Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 9, 2020

Who Will Follow The Ivy League’s Lead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 5, 2020

Grow Up, Bryson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 2, 2020

The Immeasurable Cost Of A Lost Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 28, 2020

Faces In The Crowd, But Maybe Not For Long

The list includes Tiger and Phil of course, but also Rory, Rickie, and Sergio. They are the established fan favorites of the PGA Tour, golfers who might as well discard their last names, for everyone who follows the Tour knows exactly who they are at the mention of their first. Sometimes even that much is unnecessary, and the calls from those behind the ropes – at least back in the old days when tournaments were played in front of galleries – are for “DJ” or “JT,” as if the sight of Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas walking down a fairway was akin to spying some old buddy strolling along the street. The practice is not new. For well over half a century fans have understood which golfer was being discussed when the subject was Arnie or Jack. Nor is it unique to golf. No matter the sport, fans freely claim a familiarity with their heroes that is of course illusory.

So someone checking the PGA Tour’s website Sunday evening didn’t really need to see the picture that accompanied the headline “DJ Wins Travelers Championship” to know that Johnson had captured his twenty-first Tour title at this weekend’s tournament in Cromwell Connecticut. The win keeps alive Johnson’s streak of recording at least one victory a year since joining the Tour in 2008. It also moves him into a tie for thirtieth place on the Tour’s list of career victories. One of the longest hitters on Tour and possessed of a preternaturally calm demeanor, Johnson, who just turned thirty-six at the beginning of the week, should continue moving up that list for years to come. After all, Phil Mickelson, playing in his first tournament since celebrating his fiftieth birthday earlier in the month, opened the Travelers with rounds of 64 and 63 to lead the tournament at its halfway point, before sliding down the leader board with a pair of 71s on the weekend.

But for all the attention paid to a relatively short list of immediately recognizable players, the most remarkable quality of the PGA Tour is its depth. A full-field event like the Travelers has one hundred fifty-six tee times for the opening round, and every week a surprisingly large number of the golfers who fill Thursday’s tee sheet have a legitimate shot at hoisting the trophy come Sunday evening. Among those many lesser known names there are always compelling stories. Two that stood out at the Travelers were the journeys of Brendon Todd and Will Gordon.

Todd had plenty of face time on the CBS broadcast of the tournament, thanks to play that progressed from solid to spectacular through the first three rounds. He opened with 4-under par 66, improved that score by one shot on Friday, and then lit up a rain-softened TPC River Highlands with a 9-under par 61 on Saturday. Todd made the most of the Tour’s so-called moving day, vaulting up the leader board into a two-shot lead heading into the final 18 holes.

In the end he wasn’t able to sustain his lofty position, undone in a matter of five minutes on the par-4 12th hole, when after his approach shot leaked every so slightly right into a difficult lie in the greenside rough, Todd needed four more shots just to get his ball on the green, and one putt from there to finally end the carnage of a triple-bogey. But while that disaster was the major blemish in a final round 75 that dropped him into a tie for eleventh place, six shots behind Johnson, Todd may still be the best golfer that no one knows. Had he gone on to win in Cromwell, the victory would have been his third of the current PGA Tour season, following a pair of wins last November. More remarkable still is that this outstanding season is coming five years after Todd notched his first win on Tour, at the 2014 Byron Nelson Championship, and that victory in turn came five years after he first earned his PGA Tour card.

In between those highlights Todd has twice plunged into golf’s depths. He lost his card after his first season on Tour, when he made just five cuts in twenty-one events. It took him five years to regain full-time playing privileges. Then he wandered back into golf’s wilderness just two years later, fighting what he has described as the “ball-striking yips,” at one point missing thirty-seven cuts in forty starts in golf’s minor leagues. Many golfers would have given up the game by that point, and Todd seriously considered doing so. But a last gasp effort with a new coach finally began to produce some positive results, and now his multiple wins make him part of the discussion for Player of the Year honors.

Will Gordon has already won that award, albeit at a slightly different level of golf, the Southeastern Conference. Just twenty-three and little more than a year removed from Vanderbilt University, Gordon’s professional road has been far shorter than Todd’s, but not free of potholes. This time last year the Tour’s publicity machine as well as sponsors and fans were celebrating the arrival of Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland, the newest young amateurs to move into the professional ranks. With ready smiles and swings unencumbered by the second guessing that comes with experience, Wolff and Hovland have been touted as the future of the game, and each has begun to justify the hype by already recording his first Tour win.

