Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 23, 2020

Still Miraculous After All These Years

A NOTE TO READERS: Since today’s post looks back to an earlier time, it seems an apt moment to note that it was ten Februarys ago when On Sports and Life first found its little corner of the internet. Happy anniversary to me and thank you all for a decade of support!

It was a very different time. That is the impression that stands out above all others when thinking back to that February evening forty years ago. Telephones had cords rather than IQs. There was no publicly available internet. Typewriters rather than PCs sat on office desks. The Cold War was still very real, and while then as now there were armed forces mired in Afghanistan, in 1980 they wore Russian uniforms.

One obvious continuity is that the country was in the early stages of choosing a President, but even that process differed markedly from the seemingly perpetual campaign costing untold sums of money that now passes for democracy in action. If not quite like 1960, when John Kennedy didn’t even declare his candidacy until January of the election year, at least in 1980 the candidates were still camped out in New Hampshire by late February, with the first primary not scheduled until the very end of the month.

Yet even in the snows of northern New England, on Friday the 22nd Granite State voters set aside their diligent work of choosing between Carter and Kennedy, or between Reagan, Bush, Anderson and the rest, to tune into ABC’s primetime coverage of the Winter Olympics. Just a few hours drive west, in the tiny upstate New York village of Lake Placid, the ancient battle between David and Goliath was being renewed, this time on skates.

While everyone remembers the medal round game between the United States and the Soviet Union, including for many incorrectly recalling it as the gold medal game, what is largely forgotten is that the U.S. team, a collection of college players, wasn’t assured of even advancing past the round-robin stage of the Olympic tournament. Since winning gold at Squaw Valley in 1960 the U.S. had won just one medal in hockey – a silver in 1972.

Based on records in international play, Team USA was ranked seventh of the twelve teams in the tournament, most notably behind both Sweden and Czechoslovakia, teams grouped in the same division as the U.S. for round-robin play, from which only two countries would advance. But the U.S. skaters gained confidence with an opening tie against the Swedes, and the Czechs wound up losing to both Sweden and the Americans. That sent Team USA on to the medal round and a date with the Russians.

The two squads had played an exhibition match during the runup to the Games, in which the Soviets had toyed with the Americans. The 10-3 rout was, as the saying goes, not as close as the score indicated. The U.S. team was the youngest ever assembled for the Olympics, with an average age of just 22. The Russians were professionals, nominally Red Army soldiers in a cursory nod to the amateur requirements then in effect at the Games, but in reality a full-time team that had won four straight gold medals and would have been competitive with any NHL franchise. Against the Soviet juggernaut it seemed the Americans and their fans who packed into the tiny bandbox of an arena could do little more than hope.

But hope is the blood that that courses through the veins of every sports fan. Before the contest U.S. coach Herb Brooks told his skaters “you were meant to be here.”  The game was played in late afternoon, and shown on TV during prime time, a delay that surely generated a vastly larger audience as news of the outcome began to spread. The score was 2-2 after one period. U.S. goalie Jim Craig steadied after a shaky start, and the Americans knotted the score with one second left when Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak allowed a long rebound on a slap shot from center ice and Mark Johnson pounced on the sloppy error and drove a shot past the diving netminder.

The Soviet skaters dominated play during the middle frame, but despite outshooting the Americans 12-2 the Russians could only move on top by a single goal, a power play score early in the period. Then almost midway through the final twenty minutes the U.S. got its own power play opportunity, and Johnson tied the score at 3-3 at the very end of the man advantage. Scarcely a minute later Boston University’s Mike Eruzione was left open in the high slot. Teammate Mark Pavelich found him with a pass, and Eruzione buried the shot that gave Team USA its first lead of the game, 4-3.

There were exactly ten minutes remaining. It seemed more like hours, or even days, for U.S. fans. Time and again the Russians sought to penetrate the American defenses. By the end the Soviets had taken 39 shots on goal to the Americans 16. But Craig and his defenders met the challenge, and at last the clock wound down to the final minute. Decades later, those final seconds remain alive, as if they were ticking away right now.

With 50 seconds to go, the puck is centered from behind the net, and a point-blank shot goes just wide, partially deflected by goalie Craig. The two teams scramble for the loose puck, and it’s eventually fed back out to center ice, with 43 seconds to play. ABC’s Al Michaels reminds viewers of the countdown, “38, 37 seconds left in the game.” From just outside the blue line, Russia’s Vladimir Petrov sends a long slapshot in on goal that Craig easily turns aside. The deflection bounds off the near boards and slides all the way back out to center. “The crowd going nearly insane,” Michaels says, as the unrelenting din grows even louder. The puck is once again dumped into the American end, and now the clock is superimposed on the top left corner of the screen, and just 19 seconds remain. Johnson sends the puck across the ice along the back boards, where Mike Ramsey fights off a Soviet forward. Rob McClanahan swoops in and sends the loose puck back the other way, and the clock ticks inexorably toward the impossible. “11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds” shouts Michaels, barely controlling his excitement. The Americans control the puck, and suddenly everyone on the ice, every person in the arena, every viewer at home, knows that it’s going to happen. The skaters dressed all in red finally relent, even as those in the white and blue sweaters over the red shorts play one last game of keep-away. “Five seconds left in the game,” shouts Michaels, who could not possibly have planned his next words.

Down the years the iconic call echoes, still capable of sending chills down the spine of any sports fan. “The thing came out of my heart,” Michaels said in a recent interview. The “thing,” as the now 75-year-old sportscaster referred to it, was a question as old as sports. It is the query posed by the faithful of every underdog, one that is usually answered by harsh reality. But there is always a reason why they play the games. His voice rising to a shout, Michaels asked “Do you believe in miracles?” On that long-ago February night, there could only be one answer.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 20, 2020

Can The Premier Golf League Buy Itself A Star?

The PGA Tour has pulled into Club de Golf Chapultepec in the hills just outside Mexico City for this week’s WGC – Mexico Championship, one of the four World Golf Championship events on the Tour’s calendar. Created two decades ago and sanctioned by not just the PGA and European Tours, but also the top tours of Asia, Japan, South Africa and Australia, the WGC quartet was conceived as a group of high profile, limited field events attracting the world’s best players with huge purses and stature approaching that of the four men’s majors. Where exactly the Mexico Championship, Dell Technologies Match Play, FedEx St. Jude Invitational and HSBC Champions rank in the game’s pantheon of tournaments is endlessly debatable, but there is no question golfers making the field at any of them earn a significant payday. Whoever lifts the distinctive blue and white Wedgwood china trophy Sunday evening will also pocket a check for nearly $1.8 million, and even the last place finisher won’t go home entirely disappointed after collecting more than $50,000 for scoring worse than everyone else in the field.

