Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 8, 2021

A Final Olympic Moment, Thanks By Golly, To Molly

The Olympic flame has gone out, bringing to and end the Tokyo Games of 2020 in 2021, an Olympiad that will surely be remembered as the strangest of the modern era.  There was predictable praise from various officials during the closing ceremony, with IOC president Tomas Bach leading the cheerleading.  Noting that no organizing committee had ever before dealt with a year-long postponement, and clearly also referring to the challenge of putting on the Games during an ongoing pandemic, Bach declared “We did it – together!”   

But the reaction to Bach’s exhortation was tepid, at best, with praise for the thousands of volunteers who helped stage the events of the past two weeks receiving much more sustained and heartfelt applause.  The bubble environment for the athletes coupled with the absence of fans at events, including the opening and closing ceremonies, turned the Tokyo Games into a surreal made-for-television spectacle.  That was most obvious at the end, when one of the closing ceremony’s most dramatic moments, thousands of tiny points of light coming together above the stadium floor to form the Olympic rings, was entirely special effects for the TV broadcast.  The athletes and officials in the stadium saw nothing.

Beyond the unique circumstances that led to the year-long delay and surreal staging of these Games, there are ample reasons to argue that while the torch in Tokyo may have just been extinguished, in its original symbolic meaning the Olympic flame died many quadrennial gatherings ago, snuffed out by multi-billion-dollar budgets, rampant corruption within the IOC, and the slavish pursuit of corporate sponsorships to support both the spending and the graft.  Even fans most inclined to romanticize the Games must concede such contentions are not without merit.

Still we watched.  Because there were moments.  Even Games grossly over budget, staged a year late and in isolation, produced moments worthy of that still special and unique descriptor, “Olympic.”  There was the first ever gold medal in skateboarding, won not by an American, the country that originated the sport, but fittingly enough, by Yuto Horigome of the host nation.  There was the joint decision of Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar to share the high jump gold rather than pursue personal glory in a jump-off after the two tied.  There was the javelin throw of India’s Neeraj Chapra that gave the second most populous country in the world its first ever gold medal in track and field.

And there was Saturday morning in Sapporo.  For most of us, the idea of walking 26.2 miles all at once is daunting enough.  There are plenty of fitness gurus who tell us we can do it, assuming we plan for the trek and, for lack of a better word, train for it by gradually building up the distance we walk each day.  One’s starting point depends on an individual’s lifestyle and which study he or she wants to quote, but a daily range of two to four miles probably covers most folks.  At that casual strolling rate, one walks a marathon’s distance every week or two.  Even in the assuredly hypothetical instance of intentionally doing it all at once at a typical walking pace, one had best pack both lunch and dinner and make no other plans for the day.  Yet there are millions of recreational runners for whom running a marathon is a serious goal, and a far tinier number of elite athletes for whom the Olympic Marathon is the ultimate prize.    

For most of her life, that last number had not included Molly Seidel.  As On Sports and Life first detailed here sixteen months ago, shortly after she shocked the running world by finishing second at the U.S. Olympic Trials and thus qualifying for Tokyo, Seidel was a middle-distance prodigy as a teenager, and dominated ACC competition as a collegiate runner at Notre Dame.  But a series of physical injuries and related emotional wounds derailed her career.  Seidel eventually wound up in Boston, working as a coffee shop barista and part-time babysitter, seemingly forgotten in the running world.  But an impressive performance at a 5-mile race in the fall of 2019 was followed by a half-marathon time a month later that put her in the Trials race.  Even though Seidel had never run a marathon, why not?

That first ever transit of the marathon distance was done in cold and windy conditions in Atlanta.  Seidel said after the race that she chose to stay with the leaders when they broke away, figuring she would either make the U.S. team or “spectacularly go down in flames.”  The result, to the amazement of perhaps everyone except Seidel, was a ticket to Tokyo.  Almost a year and a half later, conditions in Sapporo could not have been more different.  The marathon was moved north from Tokyo in hopes of escaping the oppressive heat and humidity that plagued the Games.  But Saturday morning the air was like soup, a brutal atmosphere for a walk, much less a 26.2-mile run.

Little was expected of the three American runners in the women’s marathon, and least of all from the unlikeliest member of the team, Molly Seidel.  Since the legendary Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural event in 1984, only one other American had medaled in the women’s race.  But from the very start, there was Seidel running with the leaders.  It was not that significant in the early going, when the lead pack was large.  But as the miles accumulated the pack thinned.  A third of the way through the race, it numbered eighteen.  At the halfway point, there were eleven.  Five miles later, as Seidel took her turn in front, she was the leader of nine.  There were seven at the twenty-mile mark, then five, and finally, four women running for three medals. 

With a mile-and-a-half to go, Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya, the world record holder in the half-marathon, began to pull away.  Her countrywoman Brigid Kosgei, who holds the marathon world record, gave chase.  Seidel ran on, now in third place in just her third ever marathon, now in sight of Olympic glory.  In the final yards, needing only to not fall down in order to claim the bronze, Seidel pointed at her USA singlet and began screaming. 

After the medal ceremony and before this most unlikely Olympian and now author of a quintessential Olympic moment flew south with her fellow medalists to be honored at the Games’ closing ceremony, Seidel said that as they were leaving for the race that morning her coach told her to bring her track suit, the prescribed medal ceremony uniform for U.S. athletes.  “Why would I need that?” she asked.  Turns out there was one person who believed in Molly Seidel even more than she believed in herself.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 5, 2021

Hope And Belief, Playing For Gold

For all the focus on the medal count, exemplified by the tracker prominently displayed on the front page of ESPN’s website, the real stories of every Olympics are about people, some of whom go home with gold, and some of whom, like Krystsina Tsimanouskaya of Belarus, don’t get to go home at all.  Fans in this country were reminded of the power of personal Olympic stories Thursday, when almost 5,000 miles from the nearest major league ballpark, the U.S. Olympic baseball squad took the field in Yokohama for its semifinal showdown against South Korea.  Both teams had one loss in the double-elimination knockout phase of the Olympic tournament.  That meant the winner would advance to the championship game against Japan and thus be guaranteed no worse than a silver medal, while the loser would play the Dominican Republic in the bronze medal game.    

