Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 26, 2022

Chasing A Dream, Down By The Sea

Two hundred years ago, when its current name was first used, Coney Island was, in fact, an island.  Centuries earlier, when the Lenape, the Indigenous people that were the area’s first human inhabitants called this corner of the future Gotham “Narrioch,” it was a series of smaller islets that together formed an outer barrier along the southern edge of what modern New Yorkers know as Long Island.  The local geography shifted and changed with the weather, the tides, and the seasons, until eventually man, as is his wont, decided he knew best.  Even as the beach became a vacation destination for Manhattan city dwellers, inlets and tidal pools were filled in, and in time a major landfill project turned the island that nature had formed from smaller islets into a man-made peninsula firmly attached to the rest of Brooklyn.  Even in recent decades the human management of the area hasn’t slowed down.  Jetties and seawalls control the area’s current shape, but also require the beach to be occasionally replenished with deposits of sand hauled in from afar rather than washed up naturally.

Changing seascape into landscape ended the need for the ferry service that was once the main access to the increasingly popular oceanfront destination.  In its place, Coney Island became the terminus of one of New York’s early subway lines, running on tracks originally laid down for a predecessor steam railroad.  Today, Coney Island – Stilwell Avenue station, with its eight elevated tracks, remains the southern endpoint of the D, F, N, and Q lines.

From the first warm days of spring to the arrival of autumn’s chill, passengers head down the ramps from the train platforms and out the station’s doors.  Just across the street lie the reasons most of them boarded the subway up the line in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, or Queens.  There to the right is the home of Nathan’s famous hot dogs and site of the company’s annual eating contest, while to the left is the venerable Cyclone, one of the country’s oldest wooden roller coasters still in operation.  Dead ahead are Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, both crammed with rides and games.  In the adjacent blocks are several other stand-alone thrill rides, and on the other side of all those entertainment options is broad Riegelmann Boardwalk, which fronts the even wider beach for more than two-and-a-half miles.

In the nearly two centuries since the first hotel was built, Coney Island’s fortunes have waxed and waned.  There have been periods when it was an enormously popular destination.  Through the first half of the 20th century, long before Disney, it was the largest amusement area in the country.  But there have also been times when it was overrun by gangs as in the 1870s or fell into disrepair and decline as in the late 1960s.  The current popularity of Coney Island can be traced to major redevelopment efforts that began somewhat fitfully in the early 2000s, accelerated ten to fifteen years ago, and redoubled after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in October 2012.

One element of that revival’s first phase was a minor league ballpark, built between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk on the western edge of the amusement district.  It opened in 2001 as Keystone Park, with the naming rights transferred over the years from the energy company to a local credit union in 2010 and then to Maimonides Medical Center, a non-profit Brooklyn hospital, just last year.  Through the name changes the 7,000 seat, city-owned Maimonides Park has been home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, an affiliate of the big league club that plays less than fourteen miles away as the crow flies, at Citi Field in Queens.  The Cyclones franchise originated fifteen years earlier than, and in a different country from, the team’s current ballpark.  The St. Catharines Blue Jays were a Toronto farm club, eventually moving to New York in 2000 to play for a year in Queens, the team’s final season of affiliation with the Blue Jays.  The following spring the franchise opened its new home, with a local major league affiliation and a name drawn from the iconic roller coaster which can be seen in the distance out beyond left field.  From the club’s founding in Ontario through 2020, Brooklyn played in the Single-A short season New York-Penn League, which had brought professional baseball to small cities throughout the northeast since 1939. 

But a rich history was of no value when MLB flexed its might and took over Minor League Baseball in 2020.  Forty minor league teams lost affiliations with big league clubs as MLB pared its farm system back to four teams per franchise, one each at the Low-A, High-A, AA, and AAA level.  Just three of the fourteen New York-Penn League clubs were offered MLB ties, with the Aberdeen Ironbirds (Orioles) and Hudson Valley Renegades (Yankees) joining Brooklyn as High-A affiliates in the reconstituted South Atlantic League.  Some of the less fortunate New York-Penn League franchises continue to play in independent or collegiate leagues, while others, like the old league of which they were a part, folded.

Those changes mean that Brooklyn’s natural rivalry with the Yankees’ affiliate in Staten Island, where the ballpark sits next to the ferry terminal with New York harbor and the skyscrapers of Manhattan as an outfield backdrop, is no more.  But last weekend, Hudson Valley, formerly tied to Tampa Bay but now the High-A squad for the Bronx Bombers, traveled down from its home turf sixty miles north of Gotham in Fishkill, New York, to renew the Mets versus Yankees competition at the compact little park that now looks out not just at the old Cyclone in the distance, but also at the new Thunderbolt right beyond the outfield wall, and at a half dozen other roller coasters between the two.

It was steamy in Manhattan, at the other end of a long subway ride, but an ocean breeze made for a pleasant Sunday afternoon at Maimonides Park as the two clubs played a double header.  About a third of the crowd arrived in time to score a free Brooklyn Cyclones beach towel, given away to the first 1,000 fans through the turnstiles.  For the price of one admission, everyone got to watch not one, but two games of professional baseball at the field of dreams level.  For the record, the home team swept both ends of the twin bill, but the most memorable aspect of the afternoon was the salutary effect of the pitch clock.  While the games were limited to seven innings by the silly double header rules, both proceeded crisply, with the second contest, a pitchers duel eventually won 3-1 by Brooklyn, taking a tidy hour and twenty-four minutes from first pitch to final out.  The sooner the pitch clock migrates to the majors, the better.

Most of the young men on the field will only set foot in a major league stadium the same way the folks clutching their beach towels in the stands do, by buying a ticket.  But for a season, or two, or five, at this level, and for some, further up the minor league chain, they get to pursue a lifelong dream.  And maybe, just maybe, someone who on this day was known only by the number on his back will one day have his name shouted by thousands of adoring fans.  However long the odds, they have been given the chance, and so would be foolish not to try.  Like the rubes who partake of the various midway games packed in among the roller coasters and rides visible beyond the outfield wall, most will fail.  But occasionally, somebody goes home with one of the big stuffed animals from the top shelf of prizes.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 23, 2022

The Great Game’s Poet

It was a remarkably busy weekend for sports.  For starters, while the decision by improbable Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike’s connections to bypass the Preakness meant a Triple Crown was not at stake, Saturday’s 147th running of the Triple Crown’s second jewel was still one of the major events on horse racing’s calendar.  Couple that with this being the first year since the COVID-19 pandemic began that attendance at Pimlico Racetrack was not restricted, and there was plenty of buzz at the decaying old oval in northwest Baltimore.  Attendance may not have approached pre-pandemic numbers, but there were still plenty of throats to give full voice to the roars as Early Voting held off Epicenter to win the race.  It was the second time that trainer Chad Brown has successfully employed the strategy of skipping the Derby with a horse he deemed not quite ready, instead arriving at Pimlico as a fresh shooter running against horses trying to bounce back only two weeks after racing at Churchill Downs. 