But press releases and sponsors checks can only go to so many players, and by all accounts Gordon was next in line in terms of ability, right behind the two who became the center of attention. Without such support, he was left to venture north to the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, and to beg for sponsors exemptions to the occasional big-league event. He’s played very well north of the border, quickly earning exempt status on the developmental circuit that is run by the PGA Tour. But when the pandemic struck the entire Mackenzie schedule was wiped out, leaving Gordon home in North Carolina, looking for somewhere to ply his trade.

Along came the Travelers, which under tournament director Nathan Grube has a history of extending invitations to promising young players. Over the years the tournament has made room for the likes of Justin Thomas long before he was just JT, as well as eventual stars Patrick Cantlay, Jon Rahm, and Webb Simpson. This year an exemption went to Gordon, who turned the promise of one tournament into a ticket to many. After a first-round 66, he went out in the morning wave on Friday and returned an 8-under par 62, good for the early clubhouse lead. While he had to good sense to remind reporters that many golfers had yet to complete their second rounds, the score vaulted Gordon up the leader board. He slumped to a 1-over 71 on Saturday, but then found his game again on Sunday, closing with a 64 that included a birdie at the last. That final circle on his scorecard proved especially significant, as Gordon’s 17-under par total left him in a two-way tie for third place, which gave him just a big enough paycheck to earn playing status on the PGA Tour for the remainder of the year.

So, congratulations to DJ on a well-earned victory, and hat’s off to Phil, who showed that even at fifty he still has a few thrills left in him. But let’s also applaud Brendon Todd and Will Gordon because one never knows. Maybe in a year or two they’ll be BT and Will.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 25, 2020

The Hard Parts Are Still To Come

At last we have a baseball season – of sorts – to look forward to, and the process of putting the schedule in place sure went well, didn’t it? Okay, at the moment that assertion might charitably be called delusional, but as torturous as the struggle between MLB and the Players Association over terms of the abbreviated 2020 campaign was, it may yet wind up looking like the easy part. For ahead lies the uncertain and possibly outright dangerous task of 30 teams playing 900 games in 28 cities over 10 weeks in the middle of a pandemic. Then not very far down the road, at the end of what we all hope will be a full and normal 2021 season, owners and players return to the table to negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, a vastly more consequential deal than the one for which agreement just proved so stubbornly elusive.

In the past few days, the immediate risks have been highlighted by the surging number of athletes and others, in sports that have already restarted or are about to do so, identified as infected with the COVID-19 virus. Two players and two caddies on the PGA Tour, which returned to action two weeks ago. Ezekiel Elliott and several Dallas Cowboys teammates, as the NFL steams along toward the opening of training camps in late July. A long and growing list of college football players, as campuses have opened for team practices. And of course there was a wave of positive test results among minor leaguers and team employees at multiple spring training facilities in both Florida and Arizona that led to the closure of all camps and MLB’s decision that every team would conduct practice sessions in preparation for the coming short season at its home stadium. Though that is hardly a guarantee of safety, a point driven home by the announcement that four-time All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon was one of three players on the Colorado Rockies who tested positive after working out at Coors Field.

That partial list touches multiple sports, but it doesn’t include several tennis players who contracted the virus while playing on an exhibition tour organized by world number one Novak Djokovic that featured crowded nighttime parties and a purposeful rejection of social distancing guidelines among both players and fans at matches. But surely such willful idiocy, in addition to proving that the best tennis player in the world possesses enormous arrogance but no common sense, is unique. Or is it? The plan for baseball does not envision sequestering players or team personnel once they leave the stadium, and it stretches credulity to imagine that every player on each expanded roster and all the support personnel needed to stage the games will constantly adhere to MLB’s guidelines.

Those protocols are set forth in a 113-page operations manual that will govern this unique season. That’s three times as long as the document provided to PGA Tour pros, so perhaps baseball will be three times as safe. Then again, it’s the exact same length as the NBA’s manual, and the basketball league has the advantage of planning to play within a bubble at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports near Orlando. Though given Florida’s spiking infection numbers the players who will soon assemble at Disney World are surely hoping the NBA’s bubble doesn’t burst. The unpleasant truth is that no one really knows whether any league’s precautions will be sufficient, though each day’s headlines make clear the desperate fragility of a schedule that envisions thirty teams working out or playing every day from next week until late October when a champion is crowned. Once negotiations finally ended and commissioner Rob Manfred imposed the short season plan, bookmakers wasted no time in setting every team’s odds of winning the World Series. Perhaps they should instead be allowing fans to gamble on whether baseball makes it to the Fall Classic.

