Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 17, 2017

Fewer Fans But Better Racing

Like so many other stops on the stock car circuit, New Hampshire Motor Speedway continues to adjust to the reality of the sport’s slow but certain decline in popularity. Three years ago, several sections of the track’s north grandstand were removed, eliminating thousands of seats that had once been filled every time NASCAR’s main series raced at the Magic Mile, but which in recent years had sat largely empty. Since then seating capacity has been reduced by nearly half at the track in Richmond, and by significant amounts even in the heart of NASCAR country at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and at the home of the sport’s biggest race, Daytona International Speedway.

The first thing fans arriving at Loudon for this weekend’s races noticed was that half of what remained of that north grandstand had disappeared, further reducing NHMS’s seating. The flat ground on which those grandstand sections once stood is now a lot for RV camping, with twenty spots priced at $999 for the weekend, marketed for their exclusive location close to the action between Turns 3 and 4.

Financially the move makes sense, as lately there have been more than enough empty seats in the main and south grandstands to relocate all the fans who previously sat in the seats that were removed. That means the revenue from the RV area that is being marketed as the “Trackside Terrace” is so much gravy for Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the owner of the track. Still the elimination of more seating and the steadily shrinking capacity of not just NHMS but also many of its brethren is a stark reminder to race fans of their declining numbers.

That point was underscored on Sunday, when despite warm summer weather and blue skies fans who made the trek from across New England and eastern Canada to the one-mile oval that sits improbably on a two-lane country road in a rural hamlet eight miles northeast of New Hampshire’s state capitol building, did not do so in sufficient numbers to pack even NHMS’s diminished grandstands for the weekend’s main event. It was the Overton’s 301, the nineteenth race on this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. As the thirty-nine entrants came out of Turn 4 and the Toyota Camry pace car dove into the pits, fans came to their feet for the start of what would prove to be the third highly entertaining race of the weekend. But most of them did so with room to spare, as there were plenty of empty seats and patches of completely empty rows throughout the Speedway’s stands.

There is no shortage of analysis and opinion about what NASCAR needs to do to reinvigorate its fan base. As previously noted in this space, last decade’s recession hit stock car racing doubly hard, causing corporate sponsors to shy away from the enormous expense of supporting race teams, and making fans think twice before loading up the gas-guzzling RV for a road trip to NASCAR’s nearest venue. But for all the complaints since then about the standardization of the cars and drivers becoming little more than corporate spokespeople, hasn’t the obvious answer all along been to consistently offer more exciting racing? Isn’t that what NASCAR is supposed to be about?

If the cure is as simple as that, then among the many thousands who did make it to Loudon last weekend, and let’s not forget that NHMS’s two NASCAR weekends are still the biggest sports draw in New England, surely some left as new fans of stock car racing.

Saturday afternoon the modifieds led off the action with their usual display of highly competitive racing. The Modified Division is NASCAR’s oldest, and because the Whelen Modified Tour is based in New England many fans feel a personal connection to the drivers. The modifieds look nothing like street automobiles. With their open wheeled design and long and low front ends the cars resemble modern dragsters. In the Eastern Propane 100 26-year old Ryan Preece, the 2013 Modified Tour champion, started on the pole and led the most laps. With just two circuits around the Loudon oval remaining, Preece, Bobby Santos, Doug Coby and Monster Energy Cup Series driver Ryan Newman were locked in a four-car duel, coming into the front stretch together in close formation like a squadron of fighter jets. Then Coby got into Newman, driving the yellow number 77 up into the wall and bringing out the caution flag. When the race resumed it was Santos who got the better restart, pulling away from Preece for his fifteenth Modified Tour win.

Next up was the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s top developmental series. As is often the case, three Monster Energy Cup Series drivers stepped down to race in the Overton’s 200. While common, it’s a practice that takes the wheel away from a young driver who could use the experience. The top-tier drivers usually dominate any Xfinity race they enter. To a degree Saturday was no exception, with Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski all finishing in the top five. Keselowski’s Ford was clearly the fastest car on the track, but during a pit stop on lap 170 he started to pull out of pit stall while a gas can was still locked into its coupler with his car. Keselowski was hit with a stop-and-go penalty for dragging equipment outside his pit, forcing him to return to pit row on the next lap and come to a full stop at his box.

Keselowski’s error essentially handed the race to Busch, but the real news of the race was that the three Monster Energy Cup Series drivers finished first, fourth and fifth, rather than one-two-three. William Byron, currently second in the season-long Xfinity standings, finished ahead of Larson and Keselowski in third place after a fine afternoon. Even more impressive, the second spot went to Preece, the full-time Whelen Modified Tour driver who was given a rare shot at moving up in class by Joe Gibbs Racing. Finishing up a double duty day, Preece squeezed everything he could out of the opportunity.

On Sunday, the weekend’s main event went to Denny Hamlin, who ended a long winless streak for both himself and Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin outlasted a hard-charging Larson who came from all the way at the back of the pack after winning the pole only to have his Chevy fail a post-qualifying inspection. Martin Truex Jr., the leader for much of the race, settled for third.

The race featured hard driving and frequent passing not just at the front, but throughout the pack. That was largely due to the decision to coat two lanes around both sets of turns with PJ1 Track Bite, a specialty compound designed to increase traction. With greater grip, drivers could choose alternate lines around the track, which produced far more side by side and even three wide racing, something rarely seen in the past at the flat Loudon oval. The drivers loved it, with Larson calling the day “fun” and Hamlin adding “As far as I’m concerned we should race here ten times a year.” The happy fans loved it as well, or at least those who showed up did.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 13, 2017

Thanks For The Memories, DraftKings And FanDuel

A NOTE TO READERS: NASCAR comes to New England this weekend, and On Sports and Life will be at New Hampshire Motor Speedway taking in the action. Since the Overton 301, Sunday’s main event, doesn’t begin until 3:00 p.m. that day’s usual post will be delayed until Monday. Thanks as always for your support.

It was never a marriage made in heaven, so few observers were surprised when it came undone. Thursday afternoon the two leading daily fantasy sports companies, DraftKings and FanDuel, announced that their proposed merger was being called off. It’s been less than two years since Boston-based DraftKings invaded our living rooms with a tidal wave of television advertising as the 2015 NFL season approached. FanDuel, headquartered in New York, rushed to follow suit and a wild, cutthroat competition for subscribers began. Both companies raised prodigious sums of money, much of it through marketing and sponsorship agreements with major sports teams and leagues. But each spent their capital just as fast, and when controversy erupted after the New York Times reported that employees of both DraftKings and FanDuel were potentially using insider information to play, and win, on the competing website the harsh glare of legal scrutiny turned on the high flyers of daily fantasy sports.

