Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 10, 2018

A Pair Of Memorable Starts, For Very Different Reasons

A few minutes after seven o’clock Tuesday evening, 25-year-old right-hander Dylan Bundy took the mound at Orioles Park at Camden Yards. The Oklahoma native was making his eighth start of the year, going up against the visiting Kansas City Royals and hoping to end a six-game Orioles losing streak and give his team its first win in the month of May. Fifteen minutes later and three hundred thirty-five miles to the northwest, 29-year-old left-hander James Paxton walked up the steps of the visitors’ dugout at the Rogers Centre in Toronto to begin his evening’s work. It was the bottom of the first inning, with the Blue Jays coming to bat against Paxton’s Seattle Mariners. Like Bundy, Paxton was making his eighth start, and while he was wearing the gray uniform of the visiting team, the native of Ladner, British Columbia, was pitching in his home country.

Neither Bundy nor Paxton are familiar names to fans beyond those who faithfully follow the Orioles or Mariners. Bundy was highly touted out of amateur ball, and Baltimore made him the fourth overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. He made two late-season relief appearances just one year later, but the following season underwent Tommy John surgery, and didn’t return to the Orioles lineup until 2016. Paxton was drafted by Seattle in 2010, but didn’t make it to The Show until 2013, a year later than Bundy. While not facing an injury as significant as Bundy’s, he too has spent large blocks of time on the disabled list, averaging less than twenty starts a season over the last four years.

In the early going of this season, it looked like both pitchers might finally have hit their stride. While Bundy’s record through his first five outings was only 1-2, the mark was a reminder that wins and losses are not solely in the hands of the pitcher. In those games he gave up just five earned runs in 31 2/3 innings, posting a sparkling ERA of 1.42. For his part, after being roughed up by Cleveland in his first game, Paxton quickly improved, allowing two or fewer runs in five of his next six starts while reaching double digits in strikeouts in three of those contests.

But for Bundy the hope of spring had given way to doubt. In his two starts prior to Tuesday he was hit hard, failing to get out of the 5th inning against both the Rays and Angels. Fans in Baltimore have had little to cheer about so far this season. Surely they were hoping that their starter would reclaim his early season prowess Tuesday night. Instead what they saw was an abbreviated performance that turned doubt into outright despair.

Left fielder Jon Jay, the Royals’ leadoff hitter, singled on Bundy’s third pitch. Then Jorge Soler homered on his sixth offering, giving Kansas City a quick 2-0 lead. Mike Moustakas followed, working the count full in an at-bat that lasted seven pitches. The slugging third baseman put the last of the seven over the wall in right for his ninth home run of the year. Salvador Perez didn’t take nearly as long, lining Bundy’s second delivery out of the park for a third consecutive home run. By now Bundy was thoroughly rattled, and a visit by pitching coach Roger McDowell did little to calm him down. Walks to Lucas Duda and Whit Merrifield followed, the first on the minimum of four pitches. Then Alex Gordon sent a four-seam fastball that wasn’t all that fast at 89 miles per hour over the wall in right center, upping the tally to 7-0.

With that Bundy’s night was done after just twenty-eight pitches. He faced seven batters and failed to retire a single one. In addition to his two walks, five balls were put in play and four of them left the park. The disastrous effort raised his ERA by more than a run and a half, from 3.76 to 5.31.

Bundy’s short outing was almost done by the time Paxton went to work against the Blue Jays. He needed just eleven pitches to navigate the 1st inning, striking out Teosco Hernandez and Josh Donaldson before retiring Yangervis Solarte on a lineout to center. Paxton was even more efficient in the 2nd, bookending groundouts from Justin Smoak and Russell Martin around a popout by Kevin Pillar, striding back to the dugout after throwing just eight pitches. In the 3rd Paxton’s teammates gave him some run support, plating a pair. He lost his perfect game in the bottom of the frame with a couple of walks, but limited the damage to just the free passes. With one out in the 4th Paxton issued his third walk of the game, but quickly ended the inning by inducing a double play grounder from Pillar.

