Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 23, 2022

The Predictable Limits Of Quantity Over Quality

One game does not a weekend make, so despite the showcase of quarterbacks and offensive firepower on display in Kansas City as this is written, it has not been a great weekend for NFL football.  To be sure, the television ratings will doubtless tell a different story.  Just last week, the first round of this year’s playoffs saw a significant increase in viewership, with the matchup between the 49ers and Cowboys yielding the highest ratings for a Wild Card Game in seven years.  There is no reason to expect a sudden reversal of that trend, and since the league and its multitude of corporate sponsors care first, last, and only about the bottom line, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and everyone else at 345 Park Avenue in New York will assert that the divisional round of the postseason was a fine display of America’s favorite sport.

A casual fan might disagree with the opening assertion as well, since all three games that have been decided so far were won on the final play.  Since it’s unlikely either the league or any of the companies paying top dollar to advertise on playoff broadcasts care how deeply committed a viewer is to the sport as long as they’re invested in the game at hand, the drama of a last second victory is a godsend, especially when it neatly obscures fifty-nine-plus preceding minutes of wretched football.  The casual fan gets to talk about the “exciting” game he or she has just witnessed, and the multitude of viewers combined with the frequent commercial breaks guarantee these broadcasts will dwarf all other programming in the count of total ad impressions during the week.

But for the committed NFL faithful, it’s surely been a hard slog to get through 59:56 of Bengals versus Titans, or 49ers versus Packers, or Rams versus Buccaneers, all for the final four seconds worth of Evan McPherson converting from 52 yards, or Robbie Gould from 45, or Matt Gay from 30 to send their respective teams on to the Conference Championship round next weekend.

Sunday’s contest between Los Angeles and Tampa Bay at least had plenty of offense, albeit divided between the two teams by half.  The first thirty minutes belonged to the visiting Rams, with quarterback Matthew Stafford leading his squad to scores on each of L.A.’s first three possessions.  The vaunted Tampa Bay defense, which in fairness had been hollowed out by injuries, seemed incapable of slowing down the Rams, much less stopping each drive.  Meanwhile the Buccaneers’ offensive drives produced just three points, along with a turnover, three punts, and a kneel-down before escaping to the locker room.

The tide took its time turning after the intermission, with Los Angeles extending its edge to 27-3 before Tampa Bay began to rally.  A Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski pass for 42 yards set up a field goal with just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter.  Those points proved to be the first of twenty-four that Tampa Bay would post in a little over fifteen minutes of game time.  When that scoring ended with a 9-yard run by Leonard Fournette for a touchdown that tied the game, surely most viewers thought, no doubt some with joy and others with resignation, that another unlikely comeback was about to be added to Brady’s career highlight reel.  But with 1:43 remaining, Stafford had plenty of time to move the Rams down the field and set up Gay’s short field goal for the win.

The two Saturday games combined failed to produce even a fraction of that much action on offense.  Cincinnati’s offensive line played as if its members were volunteers picked from the stands just before game time.  Quarterback Joe Burrow was harassed by Titans rushers all day, with Tennessee recording nine sacks.  Yet it was Titans QB Ryan Tannehill who tossed three interceptions, the last one coming with just 28 seconds left in a game that was tied 16-16.  Burrow then converted a 19-yard pass to Ja’Marr Chase, setting up McPherson’s fourth field goal, to go with the Bengals’ sole touchdown.

That TD was one more than San Francisco’s offensive unit could muster in Saturday’s late game.  Fortunately for 49ers fans, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo turned in a vintage performance, which is to say, he somehow found a way to pull out a win despite not playing particularly well.  In that effort he was assisted mightily by the Green Bay Packers special teams unit, which thoroughly lived down to its regular season ranking as the worst such unit in the entire league.  The Packers had a field goal blocked on the last play of the first half, then allowed a 45-yard return on the opening kickoff of the second half, giving the 49ers prime field position at the 50.  With time winding down and the Packers clinging to a 10-3 lead, Green Bay’s punt from its own end zone was blocked and the loose ball scooped up by Talanoa Hufanga of the 49ers for a touchdown that tied the game.  Finally, with its season on the line, Green Bay deployed only ten men on defense when San Francisco lined up for Gould’s game winner.

Last second heroics aside, the Packers’ Keystone Cops version of special teams, just like the Bengals’ abject front line, Tannehill’s penchant for throwing the ball to the wrong team, and Garoppolo’s indifferent play, all made for less than scintillating viewing, and the alternating futility of the Rams’ and Buccaneers’ offenses didn’t do much to improve things.  It’s the second year of the NFL’s expanded playoffs, and one more weekend that reminds fans of the old and unrelenting truth about diminishing returns.  Or at the least, a sign fans should move on from the likes of Brady with his avocado ice cream and Rodgers with his aggrieved entitlement, to a new generation of quarterbacks.  Any chance Mahomes versus Allen could be a weekly event?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 20, 2022

The PGA And European Tours’ Useful Idiots

The peripatetic caravan that is the PGA Tour rolls into the Coachella Valley this week for the start of its midwinter West Coast Swing, four tournaments in California sandwiched around the Tour’s annual bacchanalia, the Waste Management Phoenix Open.  The northernmost stop on this part of the schedule will be on the Monterey Peninsula, where in two weeks members of the world’s preeminent men’s golf tour will tee it up for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.  The tournament traces its roots to the 1930’s, when the entertainer and avid amateur hacker Bing Crosby began gathering his Hollywood friends and some touring pros for a weekend of golf and partying.  Over the decades most of golf’s big names, from Snead and Hogan to Nicklaus and Watson to Woods and Mickelson have claimed victory at the event once affectionately known as Crosby’s Clambake.

But despite the tournament’s long history, the challenge of Pebble Beach Golf Links, and the staggeringly beautiful setting, the field at this year’s AT&T will be noticeably weaker than in recent years.  That’s because nearly two dozen golfers, including many instantly recognizable names from both the PGA and European Tours, will be eleven time zones away playing at the PIF Saudi International.  Golf fans are used to a tournament sponsor slapping its name on an event and are equally adept at ignoring the best efforts of corporate marketing departments, as evidenced by the fact that for many followers of the sport, the two tournaments mentioned in the first paragraph will always be simply the “Phoenix Open” and “Pebble Beach.”  But in this case, the sponsor’s name tells all, for PIF stands for Public Investment Fund, the official investing vehicle of Saudi Arabia’s government.

