Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 30, 2020

A Very Long Road To Normal

It was not a good way to start the day. Bright and early Wednesday morning, there on the widescreen monitor the sports page of the New York Times website materialized at the click of a mouse. But everywhere one looked headline after headline told the same story. “Cooperstown: Wait Till Next Year?” was in the upper right corner, just above “Argentina and France Scrap Soccer Seasons.” “Summer Olympics in 2021? ‘Exceedingly Difficult’ Without a Coronavirus Vaccine” was the lengthy title in a large font beneath a photo of the familiar five ring symbol of the quadrennial games. Make that approximately quadrennial. All three stories above the fold, as one would describe it if holding an actual newspaper, yet all still yielding pride of place to an interview with the now world famous head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases underneath the headline “Some Sports May Have to Skip This Year, Fauci Says.”

One, two, three, four, a superfecta of reports – to borrow a term from horseracing, one of the very few sports still active – all informing readers of what has been both obvious and steadfastly avoided for some time now, namely the certainty that not just for several weeks in March and April, or until the weather warms, or for some sports but not others, but for this year and in some cases even beyond, all our games have been fundamentally altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Marketing departments for various leagues may still issue statements about seasons that have been “paused,” but the impact is not akin to an overly long commercial break or a replay review requiring repeated looks at multiple angles of video. Sports will return, but our games will not simply pick up where they left off.

By day’s end the first of those headlines had turned from speculation into fact. July’s scheduled induction of this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame class has been postponed until 2021. With former Yankee captain Derek Jeter headlining the group of four inductees, and the little hamlet of Cooperstown located just a few hours north of the big Stadium in the Bronx, Hall officials anticipated a record-breaking crowd in excess of the 80,000 that increased the town’s population more than fortyfold for the 2007 enshrinement of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn.

Good luck maintaining social distancing with that many people crammed into the upstate New York village. Hall of Fame weekend is an open, unticketed affair, from the parade of Hall members in front of throngs lining Cooperstown’s Main Street to the official ceremony on a stage set before a broad lawn on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center. In addition, many of the previous inductees, always as much of an attraction as the new honorees, are senior citizens at high risk by age alone should they contract the virus. The Hall’s decision to cancel the entire weekend and combine this year’s ceremony with 2021’s was the only responsible course of action. But that did not make the official announcement any less disappointing.

And of the four stories on that monitor Wednesday morning the potential postponement of the Hall of Fame ceremony was the least significant. Certainly the symbolic importance of Cooperstown is a small matter compared to not one but two nations abandoning an entire season of the world’s most popular sport, or the prospect of the already postponed Summer Olympics having to be written off as a lost cause, or the enormous hurdles standing in the way of the resumption of virtually all our games. As Dr. Anthony Fauci made clear in the Times interview, the road back to normalcy is both long and uncertain.

Yet the hunger for a return to live action is so great it’s easy to ignore that even the most optimistic proposals for a return of a sport are not about going back to business as usual. NASCAR promises to begin racing soon, but to do so by abandoning the original season schedule and for some period holding races at just two tracks, both within a short distance of the central North Carolina headquarters of most of its racing teams. The NBA talks about allowing players to begin using team facilities, but then pushes back the date almost before that announcement has time to be distributed. Baseball and hockey float one proposal after another for playing here, or there, or somewhere, sometime. Even golf, the sport most amenable to social distancing, has an announced schedule but no clear answer as to how to make tournaments safe for the players and several hundred support staff needed.

One can almost see the ghost of former baseball commissioner Ford Frick lurking in the corner, asterisk at the ready, not just for the Great Game but for sport in general.  For what we will have in 2020 are simulacrums of seasons, packaged and promoted as real, but ultimately imitations of the real thing.

That is now assured, for the one common point, be it in a firm plan or a working proposal or just some talking points, is that for some considerable time our games will be played without fans in attendance. At one level that might not seem so important; after all, most of us experience sports through television already. But that badly misjudges the importance of the crowd, the extent to which the raw emotion of the thousands in the seats impacts the players and colors the broadcast. For all the talk about the important role baseball played after 9/11, it was not the mere fact that there was a game at Shea Stadium soon after that horrid day. The power of the moment was in the full house on hand, and the cheers that echoed through the night.

As much as the immediate focus is, appropriately, on expanded testing, scientists tell us that the pandemic will not truly be over until an effective and safe vaccine has been developed, tested, and put into widespread use, and that such a day is still months away. That is the harsh but realistic timeframe for a true return to normal, though there is another measure of it that sports fans will understand. The strange days in which we now live will only be spoken about in the past tense when all three decks of the stands are once again full, and the roars of the faithful cheering their heroes roll across the playing field one after another, like breakers at the beach on a sunny summer’s day.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 26, 2020

A Virtual Draft Works, But Virtual Games Won’t

While not exactly a sports event, the NFL Draft is at least a significant occurrence on the calendar of the league that has the strongest hold on the attention of millions of fans across the land. That plus the current dearth of live competition in any sport made the three days of peeks into the basements and home offices of NFL coaches and general managers an even more highly watched spectacle than the usual elaborate extravaganza staged at a packed theater or arena. If nothing else the size of the audience, which was upwards of 15.6 million for Thursday’s night’s first round, established once and for all that after enough hours of watching competitive marble racing, even Roger Goodell reading from note cards starts to look interesting.

That number was much larger than the 11.4 million viewers who tuned into round one last year, and it also blew right past the previous record of 12.4 million who watched Johnny Manziel’s agonizing wait through twenty-one picks before he heard his name called two-thirds of the way through the first round in 2014. Even better measures of how desperate sports fans are for anything remotely qualifying as current action were the ratings for the second and third days of this year’s draft. Friday’s audience was up 40 percent over last year, and Saturday’s increased by 32 percent. Even in normal times many fans will take a little time to find out which collegiate stars are the top picks overall, and who their team chooses with its first-round selection. But as the rounds go on and certainly by the final selections on Saturday, the audience for the NFL Draft is usually limited to the hardest of hardcore faithful, presumably those with significant investments in either fantasy leagues or serious gambling.