Both the WGC pedigree of this week’s event and its location – the Mexico and HBSC Championships are the two WGC tournaments played outside the U.S. – are propitious given that the main topic of conversation on the Tour right now is not the location of Tiger’s next appearance or whether Phil will be in the field when the U.S. Open returns to Winged Foot in June, or even how many times Patrick Reed may have improved his lie in violation of one of golf’s most basic rules, but the potential threat to the current structure of men’s golf posed by the Premier Golf League.

The PGL is a proposed new global tour to be made up of 18 events, each limited to a field of 48 players and offering a purse of $10 million. That prize money would put the PGL tournaments on a par with the four WGC events and just a hair behind the $10.75 to $12.5 million at stake at this year’s majors. It’s significantly more than the field plays for at a typical weekly stop on the PGA Tour, and a giant leap up from the purses offered at most events on the European or other tours. The tournaments, nearly half of which would be scheduled outside the U.S., would be 54 holes long and feature both individual play and some sort of season-long team scoring, with the 48 players in the “league” grouped into a dozen four-person teams.

The organizers of this new golf tour, which tends to be described as either “renegade” or “innovative” depending on one’s opinion of the concept, remain publicly unknown beyond a faceless British-based World Golf Group. Rumors of Saudi money bankrolling the PGL have floated around locker rooms at Tour stops since the idea was first mentioned almost two years ago. But a press release issued last month, with the details described above, suggests that whoever is behind the proposed new league is getting ready to come out of the shadows.

But no matter how deep the pockets of the PGL’s organizers are, turning rumor into fact requires more than cash and even more than eighteen golf courses around the globe willing to welcome the elite players of the world to their first tees. It requires those players, and more specifically it requires several of golf’s biggest stars. For what the PGL proposes would fundamentally alter the organization of professional golf. While touring pros are independent contractors and not employees of the PGA Tour, they are bound by Tour rules that mandate participation in at least fifteen events per year and strictly limit the number of non-sanctioned tournaments in which a pro can tee it up. Those rules, combined with the expected PGL requirement to play all 18 events and the presumed desire of any player defecting to the new league to still play the four majors add up to forcing a player to choose between joining the PGL or continuing to carry a PGA Tour card.

A generally conservative group, most pros are unlikely to chance such a radical change without being confident that the new tour will succeed, and that success will depend heavily on the participation of some instantly recognizable names. Meaning no disrespect to Patrick Cantlay, Webb Simpson and Xander Schauffele, but while those three golfers are currently all in the top ten of the Official World Golf Rankings – 6th, 8th and 10th, respectively – even altogether they wouldn’t attract 40,000 fans to a PGL tournament, nor spark a flood of fellow pros to tear up their Tour cards and join them (to be clear, all three are cited as examples solely based on their current ranking, not because they have expressed any inclination to sign on to the PGL concept). For the Premier Golf League to become anything more than some rich sheikh’s pipedream, a player named Woods or Mickelson or perhaps Koepka, Thomas, Johnson or Spieth, needs to become the face of this putative new tour.

Perhaps the press conference at which just such an announcement is made will occur in the next few weeks, but PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan surely had to be happy that while fans and the golf media wait to see if it does, Rory McIlroy stepped into the breach at his pre-tournament presser in Mexico with the exact opposite message. McIlroy made clear he won’t be joining the PGL, saying ““The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t like it. The one thing as a professional golfer in my position that I value is the fact that I have autonomy and freedom over everything that I do. If you go and play this other golf league, you’re not going to have that choice.” He then added four little words that were more valuable than gold to Monahan and company, “for me, I’m out.”

While other stars mull whether to join McIlroy or to instead follow the (even more) money, they might do well to remember Greg Norman’s experience. A quarter century ago Norman was the number one ranked player in the world when he proposed the creation of a World Golf Tour. While the details were different, the concept of a series of tournaments offering huge purses, spanning the globe, and staged in defiance of the existing structure of tours was strikingly similar to the PGL. But lacking the financial backing to turn his dream into reality, the Shark was never able to convince other top players to follow him. The WGT concept soon crumbled, though it ultimately did contribute to the formation of the four WGC tournaments and the increasingly global reach of the PGA Tour, which has nine events on this season’s schedule played on foreign soil.

Back then the World Golf Tour had a public face in Norman, but not the money. For now, at least, the Premier Golf League has the financing, but not the face. Maybe the necessary star will soon step forward, and professional golf will undergo a seismic shift. But change for its own sake is no more enlightened than blind allegiance to the status quo. And change that is ultimately about nothing more than money is the worst idea of all.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 16, 2020

Going Nowhere Fast At Daytona

There is a point on Interstate 4, just as the road that most Floridians love to hate approaches its northern terminus at I-95, where the highway elevates to cross over the wide lanes of the road it’s about to join. A driver traveling north and looking straight ahead has a clear view, just before the sweeping left turn that will bring the two heavily traveled highways together, of the grandstand at Daytona International Speedway. It’s brief, assuming one is paying proper attention to the task at hand, but if one has never been to this most famous of all stock car racetracks, the sight conjures up images of NASCAR legends, from Petty and Allison to Yarborough and Earnhardt, on to more recent times with Waltrip and then Gordon, all accelerating around the huge tri-oval, the roar of dedicated fans packed into those stands drowned out only by the wall of deep guttural sound generated by the massive V-8 engines under the hoods of the race cars.

Summoning all that into one’s mind on the strength of a momentary view of the Speedway’s grandstand rearing up above the tree line in the distance requires imagination, which explains why the experience came to mind this weekend. As NASCAR began its 2020 season with Sunday’s scheduled 62nd running of the Daytona 500, fans of the world’s premier stock car racing circuit needed active imaginations to convince themselves that their sport is thriving.

There are, it must be said, millions of those fans, spread across all fifty states and many other countries. But the steady growth of the sport during a period when NASCAR expanded from a largely regional enterprise to one with broad national appeal that seemed poised to become a major national pastime is now a rapidly fading memory. The story in recent seasons has instead been one of retrenchment. Sponsors have fled the extremely expensive sport, costing drivers their rides and causing entire racing teams to fold. Danica Patrick, the only woman driver at NASCAR’s top level and one of its most popular figures, retired when Stewart Haas Racing was unable to find sponsorship for her to continue behind the wheel. Furniture Row Racing, always a shoestring operation but one that fielded a champion in 2017 when Martin Truex Jr. dominated the sport with eight wins, was shuttered just one year later. NASCAR is even forgoing a single title sponsor for its main series, which is now the generic NASCAR Cup, with multiple “premier partners.”

