Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 23, 2017

Team USA Is The Last Squad Standing

When last we looked in on the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic, the headlines belonged to the mighty team from the Dominican Republic and the upstart squad from Israel. The defending champion from 2013, Team Dominica rolled through the first stage of round robin play with a perfect 3-0 record to sit atop Pool C, thus stretching its unbeaten streak to eleven games after going unbeaten on its way to the last WBC title. Remarkably enough Team Israel matched that mark to win Pool A, defeating WBC stalwarts South Korea and the Netherlands as well as China. With nary a single active major leaguer on its roster, Israel had made the final sixteen team field by winning a qualifying tournament in Brooklyn last fall.

What a difference ten days make. Any fans dreaming of a David versus Goliath title game this week at Dodger Stadium, with doughty Team Israel taking on the Dominican behemoth, were getting just a bit ahead of themselves. First both had to navigate the second round robin stage, further winnowing the field down to four semifinalists. On opposite shores of the Pacific Ocean, in Tokyo and San Diego, both the pre-tournament favorite and the classic overachiever came to grief.

The second stage started well enough for Team Israel which opened with yet another win, this time over Cuba by a score of 4-1 in front of more than 43,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome. But Israel could barely plate more than those four runs in its final two second stage games combined. First the Netherlands avenged the first round defeat by thumping Team Israel 12-2. Then in a must-win game against Japan, the underdog Israelis hung in for five innings before the superior Japanese squad blew the game open with a five-run 6th, on the way to an eventual 8-3 decision that ended the 2017 WBC for Team Israel.

The Dominican Republic’s winning streak skidded to a halt in the first game of the second round, when five pitchers from Puerto Rico combined to hold the powerful Team Dominica lineup to a single run. The defending champions bounced back from that 3-1 loss to shut out Venezuela 3-0, setting up a win-or-go-home match against the United States. After falling behind early, Team USA rallied to lead 4-3 going to the 8th inning, and when Andrew McCutchen doubled home Christian Yelich and Eric Hosmer to pad the lead, Dominican hopes for back-to-back titles went a-glimmering.

The second stage results set up the single elimination semifinals at Chavez Ravine, with Puerto Rico facing the Netherlands last Monday followed by Team USA versus Japan on night later. The first game turned into a slog of more than four hours, with the teams knotted at three from the top of the 5th inning on. When the contest moved to the 11th inning the WBC’s use of special rules came into play, with runners being placed on both first and second base to begin the inning. Puerto Rico’s defense escaped by turning a double play in the top of the frame, but the Netherland’s defenders weren’t so lucky in the home half of the inning. Carlos Correa advanced from second to third on a sacrifice bunt, and then raced home with the winning run when Eddie Rosario lined out to center field.

The second semifinal was a slog of a different sort, after rain fell most of Tuesday in Los Angeles. Played in weather that alternated between a steady sprinkle and a fine mist, the game likely turned on the wet condition of the field. In a taut 1-1 tie, Brandon Crawford singled with one out in the 8th, then moved to third on Ian Kinsler’s double to center. That brought Adam Jones to the plate for the Americans. Jones slugged 29 home runs for Baltimore last season, but on Tuesday night his key blow never left the infield. A slow roller to third was bobbled by Nobuhiro Matsuda as it came off the wet grass. While the third baseman recovered in time to throw out Jones, the miscue allowed Crawford to race home with what proved to be the winning run.

This was the first time that Team USA had played its way through to the WBC final, while Puerto Rico was runner-up to Team Dominica in 2013. The Puerto Rican squad was also undefeated this year, attempting to replicate the perfect run of the Dominican Republic at the last WBC. That plus the determination of the Puerto Rican players to win for their economically depressed homeland and their buoyant bonding exemplified by most of the players dyeing their hair blond all combined to make them the favorite.

But as has been noted a time or two before in this space, there is a reason why they actually play the games. Wednesday night Team USA’s starter Marcus Stroman pitched as well for the national team as he ever has in his day job with the Toronto Blue Jays. Through six innings Stroman held Puerto Rico hitless and faced the minimum eighteen batters, erasing the one hitter he walked on a double play. By the time Stroman was lifted by Team USA manager Jim Leyland after surrendering a leadoff double in the 7th the Americans had built a 7-0 lead. Ian Kinsler hit a two-run homer in the 3rd to get the scoring started, and he was one of five members of the Team USA lineup to record a multi-hit game.  Team USA added another run in the 8th, and when David Robertson got Carlos Correa to send a ground ball to third for the game’s final out, members of the American squad streamed from the dugout and bullpen to join their teammates on the field in celebrating their country’s first WBC title.

In the early days of this tournament much was made of the lack of American interest, defined by both the decision of most marquee players to pass up the chance to play and the focus of most fans on the familiar rituals of spring training. To be sure, the World Baseball Classic will always be a diversion from the main event of another major league season.

But Team USA played its eight games before an average crowd of more than 32,000, a number slightly higher than the average attendance at a big league game last season. For the first time total WBC attendance topped one million, and Wednesday night Dodger Stadium was filled with more than 51,000 boisterous fans. As for the American players who did take part, they were all determined to achieve what three previous U.S. teams had not. As first baseman Eric Hosmer said after the game, “We had a goal — to put the U.S.A. on top of the baseball world where it belongs, and we did exactly that.” Indeed they did, for after the fairy tale run of Team Israel came to an end, after the dominance of the Dominican Republic squad was stopped, and even in the face of the unbridled exuberance of Team Puerto Rico, it was Team USA that won three straight elimination games against favored opponents, earning the right to that final celebration on the Dodger Stadium infield.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 19, 2017

The Most Frantic Long Weekend Has Been Anything But

“The odds are good that by Sunday evening at least one giant will have been humbled, and in one of the eight arenas hosting this annual onslaught of basketball, an unlikely team will celebrate advancing to the regionals even as fans and pundits alike bestow upon it the honorific of being this year’s Cinderella.” One need not go far to find the source of those words. They appeared in this very space, just three days ago, as what was described as “the most frantic long weekend in college sports” was just getting underway. Which just goes to show that, as they say in the commercials for various investment products, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

It’s not that the prediction was literally wrong. As this is written the last two games of the NCAA Division I Men’s basketball tournament’s first weekend have yet to begin, and two more are still in progress. In the forty-four games that have been completed there have certainly been upsets; based purely on the seeding nine to be exact. Maybe by the end of the night that number will reach double digits.

