Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 23, 2016

Chicago’s New Ending Is A Century Old

It is September 1969. The Great Game, of all our sports the one most steeped in tradition, is dealing with change. Expansion from twenty to twenty-four teams results in each league being split into two divisions. For the first time ever, the postseason consists of more than just the World Series. With the advent of the best-of-five League Championship Series the playoff era arrives.

In the American League the two teams destined to face each other in the inaugural ALCS are identified early. Baltimore, on its way to winning 109 games, is running away with the AL East. While not quite so dominant in the NL West, Minnesota is well in front. Most of the late season drama appears to be in the NL West, where five of the six teams are within two games of the lead with three weeks to play. The eventual winner appears headed for a date with the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS. On the strength of a blistering springtime start, the Cubs lead the NL East by as many as 8 ½ games in August, and still sit a comfortable five games in front as the final month begins. Fans on the Northside have waited nearly a quarter century since their team’s last World Series appearance; a long hiatus that looks to be ending at last.

But the season does not end on September 1st. Chicago collapses in the final month, winning but nine while losing twice that number. A team less than a decade removed from the ignominy of its first few seasons as an expansion franchise, the Miracle Mets, surges to victory. In Chicago the long wait continues, and some fans point to a series at Shea Stadium early in September, when a black cat appeared on the field and walked behind the Cubs’ on deck circle as captain Ron Santo was preparing to hit.

It is October 1984. The Cubs claim the NL East by 6 ½ games over the Mets, and take the first two games of the NLCS from the San Diego Padres in the comfortable confines of Wrigley Field. The team arrives on the West Coast needing just one win to end the drought that is now nearly four decades old. The Padres coast to a convincing 7-1 win in Game Three, but the Cubs rally with a two-run 8th to tie Game Four at 5-5. Closer Lee Smith, who has saved more than thirty games during the regular season for the first time in his career, takes the mound in the last of the 9th. Anxious Chicago fans are hoping for extra innings, but with one on and one out Steve Garvey homers off Smith to force a deciding Game Five.

In that contest the Cubs lead 3-2 with one out in the bottom of the 7th. The Padres’ Tim Flannery sends a ground ball to second baseman Leon Durham. But rather than scooping the grounder and recording the second out, Durham lets it get under his glove for an error. The flood gates open, and San Diego goes on to win 6-3. Chicago is the first NL team in the playoff era to blow a two games to none LCS lead. In the wake of Durham’s error long-suffering fans of the snake bitten Cubs are left to ponder the curse allegedly placed on the team in 1945 by a local tavern owner, angered when he was asked to leave Wrigley Field because his pet goat’s smell was bothering other fans.

It is October 2003. Each league has three divisions now, and the playoffs extend through three rounds. NL Central champion Chicago downs NL East winner Atlanta in the Division Series, and arrives back home at Wrigley Field after playing the middle games of the NLCS in Florida leading the Marlins three games to two. Just one more victory and a wait of almost sixty years will end. The Cubs score solo runs in the 1st, 6th and 7th innings of Game Six. Ace Mark Prior is dealing before a raucous home crowd, and after Mike Mordecai pops out to begin the 8th, Chicago is five outs away from returning to the World Series.

Juan Pierre, the Marlins center fielder, doubles off of Prior, bringing second baseman Luis Castillo to the plate. He looks at five straight pitches, the count climbing to full. Castillo hacks at the next two deliveries, fouling them off. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat he sends a fly ball down the left field line, headed for the first row of seats in foul ground. Left fielder Moises Alou races over and tries to make a leaping grab, but a fan in a black sweatshirt and Cubs cap, one of several reaching for the ball, deflects it away to Alou’s vehement dismay.

In the aftermath of that NLCS the unlucky fan becomes a pariah to Cubs fans; but their misplaced ire ignores what happens next. After Castillo walks and Pierre scores the Marlins first run on a single, Miguel Cabrera bounces a grounder to the left side of the infield. But in a reprise of the 1984 debacle, shortstop Alex Gonzalez boots the potential double play ball. Before the inning ends eight Marlins cross home plate. One night later Chicago rallies from an early 3-0 deficit, but Florida overtakes Chicago in the 5th inning and never looks back on the way to a 9-6 victory clinching the NLCS and breaking hearts at Wrigley.

Now it is present day, another October, another NLCS. Chicago wins Game One on a pinch hit grand slam in the 8th inning, but then goes twenty-one innings before scoring again. Still Joe Maddon’s club refuses to panic, taking Games Four and Five in Los Angeles as the enigmatic Dodgers, so poised in Games Two and Three, turn in lackluster performances. Once more the scene returns to a packed Wrigley Field, filled with anxious fans for whom the wait for a World Series appearance has now stretched to seven decades.

The Dodgers start Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in the game, but the Cubs make him throw thirty pitches in the 1st inning alone. It is 2-0 Chicago after one, and the lead grows from there. By the end of the 5th it is 5-0, and Kershaw is done. Kyle Hendricks is masterful on the mound for the home time, but history weighs on the crowd. As the game moves into the late innings there is far more anxiety than befits the score. With one out in the 8th Josh Reddick singles to center. Though it is just L.A.’s second hit of the night, manager Maddon signals for his closer, Aroldis Chapman. Howie Kendrick bounces Chapman’s third pitch to the right side of the infield.

More than a century ago, when the Cubs played in four World Series in five years, winning twice, they were led by an infield trio immortalized in a 1910 poem by Franklin Pierce Adams. The three shut down opponents’ rallies by deftly turning double plays, a far cry from the miscues that cost Chicago so dearly in 1984 and 2003. For opposing clubs, as Adams wrote, “These are the saddest of possible words: ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance.’”

This time there is no late inning disaster. Second baseman Javier Baez snares the grounder and flips the ball to shortstop Addison Russell, who throws on to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to complete the inning-ending double play. Then in the 9th, with one out and Carlos Ruiz on first, Yasiel Puig grounds to short. Russell to Baez to Rizzo, and the game is over. After years of anguish the ghosts of happier times are finally resurrected at Wrigley Field, vanquishing curses and black cats and decades of doubt. The Chicago Cubs are going to the World Series.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 20, 2016

Terry Francona And Cleveland Overcome The Odds

Two weeks ago, when the Great Game’s postseason was getting underway, experts from both old school and new were in agreement that while Cleveland may have persevered to win the AL Central Division title, the club had little chance of advancing far in the playoffs. The common opinion did not reflect any bias against the metropolis on the southern shore of Lake Erie, nor a silly belief in the sports curse that supposedly kept championship parades away from Cleveland’s downtown streets from 1964 until the Cavaliers outmuscled the Warriors in last spring’s NBA Finals. Rather the consensus stemmed from the hard reality that the franchise lost forty percent of its starting rotation shortly before the regular season ended. Carlos Carrasco suffered a fractured hand from an ill-placed line drive off the bat of Detroit’s Ian Kinsler in mid-September, less than a week after Danny Salazar was sidelined with an elbow strain.

