Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 28, 2021

Out Of The LPGA Frying Pan, Into The USGA Fire

The attention of most golf fans this weekend was on the Workday Championship at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton Florida. That is hardly a surprise, since the PGA Tour dominates coverage of the sport and this week’s tournament had the added cachet of being one of the four World Golf Championship events.

Not yet fifteen years old, The Concession was co-designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin, who share a page in golf’s history book from the 1969 Ryder Cup, when Nicklaus conceded Jacklin’s putt for a halve on the final hole, ensuring the matches would end in a tie between the United States team and the one from Great Britain and Ireland – thus the club’s name. The private links was a substitute location for the WGC tournament, pressed into service when pandemic travel restrictions ruled out playing in Mexico as originally planned. Fans watching the NBC broadcast got to see a devilish course, one that yielded bushels of birdies to players who kept their shots in the fairways while enacting brutal punishment on any golfer who strayed out of position. The result was a range of scoring that literally went from one to ten on individual holes, before Collin Morikawa finally held off Viktor Hovland, Brooks Koepka, and Billy Horschel to win for the fourth time in his still young PGA Tour career.

But if The Concession hosted this weekend’s main event, an important tournament on the undercard was played less than a two-hour drive inland, at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Orlando. Twenty years older than its Bradenton counterpart, Lake Nona is also an exclusive private layout, one that boasts multiple PGA Tour and LPGA players among its members. The club was the site of the inaugural Solheim Cup in 1990, and this weekend saw the best women golfers in the world return for the Gainbridge LPGA, the second tournament on this year’s LPGA calendar. Just like Morikawa, Nelly Korda converted a 54-hole lead into a three-shot victory Sunday afternoon.

The Gainbridge was also the first event on the women’s tour since LPGA commissioner Michael Whan, who announced just after New Year’s that he was stepping down, was named the next CEO of the United States Golf Association. As such, it was a useful measuring stick of Whan’s impact on the tour during his decade-plus in charge. The tournament was a full-field, 72-hole event, with 121 players teeing off in Thursday’s opening round. Those golfers were pursuing a share of a $2 million purse, which while a fraction of the riches that the men of the PGA Tour were playing for down I-4 a bit, is a healthy number for a LPGA event in just its second year of existence. More important, the Gainbridge LPGA is one of 34 tournaments on this year’s calendar, events that will pay out more than $78 million in prize money.

To put those numbers in context, when Whan was named the LPGA’s eighth commissioner in 2010, the tour was in crisis. The disastrous leadership of Carole Bivens coupled with loss of numerous tournament sponsors because of the recession had combined to strip the tour of multiple events while shrinking purses of those that remained, even as players revolted against the attempt by Bivens to compel every golfer in a heavily international membership to speak English. In his first year at the helm, Whan presided over a schedule that included only 24 events, with total purses just barely over $40 million.

As crucial as his efforts guiding the tour’s economic recovery have been, Whan’s greatest contributions are not measured, at least directly, in dollars. The LPGA assumed management of the developmental Symetra Tour and turned it into a stable and viable circuit. Less than two years ago he forged an alliance with the struggling Ladies European Tour that should ensure expanded playing opportunities for players on the other side of the Atlantic. Whan also focused the tour’s leadership on supporting the Girls Golf Program that the LPGA runs in conjunction with the USGA. The result has been exponential growth, from 5,000 young players when Whan became commissioner to 90,000 now. And he has also constantly engaged with and empowered his players, understanding that fans don’t come out to a tournament or turn on their flatscreens to watch the commissioner of any sports league.

Because the LPGA’s 2020 calendar had several events in Asia late last winter, it was one of the first major sports leagues to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. After the Australian Open in mid-February, the next nine tournaments were canceled, while Whan worked with his team and the leadership of other golf tours to figure out how and when play could be resumed. The LPGA eventually returned in late July, but even then Whan had to juggle the rest of the schedule and work to retain sponsor commitments for 2021 and beyond. That he succeeded is evidenced by this year’s tour calendar.

Now Whan takes on a vastly different challenge. As one the sport’s two rule-making bodies, along with the R&A, the USGA is viewed by many golfers as stodgy and arbitrary, intent on taking fun out of the game, whether through convoluted rules interpretations or its recent focus on finding ways to limit the distance modern club technology allows players to hit the ball. As more than one professional instructor has pointed out, no amateur ever begins a golf lesson complaining that his or her problem is hitting the ball too far.

In eleven years at the LPGA, Whan reinvigorated the organization and developed a culture that was open, inclusive, and forward-thinking. If he can do the same in an association that has for years been symbolized by the rigid formality of its trademark blue blazers, he will be hailed by golfers everywhere, tour professionals and weekend hackers alike. The question is, will Michael Whan change the USGA, or will it change him?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 25, 2021

There Where Things Are Hollow

In January 1975 David Bowie, with assistance from John Lennon, wrote and recorded “Fame,” which became his first number one single in both the United States and Canada. Bowie had achieved stardom with his “Ziggy Stardust” album three years earlier, and the former Beatle Lennon was more than passingly familiar with both the pressures and perquisites of being famous. The song, which Bowie would later describe as “nasty, angry” and written “with a degree of malice,” was an acerbic take on the demands and challenges imposed on any person who achieves the level of renown embodied in its title. Bowie had just gone through a bitter split with his manager, and he readily acknowledged that some of the tune’s venom was a product of that relationship’s unhappy ending. But more broadly, for the then 28-year-old who was still adjusting to acclaim, and certainly for Lennon, “Fame” was a funk rock lament on the mindless hero worship, unwanted hangers-on, and regimented lifestyle that too often accompanies celebrity.

Bowie’s old tune came to mind repeatedly over the past two days, as golf writers, fans of the sport, and uncounted numbers of people who don’t know the difference between a 5-wood and a lob wedge reacted to Tuesday’s awful news of the one-car accident involving Tiger Woods. The initial reaction of most of us – horror, followed by hope that Woods will recover from his injuries – was genuine, and its breadth was a powerful reminder that Woods is one of those rare athletes who transcends his sport. But as the first uncertain hours stretched into a day, then two, and as it became clear that while this story would not end in unimaginable tragedy, Woods’s future physical condition will remain impossible to forecast for a considerable time, much of the ongoing response has started to look cloying, vacuous and excessive; in short, like something the two rock legends would recognize if they were still alive.

