Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 29, 2020

While Most Sports Stop, The Horses Still Run

The NBA and NHL seasons are suspended, the standings in both leagues frozen with teams still fifteen to twenty games short of completing a full schedule. Baseball’s scheduled Opening Day has come and gone, but stadiums are silent. March Madness has taken on a new and very different meaning, with the NCAA basketball tournaments, and for that matter all college sports, cancelled. Both the PGA Tour and the LPGA are on hiatus, with the first two men’s majors and the first of the women’s five career-defining tournaments postponed. The Summer Olympics, scheduled to begin in Tokyo in late July, have been moved to 2021, the IOC bowing to the reality that even if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides by summer it would be impossible to stage all the qualifying events in countries around the world and for athletes to properly train. Like so many other aspects of our lives, sports have ground to a halt. But late Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park, just north of Miami, a field of nine broke from the gate in the Florida Derby, just as scheduled.

The Kentucky Derby, the first horse race that most casual fans take note of every year, has been moved from its traditional date on the first Saturday in May to Labor Day weekend. While no official announcements have been made about the scheduling of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, NBC, which broadcasts the Triple Crown, is said to be in discussions with organizers of those two races to move them as well. But if the sport’s premier races have joined the long list of sporting events disrupted by the pandemic, at tracks all around the country thoroughbred racing continues, albeit before empty grandstands.

To be fair, horse racing is not quite the sole sport still active. Aspiring pro golfers are still playing on a handful of mini-tours – the Cactus Tour for women and the Outlaw Tour for men, both in Arizona, and the aptly named Minor League Tour in Florida – and in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, the national soccer league is continuing with its schedule. But the entire field at a mini-tour event might number two dozen players, and golf is the rare sport that easily lends itself to social distancing, so much so that in some states public courses remain open for play. As for Belarus, dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” by many journalists, the country’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has prescribed drinking vodka and visiting saunas as sure-fire cures for Coronavirus.

In contrast thoroughbred racing is, at least in theory, a tightly regulated industry, and this is certainly a time when state and local governments are, with good reason, dictating much of our day to day existence. But a fan could tune into the NBC Sports Network on Saturday afternoon and watch live racing from tracks across the country leading up to the headline event from Gulfstream Park, a fact that speaks volumes about the nature of that regulation. There were races not just from Florida, but from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and from Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, just across the Bay from San Francisco, one of the first U.S. cities to declare a state of emergency because of COVID-19.

The stands were empty at all the tracks, though the too obvious joke suggests there’s nothing unusual about that. But while outriders were wearing masks, for the most part jockeys were not, and there was plenty of inevitable close contact between riders during the races. Of course, there was virtually no mention of the extraordinary circumstances by the TV commentators, who were the regular voices of the TVG Network rather than an NBC crew. TVG is an online betting and cable television network dedicated to horse and greyhound racing. It’s part of the occasional cable package but is more often seen at betting parlors because it moves quickly from race to race around the country, providing off track bettors constant coverage and live results. With no other live events to broadcast, NBC was happy to piggyback on TVG’s regular coverage, although the big network reportedly asked that commentary be simplified for viewers not familiar with the sport or betting on horses.

That request provides valuable insight into why racing continues. Sports betting is a huge industry, one that has moved rapidly from the shadows into the mainstream in recent years through a combination of the popularity of fantasy sports and court decisions freeing states to allow wagering on sporting events. And while it remains on the fringe of most sports fans’ focus, horse racing is still a multi-billion dollar business that contributes many millions of dollars to state treasuries suddenly strapped for cash as other, more significant tax revenues wither along with the businesses that pay them. The two factors together make for powerful incentives to keep the horses running and the wagering dollars flowing, especially at a time when other gambling outlets are shuttered.

So the Florida Derby went off as scheduled Saturday, with nine horses breaking from Gulfstream Park’s gate for the mile and an-eighth journey that has long served as an important prep race for the Triple Crown. Independence Hall at 7-2, and Gouveneur Morris at 9-2, both had decent backing, but most of the money was on the two favorites, Tiz the Law and Ete Indien. The former had won the Holy Bull at the beginning of February in impressive fashion, while the latter had rebounded from a second place showing in that race to claim the Fountain of Youth four weeks later, though against a lesser field. With the pair matched up again the question was whether Ete Indien could show he was in the same league as Tiz the Law.

In less than two minutes the answer was obvious. Ete Indien led early, as is his style, but Tiz the Law was perfectly positioned on his outside flank down the back stretch. Going into the far turn Tiz the Law moved up and was in the lead by the time the field turned for home. Ete Indien faded in the stretch, finishing third behind Shivaree and just ahead of Gouverneur Morris while Tiz the Law galloped home three lengths clear and became an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, whenever it may be run. With a little luck all the parties involved, both equine and human, came away healthy. But then horse racing has always been about luck.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 26, 2020

An Opening Day Without Baseball

Shortly after one o’clock Thursday afternoon, under bright spring sunshine and in front of a full house at Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles took the field and the visiting New York Yankees readied for their first at-bats of a brand new baseball season. At roughly the same time for other east coast day games, and then again throughout the afternoon and into the evening at ballparks across the land, major league teams mirrored the actions of the O’s and Yanks to the appreciative delight of fans crammed side by side in bleachers and box seats, from the field level to the furthest reaches of the upper deck, all eager for the start of the new season. It was Opening Day for the Great Game, with the promise and potential of sports’ longest season on full display.

