Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 10, 2019

Clemson Reminds Us The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty

Less than a week ago, most sports fans and an overwhelming share of college football pundits all shared a few certainties. The Alabama Crimson Tide were, as usual, the number one team in the country, with no serious challengers. Head coach Nick Saban was the greatest gridiron teacher in the land, who while leading Alabama teams to glory somehow also found time to rehabilitate the careers of other college coaches whose careers had gone awry, such as Lane Kiffen and Mike Locksley. And when it came down to crunch time, Saban and Alabama would make the daring call that would swing the momentum of college football’s championship game in the Crimson Tide’s favor.

Taking those absolutes in order, in the runup to Monday’s finale of the collegiate football season, the New York Times ran a story about the enormous depth at Alabama under a headline suggesting that the team’s most serious challenger might well be its own second or third string roster. Saban hired Kiffen as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and Locksley as an analyst after the former’s brief appointment as USC’s head coach ended ignominiously and the latter’s career arc was sidetracked by a scandal at the University of New Mexico. And we were all reminded repeatedly of Saban’s bold genius in swapping out quarterbacks at halftime of last year’s championship tilt, when he replaced starting signal caller Jalen Hurts with backup Tua Tagovailoa at halftime, a change that ultimately led to a national title.

Supporters of the Clemson Tigers could do little to lessen the steady drumbeat of certitude. Never mind that Clemson was in the title game for the third time in four years, just one less than Alabama. Ignore the fact that the Tigers arrived at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara with a perfect 14-0 record, matching that of the Tide and marking the first time in the College Football Playoff’s short history that the season’s final game was contested by two previously unbeaten teams. Discount the 30-3 thrashing that Clemson laid on Notre Dame in its Cotton Bowl semifinal, a more impressive showing than Alabama’s 45-34 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma. The Las Vegas sportsbooks sided with the pundits, setting Clemson’s resume aside and favoring Alabama by almost a touchdown. A third national championship in four years awaited Alabama on the other side of the mere formality of sixty minutes of football.

Then, as so often happens in sports, the game intervened. For the first six plays from scrimmage all went according to the widely expected script. Clemson quickly went three-and-out after receiving the opening kickoff, and Tagovailoa began to move Alabama down the field, completing his first two passes after the Tigers punted. Then came the first inkling that perhaps the evening would not go exactly as most had assumed. Tagovailoa’s third pass was caught as well, but by the orange and white shirted A.J. Terrell rather than by the intended target, and the Clemson defender raced 44 yards down the field for a pick-six that gave the Tigers an early lead.

To Alabama’s credit, Saban’s squad immediately struck back. Just 1:15 after falling behind, the Tide evened the score on a bomb from Tagovailoa to Jerry Jeudy. But almost as quickly Clemson reclaimed the lead, driving 75 yards in just four plays, with Travis racing 17 yards around left end for the go-ahead touchdown. Then once again the Crimson Tide responded, this time with a methodical drive that was capped by a short touchdown toss to Hale Hentges. A missed extra point meant the Tigers still had a one-point lead, but on a night when it looked like both teams could score at will that hardly seemed to matter. When the Alabama defense finally joined the fray and stopped the next Clemson drive, and the Tide then moved into position for a field goal to take the lead for the first time, 16-14, it was natural to think that order was finally being restored.

What the nearly 75,000 in the stands and the millions watching at home couldn’t know was that the 25-yard field goal, coming less than one minute into the second quarter, was the last score that the favorite would record. For all the attention paid to Tagovailoa, the hero of the night was Clemson’s freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Installed as the starter by head coach Dabo Swinney at midseason in a call no less daring because it was made far from the spotlight of the national title game, Lawrence was unawed by either the moment or his opponent. After a slow start he took over the contest, repeatedly coming up with big plays. Lawrence converted ten of fifteen third down chances, running up more than 250 yards of offense just on those plays. For the game he completed 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns as Clemson scored thirty unanswered points to win 44-16. It was the most decisive championship game win in the five years of the College Football Playoff. The four-touchdown margin was also the biggest loss by Alabama in the Saban era, while Swinney’s team became the first college squad to win fifteen games in a season since the University of Pennsylvania Quakers in 1897.

In the wake of Clemson’s emphatic win, some of the same media mavens who were loudly singing Alabama’s praises right through the start of the second quarter Monday night have now jumped aboard the Tigers’ train, in part because both quarterback Lawrence and receiver Justyn Ross are true freshmen, with the potential to serve in starring roles for three more years. But the postgame infatuation with Clemson is as overdone as was the pregame swooning over Alabama. Both are outstanding major college programs, with all that is good and bad about that term. The Crimson Tide have a very long history of filling that role, while the Tigers have found their place in the sun more recently. Both should be part of the national championship conversation for the foreseeable future. What pundits and fans need to remember is that with the rapid turnover of rosters and the vagaries of the game itself college football, like every other sport and life itself, will always be unpredictable.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 6, 2019

The Hero Of The Year

There are many traditions associated with the turn of the calendar from one year to the next, from champagne toasts to watching a Waterford Crystal orb make its 141-foot descent down a pole atop the 25-story building at One Times Square as the final minute of the old year is counted down. For sports fans, the familiar year end rituals also include tracking the announcements by various organizations of the athlete of the year.

Though not the oldest such award, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year is surely the most familiar of these honorifics. First bestowed upon Roger Bannister in 1954, the year the British running legend produced the first sub-four-minute mile, the magazine’s year-end cover has been graced by athletes across the broad spectrum of sports, from the broadly popular like baseball and football to niche competitions like speed skating and cycling. The SI award was given exclusively to men for nearly two decades, until tennis great Billie Jean King shared the 1972 honor with UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. After winning 487 races in 1977 and becoming the first jockey to win $6 million in a single season, 17-year-old Steve Cauthen became the first and still only thoroughbred rider to win the award. Had the editors waited until the following year, when Cauthen rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown, they might have been tempted to have a non-human winner share the prize with the jockey.

Of course, hindsight being twenty-twenty, it’s likely that the magazine’s decision makers wouldn’t mind a couple of do-overs. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire seemed like obvious choices after their home run chase captivated millions in 1998, a few years before the extent of steroids use throughout the Great Game became widely known. For much the same reason the recognition given to Lance Armstrong in 2002 now rings hollow.

