2021 M.L.B. Season Preview
As most teams look for ways to scale back, Los Angeles wants to get bigger and better. To do so, the fan base needs to grow.
Kevin Draper and
It is not yet opening day. Therefore, the Los Angeles Dodgers remain on top of the world.
They are the defending World Series champions, and they are favored by oddsmakers to become the first team in two decades to win back-to-back titles. Success has become routine. The Dodgers have won their division for eight years running and have appeared in the World Series three of the past four seasons, a run that no other current team can touch.
While noting how difficult it is to slog through the regular season and prevail in the crucible of flukiness that is Major League Baseball’s playoffs, Dodgers executives remain cautiously optimistic they can win again. “I think we are poised as having as good of a chance as we have ever had,” Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, said from spring training last week.
The partners of Guggenheim Baseball Management, which bought the Dodgers in 2012, have figured out how to consistently win, for now at least. While Friedman stays up at night worrying about his bullpen and how to restock the farm system, the rest of the Dodgers’ front office has visions of transcending mere baseball.
But to do so they will have to create a new generation of baseball fans that go beyond the white boomer demographic that typifies the sport’s core audience — surveys regularly find that fans of baseball are older and whiter than fans of other sports — and attract loyalists across one of America’s most racially diverse cities, where Latinos, Asians and Black people make up more than two-thirds of the population.
The Dodgers proudly carry the legacy of Jackie Robinson, not to mention having reached broader audiences in the past thanks to the Fernandomania caused by Fernando Valenzuela in the 1980s and the worldwide attention spurred by Hideo Nomo in the 1990s. These days, even having Magic Johnson, the most popular man in Los Angeles, as one of the Dodgers’ owners might not be enough to captivate the diverse pop culture tastemakers who will dictate the next decades of cultural relevance.
While 2020 saw the Dodgers reach a pinnacle as team, Los Angeles has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, both in terms of deaths and the economic toll of shutting down the theme park and movie businesses. The Dodgers have been central to the city’s efforts to combat the virus, feeding, testing and vaccinating hundreds of thousands of Angelenos at Dodger Stadium, which might, in turn, strengthen the team’s bond with its city.
“We have a moral and social responsibility to have a strong community relations program, but also, it’s just good business,” said Stan Kasten, the team’s president and chief executive.
But even when things are booming in Los Angeles, the competition for attention is tough. “We are competing against sports teams, we are competing against the beach, we are competing against Disneyland,” Lon Rosen, the team’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said on a video call from his home. The sheen of the Dodgers benefits from celebrity fans, Rosen said, pointing to team acolytes like Rob Lowe, Jason Bateman and Omar Miller.
Financially, things are complicated. The Dodgers, like all other baseball teams, have lost money during the pandemic. Commissioner Rob Manfred has said teams collectively lost $3 billion last season, an average loss of $100 million for each team. But the higher you reach the farther you fall, and the Dodgers regularly lead baseball in attendance — they drew just under four million fans in 2019, nearly 500,000 more than any other team — and have one of the most lucrative television rights agreements, worth at least $7 billion over 25 years. Kasten would not reveal the amount the team lost during the 2020 season, but it is safe to say it was much more than $100 million.
Yet the Dodgers continue to invest in the team when so many of their competitors are looking for ways to cut costs.
A longtime executive with the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals, Kasten helped lead the purchase of the Dodgers in 2012. Mark Walter, chief executive of Guggenheim Partners, is the controlling owner, and Peter Guber, Johnson, Billie Jean King and others all own parts of the team.
But Kasten is the central cog of the organization, and the recent financial losses haven’t changed things for an executive who spent the past nine years perfecting a three-part philosophy that he hopes will result in more World Series titles — and a Dodgers cap on every head in the world.
The product is the team, and a good product is a team that wins. That is the domain of Friedman, who was hired away from the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015.
With the Rays, Friedman focused exclusively on low- or zero-cost team-building strategies, likening himself to a specialist doctor. “We knew our limitations,” he said.
With the Dodgers, every team-building strategy is available to Friedman, which means he is expected to put a winning team on the field in perpetuity.
“There are a lot of large-market teams that have gone on a nice run, and then gotten to the end and fallen off a cliff,” he said. “It takes them three, five, six years to build back. We are trying the delicate balance of maximizing for current wins, while also keeping one eye on the future.”
So far he has done remarkably well. Many baseball teams in recent years — even the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees — have looked for ways to cut back on payroll, but not the Dodgers. They have kept their payroll among the highest in baseball, and have been willing to make moves like trading for the superstar Mookie Betts, knowing they would have to re-sign him to an astronomical contract, which they did, to the tune of $365 million.
But their payroll is not bloated with many expensive long-term contracts, and their farm system is regularly one of the best in baseball. Half of their World Series-winning roster was originally drafted or signed by the Dodgers, led by their ace, Clayton Kershaw, but also including key contributors like Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger.
Dave Roberts, the team’s manager, seems content with what he has to work with.
“It’s a very talented team,” he said. “That is an understatement.”
Kasten talks often about having visited Dodger Stadium on his honeymoon in the late 1970s. He jokes, or maybe he’s serious, that when Guggenheim bought the team, the original electric and plumbing from 1962 remained. Multiple renovations in recent years, including $100 million worth of upgrades completed during the pandemic, have rectified that. Dodger Stadium now has the amenities expected of modern ballparks, like a robust Wi-Fi network.
It also now has a two-acre “entertainment concourse” with a statue of Robinson (and one to come, of Sandy Koufax), with photos retelling the team’s history and plenty of backdrops for fan selfies. The concourse was supposed to be unveiled on opening day last year, but that day never came and the area won’t be used initially this season because of restrictions meant to discourage fans from congregating.