Perhaps that really happened, in some alternate universe. In the here and now of course, the famous retro ballpark a few blocks west of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor district stood empty under that springtime sun, as did every other baseball stadium in the land. There was no bunting fluttering in the breeze, only a lonely wind moaning through rows of empty seats. Instead of the cheers of thousands reverberating across the diamond, there was just the echoless sound of silence as Opening Day 2020 became the latest sporting event to fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This was to be the earliest full start of a season ever, with the calendar set up to crown a World Series champion before the arrival of November’s chill, even with a few extra off days built into the schedule to give our heroes a respite during the dog days of summer. All that is scrubbed now, erased by the invisible spread of a highly contagious virus, replaced by uncertainty and doubt. And though fans have known for two weeks that the start of the season would be postponed, there is still a sense of melancholy for the Great Game’s faithful. This spring a day once marked by a season’s first furtive checks of the score on a transistor radio, and more recently by quick scans of the MLB app, is instead all about social distancing and sheltering in place. The sadness and apprehension are only heightened by the fact that the initial two-week delay has been replaced by a more realistic but profoundly sobering pause to an unknown time when conditions permit the resumption of play.

Much more than just the date when pitchers will again toe the rubber as batters stand ready is in doubt. It seems virtually certain that this will be a year without the usual 162-game schedule, despite super-agent Scott Boras’s silly proposal to play on into the start of winter, with a Christmas time World Series contested at a warm weather neutral site. But we are far from knowing just how shortened this year’s baseball calendar will be. Owners and players are also discussing a wide range of other issues. The possibility of all teams playing one or more double-headers every week has been raised, in what would truly be a throwback to the heyday of an older generation. Dates for the amateur draft, pay for minor leaguers, the amount of service time accrued in however much of a season is played – these issues and more are all up for discussion.

On that last topic one proposal reported this week by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic was that players would accrue the same service time they earned in 2019, even if the season winds up being cancelled. While it may be nothing more than a passing idea, if it were adopted and if the season was totally lost, the resulting chaos would make some of last winter’s biggest deals look very different. The prime example cited by many pundits this week was the Dodgers’ acquisition of Mookie Betts from the Red Sox. With the superstar outfielder scheduled for free agency prior to next season, if the scenario above were to come true, L.A. could find it had surrendered three prospects in exchange for nothing more than a handful of spring training at-bats by Betts.

While such an ignominious result is still a stretch, the possibility of a summer without the Great Game shouldn’t be dismissed. With teams spread across the continent and traveling constantly once play starts, the season can’t begin until there is an acceptable level of safety in the home city of every franchise. From the perspective of major league baseball, it will matter little that conditions have improved in, say, Kansas City and Denver, if New York and Miami remain hot spots of COVID-19 contagion. Fans must also come to terms with the very real possibility that what is deemed safe for players spread out across the expanse of a field may not be acceptable for packing spectators into the stands.

But if this non-Opening Day, or as the Twitterverse has dubbed it, #OpeningDayAtHome, is about gloom rather than glory, it is still worth remembering all that the start of a new season symbolizes. With the traditional schedule aligned with the first days of spring, Opening Day is always laden with hope and possibility. Even if the weather for the first few games in northern cities is frosty, the call of “play ball” brings to mind the warmth of summer, the memory of what once was, and the promise of what can be. To fans of all ages, followers of contenders and cellar dwellers alike, Opening Day is a sign of renewal. If that is true in March, then on the other side of the pandemic, whether it’s in June or July or even 2021, the Great Game’s next Opening Day will again send that familiar message, this time about both sports and life, and with tenfold its usual power.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 22, 2020

The Other Quarterbacks In The News

There are no contests to report on and nothing but wild guesses as to when some semblance of normalcy might return. Like the rest of our culture, the sports world has come to a halt even as Americans hunker down (excluding of course, idiot spring breakers on Florida beaches), in a desperate effort to stem the seemingly inexorable spread of COVID-19. Yet even during a pandemic, one can count on the National Football League to continue making news. Would one expect any less of our national obsession?

The new league year officially began earlier this week, and while not yet a national holiday, the day carries special significance to football fans. It’s the end date for all expiring contracts and thus the moment at which the 2020 free agent class is officially able to sign new deals. It’s also the point by which teams have designated franchise players and, at least front offices hope, inked extensions for those players with existing contracts whose services clubs want to secure for seasons to come.

All that makes late March a time of player movement and contract news, virus be damned. Obviously, the biggest story of 2020’s start to the new NFL year was the decision by New England Patriots icon Tom Brady to decamp from Foxborough for the warmer climes of Tampa and the Buccaneers home at Raymond James Stadium. But behind the unrelentingly grim news on the front page, Brady’s was not the only story of a big contract for a veteran quarterback to grace the sports section.

