Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 13, 2020

Still Waiting For The Cheers

Someday perhaps, Naomi Osaka will win the U.S. Open and get the reception she so richly deserves. A packed house at Arthur Ashe Stadium, raucous and rowdy as the throngs that make their way out to the far end of Gotham’s #7 subway line can be, on their feet and cheering her name. Fans saluting Osaka as she again lifts the Open trophy, her shy smile slowly growing into a wide grin. Osaka has earned nothing less, not just by winning the Open twice, but also by prevailing in both 2018 and Saturday evening in unimaginably bizarre environments.

Two Septembers ago, playing in her first Grand Slam final, Osaka was reduced to the role of innocent bystander as Serena Williams brought chaos to the U.S. Tennis Association’s showpiece. After Osaka raced out to the lead by winning the first set 6-2, Williams turned her wrath on chair umpire Carlos Ramos early in the second set when he announced a code violation against Williams for receiving hand signals from her coach in the stands. Shortly thereafter the official assessed a mandatory violation against Williams when she slammed her racket onto the court after an especially poor service game. As a second violation that penalty gave a point to Osaka. At the next changeover, a seething Williams proceeded to berate Ramos. Upset by the coaching violation’s implication that she was cheating, she demanded that the umpire apologize. When he demurred, Williams screamed that Ramos had stolen a point from her, calling him a thief. As she began to walk back to the baseline Ramos announced a third violation for abuse of an official, which gave Osaka a game and made the second set score 5-3 in her favor.

Williams pleaded her case to the tournament referee and the Grand Slam supervisor to no avail, but the already boisterous crowd got into the act by loudly supporting the dominant women’s player of the past twenty years, who was then just working her way back into form following near-fatal complications of childbirth. Boos rained down on the chair umpire from every section of the largest tennis-specific stadium in the world, and they didn’t let up after Osaka closed out her straight set victory. The result was an ugly scene during the awards ceremony, as tears ran down the sad face of the tournament champion.

As strange as that final’s night was, the 2018 environment was outdone by the echoing sounds of silence on the Ashe court this year. With the gates of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center closed to fans because of the pandemic, even the premier matches at this year’s U.S. Open were played in front of crowds of no more than a couple hundred spectators – tournament officials, other players, and the small group of support personnel each contestant was allowed to bring into the tournament bubble. That produced an eerie scene utterly foreign to Flushing Meadows, where more so than at any other tennis major the admonition of “quiet please” before the start of a point sometimes does no more than lower the decibel level to a constant background hum. That was missing this year, much less the roars of approval for well-played winners, and the collective groans at the appearance of misfortune.

Just like every other sport, the crowd can also impact the flow of a match, giving strength to an underdog or helping a veteran to dig deep one more time. But at this year’s Open the clapping of any one spectator could be clearly distinguished, leaving the players to look within themselves for motivation and momentum.

For thirty-five minutes Saturday, all the evidence pointed to Victoria Azarenka as the finalist who was best able to do that. Even without the familiar shouts of “Vika!” echoing around Ashe, the two-time Grand Slam winner and former world number one was dominant in the first set and at the start of the second. It took Azarenka just 26 minutes to go up a set, 6-1. She served flawlessly, missing just a single first serve during the opening set. On defense she controlled the baseline, effectively negating Osaka’s superior power with a mix of razor-sharp returns. On the opposite side of the net Osaka came out tentative, perhaps surprised by the high level of Azarenka’s play.

After all, prior to the back-to-back tournaments at Flushing Meadows, she had only played sporadically since the 2017 birth of her son, forced instead to remain in California for long periods of time while enmeshed in an ugly custody fight with the baby’s father. But Vika had given a hint that she was back by winning the Western & Southern Open, the tournament usually played in Ohio but moved to Queens just before the Open, as both a dry run for the closed environment and to give the pros another playing opportunity as months without tennis.

Azarenka surely new that she couldn’t let up, and for the first two games of the second set she did not. But with a 2-0 lead and already up a break, she wavered for the first time in that set’s third game. Osaka had already been broken four times when she finally got her first break point against Azarenka’s serve. Vika chose that moment to hit a poor shot, conceding the break with a badly hit unforced error. It was the first sign of weakness by Azarenka, the first indication that perhaps the match wasn’t going to be over in less than an hour. It was by any measure the tiniest of openings, but it was all Osaka needed.

Her already powerful serves and groundstrokes ticked up even faster, and Osaka began to move Azarenka around on the baseline as she had been forced to up until that point.  The turn in momentum was stunning, but it was only possible because Osaka had never shown any indication that she doubted herself.  Just as she was able to shut the crowd out in 2018, on Saturday she needed only her own resources to find the will to rally.  She wore a different face mask with the name of a Black victim of state-sanctioned violence before each of her matches.  Osaka brought seven such masks to the Open, clearly expecting to wear them all. 

She held to level the score at 2-2, and then three games later broke Azarenka again to seize the advantage.  On Vika’s next serve, at the end of a compelling sixteen-point game, Osaka fired a forehand winner to take the second set. 

In hindsight one can say the die was cast.  History would be made, as it had been a quarter-century since a woman had won the Open after losing the first set in the title match.  But both players are fierce fighters, and Azarenka never quit while Osaka never wavered.  Up 3-1 in the third, Osaka went down triple break point on her serve before rallying to hold.  In the next game Azarenka fought off four break points to hold on her end.  Finally, almost two hours after it started, a backhand return into the net ended Azarenka’s night and gave Osaka her second Open and third Grand Slam title, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.  Maybe next time she’ll get to hear the cheers. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 10, 2020

The Pitcher Who Lifted A Franchise To Glory

He was “Tom Terrific” before a certain quarterback, late of Foxborough Massachusetts, was even born. When he was labeled “the Franchise” the nickname was far more apt than it would be in later years for the NBA’s Steve Francis, or NASCAR’s David Reutimann, or journeyman pitcher Francisco Liriano. To understand the depth of loss felt by fans of the New York Mets last week, when word came that a year and a half after withdrawing from public life following a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia Tom Seaver had died at the age of 75, one need only look to the words used by Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez, who said of Seaver, “he is the greatest Met of all time.” Not Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, or original manager Casey Stengel, or a more recent face of the franchise such as David Wright. It was the burly right-hander to whom Hernandez, Seaver’s teammate for one season, gave pride of place.  

