Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 8, 2018

A Surreal World Cup, A Surprising Final Four

At times the last three weeks have felt like an immersion course in the work of Anton Chekhov. The scenes from Russia have been filled with mostly decent, well-meaning characters, all striving toward a worthy goal. Yet as they must in a tournament in which only one team can claim the ultimate prize, most of them ultimately fail, and are last seen sitting forlorn on the pitch, accompanied only by their helplessness. As if watching not a soccer tournament but The Seagull or Uncle Vanya, we in the audience have been drawn in at least as much by the mood of these games as by the results. In Chekhov’s writings it is represented by things unsaid, by a glance on the stage or a sigh on the page. In this World Cup, the mood has been built on the long passages of back and forth play, tension slowly escalating with each passing minute until the sudden strike of a ball into the net. And if Chekhov was known for eschewing a normal linear plot, then surely these matches, with surreal outcomes piling one atop another, have done his legacy proud.

One week from now it will all be over, and one national team will stand before 78,000 at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, its member fingering their gold medals as they hand from one to another the 14-inch solid gold trophy that is the unprepossessing symbol of international soccer glory. Each of the four semifinalists brings an interesting story to the World Cup’s final week, but their common tale is who they are not. They are not Brazil. They are not Spain. They are not Germany.

The sports analysts at developed a complex but impressive forecast model for the World Cup, based on a Soccer Power Index (SPI) rating that combines recent results in international play with an evaluation of roster strength drawn from the results of the professional clubs are the “day jobs” for each player. At the outset of play the teams with the highest SPI ratings, and thus those given the best chance at winning the cup, were Brazil, Spain and Germany. That statistical analysis squared with the opinions of most pundits, and had Germany won Group F and the Knockout Stage gone according to expectations, the three powerhouse squads would be readying themselves for this week’s semifinal matches, with France as the fourth survivor and decided underdog.

But Germany didn’t win Group F, nor did it finish second to at least slip into the round of 16. Die Mannschafft had but a single golden moment at this World Cup, the free kick goal by Toni Kroos in stoppage time that lifted his team to a 2-1 victory over Sweden. But that followed a stunning 1-0 loss to Mexico in Germany’s first game and preceded an utterly lackluster 2-0 whitewash by lowly South Korea that left the pre-tournament favorite in last place it its group.

Brazil and Spain fared only marginally better, in that both at least advanced to the Knockout Stage. But that will be little consolation to fans looking forward to a national outpouring of elation when the Cup was theirs, for both teams were soon dismissed.

La Furia Roja went at the first opportunity, unable to penetrate Russia’s defenses through ninety minutes of regular play, stoppage time at the end of both halves, and an additional thirty minutes of extra time. The one goal tallied in Spain’s favor was an own goal knocked in by Russia’s Sergei Ignashevich at the 12th minute. Artyom Dzyuba tied the game for the home squad late in the first half, and the two teams eventually were left with penalty kicks to decide a winner. Trailing 3-4, Spain’s Iago Aspas saw his try deflected high and wide by the Russian goaltender as the host nation erupted with joy.

The Seleção at least made it through the round of 16, dispatching Mexico 2-0. But Brazil’s long history of World Cup glory, which can surely be intimidating to opponents, must also be a weight on the current generation of players, who have not met their country’s high expectations. In the quarterfinals that weight proved too heavy, and Brazil fell to Belgium 2-1, in a match that was made that close only by a late tally by the team in canary and blue.

In a tournament full of the unexpected, gone too are the seventh and eighth ranked squads in 538’s ratings. While those rankings suggest that neither Argentina nor Portugal were expected to be semifinalists, the fact that the two best players on the planet, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are part of their rosters led many to believe that either or both could crash the Cup’s final week of play.

Instead the unlikely semifinalists are France, Belgium, England, and Croatia. Les Bleu are the least surprising, fourth in the 538 ratings and picked by a few analysts as capable of a surprise. France has come close since its one World Cup championship, won at home in 1998. It made the Final in 2006, falling to Italy. Four years ago, France lost to eventual champion Germany in the quarterfinals. Going further back in World Cup history, the French have lost three semifinals to either Brazil or Germany. With those powers off the stage, 2018 would seem to be France’s best chance to finally claim a second Cup and establish itself as a true soccer power.

But first the French must get past Belgium. The Red Devils do not have a distinguished World Cup history. But what Belgium does have, as it chases its first title, is a lineup filled with stars of the top European clubs. The country’s talent level is as high as it has ever been, and the individual stars have shown an ability to play as a cohesive unit, most notably in the solid 2-1 victory over Brazil. A sleeper pick prior to the start of the tournament, Belgium is no longer a surprise.

On the other side of the bracket, Croatia faces off against England. The Vatreni are the closest thing left to a Cinderella, standing ninth in the 538 ratings. Not even eligible for Cup play until 1994, Croatia has matched its best showing ever by making it to the semifinals, as it did in 1998. Since then the Croatians haven’t made it out of the Group Stage. That history says that this team is unlikely to advance, but this tournament has delivered the unexpected time after time, and if there is a team that is playing without pressure at this point, it is Croatia.

It has been more than half a century since the Three Lions claimed England’s sole World Cup in 1966. Yet fans in the country that hosts the world’s top club league and in which the rules of the modern game were promulgated claim a deep tie to the world’s most popular sport. Throughout the tournament the cry of English fans has been that the Cup is “coming home.” The very young English squad seems unaware of the demons that have plagued England over the decades – the near misses and penalty kick defeats that have left fans bitterly disappointed. This team has won the country’s first Knockout Stage match since 2006 and its first World Cup game on penalty kicks ever. Perhaps, just perhaps, those English fans are on to something.

The statistical mavens rate France a slight favorite over Belgium, and England a somewhat better bet against Croatia. Whichever of the first two prevail will be the pick, again slightly, at the Final. The only certainty is that three of four will ultimately be disappointed, this is a wide open final week, and if the pattern holds, the unexpected is sure to happen. Chekhov could not have written it any better.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 5, 2018

The Bronx Isn’t The Only Place Where The Future Is Now

For all the statistical information that is available to feed increasingly sophisticated computer algorithms, for all the years of experience watching the Great Game that leading analysts possess, the one absolute certainty of every season is that some of the predictions and forecasts made with such confidence in those first warming days of spring will be proven hopelessly and laughingly wrong by the time the furnace of summer heat is turned to high. Each trip through a calendar’s slow unwinding of the longest season brings its share of surprises. The 2018 campaign is past its halfway point for all thirty major league clubs, the All-Star break is rapidly approaching, and much of the country is under an excessive heat warning, so clearly, it’s time to acknowledge that a growing number of this year’s unexpected results are not mere aberrations, products of the small sample sizes of early season play. For better or worse, most of 2018’s surprises are for real.

