Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 10, 2022

MLB Races Into The Offseason

Less than 48 hours elapsed between the moment Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker sprinted into foul ground to catch a fly ball off the bat of Philadelphia’s Nick Castellanos for the final out of the 2022 World Series on Saturday night, and the start of the Astros’ championship parade along Smith Street in the city’s central business district Monday afternoon.  But that brief interval was more than enough time for various media outlets to issue their first “power rankings” of franchises for the 2023 season, and for Las Vegas oddsmakers to install the L.A. Dodgers as favorites for next year’s title.  Some of the 2 million fans who turned out to cheer the Astros no doubt kept the party going long after the parade finished its 1.7-mile route, and so were probably still recovering when the general managers from all 30 clubs assembled in Las Vegas for the start of their annual three-day meeting on Tuesday.  By late Thursday afternoon, the deadline for clubs to issue qualifying offers to newly minted free agents, the first milepost on MLB’s journey through the offseason, had passed.  Congratulations Astros, but the hot stove is already lit.

This offseason will of course be very different from the last one, which didn’t officially begin until the second week in March, with contact between teams and players or their agents barred during the 99 days of the owners’ lockout.  But early indications are that the contrast will be about more than just the calendar.  For the first time in years, the list of franchises aggressively seeking to improve appears to extend beyond the usual suspects in New York and Los Angeles.

While there are many reasons for the possibility of more trades and greater interest in free agents, two stand out.  The first is the overall financial health of MLB and its franchises.  Last week, on the same day Game 3 of the World Series was rained out, commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview with the L.A. Times that MLB’s revenues would approach $11 billion this year.  That’s close to the record high achieved in 2019 and indicates that the negative financial impact of the pandemic is now behind the sport, thanks not just to fans returning to stadiums, but also to various new media rights and sponsorship deals.  While there will always be penurious owners who happily pocket their share of the sport’s growing revenue stream while allocating as little as they can get away with to the product on the field, those skinflints are, for the moment at least, a minority.

That in turn is at least partly due to the expanded playoffs, which make dreams of postseason glory seem that much more in reach.  It is a balancing act, one that if overdone could easily turn the longest season into little more than a six-month grind for seeding.  But with a dozen clubs qualifying, the Phillies were able to overcome a dreadful start to the campaign and clinch a Wild Card spot with a win in game number 160.  Philadelphia then made the most of its first trip to the postseason in more than a decade.  The expanded bracket also kept hope alive for the Brewers, Giants, White Sox, and the upstart Orioles, long after those clubs would have been reduced to playing for pride in previous seasons.  Add those teams to the franchises that made the playoffs, toss into the mix a front office or two with something to prove after not getting the expected return from roster moves made in the rush of the last, highly compressed, offseason – the Rangers and Twins come to mind – and there is a healthy complement of clubs for which a place in next year’s bracket seems eminently attainable.

Those clubs, and perhaps a surprise franchise, because there is always a surprise franchise, will comprise the marketplace for a strong free agent class.  This year’s group is led by American League home run king Aaron Judge, who won his own version of this week’s super-rich Powerball drawing when he bet on himself and rejected the Yankees $213.5 million contract offer just before Opening Day.  Now, after surpassing Babe Ruth and Roger Maris and just missing out on a Triple Crown, Judge, through his agent Page Odle, is likely to set a starting price at least $100 million higher for his athletic services over the next seven or eight years.

The Bronx isn’t the only New York borough in danger of losing a cornerstone of its local team.  Jacob deGrom, the Great Game’s dominant hurler when healthy, has, as expected, opted out of the final year of his deal with the Mets.  Those two players are joined by an entire infield’s worth of elite shortstops, a list that includes Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, and Dansby Swanson.

While those big names will almost certainly all be very well compensated ballplayers by the time Spring Training opens, the real test of an offseason is in how lesser free agents fare.  This is the group that bore the brunt of the wholesale shift among franchises away from long-term contracts under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Efforts by the Players Association to change the basic qualifications for free agency were stonewalled by owners throughout last winter’s bitter negotiations.  Not many 32-year-old midlevel players will be signing contracts that will run until they are approaching 40.  But while the length of contracts will likely continue to be shorter than in the past, the annual salaries of the deals such players ink could once again be on the rise.  GMs without the seemingly unlimited budgets of the Mets or Dodgers, or a large amount of room under the first luxury tax threshold like the Giants, will pay to add what their analytics department assures them is the key missing piece keeping the franchise from a season-ending parade of its own. 

Across the country, fans hoping to celebrate this time next year the way 2 million did in Houston this week, will be watching through the coming weeks and months, hoping for news that their franchise has moved one step closer to glory.  The only certainty is that one shouldn’t put too much stock in those early power rankings.  There is just too much that could happen, for good or ill, to every franchise, even before next March 30, when it’s once again time to play ball.  For now, just light the kindling. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 6, 2022

A Ring For Dusty

On a breezy April evening in 1993, the visiting San Francisco Giants squared off against the St. Louis Cardinals at what is now known as Busch Stadium II.  The Cardinals home for four decades until it was replaced in 2005 by a newer facility which shares part of the same footprint, the stadium sat just west of the Mississippi River, a short walk from the city’s most famous symbol, the Gateway Arch.  The Giants had endured back-to-back losing seasons, which led to the resignation of the team’s general manager and the firing of field skipper Roger Craig at the end of the 1992 campaign.  That December, new GM Bob Quinn had named Dusty Baker as the Giants new manager. 

San Francisco got the new campaign off to a good start for the rookie manager, who after a 19-year playing career, the prime of which was spent at Dodger Stadium, had served on the Giants coaching staff for the five previous seasons.  Barry Bonds, signed away from the Pirates in free agency the same month Baker was hired, plated the winning run with a 7th inning sacrifice fly in a 2-1 San Francisco victory.  Win number one on Baker’s managerial resume was little noticed at the time, as was the success of St. Louis’s leadoff batter, who reached base in all four of his plate appearances.  With two singles and a pair of walks, Geronimo Pena ended day one of the longest season with a perfect 1.000 batting average and on base percentage.  Pena was then a 25-year-old who was midway through a 7-year career as a part-time utility player, bouncing back and forth between AAA and the big leagues in most of those seasons.

Pena’s Opening Day exploits were long forgotten by October, but Baker’s acumen in the dugout had garnered widespread respect by the end of that season.  The Giants finished 103-59, the second best record in the majors and a huge improvement over the previous year’s 72-90 record.  Unfortunately for fans in San Francisco, MLB’s best record that season belonged to another NL West team, Atlanta.  In the days of just two divisions in each league and no Wild Card teams in the playoffs, the Giants finished one game behind Atlanta and didn’t qualify for the postseason.  Instead, the franchise and its supporters had to settle for a pair of individual awards, with Bond winning his third NL MVP prize and Baker being named the senior circuit’s Manager of the Year.

