Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 3, 2019

Two Stories Of Great Skill, Or Greater Hubris?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 24, 2019

The One Debate Zion’s Injury Should Renew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 21, 2019

A Hero On And Off The Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 17, 2019

One Move Sends The Daytona 500 Spinning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 14, 2019

After A Winter Of Doubt, The Moment Of Possibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 10, 2019

The Right Way To Honor Frank Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 7, 2019

Rickie Fowler’s Gutsy Win Quiets His Critics

A decade ago, when he turned pro at the age of twenty after playing on two winning Walker Cup teams and being ranked as the top amateur golfer in the world for nine months, Rickie Fowler was widely expected to become one of the most popular and successful members of the PGA Tour. The first expectation was quickly met and remains true today. His willingness to engage with people outside the ropes at tournaments won him scores of supporters, and his moptop haircut and brightly colored clothing, including a preference for orange on Sundays from his brief time as a collegiate golfer at Oklahoma State, made him hugely popular among young fans. But success commensurate with his burgeoning fan base has proven harder to achieve. After ten years on the Tour, the now thirty-year-old Fowler came to the Waste Management Phoenix Open last weekend with just four PGA Tour titles on his resume.

His first two wins came in playoffs, at the Wells Fargo Championship in 2012 over Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points, and at the Players Championship in 2015 over Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner. Later that same year Fowler outlasted Henrik Stenson at the Deutsche Bank Championship by a single stroke. He finally won with some room to spare early in 2017, posting a four-shot victory at the Honda Classic.

Make no mistake, four wins in a decade is not a bad career on the Tour. And with multiple endorsements based on his overall popularity, the next few generations of the Fowler family shouldn’t have to worry about putting food on the table. But four victories, none of them majors, was not what was expected of Fowler when he turned pro.

There have been tantalizing glimpses of greatness, like in 2014 when he finished in the top five at all four majors, a run that included runner-up spots at both the US Open and the Open Championship. But that spark of promise was quickly extinguished when he failed to post a top ten and missed three cuts at golf’s most prestigious events over the next two seasons.

Most concerning for Fowler’s many fans has been his repeated inability to close out a tournament on Sunday. Nowhere has that weakness been more painfully exposed than at the TPC Scottsdale, home of the Tour’s annual bacchanal, also known as the Waste Management Phoenix Open. In 2016, he began the final day tied for second with Hideki Matsuyama. When 54-hole leader Danny Lee stumbled early, Fowler appeared in control of the event until he hit his drive on the short par-4 17th through the green and into the pond behind it. Fowler made that ill-timed swing with his father and grandfather watching, neither of whom had ever been present for one of his victories. Forced into a playoff with Matsuyama, Fowler hooked his tee shot on the same hole into the hazard, handing the victory to his fellow competitor. He cried unashamedly in the media room afterwards as he expressed regret for letting his family down.

Then last year Fowler started the third round tied for the lead and finished play on Saturday with a flourish, recording birdies on each of the last three holes to shoot a 4-under par 67, good enough for solo first place heading into Sunday. Fowler would have needed to match that score in order to join Gary Woodland and Chez Reavie in the eventual playoff won by the former, but instead on the very part of the golf course where he had sizzled on Saturday he instead fizzled in the final round. He pulled his drive into the lake left of the par-5 15th hole, missed the green left at the par-3 16th, and sent yet another tee ball into the hazard at the 17th. The three miscues led to three straight bogeys and sent Fowler tumbling down into a tie for eleventh, six shots adrift of the eventual winner as one more Sunday went from promising to pedestrian in just a few errant swings.

That history explains why there was no great surge of anticipation when Fowler completed his first trip around TPC Scottsdale at this year’s tournament in just 64 strokes, good for a tie for first with Justin Thomas and Harold Varner. More attention was paid to world number four Thomas, who has nine wins including a major at the age of twenty-five. Even when he closed his second round with four straight birdies to shoot 65 and edge one shot ahead of Thomas, his good friend and housemate for the week, Fowler himself acknowledged “we still have a long way to go.” But when his lead swelled to four shots over Matt Kuchar on the strength of another 7-under par 64 on Saturday, most of Fowler’s fans and even many skeptics started to believe that this year he’d finally beat the last round demons that have so often bedeviled him, nowhere more so than at TPC Scottsdale.