The qualifying phrase of that last sentence cannot be ignored. Not all surprising performances bring joy to fans. The Minnesota Twins were one of last year’s pleasant surprises, rising from a 103-loss season in 2016 all the way to eighty-five wins and a spot in the Wild Card Game against the Yankees. Most predictions had the Twins roughly matching that showing this year. Instead Minnesota is thirteen games under .500 through Wednesday. That’s actually good enough for third place in the anemic AL Central Division but barring a dramatic turnaround there will be no return trip to the playoffs for this year’s edition of the Twins. Similarly, the Washington Nationals were touted as once again the toast of the NL East. Instead the Nats have sunk below .500 thanks to their current five-game losing streak and are in danger of losing touch with Atlanta and Philadelphia, the two franchises ahead of them in the standings. Washington has certainly had its share of injuries, but the Nationals have also been saddled by one of the most disappointing individual performances of 2018, that of Bryce Harper and his career low batting average and WAR rating.

Then there are the pleasant surprises. Topping that list has been the showing of one of the franchises Washington is looking up at. Through its first eighty-five contests Atlanta is a solid thirteen games over .500, a pace that will produce a ninety-three-win campaign if the team can maintain it over the next three months.

A potential division title and perhaps even the best record in the National League were not exactly top of mind for most Atlanta fans when their team broke training camp and headed north from Disney World. After dominating its division for a decade and a half, Atlanta fell into a period of mediocrity starting in 2006. Finally, adhering to the approach popularized by the Cubs and Astros, the two most recent World Series champions, management decided to gut the team and rebuild from scratch with young prospects. That meant four straight seasons of really bad baseball to close Turner Field and open SunTrust Park, including more than ninety losses in each of the last three. As unappealing as the major league product was during those years, the Atlanta front office was busy building up the team’s minor league affiliates, so that by this spring Atlanta’s farm system was the consensus pick as the best in the Great Game.

Still the expectation was that it would be another year or two before all those promising kids would be ready to make major contributions to the big-league club’s win total. This spring Baseball Prospectus projected improvement over last year’s 72-90 record, but only by a half-dozen games. The 78-84 computer forecast was right in line with the human predictions on a popular Atlanta fan blog, where only one of the ten writers dared to forecast a season finish right at .500, 81-81. Instead Atlanta won each of its first three series and the team hasn’t looked back since.

The computer models at Baseball Prospectus don’t like being proved wrong. The algorithms worship at the altar of sabermetrics, and so the frequently revised forecasts always predict a reversion to the mean for performances that are out of line either way. Thus, BP expects that the Nats’ Harper will improve his average over the balance of the season, and in similar fashion, that Atlanta as a team will cool off. But even with that bias, the BP forecast now gives Atlanta a 53% chance of making the playoffs, up from just 11% on Opening Day.

That was the team facing the Yankees in the Bronx over the Independence Day holiday and seeing two of the three games was like watching mirror image franchises on the field. Like their counterparts in Atlanta, general manager Brian Cashman and the Yankees front office rebuilt the team, trading off or releasing a core of aging veterans and bringing in the next pinstriped generation. Given expectations in the Bronx, Cashman didn’t have the luxury of a few years of last place finishes, instead having to complete the roster makeover on the fly. As improbable as accomplishing that task seemed, the rabbit was pulled out of the hat last year, when New York came within one game of the World Series at the end of what most analysts believed would be a down year.

This season the Yankees have returned to their familiar role as a World Series favorite, going back and forth with Houston and Boston for the best record in baseball, and Atlanta has taken the role of unexpected interloper. But what was clear on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, as the home squad prevailed in two taut contests, was that these two teams, who met twice in the World Series in the ‘90s, should be vying to meet again for years to come.

On Tuesday Atlanta started six batters and a starting pitcher under the age of 30. New York went one better with its starting pitcher and seven batters in that age group. On the holiday Atlanta matched that lineup, while the Yankees settled for just seven young batters, entrusting the starter’s role to 37-year-old veteran CC Sabathia.

While the final scores of the games, 8-5 and 6-2, suggest they weren’t that close, in fact each could have gone either way. Tuesday night Atlanta rallied to within a run after falling behind 6-0, before a late Giancarlo Stanton home run added some insurance for New York. The next afternoon Atlanta threatened throughout the game, but Sabathia and the Yankee bullpen had just enough to prevail.

The defining statistic of the series shows the offensive strength of both franchises. Including Monday night’s game, won by Atlanta in 11 innings, the visitors put a runner on base in 23 of 29 innings. As impressive as that is, the home team did even better, establishing a base runner in 24 of 27 frames. And this was against very solid pitching that ranks second (New York) and seventh (Atlanta) in the majors in batting average against. Both team’s young hitters have learned to judge the strike zone and keep an at-bat alive by fouling off unwelcome offerings. The pitch count of the games was 12% higher than this year’s major league average.

Keep an at-bat going, make a hurler throw enough pitches, keep putting men on base, and sooner or later good things will happen. That’s a simple way to win often, and both these teams know it. By the time we Yankee fans headed off to see the fireworks over the East River, we felt not so much like we’d won a series as we’d survived it. Well played Atlanta, see you in October?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 1, 2018

Greatness Personified, Except At The World Cup

How does one measure greatness in sports? What are the standards that separate the very good from those whose place in the history books of their game is secure?

Just three weeks ago, those questions were posed here in the context of horse racing’s Triple Crown. Trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Mike Smith, and their remarkable 3-year-old charge Justify had accomplished so much; but if they failed to capture the Belmont would there be those in the media and among racing fans who would forever rate them as failures? The answer was of course, though the possibility of such a harsh judgment was rendered moot when Justify crossed the wire at the Big Sandy ahead of all challengers.

Now another race of sorts, a scramble in pursuit of perhaps the least physically imposing trophy in sports is underway, and the question, without any equine involvement, again arises. The Knockout Stage of the FIFA Men’s World Cup began on Saturday, sixteen survivors of the Group Stage playing single elimination soccer for a golden trophy barely twelve inches tall. In the first two matches that will eventually whittle those finalists down to two teams playing for history and glory, the two most prominent names in men’s soccer were sent packing. The steeds that Portugal and Argentina were riding, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, may have each played their last World Cup match.

In each of the last three years, ESPN has produced a “World Fame 100” listing of the most famous athletes on the planet. While all such lists are subjective, the sports network’s metrics are not unreasonable. They combine the value of endorsements, social media following on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and internet search popularity. When the first ranking was released in May 2016, Ronaldo was first, and Messi was third. Twelve months later Ronaldo was once again first, and Messi was again third. Six weeks ago, when the 2018 list was released the two footballers held their positions atop the rankings, sandwiched as in previous years around LeBron James.

Ronaldo, who turned 33 in February, is a prolific goal scorer for both the Portuguese national team and for the professional clubs on which he has played. His club career began with Sporting CP in Lisbon when he was still a teenager. He moved on to Manchester United in 2003 for a transfer fee of more than £12 million, making him the most expensive teenage acquisition in the history of English soccer. Six years later Real Madrid purchased his contract for what was then a world record transfer fee of €94 million, and he remains with Los Blancos today. Manchester United won three English Premier League titles, the 2003 FA Cup and the 2008 Champions League crown with Ronaldo on the field. His record in Spain has been even better. In addition to winning a pair of La Liga titles, Real Madrid has been the last club standing at the end of UEFA Champions League play four times, including the last three years in a row. Ronaldo has won the Ballon D’Or, the award given annually to the best male soccer player on the planet, five times. He also has four Golden Shoes, given to the leading goal scorer in league matches across all the European national leagues.

