Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 2, 2020

A Career, And A Life, About More Than One Inning

Journeyman. While the ancient term has a specific and positive meaning within the building trades, in sports the word is applied with a certain disdain. They may possess talent which we in the stands can only dream about, but we do not purchase tickets with our hard-earned dollars, or tune in to the broadcast of a game, to watch journeymen play. We do not buy their jerseys, and makers of consumer goods do not pay them to market products to us on stadium billboards or during the commercial breaks. Yet despite the sense of inadequacy that accompanies the label, without journeymen there would be no games, a fact dictated by numbers alone. No matter the sport, every starting lineup, and even more so every roster, has its fair share of players whose career statistics are unassuming and whose impact on the game is modest. They are the baseline above which the exploits of the stars shine.

The term also applies to non-playing roles. There are scores of front office executives and coaches and managers who do a good if not spectacular job. Their work, though not distinguished, is solid and reliable. Because of the relative obscurity that is their usual haunt, the career of a journeyman is often remembered not in its totality, but for a single moment, a tiny slice of time when the spotlight suddenly turned its unblinking wattage on one not used to performing at center stage. When that happens the glory or the agony of that moment is too often treated as if it were the complete story of a career. We fans know better, but still we succumb to the easy generalization.

It was thus no surprise that the accounts of long-time baseball manager John McNamara’s life that appeared after he died last Tuesday at the age of 88 focused on Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. McNamara was in his second season at the helm of the Boston nine that year, having replaced Ralph Houk upon the latter’s retirement following the 1984 campaign. He had been a big league manager for a decade and a half by the time he arrived in Boston, starting in Oakland, with stops in San Diego, Cincinnati, and Anaheim. After Boston, McNamara would also manage in Cleveland and, on a brief interim basis again in Anaheim, before ending his career as a skipper after 2,395 regular season games, plus 17 more in the playoffs. Add in nine years managing in the Athletics’ farm system, and McNamara guided a team from a dugout for more than 33,000 innings. But most fans know of just one.

That of course was the 10th inning of that Game 6, played at long since demolished Shea Stadium. Boston’s championship drought, which would eventually end after 86 years in 2004, was already nearly seven decades long. But that night the Fenway faithful dared believe that the long years in the wilderness were finally at an end. The Red Sox began the game just one win away from the title, and behind a stalwart performance by ace Roger Clemens Boston led the Mets 3-2 through seven frames.

What is certain is that when Clemens came off the mound at the end of the 7th, he had a small cut on one of the fingers of his right hand. Whether that led him to ask to be taken out of the game depends on whose memory, as reflected in later telling’s of the story, one chooses to believe. The reason may be in dispute, but McNamara went to his bullpen, and the Mets promptly rallied to tie the game in the 8th. Still, when the Sox plated two in the top of the 10th, the Commissioner’s Trophy was moved into the Boston clubhouse, and NBC began setting up for the postgame presentation.

Down through the years, accounts of the bottom of the 10th always focus on the ending, on Mookie Wilson at the plate and Bill Buckner guarding the line at first base. But as the chronicles of McNamara’s life reminded us, first came his decision to send reliever Calvin Schiraldi out to pitch for a third inning, and his decision to call for Bob Stanley when Schiraldi faltered, and his decision to leave Buckner in the game rather than opt for a defensive replacement as McNamara so often had done during the regular season. All choices such as managers make every game, and all subject to decades of second guessing after the Mets rallied against both Red Sox hurlers and Wilson’s roller down the first base line bounced between Buckner’s legs to complete the improbable comeback. It is true of course that McNamara was not between the foul lines pitching or fielding, just as it’s true that the only sure result of the outcome of Game 6 was that there was a Game 7. True, but in a world that rewards simple narratives, complex and inconvenient.

Yet even journeymen deserve a fuller telling of their story. And to be sure, McNamara was a journeyman manager. He lost more than he won, and his 1986 trip to the World Series with the Red Sox was one of just two postseason appearances by teams he led. The other, by the Reds in 1979, was painfully brief, with the Pirates dismissing Cincinnati from the NLCS in three straight. But the job of managing in the Great Game involves more than in-game decisions. Equally important is shepherding young men through and sometimes even into early adulthood, something that is especially important at the minor league level, where McNamara began his career when he was just 27 years old himself.

As he worked his way up the rungs of the A’s farm system, McNamara helped put numerous future stars on the path to success in the Great Game, including Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando, Blue Moon Odom, and Reggie Jackson. His last stop was Birmingham, were he managed the big team’s AA affiliate. It was 1967, and while fans in the south were happy to cheer black ballplayers on the field, local enforcement of recently passed civil rights laws was, to be charitable, inconsistent. Jackson, then a raw 21-year-old power hitter, remembers that McNamara was resolute.

“When we’d be on a road trip and we’d stop at a diner for hamburgers or something to eat, McNamara wouldn’t compromise,” Jackson said in an interview, adding “It was simple for him: if they wouldn’t serve me they weren’t going to serve anybody. He’d just take the whole team out of the restaurant; we’d get into the bus and we’d keep driving.” Jackson’s account of McNamara’s quiet but firm heroism in a now distant time is a reminder that in sports, as in life, all stories, even those of journeymen, have more than one chapter.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 30, 2020

Amid MLB’s Uncertainty, Joe Kelly Leaves No Doubt

For the moment, there are sports everywhere. As the truncated baseball season begins its second week, the NBA tips off the restart of the schedule that was suspended last March, which is itself but a brief prelude to the league’s playoffs. The NHL is warming up with exhibition games at its two Canadian hubs, preparing to start a rather complex expanded playoff format this weekend. The LPGA returns to action Friday in Ohio, while members of the PGA Tour have their final tune-up before, finally, the first major of the year, next week in San Francisco. Meanwhile the NFL, major college football conferences, men’s and women’s tennis, and Champions League soccer are all waiting just offstage.

For the moment. Those three words are the controlling clause in that hopeful list, and it is not being unduly pessimistic to say that all of those sports managing to play their respective seasons through to their planned conclusions seems more hope than expectation as July comes to an end. That much was made clear when the Great Game was unable to make it through its opening weekend without COVID-19 disrupting the schedule. While kicking off the season in Philadelphia, the Miami Marlins had a surge of coronavirus cases sweep through the roster. On Opening Day catcher Jorge Alfaro was placed on the injured list due to a positive test. By Sunday three more players, including that day’s scheduled starting pitcher Jose Urena, were also found to have coronavirus. The game went on, bringing the rest of the Marlins team into contact with the Phillies. A day later the number of infected Marlins rose to fourteen, including three members of the traveling support staff.