A double-bogey at the long par-4 5th hole, where Fowler sent his approach into the desert well left of the green and needed three more strokes to get his ball on the putting surface might have been cause for alarm, but Kuchar bogeyed the hole as well so only made up one shot. By the time Fowler made his first birdie on a cold and wet day at the 10th hole, the six-footer that he rolled in expanded his lead to five shots over Branden Grace, who was charging up the leaderboard in the group ahead, and six over the struggling Kuchar.

Then, with just eight holes to play, disaster struck. Fowler’s approach at the 11th hole came up short of the green. His chip shot was struck far too hard, sailing across the green, down an embankment and into a lake. With the penalty stroke Fowler was looking at his fifth shot after dropping a ball on the slope. But while he walked up to the green to study where he wanted to land his chip, the ball he had dropped gave way to gravity and slid down the closely mown grass and into the water. Rules official Slugger White advised Fowler that once he made his drop the ball was considered in play, meaning a second penalty stroke was assessed. So it was his sixth shot that finally found the green, and a triple-bogey seven on his scorecard when Fowler sank the ensuing putt.

No doubt dazed by his sudden misfortune he promptly bogeyed the next hole, even as Grace was making back-to-back birdies. In a matter of minutes, the five shot advantage had turned into a one shot deficit, and another disastrous Sunday appeared about to be added to Fowler’s PGA Tour resume. But the too-familiar script was tossed when he instead displayed a resiliency that critics had come to assume Fowler simply lacked. At the 15th, he split the fairway with his drive, then smashed a fairway metal from 251 yards onto the green of the par-5. That set up a two-putt birdie that brought him even with Grace.

Then at the 17th it was the South African who hooked his drive into the water, leading to a bogey. When Fowler’s tee shot at the drivable par-4 rolled to a stop on the putting surface he breathed a sigh of relief, turned to his caddie and smiled. From there it was another two-putt birdie to put himself two clear heading to the home hole. His entire family, including his father and grandfather, were waiting for him there. At the end of this Sunday there were no tears, just cheers for Rickie Fowler’s fifth Tour win, and for the renewed promise of the career he might yet forge.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 4, 2019

Still Here, And Once Again The Last Team Standing

Okay, so it wasn’t pretty. Perhaps the ghost of Woody Hayes, the longtime Ohio State head coach who popularized the “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of offense, was entertained by the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever. But by any measure, from the reduced (though still massive) overnight TV ratings to the thousands of scornful comments on social media, it’s abundantly clear that most fans found little to love in the defensive struggle that finally (some would say mercifully) ended with the New England Patriots claiming a sixth title, 13-3 over the Los Angeles Rams.

As eyes glazed over all around the country given the dearth of action on the field, the national ennui colored judgments about more than just the game. Most of the extraordinarily expensive commercials were dismissed as utterly forgettable. The halftime show led by Maroon 5 was almost universally mocked as insipid, although since lead singer Adam Levine saw fit to remove his shirt fifteen years after Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” it did give rise to some tongue-in-cheek debate about whether the NFL has a double standard on exposed nipples.

But if Super Bowl LIII will never be high on anyone’s list of the most exciting editions of the Big Game, few fans in New England seemed to mind. And given the sharply divergent attitudes toward the Foxborough dynasty between this corner of the country and the other forty-four states, one can’t help but wonder if opinions on the game would be quite so caustic if the final score had been exactly the same, but with the Rams on top. Fans everywhere know that football isn’t figure skating – no style points factor into the outcome. So perhaps what really galls the faithful of thirty-one other franchises is that the one team for which they all share an antipathy is once more the team that gets to hold a parade.

For here we are, again, and this time it is not enough to say that for Patriots fans this never gets old. In fact, for many local diehards this year’s sometimes sloppy slog of a title game seems especially worthy of celebration because its imperfections were reminders of the flaws of a team that found a way to still come out on top at the end of a season that could easily have gone awry.

One year ago there was controversy in the defeat at the hands of the Eagles in the last Super Bowl, when cornerback Malcolm Butler was limited to a single appearance on special teams. Before training camp began there were rumors of disaffection among the three most important individuals in the Patriots universe – owner Bob Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady. There was doubt about the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, and a four game suspension of wide receiver Julian Edelman.

Then after a home win over Houston to start the season, New England lost back-to-back road games at Jacksonville and Detroit, falling to 1-2 for the first time since 2012. The losses were both by double-digits to franchises that would finish below .500 for the season, and suddenly the offseason departure of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to become head coach of the Lions loomed large.

