Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 20, 2020

Another College Playoff With All The Usual Suspects

Every Game Counts. That is the first headline, in bold type, on the page of the College Football Playoff’s website that explains the workings of the annual four-team tournament to determine a national champion of the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of the collegiate game. It is possible that both the use of the phrase and its placement on the page is the product of an anonymous web designer’s twisted sense of humor. But assuming the term is not an intentional joke, then the one thing fans have figured out over the seven years of the Playoff’s existence is that some games, and some teams, definitely count more than others.

Sunday afternoon the CFP Selection Committee released its final rankings from one to twenty-five, which determine not just the four teams that will vie for the national title, but also the lineup for the major New Year’s bowl games. While great effort is made every year to instill a sense of drama in the committee’s process, the announcement is usually predictable, and this year was no exception, with the same four schools that had been atop the rankings for several weeks comprising the final lineup for the two national semifinals on January 1 – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. About the only smidgen of doubt was whether Notre Dame might be demoted after being thoroughly manhandled by Clemson in Saturday’s ACC title game.

But replacing the Fighting Irish, a team with a fan base that extends far beyond alumni, with Texas A&M or Oklahoma might have dented the ratings for the Rose Bowl, or whatever the semifinal matchup between Alabama and Notre Dame is going to be called now that it has been moved from California to Texas so that fans can attend. For the committee to allow that to happen the final score of Saturday’s rout needed to be much worse than 34-10. Like maybe 340-10.

Committee chairman Gary Barta, whose day job is athletic director at the University of Iowa, trotted out all the predictable words in defending Notre Dame’s selection. He cited the team’s earlier wins over a pair of ranked teams – #19 North Carolina and then #1 Clemson, the latter a double-overtime victory in South Bend when Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence was sidelined with the coronavirus. Barta was similarly ready with an explanation for Ohio State’s inclusion, despite the Buckeyes only playing a total of six games thanks to COVID-related cancellations. He spoke of the team’s undefeated record, glossing over the reality that Ohio State had considerably fewer opportunities to lose a game than many other teams, and also noted Buckeyes’ pair of wins over ranked opponents.

Of course, Texas A&M also had a quality win over Florida when the Gators were ranked fourth in the country, and, just like Notre Dame, one bad loss, on the road to then #2 Alabama. And Oklahoma posted three wins over ranked teams to offset a pair of early season losses, both of which were one possession games. But the beauty of deliberations conducted behind closed doors is that every year whoever happens to be the committee’s chair can explain as much or as little as he wants and spin the rationales for every contender to fit the already announced rankings.

For at its heart the four-team playoff is a recognition of football excellence only after it is a celebration of gridiron hegemony. The CFP is all about the Power 5 conferences, but even within that upper class of college football, there are distinctions. Counting this year’s foursome, twenty of the twenty-eight contestants since the Playoff began in 2014 have come from the SEC (eight), ACC (seven) or Big 10 (five). Throw in two appearances by usually independent Notre Dame with its national fan base – the Irish played in the ACC this year because of the pandemic but are not counted in that conference’s total – and all other conferences barely need even apply.

As true as that is for the Big 12 and Pac-12, the other two Power 5 conferences, it is especially so for every other school in every other league playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision. With the widespread disarray in scheduling and key players sometimes sidelined this season, all because of the pandemic, this selection process presented the committee with an ideal opportunity to justify reaching beyond the usual playoff participants. That could have meant finding room not just for an A&M or an Oklahoma, which finished fifth and sixth in the rankings, but for a team from the so-called Group of Five conferences. Cincinnati in the American Athletic and Coastal Carolina in the Sun Belt both finished the season with unblemished records, the Bearcats at 8-0 and the Chanticleers at 11-0, the same mark as Alabama. Coastal’s 22-17 win over BYU two weeks ago was one of the most entertaining games of the year. But Cincinnati was eighth in the final rankings, and Coastal Carolina didn’t even make the top ten, finishing twelfth and shut out of a New Year’s bowl game.

Fans have instead been fed more of the same, even if it took the Big 10 changing its rules about the minimum number of games to be played so that Ohio State could advance to the conference title game, and now further changing restrictions on how long COVID-positive players must remain off the field, in hopes of giving the Buckeyes a full roster come New Year’s Day. So much for the health of the players being the first priority.

But then there is nothing surprising about any of this, just as there has been nothing surprising in big-time college football and the CFP process in years past. Change the rules, mouth the spin, do whatever needs to be done to produce the desired result. But please don’t think college football fans are idiots. Every game counts? Who do they think they’re fooling?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 17, 2020

A Quiet Climb To The Top

There are any number of more famous college coaches. Even fans who have time for only professional games know the historical figures, like Bear Bryant or John Wooden. One need not be a devoted follower of college sports to recognize the names of active coaches who have achieved celebrity status, whether it’s Nick Saban or Mike Krzyzewski, to name but two. Perhaps proving that there is no such thing as bad publicity, even those with tarnished reputations, say Rick Pitino for example, will elicit a nod of recognition from most fans when their names are called.

All those and others come quickly to mind, but one can narrow the field down to just the single collegiate sport in question – women’s basketball – and still other names, such as the late Pat Summitt or the still very active Geno Auriemma will roll off the tongues of fans, including close followers of the annual march to the Women’s Final Four, before they will think to mention Tara VanDerveer. But Tuesday night, when her Stanford squad overwhelmed Pacific 104-61, sports fans were reminded that she ranks with all those more prominent coaches, for with the win VanDerveer notched her 1,099th career victory, one more than Summitt and a handful ahead of Auriemma, making her the winningest coach in the history of women’s college basketball.

Statistics are the lifeblood of sports, and every one of our games is littered with scores of “most” records. Sometimes the holders have earned their place simply through longevity. A coach doesn’t come to the very brink of 1,100 wins without spending many years guiding teams from the sideline, but those at the top of women’s college basketball’s victory list, whether VanDerveer, Summitt, or Auriemma, have done far more than simply hang around.

