Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 17, 2021

Amid Birdies And Eagles, History And Hope

When the CJ Cup was added to the PGA Tour’s schedule in 2017, the new event stood out for several reasons.  Primary sponsor CJ Group, a massive Seoul-based conglomerate with interests in a wide range of industries, guaranteed a purse closer to that of one of the majors or WGC events than of a typical weekly Tour stop.  The chance for a rich payday coupled with a limited field made the long trip to South Plus, as the Tour’s only stop in Korea, the tournament’s location at the Nine Bridges Golf Club offered fans watching on television a look at a different and entertaining venue.  In the event’s first three iterations, Justin Thomas won twice, bookending a victory by Brooks Koepka, giving the CJ Cup the gloss of familiar names as its champions.

But what no one in the tournament’s field knew when Thomas won by two shots in mid-October 2019, was that like every other major sports league the PGA Tour would come to an abrupt halt five months later.  The pandemic that upended professional golf’s familiar rhythms in March of last year is still forcing the Tour to adjust its schedule because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.  Unlike some other events, the CJ Cup has at least been played, but both last fall and this, its home has been very far away from the Korean peninsula.  Relocated to Las Vegas, the tournament was staged at Shadow Creek last year before moving this season to the Summit Club, a Tom Fazio design that serves as the centerpiece of an exclusive residential enclave in the foothills of the Spring Mountains overlooking the Vegas strip.   

The eighteen holes winding through the Nevada desert may be a tough challenge for the well-heeled residents whose homes have views of the course, but they were sitting ducks for the Tour players.  After he vaulted up the leader board with a 10-under par 62 in Saturday’s third round, Rory McIlroy observed that every single hole was a potential birdie opportunity.  He wasn’t simply bragging about that day’s performance.  McIlroy’s 62 was one of five during the tournament, and they were all just second-best to a pair of 61s – by Robert Streb on Thursday to claim the first-round lead, and by Emiliano Grillo in the final round.

With the Summit Club’s layout yielding lots of low scores, the list of potential contenders extended past the first page of the leader board as Sunday’s final round got underway.  Fresh off his own Saturday stroll around the premises that included eight birdies and a closing eagle, McIlroy surely knew that when he teed off as part of the final threesome.  He no doubt also knew that as much as he is a fan favorite, many were pulling for one of his playing partners.  It has been more than two and a half years since Rickie Fowler’s last PGA Tour victory at the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open.  Finishes in the top five at all four majors in 2014 and a victory at the 2015 Players Championship propelled Fowler to fourth in the world rankings, and his legion of fans believed that many more victories, including major wins, would naturally follow.   

But for more than five years now Fowler’s career has been stalled, and he arrived in Las Vegas having fallen to 128th in the world rankings.  He remains one of the Tour’s most popular players, though the fact that his commercial appeal has always outstripped his results on the course continues to rankle some.  But that appeal, especially to young fans – a cohort the Tour desperately wants to attract – remains strong, so it’s likely that every sign of a Fowler comeback is greeted warmly not just by those behind the ropes but also by Tour officials and other players.

There were plenty of those signs this week.  Fowler posted three straight rounds in the sixties, and his 66-66-63 gave him the 54-hole lead in a tournament for the first time since that win in Phoenix.  He was two clear of McIlroy and three ahead of Abraham Ancer, the third member of Sunday’s final group.  But the CJ Cup was 72 holes, and when Fowler offset three front nine birdies with a sloppy double-bogey on the par-5 6th hole, he made the turn just 1-under on the day and tied with McIlroy.

Both needed to look beyond their own grouping however, as Collin Morikawa was proving the bit about a deep leader board by going out in just 29 strokes.  In the end though, the two-time major champion’s final round 62 ended up being just one more great score at the CJ Cup. 

That’s because McIlroy seized control of the tournament on the back nine with aggressive play on two holes.  At the drivable par-4 12th, he put his tee shot on the front right edge of the green, then swung a sharply breaking eagle try up to five feet and converted the birdie opportunity.  Two holes later, a couple mighty swings at the par-5 14th left him two yards short of the green, thirty-five feet from the front hole location.  McIlroy pulled out his putter, a club choice that is unusual for pros, but commonplace at clubs and munis where amateurs regularly choose to putt from off the green, staying within their comfort zone.  The effort proved extremely comfortable for McIlroy, who watched his putt drop in the hole for an eagle that all but ended Sunday’s drama.

McIlroy’s win is his 20th on the PGA Tour, making him just the 39th player to reach that milestone.  More impressive is the company he’s now in for achieving it before his 33rd birthday.  That list includes just six names other than McIlroy’s – Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson.  It’s easy to imagine Rory winning many, many more tournaments, including majors.  Doing the same for Rickie Fowler requires a more creative imagination.  But at least after this week, Rickie’s fans can hope.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 15, 2021

The NFL Must Step Up Before It Can Move On

It’s a safe bet that Roger Goodell and the thirty-two NFL team owners who employ him are fervently hoping that with Jon Gruden gone, attention will revert to the league’s on-field product.  With Week 6 of the NFL’s schedule on tap, many fans across the country will surely grant that wish.  After the defending champion Buccaneers open the week’s action in Philadelphia, two teams with exciting young quarterbacks not named Mahomes headline Sunday’s play when the Chargers and Ravens battle for AFC supremacy.  Arizona, the last squad with a chance to match the 1972 Dolphins’ perfect season, puts its 5-0 record on the line against upset-minded Cleveland, and there’s even an old-time rivalry matchup with the Packers visiting the Bears.  In short, there will be plenty of reasons for football fans to focus on the scores and how their fantasy rosters are faring.

Besides, it’s not just the NFL commissioner and the billionaires who pay him to keep the value of their franchises climbing who would like to change the subject from Gruden’s penchant for sending emails in which he resorted to racist, homophobic and misogynistic tropes to characterize anyone with whom he disagreed.  Countless fans – literally, too many to be counted – have uttered or written the same words, making any time spent discussing the topic inherently uncomfortable.  Especially because many of them would be quick to parrot Gruden’s responses when the Wall Street Journal first reported last Friday on a 2011 email he sent to Bruce Allen, who was president of Daniel Snyder’s Washington franchise at the time, and his statement on Monday when he resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Journal’s story detailed how Gruden, then an analyst for ESPN, used a racial slur to disparage Players Association head DeMaurice Smith.  In response Gruden issued the kind of not-quite-contrite apology that is sadly standard in such cases, complete with the hoary bromide that he “didn’t have a racial (sic) bone in my body.”  Within days, after the New York Times revealed that over a period of years there had been many more emails in which Gruden proved to be a serial and casual dispenser of bile, characterizing a lengthy list of individuals with a variety of homophobic and sexist terms, he concluded his brief resignation statement with the empty assurance that “I never meant to hurt anyone.”