Quite apart from any parochial rooting interest, all fans should hope to see a 2020 World Series, for the Great Game being forced to shut down would mean it had been visited by a ghastly degree of illness or worse. But if fortune should smile on baseball this year, the short season will be but prelude to a likely confrontation in the fall and winter of 2021 that will make the recent back and forth between the MLBPA and the owners look like a polite disagreement over afternoon tea. There’s been general acknowledgement that the major obstacle to reaching consensus on the terms of play this year was the profound lack of trust between the parties, and it’s hard to conceive of anything happening between now and next year to change that.

A generation of younger fans has never known the wrenching dislocation of a work stoppage in baseball. With labor peace since the 1994-95 strike, another generation recalls such events only dimly. But that strike, which brought the 1994 season to an abrupt halt in early August and ultimately shortened the following campaign to 144 games, was the eighth time in little more than two decades that play had been interrupted by labor issues. Despite the lack of current collective memory, the sport’s history has plenty of chapters focused on struggles between players and owners over myriad issues.

With teams unilaterally altering the basic economic understanding upon which players’ careers have been built, costing midlevel free agents millions of dollars while manipulating the service time of younger, cost-controlled players, with teams purposely tanking and putting an intentionally inferior product on the field for multiple seasons in hopes of building up future prospects, and with owners steadfastly refusing to open their books to substantiate their claims of little or no profits, baseball seems primed for a return to the bad old days of labor strife.

Just as fans should pray this year’s short schedule is played to its conclusion, they should also hope next season does not end in such discord. In an interview this week Manfred, after specifying that the pronoun he was using encompassed himself, his staff, owners, the Players Association and individual players, said “we owe it to our fans to be better than we’ve been the last three months.” Those are good words, and as recently noted in this space, words matter; words can be powerful symbols. But as the steward of the Great Game, Manfred should know that symbols alone are not enough. The legend of the 1932 World Series is not just about Babe Ruth, down to his final strike, symbolically pointing to center field. It’s also about what he did next.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 21, 2020

Tiz The Law Was Right On Time

The race was two weeks late and four months early. That’s not meant to be a brain-teasing riddle, but an illustration of how the coronavirus pandemic has turned the sports calendar upside down and inside out. The Belmont Stakes, which went off late Saturday afternoon, was originally scheduled for June 6, but was delayed two weeks by the New York Racing Association when it put together the spring meeting at Belmont Park after racing, which had been shut down at all New York tracks in March, was cleared to resume.

That original schedule of course had the Belmont in its traditional position as the third jewel of the Triple Crown, three weeks after the Preakness States and five weeks distant from the first Saturday in May’s Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. But the usual dates for both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness were scrubbed early in the nationwide response to the pandemic, with the former moved to September and the latter set for Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course early in October. Maintaining the usual order of the Triple Crown would have thus required moving the Belmont to the middle of autumn. However, that would have pushed it up against the two-day card of the Breeders’ Cup, still scheduled for Keeneland the first weekend in November. Horse racing has no central authority, no commissioner of thoroughbreds to mete out dates and maintain order, so the NYRA had little choice but to set this new date and shuffle the Triple Crown deck for 2020.

With the Belmont now leading off the Triple Crown, and with the limited number of prep races available to the contenders over the last three months, the race was further altered in a much more meaningful way than its date. Long known as the “Test of the Champion” for its grueling mile and a half distance, one full trip around the massive track nicknamed “Big Sandy,” this year’s Belmont was reduced to a mile and an eighth, changing it from the longest of the Triple Crown races to the shortest. The race’s shortened distance, on the expansive Belmont oval, also meant that the first Triple Crown race of the year wasn’t even contested around two turns. Instead the horses were loaded into a gate at the far end of a long chute leading onto the back stretch. The mile and an eighth was covered by then racing down that long straightaway, around the far turn, and back to the finish line in front of Belmont Park’s huge grandstand, the largest ever built at a racetrack.

Anyone sitting near that finish line would have needed a good pair of binoculars to track the field as the horses broke from that distant gate. But like virtually all sporting events these days, the Belmont was run without fans present, so the tens of thousands of seats along the front stretch were empty save for less than a hundred spectators – trainers, grooms, track officials and workers involved with NBC’s broadcast.