As the season ended the daily run of 50,000 computer simulations at produced a Cleveland triumph in the World Series just six percent of the time, lowest of any division winner. Those less attuned to advanced metrics and the wonders of modern technology reached the same conclusion on the basis of the old wisdom that pitching is key in the postseason. How could a team without two of its starters hope to play on deep into October?

So much for expert insight. The 112th edition of Major League Baseball’s championship series begins next Tuesday night, and the one thing we now know is that it will do so at Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland. While they watch the Dodgers and Cubs fight each other for the right to occupy the visitors’ dugout that evening, the members of the home team for Game One of the World Series can reflect on their unlikely dominance so far in this postseason. The team that was supposed to be headed for an early exit has played eight playoff games and won all but one.

The Boston Red Sox, with a fearsome offense and two ace starters in Rick Porcello and David Price, were the American League favorites. The Sox had surged to the front of the AL East on the strength of an eleven game winning streak against division rivals in the middle weeks of September. But the pundits focused on that run and the daily tributes to the retiring David Ortiz, ignoring the fact that the Red Sox closed by dropping five of their last six regular season games. The wobbly finish cost Boston home field for the first two games of the Division Series against Cleveland.

That warning sign should have been heeded, because when the series began Boston did not spring back to its earlier form. Porcello and Price, who together cashed just over $50 million of owner John Henry’s paychecks this year, were postseason busts. In Game One the former allowed three homers and five earned runs in four and a third innings, while the latter surrendered an equal number of earned runs while recording just ten outs in Game Two.

Meanwhile Cleveland manager Terry Francona, handed a depleted starting rotation, got creative with his bullpen. In the first game he went to Andrew Miller, normally the setup man or closer, in just the 5th inning. Miller, who came over from the Yankees at the trade deadline, shut down the vaunted Boston lineup for two crucial innings. By the time the series got to Fenway Park the favored Red Sox were in a two-game hole. When Cleveland broke a scoreless Game Three tie with a pair of runs in the top of the 4th, and Miller came trotting in from the bullpen in the 6th, it was time for one last sing-along of “Sweet Caroline” on Yawkey Way.

If Boston was a disappointment then surely Toronto, with its homer-happy lineup of sluggers, would put an end to Cleveland’s postseason hopes in the ALCS. At least that was the thinking until the Blue Jays bats went dead. Toronto managed seven hits against three Cleveland pitchers in the first contest, but only Edward Encarnacion’s double went for extra bases. Against that power outage Francisco Lindor’s two-run homer in the 6th was enough to give Cleveland the victory. One night later the margin was just 2-1 when Miller came on to protect the home team’s lead in the 7th. He struck out five of the six batters he faced with a devastating slider before handing off to closer Cody Allen as Cleveland moved two games in front.

The fates appeared to align in Toronto’s favor at the start of Game Three. Cleveland starter Trevor Bauer, already pushed back a day after slicing open the pinkie of his throwing hand, recorded just two outs in the 1st inning before the wound reopened and a steady trickle of blood began dripping onto the pitcher’s mound. This time Francona went deep into his bullpen, using six different relievers. Collectively they allowed two runs on seven hits over eight and a third, while walking just one and striking out eight, as Cleveland won 4-2, stealing a game that appeared set up to allow the Blue Jays back in the series.  It was the first time in postseason play that a team won with five different pitchers recording at least four outs.

Toronto’s offense finally got untracked against Corey Kluber, who was pitching on short rest in Game Four. But fans of the Great Game know the history of teams that fall behind three games to none in a seven game series. The Blue Jays win was just a tease. One night later rookie Ryan Merritt, making just his second big league start, shut down Toronto’s lineup for four and a third. That was all Francona needed before turning to his trusty bullpen.

So Cleveland returns to the World Series for the first time since 1997, and in the Forest City hopes are high that for the first time since 1948 a championship awaits. The computer simulations at are kinder now. As this is written Cleveland is given a forty-one percent chance of winning, better than either Chicago or Los Angeles. That will probably change once the NLCS has been decided, and Cleveland will likely start the World Series as the underdog.

But on the same night that Game One is scheduled, just across the street in Quicken Loans Arena the Cavaliers will raise their championship banner as the new NBA season begins. Everyone remembers the Cavaliers, the team that had no chance against the Golden State Warriors. A city that for decades stood as the symbol of sports frustration is suddenly finding itself in a new and very different role. It’s a good time to be a sports fan in Cleveland. Although there is still that pesky matter of the 0-6 Browns. Oh well, there’s no sense in getting greedy.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 16, 2016

For Nats Fans, The Long Wait Continues

Then there were four, and the one thing that we already know for certain about this year’s baseball playoffs is that when the last out is recorded in a couple of weeks and the championship celebration begins, it will mark the end of a long title drought for the winning franchise and its fans. Even people who pay little attention to the Great Game know that the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series more than a century ago, in 1908. Perhaps less appreciated by those most casual of fans is that the Northsiders haven’t played in a Series since losing to the Detroit Tigers in seven games in 1945, less than two months after the end of World War II.

While the wait for Cubs fans has been singular in nature, supporters of the other three teams still playing have all spent significant time in the desert as well. Chicago’s opponent in the NLCS, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have been replaying the video of the injured Kirk Gibson’s improbable walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series ever since the ball sailed into Dodger Stadium’s right field seats. After nearly three decades, surely they’d like to add something new to their postseason highlight reel. But that four games to one triumph over the heavily favored Oakland Athletics remains L.A.’s last Series win and visit.

As for the contestants in the ALCS, the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back titles in the early ‘90s, but haven’t played in the longest season’s finale since that second championship in 1993, a drought of twenty-three years. The Cleveland franchise was the American League representative in the 1995 and 1997 World Series, and also back in 1954, but all three of those visits ended in defeat. One has to look back almost seven decades, all the way to 1948 to find a baseball championship for Cleveland. So whether the wait has been a generation, a lifetime, or a century and then some, there is a team and its faithful out there that will soon finally again know the delirious joy of winning it all.

But only one team can win, which means that three other title droughts will continue. The three teams that will soon come up short will not be the only franchises counting the long years in purgatory. Six of the thirty major league teams have never celebrated a World Series championship. But four of them, Texas, San Diego, Houston and Milwaukee, have claimed their league’s title at least once (twice for the Rangers and Padres), and so have played in the Fall Classic. Only Seattle and Washington have never leapt the hurdle of even participating in a World Series, much less winning one. But the Mariners can claim to have won an opening round Division Series multiple times in the team’s history.

