Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 14, 2017

Surprising Celtics Defy The Doubters

The Boston Celtics staggered back to TD Garden at midweek, glad to be home after a miserable long weekend on the road. The three game road trip began last Friday in Texas with a contest against the perennial Western Conference power San Antonio Spurs. Boston led by five after one quarter and by the same margin after three, but San Antonio rallied over the final twelve minutes, with the ageless Manu Ginobili hitting a game-winning three pointer with five seconds remaining. It was a test against the quality of opponent that the Celtics will have to beat in order to go deep into next spring’s playoffs, and at the end Boston came up short, losing 105-102.

On Sunday the C’s did better against the middling Detroit Pistons. After a few initial exchanges of buckets Boston moved out to a clear lead and then held on for a 91-81 win. Al Horford led a balanced attack with 18 points, as five Celtics scored in double figures. Defensively Boston held Detroit to just thirty-three percent shooting. But one night later and a couple hundred miles to the west, whatever hope the Pistons game inspired was dashed in a match against the franchise with the worst record in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls. With Kyrie Irving sitting due to a minor injury, the Celtics looked overmatched by a team that entered the game with only five victories in twenty-five games. Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, previously best known for getting into a fistfight during a preseason practice session that left the former with injuries from which he has only just returned and cost the latter an eight-game suspension, combined for 47 points. The Bulls more than doubled up the Celtics in the second period, outscoring Boston 28-13, and coasted from there to a 108-85 victory. It was the worst thrashing administered to Boston this season.

If the 1-2 road trip was short on highlights for Celtics fans, it was also what many of the Boston faithful feared after Gordon Hayward was lost to a gruesome ankle injury with the season barely five minutes old. No one could expect Irving to carry the load by himself and the widespread opinion, including here, was that Boston’s remaining lineup was too young and inexperienced to prevail night after night. Dreams of challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy were surely deferred for another year.

Except that through the first third of the NBA’s 2017-18 schedule, coach Brad Stevens’s players have refused to stick to the script that was seemingly written for them by the loss of their prized free agent acquisition. Back on their home parquet Wednesday night, the Celtics put the disastrous performance against the Bulls behind them with a 124-118 win over the Nuggets. Denver is one of the best offensive teams in the league, so Boston responded with its highest point total and best shooting night of the season. The Celtics shot sixty percent from the floor. They were led by Irving, who returned to the lineup and made twelve of nineteen shots, including four of nine from beyond the arc. Irving’s 33 points were followed by 26 from Jaylen Brown. Three other Boston players reached double-digits, including Jayson Tatum, who finished with 15 points on six of nine shooting.

With the win Boston improved its record to 24-6. That’s the best in the Eastern Conference and second in the league only to Houston, a team currently on an eleven-game winning streak. Rather than reinforcing doubts, the dismal road trip stands as an aberration in a surprisingly good season.

The Celtics rise to the top of the standings owes much to their own sixteen-game winning streak, which began with the season’s third game, after Boston had opened with a pair of losses. For just over a month, from October 20th until the night before Thanksgiving, the Celtics found a way to win night after night; seven times in front of their own fans and nine times on the road. In five of those games Boston faced deficits of more than ten points before rallying. Interspersed among wins over some of the NBA’s downtrodden were victories over the Bucks, Spurs, Raptors and defending champion Warriors, all squads near the top of their conference standings.

In addition to its obvious benefit, the winning streak gave a roster that could have doubted itself after the season’s unfortunate start a strong dose of self-confidence and cohesion. It also helped define Boston’s style of play. Boston allowed its opponent to score 100 or more points only three times in the sixteen games. Six times the Celtics defense held the opposition to fewer than 90 points, including a 92-88 win over Golden State, the team with the highest offensive rating in the league. Not surprisingly, Boston has the best defensive rating at 100.3, and the Celtics are fourth in overall net rating despite a middle of the pack rank for offensive efficiency.

Rookie Tatum and second-year man Brown have also stepped up beyond what fans dared hope when their roles suddenly expanded five minutes and fifteen seconds in the season. Brown is averaging 15 points per game and Tatum just under 14, and each are among the league leaders in field goal percentage.

Whether Boston’s youngsters can sustain that level of performance over the 82-game grind is still an open question. And as great as the Celtics’ start has been, they are just three games clear of the Cavaliers and four ahead of the Raptors. After a shaky start to their campaign, LeBron and company recently went on an extended winning streak of their own to right the ship in Cleveland.

But these Celtics have established themselves as an astonishingly resilient team. They are nowhere near perfect; Monday’s debacle in Chicago served as an ugly reminder of that. Still a season many thought over almost before it began is anything but. Perhaps the preseason predictions will prove correct, and the NBA Finals will feature Golden State against Cleveland for the fourth year in a row. But against very long odds, it’s looking more and more like the Celtics may have something to say about that.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 10, 2017

Stanton Deal Is The Yankees Being The Yankees

Early in 2004, Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks was desperately trying to unload the bloated contract of shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Three years earlier Hicks had lured A-Rod away from the Seattle Mariners with a 10-year, $252 million deal, by far the richest in baseball history at that time. But showering so much money on one player left the Rangers unable to afford the supporting players that a team sport demands, no matter the skills of the superstar who is the face of the franchise.

Hicks thought he had a deal with the Boston Red Sox to ship Rodriguez to Fenway Park in exchange for Manny Ramirez and a 19-year old pitching prospect by the name of Jon Lester (what ever became of him, anyway?). But the Players Association blocked the trade because it included Rodriguez taking a voluntary pay cut. Into the breach stepped the New York Yankees, who assumed the bulk of A-Rod’s contract. Few around the Great Game saw the Yankees’ move coming, because Derek Jeter was ensconced at short. But Rodriguez agreed to move to third base, and the deal was done.

Five years later first baseman Mark Teixeira, already a two-time Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award winner, was testing the waters of free agency for the first time. A Maryland native, Teixeira was aggressively pursued by both the Orioles and Nationals, as well as the Red Sox and Angels. Then out of the blue Teixeira agreed to an 8-year contract with the Yankees. Once again, few baseball observers had expected New York to be a contender for the slick fielding slugger’s services. After all, the Yankees had already opened the Steinbrenner family checkbook twice that offseason to bolster the team’s starting rotation, signing right-hander A.J. Burnett and left-hander C.C. Sabathia for a combined total of nearly a quarter billion dollars.

Now another hot stove season is upon us. The Yankees are coming off a far better than expected 2017. What was expected to be a rebuilding year instead turned into a 91-win season, the team’s best in five years, and a trip to the ALCS where New York came within one game of advancing to the World Series. In the Bronx the offseason began with the surprise dismissal of manager Joe Girardi. With a solid core of young position players in place and Hal Steinbrenner’s stated determination to get under next year’s salary cap to escape the luxury tax, expectations were that the Yankees would focus on searching for a new skipper and looking for a starting pitcher or two.