Created in 1971 to invest the oil-rich kingdom’s wealth, the PIF is headed by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of a notoriously authoritarian regime.  He and the government he heads have been condemned by human rights groups for crackdowns on activists within the country, for vocally supporting China’s repression of its Uyghur population, and, most brazenly, for authorizing the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  While many of the PIF’s investments are kept hidden, the fund has begun devoting some of its money to sportswashing, the practice of using our games, whether through sponsoring events, hosting them, or even team ownership, to improve one’s image or at least divert attention from actions that range from unsavory to heinous.  Last year, in the face of strong public opposition, the English Premier League approved the sale of Newcastle United to a consortium led by the PIF.  Now the fund has stepped in to support a golf tournament that was in trouble after it was dropped from the European Tour’s schedule.

While professional golfers have considerable freedom to choose where and when they play, both the PGA and European Tours require members to receive permission to play elsewhere if doing so conflicts with a tournament on their home tour.  Initially both PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and European Tour CEO Keith Pelley said they would not grant releases, mainly because of the PIF’s funding of LIV Golf Investments, the Greg Norman led effort to create a rival global golf tour.  But both ultimately backed down rather than force a confrontation with several stars.

Fans should thus not look for the likes of Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson when they tune into the action at Pebble Beach.  Nor will Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Tommy Fleetwood or Shane Lowry be playing either there or at that week’s European Tour event.  They will all be among two dozen American and European pros teeing it up at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, on the Red Sea coast.  They will not be there because of the history of a tournament that did not exist until 2019, nor because of the event’s purse, which is less than sixty percent of the money at stake at Pebble.  They are instead being lured by appearance money – cash paid to them simply for showing up – a practice forbidden at PGA Tour events.  The amount of such payments is never disclosed, but one can be assured that the PIF is offering a lot more than just plane tickets and free hotel rooms.

When DeChambeau and Lowry were asked about the propriety of lending their imprimatur to the PIF and Mohammed bin Salman, both begged off by saying they were “not politicians.”  That hollow excuse, which would surely be echoed by all their compatriots, is as true as it is obvious, but ignores the equal truth that anyone can make a political statement.  Even those, no make that especially those, who for the sake of a fatter bank account willingly play the part of useful idiot.

This is not a plea for ideological purity, for none of us are pure.  We all make moral judgments every day, and no doubt each of us sometimes falls short.  AT&T, the sponsor of the PGA Tour’s Pebble Beach event, has like many major corporations been neck deep in controversy at times.  Most recently, a Reuters report revealed that AT&T was the driving force and major financial backer behind OAN, the radical fringe cable network that has yet to meet a rightwing conspiracy theory too extreme for it to promote.  And while the Saudi event is underway the European Tour will be playing for the third week of four in a row in the various constituent territories of the United Arab Emirates, a nation not known for its openness or commitment to equality.

One may choose to condemn an event because it is played in a repressive country or sponsored by a company with a poor record of corporate responsibility.  But those examples of sportswashing are laughably amateurish compared to the PIF and Mohammed bin Salman’s cynical use of cold cash to make a consummately evil record simply disappear.  

It is, in the end, a contest between principle and profit.  In sports, as in life, there are noble stories of the former winning the day.  But the alternative result is far more common.  The triumph of greed is, after all, a tale that goes all the way back to that ancient account of what one man was willing to do for thirty pieces of silver.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 16, 2022

The Downside Of The Playoff Money Grab

Less is more.  The concept is hardly new.  Robert Browning used the phrase in his 1855 poem “Andrea del Sorto,” a dramatic monologue about the Renaissance Italian painter.  The architect Ludwig Mies, the last director of the Bauhaus, who fled Germany for the United States when the Nazis came to power, employed the term to describe his preference for minimalist architecture.  But suggest the idea to the leaders of any major sport, and the reaction will be at best a quizzical squint, as if the thought were utterly alien, and more likely a sour face, as if the words themselves were rancid.

If a 32-team FIFA World Cup is good, expanding soccer’s preeminent international soccer competition to forty-eight teams must be better.  And isn’t it perfectly logical that the response of UEFA, the governing body of European football, to the quickly aborted effort of a handful of clubs to form a super league, should be to recommend expanding the Champions League competition by adding four more teams, bringing the total contestants to thirty-six? 

On this side of the Atlantic, the Great Game’s annual hot stove season has been replaced by a winter of discontent, with MLB owners locking out players and negotiations on the key economic issues of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement at a standstill for six weeks until a brief and apparently fruitless session just in the past few days.  But one issue of major importance to owners, on which the MLBPA is apparently willing to agree, is expansion of the playoffs.  As has been widely reported, the debate is not whether the number of teams qualifying for the postseason will increase, but by how many, with the owners proposing a 14-team tournament and the players’ counteroffer, for now, at a dozen.

Which brings us to Wild Card Weekend, the annual start to the NFL playoffs and the first step on the postseason road that will end a month from now at SoFi Stadium with the players of the last team standing passing around the Lombardi Trophy.  Except that this year the first round of games has been renamed Super Wild Card Weekend, a nod to the expansion of the league’s tournament field from twelve teams to fourteen, which began last year, and perhaps also to this year’s lengthening of the regular season to seventeen games.  After all, any club that has made it through that gauntlet with a good enough record to play on must be somewhat super, even if it never comes close to taking the field on that final Sunday in Inglewood.

It makes for great marketing – surely for Roger Goodell and company the only thing better would be selling naming rights to the three days of gridiron action.  But the underlying assumption noted above is patently false. 

There are of course instances where expanding a postseason makes sense.  The College Football Playoff, which in its current 4-team format must exclude at least one of the Power 5 conferences every year, in turn requiring regular season perfection by a Group of Five school to even garner consideration from the CFP Selection Committee, is the obvious example.  But even there, the proposal to triple the field to twelve teams that was announced as an all-but-done deal months ago by a working group of conference commissioners struck some as overreach at the time.  It’s dead for now, though the demise is as much about inter-conference politics as it is about a reasoned discussion of the point at which expansion yields diminishing returns in the level of competition.