Fans far beyond Queens see his greatness in statistics built over two decades in the major leagues. National League Rookie of the Year in 1967, three Cy Young Awards, twelve All-Star appearances, 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts, a career ERA of 2.86, and, of course, a plaque on the wall in Cooperstown. But while all those numbers resonate with Mets fans, whose support for the boys of Flushing Meadows has yielded far more anguish than joy over the decades, the essence of Tom Seaver lies in a single season, 1969. What Seaver and the Mets did in that year truly was the miracle that became that squad’s nickname.

Born as an expansion franchise in 1962, the Mets lost 120 games in their inaugural campaign, then quickly set about proving that such futility was no fluke. The team recorded more than 100 losses in each of its first four seasons, with its best effort a “mere” 109-loss year in 1964. Going into the 1969 season the Mets had never come close to a winning record and had finished either ninth or tenth in the National League every year.

Seaver’s arrival in 1967, after one season in the minors, was full of promise. He went 16-13 on a club that lost 101 games, accumulating an excellent WAR of 6.0. He also threw 251 innings, a reminder of how expectations for starting pitchers have changed. These days entire rotations on some clubs will lack even a single starter who goes 200 innings in a season, and with the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign ensuring that no pitcher will come close to that mark, it will be an even decade since Justin Verlander, then with the Tigers, matched Seaver’s workload. But still the Mets were the doormat of the National League in 1967. The following year showed slight improvement, for both Seaver, who improved on his rookie season in ERA, win percentage, FIP and WAR, and for his team. The Mets posted a franchise best 73 victories, though another season well below the .500 mark left them 24 games out of first place, and better than only Houston in the final NL standings.

Then came 1969. The roster was little changed from the previous year, but further expansion meant the advent of divisions in both leagues, so a ninth or tenth place finish was no longer possible. Still, most pundits forecast New York as no better than the fourth best squad among the six in the new NL East. The prognosticators appeared prescient through most of the season’s first two months. By late May the Mets were five games under .500, stuck in fourth place and already nine games back in the standings. Then the team ran off eleven straight wins, capturing all but the first contest of a home stand and adding to the streak at the start of a West Coast swing. Seaver was the winning pitcher in three of the eleven victories. That put the Mets into rarified air, a team with a winning record! While that was a decidedly different posture for a franchise that had become a national joke in its early days, it was one to which the Mets quickly grew accustomed.

But while the team, and Seaver, kept winning games, the front-running Cubs were every bit as good. The result was a steadily improving record but little progress toward first place. As late as mid-August New York was still ten games adrift of Chicago. The Cubbies though had their own, much longer, history of futility with which to contend, and that seemed to weigh on the team from the North Side. By the time the Cubs arrived at Shea Stadium on September 8 the lead was down to 2½ games. Jerry Koosman, Seaver’s left-handed partner in the rotation, won the first match of the two-game set 3-2. One night later the Mets gave Seaver plenty of run support, not that he needed it. He won his 21st game of the season, allowing just five hits and one run as New York closed to a half-game with a 7-1 triumph. When the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Expos the following day, the NL East had a new first place team.

New York finished that year with 100 wins. Seaver owned 25 of them, including each of his final ten decisions. Then he got the postseason party started by beating Atlanta in the first game of the NLCS. He wasn’t perfect, losing the first game of the World Series against the Orioles. But he rebounded with a heroic effort in Game 4, holding the Baltimore bats at bay over ten innings until the Mets finally walked off in the bottom of the 10th when O’s reliever Pete Richert’s throw to first on a sacrifice bunt sailed high and wide, allowing Rod Gaspar to score from second. The 2-1 win put the Mets on the brink of a title, and one night later the miracle was complete.

These are the Mets of course, so even the stories of the team’s heroes are filled with angst. In what fans still refer to as the Midnight Massacre, Seaver was shipped to Cincinnati at the trade deadline in 1977, the culmination of a contract dispute with Donald Grant, who chaired the club’s board and regularly leaked disparaging comments about Seaver to New York Post columnist Dick Young. So it was in a Reds uniform that Seaver recorded his 3,000th strikeout, fanning Hernandez, who was then playing for St. Louis.

Seaver returned to New York in another trade prior to the 1983 season. Just like when he was a rookie, the Mets were a bad team, but Seaver still posted the win on Opening Day, beating a Philadelphia squad that would play in that year’s World Series. Then the front office left him unprotected in that autumn’s free agent compensation draft, thinking no one would want an aging hurler with a big contract. But the White Sox did, meaning that while Seaver did win his 300th game in Gotham, it was in the Bronx as a visiting pitcher, not in Queens as the home starter.

Now he is gone, one more star from another time extinguished, one more hero consigned to memory. But for Mets fans those memories of Tom Terrific and the miracle of ’69, along with the knowledge of what the Franchise meant to their franchise, will always be clear. The greatest Met of all was the one who led the amazing squad that gave those fans their first taste of absolute joy.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 6, 2020

Authentic Is The Real Thing, In A Derby That Isn’t Quite

“And they’re into the stretch!” cried announcer Larry Collmus, his voice a guttural growl. It was a familiar moment for sports fans, as the field of fifteen three-year-olds came off the final turn at Churchill Downs early Saturday evening. Even those whose attention rarely turns to horse racing know that when the thoroughbreds race past the red and white quarter pole at the old Louisville track, history is just one final charge down the home stretch away.

Familiar, and yet entirely different. Like so much else in this pandemic year, the Kentucky Derby joined other major sporting events in being upended and recast by COVID-19. Collmus’s cry rang out on NBC not on the first Saturday in May, but four months later, on Labor Day weekend. The postponement of the Derby from its traditional date meant that the first Triple Crown race was run not in Kentucky, but on Long Island, where the Belmont Stakes took place in June. The extended Derby trail also meant that for the first time in many years fewer than twenty horses went to the post. The schedule of qualifying races was as jumbled as the three legs of the Triple Crown, and some horses that earned a spot in the field were forced out by injury. Other owners chose not to make the journey or risk the investment in this strange year. Then the eventual eighteen-horse field was further reduced by three late scratches, the last of those coming when track veterinarians pulled Thousand Words from the race after he reared up and fell over backwards in the paddock as the horses were being saddled.

