Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 22, 2018

A New Season’s First Trip Home

After all these years the task of getting to 161st Street and River Avenue is a familiar routine, or more precisely one of two equally well-tested approaches. Sometimes my hotel is in Midtown. On other trips it’s north of Gotham in Stamford, Connecticut. If home base is the former, then transport to the Stadium is by the 4 train, the Lexington Avenue express rumbling underground up the East Side and into the Bronx. This time though I’m staying in the Nutmeg State, so it’s a short walk from my hotel to the Stamford Transportation Center, the second busiest station in the Metro North Railroad system behind only Grand Central Station.

While most railroad terminals including Stamford’s are strictly utilitarian, a few older ones like Grand Central are architectural wonders, reminders of a time when travel by the iron horse was a regal experience. But the reality is that however memorable the point of embarkation may be, once the engine starts pulling its line of cars, not much of America has developed in a way that puts its most scenic parts out by the train tracks. Shortly after leaving Stamford and crossing into Greenwich the express train to Yankee Stadium rolls past the lush green fairways of the old and very private Innis Arden Golf Club, and then by an artificial turf athletic field on which teenagers are playing lacrosse. But the locomotive’s route also soon reveals that while the town may be one of the wealthiest in the country, not every home in Greenwich is a mansion with a luxury SUV in the garage.

The train moves into New York, rolling by the familiar list of station names. Port Chester, Rye, and Harrison, then past Mamaroneck. The old station, now a restaurant and commercial space, is a beautiful red brick Romanesque building with high arches and steeply angled roof lines. Beside it the train platforms are deserted. It will be a very different sight two summers hence, when the USGA brings the men’s U.S. Open back to nearby Winged Foot Golf Club. That week fans by the thousands will disembark here for the short bus ride to the exclusive country club where in 2006 Phil Mickelson had his most desired tournament won, until the 72nd hole.

On past Larchmont and New Rochelle, where the Metro North track splits off from Amtrak’s, turning first west through the few remaining suburbs and then again south into the Bronx. Here it parallels Park Avenue, though this narrow northern extension with the famous name is but a shadow of the broad concourse in Manhattan, on the other side of the Harlem River. At last the train glides slowly around a sweeping right turn, hard by the athletic field of Cardinal Hayes High School, past the imposing walls of the Bronx Terminal Market shopping mall on the left, and finally comes to a stop at the Yankees-153rd Street Station.

This Metro North station is less than a decade old, having been built for the specific purpose of providing another means of transport to the Stadium. In the company of fellow fans, I make my way along a pedestrian walkway above the tracks and then turn left and head down a stairway to ground level. Just outside, in the nook of the corner where walkway meets stairs, stands “the Bat.” It’s a 138-foot-tall exhaust stack that serviced the boilers at the old Stadium. Decades ago a “knob” was added at the top, along with a winding of “tape” along the handle, making the giant pipe look like a baseball bat standing on end. Once located just outside the old Stadium’s main gate, the Bat served as an instantly recognizable meeting place for friends going to games, and while those boilers are long gone, the Bat still stands.

A quick walk past Heritage Field, site of the old ballpark, then across Babe Ruth Plaza and through the security checkpoint, and I’m back on familiar ground. While the journey is routine, there is always undeniable excitement when making it for the first time each year. The longest season began in late March, but with this inaugural trip to the Bronx it’s now official – a new campaign is underway.

Part of each year’s first visit is seeing what has changed since the previous autumn. Not to the field of course; while some teams have been known to tinker with a ballpark’s layout by moving fences in or raising the height of outfield walls, a franchise as steeped in tradition as the Yankees would be loath to make such alterations. Here even the mowing pattern on the grass is unchanging. Last year the tiny alteration of replacing the semicircular cutouts by each of the three bases with an angled straight line was deemed radical. This year the closest thing to an on-field change is the extension of netting in front of the stands far down each foul line, a move duplicated at parks across the country.

Off the field there are always new sights to see. This year there are two new bars on the field level, continuing a trend of offering fans additional locations to socialize away from their seats. There are also some new food offerings, most notably two large outlets for King’s Hawaiian Grill. The California-based bakery and restaurant has been featured at Dodger Stadium since last season. Now it has a baseball home on both coasts. Meanwhile in the main food court a vendor offering a variety of delicious freshly made soups has been replaced by one selling ice cream. With this visit beginning on a cold Friday night in April, I don’t count that as an improvement.

As always there are a few new advertisers. On the strength of some unfathomable logic, Starr Companies, a massive global insurance and investment firm, has decided it makes sense to buy prominent space on the right field scoreboard, replacing MetLife. Other new billboards, for an auto parts supplier and a manufacturer of salad dressings, are more modest in size and placement.

The trip’s real purpose is to see my heroes back in action, and soon enough the Yankees take the field. On this trip they will face the Toronto Blue Jays three times. It quickly becomes apparent that the first of those contests will not go well. On the mound Sonny Gray is ineffective. Staked twice to an advantage of two runs, he immediately surrenders both leads. After Gray departs the bullpen is not much better, and Toronto wins 8-5.

But under blue skies and in more seasonable temperatures, the Yankees fare better on both Saturday and Sunday. Aaron Judge blasts a mighty home run into the second deck in left field to put New York ahead on Saturday afternoon. Young Jordan Montgomery holds Toronto in check, and then the Yankees pile on in the bottom of the 6th, plating seven runs with an outburst in which Miguel Andujar’s double is the only extra base hit. The final score is 9-1.

Sunday brings the major league debut of 21-year-old Gleyber Torres, New York’s top prospect. With their 24-year-old ace Luis Severino on the mound and regular left fielder Brett Gardner given the day off, every member of the Yankees’ starting lineup is under the age of thirty. Torres begins his big league career quietly, cleanly fielding two chances at second while going 0 for 4 at the plate. But Severino is dominant, shortstop Didi Gregorius hits his sixth home run, and Andujar goes 4 for 4 with an RBI, as New York closes the series with a 5-1 win.