Two years younger than Ronaldo, Lionel Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child in the north central Argentine city of Rosario. He moved from Argentina to Spain at the age of 13 when FC Barcelona agreed to fund his medical treatment while bringing him up through their junior teams. In November 2003, Messi was substituted in at the 75th minute of a friendly with Porto, thus making his La Liga debut just four months past his 16th birthday. Shorter and less physically imposing than Ronaldo, Messi relies on lightning speed and incredible agility. Barcelona has won nine La Liga championships and four UEFA Champions League titles during Messi’s career in the Catalan capital. Like his Portuguese rival, Messi has five Ballon D’Or trophies. He also has five Golden Shoes, one more than Ronaldo.

Yet for all their individual accomplishments and the titles they have both helped bring to their professional clubs, neither player has been able to replicate that success while wearing his national uniform. First and foremost, that’s a reminder that when the big money of professional soccer is not in play and rosters must be built based on the nationality of the players, no single star, no matter how bright, can single-handedly carry a team to victory.

Portugal’s greatest success at the World Cup came in 2006, when the team finished fourth. It was Ronaldo’s first time representing his country on international soccer’s biggest stage, and he netted a goal in the team’s 2-0 Group Stage win over Iran. In the three World Cups since then, Portugal has never advanced past the Round of 16, and Ronaldo has been a limited force. While he has a total of 85 goals in international play, just 7 of those have been in World Cup contests, and 3 of the 7 came two weeks ago in his one truly memorable World Cup performance, an opening Group Stage tie with Spain in which Ronaldo’s hat trick accounted for all three of Portugal’s goals. But in the Knockout Stage he has never scored a goal.

Expectations are higher in Argentina, which won the Cup in 1978 and 1986 and was twice the runner-up before Messi’s career began. In four World Cups Messi has netted six goals, while he and his team have advanced to the Knockout Stage every time. Four years ago in Brazil, it looked like Messi’s moment might finally have arrived when Argentina advanced to the Final against Germany. Through ninety minutes and into extra time the two soccer powerhouses battled to a scoreless draw. Finally, in the 113th minute, Mario Gotze stopped a crossing pass with his chest and quickly put home a left-footed shot to put Germany ahead. Moments later, Messi was awarded a free kick deep in German territory. But his effort sailed high over the bar, and Argentina was left to settle for second place. Like his Iberian counterpart, Messi has never netted a Knockout Stage goal.

On Saturday in Kazan, Argentina fell 4-3 to the speed and youth of France and the sharpshooting of Kylian Mbappe. Argentina actually led 2-1 early in the second half, but France got the equalizer from Benjamin Pavard in the 57th minute, and a short while later the 19-year-old Mbappe scored twice in four minutes to put the match away. A few hours later in Sochi, a talented Uruguay team was simply the better squad against Portugal, netting one goal early and one goal late to win 2-1. With that, the 2018 World Cup moved on without soccer’s two most famous players.

Four years from now Cristiano Ronaldo will be 37, and Lionel Messi 35. In absolute terms both will of course still be young men, but as soccer players their careers, if not over, will be deep in the gloaming of the end of day. They will both be immensely rich, widely celebrated, and hopefully happy. But for all of each player’s greatness, on their game’s biggest stage of all, the best grade either can ever hope for is an incomplete.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 28, 2018

A Few Surprises From World Cup Group Play

The FIFA Men’s World Cup reached its midpoint with the conclusion of Group Stage play on Thursday. The bracket for the knockout round is set, with one very big surprise and a couple of smaller ones. The shock of the Cup to date is that pre-tournament favorite Germany has been seen off, hopes for a repeat run to a championship dashed by a dismal 2-0 loss to South Korea in its last group match. Four days earlier the world’s number one ranked team appeared to have come alive just in time with a stunning stoppage time goal to edge Sweden and keep its fate in its own hands. Instead the Germans finished at the bottom of Group F with a record of one win and two losses, both of which were shutouts. It was the worst World Cup performance by the Mannschaft in eighty years, and will no doubt lead to a period of soul-searching in Berlin.

But while no one saw the German debacle coming, closer attention to recent World Cup history might have raised a warning sign. This is now the fourth World Cup in the last five that has seen the defending champion fail to advance out of the Group Stage. Just like Germany, 1998 winner France and 2006 champion Italy both finished last in its group four years later. Spain, the 2010 winner, managed one notch better than that in the group standings in Rio four years ago, but still failed to move on to knockout play. Only perennial powerhouse Brazil backed up its 2002 title by making it as far as the quarterfinals at the following World Cup. The pattern of great success giving way to disappointment, along with the fact that no men’s team has prevailed in consecutive World Cups since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, should remind fans all around the globe of just how competitive the world’s most popular sport is at its highest international level.

The lesser surprises produced by the Group Stage were the failure of any African teams to advance, and the mismatched bracket that is now in place for the Knockout Stage. While no African country has ever seen its team advance to the championship game, the knockout round has always included at least one squad from that continent since the current World Cup format was instituted in 1982. This year however, three African teams – Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia – managed just one win and one tie in nine contests, with a goal differential of minus seven.

Nigeria put a scare into mighty Argentina by keeping their match tied until late in the contest on Tuesday. Had the score remained 1-1 the Nigerians would have gone forward, and Lionel Messi and company been headed home in disgrace. But Marcos Rojo scored off a perfect centering pass from Gabriel Mercado in the 86th minute to save the Argentines and vanquish the Nigerians.

That left Senegal, which like Nigeria would have gone through with a tie in its final Group Stage game. But a goal early in the second half by Columbia’s Yerry Mina was the only scoring in that match. The 1-0 result put Columbia on top of Group H and left Senegal and Japan tied for second with 1-1-1 records, setting in motion the list of World Cup tiebreakers. Moving down that list, both teams had a goal differential of zero and four goals scored in group play. Since Japan and Senegal had tied 2-2, they also had a matching record, goal differential, and goals scored in heat-to-head play. That left the sixth tiebreaker, the last one before the drawing of lots. It’s a comparison of so-called fair play points, or the fewest penalties. With three yellow cards to Senegal’s five, Japan advanced and the final African hope was extinguished. It’s the first time that the fair play tiebreaker has decided a spot in the Knockout Stage.

Thanks in part to Germany’s unexpected exit, the bracket for the single elimination portion of the Cup is decidedly lopsided. Based on FIFA’s ranking of national teams, one side of the bracket has the second, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh ranked teams in the world, and two more that are in the top fifteen. On the other side only Spain and Switzerland are ranked in the top ten, with just two others, England and Denmark, in the top fifteen. When the drawing for the Group Stage was held back in December, analysts noted that there was no obvious “group of death” as is usually the case – no group with multiple powerhouse squads, one or more of which would be deprived of a spot in the final stage. That was largely due to this year’s drawing being based more on team rankings and less on geographical considerations. But in its place group play has produced a side of death in the final bracket.