The Giants manager turned 44 in the middle of that season, an age that then and now is on the young side for someone handed the reins of a big league club.  This June Baker celebrated his 73rd birthday by guiding the Houston Astros, the fifth team he has managed, to a 9-2 win over the Texas Rangers.  For the man who is now the oldest skipper in the majors, it was the 2,025th regular season addition to that initial managerial triumph nearly three decades ago.  That win total climbed to 2,093 by season’s end, as Houston ran away with the AL West title.  When the Astros swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, edging the Mariners in a Division Series that despite the sweep could easily have tipped the other way, before crushing the Yankees in the ALCS, the American League’s dominant franchise of the past six years was back on familiar turf, playing in its fourth World Series since 2017.

Of the three previous trips, only the initial one ended with a parade, and Houston’s 2017 championship will forever carry the stench of the cheating scandal that was exposed two years later.  That the malodorous odor still lingers, despite the passage of time and the reality that inevitable roster turnover means with each new season fewer current players were participants in the scheme, is partly jealousy.  Fans love to cheer the unlikely success of an underdog, which Houston was, once upon a time.  But too much success breeds a different emotion, as fans beyond southeast Texas wonder when it will be their favorite franchise’s turn to climb to the top of the podium.  But for many fans the initial anger has also sunk deep roots because of a sense that the Astros got away with it, a viewpoint based largely on the fact that no active players were punished.      

Although Jose Altuve may hear jeers at road games for as long as he plays, fans everywhere understood that Baker was brought in as manager before the 2020 season specifically because his reputation was the opposite of the dark image that clung to the Houston franchise.  Those fans also knew that Baker arrived with a resume that included the most regular season wins by any manager in MLB history with a World Series ring.  That number continued to grow through three successful seasons in the Astros dugout, campaigns that included a loss to Atlanta in last year’s Series.  That was Baker’s second chance at the Great Game’s ultimate prize.  The first came in his last year at San Francisco’s helm, when the Giants took a three games to two lead into Anaheim for the final two contests of the 2002 World Series.  But the Angels came from behind in both Game 6 and Game 7 to deny the Giants and Baker.

At last came this year’s Series, with Baker, now the oldest manager in the Great Game, leading Houston back to baseball’s final matchup once again.  In the end, of course, a manager can only do so much.  Games are decided by the players on the field.  Over the course of this year’s Series, the most valuable of those players was Houston’s shortstop, Jeremy Pena.  The award closed a circle in Baker’s career, for the Astros rookie is the son of the utility infielder who so effectively batted leadoff for St. Louis against Baker’s San Francisco squad all those years ago.    

But if Baker couldn’t come out of the dugout and bat or throw, neither was he just another spectator.  After arguably sticking too long with Justin Verlander in Game 1, Baker’s management of his pitching staff was largely impeccable.  One can’t blame the manager if Lance McCullers Jr. was tipping his pitches in Game 3, and in any event since Houston’s hitters failed to plate a single run that game was effectively over after Bryce Harper’s 1st inning home run.  Down the stretch, Baker’s starters stifled the Phillies and his calls to the Houston bullpen were perfect.  And now, after 2,093 regular season victories, the one person wearing an Astros uniform who fans everywhere can cheer for, finally has a ring.

The end of Dusty Baker’s long wait means fans must move a few hundred career wins down the list to find the new owner of the unwanted title of active manager with the most wins without a championship.  That would be Buck Showalter of the Mets, with 1,652, followed by Bob Melvin of the Padres, with 1,435 regular season victories.  Since both franchises made this postseason and clearly have designs on a title in the very near future, perhaps fans of those clubs should take heart.  Maybe the gods of the Great Game are looking kindly on ending managerial title droughts.  But fair warning – don’t be surprised if the road to a championship runs through Houston.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 3, 2022

A Thoroughly Modern World Series

It will be this weekend before we know which team will win the World Series, but we can already say with certainty that this year’s Fall Classic accurately reflects the Great Game as it is played in the early part of the 21st century’s third decade.  Noting the timeframe seems important, for as much as some fans love to cite a prior period as an era when the style and pace of the sport was, to their mind, far superior to what is currently on display, baseball has always been subject to change.  Modern day aficionados who lament the demise of bunting and the hit-and-run as strategic staples doubtless had predecessors, a few generations ago, who decried the end of the dead ball era. 

That is not meant to denigrate any fan’s preferred style of play, only to emphasize that a sport played under the same basic rules for almost a century and a half is, despite that seeming constraint, constantly evolving.  The next stage in the Great Game’s metamorphosis is likely to come as soon as next year, when MLB drastically curtails defensive shifts.  The requirements that two infielders be stationed on each side of second base and all four have their cleats on the infield dirt will almost certainly reopen lanes for base hits that have been closed for the past several seasons.  For now, though, baseball is all about power – both at the plate and on the mound.  The importance of each role was on vivid display during Games 3 and 4.

Hitters took their turn in Tuesday’s Game 3, specifically the batters wearing the home white uniforms with red pinstripes, much to the delight of most of the nearly 46,000 fans crammed into Citizens Bank Park for the first World Series game in Philadelphia since 2009.  It had been nine days since the Phillies home had seen action.  In that last contest, Game 5 of the NLCS, Bryce Harper sent the Phils to the Series with an 8th inning blast to left field, propelling Philadelphia to a clinching 4-3 win over the San Diego Padres.  The ensuing wait proved immediately worthwhile for the local faithful when Harper smacked the very first pitch he saw from Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. into the right field seats, staking his team to a 2-0 1st inning lead.  While that would prove to be more than enough run support for starter Ranger Suarez and the four relievers who followed him to the mound, Philadelphia batters were just getting started.  Third baseman Alec Bohm and center fielder Brandon Marsh followed with solo shots in the 2nd, doubling the Phillies advantage.  Then left fielder Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Rhys Hoskins added back-to-back home runs three frames later, with Schwarber’s two-run blast sailing 443 feet to dead center.

The fine performance by Suarez and the Phillies’ bullpen was an afterthought in coverage of Game 3, which understandably focused on the homer barrage.  But one night later, there was no overlooking the even better pitching by Astros starter Cristian Javier and three Houston relievers.  The same Philadelphia hitters who had sent five spheroids sailing into the stands Tuesday could not manage so much as a single base hit against Javier and company Wednesday.  Just three walks, a pair by Javier during his six innings of work and one in the 9th by Ryan Pressly, kept the combined effort from being a perfect game.  Instead, the Astros foursome goes into the record books as having collectively tossed the second no-hitter in World Series history.