Late Sunday afternoon, for the sixth time in three days, I am on a Metro North train between the Bronx and Stamford, this time heading north, the first Stadium visit of a young season behind me. By taking three of four from the team ahead of them in the standings, including one game before I arrived, the Yankees have climbed above .500 and hopefully begun a march toward the top of the division. Twenty games in, the season’s outcome is impossible to guess. But win or lose, New York’s lineup on Sunday made clear the franchise’s commitment to a new generation. The story I’ll witness on future visits this year will be written on a very fresh page in my team’s long story.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 19, 2018

Marathon Monday Becomes A Test Of Resolve

First there was the cold. As buses carrying runners rolled from downtown Boston out to Hopkinton early Monday morning, the thermometer struggled to climb above freezing. By the time some 27,000 had assembled at the starting line for this year’s Boston Marathon, the temperature was 37 degrees, or about 15 degrees below normal for southern New England in mid-April. Cool is certainly preferable to hot when the plan for the day is to run more than 26 miles, but a cold that quickly numbs one’s extremities complicates an already daunting task.

Then there was the rain. There’s been precipitation in other years of course. As recently as three years ago there was some rain on Marathon Monday. But the operative word in that sentence is “some.” In 2015 the elite runners were approaching the finish line and much of the field was nearing the halfway point before the skies opened in any serious way. This year it rained all day, ranging from torrential to steady and back again as the race unfolded. Runners disembarked from the buses behind Hopkinton High School into a sea of mud, and that was before the hardest rain began.

Finally there was the wind. Not some gentle springtime breeze, but a nasty, consistent, 20 to 30 miles per hour blow, coming off the ocean and right into the faces of the runners making their way along the eastbound course. The strong headwind added resistance to every step the contestants took, while also making the already chill temperature feel even colder and whipping the raindrops into sheets of horizontal needles.

Combine all those elements and this year’s Boston Marathon became a torturous test of endurance, a long day’s slog through the worst that Mother Nature could dole out. The headwind made certain that no records would be set. Any pre-race hopes for a personal best time were drowned out and blown away before the first downhill half mile had been completed. Simply making it to Boylston Street and the finish line counted as a signal achievement. By that standard, the most remarkable statistic from this year’s Marathon was 95.5%. From the original entry list of just over 30,000, slightly more than ten percent at least figuratively woke up, peeked through their bedroom curtain, and decided to go back to bed. But of the 27,042 runners, wheelchairs and handcycles that began the race, 25,822 – 95.5% – finished.

As surprising as the amount of resolute determination that was on display were the identities of those who led the pack. The foul conditions proved to be a great leveler. The men’s winner was Yuki Kawauchi of Japan, who is not even a full-time marathoner. Unlike the elite runners fans are used to seeing breaking the tape at the major marathons, Kawauchi has a day job, working as a school administrator. After the race he readily acknowledged that the conditions likely helped him.

Even more amazing than Kawauchi’s triumph was the race run by Tim Don. He is the world record-holder in the Ironman Triathlon, so is no stranger to long-distance running. But just six months ago he broke his neck when his bicycle was struck by a car while he was training in Hawaii. To preserve his athletic career, he opted against surgery to fuse the broken vertebrae; instead spending months in a halo, a metal device that looks like something out of a torture chamber. Metal bars were literally screwed into Don’s skull and attached to a ring encircling his head, completely immobilizing him above the shoulders. While wearing it he was unable to shave or shower. Yet the halo allowed his neck to heal naturally, and Don set a modest goal of finishing Boston in 2:50. Overcoming the cold and the rain and the wind, he crossed the finish line in 2:49:42.

On the women’s side the winner was Desiree Linden of California. Six miles in, running with New York City Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan, Linden was thinking not of winning, but of dropping out. Soon after, when Flanagan stopped to use a portable toilet, Linden slowed down to wait for her fellow countrywoman and help her get back to the lead pack. Yet even after doubt and delay, she was able to run down the leaders and become the first American to win the women’s race since 1985, crossing the finish line while still wearing her windbreaker. In her post-race press conference Linden said, “if it hadn’t been so difficult it probably wouldn’t mean as much.”

But perhaps the most remarkable finish of all was by 26-year-old Sarah Sellers. A full-time nurse in Arizona, Sellers decided to enter the race only because her brother was running in Boston. She had been a good runner in college until an injury ended her competitive career. Since then she had just run recreationally and had limited time to train because of her work schedule. Still she ran well enough in a Utah marathon that qualified her for Boston to be placed in the first group of women runners. The high placement left her hoping to not embarrass herself. Yet she stayed in touch with the lead pack, and then as the miles added up and others tired, Sellers began passing women, including ones she recognized and admired. By the time she turned onto Boylston Street for the final sprint to the finish, Sellers had passed every woman in the race save for Linden. The unknown runner who came to New England a few days early, so she and her husband could go biking in Maine’s Acadia National Park, left Boston $75,000 richer after her second-place finish.

Before the brutal test that was this year’s Boston Marathon got underway, no one was expecting Sarah Sellers or Desiree Linden or Tim Don or Yuki Kawauchi to be part of the story. But on a day when the true headline was the power of perseverance, they were the resolute leaders of the 95.5%.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 15, 2018

So Much To Remember, So Much More To Do

We know that seventy-one springs ago weather conditions on April 15th were considerably more hospitable than this year. Back then the eight contests that comprised the Great Game’s Opening Day schedule were all played to conclusion. In the present, with more teams and a 162-game schedule the longest season has been underway for more than two weeks. But this Sunday six of the sixteen games on the calendar were postponed thanks to a storm system that blanketed the middle of the country with either snow or heavy rain, including both ends of a twin bill between the Yankees and Tigers in Detroit.

Had there been snow in Brooklyn on that long-ago mid-April afternoon, it surely would have been the talk of the town for a few days. But after that the meteorological happenstance would almost surely have been forgotten. Had the game at Ebbets Field somehow been played despite the weather, the game itself would likely also have long since been lost to the passage of time and fading memories.