That in turn made the outcome of Thursday’s game between England and Belgium especially interesting. The two teams were playing strictly for position in the bracket, with both already through to the final stage. Had the match ended in a tie, England would have been pronounced the winner of Group G based on, what else, fair play points. Both teams rested several starters and the action was somewhat less than gripping, but ultimately it was the Red Devils that broke through, with Adnan Januzaj sending a curling left-footed shot into the far corner of the English net early in the second half for a 1-0 Belgium victory and a spot in the side of death. Soon enough, fans of the Red Devils may find themselves wishing that Januzaj’s strike had missed.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 24, 2018

In The Unlikeliest Setting, The Purest Drama Unfolds

In retrospect, the question should not be whether the setting was appropriate.  It was perfect. For of the dozen venues being used for the 2018 FIFA Men’s World Cup, none has the history of Fisht Stadium in Sochi. All were either built or renovated in preparation for this, the first World Cup to be held in Eastern Europe and the first to be spread across two continents, Europe and Asia. From Kaliningrad Stadium on the Baltic Sea, to Central Stadium in Yekaterinburg on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains, the host stadiums are spread across more than fifteen hundred miles of Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation. But the southernmost venue in Sochi was originally constructed to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Sochi Games, the first Olympics held in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union, were a reminder that while the Communist Party may no longer be in charge, the country remains a controlled state. At a cost of $51 billion, Putin’s Games were by far the most expensive Olympics ever, surpassing even the $44 billion spent by China, another rigidly controlled economy, in the summer of 2008. These numbers are several multiples of what democratic countries dare to spend on these quadrennial festivals, but Sochi wasn’t just big as measured by dollars. The 2014 Winter Games also had a record 98 events, including a dozen new competitions. With 29 total medals and 11 gold, the host country topped the board for most medals and most first place finishes.

But all the money and infrastructure and success in competition was revealed to be a giant state-sponsored sham just two years later, when the World Anti-Doping Agency released the McLaren Report. Named after the Canadian law professor who chaired a special three-member WADA panel investigating allegations of Russian doping, the report detailed a broad and systematic effort by Russian authorities to both encourage doping and subvert the drug testing process during the Sochi Olympics. While the IOC rejected WADA’s recommendation to ban Russia from the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, individual sports federations wound up disqualifying nearly thirty percent of the athletes on the original Russian roster. A dithering IOC then banned the Russian Olympic Committee from this year’s Winter Games, while allowing individual athletes to compete under the banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

Of course, FIFA itself is no stranger to scandal. For the governing body of international soccer (football in every country but ours), the problem has not been doping (at least not any more so than in other sports), but the age-old lure of cold hard cash. More than a decade ago a British report alleged bribery for sponsorships and vote-rigging in Sepp Blatter’s long tenure as FIFA president. Then in May 2015, U.S. federal prosecutors brought multiple indictments against FIFA officials and leaders of various regional soccer federations. The charges alleged fraud, bribery and money laundering around sponsorships, the World Cup site selection process, and the FIFA presidential election. A second wave of indictments followed several months later, bringing to 34 individuals and 2 corporations the total number of defendants charged. To date there have been 16 guilty pleas and 2 convictions, with many cases still pending.

While the scandal led to Blatter’s downfall, his successor Gianni Infantino has shown his own love of money, having led the push to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026, and proposing what amounts to a new mini-World Cup to be held every two years among 8 teams. Infantino’s “Final 8” would replace the existing Confederation Cup, and the new FIFA president claims to have “solid and serious” sponsors ready to put up to $25 billion behind the competition.

On Saturday it was impossible to ignore the reminders of why it is easy to become cynical and dismissive about our games, even as the minutes wound down on an important Group Stage match between Germany and Sweden. There they were in Sochi, at the very scene of Russia’s great crime against sport. One cannot say the city’s name without recalling the elaborate con against athletes from all around the globe that was conceived, funded and executed by a sovereign state. And there they were playing for the World Cup, still arguably the grandest international competition of all, but one inextricably linked to its organizing institution, an association steeped in the scandalous effect of opacity and money.

Against such a backdrop, what chance did the two soccer teams have of overcoming the cynicism, of vanquishing the doubts, and of giving fans a reminder of the grandeur of our games? It would surely require a classic contest to do so in such a setting. So that is exactly what Germany and Sweden gave the world.

The Germans arrived in Russia believing that they could do what no team had done in more than half a century, namely repeat as World Cup champions. Having defeated Argentina 1-0 in the 2014 final in Brazil, Germany looked to match Brazil in 1958 and 1962, and the team was widely considered a favorite to do so. Ranked number one in the world, the German squad was regarded by most analysts as even better prepared than four years ago. But then Mexico upended all the pre-tournament assumptions by stunning Germany 1-0 in their opening Group Stage match.

Now, against a Swedish team ranked twenty-fourth by FIFA, the Germans had fallen behind again when Ola Toivenen put a soft lob over the reach of netminder Manuel Neuer at the 32-minute mark. Sweden’s goal belied the flow of the match, which had been heavily in Germany’s favor. With Mexico already having won its second Group Stage match, and the Swede’s coming into this contest with a victory over South Korea under their belts, a second German defeat would result in the unthinkable – the defending champions and pre-tournament favorites failing to advance past the Group Stage.

Early in the second half the constant German pressure finally paid off, as Marco Reus netted an errant pass to tie the score. But while a tie would at least give the Germans life, it would still leave their hopes of advancing hanging by a cobweb. Germany would need to defeat South Kores in its final Group Stage contest, and hope that Mexico beat Sweden. But under that scenario Mexico would already be through into the knockout round, and thus have little incentive in its final Group Stage game.

Then in the 82nd minute, Jerome Boating was sent off with a red card, forcing the Germans to play the remainder of the match with only ten men. In the stands the faces of the blue and yellow clad Swedish fans glowed with hope, while those of the German faithful were etched with grave doubt. The 90th minute came, and with it word that five minutes of stoppage time remained. But unlike other times sports, soccer’s extra time is not counted down on scoreboards. All that fans knew was that at least five full minutes remained, with the exact clock kept only on the field.

Four minutes and forty seconds of overtime had elapsed when a foul gave Germany a free kick from the left side of the box. As Toni Kroos lined up, the entire watching world knew this was the moment, Germany’s last chance. Kroos approached, but rather than attempt a shot or pass he lightly touched the ball, rolling it a yard forward to his teammate Reus, who merely touched it, setting it in place. As he did so Kroos took his full windup and ripped a curling shot toward the net. Swedish defenders leapt, the ball just missing one of them. Sweden’s goaltender raced and stretched as far as he could, the ball passing just beyond his grasp. It curled into the far corner of the net, Germany 2, Sweden 1. In the stands and on the field, joy became despair, doubt turned into ecstasy, and the unending human drama of our games triumphed over cynicism once again.

The summer solstice was still a few days off last Sunday, but that didn’t stop a bright June sun from doing its best August imitation as it beat down on Yankee Stadium. Although it was not yet noon, the thermometer was pushing towards ninety as fans found their way into the three tiers of seats. A good portion of what would eventually be a crowd of more than 46,000 arrived well in advance of the scheduled 2:05 start time for the contest with the Tampa Bay Rays, because this was the one day on the season’s calendar when the pregame ceremonies were as much of a draw as the game itself. For the 72nd time the Yankees were celebrating Old Timer’s Day.

