Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 22, 2021

Golf’s Stealth Superstar

It has been just thirteen months since Collin Morikawa’s name first appeared on these pages.  Perhaps even more surprising, given all that has happened since, is that the initial mention of Morikawa, then a 23-year-old in his second season on the PGA Tour and barely a year removed from his student days at Cal Berkeley, was not exactly positive.    

The occasion was the Tour’s return to action in June of last year, following its three-month COVID-19 hiatus.  Morikawa had a chance to claim victory at the Charles Schwab Challenge, better known to golf fans as the Colonial for the Fort Worth country club of that name that is the tournament’s longtime venue.  Instead, a pair of misfires with the shortest club in his bag turned what should have been a second Tour win into a gut punch of a defeat.  Morikawa first missed a five-footer for birdie on the final hole, with the resulting par giving new life to Daniel Berger, who was watching from a clubhouse balcony overlooking the 18th green.  Tied through regulation, the pair headed to a playoff where Morikawa promptly coughed up the tournament by missing another putt on the first hole, this one from little more than tap-in distance.  To be fair, the main point of that post was that it was a day of many missed putts by lots of golfers.  But while the other pushes, pulls, and spinouts were struck by more familiar names, none of those miscues were as costly or ill-timed as Morikawa’s two misses.

Since that initial account of an unpleasant afternoon, Morikawa’s name has reappeared here with increasing frequency and for decidedly better reasons.  A month after his Texas debacle, he was the star of a post about the media’s focus on the Tour’s latest youth movement, the result of Morikawa and 22-year-old Viktor Hovland chasing Justin Thomas – who, all of 27, was the old man in the media accounts – during the final round of the Workday Charity Open.  Morikawa eventually caught the golfer then ranked #3 in the world, closing a three-shot deficit down the stretch before winning on the third hole of the subsequent playoff.

Coming a month later than it had looked like it was going to, Morikawa’s second PGA Tour win was his first in a full-field event.  His maiden victory had come at the 2019 Barracuda Championship, a so-called alternate event since it is scheduled the same week as one of the World Golf Championship tournaments, which are restricted to the top players in the world rankings.  But in our internet driven, social media obsessed age, every achievement has its doubters.  So where his win at the Barracuda was diminished for some fans by the weak field, Morikawa’s victory at the Workday was second-guessed by a few pundits because the tournament was played without spectators.

As if on cue, that same largely specious asterisk was one of two placed beside Morikawa’s stunning win four weeks later at the PGA Championship.  Like every other sport, golf’s schedule was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, with the PGA becoming the first major played during the calendar year, and the only one ultimately contested within the framework of the Tour’s wraparound 2019-20 season.  And like the Workday and all the rest of the tournaments on the reconfigured calendar, the 2020 PGA Championship was closed to fans.  That meant no massive roar swept across TPC Harding Park late in the final round, when Morikawa’s laser-like drive on the short par-4 16th hole found the green, setting up a short putt for eagle that propelled him into the lead.  He clung to the two-shot edge the rest of the way, earning a major title in his very first appearance at the PGA Championship. 

Of course, winning one of golf’s biggest prizes isn’t supposed to happen like that, so the absence of the massive crowd typical at a major prompted suggestions that he had not been properly tested, as did the fact that Morikawa was intimately familiar with the Harding Park layout from his years in college just across San Francisco Bay.  Even when he notched his fourth Tour title, this one at a WGC event in February, the unexpected setting – the pandemic forced the Tour to move the event from Mexico to the quirky Concession Golf Club in Bradenton Florida, where the pros recorded everything from a one to a ten on various holes – garnered as much attention as Morikawa’s play, and both were overshadowed by news of Tiger Woods’ automobile accident in California just as the tournament was about to begin. 

Now Morikawa has done it again, winning another major in his first try, this time the oldest of them all, the Open Championship.  At its 149th playing, contested over four mostly sunny days at Royal St. George’s on England’s Channel coast, he emerged as the Champion Golfer of the Year by firing four rounds in the 60’s, besting three-time major titlist Jordan Spieth by two strokes and both U.S. Open winner Jon Rahm and 2010 Open victor Louis Oosthuizen, who led after each of the first three days, by four.  He is the first golfer to win a pair of majors in his first attempt, and now has five Tour victories that include a WGC event and half of a career grand slam.  There’s no disputing the strength of the Open field, nor the quality of a links that has hosted the Open fourteen times, starting in 1894 when it became the first course outside of Scotland to host the tournament.  No one can complain that Morikawa had a home course advantage, and the British government allowed up to 32,000 fans to walk the grounds of Royal St. George’s each day, about 75% of normal attendance.

Given all that, plus the fact that with the win Morikawa ascended to #3 in the world rankings, surely the accolades are finally flowing.  For the most part that is true, and certainly the emerging young star’s fan base grew exponentially last weekend, both because of his play and the grace he showed during the Open’s awards ceremony.  But this is 2021, when being contrary will always generate clicks, and this week it was the usually estimable Sally Jenkins who opted to play the role of Debbie Downer.  In her Washington Post column, Jenkins warned Morikawa that the very nature of his chosen game means the good times won’t last, and he should prepare for the days when every shot seems to go astray.

As every weekend hacker knows, there is truth in Jenkins’ admonition.  The late John Denver could easily have been writing about golf when he penned the lyrics “some days are diamonds, some days are stone.”  As Jenkins pointed out and fans well know, Open runner-up Spieth was himself the boy wonder not so long ago and is only now coming back from a long detour through the golfing desert.  Morikawa’s Achilles heel is his putting, where despite a solid week on the greens in Sandwich he is ranked 170th for the season on the PGA Tour.  Those wobbly putts that led to his first mention in this space were not all that unusual.  Still, given what he has done since then, often without proper recognition, it seems only fair to join with the fans at the Open, who by tournament’s end were cheering his every shot, and finally give Collin Morikawa and his sweet rhythmic swing a long overdue moment in the sun.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 15, 2021

A Less Than Classic Midsummer Classic

A NOTE TO READERS:  There will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday.  Thanks for your support!

It is worth remembering that MLB’s All-Star Game has always been about marketing.  The first one, in 1933, was the brainchild of Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune.  Ward, who had worked as Knute Rockne’s publicity director while at Notre Dame and founded the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament in 1928, used his extensive contacts in the sports world as well as the influence of one of the largest newspapers in the country to convince baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that an exhibition between the top players of the American and National Leagues would be a good showcase for the sport.  Of course, staging a contest featuring the most popular stars of what was then unquestionably the national pastime at Comiskey Park while the Chicago World’s Fair was in progress just happened to also be an enormous boon for the international exposition celebrating the centennial of the Windy City’s incorporation.