The firestorm that followed the initial report by the Times led to calls to ban the sites as illegal gambling venues, and that in turn resulted in a long and expensive state-by-state battle for the two companies. Lawsuits were filed in multiple jurisdictions, even as DraftKings and FanDuel looked for help in legislative chambers in state capitals across the land. Membership peaked and started to decline, as small-time players figured out that both sites catered to the fantasy sports equivalent of Las Vegas high rollers, full-time players who used computer algorithms and sophisticated metrics to select lineups and generate scores of entries in multiple contests. In one-on-one games against so-called little fish, these daily fantasy sharks reliably devoured the competition.

With membership falling, some of their early sponsors looking for ways to back out of marketing agreements, and cash flying out the door to lawyers and lobbyists in multiple jurisdictions, the advertising deluge ceased and both companies looked for ways to retrench. Last October New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reached a $12 million settlement with DraftKings and FanDuel, with each company paying half that amount to resolve false advertising claims. A few weeks later the once bitter rivals announced their intention to merge, saying that “By combining and streamlining resources, FanDuel and DraftKings can work more efficiently with state government officials to develop a standard regulatory framework for the industry.” Both also promised that they commission fee structure would remain competitive.

But the merger was in trouble from the moment it was announced. Aside from the difficulty of creating synergy and a common corporate culture between two companies that had spent millions upon millions of dollars trying to do each other in, the very success of DraftKings and FanDuel meant the proposed union was going to draw close legal scrutiny. The two companies had either scooped up smaller daily fantasy websites or driven them into oblivion; together they controlled more than 90% of the market. The Federal Trade Commission has objected to merger proposals producing far less of a concentration of market share.

DraftKings and FanDuel argued that the real market wasn’t just daily fantasy sports, but the broader range of fantasy games spanning longer periods, even up to a full season. This included numerous websites, most of which don’t charge players to participate, and even thousands of local fantasy football leagues whose members gather once a year at a favorite watering hole to kick off another season with a beer-fueled draft party. But that was an argument the FTC wasn’t buying. Last month the Commission announced its opposition to the merger and filed suit to stop it.

In retrospect, it wasn’t Thursday but really the day of the FTC’s announcement that the proposed merger ended. Legal analysts pegged the costs for DraftKings and FanDuel to contest the government’s action as easily running $12 to $15 million, with no promise of a successful outcome. In a court room it would be the two companies, both increasingly strapped for cash, playing the role of small fish while the FTC took on the guise of predatory shark.

Predictably enough, efforts were made to spin abysmal failure into a promise of future success. DraftKings CEO Jason Robins said, “This will allow us to singularly focus on our mission of providing the most innovative and engaging interactive sports experience imaginable, forever changing the way fans connect with teams and athletes worldwide.” In a separate statement Nigel Eccles, the CEO of FanDuel promised that “There is still enormous, untapped market opportunity for FanDuel, and we will continue to execute our strategy to grow our business and further expand the fantasy sports industry.”

Both companies claim they are about to start raising fresh capital while busily rebuilding their subscriber bases. But since each is privately held it’s impossible to determine the validity of those claims. Both admit that they have yet to achieve profitability and neither can promise when or if that will change. While DraftKings and FanDuel may survive in some diminished state, their halcyon days are over. Once they combined to spend $32 million on television ads in a single week. Now they bowed to the FTC rather than risk less than half that amount in legal fees, and in the settlement with New York AG Schneiderman, they begged for and got three years to pay up, with fully half of the total paid at the end. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 9, 2017

Requiem For A Racetrack

The date is July 10, 1935. Much of the country is still struggling to escape the viselike grip of the Great Depression. But on a 161-acre property straddling East Boston and Revere a new sports venue is opening. Built in just sixty-two days by 3,000 workmen happy to have jobs, Suffolk Downs racetrack is a product of the recent legalization of parimutuel betting by Massachusetts legislators. The grandstand and clubhouse are packed with more than 35,000 fans on this first day of racing. People have come from all around New England to take in the initial eight-race card. Twenty-two horses go to the post for the Commonwealth Stakes, the feature race of Opening Day, run at six furlongs on the new dirt oval. The winner is Boxthorn, a 3-year old who ran in the Kentucky Derby two months earlier. The first page of the history of Suffolk Downs is written.

Just less than a year has passed; now it is June 29, 1936. A little colt named Seabiscuit charges down the lane to claim victory in an allowance race at Suffolk Downs. Among those watching the race is trainer Tom Smith. Two years earlier Smith had been given control of the stable of a fellow Georgian, wealthy car dealer Charles S. Howard. So impressed is Smith by the performance of the diminutive horse that he persuades Howard to purchase Seabiscuit. After working a punishing racing schedule at Wheatley Stables, the horse thrives under Smith’s different approach to training. Howard, Smith, jockey Red Pollard and Seabiscuit achieve national fame as the horse wins consistently and becomes a symbol of hope to millions of fans still trying to turn their own lives around.

The calendar reads August 7, 1937. Seabiscuit has returned to Suffolk Downs to compete in the Massachusetts Handicap. In just its third year the race has become the highlight of Suffolk’s annual meet. In time, it will become a graded stakes race, one of the more significant races on each year’s American thoroughbred schedule. Future winners of the MassCap will include Triple Crown champion Whirlaway, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge, and the legendary Cigar. But in 1937 the crowd of 40,000 has traveled to East Boston to see Seabiscuit, and with Pollard in the irons the horse fans have come to call “The Biscuit” does not disappoint. He gallops home in a stakes record time of 1:49.00. Seabiscuit’s share of the $70,000 purse is $51,780, the largest single prize to that point in his career.

The years move on, and time is not kind to the New England thoroughbred industry. Sister tracks in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Salem, New Hampshire are shuttered. In Maine Scarborough Downs gives up on thoroughbreds and offers only harness racing. Suffolk Downs goes through multiple owners, and often teeters on the brink of closing. The track goes dark for two years in 1990 and 1991. Then new owners pour money into improvements and Suffolk reopens for racing on New Year’s Day, 1992 with a crowd of more than 15,000 on hand. But even as the MassCap is revived and the first day with more than a million dollars in purses is achieved, even as the aging grandstands play host to crowds of 20,000 or more once or twice each season, the steady downward spiral continues.

Simulcasting is introduced, giving bettors a chance to wager on races at tracks all over the country. On any given race day, more fans are glued to the banks of televisions on the ground floor of the old clubhouse than are watching the live racing out on the track. John Velazquez rides the Nick Zito trained Commentator to victory in the 2008 MassCap. There will not be another. Massachusetts approves casino gambling in 2011, and the vision of a shiny new gambling mecca adjacent to the track becomes the last best hope for racing at Suffolk Downs.