The first such event, held on the final day of the 1947 regular season, was conceived by Larry McPhail, the team’s general manager and part-owner at the time, not with the intent of initiating a lasting tradition but rather as a fund-raiser for the Babe Ruth Foundation. The greatest Yankee and most famous ballplayer ever, by then terminally ill, had established the self-named charity earlier that year for the purpose of aiding underprivileged children.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978, McPhail served in executive roles with seven professional teams, including the Reds, Dodgers, and Yankees at the major league level. He hired Red Barber to do radio play-by-play in Cincinnati and later brought him along to Brooklyn. McPhail brought the national pastime into a new age by introducing night games, the televising of games, and making road trips by air rather than train or bus. Three generations of his descendants have served as baseball executives.

But his career in the front offices of the Great Game ended just days after more than forty retired players from throughout the American League gathered at the old Stadium for that first Old Timer’s Day. Described by his grandson Andy, currently the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, as “a genius when sober, brilliant when he had one drink, and a raving lunatic when he had too many,” McPhail got into ugly confrontations with both players and his fellow executives at celebrations of the Yankees’ World Series triumph over the Dodgers. He had already quit as general manager during a scene in New York’s locker room immediately after the deciding Game 7, and co-owners Dan Topping and Del Webb quickly decided to buy out McPhail’s ownership share as well.

Yet the good feelings generated by the gathering of former players barely more than one week earlier was still fresh, and so while McPhail was done with the Yankees, his final innovation became an annual event for the Gotham franchise, reprised every season down through the decades, into a new century, and across 161st Street to a new Stadium. On Sunday the festivities began with a newer tradition, the recorded basso profondo voice of the late public-address announcer Bob Sheppard echoing through the stands, greeting one and all in that familiar stately cadence, “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Old Timer’s Day.” It was the signal for those not in their seats to hasten to them, and for the first of many cheers to roll down onto the field.

The program started with the introduction of four widows of Yankee legends – Jill Martin, Helen Hunter, Diana Munson, and Kay Murcer. The late Billy Martin managed battery mates Catfish Hunter and Thurman Munson to a championship in 1977 and had them on their way to another the following year when George Steinbrenner’s managerial revolving door cast Martin out for the first time. He was back in 1979 when Murcer rejoined his original team for the final years of his playing career, and it was Murcer who eulogized Munson after the Yankee captain was killed in a plane crash in August of that year. Their widows return every year, a poignant reminder of four Yankees taken too soon, either by accident or disease.

Next came the retired players, and they ran the gamut from those who played bit parts on teams that were second-rate, to Hall of Famers with multiple World Series rings. But on this day, each was greeted warmly by the fans as he made his way from the first base dugout to the rows of white chairs set up on the infield along the base paths from first to third. The younger ones jogged out to their assigned seats while those with white hair and a jersey a few sizes larger than in their playing days moved more slowly.

The loudest ovations of all were for the three oldest former Yankees. First there was Dr. Bobby Brown, the last surviving member of the 1947 championship squad. Not just for the Yankees but in all the Great Game, no one remains from an earlier World Series winning team. Brown played third base and won four titles in all, batting .417 in seventeen World Series games. He went on to become a cardiologist and eventually president of the American League for ten years. The 93-year-old climbed the dugout stairs and walked unassisted to his seat as every fan stood applauding in front of theirs. Brown was followed by 88-year-old Don Larsen, still the owner of the only perfect game in World Series history, more than six decades after he hurled it on October 8, 1956. Larsen used a walker, but he too made his way onto the field to the roars of the crowd. Finally came the Chairman of the Board, as he was known during his sixteen-year playing career, 89-year-old Edward Charles Ford. Whitey is frail now. He was assisted to the top of the dugout steps but went no further as fans showered their love and respect down on the diminutive lefty. More than half a century after his last pitch, Ford still hold team career records for wins (236) and shutouts (45) as well as games started, and innings pitched.

A highlight of this Old Timer’s Day was the presence of several first-time participants. Aaron Boone, now the New York manager, was there of course. But so was Jason Giambi, and left-hander Andy Pettitte, and the irrepressible Nick Swisher. When the ceremonies concluded, and the players began the usual three inning exhibition game, Pettitte took the mound. With his cap pulled low and glove in front of his face, he stared in for the sign and even from the third deck one could almost see that famous Pettitte glare that unnerved hitters. He recorded 2,020 strikeouts while in pinstripes, and his nineteen postseason wins are the most in the Great Game. Three of those clinched each round of the playoffs in the Yankees last championship season.

Pettitte even took a couple of turns at the plate, something he did only 56 times during his fifteen years in the Bronx. While Pettitte did line a single to center, the day’s hero in the batter’s box was Swisher, who only ended his career before the start of last season. In his second time up, he drilled a Jeff Nelson pitch into the second deck in right field and the roaring crowd came to its feet as Swisher circled the bases, grinning from ear to ear.

The exhibition concluded, and another Old Timer’s Day was over. The grounds crew got busy making the field ready for the real game against Tampa Bay. In that contest, reserve infielder Neil Walker started at first base, and veteran left-hander CC Sabathia took the mound. They were the only two players in New York’s starting lineup over the age of 30. Most members of the 2018 Yankees are many years away from their first participation in Old Timer’s Day. On this summery Sunday, those young Yankees were reminded of the pinstriped legacy that is now their job to carry forward.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 18, 2018

Koepka Repeats (Good); So Does The USGA (Bad)

Since the United States Golf Association organized the first men’s U.S. Open in 1895, just seven players have won the tournament in back-to-back years. Four of those – Scotland’s Willie Anderson, who won three years in a row and four out of five in the first decade of the last century, John McDermott, the first American to win the national title, the immortal Bobby Jones, and the publicity-shy Ralph Guldahl – did so before the start of World War II.

Since then and until this weekend, only two more golfers had successfully defended a win at our Open, and no, neither of them was named Nicklaus or Woods. Rather it was Ben Hogan in 1950 at Merion and 1951 at Oakland Hills, with the first win forever known as the “Miracle at Merion,” coming as it did just sixteen months after Hogan was nearly killed in an automobile accident. Then nearly four decades later Curtis Strange prevailed in an 18-hole playoff against Nick Faldo at the Country Club in 1988, then held off a trio of challengers to win by a stroke at soggy Oak Hill in 1989.

Now, exactly forty years after Strange first nipped Faldo, 28-year old Brooks Koepka has added his name to the short list of back-to-back U.S. Open champions with his one-stroke victory Sunday at Shinnecock Hills. He did it over the closing holes with a crucial par save at the 14th after blocking his drive wide right, and a brilliant approach to the par-5 16th that left him with a gimme birdie.  It was Koepka’s first win at any tournament since last Father’s Day, when he overtook 54-hole leader Brian Harmon and eased to a four-shot victory at Erin Hills.

Years from now, when memories fade and the details are largely forgotten, the circumstances of Koepka’s twin wins will have passed into oblivion. In a sense that’s only fair. To win the Open even once is career-defining. To do so twice is literally Hall of Fame worthy, as the World Golf Hall of Fame’s eligibility criteria for male competitors is fifteen total victories OR multiple wins in majors. And to score those two wins in successive years is, quite obviously, something that in the modern era comes along just once every couple of generations. While he may have but a single other victory on the PGA Tour, Koepka’s ability to prevail in the national championship at both a course built on a glacial debris field in Wisconsin and one laid out over the windswept hills of Long Island’s south fork is a testament to a powerful combination of raw ability and mental toughness.