It hasn’t just been corporate dollars exiting the sport, as casual fans have also moved on to other entertainments. In advance of the Sunday afternoon start of this year’s 500, Fox Sports made sure to point out that the stands at Daytona were sold out for the big race for the fifth year in a row. What wasn’t mentioned was that the entirety of that string came after Daytona International Speedway drastically reduced its seating capacity. A grandstand along the back stretch was torn down, and seating in the main front stretch sections was reconfigured, resulting in the loss of nearly 50,000 seats. Similar demolition projects have taken place at numerous other tracks across the country, and NASCAR stopped announcing attendance figures for its races. But in the absence of official figures, the swaths of empty seats visible on the television coverage of every race in recent years has been silent evidence of the sport’s diminished standing.

And it’s not just fans in the stands who are missing. Last year’s Daytona 500 drew a television audience of 9 million. That sounds impressive until it’s set against last decade, when the race averaged 16 to 19 million viewers. As recently as 2013, when Patrick started on the pole, 16.5 million fans tuned in.

The retirement of many of stock car racing’s most recognizable names has only added to NASCAR’s problems. In addition to Patrick, Tony Stewart switched from driver to full-time team owner after the 2016 season. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were both at Daytona on Sunday, but Gordon was in the Fox Sports broadcast booth, and Junior’s role was limited to waving the green flag at the start of the race. The list of former greats will grow longer at the end of this season, when seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson parks the #48 Chevrolet for the final time.

Change is constant in every sport, and diehard racing fans speak of a cadre of young drivers who represent the sport’s future. Twenty-four-year-old Chase Elliott has been named NASCAR’s most popular drive the last two years, though that likely has as much to do with his pedigree – he’s the son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott – as with his success on the track, where he finally scored his first victory in 2018, in his 99th race driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Elliott’s record is representative, as no young driver has yet broken through to stake a claim as NASCAR’s next hero.

That all adds up to a sport in transition, even more so because multiple track sanctioning agreements end this year, opening the door to major schedule changes in 2021. In addition, NASCAR has already announced that next season will see the introduction of the Next Gen car, a new configuration with the stated aims of being cheaper to put on the track and closer in appearance to the street model nameplates that manufacturers will use to designate their racing vehicles. These steps could be positive, though they are a far cry from the grand plans for expanding into new markets and growing the sport’s fanbase that the France family who controls NASCAR dreamt of not that long ago. The focus on next year also diminishes the current season.

So the fates may have given NASCAR exactly what it deserved on Sunday. Although the radar was mostly clear around Daytona, rain showers kept popping up in the area of the Speedway. The field was on its final warmup lap, getting ready to go racing, when the first wave came through. That stopped the race before it even started, and the hour delay while the track was dried surely sent many television viewers looking for something else to watch. Then after just twenty laps the rains returned, eventually forcing the postponement of this year’s Daytona 500 until Monday. Perhaps NASCAR’s 2020 season will get off to a successful start a day late. But for now, such a happy outcome requires a lot of imagination.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 13, 2020

The Surest Sign Of Spring

February mornings come slowly in northern New England. The sky seems permanently overcast, and whether it is the solid slate gray that foretells a fresh snowfall, or the mottled milky tone that heralds a front just passing through, the dome overhead rebuffs the rising winter sun’s feeble beams, ensuring that night yields only grudgingly to day. Long after the clock has declared morning’s arrival, the gloomy half-light scarcely illuminates a barren winter landscape so monochromatic as to make pointless the long wait for daylight. The browns of bare ground and grays of dirty, slowly melting snowbanks blend together. Lifeless trees with desiccated branches pointing to the clouds offer no relief from the colorless scene.

We are deep in the dead season, midway between December’s solstice and March’s equinox. Images of sun splashed summer days, of blue skies and green grass, shimmer in the mind’s eye, but the cold and the dark have grown so familiar that we are no longer certain if the mental pictures are memories or mere imaginings. Will winter ever end?

But we are also at the season’s inflection point, that hinge moment when with just the right nudge forward, we can begin an accelerating journey toward warmth, and light, and hope. Just as weariness is poised to engulf our very souls amid darkness and doubt, the day arrives, and the spark is struck. On both coasts of Florida and at ten ballparks that ring Phoenix like gemstones on a crown, the boys of summer are gathering in response to the call that is, for baseball fans, every year’s absolute promise that spring will arrive.

At Camelback Ranch in the Valley of the Sun, and at Steinbrenner Field just east of Tampa International Airport, the Dodgers and Yankees assemble as the early favorites to meet in next autumn’s World Series, on the other side of sports’ longest season. Two generations of fans have grown from infancy to adulthood since these two venerable franchises, once cross-town rivals in the Gotham of an earlier age, squared off in the Fall Classic three times in the space of five years, with New York winning in 1977 and 1978 before Los Angeles prevailed in 1981.

Seven years later the Dodgers were back in the Series, upsetting the heavily favored A’s in five games. That showdown is remembered for Kirk Gibson’s dramatic walk-off home run that gave Los Angeles Game 1, and for the foolish fan who left early, the rear lights of his departing car visible in the distant parking lot as Gibson’s shot sails into the right field seats. That was also the last time the Dodgers celebrated a title, and the long wait since has left the franchise’s fans hungry for a return to glory. Yankee fans have had better fortune, but their team went through the entirety of the last decade without a single World Series appearance, a veritable lifetime of futility given expectations in the Bronx.

Yet so much lies between the opening of training camp and a season-ending parade to celebrate a championship that being named a favorite in February is an honorific of precious little value. Players on both teams know that, just as they know that their brethren on the twenty-eight other clubs and all the fans of those franchises are prepared to concede nothing here at the beginning. Two hundred miles by car across the Florida peninsula from the Yankees spring training complex, members of the Washington Nationals gather still basking in the glow of last season. From twelve games below .500 in late May, the Nats fought back game by game, win by win, finishing the fight with victory over the Astros in an improbable World Series in which the home team failed to win a single game. Washington stands ready to defend its crown while also serving as a symbol of hope to every franchise that will, at some point in the coming season, be dismissed by the pundits.

Hope is in ample supply as camps open, in these first days hope is everywhere. If a realistic assessment of a team’s chances holds that a title is beyond reach, there is still the possibility of marked improvement over the previous campaign. Over the years more than a few franchises have gone from woeful to playoff participant in a single season, which is enough to give even fans of lesser clubs like the Padres or Orioles, the Marlins or Tigers, something to cling to for now.