Unlike many of the sports that are now contested at these quadrennial gatherings, baseball has been around since before the revival of the Games in 1896.  Despite that, the sport has a limited Olympic history.  It first appeared in 1904 in St. Louis, when the Summer Games crossed the Atlantic for the first time.  It was then played as a demonstration sport, without medals being awarded, just a handful of times over the ensuing decades until finally receiving official recognition at the 1992 Barcelona Games.  Baseball remained part of the Olympics for less than twenty years and was voted out by the IOC prior to the 2012 Games in London.  The sport returned this year only at the insistence of the Tokyo Organizing Committee, and because each host nation is allowed to add a few events of its choosing.

Perhaps because of that spotty history, and surely in part because the timing of the Summer Games coincides with a major league season that at both ends tests the limits of playable weather in many cities, MLB has never considered a suspension of play that would allow its players to participate in the Olympics.  Thus, the country that is the home of the Great Game won only one gold and two bronze medals at the five previous Olympiads at which medals were awarded.  The roster that traveled to Japan this year was typical – a mix of former major leaguers no longer contractually tied to a franchise, and minor league players allowed to take part by the clubs that hold their contracts – has-beens and not-yets, in the words of ESPN. 

That means a few names that devoted fans recognize, like manager Mike Scioscia, who guided the L.A. Angels for nineteen years, infielder Todd Frazier, twice an All-Star with the Cincinnati Reds, and pitchers Scott Kazmir, David Robertson and Edwin Jackson, who combined have more than 4,300 regular season innings and nearly fifty postseason appearances at the major league level.  But it also means that even the most loyal follower of the Great Game couldn’t tell all the players without a scorecard.  For many of the young men on temporary assignment from their AA, AAA, or in a few cases international clubs, the pursuit of Olympic hardware is also a chance to shine on a larger stage.  And one can be certain that every veteran major leaguer wearing a USA uniform is hoping his performance at the Games earns him one more chance to don a more familiar one.

Whether or not that comes to pass, it was a good day for the hope that springs eternal when Joe Ryan held South Korea to a single run over 4 1/3 innings, and it became an even better one when four relievers allowed just one more tally the rest of the way.  South Korea kept the score close until the 6th, when Team USA, leading 2-1 at the start of the frame, exploded for five runs.  Frazier worked a 12-pitch at-bat into a leadoff walk to get things started, and by the time the side was retired Mark Kolozsvary, Jack Lopez, and Eddy Alvarez had each driven in a run, and Tyler Austin had plated two.

The 7-2 final put the U.S. into the gold medal game for just the second time in baseball’s brief Olympic history.  On Saturday Team USA will face Japan, and the home country will be favored.  But whatever the outcome of that contest, the U.S. is assured of a medal, so the final out of Thursday’s game put second baseman Alvarez into the record books.  For this was not the 31-year-old’s first Olympic experience.  The son of Cuban immigrants, Alvarez was born in Miami and took to skating even before baseball.  He medaled at the 2009 World Junior Short Track Championships, but was ill during the 2010 Olympic Trials and didn’t qualify for the U.S. team.  A year later, while playing college baseball, he was diagnosed with multiple tendon tears in both knees and underwent surgery that should have ended his skating career, and possibly his baseball one as well.

But against long odds Alvarez was at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, where he was one of the U.S. skaters who won silver in the 5,000-meter relay.  He then turned back to baseball, where he has labored in the minor league systems of the White Sox and Marlins since 2014.  In last year’s pandemic-shortened big-league season, Alvarez wore a Marlins uniform for twelve games, batting .189 with a .485 OPS.  Those are forgettable numbers, and who’s to say if he’ll ever get another chance in The Show.  But he improved on those stats enough to make Scioscia’s team, and after Saturday, Alvarez will be one of just six athletes, and only the third American, to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Games.  After that outcome was certain, Alvarez sat in the dugout and cried, overcome with emotion at the thought of the unlikely path he has traveled, and of the sacrifices his family made along the way.

It was a small moment, and a deeply personal one.  Whatever color medal the U.S. baseball team is awarded this weekend, whether Frazier or Robertson or any of the other has-beens manage to wrangle a free agent contract with some team for the stretch drive, whether Ryan or one of the other not-yets makes it to the big leagues, or whether Eddy Alvarez gets another call-up, it was a moment he will count as precious for all his days.  Strip away all the commercialism and media hype, and it’s what the Olympics is, and always should be, about.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 1, 2021

Hope And Sadness, Together At The Trade Deadline

When 4:00 p.m. arrived on the east coast Friday, fans of almost every major league franchise had good reason to sit back and take a few deep breaths.  The Great Game’s annual midseason trade deadline had finally arrived, ending a dramatic week in which all thirty clubs were involved in at least one deal.  But what set this year’s point of no return – when GMs of teams on the fringe of the playoff race must decide whether to go for broke by becoming buyers or throw in the towel on the current season and start building for the future by selling – apart from the trade deadline of recent seasons was not just quantity, but also quality. 

By the time the last deals were officially recorded at MLB’s Manhattan headquarters, ten of this year’s All-Stars had changed uniforms.  That’s not ten players who have been All-Stars at some point in their careers, but ten who were chosen to go to Coors Field little more than two weeks ago.  That number included three now-former members of the Washington Nationals – Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber – and two players each from the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers, with Craig Kimbrel and Kris Bryant departing Wrigley Field and Joey Gallo and Kyle Gibson saying goodbye to Globe Life Field in Arlington.

The frenetic activity started, as it usually does, with minor moves several days before the deadline, trades that would have attracted little attention but for the looming calendar.  For example, early in the week the Yankees shipped relievers Luis Cessa and Justin Wilson to the Reds for the always popular player to be named later.  It was a salary dump, the frugal Yankees of the Hal Steinbrenner era freeing up space below the luxury tax threshold for both this season and next.  If the move was irritating to New York fans, many of whom don’t believe their team is really trying if it’s not busting through the tax cap, it was also a clear sign that general manager Brian Cashman was getting ready to buy.

Sure enough, by week’s end the Yankees, currently sitting outside the playoff picture, had made both big moves by acquiring slugger Gallo from the Rangers and first baseman Anthony Rizzo from the Cubs, and small ones like the last-minute addition of starting pitcher Andrew Heaney from the Angels.

But the trade deadline action wasn’t remotely limited to the Bronx.  In addition to Gallo, that list of All-Stars on the move included Nelson Cruz from the Twins to the Rays, Adam Frazier from the Pirates to the Padres, and Eduardo Escobar from Arizona to Milwaukee, as well as Schwarber going to the Red Sox, Kimbrel moving across town to the White Sox, Bryant flying west to San Francisco and Gibson joining the Phillies.  But the biggest deal of all was Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo’s packaging of veteran starter Scherzer and dynamic shortstop Turner.  Putting the two All-Stars together netted Washington four minor leaguers including catcher Keibert Ruiz and pitcher Josiah Gray, ranked as the number one and two prospects in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league system.  It was also clear from social media postings that Rizzo was working multiple teams for the best possible return right up to the last minute.  Thursday night several pundits confidently predicted that a deal between the Nats and Padres was imminent, only to scrub those tweets minutes later when the Dodgers entered the picture.