But as with so many other sports, the most profound alteration to Derby Day was the absence of fans. In any other year the backdrop to the excited shout from Collmus would have been the growing roar of 150,000 spectators screaming in support of their favored steed, as if decibels alone could somehow propel a horse and rider to the front of the pack. Proceeding without fans was a decision that the management of Churchill Downs was clearly reluctant to make. As recently as mid-August track officials were planning on admitting upwards of 25,000, only to wisely reverse course just two weeks before the race.

So it was that as Authentic and Tiz the Law led the sprinting parade of horses onto Churchill’s stretch, in place of the shouts of thousands the background music to the announcer’s call was the poor substitute of hooves pounding dirt amid the murmur of the thousand or so in attendance, track workers and those with official ties to one of the horses on the day’s racing card. After winning the Belmont and trouncing the field at the Travers, Tiz the Law had been sent off as the overwhelming 3-5 favorite. Authentic, in the stable of celebrity trainer Bob Baffert, left the post as the 8-1 third choice of bettors on the strength of victories in the San Felipe and the Haskell, along with a runner up finish in the Santa Anita Derby.

The two horses started side by side in the last two outside stalls of the starting gate. The first time by the non-existent crowd, Authentic as expected moved quickly to the front of the field, with Tiz the Law laying just a couple lengths off his flank. That is how they stayed as the race unfolded, the horse who likes to lead running in front, and the proven stalker just a short distance to his outside, both in their desired spots and both free of traffic or trouble.

That setup, combined with doubts among many horsemen about Authentic’s breeding giving him the ability to go a mile and a quarter, meant that when Manny Franco asked Tiz the Law to run as the two rounded the final turn and Collmus declared their arrival at history’s gate, the expectation was that the favorite would motor on past Authentic and move one step closer to the Triple Crown. But with the possible exception of a horse so-named, expectation alone has never won a race. Tiz the Law charged, and Authentic answered. “As they come to the final furlong, Authentic is digging in,” shouted Collmus. Indeed he was. Veteran jockey John Velazquez was in the saddle, and the two-time Derby winner urged his mount on. Rather than tiring, in the final yards Authentic opened a sliver of daylight over his rival, crossing the wire a length and a quarter ahead of Tiz the Law.

It was the 200th ride to victory in a Grade I race for Velazquez, and the sixth Derby win for Baffert, tying the all-time record for wins by a trainer. While there were fist bumps and hugs among Authentic’s connections, there was no roar of greeting when Velazquez brought Authentic back to the home stretch, no loud salute from fans as Baffert made his way from the paddock to the winner’s circle. In the end that told everyone that this Derby belonged to 2020. It was a reality that was brought home before the race, when the horses were called to the post.

That was when, in other years, the massive crowd would rise to sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” accompanying the playing of the state song by the University of Louisville band. This year there was no crowd and no band, only a moment of silence followed by track bugler Steve Buttleman’s solo trumpet. The song may well be the most controversial of state anthems, though it is worth remembering that in the context of the time Stephen Foster wrote it, “My Old Kentucky Home” was praised by Frederick Douglass, who wrote that it “awaken(s) the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.” Whatever one’s opinion, the song is ultimately a lament, a mournful elegy for all that has been lost, made enormously more powerful Saturday by the lonely echo of the single horn. It was a fitting sound for this year in sports.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 3, 2020

Big John Didn’t Open The Door, He Battered It Down

Because he accomplished so much, because in the end Big John Thompson became a larger-than-life figure in college basketball, fans tend to forget just how improbable and how difficult his achievements were. When he was hired to lead the basketball program at Georgetown in 1972, Father Robert Henle, president of the Jesuit university that sits on a hill overlooking the Potomac River and the Washington DC neighborhood that bears its name, expressed the hope that Thompson, who died Sunday at the age of 78, might eventually take the Hoyas to the National Invitational Tournament.

By any reasonable measure Henle was setting an ambitious goal. GU’s basketball “program” barely deserved the name. The recently ended season had featured a total of just three wins, and the team had been to the NIT exactly twice in the previous two decades, losing in the first round both times. As for the NCAA tournament, the Hoyas’ only appearance in the Big Dance had come in the middle of World War II. But as Thompson, then the successful head coach at local St. Anthony High School, told the story many times in later years, while he already had bigger plans, he was smart enough not to overpromise, and so simply replied “yes, sir, I’ll try,” to Henle’s vision.

Yet Thompson’s task was about so much more than just changing the mindset of an unsuccessful small-time college basketball program. It was also about taking Georgetown to the heights of college basketball’s aristocracy with a coach who was Black. When Thompson was hired the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s were less than a decade old. It had been only four years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics, momentarily placing sports at the center of the long struggle for equality. One of many reasons that protest shook America was because athletes rarely ventured into social or political issues. Thompson did so less dramatically but with every bit as firm resolve at the two Olympic medalists.

He immediately began recruiting Black players, focusing on the many outstanding high school teams in the DC area. Soon the Georgetown starting lineup was exclusively African American, to the dismay of some local fans. On at least one occasion a banner denouncing Thompson with an all too familiar slur appeared in the upper reaches of Georgetown’s gym. But Thompson used the most effective method of all to silence his critics and calm the doubters – winning.

By his third season the Hoyas had a winning record and something even more remarkable – an invitation to the NCAA tournament. When Thompson retired in 1999, his teams had made twenty March Madness appearances. As one of its seven founding members, Georgetown had also been a key factor in the rise of the Big East Conference. Unlike most college conferences that are centered on football, then as now the Big East revolved around the hardcourt, and GU’s rivalries with St. John’s, Villanova, and especially with Syracuse became appointment television for basketball fans, helping to build a fledgling sports network known as ESPN.