It is September 2014. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission awards the single license for a casino in the Boston area to Wynn Resorts. Steve Wynn’s plan is to build a high-rise hotel and casino on a former industrial site in Everett. The Suffolk Downs plan, which had already been revised when voters in East Boston rejected casino gambling, requiring the proposed gambling hall to be shifted to that portion of the site that sits in Revere, has lost. Track ownership immediately announces that live racing will cease on October 4th.

The date is July 8, 2017. It’s a steamy Saturday and once again cars are pulling into the parking lots at Suffolk Downs. Three summers after its last full season of racing, thanks mainly to the efforts of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders Association, the track still hosts an annual meet, at least after a fashion. In 2015 there were all of three days of racing. Last year and this, and potentially again in 2018, the Suffolk Downs meet is six days spread over three weekends in July, August and September.

To interest fans in coming out to such a limited opportunity, the weekends are marketed as festivals featuring a variety of entertainments for children as well as a bevy of food trucks scattered across the broad concrete apron between the grandstand and the track. Thanks largely to a special state fund that dedicates a share of gambling revenues to support horse racing, each day’s racing will offer purses in excess of $400,000.

The announced attendance is 10,219, and for those who are familiar the old place looks like it always has. The simulcasting continues, its older crowd of hard luck gamblers still engrossed by the televisions showing races from Belmont Park to Monmouth, from Laurel to Woodbine, and beyond. On the ground floor beneath the grandstand bettors line up to place their wagers and cash in their winnings. Hanging from the high ceiling above them are banners with the names of MassCap winners.

Today’s feature is the 10th, the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash. The five-furlong spring on the inner turf track is for fillies and mares, with a guaranteed purse of $75,000. The race honors the fifth female jockey to score 1,000 wins, many of them here at Suffolk Downs, who succumbed to cancer in 2015 at the far too young age of fifty-one. D’Boldest, the longest shot in the field at 13-1 takes the early lead. Prohibitive favorite Portmagee challenges briefly on the far turn, but this won’t be her day. In the end she’ll be the last to finish. Instead it is the longshot who leads gate to wire. At the finish, her closest pursuer is Cali Thirty Seven, at 7-1 the horse with the second longest odds in the race. That’s horse racing.

There’s one more race on the card, but the crowd had already begun to thin, and now many more fans head for their cars and the drive home. The unlikely race day has been fun, but it has also had the air of a wake. Two months ago, Suffolk Downs was sold to a developer who has announced plans to turn the property into a mixed-use housing and shopping district. That project will take time, so these mini-meets may continue for another year or two; but for all the history that has been written on this ground, a very different future now irrevocably awaits.

As fans exit the clubhouse they pass a granite marker on which a bronze plaque recounts the long-ago exploits of Seabiscuit at Suffolk Downs. Perhaps when the property is redeveloped a space will be found for that marker, so that future generations can know that this East Boston property was not always about condominiums and shopping malls. But no one has promised that.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 6, 2017

The Celtics Got Better, But Not Good Enough

When news broke Tuesday afternoon that All-Star free agent forward Gordon Hayward was leaving the Utah Jazz to sign with the Boston Celtics, reaction around New England was overwhelmingly positive, with pundits singing the praises of Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. The chorus of good cheer was interrupted briefly when Hayward’s agent injected a stutter step into the move by denying the initial reports of his client’s decision, but by evening all parties were confirming that the 27-year old was indeed bound for Boston.

The key factor in Hayward’s move may not have been Ainge’s power of persuasion but the fact that Brad Stevens is Boston’s head coach. Hayward seemed to suggest as much in a posting on The Players’ Tribune website. After expressing his deep appreciation to Utah’s fans for their support during his seven seasons with the Jazz, he recounted the guidance and encouragement Stevens, then Butler’s head coach, gave the 20-year old Hayward when he was deciding whether to declare for the NBA draft after his sophomore year at the mid-major.

Butler had just narrowly lost the national championship game to Duke, with Hayward’s desperation heave from midcourt bouncing off the rim at the buzzer, and he clearly felt that in departing for the pros he was leaving unfinished business behind. He closed his post with a thought on that subject which Celtics fans were sure to love, writing “And that unfinished business we had together back in 2010, when I left Butler for the NBA … as far as I’m concerned, all these years later, we still have it: And that’s to win a championship.”

Before plans for the duck boat parade down Boylston Street get too far advanced, fans might want to recall the nearly four century old cautionary Scottish proverb, “if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” That warning is not meant to suggest that the Hayward signing is anything but a good move by Ainge. Because he’s played his entire career with Utah he’s been a bit under the radar. He’s a very efficient scorer, as shown by last season’s usage rate (the percentage of a team’s plays that end with the player last touching the ball – either shooting, being fouled, or committing a turnover) of 27.6, one of the lowest rates for players averaging over 20 points per game. He’s great in transition, and should benefit from Boston’s faster paced offense as compared to Utah. Hayward’s also very good in traffic. His ratio of scoring and getting fouled as opposed to having his shot blocked was fourth highest in the league, trailing only Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. And while much of the commentary focused on his offense, he’s also a better than average defensive player.

But Hayward doesn’t come to TD Garden for free. To fit Hayward’s $128 million four-year deal under the league’s lower than expected salary cap, Ainge must dump some contracts. He’s already renounced rights to Kelly Olynyk and has been shopping one or more of Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley. While none of those four will be mistaken for Gordon Hayward, they all had their roles on the team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals this spring.

More importantly, advanced metrics suggest that while Hayward deserved his first All-Star nod this past season, he’s not a superstar, not a player who is going to singlehandedly shift the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. As recently noted in this space, in the days leading up to the NBA Draft rumors circulated that Ainge was working on a deal to trade some of his plethora of picks for Paul George or Jimmy Butler. In the end neither was headed to Boston. Nor was Chris Paul, nor Blake Griffin, nor even Kristaps Porzingis, who has yet to achieve what Hayward has but who is also six years younger. Ainge continues to hoard his “assets” as he refers to Boston’s stockpile of high draft picks over the next several seasons. Unfortunately for Celtics fans those assets don’t score any points or block any shots.

Once the general elation surrounding the Hayward signing dies down, Celtics fans will still be left with the reality of the beatdown their team received from the Cleveland Cavaliers in that recent Conference Final series. Cleveland’s four victories were by an average of 26 points, and the Cavaliers led by at least 16 points for nearly half of the minutes played during the entire series. Given that Boston actually won one game, and that all five contests started with the score 0-0, that last statistic speaks volumes to the lopsided nature of the series.

And Boston fans will also remember that after the Cavaliers were done thrashing the Green, they in turn were spanked by the Warriors. As the offseason has unfolded, Golden State hasn’t gotten any worse, and Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Houston have all added significant pieces. Pick among those three and San Antonio, which has been quiet so far, and the Western Conference has not just the defending NBA champion and prohibitive favorite to repeat, but arguably the best three or four or even five teams in the league. Using a three-year rolling average of three key advanced metrics, the website found that even after Hayward’s move east, 22 of the top 30 players in the league are now in the Western Conference, the greatest conference disparity of talent since the NBA-ABA merger four decades ago.