Javier, who is just 25 and in his third big league season, has given fans glimpses of his enormous potential.  He finished third in the voting for 2020 AL Rookie of the Year, and in an outing early in the 2021 season struck out the first eight batters he faced. This season, he was the starter in another combined no-hitter, that one coming against the Yankees back in June.  Because of its extremely high spin rate, Javier’s fastball appears to rise on its way to the plate, an illusion that often leaves hitters flailing.  Before Pressly mopped up, Javier was followed to the mound by Bryan Abreu and Rafael Montero, both of whom have fastball speeds that nudge up against triple-digits.  The quartet combined for 14 strikeouts, a common enough outcome when power pitchers are on the mound.  

Not surprisingly, there were scattered voices protesting the no-hitter designation, since the effort involved multiple moundsmen.  But whether accomplished by one pitcher over nine innings or nine throwing an inning apiece, the outcome – a line of zeroes for the opposing team – is the same.  To be sure, the achievement by the four Astros is not the same as Don Larsen’s 1956 outing, and not just because of the three walks.  A combined no-hitter is not identical to one thrown by a single hurler, but it is still worthy of celebration. 

It is also a far more likely outcome in the modern game.  While 100-mile-per-hour fastballs and high spin rates are now common, the counterbalance to that power and the strikeouts it produces is fewer innings pitched.  Larsen needed 97 pitches to complete his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.  Javier threw the same number navigating six frames, a pitch count that is by no means abnormal these days.  More strikeouts almost certainly mean more pitches, since each at-bat that ends in a “K” requires at least three offerings from the mound, and usually more.  Larsen fanned just seven Brooklyn Dodgers.  And while modern power hitters may ultimately be overwhelmed, some will surely not go down without a fight, fouling off multiple pitches as they try with uppercut swings to lift the ball over the heads of shifted defenders. No manager interested in staying employed would allow a starter’s pitch count to climb to 134 in pursuit of a no-hitter, as the Mets Terry Collins did in 2012 with Johan Santana in the first and, until a combined one involving five pitchers last April, only no-hitter in that franchise’s history.

Power hitters driving the ball deep into the night in Game 3.  Power pitchers mowing down the opposing lineup in Game 4.  Whether next week’s championship parade is in Houston or Philadelphia, this year’s World Series has already been a victory for the current state of the sport.  Love it or hate it, this is the way the Great Game is played these days.  At least until next season.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 30, 2022

The Conventional Wisdom Wobbles Into Philly

Like Pavlov’s dogs, we fans start salivating at the mere mention of expert predictions on our favorite games, our involuntary response triggered by the expectation of some reward that, unlike feeding time for pets, is often vague.  Perhaps we hope to gain advantage in a fantasy league or win a serious return wagering for real, or maybe we just think the knowledge of insiders will allow us to sound authoritative when discussing sports with friends.  Whatever the reason, fan interest compels even reluctant sportswriters to try the impossible by predicting the outcome not just of individual games but of entire seasons.  A few even publicly acknowledge the absurdity of the exercise, though if such a member of the media lucks into a correct forecast – and make no mistake, happenstance and good fortune always play an outsized role in making a writer appear prescient – he or she is usually quick to boast.

Predictions are especially perilous in the Great Game, with the inevitable ups and downs of its long and winding season.  That much is clear by a review of the bold predictions made seven months ago by scores of scribes who earn a living covering baseball.  Fans were inundated with forecasts in the days before the longest season began.  Looking back on all those printed words from the safety of late October, two things stand out.  One is how despite the enormous volume so many of the predictions were the same, and the second is how thoroughly wrong the consensus choices for World Series opponents, and the eventual champion, were.

Based on what we were told in late March, our eyes have deceived us the last two nights.  What appeared to be Minute Maid Park in Houston during the first two games of the Series was in fact the Rogers Centre in Toronto.  Further, while one may have read reports that the last two teams standing traveled east on Sunday to prepare for Game 3, in fact the journey was westbound, for the Series will resume Monday evening at Dodger Stadium.  For those with commitments the next few days that will prevent them from tuning in, rest assured that the die is already cast – the Blue Jays are going to win the World Series.  Sorry Dodgers fans.  So said the collective voice of four writers at the Ringer, five at CBS Sports, and a whopping seventy-three at MLB.com, to pick just a handful of the sites that engaged in this annual ritual.

This is not to poke fun at the writers who offered up their opinions back in the Spring.  As noted, predictions like these amount to little more than a parlor game.  But the extent to which Toronto was the overwhelming choice to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, and Los Angeles nearly as popular a call to win the National League pennant, are reminders that even in an empty exercise like this there is a tendency toward herding.  While the occasional tweeted hot take may drive clicks, few writers really want to go too far out on a limb.  Following the crowd can make one look good when the consensus proves correct.  Virtually everyone asked picked the Astros to win the AL West, though that was also one of the easier predictions given both the recent history of that division and the state of its teams going into the season.  But among all those forecasts just one lonely writer had Houston advancing to the World Series, and the popular predictions included other major misses beyond the overconfidence in the Blue Jays.  The Giants safely in the postseason as a Wild Card?  The Brewers and White Sox as division champs?  No, no and not even close.  And only a tiny number of writers were bold enough to put the Phillies in their postseason brackets.

While the preseason predictions are mostly just something to talk about instead of fixating on results from small sample sizes in the early days of the season, they sometimes create a narrative for the campaign that lives on despite results on the field.  The White Sox muddled along all year, but as the popular pick to win the AL Central, the franchise was always deemed on the verge of breaking out, until suddenly it was cast aside as a profound disappointment.  Maybe Chicago was just a .500 team all along, regardless of who was making out the lineup card or which players were on the field.

Now we have come to the end.  By next weekend, and maybe sooner, either the Astros or Phillies will celebrate a title.  Naturally, the season concludes as it began, with scores of predictions.  Though it does not always happen this way, this year those forecasts yielded a consensus nearly as overwhelming as the preseason one, and that in turn meant a narrative for the World Series was firmly set before the first pitch was thrown.

The Astros began the Series as heavy favorites, on the strength of a 106-win season and an unblemished record through the team’s first two playoff rounds.  Given that, it was perhaps out of necessity that the Phillies were cast as the unlikely upstarts, unexpected party crashers who would spend the winter being happy to have made it this far once Houston finished them off.

That narrative looked altogether correct through the first three innings of Game 1, as the Astros jumped out to a 5-0 lead and likely AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander retired the Phillies in order the first time through the batting order.  But by the time Verlander trudged off the mound two frames later the score was tied, and it remained that way through nine, with Philadelphia’s defensively challenged right fielder Nick Castellanos snatching a walkoff win away from Houston with a fine sliding catch of a Jeremy Pena blooper as Jose Altuve was racing home from second in the bottom of the 9th.  Philadelphia catcher J.T. Realmuto then led off the 10th by driving a full count fastball from Luis Garcia into the right field seats.  David Robertson wobbled in the bottom of the frame, but true to his “Houdini” nickname from days with the Yankees, escaped to earn the save.

