Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 2, 2021

Darkness And Light, Racing To The Wire

Elegance and nobility, seediness and sleaze.  Like two thoroughbreds charging neck-and-neck toward the finish line, the disparate elements of horse racing are never far apart.  It is impossible, even for the most ardent fan – not that there are all that many of those – to recognize one without seeing the other.  That is true even on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, during the single event most synonymous with the sport.

The good news is that the Kentucky Derby went off as scheduled this year, and it will be followed in two weeks by the Preakness Stakes, with the Belmont Stakes concluding the familiar triad of the Triple Crown on the first weekend in June.  The sequence and timing of these preeminent contests for three-year-old’s was upended last year, done in like so much else in sports by the COVID-19 pandemic.  In 2020 the Belmont, shortened to a mile and an eighth and delayed by two weeks, was the Triple Crown’s opening leg for the first time ever.  The field didn’t break from the gate for the Derby until more than two months later, on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and it was another month before the Preakness was held in early October.  The stands at Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, and Pimlico were essentially empty for each race, with attendance limited to track employees and the immediate connections of the horses.

Thus the return of the normal schedule, and even more important, the return of fans, were both signs of the country’s continued progress against the virus.  Just over 50,000 spectators were on hand at the Louisville track, and while that is only about one-third of the Derby’s typical attendance, it was likely the single biggest crowd for a sporting event since the world turned upside down nearly fourteen months ago.

Part of horse racing’s allure is its endless promise of possibility.  The betting public may anoint a favorite, the wise guys who hang out in the back stretch barns may dismiss this or that longshot, but until the gate opens and the horses start their dash, until the field turns for home, until the final furlong is covered and one jockey brings his mount first under the wire, any result is possible.

That certainty meant it was by no means time wasted if one chose to dwell on the significance of Kendrick Carmouche, finally getting his very first ride in the Derby at age 37, guiding the 30-1 longshot Bourbonic to victory.  That result would make Carmouche the first black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby since 1902.  Just the possibility reminded fans that African-American jockeys played major roles in the early history of American horse racing.  Oliver Lewis, a black man, was aboard Aristides in 1875 when that colt became the first on the long list of Derby winners.  Over the next 28 years more than half the winning riders were black, but there have been none since.  Today Carmouche is the rare African-American in the profession, but his ride on Saturday was no exercise in tokenism.  He was the leading jockey at Aqueduct last fall and is 7th in the nation in earnings this year.  

For those who prefer shorter odds, it was fine to imagine redemption for Luis Saez, who saddled the favorite Essential Quality.  The last time the Derby was run in front of fans, it was Saez who heard the awesome roar as he finished first aboard Maximum Security.  But on that rainy Saturday in 2019, Saez’s mount had been spooked by a puddle on the track near the top of the stretch.  Maximum Security veered hard right to avoid the water, and in so doing rammed another horse, with a domino effect to those charging from behind.  Almost half an hour after the race ended, Saez and his mount became the first Derby winners to be taken down, disqualified for interference.  Two years later, but in the very next Derby in front of fans, Essential Quality’s 5-2 odds said that Saez had an excellent second chance.

If one looked beyond the jockeys, there was Vicki Oliver saddling Hidden Stash, thus the possibility of a woman trainer finally winning the Derby.  Or there was Medina Spirit, a horse that sold for the paltry sum of $1,000 as a yearling, and that was later purchased by its current owner for the barely more significant total of $35,000, numbers that one normally associates with horses entered in claiming races at hardscrabble racetracks rather than the twelfth race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

But to consider Carmouche, one must also think about “My Old Kentucky Home,” the song played every year as the horses come out of the tunnel from the paddock and parade onto the track.  While the profoundly racist original lyrics of the Stephen Foster anthem have been cleaned up, the song remains hurtful for many.  It is true that in the context of its time, Frederick Douglass praised the old lament, but it is equally true that what matters is not the context of 1855, but of 2021.

Or if one dwells on Saez, then Maximum Security’s trainer Jason Servis cannot be ignored.  Along with 27 others, Servis is currently under federal indictment on charges alleging a broad scheme to manufacture, distribute and administer illegal substances to racehorses in multiple states.  One happy consequence of the 2019 Derby result was that news of those indictments last March did not include the phrase “trainer of the reigning Kentucky Derby winner.”  And if the subject is Saez’s mount, the favorite Essential Quality, then attention turns to the horse’s owner, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.  After pouring millions into the sport, the Sheikh is revered in horse racing circles.  But human rights organizations are far more concerned about the whereabouts of Princess Latifa, one of his daughters who was seized while trying to flee Dubai in 2018 and hasn’t been seen in public since.

In the end of course, the story is about the race, and there little Medina Spirit, smaller than most of his competitors, had the final say.  Sent to the lead by John Velazquez from the start, Medina Spirit was challenged first on the far turn by Mandaloun, and then in the final strides when that horse was joined by Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality.  The four charged together down the final yards before the doughty leader turned the other three away, winning by half a length. 

But while the tale of a $1,000 yearling winning America’s premier horse race has enormous appeal, part of that story is also the record-setting 7th Derby win for the silver-haired charmer, trainer Bob Baffert.  The face of horse racing to casual fans, Baffert’s record in the sport’s biggest events is unmatched.  Unfortunately, the larger record of his stable is also littered with incidents of positive doping tests and suspensions in multiple states.  To be clear, there is nothing that approaches the charges leveled against Servis, and unlike the Sheikh, the whereabouts of Baffert’s family members are not in question.  Still, any fan who thought the story of Medina Spirit’s victory in the Kentucky Derby wouldn’t have a corresponding dark side, doesn’t know horse racing.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 29, 2021

Too Much Hype, But Still Some Hope In Jacksonville

At long last, the single most important day on the entire calendar of sports has arrived.  No, the Super Bowl hasn’t been moved to April.  Neither has the World Series, and there has been no rescheduling of the NBA Finals or Stanley Cup Playoffs.  On the other side of the Atlantic, the final match of this year’s Champions League is still a month away.  But while those events are important to some fans, clearly nothing is as central to our survival as a species as the NFL Draft, which starts today. 

That at least would be the conclusion an extraterrestrial visitor observing our culture would likely reach, given the extraordinarily voluminous and copiously detailed media coverage of this annual exercise in parceling out collegiate football talent to the thirty-two NFL franchises.  Thursday afternoon, as the clock wound down towards the 8 p.m. Eastern Time start of Round 1, the front page of ESPN’s website had a whopping twenty-four links to draft-related stories and pages.  By comparison CBS Sports, despite its longtime association with the NFL, was a barely interested observer with a mere nineteen separate analyses or narratives just a mouse click beyond the network’s home page.

