Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 14, 2019

Winners And Losers And The Knicks

Perhaps someone should tell the stars of the NBA that the offseason is not supposed to have more drama than the months when their game is actually being played. This year’s free agency period is only two weeks old, and already next season’s prospects for multiple teams have been upended, in some cases more than once. The list of purported winners and losers of the offseason might as well be written in chalk, so often have the predictions of any number of sage pundits had to be revised.

The fun began two Sundays ago, the very first day that free agents could make commitments for the 2019-20 season. Kyrie Irving, late of the Boston Celtics, announced his decision to sign with the Brooklyn Nets, which would have been big news all by itself but was easily topped by word that after three years wearing a Warriors uniform Kevin Durant was changing coasts to join Irving in Gotham. The Nets, who just made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons and posted a winning record for the first time in five, were immediately deemed the team to beat for the foreseeable future. This even though Durant is unlikely to play next season as he rehabs from an Achilles tendon injury that has derailed the careers of some NBA players.

Then All-Star point guard Kemba Walker left Charlotte, the only NBA franchise he had known, in favor of Boston. Celtics fans immediately decided that they never really thought Irving was all that great, and that he might well have been solely responsible for the disappointing season that only recently finished playing out at TD Garden.

All that turned out to be but prelude, when in the wake of Independence Day word came word that Kawhi Leonard, who certainly looked like the best player on the planet during the recently concluded playoffs, would depart Toronto after giving the Raptors their first title to join the “other” team to call the Staples Center home, the L.A. Clippers. But as with Irving and Durant in Brooklyn, Leonard’s move became even more dramatic when fans learned it wasn’t made in isolation. Paul George, the six-time All-Star forward who has toiled the past two seasons in Oklahoma City, forced a trade from the Thunder to join the MVP of this year’s NBA Finals in Los Angeles.

That twosome heading to southern California wasn’t entirely surprising, except that their assumed destination had been the Lakers and LeBron James, not the Clippers. Soon enough many of the same pundits who had so recently anointed Brooklyn as the next dominant franchise updated their predictions, with the Clippers now favored to win it all for the next several years.

Just when one might dare to think the flurry of huge offseason moves had ended came the news that the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, league MVP in 2017, was being traded to the Rockets, where he will join James Harden, the winner of the same award in 2018. In return for Westbrook, Oklahoma City received the veteran Chris Paul, who’s likely to be moved elsewhere, and four future first-round draft picks, on top of the five the Thunder received from the Clippers in exchange for George. One wag suggested that there was now a thirty-five percent chance that every teenager in the country capable of dribbling a basketball would be drafted by Oklahoma City sometime in the next several years.

All these machinations reflect two realities about today’s NBA. One is the belief that championships are won by combining at least two stars on one roster. So Durant and Irving, Leonard and George, Harden and Westbrook, and let’s not forget James and Anthony Davis, who forced a trade from the Pelicans to the Lakers in mid-June – each of these pairings is supposed to form the nucleus of a super team that will supplant the recent Golden State dynasty. The other is that to a far greater extent than in any of our other major sports leagues, the superstars of the NBA now dictate not just where they will suit up, but also which other stars will be wearing the same uniform. Fans can debate whether that’s a good idea, though NBA commissioner Adam Silver has made clear he’s not a fan. The one certainty is that it’s a profoundly different and player-friendly weighting between the wishes of players and management than is the case in the NFL, NHL, or MLB.

With virtually all the name free agents having found new homes, the consensus is that the Clippers won the offseason, unless of course the Nets did. Or maybe it was really the Rockets or the Lakers, though both of those teams might also be among the big losers. The one certainty is that the Warriors time in the spotlight is over and done, at least until Golden State wins fifty-eight regular season games and rolls to another title next spring, in which case all the recent punditry will be forgotten.

That laughable confusion does make a point, namely that winning in July is no guarantee of success in the season that follows. In a game that involves constant close teamwork, with only five players on the court at any time, personal chemistry is a crucial element of NBA success, one that is often undervalued until its absence becomes glaringly apparent. The challenge of pairing superstars is that there is only so much oxygen in every arena, only so many touches and looks at the basket during a game. Pairing two or more players who are used to sucking up most of the air and being the headliner can produce a dominant franchise if they can adjust to their new reality, or a toxic locker room if someone can’t.

So perhaps it’s best to pass on the temptation to avoid anointing any team as the next NBA dynasty and instead let the new season, when it finally arrives in October, play itself out. On the other hand, while the ultimate winner of this summer’s big moves will take time to determine, there looks to be one obvious candidate for the unwanted title of biggest loser.

Four months ago, amid one more season turned to dust, Knicks owner James Dolan did a radio interview in which he all but guaranteed huge free agent signings this month. “Look, New York is the mecca of basketball. We hear from people all the time, from players and representatives about who wants to come,” Dolan told the Michael Kay Show. At the time he teased fans by saying the league’s anti-tampering rules prevented him from being more specific. Dolan’s comments quickly led names like Durant, Irving and Davis to be bandied about, with no attempts by the Knicks front office to shoot down the rumors that one or more of those stars would soon take up residence at Madison Square Garden.

Now long-suffering Knicks fans must contend not just with the reality of their team missing out on all this offseason’s big names, but also with the ignominy of seeing two of those players choose Brooklyn instead. Of course, the center of basketball gravity in Gotham moving to the other side of the East River doesn’t prove Dolan wrong. Fans just didn’t realize the mecca he was referring to wasn’t the World’s Most Famous Arena, but the Barclay’s Center.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 11, 2019

Homers Galore, Followed By A Big Night For The Home Team

If baseball’s All-Star game is a meaningless exhibition, which it is, then the Home Run Derby must surely be an even more meaningless prelude, an emptier exhibition before the empty exhibition. Neither matters a whit to the standings, nor does the game (thankfully) any longer determine home field advantage for the World Series. And while some All-Star contests turn into slugfests, the Derby is just a slugfest without the benefit of at least being a game.

Yet for all that both retain their pull on the interest of fans, as clearly demonstrated by the twin capacity crowds packed into Progressive Field in Cleveland both Monday and Tuesday nights, first to watch eight players square off for batting practice, and then to take in the Midsummer Classic. Despite their lack of impact on the fate of the thirty big league franchises, the ongoing attraction of these two events, held every July during the annual pause in the Great Game’s calendar, should surprise no one.

