By In Stuff

The Human Element

At this point, you might know all about my various mixed feelings about instant replay in football — I’ve written about it enough. The good parts of instant replay are obvious and decisive — the NFL is using the best technology to get calls right more often. And there’s simply no way around that sort of precision in today’s game. We need it. Replay overturns terrible calls and clarifies close ones. Yes, we need it.

Now, coaches and teams are not powerless against a blown call (unless they’ve wasted their challenges, which happens). Sure, fans can and do still feel cheated by referees — for questionable holding calls, dubious pass interference no calls, etc. — but we can at least take solace in knowing the league is doing the best it can to fix mistakes. During the Chiefs-Chargers game Monday night, for instance, there was a punt that the Chargers were trying to down on the 1-yard line. Two different San Diego players were pretty clearly in the end zone while touching the ball. It was obvious in live action that the ball had to come back to the 20. But the official, in what seemed a momentary haze, placed the ball on the 1. That sort of bizarrely bad call doesn’t stand in NFL games anymore, and that’s simply worth whatever price. You can’t get the basic calls — in or out of bounds, fumble or no fumble, cross the goal line or no — obviously wrong, not in America’s most popular league.

The negative side, at least for me, has always been more nebulous and imprecise. I don’t like the way instant replay changes the flow of the game. I don’t enjoy how much of pro football has become legal wrangling — get a decision and then wade through the appeal process. I don’t like the conditional aspects of cheering for a big play and then having to wait and see if it stands up. But we’ve all gotten used to it, and again I don’t think we really have much choice. When there’s more precise and better technology, you have to use it. That’s just reality. That’s why I believe baseball can hold out for a while, but sooner or later replay will become a bigger part of the game. You can’t keep getting calls wrong when there’s a way to get those same calls right.

One thing I will say, though, is I’ve never quite followed when people say: “But replay takes out the human element of the game.” Well, I followed to a point … I had a certain idea in my mind of what this means. I’ve always thought wanting the human element involved means having real people make calls. Why? Many of us don’t want our games officiated or umpired by robots. It’s visceral. Also many of us want the rules administered with some level of common sense, the stuff that goes beyond replay and machines.

For instance, there’s the check swing rule in baseball. The rule has been handled differently through the years … I can remember when the accepted rule seemed to be that a batter had to “break his wrists” for a checked swing to be a strike. Then the rule seemed to be that the bat had to cross home plate for it to be a strike, or the head of the bat had to go past the foul line. There is none of this in the rulebook, however. The rulebook merely says that the ball is called a strike if it is “struck at by the batter and is missed.” That’s it. And so now, best I can tell, the interpretation of the rule involves intent — did the batter intend to swing at the ball and miss it. If so, it’s a strike. Even though this is more nebulous — we can’t really KNOW anyone’s intentions — I actually like it better than some hard and fast rule. Some batters are strong enough to hold back clear swing attempts. Other batters kind of wave the bat but do not appear to be trying to swing. This is how I viewed human element in baseball. Let the umpire decide: Was he attempting to swing? Was he not attempting to swing? They’ll get it right sometimes, wrong sometimes, but I like the umpires making that decision. That’s what I have long considered human element.

But this weekend, it occurred to me that actually there’s a whole other human element issue that I had never quite considered before. This happened at the end of the Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions game. You will remember the play: The Lions were down 19-14 in the final minute when Calvin Johnson caught what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown pass. The way it looked live and in color was that Johnson caught the ball, got both feet down, crossed the goal line, controlled the ball in one hand, went to the ground, and when he rolled over the ball kind of popped out. Then he started celebrating. That’s how it looked on replay too. The officials ruled that the pass was not complete, that he did not go all the way through the catching process or some such thing.

The question here whether or not the play was called right — it absolutely may have been called right. Jim Schwartz, the Lions coach, seemed to think it was called right, or at least was not called wrong. He handled the call with dignity — he is not about to blame the officials for a loss, and I respect that immensely. I think that’s a winning strategy* — controlling what you can control, not blaming others for your losses, moving on from disappointment.

*This doesn’t exactly connect — and it probably isn’t worth the words I’m about to give it. But I’m going to write it anyway because it’s been bugging me. I don’t know if you saw the Chiefs-Chargers game late Monday night, but if you did you will remember this play: The Chiefs were leading 21-7 when they blew a coverage and allowed San Diego receiver Legedu Naanee to break wide open down the field. I mean WIDE open. Nobody within 20 yards. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers saw Naanee, hit him with a pass, and Naanee scored the touchdown.

Only, he didn’t just score the touchdown … he purposely slowed down, almost came to a stop, like he wanted to walk into the end zone. And then, apparently realizing that he could showboat his way into football disaster, sped up just enough to beat a charging Chiefs defender into the end zone. It was a show-off move, a laugh-in-the-face kind of move, a hold-out-the-ball-and-shout-“You stink” kind of move. The Chiefs defender gave Naanee a little shove at the end zone and neither of the announcers talked about it (probably because they were too busy talking about the greatness of Philip Rivers and Matt Cassel — wow, NFL announcers LOVE quarterbacks).

Anyway: I have a pretty high tolerance for showboat moves in the NFL. It’s like my friend Michael MacCambridge says — these guys take extreme punishment, they wreck their bodies for money and glory and our entertainment, they really are something close to modern gladiators, as cliche as that has become. And so if they want to celebrate themselves by making exaggerated first down gestures or by flexing when they make a great defensive play or by sounding their barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world when they score touchdowns, hey, I’m not saying I LOVE it. I’m not saying I don’t reserve special admiration for the Barry Sanders’ move of flipping the touchdown ball to the official. But I’m not bothered by it. Football is a game played best with emotion, with joy, with ferocity, and I can understand and even appreciate the excess.