Ryan Tannehill’s NFL career appeared to be on a downward slide after seven indifferent seasons in Miami during which the Dolphins had just one winning campaign and played in a single postseason contest, which Tannehill missed due to injury. When he was traded to Tennessee last March as part of a complete roster overhaul in Miami, it was easy to see Tannehill becoming one more journeyman signal caller, drifting from one team to another for a few years before finally exiting the game with a retirement announcement that few would notice. But with the Titans season sputtering, head coach Mike Vrabel opted to replace starter Marcus Mariota with Tannehill midway through Tennessee’ Week 6 game against the Broncos. While he was unable to turn that contest around, the 31-year-old was given the starting job and guided the Titans to 7-3 record over the team’s final ten games, good enough for 9-7 mark overall and a spot in the Wild Card Game against the Patriots.

While that season record was identical to what Tennessee achieved in each of the previous three years with Mariota under center, what happened next was decidedly different. The Titans won a pair of stunning playoff upsets on the road, first shocking Brady and the Patriots 20-13 in Foxborough, then scoring an even more improbable victory in the divisional round, downing the Baltimore Ravens and fledgling superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson 28-12. The sixth seeded Titans even led Kansas City 17-7 midway through the second quarter of the AFC Championship before Patrick Mahomes and company finally got organized.

As he resurrected the Titans fortunes Tannehill put up numbers even Brady would envy. He finished the regular season leading the league in quarterback rating, yards per completion and adjusted yards per pass attempt with numbers that were all (obviously) career highs. He also had a career best completion rate of more than seventy percent. Just before the new year league started Tennessee rewarded him with a four-year, $118 million contract extension. When the third year of the deal fully vests next spring, $91 million will be guaranteed, a phenomenal amount for a quarterback who had been relegated to backup status for whatever was left of his career at this time last year.

The deal is so rich that more than a few NFL pundits have questioned the Titans’ wisdom in making it. But even if Tennessee and its fans eventually rue the day Tannehill inked it, the contract left no doubt Mariota’s time in Nashville was over. Which, in a six degrees of separation way, brings us back to Brady’s signing with Tampa Bay. For that deal also spelled the end for another starting quarterback, the Bucs’ Jameis Winston, who will forever be linked with Mariota.

As a redshirt freshman for Florida State, Winston was the winning quarterback in the 2014 BCS National Championship game, and the youngest collegian ever to win the Heisman Trophy. The following year Winston’s Florida State team lost to the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl, which that season was one of the semifinal contests for the College Football Playoff. Oregon’s quarterback was Mariota, who just a few weeks earlier had become the first player born in Hawaii to win the Heisman. The Ducks went on to lose the National Championship game to Ohio State, but that did little to diminish Mariota’s standing in the 2015 NFL Draft. When the league’s springtime extravaganza was staged at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater that April, Winston’s was the first name called and Mariota’s was the second.

To say that so far in their NFL careers both young quarterbacks have fallen short of the expectations that accompanied their gaudy draft positions is an understatement. Winston’s numbers have generally been better than Mariota’s, though Tennessee has posted better records than Tampa Bay, and Mariota has avoided Winston’s proclivity for throwing to players wearing the uniforms of opposing teams. Both are certainly still young enough that a second act with some other team is very possible. They need only look to Tannehill’s recent season and new contract for proof of that.

Still, it has been a precipitous fall for both Winston and Mariota from the heady days of being the NFL’s top two draft picks to the dismissed afterthoughts in this week’s stories of big new contracts for a pair of veteran quarterbacks. At the very least that should be a warning to fans looking forward to this year’s draft, now only a month away. Though it will be a television-only event in our current COVID-19 environment, fans will still debate and dissect the promise and potential of the top picks. But in sports, as in life, promise and potential don’t come with any guarantees.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 19, 2020

Brady, Belichick, And The Patriot Way

Fans should have listened to the old man. That is glaringly obvious now, some five years later. But then it is the very nature of fandom that every person who plights their troth to a franchise, every individual who places an athlete on a pedestal made of equal parts faith and devotion is to some degree a child. No matter our true age, we fans watch our heroes in wide-eyed wonder. And it is scarcely a revelation to point out that children often want no part of listening to their elders.

So it was easy for fans of the New England Patriots, and especially for the multitude among them who pay special devotion to quarterback Tom Brady, to ignore the comments made by his father, Thomas Edward Brady Sr., in the weeks before 2015’s Super Bowl XLIX. In a television interview with CBS’s Andrea Kremer the elder Brady first suggested that if Bill Belichick thought it best for the team, the Patriots head coach wouldn’t hesitate to install someone else as New England’s signal caller. Then days later, as part of a lengthy New York Times Magazine profile on the quarterback who would shortly lead his team to victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Brady Sr. was even more direct with writer Mark Leibovich. “It will end badly,” he said, speaking of his son’s time with New England. “It does end badly. And I know that because I know what Tommy wants to do. He wants to play till he’s 70. It’s a cold business. And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn’t.”

In the five years since the region’s fans looked past his father’s candor, choosing instead to focus on the big game against the Seahawks, Tom Brady led the Patriots back to three more Super Bowls, two of which were followed by victory parades through the streets of Boston. Amid all that winning he confirmed that his father had been off only by a matter of degree, proclaiming his desire to play until he was 45.

Brady is 42 now, and he will see another birthday before the next NFL season gets underway. His desire to continue taking snaps every Sunday is undiminished, but after twenty years of doing so in a Pats uniform, he will now call Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium home. When that news broke this week, it was the rare event that was able to divert attention away from the Coronavirus pandemic. But that Tom Terrific’s departure came as a shock to so many says more about the natural blind spot of fans than it does about their hero.