For anyone who might not have hung on until the final moments of the seventh round, this year’s Mr. Irrelevant, the unfortunate nickname given to the last pick of every draft, was Dequartavous Crowder, a linebacker from the University of Georgia. Crowder, who goes by “Tae” to the undoubted relief of television announcers tasked with the unlikely but theoretically possible job of one day calling his name during an NFL game, will be reporting to training camp in East Rutherford after being named by the Giants as the 255th selection of this year’s draft.

What remains unknown is just when Tae Crowder, all the other draftees, and the hundreds of veterans whose jobs those newly minted professionals will be trying to steal will be reporting. For now, all dates on the NFL’s calendar, just like the draft, remain unchanged. But while it is possible to cancel flight and hotel reservations, do away with the elaborate team war rooms and instead set up video links to the residences of team GMs, there’s no such thing as a virtual training camp. Even as multiple professional leagues shut down in midseason, the NCAA cancelled not just its hugely profitable basketball tournaments but scores of other sports, and baseball came to a halt before it even got started, the NFL has been the beneficiary of the calendar. A few offseason training sessions have fallen victim to the pandemic, but with summer’s start of training camp and the season that follows till months away, the league could avoid the hard choices facing so many other sports.

Even as it gave fans something to watch the NFL Draft’s unique format was a reminder that football is not immune from the widespread effects of the coronavirus. That was driven home by the league’s announcement that no team’s facilities will open until they all can. That is both a responsible and fair decision, but it means that given the widely varying impact of the pandemic in different parts of the country, and even within some regions, football’s return could well be delayed. Two teams play just across the Hudson River from New York City, by far the most seriously impacted area in the country. Another calls New Orleans home, where hospitalizations have only now begun to drop after the city emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot. And just a week ago Wisconsin state health officials and the CDC warned of a sudden fourfold increase in cases in Brown County, the county seat of which is Green Bay.

August is still but a glimpse on the calendar’s horizon, and perhaps between now and then most of the news will be good. Widely available testing, continued adherence to social distancing requirements even as our culture and economy once again engage, and no ominous signs of a second wave, would all be welcome headlines as spring turns to summer. Add to that hopeful mix the restart of other leagues in some fashion, and perhaps the NFL will yet be able to adhere to its calendar.

But if that optimistic scenario comes to pass, it still won’t be business as usual. Goodell conceded as much to ESPN, saying “You have to be willing to be prepared to adapt. You can’t expect or anticipate every move, but your job is to try to be as prepared as possible.” For their part, fans should prepare for the near certainty that when it does return, the NFL will do so as a television-only sport. Whether at MetLife Stadium or the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it is already all but impossible to envision seventy or eighty thousand fans screaming their support for the Giants, Jets or Saints come autumn. But if empty stadiums are what is required, surely the NFL will adapt.  Especially if it’s the only way to avoid the far worse outcome of a lost season in which every single draftee joined Tae Crowder in being Mr. Irrelevant.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 23, 2020

Golf Returns. Definitely. Probably. Maybe.

Jay Monahan has a plan. Late last week the commissioner of the PGA Tour announced a schedule for golf’s premier circuit to resume play, and sports fans, so starved for live action that a YouTube channel devoted to competitive marble racing has racked up 35 million views, reacted with unalloyed joy. The Tour’s 2019-20 season, abruptly halted by the spreading coronavirus pandemic after the first round of the Players Championship six weeks ago, will resume on June 11 at venerable Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth with the opening round of the Charles Schwab Challenge.

If that date for the start of the annual event at the course known as “Hogan’s Alley” doesn’t sound quite right to diehard golf fans, it’s because the tournament has been rescheduled from its traditional May spot on the calendar. The move of the “Colonial,” as it will always be known irrespective of a given year’s sponsor, is just one of many changes to the Tour’s schedule. In addition to the Players, six other tournaments originally set for the period between that forlorn Thursday at TPC Sawgrass and Monahan’s proposed restart have been cancelled outright. Three others on the calendar for later this year, including most prominently the 2020 Open Championship scheduled for Royal St. George’s in July, have also joined the long list of sports events felled by the pandemic. And the new schedule includes myriad shuffles of dates, with a total of fourteen tournaments now in new slots. Three of those are the majors that organizers still hope to contest this year – the PGA Championship in August, the U.S. Open in September, and the Masters shortly before Thanksgiving.

Under the plan, the Tour’s 2020-21 season will culminate as usual with the Tour Championship in Atlanta, now to be played over Labor Day weekend, one week later than on the original schedule. That will make for thirty-six tournaments during a season that began last September. While substantially fewer than planned, players, fans, and the golf media seem to agree that the number would be enough to make the season’s results legitimate. But the work of cobbling together a schedule combined with the Tour’s decision back in 2013 to start each official season in the fall rather than follow the traditional calendar will make for a major oddity, as in major championships. While three are still scheduled to take place in 2020, the PGA Championship will be the only one contested in the current Tour season. Then, assuming tournaments return to their usual spots next year, the 2020-21 PGA Tour season will feature six majors, with two editions each of the U.S. Open and Masters. Even with that, fitting everything into the time available would not have been possible but for the move of the Summer Olympics to next year.

But once the cheers that greeted Monahan’s announcement died away, it quickly became apparent that more than anything golf’s potential return illustrates the enormous challenges all our major sports face in resuming play. If it can be said that the commissioner has filled in his Tour’s calendar, it must also be pointed out that his entries are written in pencil, all easily erased.