The biggest giant of all, the overall #1 seed Villanova, was humbled by Wisconsin on Saturday. Xavier, seeded 11th in the West Region, is through to the Sweet Sixteen after beating #6 Maryland handily and trouncing #3 Florida State by twenty-five points. So there will be at least one squad that can be called a Cinderella playing in the next round, even if Xavier’s pumpkin coach rolled in from the mighty Big East and the Musketeers’ place in the bracket looks very much like a bad case of under seeding. Two other teams seeded in the bottom half of the draw are in the late games, so perhaps that number will increase.

But in comparison to past tournaments this year’s first weekend has been decidedly lacking in drama. Just last year the first two rounds produced fifteen upsets, and eleven teams seeded 9th or lower advanced to the second half of the weekend. This year that number was seven, and three #11 seeds, Southern Cal and Rhode Island along with Xavier, were the lowest ranked teams winning their first game. This is the first time in a decade that the second round lacked a single team seeded 13th or lower. Implicit in that fact is that at the other end of the bracket the top four teams in each region went a perfect 16-0 on Thursday and Friday.

One measure of the relative predictability of the tournament so far is the length of time it took to break all the brackets of the millions of fans who filled them out online. NCAA.com tracks not only its own results, but those at Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports and Yahoo as well. The last perfect bracket, filled out by a fan on Yahoo.com, went bust Saturday night when 4th seed Purdue beat 5th seed Iowa State 80-76. But that was the fortieth game of the tournament, giving that fan the distinction of having the longest perfect run in online bracket history, with his or her 39-0 mark topping the previous record of 36-0 set in 2014.

Complaints about a boring tournament have sprung up all over the Internet, and while that term seems a bit strong many have correctly noted that the problem is not just the fewer than normal upsets, but the lack of games going down to the wire. The Thursday and Friday slate of thirty-two opening round games included just four decided by two points or less, and none of the twelve second round games in the books at this point have been that close. A year after the opening round featured four games won on last second shots, only three games so far this year have seen a would-be buzzer-beater lofted as time expired, and all three sadly missed their mark. The grousing from fans and sportswriters has grown loud enough that David Worlock, the NCAA’s director of media coordination lashed out at the complainers on Twitter in a post that he later had the good sense to delete.

The most unfortunate aspect of the lack of drama is that it has allowed the spotlight to shine on mistakes, two of which profoundly shifted the course of games. With Vanderbilt holding a one point lead over Northwestern and less than 20 seconds remaining in their first round game, the Commodores’ Matthew Fisher-Davis intentionally fouled Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh, something normally done by trailing teams. Given two unmolested chances from the penalty stripe, McIntosh made them both and Northwestern held on to win. Fisher-Davis later admitted that he had lost track of the score.

After benefitting from a mistake on Thursday, Northwestern was victimized by one on Saturday. After trailing #1 seed Gonzaga all game, often by double digits, the Wildcats had closed to five with 4:54 to play. Derek Pardon’s attempted layup was rejected by Gonzaga’s Zach Collins, but the officials completely missed the fact that Collins had done so by reaching up through the hoop. The call should have been goaltending and the lead down to three. Instead, when Northwestern coach Chris Collins ran on the court to protest, he was called for a technical. With Gonzaga converting both free throws the error produced a four point swing in a game the Bulldogs eventually won 79-73.

Perhaps Northwestern would have made a game winning field goal on their final possession without benefit of a trip to the free throw line. Perhaps with their lead down to three Gonzaga would have stiffened and turned back the upset challenge.  We’ll never know.  What we can say for certain as this year’s edition of March Madness approaches the end of its first weekend is that while it is definitely March, the Madness has gone missing.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 16, 2017

As The Madness Begins, Fewer Cinderellas Hold Dance Cards

Shortly after noon Thursday at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York, where residents were still digging out from a late winter snowstorm, Notre Dame and Princeton tipped off to begin the most frantic long weekend in college sports. The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament now stretches out over three full weeks, from the first two play-in games last Tuesday to the championship final on Monday, April 3rd. Since the field was expanded to sixty-eight teams in 2011, the tournament begins with eight unfortunate squads having to square off against each other in preliminary contests just to earn the right to join the main bracket. Ahead, in the tournament’s second and third weekends, are the regionals, where the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight will do battle, and then the hysteria and hype of the Final Four, this year slated for University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, a venue that has previously hosted the Super Bowl.

But in between the aperitifs of the four play-in games last Tuesday and Wednesday, and the rich deserts of the winnowed field playing before ever larger crowds as the tournament builds to its climax, lies this first weekend when fans gorge on a feast of hardcourt play with forty-eight games over four days. By Sunday evening more than three-quarters of the original field will be gone, dreams of March Madness glory vanquished for another season.

This is the weekend that gives the tournament its nickname. Multiple games running at the same time, now accessible to fans not just by switching back and forth between television channels but also by the click of a mouse to watch live streams or constantly updated play-by-play and analysis on countless websites. But the thrill of the first two rounds is fueled by more than the sheer volume of games. The excitement of these four days is pumped up by the adrenaline rush of possibility. This first weekend is when stunning upsets and wild finishes can tumble over one another, sometimes coming at a breakneck pace. The odds are good that by Sunday evening at least one giant will have been humbled, and in one of the eight arenas hosting this annual onslaught of basketball, an unlikely team will celebrate advancing to the regionals even as fans and pundits alike bestow upon it the honorific of being this year’s Cinderella.

At its core that is the promise of the tournament. When the season began all 351 Division I teams had a route to becoming national champion. That’s because the NCAA guarantees a spot in the tournament for the winners of all thirty-two conference titles. Prevail over the other schools in the Summit League or the Ohio Valley Conference, and stand shoulder to shoulder with the far better known champions of the ACC or Big Ten, a half-dozen wins away from history.

It is that promise that draws fans who don’t watch a single basketball game at any level the rest of the year. It’s what causes otherwise sober and conservative citizens to open their wallets and bet an estimated $10 billion on the tournament (most of it illegally), more than twice what is wagered on the Super Bowl. And of course it is what sends American productivity plunging at the end of the third week in March, as workers everywhere obsess over how their bracket is faring in the $2 office pool.

It is also, at least in the context of the tournament’s ultimate goal of determining the national champion, almost certainly an illusion. Yes it is true that in 2010 and 2011 the Butler Bulldogs, then champions of the Horizon League, made back-to-back improbable runs to the championship game. Coach Brad Stevens’s squad lost to Duke in 2010 and UConn the following year. The surprising efforts earned Stevens a job as head coach of the Boston Celtics and Butler a promotion to the Big East. And it is also true that three years after Connecticut downed Butler while representing the Big East, the Huskies won yet another title, this time as a member of the American Athletic Conference. But UConn has long been a basketball power, and its membership in the American is just a product of the major conference realignments sweeping through college sports in the past few years. When the Catholic universities that formed the core of the Big East took that league’s name and formed a basketball-only power conference the remaining members scattered to the wind.