It is important to note the environment in which this coverage exists. Late Tuesday night, after Woods had made it through the lengthy surgery needed to stabilize his leg injuries, a statement was posted on his Twitter feed which expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support, included a description by the Chief Medical Officer of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center of Woods’s injuries and the surgical procedures that were carried out, and thanked both the hospital’s medical staff and the emergency personnel who responded to the scene of the accident. The statement did not promise any regular updates on his condition, and none have been issued.

Plenism is hardly new, having first been postulated by Aristotle. But despite the antiquity of the concept, when it comes to abhorring vacuums, nature has nothing on the internet. The lack of any news to report has not deterred the appearance of an incredible volume of material related to Woods. By Thursday afternoon, the front page of ESPN’s website had links to six stories and two videos. On the official site of the PGA Tour, he was the subject of half of the six featured stories. At GolfChannel.com, each of the first half dozen links in the “Top Stories” box on the right-hand side of the home page took a visitor to a piece about Woods. The results for those last two websites are especially significant since Thursday was also the opening round of one of the four annual World Golf Championship events.

Nor is it just the web that has been fixated on Woods. Thursday’s “Sports of the Times” column in the paper of record, and virtually the entirety of PGA Tour Radio’s morning drivetime program were devoted to the greatest golfer of his generation. Many of the stories were fawning, and while it is understandable that criticism is not called for while Woods lies in a hospital bed with a long and uncertain road ahead, unblinking hero worship ignores both the complexity of his career on and off the course, and the important part that America’s longstanding role as the land of second chances has played in the enduring arc of his fame.

But of far greater concern are two other types of stories that can be found in abundance. One is reporting – if it can be called that – intended to directly fill the void created by the purposeful silence from Woods’s team. Various physicians identified as medical consultants to this or that website have been more than willing to opine on his injuries, the surgeries that were performed, and the timeframe for and likely results of Woods’s rehab. Those opinions have in turn been analyzed and discussed by assorted pundits, all despite the glaring absence of personal knowledge of the case by any of the doctors. Their assessments, some of which have been quite detailed, have all been based on the three-sentence statement from Dr. Anish Mahajan, the CMO at Harbor-UCLA.

Yet as bad as what borders on ethical malpractice has been, it pales next to the mindless speculation about whether and when Woods will return to competitive golf. For no matter how much it is prefaced by statements of concern for his health and family, these stories are really all about the person doing the speculating. Woods has given the golf world more than two decades of singular accomplishment, singlehandedly raised the earning capacity of every touring pro and made at least casual golf fans of millions who would otherwise turn up their nose at the game. He owes the sport and its adherents nothing, and if either by necessity or choice he never again picks up a club, anyone lamenting the loss is far more concerned about their need for entertainment than they are about Tiger Woods.

At times like these it is easy to see why Bowie, with a little help from his friend Lennon, penned such a bitter song. We place our heroes on pedestals, then quietly chortle when they fall off, whether through their own failings or fate. Though we don’t really know them at all, we tell ourselves the fall makes them more human, at least until they win a fifteenth major tournament or seventh Super Bowl, when we are instantly ready to put them back atop the pedestal that we, not they, built in the first place. They are, of course, human and fallible and very much mortal all along. It is our conceit, not theirs, that makes them into something else.

The last sentence of Tuesday night’s statement from Woods’s team asked that we respect his privacy. It is the least we should do for Tiger, after all he has done for us. But we won’t.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 21, 2021

On Top Of The World By Winning Down Under

By now, the lesson should have been learned by every other woman with dreams of lifting the trophy at the end of one of the four major tennis tournaments. If you are going to beat Naomi Osaka at a Grand Slam event, you’d better do it in the first week. As the 23-year-old proved once again over the past fortnight in Melbourne, once play at her sports’ most important, career-defining tournaments moves past the opening rounds and into the decisive second week of action, once the pressure is greatest and the stakes are highest, Osaka is unstoppable.

With her straight set, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Jennifer Brady on Saturday, Osaka captured her second Australian Open and fourth Grand Slam title, putting her third among active women players, behind only the twenty-three and seven of the Willliams sisters, Serena and Venus, respectively. Even more impressively, she has won her first four Grand Slam finals, a mark matched in the Open Era only by Monica Seles three decades ago and Roger Federer in the early years of this century. In claiming those championships Osaka has assembled a perfect 12-0 record in Grand Slam quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals. Beat her in the first week or forget about lifting the trophy.

In keeping with that theme, Osaka’s trip through the Australian Open bracket was not an unimpeded march to glory. After unsurprising straight set victories in her first three matches, she faced Garbine Muguruza in the round of 16 at the end of the tournament’s first week. The Spaniard’s game fell off after she won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon a year later, but prior to the pandemic she had returned to form, advancing to the finals in Melbourne last year. The pair split the first two sets, then in the decider Muguruza appeared about to pull off the upset, up 5-3 and holding a pair of break points – match points – against Osaka’s serve. But Osaka saved both, the last with a deep volley that pulled Muguruza wide, with her return sailing long. Then Osaka put the hammer down, closing out that game and winning the next three games – breaking Muguruza twice – to seal the match.

With play advancing to the quarterfinals Osaka was in her major tournament element. She dominated the unpredictable Su-Wei Hsieh 6-2, 6-2, before dispatching Serena Williams 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals. That match was the first meeting between the two since their combustible 2018 U.S. Open final, when Williams’s inexcusable meltdown in the middle of the match turned the eventual awards ceremony from the joyous celebration of a first Grand Slam title that Osaka deserved into an ugly mess. Happily, there was nothing like that in Melbourne on Wednesday, just a methodical straight set win by Osaka.

That result, and the simple act of Williams tapping her heart and waving to the crowd as she left to a standing ovation after once again falling short in her quest for a twenty-fourth major title led to rampant media speculation that she might be considering retirement. Whether or not she ever ties Margaret Court’s record for major wins (a record that includes eleven Australian titles, most won in a time when the enormous distance to Melbourne kept many top American and European players from participating in the tournament), Serena’s legacy both on and off the court is secure. Even now, at 39 and with a 3-year-old daughter, she remains the queen of the women’s game. And while she has not won a Grand Slam event since 2017, she has reached four finals since returning to tennis after recovering from an extremely difficult pregnancy. That doesn’t seem like the track record of a player ready to retire.