Of course, the deadline was quickly followed by assessments of winners and losers.  In a world focused on immediate gratification, such instant analysis is probably required of the paid media, though especially for the typical trade deadline deal, it has limited meaning.  Sure, if Max Scherzer edges out Trea Tuner for World Series MVP honors while leading L.A. to a repeat championship, the Dodgers will fairly be called winners of the trade deadline, though fans of twenty-nine other franchises will argue it’s hardly fair when L.A.’s payroll now approaches an eye-popping $275 million. 

Short of such an obvious result, the very definition of winning isn’t entirely clear.  If the moves by the Yankees are enough to get the club into the playoffs, but it again falls short of the World Series, much less a championship, should New York be considered a trade deadline winner?  For Steinbrenner, who would reap the benefit of full houses for some number of postseason games, the answer would likely be yes.  But for many fans of the Bombers, who like Hal’s father, call a season successful only when it ends with a parade up lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes, not so much.

Then there’s the nature of typical deadlines deals, which obviates any quick analysis.  Prior to this week, Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray were names known only to the most dedicated of Dodgers fans.  Should it turn out, ten years from now, that fans in D.C. are ready to build statues to the two heroes who’ve brought multiple championships to Washington, they will look back and praise Mike Rizzo’s trade deadline acumen.  But despite their high ranking, if neither Ruiz nor Gray ever makes it to The Show, those same fans will long rue Rizzo’s 2020 breakup of a squad that seemingly only yesterday brought long-delayed joy to D.C.

For now, at least, a sense of disappointment and loss is surely prevalent at Nationals Park and Wrigley Field.  For teams that buy, the end of July can reinvigorate a fan base.  But for the faithful of teams that are heavy sellers, like the Nationals and Cubs this year, August begins with emptiness.  Two months remain on the schedule.  Elsewhere playoff dreams remain alive, and fans prepare for the push in pursuit of a pennant.  But for this year’s sellers there are only memories, of long droughts ended, and championship parades, and a time when anything seemed possible.  All gone now.  All traded away.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 29, 2021

Simone Biles’ Most Daring Move

For all the attention paid over a fortnight, the Olympic Games rarely contribute moments to the lasting lore of sports.  That’s partly from a lack of opportunity, for in the long interval between every intense two weeks of these quadrennial Games there are thousands of contests and millions of moments, at all levels, of the sports holding regular places on the yearly calendars of fans.  It’s also because outside the context of a Summer or Winter Olympiad, many of the events are niche sports with limited appeal when unattached to the familiar five ring symbol.  Yes, more than four decades later we still recall the Miracle on Ice that took place at Lake Placid in 1980.  But just three years after the remarkable 2018 run of the U.S. men’s curling team to an equally improbable gold medal at PyeongChang, the hoopla that accompanied the feat by skip John Shuster and his squad from the Duluth Curling Club is all but forgotten, and there has been no nationwide surge of hockey rinks being converted to curling sheets. 

When an Olympic moment lasts it is often because of a particular connection between the athlete and the fan doing the recollecting.  So here at On Sports and Life the images of Billy Mills’ stunning 1964 upset victory in the 10,000 meters on the track in Rome are still clear, though the race was run more than half a century ago.  But that is not because of some passionate interest in distance running, nor because Mills was the first non-European to win the event and remains the sole American to capture gold at that distance.  Rather it is entirely because he was non-European in the truest sense.  An Oglala Lakota, Mills was a rare Native American atop the medal stand and thus remains entirely relatable to this writer.

The Tokyo Games are just approaching their halfway point, so it’s too soon to say whether any moment on the track or in the pool or at any of the various other venues will become lasting memories of either a handful of folks for very specific reasons or of sports fans in general because of their uniqueness.  But after Tuesday it is clear the Games of the XXXII Olympiad will be long be remembered for the courage of one young woman.

In the months leading up to these Olympics, through the U.S. Classic in May, the national championships in early June, and the Olympic trials soon after, much of the talk about the incomparable gymnast Simone Biles focused on the difficulty of her moves.  Biles herself, joined by a growing chorus of pundits and fans, contended that moves like the Yurchenko double pike in vault, something that no woman had ever performed in competition until she did so, were being purposely underscored by judges.  Gymnastics scores are split between the quality of execution and the degree of difficulty.  The increasingly loud complaint has been that the Yurchenko and some of Biles’ other signature moves on various apparatuses haven’t been awarded appropriate degree of difficulty scores, in part to keep competitions close but mostly because the complexity, and thus the risk of injury, was so great officials wanted to discourage anyone else from attempting them. 

But on Tuesday in Tokyo, Biles chose to do something far more difficult and riskier than hurtling her body through multiple midair twists and spins.  After an uneven performance in the preliminaries – by the standards of a gymnast who has won the all-around and dozens of individual golds at every world championship meet she has entered since 2013 – Biles suffered what gymnasts refer to as the “twisties” during her first vault in the team finals, meaning she lost her orientation while in midair.  The result for an accomplished gymnast is often a devastating injury.  For Biles it was a poor finish with a bad stumble.  But it led her to acknowledge a reality she had previously hinted at on social media, namely that the enormous weight of expectations and celebrity had become too great.  Citing the need to protect her mental health, Biles withdrew from the remainder of the team competition, and one day later pulled out of the individual all-around.

For some observers of our games, those who are fearless provocateurs so long as they can hide behind anonymous usernames on social media, but especially for those who believe that the athletic stars of all our sports are but sentient fodder who exist only to provide them with entertainment, Biles’ action was self-indulgent, or weak, or the latest example of American decline.  The long public record of some of the harshest assailants leaves no doubt that their vitriol would have been tempered if their target’s name was Simon rather than Simone, or if her skin tone could be described as alabaster, or both.  But the fundamental failure to appreciate or even acknowledge the humanity of our sporting heroes is not limited to misogynists and racists. 