But just like in 2004, another major league franchise was desperately trying to free itself of an absurdly rich contract. This time it was the new ownership of the Miami Marlins, led by none other than Jeter. While billionaire Bruce Sherman is the controlling owner of the group that recently purchased the Marlins from Jeffrey Loria for $1.2 billion, he has vested day-to-day management of the franchise in the former Yankee turned CEO.

Despite the lofty sales price, what Sherman, Jeter, and their partners bought from Loria is a franchise that is awash in debt and regularly finishes last in the National League in attendance. Before the new owners can even think about making the Marlins competitive, they must right the financial ship. Sherman is out trying to find additional investors, while for his part Jeter is busy slashing costs, in both the front office and on the roster.

Cutting payroll is seldom a path to popularity, and to say Jeter’s start as a baseball executive has been rocky is being kind. It only became bumpier when he made clear that the Marlins were looking to trade the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, Giancarlo Stanton. But Jeter really no choice. Three years ago, Loria awarded Stanton the richest contract in sports history, a $325 million boondoggle that runs through 2027, when the slugging outfielder will be 38 years old. While the salary cap hit is based on the annual average of the contract, its terms are heavily backloaded. This year Stanton made $14.5 million. That jumps to $25 million next season, and his pay check will be no less than that for the balance of the deal. In three of the outyears his annual pay will climb to $32 million. Moving Stanton had to be priority number one for the new owners of the cash-strapped Marlins.

The dilemma for Jeter was that the contract includes a full no-trade clause, meaning Stanton possessed absolute veto power over any deal. While we’ll never know the details in terms of the players or prospects going to Miami, or just how much of the $295 million remaining on Stanton’s contract either club was willing to absorb, we do know that within the past several days both the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants came to terms with the Marlins on trade packages for Stanton. But he refused to waive his no-trade clause for either deal, leaving Jeter and the Marlins in a bind.

Then on Thursday came word that the slugger had given Miami a list of four teams that he would approve. They were the four playoff finalists from last season, the Dodgers, Cubs, Astros and Yankees. As soon as that list became public, anyone familiar with recent history should have known how this story would end.

Now New York has agreed to send Miami second baseman Starlin Castro and two low-level prospects in exchange for Stanton, with the Yankees paying all but $30 million of the slugger’s megadeal. It will be a surprise if Castro, who is owed $23 million over the next two seasons, ever plays an inning in a Marlins uniform, with rumors already flying that Miami is looking to flip him and his salary to another team. Forced to yield to his unhappy player, Jeter and the Marlins will likely end up with little more than financial relief in exchange for the National League’s MVP.

In the Bronx fans are elated at the thought of Stanton and his 59 home runs joining Aaron Judge and his AL leading 52. No team has had two players hit 50 or more homers in a season since Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle did it for the Yankees in 1961. Add catcher Gary Sanchez and shortstop Didi Gregorius to the mix and the Yankees have four hitters who may well follow each other to the plate next season who in 2017 combined for 169 home runs, more than the total output of Boston (168), Atlanta (165), Pittsburgh (151) or San Francisco (128).

Yet even for the Yankees there are costs to this deal. Steinbrenner’s determination to get under the salary cap was the reason for including Castro in the package, and GM Brian Cashman may still look to move third baseman Chase Headley and his $13 million cap hit. Or if he can find a taker for even part of the money, he will certainly part ways with Jacoby Ellsbury, who is still owed more than $21 million for each of the next four years. That’s a lot of dough for the guy who is now the Yankees fifth outfielder, behind Judge, Stanton, Brett Gardner, and Aaron Hicks. Without some further shedding of existing contracts or Steinbrenner abandoning his cap edict, Cashman is out of the running for any top-tier starting pitchers on the free agent market.

Then there are the outyears of Stanton’s deal. He can opt-out after 2020, but unless he finds himself utterly miserable in pinstripes, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he would do so. Those same Yankee fans who are rapturous about next season are likely to be less enthused when their team is paying $86 million to a past-his-prime Stanton over the contract’s final three years.

But those concerns are for another day. There are no guarantees in the Great Game, but at least on paper it looks like Murderer’s Row has been reborn in New York, with a lineup that justifies the old Bronx Bombers nickname. Whether or not the Yankees claim their 28th title next season, they should be tremendous fun to watch. Just remember to bring a glove if you’re sitting in the bleachers.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 7, 2017

From Home Run Hero To Yankees Manager

The gates open two hours before game time at the Stadium in the Bronx. As Yankee fans start passing through the turnstiles and the three decks of blue seats begin to fill, video clips are shown on the giant screen in center field. There are player profiles, from legends in the Hall of Fame to minor league prospects. There’s a recap of the team’s most recent game and the occasional advertisement by a corporate sponsor. Most of all there are highlights of memorable moments from seasons gone by. With twenty-seven world championships and forty appearances in the World Series, the staff in charge of the pregame entertainment have plenty such moments from which to choose. But invariably at some point before the first pitch is thrown, fans are carried back to an October night in 2003.

Game 7 of that season’s ALCS saw the New York nine and their bitter rivals from Boston locked in a tense duel at the old place on the other side of 161st Street, with the winner headed to the Fall Classic to face the Florida Marlins. As they had in the series by winning Game 1, the Red Sox jumped out to an early lead with three runs in the 2nd inning and another in the 4th. But the Yankees battled back from deficits of 4-0 and 5-2, with the first fateful moment of the contest coming in the last of the 8th. That’s when Boston manager Grady Little chose to stick with his tiring starter Pedro Martinez. The Red Sox ace yielded four straight hits, allowing the Yankees to tie the score. Eventually that decisive Game 7 went to extra innings.

The final drama unfolded in the bottom of the 11th, after Mariano Rivera, in an outing of unprecedented length for the New York closer, shut out Boston for three innings. Tim Wakefield was on the mound for the Red Sox, and as the familiar video begins leadoff hitter Aaron Boone, who had entered the game as a pinch runner in the 8th, is walking to the plate. Boone steps in, and the right-handed knuckleballer delivers his first pitch of the inning. Wakefield would not throw a second that night, nor another pitch that season, for Boone turns on the initial offering and sends it soaring into the night. The capacity crowd reacts with a massive roar as the ball heads for the left field seats. The video ends with a disconsolate Wakefield walking off the mound, headed for the Red Sox dugout, as Boone rounds the bases and the Yankees pour out of their dugout to celebrate his walk off blast at home plate.

What is most remarkable about the video is the reaction it engenders. No matter how many times it’s shown, the roar from the present-day fans watching Boone’s home run always rivals the one broadcast through the Stadium’s speakers from the fans who were there that night. This despite the passage of time, and even though as Yankee legends go, Aaron Boone’s career in pinstripes was extremely brief. He had come to New York from Cincinnati in a trade deadline deal at the end of that July, and appeared in fifty-four regular season games, exactly one-third of the schedule. That winter, after the Yankees lost the 2003 World Series to the Marlins, Boone tore the ACL in his left knee in a pick-up basketball game. Lost for the 2004 season because of the injury, he was released by New York in February, and eventually wore four other uniforms before retiring in 2009.