This year Sports Illustrated singled out an entire team, honoring the Golden State Warriors by declaring the reigning NBA champions “a generational phenomenon, the likes of which we might not see again for decades, if at all.” The magazine cited not just the Warriors’ three championship in the last four years, but also the franchise’s “commitment to service, community and the importance of taking a stand on matters beyond basketball.” From head coach Steve Kerr to superstar point guard Stephen Curry and on down the roster, the Warriors have joined with others in the NBA in their willingness to speak out on social and political issues.

Golden State is a worthy pick, and perhaps it’s a good thing SI didn’t wait any longer to recognize the Warriors. As this is written they are in third place in the Western Conference standings, trailing both the improbable Denver Nuggets and the less surprising Oklahoma City Thunder. Aside from those two, three Eastern Conference teams also sport better records than Golden State as the NBA regular season approaches its halfway point. Still the Warriors are in no danger of missing the playoffs, so there is plenty of time between now and June for Curry and company to regain their dominant form.

But perhaps Golden State’s very good but not overwhelming performance in the current NBA campaign was one of the reasons why Sports Illustrated stood alone in naming the Warriors as 2018’s top sportsperson. The Associated Press, which has named both a male and female Athlete of the Year since 1931, picked LeBron James, formerly the Warriors’ nemesis in Cleveland and now a divisional rival in L.A., for the third time and Serena Williams for the fifth. The latter choice was somewhat surprising, since Williams failed to win a grand slam tournament in 2018 and was last seen melting down in a straight set loss to Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open final. But she overcame serious complications from her pregnancy to even make it back to competitive play and surprised many by advancing to the finals both in New York and earlier at Wimbledon. For its part cable network ESPN honored the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and snowboarder and Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim with the Best Male and Female Athlete ESPY Awards.

Ultimately all these award winners are legitimate, either for specific accomplishments during the past year, or for a resume of achievement over their careers. They won championships and medals, broke records and spoke out on issues of the day. Yet for all their spectacular exploits, not one of the athletes named above had the impact on their respective sport in 2018 as did a young woman who spent not a single minute in athletic competition, a former gymnast who had not been called upon to demonstrate her balance, strength, coordination and flexibility in more than fifteen years.

We now know that Dr. Lawrence Nassar, for more than eighteen years the national medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics while also treating scores of injured athletes at Michigan State University, used his position of power to systematically and repeatedly molest hundreds of young woman and girls who came into his care. We know that not because of action taken by USA Gymnastics, or the United States Olympic Committee, or officials on the MSU campus in East Lansing. All those institutions failed the scores of victims, choosing instead to ignore reports of abuse, bury attempts at investigation, and conveniently fail to alert law enforcement. Not that taking that last step would have ensured Nassar was exposed. Even the FBI, when informed of accusations against Nassar in 2015, proceeded to slow walk an investigation into the doctor’s crimes.

Rather Nassar’s long overdue undoing was started by a single victim who refused to be silenced. Rachael Denhollander, who just turned 34 in early December, was a club gymnast as a teenager, and was sent to Nassar for treatment of a back injury. As he did to so many others, Nassar used his time alone with the young girl to sexually abuse her. But sixteen years after he did so, Denhollander, now an attorney, chose to fight back. She lodged a complaint with the MSU police, filed a Title IX suit against the University, and, most important, went public by sharing her story with reporters from the Indianapolis Star.

As Denhollander told the New York Times last winter, “it wasn’t something I wanted to do because of the fear and the risk behind it, but it was something I knew I had to do. I didn’t want Larry Nassar to hurt one more child. I felt a responsibility to at least try to stop him.”

Denhollander’s courage, and her refusal to be silenced, opened the floodgates, with more than 300 victims coming forward so far. Nassar is in prison, likely for the rest of his life. Michigan State entered into a $500 million settlement with the victims, USA Gymnastics has filed for bankruptcy, trying to survive the hundreds of lawsuits filed against the organization, and it is now a federal crime to fail to report sexual assault in any Olympic sport. When Nassar was sentenced last January, Denhollander was the last of 156 women to give a victim impact statement.

While not named the year’s top athlete, Denhollander was honored, along with other Nassar survivors, with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY’s, and Sports Illustrated named her the Inspiration of the Year. We fans often refer to our idols on the field as heroes, a term that anoints them with powers far beyond our own. But the easy use of the word ultimately diminishes it, and we forget what true heroism really looks like. It looks like Rachael Denhollander.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 27, 2018

The Biggest Deal In Hot Stove History

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be taking a short break while traveling over New Year’s, so there will be no post next Sunday or Thursday. The regular schedule will resume on Sunday, January 6th. Thanks as always for your support, and Happy New Year!

This time of year wasn’t called the hot stove season back then, and the deal wasn’t announced to the public until shortly after the new year.  But on the day after Christmas 1919, ninety-nine seasons ago this week, the owners of two teams agreed to the terms of a transaction that would alter the future course of both franchises and be counted as one of the most historic deals in the long saga of the Great Game.  Whatever big contracts are announced in the next few weeks, it’s unlikely that any will top what happened all those years ago.

The world, and baseball, were very different then. News traveled slowly. The Great War had accelerated the development of radio, with the introduction of vacuum tubes and electronic signal amplification, but the first great commercial stations that would soon become the source of information and entertainment for the masses had yet to go on the air. Big cities like New York and Boston had multiple competing daily newspapers that were the primary source of news, be it of politics or sports, for millions of avid readers. But that meant the word of the day was updated not by the ping of a text alert, but only when the printing presses were once again set into motion.

The national pastime was about to be engulfed in scandal, for just weeks earlier the 1919 World Series had ended in unexpected fashion, with the favored Chicago White Sox, an established power that had claimed the title two years earlier, losing to the upstart Cincinnati Reds, a team that had finished atop the National League standings for the very first time. Suspicion and rumor would eventually turn into indictments and lifetime bans for eight Chicago players. But the Black Sox scandal might never have occurred were it not for the reserve clause, which tied a player to the team holding his contract for life, and for the enmity felt by members of the White Sox against miserly owner Charles Comiskey. In those days, decades before a players’ union or free agency were even conceptualized, almost all ballplayers were at the mercy of their team’s owner for each season’s contract. Just a tiny handful of the game’s biggest stars were popular enough to possess any leverage when it came time to negotiate a salary.