MLB responded by cancelling Miami’s games through this coming weekend. While the Marlins quarantined and the Phillies were tested, the schedules of the teams each franchise had been on tap to play were rearranged. After sitting in Philadelphia for two days, the Yankees headed to Baltimore for a hastily arranged set against the Orioles, who had been planning to play four in a row against the Marlins, two in Camden Yards followed by a pair in Miami. But Thursday brought renewed concern that changes in the schedule were the least of baseball’s worries, when the Phillies announced a pair of positive test results, one to a member of the team’s coaching staff and one to a clubhouse employee.

Perhaps this outbreak will be contained within the two teams already impacted. Or maybe fans of the Great Game are quickly learning that the plan to play nine hundred games in twenty-eight cities over ten weeks, followed by a month of postseason action involving a majority of MLB’s teams was ill-conceived from the start. If that proves to be the case, prospects for the NFL, with its vastly larger rosters and far greater contact, are dim. And while the two leagues playing in so-called bubbles are faring better for the moment, both basketball and hockey are just beginning their planned schedules.

So the moment may indeed be fleeting. But against that grim possibility there is at least this small solace for fans everywhere: even if the return of sports in 2020 comes crashing down around us, we’ll always have Joe Kelly.

It was Kelly, the 32-year-old right-hander, whom Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called upon in the 6th inning to hold a 5-2 lead that L.A. had built over the Astros Tuesday evening. It was the first visit by the Dodgers to Minute Maid Park since the 2017 World Series, and more tellingly, the first since Houston’s cheating during their championship run that year became the Great Game’s major story of last winter. Los Angeles is the third stop in Kelly’s MLB career, following stints in St. Louis and Boston, and since his arrival prior to last season he hasn’t exactly been a fan favorite. Kelly struggled early in the 2019 campaign, and while he eventually became a key member of the bullpen, he ended L.A.’s year by giving up a 10th inning grand slam to Washington’s Howie Kendrick in Game 5 of the NLDS. But after Tuesday night, in L.A. and every other baseball town not named Houston, surely all is forgiven.

The proceedings started innocently, with Kelly inducing a pop fly from Jose Altuve with his first pitch. But he then fell behind Alex Bregman 3-0. His fourth pitch definitely missed the strike zone as well since it was behind Bregman. While Kelly later said, as pitchers always do, that the delivery just got away from him, a pitch behind the batter is a well-established sign of contempt, a sure indication that the man on the mound was aiming not for home plate but for the opposing hitter. One out later, and with two men on, Kelly unleashed a delivery in the vicinity of Carlos Correa’s batting helmet. Headhunting is never to be condoned, and Kelly likely bought himself a suspension with that pitch, though it is worth noting that the throw was a knuckle curve ball in the mid-80s, not a 98 mile per hour heater. But after two pitches out of the strike zone Kelly recovered to strike out Correa for the third out, and then became an instant folk hero by mugging at the vanquished Astro and taunting him as he made his way to the Dodgers dugout. That in turn brought the Houston players out of their dugout for a benches-clearing, well, a benches-clearing period of standing around. Angry words were exchanged, and social distancing rules were forgotten, but there were no fisticuffs and no players were ejected.

The eventual 5-2 Los Angeles win wasn’t even in the books before the Joe Kelly memes and gifs of him pulling faces at Correa after the strikeout were spreading across the internet like a, um, virus. Players still angry about the Astros cheating, and fans similarly incensed and deprived of the chance to boo Houston whenever the team visits another stadium this year, rallied to Kelly’s side, a reaction fueled in large part by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s decision not to punish any Houston players in the cheating scandal. When the system is seen as having failed, the arrival of frontier justice should hardly be a shock.

What was surprising was Wednesday’s announcement of an eight-game suspension for Kelly. The official reasoning for the draconian punishment was that Kelly is a repeat offender, having been suspended in 2018 for throwing at and then fighting the Yankees’ Tyler Austin. But that doesn’t begin to justify the equivalent of a twenty-two-game timeout in a regular 162-game schedule. The penalty, which effectively made Kelly the first player disciplined because of the Astros cheating, was met with wholesale derision from other players, especially pitchers, on social media. Clearly antipathy toward the Astros has not subsided, and Houston batters would be well advised to stay loose.

The more likely reason for the eight games was a desire to come down hard on the perceived instigator of the on-field scrum, which was a violation of MLB’s COVID-19 guidelines. While that makes sense it’s a glaring case of selective enforcement. If the expectation is, as it should be, that MLB’s operating manual for this season will be closely followed, then players need to be fined or suspended for high-fiving and spitting and sitting too close together in the dugout. But that would require that franchises be subject to discipline as well, for doing things like playing a game and putting players in close contact with another team after four players tested positive. Of course, on that one the virus will, in the end, exact its own punishment.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 26, 2020

Out Of The Wilderness, Onto The Mound

“When Daniel Bard took the mound for the Gulf Coast League Mets on July 2, it had been 1,527 days since his last appearance in the majors. And though he didn’t know it that day, facing the GCL Nationals with the midday sun beating down in West Palm Beach, it’d be the last time he’d ever take the mound in a game.” So begins a story by Chris Cotillo on the sports blogging site, datelined January 2018. Had it been published on newsprint, as would have been the case in the world of once upon a time, by now the paper would be yellowing and curling at the edges. And though every writer hopes that their product will stand up over time, Cotillo, who is now the Red Sox beat writer for, probably doesn’t mind that his second sentence has turned out to be untrue. For on Saturday Daniel Bard found himself on a pitcher’s mound once again, and not at some lonely minor league park far from the Show, but at the Texas Rangers’ new Globe Life Field in the 5th inning of a game between the home team and Bard’s Colorado Rockies.