Since the term was coined in 2010 by the late Steve Sabol, co-founder of NFL Films, fans who flock to Foxborough have lauded the “Patriot Way” as the secret to their team’s phenomenal run of success. Ask most of those avid Pats boosters and you’ll be told that the phrase refers to an ethos in which individual responsibility is paramount – do your job – but personal achievement is secondary to the greater good of the team. It’s hard to argue with nine Super Bowl appearances and six championships since Belichick reneged on his commitment to coach the New York Jets in favor of the opening at Gillette Stadium, followed shortly by Brady’s move into the starting quarterback role after an injury to Drew Bledsoe.

But that success obscures the reality that there is a cold-blooded and calculating side to a philosophy in which individual players are just cogs in the big, winning, machine. That’s the part of the Patriot Way that Brady’s father saw clearly. It’s an aspect of the team’s approach that New England fans have always understood, but which many apparently thought wouldn’t apply to their beloved quarterback. They were disabused of that idea this week, but to have clung to it in the first place was folly.

Wide receivers Deion Branch and Wes Welker. Linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest. Defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork. Placekicker Adam Vinatieri. This is but a sampling of players who were stars for the Patriots and favorites of the fans, right up until they were released or traded or allowed to leave in free agency during the Belichick era. Whether the reason was age or money or simply the coach’s belief that the “next man up” could do a better job, these and many more New England stalwarts were shown the door in a manner that wasn’t remotely familial. Usually that decision proved correct in terms of the future fortunes of the team and the role played by the person taking the former star’s place; occasionally fans longed for the return of their old hero. But it’s safe to say that Belichick never looked back after parting ways with anyone on the list.

Aside from his father’s prescience, the clearest indication that Brady would be treated no differently came last fall, when he and the team were unable to agree on a contract extension that ran beyond the current season. It was a campaign in which Brady’s quarterback rating declined for the third straight year, and one in which the team’s 12-4 record was built largely on the strength of its defense. Brady was widely believed to be unhappy with his supporting cast on offense, a roster that pretty much began and ended with Julian Edelman. But the fact that Belichick didn’t rush out to improve the receiving corps, either during the season or since, suggests that the coach believed at least some of the blame rested on the aging right arm of his star quarterback.

So, in a surprise that shouldn’t have been one, Brady is gone, and many Patriots fans are adrift. In time most will of course rally around a new quarterback and whatever roster Belichick puts together in what will surely be the supreme test of his coaching genius. But those fans will also be keeping one eye on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next season, watching to see if after his long and supremely successful run on Foxborough’s big stage, their departed hero has a second act. Perhaps Brady will make Belichick regret the ease with which he let his partner in football glory walk away.

Then again, maybe Belichick, who’s old enough to remember, was thinking about Joe Montana in Kansas City, or Joe Namath in Los Angeles, or Johnny Unitas in San Diego. Legendary quarterbacks all, each ended his career in less than legendary fashion wearing a different uniform than the one that comes immediately to mind at the mention of his name. Surely Belichick didn’t want to be on the sideline watching a performance like that, no matter the sentiment involved. That’s just not the Patriot Way.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 15, 2020

Sports In The Time Of Coronavirus

It is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel come to life, with sports fans the leading characters. The settings are real, and events unfold in a familiar manner to a point, but then a sense of fantasy takes over. We know what is happening but can’t quite believe it. A journey into Marquez’s favored genre of magic realism, that is the best way to describe the experience of sitting in a front row seat as the sports world comes to a halt.

Steinbrenner Field sits just across the broad concrete ribbon that is Dale Mabry Highway from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The two sports venues, one the spring training headquarters of the New York Yankees and the other the home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are concrete and steel testaments to the value our culture places on our games. What fans making the walk from the parking area shared by the two facilities, across a pedestrian bridge over the busy thoroughfare and into the baseball stadium for a Tuesday afternoon exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays cannot know is that even sports are about to prove no match against the power of nature.

More than 9,700 fans fill Steinbrenner Field’s seats as a lineup of Yankees equally split between regulars and prospects takes the field in support of new ace Gerrit Cole. The pitcher who famously went to the old Stadium in the Bronx as a child with a sign proclaiming his eternal devotion to the pinstriped nine is but one of several reasons why New York is a popular preseason choice to represent the American League in the World Series at the other end of sports’ longest season. Cole isn’t perfect today, allowing one run over 3 1/3 frames, but seven of the ten Blue Jays he retires strike out, a number which reassures the cheering faithful that their team’s massive investment in the 29-year-old right-hander will soon be paying dividends.

As the game progresses conversation in the stands occasionally turns to the Coronavirus, by far the leading story in every newspaper and on every television screen. But for those basking in the afternoon sun the threat seems just that, a story to read or hear about, something happening in some other place. There is a sense of caution – hand sanitizer dispensers are scattered throughout the concourse that encircles the field – but for fans and players alike the disease is a distraction, not a danger.

Most of the regulars for both teams have finished their day’s work and some in the crowd have likewise headed home by the time the Yankees backup catcher Kyle Higashioka smacks a long home run to center field to tie the score at 2-2 in the bottom of the 7th. By the final frame the once-full stands are perhaps half that when Toronto’s reserves push across a pair of runs off reliever Ben Heller to make the final score 4-2 in favor of the visitors. But this is spring training, when individual game scores matter far less than steady progress on the important task of readying the roster for Opening Day, now just over two weeks away. Or so the remaining fans think as they head back over Dale Mabry Highway to their vehicles.

