Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 28, 2020

Faces In The Crowd, But Maybe Not For Long

The list includes Tiger and Phil of course, but also Rory, Rickie, and Sergio. They are the established fan favorites of the PGA Tour, golfers who might as well discard their last names, for everyone who follows the Tour knows exactly who they are at the mention of their first. Sometimes even that much is unnecessary, and the calls from those behind the ropes – at least back in the old days when tournaments were played in front of galleries – are for “DJ” or “JT,” as if the sight of Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas walking down a fairway was akin to spying some old buddy strolling along the street. The practice is not new. For well over half a century fans have understood which golfer was being discussed when the subject was Arnie or Jack. Nor is it unique to golf. No matter the sport, fans freely claim a familiarity with their heroes that is of course illusory.

So someone checking the PGA Tour’s website Sunday evening didn’t really need to see the picture that accompanied the headline “DJ Wins Travelers Championship” to know that Johnson had captured his twenty-first Tour title at this weekend’s tournament in Cromwell Connecticut. The win keeps alive Johnson’s streak of recording at least one victory a year since joining the Tour in 2008. It also moves him into a tie for thirtieth place on the Tour’s list of career victories. One of the longest hitters on Tour and possessed of a preternaturally calm demeanor, Johnson, who just turned thirty-six at the beginning of the week, should continue moving up that list for years to come. After all, Phil Mickelson, playing in his first tournament since celebrating his fiftieth birthday earlier in the month, opened the Travelers with rounds of 64 and 63 to lead the tournament at its halfway point, before sliding down the leader board with a pair of 71s on the weekend.

But for all the attention paid to a relatively short list of immediately recognizable players, the most remarkable quality of the PGA Tour is its depth. A full-field event like the Travelers has one hundred fifty-six tee times for the opening round, and every week a surprisingly large number of the golfers who fill Thursday’s tee sheet have a legitimate shot at hoisting the trophy come Sunday evening. Among those many lesser known names there are always compelling stories. Two that stood out at the Travelers were the journeys of Brendon Todd and Will Gordon.

Todd had plenty of face time on the CBS broadcast of the tournament, thanks to play that progressed from solid to spectacular through the first three rounds. He opened with 4-under par 66, improved that score by one shot on Friday, and then lit up a rain-softened TPC River Highlands with a 9-under par 61 on Saturday. Todd made the most of the Tour’s so-called moving day, vaulting up the leader board into a two-shot lead heading into the final 18 holes.

In the end he wasn’t able to sustain his lofty position, undone in a matter of five minutes on the par-4 12th hole, when after his approach shot leaked every so slightly right into a difficult lie in the greenside rough, Todd needed four more shots just to get his ball on the green, and one putt from there to finally end the carnage of a triple-bogey. But while that disaster was the major blemish in a final round 75 that dropped him into a tie for eleventh place, six shots behind Johnson, Todd may still be the best golfer that no one knows. Had he gone on to win in Cromwell, the victory would have been his third of the current PGA Tour season, following a pair of wins last November. More remarkable still is that this outstanding season is coming five years after Todd notched his first win on Tour, at the 2014 Byron Nelson Championship, and that victory in turn came five years after he first earned his PGA Tour card.

In between those highlights Todd has twice plunged into golf’s depths. He lost his card after his first season on Tour, when he made just five cuts in twenty-one events. It took him five years to regain full-time playing privileges. Then he wandered back into golf’s wilderness just two years later, fighting what he has described as the “ball-striking yips,” at one point missing thirty-seven cuts in forty starts in golf’s minor leagues. Many golfers would have given up the game by that point, and Todd seriously considered doing so. But a last gasp effort with a new coach finally began to produce some positive results, and now his multiple wins make him part of the discussion for Player of the Year honors.

Will Gordon has already won that award, albeit at a slightly different level of golf, the Southeastern Conference. Just twenty-three and little more than a year removed from Vanderbilt University, Gordon’s professional road has been far shorter than Todd’s, but not free of potholes. This time last year the Tour’s publicity machine as well as sponsors and fans were celebrating the arrival of Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland, the newest young amateurs to move into the professional ranks. With ready smiles and swings unencumbered by the second guessing that comes with experience, Wolff and Hovland have been touted as the future of the game, and each has begun to justify the hype by already recording his first Tour win.

But press releases and sponsors checks can only go to so many players, and by all accounts Gordon was next in line in terms of ability, right behind the two who became the center of attention. Without such support, he was left to venture north to the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, and to beg for sponsors exemptions to the occasional big-league event. He’s played very well north of the border, quickly earning exempt status on the developmental circuit that is run by the PGA Tour. But when the pandemic struck the entire Mackenzie schedule was wiped out, leaving Gordon home in North Carolina, looking for somewhere to ply his trade.

Along came the Travelers, which under tournament director Nathan Grube has a history of extending invitations to promising young players. Over the years the tournament has made room for the likes of Justin Thomas long before he was just JT, as well as eventual stars Patrick Cantlay, Jon Rahm, and Webb Simpson. This year an exemption went to Gordon, who turned the promise of one tournament into a ticket to many. After a first-round 66, he went out in the morning wave on Friday and returned an 8-under par 62, good for the early clubhouse lead. While he had to good sense to remind reporters that many golfers had yet to complete their second rounds, the score vaulted Gordon up the leader board. He slumped to a 1-over 71 on Saturday, but then found his game again on Sunday, closing with a 64 that included a birdie at the last. That final circle on his scorecard proved especially significant, as Gordon’s 17-under par total left him in a two-way tie for third place, which gave him just a big enough paycheck to earn playing status on the PGA Tour for the remainder of the year.

So, congratulations to DJ on a well-earned victory, and hat’s off to Phil, who showed that even at fifty he still has a few thrills left in him. But let’s also applaud Brendon Todd and Will Gordon because one never knows. Maybe in a year or two they’ll be BT and Will.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 25, 2020

The Hard Parts Are Still To Come

At last we have a baseball season – of sorts – to look forward to, and the process of putting the schedule in place sure went well, didn’t it? Okay, at the moment that assertion might charitably be called delusional, but as torturous as the struggle between MLB and the Players Association over terms of the abbreviated 2020 campaign was, it may yet wind up looking like the easy part. For ahead lies the uncertain and possibly outright dangerous task of 30 teams playing 900 games in 28 cities over 10 weeks in the middle of a pandemic. Then not very far down the road, at the end of what we all hope will be a full and normal 2021 season, owners and players return to the table to negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, a vastly more consequential deal than the one for which agreement just proved so stubbornly elusive.