The Home Run Derby has been a crowd pleaser since its inception in 1985, but in truth the event’s appeal goes back to when various rule changes and the emergence of the power-hitting Babe Ruth as the face of baseball brought an emphatic end to the dead ball era at the end of the last century’s second decade. Ruth slugged what was considered a phenomenal 29 homers in 1919, which was but a prelude to the numbers he would post over the remainder of his career. When he and Lou Gehrig embarked on a barnstorming tour of exhibition games after the 1927 season, fans filled local ballparks for the sole purpose of seeing how many balls the two would club over the fence. As much as purists lament the current decline of situational hitting and base running strategy, the ability to change the narrative of a contest with a single swing goes to the core of the sport. That the Home Run Derby lends itself well to both television and MLB’s Statcast, with its emphasis on statistics like launch angle and exit velocity, have only solidified many fans loyalty to the spectacle.

This year’s Derby was spectacle indeed, right from the start. Blue Jays rookie Vladimir Guerrero Jr. set the tone with a single round record 29 home runs as the very first batter, more than enough to advance. Then he engaged in an epic duel with Joc Pederson of the Dodgers. The two combined for 79 homers in their semifinal heat, with Guerrero moving on by the slimmest possible margin. By the time Mets rookie Pete Alonso won the Derby by out-homering Guerrero 23-22 in the final, the eight hitters had combined for a record 312 home runs, 91 more than the previous mark. That 91 also represented the total hit by Guerrero, far outdistancing Giancarlo Stanton’s 61 from 2016. It was a fitting Derby for the home run era.

Now more than eight decades old, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game remains the one such event among our major sports that still closely resembles a regular season contest. Both the NBA All-Star Game and the NFL Pro Bowl abandoned any pretense of defensive play long ago. It’s only a matter of time, and probably not much, before the final score at the annual basketball extravaganza has both teams scoring over 200 points. As for the NFL’s Pro Bowl, the lack of defensive effort got so bad a few years ago that commissioner Roger Goodell threatened to cancel the event altogether. In addition, the risk of injury and the timing of the game, which has always been played at the end of the season and most recently the week before the Super Bowl, have combined to produce rosters that are often lacking in star power. The NHL went both those two leagues one better (or worse) by completely changing the format of its All-Star Game in 2015 to a single-elimination round robin tournament between multiple teams playing three-on-three.

In contrast baseball’s All-Star tilt remains immediately recognizable and familiar to every fan, including retaining the unpredictable nature of each of the regular season’s 2,430 contests. That was as true as ever in Cleveland. One night after records were set in the Home Run Derby, fans and pundits alike expected that in a season where the mark for total homers seems certain to be eclipsed, plenty of balls would be flying into Progressive Field’s outfield seats. If the tenor of the season wasn’t enough to convince one of that likelihood, there was the fact that the starting lineup for the National League came into the game having smashed 212 home runs, the third most of any lineup in All-Star Game history.

So naturally it took until the top of the 6th inning and the game’s 41st batter for the night’s first home run to be struck. It came off the bat of 33-year-old Charlie Blackmon of the Colorado Rockies. An inning later, in the bottom of the 7th, the Rangers’ Joey Gallo evened the home run count by belting one for the American League. While Gallo’s blow ultimately provided the winning margin for the American League, the dearth of power baseball was certainly one story of the game.

Another was the role of All-Stars with connections to the Cleveland franchise. Michael Brantley now roams the outfield at Minute Maid Park for the Houston Astros. But from his big league debut in 2009 through last season, he patrolled left field for Cleveland, and fans welcomed Brantley back to his long-time home with prolonged cheers when he came to the plate with Houston teammate Alex Bregman on second base. Brantley promptly recorded the first RBI of the game with a double to the wall in left center field that easily plated Bregman and brought an even louder salute from the Cleveland faithful.

Then 24-year-old pitcher Shane Bieber, who is 8-3 for Cleveland at the break, took the mound for the AL in the top of the 5th. Bieber had just become an All-Star the previous Friday, when he was named as an injury replacement for Mike Minor. He proceeded to strike out the side, setting down the NL’s Willson Contreras, Ketel Marte, and Ronald Acuna Jr., the first on a fastball, the second on a curve, and the last on a slider. Bieber walked to the dugout with the crowd chanting his name. The effort was enough to earn the Cleveland starter MVP honors.

Cleveland connections were recognized outside of the game as well. Yankees hurler CC Sabathia, who is retiring after this season and who pitched for Cleveland for the first eight years of his long career, was greeted warmly when he threw out the first pitch to former teammate Sandy Alomar Jr.

But the emotions truly overflowed when current starter Carlos Carrasco emerged from the dugout to stand with his Cleveland teammates and manager Terry Francona during the “Stand Up to Cancer” segment between innings midway through the contest. Carrasco has been on the Injured List since early June, and only just revealed that he is undergoing treatment for leukemia. In that moment fans were reminded of both the power of our games to deliver a message, and how for all that they remain just games.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 7, 2019

U.S. Women Played, And Won, Their Way

What is the most difficult achievement in sports? Is it something specific to a particular game, like quarterbacking the winning team in six Super Bowls, as Tom Brady has done? Is it setting a record that stands for generations, like Joe DiMaggio did in 1941, when he hit safely in fifty-six consecutive games? Is it simply being the first to do something, like Roger Bannister in the early evening of May 6, 1954? Today running a mile in less than four minutes is commonplace, but before Bannister crossed the finish line in Oxford many experts thought it was physically impossible.

Like any good sports debate, there are adherents for each of these types of achievements, as well as others not mentioned here, and what makes the argument fun is that there is no single “right” answer. But another intriguing possibility requires not just physical prowess but intense mental focus and psychological resolve. Perhaps there is no harder accomplishment on any field of play than not merely meeting, but exceeding, the enormous burden of great expectations. On Sunday in Lyon, France, the United States women’s national soccer team proved itself up to that daunting task by winning a record fourth World Cup.

As the number one ranked team in the world and the defending champion from 2015, the USWNT arrived in France for the 2019 Women’s World Cup as both the prohibitive favorite and the squad that other nations’ teams and their fans most wanted to take down. Rather than shrink from the pressure that position placed upon their shoulders, the members of the U.S. team embraced it. After the team demolished Thailand 13-0 in the opening match of the Group Stage, and followed that up with a 3-0 shutout of Chile that included a pair of goals by 36-year old Carli Lloyd, defender Ali Krieger praised the depth of the American squad by saying “We have the best team in the world, and the second best team in the world.”

Of course statements like that only served to fan the flames of those who believed the U.S. team was arrogant and unseemly, a view that had already become widespread after the Thailand game, in which players continued to celebrate each goal long after any possible doubt about the outcome had disappeared. In response to that criticism, coach Jill Ellis said “As a coach, I don’t find it my job to harness my players and rein them in, because this is what they’ve dreamed about, and this is a world championship. When you have a deluge of goals like that, it’s important. It’s a good feeling. It’s a boost of confidence.”