In the winter of 1919 one of those fortunate few was a 24-year-old left-handed pitcher who had won two games including a shutout for Boston in the 1918 World Series, which the Red Sox had taken in six games over the Cubs. That same season the star hurler, who was equally adept at the plate, had insisted on playing the field on the days between his pitching starts, in order to contribute to Boston’s fortunes with his bat. The young George Herman Ruth, known to all as Babe since his childhood days at a Baltimore reform school, promptly led the majors in home runs in both 1918 and 1919. His 29 round-trippers in the latter year set a major league record and made Ruth a national celebrity. His rapidly growing fame drew supportive fans to Fenway Park, and that increased activity at the park’s turnstiles allowed Ruth to demand a higher salary.

Unlike owners such as Comiskey, Harry Frazee, a New York theatrical producer who had purchased controlling interest in the Red Sox in 1916, had proven willing to loosen his purse strings to obtain and keep key players. Before the start of the 1919 season, extended negotiations with Ruth resulted in a three-year contract valued at $10,000 per year. But after setting the home run mark and with his newfound fame, Ruth asked Frazee to double his salary.

The legend is that Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to finance his Broadway production of “No, No, Nanette,” but as with many legends, the truth is more complex. While “No, No, Nanette” became a smash hit on the Great White Way and brought Frazee financial security, the musical comedy didn’t begin its run until 1925, long after the Ruth transaction. To the extent that Frazee’s theatrical interests factored into his decision at all, it was to finance the long-forgotten play “My Lady Friends,” which opened in 1919 with a script written by one of the eventual co-writers of the far more successful musical that came half a decade later.

But even as he tired of Ruth’s demands, Frazee faced other financial pressures. He still owed former Red Sox owner Joseph Lannin one-fourth of the $500,000 purchase price he’d agreed to three years earlier. Frazee was also in a dispute with Lannin and the Taylor family, owners of Fenway Park, over the future of the ballfield, which raised the possibility that the Red Sox, then just tenants, might be left with no place to play. He was also in a bitter struggle with American League president Ban Johnson, who was threatening to revoke Frazee’s franchise.

Yankees owner Rupert Murdoch was one of only two other American League team owners who sided with Frazee against Johnson. That left the Red Sox chief with few choices when he decided to sell Ruth’s contract. The White Sox offered Frazee $60,000 and the soon to be banned Shoeless Joe Jackson, but Murdoch’s offer was much sweeter – $100,000 for Ruth’s contract, plus a loan of $300,000 to help him buy the ballpark from Lannin and the Taylors. It was enough to ensure that the player who would soon become known as the Sultan of Swat would earn the appellation wearing pinstripes.

In this case, the rest really is history. The Yankees had never finished first in the American League, never played in a World Series. After the acquisition of Ruth, the team’s first AL crown came in 1921, its first championship two years later. In all four Series wins in seven appearances came while the Babe was batting in the middle of New York’s lineup, setting a tradition of winning that has only rarely flagged over the ensuing decades as the Yankees became the most successful franchise in sports.

In Boston, of course, the story was very different. The 1918 championship was the fifth title for one of the American League’s charter teams, whose fans surely thought many more would follow in due course. Instead those fans endured an eighty-six year wait, and during that long hiatus often blamed their misfortune on a mythical curse brought on by Frazee’s sale of the Bambino in order to finance a Broadway musical.

Recent seasons have been far kinder to Red Sox fans, though there will surely always be some among the Boston faithful who will wonder what might have been had Babe Ruth remained at Fenway. But they should remember that as bad as those eighty-six years of often inept baseball were, things could always have been worse. After all, the collateral for that $300,000 loan to Harry Frazee was a mortgage on Fenway Park. Just imagine if he had defaulted, and for all those years the old iconic stadium was owned by the Yankees!

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 23, 2018

Another Visit From Saint Hal

A NOTE TO READERS: With the calendar about to turn to a new year, thank you for your continued support, and may your holidays be happy and peaceful. As is the tradition here at On Sports and Life, the post nearest to Christmas Day is offered with apologies and a tip of the cap to Clement Clarke Moore, who in 1823 authored “A Visit from St. Nicholas;” a poem far better known almost two centuries later by its first five words.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the town
Not a ball fan was stirring, all had bedded down;
The tickets were stored in a safe place with care,
For Opening Day, that so soon would be there;

‘Neath team logo blankets the children did snore;
Dreaming of presents from the Yankees team store;
Mamma in a Judge jersey, I in a Luke Voit,
Were ready for sleep after words quite adroit,

When from out in the stands there arose a great shout,
I hurried out to see what it was all about.
Away to the cheap seats I flew like a flash,
To the third deck I ran all in a mad dash.

The lights shining down on the infield below,
Made it seem like a day game to my eyes you know,
When what did I see in that same location,
But a little red sleigh pulled by the starting rotation,

With a blue-suited driver both lively and quick,
But too tall and beardless, it wasn’t St. Nick.
More rapid than fastballs his pitchers they came,
And he shouted, and whistled, and called each by name:

“Now, Sevy! Now, CC! Now Masahiro you!
On, J.A.! On, Paxton! On Montgomery too!
To the top of the mound! To the center field wall!
Now strike one! Strike two! Strike them out all!

As Giancarlo’s homers launch into the sky,
Big blasts by he and Aaron away they do fly;
So into the air all those pitchers took flight
With that sleigh and the driver up into the night.

And then from the rooftop I heard the sharp beats
The prancing and pawing of players in cleats.
As I drew in my head and was turning around,
Down the chimney Hal Steinbrenner came with a bound!

He was dressed in a suit, and his shoes had a shine,
About what you’d expect, for he owns the Bronx nine;
He carried some contracts, he hadn’t been lax,
Fresh off a year without the luxury tax.

