Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 1, 2018

Red Sox Are Winners, Some Fans Less So

On Wednesday, for the fourth time in fifteen years, the championship parade marking the end of the longest season rolled through the streets of Boston. Fans lined the city’s streets, striving to catch a glimpse of and cheer on their heroes, who rode in a long line of duck boats that made slow but steady progress from Fenway Park to the North End. That this year’s parade should return to New England was hardly a surprise. The Red Sox began the season with by far the fattest payroll in the Great Game, more than $30 million over the luxury tax threshold. While Boston fans have historically complained bitterly about the free-spending ways of the New York Yankees, they were somehow able to temper their moral outrage when the open checkbook belonged to Sox owner John Henry instead of a Steinbrenner.

Who could blame them? For Henry’s largesse stocked a roster with one former Cy Young Award winner in David Price, and another starter in Chris Sale who, when this year’s voting for that award is announced, will finish in the top five for the sixth straight year and who would likely have joined Price as a winner but for time lost to injury in the second half of the season. Boston also had plenty of money to lure free agent slugger J.D. Martinez away from Arizona, to pay a promising group of young homegrown talent at various positions, and to meet needs during the season by trading for first baseman Steve Pearce and right-hander Nathan Eovaldi. Pearce was named MVP of the World Series while Eovaldi delivered an ERA of 1.61 over 22 1/3 postseason innings.

Under first year manager Alex Cora the Red Sox spent exactly one day under .500, when they dropped their Opening Day contest against Tampa by a score of 6-4. Boston then reeled off nine straight wins and followed their second loss of the season with an eight game winning streak to start the campaign at 17-2. It was still April but the Red Sox already led the Yankees by 7 ½ games, with the Toronto Blue Jays between them, four games adrift of the division leaders. The fast start was important, for while the Jays faded to finish well below .500, Boston and New York essentially played to a draw from that early point on, with the final standings showing the Red Sox eight games in front of the second place Yankees.

The Sox kept right on rolling through the postseason, dropping just a single contest in each of the three playoff rounds, finally capping their run with a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series last Sunday night. Boston’s 108 regular season wins and 119 total victories both set franchise records. One year after finishing last in the American League in home runs, the Red Sox became an offensive juggernaut, leading the majors in batting average, OPS, extra-base hits, and total bases. If the team’s pitching wasn’t quite as dominant it was certainly more than good enough. Boston’s moundsmen finished third in the AL in both ERA and strikeouts. And just to complete the picture, defensively the Red Sox tied for second in the league in fielding percentage.

Despite all those gaudy numbers, Boston was constantly criticized and second-guessed. In the brief interval between the ALCS and the Series, David Waldstein penned an article in the New York Times chronicling the litany of complaints – “Their record was inflated with easy wins over inferior teams, critics charged. The bullpen middle relief is terrible, others complained. The starting pitching is suspect, and the ace of the staff is hiding a shoulder injury. There is no solid third baseman, second base is a hole, and the closer can’t throw a strike that isn’t hit into the stands or close to it.”

What Waldstein’s piece didn’t mention was the stunning extent to which the carping originated within driving distance of Fenway Park. An otherwise uninformed tourist stuck in traffic on Route 128 and listening to one of Boston’s sports talk radio stations during the season would have been excused for assuming that the local team was plunging toward the AL East cellar rather than ascending to unheard of heights. Caller after caller cast doubt on the team’s performance and predicted its demise, as if everything that was happening on the field night after night was but an illusion, perhaps some trick of the lighting thrown off by the giant Citgo sign beyond the Green Monster. Worse than the know-nothing opinions of the callers was the failure of most of the supposedly expert radio hosts to object to the dismal assessments. Fans may not have minded John Henry opening his checkbook, but throughout the summer they harbored plenty of doubts that the dollars had been well spent.  All the more remarkable is that many of these same callers, when speaking about the Patriots, display a confidence that often crosses over into arrogance.

When the season’s result proved both their fears groundless and their team’s dominance no chimera, the reactions of many fans was even more off kilter. After the final out was recorded at Dodger Stadium Sunday night, the initial cheers from the Boston fans in the crowd soon gave way to a familiar taunt, “Yankee suck! Yankees suck!” Three days later the cry again sounded at various points along the parade route, and a large banner with the same two words hung from a building.

Rivalries are an important element of every sport, and few are as enduring as the one between the denizens of Fenway and the team that calls the Stadium home. But the Yankees were of course nowhere near Chavez Ravine during the World Series, nor for that matter Minute Maid Park in Houston during the ALCS. If fans really considered outlasting New York the crowning achievement of Boston’s season, perhaps Wednesday’s parade should have been held three weeks ago (without the Commissioner’s Trophy, of course), right after the American League Division Series.

That is presumably not really the case for Red Sox fans, who this week are rightfully reveling in their team’s championship. But both the widespread doubts of so many of them throughout the campaign, and the immediate focus on their Gotham rival after the title was secured, speak volumes about the psyche of generations of the Boston faithful. For while this is the team’s fourth title in fifteen years, it is also the fourth in one hundred, and therein lies a history that is apparently still not easy to escape.

In the eighty-six year stretch between Boston’s fifth World Series championship in 1918 and its sixth in 2004, the Red Sox made just four trips to the Fall Classic. Each ended in heartbreak. In 1946 Boston squandered a three games to two lead against St. Louis. Twenty-one years later, again versus the Cardinals, the Red Sox rallied from down three games to one to tie the Series, only to badly lose Game 7 at home by a final of 7-2. In 1975 they beat the heavily favored Big Red Machine in a taut 12-inning Game 6, only to again go down to defeat at home in the decisive contest. And in 1986 the Red Sox traveled to Shea Stadium needing just one win in the Series final two contests to defeat the Mets. Then in Game 6 Boston needed just one more out in the 10th inning, then just one more strike, before it all came undone.

Over that same march of seasons, the Yankees represented the American League in the Series thirty-nine times, winning a total of twenty-six titles. For many if not most of those seasons the rivalry between the two clubs was in name only, though there was Bucky F’n Dent in the one game playoff in 1978, and Aaron F’n Boone in Game 7 of the ALCS in 2003. So when at last the Red Sox pulled off the impossible, rallying from three games down to vanquish New York in the 2004 ALCS, there was catharsis. But not, it turns out, a turning of the page.

As if stuck forever in the long years of despair, some Sox fans still habitually see the glass as half empty, even in the very best of years. And no matter what team Boston beats, there will always be an element of the fan base that responds like angst-ridden younger siblings, forever measuring achievements not by their own merit, but by how they compare to those of the more accomplished big brother. Congratulations on a tremendous season to the Red Sox and their fans. Even the ones incapable of fully appreciating the moment.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 28, 2018

Book Review: Nine Innings In The Postmodern Era

As this is written, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are getting ready to play Game 5 of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium. With Boston holding a three games to one advantage, the final out of the longest season may be just a few hours away, perhaps already recorded by the time many readers turn their attention to this post. If not, then the moment will come in Fenway Park on Tuesday or Wednesday.