There have also been occasional trips to the Final Four, if not all the way to the final game, by schools from the so-called midmajor conferences. Wichita State made it to the last weekend three years ago and George Mason did so in 2006. Yet save for UConn with its Big East heritage none of those teams ever wound up cutting down the nets. These infrequent sojourns to the tournament’s final weekend keep the dream alive, but the list of NCAA Division I champions is a stern reminder that in the end a team from one of the power conferences will prevail.

That result is made increasingly likely by the tournament selection committee’s choice of at-large teams. After the thirty-two automatic bids are decided at the conference tournaments, the committee fills out the bracket by choosing the thirty-six best remaining teams. Beginning with the tournament’s expansion to its current size in 2011, teams from midmajor conferences were given seven, eleven, eleven, ten and then again seven at-large bids through 2015. Last season the number slipped to six. This year only four midmajor schools were added to the field as at-large teams. The five power conferences that dominate college football – the Big 10, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12, plus the Big East, received 89% of the at-large bids.

Analysts agree that the reason for the shift is the committee’s increasing reliance on RPI, the statistical measure of strength of schedule. Because the bulk of every team’s schedule is made up of conference play, even a very good team in a middling or weak conference is going to have an unimpressive RPI. The cycle then turns on itself, as fewer tournament bids mean less exposure, resulting in tougher recruiting and weaker teams outside of the power conferences.

Still on this first weekend fans can hope, but they should do so with a clear head. So it was appropriate that the tournament began with a game between the #5 seed Notre Dame and #12 Princeton. The five versus twelve first round matchup, famous as the source of so many early upsets over the years. After trailing by as many as eleven points, the Ivy League champions rallied late, twice pulling to within a single point. With seven seconds left and the score 59-58, Princeton’s Devin Cannady launched a long three-point jumper that would have given the Tigers the lead. But the shot missed, and Notre Dame survived. A reminder right at the start, that at this tournament Cinderella might dance for a while, but in the end midnight always strikes.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 12, 2017

Godzilla And Cinderella Advance At The World Baseball Classic

Given that baseball is returning to the Olympics in 2020, perhaps we should be paying closer attention to the fourth installment of the World Baseball Classic, which is nearing the midpoint of its seventeen day schedule. Few fans in the U.S. seem very excited about the competition between sixteen teams representing countries across the globe. As the first stage of round robin games started early last week, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was compelled to deny rumors that the WBC was losing money and that this year’s competition would be the last. “The WBC will be broadcast in 182 countries,” Manfred said in Tokyo. “This will be a $100 million event over this brief period. From Day 1, while it was a profitable event from the beginning, it has really grown in terms of its revenue significance and its popularity around the world.”

Of course in the same interview the head of MLB made it plain that major league players will not be participating in the Olympic baseball tournament, scheduled to take place at the 30,000 seat Yokohama Stadium, twenty miles south of the main venues for the Tokyo Games. “You know, no matter how you put the event together, there would be a significant number of major league players who would be away from their team,” Manfred said. “It would alter the competition in what I have already characterized as our every day game. I do not believe that our owners would support some sort of break in our season. Continuity is key to our competition.”

With the Olympic flame scheduled to be lit on July 24th three summers hence, Manfred’s point makes sense. The Great Game could scarcely go on hiatus for the period of the Olympics, or the 2020 World Series would bump up against Thanksgiving. The alternative of shortening the season and thus reducing revenue for each of the thirty big league teams is surely an idea that the owners would never even consider.

So when the time comes the Olympic squads will be made up of college players, recent big league retirees, players from professional leagues in other countries, and probably some American minor leaguers. But just because Clayton Kershaw or Bryce Harper won’t be competing for a gold medal, that doesn’t mean the competition won’t be both spirited and entertaining. Which just happens to also be the case with the World Baseball Classic.

Interest is relatively low in this country because most top American MLB stars chose not to participate. There is no Kershaw or Harper on the U.S. roster. Reigning MVPs Mike Trout and Kris Bryant are in Arizona with the Angels and Cubs. Rick Porcello, the American League Cy Young Award winner, is in Fort Myers with the Red Sox. Max Scherzer, who won the NL Cy Young last season, was scheduled to join Team U.S.A. but backed out with a finger injury. Not that the American team is made up of a bunch of forty year-old weekend softball players. Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen and Daniel Murphy are all on the roster, as are Andrew Miller and David Robertson. Still the number of elite starting pitchers who declined to take part is notable. In addition to Kershaw and Porcello, the list includes Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta and Zach Greinke. That’s two full rotations worth of aces who are busy with their regular Spring Training preparations.

While they can’t say it out loud, the GMs and managers of those pitchers’ teams, as well as those of position players who have passed on the WBC are surely happy they all did. Not just because participation in the WBC disrupts the normal flow of February and March, but because the games pose the risk of injury for those who do take part. In Saturday’s game between Venezuela and Italy, catcher Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals and pitcher Francisco Rodriguez of the Detroit Tigers, both playing for Venezuela, were injured on the same play. For the conspiracy theorists out there, Rodriguez injured his knee in a home plate collision with the catcher for Team Italy, who just happens to be Drew Butera, Rodriguez’s full-time backup with the Royals.

If American interest in the WBC is faint, that’s not the case in other countries. The first round games for the four teams in Pool A were played at the Gocheok Sky Dome is Seoul, South Korea, and the stadium was packed near capacity for the games in which the national team took the field. The Tokyo Dome was the site for Pool B, and it too was crowded whenever Japan or Cuba was playing. The Dominican Republic is the defending WBC champion from 2013, and the three first round games that this year’s team played at Marlins Park in Miami all drew bigger crowds than the average attendance for Marlins home games last season.

Team Dominica swept through the last WBC, finishing 8-0 and becoming the first team to go undefeated on its way to the championship. A heavy favorite to repeat, the Dominican lineup is loaded. While American major leaguers may be reluctant to participate, that’s decidedly not the case for those with ties to the Caribbean island nation. This year’s roster includes Jean Segura of the Diamondbacks, who led the National League in hits last season; and speedy Jonathan Villar of the Brewers, last year’s stolen base leader with 62. Then there’s Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz and Starling Marte in the outfield, and Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano, Manny Machado and Hanley Ramirez in the infield. It’s a lineup any major league manager would be happy to run out on the field anytime during the longest season.