Not that Landis needed all that much convincing.  When Chicago mayor Edward Kelly approached the Tribune about sponsoring a major sports event, Ward came up with the idea of the All-Star Game, with fans selecting the starting lineups on ballots printed in 55 newspapers throughout the country, as a one-time event.  But in the wake of the AL’s 4-2 victory, in which Babe Ruth’s 3rd inning two-run homer to right was the decisive blow, Landis declared “That’s a grand show, and it should be continued.”  With a lifetime contract and unfettered authority, Landis generally got what he wanted, and so the Midsummer Classic became the longest season’s waystation, forever more dividing baseball’s calendar in two, even if the halves are never truly equal if measured by the number of games.

Arch Ward would surely marvel at the multi-day spectacle that his one-off exhibition game has become.  The Home Run Derby was added in 1985.  Held the night before the main event, the Derby has grown into appointment viewing for many fans, thanks largely to relentless promotion by MLB and ESPN.  This year’s Derby garnered nearly as many viewers as the All-Star game itself.  The All-Star Futures Game, showcasing promising minor leaguers, and a softball game featuring retired players and assorted celebrities, have both been part of the festivities for roughly twenty years.  This year MLB also moved its multi-day amateur draft, historically held in early June, to coincide with the All-Star festivities.

The marketing folks at MLB’s Gotham headquarters churn out press releases proclaiming that any city so blessed as to be able to host a Midsummer Classic sees benefits on the order of $100 million.  That’s an impressive number, but one with the ring of a nice round total conjured up by someone with a degree in communications rather than economics.  No matter how many ancillary contests are added, the focus of attention is still a meaningless exhibition game.  No title is at stake.  The teams are only teams for an evening – no youngster ever became a lifelong fan of the American League All-Star squad.  And while the game has always been a showcase for individuals, neither a batter’s home run nor a pitcher’s strikeout nor a runner’s stolen base count toward a player’s season or career statistics.  MLB has even had the good sense to drop former commissioner Bud Selig’s silly idea that for a time awarded home field advantage for each fall’s World Series to the team representing the league that won that year’s All-Star Game. 

All of which is to say that even with multiple component parts stretched over several days, the Midsummer Classic has limited appeal as a destination for fans who aren’t local.  Yet for MLB’s claim to be accurate, every single person who crammed into Coors Field for Tuesday night’s game needed to contribute nearly $2,000 in new dollars to the Denver economy during their stay.  Did some do that in spending on hotels, meals and entertainment over a long weekend visit to Colorado?  Absolutely.  But such largess was more likely the exception than the rule, and the required spending by those visitors increases for each Rockies fan who scored tickets to the game, drove from their home in Aurora, bought a hot dog and a beer while watching the AL win for the eighth straight time, and then drove home. 

Whatever the local impact, one can count on MLB to squeeze every possible marketing dollar out of the All-Star contest for itself.  This year, for the first time since 1933, that effort included the players’ uniforms.  When Judge Landis attended that inaugural game at Comiskey Park, he saw the National League team dressed in uniforms designed for the occasion.  Grey with “National League” on the front and a number on the back in blue, and topped by a blue cap with a white “NL,” the special outfits were a memento the players were allowed to keep.  But the American League team members each wore the regular home uniform of his respective team, and by the second game in 1934 that was the style decision that won out. 

Special All-Star uniforms have been made for many years – with replica jerseys of course offered for sale – but they’ve been worn by players only during batting practice and, occasionally, for the Home Run Derby.  But this year MLB abandoned the practice of individual team uniforms in favor of contrasting NL and AL outfits that looked like leftovers from a slow-pitch softball league, or perhaps something found in the closeout section of the pajama department at a discount department store.  The uniforms were universally panned, with the irrepressible Richard Staff, who writes about the Mets for SB Nation, tweeting that he was impressed MLB chose to honor Mike Trout, absent because of injury, with NL uniforms that were white and bland.

Perhaps the prospect of having to don such hideous uniforms is what kept so many players away.  Fourteen All-Stars chose to pass on the opportunity to join their fellow elite players in Denver, the second highest number ever.  Absences due to injury always happen.  That’s both understandable and regrettable, so players like Trout and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna get a pass.  But all four Houston Astros named as All-Stars found better things to do than hear the certain boos that would have rained down on them from fans who haven’t forgotten that team’s cheating-stained championship, and other players followed Mets ace Jacob deGrom in just saying “no thanks.” 

For fans, the absences turned the later innings of the game into a test of identifying rather than celebrating players, a task made more difficult by the mandatory pajamas.  The contest did manage to redeem itself in the end by celebrating the Great Game’s international scope.  The winning pitcher was from Japan, the closer who earned the save was from Australia, and the MVP was a Dominican born in Canada, all playing a quintessentially American game with the country’s greatest mountain range in the distance.  The hurler who got the W was Shohei Ohtani, the electrifying two-way star who also served as the AL’s designated hitter in the starting lineup.  Much was made of Ohtani starting at two positions, though if player participation this year turns into a trend, he may soon find himself having to play a few more.  Hopefully by then, he’ll be able to do so wearing an Angels uniform.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 11, 2021

Promises Aside, England’s Long Wait Continues

It isn’t coming home after all. 

Like many of our games, the true origins of soccer are lost to the mists of time.  In the final centuries BC, a sport bearing at least a passing resemblance was played in China, and half a millennium later the Japanese game of Kemari had some of soccer’s elements.  But there is no dispute that the Football Association, organized in London in 1863, was the first effort to standardize the rules of a sport that by that time had been played in English schools for decades.  That has always been more than enough for fans in the green and pleasant land to claim pride of place for their isle as the birthplace of the world’s most popular sport, one now played by more than a quarter billion athletes in over two hundred countries, whose efforts are followed ever so closely by an even greater number of fans.

Prior to Euro 96, the quadrennial tournament among European national teams, the song “Three Lions” commemorated both the English team (thus the title), and the fact that the 1996 tournament was to be staged in England.  But in the years since, the song’s chorus of “it’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s home, football’s coming home,” has morphed into a rallying cry whenever the national team participates in a major tournament.  From Plymouth on the English Channel in the southwest, to Sunderland on the North Sea in the northeast, and seemingly in every city and town across the island nation, the chant is repeated, not as a statement about a tournament’s geography, but as a promise that the prize, usually either the European Championship Trophy or the World Cup, will soon be returning to its rightful location. 