By standing down from competition to stand up for her own wellbeing, Simone Biles took on all of them.  Happily, it turns out she did not do so alone, for she has received widespread support, from her teammates, other athletes, many in the media, and countless fans.  But unlike virtually any acute ailment, for much of society mental health remains a taboo subject for open discussion, so she could not possibly have known that such support would be forthcoming, though she surely knew that those predisposed to hate would be ready to pounce.

Then again, at the age of 24, Biles has survived the predation of Larry Nassar and weathered the lack of support from her sport’s dysfunctional governing body for years.  The predictable bleating of mindless trolls would hardly have stopped a woman with that much courage and resilience from taking the greatest risk of all.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 25, 2021

Team USA Stumbles, But The Larger Stories Await

The good news is that two full weeks remain in the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.  Unless of course, that’s the bad news.  What is certain is that three days into the Tokyo Summer Games, still styled the 2020 Olympics despite having been postponed for a full year, the downbeat headlines have far outweighed the positive ones.  For fans in this country, that trend started on what was officially referred to as Day -2, since there are now so many events crammed into the schedule that competition started even before Friday’s Opening Ceremony.  On Wednesday, Sweden’s women’s soccer team stunned the favored U.S. squad 3-0 in the first match of the round-robin Group Stage.  The result, in a game that was even more lopsided than the embarrassing score, ended the USWNT’s 44-game unbeaten streak, and was the first defeat under coach Vlatko Andonovski, who took the team’s reins from Jill Ellis when she stepped aside following the American triumph at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Andonovski switched to a veteran-heavy starting lineup and the U.S. team responded with a 6-1 thrashing of overmatched New Zealand on Saturday.  With one more Group Stage game to play, the U.S. remains the betting favorite for the gold medal, but at the very least fans – and perhaps more important, other teams – have been reminded that nothing is inevitable. 

Although if any result at the Summer Olympics would qualify for that description, it would be men’s basketball.  Since the sport was added to the Games in 1936, the U.S. has won 15 gold medals in 18 appearances (the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics), and 6 golds in the 7 Olympics since the basketball competition was opened to professionals.  But there were clear warning signs that an upset was possible when the U.S. team, playing in Las Vegas earlier this month, managed just a split of four exhibition games against other national squads.  Those signs are now flashing bright red after the not-quite Dream Team dropped its opening contest of the Olympic tournament Sunday, 83-76 to France.  Team USA will be a prohibitive favorite in its two remaining Group Stage games, against Iran on Wednesday and the Czech Republic next Saturday.  But for the moment, the U.S. sits in the very unfamiliar position of last place in Group A.

The weekend’s headlines didn’t improve when coverage turned to gymnastics, where the U.S. women’s team, led by the transcendent Simone Biles, was expected to dominate.  But while the performances in the preliminary round were solid, and the U.S. easily qualified for the final round of the team competition, with Biles and several other team members moving on in pursuit of individual medals, it wasn’t the U.S. but Russia that led at the conclusion of the opening round.  As with women’s soccer and men’s basketball, these early results aren’t conclusive, but it’s fair to say the opening days of these Olympics have not produced the headlines fans in this country were expecting.

Of course, everyone knows that the Olympics are not just about the medal count for one’s home country.  Yea, right.  The reality is that NBC and its various broadcast partners have plenty of heartwarming video stories about athletes from around the globe ready to be shown at any moment.  But one can be certain that said moment will not arrive when an American squad or athlete is in serious contention for a medal, and the same is no doubt true for broadcasters from every other country.  No matter the nation, the Games provide the best possible opportunity for raging jingoism barely hidden behind a fig leaf of international comity.  Which is why fans in the U.S. hope the fact that these Olympics are just getting started is good news, but perhaps somewhere deep down, dread the possibility that the setbacks of the first few days could become a pattern over the next two weeks. 

Yet for all the inevitable focus on medal counts and national results, the lasting stories of every one of these quadrennial extravaganzas are about individuals.  Inevitably, some will educate as tales of disappointment, while others inspire as stories of achievement.  The next two weeks will bring a plethora of both, as did the Game’s first days.

MyKayla Skinner was a surprising choice as one of two members of the U.S. gymnastics squad who, under new and widely disparaged rules for these Games, could compete only for individual medals.  Her selection was unexpected because her strongest specialties, the vault and floor exercise, matched those of the other individual member, Jade Carey.  With each country limited to two entrants in each individual event and Biles certain to claim one, the strange decision left the other two Americans competing directly against each other.  Sure enough, Skinner turned in the fourth best score on the vault of all the competitors in the preliminaries, but since it was third best among the Americans, her Olympics have ended.

But even as these Games were denying Skinner’s athletic goals, they were unexpectedly affirming the broader objectives of Naomi Osaka.  When last seen in public she was being run out of the French Open by the powers of tennis for daring to challenge their authority.  But after speaking up for mental wellness, and after speaking up for racial justice, there was Osaka, a surprise choice to light the Olympic flame at Friday’s Opening Ceremony.  It was a bold decision by Japan’s organizing committee, both internationally because of the causes Osaka champions and locally because of her mixed parentage.  And it completely redeemed an Opening Ceremony that until then, with no fans in attendance, seemed utterly pointless. 

Which, were it not for the enduring power of individual stories like Osaka’s and Skinner’s and so many others, would be an excellent description for the Olympic Games.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 22, 2021

Golf’s Stealth Superstar

It has been just thirteen months since Collin Morikawa’s name first appeared on these pages.  Perhaps even more surprising, given all that has happened since, is that the initial mention of Morikawa, then a 23-year-old in his second season on the PGA Tour and barely a year removed from his student days at Cal Berkeley, was not exactly positive.    

The occasion was the Tour’s return to action in June of last year, following its three-month COVID-19 hiatus.  Morikawa had a chance to claim victory at the Charles Schwab Challenge, better known to golf fans as the Colonial for the Fort Worth country club of that name that is the tournament’s longtime venue.  Instead, a pair of misfires with the shortest club in his bag turned what should have been a second Tour win into a gut punch of a defeat.  Morikawa first missed a five-footer for birdie on the final hole, with the resulting par giving new life to Daniel Berger, who was watching from a clubhouse balcony overlooking the 18th green.  Tied through regulation, the pair headed to a playoff where Morikawa promptly coughed up the tournament by missing another putt on the first hole, this one from little more than tap-in distance.  To be fair, the main point of that post was that it was a day of many missed putts by lots of golfers.  But while the other pushes, pulls, and spinouts were struck by more familiar names, none of those miscues were as costly or ill-timed as Morikawa’s two misses.