Two days later, a couple hundred miles to the northeast, and in far greater numbers, acolytes of a different sport stream into the green expanse of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra. It’s the opening round of the Players Championship, one of the premier events on the PGA Tour’s calendar, and the field is pitted against Pete Dye’s masterpiece of a golf course. Yet even amid the appearance of normality, with long lines of fans following their favorite players along the layout’s fairways, the world has shifted in just forty-eight hours. There is talk about a relative in some other part of the country who is being tested, or about a disrupted work schedule of a distant friend.

Still, the focus for the day is on golf, starting with the first groups to approach the course’s iconic 17th hole. With the Florida breeze no more than a zephyr, the island green is an easy target for the Tour pros. Like some fans at a car race there are those in the crowd who have come for the wrecks, waiting to see errant tee shots splash into the water, filling the scorecards of the world’s most talented golfers with scores worthy of a weekend hacker. They will go home disappointed, as ball after ball flies through the still air and finds safe purchase on the green.

Among those whose shots are cheered by the steadily growing crowd is Hideki Matsuyama, the five-time PGA Tour winner who just recently celebrated his 28th birthday. He cards a routine par on the hole, which amounts to an indifferent effort given the rest of his round. Matsuyama matches the course record with a 9-under par 63, posting eight birdies and an eagle to offset just a single dropped stroke in his eighteen holes.

But by the time Matsuyama has shot to the top of the leader board in early afternoon, the day has begun to turn surreal. Like fans everywhere, everyone in the crowd at TPC Sawgrass remains connected to the outside world. By text message and push notifications, the news starts to come in. First there is word of games in various sports to be played without spectators, but that half step quickly yields to more drastic efforts to stop the spread of Coronavirus. One after another college conferences cancel basketball tournaments that are just getting started, then the NCAA announces the cancellation of March Madness. Professional leagues soon follow suit, with the NBA and NHL shutting down, followed shortly by Major League Baseball. The PGA Tour briefly holds out, announcing that the Players will continue without spectators. But by the time fans at the Stadium Course return to their homes Thursday evening the tournament has been cancelled, and the shutdown of sports in North America is virtually complete.

Steinbrenner Field stands empty, the fairways of TPC Sawgrass are quiet. Only the benighted would argue that the dramatic steps taken over the past few days aren’t necessary, but that doesn’t make the sudden and complete absence of our games any less fantastical. We must do without the unifying balm of sports, from professional leagues to neighborhood pickup games, as we navigate uncertain and worrisome days. But in the real world, in contrast to a novel, magic realism has its limits. Marquez’s characters could stay on their riverboat, plying the waters of the Magdalena River “forever.” But the strange days of this pandemic are not permanent. Sports will return, and so will the fans.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 9, 2020

The Kid Brother Was Pretty Good Too

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, this post is one day late because of current travels. There will be just one post later this week, then the regular Thursday / Sunday schedule resumes on March 19th. As always, thanks for your support.

There are so many ways this story could have turned out badly. Sibling rivalry is common enough, and while theories about the impact of birth order are no longer highly regarded, they haven’t been entirely dismissed. So it’s easy to understand how the a boy whose oldest brother wasn’t merely his senior but a hero to the fans of a professional franchise and an entire region, might well come to resent his sibling, to chafe at comparisons and to seek any path but the one trod by his brother the sports star.

Maurice “Rocket” Richard (the French pronunciation is “ree-SHARD”) is a legend in NHL history, and is venerated by hockey fans throughout French-speaking Canada. Playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the Original Six days, when the compact league offered far fewer roster spots than now so that only the best of the best players ever got to wear the sweater of an NHL franchise, Richard stood apart from almost all his contemporaries. He was the first player to score 50 goals in a season, and the first to light the lamp 500 times in a career. At the time of his retirement in 1960, the Rocket was the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer. When league commissioner Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the tail end of the 1954-55 season after a violent episode on the ice, fans in Montreal rioted. Upon his passing in 2000 Richard was given a state funeral, the first Quebecois outside of politics to be so honored.

Maurice’s brother Henri was the lesser Richard by so many standard measures. He was younger by 15 years and barely of school age when his big brother debuted in the NHL. As an adult he was also smaller, not just than his older sibling but at 5’ 7” and 160 pounds more diminutive than most players who laced up skates for NHL teams.

But instead of smoldering with envy over his older brother’s fame or choosing any career but that of a professional hockey player, Henri Richard sought from an early age to follow in Maurice’s footsteps. To do so while compensating for his stature, Henri became a lightning fast skater and an especially deft stickhandler, the ideal playmaking center who could set up scoring opportunities for the wing on either side of his line.

In junior hockey Henri quickly came to be called the “Pocket Rocket,” which was both an acknowledgement of his skill and one more comparison to his famous brother. The nickname also served as a public reminder of the enormous pressure he would face when, while still a teenager, he earned the chance to wear the familiar red, white and blue sweater of Les Habitants. Toe Blake, Montreal’s coach at the time, doubted that the youngster would last in the league, in part because of his size but mostly because of the heavy weight of expectations. Five consecutive Stanley Cup championships later, Blake was ready to say that “the Pocket was a better all-around player” than the Rocket.