There were still plenty of players and coaches from other squads, and no shortage of pundits, including far too many who were in France on American passports, who saw in the initial criticism an opportunity to pile on the U.S. team’s style. It was as if being unable to find a flaw in the dominating play of the American women, critics could at least harp about their demeanor. So Megan Rapinoe was called out for racing to a corner and posing whenever she scored a goal, and her fellow co-captain Alex Morgan was roundly criticized for miming drinking a cup of tea after scoring against England in the semifinal. In the same vein Ellis was attacked for making wholesale substitutions in the game against Chile, one match after her team reaped scorn for scoring too often. Some British commentators even took the U.S. team to task for scouting out the hotel the English team was using, as a possible base for the final, before the penultimate game had been played.

It was Morgan who finally rebutted the critics, whose complaints ranged from trivial to silly, by suggesting that a double standard was in evidence. “There is some sort of double standard for females in sports,” she said. “We have to celebrate, but not too much; we have to do something, but in a limited fashion.” Morgan pointed out the sexist nature of the criticism, “You see men celebrating all over the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is. And when I look at sipping a cup of tea, I am a little taken aback by the criticism.”

But what was most compelling about this U.S. team was the obvious reality that while they were more than willing to respond to their critics, they weren’t going to allow their actions to be dictated by them. One might think that winning the previous Women’s World Cup would have bought Ellis some slack, but the coach was constantly being second-guessed. Happily, she ignored the carping and made the moves she thought best, virtually every one of which turned out well. Her players as well stayed true to their exuberant style even as they continued their march to the final through one of the toughest possible draws.

For its final Group Stage game, the U.S. faced Sweden, ranked eighth in the world. A quick score by Lindsey Horan and a dreaded own goal by Sweden early in the second half gave the Americans a perfect record heading into the Knockout Round. There the USNWT drew thirteenth-ranked Spain in the round of 16, followed by host France and England, a pair of powerhouses ranked fourth and third in the world respectively. Having successfully vanquished all comers, in Sunday’s title match the Americans took on the eighth-ranked Dutch, who won the most recent European Women’s Championship.

The determined team from the Netherlands did what no other squad had done during the World Cup, namely hold the U.S. without a goal in the first half. But sixteen minutes into the second Rapinoe put the Americans in front with a penalty kick, a score that made the 34-year old the oldest player to put one in the net in a World Cup Final. Eight minutes later Rose Lavelle, ten years Rapinoe’s junior, raced untouched up the middle of the field and left-footed the ball past a diving Sari Van Veenendaal, the Dutch goaltender. The two U.S. goals were scored by the two players whose presence in the Final was in doubt after both were injured against England.

Perhaps the greatest international tribute to the U.S. squad lies in the truth that there will probably never again be a World Cup in which the American team is so strongly favored. Other countries, especially in Europe, have invested heavily in their women’s teams to catch up to the USNWT, and the presence of seven European squads in the quarterfinals was a testament to their progress.

The American women are concerned about investment as well, both in themselves and in their game, though they have had to resort to legal action against the U.S. Soccer Federation seeking not just compensation commensurate with the men’s team, but also better training and travel conditions. Surely the many USA Soccer officials on hand in Lyon heard the chants of “Equal Pay” that poured out of the stands after the U.S. victory. Those cries were in support of a team that has doubtless inspired another generation of young women, as some of its members were inspired by the memorable U.S. victory on home soil in 1999. They were in support of a team that arrived in France bearing the burden of potentially impossible expectations, and then exceeded them.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 4, 2019

The Luckiest Fans On The Face Of The Earth

Eight decades have now passed. There are doubtless a few still living who were there that Tuesday afternoon, little children among the 61,808 crammed into the old Stadium, perhaps standing on tiptoe and craning their necks to see around the adults in the next row. Those children are old men and women now, their memories slowly fading with the passage of time. But while those survivors are the dwindling few who can claim to having witnessed the moment in person, it has been recounted so often, it has become such a part of the Great Game’s lore, that fans not born until decades after 1939 know it as if they too had passed through the turnstiles and found a seat among the three decks of what was then a relatively new ballpark in the Bronx.

The Yankees played a doubleheader against the Washington Senators that 4th of July, and since baseball is a sport that has recorded every result and countless statistics since its earliest days, we know that Washington took the opener 3-2 while New York stormed back to win the second game 11-1. Dutch Leonard, who would go on to make five All-Star appearances, silenced the Yankee bats with his knuckleball in the first game, but a pair of Senators pitchers were not so lucky in the second, yielding all those runs and thirteen hits to New York’s offense, including three base knocks apiece to George Selkirk and young Joe DiMaggio.

Yet the scores were secondary on that holiday, in part because the Yankees already had a huge lead in the American League standings, with more than half the season still to play. New York would win 106 games that year and sweep the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. The larger reason that the attention of both fans and players was not focused on the scoreboard was because of the ceremony between the two contests. July 4, 1939 was Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium.

The notion of honoring a player in such fashion, and of retiring that athlete’s number as part of the tribute, was still very new. Just five years earlier the Toronto Maple Leafs were the first professional franchise to retire a number when winger Ace Bailey’s number 6 was taken out of circulation. While Gehrig’s number 4 was manifestly not the last number to be retired by the Yankees, on that Independence Day it became the first.

Quite apart from the tragedy of being struck down in his prime by a disease that would come to bear his name and for which eighty years later there is still no cure, the retirement of his number as well as Gehrig’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a special vote of the Baseball Writers’ Association that December, were entirely deserved based on his accomplishments on the field. That is easy to forget when so much of Gehrig’s legacy is centered on the illness that ended his career. His is a record that is about much more than the 2,130 consecutive games played that stood unmatched until 1995. In seventeen big league seasons he batted .340, with 493 home runs and 1,995 runs batted in. His career on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of 1.080 ranks third in the history of the Great Game, behind only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Gehrig is eighteenth on the career WAR list, but he accumulated his 112.4 Wins Above Replacement total in fewer seasons than all but one of the players ahead of him.

So it was that between the two games, with the July sun beating down, retired players from the 1927 Murderer’s Row team along with active players on that season’s squad assembled in the infield with Gehrig, as gifts were presented and speeches made by manager Joe McCarthy, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and Postmaster General James Farley. Through much of it Gehrig stood alone with his head down, nearly overcome by the emotion of the moment. When at last the speeches were done, he waved to sportswriter Sid Mercer, who was emceeing the tribute, indicating that he could not bring himself to speak. Mercer responded by telling the crowd, “I will not ask him to speak. I do not believe that I should.”

