Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 24, 2018

Ten Years On, A Look Back At Closing Time

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life spent the weekend attending the conclusion of this year’s final regular season home stand at the ballpark Yankee fans refer to simply as “the Stadium.” The Yankees took two of three from the Orioles, the second win clinching a postseason berth but the loss leaving in doubt home field for the Wild Card game, and thus whether there will be more baseball played this year in the Bronx. On the same weekend a decade ago, I was on the other side of 161st Street, in a ballpark long since reduced to dust. By this time that year New York had been eliminated from the playoffs, so all in attendance knew home game number 81 was the final contest at the original Stadium. The following reflection, written after that game, is republished every year near the anniversary of that event.

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

Why should it really matter? The Stadium is ancient. They’ve played the Great Game here for nearly 90 years. The mid-70’s renovation made it an entirely different place that the old heroes would scarcely recognize. Long gone are the days when the monuments were in play in that deepest of center fields, while the right field foul pole seemed but a pop fly away from home plate. It’s only concrete and steel. And the new stadium being built across the street will offer far superior creature comforts for both players and fans. But still, we all know that tonight it’s closing time.

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

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

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

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

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

Across the impossible green of this outfield Mickey ranged, for more games than any other Yankee (a record eventually broken by a certain shortstop several years after this was written).

Right here, in that left-handed batter’s box below me, Reggie flicked his wrists three times and became Mr. October. With those three magnificent swings he brought new hope to a city rendered fearful in 1977 by the serial killer who came to be known as the Son of Sam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 21, 2018

The PGA Tour’s Really Bad Idea

The worst kept secret in sports was finally revealed this week – officially that is – when PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced a fundamental change to the format of the season-ending Tour Championship, starting next year. He did so even as the thirty players in this year’s event prepared to tee off at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club in Thursday’s first round.

Since its debut in 1987, the tournament has served as the capstone to the PGA Tour season. For the first two decades the field was limited to the top thirty players on the money list. Then in 2007 the Tour introduced the FedEx Cup, a season-long points race culminating in four playoff events featuring progressively smaller fields, with a $10 million bonus waiting for the golfer with the most points at the end of the final tournament. The giant prize, part of a whopping $35 million bonus pool, was designed to keep fans watching and top players competing long after the year’s four majors had concluded. Since the arrival of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the top thirty golfers on the points list have comprised the field at East Lake.

Almost from the start the Tour has subjected the playoffs to tweaks and changes. In just the second year Vijay Singh arrived at the Tour Championship with victories in two of the first three events and such a commanding lead in the points race that he was assured of winning the FedEx Cup and the big bonus check as long as he didn’t fall down and hurt himself while strolling around the grounds for four days. That led to a resetting of points prior to the final tournament so that all thirty golfers retained a mathematical chance of winning the Cup, with the top five assured of doing so with a victory on Sunday afternoon. Then in 2013 the points list, and the top one hundred twenty-five golfers on it, replaced money winnings as the standard for retaining playing privileges for the next PGA Tour season.

Those changes did not alter the fact that over each season’s final weekend golfers were competing in and fans were following two separate competitions. One was the Tour Championship itself, with a purse that has now climbed to $9 million, $1.62 million of which goes to the tournament winner. The other was the FedEx Cup race and the distribution of the big bonus pool. Three times, in 2008, 2009, and again last year, the two prizes went to two different golfers.

With nothing to motivate him in 2008, Singh failed to break par in any round, finishing at 9-over, sixteen shots behind Camilo Villegas and Sergio Garcia, with the former winning the tournament in a playoff. The following year Tiger Woods came into the season’s final event leading in the points race, and his runner-up finish at East Lake was good enough to secure the FedEx Cup. But it was Phil Mickelson who raised the tournament trophy after a blistering 65 on Sunday left him three shots clear of Woods. Then last season Justin Thomas passed Jordan Spieth in the points race by finishing second to Spieth’s seventh at the Tour Championship, but both trailed Xander Schauffele, who won the event with four rounds in the 60s.

Apparently Monahan and the rest of the PGA Tour’s leadership felt that for fans having two races to watch on each season’s final weekend produced more confusion than excitement, and the regular updates of the FedEx Cup standings during the television broadcast, as players’ positions changed with each missed or made putt, was a distraction rather than a drawing card. Starting next year, the current format of the FedEx Cup race and the Tour Championship will be replaced. The season-long points race will end at the BMW Championship, the second of three playoff stops. For the Tour Championship, the thirty remaining golfers will be handicapped based on their position in that points race. The leader will tee off at East Lake already 10-under par. The golfers second through fourth in points will begin at 8, 7, 6 and 5-under respectively. The remaining twenty-five players, in groups of five, will start play from 4-under down to even par. The separate purse and trophy for the Tour Championship will be abandoned, with the winner of the event claiming both it and the FedEx Cup.

The change turns the Tour Championship, one of the Tour’s flagship tournaments, into a handicapped event, the equivalent of a weekend fourball tournament at your local country club, where the prize for the team with the low net score is $50 of pro shop credit. Gone is the most fundamental idea of stroke play tournaments at the professional level, namely that the golfer who navigates four rounds in the fewest strokes is the winner. It’s no wonder that the managers of the Official World Golf Rankings have yet to weigh in on how many, if any, ranking points will be awarded at the Tour Championship beginning next year.

The new format is the last in a series of changes to the structure of the PGA Tour season that have been rolled out over the past few months. The season is being shortened, the playoffs reduced from four events to three, and tournaments have been moved on the schedule. Beginning with the Players Championship, which is returning to a March date after being played in May for the last decade, the PGA Tour will have one showcase event every month through September. The Players will be followed by the four majors, the Masters in April, PGA Championship in May, US Open in June and Open Championship in July. August will feature the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Tour Championship, and then in September, as sports fans turn their attention to the NFL, baseball playoff races and the approaching NBA and NHL seasons, men’s golf will slip off the stage with either the Ryder or Presidents Cup.

While Monahan’s boast that the PGA Tour will “own the month of August” on the sports calendar is overheated hyperbole, the changes as a whole make good sense. But the new format of the Tour Championship is a senseless gimmick.