No doubt some of the undiminished enthusiasm for each showing of Boone’s blast is because of the opponent that night. Like Bucky F’n Dent and Eli F’n Manning, Boone will always have an expletive for a middle name whenever a Boston sports fan refers to him. But there is something else at work as well. Even fans who have never met him know that he was a popular player who was always open and available to the media and the paying customers. Since his playing days, he’s also become a well-respected analyst for ESPN. Despite his brief time as a Yankee, Boone has a large reservoir of goodwill in the Bronx, so most fans were enthusiastic at the news that the 44-year old had been picked by GM Brian Cashman to be the thirty-third manager of the Great Game’s most successful franchise.

Yet on the surface the choice of Boone to replace Joe Girardi seems like a high-stakes gamble by Cashman, mainly because the new manager’s first day on the job Wednesday was also his first day as either a manager or coach for any team at any level of baseball. While it was impossible to find a sports writer saying anything negative about the popular Boone personally, there were more than a few who voiced considerable doubt about the wisdom of giving a neophyte the managerial reins of the team that plays under the greatest media scrutiny and with the most outsized expectations every single season. But to be comfortable with their doubts, the naysayers must overlook both an important fact about Boone and the way in which the job of manager is changing.

Aaron Boone’s life in and around professional baseball didn’t start when he was drafted by the Reds in 1994, or when he made his big league debut three years later. It began in the cradle. His grandfather was Ray Boone, who was twice an All-Star during a thirteen-year career in the majors that began in 1948 with Cleveland. His father is Bob Boone, who was catching for the Phillies in 1973 when Aaron was born, and who was a four-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove Award winner. His older brother is Brett Boone, who led the American League in RBIs in 2001 while playing with the Mariners, one of five different uniforms he wore during his major league career. Aaron’s sibling won a pair of Silver Slugger Awards and made three All-Star teams.

With just a single All-Star nod, the playing career of the new Yankees manager is the least distinguished of his family, the first to send three generations to the big leagues. But despite the fact he’ll wear a uniform every game just like every player on the 25-man roster, Boone isn’t being asked to play, just understand the game and be able to process events as they happen. As a literal lifer in the Great Game, there’s a good chance he’ll be up to the task.

That task has evolved rapidly in recent years, with the rush to understand and use advanced analytics. A successful manager today must be able to communicate with and have faith in his team’s computer geeks, while also being able to translate reams of data into meaningful exchanges with his players. Boone impressed Cashman during the interview process with his ability and willingness to do the former, and his youth while having a lifetime around the game should help him do the latter.

The only certainty is that no one knows how Aaron Boone will do as a manager. When the Yankees assemble ten weeks hence in Tampa for the start of Spring Training, expectations will be very high after Girardi guided the team to within a single win of the World Series this fall. Perhaps what some pundits see as Cashman’s gamble will result in a season of disappointment. But there are also good reasons to believe that just like on that October night in 2003, Aaron Boone will knock the first pitch out of the park.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 3, 2017

The Solitary Golfer, Staving Off Winter

The calendar turns to December. Mornings are increasingly accompanied by frost. While there have been some recent days when the temperature climbed above fifty, their number has steadily dwindled, replaced by ones that are raw and damp. The forecast for the next ten days includes none of the former, and more than a few of the latter. Winter is coming.

But it is not here yet. And while many golf courses have shuttered for the season, a handful remain open to those hardy hackers willing to bundle up and brave the elements for a late season round. That is the plan on this Sunday. At daybreak the thermometer has dipped below freezing, but by the scheduled 10:30 tee time it will be in the mid-thirties, on the way to a high a degree or two on the plus side of forty.

The key of course, as mothers have told children for decades, is to dress in layers. The golf polo is covered by a sweatshirt which in turn is covered by a zippered fleece vest, allowing some freedom of movement underneath the bulk. Add a thick pair of corduroy pants and a knit stocking cap to warm the head and ears, and the golfer is as ready as he can be for a long walk on a cold day.

It’s a short drive down Route 1 from downtown Portsmouth to the public course in North Hampton. It’s been fifty-five years since the family run Sagamore Hampton Golf Club was laid out over 130 acres of farmland and woodlands adjacent to what was then the still new Interstate 95. The course plays to a par of 71, with a mostly open front nine that is toured with the constant hum of the speeding highway traffic as backdrop. The back nine provides a sterner test, with some holes wandering into the woods, thus putting a premium on accuracy. The inward half is also more than 300 yards longer than the front, but the par of 36 is just one stroke higher than the first nine.

The parking lot, across North Road from the course, is mostly empty pavement as the golfer pulls in. In midsummer it would be packed on a weekend morning, but those days are now gone, not to be seen again for more than half a year. The usual threesome, who have known one another since the sharp and misty mornings of long-ago college days, will not be present for this round. The vagaries of life and family have interceded; a minor medical issue in one case, weekend company in the other, mean that today the golfer will play alone.

The air is cold but there is not a breath of wind as the solitary golfer stands on the first tee. A few practice swings to loosen the aging joints, and the first shot of the day is launched into the air. He slings the carry bag onto his right shoulder, and the round is underway. The opening drive has gone to the right, well off the desired line. It winds up with a birch tree, one of only a handful on an otherwise wide-open hole, blocking a direct path to the green. A low punch shot beneath the tree limbs doesn’t have enough steam to roll all the way to the green, and a lengthy chip rolls across the putting surface, which is canted sharply from front to back. Soon enough the solitary golfer is writing a “6” on his scorecard, an opening double-bogey. Was the unfortunately placed drive an ominous portent for how the round will play out?

But after the next two holes the answer looks to be no, it was just a bit of bad luck. His shots are not perfect; age-diminished skills and the weather combine to ensure that. But the ball is going generally in the intended direction, and that first double is not repeated.

Sagamore may be a daily fee course, but it is not without amenities, albeit ones unique to the environment. Next to the fourth tee the grounds crew has built a low circle of large rocks. It’s a fire pit, with logs from the nearby woods glowing bright orange. Perhaps inspired by the homemade warming station, the solitary golfer puts his tee shot on the par-3 hole just short of the green. From there a nice chip leaves him with a tap-in for his first par of the round.

Several minutes later, standing on the elevated tee of the par-3 seventh hole, he can see almost all the holes on the front nine. While they are mostly deserted, he is not entirely alone. A threesome on their way to the third green is the closest group behind him. In the distance another single striking his second shot from the eighth fairway is next in front of him. Another pair, just starting out, are hitting their approaches on number one.

Turning to the business at hand, he selects a four hybrid for the downhill shot, knowing that club selection is meaningless on this hole. Over the years he has hit everything from three wood down to five iron on the long par-3, and he is always short. The Titleist is teed up, the swing is made, and the ball comes to rest ten yards short of the green. Had time been pressing, he could have just walked down and placed it there.