Such comparisons are in the eye of the beholder of course, but Henri Richard’s career accomplishments are stunning. Skating with the Canadiens for his entire two-decades in the NHL, the Pocket Rocket won eleven Stanley Cups, more than any player in league history. He holds the franchise record for games played, tallied more than 1,000 points, and was a ten-time All-Star. And Blake was not the only one who compared Henri favorably to his sibling. Long after his own retirement but while Henri was still skating, Maurice penned an autobiography in which he heaped praise on his little brother. “He was a better stickhandler than I was and a better skater,” wrote the Rocket about the Pocket, adding “the only difference was that he couldn’t score goals the way I could, but he made up for that by becoming a terrific playmaker.”

But Henri could score too, especially when it mattered most. His goal against the Red Wings in overtime of Game 6 won the Cup for the Canadiens in 1966. Then five years later, in Game 7 against Chicago, the Canadiens trailed 2-1. That was until Henri netted the equalizer, and then the winner, clinching yet another Stanley Cup, 3-2.

Montreal won one more championship with the Pocket Rocket wearing the captain’s sweater, then a young goaltender named Dryden and a speedy winger named Lafleur extended hockey’s greatest dynasty for a few years after Henri Richard retired in 1975. But the NHL has grown to 31 teams, and what was once a league of almost exclusively Canadian skaters now boasts decidedly international rosters, even while a franchise based in Canada hasn’t captured the Stanley Cup since 1993. In sports, as in life, change is the one constant.

Yet when news came this week of Henri Richard’s passing at age 84, fans of a certain age couldn’t help but recall a distant time, when even their fiercest rivals had to acknowledge that the Flying Frenchmen of Montreal were hockey royalty. Long-ago days when a kid brother who turned out to be so much more than that flew up and down the ice, setting up the plays and scoring the goals that earned the love not just of a fan base or a city, but of an entire province and its people. Henri Richard, grace and guile on skates.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 5, 2020

Knicks Fans, Loyal To A Fault

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be on the road for the next ten days. Sunday’s post will be delayed until Monday. Instead of the regular Thursday / Sunday schedule for March 12th and 15th, there will be a single post at some point in that time period. The regular schedule will resume on Thursday, March 19th. As always, thanks for your support!

Leon Rose wants fans to remain patient. In an open letter to fans, his first public statement since being announced as the new president of the New York Knicks, the long-time player agent now tasked with turning one of the NBA’s most consistently disappointing franchise into a winner told the faithful who regularly fill the seats at Madison Square Garden “nothing about this is easy or quick so I ask for your continued patience.”

Although Rose’s language was unusually blunt, such a plea is often heard when a new leader – be it a coach, GM or executive – takes over a team long mired in failure, and it at least wins points for honesty. Better to acknowledge that a turnaround is going to take some time than to succumb to hubris and promise a quick return to glory. Fans of the Knickerbockers went down that latter road as recently as 2014, when Phil Jackson, a former Knick stalwart as a player and a Hall of Fame coach for the Bulls and Lakers, was hailed as a savior upon being named to the post Rose now holds. It didn’t take long for the promises to be proven empty even as the hosannas turned to catcalls.

Still, one wonders just how much attention Rose has paid to the Knicks in recent years. The question the letter raises is how much attention he paid to the travails of his new franchise while he was busy negotiating contracts for and tending to the needs of Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, and other big-name players Rose represented while at Creative Artists Agency. Or perhaps he was following the exploits of former clients like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, so somehow missed the stories of disappointment and defeat that have poured out of Madison Square Garden as regularly as the commuters emerging from the shadowy depths of Penn Station into the traffic jams of Seventh Avenue.

While there may be an admirable aspect to asking for patience, making that request of Knicks fans has an element of cruelty. Few fan bases in the country have kept coming back for more while being consistently abused for as long the group that inhabits the stands at MSG. It isn’t just that they are forced to watch a bad team. Make no mistake, the Knicks are frequently just that, and have done plenty of losing in the two decades since James Dolan took over the lead ownership role from his father. When the current season comes to a merciful end, it will be New York’s seventh straight year finishing below .500. But there are almost always franchises that post even sorrier records. At 19-43 as this is written, the Knicks somehow still have a better record than three other NBA squads.

But shoddy play on the court is often just a sideshow with this franchise. Losing records don’t provide half the drama of constant tales of front office intrigue and a revolving door of executive hiring’s. Rose is the eighth man to be put in charge of the franchise in the last twenty years, with one of that number – Steve Mills – filling the role twice. That suggests excellent job security compared to the post of head coach, filled by thirteen different individuals over the same time period. The coaching turnover rate is even more alarming when one recalls that Mike D’Antoni somehow managed to patrol the MSG sidelines for almost four full seasons.