For many years, and right up until the dread diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s forced her into retirement in 2012, Summitt was the face of women’s basketball. It was a visage that was, on game days at least, almost always stern. The icy Summitt Stare, as it came to be known, could cause opponents, officials, and sportswriters to quail, but it was at its most frigid when directed at a player on one of her University of Tennessee teams. She expected something close to perfection from her charges, and what is remarkable given the inherently impossible nature of that demand was how hard members of the Lady Vols worked to give just that to Summitt, and how remarkably close they often came.

In contrast, Auriemma has steadfastly cultivated a public image that is more outgoing and garrulous. After her diagnosis Summitt organized a foundation to raise money and awareness about her disease, and naturally started a website for the charity. Auriemma’s self-named website is all about him and his various commercial ventures. But while he seldom passes by a microphone – when the Associated Press needed a quote on the NCAA’s recent decision to stage next spring’s women’s tournament in a single location, he was readily available to provide one – on the court Auriemma inspires confidence and loyalty from his UConn Huskies players every bit as great as that which Tennessee women gave to Summitt.

VanDerveer is neither as severe as Summitt nor as media savvy as Auriemma. But she is every bit as single-minded and brings a life spent in basketball to the sideline of every game. Despite a lack of family encouragement – what good was basketball for a young girl’s future – she fell in love with the game while growing up west of Albany, New York. She played in both high school and college, with the last three years of the latter at the University of Indiana. There she would attend practices of the men’s team, watching the coaching methods of Bobby Knight. That experience gave her valuable insights without infecting her with Knight’s outrageous temper and bullying style. She put what she learned to good use, first at the University of Idaho, then at Ohio State, before taking over what was then a dreadful Stanford team in 1985. VanDerveer’s Buckeyes had climbed into the top ten in the national rankings and advanced to the Elite Eight at the 1985 women’s tournament, while the Cardinal women’s most recent record of 9-19 looked good only when compared to their previous season’s 5-23 mark.

But by her third season in California, the first with her own recruits, Stanford’s record was 27-5. Two years later the Cardinal won the 1990 national championship, an achievement that VanDerveer’s squad duplicated in 1992. Since then, Stanford has been a constant in the NCAA tournament while never posting a losing regular season record and only twice failing to win at least 20 games. The days when Cardinal home games were played in front of 300 or fewer fans, as was the case when VanDerveer arrived on campus, are a very distant memory.

Last spring the Cardinal finished the regular season at 27-6, ranked number 6 in the country. Her charges were looking forward to a deep run into March Madness when the tournament, like all sports, suddenly stopped. Now college basketball is back, though VanDerveer is quick to question the logic of that as the pandemic rages ever more fiercely. She’s joined in her concerns by Auriemma, and Krzyzewski, and even Pitino, though all of them, at least so far, have concluded that they alone cannot pull the plug on the season. In VanDerveer’s case, that means taking her team to Las Vegas for recent “home” games, after Santa Clara County officials barred games and practices from taking place.

Stanford was the visiting squad on Pacific’s campus Tuesday night, though that hardly mattered as the Cardinal overwhelmed the Tigers. With her team ranked number one in the country and her place at the top of her profession in hand, one might expect VanDerveer to bask in the limelight. But that is not her style. In advance of the record win she said, “I’m not going to get a day off. And I’ll hope our country is one step closer to being healthy and that things can go back to normal.” Short on Summitt’s drama, lacking Auriemma’s style, but reflecting a lifetime of commitment and common sense. And winning, of course. A whole lot of winning.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 13, 2020

Time Marches On, As Does Lee Westwood

In the autumn of 2000, the New York Yankees had just cemented their status as a dynasty by winning a fourth championship in five years, the New England Patriots had never won a Super Bowl, the New York Knicks were less than two years removed from playing for an NBA title, and the continuation of American democracy was a given, even in the wake of an election that was genuinely close, unlike our recent one. All of which says a lot can change in twenty years. But some things, even when separated by 7,336 days, stay the same.

One other achievement in the world of sports during that fall of 2000, little noticed on this side of the Atlantic, was the climb to the top of European men’s golf by Lee Westwood, a 27-year-old baby-faced Englishman. Westwood didn’t take up the old game until his teenage years, but quickly showed great promise by winning regional junior championships. In the summer of 1993, he won the British Youths Open Amateur Championship, a tournament that counted Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabel and Nick Faldo among its previous titleholders. Westwood then promptly turned pro.

The transition to full-time touring golf professional does not go smoothly for every talented amateur. Justin Rose has been ranked number one in the world and has a major title on his resume, but when he turned pro after an electrifying performance and a fourth-place finish as an 18-year-old amateur at the 1998 Open Championship, Rose missed 21 straight cuts on the European Tour. In contrast Westwood’s venture into the professional ranks was considerably less humbling. He entered the European Tour winner’s circle for the first time at the 1996 Volvo Scandinavian Masters, scored another victory the following season, then won four times in Europe and once on the PGA Tour in 1998. That was the year he also – not surprisingly – entered the top ten in the world rankings for the first time.

As his success in Europe continued, it was not exactly a surprise when, at the end of the 2000 European Tour season, Westwood was atop the Order of Merit, the official money list that back then determined the winner of the Harry Vardon Trophy as the Tour’s top golfer of the year. What was surprising was that Westwood, after a five-victory campaign that season, didn’t post another Tour win until 2003. But he chose to take a break after the birth of his first child, then decided to retool his swing, always a process fraught with danger for a top pro. In Westwood’s case, the voluntary time away from the game followed by the long process of changing his mechanics combined to send him plunging down the rankings, all the way to the nether world of largely anonymous professional golfers, a spot outside the top 250.

For some pros such a decline is irreversible, but Westwood came back. Even while managing just a pair of wins over a six-year stretch, he played on, finally returning to top form in 2007. A year later the computer models declared him resurrected by ranking him once again in the top 20, and in 2009, on the strength of consistent play and a pair of victories, Westwood won the Tour’s inaugural Race to Dubai, a season-long points race similar to the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup that is now used to annually crown Europe’s top golfer. Lest anyone doubt that achievement, given the European Tour’s lesser standing to golf fans in this country, in 2010 Westwood climbed to the top of the world rankings while winning on both Tours.

