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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

U.S. Open was a version of golf I can understand

by J.W. Miller on 06/18/18

My golf group this morning was buzzing about the U.S. Open golf tournament. How could we not? Finally, we saw the pros play a version of the game we see every round. Ten-foot downhill putts turning into 20-foot uphill putts. Approach shots approaching nothing resembling par. Short chips skidding across the green, only to land in a puff of sand in the nearest trap. Two-foot putts rimming the hole and bounding away. That’s the game my golf buddies and I play. The winner is the one who sucks less than the rest. 

And that perfectly describes Brooks Koepka’s stirring one-over-par victory over attrition. The U.S. Open course at Shinnecock Hills on eastern Long Island was brutal, humbling and unforgiving, just like the courses we play every day. Candidly, it’s more our skill level and not the course that makes our rounds less than stellar. But play in the major was so erratic that I almost felt they should have been hitting from the forward – aka “old man” – tees. The 2018 U.S. Open could be packaged and redistributed as a sequel: “Survivors on Bent Grass.” 

The often unplayable conditions brought on by wind-hardened greens and sinister pin placements made it appear as though U.S. Golf Association officials were riding through the course on a herd of elephants, batting away errant approaches and penalizing any shot that was not perfect. It seemed that only Caddyshack’s Carl Spackler could have corrected the layout, one molehill at a time. As a golf fan, I want to see these athletes exhibit their skill on a challenging tract and generally prevail. It was not like that at Shinnecock Hills. Putting often resembled bowling balls rolling over a cliff. Pins positioned sadistically on the edge of a precipice beckoned, but too much club and they were rolling, rolling, rolling; keep those bogies (and double-bogies) rolling, Rawhide

If there is a villain here, it is the USGA, the governing body that determines how difficult a championship course should be. The suits seemed intent on stretching difficulty into impossibility. Former No. 1 in the world Justin Thomas commented Saturday: “The USGA apparently didn’t realize when the wind got up the course is unplayable,” although he “clarified” his comments later on Twitter. Zach Johnson said Shinnecock was as beautiful a piece of property as you’ll see, but “they’ve lost the course.” 

Player frustration reached its zenith Saturday when Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson overcooked a putt on 13 that kept rolling, and he inexplicably chased the ball as it was headed for the ravine.  Phil slapped it back toward the hole, thereby triggering a two-stroke penalty, and incredulity from the golfing Pharisees. Paul Azinger calls it “the most out of character” move he’s ever seen while former USGA boss David Fay called it “a disregard for the game of golf.” I saw it as Phil probably intended it: as a protest. Fox TV analyst, former pro Frank Nobilo, obviously agreed: “The best player in the world shot 77 (Dustin Johnson on Saturday), and he said he played pretty well. Is that how we want golf?” 

It’s not like the USGA wasn’t warned what could happen. When the U.S. Open last came to Shinnecock Hills in 2004, the seventh green was so hard to play for the first two groups on the final day that the first four players took three triple bogeys and a bogey before USGA officials decided to water the green between every pairing. This time, the unplayable label was extended to even more holes, and any watering came after the rounds. 

The other major sports don’t have such legislated encumbrances yet. Maybe next year, the NBA finals will reduce the diameter of the goals to six inches, or maybe Super Bowl teams will be required to wear blindfolds in the first and fourth quarters. Branded with the teams’ logos, of course! How about the NHL playoffs being skated over a piranha tank covered by razor-thin ice. Baseball would be easier to screw up; just move the pitcher’s mound from 60 feet 6 inches to 40 feet. 

It’s frightening to think, but the USGA might not be through humiliating the best golfers in the world. After giving the players a breather in 2019 at pristine Pebble Beach, the USGA is taking its 2020 road show to Winged Foot golf club in Mamaroneck, just north of New York City. For you sadistory buffs, the highest winning score in U.S. Open history came in 1974 when Hale Irwin won at seven-over-par. Just behind is the 2006 tournament won by Geoff Ogilvie at five-over. Both of those were played at Winged Foot. 

Yep, and the folks at Winged Foot have two years to double down on their in-state neighbor, and turn it into an exhibition that even my Monday morning group might choose to pass up. We see that type of futility every day. 

