Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 18, 2018

Of Fairy Tales, Wildcats, And Retrievers

Though it gained prominence thanks to the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century and was popularized for modern audiences by Walt Disney in the middle of the 20th, versions of the Cinderella story have appeared in cultures around the globe since at least the 1st century BC. Things work out for the title character in all those many accounts, for the folk tale is one of unjust oppression eventually overcome by a glorious reward. The story ends differently for the bracket-busting underdogs of March, the little teams that come out of nowhere to take down prohibitive favorites. For every basketball Cinderella, the clock always strikes midnight and the golden carriage always turns back into a pumpkin.

Villanova fans will argue that the fairy tale came true in 1985, when the Wildcats took down the Southeast Region’s 1st, 2nd, and 5th seeds to advance to the Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky. On the tournament’s final weekend at Rupp Arena, Villanova first beat Memphis State, the 2nd seed out of the Midwest Region to set up a battle for the title with Big East rival Georgetown, the defending champion and that year’s overall top seed.

The 1985 Final is remembered as one of the greatest in the history of March Madness. Both teams shot better than fifty percent from the field, but both also employed patient offenses in the final season before the shot clock became part of the college game. Villanova ended the first half with the last successful use of the four corners offense, running nearly two minutes off the clock before Harold Pressley canned a jumper to put the Wildcats up by one at the intermission, 29-28.

The Hoyas reclaimed the lead on a basket by Patrick Ewing the open the second half, but Villanova gradually pulled ahead, twice opening a five point advantage as play continued. Georgetown called time with six minutes to play and trailing 53-48, then answered with six straight points when the action resumed. At 54-53, the Hoyas had the lead for the final time that night. Harold Jensen put Villanova back on top at the 2:37 mark with the Wildcats’ last field goal attempt of the game. The Hoyas were forced to foul, and while the Villanova players were far from perfect at the charity stripe, they kept converting the front ends of one-and-one opportunities. It was good enough to push the lead to 59-52 with a minute and a half to play, then 66-62 with just ten seconds to go. A final basket by Georgetown’s Michael Jackson cut the lead to two, but Villanova was able to convert the inbounds pass and hold the ball as time expired.

While the win by the Wildcats is the greatest upset in Finals history, it is also a reminder of the impossible road that a true Cinderella team would have to travel for the slipper to finally fit. Villanova was the 8th seed in the Southeast Region in 1985. That team remains the lowest seed ever to win a national title, and the only number eight to survive to the championship game, but in the first year of the sixty-four team field the Wildcats were still in the top half of the draw. Before starting their string of upsets, they began regional play as the favorite over number nine Dayton.

Villanova also had the good fortune to have a familiar opponent in the title game. As fellow members of the Big East, the Hoyas and Wildcats had already played each other twice during the conference’s regular season. As glorious and improbable as the win by coach Rollie Massimino’s team was, it wasn’t quite the old March Madness fairy tale coming true.

Since that 1985 expansion to sixty-four teams, just five teams from the bottom half of the bracket have made it to the Final Four – #9 Wichita State in 2013, #10 Syracuse in 2016, and three eleven seeds, LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011. All five lost their national semifinal game. Another thirteen would-be Cinderella squads have advanced to Sunday of the tournament’s second weekend, losing as one of the Elite Eight. This year is unlikely to be any different.

But before order is restored, fans have witnessed the moment in the national spotlight of some thoroughly unexpected entrants, including, at long last, the most improbable would-be Cinderella of all. Nine of the thirty-two first round contests resulted in upsets. While three of those were nominal, a nine seed beating an eight, there were also first round victories by a ten seed, a pair of elevens, a thirteen, and, of course, the game that will forever compete with that ’85 Final as the biggest upset in tournament history.

As this is written three of those upset winners have already been bounced from the field in second round play. But the two eleven seeds have both advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The selection committee was criticized for making Syracuse the last team in the field at the expense of USC. But the Orange have vindicated the committee by beating TCU 57-52 on Friday and then holding off Michigan State 55-53 Sunday afternoon. Even more remarkable has been the run of Loyola of Chicago. The Jesuit school has actually won a title – all the way back in 1963. Nothing so remarkable was expected of this year’s squad, in the field with an automatic bid as champions of the Missouri Valley Conference. But with Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, their 98-year-old team chaplain cheering them on, the Ramblers took out #6 Miami 64-62 on a buzzer-beater in the first round, then beat #3 Tennessee 63-62 on Saturday.

But those exploits pale next to the first round victory by the University of Maryland – Baltimore County. The UMBC Retrievers, champions of the America East Conference, didn’t just draw the short straw with a #16 seed. They were placed in the South Region, meaning their opponent was Virginia, the overall top seed in this year’s bracket.

As even casual fans know, a #16 has never beaten a #1. Not once in 135 previous matchups. Never. Ever. Until now. Friday evening, in Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, the Retrievers claimed a spot in the history book of sports alongside the 1968-69 New York Jets and the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team. UMBC didn’t simply beat UVA, the Retrievers crushed the Cavaliers. The teams were knotted at 21-all at the intermission. Then UMBC started running and shooting. The Retrievers finished the night 12 of 24 from beyond the arc and shot sixty-eight percent from the field in the second half. Virginia is built on defense, with an offensive pace that is, at best, ponderous. As UMBC took the lead and sped up the game, Virginia simply couldn’t keep up. In the end the Retrievers scored 53 points in the second half alone against a team that yielded an average of just 54 points per game. The final score was 74-54, a rout.

By the time many readers finish that last paragraph, UMBC may well have exited the tournament. The Retrievers play Kansas State on Sunday evening, and history suggests that well before the Madness moves to its final weekend in San Antonio, time will have run out for the Retrievers, and all the other would-be Cinderella teams as well. But on the UMBC campus this weekend an electronic billboard displayed the simple message: “Number one seeds: 135-1. We’re the 1.” That sure sounds like a fairy tale come true.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 15, 2018

The Madness Begins, Under A Cloud

Our annual collective descent into madness has begun. The brackets for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament are set, a process that is now a major event in itself. Long before TBS offered up a two hour long selection show on Sunday, scores of projected brackets were being posted online by both amateur fans and professional pundits. It’s been a little more than two decades since Joe Lunardi took time out from his day job as a publicist at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia to predict the entire tournament bracket in advance of the selection committee’s announcement. The term bracketology entered the lexicon soon after. This year the website Bracket Matrix compiled 187 published brackets, a twelvefold increase from when the site went live in 2005.

Lunardi’s bracket for this year’s tournament ranked a middling 75th when scored by Bracket Matrix for picking teams and seedings correctly. In fairness to ESPN’s resident bracketologist, who on a couple of occasions has correctly predicted every team chosen by the selection committee, this was a tough year for the forecasters, with lots of teams on the bubble and a couple of late upsets in conference tournaments that forced the committee to use at-large selections on regular season champions that had been expected to receive automatic bids. The committee’s controversial decision to make Syracuse the last team in apparently spoiled a lot of brackets for folks who seem far more interested in what teams make the tournament field than which one’s players and coaches will eventually cut down the nets at the Alamodome on April 2nd.