Perhaps the best illustration of that came Thursday afternoon. On the 18th green at East Lake, Tiger Woods rolled in a 27-foot putt for an eagle three to post a 5-under 65, good for a share of the lead with Rickie Fowler after the first round of this year’s Tour Championship. One round does not a tournament make, and who knows where Woods will be on the leader board come Sunday. But we do know that if next year’s format were already in effect, he wouldn’t have been tied for the lead Thursday night. Instead, having started at minus-2, he’d be 7-under after 18 holes, but that would only place Woods in fifth, five shots behind Justin Rose, with Tony Finau, Bryson DeChambeau, and Justin Thomas also ahead of him. Imagine the outcry if the greatest golfer of his generation, a player most fans long to see win again, played the Tour Championship in the fewest strokes but was denied a victory because of the tournament’s format. That’s the fiasco that could unfold next August.  It would certainly make the month memorable, but not in a way that Jay Monahan would really want to own.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 16, 2018

Golf’s Majors Conclude With A Veteran’s Victory

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be on the road late this week through next weekend. The next two posts will be Friday and Monday, both one day later than usual. Thanks as always for reading, commenting, and for your support.

The curtain came down on golf’s major season Sunday, nine tournaments and almost six months since it began with the LPGA’s ANA Inspiration in the California desert, back in the first days of spring. Beginning with that tournament, which those of an older generation will forever think of as the Dinah Shore, the women of the LPGA and the men of the PGA Tour alternated major events across the breadth of the United States and from northeastern Scotland to the west coast of England, finally concluding in the ritzy spa village of Évian-les-Bains, France, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

The four men’s and five women’s majors produced eight different champions, consistent with the pattern of recent seasons. Both tours currently boast deep talent pools, with the days of one player dominating their tour while winning multiple majors a thing of the past, for now at least. Jordan Spieth in 2015, Rory McIlroy in 2014, Tiger Woods in multiple years during the century’s first decade are matched by Inbee Park’s incredible run from 2013 through 2015, and earlier by Yani Tseng and Annika Sorenstam as golfers who for a time seized control of their respective tours, seeming to turn aside all challengers with ease.

Now, although members of the golf media continue to offer predictions at the start of every major, the reality is that when play begins on Thursday there are many in the field fully capable of putting together four rounds that will end in championship glory. The one player to win multiple majors this season was Brooks Koepka, who became the first player to defend his title at the US Open since Curtis Strange went back-to-back in 1988 and 1989, and then added the PGA Championship to his resume eight weeks later. But despite his three major titles in just fourteen months, even Koepka would readily concede he is not dominating the PGA Tour the way the aforementioned players did during their runs, for those three wins are also Koepka’s only career Tour victories.

The story of a golfer who “only wins majors” is but one of the tales to come out of this season. It was, not surprisingly for a sport in which youth is regularly served on both Tours, a good year for young champions. For the men, both Koepka and Masters winner Patrick Reed are just 28 years old. On the women’s side, Ariya Jutanagarn and Georgia Hall, US Open and Women’s British Open champions respectively, are both 22, and KPMG Women’s PGA Championship victor Sung Hyun Park a mere two years older.

It was a major season of compelling back stories, both dark and light. Masters champion Reed’s background includes allegations of cheating on the course and theft in the locker room that alienated him from teammates at the University of Georgia, causing him to leave Athens and transfer to Augusta State University, whose main campus is a ten-minute drive from the storied golf club where Reed won his green jacket. More recently, his relationship with his family is so fractured that his wife has barred them from attending PGA tournaments. On a brighter note, under a glorious summer sun in Lancashire, the Women’s British Open came down to a Sunday duel between the final pairing of Hall and Thailand’s Pornanong Phatlum. With the hopes on an entire country on her shoulders, Hall displayed an icy calm, firing a 5-under par 67 to win by two shots, becoming just the second English woman to win her Open in the last two decades.

Their wins were the first major titles for both Reed and Hall, as was the case for three others among this year’s winners, Pernilla Lundberg at the ANA Inspiration, Francisco Molinari at the Open Championship, and Angela Stanford on Sunday. The wins by Hall and Lundberg were also their first LPGA wins ever, putting them, at least for now, on equal footing with Koepka.

For most of the final round at Evian Resort Golf Club, it looked like the season’s final major would add a fourth member to that unusual club. Amy Olson won twenty individual events while attending North Dakota State University, breaking a NCAA record set by Juli Inkster. But since turning pro in 2014 she was still looking for her first LPGA title when she teed off Sunday with a two-shot lead, earned on the strength of back-to-back 65s in the second and third rounds.

Olson couldn’t duplicate that magic in the final round, not surprising given the dual pressures of both trying to win for the first time and Sunday at a major. But she held on as others fired and fell back. Playing partner Sei Young Kim had a putt to tie at the 9th but missed and then promptly double-bogeyed the 10th hole. Making her 80th major start at age 40 and six years removed from her last LPGA victory, Stanford fired the shot of the day with her second to the par-5 15th, leaving her little more than a tap-in for an eagle 3. That moved her into a tie with Olson, but she immediately gave the two shots back.

Stanford’s tee shot on the par-3 16th was wide right, leaving her a difficult downhill chip. Her second raced across the green and into deep rough, just inside a hazard line. Thus unable to ground her club, Stanford’s third shot moved the ball just a couple of yards. She finally chipped close with her fourth and made the putt, but Olson again led by two.

For all the focus on youth in professional golf these days, there is something to be said for the resiliency that comes with years of experience. Stanford played on, and on the 17th she rolled in a long birdie putt to gain one stroke back, and then hit two perfect shots at the par-4 18th to set up a birdie effort to again tie the leader. The putt started well outside the hole, broke hard to the right as it slowed, and crawled by the hole, missing by an inch. Thinking that her chance had been lost, Stanford wiped away bitter tears after tapping in for par.

But then Olson, who had missed just one fairway all day, opened the door wide with a hooked drive into deep rough at the 18th. Her second failed to make the fairway. From 130 yards and out of the rough, her third shot landed very softly, stopping on the front half of the green, forty feet from the hole. The lengthy putt for par raced ten feet by the hole. When Olson’s putt for bogey and a tie died short of the cup, Angela Stanford, 2018’s last and oldest major winner, wept once more. But these tears, as are those of every major champion, were of a very different nature.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 13, 2018

Book Review: An Exposé Turns Into A Bitter Screed

There are three distinct stories in “Baseball Cop,” the new memoir by Eddie Dominguez, written with Teri Thompson and Christian Red. The first and the last make for compelling reading, as both are stories of overcoming great adversity, albeit in distinctly different forms. One is a story of escaping from tyranny and rising from poverty in an initially foreign land to a long and distinguished career in law enforcement. The other is a harrowing but ultimately hopeful tale of staring down one of the most dread diseases known to man. If both were expanded upon it would be easy to recommend the book, though it would need a different title.

Dominguez was born in Cuba just before Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista. One form of authoritarianism was replaced by another, and in 1966, when Dominguez was nine, his family escaped to Miami. They did so not by some dangerous ocean journey, but on a Freedom Flight, a now largely forgotten cooperative arrangement between Castro and the Johnson administration that allowed nearly 300,000 Cubans to migrate over an eight year period, provided they were willing to run the risk of publicly denouncing Castro’s regime.