Of course, by this time he was no longer the chubby-cheeked youngster who had so seamlessly transitioned from amateur to pro in the early ‘90s and gone on to dominate European golf. Okay, the cheeks were still a bit chubby, but Westwood’s hair now had a few flecks of gray, a reminder that he was in his late thirties. So when in this past decade his shots became less crisp and the wins first dwindled before seeming to stop, the decline, unlike his earlier one, was deemed the natural product of aging. Yet still he played on, the familiar Ping staff bag a regular sight at both European Tour stops and several times in the U.S. each season.

But if fans on both sides of the Atlantic assumed that Westwood was simply biding his time awaiting the senior tour, it’s now apparent he had other ideas. In late 2018 he won the Nedbank Golf Challenge, part of the European Tour’s swing through South Africa, beating Sergio Garcia by three strokes. It was his first title in more than four years, and after the final putt was holed a tearful Westwood admitted there were times he doubted whether another victory was in the cards. Then last January, with COVID-19 still just a gathering storm, Westwood claimed the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship three months before his 47th birthday, for his 25th European Tour win.

The points he earned for that victory, plus consistent play both before and after the Tour’s pandemic break, brought Westwood to Dubai and the DP Tour World Championship with a shot at one more Harry Vardon Trophy. When he saved par from the bunker at the 72nd hole on Sunday, giving him sole possession of 2nd place on the leader board behind tournament winner Matthew Fitzpatrick, Westwood was assured of the points he needed to once again be the season’s top golfer, twenty years after he first held the crown and just over a decade since his encore.

With his pattern of winning this title every ten years or so, it may not be next season, but Westwood made it plain that he isn’t done just yet. “I get up each day and do the job I love. I’ve always wanted to be a golfer and I don’t want it to end,” he told the media Sunday. “So I’m prepared to keep working hard and put myself in the line of fire and try and get into contention in tournaments. It’s where I’m most comfortable and what I love doing,” he added. Less than three years shy of fifty, Westwood is the oldest golfer to claim the European crown. That’s a record that should stand for a good long while, maybe even until he wins again in 2030.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 10, 2020

The Jets Find A New Way To Lose

What were the Jets thinking? That was the question a New York Times headline writer chose to splash above the paper of record’s report on the latest debacle for the NFL’s most woebegone franchise. Like so many misadventures that have gone before, last Sunday’s snatching of defeat from the jaws – nay, from deep in the throat – of seemingly certain victory was entirely of the Jets’ own making. But depending on one’s perspective this miscue was either so stunningly inept or so egregiously arrogant as to distinguish itself even on the lengthy list of Gang Green blunders. Move over, Mark Sanchez butt fumble.

With but a few not necessarily well-advised exceptions, fans of all sports have had to endure long months without being able to cheer their heroes in person. That meant there were not thousands in the stands at MetLife Stadium Sunday afternoon, as the clock wound down with New York leading the visiting Las Vegas Raiders 28-24. Almost three hours earlier, the Jets had scored on the game’s first possession, a 12-play, 74-yard drive capped by a short toss from quarterback Sam Darnold to wide receiver Jamison Crowder. New York then managed to stay no worse than tied until late in the first half, when Las Vegas QB Derek Carr needed just five plays to march the Raiders 66 yards, the last 38 of which were covered by Darren Waller, who raced down the sideline after catching a quick pass from Carr at the line of scrimmage. That put Las Vegas ahead for the first time, 17-13, and the Raiders expanded their lead with another touchdown on the opening drive of the second half.

Had all those empty seats been occupied by green-clad Jets faithful, more than a few probably would have picked that moment to get an early start home. For while there was still nearly half a game to be played, those fans would have been painfully aware that their team came into the game winless in eleven starts, the only NFL franchise without so much as a single victory at the three quarter mark of the schedule. Given that record, it would have been natural to assume that asking the Jets to overcome a deficit of eleven points was beyond reason.

Yet against those seemingly huge odds, New York surprised. After the two teams twice traded three-and-out possessions, Darnold engineered one of his more impressive drives of the season. Staying almost entirely on the ground, the Jets went 96 yards in nine plays, with their quarterback running around right end for the final four yards and a touchdown. A successful two-point conversion brought New York within three points at 24-21 as the third quarter ended. Then the home team recovered a fumble in Raiders territory and capitalized on the short field. Suddenly, with five and a half minutes to play, the Jets were on top, 28-24.

Las Vegas used most of that time on a drive that ultimately came to nothing, going from their own 25 all the way to New York’s 9-yard line. But with the clock now inside the two-minute warning, the Raiders opted against a chip shot field goal, eventually running out of downs, and turning the ball over. From there one New York first down would likely have sealed the first win of the season, so naturally an offense that had driven the ball effectively several times during the game now went nowhere. Three runs by Ty Johnson netted five yards, and the ensuing punt gave the Raiders the ball at their own 39-yard line.

But with a four-point lead and just 35 seconds left in the game, all the Jets defense had to do was protect against the deep pass. Carr threw under the secondary on first down, moving the ball over midfield to the Jets’ 46. And so, the moment arrived. From the sidelines, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams sent in the order for a Cover-0, an all-out blitz by New York defenders, leaving minimal pass coverage in the secondary. If the situation was made for a prevent defense, guarding the necessary attempt by the Raiders to pass deep, the call by Williams was the antithesis. Carr took the snap in the shotgun, dropped back even further as Jets defenders swarmed forward, stepped up as the Las Vegas linemen turned the pass rushers to the outside, and launched a long pass down the left side. Half a football field away, Henry Ruggs III had streaked by the lone defender assigned to him, undrafted rookie cornerback Lamar Jackson. Ruggs was wide open and in full stride at the 2-yard line when the ball arrived, and two steps later he was in the end zone with the winning touchdown.

Depending on one’s choice of pundit, the defensive play by Williams was the worst, dumbest, or laziest call of the weekend, season, or since the beginning of recorded history. The criticism extended from the media right into the Jets’ locker room. Safety Marcus Maye told reporters, “that situation, just has to be a better call. We got to execute, but you got to help us out at the same time.” Meanwhile social media lit up with fans speculating that the Jets might have tried to lose to protect their position at the top of the order for next year’s NFL Draft.