Then Sunday brought the conclusion of the PGA Championship, the second men’s golf major of the year.  In the sticky heat of Oklahoma, Justin Thomas prevailed at Tulsa’s Southern Hills, but not before 27-year-old Mito Pereira of Chile came within a single bad swing of being the Rich Strike of golf by coming from out of nowhere to claim a major title.  Pereira won his PGA Tour card with three victories last year on the developmental Korn Ferry Tour, but there was nothing on his resume to suggest he’d even make the cut at Southern Hills, much less contend.  That he did, until the 72nd hole, when Pereira put his tee shot in the water and turned a one-shot lead into heartbreak.  There were only tears of joy for Thomas, who was understandably emotional after rallying from a 7-shot deficit over the final 18 holes to claim his second major title.

Those stories claimed most of the attention, with the ongoing NBA and NHL playoffs adding to the drama.  But for anyone who writes about sports, and for fans of the Great Game, all that became secondary late Friday afternoon.  For there will be another Preakness Stakes run this time next year, the second major on the annual calendar of men’s professional golf will be played again next May, and the basketball and hockey postseasons will continue to unfold.  But we will likely never again be blessed with a writer like Roger Angell, who died on Friday at the age of 101.

That lengthy span of years meant Angell (pronounced “angel”) was witness to the entire history of baseball’s live ball era.  As a child in Gotham, he saw Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs on more than one occasion.  A few years later he ran into the now-retired Ruth walking on a Manhattan street.  At the other end of his life, he saw Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, famous teammates of the modern age.  In between he was present for the exploits of a panoply of heroes, and for the constant evolution of the sport.

Angell became a chronicler of the Great Game at the relatively advanced age of 42, when William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, the magazine that had employed Angell’s mother as one of its first editors and where he began working in 1956, told him to go down to Florida for 1962’s Spring Training “and see what you find.”  The result was “The Old Folks Behind Home,” an account of an exhibition contest between the Yankees and the newborn Mets, which ran in the magazine’s Sporting Scene column.  His final piece for that space was published more than half a century later, in 2018.

In all that collected work, which also included multiple books and the occasional foray into other sports, Angell wrote as a fan.  Unlike a beat writer facing a daily filing deadline, he had the twin luxuries of time and space, and he used them to give readers prose that often bordered on poetry, filled with imagery that captured the nuance and complexity of baseball.  A reviewer wrote of a 1988 anthology of Angell’s columns, “one does not usually encounter such poetry in discussions of home runs and knuckleballs.”

Angell was inclined to rebuff such praise, insisting that he was just a reporter.  But no other reporter would liken Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk coming up out of his crouch behind home plate to “an aluminum extension ladder stretching for the house eaves,” or observe that with the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson on the mound “you were always a little distracted from the plate and the batter, because his delivery continued so extravagantly after the ball was released that you almost felt that the pitch was incidental to the whole affair,” before describing Gibson’s follow-through in three long and elegant sentences.

Angell inspired many young men and women to offer their own thoughts on baseball, words that fans now read regularly at outlets like The Athletic and Sports Illustrated.  But while, like those reporters who grew up admiring him, he sat in the press box, Angell retained the perspective of those who had to purchase a ticket to get into the stadium.  That was partly because of his age, for he grew up when, as he once wrote, “attending a game meant a lot, to adults as well as to a boy, because it was the only way you could encounter athletes and watch what they did.  There was no television, no instant replay, no evening highlights.”

But it was also because Angell understood what it means to be a fan, even in a time – no, make that especially in a time, when one can follow the action in so many ways.  He gave voice to that understanding in “Agincourt and After,” on the surface an account of the 1975 World Series between Boston and Cincinnati, though like so much of Angell’s writing, it was ultimately much more.

“What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about; this is what we come for.  It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look—I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost.  What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring—caring deeply and passionately, really caring—which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.  And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved.  Naïveté—the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball—seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”

For sixty years Roger Angell was the best baseball writer alive.  In time, one supposes, some sort of consensus will emerge about who now deserves that honor.  But in truth, the title should be retired.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 19, 2022

A Proud History, Or Just An Old Story?

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be traveling this weekend.  The next post will be delayed by one day, until Monday.  Thanks for your support.

We are still weeks away from the moment that is the pinnacle of every National Hockey League season, when a team captain lifts the oversize trophy that is the oldest championship prize in North American sports high over his head and begins a celebratory skate around the rink on which his squad has just won the Stanley Cup.  But while this year’s NHL postseason still has have far to go, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have already provided plenty of drama.  With five of the eight opening series going the full seven games, these playoffs mark the first time that more than fifty games were needed to settle just the first round.  Those five Game 7s were the most in a single postseason round in three decades, and just to add to the tension, three of those contests went to overtime.   

A series that did not require its full scheduled complement of games was the one between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals.  Florida was the best team in the league during the regular season, claiming the Presidents’ Trophy with 122 points.  As hockey fans know, that is often a somewhat dubious honor once the postseason starts.  The last club to win the Stanley Cup after also finishing the regular season with the league’s best record was Chicago in 2013.  While that was the eighth time since the Trophy was first awarded in 1986 that the winner went on to capture the NHL title, over the same period the franchise with the best regular season mark has been bounced out in the very first round of the playoffs on an almost matching seven occasions.  Whatever the next month or so holds for the Panthers, at least Florida avoided that ignominy by skating past Washington, four games to two.  It was the first postseason series win for the Panthers since the 1996 Eastern Conference Final.  Of course, the fact that Florida only made it to the postseason a half dozen times over the intervening quarter century contributed greatly to that lengthy drought.

But if this NHL postseason has already brought, if not ultimate joy, at least relief to fans in greater Miami, not exactly a hockey hotbed of long standing, it has also visited continuing disappointment and frustration on the faithful of a franchise with a far deeper history in the sport.  In Toronto, the NHL’s longest string of Stanley Cup futility continues.

The Maple Leafs are the opposite of the Panthers in ways that go beyond the natural affinity for ice hockey in the country where it was first played as an organized sport, versus the manufactured love of the game in an area where palm trees vastly outnumber rinks.  Florida is a 1993 expansion franchise, joining the NHL along with the Anaheim Ducks when the league went from twenty-four to twenty-six teams.  This year marks just the eighth time the Panthers have advanced to the postseason, and only one of those trips took the team all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, when it was swept by Colorado in 1996.  Counting the six game opening round win over the Capitals, the Panthers have played a total of just sixty games in the playoffs.

Toronto was one of the founding members of the NHL, which was organized in 1917 to replace the eight-year-old National Hockey Association after a dispute among NHA team owners.  The team, then known as the Arenas, won the new league’s first championship.  At that time, the Stanley Cup was not exclusive to the brand new NHL but was instead played as a best-of-five series against the Vancouver Millionaires, which was not a group of high-tech entrepreneurs but the champion of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association.  The three games to two victory gave the franchise that became the Maple Leafs two name changes later the first of its thirteen Stanley Cup titles, second only to Montreal in NHL history.  The team has won almost a thousand more regular season games than Florida has played, and Toronto’s 570 postseason contests dwarf the Panthers’ tiny total.