In the past few days, the immediate risks have been highlighted by the surging number of athletes and others, in sports that have already restarted or are about to do so, identified as infected with the COVID-19 virus. Two players and two caddies on the PGA Tour, which returned to action two weeks ago. Ezekiel Elliott and several Dallas Cowboys teammates, as the NFL steams along toward the opening of training camps in late July. A long and growing list of college football players, as campuses have opened for team practices. And of course there was a wave of positive test results among minor leaguers and team employees at multiple spring training facilities in both Florida and Arizona that led to the closure of all camps and MLB’s decision that every team would conduct practice sessions in preparation for the coming short season at its home stadium. Though that is hardly a guarantee of safety, a point driven home by the announcement that four-time All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon was one of three players on the Colorado Rockies who tested positive after working out at Coors Field.

That partial list touches multiple sports, but it doesn’t include several tennis players who contracted the virus while playing on an exhibition tour organized by world number one Novak Djokovic that featured crowded nighttime parties and a purposeful rejection of social distancing guidelines among both players and fans at matches. But surely such willful idiocy, in addition to proving that the best tennis player in the world possesses enormous arrogance but no common sense, is unique. Or is it? The plan for baseball does not envision sequestering players or team personnel once they leave the stadium, and it stretches credulity to imagine that every player on each expanded roster and all the support personnel needed to stage the games will constantly adhere to MLB’s guidelines.

Those protocols are set forth in a 113-page operations manual that will govern this unique season. That’s three times as long as the document provided to PGA Tour pros, so perhaps baseball will be three times as safe. Then again, it’s the exact same length as the NBA’s manual, and the basketball league has the advantage of planning to play within a bubble at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports near Orlando. Though given Florida’s spiking infection numbers the players who will soon assemble at Disney World are surely hoping the NBA’s bubble doesn’t burst. The unpleasant truth is that no one really knows whether any league’s precautions will be sufficient, though each day’s headlines make clear the desperate fragility of a schedule that envisions thirty teams working out or playing every day from next week until late October when a champion is crowned. Once negotiations finally ended and commissioner Rob Manfred imposed the short season plan, bookmakers wasted no time in setting every team’s odds of winning the World Series. Perhaps they should instead be allowing fans to gamble on whether baseball makes it to the Fall Classic.

Quite apart from any parochial rooting interest, all fans should hope to see a 2020 World Series, for the Great Game being forced to shut down would mean it had been visited by a ghastly degree of illness or worse. But if fortune should smile on baseball this year, the short season will be but prelude to a likely confrontation in the fall and winter of 2021 that will make the recent back and forth between the MLBPA and the owners look like a polite disagreement over afternoon tea. There’s been general acknowledgement that the major obstacle to reaching consensus on the terms of play this year was the profound lack of trust between the parties, and it’s hard to conceive of anything happening between now and next year to change that.

A generation of younger fans has never known the wrenching dislocation of a work stoppage in baseball. With labor peace since the 1994-95 strike, another generation recalls such events only dimly. But that strike, which brought the 1994 season to an abrupt halt in early August and ultimately shortened the following campaign to 144 games, was the eighth time in little more than two decades that play had been interrupted by labor issues. Despite the lack of current collective memory, the sport’s history has plenty of chapters focused on struggles between players and owners over myriad issues.

With teams unilaterally altering the basic economic understanding upon which players’ careers have been built, costing midlevel free agents millions of dollars while manipulating the service time of younger, cost-controlled players, with teams purposely tanking and putting an intentionally inferior product on the field for multiple seasons in hopes of building up future prospects, and with owners steadfastly refusing to open their books to substantiate their claims of little or no profits, baseball seems primed for a return to the bad old days of labor strife.

Just as fans should pray this year’s short schedule is played to its conclusion, they should also hope next season does not end in such discord. In an interview this week Manfred, after specifying that the pronoun he was using encompassed himself, his staff, owners, the Players Association and individual players, said “we owe it to our fans to be better than we’ve been the last three months.” Those are good words, and as recently noted in this space, words matter; words can be powerful symbols. But as the steward of the Great Game, Manfred should know that symbols alone are not enough. The legend of the 1932 World Series is not just about Babe Ruth, down to his final strike, symbolically pointing to center field. It’s also about what he did next.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 21, 2020

Tiz The Law Was Right On Time

The race was two weeks late and four months early. That’s not meant to be a brain-teasing riddle, but an illustration of how the coronavirus pandemic has turned the sports calendar upside down and inside out. The Belmont Stakes, which went off late Saturday afternoon, was originally scheduled for June 6, but was delayed two weeks by the New York Racing Association when it put together the spring meeting at Belmont Park after racing, which had been shut down at all New York tracks in March, was cleared to resume.

That original schedule of course had the Belmont in its traditional position as the third jewel of the Triple Crown, three weeks after the Preakness States and five weeks distant from the first Saturday in May’s Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. But the usual dates for both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness were scrubbed early in the nationwide response to the pandemic, with the former moved to September and the latter set for Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course early in October. Maintaining the usual order of the Triple Crown would have thus required moving the Belmont to the middle of autumn. However, that would have pushed it up against the two-day card of the Breeders’ Cup, still scheduled for Keeneland the first weekend in November. Horse racing has no central authority, no commissioner of thoroughbreds to mete out dates and maintain order, so the NYRA had little choice but to set this new date and shuffle the Triple Crown deck for 2020.