After the Hayward hoopla dies down Celtics fans will understand all too well where their team really stands. With their newly signed forward on the wing, Isaiah Thomas running the offense, and Stevens on the sideline, Boston will be a very good team. A sure thing for the postseason, maybe even the best of the rest in what has become a highly stratified NBA. It’s just that with 17 championship banners hanging from the rafters of TD Garden, those fans are used to aiming higher. But at least they’ll still have all of Danny Ainge’s assets.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 3, 2017

Steady Kenny Perry Wins The Senior Open

A NOTE TO READERS:  As expected this post was delayed by On Sports and Life’s attendance at the U.S. Senior Open.  Thanks for your continuing support.

For the fourth time this century the USGA brought one of its national championships to Massachusetts this week. The Men’s and Women’s U.S. Opens get the lion’s share of attention each year, appropriately enough since they are our national golf championships and, as their names imply, open through their qualifying stages to any golfer able to authenticate the requisite low single-digit handicap. But American golf’s organizing body annually conducts eleven other championships for both professionals and amateurs.

The Men’s Amateur was contested at The Country Club in Brookline in 2013 (our coverage here), site of three previous plus the 2022 Men’s Open as well as eight other USGA championships and the 1999 Ryder Cup. The 2002 Women’s Open was played at The Orchards Golf Club in South Hadley, a ninety minute drive on the Mass Pike due west from Boston. And the 2001 Men’s Senior Open was played before very large crowds at Salem Country Club, a venerable design by the Scottish titan Donald Ross.

Obviously satisfied with the results of that championship, this week the USGA again brought the Men’s Senior Open to the compact old Ross course that a century after it was first laid out now sits wedged between I-95 and the infamous Route 128 beltway, though entirely hidden from both.

In the modern age of golf Salem CC, which despite its name sits entirely in the neighboring city of Peabody, could never host a Men’s U.S. Open. It lacks sufficient acreage for all the infrastructure that the USGA requires for the national championship, and the course itself can be stretched to barely more than 6,900 yards. Even at that distance the layout features several short holes that would prove far too tantalizing for the PGA Tour’s bombers.

Even a few members of the over-50 set showed they could bring the course to its knees, thanks in no small part to some midweek rains that softened the greens. Kirk Triplett opened with a 9-under par 62 on Thursday, and eight golfers made their first walk around the compact layout within three of that number. Kenny Perry, Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples all charged up the leader board on Friday, thanks to Perry’s low round of the day 65 and a 67 and 68 from the latter two. Saturday Brandt Jobe vaulted himself into contention with the second 62 of the tournament.

But the golf course was not entirely defenseless. Salem is a classic Ross layout, which means greens with Ross’s familiar false front, a steeply sloping entryway, so that a shot that looks like it has made the green will instead roll back down into the fairway. Most of the putting surfaces are also crowned, another Ross trademark. At its worst, this feature can leave a golfer feeling like he is putting on a helmet, with the ground sloping off in every direction.

With a premium on the flat stick, it was no surprise when Triplett and Perry separated themselves from the pack during Saturday’s third round. The former needed just twenty-five putts to record his 66, and the latter but two more to post his 67. None of the next seven players on the 36-hole leader board could negotiate the course with less than thirty putts; as a group, they averaged just shy of thirty-two.

That disparity put Triplett in front at 15-under, one clear of Perry after the 56-year old Kentucky native bogeyed the 18th. The next closest pursuer was Jobe, six shots back at 9-under, and he was another two strokes clear of the rest of the pack.

Any hope for a Sunday charge from those trailing was quickly dissipated when the wind picked up as the final round got under way. Salem’s greens were firming in the hot weather, and the freshening breeze made club selection more difficult. With low scores at a premium, by the time the two leaders teed off it was clear that this year’s Senior Open was all about the final pairing. That battle was quickly joined when Perry birdied the first to erase Triplett’s lead and put two at the top of the leader board. When Triplett bogeyed the par-3 3rd hole Perry, winner of the 2013 Senior Open as well as two other senior majors, had a lead that he would not relinquish.

Perry added another birdie at the dogleg left par-5 6th hole to push his lead to two, even as Triplett fought his way through an up and down round. After recording just two bogeys through the first three rounds, the 55-year old dropped four shots before the turn on Sunday. The last of those, on the par-4 9th, left Triplett four shots adrift of Perry.

Triplett has five Champions Tour wins since joining the senior circuit in 2012. He has come close in senior majors, recording ten top-10 finishes before this week, but he has yet to break through at one of the senior tour’s premier events. That contrast in experience seemed to be telling the tale under the pressure of a major’s final round.

A birdie on the par-5 14th hole moved Triplett one closer, but he was running out of holes as the final pair walked across the narrow two-lane road that separates the 15th through 17th holes from the rest of the golf course. The 15th is a par-3 that was playing at its maximum distance of 224 yards Sunday. The crowd in the grandstand behind the green was still reeling from seeing Jobe shank his tee shot only minutes earlier. His ball headed dead right, but was saved by a ricochet off a tree that prevented it from going out-of-bounds.

Perry’s tee shot wasn’t that bad, but it was one of his poorer efforts, finishing short and left of the green. With the pin at the back of the putting surface, perilously close to the falloff into thick rough, he had no choice but to aim his chip away from the flag. The ball rolled out to twenty-four feet from the hole, and with Triplett safely in with a par it looked like the lead was about to be shaved to two shots, with the momentum belonging to the pursuer.

Perry’s next stroke was likely the shot that won him the Senior Open. His putt rolled up the hill and fell into the dead center of the hole for par. The long distance save became even more important when Triplett birdied the 16th. But a two-shot lead with two to play is far more comfortable than a one-shot edge and three strokes lost in three holes. Twenty minutes later, after a bit of comic relief when Triplett put his tee shot at the last into a flower pot at the entrance to the Lahey Health hospitality tent, Kenny Perry sank one more putt, this one from five feet for his twelfth consecutive par, to win his second U.S. Senior Open.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 29, 2017

Long On Chaos, Short On Enlightenment

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be attending the U.S. Senior Open in Peabody, Massachusetts this weekend.  Sunday’s post will likely be delayed until Monday.

Penn Station, Gotham’s decidedly unloved transit hub, is the gateway to the city for hundreds of thousands of commuters and tourists every single day. The aging rail station, with its low ceilings and warren of seemingly endless underground passageways, has always been uninviting. Now the experience of passing though it is going to get even worse, with Amtrak about to embark on an eight-week track maintenance project in the very middle of the summer travel season.