The franchise’s history is grand.  The problem for Toronto fans is that it is also increasingly ancient history.  The Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967.  With this week’s postseason exit at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto’s championship drought stretched to 55 years, eclipsing the New York Rangers long wandering in the desert from 1940 to 1954 to become the longest in NHL history.  And the most recent years have arguably been the worst.  From the franchise’s founding until 2004-05, when an entire NHL season was lost to an owners’ lockout, the Maple Leafs longest absence from the playoffs was a three-year period of futility beginning in 1925.  But when the NHL returned to the ice for the 2005-06 season, Toronto began a stretch in which it failed to make the postseason in ten of the next eleven years, including the first seven in a row.  The one season the Maple Leafs made the playoffs, the appearance was brief, with the club losing in the opening round.

In each of the last six years the franchise has at least qualified for the league’s tournament.  But that one-and-done experience in 2013 proved to be a harbinger, as the Leafs have fallen in the opening round in every one of those seasons.  Adding to the agony of fans in Toronto is that in six of the seven straight first round defeats, the series went the distance, meaning the Maple Leafs could have advanced in any season with just a single victory.

Instead, there have been endings to seasons like 2013’s, when Toronto entered the final period of Game 7 against Boston leading 4-1, only to see its lead trimmed midway through the frame and then have the Bruins score twice in the final ninety seconds of regulation to send the game to overtime, where Boston completed its comeback.  Or like last year, when the Maple Leafs took a commanding three games to one lead over archrival Montreal, only to see the Canadiens storm back to win three in a row, the first two in overtime.

This season was no better.  Toronto led Tampa Bay three games to two and rallied from a two-goal deficit to tie Game 6 at 3-3.  But the Lightning struck in overtime to force a Game 7, and the Maple Leafs played from behind throughout the decider, eventually falling 2-1 to usher in one more early offseason.  The Stanley Cup Playoffs go on, and if the opening round was indicative of what is to come there will be plenty more drama before some team captain lifts the Cup.  But there will be no more hockey thrills in Toronto this season.  There fans are left, as has been the case for far too many years, with fading memories of an ever more distant past, and a present filled with disappointment and doubt.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 15, 2022

An All Too Familiar Story

It was a small story, about a trauma far from the field of play involving an all but anonymous team that plays a sport not many fans follow for a small institution few have ever heard of.  That made it easy to miss, or to ignore.  So very simple to click the mouse or turn the page, passing by or quickly forgetting the ugliness.  No doubt that is what most fans did, in the unlikely event they happened upon the story at all. 

On May 15, 1891, the Delaware General Assembly passed the founding legislation that established what was originally called Delaware College for Colored Students.  The name has changed three times over the decades since, most recently in 1993 to Delaware State University.  As a public land-grant institution, Delaware State’s enrollment is more diverse than many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), with more than one-third of the student body identifying as non-African American.  But in a state in which only about one resident in five is Black, Delaware State’s demographics continue to reflect its status as one of the country’s 101 remaining HBCU’s.  Similar to the student body, the women’s lacrosse team is about 70% African American.  The team’s head coach, Pamella Jenkins is Black, and on April 20th, as the team was headed home from a spring trip to a tournament in Florida, the driver of the bus the players and coaches were on was also Black.

On I-95 in Georgia, the bus was pulled over by officers of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department.  The deputies were conducting a commercial interdiction detail on the interstate, focusing on trucks and buses violating the rules of the road.  In the case of the lacrosse team’s bus, the driver was in the left lane, which is reserved for automobiles.  That’s what the sheriff’s deputy who first boarded the bus told the driver, and had the encounter ended with that explanation, and perhaps a citation, there would be no story.

But it did not end there.  Within minutes of the white sheriff’s deputy boarding the bus and seeing the faces of the driver and passengers, other units of his department arrived, including one with a drug-sniffing dog.  Officers came back on the bus and announced a drug search, with one saying to the young women that if anything was present, “we’re probably going to find it, okay?”  He then encouraged the players to admit it if they were carrying drugs, since he would not be able to “help them” if they did not and contraband was later discovered.  With that the officers began a detailed search of the bus’s luggage compartment, opening and going through suitcases, backpacks, and duffel bags.  Bodycam photos and cell phone video shows them handling personal items such as underwear and cosmetics, directly contradicting a later claim by the county sheriff.  A wrapped package was brought on board, which the student who identified it was forced to open despite explaining that it was a birthday present from her family.  Inside the package was not a pound of marijuana or kilo of cocaine, but a jewelry box.

In the end, of course, there were no drugs or any other contraband, just a bus full of scared young Black women and a driver who should not have been in the left lane.  Delaware State’s women’s lacrosse team was allowed to resume its journey north, without so much as a ticket being issued to the errant operator.

The Liberty County sheriff, who is himself Black, has insisted that the traffic stop was not a case of racial profiling, and in the narrowest sense of his words, that seems likely to be true.  The bus was in the wrong place, and while a lane violation is at best a minor offense, it is also unlikely that the two deputies who made the initial stop could have identified the race of either driver or passengers through a modern motorcoach’s tinted windows. 

But the denial falters with the subsequent actions of the white deputies.  It does so not only because of the stereotypical, and false, assumption that a group of mostly African American young adults are likely carrying drugs, but also because impact is every bit as important as intent.  And as multiple team members and coach Jenkins have made clear, everyone on the bus felt the lane violation escalated into something far more serious once the color of their skin was known.

The good news, of course, is that the escalation did not include anything more serious.  But such events do occur because the story of Delaware State’s women’s lacrosse team is the opposite of unique.  It is common.  Kurt Streeter writes the “Sports of the Times” column for the New York Times.  Before joining the paper in 2017 and ultimately being given one of sportswriting’s most coveted assignments, Streeter wrote for the L.A. Times, the Baltimore Sun, and ESPN.  And before he did all that, he was the first Black player to captain the men’s tennis team at Cal-Berkeley.  After college, Streeter spent a couple of years on the minor league tennis circuit, before wisely deciding to pursue a different career path.  But during that period, he and another African American player were stopped for no apparent reason while driving from a tournament in Alabama to one in Georgia.  Another time, he was detained for eight hours, with no explanation, at London’s Heathrow Airport, although the fact that he shared his detention room with a dozen other travelers, all of whom were Black, was all the explanation Streeter needed.