The team has finally corrected perhaps its biggest early mistake, which centered on its enormous television rights agreement with Time Warner Cable. The money was not the problem, exactly, but to recoup the $7 billion investment, Time Warner charged a high fee for the channel, which cable and satellite distributors did not want to pay. As a result, for many years fewer than half of Los Angeles households could watch Dodger games.
You cannot find new customers if they cannot watch the games, and Kasten is clearly still angry at the various media companies involved in the situation. Through a series of media mergers and new agreements, Kasten says the team’s games are now available in over 90 percent of Los Angeles homes.
“Brand” is an often nebulous and cliché term, but for the Dodgers it seems to mean regular people interacting with the organization. That can be the players — who in nonpandemic times were encouraged to sign autographs, and some once greeted fans at the stadium gates until it became too unruly — or the larger team, through its investment endeavors and community relations program.
When Nichol Whiteman, a veteran philanthropy executive, was hired as the chief executive of the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation in 2013, the foundation’s focus was on developing softball and baseball fields in local underserved communities. The foundation had one other employee and had spent on its philanthropic efforts $9 million in the previous two decades.
Under her leadership, the Dodgers Foundation has invested $23 million in building and maintaining fields, developing underserved communities, homelessness and hunger relief, and social justice initiatives. (The foundation organizes and executes its own projects and also gives grants to other organizations.)
The money gets spent on building and maintaining ball fields as well as serving the families of the local youth who play on the fields with job training, college application counseling, fitness clinics and dental health screenings.
“We are not responsible for putting butts in the seats at Dodger Stadium,” Whiteman said, “but inherently and indirectly that occurs. It’s our job to let those who live in the shadows of Los Angeles know that they belong and are connected to the Dodgers.”
Achieving diverse representation in all aspects of the organization remains an aspiration. Amid a long-running drop in the number of Black pro baseball players, the undisputed star of the team, Betts, is Black, as is the manager, Roberts, one of two Black managers in the league. (He is also of Japanese descent.) The team also has a number of Latino players. The front office, where ownership and the decision makers sit, is much whiter, however.
But then there is Johnson, a key figure on the ownership team.
“What is really outstanding, and you hear it all the time, is that I’m sitting there,” Johnson said.
Asked how the team can attract the younger, diverse fans, executives like Kasten and Rosen pointed to the team’s community relations initiatives, but had less to say about how it plans to attract the middle-class and wealthy people of color who aren’t yet tuning into Dodger games or showing up at the stadium.
While the Dodgers will celebrate the team’s connection to agents of change like Robinson and Johnson, no one should expect the Dodgers to weigh in on divisive cultural and political battles, even as young consumers increasingly demand that brands reflect their values. In last summer’s protests for racial justice, the Dodgers saw a “bright line” that placed the issue squarely on the side of morality, not politics, Kasten said, but the organization will steer clear of any issue its sees as incendiary or political.
Tucker Kain, the Dodgers’ president of business enterprise, is in charge of using the Dodgers name and money to invest in technologies as prosaic as point-of-sale kiosks, and as newfangled as blockchain and nonfungible tokens. But central to the organization’s success is the investment in players. “We have to make sure we’re as competitive as possible on the field.” he said.
Johnson, through his time with the Lakers and the Dodgers, knows more than most about how Los Angeles sports franchises operate. He said the work to be done now, with the Dodgers’ first game of the season coming on Thursday against the Colorado Rockies, was to stay focused on the improved physical and economic health of the community and the continued health of the team’s athletes. That comes before discussions of World Series repeats.
“What we have to remember is we have 162 games to play first,” he said.
After all, the product is the team, and the product must be good.
How the Phillies Beat the Braves on a Controversial Call
The Atlanta Braves lost to their division rival Philadelphia Phillies, 7-6, on Sunday night on a ninth-inning run in which the runner didn’t actually score.
Wait, what? See the wild ending →
The Braves and Phillies entered the ninth tied, 6-6. Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm hit a double off reliever Will Smith and moved to third on a groundout, bringing up Didi Gregorius.
Gregorius lifted a fly to left field that he thought wasn’t deep enough for Bohm to score after tagging up. But Atlanta left fielder Marcell Ozuna has a weak throwing arm. The Phillies tested him.
Decide for yourself.
Atlanta challenged the play. Fans booed as replays showed Bohm’s foot just missing the plate. But the replay official “could not definitely determine” that Bohm failed to touch home plate.
After the game, Braves players like Ozzie Albies fumed. Pitcher Drew Smyly called it embarrassing. Asked if he scored, Bohm smiled. “I was called safe.”
Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson took more issue with fans’ reaction, which included throwing bottles onto the field.
He called it “an embarrassing representation of our city.”
With both teams competitive in the tough N.L. East, this controversial ending could have an impact on the standings despite it being just one of 162 games.
See more baseball news.
Canadian Basketball Hopes a New Floor Will Raise Its Ceiling
Canada hasn’t made the Olympics in men’s basketball in two decades, but its sports officials hope a memento from the Toronto Raptors’ championship run will bring good luck.
What worked for Wayne Gretzky and Canadian hockey at the 2002 Winter Olympics never quite fit the karmic ambitions of Canadian basketball officials nearly two decades later.
The sacred tradition of sneakily stashing a good-luck coin beneath the playing surface just did not sound as good to those antsy officials as buying a complete basketball floor for its supposed mystical properties.
So this summer will bring a next-level spinoff from the gold medal triumphs for the Canadian men’s and women’s ice hockey teams in Salt Lake City in 2002 that were forever linked to their so-called “lucky loonie” — a one-dollar Canadian coin secretly hidden under the ice. When the Canadian men’s national basketball team tries to qualify for its first Olympics since the Sydney Games in 2000, it will play on the court upon which the Toronto Raptors in 2019 became the first team based outside the United States to win an N.B.A. championship.