But if Serena is still the queen, the women’s game now has an undisputed aspirant to the throne. Analysts describing the parity among top players point to the eleven different winners of Grand Slam tournaments since Williams won her twenty-third title at the 2017 Australian Open. As one would expect given such a long list, only two players have won multiple titles in that time, and Simona Halep meets that standard with the bare minimum of two, making Osaka’s four that much more impressive.

As she did against Muguruza, and then against Williams, Osaka beat Brady on Saturday with a clear game plan and an iron will that she imposed at a crucial point of the match. Her strategy, even in the early going when both players were showing some nerves, was to focus on Brady’s backhand. It’s the weak link in the game of the 25-year-old rising American star, who went to college because she was unsure her game was good enough to forge a pro career. Those doubts have been dispelled by Brady’s rapid ascent up the rankings. Despite Osaka’s focus on her weakness, Brady held her own for much of the first set Saturday, at least until Osaka decided to seize control.

That moment came at 4-all, when Brady used a deft lob to win a point and draw cheers from the crowd, limited by the pandemic but still greater than either player had seen in months, thanks to Australia’s rigorous campaign against the virus. The shot left Osaka facing a break point. Had she yielded Brady would have served for the first set.

Osaka did not yield. She erased Brady’s advantage with a scorching forehand that was unreturnable and proceeded to hold serve for a 5-4 lead. She then broke Brady to take the first set, and won the first four games of the second, a six-game streak that turned a surprisingly even match into the rout that most observers were expecting. A few minutes later, when a Brady return sailed long to end it, Osaka held her racket over her head and broke into a wide, and well-deserved, smile.

The numbers from Melbourne reveal Osaka’s dominance. She led the women’s bracket with 50 aces, a whopping 15 more than anyone else. She matched that power with precision, ranking second in first serve percentage. After her semifinal win she explained her determination by saying that fans don’t remember runners-up. And while winning four of the last nine majors Osaka has found her voice off the court, becoming a forceful champion for social justice.

At some point, in some Grand Slam event, her remarkable latter-round streak will end. The very word “streak” implies as much. But when it does, Naomi Osaka will just start a new one. After claiming the Australian Open title, she said she hoped to play “long enough to play a girl that said I was once her favorite player or something…. that’s how the sport moves forward.” She could of course have been describing her first match against Serena Williams. That is indeed how any sport moves forward. With its new queen-in-waiting, women’s tennis is advancing just fine.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 18, 2021

The Great Game Returns

There is snow on the ground here in New England, with more on the way. That is hardly unexpected since barely two weeks ago, down in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney’s pet rodent forecast an extended slog through the depths of the dead season. At least those of us who live in these northern climes are familiar with the extreme conditions that can accompany February dates on the calendar. Residents of other regions were less prepared this week, when snow and ice blanketed a huge swath of the country and temperatures plunged below zero as far south as Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The uncommon cold caused energy demand to spike and power grids to fail, adding to the woes of citizens served by utility companies already struggling with blackouts brought on by the collapse of power lines from high winds and the weight of frozen water.

With winter’s fangs sunk deep into our psyche like the serrated teeth of a particularly cruel trap clamped on the leg of an unlucky animal, escape may seem impossible. But then the words come. They are the best four words in sports, delivered this year, as always, just when needed most by our frostbitten souls. They are the clarion call of the Great Game, an edict that must be answered by players and fans alike. They are an affirmation of baseball’s place in American culture, as timeless as the bunting that will front the stands on Opening Day. They are a promise, delivered in a cold and dark time, that the months of warmth and light will return as the longest season builds to its stretch run in high summer. They are the symbol of the annual return of unbridled hope, of fresh starts, clean slates, and all thirty teams equal in the “games behind” column of the daily standings. They are the instantly recognizable opening chord of the Great Game’s annual symphony: pitchers and catchers report! Another Spring Training has begun.

The words are still all those things, for they can never fail to be. But this year, as the batterymates assemble, with their position player compatriots soon to follow, as the first balls are tossed and swings taken, baseball’s four magic words are also a reminder of what we have endured, and of how far we still have to go.

One cannot contemplate this year’s training camp without flashing back twelve months, to the Spring Training during which COVID-related news grew by the day, from a trickle to a stream to a suddenly rushing torrent. Almost overnight baseball went from keeping a wary eye on a distant threat, to closing clubhouses to the media to protect players (even as the stands at exhibition games were packed cheek by jowl with fans), to suspending the season before it had even started.

The Great Game was not unique, of course. Across the entire landscape of sports play was paused and schedules abandoned, as America and the world confronted an invisible threat. At the time, with a naïveté fueled in equal parts by the lack of candor from national leaders and our collective unwillingness to face hard truths, we fans initially looked upon the pause as just that, a short timeout after which play, not to mention the familiar rhythms of daily life, would resume.

That misbegotten notion is but a tattered memory, one interminable and bitter year later. The costs have been staggering. By this weekend more than 28 million Americans will have been infected with the coronavirus. By the start of next week at the latest, the U.S. death toll will top 500,000. Infections and deaths were an unavoidable reality inherent in the very definition of a pandemic, but both numbers being more than twice that of any other nation is probably not exactly what some politicians have in mind when they boast of “American exceptionalism.”

Baseball, like every sport, has also paid a high price. Last year’s negotiations – if they can even be called that – between owners and players over the resumption of play were an ugly display of hostility and mistrust. The truncated 60-game schedule eventually mandated by commissioner Rob Manfred was a shadow of a season, its credibility saved only by the World Series triumph of the Dodgers, a manifestly great team. Even that minimal campaign was nearly derailed by a rash of positive cases right at the start, before stricter protocols brought improved testing results. And almost all of it, until the very end of the postseason tournament, played out in empty stadiums, the experience of a trip to the ballpark one more of life’s joys denied by COVID-19.

Even as the cycle begins anew, challenges remain. This will be a Spring Training like no other. No crowds of fans lining the fences of practice fields, watching their heroes work out. No groups of kids sprinting after lazy fly balls spiraling foul, as more than a few of the adults looking on wonder how unseemly it would be were they to join the chase. Only a select few members of a team’s faithful, perhaps a couple thousand, able to attend exhibition games. Come Opening Day the bunting will be in its usual place, but thousands of ticket holders will not be, with the return of stadiums filled with raucous fans still months away.

Traditions outside the foul lines are impacted as well. After last year’s induction ceremony was canceled, the Class of 2020 will be welcomed into the Hall of Fame twelve months late, but inside, at a televised event, not outdoors where free admission normally attracts tens of thousands of Great Game fans to little Cooperstown on a midsummer weekend.