Dominguez, his parents, and younger brother Carlos arrived in Miami in July 1966, with only his father knowing so much as a few words of English. They stayed with a friend of his mother’s for a month, before deciding that both job and educational prospects were better in Boston, where two aunts lived. The family settled in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, living first in a small apartment above a Spanish grocery store. Starting with virtually nothing and facing barriers of language and culture, Dominguez eventually paid his way through college and joined the Boston Police Department in 1979.

Thus began a twenty-nine-year career in blue that Dominguez recounts through a series of vignettes, from working in the “combat zone,” the long-defunct Boston red light district, to undercover drug investigations. For the last third of his police career Dominguez also served on a FBI drug task force, on which he was exposed to sophisticated investigatory techniques. Over the years he received multiple awards and professional recognition for his work.

In 2014, years after he left the Boston Police Department, Dominguez grew alarmed when he thought he noticed blood in his urine. That was soon followed by a stomachache that wouldn’t go away and a loss of appetite. At the insistence of his partner Donna, he finally went to see his doctor, who initially thought Dominguez was passing a kidney stone. But less than a day later the diagnosis grew far grimmer – Dominguez had pancreatic cancer. Few forms of the disease are deadlier, but Dominguez’s doctor offered a thin reed of hope, namely that the cancer was still in an early stage. The former cop endured proton radiation, a risky procedure known and Whipple surgery, and a clinical trial of an experimental drug.

Through it all Dominguez received strong support not just from his family, but also from scores of former co-workers. Against all odds he was eventually found to be cancer free. Dominguez married his longtime partner and remains in good health, though by his own admission he now takes life three months at a time – the interval between each regular scan.

As interesting and entertaining as these two stories are, the title of “Baseball Cop” makes it obvious that they are not the focus of the book. His formative years and police career take just three chapters, while his battle with cancer is recounted in a mere dozen pages. In between Dominguez writes of his involvement with the Great Game, first as a resident security agent, or RSA, for the Boston Red Sox and then as part of the initial staff of MLB’s Department of Investigations, established in response to the Mitchell Report on performance enhancing drug use. What Dominguez took away from his ten years as an RSA, which was the name given to a member of the local city’s police department assigned to assist with security at the ballpark and in the clubhouse, and his six years with the DOI is made clear by the book’s lengthy subtitle, “The Dark Side of America’s National Pastime.” As Dominguez sees it, baseball’s management is filled with corrupt executives and team rosters are overflowing with PEDS users. All of which could have been prevented if he and the other original staff members of the DOI had just been allowed to do everything their own way.

Dominguez harbors special enmity for now-commissioner Rob Manfred, who oversaw relations with the Players Association and later became MLB’s chief operating officer while the author was working at the DOI. His seething anger pours off the page as Dominguez recounts ways in which, in his view, Manfred sought to hinder or block DOI initiatives, all as part of a grand scheme to secure baseball’s top job when Bud Selig retired.

Unfortunately, that anger generates far more heat than light. A reader is still in the prologue when told that the DOI “died quickly and quietly in 2014,” when in truth it still exists, just not to Dominguez’s liking. A few pages later Dominguez cites an unidentified source who estimates that “90 percent of current baseball players use something.” Similar passages can be found in almost every chapter. While his accounts of the DOI’s work are at times interesting, his ready willingness to engage in outright inaccuracy and wild hyperbole greatly diminishes the book’s credibility.

So too does his early admission that while on MLB’s payroll he submitted travel reimbursements that included expenses for car services taking him from his home to the airport and back, when in fact he was being driven by family members. In the age of the internet Dominguez obviously had no choice but to come clean. But while he dismisses the issue as petty, it allows MLB to in turn dismiss “Baseball Cop” as nothing more than the angry cries of a disgruntled former employee who was terminated for cause. All too often, that’s exactly how the book reads.

The reality is that as long as our various games are played, there will be those, both in the owner’s box and on the field, who will look for ways to cut corners or gain an unfair advantage. The effort to combat those villains is unending, and also often thankless. The Great Game is by no means perfect, nor will it ever be, but through his service Eddie Dominguez helped push it in the right direction. Sadly, he seems unable to accept that, and move on.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 9, 2018

Naomi Osaka Deserved Better

The only point on which there is general agreement is that the women’s final at the US Open didn’t have to end the way it did. That a taut and compelling generational showdown that was tilting clearly in favor of youth descended quickly and fully into chaos and controversy was neither preordained nor unavoidable. Yet that is what came to pass, and in the aftermath of the tennis match turned train wreck on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium Saturday afternoon, commentators and fans have been busy assigning blame.

For those who may have missed it, this year’s final featured 36-year-old Serena Williams against 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, who grew up idolizing and emulating her opponent. Although the draw suggested this was an unlikely championship matchup, with Williams seeded 17th and Osaka 20th, the numbers were deceiving.

Almost exactly a year after giving birth to her first child and subsequently suffering nearly fatal complications, Williams has finally worked herself back into top form, but her ranking still reflects her long absence from the game. If her run to the women’s final at Wimbledon two months earlier, where she lost to Angelique Kerber, was a surprise, her dominance at Flushing Meadows, where in her first six matches she dropped just a single set, was not. Throughout the fortnight Williams appeared totally focused on her drive to match Margaret Court with twenty-four Grand Slam titles.

Osaka’s trip through the draw was equally dominant, with just one set lost during her fourth-round triumph over Aryna Sabalenka. Osaka, who was born in Japan and who moved with her family to the United States at the age of three, is having a breakthrough year, rising quickly in the rankings. She began 2018 ranked 68th before advancing to the fourth round at the Australian Open, the quarterfinals at the Dubai Tennis Championships, and then scoring her first WTA victory at Indian Wells in March. Later that month she defeated her idol in straight sets at the Miami Open, although the tournament was just the fourth outing for Williams since her return to competition.

Both players rely on enormous power, with the younger Osaka also able to cover the court with great speed. Rare among even the top women players, her forehand is frequently clocked at more than a hundred miles per hour. As the match began she was also extremely composed for a player in her first Grand Slam final. Instead it was Williams who began tentatively, dropping the first two points on an unforced error and a double fault before rallying to hold her serve. But the six-time US Open titlist was not so fortunate in her next two service games. Osaka broke her both times while holding her own serve to race out to a 5-1 lead. Williams prolonged the inevitable for one game, but in just over half an hour the young underdog had claimed the first set, 6-2.