Another par is had on the dogleg left par-5 eighth. It’s a hole that the long hitters can sometimes reach in two. Those days, if they ever existed, are in the solitary golfer’s past. But a solid drive to a flat portion of the fairway is followed by an equally good five wood over the hill and towards the green. A soft sand wedge finds the putting surface, though par is not yet assured. The green, the most heavily tilted of all eighteen at Sagamore, is the main defense on this hole. Putts that catch the slope can end up further from the hole than when they started. But today the first left to right slider slips just below the cup, barely moving as it does so. It stops after rolling another two feet, and the stroke back up the hill is straight and true.

Bodies acclimate to their conditions. The late autumn sun is trying to make its presence felt through the thin, milky, overcast. Though the temperature tops out at forty-two, by the turn the fleece vest is unzipped. As the round nears its end, the stocking cap, deemed so essential three hours earlier, is stuffed in the bag for the final two holes.

That end is a stern test, for Sagamore does not offer the golfer a gentle coda at the end of his long walk. The penultimate hole is a lengthy par-3, and the finish is by far the longest par-4 on the course. More than a few rounds that made it to the seventeenth tee in reasonably good shape have gone to seed over the course’s final 650 yards.

But today the same four hybrid that couldn’t reach the seventh hole is perfect ten holes later as his tee shot finds the putting surface, stopping hole high and twenty feet right of the cup. Two putts later the golfer can scrawl a “3” on the scorecard, and head for the last.

The home hole is always a challenge. A hazard left and fairway bunker right threaten the tee shot, a narrow stream wanders from left to right down the length of the fairway, and the hole’s considerable distance all combine to give the eighteenth a nasty bite. Today is no exception, but at last the solitary golfer finds his ball on the green, thirty feet above the hole. Two putts will give him a total score in the eighties, which for him remains the mark of a good day on the links.

But his first effort is woefully short, leaving a left to right downhill breaker of nearly ten feet. He marks his ball as always and goes through his regular routine. The line is left edge, the thought is don’t leave it short. The Ping putter is back and through, the ball on its way. It trundles down the slope, refusing to turn. Was it struck too firmly to take the break? At the last possible instant, even as it looks to be rolling by the left edge, the Titleist takes a peek at the abyss to its right, and falls in.

The parking lot is even more deserted as the golfer stows his bag in the trunk and changes his shoes. By next weekend, if the forecast is correct, it will be closed. If indeed this marks the end of golf for this year, the last putt was a good way to conclude it. But this is New England, where forecasts are notoriously unreliable. Hope springs eternal in the heart of every devoted hacker. It will take some luck, but perhaps the usual threesome is not done for the year just yet.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 30, 2017

At The End Only Eli Understood “The Giant Way”

It is a sports story told all too often. An aging hero does not leave the stage; he is pushed off it by a franchise that no longer values his ability. Years of service and career accomplishments are cast aside like yesterday’s newspaper. But this tale is not of some broken down athlete desperately clinging, for far too long, to the game that made him famous. Eli Manning’s benching by the New York Giants, ending at 210 games the second longest consecutive start streak by a quarterback in NFL history, reveals a franchise in total disarray, with a clueless owner and a coach and general manager trying to saddle Manning with the blame for a lost season, in a frantic and hopefully futile attempt to save their jobs.

Let’s be clear. The Giants have woefully underperformed this season. They are 2-9 heading into this weekend, playing for nothing more than pride, and Eli Manning has had, statistically, one of his poorer years since he and his father Archie engineered a draft day trade that ensured Manning would play under the bright lights of Gotham rather than in distant San Diego, despite the Chargers holding the first pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. Father and son simply asserted that Manning would refuse to sign a contract with San Diego, and Chargers general manager A. J. Smith chose not to risk the number one pick on the chance that they were bluffing.

As disappointing as his fourteenth season in a Giants uniform has been, to suggest that Manning is solely or even principally to blame for New York’s position as NFL doormat, with more wins than just the Browns and 49ers, is to ignore reality. Since the start of the season the Giants have placed twenty players on injured reserve. Manning’s receiving corps has been decimated. Both favorite target Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall, signed during the offseason, were lost to ankle injuries in Week Five.

Even before the injuries started to pile up, New York was in trouble because of general manager Jerry Reese’s failure to bolster the offensive line during the offseason. His only two moves to shore up the Giants’ most obvious problem area through either free agency or the draft were signing guard D. J. Fluker, who had been released by the Chargers, and making Adam Bisnowaty the 200th pick in last April’s draft. The former is on injured reserve; the latter on the Giants practice squad. Reese’s neglect has made it hard for Manning to remain upright. Through just eleven games he was sacked twenty-six times, more than all last season and almost exactly his average number of sacks over his twelve full sixteen game seasons as New York’s signal-caller. Despite the harassment from defensive linemen, Manning’s seven picks gave him the lowest interception rate of his career.

Head coach Ben McAdoo was promoted from offensive coordinator prior to last season in part because of lobbying by Manning. As his game plans have fizzled and an increasingly vocal fan base has called for McAdoo to be fired, he’s returned the favor by at times openly criticizing his veteran quarterback. Meanwhile whatever offensive acumen he possessed in his previous position seems to have disappeared since McAdoo was promoted. With last week’s 20-10 loss to Washington, the Giants have now played twenty-seven regular season games with McAdoo as head coach, and have not scored thirty points even once.

With their continued employment in serious doubt, Reese and McAdoo moved Tuesday to shift the blame over to their quarterback, announcing that Manning will be replaced by Geno Smith and presumably at some point, the rookie Davis Webb. In a move that was endorsed by owner John Mara, McAdoo offered Manning the opportunity to continue to start games to keep his consecutive game streak alive, and then be replaced by Smith. Later this week Mara revealed just how out of touch he is when he admitted to surprise that Manning rejected that offer out of hand. Only the quarterback seemed to understand that such gamesmanship would cheapen and tarnish the streak.

With the season in tatters, it would make sense to give Webb some playing time down the stretch. Letting him come in to spell Manning in the latter part of games or earlier if the score turned one-sided, would give New York’s management a chance to assess their third-round draft pick, an opportunity to see if he truly represents the future direction of the franchise. But turning to Smith seems like a deliberate move to humiliate Manning. He hasn’t started a game in over a year, and in four seasons with the Jets, when he wasn’t fighting with a teammate or shouting profanities at a fan, Smith couldn’t hold on to the starter’s job. His career quarterback rating of 72.3 certainly doesn’t represent an improvement over Manning.

At age 36 Eli Manning surely knows that he’s in the fourth quarter of his playing career. But he’s not necessarily at the two-minute warning, and odds are he’ll be playing somewhere next season. If he’s thrown his last pass while wearing Giants blue, he leaves with a raft of franchise records, some because of his longevity and durability (career passing yards, attempts, completions, touchdowns), and others because of his ability (season passing yards, attempts, completions, touchdowns, consecutive completions, most fourth quarter touchdown passes in a season). There are also those two titles, the two times he broke the hearts of fans in New England while being named MVP in both Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI.