But while Koepka’s winning will be what is ultimately remembered, in the immediate aftermath of this year’s championship there is justifiably as much attention being paid to the USGA’s inadvertent but undeniable role in shaping the tournament’s outcome. That this has become an annual discussion among golf media and fans is an especially unwelcome fact.

Three summers ago, the USGA took the Open to the Pacific Northwest, staging the event at Chambers Bay, a young course on the shores of Puget Sound. Had the worst outcome been the fact that the treeless layout looked like nothing so much as a moonscape on television, the decision would have been excusable. But the steep hills on several holes forced the Association to restrict fan access due to safety concerns, meaning much of the play took place without the roars and crowd support that are an integral part of golf at a major. Far more significant was the condition of the immature greens, which were so bumpy and irregular that Rory McIlroy likened them to heads of cauliflower. It was not just nerves that contributed to Dustin Johnson’s decisive three-putt on the 72nd hole that handed the title to Jordan Spieth.

One year later Oakmont was a more traditional venue, but the USGA again became the story, with Johnson again the foil. While standing over a putt on the 5th green during the final round, he suddenly backed away. Discussion ensued between Johnson, his playing partner, and rules officials about whether his ball had moved as he addressed it. The decision on the scene was that if the ball moved it was not the result of anything Johnson did. But later in the round USGA officials changed their mind, informing Johnson while he stood on the 12th tee that no decision would be made until after the round. Despite having to play with that uncertainty in his head, Johnson went on to finish well clear of his closest chasers, making the eventual one stroke penalty immaterial. Both players and fans reacted scathingly to the USGA’s dithering.

Then last year USGA decided to open up Erin Hills, widening the fairways and cutting back the usually knee-high U.S. Open rough. Perhaps the organizers had no choice. Given the short history of the track that just opened in 2006 and had previously hosted only one USGA event, the 2011 U.S. Amateur, officials couldn’t be certain how the course would play. But what they got was a return to the old Greater Milwaukee Open, with birdies falling left and right. There were more than forty rounds under par on each of the first two days. On Saturday, after the cut, thirty-two players or nearly half the field broke par, led by Justin Thomas’s record-setting 62. It was called the national championship but played like a weekly Tour stop, thanks to the USGA’s decision to award the event to an inadequately vetted site.

Opened in 1891 and a founding member of the USGA, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club is nothing if not well vetted. Prior to last weekend it had hosted four previous U.S. Opens, both the Men’s and Women’s Amateur, and a Walker Cup. But as the USGA learned when the Open was last played at Shinnecock in 2004, the exposed links-style course can become dry and brutally hard when the wind blows and the sun shines. In that year the organizers were forced to water several greens between groups during Sunday’s final round, as it became almost impossible to stop a ball on the putting surfaces.

Despite that experience and a warm and windy weather forecast for Saturday’s third round this year, the USGA again set multiple pin placements on the edge of steep slopes. As the day wore on and the greens hardened, it became 2004 all over again. By the time the leaders teed off in mid-afternoon, they were playing an utterly different golf course than the early starters, one that was vastly more difficult.

Tony Finau and Daniel Berger went out early, shot matching 4-under 66s and went from a tie for 45th, eleven shots behind, to a tie for the lead and in Sunday’s final pairing. In contrast, the ten golfers who made up Saturday’s last five pairings played in a combined 67 over par. Just before those groups, Rickie Fowler alone was 14 over par, shooting his worst round ever in a major. And spectacle turned to farce when Phil Mickelson decided that a two-stroke penalty for hitting a ball while it was still moving was preferable to watching an errant putt roll who knows how far off a green and down a nearby slope. Social media responded as if Lefty had stolen both the trophy and the winner’s check and donated both to the Taliban.

In the wake of the debacle, USGA CEO Mike Davis admitted that Saturday’s setup “went too far,” and promised that the course would be “slowed down” for the final round. But the damage, which was easily foreseeable given the 2004 experience, was already done. Johnson, who by now must surely believe that someone high up in the Association really, really doesn’t like him, led by four at the tournament’s midpoint. The last golfer to lead the U.S. Open by that much and lose was Tom McNamara in 1909. But Johnson had putted just 53 times in his first two rounds combined. He needed 38 putts on Saturday afternoon’s ceramic tile greens to finish his third round 77, a score that brought Koepka, Finau, Berger and many others back into the tournament.

Twelve months from now our national championship returns to Pebble Beach, another venerable seaside course that has hosted the U.S. Open multiple times. One can hope that at Pebble the story will be about the golf and the golfers, and not about the officials in the blue blazers. But the recent track record is not promising.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 14, 2018

Rockin’ The Red In DC

A NOTE TO READERS: The usual Sunday post will be delayed until Monday. Have a great weekend and as always, thanks for reading!

In the parlance of our electoral politics, there is no voting jurisdiction in the country colored a deeper blue than the nation’s capital. Residents of Washington, D.C. have no voting representative in either house of Congress, but they do have the minimum of three votes in the Electoral College, and every four years the Democratic nominee for President can put them in his or her column without having to spend a dime on local advertising or an hour campaigning in Georgetown or Anacostia.

Despite that lopsided political persuasion and as unlikely as the voting preference of the locals might make it seem, one can only hope that no one within a thirty-mile radius of the Washington Monument has an urge to buy a red shirt any time soon, because surely every clothing store that close to D.C. is completely sold out of that color. That assumption seems entirely reasonable given that on Tuesday, the sidewalks lining a mile long stretch of Constitution Avenue and the broad swath of greenspace that is the National Mall at 7th Street all appeared to be a pulsing, living, and utterly joyous, sea of red.

Fans by the hundreds of thousands swarmed into downtown to cheer the Washington Capitals, who captured the first Stanley Cup in the team’s forty-three-year history one week ago with a come from behind 4-3 victory over the Las Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Finals. The National Park Service stopped providing crowd estimates for events in D.C. long ago, but the local Transit Authority announced that more than 840,000 people rode the subway system on Tuesday, almost forty percent higher than the daily average and the highest ridership since the day of the Women’s March in January 2017.

While the parade didn’t start until late morning, fans started gathering at first light, staking out prime positions along the route and in front of the stage set up on the Mall for the championship rally. By the time the double-decker buses carrying the players were ready to roll, the red-shirted celebrants were packed eight and ten deep on both sides of Constitution Avenue, and peering down from the rooftops of nearby buildings.

For those who were simply D.C. sports fans, it was the first chance to honor a local champion since the NFL franchise captured Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, more than a quarter century ago. For those whose first love was hockey, the faithful who had followed the Caps for years, it was a day of catharsis, a chance to at long last release all the emotion built up over so many seasons that ended in defeat, disappointment, and doubt.

Like most expansion franchises the story of the Capitals’ first few years is one of failure. In the team’s first season of 1974-75 just eight contests on the eighty game schedule ended with a Washington victory. It was nine seasons before the Capitals posted a winning record and qualified for the playoffs. Having finally done so the team became consistently competitive, though the Caps were still not one of the NHL’s elite squads. It was another seven years before Washington reached the Conference Finals, and it wasn’t until 1998 that the Capitals actually played for the Stanley Cup, losing to Detroit four games to none.