It was early in the second set that the slide into chaos began. In the second game chair umpire Carlos Ramos announced a code violation against Williams when he saw her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, making hand signals at her from his seat in the stands. USTA rules prohibit coaching from the stands during a match. Interviewed after the match Mouratoglou admitted he was coached but said all coaches do, an assertion that was not disputed by the former players and analysts working the ESPN broadcast. Then after finally breaking Osaka to take the lead in the set, Williams played a particularly poor service game, going from 30-15 to a dropped game with back-to-back double faults followed by an unforced error. Frustrated and angry, Williams slammed her racket onto the court. Racket abuse – yes, it’s really called that – is a mandatory code violation, which Ramos announced. The penalty for a second violation is loss of a point, meaning Osaka, having just brought the set back on serve, began her own service game up 15-0.

During the next changeover a seething Williams proceeded to berate Ramos. Upset by the coaching violation’s implication that she was cheating, she demanded that the umpire apologize. When he demurred, Williams screamed that Ramos had stolen a point from her, calling him a thief. As she began to walk back to the baseline Ramos announced a third violation for abuse of an official, which gave Osaka a game and made the score 5-3 in favor of the youngster. Williams pleaded her case to the tournament referee and the Grand Slam supervisor to no avail, and two games later Naomi Osaka had her first Grand Slam title.

The award ceremony began with boos raining down on the court from the capacity crowd, and tears ran down the face of a sad looking Osaka. To her credit, when interviewed during the ceremony Williams asked for the booing to stop, but the damage was done. Osaka tried to cut her own interview short, saying in response to the first question about her childhood dream of playing against Williams, “I’m gonna sort of defer, I know everyone was cheering for her and I’m sorry it had to end like this. I just want to say thank you for watching the match, thank you.”

In a world that looks for easy answers to every question, where every conflict must have a hero and a villain, most commentary has been highly critical of Ramos, much of it suggesting that either sexism or racism was a motive. In her Washington Post column, Sally Jenkins displayed a supernatural ability to read the umpire’s mind, writing that Ramos assessed the penalties “all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him.” Absent some personal history with Ramos that would allow her to understand his thoughts, Jenkins, not normally a lazy writer, simply assigns a motive that neatly fits her narrative.

But a more nuanced view suggests that there is plenty of blame to go around for the fiasco in Flushing. A good amount surely falls on Ramos. The 47-year-old from Portugal is notoriously strict, but he is also a highly regarded official, having worked the final at three of the four women’s Grand Slams, all four of the men’s and the gold medal men’s singles match at the 2012 Olympics. But even a good umpire can have a bad day, and Saturday certainly qualified as one for Ramos. In any sport the officials have two paramount tasks – keep control of the contest and do so while remaining, to the greatest extent possible, invisible. Ramos failed badly at both. In the first instance, given that the coaching rule is by all accounts widely ignored and seldom penalized, he could have told Williams to advise Mouratoglou to stop his signaling. Similarly, when she let loose with her tirade he could have told her that she was in danger of crossing a line, giving Williams the chance to calm down.

Though had he done so, it’s not at all clear that she would have listened. Williams has always played with great passion, but this is not the first time in her storied career that she has let her emotions get the better of her. What some are trying to spin as taking a stand for women was nothing more than an out of control temper tantrum in a match she was losing. Williams has had many fine moments both on and off the court that have made her a role model for young players and a powerful voice for gender and racial equality. Her championship match meltdown was not one of them.

Nor does the USTA go unscathed. The women’s tournament began with controversy over an absurd rule banning female players from changing their shirts on court. Since the coaching restriction is thoroughly ignored but rarely results in a penalty, it should be dropped as quickly as the clothing one was.

The chaos on the court left Osaka, the day’s one true victim, looking forlorn at what should have been her moment of great triumph. What has been quickly lost in the controversy is the fact that Osaka was simply the better player. She had more aces, fewer double faults, a higher first serve percentage, fewer unforced errors, more break points won, and more receiving points won, all while covering more ground than Williams. Most important, unlike her opponent, Osaka never lost her focus. She is the fifth youngest woman to win the Open, and the first native of Japan to win any Grand Slam title. Any tears that Naomi Osaka shed should have been of joy. For all who robbed her of that, shame on them.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 6, 2018

On The PGA Tour, Sundays Never Stopped Being Great

Labor Day may represent the end of summer on the calendars of many sports fans, but New England golf aficionados who spent last weekend roaming TPC Boston as the last Dell Technologies Championship played out can confirm that there was not the slightest hint of fall in the air. To the contrary, as the top 100 PGA Tour professionals in the season-long FedEx Cup standings walked the fairways of the sprawling layout over one final Labor Day weekend, conditions felt very much like the dog days of summer. Sunday was hot but bearable thanks to a welcome breeze and tolerable humidity, but Monday was a stultifying steam bath. The thermometer rose to the mid-90s, the previous day’s zephyrs were nowhere to be found, and the air felt like soup as the humidity skyrocketed.

Still fans came in huge numbers to the course in the little Bristol County town of Norton, some forty-five minutes south of the region’s largest city from which the club gets its name. Originally the Deutsche Bank Championship from its first staging in 2003 through 2016, the tournament’s name changed when local high-tech company EMC Corporation replaced the German bank as the title sponsor just before being acquired by Dell. That corporate merger, normally a story for a newspaper’s business pages, gained relevance for the sports section when the PGA Tour decided to reduce the FedEx Cup playoffs from four tournaments to three. Dell also sponsors the World Golf Championships’ match play event, which is played near the company’s corporate headquarters in Austin Texas. Given that local connection and the limits of corporate largess, it was no surprise that New England’s Dell was the playoff event jettisoned when the Tour’s 2019 schedule was announced. Starting next year TPC Boston will be the every other year host of the first playoff event in mid-August, alternating with Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey.

Perhaps knowledge that it will be two years before the PGA Tour returns to the area inspired some fans to turn out. But it’s far more likely that the root cause for the spike in ticket sales, with 140,000 fans passing through the gates over the event’s four rounds, was the presence in the field of Tiger Woods. The world’s most famous golfer, and in his prime the best of his generation, had not played at TPC Boston since 2013. His return to the Dell, in the midst of a far better than expected comeback from a series of back surgeries, made a Labor Day weekend trip to Norton a high priority for many casual fans who would otherwise have been busy with family cookouts.

Woods opened with an indifferent 1-over par round of 72, but improved on Friday, when he shot a 5-under 66. Only three golfers posted a better number in the second round, raising hopes that Woods might continue to move up the leader board over the tournament’s final two days. At the midpoint he was tied for 21st, seven shots behind Webb Simpson, the 36-hole leader.