And yet there is hope, for Spring Training has begun, and hope burns brightly in the heart of every fan when pitchers and catchers report. Hope that one’s favorite team will have a successful season. Hope that one’s personal hero will post career numbers. Hope that as the count of vaccinated Americans steadily rises, stadiums now being used as sites for the mass administration of Moderna or Pfizer doses can return to their intended purpose. Hope that by the time the longest season has run its course, in the days of waning light before another winter sets in, as the Yankees and Dodgers, or Padres and White Sox, or whichever two teams are the last ones standing, make ready for the decisive game of the 2021 World Series, we fans will once again be on hand to hear them when the best two words in sports ring out: play ball!

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 15, 2021

The More Things Change….

A NOTE TO READERS: This post was delayed by the late finish of the Daytona 500. Thanks for reading, and for your patience.

In the long ago, ancient times of 2010, one of the very first posts at On Sports and Life was entitled “Crashes on Both Coasts.” It recounted how on a Sunday afternoon in deep winter, when millions of homebound sports fans eagerly turned on their flatscreens to escape February’s doldrums, what they saw were two very different sports turned upside down.

At that year’s Daytona 500, the normally fast-moving spectacle of NASCAR was brought to a dead stop for two extended periods by a pothole. Decades of deferring the repaving of stock car racing’s most famous track led to one of the sport’s most embarrassing moments, the spectacle of the entire field of brightly painted race cars sitting on pit road while workmen labored to patch the pavement between Turns 1 and 2. Meanwhile the PGA Tour, which markets a game typically played at a deliberate pace, was on the other side of the continent at picturesque Pebble Beach, one of golf’s most instantly and widely recognized venues. There the tournament turned in less time that it takes a NASCAR driver to complete a couple circuits around a superspeedway, when journeyman Paul Goydos coughed up the lead by playing the 14th hole with all the skill and finesse of a rank amateur, recording a 9 on the par-5 after being in perfect position in the middle of the fairway following his second shot.

Eleven years and more than a million words later, that early contribution to this space came to mind Sunday. Once again, the scheduling of NASCAR’s season kickoff event and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am promised heavy use of the television remote control, but now, as then, the potential for a riveting afternoon of action went a-glimmering.

As is the case every year, the runup to the Daytona 500 was filled with news of offseason changes and speculation about the coming campaign. Some of those changes meant casual fans were more familiar with members of the Fox Sports announcing team than many of the new generation of drivers in the sport’s premier Cup Series. This year recently retired Clint Bowyer joined fan favorite Jeff Gordon, who climbed out of the #24 Chevy for the last time in 2015, in the Fox booth. Daytona’s starting lineup was also without seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and 2003 Cup winner Matt Kenseth, both of whom ended their NASCAR driving careers last fall. In time, of course, their replacements will develop fan bases of their own, as 25-year-old Chase Elliott, who took over Gordon’s ride for Hendrick Motorsports in 2016 and won his first championship last year, has done. But as the second generation of a renowned racing family Elliott had some built-in advantages. For now, more than a third of the starting field were little more than names to a casual fan.

The reality of NASCAR’s ongoing generational transition only increased the importance of making a positive impression on the sport’s big day. Instead, the race had barely gotten started when the crunch of metal on metal brought it to an abrupt halt. On the back stretch midway through lap 14, with the field chasing Kevin Harvick, who had supplanted pole-sitter Alex Byron in front a dozen laps earlier, Aric Almirola got turned by a rough bump draft from Christopher Bell to his rear. Almirola’s car slid up a lane into Byron’s, and since they were running almost at the front of the pack, the carnage was on. Running close to 200 miles per hour, drivers just behind had no chance to react, and ultimately sixteen cars in the forty-car field were involved in a massive pileup, suffering damage that ranged from moderate to severe.

Then, just as the cleanup got underway, a line of thunderheads looking like something in an especially scary scene of a Stephen King novel could be seen moving in from behind the front stretch grandstands. Within minutes the skies opened, and the 2021 Daytona 500 went under a red flag, meaning there would be no racing until conditions improved and the track was dried, a lengthy process on the two- and one-half mile tri-oval.

There was no golf ball sized hail at Pebble Beach, just the real things being struck by the field in the final round of the AT&T Pro-Am, which proceeded this year under its usual name even though the amateur portion of the event was cancelled because of the pandemic. While no doubt unfortunate for the scions of entertainment and industry who usually populate that portion of the field, it was welcome news to viewers, who did not have to put up with coverage of the duck hooks and skulled shots by a celebrity who just happens to have a show soon debuting on CBS. Instead, fans could tune in for what most hoped would finally be Jordan Spieth’s return to the winner’s circle.

As was just recounted in this space, Spieth has spent an extended time in golf purgatory, yet here he was again, leading going into the final round, this time by two shots. The most recent update on Spieth’s journey ended with the one word “maybe,” and surely fans tuned in believing that at long last that statement of potential would be converted into fact.

But no. Although in fairness to Spieth, his demise on Sunday was unlike that of Goydos eleven years ago. A 2-under par round of 70, while not setting the course on fire, was one better than his Saturday score and decent playing on a chilly day. But if he did not crash out like Goydos, neither did Spieth put his foot on the gas like a driver coming out of Daytona’s Turn 2. And that in turn meant the 54-hole two-shot lead was frittered away, with three-time PGA Tour winner Daniel Berger taking the greatest advantage. An eagle at the par-5 2nd and a birdie at the 3rd quickly erased Spieth’s overnight lead, and by the time Berger rolled in another long putt for an eagle 3 at the last, he was the AT&T champion by two strokes over Maverick McNealy and three over Patrick Cantlay and Spieth.

Once more NASCAR’s big opening act was slowed to a crawl. When little-known journeyman Michael McDowell slipped past another crash up front to make the 500 his first ever victory in a Cup race well after midnight, most fans had long since switched off their televisions, and even many of those in attendance had headed for the exits. And once more beside the Pacific surf at Pebble Beach, an outcome that fans felt was preordained was upended in the few seconds it took to sink a couple of eagle putts. As Yogi would say after watching Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle hit back-to-back homers in really long ago, ancient times, Sunday was déjà vu all over again.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 11, 2021

Meanwhile, In The Desert

While attention was focused on Raymond James Stadium in Tampa last Sunday, on the other side of the continent and a couple hours before the Super Bowl kicked off, another event was drawing to a far more dramatic conclusion. The Waste Management Phoenix Open began life as the Arizona Open in 1932, and after a brief hiatus shortly after, has held a regular spot on the calendar since 1939, making it one of the Tour’s oldest tournaments. For more than thirty years it has been played at TPC Scottsdale, a sprawling layout a few miles northeast of the event’s namesake city.