With the Belmont now leading off the Triple Crown, and with the limited number of prep races available to the contenders over the last three months, the race was further altered in a much more meaningful way than its date. Long known as the “Test of the Champion” for its grueling mile and a half distance, one full trip around the massive track nicknamed “Big Sandy,” this year’s Belmont was reduced to a mile and an eighth, changing it from the longest of the Triple Crown races to the shortest. The race’s shortened distance, on the expansive Belmont oval, also meant that the first Triple Crown race of the year wasn’t even contested around two turns. Instead the horses were loaded into a gate at the far end of a long chute leading onto the back stretch. The mile and an eighth was covered by then racing down that long straightaway, around the far turn, and back to the finish line in front of Belmont Park’s huge grandstand, the largest ever built at a racetrack.

Anyone sitting near that finish line would have needed a good pair of binoculars to track the field as the horses broke from that distant gate. But like virtually all sporting events these days, the Belmont was run without fans present, so the tens of thousands of seats along the front stretch were empty save for less than a hundred spectators – trainers, grooms, track officials and workers involved with NBC’s broadcast.

So instead of a deafening collective roar from upwards of 100,000 throats, the horses were met by the gentle chirping of birds as the field turned for home. Not that either riders or mounts were listening; by that point, the ten jockeys and their steeds were keenly focused on the task at hand. That one coupling in the group had a decidedly different job than all the others was made apparent by a single backwards glance. Manny Franco, the 25-year-old jockey aboard pre-race favorite Tiz the Law, twice turned his head to the right to survey the horses behind him, seeing if any looked like they possessed an overtaking charge. He did so even though at that moment Franco had not yet put Tiz the Law in front. That position was held, as it had been almost from the start, by Tap It to Win, a horse with proven early speed that some hoped would be enough to prevail over the shorter than usual distance.

But Franco taking the time to check on his pursuers was striking proof that he was no longer worried about passing the frontrunner. His confidence in Tiz the Law was well placed. Having checked on the traffic to his rear, Franco asked his horse for a higher gear and the favorite accelerated past a tiring Tap It to Win as the two raced by the quarter pole. “They’re into the stretch of the Belmont, and Tiz the Law has taken charge,” exclaimed veteran announcer Larry Collmus, and indeed the grandson of Tapit and direct descendant of A.P. Indy, two of the most successful sires in recent thoroughbred history, was making this Belmont his own. In the middle of the lane the closer Dr. Post attempted a late charge, but Irad Ortiz Jr. didn’t have nearly enough horse to challenge the favorite. It was Tiz the Law by two, then three, and finally by four lengths at the wire, with Dr. Post second and longshot Max Player getting up for third.

While the pandemic made this Belmont historic in several less than ideal ways, the result wrote some positive racing history. Tiz the Law was bred in New York, by itself not surprising given the active racing industry in the Empire State and the presence of two of the country’s elite tracks in Belmont Park and Saratoga, as well as Aqueduct. But the biggest race in New York has not been kind to horses bred there. When Tiz the Law crossed the wire, he became the first New York bred to capture the Belmont since Forester in 1882. The win also brought a measure of redemption to Sackatoga Stable, the consortium of middle-class racing lovers from upstate New York who banded together years ago to form a decidedly small-time ownership group. In 2003 Sackatoga’s horse Funny Cide, which the group had purchased for the less than princely sum of $75,000, stunned the sport’s establishment by winning the Kentucky Derby, and then two weeks later romped in the Preakness. But the Belmont’s mile and a half proved too daunting. Funny Cide finished third.

Tiz the Law didn’t have to run that far Saturday, but the horse and his connections – owner Sackatoga Stable, jockey Franco, and 82-year-old trainer Barclay Tagg – get full credit for the victory. Now the Belmont winner and horse racing fans must wait until September for this year’s Triple Crown chase to be renewed. One of the hardest feats in sports has been made even more difficult by the pandemic’s impact on the racing calendar. Horses currently sidelined by injury may be in the starting gate at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Other races will be run in the meantime, the results of which could alter the equine landscape. By Derby day some other three-year-old may have emerged as the betting and fan favorite. But for now, Tiz the Law is the one.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 18, 2020

Which Words Will Matter More?

At some future date, in some post-pandemic year, fans will look back at the spring of 2020 and attempt to draw lessons from the torturous struggle between owners and players over the terms under which some semblance of a major league baseball season could take place in the time of COVID-19. They will do so with the luxury of distance from the animosity and distrust that has pervaded the negotiations, when they could even be called such, from the suspension of spring training on March 12th right up to Thursday, when the Great Game was poised on a knife’s edge, with the starkly different options of a mutually agreed resolution, an imposed semi-season, or outright cancellation of play for the year all equally possible. For rather than producing light all that heat serves mainly to warp one’s perspective and encourage the substitution of emotion for judgment. Hindsight can contribute greatly to a more reasoned evaluation.

Yet if the last few days and hours have not brought an announcement on the scheduling of a long-delayed Opening Day, perhaps they have given current fans who have been forced to endure them an inkling of one of the most important messages that their future brethren will almost certainly discern. It is a simple admonition far older than even the antique game of baseball itself – words matter.

After weeks and weeks of deadlock and increasingly incendiary public exchanges, it took just three words to shift the debate and produce some movement between MLB and the Players Association. Last Saturday night, at the very end of a statement released by the MLBPA in which executive director Tony Clark dismissed the idea of further talks. Picking up on commissioner Rob Manfred’s assurance just days earlier that “the owners are 100 percent committed to getting baseball back on the field,” Clark said “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”

Association officials swear what happened next was not coordinated, but whether it was or not hardly matters. Players by the score picked up on the last three words of Clark’s statement and began echoing it on a variety of social media platforms. In short order “when and where” became the players’ mantra, stating in a mere three syllables that they wanted to play ball and were ready to do so. After weeks of being decried as caring only about their salaries, “when and where” allowed players to be viewed in a more favorable light by fans.

That it turn put pressure on the owners, who had won the right to have Manfred impose a season of any length in the initial March agreement between the parties. But it’s been clear for some time that to minimize expenses a faction of owners wants such a resolution to be as short a season as possible, no more than fifty games. The problem for those owners is that while the calendar continues to turn, it’s not yet at a time when a fifty game season is all that can reasonably be played, so ordering such a campaign now would expose MLB to a grievance by the Players Association for failing to bargain in good faith. That left Manfred to choose between continuing to be pummeled by fans and many sportswriters or offering a compromise.