For starters there is the job of getting the participants onto the field of play. Tour pros come from all over the world, as do their caddies. The estimate is that as many as twenty-five players, and an even greater number of loopers, are waiting out the coronavirus outside the United States. Given current travel restrictions, just getting all of them to the first tee will be complex. Then there is the human infrastructure needed to stage a tournament. Even without fans in attendance, and thus without the need for volunteers to manage the movement of people or man concession stands, tournament organizers estimate they’ll need upwards of 500 people on site for the four days of competition. Tour officials readily concede that how and when everyone involved will be tested for the virus is still under discussion, as is what happens if one or more tests produce a bad result, or how follow up testing of local volunteers after the Tour has moved on to its next venue will be handled. As is true of seemingly every major step in restarting the American economy, widely and readily available testing is a prerequisite to the Tour’s return.

Then will come perhaps the biggest unknown of all. When the Tour rolls into the Quad Cities area along the border between Illinois and Iowa for July’s scheduled event at TPC Deere Run, will fans come out? That tournament, the John Deere Classic, will be the first to allow fans through the gates if all goes according to plan. But how many show up, and what if any restrictions are placed on them once they are at the course, will depend on factors far beyond the control of either the Tour or local organizers. And fans are important, especially for the latter. While the PGA Tour garners most of its revenue from television contracts, individual tournaments rely heavily on a combination of corporate hospitality, pro-am participants, and individual ticket sales to produce a positive bottom line. If those don’t materialize the Tour could quickly become a traveling circus bringing economic misery to one stop after another.

All of this for a sport that is arguably the most well-suited of all our games to resume play. Golf is played on a far larger field than any other sport, and there is virtually no need for the contestants to be in close proximity of one another. While habits are hard to break and there would doubtless be slipups, even the interactions between a player and his caddie could be managed while observing social distancing.

Yet so many questions remain. Perhaps visas will be issued, and volunteers will be eager to help, and tests will be ubiquitous, and when the time comes fans will once again be lining the fairways, at healthy six-foot intervals. But for now, it’s best to say that Jay Monahan doesn’t so much have a plan as an aspiration.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 19, 2020

Lessons To Be Learned From An Unlikely Olympian

Back in the old days, meaning a month or two ago, before we all became characters in a Stephen King novel, the process of choosing members of the team that will represent the United States in 33 sports at the Summer Olympic Games in Japan had begun. On February’s extra day, a Saturday that dawned cold and very windy in Atlanta, with gusts pushing 20 miles per hour, the first six members of the American track and field squad were determined at the Olympic Marathon Trials. While gymnastics is the marquee event of the Summer Games, and sports like basketball and soccer are of greater interest to most fans, the track and field competition remains the core of the Olympics, with disciplines that have been part of the Games since their 1896 revival, and no single event is more historic than the marathon.

While the names scarcely carried household familiarity, the field of more than 700 included virtually all the top names in American distance running. For the women contestants, those competing for the three tickets to Tokyo included Des Linden, who won the Boston Marathon in 2018 and ran 7th at the Rio Games four years ago, as well as Aliphine Tuliamuk, who had won multiple middle and long distance events over the past few years, and Sally Kipyego, who raced for Kenya at the 2012 Games, winning a silver medal in the 10,000 meters. There were other racers recognizable to someone with a subscription to Runner’s World magazine, though it’s not at all certain that 25-year-old Molly Seidel would have been on that list.

That level of familiarity would have been more likely several years ago. As a teenager Seidel was one of the best middle-distance runners in the country, winning the prestigious Foot Locker Cross Country Championships at the age of 17. She went on to Notre Dame, where she regularly crossed the finish line first against Atlantic Coast Conference competition and was the NCAA Division I cross country champion in 2015, and the indoor champion at both 3,000 and 5,000 meters the following year.

Then Seidel disappeared from the top tier of competition, a victim of injuries both physical and psychological. Hopes of signing a professional contract with a shoe company and trying out for the 2016 Olympics were derailed by a sacral stress fracture. She plunged into a depression that manifested itself in an eating disorder. Even as she fought her way out of the darkness, a series of other injuries often made Seidel a part-time runner. Rather than joining other elite racers at one of the handful of training sites around the country, she moved to Boston where she shares an apartment with her sister and works at a coffee shop and as a babysitter.

But last Thanksgiving she tied Kipyego at a 5-mile race in Connecticut, and then scored a qualifying time for the Olympic trials at a half-marathon in December. She started training seriously, but with limited expectations. After all, Seidel had never run a marathon in competition.

For almost 21 miles of the Atlanta race, Seidel stayed in a lead pack of runners that remained bunched together, perhaps looking for mutual protection from the biting wind. Then Tuliamuk started out on a breakaway, and Seidel opted to go with her. It was a decision made in the moment, one that she later said was likely to result in her either becoming an Olympian or “spectacularly go(ing) down in flames.” A little more than 5 miles later, against all odds Seidel crossed the finish line a few seconds behind Tuliamuk and well ahead of Kipyego, a 2nd place finish that made her a member of the U.S. Olympic team in her very first marathon.

For the first couple weeks after her improbable performance, Seidel juggled media interviews and phone calls from suddenly interested sponsors along with her two jobs. She began to map out a training plan leading up to the August date of the biggest race of her life. Then the world changed. Massachusetts was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and was one of the early states to shut down. But for Seidel the impact hasn’t just been on her coffee shop job or ability to train with others. Thirty days after the race in Atlanta, she learned, along with the rest of the world, that the 2020 Games will now take place in 2021.

In Boston, Marathon Monday is at hand. The race is always run on Patriots’ Day, that largely New England observance of the skirmishes at Lexington, Concord, and Menotomy, the opening battles of the Revolutionary War. But this year there will be no caravan of buses ferrying 30,000 runners from the Boston Common out to the starting line in Hopkinton. Like every other event on the current sports calendar, the Marathon has fallen victim to the pandemic, with a rescheduled date in September. But as runners and the fans who always line the route all the way to the finish line on Boylston Street contemplate their loss, they should keep Seidel in mind.