But Yankee fans would have none of that, and a rhythmic chant of “We want Lou! We want Lou!” poured down from all three decks and washed across the green grass and brown dirt of the field, until at last the Iron Horse stepped to the microphone.

He began with the two sentences that are as much a part of baseball’s history as Bobby Thompson’s home run, Don Larsen’s perfect game, Pete Rose’s 4,192nd hit or Hank Aaron’s 715th round-tripper. “Fans, for the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break,” Gehrig said, before adding after a pause, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Gehrig went on to explain himself, citing the “kindness and encouragement” of fans throughout his career, the opportunity to know Yankees’ owner Jacob Ruppert and the managers he played for as well as his teammates, “such fine looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today.” He thanked everyone associated with the Yankees, “down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats.” Then he expressed his good fortune at having his parents, mother-in-law, and wife to support him. Finally, he ended in the same vein as he began, “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

Accounts of the day speak of a standing ovation that lasted more than two minutes, even as Gehrig, overcome with emotion, was embraced by the Babe. Less than eleven months later, Gehrig was gone.

Eighty years later, even with all its familiarity, the moment has lost none of its pathos. A ballplayer, his career inexplicably struck down, setting aside his misfortune to express a profound sense of appreciation for the opportunity to play the game. In a week in which another franchise not even imagined at the time of Gehrig’s speech is mourning another athlete dying young, it is worth remembering that Gehrig’s humble words apply to fans as well.

It is we in the stands after all, who have the right to boo when we feel like it, and complain about the price of a beer, and lament the extra base not taken and the intended curveball that instead hung over the middle of the plate when things are going badly for our heroes. So too it is we in the stands who can cheer the well-executed double play by our fielders, and the come from behind rally by our batters and the dominating repertoire of our hurlers that together form the collective work of a team marching toward the playoffs when things are going well. Most of all, whatever our favorite squad’s record, it is we in the stands who are allowed to escape the everyday cares of the world for a time when we turn our attention to a game. We too are the lucky ones.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 30, 2019

Death Of A Racetrack

The end came quietly at the old East Boston oval, reminiscent of nothing so much as a frail and desperately ill elderly person, at last resigned to and accepting of their mortality, calmly slipping away. Just over a week shy of the eighty-fourth anniversary of the track’s opening, the last thoroughbred race was run at Suffolk Downs on Sunday. But for a disqualification resulting from a stewards’ inquiry that took down the apparent winner of the fifth race, the final day of racing was lacking in drama; just a ten-race card of modest purses and equally middling horses, run after a pair of exhibition events limited to horses bred in Massachusetts.

Perhaps in the end, the old track had used up its full share of drama and had none left for what the day’s program billed as “The Great Sendoff.” For in the course of more than eight decades of horse racing, New England’s last surviving thoroughbred track was the scene of many exciting and memorable events, beginning on its very first day.

In the summer of 1935, most of the country was still mired in the Great Depression. But on July 10th of that year, a mere sixty-two days after the start of construction, Suffolk Downs opens for business. Fans flock from across New England to the 161-acre property straddling East Boston and Revere. More than 35,000 cram into the clubhouse and grandstand to witness the initial eight-race card while trying their luck at the betting windows. The feature event is the six-furlong Commonwealth Stakes, with twenty-two horses going to the post. A 3-year old named Boxthorn, who two months earlier had raced in the Kentucky Derby, is first under the wire.

By 1937 the premier race of each year’s meet at Suffolk Downs is the Massachusetts Handicap. Run at distances ranging from a mile and an eighth to a mile and a half over its history, that year’s third edition of the Mass Cap brings the horse that all of America has fallen in love with, Seabiscuit, back to East Boston. One year earlier the diminutive colt had come charging down the lane to win an allowance race at Suffolk Downs. In the crowd that day was trainer Tom Smith, who was so impressed by Seabiscuit that he convinced owner Charles S. Howard to purchase the horse. Owner, trainer, jockey Red Pollard and of course Seabiscuit would go on to write an entire chapter in the story of American thoroughbred racing.

A few pages of that story are devoted to the 1937 Mass Cap, where on an August afternoon Seabiscuit does not disappoint the more than 40,000 on hand, most of whom have come for the express purpose of watching “The Biscuit” race. He gallops home in front and sets a stakes record of 1:49:00 in the process. Of the $70,000 purse, $51,780 goes to the winner, Seabiscuit’s largest single prize to that point in his career.

The Massachusetts Handicap eventually achieved recognition as one of the important summer races in the country. Over the decades its winners included Triple Crown champion Whirlaway, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge, and, twice, the legendary Cigar.

The history of the Mass Cap is, not surprisingly, a reflection of the story of its host track. Suffolk Downs went through multiple owners from the 1960s on, and through much of the next two decades, as the track started to decline, each season’s big race featured less impressive fields. At the end of 1989 the track closed for the first time, losing two seasons of racing before reopening under new ownership in 1992. The Mass Cap wasn’t run again until 1995, although a major marketing effort brought first Cigar and then Skip Away to East Boston for the event. Still the downward cycle of horse racing continued, with other tracks in the region closing and attendance at Suffolk Downs steadily diminishing. In just its third running in six years, horses went to the post for the last Massachusetts Handicap in 2008.

A flicker of hope for the track was sparked by the state’s approval of casino gambling in 2011. But three years later the sole casino license for greater Boston was awarded to Wynn Resorts for a project to be built in nearby Everett. The proposal from the management of Suffolk Downs, who had partnered first with Caesars Entertainment and then with Mohegan Sun, was cast aside, and the fate of the track was clear to one and all. Regular racing ended shortly thereafter.

After three years of offering only simulcast wagering from tracks around the rest of the country, an extremely modest attempt at live racing was begun in 2015. For a handful of days each summer, sometimes as few as three and never more than six, spread over multiple weekends, Suffolk Downs attempted to recreate a bit of its past glory. But now new owners are ready to move forward with plans to raze the clubhouse and grandstand to begin development of a massive mixed-use housing and commercial project.

So on Sunday the fans come out for one last time, in numbers strong enough to evoke thoughts of what might have been, if only such attendance had always been the norm. The two exhibitions are run, followed by the ten-race betting card. The biggest purse of the day is $40,000, for race number seven. Princess Victoria, a five-year old filly, goes off as the second favorite and hangs on in the stretch against a hard charging Ryoan to claim the day’s big prize, if it can be called that.