That position meant that Woods, paired for Sunday’s third round with 24-year-old Bryson DeChambeau, teed off two hours before the final group. But fans interested in walking the course didn’t wait around for the leaders to start. They were lining the first fairway when Woods and DeChambeau were announced, and so began the march of the faithful, a sight that was routine on Tour a decade and more ago.

TPC Boston is extremely spread out, with several long walks between one green and the succeeding tee. One is sufficiently lengthy that players and their caddies are taken in carts, an extremely rare event on the PGA Tour. That makes keeping up with a single group more difficult than usual, but thousands did their best. One can only imagine what the human procession snaking its way along the paved cart paths must have looked like from overhead. Fans who did so may not have seen much for their trouble, as by the time those from the middle of the line on back arrived at a tee or green, the crowd was five and six deep. What they hopefully caught a glimpse of was a round in which Woods started strong, with three birdies in the first seven holes, but then moved into neutral. Three times on the back nine he hit approach shots inside twelve feet but failed to convert a single birdie. His 3-under par 68 moved him to 7-under for the tournament, but it got him just a single shot closer to the lead than he had been at the start of the day.

That lead was now held by the virtually unknown Abraham Ancer, a 27-year-old from Reynosa, Mexico, who has bounced back and forth between the PGA Tour and its developmental Tour since turning pro in 2013. Just one stroke back was DeChambeau, who fired a sparkling 63 while playing in the shadow of Woods on Sunday.

Woods’s final round tee time was ninety minutes ahead of the leaders, and once again the human parade was out in his wake. It included a Woods lookalike, dressed in the requisite final round red shirt, who posed for pictures with fans and showed up on NBC’s broadcast. There was a group of guys wearing identical orange tee shirts with a photograph of a real tiger on the front, and there were several fans wearing shirts purchased from the Barstool Sports website.

For those not familiar with Barstool, it began as a print publication in the Boston area in 2003, moved to the internet in 2007, and is now headquartered in New York after being purchased by the Chernin Group two years ago. While the website features interesting and entertaining podcasts and blog posts on a wide variety of sports topics, it has also been known to veer into misogyny. At its online store for just $25 plus shipping and handling one can purchase, in a variety of colors, a tee shirt featuring an outline of a golfer who is obviously an exultant Woods, a putter raised in one hand while the other is in the midst of a fist pump. Above the familiar image are the words “Make Sundays Great Again.”

The thousands counting on Woods to make this day great, even if it wasn’t a Sunday, went home with their desire denied. As he did one day earlier, Woods eventually got to 3-under for his round, this time after eleven holes. But he bogeyed the 14th, and when his tee shot at the par-3 16th hole landed in the pond to the left of the green, he had stumbled all the way back to even for the day, which is how he finished, nine shots off the winning score.

Well after the thousands whose sole purpose was to see Woods had left the grounds, DeChambeau finished off another fine circuit of the course and a 2-shot victory. He went out in 32 with five birdies offset by just a single bogey to pass Ancer and move into the lead. Australian Cam Smith and England’s Justin Rose did their best to give chase, and when Smith rolled in a birdie on the 16th the lead was briefly down to one. But moments later DeChambeau scored a matching birdie on the 15th, and when Smith’s second at the par-5 finishing hole landed in the hazard fronting the green, DeChambeau’s victory was secured. It was his third of the year and second in as many weeks. His unique set of clubs, in which all the irons are the same length, and his idiosyncratic, stiff-armed, upright swing, are reminders that in golf there is no single path to success.

It is a lesson seemingly lost on the members of the Woods caravan. He will certainly win again, and that will be a great day for both Woods and the Tour. Perhaps it will come as soon as this week, for he had a fine start Thursday at the third playoff event. But imagining a return to the days when he dominated the PGA Tour is fantasy. The Tour is deep with extraordinary talent, young players who grew up watching and inspired by Woods. As DeChambeau showed when paired with him, unlike their peers of a decade or more ago, they are utterly unintimidated by the 42-year-old Tiger. The irony is that what those wearing pricy tee shirts pining for a halcyon age missed on Labor Day was some great golf.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 30, 2018

History Made, History Recalled, At The US Open

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be at the Dell Technologies Championship, the second PGA Tour FedEx Cup playoff event this weekend, so there will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. As always, thanks for reading.

We are only four days into the fortnight of play at the US Open, the final Grand Slam event of the year, so perhaps it is not surprising that most of the news emanating from Flushing Meadows has been about things other than the tennis being played on the twenty-two courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. It’s as if the members of the tennis media assembled at the sprawling 46-acre complex have collectively decided that there will be time enough for that later on.

Instead fans have heard and read a lot about the new 14,000 seat Louis Armstrong Stadium, built on the site of the old facility of the same name, and finished just in time for this year’s Open. With a capacity almost forty percent greater than its predecessor, the new Armstrong is nearly as large as the main stadiums of the three other Grand Slam tournaments, though it is still dwarfed by the hulking mass of the USTA’s nearby 23,200-seat show court. It’s the final piece of a five-year, $600 million renovation of the National Tennis Center and gives the USTA two courts with retractable roofs so that play can continue even if the weather doesn’t cooperate. The initial reactions from fans have praised the stadium for its intimate feel despite its size, while lamenting the noise level that comes from that many spectators as well as the presence of open air food courts just steps from the playing surface.

The late summer heat wave blanketing the east coast has also gotten plenty of attention. With the temperature in the mid-90s and humidity levels making it feel ten or more degrees hotter, there were multiple heat-induced retirements during the first two days of play, even as male players were allowed a ten minute break between the third and fourth sets of their matches, matching a long-standing extreme heat policy for female players that permits a break after two sets.

The oppressive conditions also led the USTA to move toward gender equality in another area, albeit only after looking like an organization mired in the prudish norms of another era. Coming out after a heat break during her first round match on Tuesday, France’s Alizé Cornet realized she had put her shirt on backwards, so she removed it and put it back on correctly while standing behind the baseline. The change took a matter of seconds and Cornet was wearing a sports bra underneath her shirt, but she was still assessed a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct by the match umpire. The USTA cited a “longstanding policy” barring female players from removing their tops while on court. But the penalty incited a backlash on social media, not surprising given that male players frequently change shirts during matches on hot days, and top seed Rafael Nadal regularly goes shirtless on court after winning a match. By Wednesday morning the longstanding policy was no longer standing.