As life makes a slow turn toward whatever conditions are going to be the new normal, in addition to the basic health and economic concerns that she shares with her Boston neighbors, Seidel must now also sort out how to prepare for a major life event suddenly moved a full twelve months into the future. But this unlikely Olympian seems perfectly suited for such an equally unexpected task. The runner who has already overcome so much described her sport to the New York Times by saying “it’s dealing with being in pain and sucking for long periods of time.” Yet still she runs, and runs, and runs. After what she’s been through, from athletic heights to personal depths and back again, a little pandemic isn’t going to stop Molly Seidel.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 16, 2020

The Meaning Of Jackie Robinson Day

The annual observances of Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day went ahead on Wednesday, albeit in a limited way under the surreal conditions of this pandemic spring. There were virtual celebrations on MLB’s website and the launch of an online educational initiative by the foundation established by Robinson’s widow Rachel just months after his death in 1972. The MLB network rebroadcast ceremonies and games from the day in prior years, followed by an airing of the 2016 Ken Burns documentary on Robinson’s life. Scores of players weighed in with personal tributes on various social media platforms.

What there was not, of course, was the sight of big league players at stadiums all around the country, running out to their defensive positions or stepping up to the plate, all wearing Robinson’s 42, the only uniform number retired throughout the Great Game. The single jersey number at all games is the most distinctive part of MLB’s annual observance, harkening back to the story, quite possibly apocryphal, of Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese telling Robinson, in the face of racist catcalls from the stands during a road trip to Cincinnati, or Boston, or somewhere, “maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42, so nobody can tell us apart.”

Whether based on fantasy or fact, the sharing of a common number makes every April 15th the one day of the longest season when fans can’t tell the players WITH a scorecard. It also never fails to cause a few skeptics to ask why baseball bothers, after all this time, to go to such lengths to honor a player from the game’s distant past.

The answer requires an understanding of the Great Game’s historic role in American life. On April 15, 1947, when Robinson stepped out of the Dodgers’ dugout at long-gone Ebbets Field and headed for his spot at first base, baseball was the unquestioned national pastime. The Basketball Association of America, forerunner to today’s NBA, was playing its inaugural season. The NHL was a six team league playing a niche sport. And the NFL was a mere shadow of today’s behemoth, with a championship game between the Chicago Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles played in front of thousands of vacant seats at a half-empty Comiskey Park.

But the Great Game was followed by virtually everyone and loved by most. While expansion to the west was still a decade away, radio brought the game into homes from coast to coast and gave major league teams fans in distant cities and towns, places where live baseball was played by minor league franchises and semipro clubs. Organized in Williamsport Pennsylvania less than ten years earlier, Little League was entering a dramatic growth spurt that would turn a local organization into an international institution opening the game to millions of children.

Baseball also reflected the ugly truth of that time in America, the forced separation of people based on the color of their skin, and the denial of opportunities to those who were not white. But on the heels of a World War in which soldiers of all races had shed the same color blood in defense of freedom, the first stirrings of change were in the air. Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey, already known as an innovator for a range of ideas from developing a farm system to hiring a fulltime statistician to analyze player performance, knew that it was both long past time for baseball’s artificial color barrier to be demolished, and finally possible to do so.

So when the Dodgers began a new season by hosting the Boston Braves, and the home team’s starting nine ran out to take their positions, fans saw what had never been seen before – a black man in the uniform of a major league team. In Jack Roosevelt Robinson, Rickey found the perfect person to change the Great Game forever, and by doing so move America forward.

Decades later, we still know what happened on that sunny afternoon. Dick Culler led off for Boston against Brooklyn’s Joe Hatten. He sent a ground ball to third, which Spider Jorgensen fielded cleanly before throwing across the diamond for the game’s first out. When Jackie Robinson caught Jorgensen’s throw, he recorded the first of more than thirteen hundred putouts he made during his rookie year, the only season of his big league career that he played exclusively at first base.

In the bottom half of the frame Robinson stepped in for his first major league at-bat, a third-to-first groundout that mirrored the game’s opening play. He flew out to left in the 3rd and was robbed of his first bit league hit in the 5th on a fine play by Culler. It would not be until the Dodgers next game two days later that Robinson would record his first big league hit. But that Opening Day crowd still got to see how the dynamic rookie could change the course of a game.

By the last of the 7th Boston was clinging to a 3-2 lead, when Brooklyn’s Eddie Stanky worked a leadoff base on balls. Robinson then laid down a bunt between the pitcher’s mound and first base, hoping to advance Stanky to second. He flew down the base path as Boston first baseman Earl Torgeson ran in to field the bunt. Torgeson picked up the ball, but as he straightened and turned to throw to the second baseman covering the bag, he was unnerved by the speedy Robinson, already nearing first. His hurried throw was off the mark, hitting Robinson in the back and bounding away. The error allowed Stanky to go to third and Robinson to second, sparking a three-run rally that put Brooklyn on top to stay.

The Dodgers won many more games that season, ninety-four in all, enough to finish five games clear of St. Louis in the National League standings. Robinson was named the senior circuit’s Rookie of the Year, and two seasons later took league MVP honors. But for all his heroics on the field, play that earned him the devotion of millions of Brooklyn fans, most of whom never set foot in the borough, and ultimately election to the Hall of Fame, his greatest contribution was daring to be first. He weathered the hurricane of vitriol and bigotry and did so with a composure and grace that is almost unfathomable. Robinson provided a living example of the power of nonviolent resistance, years before the concept became a cornerstone of the civil rights movement.