Mock drafts, once the highly anticipated work product of a handful of self-styled experts like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are now ubiquitous.  Increasingly, even analysts most fans have never heard of don’t stop at forecasting which players will be among the glamour picks of the first round but go on to offer detailed assessments of hundreds of prospects, an exercise that presumably allows fans to speculate on the identity of the so-called “Mr. Irrelevant,” the dubious honorific given to the last player selected in each year’s draft.  It’s a title that is no longer quite so demeaning since 2009’s final pick Ryan Succop kicked a field goal and four extra points as the placekicker for Tampa Bay in this year’s Super Bowl.

Still, one cannot help but admire the 60-year-old Kiper, who has built a highly successful sports media career over more than three decades by sounding authoritative while engaging in what is at best informed speculation and sometimes plain guesswork.  Along the way, he’s been helped immeasurably by the NFL.  Never known for passing up a marketing opportunity, the league has turned what was once a meeting of team representatives in some big-city hotel into a multi-day spectacle that fans happily pay to attend, and which has those at home glued to their flatscreens.  When commissioner Pete Rozelle gave a 24-hour sports cable network then in its first year of existence permission to broadcast the 1980 draft, he strongly doubted ESPN would attract many viewers.   Four decades later, current commissioner Roger Goodell is no doubt grateful Rozelle agreed to set aside his personal doubts.

Yet for all the hype and hoopla the fortunes of most teams, not just for the coming season but for the next several, will not turn on what happens in Cleveland between now and Saturday.  That’s partly because of the nature of the sport, which is very much a team exercise.  Even a true impact player – and in any year’s draft there aren’t more than a handful of those – has limited sole influence on a game’s outcome.  But it is mostly because for all the time and energy spent on assessing young players, the draft remains a crapshoot.  As every football fan knows, the most successful player of this century was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.  Among the 198 players taken ahead of Tom Brady were six other quarterbacks.  None of them ever won a championship, something that Brady has reportedly managed to accomplish a time or two.  Or seven.  

That uncertainty is apparent every year in the wide range of opinions offered by the so-called experts prior to the draft.  This year, one of the plethora of stories on ESPN’s site was a discussion among the network’s college football analysts.  In response to a question about their favorite quarterback other than first overall choice Trevor Lawrence, one reporter began his reply with “I’m not sure any of the other quarterbacks are can’t-miss starters in the NFL,” while another opined that there were five with legitimate cases to become franchise quarterbacks.  That itinerant alien would understandably be confused as to whether the two ESPN staffers were discussing the same group of players.

Yet the hype continues, and if one manages to cut through the excess generated in equal parts by the media and the league, the NFL Draft does usually offer a franchise or two the opportunity to make significant strides.  This year, it is the Jacksonville Jaguars sitting in prime position.

The Jaguars enjoyed substantial early success.  Surprisingly for an expansion franchise, Jacksonville made the playoffs in four of its first five seasons, twice advancing to the AFC Championship.  But even in northeast Florida those years in the mid-90s are now a faded memory.  Over the last thirteen seasons the team has made only one trip to the playoffs, in 2017, the only campaign in that stretch in which Jacksonville finished above .500.  Overall, the Jaguars have posted a 128-208 record over that period, including a two-win season in 2012, the first year of current owner Shahid Khan’s tenure, a pair of three-win seasons in 2014 and 2016, and last year’s abysmal 1-15 mark. 

The reward for the Jaguars most recent exercise in futility was the number one pick, and for weeks now it’s been common knowledge that Lawrence, the former Clemson signal-caller, is Jacksonville’s quarterback of the future.  But for fans in that part of Florida, the real significance of this draft lies beyond the number one pick.  The Jaguars, through a combination of previous trades and the draft order dictated by last season’s futility, have four of the first forty-five picks, essentially four selections in the first round and a half, plus the first pick in Round 3, number 65 overall.  If history shows that no amount of analysis can guarantee great results from any individual pick, then quantity high in the draft is especially valuable, and this year Jacksonville has that to an unmatched degree. 

This rare opportunity has generated plenty of excitement among fans in Florida’s biggest city.  But does it mean that winning seasons, playoff appearances, and perhaps even championships lie ahead for new coach Urban Meyer, quarterback Lawrence, and the other players about to be selected by the Jaguars?  The truth is, not even Mel Kiper knows.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 25, 2021

Bumgarner’s Non No-No Is A Warning

We all knew this was going to happen.  Sunday afternoon in Atlanta, the home squad and the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks played a doubleheader, a result of Saturday’s contest being washed out by rain.  But since MLB and the Players Association agreed back in February that the temporary rule for such scheduling introduced in 2020 would continue as part of the COVID-19 protocols for this season, that meant each game of the twin bill was seven innings rather than nine.  The home fans might well have been just as happy with the shortened contests, as the D’Backs had a dominant afternoon, winning 5-0 and 7-0. 

Yet even with the lopsided scores, there was plenty of drama at Truist Park.  In the first game Arizona starter Zac Gallen hit the first batter he faced and issued a couple walks as the innings went by, but he didn’t yield a base hit until Freddie Freeman’s single with one out in the 6th.  That was the extent of offense by Atlanta, with Gallen tossing a complete game one-hitter.  Then in the nightcap, Madison Bumgarner went Gallen one better.  Staked to a 5-0 lead before he set foot on the mound, the veteran left-hander allowed just a single base runner, when Ozzie Albies reached on a throwing error by shortstop Nick Ahmed leading off the Atlanta 2nd.  Bumgarner erased Albies by inducing Travis D’Arnaud to ground into a double play, and wound up facing the minimum 21 Atlanta batters, throwing a complete game no-hitter, the first of his 13-year big league career and the third such performance in the majors this year.

Except of course, it wasn’t.  MLB’s definition of a no-hitter includes the requirement that it be thrown in an official game of at least nine innings.  So Bumgarner’s 98-pitch, 7-strikeout effort is left in some nether world rather than the record books, even though the game was played to its full, scheduled length.  It is an outcome that was an inevitable product of commissioner Rob Manfred’s push to introduce rules more appropriate for a weekend softball league than for the highest level of the Great Game.  While the seven-inning standard for double header games was promoted both this year and last as somehow increasing player safety, the real motivation is Manfred’s determination to speed up play.  That is a worthy goal, but his specific efforts have either nibbled at the margins, resulting in press releases heralding a decrease of four or five minutes in the average length of games as if that alone would win over millions of new fans, or they have cut to the core structure of the sport like this rule or the one placing a runner on second base in extra innings.