The only bracket that actually matters was revealed Sunday on a show that seems to get longer and more chaotic every year. With TBS producing the telecast for the first time, the cable network pledged to reveal all the teams early in the broadcast, atoning for the decision by CBS to tease out the list over most of its own two-hour show in 2016. But inexplicably co-hosts Greg Gumbel and Ernie Johnson did so not by revealing the seedings in each region, but rather by listing first the automatic qualifiers and then the at-large teams alphabetically. Add in technical problems, with the audio transmission running several seconds behind the video at the beginning of the show, and the studio lights going out at one point, and TBS’s first attempt at what should be a pretty simple task was widely mocked as a disaster.

Actual basketball was finally played on Tuesday and Wednesday. The four play-in games were contested in Dayton, Ohio, with one producing a tournament first. When Texas Southern routed North Carolina Central 64-46, securing the West Region’s #16 seed and winning the right to play regional #1 Xavier in the opening round, the Tigers became the first team with a losing record to post a “W” during March Madness.

Texas Southern, a historically black college in Houston, played a brutal non-conference schedule that included early season games against the likes of Kansas, Ohio State, and Gonzaga. The Tigers were 0-13 at one point, but the tough opposition hardened them for play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. They finished the regular season tied for second before claiming the SAC’s automatic bid by sweeping through the conference tournament, and entered the contest against North Carolina Central with a record of 15-19. Now the Tigers are within three games of .500, and they will climb above the break-even mark when they punch their ticket to the Final Four at the West Regional Final a week from Saturday. Or maybe the Xavier Musketeers will have something to say about that dream in round one.

All of that was but prelude to Thursday’s start of the four days that are the real basis for the tournament’s nickname. Forty-eight games over one extended weekend, including two work days during which productivity sags in offices from coast to coast. The tournament’s first weekend, which begins with a full bracket of sixty-four teams and ends with just the Sweet Sixteen still standing, is the time when many hoop dreams die, and millions of office pool brackets go bust. Romantic notions of Cinderella teams dancing their way right into the Final Four aside, the seedings usually prevail. But if upsets are not as frequent as fans like to imagine, the games are still intense, and the packed schedule means moments of drama come tumbling into view one after another.

In just the first afternoon of play, #16 Penn hung with Kansas, the Midwest’s top seed, well into the second half before finally falling, as had been the case in every one of the previous 133 games between a #1 and a #16. A former Cinderella turned established power, #4 Gonzaga needed a late three from freshman Zach Norvell Jr. to finally put away #13 UNC-Greensboro in a first round West Region matchup. The tournament got its first upset late Thursday afternoon, when #11 Loyola of Chicago ousted #6 Miami from South Region play. The Hurricanes led by one with 9 seconds to play, but Loyola grabbed the rebound of a missed Miami free throw, and the Ramblers raced down the court, with Donte Ingram canning a three-pointer for both the win and the tournament’s first buzzer-beater.  And the first of what will surely be several overtime games was played in the Midwest Region, where #7 Rhode Island finally pulled away from #10 Oklahoma in the extra five minutes, winning 83-78.

In that game Oklahoma freshman Trae Young was the best player on the court, finishing with 28 points and 7 assists. The same could be said about Young for most of the Sooners games this season, as he is widely regarded as the best player in the country after leading the nation in scoring, assists, and turnovers (nobody’s perfect). He’s the first player to lead Division I in both of those first two categories.

Which means of course, that Young has almost certainly played his last collegiate game. While he refused to be drawn into speculation about declaring for the NBA Draft, his father rightly pointed out that returning for his sophomore year would carry substantial risks if Young were unable to match his extraordinary freshman numbers. While Rayford Young didn’t say it, those risks for his son are of course financial. His NBA contract value will likely never be higher than it is right now, so just like his NCAA Tournament experience, Trae Young is about to be one and done as a college player.

Thus, the college game’s best player became a conspicuous reminder of the scandal plaguing his sport, one so powerful and deep-rooted that no amount of March Madness can fully distract us from it. Last fall federal investigators brought charges against several assistant coaches, sports agents, and a senior executive at Adidas, alleging widespread corruption in the college game, most of it involving steering teenaged high school athletes to certain schools for a single season and then in turn to various agents or financial advisers when they turned pro.

Much of the problem stems from the NBA’s ban on drafting players directly out of high school. Rather they are required to be at least one year removed, a rule that created the one and done collegian. That rule seems likely to be abandoned, which will be a start. But more changes are needed, like requiring players who do matriculate to spend three years in college and working to exorcise the pernicious influence of shoe companies on the college game.

For the next couple of weeks, the delirium will take over, and fans will be caught up in the excitement that college basketball at its best provides. But when it’s all over, when the nets have been cut down and “One Shining Moment” has been played again, the corruption scandal will still be there. Until both the NCAA and the NBA address multiple issues, it will continue to fester.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 11, 2018

Tigermania Returns, With A Different Result

By the thousands golf fans lined the fairways at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course this weekend, six and eight deep at times. They thronged around the greens, so densely packed by Sunday afternoon that while many would be able to say they were there, they could not honestly claim to have seen the crucial putts over the closing holes of the Valspar Championship. As large as the crowds were in Palm Harbor, Florida, many times the number of fans watching in person were at home following NBC’s coverage of this week’s PGA Tour’s stop. The unusually high level of interest in a tournament that is not one of the premier events on golf’s annual calendar had everything to do with the 42-year old playing in the final round’s next-to-last twosome. Dressed in his familiar Sunday garb of red shirt and black pants, Tiger Woods was not just playing again, but contending.

It’s been more than four and one-half years since Woods last lifted a trophy at the end of the PGA Tour event. In the long interval since he won the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by seven shots, Woods has undergone four surgical procedures on his back. He played in just 18 total events in 2014 and 2015, none in 2016, and just one last year. When his game was on public display, it was often painful for fans to watch. Off the tee his shots could go in any direction and seemed to wind up in the deep rough more often than in the middle of the fairway. Around the green his play was the stuff of bad comedy, with muffed pitches and skulled chips that any weekend hacker would find familiar.

So it was that when Woods pronounced himself ready for a return to action by teeing it up at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, fans didn’t know what to expect. For the golfer who leant his name to an entire era, it was the first round in an official PGA Tour event in a year. While never a factor in the tournament, Woods did play all four rounds in San Diego. But three weeks later at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles, he was 1-over in the first round and 5-over in the second, missing the cut by a wide margin.

Just one week later came the Honda Classic, as the Tour moved to the east coast. With a couple of birdies early in the first round, Woods’s name topped the leader board for the first time in what felt like eons, and the response by fans was predictable. Social media came alive with a level of excitement more appropriate for him winning another major than merely sharing the lead early on a tournament’s first day. By the time the sun went down Woods had returned a solid score of even par 70 on the difficult layout at PGA National, but he was four off the lead. He got no closer over the remainder of the tournament, finishing in a tie for 12th, eight shots adrift of winner Justin Thomas.

