour champion, started on the pole and led the most laps. With just two circuits around the Loudon oval remaining, Preece, Bobby Santos, Doug Coby and Monster Energy Cup Series driver Ryan Newman were locked in a four-car duel, coming into the front stretch together in close formation like a squadron of fighter jets. Then Coby got into Newman, driving the yellow number 77 up into the wall and bringing out the caution flag. When the race resumed it was Santos who got the better restart, pulling away from Preece for his fifteenth Modified Tour win.

Next up was the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s top developmental series. As is often the case, three Monster Energy Cup Series drivers stepped down to race in the Overton’s 200. While common, it’s a practice that takes the wheel away from a young driver who could use the experience. The top-tier drivers usually dominate any Xfinity race they enter. To a degree Saturday was no exception, with Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski all finishing in the top five. Keselowski’s Ford was clearly the fastest car on the track, but during a pit stop on lap 170 he started to pull out of pit stall while a gas can was still locked into its coupler with his car. Keselowski was hit with a stop-and-go penalty for dragging equipment outside his pit, forcing him to return to pit row on the next lap and come to a full stop at his box.

Keselowski’s error essentially handed the race to Busch, but the real news of the race was that the three Monster Energy Cup Series drivers finished first, fourth and fifth, rather than one-two-three. William Byron, currently second in the season-long Xfinity standings, finished ahead of Larson and Keselowski in third place after a fine afternoon. Even more impressive, the second spot went to Preece, the full-time Whelen Modified Tour driver who was given a rare shot at moving up in class by Joe Gibbs Racing. Finishing up a double duty day, Preece squeezed everything he could out of the opportunity.

On Sunday, the weekend’s main event went to Denny Hamlin, who ended a long winless streak for both himself and Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin outlasted a hard-charging Larson who came from all the way at the back of the pack after winning the pole only to have his Chevy fail a post-qualifying inspection. Martin Truex Jr., the leader for much of the race, settled for third.

The race featured hard driving and frequent passing not just at the front, but throughout the pack. That was largely due to the decision to coat two lanes around both sets of turns with PJ1 Track Bite, a specialty compound designed to increase traction. With greater grip, drivers could choose alternate lines around the track, which produced far more side by side and even three wide racing, something rarely seen in the past at the flat Loudon oval. The drivers loved it, with Larson calling the day “fun” and Hamlin adding “As far as I’m concerned we should race here ten times a year.” The happy fans loved it as well, or at least those who showed up did.

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