It’s no surprise that the Dominican Republic squad finished the first round a perfect 3-0, on top of Pool C. That included a comeback 7-5 win over Team U.S.A., although the Americans are thrashing Team Canada as this is being written and so will likely join Team Dominica in the second round as the runner-up in Pool C. The Dominicans will be favored in the second stage round robin at Petco Park, and barring an upset favored again at the single elimination finals among four teams at Dodger Stadium the beginning of next week.

But beware Team Israel. In keeping with it spot on the calendar, the WBC has a Cinderella team, such as we’ll soon be hearing about from the NCAA basketball tournament. Team Israel is in its first WBC, having played its way into the tournament by winning a four team, double elimination qualifier in Brooklyn last September. The Israeli roster includes not a single active major leaguer, with the best Jewish players either sitting out the WBC or playing for the U.S. Ranked 41st in the world and a 200-1 longshot to win the tournament, Team Israel has one Israeli-born player and a group of American minor leaguers and retired big league players with enough Jewish heritage to qualify under the tournament’s rules.

So far all they’ve done is sweep through the first round, beating South Korea 2-1, Taiwan 15-7, and the Netherlands 4-2. After moving from Seoul to Tokyo, Team Israel opened round two by downing Cuba 4-1. Ahead are a rematch against the Dutch and a meeting with Team Japan. The unlikeliest team to be undefeated at this point may need only one more win to qualify for the finals. Who said a competition without known stars couldn’t be entertaining?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 9, 2017

A Win For Las Vegas Is A Loss For The Northeast

It took nine years, but for NASCAR fans in New England, the other shoe finally dropped. In 1990 the Bahr family purchased and redeveloped Bryar Motorsports Park in tiny Loudon, New Hampshire. They converted the small road circuit into a multipurpose facility anchored by a one mile asphalt oval suitable for stock car racing. Family patriarch Bob Bahre immediately began lobbying NASCAR to bring racing to the Northeast and after three years of hosting developmental series races what was then known as New Hampshire International Speedway saw its first race in the sport’s premier series in the summer of 1993. Four years later a second Cup Series race was added in September. This July and again in the fall racing fans from all around New England and eastern Canada will converge on the Magic Mile to cheer on their favorite drivers, first in the New Hampshire 301 and then in the New England 300.

But those fans learned this week that when the checkered flag salutes the winner of that latter race it will also mark the end of two Cup races a year at what is now New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The name change took place in 2008, when Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. purchased the sprawling 1,200 acre facility from the Bahr’s. With annual revenue of $570 million, SMI operates nine racing facilities as well as the PRN radio network that broadcasts races run at the company’s tracks. The sale was not a complete surprise. Although the entire Bahre family was involved in the operation of the track, Bob had always been the driving force behind the operation, and he was well past retirement age. He and Smith had partnered on other deals, so SMI was a logical choice when Bahre went looking for a buyer.

Still the news sent a shudder through the many racing fans in New England and Canada who faithfully packed the stands at Loudon twice each year. The Bahr’s were locals who helped broaden the appeal of what had been a regional sport by bringing it to the Northeast. In contrast SMI was a publicly traded behemoth with the usual corporate focus on the bottom line. Fans worried that Smith had purchased the New Hampshire facility just to get his hands on two additional racing dates, which he would then move to one of his other tracks.

While Smith sought to reassure devotees of the Magic Mile that SMI was committed to stock car racing in New England, each year’s announcement of NASCAR’s schedule for the following season was an anxious time for a while. The nervous tension gradually eased as Loudon’s two races appeared on each new calendar. SMI also won over folks by enhancing the overall experience, which for many fans in their campers and RVs is an entire weekend of qualifying, practice, and multiple developmental series races before the Cup race on Sunday afternoon. An expansive midway was added near the track, and Cup races were preceded by concerts on a stage erected at the finish line. If the performers were generally groups somewhat past their prime, fans still appreciated the gesture.

Perhaps that led to a certain complacency, a belief that the two race schedule at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was set firmly in stone, like the stripe of local granite that marks the track’s start/finish line. For there was a sudden sense of panic when word came from Las Vegas, site of this week’s NASCAR stop, that the city’s Convention and Visitors Authority was close to a deal to invest $17.5 million over seven years to promote racing in the desert, contingent on the local track adding a second race to the one late winter event it has hosted for years.

The NASCAR schedule is a zero sum game. For any track to add a race, some other facility must lose one. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is an SMI track, which meant that Nevada’s gain was going to be a loss for one of Bruton Smith’s other venues. In addition to Las Vegas, SMI tracks in Georgia, Kentucky, Texas and California host just a single race. Unless SMI chose to pull Cup Series racing entirely out of a location, those tracks were not going to be impacted. Other than the Magic Mile, the SMI facilities with two races on NASCAR’s Cup Series schedule are the mile and a half quad oval in Charlotte, North Carolina and the half mile short track in Bristol, Tennessee.

North Carolina is the traditional home of stock car racing. All of the major racing teams make their headquarters in the Charlotte area, and the city is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Despite its tiny size, the track at Bristol is one of the sport’s most popular. More than 160,000 fans cram into the stands to watch drivers careen around the midget oval with its extreme banking like a bunch of teenage hot rodders racing around a Walmart parking lot. In short, the identity of the SMI track that would sacrifice a race for the benefit of Sin City was never in doubt.

Thursday the news was made official, and now New England racing fans must adjust to a new reality; one that deep down they’ve known was coming from the day their favorite family owned track was sold nine years ago. At a press conference David McGrath, the general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, promised to make the remaining race every July doubly exciting. He also talked about using the venue for other attractions like music festivals. Spoken like a good SMI employee, gamely taking the hit for the greater corporate good.

Of course the July race won’t be made longer or have more cars or multiple finishes; and there are many venues throughout the region far more suitable for music festivals. The possibility of attracting an IndyCar race is more appealing, but at this point that idea is little more than a hopeful thought. For now starting next year racing fans in New England and eastern Canada can only hold on tight to their one remaining race, knowing that it’s a 350 mile drive from Loudon to Watkins Glen or Pocono, the two closest opportunities they will soon have to see any additional NASCAR racing.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 5, 2017

An Important Win, But Not Yet A New Era

When Dustin Johnson climbed to the top of the Official World Golf Rankings two weeks ago, he became just the twentieth man to hold the top spot since the rankings were introduced in the spring of 1986. World number ones run from Bernhard Langer, then the 28-year old reigning Masters champion to Johnson, now the holder of the U.S. Open trophy and winner of five PGA Tour events since last June, with just eighteen others in between. That relatively small number have laid claim to the number one ranking over thirty years because for long stretches during that time men’s golf has been dominated by one or at most two players.