Like most courses in the Tournament Players Club network, TPC Scottsdale was built with spectators in mind. But the Thunderbirds, the local civic organization that has long served as the tournament’s organizing entity, decided years ago that the natural viewing areas built into the design by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish could be made even better. Additional bleachers eventually morphed into multilevel stadium-like stands, especially at the course’s three finishing holes. The par-3 16th, short par-4 17th, and most recently even the par-4 home hole, have become almost entirely enclosed by these temporary structures.

Yearly attendance far outpaces that of any other Tour stop. In 2018 – after which attendance reporting was discontinued – TPC Scottsdale hosted a record of almost 720,000 fans for the week, with a daily record of more than 216,000 of those spectators wandering the course on Saturday. Early arrivals are quite literally that, lining up at the gates in the middle of the night. For many, their nocturnal journey to the golf course has nothing to do with a love of the sport. Rather their goal is to snag one of the stadium seats, ideally at the 16th hole, where they spend the day imbibing in the desert sun, cheering raucously, and occasionally even noticing whether the object of their passionate shouts was a decent golf shot. In short, the Phoenix Open is essentially a giant party that happens to be held in the vicinity of a golf tournament, making it the perfect complement to the NFL’s equivalent event. No wonder the Tour always schedules its stop in the desert for Super Bowl weekend.

Going into the final round of this year’s tournament, the hearts of many golf fans were aflutter with newfound hope for one of their favorites, a player whose game has seemingly been wandering in the desert for some time. With a third round 10-under par 61, matching his best score ever on Tour, 27-year-old Jordan Spieth claimed a share of the Phoenix Open’s 54-hole lead with Xander Schauffele. Spieth finished without a blemish on his scorecard, and his ten birdies included three in a row from the 15th through the 17th, a closing stretch that turned a very good day into a spectacular one. Forty-two long and often discouraging months after he last lifted a trophy late on a Sunday afternoon, Spieth was 18 holes away from silencing his critics, the most vocal of whom has always seemed to live in his own head.

Spieth turned professional and signed his first two sponsorship deals, including a big one with Under Armour, before his twentieth birthday. But in July 2013, still a couple weeks short of blowing out twenty candles, he began to make those sponsors look like wise investors when he won his first PGA Tour event, the John Deere Classic. The victory came in a three-way sudden-death playoff that Spieth elbowed his way into by holing out from a bunker on the tournament’s 72nd hole. By the end of that season Spieth was 10th on the money list and the obvious choice for the Tour’s Rookie of the Year Award.

But it was during 2015 that Spieth’s popularity grew exponentially. He won five times, including a commanding four-shot triumph at the Masters and a thanks-I’ll-take-it one-shot win at the U.S. Open, when Dustin Johnson faltered at the last. In addition, he just missed the playoff at that year’s Open Championship and finished runner-up to Jason Day at the PGA Championship, the season’s final major. It was a run more than adequate to propel Spieth to the top of the world rankings. There were two more victories the following year and three in 2017, the last of which came when Spieth survived a compelling final-round duel with Matt Kuchar at Royal Birkdale to capture the Open, his third major. By then there were legions of Spieth fans, all of whom fully expected the young golfer’s shining career to continue its rocketing climb.

Except that the last victory of 2017 remains the last victory on Spieth’s golfing resume. Not just that, but for much of the past three-plus years he has often seemed unhappy and all but lost on the golf course. Every tournament seems to include at least one inexplicably bad round, with each aspect of his game apparently to blame at one time or another. Spieth arrived in Phoenix having missed four cuts in seven starts since the Tour’s season started in September. That lackluster record made his back-to-back 67s on Thursday and Friday welcome news, and Saturday’s scorching of TPC Scottsdale an unexpected treat. Given the loyalty of his fans, his spot with Schauffele atop the leader board was more than enough to have Spieth’s supporters ready to roar on Sunday.

They would have to do that from home of course, in this pandemic age. Like the Super Bowl, the one key element missing from this year’s Phoenix Open was a massive and, at least in the case of the golf tournament, well-lubricated crowd. Just a handful of spectators were allowed onto TPC Scottsdale’s grounds, and only the 16th hole had anything resembling the familiar stadium appearance. Even that was largely a fundraising effort, with the Thunderbirds offering fans a cardboard cutout likeness in the seats in exchange for a donation.

The strict attendance limits may have been just as well, at least for Spieth’s many fans. His opening bogey foretold the tale of his final round, an indifferent 1-over par 72. With Schauffele playing only marginally better, the door was left open for a host of pursuers. Kyoung-Hoon Lee, Carlos Ortiz, even 53-year-old Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker came bounding up the leader board. But in the end, they were all looking up at Brooks Koepka, who seized control with three straight birdies on 13, 14 and 15, followed by a dramatic chip-in eagle at the 17th.

Like Spieth, Koepka is a multiple major winner who has gone winless for a time, though in his case the reasons have been hip and knee injuries. But for all his talent Koepka has never shown much interest in cultivating fans, so his victory produced only a small flicker of the emotional fire that a win by Spieth would have ignited. Still, the hope of fans is eternal. For Spieth’s followers it’s on to Pebble Beach, where an improbable eagle from the fairway on the par-4 10th hole during Thursday’s opening round instantly renewed their energy. Maybe this is the week their hero returns to glory. Maybe.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 8, 2021

Brady, With A New Bunch, Wins Again

It’s hard to say which was longer, the Reddit commercial or the period of time the outcome of Super Bowl LV was in doubt. The ad for the social networking and discussion website lasted all of five seconds. As for the game, there was that moment, midway through the first quarter, when a 49-yard field goal by Harrison Butker put Kansas City on the board first. With the CBS announcing team of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo reminding viewers that in his nine previous Super Bowl appearances Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady had never led a first quarter touchdown drive, some viewers might have thought the 3-0 margin would stand up long enough for Patrick Mahomes and company to build on it.

