By In Stuff

More on WAR

For a few years now, Bill James has had a problem with WAR. He has mostly stayed quiet on this because, well, he knows that he’s Bill James. He remembers how the people who held the power in baseball punched down hard on him as a young analyst. He has some power now, being a legend and one of Time Magazine’s most influential people and the Godfather of Moneyball and a three-time World Series winner with the Boston Red Sox. He does not want to punch down hard at the young analysts today. He absolutely wants to encourage people to advance baseball thought.

But, like I say, he has a real problem with WAR. And Thursday night, armed with strong feelings about the Jose Altuve-Aaron Judge MVP race, Bill let it rip.

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dWAR to end all WARs

Baseball Reference never stops improving, which is one of the reasons I love the place. The searches keep getting better. It gets easier and easier all the time to find cool stuff. Love it.

But I have to admit: dWAR baffles me.

dWAR is Baseball Reference’s “Defensive Wins Above Replacement.” It is such a convenient concept — a one-stop number that estimates how much value above replacement level a player brings with his defense — that I look at it all the time. But, like Inigo says in the movie, I don’t think it means what we think it means.

Take Keith Hernandez. Please.

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Browns Diary: The Goal Line

It is an odd thing to give up football. For the first 50 or so years of my life (and especially the first 30 or so years of my life as a sportswriter), football governed my autumns. Every fall weekend, I had to go — physically go sometimes, yes, but more often mentally and emotionally go — to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Foxboro, Massachussetts., to Manhattan, Kansas, to Oakland, to Austin, to Cincinnati, to Ann Arbor, to Athens, to East Rutherford, to Pasadena, to wherever the kickoffs mattered most.

All those years, I could not imagine life without football. The sport was as much a part of me as the music I listened to, the books I read, the friends I made, the air I breathed.

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It’s the Cleveland Browns

“It’s the Cleveland Browns

When they’re Siped up, you can’t shut ’em down

Take your tranquilizers, pop your beer-can lids

It’s the Kardiac Kids.”

That is the chorus of a novelty song from my childhood, a song called “The Kardiac Kids,” by Messenger. It came out in Cleveland in 1980 when the Browns had a semi-magical season, and I probably hear that chorus in my head once or twice a month. It’s like that gum commercial in “Inside Out.” I expect to hear it in my head for the rest of my life.

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Browns Diary: Never Give Up

–“The Browns haven’t given up. You have to credit them for that.”
Announcer Trent Green with 4:58 left in game and Browns down two touchdowns.

“I agree with not calling a timeout here. They’re down two touchdowns … just get out of here.”
Announcer Trent Green with 1:12 left in game and Browns down two touchdowns.

* * *

Trent Green is an old pal, so I’m not singling him out here. This is what you get when you watch Cleveland Browns football*. One minute, the announcer is overwhelmingly impressed by how the Browns just don’t quit. They next minute, the announcer advising the Browns to, yeah, go ahead and quit before someone else gets hurt. It’s a Browns life.

*Honestly, why would you do that to yourself?

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Browns Week 7: Penalty declined

The Cleveland Browns in Week 7 lost a legend, continued their quarterback clown show and committed 12 penalties including, somehow, FIVE defensive offside penalties, and feat so remarkable that announcer Spero Dedes called it incredible. Twice. The Browns needed a missed field, a stop at the 1 and a bizarre slice 54-yard field goal just to force overtime against a Tennessee team that seemed entirely uninterested in winning the game. Then the Titans won the game in overtime anyway to make the Browns 0-7 and to make head coach Hue Jackson 1-22 and to make my own life so sadly predictable.

“Is the game over?” my wife asked as she brought the kids home from girls afternoon outing.

“Yes,” I said. “The Browns lost.”

“Well, I knew that,” she said.

All of this, I’m told, was a step forward. This is what it is to be a Cleveland Browns fan.

Actually this was a good week to be a Browns fan because my friend Tommy Tomlinson came over for the first time to watch the game with me. Another friend, Jonathan Abrams, author of this marvelous upcoming oral history of The Wire, stopped in for a little bit but he had the good sense to bring a baby and, as such, had a ready-made excuse to leave at any point. Tommy does not have a baby and so was forced to stay until the bitter end.