Since that initial account of an unpleasant afternoon, Morikawa’s name has reappeared here with increasing frequency and for decidedly better reasons.  A month after his Texas debacle, he was the star of a post about the media’s focus on the Tour’s latest youth movement, the result of Morikawa and 22-year-old Viktor Hovland chasing Justin Thomas – who, all of 27, was the old man in the media accounts – during the final round of the Workday Charity Open.  Morikawa eventually caught the golfer then ranked #3 in the world, closing a three-shot deficit down the stretch before winning on the third hole of the subsequent playoff.

Coming a month later than it had looked like it was going to, Morikawa’s second PGA Tour win was his first in a full-field event.  His maiden victory had come at the 2019 Barracuda Championship, a so-called alternate event since it is scheduled the same week as one of the World Golf Championship tournaments, which are restricted to the top players in the world rankings.  But in our internet driven, social media obsessed age, every achievement has its doubters.  So where his win at the Barracuda was diminished for some fans by the weak field, Morikawa’s victory at the Workday was second-guessed by a few pundits because the tournament was played without spectators.

As if on cue, that same largely specious asterisk was one of two placed beside Morikawa’s stunning win four weeks later at the PGA Championship.  Like every other sport, golf’s schedule was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, with the PGA becoming the first major played during the calendar year, and the only one ultimately contested within the framework of the Tour’s wraparound 2019-20 season.  And like the Workday and all the rest of the tournaments on the reconfigured calendar, the 2020 PGA Championship was closed to fans.  That meant no massive roar swept across TPC Harding Park late in the final round, when Morikawa’s laser-like drive on the short par-4 16th hole found the green, setting up a short putt for eagle that propelled him into the lead.  He clung to the two-shot edge the rest of the way, earning a major title in his very first appearance at the PGA Championship. 

Of course, winning one of golf’s biggest prizes isn’t supposed to happen like that, so the absence of the massive crowd typical at a major prompted suggestions that he had not been properly tested, as did the fact that Morikawa was intimately familiar with the Harding Park layout from his years in college just across San Francisco Bay.  Even when he notched his fourth Tour title, this one at a WGC event in February, the unexpected setting – the pandemic forced the Tour to move the event from Mexico to the quirky Concession Golf Club in Bradenton Florida, where the pros recorded everything from a one to a ten on various holes – garnered as much attention as Morikawa’s play, and both were overshadowed by news of Tiger Woods’ automobile accident in California just as the tournament was about to begin. 

Now Morikawa has done it again, winning another major in his first try, this time the oldest of them all, the Open Championship.  At its 149th playing, contested over four mostly sunny days at Royal St. George’s on England’s Channel coast, he emerged as the Champion Golfer of the Year by firing four rounds in the 60’s, besting three-time major titlist Jordan Spieth by two strokes and both U.S. Open winner Jon Rahm and 2010 Open victor Louis Oosthuizen, who led after each of the first three days, by four.  He is the first golfer to win a pair of majors in his first attempt, and now has five Tour victories that include a WGC event and half of a career grand slam.  There’s no disputing the strength of the Open field, nor the quality of a links that has hosted the Open fourteen times, starting in 1894 when it became the first course outside of Scotland to host the tournament.  No one can complain that Morikawa had a home course advantage, and the British government allowed up to 32,000 fans to walk the grounds of Royal St. George’s each day, about 75% of normal attendance.

Given all that, plus the fact that with the win Morikawa ascended to #3 in the world rankings, surely the accolades are finally flowing.  For the most part that is true, and certainly the emerging young star’s fan base grew exponentially last weekend, both because of his play and the grace he showed during the Open’s awards ceremony.  But this is 2021, when being contrary will always generate clicks, and this week it was the usually estimable Sally Jenkins who opted to play the role of Debbie Downer.  In her Washington Post column, Jenkins warned Morikawa that the very nature of his chosen game means the good times won’t last, and he should prepare for the days when every shot seems to go astray.

As every weekend hacker knows, there is truth in Jenkins’ admonition.  The late John Denver could easily have been writing about golf when he penned the lyrics “some days are diamonds, some days are stone.”  As Jenkins pointed out and fans well know, Open runner-up Spieth was himself the boy wonder not so long ago and is only now coming back from a long detour through the golfing desert.  Morikawa’s Achilles heel is his putting, where despite a solid week on the greens in Sandwich he is ranked 170th for the season on the PGA Tour.  Those wobbly putts that led to his first mention in this space were not all that unusual.  Still, given what he has done since then, often without proper recognition, it seems only fair to join with the fans at the Open, who by tournament’s end were cheering his every shot, and finally give Collin Morikawa and his sweet rhythmic swing a long overdue moment in the sun.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 15, 2021

A Less Than Classic Midsummer Classic

A NOTE TO READERS:  There will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday.  Thanks for your support!

It is worth remembering that MLB’s All-Star Game has always been about marketing.  The first one, in 1933, was the brainchild of Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune.  Ward, who had worked as Knute Rockne’s publicity director while at Notre Dame and founded the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament in 1928, used his extensive contacts in the sports world as well as the influence of one of the largest newspapers in the country to convince baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that an exhibition between the top players of the American and National Leagues would be a good showcase for the sport.  Of course, staging a contest featuring the most popular stars of what was then unquestionably the national pastime at Comiskey Park while the Chicago World’s Fair was in progress just happened to also be an enormous boon for the international exposition celebrating the centennial of the Windy City’s incorporation.

Not that Landis needed all that much convincing.  When Chicago mayor Edward Kelly approached the Tribune about sponsoring a major sports event, Ward came up with the idea of the All-Star Game, with fans selecting the starting lineups on ballots printed in 55 newspapers throughout the country, as a one-time event.  But in the wake of the AL’s 4-2 victory, in which Babe Ruth’s 3rd inning two-run homer to right was the decisive blow, Landis declared “That’s a grand show, and it should be continued.”  With a lifetime contract and unfettered authority, Landis generally got what he wanted, and so the Midsummer Classic became the longest season’s waystation, forever more dividing baseball’s calendar in two, even if the halves are never truly equal if measured by the number of games.

Arch Ward would surely marvel at the multi-day spectacle that his one-off exhibition game has become.  The Home Run Derby was added in 1985.  Held the night before the main event, the Derby has grown into appointment viewing for many fans, thanks largely to relentless promotion by MLB and ESPN.  This year’s Derby garnered nearly as many viewers as the All-Star game itself.  The All-Star Futures Game, showcasing promising minor leaguers, and a softball game featuring retired players and assorted celebrities, have both been part of the festivities for roughly twenty years.  This year MLB also moved its multi-day amateur draft, historically held in early June, to coincide with the All-Star festivities.