With the first days of Spring Training in Florida and Arizona a distant memory, the curtain is coming down on another season of the Great Game. Or Baseball, as Rob Neyer prefers in his new book “Power Ball,” which On Sports and Life highly recommends. Not baseball, with a small “b,” but Baseball. Neyer’s capitalization, like the two-word term used in this space, distinguishes the game at its highest professional level from the underlying sport. The latter finds its origins not with Abner Doubleday but with eighteenth century stick and ball games played in England. In its evolved form baseball is played around the globe, from sandlots to side streets to schools and colleges and in countless minor league parks and numerous professional leagues on other continents.

The Great Game, Neyer’s Baseball, is the epitome of the sport, thirty Major League Baseball franchises playing a 162-game schedule leading to a multi-round tournament that culminates with the World Series. The current state of that level of the game is the subject of considerable debate. While Neyer’s book won’t end the discussion (sports fans love nothing more than a good argument), it makes a worthy contribution to it, with the added benefit of being a compelling read.

Neyer began his career working with Bill James and then STATS, LLC, before writing for ESPN, SB Nation, and later Fox Sports. Earlier this year he became commissioner of the West Coast League, the premier west coast summer college league. Given his start, it’s no surprise that he’s committed to the use of advanced analytics, even while understanding the significant changes brought on by increased reliance on sabermetrics. For Neyer the most dramatic change, as his title suggests, is the heightened importance of power; not just in the form of increased slugging, but also power on the mound with pitchers throwing ever harder, and power in the front office with general managers sifting through more data while making personnel decisions.

The book’s subtitle is “Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game,” and Neyer builds his analysis around a detailed description of a late season contest in September 2017 between the visiting Houston Astros, well on their way to the playoffs, and the home Oakland Athletics, stuck in last place in the AL West. Some fans may recognize the construct, famously used by Arnold Hano with “A Day in the Bleachers” more than six decades ago, and by Dan Okrent in “Nine Innings” in 1985. Neyer pays homage to both Hano and Okrent, as well as to Michael Lewis, whose seminal “Moneyball” introduced most fans to the concept and growing use of advanced analytics and set the stage for an entire new lexicon of statistics that have rendered familiar numbers like batting average, ERA, and a pitcher’s win-loss record increasingly obsolete. He suggests that if “Moneyball” described what was then the modern game, the current reliance on reams of data has taken the Great Game into its postmodern era, one made possible not just by stat nerds capable of making sense of the new numbers, but also by enhanced technology able to capture the data in real-time.

At the same time, and this is a welcome development coming from a committed sabermetrician, Neyer is dismissive of the growing use of statistics without context. He reports not just on the game between the Astros and A’s, but also on the television coverage by the two team’s media outlets. Both sets of announcers’ report on the launch angle and exit velocity of every well-struck ball, and Neyer rightly questions the value of such information for the average fan. What does an angle of 23.6 degrees, or a velocity of 98.7 miles per hour mean, and if the numbers can’t be given useful meaning, why bother mentioning them?

Neyer uses the unfolding game to highlight the major features of the postmodern game, from defensive shifts to uppercut swings to pitch counts and specialized relievers. But he also goes beyond the importance of analytics to discuss other ways in which Baseball is, and sometimes isn’t changing. In the latter category he notes the absence of even a single openly gay player, the halting and inadequate efforts by MLB to grow the game in the inner city, and the yawning pay gap. No, his concern on that last point isn’t about the difference between the $35 million Clayton Kershaw made this season compared to the league minimum of $545,000 paid to the Yankees’ breakout rookie Gleyber Torres, but rather the gap between Torres’s paychecks and those of most minor leaguers.

He also notes the concern of many fans and pundits over the decline in on-field action, as postmodern Baseball increasingly becomes a game of Two True Outcomes – home runs and strikeouts – neither of which results in a batted ball in play. Here Neyer has a warning for his fellow writers, suggesting that too many members of the baseball media see the game as a two-sided coin, with players on one side and owners on the other. But “they forget,” Neyer writes, “about the millions of fans who pay for all these nice things.” Attendance fell about four percent this year from 2017 and is down more than ten percent over the last decade. Those are the numbers that Neyer believes will ultimately get the attention of the Great Game’s decision-makers. When that happens, he lists several possible changes they might consider, from changes in the strike zone to smaller gloves for fielders to calling balls and strikes by technology rather than a fallible human eye.

At heart Neyer remains a fan of Baseball, and thus is confident that the Great Game will survive, as it has through myriad other challenges over its long history. That confidence is grounded in the simple truth that no amount of analytics can ever negate the randomness of a single at-bat. Like in the bottom of the 9th of a meaningless September 2017 game between a team that would shortly be crowned champion, and one mired in the cellar of its division. That was when Astros closer Ken Giles was called upon to preserve an 8-7 lead. While on the mound Giles threw four pitches at 99 MPH, and one at 100, the five fastest pitches in the entire game. Oakland batters recorded three hits in the inning, none of which were among the twenty hardest-hit balls of the contest. Home run by an unheralded rookie to tie the score. Single to right. Walk. RBI single to left center, and a walk-off win for the underdog A’s. That randomness is, and always will be, Baseball.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 25, 2018

With More Than Just Power, Red Sox Are Halfway To A Title

The requisite number is of course four wins, not two, so in a sense observing that this year’s World Series isn’t yet over is merely stating the obvious. Starting with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, ten teams have overcome two games to none World Series deficits. In each of the three most recent occurrences – the Royals in 1985, the Mets one year later and the Yankees in 1996 – those first two losses came at home, surely a more parlous situation than the one the Los Angeles Dodgers now face.

Dodger fans can take heart in the knowledge that in addition to their team being the first, more than six decades ago, to rally from two games down, two of L.A.’s three most recent titles, in 1965 and 1981, were achieved after dropping Games 1 and 2. And perhaps a few of the Red Sox faithful are mindful that when the Metropolitans stormed back to capture the title in seven games in 1986, it was at the expense of the Fenway nine. Given that it’s been more than two decades since the Yankees rallied against Atlanta in ‘96, and since the previous ten instances happened about every four seasons on average, one might even posit that the Great Game is long overdue for another such comeback.

Still, as the two teams wing west on Thursday before resuming hostilities in Game 3 Friday evening at Chavez Ravine, Red Sox fans are both joyous and confident, and a neutral observer can understand why. Los Angeles still has time to turn the Series around, but everything about the first two contests made the many pundits who predicted domination by Boston look prescient.

In winning by scores of 8-4 and 4-2 Red Sox hitters posted a .297 batting average and an on base plus slugging percentage of .772. The corresponding numbers for Dodger batters are anemic, just a .175 average and .462 OPS. Other than Matt Kemp’s 2nd inning home run off Red Sox ace Chris Sale in Game 1, the Dodgers’ hits have all been singles. In contrast Boston has five extra base hits. The Red Sox are batting .333 with runners in scoring position, against only .200 for L.A. Most impressive has been the ability of Boston hitters to grind out at-bats in high pressure situations. Ten of the twelve Red Sox runs have scored with two outs. The Dodgers have plated just a single run with two away.

As for pitching, Boston’s bullpen was viewed as a weakness prior to the start of the Series. But so far Red Sox relievers have surrendered just one earned run in eight innings of work, for an ERA of 1.13. L.A.’s bullpen has seen eight and a third innings of action. The six different Dodgers who have been handed the ball have compiled a 3.24 ERA, which is a decent number until it’s compared to 1.13. Ryan Madson was the first reliever called upon by L.A. manager Dave Roberts in both games, and each time he walked the first man he faced and allowed all the runners he inherited, two in Game 1 and three in Game 2, to score.