Justify joins the club, but Big Red stands alone

by J.W. Miller on 06/10/18

Let’s put Justify’s Triple Crown victory in perspective while we anxiously await the Saints mini-camp this week …

It was fitting that Justify won the Belmont Stakes and sealed his Triple Crown on the same date that the greatest thoroughbred racer of time all won his own. It was June 9, 1973 when Secretariat put a large exclamation mark on his Triple Crown when he won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in a track record 2:24. It is hard to imagine such a dominant performance, but let me say that it stands in my book as the greatest ass-kicking in sports since Georgia Tech’s football team beat Cumberland 222-0 a century ago. 

A more contemporary measure of Secretariat’s feat is to compare it to the one we watched Saturday. Justify impressively broke first out of the difficult No. 1 post position and never trailed for the next mile-and-a-half. Two or three horses tried to challenge the leader, but jockey Mike Smith kept him measured and in the lead until he crossed the finish line a length and three-quarters ahead of Gronkowski in the time of 2:28.18. 

So how does that compare with Secretariat’s runaway? You might think that Big Red just had a herd of range ponies to beat 45 years ago and none were qualified to be there. True, only four other horses went to the post that day, including the highly regarded Sham, ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. Sham had finished second to Secretariat by two-and-a-half lengths in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and appeared a worthy contender in the Belmont. Indeed, Sham latched onto the favorite out of the gate and stayed with him until the three-quarter pole when jockey Ron Turcotte shifted Secretariat into overdrive. 

Secretariat continued to widen the distance until the top of the stretch, an exhibition that track announcer Chic Anderson described by saying: “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine.” Down the stretch, Turcotte glanced at the track timer and knew he was on a record pace. When Big Red rolled across the finish line at 2:24, he had beaten the track record by more than two seconds. And how close would Justify have been to Secretariat on that day? Let’s do it one better and ask how close would any of the four Triple Crown winners since 1973 have been to Secretariat? 

Judging by the standard 5.5 lengths per second, here is your revised order of the fantasy finish: Secretariat wins at 2:24, which is still the record. Finishing second 14.6 lengths back at 2:26.65, would be American Pharoah, the 2015 winner. That is not a typo. That is fourteen point six lengths in the rear view mirror. A length behind Pharoah in third place at 2:26.8 would be Affirmed, the 1978 winner. Justify would have finished fourth in the fantasy field at 2:28.18, 23 lengths back. Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, would come in fifth at 2:29.6, 31 lengths behind Secretariat. 

Comparison by statistics is often like trying to compare Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds or Michael Jordan to Kareem or Lebron as the greatest of all time in their sports. Our little exercise is not intended to take anything away from Justify or any of the recent Triple Crown winners. Comparison by statistics is debatable, but to me, it offers sufficient evidence to claim Secretariat’s performance in the 1973 Belmont stamps Big Red as the greatest Triple Crown winner of all time.  

Is the goal of NFL players the ring or respect?

by J.W. Miller on 06/04/18

Today’s question is ‘what is more important to an NFL player: respect or a ring,” in this context, the Super Bowl variety? The subject arose in a column by Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal, (my favorite active scribe, by the way), who wrote Monday about the New England Patriots mini-camp. Gay loves to skewer Coach Bill Belichick, whom he calls the “Grumpy Lobster Boat Captain,” and the column painted the Pats as the NFL’s version of Dante’s Inferno. 

Sure, they win, but they don’t have fun doing it! Gay quoted Cassius Marsh, who spent a few games with the Patriots last season before he was cut, as saying his time in New England was “nasty, brutish and short.” Said Marsh: “They don’t have fun there. There’s nothing fun about it. There’s nothing happy about it. I didn’t enjoy any of my time there…It made me, for the first time in my life, think about not playing football, because I hated it that much.” Marsh’s release also might have been prompted by his throwing a Gatorade jug in a locker room tantrum over playing time, but that’s just bonus information for you. 

Gay also quoted Eagles OT Lane Johnson, a frequent Pats critic, as saying “You can have the rings. You can also have [expletive] fifteen miserable years.” These words are not the first criticism of what has been described as “the Patriot Way,” and now it seems to be smoldering from within. Tom Brady is not attending off-season workouts after Belichick booted his personal trainer from the premises and sidelines, which apparently has left the all-world QB feeling under-appreciated and disrespected. 

So what do NFL players want today, respect or a Super Bowl ring? Can they have both? Apparently, the Saints believe those two benefits are not mutually exclusive. Two-way respect is something you hear about the Saints organization which is considered one that cares for its players and is fair with them. That certainly comes from the top, from Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis, and owner Tom Benson’s death will not likely change that. 