The easy response is to mock such words, to assert that anyone uttering them – this case just happens to involve a somewhat famous and wealthy sports figure – is a boldfaced liar.  To be clear, in many, many such cases that instant reaction is the correct one.  But in a discussion that admittedly does not lend itself to nuance, there is another, more nuanced perspective, which allows for the possibility that someone mouthing those cliches believes them to be true.  The advantages of white male privilege are readily apparent to those to whom they do not accrue.  But they can be hardest to see by the very individuals who possess and wield them so freely as to not even recognize they are doing so.  Gruden quite clearly meant to attack and disparage his targets, yet he may not have believed he was hurting them by dint of the simple assumption that his words would remain private.  Similarly, he may not consider the slur against Smith to be racist because he can’t relate to the pain caused by its use.

None of which mitigates his actions to even the slightest degree, for the damage he did is not based on intent.  Gruden deserved to lose his job.  Good riddance.  But the struggle didn’t end when Jon Gruden walked out of Allegiant Stadium for the last time.  Those long engaged in the unforgiving task of slowly bending the long arc of history toward justice understand that.  Far more difficult than publicly shaming one NFL coach is ferreting out those still in the league who supported or enabled him.  After all, Gruden wasn’t sending those emails to himself, and there is no evidence yet than any recipient objected to Gruden’s words. 

Fans also shouldn’t forget that this week’s story began not with a complaint about the coach of the Raiders, but with an investigation into the workplace environment at Snyder’s Washington team.  That inquiry resulted in a $10 million fine, little more than a speeding ticket when set against the franchise’s estimated $4.2 billion value.  But Gruden’s emails are almost the only evidence from that investigation that has been made public, and that must change.

Hardest of all, of course, is turning those who benefit from their privilege into allies in the struggle.  But while that might often seem impossible, it is also essential.  In a sharp turn from the recent past when it expunged a black man from the ranks of its players because he engaged in silent, non-violent protest during pregame ceremonies, the NFL has lately been playing catchup on diversity and inclusion.  This week, some sportswriters scorned those efforts at raising awareness as hypocritical, or just commercially motivated. 

Such criticisms miss the point. It is results that matter, not motivation.  An earlier generation understood this when it used economic boycotts to effect change.  The NFL, a league run almost entirely by white men, can be an ally in the struggle, and if it is so only because of economic self-interest, so be it. But it will still require those who were born to privilege to understand what Jon Gruden did not, that their advantage is real and that words can do far more damage than a hard hit at the 40-yard line.      

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 10, 2021

Season After Season, Still Waiting For Joy

“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light, and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout.”  One need not be a fan of the Great Game to recognize those lines from the final stanza of Ernest Thayer’s comic ballad “Casey at the Bat,” and most who read them can add the final line of the poem without further prompting – the one about the absence of happiness in a certain fictional town after mighty Casey failed to deliver a winning blow for the local nine. 

Asked to pick out a likely Mudville on a map, very few would point to the spot in the South Bronx where three New York subway lines – the B, D and 4 – converge at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue.  After all, Yankee Stadium sits on the one corner of that intersection that doesn’t have stairs either going up to the overhead platform for the 4 train, or down to the underground station shared by the B and D, and the Yankees have an unmatched history of success, not just in baseball but in all of sport.  Forty times the Bronx has been the scene of games in a World Series, and in twenty-seven of those annual best-of-seven showdowns, the Yankees have come out on top.  Those numbers dwarf the participation and the success of all other MLB franchises.

But there is no joy for Yankee fans – the Great Game’s mightiest franchise has once again struck out.  With this year’s playoffs still far from over, New York is already in offseason mode, having quietly exited the postseason at the earliest possible time with a 6-2 loss to Boston in the American League Wild Card Game last Tuesday.  The lopsided defeat was a reflection of the Yankees’ consistent underperformance this year.  There was great hype beforehand, just as there had been many predictions during Spring Training that the team was a heavy favorite to win the AL East and a strong contender for a deep playoff run.  But once play began New York was clearly the inferior team Tuesday evening, just as it went through long stretches of indifferent play during the preceding months. 

Staff ace Gerrit Cole was knocked around by the Red Sox lineup, recording just six outs in the twelve batters he faced.  Cole gave up a two-run homer in the 1st and a solo shot in the 3rd before manager Aaron Boone pulled him after an outing that was his shortest stint on the mound in five years, but one that was far too long for New York’s hopes.  The offense managed just six hits off Boston starter Nathan Eovaldi and four relievers.  Half of those were delivered by the bat of Giancarlo Stanton, while the players occupying the last six spots in the Yankees’ order went a combined 1-for-20.  Impatient Yankee batters drew not a single walk, though they did swing and miss plenty, striking out eleven times.

In the wake of the debacle, fans took to social media to lament the game’s Fenway Park location, contending that a couple of Stanton drives that caromed off the Green Monster in left field and wound up being long singles would have gone into the seats at the Stadium.  Even if true – MLB’s Statcast tracking system suggested that at least one of the hits would have been just a flyout but for Fenway’s 37-foot left field wall – the complaint only served as a reminder that the Yankees had every opportunity to host the Wild Card game.  Twice in the season’s final weeks New York moved into the top AL Wild Card spot, only to lose games and ground in the standings.  Instead of taking care of business while controlling its own destiny, the team didn’t lock down its spot as the last squad in the AL playoff bracket until the regular season’s final day.

Given the franchise’s storied history, no fan of any other team is about to feel sorry for the Yankees or the faithful who, at least in non-COVID times, regularly keep the Stadium at or near the top of MLB’s attendance statistics.  But what is understandably hard for supporters of other franchises to grasp is just how that history creates its own unique expectations. 

For all his bombast, George Steinbrenner understood that.  It’s why he’d issue a public apology to fans at the end of any season that didn’t conclude with a parade up Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan.  Aaron Judge, the de facto if unofficial captain of these Yankees grasps the point as well.  Interviewed after Tuesday’s loss, he said, “I’m here to bring a championship to New York (and)…it’s kind of black and white for me.  Either you won or you didn’t win, and we didn’t win.  That to me is a failure.”