Like the women of Delaware State, Streeter would be considered one of the lucky ones, for none of his racial profiling experiences escalated into tragedy.  But why should a confrontation, or an arrest, or even a life, turn on the knife edge of luck, when it is based entirely on the color of one’s skin?  As old as the question is, it remains unanswered.  Then again, answering it is difficult, and it is always so much simpler to click the mouse or turn the page.  Yet even as they are tempted to do so, fans should keep in mind that for the members of Delaware State’s women’s lacrosse team, moving on will not be so easy.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 12, 2022

The PGA Tour Stands Up To Saudi Sportswashing

“Now the battle is well and truly joined.”  Golf fans of a certain age will recall the signature phrase of legendary announcer Peter Alliss.  The “voice of golf” on British television for forty years, and a regular commentator on American broadcasts of the Open Championship, Alliss would often liken the fight for a tournament trophy to a military encounter when a pursuer, with a timely birdie putt or well-executed approach shot, moved to within striking distance of the golfer holding the lead.  Before his broadcasting career Alliss played professionally for two decades, winning twenty times on what would, at the very end of his playing days, officially become the European Tour.  He was also a member of eight Ryder Cup teams for Great Britain, in the days before the inclusion of golfers from continental Europe made the biennial matches more competitive. 

That playing experience gave Alliss a deep respect for the ancient game and its traditions of civility, to go along with his unique ability to distill the drama of a tournament down to a few well-chosen words.  Because of that, on the rare occasion’s broadcaster Alliss criticized players, it was nearly always for their behavior rather than their shotmaking.

Alliss retired from broadcasting in 2015 and passed away two years ago, but both his catchphrase and his demeanor came to mind this week, as professional golf appeared headed for a decidedly uncivil battle, to be fought not on a links but in courtrooms and through press releases.  Tuesday the PGA Tour denied requests from multiple players for releases that would have allowed them to skip the Tour-sponsored RBC Canadian Open the second week in June in favor of the first of eight tournaments announced for this year by putative rival LIV Golf.  Within hours of that announcement, the European Tour, now known for sponsorship purposes as the DP World Tour, followed suit.  The PGA Tour’s decision also left no doubt that any member who plays the LIV event at the Centurion Club in London will face a suspension and possibly loss of their Tour membership.  For its part the startup league, which is funded by billions of the Saudi Investment Fund’s sportswashed dollars, sent out CEO Greg Norman the following day to meet the press and promise legal action.

Whatever momentum the Saudi-funded venture once had in its efforts to woo big name golfers away from the two main tours was largely attributable to Phil Mickelson’s interest in signing on.  As a six-time major winner, including last year’s improbable PGA Championship victory at the age of fifty, and a hugely popular star attraction, Mickelson would have provided cover for other familiar names who were enticed by the fat checks being offered by the new tour.  That all blew up in February, when sportswriter and author Alan Shipnuck released excerpts from his forthcoming biography of Mickelson.  While he did not authorize the book, he did sit for interviews with Shipnuck, and in the portions the writer made public Mickelson characterized the Saudis as “scary motherfuckers to be involved with,” who “killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights.  They execute people over there for being gay.”  Mickelson then asked and answered a rhetorical question about why he would even consider joining the Saudi league, characterizing it as a way to get leverage on the PGA Tour, which he accused of displaying “obnoxious greed.” 

Coming from a golfer who has won just a few dollars shy of $95 million in prize money at PGA Tour events during his career, plus untold millions more from endorsement deals made possible by the play that produced those winnings, the justification seemed especially tone deaf.  In addition to sending Mickelson into a self-imposed exile from which he has yet to emerge, Shipnuck’s revelation of his subject’s brazen and, well, obnoxious reasoning, stopped the Saudi league bandwagon, if there ever was one, in its tracks.

As a result, the players who have either acknowledged or been widely reported as asking for the required conflicting event releases have mostly been older Tour members on the downside of their career arc.  The “former world number one” that Norman has crowed about turned out to be either Martin Kaymer, who was indeed atop the rankings for eight weeks in 2011, or Lee Westwood, whose twenty-two weeks as the top-ranked golfer in the world were sandwiched around Kaymer’s brief tenure.  But the two of them have five PGA Tour titles combined, or one more than Scottie Scheffler has won in the past three months.  The short list of American golfers includes Jason Kokrak and Robert Garrigus, certainly two of the finest golfers in the world simply based on their ability to hold a PGA Tour card, but hardly major draws for fans.

It would be easy to dismiss the LIV Golf Invitational Series as “dead in the water,” to use the phrase Rory McIlroy has employed more than once in assessing the new league’s status.  Yet doing so would almost certainly be unwise, even though Norman did nothing to help his cause this week, when in his media appearance he dismissed the Saudi’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by saying “we’ve all made mistakes.”

That’s in part because one or more of the golfers who were denied releases to play next month’s LIV event may yet decide to tee it up in London anyway, and then take the PGA Tour to court when he is suspended or loses his card.  While that litigation could take years to unfold and center around dry and dusty legal issues, at its core the lawsuit would challenge the arrangement that has made the PGA Tour so successful for both players and fans, as well as the scores of local charities who benefit from individual tournaments.

But ultimately the greater threat is not from some judge’s decision rendered four years from now, but from the immediacy of Saudi money.  Norman may have been indignant about the PGA Tour’s actions this week, but he was surely ecstatic about his chief sponsor’s commitment of another $2 billion.  LIV Golf may not have a TV contract or any household names in the field when its first tournament tees off next month, but it does have a very healthy bank account.  In the months ahead those funds will surely be deployed to entice that first big star to join Greg Norman and everyone else dutifully scrubbing in this latest Saudi sportswashing effort.  Though Peter Alliss surely would not have approved of such crass behavior, fans of all our games know that money talks.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 8, 2022

The Unlikely Road To Improbable Roses

After getting his start by training quarter horses for ten years, D. Wayne Lukas has been saddling thoroughbreds for more than four decades.  Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, before the role was taken, for better or worse, by Bob Baffert and his even whiter locks, Lukas with his snowy mane was the most recognizable horse trainer to all the casual fans who only check in on horse racing at Triple Crown time.  Still sending winners to the post at the age of 86 – the Lukas-trained Secret Oath captured the Kentucky Oaks on Friday – Lukas has fourteen wins in the three Triple Crown events, including four victories in the Kentucky Derby.  But none of Lukas’s big wins was as stunning as the one he had a hand in on Saturday, when 80-1 longshot Rich Strike charged along the rail during the stretch run of this year’s Derby, catching the tiring duo of prerace favorites Epicenter and Zandon in the final yards to become the horse with the second longest odds ever to capture the Triple Crown’s first jewel.

As shocking as the result was – Rich Strike’s late charge caught race announcer Larry Collmus by surprise, and the huge upset left the NBC announcing crew almost speechless – it was only possible because on Friday morning, Lukas decided to scratch Ethereal Road, the horse that would have been his 50th Derby runner.  Lukas said that Ethereal Road had not been training well, and he decided that his entry had no chance of capturing any piece of the $3 million purse, which is allocated among the top five finishers, much less actually winning the race.  Having reached that conclusion, Lukas chose to conserve his horse for future contests. 

