Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 14, 2019

Potential Alone Won’t Win A Roster Spot

A NOTE TO READERS: As evidenced below, On Sports and Life is currently in warmer climes than New Hampshire. Because of these travels, there will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. Thanks as always for your support.

It was quiet at the New York Yankees minor league complex on Tuesday morning. The sprawling facility, with its four fields laid out like a lucky clover, the four home plates surrounding a central observation platform where coaches and fans can watch scores of prospects pursue their dreams in multiple workouts and games all going on at once, sits adjacent to Dale Mabry Highway, the broad thoroughfare that runs north-south through Tampa as if laid out with a straightedge.

On the map it’s not far at all from this training facility to the team’s major league Spring Training camp surrounding Steinbrenner Field. The latter sits barely a half mile away on the other side of Dale Mabry, only a few long Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton home runs to the north and six busy lanes of traffic to the west. But in career terms, the two complexes are light years apart, existing in different galaxies of the Great Game. As morning turned to afternoon on Tuesday and the late winter sun worked to burn through gray cloud cover, the contrast was also reflected in the bustle of activity at the big league camp that was a far cry from the sleepy atmosphere a few blocks south.

Hours before the exhibition match between the Yankees and the visiting Orioles, throngs of fans flock the grounds, watching various workouts on the two practice fields or waiting in the outfield seats for home run balls as batting practice gets underway on the Steinbrenner Field diamond. On a field just outside the main stadium more than a dozen pitchers play catch in the outfield while fans line the fence along the foul line, clamoring for autographs. A few yards away coaches are running a large group of players through defensive drills on the infield.

The ground ball workouts continue even as the pitchers depart and groups of players take turns stepping into the cage surrounding home plate for batting practice. Because the Yankees have yet to make substantial cuts at this year’s spring training, many of those taking swings are unfamiliar even to the most devoted fan. Soon enough these hitters will receive the news they least want to hear and will pack their duffels for the short trip down the highway to the minor league facility. But one group of three is instantly recognizable. Batting in turn are backup catcher Austin Romine, first baseman Greg Bird, and outfielder Clint Frazier.

Having turned thirty during the offseason, Romine is the oldest of the trio. He’s also the one with the most time with the big club. Drafted by New York in 2007, he made his major league debut in September 2011. After missing most of the following season with a back injury, Romine shuttled between the Bronx and the Yankees AAA affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders for three years before finally winning the backup job behind starting catcher Gary Sanchez in 2016. The demands of the position mean that even backup catchers see a fair amount of action over the course of the longest season. That reality coupled with injuries to Sanchez in both 2017 and 2018 led to Romine appearing in almost half the team’s games each of the last two years. While there is nominally a competition for backup catcher at every spring training, there’s little doubt that Romine will again be with the club when it heads north in two weeks.

The potential for Romine’s two batting practice partners is much higher, but their immediate future is far less certain. Like the backup catcher, Bird has spent his entire career in the Yankees organization, having been drafted by the club in 2011. Frazier was a highly touted prospect for Cleveland, who came to New York in 2016 as part of the trade that sent reliever Andrew Miller to Ohio. With his power from the left side of the plate and capable defense at first base, Bird was tagged as the eventual replacement for Mark Teixeira, while with his five-tool skillset Frazier was touted as a “can’t miss” big leaguer when Cleveland made him the fifth overall selection in the 2013 draft.

When given the chance both have shown glimpses of their considerable upsides. Thrust into a starting role soon after his initial callup when Teixeira suffered a season-ending leg injury in 2015, Bird slugged eleven homers in just forty-six games and posted a very promising OPS of .871. But in the ensuing offseason he was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and the resulting surgery sidelined him for the entire next year. Since then he has been unable to complete a full season without further injury. In 2017 it was a broken foot and last year surgery to his right ankle. When Bird has made the Yankees lineup his numbers have not matched his promise. In limited play over the last two years his batting average has failed to eclipse .200.

Faced with that lack of production the Yankees turned to the Luke Voit down the stretch last season, and the unheralded player, acquired in a deadline trade with St. Louis, made the most of his opportunity. In just thirty-nine games Voit smashed fourteen home runs and recorded an eye-popping 1.095 OPS. As this year’s training camp opened GM Brian Cashman announced that while the competition for the starting job at first base was open, Voit had a “leg up” based on his late season heroics.

Promoted to the majors on July 1, 2017, Frazier had two hits, including his first big league home run, in his very first game. He became just the second Yankee, after some guy named DiMaggio, to start his career with nine extra base hits in less than fifteen games. But in the early days of last year’s spring training Frazier suffered what was first diagnosed as a mild concussion from running into an outfield wall while making a catch. The injury proved anything but mild, and he wound up missing most of the year while dealing with blurry vision and memory loss. Finally cleared for play at the start of this camp, Frazier now confronts a jammed Yankee outfield, with Judge, Stanton, Aaron Hicks and veteran Brett Gardner all ahead of him on the team’s depth chart.

It’s now two weeks until Opening Day in the Bronx. Cashman, manager Aaron Boone, and the rest of New York’s talent evaluators face some hard choices in the coming days. With just twenty-five roster spots, the team likely has room for only one full-time first baseman. While Bird has had a fine spring and appears to have finally overcome his injuries, Voit has been nearly as solid. Similarly, it will be hard to squeeze five outfielders into the available roster space, and the likely logic is that after missing almost all last season, Frazier can get much-needed playing time in AAA.

Batting practice ends, and the three teammates head for the Yankees clubhouse. Soon enough the major leaguers will be at home in their far more luxurious facility in the Bronx. A breakout performance in the next few days, or the intervention of fate in the form of an injury could still change minds. But for all the promise and potential of Greg Bird and Clint Frazier, when New York gets ready to again play Baltimore, this time in a game that counts, it’s likely that only the journeyman Austin Romine will have a locker in that clubhouse.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 10, 2019

March Madness Awaits, As Does A Day Of Reckoning

With Selection Sunday now just seven days away, with conference tournaments either already underway or about to tip-off, it’s time for college basketball to take its annual turn at center stage of our sports. A week from now hardcourt fans will be debating the decisions of the ten-member selection committee that will award thirty-six at-large bids and seed those teams plus the thirty-two conference winners who automatically advance to the NCAA Division I men’s tournament. One day later many of those same fans will do it all over again over a second committee’s choices for the women’s bracket.