The 1,527 days had stretched to 2,946 by the time Rockies manager Bud Black summoned Bard to relieve Colorado starter Jon Gray. Seven years and almost three months since the last Saturday in April 2013, when Bard jogged in from the Red Sox bullpen in right field of Fenway Park, called upon to preserve a healthy Boston lead of 8-3 over the visitors from Houston. It was a low pressure, early season situation, just the kind of outing that might help to restore the confidence of a struggling young pitcher. Instead the mental demons that had transformed a one-time fireballing relief pitcher turned prospective starter for the Boston franchise, into a candidate for baseball’s scrap heap of failed players, were on full display. Bard couldn’t find the plate. He walked Carlos Pena on four pitches, and then issued a free pass to Carlos Corporan in just five. Nine pitches, eight balls, and Bard’s night was done.

Less than twenty-four hours later his Red Sox career was history as well, with Boston sending Bard down to its AA affiliate in Portland Maine. Through the rest of that season his descent continued, from Portland to Lowell, in the single-A New York Penn League, and eventually on to the Gulf Coast League, typically the haunt of newly drafted players, before Boston released Bard that September.

Just four seasons earlier he had been on a profoundly different path. The 2008 Minor League Pitcher of the Year in Boston’s organization, Bard made his big league debut in mid-May 2009. Originally drafted as a starter, he had been converted into a bullpen option for the major league team, a change that enabled him to ramp up the velocity on his pitches. His fastball was regularly clocked in the high 90s, and occasionally hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun. From 2009 through 2012 Bard was a key member of Boston’s relief core, most often in the role of setup man. In 2010 he posted a 1.00 WHIP and 1.93 ERA in 73 appearances. The following year he set a club record with 25 consecutive scoreless outings in the first half of the season.

For 2012 the team decided to convert Bard back into a starter, which of course cost him some velocity, as he had to marshal his strength for longer outings. But a far more serious problem than a diminished fastball quickly emerged. After stumbling through the final month of the previous season, going 0-4 with a 10.64 ERA in September 2011, Bard continued to struggle with his control. Before being sent down to AAA in June, as a starter Bard walked or hit 45 batters, eleven more than he struck out. Called back up later in the year and asked to again pitch out of the bullpen, he fared no better.

When a new season brought no improvement, the Red Sox chose to cut their losses, and Bard’s journey through the nether world of the minor leagues began. After being released by Boston he signed briefly with the Cubs before moving on to pitch at various minor league stops for the Rangers, Cardinals and Mets. At one point he even detoured to the Mexican League. But everywhere Bard went the result was the same, a handful of appearances and pitching lines bloated with walks and hit batsmen. After pitching 2/3 of an inning in that July 2017 outing for the Mets’ Gulf Coast League affiliate and walking five batters, hitting two more, and uncorking three wild pitches, Bard’s pitching career appeared over. The story appeared a few months later, after Bard had formally announced his retirement.

He stayed involved with the Great Game, most recently serving as a mentor and mental coach for the Diamondbacks. While working with young players in that role he was told repeatedly that he still had major league stuff. Over the winter Bard decided that he once again had the self-confidence to try. He accepted a minor league contract with the Rockies and was impressive enough in this year’s aborted spring training that Colorado invited him to stay with the team. When rosters were set after MLB’s brief July training camp, Bard’s name was on Colorado’s.

Which brings us to Saturday, and the end of nearly 3,000 days in the baseball wilderness. Bard entered the game with two outs, but also with runners on first and second. The tiring Gray had already allowed one run to score, cutting the Rockies lead to 2-1. Against Elvis Andrus, Bard’s first pitch was a slider for a called strike. He missed the zone with his second offering but came back with a 96 mile per hour sinker to pull ahead in the count. Then Andrus made weak contact on another slider, flying out to left field to end the inning. Manager Black stayed with Bard for the 6th, and he worked around a pair of ground ball singles through the infield to retire the side. The second out was a three-pitch strikeout of Rougned Odor, the last one a 99 mile per hour four-seamer that the Texas second baseman swung at and missed. In the end, the Rockies lead held up, and with starter Gray going less than the required five innings to earn a victory, Bard got his first major league win since May 29, 2012.

One outing does not make a comeback, something Bard doubtless knows better than anyone. But a pitcher who forgot how to throw a baseball into a strike zone from sixty feet, six inches, threw twenty-five pitches on Saturday, and only five were called balls. When he returned to the dugout after retiring the side in the 6th inning, Bard said to his manager, “That was fun.” After 2,946 days, it must have been a blast.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 23, 2020

The Great Game Returns. The Virus Never Left.

Belated, truncated, and awash in uncertainty, a baseball season that is anything but “the longest” has finally reached its starting point – Opening Day, or in this case an opening night featuring a bicoastal twin bill of the Yankees in the nation’s capital to play the Nationals, followed by the Dodgers hosting their Northern California rival the Giants at Chavez Ravine. On this night, and in the days to follow, there are and will be plenty of familiar elements to this strangest of years for the Great Game. In keeping with longstanding tradition, the initial contest of the new season was preceded by the members of New York’s and Washington’s rosters taking their places along the first and third basepaths for introductions. There was a ceremonial first pitch, this one thrown by Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose offering was, had Bob Uecker been calling it, “jusssst a bit outside!” Then the Nationals took the field and Washington starter Max Scherzer delivered a 95 mile per hour cutter to New York leadoff hitter Aaron Hicks, getting the season officially underway.

It was all so familiar, and all so utterly different than any season before or, hopefully, ever to come. The sixty-game calendar, less than forty percent of the usual schedule, turns the familiar slow unfolding of a season from the chill of early spring through the dog days of summer and finally back into the cool of autumn, into a two month sprint. The marathon has become a 100-yard dash.

That change makes possible, and in some cases virtually certain, a host of statistical oddities. Will fans see the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941? Will the Cy Young Award go to a hurler whose ERA is less than 1.00? Will seven wins be enough for a pitcher to lead his league in victories? In any other year all three questions would be dismissed out of hand. But plenty of hitters have batted in the vicinity of the magic .400 mark for a sixty-game stretch, just as many pitchers have enjoyed a two-month period of dominance that produced a trifling earned run average. And simple math dictates that given a maximum of eleven or twelve starts, a seven-win season will likely put a hurler near the top of his league come the end of September.

Assuming of course that major league baseball is still being played then, that the season which commences this week manages to ward off the threat of COVID-19 infections widespread enough to bring the games and the travel from city to city to a halt. That is the great unknown, and as four teams take the field and twenty-six more prepare to do so, reminders of it are more plentiful than the red, white, and blue bunting at Nationals Park.