The Tour crossed the state from Palm Beach Gardens to the Tampa area for the Valspar, and when Woods opened with a 1-under par 70 to sit three off the number set by unlikely first round leader Corey Connors, a new wave of fan fever began to build. This time Woods followed his opening with steadily improving scores, shooting 68 on Friday and 67 on Saturday. It marked the first time in his brief return that he had posted three consecutive sub-par rounds. It also left him at 8-under for the tournament, in a three-way tie for second with Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker, one shot off the lead still held by the unknown Connors.

When Woods began the final round with a 1st hole birdie to tie Connors, it seemed for a moment that the hopes of so many fans might be realized; that this might be the day when Woods ended his long absence from the winner’s circle. But the rabid enthusiasm spreading like wildfire among fans both on the scene and at home ignored the reality that the Copperhead’s opening hole is a reachable par-5 that played as the easiest hole on the course. The fact that Connors bogeyed it a few minutes later was certainly a sign that midnight was about to strike on his Cinderella tournament, but a birdie on the hole was in truth to be expected.

And in fairness to Woods, what came next was also reasonable to expect, at least by those who didn’t let both their excitement and imagination take over. Woods left his approach shots on the next two holes fifty feet short and thirty feet right of the pins. On the par-3 4th his tee shot settled in the front fringe, and the subsequent chip raced five feet past the cup. Woods was unable to hole the putt coming back, with the bogey taking him back to even par on the day. There then followed twelve consecutive pars. Woods played steadily and well, but not spectacularly. Faced with the pressure of putting while in contention on a Sunday afternoon for the first time in years, Woods lost nearly a stroke to the field in the Tour’s strokes gained – putting statistic. That’s consistent with his overall performance on the greens so far this year, as he continues to work off many layers of rust. He ranks in the top five overall in putts per round for the first two rounds of an event, and a very respectable 13th during third rounds. But he tumbles all the way to 174th in that stat during the final round of an event.

That didn’t prevent Woods from offering one vintage moment late in the day. Trailing Paul Casey, who had finished off a sparkling 65 more than an hour earlier by two shots as he stood on the 17th green, Woods surveyed a downhill birdie putt of nearly 44 feet. He set his Ping blade behind the ball and sent it on its way. The ball trundled down the slope, curling from right to left at the end before dropping into the cup as the gallery roared. But there was no similar magic at the last, when an uphill birdie try from 30 feet curled away and died short of the hole. Englishman Casey, a consistent star on the European Tour who had remarkably posted just one victory in this country, and that all the way back in 2009, finally had his second PGA Tour win.

Having Tiger Woods back in action is obviously great for golf, for he attracts fans like no other player. He will certainly win again, perhaps as soon as this coming week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. To say the Bay Hill layout suits his eye is an understatement, as Woods has won the API eight times. And while the odds seem to favor Jack Nicklaus retaining the record for most majors with 18, one should not assume that Woods’s 14th, now a decade ago, will be his last. But he is also 42, and those putting stats don’t lie.  Discerning fans also know that the PGA Tour is about much more than Tiger Woods. Numerous young stars have come to the fore during his long absence, many of whom idolized Woods while growing up. While they surely welcome the return of their old hero, Justin and Dustin, Jordan and Jason, Rory and the rest have all proven their mettle. Unlike the pros of a generation ago when Tigermania was new, they are unlikely to flinch when galleries let loose with those familiar Tiger roars.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 8, 2018

Book Review: An Inside Look At The Yankees Rebuild

With Spring Training in full swing, hopes abound for the fans of all thirty major league teams. To be certain, with owners tightening their wallets preseason hope in the Great Game now comes on a sliding scale. With a team deep into the rebuilding process, at the point at which losing fewer than one hundred games would represent a welcome if unexpected surprise, faith in the unlikely ability of their heroes to do so is the touchstone to which fans cling. At the other end of the performance spectrum, Astros fans are dreaming of a dynasty, and those who bleed Dodger blue can’t wait for another chance at the longest season’s concluding confrontation.

But there is no location where hopes are higher than at the Spring Training complex on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa and, by extension, in the Bronx. That this should be the case, so soon after the New York Yankees shockingly became sellers at the 2016 trading deadline, tearing their roster apart by moves both then and in the following months, is the surprising story chronicled by Bryan Hoch in “The Baby Bombers,” out this week from Diversion Books.

The Yankees’ beat reporter for since 2008, Hoch won his plum assignment just in time to see the Bombers win a championship the George Steinbrenner way. After missing the postseason in ’08, the Yankees spent heavily over the ensuing winter, lavishing rich free agent deals on pitchers CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, as well as slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira. The trio joined Alex Rodriguez and New York’s “Core Four” of homegrown talent – Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada – and the Yankees rolled to a best in baseball 103 win season. The team then powered past the Twins and Angels in the first two rounds of the playoffs before dispatching the Phillies in the World Series, four games to two.

That team did not immediately fade away. New York won 95 or more games and appeared in the playoffs each of the next three seasons, twice advancing to the ALCS. But as the roster got older wins became more hard-earned. While the Yankees continued to finish above .500, starting in 2013 they did so only by a few games for four years straight. In that span New York’s entire postseason resume consisted of nine innings – a loss to Houston in the 2015 Wild Card Game.

Along the way the inevitable transition to a new generation of players was symbolized by the retirements of the Core Four. Posada was the first, in 2011. Rivera and Pettitte followed two years later, and the Captain called it quits in 2014, going out in typical Jeter fashion, with a game-winning walk off hit in his final Yankee Stadium at bat. Gone too was George Steinbrenner, who passed away the summer following his team’s most recent championship.

In his stead Hal Steinbrenner, the youngest of four siblings, eventually assumed control of the franchise. As the years since the 2009 title run lengthened and he saw other teams with far smaller payrolls making deep playoff runs, the second-generation Steinbrenner became convinced that the Yankees needed to pare their bloated salary budget, escape MLB’s onerous luxury tax, and rely more on developing talent through the Yankees’ farm system.

As recounted by Hoch, general manager Brian Cashman began moving in Steinbrenner’s desired direction even as the Core Four departed. Needing a new shortstop after Jeter retired, Cashman engineered a three team trade with Detroit and Arizona that brought then 24-year old Didi Gregorius to the Yankees from the Diamondbacks in December, 2014. Most teams saw Gregorius as a solid defensive player who couldn’t hit left-handed pitching. But New York’s analytics department, which was on its way to becoming the largest in baseball, believed he had untapped potential at the plate, and Cashman liked the fact he was under team control for five more years. While that was an important step, it also accentuated the team’s problem. When Gregorius took the field on Opening Day 2015, New York’s new shortstop was the only player in the starting lineup under the age of 30.