Perhaps Los Angeles will thrive in the more hospitable environment of Dodger Stadium. The difference in Game 3’s location will be measured not just by the vocal support of the crowd, but also by the temperature. Game 1 was played under windy and chilly conditions Tuesday night, and by the latter innings of Game 2 Fenway Park was frosty. When Walker Buehler toes the rubber to get Game 3 started late Friday afternoon West Coast time, the forecast is for the low 80s. That and the fact that with right-hander Rick Porcello starting for the Red Sox the Dodgers will finally have their left-handed bats in the lineup may help to warm up L.A.’s offense. The Dodgers are a team that’s already overcome adversity, rising from ten games under .500 in mid-June to win the NL West, and rebounding from a two games to one deficit in the NLCS against Milwaukee.

But should the Red Sox go on to win their fourth title in fifteen years, whether it be in a four game sweep or a seven game marathon, then perhaps the real lesson of this World Series will be that the sport has not changed quite as much as is widely believed. By now it counts as received wisdom that the Great Game has entered an era in which power trumps all. Through a combination of factors, from changes in the aerodynamics of the baseball itself to hitters altering their swings to lift balls over extreme defensive shifts and into the seats, the number of home runs rose dramatically for several seasons in a row before declining slightly this year. The concomitant effect of all that free swinging has been a steady climb in the number of strikeouts. Whether it’s a ball over the fence or a batter walking back to the dugout after fanning, the decrease in balls in play has, we are told, led to a decline in action on the field and a deadening of the sport.

The overall numbers across the Great Game don’t lie, but what they perhaps disguise is that playing an extreme version of the so-called modern game is not the surest route to a November parade with the Commissioner’s Trophy. While the Red Sox won their division in 2017, the team managed only 168 home runs, better than just three other franchises. With the addition of designated hitter J.D. Martinez and improved slugging from the rest of the lineup, this year Boston hit 208 homers during the regular season, good for ninth place. But Red Sox hitters were also able to temper the urge to flail away. Boston batters struck out 1,253 times, the fifth lowest total in the majors. Last year’s champions, the Houston Astros, did even better, ranking second in home runs and dead last in strikeouts in 2017. Houston was disciplined at the plate this season as well, finishing tenth in homers and twenty-ninth in K’s. Both teams have proven that it’s possible to display plenty of power without a matching increase in strikeouts. Boston of course won a franchise record 108 games this year while the Astros notched 103 and 101 wins the past two seasons.

By way of comparison, L.A. ranked second this year in home runs, behind only the Yankees, but also eighth in strikeouts, fanning more than just one other team that made the postseason. If the two stats must go hand in hand, the Dodgers numbers wouldn’t be surprising. But the Astros, with a title, and the Red Sox, now halfway to one, prove otherwise. To provide some context, compared to five years ago, before the supposed shift in the game, the Red Sox increased home runs this season by seventeen percent while slightly decreasing total strikeouts. The Dodgers hit nearly fifty percent more balls out of the park than in 2013, but at a cost of a more than twenty-five percent increase in strikeouts.

Of course, if L.A. batters, who like their foes hit one home run in the first two games, put several balls into the Dodger Stadium outfield seats and rally this weekend, advocates of the modern game will feel a whole lot better. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” Yogi Berra said in 1973. The Mets team that he was managing that season proved his wisdom by rallying from last place with a month to play to win the NL East. But several years earlier, when Berra’s playing career was winding down and he had ceded catching duties for the Yankees to Elston Howard by moving to the outfield, he was asked about dealing with the long late afternoon shadows in left field at the old Stadium. “It gets late early out there,” Berra observed. Dodger fans are hoping that this World Series will yet prove to be an example of the Yogism uttered when he was a manager. But unless things turn quickly, it’s the older expression, from Berra’s playing days, that will apply.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 21, 2018

Then There Were Two

Now at last, the final act. The longest season wound its way through 2,429 games, one less than planned after an ultimately meaningless rainout between the Pirates and Marlins was not rescheduled. Yet after all those innings, pitches, and plays, the postseason bracket could not be determined without the addition of a pair of tiebreaker contests to determine the winners of the National League’s Central and West divisions. So 2,431 regular season games in all, followed by 28 more through the Wild Card, Division, and League Championship rounds of the playoffs. Now at most just seven games remain, and possibly as few as four. No wonder the drama is so intense. All the months that have gone by since Opening Day are now merely prelude to what is about to unfold between the Dodgers and the Red Sox.

The Dodgers and the Red Sox. The first franchise was born in Brooklyn in 1883 and played under eight different names before settling on its ninth and current one in 1932. The second was founded in 1901 as the Boston Americans, switching to Red Sox in time for the 1908 season. Both teams have thus been eligible for every World Series since the first one in 1903, and each has plenty of Fall Classic stories to tell. The Americans prevailed over the Pittsburgh Pirates in that very first Series, rallying from a three games to one deficit with four straight wins to claim the best-of-nine showdown. Eleven decades later, this will be Boston’s twelfth appearance, the third most of any American League franchise. The Dodgers, representing the National League for the second year in a row, are making their twentieth trip to the Series. That ties them for the most appearances by a National League club with their one-time inter-borough and for the last six decades California rivals, the San Francisco Giants, though both are a distant second to the forty World Series in which the American League has been represented by the New York Yankees.

Despite the frequency with which both teams have made it this far, they have met in October only once, and that was more than a century ago. In 1916 the Red Sox downed the Brooklyn Robins, as the future Dodgers were then known, four games to one. Although Fenway Park was just five years old, the Red Sox chose to play their home games for that Series at the much larger Braves Field. Right fielder Casey Stengel led the Brooklyn offense with a .364 average in the Series, but overall Red Sox pitching dominated. Game 2 went 14 innings before Boston pulled out a 2-1 win in front of more than 47,000 fans, 12,000 more than could have been squeezed into Fenway. Babe Ruth surrendered an inside-the-park home run in the top of the 1st inning, and then pitched thirteen shutout innings to earn the win.

Now after a 102-year hiatus these two storied franchises prepare to resume World Series hostilities. In that interim L.A. and Boston haven’t seen much of each other in the regular season either. Since the advent of interleague play in 1997, the only NL franchise to play fewer games against the Red Sox than the Dodgers is Cincinnati. In what could be an ominous sign, Los Angeles has only a single win at Fenway Park.

For more reasons than that the oddsmakers like Boston, and at least at first glance who can blame them? The Red Sox rolled through a historic season, winning a franchise record 108 games. So far in the playoffs Boston has been even better, posting a 7-2 record through the Division and League Champion rounds. That mark was achieved against the only two other teams to win 100 or more games this season, the Astros and the Yankees. Most remarkably, Boston is a perfect 5-0 on the road during the playoffs. Against an outstanding Houston rotation, Boston scored seven or more runs in three of the five ALCS games, the only time all year the Astros allowed that many runs in three straight contests. Having closed out the defending champions with a 4-1 Game 5 victory last Thursday, the Red Sox will be well rested for Tuesday’s Series opener. In contrast the Dodgers were pushed to the limit by the Milwaukee Brewers, with the outcome of Saturday’s Game 7 hanging in the balance until Yasiel Puig launched a 3-run homer to center in the top of the 6th, pushing L.A.’s lead to 5-1 and deflating the capacity crowd at Miller Park.