Already the first four spots in the men’s tournament have been decided. The Murray State Racers became the first squad with a ticket to March Madness, winning the Ohio Valley Conference championship Saturday evening, 77-65 over Belmont. One day later Liberty University, with 15,000 students on its Lynchburg, Virginia campus, and more than six times that number taking online courses, beat rival Lipscomb 74-68 to claim the Atlantic Sun Conference crown. The Runnin’ Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb University took ownership of the Big South Conference title and a first-time appearance in the Big Dance by outlasting Belmont, 76-65. And in the Missouri Valley Conference title tilt, Bradley trailed Northern Iowa by as many as eighteen points in the second half before storming back to seize a 57-54 victory. It was, not surprisingly, the biggest comeback in the history of the MVC championship game.

While these four teams will always be the first ones into this year’s bracket, odds are they will also be among the first schools out. Apart from a few loyal alumni, few fans are likely to have their carefully crafted brackets broken if Gardner-Webb or Liberty exit the tournament in its very early days. The name programs and the major conference tournaments are still to come this week, from Orleans Arena in Las Vegas to Spectrum Center in Charlotte to Madison Square Garden.

Still, some team will ultimately prove to be this year’s Loyola-Chicago, a low seed with matching expectations that gets both hot and lucky at just the right time and makes a surprising run that, for a week or two at least, turns a previously ignored basketball program into the toast of sports fans across the land. Against all odds perhaps this year will also see the second coming of a UMBC, a number sixteen seed that pulls off the impossible by taking down a number one in the first round. It is the ever-present possibility of the unexpected and the improbable that gives the tournament its luster and attracts fans who don’t give college basketball a second thought forty-nine weeks of the year.

Which means that three stories gracing sports pages in the past few days couldn’t have come at a worse time for the NCAA and the schools and television networks that reap millions from both the men’s and women’s Division I tournaments.

Tuesday in Manhattan U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan sentenced three men to prison for their roles in the burgeoning scandal of graft and payola in the recruiting of high school athletes to major college programs. James Gatto, formerly a marketing executive at Adidas was sentenced to nine months, while Merl Code, another ex-employee of the shoe company, and sports agent Christian Dawkins each received six month sentences. All three were convicted last fall of defrauding the University of Louisville, and in Gatto’s case North Carolina State and the University of Kansas as well, by using cash payments to steer highly rated high school players to certain schools.

The sentences were relatively light, in part because Judge Kaplan was not convinced that the schools were truly the victims of the scheme. Rather he saw the greatest damage inflicted on the young men whose basketball talent was the prize at stake for both the defendants and the schools. Kaplan cited Brian Bowen Jr., a prized prospect who has been declared ineligible and who now plays professionally in Australia. But the news of the sentencing also reminded fans that two more trials are yet to come, and that the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball is ongoing.

Any doubts about that were quashed on Friday, when Louisiana State University suspended head coach Will Wade, shortly after evidence of a taped phone call between Wade and Dawkins was leaked to the press. In it the coach boasts that a recruit has been given “a hell of an offer,” but hasn’t committed because a third party “didn’t get enough of (a) piece of the pie in the deal.” The recruit is believed to be freshman guard Javonte Smart, who is averaging better than eleven points a game for the tenth-ranked Tigers.

In addition to suspending Wade, LSU athletic director Joe Aleva sat Smart for the team’s final game against Vanderbilt rather than risk later having to forfeit the result should the player later be ruled ineligible by the NCAA. For his trouble Aleva was booed and subjected to profane chants by LSU fans at the game, which the Tigers won 80-59.

While unfortunate for Aleva, and for anyone who still clings to the apparently antique notion that college sports should be contested by amateur student-athletes, the reaction of fans at Peter Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge Saturday night amounted to an endorsement of the third story related to college athletics, Friday’s federal court decision cracking open the door to compensating college players. In Oakland, California, Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that current rules barring payments beyond scholarships and related educational costs violated antitrust laws.

While stopping well short of the plaintiffs’ hope in the class action case brought by a group of football and basketball players for a fully open market, Wilken’s decision chips away at the NCAA’s fervent opposition to any kind of compensation beyond the value of a scholarship, even as the Association and its member schools profit handsomely from the players efforts. Wilken acknowledged this, writing that “the extraordinary revenues that defendants derive from these sports” demonstrate that capping players’ compensation at scholarships and related costs “is not commensurate with the value that they create.”

For now, attention will turn back to the action on the court, rather than in the courts. But after all the brackets have been busted and the confetti has fallen at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for the men and at Amalie Arena in Tampa for the women, the hard and decidedly less romantic truth about the power of money in big-time college sports will remain. Whether by criminal indictment or civil litigation, that truth is gradually being exposed, and as it is, change is surely coming.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 7, 2019

LeBron’s Milestone Can’t Replace A Lost Season

Perhaps it was because of the 1,190 regular season games that LeBron James has played during his NBA career, this was just his 47th in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform. Maybe it was because everyone in the capacity crowd at the Staples Center knew the Lakers had lost three in a row, beginning with a particularly demoralizing defeat to the Phoenix Suns, at the time the worst franchise in the league. Or perhaps it was because aside from marking the milestone, the bucket that James sunk after taking a short bounce pass from Rajon Rondo at the free throw line and forcing his way down the lane past Nikola Jokic and Torrey Craig, merely cut the second quarter lead of the visiting Denver Nuggets to fifteen points, meaning L.A. appeared on its way to a fourth straight loss and an all but certain absence from the playoffs.

Whatever the reason, the reaction to James passing Michael Jordan for fourth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list Wednesday night was decidedly muted. The fans came to their feet for in a standing ovation while the game was briefly stopped after James’s career points total rose to 32,294, two more than Jordan. A timeout was called so he could receive the congratulations of his teammates and coaches, and then the dominant player of his time sat on the bench with a towel over his face, clearly feeling the emotion of surpassing the legend who James grew up idolizing.

But that was in sharp contrast to the night James broke the 30,0000 point barrier, just over one year ago. That event was widely feted, including by James himself, who put up a self-congratulatory post on Instagram featuring a photo of his younger self on the afternoon before the game in which he actually scored his 30,000th point. The reaction at the Staples Center was also far more restrained than when Kobe Bryant moved past Jordan in 2014. That game was halted for a ceremony in which the team owner presented Bryant with the game ball while the crowd cheered. The accolade was even more impressive since the Lakers were on the road at the time, and the team owner was Glen Taylor of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

To be sure, James received plenty of support from both current and former players, including Jordan, on various social media outlets and in statements to the press. But precisely because he remains the player at center stage of the $8 billion business that is the NBA, James carries the weight of enormous expectations, whatever uniform he wears. What Wednesday night made clear is that even a great personal achievement is not enough to overcome the rank disappointment that fans in both L.A. and across the country feel about the Lakers performance this year.