Long after his playing career was over and just days before his passing, Robinson chided baseball’s owners for the lack of non-white faces in managers’ offices and executive suites. The complaint remains valid today; one reminder among many that the work of building both a sport and a country true to the lofty words of the founding documents is never finished. But if that effort is fated to be the long twilight struggle of all Americans of goodwill, it is reassuring to know that there are moments that make the work worthwhile, times when the courage and perseverance of a single individual can “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is Jackie Robinson’s legacy. Who wouldn’t want to wear number 42?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 12, 2020

Silent Sunday At Augusta

“April, come she will.” So Paul Simon told us more than half a century ago. The lyrics he wrote for Art Garfunkel to sing cast the fourth month as a time “when streams are ripe and swelled with rain,” and that has been true enough this year here in New England, as spring struggles to supplant the dark and cold of winter. The 3rd hole of one local golf course sits hard by I-95, visible to motorists racing north and south, on their way to somewhere else. At week’s end a narrow stream bisecting the fairway of the par-4 had overflowed its banks, turning the turf for five or ten yards on either side into a bog.

Yet in other years, with just one or two dry and sunny days, that links, always one of the first to open, would see golfers making their way around its routing. Deprived of their beloved game through the depths of the dead season, those happy players would scarcely mind getting their feet wet in pursuit of their Titleists. This is not any other year, and in the season of the pandemic venerable Sagamore, home to public golf since the days when a young rhymin’ Simon was writing his first songs, is, like all other area golf courses, closed until further notice.

Speeding by that empty course feels so keenly like a lost opportunity, yet the truth is that no matter the circumstances or the year, in this part of the country any early April rounds always count as a bonus, though that in turn just makes this Sunday all the harder. For what golf fans everywhere look forward to on the second Sunday of April, especially those not yet able to play themselves, is the final round of the Masters, golf’s annual assurance that a new season has arrived.

CBS and ESPN, the networks that share broadcast rights to the tournament, tried to fill the void by showing memorable final rounds from previous tournaments, beginning Wednesday with Jack Nicklaus’s win at age 46 in 1986 and culminating today with last year’s victory by Tiger Woods – the single greatest achievement in the history of sports according to an overwrought CBS announcer Jim Nantz. The networks’ effort has been admirable, even with Nantz’s hyperbole on Sunday, but watching replays is like going to an especially popular movie several weeks after its release – one is likely to already know the outcome. Still, replays of actual tournaments are better than the gimmicky offerings of other major sports, like the NBA and WNBA stars competing remotely in the playground game of HORSE, or the broadcast of video game stock car races being played by NASCAR drivers. One can easily tell the latter is a simulation since the stands are full.

The videos of previous closing rounds have at least given viewers the visual treat that is April at Augusta. For one weekend each year golf fans, whatever their personal views, forgive the barons of the ever-so-private club on Washington Road in Augusta their history of segregation and sexism and set aside any discussion of the slow reluctance with which the club has acquiesced to having a membership that even remotely reflects American diversity. The focus instead is on the immaculate fairways and blinding white bunkers, the towering pines with branches swaying in the breeze, and the riot of color from azaleas, camelias, dogwoods, and assorted flowering fruit trees that serve as backdrops to holes that are recognizable to even casual golf fans. For those living where fairways have only just started to turn green the Masters is a reminder of the natural beauty one can find on a golf course.

But this tournament is also about the drama that is inherent in all our games, and the absence of a live event takes most of that away. It was long-time announcer Ken Venturi who first opined that the Masters begins on the back nine on Sunday, and decades later his thought often remains apt. So much can happen on Augusta National’s inward half. A player can string together five birdies and an eagle, as Nicklaus did in 1986, charging up the leader board and overtaking Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, and Tom Kite. Or someone with a seemingly commanding lead can drop six shots to par in the space of just three holes, making bogey at both the 10th and 11th before rinsing not one but two balls in Rae’s Creek at the short but diabolical 12th, as Jordan Spieth did in coming undone in 2016’s final round. And the constant soundtrack to the unfolding drama is provided by thousands of spectators, or patrons as the club insists, their loud roars at great shots mingling with the echoes of dismayed groans at best laid plans gone awry.

It all builds toward the final climb up the steep hill to the 18th green. That is where Ben Crenshaw sobbed in the arms of his caddie Carl Jackson, having won the 1995 tournament just days after serving as a pallbearer at the funeral of his mentor and coach Harvey Penick. It’s where in 2003 Phil Mickelson took a leap for the ages, even if he did only get about four inches off the ground, after finally winning the first of his five majors at the age of 33. And it’s also where Norman airmailed his approach wide right into the gallery in 1996, one last miserable shot at the end of a horrid final round 78 that turned a six shot lead over Nick Faldo into a five shot deficit to the Englishman in the most epic collapse in Masters history.

Perhaps fans will get that live drama again this year, just much later. The current plan is for the tournament that is usually the harbinger of a new golf season to be the final major of 2020. If the proposed mid-November dates hold, gold and russet autumn leaves will provide the color instead of springtime blossoms. But how the course will play at that time of year, and whether the usual sea of patrons will be lining the fairways and ringing that final green on Sunday are just two of the many unknowns right now. In another ballad, written three years after the one cited at the top, Simon admonished us to “preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” This year that song by the troubadour from Queens has taken on new meaning. For fans of golf, and every other sport, old memories will have to do, for the making of new ones must wait.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 9, 2020

One Big Question, No Easy Answer

Next comes the hard part. Having witnessed every major sports league on the planet suspend operations in a dramatic and ongoing shutdown the likes of which is without precedent, many fans will doubtless think the eventual task of starting up play again can’t possibly be more challenging than what has already happened. But the clear and present, albeit invisible, danger of the COVID-19 pandemic was so manifest the decisions to suspend seasons, cancel tournaments, and postpone events essentially made themselves. Commissioners, organizing committees and league offices weren’t so much making a choice as acknowledging the inevitable. In contrast, the right time and the right way to begin filling the gaping void on the sports calendar won’t be remotely so obvious.