Much of the turnover can be traced to Dolan’s constant meddling, which is regularly interrupted by his promises to leave the decisions to knowledgeable basketball people. Knicks fans long since learned to ignore such pledges. As if all that weren’t enough, there is even conflict with the fans, as the thin-skinned Dolan can’t tolerate paying customers who second guess his wisdom. Three years ago, the Knicks saw fit to have Charles Oakley, a former player still beloved by fans, arrested after a confrontation with Dolan. Then just this week Spike Lee, the team’s most famous fan and certainly one of its most loyal, was stopped as he entered Madison Square Garden through a doorway that Lee said he has regularly used for years. The dispute between the Knicks and the Oscar-winning filmmaker quickly descended into bitter public name calling, with Lee eventually announcing that he won’t be back in his usual courtside seat again this season.

Still, Lee acknowledged that he would return to MSG next year, and despite the losing and the carousel of coaches and executives he will be joined by the vast majority of Knicks season ticket holders. They grumble and groan and vilify Dolan on social media. They lament how the combination of dismal play and a circus atmosphere has made “the world’s most famous arena” a place that free agents studiously avoid, as was made plain during the most recent offseason. But through it all Knicks fans display a level of patience that makes Job look like an adolescent on a sugar high. Night after night they fill every level of the bowl at MSG. They tell each other their team is loaded with young talent, an easy and often empty boast heard at arenas housing many also-ran franchises. They speculate on how Rose, much admired as an agent, might turn his talent to managing the front office, even though it’s a role at which he has no direct experience. Like victims of Stockholm Syndrome, they deserve a better fate. But don’t count on Knicks fans getting one anytime soon.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 1, 2020

These Guys Are Good, But This Course Is Better

It’s been a couple years since the PGA Tour shelved its long-running marketing campaign, built around the slogan “these guys are good,” in favor of a new and broader advertising tagline. But while “live under par” may call to mind a desirable approach to one’s daily routine, the new phrase has yet to crawl inside the minds of golf fans the way the old one did. That’s probably because there was so much truth in those four simple words – the players on the Tour are really, really good. Whether standing along the ropes at a tournament or watching from home, fans marvel at the ability and imagination their favorite golfers display shot after shot, round after round, on courses both venerable and modern.

Between New Year’s Day and the start of this week’s stop in Palm Beach Gardens, there were nine events on the PGA Tour’s schedule, including two last week when the Puerto Rico Open was staged opposite the limited field World Golf Championship tournament, the WGC-Mexico Championship. To win any of the nine a golfer had to finish four rounds double-digits under par. The average winning total was nearly 17-under, with Viktor Hovland taking the title in Puerto Rico at minus-20 and Andrew Landry shooting 26-under to capture the American Express in the California desert in mid-January.

As evidenced by the identities of those two tournament winners, it’s not just golfers whose names are immediately recognizable to casual fans who can go low and turn a supposedly stern test of golf into a pitch-and-putt course. Drives boom three hundred plus yards, par-5s become two shot holes for most of the field, approach shots land like darts thrown at the hole, and putts roll in from all over the green. The weekend hacker can only stare in awe.

Then comes the Honda Classic. Born as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in the days when celebrities regularly attached their names to tournaments, the Honda has been around for nearly half a century. Over that long history the event has had multiple sponsors and been played at many different courses. But since its 2007 move to the Champion course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, the Honda has become known as one of the most challenging stops on the Tour. Of the thirteen Honda’s contested over the Champion’s layout prior to this week, only three produced a winning score of ten or more strokes under par. Not surprisingly, two of those – Camilo Villegas’s 13-under in 2010 and Rickie Fowler’s 12-under in 2017 – were also the only years when the margin of victory was more than two shots. Thanks to its 2002 renovation by Jack Nicklaus, PGA National’s premier eighteen is a brutal routing that regularly ranks at or very near the top of the annual list of hardest courses on Tour.

While golf course design has focused on length for the past two decades, the Champion is not unusually long. Rather the challenge is to avoid the stiff penalty exacted for a wayward shot. Fairway bunkers abound, waiting to swallow up a drive hit just a bit offline. Should he stray further a player will lament not finding the sand, for water hazards are everywhere, lining the entire length of some holes and forcing many approach shots to carry all the way to the putting surface or face a watery demise. Add in the wind that often blows in Florida in late winter, and a walk around the Champion can be exhausting even for golf’s elite. They are still very good, of course, but while playing the Honda touring pros sometimes look a little like 20-handicappers having a bad day. For some the rough experience turns into outright disaster at the Bear Trap, the three hole stretch from the 15th through 17th named in honor of Nicklaus, the Golden Bear during his playing days. A par-4 sandwiched between two par-3s, the Bear Trap appears more white and blue, with its copious sand and water, than it does green when NBC’s telecast follows the final groups as they stagger home on Sunday afternoon.

This year’s Honda stayed true to the tournament’s character from the opening tee shot to the final hole. World number three Brooks Koepka, the top-ranked player in the field, and fan favorite as well as former champion Fowler both paid only short visits to the tournament. Within his first nine holes Koepka recorded both a triple and a double bogey, while Fowler bogeyed two of the first three holes he played on his way to an opening 6-over par 76. Both finished two rounds outside the cut line and were long gone by the time the weekend throngs arrived. Major champions Justin Rose, Keegan Bradley and Louis Oosthuizen also failed to qualify for the weekend, and recent winner Hovland discovered that 20-under for four rounds one week can turn into 10-over for two circuits the next.