But what happened at the old stadium in the Flatbush section of Gotham’s most populous borough on April 15, 1947, was far more important, its impact vastly more profound, than a springtime snowfall. So that game is celebrated by Major League Baseball each year on its anniversary. The Dodgers began that season by hosting the Boston Braves in front of 26,623 fans, just over three-quarters of Ebbets’ capacity. When the starting nine for the home team ran out to take their positions for the top of the 1st inning, those fans saw what had never been seen before – a black man in the uniform of a major league team.

Dick Culler led off against Brooklyn’s Joe Hatten. The Boston shortstop sent a ground ball to third, which Spider Jorgensen fielded cleanly before throwing across the diamond for the game’s first out. When Jackie Robinson caught Jorgensen’s throw, he recorded the first of more than thirteen hundred putouts he made during his rookie year, the only season of his big league career that he played exclusively at first base.

In the bottom half of the frame Robinson stepped in for his first major league at-bat, a third-to-first groundout that mirrored the game’s opening play. He flew out to left in the 3rd and was robbed of his first bit league hit in the 5th on a fine play by Culler. It would not be until the Dodgers next game two days later that Robinson would record his first hit. But that Opening Day crowd still got to see just how the dynamic rookie could change the course of a game.

By the last of the 7th Boston was clinging to a 3-2 lead, when Eddie Stanky led off by working a walk off Johnny Sain. Robinson then laid down a bunt between the pitcher’s mound and first base, hoping to advance Stanky to second. He flew down the base path as Boston first baseman Earl Torgeson ran in to field the bunt. Torgeson picked up the ball, but as he straightened and turned to throw to the second baseman covering the bag, he was unnerved by the speedy Robinson, already nearing first. His hurried throw was off the mark, hitting Robinson in the back and bounding away. The error allowed Stanky to go to third and Robinson to second, sparking a three-run rally that put Brooklyn on top to stay.

The Dodgers won another ninety-three games after Opening Day in 1947. They finished atop the National League, five games ahead of the Cardinals. In that autumn’s World Series, the Dodgers rallied from deficits of two games to none and three games to two, forcing a decisive Game 7 against the Yankees. But Brooklyn came up short in that final showdown, losing to their rivals from the Bronx as they had in 1941, and as they would again during Robinson’s career in 1949, 1952, 1953, and 1956.

But amidst all the laments of “wait till next year,” in 1955 Robinson and the Dodgers turned the tables, defeating the Yankees four games to three. In Game 1 of that Series the 36-year old Robinson stole home against Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, just one of innumerable highlight reel moments from his ten-year career with Brooklyn. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1947, and the league’s Most Valuable Player two seasons later when he led the NL in batting average and stolen bases, one of two years he was the steals leader. Modern metrics suggest he should have been the MVP perhaps twice more, based on his yearly Wins Above Replacement number. Two old-fashioned numbers that stand out are his 740 career walks against 291 strikeouts. How many other players breaking into the majors since that April day in 1947 finished their careers with more than 700 walks and fewer than 300 Ks? Not a single one.

Of course, Robinson is celebrated not for having a Hall of Fame career, but for doing so while enduring unspeakable racist vitriol and disparagement. The African-American who tore down baseball’s shameful color barrier was hated by many for doing so. And Jackie Robinson didn’t just integrate the field. He integrated the stands, and the press box, and in time the manager’s office. He did it not just by his performance on the field and his stoicism in the face of terrible abuse, but by his advocacy after his playing career ended. Just days before his death Robinson was honored before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. He seized the opportunity to call for the hiring of African-Americans as managers, something that finally happened three years after he died.

Seven decades later, the Great Game honors Robinson every April 15th, when all players wear his number 42. It is a fine tribute, but this is also a time when outspoken African-American athletes are admonished by some to “shut up and dribble.” That modern form of racist vitriol and disparagement is a reminder that Jackie Robinson’s task is not yet done, and that it falls to all of us to continue the work. While the job may seem daunting, we can take comfort in the idea first formulated by the 19th century abolitionist minister Theodore Parker and later popularized by Dr. King – the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 12, 2018

As Playoffs Begin, For Some A Season Ends

In another sure sign that spring has arrived, the playoffs are starting for both major arena sports. The Stanley Cup playoffs began Wednesday night with three games. In the Western Conference the Winnipeg Jets, runners-up in the Central Division, beat their third-place division rivals, the Minnesota Wild, by a score of 3-2. Also out west the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights, the surprise winners of the Pacific Division, edged the wild card L.A. Kings 1-0. Earlier in the evening, in the first game on the road to Lord Stanley’s oversized trophy, the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins buried their cross-state foes the Philadelphia Flyers 7-0. The remaining ten NHL postseason contenders are all seeing their first action as this is being written.

As the first games of the hockey playoffs were being contested the NBA was wrapping up its regular season. The eight Eastern Conference playoff teams had been identified for several days, although seeding at the bottom of the draw was uncertain until Wednesday’s final games. But in a closely packed Western Conference five teams battled for four spots over the final few days of the regular season. The eighth seed came down to a win-or-go-home game between Minnesota and Denver on Wednesday night. The Nuggets stormed back from a halftime deficit to force overtime, and then briefly led in the extra five minutes. But down the stretch all the scoring was by the Timberwolves, who claimed the last ticket to the NBA playoffs, 112-106, ending at fourteen years the league’s longest current postseason drought. The reward for Minnesota’s players is a first round date starting this weekend with the Houston Rockets, owners of a league-best 65 regular season wins.

Fans in twenty-eight cities in the U.S. and Canada will now pack arenas and cheer on their heroes on the ice or the hardcourt. At the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, both the Target Center in Minneapolis and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul will welcome fans of the Timberwolves and Wild, respectively. In Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Washington, arenas will do double-duty, as lucky fans in those metropolises exult in the good fortune of having both their NHL and NBA franchises qualify for the postseason.