There have been numerous comparisons to the days following the 2001 terrorist attack on New York and Washington, but in terms of sports that dreadful day was much less impactful. Only a handful of events outside of the United States were cancelled or postponed, and within our borders the shutdown was short-lived. The calendar also played a role, with fewer major sports in play than was the case this March.

One sport that was stopped cold by 9/11 was baseball, and the return of the Great Game six days later was a sign to the country and the world that life would indeed go on. When the Mets hosted Atlanta at Shea Stadium a few days later in the first major sporting event to be played in Gotham after the attack, the game was cathartic, allowing fans far beyond the five boroughs to cleanse themselves of the siege mentality that had quickly become an unwelcome way of life.

Perhaps because of the role baseball played in helping to restore the nation’s psyche then, or perhaps simply because the COVID-19 shutdown came on the very brink of Opening Day, great attention has been paid to any hint or rumor of how MLB might piece together a 2020 season. So while there was talk this week of the NHL sending all thirty-one franchises to North Dakota in hopes of finishing that league’s interrupted schedule, and in Germany players on the eighteen soccer teams in the Bundesliga began practices, and the governing bodies of men’s professional golf agreed on late summer and fall dates for the three majors that will, hopefully, still be contested this year, the lead story about the renewal of our games was a report by ESPN’s Jeff Passan outlining a plan for the return of baseball.

According to Passan’s unidentified sources, the plan under consideration would have all thirty major league teams sequestered in greater Phoenix, using the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and the ten spring training sites in the area, playing without fans in the stands in a season that would begin sometime next month. Reaction, much of it negative, was predictably swift, and on the surface at least, with good reason.

While one might think of a baseball nine, major league rosters are currently twenty-six, and would certainly have to be expanded if the minor league system isn’t playing, to allow for injury replacements. Add in coaching and training staffs, a full slate of umpires, grounds crews at all the stadiums, television broadcast crews along with assorted others needed to produce the games, and the number of people involved quickly grows to the vicinity of a couple thousand. Successfully sequestering that number from the general population of greater Phoenix while constantly maintaining whatever social distancing requirements are likely to still be in place hardly seems practical. To even consider doing so of course assumes that all of them are willing to be separated from their families, potentially for four or more months, an idea bound to face stiff opposition.

And while the typical ballplayer may be a fit young man in his twenties, plenty of the individuals in other roles are older and some doubtless have assorted health problems that increase their vulnerability to the virus. Assuming the plan included regular testing, where would those supplies come from when the lack of adequate testing capability is a leading concern in state after state?

If anything, the plan as outlined has even more logistical problems. Of the ballparks under consideration, only the one regular major league stadium has a roof and thus is climate controlled. The spring training parks are fine in February and March, but by late May the average daytime high temperature in the Valley of the Sun is over 100 degrees, and that number only goes higher through the summer months. If the answer to that is to play only night games, the price would be losing the ability to broadcast live baseball across the country, since all the action will be originating from one time zone. A season staged without either fans in the stands or easy access to live games for fans at home would hardly be the Great Game serving as a popular symbol of national renewal.

That’s just a partial list of the many reasonable objections raised to the plan described in the ESPN report, and is probably why within hours of Passan’s story MLB released a statement saying ”While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan. While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association. The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.”

Yet even if it winds up being quickly cast aside, the plan as described has already served a useful purpose, by illustrating the scale of the challenge facing all our games. There are communities across the country, home to franchises in one league or several, that are months away from being able to safely host a packed stadium or arena. Even when that day comes, there will be many thousands of fans who will recoil at the prospect of being in such a crowd. So it is entirely appropriate for MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, Players Association executive director Tony Clark, and their counterparts in other leagues, to be thinking now about what can be done to restart their sports. And it is entirely necessary that as they all do so they remain open to ideas that might seem – and in many cases will turn out to be – somewhere between impractical and impossible. For like opening all the churches for Easter, the one idea that is truly out of touch is that in either sports or life, 2020 will be business as usual.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 5, 2020

Two Timely Additions To The Basketball Hall Of Fame

The selection process for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is somewhat opaque, especially as compared to the voting by writers for the Baseball Hall of Fame, in which any member is free to publish his or her vote. But the good news, especially for anyone writing about sports these days, is that the Basketball Hall is able to conduct its annual election without the need for in-person meetings, which made the announcement of this year’s inductees the rare bit of genuine sports news.

Headlines understandably focused on the three former NBA titans who were inducted – Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. The three combined to win eleven NBA titles while coming to symbolize greatness at their respective positions. Garnett and Bryant started the modern wave of players drafted directly out of high school, while Duncan will forever be a reminder that it is possible to achieve sustained greatness in the NBA after first dedicating oneself to the full four-year collegiate experience. But the Basketball Hall’s 2020 class numbers nine members, and among those who in most accounts appear in a sentence that begins “also elected were” are two women whose stories resonate with particular power in these uncertain times – Tamika Catchings and Kim Mulkey.

For all the three NBA stars accomplished, Catchings, who played for Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee before a fifteen-year career with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, is the only one of this year’s Hall inductees to have a NCAA Division I title, an Olympic gold medal, and a professional championship on her resume. After leading the Volunteers to the 1998 NCAA title, one of eight won by the legendary Summit, Catchings was a WNBA star at a critical time for the women’s league, as it sought to gain legitimacy and a foothold with fans in a sport long reserved for men at the professional level. She was a ten-time All-Star and won five Defensive Player of the Year Awards, while becoming the fastest player in league history to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists and 300 steals. The Fever won the WNBA title in 2012, the same year Catchings played on the third of her four gold medal winning USA Olympic squads. Since her playing career ended in 2016, she has remained loyal to Indianapolis, where she now serves as the team’s general manager.