What’s less clear is whether the Yankees’ ownership and front office shares the pain of Judge and the team’s fans.  Those gaudy statistics cited above – forty World Series appearances and twenty-seven titles – were true in 2009, after the Yankees downed the Phillies four games to two and celebrated on the new Stadium’s field in its inaugural season.  But a dozen years later, the numbers haven’t changed, and only once in that time have the Yankees gotten as far as an elimination Game 7 of the ALCS.  Since its first championship in 1923, New York had been back to the Fall Classic at least once in every calendar decade.  That streak ended with the 2010s.  Since it took Miller Huggins until his sixth year at the helm to guide the Yankees to that first title, no manager has been granted a fifth year in charge without having won a championship.  That streak too seems likely to end, if as expected Aaron Boone is offered a new contract.

That would be the same Aaron Boone who after Tuesday’s defeat complained that “the league’s closed the gap on us,” as if the Yankees’ historical domination had continued over the past twelve years until this season.  Instead, seven different clubs have made multiple trips to the World Series since Mariano Rivera induced the final groundout from Shane Victorino in 2009.  Boone was pilloried on social media for the clueless comment, but the only opinion that really matters is owner Hal Steinbrenner’s, who seems content as long as tickets are being sold and the roster stays under the luxury tax threshold.  Those are simple and limited goals that might be entirely appropriate for many franchises, but expectations have always been greater in the Bronx, at least until now.  Then again, at least until now, no one would have ever confused the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue with Mudville.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 7, 2021

More Drama Than The Dodgers Deserved

Many months ago, when the year was young and the entirety of the longest season lay ahead, the popular thinking was that players who wear Dodger Blue would spend the first half of this week resting up before beginning their march through the postseason.  It would be a chance to recover a bit from the wear and tear of the six-month grind that is major league baseball’s annual schedule while manager Dave Roberts and the franchise’s front office leadership analyzed the mountains of data generated by the team’s analytics department, weighing the wisdom of including this or that utility player or situational reliever on the roster for the upcoming Division Series.  The Dodgers were overwhelmingly popular picks by fans and pundits alike, not just to make the 2021 MLB Playoffs, but to win the NL West race, thus earning a well-deserved break while lesser squads faced the drama and tension of the two leagues’ win-or-go-home Wild Card Games.

But there is always a reason why they actually play the games, though in this case not necessarily a happy one for the Dodgers’ faithful.  At season’s end L.A. was only second-best in the NL West, leaving the Dodgers with work to do just to make it to the best-of-five division round.

Still, it’s hard to construe that outcome as a failure on the part of the Dodgers.  The team finished 106-56, matching the best result in franchise history.  Down the stretch, even as the presumptive major division rival San Diego Padres crumbled, L.A. tore through its schedule, going 43-13 over the final two months, a phenomenal 124-win-season pace.  But the Dodgers began that stretch three games behind the Giants, and despite winning more than three of every four games through August and September, L.A. could not overtake San Francisco, which ended the season clinging to a one-game advantage.  San Fran’s remarkable and utterly unexpected campaign stopped the Dodgers’ eight-year run atop the NL West.  It also meant that at Chavez Ravine, the sole reward for triple-digit wins and the second-best record in the majors was getting to host a Wild Card matchup against St. Louis, another extremely hot squad that ran off a 17-game winning streak in September to climb back into the playoff chase, eventually securing the National League’s second Wild Card spot.

All that winning in the season’s final month allowed the Cardinals to post a 90-win season, a not atypical number for a Wild Card, especially since 2012, when the postseason format was changed to incorporate two such teams in each league.  But that expansion brought with it the Wild Card Game, a 9-inning roll of the dice.  Members of a .500 team at the trade deadline, St. Louis players were doubtless happy to have even that modest playoff opportunity.  But it had the makings of a rude joke on the Dodgers, a team that finished sixteen games ahead of the Cards with a record that would have easily topped the standings in any division of either league, except the one that mattered.   

For a time Wednesday night, it looked like fate might twist especially cruel for L.A. fans.  Max Scherzer, who with Trea Turner formed one of the all-time great trade deadline acquisitions by any franchise when L.A. outbid San Diego for the services of the then-Nationals back in July, was uncharacteristically lacking in command.  He surrendered a run in the 1st and couldn’t manage to throw a clean inning even as his pitch count rapidly climbed.  But while he allowed base runners, Scherzer didn’t allow any more runs, and in the home half of the 4th Justin Turner finally evened the score with a long home run off the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright. 

The very next inning Scherzer was back in trouble, yielding a leadoff single to Tommy Edman before walking Paul Goldschmidt.  He fanned Tyler O’Neill, but in the L.A. dugout manager Roberts had decided the strikeout would be Scherzer’s final act of the drama.  Never one to leave the mound willingly, Scherzer surely didn’t like seeing Roberts on his way to the mound.  When his manager arrived and reached out for the ball, the Dodgers’ starter instead shook the offered hand.  The gesture didn’t change Roberts’s mind, as he reached into Scherzer’s glove to retrieve the baseball even as Joe Kelly jogged in from the L.A. bullpen.  Scherzer may not have been happy, but Dodgers fans were after Kelly did his job, retiring the next two batters. 

The well-traveled Kelly was the first of nine relievers who made the trek from the two bullpens.  Each was effective for his side until the very last.  With the score still knotted at 1-1 in the bottom of the 9th, St. Louis manager Mike Shildt summoned Alex Reyes to face Chris Taylor with two outs and Cody Bellinger on first.  Taylor swung and missed at the first offering, then watched the next two pitches go by below the strike zone.  Reyes’ fourth pitch was a slider that stayed up over the middle of the plate.  When bat met ball, the few in the crowd who weren’t already standing leapt to their feet as a guttural roar rose from more than 53,000 throats.  The only question was how many rows up in the left field seats the walk-off two-run homer would land.  The answer looked to be eight or ten.

If only because it is so rare, the presence of a 106-win team in a Wild Card Game won’t lead to changes in MLB’s postseason format.  But just as the Great Game’s regular season is lengthy, the sport’s remaining postseason rounds involve a series of games, and for good reason.  The outcome of any single contest can turn on numerous factors, some of them quite random.  It takes multiple games to lessen that element of chance and increase the likelihood of the best team prevailing.  Sustained regular season excellence such as L.A. showed this year deserves a better reward than a single nine-inning crapshoot.