With the familiar white towel draped over one shoulder, Thompson was an imposing figure on the sideline. His teams played hard, aggressive defense, an in-your-face style not unlike that of the coach. When he learned that Rayful Edmund, a local drug lord, had befriended some of Georgetown’s players, Thompson had the thug come to his office, where he delivered a profanity-laced ultimatum that Edmund was to have no further contact with anyone on Georgetown’s roster. To oppose the NCAA’s Proposition 48, which limited the playing time for scholarship athletes based on standardized test scores, a criteria that Thompson believed discriminated against African American students, he boycotted a game against Boston College.

He also ignored vocal criticism by recruiting Allen Iverson even after the high schooler had been convicted of a felony in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia (a conviction that was later overturned). Iverson of course is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, as are Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, among the 26 athletes who played for Thompson and went on to the NBA. “I want to thank Coach Thompson for saving my life, Iverson said through tears on the day of his induction. But Thompson wasn’t just about stars, with 97% of his four-year players earning their Georgetown degree.

If Thompson’s career is the embodiment of the old Sinatra song “My Way,” that’s in part because it had to be, for there were no obvious mentors among the ranks of college coaches when Big John promised Father Henle he’d try. Thompson’s 596 wins still rank second on the list of NCAA Division I career victories by Black coaches. But everyone else in the top ten of that ranking began coaching at college basketball’s top level after Thompson. When the Hoyas first made it to the Final Four, two years before reaching the pinnacle of a national championship, he was asked how it felt to be the first Black coach to take a squad to the last weekend of college basketball’s season. “I resent the hell out of that question if it implies I am the first Black coach competent enough to take a team to the Final Four,” Thompson said. “Other Blacks have been denied the right in this country; coaches who have the ability. I don’t take any pride in being the first Black coach in the Final Four. I find the question extremely offensive.”

As it was that night with Thompson, attention is always paid to the first to achieve an elusive goal. But a true pathfinder knows that a far more important legacy lies in not being the last. John Thompson Jr. grasped this from the beginning, understanding that the higher purpose of paving the way is so that others can follow.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 30, 2020

A Trading Deadline As Strange As Its Season

Although it comes a month later on the calendar than usual, Monday marks baseball trading deadline. It’s the last chance for contenders, and those teams with GMs who think their squads ought to be, to beef up their rosters by rolling the dice on one or more transactions with clubs that have come to the realization that there is no chance this year will end with a championship parade. It’s a time of high anxiety in front offices, in no small part because for all the advanced analytics at their disposal, those in charge of baseball operations at the Great Game’s highest level know that luck plays a significant role in how any deal ultimately pans out.

A contending team will typically exchange some number of prospects for an established player, occasionally a star, who appears to fill a gap in the roster. In truth, the value of the deal can’t be judged for years, until its known whether those prospects turn out to be All-Stars, or journeymen, or join the long list of young players who never make it out of minor league ball. But since one franchise is parting with that uncertain future value to gain immediate help in its push for the playoffs, fans and pundits are quick to pass judgment on the acumen of at least one of the general managers involved in the trade.

Stories of deadline deals gone bad are legion, as MLB’s website reminded fans with a weekend story about five trades, all considered huge at the time they were made, that manifestly didn’t work out for the team that believed it was buying just what it needed to win now. One of those deals was especially pertinent to the current season. At last summer’s deadline the Blue Jays traded pitcher Marcus Stroman to the Mets for a pair of minor leaguers. At the time the Queens club was on the edge of the postseason chase, but New York GM Brodie Van Wagenen saw the then 28-year-old righthander as an addition for both 2019 and 2020, because Stroman was still one year away from free agency.

Stroman was effective, if not exactly overpowering, over the remainder of last season, though the Mets came up short of a playoff spot. But Van Wagenen’s plan to parlay a second year of benefit from the deal went a-glimmering when Stroman was injured during the Mets second training camp in July, and then opted out of the season because of concerns about COVID-19. New York could still offer Stroman a free agent contract for 2021 and beyond, but so could twenty-nine other teams. Even if he remains a Met it will be with a new contract, so the value of the deadline deal was just the 59 2/3 innings Stroman pitched last season for a club that finished third in its division.

A potential opt out is just one of the variables unique to this year’s trading deadline, though before finalizing any deal GMs will surely want assurances that a player isn’t about to suddenly decide that his new team’s home city is too much of a coronavirus hot spot. There is also the continuing uncertainty about whether the season will be completed. Sunday’s game between Oakland and Houston was postponed after an A’s player tested positive for COVID-19, making the Athletics the fifth team to report a positive test.

Even without an outbreak widespread enough to force commissioner Rob Manfred to cancel the season, the integrity of the schedule hangs on a knife’s edge. While MLB continues to add doubleheaders and eliminate days off to make it appear that all thirty franchises will play sixty games, many teams now have just one or at most two scheduled off days over the final month. If the virus doesn’t disrupt the calendar, weather almost certainly will. Manfred has already said the final standings will be based on winning percentage if all franchises don’t play sixty games, but he’s given no indication how many teams falling how far short would make those standings untenable.

Add to that an expanded playoff structure and a short season in which a five game winning streak is the equivalent of running off thirteen wins in a row any other year, and more general managers than usual can look at the standings and convince themselves now is no time to throw in the towel.

There will still be deals of course – this is the trading deadline, and these are general managers. The San Diego Padres, a decade removed from last finishing a season with a winning record, have already acquired slugging first baseman Mitch Moreland from the woebegone Red Sox, catcher Jason Castro from the Angels, and pitcher Trevor Rosenthal from the Royals, and are part of the rumor mill in multiple other potential trades. But while there are rumors aplenty as in every season, some of the biggest names may still be wearing their current uniforms come Tuesday, because potential buyers may not be willing to part with highly valued prospects given all the uncertainties of this ever so strange season.