One might think such an analysis would be the basis for determining the optimal size of a tournament, especially for a professional league’s postseason, which is free from considerations of adequate conference or national representation.  That of course is laughably naïve.  These decisions are always, and only, about money.

More teams in the postseason means more games in the postseason, the part of the schedule, no matter the sport, that always attracts the most television viewers and is thus worth the most in rights negotiations with networks.  For the NFL, expanding the playoff field from twelve to fourteen meant adding two games to the Wild Card round.  With six games on tap the next logical step was to spread those contests over three days instead of two, with the addition of a Monday night game on ESPN ensuring that all the league’s television partners would have the opportunity to broadcast, and pay for, a playoff game.

Both the networks and the league were confident that fans would watch, and they will be correct whether the eventual ratings data shows viewership up or down from previous years.  Which does not mean that what fans will have seen was competitive football.  The theory is that once the postseason starts all teams, in any sport, ratchet up their game to its highest level.  But last year three of the six Wild Card games were won by double-digit margins, and this weekend has seen Buffalo blow out New England and Tampa Bay toy with Philadelphia.  Of the four contests that have been decided, only the 49ers 23-17 win over the Cowboys was an upset, and that came in the game that had the narrowest betting line, with Dallas favored by just three points, the traditional margin given to a home team. 

As this is written, the game between Kansas City and Pittsburgh, which most fans and pundits expect to be the most lopsided of the weekend, is just getting underway.  But even if the Steelers should pull off an improbable victory and somehow march on to a Super Bowl title, how much does it devalue the regular season if a team that was not assured of a winning record until the final play of its final scheduled game winds up lifting the Lombardi trophy?  Why should that franchise even be given the chance to play for the NFL’s most cherished hardware? 

The answer is obvious.  It is because of another enduring phrase, one that like “less is more” has also been around for a long time, one that in professional sports, trumps all.  Money talks.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 13, 2022

Amid The Doom And Gloom, A Rae Or Two Of Light

There will be fans and pundits who will mark Thursday as a good day for the Great Game.  For the first time since the beginning of December, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced the owners’ lockout of players immediately upon the expiration of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, representatives of the two sides met to discuss what are euphemistically described as “core economic issues,” a polite and rather legalistic term for “money.” 

The parties talking after six weeks of silence is an extremely low bar for positive news, especially since when the lockout was imposed Manfred characterized it as a step that would “jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.”  As jumpstarts go, forty-three days between that pronouncement and the first session on the key issues separating the two sides would indicate a desperate need for a new set of jumper cables.  But then most fans knew at the time that Manfred’s words were more marketing than meaningful, just one more attempt to cast his billionaire employers as the aggrieved parties trying to avoid financial ruin and save the Great Game from the unlimited avarice of the hired help.

If the mere event was a step forward, albeit by a minimal standard, the few details we know about it, coupled with fans’ considerable knowledge about the chasm of differences between the two sides, are together a stark warning that the 2022 MLB season is increasingly unlikely to be business as usual.  Details have been slow to emerge, but reports indicate the owners’ Thursday proposal included a higher minimum salary for players under team control and a larger pool for salaries of Super Two players – a small group who, based on their accumulated service time, wind up eligible for arbitration for four seasons rather than the standard three.  Aside from those salary-related items, the owners offered some tweaks to their proposed draft lottery to discourage teams from tanking, and a plan to give an extra draft pick to teams that play a highly ranked prospect for a full season rather than holding him in the minors to manipulate his service time, but only if that player finishes in the top five of voting for one of the major year-end awards.  Those are hardly bold moves, so it’s not remotely surprising that the choice of words used to describe the players’ reaction leaned heavily toward “unimpressed” and “disappointed.”  

The scheduled date for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training is now almost exactly one month away.  While that’s an understandable focus for many fans, it’s not the only deadline the sport is facing.  The international signing period opens this weekend, and although franchises are free to ink minor league contracts and the amount each has available to spend was set by an agreement outside the old CBA, the date is a reminder that arranging work visas and travel for the scores of international major league players who will take part in Spring Training is a time-consuming task, especially in the midst of a pandemic surge.  It’s not one that would normally wait until the day before the deadline to report to camps. 

Of course, the critical date is March 31st, when “play ball” is scheduled to ring out at Opening Day games across the country.  That could still happen even if the start of Spring Training is delayed, but the amount of leeway is not great.  To avoid daily injury reports taking up more space in the sports pages than box scores, at least where sports pages still exist, players need at least three weeks of organized preparation.  Add to that the challenges of getting everyone to Florida or Arizona, and the very first days of March look like the point of no return for an on-time start to the regular season.  Even that may be optimistic, since it doesn’t consider the time teams need to set budgets, work through arbitration hearings with eligible players, and sign free agents.  Despite the flurry of high-profile signings just before the old CBA expired, there are still many prominent free agents in a market that has been frozen since December 1.  And for every Kershaw, Bryant, Freeman or Correa, there are many more lesser-known names who don’t yet know where they will be playing.

If all that isn’t sufficiently depressing, should MLB find itself facing a lockout-shortened regular season, the terms of that campaign will in turn be subject to negotiation, and fans surely remember how well similar talks went when baseball shut down at the onset of COVID-19 in 2020.  Perhaps then, it’s a good time to remember that while MLB is the pinnacle of the sport, it is not the entirety of the Great Game.  From Little League fields in communities throughout the land all the way up to the minor leagues, the return of baseball is not far away.  And this week, if one could look away from the stagnate CBA negotiations, minor league baseball gave fans two outstanding stories.

One was in Iowa, where Michael Gartner, the longtime owner of the Iowa Cubs, closed on the sale of the AAA affiliate of the National League team with the same name to Diamond Baseball Holdings, part of a global entertainment company that has recently purchased nine minor league clubs, including two affiliates of the Yankees and all four teams in the farm system of world champion Atlanta.  Gartner called a meeting of all twenty-three of his fulltime employees, workers he had already kept on at full pay and benefits in 2020, when the entire minor league season was scrubbed, and surprised them all with checks for $2,000 for each year they had worked for the franchise, bonuses ranging from $4,000 to $70,000.  Gartner said that sharing some of the proceeds from his sale of the team was “the right thing to do.”  Whether any of MLB’s owners heard that quote from their MiLb compatriot in Des Moines is unknown.