But the Yankees were busy rebuilding what had become a weak farm system, ravaged by the team’s long-time willingness to trade promising minor leaguers for aging stars. As far back as that championship 2009 season, they spent $3 million of international bonus pool money to secure the rights to a 16-year old Dominican catcher named Gary Sanchez. Two years later Yankee scouts were back in the Dominican Republic, and this time they needed just $225,000 to get right-hander Luis Severino under contract. In the fifth round of that same year’s MLB Draft, New York claimed 18-year old Greg Bird, then convinced him to forgo plans to attend the University of Arkansas with a $1.1 million signing bonus. Bird was a catcher in high school, but the Yankees saw him as a first baseman. Then in the 2013 Draft the Yankees had an extra pick at the end of the first round, compensation for losing right fielder Nick Swisher to Cleveland in free agency. With that pick they drafted an outfielder from northern California who looked more like an NFL tight end, 21-year old Aaron Judge.

By the summer of 2016 these players were among several promising prospects who, in Cashman’s opinion, were ready for the big stage in the Bronx. Some had already had cameos at The Stadium. As the July trade deadline arrived the Yankees were in Florida for a series against the Rays. Hoch tells the story of Hal Steinbrenner crossing the bridge from Tampa to St. Petersburg to watch his team put on a desultory performance, losing 6-3 at Tropicana Field. It was the team’s third straight defeat, and left New York just a game above .500. Shortly before midnight, Steinbrenner called Cashman to tell him he was free to deal.

New York had already sent closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs for four players, including top prospect Gleyber Torres. Now Cashman dealt reliever Andrew Miller to Cleveland for another four-player package, this one including highly touted youngsters Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield. Slugger Carlos Beltran went to Texas for three prospects, and starter Ivan Nova was shipped to Pittsburgh for two more. Then in August Steinbrenner swallowed more than $21 million and released Rodriguez. He and Teixeira, who had already announced plans to retire, were the heart of New York’s batting order. But after hitting a combined 64 home runs in 2015, the aging sluggers managed just 24, along with an anemic .203 batting average, in their final year in pinstripes. Shortly after the season ended catcher Brian McCann was traded to Houston. The roster had been swept clean for a new generation.

The 2017 Yankees were young, unproven and untested. The early consensus was that the team would finish a game or two on either side of .500. Instead New York won 91 games and pushed the eventual World Series champions to a seventh ALCS game in Houston. With his excellent access to players and management alike, Hoch fills in the details behind that improbable run.

Since last season ended the Yankees have continued to deal. Third baseman Chase Headley and second baseman Starlin Castro were traded in salary dumps that enabled New York to acquire slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s whopping contract while adhering to Steinbrenner’s edict to remain below the salary cap. Fans are once again giddy, hopeful that this new roster and the surfeit of prospects clamoring to join it mark the beginning of a new and glorious chapter for the Bronx Bombers.

As any fan knows, the Great Game offers no certainties, and hopes and expectations often come a cropper. But at a time when the popular route is to ask fans to tolerate years of losing while a roster is rebuilt, the Yankees appear to have broken the mold.  Whatever the longest season may hold, Bryan Hoch has given fans an in-depth and entertaining look at a franchise that somehow managed to rebuild itself on the fly.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 4, 2018

Old Phil Still Thrills

The PGA Tour may have its headquarters in Florida, but in both its membership and its schedule it is a world golf tour. The massive weekly purses as well as the history and prestige of many of its events combine to attract top professionals irrespective of their birth country. Both the Open Championship and the Canadian Open have long been a part of the Tour’s calendar, which now also features regular events in Malaysia, Korea, and Mexico. In addition, for nearly a decade the HSBC Champions, one of the four World Golf Championship events, has been played in China. Last year another of the WGC events was moved from Doral Country Club in Miami to Club de Golf Chapultepec in the suburbs of Mexico City, giving that country its second stop on the Tour’s annual schedule.

That was where an elite field of sixty-five gathered this weekend. The WGC events are all played with limited fields. In the case of what is now known as the WGC – Mexico Championship, invitations are issued to the top fifty golfers in the Official World Rankings, and to those at the top of the money lists of the PGA, European, Asian, Japan, Australasia and Sunshine (South African) Tours.

Every so often a Craig Parry or Russell Knox will lift the trophy at the end of a WGC event, but by and large these tournaments produce the best efforts by the best golfers in the world. Tiger Woods has won eighteen WGC events. Dustin Johnson has won five and is the only golfer to have one all four tournaments at least once. Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Ernie Els, and Hideki Matsuyama have all won multiple times at these international gatherings.

That history was belied by Thursday’s first round leader board. South African Louis Oosthuizen was alone at the top after a 7-under par 64 on the par 71 layout that measures more than 7,300 yards but plays considerably shorter because of the altitude. Oosty at least has a major win at the 2010 Open Championship and has been runner-up at all four majors. But his closest pursuers were anything but household names. Xander Schauffele of the U.S., England’s Chris Paisley, and Indian golfer Shubhankar Sharma shared second place, one shot back of Oosthuizen.

Golf fans hoping for a return to what could be called WGC normalcy were forced to wait until most of the tournament’s 72 holes had been played. Sharma, a 21-year old whose place atop the European Tour money list thanks to a pair of early season wins earned him entry to this event, added a 66 on Friday and a 69 on Saturday to his opening 65, good enough for a two shot lead after both the second and third rounds. By the time Sunday’s final round began there were just four notable names among the top ten. Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia were among four golfers tied for second, Dustin Johnson was another stroke adrift in a four-way tie for sixth, and Justin Thomas, fresh off victory at last week’s Honda Classic and arguably the hottest golfer on the planet with six PGA Tour wins in the last fourteen months, was along in tenth place at 9-under par.

Fans handicapping which of those four had the best shot at giving this WGC tourney a familiar finish likely favored Garcia or Johnson. The former is the reigning Masters champion and won twice more last year on the European Tour, while the latter won this event last year and owns a WGC record that is second only to Woods. As good as Thomas has been over the past year, he had the most ground to make up and the most golfers to pass of the four stars.
Then there was Mickelson. Surely every fan was going to be rooting for him, but sentiment alone doesn’t win golf tournaments. Lefty will turn 48 during this year’s U.S. Open, and he had not won since his remarkable Sunday finish at Muirfield garnered him the 2013 Open Championship, his fifth major title.

So naturally, when order was restored late Sunday afternoon, when Sharma stumbled under the pressure of a final round at one of golf’s most prestigious events, and when the Tour’s top names climbed up the leader board, the two who did so were Thomas and Mickelson.

Thomas did so by shooting the best round of the day, a 7-under par 64. He started fast with two opening birdies and added four more through his round to seize the lead by the time he reached the tee at the par-3 17th. But there his tee shot finished in the right fringe, more than forty feet from the hole. His first putt came up well short and Thomas missed the par save, dropping him into a crowded tie at the top.