This being the Jets, if tanking had been the intent the play would surely have resulted in the blitz getting through and Carr being sacked as time expired, thus preserving the victory and negating the Machiavellian purpose. It’s far more rational to conclude that the play call was exactly as it appeared, which is to say surpassingly stupid. Williams was fired on Monday, and given a history of difficult relationships with fellow coaches at various stops, plus his admitted role nearly a decade ago in offering New Orleans Saints’ defenders bounties for injuring opponents, the emerging consensus is that he may well have spent his last game on an NFL sideline. But the speed with which Williams was cut loose, and the extent to which head coach Adam Gase went to blame his former coordinator for New York’s woes made clear that the team’s dysfunction runs deep.

Two things Gase does well are deflect criticism and avoid responsibility, skills that were on full display this week but are not generally associated with strong and effective leaders. Fortunately for Jets fans the Gase era should conclude soon after this season’s final game. While the team’s history suggests yet another coaching change is no guarantee of brighter days to come, at least fans can rest easier knowing there’s no longer any chance of Williams taking over. With some luck, the day might even come when Jets fans can again look forward to a trip to MetLife Stadium. For now, they remain one of the very few fan bases for whom the pandemic restriction against attending games is truly a silver lining to a very cloudy year.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 6, 2020

Trying To Keep Winter At Bay

The length of the golf season in New Hampshire is never certain. Sure, there are dates on the calendar. The New Hampshire Golf Association, the USGA’s local affiliate, sets the season as running from April Fool’s to the last day of October. But that just means rounds played on New Hampshire courses outside of that seven-month window can’t count toward one’s handicap. Many golfers play regularly without benefit of an official index, and even those who carry a card and post every score want to play as soon as they can as spring approaches and for as long as possible when winter nears.

The real control is exercised by Mother Nature. Often the first sign that a new season is underway is the sudden sight, on a sunny and brisk March morning, of pins in the cups at Sagamore, the old public course that abuts Interstate 95. At the other end of the year, after spring’s rains and summer’s heat and the eventual return to early darkness amid the growing chill of autumn, the private clubs and some public courses announce closing dates in advance and shutter for the winter in an orderly fashion. But there are always a handful of public venues that squeeze every playable day out of November and, in good years, December, with starters juggling frost delays and intrepid golfers walking the fairways dressed in multiple layers.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Golfer was one of that dwindling number of hardy souls, out for an afternoon nine at Pease, a public course that began life many decades ago as the Portsmouth Country Club. In the early days of the Cold War, the Air Force saw the adjacent property as a prime location for a new base, and along with those thousands of acres requisitioned the land used by the eighteen holes as well, giving generations of officers at Pease AFB a ready-made diversion until the Base was targeted in one of the first rounds of military installation closings in the late ‘80s. Once in sad shape following years of neglect, major investments over the past several years have turned Pease into a well-maintained and managed public layout.

By the final days of November, the routing has been reduced to a composite nine holes that begins on the 1st tee and after three holes from the front nine, jumps to the 10th and skips around holes on the back side before finishing on the 18th. The air is cold but at least the wind is calm, and with three layers of clothing the Golfer is comfortable enough, even if the bundling doesn’t allow for the freest flowing golf swing ever witnessed. Still, if his play has not been spectacular, as the Golfer and the pleasant stranger with whom he has been paired come to the 17th tee, at least he has done nothing to embarrass himself.

But this is golf, which means as long as there are still shots to be struck, the opportunity for abject humiliation is extant. The Golfer’s drive on the penultimate hole, an uphill par-4, is poor. The Titleist flies low and short, tailing off well to the right before it lands. The weak tee shot leaves a lengthy approach up the hill, and despite a so-so lie in light rough, the Golfer pulls a 5-wood from his bag. Predictably, the clubhead becomes entangled in the grass, and the fat shot lands well short of the green. Still, the Golfer tries to remain positive as he walks up the slope preparing to hit his third. That attitude is sorely tested when a lob wedge from 40 yards is bladed. Never more than three feet off the ground, it flies like a bullet for 60 yards, coming to rest in heavy rough behind the putting surface. From there a chip barely climbs onto the green, and two putts later the Golfer gets to mark a double-bogey 6 on his scorecard.

The 18th tee at Pease is so close to the 17th green one must be wary of errant approach shots from players down in the fairway. It’s also the highest spot on the course, and just off the approach line for the airport’s runway. The challenge is always to not be distracted by any of that. In this case the Golfer must also put the shoddy play of the past few minutes out of his mind, for the home hole is worthy of its place in the rotation. It’s a long par-4 with a tee shot back down the hill followed by an approach that will run away from the green either left or right if hit offline.

His drive is only slightly better than the previous one. It doesn’t tail, but it’s blocked out to the right, thankfully missing a small stand of trees but finishing off the fairway. The blue flag waving gently in the distance means the pin is in the back third of the green. Fortunately, the Golfer has drawn a clean lie, but the hole is more than 200 yards away. A 3-wood is the choice, but now he must wait for the group ahead to finish its business. How many bad thoughts can run through his mind while he stands there?

Yet when at last he addresses the ball, his mind is blessedly blank. A little forward press with the right knee to get the swing started, a full turn, down and through to a high finish, and the ball is on its way. It sails through the air as if guided by a laser. With the sun lowering in the west, the Golfer can’t see exactly where the shot has ended, but he begins the walk to the green knowing he can’t hit a 3-wood any better than the shot he has just struck.

And there it is, pin high, six feet right of the hole! He waits while his playing partner overcomes some difficulty, then finally he lines up the putt, which he sees breaking to the left. The Ping putter sends the sphere on its way, the curve is just as expected, and a beautiful birdie 3 goes on the scorecard right next to the ugly 6.

The old line is that a birdie at the last is the golf gods giving something to a player as enticement to return. The Golfer needs no such encouragement, instead marveling at a game that can, in the space of minutes, go from extraordinarily difficult and frustrating to sublimely simple and rewarding. He’s already looking forward to a scheduled round the following Saturday. But that next weekend begins with heavy rain and ends with two inches of snow and ice on the ground. While the temperature is expected to slowly moderate, the forecast for the following weekend is also wet.