But the compelling part of Catching’s story doesn’t appear on a list of career achievements. It’s the simple fact that to do all this she had to overcome a hearing disability. Her family first recognized the issue when she was just three, and quickly had her fitted with hearing aids. But the boxy devices naturally made Catchings the subject of constant childhood teasing and worse, exacerbating an already difficult time for a little girl who was taller than her peers and always the new kid in the class, since her father played professional basketball and the family frequently moved.

Finally, walking home for school one day while in the third grade, Catchings removed the hearing aids and threw them as far as she could into a field. With the family unable to afford a new pair, her story might have gone badly awry. But Catchings dedicated herself to studying hard, learning to read lips, and, eventually, excelling on the basketball court. It was not until her freshman year at Tennessee that, at Summit’s urging, she finally was again fitted for hearing aids. By then she had already demonstrated that her disability was no obstacle to success.

The year before the Fever made Catchings the third overall choice in the WNBA draft, Kim Mulkey was offered what many aspiring college coaches would regard as a golden opportunity. Having played at Louisiana Tech before serving for fifteen years as an assistant coach to the great Leon Barmore, Mulkey was in line for the head coaching job upon her mentor’s retirement. But while Louisiana Tech had been a power in the women’s game, Mulkey believed she needed some time to rebuild the program and put her personal stamp on it. However, the school’s administration wasn’t willing to give her the five-year contract she sought. Rather than settle for a shorter term, Mulkey opted for the head coaching job at Baylor, a school that was coming off a seven-win season and had never qualified for the NCAA tournament.

It was a decision that few would have made, and one that could have blighted Mulkey’s coaching career. But the 37-year-old believed that if given adequate time to put her teachings in place she could turn any program into a winning one. Two decades later, Mulkey’s election to the Hall is the ultimate validation of that self-belief. In four trips to the Women’s Final Four, Baylor has won three titles. With the cancellation of this season’s NCAA tournament, the Lady Bears will remain the defending national champions for another year after last spring’s thrilling 82-81 victory over Notre Dame. And Mulkey is certainly not done. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not intervened, 28-2 Baylor would have been a certain #1 seed and one the favorites for the women’s title.

The plan – the hope – is that this year’s induction ceremony will take place in late August. Whether it’s then or sometime later, as was the case with this week’s announcement the focus at the Hall in Springfield Massachusetts will be on three deserving NBA superstars. But at a time of disarray and doubt, the inclusion of Tamika Catchings and Kim Mulkey among this year’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductees reminds fans that even the most daunting of challenges can be overcome, and that big dreams do come true.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 2, 2020

Tough Times Ahead For Baseball’s Dreamers

Someday – perhaps in a couple months, maybe this fall, or possibly not until next year – but someday, when whatever is going to pass for normalcy has been restored, stadiums and arenas will again be crowded as our games return. If the collective restart of sports happens on the nearer end of that uncertain range, there will be an initial deluge of events, as some professional leagues look to finish off interrupted seasons while others work to fit delayed schedules into a shortened calendar. There will of course be understandable euphoria among fans, a state that will ensure not much attention is paid to the cold reality that just like in the larger economy, the landscape of sports will be forever changed. That grim outcome is likely to be especially true for baseball.

Coverage of the Great Game, as with all our major sports, centers on its highest level, the thirty franchises comprising the National and American Leagues. But for fans who don’t live near a major league stadium, and even for many who do, for more than forty million paying customers a year from east coast to west, a day at the ballpark isn’t about a trip to 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, or the Fenway neighborhood of Boston, or Chavez Ravine. Rather going to a game means visiting little stadiums seating a few thousand folks to watch two of the more than 260 minor league teams around the country do battle. But decisions that were already taking shape before coronavirus swept across America have been both solidified and expanded upon by the pandemic, ensuring that in many communities, live professional baseball is going to be but a memory.

Some minor league franchises, especially in the densely populated northeast, compete in fully independent leagues, but most are members of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the umbrella organization that operates under MLB’s commissioner. While affiliation contracts are often short-term, these clubs are tied to and receive varying levels of financial support from, major league franchises. The current agreement between MLB and the minor league association expires this fall, and when negotiations on a new contract began late last year, major league owners took a hard line.

Most notably, MLB proposed slashing the number of affiliated minor league clubs by forty, leaving the jettisoned franchises to join the previously slender ranks of independent teams. To reduce the workforce to match, MLB also proposed cutting the annual amateur draft from its current forty rounds to twenty-five, or even down to just twenty.

Minor league teams draw fans largely on two factors. One is the offer of inexpensive family entertainment. A trip to a game in many towns and small cities is less expensive than a night out at the multiplex just down the road. The second, and perhaps even more important allure, is the dream that the minor leagues represent. At that level the quality of play is obviously not the most polished, and the players are not instantly recognizable. But every one of them is showcasing both ability and hope in equal measure, and it is the latter that gives the minors their mystique. From the lowest rookie league up to AAA, fans come in part on the chance that they may one day be able to say, “I saw that big league All-Star, or home run king, or Cy Young winner, when he was just a kid working his way to the Show.”

Still, many clubs operate on a tiny margin or at a loss, and without a union minor league players are some of the most poorly paid members of the American workforce. Cutting the connection to big league franchises will undoubtedly spell doom for many of the unlucky teams that lose affiliations and reducing the draft will deny scores of young players the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Along the way a direct local link to the Great Game at its highest level will be lost in cities and towns across the map.

That was the position taken by the minor league clubs that were pushing back hard against MLB’s proposals, and doing so with support from a bipartisan group of more than one hundred members of Congress. Then COVID-19 came to dominate the headlines, and baseball, like all our sports, came to an abrupt halt.