Had he done so later in the day, nineteen horses would have gone to the post, but Lukas scratched Ethereal Road just before track officials set the Derby’s final field, which meant the next horse on the list of points earned in preliminary races from last September through mid-April drew in, taking over Ethereal Road’s number twenty post position.

That horse, surely the luckiest thoroughbred to ever not finish among the top twenty after all the Derby preps, was Rich Strike.  The 3-year-old chestnut colt earned that spot on the points list not by winning races.  The horse’s only victory in seven previous starts came in a 1-mile, $30,000 claiming race last September.  That is a race, decidedly not a Derby prep, in which any of the entrants can be purchased – “claimed – for the stated amount.  On the strength of that performance, trainer Eric Reed filed such a claim on Rich Strike for owner Richard Dawson. 

Wearing the red and white colors of Dawson’s RED-TR Racing stable, Rich Strike never ran better than third in five races prior to Saturday.  But one of those third-place finishes came five weeks ago in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, which is on the official “Road to the Derby” list, and that result was good for 20 points.  One month earlier, Rich Strike had finished fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial, also a Derby prep with one point awarded for fourth place.  Those 21 total points were just enough to edge Dawson’s horse into position to make it to the starting gate if any of the twenty entrants dropped out.  Then, in the nick of time, one of the most successful trainers ever did just that with his horse.

The full turn of events is even more improbable when one looks at the complete list of horses that earned points in the various Derby preps.  As is typical every year, several bypassed the race, either because of injury or conditioning or because their connections believed, like Lukas on Friday, that despite the points won over the preceding months, the horse wouldn’t be competitive.  On the full list of potential Derby entrants, Rich Strike finished not 21st, but 30th.

Yet against such long odds, the horse was on the track at Churchill Downs as the clock struck post time.  Surely it was a surreal experience for owner Dawson and trainer Reed, neither of whom had ever sent a horse to the gate in a Triple Crown race.  Appropriately enough, Rich Strike’s jockey was Sonny Leon, a veteran rider who has built a successful career far from the roaring crowds and high stakes of major races.  Like the owner and trainer, Leon was making his Triple Crown race debut.  While the far more famous jocks in the race had spent Friday at Churchill, running in the Oaks and other well-paying races, Leon had been on six mounts up the road at Belterra Park in Cincinnati, an old track until now best known as the place Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen got his start as an apprentice in 1976, two years before becoming the youngest rider to win the Triple Crown, aboard Affirmed.

But if Leon was new to the Derby, it certainly wasn’t his first horse race.  Rich Strike broke cleanly, but rather than run down the front stretch on the far outside, greatly lengthening the race’s distance, Leon immediately pulled back and steered hard left across the track towards the rail.  That left Rich Strike near the back of the pack, ahead of just three horses going into the first turn.  But far ahead of Leon and his mount, the tandem of Summer is Tomorrow and Messier were playing a critical role in determining the eventual winner.  The two horses set blazing early fractions of 21.78 seconds for the first quarter mile, and 45.36 for the half, the former the fastest opening two furlongs in Derby history.  But rather than opening a wide lead, like engines pulling a train the two speed demons took most of the field along with them as they motored down the back stretch.

On the race replay – because really, who was watching an 80-1 shot during the race – one can clearly see Rich Strike start a determined run on the far turn, weaving between horses and steadily moving up.  Then, as the field entered the stretch, and with ten horses still to beat, Leon dropped Rich Strike to the rail.  But for a quick swing around an exhausted Messier, there jockey and horse stayed all the way down the stretch.  Still, the attention of Collmus, fans in the stands, and viewers at home was on the duel between Epicenter and Zandon, until suddenly, with a flash of red and white, it became apparent just how tired those two were from the early pace.  Rich Strike rolled past them as if he were the only horse still moving forward, with a stunned Collmus at last calling his name in the final strides.

Over the decades of his lengthy career, D. Wayne Lukas has often responded to questions about why he was running some horse in a particular race with, “you can’t win if you don’t run.”  Given that, of all the many things that had to go exactly right for this year’s Kentucky Derby to have such a storybook ending, perhaps the most unlikely was that on Friday Lukas would decide that his horse couldn’t win even if it did run.  But one day later, Sonny Leon, Eric Reed, Richard Dawson, and, most of all, Rich Strike, proved the legendary trainer’s point.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 5, 2022

It’s Time To Go, Robbie Cano

The start of the week brought a unique deadline to the major league baseball schedule, one in place just this year because of the shortened Spring Training that was the product of the owners’ months-long lockout of players.  In a nod to the reality that players might not be fully prepared for the daily grind of the regular season, franchises were allowed to carry 28 players on the active roster, two more than usual, through the month of April.  However, that temporary dispensation meant the turning of the calendar to May required front office decisions on who to keep with the big club, and who instead got the bad news they were headed down to AAA, or worse.  For the most part, the deadline was of interest only to diehard fans of each ballclub, as the players impacted were hardly household names.  Perhaps a young position player who only began the season in the majors because of the expanded roster, but who then showed surprising promise in limited at-bats during the season’s first three weeks, was rewarded with the chance to continue wearing a big league uniform.  Or perhaps despite his efforts, he and a spot reliever were both given the GPS coordinates of the farm club’s home stadium.

The one certainty is that every decision to keep a marginal player on the roster required an offsetting call to remove someone else.  In the case of the New York Mets, that zero-sum mandate produced the biggest news of the May roster deadline, a decision to cut ties with eight-time All Star second baseman Robinson Cano.  The team could have demoted Dominic Smith, who slots in behind Pete Alonso at first base and thus has been mainly used as a pinch hitter.  But then the 39-year-old Cano, who missed all of the 2021 season while serving his second lengthy suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, did not have a clear starting role either, having appeared in just half of the Mets games and several of those as the designated hitter.  In 43 plate appearances, Cano was batting an anemic .195 with a .501 OPS.  He had a single home run, the only one of his eight hits that went for extra bases.

Cano was designated for assignment, the MLB process that triggers a seven-day period during which he could be traded or claimed off waivers by another club.  There is no chance of either of those outcomes, since Cano is owed a total of $48 million over this year and next, the final two seasons covered by the 10-year, $240 million deal he inked with the Seattle Mariners prior to the 2014 campaign.  The Mets are on the hook for all but $7.5 million of that under the terms of the trade that brought Cano to Queens in 2018.  That, of course, is a big piece of why news of Cano’s release was so noteworthy.  New York general manager Billy Eppler explained the financial ramifications to team owner Steve Cohen, who told Eppler to “make the baseball decision.”

It is safe to say that is not the answer Eppler’s counterparts in Cincinnati or Oakland, or perhaps even most other big league cities, would have heard from their owners.  Fixated as they are by the bottom line, far too many of those privileged to hold an MLB franchise would prefer to eke out some return, no matter how small, on such a large financial commitment, even though doing so decreased their team’s competitiveness.  Cohen’s rare view, applied not just to this contract but also to the many decisions that go into building a roster and navigating the longest season, is certainly good news for Mets fans, if not, in this instance, for Cano.  Then again, there has not been all that much good news throughout the second half of Cano’s now 17-year major league career. 