As powerful as “when and where” proved to be, those three words may yet be outweighed by three others that appeared in the middle of a four sentence statement released by Manfred after he flew to Arizona on Wednesday and met with Clark for four hours. Manfred announced that he and Clark had agreed on the framework for a possible agreement that would be discussed with “our respective constituents.”

Manfred’s phrasing has attracted little attention, with everyone who read it understanding that Clark had to go back to the players and the commissioner needed to gain the assent of the thirty franchises. Manfred even went on to make his task explicit by adding that he was “encouraging the Clubs to move forward.” But in identifying his constituents as the owners, the commissioner willingly accepted a far more circumscribed role than was once true for the head of the Great Game. When the job of baseball commissioner was created in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Kenesaw Mountain Landis accepted the role only when granted broad authority to act “in the best interests” of the game. Landis was no saint – ample evidence suggests it was no coincidence Jackie Robinson didn’t suit up for the Brooklyn Dodgers until a few years after Landis’s death – but his independence set the standard that the commissioner of baseball’s first duty was not to the small group of owners who did the hiring, but to the far larger and more important constituency of all those who are part of the Great Game, including players and fans.

None of his successors could match the taciturn demeanor for which Landis was known, but they all followed his example of casting their role in broad terms, until 1992. That’s when a cabal of owners dubbed the Great Lakes Gang for their ownership of teams in the upper Midwest led an ultimately successful movement to oust Fay Vincent, who had moved up to the commissioner’s job from the deputy’s role in 1989 after the sudden death of his friend Bart Giamatti. Among assorted sins in the eyes of this group of owners, Vincent was seen as having been too open to the demands of the Players Association during the 1990 lockout.

One member of the Great Lakes Gang was Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, who formally succeeded Vincent in 1998 after serving as acting commissioner for six years. Thus the 1992 owners’ revolt, and the hiring of an owner as the head of the sport, fundamentally altered the commissioner’s role, narrowing the job’s constituency to the thirty holders of major league franchises.

For long stretches, even for years at a time, the change is scarcely noticeable. But then comes a moment when it makes all the difference. Even now fans and pundits alike are spending far more energy debating the proposed expansion of the designated hitter rule to the National League, or the utterly regrettable provision in all the recent proposals to put advertising on players uniforms, than the significance of the diminished job of commissioner. It will be left to those future fans to assess the far greater cost to the Great Game of the latter, a change now likely permanent as its origin fades into history. They will understand the importance of a few words when they look back and realize, perhaps with wonder, that there was a time when a commissioner, if asked when and where, would respond not by polling his masters, but by announcing a place and time to play ball.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 14, 2020

Go In The Hole! Or Not.

There’s a convenience store in downtown Portsmouth popular with the locals for everything from a quart of milk to a six-pack of beer. A small television set is perched atop the beverage cooler opposite the cash register at Portsmouth Provisions, with the programming varying depending on who’s working a given shift. Early Thursday evening the set was turned to the first round of the Charles Schwab Challenge, the PGA Tour’s return to action. As the owner, who was manning the cash register, explained to a customer, he normally doesn’t follow golf, but at least it was live sports.

That exchange came to mind on Sunday as the final round of the first Tour event in thirteen weeks reached its climax. Given the continuing dearth of games or matches or tournaments for fans to watch, CBS’s golf coverage was probably being seen by many viewers not all that familiar with the sport. For their benefit then, it should be noted that a regulation golf hole has a diameter of 4.25 inches, slightly more than two and one half times the diameter of the ball that golfers, in the most fundamental description of the game, are trying to put into the hole. It is beyond all doubt that the ball really does fit into the hole, with considerable room to spare.

Unfortunately, in our increasingly post factual society it doesn’t take much for seemingly reliable concepts like measurements, or the size of two objects relative to one another, to be cast into doubt. Thus there may well have been some viewers who, by the time Daniel Berger won his third Tour victory with a scrambling par on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff, had concluded that the basic problem with golf isn’t slow play or the cost of a round at Pebble Beach or Ian Poulter’s attire, but that the ball just doesn’t fit in the hole. What else can explain the parade of Tour pros who had a chance to seize control of the tournament only to watch in agony as their golf balls flirted with and at times even peered deep into holes, but one by one refused to drop?

Largely because of the long suspension of play that began after the first round of the Players Championship on March 12, the field that teed off at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth was the strongest this venerable Tour stop has boasted in many years. That led to a 54-hole leader board that had plenty of big names and was also very tightly bunched. Going into Sunday’s final walk around Colonial’s routing, there were fourteen golfers within three shots of the lead. They were chasing Xander Schauffele, who had edged one stroke ahead on the strength of a third round 66. But with a leader board that tight, several players took turns at the top as the round progressed.

Perhaps surprising to casual fans, that number did not include the best-known golfers in contention. World number one Rory McIlroy started three back of Schauffele but bogeyed the first hole and played poorly on the front nine, turning in an unsightly 41. On a day that saw plenty of birdies, Justin Thomas recorded par after par, and watched others in the field pass by. And Jordan Spieth once again frustrated his many fans by intermixing spurts of brilliant play, including three birdies in four holes, with periods of lackluster golf, including three bogeys in four holes.

As the marquee names faded, others moved to the fore, only to find the final act of sinking a crucial putt to be too demanding. First Jason Kokrak came to the 18th needing a birdie to tie for the lead, only to see his effort burn the side of the cup. Then Bryson DeChambeau found himself in similar position. DeChambeau spent the Tour’s interregnum working out three time a day, and had spent the afternoon showing off his bulked-up body by blasting monster drives down Colonial’s fairways. But on both the 17th and 18th greens he too was unable to master far, far shorter efforts. Next it was Justin Rose with a chance to tie at the last. But like the two Americans before him, England’s Rose saw his final putt approach the hole and then turn away.

For a time, it looked like Schauffele had unlocked the secret to holing out on Colonial’s greens. He sank a pair of monster efforts, one on the 15th to salvage a bogey after some sloppy play, and the second for a birdie on the par-3 16th that moved him back into a tie for the lead. But then on the 17th Schauffele faced a three-footer for par and watched in disbelief as the ball caught the side of the cup and spun around the circumference of the hole before popping back out. So he too came to the last needing a birdie to tie, and like all the others his try came ever so close but didn’t go in.