Though in truth, for many fans of English soccer, perhaps “it’s coming home” has become not so much a promise as a plea.  For while England may be the sport’s home, its national team has seldom been the world’s or even the continent’s best.  The sole World Cup championship won by the Three Lions came more than half a century ago, in 1966.  In only two other World Cups did the English squad make it to the semifinals.  The first of those was 1990, when England met Germany in the penultimate round.  A 1-1 tie through regulation and extra time, the game was decided on penalty kicks.  The teams were even through three tries, then Olaf Thon converted for Germany.  When first Stuart Pearce, then Christopher Waddle were unable to do so for England, Germany was through to the World Cup Final.  Then three years ago in Moscow, Mario Mandzukic of Croatia broke a 1-1 tie in extra time, dashing English hopes yet again.

The European Championship is a younger tournament, having first been contested in 1960.  But through its first fifteen stagings, England had not made it to the championship match.  That drought included the 1996 tournament, when despite playing before home crowds throughout, England needed penalty kicks to advance past the quarterfinal knockout stage over Spain, and then again came a cropper against Germany, once more on penalties, in the semifinals.

The key miss in that contest was by Gareth Southgate, who now manages the national squad and who was roundly praised this year, as England advanced through Euro 2020, an event that kept its name despite being delayed a year by the pandemic.  With the final two rounds of the knockout stage scheduled for Wembley Stadium, the country’s familiar battle cry again took on its dual meaning, though most fans shouting “it’s coming home” weren’t expressing their joy at the location of the finals, but their hopes for a victory long denied.

England was solid if unspectacular in the group stage, then Southgate’s team appeared to ignite once the knockout stage started.  England vanquished its old foe Germany 2-0 in the Round of 16, then crushed Ukraine 4-0 in the quarterfinals.  That brought the squad back to home turf at Wembley for the final two rounds.  An upstart Denmark squad proved tenacious in the semifinal, but Harry Kane was the hero in extra time.  After Denmark was called for a penalty, his kick was easily saved, but he sprinted after the rebound and lofted the ball over Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel for the winning score.

Kane’s heroics put England in the European Championship final, against an Italian team that had its own demons, having failed to qualify for the last World Cup.  But Italy had added both style and offensive substance to its historically strong defensive game for this tournament, and most pundits gave it the edge.  Then England struck in the first two minutes, and suddenly fans in the stands could believe it was coming home.  They believed as the clock ticked, and the pressure built, and, perhaps, even when Italy leveled the score at 1-1 midway through the second half.  But given all that has gone before, all the heartache and hurt since 1966, surely doubts began to creep in.  They must have swirled as the final minutes of regular time wound down.  The uncertainty had to grow as the two teams remained level through extra time.

And so it was penalties.  Always with England, and seemingly always with pain, it is penalties.  Euro 2020 was no exception.  Kane and Jacob Maguire converted, giving England the edge when Andrea Belotti missed.  But the advantage was lost when Marcus Rashford’s shot missed the goaltender but hit the post.  Then, from 2-2, a make for Italy, a miss for England, a make for Italy, a miss for England, and it was over.  Wembley Stadium, so raucous for hours, grew quiet.  There were tears on the field, of joy from Italy’s players, of despair from England’s roster.  There were tears in the stands, from English fans who dared to believe that at long last, this was their time.  Instead they were left with neither a promise nor a plea, just the cold reality that once again, it isn’t coming home.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 8, 2021

Celebrating Winners, And Losers Too

There were winners on Wednesday, as there are every day in sports.  Novak Djokovic, the Seattle Storm, England’s men’s soccer team, the Miami Marlins in stunning fashion over the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second night in a row – all reminded us that triumph is the point of our games.  Surely the day’s biggest winner was the Tampa Bay Lightning, which capped a dominant run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 1-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, closing out the Finals in just five games and making the Lightning the first club to defend its title since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.  Through the four rounds of the playoffs Tampa Bay was behind in a series only once, after a Game 1 loss to the Islanders in the semifinals.  That was also the only round in which the Lightning were pushed to a full seven games.

As impressive as those numbers are, they don’t tell the full story of Tampa Bay’s recent success.  The team has not just won eight straight playoff series – a requirement for winning back-to-back titles – but has also held its opponents to an average of less than two wins each while doing so.  This year marked the third time in seven seasons that the Lightning advanced to the Finals, and in the four seasons between losing to Chicago in 2015 and defeating Dallas in the NHL’s pandemic playoff bubble barely more than nine months ago, Tampa Bay just missed two more trips to the NHL’s championship series, losing in the Conference Finals to the Penguins in 2016 and the Capitals in 2018.  Both of those matchups went to seven games and both times the franchise that ousted the Lightning went on to capture the Cup.

In the sixteen seasons since the 2004-05 season was lost to the lockout that led to the NHL’s hard salary cap, Tampa Bay has been a rare case of sustained success.  Fifteen franchises have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals exactly once during that period, with two more making it that far twice, either back-to-back (Detroit), or in a three-year period (L.A.).  Only Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston have joined the Lightning in going to the Finals more than that, and given Tampa Bay’s additional near misses, it’s understandable that every fan in the capacity crowd at Amalie Arena that roared its approval when captain Steven Stamkos lifted the Cup and began his victory circuit around the rink believes their team deserves to be called a dynasty.

Clearly the Lightning have navigated the perilous waters of the NHL’s salary cap era with far happier results than most of the league’s franchises.  Yet even Tampa Bay has had its missteps.  The franchise won its first Cup the year before the lockout, but struggled for multiple seasons when play finally resumed under the NHL’s new financial rules, missing the playoffs five times in six years.  And just two seasons ago, the Lightning tallied a franchise-best 62 wins the last time the league played a full 82-game schedule, easily winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record, only to collapse in the playoffs, losing four straight to Columbus in the first round.

So while they may not want to think about it this week, even the Lightning faithful know what all fans learn by enduring the vagaries of multiple seasons of their favorite team, some played in the bright sun of achievement and others in the dark shadow of despair.  Contrary to the words of Red Sanders, the head football coach at UCLA more than six decades ago, winning is not the only thing.  Our sports are zero sum games, and while the victors may earn every day’s headlines, sometimes the vanquished have stories every bit as interesting.  It takes nothing away from Tampa Bay’s triumph to suggest that such was the case with the Lightning’s final opponent in this year’s NHL postseason.