It may well turn out that this season’s most significant deadline deal won’t involve any players. On Friday numerous outlets reported that billionaire Steve Cohen had emerged as the winner of the bidding process for the Mets, beating out bids by the current owners of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and by a consortium fronted by Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez. While for obvious reasons having very little to do with baseball the A-Rod / J-Lo group was the favorite of the New York tabloids, if Cohen does manage to consummate a deal to end the long ownership of the franchise by the Wilpon family, Mets fans will rejoice. Owners who have spent money like they were stewards of a struggling small-market team will be replaced by a lifelong Mets fan who would be the wealthiest owner in MLB. Of course, these are still the Metropolitans. Considering how the team’s last big deadline deal worked out, fans in Queens probably shouldn’t start celebrating just yet.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 27, 2020

Standing Tall By Standing Down

Here we are again. Like so many ritualistic proclamations of thoughts and prayers, the black squares on Instagram, the Black Lives Matter signs in windows and front yards, the June protests both peaceful and less so, have all come and gone, and here we are again. Scores of athletes, most but by no means all African American, have knelt during the national anthem or raised a fist or posted their thoughts on Twitter, and here we are again. Seven bullets in the back, and here we are again.

Wednesday’s events across the landscape of American professional sports should thus have come as no surprise, nor should the leading roles taken by NBA players have been unexpected. That’s not just because the league’s rosters are nearly 75% Black, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, but also because the NBA has long been the professional sport most open to its players expressing themselves on social and political issues.

With that background, and the geography of Kenosha being less than forty miles south of their team’s home arena, the decision of Milwaukee Bucks players to remain in their locker room as 4:00 p.m., the scheduled start time of Game 5 of their first round playoff series against the Orlando Magic came and went, now seems almost inevitable. After all, they had tried other forms of expression. The courts at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World, where the NBA has set up its so-called bubble in hopes of making it through the Finals without interruption from the coronavirus, were even painted with the BLM slogan, an ever present reminder to every television viewer of the importance of this cause to the league and its players. But here they were again.

What was not so certain as the minutes ticked by was the reaction of league officials. But soon the Orlando players, who had warmed up while the chairs on Milwaukee’s end of the court sat empty, exited for their own locker room. Then came word that all three games scheduled for Wednesday had been postponed, and as that news spread so did what amounted to a wildcat strike by players in other sports. At its own bubble in Bradenton, ninety minutes southwest of Orlando, the WNBA’s schedule came to a halt. The Milwaukee Brewers, the MLB franchise that shares the Bucks home city, chose to sit rather than play a home contest against Cincinnati, and soon games between the Padres and Mariners and the Giants and Dodgers were also scrubbed. Five of the six scheduled matches in Major League Soccer were added to the list, and some NFL franchises cancelled preseason practices. In New York, two-time major champion Naomi Osaka, saying “before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” announced that she would not play her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open, which was scheduled for Thursday. Not long after, the USTA halted all play on Thursday’s calendar.

Predictably, there were those who complained as many sports ground to a halt, disrupted by a virus more virulent than COVID-19, the enduring scourge of inequality and injustice. Some fans found fault with the players for not doing their job, while others lamented the intrusion of social issues onto the courts and fields of play. But while each individual must live with his or her own moral compass, surely everyone can identify some issue so central as to merit setting aside one’s daily labor. And while sports can indeed serve as a welcome diversion from everyday cares, players are not automatons. Nothing in their legal contracts with teams nor their implied ones with fans removes their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The easier course is to say and do nothing, for taking any stand is bound to alienate some. But here we are again, and eventually the easy route becomes a road to nowhere.

The broad shutdown of many sports continued into Thursday. By forcing the attention of fans onto the issue of systemic racism, the spontaneous action that began in an Orlando locker room showed the power of our sports heroes. But whether it is on Friday or over the weekend, the games will resume, a reality that would seem to illustrate the limits of that power, a reminder that even star athletes cannot change the world by their individual actions. But limitation is not impotence. More than half a century ago Robert Kennedy spoke of the “tiny ripple of hope” created by a person striking out against injustice, and how enough of those ripples would build “a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” No one should underestimate how strong those walls are. As L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, hardly a wild-eyed radical, said on Tuesday, “it’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote the slaveholder so many years ago. If Jefferson perceived the irony in those and the words he penned next given his status, he never admitted it. Down all the days since, the inherent contradiction between our nation’s eternal promise and its original sin has stressed one generation after another. And here we are again. As hundreds of players in multiple sports have made clear, we should not be talking about building a wall, but about how to start tearing some down, proving at last that those supposedly manifest truths are real, and not just empty palaver.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 23, 2020

Unwritten, But Not Unimportant

The pitch was probably meant to be more toward the outer edge of the strike zone, “on the black” as pitchers say, referring to the rubber edge of the otherwise white home plate. But the delivery from Juan Nicasio of the Texas Rangers wandered a bit too far over the plate, and Fernando Tatis Jr. swung. As soon as his bat met the ball, the outcome of this trip to the plate for the dynamic 21-year-old San Diego Padres star was clear. His blast sailed into the Texas night, bound for the right field seats at Globe Life Field, where several rows of cardboard cutouts of fans silently waited. It was a grand slam for Tatis, his second homer of the night, and it padded an already substantial Padres lead in a game San Diego would win 14-4.

But what Tatis didn’t know as he rounded the bases after slugging the first grand slam of his major league career, was that the Great Game was about to lose its collective mind. For the pitch that he swung at was the fourth of the at-bat, and the first three from Nicasio all missed the strike zone. Tatis’s Padres were already leading 10-3, and the game was in the top of the 8th inning. Because of that very specific set of facts, Tatis broke one of baseball’s unwritten rules, which were it reduced to print would read “don’t pile on late in a game when your team already has a big lead by swinging on a 3-0 count.” Or words to that effect.

Every sport has some number of so-called unwritten rules, which by their very nature are learned through experience. But the Great Game seems to stand apart in the tendency of those involved in it – players, coaches, fans, and pundits – to eagerly engage in passionate debate about them. The widespread derangement that followed hard on the heels of Tatis’s homer is just the latest example. In this instance the managers of the Rangers and Padres, Chris Woodward and Jayce Tingler, were quickly cast as antediluvian defenders of the status quo, intent on sucking the joy out of the sport like ravenous mosquitoes descending on a family picnic. Each was assigned his role based on comments after the game, when Woodward said that he didn’t much care for Tatis swinging in that situation, and Tingler called it “a learning opportunity” for the second-year major leaguer.