The slow unwinding of the regular season, from April’s chilly nights through the heat of August and beyond, will slay many of those hopes. Baseball is a game of managed failure, a sport in which hitting safely one time in three tries makes for a fine day’s work; but in baseball as in life, failure is not always managed well. The sedate rhythms of the game’s calendar will also provide ample time for discussion of the challenges facing the sport. The cheating scandal that dominated offseason headlines will not magically be forgotten just because training camps have opened. The outcome of the increasingly testy struggle between Major League Baseball and the scores of local operations that make up the minor league system remains uncertain. It is a fight that will determine the future of many franchises which have brought joy to fans far removed from the bright lights and high prices of big league ballparks. Expanding the playoffs, a new collective bargaining agreement, pace of play – all these issues and more will take their turn at the center of discussion and debate.

Through it all fans will still come out to cheer when their heroes take the field. The cry of “play ball” will ring out, the leadoff hitter will step into the batter’s box, the pitcher will toe the rubber, and the games will go on. As has been the case in all the decades since the promulgation of the Knickerbocker Rules in 1845, predictions of the sport’s imminent demise fail to grasp the extent to which baseball is woven into the American psyche. The Great Game returns, at once constant and ever-changing. The first directive of a new season lights the flame of hope in the heart of every fan, signaling the certain coming of spring, the time of renewal and unlimited possibility. We know that winter is beaten, when pitchers and catchers report!

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 9, 2020

The Hot Stove Keeps Burning

And to think that pitchers and catchers haven’t even reported yet. The opening of the thirty Spring Training camps in Florida and Arizona – the unofficial but extremely welcome end of winter for fans of the Great Game – is still a couple days away, but this weekend brought no shortage of baseball news. There were former Astros finally speaking out on Houston’s cheating scandal, one other report tangentially connected to that sordid affair, the Mets being, well, the Mets, and above all else, there was the blockbuster trade that was, then wasn’t, and finally late Sunday afternoon was again.

With thoughts of answering to his current Tampa Bay teammates no doubt prominent, former Houston pitcher Charlie Morton expressed remorse over not having done anything to stop the systematic sign-stealing using live video feeds during the Astros’ 2017 championship run. His words echoed those of Dallas Keuchel, now with the White Sox, who two weeks ago became the first ex-Houston player to come clean. However, the most prominent individual last seen in an Astros uniform who was busy unburdening himself was former manager AJ Hinch, who was fired along with GM Jeff Luhnow just hours after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s report on the scandal was issued. In what was clearly the beginning of his apology tour, Hinch sat with veteran scribe Tom Verducci for an interview aired on ESPN. To his credit and as he had done in the wake of his dismissal, Hinch acknowledged his failure to stop the scheme. He also passed when given an opportunity to criticize Mike Fiers, the one-time Houston pitcher who exposed the cheating in an interview with The Athletic last fall. But Hinch was also stunningly vague when asked about other specific ways in which the Astros may have attempted to manipulate the game as recently as last season. The apology tour clearly has several more stops to make.

Then there was the news that Pete Rose had seized upon the debacle in Houston to apply once again for reinstatement from his lifetime ban for betting on major league games while managing the Reds. Rose’s attorneys called his ban disproportionate given the absence of penalties against any Houston players as well as the level of sanctions that are part of baseball’s drug program. What they did not offer was any of the evidence that Manfred specifically found lacking when he rejected Rose’s last application for reinstatement in 2015. The commissioner wrote then that Rose had “not presented credible evidence of a reconfigured life either by an honest acceptance by him of his wrongdoing, so clearly established in the Dowd Report, or by a rigorous, self-aware and sustained program of avoidance by him of all the circumstances that led to his permanent ineligibility.” Rose fans are strongly advised not to hold their breath waiting for a different result this time.

Mets fans surely wish their team had not been in the headlines, but then Mets fans rarely see their wishes come true. Just before the weekend the proposed sale of the franchise to billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen was called off. The deal seemed suspect from the start, involving as it did an agreement that current managing owner Fred Wilpon and his son Jeff, the team’s COO, would continue in their roles for five years after the transfer of ownership. It appears that Cohen intended those jobs to be ceremonial, while the Wilpon’s had markedly different plans. At least Knicks fans won’t be left as the only ones in Gotham yelling during games for an owner to “sell the team!”

By the end of the weekend all those stories had yielded pride of place to the soap opera at Fenway Park, where John Henry’s edict that the Boston Red Sox reduce payroll to get under the luxury tax threshold for the coming season had signaled for months that superstar outfielder Mookie Betts, entering his final year before free agency, was likely to be traded. The meaning of Henry’s demand was itself a story through the winter, characterized at times as an order, at others a suggestion, and occasionally as little more than a passing wish.

For Sox fans the prospect of their team being worried about payroll costs was a new and unwelcome experience since Henry’s acquisition of the franchise in 2002. One of the richest of the Great Game’s owners, Henry had willingly opened his checkbook throughout his tenure in Boston. That eventually blunted the fans favorite lament about their big-spending rivals in the Bronx, but most were happy to forgo that tired complaint in exchange for four championships, the most recent just the season before last.  But the news that Betts, a four-time All-Star and perhaps the best player in the game not named Mike Trout, and overpaid but capable starting pitcher David Price were being shipped to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a three team trade meant the financial restructuring of the Red Sox was for real. Fans reacted bitterly, accusing Henry of being more interested in his ownership of the Liverpool soccer club than in his stewardship of the local nine.

Then before the deal was officially announced Boston’s front office appeared to have second thoughts, raising questions about the medical report on Twins reliever Brusdar Graterol, who was going from Minnesota to Boston by way of Chavez Ravine in the trade’s original configuration. What remains unclear is how much of that concern was real as opposed to a sudden case of cold feet at Fenway after the outpouring of venom from Sox fans. But having pulled the trigger on the trade, backing out of it and having Betts and Price report to Fort Myers this week would surely have been a disaster for Boston’s new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom.

Late Sunday multiple sources reported that a reconfigured trade would go forward, with Graterol now staying in Los Angeles. The Twins will still acquire L.A. starter Kenta Maeda, along with another prospect and cash. In addition to Betts, Price, and Graterol the Dodgers will also receive cash from Boston. In a classic salary dump more fitting for Tampa Bay or Kansas City than a rich franchise like the Red Sox, Boston is getting three minor players from L.A. – outfielder Alex Verdugo and prospects Connor Wong and Jeter Downs.