By the bottom of the 7th Seattle’s lead had grown to 5-0, and Paxton had retired nine men in a row beginning with Pillar in the 4th. With two outs in the inning, Pillar stepped in to face the Mariners’ hurler one more time. The count went to 2-2, then the center fielder slashed at a 98 mile per hour fastball and sent a rocket down the third base line. Kyle Seager dove to his right and speared the scorcher on a hop. He quickly unleashed a throw across the diamond to first baseman Ryon Healy, beating the speedy Pillar by half a step. It was the closest the Blue Jays came to a hit all night. Two innings later, when Seager threw out Josh Donaldson on a far more routine ground ball, James Paxton had thrown the third no-hitter of the season. He did so in ninety-nine pitches, while walking just the three Blue Jays and fanning seven. In the process Paxton became the first Canadian to throw a no-hitter in his home country since the major leagues expanded north of the border more than four decades ago.

Game score is a metric developed by Bill James and later refined by Tom Tango, used to measure the effectiveness of a starting pitcher. Under Tango’s formula a starter takes the mound with a score of 40, then gains or loses points by his performance. Each out adds two points, with a strikeout worth an extra point for a total of three. A walk or hit subtracts two points, each run subtracts three, and a home run debits the pitcher’s score an additional six points.  On Tuesday Bundy’s Game Score using Tango’s method was -19 while Paxton’s was 95. Not surprisingly, the former is the worst number recorded this year. To appreciate the latter number, consider the fact that only fourteen pitchers have ever achieved a Game Score of 100 or higher in a nine-inning contest.

There are those who look at the slow unfolding of the longest season and argue that the Great Game’s schedule should be reduced, that the contests eventually all blend together. The reality is that no two games are alike, and the range of what one might see at a ballpark on any day runs the full gamut from hopeless to heroic.  Tuesday night, Dylan Bundy and James Paxton, one a pitcher who could not retire a batter and the other a pitcher who could scarcely do anything but, reminded fans everywhere of that enduring truth.

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Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 6, 2018

A Justifiably Great Race

It was the final challenge, the last of so many obstacles that had to be overcome between the foaling barn at John Gunther’s Glenwood Farm and the finish line at Churchill Downs. As the field came off the final turn, passing the quarter pole and straightening for home, Justify had broken clear of the pack, with Good Magic passing Bolt D’Oro to move into second place. Then, for just a few seconds, over the course of four or five bounds by both thoroughbreds, it appeared that the pursuer was closing. Perhaps the burden of running near or on the lead virtually from the start of the race was about to prove too much for the favorite in this year’s Kentucky Derby.

The drive from Versailles, Kentucky, home of Gunther’s breeding operation, to Churchill Downs takes little more than an hour, a distance of sixty miles or so. But the road for foals born in 2015 to the starting gate for the 2018 Derby was far more circuitous. Roughly 22,000 thoroughbreds are born in the U.S. every year. A few times that number are born around the rest of the globe, though despite strong efforts to attract foreign entrants each year’s Derby field remains overwhelmingly American. Fewer than half the foals born in any year ever run even a single competitive race. A tiny fraction of those manage to be successful enough to one day be loaded into the starting gate for one of the forty-five races that are the official qualifying contests for the Derby.

Each of those races, from the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs last September to the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and Lexington Stakes at Keeneland three Saturdays ago, award points to the top four finishers. Except for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the point scale for all the 2017 races as well as those scheduled for the first six weeks of this year is 10-4-2-1. As the calendar draws closer to May, the scale increases, all the way up to 100-40-20-10 for the major prep races in March and April.