At last the call to the post for the final race comes, and eight maidens – horses that have never won – are sent off around the dirt mile. At the end the owners of Catauga County can say that their horse is winless no more. But perhaps the spotlight should be on the longshot Colonial Front, who trails the pack and is the final entrant to cross the finish line, literally the last horse to race at Suffolk Downs. The wrecking ball is waiting. The old East Boston oval has gone dark.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 27, 2019

The Sandman Makes His Old Timer’s Debut

The day is sunny and warm, with a freshening breeze out of the west. Summer is officially barely forty-eight hours old, and after a wet and often chilly spring it is starting at long last to feel like the season. Many fans making their way across Babe Ruth Plaza pause for a moment to bask under the bright rays before heading into the Stadium. There they swarm through the Great Hall and head either directly out to the field level or up the ramps to the second and third decks. As is the case at many sports venues, seats in the Bronx often don’t fill up until well after the first pitch has been thrown, with many fans taking a decidedly leisurely approach to arriving for the game. But the start of today’s contest against the Houston Astros is still two hours away and already the crowd is swelling. For once the main attraction is not the current roster, which has managed to fight its way to the top of the AL East standings despite a long list of injuries. Rather fans have come out today to revel in the memories of past glory. For the 73rd year, the Yankees and their fans are celebrating Old Timer’s Day.

They can all give thanks to Larry McPhail, a former general manager and part-owner of the New York franchise, who conceived of the first gathering of retired stars – in that instance from all around the majors – in 1947. McPhail, who filled front office positions not just with the Yankees but also with the Reds, Dodgers, and several minor league teams, thought the idea would be a one-time gathering to raise money for the Babe Ruth Foundation. By then terminally ill, the greatest Yankee and most famous ballplayer of all time had established the charity for the purpose of aiding underprivileged children just months earlier. That first event proved so popular that the Yankees quickly moved to make it a part of each year’s schedule by inviting former team members for the chance to be recognized by fans and to play a short exhibition contest.

Over the decades since, the day has produced its share of memorable moments. In 1973, at the last such event held at the old Stadium before it underwent major renovations, Mickey Mantle hit a home run on a carefully grooved pitch from Whitey Ford. Five years later, Billy Martin was given pride of place as the last person to receive an introduction, during which it was revealed he would return as New York’s manager in 1980. The announcement prompted a lengthy standing ovation by fans who had been incensed by owner George Steinbrenner’s decision to force Martin to resign a mere five days before. In 1998 the Yankees honored their World Series confrontations against the Dodgers from 1977, 1978 and 1981 by inviting not just former New York players but several from Los Angeles as well. Pitcher Tommy John filled both roles, having worn Dodger blue in the first two of those matchups and pinstripes in the third. John may have enjoyed Old Timer’s Day more than any of the Series, since he had the dubious distinction of playing for the losing side in all three.

In the past few years the day has begun to see the return of Yankees from the franchise’s most recent championship seasons, including the dynastic run of four titles in five years from 1996 through 2000 as well as the 2009 team. Outfielder Paul O’Neill and first baseman Tino Martinez are now regular attendees guaranteed to receive boisterous welcomes. Three years ago, Hideki Matsui wowed the crowd during the game with a long home run into the second deck off David Cone. Last year the redoubtable Andy Pettitte made his first appearance, to the delight of all those in the stands.

But no Old Timer’s Day in recent memory has been quite the celebration of a single former star as is the case this year, and that is surely part of the reason for the crowd that now fills all three decks as the introductions begin. From role players to All-Stars to Hall of Famers, each attendee makes his way from the first base dugout to rows of chairs set up in the infield as cheers rain down. Special ovations are given to the two oldest former players in attendance, 89-year-old Don Larsen and 94-year-old Bobby Brown. At first it looks like Larsen will be forced to remain in a wheelchair, but at the first base line he rises and, with the aid of a walker, slowly makes the trek out to his seat. Minutes later Brown, the last surviving member of the 1947 championship team and a former American League president after his playing days with the Yankees, climbs the steps of the dugout and unassisted, walks slowly but determinedly out to join Larsen and the other former players.

This year though, even honoring the oldest in attendance is but prelude. For the loudest and longest cheers are reserved for the final former player to have his name called. Five and a half years after throwing his final pitch and just over a month before he becomes the first player ever to be inducted in the Hall of Fame on a unanimous vote, Mariano Rivera’s name can scarcely be heard over the Stadium speakers, drowned out by the roars from thousands of throats. The repetitive chanting of Rivera’s first name, broken into its four distinct syllables, washes from the stands across the field and echoes back upon itself as the all-time major league saves leader acknowledges the adulation.

Were that the limit of his role on this day it would be enough to sate the fans, but the little exhibition contest could not have been scripted any better for both Rivera and his fans. As his signature introductory song “Enter Sandman” blares from the speakers, he emerges from the dugout to relieve David Cone in the 1st inning and needs just a single pitch to induce a double-play grounder by O’Neill to end the frame. Rivera will pitch again in the 4th and final inning, recording a save – of course – and in between his two mound visits he patrols center field, fulfilling a dream from his playing days. There he makes a nice running catch of a fly ball hit by Luis Sojo. Then he steps to the plate and laces a line drive into right center field. The shot into the gap skips by both outfielders and rolls all the way to the fence. By the time it is retrieved and relayed back into the infield, Rivera has rounded third and is well on his way to home. He crosses the plate standing up with that rarest of batting feats, an inside-the-park home run, and fans in every section are on their feet screaming their approval.

Next summer will bring another Old Timer’s Day, and this celebration that is as much a part of the Yankees’ schedule as Opening Day will surely continue for many years to come. But for those who were there on Sunday, little more than a month before the unveiling of his Cooperstown plaque, this year’s event will always be remembered as Mariano’s day.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 23, 2019

Michelle Wie Looks Into the Abyss

The scores were 84 and 82. The two rounds over as many days included fourteen bogeys, three doubles and one unfortunate quadruple-bogey seven on the par-3 8th hole, a slew of dropped shots that were offset by just a pair of birdies. All that added to the sixteen pars produced a total score that was 22-over par for the thirty-six holes of play. There are weekend golfers by the millions who would give serious consideration to trading their firstborn child for a guarantee of two rounds in the low to mid-80s. But these scores were not the work of some country club amateur playing from the member’s tees. Rather they were the first and second round returns for Michelle Wie at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the third major of the LPGA’s season.

Although the thirty-six hole cut was at a rather high 5-over par, reflecting the brutal difficulty of Hazeltine National Golf Club, half an hour west of Minneapolis, Wie obviously missed the chance to play the weekend by a wide margin. Her total for two rounds was better than just four players in the field, all club professionals playing on one of the exemptions for teaching pros into this tournament cosponsored by the PGA of America.