Then there is the sad tale of the Washington Nationals. Born in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, the team did win the NL East in the second half of the strike-split season of 1981. That was the first time that Division Series were contested, pitting the winners of each half of the interrupted season against each other. The Expos beat the Phillies three games to two to claim the NL East crown, before losing to the Dodgers in the NLCS.

Thirty-five years later that one-off Division Series, created to handle the unique case of a Great Game season split in two by a players’ strike, remains the franchise’s only postseason triumph. The Expos soon slipped back into also-ran status, and faced the threat of extinction when baseball briefly considered contraction early in this century. Instead the franchise was relocated to Washington, ending a drought of another kind in the nation’s capital, which had gone without a team for more than three decades since the second edition of the Senators decamped for Texas.

As the Nationals the team now has a dozen years of playing in Washington. The first seven were largely forgettable, as Major League Baseball first looked for a permanent owner and then the Lerner family began the process of rebuilding the franchise. But over the last five seasons, with draft picks like Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, and free agents like Rafael Soriano, Max Scherzer and Daniel Murphy, the Nats story has been entirely different.

While some of the players noted above have come and gone, from earliest April right through until the end of September, the Nationals have been and remain an elite team. Washington won the NL East in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Even when they faltered in the two odd-numbered years the Nationals were still very good. Over that five-year period Washington has won 458 games, by far the most in its division. That’s an average of nearly 92 wins per season, almost 11 games better than the two NL East teams tied for second with 404, the Mets and Atlanta.

It’s not just within their division that the Nationals rule. The St. Louis Cardinals are the only NL franchise with more victories over that period, all of three to be precise. The Dodgers and the Cubs, busy now trying to make it to the World Series, have won fewer regular season games. So too have the Giants and Mets, this season’s other two National League playoff participants.

But then October comes, and autumn remains the dismal season in southeast D.C. at Nationals Park. In 2012 Washington battled back to force a Game 5 against the Cardinals in the NLDS. The Nationals led by two going to the 9th, and the home fans stood and cheered. But closer Drew Storen melted down, and St. Louis went home with the victory. Two years later Washington coughed up the first two NLDS games at home against the Giants, the second in an agonizing 18 innings. There was no recovering from that deficit. This year the Nationals took a two games to one lead over the Dodgers last Monday, but they couldn’t overcome Clayton Kershaw the starter in Game 4, nor Clayton Kershaw the closer in Game 5.

The postseason moves on, and the climax draws steadily closer. Fans in L.A. or Toronto or Cleveland or, could it possibly come to pass, Chicago, will be celebrating in a couple of weeks. But in Washington the wait continues. For a World Series title, of course. But for the Nationals, even a first round win would be historic.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 13, 2016

An Awesome Night For Auston

The centennial season of the National Hockey League began Wednesday night, and fittingly the Toronto Maple Leafs took to the ice as one of the eight teams skating on the new season’s first evening. The NHL came into being in 1917 when owners of four of the five teams in the old National Hockey Association had a falling out with Eddie Livingstone, owner of the NHA’s remaining franchise, the Toronto Blueshirts. The organizers of the fledgling league wanted a team in Canada’s second largest city, so they awarded a franchise to the owners of the Toronto Arena Company. Known locally as the Toronto Arenas or sometimes simply the Torontos, the team didn’t become the Maple Leafs until new ownership came along in 1927; but by any name the Toronto club is one of just two current league members (along with Montreal) that has been part of the NHL from its beginning.

The Maple Leafs will host the Detroit Red Wings in the Centennial Classic on New Year’s Day, an outdoor game commemorating the league’s and the team’s shared anniversary. A variety of other celebrations are planned throughout the season, starting with this week’s unveiling of three new statues of former greats, bringing to ten the number of likenesses in Maple Leaf Square outside of Air Canada Centre.

But for all the planning that’s gone into the scheduled festivities, it’s very possible that nothing will be as dramatic or exciting as what took place in the very first game of Toronto’s hundredth season, on the road against the Ottawa Senators. It was the first NHL contest for 19-year old Auston Matthews, the top pick in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

Matthews grew up in Arizona, not generally regarded as a hockey hotbed. After attending some Arizona Coyotes games as a child, he started skating at the age of five. Against the long odds of living in the desert southwest he became a star on the U.S. National Development Team, leading his squad to gold medals at both the 2014 and 2015 World Championships for players under the age of 18. Too young by two days to be eligible for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Matthews passed on the usual routes of either college hockey or the Canadian junior leagues. Instead he turned pro and signed a one-year deal with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League A. He finished last season as the Lions’ second leading scorer and won the league’s Rookie of the Year Award while finishing as runner-up in the balloting for Most Valuable Player.

While Switzerland’s top hockey league won’t be mistaken for the NHL, playing in a professional league surely made the transition to skating faster and hitting harder with his new Toronto teammates easier than coming from the collegiate ranks. In fact against Ottawa, Matthews made the transition look effortless.

Just over eight minutes into the contest, the Senators were unable to clear their zone. After a scrum in front of Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson, Toronto’s Zach Hyman carried the puck behind the net, then slid a quick pass out in front. Matthews was in prime position, and shot the puck past Anderson before the goalie had a chance to react. On his first NHL shot this year’s top draft pick had his first NHL goal. The Senators scored twice in just over three minutes to take a 2-1 lead; then with a bit more than five minutes remaining in the first period Matthews went back to work. This time he picked up the puck in the neutral zone, deked his way around three different defenders, and buried the puck in the back of the net with a one-timer that tied the score. Less than ninety seconds into the middle period, defenseman Morgan Rielly carried the puck down the left boards then sent a perfect centering pass to Matthews who fired it past Anderson for the hat trick.

With three goals on as many shots the rookie phenom became the fifth player in NHL history and the first since the Rangers’ Derek Stepan in 2010 to notch a hat trick in his first game. Even the Ottawa fans sent hats sailing onto the ice, while Matthews’s parents beamed from their seats, his mother’s eyes glistening with tears of joy.

Still Matthews wasn’t through. With just a few ticks of the clock left in the second period and the score again tied at 3-3, he worked a perfect give and go with fellow forward William Nylander on a two-on-one rush. Nylander broke right, Matthews swung left and took the return pass from his teammate, quickly elevating the puck past Anderson for his fourth goal and a place in the NHL’s history books.

As amazing as Matthews was, the game was also a reminder of just how far the Maple Leafs have to go as a team. The Senators answered every one of his goals, and eventually won the game in overtime when Kyle Turris got a step on Matthews, took a pass and buried the game winner. In the end the historic night for a Toronto player went down as an overtime loss for his team.