The context of the statements from both managers was, of course, ignored. Woodward was speaking shortly after his team had given up double-digit runs for the second game in a row, and Tingler’s quote was referring to the fact that Tatis had either missed or ignored a “take” sign from the third base coach. The pair are also two of the younger managers in the big leagues, and from all accounts both are well regarded by their players. All facts swept aside by a tsunami of social media scorn that engulfed Woodward and Tingler, with posts that ranged from expressing disdain for the very idea of unwritten rules to condemnations of their supposed desire to suppress the natural competitive nature of all athletes.

The ranting was decidedly one-sided, in part because this unwritten rule is extraordinarily subjective. First, of course, it is violated not truly by the act of swinging at a pitch, but by the result. Had Tatis missed for strike one, or grounded into an inning-ending double play, the furor would never have ensued. Then there is the question of when exactly the rule applies. If the lead had been five runs rather than seven, or if it had been the 6th inning instead of the 8th, or for that matter, if Tatis were a 12-year veteran player well-known for swinging at anything near the strike zone regardless of the count, would taking the bat off his shoulder been okay? And it’s obvious – or it should be – that neither manager wanted his team to stop trying. The best reminder of that came two nights later, when the Phillies led the Buffalo Blue Jays 7-0 after half an inning of play, and 7-2 with the Jays down to their final six outs. Philadelphia finished on the short end of a 9-8 final score.

While this supposed debate was an entirely one-sided free-for-all based on a profound misreading of two good baseball men, the piling on obscured an important aspect of the Great Game’s unwritten rules. They are, by and large, about respect. Whether it’s a slugger not showboating during his home run trot, or a base runner not stepping on the mound when crossing the infield to return to first after a foul ball (here’s looking at you A-Rod), or a batter not bunting to break up a no-hitter, these “rules” – norms, really – are reminders that while every player on every team wants to win, in the end it’s just a game, and the players on the other side, who are trying equally hard, are opponents, not mortal enemies. Besides, on every day of the season but the last, there is another game tomorrow, when roles might be reversed.

The need for respect both on the field and off was made clear just a couple of days after Tatis’s home run landed among the cardboard cutouts, when Cincinnati Reds play-by-play announcer Thom Brennaman, not realizing the broadcast of a game between the Reds and Royals had returned from a commercial break and that his microphone was live, used an anti-gay slur on the air, referring to an unknown location as “one of the ___ capitals of the world.” There’s no FCC ban against uttering the word on the air, but decent people don’t need a written rule to understand it shouldn’t be used in any setting. Brennaman later offered an apology before being pulled from the broadcast, saying in part “that’s not who I am.” Such phrasing is common in these situations, as absurd as that may seem, since it was in the unguarded moment when Brennaman didn’t believe he was performing that he had uttered the slur, making it obvious that he is exactly the kind of person who would do so.

Still it is possible that he believes his statement, thinking that intentionally speaking the term with malice is harmful, while casually dropping it into a sentence is not. In that case Brennaman is not disingenuous, only stupid. But stupid people can learn, and one hopes that Brennaman’s stated desire to do so is sincere. That seems less likely with hockey broadcaster Mike Milbury, who “stepped away” from NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoffs coverage after making a disparaging comment about women during Thursday night’s broadcast. Milbury is a serial offender in this regard, which is why redemption seems improbable. The only certainty from this week’s events is that in sports, as in life, we sadly aren’t ready to do away with all the unwritten rules.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 20, 2020

Jordan Spieth Gives Fans An Hour To Remember

Maybe this will be the week for Jordan Spieth. Perhaps this is the week when the one-time wunderkind again finds the form that allowed him to rocket from turning pro in 2013 to winning a pair of majors and becoming the number one ranked golfer in the world just two years later. In his incredible 2015 season Spieth, who had claimed his first Tour victory at the John Deere Classic while still a teenager in his rookie Tour season, added a second title at the Tour stop in Tampa in March, won the Masters by four shots in April, and then captured the U.S. Open in June, prevailing by one stroke over Dustin Johnson on the moonscape of a golf course known as Chambers Bay. He won the John Deere for the second time a month later, just before his birthday. Then, at the advanced age of twenty-two, Spieth finished second at the PGA Championship in August, which took him to the top of the world rankings, and capped the year off with a four-shot victory at the season-ending Tour Championship.

Spieth posted two more wins the following year and won three times in 2017. The last of those was a three-shot victory in the Open Championship, where he outdueled playing partner Matt Kuchar over the final trip around Royal Birkdale’s links, holding firm to the lead he had slept on after 54 holes. That third major win put Spieth on the cusp of the career grand slam, immediately imbuing every subsequent PGA Championship with added meaning.

But four PGA’s have been played since then, and both Spieth and his many followers among golf fans are still waiting for that career-defining victory. Earlier this month, in the 2020 edition played at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, Spieth finished in a tie for 71st place, 17 strokes behind winner Collin Morikawa. He had completed play and signed for his 76 before the leaders even teed off that Sunday, having bested just five players on the final leader board. And as his fans know all too well, Spieth’s victory drought hasn’t been limited to just the PGA Championship or even the majors. That 2017 summertime triumph at Royal Birkdale remains Spieth’s last win on Tour.

As was noted in this space  when we last checked in on Spieth back in February, he doesn’t fit the typical image of a touring pro, smashing impossibly long drives off every tee. So far this year he ranks 55th on the Tour in driving distance, a position that is hardly imposing but is actually a significant improvement over his usual standing. Rather Spieth’s strengths have always been his accuracy, his short game, and especially his putting, all of which have deserted him during the skid that now stretches to more than three years. This season Spieth ranks 202nd in driving accuracy, 203rd in greens in regulation, and 106th in strokes gained putting.

The PGA Tour is at TPC Boston this week for the Northern Trust, the first of three FedEx Cup Playoff events. In any other year On Sports and Life would be reporting from the scene, walking the expansive layout in Norton Massachusetts with other fans. That’s not an option this year, but at least there is a familiarity with the course when watching the tournament on television or even just looking at numbers on a player’s scorecard.