Langer held the top spot for just three weeks before he was dethroned at the end of April 1986 by the elegant Spanish escape artist Seve Ballesteros. Then began a period of more than four years when the number one ranking was the exclusive province of just two men, Ballesteros and Australia’s Greg Norman. Twice during that period Norman topped the list for more than an entire year. When Nick Faldo surpassed Norman and began the first of his four stints as number one in September 1990, Norman had spent a total of 182 weeks as the official best golfer in the world. While Faldo and several other golfers took their turns at the top through the 1990s, the player known as the Great White Shark never fell very far down the list. When Norman spent his last week as number one in January 1998, it was his was his 331st week in that position.

He was replaced by Tiger Woods, who had already supplanted Norman for brief periods twice before in 1997. Within eighteen months the Woods era was in full flight. He became number one for the seventh time in August 1999, and stayed there for more than five years. A little later in the decade he broke his own record, holding the top ranking for 281 weeks from June 2005 to October 2010.

But the recent history of men’s golf has been very different. It was five years ago this week that Rory McIlroy moved to the top of the list for the first time. With DJ’s recent ascension, in those five years the number one ranking has changed hands nineteen times, with seven different golfers able to say that they were number one. The average stay at the top during this period has been thirteen weeks, and twelve times a number one golfer has held on to the ranking for a month or less.

This extended period of multiple golfers contending for the top spot could be looked at as the best possible situation, an embarrassment of riches for the game. But many golf fans and not a few pundits, used to having a single dominant force in their game, seem to long for a return to the days of one player ruling the landscape. Long before the preeminent sports agent Mark McCormack came up with the idea of the rankings, golf was identified by its leading player. So Ben gave way to Sam, then Arnie yielded to Jack, next Tom was supplanted by Greg, until at last Tiger came along.

Against that backdrop the recent churning at the top of the rankings seems out of place. All the more so because in addition to players one can immediately name – Rory and Jason, Jordan and Dustin, the top spot in the past five years has also been held by the likes of Luke Donald, despite the fact that the Englishman has never won a major. So it’s not surprising that when Johnson finally seized the number one position a fortnight ago there were more than a handful of observers in the golf media predicting that DJ was the one to dominate the rest and end the period of frequent changes at the top of the rankings.

This weekend Johnson returned to the links after a week off, and the results of the WGC – Mexico Championship both strengthened the case being made by those pundits and showed how tenuous it remains. Johnson won the tournament, firing a final round 68 to pass 54-hole leader Justin Thomas and claim the title at 14-under par. In doing so he became just the fifth world number one to win in his first time out after climbing to the top of the rankings. The victory was also Johnson’s fourth at a World Golf Championships event. That’s more wins at the prestigious limited field events than anyone not named Tiger Woods. By winning he of course gained the most ranking points this week, thus opening up some space between himself and everyone else. That will be especially true over number two Jason Day, who was the only top player not inside the ropes at the Club de Golf Chapultepec outside Mexico City, having withdrawn because of illness.

But before proclaiming the arrival of the DJ era it’s worth looking a little more closely at how the WGC – Mexico Championship unfolded. Johnson appeared to have seized control of the tournament by the time he made the turn with Thomas and McIlroy in the final threesome. Having started the day one behind he had moved four shots ahead. Johnson started the final round leading the field in several tee to green statistics, but was in the middle of the pack in putting metrics. Then he rolled in birdie putts of fifteen feet on the 3rd and six feet on the 6th. He added a twenty-nine foot bomb on the 8th and then sank an eight footer on the 9th to go out in 4-under par.

Yet just as the back nine was looking like a comfortable stroll to victory, the afternoon turned tense. Playing in the group ahead of Johnson, Jon Rahm reached the 622 yard par-5 11th hole in two, then found the cup with his fifteen foot putt for eagle. That sliced into Johnson’s lead, and he quickly gave more of it away by missing a short par putt on the 12th hole. When he badly under clubbed on the par-3 13th, resulting in a second straight bogey even as Rahm was holing out from the fringe on the 14th, the two were tied at 13-under.

Rahm even briefly claimed sole possession of first place with a birdie at the 14th, though that lasted only as long as it took Johnson to play the same hole. In the end the 22-year old Spaniard faded with two late bogeys. But one more group ahead, Tommy Fleetwood sank a cross-country putt from nearly forty feet at the home hole to get to 13-under and force Johnson to execute a brilliant shot from an awkward stance in a fairway bunker at the last, thus saving par and a one shot win.

That he executed that shot and won the tournament are certainly marks of a champion. But Rahm needed just four events to win enough money to earn his PGA Tour card, and won earlier this year in San Diego in just his twelfth Tour start. Phil Mickelson has called him “one of the best players in the world.” Runner-up Fleetwood beat Johnson by a stroke at a European Tour event in January, and currently leads that tour’s money list. And those are two players most fans don’t know. Jason Day was ill this week, not dead. McIlroy returned from a six week absence rehabbing a hairline fracture to a rib to finish just four back. Jordan Spieth finished tied for 12th, just the second time this season he’s been out of the top ten. And third round leader Thomas was going for his fourth win in this still-young season. All of the PGA Tour advertising during the tournament featured the familiar slogan, “these guys are good.” That’s these guys, not just this guy. Why any fan should think that’s a bad thing is beyond me.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 2, 2017

Book Review: Swimming With The Daily Fantasy Sharks

Life moves fast in this age of short attention spans and information overload. It seems like ages ago when in fact it was just a year and a half. A mere eighteen months since sports fans across the country busily gearing up for a new NFL season were suddenly deluged by an unprecedented wave of television ads pushing a single product. As much as we all might want to block it out, who can forget the one advertisement that seemed to run at every commercial break?

Two young men in football jerseys are seen looking anxious, their faces lit by the reflected glow of what has to be a television screen. One is wearing a baseball cap backwards, and gnawing on his fingernails. As a crowd mills in the background, they pace back and forth nervously. Then suddenly, and obviously in response to something that happened on the unseen TV, they erupt in a joyful celebration as an announcer says “this is what it looks like when real people win a million dollars playing fantasy football.” The last shot has the two twenty-somethings holding a giant cardboard check and grinning from ear to ear. Beneath those smiles a line appears, telling viewers that over the past year the average user’s winnings were $1,263.