That unlikely outcome set the established narrative wobbling worse than Robertson had, at least for 24 hours.  Then the Astros again struck first in Game 2, and this time starter Framber Valdez delivered the performance Houston fans had been expecting from Verlander.  Astros 5, Phillies 2, World Series all square.

The teams thus headed to Philadelphia with the favored storyline more or less in place.  But that conventional wisdom misses the reality that the Phillies are a strong franchise that badly underperformed for the first two months of the season.  Only three teams have larger payrolls than Philadelphia, and Houston is not one of them.  With Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hopkins and Realmuto, the Phillies have plenty of offense, and the front line of the starting rotation would be a welcome addition to most clubs.  Aaron Nola in Game 1 and Zack Wheeler in Game 2 did not deliver, but then neither did Verlander for Houston.  The best starter by far was Valdez, whose ERA in two starts during last year’s World Series was 19.29.  Try fitting that into a conventional narrative.

Perhaps the Astros will run the table, or short of that, prevail fairly easily.  But if that is the case, it won’t be because a bunch of sportswriters forecast the result, but because of what happens on the field.  And the only certainty in what is now a short, best-of-five series, is that anything can happen.  Predictions can be entertaining, but the Phillies and Astros still have to play the games.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 27, 2022

Book Review: Jemele Hill’s Long Climb

If time has not exactly passed Andy Warhol’s future by, it has at the very least redefined it.  It was the great American pop artist who in 1968 foresaw the day when “everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.”  Although there is evidence to suggest he borrowed the phrase, it quickly and permanently became associated with Warhol.  Yet more than half a century later, now that Warhol’s future has arrived, much of popular culture is no longer measured by such conventional concepts as minutes.  So while fame – or an approximation thereof – often does seem within reach of anyone, the half-life of its radiation is as likely to be counted in tweets as in time.

Even the hyper-imaginative Warhol did not foresee the existence of Twitter, or any of the various other social media mediums that, depending on one’s view, either grace or despoil our cultural landscape.  But Jemele Hill knows what it’s like to be thrust into the public eye 140 characters at a time.  In September 2017, Hill, who after a decade at ESPN had recently taken over the six o’clock edition of SportsCenter along with co-host Michael Smith, tweeted criticism of Kid Rock, who she saw as openly pandering to racists by choosing to often perform with the Confederate flag on stage.  A day later she happened to scroll through the replies to her post and noted one that strongly defended then-President Trump. 

It had been less than a month since Trump had defended the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Hill’s visceral reaction to his declaration that the marchers included “some very fine people” and his false accusation that they had been attacked by counter-protestors from “the alt-left” was fresh in her mind.  In a string of twelve tweets Hill, in her own words, “unloaded on Trump, explaining why he was a threat to our democracy and a racist.”  But the post that was quickly pinging around the internet was the one in which she described Trump as “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.”

Her time at the leading sports network had made Hill familiar to many fans, but that level of recognition was modest compared to what followed.  Not surprisingly, in part because of the subject matter of her posts and surely in part because Hill was both Black and a woman, the reaction was both intense and extreme.  She was excoriated by some and venerated by others, the replies a mix of vile language and ugly threats interwoven with high praise and shows of support.  For its part, ESPN reprimanded Hill for violating the company’s social media policy, which prohibited employees from making political statements, but otherwise took no action.  Less than a month later however, her employer was quick to act when Hill tweeted a suggestion that fans of the Dallas Cowboys boycott the team’s sponsors to protest owner Jerry Jones’s condemnation of NFL players who were silently protesting during the national anthem, a short list that included no one on the Dallas roster.  Hill was suspended for two weeks, during which time she began to plan for life after ESPN.  Within a year, she left the network.

All that is what most fans think of when Hill’s name is mentioned.  But whether it lasts for 15 minutes or 12 tweets, the kind of fame Warhol envisioned almost never reveals the depth of an individual.  Now, Hill’s newly published memoir “Uphill” (Henry Holt and Company, 10/25/22) fills in the details of a complex and compelling life story.

It is a tale that began in Detroit, where Hill’s childhood was defined by a mother who lapsed in and out of drug dependency but who still managed to provide for her daughter’s basic needs.  But the constant challenges of existing on the economic and social edge could easily have turned Hill’s life into little more than a sad statistic.  Instead, she became both tough and independent, though at the price of developing a deep seated suspicion about the motives of almost everyone she met, a trait that Hill acknowledges she long struggled to overcome.

College at Michigan State and early forays into student journalism broadened Hill’s horizons, and natural reporting skills coupled with a lifelong love of sports led to her early jobs covering sports for local newspapers.  She eventually moved beyond Detroit, writing for the Raleigh News and Observer, and later, after returning home for a stint at the Detroit Free Press, serving as a sports columnist at the Orlando Sentinel.  It was while in Florida in 2005 that Hill learned an Associated Press survey of 305 newspapers across the country had found just one Black female sports columnist – her.

If there was justifiable pride in that distinction, there was also a clear warning about how far Hill’s chosen industry still had to go before reflecting either the fans who were its consumers or the athletes who were its subjects.  Hill found that especially true when she moved to ESPN in the autumn of 2006, a career change she was initially reluctant to make because she wasn’t interested in being on television.  While she grew more accustomed to the performative nature of her new medium, and certainly didn’t mind the much improved compensation of television reporters over those who toil in print, Hill found herself in constant battles for recognition and opportunities because of her gender and skin color, struggles she also watched being played out by production staff who happened to look like her.  Her finest work for ESPN was when she partnered with Smith on a show originally titled “His and Hers,” a talk show in which the two hosts eschewed the screaming matches that were, and remain, the staple of sports talk programs, for intelligent discussions about not just sports, but also pop culture and social issues.  With two African-American hosts, it was also a show that Hill calls “Black as hell.”

That of course would not do when the pair was tabbed for the six o’clock edition of the network’s staple, SportsCenter, and as the corporate executives sought to change Hill and Smith’s approach and style, she sensed her time at ESPN might be winding down even before she fatefully took to Twitter.

“Uphill” concludes with her departure from the sports network, but Hill has been plenty busy over the past four years.  She’s on the staff of “The Atlantic” magazine and also has a popular podcast, “Jemele Hill is Unbothered.”  The winner of the Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists in 2018, she has established herself as a leading voice on the intersection of sports, race, politics, and culture.  Jemele Hill’s is a voice worth listening to for far longer than 15 minutes, or even a dozen tweets.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 23, 2022

RIP NYY

With one dramatic swing of his bat, Bryce Harper sent the Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series, the team’s first trip to the Fall Classic since 2009.  While Phillies fans everywhere celebrate that sentence, it is also of great significance to supporters of the New York Yankees, for two reasons.  First, because Harper and Manny Machado were the two superstar free agents who owner Hal Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman wanted no part of prior to the 2019 season, preferring to rely on the Yankees’ minor league system to produce the next generation of Bronx heroes.  And second, of course, because the Yankees represented the American League in that World Series, and just like the Phillies, New York has not played in the final game of an MLB season since Hideki Matsui brought joy to the Bronx with six RBI’s in 2009’s Game 6 to claim the franchise’s 27th championship.  