But for the pandemic, Dr. Fauci, a New Yorker by birth, longtime Washington resident and avid baseball fan, might well have been in the stands on Thursday to see his two favorite teams play. But the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases would hardly have been top of mind when it came time to bestow the honor of tossing the ceremonial first pitch in front of a national television audience. While he might have been seated in the lower bowl of Nationals Park in some other year, neither Fauci nor any other fans are in the stands for this game. As the Yankees and Nationals play in D.C., no fans are waiting in the parking lot a continent away outside Dodger Stadium, hoping to gain admittance in time for batting practice. And there will be no fans at Friday’s games across the country. For the foreseeable future the Great Game is a made-for-television sport in every major league ballpark.

It will not be even that at Rogers Centre in Toronto, where the homeless vagabonds formerly known as the Toronto Blue Jays usually play home games. This week the Canadian government decided that the risk of admitting the eight different teams scheduled to visit the Blue Jays this season (the Yankees and Orioles are both scheduled for two series), and of having the Jays come back across the border after five road trips to eleven U.S. cities was too great. As this is written the franchise is still in search of a location for its “home” games, after a plan to share PNC Park with the Pirates for most of them was nixed by officials in Pennsylvania, who cited a recent surge of coronavirus cases in the Pittsburgh region. The Blue Jays would much prefer to host opponents at a major league stadium with better and, equally important given social distancing requirements, more spacious facilities. But as the team’s “home” opener next Wednesday draws closer, the team’s spring training complex in Dunedin Florida, or its AAA affiliate’s park in Buffalo New York may be the only viable options.

The most powerful reminders of the challenges facing the Great Game in this pandemic year were the starting lineups. Scherzer’s first pitch was to center fielder Hicks because Yankee second baseman DJ LeMahieu, who usually fills the leadoff spot, was only placed on the active roster Thursday afternoon, after recovering from the virus. And the Nationals were missing left fielder Juan Soto after a COVID-19 test he was administered on Tuesday came back positive hours before the game.

After learning of the result Soto took multiple “instant-result” tests Thursday, which were negative, so perhaps the young star is the unlucky victim of a false result. But he can’t play until cleared by the more thorough, official testing. While he waits, teammates are left with the knowledge that because of the delays in MLB’s testing – ironically, the subject of an earlier complaint by Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo – Soto spent time with them and played in an exhibition game against the Orioles after the Tuesday test.

Of course it is good to have the Great Game back, as it will be good to be able to watch the NBA in action and the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But somewhere between here and the final out of the World Series, there may come a fine line between taking a risk and paying too high a price. With the money at stake for completing even a truncated season in any of our major sports it will be easy for owners and league officials and even players to lose sight of that. Fans should be careful not to. We all hope for the best, but right now October is a long way off.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 19, 2020

A Tale Of Two Putts

The 6-iron approach shot flies on a straight line toward the left side of the green. It lands just short of the putting surface, skips up onto it, and rolls to a stop midway between the front edge and the back fringe. Since the shot was taken from a position in the right-hand rough after the golfer’s drive faded just into the taller grass, he’s not unhappy with the result. Still, it leaves him with an interesting putt.

The layout at Candia Woods, a fifteen-minute drive east of Manchester and twice that far west of the New Hampshire seacoast, has been around for more than half a century. For much of that time, until new ownership took over, it suffered from what might charitably be called benign neglect, with just enough maintenance and conditioning to attract players looking for an inexpensive round. All that is ancient history now, with management that keeps the course in prime condition throughout the short New England golf season. Special attention is always paid to the greens, which are usually the fastest of any public course in the region.

What no amount of maintenance can do is change the layout’s pedestrian routing. There are many parallel holes, with the front nine featuring six in a row that run back and forth, first up and then down a hillside, separated only by rows of trees. The 2nd hole is the first of this bunch. It’s a medium length par-4, with a drive up the slope to a plateau, followed by a straight shot into the green. That’s where the golfer now stands, on the upper shelf of a two-tiered putting surface. There’s a sharp drop-off from this higher left portion down to the lower right side, which is where the pin is located today, and there’s also a considerable slope from the back of the green down to its front.

While those factors combine to increase the difficulty of the golfer’s putt, this is not his first time at Candia Woods. Over the years he’s played the course countless times and putted from the upper side of the 2nd green down to the lower on plenty of occasions. He knows he must aim far left of the hole, because both the slope down the ridge and the general pitch of the green will cause the putt to break dramatically to the right. He also needs to hit the putt with just enough speed to reach the crest of the drop-off. After that, gravity will be more than enough to get the ball to the hole.

With that in mind the golfer steps up and takes his stroke. The line is nowhere near the needed one, and the ball is traveling much too fast. It reaches the ridge a yard or more to the right of where it should and still moving at a good clip. Catching the slope, the ball makes a near U-turn and, never scaring the hole, races down the hill, finally coming to a stop at the very edge of the green, a dozen or more feet past the cup. The golfer’s only solace is that he is alone; at least no one witnessed such a woeful effort.

His next stroke turns away from the hole, and a solid chance at par has turned into a three-putt bogey. As he makes his way to the 3rd tee the golfer recalls the old Peanuts cartoon, showing Charlie Brown and Snoopy on a golf course. As the beagle misses a putt, his thought balloon reads “The more I play this game the better I like it…but I still hate it!”

A bit later in the afternoon, the golfer stands in the 9th fairway. There’s a gaggle of players up on the green of the par-5. It turns out that the two foursomes he’s been following around the front nine are together. The first group waited on the 9th green for their friends to join them, and they’re now planning on finishing up the front side with a putting competition. While they are kind enough to wave the golfer up and let him play through, he must now finish the hole in front of a considerable audience.

His gap wedge from the fairway lands safely on the green but runs a good thirty feet past the hole. Arriving at the putting surface he trades pleasantries with the assembled spectators as he begins to survey his long-distance putt for birdie. “You can show us the line,” says one of the other players, pointing to two markers on the green in the general vicinity of his ball.

The 9th green doesn’t have the tiers of the 2nd, but it is more steeply sloped from its high point in the back down to the front. This putt will be downhill all the way, thus very speedy. It also looks like it will have a significant left to right break as it makes its way to the hole. But as he prepares to putt, the golfer hears traffic in the distance. Route 101, the major east-west arterial across southern New Hampshire, runs by Candia Woods, not more than a half mile to the south. The sage advice of the locals has always been that all putts break toward 101.