How does a professional athlete define respect? The examples above that question respect as part of the “Patriot Way,” come from a broad sampling: a fringe cut, the team’s best player and an opponent. One athlete might define respect as the appreciation of his fellow players and coaches for his professional accomplishments. Then there’s the too-often example of a player embroiled in a contract dispute who doesn’t get what he wants so he throws the old “lack of respect” excuse. That always sounded to me like an old Jim Finks aphorism: “You can love a player at one price and hate him at another.” 

You might also say that a player who complains he isn’t respected is merely an egotistical shell who craves the worship of others. Respect is one thing, blind sycophantic adulation is another. I respect players who understand their position vis-à-vis their own teammates and among players around the league at his position. Although you might never hear them say it, there are many players in the league who are happy to be doing what they are doing for the salary they are receiving. But that opinion will forever stay private because other factors enter into a player’s “RQ,” or “Respect Quotient.” 

Players hear from their family and friends that they are being underpaid which must be because their team doesn’t respect them. Most players have agents, some of whom tell the player he’s better than such-and-such who plays for another team who is making more money and, don’t worry, because I’m going to use that in your next contract negotiation. And that’s where the Patriot Way treats players like I treat golf balls. Don’t fall in love with one because you might hit it into the lake. Just tee up another one and swing. 

And so far, it has worked pretty well for them. Which is to say that whether the Patriots players play for respect or for the ring, I’d guess they’re a pretty happy bunch when they've won again and they slip the next bauble onto their fingers.  

Memorial Day memories of a young ballplayer

by J.W. Miller on 05/28/18

We have plenty of things to talk about today in the sporting world; take your pick. LeBron James’ domination of the favored Celtics in the NBA Eastern Conference finals or tonight’s Warriors vs. Rockets Western Conference title game? LSU lost the SEC baseball championship to Ole Miss, but  it looks like the Tigers could be peaking at the right time. Or how about the historic NHL finals where the most successful expansion team of all time – the Las Vegas Golden Knights – will take on the Washington Caps.  

All worthy topics, but on this Memorial Day I want to talk about a young baseball player I knew a half-century ago. J.L. Travis and I played against each other in a summer baseball league, and I remember one game when he was playing first base and I took a too-long lead off the bag and the next batter hit a line-drive right at J.L., who caught the ball and touched first base with a big grin.

J.L. was a handsome boy with chiseled features and coal black hair that fell over his forehead when he smiled. We were in the same class at Shelby County High School in Kentucky, played on the high school baseball team and we went our separate ways after graduation. I might never have thought about him again until someone else brought up his name later. I was in college and had come back to my high school to watch a basketball game, and at some point during the game, our principal, Bruce Sweeney, took the microphone and said he had tragic news to announce. The last time I had heard Mr. Sweeney say those words was during my sophomore year when he announced to a disbelieving young audience on November 22, 1963 that President Kennedy had been assassinated. 

But this night’s announcement hit even closer to home. Mr. Sweeney announced that our classmate, J.L. Travis, had been killed in Vietnam. He died exactly four years after the President’s death, on November 22, 1967, which was Thanksgiving Day half a world away. That might have been the moment that I was taken from a protected childhood and thrust into an unpredictable and threatening world. Until then, I had lived in the cocoon of youthful innocence, aware of things like wars but dismissing them as subjects that occupied the evening news and happened to somebody else out there. We were oblivious to their tragic call and the fact that bad things do happen to good people. 

After high school, J.L. was inducted in the U.S. Army in March, 1967, along with his best friend Hubert Waford, who had graduated a year ahead of us. They were both from rural sections of the county, sons of farmers who spent their lives in the tobacco patches, hay fields and dairies of a rural county. They underwent infantry training together and were assigned to A Company, 3rd  Battalion, 22nd Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division. 

On August 22, 1967, their unit arrived near Binh Dinh, South Vietnam, a coastal province about 220 clicks south of Da Nang. Three months to the day after landing, J.L. Travis was killed by enemy fire. Hubert Waford served as military escort to bring J. L.’s body back to the United States for burial at the Dover Baptist Church in Shelby County. Hubert returned to Vietnam on December 8, and rose to the rank of sergeant. He was killed on Good Friday, April 12, 1968, in a battle in which he earned the Silver Star for bravery. 

A couple years ago, at the 50th anniversary of the Shelby County High School Class of 1966, the surviving classmates got together to reminisce over the "glory days," remembering the best part of our youth and to honor those who were no longer with us, like J.L. Travis. We also remembered other classmates such as Billy “Twink” Hall, leadoff hitter on our state championship runner up baseball team, who died at 36 from cancer. And Barry “Buck” Cottrell, who might have been the funniest boy and man I ever knew until his death at 43 in a car crash. Prior to the reunion, we also lost Hugh “Turkey” Smith, who hit the key free throws in a state tournament semi-final game on our way to the 1966 state basketball championship. The star of that team and my all-time best friend, Mike Casey, died in 2009 after a long struggle with congestive heart failure.