He gave me a wink and a nod of his head
Which led me to think I had nothing to dread;
So I ventured to speak, and this I did state:
An even hundred wins; last season was great!

But the Red Sox are champs, that ruined our day,
They will aim to repeat, can we bar the way?
With Didi banged up, the curse of Tommy John,
And the pitching has holes, but Corbin is gone.

Hal said not to worry, we might sign Manny,
Though we need to be sure he’ll bust his fanny;
We’ll look at free agents and our prospects too,
And consider a trade for a hurler or two.

He turned from me then, and went straight to his task,
Filling the stockings; but I had one last ask,
Is this our year, because I’d like to know soon;
But this is the Great Game, which plays its own tune.

Hal rose up the chimney, then whistled his team,
And away they all flew as if on a light beam.
But I heard him exclaim, as they shot to the moon,
“Happy Christmas to all, for Spring Training comes soon!”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 20, 2018

Riding The Matt Harvey Rollercoaster

“We count everything in baseball. God, that’s all we do.” The words came from the mouth of Kevin Costner, playing the fictional pitcher Billy Chapel in the 1999 film “For Love of the Game,” the last of the actor’s trifecta of baseball movies, after “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams.” Though the source may be a screenplay, the statement reflects a reality as old as the Great Game itself. Baseball, as every fan knows, has always been about its numbers. From the standings to the statistics, the latter running from the age-old and simple calculations of a hitter’s batting average or a pitcher’s wins and losses (Costner delivers his line in response to his character’s new love interest expressing surprise that he knows the number of games he’s lost in his career), to the complex modern metrics of WAR and FIP and ERA+, generations of fans have followed baseball by tracking its plethora of numbers.

For the modern game deep in the offseason, the numbers that attract attention this time of year are those preceded by dollar signs. The hot stove is ablaze, and even as the Yule approaches fans hang on every rumor of a free agent signing and assess every announcement of a done deal for how it impacts the likely fortunes of their favorite franchise.

Where will Manny sign? Will he or Bryce really get $400 million? Did the Nationals overpay for Patrick Corbin? Did the Red Sox get a deal bringing back Nathan Eovaldi? The real answer to all those questions is the same, namely that only time will tell. But the conventional wisdom seems to be, New York or Philadelphia, probably not, probably so, and only if everything goes right. And then there is the story behind the hot stove’s latest numbers, which are 1, 11 and 3 – one year, $11 million, with incentives that could push the deal another $3 million higher. That’s the deal the right-hander Matt Harvey, once a New York Met and more recently a Cincinnati Red, inked with the Los Angeles Angels Tuesday.

We refer to the career arc of athletes, but that conjures an image of a rising line curving smoothly up to a peak, before starting a gradual decline as time, the enemy of every one of our sporting heroes, takes its inexorable toll. Rollercoaster would be a far more accurate description of Harvey’s path through the major leagues. Like a fully loaded string of cars chugging up a coaster’s initial climb, Harvey moved straight up through the minors after being selected by the Mets as the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft. Just two summers later he was making his big league debut, filling in for an injured Johan Santana. He set a franchise record by fanning eleven batters in that initial outing and averaged nearly that many per nine innings over the balance of his rookie campaign.

With a four-seam fastball that regularly flirted with triple digits on the radar gun, Harvey had established himself as the ace of starting rotation by the very next season. He was the National League Pitcher of the Month in April, when he took a no-hitter into the 7th inning of a contest early in the month and then a perfect game into the same frame a couple of weeks later. The Mets were the hosts of that year’s All-Star Game, and Harvey got the start for the NL before adoring fans at Citi Field. But his first stomach-churning career plummet came before season’s end, when Harvey was diagnosed with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm. Tommy John surgery swiftly followed.

The usual year-long recovery period stretched longer when the Mets front office chose not to bring Harvey back toward the end of the 2014 season, since the team was hopelessly out of the playoff race. The decision displeased the pitcher, who had been aggressively rehabbing in hopes of taking the mound before that year’s campaign ended. It would not be the last dispute between Harvey and Mets management.

Back in the rotation in 2015, Harvey again seemed destined for greatness when he debuted with six scoreless innings against the Nationals while striking out nine. Gotham “Dark Knight,” as he had been dubbed by Sports Illustrated, continued to post impressive numbers all season long. But as his innings count climbed after more than a year on the shelf, first his agent Scott Boras and then Harvey complained about the workload. The carping dented his tough guy image and soured a segment of the team’s fans on their one-time hero, marking another downward turn in his image.

But once again Harvey rebounded, this time by throwing well in the postseason as New York worked its way to the World Series. He beat the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS, and the Cubs in Game 1 of the NLCS. He took a no-decision in the first game of the Series against Kansas City, and was back on the mound for Game 5, with the Royals looking to close out the Mets and claim the title. With a capacity crowd of 45,000 cheering him on, Harvey handcuffed the Royals through eight scoreless innings, while his teammates pushed across one run in the 1st and another in the 6th for a 2-0 lead. When he walked off the mound at the end of that effort, his pitch count up over one hundred, Mets faithful stood as one and saluted their hero. It was to be Harvey’s final highlight moment in a New York uniform.

In the dugout Harvey convinced manager Terry Collins to let him pitch the 9th. He surrendered a leadoff walk and a run-scoring double before Collins came to get him. The Mets bullpen allowed another run in to tie the score, and Kansas City eventually tasted glory in the 12th. Over the next two seasons his fastball velocity plummeted even as his ERA rose while Harvey shuffled on and off the disabled list with various injuries. Along the way he incurred the wrath of management, his teammates and fans by failing to show up for a game after a night out on the town. In 2018 he went 0-2 with an unsightly ERA before the Mets relegated him to the bullpen. He was no better in a relief role, and New York tried to demote him to the minors. But Harvey had sufficient seniority that he had to consent to being sent down, and he refused. Shortly thereafter New York traded the one-time superhero to Cincinnati.

Where he staged yet one more comeback. Just when it seemed like his career was destined for the junkpile, Harvey was, if not the dominant pitcher of old, certainly serviceable. He went 7-7 for the Reds with his best strikeouts per nine innings number since 2015.