But while a majority of the teams in both leagues get to play on for at least one round, there are many arenas that have now gone dark. The faithful of fifteen NHL and fourteen NBA teams have been reduced from fans to mere spectators, their hopes for a Stanley Cup or Larry O’Brien Trophy, or even the chance to play for one, lost in the gloaming of a season to forget. Two of those teams share space in Gotham, the biggest sports stage of all, where the spotlight shines brighter than anywhere else in the land. But Madison Square Garden, the self-styled “World’s Most Famous Arena,” now has a spring calendar filled with empty dates thanks to the sorry performances of both the Rangers and Knicks.

When the Rangers won this season’s Winter Classic, beating the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in overtime at Citi Field on New Year’s Day, the blueshirts appeared poised for their eighth straight playoff appearance and twelfth in the last thirteen years. At 21-13-5 New York was holding on to third place in the Metropolitan Division. But the Rangers won just four more games in the month of January before completely collapsing the following month. Shortly before the February trade deadline the team sent out an email to season ticket holders, letting them know that as a reward for their hefty investment for seats at MSG, management was about to blow up the roster and write off the season.

In the days that followed they shipped Michael Grabner, the team’s leading goal scorer, across the Hudson to the Devils. Forward Rick Nash and defenseman Nick Holden were dealt to the Bruins in separate deals, and then captain Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller were traded to Tampa Bay. By season’s end the Rangers had fallen below .500 at 34-39-9, their worst record in a non-lockout season in almost a decade and a half. Within hours of the team’s final regular season game, a shutout loss to the Flyers, head coach Alain Vigneault was dismissed.

Vigneault guided the Rangers to the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals in his very first season behind the bench, and his team won the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record in his second. But New York was out of the postseason early the next two years, before this season’s collapse. In retrospect, the solid record through the end of the calendar year was a mirage, built on the very fine play of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. But at age 36 the Swedish veteran couldn’t be expected to carry the team through all 82 regular season contests. When his performance tailed off after the All-Star break, none of the skaters stepped up to fill the breach.

If missing the playoffs was an unwelcome surprise for Rangers fans, their friends who occupy the same seats at the Garden for Knicks games are far more familiar with that feeling of disappointment. Still back when the season was young there was some hope that this year might be different. The Phil Jackson soap opera was over, and aging star Carmelo Anthony had been shipped to Oklahoma City. The team was building around Kristaps Porzingis, all 7’ 3” of him.

Like the Rangers the Knicks offered their faithful the illusion of success early on, staying above .500 and in the hunt for a playoff spot through Christmas. But just like their hockey cousins the Knicks began losing more than they won as the new year dawned, and then disaster struck in February. Six days into the month Porzingis went down with a torn ACL in his left knee after landing awkwardly following a dunk. New York had already fallen out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference before losing Porzingis. From that point on they won just six games while losing twenty-two. Shortly after the last of those six wins, a season-ending contest against Cleveland that was meaningless in the standings for both teams, the Knicks announced the firing of head coach Jeff Hornacek.

The springtime playoffs are getting underway, and fans with a team or even two still playing are excited and looking forward to the coming days and weeks. But those who follow the Rangers and the Knicks can only look forward to a long, slow summer of second-guessing and doubt, along with searches for new head coaches. Come next fall Lundqvist will be just that much older, and Porzingis will still be on the shelf, rehabbing his knee. With apologies to Ernest Thayer, his words about a historic failure in another game seem apropos:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but all is dark at MSG – Knicks and Rangers are both out.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 8, 2018

A New Generation Jousts For A Jacket

The golf season has officially begun. No, not for weekend players here in New Hampshire, where a series of late winter snowstorms would make a round at one of the few courses that have put flags in the cups more like a slog in the swamp than a walk in the park. But whether one has posted any scores, once the Masters has been played another year of the ancient game is underway for fans everywhere.

In the days before Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player took their turns as honorary starters at Augusta National, much of the media focus was on the chances for two familiar stalwarts of a more recent generation, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. The former recently ended a nearly five-year long winless streak with a victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship, while the latter’s recent return to the PGA Tour after multiple back surgeries has been marked by surprisingly good play.

But now that the tournament is over, it’s clear that the pundits who predicted that Mickelson or Woods or both would be in the mix come Sunday afternoon had allowed sentiment to cloud their judgment. That’s not to say the neither will ever again contend for another green jacket. The Masters is in many ways the easiest of the four majors to win. It’s the only one played on the same course every year, so over time players become intimately familiar with every impossibly green inch of Augusta. It also has the smallest field, including several amateurs and aging former champions who have no realistic chance of winning. That means there are fewer fellow competitors standing in the way of a would-be champion.

But fewer doesn’t mean none, and the focus on Mickelson and Woods ignored how the PGA Tour has changed. Both are in their forties, with Phil now a year older than Nicklaus was when he improbably won his sixth Masters in 1986. In their place a new generation has taken control of the game, as became evident during this year’s tournament. A second round 79 nearly sent Mickelson home early, while Woods didn’t return a card with a subpar score until Sunday’s final round. There was a moment early in Saturday’s third round, after Woods started with two bogeys and Mickelson went four over on the first two holes that the pair were the last two names at the very bottom of the leader board.

Up at the top of that board were young players who grew up watching Lefty and Tiger on television. The leader after one round was 24-year-old Jordan Spieth. To say that Augusta National fits the young Texan’s eye doesn’t begin to capture the extent to which Spieth’s game and the course align. In four previous appearances he finished second, first, second, and eleventh. So when he staked himself to a two-shot lead with an opening 66, fans were quick to imagine another wire-to-wire win for Spieth, just like 2015. While that didn’t happen, with Spieth sliding down the leaderboard the next two rounds, his role in the tournament was far from over.

The 66 on Friday belonged to Patrick Reed. Coupled with his opening 69, the 6-under par performance was good enough to put the 27-year-old two clear of Marc Leishman and four in front of Henrik Stenson at the midway point. Reed’s intensity and passion are always on display on the golf course, and in Saturday’s third round he had multiple opportunities for fist pumps. Even par through seven holes, he ran off three straight birdies through the turn and then made eagle on both of the back nine’s par-5s. He finished with a 67 to go 14-under, three clear of his closest pursuer.