Some in Boston are citing the infamous sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, one hundred years ago. But much of Ruth’s legacy was built after he left Fenway Park, so the closer comparison may be the 1916 trade of Tris Speaker, another future Hall of Famer, to Cleveland. Like Betts, Speaker was a recent MVP when Boston’s management decided it couldn’t afford him. Of course, recalling that trade just adds to the current misery of Red Sox fans. But perhaps all is not lost. If those prospects work out, in a few years the folks at Fenway can cheer for their very own Jeter.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 6, 2020

Jordan Spieth’s Days In The Golfing Desert

While most sports fans, including millions who wore the title just for the day, spent last Sunday in front of flatscreens for hours, fixated by pontificating pundits, exorbitantly priced commercials, and J Lo proving that fifty is the new twenty, all sandwiched around roughly fifteen minutes of actual football plays, golf lovers managed to break away for at least a little while to take in the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Dating to the 1930s, Phoenix is one of the oldest stops on the PGA Tour, though it’s likely that Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, along with the many other pros on the list of winners through the tournament’s first decades would scarcely recognize the event as it is today.

Since moving from Phoenix Country Club to the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale in 1987, the Phoenix Open has become the most spectator friendly event on golf’s calendar. Fans line up in the middle of the night and literally storm the course as soon as the gates open, with more than 200,000 cramming the grounds on Saturday for the past several years. The final three holes of the TPC layout – the par-3 16th, the drivable par-4 17th, and the uphill par-4 18th – are virtually enclosed by multilevel stands that are filled to overflowing with throngs who grow increasingly boisterous as the hours pass and the alcohol flows. It’s the perfect golf tournament for Super Bowl weekend, because just like the big game, it’s at least as much carnival sideshow as sporting event.

This year, those in attendance on Sunday who stayed for the conclusion of the final round had no chance of making it home in time to see the opening kickoff by the 49ers on the other side of the country. That’s because Webb Simpson finished regulation play with back-to-back birdies to erase a two-shot deficit and tie Tony Finau, forcing a sudden death playoff on the 18th that Simpson won by sinking a carbon copy of the birdie putt he had holed twenty minutes earlier.

But one golfer who presumably had no problem watching all of the Super Bowl was Jordan Spieth. The three-time major champion, who has spent a total of twenty-six weeks atop the Official World Golf Rankings, had an open weekend after missing Friday’s cut at Phoenix by two strokes following rounds of 74 and 69. By itself the dreaded MC, as it’s designated in the parlance of the PGA Tour, could be considered a minor hiccup – the result of a couple days when all the myriad elements of a top professional golfer’s game didn’t quite gel, leaving behind some disappointed fans who had hoped to watch the popular Spieth in action during the weekend.

In Spieth’s case though, the missed cut and the indifferent play that led to it can’t be viewed in isolation. Rather the free weekend in the Arizona desert was the continuation of a run of poor results that has seen the 26-year-old superstar go winless for more than thirty months, since four straight rounds in the 60s nabbed him the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, a victory that brought him within a PGA Championship of the career Grand Slam.

The decline was not immediate. After besting Matt Kuchar at the Open, Spieth closed the 2017 season with top-ten finishes, including a pair of seconds, at all four FedEx Cup playoff events. But it was a measure of just how much success Spieth, still half a year shy of his 25th birthday, had achieved in a very short time that the end of that year left many of his fans disappointed. All too soon, those results instead took on the patina of fond memories. He was winless in 2018 and again last year, and while he showed flashes of the brilliant play that had so quickly taken him to the top of the sport, Spieth seemed to consistently throw one clunker of a round into every tournament, turning a potential big payday into one more long slog. That pattern only deepened last year, as Spieth’s victory drought grew twelve months longer.

In a game of bombers, Spieth is almost a throwback, which probably only adds to his appeal to weekend amateur players. His season-long driving average has never reached 300 yards, leaving him usually ranked somewhere between 75th and 100th on the Tour. His strength has always been is accuracy with his approach shots, brilliant touch around the green, and, especially during his magical 2015 run, a seemingly preternatural ability to put the ball in the hole with the flat stick. His Open win is best remembered for how he saved bogey after a badly wayward drive on the par-4 13th hole into an unplayable lie. After taking his penalty drop Spieth scorched a 3-iron approach from Royal Birkdale’s practice range, reminding fans of the birdie Seve Ballesteros conjured from a parking lot at Royal Lytham while winning in 1979. But it was a 35-foot eagle putt two holes later, followed by birdie rolls at the 16th and 17th that made the difference in his three-shot victory.

Spieth’s magic touch with the putter deserted him in 2018, when he sunk to 123rd on Tour in the overall statistic of Strokes Gained – Putting. In the limited statistics of the young 2020 season, he’s even worse, and when he has shown his old ability on the greens, as he did in 2019, other parts of Spieth’s game have gone sideways.

That was the case at the Phoenix Open, where he began his opening round on Thursday by hooking his drive deep into the desert. By the time he signed for a 3-over-par 74, Spieth was 99th in the field in Strokes Gained – Tee to Green, and 114th in the putting stat. Friday’s modest improvement wasn’t nearly enough to threaten the cut line. This week at Pebble Beach he sits in a tie for 44th after one round, which would at least be good enough to play the weekend if it holds through Friday’s second circuit, though his fans are likely holding their breath waiting for the seemingly obligatory bad round.

Perhaps years from now Spieth’s career will be reminiscent of a shooting star, lighting up the sky for a time only to burn itself out and disappear. But as every weekend player knows, golf is a fickle game. Some days every shot is straight and true, and every putt has eyes only for the hole. At other times each club feels like a lead weight and the ball has an evil mind of its own. But come the last week of next July Spieth will be all of 27 years old. He had three major championships on his resume while younger than Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer or Tom Watson were when they each won their first. The betting here is that there are plenty more victories in Jordan Spieth’s golf bag, and that right now he is a young athlete learning the hardest lesson taught by all our games – that in sports, as in life, lasting success is never certain and seldom easy.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 2, 2020

A Super Sunday For Mahomes And Reid

Now this was a Sunday with something for everyone. For traditionalists and anyone partial to rodents, there was the annual early morning spectacle in Punxsutawney, a ceremony dating back to the 19th century in the western Pennsylvania borough. On this February morning the locals charged with translating the groundhog’s observations predicted an early spring in our future. If correct, those of us in northern climes will promise to stop referring to this member of the marmot family as an overgrown rat, at least until this time next year.