And while the focus of any athlete’s career is on the field, it’s worth noting that in good times and bad, after Super Bowl victories and lopsided defeats alike, Manning has been a class act in his dealings with both fans and the New York media, as he was on Tuesday while speaking to reporters as he blinked back tears. He’s embodied what used to be called the “Giant Way.” The phrase referred to the principled and professional manner in which this nine-decade old franchise went about its business. Manning’s consistent demeanor as much as his on-field exploits help explain why his benching was met by an outpouring of protest on social media by fans, former teammates, and even the niece of the team’s owner, actress Kate Mara. But for all the tweets and Facebook posts, it was left to a group of anonymous Giants fans to voice their displeasure the old-fashioned way, on three giant billboards near MetLife Stadium. The message they paid for was simple and direct: BIG BLUE SHAME ON YOU.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 26, 2017

Season Of Parity Leaves College Playoffs In Disarray

When it debuted in 2014 the College Football Playoff was hailed as a far superior means of determining the national champion of collegiate football than its reviled predecessor, the Bowl Championship Series. The principal complaint against the BCS throughout its fifteen year existence was that the selection process, which inevitably included subjective elements, resulted in just two teams having a chance to play for the national title. The CFP answered that by finally installing a season-ending tournament at the top level of the college game, as has existed for years in lower divisions. Expanding the field to four teams, with the two semifinal games rotating among six of the traditional Bowl Games, followed by the national title game on the second Monday in January, silenced most of the critics.

There are those who justifiably point out that the selection process still skews heavily toward a handful of universities in the Power Five conferences, at the expense of less well-funded teams, even when the latter run through their regular season schedule without tasting defeat. But “strength of schedule” is not an empty phrase. The reality is that the level of competition at the highest level of the collegiate game is on a different plane than in the mid-major conferences. With only four spots in the playoff, it will take not just an undefeated season, but also one filled with blowout after blowout especially in non-conference games for a school like Central Florida, 11-0 pending next week’s American Athletic Conference championship contest against Memphis, to crash the playoff party.

And with only four tickets to award, the selection committee is bound to disappoint the fans of at least one school every year. But given the intense passion which college football generates among its loyal followers, through its first three seasons the CFP has been relatively free of controversy, with the biggest debate being not about any of the participants but the decision to sometimes play the semifinal games on New Year’s Eve, with a likely decline in television ratings.

That’s likely to change this year. With only the conference title games remaining to be played, big time college football has given us a season of unusual parity. One by one, the mighty have fallen. The result has been a scrambling of the CFP rankings, from their first release at the end of October during the ninth week of the regular season, right through the penultimate rankings which will be revealed on Tuesday. Those in turn will still not be definitive, with any number of possible scenarios still in play depending on the outcome of the next weekend’s conference championships. This year, when the final standings are announced next Sunday on ESPN, fans of several teams who wind up outside of the top four will firmly believe that they’ve been robbed of their rightful spot in either the Rose or Sugar Bowls, this season’s two semifinals leading to the national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on January 8th.

In the CFP’s first three years, three of the Power Five conferences were led by undefeated or one-loss teams, making it easy for the selection committee to pencil them in on the playoff schedule. Probably the biggest selection controversy came when Big-12 co-champions Baylor and Texas Christian were both passed over despite identical 11-1 records. Ohio State, a team that also had one loss, was awarded the final playoff spot, with the committee citing the Big-12’s lack of a championship game (a “13th data point” on top of the twelve regular season games) as the decisive factor.

But this season the descent into disarray started early. The rankings at the end of week nine had Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson as the top four. The first two were undefeated while the Fighting Irish and Tigers each had just a single loss. That lineup remained static through just one weekly cycle, and even as it did so the rest of the top ten was scrambled when Ohio State and Penn State, sixth and seventh in the initial ranking, both lost.

Then top-ranked Georgia was upended by Auburn, and Notre Dame was crushed by Miami. That sent both playoff hopefuls tumbling down the list, with perennial national champion contender Alabama moving into the top spot. Clemson took over second, and the top four were rounded out with Miami, a team that was tenth in the initial rankings, and Oklahoma.

Miami edged ahead of Clemson in the rankings leading into Thanksgiving week. But all that slight shift did was ensure widespread chaos by the time fans were into the turkey leftovers. On Friday the Hurricanes were outclassed by the Pittsburgh Panthers 24-14. Then one day later in the Iron Bowl, Alabama was thoroughly outplayed by Auburn, with the Tigers winning 26-14. That win gave Auburn the SEC West crown and a date with Georgia in the conference championship, meaning that Alabama’s season is over. Thirteenth data point, anyone?

Presumably Clemson and Oklahoma, both winners this weekend, will move into the top two spots in Tuesday’s next to last ranking. Wisconsin, which capped a perfect regular season with a win over Minnesota, should move into the top four, most likely joined by Auburn despite the Tigers’ two losses. But next weekend’s conference title games could scramble things once more.

Clemson plays Miami for the ACC crown, while Auburn and Georgia meet for the SEC title. Those contests have the air of play-in games; win and you’re in the playoff. Wisconsin and Ohio State meet for the Big-10 title, and if the Badgers maintain their perfect record they will certainly be in. But what if Ohio State wins? Similarly, Oklahoma plays Texas Christian for the Big-12 crown. Already in the top four, Oklahoma stays there with a victory. But what happens if TCU pulls off the upset? If either or both of those two games don’t go as expected, then not only the upset winners, but the teams they will have beaten, as well as the ACC and SEC runners-up, will have a case. So too will USC if it beats Stanford for the Pac-12 title, and of course head coach Nick Saban is still lobbying hard for Alabama.

For the first time in the short history of the College Football Playoff, much will be at stake during conference championship weekend. The only certainty is that when the final rankings are announced next Sunday fans of several teams are likely to be unhappy.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 23, 2017

An Improbable Champion, An Uncertain Future

A NOTE TO READERS: As Thanksgiving winds down, I hope everyone has enjoyed a very happy holiday, filled with lots of laughter and minimal drama. Thanks as always for your support.

NASCAR’s 2017 season came to an end last weekend. When he sped past the checkered flag Sunday evening to win the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway, Martin Truex, Jr. won his first Monster Energy Cup Series championship. For the 37-year old New Jersey native, it was the capstone to a wildly successful season, one that far surpassed anything that had gone before during his fourteen years of driving in stock car racing’s premier series.

As the field took the green flag at the Daytona 500 to start the season nine months ago, Truex was just one more journeyman driver. He started that race in 35th position and ran well enough, finishing 13th. It was a predictable result for a driver who began 2017 with seven wins and one hundred thirty-five top-ten finishes in four hundred and five career races. A strong race one time in three, a checkered flag every other year; the statistics of a good but not great NASCAR driver. But just two races later Truex won the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and when he came home first in Miami it was his 8th win and 25th top-ten finish over the course of NASCAR’s thirty-six race calendar.

Truex’s year is even more amazing given his ride. He drives the number 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, a tiny iconoclast among race teams. FRR is owned by Barney Visser, an entrepreneur who started out selling pillows in the 1970s, moved on to waterbeds in the 80s and then to all manner of bedroom furniture under various retail names. By the time Visser retired to pursue his interest in stock cars, his company Furniture Row operated more than three hundred stores.