That lasted until he struck his approach to the final green from the middle of the 18th fairway. The wedge shot landed just past the flag, checked up and then spun back into the cup for an eagle two. It was the shot of the tournament and thrust Thomas into a two stroke lead at 16-under par. After playing the first two rounds at even and starting the weekend eleven shots back, Thomas had charged through the field with a 62 and a 64. He appeared poised for his seventh PGA Tour win and first in a WGC event.

When he finished tied for third at last October’s Safeway Open, Mickelson said “I feel like I’m pretty close.” In his three most recent events, at Phoenix, Pebble Beach, and Los Angeles, he’s been in the top ten, and offered similar hopeful words. On Sunday, as Thomas was drawing roars on the 18th, Lefty was saving par from off the green at the 14th. Then on the par-5 15th he found the middle of the green with his second shot. The eagle putt curled away, but the three-footer for birdie found the bottom of the cup, cutting Thomas’s lead to one. Mickelson’s approach on the par-4 16th was hole high, twenty feet to the left of the pin. The birdie putt was never in doubt, diving into the hole to give the fan favorite a share of the lead. Two pars later Mickelson and Thomas were headed to a playoff.

They returned to the short 17th, and just as he had an hour earlier Thomas missed the green with his tee shot. An indifferent chip left him ten feet for par. Mickelson lined up his eighteen-foot birdie try, then sent the ball on its way. It kissed the edge and spun around the cup but stayed out. The tap-in par was just fine though when Thomas couldn’t convert his own par save.

It’s more than 5,300 miles from Gullane, Scotland to Mexico City, from Muirfield to Chapultepec. Over nearly five years Phil Mickelson traveled that distance many times over, roaming the world in search of another PGA Tour victory. Now, after one hundred and one starts, he has it, his forty-third. A touring pro never knows if a victory might be his last, but surely there have been moments when the great people’s champion of our time must have wondered. Now that those doubts have been vanquished, and with the greenside chants of “Phil! Phil! Phil” still echoing, he promised golf fans everywhere that “more are to come.”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 1, 2018

A Memorable Night, For The Worst Reason

Over fifteen NBA seasons Dwyane Wade has thrilled fans with an untold number of big nights. He should surpass 22,000 career regular season points later this month, and has added nearly 4,000 more in the playoffs. He is a twelve time All-Star and three time champion. He was the MVP of the 2006 NBA Finals, leading the Miami Heat to the franchise’s first title. Wade teamed with LeBron James and Chris Bosh from 2010 to 2014, and Miami’s Big Three took the Heat to four straight Finals, winning back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013. After thirteen seasons Wade departed South Beach in 2016 after a contract dispute, playing one year in his hometown of Chicago with the Bulls before reuniting with James in Cleveland at the start of the current season. Last month, when the sputtering Cavaliers opted to reshape their roster at the NBA trade deadline, Wade was traded back to Miami less than two weeks after he had mended fences with Heat president Pat Riley when both attended the funeral of Henry Thomas, Wade’s long-time agent.

Now 36 years old, Wade is more role player than star. He started just three times in Cleveland and has come off the bench in each of his six games since again donning a Heat uniform. But as Miami’s all-time leader in points, assists, steals and a host of other statistical categories he remains beloved by the team’s fans, who greeted him with an enthusiastic standing ovation when he entered his first game back on February 9th.

Wade’s career is all the more remarkable considering the long odds against it ever happening. He was born to a teenaged drug-addicted mother in the roughest part of Chicago’s South Side. As a child he witnessed police raids and saw dead bodies in alleyways. It was an environment far more likely leading to gang membership and street violence than an NBA contract. But at the age of 8 Wade was taken by an older sister to live with his father, who a year later moved the family out of the inner city. As a teenager he found sports more alluring than gangs, and eventually emerged as a high school basketball star in Oak Lawn, Illinois, and then for two years at Marquette University. Riley and the Heat made Wade the fifth overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft.

A full and fantastic career later, Wade returned to Miami. One of the many south Florida residents who cheered when he did so was 17-year old Joaquin Oliver, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, an hour’s drive north of American Airlines Arena. Known to fellow students by the nickname “Guac,” Oliver immigrated to the U.S. with his family from Venezuela when he was just 3, and was naturalized early last year. After becoming a U.S. citizen Oliver posted pictures on his Instagram account, along with the message “MAMA WE MADE IT!!!! 14 years ago we move to this wonderful country and 14 years later we are officially citizens of the United States of America. Never been more proud.”

The teenager played basketball in a local recreational league. He loved the Heat and especially Wade, the singer Frank Ocean, and the Venezuelan national soccer team. He had a girlfriend and his social media accounts were filled with photos of family and friends. On Valentine’s Day none of that goodness could stop the bullets from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in the hands of 19-year old former student Nikolas Cruz. Oliver was one of fourteen students and three adults gunned down by Cruz in the hallways of Stoneman Douglas High.

On Monday Wade learned that Oliver’s parents had chosen to bury him in a Heat number three jersey – Wade’s jersey. Two days earlier, prior to Miami’s game against visiting Memphis, Wade had addressed the crowd on behalf of his teammates following a video tribute to the victims. “Tonight we honor the seventeen lives that were tragically lost in Parkland,” Wade said. “We applaud the fearless students that are fighting for their lives. We also make sure that their voices are heard around gun safety. You are our nation’s inspiration. We salute you and we support you.” After hearing of the decision by Oliver’s parents, an emotional Wade dedicated the remainder of his season to the young victim. For Tuesday night’s game against Philadelphia he wore shoes with Oliver’s name written on one and the name of his late agent on the other.

The contest with the 76ers was an important game, with both teams fighting for one of the final Eastern Conference playoff spots. Just before the buzzer ending the third quarter, Wade sunk a jumper from beyond the arc to pull Miami to within two points at 75-73. The three-pointer gave Wade twelve points on the night.

He didn’t score again until there were just less than five minutes remaining to play. The reverse layup he made then tied the score at 87-87. He scored again on the Heat’s next possession and then sunk a pair of free throws on Miami’s following trip down the floor. There was a jumper at the 2:54 mark and another one thirty seconds later. As the final minute of play began to tick away, Hassan Whiteside sunk a hook shot, the only Miami points by any player other than Wade in those final five minutes. Fouled with twenty-seven seconds remaining, Wade sunk all three to again knot the tally at 100 points a side. As the final seconds ran off the clock, he dribbled near the top of the key, feinted left and then launched a pull-up jumper. The ball swished through the net with 5.9 seconds remaining. When Philadelphia’s J.J. Redick missed a desperation heave at the buzzer, Miami had a 102-101 victory. Wade scored fifteen of the Heat’s final seventeen points, and a season-high twenty-seven on the night.