Then there was the date itself, presented digitally as 02022020. That made Sunday a rare eight-digit palindrome date across the various conventions of writing dates (month-day-year or day-month-year). The last such date was November 11 early in the 12th century, during the reign of Henry I. Surely a date that’s the same written either forward or backward had to be very special for the tinfoil hat crowd. It’s amazing we weren’t all bombarded by predictions of the end of the world, or the arrival of aliens, or aliens ending the world, in the days leading up to the weekend.

Then again, perhaps not even space invaders would dare interfere with Sunday’s centerpiece, the Super Bowl. Fans old enough to remember the first edition of the spectacle in 1967, then known by the more unwieldy title of AFL-NFL World Championship Game, understandably marvel at what the contest has become. All those years ago there were thousands of empty seats at the cavernous Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. The season-ending showdown between the Green Bay Packers and an earlier edition of the Kansas City franchise that took the field in Miami Sunday evening was the product of the nascent merger between the established NFL and its upstart competitor, the AFL. The Coliseum site wasn’t picked until seven weeks before kickoff, and while there were 300 pigeons and 10,000 balloons released during the halftime show, the midgame entertainment also featured that age-old football game staple, marching bands.

More than half a century later, the $7,500 which each Kansas City player received as the losing team’s share for what eventually came to be called Super Bowl I would barely cover the average resale market price of a ticket to Sunday’s contest. As dramatic as that is, the change in the price of admission is merely a reflection of the evolution of the Super Bowl from the championship game of a professional sports league to a major cultural event and unofficial American holiday. Television coverage begins hours before kickoff, prices for 30-second advertisements are measured in millions, which is likely also the number of chicken wings consumed at viewing parties across the country, and the halftime show is treated as a career-defining gig, with marching bands definitely not invited. No surprise then that across the country this week men, women and children who pay no attention to football the other fifty-one weeks of the year and who would be hard-pressed to tell Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo apart even when they’re both in uniform offered up thoughtful opinions on the chances for Mahomes and the dynamic Kansas City offense to overcome the shutdown capability of San Francisco’s vaunted defense.

Those casual fans reflected conventional wisdom, which as is often the case was not entirely accurate about this year’s Super Bowl contestants. While the game was widely touted as K.C.’s offense versus S.F.’s defense, it was the 49ers that put more points on the scoreboard during the regular season, and Kansas City that allowed fewer. In truth both franchises made it to Miami by being well-balanced teams, able to soundly defeat inferior opponents and overcome adversity when it inevitably came calling. Kansas City in particular showed that tenacity during the playoffs, rallying from a 24-0 deficit against Houston to win 51-31 in the divisional round, and then climbing out of a 10-0 hole to beat Tennessee in the AFC Championship.

Sunday evening Mahomes and company had to come from behind once again. The 49ers drove for a field goal on their first possession, before Kansas City answered with a touchdown drive and a field goal of its own for a 10-3 lead. But over the second period and much of the third, San Francisco had the edge on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and the 49ers scored 17 unanswered points to move ahead 20-10 with one quarter to play.

First Kansas City drove 83 yards to cut the lead to a field goal, helped by poor San Francisco defense that allowed a 44-yard reception by a wide open Tyreek Hill on a 3rd and 15 play, and a sloppy pass interference call that set up first and goal. Then the defense stopped the 49ers on a three-and-out, giving the offense the ball once again with just over five minutes remaining. That of course is an eon for almost any NFL quarterback, and certainly for Mahomes. He needed less than half the time to march to the lead against a tiring 49ers defensive unit.

With all the momentum now on the side of the team in the red jerseys, the outcome of San Francisco’s final efforts seemed a foregone conclusion. Garoppolo got his team to midfield but no further, and fans in Kansas City began celebrating their franchise’s first championship in fifty years, in its third Super Bowl appearance overall and first since that 23-7 victory over Minnesota in number IV. The final 31-20 score was set when the gassed San Francisco defense watched as Damien Williams raced 38 yards for another score on a play that was designed to merely help run out the clock.

Kansas City’s third straight playoff comeback cemented the reputation of Mahomes as a big-game quarterback, at the age of just 24. He isn’t old enough to remember his franchise’s previous Super Bowl appearances, but his head coach, 61-year-old Andy Reid is. In his 366th game as an NFL head coach, the widely admired Reid is finally a champion. Coach and quarterback rallied their team to victory in a memorable game, which is not a word that describes any of those expensive ads. Aliens wanting to put an end to those are welcome, on this or any date.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 30, 2020

Dusty To The Rescue

The votes are in, and the result is a landslide. No, not in Iowa or New Hampshire in the first voting of the current cycle of electing a President, but in that other quintessentially American sport, baseball. By something bordering on acclamation fans and media members alike concur that the Great Game is better off with Dusty Baker back in uniform. The embodiment of a baseball lifer, the 70-year-old Baker was introduced on Thursday as the new manager of the Houston Astros, with owner Jim Crane surely hoping that the hiring of an accomplished skipper known for his honesty and straight talk will be the first step toward righting the Astros’ ship, which has been listing badly since exposure of the team’s sophisticated cheating dating to its 2017 championship season.

Given Houston’s self-inflicted wounds, Baker is a smart choice to replace AJ Hinch, fired by Crane along with former general manager Jeff Luhnow immediately after both were suspended for the upcoming season by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred for allowing the sign stealing scheme orchestrated by Astros players and then-bench coach Alex Cora to go unchecked. The combination of integrity and a generally warm relationship with the press make him an ideal public face for a franchise desperate to move past the cheating debacle. During his introductory press conference Baker left no doubt where he stood, saying “We have to go forward and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. It’s certainly not going to happen on my watch here.”

But Baker brings more to Houston than just an upstanding reputation, as valuable as that alone is to the Astros right now. After two years as an advisor in the San Francisco Giants front office, his return to a managerial role shuffles the order of active field generals on the list of managers with the most career wins. Cleveland’s Terry Francona was briefly number one after the Giants Bruce Bochy retired at the end of last season. But Baker now supplants Francona, arriving in Houston with 1,863 career victories, almost two hundred more than the Cleveland skipper. That total puts Baker fifteenth overall in wins, with all but two of the names above him appearing on plaques in the Hall of Fame.

He earned those victories with four different teams – the Giants, Cubs, Reds, and most recently the Washington Nationals – over more than twenty seasons of making out lineup cards. That after a playing career that was nearly as long, beginning with being drafted by Atlanta in 1967, and making his big league debut one year later. Baker roamed the Atlanta outfield for eight seasons, before moving on to the west coast, where he wore the uniforms of the Dodgers, Giants, and finally the Oakland A’s. His greatest success as a player came at Chavez Ravine, where in 1981 he was a member of the last Dodgers team to win a championship. In L.A. Baker also won two Silver Slugger awards, a Gold Glove, was twice an All-Star, and was the MVP of the National League Championship Series in 1977.