It was all so very different, once upon a time.  Cano seemed destined to be a ballplayer.  His father, Jose, was signed by the Yankees and pitched in the farm systems of both New York and Atlanta before appearing in six major league games with Houston in 1989.  He named his son after Jackie Robinson, and for much of his career Cano wore number 24 because it was the inverse of Robinson’s retired number 42.  Born in the Dominican Republic and splitting his childhood between there and New Jersey, Cano like his father was signed by the Yankees as an international free agent at the age of 18.  He made his Yankee Stadium debut in 2005, quickly becoming a fan favorite as Derek Jeter’s infield partner.  Through nine seasons in the Bronx, Cano batted .309 with an OPS of .860.  He compiled 44.4 WAR over those years while winning five Silver Slugger and two Gold Glove awards.

If Yankee fans had a complaint about Cano, it was that he sometimes appeared lackadaisical.  But in fairness, while he didn’t always sprint down the line to first after hitting a routine ground ball, Cano possessed so much natural talent that he made the game look far easier than it was.  There were many plays, on both sides of the ball, when what New York fans saw was not a player who wasn’t giving his all, but one who was always exceptionally smooth and in control.    

When he reached free agency after the 2013 season, the Yankees tried to woo Cano with their mystique.  In addition to a generous contract offer, they hinted at his trajectory toward becoming the first Dominican native with a plaque in Monument Park.  But perhaps too aware of his own raw ability, Cano’s first and only priority was money, so he took the biggest offer on the table, which was from Seattle.  New York fans were bitterly disappointed, but who can blame anyone for seeking to maximize their income, even when their job is entertaining those of us in the stands?

Still, while the wholesale move of MLB franchises away from offering rich long-term deals to any but the most prized free agents was still a few years away, the Yankees’ decision not to outbid the Mariners’ offer was a precursor of what was to come.  In his first season in Seattle, Cano essentially matched his numbers from the previous year in New York.  But then began a steady decline, until 2018.  That year Cano was having an early season renaissance, until the likely reason for it was revealed when he tested positive for Furosemide, a drug banned because it’s a diuretic that masks the use of performance enhancers. 

Cano served an 80-game suspension and was traded to the Mets after that season.  He posted the worst offensive stats of his career in 2019, before his numbers rebounded in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.  But once again, those statistics were called into question when Cano failed another PEDS test, resulting in a full season suspension in 2021.  Now, with whatever hope there was for a comeback seemingly exhausted, a career that once looked like it would be an arguable case for Cooperstown instead limps toward a lame and lonely end.

At least one sports website has posted a list of potential landing spots for Cano, which was every team with weak numbers from the DH position.  Once he is officially a free agent, any club can sign him for the league minimum salary, leaving Cohen to pay the bulk of Cano’s very large paycheck.  But even if that should occur, it is painfully obvious that the extraordinary grace and talent of Robbie Cano is but a memory of another time.  All that is left now is the far too common ending to an athletic career.  T.S. Eliot’s century-old words, though penned in a different context, still come immediately to mind.  Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 1, 2022

The Weekend’s Lasting Story Wasn’t The Draft

Off the field of play, the big sports story of the weekend was of course the NFL Draft.  Taking place for the first time this year in Las Vegas and covered live by the assorted television and streaming outlets of ABC/ESPN as well as the NFL Network, the weeks leading up to Thursday night’s first round were, as always, filled with analysis and multiple iterations of mock drafts by assorted pundits.  Much of what those self-styled experts offered fans in advance was rendered meaningless when teams completed a record nine trades during the first round, scrambling the draft order and thus the needs of the team making the selection at various spots.

In the end, that constant resetting of expectations probably impacted this draft’s appeal – TV ratings were down by twenty percent from last year – less than the lack of an obvious number one choice, a reality occasioned in part by the weak quarterback class and absence of a standout offensive threat.  When the Steelers took local University of Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett with the 20th pick, it was the lowest slot for the first quarterback chosen since 1997.  Long before Pickett came off the board, the first five selections were defenders, and three of the next four were offensive linemen.  All critical positions in a team sport, but decidedly not the stuff of headlines.

For all the words written in the runup to the NFL Draft and all the attention paid to the carefully staged three-day spectacle, this weekend’s lead story is about potential.  Oh sure, the collegians chosen have all accomplished a great deal at that level of competition.  But when fans cheer their team’s first round selection or moan bitterly about the franchise’s decision to reach deep into the talent pool and choose an unlikely player, they do so based on a perception of what the newest member of their team will contribute one, or two, or five seasons from now.  Opinions strongly held and loudly expressed on draft day will often be rendered moot by the passage of time.  Some top picks will have career arcs like Ryan Leaf, and the occasional sixth rounder will turn out to be Tom Brady.  Like so much of what the NFL does, its Draft is an exquisitely marketed extravaganza, but like so much of what the NFL does, it is more about style than substance.

Another story which, like the NFL Draft, was not about any of this weekend’s games or the current seasons of any sport, garnered much less attention though it was far more meaningful than the annual stocking of NFL rosters.  Appropriately enough, given the weekend’s focus, it was a story that centered on the shaping of the careers and lives of college athletes.

Charlaine Vivian Stringer, who always goes by C. Vivian, became the women’s basketball coach at Cheyney State College, a historically Black university just outside Philadelphia, in 1971, when she was barely out of college herself.  She had been a trailblazer since she was a teenager, having successfully sued her high school when she was denied a spot on the cheerleading squad because of her race.  At a time when women’s sports were still largely an afterthought (Title IX was a year away from becoming law), Stringer wasted no time raising the profile of women’s basketball and her program’s place in it.  Competing for campus bragging rights with John Chaney, who ran the men’s program in his first head coaching job before eventually moving on to become a legend at Temple, Stringer piled up winning records, with her teams never losing more than five games in any season.

After she had been at Cheyney State for a decade, the NCAA finally sponsored its first women’s Division I tournament in 1982, with 32 teams filling the inaugural bracket.  As an independent Cheyney State had no conference avenue to the tournament, but Stringer’s team won an at-large bid on the strength of its 24-2 record.  The Wolves swept through the East Region, beating Auburn, N.C. State, and Kansas State to book a date in the very first Women’s Final Four.  There Cheyney State downed Maryland in the semifinals before finally falling to Louisiana Tech in the championship game.  One of the players on the winning squad was Kim Mulkey, who would go on to build her own Hall of Fame coaching career at Baylor and, as of last season, LSU.

A year later, after a second trip to the NCAA tournament, Stringer was wooed by the athletic department at Iowa.  A deciding factor in accepting the job after always living in eastern Pennsylvania was the university’s promise of intensive medical care for Stringer’s young daughter, who had been stricken with spinal meningitis not long before her mother’s Final Four season with Cheyney State.