One point for the OTL is better than none, and it could be argued that Toronto is off to a better start than last year, when the Maple Leafs lost their first two games in regulation and ended October with a 1-7-2 record. Toronto won the right to draft Matthews by finishing at the bottom of the standings last season. Toronto’s 29 wins and 69 points were fewer than any other team, and its minus-48 goal differential was better than only Vancouver’s minus-52. As much as the Maple Leafs are bound up in the long history of the NHL, the team’s glory days are, well, historic. Toronto has made the playoffs just once in the last eleven seasons. The Maple Leafs have won the Stanley Cup thirteen times, but the last of those was in 1967, and the team hasn’t been back to the Finals since.

For all of his first game glory, it’s unlikely that Auston Matthews can resurrect the Maple Leafs all by himself. Hockey is too much of a team sport for one player to carry that much weight. Just ask fans of the Washington Capitals how many Stanley Cups their team has won since Alex Ovechkin came to town. But that takes nothing away from a night that the kid will remember for the rest of his life. He showed remarkable poise and maturity after the game, more interested in taking responsibility for not keeping up with Turris on the decisive overtime goal than crowing about his record-setting scoring night.

Toronto is likely still a few pieces away from even returning to the postseason, much less contending for a championship. Still with the future Hall of Famer Mike Babcock behind the bench, and Matthews bringing speed and excitement to the ice, the flickering flame of hope is renewed as the Maple Leafs begin their one hundredth campaign. Of course to fan that flame into a fire, the rookie will have to step it up. He’ll take the ice against Boston Saturday in the Maple Leafs’ home opener having not netted a goal in more than twenty minutes of game time.  It’s by far the longest scoring drought of his NHL career!

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 9, 2016

In The Great Game, There Is Almost Always An October Surprise

The calendar turns to October, and the Great Game is stood on its head. Through six months from April through September the longest season unwinds at a pace in keeping with its length. Every at-bat is important, but an everyday position player who stays healthy will step into the batter’s box more than five hundred times during the regular season. Every game counts in the standings, but whatever the outcome of a single contest, there are one hundred sixty-one other chances to do better, or worse.

Then the postseason arrives, and the short series that comprise the playoffs bring heightened drama to virtually every pitch. Two teams get to play just a single game, and any of the other eight can go from odds-on favorite to early round loser in a flash. That’s why teams strive so hard just to make the tournament, and why even the Wild Card, with its promise of nothing more than a single sudden death contest, holds such value.

Look at teams seeded at or near the top as the playoffs begin in our other major team sports, and there’s a very good chance that one is looking at the franchises that will play in the finals. So last spring’s NBA Finals featured the number one team from the Eastern Conference defeating the Western Conference’s top seed. The Stanley Cup was won by the team with the second highest regular season point total in the Eastern Conference. Even the NFL, with a single-elimination format that might logically lend itself to more upsets, produced a Super Bowl last February between the top two seeds.

But October baseball often tells a different story. Just two years ago the World Series matchup was between a pair of Wild Card teams. More telling are the travails of teams that post the best regular season record. Since the playoff field expanded with the introduction of the Wild Card in 1995, just four teams that led the majors in wins during the regular season went on to win the World Series. Since there were several years in which two teams matched regular season records, the statistic is actually four for twenty-six. As a batting average .154 would relegate a player to the bench. An even worse record has been posted by teams that had great regular seasons, by winning 100 or more games. In the same time period twenty-one teams have topped the 100-win mark, and only the 1998 and 2009 editions of the New York Yankees were ultimately rewarded with a parade.

We are only at the first weekend of the playoffs, so making predictions would be a fool’s errand. As this is being written none of the Division Series have been decided, though by the time some readers get to this paragraph it’s possible that Toronto may have sent Texas home for the winter. Should that happen, be it in Game Three Sunday evening or in one of the two possible contests to follow, the result will just reinforce the record of unpredictability. With their 95 regular season wins topping the American League, and with the silly rule that awards home field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game, the Rangers have home field throughout the playoffs.

But first Texas has to remain in the playoffs, and now they must win three straight to do so. Home field hardly proved advantageous to the Rangers in the first two games of their Division Series against the Blue Jays. Texas started two established big game pitchers in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Who could have foreseen Hamels failing to make it out of the 4th inning in what was ultimately a 10-1 Toronto rout, or that half the twenty batters he faced reaching base? One day later Darvish lasted longer, but surrendered four solo home runs, including three in the space of five batters in the decisive 5th inning as the Blue Jays moved to within a single win of advancing.

Of course if any fan base should be anxious about the crap shoot nature of the MLB playoffs it would be the long-suffering supporters of the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were the popular pick as likely World Series champions during the off-season, as in the eyes of many pundits they won the hot stove league by signing Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. Those predictions seemed prescient when Chicago exploded out of the gate, going 17-5 in April and 18-10 in May. Fifty games into the season the Cubs were 6 ½ games ahead in the NL Central, while the average lead in the other divisions at that stage of the season was less than 2 ½ games. By season’s end Chicago had come out on top in 103 of its contests, eight wins better than any other team in the majors.

Not surprisingly the Cubs were also highly favored by the computer whizzes who look to advanced metrics for their analyses. The website publishes it Elo Ratings, a ranking of clubs based on games played to date and 50,000 computer simulations of the remaining season. Chicago ranked number one every week of the season. As the playoffs started the website gave the Cubs a 26% chance of winning the World Series, making them the favorites.

Following two wins at home against the Wild Card San Francisco Giants, the Cubs odds according to the computer sims are now up to 36%. All this success comes as no surprise. Chicago has last year’s Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta, and could well sweep all three major individual league awards this season. Kyle Hendricks is a leading Cy Young candidate, who might only be waylaid by sentimental votes for the late Jose Fernandez. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo may wind up competing against each other for the MVP, and no one would be surprised is Joe Maddon wins Manager of the Year.

Yet the Cubs built their Division Series lead with unpredictable performances of their own. In Game One second baseman Javier Baez, playing because of his defensive skills, provided all the offense with an 8th inning home run off Johnny Cueto. In Game Two starting pitcher Hendricks drove in two key runs, and Travis Wood hit the first postseason home run by a relief pitcher since 1924.

With their 108-year title drought the Cubs are hard not to like. Should they be the NL representative in the Fall Classic, it’s likely that fans in every city except the one that is home to the AL team will become temporary denizens of the North Side. Still the odds from the computer simulations are a reminder of the chaotic beauty of the Great Game’s postseason. Even as they favor the Cubs, they tell fans that three-quarters of the time at the outset, and still nearly two-thirds of the time most recently, some other team comes out on top. Should that come to pass for real a few weeks from now, it won’t be because of curses or goats or an overeager fan reaching for a foul ball. It will just be playoff baseball.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 6, 2016

Disappointment And Hope In The Bronx

The end came suddenly, the way twilight succumbs to darkness in deep winter. Even as the Yankees and Red Sox battled each other on the field one week ago, we in the stands and the pinstriped players in New York’s dugout kept one eye on the out-of-town scoreboard, high above the right field bleachers. No longer masters of their own fate, our heroes needed both a victory over the visitors and a loss by the Orioles to keep alive the slimmest of hopes for a spot in the postseason.