Visser based Furniture Row Racing in his home state of Colorado, making it one of just a handful of teams not headquartered in North Carolina, and the only one based west of the Mississippi. He quickly discovered that racing is an extraordinarily expensive business. FRR has never managed to field more than two cars in NASCAR’s highest series, and most years only one. After losing his ride with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2013, Truex signed on to drive the 78 beginning the following year.

This year Truex had to overcome adversity that went far beyond the limited resources of FRR. Even as he piled up wins throughout the season, his thoughts were with his fiancée Sherry Pollex, who is battling ovarian cancer. Then in October crew member Jim Watson passed away, and just weeks later Visser suffered a heart attack that kept him away from the track for the season’s final two races. Somehow Truex managed to remain focused and even draw motivation from the blows. He readily admits that the strength which Pollex has shown in her medical battle has inspired him.

Truex also had the good fortune to be driving a Toyota. It’s been a decade since the Japanese manufacturer began running in NASCAR’s top series, joining Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge. The Chrysler nameplate dropped out after the 2012 season, even as Chevy dominated on the race track. The manufacturer’s title went to the General Motors division every year from 2003 through 2014. But the last two years have seen Toyota dominate. At the midpoint of this season’s schedule, Truex’s three wins were the only victories by a Toyota in the eighteen races. But then the company’s engineers found some magic. Toyotas won thirteen of the last eighteen races, including eight of the ten in the season-ending Chase for the Championship – four by Truex, three by Kyle Busch and one by Matt Kenseth.

Truex’s unlikely title for Barney Visser’s shop is a fairy tale come true, one that the NASCAR marketing folks will no doubt focus on as the sport enters its offseason. That’s because the other main storylines about NASCAR are decidedly less positive. Even as the number 78 team was celebrating, the Monster Energy Cup Series was facing a winter of discontent and doubt.

The sport’s two most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, are leaving. Earnhardt announced his decision to retire last April, and Patrick lost her ride with Stewart-Haas Racing when owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas were unable to secure adequate sponsorship for her. Just before the race at Homestead, Patrick announced that she would close her competitive career by running in next year’s Daytona 500 for NASCAR and the Indianapolis 500 for IndyCar. It will be a fitting finale for the most prominent woman driver in both series, but without the benefit of a regular ride no fan should think that her two appearances next season will be anything other than ceremonial.

Earnhardt and Patrick aren’t the only known stars to depart. The 2000 Rookie of the Year and 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, like Patrick, was essentially forced into retirement when no owner could offer him the resources to field a competitive car. The tightening economics of the sport sidelined Greg Biffle this year, and as yet he has no sure route to returning. Kurt Busch, winner of this year’s Daytona 500 and the Cup champion in 2004, is not yet certain of continuing as a driver for Stewart-Haas, and Kasey Kahne is moving from the luxury of giant Hendrick Motorsports to the one car team of Leavine Family Racing.

All this after the recent retirements of fan favorites Stewart, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon leaves many fans without a driver on whom to pin their hopes week in and week out. Not surprisingly, attendance continues to decline at virtually every venue, along with NASCAR’s television ratings. Budgets are being slashed by both big teams and small, often by as much as fifty percent. Even with that owners are left trying to cobble together full season support by rotating multiple sponsors, where in the past one company would gladly finance a season in return for its logo on the race car’s hood.

Brian France, chief executive of what remains a family owned business, acknowledged the challenges NASCAR faces in a press conference before the season ending race last weekend. He is pinning his hopes on a new generation of drivers, most of whom are barely old enough to legally buy the liquor that the sport’s forebears ran through the Carolina mountains decades ago.

It is true in every sport that old heroes leave the stage, making way for new ones to step into the spotlight. Perhaps NASCAR fans will soon be roaring their approval for the driving of Chase Elliott or Erik Jones, Ty Dillon or Daniel Suarez, Chris Buescher or Ryan Blaney. But even France admitted that the breadth of this transition puts his sport at a turning point. Add to that the profound economic challenges facing NASCAR, and racing fans know that not even the feel-good story of Martin Truex Jr’s. improbable run to a championship can entirely remove the pall of uncertainty hanging over this offseason.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 19, 2017

Among NFL Owners, Threats Of A Civil War

It’s been more than half a century since the Beatles told us that money “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Now we’ve learned that it also can’t buy tranquility among the billionaires who comprise the elite club of NFL team owners. These uber-rich are waging an increasingly public war over whether and what to pay their primary hired serf, a mere multi-millionaire, league commissioner Roger Goodell.

The combatants in this conflict are mostly old men. More than half the team owners are over 70, and half of the ones who aren’t are second generation owners. The only women with ownership stakes have similarly had it handed down from their fathers. Surely this is a group of the fabled 1% who would just as soon stay out of the public eye unless they are being handed the Vince Lombardi Trophy by Goodell as confetti rains down following a Super Bowl.

Alas for these titans, 75-year old Dallas owner Jerry Jones has made it certain that their current labors will not unfold with little public notice. The bombastic Cowboys owner has launched a very personal crusade against Goodell. In a move not seen since the good old days of the late Raiders owner Al Davis, Jones has publicly threatened to sue his fellow franchise owners if Goodell is not shown the door.

Six months ago, life was much more bucolic in the inner sanctum of the NFL. That’s when all 32 owners voted unanimously to extend Goodell’s tenure as commissioner for another five years, from the expiration of his current contract in 2019 until 2024. At that same owners meeting the task of hammering out the contract details was delegated to a six-member compensation committee chaired by Arthur Blank, the 75-year old owner of the Atlanta Falcons. The other committee members are the owners of the Chiefs, Giants, Patriots, Steelers and Texans. Initially Jones was included as a non-voting member of the committee, but he was stripped of that role two weeks ago in the wake of his litigation threat.

The committee went about its business with no public fanfare for months. In mid-August the Sports Business Journal reported and ESPN confirmed that a deal was nearly complete, with terms expected to be similar to Goodell’s current contract. In 2015 the commissioner was paid $32 million. That was the last year before the NFL surrendered its tax-exempt status, so the league’s tax returns are no longer public, but Goodell is believed to have made well over $200 million during his first ten years as commissioner. Whatever one thinks of his performance it has been a remarkable career arc from 23-year old administrative intern in the league office to the most powerful man in sports, as Goodell has been named in various rankings by the likes of Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News.

But even as the media was reporting that a new contract was at hand, Jerry Jones was having second thoughts about the man who he once said “has done an amazing job for the game.” The catalyst for Jones’s reconsideration was the league’s announcement on August 11th that the Cowboys’ star running back Ezekiel Elliott was being suspended for six games after a yearlong investigation into allegations of domestic violence. Elliott appealed the suspension through the NFL Players Association, and as that appeal wound its way through the league’s internal processes and eventually the courts, the status of the suspension seemed to change at every stop. Elliott continued to play until ten days ago, when a three-judge federal appeals court panel denied his request for an emergency injunction. Elliott sat out the Cowboys’ Week 10 loss to the Falcons, and then announced that he was dropping any further appeals.