The carnage continued through the weekend. England’s Tommy Fleetwood, one of the stars of Europe’s decisive win over the United States at the 2018 Ryder Cup, began Sunday in the lead with hopes of posting his first PGA Tour win to go with five victories on the European Tour. But after opening with back-to-back birdies Fleetwood’s putter went cold, and both he and playing partner Brendan Steele watched their chances slip away. Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Sungjae Im of Korea, moved up the leader board with four birdies on the front nine, and then showed a resolve well beyond his 21 years by not collapsing after back-to-back bogeys on the 12th and 13th holes. Im birdied both par-3s in the Bear Trap, then overcome shaky play at the last to post a 4-under par 66 for the round and a very typical winning total of minus-6.

The final pairing was still in it standing in the 18th fairway, but first Steele then Fleetwood rinsed away their remaining chances with approach shots that splashed into the water fronting the final green, even as viewers at home thought “I could have done that!” Sungjae Im became the youngest winner in the history of the event, but the real victor this week, as usual at the Honda Classic, was PGA National’s Champion course.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 27, 2020

Not Needing A Farewell Tour, Sharapova Exits

The ending was uncharacteristically quiet, for even fans who barely pay attention to tennis beyond the Grand Slam events know that Maria Sharapova makes noise on the court.  They may not be able to count her five wins in the sport’s most prestigious tournaments, but they can imitate the piercing shrieks that have always accompanied Sharapova’s groundstrokes.  These days grunts and shrieks and assorted other noises are heard routinely, both men and women players showing the effort that goes into each shot by loudly exhaling as they strike the ball with their racket. But when Sharapova turned pro on her 14th birthday in 2001 the practice was isolated, especially in the women’s game. Monica Seles, then at the tail end of her career, was the first notable female to join the likes of Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi, but Seles at her loudest was no match for the decibel level attained by Sharapova.

The noise was unnerving to some opponents and irritating to more than a few fans, but from the start Sharapova was intent on competing and winning rather than observing all her game’s niceties and pleasing the crowds. She had been just six years old when her father brought her from the crumbling carcass of the Soviet Union to live and train in America. Separated from her mother for more than two years by immigration issues, Sharapova as a child showed focus and drive far beyond her years at the famed IMG Academy in Florida. Within two years of her professional debut, still barely old enough to drive, she started winning tournaments and climbed into the top fifty of the women’s rankings. Then in 2004, Sharapova stunned top seed and defending champion Serena Williams to claim the title at Wimbledon, at 17 the third youngest woman to do so.

The following year she climbed to number one in the world, and while it took her some time – she readily admitted that she disliked clay, once saying that she felt like a “cow on ice” when playing on the French Open’s surface, she eventually completed the career Grand Slam with a victory at Roland Garros in 2012. In between were wins at Flushing Meadows in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008. Then, as if to remind fans of the game as well as herself that like all sports, tennis is never entirely predictable, in 2014 Sharapova added a fifth Grand Slam at, of all places, the French and its clay. She remains the most recent woman player to put wins at Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. Opens on her career resume.

Still she was not the dominant player of her time. The era will always belong to Serena Williams, whose twenty-three Grand Slam singles titles and seventy-three victories in WTA events dwarf Sharapova’s five and thirty-six. But few athletes in any sport have done a better job of parlaying their ability into lucrative success away from their chosen game. Her willowy 6’ 2” frame and flowing blonde hair certainly didn’t hurt, but financial success also required shrewd choices among the many sponsors who clamored to tie themselves to her name and her looks. For eleven straight years Sharapova was the top earning female athlete in the world, with big endorsement deals from Nike and Evian and scores of lesser contracts with everything from high end products like Land Rover and Tiffany to everyday consumables such as Gatorade and Tropicana. As recently as 2015 her annual earnings eclipsed $30 million.

Not long after Sharapova was suspended for using meldonium, a drug that had recently been banned by the WTA. A popular prescription in Russia for heart patients, Sharapova took it to combat a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes. By her own admission she failed to monitor the list of newly banned substances, a responsibility that was ultimately hers alone. The initial two-year ban was eventually reduced to fifteen months when an appeals panel determined that she was “not an intentional doper.”

But the time away meant that Sharapova was on the wrong side of thirty, for an athlete anyway, by the time she could again compete. Combined with the cumulative effects of various nagging injuries, the most serious of which was a persistent shoulder problem that surgery in 2008 failed to correct, the Sharapova of the last couple years showed the familiar gritty determination but with nothing like her old results. She made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open in 2018 but lost in the first round at four of her next six Grand Slam appearances, including the last three. At Melbourne in January she was dispatched 6-3, 6-4 by Donna Vekic, and sounded like a player facing the end at her post-match press conference. “I just don’t know,” Sharapova responded to a question about her plans, “I haven’t thought of my schedule moving forward from here yet.”

Now she has, and reached the only sensible conclusion, setting aside the almost constant pain that came with swinging and at times even gripping a racket. Sharapova announced her retirement in a Vanity Fair article, writing in part “I’m new to this, so please forgive me. Tennis – I’m saying goodbye. But as I embark on my next chapter, I want anyone who dreams of excelling in anything to know that doubt and judgement are inevitable. You will fail hundreds of times and the world will watch you. Accept it. Trust yourself. I promise you that you will prevail.” The quiet of the ending may have seemed strange, but for fans of Maria Sharapova the determination to exit on her own terms was exactly what they had come to expect.

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.

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