That role went to 28-year-old Rory McIlroy, the four-time major winner who came to Augusta again trying to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam. McIlroy’s third round 67 including a chip-in for eagle on the par-5 8th hole and a long birdie putt on the 18th to stay within striking distance of the leader. Following behind McIlroy were 29-year-old Rickie Fowler and 23-year-old Jon Rahm, at 9 and 8-under respectively.

As was the case with the focus on Mickelson and Woods before the tournament, much of the media again got the storyline wrong for Sunday by focusing on the final pairing of Reed and McIlroy. It was characterized as a match play situation, harkening back to their singles match at the 2016 Ryder Cup. But in a stroke play tournament, especially at Augusta where the scoring opportunities are all around the course, the result would have been very different had the two played as if the other was the only golfer needing to be bested.

Despite vocal support from the massive galleries, McIlroy did not bring his best game to the final round. He blocked his opening tee shot wildly to the right, and needed all his imagination and skill to save par. He then struck two perfect shots on the downhill par-5 2nd hole, leaving a short putt for eagle. With Reed having bogeyed the 1st and managing only a par at the 2nd, the seemingly certain three would have vaulted McIlroy into a tie. But his putt slid by the right side of the hole. While he made birdie to close to within one, the short miss began a downhill slide for McIlroy, who eventually finished with a 2-over 74 for a share of fifth place. Had Reed throttled back his game, content with doing just enough to edge his fellow competitor, a different golfer would now be wearing the green jacket.

Of course, professional golfers are intensely driven and don’t buy into silly media narratives, so that didn’t happen. While McIlroy fell back, others surged forward to challenge Reed. Starting four groups and forty minutes before the final twosome, Spieth had the good fortune to play with his close friend Justin Thomas. With the comfortable pairing Spieth raced out to a fast start, making three birdies in the first five holes. He added two more and the 8th and 9th to turn in 31 strokes. The par-3 12th hole has twice ruined Spieth’s chances at the Masters. Sunday his tee shot stayed dry, and he converted a 30-foot putt from the back fringe to pull within three of the lead.

The putt also moved Spieth to 6-under for the day. At the next hole he had a makeable putt for eagle, but it stayed straight when he thought it would break to his right. Still, that tap-in birdie and two more on the 15th and 16th holes put Spieth at 9-under for his round and 14-under for the tournament. That both matched the tournament record for a single round and tied him with Reed. It would have been the greatest final round comeback in Masters history, but it didn’t last. An errant drive led to a bogey at the last, and Spieth settled for a third-place finish.

In the penultimate group Fowler and Rahm both tried to give chase, with the golfer in the familiar Sunday orange garb coming the closest. One over par after seven holes, Fowler made six birdies coming home to post a 14-under total. But Reed had gone one stroke better by making a putt at the 14th hole, and while he looked to be feeling the pressure of winning his first major down the closing stretch, Reed held his nerve with four pars for a final 71 and a one-shot win.

Reed has always appeared confident to the point of arrogance in his ability, but perhaps his bluster has been a bit of a façade, a way of dealing with the spotlight. There were tears in his eyes as he embraced his caddie after the final putt fell, and at the green jacket ceremony on the lawn in front of the clubhouse Reed seemed at a loss for words, as if not quite believing that he had really won. And bluster aside, Reed’s record in the majors has been lacking. His tie for second at last year’s PGA Championship was his first top-10 in any major and in four previous tries at Augusta National he’d only made the cut twice, never finishing in the top-20. Perhaps we should all be surprised that Patrick Reed is wearing a green jacket. What’s not at all surprising is that this year’s winner was a golfer in his twenties. That’s the storyline that everyone should have seen all along.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 5, 2018

A Dominating Run To Another Title

Well that was anticlimactic wasn’t it? This year’s edition of March Madness was not without drama, from the first ever opening round upset of a number one seed by a sixteen to the improbable run of an eleven seed all the way to the Final Four. But more than two weeks after the Retrievers of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County shocked the Virginia Cavaliers 74-54 and once the Ramblers of Loyola University Chicago arrived in San Antonio as the lowest seed to make it to the tournament’s final weekend since Virginia Commonwealth in 2011, Saturday’s two national semifinals and Monday night’s championship game all turned into lopsided routs. Villanova fans had plenty of reasons to smile after the Wildcats won their second title in three years, but for everyone else Final Four weekend was hardly One Shining Moment.

All three games were decided by double-digits, with fifteen points the average margin of victory. The first semifinal, between upstart Loyola Chicago and Big Ten champion Michigan, gave fans the most prolonged tension of the weekend. The Ramblers took a seven-point lead into the intermission and stretched the margin to ten early in the second half. But since the expansion to a sixty-four team bracket in 1985 just six teams from the bottom half of the draw have made it to the Final Four. None of the previous five made it to the championship contest, and despite the prayers of 98-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, Loyola was unable to buck that trend. Led by Moritz Wagner’s 24 points and 15 rebounds, the Wolverines closed the game with a 38-16 run, effectively tolling the midnight hour for the Cinderella squad from the Windy City.

The second semifinal was billed as the weekend’s marquee matchup, a faceoff between the only two number one seeds still standing. But Kansas was utterly overmatched against Villanova right from the opening tip. It took less than seven minutes for the Wildcats to score 22 points while holding the Jayhawks to just 4. The lead remained in double-digits the rest of the way, with Villanova dropping eighteen three-pointers, thirteen in the first half alone. The offensive juggernaut from Philadelphia shot better than fifty percent from the floor, and three up 105 shots to 84 for Kansas, a twenty-five percent advantage. While obviously not close, the 95-79 final score didn’t fully capture the lopsided nature of the contest, as the Wildcats coasted home in the game’s closing minutes.

Villanova was a heavy favorite against Michigan on Monday night. The Wildcats opened as the choice by 6.5 points, and that number quickly climbed at many Las Vegas sports books. That was the biggest betting margin for the championship game in eight years. The Big East champion was also the overwhelming pick of the pundits, despite Michigan’s status as the hottest team in the country, with fourteen straight wins going into the final game of the season.