To be sure, the purists who object most strongly to changes like these would also be quick to point out that it’s impossible to know if Bumgarner’s no-no would have lasted for six more outs.  That was why the current rule was put in place in 1991.  Prior to that, once a game became official after four and one-half or five innings (depending on the score), a pitcher who had kept the opposition hitless was credited with a no-hitter even if play was stopped short of a regulation nine frames.  The 1991 change wiped thirty-eight no-hitters off the books.  Many of those were from the time when the Great Game was strictly a daylight pastime and contests were cut short by darkness or local curfews, but the list also included more recent no-hitters in games that were called by bad weather.  The not insignificant difference Sunday is that the shortening was by design – even if the players on both teams and the fans in the stands wanted to see if Bumgarner could record another six outs without surrendering a hit, it wouldn’t have been allowed. The game wasn’t stopped, it had been played to conclusion.

With three World Series rings and more than $120 million in career earnings by the time his current contract expires in three years, Bumgarner may not much care that Sunday’s outing won’t join the 307 others on MLB’s official no-hitter list.  After a decidedly rocky start to the season – his ERA was an unsightly 11.20 after his first three starts – he is no doubt just happy to have followed a good outing against the Nationals in his previous start with another strong performance.  The larger issue is the impact on the Great Game’s history and records of the many rule changes that have been recently implemented or are being considered.  For a sport that is intimately tied to its statistics, this is no small matter. 

In 2019 the Atlantic League agreed to become MLB’s laboratory for testing possible changes.  The pitch clock and three batter minimum for relievers, now in place at the major league level, began in the one-time independent minor league that is now, with MLB’s recent forced realignment of the minor league system, an official Partner League of Major League Baseball.  This year, in the second half of the Atlantic League’s season, the rubber on the pitching mound will be moved back a foot, to 61 feet 6 inches from home plate.  In an era of steadily increasing strikeouts, the intent is to allow hitters to put more balls in play.  On its face, that’s a desirable result.  But at the cost of severing the timeless connection to every hitting and pitching record in the Great Game’s long history?  One doesn’t have to be a purist, just a fan who has seen kids at Yankee Stadium marking scorecards after each play, to recognize that as folly.  Especially since a few more base knocks every nine innings will surely add four or five minutes to the average length of a game.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 22, 2021

Bummers, Not Bombers, In The Bronx

The Yankees suck.  Those are familiar words to a New England based fan of the Bronx Bombers, as they are uttered frequently, like a ritualistic mantra, by followers of the team that makes decrepit old Fenway Park its home.  Of course, over the long rivalry beteen the Yankees and Red Sox, two teams that have shared membership in the American League for nearly six score years, the phrase has more often been screamed by Boston fans as a wish rather than a statement of fact.  But through the first three weeks of MLB’s 2021 season, no doubt to the delight of Red Sox faithful, New York has been shockingly bad, to the point that the Fenway Park crowd can save its collective breath, for the limited number of fans allowed to attend games at the big Stadium in the Bronx are more than ready to make the chant their own.

Ten days into the campaign the Yankees record was 5-5.  While not exactly what supporters of a franchise pundits picked to contend for a World Series berth were expecting, at least it wasn’t abysmal.  Since then, though, New York has dropped six of seven, the most recent a dispiriting 4-1 loss to Atlanta in the final game of a home stand Wednesday night.  The team’s current 6-11 mark is its worst start in thirty years.  The Yankees rank last in the American League in runs scored, and last in the majors for slugging percentage.  Giancarlo Stanton, the $29 million designated hitter, is in the midst of a 3-for-34 batting slump.  Center fielder Aaron Hicks is even worse at 1-for-17.  Shortstop Gleyber Torres, who couldn’t be bothered to run out a ground ball Wednesday night, has just one RBI on the year.  It took starting left fielder Clint Frazier 45 plate appearances to finally match that anemic total, thanks to a 9th inning bloop single that scored New York’s sole run.

Aside from ace Gerrit Cole, the Yankees starting pitching hasn’t been much better, with the rotation consistently failing to go deep into games.  The four starters other than Cole have averaged only 4 1/3 innings per outing while combining for an ERA of 5.50.  That in turn has taxed the bullpen, which has been reliable so far, but can’t be expected to perform at a high level all season if called upon at the current frequency.  To round out the ugly picture, the team’s fielding percentage is better than only five other big league franchises.

For fans in the Bronx, this simmering pot of ineptitude finally boiled over last Friday night, when a shellacking at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays was interrupted by baseballs being tossed on the field by unhappy customers in the cheap seats.  After the 8-2 debacle ended, Lindsey Adler, who provides always excellent Yankees coverage for The Athletic, tweeted “The organization should be embarrassed.  The fans should be embarrassed.  I’m somehow embarrassed.  This was a humiliation exercise for everyone in the ballpark who is not sporting a Rays uniform.”  The replies to Adler’s tweet showed that some fans have already gone much further, writing off the entire season as a lost cause and, in many cases, directing their ire at manager Aaron Boone.

A natural response to such angst – entirely appropriate with the calendar still turned to April – is that such cataclysmic conclusions are premature.  It is, as every fan of the Great Game knows, still early.  For every game that has been played, almost nine remain to be contested.  One need look back no further than the year before last, to the most recent full 162-game season, when the Washington Nationals were an abysmal 19-31 in late May.  Fans in D.C. were busy lamenting that squad’s deficiencies and calls for firing manager Dave Martinez were growing.  All that was forgotten by season’s end when those same fans celebrated a title.

Yet dismissing the growing clamor of complaints from the New York faithful as premature misses two key points.  One is that there has been virtually no isolated bright spot to spark a bit of hope during the team’s current tailspin.  That much was clear even in the one game that wound up in the Yankees’ win column.  While the Gotham media tried to herald New York’s 3-1 victory over Atlanta as the potential start to a turnaround, the 10,017 in attendance witnessed little to justify such optimism.  Starter Jameson Taillon did hold Atlanta to a single run, but he was no model of efficiency and could only make it through five innings.  At the plate, Yankee batters managed just five hits, two of which by Gio Urshela.  His solo home run tied the score at 1-1 in the 5th, and the New York bullpen managed to hold Atlanta there, though not without some tense moments.  But the winning rally in the last of the 8th was gift wrapped by the visitors.  A walk and two singles loaded the bases, then Atlanta reliever Tyler Matzek lost the strike zone.  A wild pitch plated Hicks from third to break the tie, and after an intentional pass to Stanton, a four pitch walk of first baseman Mike Ford forced home the Yankees final tally.  A win is a win, and fans were happy to witness one, but the game wasn’t remotely the breakout performance the team’s offense so desperately needs.