As this is written, it remains possible that the Yankees and Phillies will reprise that matchup, in which case Game 1 will be Friday evening at the big Stadium on the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue.  It is also possible that in the days before the scheduled start of this year’s Series, a rogue asteroid will crash into the earth and obliterate all life on the planet.  Having witnessed firsthand New York’s insipid play during Saturday’s shutout loss to Houston that left the Yankees down three games to none in the ALCS, the thinking here is that while both are admittedly longshots, the latter event surely has shorter odds.

New York’s season has not officially ended as this is written, though it may have by the time many readers peruse these words, depending on the outcome of ALCS Game 4.  That result won’t be known until late tonight, with rain delaying the start of the contest.  Even if the Yankees manage to put one contest in the win column, fans of the Great Game are well aware that since the League Championship Series was expanded to its current best-of-seven format in 1985, only one club has triumphed and advanced to the World Series after losing the first three games of the LCS.  Incredibly, it was widely reported that earlier today a team staffer was playing clips of that 2004 comeback in the Yankees’ clubhouse in an attempt to inspire and motivate New York players.  The idea is incredible – as in incredibly stupid – since as most fans will also quickly recall, the franchise that was victimized by the 2004 ALCS comeback of the Boston Red Sox was the New York Yankees. 

The news that someone in the franchise thought such a dimwitted move was a good idea made it easier to write the obituary for this year’s Bronx ballclub, even though the subject is technically still alive.  If by midweek these words call to mind the old yarn about Mark Twain’s misreported demise – a story that over the decades has itself been greatly exaggerated – On Sports and Life will happily eat crow.  But for that to happen, problems that have been apparent not just during the ALCS but throughout the season, would have to be magically fixed.

At the plate, Yankee hitters have been especially anemic throughout the postseason.  Some of that is the nature of the playoffs, when lineups face the best pitching they have seen all year on a game after game, inning after inning, basis.  But fans have been concerned all year about the inconsistent efforts of everyone in New York’s lineup not named Aaron Judge.  While the Yankees’ superstar had a season for the ages, far too often the offense rested on Judge’s shoulders.  His one prolonged batting slump of the regular season closely overlapped with the team’s downward spiral after the All-Star break.

Baseball is about managing failure, and every player goes through hot and cold streaks.  Judge has been cold during the postseason, but Houston’s Jose Altuve has been frozen, batting .036 for the playoffs going into ALCS Game 4.  And Yordan Alvarez, the star for the Astros against Seattle in the ALDS, is 1-for-10 against the Yankees.  There are no cries of alarm about these Astros stars because the team’s lineup is deeper, and other players have stepped up.  In contrast the Yankees, with a batting order that is decidedly not deep, rise and fall on a single player.

New York has also struggled on the mound at crucial times, with Game 3 being a prime example.  Gerrit Cole, the team’s ace, pitched a game that mirrored his performance since he signed for nine years and $324 million in 2020.  He recorded a lot of strikeouts, but also gave up a crucial home run.  This season Cole led the league in strikeouts with 257, breaking Ron Guidry’s longstanding team record.  But he also led the league in home runs allowed, with 33.  Then in the 6th inning, when Houston loaded the bases, New York manager Aaron Boone opted to trust his injury-depleted bullpen over his $324 million ace.  Maybe the homer-prone Cole would have given up a grand slam had Boone left him in.  But that would have only been one more run than was allowed by reliever Lou Trivino.

The bullpen failure can at least be partially blamed on the loss of multiple top relief pitchers who in a different timeline would have been available in that situation.  But Boone’s poor decisions are an ongoing story, as is the overall construction of the roster.  That is why emotions among Yankee fans, as yet one more season approaches a premature end, are different this year.  Disappointment has been replaced by anger, directed squarely at Steinbrenner, Cashman, and Boone.

Which brings us back to the months before the start of the 2019 season, when Harper and Machado were the top free agents.  Both had long expressed an interest in playing for the Yankees, but other than a token interview with Machado, New York’s front office didn’t engage with either star.  The team was instead committed to the Baby Bombers, young prospects who showed great promise, some products of the team’s farm system and others acquired at the 2016 trade deadline. 

But of that group, only Judge has become a superstar, with Luis Severino and Gleyber Torres the only other “babies” still on the roster.  The former has battled through injuries to be a serviceable, and perhaps still promising starting pitcher, and the latter is a decent second baseman who blows hot and cold at the plate.  Gone are Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Clint Frazier, the latter two no longer on any major league roster.  Perhaps in reaction to that failure, this season the Yankees front office resisted calling up promising prospects, instead relying on an aging and expensive Josh Donaldson at third base and an out of position Isiah Kiner-Falefa at shortstop, with predictably dismal results.

Whether tonight or in the next day or two, a season ends short of the goal set by fans, but one wonders if Steinbrenner or Cashman really feel all that bad.  They will, of course, say the right words when the final out has been recorded.  But the seats are still mostly filled, and the brand is still considered elite, both of which contribute to the ever so important bottom line.  As long as that remains true, it seems to be only fans who care when winter comes early to the Bronx.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 20, 2022

For Nats Fans, A Reason To Hope

The equinox has arrived.  No, not a day when the sun sits directly above the equator, marking the beginning of either spring or autumn.  A byproduct of scheduling by multiple leagues, Thursday is a so-called sports equinox.  It’s the relatively rare day – thus the name borrowed from the semiannual solar event – when five major North American team sports are all in action.  The NFL is approaching midseason, and since 2006 Thursday Night Football has been a part of the league’s schedule.  Both the NBA and NHL are just getting their 2022-23 campaigns started, with a pair of basketball games and a dozen hockey matchups taking place.  At the same time, both Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball are in playoff mode, with two MLS Cup semifinals on tap Thursday evening, while the Yankees and Astros play Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

It’s a dream day for a fan, especially one whose interest stretches across multiple sports.  Someone like, say, Ted Leonsis.  The 65-year-old native New Yorker and longtime resident of the Washington, D.C. area will have a particular interest in Thursday’s NHL slate, since he owns the Washington Capitals.  Leonsis’s team is in Ottawa, looking to post its third win in a row and climb above .500 for the first time in the still-young season.  But while the Capitals were his first investment in a professional sports franchise, the hockey club, which brought enormous joy to a city long starved of sports glory when it won the Stanley Cup four years ago, is not Leonsis’s only team.  In 2010 he purchased a majority interest in the NBA’s Washington Wizards and has since added the WNBA’s Mystics and an NBA developmental league team to his portfolio.  He also owned Arena Football League franchises in D.C. and Baltimore during the AFL’s brief existence.  Finally, because all those teams need a place to play, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the corporation Leonsis formed in 2010 to serve as the umbrella for his increasingly diverse sports holdings, also owns D.C.’s major arena, currently named for sponsor Capital One.