Despite the focus on sidebars, tennis is still being played, with the major story so far the shock defeat of women’s number one seed Simona Halep in the first round. The French Open titlist fell 6-2, 6-4 to Kaia Kanepi in the very first match played at the new Armstrong, becoming the first top seeded woman to lose in the first round in US Open history. Also exiting early was Britain’s Andy Murray, though since he is still working his way back from injury the second round loss was less surprising. Not surprising at all once the draw was known is that the Williams sisters will face each other in a third round match on Friday. It will be the 30th time Serena and Venus have stood on opposite sides of the net.

With 38-year-old Venus in particular near the end of her competitive career, there is a chance it might prove to be their last match against each other. If so, then perhaps years from now the history of tennis will recall the moment, as it may also make note of Halep’s defeat. The story of a sport is the accumulation of such moments, of victories and defeats, of first times and lasts. The fans thronging the grounds are surely aware of that, and mindful of the fact that this is a special Open. While it is the 138th staging of a national championship, it’s the 50th in the open era. Five decades ago, in 1968, the tournament for the first time welcomed professionals and offered prize money.

That tournament was staged a few miles south of the National Tennis Center, which wasn’t even imagined at the time. The West Side Tennis Club, founded in 1892, hosted the national championship from 1915, when it moved from Newport, Rhode Island, until 1978. The 88th championship, and first Open, offered a total purse of $100,000, just $7,000 more than Murray and all the other second round losers received this year.

The leading American male player was 25-year-old Arthur Ashe, who was still an amateur. Just prior to the Open, he had prevailed at the first US Amateur Championships, which the USTA had started on the assumption that professionals would now dominate the Open. Consistent with that belief, Ashe was seeded fifth at the Open, behind four Australian professionals – Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Tony Roche and John Newcombe. But Ashe swept into the quarterfinals without dropping a set, while of those seeded ahead of him only Rosewall and Newcombe made it that far.

Ashe fell behind Cliff Drysdale in the round of eight, dropping the first set 10-8. But he then rallied to win in four sets, advancing to a semifinal match with Clark Graebner. There he again lost the first set, and again wound up winning in four. In the final Ashe faced Tom Okker of the Netherlands, a “small, slight 24-year-old athlete with remarkable speed, both afoot and with his racquet,” as Dave Anderson described him in the New York Times. The first set took more than an hour, with Ashe finally winning 14-12. Okker rallied twice when down a set, leveling the match at both one and two apiece. Finally, serving for the match at 5-3 in the fifth, Ashe held at love to claim the first US Open title, 14-12, 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.

While Ashe won the championship, Okker received the $14,000 first place check. The amateur winner received a $20 expense per diem and, because he was a member of the US Davis Cup team, a free hotel room. Of course, after turning pro the following year Ashe won plenty of prize money, capturing sixty-six titles in all, including the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975. He died far too young in 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia, having contracted the virus through a tainted blood transfusion during heart surgery years earlier.

Four years after his death the largest tennis stadium in the world opened at the National Tennis Center, named for the winner of that first Open. Over the next ten days, as the focus at this year’s Open turns to the play on the courts, perhaps more tennis history will be made at Arthur Ashe Stadium. But the moment will have to be very special for it to be as lasting as the story written by a young black amateur from Richmond, Virginia, fifty summers ago.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 26, 2018

O Canada! Oh Brooke!

The U.S. Open and Women’s U.S. Open, the Open Championship and Women’s British Open – those are the four national golf championships that garner worldwide attention. The two men’s tournaments represent one-half of each year’s majors for male golfers, while the women’s events are two of the five majors for females, the Women’s British Open having achieved recognition as a major in 2001. But many other golf federations, the governing bodies of the sport in countries around the globe, stage national championships as well.

The Emirates Australian Open is the PGA Tour of Australasia’s oldest and most prestigious tournament. In addition to the two men’s majors, seven other national championships are part of the European Tour’s annual schedule. From India, Spain and China in the spring, to Italy, France and Scotland in high summer, and on to the Netherlands as the calendar turns to autumn, the golfers of the European Tour are rarely more than a few weeks away from competing for a country’s title. And for all the difficulties the Ladies European Tour has faced in recent years, its limited schedule still includes the championships of Scotland and France, in addition to the Women’s British Open.

Though the events operate in the shadow of the two U.S. Opens, most countries in this hemisphere also have their national tournaments. Two of the most prestigious are played on the other side of our northern border. The RBC Canadian Open is only a few years younger than its American counterpart, having first been played in 1904. Originally staged at the Royal Montreal Golf Club, the tournament has been held at a variety of venues across the breadth of Canada, with Glen Abbey Golf Course in Ontario the most frequent host since it was built in 1975 as the home of Golf Canada, the country’s equivalent of the USGA. Named for the Canadian Pacific Railway that became the tournament’s prime sponsor in 2014, the CP Women’s Open is much younger, having first been played in 1973. Like its counterpart for men, the event has long been part of the LPGA’s annual schedule.

Recognition by the top men’s and women’s tours has brought strong fields, television contracts, and a much higher level of recognition to the two Canadian championships than would otherwise be the case. But the presence of many of the best golfers in the world has had one notable downside. While Canadian men won seven of the first eleven Opens, after Karl Keffer captured his second title in 1914, it would be forty years before the next Canadian winner. Tommy Armour, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and many other Americans won the Open, as did a handful of golfers from other countries.

It was not until Pat Fletcher finished off a four-stroke victory at Vancouver’s Point Grey Golf and Country Club in 1954 that Canada’s national championship was finally won once more by a native son. Even more striking is that sixty-four years later, Fletcher remains the most recent Canadian winner. Mike Weir in 2004 and David Hearn in 2015 came agonizingly close, but both fell short. Last month at Glen Abbey world number one Dustin Johnson fired four rounds in the 60s to ease his way to a three-shot win. Eight strokes back, in a tie for eighth place, Mackenzie Hughes was the low Canadian.

While its history is shorter, the record at the CP Women’s Open is even worse. Jocelyne Bourassa, then 26-years-old and in only her second year on tour, won the inaugural event in 1973. That first Open, known then as La Canadienne, was played over 54 holes at Montreal Municipal Golf Club. Bourassa prevailed in a sudden death playoff against Sandra Haynie and Judy Rankin, winning with a birdie on the third extra hole. It was her only LPGA Tour win, but it remains historic. Because as the years rolled on, as the tournament went through a series of name changes reflecting different sponsors, as it gained major status on the Tour in 1979 and then lost it after the 2000 playing (in favor of the Women’s British Open), and as its trophy was lifted by Americans like Rankin, Pat Bradley and Meg Mallon, and by international stars like Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam, and Lydia Ko, Jocelyne Bourassa was still the only Canadian woman to win her country’s national championship.