Still the rules require one team to win four games on the field before the Commissioner’s Trophy is awarded, and by at least one measure the Dodgers and Red Sox appear closely matched. While the regular season’s final standings show Boston 16 ½ games ahead of Los Angeles (L.A. had the extra tiebreaker game), the two teams posted similar run differentials. With 876 runs scored against 647 allowed, the Red Sox had a positive differential of 229. The Dodgers numbers were 804 and 610, for a net of 194. Run differential has long been recognized as a good predictor of a team’s winning percentage, using a simple formula devised by Bill James, which is runs scored squared divided by the sum of runs scored squared and runs allowed squared. The resulting percentage reflects the “expected” win rate for a team over a large enough sample size.

Based on the numbers Boston’s expected win total was 103, just two more than L.A.’s expected total of 101. Obviously over the course of the season the Red Sox overperformed while the Dodgers came up well short of expectations. One can debate the reasons for both, from team chemistry to injuries, and fans certainly will do so well into the offseason. Perhaps that pattern will continue through this year’s final series, and the parade through the streets of Boston will soon be taking place. But if as often happens performances revert to the mean, then this series could in fact be quite close. It’s also worth remembering that on May 16th the Dodgers were ten games under .500 and in fourth place in the NL West. On that same date the Red Sox were already fifteen games over .500. From that point on the two teams’ records are quite close, and it’s the underdog squad that has had to overcome more adversity.

Both clubs have earned their spot in this year’s Series, but only one city gets to have a parade. Some fans will just assume its location, while others will let the Dodgers and Red Sox play.  Starting Tuesday night, the latter group is going to have more fun.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 18, 2018

Was It The Fan, Or The Man In Blue?

For many fans, the first two names do little more than stir a vague memory, the third not yet even that. But for partisans of the Orioles, the Cubs, and now the Astros, Jeffrey Maier, Steve Bartman, and Troy Caldwell are instantly recognizable. Though none of the three ever wore a big league uniform, each played a key role in the outcome of a League Championship Series, the penultimate round of the Great Game’s postseason tournament. Or did they?

Let’s begin with Jeffrey Maier, who in 1996 was a twelve-year-old sitting in the first row of the right field seats at the old Yankee Stadium. In Game 1 of that year’s ALCS, the Orioles were clinging to a 4-3 lead over the Yankees as New York came to bat in the bottom of the 8th inning. The leadoff batter for the home squad was a young shortstop completing a season for which he would earn the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Derek Jeter lifted a fly ball into deep right, sending Baltimore outfielder Tony Tarasco racing back to the warning track. Right at the wall Tarasco looked to settle under the ball. But even as he reached up with his glove to snare Jeter’s drive for the inning’s first out, another gloved hand reached over the wall and caught the ball.

That hand was Maier’s, who in that moment was living out the dream of every kid who has ever brought his or her glove to a major league park. But as Oriole fans will be quick to remind anyone who will listen, replays of the moment left no doubt that Maier reached over the wall and into the field of play to catch Jeter’s fly ball. Tarasco immediately protested, but umpire Rich Garcia, working the right field foul line as part of the expanded six-man crew used during the postseason, had already signaled, incorrectly, that Jeter had tied the game with a home run. Tarasco was joined by Orioles manager Davey Johnson, who was eventually ejected. While fans at home may have been able to see the clear evidence of fan interference as the play was shown again and again on television, 1996 was long before Major League Baseball instituted the video review and challenge system now in effect.

Seven years later the scene was Wrigley Field, where the long-suffering Cubs were five outs away from advancing to the World Series for the first time in more than half a century. Mark Prior was twirling a three hit shutout and Chicago led the Florida Marlins 3-0. With one out in the 8th and Juan Pierre at second base, Florida second baseman Luis Castillo worked the count from Prior to full. He then lofted a high fly ball down the left field line. Moises Alou, the Cubs left fielder, tracked the ball even as he raced toward the line, with only a few feet of foul ground between it and the stands. Sitting in the front row of those stands, wearing a Cubs cap and headphones so he could listen to the radio play-by-play, was Steve Bartman, a lifelong Chicago fan then in his mid-twenties. As the ball drifted toward the seats, Bartman and those around him stood, and his were but one of several pairs of hands that reached for the baseball as it fell from the sky. Alou braced himself against the wall with his right hand and leaped up, attempting to make the catch. But before the ball could reach his glove it ricocheted off Bartman’s left hand, bouncing away into the swarm of spectators around him.

Alou reacted with fury, clearly believing that had been a victim of fan interference. But umpire Mike Everett ruled that the ball was in the seats, and thus fair game for anyone. Alou’s protests got him nowhere, and Cubs manager Dusty Baker couldn’t join in the argument because the curve of Wrigley Field’s stands and the location of the Chicago bullpen along foul ground blocked a clear view of the play from the home dugout. The Great Game was still five years away from its first experiment with replay review, and more than a decade short of 2014, when the question of fan interference in foul ground was made reviewable.

Now video review by officials at MLB headquarters in New York is fully integrated into the game, and fans are used to having a contest delayed while the umpires gather around the crew chief, who is wearing a headset and communicating with the replay official. That was the scene Wednesday night in the bottom of the 1st inning of Game 4 of this season’s ALCS. The Boston Red Sox, already leading the series two games to one, had plated a pair of runs in the top of the inning, putting pressure on the defending champion Houston Astros to respond quickly. The home team appeared to do just that, with George Springer lining a single to center with one out, and Jose Altuve following with a high fly ball to deep right field. Mookie Betts drifted back to the wall and leaped up, trying to prevent a home run.

Troy Caldwell, an Astros fan living in Georgia who had traveled to Houston to attend the game, was one of five fans in the front row who stood and reached for the ball. Even as Betts made his jump and his glove flashed up and over the wall, someone’s hand appeared to brush Betts’s glove and the ball bounced off Caldwell’s hands and back onto the field. Joe West, who in a 2011 poll of players was cited as the worst umpire in the majors by forty-one percent of respondents, was working the right field line and signaled fan interference, meaning Altuve was out. West’s snap decision was crucial, because a camera that had been placed in position to look directly along the top of the outfield wall was blocked by other fans standing in front of it. That meant that while the replay official had several angles to look at, the one that would have instantly told him if Caldwell had reached onto the field or if instead it was Betts who had reached into the stands was unavailable. MLB’s replay procedures state that if video review can’t definitively overrule or confirm the ruling on the field, then that ruling stands. That’s what happened Wednesday night.

Baltimore lost Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS when Bernie Williams hit a walk-off home run in the 11th inning. New York went on to take the series four games to one. Castillo continued his at-bat in 2003, drawing a walk. He would eventually make the third out of the inning, but only after the Marlins had batted around and plated eight runs. One night later they eliminated the Cubs. Wednesday night’s first inning drama was but prelude to a wild game eventually won by Boston, 8-6, putting the Red Sox on the cusp of a return to the World Series.