Problems on defense were mitigated by the Brady-led offense getting on track, as the Patriots ran off six straight wins, scoring more than thirty points in all but one of those games. Still doubts were renewed when the team went a middling 4-3 over its last seven contests, including another set of back-to-back losses. The first of those was in Miami and featured a complete defensive collapse on the game’s final play, with the Dolphins stealing a victory on a multiple lateral play worthy of a schoolyard.

The Pats final record of 11-5 was good enough to win the AFC East for the tenth straight year, but the five losses were the most by New England in a decade and meant the team would be seeded second in the AFC for the playoffs. If the seedings held the Patriots would need to win a playoff game on the road to reach the Super Bowl, something the team had not done since 2007. That hurdle was overcome with a 37-31 overtime victory at Kansas City in the AFC Conference Championship. But with a defense that ranked in the middle of the pack during the regular season, and after surrendering four TD’s to San Diego and the thirty-one points to K.C. in the postseason, no one foresaw the New England defense that showed up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday evening.

Perhaps fans had forgotten that before he was a head coach Belichick won a pair of Super Bowl rings as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. With two weeks to prepare, he devised a masterful defensive scheme that completely shut down the second most prolific offense in the league. After playing more man-to-man pass coverage than any team in the league during the regular season, the Patriots switched to zone coverage almost half the time Sunday. They blitzed repeatedly, and Rams quarterback Jared Goff was pressured on almost forty percent of his dropbacks. The young QB completed just a quarter of his throws in those situations, tied for the worst completion percentage under pressure in Super Bowl history.

It may not have been aesthetically pleasing, but a game plan that held Los Angeles scoreless in the first half and limited the Rams to just three points all night propelled New England to yet another championship. For all that the win still didn’t come easy. Brady’s first pass was picked off and Stephen Gostkowski’s first field goal attempt was a low hook that never came close to splitting the uprights. In the end two big plays made the difference.

The first of those came midway through the fourth quarter, when New England’s offense finally started to move the ball. The Patriots ran the exact same play three times in a row, with Brady having his choice of receivers. The first time he hit Edelman for 13 yards. The second time he connected with Rex Burkhead for 7 more. Then on the third iteration of the play called Hoss Y-Juke in the Pats’ playbook, Brady found Gronkowski on a seam route for a 29-yard pickup down to the 3-yard line. After that dramatic completion Sony Michel scored on the next snap from scrimmage.

The second big play came a few minutes later, when the Rams were mounting their own drive. But Goff underthrew a long toss intended for Brandin Cooks and Stephen Gilmore leapt in front of the receiver to intercept the pass and effectively seal New England’s win.

Throughout the Belichick and Brady era, the work ethic and team approach of the Patriots has always been described, by players and coaches alike, in simple sentences. Next man up. Do your job. This season, when there were so many reasons to doubt, the rallying cry was we’re still here. To the joy of New Englanders and the dismay of many others, the Patriots reminded everyone of that one more time on Sunday.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 31, 2019

Trouble Is Brewing For The Great Game

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be delayed by one day, until Monday. The regular schedule resumes this time next week. Thanks as always for your support.

The last day of January arrives. The final game of the NFL season, with its eleven minutes of action buried deep within three and one-half hours of pageantry and multi-million dollar television advertising buys that will mostly be forgotten before the final whistle blows, is just days away. The NHL is back from its All-Star break, while the NBA is preparing for its own. With teams in both leagues having played more than sixty percent of their regular season schedules, thoughts are turning to the springtime playoffs for our two major arena sports. Yet amidst all this, when the calendar turns to the second month of the year, the Great Game nudges its way back onto the grand stage of our sports, preparing to stake its annual claim on the attention of fans in every corner of the land. For the advent of February means that the start of spring training is just a fortnight away.

But for the second year in a row, this passage on the calendar is not a time to celebrate for scores of veteran baseball players who are free agents, a list that includes both names that are instantly recognizable to even casual fans and others whose faithful are limited to immediate family members and diehard partisans of their most recent team. Of the top fifty free agents, as ranked by the pundits at CBSSports.com, fifteen remain unsigned. That number includes the two names at the top of the list, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, as well as the second-ranked starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and the number one relief hurler in the rankings, closer Craig Kimbrel. Move beyond the marquee names and the situation is worse, with exactly one-half of 274 free agents still without contracts according to ESPN, at a time when all would expect to be finalizing travel arrangements to either Florida or Arizona.