Back-to-back titles and three Finals appearances in seven seasons constitute quite the resume for most NHL franchises, but not for the Montreal Canadiens.  The team recognized as the oldest continuously operating professional ice hockey squad in the world, a franchise that predates the NHL’s founding, the twenty-four championships won by the Canadiens dwarf the thirteen claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team in second place on the all-time list of Stanley Cup winners.  Montreal’s thirty-five appearances in the Finals are also by far the most of any club.  Both numbers rank second only to the New York Yankees as measures of postseason success among the major North American sports leagues.  It’s possible there are still folks out there surprised to learn that Florida is home to an NHL powerhouse, but any fan with even a passing interest in hockey would surely recognize the bleu-blanc-rouge tricolor sweaters of the Habs (though they might not be familiar with the club’s many nicknames).

Yet for all the team’s storied history, Montreal’s recent past has been anything but magnifique.  The Canadiens most recent title came in 1993, which was also the last time the club skated in the Finals.  Prior to this year’s postseason run, the team had not won a playoff series in five years.  This season Montreal changed coaches in the middle of the campaign and was one of just two teams in the postseason bracket that failed to win at least half its games.  With 59 points, on a record of 24-21-11, the Canadiens had the weakest regular season showing of any team in the playoffs, and probably would not have been in the postseason at all but for the NHL’s truncated season and its one-time only alignment that put all seven Canada-based teams in the same division to eliminate cross-border travel during the pandemic, with the top four guaranteed to advance to the playoffs.

Given that opportunity, Montreal did its best to play the part of Cinderella.  Down three games to one against Toronto in the opening round, the Canadiens stormed back to win three in a row, the first two in overtime.  That was followed by a sweep of the Winnipeg Jets and another improbable series win against Las Vegas, a team that won sixteen more regular season contests than Montreal.  The hero throughout was Carey Price, the Canadiens’ veteran netminder who would surely have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP had Montreal completed its unlikely journey to glory.

But the Cinderella story is a fairy tale, and in real life the regal coach usually turns back into a pumpkin and the horses drawing it to mice before the final horn blows.  In the Finals Price was outplayed by his counterpart in the opposite net, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who took home MVP honors after shutting out Tampa Bay’s opponents, including the Canadiens, in the deciding game of each playoff round.  In Montreal, and for that matter in all of Canada, which inexplicably has not been home to a Stanley Cup winning franchise since the Canadiens last skated to glory, the long wait continues, even as the party in Tampa is just getting started.  Still, the faithful of Les Habitants can take some solace in knowing that their team’s story will also be remembered long after Wednesday’s headlines have faded away.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 4, 2021

A Season On The Brink In The Bronx

Unfortunately for the franchise that calls the Bronx home, there is still another week on the schedule before Major League Baseball recesses for the All-Star break.  More than any team in the majors, the Yankees could use that annual three-day pause, with its literal time away from the stresses of the longest season for everyone except the handful of players and coaches headed to Denver for the Midsummer Classic, and its figurative reset of the calendar and accompanying chance for a fresh start in the campaign’s so-called “second half.”  For New York’s season appears to be in freefall, with recent words from players, the manager, the GM, and even the owner doing nothing to slow the descent.

In terms of games played, the actual midpoint of each season always comes several days before the All-Star break.  This year, the Yankees passed the fifty percent threshold Sunday afternoon, when closer Aroldis Chapman blew yet another save in the first game of a doubleheader against the crosstown rival Mets.  The 5-4 lead that suddenly turned into a 10-5 loss in New York’s 82nd game left the team at exactly .500 for the season, 41-41.  It’s been five years since the Yankees were at or below .500 this late on the calendar, and before that 2016 season was over general manager Brian Cashman became a seller at the trade deadline, shipping players to various teams to reduce payroll and build up New York’s minor league system.  The trades included stars who wound up playing key roles in the runs to that fall’s World Series of both Cleveland and the eventual champion Chicago Cubs.    

The Yankees finished fourth in the AL East that year, just six games over .500, but Cashman was hailed as a genius for acquiring highly rated prospects like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier.  The praise grew even louder when the deal in which closer Chapman was sent to Chicago turned into a three-month rental, with the fireballing left-hander coming back to the Bronx as a free agent shortly after the Cubs finished celebrating their championship.

Five years later, good luck finding a Yankee fan willing to use “genius” and “Cashman” in the same sentence.  No doubt any number of old tweets that were part of the chorus back then have been hastily deleted, replaced by angry demands that the GM be shown the door, and that field boss Aaron Boone accompany him out into the street.  Dreams that the likes of Torres and Frazier would join with homegrown stars Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge to form the core of a team contending for multiple championships have withered.  Now the consensus is that the two acquisitions have been badly mishandled by the Yankees – Torres by being asked to play shortstop rather than his natural position at second base, and Frazier by frequent hostility from management and, until this year, constant shuttling between the big club and the minors.  Of the two players originally drafted by New York, Sanchez has been confounding, displaying occasional spurts of magnificent power hitting but suffering through frequent slumps, even while often struggling to corral pitches while squatting behind the plate, catching baseballs being a fairly vital job requirement for one playing the position of catcher.  Only Judge has largely lived up to expectations, including this year when he has put up some of the best numbers of his career and, so far at least, remained healthy.

Yet just three months ago, when the team broke camp in Tampa at the end of March, the Yankees were widely viewed as the favorite in the AL East, and a certain contender to represent the American League in the World Series.  Yes, the starting rotation was suspect once one moved past Gerrit Cole, but the bullpen was solid and really, who would care if on any given day New York’s opponent was scoring five or six runs, as long as the powerhouse offense was answering with eight or nine of its own?  Now at the season’s midpoint, the first half of that scenario has largely proven true, but the rejoinder at the plate has fallen woefully short.  New York’s lineup ranks near the bottom of the league in a range of statistics.  Most damningly, the team leads in some very unsavory stats, like hitting into double plays and running into outs on the bases. 

The season has proceeded in spurts, a string of dispiriting losses followed by a short winning streak.  But the latest iteration of that pattern is far more alarming.  Ten days ago the Yankees took a record of seven wins in nine games to Fenway Park, where archrival Boston promptly swept New York in a three-game weekend series.  That was followed by losing two of three to the Angels, and now two in a row to the Mets. 