“We want the entire court to be the lucky loonie,” said Scott Lake, a board member of Canada Basketball who was instrumental in the federation’s bid to obtain that court and host a six-team Olympic men’s qualifying tournament in Victoria, British Columbia, from June 29 to July 4.
Lake’s premise may strike some as over the top devotion to superstition, but he and Nick Blasko, who worked with Lake to acquire the floor, will not relent. They dreamed of bringing the event to Western Canada and were encouraged in their court crusade by Glen Grunwald, the former N.B.A. executive who became president of Canada Basketball in September 2018. Rather than question the need to go to such lengths, Grunwald lauded Lake and Blasko for “their joyful enthusiasm.”
It took 11 months, and nearly $270,000 from Lake, a co-founder of the Canadian e-commerce company Shopify, to get all of the court’s puzzle pieces, but Canada Basketball conquered the logistical half of its quest. It plans to soon unveil the reassembled floor from Game 6 of the 2019 N.B.A. finals as a tribute to the Raptors’ title team, then refinish the court with FIBA logos and international basketball markings before installing it at the 7,400-seat Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria.
The Raptors were underdogs in the 2019 N.B.A. finals against Golden State and its starry lineup led by Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, but they won the title in six games, helped along by injuries to Durant and Thompson and clinching the series on the road at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif. The qualifying tournament will be the biggest international basketball event held in Canada since the FIBA world championships in Toronto in 1994.
“We wanted to get a floor with a story,” Blasko said. “We wanted a floor that has some significance and meaning to our country.”
Raptors Coach Nick Nurse, who doubles as Canada’s national team coach, endorsed the creativity as heartily as Grunwald.
“I couldn’t believe it when they told me what they were trying,” Nurse said. “It’s a great story. Hopefully we can deliver another big accomplishment on that floor and make our own history for Canadian basketball.”
Six months of negotiations to purchase the floor, then five months of scrambling to acquire the correct center court panels, were rooted in the same philosophy as the Canadian federation’s determination to have Nurse coach the national team: Any connection to Toronto’s championship stirs warm, hopeful vibes.
Lake and Blasko took great pride in persuading the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority to sell them the Game 6 floor for $250,000 — especially after hearing that it was earmarked to be sold to a company that planned to turn it into beer tap handles for local breweries. The serendipitous intervention of Golden State’s operations director, David Marsh, a fellow Canadian, was equally vital after it was discovered that the 16 panels for the Game 6 center circle, which reads “The Town,” were missing.
Golden State had kept those panels after the 2018-19 season and shipped them to Idaho in 2020 to have them sanded down for potential use on a floor at their new arena in San Francisco. Marsh got the panels back and sold them on Golden State’s behalf to the Friends of Victoria Basketball, as the local organizing committee is known, in November 2020 for another $18,750 from Lake.
No measure seemed too extreme when the Canadians considered the floor’s value to the country as a sporting keepsake, irrespective of the qualifying tournament or any perceived mystique.
“There was a huge inflection point for basketball in this country in 2019,” Lake said. “That Raptors championship was a unifying force for all of Canada.”
The winner from the qualifying tournament in Victoria will get one of four remaining berths in the men’s Olympic basketball tournament this summer in Tokyo. If you dare to buy into the mythology of the stacks of wood panels that were collecting dust in storage, resurrecting this floor will give Canada an even bigger home-court advantage than anticipated when it hosts China, Czech Republic, Turkey, Uruguay and Greece, which is coached by Rick Pitino.
Canada last qualified for the Olympics in men’s basketball 21 years ago — led by Victoria’s favorite son. Nets Coach Steve Nash, who grew up in Victoria in what was regarded as a remote basketball outpost on Vancouver Island, steered an unremarkable squad with only one other N.B.A. player (Todd MacCulloch) to within one win of the medal round.
The current Victoria organizers, determined to help the program end that drought, paid 3.1 million Canadian dollars, about $2.5 million, to host one of four six-team qualifiers alongside three perennial European basketball powers: Serbia, Lithuania and Croatia. Then they moved on to brainstorming for new concepts to generate optimum karma, real or imagined, and felt an unshakable impulse to stretch the traditional Gretzky script.
Canada’s men’s ice hockey gold in 2002 was its first in 50 years. Gretzky, as the executive director of the team, was handed the loonie that had been strategically submerged before those Olympics by a Canadian crew in charge of managing the Salt Lake City ice. That coin became known back home as the ultimate lucky charm and wound up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
To make good on the good-luck plan Lake and Blasko hatched and qualify for Tokyo on that 2019 N.B.A. finals floor, Canada will have to overcome a reputation in recent years for squandering its rising talent. Expectations have never been higher given that Canada, with 17 players on opening night N.B.A. rosters, accounted for more international players in the league than any other country. Yet the scars from four successive failed qualifying campaigns run deep.
The Raptors’ title run and the gargantuan television audiences it attracted have led Grunwald to proclaim, as he did in a recent phone interview, that “this is a basketball nation now.” Other prominent members of the Canadian basketball community say the same. The surest way to hush lingering skeptics would be to send men’s and women’s national teams to Tokyo, but no one is quite sure what sort of team Nurse will get to coach. Canada’s women, led by the W.N.B.A.’s Kia Nurse (no relation to the men’s coach) and ranked No. 4 in the world, are regarded as medal contenders.