On the bench Baker has been known as something of a turnaround artist. In his first year managing in San Francisco, the Giants improved by thirty-one games, going from a losing record to the second best mark in the majors. At his next stop in Chicago he immediately took the Cubs to the franchise’s first division title in fourteen years. The improvement took a bit longer in Cincinnati, but there too Baker won a division championship and gave fans their first taste of playoff baseball in more than a decade. Given that track record it was no surprise when the Nationals won 95 and 97 games in his two seasons at the helm in Washington.

That success has garnered Baker three Manager of the Year awards. But that honor, like all the Great Game’s major individual trophies, is based on regular season performance. What Baker has not been able to do is convert winning records between April and September into postseason success, and some of the playoff failures of Baker-led teams have been especially painful.

His one trip to the World Series as a manager was in 2002, when the Giants were on the cusp of a championship, leading the Angels three games to two and 5-0 in the 7th inning of Game 6. That’s when Baker pulled starting pitcher Russ Ortiz, despite his having surrendered just four hits while shutting out Anaheim. The Angels rallied against the San Francisco bullpen, then went on to win Game 7 and the title. The very next season in Chicago, the return of the Cubs to the postseason turned for the worse in Game 6 of the NLCS, when Luis Castillo of the Marlins lifted a fly ball down the left field foul line at Wrigley Field, in the direction of a Cubs fan named Steve Bartman. In Washington Baker’s Nationals found ways to lose a Division Series in both 2016 and 2017, first to the Dodgers, then to the Cubs.

So there is ample reason for Baker, in what he acknowledged will be his “last hurrah,” to want to manage a winning franchise rather than one needing to be turned around. There’s no denying the strength of Houston’s roster, even after the loss of pitching ace Gerrit Cole; a fact that makes the Astros dalliance with the ugly underbelly of sports even more inexplicable. Perhaps then the franchise and its new manager will be a perfect fit, even if the idea of Baker running the Houston dugout was unimaginable just three weeks ago.

Yet they must still play all the games of the longest season, and anyone not too distracted by the understandably warm feelings generated by Baker’s return might question whether this pairing is ideal, or a perfect mismatch. The Astros climbed to the top of the Great Game by becoming the most modern of franchises, relying heavily on advanced metrics and quantitative analysis of every aspect of performance on the field. Baker is just the opposite, a classicist of the old school, the archetype of a managerial style that has largely fallen out of favor. It’s very easy to imagine the manager and the ballclub mixing about as well as the water in the Houston Ship Channel does with some oil spilled from a barge. Should that prove to be the case Crane will still get what he so badly needs – a figurehead for the coming season possessed of a pristine reputation. But Dusty Baker’s burning desire for a championship as a manager? That might remain a dream deferred.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 26, 2020

To A Legend Dying Young

These moments are inevitable, though they come far more often than we would wish. In truth that wish would be “never at all,” even as we know that is impossible. The nexus between sports and life, the extent to which events in the former mirror and illustrate lessons of the latter, ensures that there are times when the sports story of the day is both shocking and sad. So it was on Sunday, when as afternoon on the east coast gave way to night fans saw rumor become fact, and initial reporting gave way to subsequent detail that was even worse than imagined. Kobe Bryant, NBA legend and forever a hero to fans of the L.A. Lakers, was killed Sunday morning in a helicopter crash northwest of Los Angeles. Just 41-years-old, Bryant was one of nine victims of the crash, which had no survivors. While authorities were appropriately not releasing information on the other victims until families had been notified, as this was written the deaths of Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and John Altobelli, the baseball coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa had also been confirmed.

The most compelling evidence of Bryant’s stature was the outpouring of sympathy from across the sports world, extending far beyond the confines of NBA arenas. Fans attending the NFL’s Pro Bowl game in Orlando interrupted a moment of silence with chants of “Ko-be! Ko-be!” Italian soccer club AC Milan issued a statement calling Bryant, who spent seven years in Italy as a child while his father played for several European basketball teams, “one of the greatest sportsmen of all time.” On social media the International Olympic Committee said that the two-time gold medalist “will always stay in our hearts.”

The current generation of NBA players took matters into their own hands at Sunday’s games, which went on as scheduled over the objections of some members of the media. During his Lakers career Bryant wore the numbers 24 and 8. Several teams around the league took 24 second shot clock violations as a simple tribute. Players on the Orlando Magic went one step further in that team’s game against the L.A. Clippers, following the 24 second violation for not taking a shot with an 8 second backcourt time penalty. At Madison Square Garden, the lights were purple and gold, the Lakers colors. Commissioner Adam Silver called Bryant “one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game.”

Of that there is no doubt. Drafted out of high school with the 13th overall pick in 1996, by his second season Bryant was the youngest All-Star starter in league history. Two years after that L.A. won the first of five titles while Bryant was in uniform. He holds fifteen separate team career records and retired as the third highest scorer in NBA history. Just last weekend, LeBron James pushed Bryant down to fourth place on that list, which earned James a congratulatory tweet from his predecessor as the top star of the Lakers franchise. Responding to his new place in the record books, James said “I’m happy just to be in any conversation with Kobe Bryant, one of the all-time greatest basketball players to ever play.”

There was a time, a couple of generations ago, when that would be the sum of what fans knew about a star like Bryant, and the tributes that are pouring in and will continue to do so in the days ahead would reflect the limits of our knowledge. But secrets are hard to hold in the age of information overload, and so we must acknowledge that our heroes are no longer two-dimensional cutouts on a pedestal, but real people living complex, or to put it charitably, complicated lives. Bryant feuded, at times bitterly, with fellow star Shaquille O’Neal early in his career and often turned his ire on head coach Phil Jackson after O’Neal departed. Off the court he faced allegations of sexual assault in 2003. While criminal charges were dropped and a civil suit settled privately, the case forever altered his image even after Bryant issued a lengthy apology.

Yet even with “cancel culture” running rampant, there are circumstances under which America remains the land of second chances. There are certainly those who still condemn Bryant, but his apology, his philanthropic work, and of course his extraordinary ability and fierce determination on the court led most fans not to forget the 2003 incident, but to include it as one part of their total evaluation of him. Certainly most of the Lakers faithful stood by him, even as time passed and his athletic skills inevitably began to wane.