The marketing folks at MLB’s Gotham headquarters churn out press releases proclaiming that any city so blessed as to be able to host a Midsummer Classic sees benefits on the order of $100 million.  That’s an impressive number, but one with the ring of a nice round total conjured up by someone with a degree in communications rather than economics.  No matter how many ancillary contests are added, the focus of attention is still a meaningless exhibition game.  No title is at stake.  The teams are only teams for an evening – no youngster ever became a lifelong fan of the American League All-Star squad.  And while the game has always been a showcase for individuals, neither a batter’s home run nor a pitcher’s strikeout nor a runner’s stolen base count toward a player’s season or career statistics.  MLB has even had the good sense to drop former commissioner Bud Selig’s silly idea that for a time awarded home field advantage for each fall’s World Series to the team representing the league that won that year’s All-Star Game. 

All of which is to say that even with multiple component parts stretched over several days, the Midsummer Classic has limited appeal as a destination for fans who aren’t local.  Yet for MLB’s claim to be accurate, every single person who crammed into Coors Field for Tuesday night’s game needed to contribute nearly $2,000 in new dollars to the Denver economy during their stay.  Did some do that in spending on hotels, meals and entertainment over a long weekend visit to Colorado?  Absolutely.  But such largess was more likely the exception than the rule, and the required spending by those visitors increases for each Rockies fan who scored tickets to the game, drove from their home in Aurora, bought a hot dog and a beer while watching the AL win for the eighth straight time, and then drove home. 

Whatever the local impact, one can count on MLB to squeeze every possible marketing dollar out of the All-Star contest for itself.  This year, for the first time since 1933, that effort included the players’ uniforms.  When Judge Landis attended that inaugural game at Comiskey Park, he saw the National League team dressed in uniforms designed for the occasion.  Grey with “National League” on the front and a number on the back in blue, and topped by a blue cap with a white “NL,” the special outfits were a memento the players were allowed to keep.  But the American League team members each wore the regular home uniform of his respective team, and by the second game in 1934 that was the style decision that won out. 

Special All-Star uniforms have been made for many years – with replica jerseys of course offered for sale – but they’ve been worn by players only during batting practice and, occasionally, for the Home Run Derby.  But this year MLB abandoned the practice of individual team uniforms in favor of contrasting NL and AL outfits that looked like leftovers from a slow-pitch softball league, or perhaps something found in the closeout section of the pajama department at a discount department store.  The uniforms were universally panned, with the irrepressible Richard Staff, who writes about the Mets for SB Nation, tweeting that he was impressed MLB chose to honor Mike Trout, absent because of injury, with NL uniforms that were white and bland.

Perhaps the prospect of having to don such hideous uniforms is what kept so many players away.  Fourteen All-Stars chose to pass on the opportunity to join their fellow elite players in Denver, the second highest number ever.  Absences due to injury always happen.  That’s both understandable and regrettable, so players like Trout and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna get a pass.  But all four Houston Astros named as All-Stars found better things to do than hear the certain boos that would have rained down on them from fans who haven’t forgotten that team’s cheating-stained championship, and other players followed Mets ace Jacob deGrom in just saying “no thanks.” 

For fans, the absences turned the later innings of the game into a test of identifying rather than celebrating players, a task made more difficult by the mandatory pajamas.  The contest did manage to redeem itself in the end by celebrating the Great Game’s international scope.  The winning pitcher was from Japan, the closer who earned the save was from Australia, and the MVP was a Dominican born in Canada, all playing a quintessentially American game with the country’s greatest mountain range in the distance.  The hurler who got the W was Shohei Ohtani, the electrifying two-way star who also served as the AL’s designated hitter in the starting lineup.  Much was made of Ohtani starting at two positions, though if player participation this year turns into a trend, he may soon find himself having to play a few more.  Hopefully by then, he’ll be able to do so wearing an Angels uniform.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 11, 2021

Promises Aside, England’s Long Wait Continues

It isn’t coming home after all. 

Like many of our games, the true origins of soccer are lost to the mists of time.  In the final centuries BC, a sport bearing at least a passing resemblance was played in China, and half a millennium later the Japanese game of Kemari had some of soccer’s elements.  But there is no dispute that the Football Association, organized in London in 1863, was the first effort to standardize the rules of a sport that by that time had been played in English schools for decades.  That has always been more than enough for fans in the green and pleasant land to claim pride of place for their isle as the birthplace of the world’s most popular sport, one now played by more than a quarter billion athletes in over two hundred countries, whose efforts are followed ever so closely by an even greater number of fans.

Prior to Euro 96, the quadrennial tournament among European national teams, the song “Three Lions” commemorated both the English team (thus the title), and the fact that the 1996 tournament was to be staged in England.  But in the years since, the song’s chorus of “it’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s home, football’s coming home,” has morphed into a rallying cry whenever the national team participates in a major tournament.  From Plymouth on the English Channel in the southwest, to Sunderland on the North Sea in the northeast, and seemingly in every city and town across the island nation, the chant is repeated, not as a statement about a tournament’s geography, but as a promise that the prize, usually either the European Championship Trophy or the World Cup, will soon be returning to its rightful location. 

Though in truth, for many fans of English soccer, perhaps “it’s coming home” has become not so much a promise as a plea.  For while England may be the sport’s home, its national team has seldom been the world’s or even the continent’s best.  The sole World Cup championship won by the Three Lions came more than half a century ago, in 1966.  In only two other World Cups did the English squad make it to the semifinals.  The first of those was 1990, when England met Germany in the penultimate round.  A 1-1 tie through regulation and extra time, the game was decided on penalty kicks.  The teams were even through three tries, then Olaf Thon converted for Germany.  When first Stuart Pearce, then Christopher Waddle were unable to do so for England, Germany was through to the World Cup Final.  Then three years ago in Moscow, Mario Mandzukic of Croatia broke a 1-1 tie in extra time, dashing English hopes yet again.

The European Championship is a younger tournament, having first been contested in 1960.  But through its first fifteen stagings, England had not made it to the championship match.  That drought included the 1996 tournament, when despite playing before home crowds throughout, England needed penalty kicks to advance past the quarterfinal knockout stage over Spain, and then again came a cropper against Germany, once more on penalties, in the semifinals.