In sports, as in life, the bits of folk wisdom one encounters are often worthy of attention. In this case the adage is of course not literally true. This putt, for instance, will clearly break away from the highway, which is off to the golfer’s left. But the familiar admonition is a valuable reminder that the property sits above the highway, and the overall flow of the topography is down to the road in the distance. Also, that way is south, meaning the poa annua grass on the putting surface grows in that direction as it seeks the sun. Absent a slope the natural flow of a rolling putt will be with, not against, the grain. So yes, the tilt of the green means the putt will break away from the highway, but not nearly as much as the eye wants to believe.

Rather than a foot wide of the hole, the golfer aims just a couple ball widths outside the left edge. The putt rolls smoothly down the slope, trundling every closer to the flagstick. Unlike his earlier effort, this time the speed is perfect. As the Titleist slows in the final yards of its journey, it at last turns slightly to the right. Rolling at a sedate pace, it drops into the cup, and the onlookers roar.

What was the first part of that Snoopy quote?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 16, 2020

A-Rod, Still Chasing Derek Jeter

No one has ever accused Alex Rodriguez of being subtle. After all, this is the man who once had a portrait of himself as a centaur hanging on the wall behind his bed. With that in mind, A-Rod’s latest foray into the sports headlines should come as no surprise. Thursday, during a video conference call with the media before starting another season as an ESPN analyst – a role in which he excels – Rodriguez opined that the Major League Baseball Players Association should abandon its longstanding opposition to a salary cap in favor of negotiating a revenue sharing deal with Major League Baseball in the next collective bargaining agreement. The three-time winner of the American League MVP Award, who retired, or more accurately was retired by the New York Yankees after the 2016 season, cast his opinion in the context of expanding the sport’s “market share.” “The only way it’s going to happen is if they get to the table and say the No. 1 goal, let’s get from $10 to $15 billion and then we’ll split the economics evenly,” Rodriguez told reporters.

During his big league career A-Rod was on the receiving end of contracts worth more than $450 million, although he was forced to forgo a year’s worth of income when he was suspended for the entire 2014 season in the wake of the Biogenesis steroids scandal. Deals the inflation-adjusted equivalent of the 10-year $252 million contract Rodriguez signed with Texas before the 2001 season, or the equally long, $275 million agreement with the Yankees that supplanted it seven years later, would of course be hard to come by in a game constrained by a hard cap.

But A-Rod sees nothing hypocritical in his newfound perspective because as he sees it the sports landscape has fundamentally shifted since he became a major leaguer and set about milking the cap-free system of baseball free agency for everything he could possibly get. As he explained it on the widely reported call, “Then we had a stranglehold on professional sports. Baseball was 1. Today the NBA has become an international conglomerate, NFL’s a juggernaut. Back then there was no Netflix, there was no Snapchat, there was no Disney+, ESPN+ and everything they’re doing to attract their attention. So today we have to really work collaborative, with the players and the owners, to say how do we compete together to become No. 1?”

The world has indeed changed, though the accuracy of Rodriguez’s timeline and assertions about the relative popularity of our major sports is suspect. Still, his salary cap advocacy was quickly and emphatically rejected by the MLBPA. Association head Tony Clark responded by pointing out that A-Rod “benefited as much as anybody from the battles this union fought against owners’ repeated attempts to get a salary cap,” adding that Rodriguez’s new position “does not reflect the best interests of the players.”

The reason for the transparent pandering is that A-Rod is in pursuit of the New York Mets, so he will shamelessly say whatever he thinks might ingratiate himself both to the current owners of the Queens franchise and to the owners of the other twenty-nine teams who will ultimately vote on any proposed sale of the Metropolitans.

Along with his longtime girlfriend and, for the past sixteen months fiancé, Jennifer Lopez, Rodriguez is working hard to cobble together a serious bid for the Mets now that the Wilpon family has renewed its efforts to sell the franchise. He has attracted a great deal of star power to his potential ownership group, with sports figures like Brian Urlacher and Bradley Beal reportedly interested in signing on. Of course, none of them can outdo the glitter that Lopez would bring to the owner’s suite, and at least in the Gotham tabloids her presence alone is reason enough to seriously consider Rodriguez’s bid.

What’s less clear is how much hard cash any of the familiar names is willing to pony up. Business journalist Charles Gasparino has suggested that the sports stars are little more than window dressing, quoting an unnamed source close to A-Rod who said “they have no money. It’s a joke.” For their part Rodriquez and Lopez don’t appear to be kidding, but they are competing against financial heavyweights.

Steven Cohen, the hedge fund manager whose earlier agreement to buy the team collapsed over a disagreement about the Wilpons’ ongoing role, reportedly has the high bid so far. Josh Harris and David Blitzer, partners in a holding company that owns the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and NHL’s New Jersey Devils, as well as a stake in the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, are believed to be second in line. Cohen’s net worth is roughly $14 billion, or almost twenty times that of Rodriguez and Lopez combined. While less than Cohen’s, the number for Harris and Blitzer is a lot closer to his than to that of the celebrity couple’s, plus they have the advantage of having already been fully vetted by other major sports leagues.

It’s still early in the process. Bids will be changed, and members of the proposed ownership groups will no doubt shift. Rodriguez and Lopez reportedly just traveled to Foxborough Massachusetts to pitch New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft on the idea of joining their team for the specific purpose of developing the area around Citi Field, much as he has done with the Patriot Place complex next to Gillette Stadium. Perhaps in the end there will be financial substance behind the glitter, and Mets fans will be treated to J. Lo singing the national anthem from atop the rising Home Run Apple in center field before every game.