It is a sentiment that is not entirely fair. The considered judgment of most analysts when the season started last October was that the players L.A. had surrounded James with for his first season on the West Coast did not have the makings of a champion. Much of the roster was ranked as too young and inexperienced to be supportive, and the consensus opinion was that the handful of veterans did not necessarily complement James’s game. The Lakers were given a shot at making the playoffs, though not considered a lock to do so, and only the most ardent L.A. fan had them running deep into the postseason.

But then the team got off to a fast start, and by the time the Lakers’ record peaked at 17-11 in December, the tempered expectations had been replaced by growing confidence that L.A. would return to the playoffs for the first time in six years, and an emerging dream that once there, King James would carry the franchise further than anyone had dared hope.

That all unraveled with astonishing speed, beginning with a groin injury that sidelined James for several weeks. When he finally returned the team’s early season chemistry had been lost, and the defeats continued to outnumber the wins. The heady record of the Christmas season has given way to a mark five games below .500, at 30-35, after a comeback effort against the Nuggets fell short Wednesday night. Los Angeles is now 11th in the Western Conference standings, 6 ½ games out of a spot in the postseason tournament. The Lakers might well have to run the table from here on in to make the playoffs, which is another way of saying that James’s thirteen-year streak of postseason basketball is about to end.

There will be consequences of course. Head coach Luke Walton is assuredly a dead man walking, and L.A.’s current roster will look very different come next October. That’s when James, by then approaching his 35th birthday, will once again try to bring joy to Lakers fans, as he has already done for fanbases in Cleveland and Miami. Sometime in that next campaign, most likely early in its second half, James will approach his next milestone on the career scoring list. It’s the third spot, currently occupied by Bryant, who spent his entire career in L.A. How longtime Lakers fans react to that will probably depend a lot on how their team is faring at the time. As LeBron James learned this week, the one question fans always ask, even of the greatest stars, is what have you done for me lately?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 3, 2019

Two Stories Of Great Skill, Or Greater Hubris?

The stories were just two of the scores that filled sports pages and websites in the past week, and because they centered on athletes who are far from the current limelight both could easily have been missed by casual fans. On the surface the two reports seem utterly unrelated. Yet running through what amounted to a pair of updates in the ongoing sagas of Johnny Manziel and Olivia Moultrie were a couple of common threads, for both are cautionary tales about the limits of ability and the narrow line between confidence and hubris that so often defines an athlete’s career.

Manziel is obviously the more familiar of those two names. Like a Fourth of July fireworks display, Johnny Manziel burst onto the public consciousness in 2012 as the quarterback for Texas A&M. A redshirt freshman, he won the open signal-caller’s job over two other candidates, and quickly made head coach Kevin Sumlin look smart for choosing him. In the Aggies fourth game of the season Manziel broke Archie Manning’s four-decade old record by piling up 557 yards of total offense, passing for 453 and rushing for an additional 104 against Arkansas. The Razorbacks led 10-7 after one quarter but were shut out the rest of the way as Manziel’s offense tallied a total of 58 points. The record stood for all of two weeks, until he totaled 576 yards of offense against Louisiana Tech, becoming the first player in Southeastern Conference history to record two 500-yard games in a single season.

The highlight reel just kept rolling for Manziel, who later won two huge games on the road. First he led A&M to a 63-21 rout at Auburn, and then he silenced the capacity crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa by shocking number one Alabama 29-24. After a 10-2 regular season Texas A&M and Manziel began the new year with a 41-13 thrashing of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

By then he had become the first freshman and just the fifth collegiate player ever to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season. His totals far outstripped those mileposts, with 3,706 passing and 1,410 rushing yards that produced 26 touchdowns through the air and 21 more on the ground. He had also become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in early December, just two days after his twentieth birthday.

Manziel played a second college season, producing numbers nearly as good while trademarking his “Johnny Football” nickname and becoming known for rubbing his thumb and two fingers together in the commonly recognized symbol for “money” after every touchdown. Despite being undersized for a professional quarterback, Manziel declared for the NFL Draft after his sophomore season.

But size wasn’t his only problem. Manziel’s showmanship rubbed lots of talent evaluators the wrong way. Retired coach Barry Switzer spoke for many when he called Manziel “an arrogant little prick,” and he was made to wait until late in the first round before being drafted by the Cleveland Browns.

Football fans don’t need to be reminded of the story from there. Fined $12,000 by the league for an obscene gesture in a preseason game, Manziel warmed the bench as a backup until Week 15. When he finally got a start, his passer rating in that first game was a laughable 27.3. His play remained both infrequent and indifferent through two campaigns with the Browns, until he was demoted to third string after embarrassing video of Manziel partying in Texas during the team’s bye week surfaced, and by the last game of the 2015 season he was reportedly in Las Vegas rather than with the team in Cleveland. A few months later Manziel was released.

With that history, as much as one might have hoped otherwise, this week’s Manziel news was not surprising. He had managed to latch on to a job in the Canadian Football League, initially with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who signed Manziel last May. After seeing no action during the early part of the season, he was traded to Montreal in July. With the Alouettes Manziel appeared in eight games, compiling a passer rating of just 80.6 while throwing 7 interceptions against just 5 touchdowns.

Still he was expected to compete for the starting job this season. Until Montreal abruptly announced that Manziel had been released, and that the CFL was prohibiting any other team from signing him, because he had violated the terms of his contract.

If Manziel’s introduction to sports fans was like pyrotechnics, Olivia Moultrie’s was more like a sparkler. A little girl who once wanted to be a dentist discovered soccer when she was in the third grade, and quickly demonstrated a preternatural skill for the game. By the fifth grade she was being home schooled, the better to focus on developing her talent. Her family installed an artificial turf field in their California back yard. She played on boys’ teams with older players and traveled to Europe to train with junior teams there.

Then two years ago, at the age of eleven, Moultrie announced to her social media followers that she had accepted a scholarship to the University of North Carolina. She was the youngest girls’ soccer player to ever receive an academic scholarship, which of course would not take effect for several more years. There were some commentators who worried about the optics of a college program recruiting a tween, but since the offer was non-binding, and Moultrie’s talent truly exceptional, most managed to judge the announcement as endearing.