But the chaos that will soon be the hallmark of arriving or departing New York via Penn Station is no match for the ongoing maelstrom at Madison Square Garden, the self-styled “World’s Most Famous Arena,” that sits on top of the railroad terminal. Several stories above the train tracks, in the executive offices of the New York Knicks, chaos has been the order of the day for most of the more than two decades of James Dolan’s ownership of the NBA franchise.

Knicks fans love to savage Dolan, and given the fact that during his tenure the team hasn’t won a championship, has been to the NBA Finals just once, and has advanced past the first round of the playoffs only one time in this century while missing the postseason altogether now four years and counting, that hardly surprising. But it is unfair to suggest that Dolan doesn’t want his team to win. Dolan also owns the New York Rangers, and while that club hasn’t captured a Stanley Cup under Dolan’s ownership it has enjoyed considerably greater success than its basketball cousin. The difference is that Dolan has always been much more personally involved in the management of the Knicks, and while his desire may well be true his execution has always been faulty. James Dolan is but one more reminder that owners of professional sports franchises rarely make good general managers. He just happens to have demonstrated that fact on the biggest stage with the brightest lights in the country.

But now one must ask if perhaps all along the problem hasn’t been Dolan, but something intrinsic to the Knicks. Perhaps there’s something in the water at MSG, or some sort of virus lurking in the ducts of the building’s HVAC system. Because once again the Knicks are a team spinning out of control, only this time James Dolan has not been the source of the madness.

It was three years and three months ago that a happily smiling Dolan announced to the world that he had coaxed the Zen Master out of retirement, hiring legendary coach Phil Jackson as president of the Knicks. With more championship rings than fingers after his career guiding first the Chicago Bulls then the Los Angeles Lakers to title after title, as well as another two rings from his days as a strong defensive player for the Knicks, Jackson was coming home to MSG to take on an executive role for the first time in his basketball career. He was lauded by fans and many pundits as a savior, even more so because Dolan promised that he was “willingly and gratefully” ceding responsibility to Jackson.

At the time doubt was expressed in this space about Dolan’s ability to keep that promise. After years of overriding the decisions of various GMs and team presidents the chances of his being able to do so seemed long. Perhaps, it was suggested here, Jackson saw the situation as having no downside. If he managed to resurrect the team’s fortunes he’d be a hero, and if he failed the fans, so long accustomed to blaming Dolan, would revert to form and do so once again.

If that was the case then it was the first mistake Jackson made in what turned out to be an error-filled debacle. On Wednesday, with almost two years remaining in his five-year $60 million contract, Dolan and the Knicks parted ways with Jackson. But through what was an increasingly bizarre and dysfunctional three years, Dolan managed to keep his promise to stop meddling in basketball decisions. He made news by engaging in public arguments with fans and former players, but as he promised he would Dolan let Jackson run the Knicks. The result was that by the time the denouement came this week, the very same fans and scribes who cheered Jackson’s arrival were hailing Dolan for finally giving him the boot.

Jackson’s first big test as a basketball executive was hiring a head coach. He wooed Steve Kerr, who had played for Jackson on the Bulls. But Jackson made it plain that he wanted the Knicks to run the triangle offense, the scheme that Jackson had perfected when he roamed the sidelines. Kerr ultimately chose greater autonomy by turning down Jackson and accepting an offer from the Golden State Warriors. A pair of championships and counting later, it’s fair to say he made the right call. Jackson then turned to Derek Fisher, later Kurt Rambis, and finally Jeff Hornacek, tasking each with running an offensive system that Knicks’ players didn’t like.

Next up for Jackson was the free agency of Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks biggest draw. He gave Anthony $124 million over five years and included a no-trade clause in the contract, even though Anthony had turned 30 and showed little interest in running the triangle. The huge outlay also limited the Knicks’ ability to sign other free agents. New York finished the 2014-15 season at 17-65, the worst record in team history.

The Knicks improved their record the next year, but still finished far out of the playoffs. Before the season started Jackson was castigated by fans for drafting 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in the next year’s draft, though this is one move that actually is starting to look promising for the team.

As Anthony’s disaffection with the triangle offense became evident, Jackson turned on his star, using both surrogates and his increasingly rare public utterances to urge Anthony to waive the very no-trade clause that Jackson had agreed to include in his contract.

He also traded for Derrick Rose and signed free agent Joakim Noah. The play of both has been but a faint memory of their one-time ability. Then after the Knicks again failed to make the playoffs this year, finishing 31-51, Jackson publicly flirted with trading Porzingis, who once doubtful fans have come to love.

Jackson’s dangling of a player capable of growing into a star appeared born out of pique over Porzingis skipping his exit interview and going home to Latvia, which was apparently the player’s way of expressing his displeasure with the constant turmoil at MSG. Such a petulant and potentially team-wrecking move on Jackson’s part may have been what finally spurred Dolan, who only recently had expressed his confidence in the Zen Master.

So now Jackson is out, having gone from savior to triangle-obsessed pariah in just three seasons. In the end, he only proved that the Knicks’ permanent state of dysfunction isn’t just James Dolan’s fault. New York has promise in Porzingis, but also an aging Anthony and three more years of Noah. Sometime this summer Dolan will introduce his next savior, and the hopes of fans will rise, as they always do. Knicks fans are optimists at heart, which is the kindest word one can use to describe people who willingly pay to watch their team repeatedly fail.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 25, 2017

Past, Present And Future Come Together In The Bronx

The 4 Train rumbles and rattles its way north, making its ever longer express runs between East Side stops. Seventeen blocks from Grand Central to 59th Street, skipping just one local station. Then twenty-seven more to 86th Street, this time bypassing two stations at which its local cousin the 6 Train pays call. Finally, the long run of thirty-nine blocks, all the way to 125th Street in Harlem. Four more local stops are but a blur as the subway charges through on the center express track. From 125th the 4 darts under the Harlem River and into the Bronx, where it becomes a local. But there are only two of those stops, under the Grand Concourse, the broad thoroughfare built more than a century ago as an artery connecting Manhattan with the northernmost neighborhoods of Gotham’s only mainland borough. Then the cars rise into the sunlight of a Sunday morning, the 4 technically a subway no more. Now it is an elevated train that screeches around a gentle right-hand turn and slows to a stop. The familiar female voice recording tells us what we already know, “this is 161st Street – Yankee Stadium.”

On the ride from 42nd Street I sit near a group of four adults and two young boys. From their matching blonde hair and nearly matching features I assume they are brothers. The younger one is perhaps eight, the older and decidedly taller sibling maybe eleven. The adults however are my age or older, suggesting this might be an outing with grandparents rather than an immediate family excursion. As the subway makes its subterranean journey the older boy plays a game on his smartphone, his younger brother peering over his shoulder, equally engrossed in whatever is happening on the tiny screen. But when the train car is suddenly bathed in sunlight the phone is put down and both boys look up, their eyes bright with excitement. Perhaps all those experts who say the Great Game is too slow and too staid to appeal to the coming generation are not entirely correct.