As grim as they are, those raw numbers disguise the depth of the problem facing the players. Forty-five of those who have signed have inked minor league contracts, meaning that while they now have a spring training destination they have no guarantee of breaking camp with the big club in late March. Another forty-eight have only been able to negotiate one-year deals, and thus will find themselves back among the scores of contract-seekers come next offseason. Earlier this week the front page of Major League Baseball’s website was overrun with stories of free agents agreeing to one-year contracts. There was Neil Walker going to the Marlins, former All-Star pitcher Greg Holland, who was tremendous for the Nationals down the stretch last season, signing with the Diamondbacks, shortstop Freddy Galvis joining the Blue Jays, and reliever Shawn Kelley finding a short-term home in the Rangers clubhouse. Of all the free agents who have signed contracts so far, only three – pitchers Patrick Corbin (six years, Nats) and Nathan Eovaldi (four years, Red Sox), and outfielder AJ Pollock (five years, Dodgers) – have inked deals that run longer than three years.

The owners and general managers of all thirty teams repeat the mantra that the new parsimony toward free agents is the result of all the advanced metrics now used to evaluate players. Those statistical measures tell front offices that almost every player’s peak years come before he turns thirty. Why, the men with the checkbooks ask, should they pay huge sums for steadily declining performance?

The answer is that doing so is consistent with the system of compensation that has been negotiated between the owners and the Players Association. A player is bound to his original team for his first three years of service, and even a phenom who becomes a breakout star will play for, relatively speaking, a pittance for those seasons. After three years the player is eligible for arbitration, but since he is still tied to his first team, that unpleasant process only slightly increases a player’s leverage in contract negotiations. Only after completing six years of service does one qualify for free agency. The implicit understanding of this system is that a player spends six years essentially working for whatever his club want to pay him, and in return gets rewarded in free agency.  That reward might take the form of a nine-figure contract for a superstar, or a deal far more modest financially but with a term that at least ensures several years of employment for an accomplished journeyman.

There is a legitimate debate about whether that system makes sense, since it often produces results where a free agent contract is essentially a reward for past performance, and the team paying that prize is different from the one that got the benefit of a player’s earlier heroics. But the time to have that debate is when negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

Instead owners have felt free to game the front end of the system to their advantage, by delaying the initial callup of a promising minor leaguer in order to gain an extra season of service time in his long march to the promised land of free agency. Now they are reneging on the promise at the back-end of the system, knowing that until the current agreement between MLB and the MLBPA expires in 2021 there is nothing the players can do about it.

It doesn’t take advanced metrics to know that a ten-year contract for a thirty-two-year-old player, like the ones the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez in 2007 or the Angels gave Albert Pujols six seasons ago, is going to end badly. But refusing to budge beyond a single year for a player who is twenty-nine, like Toronto’s new shortstop Galvis, is taking the advanced metrics rationale to a silly extreme.

That’s especially clear when fans see the extremely limited market for Harper and Machado, with as few as three teams reportedly bidding on either player. Because of their prodigious talent, they made The Show far earlier than most rookies. Harper played his first game for the Nationals while still a teenager, and Machado joined the Orioles just after his twentieth birthday. Both thus enter free agency at age twenty-six, three or four years sooner than is typical. An eight or even ten-year contract for either of them carries far less back-end risk than the boondoggles lavished on A-Rod and Pujols. But both Bryce and Manny remain unsigned.

The odds are still in favor of Harper and Machado doing quite well, though the once prominent talk of $400 million contracts is likely now but a memory. The biggest impact of this new reality is on the scores of players who are not superstars. The Players Association projects that as many as a dozen teams will begin the new season with smaller payrolls than last year, while only a third as many will see significant increases in total salaries. This after the percentage of revenues spent on player salaries dropped last season for the fourth year in a row, to its lowest number since 2012.

As noted earlier, for now there is nothing the players can do but seethe. But any owner or GM who thinks that this new approach to free agent negotiations doesn’t have a downside is no student of the Great Game’s history, which includes protracted and ugly labor disputes. When the current collective bargaining agreement expires, baseball will have enjoyed more than a quarter-century of labor peace. The odds of that continuing grow longer every day.

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