The second was in Tampa, where Rachel Balkovec was named the 2022 manager of the Yankee’s low-A Tampa Tarpons, thus becoming the first woman manager in affiliated professional baseball history.  Balkovec has been a hitting coach in New York’s minor league system since 2019.  After playing softball in college and getting a master’s in kinesiology, she began working in professional baseball as a strength and conditioning coach in the Cardinals’ farm system.  Named the Appalachian League’s strength coach of the year, she moved on to work for the Astros while also learning Spanish to better communicate with players from Latin America, before heading to the Netherlands for a second master’s, this one in human movement sciences.  Next came the start of her career in pinstripes, where after things settle down following her introductory virtual press conference that was attended by more than a hundred reporters, she will now play a key role in developing the Yankees’ young prospects.

The announcement of Balkovec’s promotion touched off the predictable social media storm of misogynistic complaints.  One can be certain that every single diatribe came from someone who had never before given a stray thought to the qualifications of a manager at the bottom rung of the minor leagues.  They would, however, have fit right in with any of the dozens of major league front office personnel who routinely rejected Balkovec’s resumes when she was first trying to break down the door marked “men only.”  That was until, at her sister’s suggestion, she started sending the exact same resume, but with her first name shortened to Rae. 

Whatever she calls herself, Balkovec’s hiring, about which the Yankees vice president of player development said, “everybody was on board,” was especially welcome this week.  Come what may for the Yankees and twenty-nine other big league franchises, Balkovec’s new responsibilities at New York’s minor league training complex, just a short walk down Dale Mabry Highway from the big club’s Spring Training home, start next month. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 9, 2022

A Hero Is Welcomed Home

You can’t go home again.  So Thomas Wolfe, or, more accurately, his editor Edward Aswell told us eight decades ago with the publication of the so-titled novel two years after Wolfe’s tragic death at the age of 37.  Aswell assembled the book from his charge’s final unpublished manuscript, a vast tome of more than one million words that under the editor’s care yielded two more complete novels.  As with most of Wolfe’s works, “You Can’t Go Home Again” explores the ever-changing nature of society, but with a distinctly autobiographical tone.  It’s the story of George Webber, an author whose successful novels use his North Carolina hometown as their locale.  But when Webber returns to the fictional Libya Hill, he finds old friends and neighbors angry and bitter over his portrayals of them and their community.

The local reaction to the central character’s work gives the title its literal meaning, but as Webber travels to New York, Paris, and eventually Berlin, where the Nazis are claiming power, he observes constant social and political ferment that quickly renders old systems and mores antique and makes reliance on them little more than a foolish escape into the gauzy comfort of memory.  The arc parallels Wolfe’s life, from his upbringing in Asheville North Carolina to his time in Gotham and frequent European excursions.  It also reflects his growing disillusionment with both the excesses of capitalism and the rising tyranny in Germany.

A lifetime after “You Can’t Go Home Again” was published, its central theme seems even more apt, for in the intervening decades the pace of change has increased exponentially.  And yet, in sports at least, every once a great while and against all odds, there is a moment when a group of fans and players and a team come together to prove that memories are not without a special power of their own. 

To be sure, it does not happen often.  Change is constant in all our games, and especially when it involves the movement of players, change can be hard.  Center fielder Johnny Damon was a much-loved and integral part of the 2004 Red Sox roster that ended Boston’s long championship drought.  He batted .304 that year and slugged a pair of home runs, one a grand slam, in Boston’s decisive Game 7 ALCS victory over New York.  But just two seasons later he returned to Fenway Park wearing the road grays of the visiting Yankees.  Fans who had once adored Damon displayed their changed opinion of the former hero by wearing his old Red Sox jersey, but with the “A” in his last name on the back replaced by an “E.”   Even sainted Tom Brady, the leader of six duck boat parades through the streets of Boston after Super Bowl victories by the New England Patriots, heard far more boos than cheers when he reappeared at Gillette Stadium early this season wearing the unfamiliar colors of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But Saturday night in Las Vegas, when the visiting goaltender took the ice at T-Mobile Arena, fans of the Vegas Golden Knights were in a far more charitable mood.  As James Earl Jones, portraying the fictional Terrence Mann, said in a movie about a different sport, “And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”  Saturday night, fans of the Golden Knights welcomed Marc-Andre Fleury home and thanked him for the memories.

That it happened in Las Vegas is itself a reminder of how both society and sports have changed.  The city was known mostly for its proximity to the recently constructed Hoover Dam when Wolfe’s book was published in 1940.  As it claimed its longtime role as the country’s lone redoubt for legalized gambling, it also became forbidden territory for professional sports.  Every major league, through multiple commissioners, steered clear of the Nevada desert and made it clear to players that they should do the same.  But in recent years, as legal betting spread first to Atlantic City, then to casinos on Indigenous land, and finally became sanctioned by multiple states, that attitude softened.  With the rise of online gambling and the skyrocketing popularity of fantasy sports – gambling in all but name – professional leagues have abandoned their old strictures.  The NHL expanded to Vegas beginning with the 2017-18 season, followed by the NFL approving the relocation of the Raiders.

As an expansion team, the Golden Knights stocked their initial roster through an expansion draft, in which a new franchise is allowed to select players that other teams make available.  By the time the Knights were ready to populate the team’s initial squad, Fleury had played a key role on three Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins teams.  But he was also 32 years old, and carried a significant salary cap hit for Pittsburgh, so with his consent the Pens left Fleury unprotected in the expansion draft, and he immediately became the face of the new Nevada franchise.

If the Penguins’ management assumed Fleury would fade away in Las Vegas, they were sorely mistaken.  He led his new club to the Stanley Cup Finals in its very first year of existence, and to at least the Conference Finals in three of its first four seasons, while also cementing his off-ice persona by working with multiple local charitable organizations.  Last year, Fleury posted some of the best goaltending numbers of his lengthy career, including a 1.98 goals against average that helped him win the Vezina Trophy.  But by then he was 36, and the Knights decided to commit to Robin Lehner as their goalie of the future by trading Fleury to Chicago during the offseason.