Then came a down period, with just three playoff berths in the next eight seasons. The tail end of that interregnum coincided with the 2005 arrival of Alex Ovechkin, the generational Russian talent who remains the face of the franchise. His first appearance in a Capitals’ sweater came less than three weeks after his twentieth birthday, and the young left wing quickly gave D.C. fans a taste of what was to come, netting two goals in a win over Columbus. Since that night Ovechkin has scored another 605 regular season goals and 61 more in the playoffs, and the Capitals have moved into the top tier of the league’s franchises.

Ovechkin has been the NHL’s leading goal scorer seven times and led in total scoring in 2008. He’s won three MVP Awards and is a nine-time All-Star. During his time in Washington the Capitals have won eight division titles and three Presidents’ Trophies, given to the team with the best regular season record. But time and again, after displaying such dominance during the regular season, the Caps and Ovechkin foundered in the playoffs. After winning their first Presidents’ Trophy at the end of the 2009-10 season, they were ushered out of the playoffs in the very first round by the eighth seed Canadiens. In nine trips to the postseason with Ovechkin on the roster prior to this year, Washington had never advanced past the second round.

At Capital One Arena, this season began with more modest expectations than most. Certainly the team was expected to be good, but after some key losses to free agency and in the expansion draft, Washington wasn’t a popular pick for a deep playoff run. The Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning were the choice of many pundits, and there were those who talked of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins winning a third championship in a row. While the Capitals again topped their division, across the league seven teams finished with better records.

Perhaps because they were free from the heavy weight of high hopes, the Capitals’ skaters brought a new level of resilience to this postseason. Washington lost the first two games of the opening round to Columbus, but rather than fold the Capitals stormed back to win four straight. They lost their second-round opener to the Penguins, but again rallied to finally beat their old playoff nemesis and advance to their first Conference Final since 1998. In that penultimate round the Caps went up two games to none on the Lightning, only to drop three games in a row. Facing elimination, Washington played its finest hockey of the entire year, completely shutting down the prolific Tampa Bay offense in two straight shutouts.

The Capitals then dropped Game One of the Finals to the unlikeliest opponent of all, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. But then Braden Holtby made a season-changing save to cement the win in Game Two, and Washington never looked back. When the last horn sounded the Capitals had cruised through the Finals in five games, outscoring the Golden Knights 16-8 while sweeping the last four. Ovechkin, who led all playoff skaters with fifteen goals, was named the MVP of the postseason, while Holtby had the lowest goals against average and teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov led all scorers with thirty-two points.

The championship run was, in short, a total team effort. And while the loudest cheers on Tuesday were for Ovechkin, there were plenty of plaudits for all the players, head coach Barry Trotz, GM Brian MacLellan, and for popular owner Ted Leonsis. All on the day a city celebrated the end of a long title drought, a team rejoiced over its first ever championship, a superstar gladly left the top of the list of best players to have never won a title, and the bluest city in the country turned deeply, passionately, and proudly, red.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 10, 2018

History And Greatness At Big Sandy

How does one measure greatness in sports? What are the standards that separate the very good from those whose place in the history books of their game is secure? On a warm spring afternoon at the Long Island racetrack known as Big Sandy, those questions seemed appropriate. A full house of 90,000 fans packed Belmont Park on Saturday, there to see the latest attempt at horse racing history.

Justify, the big 3-year-old chestnut colt with the distinguishing white blaze on his forehead, had romped at the Kentucky Derby and persevered at the Preakness. Now came the Belmont Stakes, the grueling mile and a half long race dubbed “The Test of the Champion.” A stern test it is. On thirty-five previous occasions, a horse had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but only twelve of those steeds went on to capture the Belmont, the most recent being American Pharoah in 2015.

Yet even before he left his barn for the long walk to Belmont Park’s paddock late Saturday afternoon, Justify had already accomplished so much. Five weeks earlier, on the first Saturday in May, he became just the second horse, and the first since Apollo in 1882, to win the Kentucky Derby despite not having raced as a two-year-old. And while his racing life had begun less than four months earlier with a seven-furlong win in a maiden race at Santa Anita, in it he was a perfect five for five. Win or lose at Big Sandy, an immaculate record that included the first two jewels of the Triple Crown certainly gave Justify the elements of a great career.

Mike Smith, the 52-year-old jockey who had been astride Justify since his second start, is known as “Big Money Mike” for good reason. While he started out racing quarter horses in New Mexico, once he switched to thoroughbreds in 1989 he quickly established himself as a dominant figure in the sport. He was the leading jockey at New York tracks from 1991 through 1993. He ventured overseas to win the Irish 2,000 Guineas aboard Fourstars Allstar in 1991. Two years later he won a record-setting 62 stakes races. That same year he won the Preakness, the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey.

When Smith was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2003, he confessed that he didn’t feel worthy of the honor. Worthy or not then, since his induction Smith has won twice at the Kentucky Derby and twice at the Belmont as well as a pair of Kentucky Oaks and sixteen Breeders’ Cup races. With more than 5,000 career wins that garnered owners more than $312 million in purses, Smith had already cemented his reputation as one of the great jockeys of his generation even before he guided Justify into the number one gate early Saturday evening.

Bob Baffert, the 65-year-old trainer of the Belmont favorite, is the most recognizable thoroughbred trainer to casual fans of horse racing by far, thanks to his shock of snow-white hair. Like Smith, Baffert was raised in the southwest and thus began his career training quarter horses. He switched to thoroughbreds in the 1980s after moving to California. He saddled his first winner of a Breeders’ Cup race before his fortieth birthday. Between 1997 and 1999 Baffert won the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer three years in a row. Prior to Saturday Baffert’s horses had won fourteen Triple Crown races, fourteen Breeders’ Cup races and both the Dubai World Cup and Pegasus World Cup, the two richest races on the planet.

Baffert’s greatest accomplishment came just three years ago, when he trained American Pharoah, the horse that broke the longest drought in Triple Crown history. As Pharoah charged down the Belmont stretch, pulling away from his pursuers, announcer Larry Collmus told the world “and here it is, the 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!” Surely his status as one of just eleven trainers to saddle a Triple Crown winner qualified Baffert as one of the greatest at his trade.

Yet for all that horse, jockey, and trainer had accomplished, the one certainty as Justify stood patiently waiting in the first stall as his nine competitors were loaded into the adjoining gates, was that if one of those other horses beat him to the wire, Justify, along with Smith and Baffert, would be remembered as having failed at their collective campaign to accomplish one of the most difficult feats in all of sports. It would not matter whether it happened because the horse had an off day, the jockey made a tactical mistake, or the trainer failed in his preparations. As months turned to years and memories of their other accomplishments faded, there would always be those who would point to that one race and question their greatness.

Then the gates sprang open, and history was made. Justify bolted away like one of Smith or Baffert’s old quarter horses. He was in the lead from the start and covered the first quarter in a quick 23.37 seconds. Longshot speedster Noble Indy had been expected to mount an early challenge, but he was held up by other horses, allowing Smith to ease Justify back into a more comfortable pace as the field moved into the sweeping first turn. Restoring Hope, another entrant sent off at long odds, loped along in second place, a length behind the leader as the horses began the long run down Belmont’s back stretch.