So instead of a deafening collective roar from upwards of 100,000 throats, the horses were met by the gentle chirping of birds as the field turned for home. Not that either riders or mounts were listening; by that point, the ten jockeys and their steeds were keenly focused on the task at hand. That one coupling in the group had a decidedly different job than all the others was made apparent by a single backwards glance. Manny Franco, the 25-year-old jockey aboard pre-race favorite Tiz the Law, twice turned his head to the right to survey the horses behind him, seeing if any looked like they possessed an overtaking charge. He did so even though at that moment Franco had not yet put Tiz the Law in front. That position was held, as it had been almost from the start, by Tap It to Win, a horse with proven early speed that some hoped would be enough to prevail over the shorter than usual distance.

But Franco taking the time to check on his pursuers was striking proof that he was no longer worried about passing the frontrunner. His confidence in Tiz the Law was well placed. Having checked on the traffic to his rear, Franco asked his horse for a higher gear and the favorite accelerated past a tiring Tap It to Win as the two raced by the quarter pole. “They’re into the stretch of the Belmont, and Tiz the Law has taken charge,” exclaimed veteran announcer Larry Collmus, and indeed the grandson of Tapit and direct descendant of A.P. Indy, two of the most successful sires in recent thoroughbred history, was making this Belmont his own. In the middle of the lane the closer Dr. Post attempted a late charge, but Irad Ortiz Jr. didn’t have nearly enough horse to challenge the favorite. It was Tiz the Law by two, then three, and finally by four lengths at the wire, with Dr. Post second and longshot Max Player getting up for third.

While the pandemic made this Belmont historic in several less than ideal ways, the result wrote some positive racing history. Tiz the Law was bred in New York, by itself not surprising given the active racing industry in the Empire State and the presence of two of the country’s elite tracks in Belmont Park and Saratoga, as well as Aqueduct. But the biggest race in New York has not been kind to horses bred there. When Tiz the Law crossed the wire, he became the first New York bred to capture the Belmont since Forester in 1882. The win also brought a measure of redemption to Sackatoga Stable, the consortium of middle-class racing lovers from upstate New York who banded together years ago to form a decidedly small-time ownership group. In 2003 Sackatoga’s horse Funny Cide, which the group had purchased for the less than princely sum of $75,000, stunned the sport’s establishment by winning the Kentucky Derby, and then two weeks later romped in the Preakness. But the Belmont’s mile and a half proved too daunting. Funny Cide finished third.

Tiz the Law didn’t have to run that far Saturday, but the horse and his connections – owner Sackatoga Stable, jockey Franco, and 82-year-old trainer Barclay Tagg – get full credit for the victory. Now the Belmont winner and horse racing fans must wait until September for this year’s Triple Crown chase to be renewed. One of the hardest feats in sports has been made even more difficult by the pandemic’s impact on the racing calendar. Horses currently sidelined by injury may be in the starting gate at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Other races will be run in the meantime, the results of which could alter the equine landscape. By Derby day some other three-year-old may have emerged as the betting and fan favorite. But for now, Tiz the Law is the one.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 18, 2020

Which Words Will Matter More?

At some future date, in some post-pandemic year, fans will look back at the spring of 2020 and attempt to draw lessons from the torturous struggle between owners and players over the terms under which some semblance of a major league baseball season could take place in the time of COVID-19. They will do so with the luxury of distance from the animosity and distrust that has pervaded the negotiations, when they could even be called such, from the suspension of spring training on March 12th right up to Thursday, when the Great Game was poised on a knife’s edge, with the starkly different options of a mutually agreed resolution, an imposed semi-season, or outright cancellation of play for the year all equally possible. For rather than producing light all that heat serves mainly to warp one’s perspective and encourage the substitution of emotion for judgment. Hindsight can contribute greatly to a more reasoned evaluation.

Yet if the last few days and hours have not brought an announcement on the scheduling of a long-delayed Opening Day, perhaps they have given current fans who have been forced to endure them an inkling of one of the most important messages that their future brethren will almost certainly discern. It is a simple admonition far older than even the antique game of baseball itself – words matter.

After weeks and weeks of deadlock and increasingly incendiary public exchanges, it took just three words to shift the debate and produce some movement between MLB and the Players Association. Last Saturday night, at the very end of a statement released by the MLBPA in which executive director Tony Clark dismissed the idea of further talks. Picking up on commissioner Rob Manfred’s assurance just days earlier that “the owners are 100 percent committed to getting baseball back on the field,” Clark said “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”

Association officials swear what happened next was not coordinated, but whether it was or not hardly matters. Players by the score picked up on the last three words of Clark’s statement and began echoing it on a variety of social media platforms. In short order “when and where” became the players’ mantra, stating in a mere three syllables that they wanted to play ball and were ready to do so. After weeks of being decried as caring only about their salaries, “when and where” allowed players to be viewed in a more favorable light by fans.