But larger concerns are hidden in those numbers.  After arguably being the best closer in the majors through May, Chapman has pitched horribly for a month.  His ERA in his last nine appearances is 22.24.  His last two outings, against the Angels last Wednesday and the Mets Sunday afternoon, were particularly ugly, with L.A. scoring seven in the 9th to steal a game made interminably long by two rain delays midweek, and the Metropolitans plating six in the final frame of Sunday’s opening tilt.  And Cole, the mainstay of the rotation, has now had multiple bad starts, with his worst coming Sunday.  Giving up six hits and three walks while recording just ten outs, the ace of the staff had his shortest outing since he was with the Pirates in 2016.

In the last week, Judge has called a players-only meeting, Boone has said the season is on the line, Cashman has declared that right now the team sucks, and Steinbrenner has, well, the owner has said he’s behind the manager and the GM, and the players are at fault.  All words that have done nothing to stem the nosedive. 

The season is far from over.  Two years ago at just about this time the Nationals were 41-41, and we all know how that turned out.  Of course, Washington got to that position by climbing out of an earlier 19-31 hole, while the Yankees have bumbled their way into mediocrity.  Still, at the halfway point of the longest season, anything is possible.  But much will be told very soon.  Immediately before and after the All-Star break, the Yankees play fourteen of sixteen against the Red Sox, Rays, and Astros.  Come out of that stretch strong, and anything is possible.  Continue to flounder, and if Steinbrenner wants to keep fans in the stands, even he may finally realize that the chants from the cheap seats have merit, and it’s time for new leadership in the Bronx.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 27, 2021

Nelly To The Rescue

A NOTE TO READERS:  There will be no Thursday post this week, as On Sports and Life will be traveling that day.  The regular schedule will resume next Sunday.  As always, thanks for reading.

Three weeks ago, in the wake of Lexi Thompson’s Sunday collapse at the U.S. Women’s Open, it was noted in this space that while American golf fans are both accustomed to and comfortable with rooting for international players, the LPGA’s ongoing efforts to grow the women’s game in this country, not to mention the Tour’s desire to garner sufficient sponsor support to place more of its events in the U.S., would both be helped by more American women emerging victorious at the LPGA’s five major tournaments.  At the end of the last century, as stars like Betsy King, Julie Inkster, Patty Sheehan and Dottie Pepper neared the end of their playing careers, victory by Americans at these marquee events was expected.  Even as that generation of LPGA players yielded to the emerging dominance of Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, a younger group of golfers from the U.S. managed to keep at least one U.S. flag flying at a major tournament most seasons through the next dozen years.

Winning on their game’s grandest stages has been a harder thing for American women golfers more recently, and when Thompson’s shot-making faltered down the stretch at the Olympic Club, allowing Yuka Saso of the Philippines to claim the title, the U.S. drought at women’s majors stretched to eleven tournaments and thirty-three months since Angela Stanford’s victory at the Evian Championship in September 2018.  But as it turned out, all it took was a few short weeks and the arrival of the very next major for that long winless streak to end.  When the final pairing for Sunday’s last round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship stepped onto the 1st tee at the venerable Atlanta Athletic Club, it was an all-American twosome of Nelly Korda and Lizette Salas.  Deadlocked after 54 holes at 15-under par, the pair began the round five shots clear of their closest competitors.

Korda’s presence at the top of a LPGA leader board was certainly no surprise.  Since joining the Tour at the age of 18 in 2017, after a single successful season on the developmental Symetra Tour, she has risen steadily on both the LPGA money list and the Rolex World Rankings.  Her first Tour victory came in October 2018, shortly after Stanford’s win in France, and Korda added two more trophies in 2019 and another two wins earlier this season.  The second of those was just last week, at the Meijer LPGA Classic.  Those victories and her overall consistent play carried her all the way to third in the Rolex Rankings, the highest ranked American and one of just two U.S. players in the top-10 (Thompson is currently ranked seventh).  Her success on the course coupled with adroit marketing as one half of a remarkably successful sister act – older sibling Jessica has six LPGA wins of her own – had established Nelly as a Tour star long before she arrived in Atlanta.  She was a popular pick for the Open but struggled through two rounds of poor play and missed the cut at Olympic.  After that disappointment she readily admitted she had placed too much pressure on herself.

If fans have long been expecting to see Korda in the final group on Sunday at a major, the same could not be said for Salas.  A Tour member for nearly a decade, the 31-year-old has carved out a steady career but was not on any pundit’s list of “best players who haven’t won a major.”  Her sole LPGA victory came in 2014 at Kingsmill.  But if she hasn’t claimed a bunch of titles Salas has been a steady performer.  Her resume includes membership on the last four Solheim Cup teams, and in 2019, prior to the pandemic, she had her most lucrative season on Tour, passing the $1 million mark in single-season earnings for the first time.  Still, she had only occasionally cracked the top-20 in the world rankings and had just four top-10 finishes in majors in forty-four starts prior to the PGA Championship.

Appropriately enough, this odd couple arrived at the top of the leader board in completely different ways.  Korda got there largely on the strength of a scorching second round 63, when she finished with six consecutive birdies and a 29 on the front side (her second nine).  She then extended that streak to eight straight sub-par holes by making birdie on the two opening holes of her third round.  For Salas, the story was one of consistency.  She began play on Sunday at 15-under par because she had signed for 5-under rounds of 67 on each of the tournament’s first three days.

The scores through 54 holes suggested Sunday’s final round might turn into a match play event, and that is what it became when none of the already distant competitors managed to mount a charge against the top two.  Korda struck early with a display of power, drilling a 7-wood from 243 yards with her second shot on the par-5 5th hole.  The ball nearly went in, setting up a tap-in eagle.  Salas responded with a birdie of her own on the next hole, and the pair remained one stroke apart until the par-5 12th.  There Korda again used her length in decisive fashion.  After hammering a drive down the fairway she was able to reach the green in two with a 6-iron, while Salas was forced to lay up.  Unfortunately for the shorter hitting Salas, her third flew the green, leading to a bogey.  When Korda sank her putt for the second eagle on her scorecard, the one-shot edge ballooned to four. 

In the end the margin was three, and Nelly Korda now has her first major title.  In addition, the win will springboard her to the top of the world rankings, making Korda the first American at that pinnacle since Stacy Lewis in 2014.  Not surprisingly, the first person racing to congratulate Nelly after the final par putt fell was Jessica, whose own strong finish ensured that the sisters will be one-half of the four-member U.S. women’s Olympic golf team, along with Thompson and Danielle Kang.  Where only recently there was so much disappointment, suddenly things are looking up.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 24, 2021

The NCAA Flounders And Fails

With the NBA and NHL playoffs and Euro 2020 all starting to get serious, and with fans who aren’t engrossed in any of those games likely mesmerized by the new national pastime of on-field cavity searches of major league pitchers, it was easy to miss the latest twists in the decades-long effort to have college athletes – the stars of a multi-billion dollar industry – treated as something more than chattel by the schools and conferences that profit from their athletic prowess.  While this week’s developments in that long saga were eclipsed by those other stories, that news will ultimately impact thousands of young men and women, long after which franchise lost out in this year’s conference finals and which reliever dropped his pants in front of an umpire have been reduced to hard-to-remember trivia answers.