With a Vezina and three Cups on his resume, Fleury contemplated retirement, but ultimately decided to go one more round, now in the third uniform of his career.  This season he won his 500th game, becoming just the third netminder in NHL history to do so, and after Saturday night, he has now beaten all 32 current NHL franchises.  That’s because he stopped 31 of 32 shots from the NHL’s third-highest scoring team, holding Vegas to its lowest score since being shut out by Toronto on November 2.  He needed to, since Fleury plays for one of the weakest offensive teams in the league, but his Chicago teammates did just enough to skate off with a 2-1 victory.

For their part, Vegas fans didn’t seem to mind losing this game at all.  They roared their welcome when Fleury led Chicago onto the ice for warmups, holding up signs and pounding the glass.  Then they somehow managed to increase the decibel level when a video tribute was played prior to the start of the game.  And some even cheered when the visiting goaltender denied the best efforts of the home team’s skaters.  For one night, in Las Vegas of all places, memory and sentiment ruled.  It was the night the city’s first professional sports hero came home.   

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 6, 2022

The Biggest Jerk And An Absolute Bum

Give Hub Arkush his due, he dared to say the quiet part out loud.  Naturally, for doing so the editor of the “Chicago Football” magazine and website has received plenty of grief, a reminder that brutal honesty is not always rewarded.  Arkush is one of fifty sportswriters who vote on the AP’s NFL Most Valuable Player Award, and while there are several organizations that confer the same honor, the league recognizes the Associated Press award as its de facto official MVP prize.  On Tuesday, during a radio interview on a Chicago sports talk program, Arkush volunteered that he wouldn’t be voting for Aaron Rodgers because the Green Bay quarterback was “the biggest jerk in the league,” for having lied about his COVID-19 vaccination status.  While acknowledging the case for Rodgers’ game day statistics, Arkush contended that those numbers weren’t definitively superior to other candidates, and “the rest of it is why he’s not going to be my choice.” 

Lest there be any doubt, Arkush made clear that the rest of it was the quarterback’s attempt to deceive fans by claiming he was “immunized” and, once the lie was laid bare, his continued peddling of disproved theories about the pandemic and repeated attacks on anyone who, in Rodgers’ view, disagreed with or slighted him.  Most notably, while giving the actual author of the piece a pass Rodgers verbally assaulted sportswriter Molly Knight for the apparently unpardonable sin of retweeting a link to a critical Wall Street Journal article, which predictably resulted in Knight’s social media accounts being flooded with attacks from Green Bay fans.  To Arkush, a player can’t act as Rogers has “to your team and your organization and your fan base…and be the Most Valuable Player.”

The story goes on from there, with Rodgers calling Arkush “an absolute bum” who couldn’t possibly make such a judgment because they didn’t know each other, though that deficiency apparently was not enough to bar Rodgers from reaching his conclusion about Arkush.  The sportswriter in turn apologized for violating the wire service’s guidelines that voters should not discuss their ballots, while scores of other writers, not all of whom could possibly have voting rights in the very small AP electorate, tut-tutted their disapproval of Arkush for allowing such petty concerns to intrude on the sacred process of deep and profound deliberation based solely on performance on the gridiron over the course of the NFL regular season.  Which is to say, how dare Arkush utter the quiet part out loud!

For all the weight that is accorded the scores of awards like NFL MVP, from similar honors across the landscape of sports to admission to Halls of Fame – and in the case of awards to active players, that weight often includes a contractual bonus – the voters are always human, which means they are subjective.  The judgment of even those who do their level best to consider only the specific criteria for an award may be colored by one’s opinion of a candidate, perhaps based on a stray interaction or third-hand information.  And that possibility blossoms when the award itself allows for consideration of vague qualities, such as the Baseball Hall of Fame’s edict that BBWAA voters should consider “character.”

Both the impact of Cooperstown’s ill-defined criteria and the power of personal opinion can be seen in the voting for this year’s Hall of Fame class.  The Great Game’s Hall gives the sportswriters who vote the option of publishing their ballots, and based on the public tally to date, it looks like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens may come close, but will likely once again fall short in this, their final year of eligibility.  In contrast, David Ortiz appears headed for a first-ballot induction, or a result so near to that as to make his election next year all but inevitable. 

But while the single season and career home run king and the only seven-time Cy Young Award winner have long been identified as the faces of baseball’s steroid era, Ortiz has just as much circumstantial evidence of PEDs use.  Since none of them was ever suspended for PEDs, why are the first two still knocking on the door after a decade, while the third will soon have a plaque?  Partly because of timing.  As noted, Bonds and Clemens went on the ballot at a time when many self-righteous scribes were looking for scapegoats.  But don’t dismiss the impact of personal relationships.  The prickly Bonds and aloof Clemens had few friends among writers, while the affable Ortiz was friendly and open to all comers, with the sole exception of the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy. 

The Arkush-Rodgers kerfuffle was hardly a fair fight.  A celebrity NFL quarterback and one-time “Jeopardy” host has a far louder megaphone than a local journalist, and as Rodgers previously showed in his gratuitous assault on Knight, he’s more than willing to use his platform to bully.  But the Chicago scribe did fans everywhere a service by reminding them that all the various awards and honors that are given such copious airtime and so many column inches should not be treated as if etched on tablets of stone.  They are usually right, sometimes debatable, occasionally dead wrong, but always the collective judgment of an imperfect electorate.  And kudos to any fan who can quickly name the 2019 MVP’s from the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB.  Or even three of the leagues.  Okay, two.   

Also, by becoming the story, Arkush highlighted the ongoing truth that sportswriters shouldn’t be the electorate for any of these awards.  Not because those who have voting privileges are better or worse than anyone else, but because inevitably, stories like this week’s are going to arise.  Writers should compose headlines, not be their subject.  At least until On Sports and Life gets a vote.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 30, 2021

John Madden Never Stopped Coaching

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be traveling over the next several days, so there will be no post on Sunday.  The regular schedule will resume next Thursday, January 6th.  Thanks as always for reading and may everyone have a happy and safe New Year’s celebration.

As tributes to the late John Madden poured in to both traditional sports forums and various social media outlets in the wake of his passing on Tuesday, it quickly became clear that the because of the length of his career and diversity of his accomplishments, how Madden is thought of depends very much on the age and interests of NFL fans. 