That it turn put pressure on the owners, who had won the right to have Manfred impose a season of any length in the initial March agreement between the parties. But it’s been clear for some time that to minimize expenses a faction of owners wants such a resolution to be as short a season as possible, no more than fifty games. The problem for those owners is that while the calendar continues to turn, it’s not yet at a time when a fifty game season is all that can reasonably be played, so ordering such a campaign now would expose MLB to a grievance by the Players Association for failing to bargain in good faith. That left Manfred to choose between continuing to be pummeled by fans and many sportswriters or offering a compromise.

As powerful as “when and where” proved to be, those three words may yet be outweighed by three others that appeared in the middle of a four sentence statement released by Manfred after he flew to Arizona on Wednesday and met with Clark for four hours. Manfred announced that he and Clark had agreed on the framework for a possible agreement that would be discussed with “our respective constituents.”

Manfred’s phrasing has attracted little attention, with everyone who read it understanding that Clark had to go back to the players and the commissioner needed to gain the assent of the thirty franchises. Manfred even went on to make his task explicit by adding that he was “encouraging the Clubs to move forward.” But in identifying his constituents as the owners, the commissioner willingly accepted a far more circumscribed role than was once true for the head of the Great Game. When the job of baseball commissioner was created in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Kenesaw Mountain Landis accepted the role only when granted broad authority to act “in the best interests” of the game. Landis was no saint – ample evidence suggests it was no coincidence Jackie Robinson didn’t suit up for the Brooklyn Dodgers until a few years after Landis’s death – but his independence set the standard that the commissioner of baseball’s first duty was not to the small group of owners who did the hiring, but to the far larger and more important constituency of all those who are part of the Great Game, including players and fans.

None of his successors could match the taciturn demeanor for which Landis was known, but they all followed his example of casting their role in broad terms, until 1992. That’s when a cabal of owners dubbed the Great Lakes Gang for their ownership of teams in the upper Midwest led an ultimately successful movement to oust Fay Vincent, who had moved up to the commissioner’s job from the deputy’s role in 1989 after the sudden death of his friend Bart Giamatti. Among assorted sins in the eyes of this group of owners, Vincent was seen as having been too open to the demands of the Players Association during the 1990 lockout.

One member of the Great Lakes Gang was Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, who formally succeeded Vincent in 1998 after serving as acting commissioner for six years. Thus the 1992 owners’ revolt, and the hiring of an owner as the head of the sport, fundamentally altered the commissioner’s role, narrowing the job’s constituency to the thirty holders of major league franchises.

For long stretches, even for years at a time, the change is scarcely noticeable. But then comes a moment when it makes all the difference. Even now fans and pundits alike are spending far more energy debating the proposed expansion of the designated hitter rule to the National League, or the utterly regrettable provision in all the recent proposals to put advertising on players uniforms, than the significance of the diminished job of commissioner. It will be left to those future fans to assess the far greater cost to the Great Game of the latter, a change now likely permanent as its origin fades into history. They will understand the importance of a few words when they look back and realize, perhaps with wonder, that there was a time when a commissioner, if asked when and where, would respond not by polling his masters, but by announcing a place and time to play ball.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 14, 2020

Go In The Hole! Or Not.

There’s a convenience store in downtown Portsmouth popular with the locals for everything from a quart of milk to a six-pack of beer. A small television set is perched atop the beverage cooler opposite the cash register at Portsmouth Provisions, with the programming varying depending on who’s working a given shift. Early Thursday evening the set was turned to the first round of the Charles Schwab Challenge, the PGA Tour’s return to action. As the owner, who was manning the cash register, explained to a customer, he normally doesn’t follow golf, but at least it was live sports.

That exchange came to mind on Sunday as the final round of the first Tour event in thirteen weeks reached its climax. Given the continuing dearth of games or matches or tournaments for fans to watch, CBS’s golf coverage was probably being seen by many viewers not all that familiar with the sport. For their benefit then, it should be noted that a regulation golf hole has a diameter of 4.25 inches, slightly more than two and one half times the diameter of the ball that golfers, in the most fundamental description of the game, are trying to put into the hole. It is beyond all doubt that the ball really does fit into the hole, with considerable room to spare.