The loss of part or all of the 2020 minor league season because of the pandemic will do to some clubs what MLB was trying to accomplish in the stalled negotiations. Like lots of other thinly capitalized small businesses, there will be minor league baseball franchises unable to weather the coronavirus storm. And while a near-term lifeline has been thrown to current minor league players, in the form of MLB’s decision to pay $400 weekly allowances and continue health benefits until the end of May, the agreement between the commissioner’s office and the major league players union on the eventual resumption of the current season allows MLB to shorten this year’s draft to as few as five rounds and both reduce and defer bonus payments to draftees. A new contract between MLB and the minor league association may be, like so many other things right now, on indefinite hold. But even without a new deal, the contraction of the Great Game at its most accessible level seems certain.

The elimination of some number of minor league franchises will save major league owners money. But the importance of preserving a living connection to professional baseball in as many places as possible is about more than just the bottom line. A sceptic might also ask how many later round draft picks ever get to wear a big league uniform. The answer to that question is a surprisingly large number, as six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt (eighth round), two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom (ninth round), and most famously, Hall of Famer Mike Piazza (sixty-second round, the 1,390th player taken in the 1988 draft), can all attest. But apparently MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners he represents are happy to promote a “Field of Dreams” game to be played near a certain Iowa cornfield to make money off the emotional hold that baseball has on so many fans, but much less willing to ensure that allure lives on.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 29, 2020

While Most Sports Stop, The Horses Still Run

The NBA and NHL seasons are suspended, the standings in both leagues frozen with teams still fifteen to twenty games short of completing a full schedule. Baseball’s scheduled Opening Day has come and gone, but stadiums are silent. March Madness has taken on a new and very different meaning, with the NCAA basketball tournaments, and for that matter all college sports, cancelled. Both the PGA Tour and the LPGA are on hiatus, with the first two men’s majors and the first of the women’s five career-defining tournaments postponed. The Summer Olympics, scheduled to begin in Tokyo in late July, have been moved to 2021, the IOC bowing to the reality that even if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides by summer it would be impossible to stage all the qualifying events in countries around the world and for athletes to properly train. Like so many other aspects of our lives, sports have ground to a halt. But late Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park, just north of Miami, a field of nine broke from the gate in the Florida Derby, just as scheduled.

The Kentucky Derby, the first horse race that most casual fans take note of every year, has been moved from its traditional date on the first Saturday in May to Labor Day weekend. While no official announcements have been made about the scheduling of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, NBC, which broadcasts the Triple Crown, is said to be in discussions with organizers of those two races to move them as well. But if the sport’s premier races have joined the long list of sporting events disrupted by the pandemic, at tracks all around the country thoroughbred racing continues, albeit before empty grandstands.

To be fair, horse racing is not quite the sole sport still active. Aspiring pro golfers are still playing on a handful of mini-tours – the Cactus Tour for women and the Outlaw Tour for men, both in Arizona, and the aptly named Minor League Tour in Florida – and in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, the national soccer league is continuing with its schedule. But the entire field at a mini-tour event might number two dozen players, and golf is the rare sport that easily lends itself to social distancing, so much so that in some states public courses remain open for play. As for Belarus, dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” by many journalists, the country’s authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has prescribed drinking vodka and visiting saunas as sure-fire cures for Coronavirus.

In contrast thoroughbred racing is, at least in theory, a tightly regulated industry, and this is certainly a time when state and local governments are, with good reason, dictating much of our day to day existence. But a fan could tune into the NBC Sports Network on Saturday afternoon and watch live racing from tracks across the country leading up to the headline event from Gulfstream Park, a fact that speaks volumes about the nature of that regulation. There were races not just from Florida, but from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and from Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, just across the Bay from San Francisco, one of the first U.S. cities to declare a state of emergency because of COVID-19.

The stands were empty at all the tracks, though the too obvious joke suggests there’s nothing unusual about that. But while outriders were wearing masks, for the most part jockeys were not, and there was plenty of inevitable close contact between riders during the races. Of course, there was virtually no mention of the extraordinary circumstances by the TV commentators, who were the regular voices of the TVG Network rather than an NBC crew. TVG is an online betting and cable television network dedicated to horse and greyhound racing. It’s part of the occasional cable package but is more often seen at betting parlors because it moves quickly from race to race around the country, providing off track bettors constant coverage and live results. With no other live events to broadcast, NBC was happy to piggyback on TVG’s regular coverage, although the big network reportedly asked that commentary be simplified for viewers not familiar with the sport or betting on horses.

That request provides valuable insight into why racing continues. Sports betting is a huge industry, one that has moved rapidly from the shadows into the mainstream in recent years through a combination of the popularity of fantasy sports and court decisions freeing states to allow wagering on sporting events. And while it remains on the fringe of most sports fans’ focus, horse racing is still a multi-billion dollar business that contributes many millions of dollars to state treasuries suddenly strapped for cash as other, more significant tax revenues wither along with the businesses that pay them. The two factors together make for powerful incentives to keep the horses running and the wagering dollars flowing, especially at a time when other gambling outlets are shuttered.

So the Florida Derby went off as scheduled Saturday, with nine horses breaking from Gulfstream Park’s gate for the mile and an-eighth journey that has long served as an important prep race for the Triple Crown. Independence Hall at 7-2, and Gouveneur Morris at 9-2, both had decent backing, but most of the money was on the two favorites, Tiz the Law and Ete Indien. The former had won the Holy Bull at the beginning of February in impressive fashion, while the latter had rebounded from a second place showing in that race to claim the Fountain of Youth four weeks later, though against a lesser field. With the pair matched up again the question was whether Ete Indien could show he was in the same league as Tiz the Law.

In less than two minutes the answer was obvious. Ete Indien led early, as is his style, but Tiz the Law was perfectly positioned on his outside flank down the back stretch. Going into the far turn Tiz the Law moved up and was in the lead by the time the field turned for home. Ete Indien faded in the stretch, finishing third behind Shivaree and just ahead of Gouverneur Morris while Tiz the Law galloped home three lengths clear and became an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, whenever it may be run. With a little luck all the parties involved, both equine and human, came away healthy. But then horse racing has always been about luck.

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