The two young men are, as the announcer suggests, real people – brothers Rob and Dave Gomes. In the fall of 2014 they really did win the Fantasy Football Millionaire Maker sponsored by Boston-based DraftKings. The ad first ran the following March, and then in August and September of 2015 DraftKings began an unprecedented commercial campaign, spending more than $32 million in a very short period of time, according to advertising industry estimates. The Gomes brothers were impossible to avoid, with their ad running over 15,000 times.

The Gomes ad and others like it quickly raised general awareness of daily fantasy sports (DFS), even if most people still had little idea how the contests on DraftKings and its larger New York-based rival FanDuel actually operated. By the thousands and then hundreds of thousands curious individuals, mostly male and mostly young, clicked over to one or both of the sites, made an initial deposit, and began playing. While many did so because of their existing interest in sports, unquestionably the lure of quick riches played a critical role in the explosive growth of DFS.

One of those who had started playing a few months before the advertising barrage began was Daniel Barbarisi, then the Yankees beat writer for the Wall Street Journal. Barbarisi was introduced to DFS by another member of the traveling band of writers following the Yankees from one stadium to the next. Signing up with the user name Pimpbotlove, he initially saw it as a way to pass the time while on the road. But he quickly learned that the DFS world was sharply divided between millions of amateurs, known as fish, and a select group of professional players, referred to as sharks.

His journalistic interest piqued, Barbarisi originally asked the Journal for a leave of absence so that he could delve into this rapidly growing form of gambling full-time. Not surprisingly, the newspaper wasn’t keen on having one of its reporters, even one on a leave, neck-deep in an activity the legality of which was starting to be questioned. So Barbarisi took the plunge, resigning from the Journal and committing himself to spending a year as a full-time DFS player, to see if a regular guy could go from fish to shark. In doing so he set an ambitious goal of winning one of the big money championships, while also hoping that he didn’t just wind up depleting his savings.

The result is “Dueling With Kings,” published by Touchstone and available next week. It’s an engaging and funny behind the scenes look at the people involved in an industry that enjoyed a meteoric rise and nearly as spectacular a fall just as Barbarisi, who certainly had the good fortune of perfect timing, was doing his research. The rise was fueled by the massive commitment of advertising dollars by the two major DFS companies. DraftKings spent millions in advertising in a determined effort to take market share from FanDuel, while the latter responded in kind in order to stay ahead of its challenger. The insane spending was in turn made possible by a surge of venture capital and sponsorship deals from a variety of corporate sources and ultimately the sports teams and leagues themselves; deals that pushed the value of both companies north of $1 billion. Many of the institutions that helped to fund DFS had to set aside longstanding objections to involvement with gambling.

Whether daily fantasy is a game of skill or just another version of a slot machine is a debate that goes on to this day. Those who think the latter had a lot to do with curbing what once appeared to be the unstoppable growth of DraftKings and FanDuel. But as Barbarisi makes clear, the likes of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and others who led campaigns against DFS received enormous albeit unintentional help from the two companies.

What Barbarisi found were two businesses that catered heavily to the sharks, allowing full-time players who dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars to game the system with computer programs that automatically generated scores of entries far faster than a lowly fish could ever imagine. Those same players were using sophisticated metrics to set lineups, while amateur players were picking teams based on emotion. In the vast majority of instances it simply wasn’t a fair fight.

In an unregulated industry, the leaders of both DraftKings and FanDuel saw no problem with employees playing as well, as long as they did so at the other website. But many contests were similar enough that an employee with knowledge of what was happening at the site he worked for could use that knowledge to gain an edge while playing at the competitor’s. When DraftKings employee Evan Haskell won $350,000 playing at FanDuel, questions about insider knowledge led to suddenly critical news coverage.

At the same time, a lot of people were getting turned off by the advertising that was not just ceaseless but also misleading. The claim about average winnings shown at the end of DraftKings’ Gomes ad was arrived at by excluding everyone who lost money.

Hubris made the DFS leaders easy targets for those seeking to rein in the industry. The two companies were forced to wage expensive state by state fights to pass laws allowing daily fantasy to continue, even as many players left what they believed was anything but a level playing field. While in the end daily fantasy survived, it has done so in a reduced state, with the two companies that once were bitter rivals agreeing to a merger late last year, as their best route to survival.

Barbarisi recounts all of this, and clearly comes down on the side of gambling in the debate about the ultimate nature of DFS. But he also turns the professional players into human beings, and surprisingly sympathetic ones. It’s fair to say that on his journey through the world of daily fantasy Barbarisi made some unexpected friends. But what about his goal, did he become a shark and win big money? Buy the book to find out the details, but if you decide to enter a DFS hockey contest, you might not want to go head to head against Pimpbotlove.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 26, 2017

New Rules In Vogue, NASCAR Leads The Way

In a testament to our declining attention spans, the leaders of multiple sports are searching for ways to increase action and decrease the amount of down time during their events. Facing declining television ratings, the NFL announced it would experiment with the number and length of commercial breaks during the closing weeks of the regular season. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred seems particularly obsessed, proposing multiple rules changes including a change to the strike zone and limiting managers’ visits to the mound. Low level minor league games will mirror some softball leagues this season, placing a runner on second base to begin extra innings, with the goal of eliminating five-hour, 16-inning contests.

As spring training began Manfred lashed out at the Players Association for its refusal to agree to most of his proposals, and reminded the union that under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement he can unilaterally impose the changes next year. The one new rule for this season eliminates the ritual of a pitcher tossing four balls outside the strike zone to intentionally walk a batter. Now a signal from the dugout will send the hitter to first base. Ironically, the day the new rule was announced a college game was decided by a wild pitch during an intentional walk that allowed the tie-breaking run to score from third.

But no sport has made more changes to its rules with an eye toward increasing fan interest than NASCAR. Stock car racing began its season as always this weekend, with its most famous race as the opening act. As the 40-car field rolled onto the Daytona International Speedway track for the Daytona 500 Sunday afternoon, NASCAR’s premier series had both a new sponsor – Monster Energy, and an entirely new method of accumulating points toward every driver’s season long goal of winning a championship.

Each race is now broken into three stages, with a competition caution marking the end of the first two. The race winner receives 40 points, second place gets 35, third place 34 and so on down to a single point each for the last five places. But now there are rewards for the first two stages as well. The top ten cars at the end of those race segments are also awarded points, with 10 to the leader, 9 to second, down to 1 to the driver in tenth place.

