By In Stuff

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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Marvelous Sounding Stats

On Thursday, during the Cleveland-New York playoff game, the excellent Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz made a pretty big deal of a marvelous sounding statistic.

They pointed out that teams that win Game 1 of a five-game series win 72% of the series.

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Browns Week 4: Marty

I wrote something in the hours after the Browns’ loss to Cincinnati — something about the awfulness of the game, and the sensible decision of my PosCast partner Michael Schur to rescind his temporary Browns fanhood, and the sheer hopelessness of rooting for a team that seems to stuck in time, adding players but never improving, changing methods but never developing, hiring new coaches but never seeming to learn any lessons at all. For various reasons, it just didn’t seem quite appropriate at the time so I did not post it.

Then I saw ESPN’s touching and heartbreaking piece on Marty Schottenheimer.

Football has stopped mattering to me. I don’t say that as any kind of political or social statement; I’m not trying to convince anyone to like football or not like football. I’m speaking personally. I just don’t care about football anymore. The reasons are — well, to be honest with you, I have not spent a lot of time considering the reasons. I’m sure you could guess at a few of them. Doesn’t matter. Gradually, over the last decade or so, I stopped enjoying the game as much and then I stopped enjoying the game at all and then, finally, one day, I thought, “If I’m

not enjoying this, why do I still watch?”

And I stopped. The other day I was in a restaurant and looked up to see my old pal Herm Edwards and others arguing (or simply discussing — the sound was off) the “sideline tantrum of Antonio Brown.

I cannot begin to tell you the bliss, the absolute and unqualified joy, I felt not knowing a single thing about it.

Ah, but I still watch the Browns every week, still do this diary … and that’s because of Marty Schottenheimer. It’s not only Marty. I watch the Browns because it connects me to a childhood when the Browns were EVERYTHING, my North, my South, my East, my West, my working week and my Sunday rest. Yes, it’s goofy that when I think of that gorgeous and haunting W.H. Auden poem, the Browns come to mind, but that’s how it was. I mark my entire childhood by the Browns, by who their quarterback was, by who their coach was, by how close any particular event was to Red Right 88 or the Drive or the time a dentist named Dave Mays somehow led Cleveland to a victory over mighty Pittsburgh.

Mays was later acquitted of murder and later still convicted of fraud, but that’s another story.

There was a silly commercial they used to play in Cleveland with the song “Cleveland’s a great place to live,” as the theme. During the commercial there was a scene of Browns quarterback Brian Sipe throwing a pass to legendary sports broadcaster Gib Shanley and the ball hitting Shanley in the butt. I think of the commercial at least once a month, often once a week. I think of that commercial way more than I think of anything of value I learned in school. It isn’t that my childhood was influenced by the Cleveland Browns. My childhood WAS the Cleveland Browns.

That’s why I write this Browns diary. I want to keep a bit of that kid alive. I plan to watch precisely 16 games this season, all Cleveland Browns, and not a single minute of anything else football.

Back to Marty: I was 17 and at the very height of my Browns madness when Schottenheimer became head coach of the Cleveland Browns. It happened two weeks after Sam Rutigliano buried himself with one of the more bizarre calls in NFL history. I loved Sam Rutigliano; he seemed to me then the ideal football coach. He was fun, he was funny, he was a little bit nutty, it was like your favorite teacher becoming football coach of your favorite team. And man did he love throwing the football. Few coaches did then — Coryell, Walsh, Rutigliano, whoever was at Brigham Young. Under Rutigliano’s watchful eye, Sipe became just the third quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. That was a big deal then.

“What we do best is passing the football,” Rutigliano said. “And besides, anything else would be increasingly boring.”

See? How can you not love that guy? I was at my most naive then; I was 17 but already in college, unsure about everything but I believed in the power of good intentions and that no deficit was too big to overcome. Rutigliano helped teach me that. He was a happy and lovable guy who coached as if he was on a perpetual gambler’s lucky streak.

Unfortunately, gambler’s lucky streaks end — or, more to the point, they are probably illusions from the start — and the Browns lost plenty of games they should have won because Sam just wasn’t quite buttoned up. Then came that bizarre game against New England. The Browns trailed the Patriots by a point with 23 seconds left. They were at the New Engliand 21, so well in field goal range. They also had no timeouts. It was obvious they would kick the field goal and ride out the inevitable Hail Mary and take the victory.