In truth, it was good to have Tommy there — good for me anyway — because it reminded me how ridiculous this team is, how ridiculous this organization is, and how ridiculous my life is for caring. This should be intrinsic knowledge but, like the knowledge that we are all going to die, it is easily pushed down deep,

On the first series of the game, Tommy was given a great give, a full sense of what it is to be a Browns fan. The Titans had the ball, 3rd and 1 on the Cleveland 32. They were in field goal range, just so we are all clear here. The Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota threw an incomplete pass. But there was a flag on the play. The Titans had committed a 15-yard facemask penalty when trying to block Browns rookie sensation Myles Garrett. Woo hoo! Back ‘em up to midfield!

Then the camera showed a closeup of Hue Jackson, and it was the damndest thing. It was like a bizarre optical illusion where it looked like, well, this will sound crazy, I’m sure it was just the lighting or something, but it looked like Hue Jackson was waving his arms as if he wanted to DECLINE THE PENALTY.

Of course, this couldn’t be true — it had to be the way the angle of the sun or something — because no one with even a basic grasp of football rules would decline the penalty there. Ha ha! If you accept the penalty, the other team is moved back the 47, well out of field goal range, and it’s 3rd and 16, and even the Browns can stop a team on 3rd and 16. But if you accept the penalty, you give them the field goal and, even worse, the option to go for it on fourth and one. No one would do that, no one on earth, but here was the strange part. The officials seemed confused and proceeded as if the Browns DID decline the penalty. Perhaps they too were swayed by this optical illusion. I just kept waiting for the error to be fixed.

But nope, they just kept on going as if Hue Jackson REALLY declined the penalty. The Titans sent out their offense like it was fourth and one.

I looked to Tommy, who sat there on the couch slack jawed. This was eye-opening. See, he KNEW the Browns were terrible. Everybody knows that. He KNEW the Browns were capable of astonishing acts of incompetence. Everyone knows that. But this … this was getting a bit too close to the sun.

It goes without saying the Browns jumped offside to give the Titans the first down.

Then, and only then, did Tommy understand. Sure, he’s been around bad teams all his life. He was an Atlanta Braves fan in the 1970s and 1980s. He roots for the Atlanta Hawks and Falcons, who have provided plenty of heartburn. But it wasn’t until the first series of the Browns-Titans game that he really got what this is about.

“Oh,” he said, as it was the end of The Sixth Sense. And, “Is it always like this?” And, “Why?

Why? It is, perhaps, the greatest of all existential questions. I’ve read that the philosophers way to respond to “Why?” Is “Why not?” But in this case, “Why not?” is easy? “Why?” remains.

In this way it was actually fun to school Tommy and Jonathan on the ins and outs of Browns fanhood. For example, Tommy often would say, “So this is where the Browns fumble?” Or, “So this is where the Browns lose the game?” And I would laugh my knowing laugh and say, “No, no, not yet.” It reminds me of the wonderful scene in “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray convinces Andie McDowell to spend the night, almost like a science experiment, and she expects him to disappear at midnight. When he does not disappear, she is baffled. He explains that nothing happens until 6 a.m. She feels a little bit cheated.

This is the part of being a Browns fan that is hard to explain …. they will rarely give you the satisfaction of making the dunce play when you most expect it. They do not have the decency to just blow the game while you are bracing yourself for it. Instead, you have to endure 66 minutes of awfulness, boredom and garbage truck crashes before the Browns lose in an entirely unsatisfying way. Sure, sometimes they will lose by having a field goal returned for a touchdown or by throwing a helmet and getting a penalty, but more often they lose blandly. You have to wait for it until it no longer seems worth waiting.

And so I kept telling Tommy, “Oh, they might get the first down here,” or “Oh it wouldn’t surprise me if he makes this field goal,” or “Yeah, the Titans might not score here.” It is only with a lifetime of watching the Browns, only with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, that you begin to really get the rhythm of this team’s true awfulness.

I’m pretty sure Tommy is now going to put in the necessary 10,000 hours.

There are two more things to discuss.

One … I had one of those out-of-body Browns experiences during this game without even realizing it. This happened early in the second half, I think, when Browns starting quarterback DeShone Kizer was still in the game. Kizer was pulled in the third quarter because he was absolutely terrible and anyway, at this point, Hue Jackson has lost the script. The idea coming in was to stick with Kizer through the hard times to develop him into this team’s quarterback. Hue has now benched him for all or part of the last four games. This time he benched Kizer for Cody Kessler, who was so bad in training camp he lost the starting job that was handed to him, then lost the backup job too.

Kessler was competent in replacing Kizer, by the way, only throwing one bad interception and showing a veteran’s sense of throwing the ball away when defenders steamrolled the guy now playing left tackle. I suspect there will be calls to start him this week because that’s the most chaotic decision imaginable.