For a brief time in the early going, the oddsmakers and experts may have harbored a second thought or too. Michigan took the early lead, again thanks to the play of Wagner. At the same time the Wolverines’ defense was denying Villanova’s shooters the open looks they had enjoyed in their dominating run through the tournament. But then Villanova coach Jay Wright looked down his bench and signaled for the team’s sixth man, reserve guard Donte DiVincenzo, to enter the game. The sophomore ignited Villanova’s offense, netting 18 points before the break, which wiped out the Michigan advantage and staked the favorites to a nine-point edge at 37-28 after twenty minutes of play.

DiVincenzo, who was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, continued his torrid run in the second half. He added another 13 points, his average per game coming into the contest, to finish with 31 overall on 10 of 15 shooting including 5 of 7 from long-range. Just as on Saturday night, the 79-62 final score could easily have been even more lopsided.

That statement could apply to all six of Villanova’s games in the tournament. The Wildcats’ dominating march through the bracket presaged the routs at the Alamodome. Villanova’s closest contests were a pair of twelve-point victories in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. In the first of those, against West Virginia, the Wildcats led by just two points at the half. That was the nearest this year’s champion was to trailing at any demarcation point over the past two and a half weeks.

In between the school’s two title runs coach Wright’s team was the overall top seed in last year’s tournament. Though that appearance ended abruptly with a second round loss to Wisconsin, it means that over the last three years Villanova has entered the tournament with an overall seeding of seventh, first, and second, and finished with a pair of championships. If this were a professional league the word dynasty would be freely used to describe the Wildcats.

The only reason it isn’t is because of the enormous player turnover rate in the college game. While Villanova is not immune to that, Wright has not given over his program to one-and-done high school stars like so many of the elite college franchises. He works closely with his players to understand how long they expect to stay before declaring for the NBA Draft, and plots his recruiting around filling holes as they occur, rather than essentially starting from scratch each season. It’s a model that both harkens back to an earlier day and may well foreshadow the near future.

Now that “One Shining Moment” has been played and the confetti has fallen, attention will return to the corruption scandal that has led to federal charges against multiple assistant coaches and agents. The NBA’s ridiculous rule requiring players to be one year removed from high school before entering the Draft has turned many collegiate programs into short-term holding pens for young talent just passing through. But that is surely about to change. Head coaches at prestige programs, who have worked furiously every year to sign the top high school players, knowing that they will only wear the school’s uniform for one time through the schedule, will now have to rethink their approach. When they do, they will likely look to Villanova, and see a route to success that’s been right in front of them all along.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 1, 2018

Birdies And Bogeys And Change

The calendar says spring, but in New England winter is reluctant to release its icy grip. March brought a series of snowstorms of varying intensity that cumulatively were more than enough to ensure a late start to the golf season. That meant the chance to head to warmer climes where the ancient game can be played year-round is more than welcome. Even rising in the middle of the night to catch a predawn flight is not enough to dampen my enthusiasm. By breakfast time I am enjoying blue skies and temperatures that aren’t likely to be seen in New Hampshire for many weeks.

The first round of the new year is, for the most part, a solitary affair. I tee off by myself in early afternoon at a course that is a worthy challenge, one of two eighteens each of which possesses its own unique character despite sharing the same acreage. Over the decades this has been a frequent form of my golfing experience. While for many the game is almost always a collegial escape, years of living alone has produced twin realities that make for solo rounds. I don’t share space with a potential golf partner, and I have free time while friends meet family obligations.

The fairways ahead are filled with foursomes, so the round necessarily proceeds at their pace, which gives me time to appreciate the day and admire the rugged beauty of a course lined with scrub pine and with vast waste areas on almost every hole. For not having swung a club in more than three months my shots are surprisingly straight. With but a couple of exceptions I avoid the sandy expanses and my card remains free of unsightly numbers. On the 13th tee another single catches up to me and we play in together, an interlude that serves as a reminder of the many elements of this game. The young man’s drives are far longer than mine, but he sprays his approach shots left and right, so our scores are similar despite his distance advantage. In the end this first round will yield the lowest tally of my trip.

But for we recreational players golf is not solely about the numbers on the scorecard, which is why not all rounds should be played alone. Three days later I am 150 miles to the northeast, warming up on the driving range of a high-end public course. A decade ago, a close friend was headed to Hilton Head Island for a long weekend of golf with a co-worker and a friend of that colleague’s. They invited me, both to round out the foursome and because unlike any of them I had some experience on the various courses along the Calibogue Sound. The trip was thoroughly enjoyable, but that foursome did not reunite until last autumn, when we played on a course just south of Boston.

Now I am joining my college roommate and his wife at their usual winter address for three days, and the other two have flown in on what amounts to a surgical strike. They played one round yesterday after arrive the previous evening, we four will play this morning, and then the two will wing back north, having barely needed to bring a change of clothes.

While the setting is sublime, my play is decidedly not. I play two schizophrenic nines. The first four holes of both are very bad while the last five both going out and coming in are pretty good. The big numbers that I avoided in the season’s first round glare at me from the left side of each page of the scorecard. Fortunately, the better figures on the right sides keep my total respectable. Aside from my own tally, it can be fairly said that our game both starts and ends well. My friend of well over four decades opens the round with a birdie three. Four hours of camaraderie later we play a somewhat complicated team game on the final two holes and I manage to hole a short putt at the last to give my friend and I bragging rights, at least until this improbable foursome next makes its way to another 1st tee.

Over the next two days we play twice more, first as just a twosome and then with a neighbor from the condo complex my friends call home for three months of the year. We both struggle mightily through the first half of the initial outing. After the turn I find my game and return my best nine-hole number of the entire trip, thanks to a pair of birdies. Alas, the same cannot be said for my compatriot. How could the player who so effortlessly played the first hole yesterday in just three strokes run up such big numbers today? For that matter, what did I do on the inward half that I wasn’t doing on the first nine? For amateurs, these are golf’s great mysteries, the riddles that keep us coming back, round after round and year after year.