Last year’s Iroquois went to The Tabulator by half a length over Hollywood Star, with Ten City and Ebben in third and fourth respectively. They were the first four horses to earn points toward this year’s Derby, but none were anywhere near Churchill Downs on Saturday. Only the top twenty horses on the final points list qualify for the Derby, less than one-tenth of one percent of the thoroughbreds born in American foaling sheds three years earlier. On the strength of victories in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, Magnum Moon topped this year’s list of qualifiers with 150 points, followed by the 2-year-old champion Good Magic with 134. Justify was in a tie for 8th place with the 100 points he earned for winning the Santa Anita Derby one month ago.

The simple math of qualifying is daunting enough but Justify faced other challenges as well. He was installed as the 3-1 morning line favorite by Churchill’s oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, and he stayed that way on the parimutuel tote boards right up until the gates sprung open. Starting with Orb in 2013, the post time favorite had ended the Derby draped in the traditional blanket of roses five straight years, the longest streak in the race’s history. Given that over the course of the 143 previous Derbys the bettors’ choice prevailed roughly one-third of the time, the current streak of winning favorites seemed overdue for an ending.

Then there was one of the reasons that Justify was only 8th on the qualifying list. That’s because he never raced as a 2-year-old and had gone to the post just three times in all. In the days leading up to the Derby fans were constantly reminded of the Curse of Apollo, the supposed hex preventing any horse without a 2-year-old start from winning on the first Saturday in May. The jinx was named after the last horse to do so, the winner in 1882 when the Kentucky Derby was still in its infancy.

Perhaps because he was unraced at age two, Apollo entered that long-ago Derby as a 10-1 longshot. The heavy favorite was Runnymede, who went off at 4-5, better than even money. He looked the part with a charge to the lead as the horses came down the stretch, but then Apollo closed with what a contemporaneous account described as a “cyclonic rush,” passing Runnymede in the final strides to steal the victory.

Apollo may not have run as a 2-year-old, but he raced twenty-one times at age 3, thirty times at age 4, and four more times at age 5 before an injury ended his career. He won twenty-four of his fifty-five starts and finished out of the money only seven times. Those staggering numbers remind us of just how much the sport has changed. While not racing as a 2-year-old remains unusual for a top-line thoroughbred, not one of the twenty horses that went to the post on Saturday will compete in anything approaching fifty-five races before they are retired.

For Justify as for all the entrants, there was also the unique nature of the Kentucky Derby in general and the specific elements of this year’s race. None of the animals had ever experienced the mad rush that is the start of the Derby because of the huge field. They break from both the fourteen-stall main gate and an additional six-still auxiliary gate, and every jockey on the outside is desperate to get his mount in toward the rail to save ground. The result is a pinballing wave of horses coming down the front stretch for the first quarter-mile.

Many a Derby dream has died in the chaos of the start. This year’s obvious victim was Mendelssohn, the Irish entrant who had romped in Dubai. With Ryan Moore aboard Mendelssohn broke from the 14 post. As the last stall in the main gate, that meant there was extra space to his right before the auxiliary gate began. But that just meant that Instilled Regard and Magnum Moon, breaking from posts 15 and 16, had an extra stride or two to build up momentum before they barged into Mendelssohn, nearly knocking him down.

But Justify had a clean start and moved quickly out of the 7 post to race alongside Promises Fulfilled, the early pacesetter. From that position veteran jockey Mike Smith also didn’t have to worry about being pelted with the heavy mud that was being thrown up by every flying hoof. Saturday turned into the wettest Derby Day in history, with nearly three inches of rain falling on Churchill Downs. Navigating the slop became just one more challenge in the run for the roses.

And so, the moment came, the second or two at the top of the stretch when it looked like Good Magic was starting to reel in the leader. Then, just as quickly, Smith asked Justify for more and the horse moved into another gear. The one length lead became two, then two and a half. On to the wire they flew, overcoming the impossible odds of even qualifying, the burden of being the favorite, the lack of seasoning, a 136-year curse, the chances of a bad beginning, and even the weather, Justify and Mike Smith, with trainer Bob Baffert looking on, overcame all the challenges with a dominating run to glory.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 3, 2018

Dark Days For The Dark Knight

It’s been a week since the superhero movie Avengers: Infinity War opened, so it hardly counts as a plot spoiler to note that the blockbuster ends with the deaths of several of the stars of the Marvel Comics universe. To the uninitiated it might seem that killing off key members of the movie franchise is an unwise plot decision. But in the world of comic books having heroes confront mortality is actually a relatively common and rather popular device.