On the diamond the Yankees were doing their part. Starlin Castro doubled to left to plate Jacoby Ellsbury in the bottom of the 1st, and after the Red Sox answered with a Xander Bogaerts home run off of CC Sabathia in the 4th, Ellsbury put New York back on top with his own RBI double one inning later. Then in the 6th the Yankees tacked on a pair of free runs, thanks to a bases-loaded walk and a wild pitch by Red Sox reliever Robby Scott.

But while the Yankees pulled ahead and the veteran Sabathia cruised along in what would eventually be a fine eight strikeout performance, the electric numbers reporting on the contest between Baltimore and Toronto were unforgiving. The first change to the zeroes next to the two teams’ names informed us of a 1-0 lead for the Orioles in the 3rd inning of the game being played north of the border. As the innings wore on the score changed three more times, in each instance adding another run for Baltimore.

Both games had started at the same time, but there is nothing ever quick about a match between the Yankees and the Red Sox. So it was that our game was still in the 7th inning when the bright white “9” inning indicator and an adjacent downward facing arrow told us that in Toronto, the Blue Jays were three outs from a 4-0 defeat. We watched Sabathia set the Sox down in the top of the frame, and we sang along as the grounds crew entertained with their nightly rendition of “YMCA.” We cheered when Ellsbury led off the home half with a single to left, all the while glancing frequently at the silent numbers on the board. Then in a blink the “9” changed to an “F.” The score in Toronto was final, and the meaningful part of the Yankees’ season was over.

The disappointment was tangible, but muted; for we recognized that this moment was virtually certain to come. A seven game winning streak spanning the first full week of September made the Yankees a meaningful part of the Wild Card discussion. But no sooner had that happened than a disastrous road trip followed. Eight losses in eleven games, including four straight to these same Red Sox and three to the Blue Jays, pushed our team back down the standings and to the edge of elimination.

Now it was official, and the only silver lining was the fact that the moment did not arrive until the 7th inning of the longest season’s 159th game. Few would have expected the Yankees to hang around that long when GM Brian Cashman became a seller at the trade deadline, dealing the lineup’s best hitter and two elite relievers for a long list of prospects. Those deals and the release of Alex Rodriguez opened up roster spots for a new generation of Yankees called up from the minors, and the so-called Baby Bombers acquitted themselves surprisingly well.

Thirty teams leave Spring Training with the shared goal of playing on into October, but only ten earn the chance to do so. For the others, once postseason hopes have been dashed there remains the challenge of playing on for whatever is left of the schedule. Motivation was not a problem in this game, against New York’s fiercest rival, and the Yankees went on to post a 5-1 victory, wrapping up a three game sweep of Boston. But what of the final weekend?

The Orioles arrive in the Bronx, and since they are still fighting to nail down the final AL Wild Card spot they have plenty to play for. That shows on Friday night when Baltimore uses a big 6th inning to roll to an easy 8-1 victory in miserable conditions of wind and rain. Only a few thousand of us stick it out to the bitter end of that one, and we can’t help but wonder if we’ll only see more of the same Saturday afternoon. Our final visit to the Stadium for this season will be for the schedule’s penultimate game.

Luis Severino gives up a two-run single to Michael Bourn in the 2nd, and a long home run to Manny Machado in the 3rd; and Wade Miley flummoxes New York batters for four innings, striking out six. But just when it seems like the die is cast the Yankees awaken from their slumber. Mark Teixeira, one day short of retirement, leads off the 5th with a single. It will be the final base hit of Teixeira’s career. Chase Headley follows with a walk, and one out later the rookie Tyler Austin gets the Yankees on the board with a sharp RBI single to left. An inning later Billy Butler and Rob Refsnyder both single, and Headley slashes a double to left that makes the score 3-2. Then in the 7th Austin is the hero again, slicing a leadoff homer into the Yankee bullpen to knot the score, and now the Stadium is alive.

The cheers roll down onto the field in the 8th, when an Austin Romine single to center scores Ellsbury and Headley to put New York ahead for the first time. They grow louder when Brett Gardner extends the lead with a blistering line drive down the left field line that plates two more. We greet Dellin Betances with a roar as he jogs in from the bullpen in the top of the 9th. Born just across the Harlem River in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, the 28-year old three-time All-Star assumed closer responsibilities after Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were traded away.

Bourn leads off with an infield single on a ball that deflects off Austin’s glove. But Betances is unfazed. He strikes out J.J. Hardy on four pitches, and then fans Adam Jones on three. His first pitch to Pedro Alvarez is a ball, but his second is a 99 mile per hour heater that Alvarez flails at. Betances touches 100 on the radar gun with his next offering, a called strike two. Now we are on our feet, looking for one more strike. Betances does not disappoint, fanning Alvarez with a sweeping knuckle curve. As if with one voice we thousands unite in a joyous shout, and our celebration begins.

Soon enough we will make our way down the steps from the upper deck and out onto Babe Ruth Plaza. There cold reality awaits, like a stiff October breeze. For the third time in four years our team has failed to reach the postseason. The one exception, in 2015, was for but a single game. Winter will again come early to the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue. But before we step into that chill wind, we’ll savor this comeback victory, and draw hope for the future from the late season heroics of a new generation of players in pinstripes. If we’re smart, we’ll also remember the lesson we’ve just witnessed; one that is equally true in the Great Game and in life. No matter the standings, no matter the score, always play to the final out.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 2, 2016

Big Win Is A Start For Team USA

When Team USA lost the Ryder Cup for the third time in a row in 2014, the PGA of America responded to criticism from many players, most notably Phil Mickelson, by setting up a task force to examine how the U.S. could become more competitive at the biennial golf exhibition between this country and Team Europe. Had the U.S. lost the matches for a fourth straight time this weekend, one can only speculate on what the next steps might have been. Congressional hearings, perhaps? The detention of team captain Davis Love III and his five vice-captains at an undisclosed location for some enhanced interrogation?

Happily for Love and his associates, not to mention the twelve members of Team USA, the recent European winning streak ended Sunday at Hazeltine National Golf Club in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Officially the winning moment came when captain’s pick Ryan Moore cozied a birdie putt up near the hole on the 18th green in the seventh singles match of the day. Lee Westwood immediately conceded Moore’s par, giving the American a 1-up victory in the match and Team USA the points it needed to reclaim the Cup for the next two years.