Gone after a dozen years is the branding of the last ten races on the schedule as the “Chase for the Championship.” In its place the first twenty-six races are now the “regular season” while the final ten are the “playoffs.” The sixteen leading regular season drivers qualify for the playoffs, and they all start that portion of the schedule with 2,000 points, plus whatever bonus points they have accumulated during the regular season.

Those playoff bonus points are awarded for winning a race (five), winning a stage of a race (one), and having the most regular season points (fifteen). As has been the case for the past three years, the playoffs will have an elimination format, with the sixteen competitors gradually reduced to twelve, then eight, and finally just four for the Ford Ecoboost 400, the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway the Sunday before Thanksgiving. After all those permutations, the points will be reset for those four drivers so that all begin that last race even, with the absurdly simple result of the one who has the best finish claiming the championship.

In announcing what was described as “an enhanced race format” for this season, NASCAR officials said that by “increasing the sense of urgency and emphasizing aggressive racing and strategy, the race format will deliver more dramatic moments over the course of an entire race and season, with playoff point incentives on the line throughout.” In plain English, awarding points at three different stages in each race will hopefully increase fan interest and add drama to the weekly action. NASCAR hopes the changes will help to reduce a steady decline in both live attendance and television ratings; although it is possible that any new fans attracted to stock car racing by this revised scoring format will be limited to math geeks. Perhaps calculators will join scanners and coolers full of beer on the list of standard items fans bring to their seats in the stands.

Although there was no question that the new format made the entire 59th running of the Great American Race more compelling Sunday afternoon. Kyle Busch became the first points leader of 2017 when he led at the end of one hundred fifty miles, sixty laps around the big tri-oval with its steep thirty-one degree banking in the four turns. Among those in the top ten and thus earning points for the new season were fan favorites Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, as well as defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Patrick added more points by running fifth at the end of stage two, with Kevin Harvick the leader and stage two winner.

Unfortunately what no scoring format can account for are the vagaries of hard racing or the dangers of overly aggressive driving. Before the second stage was complete, both Busch and Junior were done for the day, victims of a crash on lap 104 brought on by a flat rear tire on Busch’s Toyota. Four other cars were caught up in the wreck, which also highlighted the downside of another rules change NASCAR has instituted this season.

Unlike previous years, a car involved in an accident that then goes “behind the wall,” or back to the garage for repairs, can no longer return to the race. Further, if a wrecked car goes to pit row instead, the crew has just five minutes to complete repairs before the driver must either get his vehicle back on the track and be able to run at the minimum acceptable speed (160 mph at Daytona), or retire to the garage, thus ending his or her race.

That meant fans were deprived of seeing NASCAR’s most popular driver, returning to action after sitting out much of last season recovering from a concussion, for the second half of the race. Then two major multi-car wrecks, both brought on by Jamie McMurray trying to force his Chevrolet into space that didn’t exist, dashed the hopes of many of the top contenders. The first accident involved seventeen cars and eliminated Johnson, Patrick and Clint Bowyer among others. Just a few laps later McMurray was again the instigator of an eleven car pileup that ended his race, along with that of Brad Keselowski and rookie Daniel Suarez.

Only twenty-five cars were still on the track and only fifteen of them were on the lead lap when Kurt Busch made a last lap pass to claim his first Daytona 500 after three runner-up finishes. It was a worthy win for a NASCAR veteran, though it felt more like the end of a demolition derby. As for the new scoring format the initial reviews are positive, even if it is rather like saying that not just the outcome of the game, but the score at the end of the third and sixth innings will also count in the baseball standings. Don’t anyone tell Rob Manfred what NASCAR is doing. He’d probably think that’s a good idea.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 23, 2017

After The Hysteria, NBA Trade Deadline Fizzles Out

In this age of information overload, a day like Thursday could cause even a high-speed laptop with a 7th Generation Intel Core processor to freeze up, overloaded by wave upon wave of data pouring in from multiple sources. Thursday was the NBA’s trading deadline, with all deals needing to be submitted to the league’s Manhattan office by 3:00 p.m. As that hour approached fans and pundits alike took to social media to ponder and parse the latest rumors, with little regard for the reliability of their sources.

With just over two dozen regular season games to play, this was the last chance for teams to refine their rosters in a significant way. Which franchises would be buyers and go all in on their drive for a championship? Which would be sellers and surrender any remaining hopes for the present in return for the building blocks of future greatness?

It was a feeding frenzy of speculation and wishful thinking. Would Knicks president Phil Jackson unload Carmelo Anthony, and would New York’s one legitimate star player agree to waive his no-trade clause? Would the Cavaliers respond to LeBron James’s pointed comments over the past few weeks and bring in reinforcements for the stretch run? Would Danny Ainge surrender some of the three thousand or so draft picks he has stockpiled for the Celtics in order to acquire a high-profile star that would make Boston truly competitive with Cleveland in the Eastern Conference? Had Jimmy Butler played his last game for the Bulls? Was Paul George on the move from the Pacers? If so, he was definitely going to the Celtics. Except that he was just as definitely headed to the opposite coast to join the Lakers.

But as morning yielded to noon, and then as noon became two o’clock, and finally as the last hour before the deadline passed, the frantic tweets and posts did not give way to news of blockbuster deals reshaping the playoff races. The most frequently discussed players all stayed put. The few deadline day deals that were consummated were modest in scope. And as so often happens when hype outruns reality, NBA fans and the scribes who cover the league were left wondering just what all the fuss had been about.

As much as he might want to given their obviously fractured relationship, the likelihood of Jackson being able to find a new home for Anthony was always remote. The 32-year old has two years and more than $54 million left on his current contract. Those are both numbers that limit Anthony’s appeal to other franchises. Given his ability to veto any trade, probably the only landing viable landing spot was Cleveland if one assumes Anthony would leap at the chance to compete for a title. But the Cavaliers never showed much interest in making a deal with the Knicks.

For that matter, Cleveland never showed much interest in making any deal prior to the trade deadline. However no one should take that as a sign of waning influence by James, who has expressed his belief that the Cavaliers need a playmaker to improve their chances of holding on to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Late Thursday afternoon the Dallas Mavericks announced they had released point guard Deron Williams. It’s widely believed that the third overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft will sign with Cleveland as soon as he clears waivers.

The Celtics were rumored to be in the mix for both Butler and George, and supposedly were willing to include the 2017 first round pick they acquired from Brooklyn in the trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets four years ago. With just nine wins to date the Nets are headed for the draft lottery, most likely as the number one seed. That will mean a twenty-five percent chance the pick Boston has the rights to will be first overall; and it can be no worse than fourth. But despite that considerable carrot, other teams apparently wanted even more. After the deadline passed Ainge said in an interview on the team’s website that “we didn’t feel like there were any good deals.”