Now comes word, first reported by The Athletic, that a group headed by Leonsis has emerged as the clear frontrunner to buy the city’s MLB franchise, the Washington Nationals.  If a deal comes to fruition, Leonsis, who strengthened his position by adding fellow billionaire and philanthropist David Rubenstein to his group, will join Stan Kroenke as just the second person to own franchises in three of the major North American men’s sports leagues.  Far more important, the sale of the Nationals to Leonsis would surely be seen by most fans of the team as a positive development.

To their everlasting credit, the Lerner family, led by patriarch real estate developer Ted Lerner, were instrumental in restoring the Great Game in our nation’s capital.  Lerner bought the franchise in 2006, one year after MLB relocated the Expos from Montreal and just four years after the team was threatened with contraction, in one of the many ill-advised moves during former commissioner Bud Selig’s tenure.  Lerner developed a strong front office, and once Nationals Park was in place, spent enough money on talent to gradually convince potential free agents that Washington was a destination worth considering.  All that culminated in 2019, when after a miserable 19-31 start the team turned its season around, eventually running the table as a Wild Card entrant to the postseason, finishing the fight with a World Series title.

But there have always been limits to the family’s focus on baseball, largely because they, like far too many modern owners of sport teams, have viewed the franchise as an investment, the functional equivalent of one more piece of commercial property in the Lerner family portfolio.  Fans were reminded of that when the dismantling of the championship-winning roster began not long after the celebratory parade.  This season, the Nationals traded away the club’s principal asset, dynamic young star Juan Soto, at the trade deadline.  Only a couple months earlier, Mark Lerner, the second generation family member now in charge, had announced early efforts towards a potential sale.  Most tellingly, the release cast the decision as about estate planning – Ted Lerner is approaching the century mark – rather than in terms of the sport, the team, or the fans.

Leonsis’s approach to sports ownership could not be more different.  His clubs have not always been successful.  While the Capitals have that Stanley Cup and a long history of divisional dominance and playoff appearances during his nearly quarter century of ownership, the Wizards have often struggled to get above .500, and have never made it past the second round of the NBA Playoffs under his ownership.  But the faithful of both clubs have a favorable view of Leonsis, in part because he has always been willing to invest in players, but mostly because he goes out of his way to listen and respond to fans.  From seeking out fans’ opinions during games, to bringing back favored uniform color schemes, to responding to individual stories of fans in need, Leonsis has proven himself attuned to the needs and interests of the people who fill the seats at Capital One Arena and tune in to watch the Wizards and Capitals on their flatscreens.  Often his talent amounts to little more than paying attention, but it is a skill that most billionaire owners apparently believe is beneath them.

As noted in The Athletic’s report, a sale of the Nationals is not yet imminent.  The team’s long-running regional sports network dispute with the neighboring Orioles could still be a stumbling block.  On that score, Leonsis’s recent purchase of the two-thirds interest in NBC Sports Washington that he didn’t already own presents a potentially convenient solution.  Still, even if the TV rights issue is overcome and the Leonsis group prevails in the bidding, the stripped-down Nationals roster likely faces multiple rebuilding years.  But if the team’s fans have something to look forward to, and, while they’re waiting for the future to arrive, at least feel welcome when they make the trek to Nationals Park, those steps in the right direction will be welcome.  As Ted Leonsis has always understood, it’s the little things that count.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 16, 2022

An October That Seems A Bit Too Random

Baseball is a game of random outcomes.  While that statement can be made with some degree of accuracy about all our major team sports, it is especially true of the Great Game, where the description of just one possible product of a single interaction between pitcher and batter – the ball is put in play – covers myriad specific results, the details of and reactions to which yield a wide range of potential outcomes.  That inherent randomness is, of course, a very large part of the sport’s appeal.  While at a high level the contestants, whether entire teams or individuals, may appear mismatched, on any one pitch, or in a single at-bat, or at a particular game, pedigree and prior performance can be subsumed by the moment.  The words that have appeared in this space so often over the years remain true.  There is always a reason why they actually play the games.

Randomness is the basis for the longest season.  The goal of competition is to identify the best teams in the sport, and it takes many games across multiple months to ensure that the standings reflect the relative quality of all the franchises.  Suppose this season had been only 31 games long, roughly a month’s worth of contests.  The New York Yankees would have been far and away the best team in the majors, based on the franchise’s stunning record of 25-6, compiled from May 31 through July 2.  Unless the club was really the abject worst in the sport, based on the 10-21 mark it ran up from July 31 through September 3. 

Not all teams experience such wild swings of fortune over periods that long, but many players do.  That’s why fans know not to take too seriously results based on small sample sizes, whether the numbers produced are Hall of Fame worthy or indicative of someone who should be shipped back to Single-A ball.

Thus, MLB’s great conundrum.  For after the very large number of contests needed to expunge randomness from the standings and statistics, after each team has completed its 162-game schedule, 2,430 games in all, comes the postseason, a tournament that, like all such playoff formats, is built around short series and small sample sizes. 

As this is written, three of the four Division Series have been concluded.  The list may be complete by the time many readers get to this point, if the Cleveland Guardians turn aside the visiting Yankees Sunday night.  If that doesn’t happen, the teams will be headed back to the Bronx, with New York needing to win a second straight elimination game Monday evening.  Whether or not that happens, we already know that the NLCS will be contested between two Wild Card teams, specifically the squads seeded fifth and sixth in this year’s expanded playoff bracket.  Both the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies had to win a best-of-three Wild Card round played entirely in each team’s opponent’s stadium, and then prevail in a best-of-five Division Series that began with two more games on the road.

That each accomplished the feat is a testament to both clubs.  The Padres, after an 89-73 season, downed the 101-win Mets in three games at Citi Field, and then vanquished their NL West rivals and longtime tormentors, the Dodgers, critically earning a split in the first two games at Chavez Ravine.  For L.A., the NLDS loss in four games brought an abrupt halt to a franchise-record 111-win season.  For their part the Phillies, after finishing third in the NL East, 14 games behind Atlanta and the Mets, won back-to-back contests in St. Louis to advance out of the Wild Card round, before taking down defending champion Atlanta in four games.  As with San Diego, the Phillies were able to springboard off a crucial split of the opening two games at Truist Park.