Until this weekend. With an entire country rooting her on, 20-year-old Brooke Henderson lurked near the top of the leader board for the first two rounds, moved one shot clear of the field on Saturday, and then stormed to victory on Sunday with her best score of the tournament. The closing 65 gave Henderson a four-round total of 21-under 267, four shots better than American Angel Yin. At five feet four inches Henderson packs enormous power into a diminutive frame. She averaged 286 yards off the tee and finished the tournament by striping one more long drive down the 18th fairway. Her short iron approach settled three feet from the pin. When the putt found the bottom of the cup the large crowd around the final green at Wascana Country Club in Regina, Saskatchewan roared its approval, even as Henderson hugged her sister and caddie Brittany and her father ran onto the putting surface to douse them both with champagne.

The victory was Henderson’s second of the year, making her one of just three multiple winners so far this LPGA season. It was secured in the middle holes of the back nine, when she ran off four straight birdies to open daylight from the field. It was also her seventh career title, a number that includes one major, the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Given that she won’t turn 21 until next month, Henderson seems certain to surpass fellow Canadians Weir and George Knudson on the PGA Tour, and Sandra Post on the LPGA, all of whom had eight career victories.

But many years and untold victories from now, when her LPGA career is over, she will surely look back on this win with special pride. After a summer in which she lost both of her grandfathers, it would have been entirely understandable if Henderson was distracted. Over a week in which the red and white clad fans were cheering her name from dawn to dusk, it would have unsurprising if the pressure of expectations proved too much. Instead she drew strength from her family and rode the wave of adoration to a triumph that an entire country celebrated.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 23, 2018

The Nats Throw In The Towel

Oh for the halcyon days of Spring Training, those long-ago weeks of February and March when all the games of the longest season still lay ahead, and each dawn was bright with hope and possibility. Back then the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals shared space at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, and it was easy for fans to imagine them occupying the same stage again come October, as opponents in the World Series.

Over the months since the first call of “play ball” in a game that mattered, the Astros have largely delivered on that springtime hope. As this is written Houston’s record is the third best in the Great Game. If the Astros spot in the postseason is not yet assured, it is only because their lead in the AL West is just one game over upstart Oakland, and neither the Astros nor the A’s has shaken entirely free of Seattle in the annual race for the consolation prize of baseball’s standings, the second Wild Card. Still, computer projections by Fangraphs give the defending World Series champions a 99.7% chance of returning to the postseason.

Fans in our nation’s capital can only gaze wistfully at that number, for those same projections rank the Nationals ninth in the National League, with just a 12.5% chance of making the playoffs. That number obviously represents long odds, but in context the picture is even bleaker. Colorado, the team in front of Washington in the projections, is given a 41.5% chance, a full twenty-nine points higher. In effect, the playoff forecast makes Washington the first team among the NL’s true also-rans, squads that with five weeks left to go in the regular season no longer have a realistic chance at playing on into October.

While taking into account roster composition and each team’s remaining opponents, the projections more than anything reflect the current standings, which clearly mark the Nationals as an underperforming, middling franchise. After losing the last of a three-game home set with the Phillies Thursday afternoon, Washington is 64-64, right at .500 with thirty-four games to play. The Nats are eight games behind Atlanta in the NL East, and six and one-half games behind the Brewers, with three teams in between them, in the race for the second Wild Card. Since the introduction of that second Wild Card in 2012, the fewest number of wins needed to reach the postseason for a National League team has been eighty-seven. Washington can get to that total only by posting victories in better than two-thirds of its remaining contests, a very tall order for a team that has spent much of the season a game or two on either side of .500.

Back in early July, when the non-waiver trading deadline could be glimpsed over the horizon, fans first expected general manager Mike Rizzo to be a buyer, hopefully shoring up an often ineffective bullpen or adding a bat to fill in a lineup weakened by injuries. But then his team lost thirteen of twenty going into the All-Star break, and did little better after the festivities at Nationals Park. The conventional wisdom flipped, and pundits added Washington to the list of teams that would sell veterans and dump salary at the deadline. Instead Rizzo did neither, choosing to stand pat and rely on a roster that finished July at 53-53.

Eleven wins and eleven losses later, Rizzo’s gamble that his existing group of players would somehow turn the season around has been exposed as a foolhardy roll of the dice. It came as no surprise then, when earlier this week Washington’s management gave up on the 2018 season by trading slugging second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Cubs and first baseman Matt Adams to the Cardinals. The moves, which may be just the start of a fire sale of veterans, were accompanied by release of a letter to Nats fans from managing principal owner Mark Lerner. In it, he told the team’s faithful, “when something isn’t working, you evaluate the situation and take the necessary steps to improve it. You don’t just stand by, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.” There was nothing to indicate that Lerner grasped the irony of his statement, since that’s exactly what his front office had done just three weeks earlier.

Lerner also heaped praise on the two departing players, especially Murphy, who quickly became a fan favorite in Washington after signing as a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. While wearing the curly-W Murphy won a pair of Silver Slugger Awards and was twice an All-Star. He missed much of this season with injuries but was batting an even .300 since his return and .340 over the past month. Overall during his time in Washington Murphy hit .329 with an OPS of .930.

While the owner denied that the Nationals had slipped into rebuilding mode, that is certainly what it looks like. Rumors abound that other veterans in the final year of their contracts are also on the block. Pitcher Gio Gonzalez, first baseman Mark Reynolds, and relievers Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson have all been mentioned as possible trade candidates. But by waiting until now Rizzo’s flexibility is limited. In July he could negotiate with every other team and play one contender off against another. Now players must first be placed on revocable waivers. If another team claims a player, the only option is to let him go for free, work out a trade, or pull the player off waivers and retain him. Only if all twenty-nine other franchises pass and the player clears waivers does a deal with any club become a possibility.  That’s why the return to the Nationals for Murphy and Adams was so paltry; just a low-level minor leaguer and cash.

General managers are free to game the system, putting in a claim to block another contender from obtaining a player, or to frustrate a division rival. That’s likely what Atlanta just did by putting in a claim on Reynolds, forcing Washington to pull him off waivers. Rizzo would have had to leave town under cover of darkness if he let a player go to the team the Nationals are ostensibly still trying to catch in the NL East.

Back in those hopeful days in Palm Beach, this was going to be the year that Washington finally broke through. After four NL East titles in six seasons, but no playoff series victories, and with Bryce Harper just one final season away from free agency, this was the time for these Nationals to live up to their potential. But new manager Dave Martinez has never imposed his will on the clubhouse, which at times has been rife with drama. Injuries have piled up, with the Nationals ranking fifth in the majors in games lost to the disabled list. Through it all the team has simply underperformed. Based on run differential Washington has the second biggest deficit in the National League between their actual and expected record.