Orioles fans blame Jeffrey Maier for their failure to reach the 1996 World Series to this day, and Steve Bartman was vilified in Chicago for years. But perhaps the fairer response was in Houston, where fans directed their ire not at Caldwell but at West, for a call that was questionable at best. Even here in New England, a devoted Red Sox fan said today that after multiple views of the video from Wednesday night’s game, he believed Altuve’s shot was in the seats. In fact, the video evidence of all three incidents suggests three bad calls by three different umpires. Unquestionably so by Rich Garcia, almost certainly so by Joe West, and very possibly so by Mike Everett. They are all human of course, even the execrable West, so mistakes will be made. But Wednesday night proved that video replay can’t fix all such errors, which means there will always be times when fans will deservedly think of the men in blue as a bunch of bums.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 14, 2018

Testing The Limits Of Moneyball

Much has been written over the last few seasons, including in this space, about how the Great Game is changing. The concept of relying on advanced metrics rather than the subjective judgments of scouts and coaches was popularized by “Moneyball,” the 2003 Michael Lewis book that highlighted how the low-budget Oakland A’s made it to the playoffs in the previous season. The book became a critically acclaimed movie in 2011, giving A’s general manager Billy Beane the luxury of forever being able to remind anyone listening that he was played by Brad Pitt. But in recent seasons faith in sabermetrics has accelerated among all thirty major league teams, with detailed statistics on every aspect of the game far beyond the days of “Moneyball.”

Every front office now has an entire department devoted to statistical analysis, and scoreboards across the land let fans know the exit velocity of every ball put into play. The data now available on every hitter’s proclivities has led to a dramatic increase in defensive shifts, which in turn has spawned a new generation of players with uppercut swings trying to lift the ball over the picket fence of defenders on one side of the infield and into the seats. Home runs have spiked, while traditionalists have lamented the loss of the stolen base, the hit-and-run, the sacrifice bunt, all key elements of baseball offense in another time.

But as has been highlighted this postseason, it is not just defensive positioning and the response of players at the plate that has changed. So too, fundamentally so for some teams, has the role of the starting pitcher. Increased reliance on a team’s bullpen, and with it the emergence of specialty relievers who are called upon in specific situations, has been a growing trend for decades. Starters, who once were handed the ball and expected as often as not to finish the game, have seen their innings steadily shrink. In 1975 Catfish Hunter threw thirty complete games for the Yankees, just three years after Steve Carlton led the National League with the same number for the Phillies. That was the decade that the major leagues last saw a thousand complete games in a season. By the end of the next decade the number had dipped below five hundred. This year eleven starters, six in the American League and five in the National, tied for the lead in complete games by going the route just two times. Those twenty-two complete games were just over half of the forty-two thrown in the majors in 2018, a record low.

A major reason for the willingness of managers to go with a quick hook on their starting pitcher has been clear statistical evidence that in the relationship between the man on the mound and his opponents in the batter’s box, familiarity breeds contempt. The success rate for batters, be they elite hitters with gaudy averages or journeyman struggling to hit .220, spikes once they step in to face a pitcher for the third time in a game. In an ideal world from the pitcher’s perspective, that might not happen until the 7th inning. But under the right circumstances it could come as early as the first batter of the 4th inning, even in a scoreless game.

That statistical evidence has made the third time through the order, whenever it takes place, the time that most managers now think about calling the bullpen, even when their starter is doing well. This season it also led to a few teams, most frequently the Tampa Bay Rays, to go with a so-called “opener,” a relief pitcher who starts the game with the purpose of pitching just one or at most two innings. The idea is to force batters to face several different pitchers during the game, eliminating the increased success rate from seeing the same hurler multiple times. Bullpen games, when a team might use six or seven pitchers, used to be a sign that the starter had imploded early. Now for some teams they are both intentional and not infrequent.

The Milwaukee Brewers captured the NL Central crown by closing the season with seven straight wins to tie Chicago and added an eighth with their victory over the Cubs in the tiebreaker game. The Brewers then won their ninth, tenth and eleventh in a row as they swept the Rockies in the NLDS. During that streak Milwaukee’s starting pitchers averaged less than four innings pitched per game, and manager Craig Counsell used on average just a fraction under six pitcher per game. The second game in the streak, a 6-4 win over the Cardinals, was a bullpen game. In his only start of the entire season Dan Jennings retired the only batter he faced before giving way to a parade of fellow relievers that eventually numbered nine. Members of the Brewers starting rotation notched just two of the eleven wins, in part because they only reached five innings pitched, the minimum required for a starter to be credited with a win, in four games.

Milwaukee’s approach is a product of statistics that suggest the team’s bullpen is very strong, while its starting rotation is not. Not surprisingly, Counsell stuck with the tactic through the first two games of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In Game One Friday night, starter Gio Gonzalez lasted just two innings before giving way to the first of six relievers who were called upon the record the final twenty-one outs. On Saturday Wade Miley went five and two-thirds, a remarkable outing by Milwaukee’s recent standards. Five relievers followed Miley to the mound.

But the Brewers are heading west, where the next three games will be at Chavez Ravine, all square against their NLCS foe. That fact, and what took place in the two contests at Miller Park, should be a reminder to fans, pundits, and members of every team’s analytics department, that the Great Game is not played on a spreadsheet, and that there is still value in paying attention to what’s taking place on the field.

Gonzalez left Game One trailing 1-0 after surrendering a home run to Manny Machado. But he allowed just one other base runner and obviously had not run up a big pitch count. The Brewers came back against Clayton Kershaw, but what looked like a safe 5-1 lead nearly evaporated in the late innings as L.A. pecked away against the vaunted Milwaukee bullpen. The final was 5-4, with Milwaukee relievers giving up four earned runs on seven hits for a less than lights out ERA of 5.14.

When Miley was lifted Saturday, he had thrown just seventy-four pitches and was blanking the Dodgers on two hits, both singles. But the second of those was off the bat of Chris Taylor, the final batter he faced. Taylor was the Dodgers leadoff hitter, meaning Miley was starting his third time through the L.A. order. So Counsell marched in lockstep with the statistical evidence and went to his bullpen. Corbin Burnes got Justin Turner to fly out to end the inning but failed to retire a man in the 7th. The Dodgers plated two in that inning and two more in the 8th on Turner’s drive into the left field seats. The final score was 4-3 L.A., with Milwaukee relievers giving up all the runs while posting an ugly 10.80 ERA.

Any single game is of course an exercise in small sample size. Perhaps over the course of the series Milwaukee’s approach will win out. Perhaps Counsell has so little faith in his starters that he genuinely believes he must continue down his chosen path. But before the Great Game turns managing over to robots, perhaps he might consider going with his gut.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 11, 2018

The Offseason Arrives, Three Weeks Too Soon

Only one city gets a parade. That is the immutable truth about how the longest season ends every year, twenty-nine fan bases processing disappointment and doubt while one team and its faithful celebrate. That party is just three weeks away now; perhaps even sooner if one team dominates the World Series. The celebration may take place in Houston, toasting the first team to repeat as champions in nearly two decades. Or the location may be Boston, cementing a reputation for winning that has long since buried the old canard of a jinxed franchise. Perhaps the parade will commemorate the first title for the Brewers or the seventh for the Dodgers. Either would mark the end of a championship drought that is now measured in decades.