Unfortunately, in our increasingly post factual society it doesn’t take much for seemingly reliable concepts like measurements, or the size of two objects relative to one another, to be cast into doubt. Thus there may well have been some viewers who, by the time Daniel Berger won his third Tour victory with a scrambling par on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff, had concluded that the basic problem with golf isn’t slow play or the cost of a round at Pebble Beach or Ian Poulter’s attire, but that the ball just doesn’t fit in the hole. What else can explain the parade of Tour pros who had a chance to seize control of the tournament only to watch in agony as their golf balls flirted with and at times even peered deep into holes, but one by one refused to drop?

Largely because of the long suspension of play that began after the first round of the Players Championship on March 12, the field that teed off at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth was the strongest this venerable Tour stop has boasted in many years. That led to a 54-hole leader board that had plenty of big names and was also very tightly bunched. Going into Sunday’s final walk around Colonial’s routing, there were fourteen golfers within three shots of the lead. They were chasing Xander Schauffele, who had edged one stroke ahead on the strength of a third round 66. But with a leader board that tight, several players took turns at the top as the round progressed.

Perhaps surprising to casual fans, that number did not include the best-known golfers in contention. World number one Rory McIlroy started three back of Schauffele but bogeyed the first hole and played poorly on the front nine, turning in an unsightly 41. On a day that saw plenty of birdies, Justin Thomas recorded par after par, and watched others in the field pass by. And Jordan Spieth once again frustrated his many fans by intermixing spurts of brilliant play, including three birdies in four holes, with periods of lackluster golf, including three bogeys in four holes.

As the marquee names faded, others moved to the fore, only to find the final act of sinking a crucial putt to be too demanding. First Jason Kokrak came to the 18th needing a birdie to tie for the lead, only to see his effort burn the side of the cup. Then Bryson DeChambeau found himself in similar position. DeChambeau spent the Tour’s interregnum working out three time a day, and had spent the afternoon showing off his bulked-up body by blasting monster drives down Colonial’s fairways. But on both the 17th and 18th greens he too was unable to master far, far shorter efforts. Next it was Justin Rose with a chance to tie at the last. But like the two Americans before him, England’s Rose saw his final putt approach the hole and then turn away.

For a time, it looked like Schauffele had unlocked the secret to holing out on Colonial’s greens. He sank a pair of monster efforts, one on the 15th to salvage a bogey after some sloppy play, and the second for a birdie on the par-3 16th that moved him back into a tie for the lead. But then on the 17th Schauffele faced a three-footer for par and watched in disbelief as the ball caught the side of the cup and spun around the circumference of the hole before popping back out. So he too came to the last needing a birdie to tie, and like all the others his try came ever so close but didn’t go in.

That left Berger, fittingly the only one of the bunch who birdied the last, watching from the clubhouse balcony as 23-year-old Collin Morikawa came to the final green. They were the last two at 15-under par, and Morikawa had a putt of five feet to win after a brilliant approach shot. His effort appeared good all the way until the ball took a sudden left turn in the last few inches before the hole. That sent the pair back to the 17th for the playoff, where Morikawa’s short effort to save par and extend the match looked like a replay of Schauffele’s putt from thirty minutes earlier, dipping into the hole before spinning out, giving Berger the win.

Every weekend golfer knows the truth about this ancient and confounding game. For all the emphasis on booming drives and all the money spent advertising the newest big sticks of the leading manufacturers, including multiple ads for brand new Callaway and TaylorMade drivers during the CBS broadcast, it is in the little shots around the green, the chips and pitches and putts, that so many strokes are gained or lost. The most frustrating feeling in golf comes after standing in the middle of a fairway just a wedge away from a green after a fine tee shot, then walking to the next tee a few minutes later after recording a double bogey. In that lonely moment one is ready to swear that measurements aside, the ball just won’t fit in the hole. It’s a feeling that was shared on Sunday by multiple members of the PGA Tour.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 11, 2020

Now On The Tee, The PGA Tour

Ninety-one days after the last competition round on the PGA Tour, members of golf’s preeminent men’s tour finally teed it up again on Thursday. The setting was at once familiar and foreign. Colonial Country Club sits on the south bank of one of the Trinity River’s four forks, and has hosted a PGA Tour event for nearly three-quarters of a century. Veteran pros could likely find their way around the links blindfolded. But an integral part of all those prior tournaments was a large crowd of golf fans, thousands of spectators roaming the grounds and cheering on their favorite players. This week, the event currently named the Charles Schwab Challenge – though it will always be simply “The Colonial” to both participants and fans – is being played without paying spectators, as will the next four tournaments on the Tour’s schedule, in Hilton Head, Cromwell Connecticut, Detroit, and Dublin Ohio.