That reaction was harder to find this week, when the youngest girl to publicly accept a college scholarship became the youngest girl to forego her collegiate career. Moultrie announced that she had picked the Wasserman Media Group as her agent and had signed an endorsement deal with Nike. At the age of thirteen Olivia Moultrie has turned pro.

Beyond an assurance that it’s worth more than the scholarship (generally about $300,000), specific terms of the Nike deal were not disclosed by Moultrie’s new agents. Yet beyond whatever amount Nike has improved the Moultrie family’s finances, it’s not clear what the decision to become a professional really means. FIFA rules prevent European clubs from signing foreign prospects until they turn eighteen. The same age limit applies to the top U.S. women’s league, the NWSL.

Just two current members of the U.S. national women’s team skipped college to join the pro ranks, but Mallory Pugh was nineteen when she joined the NWSL’s Washington Spirit rather than attend UCLA, and Lindsay Horan was eighteen when she went to France to play for Paris St. Germain rather than go to UNC.

It is also impossible to know how a thirteen-year-old will develop physically. For all her phenomenal ability today, an eighteen or twenty-year-old Moultrie may not be the same generational talent. Perhaps that is an argument for cashing in now.

One cannot help but wish both Manziel and Moultrie well, but one cannot escape a sense of foreboding. Manziel had great talent, but greater hubris, and now is likely reduced to a bit part in the new Alliance of American Football, if even that. Olivia Moultrie’s skill in her sport is arguably greater than Manziel’s in his, but perhaps the arrogance of her handlers is as well. And in her case, it is a childhood that is lost.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 28, 2019

Can Either Boston Or L.A. Flip A Switch?

When we last looked in on the Boston Celtics back in the early days of December, the Green were midway through what would eventually become an eight-game winning streak that lifted the team’s record and sent it surging up the Eastern Conference standings after a middling 10-10 start. While it was noted in this space that Boston’s run was not exactly through the NBA’s elite, the wins succeeded in calming a fan base that had grown increasingly nervous through the first six weeks of the season.

But now that basketball’s regular season has reached its opposite bookend, with six weeks remaining, it looks increasingly like that earlier anxiety was entirely justified. Wednesday night the Celtics dropped their fourth straight game and sixth in the last eight, falling to the Portland Trailblazers in TD Garden by a score of 97-92. The defeat came one night after a double-digit thrashing by the Toronto Raptors – a game in which Boston trailed by as many as thirty – which followed losses last week to the Milwaukee Bucks and the dreadful Chicago Bulls, making Boston winless since the All-Star break.

Even with that increasingly distant and apparently anomalous winning streak boosting their record, the Celtics sit fifth in the Conference and closer to ninth place and an early start to the offseason than to the top of the standings and home court advantage for the playoffs. When the team’s scuffling play through October and November had pundits and fans wondering aloud what was wrong, guard Terry Rozier suggested that “everyone can shut up, because everyone can be very annoying.” In a similar vein, after a lackluster performance by the rest of the roster wasted his own thirty-seven-point night and gave the Bulls just their sixteenth win of the season, Kyrie Irving said he couldn’t “see anyone beating” the Celtics in a best-of-seven playoff series.

By now there are plenty of fans in New England who upon hearing Irving’s comment likely responded by suggesting that the superstar schedule an eye exam. Players on underperforming teams often claim that they will be able to “flip a switch” when the postseason starts and raise their game to the level that had been expected all season long. While that does happen on occasion, the more common outcome is that the promise proves empty. If the current standings hold, the Celtics will need to get by a sharply improved Philadelphia squad in the first round, most likely followed by Raptors and the Bucks in order to reach the Finals. To this point in the regular season Toronto and Milwaukee have won eight and ten more games than Boston respectively. Were it not for those eight consecutive wins in November and December, the Celtics’ record would barely be above .500.

When Gordon Hayward was lost for the year just minutes into last season’s first game, expectations for the Celtics sank. But young players like Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown stepped up, and head coach Brad Stevens instilled a strong work ethic in his team. Even when Irving was lost to injury at the end of the year, the cohesive Celtics took Cleveland to Game 7 of the Conference Finals before finally bowing out.

With Irving healthy and Hayward back, this year’s expectations were sky-high. But Hayward has often seemed tentative, as if he doesn’t trust his surgically repaired left leg, and Brown has regressed. Most critically, a fair amount of drama has seeped into Boston’s locker room, most of it around Irving’s plans for the future. After telling fans at an off-season event “if you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next year,” he backed off that commitment, finally saying at the beginning of February, “I’m going to do what is best for my career.” General manager Danny Ainge has tried to defuse the tension caused by Irving’s waffling, but the tight team spirit that helped Boston overachieve last year has long since dissipated.

At least Celtics fans can remain reasonably confident that their heroes will get the chance to show whether they can prove Irving right about the playoffs. Based on both history and this year’s standings in the East, any record above .500 should be good enough to qualify for the postseason. Barring a total collapse Boston should be able to pass that admittedly low bar, thanks in part to a remaining schedule that includes seven games against some of the league’s worst teams.

Not so fortunate are the faithful of the Celtics’ greatest historical rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. On the December day that Boston won its eighth straight contest and climbed to 18-10, the Lakers and their new leader LeBron James were almost the Celtics equal, with a record of 17-11, good for a tie for fourth place in the Western Conference.

If Boston’s play since that date has been indifferent, L.A.’s has more often been dreadful. Even with a hard-fought win over the rather sad league representative from New Orleans on Wednesday, the Lakers are now at 30-31, three games adrift of the San Antonio Spurs for the last postseason ticket in the West.

Other than some devoted fans with season tickets at the Staples Center, few expected the Lakers to seriously contend in LeBron’s first season in L.A. That giddy mid-December record was almost certainly too good to be true. But a spot in the playoffs was a reasonable goal, so the descent since then has been equally unexpected. It was brought on in part by James missing multiple games with a groin injury, and by the uneven play of Rajon Rondo, who was brought on to be, along with James, a veteran presence helping a collection of very young players to grow.

In Cleveland, Miami, and Cleveland again, teams led by James have gone to the playoffs for thirteen straight seasons. It is hard for many fans to imagine the NBA playoffs without King James. But with dramatically less room for error than the Celtics, the Lakers have a decidedly tougher schedule, and there’s a very real chance that the hard to imagine may soon be reality.