One certainty is that this year’s parade route will not be along the Canyon of Heroes, rolling up Broadway in lower Manhattan beneath tons of confetti floating in the breeze, ending with a joyous ceremony at New York’s City Hall. When a 9th inning rally against a struggling Craig Kimbrel came up one run short late Tuesday night, the Yankees’ season ended with a three games to one American League Division Series loss to their archrivals from Boston.

As fans of every franchise in any sport are wont to do when a season ends unhappily, Yankee faithful have been busy assigning blame for the fact the Great Game won’t be played in the Bronx again until winter’s snows have come and gone. General manager Brian Cashman failed to bolster the starting rotation last offseason! Fire Cashman! First-year manager Aaron Boone was calmly chewing bubble gum as the final out was made! Axe Boone! Slugger Giancarlo Stanton had just four singles in the ALDS and left fifteen men on base in the four games! Trade Stanton!

Pundits covering the team have weighed in as well. In the New York Times Billy Witz made owner Hal Steinbrenner the scapegoat for his edict that the team’s payroll had to fall below the luxury tax threshold, thus resetting the Yankees’ tax rate for future years. Witz caustically wondered whether the Yankees “will raise a banner on opening day to celebrate the achievement” before asserting that the team was “operating like the Tampa Bay Rays, with one eye peeled on the bottom line and the other on tomorrow.”

Cheap sarcasm aside, there is a kernel of truth at the core of each of the complaints. Steinbrenner’s determination to rein in payroll took New York out of the running when Detroit decided to trade right-hander Justin Verlander at last year’s trade deadline, and it meant the Yankees’ front office couldn’t engage for prized free agent pitchers Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta in the offseason. Stanton’s first career trip to the postseason was surely more nightmare than dream, the lowlight coming on a flailing strikeout in the bottom of the 9th on Tuesday. In contrast to the intense Joe Girardi, Boone did at times seem almost too laid back, though his hesitancy to go to the bullpen in both of the last two games was surely far more consequential than debating whether he can manage and chew gum at the same time. And while Cashman’s budget may have prevented him from considering the top pitchers available, the GM ultimately did absolutely nothing until this July to shore up the Yankees most obvious weakness, their starting rotation.

But as those looking to scapegoat often do, the unhappy fans and critical pundits tend to cherry pick their evidence. Cashman is, after all, the same general manager who was widely praised for his deft moves at the 2016 trade deadline, when he adroitly stockpiled young talent including Gleyber Torres, who was an All-Star second baseman in this, his rookie season. It’s true that the Yankees could have upgraded their rotation by trading for Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole last winter, who instead went to Houston where he has emerged as a star. But the price would have been 23-year-old Miguel Andujar, who outshone his fellow rookie Torres down the stretch and will likely finish as the runner-up in the vote for AL Rookie of the Year. Not making the Cole deal is a wash, at best. And while Verlander proved a major boost to the Astros rotation, Arrieta posted middling numbers for Philadelphia and Darvish was a disaster for the Cubs before injury cut short his season. Not every prized free agent turns out to be a prize.

With no prior experience either managing or coaching at any level, Boone was a risky choice for New York after Girardi was let go. Most managers exercise an extremely quick hook on starters in the postseason, and it’s easy to argue that Boone stuck with Luis Severino in Game Three and CC Sabathia in Game Four too long. His decision to call on Lance Lynn, another starter, with the bases loaded in relief of Severino was also questionable. But the first year skipper also led his team to the third best record in baseball, a nine game improvement over 2017 and the team’s first 100-win season since 2009.

Stanton’s first campaign in pinstripes ended as it began, which is to say miserably. But even with a wretched start he wound up leading the team in runs, RBIs, and homers, and was second in hits and doubles.

Even with keeping the payroll under the luxury tax threshold, New York still spent more than twice what Tampa Bay did on salaries this season. Witz’s attempt to make the two teams comparable is just silly. It also ignores two absolute truths. First, Steinbrenner’s assertion that championships can be won without spending $200 million on payroll is a fact. Since the Yankees’ last title in 2009 the payroll of every World Series winner has been less than that number, and only the Cubs in 2016, with total salaries just over that year’s threshold of $189 million, have been subjected to the luxury tax. Second, as the only team to be assessed the tax every year since 2003, the Yankees have paid more than $319 million, or over $120 million more than paid by all other teams combined. That would buy a whole lot of starting pitching.

By many standards the Yankees just concluded a great season. Achieving the century mark in wins would have been good enough to top the majors in six of the previous ten years and would have trailed just one team in three others. Along the way New York shattered the single-season mark for team home runs, clubbing 267. After playing just one postseason game in the four years between 2013 and 2016, the Yankees made the playoffs for the second straight year.

Still, by the standard that matters most – winning a World Series – New York came up short, something that everyone on the team and all those in the stands were forced to deal with when replay review confirmed that Torres was out at first on the bang-bang play that ended the Yankees campaign. For all its slugging might New York’s lineup was too often weak at situational hitting. The team’s batting average was just .249 this season, lowest of the ten playoff teams. The four runs the Yankees scored in the last two games were tallied without benefit of a hit, plated instead by a pair of sacrifice flies, a groundout, and a hit batsman with the bases loaded. Last winter’s doubts about the starting rotation are now one year more concerning. Then there is the opposition. For while the Yankees improved this year, the Red Sox and Astros did so to an even greater degree.

Those are the challenges as the offseason begins earlier than desired in the Bronx. Finger pointing aside, everyone associated with these Yankees has earned the right to figure out how this team, with all its youth and promise, can take the next step. But at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue, every season ultimately has but one goal. So soon, very soon, that step must be taken. Yankee fans want a parade.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 7, 2018

So Much More Than Faces In The Crowd

Save for the fact that both involve the broad topic of sports, the two announcements appear utterly unrelated. The first, made even as the team was winning the Pacific Association’s championship for the third time in that independent baseball league’s six-year history, was that the San Rafael Pacifics franchise was being put up for sale. The second, made by his family just this weekend, was that John Gagliardi, the winningest coach in college football history, had passed away at the age of 91.

Formed in 2012, the Pacifics play their home games at Albert Park, a little 1,200 seat stadium in downtown San Rafael, about a mile west of San Francisco Bay. The team started in the North American League, winning the title in 2012 even as that independent league was folding. The team’s ownership group then worked with the management of three other North American League franchises to get the Pacific Association up and running. San Rafael went on to capture the PA championship in 2014, 2015, and again just weeks ago with a 6-0 victory over the Sonoma Stompers in the title game.

The press release announcing the ownership group’s decision to seek a buyer didn’t specify a reason, but money is sure to have played a role. The Pacifics are by many measures a successful franchise – in addition to the championships the team has led the league in both attendance and revenue every season – but independent league baseball is a precarious endeavor financially. The Pacific Association is just what the term “independent” implies, free of any ties to Major League Baseball. But with no affiliation to a major league franchise, the eight current independent leagues and the sixty-five teams operating this season are entirely dependent on the deep pockets of owners to supplement ticket sales and ad revenue in balancing the annual budget.