Still, thanks to one swing of Chris Taylor’s bat the Dodgers will play on, traveling up the coast to visit the Giants Friday for Game 1 of the round almost everyone thought would be the team’s starting point in this year’s playoffs.  It is a Division Series between this season’s two winningest teams, the twin parts of a venerable rivalry that spans both coasts.  Yet while the two franchises met in 1951 and 1962 in the netherworld between the regular and postseason (MLB appropriately counts tiebreaker games as part of the regular season), the Giants and Dodgers have not met in the playoffs since 1889, long before MLB’s modern era.  For all these reasons the NLDS that is about to get underway has the makings of an epic showdown.  Then again, they still have to actually play the games.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 3, 2021

The Longest Season Is Just Long Enough

One hundred sixty-two.  Every fan of the Great Game knows the significance of the number.  From the early days of spring, through the rising heat of June and the scorching sun of August, until finally arriving at the first weeks of autumn, with the thermometer again dropping and darkness encroaching a little sooner every evening, the longest season meanders its way through one hundred sixty-two games for every franchise, twenty-four hundred thirty contests in all.  To the uninitiated, that must certainly seem like more than enough games to determine which teams advance to MLB’s postseason tournament.  Yet often, as the final days of the regular season tick down to zero, fans and pundits become fixated on the possibility of chaos in the standings resulting from multiple franchises finishing with identical records that require one or more extra games to determine which squads make the playoffs.

The chaos quotient was especially high this year, because while most races and playoff seedings were decided heading into this weekend, the remaining battles, a fight for the National League West division title, with the loser forced to settle for hosting the NL Wild Card Game, and a tussle for both American League Wild Card spots, involved a total of six franchises.  None were facing each other, so when the outcomes remained in doubt right up until game one hundred sixty-two, fully forty percent of the contests played on the regular season’s final day were meaningful for the postseason.  Indeed, to the participants that oft-used term was surely inadequate – “critical” would more closely reflect the stakes on Sunday for the Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Blue Jays, Yankees, and Red Sox.

Six separate games meant sixty-four possible combinations of outcomes.  Forty-three of those permutations, more than two-thirds of the total, would result in at least one, and possibly as many as three extra games over the next two days to settle the season’s standings, identify the playoff participants, and sort out the seedings.  Adding to the drama was MLB’s practice of having all final day games start at the same time.  At fifteen ballparks across the land, home teams took the field shortly after 3:00 in the East, noon on the West Coast, which made for plenty of scoreboard watching as the afternoon unfolded.

Plenty of fans, especially those with no rooting interest, were pulling for results that would produce maximum chaos.  Three extra games – they are officially counted as regular season contests – would be needed if the Giants and Dodgers tied for the NL West lead, and the AL Wild Card chase ended in either a four-way tie, or a three-way deadlock for the second Wild Card slot.

But only five of the sixty-four possible results from Sunday’s games produced such total disarray, largely because the NL race, involving just two teams, was straightforward.  San Francisco led Los Angeles by a game, so Game 163 only came into play if the Dodgers beat the Brewers and the Giants lost to the Padres.  The opposite result, or both either winning or losing would simply confirm San Francisco’s position atop the division.  L.A. did its part, beating the NL Central Division champs Milwaukee 10-3 behind a sold outing by Walker Buehler, who struck out 11 in 5 innings of work, and a Trea Turner grand slam that broke open a close contest.  Unfortunately for Dodger fans, that only meant that L.A., with its 106-56 record, becomes just the third team with 100 or more wins to enter the postseason as a Wild Card.  That’s because the Giants beat up on San Diego 11-4.  In a battle between this season’s two most surprising teams, the franchise that was a wealth of unexpected delight for its fans all year long overwhelmed baseball’s most underperforming squad.

The four-way race for the two American League Wild Cards was more complex.  Returning to the Bronx after a very successful road trip, the Yankees entered the weekend needing just one win to secure a playoff spot, and seemingly in prime position to host Tuesday’s AL Wild Card tilt.  But as it has done all year, this New York team did its best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, dropping consecutive contests to Tampa Bay.  That left the Yankees and Red Sox tied at 91-70, with Toronto and Seattle both one game behind.  Maximum chaos required wins by the trailing teams, but the Mariners were down 2-0 to the Angels before their first at-bats, and the afternoon didn’t improve in the Pacific Northwest.  The eventual 7-3 loss added another year to Seattle’s long playoff drought that began in 2001.  It also ensured that the Mariners remain the only current MLB franchise to never play in a World Series.

While the franchise made the most of both appearances, the Blue Jays have only been to the Fall Classic twice, the last time almost three decades ago.  But Toronto kept alive hopes for a return visit this year by teeing off early and often on Baltimore pitching.  At the Rogers Centre it was 3-0 after one, 5-0 after two, and 9-1 at the end of the 3rd inning, so happy home fans as well as Toronto players in the dugout and bullpen were watching the out-of-town scoreboard as much as the action on the field for the rest of the game against the Orioles.  If both the Yankees and Red Sox lost, there would be a three-way tie for the two Wild Cards, requiring two extra games over the next two days.  If at least one of the Blue Jays’ division rivals came up short, Toronto would meet that team in a play-in contest on Monday.

Sunday’s other four critical contests may have lacked drama, but there was plenty in both the Bronx and Washington, where the Red Sox played the Nationals.  In New York, the Yankees’ offense was stifled my Tampa Bay’s Michael Wacha, whose consistent ability to silence Yankee bats belies his overall status as a back of the rotation starter with a negative pitching WAR this season.  Fortunately for New York, Jameson Taillon and a parade of relievers kept the Rays scoreless as well.  That was the situation in the bottom of the 9th, when Rougned Odor led off with a single to center.  Pinch runner Tyler Wade advanced to second on a fly out, then moved to third when Anthony Rizzo singled to right field.  That brought up Aaron Judge, who ran the count to 2-2, then laced one up the middle.  Rays’ pitcher Andrew Kittredge got a glove on it, deflecting the sure single and allowing second baseman Brandon Lowe to corral the ball and throw home.  But not in time to beat the speedy Wade’s headfirst slide, and the Yankees were into the postseason for the 57th time in franchise history.

Half an hour later, the Red Sox, having trailed by as much as 5-1 before chipping away and eventually knotting the score in the 7th, came to bat in the top of the 9th at Nationals Park.  One out after Kyle Schwarber started the inning by reaching on an error, Rafael Devers notched his fourth hit and second home run of the game, putting Boston on top 7-5.  When the Nats went down in order in the bottom of the frame, the Red Sox became the host of Tuesday’s Wild Card matchup against their old rival, and the 2021 regular season was complete.