It is fitting that my ride to the Stadium is in a train car filled with multiple generations, for this day is the annual celebration of generations of ballplayers, combining the present with both the recent past and an older age that has begun to fade to memory. It’s the 71st edition of the Yankees’ Old Timers’ Day. Other teams celebrate their past in one way or another, and from time to time every franchise metes out its greatest honor by retiring a former player’s number. Just last Friday evening Fenway Park was full as the Boston Red Sox retired number 34 in a moving ceremony that brought tears to the eyes of slugger David Ortiz, and no doubt to many of the Red Sox faithful in the stands as well. But with twenty-seven championships and forty trips to the World Series, no franchise has so much history to celebrate nor does so with quite the combination of grandeur and self-regard. From Monument Park beyond center field to the Yankees Museum tucked away in the southeast corner of the Stadium’s Main Level, to the massive display of retired numbers behind the left field bleachers, the Yankees go all out honoring the past.

Old Timers’ Day, now into its seventh decade, is the annual party for retired players and fans alike. The attendees are introduced one by one, beginning with the widows of four New York legends, Catfish Hunter, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer. They are followed by the former players. Some were but role players during their time in pinstripes, and not all won championships; the Yankees like every franchise have had their down years. But each is greeted warmly as his exploits are recounted by hosts John Sterling and Michael Kay, the team’s radio and television broadcasters.

The best-known players are introduced last, with first-time participant Jorge Posada walking onto the field to a deafening roar. Posada is the first of the Core Four stalwarts of recent Yankee glory to attend an Old Timers’ Day. In the stands, we are at once overjoyed to see our hero, but also reminded that the era of Yankee dominance that he and his brethren symbolize is irrevocably over.  Special recognition is also given to Tim Raines, who will enter the Hall of Fame later this summer. Raines is best known for his play with the Montreal Expos, but he spent three seasons in the Bronx from 1996 to 1998. And eight members of the 1977 championship team, led by Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, are celebrated on the 40th anniversary of the first title under the ownership of George Steinbrenner.

But on this day the loudest and most heartfelt cheers are for three players from a more distant time. Bobby Brown is the last surviving member of the 1947 championship squad. Don Larsen is more than six decades removed from his World Series perfect game. And Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, the Chairman of the Board, is the final old-timer to be introduced. The three are on either side of 90 years old, and Larsen and Ford appear especially frail. We do not hesitate to shower them with our love while we still can.

After the ceremonies, the younger retirees play four innings of exhibition ball, and as always there are a few pratfalls. But there is also some slick fielding by Willie Randolph at second, a fine running catch by Mickey Rivers in center, and a spectacular grab of a pop foul by first baseman Tino Martinez racing toward the stands.

The past yields to the present, and the current Yankees take the field for a game against the Texas Rangers. This year’s team began play at a torrid pace. In contrast, the past two weeks have been a titanic struggle. Early on today appears to be no exception to that recent theme. Starter Michael Pineda allows three runs before his offense comes to bat, and surrenders three more to Texas in the 2nd inning. By the 4th it is 7-0, and the game seems virtually out of reach.

A majority of games in the longest season remain to be played. They will determine the ultimate fate of this Yankees squad. Probably this team is not as overwhelming as its April record suggested. But likely neither is it as bad as its current rough patch implies. Whatever the final standings, the only thing that is clear is that these new look Yankees, with their preponderance of youth, have a winning and upbeat attitude. Earlier this season New York trailed Baltimore 9-1 early and 11-4 with just nine outs remaining before coming all the way back to tie the game in the 9th before scoring a walkoff win in the 10th.

Another epic comeback isn’t on tap today, but the Yankees come tantalizingly close. Aaron Judge plates New York’s first run in the 5th, and Gary Sanchez quickly adds three more with a homer to left. Ronald Torreyes lines a shot into the seats in the 7th, and a Didi Gregorius drive to the right field corner scores Judge to make it 7-6. Two innings later that becomes the final score, but shortly before it does the out-of-town scoreboard tells us that the Angels have won in Boston. The Yankees and Red Sox remain tied for the lead in the AL East.

No one predicted that during Spring Training, so we fans will take it here in late June. Whether or not it lasts we know for certain that this team is fun to watch and root for. We head for the exits remembering our franchise’s glorious past, enjoying its surprising present, and anticipating a bright future.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 22, 2017

Celtics Squander Their Draft Lottery Winnings

No team in the National Basketball Association can match the championship history of the Boston Celtics. No matter that much of the team’s story was written generations ago, when the pugnacious head coach Red Auerbach and the consummate center Bill Russell combined to win multiple championships in the old Boston Garden; Celtics fans of any age are imbued with an expectation that their team will once again ascend to the heights of playoff glory.

Given that expectation, it’s no surprise that the team’s fans reacted badly to the news that general manager Danny Ainge had traded away the first pick in this week’s NBA Draft to Philadelphia, in exchange for the number three pick this year and another first round choice in either 2018 or 2019. The Boston faithful thought their team had hit the jackpot when the Celtics won the Draft Lottery with the first round choice that came their way as part of the lopsided 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets. The Celtics worked out consensus number one pick Markelle Fultz, the one-and-done 19-year old point guard from the University of Washington. Some fans were already lining up to buy number twenty green and white jerseys in anticipation of Fultz joining the team.

Of course Boston already has a point guard in Isaiah Thomas, who is a two-time All-Star and a fan favorite. So many Celtics supporters, especially those who set aside the hype of the draft and expressed quite reasonable doubts about how quickly a teenager could become a leading man in the NBA, hoped that general manager Danny Ainge would use the number one overall pick as trade bait and bring an established star to Boston. There was discussion of a deal for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and talk of a trade for Indiana’s Paul George. While the Celtics have been an entertaining and steadily improving team under head coach Brad Stevens, Boston was manhandled by Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals last month, losing in five games. The Cavaliers’ average margin of victory was just shy of 26 points in their four wins, a harsh reminder to the Boston fan base that as presently constituted their team’s roster is not ready to compete with the league’s elite.

Instead Ainge announced that the best deal available was to trade down two spots and add one more future first round selection to Boston’s seemingly endless stockpile of draft picks. Celtics fans, both those looking forward to their team being the first franchise on the clock Thursday evening and those anticipating a blockbuster trade for a proven star, were left feeling understandably deflated.

As first the days then the hours wound down from news of the deal between the Celtics and 76ers last Friday to the start of the Draft, Ainge’s plan remained a mystery. Some analysts had Boston picking Kansas forward Josh Jackson, while others pointed to Jayson Tatum from Duke as Boston’s likely choice. On Wednesday, the Boston Herald reported that the player Ainge liked the most was North Carolina State freshman Dennis Smith, a 6-foot-3 point guard who analysts not named Ainge ranked in the lower half of the top ten players available.