The larger issue in the Bronx is that the fan unrest which produced the ill-advised hooliganism in the Tampa Bay game is not just a reaction to this roster’s current poor play.  Anger among Yankee fans has been building for years.  When their team won its 27th title in 2009, fans knew it was also the 40th time the Yankees had represented the American League in the Fall Classic, which that year was being contested for the 105th time – 40 out of 105, an unmatched record of success.  Since the team’s first World Series appearance in 1921, the Yankees had been back at least once, and usually several times, in every subsequent calendar decade.  But a dozen years, and the entire decade of the 2010s later, New York’s numbers remain at 27 titles and 40 appearances.  Meanwhile the persistent message from the second generation of Steinbrenner ownership is about avoiding luxury taxes and finding hidden value in less expensive players.  It is a familiar refrain across the Great Game, and it is certainly true that a fat checkbook alone doesn’t guarantee a championship.  But expectations are different in New York.  At the Stadium, a dozen years is a lifetime, and many Yankee fans are fed up.

In the middle innings of every game in the Bronx, a video on the jumbotron in center field invites fans to answer a “Yankees Trivia” question.  On Tuesday, the question was which New York manager led his team to 100 or more wins in both of his first two years.  The answer wasn’t Hall of Famers Huggins, McCarthy, Stengel, or Torre.  It was Boone, manager of the 100-win 2018 and 103-win 2019 Yankees.  But that 2018 season ended in the ALDS, and one year later the Stadium’s lights were turned off after the ALCS.  When the answer flashed up on the big screen Tuesday night, the reaction of most of those in attendance was, “so what?”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 18, 2021

A Good Run For Second Acts

There was widespread rejoicing among golf fans when Jordan Spieth won the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago.  Yes, the field was not the strongest, but Spieth has a huge fan base, and winning on the PGA Tour is never easy, even if he made it look so for a time.  When he outdueled Matt Kuchar over the final eighteen holes of the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale to capture his third major title and eleventh win on Tour, all before his 24th birthday, no one would have guessed that Spieth would blow out those candles four days later and eventually sample three more birthday cakes before again tasting victory.

While Spieth wandered in the golfing desert, the consensus among fans was that he would return to the winner’s circle.  The popular logic was that he was too good and too young to be permanently denied.  But that easy conclusion ignores history.  A generation ago, playing in the shadow of Tiger Woods, David Duval’s record rivaled Spieth’s.  In his first two years on Tour, Duval posted seven second-place finishes.  Then, in a span of less than four years, from October 1997 to July 2001, he won thirteen times.  Those victories included a Tour Championship, a Players Championship, the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic where he shot 59 in the final round, and the 2001 Open Championship.  Duval was just 29 when he stood on the 18th green at Royal Lytham and raised the Claret Jug.  Yet he never won again, and today younger fans know him only as a Golf Channel analyst.

Many of those same fans would not be able to identify Yani Tseng at all, though she is now only a couple years older than Duval was when he won for the final time.  Tseng’s first victory on the LPGA Tour was a major, the 2008 LPGA Championship (now the Women’s PGA Championship).  She was still a teenager and in her rookie season on the Tour, after splitting her first year as a professional between her native Taiwan and Canada.  But she quickly came to dominate the premier tour of women’s golf.  After another win in 2009, Tseng posted three victories in 2010 and seven more the following season.  When she won the Ricoh Women’s British Open in July 2011 at the age of 22, Tseng became the youngest golfer, male or female, to have five major championship wins on their resume.  Eight months after winning at Carnoustie, she captured the Kia Classic in southern California.  The LPGA’s 2012 season was less than three months old, but the victory was the third of the year for the world’s number one ranked woman, who appeared well on her way to another dominant campaign.  Yet that victory was Tseng’s last, or technically her most recent, since she remains active on the Tour.  Now ranked 1,025th in the world, at this week’s LPGA event in Hawaii, Tseng shot 79-81 to miss the cut by 19 shots.

Because both had risen to such peaks, the falls of Duval and Tseng are among the most dramatic, but they are by no means unique stories.  As every weekend duffer knows, golf offers sublime moments when a well-struck shot or a perfectly placed putt makes the sport seem almost easy.  But just as quickly the old game can turn on its acolytes and become impossibly hard and unimaginably cruel.  Small wonder that from shanks to skulls to chili-dips to yips, golf has its own lengthy vocabulary for failure.

All of which makes Spieth’s win in San Antonio even more welcome, especially since it seems to have started an unlikely trend.  When Hideki Matsuyama ensured himself of sporting immortality in Japan by winning the Masters last week, it was his sixth PGA Tour victory, but his first since the 2017 WGC Bridgestone Invitational, which was just two weeks after Spieth’s win at Royal Birkdale.

Then this week, both the LPGA and PGA Tours produced comeback stories.  On Oahu, a golfer who broke age records on the LPGA Tour the way Yani Tseng once did emerged triumphant after almost three years in golf purgatory.  Lydia Ko still holds the marks as the LPGA’s youngest-ever winner, major champion, Rookie of the Year, and Player of the Year.  She set all those marks while capturing fourteen titles in just under four years.  Ko was just four months past her 15th birthday and still an amateur when she began that run at the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open.  The fourteen victories came in just eighty-one starts, and propelled Ko to the top of the world rankings.  But it was almost two years from the last of that string, a victory at the 2016 Marathon Classic, to Ko’s fifteenth win, at the 2018 Mediheal Championship. 

Since then, nothing but swing changes, coaches coming and going, and disappointment.  Until this week when Ko, now all of 23, blitzed the field at the Lotte Championship.  Her opening 5-under par 67 was her highest round, and by the weekend she was on cruise control, coasting to a seven-shot margin over four players.

One day later and six time zones away, Stewart Cink was similarly dominant at the RBC Heritage, the PGA Tour’s traditional post-Masters stop on Hilton Head Island, just down the road from Augusta National.  Cink’s story is not that of a former number one returning to form.  He was a solid though not great player from his first PGA Tour victory in 1997 through the 2009 Open Championship, when he cemented his golfing legacy with a major title that was also his sixth Tour win.  But Cink’s misfortune was that his victory at Turnberry came at the expense of Tom Watson, who at the age of 59 came within one bad stab at a putt on the final hole from becoming the oldest golfer to ever win a major. 

Whether it was the lack of credit he got for winning that Open, or just the vagaries of the game, Cink was unable to find his way back to victory until last fall, when he ended a far longer drought than that experienced by Spieth, Matsuyama, or Ko, with a win at the Safeway Open.  Then at Harbour Town, Cink opened with back-to-back 63s to lap the field.  By Sunday he led by five, making his final perambulation around the tight little Pete Dye layout the closest thing to a walk in the park that the pursuit of a $1.28 million winner’s check can be.  With the victory Cink became just the second, and certainly the unlikeliest, two-time winner in the current PGA Tour season.