LeBron James has proven himself to be one of those players who can, in fact, flip a switch when circumstances demand. Whether at age thirty-four he can do so again, and whether he taught Kyrie Irving that particular magic trick during their time together in Cleveland, will likely tell this season’s tale for both the Lakers and the Celtics.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 24, 2019

The One Debate Zion’s Injury Should Renew

With the first day of March approaching college basketball’s regular season is starting to wind down. Selection Sunday, when the participants in this year’s men’s NCAA Division I tournament will be announced, is just three weeks away. Between now and then are the final few games of each team’s conference schedule, followed by season-ending tournaments which represent the last chance for an unlikely squad to get hot at the right time and claim an automatic bid by scoring a couple of upsets and seizing a conference crown.

The last few days have reminded fans of how college hoops can always serve up the unexpected, something that we will no doubt see more of once the mayhem of March gets underway. Wednesday evening there was Mississippi State winning at Georgia with help from one of the home team’s fans. With just half a second on the clock, State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon was at the free throw line with a chance to put his team in front. He missed the shot, but as he released the ball a small stuffed animal came flying out of the stands onto the court, tossed by one of the Georgia faithful. While it’s not at all clear that the projectile distracted Weatherspoon, the officials called a technical foul on Georgia. Given another chance, the senior guard made the free throw that secured the 68-67 victory.

Then on Saturday the Georgia Bulldogs were spectators when eight Ole Miss players took a knee during the national anthem to protest a pro-Confederacy rally that was taking place on the university’s Oxford campus, only a few hundred feet away from the arena where the game against Georgia was about to take place. Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis said after his team won, 72-71, that “this was all about the hate groups that came to our community and tried to spread racism and bigotry.” He added that he “respected” his players’ action, which was a decidedly different tune that Davis sung when he was hired prior to the start of this season. At his introductory press conference Davis had, without prompting, made it clear that he would not tolerate kneeling during the anthem.

But without question the strangest event on a college hardcourt in recent days came at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina Wednesday night, in a game that garnered far more attention than the contest between Mississippi State and Georgia three hundred miles to the southwest in Athens. That was where the ACC showdown between top-ranked Duke and number eight North Carolina was taking place. The rivalry between the Blue Devils and the Tarheels is legendary enough to attract a huge following at any time, but this game drew extra notice in part because the first of two regular season meetings was coming so late in the conference schedule, but mostly because of the presence of Zion Williamson, Duke’s preternaturally talented freshman forward.

What no one could have foreseen was that just thirty seconds into the contest, while some fans at Cameron were still trying to find their seats, Williamson went down with an injury that was later diagnosed as a sprained knee. It happened when he planted his left foot and his Nike sneaker literally fell apart, causing Williamson to fall backwards, with his right foot and knee twisting awkwardly as he did so. Former President Barack Obama, watching the game from just behind the Duke bench, could be seen pointing and uttering an astonished “his shoe broke!”

The stunning loss of Williamson dealt a severe blow to Mike Krzyzewski’s team. Duke was a nine-point favorite, but never once led the contest, as UNC pulled away to a double-digit win, 88-72. But the bigger story than the outcome of one regular season game was the widespread reaction to Williamson’s injury, with many pundits and several current and former NBA players arguing that he should not play so much as another minute for the Blue Devils. The logic of these arguments is that the player who is already known to most fans simply by his distinctive first name is the consensus choice as the number one pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. He thus stands, late in his one-and-done freshman college season, on the brink of an enormous payday. Why, these critics argue, should Zion put all that money at risk by chancing further injury in pursuit of a collegiate national title that would earn him nothing more than the love and admiration of Duke fans?

The obvious response goes something like, because that’s what he signed up for. Williamson made a commitment to play for Duke, even as he, Krzyzewski, and every one of the Cameron Crazies knew full well it would only be for a single season, and that the quaint concepts of student-athletes and high graduate rates are, well, quaint. The risk of injury has now turned into reality, albeit apparently and happily a relatively minor one. But that risk was there from the first practice session that Krzyzewski and his assistants whistled to begin last fall, and right through every game that the Blue Devils have played. The idea that Zion should now renege on his commitment, right at the most important time of the season for an elite program like Duke, that perennially contends for the national title, is noxious.

The good news is that from all reports Williamson wants to play and will be back in the starting lineup as soon as he is able. He traveled with the team to Syracuse this weekend, where the Blue Devils proved they could win a game without their leading man, as they pulled away late against the Orange, 75-65.

But the discussion about Zion Williamson’s future does raise two legitimate points. The first is that the NBA’s rule that players are eligible for the league’s draft only once they are nineteen and one year removed from high school has done nothing but encourage corruption at the collegiate level of the sport. Programs around the country have been tempted to bend recruiting rules to the breaking point to attract the most talented high school seniors, knowing that these kids would play but for a single season. In a fortuitous coincidence of timing, the morning after Williamson’s injury NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the league was moving to end one-and-done.

The second and ultimately more important question is the ongoing debate about amateurism in big-time college sports. Williamson is virtually certain to get his massive payday come June, and deservedly so. But when he went down on Wednesday night the game between Duke and UNC continued. ESPN garnered record ratings for the contest. The two teams competing on the court both receive massive annual payments from shoe companies to outfit their players, payments the companies firmly believe are worth every penny – though Wednesday’s events probably cheered Adidas and New Balance far more than Nike. But the players, including all of Zion’s teammates, most of whom will never sign an NBA contract, are prohibited from sharing in all that wealth. Now there is something for the talking heads to talk about.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 21, 2019

A Hero On And Off The Field

They are almost all gone now. Jackie, the pioneer, eaten up by the enormous burden of being so, died three months shy of his fifty-fourth birthday. Others lived longer, but now, more than seven decades removed from that April day when Jack Roosevelt Robinson first took his position on a major league diamond, time has claimed almost all the men who turned the lily-white national pastime into a game that looked like America.

There were sixteen black ballplayers who, team by team, broke baseball’s color barrier. Hank Thompson did so twice, in the summer of 1947 for the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles), and again two seasons later for the New York Giants; while the Cincinnati Reds had not one but two black players in their lineup for an early season contest against Milwaukee in 1954. Of that number only the Cincinnati duo of Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, along with Ossie Virgil and Pumpsie Green, who integrated Detroit and Boston, the two teams that proved to be the last bastions for segregationists, are alive today. Gone too are so many others in what’s best described as the first wave of the integration of baseball. To that list this week was added the name of Don Newcombe, who died at the age of ninety-two.

Newcombe became the third African-American player on Brooklyn’s 1949 roster, joining Robinson and catcher Roy Campanella in May of that year. He was also the third black pitcher in the majors, after Dan Bankhead and Satchel Paige. But during a decade in the majors and in his life after the Great Game Newcombe came in first in so many ways.