That was enough to convince the Angels to give the first-time free agent, who will have just turned 30 when next season starts, what on its face looks like a generous deal. The warning signs in Harvey’s story meant L.A. was going to limit its exposure, thus the one-year term. But even for just a season, is Matt Harvey worth $11 million (if he makes the various incentive milestones, the Angels and their fans will be happy to pay him the extra $3 million)? The real answer of course, is that only time will tell. But whether he ascends to new heights or plunges to even greater depths, L.A.’s gamble means that in the game that counts everything, Matt Harvey can now count to eleven million.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 16, 2018

Quantum Theory And The NFL Standings

The NFL’s regular season winds down, and the league’s standings suggest that change is in the air. Seven of the ten spots in the last five Super Bowls have been occupied by just three teams. New England has made three appearances and both Denver and Seattle two each. As this is written the Broncos have already been eliminated from this year’s postseason, and while the Patriots and Seahawks are both in now, neither has locked down a playoff spot with just two regular season games to go, and New England has now lost back-to-back contests. Of the three other franchises to make it to the big game in that timeframe, the Atlanta Falcons already know their season ends in two weeks, and both the Carolina Panthers and defending champion Philadelphia Eagles need to run the table and get some help in order to squeeze into the playoff bracket.

The teams at the top of that projected bracket are Kansas City and Houston in the AFC, and the Saints and Rams in the NFC. It’s been nearly half a century since K.C. played in a Super Bowl, and the Texans haven’t done so in their history. The two NFC franchises have been only slightly more successful, with a single Super Bowl appearance each in this century.

Because of the single elimination format, the NFL playoffs are more unpredictable than any of the other three major North American sports leagues; on any given Sunday, as they say. Perhaps the season-long heroics of 23-year-old Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes or Houston’s remarkable turnaround after an 0-3 start won’t matter come January, and the Foxborough dynasty will represent the AFC one more time. Perhaps the Rams’ Jared Goff will come back to earth and the Saints’ Drew Brees will be bothered by turning forty during the postseason, and the Seahawks, will slip through on the NFC side. A repeat of Super Bowl XLIX, moved from the Arizona desert to Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the retractable roof edifice that just hosted Major League Soccer’s championship match. Perhaps order will be restored.

Before fans learn whether than will be the case, they must first navigate the season’s final two weeks, a period in which the focus in on the top of the standings, but much of the drama is down in the middle of the pack. That’s where a knot of clubs that range from barely to not quite good enough battle for the final playoff spots, and a chance to extend their season for at least one week.

The Chargers, or perhaps Kansas City, will be one of the four Wild Cards. Like the Rams, Los Angeles’s other team is having an unexpectedly good season, sporting a record of 11-3 that is a match for Kansas City. Thursday night the Rams went into Arrowhead Stadium and stunned the home crowd by going for a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown in the final minute, rather than kicking the extra point to tie the game and wait for overtime. When a wide-open Mike Williams cradled Goff’s toss in the end zone, L.A. had a 29-28 win. But the Rams remain in second place because K.C. has the better division record at 4-1, over L.A.’s 3-2. If Oakland upsets Kansas City and Los Angeles beats Denver in the regular season’s final week the division winner will be decided by going deep into the NFL’s tiebreaking procedures.

The other three Wild Card spots are currently held by decidedly less impressive teams, with several equally middling squads in what passes for hot pursuit. After being upset by the 49ers on Sunday, the Seahawks are just above .500 at 8-6, and thus half a game ahead of the Vikings at 7-6-1. Washington’s .500 record has it just behind Minnesota, with Carolina and Philadelphia both alive as this is written with matching records of 6-7. However, the Eagles must contend with the Rams Sunday night, and the Panthers play the Saints on Monday, so the slim hopes of both franchises could shortly be reduced to a thread.

It’s a similarly tight battle for the remaining AFC Wild Card spot, with three teams currently at 8-6. Baltimore and its quarterback controversy is the squad that’s in for now, based on the tiebreaking criteria. But one slip by Lamar Jackson, who resurrected the Ravens season after replacing an injured Joe Flacco in Week 11, and either the Colts or Titans will be happy to take Baltimore’s spot. Also still clinging to hope are the Browns at 6-7-1.

Yes, it’s true. With just two games remaining, the Cleveland Browns have not yet been eliminated from the postseason. While it’s unlikely the Browns will be playing in January, that it is still possible after 1-15 and 0-16 records the past two years has fans along the banks of Lake Erie in a state of happy shock. The second biggest surprise on this list is Washington, which lost both starting quarterback Alex Smith to a gruesome leg injury and backup Colt McCoy to a less stomach-churning broken leg. The team then decided that Mark Sanchez, last seen fumbling the ball after running into the rear end of a New York Jets teammate, and Josh Johnson, who hadn’t started an NFL game in seven years, were the best quarterback options available, presumably because neither was named Colin Kaepernick. Johnson managed to beat the woeful Jaguars 16-13 on Sunday, snapping a four-game losing streak and keeping Washington in the hunt. Or so it says on the NFL’s website.

In truth all the teams outside the playoff bracket but still technically alive, as well as three of the four currently holding down Wild Card spots, are like Schrodinger’s cat. The thought experiment, designed in 1935 by an Austrian physicist for whom it’s named, illustrates the paradox inherent in popular theories of quantum mechanics. Those theories hold that at the subatomic, at the smallest scales of nature, things can exist in different states until they are observed, at which point an outcome results. Schrodinger postulated a cat inside a sealed box with a radioactive source, a Geiger counter, and a flask of poison. If a single atom of the radioactive source decays, the Geiger counter detects it and triggers the breaking of the flask, killing the cat. The unknown is the rate of decay, so under quantum theory until one opens the box, the cat is both alive and dead.