If there is another chance, the Golfer will of course take it. But perhaps that 3-wood was the last full swing of the year, the six-footer that fell in the heart of the cup the final putt of the season. If so, they will be remembered and valued, but then so will the bad swings and poor shots that came just before, for like good and bad times away from the course, at least the Golfer got to experience them. In sports, as in life, the admonition of the songwriter rings true – “try to treat each day with the same devotion, ‘cuz you never know just how long you’re gonna be around.”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 3, 2020

A Long Cold Winter Awaits Baseball’s Middle Class

As the Great Game moves into the hot stove season, the focus as always will be on a handful of top-tier free agents and potential trade chips, players who are believed capable of serving as a franchise’s foundation for success in pennant chases for years to come. Whether next week or next month, when word comes of this blockbuster multi-player deal or that mega-million dollar contract, fans of this winter’s perceived winners of the offseason will rejoice at the perspicacity and daring of their club’s general manager even as they prepare to cheer their newest hero.

Not every marquee move works out as planned, and some of those cheers will likely morph into the Bronx variety in time. But even if the path to an anticipated championship turns instead into a dead end, the headliners of this year’s offseason will still make out just fine. Whatever uniforms the likes of DJ LeMahieu, Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, and a handful of other players are wearing come next season, their new contracts will be guaranteed to pay them handsomely. For the far larger next tier of ballplayers though, the hot stove may never get beyond lukewarm between now and Spring Training.

That has been the case for several years now. Last offseason was a bit better from the players’ perspective, causing some to hope that owners were loosening their purse strings, perhaps to create a less hostile environment for coming negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. But even if those hopes were well-founded and not mere fantasy, they were thoroughly dashed by the pandemic. A truncated season without fans in the stands saddled franchises with heavy losses of somewhere between a buck and a half and untold billions. That absurd range is offered only partly in jest, because the full extent of financial hemorrhaging remains unknown since owners steadfastly refuse to open their books to the Players Association. Yet while the actual number remains hidden, there’s no doubt that significant losses were incurred. Along with the uncertainty still surrounding next season, that gives front offices a ready-made basis for keeping checkbooks tightly closed in the coming weeks.

Like an unwelcome early snowfall, the first effects of what’s expected to be a parsimonious winter were seen this week, when MLB marked the deadline for offering contracts to players not signed to multi-year deals and not yet eligible for free agency. Those with less than three years of major league service time could sign what’s offered or look for another job, while players with between three and six years of service had the option of going to arbitration. But whether eligible for arbitration or not, a player who was not tendered a contract offer by his club by late Wednesday afternoon became a free agent, which is to say, unemployed. This week fifty-nine players were non-tendered, cut loose from their major league team. That’s a record number, though less than some had feared in part because another fifty-nine – also a record – took the first offer they received from their franchise rather than risk having it withdrawn. Some players were also believed to have been wary of an arbitration process that will look at statistics from a season of just sixty games.

Adding almost five dozen more names to the available free agent talent pool clearly strengthens the bargaining position of every general manager. Since that number includes players like 27-year-old outfielder David Dahl, an All-Star in 2019 who the Rockies decided was too expensive at a likely arbitration salary in the very affordable $3 million range, and 28-year-old Kyle Schwarber, a fan favorite during the Cubs’ 2016 postseason march to a championship who isn’t much on defense but would seem to be a perfect fit for a club in need of a left-handed DH at $5 million or less, the advantage to front offices throughout the majors is very real. Rather than the antiquated image of fans gathered around the proverbial hot stove comparing notes on their favorite players and waiting for winter to pass, this offseason might be better symbolized by shoppers – GMs, that is – rushing to Boston’s Downtown Crossing for a visit to Filene’s Basement in its heyday, eager to scoop up bargains among the now more than 230 free agents.

Between now and the start of Spring Training, assuming for the moment that in 2021 the Great Game has a preseason that is reasonably recognizable and commences at more or less its usual time, websites and sports pages will trumpet the big new contracts signed by the top names in this free agent class. But the story behind those headlines seems certain to be about the growing financial gap between that handful of premium players and baseball’s large middle class of highly skilled athletes who will never see the inside of Cooperstown unless they buy a ticket, but who will always be indispensable to any team’s success.

As franchises have come to rely slavishly on advanced metrics, callously manipulate the major league service time of young players, and treat both budding stars and veteran journeymen as little more than expendable commodities due to the ever present availability of cheaper talent, an offseason like the one now underway is the predictable result, and that’s before the economic tsunami of the pandemic swept through the balance sheets of thirty major league franchises. Yet in time those floodwaters will recede, while baseball’s lopsided financial playing field will remain. This week confirmed that for the vast majority of owners that is just fine, since they currently occupy the high ground. But for a sport that has enjoyed the luxury of a quarter-century of labor peace, that smug attitude may well prove astonishingly shortsighted.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 29, 2020

The Virus Rules As Football Plows Ahead

Remember when it seemed like the baseball season was a mess? Those long-ago days back in July and August, when first the Marlins and then the Cardinals saw their clubhouses overrun by COVID infections, resulting in games being cancelled and schedules reshuffled? In retrospect, what at the time felt like chaos now looks rather orderly. That’s because as winter approaches and each day’s report of coronavirus numbers in the U.S. gets progressively worse, with no corner of the country going unscathed, football is proving what in truth fans have known all along, namely that sports are no refuge from reality.

The college season staggers toward its end, with university athletic directors and executives at major conferences determined to get to the huge financial payday of bowl games and the four-team playoff to determine a national champion. No matter that of the four teams whose current rankings would place them in that tournament, one played this weekend without its head coach and another had its scheduled game cancelled. Both Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Ryan Day received positive COVID diagnoses that removed them from the sidelines. In Saban’s case that didn’t really seem to matter, as this year’s Iron Bowl game against cross-state rival Auburn was no classic contest sure to be long remembered, but a forgettable Crimson Tide rout. How the Buckeyes would have fared without Day’s personal guidance will never be known, as Ohio State’s matchup against Illinois was called off less than 24 hours before kickoff, one of 19 games wiped off the college calendar over the long Thanksgiving weekend alone.

Even where games were played there were sights never before seen. At Faurot Field on the campus of the University of Missouri, the visiting Vanderbilt Commodores turned to Sarah Fuller to handle the team’s placekicking after everyone at the position on the team’s depth chart was forced to quarantine because of contact with an infected individual. Fuller, who said she found her usual job of tending goal for the school’s women’s soccer team during Vanderbilt’s recent victory in the SEC championship game more stressful, handled her one time on the field, the kickoff to start the second half, flawlessly. That was more than can be said for the rest of the roster on winless Vanderbilt, which lost to Missouri 41-0.