Wie came to Hazeltine after missing two months of competition while once again trying to recover and rehabilitate from wrist surgery performed last fall. With virtually no preparation her struggles on the very challenging layout were not surprising. But it was not just Hazeltine’s length or the deep and gnarly rough that did her in. Of greater concern for golf fans was the obvious pain Wie was in during her rounds, which left her holding an ice bag to her right wrist between shots.

Wie had tried to come back earlier in the year, an effort that was cut short after four starts because of pain very similar to what she was manifestly experiencing from very early in her first round Thursday. In the media room after her posting her opening score, Wie acknowledged as much, saying “It was kind of a little foolish to think that I would shoot really well, just hitting golf balls last week. It’s a tough golf course, but I’m really, really happy that I played. Just feeling a lot of joy, just being out there, and, you know, competing again. It’s going to take time, and I’ve just got to be patient, and, thankfully, I have all afternoon to get warm again and take care of my wrist.”

But then Wie was asked about her future, and the tears came. “It’s hard. It’s just one of those situations where I’m not, you know, I’m not entirely sure how much more I have left in me, so even on the bad days, I’m just, like, trying to take time to enjoy it. But it’s tough.” Given that Wie won’t turn 30 until this fall, anyone who follows the LPGA would surely agree that it is far too soon for her competitive career to be at such a serious crossroads.

A cynic might question that, pointing out that since she joined the LPGA, she has posted just five wins, including the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst #2. Among her contemporaries, there are multiple Americans who have matched or exceeded Wie’s single major win and raced past her in total victories. That list includes Brittany Lincicome, Stacey Lewis, Paula Creamer and Lexi Thompson, whose LPGA win totals range from eight to twelve tournaments. But except for possibly Creamer very early in her professional career and Thompson more recently, no one on that list nor any other current LPGA golfer has come close to matching Wie in widespread recognition to fans beyond the relatively small number who closely follow the women’s game.

Part of that is because of her physical presence. At six feet tall, Wie literally stands above most of her fellow LPGA members. But mostly it’s because of the phenomenal talent she displayed at a precocious age, and her willingness to push the boundaries of the sport.

At the age of 10 Wie became the then-youngest golfer to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Women’s Public Links Championship. One year later she won the state stroke play championship in her native Hawaii, and at the age of 12 set a record, since broken, as the youngest ever to qualify for a LPGA event. In 2003 Wie continued her record setting, becoming the youngest golfer to make the cut at a LPGA tournament at the ANA Inspiration, the first major of the year. Having done so, she then shot 66 in the third round and was in the final group of the day on Sunday. That same year she made the cut at the Women’s Open and won the Public Links, becoming the youngest golfer, male or female, to triumph at a USGA adult championship.

Wie was also not shy about competing with men. She was given a sponsor’s exemption into the Sony Open in Hawaii in 2004, becoming (of course) the youngest female to join the field at a PGA Tour stop. While she missed the cut, Wie shot a 68 in the second round and finished her two rounds ahead of forty-seven men including four winners of majors and tied with fifteen including another three major champions.

In 2005 Wie turned pro but was forced to play on sponsor’s exemptions because she was not yet 18 and thus not eligible for LPGA membership. That year she posted top-5 finishes at a pair of majors, the ANA and Women’s PGA, as well as at the Evian Masters, which now has major status. When the first Rolex World Rankings for women golfers was issued in the winter of 2006, Wie was third, behind only Annika Sorenstam and Creamer.

It may well have been impossible for Wie to live up to the expectations placed on her once she finally had her Tour card, but her chances of doing so became even slimmer after suffering injuries to both wrists in 2007. That setback was the first on a growing list of ailments, particularly to her hands and arms, that have plagued Wie throughout her “official” LPGA career that began in 2009. Now it appears that the cumulative effect of those injuries, coupled perhaps with her determination that most likely led Wie to attempt comebacks too soon on more than one occasion, have finally taken a career-threatening toll.

In the improbable comeback of Tiger Woods from severe back injuries to major championship form, golf fans have seen that medical miracles, or something that looks very much like them, can happen. The hope here is that with proper rest and rehabilitation, and if necessary, reliance on a medical exemption for which she would surely qualify, Wie can return to form at some point in the future. The alternative to which she sadly alluded at Hazeltine National would be a most cruel ending to a career that began with a level of promise rarely seen in sports.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2019

Alive And Well At The Grassroots

When writing about the Great Game it’s become not just acceptable, but almost mandatory, to focus on the problems besetting the sport and to wonder if baseball is doomed. If not headed for outright extinction, surely in our modern world where attention spans are increasingly measured in mere seconds, this slow-moving sport will soon fill the role of a marginal pastime rather than the national one that was its place for generations.

Consider a sampling of opinions along such lines. A story in a New York newspaper with the lead “That baseball is dying hard…was proved yesterday.” Another about the Yankees routing the Athletics pointing out that even those with a stake in the outcome couldn’t be made to watch, “(T)he A’s manager didn’t stay around to see the Sunday slaughter.” An unsparing analysis of the root cause of the problem, “Mostly, however, baseball is succumbing to time. The game is getting to be outdated by other forms of entertainment which are more exciting, more accessible, and – in many cases – cheaper.” Or a lament about the reliance on home runs by too many teams suggesting that “In some circles there is a sharp suspicion that baseball may be riding a good horse to death, carrying a good thing too far. They fear the public may become sated with the home run just as it would become indifferent to football that offered nothing but one long touchdown pass after another and no running.”

Together these reports might be considered as an emerging consensus on the health of the Great Game, but for one crucial truth. The stories are not contemporaneous. The report from Gotham was about a game between the Yankees and Senators played at the Polo Grounds during World War I. The absent A’s manager, his team being the Philadelphia Athletics, was Connie Mack in 1936. The lament about time passing baseball by was written in 1955, and the complaint about too many long balls was published more than half a century ago, just one year after Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record, long before any current major leaguer was born.

Of course there is no shortage of current opinion along these same lines, but before calling for last rites to be said over this supposedly expiring sport, it is worth recalling that predictions of baseball’s demise are neither new nor novel. Which is not to say that the Great Game in 2019 is free from challenges. The typical contest does take too long, largely because the reliance on situational relief pitchers often means that action slows to a crawl through the middle and late innings. Once a novelty, extreme defensive shifts are now commonplace, and batters have responded by altering their swings to lift the ball over the defense and into the cheap seats. Home runs are way up, but so are strikeouts, with the principal casualty being balls in play and the traditional action of base running strategy and everything from the hit and run to double plays.