Perhaps the difference wasn’t all that noticeable when Ryan Palmer, Brian Harman and Bill Haas marked the official return of the PGA Tour as the first group off #1 shortly before 7:00 a.m. Between them the three have just a pair of Tour wins in the last five years, and even avid golf fans aren’t likely to be on the course in numbers at that hour on a Thursday morning. But about three hours later, when the threesome of Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Bryson DeChambeau – all fan favorites – were making the turn after completing their first nine, the absence of even polite applause, much less roars for great shots and groans for near misses, was the surest sign that while the PGA Tour may be back, it is definitely not business as usual.

Beyond the absence of fans, the Tour’s protocols include testing of players, caddies, tournament officials and volunteers at the beginning of the week, and an effort to create a “bubble” in which those involved with the event will stay. The usual Tuesday and Wednesday pro-am rounds, like the now empty hospitality tents a key revenue source for the organizers of every Tour stop, are gone for the foreseeable future. The Tour is also making a charter jet available for travel from one tournament to the next. Once on the course golfers and their caddies have been asked to maintain social distancing, not just from other members of their group but from each other.

Despite all the precautions, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan would be more suitably located at one of the newly reopened Las Vegas casinos than at either Colonial or Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Florida. For not just this week, but next at Harbour Town and the following at TPC River Highlands, and on to Detroit Country Club and then Muirfield Village, Monahan is engaged in a high stakes roll of the dice, betting that a sport that crisscrosses the country week after week can avoid making headlines for the wrong reasons, as a source of coronavirus spread. The gamble is not just because of the traveling road show nature of professional golf, perhaps not even primarily so. Certainly the restrictions in place at Colonial, which will be replicated in the weeks that follow, appear to do as much as can reasonably be expected to make the acreage on which the tournament is played a safe place.

But unlike say the NBA, which plans to create a 24/7 bubble for players at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World, Monahan’s players are not employees of his “league.” Golfers are independent contractors, bound to the PGA Tour by rules about the number of events each must play and ensured of continuing membership based on earnings, but still largely free to decide whether to play or not on any given week, and how to comport themselves while at a tournament. So it was no big surprise when numerous players were seen walking the streets of downtown Fort Worth earlier this week, ignoring the Tour’s guidelines that would have had them staying in their hotel. And the Tour can do nothing to control what any player does at home when he chooses to skip that week’s tournament.

It’s also true that ingrained habits are hard to break. Several Tour pros have admitted that while they understand the importance of the social distancing guidelines in place during tournament play, they fully expect the familiar pattern of close contact with their caddie to win out at some point during a round. The ways in which a professional golfer relies on his or her caddie are beyond count, and most are done by rote. Dustin Johnson may have amused fans watching the broadcast of the recent TaylorMade Driving Relief exhibition when he walked off a tee without his golf bag and had to run back to retrieve it, but he was really just doing what came naturally.

If this week and the four to follow go well, then the Memorial Tournament, the second of back-to-back events at Muirfield Village Golf Club, has received the okay from Ohio state health officials to admit roughly twenty percent of its typical daily attendance. With the PGA Tour one of the first major sports to return to action, the success of the restart will potentially impact not just whether golf is played in front of live audiences at some point this year, but also how other sports reopen.

A basic concept of golf course design is the risk-reward hole. It’s a hole that gives the player two options. One is comparatively safe but offers little reward. Perhaps a par-5 presents a tee shot out to a broad fairway, but on a line that lengthens the hole and eliminates any hope of reaching the green in two. The other entices the player with great reward but carries the potential for disaster. From that same tee one can see a distant landing area on a much more direct line to the flag, but it’s reachable only by fading one’s tee ball around some trees and carrying the expanse of a water hazard.

Faced with that choice, each golfer must weigh the tradeoff of risk and reward, and decide which shot is the right one. When it comes to restarting the PGA Tour, Jay Monahan is definitely going for it. But the biggest risk for the commissioner isn’t that his shot might wind up in the water, it’s that he isn’t even the one swinging the club.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 7, 2020

The Great Game On The Brink

It now seems likely that major league baseball games will be played this summer. That may come as a surprise to fans who have only focused on the headlines of owners and players locked in a bitter struggle over the terms of a shortened 2020 season, with neither side showing any inclination to compromise. But the precise phrasing of that first sentence is intentional.