With more than six million copies sold, “The Death of Superman” was far and away the best-selling comic book of 1992. Short of outright demise, stars of the superhero genre of illustrated fiction are frequently faced with a loss of their powers or a fall from grace. The beauty of the make-believe worlds these comic book characters occupy is that in the very next issue they can be brought back to life or restored to full strength or find themselves redeemed, sometimes through a deus ex machina plot device and occasionally without any explanation at all. With Disney having assorted Marvel titles scheduled for release through 2022, including another Avengers film next year, odds are that fans haven’t seen the last of Black Panther, Spider-Man, or any of the other characters who quite literally disintegrate at the end of Infinity War.

For our real life athletic heroes, overcoming the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune requires something more than simply waiting for the release of next month’s new issue. That truth is currently on display at Citi Field, where a pitcher once known by a superhero’s nickname now finds himself at a career crossroads.

The Mets made Matt Harvey the seventh overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, and the right-hander made his major league debut just two summers later, called up after an injury put Johan Santana on the shelf. Harvey set a franchise record by striking out eleven batters in his first start, and recorded seventy strikeouts in just 59 1/3 innings during that rookie season. In 2013 he claimed the title of staff ace and was one of the leading power pitchers in the Great Game, with a four-seam fastball consistently clocked in the high nineties. He was the NL Pitcher of the Month in April, with a 1.56 ERA and a batting average against of just .153. He took a no-hitter into the 7th inning in early April, and a perfect game into the same frame less than a month later.

Harvey’s dominance and brooding presence on the mound led to a Sports Illustrated cover story entitled “The Dark Knight of Gotham,” a reference to the Batman comic book franchise. He was the starter for the National League in that year’s All-Star Game, which was played at Citi Field. In August he threw his first complete game shutout, a four-hitter against the Rockies. But later that month, just when it seemed certain that all of New York would be cheering Matt Harvey on through a long and brilliant career, he was diagnosed with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm.

Tommy John surgery soon followed, and while Harvey hoped to return late in the 2014 season, the Mets eventually squashed that idea, opting for a longer rehab period with the team out of that season’s playoff picture. It was the first fissure between star pitcher and front office. Others would follow.

In 2015 Harvey made a career high 29 starts. In the first of those, against the Washington Nationals, he struck out nine over six scoreless innings. After the game Nats slugger Bryce Harper predicted a Cy Young Award in Harvey’s future, adding “he’s one of the toughest at-bats I’ve ever had.” As the season wore on his stats, both advanced and traditional, were comparable to his breakout 2013 season. But Harvey’s agent Scott Boras complained publicly about the number of innings his client was throwing, with more to come as New York headed for the postseason. Harvey initially agreed with him, wondering aloud whether he should pitch in the playoffs. The backlash from both the Mets and their fans was swift, and Harvey’s tough guy “Dark Knight” image took a hit.

He went on to make four postseason starts. The last was in Game 5 of the World Series, when Harvey talked manager Terry Collins into letting him go back out for the 9th inning with the Mets leading the Royals 2-0, despite having already thrown over 100 pitches in the game and over 200 innings in the year. Harvey gave up a leadoff walk to Lorenzo Cain and an RBI double to Eric Hosmer before being pulled. Hosmer later scored to tie the game, and Kansas City went on to win the contest and the Series in 12 innings.

Since that November night Harvey has been a shadow of the pitcher who once showed such power and promise. Over the next two seasons he compiled a record of 9-17, with an unsightly ERA of 5.78. He missed the second half of 2016 after being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome. Last year he missed time with a stress fracture in his shoulder and was suspended for three games after not showing up for a game at Citi Field following a night of partying. In four starts this year he was 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA, leading the Mets to demote him to the bullpen.