The full meaning of this week’s decision by Lerner and Rizzo won’t be clear until after the season is over and some other city has held a championship parade. That’s when the Nationals will either sign Harper to a long-term contract or watch the face of the franchise depart. If it’s the former, and Stephen Strasburg can stay healthy for a full season and youngsters like Trea Turner and Juan Soto continue to progress, then perhaps fans will look back on this surrender as a bump in the road. But if it’s the latter, then for fans of the Washington Nationals this week will forever mark the end of an era.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 19, 2018

Reprise: Another Mill Town Is Abandoned

A NOTE TO READERS: Originally published in February 2015, today’s post is part baseball history, part commentary on the business of the Great Game, and part elegy for the fading old mill towns of New England. It is reposted now because last Friday the Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston’s top minor league affiliate, announced definitive plans to relocate to Worcester, Massachusetts in time for the 2021 season, following construction of a new stadium in New England’s second largest city. The demise of baseball at ancient McCoy Stadium, where Saturday’s game between the PawSox and Durham Bulls was played in front of a standing room only crowd, took longer than anticipated by the closing paragraphs below. Negotiations between the team’s ownership and the city of Providence and state of Rhode Island over location and financing for a new stadium in the state’s capital city bogged down and eventually failed. That opened the door for Worcester, a result that is even worse for local fans than the originally expected outcome. Their team’s new home will be not a few miles away, but more than forty, and one more New England mill town will be left with nothing more than memories.

As is the case with discussion about many of New England’s small cities, when locals talk of Pawtucket it is often in the past tense. From Lewiston to Lawrence, from Franklin to Fall River, the most vibrant days of the old mill towns lie in the last century. Most began as way stations along the fall line of the region’s rivers, provisioning early travelers who had to portage around the tumbling waters of the Androscoggin or the Merrimack, the Pemigewasett or the Quequechan. Pawtucket was no exception, having been built at the falls of the Blackstone River just north of where it becomes tidal before emptying into Narragansett Bay.

In time New Englanders learned how to harness the power of the rushing rivers, and an age of industrialization was born. Massive mills were built at water’s edge, and towns that had begun as little more than a couple of houses and a general store quickly morphed into growing cities. In Rhode Island Pawtucket was no different. There Samuel Slater built the first fully mechanized cotton-spinning mill in America not long after Rhode Island became the last of the colonies to ratify the fledgling country’s new constitution.

Over the next century, as the community grew in importance in the textile trade, other industry followed. The first third of the 20th century were boom times for Pawtucket, with the city’s population nearly doubling between 1900 and 1930. But the Great Depression tore the heart out of the region’s flourishing textile industry. Many mills were shuttered, and those employers who managed to survive did so by moving south to avail themselves of cheaper labor.

Today Pawtucket’s population has declined more than 12% from its peak. Toy company Hasbro, the largest employer in what has become a gritty working-class bedroom community to neighboring Providence, accepted a $1.6 million state tax credit in 2012 with a promise to create more jobs and then promptly laid off 125 workers. But if the city has seen better days, it has also had a distinct claim to fame for the last 45 years; a gathering spot for locals and a certain draw for fans of the Great Game from across the region. Since 1970 the city’s McCoy Stadium, named after a former mayor and built on swampland shortly before World War II, has been home to the AAA minor league affiliate of the big league residents of Fenway Park, less than an hour to the north.

The Pawtucket Red Sox, or PawSox as they are known throughout New England, have won four International League titles over the years and seven other times have topped the Northern Division in one of the three leagues across the country that offer baseball just one step removed from the majors. With recent success that has mirrored that of their parent club, two of those league championships have come in the last three years. When the International League begins a new season of play in April, it will do so with the PawSox as defending champion.

Generations of residents have made their way to old McCoy Stadium to watch a lot of baseball over the years. The 1,740 who happened to be in attendance watched more than in any other professional game on a cold evening in April 1981. Pawtucket was hosting an early season contest against the Rochester Red Wings, then an affiliate of the Orioles. The visitors broke a scoreless tie with a run in the top of the 7th, but Russ Laribee plated Chico Walker in the last of the 9th to send the game to extra innings.

Home plate umpire Dennis Craig had a rule book in his pocket, but it didn’t have the notation that at that time the International League had a 12:50 a.m. curfew, at which point the game should have been suspended. Instead the two teams played on, and on, and on. In the top of the 21st Rochester again took the lead, but Pawtucket’s third baseman, a young Wade Boggs, tied it up again with an RBI hit in the bottom of the frame. History does not record whether his teammates and the remaining fans cheered him or jeered him for the effort.

Sometime after 3:00 a.m. the league president was reached by telephone. Word came back that the game should be stopped and at 4:07, more than eight hours after the first pitch, play was suspended at the end of the 32nd inning. The 19 diehards remaining in the stands were all given season passes. More than two months later, during the Red Wings’ next visit to Pawtucket, it took just 18 minutes to resolve professional baseball’s longest game. The home squad’s Dave Koza drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 33rd, giving the PawSox a 3-2 victory.

Boggs had four hits in the game, but when his father called to congratulate him on the feat had to explain that he had twelve at bats to accomplish the task. The future Hall of Famer was one of 25 participants who would go on to play in the majors. Rochester’s third baseman was a kid named Ripken. Word has it he went on to play a game or two for the Orioles before his career was through.

The longest game was played early in the ownership of Ben Modor, a retired businessman who bought the franchise in 1977 when it was in danger of moving. Modor characterized the aging McCoy field as “a dump” when he first saw it, and made the long-term investments needed to upgrade and improve the facility. Along the way he kept ticket prices low, with parking costing nothing at all. He opened the outfield to overnight camping for local Boys and Girls Clubs. He added between-innings entertainments and made a night at a game a family-friendly outing, the quintessential minor league baseball experience.

Modor passed away in 2010, and this week his widow announced the sale of the PawSox to a group of investors headed by Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. They immediately announced plans to relocate the team to Providence, where the franchise will be renamed the Rhode Island Red Sox. Reports say that the new owners are eyeing downtown land near two Interstate highways as their preferred site for a new stadium.

It will only be a move of a few miles, and one might ask what difference it makes. For some fans it may result in nothing more than a left turn instead of a right one on the trip to the ballpark. Perhaps the family atmosphere will be retained, though ticket prices will inevitably reflect the price of construction, and odds are the parking will no longer be free. But beyond the impact on those attending games, there will be a greater loss to Pawtucket. The city will lose an important source of identity and a part of its character; losses that cannot be replaced. Soon, like so much else about New England’s old mill towns, talk of the PawSox will only be in the past tense.

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