Anyway, Kizer rolled right and looked downfield and it was entirely, abundantly, absolutely clear that he was going to throw an interception. It was clear from the snap. The intended receiver in the flat was not open so Kizer was going to throw the ball downfield. The man covering the flat backed off the receiver and was of course in the line where Kizer was looking. Kizer is too inexperienced and headstrong to not throw the ball. So he threw it. And Kevin Byard intercepted it. It was one of three interceptions for Byard.

“Have you ever seen a more obvious interception?” I shouted out while the ball was still in the air. I fully expected my friends to both share my sense of disbelief.

Instead they were both looking at me with an expression I can only call pity.

‘Well,” Jonathan said. “I didn’t see it. But you sure did.”

At which point, it occurred to me … I’d had a flash-forward. I’ve seen so many Browns horror show moments that now I’m seeing Browns fiascos before they actually happen. So … you know … yay me.

Two … watching Browns left tackle Joe Thomas go down with the first injury of his career after a record 10,363 consecutive snaps has crushed my spirit. Buddy Bell once said that things can always get worse, and that’s the only takeaway I have. In the three or so years I’ve been doing this Browns blog, Joe Thomas has been my lone salvation. Even while the world collapses around him, Thomas has been a weekly reminder that life is about giving your best even when it will make no difference at all, even when no one will notice, even when you’re coming off a loss and going into a loss and in the midst of a loss. It isn’t just that Joe Thomas deserves so much more than this team — he’s a Hall of Fame left tackle, one of the best to ever play his position, and the team around him never wins, of course he deserves more than this.

It’s that he plays as if he would not have it ANY OTHER WAY. He loves Cleveland. He loves the Browns. He has never asked to be traded. He has asked to NOT be traded. His optimism, like his game, never declines, never diminishes; he even ended his depressing Tweet about an MRI on Monday with: Go Browns!!

Two exclamation points.

There are people out there, more than I expected, who are reasonably OK with what the weekly slapstick comedy the Browns are putting on. See, the losing doesn’t matter to them, not now. The incompetence doesn’t matter. It’s about tomorrow. The team has gathered a bunch of draft picks. They are tanking another season and so should get more great draft picks next year. They seem to have acquired a star defensive player in Myles Garrett, and maybe there are a couple of other players on the defensive side of the ball who could be part of a good team, and there might even be an offensive weapon or two in the mishmash that is the Browns offense. Look at the Houston Astros! Look at the Chicago Cubs! They tanked! And then they won! These people preach patience and trust, two admirable traits, and suggest that all this losing will lead to better days.

Maybe they are right. Maybe there are better days ahead. But watching Joe Thomas go down — the indestructible Joe Thomas — is more than just a reminder about giving your best. It is a reminder that time is short, and the future isn’t promised, and this team has stunk beyond reason for a decade even with one of the best left tackles to ever play this game. I hope Joe’s MRI comes back negative (or positive — whatever the good one is). I hope Joe Thomas plays again soon and for as long as he wants. I hope he will continue to be an inspiration to those of us who find in him all that’s good in sports.

I also hope the next time around, Hue Jackson takes the 15-yard penalty when the opponent will face fourth and one from the Cleveland 32 yard line. You want to believe that things will get better.

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The Stupidest List Ever

We are eager for your outrage!”
— Editors of GQ

No, GQ, you aren’t. I know you write that you are eager for my outrage but, as Ferris Bueller once said, you don’t want this much heat. I don’t want this much heat. I didn’t begin reading your list of 50 greatest living athletes with the expectation of building THIS MUCH outrage. I expected that, if there was any outrage at all, it would be the fun kind, the sports kind, the “Ha ha, how could you have put Tom Brady on this list and not Peyton Manning,” kind of outrage.

So, no, I did not expect to feel a “This list is an abomination upon the earth and all people involved in it should be banished,” kind of outrage. I can’t sleep, GQ. I am sending angry texts to friends I haven’t talked to in 25 years. I am walking around with a cartoon bubble of “?#@*%!” floating over my head.

Yes, I’m letting this list get to me. I’m taking it too seriously. Read ahead at your own peril.

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Browns Week 6: Ouch

IMG_0581.JPG

There is a bar in Los Angeles, right off Hollywood Boulevard, called the Saint Felix. Best I can tell, there have been numerous Saint Felixes through the years, but none of them are patron saints. That’s a shame. Gregory the Great is the patron saint of teachers. St. Martha is the patron saint of dieticians.

I would like St. Felix to be the patron saint of the Cleveland Browns.