That left Berger, fittingly the only one of the bunch who birdied the last, watching from the clubhouse balcony as 23-year-old Collin Morikawa came to the final green. They were the last two at 15-under par, and Morikawa had a putt of five feet to win after a brilliant approach shot. His effort appeared good all the way until the ball took a sudden left turn in the last few inches before the hole. That sent the pair back to the 17th for the playoff, where Morikawa’s short effort to save par and extend the match looked like a replay of Schauffele’s putt from thirty minutes earlier, dipping into the hole before spinning out, giving Berger the win.

Every weekend golfer knows the truth about this ancient and confounding game. For all the emphasis on booming drives and all the money spent advertising the newest big sticks of the leading manufacturers, including multiple ads for brand new Callaway and TaylorMade drivers during the CBS broadcast, it is in the little shots around the green, the chips and pitches and putts, that so many strokes are gained or lost. The most frustrating feeling in golf comes after standing in the middle of a fairway just a wedge away from a green after a fine tee shot, then walking to the next tee a few minutes later after recording a double bogey. In that lonely moment one is ready to swear that measurements aside, the ball just won’t fit in the hole. It’s a feeling that was shared on Sunday by multiple members of the PGA Tour.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 11, 2020

Now On The Tee, The PGA Tour

Ninety-one days after the last competition round on the PGA Tour, members of golf’s preeminent men’s tour finally teed it up again on Thursday. The setting was at once familiar and foreign. Colonial Country Club sits on the south bank of one of the Trinity River’s four forks, and has hosted a PGA Tour event for nearly three-quarters of a century. Veteran pros could likely find their way around the links blindfolded. But an integral part of all those prior tournaments was a large crowd of golf fans, thousands of spectators roaming the grounds and cheering on their favorite players. This week, the event currently named the Charles Schwab Challenge – though it will always be simply “The Colonial” to both participants and fans – is being played without paying spectators, as will the next four tournaments on the Tour’s schedule, in Hilton Head, Cromwell Connecticut, Detroit, and Dublin Ohio.

Perhaps the difference wasn’t all that noticeable when Ryan Palmer, Brian Harman and Bill Haas marked the official return of the PGA Tour as the first group off #1 shortly before 7:00 a.m. Between them the three have just a pair of Tour wins in the last five years, and even avid golf fans aren’t likely to be on the course in numbers at that hour on a Thursday morning. But about three hours later, when the threesome of Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Bryson DeChambeau – all fan favorites – were making the turn after completing their first nine, the absence of even polite applause, much less roars for great shots and groans for near misses, was the surest sign that while the PGA Tour may be back, it is definitely not business as usual.

Beyond the absence of fans, the Tour’s protocols include testing of players, caddies, tournament officials and volunteers at the beginning of the week, and an effort to create a “bubble” in which those involved with the event will stay. The usual Tuesday and Wednesday pro-am rounds, like the now empty hospitality tents a key revenue source for the organizers of every Tour stop, are gone for the foreseeable future. The Tour is also making a charter jet available for travel from one tournament to the next. Once on the course golfers and their caddies have been asked to maintain social distancing, not just from other members of their group but from each other.

Despite all the precautions, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan would be more suitably located at one of the newly reopened Las Vegas casinos than at either Colonial or Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Florida. For not just this week, but next at Harbour Town and the following at TPC River Highlands, and on to Detroit Country Club and then Muirfield Village, Monahan is engaged in a high stakes roll of the dice, betting that a sport that crisscrosses the country week after week can avoid making headlines for the wrong reasons, as a source of coronavirus spread. The gamble is not just because of the traveling road show nature of professional golf, perhaps not even primarily so. Certainly the restrictions in place at Colonial, which will be replicated in the weeks that follow, appear to do as much as can reasonably be expected to make the acreage on which the tournament is played a safe place.

But unlike say the NBA, which plans to create a 24/7 bubble for players at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World, Monahan’s players are not employees of his “league.” Golfers are independent contractors, bound to the PGA Tour by rules about the number of events each must play and ensured of continuing membership based on earnings, but still largely free to decide whether to play or not on any given week, and how to comport themselves while at a tournament. So it was no big surprise when numerous players were seen walking the streets of downtown Fort Worth earlier this week, ignoring the Tour’s guidelines that would have had them staying in their hotel. And the Tour can do nothing to control what any player does at home when he chooses to skip that week’s tournament.

It’s also true that ingrained habits are hard to break. Several Tour pros have admitted that while they understand the importance of the social distancing guidelines in place during tournament play, they fully expect the familiar pattern of close contact with their caddie to win out at some point during a round. The ways in which a professional golfer relies on his or her caddie are beyond count, and most are done by rote. Dustin Johnson may have amused fans watching the broadcast of the recent TaylorMade Driving Relief exhibition when he walked off a tee without his golf bag and had to run back to retrieve it, but he was really just doing what came naturally.

If this week and the four to follow go well, then the Memorial Tournament, the second of back-to-back events at Muirfield Village Golf Club, has received the okay from Ohio state health officials to admit roughly twenty percent of its typical daily attendance. With the PGA Tour one of the first major sports to return to action, the success of the restart will potentially impact not just whether golf is played in front of live audiences at some point this year, but also how other sports reopen.

A basic concept of golf course design is the risk-reward hole. It’s a hole that gives the player two options. One is comparatively safe but offers little reward. Perhaps a par-5 presents a tee shot out to a broad fairway, but on a line that lengthens the hole and eliminates any hope of reaching the green in two. The other entices the player with great reward but carries the potential for disaster. From that same tee one can see a distant landing area on a much more direct line to the flag, but it’s reachable only by fading one’s tee ball around some trees and carrying the expanse of a water hazard.

Faced with that choice, each golfer must weigh the tradeoff of risk and reward, and decide which shot is the right one. When it comes to restarting the PGA Tour, Jay Monahan is definitely going for it. But the biggest risk for the commissioner isn’t that his shot might wind up in the water, it’s that he isn’t even the one swinging the club.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 7, 2020

The Great Game On The Brink

It now seems likely that major league baseball games will be played this summer. That may come as a surprise to fans who have only focused on the headlines of owners and players locked in a bitter struggle over the terms of a shortened 2020 season, with neither side showing any inclination to compromise. But the precise phrasing of that first sentence is intentional.