For Yankee fans watching the Queens sideshow from the Bronx, Rodriguez’s desperate desire to become an owner has a very familiar feel. After all, not long after A-Rod’s playing days abruptly ended when the Yankees told him he wasn’t going to find himself in the lineup ever again, his former teammate Derek Jeter emerged as part of the group that won the bidding war for the Miami Marlins. Although he owns just a 4% stake, Jeter is the face of the ownership team and serves as the franchise’s CEO. Throughout his time in pinstripes Rodriguez chafed at playing in the shadow of the Yankees’ beloved captain and seemed to constantly be looking for ways to upstage Jeter. One can’t help but wonder if at some level part of A-Rod’s current motivation is, once again, a desire to outdo his former infield partner. The only certainty for now is that whatever principles he needs to abandon or kowtowing he needs to do; Alex Rodriguez will be more than up to the task.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 12, 2020

A Good Day To Be Young(er)

The headline on the Golf Channel’s website was technically accurate. “Thomas leads younger stars at Workday Open,” it read, above a story about the world’s fifth-ranked golfer sitting atop the leader board after the third round of this week’s PGA Tour event, two shots clear of 22-year-old Viktor Hovland and three ahead of 23-year-old Collin Morikawa. Still, the words could easily mislead. Someone who doesn’t follow golf closely might have thought they were about to read a tale of generational conflict on the fairways of Muirfield Village Golf Club in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, Ohio, when the reality of Sunday’s final threesome was anything but. While the two pursuers at the start of the day are both barely more than a year removed from playing as amateurs for their college golf teams, Thomas, with his dozen Tour wins including the 2017 PGA Championship, only turned 27 in late April. Odds are he still has fairly clear memories of lugging his own bag at the University of Alabama.

But if the final round of the Workday wasn’t about a changing of the guard, it still didn’t lack for drama, which is not bad for a tournament that didn’t even exist a month ago. Once upon a pre-pandemic calendar, the Tour planned to stop this week in the Quad Cities area along the border between Illinois and Iowa, for the John Deere Classic. Then in late May the machinery and heavy equipment company which sponsors the event decided that without the possibility of fans in attendance, the tournament wasn’t viable. That sent the Tour scrambling to fill one more hole in a schedule already greatly rearranged by COVID-19. On June 15th came word of back-to-back weeks at Muirfield Village, with a full-field tournament sponsored by the business software vendor Workday preceding the Tour’s usual stop in eastern Ohio for the Memorial.

At the time an important part of that plan was to use this week as a test run for setting up the course in anticipation of next week’s Memorial Tournament being the first event to admit fans since the Tour resumed play. But even as that schedule was announced and protocols for admitting perhaps one-fifth of the usual number of paying spectators were being reviewed and approved by local and state officials, the coronavirus was gathering strength in many states that rushed to reopen. Now there will not only be no spectators on the grounds next week, the PGA Tour is expected to announce within a day or two that the rest of the current season’s schedule, through the Tour Championship on Labor Day weekend, will be played without fans in attendance.

Had spectators been present this Sunday, the air would surely have been filled with both wild cheers for brilliant play and collective groans for shots gone awry. Thomas quickly gave away his overnight advantage, recording bogeys on two of the first three holes, while Morikawa and Hovland each netted one birdie. Then Morikawa seized the advantage with a pair of brilliant shots on the 4th and 5th holes. At the 201-yard par-3 4th, his tee shot flew straight for the hole, landing ten feet short before bouncing once and rolling up to the cup, where it pinged off the flagstick. Deprived of the ace, Morikawa had a tap-in for birdie. Then from 232 yards on the par-5 5th hole, his second shot soared high into the air, landed three feet from the hole and stopped dead like it had come off the face of a wedge rather than a 5-wood. The short putt gave him an eagle and a share of the lead with Hovland, with Thomas suddenly three strokes behind.

Hovland’s time at the top proved short-lived, with costly bogeys at the 6th, 10th and 14th holes ending his hopes for a second PGA Tour win. And for a time, it looked like Morikawa would also be left with thoughts of what might have been. That’s because after his shaky start Thomas lit up the course through the middle of the round, making four birdies in a row around the turn, then adding another birdie on the 14th and an eagle-3 on the par-5 15th hole. That gave him a three-shot lead, completely reversing the standings from two hours earlier. With just three holes to play, one could excuse any fans who picked that moment to start channel surfing.

But by doing so they missed Thomas drop one shot with a bogey on the 16th and Morikawa make up another with a birdie on the penultimate hole. The remaining difference slipped away on the 18th green when Thomas’s 10-foot par putt broke right and slid below the hole. That left the two tied at 19-under par for the tournament and sent them both back to the 18th tee for a sudden death playoff.

Neither player distinguished himself from tee to green on that first extra hole, with Thomas’s approach shot winding up 50 feet past the hole and Morikawa facing a 24-foot breaker. So naturally Thomas’s effort from another zip code fell into the heart of the cup for a birdie, and then Morikawa’s try slipped into the left edge of the hole to prolong the match. They played the 18th yet again, both making par, before moving over to the 10th hole, where the Workday finally came to an end.

Thomas’s tee shot faded into the right rough and came to rest directly behind a small tree, leaving him no choice but to chip out to the fairway. When Morikawa’s drive split the fairway, the die was cast. Thanks to the errant tee ball, the tournament’s ending was anticlimactic, belying the hours of drama that preceded the final ten minutes. Perhaps in the end the logical inference of the Golf Channel’s headline was correct. As Collin Morikawa accepted the congratulations of the handful of tournament officials around the green, maybe Justin Thomas was feeling just a little bit old.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 9, 2020

Who Will Follow The Ivy League’s Lead?

Is the trickle about to become a flood? The first announcements of colleges canceling fall sports, meaning above all else football, were from little schools that play in the lower levels of the NCAA. Institutions like Division III schools Bowdoin, Williams, and Grinnell, all colleges that don’t offer athletic scholarships. Then Morehouse, a historically black college which plays in Division II, canceled its football season. That announcement was on the heels of the Patriot League, with its member schools scattered mostly up and down the I-95 corridor from Boston to Washington, DC, deciding to delay the start of fall sports until the end of September and bar teams from traveling to games by air. Patriot League football squads compete at the Football Championship Subdivision level of the NCAA’s Division I, just one step below the teams that millions tune in to watch every Saturday from late summer until the confetti flies at the end of the College Football National Championship game in January.

Meanwhile football players for many of those teams at the top of the collegiate athletics food chain were returning to campuses and participating in workouts for an already-delayed spring practice. But as they did so schools began reporting alarming numbers of positive coronavirus tests. At Clemson fully one-third of the team tested positive, though as a member of a Power 5 conference and with four trips to the title game in the last five years, the Tigers and coach Dabo Swinney didn’t let that interrupt preparations for the coming season. Infected players were sent into quarantine for ten days, but practices continued for the rest of the roster. Then this week other football powers found it impossible to ignore such bad numbers. On Wednesday UNC shut down its team practice, and shortly thereafter Ohio State suspended workouts, not just for the football squad but for all sports.