Harvey is certainly not the first pitcher to have his career threatened by a string of injuries. But so far, he seems unable or unwilling to adapt to his changed circumstances. Rather than pitching with finesse, he’s relying more heavily on his diminished fastball than when it was truly an “out” pitch – nearly 90% of the time compared to about 75% in 2013 and 2015. He also seems oblivious to the role his own actions have played in eroding his support with both his team and its fans. He lashed out at reporters in the wake of his demotion and showed up at a Hollywood party while the Mets were in San Diego last week, inviting comparisons to last year’s antics.

Harvey entered New York’s Thursday afternoon home game against Atlanta in the 5th inning to a chorus of boos. The catcalls only got louder as he needed to face twelve batters to record six outs, allowing five runs, all earned. He’ll be a free agent at the end of this season, and while things could change over the next five months, right now it seems likely that the one-time Dark Knight of Gotham will be calling some other city home next year. Matt Harvey is only 29, so perhaps in a different uniform he can rebuild his career. Or perhaps, like all those characters in that movie doing such boffo box office, Harvey will be just one more superhero who disintegrates right before our eyes.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 29, 2018

A Double Dose Of Game 7 Delirium

As proof that sometimes less is more, consider all that is conveyed by just three syllables – Game 7. Upon hearing the term even a casual fan understands the high stakes and inherent drama in a single contest to decide a lengthy postseason series. Through the highs and lows and twists and turns of six games, two teams have fought to a draw with three wins apiece. Whether it is on the diamond, the hardcourt, or the ice, whether for the right to move on to the next round or the thrill of claiming a championship, no nine innings or four quarters or three periods can match the tension when both teams face elimination. Fans in some cities can go years without having to endure the stress of a Game 7. In Boston last week, the thousands of faithful who fill the stands at TD Garden in support of the Bruins and Celtics got a pair of them in just seventy-two hours.

On Wednesday evening it was the Bruins, trying to close out the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The good news for Boston was that having finished as the runner-up in the Atlantic Division, a single point behind Tampa Bay, Game 7 against third place Toronto was on home ice. But that advantage could not entirely assuage the concerns of Bruins fans. Their team finished the regular season on a down note, posting a 1-3-1 record in April. Then in the matchup against Toronto, the Bruins had seemingly commanding leads of two games to none and later three games to one but had been unable to send their opponents off to the golf course for the summer.

Four days earlier on the TD Garden ice the visitors jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in Game 5 and the Bruins were unable to overcome the quick deficit, eventually falling 4-3. Then Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen came up huge in Game Six back in Toronto, turning aside thirty-two of the Bruins’ thirty-three shots as the Leafs evened the series at three games each with a 3-1 win. As if Toronto’s apparent momentum wasn’t enough to cause concern, there was the less than stellar Game 7 record of Tuukka Rask, the Boston netminder. Wednesday night was the fourth Game 7 of Rask’s career, and in the three previous contests he was 1-2 with a woeful .849 save percentage.

On the surface Rask did little to improve on those numbers Wednesday night, though he did make some key stops in the third period.  Still, when Toronto led 4-3 at the second intermission, the packed house at TD Garden was restless and worried. But to the extent that part of their concern was based on history, they should have focused on the sole win in Rask’s Game 7 past. That was in 2013, also in the opening round and also against the Maple Leafs. In that contest Toronto led 4-1 with less than fifteen minutes to play before Boston stormed back to tie in regulation and eventually win in overtime.