To the millions who have purchased one or more copies of the video game first introduced in 1988 as John Madden Football and known since 1994 as Madden NFL, his was the name associated with one of the most popular electronic game series of all time, one that has generated more than $7 billion in revenue.  When the 2022 version was introduced last August, it not only topped that month’s sales charts – the 22nd consecutive year Madden NFL immediately rocketed to number one – it sold enough units in that single month to become the fourth bestselling game of the entire year.  Sales figures that are three years old, and thus already very outdated, show 130 million units sold to 75 million players since the game was introduced.  The series remains a bedrock of Electronic Arts’ offerings, second only to the worldwide appeal of the same company’s FIFA soccer simulation among all sports video games.   It is entirely possible that a few young gamers may have been surprised to learn – assuming of course they could tear themselves away from their consoles long enough to read Madden’s obituary – that he was not in fact a video game developer.

But while he may not have been proficient at writing code, Madden did not simply lend his name to EA’s product and wait around for the royalty checks to be deposited into his bank account.  In 1984, EA founder Trip Hawkins approached Madden about the video game, which was then still in development.  Their initial meeting took place on a train traveling west from Denver, the odd venue a product of Madden’s well-documented aversion to flying.  Hawkins and his staff explained to Madden that the game would feature 7-on-7 play, since the display technology of the time would not allow for two 11-player teams on the video “field.”  Madden was dismissive, saying “that’s not real football.”  When Hawkins protested that the requisite technical developments would take years, Madden responded, “then it will take years.”  The game that Hawkins thought was nearly ready to bring to market debuted four years later and featured 11-on-11 play.

For an even greater number of fans, many of a slightly older generation than is typical for avid gamers, Madden will be remembered primarily as the preeminent NFL television analyst.  For three decades, from his first broadcast with CBS in 1979 until his final time in the NBC booth at Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, with stints at Fox and ABC along the way, Madden displayed a natural ability to translate his deep knowledge of the sport and intense pregame preparation into cogent analysis of what was happening on the field, in language that fans could relate to.  The telestrator had been around since the late 1950s, but it was Madden who made the device that allows a user to overlay a video image with a freehand sketch an integral part of football coverage when he began diagramming plays with it.  That he would also use it for random doodling during breaks in the action made Madden even more relatable, as did his penchant for occasionally substituting sound effects for commentary.

Yet Madden was not a clown who happened to find his way to the broadcast booth.  When told, at the very start of his television career, that broadcast crews didn’t watch teams practice or view game films but instead just met with publicity flacks from the franchises involved in every weekend’s game, Madden made it clear that approach was unacceptable.  Instead, he met with coaches and players, watched each squad prepare in person, and wrangled access to the same films that each side’s coaching staff was using.  In short order, his approach became standard practice across the industry, to the benefit of viewers.  He was also not averse to using his media platform to make the NFL uncomfortable.  Long before the issue became central to any discussion about the sport he loved, he argued during a 1993 broadcast that any player suspected of being concussed during a game should be barred from returning to that contest, and perhaps the next few as well.

The popularity of the Electronic Arts’ video game franchise and Madden’s long tenure enlightening fans sitting in their living rooms, together with the passage of time, all combine to obscure the work that made both his time in the broadcast booth and Madden NFL possible.  A football fan with a New Year’s Day birthday, one about to turn 43, along with the millions of his or her compatriots that age or younger, was not yet born when Madden patrolled the sidelines as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.  But his decade as an NFL head coach, along with the equal period preceding it during which he gained experience at the collegiate level and as a NFL assistant, was always the part of his career most important to Madden. 

The decision by Raiders owner Al Davis to promote him from linebackers coach to the top job in 1969 was controversial simply because it made Madden the youngest head coach in NFL history at the time.  But the 32-year-old had already been identified by both colleagues and members of the Bay area sports media as an eventual candidate for such a role, not just because of his deep knowledge of the game but also because of his ability to convey that understanding to his players.  Those who knew Madden best may have been surprised the opportunity came so early, but not that he had been given it, nor that he rewarded Davis’s faith.

In his first season, the last for the old AFL prior to the 1970 merger that formed the modern NFL, Madden guided the Raiders to a 12-1-1 mark and first place in the league’s Western Conference.  Then in nine seasons as a member of the NFL’s American Football Conference, Madden’s teams won the AFC West Division seven times.  After compiling a 13-1 regular season record in 1976, Oakland swept through the playoffs, capping the campaign with a 32-14 drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.  Madden never had a losing season, with the Raiders averaging more than ten wins a year under his stewardship.  In addition to that Super Bowl, Oakland went to one AFL Championship and six AFC Conference Championship games.  When he retired after the 1979 season, his career regular season .750 winning percentage, on a record of 103-32-7, was the best in NFL history among coaches of at least 100 games.  Four decades later, it still is.

The number of fans who remember the Madden-led Raiders is far, far smaller than the count of those who listened to him dissect a game or who have lost themselves for an hour or two in his namesake video game.  But Madden never forgot it was the essential precursor to all that followed.  He coached fans with his telestrator, and his initial interest in the video game was largely based on it being a way for players to better understand football. That’s why he dismissed any talk of being inducted into the league’s Hall of Fame based on his broadcasting fame, wanting only to be recognized for his coaching.  On Super Bowl weekend in 2006, the Hall finally came calling.  The television voice is silent now, and eventually even the video game franchise will end.  But coach Madden will always be in the NFL Hall of Fame, right where he belongs. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 26, 2021

A Christmas Visit From The MLBPA

A NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with the holiday tradition at On Sports and Life, today’s post is offered with apologies and a tip of the cap to Clement Clarke Moore, whose 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” lives on nearly two centuries later, though it is now far better known not by its title, but by its first five words.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when in every room
Baseball fans were discouraged, the feeling was gloom;
The lockout had started, discussions had stopped,
All hopes for a quick deal had been soundly popped.

‘Neath team logo blankets the children did sleep;
Dreaming of heroes and a World Series sweep;
And mamma in her jersey, and I with my glove,
Feared missing a season might cost us their love,

When from out in the stands there arose a great noise,
I sprang up to see what had upset the night’s poise.
Away to the cheap seats I flew like a flash,
To the third deck I ran all in a mad dash.