Jamal Murray, Canada’s best men’s player, could make a deep run in the N.B.A. playoffs with the Denver Nuggets, potentially precluding a national team stint. Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins, another top talent, hasn’t played for Canada since 2015. And Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s blossoming guard, has been sidelined by plantar fasciitis in his right foot, which could complicate Canada’s efforts to sell him on the off-season rigors of international basketball.
“We got an all-N.B.A. team,” the Knicks’ RJ Barrett, who is Canadian, said last month, insisting they will have enough to qualify no matter who plays.
Lake and Blasko know this much: They can’t do any more to enhance the team’s chances.
“For the people in Oakland, it was just the floor that was taking up space that they were probably never going to use again,” Lake said. “For us, it’s the most important floor in Canadian basketball history.”
Hyperbole? Not to Grunwald. A slew of loonie placements and derivative concepts since 2002 have failed to deliver any Canadian sports magic — including when Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s president of basketball operations, placed a two-dollar Canadian toonie coin under the team’s practice court in Tampa, Fla., in December. It still has been, to put it mildly, an arduous pandemic season for the displaced Raptors, but Grunwald just chuckled as he recounted Lake and Blasko’s persistence.
Nearly eight years removed from his last taste of the N.B.A., with the Knicks, Grunwald said he couldn’t help but get swept up in “the joy they have for basketball.”
“It’s really refreshing,” Grunwald said. “It makes you feel good about our sport and about Canada.”
The Nets Could Have Had It All With Dr. J
As great as today’s Nets look with their starry threesome, they could have dominated the N.B.A. much, much sooner — in the 1970s, behind Julius Erving.
Kevin Loughery and Julius Erving share a city, Atlanta, a golf club and an emotional connection to a basketball allegory told inharmoniously in three distinct parts — what was, what might have been and what now has become.
In other words: the history of the Nets, from Long Island to New Jersey to Brooklyn.
Inevitably, wistfully, Loughery’s conversation with Erving centers on Part 2, the potentially grand Nassau Coliseum stage that was dismantled just before the curtain was to rise on the N.B.A. debut of Erving and the Nets.
“I always talk to him about what we might have done,” Loughery, who coached the developing legend of Dr. J. to two A.B.A. titles and stayed on to guide the remains of the Nets after the financially troubled franchise sold the rights to Erving, the world’s most electrifying player, to the Philadelphia 76ers on the eve of the 1976-77 season.
Loughery added in a telephone interview: “What haunts you is that when we had him in the A.B.A. he was the best he ever was. The last A.B.A. series against Denver, when we won that second title, that was the best series I’ve ever seen anyone play.”
That’s quite a mouthful, coming from an 81-year-old basketball lifer who once shared a backcourt in Baltimore with Earl Monroe and who coached seven pro teams, including one in Chicago that unveiled a rookie named Jordan.
There is also an evolving symmetry to this ancient history. Forty-five years after their infamous selling of the rights to the Doctor, the Nets finally have become what they were poised to be in 1976: the sport’s sexiest team, with an opportunity to be its best.
Alas, Brooklyn’s assemblage of a superstar-laden lineup has occurred during a time of fan-less arenas only now welcoming crowds still enfeebled by the menace of Covid-19. Selling out America with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving for now remains the dream it was for Loughery and Erving.
On the eve of that 1976-77 season, Erving was holding out for a contract upgrade and the league office was holding its breath after scheduling the Nets for a nationally televised opener against Golden State in Oakland. The arena sold out weeks in advance, but the sale of Erving’s rights to Philadelphia two days before the game by the owner Roy Boe — and after the Knicks absurdly let themselves be outbid for a homegrown player who would have altered their history — persuaded CBS to show a late-night movie instead.
Hoping to make a splash, or at least save face, the Nets had acquired Nate Archibald, an explosive, New York-bred guard who was known as Tiny, one month earlier. Archibald had a bigger annual salary than Erving, which stiffened Erving’s resolve, despite his not wishing to leave Long Island, where he’d grown up.
“It’s tough to play Abraham Lincoln and George Washington in the frontcourt,” Loughery memorably told reporters when the news reached California that Erving was gone. He and his players were gutted, even if they came to realize that Boe’s inability to pay millions both for league entry and to the Knicks for territorial rights limited his options to one.
Still, Loughery has for decades wondered: what if? “I don’t know if we would have been a championship team, but we would have been very, very competitive,” he said.
Rod Thorn, who returned to Loughery’s side that season as an assistant after a one-year absence to coach the Spirits of St. Louis, offered a more certain revisionist take.
“History in New York basketball would have been changed,” he said. “We played and won exhibitions against N.B.A. teams. Every building was sold out for Doc. We also would have had a couple years’ window to add more pieces.”
Instead, Archibald played 34 games for the Nets and blew out an Achilles’ tendon. The team moved to Piscataway, N.J., to play in a college gym. Loughery and Thorn shared long drives from their homes on Long Island, epitomizing the detour into a competitive ditch.
The Nets and the 76ers had more peculiar chapters to co-author. Two years later, they played what may have been the weirdest game ever, when the N.B.A. upheld a Nets protest of technical fouls — the referee Richie Powers called three each on Loughery and Bernard King, one more than the limit for ejection.
The game was replayed more than four months later from a point in the third quarter, but before then the teams made a four-player trade. In the final box score of the suspended game — won by the 76ers — three of the players appeared on both sides.
Thorn later made what until further notice remains the most beneficial deal in the Nets’ N.B.A. history. As team president in 2001, he acquired Jason Kidd, who inspired successive runs to the finals. Thorn left New Jersey in 2010, joining the 76ers’ front office, essentially trading places with Billy King.
That put King at the Nets’ helm as they finished out their New Jersey run in April 2012 by hosting, of course, the 76ers.