Will Spieth or Matsuyama capture their next major when the PGA Championship is played at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course next month?  Will Ko now dominate the LPGA once again?  Will Cink add a third or even fourth PGA Tour victory this season?  Well maybe, and if the answer to any of those questions is yes, it will be a great story.  But the only certainty is that while plenty of pundits will predict each of those outcomes, it is the ancient game of golf, so remarkably generous one moment and so incredibly taxing the next, that will have the final say.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 15, 2021

Jackie’s Day Isn’t About A Number

It has been a lifetime now since that distant April 15th afternoon in 1947.  Seventy-four years since a short walk by Jackie Robinson, the minor distance from the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout to first base at Ebbets Field, changed the Great Game forever.  That is longer by more than two decades than Robinson was granted among the living, and long enough so that only a dwindling number remain who can claim a first-hand memory of the day.  For the rest of us, much of what happened three-quarters of a century ago has disappeared into the mists of time.  Yet on this April 15th, as it has on every one since 2004, Major League Baseball sought to ensure the memory of that moment is kept alive.  From Camden Yards and Nationals Park on the east coast, to Dodger Stadium and Oakland Coliseum on the west, it was Jackie Robinson Day, the annual commemoration of the then-28-year-old Robinson making his big league debut and tearing down the color barrier that had disgraced the sport throughout the 20th century.   

In 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s first game on what had been Opening Day of the 1947 season, baseball commissioner Bud Selig was joined by President Bill Clinton and Rachel Robinson in a ceremony at Shea Stadium retiring the number 42, which Robinson wore throughout his career with the Dodgers, from further use by all major league teams.  Then in March 2004, Selig announced there would be an annual commemoration, with related ceremonies in all ballparks.  Three years later, Ken Griffey Jr. asked Selig for permission to wear 42 on Jackie Robinson Day, and the commissioner was so taken by the idea that he encouraged other players to do so as well.  The response was surprising, with more than two hundred donning jerseys with Robinson’s old number on the back.  While some players suggested the gesture watered down the meaning of the day, within two seasons the practice of not just players, but all uniformed personnel including managers, coaches, and umpires, wearing number 42 on April 15th was firmly established.

After almost two decades, at many ballparks the sharing of Robinson’s number is the most visible element of the day that honors him.  It has kept alive one of many stories from Robinson’s career, that of a white teammate rallying to his side in the face of racist vitriol from an opposing team and fans in the stands during a Brooklyn road trip by saying to Robinson, “maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear number 42, so they can’t tell us apart.” 

As is the case with tales that cling through time to every hero, nearly three-quarters of a century later one cannot be certain if the anecdote is true or merely a comforting myth.  But there is agreement that at the very least, Hollywood managed to misdirect the popular imagination when it comes to the “we’ll all wear 42” story.  In the 2013 movie about Robinson, there is a scene in which Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Robinson to quiet a crowd of hecklers in Cincinnati.  It’s a great moment, one supported by at least a handful of contemporaneous accounts, and a fine scene, with Lucas Black and the late Chadwick Boseman in the roles of Reese and Robinson.  But movie director Brian Helgeland decided to heighten the drama by putting the “we’ll all wear 42” line in Reese’s mouth, while admitting that he did so only because Reese was a fully developed character in the screenplay.  What evidence exists to support the line every having been uttered at all strongly suggests that it came from Dodgers outfielder Gene Hermanski.

Whether fact or fiction, during his lifetime Robinson would surely have appreciated the sentiment the words convey.  But since in his last public statement, just nine days before his death, Robinson spoke out about the lack of black managers and executives in baseball, it seems likely he would also have understood the limits of symbolism.  That understanding must be shared by those on the field and those in the stands today, for it is not enough to preserve a memory if its meaning is lost, washed away by a rising tide of hostility and hate. 

The great danger is that the moment commemorated on Jackie Robinson Day is seen as an end, when it was just one more step in an unending march for justice.  That march carried those in the struggle across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, and to the little town of Seneca Falls in 1848, and to the Greenwich Village streets outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969.  It has wound its way through the world of sports, from the Dartmouth College campus in the early ‘70s to, at long last, FedEx Field in suburban Washington, D.C., and Progressive Field in Cleveland just within the past year.

A lifetime after Jackie Robinson stepped onto that diamond in Flatbush, the march is far from finished.  After all, it was more than twelve years from the time that Robinson took that step until Pumpsie Green finally completed the integration of major league franchises by taking the field for the Boston Red Sox.  That the struggle continues was apparent this week when Yu Chang was subjected to racist hate on social media after the Cleveland infielder, who was born in Taiwan, committed a costly error in a game against Chicago; as it was when New York center fielder Aaron Hicks, who came up through the Minnesota farm system and made his major league debut with the Twins, was subjected to similar abuse for taking himself out of the Yankees lineup after one more black man became the victim of one more police shooting in a Minneapolis suburb. 

So we’ll celebrate all ballplayers wearing number 42 on this day, because the memory of what Jackie Robinson did, and what he endured along the way, must be preserved.  But as Major League Baseball acknowledged when it moved this year’s All-Star Game from Atlanta, the struggle is nowhere near over, and the long, sometimes dangerous, and often lonely march continues.  It will do so for as long as it takes, until judgment runs down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 11, 2021

Matsuyama Is Masterful At Augusta National

Augusta National giveth, and Augusta National taketh away.  Perhaps some golf fans had forgotten that, given everything that has happened in major championship play over the past year.  With the pandemic raging, CBS had no lingering shots of azaleas in full flower last April.  Last year’s Open Championship was cancelled, and the U.S. Open was moved from June to September.  The PGA Championship, originally scheduled for May, became the first major of the year when it was finally contested, without fans, at San Francisco’s Harding Park in early August.  When golfers finally made their way to eastern Georgia for the 2020 Masters it was mid-November, the usual riot of color around the course replaced by falling leaves, and Augusta National played very differently than it typically does each spring.  The greens were soft and inviting, and Dustin Johnson took full advantage, setting a tournament record with a final total of 20-under par, five shots better than his closest competitor.

Finally, with vaccination numbers climbing, the expectation is that this year will see a return to the familiar rotation and schedule of golf’s biggest events, for both men and women.  A week ago, the ANA Inspiration kicked off the LPGA’s major calendar, and this weekend CBS Sports, the Golf Channel, and a variety of streaming options were all showing fans the verdant fairways, blindingly white bunkers, and flowering background that for weekend golfers in many parts of the country is the surest sign that winter is over and another season on the links is finally at hand.