Those hoping for chaos are doubtless disappointed, for in the long history of the Great Game, tie-breaker contests have produced some of the sport’s singular moments.  The Rockies’ Matt Holliday maybe/possibly/probably never touching home plate while scoring the winning run in the 13th inning of the 2007 NL Wild Card play-in.  Bucky “F’n” Dent, as he is still known in Boston, bringing the Yankees all the way back from a 14-game deficit in the mid-July standings with a homer over Fenway’s Green Monster in 1978.  And, of course, Bobby Thompson and Ralph Branca and the 1951 shot that lives forever.  Chaos can be fun.  But as Sunday once again proved, one hundred sixty-two is usually enough.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 30, 2021

Book Review: Standing Up By Kneeling Down

The spotlight usually shines brightest on those at the center of the stage.  This maxim of the performing arts also applies when the stage is a playing field, and the performance is athletic in nature.  Sports stars remain so not just during games but also when attention turns to their actions off the field, in this case on the sidelines.  So it was that when Colin Kaepernick first chose to sit on the San Francisco 49ers bench during the playing of the national anthem prior to his team’s third preseason game in 2016, and then when he continued protesting racial injustice by kneeling during the anthem for the remainder of that NFL season, the quarterback who had been the 49ers’ signal-caller in Super Bowl XLVII little more than three years earlier immediately became a national lightning rod.  By quietly taking a knee, Kaepernick caused many to stand up and scream, including countless citizens who would never count themselves as football fans.

In the ensuing weeks and months, several other professional athletes, both in the NFL and the major leagues of other sports, joined Kaepernick’s protest.  But their numbers were always few, and when Kaepernick found himself unemployed one season later, activism by kneeling gradually faded as the attention of both the media and fans moved on.

Or so it seemed at the time.  But as Dave Zirin reveals in “The Kaepernick Effect,” the impact of the quarterback’s protest was far more extensive when one looks at the whole of the massive stage that sports occupy in America.  Far beyond the stadiums and arenas that house famous professional franchises, young athletes at the high school and college level responded to and were influenced by Kaepernick’s profoundly simple action.

This is Zirin’s tenth book, all of which focus on the nexus of sports and politics.  The winner of multiple awards and the first staff sportswriter in the long history of The Nation magazine, his body of work is a powerful reminder that while some fans loudly complain that the two subjects shouldn’t mix, the reality has long been otherwise.  In particular, because the ranks of players in some sports include a greater proportion of BIPOC individuals than is the case in the population, and because of the exclusionary history of far too many of our professional leagues, sports are an arena where issues of race are always near the surface.

When Colin Kaepernick’s knee hit the ground, it shattered that already thin barrier for scores of young men and women playing different sports on local teams across the country.  Zirin’s book is a series of interviews with many of them, along with accounts of their backgrounds and the consequences of the decision each made to kneel during the national anthem. 

If the book at times seems repetitive, it is only because so many of the stories are depressingly similar.  A young person deeply troubled by local, and often personal, incidents of racism, is further shocked by national stories of black men and women losing their lives at the hands of state authority.  Because of their similar age, the accounts of many cite the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, but the unbearably painful list of too-familiar names is all there – Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner – and on and on.  The pain turns into a desire to act when they see Kaepernick risking the wealth and fame that these young athletes can only dream of.  That action, taking multiple forms from an individual’s solitary one-time protest to an entire team’s season of solidarity, almost always incurs the wrath of fans and school officials.

Despite the pain they went through, Zirin’s subjects all assert they have no regrets.  Many cite the third verse of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner,” words that are never sung at any sporting event.  In those eight lines of verse Key, a slaveholder, celebrates the killing of escaped American slaves who fought for the British in the War of 1812.  Several also mention the number of veterans in their families, an important factor only because of the knee-jerk response by many that the anthem protests were an attack on the military. 

It has been half a decade since Kaepernick’s protest and the similar actions by the individuals in Zirin’s book, and he made a point of revisiting his subjects in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the national demonstrations that followed.  Not surprisingly, contacted in those comparatively heady days for the social justice movement, many of Zirin’s interviewees expressed great hope for the future.  Still there remained a few holdouts, who wondered to what extent the public displays of outrage in the summer of 2020 were merely performative.  There is, after all, not a lot of sacrifice involved in posting a black square to one’s Instagram account. 

As Zirin knows from his long commitment to reporting on this issue, and as the subjects of “The Kaepernick Effect” know from personal experience, the real work of the unrelenting march to equality is far more dangerous, and infinitely more wearying.  After all, the foundational document of the nation codified the holding of human beings as chattel, counting each as just three-fifths of a person, and the same section of the U.S. Constitution asserted that those who were indigenous to the continent did not count as people at all.  One cannot expect to overcome that merely by taking a knee, or raising a fist, or refusing to take one step forward.  But as athletes have shown, from Muhammed Ali to John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to Colin Kaepernick and the young women and men in Zirin’s book, even small actions can have big effects.    

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 26, 2021

(Not) The End Of The World As We Know It

If it’s Ryder Cup week, can an existential crisis be far behind?  The answer is of course not, for the two go hand in hand; or so fans would conclude based on predictably overwrought reporting by some members of the media.  Those excitable scribes can be counted on to see the outcome of the biennial golf match between teams from the U.S. and Europe causing all those on the losing side to question the meaning and purpose of life itself.  The only difference this year is that for the first time since 2016, it is the European side that must now stare into the utter blackness of an abyss more inescapable than Hell bunker at St. Andrew’s.

The 2021 matches, delayed for a year by the pandemic, played out in historically lopsided fashion on the Pete and Alice Dye designed Straits Course, overlooking Lake Michigan at the Whistling Straits Resort, midway between Milwaukee and Green Bay.  The American hosts wasted no time seizing control, winning three of a possible four points in Friday’s opening foursomes session.  The U.S. team, captained this year by Steve Stricker, liked that 3-1 session score so much it duplicated the number both Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, building a massive 9-3 lead through the first three rounds of team play.  For a time on Saturday afternoon the visiting squad appeared capable of mounting a comeback, but in the end the fourball session was tied 2-2, giving the U.S., at 11-5, the biggest lead after the first two days since 1975.   

The largest deficit ever overcome during the singles matches is four points.  Both the U.S. in 1999 at The Country Club and Europe in 2012 at Medinah trailed 10-6 going into Sunday.  Those final day comebacks have their own chapters in Ryder Cup lore.  Which is to say that while twelve singles matches still had to be played, this year’s outcome was all but certain.  Knowing that, and perhaps hoping to claim some journalistic prize as the first pundit to use the famous phrase, Irish golf writer Eamon Lynch deployed the term Saturday evening, declaring in a Golfweek article that an “existential crisis is now firmly Europe’s to ponder.”

Despite Lynch’s grim warning, no member of the European team threw himself into Lake Michigan, unable to face life without possession of the seventeen-inch, four-pound trophy that is the ultimate team prize in what remains an individual sport, even after the U.S. continued its weekend dominance, taking eight points on Sunday to complete the 19-9 blowout.  Instead, most of them will regroup and make travel plans for an upcoming PGA Tour event.  Of the twelve European team players, only Bernd Wiesberger plays almost exclusively on the European Tour.  Almost all the rest are PGA Tour members who spend most of their time in the U.S. 