At Iowa she proved just as adept at winning with a large Big 10 program as she had at a small independent school.  Stringer’s Hawkeyes regularly made it to the NCAA Tournament starting in her third season, and in 1993 second-seeded Iowa upset number one Tennessee in the Mideast Regional Final, giving Stringer her second trip to the Final Four.

As if on cue, two seasons later Rutgers offered Stringer a chance to return to more familiar ground on the east coast.  The opportunity had to be especially appealing just then, for in 1992, even as she was preparing for Iowa’s best season under her guidance, her husband Bill had died of a heart attack.  To no one’s surprise, Stringer was as successful at her third coaching stop as she had been at the first two.  In 2000, when the Scarlet Knights made the first of two Final Four appearances under her guidance, she became the first coach to lead three separate programs, men’s or women’s, to college basketball’s ultimate weekend.

That is but one of C. Vivian Stringer’s many records, achievement being celebrated throughout the college basketball community this weekend, when Stringer announced her retirement after half a century as a head coach.  But she would no doubt place greater importance on the young lives she shaped, including more than twenty who went on to the WNBA, which didn’t even exist for nearly half of Stringer’s career.  It was a career that exemplified excellence and resilience in equal measure, filled with great accomplishment but also laden with the awful burden of carrying on through personal tragedy.  The career of a trailblazer. 

When she began that journey, Stringer and Marian Washington stood out as Black coaches in women’s basketball.  Last month, when South Carolina downed UConn 64-49 at this year’s national championship game, Dawn Staley became the first Black head coach, male or female, to win multiple NCAA titles.  This weekend Staley tweeted to Stringer, “The strength of your shoulders allowed us to stand tall.”  It was a single sentence encapsulating a legacy far more important than anything the NFL had to offer this weekend.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 28, 2022

Predictions, And Superteams, That Didn’t Age Well

As longtime readers can attest, the next piece that makes bold predictions about how a league’s season or playoff tournament is going to turn out will be the first such to appear in this space.  The reason is neither a dearth of opinions nor a fear of being laughably incorrect.  On Sports and Life has both plenty of the former and years of experience with the latter.  Rather it reflects two firm beliefs – one, that there is a difference between being a fan and being an expert; and two, that randomness and chance are fundamental aspects of all our sports, meaning even those with sufficient knowledge and insight to be considered experts have limited ability to predict outcomes.  To renew a phrase that, in contrast to predictions, appears in this space quite often, there is always a reason to actually play the game.

While On Sports and Life may abstain, prediction pieces are a staple of sports writing.  They appear just before the regular seasons of all our major team sports, and often again at the other end of the campaign, once the playoff field is set.  They also pop up in the days leading to individual competitions such as major golf tournaments.  Though one suspects many writers approach the assignment with all the enthusiasm of a rendezvous with a dentist’s drill, publications employing multiple scribes will offer up conversational stories in which the merits of each individual’s picks are debated.  Prediction articles are inevitable, unavoidable, and almost always wrong.

NBA fans received an especially emphatic reminder of that Monday, when the visiting Boston Celtics completed a four-game sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, 116-112 at New York City’s Barclay Center.  The victory, which had come to seem inevitable to many of the Nets’ faithful, ended their dreams of a title far short of that goal.  But more than that, it meant that of the two teams widely predicted to be the contestants in this year’s NBA Finals, one was bounced from the playoffs in Round 1, while the other never played a single postseason game, despite the league’s expanded tournament bracket.

In a distant and surely simpler time – namely, last October – the Los Angeles Lakers and the Nets bordered on consensus picks as the franchises most likely to emerge from the Western and Eastern Conferences and battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.  The two teams were picked by computers, like those that power the algorithms at BetIQ, a website that claims to “aggregate a vast repository” of stats and data and crunch it through proprietary analyses to advise gambling fans on what clubs to back.  The Nets were given a 29% chance of winning the championship, with the Lakers second among the league’s thirty franchises at 19%.  Both numbers were roughly three times the next best odds in Brooklyn’s and L.A.’s respective conferences.  The squads were even more popular with humans, with six of eight experts at CBS Sports choosing the Lakers as Western Conference champs, and seven of eight going with the Nets in the East.  So it went, across a range of outlets and forecasting models.

But all those predictions began to come apart literally as soon as the season tipped off.  Both teams were featured as part of the NBA’s opening doubleheader on October 19, and both lost.  The Nets were smoked by the Bucks in Milwaukee, 127-104, while the Lakers watched a 6-point halftime lead melt away under Steph Curry’s hot hand, as the Warriors rallied for a 121-114 win, disappointing the crowd at the Staples Center.

As is always the case when a campaign goes awry, neither franchise’s season turned on those or any other single game.  Nor does either have the luxury of going into the offseason knowing they are just one small fix away from realizing the potential that seemed so real to so many just six months ago.  Instead, when the Lakers last flickering chance of making even the play-in round was extinguished with a loss to the Suns on April 5, and when Boston ended Brooklyn’s misery at the beginning of this week, there were myriad reasons for the failure of each club. 

In L.A., LeBron James missed games early and late in the schedule due to various injuries, and he and Anthony Davis, who was also frequently hurt, rarely appeared together, sharing the court just once during a disastrous seven-game losing streak at the beginning of March.  But injuries alone didn’t doom the Lakers’ chances.  The team’s vaunted offseason acquisition of Russell Westbrook proved to be a flop, with the 9-time All Star suddenly looking all his 33 years while putting up terrible numbers.  Just this week the postmortems took an ugly turn, with Westbrook blaming recently fired coach Frank Vogel for misusing him, and the team’s front office leaking complaints that the Westbrook trade was forced upon it by the agency that represents both James and Davis.

Brooklyn also suffered from not being able to always put its best lineup on the floor, though for the Nets the problem wasn’t so much injury – though there was some of that – as petulance.  Kyrie Irving refused a COVID vaccination, rendering him ineligible for games at Toronto all season, and worse, for every Nets home game until very late in the schedule.  Usually playing without Irving meant more pressure on Kevin Durant and last year’s midseason pickup James Harden.  But rather than rise to the occasion Harden soured on the Nets and effectively quit on the team, ultimately forcing a trade to Philadelphia.