Yet in large measure these matches turned in favor of the home team Friday morning, when the United States bolted out of the gate and swept all four of the first session’s foursomes. The Americans engineered that sweep by mixing fast starts and strong finishes. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed were 3-up after seven holes against Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose in the opening match, and Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar were even stronger in the final Friday morning match, going 5-up over Westwood and Thomas Pieters after eight holes. Between those pairings Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler rallied to take three of the final four holes for a 1-up win over Rory McIlroy and Andy Sullivan; while Jimmie Walker and Zach Johnson went from 1-down to a 4&2 victory by blitzing Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer, winning five straight holes starting on the 12th.

By lunchtime on the first day of the three-day event the Europeans found themselves in a deep hole. While the visitors fought gamely, three times moving to within a point of Team USA during Saturday’s play, by the time the first two days of action had concluded the United States held a three-point lead at 9 ½ to 6 ½. European captain Darren Clarke frontloaded his lineup for Sunday’s singles, and once again his squad managed to close to within a point in the early going, but in the end Team USA won 7 ½ of the 12 points at stake, pulling away to a final score of 17 to 11. From the first point won Friday morning until Germany’s Kaymer closed out Matt Kuchar on the 18th in the last match on the course, Team USA never trailed in winning the 41st edition of the Ryder Cup.

In the immediate aftermath the work of the task force is being praised for contributing to the victory. Still it’s worth remembering that when the 11-member task force was announced veteran writer Dan Jenkins suggested the answer was to “make more putts and shoot lower scores.” For while there is surely no harm in having greater input from the players about pairings and more team events before the matches, the two main recommendations of the task force were hardly revolutionary.

The group picked this year’s team captain; and Love is unquestionably a popular figure who got to make up for his misfortune of four years ago, when he led the squad that collapsed on Sunday, surrendering a four point overnight lead in the singles at Medinah. But as a player in his early fifties, and a former captain at that, his selection was not exactly bold thinking.

The task force also altered the selection process by giving the captain four picks instead of three, and having the last of those chosen only after the Tour Championship, just days before the matches were scheduled to begin. This became known as the Billy Horschel Rule, after he was passed over as a captain’s pick in 2014, and then proceeded to win both the BMW Championship and Tour Championship in successive weeks, after the deadline for picks had gone by. That change allowed Love to pick Moore after the latter finished runner-up to McIlroy at last week’s Tour Championship. But while he happened to score the decisive point on Sunday, for the matches Moore finished with a record of 2-1-0. In what amounted to an American rout only Walker and J.B. Holmes contributed fewer than two points to Team USA’s cause.

While the task force members engage in self-congratulation, the American victory likely had more to do with Jenkins’s focus on putts and scores than on decisions taken in a meeting room. Simply put, the Americans played better for a change. That should come as no surprise, given the makeup of the two teams. NBC analyst Johnny Miller always speaks his mind, often to his detriment. As all golf fans know, he has never seen a twisting downhill ten foot putt that the pro facing it shouldn’t make “nine times out of ten.” But Miller was on track last week when he opined “I do believe the Euros have got, at least on paper, the worst team they’ve had in many years.”

With three captain’s picks to Love’s four, and a focus in the automatic selection process on European Tour results, Team Europe’s Clarke was left with five rookies among the nine players on the team based on points. With his three picks he added a sixth first-timer, along with the veterans Kaymer and Westwood. He notably passed over Scotland’s Russell Knox, who won twice on the PGA Tour this season. But because Knox plays full-time in the United States, he barely knows Clarke or any of the European vice-captains.

Thomas Pieters, picked by Clarke after he played with the Belgian at a European Tour event in August, was the surprise of the Ryder Cup. The 24-year old played all five sessions and won four points. He teamed with McIlroy for three wins in foursomes and fourballs, and then dispatched J.B. Holmes in the singles. But the only other European rookie to play even passingly well was Rafael Cabrera-Bello. The other four went a combined 1-8-0. Add to that a dismal weekend of play by England’s Westwood, and with nearly half the European team contributing next to nothing the American victory was all but certain.

Now the spectacle of the Ryder Cup is done for another two years, until the two sides reconvene at Le Golf National, outside of Paris. The heckling and openly rooting for a player to do badly, so antithetical to the nature of the game, will hopefully go into storage at least until then as well. When next we turn our attention to these matches, Team USA will be looking to win back-to-back and win as visitors, two feats it hasn’t accomplished in more than twenty years. If the Americans can do that, then perhaps we can say that in the Ryder Cup, still won by Team Europe in eight of the last eleven matches, balance is finally being restored.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 30, 2016

A Finish Worthy Of The King

As Rory McIlroy strode down what was for one week East Lake Golf Club’s 16th fairway on Sunday afternoon, he was three strokes out of the lead at the Tour Championship. With little more than two holes to play, he appeared to have virtually no chance of winning the PGA Tour’s season-ending tournament, much less the $10 million bonus that awaited the winner of the four-tournament FedEx Cup playoffs.

The PGA Tour flipped the two nines at East Lake this year, hoping to produce a setup that might result in a more exciting finish than that provided by the course’s normal finish of a par-3 18th hole. The wish for drama began to materialize when McIlroy lofted a short iron from the first cut of rough, 138 yards away from and below the hole. His Nike golf ball landed a few feet left of the pin, spun once, then rolled dead right and into the cup for an eagle two. With one perfect swing, and a generous helping of good fortune, McIlroy had cut his three stroke deficit to one.

Two holes later he birdied the par-5 that would normally play as the 9th hole, and when Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell could make no better than par at the last, McIlroy had barged his way into a three-way sudden death playoff. Chappell fell on the first playoff hole, but McIlroy and Moore played on until the world number three finally consummated his Sunday charge by rolling in a twelve foot birdie putt on the fourth hole of the playoff, by chance once again his lucky 16th.

Sunday’s sprint up the leader board by McIlroy became especially timely shortly after that final putt dropped, when word came that Arnold Palmer, the golfer who seemingly invented the final round charge, had passed away at the age of 87. To many current fans Palmer was the kindly grandfather figure watching the modern game from behind the ropes. To them his on-course exploits are known only through grainy black and white videos. But to golf fans of a certain age, who enlisted in Arnie’s Army in their youth and never mustered out, the King will always be the player who more than anyone turned golf from a game reserved for the elite country club set into one followed, and played, by the masses.

The 1954 U.S. Amateur champion, Palmer’s first professional victory came a year later at the Canadian Open. He won his first major at the 1958 Masters, when he rallied from three shots behind at the halfway point. In the paper’s first extended coverage of the then 28-year old, a New York Times “Man in the News” column described him as having “nerves of steel.”

Two years later, Palmer took the Masters again by rolling in birdie putts on both of the last two holes. Two months after that he won the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills with a final round 65. In those days the final two rounds of our national championship were both played on Saturday. While having lunch in the locker room after completing his third round, Palmer saw golf writer Bob Drum. Seven shots adrift of leader Mike Souchak, Palmer asked Drum what would happen if he shot 65 in the afternoon. The journalist famously and wrongly replied “For you, nothing. You’re too far behind.” Palmer then drove the first green, a downhill par-4, setting up a two putt birdie on his way to a front nine score of 30. Palmer won that day by two shots over a pudgy amateur named Jack Nicklaus. Between the Masters and the U.S. Open, in 1960 the Palmer charge was born.