The absence of connection to MLB also means that no player under contract to any of the thirty major league franchises or their minor league affiliates can take the field for a team in an independent league. Instead, rosters are filled with players who have been released from such contracts and hopefuls who have gone undrafted out of either high school or college.

Of the eight current independent leagues, half have been in operation for less than ten years, and only the Frontier League, which plays in the Midwest, and the Atlantic League, with teams mostly in the Northeast, have been around for as much as twenty years. Meanwhile the history of the Great Game is littered with the sad stories of independent leagues that folded. There have been thirty in all, with the average time from formation to liquidation barely more than three seasons.

Teams come and go just as quickly. The short history of the Pacific Association is illustrative. The league began in 2013 with San Rafael, the Vallejo Admirals, East Bay Lumberjacks, and two franchises in Hawaii. The Lumberjacks and both Hawaiian teams lasted just that first season, replaced by teams in Sonoma and Pittsburg. Then this year two additional franchises joined, making the PA a six-team league. Now the Pacific Association could lose its most successful franchise, if a willing buyer does not materialize before next spring.

The same year that the Pacifics began play was also the final season of John Gagliardi’s sixty-four-year head coaching career. He began in 1949 at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and four years later moved to St. John’s University, a small Catholic institution in Collegeville, Minnesota, seventy miles northwest of Minneapolis. Under Gagliardi’s guidance, the Carroll Fighting Saints topped the Montana Collegiate Conference in three of his four seasons. As first the years then the decades rolled by in central Minnesota, Gagliardi’s Johnnies were a model of sustained excellence. In his entire career his teams finished below .500 in just two seasons. St. John’s won the NAIA Championship in 1963 and 1965, before moving to NCAA Division III. There the Johnnie’s were frequent contenders in the Division III tournament, winning the national championship in 1976 and 2003. When he retired after the 2012 season Gagliardi’s career record stood at 489-138-11. That’s eighty more wins than Joe Paterno, who stands second on the career list, and well over twice Nick Saban’s current total of 224.

As a Division III school, St. John’s issues no football scholarships, and Gagliardi took a unique approach to coaching. He refused to cut any player, meaning his rosters swelled to as many as two hundred in some seasons. He limited practices to ninety minutes and did not allow tackling at them. He told his charges that the one team rule was the Golden Rule, to treat others as they would like to be treated. It was an approach that not only won football games but helped shape the lives and outlooks of generations of young men.

While Gagliardi’s passing and the potential demise of the San Rafael Pacifics may at first seem unconnected, the thread that ties them together is obvious. Both are sports stories far removed from the headlines. If either made the pages of Sports Illustrated, it would surely be in the “Faces in the Crowd” section, the one page in each issue with snippets describing the accomplishments of unknown athletes on the fringes of our games. Pro scouts are rarely in the stands for independent league baseball games or Division III football contests. The player who rises from either to one day wear a major league or NFL uniform is so rare as to be not merely unusual, but an anomaly, a deviation from the norm.

Yet both are also reminders that there is more to sports than the stories that make the headlines, there is so much that doesn’t take place in a stadium filled with forty, or fifty, or ninety thousand fans. The San Rafael Pacifics have brought the Great Game with its timeless rhythms to thousands of Bay Area fans, providing affordable entertainment and diversion, along with the thrill of winning championships, to young and old alike. John Gagliardi taught lessons far beyond the essentials of football to generations of Carroll College and St. John’s University students, while also establishing a winning tradition for fans of both schools.

Perhaps new owners will step forward in the coming months to preserve the San Rafael franchise and ensure the continuation of the only remaining independent league based on the West Coast. Perhaps Gary Fasching, who played under Gagliardi and served on his staff for seventeen years before becoming the St. John’s head coach when his mentor retired, will be as capable at teaching young men about both sports and life. We can only hope, for in both cases, an aspect of our games that is ultimately more important than a World Series title or a Super Bowl ring is at stake.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 4, 2018

Book Review: Struggle And Triumph In America

This is a story with many layers. On the surface, it is a tale of the remarkable achievements of two sports teams from East High School in Columbus, Ohio. During the 1968-69 school year first the boys’ varsity basketball squad, then East’s baseball team made spirited runs through their regular season schedules and the ensuing state championship tournaments. Were that the sum of Wil Haygood’s “Tigerland,” the book would be easy to recommend as an engaging account of athletic glory achieved by two groups of determined young men.

But this was half a century ago, a time when America was riven by unrest from both growing opposition to the war in Vietnam and the ongoing efforts of the civil rights movement. Columbus is both the state capital and home to Ohio State University, so the school year ran its course against a backdrop of protests and mounting unrest. More important, although a decade and a half had passed since the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Columbus school board had willfully refused to take steps to integrate the city’s schools. The student population of East High was entirely African-American. Not surprisingly, the school itself was chronically short of resources, both for its classrooms and its sports teams. The East High baseball field, located several blocks from the school itself, had no dugouts, so the players carried chairs along with their gloves and bats to each practice and home game.

The black boys who brought twin glory to their school were all poor. Some had been brought to Ohio as young children from the Deep South, part of the Great Migration, the decades-long African-American diaspora from rural south to urban north. Most came from a home in which there was no father. Eight of the twelve mothers of basketball team members worked as maids. All the players on both teams were coming of age in the months following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had made several visits to Columbus to visit Reverend Phale Hale, a longtime friend of King’s and local minister who preached to the families of East High.

While Haygood recounts the stark segregation and racial tension that pervaded Columbus at that time, his book is also about the possibility of integration and reconciliation. Bob Hart and Paul Pennell, the head coaches of the basketball and baseball teams, were both white but became father figures to their young charges. Along with Jack Gibbs, the city’s first black high school principal, they worked tirelessly to promote their teams and build community pride in their school.

The subtitle of “Tigerland” is “1968-1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing.” It takes that lengthy mouthful to accurately describe the multiple stories that Haygood weaves together into a seamless whole, a complex account of difficult struggle and ultimate triumph on multiple fronts, with the central theme the exploits of the two teams.

Hart’s basketball squad had known success, having won the state championship the previous year. But with the constant turnover of yearly graduations, there was no guarantee that the 1968-69 season would be similarly grand. In fact, no school had ever won back-to-back state titles. But the addition of Dwight “Bo-Pete” Lamar, whose mother moved near East High after her son was cut from the North High team for refusing to trim his afro, gave the coach an unrivaled outside shooter. Lamar paired with Eddie “Rat” Ratleff, the team’s big man, and East High powered through the regular season schedule, winning most games by double-digits. At the state championship semifinals, East won a see-saw battle with Libbey High of Toledo, 64-63. One night later, the East starting five faced the young men of Canton McKinley, and this time pulled away late for a 71-56 victory, capping an undefeated season with a second straight state championship.

Short weeks later baseball season began, but unlike the basketball squad little was expected of East High’s starting nine. With no record of achievement and a poor excuse for a field some distance from the school, the team often played in front of just a handful of supporters. In the middle of their schedule Pennell’s team dropped five games in a row. But Pennell had Eddie “Rat,” who was a two-sport star with a smoking fastball, and a slugging catcher in Garnett Davis. The Tigers recovered from their losing streak, made it into the state tournament, and once there ran off eight straight wins to capture the title. East beat the all-white team from East Liverpool 2-1 in the championship game. Principal Gibbs had gone door to door through the local business district, raising money to rent buses so that students and parents could make it to the game, finally giving the baseball team a cheering section.