Under the agreement MLB and the MLBPA signed in March, commissioner Rob Manfred can order a season of any length, provided the players are paid their full prorated salaries for the number of games played. In the absence of any real negotiating between the parties, the popular rumor this week was that Manfred was prepared to impose a 50-game schedule, presumably beginning sometime in July. The rumor may be nothing more than management’s latest negotiating ploy. But if such a schedule does prove to be the resolution to the current impasse, then there will be games played at major league parks across the land. But there is little chance that the collection of those games would be looked upon as a legitimate season by either players or fans.

Fundamental to the nature of the Great Game is the length of its season. One hundred sixty-two games, played across widely varying conditions through spring, summer and fall, is a test unique to baseball. Within that long framework every individual player and every team goes through periods of success and failure, hoping of course that the former outweigh the latter by the time the final out is recorded. While it’s a given that this year’s campaign will be shortened, truncating the schedule to less than one-third of its normal length introduces an element of chance contrary to the spirit and essence of the game. Fans of the reigning world champions can attest to that, for it was the Nationals that finished the first fifty games of last season with an unsightly record of 19-31.

There is also the very real possibility that at least some players would approach such a schedule with a less than enthusiastic attitude. Were it to happen, Manfred’s decision would be seen as a heavy-handed attack on the Players Association, conceding its demand of full pro-rated salaries only by establishing a schedule that leaves every player with barely more than thirty percent of their contracted pay. Fans would be tuning in to watch members of an embittered workforce going through the motions of their job, and in some cases perhaps not even that.

As Buster Olney speculated for ESPN, players who already feel they have been used by management might not play at all. Olney used the theoretical example of Houston’s George Springer. The Astros made no attempt to disguise their intent to manipulate Springer’s service time when he wasn’t called up from the minors in September 2013 and then again when he was left off the Opening Day roster the following year. That gave Houston an extra year of Springer’s services, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the player. Now Springer is one season away from free agency. With the March agreement guaranteeing him a full year’s service time if he plays at least one game, Olney wondered if Springer might consider doing exactly that and no more. Would other pending free agents join him in developing a mysterious injury or finding another urgent reason why they couldn’t play?

In short, a faux short season unilaterally imposed by management might well do more harm to baseball than no season at all. At the very least, the two options are in close competition for the most damaging to the sport. But the reality is that time is now truly short for owners and players to bridge what still appears to be a yawning chasm of disagreement. The idea of an early July date for Opening Day is all but by the boards, with the consensus being that players, especially pitchers, will need four weeks of work during “Spring Training 2.0” to prepare for meaningful games. Owners, players, and fans are now all at the eleventh hour.

History is full of stories of seemingly implacable disputes between labor and management that were resolved even as the proverbial clock was striking midnight. And it’s worth noting that there appear to be several issues on which the parties agree, including expanded rosters, use of the designated hitter in both leagues, a regional schedule to limit travel, and more teams in the postseason. But these are ancillary to the core questions of health protocols and pay, and the last one especially will only be resolved when both sides accept that each must yield from its current position. Perhaps after a week in which the owners of several franchises were embarrassed by players who either individually or as a group stepped in to fill the void when teams announced plans to end the modest stipends paid to minor leaguers, management may have an incentive to compromise.

Even if that happens, there are many pundits who say that the delay and the ugly exchanges between players and owners mean baseball has squandered an opportunity to lead in the country’s recovery from the pandemic. That notion always seemed hyperbolic to this writer, in part because a central factor in the catharsis provided by all sports is the role played by a stadium full of passionate fans, something that will not exist anytime soon. Still there is no question that the focus on salaries at a time of enormous economic deprivation for so many has been harmful.

The Great Game could mitigate that by taking the lead in addressing an issue far more pernicious than any virus. Whatever there is of a 2020 baseball season should be dedicated to raising awareness of and combating the systemic racism that has spurred thousands to action in the past two weeks. Already individual players have started to use social media to speak out. That list includes African-American stars like Aaron Judge and Dexter Fowler, but also a growing list of white players, including Pete Alonso, Justin Turner, Bryce Harper, and Sean Doolittle. MLB should encourage and promote more of this while incorporating anti-racist messages into every television broadcast and at every ballpark once fans return.

Like all professional leagues, MLB does a very good job of promoting causes, the “Stand Up to Cancer” campaign being an obvious example (interestingly, no one ever complains that the phrase should be “stand up to all diseases”). Just as that effort will not by itself eradicate cancer, a commitment to anti-racism by MLB will not expunge the nation’s original sin. But every voice is important, and the Great Game’s is loud. Nor is there money in it, no higher salaries for players or increased ticket sales for owners. But the reward for our most important work is measured not in dollars but in grace, as was written more than twenty-five centuries ago – “they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Surely both owners and players could agree on that.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 4, 2020

Adam Silver Has A Plan

Michael Jordan will have to be content with big ratings for “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s fawning documentary of his final title run with the Chicago Bulls. Of course, neither he nor we will ever know how many of the nearly seven million viewers the ten-part series on Chicago’s 1997-98 season averaged in April and May were sports fans stuck at home with nothing else to do. Whether or not COVID-19 is partly responsible for the success of ESPN’s hagiography, Jordan now knows that the pandemic is entirely to blame for ending the season of the Charlotte Hornets, the NBA franchise he now owns.

Thursday, the day once set aside for Game 1 of this season’s NBA Finals, the league’s owners, including Jordan, voted 29-1 in favor of a plan to restart play at the end of July at Disney World. But in lieu of playing out the remainder of the regular schedule with all thirty franchises before proceeding to the playoffs, the plan will have just twenty-two teams decamping from their home arenas to the bubble of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex inside Mickey Mouse’s Orlando home. Invitations went to the eight teams in each division that were in playoff position when the season was suspended in March, plus all other franchises within six games of the eighth spot. Seven games adrift of the eighth-place Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference, Jordan’s Hornets were the first team left in the parking lot, looking through a proverbial chain link fence at the cool kids who get to play on.