That notion, and the bit of Brady trivia, lasted all of eight plays, the number of snaps it took for the Buccaneers to drive 75 yards, the final 8 of which were covered by a toss from Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who danced into the K.C. end zone for a Tampa Bay touchdown with 41 ticks remaining on the first quarter clock. It was the first of three TD passes by Brady, all in the first half and all to familiar faces from his years wearing a New England Patriots uniform. Before the teams made way for The Weeknd’s halftime show, which was itself preceded by the blink-and-you-missed-it Reddit promo, Gronkowski had hauled in another Brady throw for a 17-yard score and Antonio Brown had gone to his knees to collect a pass from 1 yard out. That touchdown, with less than a minute to play in the half, made it 21-6, and while CBS analyst Boomer Esiason kept insisting that Mahomes would lead a Kansas City comeback, little that had happened on the field supported his view.

Sure enough, the game’s final thirty minutes produced no dramatic Kansas City rally, just an ever widening Tampa Bay lead and Bruce Springsteen’s first ever Super Bowl commercial. By the time the Boss had made his plea for national unity and Jeep, not necessarily in that order, and Brady had taken a knee behind center one final time, the scoreboard at Raymond James Stadium read Tampa Bay 31, Kansas City 9. In addition to that most important top line, the game also produced a long list of numbers attesting to Brady’s postseason dominance. Super Bowl records for the most career games, wins, pass attempts, completions, passing yards, TD passes and, with Gronkowski, touchdowns by a quarterback-receiver tandem, all now belong to the one-time sixth round draft choice.

Yet while Brady was named the game’s MVP for the fifth time and Mahomes was left looking distinctly un-Super, the lopsided outcome was about more than just the two quarterbacks. He was not a player, but the most valuable contributor to the Bucs win was arguably Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. His play calling capitalized on the patchwork Kansas City offensive line, which was missing both starting tackles. Bowles called few blitzes, believing correctly that just four rushers would be enough to overwhelm K.C.’s front while leaving blanket coverage in the secondary. The result was a miserable night for Mahomes, the best measure of which is in a number not listed on the game’s official stat sheet. The Kansas City QB was forced to run almost 500 yards in the backfield trying to avoid the relentless pursuit of Tampa Bay’s defenders while waiting for a receiver to get free. No wonder he managed only 114 passing yards through three quarters, and finished with an anemic 52.3 quarterback rating.

Brady was also helped by the solid running of Leonard Fournette, who carried 16 times for 89 yards, including a 27-yard sweep around right end for a third quarter score that slammed the door on Kansas City’s comeback hopes. And as some fans insist is always the case where Brady is concerned, the fluttering of yellow flags gave timely boosts to Tampa Bay drives. Six of the Buccaneers first downs were achieved by penalty. While the notion of a grand conspiracy among NFL officiating crews in support of Brady is right up there with a second gunman on the grassy knoll, a staged moon landing, or rigged voting machines changing millions of ballots, there is no doubt that Kansas City’s sloppy play only made the formidable task of trying to repeat as Super Bowl champion even more difficult.

His performance this season, culminating in Sunday’s rout, just strengthens Brady’s already enormous legend. Whether by good genes, his approach to training and self-care, or simple luck, and most likely through a combination of all three, this year at the age of 43 he threw for the second highest number of touchdowns in his career. His most recent championship MVP award came nineteen years and four days after his first, the longest span for any athlete in all the major American team sports. But the least surprising news out of the Super Bowl was Brady’s postgame announcement that he’ll be back next season. He has long said that he plans to play until he is 45, and recently suggested that number was a floor, not a ceiling.

Before Kansas City won the coin toss and then nothing else, many pundits expected Super Bowl LV to play out as a symbolic changing of the guard, with 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes taking center stage away from his much older opponent. That didn’t happen Sunday, but only a fool or a sycophant would deny the inevitability of such a moment. Brady has clearly set a singular example of holding off its ravages, but time remains the implacable foe of every athlete. Whenever a hero decides to not go out on top, a different and unhappy ending remains viable. While it will do little to diminish his legacy, odds are that the final chapter of Brady’s NFL career will be less than glorious. No player beats Father Time. Just like no company runs a five second Super Bowl commercial.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 4, 2021

Hot Stove Winners, And One Big Loser

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be Monday, one day later than usual. The normal schedule will resume next Thursday. As always, thanks for reading.

Another hot stove season of the Great Game enters its final days. The last-minute squabbling between MLB’s owners and the Players Association is behind us and a starting date for Spring Training is confirmed. The really, really last-minute donnybrook between the parties, probably over issues like pandemic guidelines and rules changes, is still weeks away (here at On Sports and Life we have it penciled in for the last week in March, just before Opening Day). This period of relative calm between the storms seems like a good time to assess which teams are emerging as champions of the offseason, winners of the weeks when no games are played.

Here in early February, with the annual appearance of Punxsutawney’s resident rodent still a topic of conversation and with pitchers and catchers yet to report, there is of course no definitive answer to the question of what franchise had the most successful winter. Then again, that is probably what gives the debate its appeal, since like countless other sports-related arguments this one can be carried on at length with no cost beyond the commitment of one’s spare time. Which, almost eleven months after COVID-19 first shut down the sports world, is something we fans still have in excess.

Except for the sorely tested faithful of the woebegone ball club that makes its home at Denver’s Coors Field, fans of every franchise can find some nugget of news from the offseason to provide hope for the coming campaign. Even clubs that have largely stood pat, like the Yankees and Phillies, can claim to have had a successful winter when staying the same meant re-signing two of the top available free agents in New York’s DJ LeMahieu and Philadelphia’s J.T. Realmuto. But to be crowned the offseason champion requires more than merely running in place, and after another ponderously slow winter finally gave way to some movement in the past few weeks, a handful of clubs with remade rosters are the top contenders for this year’s prize.

While other teams were busy complaining about how much money was lost playing the abbreviated 60-game 2020 season in empty stadiums, the San Diego Padres were hard at work restructuring their starting rotation. The Padres executed a pair of big trades just before New Year’s, acquiring 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell from Tampa Bay, and well-traveled right-hander Yu Darvish, who led the NL in wins last season while finishing second in ERA, from the Cubs. Three weeks later San Diego added Joe Musgrove to its pitching corps in a three-team, seven-player deal with the Pirates and the Mets. Add in some roster depth with a couple of lesser free agent signings, and a franchise that just used the bats of Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. to return to the postseason after a fourteen-year absence is being touted as a threat to the Dodgers’ long hegemony in the NL West.