After the game Wade said he felt like “I was playing with angels,” adding that it “was a special night…to be able to have something to smile about” and that he was “just trying to show some due respect to him (Oliver) and his family.” Tuesday night an NBA superstar honored a life cut short by adding one more big night to a career filled with them.  But having grown up hearing guns firing nightly and seeing firsthand the awful toll of their indiscriminate availability, what is beyond doubt is that Dwyane Wade will always wish that his performance could be remembered for anything but that.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 25, 2018

U.S. Athletes Both Disappoint And Dazzle

As the Olympic flame was extinguished Sunday, the consensus in the media was that these Games were a disappointment for the United States. If judged simply by the standard of medals won, that analysis is understandable. U.S. athletes are returning from Korea with twenty-three medals, nine gold, eight silver, and six bronze. That total left the U.S. in fourth place in the medal count, behind Norway, Germany, and Canada, and is the lowest total American medal haul since U.S. athletes stood on the podium just thirteen times twenty years ago. Considering how the Winter Olympics have grown, this year’s overall result for Team USA was quite comparable to 1998. Those Games, in Nagano, Japan, included just sixty-eight events in seven sports. PyeongChang 2018 featured one hundred two events in fifteen sports, so the number of medals awarded was a full fifty percent higher.

But while the relentless focus on the medal count may be fitting, given how commercialized the Games have become, it’s hard not to feel that it misses the whole point of the Games. Nearly three thousand athletes participated over the fortnight, so obviously the vast majority went home without a medal. The same can be said for sixty-two of the record ninety-two countries represented in PyeongChang. Lost in the spectacle of the opening ceremony are the words of the Olympic Oath, taken by one athlete, judge, and coach on behalf of all their number. Its words speak to abiding by the rules and the spirit of fair play. Its commitment is to the glory of sport and the honor of the teams. As Pierre de Coubertin said, “The most important thing is not to win but to take part!”

The father of the modern Games would no doubt be derided as a snowflake by any number of sports talk radio hosts. But as the pundits rushed to lament the shortcomings of Team USA at PyeongChang 2018, they glossed over some notable highlights and did a disservice to athletes who excelled, sometimes against all expectations.

The U.S. team did underperform in several of the high-profile sports, the ones that fans don’t need to relearn every four years. While a determined women’s team won gold in ice hockey, the U.S. men’s team, made up of college kids and aging former professionals after the NHL refused to allow its players to participate, was eliminated in the quarterfinals. In figure skating, Americans won just two bronze medals, one in the team event at the very start of the Games, and one in ice dancing for the siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani. Of the thirty-three alpine skiing medals awarded, Americans won only three. Lindsey Vonn took bronze in the downhill at what was almost certainly her last Olympics. Mikaela Shiffrin arrived in Korea with hopes of participating in five different alpine events. Weather-induced scheduling changes prevented her from doing so. Shiffrin skied in three events, winning the giant slalom and finishing second in the alpine combined, while shockingly missing the podium in the slalom, her dominant event.

But Shiffrin is just 22 years old. Assuming she stays healthy fans will likely see her racing down the slopes at another two or three of these quadrennial gatherings. In that regard Shiffrin is not alone. Chloe Kim, the bubbly snowboarder who won gold in the women’s halfpipe, is a 17-year-old teenager. She can compete at the next three Winter Olympics and still be younger than Shaun White, the now 31-year old who made up for a disappointing performance in Sochi with a largely unexpected gold in the men’s halfpipe. And before Kim won her medal, Ohio native Red Gerard, who is two months younger than his female teammate, became the first Winter Olympics medalist born in this century when he captured the first gold of these Games for Team USA in the slopestyle competition.

If the younger members of Team USA offered both brilliant performances and bright hopes for the future, older Americans demonstrated the power of perseverance. The American team of Kikkan Randall and Jessica Diggins were afterthoughts in the team sprint freestyle cross-country ski race. The United States had won but a single Nordic skiing medal – a silver in 1976 – in the history of the Winter Olympics. But on a cold night at the cross-country venue, Diggins overtook skiers from Sweden and Norway in the final straight to double America’s medal count in the sport. The pair won by improving on their semifinal time by a whopping twenty-six seconds.

But the most unlikely American medal gold of all was Team USA’s last of these Games, a gold in curling, the sport that fans fall in love with for exactly two weeks every four years. Men’s team skipper John Shuster was in his fourth Olympics. While the U.S. won bronze in 2006, the last two Games were disasters. Team USA finished last in 2010 and next-to-last in 2014. At PyeongChang, after a loss to Norway in the round robin stage, the U.S. appeared headed for another finish far from the podium. Amazingly, Shuster and his teammates did not lose again. They won their final three round-robin matches to advance to the medal round, then stunned heavily favored Canada in the semifinals before shocking Sweden, the world’s top-ranked team, in the gold medal match.

The decisive moment came in the 8th end (frame for bowlers, inning in baseball parlance), with the score tied at 5-5. That’s when Shuster sent his final stone sliding down the ice, his teammates guiding its trajectory and speed with their brooms. The U.S. rock glided into one of Sweden’s, knocking it at an angle into a second Swedish stone, with both skidding out of the scoring circles. It was a double hit worth five points that gave Team USA a commanding lead and John Shuster well-deserved redemption.

At the PyeongChang Games there were disappointments for American athletes. But there were also many moments of grace and glory, as a new generation took its place on the Olympic stage and athletes devoted to sports most fans will not think about for another four years reminded us of why they practice so hard for their brief moment in the spotlight. Finally, almost four decades after the first Miracle on Ice, John Shuster and his teammates capped it all off with another one.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 22, 2018

A Bewitching Performance By Team USA

Midway between Boston and the New Hampshire state line, the town of Danvers shares lengthy borders with five surrounding towns and, at its southeastern tip, one of just a few hundred feet with the city of Salem. Danvers is bisected by I-95, U.S. Route 1, and state route 128, three major Massachusetts highways. While less than 30,000 people call the town home, several times that number pass through it every day, hurrying to and from somewhere else on one of those busy arteries. Most of those travelers are at least vaguely aware that the town’s larger and more famous neighbor has the Witch City nickname, the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery, star of the old television sit-com “Bewitched,” and the annual Halloween festival attracting hundreds of thousands of revelers. But few likely know that Danvers, then known as Salem Village, was home to several of the major players and the site of the first precipitating events to the 17th century trials that resulted in the execution of twenty citizens and the conviction of seven more for engaging in witchcraft.

Nineteen of those executions were by hanging, and one was by the gruesome torture of peine forte et dure. The translation from archaic Law French is “hard and forceful punishment,” an accurate if understated description of an accused who refused to confess being gradually crushed beneath a steadily growing pile of heavy stones until they either admitted their guilt or expired. The killings were all public spectacles, attended by hundreds of area residents caught up in the mass hysteria of the moment. The period of the Salem Witch Trials was a dark and dangerous time in the history of colonial America.

More than three centuries later, locals are readying for another display of public frenzy. Happily the basis for this one is decidedly more positive, and it will culminate with a parade rather than a hasty burial in a shallow grave. For Danvers is the hometown of Meghan Duggan, captain of the U.S. women’s national ice hockey team. After a thrilling 3-2 shootout victory over archrival Canada, Duggan and her teammates are coming home from the Winter Olympics wearing gold.