All of this was happening at the same time that golf tournaments were beginning to show up on television screens on weekend afternoons. Palmer was a magnetic presence, with his go for broke style and constant interaction with fans. The Q Rating measure of celebrity appeal wasn’t invented until a few years later, but Palmer’s was certainly off the charts.

He traveled to Scotland in 1960 to play the Open Championship following his victories at the Masters and U.S. Open. While he came up one shot short that year, he won the next two Opens, and his willingness to compete in a tournament that many American pros had regularly skipped reestablished the importance of golf’s oldest major.

As the first client of Mark McCormack’s International Management Group, Palmer was instrumental in creating the concept of sports agency, allowing athletes to turn their fame into endorsement riches. His avid participation in what is now known as the Champions Tour when it began in 1980 helped establish the senior tour as a successful source of entertainment for fans and continued competition, and paychecks, for players over the age of fifty. Against the advice of his financial advisers, he invested in a fledgling cable network called the Golf Channel, helping what is now a major source of golf coverage on television get its start.

The King won at least one PGA Tour event every year from 1955 to 1971. His last win on the regular tour came at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, when he rammed home a long distance birdie putt on the final hole. While he later added ten Champions Tour victories, his period of dominance was relatively brief. From 1960 through 1963 Palmer won twenty-nine times, including five of his seven majors. But that was precisely the time that golf was finding its way into living rooms on weekend afternoons, and so he became a hero to millions of fans.

They stayed loyal, indeed if anything became more so, when he failed. At the 1961 Los Angeles Open he hit four balls out-of-bounds on the par-5 9th hole, eventually signing for a twelve. At the 1966 U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, he held a seven shot lead with nine to play before collapsing. The calamities only proved Palmer’s humanity to his fans, as did his gnawing failure to complete the career Grand Slam by winning the PGA Championship.

When the sad news came Sunday evening, FedEx Cup winner McIlroy said “Even though he wasn’t the most successful golfer of all time, he’s definitely the one who will leave the lasting legacy. I think of all sports over the past century I’m not sure if anyone’s going to leave a legacy like Arnold Palmer.”

It is a legacy of almost single-handedly popularizing a sport by seizing on the then-new medium of televised tournaments and combining a dashing and daring style on the course with an avuncular everyman persona off it. Now Arnold Palmer is gone, leaving the loyal soldiers in Arnie’s Army with their memories.  But they also have the certain knowledge that while each generation of golfers will produce transcendent players like McIlroy; as even he acknowledged, there will never be another King.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 25, 2016

Winning Comes In Many Ways

Motor racing returned to New England this weekend, with NASCAR making its annual autumn visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. As if on cue the weather turned. After a warm and humid week, Saturday dawned crisp and breezy for the Camping World Truck Series race. Just twenty-four hours later that seemed balmy as wind-whipped fans bundled in layers made their way into the grandstands around the one mile concrete oval for the 300 mile Sprint Cup Series showdown.

NASCAR’s second stop in New Hampshire every season, after an earlier visit in July, has long been part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the ten race playoffs that have capped the season for NASCAR’s top circuit for more than a decade. This year a similar playoff series is in place for the two major developmental series, the Xfinity for cars and Camping World for trucks. That meant that Saturday’s main event was the first playoff race for the third highest North American stock car racing series, and Sunday’s was the second in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. The playoff formats are similar, with a small number of drivers qualifying based on the standings from the regular season, and that number then whittled down through the playoffs until only four drivers are left to compete for the title in the season-ending race for each series.

Racing is no different from other sports, especially when a championship is on the line. The focus is on winning, so most of the stories that casual fans read about this weekend’s events at Loudon will be about the winners. In Saturday’s race, sponsored by the University of Northwestern Ohio and happily shortened to the UNOH 175, it was no surprise that the dominant truck was driven by William Byron. He led the Truck Series regular season standings by a wide margin after winning five times. No other driver, including the small handful of Sprint Cup drivers who occasionally drive in a truck race, managed to win more than twice. In his number 9 Toyota, Byron led all but fourteen of the race’s one hundred seventy-five laps; and his victory punched his ticket into the next round of the Truck Series playoffs. What is surprising is that Byron is just 18 years old, and didn’t start racing at any level until he was 15. A true phenom behind the wheel, he seems likely to climb quickly through NASCAR’s developmental series, with a lot of checkered flags in his future.

On Sunday the lead story was about a thrilling finish between Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, two veteran drivers who are both competing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Kenseth’s bright yellow number 20 Toyota was at or near the front for much of the race, as he sought to become the first driver to win three consecutive Sprint Cup races at Loudon after following up a victory last September with a win in July. But after a disappointing finish in the first Chase race last week, Harvick in his number 4 Chevrolet charged through the pack late, and on a restart after a late caution flag pulled away from Kenseth over the final laps for the win.

But there were other stories floating around the Magic Mile this weekend, accounts that do not make headlines. One of those on Saturday was the tale of Jordan Anderson, the 25-year old driver of the number 66 truck. Anderson’s Chevy is the lone Truck Series entry for Bolen Motorsports, and like many small teams, money is always a problem. Early in the week owner Jeff Bolen called Anderson to tell him that there wasn’t enough cash to cover the expense of this week’s race. Rather than despair Anderson took to social media, directing anyone who would listen to a hastily designed website aimed at raising the $15,000 needed to pay for one hundred seventy-five laps around the Loudon oval.

Little more than a day later Anderson was halfway to his goal, and soon enough he and the number 66 were on their way to New Hampshire. On Saturday he recognized those who had emptied their wallets for him with a decal on the side of his truck that read “Fueled by Fans,” and by writing the name of every donor on the rear deck of the number 66 Chevrolet.

On Sunday the two most remarkable stories had to do with the makeup of this year’s Chase contenders. After twenty-six regular season races, sixteen drivers qualified for the playoffs in NASCAR’s top series. Most of the drivers and teams were familiar names. Harvick and Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, the Busch brothers and Tony Stewart; Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, all would be on anyone’s list of NASCAR’s elite. But there among the sixteen were two interlopers.

Sixteenth on the list of qualifiers for the first round of the playoffs was Chris Buescher, a 23-year old Sprint Cup rookie who made the Chase on the strength of a win at Pocono. At the other end of the Chase drivers, the leader going into the playoffs was veteran Martin Truex, Jr. He opened his season with a heart-breaking and heart-stopping loss by one one-hundredth of a second to Denny Hamlin at the Daytona 500, before going on to win twice.