There were others, but on this Memorial Day, I reserve special memories for my classmate J.L. Travis and his buddy Hubert Waford. They were two young Americans from the heartland who fought and died so the rest of us could grow to adulthood, have families and live free.

Legal gambling is the big sports story of 2018

by J.W. Miller on 05/21/18

I went out to play golf this morning before sitting down to regale you about one sporting topic or another. I’m not a bad golfer for an old guy. Failing to break 90 ruins my whole day, and it happens more often than I would like. Today’s round started out like one of those days. On the first hole, I followed a good drive with a wedge that hooked perfectly onto that 2-inch outside edge of the cart path that propelled the ball into a menacing stream. Triple-bogey. The next hole, a Par 5, started out much the same with a good drive, followed by a 3-wood that caught the right-side slope and rolled out of bounds. I took a drop and hit a majestic 8-iron onto the green, about 12 feet from the pin. But our normally bikini waxed greens today putted like molten lava. Double-bogey.  I hoped for some relief on a Par 3, but I bladed my pitching wedge over the green to the edge of the woods. A comeback chip was too strong and bounced off the green. Another triple-bogey. 

And that sets up our topic of the day. If you are watching a golf tournament and see one lonely golfer suffer such a start, you might be able to do something about it. You can pick up your cellphone, dial the Sadistic Sports Betting parlor and wager a sum on whether the slappy will repeat his performance on the next hole or will pull out of his misery with a shot that nestles two inches from the hole. You don’t bet on golf? How about betting on whether Drew Brees will complete his first pass of the game or whether Anthony Davis will have more blocks than assists in a game or even whether LSU will score in the second quarter against Alabama? 

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, sports betting has arrived, and the possibilities are mind-boggling thanks to a Supreme Court ruling last week that struck down a federal law prohibiting sports gambling outside of Las Vegas. The past week, the marketplace has been roiling with which states will be the first to bring sports betting to the hinterlands. Most Supreme Court rulings generate joy from supporters and promises of doom from detractors, and the prospect of legalized sports betting is no different. To much of the country, the idea of gambling and placing bets on sports or anything else is seen as immoral or a provocative lure to those least able to afford it. These are the same people who have long decried bingo night at the local parish hall. 

Many states legalized casinos years ago and have directed a portion of the profits to worthy endeavors such as education or public pensions. But you must travel to a casino to pull the one-armed bandit or shoot craps. Technology has made the prospect of placing bets on sporting events from your living room or even from the event itself too easy. Critics say that instant access to gambling will invite more people who shouldn’t gamble to do it anyway. As Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal wrote last week, such people believe “the annihilation of civilization will be swift and severe.” Gay then adds “Or maybe it will be pretty normal.”  

One reason for the ho-hum view is that sports betting will be enhanced by the different sports and might become no more than a supercharged version of Fantasy Football.  The NBA already has jumped on board, and Commissioner Adam Silver has expressed the opinion that instant access to gambling could help NBA fans become more engaged with their favorite team.  Predictably, the NFL has been less giddy about the prospects, but you can bet – a figure of speech – that Roger Goodell already has designated some of his trusted aides to investigate how legalized gambling will pay. 

I think back about my years in the League office around Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who feared the negative effects of gambling. Rozelle’s main concern was “the integrity of the game,” which meant the public assurance that every game was played fairly and without the taint of illicit influences on the outcome. This is ancient history to any fan coming of age after 1980, but Rozelle suspended stars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for a season for betting on games. Baseball came down even harder on Pete Rose, suspending him for life for betting on games. So flash forward to today. Will today’s major sports – or even the pious NCAA – come down hard on their employees or players for engaging in a legalized activity? 

There are many other permutations of the main issue at work here.  How will the leagues handle it? Which state legislatures will jump on board quickly? Will online access be available across state lines? Will the news media create programming to help the gambler as they did with Fantasy leagues? How many parents will give their sons a Playboy Magazine to keep him away from placing bets on his IPhone? 

We are only one week into this new frontier, but I’ll give you odds right now. The way leagues present sports and the way fans watch will change. Legalized sports gambling will become the biggest sports story of 2018 and maybe even beyond.

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