Fuller’s appearance was the first by a woman wearing the football uniform of a Power 5 conference team. The historic event was both a welcome sight and great for Fuller, even as it was met by a sadly predictable wave of misogynistic comments from some quarters. But no one should imagine for even a moment that it was a sign of a new commitment to gender equity in collegiate sports. Rather it was entirely about what Vanderbilt athletes were already participating in the school’s COVID-19 protocols. To that end it should be noted that the university doesn’t field a men’s soccer team.

But at least the Commodores could turn to someone who had experience kicking a ball. That placed the college team far ahead of one of its professional counterparts. Jeff Driscoll, one of four quarterbacks on the Denver Broncos roster, tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday. Within a day’s time it was determined that he had come in contact – without a mask – with all three of his signal-calling colleagues. That meant Blake Bortles, Drew Lock, and Brett Rypien were ruled ineligible for Sunday’s game against New Orleans. But with the NFL season heading into its final weeks and both the Broncos and Saints having already had their bye week, the contest went on as planned, even though one team had no quarterback on its roster. Since the league is playing its full 16-game schedule, this was akin to telling the Colorado Rockies (to keep the example in Denver) during a regular 162-game baseball season, that they must go ten games using only position players as pitchers. Would fans consider that to be fair or the results of those games legitimate? That is of course a silly question when the NFL’s only goal is to continue to reap the earnings from its television contracts as it plows ahead to the megadollar bonanza of the Super Bowl.

Amidst all this mindless pursuit of cash in the middle of a steadily worsening pandemic, there was one other NFL story that can only be described as quintessentially 2020.

Matt Patricia, the head coach of the Detroit Lions since 2018, was fired on Saturday, two days after the Lions lost at home on Thanksgiving Day, as they almost always do. Given Patricia’s record of 13-29-1 while at the helm, the news was not exactly surprising. But it came between twin celebrations in Washington and New York, as first the Football Team with its win over Dallas on Thursday, and then the Giants with a victory over the Bengals on Sunday, claimed first place in the NFC East. Fans in both cities were excited about two teams that now have identical records of 4-7, exactly the mark that was bad enough to get Patricia axed. But then Detroit is in the NFC North, a division where real football is played. Unfortunately for the former head coach, in the NFL as in real estate, location is everything.

It’s all more than enough to make one pine for those simple days of home runs and strikeouts, and not enough of anything else. Which in turn leads one to harken back to an even earlier, and profoundly different time, and to conclude with a heartfelt “happy birthday” to two immortals who can blow out candles together. For Sunday marks the annual turn of the calendar for the greatest closer in the history of the Great Game, Mariano Rivera, and for the baseball announcer against whom all others are judged and found wanting, Vin Scully. Happy birthday Mo. Happy birthday Mr. Scully. We miss you both, for your talent of course, but also for your grace. Oh man, these days we miss that a lot.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 26, 2020

College Seasons Stagger On

Even as sports fans were turning their attention to the Thanksgiving holiday and its attendant rituals, the seasons of the two major college sports clamored for a bit of attention this week. In one sense it’s easy to see that as a good thing. After all, as clearly evidenced by those aforementioned rituals, Thanksgiving during a pandemic was, like so many other things this year, necessarily diminished.

The Macy’s Parade, a morning staple for millions, was reduced to a made-for-television event, with much of what viewers saw Thursday morning taped for broadcast earlier in the week, and the live portions parading, if it can be called that, for just a single city block in front of the department store chain’s flagship outpost on Gotham’s Herald Square. No long march from Central Park West down Broadway to the delight of a couple hundred thousand spectators. No high school and college bands from around the country. And while the Rockettes did make their usual appearance, their performance was of a number from the Nutcracker that was specifically chosen because it allowed the dancers to maintain distance from each other for much of the routine.

Then there was the tepid appeal of the day’s traditional sports fare, multiple clashes between NFL teams. The game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, originally scheduled for Thanksgiving night, was belatedly moved to Sunday afternoon after multiple positive COVID-19 tests among Ravens players. While the decision was clearly the right one, it eliminated a contest between a very good Baltimore squad that has been reeling with injuries of late, and the lone remaining undefeated franchise in the NFL, the Steelers. The removal of that appealing holiday matchup left four teams with a combined record of 13-27. That’s partly because the two traditional Thanksgiving hosts are Detroit and Dallas. The Lions have posted losing records in fifteen of the last twenty seasons, including one in which the team failed to win a single game. The Cowboys, despite the braggadocio of owner Jerry Jones, the opulence of Texas Stadium, and the market value of the franchise, haven’t been among the NFL’s elite clubs on the field in a generation, and this year are part of the most embarrassingly bad division in the league. But Thanksgiving Day games in Detroit and Dallas are apparently written into the NFL’s bylaws, leaving fans with games involving those sorry clubs and the equally bad representatives from Houston and Washington.

So at least there was college football and basketball to talk about. On Tuesday, the selection committee for the College Football Playoff released its first pass at the rankings that will ultimately determine the four schools participating in this season’s tournament as well as the teams headed to major bowl games. Then just one day later the college basketball season began, with a very full schedule of games in every corner of the country. Yet while the usual debate over the playoff rankings is always entertaining, and perusing the long list of hardcourt scores and game recaps was a pleasant diversion, one couldn’t help but wonder if the existence of either made any sense.

Public comment from the CFP selection committee confirmed the obvious, that in a season that started late and for some schools has been interrupted more than once by coronavirus-related issues, evaluating teams that have played different numbers of games with widely varying strength of schedule ratings, is especially fraught. But that problem isn’t going away. More games scheduled for this weekend have been cancelled, and Nick Saban, coach of the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, will not be on the sidelines for his team’s battle against archrival Auburn after testing positive for COVID.