A month shy of his twenty-third birthday, Newcombe debuted with the Dodgers in May of that year, after three seasons in Brooklyn’s farm system. He was an immediate sensation, as reflected in the numbers of his rookie campaign. A record of 17-8, a league-leading five shutouts, and at one point thirty-two consecutive scoreless innings were all instrumental in the Dodgers’ march to the National League title. That fall Brooklyn lost the World Series to their bitter cross-town rivals from the Bronx, four games to one. Newcombe was tagged for two of the losses, but in Game 1 he pitched magnificently, tossing a complete game five-hitter and striking out seven, before yielding a walk-off solo home run to Tommy Heinrich in the bottom of the 9th for the game’s only run.

Voted the Rookie of the Year in 1949, Newcombe proved that he was no flash in the pan by winning nineteen games the following year and then posting a record of 20-9 in 1951, becoming the first black twenty-game winner. After losing two full seasons to military service during the Korean War, Newcombe turned in two more twenty-win years, going 20-5 in 1955, when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the World Series, and 27-7 in 1956. In that long-ago age before pitch counts and situational relievers, thirty-five of Newcombe’s forty-seven victories over those two seasons were complete games. He was the NL leader in winning percentage both years while also posting the lowest WHIP. In 1956 Newcombe surrendered 219 hits and just 46 walks over 268 innings, a miniscule 0.989 walks or hits per inning pitched.

That season baseball commissioner Ford Frick commissioned the Cy Young Award in honor of the all-time leader in career wins, who had passed away the previous year. While a decade later the award would be divided, with one winner in both leagues, initially the Baseball Writers Association voters elected just a single winner. Newcombe was the runaway winner of that first Cy Young Award, and he also topped the balloting for the National League’s MVP honor. In the decades since only nine other pitchers have scored the double honor in the same season, and only fourteen other African-American hurlers have recorded twenty-win campaigns.

Yet even at the peak of his career Newcombe harbored an ill-kept secret that would shortly sap his abilities. He had grown up “in a drinking family,” as he later described it, recalling drinking beer in a bar at the age of fifteen while listening to radio reports of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He drank heavily throughout his playing days, and after that epic 1956 season his career quickly went into a steep decline. He never came close to another twenty-win season, in fact Newcombe only once more managed to post a winning record, in 1959 when he went 13-8 with the Reds. One season later his major league career was done.

Yet what had all the makings of a sad tale of decline and dissolution in fact had a far happier end note. In 1965 Newcombe had descended to such depths that he pawned his World Series ring to sustain his drinking habit. But less than a year later, faced with an ultimatum from his wife, he foreswore liquor and began a slow but steady climb back into society. Eventually he became an active speaker for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and helped many current and former baseball players struggling with substance abuse, including Maury Wills, Bob Welch, and Steve Howe.

He also rejoined the Dodgers organization and served for decades in a variety of roles, mentoring young players and helping the team with community outreach. With the same strength of will that he had displayed on the mound at Ebbets Field, Newcombe first saved himself, then many others. As he went about doing so, he was rewarded in ways both personal and symbolic. On the day he was hired as the Dodgers director of community relations, Peter O’Malley, son of the owner who had moved the team from Brooklyn to L.A., called Newcombe into his office. O’Malley had learned about Newcombe’s pawning of his World Series ring and had managed to purchase it. In that office in Los Angeles, a continent away from Flatbush, O’Malley returned the ring to its rightful owner.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 17, 2019

One Move Sends The Daytona 500 Spinning

Paul Menard has been driving race cars since he first climbed into a go-kart in his hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin when he was just eight years old. Growing up in a state that has real winters, Menard drove his first ice race at the age of fifteen. But while he still participates in International Ice Racing Association events every year, the now thirty-eight-year-old Menard’s day job for the past decade and a half has been a driver at the very top level of stock car racing, now named for its current sponsor, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

In 435 Cup Series races over those fifteen years, Menard has crossed the finish line first just once, at the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That was in his first of seven seasons driving for Richard Childress Racing. The hard economics of this incredibly expensive sport forced RCR to downsize from the maximum four car stable after the 2017 season, and Menard was briefly out of work before signing on with tiny Wood Brothers racing. Driving the #21 Ford, the only car the Wood Brothers can afford to field, Menard had a fairly successful 2018. While he didn’t manage to add a second victory, he did post seven top-ten finishes, starting with a sixth-place effort at last year’s Daytona 500.

For NASCAR fans Menard’s name will always be closely associated with this year’s 500, but not because he is one of the more popular drivers on the circuit (which he is), nor because he took the checkered flag (which he did not). Rather Menard will be remembered for a split-second decision with nine laps to go that completely changed the character of NASCAR’s biggest event.

For more than 480 miles this year’s Daytona 500 was a closely fought battle between what were expected to be dominant Fords and teams running either Toyotas or Chevys, who chose to team up whenever possible to offset the superior speed of the cars sporting the familiar blue oval nameplate. On lap 191 around the two-and-one-half mile tri-oval, Kyle Busch in a Joe Gibbs Chevy was out in front as the crowded field headed into turn 3. That was when Menard tried to duck underneath the #95 of Matt DiBenedetto. Like Wood Brothers, the Leavine Family Racing’s #95 Chevrolet is a one-car team, with DiBenedetto in his first season behind the wheel. Despite an undistinguished Cup Series career over parts of six seasons, DiBenedetto had led forty-nine laps of the 500, and both he and Menard were still in the top five as the race wound down.

But all that changed in an instant. The #21 just grazed the left rear of the #95, and that was enough to turn DiBenedetto sideways. At speeds approaching 200 miles an hour and running in close quarters, the carnage quickly spread through the field. As sparks flew and smoke billowed from the growing number of wrecking automobiles, race analyst Darrell Waltrip spoke for millions of racing fans on Fox when he exclaimed “Oh no! Are you kidding me?”

As the smoke slowly dissipated and damaged cars rolled to a stop, some on the track and many down on the infield, it became apparent why racing’s high-banked superspeedways are frequently the scene of “the Big One,” a massive accident involving multiple cars. Even with restrictor plates and despite the enormous skill of the drivers, a human being simply can’t react fast enough to steer out of the way.