Under the agreement MLB and the MLBPA signed in March, commissioner Rob Manfred can order a season of any length, provided the players are paid their full prorated salaries for the number of games played. In the absence of any real negotiating between the parties, the popular rumor this week was that Manfred was prepared to impose a 50-game schedule, presumably beginning sometime in July. The rumor may be nothing more than management’s latest negotiating ploy. But if such a schedule does prove to be the resolution to the current impasse, then there will be games played at major league parks across the land. But there is little chance that the collection of those games would be looked upon as a legitimate season by either players or fans.

Fundamental to the nature of the Great Game is the length of its season. One hundred sixty-two games, played across widely varying conditions through spring, summer and fall, is a test unique to baseball. Within that long framework every individual player and every team goes through periods of success and failure, hoping of course that the former outweigh the latter by the time the final out is recorded. While it’s a given that this year’s campaign will be shortened, truncating the schedule to less than one-third of its normal length introduces an element of chance contrary to the spirit and essence of the game. Fans of the reigning world champions can attest to that, for it was the Nationals that finished the first fifty games of last season with an unsightly record of 19-31.

There is also the very real possibility that at least some players would approach such a schedule with a less than enthusiastic attitude. Were it to happen, Manfred’s decision would be seen as a heavy-handed attack on the Players Association, conceding its demand of full pro-rated salaries only by establishing a schedule that leaves every player with barely more than thirty percent of their contracted pay. Fans would be tuning in to watch members of an embittered workforce going through the motions of their job, and in some cases perhaps not even that.

As Buster Olney speculated for ESPN, players who already feel they have been used by management might not play at all. Olney used the theoretical example of Houston’s George Springer. The Astros made no attempt to disguise their intent to manipulate Springer’s service time when he wasn’t called up from the minors in September 2013 and then again when he was left off the Opening Day roster the following year. That gave Houston an extra year of Springer’s services, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the player. Now Springer is one season away from free agency. With the March agreement guaranteeing him a full year’s service time if he plays at least one game, Olney wondered if Springer might consider doing exactly that and no more. Would other pending free agents join him in developing a mysterious injury or finding another urgent reason why they couldn’t play?

In short, a faux short season unilaterally imposed by management might well do more harm to baseball than no season at all. At the very least, the two options are in close competition for the most damaging to the sport. But the reality is that time is now truly short for owners and players to bridge what still appears to be a yawning chasm of disagreement. The idea of an early July date for Opening Day is all but by the boards, with the consensus being that players, especially pitchers, will need four weeks of work during “Spring Training 2.0” to prepare for meaningful games. Owners, players, and fans are now all at the eleventh hour.

History is full of stories of seemingly implacable disputes between labor and management that were resolved even as the proverbial clock was striking midnight. And it’s worth noting that there appear to be several issues on which the parties agree, including expanded rosters, use of the designated hitter in both leagues, a regional schedule to limit travel, and more teams in the postseason. But these are ancillary to the core questions of health protocols and pay, and the last one especially will only be resolved when both sides accept that each must yield from its current position. Perhaps after a week in which the owners of several franchises were embarrassed by players who either individually or as a group stepped in to fill the void when teams announced plans to end the modest stipends paid to minor leaguers, management may have an incentive to compromise.

Even if that happens, there are many pundits who say that the delay and the ugly exchanges between players and owners mean baseball has squandered an opportunity to lead in the country’s recovery from the pandemic. That notion always seemed hyperbolic to this writer, in part because a central factor in the catharsis provided by all sports is the role played by a stadium full of passionate fans, something that will not exist anytime soon. Still there is no question that the focus on salaries at a time of enormous economic deprivation for so many has been harmful.

The Great Game could mitigate that by taking the lead in addressing an issue far more pernicious than any virus. Whatever there is of a 2020 baseball season should be dedicated to raising awareness of and combating the systemic racism that has spurred thousands to action in the past two weeks. Already individual players have started to use social media to speak out. That list includes African-American stars like Aaron Judge and Dexter Fowler, but also a growing list of white players, including Pete Alonso, Justin Turner, Bryce Harper, and Sean Doolittle. MLB should encourage and promote more of this while incorporating anti-racist messages into every television broadcast and at every ballpark once fans return.

Like all professional leagues, MLB does a very good job of promoting causes, the “Stand Up to Cancer” campaign being an obvious example (interestingly, no one ever complains that the phrase should be “stand up to all diseases”). Just as that effort will not by itself eradicate cancer, a commitment to anti-racism by MLB will not expunge the nation’s original sin. But every voice is important, and the Great Game’s is loud. Nor is there money in it, no higher salaries for players or increased ticket sales for owners. But the reward for our most important work is measured not in dollars but in grace, as was written more than twenty-five centuries ago – “they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Surely both owners and players could agree on that.

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