Duggan is one of three 30-year-olds on the national squad, a veteran who stands out on a roster with an average age of just 24. She was a member of the U.S. teams that finished second to Canada at both the 2006 and 2010 games. As the captain she took a leading role in last spring’s dispute between the women’s team and USA Hockey, the country’s governing body for the sport in international competition. After unsuccessfully negotiating salaries and support services for more than a year, Duggan and the women’s team announced on March 15th that they would boycott the World Championships, scheduled to begin just two weeks later. Since the tournament was taking place in Michigan and the women were three-time defending champions, the threat was potentially a massive embarrassment to USA Hockey.

The national team quickly garnered support from players associations in numerous other sports, and just three days before the start of the tournament, USA Hockey and the players came to an agreement on a new four-year contract that gave team members the chance to earn upwards of $70,000 a year. Duggan called the deal a “historic moment in women’s sports.” She and her teammates then swept through the tournament, outscoring their opponents 28-5 and winning their fourth consecutive world title.

But the Olympics have been a source of frustration for the American women. They won gold in 1998, the first year women’s hockey was an Olympic sport. But in the four Olympiads since Team Canada finished first, with Team USA forced to settle for silver medals in 2002, 2010 and 2014, and a bronze in 2006. Two decades after the team’s sole gold medal, and with the championship game scheduled for the 38th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice men’s victory over the heavily favorite Russians at Lake Placid, the members of Team USA were determined to forge a different outcome this year.

The two North American rivals are the dominant teams in international women’s hockey, making their rivalry particularly intense. Grouped together in the round-robin portion of the tournament, Canada won their first meeting 2-1 despite being outshot by Team USA 45-23. As the top two teams in Group A both advanced to the semifinals. There the U.S. defeated Finland and Canada beat Russia by identical 5-0 scores, setting up Thursday’s gold medal grudge match at the Gangneung Hockey Centre.

The Canadians were the aggressors for most of the contest, but forward Hilary Knight gave Team USA the lead on a deflection just before the end of the first period. Just two minutes into the second Canada’s Haley Irwin slipped the puck past U.S. goaltender Maddie Rooney to even the score. Five minutes later Marie-Philip Poulin, the Canadian captain, beat Rooney with a hard shot into the upper corner of the net.

But with time winding down in the final period Monique Lamoureux-Moranda, one-half of the Lamoureux twins from Grand Forks, North Dakota, leveled the score at two. It stayed that way through the rest of regulation and overtime, with the Americans killing a Canadian power play over the final minute and a half.

Then in the shootout both teams netted two of their regulation five chances, sending the gold medal game into a sudden death shootout. First up was Monique’s sister, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson. She skated in on goalie Shannon Szabados, deked right, then left, then right again before sliding the puck past the sprawling Canadian netminder. A minute later Rooney refused to budge before Meghan Agosta, making a stick save on a point-blank shot that sent the American team and its fans into delirium.

In the days and weeks ahead, as the American team members return from Korea, there will be parades and celebrations in hometowns all around the country. Fans will cheer for the gold medal performance, but also for the steely resolve that won these skaters a contract that ensures fair pay, a $20,000 bonus for winning gold, and a commitment by USA Hockey to growing women’s hockey. One of those parades will be in Danvers, where in another age women who acted outside their prescribed roles did so at mortal peril. Whether there are any practicing Wiccans on the national team’s roster is unknown. But what’s clear is that whenever they’ve most needed to be, on the ice or off, the women on our national hockey team have been magical.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 18, 2018

NASCAR Starts With The Demolition 500

From a story in the New York Times at the start of the weekend to much of the commentary during the pre-race coverage on Fox, it’s clear that the season for NASCAR that began with Sunday’s Daytona 500 is one of transition. It happens in every sport; one generation of stars leaves the stage even as a new one steps front and center to seize the spotlight. But for fans of stock car racing the current turnover of stars has been anything but seamless.

In the past two years Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Matt Kenseth, winners of seven Cup Series championships between them, all climbed out of their cars for the final time. They were joined by fan favorite Carl Edwards two seasons ago, and at the end of last season by Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver. Danica Patrick, the only female driver at NASCAR’s Cup Series level, drove her final stock car race at Daytona, and will conclude the “Danica Double” and her racing career by returning to her original circuit for the Indy 500 in May.

All those empty race cars represent opportunities for young drivers to step up from NASCAR’s two developmental series, the Xfinity for stock cars and the Camping World for trucks. It was thus not surprising that ten of the forty drivers that took the green flag to start the 500 – exactly one-quarter of the field – were age 25 or younger.

The problem for NASCAR has been that big names have been leaving the sport at a faster pace than new stars have been emerging. Thus the hope, as chronicled in the Times and articulated by Gordon, now an analyst for Fox Sports, was that this will be the season when one or more of these young drivers start to consistently win races and become familiar to more than just the sport’s most dedicated fans.

There were some positive signs in the days leading up to the 500. Alex Bowman, the 24-year old tabbed by Hendrick Motorsports to take over Dale Junior’s ride in the #88 Chevrolet, won the pole in last weekend’s qualifying. Chase Elliott, who stepped into Gordon’s #24 two years ago when he was just 20, and who Hendrick switched to the #9 car for this season, started in the second row after winning one of Thursday’s two Can-Am duels that are used to set all but the front row for Daytona. And 24-year old Ryan Blaney in Team Penske’s #12 Ford was first across the stripe 118 times, leading more laps than any other driver.

But this year’s Daytona 500 will be remembered not for the exploits of a driver of any age, but rather for the carnage wrought by a few minor tweaks to the rules governing the automobiles themselves. While the sport may be called stock car racing, the romantic notion that the vehicles are souped-up versions of cars that can be purchased at one’s local Chevy, Ford, or Toyota dealer has long been a fantasy. NASCAR imposes precise specifications for every aspect of the cars, so that other than paint schemes and nameplates all the vehicles are virtually identical. This year’s rules package included standardizing the front splitter, eliminating minimum clearance between the road and the car body, and changing the rear quarter panels to composite from sheet metal, which altered the aerodynamics of the vehicles.

As became clear in practice sessions and the Can-Am races, these changes made the cars much harder to handle. For a time on Sunday it looked like the drivers and their crews, all of whom had worked feverishly to gain greater control of the vehicles, might have succeeded. The race was fairly orderly in its early going.

But starting last season NASCAR introduced stage racing, in which each event is divided into segments. That gives drivers the chance to earn points by finishing in the top ten of a stage, rather than just by the final order of finish at the end of the race. But it also means hard driving as each stage nears its end. On Sunday, fierce competition, speeds over 200 miles per hour, and some questionable judgement, combined with hard to handle race cars, resulted in three major wrecks that turned the Daytona 500 into a demolition derby.