Disruptions to the schedule also likely doom any chance of undefeated Cincinnati cracking the top four in the committee’s rankings and becoming the first team from outside a Power 5 conference to make the Playoff. The Bearcats placed seventh in this week’s ranking, but changes to Cincinnati’s schedule, forced by the pandemic, leave the team with just one regular season game left to play, while most other schools in the top ten have three contests remaining. With such a limited opportunity to impress the committee, it will take an unlikely combination of losses by multiple higher ranked teams for the Bearcats to crash the usual Power 5 postseason party.

The scattershot nature of the college football season should logically have served as a warning to the NCAA for basketball and other winter sports, but other than a modest shift in the starting date, the current plan is to follow Wednesday’s slightly delayed opening tilts with week upon week of games, all leading up to a planned tournament next March. Some adjustments are being made in terms of travel, and, if the regular season somehow goes according to plan, the usual scattering of opening round tournament sites across the nation will be replaced by a centralized March Madness, with all games played in a single geographic area, most likely greater Indianapolis. That location is favored because it’s already the scheduled host of next spring’s Final Four, and of course also happens to be home to NCAA headquarters.

But the entire effort, much like the college football season that is staggering towards its own conclusion, reeks of a desperate money grab. Already basketball games are being canceled and early season tournaments are shuffling participants because of infections among teams. It’s as if no one has taken notice of the dramatic spread of the virus across every corner of the country, with daily numbers that once would have been unfathomable now depressingly routine.

Bounced from the game after an ugly recruiting scandal at Louisville, Rick Pitino has recently returned to college hoops as the head coach at Iona. Proving that even a charlatan can have an original and smart idea, he proposed that the start of the season be delayed until March, with the tournament played in May. Pitino argues that a vaccine is clearly coming, and that unlike football, his sport is played indoors, making the likelihood of transmission that much greater. But the sport’s answer to Pitino can be seen in the list of scores from Wednesday’s games. So much for May Madness.

Like the conferences behind the College Football Playoff, the NCAA, which controls college basketball, sees nothing but the dollars associated with television contracts and postseason play. Dollars that will flow to conferences, individual schools, and, for basketball at least, to the Association. But in neither instance will the money trickle down to the athletes who are on the courts and fields playing the games and taking the special risks of this unique season. So those athletes entertain us, the games go on, coffers are fattened, and everyone keeps their fingers ever so tightly crossed.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 22, 2020

Squandering A Career And Disgracing A Namesake

What’s in a name? The question has been pondered for at least four centuries, since Shakespeare, through the voice of Juliet Capulet lamenting the family enmity that kept her apart from Romeo Montague, suggested “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Of course, her soliloquy is early in Act Two, and by the end of Act Five Ms. Capulet learns in the harshest possible way that a name can mean a very great deal indeed.

In part because it is a story without a happy ending, but mostly because of that famous speech, the “Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” as it was styled when first published, came to mind this week when news came of a star ballplayer being suspended after testing positive for performance enhancers. When the player who made headlines on Wednesday was born thirty-eight years ago in San Pedro de Macoris, a city on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic that has been the birthplace of scores of major leaguers, he was given the first name of Robinson to honor the man who battered down baseball’s color barrier when he took his position at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Robinson Cano’s father Jose was also a ballplayer, one who had made it to The Show, albeit ever so briefly, as a pitcher for the Astros after spending years in the farm systems of the Yankees and Atlanta. That experience left Jose with an understanding of the history of the Great Game and the importance of Jackie Robinson, and in choosing a first name for his new son he passed on both his aspirations and a heavy responsibility.

As detailed in this space two and a half years ago, some children might have staggered under the weight of the lofty expectations conveyed by that name, perhaps even renouncing any interest in the sport, but the young Cano met them head on. Growing up mostly in his native Dominican Republic, with a three year interlude in New Jersey, Cano played both baseball and basketball. Early in 2001 he followed in his father’s footsteps, signing an amateur free agent contract with the Yankees, for which he received a $100,000 bonus. He arrived in the Bronx early in 2005, and over nine seasons in pinstripes became a favorite of Yankee fans. He was runner-up in the American League Rookie of the Year voting that first season and went on to represent New York on five All-Star teams while winning five Silver Slugger Awards and two Gold Gloves.

When he reached free agency after the 2013 campaign, the Yankees offered Cano $175 million over seven years, and sought to entice him with the prospect of being the first Dominican player to have a plaque in Monument Park. But it was widely believed at the time that Cano was interested in cash, not sentiment, and that was confirmed when he inked a ten-year, $240 million contract with the Mariners.

Cano found his way into On Sports and Life in May 2018 when after four-plus solid seasons with Seattle that included three more All-Star appearances, he was suspended for eighty games after testing positive for the diuretic Furosemide, which is used as a masking agent to make it harder to detect steroids. As is too often the case, the news was not entirely surprising. Despite his popularity while serving as one-half of the Yankees’ double play tandem, Cano’s work ethic often stood in sharp contrast to his teammate on the other side of second base, shortstop and team captain Derek Jeter. When an at-bat produced a routine grounder hit right at an opposing infielder, Cano would sometimes barely nod in the direction of first base. And while he had good range and was capable of dramatic plays in the field, on occasion he was content to simply wave his glove at a ball that looked to be within reach. When his 2018 suspension was announced those moments, along with close relationships with Melky Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez in the New York clubhouse, both of whom had by then been the subject of PEDS-related suspensions, could all be seen in retrospect as early indicators of a player willing to accept shortcuts.

In the thirty months since that suspension, Cano returned to the Mariners late in the 2018 season, and then was traded to the Mets during the ensuing winter. In Queens he appeared to be well into decline in 2019 before putting up significantly better numbers during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. But then came this week’s news, of a positive test for Stanozolol – no masking agent this time, rather one of the most common and easily detected steroids – and, as mandated by baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, a suspension for the entirety of the 2021 season. Perhaps in keeping with his history of sometimes not even trying, this time Cano hasn’t even bothered with the ritual public apology.

At Citi Field this story is being treated as good news, since it frees up $24 million in new Mets owner Steve Cohen’s budget for the coming season. But before Mets fans get too excited, they should remember that a year from now, when a 39-year-old Cano returns with what little he then has to offer, he’ll still be due the same amount from Cohen’s very fat checkbook for two more years. On the other hand, an owner who recently proposed the brilliant idea of turning Bobby Bonilla Day, the Metropolitans’ long-running annual exercise in ignominy, into an actual day at the ballpark complete with an oversized check being handed to Bonilla at home plate, seems capable of absorbing those blows when they come.