The ultimate catalyst for more drastic action may be a decidedly unlikely one. The Ivy League, which issues no athletic scholarship, bars its football teams from playing in bowl games, and was the last Division I conference to adopt a season-ending basketball tournament, canceled all fall sports. Given the vastly less important role of athletics on Ivy campuses as compared to the Power 5 conferences, in terms of both money and prestige, one might expect that decision to be scarcely noticed in Tuscaloosa or Columbus or Baton Rouge. Certainly, the immediate reactions from commissioners of the big conferences, while not dismissive, emphasized that their own decision-making processes were ongoing. Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, for example, said in an interview on ESPN Radio, “I don’t think the (Ivy League’s) announcement is any inflection point for decision making.”

But Sankey went on to acknowledge that “when you look at what is happening, those are the real inflection points for us. I want to be optimistic, but the reality is publicly we have to discipline ourselves to remain healthy as a culture. And that relates to some of the behaviors we’ve seen that have caused the spread to accelerate. I’ve been optimistic, but I’m prepared that optimism is not reality.”

Sankey and his fellow commissioners, along with presidents and athletic directors at scores of Division I schools, are confronting twin realities. The first is an ongoing surge in coronavirus cases across a broad swath of the country, and the second is the alarmingly high percentage of new cases among young people whose presumed careless behavior was the object of Sankey’s comment. Both bode ill for a quick return of college sports.

The Ivy League has already been the unlikely leader of American sports once before during the pandemic. On March 10, league executive director Robin Harris announced the cancelation of the Ivy’s basketball tournaments for both men’s and women’s teams. At the time Harris was accused of timidity and overreacting, but her announcement quickly proved prescient. One day later the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic and the NBA suspended play. In the next twenty-four hours all other major professional leagues followed suit, and the criticism of the Ivy League became moot with the shelving of March Madness.

There won’t be a similar rush to follow the Ivy League’s example this time. The college football season is still weeks away, so athletic directors still have a little time. Also, back in March, most folks believed that the interruption of the sports calendar would only last a few weeks. Now everyone knows better. Plus football, and to a lesser extent basketball, are the sports that carry all other aspects of the athletic program at many schools. Wiping out an entire football season will impact a long list of other teams on campuses across the country.

Still colleges can’t simply cite the economic impact as reason enough to send teams out onto the gridiron. Doing so will only remind fans that the players they cheer for every Saturday don’t share in the financial windfall football produces for those Power 5 schools, even as in a season played during a pandemic they would put their health on the line to an extent far beyond the usual risks of the brutal contact sport.

It’s a perilous choice, one that many who are facing it will be loath to make. This week’s decision by the Ivy League doesn’t mean the dam has burst, but it reminds us the levee safeguarding the return of sports may yet prove to be hopelessly porous. Thursday the Big 10 announced a conference-only schedule for this fall, eliminating marquee football matchups like Michigan versus Washington in September and Wisconsin versus Notre Dame at Lambeau Field in October. That came after the ACC pushed back the start of fall sports, and Stanford notified athletes in eleven different disciplines that their teams were being eliminated. It’s not yet a flood, but the water is rising.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 5, 2020

Grow Up, Bryson

The Bryson DeChambeau Tour stopped at venerable Detroit Golf Club this week, a private enclave on the north side of the city with two 18-hole routings first laid out by Donald Ross. Okay, it is still officially called the PGA Tour, but a casual fan tuning in to watch some golf as one of the very few live sports available on his or her flatscreen would be excused for thinking otherwise. Since the men’s tour returned to action three weeks ago, the 26-year old DeChambeau has garnered an outsized amount of attention from the golf media, especially CBS Sports, the broadcast network for all four of the Tour’s events since the resumption of play. He’s been the focus because DeChambeau himself has become outsized, having beefed up by twenty pounds during the Tour’s COVID-19 layoff, on top of a similar if more gradual weight gain over the winter. His new look is the result of a supposedly maniacal exercise and diet regimen sparked by DeChambeau’s desire to increase his upper body strength and swing speed, especially off the tee.

The weightlifting and protein shakes have clearly done more than just require DeChambeau to have his sponsor Cobra Puma Golf send him a new supply of shirts in a larger size. He led the field in driving distance at the Charles Schwab Challenge, the first event of the restart, and did so again this week at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He was also among the driving distance leaders at Harbour Town and TPC River Highlands, and now leads the Tour in this stat for the 2019-20 season. That’s a dramatic change for a golfer who had never ranked better than twenty-fifth in driving distance for a season since turning pro in 2016.

It’s no wonder that the CBS cameras have gravitated to DeChambeau. Network producers know that golf fans love to watch players boom prodigious drives down fairways, and DeChambeau has been happy to oblige these past four weeks. Show him on the tee, his Hulk-like upper body and arms wielding a Cobra driver. Film him taking a mighty rip and let the obligatory ball-tracing technology paint a bright red line on the screen, following the ball high into the air, headed far, far away. Cut to a second camera down the fairway, showing the ball bouncing along at the end of its flight. Cue the announcer to breathlessly tell fans the drive went 350, or 360, or even 370 yards, leaving DeChambeau with just a short wedge shot into the green of what was once thought to be a daunting par-4.

The network has been more than willing to promote what we now know DeChambeau thinks of as his “brand,” through three Tour stops when he lurked around the leader board but failed to finish on top. Still, three straight top-ten finishes justifies quite a bit of attention, though the extensive television time coupled with various fawning stories online and in the print media have also illustrated the pliant nature of much of the coverage of golf. It certainly contrasts sharply with many other sports where dramatic physical changes like DeChambeau’s would immediately spark speculative social media posts wondering whether there was more than protein powder in his shakes. That the speculation would be posted without a scintilla of evidence to support it would of course do nothing to slow down the “likes” and “shares.” That contrast seems rather favorable to the golf media, reminding us that there are times when most members of the press being basically supportive of the athletes they’re covering is not a bad thing.