The key miss in that contest was by Gareth Southgate, who now manages the national squad and who was roundly praised this year, as England advanced through Euro 2020, an event that kept its name despite being delayed a year by the pandemic.  With the final two rounds of the knockout stage scheduled for Wembley Stadium, the country’s familiar battle cry again took on its dual meaning, though most fans shouting “it’s coming home” weren’t expressing their joy at the location of the finals, but their hopes for a victory long denied.

England was solid if unspectacular in the group stage, then Southgate’s team appeared to ignite once the knockout stage started.  England vanquished its old foe Germany 2-0 in the Round of 16, then crushed Ukraine 4-0 in the quarterfinals.  That brought the squad back to home turf at Wembley for the final two rounds.  An upstart Denmark squad proved tenacious in the semifinal, but Harry Kane was the hero in extra time.  After Denmark was called for a penalty, his kick was easily saved, but he sprinted after the rebound and lofted the ball over Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel for the winning score.

Kane’s heroics put England in the European Championship final, against an Italian team that had its own demons, having failed to qualify for the last World Cup.  But Italy had added both style and offensive substance to its historically strong defensive game for this tournament, and most pundits gave it the edge.  Then England struck in the first two minutes, and suddenly fans in the stands could believe it was coming home.  They believed as the clock ticked, and the pressure built, and, perhaps, even when Italy leveled the score at 1-1 midway through the second half.  But given all that has gone before, all the heartache and hurt since 1966, surely doubts began to creep in.  They must have swirled as the final minutes of regular time wound down.  The uncertainty had to grow as the two teams remained level through extra time.

And so it was penalties.  Always with England, and seemingly always with pain, it is penalties.  Euro 2020 was no exception.  Kane and Jacob Maguire converted, giving England the edge when Andrea Belotti missed.  But the advantage was lost when Marcus Rashford’s shot missed the goaltender but hit the post.  Then, from 2-2, a make for Italy, a miss for England, a make for Italy, a miss for England, and it was over.  Wembley Stadium, so raucous for hours, grew quiet.  There were tears on the field, of joy from Italy’s players, of despair from England’s roster.  There were tears in the stands, from English fans who dared to believe that at long last, this was their time.  Instead they were left with neither a promise nor a plea, just the cold reality that once again, it isn’t coming home.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 8, 2021

Celebrating Winners, And Losers Too

There were winners on Wednesday, as there are every day in sports.  Novak Djokovic, the Seattle Storm, England’s men’s soccer team, the Miami Marlins in stunning fashion over the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second night in a row – all reminded us that triumph is the point of our games.  Surely the day’s biggest winner was the Tampa Bay Lightning, which capped a dominant run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 1-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, closing out the Finals in just five games and making the Lightning the first club to defend its title since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.  Through the four rounds of the playoffs Tampa Bay was behind in a series only once, after a Game 1 loss to the Islanders in the semifinals.  That was also the only round in which the Lightning were pushed to a full seven games.

As impressive as those numbers are, they don’t tell the full story of Tampa Bay’s recent success.  The team has not just won eight straight playoff series – a requirement for winning back-to-back titles – but has also held its opponents to an average of less than two wins each while doing so.  This year marked the third time in seven seasons that the Lightning advanced to the Finals, and in the four seasons between losing to Chicago in 2015 and defeating Dallas in the NHL’s pandemic playoff bubble barely more than nine months ago, Tampa Bay just missed two more trips to the NHL’s championship series, losing in the Conference Finals to the Penguins in 2016 and the Capitals in 2018.  Both of those matchups went to seven games and both times the franchise that ousted the Lightning went on to capture the Cup.

In the sixteen seasons since the 2004-05 season was lost to the lockout that led to the NHL’s hard salary cap, Tampa Bay has been a rare case of sustained success.  Fifteen franchises have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals exactly once during that period, with two more making it that far twice, either back-to-back (Detroit), or in a three-year period (L.A.).  Only Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston have joined the Lightning in going to the Finals more than that, and given Tampa Bay’s additional near misses, it’s understandable that every fan in the capacity crowd at Amalie Arena that roared its approval when captain Steven Stamkos lifted the Cup and began his victory circuit around the rink believes their team deserves to be called a dynasty.

Clearly the Lightning have navigated the perilous waters of the NHL’s salary cap era with far happier results than most of the league’s franchises.  Yet even Tampa Bay has had its missteps.  The franchise won its first Cup the year before the lockout, but struggled for multiple seasons when play finally resumed under the NHL’s new financial rules, missing the playoffs five times in six years.  And just two seasons ago, the Lightning tallied a franchise-best 62 wins the last time the league played a full 82-game schedule, easily winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record, only to collapse in the playoffs, losing four straight to Columbus in the first round.

So while they may not want to think about it this week, even the Lightning faithful know what all fans learn by enduring the vagaries of multiple seasons of their favorite team, some played in the bright sun of achievement and others in the dark shadow of despair.  Contrary to the words of Red Sanders, the head football coach at UCLA more than six decades ago, winning is not the only thing.  Our sports are zero sum games, and while the victors may earn every day’s headlines, sometimes the vanquished have stories every bit as interesting.  It takes nothing away from Tampa Bay’s triumph to suggest that such was the case with the Lightning’s final opponent in this year’s NHL postseason.

Back-to-back titles and three Finals appearances in seven seasons constitute quite the resume for most NHL franchises, but not for the Montreal Canadiens.  The team recognized as the oldest continuously operating professional ice hockey squad in the world, a franchise that predates the NHL’s founding, the twenty-four championships won by the Canadiens dwarf the thirteen claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team in second place on the all-time list of Stanley Cup winners.  Montreal’s thirty-five appearances in the Finals are also by far the most of any club.  Both numbers rank second only to the New York Yankees as measures of postseason success among the major North American sports leagues.  It’s possible there are still folks out there surprised to learn that Florida is home to an NHL powerhouse, but any fan with even a passing interest in hockey would surely recognize the bleu-blanc-rouge tricolor sweaters of the Habs (though they might not be familiar with the club’s many nicknames).

Yet for all the team’s storied history, Montreal’s recent past has been anything but magnifique.  The Canadiens most recent title came in 1993, which was also the last time the club skated in the Finals.  Prior to this year’s postseason run, the team had not won a playoff series in five years.  This season Montreal changed coaches in the middle of the campaign and was one of just two teams in the postseason bracket that failed to win at least half its games.  With 59 points, on a record of 24-21-11, the Canadiens had the weakest regular season showing of any team in the playoffs, and probably would not have been in the postseason at all but for the NHL’s truncated season and its one-time only alignment that put all seven Canada-based teams in the same division to eliminate cross-border travel during the pandemic, with the top four guaranteed to advance to the playoffs.