Thirteen Western Conference teams and eight from the East are now scheduled to begin practices in their home cities later this month before flying into quarantine in Florida on July 7. After some further practice sessions, the squads will each play eight games over a two-week period starting on the last day of July to determine the playoff seeding in each conference, and to give the six teams currently lower than eighth place a chance to make one final run. Recognizing that 88 games among a select group of teams won’t truly substitute for the 259 regular season contests that remained to be played on the original schedule, the plan also envisions a possible play-in series between the eighth and ninth place teams if the two are within four games of each other once the abbreviated regular season wrap-up has concluded.

That possibility, along with the fact that standings and seedings will still be conference based, left many pundits voicing far more concern for the unlucky fate of the Memphis Grizzlies than for the Hornets, or any of the seven other franchises that saw their seasons officially end. A young team that seemingly every NBA analyst has now decided has enormous potential, Memphis is currently in eighth place in the West. But at a game under .500, the Grizzlies’ 32-33 record is well south of seventh place Dallas. With virtually no chance of improving its position, Memphis must instead fend off five challengers. To make matters worse, four of those teams will restart already close enough to force a play-in round.

Despite appearances this complicated plan was not hatched by Adam Silver because the NBA commissioner has it in for Robert Pera, the boy billionaire who owns the Memphis franchise. Rather the motivating factor, to which Pera can surely relate, is money. By expanding the initial group of teams in Orlando beyond the sixteen playoff squads based on current standings and adding some regular season contests, the NBA allows those franchises to collect on their local TV deals. An extra 88 games also increases pay for each of the players, a move that reflects the close relationship Silver has cultivated with Players Association president Chris Paul and executive director Michelle Roberts. In sharp contrast to MLB’s Rob Manfred, Silver has gone out of his way to keep players informed of the league’s thinking throughout the shutdown. That’s the main reason this plan, though it still needs the concurrence of the players, is being treated as final.

Things could still go awry, and the NBA has gotten to this point only by abandoning or softening some of its earlier positions on the conditions needed for a restart. This is, after all, the league that suspended play when a single player, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, tested positive for COVID-19 in March. Shortly after that Silver said the league would not play again until testing was available on a “large scale.” Now the NBA is content with testing being available for frontline health workers and is formulating protocols to continue play if one or more players or team personnel in the Orlando bubble contracts the virus.

Still hardcourt faithful are certainly cheering the news and even the most casual of basketball fans will hope for the best at the 220-acre athletic complex just south of the Magic Kingdom. The NBA’s plan has virtually no margin for error. If at least one series in each playoff round goes the distance, the league will crown a champion on October 12, little more than a week before the 2020-21 season would normally start. Already there is talk of pushing the beginning of next season to December, and the NBPA’s Roberts has suggested even that gives players too little time to recover. If the NBA manages to pull off Silver’s plan and crown a champion that fans acknowledge as worthy of the name while keeping everyone healthy, this season will merit its own documentary. Just don’t look for Michael Jordan in that one.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 31, 2020

The Sports World Speaks Up, But Will Anyone Listen?

As protests swept the country this week in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, athletes, teams, and even entire leagues lent their voices to the debate. Even as peaceful demonstrations gave way to burning and destruction, sometimes instigated by external forces from both extremes of the political spectrum, scores of players reminded fans that sports is part of our culture, not separate from it.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown drove 1,500 miles to his home state of Georgia to lead a peaceful protest march in Atlanta. The UConn women’s basketball team issued a statement through the squad’s official Twitter account which said in part, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed, and more people are becoming aware of the 400 years of oppression that black people have been subjected to in America…We are proud to be a team made up of diverse women who will never stop pushing for the most basic human rights for our people.” Social media was also the chosen avenue for statements from many others, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Odell Beckham Jr., while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a moving essay in the Los Angeles Times.

But given what we know and have all seen of Floyd’s death, the decision of white athletes to speak up has been especially important. Heisman Trophy winner and NFL number one draft pick Joe Burrow tweeted “The black community needs our help. They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.” Burrow was joined by others, including fellow NFL quarterback Carson Wentz, and reigning National League Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso of the New York Mets. Alonso’s Instagram post read “For the past couple of days, I’ve struggled to wrap my mind around what’s happening. I have a voice and I will not remain silent. My heart has been broken over the murder of George Floyd. I will never know what it feels like to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin. To anyone who faces this type of discrimination, I will fight for you and be an ally. I will always stand with you. There needs to be justice and change made for the better of humanity. Let words be our sword and unity be our armor. Take care of each other.”

Then there was the National Football League. America’s premier sports institution issued a statement attributed to commissioner Roger Goodell, which said in part, “The NFL family is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country. The protesters’ reaction to these incidents reflects the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel…As current events dramatically underscore, there remains much more to do as a country and as a league. These tragedies inform the NFL’s commitment and our ongoing efforts. There remains an urgent need for action. We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society. We embrace that responsibility and are committed to continuing the important work to address these systemic issues together with our players, clubs and partners.”

The words hit all the right notes, and the promise of future action is to be applauded, provided of course that the reader has spent the last several years in some alternate universe. Because in the real world it is impossible to read the responses of the sports world to what happened in Minneapolis on Memorial Day and not think of former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s lonely pre-game protests against racial oppression in 2016. Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, an individual and profoundly non-violent act, looks pretty benign when set against burning police cars.

Kaepernick was effectively drummed out of the league for his silent activism, and this week’s statement by Goodell appears to be a bet that he has been utterly forgotten by fellow players and fans. The commissioner lost that gamble, as evidenced by multiple responses, one of the most eloquent of which was from Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores. One of just four black or Latino head coaches in the league, Flores recounted losing friends over discussions about Kaepernick because some people in the NFL couldn’t see past the issue of “disrespecting the flag.” The Twitter post went on to note that he had not seen the same outrage from those people over the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Flores lamented those unwilling to raise their voices now and expressed the hope that “the tragedies of the last few weeks will open our hearts and minds to a better way of communicating.” If the NFL’s statement is a step in that direction, then it is a good thing. But it would sound more genuine and less like a product of the league’s marketing department if it were accompanied by an apology to Kaepernick.