Which is not to say that Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Jon Rahm, and the rest of Team Europe don’t care about the outcome.  In fact, Europe is competitive because of their commitment. Poulter’s passion for the event is famous, and McIlroy fought back tears in his post-match interview.  But what the overly dramatic language from media figures like Lynch tends to obscure is how remarkable it is that a result like this weekend’s isn’t commonplace.

Since the Americans’ opponent for these matches was expanded from Great Britain and Ireland to include continental Europe in 1979, the U.S. has lost twelve of the twenty-one meetings.  While that may be a bit more competition than American fans might like, increasing the competitiveness of the matches was precisely why the change was made.  Prior to that, the U.S. had lost only three times since Samuel Ryder spent $400 on the trophy for the event’s inaugural staging in 1927.  The matches had become a sleepy and predictable exhibition, attracting little interest.  Now the Ryder Cup is one of the biggest events on golf’s calendar, benefitting the PGA of America, the U.S. organizer, and the consortium led by the European Tour that fills that role on the other side of the Atlantic.  Both would suffer if the matches again became one-sided and predictable.

Yet that they don’t is surprising.  To be sure, there is a decided home course advantage.  This weekend’s victory gives the U.S. a 7-4 record on home soil against Europe.  That side is even better at home, sporting a record of 8-2.  The edge is in part because of the vocal support of raucous crowds, as the event has morphed into as much a spectator spectacle as a golf tournament.  That advantage was arguably even greater than usual at Whistling Straits, with pandemic travel restrictions sharply limiting the number of European fans. 

But the more significant advantage to hosting is the ability to set up the course, tailoring the layout to the strengths of one’s team or mitigating the opponent’s advantage.  For example, in 2018 at La Golf National near Paris, the Europeans tightened the fairways and let the rough grow, knowing that the U.S. team included many players capable of bombing drives, long but not always straight, well past the tee balls of their European counterparts.  The setup contributed to a 17 ½ – 10 ½ rout by the hosts.  In contrast, the Straits course accommodated the American big hitters, and through the first two days the U.S. had won the hole on a par-5 a whopping 21 times against a mere 6 for Europe. 

Yet course setup can only do so much.  In any given year, Team USA arrives at the Ryder Cup with a roster that is far deeper than Europe’s.  This year Poulter, at age 45 almost certainly making his final Cup appearance as a player, was the lowest golfer on either squad in the world rankings, at number 50.  This week’s rankings include twenty-seven Americans in the top 50, meaning the U.S. could have filled two Ryder Cup rosters without turning to a player like Poulter.  Yet based on the rankings the only player Team Europe captain Padraig Harrington passed over to pick Poulter was Justin Rose, who sits just six spots higher.  By any metric, the results are the same.  Major championships?  Team USA had thirteen, the Europeans seven, more than half from McIlroy.

Despite all that, Europe has somehow matched the U.S. at home, and has the most stunning away upset since the competition expanded, 2012’s Miracle at Medinah.  That record against the odds has a lot to do with Poulter’s passion, and McIlroy’s tears, emotions shared by their compatriots.  Their ability to translate that into results on the course is why the Ryder Cup has long been a textbook example of this site’s fundamental axiom – there is always a reason why they play the games.  Sometimes underdogs have their day.

But there is also no denying that in all our games the result is often exactly what’s expected, which is what happened, with a record-breaking margin for emphasis, at Whistling Straits.  Was it the beginning of a new era of American dominance, or a predictable home win, albeit by an impressively huge margin?  We can’t begin to know until Rome in 2023.  In the meantime though, despite the advice of some scribes, there is no reason why golf fans on either side of the Atlantic should spend their days staring hopelessly into a black abyss.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 23, 2021

Putting Profit Ahead Of History In The Bronx

Tuesday marked thirteen years since the New York Yankees played the 156th game on the franchise’s 2008 schedule.  September 21st was a Sunday that year, but the contest against the Baltimore Orioles was much more than a weekend diversion as summer turned to fall.  The old baseball cathedral that sat across 161st Street from the site of the current Yankee Stadium was packed, for from the moment that year’s schedule was released fans knew the final regular season game at the big ballpark that began as Ruth’s and would end as Jeter’s would be played on that Sunday.  With a week of contests remaining, the Yankees had a final road trip ahead, but the team had already ceded the AL East race to Tampa Bay, and was on the brink of elimination in the Wild Card standings.  By the time home plate umpire Angel Hernandez called “play ball,” everyone knew that after eighty-six years, it was closing time.

It was an emotional night for Yankees fans.  But the very real sense of loss that was palpable in the stands and kept most of the crowd there long after Mariano Rivera recorded the final out of a 7-3 New York victory was ultimately not about the steel skeleton covered by 20,000 cubic yards of concrete that formed the hulking mass next to the elevated #4 subway line.  Sentiment aside, in future years few fans would look back longingly on the narrow and sometimes low-ceilinged corridors that made up the public concourses of the old Stadium.  What was being mourned were the memories of all that had occurred on that singularly special piece of sports real estate. 

The Yankees did not go to the postseason in 2008, but the old Stadium hosted World Series games in thirty-seven years of the eight-plus decades it stood, and the Yankees emerged victorious from twenty-six of those season-ending showdowns.  Both numbers are unmatched records of franchise success.  The Yankees went to the World Series at least once in every calendar decade they called the old ballpark home.  There were fallow years of course, most notably 1964 to 1975, during most of which CBS owned the team and treated it as just another corporate profit center, and a similar interregnum from 1982 to 1994, when George Steinbrenner, spending freely but not wisely, consistently failed to sign a supporting cast for Don Mattingly.  But there were also dynastic periods, from the progenitor one with Ruth and Gehrig, to the fabulous fifties with Joe passing the torch to Mickey, to the Core Four years as one century turned to the next.  All of it happened there, on ground that has now been remade as public ballfields where the Great Game is played by kids.    

But time flies.  The Yankees’ current home has sat across the broad multiple lanes of 161st Street from Heritage Field, as the old site is now called, for more than a decade.  Just like its predecessor, the new Stadium was christened with a championship, the franchise’s twenty-seventh.  But since 2009, the Yankees and their fans have had no parades up New York’s Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan.  That remarkable streak of consistent greatness as measured by World Series appearances ended with the passing of the 2010’s.  And as this season winds down, the Yankees sit on the farthest edge of the playoff race, headed for the postseason one day, out of contention the next; dependent not just on the team’s own results, but also on the numbers on the out-of-town scoreboard above the right field bleachers.