Meanwhile the trade rumors were all renewed, this time involving the third pick and some additional players from the existing Boston roster for someone on the same list of stars discussed days earlier. Then a new wrinkle was added when Phil Jackson, president of the dysfunctional mess of a franchise known as the New York Knicks, made it known that center Kristaps Porzingis might be available. Jackson made Porzingis the fourth overall pick in the 2015 Draft, for which he was derided at the time. But the 7-foot-3 Latvian, who is still just 21, is now seen as one of the few good moves of Jackson’s time at Madison Square Garden. As a young rising star with great potential, Porzingis also seemed like the kind of player for whom Ainge might be willing to unload several of his precious future draft picks.

But as the final moments before the start of the draft ticked away, word spread that the ransom Jackson was demanding from Ainge to ship New York’s budding star up I-95 to Boston was too high. Sure enough, after the 76ers took Fultz and the Los Angeles Lakers as expected selected Lonzo Ball, there was no last second announcement of a trade. Instead NBA commissioner Adam Silver stepped to the microphone at the Barclay’s Center and told the world via ESPN that Boston had made Jayson Tatum the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. The 19-year old, who entered this year’s Draft after a single season at Duke, is regarded as a top offensive player who can man several different positions. His defensive skills are suspect, so Celtics fans can only hope that they will improve as he matures.

When the trade with Philadelphia was announced, Boston fans were reminded that they were seeing a reprise of 1980. That year the Celtics lost in the Conference Finals, had the number one pick in the Draft, and traded it to Golden State for the number three pick and a player. Substitute that player for a future pick, and 1980 mirrors 2017. But in 1980 that player was center Robert Parish, and the Celtics selected Kevin McHale with that third pick. Along with Larry Bird they formed the foundation of a team that won three titles.

Maybe Tatum will turn out to be as good as McHale. But what he almost certainly isn’t is a franchise-changing talent; what he definitely isn’t is an established star who can take the Celtics to the elite level needed to contend for a championship. And there was no Robert Parish in Ainge’s deal with Philadelphia. Given the number one overall pick, Boston parlayed that good fortune into the third selection in the Draft and yet another high draft choice down the line.

As he has stockpiled draft picks, Celtics fans have long assumed that Ainge had some master plan for utilizing them. The question has always been when that plan would be revealed. Now it’s fair to ask whether there really is a plan at all. Perhaps it’s just to wait until LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry get old and retire. As plans go, that one’s not very fan-friendly.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 19, 2017

Not All U.S. Opens Are Created Equal

A NOTE TO READERS:  As advised last week, this post was delayed by the Sunday evening finish of the U.S. Open Golf Championship.  The regular schedule resumes Thursday.

Just two years ago the USGA departed from its usual practice of holding the U.S. Open on a well-established golf course with significant tournament history, often including previous Opens. That experiment in the Pacific Northwest did not go well. Given that history, as well as the USGA’s twin debacles of mismanaged rules decisions at last year’s men’s and women’s Opens, the blue-blazered members of the American golf rules-setting body had to be feeling the pressure as this year’s Open played out on yet another unlikely venue in rural Wisconsin.

In 2015 the Open was played at Chambers Bay, on the shores of Puget Sound. The public course was less than ten years old and manifestly not yet ready to host an Open. Chambers Bay is a sprawling layout, but its many steep hills led the USGA to restrict spectator access on some holes for safety reasons. The result was sections of the golf course devoid of fans and the roars that normally punctuate a major championship. On television the treeless links looked like nothing so much as a moonscape, and player after player derided the bumpy greens. Rory McIlroy famously likened doing his job on them to trying to putt across heads of cauliflower.

Last year’s locations for both the Men’s and Women’s Opens returned to the traditional, but the headlines were as much about final round rules imbroglios, first with Dustin Johnson at Oakmont and then with Anna Nordqvist at CordeValle, as they were about the performances of the contenders. Between a course not ready for its moment in the sun and inexcusable rules snafus, the blue blazer crowd was reeling as players teed off at this year’s men’s Open on Thursday morning.

They did so at Erin Hills, a public course (to the extent that a $280 green fee counts as “public”) only a year older than Chambers Bay. The USGA granted this year’s Open to Erin Hills in 2010, just four years after the course opened, on the strength of the course’s length and appearance. Erin Hills can be stretched to more than 8,000 yards, and the mostly treeless eighteen is laid out over a rolling glacial moraine that is nature’s way of designing an inviting venue for golf. As play began USGA officials were surely hoping for a classic U.S. Open, with the top players in the world battling for the championship while having to play their very best to beat par.

Instead they got an unexpected revival of the Greater Milwaukee Open, a regular PGA Tour stop for more than four decades that was last played in 2009. The GMO was scheduled opposite the Open Championship, which meant that the world’s best players were always on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Like many weekly Tour stops it was also played on courses that the field could overpower, with the winning score regularly reaching well into double digits under par.

Erin Hills is thirty-five miles northwest of Milwaukee, and for most of the tournament it played not like a U.S. Open venue, but rather like one of the tracts that hosted the GMO over the years. Rickie Fowler led the way on Thursday with an opening 65, one of forty-four subpar scores on Day One. Forty-six players went low on Friday; and after the midway cut reduced the field to sixty-eight golfers, thirty-two, or nearly half the field, broke par in Saturday’s third round.

In part, the birdie fest can be blamed on the weather. Heavy overnight rains repeatedly softened up the course, and the winds that usually whip across the exposed layout failed to blow until Sunday. But one must also question the USGA’s wisdom in bringing the national championship to a course without enough history to reliably predict how it would play under various conditions. Even with gusts above 25 miles per hour on Sunday eighteen contestants broke par. Last year at Oakmont there were nineteen subpar rounds for the entire weekend.

Of course, even at a weekly Tour stop there are players who aren’t going to do well. Oddly enough, at Erin Hills that list was heavily weighted toward the best players in the world. On Thursday the top six players in the Official World Golf Rankings combined to shoot 21-over par. Most of them fared little better on Friday, and four of the six missed the cut. That number included Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, the rankings’ top three. That made the 2017 U.S. Open the first major since the rankings were instituted in which the world’s top three players all missed the cut.

Lacking in star power and playing out on a defenseless golf course, the weekend rounds felt like anything but a major championship. The lowest score in relation to par through 54 holes in U.S. Open history was Rory McIlroy’s 14-under at rain-soaked Congressional in 2011. By Saturday evening the next four places on that historical list were occupied by leader Brian Harman at 12-under and his three closest pursuers at Erin Hills. One of those was Justin Thomas, who ripped a 3-wood from the middle of the 18th fairway that settled seven feet from the hole, setting up a closing eagle on the par-5 that gave him a 9-under par score of 63. That broke the 44-year old record, set by Johnny Miller at Oakmont, for the lowest round in relation to par at the U.S. Open.