As if on cue, the course that Alistair McKenzie laid out over the rolling hills of the nearly 400-acre property that was once a nursery stepped into its familiar role of being generous one moment and punishing the next.  In Thursday’s opening round, Justin Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open and a two-time runner-up at the Masters, was off to an indifferent start with two bogeys in his first seven holes.  Then he split the fairway with his drive on the par-5 8th, slung a fairway metal up the hill that bounced off the mounds to the left of the green and settled ten feet below the cup.  From there Rose sank the putt for eagle and was off to the races.  He made seven birdies in the next nine holes and posted a 65 that was the best score of the day by four shots. 

But not every player in the field was so fortunate.  On the same hole Bryson DeChambeau sent his drive sailing into the trees, well right of the broad fairway.  By the time DeChambeau’s ball found the bottom of the cup, he had a bogey-6.  Nor was that the first blemish in an opening round that would eventually require 76 strokes.  DeChambeau improved in round two, but went 75-75 on the weekend to finish the Masters at 5-over par, in a tie for 46th place.   Although that perhaps overstates the performance of golf’s self-appointed change agent.  DeChambeau has boasted that with his prodigious length off the tee, his par at Augusta National is 67, not the 72 on the course’s scorecard.  By his own standard DeChambeau was 25-over par for the tournament.  Not a good week for the four-protein-shakes-a-day training regimen.

Still, the old saw is that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday, and once again Augusta National made sure there was enough truth in that to keep the cliché alive.  By the start of the final round, early leader Rose was one of four players at 7-under, along with Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman, and Will Zalatoris.  They were all chasing Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who had charged up the leader board late on Saturday, after a one-hour rain delay, to lead by four shots. 

The momentum and mood swings began early.  When Matsuyama bogeyed the opening hole, and two groups ahead 24-year-old Zalatoris, playing in his first Masters and just his third major, began with back-to-back birdies, the lead was suddenly down to one.  But Matsuyama steadied himself, and by the time he and Schauffele walked from the 9th green to the 10th tee, he was 2-under on the day, 13-under for the tournament, and five clear of the field.  All that remained for Matsuyama to become the first Japanese male to win a major was Augusta National’s back nine, golf’s scenic stroll filled with opportunity and malice.

Having run into trouble early, Schauffele appeared to have become a bystander, sitting seven shots adrift of his fellow competitor.  But on the 12th Matsuyama sent his tee shot into the back bunker, and couldn’t get up and down to save par, while Schauffele rolled in a lengthy putt for birdie.  Then, after both saved a shot on #13, Schauffele stuck his approach next to the hole on the par-4 14th, his third consecutive birdie moving him another stroke closer to Matsuyama.  On the very next hole, after both found the fairway on the reachable par-5, the leader blew his second over the green.  The ball bounded down the slope behind the putting surface and disappeared into the pond that fronts the 16th hole.  Matsuyama did well to save a bogey, and when Schauffele recorded yet another birdie the margin was down to just two shots.  Having carried not just the lead but the weight of an entire country hoping for a major winner on his shoulders since the opening tee shot, one had to wonder if Matsuyama might be wilting.

Instead, it was the pursuer who was bitten by Augusta National.  Schauffele’s tee shot on the par-3 16th was left of his intended line.  It landed on the green, but the ball’s first bounce took it into the fringe and there was nothing to stop it until it found the water.  When his third from the drop area sailed over the green, Schauffele was well into the process of undoing all his recent progress in a single hole with a triple-bogey.  It was the first ever such tally at a major for the talented American who in fifteen such events now has two seconds, two thirds, and eight total top-ten finishes, but still no wins.

For Matsuyama, the task after #16 was to negotiate the final two holes in no worse than 1-over par to stay ahead of Zalatoris, who was in the clubhouse at 9-under.  He did that – exactly – and after his final putt dropped and the pandemic-limited crowd around the final green rose as one to cheer his victory, Matsuyama’s eyes glistened as he made the walk to Augusta National’s clubhouse to sign his scorecard.  Perhaps what viewers saw were tears of joy, or of awe at what he had accomplished for an entire nation.  Or maybe the newest Masters champion was just feeling the relief that any golfer who earns a green jacket must after surviving Augusta National.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 8, 2021

The Madness Is Done, But The NCAA’s Problems Remain

In San Antonio and Indianapolis, champions have been crowned.  On Sunday night it was the Stanford women, pre-tournament favorites.  Twenty-four hours later it was the Baylor men, in what was on paper at least a mild upset, though it hardly seemed that way given how they and their Gonzaga counterparts performed on the Lucas Oil Stadium court.  Now the confetti has flown and the television coverage of this year’s NCAA Division I basketball tournaments has concluded, as always, with CBS’s montage of men’s tournament highlights accompanied by David Barrett’s “One Shining Moment.”  Both tournaments produced stories worth telling, none greater than the simple fact that both events made it from the opening jump ball of the first game to the final celebration, albeit with one COVID-19 walkover in the men’s tourney, when multiple positive tests forced Virginia Commonwealth to forfeit its first-round game against Oregon. 

There was the perseverance of the Stanford Cardinal players, fighting their way through a season in which pandemic restrictions forced them to start with practice sessions in Las Vegas, spend long periods living in hotels, and play “home” games in Santa Cruz, a time consuming forty-five-mile drive over local roads from their campus.  There was the overall high level of play at the five women’s tourney venues along the San Antonio to Austin corridor, a powerful reminder that women’s college basketball no longer begins and ends in Storrs, Connecticut.  Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies did feature prominently in arguably the best back-to-back games for television fans in either tournament.  Two weekends ago the Sweet Sixteen round featured the sport’s two freshmen phenoms, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlan Clark, going head to head in a showcase of the future.  Right after the Huskies pulled away late to win 92-72, powered as much by Bueckers’ supporting cast as by the star herself, #2 Baylor and #6 Michigan battled through four quarters and beyond.  The Wolverines never led in regulation, but knotted the score late to force overtime, and in the end came within one final heave of pulling off the upset.  No wonder that the women’s tournament, from the Sweet Sixteen on through to Sunday night’s championship tilt, saw its highest TV ratings in years.   