The lights shining down on the infield below,
Made it seem like a day game to my eyes you know,
When what did I see coming out of the blue,
But a little red sleigh pulled by players I knew,

With a driver in charge both lively and quick,
But not fat and jolly, it wasn’t St. Nick.
More rapid than high heat those ballers they came,
And he shouted, and whistled, and called each by name:

“Now, Gerrit! Now, Andrew! Now Max and you too Zack!
All members must know each of you has their back!
To the top of the mound! To the center field wall!
Great hitting and pitching! Our fans want it all!”

As Ohtani homers launch into the sky,
Big blasts by the phenom o’er the fence they do fly;
On command all the union leaders took flight
With that sleigh and the driver up into the night.

And then from the rooftop I heard the sharp beats
The prancing and pawing of players in cleats.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
Down the chimney Tony Clark came with a bound!

He’s the first former player, as union heads go;
But the last CBA was a very big blow.
The players have lost ground, yet the owners won’t move;
Clark and his union need to get in a groove.

He gave me a wink and a nod of his head
Which led me to think I had nothing to dread;
So I told him my thoughts, ‘twas this I did speak:
“You need to stand firm, Manfred thinks you are weak!”

“Salaries are falling, the median is down
By thirty percent since the last time around!
The old bargain is dead, now owners won’t pay
A guy in his thirties on his free agent day.”

“If teams think young guys are good, then they should play fair;
Not stretch their service to add a year from thin air.
But will the union hold fast, will you have support,
When winter is ending, and it’s time to report?”

Clark said not to fret but just to hold steady;
“Our union is strong, for the long haul we’re ready.
We want to play ball, not for games to be lost.
But we’ve earned our share, and progress comes with a cost.”

Then he rose up the chimney, and whistled his board,
And united together, away they all soared.
When I heard him exclaim, “Put this on a plaque!
Happy Christmas to all, the Great Game will be back!”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 24, 2021

The Conventional Wisdom Wins Again

Championships.  As in more than one.  Speaking at his introductory press conference as the new manager of the New York Mets, Buck Showalter made it plain that he understands just what franchise owner Steve Cohen expects of him.  “The job description here isn’t to be competitive or try to win more games than you lose,” Showalter said.  “It’s to be the last team standing.  And not just once.”

Since acquiring the team from the Wilpon family at the end of the 2020 season – in his second attempt at doing so – lifelong fan Cohen, who grew up on Long Island just ten miles east of the Mets’ home, has been resolute in his goal of bringing titles to Citi Field.  The wealthiest owner in MLB, he quickly opened his checkbook, signing offseason trade acquisition Francisco Lindor to a 10-year, $341 million contract extension shortly before Opening Day last spring.  New York’s first season under its new owner got off to a promising start, with the team ten games over .500 and well in front of the NL East by the middle of June. 

But that proved to be the season’s high-water mark, and despite playing in a weak division the Mets’ lead gradually dissipated.  When the squad dropped six of seven to open the month of August, it disappeared entirely.  By season’s end, the standings reflected one more disappointing campaign for Mets fans, with their heroes in third place, eight games under .500 and far removed from the playoffs.  That sad result earned the franchise space on an unwelcome page of MLB’s history books, as the first team to hold first place for more than 100 days during a season yet finish with a losing record.  It also cost second year manager Luis Rojas his job.

Before turning attention to the managerial vacancy, Mets president Sandy Alderson unleashed Cohen’s vast financial resources to remake the roster.  New York lost its share of free agents in the November rush of signings, with starting pitchers Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard and Rich Hill, as well as infielder Javier Baez, leaving Queens. 

The exits were quickly forgotten though, when in a rapid sequence just before the old agreement expired and the owners’ lockout of players began, Cohen spent more than $250 million to sign infielder Eduardo Escobar, outfielders Starling Marte and Mark Canha, and right-hander Max Scherzer.  Marte, the former Oakland Athletic who was the consensus pick as the best free agent center fielder available this year, got $78 million over four years, and Scherzer, the most highly prized starting pitcher on the open market, received a whopping $130 million to ply his trade in Queens for the next three seasons.  Alderson also brought on Billy Eppler to fill the franchise’s vacant GM position, hoping to finally stabilize a front office that had been in disarray for a year, with one general manager fired after a history of sexual harassment was revealed, and a second let go, after a prolonged leave, following an arrest for DUI.

With the baseball decision-makers in place, and with Cohen having proved his willingness to spend big on the roster, the remaining issue for the Mets, at least until the lockout ends, was who would be the team’s new manager.  That the answer was the veteran skipper Showalter was far less surprising than, say, agreeing to pay a 37-year-old pitcher more than $43 million a year until sometime after his 40th birthday.  At his four previous managerial stops, first in an adjacent borough with the Yankees from 1992 through 1995, then in Arizona for three seasons, Texas for four, and most recently Baltimore from the middle of the 2010 season through the final out of 2018, Showalter built a reputation as an astute skipper, one who is popular with his players, effective with the media, and as capable as any non-player can be of adding some games to a franchise’s win column.  Even though it was almost three decades ago, his prior experience in New York is taken as proof that he can handle the searingly bright lights of the Great Game’s biggest stage, and his three Manager of the Year Awards, one each with the Yankees, Rangers and Orioles, is considered absolute proof of his managerial excellence.  Through two rounds of interviews, the first done remotely with a long list of candidates, and the second conducted in person with three finalists that in addition to Showalter included Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro and Joe Espada, who fills the same role for the Astros, he was always the heavy favorite and the most popular choice among both fans and members of the media.

Perhaps that conventional wisdom will pan out.  Showalter can count on having plenty of talent, since Cohen has made it clear that unlike many MLB owners, such as the Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner to pick a not so random example, he won’t let an obsession with profit outweigh his desire to win.  The Mets pre-lockout signings moved them to the top of the team salary rankings for next season, ahead of even the profligate Los Angeles Dodgers.  And while owners like Steinbrenner timidly did nothing, Cohen struck his deals without regard to what the luxury tax threshold will look like in a new CBA.

Yet the games must still be played.  With 1,551 wins, he stands 24th on the list of most managerial career victories and could easily be in the top twenty by this time next year.  But Showalter is second on that list behind only Gene Mauch if one additional factor is added.  Despite all those wins, he has never guided a team to a league pennant, much less a World Series championship.  Buck’s legion of acolytes will be quick to point out that both the Yankees and Diamondbacks won titles the year after he was fired and argue he should get some credit for those teams.  Still, Showalter might want to focus on at least playing for a title before talking about “not just once.”