The economics of baseball are also a major issue, with the players and their union in a foul mood after multiple off seasons of the owners altering the landscape of free agency and thus reneging on the agreement implicit in the current collective bargaining compact. While superstars are still assured of big paydays, everyday players can no longer look forward to being rewarded as 30-year-old free agents for their years of steady performance as twenty-somethings under team control.

With the current major league schedule within a week or so of its halfway point, it seems likely that attendance will be down again this year, continuing a slow but generally steady downward drift that began more than a decade ago. In 2018 total attendance at big league ballparks fell below 70 million for the first time since 2003, and was well short of 2007’s high water mark just shy of 80 million paying customers.

Yet revenues for almost every team remain strong, thanks to the diversity of income streams and lucrative regional television contracts that are now the norm. It’s also clear that those who run the Great Game are well aware that there are problems in need of fixing. Modest rule changes impacting pace of play have been implemented, with more rigorous ones waiting in the wings. MLB and the Players Association have also begun preliminary talks around a new CBA, an especially encouraging sign since the current contract doesn’t have to be renegotiated until the end of 2021.

But the surest sign that baseball isn’t going away is seen by looking elsewhere than at the thirty stadiums that are homes to big league teams. The most interesting sentence is all those old reports cited above was this one near the top of the dire screed from the early days of the Cold War, “We predict that within 25 years there’ll be no organized baseball except the major leagues, if even they’re in existence then.”

That pessimistic journalist could not have been more wrong. With the first year player draft complete, all 240 minor league teams with official ties to MLB are in action. From AAA squads playing the game just a shade below big league quality, on down to short-season rookie leagues where hope is the primary fuel that keeps each player going, these teams play in big cities and many, many small towns, bringing the pleasure of the game to fans who may never set foot in a big league stadium. By the time all these minor league teams finish play in early September, it’s a virtual certainty that for the fifteenth year in a row more than 40 million fans will have paid to watch baseball not to see a Trout or a Harper or a Kershaw, but simply for the joy of the game.

That long list of officially affiliated teams doesn’t count the eight independent leagues nor the more than three score collegiate summer leagues, where college kids who have gone undrafted play as amateurs. For all the many attractions on Cape Cod, from miles of sandy beaches to eclectic Provincetown and historic Hyannis, games of the Cape Cod Summer Baseball League remain a must-see for tourists and locals alike.

The strength of this timeless appeal can be seen right now in Omaha, where the College World Series is taking place. As this is written Louisville and Mississippi State are facing off in the last quarterfinal contest, with the winner joining Michigan, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt in a collegiate final four that gets much less attention than its basketball counterpart but generated no less passion for the thousands of fans who have packed TD Ameritrade Park since the Series began last weekend.

From Omaha to Staten Island to Round Rock, from the Durham Bulls to the Sacramento River Cats, the roots and the future of the Great Game remain strong, out there on every single real-life field of dreams.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 17, 2019

A U.S. Open Worthy Of The Name

Unlike the Masters or the PGA Championship, and very much unlike of the weekly stops on the PGA Tour, the men’s United States Open, our national golf championship, is as the name implies open to all those whose game is good enough to survive a highly competitive gauntlet of play in order to qualify. Specifically, any male golfer, professional or amateur, with a handicap index of 1.4 or less is welcome to send in his entry form and registration fee and begin the process of trying to become one of the final field of 156 golfers.

This year more than 9,200 did so, with most beginning the process at one of more than a hundred local qualifying rounds held between the end of April and mid-May. From as few as one to as many as eight players advanced from those events, depending on the size and strength of each field, with their next stop one of a dozen regional qualifiers. At nine spots in the United States and one each in Canada, England and Japan, those advancing from local qualifiers where joined by professionals exempt from that first round, for thirty-six holes played on a single day. Once again, as determined by the size and quality of the field, anywhere from three to fourteen players punched their ticket to Pebble Beach at the regional qualifiers. They were joined by 77 golfers exempt from the qualifying process, including recent winners of the other three majors, the top ten finishers at last year’s Open, and golfers with a sufficiently high spot in the Official World Rankings.

That process whittled the 9,200-plus original entrants down to the field of 156, which this year included 15 amateurs, who teed it up on the Monterey Peninsula starting last Thursday morning. After two days of play just over half, or 79, were tied for sixtieth or better, thus making the cut and playing on through the weekend with a chance at hoisting the U.S. Open trophy on the 18th green at Pebble come late Sunday afternoon.

Yet the democratic nature of the Open usually only goes so far. Each year, as thousands of would-be competitors are gradually reduced to a single champion, fans expect familiar names to rise to the top. There is the occasional surprise, with amateur Francis Ouimet’s 1913 victory over England’s Harry Vardon and Ted Ray counting as one of the greatest upsets in sports, but the far more common outcome is represented by the fact that six of the past eight U.S. Open winners either had already been ranked number one in the world or ascended to that lofty perch shortly after their victory.

After 54 holes of play the leader board at this year’s Open strongly suggested that the 2019 outcome would be no different. Among the thirteen golfers tied for tenth or better were seven past winners of major championships, including the current first, third and fourth ranked players, as well as two others in the top thirteen of this week’s rankings. What was unexpected was that the first name on that leader board was not Justin Rose or Brooks Koepka or Rory McIlroy or any of the other proven winners, but 35-year-old Gary Woodland.

A native of northeastern Kansas, an area not known for a wave of golfers sent to the PGA Tour, Woodland’s early professional career mirrored that of many young players. He spent a couple years bouncing between the big time and the developmental Tour before finally punching his Tour card for good at the start of the 2011 season. Later that same year he won for the first time, a one-shot victory at the Transitions Championship. Coming into this year’s Open he’d recorded two additional Tour wins, one in 2013 and the second last year at the carnival known as the Phoenix Open. With prodigious length off the tee Woodland has always been able to shorten any course on which he set foot. But his short game often betrayed him, and he displayed a recurring inability to finish. He lost the final of the 2015 Match Play to McIlroy, watched Koepka blow past him over the final two rounds of last year’s PGA Championship, and couldn’t convert a 54-hole lead into a win at the Tournament of Champions in January. His tie for sixth place behind Koepka at Bellerive Country Club last August was also Woodland’s first ever top-10 finish at a major.

Given that history, and the other names on the leader board as Sunday’s final round began, it’s not being disrespectful to Woodland to say that much of the focus was on his pursuers. Had he come up short in the final round he would hardly have been the first golfer without a major already on his resume to wilt under the pressure of a final round at one of his sport’s four biggest events.

But as pundits and fans waited for Woodland’s shots to start going astray, he instead at first surprised (and perhaps disappointed) some of them, before ultimately gathering more support with each passing hole. Fellow competitor and 2013 U.S. Open champion Rose birdied Pebble Beach’s opening par-4 to tie the leader, but Woodland responded with birdies of his own at the 2nd and 3rd. Those combined with Rose giving back a shot at number two to turn the momentary tie into a three-shot lead for Woodland.