Now Thorn watches from afar as Sean Marks, who succeeded King with the Nets, plays personnel chess, building on his big three by reeling in the former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge with the ease of signing escapees of the G League.
Skeptics worry about Durant’s health, Irving’s reliability and their sensitivity to criticism. Loughery has reservations about the perimeter defense of Harden and Irving. But Thorn has come to believe that the Nets will be fine as long as they remain in Harden’s soft hands.
“I’ve changed my opinion of him,” he said. “He dominated the ball so much in Houston, but he’s been a fantastic playmaker for them.”
As fate would have it, the Nets are challenging for Eastern Conference supremacy with the 76ers, along with Milwaukee. On Wednesday, they go to Philadelphia to confront a formidable group coached by a man nicknamed Doc (Rivers). On the Nets’ plus side, their owner, Joseph Tsai, is rich beyond belief. Lincoln and Washington didn’t make the cut.
Hideki Matsuyama of Japan Is the First Asian-Born Winner of the Masters
Matsuyama led the final round from start to finish at Augusta National, becoming the first Asian-born man to win the Masters.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hideki Matsuyama’s first swing in the final round of the 85th Masters was an unsightly banana-shaped slice that would have looked familiar on the nerve-racking first tee of any golf course in the world.
Matsuyama, who entered Sunday’s fourth round with a four-shot lead, had not slept much Saturday night, and the walk Sunday afternoon from the practice range to the golf course was more disquieting.
“When I got to the first tee it hit me,” Matsuyama said. “I was really nervous.”
But Matsuyama hunted down his wayward opening drive in the left woods and decisively chose an intrepid course, smashing his ball from a bed of wispy pine straw through a slender gap between two trees. Matsuyama’s caddie, Shota Hayafuji, yelped, “Woo,” which elicited a toothy grin from the typically undemonstrative Matsuyama.
Even though he bogeyed the first hole, the tone for his day was set.
A former teenage golf prodigy in Japan who has long been expected to break through on golf’s biggest stage, Matsuyama, 29, fearlessly charged the daunting Augusta National Golf Club layout on Sunday to build a commanding lead. Even with three unsteady bogeys in the closing holes, he persevered with a gutsy final-round 73 to win the 2021 Masters by one stroke and become the tournament’s first Asian-born champion.
Matsuyama, who finished 10 under par for the tournament, is also the first Japanese man to win a major golf championship. Will Zalatoris finished second, and Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth tied for third place at seven under par.
Matsuyama’s groundbreaking victory will make him a national hero in golf-crazy Japan, which has had a rich history of producing world-class male golfers who have come close to winning a major championship over the past several decades but have fallen short. Two Japanese women have won major golf championships. Matsuyama’s breakthrough comes at a time of unrest over racially targeted violence against Asians and Asian-Americans.
The new face of Japanese golf is shy and tight-lipped, so much so that when he was married and had a child in 2017 he kept it hidden from the golf world for seven months. Sunday, after receiving his ceremonial green jacket beside the 18th green, Matsuyama stood motionless, his arms at his sides as news photographers took his picture. Urged to look celebratory, he raised both arms overhead and meekly smiled. Emboldened by the winsome reaction it elicited, Matsuyama widened his grin and jabbed his fists in the air twice.
Led to a news conference, Matsuyama was asked if he was now the greatest golfer in Japanese history.
“I cannot say that I am the greatest,” he answered through an interpreter. “However, I’m the first to win a major, and if that’s the bar, then I set it.”
Matsuyama was more interested in answering what effect his victory might have on young Japanese golfers.
“Up until now, we haven’t had a major champion in Japan, maybe a lot of young golfers thought it was an impossibility,” he said. “Hopefully this will set an example that it is possible and if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.”
Matsuyama, who had the low score for an amateur at the 2011 Masters, was ranked as high as second in the world four years ago, but suddenly fell into a slump. Until Sunday, he had not won a tournament since 2017 and his ranking had slipped to 25th worldwide.
But after a sparkling 65 in the third round Saturday — he had an eagle and four birdies in his final eight holes — Matsuyama came into the final round with a healthy cushion atop the leaderboard. He was steady at the start on Sunday, even after the opening-hole bogey. He rebounded with a birdie at the second, then reeled off five pars and cruised into the back nine with a comfortable five-stroke lead.
But as often happens on a Masters Sunday, odd, unforeseen things ensued.
At the par-5 15th hole, Matsuyama sized up a second shot in the fairway that was 227 yards from the flagstick. He said he “flushed” a 4-iron but his golf ball rocketed off the green and scooted into the water behind the hole. It was no small misstep, not with his playing partner Schauffele about to birdie his fourth consecutive hole. Matsuyama did not lose his poise or persistence. Taking a penalty stroke, he prudently chipped to the fringe of the green and two-putted for a bogey.
Schauffele was trailing by only two strokes when the duo stepped on the 16th tee. Still chasing the leader, Schauffele said he felt he had to go for another birdie, but his aggressive tee shot was short of the green and trickled into a pond.
Schauffele said the notoriously swirling Augusta National winds double-crossed him, a familiar rejoinder, and likely an accurate one.
“I hit a good shot; it turned out bad,” Schauffele, who made a triple bogey on the hole, said. “I’ll sleep OK tonight — I might be tossing around a little.”
The turn of events made the Masters rookie Zalatoris the closest pursuer to Matsuyama, especially after Zalatoris made a lengthy, downhill par putt on the 18th hole to finish the final round at nine under par, just two strokes behind Matsuyama.
With two holes left to play, Matsuyama hit a brilliant drive in the middle of the 17th fairway, launched a perfect wedge shot to the middle of the green and two-putted for par. At the 18th hole, he hit another perfect drive but his approach shot faded and landed in the greenside bunker to the right of the green. His recovery from the sand stopped six feet from the hole, but two putts still gave him the championship.