Thus, what began with the softest kiss of sheet metal between Menard’s Ford and DiBenedetto’s Chevy ended with eighteen cars, nearly half of the original forty-car field, involved in the wreck and suffering varying amounts of damage. A handful were able to continue after hasty repairs on pit row, but most were carted off by wreckers to the infield garages. Miraculously, and in what is surely a testament to the many safety features that NASCAR has added to both cars and tracks in the last decade, all the drivers, even those in cars that were virtually destroyed, were able to walk away from the mess.

When racing resumed it was as if the Big One opened the gates for reckless driving. Just a few laps later Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers, tried to steer his #17 between the two cars in front of him, driven by Kyle Larsen and Kevin Harvick. The only problem was that there wasn’t remotely room for Stenhouse’s Ford Mustang, and the move sent Larsen up into the wall and Harvick spinning. By the time that wreck was finished a total of seven cars had been damaged. Then with just a couple laps remaining Clint Bowyer ducked under and passed Michael McDowell but moved back over before he was fully clear of McDowell’s car. The result was yet another multi-car mess, with eight contestants damaged.

By the time the 500 was over there were only eighteen cars till running, and only three of those were free of any damage. One belonged to the unlikely Ross Chastain, who had a one-race contract for the 500 and managed a very respectable tenth place. The other two were the cars of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who not surprisingly finished one-two. With teammate Erik Jones finishing third, it was a top-three sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing, the first time one team swept the top three places since Hendrick Motorsports did it behind a young Jeff Gordon in 1997.

That result made for a fitting tribute to J.D. Gibbs, the oldest son of the team owner and the family member who ran the racing operation until his untimely death just last month. Perhaps years from now that remarkable finish is what racing fans will remember about the 2019 Daytona 500. Far better that than the instantaneous and ultimately ill-advised move by a journeyman driver; a move that turned the finish of this year’s 500 into a demolition derby.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 14, 2019

After A Winter Of Doubt, The Moment Of Possibility

Less than two weeks ago, thousands gathered in the early morning at Gobbler’s Knob, a park tucked away in a rural corner of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. They made the trek to the tiny borough in the western part of the Keystone State for the odd purpose of watching an assembly of men in top hats and tuxedos interpret the actions of a groundhog and thus learn how long the winter season will endure.

This year, according to his minders, Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring. To that Mother Nature’s utterly predictable response was to shortly deposit six inches of new snow here in northern New England, topped off with a fine sheen of ice that left roads better traveled by a Zamboni than an auto, as a way of reminding we mere mortals how absurd it is to look for guidance from those who, with cult-like faith, take their meteorological advice from a rodent. So now we in this frozen quadrant of the country endure a seasonal depression brought on by bone-chilling temperatures and piles of snow quickly gone from pristine white to dreary grey. Yet even in the black dog’s grip, we manage to look southward, as always at this time of year, and find reasons to hope.

Our collective gaze turns to the warmer climes of Florida and Arizona, where among the palm trees and cacti the surest signs of spring materialize like friendly spirits made corporeal by the power of our most fervent wish. Spread across the Sunshine State’s peninsula, from Tampa to Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast and from West Palm Beach to Port St. Lucie on the Atlantic, and bunched closely together in the Valley of the Sun, from Goodyear to Glendale to Mesa and Tempe, one by one the camps have opened. The compound surrounding Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Arizona was the first to do so this year, followed the next day by the main stadium and twelve practice fields at the Peoria Sports Complex, on the other side of Phoenix. The former is the spring training home of the Oakland Athletics, while the latter hosts both the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. The A’s and Mariners needed to get a jump on preparations for the new season, for those two teams will start play with a two-game set in Tokyo, where the great Ichiro Suzuki is likely to take his final big league at-bats, fully one week earlier than Opening Day for the other twenty-eight franchises.

But that head start was brief, and as this is written the call has gone out across the Great Game and the players have responded, renewing the rituals of preparation that stretch back through decades and tie this constantly evolving sport to its roots in a distant time that suddenly seems far simpler than ours. For the joy that the start of spring training always brings is tempered this year by the obvious dysfunction that has infected baseball’s fundamental economic compact. For the second year in a row winter’s hot stove never managed to ignite. Behind the frail fig leafs of advanced analytics and a new paradigm for achieving success, owners have unilaterally altered the long-standing financial bargain with players, and while the result has been dollars saved for the handful who write the checks, it has come at the cost of rapidly growing discontent among the many who cash them.

The plethora of increasingly detailed statistics has led teams to conclude that paying players well into their late thirties is a losing proposition, even though that is the established structure of the current rules relating to free agency, which delay the moment when a player can negotiate with any franchise until most are either at or approaching their thirtieth birthday. In concert with this sabermetric-induced recognition of a typical player’s career arc, the recent back-to-back championships won by the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros popularized the notion that the surest road to glory requires a detour through the potholed side streets of roster teardowns and hundred-loss seasons, during which teams have no interest in competing for either free agents or first place.  Last season a record eight teams lost more than ninety games.

Since the current collective bargaining agreement still has three years to run, there’s little the Players Association can do. But the owners’ argument that the recent decline in the share of total revenue going to team payrolls is all about a sudden awareness that committing twenty million a year or more to a forty-year-old fading star is wasted money has fallen flat this offseason, for camps have opened with both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still unsigned. Because they entered the majors far earlier than most players, the two superstars reached free agency at the tender age of twenty-six, with the reasonable expectation of many years of All-Star caliber production still ahead. But after years of speculation about the gargantuan offers both would receive, neither seems to have developed much of a market in this new era of contractual penny-pinching. Even more concerning for players is that Harper and Machado are but the two most high-profile of more than one hundred free agents still without contracts.

If this is baseball’s new reality, as some in management have suggested, it is one that has provoked many players. Veteran pitcher and seven-time All-Star Justin Verlander called the current system “broken” on Twitter, and followed that by suggesting teams are “hiding behind this rebuilding mantra,” and wondering why fans of those teams would bother coming to the ballpark.

So while the sun is shining in Florida and Arizona, this spring training begins with dark clouds on the Great Game’s horizon. Still these first days are always about hope, and perhaps there was some of that in the news that the two sides had traded ideas in recent informal discussions. Management is interested in speeding up the game, with things like a pitch clock and a requirement that relievers face at least three batters. The players, in turn, suggested expanding the designated hitter to the National League effectively adding fifteen well-paid jobs to NL rosters, changes to the draft order to incentivize winning, and service time bonuses based on performance to help young stars reach free agency sooner.