As Elliot sits Jones fumes, with Goodell the target of his wrath. ESPN reported just this week that when Goodell phoned Jones to tell him about his decision to suspend Elliot last August, Jones replied, “I’m going to come after you with everything I have.” In a reference to Goodell’s suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady over Deflategate, Jones added, “If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a pussy compared to what I’m going to do.” Jones has issued the lawsuit threat to block the contract renewal, demanded that all 32 owners vote again on any contract, and has retained David Bois, one of the most respect litigators in the country. The Cowboys owner is also believed to be the source of leaks over Goodell’s contract demands, which supposedly included a $50 million annual salary and lifetime access to a private jet and health care for his family. It should be noted that compensation committee chair Blank has denied that the commissioner made such demands.

On the surface Jones seems to have consolidated support for Goodell among the other owners. League sources now say the contract should be done “shortly,” though when that was first reported three months ago it proved premature. However, the compensation committee in a letter to Jones rebuffed his suggestion that the NFL’s constitution was being violated. Earlier Jones was threatened with penalties if he continued “conduct detrimental to the league,” which could range from a loss of draft picks to a suspension. Jones mocked the threat in a radio interview.

There is no one to cheer for in this battle within the billionaire’s boys club. Overall the owners are loyal to Goodell because under his stewardship league revenue has ballooned, and the value of every franchise has grown accordingly. Billionaires tend to think kindly of those who help provide a positive return on their investments. But the owners risk being woefully shortsighted, for the reality is that there are compelling reasons to end Goodell’s tenure.

The NFL still can’t come to grips with the life-threatening aspects of its product. Just last week there were multiple instances of players appearing to be concussed, but quickly returning to the game. Chris Nowinski, director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, tweeted about the most egregious, an injury to Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Goodell has set the example for the rest of the league, remaining detached and often condescending about the dangers of concussions and the risk to football players of CTE.

He has also consistently mishandled disciplinary issues, veering wildly back and forth from extraordinarily lax in his initial Ray Rice ruling to overly tough in the cases of Brady and Elliott. His refusal to adopt clear standards have only made Goodell look impetuous.

The league’s halting and unsure response to player protests is one more problem. Goodell has appeared to want it both ways, appeasing his billionaire, conservative and white bosses while trying not to antagonize his socially conscious players, many of whom are African-American. Meanwhile the elephant in that room remains Colin Kaepernick, still unsigned despite any number of lesser quarterbacks having been given roles on various teams.

Then there are the declining television ratings, an unsurprising result given all the issues listed above. Other than a feeble effort to shorten commercial breaks, Goodell and the NFL have had no answer to that problem.

If Jerry Jones really wanted to go after Roger Goodell and block his contract renewal, he had plenty of good reasons to do so. But instead he chose to make his fight all about Goodell’s decision to suspend Elliott and the impact on the Cowboys. Of course, when one is a billionaire, everything in life is probably always about “me.”

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 16, 2017

Lots Of Awards, But Only One Ring

With Thursday evening’s announcement of the 2017 Most Valuable Players in each league, baseball’s annual awards week reached its conclusion. It began Monday with the Rookies of the Year, continued Tuesday with the two Managers of the Year, and marched on into Wednesday’s revelation of this year’s Cy Young Award winners. One could reasonably ask if it’s really necessary to drag out the announcements of the results of votes cast by a very select group of members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, but then the Great Game is not immune to the fits of grandiosity that afflict all our major sports from time to time. When seized by this disease the logic seems to be that if a one-hour special on the MLB Network is good, then four one-hour specials must be truly great.

Since its founding more than a century ago, the BBWAA has done much to improve the working conditions of the scribes who sit in the press boxes of thirty stadiums across the land, writing against deadlines to bring readers news of that day’s action on the diamond. These days many Association members are as likely to reach more readers via Twitter than through the sports pages of their employer, which may be one reason why the BBWAA opened its membership to full-time web-based reporters a decade ago. Still the “W” at the middle of BBWAA remains paramount; membership remains closed to television broadcasters and radio announcers. Indeed, even a writer who doesn’t work a full-time baseball beat need not apply. That stipulation led to the oddity of the Association giving Roger Angell its highest honor, the J. G. Taylor Spink Award in 2014. Over the decades Angell has written some of the most lyrical and luminous prose on baseball, most often for the New Yorker magazine. But he remains the only non-BBWAA member to receive the Spink Award, since without a full-time baseball beat he wasn’t eligible for membership.

Given the parlous state of print journalism, those restrictions make the Association’s membership a breed whose numbers are slowly but surely declining. Yet that’s done nothing to diminish the outsize role that BBWAA members play in recognizing individual achievement in the Great Game. Members for ten years or more are entitled to cast a ballot each year for the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is certainly the Association’s most public role. A dozen or so members also comprise the Historical Overview Committee, which puts together the annual ballot for consideration by the Hall’s three 16-member committees that vote on a rotating basis for otherwise ineligible candidates from different eras. And in the role that culminated this week, thirty members – one for each major league team – vote at the end of the regular season for the four big individual awards in each league.

With but a single exception, this year’s announcements were lacking in drama. That’s not to say that the winners were unworthy; to some extent just the opposite. In most of the categories there were performances that stood out so clearly that while as is traditional the names of the top three vote-getters were announced in advance as “finalists” for each of the awards, the outcome was never really in doubt.

That was certainly the case on Monday, when Aaron Judge of the Yankees and Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers were both unanimous choices for their league’s Rookie of the Year Award. Judge broke Mark McGwire’s record for most home runs by a rookie, slugging a league-leading 52 while also topping the AL in runs and walks and finishing second in slugging percentage and OPS.

Like Judge, Bellinger received all thirty first-place votes in the NL Rookie balloting, after a season in which his 39 home runs set the National League rookie record, eclipsing by one the old mark held jointly by Frank Robinson and Wally Berger. Bellinger continues a proud Dodger tradition by becoming the 18th member of the franchise to be names Rookie of the Year, easily the most of any club.

Tuesday Paul Molitor of the Twins and Torey Lovullo of the Diamondbacks easily outdistanced their closest competitors in the Manager of the Year race. Given that those chasers were Cleveland’s Terry Francona and L.A.’s Dave Roberts, the results were a reminder that this award often recognizes not just winning, but changing the direction of a franchise. In Molitor’s first year as Minnesota’s skipper the Twins lost 103 games. This year they finished eight games over .500, good enough for the second Wild Card in the American League. Unfortunately for the team and its fans, that meant they had to play the Yankees, and as every baseball fan knows New York owns Minnesota in the postseason.

Lovullo’s Diamondbacks had a similar turn around, going from 93 losses in 2016 to 93 wins in 2017. Arizona fared slightly better in the playoffs, beating Colorado in the NL Wild Card Game. Unfortunately for the team and its fans, that meant that in the NLDS they had to play the Dodgers, winners of 104 games during the regular season.