In just over a minute and 13 seconds Justify was halfway home and heading for the far turn, still running comfortably. Behind him Vino Rosso on the outside and Bravazo on the rail stepped up their pursuit as the field approached the mile pole. At the same time Gronkowski, who had been dead last for most of the race, also began a charge on the inside. Only when they straightened for home did Smith finally ask Justify to run, and he immediately responded, stretching his advantage over Gronkowski, Vino Rosso, and now the second betting choice Hofburg, who was racing down the middle of the lane. But the pursuers would remain just that on this Saturday. As Justify came to the wire, just under two lengths ahead of his closest challenger, it was Collmus again with the declaration of the moment, “he’s just perfect, and now he’s just immortal! Justify is the 13th Triple Crown winner!”

The horse is not just that, but also the second champion to claim the Crown with an undefeated record. And while Seattle Slew was the first to accomplish that feat in 1977, no other horse has come close to winning the Triple Crown a mere 112 days after their first race. Smith, who told NBC’s Donna Brothers immediately after the race that he now felt worthy of the Hall of Fame accolade bestowed on him fifteen years ago, becomes the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown, while Baffert is just the second trainer, after Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in the 1930s, to saddle a pair of Triple Crown champions. Justify, Mike Smith and Bob Baffert will forever be linked in the history books of horse racing, equine and human champions and record-setters. By any measure, three examples of greatness in sports.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 7, 2018

A Familiar Wish, An Even More Familiar Outcome

Maybe it was the timing. After all, in the depths of the offseason, fans hungry for news will quickly turn the smallest grain of information into a full-blown story, one complete with a happy ending. Or maybe it was the content of that first photograph that popped up on Instagram last December. Posted by Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino with the one-word caption “timmy,” it immediately went viral. That wasn’t just because the snapshot showed two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum wearing a baseball glove and obviously throwing again, but also because the pitcher dubbed “The Freak” due to his ability to generate so much heat from such a wispy frame was clad in a sleeveless workout shirt and looked to be in the best shape of his life, with bulging biceps and a ripped physique. With only the photograph to go on it was easy to imagine an odds-defying comeback by a beloved hero.

It was easy, in short, to ignore the fact that Lincecum had last been a top of the rotation starter in 2011. Easy to forget that after going 10-15 with an ERA over 5.00 and an ERA+ of just 68 in 2012 he was relegated to the Giants’ bullpen for the postseason. Two months after Ottavino’s post, Lincecum threw for scouts from fifteen teams in Arizona. His fastball was clocked in the low 90s, a significant improvement over his short-lived comeback attempt in 2016, when it averaged less than 88 mph in nine starts with the Angels. That uptick allowed one to gloss over his 2-6 record in a Los Angeles uniform, with an ERA of 9.16 and a meager ERA+ of only 44.

Two teams offered Lincecum contracts after his February showcase. But one of those franchises was the Dodgers, and after spending the first nine years of his career and winning three rings with San Francisco, Lincecum couldn’t bring himself to sign with his old team’s archrival. So he inked a one-year deal for $1 million and reported to the Texas Rangers training camp in Surprise, Arizona. There he said all the right things, telling a reporter from USA Today that he was attempting another comeback because “the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I care about the game so much. It’s part of my identity.” Lincecum’s intention was to transition to a relief role, and he was working on pitching on back-to-back days. “I had a lot of options what to do with the rest of my life, but baseball is all that I’ve known. I want to do whatever I can to keep my career going, no matter how much time I have left in the game,” he said in the same interview, adding “really, I just want to go out on my own terms.’’

Such is the wish of every athlete in all our games, but the sentiment is understandably most fervent among the handful of players who breathe the rarefied air at the very top of their sport, at Tim Lincecum has. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs while still in high school, but elected to go to college rather than turn pro. Two years later Cleveland tabbed Lincecum in one of the drafts later rounds, but he again declined the offered contract. Finally San Francisco made Lincecum the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft, and gave him a signing bonus of more than $2 million, at the time the largest the franchise had ever paid to an amateur player. Less than twelve months later he made his major league debut, fanning all three Phillies who stepped to the plate in his first inning as a big league pitcher. In July of that 2007 rookie campaign Lincecum went 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA.

The following season he won the first of back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards, collecting 23 of 32 first place votes and easily outdistancing runner-up Brandon Webb. He led the league in traditional statistics like winning percentage (.783, a record of 18-5), complete games (4) and strikeouts (265), as well as advanced metrics such as ERA+ (168) and Fielding Independent Pitching (2.62). He continued to mow down batters as his career progressed, recording 261 strikeouts in 2009, 231 in 2010, and 220 in 2011. The first two totals again were the best in the senior circuit. In 2011 he matched up against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw four times, evoking memories of the days of Juan Marichal versus Sandy Koufax. Los Angeles came out on top in all four meetings, but the scores told the real story – 2-1, 1-0, 2-1 and 2-1. In the last of those meetings the two combined for twenty strikeouts.

Along the way he became a fan favorite. The San Francisco faithful loved his flowing locks and his willingness to interact with fans. They marveled at his unorthodox delivery which features an especially long stride into the pitch. Most of all, they watched in awe as a pitcher generously listed as 5 feet 11 inches and 170 pounds flung 99 mile per hour fastballs past opposing batters.

But in 2011 he complained of soreness in his knees. He purposely lost thirty pounds during the offseason, which seemed to affect his mechanics. His fastball speed declined and his control suffered. Over the remainder of his time with the Giants there would be flashes of the familiar greatness, including a pair of no-hitters, both against the San Diego Padres. But there were also steadily declining statistics and a diagnosis of a degenerative hip injury and surgery that cut short his 2015 season.

In a reminder that baseball remains a business, the only team Lincecum had ever played for showed no interest in resigning him after his contract expired at the end of 2015. Instead he signed with the Angels, and after rehabbing from the hip surgery made his 2016 debut in mid-June. He threw six strong innings against the Oakland A’s, and hopes rose. But each successive outing in a Los Angeles uniform got worse, and in August he was designated for assignment.

Then, after Lincecum spent more than a year out of the public eye, came Ottavino’s Instagram post, the subsequent pitching showcase, and the contract with the Rangers. Had Lincecum been granted his wish of going out on his own terms, that would have led to a successful few years as a mainstay of the Texas bullpen.  Perhaps someone will write a screenplay in which that takes place.

In real life, Lincecum’s spring training preparations were cut short by a serious blister on his right middle finger. After starting the season on the disabled list, he had been rehabbing in the minors. This week his 30-day rehab period was up, and Texas had to either add Lincecum to its 25-man roster or let him go. In ten relief appearances for the AAA Round Rock Express he had posted a 5.68 ERA and struck out just one more batter than he walked. That was not a resume that warranted a spot on the big league roster, so on Tuesday the Rangers released the 33-year-old. Tim Lincecum is heading back to the West Coast, at least publicly intent on continuing his throwing program in hopes of attracting interest from some other franchise. But in stark contrast to Lincecum’s, and every athlete’s wish, the final stanza of the old T. S. Eliot poem inevitably comes to mind:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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