History repeated itself Wednesday night, without the need for an extra session. Barely a minute into the third period Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller picked up a loose puck after a faceoff in the Toronto end and whipped a pass out to Torey Krug near the blue line. Krug let fly with a one-timer through a partial screen that was past Andersen before he even saw it, and the game was tied. Scarcely more than four minutes later Jake DeBrusk got Toronto’s Jake Gardiner to turn the wrong way at the blue line. That gave DeBrusk a clear lane to Andersen and he flipped the puck through the five hole, giving the Bruins the lead. Then just past the midpoint of the final period Patrice Bergeron controlled a bouncing puck behind the Toronto net and passed quickly out to David Pastrnak, who was all alone in the crease. The forward’s fifth goal of the series put Boston up 6-4, and it was now very, very loud in the big building on Causeway Street. When Brad Marchand flipped a long shot from center ice into an empty net with less than a minute to play, the 7-4 final tally was set in front of a delirious crowd that had long since forgotten its earlier collective anxiety.

Come Saturday evening the ice had been covered over by parquet, and the stands were once again filled to capacity as the Boston Celtics hosted the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of their first-round series in the NBA Playoffs. The home faithful drew strength from the knowledge that this series had yet to see the visiting team post a victory. Still with Boston’s injury-depleted lineup there had to be cause for concern.

But as had been the case with their skating cousins, the Celtics and their fans could find guidance for Saturday’s game by a close look at history. The most successful franchise in NBA history was playing in a league-record thirty-first Game 7, and its twenty-fourth at home. The Celtics record in the previous twenty-three was an imposing 19-4. This young and hungry Celtics roster did nothing to diminish that mark on Saturday.

Boston’s Al Horford scored the game’s first points, but midway through the first quarter Milwaukee led by five at 15-10. From that point to the end of the period the team’s scored another twenty-two points. Twenty of them were netted by the Celtics, who led 30-17 at the break. The second quarter featured scoring runs by both teams. The Bucks opened with eleven straight to cut the lead to two, then Boston responded with nine in a row to again pull away. Milwaukee was hampered by foul trouble, with both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe saddled with three calls by halftime. In a reprise of the first quarter, the Celtics netted eleven of the last fifteen points in the third to expand their lead to 81-67 with one quarter to play. Milwaukee was unable to close to single digits over those final twelve minutes, and just like three days earlier, happy fans poured into the streets of Boston’s north end, looking forward to the next round of the playoffs.

Odds are there won’t be a springtime duck boat parade through the streets of Boston, much less two. While the Bruins opened their second-round series with a 6-2 thrashing of the Lightning in Tampa, Boston also showed its weaknesses by allowing the Maple Leafs to extend the opening series to its limit. As for the Celtics, their injury news only got worse with word that Jaylen Brown, who limped out of Game 7 in the second quarter, is doubtful for the first contest against the Philadelphia 76ers. But both teams are still playing, and even if the Bruins and Celtics go no further, last week each franchise gave its fans the ultimate in postseason joy.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 26, 2018

NCAA Commission’s Report Misses The Net

Last fall, shortly after news broke of a major federal investigation into corruption in college basketball, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the formation of a special commission charged with recommending changes to clean up the game. The fourteen-member commission, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was given six months to study the interwoven relationships between the NCAA, its member schools, coaches, athletes, the NBA, and apparel companies, and draft policy and structural changes that would promote transparency and accountability. “We must take decisive action,” said Emmert in November, adding “this is not a time for half measures or incremental change.”

This week Rice’s commission unveiled its recommendations, which were quickly endorsed by Emmert and the rest of the NCAA’s leadership. But while the joint statement by the NCAA president and the chairs of both the organization’s board of governors and the Division I board of directors promised a “profoundly altered landscape” for college basketball as soon as this autumn, the commission’s proposals look a lot like the very cautious and deliberate steps that Emmert promised to eschew.

In fairness to Secretary Rice and her fellow commissioners, that is partly because some of the factors contributing to the current culture of corruption are beyond the NCAA’s control. Foremost among these is the NBA’s eligibility rule, which requires young athletes to be at least one year removed from high school before they are eligible to enter the NBA Draft. Since it was adopted a dozen years ago, the rule has produced scores of “one-and-done” players who matriculate at one of the powerhouse collegiate programs, play a single season, and then immediately declare for the draft, often not completing even a single year of college coursework.