Taken together, these results mean that of the four franchises that entered the playoffs on the strength of triple-digit regular season wins, only the 106-56 Houston Astros remain.  The Dodgers, clearly the class of the Great Game from Opening Day until October, along with Mets and Atlanta, are out.  And while the Astros swept the Seattle Mariners, that series could easily have unfolded very differently.  Houston trailed Game 1 until the very end, and the final contest went 18 innings, with an adverse result for the Astros just one swing away throughout all those extra frames.  If the Guardians finish off the 99-63 Yankees, the team with the fifth best regular season record will also have been dismissed.

As is true in April, when one’s team sweeps its opening series and a personal hero goes 6-12 with two home runs (or, god forbid, the opposite happens), fans should not be quick to draw conclusions from such small samples.  Maybe questionable managerial decisions derailed favorites.  Certainly L.A.’s Dave Roberts is under scrutiny for his bullpen calls in Saturday’s crucial Game 4 against the Padres, as is New York’s Aaron Boone for his more predictable ineptitude in Game 3 against the Guardians.  Or perhaps it’s just a good year for underdogs.

Still, since this is the first year with this particular 12-team postseason format, it’s fair to look closely at the results.  MLB’s challenge has always been to create a playoff structure that keeps the regular season results meaningful.  Otherwise, why should fans pay either attention or their money from April through September?  Under this format, the regular season incentives are the requirement that lower-seeded Wild Card teams play on the road, and the top two teams in each league receiving a bye through the first round.  But the first did not appear to be meaningful, and the byes looked to have generated more rust than rest.

In assessing something that only happens once a season, a sample of one is the smallest possible.  Maybe this time next year fans will be talking about all the top seeds advancing and the woeful performance of the Wild Cards.  Maybe what has happened so far in this postseason is just because baseball is a game of random outcomes.  But as one looks at the carnage of higher seeds along the still unfolding road to this season’s World Series, one can’t help but think that MLB, and the Players Association, have some work to do.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 13, 2022

In DC, The Ritual Unfolds

By now the sequence of events is so familiar it can fairly be described as ritual.  Call it the expulsion rite of a billionaire boy’s club, for anyone qualifying for membership in the supremely exclusive fraternities of franchise owners in our various major sports leagues is always extremely wealthy and, with the rarest of exceptions, male.  While their teams may be archrivals, with fanbases that despise each other, those in the little clubs of NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS owners, like adolescents joined by a secret handshake, do their best to maintain a veneer of compatibility and common purpose, usually guided in public by their chief employee, the league commissioner.

But while the principal goal of each team’s players and fans may be a championship, titles and rings and parades are welcome but secondary to members of the club.  For owners, the first objective is profit, both year in and year out from the sale of tickets and concessions, and over the longer term from ever larger broadcast contracts and steady growth in the value of their franchise.  The drive for profit is helped by putting a competitive product on the field, of course, but even more important is keeping the focus of fans and the media on the sport.  In short, an owner can act pretty much however he pleases, just so long as he doesn’t become a distraction.

That is a sufficiently lax attitude toward personal behavior as to allow a miscreant to be a royal pain in the rear to his fellow owners.  Al Davis, during four and a half decades at the helm of the NFL’s Raiders, was involved in multiple lawsuits against the league, most revolving around his efforts to move the team over the objections of his fellow owners.  But the Raiders were usually good, sometimes great, and Davis was a leader in diversity efforts for a league in which the most important employees – the players – were increasingly Black. 

Still, often enough that, as noted, we all know the steps to the dance, an owner breaches even the generous boundaries of these little clubs.  When that happens, there is sometimes an initial tendency on the part of the other members to close ranks.  But as the distraction grows, opinions quickly shift.   NBA owners didn’t mind octogenarian L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling parading around with a mistress, nor his history of being sued for discrimination in his other business as a landlord.  But when TMZ released audiotape of Sterling making racist comments to that lover in April 2014, he became a distraction.  It took NBA commissioner Adam Silver less than a week to ban Sterling, and barely six weeks after the story broke for the sale of the Clippers to be announced.

Much more recently, Silver again made an unwanted appearance before the microphones, initially explaining that he had no power to force owner Robert Sarver to sell the Phoenix Suns, after an investigation found the owner had regularly used racist language and harassed female employees.  Silver’s statement was that of an employee of his league’s club members indulging their natural tendency to band together.  But soon enough, as the sordid Sarver story became a growing distraction, and with a new basketball season looming, Sarver announced he would sell both the Suns and the WNBA’s Mercury.  Sarver attributed his decision to “an unforgiving climate,” which is no doubt what he found in conversations with other members of his elite fraternity. 

And just last week, the devastating report by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates on sexual abuse and harassment in women’s professional soccer led to multiple firings and resignations of coaches and executives in the NWSL.  So far one owner, Merritt Paulson of the Portland Thorns, has “stepped back” from his role.  No doubt he hopes to weather the storm in a sport that is not as close to the media’s center stage.  But he shouldn’t count on it.

Which brings us back to the NFL, and the worst owner of any sports team in any league, Daniel Snyder.  Once upon what seems like a very long time ago, then NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called him “the perfect person” to own the league’s Washington, D.C. franchise.  But Snyder, then just in his mid-30s, quickly alienated many of his fellow club owners, most of whom were decades older, with his arrogance and disrespectful attitude.  As detailed in a lengthy ESPN story this week, the relationship between the Commanders’ owner and his 31 associates has only gone downhill since. 

Yet personal animus, not to mention Washington’s usually hapless performance on the field, was always set aside, because Snyder was not a distraction.  Now that has changed.  Two years ago, a Washington Post report exposed a toxic work culture towards women, which led to an investigation by the league.  But with the ritual then in its early stages, the other owners banded together to hamstring the inquiry, eventually prohibiting the preparation of a written report.  But the NFL has now initiated a new investigation, and at least one woman has reportedly offered what the ESPN story described as “tipping point” testimony against Snyder.  On top of the off-field issues, Washington’s years of consistently poor play and the resulting impact on a fanbase that once packed FedEx Field every week has made the franchise a point of economic concern for the league.

It is fair to say that for the other members of the NFL’s little owner fraternity, Daniel Snyder has become a distraction.  That he knows this is now evident, with multiple media outlets describing thinly veiled threats by the Commanders’ owner to reveal damaging information about his fellow club members and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, dirt supposedly obtained by private investigators in Snyder’s employ.

The end game could take some time.  Snyder is clearly determined to hold on, and the owners club is still a club.  But every fan who has watched the rite unfold before surely senses that this episode has moved into its closing stages.  The owner grows more desperate, which only makes his fraternity brothers more determined.  The bond between them, once broken, cannot be repaired, because all the lingering resentments that have been set aside for years now come flooding back.  The final chapter is always the same – a sale, a new owner, and, one hopes, better days.  For fans of a once great and now long diminished franchise, those last pages of this long story can’t come soon enough.   