In Friday’s first round, Spieth had plenty of shots to remind one of the reasons for his continuing woes. Starting on the par-4 10th hole, he sent his opening drive far right of the fairway, into trees and undergrowth that block the view of players and spectators from a maintenance yard to the right of the hole. His attempt at a recovery only made matters worse, as he sent his second shot all the way across the fairway into the left rough. From there he missed the green long and right, hit an indifferent chip onto the putting surface, and finally two-putted for double-bogey. Several holes later, he three-putted from 25 feet on the 17th green, wasting a solid drive and workmanlike approach shot on the dogleg left par-4. On his second nine he put his drive on the uphill 5th hole into a fairway bunker, from which he had no choice but to chip out, leading to another bogey. Then just before finishing, he offset a birdie at the par-5 7th by ramming his first putt 9 feet past the hole at the short 8th hole, leading to another three-putt bogey.

Yet in the middle of the round Spieth played like it was 2015. The 18th at TPC Boston, his ninth hole of the day, is a dogleg par-5 that plays as the easiest hole on the course for the pros. Spieth hit a 300-yard drive that came to rest on the left side of the fairway, and his second from 228 yards easily cleared the cross-hazard in front of the green, stopping 18 feet from the hole. Spieth then rolled the eagle putt into the center of the cup, cancelling out his opening double. After the long walk through the woods to the 1st tee, Spieth again found the fairway with his drive, then stuck a wedge 6 feet from the cup and made the putt for birdie. The par-5 2nd hole yielded another birdie, as did the par-3 3rd, which is all carry over a tee-to-green hazard. Then at the drivable par-4 4th hole, Spieth found the putting surface with his tee shot, hit a perfect lag putt from 40 feet, and tapped in to shave six shots from par in just five holes.

Of course, that stretch of grand golf was nearly offset by the shoddy play that both preceded and followed it. In the end Spieth signed for a 2-under par round of 69, five strokes adrift of the four golfers who are tied at the top after the Northern Trust’s first round. In a tie for 53rd place, he probably needs to at least replicate his score on Friday to be assured of making the cut. And simply making the cut is not what either Spieth or his many fans want to settle for as a goal. But the three-time major champion and former world number one, who is, as it is so easy to forget, still only 27 years old, has been telling reporters that he’s gradually rebuilding trust in his game. For about an hour on Thursday he reminded fans of just how good that game can be, kindling memories of the past and offering promise for the future.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 16, 2020

With Perseverance And Putts, Stacy Lewis Wins Again

It is a question as old as our games, one pertinent to all of them. How does one measure heart? Even the casual fans of a given sport usually recognize talent and are properly awed by raw ability when it manifests itself before them. As for luck, that laughing specter that renders prodigious talent meaningless with little more than a sideways glance, one need not be a fan at all or even grasp the intricacies of a particular contest to see when luck chooses to either smile or frown upon an athlete. But heart is at the essence of our being, and so is often hidden. We guess, we hope, that at their core our heroes have the character and disposition to rise to an occasion, but until the moment arrives, we can never know for sure. But when the challenge is met by equal measures of focus and will that enhance rather than merely complement ability, an athlete’s heart leads the way to glory.

At the age of 35, Stacy Lewis has known the acclaim that is showered upon those with great talent. She finished first at an LPGA tournament while still an amateur in 2007. That unusual phrasing is intentional, because that year’s NW Arkansas Championship was cut short by torrential rains, so Lewis’s position atop the leader board was not considered an official win by the women’s Tour. But plenty of other victories followed once she turned pro, beginning with a major, the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship, which Lewis won by outpacing then world number one Yani Tseng by three strokes. Two years and several wins later, she added a second major with a two-shot triumph at the Women’s British Open, played that year over the Old Course at St. Andrews.

By then Lewis had claimed the top world ranking herself, a position she would hold twice for a total of twenty-five weeks. More than half a decade later, she remains the most recent American woman golfer to be ranked number one. The following season she captured all three season-long titles on the women’s tour – winning 2014 Player of the Year honors, topping the LPGA’s money list, and taking home the Vare Trophy for best scoring average.

But after a victory in June 2014 – official this time – at the same event in Arkansas where she had her rain-shortened coming out party seven years earlier, the winning stopped. There was no dramatic change in Lewis’s game. In 2015 she posted fourteen top tens including six second place finishes, and ended the year ranked third in the world. But little by little, her scoring average crept up, her world ranking slid down, and fans of the LPGA began to turn their attention elsewhere.

At least until the late summer of 2017, when Lewis first displayed the strength of will that drives her. A resident of Houston since childhood, Lewis almost skipped the Tour’s Cambia Portland Classic to fly home from the Pacific Northwest and help her city deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Instead she stayed an announced that all here winning would be signed over to the relief effort. Then she proceeded to make sure that her donation was as large as it could possibly be by winning for the first time in more than three years.

Still by the time the LPGA ventured across the Atlantic this week for the first of back-to-back stops in Scotland, for the Ladies Scottish Open at the Renaissance Club in North Berwick followed by the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon, Lewis wasn’t one of the headliners. The Scottish Open marked the first LPGA appearances since the Tour’s recent restart for the Jutanugarn sisters Ariya and Moriya, Australian star Hannah Green, and 2018 Women’s Open champion and British favorite Georgia Hall. Lewis wasn’t even the most talked about American walking the Renaissance Club’s fairways. That honor surely went to Danielle Kang, who arrived in Scotland fresh off back-to-back wins at the Tour’s last two stops.

But Lewis’s Open win at St. Andrews was no fluke. She readily proclaims her love of links golf, and even says that Scotland’s unpredictable weather and often cool temperatures help to keep her swing more compact. She also arrived in Scotland believing that the pandemic-related layoff had allowed her to finally and fully recover from both her 2018 pregnancy and birth of her first child, and a rib injury that took her out of last fall’s Solheim Cup and continued to nag her earlier this season.

After opening with an even par 71, Lewis lit up the course on Friday, firing a 5-under par 66 that vaulted her into the lead. A one under 70 in the third round put her into Sunday’s final grouping, along with 54-hole leader Azahara Munoz and Cheyenne Knight. Starting off one behind Munoz, Lewis seized the lead with a pair of early birdies on the 2nd and 3rd holes. But the challenges on this day weren’t limited to the golf course and the chilly breeze. Always a fast player, Lewis was paired with two of the LPGA’s tortoises, and her group quickly fell out of position. After they were placed on the clock at the turn, Lewis stumbled to a double-bogey 6 at the 11th hole. But she calmed herself by singing – to herself – a Taylor Swift song that is a favorite of her 2-year-old daughter. Perhaps not something taught by many golf instructors, but it allowed Lewis to play even par golf down the stretch, which left her in a four-way tie with her playing partners and Emily Kristine Pedersen of Denmark.