Of course, we all know felines can’t be both alive and dead at the same time, though they can act that way. But in the middle ranks of the NFL as the schedule nears its end, perhaps “on any given Sunday” now has a new meaning

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 13, 2018

The Hall Of Fame Will Survive Harold Baines

Oh, the humanity! One could not help but think of radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s anguished cry as he witnessed the 1937 Hindenburg disaster earlier this week, when news came that the National Baseball Hall of Fame had exploded in a conflagration every bit as dramatic and devastating as the one that brought down the great German dirigible as it attempted to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst all those decades ago. The accelerant for the Hall of Fame catastrophe was not hydrogen, but the election of Harold Baines to Hall membership by the Today’s Game Era committee, one of four variants of the revamped Veterans Committee, charged with considering candidates no longer eligible for election by the regular balloting by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Or at least it sure seemed like the Hall and perhaps much of the upstate New York village of Cooperstown must have been destroyed based on the reaction of many sportswriters to the announcement of Baines’s election. In the Washington Post, Neil Greenburg wrote “while this is a time to celebrate for Baines, it’s also a time to mourn for the standards of the Hall of Fame.” Kyle Koster used his column inches in USA Today to dismiss the vote as “a joke,” and suggested that the committee members had used their ballots to say “’screw you’ to the analytical community or any other sane person.” The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn added “I don’t want to diminish Baines, but it’s unavoidable. He passes no Hall of Fame tests.” And Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg admitted that “I feel a bit for Baines, who earned the ultimate compliment only to be told he didn’t remotely deserve it,” before adding “This is because he didn’t remotely deserve it.”

Showing somewhat more restraint as befits a writer at the newspaper of record, the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner suggested that the induction of Baines might open the Hall to a far wider range of candidates. Citing a long list of names from the reasonably well-known like Don Mattingly and Dwight Evans to the more obscure like Bobby Grich and Andy Van Slyke, all of whom had either modern metrics like WAR or OPS+, or in Mattingly’s case traditional statistics such as batting average and both offensive and defensive awards far greater than Baines, Kepner was left to wonder, “where the line for induction now sits.”

The answer of course, is that it sits exactly where it always has, namely wherever the requisite number of voters decide that it does on any given ballot. By most standards, Harold Baines does not measure up as a Hall of Famer. While he started out as a right fielder, Baines played exclusively in the American League and his 22-year career was made possible by the junior circuit’s designated hitter rule. From 1987 through his retirement after the 2001 season he played defense in just 82 games, barely half a season in total. Historically designated hitters have had difficulty winning support from the BBWAA voters. That may explain in part why Baines topped out at 6.1% of the vote while on the regular Hall ballot, from which he was dropped after just five years when his total fell below the 5% threshold to remain.

But his one-dimensional play was not the only reason Baines drew so little support. His career batting average was a respectable but hardly dynamic .289, and while he recorded nearly 2,900 career hits, that number was more about longevity than anything else. Baines didn’t have a single 200-hit season. He received MVP votes just four times and never finished higher than ninth in the voting for the game’s top award. He led the league in any traditional statistical field exactly once, when his .541 slugging percentage was the AL’s best in 1984. The average Hall of Famer was a league leader in one or more important stats nine times.

But the Veterans Committee process is very different from the regular balloting by writers. Each year’s committee, which is charged with considering candidates from a specific period of the Great Game, is made up of a mix of Hall of Famers, baseball executives, and journalists. Just as with the regular balloting, a candidate must receive 75% of the vote, but that means twelve out of sixteen votes rather than three-quarters of several hundred. While the BBWAA members may have some interaction, they cast their votes largely in isolation. In contrast, the Veterans Committee members meet together to consider and discuss each year’s list of candidates before eventually casting their ballots.

Baines received twelve of the sixteen votes from this year’s committee, exactly the number needed. He began his career with the Chicago White Sox, whose owner Jerry Reinsdorf was one of the committee members. Another member was the Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa, who managed Baines in both Chicago and Oakland. The committee also included Pat Gillick, voted into the Hall for his success as a general manager, including time in Baltimore which happened to coincide with the years Baines wore an Orioles uniform.

Was there cronyism in the result, after some lobbying in the privacy of a closed-door meeting by one or two or three people who knew Baines well during his career? LaRussa’s angry, bitter, and repeated denunciations of the very idea in the days since the committee’s decision was announced sure sound like that suggestion may have struck the proverbial chord. If that were the case, history shows quite clearly that 2018 was not the first such time the Veterans Committee demonstrated a bit of favoritism.

But in the end, so what? The Great Game’s Hall has always been an imperfect assembly, and the criteria for election have always been fluid. The famed character clause meant nothing at all when it came to elevating a rabid racist like Ty Cobb, but at least so far, it bars the door to the hitter with the most career home runs and the pitcher with the most career Cy Young Awards. And there are fans who suggest that a Hall of Fame without Pete Rose is not worthy of the name. But Cooperstown will survive all this, because in full it still reminds us of the best of the Great Game, and its imperfections also remind that it is the exceedingly rare nine innings, in sports or in life, that become a perfect game.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 9, 2018

Have The Celtics Righted The Ship?

Now that’s more like it. The Boston Celtics trampled the Chicago Bulls 133-77 on Saturday, winning their fifth straight game. The 56-point margin set a franchise record, surpassing a 51-point trouncing of the Philadelphia Warriors in March 1962. Perhaps it was the embarrassment of that debacle that drove the Warriors out of Philly and all the way across the continent to northern California later that same year. While the Bulls may not be forced to relocate, they will join the 1986 Houston Rockets in the NBA record books as a home team losing a game by the most points in the history of the league.

The victory gives Boston its longest winning streak of the season, and none too soon for the team’s increasingly nervous fans. After cheering their team as it overcame the horrific season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward five minutes into last season’s very first contest and went all the way to Game 7 of the Conference Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston faithful saw this year’s edition of the Celtics as a favorite in the conference and a legitimate threat to defending champion Golden State and other western powerhouses.

Instead through the first quarter of the schedule Boston’s play was often uninspired and the offense rarely seemed in sync. After an early four-game winning streak pushed the Celtics’ record to 6-2, Boston dropped eight of its next twelve to sit at .500 after twenty games. That 10-10 mark left the Celtics in a tie for sixth place in the Eastern Conference two weeks ago, a lot closer to being outside of the playoff-bound top eight than to the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

That start was in contrast to last year, when all seemed lost less than halfway into the first quarter of the first game, with Hayward writhing in agony on the floor of Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. Instead rookie Jayson Tatum and second year man Jaylen Brown stepped up and provided the support Kyrie Irving needed to propel the Celtics on a sixteen-game early season winning streak. That was the kind of play fans expected this year, with Hayward back and the roster fully restored. But Brown regressed through the first eight weeks of the new campaign, and while Tatum was not quite so missing in action, he fell into the bad habit of playing isolation basketball, going one-on-one too often rather than relying on his teammates.