The second place finish by Zalatoris, who is in his first year on the PGA Tour, will raise his profile in the golf community considerably, especially in combination with his result at the 2020 United States Open where he tied for sixth. Leaving the 18th hole Sunday, Zalatoris, 24, received a standing ovation from the fans ringing the green.
“Absolute dream,” Zalatoris said. “I’ve been dreaming about it for 20 years.” He added: “I think the fact that I’m frustrated I finished second in my third major says something. Obviously, my two majors as a pro, I finished sixth and runner-up. I know if I keep doing what I doing, I’m going to have a really good chance in the future.”
Matsuyama also received a hearty, long ovation as he left the 18th green on Sunday. When he sank his final putt and the victory was assured, Matsuyama, unlike most golfers in that situation, had no visible reaction.
“I really wasn’t thinking anything,” Matsuyama acknowledged. “Then it started to sink in, the joy of being a Masters champion. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like, but what a thrill and honor it will be for me to take the green jacket back to Japan.”
Hideki Matsuyama Charges Into the Lead at the Masters
After a 78-minute rain delay, the golf course was far more forgiving with significantly slower greens, and Matsuyama will head into Sunday’s final round with a four-stroke lead.
[Follow live coverage of the 2021 Masters final round.]
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The third round of the Masters tournament began Saturday with a gusting wind that bedeviled the field and seemed to make the firm, already crusty Augusta National Golf Club greens more parched, speedy and vexing.
Then, just before 4 p.m., a rainstorm with the potential for thunder and lightning sent the golfers scurrying to the safety of the clubhouse. After a 78-minute suspension of play, players returned to a golf course that was far more forgiving with dampened, significantly slower greens. The wind had all but disappeared.
Sensing the reprieve, many in the field attacked.
Leading the charge was Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who shot a sparkling 65 by playing his final eight holes in six under par. At 11 under par for the tournament, Matsuyama, 29, will take an authoritative four-shot lead into Sunday’s final round. Four golfers are tied for second: Justin Rose, who led the first two rounds, Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman and the Masters rookie Will Zalatoris.
If Matsuyama, runner-up to Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters and the tournament’s low amateur in 2011, can retain his lead on Sunday, he will become the first Asian to win the Masters.
Matsuyama said he felt relaxed during the weather delay because the last shot he hit before the suspension — a drive off the 11th tee — was his worst swing of the round.
“I thought I can’t hit anything worse than that,” he said through an interpreter. “Maybe it relieved some of the pressure. I did hit it well after the delay.”
That is an understatement. Matsuyama, who is ranked 25th in the world, put on a superlative display of ball striking that may someday make up much of the highlight reel of the 2021 Masters.
Matsuyama began Saturday with six successive pars and caught Rose with a birdie on the seventh hole. Then he poured it on, beginning with an approach to the elusive 11th green that resulted in a converted 12-foot birdie putt. Matsuyama’s tee shot to the tricky par-3 12th settled only eight feet from the hole for another birdie. After two successive pars, Matsuyama eagled the par-5 15th hole when his second shot — a towering, precise 5-iron — landed four feet from the flagstick. His birdie putt on the par-3 16th was even closer, and Matsuyama banged it home confidently. The 17th hole was more of the same after two exceedingly accurate shots from the tee and the fairway.
The most nervous moment Matsuyama had on the back nine was when he flew his second shot 20 yards over the 18th green, but a nifty bump-and-run pitch left a tap-in par putt.
After the rainstorm, Matsuyama conceded he “hit practically every shot exactly like I wanted to do.”
If Matsuyama wins on Sunday, it would be the second victory for a Japanese golfer on the grounds in the last eight days. On April 3, the 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani, who is from Okayama, won this year’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament.
“It was fantastic,” Matsuyama said of Kajitani’s victory. “I hope I can follow in her shoes and make Japan proud.”
Matsuyama had seven PGA Tour and European Tour victories from 2014 to 2017. He said there were a variety of reasons he had been winless for the last few years, but noted that this year he began traveling with a Japanese coach, Hidenori Mezawa, which he called a “great benefit.”
“Things that I was feeling in my swing, I could talk to him about that, and he gives me good feedback,” Matsuyama said. “It’s like having a mirror for my swing. Hopefully now it’s all starting to come together.”
Before the weather delay, most of the second-round leaders played inconsistently or downright struggled. Rose, who began Saturday with a one-stroke lead at seven under par, opened with birdies on the first two holes but then had bogeys on the fourth and fifth. Rose rallied to shoot even par the rest of the way. Brian Harman, who trailed Rose by one stroke to begin his round, slumped to a 74 that left him at four under for the tournament.
The most roller-coaster outing was turned in by Jordan Spieth, who in the second round had moved to within two strokes of Rose. On the seventh hole on Saturday, Spieth sent his approach shot over the green, then flubbed a chip shot and hit an overly aggressive bunker shot that led to a double bogey.
He was in even more trouble on the next hole when his tee shot went so far left it appeared he was almost replaying the seventh. Buried in the woods, Spieth lofted an iron shot over a tall stand of pine trees that landed three feet from the eighth hole for an easy birdie. A chip-in birdie on the 10th hole followed, as did another at the 15th, but those successes were offset by the setbacks, and Spieth concluded with a round of 72, trailing Matsuyama by six shots.
Zalatoris seemed the most at ease as the third round began with a string of pars and a nifty birdie on the par-4 third hole. But Zalatoris, 24, did not appear to adjust well to the slower green speeds after the rainstorm, and missed several birdie putt attempts on the back nine to shoot 71.