On Monday a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court fired the latest warning shot across the bow of the NCAA’s old and listing flagship, the S.S. Amateurism.  The decision, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, affirmed a lower court order that the NCAA could not limit education-related benefits paid to student athletes.  While important and potentially substantial, such benefits are of course not the same as either outright salaries or compensation for use of an athlete’s NIL – name, image and likeness – an area potentially worth vast sums to star players in major college sports.

But while Gorsuch, and thus the court, chose to rule narrowly, a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh took an astonishingly harsh view on the broader question of NCAA rules and antitrust law.  “The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels.  But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,” wrote Kavanaugh, adding “Price-fixing labor is ordinarily a textbook antitrust problem because it extinguishes the free market in which individuals can otherwise obtain fair compensation for their work.”  Just in case the message wasn’t clear, he concluded with this succinct warning – “The NCAA is not above the law.”

That admonition is now just days from becoming demonstrably true in seven states.  On July 1, recently passed laws in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Texas and New Mexico, as well as an executive order just signed by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, all allowing collegians to profit from their NIL, take effect.  State level regulation is the NCAA’s worst nightmare, since it creates the certainty of dramatically different frameworks between, and even within, conferences.  Overlay a map of the member schools of the Southeastern Conference on one showing those seven states, and consider the recruiting advantage Nick Saban, John Calipari, and other coaches at eight SEC schools are about to gain over their counterparts in say, the Big 10 or Pac-12.  Or for that matter, over their six conference rivals whose campuses aren’t in one of those states. 

Not that it is entirely hopeless for programs about to be left clinging to the outdated tenets of the NCAA’s rules.  Fourteen more states have laws scheduled to take effect on dates ranging from later this year to 2025, and legislatures in eleven others are considering laws of their own.  But even if all fifty states and D.C. were to act, there would still be differences between statutes.  Any highly recruited high schooler, especially if he or she plays basketball or football, the two sports with the most exposure at the collegiate level, would be a fool not to factor in potential financial opportunities when deciding what school’s letter of intent will get their signature. 

One might think that between losing a case at the highest court in the land, being flogged as a law-breaking cartel in a concurring opinion and having its regulatory landscape about to fracture into myriad pieces, the NCAA would be spurred to action.  One would be very much mistaken.  The NCAA’s Division I Council, which had been expected to act on NIL regulations at its meeting this week, instead adjourned Wednesday with nothing more than a decision to reconvene next Monday.  That paralysis may well be a sign of the Association’s ultimate weakness, namely that it must depend on broad agreement among its member institutions.  Independent conferences and individual schools are likely even now calibrating what they will be able to offer students based on what will soon be the law in their part of the country, versus the potential landscape if they agree to some common path forward.

NCAA president Mark Emmert has long since cast his lot with the increasingly unlikely answer of Congress passing national legislation.  His statement after Monday’s Supreme Court decision reiterated that forlorn hope, even as it also incongruously claimed victory by citing the Court’s affirmation of the NCAA’s rulemaking authority.  By Wednesday he was reduced to promising member schools “interim rules” before the various state laws take effect next week.

Because Justice Kavanaugh merely pointed out a simple truth, those temporary guidelines will be severely constrained by the new state laws about to take effect.  The best description for the near term is likely to be something between confusion and chaos, though the likely beneficiaries of the pending uncertainty will be young men and women with great athletic skill, which is not a bad outcome.  But every moment of confusion, every hour of chaos, every day of uncertainty, rests squarely on the NCAA.  The last chapter in this long saga could have been written years ago, but for the Association’s determination to cling to its archaic fiction of overseeing hundreds of schools filled with earnest scholars who just happen to play amateur sports in their spare time.  If you believe that one, Justice Kavanaugh will take you for a walk among the tailgaters outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, with its 100,077 seats, before an Alabama home game this autumn.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2021

Karma On The 17th Green

The best golfers in the world looking to the sky, grimaces on their faces, as shots sail wide of their intended targets or putts slide past holes.  It must be Sunday at the U.S. Open.  There is often ample reason during our national championship to recall the 1974 “Massacre at Winged Foot,” when then-USGA head Sandy Tatum had to answer claims that one year after Johnnie Miller shot 63 in the Open’s final round, the course had been set up with the intent of embarrassing the players.  Tatum’s response that of course there was no such desire did little to convince anyone in the field of a tournament where the winning score was 7-over par.

In recent years, under the leadership of retiring president Mike Davis, the USGA has relented a bit.  Only three of the thirteen Opens since the event last visited the South Course at San Diego’s public Torrey Pines have resulted in a winning score over par.  But that doesn’t mean – except for the ill-advised decision to take the 2016 Open to Erin Hills, a relatively young course that clearly was not ready for its moment on center stage – that a U.S. Open layout is easy.  Fans are usually reminded of that sometime during the final round.

This year, that moment came as the final twosomes were nearing the midpoint of their rounds.  The leader board was appropriately star-studded for a major.  Bryson DeChambeau, on the strength of birdies at the 5th and 8th holes, held a one-shot lead at 5-under par.  But the defending champion was far from in the clear, since the gaggle of players right behind included Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, and Louis Oosthuizen, all major winners, as well as Jon Rahm, the current owner of the unwelcome title of best golfer who hasn’t won a major.

No sooner did the NBC Sports announcers marvel at that impressive lineup than it started to crumble.  DeChambeau’s tee shot on the par-3 11th hole was wide right, leaving him with a difficult chip from deep rough.  He did well to put his ball a dozen feet past the hole, but the par-saving putt was wide right from the start.  The bogey was DeChambeau’s first in thirty-five holes, but his day was about to get much, much worse.  He bogeyed the next hole, added a double-bogey on the 13th, and capped the worst ever nine-hole score of his professional career with a quadruple-bogey on the 17th, where it looked very much like he had all but quit trying.  The ugly collapse added up to an 8-over 44 on the inward half, which took DeChambeau from the lead to a tie for 26th place.