Coach Brad Stevens also struggled to put a consistently effective group on the floor, juggling lineups from game to game in a frustrating effort to get 48 minutes of solid play from his charges. That began to change when Stevens moved Hayward into a sixth man role, using the player he coached in college as an offensive spark off the bench. In New Orleans on the Monday after Thanksgiving the Celtics stormed to an early 10-2 lead over the Pelicans, and never looked back, rolling up a 124-107 victory. Four nights later Boston trampled Cleveland 128-95 to the delight of a packed TD Garden, with seven players scoring in double digits.

Since then the Celtics have added a 9-point road win against Minnesota and a 28-point home dismantling of New York, avenging an ugly loss to the Knicks that happened on the parquet just two weeks earlier, before traveling to Chicago for the historic win over the Bulls. The winning streak, currently the longest in the league, has nudged Boston up the Eastern Conference standings. While the Celtics are still five games adrift of the Raptors, with the 76ers, surprising Bucks, and the Pacers in the way, Boston finally has some momentum in what has been an unpredictable early season throughout the NBA.

Toronto and Philadelphia were expected to battle with Boston for supremacy in the East, but Milwaukee has clearly improved over the team that snuck into the playoffs with the seventh seed last spring. Giannis Antetokounmpo is proving to be not just the “Greek Freak,” but a legitimate MVP candidate. Much farther down the standings, the Washington Wizards are trying to save a season that appears in greater jeopardy than Boston’s ever did. With John Wall trying to play through an injury, Bradley Beal has been carrying Washington, but every time the Wizards put together a couple of games where they look like the team that showed so much promise last year, they follow it with a clunker like Saturday’s 15-point loss to Cleveland.

The Western Conference has its own set of surprises. Golden State is on top, but the Warriors have looked anything but invincible amid public sniping between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Last year’s number one playoff seed Houston has collapsed to a sub-.500 record and a spot near the bottom of the division, while the Los Angeles Clippers, perpetually the “other” team playing at the Staples Center behind the glitz and glamour of the Lakers, are just a single game out of first place.

Roughly seventy percent of the NBA’s schedule remains to be played, so there’s plenty of time for early surprises, both positive and negative, to give way to predictability. Still in Boston at least, the last two weeks have had a calming effect on a fan base that was expressing its collective anxiety loudly enough to cause guard Terry Rozier to suggest “everybody can shut up, because everybody can be very annoying.” It’s true that the C’s winning streak hasn’t come against the toughest of foes. Only two of their recent opponents are .500 teams. But wins are wins, and five in a row has fans in New England breathing again, and even daring to dream.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 6, 2018

The NFL’s Coaching Carousel Spins Again

Until last weekend, only fourteen men had stalked the sidelines as head coach of the Green Bay Packers in that franchise’s nearly century long history. Only three members of that select fraternity – Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, and Mike Holmgren – compiled better records than Mike McCarthy, the Packers’ fourteenth leader. Only Lambeau, the coach from the team’s inception in 1921 through 1949 managed Green Bay for more games than McCarthy and none had coached the team in more playoff games. But neither his .618 regular season winning percentage (125-77-2), nor his nine trips to the postseason in twelve full seasons, nor Green Bay’s three appearances in the NFC Championship game, nor its 31-25 victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV were enough to keep McCarthy from being the first Packers head coach to be fired in the middle of a season when team president Mark Murphy announced his dismissal after Sunday’s 20-17 home loss to Arizona.

Despite McCarthy’s accomplishments the news of his firing hardly rated as a surprise, and the fan reaction in the little city that styles itself as “Titletown” made clear that most of the Packers’ faithful considered the move long overdue. The Packers last trip to the conference title game was two seasons ago and ended badly, a 44-21 rout at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons. The 2017-18 campaign started promisingly enough, but after the team raced out to a 4-1 record Green Bay lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone in Week 6. The offense stagnated under backup Brett Hundley and the Packers managed just three more wins over the remainder of the season, missing the playoffs with a third place finish in the NFC North at 7-9.

Rodgers was fully healthy by the start of this season, but his growing disenchantment with McCarthy’s offensive schemes has been perhaps the NFL’s worst kept secret. Green Bay has put up more than thirty points just twice, and with Sunday’s loss to the lowly Cardinals was the Packers’ fifth in six games since the bye week. The defeat by a team that arrived at Lambeau Field with just a pair of victories on the year left the home team and its frustrated fans with no realistic shot at the postseason.

A fair evaluation of Green Bay’s campaign would conclude that the blame should be spread around. The usually reliable placekicker Mason Crosby had a historically bad game against the Lions, becoming the first NFL kicker in more than two decades to miss four field goals and an extra point in one game, a contest the Packers lost by eight points. A foolish decision by the since-released kick returner Ty Montgomery to run the ball out of the end zone rather than taking a knee led to a fumble that deprived Rodgers of the opportunity for a final drive against the Rams with Green Bay down by two. And each of the team’s last three losses has been by a touchdown or less.

But a constant truism across all our sports is that it’s impossible to fire an entire team, so when a season goes south it’s the head coach who pays the price. But it’s also worth noting that even before the malaise that began with last season’s injury to Rodgers, McCarthy never commanded the respect shown some of his predecessors.

As one of the franchise’s founding fathers Curly Lambeau is a seminal figure in Green Bay, honored by his name adorning the team’s stadium. The address for Lambeau Field is 1265 Lombardi Avenue, named for the legendary coach who brought fame to northeastern Wisconsin by winning five championships in seven years. That the last two of those involved beating the AFL titleholder in the nascent Super Bowls led the NFL to name its championship trophy after Vince Lombardi to go along with his broad multi-lane Green Bay boulevard. Mike Holmgren won the same number of titles as McCarthy – one – but did so with better timing, ending a quarter-century drought during which the Packers made the playoffs just twice. Holmgren Way’s multiple lanes run for more than three miles through Green Bay and neighboring Ashwaubenon. In contrast Mike McCarthy Way is a renamed three block stretch of Potts Avenue, a two-lane side street behind the team’s practice facility.