Only they didn’t. Rutigliano — in a call that echoed but was in fact tactically much worse than Red Right 88 — called a pass play for his quarterback Paul McDonald. It was such a wild lapse in football judgment that McDonald himself pleaded with Rutigliano to just kick the field goal. Rutigliano insisted on the pass. McDonald threw the interception.

And Browns fans sang “Goodbye Sam!” as the team ran off the field.

“Very frankly,” Rutigliano said immediately after the game, “it was the wrong decision.”

Browns owner Art Modell agreed it was the wrong decisions, then said he would absolutely not fire Rutigliano during the season because that wasn’t the right thing to do, then two weeks later he fired Rutigliano during the season because he was Art Modell. He hired the Browns’ defensive coordinator, Marty Schottenheimer. I had no idea then how much the guy would influence my life.

Schottenheimer was sort of the opposite of Rutigliano. He was not fun. He was not especially charismatic. More to the point, he had this Eeyore quality about him; while Rutigliano always saw the glass as half full, Marty saw the glass as undoubtedly poisoned. Sam believed that destiny rewards the bold and pure of heart. I believe Marty Schottenheimer started every morning fully believing that his car would not start.

But this was EXACTLY what I needed at that moment in my life. The favorite schoolteacher who gave out A’s like candy was gone. In his place was the teacher who absolutely docks you points for spelling and grammar. Marty, more than anyone else, taught me that success comes from all these little things that nobody wants to talk about.

“Focus and finish,” he used to say.

“One play at a time,” he used to say.

“When the game is on the line, you call your best play for your best player,” he used to say.

“Do not underestimate the power of the human will,” he used to say.

There are dozens more; I wrote them down once, and I probably have that sheet somewhere. Martyball Principles, I think I called it. Every single time I have ever spent too much time futzing around with some story as deadline I think “Focus and finish.” Every single time I have faced a steep and impossible seeming project, I have to told myself “One play at a time.” They are cliches. But I hear them in the gruff voice of Schottenheimer, in that tone they take on something more.

He talked often about “The Gleam.” He would constantly tell his players, “There’s a gleam, men. Go get the gleam.” There’s a video of Browns defensive lineman Bob Golic saying, “We had no idea what he was talking about.” Well, of course they didn’t know. I didn’t know either, but it sounded so good that I had to figure it out.

And so a football coach pushed a kid to find Tennyson’s poem …

Not of the sunlight,

Not of the mooonlight,

Not of the starlight!

O young Mariner,

Down to the haven,

Call your companions,

Launch your vessel,

And crowd your canvas,

And, ere it vanishes

Over the margin,

After it, follow it, 

Follow The Gleam

I don’t know if “Merlin and the Gleam” was really the inspiration for Marty. I never asked him. And it doesn’t matter. What mattered was that he took the mess that was Rutigliano’s Browns and, piece by piece, one play at a time, he put them together again, this time in his image: Sensible, tough, sturdy, relentless, boring — and successful He did the same thing in Kansas City (now EXTRA boring!) and San Diego.

His teams usually made the playoffs, and in the playoffs they lost, often in heartbreaking ways that justified Schottenheimer’s sense of the world. He was one of America’s leading spokesmen against turning the ball over … so his teams would lose on fumbles. He was so conservative a playcaller that the National Playcalling Association gave him a perfect 100% rating … so his teams lost on missed field goals. One memorable day he asked the reporters in the room to please turn off their tape recorders and just tell him what he was doing wrong.

But if you look closely at the record, you find that he wasn’t really doing anything wrong, he was instead a prisoner of doing so much right. Marty’s teams constantly overachieved. They did not have the talent to do what they did. They posted these gaudy records, and then they would inevitably face a more talented team in the playoffs — through the years, he was beaten (and beaten) by Dan Marino, by John Elway, by Jim Kelly, by Tom Brady. He never had a quarterback like that. Through the years, he was beaten when the players had momentary lapses, when officials made questionable calls, when some lousy break happened.

And, sure, through the years he lost too when he fell back into himself. He could have used just 5% of Rutigliano’s go-for-broke spirit. It might have made a different. And, then again, maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference at all.

Either way, Marty Schottenheimer changed my life. In later years, when I covered him as a columnist in Kansas City, we didn’t always appreciate each other. But we mostly did. I remember him once calling me into his office, beginning with “Look, I respect that you have a job to do,” and then proceeding to tell me about two dozen ways that I was doing that job wrong. We talked through it, I listened to him, he listened to me, we came to an understanding. And then he talked about where to get the best Beef on Weck in Buffalo and how a receiver missing a block was the real reason Ernest Byner fumbled that day and, incredibly, how he wished he was a better writer.