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 9, 2022

Welcome To October

In his epic poem “The Waste Land,” with its renowned opening line, T.S. Eliot may have been right about Europe in the wake of World War I.  But as far as baseball fans are concerned, Eliot had the calendar all wrong.  April is by no means the cruelest month in the Great Game.  When the longest season is just getting started, hope and optimism abound.  Even fans of clubs destined to be cellar dwellers are filled with thoughts of charity and goodwill about the new campaign, even if the positivity is directed at a single returning veteran or rising prospect. 

It is at the other end of the schedule that cruelty twists its sharpened knife.  For some, it is because by that time the veteran has clearly underperformed, or the promising rookie has proven not quite ready for the big leagues.  Among the faithful of most franchises, mid-autumn finds April’s promise replaced by disappointment and despair as hopes for a postseason run give way to another season without playoff games at the local stadium. 

But even the squads that qualify for MLB’s season-ending tournament are not immune.  Indeed, October is arguably especially cruel for fans of those teams.  For as the month unfolds and, this year, with expanded playoffs and the delayed start to the season, leaks into November, the ending for fans of all but one of those teams will be unhappy.  The first pitch of this year’s playoffs was delivered less than sixty hours ago, and already the hopes of three contestants have been dashed, with a fourth destined to join them before Monday morning dawns.

That fourth team to see its season end in this year’s expanded Wild Card round will be either the San Diego Padres or New York Mets.  The two squads are meeting in a decisive third game at Citi Field as this is written.  The Padres bludgeoned Mets ace Max Scherzer Friday, hitting four home runs that silenced the partisans in Queens, but New York’s Jacob deGrom fared better Saturday, holding San Diego at bay until the Mets’ bats erupted late.  The disappointment will be keen for whichever club comes up short in Game 3, for back in the hopeful days of Spring there were many fans, and at least some pundits, making the case for each as a serious championship contender.  But second place finishes in division races, the Padres by a lot to L.A. and the Mets by a tiebreaker to Atlanta, sent both to the best-of-three Wild Card round that now opens MLB’s postseason, guaranteeing an early exit for the loser.   

In St. Louis, Cardinals fans enjoyed a remarkable second half by slugger Albert Pujols, who at age 42 had returned to the franchise that picked him late in the 1999 MLB Draft and for which he played the first eleven years of his Hall of Fame career.  Pujols was hitting so poorly by June that he contemplated retiring in mid-season.  But after the All-Star break he rediscovered his swing and chased the 700 career home runs mark through the season’s final weeks, finally surpassing it in late September while helping St. Louis pull away from Milwaukee in the NL Central.  With Pujols and catcher Yadier Molina both in their last campaign, fans hoped for one final run deep into the postseason.  Instead, the Philadelphia Phillies arrived at Busch Stadium and ended the careers of the two superstars, and the Cardinals’ season, with a furious 9th inning rally on Friday and a solid shutout one day later.  With the new format that makes each league’s division winner with the fewest regular season wins the fourth team in the Wild Card round, St. Louis became the first ever division champion not qualifying for the Division Series.

Fans in the Tampa Bay area are used to watching their team outperform rivals with far larger budgets by fielding a skillfully crafted roster of young players leavened with one or two veterans.  But in Cleveland, the Rays ran into a Guardians squad that looks to be a new and improved version of Tampa’s model.  Cleveland fields the youngest roster in the majors, though manager Terry Francona is no neophyte.  A canny skipper who guided the Red Sox to titles in 2004 and 2007 and took Cleveland all the way to a game-turning rain delay in extra innings of World Series Game 7 in 2016, Francona imbued his young charges with the belief that this could be more than what was widely presumed to be a rebuilding year.  When the White Sox stumbled, it was as if Guardian players said “why not us and why not now,” before racing to the AL Central title.  Cleveland then ended Tampa Bay’s season with a pair of thrilling one-run victories, the second in 15 innings.   

But while there is now disappointment and doubt in greater Tampa, and on the banks of the Mississippi, and, soon enough, in either sunny San Diego or out at the end of the number 7 subway line in Queens, the emotion north of the border is sharper, the pain more acute.  In Toronto, the cruel blade of defeat twisted and turned and cut to the bone.

Back in those halcyon days of March and April, when a new collective bargaining agreement finally assured fans that there would be reason to cheer this summer, the Blue Jays were quickly established as favorites to win the AL East and a popular pick to go all the way.  The team’s voluble young star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. fed the hype, promising that 2021, when Toronto missed the playoffs by a single game, “was the trailer.  What you are going to see this year is the movie.”  Fast forward six months, and after the Blue Jays scored a walkoff win over the Yankees at the Rogers Centre during the final week of the regular season, Guerrero Jr. loudly and repeatedly proclaimed “this is my house,” with video of the outburst quickly spreading across social media.

But now the movie has turned into a horror flick for Blue Jays fans, and Vladdy’s house seems more like a hotel, with Guerrero and his teammates the accommodating innkeepers.  The night after his outburst, New York’s Aaron Judge sent his AL record-tying 61st home run into the Toronto bullpen, and the following evening the Yankees celebrated on the Rogers Centre infield after clinching the AL East, consigning Toronto to the Wild Card round. 

The Seattle Mariners arrived Friday, and promptly jumped to a 3-0 lead in Game 1, which proved more than enough for trade deadline pickup Luis Castillo, who shut down the Blue Jays over 7 1/3 innings on the way to a 4-0 final score.  Facing elimination Saturday, Toronto pummeled both Mariners’ starter Robbie Ray and the Seattle bullpen, racing to an 8-1 lead after five frames.  A jubilant crowd was looking forward to the decisive Game 3 on Sunday.  Or they were until the Mariners, a team that has given its own fan base plenty of cruel twists over the years, sliced into the lead with four in the top of the 6th.  Then, after the Blue Jays plated a run in the bottom of the 7th, Seattle scored four more in the 8th to tie the game at 9-9, the last three tallies crossing the plate after an outfield collision between two Blue Jays chasing a bloop fly ball.  The raucous crowd was silenced, stunned and cowering, awaiting the blade’s final twist. 

It came in the 9th, on a pair of doubles that completed the Mariners’ rally from a seven run deficit.  It was the second largest comeback in postseason history, the largest for a road team, and the largest to clinch a postseason series.  Sportswriter Molly Knight, whose Substack column “The Long Game” (https://mollyknight.substack.com/) is well worth a subscription, called it “baseball witchcraft.” 

There is truth in that, for the Great Game’s gods like nothing better than toying with the contests that matter most.  But there is another word for it, and for all the deeply cruel twists that have already happened and those that will occur between now and that special night of ultimate joy for a newly crowned champion.  That word is October.

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