While McCarthy’s street will always be unprepossessing, odds are that the opinions of the many Packers fans who are happy to see him go will mellow with time. Many of those same fans cheered Brett Favre throughout his sixteen seasons as the Green Bay quarterback, then booed him lustily when he returned to Lambeau Field wearing a Minnesota Vikings uniform, only to renew their hosannas on the day in 2015 when the Packers retired Favre’s number 4.

If McCarthy needs proof that both fans and front offices have short memories, he can look to the speculation about his successor. Sitting atop almost very list published this week is the name of Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks’ coach for the New England Patriots. Whether or not McDaniels gets the job or is even interested, the real story is the mention of his name less than ten months after he first accepted, then declined, the head coach’s job in Indianapolis. The public embarrassment of the Colts, who had proudly announced their new hire, led any number of pundits to declare that McDaniels had permanently poisoned himself and would never be considered for any job beyond the borders of Foxborough, Massachusetts. But as Mike McCarthy learned last weekend, the truth is that in any sport, when it comes to the job of field general, nothing is permanent.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 2, 2018

A Bold Move, Or Brodie’s Big Mistake?

Time, as someone no doubt once said, will tell. Kidding aside, that is the only honest assessment that can be offered up in the immediate wake of the big trade between the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets, hinted at for days and finally confirmed this weekend by the usual unnamed sources “familiar with the deal but not authorized to speak publicly.” Seattle, having committed to a full tear-down of its existing roster after having missed the playoffs for the seventeenth straight year, is sending second baseman Robinson Cano and closer Edwin Diaz to Queens in exchange for outfielder Jay Bruce, relief pitchers Anthony Swarzak and rookie Gerson Bautista, and the Mets third and fourth ranked prospects, Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn.

The truth is that every swap of a high-salaried veteran for minor league prospects between one team looking to build for the future and another hoping to win now can only be fairly judged after some time has passed. That’s because minor league prospects are by definition a year or two or five away from proving their worth, or lack of same. But as is always the case with the first big move that fuels the Great Game’s hot stove league, news of this trade had fans clamoring for instant analysis and pundits eager to deliver.

Necessarily the focus has been on the deal’s impact on New York. Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto had already made clear his intent to a multi-year rebuild when he dealt starter James Paxton to the Yankees for three prospects in mid-November. He may well try to flip Bruce and Swarzak, the two veterans Seattle is receiving from New York, later this offseason. How the Mariners’ farm system develops, and how Dipoto spends the millions he’s saving by shipping the bulk of Cano’s salary east will determine, not next season but in 2020, 2021, and beyond, whether this weekend’s deal is a winner for the Mariners. For the sake of Seattle’s fans, one must hope for the best. At the All-Star break in July, the Mariners were nineteen games over .500, leading the American League Wild Card race and chasing the Houston Astros in the AL West. But Seattle sagged to a sub-.500 record from there, extending the longest postseason drought in all four major North American team sports.

But at Citi Field the focus is clearly not on some future season down the road, but on the campaign that begins with the call for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training just two and one-half months from now. Since going to the World Series in 2015 the Mets have finished second, fourth and fourth in the increasingly competitive NL East. Over the past two seasons combined New York lost thirty more games than it won. With owner Fred Wilpon spending like he was in charge of the small market Kansas City Royals rather than a team playing in the biggest market of all, this offseason began with rumors that the Mets might dangle right-hander Noah Syndergaard as trade bait.

Then New York made the decidedly unconventional move of hiring Brodie Van Wagenen as their new general manager. Van Wagenen came to the job not after moving his way up through the front office ranks, but after a career as an agent, including representing Cano and several Mets players. It was a bold if risky move, and Van Wagenen now seems intent on proving himself to be a bold risktaker as a GM. At his introductory press conference, he promised the Mets would aim to win in 2019, and his first major deal is in pursuit of that goal.

The clear upside for New York appears to be Diaz. The right-hander won’t turn twenty-five until shortly before Opening Day next spring, and he’s fresh off emerging as a dominant closer in 2018. Diaz recorded 57 saves for the Mariners while posting a stingy 1.97 ERA and an equally impressive Fielding Independent Pitching stat of 1.61. About the only uncertainty with Diaz is that when he was drafted by Seattle in 2012 his signing bonus plummeted after a physical revealed the presence of bone spurs on his right elbow. To date Diaz has not been bothered by the joint problem, but the knowledge that it exists may cause some Mets fans to hold their breath every time he takes the mound.

If the Mets have gained an elite closer in Diaz, exactly what they have in Cano is less clear. On the one hand he’s an eight-time All-Star with a lifetime batting average over .300. Last year he hit .303, just one point below his career number, and posted an OPS of .845.

But he did that while appearing in just eighty games, thanks to a half-season suspension for violating MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Cano is also thirty-six years old, and still has five years remaining on the $240 million, ten-year contract that Van Wagenen negotiated for him when Cano left the Bronx for Seattle after the 2013 season. Van Wagenen’s gamble is that his former client will continue to produce close to his career numbers for another couple of years, before the inevitable decline sets in. But in a sport in which most front offices have grown leery of players in their mid-thirties, Cano is already defying the calendar, and it’s impossible to know whether his solid 2018 stats were helped by playing only half a season, albeit involuntarily.

Accounting for the portion of his salary that Seattle is sending to the Mets, and the pay of the other players involved in the trade, the Cano acquisition will cost New York $63 million over the balance of his contract. If that buys a couple of NL East titles and at least one deep postseason run, fans will likely think it money well spent. But if the career arc of the newest Met follows that of most other thirty-six-year old major leaguers, well, one can already hear the boos pouring down from the upper reaches of the big ballpark in Queens and the rabid second-guessing of the team’s new GM on sports talk radio. There is no shortage of instant analysis on both sides.  Van Wagenen has struck gold.  Van Wagenen has been taken to the cleaners by a veteran GM.  The only certainty, of course, is that time will tell.

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