Like many of his brethren, in the end Bryant stayed too long, making the final year or two of his playing career at times painful to watch. But in April 2016, in his final NBA game the worn-down player gave fans one last glimpse of the powers he had once summoned at will. Midway through the first quarter against the Utah Jazz, Bryant had missed his first five shots and committed a turnover. But then he hit a pullup jumper to tie the score at 6-6, and suddenly the years melted away. The Lakers continued to feed the ball to their faded star all night long; in the end he would take fifty shots from the field. But now more of them were going in.

The Lakers trailed by two after one period and by fifteen at the break. But led by Bryant the home squad mounted a second half rally. For much of the final quarter everyone in the house was on their feet, cheering what was quickly becoming an epic final star turn. With just over three minutes to play and Utah leading by ten, Bryant seized the moment. A reverse layup, two free throws, a driving layup, a jumper, a three, and then with 31.6 ticks remaining, another pullup jumper that gave the Lakers the lead. With the final five field goal attempts of his career finding the net, Bryant added two more free throws at the 14.8 second mark to bring his scoring total for the night to sixty points.

Then he was gone from the NBA stage, but looking forward to a long and successful business career. That dream ended on a hillside outside of L.A. on Sunday, a day when the cruelest of life’s lessons paid an unwelcome visit to the world of sports.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 23, 2020

Some Good News For The Great Game

Captain Clutch came through again. Five years removed from his playing days, this week Derek Jeter showed he had lost none of his impeccable timing, delivering for fans of the Great Game the way he did for the Yankees’ faithful so many times during his two decades in the Bronx. After ten days of relentlessly bad news for baseball, a week and a half filled with non-stop stories of sophisticated cheating schemes, season long suspensions, multiple firings of those in positions of authority, and arrogant attitudes by some of the players most deeply enmeshed in the deceit, Jeter’s near-unanimous election to the Hall of Fame reminded us that the Great Game is about so much more than high tech video and low tech trash can banging. On Wednesday 396 members of the Baseball Writers Association of American honored ability, determination, winning with class, losing with dignity and, of course, having the incredible good fortune to live out one’s childhood dream on the grandest stage in sports.

That Jeter would be elected to the Hall in this, his first year of eligibility, was never in doubt. The only question was his final vote total. The 396 ballots on which his name was marked represented all but one of the total number returned to the Hall by BBWAA members prior to the December 31st deadline. There was the inevitable grumbling by some fans and pundits about the determination of one writer – presumably a diehard Red Sox fan – to deny Jeter a unanimous vote matching that received by his teammate Mariano Rivera last year. Yet by falling short of 100%. albeit by the smallest possible margin, the result symbolizes baseball’s eternal truth and greatest attraction – it is a sport in which, like life, success is almost never defined by perfection. To the contrary, the Great Game is all about minimizing failure and making the most of small opportunities.

Certainly Jeter understood that during his years as New York’s shortstop. In his very first big league game, after being called up from the minors to join the Yankees while the team was on a west coast road trip early in the 1995 campaign, the 20-year-old went hitless in five trips to the plate at Seattle’s old Kingdome, a forgettable start that hardly presaged the career that was to come.

That career was about more than numbers, though Jeter’s stats are impressive enough – a .310 batting average, sixth on the career hits list with 3,465, a record seventeen straight seasons with at least 150 hits and second all-time with thirteen years in which he scored 100 or more runs. The sabermetric mavens love to criticize his defensive ability, but any Yankee fan who ever saw the captain go deep into the hole between short and third to spear a grounder headed for left field and then nab the batter at first with a jump throw across his body was quite content with Jeter’s “D.”

But when the Yankee faithful speak of Jeter, they cite not numbers but moments. Jeter racing across the diamond to foul ground wide of the first base line, arriving just in time to snare an errant throw from right fielder Shane Spencer and flip the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged out Oakland’s Jeremy Giambi and preserved a playoff victory. The Flip. Jeter hurtling headfirst into the stands along the third base line at the old Stadium after snaring a seeing-eye pop fly that appeared to be a sure tie-breaking hit for the Red Sox. The Dive. Jeter stepping to the plate with the bases loaded in June 2005, having more at-bats without a grand slam than any active player. High up in the upper deck, a father explains this to his young son, and the boy replies “I’ll bet he hits one now.” As if hearing the plea by some mystical power of conduction, Jeter answers the child with a drive into the visitor’s bullpen in left center field. The Slam.

There were countless more of course, all leading to the final moment. Jeter’s last game in the Bronx, when the fairy tale career played out as all good fairy tales must. David Robertson, filling in for the injured Mo, has what Yankee fans will always call the best blown save ever. A 5-2 New York lead in the top of the 9th turns into a 5-5 tie with the Orioles. But that gives Jeter one more trip to the plate in the bottom of the frame, with one away and the winning run on second. The captain wastes no time, putting his familiar inside out swing on the first pitch from Baltimore’s Evan Meek. The ball slices past the infielders and into right. Antoan Richardson races home from second, just beating the throw from Nick Markakis, and the Yankees have a walk-off win. On the YES Network, Michael Kay sums up the moment, and the career, “Derek Jeter, where fantasy becomes reality!”

Through all the memorable moments Jeter never forgot the hard lesson taught by his first game in the majors. That a superstar’s batting average still meant failing almost seven out of every ten at-bats. That five rings still meant fifteen years when the Yankees fell short of their annual goal. That the bookend to that final game-winning hit was a second inning error on the first ball hit to shortstop that night. It was a sense of balance that enabled him to lead a team on which there were always players better at specific parts of the game. Jeter was never the top slugger, or the slickest fielder, or the fastest runner, and often not the best pure hitter on the roster. But he was the most complete player, and that, coupled with his understanding that the first lesson baseball teaches is humility, made him a natural leader.

When the Yankees were debating whether to take him with the sixth overall pick in the 1992 draft, there was concern that Jeter might follow his girlfriend and enroll at the University of Michigan. But Dick Groch, the scout who had been observing the high school phenom for more than two years, knew that while he lived in the upper Midwest, Jeter had been born in New Jersey and grew up dreaming of playing shortstop at the Stadium.

“Anyone could see the skills, but you had to know he could play in New York City,’’ Groch told an interviewer years later. “It’s not all about athleticism. He had another special component. He was humble, but he played aggressively. He played the game composed. He had an ability to relate to everyone on the team. He handled failure well. He assessed what the problem was and played through it.” Asked by the Yankees front office if he was sure that Jeter would sign, Groch replied, “He’s not going to Michigan. The only place Derek Jeter’s going is Cooperstown.” Now he is, a symbol of the Great Game at its best. The current players who have been in the headlines the past ten days would do well to learn from Jeter’s example.

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