While the leader’s fall was the most dramatic, it was by no means the only stumble down the stretch.  In the pairing right after DeChambeau’s, McIlroy also bogeyed the 11th with a three-putt, then suffered a championship-ending double-bogey at the 12th.  Playing a few groups ahead, both Koepka and Morikawa had their own sideways moments, playing over par down the stretch. 

That left Oosthuizen and Rahm, the 38-year-old South African who is now eleven years removed from his Open Championship win at St. Andrews, and the 26-year-old Spaniard whose early years on the PGA Tour were notable more for his volatile eruptions on the course than for his play.  But Oosthuizen’s sole major was no fluke, as evidenced by his five runner-up finishes, spread across all four of golf’s most important tournaments, in the years since.  The most recent of those was at last month’s PGA Championship, where Oosthuizen finished tied for 2nd with Koepka, two shots behind Phil Mickelson.  For his part, since reputations die hard Rahm’s early one will probably stick for a while, but in recent years he has matured greatly, while also starting to realize the promise that he’s shown on the golf course since he was ranked as the top amateur in the world in 2015 and 2016.  He arrived at Torrey Pines with five PGA Tour wins and five top-ten finishes in the majors. 

The first of those Tour victories came in 2017 at the Tour’s regular stop in San Diego, the Farmers’ Insurance Open.  What would have been the sixth appeared all but assured two weeks ago when, as the defending champion, he ended the third round of the Memorial Tournament with a six-shot lead.  But as he left the 18th green Rahm was informed by tournament officials that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing him to withdraw.  Rahm knew he had been exposed to an infected individual, and he lamented waiting far too long to be vaccinated.  But he also took the bad news, including the likely loss of the $1.7 million winner’s check, in stride, knowing that he would come out of the mandatory isolation period just in time for the U.S. Open.

So in the end it was those two, the typically phlegmatic Oosthuizen and the newly calm Rahm, matching each other over the final holes, with the South African clinging to a one-shot lead.  That lasted until Rahm stood on the penultimate green, surveying a 24-foot putt for birdie.  Although in order to hole it, he needed to hit it thirty feet or more, so severe was the break.  But Rahm judged the pace and turn perfectly.  He stayed in his putting crouch until the ball fell in the hole, then exulted with a fist pump.  The birdie moved him into a tie, with the reachable par-5 finishing hole remaining.  There Rahm pushed his second shot right, into a greenside bunker, and opted to blast out away from the hole rather than risk a too-speedy shot rolling down the green and into the pond that fronts the putting surface.  But in a virtual replay of the 17th hole, Rahm then curled in another long birdie putt, this one for the lead.

That left only the question of whether Oosthuizen would break out of the tie to end his long string of runner-up finishes at majors or join those who had already stumbled on another U.S. Open Sunday.  The answer came at the 17th, where Oosthuizen’s normal fade trajectory on his drive instead stayed left all the way, ending in a hazard area just off the wide expanse of fairway.  When he was unable to scramble to save par from there, Oosthuizen was left needing an eagle at the last just to tie, and any hope of that ended when his drive just missed the fairway.

Grimaces and gasps, disappointment and doubt, all were plentiful on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean Sunday afternoon.  It was the final round of a U.S. Open after all.  But there were also two big fist pumps on the final two greens, and a victory for a golfer who told the world his belief in karma helped him weather the blow at the Memorial.  When the last of those long putts rolled in, on a day when so many who are so talented stumbled and fell, it was hard to argue with Jon Rahm’s view.  Quite simply, his time at a major had come.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 17, 2021

MLB Tries To Shift The Blame

There is a classic scene in “Bull Durham” in which minor league manager Skip, thoroughly exasperated by the play of his squad, stands in the locker room and tells his charges that they are playing “a simple game.  You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.”  Yet while the essence of the Great Game can be reduced to such elemental actions, the major league rulebook and its five appendices runs to more than one hundred seventy pages, including eleven dedicated just to definitions of various terms.  And that considerable bulk doesn’t include the sport’s countless unwritten rules, which can’t be in a book since that would necessitate their being committed to paper.  So perhaps the game is not so simple after all.  That certainly seems to be the case this week, when far more attention is being paid to the legalistic language of the MLB rulebook than to any action on the field.

The center of debate is the second paragraph of Rule 3.01, which states “No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.”  This language – and yes it really does include licorice – is reinforced many pages later in Rule 6.02(c), which details what a pitcher is barred from doing with a ball and includes a prohibition against a moundsman even having a foreign substance in his possession while on the mound.

These injunctions are anything but new additions to MLB’s rulebook.  The “emery ball,” a horsehide that has been scuffed by rubbing it against a rough surface such as an emery board, dates back more than a century.  But if one were to believe this week’s announcement from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s office, despite this clear and longstanding language the Great Game has suddenly been beset by a wave of rogue pitchers who have been callously defying authority by rubbing up balls with all manner of substances, from fairly simple combinations of rosin and sunscreen lotion, to exotic specialty products like Spider Tack, a paste originally marketed to weightlifters looking for a secure grip on objects weighing hundreds of pounds.  While these scofflaws, having been found out, will contend their intent was merely to enhance control over a rock-hard pellet they throw at speeds sometimes surpassing 100 miles per hour in the general direction of another human being, MLB has concluded that their real goal was to increase the spin rate of pitches, making their offerings virtually impossible to hit. 

That blatant disregard for the rules is why so many of baseball’s offensive statistics have been in steady decline for several years and have cratered to historic lows this season, or so we are told.  Now to the rescue comes the commissioner’s office, with a plan to strictly enforce those rules starting Monday.  Umpires will examine the uniforms, gloves and hands of every pitcher entering a big league contest and will be free to visit the mound as often as they wish if a hurler perhaps touches his belt or scratches the back of his head in a manner the umpire deems suspicious.  Ten game suspensions, during which the offender’s club will be unable to replace him on the roster, await those who now dare violate the sanctity of the rulebook.

Sky-high strikeout rates and a general paucity of offensive action are very real, and a legitimate problem for MLB.  But the sudden focus on “sticky stuff,” which oversimplifies a complex issue while placing the blame for it squarely on players, seems contrived.

To be sure, many of the presumed villains in the piece have done poor jobs defending themselves.  Most notably, Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow complained bitterly that having to abandon the rosin and sunscreen mix he had long used led directly to him gripping the ball too hard in his next outing, and so to an injury that now threatens at the very least his season, and possibly more.  That rant prompted widespread jeers from many fans who rushed right by its context – an athlete in the bloom of youth suddenly facing a potentially career-altering injury – in their haste to translate it to Glasnow saying he got injured because he was forced to stop cheating.  The jeering was no doubt met by cheering in MLB headquarters, where no one will complain if fans associate any of the Great Game’s problems with players rather than management.  After all, what are certain to be acrimonious negotiations over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement are only a few months away.