Other than the pitch clock, which MLB commissioner Rob Manfred can impose unilaterally, none of these changes are likely to become reality before 2020 at the earliest. In weighing the competing proposals, one can’t help but think that given a choice between a contest ending five minutes sooner or having their team regularly come out on top, most fans in the stands would happily stick around for a bit longer. Still any evidence that the parties who together have forged the Great Game’s long period of labor peace are at least talking is welcome news, especially after a long winter of stasis and growing resentment.

We fans will take it and allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring the storm clouds for a few days. We will focus instead on the open-ended potential that accompanies every new beginning. For that is the balm of spring training’s start, the unlimited possibilities in front of every franchise. Even if only one fan base will ultimately attend a parade, there will be others that will revel in unexpected accomplishments, be it a dramatic improvement in a team’s record, a breakout season by an unheralded rookie, or a renaissance year by a wily veteran.

The groundhog may have been no match for Mother Nature, but each year’s clarion call reminds every fan that the snows of February will melt, to be replaced by the rich brown of the base paths and the broad sweep of green that is the outfield in every ballpark across the land. And when the time comes to settle the roiling issues between management and labor, perhaps the owners will be mindful of that call. For the words that quicken the pulse and spark the flame of hope in the heart of every fan are not “owners assemble.” The command is not “general managers gather” or “analytics departments attend.” The call is to the players. The Great Game returns, with promise and possibility, on the day that “pitchers and catchers report.”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 10, 2019

The Right Way To Honor Frank Robinson

When he was terrorizing opposing pitchers throughout almost all his twenty-one-year major league career, Frank Robinson was known to have great timing. That’s a basic requirement of successfully swinging a bat at the highest level of the Great Game, and few players in history have been more accomplished at doing so than Robinson.

Through extended stretches with the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles, and shorter stays in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Cleveland, Robinson led his league in slugging percentage and OPS four times. He was a 14-time All Star who batted over .300 nine times, slugged 30 or more home runs in eleven different seasons, and at the time of his retirement as a player in 1976 ranked fourth in career home runs with 586, sixth in total bases and tenth in runs scored. Robinson remains the only player to be voted the MVP of both leagues, winning the National League award with the Reds in 1961 and the junior circuit honor with the Orioles five seasons later.

Elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1982 for his exploits as a player, Robinson became the first African-American to skipper a big league club when he served as player-manager in Cleveland in 1975. He eventually managed four different franchises, adding stints with the Giants, Orioles, and the Expos/Nationals to his resume. Robinson also served off and on in multiple front office roles, first for Baltimore and later for Major League Baseball until as recently as 2015.

Whether on the field or in the dugout Robinson was known as a fierce competitor who gave no quarter. That attitude, along with the likelihood that many pitchers concluded it was better to hit Robinson and limit him to one base before he hit one of their offerings out of the park, might explain why he also led the league in being hit by pitches seven times.

A fan couldn’t help but think that even at the end Robinson displayed that same exquisite timing when he passed away last week at the age of 83, finally losing a lengthy battle with bone cancer. For Robinson died in February, celebrated annually as Black History Month, and in 2019, the year in which throughout the coming season Major League Baseball will honor the one hundredth anniversary of the birth in a little city in southwestern Georgia of Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

Jackie Robinson, no relation to Frank, ended the long and ugly legacy of segregation in the Great Game in 1947. His too-brief career with the Brooklyn Dodgers ended in 1956, at the end of the season in which Frank Robinson played his first major league game for the Reds. A decade and a half later, and just days before his death, Jackie Robinson was honored prior to the start of Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. While he graciously accepted a plaque commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his major league debut, in his remarks Robinson also pointedly said, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” Those words, and Frank Robinson’s eventual role in opening the managerial door to African-Americans, will forever tie the two together in ways far more important than their common last name.

While the lives and legacies of these two men are celebrated as symbols of how far baseball has come, Robinson’s passing in the days just before memories of last season are finally set aside in favor of the beginning of a new campaign as marked by the first days of spring training, should also remind fans and, more important, front offices, how very far the Great Game still has to go.

Last season concluded with a World Series contested between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Managing the victorious Sox was Alex Cora, just the second native of Puerto Rico to manage a big league club. In the opposing dugout was Dave Roberts, son of an African-American father and Japanese mother. That two men of color should take their ballclubs to the longest season’s final series in the same year should be proof enough that race or ethnicity has no bearing on managerial ability.

But as equipment trucks arrive at spring training complexes in Florida and Arizona, with pitchers and catchers soon to follow, Roberts is the only African-American in charge of a major league franchise, and Cora is one of just four Latino managers. And while Hispanic countries, especially the Dominican Republic, have supplied a steadily increasing share of players, the story on the field for blacks is every bit as dire as in the managerial ranks. From a high of more than 18% of players on major league rosters, African-Americans now account for less than 8% of players.

Three decades ago Major League Baseball began Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), to reconnect the game to urban minority youth. What started as a local effort in Los Angeles has grown to over three hundred programs in more than two hundred cities across the country, and recently a Junior RBI program was initiated to reach kids as young as five. A 2017 study by the Sport and Fitness Industry Association showed baseball surpassing football and taking second place for participation by African-American young people. It will take time to fully see the impact on the field, but recent amateur drafts have regularly seen RBI alumni chosen among the top picks.

But fulfilling Jackie’s dream, and keeping the door that Frank opened ajar has proven more difficult. Last year’s Racial and Gender Report Card, released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, gave an overall grade of C+ for the hiring practices of clubs, with a slightly better mark for racial hiring practices and a slightly worse one for gender. But both scores were worse than they had been two years earlier. At best the Great Game’s hiring practices are stuck in neutral.

Even when people of color are given a chance to manage, it’s often for an inferior team. The Cleveland franchise that Robinson skippered had not had a winning record in seven years, though he gave it one in his second season at the helm. As of the start of last season, Robinson and just fifteen other black men had been given the opportunity to manage, for a total of twenty-seven different jobs, ten interim and seventeen permanent. Only two of those twenty-seven openings were for teams with records above .500 in the previous season. The numbers are better for Latino managers, but still noticeably worse than for white hires.

With owner’s suites and front offices overwhelmingly white – Derek Jeter in Miami being a rare recent exception – it will take a concerted effort to go beyond the familiar circle and institute meaningful change. But as Roberts and Cora demonstrated last fall, failing to do so doesn’t just cost clubs on a report card. In the past few days there have been many words of praise written and spoken about Frank Robinson. On his birthday in January there were eloquent tributes, which will surely multiply during the coming season, to Jackie Robinson. But were they still here, is there any doubt that both Frank and Jackie would demand that we dispense with the words? For the Great Game, it is long past time for action.

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