There is broad agreement that one-and-done has heightened the chances of graft. The roster turnover and increased recruiting demands put constant pressure on coaches to get leading high schoolers to commit. Agents lurk nearby, hoping to entice young players to sign as soon as they become draft eligible. The players themselves, forced to go a year without a professional payday, are tempted by the lure of under the table money. Meanwhile shoe company representatives ingratiate themselves to all of the other parties, hoping first to steer a player to a university with which they have a marketing arrangement and later to ink the freshman turned pro to an endorsement contract.

But the system is the result of language in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, meaning change is beyond the grasp of the NCAA. The initial response from both the league and the NBA Players Association is that the eligibility rule won’t be changed until at least the 2020 Draft, not exactly the definition of decisive action. It’s also worth noting that the players who have been named either publicly or in leaked documents from the ongoing FBI probe are not exclusively members of the one-and-done club. Changing the rule is a good step, but not one that will fix the game’s current culture all by itself.

Similarly, the commission’s call for greater financial transparency from AAU programs and the three big apparel companies – Nike, Adidas and Under Armour – is well-intentioned but impossible for the NCAA to enforce. The shoe manufacturers pay millions of dollars to major Division I programs to ensure that their products are worn on the court. It’s hard to imagine any athletic director sacrificing that kind of cash flow just because a company refused to reveal the finances of the many offseason camps and leagues which the three companies sponsor. In those relationships the leverage isn’t with the NCAA and its institutions.

There are recommendations that the NCAA can implement, and in some cases quickly. But not all of those appear well thought out. For example, the commission proposed allowing players who declare for the draft but are not selected to retain their collegiate eligibility and return to their team. What seems like a good idea in theory would likely collapse in practice because of timing. This year there are forty schools with multiple players, from two to as many as six, on the NBA’s early entry list for the 2018 Draft. The identity of those who will be passed over won’t be known until the sixtieth and last name is called on June 21st. Meanwhile head coaches are busy putting together their rosters for next season. It likely isn’t practical to expect a school to hold multiple scholarships open on the chance that players who have declared for the draft might instead return for another year.

Other proposals sound excellent but turn out to be relatively weak. Specifically, Rice and company favor five-year postseason bans for programs guilty of major infractions, along with lifetime bans for their coaches. Those are punishments that would surely make any would-be cheat think twice. But the commission isn’t suggesting that these severe sanctions be made mandatory, just that they be included in the range of potential punishments the NCAA could impose. Given the tepid history of NCAA enforcement actions, the likelihood of such rough justice ever being administered seems remote.

Easily the most disappointing aspect of the commission’s report is its failure to address the elephant in the room. Big-time college basketball is a cash cow for the major programs. That money is generated by what the young men do on the court, but the NCAA rulebook ensures that they are the only parties who can’t share in the profits. While Secretary Rice said in an interview that she and many commissioners believed that should change, their report sidesteps the issue, citing the pending Jenkins case. Jenkins is a federal antitrust suit aimed at upending the NCAA’s restrictions on paying college athletes. It has been plodding through the courts for five years, largely due to delaying tactics by the NCAA. Just recently the association’s lawyers filed a motion to postpone the trial, currently scheduled for December, until June of next year. Rice’s commission could have made a bold call for something other than incremental change but chose to kowtow to the NCAA’s policy of denial and delay.

In her remarks at the press conference announcing the commission’s recommendations, Secretary Rice said, “the crisis in college basketball is first and foremost a problem of failed accountability and lax responsibility. The Commission found that talking to the stakeholders was, at times, like watching a circular firing squad – the problem, the issue and ultimately the fault was always that of someone else. It is time for coaches, athletic directors, University Presidents, Boards of Trustees, the NCAA leadership and staff, apparel companies, agents, pre-collegiate coaches – and yes – parent and athletes – to accept their culpability in getting us to where we are today.” That is a damning and accurate description of the problem. It’s just not clear that Rice’s commission did anything more than join the circle.

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.

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