In the junior circuit, the Blue Jays, after being forced to play “home” games last season in Buffalo because of Canadian travel restrictions, are giving their fans something to look forward to when the team can once again play, and fans are able to visit, Toronto’s Rogers Centre. The Jays greatly improved both their offense and their outfield defense by signing George Springer, late of the Houston Astros, to a six-year, $150 million pact. One of the Great Game’s best leadoff hitters, Springer also finished last season at +6 defensive runs saved in center field. Toronto’s center fielders combined for a -14 rating in that metric. Then just days ago the Blue Jays inked free agent second baseman Marcus Semien, who is just one season removed from a thirty-plus home run campaign in Oakland that saw him finish third in the balloting for the AL MVP Award. Toronto also bolstered its rotation options with a couple of third or fourth starter acquisitions. Though the playoff drought was not as long, like the Padres the Blue Jays were back in the postseason last fall for the first time in several years. Toronto now appears primed to make a repeat appearance come October.

Then there is St. Louis. In a year in which other NL Central clubs, most notably the Cubs, look to be retooling and planning for the future, the Cardinals are suddenly division favorites. That can happen when a franchise is widely judged as having come out on top of one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. It was certainly no secret that five-time All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado wanted out of Colorado, having lost faith in the direction the Rockies were headed. But while the Cardinals were one of the more frequently mentioned landing spots for Arenado, no one expected Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich to ship his star to the Midwest in exchange for some likely forgettable prospects and a middling pitcher with a total of ten major league decisions.

As surprised as fans and scribes were at the personnel involved in the deal, they were utterly incredulous upon learning that Bridich also threw in $50 million to help St. Louis pay Arenado’s salary. Rockies fans are understandably furious, and even the team’s official Twitter account greeted the news with a crying emoji. Emotions are understandably very different on the banks of the Mississippi, where Arenado’s addition to a team that was already pretty solid has Cardinals fans planning on some deep playoff runs in coming years.

Fans of several franchises other than those noted here will naturally make their own claims at offseason supremacy. And it must be noted that even this close to the start of Spring Training, there are still plenty of unsigned free agents, including some names that had been expected to be under contract by now, like pitcher Trevor Bauer, third baseman Justin Turner, and designated hitter Marcell Ozuna, all three of whom were in the top ten of virtually every pundit’s free agent rankings at the start of the offseason. There’s still time for another club to climb to the top of the hot stove heap.

But as spirited as this annual debate always is, fans shouldn’t forget that the title of “winter’s winner” has never earned any club a celebratory parade. The citing of past statistics, speculation about potential lineups, and projections of future performance are all just diversions to help us while away the days through the months of cold and dark while we wait for the Great Game to return. Ultimately it is in the daily grind of the longest season that the real story will be written, a tale told over 2,430 contests and the playoffs that follow. It is a reminder that seems especially pertinent this year, when the normally straightforward task of getting all those matchups in the books is especially fraught. Yet even in a pandemic, nothing counts until they actually play the games.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 31, 2021

One More Trip Down A Familiar Road

Here we go again. With the eagerly awaited signal of Spring Training’s start, the reporting date for pitchers and catchers, less than two weeks away, the framework of another baseball season is again uncertain. If it seems like only yesterday when the 2020 campaign was being held hostage to on-again, off-again negotiations and recriminations between the thirty Major League owners and the Players Association, that’s because it wasn’t a whole lot longer than that. After the spreading pandemic forced the suspension of last year’s Spring Training in mid-March, the terms of a shortened season did not become clear until late June. Even then, the parameters of the truncated 60-game schedule were not the result of a negotiated settlement between MLB and the MLBPA but were imposed by commissioner Rob Manfred when agreement between the two sides proved impossible.

Fast forward barely half a year, and even with some players already engaged in informal workouts and pitchers beginning to ramp up their offseason throwing programs, suddenly a proposal to postpone the start of this season’s Spring Training is on the table. The plan offered by MLB would delay camps for a month and push the end of the regular season back by a week. To accommodate the net loss of three weeks’ playing time, the proposal cuts the schedule from 162 to 154 games and presumably adds 7-inning doubleheaders and reduces the number of off days. Despite the slight decrease in total games, it would not cut players’ salaries, since the union has been crystal clear that 100% of pay is its primary motivation in insisting that the original schedule remain in place. Finally, the plan would also expand the playoffs from ten to fourteen teams and continue last year’s use of the designated hitter in the National League.

With last summer’s hostilities fresh in everyone’s mind, and with both sides eyeing the hand-to-hand combat over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement coming this autumn, fans should not be surprised that there is no chance the eleventh-hour proposal will be accepted by the union. As word of this weekend’s discussions among the union reps from each team leaked out, numerous objections became clear. For starters, there is so little trust between owners and players that the union is deeply suspicious of language in the plan which under certain conditions allows Manfred to further cut the number of games after the season starts. The offending words scarcely appear to give the commissioner carte blanche, but we long ago reached the point where the default position of both sides is to assume the worst of the other party.

The players also see an expanded postseason as a lucrative benefit for the owners that comes at a potentially high price for themselves. Simple math suggests that more playoff spots mean fewer wins will be needed to nab one. The union reasons that will make some owners less willing to spend, in the belief they can still compete for a Wild Card slot without that expensive free agent contract being pushed by their front office. Since players are already enraged at the apparent tanking by some franchises, as well as the upending of the free agent market in favor of reliance on drastically smaller contracts for young players, anything that hints at allowing teams to be less competitive is sure to be a major obstacle.

In addition, for months media reports have pushed the narrative of a tradeoff between the two sides, expanded playoffs for the owners in exchange for the universal designated hitter giving the players fifteen more jobs. But if they once bought into that equivalence, the players no longer do. Without a permanent increase in roster size, the universal DH doesn’t add jobs, it merely changes the job description of one roster spot on National League teams. Whatever benefit that brings to presumably older union members who can still hit despite being liabilities in the field, it does not approach the windfall owners will reap from having more postseason games.

Both sides are trying to make their arguments in the context of the pandemic. Owners point to the COVID-19 numbers. Be it cases or hospitalizations or deaths, all are of course vastly worse than when last year’s Spring Training was suddenly halted. With vaccinations ramping up, they contend it makes sense to wait a bit. The players respond by pointing out that the Super Bowl is about to be held at a stadium that is across the street from, and shares a parking lot with, the Yankees Spring Training field, after the NFL managed to negotiate a full 16-game schedule. NBA and NHL games are also being played, and of course baseball itself managed, despite major COVID-related problems early on, to play its truncated 2020 season and crown the Dodgers champions.