It is all very unlike the history that was celebrated on that September Sunday in 2008, yet what alarms fans the most is not just their team’s place in this year’s standings, but the lengthening string of seasons without a title and a growing sense of opportunity lost.  Just a few years ago, GM Brian Cashman was hailed for his ability to remake the roster on the fly.  Faced with a down year in 2016, he traded away aging and expensive veterans to stock up on young talent.  But unlike many franchises that subject fans to multiple seasons of cellar dwelling while rebuilding, the so-called Baby Bombers formed the nucleus of a squad that went all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS the very next year, ultimately falling just short of a World Series appearance at the hands of a team fans now know cheated its way to a title. Cashman then dispatched manager Joe Girardi in favor of the less intense Aaron Boone, who was supposedly more relatable to a younger roster.  Another Bronx dynasty appeared to be taking shape.

The franchise is quick to celebrate Boone’s teams winning 100-plus games in each of his first two campaigns.  But for fans in the Bronx, the longest season is but prelude, and as the Baby Bombers have grown up, the results that matter have been lacking.  One division title in four years.  Two early postseason exits in the Division Series round, with just one trip to the ALCS.  A regular season record far short of expectations in both the truncated 2020 season and this year, all leading to dim hopes for a deep postseason run in the next few weeks, assuming the Stadium’s lights are even still on come October.  The notion of a new dynasty now seems laughable, as an ever-louder chorus calling for both Boone and Cashman to go rises from New York fans.

But there is no indication that owner Hal Steinbrenner shares their impatience.  Instead, the evidence suggests his focus is on the franchise’s balance sheet, not its pursuit of a 28th championship.  At the July trade deadline, he voiced support for both his GM and field manager while criticizing Yankee players.  Even more telling was the least noticed trade Cashman engineered that week.  In a pure salary dump, he sent pitcher Justin Wilson to Cincinnati for the ever-popular player to be named later.  Wilson pitched poorly after signing with New York last winter, but the team’s larger concern was the $2.6 million his contract counted against MLB’s luxury tax threshold.  Unloading that salary enabled Cashman to make other moves without crossing the threshold, a clearly stated priority for Steinbrenner.  However, to get the Reds to take Wilson, the Yankees had to include Luis Cessa in the deal, thus giving up a bullpen stalwart who excelled at middle relief while also giving the team a spot starter option. 

Two months later, with a relief corps worn down by heavy use, the Yankees sorely miss Cessa.  But the team remains safely under the luxury tax limit, so Steinbrenner’s priority has been met.  Based on his public pronouncements he’ll remain satisfied, irrespective of the Yankees’ place in the standings, if people are buying tickets.  Since the new Stadium is one of Gotham’s major tourist attractions, that modest goal shouldn’t be a problem.  After all, many of those visitors for a day never realize that from Babe’s Opening Day home run, to Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech, to Joe’s hitting streak, to Yogi jumping into Larsen’s arms, to Mickey homering off the façade three different times, to Reggie going back-to-back-to-back, to Jeter becoming Mister November, almost all this franchise’s storied history occurred across the street. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 19, 2021

With Playoff Drama Building, The Yankees Wilt

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.  It is the contemporary slang version of an age-old lament, the plaintive cry of those who realize too late actions that might have produced a more desirable outcome than the one that has just been experienced.  With the longest season entering its final fortnight and the onset of autumn at hand, one can’t help but think that from the front office down to the last man on the bench, members of the New York Yankees will soon be chanting the phrase as a mantra to a lost campaign, even as they face the bleak prospect of a long and bitter winter.

Like an ill-trained mutt, that possibility has been nipping at New York’s heels for most of the current campaign.  But the persistent annoyance finally sunk its teeth through four and seven-game losing streaks as August gave way to September, spirals that undid the gains of the thirteen straight victories that they followed.  And now the wound is bleeding after a less than ideal start to the season’s penultimate home stand.

With MLB returning to the playoff format in place since 2012, after a one-year expansion of its postseason bracket for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Wild Card races are the source of most of the excitement in the Great Game’s final month of play.  While no team atop the standings has yet clinched its division, four of the six leaders appear to be in prime position.  Barring a collapse on the order of the 1964 Phillies losing ten in a row from September 20th onward, the Brewers, Rays, White Sox, and Astros are all going to the postseason as division champions.  But of the four Wild Card slots – a pressure-packed prize since it guarantees the squads that earn it just a single, do-or-die game – three remain hotly contested. 

Either the Giants or Dodgers will be one of the National League Wild Cards, which will surely seem unfair to at least some of that team’s fanbase.  San Francisco and Los Angeles have the two best records in the majors, but because they cohabitate in the NL West, one franchise will see its efforts rewarded with only a must-win contest against an opponent that may well be playing free and easy as a decided underdog.  The role could be filled by one of five different teams.  The Cardinals occupy the second NL Wild Card spot as this is written, but the Phillies, Reds, and Padres are all right behind St. Louis, and Philadelphia hasn’t ceded claim to the NL East title, as it trails Atlanta by only one game.  Should the Phillies close on a hot streak, Atlanta could wind up traveling west for the postseason’s opening contest, or out of the playoffs entirely.   

The race is even more unsettled in the junior circuit, where both Wild Card slots remain up for grabs.  Five AL squads comprise the list of contenders – Boston, Toronto, Seattle, Oakland, and New York.  The Yankees climbed all the way to the top of that list during their August hot streak, but after a second straight drubbing at the hands of a sub-.500 Cleveland squad on Sunday, New York is in fourth place in the AL East and outside the playoff picture, exactly where it was more than a month ago, just when new arrivals Anthony Rizzo, Joey Gallo and Andrew Heaney helped the team seemingly turn the corner.

The new energy brought by the trade deadline acquisitions has dissipated, with Gallo slumping until the last few days and fans dreading the sight of Heaney heading for the pitcher’s mound.  In its place is a malaise that has been part of this roster’s makeup since Opening Day, an inability to put away clearly inferior teams.  The Yankees arrived back in the Bronx after dropping the final contest of a three-game set in Baltimore.  The loss prevented a series sweep, and left New York with a season record of just 11-8 against the woeful Orioles.  While Boston and Toronto each have three games remaining against Baltimore, the eight losses by New York are just two less than the number of defeats to the Orioles by the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays combined this year. 

Still, with the weak hitting Cleveland franchise coming to town, fans had reason to hope, and Friday night the “good” version of the maddeningly inconsistent Yankees sent their faithful home happy.  Five balls off New York bats sailed over The Stadium’s outfield wall, and both starter Corey Kluber and two relievers pitched effectively as the Yankees rolled to an 8-0 victory.  Less than 48 hours later, after back-to-back performances by the “bad” Yankees, Friday night’s joy was but a distant memory.