What sets Buescher and Truex apart is the same issue that nearly derailed Jordan Anderson. Buescher drives the number 34 Ford for Front Row Motorsports, a tiny small-budget team that struggles to support two full-time Sprint Cup Series cars. In the number 78 Toyota, Truex is the sole entrant for the equally small Furniture Row Racing team.

Given the week-to-week expense of stock car racing, it’s hard to explain the enormity of these two drivers making NASCAR’s playoffs. It’s not like a couple of low-budget baseball teams winding up in the postseason. Rather imagine those same teams making it to October while not being able to afford a farm system, and having to use equipment handed down from other major league franchises once they no longer needed it.

But against all odds in this weekend’s chill air at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Jordan Anderson took to the track on Saturday, and Chris Buescher and Martin Truex, Jr. followed one day later. In the Lifetime or Hallmark channels accounting of this story, one or two would have won a thrilling victory.

Reality is seldom so providential. Anderson finished 22nd in the truck race, down a lap to the phenom Byron. Buescher had a tough day from the start, winding up 30th. Absent a strong finish next week, he’ll be among the four drivers failing to make the first cut in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after that race. Truex had a good car and dueled Kenseth for the lead through much of Sunday’s race, bringing cheers from the fans. But in the end he was shuffled back to 7th as Harvick and Kenseth dueled, and he wound up losing his points lead to Brad Keslowski.

Perhaps the weekend’s results only remind us that life is not a Hallmark movie. Or perhaps there is another lesson. One that suggests that winning has multiple definitions. Sometimes just making it to the starting line counts as a victory.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 22, 2016

Remembering The Night When It Was Closing Time

A NOTE TO READERS: Here at On Sports and Life the tradition is to republish the following reflection, originally written after the final game played at the old Yankee Stadium on September 21, 2008, every year near the anniversary of that event. The grand old cathedral of the Great Game is long gone now. In its place is Heritage Field, a public park with regulation, Little League and softball diamonds sharing a common outfield. On a summer afternoon, headed for the new Stadium across the street, a few fans will pause to watch the young people playing on the old hallowed ground. If they are lucky and the light is just right, perhaps they catch a glimpse of the ghosts of baseball glory.

One more Sunday in the Bronx. One more ride on the 4 train from midtown Manhattan up to the 161st Street station. One more winding one’s way up the ramps and along the narrow passageways of The Stadium. One more walk up the entryway directly behind home plate, and at last out into the open of the Tier, the upper deck with its vertigo-inducing pitch. Down the steep steps of Section 607 to Row A, Seat 16. Second row on the aisle, looking down on the batter’s box for left-handed hitters. All of the ballpark is once again spread out before me; from the huge interlocked NY in foul ground behind home plate, out to Monument Park. It is the same routine as at all the many previous games this season, and in seasons past. It is the same, but of course it is entirely different; because this Sunday evening, it’s closing time.

Why should it matter really? The Stadium is ancient. They’ve played the Great Game here for nearly 90 years. The mid-70’s renovation made it an entirely different place that the old heroes might well not recognize. Long gone are the days when the monuments were in play in that deepest of center fields, while the right field foul pole seemed but a pop fly away from home plate. It’s only concrete and steel. And the new stadium being built across the street will offer far superior creature comforts for both players and fans. But still, we all know that it’s closing time.

What does it matter? The pre-game ceremonies serve to remind. The introduction of a pantheon of heroes, whether by video, by actors walking into center field, or by their presence in the flesh, brings back a flood of memories of all that has happened here. Right here, on the southwest corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx. Whatever form the concrete and steel around it may have taken, it all happened on this field.

It was here that the Babe homered in the very first game; and here was where he set the home run record that stood for almost two generations. On this field Roger broke it on an October afternoon in 1961.

At this location a still-young hero, cut down by an insidious disease, stared death in the face and pronounced himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Right here in the months before America went to war, Joltin’ Joe hit, and hit, and hit again; until a record was established that still stands, and may well defy the maxim that they are all made to be broken.

In this infield, along the first baseline, Yogi leapt into Larsen’s arms to celebrate something that had never been done before in a World Series, and has yet to be repeated in the Fall Classic.

Across the impossible green of this outfield Mickey ranged, for more games than any other Yankee; at least until the career of a certain shortstop began late in 1995.

Right here, right in that left-handed batter’s box below me, Reggie flicked his wrists three times and became Mr. October. With those three magnificent swings he brought new hope to a city obsessed with the Son of Sam.

And here too it was that a previously unsuccessful manager was given one more chance, and found a way to lead a team to phenomenal and repeated success, as an old century ended and a new one began. We are reminded of all of that as prelude, and still we have a game to play.

That game unfolds like so many others, because the ebb and flow of the Great Game is unfailing. The visiting Orioles take the early lead, then we come back; but the question of who leads at the end is somehow more important this time. Because it is the last time. Tonight it’s closing time.

Andy Pettitte is not dominant, but then domination is not his style. Pettitte is a grinder who pitches to contact and counts on being good enough to win. After we trail early Johnny Damon homers to bring us back. And then Jose Molina homers into the visitors’ bullpen in left field to put us ahead. So now we wait for the last home run at The Stadium. Because it cannot come from Molina, a .215 hitter whose most recent blast was just his third homer of the year. But after more than eight decades The Stadium appears to have its own mind; and it gives Molina a place in its history to remind us that along with the stars, there were thousands of bit players without whom 26 championships would never have been won.

So it comes down to the 9th inning, which for the Yankees and their fans means but one thing. The bullpen gate opens, he walks through a step or two before pausing a moment on the outfield warning track as always; and then Mariano Rivera, the last active player wearing number 42, begins his jog in to the mound. We fans erupt, and in doing so relax; for we know that victory is at hand. Mo faces three batters, throws eleven pitches, and the final game is won.

And so, at last, it really is closing time.

But we stay. We stay and cheer for this ground and all that has happened right here. Then the captain, that aforementioned shortstop, assembles the entire team in the middle of the infield. He acknowledges the history, the tradition, the excellence, and most of all, the fans. He invites us to bring our memories across the street, and by so doing wed them to new memories as yet uncreated and pass the whole history on to the next generation. Then he leads his team around the field in appreciation of us, all four million of us who have walked the aging ramps and passageways this final year. We are grateful for the latter, and we will of course do the former. But as the clock strikes the beginning of a new day we all know, players and fans alike, that on this side of 161st Street, it’s closing time.

But still we stay. We cheer. We take pictures. We stand silently. We gaze at the immaculate swath of green and brown through eyes moistened by a flood of remembrances. We are in awe, fans and players alike; not of each other nor of the cement and steel and cantilevered decks, but of what has happened here. Right here. Right here. We stay in the stands. They stay on the field.

It’s closing time. But on the field and in the stands, there is not one among us who is ready to leave.

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