But that doesn’t make the media an extension of the PGA Tour’s marketing department. DeChambeau finally closed the deal this week, rallying from a three-shot deficit at the start of the final round to win the Rocket Mortgage by three over 54-hole leader Matthew Wolff. Those gargantuan drives led to eight birdies in a round of 7-under 65 and a final total of 23-under par. DeChambeau got an assist from Wolff, who was unsteady through the first half of his round and walked off the 10th green at 3-over par for the day. Wolff’s eventual 71 lost ground to all but three of the top twenty finishers, but his travails don’t change the fact that DeChambeau closed with his best round of the tournament to win his sixth PGA Tour title.

It would be well worth celebrating, except that DeChambeau soured the party before a single ball was struck on Sunday. During the third round he flubbed a sand shot, and angrily smashed his club into the bunker. The same cameras that so lovingly captured his magnificent drives over the last month also recorded this bit of petulance, and then the cameraman on the scene continued to track DeChambeau as he stalked onto the green. This led to a confrontation, which he later explained was because he felt broadcasting his angry outburst would “damage his brand.” He went on to tell the Golf Channel, “I mean, I understand it’s his job to video me, but at the same point, I think we need to start protecting our players out here compared to showing a potential vulnerability and hurting someone’s image. I just don’t think that’s necessarily the right thing to do. For that to damage our brand like that, that’s not cool in the way we act because if you actually meet me in person, I’m not too bad of a dude, I don’t think.”

No argument here about the accuracy of his last three words, but the rest of DeChambeau’s comments were those of a self-absorbed and supremely entitled twit. He would do well to learn from other golfers who understand that the media’s job is to report, and in the case of television show, what happens on the course, be it good or bad. Sergio Garcia has flung a club or two over the years, but long ago learned to own his occasional bad behavior. Rory McIlroy endured an epic meltdown in the final round of the 2011 Masters, but the then-21-year-old answered reporters’ questions with an equanimity and grace that won him a legion of new fans. So far, all DeChambeau has done is prove even crybabies can hit 360-yard drives.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 2, 2020

The Immeasurable Cost Of A Lost Season

We will always remember this as the year of such great loss. Lives of course, in numbers that cannot yet be fully counted; a statistic made more tragic by the knowledge that an unnecessary portion of the eventual grim total will be directly attributable to hubris. Jobs and businesses by the millions, many of which will not return for months or even years. So much loss already, and so much more to come.

It is no surprise that in such a dark year the first-ever cancellation of the minor league baseball season was second level news. Headlines these days are reserved for tales of large-scale catastrophe, either complete or unfolding, bumping the story of one more aspect of sports wiped out for an entire year to what was once called “below the fold,” back when readers’ hands became smudged with newsprint every morning. But for thousands who scratch out a living at the Great Game’s second level, and for millions of fans to whom it is a welcome summertime diversion, the loss of minor league ball is calamitous.

The announcement came on the final day of June, in any other year a date by which all 160 minor league teams affiliated with big league clubs would have been in action. But the official word was like a late arriving medical examiner at the scene of a murder – necessary for the record but merely stating the obvious. The absolute requirement for a baseball game, from a sandlot in Sandusky to the big Stadium in the Bronx, is baseball players, and the minor leagues had none. Under the contract between Major League Baseball and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the umbrella organization representing all the MLB-affiliated minor league franchises, big league teams provide and pay for the rosters while minor league owners absorb all other costs. Once MLB told MiLB that because of the pandemic no players would be assigned to the various levels and teams of the minor league structure, and that instead major league teams would carry the equivalent of a taxi squad of reserve players for the shortened 2020 season, minor league baseball was done.

Even if the teams had been able to fill roster spots, the realities of the pandemic would have rendered play impossible. Most of the country is still weeks or months away from being able to sanely consider large group gatherings, and unlike their big league brethren, attendance is crucial for the bottom line of minor league clubs. There are no massive media contracts for the Bees in Burlington Iowa or the Barons in Birmingham Alabama. Fans who open their wallets, first to buy tickets and then to purchase hot dogs and beer and programs and tee shirts are financially every bit as essential as the players on the field. Even the sponsorship sales of advertising placards that occupy seemingly every square foot of the outfield fence at most minor league parks are frequently tied to how many sets of eyes will see them during a season.

While the news is now official the impact is only beginning to be felt. Strapped for cash, many minor league ballclubs had already furloughed employees and, like thousands of other small businesses, scrambled to apply for help through the various relief initiatives passed by Congress. But many of those programs are ending even as the realization that there will be no season at all for these clubs sinks in. Pat O’Connor, MiLB’s president, has predicted that many teams will go under. Some owners may find buyers, though this hardly seems like a time for investing in cash-strapped small businesses. But it’s virtually certain that MLB’s goal of reducing the number of affiliated minor league clubs, an unwavering position during recent negotiations over a new contract with MiLB, will be achieved not through hard bargaining but by the continuing spread of COVID-19.

Along with dramatically reducing the size of the amateur draft, shrinking the minors will save the owners of major league franchises money, but at the cost of both narrowing the path to the big leagues and decreasing opportunities to grow the game. As Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore said last month, “The minor league player, the players that you’ll never know about, the players that never get out of rookie ball or High-A, those players have as much impact on the growth of our game as 10-year, 15-year veteran players….because those are the individuals that go back into their communities and teach the game. They work in academies. They’re junior college coaches. They’re college coaches. They’re scouts. They coach in professional baseball. They’re growing the game constantly because they’re so passionate about it.”

Now some of that passion will be directed elsewhere, as will some of the ardor of 40 million fans who normally fill the seats at little ballparks, from the Sea Dogs’ home in the downtown of one Portland to that of the Hops in the suburbs of another. Those fans likely root for one of the thirty major league teams, but most do so without ever setting foot in a big league stadium. For them live baseball is the local squad playing at that minor league park, an affordable and fun night out, be it for a group of buddies or a growing family.

“What’s lost is lost, we can’t regain what went down in the flood.” So Bob Dylan told us very long ago. In this pandemic year today’s loss piles on top of yesterday’s before both must make way for tomorrow’s, a flood of bad news with no crest in sight. For thousands of young players, and some number that are not so young, for hundreds of baseball lifers who manage and coach them, for millions of fans who connect to the Great Game far from the bright lights of the big leagues, the loss of an entire season will be counted in games not played, innings not pitched, and at-bats not taken. But those measures miss the greatest loss of all, that of the hope that is on display every night on these real-life fields of dreams.

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