Then there is the fact that while managers can only control so much, Showalter’s own actions have a lot to do with that gaping hole in his resume.  His refusal to trust closer John Wetteland with the ball in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS against Seattle was a call that would now be said to be based on analytics, because some of Wetteland’s few struggles that year came versus the Mariners.  It proved disastrous for the Yankees.  And his decision to use seven different pitchers, but not dominant closer Zack Britton, in the Orioles’ 2016 Wild Card matchup against the Blue Jays, remains Showalter’s most inexplicable failure. 

Of course, a career managing more than 3,000 games shouldn’t be defined by just two.  One should never say that Buck Showalter can’t win the big ones, and by all means one shouldn’t suggest that the Mets new manager was hired in no small part because, as is so often the case in the tightly closed loop of major sports jobs, he is a white male who has the inherent advantage of being familiar to and looking just like the white males doing the hiring.  That’s the view in Queens, at least, where hopes are ever so high.  They will remain in the stratosphere at least until sometime next season – assuming of course there is a next season – when in June, or August, or the home stretch, the Metropolitans hit a rough patch, as happens to even the best clubs at some point.  The safe and conventional decision so praised in winter will seem less inspired if the team wilts under the summer sun, leaving the beat writers surly and unhappy fans looking for someone to blame.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 19, 2021

Another Boomer Strikes A Nerve

As both a reporter and columnist, Bob Ryan covered sports for the Boston Globe for more than forty years.  Although nearly a decade removed from the “retirement” that marked the end of his Globe tenure, his writing has continued to appear in the paper from time to time, and he is a regular on ESPN and, more recently, host of a podcast.  Ryan began his career as the paper’s Celtics beat writer, and while it would be hard to identify a sport he hasn’t covered, basketball has always been Ryan’s first love. 

Perhaps that’s why the piece he wrote for the Globe last week, complaining about how the 3-point shot has made his favorite game less enjoyable, garnered such outsized attention.  Then again, Ryan’s enmity for the arc that first appeared on NBA courts in 1979 has been no secret since, well, 1979, so maybe the supposed controversy the most recent renewal of Ryan’s old complaint created was because he directed his ire at Stephen Curry, one of the sport’s most popular figures.  Last Tuesday night, in a game against the New York Knicks at the World’s Most Famous Arena, Curry passed Ray Allen to become the most prolific 3-point shooter in league history.  Midway through the first quarter, with a shot from just right of the lane and – obviously – beyond the arc, Curry nailed the 2,974th trey of his career to eclipse Allen’s number.

That Curry was going to be the new record holder has been apparent for some time.  He set the mark in his 788th NBA contest, while Allen’s career covered 1,300 regular season games.  Not surprisingly given that disparity, Curry has also been vastly more efficient than Allen, needing over 500 fewer attempts to catch and pass him.  Those numbers reflect the increasing reliance on the long-distance shot with its extra point value across all of basketball, not just the NBA.  And that, no doubt, is why Ryan chose to begin his screed by characterizing Curry as “a scourge” and “a menace,” someone “who should be placed under house arrest.”  Just in case anyone missed his point, Ryan then went on CNN to defend his view that “Steph Curry ruined basketball.” 

To the surprise of no one, Ryan was immediately pilloried on social media and sports talk shows, with his comments widely dismissed as but the latest example of an out-of-touch aging Baby Boomer whining about how our games aren’t like they were in some fondly remembered but quite possibly mostly mythical old days.  The longtime fixture at the Globe was lumped in with John Tortorella, the former NHL head coach turned TV analyst, who recently reacted to a brilliantly creative play by Trevor Zegras and Sonny Milano of the Anaheim Ducks, by saying “I’m just not so sure it’s good for the game.”  The subject of Tortorella’s ire was a set play that the two Anaheim skaters had worked out in advance.  With the puck behind the Buffalo Sabres net, Zegras responded to Milano’s code word of “Michigan” by going neither left nor right but instead flipping the puck over the net and the Buffalo goalie to Milano in front, who deflected it in for the score. 

Of course, both Ryan and Tortorella doubtless found purgatory crowded, filled as it is by the thousands of older sportswriters and fans constantly lamenting the certain demise of baseball, what with the Great Game’s current emphasis on home runs and hundred mile an hour fastballs.

What all those busy piling on Ryan missed was that their target was in on the joke.  In both the original Globe column, and again during his CNN appearance, Ryan readily acknowledged his was an “old man’s” complaint.  Ryan fell in love with the NBA when the favored style of play revolved around getting the ball to the center – each team’s big man playing the low post.  The introduction of the 3-point shot in 1979 was intended as a one-year experiment, bringing over what many saw as a gimmick first used by the short-lived American Basketball Association, as part of the merger of the ABA and NBA.  It took the league’s office three days after that season’s opening games to send out a press release recognizing the first 3-point basket, and all these years later the accuracy of the league’s announcement is still debated. 

But the gimmick became permanent, and over time the availability of an extra point from long range did alter strategy.  That shift has gradually accelerated, as the comparison of Curry’s stats with Allen’s makes clear.  Still, the change has happened over decades, and the one absolute truth about all our games is that they evolve.  One suspects Ryan understands that, even if he still fondly recalls a very different style of play. 

Which is why yielding to the easy temptation to turn every debate about change in any sport into a generational divide is simplistic.  There are certainly some pronouncements – Tortorella’s reaction to the Zegras/Milano play sure seems like one – that are “get off my lawn” cringeworthy.  But even MLB recognizes that the Great Game has some issues.  Why else hire Theo Epstein as a consultant for “on-field matters” or introduce a variety of drastic rule changes designed to both speed up and change the style of play, like increasing the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, in MLB’s chosen test lab, the independent Atlantic League?

Two and a half millennia have passed since Heraclitus first posited the obvious truth, that the only constant is change.  In sports, as in life, the lesson remains vital, one that we fans should keep close.  But we should do so without losing an appreciation for the history of all our games.  Bob Ryan’s favored style of play isn’t coming back, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned the right to miss it.

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