In the end his closest pursuer proved to be Koepka, who continued his run of remarkable play at major championships. The reigning U.S. Open and PGA champion became the first player in the tournament’s long history to shoot all four rounds in the 60s and not win when his 10-under par total left his three shots adrift of Woodland. That result was largely because the winner forgot his own history. Coming into the week ranked 169th on the Tour in scrambling, Woodland led the field with his outstanding play around the greens.

It is easy to sentimentalize Woodland’s win, especially given the stars he outplayed in the final round. The reality is that he was exempt into the final field because of his place in the world rankings, and while three previous Tour wins might not seem like much, that’s more than many players ever record. Still on the fiftieth anniversary of the victory by the last golfer to make it all the way from local qualifying to hoisting the trophy – Orville Moody in 1969 – Gary Woodland’s win will make do as a victory for Everyman. Fitting to the role, he did it with a bag of clubs from four different manufacturers – Wilson, Ping, TaylorMade and Titleist. Our national championship, won by a player carrying a set of mismatched clubs worthy of a weekend hacker at the local muni.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 13, 2019

For Boston, A Very Rude Awakening

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be on Monday, one day later than usual, in order to report on the Sunday night finish, east coast time, of the men’s U.S. Open golf tournament, now underway at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California. Thanks for reading!

Call it the surfeit from conceit. This week saw a massive overabundance of expectation among fans in greater Boston who believed that the actual playing of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals was a mere formality. The rank hubris that produced such a misbegotten attitude was produced by the remarkable run of championships in multiple sports by the city’s four major franchises. After six Super Bowl wins, four World Series titles, and individual NBA and NHL championships since 2002, Wednesday night’s game could have only one possible outcome. That the first of the Patriots championships and two of the Red Sox titles came at the expense of teams from St. Louis was further proof of the inevitable. Dan Shaughnessy, the Boston Globe columnist who has been taking the temperature of area sports fans for many years, read the prevailing attitude just right when he wrote “No one around here was ready for this. A Boston team losing a championship game? Impossible.”

Such a result was of course anything but impossible, as demonstrated by plenty of evidence in the first six games of the NHL’s championship series. The Bruins entered the Finals as the favorite, in part because the very presence of the St. Louis Blues seemed so unlikely. In the first week of January the Blues were in dead last place in the entire league, with the fewest points of any team in either conference, and not surprisingly, a negative goal differential.  A new coach, a decision to give a rookie goaltender a shot between the pipes on a regular basis, and some timely moves at the trade deadline changed all that. From that nadir in deep winter, St. Louis went 30-10-5 over its last forty-five games, with a plus-45 difference in goals scored versus allowed. During the same period, Boston was similar but no better, with a record of 27-10-5 and a plus-35 differential in scoring.

If those numbers from the season’s second half weren’t enough to give New England fans pause, the first six games of the Finals should have been. Despite a significant advantage in goals scored, the Bruins had been unable to put the Blues away. Instead, not only was the series tied at three games apiece, it was St. Louis that had first crack at seizing the Cup, skating on home ice last Sunday with a three games to two lead. Boston, which alternated between looking very, very good and appearing to be asleep throughout the series, responded by playing perhaps its most dominant and complete game of the Finals, winning 5-1 and setting up Game 7 on home ice at TD Garden.

But this series was not one that proved the value of playing in front of a supportive crowd. Through those first six contests both squads went just 1-2 on their home ice. Perhaps that too should have sent a shiver down the spines of the Bruins faithful, who instead made their way past the Bobby Orr statue outside the Garden, certain that they would be celebrating a title in a few hours, with some no doubt planning to keep right on partying until the traditional duck boat parade on Friday.

That statue of Orr recalls one of the most iconic photographs in all of sports. It was taken almost half a century ago, on the night of May 10, 1970. Game 4 of that year’s Stanly Cup Finals, also between Boston and St. Louis, was in overtime when Orr took a pass from teammate Derek Sanderson and buried the puck in the St. Louis net. Even as he took the shot Orr was tripped by Noel Picard of the Blues, and the famous photo, like the statue, shows Boston’s hero flying through the air like a hockey superman, his stick raised high in triumph.

Plenty of Boston fans recalled the night Bobby Orr flew when they learned that St. Louis would be the Bruins opponent in the Finals. But 1970 was the third year of the NHL’s expansion era, when all six new teams were grouped together in the West Division while the Original Six franchises comprised the East. The Blues went to the Finals three years in a row as the best of the expansion squads, and not surprisingly were swept each time, the last of their twelve straight Finals defeats coming on Orr’s goal. All these years later this was a very different St. Louis team, one that specialized in smash mouth hockey, a tough and aggressive style of play that was in sharp contrast to Boston’s defensive skills and effective power play.

Throughout the series the Blues aggressiveness appeared to wear down the Bruins from time to time. Especially in Games 2 and 5, the Boston lineup was listless for long stretches, with top line forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand notably ineffective. All season long Bruins fans knew they could count on those two along with linemate David Pastrnak to lead the team’s offense. Instead, by the time the final horn sounded and a jubilant St. Louis squad got ready to hoist the Cup, Bergeron and Marchand had combined for zero five-on-five goals in the series, with Pastrnak netting just one.

It would be unfair however to blame the Bruins dismal performance in Game 7 on any one or two players. If Game 6 in St. Louis was Boston’s most complete effort, Wednesday night was its mirror image. With everything on the line, the Bruins carried the action for much of the first period but were unable to put the puck past Blues goalie Jordan Binnington. Then late in the period a couple of Boston breakdowns gave St. Louis openings that resulted in a pair of goals, and Bruins shoulders slumped. While forty minutes of game time remained, the battle for the Stanley Cup was effectively over.

After the 4-1 thrashing, as chastened Bruins fans quietly made their way out of the Garden, and as their neighbors across the region turned off their television sets, one couldn’t help but think back to the playoffs one year after Orr’s famous goal. In 1971, in the first round, the top-ranked Bruins faced off against Montreal. The Canadiens relied on a 23-year-old rookie goaltender named Ken Dryden. He proved to be magnificent in the net, presaging his Hall of Fame career, and the defending Stanley Cup champions were sent packing in seven games. Nearly half a century later, the 25-year-old rookie Binnington reprised Dryden’s role, this time in the Finals. As he did so in Game 7, allowing his teammates time to score and score and score and score, the Bruins and their fans learned the hard but eternal lesson that victory is never a given.

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