Then on my final day in the warmth, in what will surely be my last round for at least a couple of weeks, we both play reasonably well. My friend’s condo colleague almost always finds the fairway, and a stranger sent by the starter to join us, playing his first round of the year, displays some unsurprising rust but also flashes of a game that will be solid come midseason.

Another golf season begins just as the last two have, with this escape to warmth and the familiarity of strolling fairways with a friend. It is the same, and yet totally different. Several hours after the final round concludes, the jetliner carrying me home climbs into the early evening sky. In prior years I made this flight knowing that soon my friend would be back in New England, and we would join a third college roommate for a season’s worth of rounds at various area courses. Often all three, sometimes just two in various pairings, renewing a bond forged nearly half a century ago. What are the odds that after all these years the three of us would live within a short drive of one another?

Below me a river runs a sinuous course to the sea. With “S” curves and switchbacks, the fresh water meanders on its way to the salt. A round of golf is a journey like that, as is life. Every round is in some ways the same, as is our daily routine. But each is also unique. Unseen around the next bend, up ahead on the next hole, sometime in the middle of next week, something different awaits.

This year my friend and his wife showed me the house they just purchased and shared their plans to make their winter home a year-round one. It will of course take something far more substantial than mere miles to sunder our relationship, but it would be folly to deny the profound change that is about to take place. Far too soon that summer threesome will be but two, and inevitably more solitary rounds are in my future.

I do not know whether the human capacity to harbor conflicting emotions is our brightest blessing or our darkest curse. The thrill when the birdie chip falls in the hole can sit right next to the anguish when a friend’s short putt lips out just moments later. As the plane climbs into the clouds, my heart is filled with joy for my friends, about to embark on their new adventure. But my heart is also broken.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 29, 2018

On Opening Day, Remembering Le Grand Orange

At 12:43 Thursday afternoon, Ian Happ stepped into the batter’s box at Marlins Park. Miami right-hander Jose Urena fired the first pitch of the longest season, a 95 mile per hour four-seam fastball that the Cubs center fielder sent flying over the right field wall for the new campaign’s inaugural home run. Chicago added two more first-inning runs without benefit of another hit, as an obviously unsettled Urena hit three and walked two of the next seven batters before finally inducing a ground out from opposing hurler Jon Lester to end the inning. The Marlins managed to make things interesting for a time, knotting the score at 4-4 through three innings and trailing by just a run through six. But the Cubs plated three more in the top of the 7th and Chicago manager Joe Maddon made liberal use of his bullpen to lock down the Marlins’ bats the rest of the way.

If the first pitch homer was a surprise, the final score of 8-4 was not. Most preseason predictions placed Chicago atop the NL Central while pegging Miami as very likely the worst team in the majors. Odds are that the joy Cubs fans felt on Thursday and the anguish of their Marlins counterparts are emotions that each group will feel many times over the next six months. By the time Opening Day ends as opening night out on the west coast, fans for twenty-six of the thirty big league franchises (two games have been postponed by weather) will have experienced an equal allotment of the high and the low, as the Great Game begins its annual march.

Amid the excitement and the pomp, along with the ceremonies and the first plate appearances, this Opening Day is also tinged with melancholy. Hours before Ian Happ wasted no time spoiling Miami’s home opener, word came that Rusty Staub had passed away early Thursday morning at the age of 73.

In a career that spanned more than two decades, Staub played first base and right field for five different teams, including two stints each with the Montreal Expos and New York Mets. While he broke into the majors with Houston and wore the uniforms of the Tigers and Rangers as well, it’s the former Canadian franchise and the one in Queens that are most closely associated with Staub.

Born in New Orleans, Daniel Joseph Staub was nicknamed Rusty before he left the hospital, thanks to a nurse who was taken by the wisps of red hair on the infant’s head. When he was traded from the Astros to the fledgling franchise in French-speaking Montreal, Staub was an instant fan favorite known as “Le Grand Orange.” While he played less than four seasons for the Expos, from 1969 through 1971 and then for the second half of 1979, Staub was a three-time All-Star on a team that sorely lacked marketable talent. Having grown up in the francophone culture of the Big Easy, he was a natural fit in Montreal.

The gregarious Staub also took readily to the bright lights of baseball’s largest stage when the Expos traded him to the Mets. After years of playing with mediocre teams, he also finally made it to the postseason in 1973. While New York finished just three games over .500 at 82-79, that was good enough to win the NL East. The Mets beat the Reds in the then five-game LCS, three games to two, and were poised to win the team’s second championship after taking an identical lead over the Oakland A’s in the World Series. But the last two games of that Series were back on the west coast, and New York never again led over those final eighteen innings. While the Mets “You Gotta Believe!” year ultimately ended in disappointment it was not for lack of trying by Staub. He hit .423 in the Series, with eleven hits and six RBIs.

Staub was one of four players whose numbers were retired by the Expos, and he was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1986, just one year after his career ended. After his playing days he leveraged his fame for philanthropy, founding both the Rusty Staub Foundation and the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. The former is active in fighting hunger and providing college scholarships, while the latter raised and distributed more than $112 million in assistance after the 9/11 attacks.

He never topped eight percent of the vote during his time on the Hall of Fame ballot, and Staub never argued that he belonged in Cooperstown. He was a very good ballplayer, but not a Hall of Famer. But legends alone don’t win pennants. They need very good ballplayers, often several, to prevail over the course of the longest season and then through the crapshoot of the postseason’s short series. In his long career Staub put up numbers worthy of that role.

He remains the only player to collect 500 or more hits for four different teams. He hit his first home run as a teenager wearing a Houston jersey, and his last as a 41-year old Met, a time-traveling feat matched only by Ty Cobb, Gary Sheffield, and Alex Rodriguez. His 2,716 career hits are impressive but not extraordinary; but when one adds his amazing number of walks – 1,255 – along with reaching base 79 times by being hit by a pitch and 115 times on a fielding error, Le Grand Orange reached base 4,165 times. Which is the point of the game, isn’t it?