Given that opportunity, Montreal did its best to play the part of Cinderella.  Down three games to one against Toronto in the opening round, the Canadiens stormed back to win three in a row, the first two in overtime.  That was followed by a sweep of the Winnipeg Jets and another improbable series win against Las Vegas, a team that won sixteen more regular season contests than Montreal.  The hero throughout was Carey Price, the Canadiens’ veteran netminder who would surely have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP had Montreal completed its unlikely journey to glory.

But the Cinderella story is a fairy tale, and in real life the regal coach usually turns back into a pumpkin and the horses drawing it to mice before the final horn blows.  In the Finals Price was outplayed by his counterpart in the opposite net, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who took home MVP honors after shutting out Tampa Bay’s opponents, including the Canadiens, in the deciding game of each playoff round.  In Montreal, and for that matter in all of Canada, which inexplicably has not been home to a Stanley Cup winning franchise since the Canadiens last skated to glory, the long wait continues, even as the party in Tampa is just getting started.  Still, the faithful of Les Habitants can take some solace in knowing that their team’s story will also be remembered long after Wednesday’s headlines have faded away.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 4, 2021

A Season On The Brink In The Bronx

Unfortunately for the franchise that calls the Bronx home, there is still another week on the schedule before Major League Baseball recesses for the All-Star break.  More than any team in the majors, the Yankees could use that annual three-day pause, with its literal time away from the stresses of the longest season for everyone except the handful of players and coaches headed to Denver for the Midsummer Classic, and its figurative reset of the calendar and accompanying chance for a fresh start in the campaign’s so-called “second half.”  For New York’s season appears to be in freefall, with recent words from players, the manager, the GM, and even the owner doing nothing to slow the descent.

In terms of games played, the actual midpoint of each season always comes several days before the All-Star break.  This year, the Yankees passed the fifty percent threshold Sunday afternoon, when closer Aroldis Chapman blew yet another save in the first game of a doubleheader against the crosstown rival Mets.  The 5-4 lead that suddenly turned into a 10-5 loss in New York’s 82nd game left the team at exactly .500 for the season, 41-41.  It’s been five years since the Yankees were at or below .500 this late on the calendar, and before that 2016 season was over general manager Brian Cashman became a seller at the trade deadline, shipping players to various teams to reduce payroll and build up New York’s minor league system.  The trades included stars who wound up playing key roles in the runs to that fall’s World Series of both Cleveland and the eventual champion Chicago Cubs.    

The Yankees finished fourth in the AL East that year, just six games over .500, but Cashman was hailed as a genius for acquiring highly rated prospects like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier.  The praise grew even louder when the deal in which closer Chapman was sent to Chicago turned into a three-month rental, with the fireballing left-hander coming back to the Bronx as a free agent shortly after the Cubs finished celebrating their championship.

Five years later, good luck finding a Yankee fan willing to use “genius” and “Cashman” in the same sentence.  No doubt any number of old tweets that were part of the chorus back then have been hastily deleted, replaced by angry demands that the GM be shown the door, and that field boss Aaron Boone accompany him out into the street.  Dreams that the likes of Torres and Frazier would join with homegrown stars Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge to form the core of a team contending for multiple championships have withered.  Now the consensus is that the two acquisitions have been badly mishandled by the Yankees – Torres by being asked to play shortstop rather than his natural position at second base, and Frazier by frequent hostility from management and, until this year, constant shuttling between the big club and the minors.  Of the two players originally drafted by New York, Sanchez has been confounding, displaying occasional spurts of magnificent power hitting but suffering through frequent slumps, even while often struggling to corral pitches while squatting behind the plate, catching baseballs being a fairly vital job requirement for one playing the position of catcher.  Only Judge has largely lived up to expectations, including this year when he has put up some of the best numbers of his career and, so far at least, remained healthy.

Yet just three months ago, when the team broke camp in Tampa at the end of March, the Yankees were widely viewed as the favorite in the AL East, and a certain contender to represent the American League in the World Series.  Yes, the starting rotation was suspect once one moved past Gerrit Cole, but the bullpen was solid and really, who would care if on any given day New York’s opponent was scoring five or six runs, as long as the powerhouse offense was answering with eight or nine of its own?  Now at the season’s midpoint, the first half of that scenario has largely proven true, but the rejoinder at the plate has fallen woefully short.  New York’s lineup ranks near the bottom of the league in a range of statistics.  Most damningly, the team leads in some very unsavory stats, like hitting into double plays and running into outs on the bases. 

The season has proceeded in spurts, a string of dispiriting losses followed by a short winning streak.  But the latest iteration of that pattern is far more alarming.  Ten days ago the Yankees took a record of seven wins in nine games to Fenway Park, where archrival Boston promptly swept New York in a three-game weekend series.  That was followed by losing two of three to the Angels, and now two in a row to the Mets. 

But larger concerns are hidden in those numbers.  After arguably being the best closer in the majors through May, Chapman has pitched horribly for a month.  His ERA in his last nine appearances is 22.24.  His last two outings, against the Angels last Wednesday and the Mets Sunday afternoon, were particularly ugly, with L.A. scoring seven in the 9th to steal a game made interminably long by two rain delays midweek, and the Metropolitans plating six in the final frame of Sunday’s opening tilt.  And Cole, the mainstay of the rotation, has now had multiple bad starts, with his worst coming Sunday.  Giving up six hits and three walks while recording just ten outs, the ace of the staff had his shortest outing since he was with the Pirates in 2016.

In the last week, Judge has called a players-only meeting, Boone has said the season is on the line, Cashman has declared that right now the team sucks, and Steinbrenner has, well, the owner has said he’s behind the manager and the GM, and the players are at fault.  All words that have done nothing to stem the nosedive. 

The season is far from over.  Two years ago at just about this time the Nationals were 41-41, and we all know how that turned out.  Of course, Washington got to that position by climbing out of an earlier 19-31 hole, while the Yankees have bumbled their way into mediocrity.  Still, at the halfway point of the longest season, anything is possible.  But much will be told very soon.  Immediately before and after the All-Star break, the Yankees play fourteen of sixteen against the Red Sox, Rays, and Astros.  Come out of that stretch strong, and anything is possible.  Continue to flounder, and if Steinbrenner wants to keep fans in the stands, even he may finally realize that the chants from the cheap seats have merit, and it’s time for new leadership in the Bronx.

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