Corey Conners, with a hole in one on the sixth hole, made the biggest early move up the leaderboard on Saturday to finish at six under par, just behind the gaggle tied for second.
Schauffele, who was grouped with Matsuyama, shot an impressive 68 and still had time to exchange repartee in Japanese with his playing partner. Schauffele’s maternal grandparents lived in Japan, and he said he has picked up some of the language.
Or as Matsuyama said of his conversation with Schauffele: “We didn’t get a chance to talk a lot, but when we did, we exchanged some good Japanese jokes and had a good laugh.”
Matsuyama and Schauffele are together again for Sunday’s final round, and are scheduled to tee off at 2:40 p.m. Eastern time.
What Channel Is the Masters On? How to Watch and Stream It
Coverage of the Masters Tournament is split across a number of television networks, streaming platforms and websites, making it confusing to understand how to watch. The good news is that there are a number of viewing options, some of them free, for golf fans.
Here is how you can catch Sunday’s final round.
The traditional television coverage of the tournament’s final round, which will culminate with somebody donning a green jacket, can be seen on CBS from 2 to 7 p.m. Eastern time. That coverage will be simulcast in the CBS Sports app and on the Paramount+ streaming service.
Groups begin teeing off in the morning, however, and you can start watching the Masters with your coffee. On the Masters livestream there are four different “channels” to watch:
Holes 15 and 16
Holes 4, 5 and 6
These options all begin and end at different times, depending on when the first golfers reach the different holes, but the featured groups channel kicks things off at 10:25 a.m. Eastern. The featured groups are Paul Casey and Billy Horschel (10:30 a.m.), Bryson DeChambeau and Harris English (11 a.m.), Justin Spieth and Brian Harman (2:10 p.m.) and Justin Rose and Marc Leishman (2:30 p.m.).
You can watch the Masters livestream in a number of different places. ESPN+, Paramount+, the CBS Sports app, CBSSports.com and Masters.com all carry it.
If you are more interested in analysis from talking heads and footage of golfers practicing before their tee times, the Golf Channel is live from the Masters both before and after the main coverage on CBS. If you miss the final round, encore coverage begins almost immediately, at 8 p.m. Eastern on the CBS Sports Network.
He Sought Refuge in Online Poker: ‘This Is Never About the Cards’
The author is not good at the game. But games played online while meeting on a video call with strangers provided connection at the right time.
One of my closest friends is Myki Bajaj, a 30-year-old film and television producer in Los Angeles. We see each other every week, and we usually speak multiple times. Our conversations span from the mundane — sports and culture and the like — to more serious topics, like family and being brown in America. We mull traveling together and frequently talk about projects on which to collaborate.
What makes our friendship unusual — or perfectly normal based on 2021 standards — is that I have met Myki in person one time. It was last year at a chance work meeting on the West Coast, just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
Our friendship blossomed through a medium I never would have expected: online poker served with a side of Zoom.
I won’t miss the pandemic, with the suffering and isolation it has caused across the planet. And I am one of the lucky ones. Knock on wood: I am healthy and have remained employed throughout the last year.
But, I will miss one thing about quarantine life whenever it’s over. I have developed real bonds with people through poker, which is, ironically, a game inherently built on mistrust.
Immediately after much of the United States went on lockdown last March, Myki offhandedly invited me to play a poker game with his college friends in the midst of one of our first catch-up conversations. He is an avid player. Before last year, he would host a low-stakes game on Fridays in his backyard for everyone to de-stress from their workweeks. I am whatever the opposite of avid is. Sporadic? Occasional? Oh, actually, the words I’m looking for are not good.
In the pandemic version of the game, each player — and there were up to 14 of us — would download an online poker app and then get on a group video call as we played and act as if we were in the backyard. Myki’s friends were scattered all around the country. New York. Los Angeles. Washington. Atlanta. Seattle. One even tuned in from London at a ridiculous hour. But this game brought all of us to the same place at the same time.
Our amateur saloon, which could be open for more than four hours at a time, became a regular meeting spot, weekly and occasionally multiple times a week. I began to look forward to it. And while I did not quite realize it as it was happening, I became close with this group of strangers. In the absence of happy hours and normal workplace socializing, they became a respite from the monotony and seclusion that was suddenly our collective normal.
The Zoom discussions, punctuated with yells about bluffs and lucky flush draws, would veer from politics to literature to dating and many other topics. I invited some of my friends to join, and suddenly, my previous acquaintances were meeting my new ones, creating connections upon connections. Sometimes, the calls would be silent as cards were dealt. Not because we were trying to hide our hands or concentrate on our pocket pairs, but because the group had become comfortable with nothingness: the true hallmark of healthy relationships.
Soon, I realized that we weren’t the only ones who had sought out this hybrid Zoom-poker virtual outlet for comfort. A friend at work invited me to join his weekly poker game that he and his friends had started with a similar setup. And suddenly, I had become friendly with yet another group of people whom I probably never would have met otherwise. And then there were the one-on-one games with my friend Alex, another person with whom online poker greased the wheels for a friendship.
The relationships quickly became about more than poker. In one group, we celebrated birthdays. In another, we exchanged holiday gifts. Aaron, whom I have never met, sent me a homemade beer brewing kit. I sent Mitch a bottle of champagne. One of the poker players has come in handy professionally: Ben, a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, helped me with multiple articles I wrote about the N.B.A. team.
There is precedent for people turning to gambling games in a pandemic. In 1918, as the country was ravaged by the Spanish flu, law enforcement would break up underground gambling saloons operating despite a ban on in-person gatherings.
You might be wondering why I keep talking about these games in the past tense. Can’t they continue even if people start going out again? It’s not as if Zoom is going to disappear like the sun at night. And that’s true. In theory, the games can continue. I imagine they sometimes will, for nostalgia’s sake.