The overriding lesson for fans to take from the herd mentality that led so many pundits to jump on the Lakers and Nets bandwagons is that a superteam is more than a glittering roster.  Many of those picking both clubs were blinded by the star power assembled on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and South Figueroa Street in L.A.  Durant, Kyrie, and Harden, together!  LeBron, AD, and Westbrook, wearing the same uniform!  What could possibly go wrong?  Quite a bit, as it turns out, because even when both clubs managed to field their ideal lineups, the stars often failed to mesh.  Basketball remains a team sport, one in which a lesser roster of players who complement and feed off each other can triumph over a gaudy lineup of individual egos.  There may not be an algorithm for that, but perhaps a writer or two will keep it in mind, the next time they’re asked to offer up some predictions.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 25, 2022

Every Game Is Opening Day For Someone

Once upon a very long time ago, this fan first visited a major league ballpark.  The site was Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., hastily built in 1911 after Boundary Field, the original wooden home of the first local franchise called the Senators, burned to the ground just weeks before Opening Day.  Like almost all its contemporaries, Griffith Stadium met the wrecking ball long ago, with Howard University Hospital now occupying the spot in northwest D.C. where once the Senators entertained the other seven American League clubs.  It would be a lie and given the passage of decades not a very convincing one, to claim a clear memory of that day.  Yet in the recesses of the mind an image persists.  It is of watching those Senators playing a long-forgotten opponent from seats on the first base side.  That picture can still be called forth at will, if not the result of the game, though odds are it was not favorable to the home nine.

We grow jaded as we age.  So much in life that once seemed new and fresh becomes familiar and banal.  But once every springtime – except for the COVID-infected 2020 season – there is an experience that familiarity cannot diminish.  Late Saturday morning, the Metro North train from Stamford crawls slowly around a sweeping right turn as it leaves the main line between Connecticut and Gotham, crossing over to the more western route that daily takes commuters to and from their homes in towns along the Hudson River.  This train, however, will not venture north to Greystone or Croton-Harmon, for the final stop of its journey is the first station on this line, at 153rd Street in the Bronx.  Passengers spill onto the platform and mount the steps to the open-air station.  From there they follow a pedestrian walkway that crosses back over the railroad tracks before descending again to ground level, leaving just a short walk past the ghosts of yesteryear to the new Yankee Stadium.  For this fan, it is the first visit of the new season, a personal opening day.

The bunting that hung two weeks earlier for the campaign’s real first game is gone, and there are no special pre-game ceremonies.  But after crossing 161st Street and Babe Ruth Plaza, which serves as the Stadium’s concrete front yard, after navigating security and passing through one of the many active turnstiles, then finally winding one’s way through the growing crowd, there is still the visceral thrill of the year’s first glimpse of the field.  The exterior of the Stadium is a blend of neutral colors – limestone, granite, and concrete.  Surely the exposure to that nondescript backdrop during one’s approach helps make the sudden appearance of the playing surface so exhilarating.

Suddenly there is color, in deep, brilliant hues.  A vast greensward sweeps away from the closest foul line out across the acres of outfield, its boundaries sharply defined by the red-tinged dirt of the warning track in the distance, and the infield near at hand.  All that is almost encircled by the climbing rows of dark blue seats, stretching up over three separate tiers, except in the furthest reaches of the outfield.  There, on both sides of straightway center, the metallic gleam of the bleachers reflects the sun and dazzles the eye.  And in between those sections, beyond the outfield wall in the deepest reach of the field, is Monument Park, the eternal tribute to the pantheon of heroes that have worn the uniform of sports’ most celebrated franchise.  For a moment or two, the club’s offseason sins of not signing one’s favored free agent or extending a local star’s contract are, if not forgiven, at least set aside.

Still, this fan did not drive down from New England and take the express train from Stamford to gawk at some scenery, no matter how majestic.  There is a game to be contested against the visiting squad from Cleveland.  The Guardians are off to a decent start, albeit one measured against low expectations.  The latter is never the case in the Bronx, where the passage of a dozen years since the Yankees last World Series appearance is like an angry gallstone burning the gut of every New York fan.  After triumphing in the opener of this three-game set the previous evening, the home squad gives the ball to Nestor Cortes for this afternoon’s quest to win two in a row.

The 27-year-old left-hander arrived in New York bearing the nickname Hialeah Kid, a nod to his Florida home from infancy, after his family relocated from Cuba before his first birthday.   But that moniker is quickly giving way to a new one, Nasty Nestor.  A Yankees draftee, Cortes had an indifferent minor league career that included two detours to other teams, a Rule 5 Draft claim by Baltimore in 2017 that the Orioles later renounced, and a trade to Seattle in 2019 that ended with a release from the Mariners.  Each time Cortes returned to New York’s farm system, and finally last year he made the big club and instantly became a fan favorite.  Certainly Cortes’s 2.90 ERA and 103 strikeouts over 93 innings contributed to that, but no more so than his drooping mustache that tests the limits of the Yankees facial hair policy, his less than herculean physique, and his unique windup, which will sometimes vary from pitch to pitch, as if he is making it up on the fly.  Cortes is Everyman in pinstripes.

He delights us today with six-plus innings of solid work, fanning eight while yielding just one hit.  Unfortunately, that ball winds up in the right field seats off the bat of Josh Naylor in the 5th inning, a home run that also plates Amed Rosario, who had walked, and puts Cleveland on top 2-0.  They are the first earned runs surrendered by Cortes this season.  But the Yankees strike back with a pair of their own in the home half, and when Cortes departs in the 7th the score is still tied.  We loudly cheer our unlikely hero, as we did a few innings earlier when he outraced, and ultimately out dove, the Guardians’ Steven Kwan to first base for the putout on a ground ball that had pulled Anthony Rizzo well off the bag.  It was an extraordinarily athletic play from the Yankee who looks least like an athlete.  The legend of Nestor grows.

The balance of the game is a taut back-and-forth.  We take the lead on a Josh Donaldson home run in the 7th.  We give it back one inning later.  We are down to our last strike in the 9th, and a beautiful spring afternoon suddenly seems gray and chill.  But then Isiah Kiner-Falefa sends a double off the wall in left, scoring pinch-runner Tim Locastro, and the game is once again tied.  Left out of the starting lineup, not surprising given his slow start, Gleyber Torres is sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter.  This count also goes to two strikes, and extra innings seem certain.  Except Torres has a better idea, sending the 1-2 delivery into the gap in right-center field for a long single that allows Kiner-Falefa to scamper home.  Yankees 5, Guardians 4.

Heading for the exit, this fan recalls how from time to time during the game, the jumbotron on the giant center field scoreboard displayed messages paid for by fans, a common practice across MLB.  There were celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries, and multiple displays welcoming someone, usually a child, to his or her first Yankee game.  Given the times, no doubt many of those youngsters spent the day mesmerized by a smartphone app rather than anything happening on the field.  Perhaps they even missed the oversized greeting their parents paid for.  But maybe, just maybe, there were one or two who years hence will not be able to recall the final score or even what team the Yankees played but will still carry a clear image in their mind, of watching their heroes from a seat on the first base side.   

Back past the ghosts now, the wraiths who linger in the shadows around Heritage Field, the public ballpark on the site of the original House that Ruth Built.  In the slanting sunlight of late afternoon, one can sometimes see them if one looks in just the right place at just the right time.  Even if the spirits choose not to appear, fans of the Great Game can often hear their voices.  Perhaps it is Munson, or Gehrig, or maybe even the Mick, who calls out to the fan hurrying to catch a train, “welcome home.”

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