“Maybe if I could have written better, I wouldn’t be doing this football coaching thing,” he said.

“Maybe if I had been a better football player, I wouldn’t be doing this writing thing,” I said.

He smiled. “I think I got closer to the dream than you did,” he said.

He did. He got a lot closer to the dream … and the gleam … ere it vanishes … over the margin … after it, follow it …

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The Last Game

In all those trying years when the Kansas City Royals were but a blinking, barely visible blip on the Major League Baseball radar, old baseball fans around town would sometimes talk about the old days. “You wouldn’t believe it,” the conversations would begin, “but Kansas City used to be a baseball town.”

Nobody did believe it … well, nobody too young to remember believed it. For almost a quarter-century, the Royals slogged and wheezed through forgettable year after lamentable year. From 1990 to 2012, 23 soul-crushing seasons, the Royals never won even 85 games in a season. Eight times they lost 95 games. Ten different managers piloted the team to 442 more losses than victories; two of those managers were of the interim variety because a manager was fired midseason. One, the loyal Bob Schaefer, served as an interim manager twice.

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2000 vs. 2017

You have no doubt heard that Major League Baseball players set a record this year for most home runs hit in a season. Alex Gordon was the guy who hit the homer that broke the record set in 2000, an irony that we can save for another day.

The home run explosion started in mid-season 2015 — we can practically pinpoint the day. Let’s go with August 3, 2015. That day, the Giants and Braves hit eight home runs, the Rangers and Astros hit five, The Arizona Diamondbacks hit five, Yangervis Solarte hit two home runs, Scooter Gennett homered (before we knew he was a legend) and so on. That day didn’t particularly stand out at the time … but the home run thing has been on ever since.

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Browns Week 3: Where Art Thou Peppers?

There’s a famous sports story that probably goes back to Atlanta’s legendary columnist Lewis Grizzard. It seems that he was covering a Georgia football game, one that was disastrous for the Bulldogs. He led his column with the line, “My mother always told me that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

And then he left the rest of the column blank.

I have often thought about that — it is genius on a couple of levels. One, it’s very funny. But two, it meant he did not have to actually write a column about the Bulldogs playing a stinker of a game. I have often longed to do something like that myself, but, well, it had already been done. Sometimes, you think all the good ideas have already been taken.

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Browns Diary Week 2: Blech

Joe-Thomas.jpg

The temptation when following an NFL team is to think of a football season the same way you would think of a television series over a season. That is to say, you want there to be a plot, or at least the semblance of a plot, to follow each week. These two are beginning to fall in love (or are they?), OK, how did that advance? This one’s life is in danger, what did we learn about that this week? She is searching for her Mom, he is hoping to save his brother, they are on the trail of the murderer — what did we find out on this week’s show?

Trouble is, the NFL — especially for lousy teams like my Browns  — isn’t like that at all.

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The 1916 Giants Winning Streak

The 1916 New York Giants, managed by the great John McGraw and carried by two-time Federal League batting champion Benny Kauff, five-time runs leader George Burns and Hall of Famer High Pockets Kelly, won 26 games in a row.

You should know up front: All 26 games were played at home in the Polo Grounds.

One gorgeous thing about baseball is the way that we fans will contort ourselves to maintain the illusion that baseball, alone, has remained constant. Football and basketball fans do not do this. You will never hear a basketball fan wondering aloud how Jumpin’ Joe Fulks (The Kuttawa Clipper!) would match up against LeBron James. No football fan thinks, “Sure, Aaron Rodgers is fine, but give me Arnie Herber every day of the week.”

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Browns Diary Week 1: Hope

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This nutty Browns diary began with an idea. When I was a kid, the Cleveland Browns were the most important thing in my life. The Browns were also the second most important thing and the third most important thing. I thought about them constantly. I spent my time in classes writing Browns previews. I spent after school hours daydreaming about them. I skipped school to see who they would draft. I refused to eat when they lost, a diet that probably would have been pretty useful as an adult.

But as an adult … the Browns thing went away. This happened for a bunch of reasons, some of them obvious (the ACTUAL Browns went away and I was a columnist in Kansas City focused on the Chiefs) and some of them less so (I began losing my love of football). A couple of years ago, I decided to start writing this weekly Browns diary to reconnect not to football (still don’t love it) but to childhood.

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