As for Robinson Cano, he has secured his place in the long story of the Great Game. It is not in Cooperstown, where he once appeared to be headed, but in the dark chapter of the game’s transgressors, one more among far too many players who squandered the precious opportunity they were given. In that nether world Cano’s case is especially egregious, for in his shame he has sullied one of the Great Game’s most hallowed names. What’s in a name, Robinson? Everything.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 19, 2020

Winning, In All Its Glorious Complexity

Winning. As fans, this is what we hope to see our heroes achieve, this is the result we stand ready to cheer. We learn from an early age to exult when the outcome, be it of a game or a career, is victory. Winning is, as the hoary maxim most often incorrectly attributed to Vince Lombardi goes, not everything, but the only thing. And yet so very often the attributes that we most admire in the stars of all our games are seen most clearly not at a time of triumph, but during adversity. It is in the furnace of setbacks and trials that resilience and character are forged.

Tiger Woods made the short walk from the 11th green to the 12th tee at Augusta National last Sunday afternoon 2-over par for his round and more than a dozen strokes behind leader Dustin Johnson. While a flame of hope had briefly flickered in the hearts of millions of fans when Woods opened the tournament with a 68, his best Thursday score ever at the Masters, it had since become obvious that the pandemic-delayed final major of the year was not going to produce a sixth green jacket for the greatest golfer of his generation.

But no one, certainly including Woods himself, could have anticipated what happened next on the shortest hole on the golf course. A tee shot, caught in the swirling winds of Amen Corner, landing short of the putting surface, and rolling back down the bank into Rae’s Creek. After the penalty, a second ball struck from the drop area with so much spin that it rolled several yards backwards on the green and down the slope, into the water. Another penalty stroke and then a fifth shot, predictably too hard and into the bunker behind the green, from which Woods was forced to swing from an especially awkward lie. That shot, his sixth, sailing across the green and into the water, adding yet another penalty. Finally, with his eight stroke on the hole, once more from the bunker, a ball left dry and puttable. Two putts to cover the remaining distance, and Woods had recorded a 10, his highest score on any hole in any tournament since turning pro in 1996.

It would be understandable for Woods to have been stunned by what had just unfolded. Certainly everyone watching the CBS Sports broadcast was in a state of slack-jawed shock. It’s also very possible that his fragile back was tweaked by the contortions of his stance in the sand trap. And no matter what happened over the remaining six holes, he was not going to finish anywhere near Johnson. Given all that, no one would have judged him badly had Woods simply knocked the ball around for six more holes, finishing as quickly as possible with whatever score resulted.

Instead, he striped a drive around the corner of the dogleg par-5 13th hole. From there an iron to the green set up a two-putt birdie. Then, after a routine par at the next, Woods hit another long drive down the hill on the 15th. His approach from the fairway finished just off the green at the par-5, and a chip to tap-in distance gave him another birdie. At the short 16th, which featured an unusual Sunday pin placement on the upper right shelf at the back of the green, Woods’s hit his tee shot to three feet. Yet another birdie, followed by one on 17 and one final emphatic under par score at the last. Five birdies in six holes, from a golfer who, more than anyone in the field, had absolutely nothing to prove and after a catastrophe that would have led many of his fellow competitors to, if not exactly quit, at the very least show little concern for their performance.

Two days prior to that demonstration of will, a long day’s drive south of Augusta National, the Miami Marlins announced a hiring that was at once groundbreaking, long overdue, and very much a product of will. After three decades in the Great Game, beginning with an internship for the Chicago White Sox, Kim Ng was named general manager of the team that surprised fans everywhere by making the playoffs last season for the first time since 2003. Ng (pronounced “Ang”) is the first Asian-American GM in MLB, and the first woman to serve in that role in any of the major North American men’s sports leagues.

To understand the transcendent power of her appointment, one needed only look at the social media posts of other women who work in baseball. From women who are coaches in the minor league system of various clubs, to scouts, front office personnel, and, perhaps because they tend to have an active social media presence, especially among women sportswriters, like Emma Baccellieri and Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated, Hannah Keyser of Yahoo Sports, and Molly Knight and Lindsay Adler of The Athletic, came a tidal wave of joy mixed with “pinch me so I know I’m not dreaming” incredulity.

That latter emotion was in ample supply because for Ng, the setbacks were not sudden and unexpected as with Woods at the Masters. Rather her trials were persistent and entrenched, playing out repeatedly over long years as she built an ever more impressive resume of accomplishment as a baseball executive. Ng turned the White Sox internship into a fulltime position in Chicago, eventually becoming assistant director of baseball operations. Then, after a stop in the American League’s headquarters, she worked with Brian Cashman as assistant general manager of the Yankees. Next it was across the country to L.A., initially to oversee scouting for the Dodgers before eventually expanding her duties. While in Los Angeles she worked closely with Joe Torre when he served as the team’s manager, and when he moved on to MLB’s front office he wasted no time in recruiting Ng back to New York, where for the last decade she has been senior vice president of baseball operations.

With all that experience it was only natural that Ng would be interviewed for general manager positions, and she was – repeatedly. But every time she went through the recruitment process, it ended not with opportunity, but disappointment. And, of course, every time Ng was passed over, the chosen candidate was a man. It would have been easy to become bitter, or defeated, or resigned. Instead Ng kept enhancing her experience and seeking her chance. Finally it was Marlins’ chief executive Derek Jeter, who first knew Ng when he was a young shortstop emerging as a superstar in the Bronx, who saw Ng not as the most talented woman, but simply as the best person to lead his team’s front office. When the news of her hiring broke several of her former bosses called Ng the most qualified person ever to become a first-time GM.

Winning. If the definition is limited to the story told by numbers on a scoreboard or words in a press release, then the easy conclusion is that Tiger Woods lost at the Masters, and Kim Ng won a new job. But dedicated fans know that the full story is rarely so simple. As these two champions of two vastly different sports demonstrated this week, the most personal victories aren’t always reflected in the final score, and the most meaningful triumphs seldom come easily.

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