Though she was 0-3 for her career in playoffs, it was Lewis who stood on the 18th green, the first hole of sudden death, staring at a 24-foot putt for birdie and victory. Surely there was more than a pop tune running through her mind as she contemplated winning after almost three years, and for the first time as a mother. Perhaps she thought about all her previous LPGA wins, or the two majors, or the top world ranking she once held. Maybe it occurred to her that having overcome major back surgery as a teenager, it was remarkable that she was playing golf at all. The moment had arrived, and Stacy Lewis showed fans the depth of her determination and the power of her will. The putt rolled across the green, curled to the right, and fell into the heart of the cup.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 13, 2020

So Far, So Good, Inside The Bubble

In early June, when NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the league’s plan to resume play at Disney World, he of course hoped that the idea of inviting just those teams within striking distance of a playoff spot when the regular season was halted in March and placing everyone involved in a closed environment, would work out for the best. Ten weeks later, with the long-delayed playoffs finally about to start, Silver is looking like a genius. Not only has the NBA, the first American professional sports league to suspend play because of the COVID-19 pandemic, managed to avoid the spread of the virus with incidents like those that have hobbled MLB’s schedule, but the brief conclusion to the regular season has produced a close and dramatic finish that is playing out as this is written.

While the decision to expand the teams that qualified for play in the NBA’s bubble beyond the top eight in each conference’s standings was arbitrary, inviting any team within six games of a postseason spot has resulted in half of the “extra” teams playing meaningful games right to the end of the regular season. When play was suspended the Memphis Grizzlies sat in eighth place in the Western Conference, one game below .500. But Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix were all within the magic six games of Memphis, so those squads all made it into the bubble, albeit in less luxurious accommodations than franchises higher up in the standings.

With each team playing eight games to conclude the regular schedule, multiple losses eliminated New Orleans and Sacramento fairly quickly, with the same fate befalling the injury-riddled Washington Wizards, the one additional Eastern Conference team invited to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. But the Trail Blazers, Spurs and Suns all picked an excellent time to start winning basketball games, and when the Grizzlies ran off four straight losses once play began, the league’s final playoff spot became a four-way scramble.

As play began Thursday the only certainty was that there would be still more basketball before the postseason could get underway. The added twist in Silver’s plan, a nod to the reality that the 88 pre-playoff games contested in the bubble weren’t going to fully replace the 259 that had remained on the original regular season calendar, was a possible two-game play-in series for the final spot, if the eighth and ninth place teams in either conference finished within four games of one another. Thanks to the Grizzlies’ early stumbles that scenario has been locked in for several days. The rules for the play-in are that the eighth-place finisher must win one game to advance, while the ninth-place team must win two. Game One is now scheduled for Saturday afternoon, with the second contest, if needed, to be played on Sunday.

Silver’s original announcement left many pundits lamenting Memphis’s bad luck, since the Grizzlies went to Orlando so far behind the seventh-place Mavericks as to have virtually no chance of moving any higher than eighth, but with all the extra invitees close on their heels. But the idea wasn’t to punish the franchise that originated in Vancouver a quarter-century ago and has never won even a division title, much less topped its conference’s standings, or claimed the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Adding extra teams allowed the NBA to schedule additional regular season games in the bubble, which of course meant more revenue from the league’s television contracts, as well as giving the teams involved a chance to collect on their own local media deals.

For all the concern about poor Memphis, we now know the Grizzlies are still alive. Postseason, or at least play-in, scenarios existed for all four squads when Thursday dawned. Some were dependent on results beyond the control of a given franchise. But for Memphis the instruction was simple – beat the Milwaukee Bucks Thursday afternoon, and be assured of no worse than ninth place in the final standings. While defeating one of the favorites to win this year’s title might be a tall order come this time next week, Thursday’s game was little more than a pre-playoff walk-through for the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Plus, the Bucks were without superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was serving a one-game suspension for headbutting an opponent. Memphis led by one at the first break, by ten at the half, and blew the game open in the third quarter before coasting to a 119-106 victory.

Shortly after the Grizzlies notched their win, the Suns completed a perfect two weeks of games in the bubble, dispatching Dallas 128-102. Phoenix made it to Orlando on the number, having been six games behind eighth place Memphis when the NBA season stopped. But with the Grizzlies going just 2-6, the 8-0 run by the Suns moved them into a tie in the standings at 34-39. Whether that’s good enough to keep playing will be known by the end of the evening. If Portland beats Brooklyn, then the Trail Blazers finish eighth and nudge Memphis down to the ninth spot, ahead of the Suns by virtue of the league’s first tiebreaker, head-to-head games. But if the Nets prevail then Portland’s season ends, and it’s Memphis versus Phoenix Saturday afternoon.

The one other Thursday morning hopeful was San Antonio. But the early wins by Memphis and Phoenix eliminated the Spurs, ending that franchise’s incredible run of twenty-two straight playoff appearances. In addition to five titles, in that time San Antonio won 1,260 regular season games, far more than any other franchise. Second place on that list belongs to Dallas, but perhaps the clearest measure of the Spurs greatness year after year is that the gap from number one to number two – 211 wins – is larger than the gap between the 2nd place Mavericks and the 21st place 76ers.

But like so much else that is different about 2020, this year’s NBA playoffs will proceed without San Antonio. Fans won’t know the full list of teams that will take the place of the Spurs until after the play-in. We also can’t know if the league’s Disney World bubble will continue to keep the virus at bay. The decision to start allowing guests to visit the campus poses an obvious risk, though is understandable since there will be two more months of play in the isolated environment before a champion is crowned. Making it all the way to the trophy presentation will still require luck. But so far, at least, Adam Silver’s plan for salvaging the NBA’s season has gone better than he, or we, dared hope.

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