On this issue both owners and players have valid arguments, ones that could perhaps be negotiated. Unfortunately, concerns about the pandemic are window dressing for both sides. As always, the real issue is money, and as has lately been the case in the Great Game, the real obstacle is a lack of trust. The Players Association, as any union should, looks at every proposal in the context of its impact on members paychecks. The owners, having absorbed undoubtedly major though still undisclosed losses last year, want their teams to play with fans in the stands. According to various media reports, in some cases that wish is quite expansive, as in wanting to play only when the stands can once again be full.

On Monday, the union will reject the owners’ proposal. There could be further negotiations, and if there are one can only hope they are conducted privately, since bitter public exchanges may make both sides feel better but do little to achieve consensus. The far more likely outcome, since a new agreement is required to change the existing schedule, is that pitchers and catchers will report as planned. Workouts will begin and exhibition games, in front of limited crowds, will be played. Opening Day will arrive at sparsely populated stadiums, and the schedule will get underway. Though for owners, players, and fans, this year it may be impossible for the longest season to be long enough, for what appears to wait at the end of it is a bloodbath.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 28, 2021

No Call To The Hall

About the only thing lacking was colored smoke wafting from a chimney atop one of the five buildings that have combined through assorted expansion projects over the years to form the current footprint of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Hall was founded in the tiny upstate New York village of Cooperstown during the Great Depression by a local businessman and philanthropist who, as a way of generating economic activity for his out of the way hamlet, cleverly traded on the then-popular myth that the Great Game originated there in 1839. Of course we now know that Abner Doubleday was fully occupied 150 miles away at West Point when he was supposedly laying out the first diamond in Cooperstown, but then organized religions also rely on the occasional fable, so perhaps it is fitting that today the annual announcement of the newest group of Hall of Famers is treated with all the gravity of a papal election.

Except had that been the purpose of this vote, balloting would still be going on, since an announcement that a search for the apostolic successor of Saint Peter resulted in “none of the above” likely would not sit well with Roman Catholic faithful around the globe. But when the votes of the eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America were tallied, that was precisely the judgment rendered on all twenty-five names on this year’s Hall ballot.

This was the first shutout pitched by the writers since 2013, but with last month’s meeting of the committee charged with voting on non-players and those no longer otherwise eligible cancelled because of the pandemic, the induction ceremony’s usual summertime boost to the Otsego County economy was imperiled. Fortunately for the owners of local restaurants, hotel franchises and souvenir shops, COVID-19 postponed not only the recent gathering of the Veterans Committee, but also last July’s Hall of Fame weekend for the class of 2020, a group led by former Yankee captain Derek Jeter and the late union head Marvin Miller. So plans for July festivities are still being made, with a hopeful eye on the continuing rollout of coronavirus vaccines.

But neither the enshrinement of the longtime Bronx hero nor the long overdue honoring of the brilliant labor lawyer who impacted the modern game more than anyone else who never posed for a baseball card are likely to make fans forget the overheated theatrics and unseemly drama of the past several days. Even if they wanted to do so – and who wouldn’t – next year’s ballot will bring it all back to center stage.

When that happens, fans will once again have ready access to minute-by-minute tracking of votes by those BBWAA members who opt to make their ballots public. Thanks to a handful of dedicated individuals and the omnipresence of the internet, everyone will know how each ballplayer on the list is faring, not just in relation to the required 75% of the vote for election, but, for every returning candidate, whether the votes cast by a writer represent a gain, a hold, or a loss compared to that scribe’s previous ballot. And since not all voters choose to reveal how they voted, analysts now fill the unknown with informed speculation based on how a player’s public polling has compared with the results of previous elections.

This year it was that type of analysis that made the outcome unsurprising. The three leading candidates, Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, all appeared to be just a bit short of 75% based on the publicly released ballots. But all three had seen their percentage drop in prior years once secret ballots were added in, so the well-founded expectation was that the same erosion of support would occur.

Those three candidacies were the source of most of the drama around Hall of Fame voting, because all three forced BBWAA members to decide the meaning of the Hall’s so-called character clause. The criteria for election include Rule 5, which states “voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Neither the Hall nor the BBWAA has ever been willing to elaborate on that simple yet extremely broad language, which has left individual writers to define the terms as they see fit, often with tortured logic.

For some, the alleged use of steroids by Bonds and Clemens, and Schilling’s extreme political and cultural views coupled with his willingness to support fanatical means of imposing them on others, amount to ample evidence that all three lack the necessary character for induction into the Hall of Fame. Others concur with respect to MLB’s home run king and the only pitcher to win seven Cy Young Awards but contend that Schilling’s character flaws are unrelated to the sport and thus should not impact their vote. Then there are those who believe Schilling’s views set him apart as evil, but the apparent misdeeds of Bonds and Clemens reflect an era in the sport that while unfortunate, cannot simply be treated as if the players in it did not exist. Still some BBWAA members are comfortable voting for all three, given the lack of specific guidance on the meaning of Rule 5, as well as their absolute certainty that among those already enshrined in the Hall, there are more than a few with their own character flaws. Or they say that Bonds and Clemens had Hall-worthy careers before their alleged dalliances with PEDS, and Schilling’s reprehensible views were never expressed while he was taking the mound every five days. And just for good measure, there are at least a few who mark their ballots while seemingly randomly picking and choosing from all the above rationales.

It makes for drama worthy of bad daytime television, which is perhaps appropriate, since the MLB Network dedicated most of an afternoon to this year’s announcement of the election results; four hours of coverage that ended with “never mind.” Meanwhile two players whose careers would normally have resulted in enshrinement in their first year of eligibility are left on the outside looking in, and a third, borderline candidate becomes that rarest of Hall hopefuls, someone who steadily climbed in each year’s balloting and finally broke the 70% mark, but then did not win election in the next vote.

But don’t worry, we fans are told, next year marks the end of the ten-year eligibility for all three of these extraordinarily controversial candidates. But this year’s vote for other players was affected by evidence of domestic violence and DUIs, and next year’s ballot will include, for the first time, the names of David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. And then there is the question, fundamental to the Hall’s entire electoral process, of whether sportswriters should be making news, as some seem intent on doing, rather than reporting it. The Hall of Fame election process is thoroughly broken and no longer enjoyable. Sadly, the only certainty is that by this time next year, nothing about it will have changed. There will still be no smoke.

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