Even without assuming such Machiavellian intent related to the upcoming contract fight, MLB’s focus on the many pitchers who have been using grip, and presumably spin, enhancing substances conveniently narrows what should be an extremely broad indictment.  For as every fan, pundit, player, and executive knows, the Great Game not only has unwritten rules, it also has some pages of its official rulebook that are strictly enforced, and some that have long been, at best, advisory.  The pages with the rules about substances on baseballs have always been in the latter category.

Gaylord Perry was, by general consensus, one of the finest spitballers ever to take the mound.  So good in fact, he made it into the Hall of Fame in 1991.  Whitey Ford was accused more than once of doctoring baseballs in various ways, though he always swore he didn’t do so during his Cy Young Award winning 1961 season.  So it has always gone, down through generations.  Thus it came as no surprise this week when, after MLB’s announcement, we heard pitchers say that coaches and managers and front office personnel knew or encouraged or even instructed them to use some substance on the ball.

Does that widespread knowledge make it right to break the rules?  Of course not.  But it does put all of MLB in the role of Captain Louis Renault in that eternal classic, “Casablanca.”  No doubt Rob Manfred was shocked, shocked to find out what was going on in major league ballparks, as he tried so hard to make this all about the players. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 13, 2021

More Changes, And More Cash, For The CFP

We cannot say for certain, because the sole known work of Heraclitus of Ephesus has only survived in fragments.  Writing five centuries BCE, the Greek was influential enough on later thinkers, including Plato and the schools of Stoicism and Cynicism, to earn a place – with Michelangelo serving as the model – in Raphael’s famous 16th century “School of Athens” fresco.  So perhaps in the missing sections of “On Nature,” Heraclitus gets more specific on say, how Alabama’s dominance or the frequent snubbing of the Pac-12 has impacted the College Football Playoff.  Maybe he was the original advocate for regular inclusion of schools from the Group of Five conferences, the leagues that consistently put some of the sport’s most exciting product on the field, only to be dismissed by the CFP Selection Committee in favor of squads from the Power 5 leagues that are the committee’s core constituency.  What a shame if the annual debate over the makeup of the playoffs has been missing such an argument for twenty-five centuries.  While there is not quite enough evidence to reach a firm conclusion, it sure seems like Heraclitus had the CFP in mind when he laid out his philosophy.  For his core belief has come down through the ages as that familiar aphorism, “the only constant is change;” so what else could the Greek have been talking about?

Prior to 1992, which for some fans might as well be back in the days when the Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, college football’s national champion was the team that wound up atop the two major polls.  That meant the judgment of sportswriters and coaches, rather than the outcome of a decisive contest, decided the titleholder.  There was no guarantee that either the regular season schedule or the traditional, conference-based matchups of the major bowl games would produce a game between any of the top ranked teams.  And it also left open the possibility of co-champions, should the two polls produce different results. 

It was, in short, a process guaranteed to produce controversy and, depending on the final records of the top two or three squads, some quantity of bruised feelings among fans, particularly the well-heeled alumni whose contributions were increasingly important to athletic directors seeing the growing allure of big-time football programs.  So it was that after the writers’ and coaches’ polls picked different champions twice in succession in 1990 and 1991, the Bowl Coalition was formed.

This initial break from tradition was a union of five conferences plus independent Notre Dame with the organizers of seven bowl games.  The intent was to put together the best possible bowl matchups based on the poll rankings, with #1 versus #2 in one of those games being the most desirable outcome.  While the first year produced that ideal result, #1 Miami versus #2 Alabama in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, the first bowl showdown between the top two teams in the country since 1987, the Coalition was doomed from the start.  Its membership did not include either the Big 10 or Pac-10 (now Pac 12), nor was the Rose Bowl a member, because the granddaddy of bowl games refused to release those two conferences from their contractual obligation to send their champion to Pasadena.

So college football’s long and ongoing era of constant change began.  After three seasons the Bowl Coalition gave way to the Bowl Alliance, largely because of the demise of the Southwest Conference and a sudden turn by Notre Dame to relative mediocrity.  The Alliance, which had many of the same problems of its predecessor, also lasted just three years before yielding to growing calls for an expansion of the eligible participants, calls that included rumblings of antitrust investigations by Congress.  That led to the formation of the relatively long running but always reviled Bowl Championship Series.  Under a lengthy and mutating set of rules, the BCS assigned eight lucky teams to four bowl games – the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange.  Initially one of those four was designated as the national title game on a rotating basis, with the two top-ranked teams facing off.  Then in 2007 a separate championship game was introduced, thus expanding the field to ten teams.

But almost from the very first year of the BCS, there were fans and pundits calling for a more structured playoff format.  Conference commissioners and university presidents resisted fiercely for years, always clinging to the crutch that their “student-athletes” shouldn’t take the time away from their studies that would be required to participate in more than one postseason contest.  The excuse was always treated as the joke that it was since lower levels of the NCAA hierarchy have long had football playoffs.

Seven years ago, the faux concern about adequate time in study halls crumbled before the economic opportunity of a playoff.  But almost as soon as the current CFP began, critics emerged to ask why only four teams were included.  Now, once again, the golden glitter of potential television contracts and more revenue sharing for participating conferences has sounded a siren call.  In this case, the wayfarers unable to resist were the members of a CFP working group, who this week recommended expanding the playoff from four teams to twelve.  The top four teams would receive first round byes, meaning the real impact will be to add one more week to the college football postseason.     

This proposal will work its way up the CFP management tree in the next few weeks, though it likely couldn’t be implemented before 2023 at the earliest.  Schools in the Group of Five conferences are the most obvious winners, since it will take some extraordinarily creative excuses for the CFP Selection Committee to exclude them from a twelve-team field.  Make no mistake, that is a good outcome.  But the real winners will of course be the treasuries of all the participating conferences.  One early estimate put the annual value of the TV contract for an expanded playoff at two to three times the current $600 million.

Given that staggering number, and the history of the last thirty years, just don’t treat whatever decisions are soon announced as anything like a final word.  If twelve is good, why not sixteen?  Would one more week really hurt?  Heraclitus, who in one of the sadly lost papyruses of “On Nature” might have told us that we should absolutely take Alabama and the points against Ohio State, knew better.

Older Posts »

Categories