On the men’s side there was UCLA, in a bygone era the dominant force in the game, cast in the unlikely role of Cinderella.  The Bruins, a #11 seed that had to win one of the four play-in games to make it into the tournament’s bracket, advanced all the way the Final Four, defeating second-seeded Alabama and Michigan, the East’s top seed, along the way.  In its semifinal matchup against heavily-favored Gonzaga, UCLA proved it belong, matching the Zags shot for shot in a game that had nineteen lead changes and saw the score tied fifteen times.  For the third time in six games the Bruins played overtime, and even that looked like it wouldn’t be enough.  Tied at 90, the game appeared headed to a second extra period when Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs launched a Hail Mary from near half court as the clock went to zero.  The shot caromed off the backboard and through the net for a 93-90 win that kept the Zags’ hopes for a perfect season alive.

That dream was dashed quickly in the championship contest, where the final story of this year’s tournaments was Baylor’s dominance.  Seventy-three years after last playing in the title game, the Bears led 9-0 after two-and-a-half minutes.  The first half had not reached its midway point when the Baylor lead stretched to 15, the largest deficit Gonzaga had faced all season.  The Zags – the official nickname is Bulldogs, but it’s entirely possible that an undergraduate could complete four years of study on the Spokane campus having only heard the team referred to by the shorthand reference – were trying to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.  A high-powered offense was Gonzaga’s calling card, evidenced by its tournament average margin of victory of just under 20 points, even with the close call against UCLA.  But Baylor’s defense was stifling, and as the Bears rained three-pointers at their end of the court, it was soon obvious that the Hoosiers place in the record books was safe for another year.  After the Bears’ opening nine-point outburst, Gonzaga was never closer than eight on the way to the 86-70 final score. 

NCAA president Mark Emmert would no doubt dearly love for those tales to remain the focus as this season’s tournaments pass into memory.  But even as the confetti was being swept up in Texas and Indiana, the words of a different song than Barrett’s annual contribution to CBS’s March Madness coverage kept coming to mind.

“The party’s over, it’s time to call it a day.  They’ve burst your pretty balloon and taken the moon away.”

Even while the tournaments were going on, even as the focus should have been on final scores and busted brackets, the NCAA’s ineptitude instead put the spotlight on the organization’s institutional misogyny.  Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a video on Tik Tok showing the laughably pathetic weight training equipment in San Antonio – a single small rack of dumbbells next to a pile of yoga mats – compared to the expansive setup for the men in Indianapolis.  Prince’s video quickly garnered more than 5 million views, and as it did so the media uncovered similarly vast differences in everything from catered food to virus testing protocols.  The Association’s talking heads mumbled and fumbled before efforts were finally made to correct the disparities.  But the indelible impression left by the initial reaction was that but for a player with a smartphone, the NCAA would have been perfectly fine with the caste system embodied in the original arrangements.  As Prince said at the end of her video, “if you aren’t upset about this problem, then you are a part of it.”

“The party’s over, the candles flicker and dim.  The party’s over, it’s all over, my friend.”

With the tournaments concluded and the nets cut down, issues that have dogged the NCAA for years will now once again be front and center.  Foremost among those is the legitimacy of the business model for big-time college sports, in which schools reap vast fortunes, especially in football and basketball, while the players fans pay to see are restricted from either sharing the wealth or making their own by NCAA rules.  The realities of the pandemic, during which seasons were cancelled or games played in empty stadiums and arenas, left many athletic departments reeling financially.  But as vaccinations increase and crowds start to return to sports, state legislatures, Congress, and even the Supreme Court appear ready to act if the NCAA and its member schools will not.  For Emmert and the NCAA, there’s precious little time left to seize one shining moment, before the party is thoroughly and finally over.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 4, 2021

At Long Last, Back In The Bronx

The drive begins on the New Hampshire seacoast, just before 7 a.m.  The route is familiar, though it has not been traveled for almost a year and a half.  The air’s frosty during the quick stop for coffee in Portsmouth’s Market Square, but as the miles roll away, the path cutting across New England toward Gotham, the temperature slowly climbs, with the forecast calling for a high nudging above 50 degrees in the Bronx, though a breeze is likely to make it feel colder in the upper deck.  The sky above is free of clouds and a uniform robin’s-egg blue.  It is a postcard of a lovely early spring day.

Now the Camry passes over the seamless junction of the Wilbur Cross and Merritt Parkways in southwestern Connecticut.  But for a slight variation in the design of the exit signs, the two old roads are indistinguishable, one winding asphalt ribbon cutting through the forests of southern New England, a bit slower to traverse but far more scenic than I-95, which runs roughly parallel just a few miles to the south.  For this traveler, the start of the Merritt signals the approaching end of the automotive portion of this morning’s journey.  Less than five miles now to the exit for Route 8, which makes the short jog over to the Interstate, then the final twenty mile run down I-95 to the Metro North train station sitting hard by the highway in Stamford.  From there an express train heads straight to the 125th Street station in Harlem for the transfer to a northbound train coming out of Grand Central.  That goes back into the Bronx, turning onto the track that eventually makes its way up along the Hudson, but stops first at the endpoint of this morning’s journey for this traveler.  Half an hour before noon the train doors open at the Yankees – 153rd Street station.  After 536 days, this fan has come home.

The world has changed in ways that could not have been imagined at the time of that last visit to the Stadium, because of a virus that was unheard of in October 2019.  The greatest impact of the pandemic on the game day experience is obvious as one walks from the train station, past the site of the old, long-gone baseball cathedral, and looks across to Babe Ruth Plaza, the broad concourse that fronts the “new” ballpark, as it will always be called by some of us.  There will be no need today to navigate one’s way through a throng of fans milling about, taking photos and looking for friends or family members.  The plaza is almost deserted, for attendance is limited to just over 10,000 ticketholders, one-fifth of capacity. 

Even with that restricted number, separated in socially distanced pods of one to four seats scattered throughout Yankee Stadium’s three decks, merely having a ticket is no guarantee of entry.  Before fans can pass through the turnstiles, each must present proof of either being fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior to today, or a negative COVID-19 test result, either a PCR test taken within three days of the game, or a rapid antigen test taken with six hours of the scheduled first pitch.  The team has sent multiple emails to ticketholders reminding them of these requirements, and even with the short lines there is a brief delay as each person’s paperwork is closely examined.  With a vaccination card attesting to doses administered in January and mid-February, this fan crosses the barriers and soon enough is back inside the Great Game’s biggest stage.  

The first visit of every season – even one separated from the last by a pandemic and a truncated campaign of sixty games played in empty houses – is a time to check out changes to the ballpark.  Some new advertisers have paid no doubt princely sums to have their names prominently displayed.  T-Mobile has replaced AT&T as the cellular carrier of choice on the massive outfield scoreboard, and UberEats is one of several companies that have ponied up for smaller placards along the outfield fence and on the walls of the bullpens.  There are new gathering spots – bars with excellent views of the action on the field below – on both the first and third base sides of the concourse behind the second deck.  But like their third deck cousins, introduced in 2018, and many other concessions and amenities, these are shuttered today, reflecting a fiscally prudent but still depressing decision that the cost of opening them cannot be justified, given so few fans in attendance.