The biggest trade was made last weekend, before the deadline hysteria had a chance to get ramped up, when the Sacramento Kings sent DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi to New Orleans for three players and a pair of draft picks. The trade gives the Pelicans two All-Star big men in Cousins and Anthony Davis. It’s an absurdly one-sided deal that greatly improves New Orleans while ensuring more seasons of misery in Sacramento. USA Today rated it the sixth worst superstar trade in NBA history, while Sports on Earth ranked it the second most lopsided NBA trade in the past fifteen years.

Yet even this one big deal may not change the overall complexion of this season. New Orleans should be a much better team over its final twenty-five games, and it’s even conceivable that the Pelicans new size could match up well against the small ball of the Golden State Warriors in a playoff series. But first Cousins and Davis have to mesh, and then New Orleans has to make up ground quickly. As play resumes after the All-Star break the Pelicans are eleven games under .500, in eleventh place in the Western Conference. It may not take a .500 record to claim the eighth and final playoff spot in either conference, but New Orleans still has to pass at least three teams, or their two stars will get an early start on summer.

Which is to say that after all the frenzy around this year’s trade deadline, the NBA after it looks a lot like it did before. Cleveland still rules the East, Golden State and San Antonio remain the class of the West. Houston, Boston and surprising Washington are very good but still a rung below the leaders, and until they prove otherwise everyone else is just part of the chorus. And of course, to the consternation of Knicks fans and the delight of everyone else, the soap opera at Madison Square Garden continues.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 19, 2017

Demons Behind Him, DJ Rises To The Top

In some ways Dustin Johnson’s runaway win at the Genesis Open was no great surprise. After all DJ, as golf fans refer to him, is the defending U.S. Open champion, having won by three strokes at Oakmont last June. He also won two weeks later at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and again during the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs last September at the BMW Championship. Those three wins plus a dozen other top ten finishes were enough to garner Johnson the Tour’s 2016 Player of the Year Award. This weekend’s triumph makes him just the fourth golfer to win at least once in each of his first ten seasons on tour. The three men Johnson joins on that short list are named Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods. On top of that, the win on the hallowed grounds of Riviera Country Club means that he will rise to number one in the world when the new Official World Golf Rankings are released Monday, ending Jason Day’s forty-seven week run at the top of the rankings.

The venerable Pacific Palisades layout, with its gnarly kikuyu grass rough and poa annua greens that become uneven late in the day, is one of the sterner tests on the PGA Tour’s schedule. Although Riviera was softened by torrential rains that drenched and interrupted the tournament’s early rounds and forced most of the field to play 36 holes on Sunday, the 12-under par totals returned by Thomas Pieters and Scott Brown were decidedly worthy efforts, since that score would have won the event four of the last six years. All it did for the 25-year old Belgian and the 33-year old American this year was earn them a tie for second, five shots behind Johnson.

But then with his prodigious length off the tee DJ has been overwhelming golf courses and his fellow competitors whenever his putter gets hot since his rookie season in 2008. This week his TaylorMade mallet was on fire. In his second round 66 Johnson made birdie putts of thirty-eight, thirty-five and twenty-five feet. Sunday morning he began his third round facing a fifty-five foot putt for eagle on the par-5 1st hole. Johnson calmly rolled it to within two inches for his first birdie of the day. He holed six more birdie putts with no bogeys to pull away from the field with a 7-under par 64. After bogeying the par-3 4th hole in his opening eighteen, Johnson didn’t drop another shot until midway in his final walk around Riviera, when the outcome was no longer in doubt on Sunday afternoon.

A title at a premier track, a decade of winning, a major championship, Player of the Year and the number one ranking – in some ways these are the accomplishments that golf fans have always expected Dustin Johnson to achieve. But there has been another side to the 32-year old’s career. As he stands at the top of the golfing world this week, it is worth remembering how very close Johnson came to being a sad and cautionary tale.

Before he enjoyed the sweet taste of victory at a major championship at Oakmont last year, DJ endured repeated heartbreak at golf’s most important tournaments. He held the 54-hole lead at the 2010 U.S. Open, and went to the first tee at Pebble Beach for the final round three shots clear of playing partner Graeme McDowell. Johnson promptly made a triple-bogey on the 2nd hole and followed that with a double on the 3rd. At the end of a torturous afternoon he signed for a final round 82, while McDowell raised the trophy. That same year he appeared to have played his way into a three-man playoff at the PGA Championship, but officials assessed Johnson a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a fairway bunker on Whistling Straits’ final hole. In 2015 at the moonscape known as Chambers Bay, Johnson faced a 12-foot putt for eagle and the title on the U.S. Open’s 72nd hole. Even if he missed, a two putt birdie would have earned him a spot in a playoff with Jordan Spieth. Instead he three putted, his first two efforts never scaring the hole. Later that summer he was the midway leader in the Open Championship at St. Andrews, before disappearing with a pair of 75s on the weekend.

Johnson finally vanquished his major championship demons last June; but before he could do so he had to extricate himself from some personal devils as well. He missed two months of the 2012 season for what was publicly described as a back injury. But the whispers in the golf media at the time suggested that he had been suspended by the PGA Tour for a second failed drug test. Then on July 31, 2014, Johnson announced that he was taking an extended break to deal with “personal challenges.” Golf Magazine reported that he had been suspended for six months after testing positive for cocaine, following another such result in 2012 and a 2009 positive test for marijuana. The PGA Tour is notoriously tight-lipped about its disciplinary actions. A Tour statement at the time denied that Johnson had been suspended, though it said nothing about the alleged positive tests nor whether his voluntary leave had eliminated the need for a formal suspension. His own statement made it plain that whatever Johnson was dealing with, it wasn’t something to be disguised as a back injury.

His would not have been the first athletic career to be waylaid by drugs, had it come to that. But this is one tale that has a happier ending. When he returned to the Tour in early 2015 Johnson had fallen out of the top twenty in the world. Now he’s number one, with five victories since he resumed playing. Since 2013 he’s been engaged to the model Paulina Gretzky, daughter of the hockey legend. When he won the U.S. Open she greeted DJ holding their son Tatum, then 17 months old. This week the couple announced they are expecting their second child.

Some careers are overtaken by doubts at key moments, or by bad decisions away from the field of play. Some, but not all. As Dustin Johnson has shown, athletes can overcome their doubts and triumph; and human beings, as fallible as we are, can make the most of second chances.

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