But it’s getting warmer outside and more and more people are getting vaccinated. People haven’t seen their friends and family in person in months. Why would you spend hours staring at a computer on a Saturday night when you can be out and about for the first time in more than a year?
We’re already playing less than we used to. I take heart that less poker indicates that the country is seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. But given that it’s more difficult to find meaningful connections when you leave your 20s, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss.
And then I am reminded of something Myki once said to me.
“This is never about the cards.”
The Yankees Have a Rough Day as Rays Gets Rings and Then Romp
Aaron Judge was sidelined once again, and Gio Urshela was put on the Covid-19 injured list because of vaccine side effects.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays insist it didn’t matter who was on the other side of the field.
Yes, it felt good to unveil a couple of more title banners at Tropicana Field and beat the Yankees, 10-5, in their home opener Friday. However, the reigning A.L. champions said it was important to break out of an early-season offensive funk regardless of the opponent.
Rich Hill pitched six strong innings, Austin Meadows, Joey Wendle and Brandon Lowe led a hit parade against Corey Kluber and New York’s bullpen, and the Rays thumped the Yankees to end a four-game losing streak.
“There’s no denying it was different than what we saw the last two or three days,” Manager Kevin Cash said, looking back on being swept by Boston at Fenway Park earlier in the week.
Hill, a 41-year-old lefty who’s played 17 seasons with 10 teams, allowed four runs and four hits — all with two outs in the third inning — before retiring his final 10 batters.
Hill (1-0) struck out seven without issuing a walk, and Tampa Bay scored five early runs off Kluber (0-1) in his second start for the Yankees. Meadows had three of the Rays’ 13 hits, one of five Tampa Bay players with a multi-hit game.
Wendle and Lowe both doubled with the bases-loaded, combining to drive in five.
Aaron Hicks and D.J. LeMahieu homered for the Yankees, who have dropped nine of 11 regular season meetings against Tampa Bay.
“Going back years, we had fits going into Yankee Stadium and fits with them coming here,” Cash said.
With the teams standing along the first- and third-base lines for pregame introductions, the Yankees were forced to watch a video recap of Tampa Bay’s 2020 success, which included the Rays’ third A.L. East title, a victory over the Yankees in the A.L.D.S. and the franchise’s second pennant.
The salute was capped by the unveiling of two banners commemorating the latest division title and A.L. crown.
“It didn’t matter to anybody about who was on the other side of the field,” Lowe said, shrugging off a question about if it was any more satisfying to raise the banners with the Yankees in town. “That was our moment.”
The Rays roughed up Kluber, scoring two unearned runs in the second inning and chasing the Yankees starter with three runs to regain the lead after falling behind 4-2 in the third.
Wendle’s two-run double off reliever Nick Nelson drove in the final two runs charged to Kluber, who allowed five runs — three earned — and five hits in two and a third innings. On the way to building the lead to 9-4, Lowe drove in three with a fourth-inning double.
The Yankees played without slugger Aaron Judge, who sat out a second consecutive game with soreness in his left side. Gio Urshela was also out of the lineup after being placed on the Covid-19 injured list because of side effects from a vaccination.
LOS ANGELES — Justin Turner homered in the sixth inning, and the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrated their World Series ring ceremony day with a 1-0 victory over the Washington Nationals.
Walker Buehler pitched six strong innings as the Dodgers won a tidy pitchers’ duel in their home opener without injured star outfielders Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger.
Joe Ross threw five scoreless innings of two-hit ball for the Nationals, who lost their third straight after starting the season late and short-handed because of coronavirus cases and quarantines.
The Dodgers received their World Series championship rings in a pregame event in front of the fans who weren’t allowed inside Dodger Stadium in 2020 while their franchise won its seventh title. Clayton Kershaw, Betts and their teammates were cheered by a pandemic-limited sellout crowd of 15,036 while they got their jewelry at Chavez Ravine.
Corey Knebel struck out the side in the ninth for his second save, completing the shutout by four Dodgers pitchers in this meeting of the last two World Series champions. Washington was shut out for the second straight game, although Wednesday’s whitewash was the back end of a seven-inning doubleheader.
Fans hadn’t been in Dodger Stadium since Game 5 of the 2019 N.L. division series, when the Nationals eliminated Los Angeles on the way to their own championship. Washington also kept the powerhouse Dodgers out of the World Series for the only time in the past four seasons.
Buehler (1-0) yielded six hits with four strikeouts and no walks in another strong start for LA.
The Toronto Blue Jays, who are prevented from playing in their home park because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, held Thursday’s home opener in front of 1,348 fans at TD Park in Dunedin, Fla., but their days of calling a spring training facility home may be numbered. The team’s Class AAA affiliate in Buffalo announced on Friday that it would be temporarily relocating to Trenton, N.J., while its stadium, Sahlen Field, is upgraded to major league standards.
In a letter to fans, the Bisons suggested the changes would allow for “the potential return of the Blue Jays to Sahlen Field.”
There is no timetable for the Blue Jays to relocate from Florida to Buffalo — it is not even guaranteed that it will happen — but preparations are being made just in case. Toronto had pledged to call Dunedin home for at least the first three homestands of the season. BENJAMIN HOFFMAN
Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced the latest round of coronavirus testing results on Friday.
In the weekly results, 12,494 tests were conducted and only four new positives (one M.L.B. player, one alternative site player and two staff members) were reported. To date, the league had conducted 105,633 tests, either in monitoring or intake situations, with 43 total positives. Yet 20 of the league’s 30 teams have had at least one positive from an individual covered by the testing. BENJAMIN HOFFMAN
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