Both Cy Young Award races were thought to be close, but the final results were anything but. Cleveland’s Corey Kluber took 28 of 30 first-place votes in easily outdistancing Boston’s Chris Sale, and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer was named at the top of 27 ballots in a runaway over Clayton Kershaw. It was Kluber’s second Cy Young and Scherzer’s third, making them two of nineteen pitchers in baseball history who have won the award multiple times. Sale may have been hurt by a bit of a late season slump, and Kershaw’s chances for a fourth Cy Young took a big hit when he lost extended time to a back injury.

Thursday’s NL MVP announcement finally brought some drama. For much of the season the Nolan Arenado of the Rockies was the betting favorite for the honor, but he wasn’t even named a finalist, finishing fourth. Instead the BBWAA voters honored the slugging prowess of Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton, but only by the narrowest of margins. Both Stanton and the Reds’ Joey Votto received ten 10 first-place votes. Stanton received one more second and one more third place vote than Votto, but was left entirely off one ballot, while Votto was named on all thirty. The result was a two-vote margin, 302 to 300, in favor of the 2017 home run king.

Finally, Houston’s Jose Altuve took 27 first-place votes to outpace Judge by a wide margin for the AL MVP. In 2017 Altuve pounded out more than 200 hits for the fourth straight season and led the league in batting average for the third time.  It was coincidence of course, but fitting that Altuve’s honor should be the last one to be announced. For as much as these awards can bring fame and fatter contracts to the players who receive them, the Great Game remains a team sport, with each franchise pursuing the one goal that no single player can achieve on his own – a World Series title. Of all the awards recipients named this week, the Astros second baseman is the only one who finished the season by winning a ring.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 12, 2017

History Is Made, Thanks To A Team

We think of running as a solitary pursuit. For as long as words have been written, authors have used the image of the runner as metaphor for loneliness and solitude. In one of the earliest surviving works of literature, a grief-stricken Gilgamesh runs “faster than the wind” through the underworld, in hopes of undoing the death of his friend. The very name of our premier distance race is drawn from the story of Pheidippides, who in the 5th century B.C. runs twenty-six miles from Marathon to Athens to tell his Greek leaders that their army has triumphed. Having delivered his message, the valiant courier collapses and dies. In modern times Elmore Leonard writes of runners who “become lost in the monotonous stride of their pace…thinking of nothing at all.” And of course, Allan Sillitoe’s famous short story, later a movie, is all about “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” In it, the protagonist uses cross-country racing as both a physical and emotional escape from a bleak and dismal life.

The image of solitude is so set in our minds that when real life paints a different picture, it is worthy of note. So it was at last year’s Rio Olympics, when Nicki Hamblin of New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino of the United States collided in a qualifying heat for the women’s 5,000 meters. Both went tumbling to the track. First D’Agostino pulled Hamblin back up off the ground. Then, when the seriously injured American went down again, Hamblin turned around and helped her competitor back to her feet. Social media came alive with praise for the mutual displays of the real Olympic spirit.

Given that history, a sports fan who happened to see the picture of Shalane Flanagan crossing the finish line in Central Park to win the women’s New York City Marathon one week ago, tears streaming down her face, might have thought it a moving image of individual triumph. It was that of course, but the victory by the 36-year old native of Marblehead, Massachusetts is a story that belies the conventional image of road runners.

In its first few years the New York City Marathon was a local affair. The original course, from the race’s inaugural run in 1970 until 1975, was simply multiple times around Central Park. In 1976, to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, the course was changed to include all five boroughs. That layout proved so popular that it became the race’s permanent course. From 127 competitors in 1970, New York has grown to today’s massive event, with more than 50,000 runners and upwards of 2 million spectators lining the course.

As a local race, it was no surprise that Americans dominated the podium in the early years. American men won the first thirteen NYC Marathons, with Bill Rodgers winning the race four times and Alberto Salazar three. On the women’s side Americans were also dominant at the outset. From 1972, the first year women competed, until 1977, an American woman broke the tape each year. But after Miki Gorman won her second consecutive race in 1977, Norway’s legendary Great Waitz made the race her own, winning nine times over the next eleven years.

Waitz was a singular force in women’s distance running, so her dominance disguised other changes that were happening. By the time she posted her ninth victory in 1988, the New York race was well on its way to becoming the outsize event it is today. Runners from all around the globe were starting to view New York as an important stop on the annual racing calendar. Deeper fields of outstanding international runners changed the nature of the race. On the men’s side, after Salazar’s third and final win in 1982, it was more than a quarter century until another American, Meb Keflezighi, won in 2009. For the women, the wait was even longer.

But that wasn’t just because of the quality of the international competition. In this country, a training pattern gradually emerged for female distance runners which focused on aggressive and isolated regimens. The result was runners who were like meteors streaking across the sky on a summer night. They blazed into prominence only to quickly burn out, beset by injury.

Flanagan set state records running at Marblehead High School, and won a pair of national cross-country titles while attending the University of North Carolina. Early in her professional career she set personal best marks at shorter distances – 1,500 and 3,000 meters – and established a then national record in the 5,000. She captured a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, still the only American woman to medal at that distance.

But in international races Flanagan was the exception. Because of the fractured nature of the women’s sport, in 2000 only one American woman even qualified to run in the Olympic marathon. Then in 2009 Flanagan set about to change the state of distance running for American women. She moved to Oregon to join the Bowerman Track Club, organized by noted distance running coach Jerry Schumacher. Initially the Club’s only woman, Flanagan worked tirelessly to attract other female runners. The concept was both simple and utterly different from the status quo: form a team of women distance runners who would train together and push each other to increase their collective success.

The results have been extraordinary. When then 24-year old Emily Enfeld was ready to quit after sustaining repeated injuries in 2014, it was Flanagan who was there to counsel her to stay the course. With support she would have not received even five years earlier, Enfeld pushed herself to greater heights, capturing a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the following year’s World Championships.

When Flanagan herself ran into trouble during U.S. Olympic Marathon qualifying last year, it was teammate Amy Cragg who slowed down and paced her to the finish line, allowing Flanagan to make her fourth Olympic team. In Rio Flanagan led American women with a sixth-place finish.

On a rainy Sunday in New York, the women’s favorite was three-time defending champion Mary Keitany of Kenya, who was trying to join Waitz as the only woman with four or more consecutive wins. Early on, as they crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, and raced on into Queens, there were nine runners in the lead pack. Across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan and up First Avenue they ran. Over the Willis Avenue Bridge to the Bronx, and as the race returned to Manhattan via the Madison Avenue Bridge, with five miles to go, the lead pack shrank to three – Keitany, Flanagan, and Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia, running New York for the first time. On the long run down Fifth Avenue at last one runner broke clear. It was Flanagan.

As she ran the final strides through Central Park, now a full minute ahead of Keitany, tears of joy mixed with the raindrops on Flanagan’s cheeks. In the grandstand at the finish line sat the great American distance runner Joan Benoit Samuelson, who said in an interview after the race, “My wish was for Shalane to hit the race that she wanted to hit while the whole world was watching. And the whole world was watching. The world won’t forget, nor will Shalane.” The whole world saw a forty-year drought for American women come to an end. What they didn’t see was that Shalane Flanagan didn’t cross the finish line alone.

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