Bo-Pete Lamar and Eddie Ratleff would both go on to All-American college careers, Lamar at Southwestern Louisiana and Ratleff at Long Beach State. Garnett Davis was drafted by the New York Mets. That year East High’s debate club was also prize-winning, and the 1969 graduating class sent more seniors on to college than in any previous year. While they were pursuing their degrees a federal court ruling, eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, finally ended school segregation in Columbus.

As Dr. King said on more than one occasion, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Five decades after that remarkable school year in central Ohio, the legacy of this country’s original sin of slavery still hangs over the daily lives of many Americans. That this remains true after so long is a reminder of the hard reality set forth in the first part of that famous quotation. But the community pride and sense of worth created by the success of the two East High teams, despite all the turmoil of the time, is validation of the eternal hope embodied in the second.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 30, 2018

Time To Stop Calling Team Europe The Underdogs

This was the year the result was going to be different. Bill Clinton was in the first year of his presidency when Team USA last won the Ryder Cup on foreign soil. The European team had triumphed in Spain, England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland since that 1993 American victory, not to mention adding three wins in the six matches held in the United States over that quarter century.

But the most recent home win by Team Europe, a 16½-11½ thrashing delivered at Gleneagles in 2014 led to a major rethinking of Team USA’s approach to these biennial matches. An additional captain’s pick was added and the date for making those picks was moved, to give greater flexibility to the formation of the US roster. Equally important, the process for picking the team captain was changed to ensure that instead of the job being an honorific for an old warhorse – then-65-year-old Tom Watson was the 2014 captain – the role would go to a younger golfer more familiar and in touch with the playing members of the team.

The changes paid off in 2016, when the American squad captained by Davis Love III won an impressive 17-11 victory at Hazeltine National, in the Minneapolis suburbs. So this year, twenty-five years and three presidential administrations since the last US overseas victory, the result was going to be different. The concept had plenty of support on paper. Tiger Woods, originally in line to serve as an assistant captain, was back in form and back on the team, fresh off his first win in more than five years at last week’s Tour Championship. Dustin Johnson, the number one player in the Official World Golf Rankings, led a squad that boasted an average world ranking of 11.17, the best ever for any Ryder Cup team. Two of the three American rookies, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau, were proven PGA Tour winners, with Thomas having won a major, and Tony Finau, the third first-time participant, had finished the season as one of the hottest players on Tour.

At twenty-fifth in the World Rankings, captain’s pick Phil Mickelson was the only American ranked lower than seventeenth, the position held by Finau. In contrast seven members of Team Europe, a majority of the squad, fell below Finau’s ranking, including all four captain’s picks chosen by Thomas Bjorn. The European squad was also loaded down with five rookies, with Spain’s Jon Rahm the only one among them to have PGA Tour wins on his resume. As the two teams went through their practice sessions on the Albatros Course at Le Golf National outside Paris, the smart money was solidly betting on the US side.

Through Friday morning’s fourball session the statistics and the collective wisdom of the pundits held sway. Johnson and Rickie Fowler took the first point of the matches with a 4&2 win over Rory McIlroy and Ryder Cup rookie Thorbjorn Oleson of Denmark. Then Rahm and Justin Rose squandered a 2-up lead with just six holes to play, losing 1-up to Finau and Brooks Koepka. Good friends Thomas and Jordan Spieth then added a third US point before the pairing of Open champion Francisco Molinari and rookie Tommy Fleetwood finally got Europe on the board by defeating Woods and Patrick Reed 3&1.

But Ryder Cup matches are neither played nor won on paper, and over the years most of the golfing media has made a habit of underestimating the chances of Team Europe. The win by Molinari and Fleetwood, a pairing that would prove so successful it soon had its own nickname – Moliwood – made the score 3-1 in favor of the visitors. By the time the US won another match, the final one in the next morning’s fourballs, Team Europe had reeled off seven additional victories, shutting out the Americans in Friday afternoon’s foursomes and winning the first three matches Saturday morning. When Saturday afternoon’s session was split with two wins apiece, the home team went into the twelve Sunday singles leading 10-6.

There was a time when an advantage of four points after two days was considered insurmountable. But that was before the US stormed back from such a deficit at The Country Club in 1999, and before Team Europe duplicated the feat with the “Miracle at Medinah” in 2012. When the Americans took 3½ points from the first four matches to be decided on Sunday, it looked like another epic comeback was in the making. But the Sunday singles replicated in an afternoon the pattern of the first two days. After the initial spurt of American success, Europe roared back. By the time Reed notched the next American victory in the penultimate match on the course, the home squad had won six straight matches, ripping the Cup out of American hands in the process. Oleson thrashed Spieth. Rahm edged Woods. Ian Poulter, the Englishman who has built a career around crushing American hopes at these matches, rallied to overtake and defeat Johnson on the 18th green, to the appreciative roars of the massive gallery.

Then, before Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia added their own victories, the decisive moment came on the par-3 16th hole. Molinari was 3-up over Mickelson as he stood on the tee, and his iron landed safely in the middle of the green, setting up a two-putt par. But he was able to put his putter back in the bag when Mickelson’s tee shot sailed right, splashing down in the pond beside the green. The 4&2 win gave Team Europe the 14½ points it needed, and the rest of the day was window dressing.

That window wound up looking pretty good for the victorious Europeans. After Stenson and Garcia added their points, and Reed registered the final American score, the last match, between Sweden’s Alex Norén and DeChambeau came to the 18th hole. The American was 1-down, but he struck a perfect iron from the middle of the fairway that landed a foot from the hole and stopped dead for a conceded birdie. It looked like DeChambeau had wrested a half-point away from Europe, as Norén’s ball was across the width of the green, fifty feet from the hole. But on a day when the home team refused to yield, naturally his cross-country putt found the bottom of the cup to preserve his 1-up victory and make the final score a lopsided 17½-10½.

For the Europeans it was a complete team victory. The Moliwood pairing was a perfect 4-0, and Molinari became the first European player to go 5-0 in any Ryder Cup. Garcia’s win in the singles gave him 25½ career points, the most by any player for either side in the competition’s long history. But more impressive than any individual record was the fact that every player on Team Europe, obviously including all five rookies, scored at least one point. The counterpoint to that was that three Americans, DeChambeau and shockingly, both Woods and Mickelson, left Paris having been shut out. It was also a huge victory for Bjorn over American captain Jim Furyk. The four European captain’s picks – Poulter, Stenson, Garcia and Paul Casey – combined to go 9-4-1. Furyk’s picks – DeChambeau, Woods, Mickelson and Finau – managed a record of just 2-10.

As is always the case, the Ryder Cup was won not by the team that was best on paper but by the one that played the best out on the course. The Europeans always seem more emotionally invested in this event; as a team they invariably appear joined at the hip for three days every two years. Time and again, that shared sense of common purpose raises the collective game of Team Europe, now winners of nine of the last twelve Ryder Cup matches. The smart money would have wound up looking a lot less dumb had it taken that into account.

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