Thomas was unable to duplicate his Saturday magic in the final round, and he quickly fell out of contention with three bogeys in the first five holes. Harman’s one-shot lead disappeared even faster, as long-hitting Brooks Koepka started birdie-birdie in the penultimate pairing while Harman was scrambling to save pars in the final twosome. A close contest among Koepka, Harman, and Britain’s Tommy Fleetwood provided what little drama Sunday had to offer, and even that dissipated when the 27-year old Koepka ran off a string of three straight birdies starting on the 14th hole. As the final groups played the closing holes the only question was the size of his winning margin.

The eventual answer was four strokes, with Koepka at 16-under followed by Harman and Hideki Matsuyama at minus-12, Fleetwood at 11, and Fowler, Bill Haas, and Xander Schauffele all at 10-under par. The winner’s total matched McIlroy’s record for the most strokes under par in the history of our national golf championship. All of the others on that list posted totals that would have won all but two previous U.S. Opens and a few Greater Milwaukee Opens as well. The good news for golf fans is that the USGA has already set the venues for the next nine U.S. Opens, starting with historic Shinnecock Hills on Long Island next June, and there isn’t a Chambers Bay or an Erin Hills on the list.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 15, 2017

Under Very Different Rules Two Dynasties Rise

A NOTE TO READERS: To accommodate the scheduled Sunday evening finish of the U.S. Open Championship, as well as the possibility of a playoff the following day, the next post will be delayed until Monday. Thanks as always for reading and for your ongoing support.

The Golden State Warriors laid claim to the Larry O’Brien Trophy Monday night. The previous evening the Pittsburgh Penguins had captured the Stanley Cup. As the final curtains came down on the NBA and NHL seasons, the two teams taking their bows and planning victory parades were among the least surprising champions in the recent history of both leagues. The emerging West Coast dynasty by the Bay had been widely predicted from the moment Kevin Durant announced his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder in favor of the Warriors. But while Golden State’s 16-1 run through the NBA playoffs for a second title in three years was one for the record books, in many ways the prolonged excellence of the Steel City’s hockey team is even more impressive.

For the third season in a row the NBA Finals featured a matchup of the Warriors versus the Cavaliers. While Cleveland is clearly the class of the Eastern Conference – the Cavaliers dropped just one game through the first three rounds of the playoffs – even LeBron James seemed to concede after the Finals that his squad was no match for Golden State. “Pretty much all their big-name guys are in their 20s, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down,” James told the press after the Warriors sealed the championship with a 129-100 victory in Game Five. From Miami to Cleveland, James has led his team to the Finals eight times, including the last seven years in a row. As an individual player, he remains without peer among this generation of NBA superstars. But his record in each season’s ultimate series is just 3-5, a reminder that even the best player in the game needs a supporting cast.

At the end of last season Golden State was a well-rounded team with its own superstar in Stephen Curry, a team that failed to defend its 2016 crown only by blowing a three games to one lead over James and the Cavaliers. The addition of the 28-year old forward, the consensus top free agent on the market after last season, turned the Warriors into a super team. At the time of Durant’s signing more than a few wags suggested Golden State might go through the regular season undefeated.

The Warriors didn’t do that of course. But they nearly managed the trick in the playoffs, dropping only Game Four of the Finals to post the best NBA postseason record since the league went to its current playoff format of seven game series in all four rounds. In each of the past three years Golden State has had the best regular season record in the league, compiling a 207-39 mark over that time, unmatched in the history of the league.

As James pointed out, Golden State remains a young team; and while much of the roster is eligible for free agency, there is little doubt that all the core players will return. Both Durant and Curry have already raised the possibility of taking less money to free up salary cap space for other players. Besides, who would want to play anywhere else?

But the NBA has a soft salary cap, with the ostensible spending limit of $94.14 million and luxury tax threshold of $113.29 million both subject to myriad rules and exceptions. Golden State’s general manager Bob Myers was blessed with a significant increase in the cap limits thanks to the NBA’s burgeoning television revenue, but also used the cap’s rules, including the mid-level exception and the qualifying offer rules to make Durant’s deal work within those newly increased limits.

In Pittsburgh, the work to build a dynasty has been much more challenging. The NHL has a hard cap, a straightforward percentage of revenue that can be spent on salaries, with no exceptions or special rules, as well as a cap “floor” or minimum amount that a team must allocate to paying its players. This gives general managers considerably less flexibility in building rosters for the long term.

Owners pushed for the hard cap to ensure profitability of the league’s smaller market and less successful franchises, but one of the side effects has been to increase parity. It’s now been twelve seasons since the cap was introduced, meaning a maximum of twenty-four teams could have skated in the Stanley Cup Finals. In that time eleven teams have made it to the Finals once while three more, the Bruins, Kings and Red Wings, have two appearances each. And for those three the multiple appearances were over a maximum of three years. In short, the hard cap has made it very difficult to hold a dominant team together.

Only Chicago and Pittsburgh have more than two appearances in the Cup Finals under the cap. Chicago skated in the Finals in three different seasons over a six-year period. Many considered the Blackhawks to be worthy of being called a dynasty, but general manager Stan Bowman had to blow up his roster after winning in 2010, and after hurriedly rebuilding was again forced into major changes after winning the third championship two seasons ago.

That leaves the Penguins, the most successful NHL franchise in the cap era with four appearances and three wins in the Finals spread out over a decade. With the triumph last Sunday over the upstart Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh also became the first franchise since Detroit in 1997 and 1998 to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. A league-leading 467 regular season victories over the past decade is proof that the Penguins’ postseason record is not just a matter of springtime good fortune.

Pittsburgh has done it with multiple general managers and head coaches, but with a consistent approach of retaining a dynamic core of players who could probably make more elsewhere but have bought into the idea of contending every season. At $8.7 million and $9.5 million respectively, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are certainly not poor; but given their talent they are both working on bargain contracts.

The Penguins have also been willing to make business decisions without sentiment. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has spent his entire career with Pittsburgh. But 23-year old Matt Murray, whose cap hit is $2 million less than Fleury’s, was between the pipes when the final horn sounded in Nashville Sunday.  In a symbolic gesture Fleury handed the Stanley Cup to Murray during the postgame celebration. Look for Fleury to soon be a former Penguin.

What is certain is that whether working the byzantine rules of the NBA’s soft cap, or piecing together a winning franchise despite the harsh restrictions of the NHL’s hard cap, the Warriors and Penguins have both found winning formulas. They are the class of their leagues, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, both are already listed as the early favorites by Las Vegas bookmakers to add another championship to their legacies come this time next June.

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