Saturday’s matchup was a tight affair through four frames, with the only run belonging to the visitors.  Then, with the leadoff batter retired, Cleveland left fielder Oscar Mercado swung under a slider from New York’s Luis Gil, sending a foul pop straight up in the air just behind home plate.  It was a routine chance for catcher Gary Sanchez, save for the harsh reality that nothing is routine for him when it comes to defense.  He settled under the ball and appeared ready to make the catch, until at the last moment Sanchez realized he was out of position and lunged for the plummeting sphere, which bounced off his glove.  Gil then hit Mercado with the next pitch, so instead of two outs and no one on base, the Cleveland offense had a man on with only one out.  The cost of the error was far more than just a base runner, though.  By the time New York reliever Albert Abreu managed to end the inning, Cleveland had plated seven runs.  Heaney followed from the bullpen, surrendering three more scores in an eventual 11-3 rout.

In his postgame comments Yankees manager Aaron Boone conceded that the play was one his catcher was expected to make, but assured fans that the team would quickly turn the page behind Gerrit Cole, who was on tap to start the rubber game of the series on Sunday afternoon.  And why not?  New York’s ace is a Cy Young contender, while Cleveland was starting Eli Morgan, who took the mound with a 2-7 record and an ERA hovering around 6.00. 

Except that in New York’s moment of need, its star pitcher delivered perhaps his worst effort of the season.  Cole was hammered for seven runs in just over five innings, while Morgan pitched like the award winner, holding the Yankees to a single score through six frames.  The bullpen did no better in Cole’s wake, with the 11-1 final score even worse than Saturday’s.

Gary Sanchez should have caught the popup.  Gerrit Cole could have delivered a dominating performance befitting a team’s ace.  And the failure of either or even both players would have been less consequential had New York manhandled the AL East’s doormat the way its division rivals did all year.  In the closing days of yet one more season that began with such promise, such is the sad lament of a franchise that is now perilously close to once again letting it all slip away.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 16, 2021

The Night Bad Teams Get To Play

Just as the most vibrant city has bad neighborhoods, it turns out that even our most successful and popular sports league has its very own backwater.  Any lingering doubt that Thursday Night Football is the NFL’s slum is now gone, given that this week’s contest features the New York Giants versus the Washington Football Team.  It’s a matchup of two teams that lost in Week 1 of the new NFL season, something that both squads have done with regularity in recent years. 

The Giants and Football Team are each starting what will likely be a fifth consecutive losing campaign, if the pundits and sabermetrics analysts prove correct.  Last year Washington finished 7-9, one game better than New York.  By the sheer luck of playing in the NFC East, a once-mighty division that has fallen on hard times, Washington’s losing record earned it a spot in the playoffs, since the league’s rules award that prize to the team with the best record in each of the eight divisions, no matter how bad that record is.  The technical term is “division winner,” but the second word seems inapt given the Football Team’s sub-.500 regular season performance. 

Those same rules dictated that despite being the only franchise in the postseason tournament with a losing record, Washington got to host a first-round game.  The Football Team’s opponent on Wild Card Weekend was Tampa Bay, and at one point in the contest the home squad cut the Buccaneers’ margin to just two.  Unfortunately for fans in the D.C. area that point was with slightly more than seventeen minutes remaining to play, and Tom Brady was the opposing quarterback.

Losing in the Wild Card round is familiar to Washington fans, as that has been their sole playoff experience, and a very rare one at that, since the 2005 season, when the Football Team managed to play exactly one week longer.  Washington hasn’t had a deeper playoff run since 1991, when Mark Rypien led a squad coached by Joe Gibbs to an NFL title over the Buffalo Bills, the team that shares with the Minnesota Vikings the unhappy record for most Super Bowl losses (four) without a victory. 

Although their team has played just one postseason game in almost a decade, fans of the Giants have enjoyed a somewhat happier thirty years since that Washington win.  New York’s made three trips to the NFL’s final matchup, losing to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV, but ending both the 2007 and 2011 seasons with dramatic and improbable victories over New England.

Those wins were engineered by Eli Manning, whose number 10 jersey will be retired by the Giants at a MetLife Stadium ceremony two Sundays from now.  Among his plethora of team records, he holds the franchise mark for most consecutive regular season starts by a quarterback at 210.  That’s third best on the NFL’s all-time list, which includes just a dozen names, and only Russell Wilson among active players, with more than 100 consecutive starts.

In a sport of highly specialized skills, no position is more important than the one Manning played, and the recent lean years for both the Giants and the Football Team can be traced directly to weakness at the quarterback spot.  In New York, fans have endured Manning’s decline due to age, followed by the slow development of 2019 first-round draft pick Daniel Jones.  Last weekend New York was soundly beaten at home by the visiting Broncos, in a game in which Jones continued his penchant for turnovers by losing a fumble deep in Denver territory while the score was still close. 

But as the playoff histories of the two franchises suggest, the quarterback malaise at FedEx Field is both deeper and more long-lasting.   When Ryan Fitzpatrick called his first play under center last weekend, he became the 31st quarterback to start a game for Washington in the three decades since Rypien’s heroics.  They have come, by trade or free agency or the draft.  And they have gone, due to injury or performance or disputes about money or disagreements with coaches.  More than a third started fewer than ten games in a Washington uniform.  Not surprisingly, given the lengthy list, only nine started more than seventeen contests, the equivalent of an NFL season.  That kind of turnover, at the position even a stranger to football, watching his or her very first game on television, would quickly discern is the most important on the field, will almost assuredly produce results like, well, like Washington’s for the past many seasons. 

Tonight’s starter is Taylor Heinicke, who also started that Wild Card contest against Tom Brady in January, and who stepped in for Fitzpatrick when Washington’s latest franchise signal-caller went down with an injury early in last Sunday’s game.  Heinicke bounced around the practice squads of four NFL and one XFL franchises after going undrafted out of Old Dominion in 2015 and was back in school when the Football Team called last December.  A month later he was starting a game in the NFL Playoffs.  It’s a lovely story, though highly unlikely to have a Cinderella finish.

Jones versus Heinicke, Giants versus Football Team, not exactly a must-see duel.  But it is Thursday night.  Since the schedule was adjusted in 2006 to include these games, they have been unloved and, for the NFL at least, largely unwatched.  The league’s own cable network is the primary television outlet, which suggests the whole reason for adding Thursday to the schedule was to attract viewers to NFL Network.  Players detest the games, since they mean a short week of practice and physical rehabilitation from the previous Sunday.  All that has been reflected in the schedule of Thursday contests, which feature a lot of matchups like this one.  Welcome to the NFL’s backwater.  If your team’s here, you know it has problems.

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