I mean, if ever a team needed one …

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The Spirit of the Rule

A few years ago, when I was a kid reporter in the Rock Hill (S.C.) Bureau of the Charlotte Observer, the biggest story on my innumerable beats was the college recruitment of Jeff Burris. He was a superstar running back at Northwestern High School and was among the most recruited football players in America. Everybody wanted Jeff.

One day, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz slipped into town to basically wrap up the deal. We caught word of it and tried to chase him down. I’ve told this story before; one of the great reporters I’ve known, Lolo Pendergast, gave me a crash course on the tenacity you need to be, well, one of the great reporters. She called anybody and everybody who might get us connected to Holtz. After digging, she was able to determine that he was a private plane, was able to call the airport where it landed to page him and then, after determining that was not good enough, she was able to somehow get word through air traffic control to Lou Holtz that we very much needed to talk with him. He called a few minutes later.

“Thank you so much for calling,” I told him; I was dizzy from the chase.

“What choice did I have?” Holtz replied.

In any case, he couldn’t say anything about signing Burris or even confirm that he had been in Rock Hill because of NCAA regulations — something I probably should have known but didn’t. But he did give me a quote that I still remember. He said, “I can’t say anything because as you know, here at Notre Dame, we follow not only the letter of the rules but the spirit of the rules.”

Yes, I do get the irony of Lou Holtz saying those words, but the point is I don’t believe I’d ever heard that phrase “spirit of the rule” before. I love that phrase. I love that concept. I think of the “Spirit of the Rules” as an actual thing, a ghostly being, and I imagine she looks down on us like with the same look my wife often gives our teenage daughter and says, “OH STOP IT, YOU KNOW WHAT I MEANT.”

I thought a lot about the spirit of the rules when I saw Washington’s José Lobatón get called out on replay Thursday night. Whew, I’ve written about replay a lot, but I think I had small burst of clarity about what replay does in sports, why we love it and why we’re sometimes frustrated by it. Replay is great at parsing plays to the letter. No, “great” does not quite cover it. Replay is better at getting the calls right to the letter than anything mankind has ever devised.

Alas, though, replay is not just blind but hostile to the spirit of the rules.

* * *

Let’s talk for just a moment about the Lobatón play. It was the eighth inning, what Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” called “The end of a very long day.” The Nationals trailed the Cubs by a run. Every inning of this game was mesmerizing and exhausting and controversial and tense and fun and infuriating; there really has never been another game quite like it. I hear people say that it was an all-time classic, and I hear others say that it was a terrible game, and I somehow agree completely with both of them.

Washington trailed by a run, and there were two outs, and the Nationals had runners on first and second. José Lobatón was the runner on first. He is a somewhat traveled 32-year-old backup catcher who — and this should tell you a bit about the nuttiness of this game — came into pinch-hit and then just stayed like that guy on the couch who doesn’t seem to realize that the party ended a while ago. Lobatón is a career .212 hitter, but that speaks to when he was in his prime. He hit .170 this year. But here he was in the spotlight of Game 5.

Then this was a game of survivors, and Lobatón survived … he even thrived, somehow lining a single off Cubs closer Wade Davis to set up the first and second situation. The crowd in Washington was delirious in the most literal sense — “in an acutely disturbed state of mind resulting from illness or intoxication and characterized by restlessness, illusions, and incoherence of thought and speech.” Nobody even knew what to think or feel anymore after this crazy game of a thousand pitchers, a game both teams had once led by a comfortable margin, a game with everything from catcher interference to an umpire getting hit in the face with a pitch to epic sword fighting to a battle of wits to the death to inconceivable blunders.

Just after the second pitch of Trea Turner’s at-bat, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras jumped to his feet and, with stunning speed, fired a throw to first base in an attempt to pick off Lobatón. Contreras loves to do this and why not? If I had that guy’s arm and athleticism I’’d do it even with nobody on base. Lobatón slid feet first into the bag and beat the throw. The umpire ruled him safe. And then, the madness began.

TBS broadcaster Ron Darling saw it first. “His foot came off the bag for just an instant,” Darling said. It was an impressive observation considering he’d only seen the play live. Replay, when you slowed it down enough and showed it from just the right angle, confirmed what Darling saw. Lobatón’s momentum (and awkward feet-first slide) was such that his toe popped off the bag for what was probably less than a second. The question then was: Did Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo have the tag on Lobatón at that precise second.