Aside from Staub, of the 43 other players who have crossed the 4,000 times on-base threshold and reached Hall of Fame eligibility, all but Pete Rose with his lifetime ban and four players tied to steroids now have busts on the wall in upstate New York.

The difference of course is Staub’s plate discipline and his outstanding walk total. Getting a free pass has never been treated the same as a hit. The guess here is that Rusty Staub, ever the outgoing player who fit in no matter what uniform he was wearing, wouldn’t complain. He was content to be a very good player, a very good teammate, and a very good friend to the fans. The kind of ballplayer who should be remembered on Opening Day.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 22, 2018

So Near For Us, So Far For Them

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is on the road for the next several days, so there will be no post this Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. Thanks as always for your support.

Dale Mabry Highway is the longest street in greater Tampa. For much of its 22 miles, from the southern terminus at MacDill Air Force Base until it begins to meander through the city’s northern suburbs shortly before merging with U.S. Route 41 just over the Pasco County line, it runs as if laid out with a straightedge, three lanes heading due north and three taking traffic straight and true in the opposite direction.

Along that stretch of undeviating macadam sit two baseball facilities, one on the road’s western side and the other to its east. They are barely more than a half mile apart. Even at a casual pace, a stroll from one to the other takes little more than fifteen minutes; an easy trip if one is just a fan.

The northernmost facility, the one that sits along the western flank of the busy highway, is the Spring Training complex of the New York Yankees, centered around George M. Steinbrenner Field. With a seating capacity of 11,000, the recently remodeled stadium is the Grapefruit League’s largest, but then what would one expect of a venue named after the Boss?

Here large crowds of fans gather daily as the six weeks of Spring Training unfold, eager to watch their heroes get in shape for the new season. On two sides of the main stadium sit several practice fields and assorted training facilities. Since last season a formerly flat expanse of outfield on one of the practice areas has featured a large hill. Players run wind sprints up the slope to improve their conditioning. Along the chain link fences encircling the fields and in metal grandstands near the home plate areas the Yankee faithful stand and sit, taking in the familiar rhythms of the Great Game, calling their favorites by name and of course hoping that a player or two will come over to the fence line during a break and scrawl their signature on the bill of a cap or a shiny new baseball.

On game days the assembly of several hundred swells into the thousands, and the blue seats of Steinbrenner Field, duplicates of those at the great Stadium in the Bronx, are regularly filled to near capacity. Fans were dressed in layers Wednesday night, when a cool evening was made to feel colder by a brisk breeze from the west. A lineup largely resembling the one that new manager Aaron Boone is likely to pencil in for Opening Day squared off against the Baltimore Orioles for one of the final home games of the Yankees’ exhibition season.

New York’s starting pitcher was 25-year-old Luis Cessa. The young right-hander spent last year shuttling between the Bronx and the team’s AAA affiliate and seems destined for a similar role this year. Wednesday he gave up a 1st inning solo shot to Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop, but then settled down to throw four solid frames. Meanwhile the Yankee offense wasted no time erasing the Orioles’ early advantage. Shortstop Didi Gregorius drove in two runs in the bottom of the 1st with a double down the right field line. Then after a pair of singles and a walk to Aaron Judge loaded the bases in the 2nd, first baseman Greg Bird plated two more with a single to center before Judge scored when Baltimore third baseman Tim Beckham threw wildly to first on a Gary Sanchez grounder.

But the night’s loudest cheers were for the player who has quickly become the new face of this storied franchise. In the 4th inning Judge, serving as the designated hitter for this game, stepped to the plate with one out and lined a full count pitch into the seats in right center field for a home run. Then in the 8th with two on and on one out, the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year launched a massive homer to left that was clearly gone the moment it left the bat. The ball caromed off an advertising sign far beyond the fence as the roars rolled out of the stadium and over the cars on Dale Mabry.

As the fans at Steinbrenner Field were cheering on Aaron Judge in an eventual 9-4 Yankees win, all was quiet a half mile down the highway at what is formally known as the Yankees Player Development and Scouting Complex. There are never any night games at the minor league camp because none of the four fields are lighted. The diamonds are laid out like a four-leaf clover, with the home plates separated by just a few yards around a central hub.

By day the crowds are tiny compared to those that gather just a few minutes north. Yet if in the tens instead of the hundred or thousands, still the fans come. Mostly they stand, for there are just a couple of small metal grandstands, no more than four or five rows high. They watch as scores of young men go about drills identical to those taking place just up the road. These are the players who will soon populate the rosters of New York’s four primary minor league affiliates.

A handful are high-level prospects recently arrived from a Spring Training turn at the big league complex. The likes of Gleyber Torres, Chance Adams, and Estevan Florial are recognizable to the fans who take time for a side trip from Steinbrenner Field. Luis Cessa will be as well, when he likely soon moves his equipment from a spacious major league locker room to these decidedly less grand quarters. But most of the players are anonymous, especially since the Yankees tradition of not placing names on the back of jerseys holds even at the minor league level. That doesn’t stop fans from seeking autographs, just as they do a few blocks north. Call it a futures market in the autograph trade.

Here the fans intermingle freely with players and a few recognizable Yankee old-timers, back in uniform for a few days to mentor the Great Game’s next generation. But the laid-back atmosphere is deceptive. For the players, this is serious business. They jog, never walk, from one assignment to the next. They concentrate closely on the instructions given by their coaches, and visibly upbraid themselves when they make a mistake in the field.

One day that futures market will provide a handsome return for a handful of the autographs collected by enterprising fans on a March morning. But far, far more will never be anything but ink on paper, a name forgotten, a memento discarded. The dream of every young player in sight is to make the trip up Dale Mabry, never to return. But there are just 25 big league roster spots and nearly four times that many players here, with still more coming as the Yankees make their final cuts. After a year, or two, or five, most of the dreams on display here will have to be set aside. A pleasant stroll for fans, the trip between these two complexes is the daunting challenge of a lifetime for the young players whose goal is Great Game glory.

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.

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