The first occurred on lap 60, the final circuit of the race’s first stage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made an aggressive and unwise move to block an attempted pass. The turbulent air around the rear of his car caused Stenhouse to get loose and he slid up the track. He somehow managed to avoid hitting the wall, but the impact on those following Stenhouse was disastrous. Nine cars wound up piling into one another, with damage ranging from troublesome to race-ending. The latter was the case for seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who said “unfortunately, many thought it was the black and white checkered flag and not the green and white checkered flag,” referring to the end of the race versus the end of a stage.

Then late in stage two young Elliott got a big push from Brad Keselowski while running just behind the leader Blaney. But he then tried to block when Keselowski dove below him. Elliott couldn’t control his car and spun into the wall, wrecking six other cars in the process, including Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, and sadly, Patrick. Her last NASCAR ride, in a reunion with the familiar Go Daddy fluorescent green car, ended far earlier than anyone hoped.

Finally, the biggest wreck of all, involving twelve cars, came with the checkered flag in site. Denny Hamlin, leading at the time, moved up the track to block a passing attempt from Kurt Busch, last year’s 500 winner. Busch had to brake, got loose, and spun, sparking chaos and, for that matter, lots of sparks.

After all that, the eventual win by Austin Dillon would have been an afterthought but for the fact he was driving the #3 car. On the twentieth anniversary of Earnhardt Senior’s only Daytona 500 victory, the #3 was first across the line again. That would have been a nice, nostalgic ending, were NASCAR not so desperately hoping this year will be about the future rather than the past.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 15, 2018

The Great Game Returns

Tuesday morning dawned cloudy and cold on the New Hampshire seacoast. On the other side of the gray overcast the sun was rising, but the thermometer struggled to touch 20 degrees. This winter has brought comparatively little snow, so far at least; but the weeks since the solstice have seen more than enough ice, making driving tricky and giving the quaint brick sidewalks of downtown Portsmouth a treacherous red-hued glaze. There have also been extended periods of brutal cold, against which Tuesday’s early morning reading counted as a respite.

Yet the day held far greater promise than the Dickensian notion that a dozen degrees below freezing is cause for relief. Fans venturing out were bundled in layers and the calendar remained unyielding in its insistence that winter still had more than a month to run, but on Tuesday hearts were glad and spirits were high. For in Tampa it was 70 degrees and sunny and even a few degrees warmer in West Palm. In the desert southwest the morning started cool, but with the ironclad promise that temperatures around Phoenix would match those Florida readings by lunch time. On Tuesday, those numbers provided symbolic and comforting assurance that winter will end; for Tuesday was the new beginning.

A beginning, to be certain, that in important ways is very different from what fans have seen for a generation. This year, in the warmth of Florida and Arizona players have begun to assemble not at the usual thirty training camps, but at thirty-one. Of the 166 players who became free agents last November, more than 90 remain unsigned as Spring Training gets underway, far more than in any year since the collusion winter of 1987-88. Given that number the Players Association opted to open its own camp at a facility in Bradenton, Florida, giving its still unemployed members a place to begin working out.

The list of ballplayers without contracts includes stars like pitcher Jake Arrieta and sluggers J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer, but also scores of journeymen, many of whom must be wondering whether their playing careers are suddenly and unexpectedly at an end. Baseball’s economics have shifted at the worst possible time for these players, with advanced metrics now embedded in the decision-making process of every front office. That’s led to a universal reluctance to offer the long-term, nine-figure contracts that have been the staple of free agency for years even as statistical evidence mounted that those deals, with numbers based on prior performance, were paying players in decline. When the Cubs inked right-hander Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal last weekend, it was both the longest and richest contract of the offseason. Yet Darvish’s deal is still some $30 million less than most analysts expected him to garner before the hot stove went stone cold.

Add to this the new pattern of teams tearing down rosters and suffering through multiple 100-loss seasons in order to rebuild farm systems and produce an eventual winner. That process can be dispiriting for those in the stands, but it worked for the Cubs and the Astros, so now nearly a third of all major league franchises are somewhere on that budget-cutting road. Those squads have necessarily opted out of the free agent market, further limiting opportunities for the unsigned players.

Those issues should concern not just the MLBPA but every fan, as should the very real possibility that commissioner Rob Manfred may use the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement to unilaterally impose a pitch clock and limits on mound visits to speed up play, over the objections of the union. A winter of player discontent makes it easy to conclude that baseball’s quarter-century of labor peace is fraying. Whether the relationship between owners and players can be stitched back together before the current CBA expires in 2021 is very much an open question.

But for one day, at least, such grim considerations go to the back of one’s mind. There will be ample time to consider the possibility of future labor strife as the longest season unfolds over the coming months, just as there will be time to contemplate batting slumps and losing streaks. Baseball mirrors life, offering bad as well as good, mixing heartbreak with triumph. At the beginning however, on the first day, hope abounds.

Tuesday brought the moundsmen and their battery mates, as well as a trickle of position players that soon surged into a flood. By the weekend workouts will be in full swing, and a few days later the first contests, between college squads and major league franchises, will get underway. Then early next Friday afternoon, at eight different ballparks spread across the Sunshine State, the call to “play ball” will ring out, to be echoed a few hours later at the seven fields in greater Phoenix, and the exhibition season will begin.

Over the next six weeks rosters will take shape. Prospects will shine, rookies will rise, and aging veterans will work hard for one more year in The Show. As the needs of each team become clear, the list of unsigned free agents will dwindle. And as all that takes place, fans sitting in the sun at the little minor league parks that serve each year as temporary big-league homes, will dream of what the new season might bring.

With both Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the lineup, perhaps the Yankees will set a record for team home runs. With a rotation fortified by the signing of Darvish, perhaps the Cubs will return to the Fall Classic. By pairing the best player in the game in Mike Trout with the prized offseason acquisition of phenom Shohei Ohtani, perhaps the Angels will return to the postseason. In what might be the final year that Bryce Harper wears the curly-W, perhaps the Nationals will finally move beyond the first round of the playoffs. Having come within one game of a title last fall, perhaps the Dodgers will be hungry enough to take the final step. Having finally tasted the sweet champagne of victory for the first time in franchise history, perhaps the Astros are ready to become a dynasty.

Winter will yield to spring, and the games will start to count. The longest season will unfold through summer heat and on into the pennant chase as leaves begin to fall. Along the way many hopes will be dashed, but not all. If in the end the fans of only one team are entitled to a parade, the faithful of many others will enjoy seasons that exceed expectations. And for those who ultimately know only disappointment, there will always be the admonition first popularized in Brooklyn. Ebbets Field is long gone, but a fan strolling through the Crown Heights neighborhood, turning the corner where Sullivan Place meets McKeever Place might still hear the ghosts whispering, “wait till next year.”

The Great Game returns. On Tuesday the familiar clarion call went out. Four words that light the fire of hope and possibility in the heart of every player and every fan – pitchers and catchers report!

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