Of course, the point of being here is to see the Yankees play, and as the team take the field this fan settles into his seat, well removed from his nearest compatriots.  Corey Kluber is on the mound, one of several members of New York’s rotation who bring both an impressive resume and considerable uncertainty to the 2021 season.  The AL Cy Young winner in 2014 and 2017, injuries limited Kluber to just seven starts in 2019 and a single inning last year.  Today he struggles with his control, but yields just two runs, and only one earned, through four-plus innings, thanks in part to a pair of double plays snuffing out two Toronto threats.  The Blue Jays refuse to roll over, scoring a run in their next at-bat after every New York tally.  But after knotting the score at 1-1 in the top of the 3rd, the next two times those single scores come after the Yankees have plated two, giving the home squad a 5-3 lead as the game enters its final phase.  Chad Green is called upon for a four out save, and the right-hander delivers impressively, setting down the Toronto lineup in order and ensuring that the familiar postgame strains of “New York, New York” will echo through the Stadium while we in the stands, and the Yankees on the field, celebrate.

As this fan makes the walk back to the train station, preparing to reverse the route that began in early morning on a day-long trip that will end back in Portsmouth just before 10 p.m., the surreal nature of the experience is inescapable.  Even from the upper deck, one could hear every call by an umpire, and one suspects, the players could hear every hosanna or insult hurled their way.  And while many members of the media who were present during last year’s games with piped-in cheers have commented on the high noise level from limited crowds, the reality is that’s true only as compared to the fakery of 2020.  Still, while it may have been surreal, and while one longs for the day when the Stadium rocks with the frenzy of a full house and anonymous neighbors high-five each other, bound only by shared joy in their team’s achievements, make no mistake.  It was good to be home.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 1, 2021

A Hopeful Beginning Amid Signs Of Caution

With Gerrit Cole’s first pitch in the Bronx, shortly after one o’clock Thursday afternoon, the longest season got underway.  From the big Stadium on the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue, on across the continental time zones like a long-haul eighteen-wheeler filled with the hopes and dreams of millions of fans, the Great Game returned to the fore of our national conversation about sports.  That it did so on the first day of April with a schedule that originally had all thirty franchises in action at fifteen ballparks in twelve states and the District of Columbia, with the ersatz cardboard cutouts of 2020 replaced by real live fans in every one, symbolized progress against the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when set against the long-delayed and truncated campaign of last year.  But if the cheers that greeted shouts of “play ball” from east coast to west were a rightful sign of hope, the extent to which this Opening Day was different from the usual was a firm reminder that a return to normal is still a distant goal.

Limits on attendance varied between jurisdictions, from Boston’s 12 percent up to 100 percent of capacity at the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Field, with 20 percent the most common ceiling.  But not every club chose to fill all the seats allowed, and there was evidence of caution among fans.  The Rangers don’t play their home opener until Monday, but an exhibition game earlier this week drew fewer than 13,000 of the stadium’s 40,300-seat capacity.  In absolute numbers, Thursday’s biggest crowd was at Coors Field, where the Rockies admitted 20,570 through the stadium’s gates to watch the home team upend the defending world champion Dodgers, 8-5.  At the other extreme, the Blue Jays are certain to have the smallest attendance once all thirty teams have played their home opener by early next week.  Because of travel restrictions to Canada, the Jays will begin the season playing home games at their Spring Training facility in Dunedin Florida, where the permitted 15 percent capacity of the little minor league park amounts to fewer than 1,300 paying customers.

Still, social media posts from members of the media who were present throughout the fanless short season of 2020 marveled at the noise and energy generated by the presence of cheering faithful, even if their numbers were just a fraction of a typical Opening Day.  Of course, we fans have known all along how important we are to the outcome of every contest, which is what has made the last year in sports so stultifying.

The hope, from franchise front offices to players to season ticket holders to families longing for a Sunday afternoon together in the outfield bleachers, is that as the schedule slowly unwinds through the long months ahead, the current attendance restrictions will gradually be relaxed.  Simply by virtue of the calendar, over the course of this season the Great Game could become the sport that symbolizes our return to an environment approximating the one we all once took for granted.

That sentence is necessarily conditional, because for all the progress that has been made in recent months, the future course of the pandemic remains uncertain.  As great as it was to see fans in the stands from coast to coast, the acres of empty seats on Opening Day were gaping reminders of that uncertainty.  As were first pitches played on jumbotrons rather than being thrown live, temperature checks at the turnstiles, food stands refusing to accept cash, and all the other concessions to COVID-19 at ballparks from New York to San Diego and from Miami to Seattle.

Then there was the game that wasn’t played.  Washington Nationals players and staff were tested as they broke training camp in West Palm Beach on Monday, as they had been throughout Spring Training.  On Wednesday, the team announced that those tests produced one positive result from a player, with that individual and direct contacts going into quarantine while further tests and tracing got underway.  By midday Thursday Nationals GM Mike Rizzo delivered the unhappy news that the number of players testing positive had grown to three, with a fourth considered a “likely positive.”  The evening contest between Washington and the New York Mets was scrubbed, with no immediate word on makeup plans beyond an announcement that it would not be played on Friday. 

The news was a haunting reminder of the ragged start to the shortened 2020 season last July, when the virus swept through the Miami Marlins clubhouse, ultimately infecting 21 players and coaches.  The St. Louis Cardinals also had an early season COVID-19 outbreak, and there were more limited cases involving four other clubs.  Forty games were postponed, although in the end all but two contests between the Cardinals and the Tigers were rescheduled.

Last winter’s attempt by some owners to postpone the start of play until May and shorten the season is already long forgotten. The 2021 regular season calendar stretches over the usual six months, an eternity compared to the mere ten weeks of 2020’s sixty-game novella.  There will be ample opportunity for the two NL East rivals to fill in this hole in their schedules, even if it turns out that their entire three-game opening set cannot be played.  For now, at least, the concern is not about any larger impact on the 2021 season, but rather, and appropriately, on the health of the players.  But on an Opening Day that was at once both welcomed for its familiarity and distinguished by its differences with past ones, Nationals ace Max Scherzer not taking the mound in D.C., hours after Yankees ace Cole did so in the Bronx, demonstrated that while baseball may well lead sports out of the pandemic, like so much else in life over the past twelve months, the Great Game doing so is not yet a sure thing.

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