The first replay, the one that showed the Lobatón toe coming off the bag, was inconclusive about the tag. But there was a second replay, this one from behind first base that showed — not with 100 percent certainty but beyond reasonable doubt — that Rizzo did seem to keep the tag on Lobatón.

So if you took the evidence from the first replay and synced it with the evidence from the second replay, you had fairly compelling proof that Rizzo had indeed tagged Lobatón out when his foot slipped.

And the replay umpires were so compelled — they called Lobatón out, ending the threat and sending an already frazzled Washington Nationals fan base into shock. The Nationals went down 1-2-3 in the ninth inning and the Cubs now go on to play the Dodgers. The Washington Nationals still have not won a single playoff series.

So you already know: I despise the Lobatón call. It is everything I have railed against here since replay was first instituted. Ultra-technical, frame-by-frame calls like that, in my view, turn baseball from a living, breathing, physical, joyous sport into a boring, pointless legal battle with filings and motions and addendum and enough paperwork to make you go blind. It’s a game meant to be PLAYED not LITIGATED and at no point in the first 100-plus years of baseball did anybody care about the physical realities of sliding that sometime makes the foot or hand lose contact with the base for the blink of an eye.

But, this is probably going to surprise you: After being ticked off about the call for a few seconds, I sort of gave up. See, for a long while, what I’ve wanted to do blend what replay so does well (get the call right) with what replay does not do at all (respect the spirit of these rules).

I have proposed that replay umpires only watch the play at full speed so to reduce the Zapbruder-like breakdown of video to its tiniest parts. That probably would have given us a different call in this situation; I don’t think umpires could have called out Lobatón out if they only saw the play at regular speed. I have proposed being limited in how we use replay, so that the, for example, the only reviewable part of the Lobatón play would be whether or not he got back in time and NOT whether or not his foot squeaked off the bag. I have even proposed putting a common sense replay umpire at every game, and he or she would have wide latitude for how to use replay based on a deep understanding of baseball’s rules and why they exist.

I don’t necessarily think any of these would work … I have just been throwing stuff at the wall.

But after the Lobatón play, I realized something. It isn’t that replay is a neutral arbiter that simply doesn’t account for the spirit of the rules. Replay is actively DESTROYING the spirit of the rules. Replay, by its very nature, is hhere to say: The only thing that matters is the words of the rule. Any history of the rules, any nuance inside the rules, any wink-wink-nudge-nudge understandings within the rule are wiped out by replay.

There was a time you might remember when baseball had this unwritten “the ball got there first” spirit of the rule. It would happen on stolen base attempts mostly. The thought was if the ball got there first, the batter was out. Sure, if it was OBVIOUS that the tag was missed, the ump would call the runner save. But otherwise, he was out.

It’s funny to think back to it now. Sometimes, on replay, an announcer would say, “Hey, you know what? I don’t think he got the tag down.” But nobody really cared, nobody demanded anything be done about it, because THE BALL GOT THERE FIRST, which means the defensive team did the most important thing right, at least in the view of the time.

Well, replay doesn’t just obliterate THE BALL GOT THERE FIRST, it makes a mockery of such simple-minded thinking. Ball got there first? So what? The rule clearly states you have to tag the runner. The spirit of the rule is made to look ridiculous.* Maybe you think it is ridiculous but that just amplifies the point — a thought that guided the game for many years is instantly gone, unmourned.

_*”And a man in my position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous!” Surely I’m not the only one who has thought Jack Woltz from The Godfather was basically Harvey Weinstein — this garbage clearly has been going on in Hollywood since the beginning. _

That’s what replay does. My thinking about replay was off. It is not, as I thought, another tool to make sure calls are called right. It is, instead, a trade-off. We get rid of all the egregious calls. In their place, we call technically correct calls that might leave us shaking our heads. We get pinpoint accuracy. In exchange, Jose Lobaton is out.

I’m sure they could write the rule in such a way that replay would not overturn that call. And I’m equally sure that that new version of the rule would lead to something just as frustrating. I think Lobaton is out. It makes me kind of sad. But these are the choices we make.

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Browns Week 5: Reverse Engineering

I missed most of Sunday’s game between the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets because I was on a plane between Arizona and Los Angeles. You probably know that it’s a very short flight between Arizona and Los Angeles — less than an hour of airtime — but because I flew out of LAX and into Sky Harbor, I would say, door to door, the trip took, roughly, 12 days.

The point is that I missed most of the game … but when I landed in Phoenix and turned my phone on, I found these helpful text messages waiting for me.

“Browns are gonna Brown.”

“Browns. OMG.”

“Look at the first half stats. So gross.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

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