One of the reasons that won’t happen is that, as Flores noted, there are those in the league and in the stands who remain hung up on the symbolism of Kaepernick’s kneeling. But there are many symbols that stand for various aspects of America, and not all of them are praiseworthy. That is inevitable in a country whose founding documents both extol the equality of man and institutionalize slavery by counting each human held in bondage as three-fifths of a person.

The convulsion of our cities is an announcement to the broader country what citizens of color already knew – that one such symbol is the image of a bad cop’s knee on a black man’s neck. What we all must face is the reality that this symbol is not from an antebellum daguerreotype but from a cellphone video. We have heard the words on many occasions, from eloquent and learned leaders. The arc of history is long, they have cautioned, before always assuring us that it bends toward justice. But this week even the most optimistic among us was forced to concede that right now the promise of that statement, the idea that however slowly, we will make inevitable progress toward a more perfect Union, is perilously hard to believe.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 28, 2020

A Conflict About More Than Money

At last. After months of inactivity and weeks of often rancorous negotiations that seemed headed for failure, Thursday brought word that the parties had managed to bridge their differences and this summer will see games played after all, even though there will by necessity be no fans in the stands cheering their heroes on to victory. But the certain disappointment of that hard reality will surely be leavened by the joy of having play resume, and watching, even if only on TV, one’s favorite team chase a title.

After more than ten years of publication, has On Sports and Life garnered its first exclusive? From its lonely seat high in the upper deck of sports commentary, far removed from the inside information that those down in the box seats by the dugout are fed on a regular basis, how could this little blog break the story of the Great Game’s return? Of course, the answers to those questions are “no” and “it couldn’t.” For Thursday’s good news was not for diehard fans of American baseball, but rather for the equally passionate faithful of English Premier League soccer. The EPL, the most-watched sports league in the world, announced a mid-June return to action pending final approvals from British health authorities.

But that news came only after the Premier League’s season appeared almost certainly lost several times in recent weeks. Players publicly questioned the safety of playing a sport with unavoidable contact and close quarters with both teammates and opponents during a pandemic. Local authorities fretted about the possibility of fans defying lockdown orders and gathering in large numbers outside of stadiums during games. And owners of lower ranked teams rebelled against the deep-pocketed elite of English soccer. Franchises in the bottom tier of the EPL’s standings, facing the possibility of relegation to English soccer’s equivalent of the minors, repeatedly threatened to use the league’s voting rules that require a 70% majority to block any plan for a resumption of play.

Yet in the end, and with precious little time to spare, all parties chose to back away from the abyss into which they had been staring. So, in just less than three weeks, Aston Villa versus Sheffield United and Manchester City versus Arsenal will kick off the Premier League’s return, with a full slate of games beginning the following weekend.

The twists and turns from the EPL’s suspension of play on March 13 to its planned return 100 days later are not dissimilar to the ups and downs experienced by baseball fans in this country since Spring Training came to a halt one day earlier than English soccer. This week, those fans find themselves in much the same position that their cousins in Liverpool and London occupied as recently as ten days ago. In our case, the relevant parties are the thirty team owners, represented by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s office, and the players, spoken for by their union, the MLBPA. The two sides are locked in an increasingly bitter dispute over the terms for a season that if it is to happen, surely must start by shortly after Independence Day.

It is tempting to point to this week’s good news from the Premier League as a sign that while baseball may go right up to the brink of cancelling the entire season, ultimately reasonable people on both sides – and inflammatory rhetoric aside, such souls do exist in both camps – will forge an agreement that will result in the call of “play ball.” But then if important decisions traveled across the Atlantic so easily, we’d all be driving on the left. The English soccer league’s season nearly fell apart over certain financial concerns, and then was saved by a focus on other money matters. But despite the focus on player salaries, what sets the baseball negotiations apart from the EPL, as well as from the NBA and its decision to take a trip to Disney World, and the NHL and its plan for playoffs that lacks only the minor detail of a place to play the games, isn’t money. To the contrary, money is the one common thread weaving through the pandemic responses of all major sports leagues in every country. Rather the Great Game’s conflict between owners and players is all about a lack of trust.

Like virtually all U.S. sports franchises, the thirty major league clubs are privately held enterprises, free from public scrutiny or financial disclosure. What is known is that at its top level the Great Game has seen steady financial growth, thanks in fair measure to media contracts, and certainly despite the constant chorus from doomsayers forecasting baseball’s demise from slow play or too many home runs or the designated hitter rule or the prohibition against spitballs. The most recent estimate of franchise value placed every club except the Miami Marlins at $1 billion or more. That’s a guess of course, given the lack of public records, but the recent sale of the Kansas City Royals, not exactly a major market franchise, was for exactly that number.

Players have unquestionably benefited from the money pouring into the sport. But the huge, highly publicized contracts of superstars hide the far smaller dollars doled out to younger players still under team control. Then in recent years teams in virtual lockstep discovered the value of advanced metrics, and used that to reshape the free agent market, denying players the fruits of the contract system as it is currently structured. The level of enmity that engendered in players has been clear in scores of public statements and social media posts. Equally clear for more than a generation has been the implacable opposition of the Players Association to a salary cap. Yet the owners’ widely publicized initial financial proposal in the current negotiations was to tie player salaries for 2020 to team revenues – a salary cap. When that died a quick and deserved death, they instead made an offer that was a ham-handed effort to drive a wedge between the players based on their current salaries, though it appears to have had just the opposite effect.

Despite the understandable mistrust, surely there are both players and owners who understand the consequences of a lost season, and surely there are multiple paths to an agreement that will give fans a belated Opening Day, even if it is only on their flatscreens. But the simplest and most obvious way to both overcome suspicion and spur a deal would be for the owners to open their books. Let the players see the costs of running a big-league franchise, and the exact impact of lost ticket sales and concessions. If owners want players to partner with them in absorbing losses, then treat them as partners and give them the information to make an informed decision. The bet here is that such a move would very quickly lead to Spring Training 2.0, as it’s being called. But whatever the stakes of that wager, double or nothing says it will never happen.

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