But this Naanee Naanee Boo Boo movie seemed different to me. One, it was taunting and therefore it was low end. Two, who is Legedu Naanee? The guy had started one game and scored two NFL touchdowns in his three-year NFL career. He can be casual about scoring touchdowns? My sense is he was only playing because Vincent Jackson is holding out in the first place. Three, he didn’t do anything all that great for him to be taunting anyone in the first place. He ran straight down the field, the Chiefs forgot to cover him — probably because he’s Legedu Naanee — and he caught a pass with nobody around him. Four, the Chargers were losing by a touchdown even AFTER he scored. Five, he wasn’t celebrating the touchdown — it wasn’t emotional. It was like he was ANTI-celebrating the touchdown, like it was no big deal.

I’m not saying it’s impossible or even improbable to win playing that kind of football. I’m not saying that what he did was some sort of great sin either. As one Twitter responder said: “Why does it matter?” In the end, Naanee scored the touchdown. It counts for the same number of points as if he had actually run it out. It SHOULD count for the same number of points. But it really does seem to me that moments like that reveal something about people and coaches and teams. You can win playing that way. But I don’t think that’s how winners play.

Anyway, the Calvin Johnson call may have been technically right (and I should add for clarification that it was called that way on the field — NOT on replay). But the way I saw it, the call was certainly wrong. That is: Johnson caught the ball. It would have been a catch in 1950 and it would have been a catch in 1970 and it would have been a catch in 1990. It would have been a catch during recess, and it would have been a catch in the CFL and it would have been a catch in college football, and it would have been a catch in electric football. It would have been a catch because the eyes tell you that he caught the ball.

That, I think, is the human element.

And maybe we ARE losing that. Maybe that is a by-product of instant replay. In many ways we don’t look at plays anymore. No, we break plays down into molecules. We run the play back and forth, back and forth, magnify it 20 times its normal size, then sharpen the focus. We use high definition graphics to give us another viewpoint. We go deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper in an effort get things “right,” and maybe we do that so intently that eventually a wide receiver makes what looks to everyone like a clear catch and the officials call it incomplete because of a long, baffling and illogical series of rules that were devised because we now have the technology to enforce them.

Back to baseball for a second: We have come to see the strike zone as a box — a very specific sized box that they often show in graphic form on TV. But is what the strike zone really is? A box? I thought a called strike was supposed to be, as it was originally put by Doc Adams in 1858, “a ball legally delivered by the pitcher within the legitimate reach of the bat.” I thought that was the whole point of why we have a strike zone in the first place, so that pitchers will throw the ball where hitters can legitimately hit them. Yes, of course, there must be dimensions, there must be rules, and they should be specific. But it strikes me that by playing with the rules we sometimes lose the intent. By messing with the specifics, we sometimes lose the overall purpose. If a pitch is half-an inch outside the replay box and the umpire calls it a strike, who is really right? The replay might technically be right, but that doesn’t mean the ball wasn’t within legitimate reach of the hitter.

That’s what I think happened with Calvin Johnson (and with numerous other plays, including that non-catch in the Tampa Bay-St. Louis championship game back in 2000, the tuck call, etc). Replay puts more emphasis on the technicalities and less emphasis on the big picture. Because of this attention to even the minutest detail, replay helps us get a lot more calls right. But because of that attention to minute details, I think replay sometimes spurs us to get the calls wrong now and again too.

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By In Stuff

Why I Like WAR (with Poker talk)

OK, here’s a long and rambling essay I’ve pounded out about why I like Wins Above Replacement, not as the end-all, be-all*, but as a pretty good place to start when trying to figure out a player’s value.

*”Be-all and the end-all” as phrase comes from Shakespeare, from MacBeth specifically, when MacBeth used to the phrase basically to mean “All there is to it.” He was referring to killing King Duncan of Scotland, and he was essentially saying that if killing him the be-all and the end-all — if he could kill the king and have that be the end of it — it would be done. But because there could be consequences in the afterlife, there are more issues involved.

We tend to use end-all, be-all differently, as a phrase to describe the ultimate, the very best we can get, all we would really need.

But before going to WAR (alert: I will try to avoid war puns from now on), let me talk a bit about this little discussion I had with Bill James.

Here was the starting point: Poker. Let’s say you’re playing three down, five-card stud poker (first three cards down, last two up). OK? You’ve been dealt four cards so far, and this is what you have:

2H 2D KS 8C*

*I’m suspect you know this but that’s the two of hearts, two of diamonds, king of spades and eight of clubs.

Your opponent, though you don’t know it, has this:


So, basically, you have almost nothing, a pair of twos. This seems really good to you for reasons that are not especially clear to anyone else. Your opponent has two pair — jacks and eights. You have not read him right and you are sure he’s bluffing and so you put everything into the pot — your house, your car, your big screen TV, your prize copy of The Machine (now in paperback!), everything. You have a very serious gambling problem, my friend, and you should look into that.

Then it’s down to the last card. He gets the ace of spades. You, against ludicrous odds, get the 2 of clubs, which gives you three deuces — YOU WON! Woo hoo! The Giants win the pennant!* You run around, do a dance, act like a big jerk, and the guy across the table is crying because he put all of HIS prize possessions into the pot (including his copy of The Soul of Baseball), and he knows that he just got beaten by someone who does not know what he/she is doing.

*Top 32 sports calls is coming this week.

From here, Bill asks a simple question:

Which card is the MVC — Most Valuable Card?

It’s a fun question that you can look at many different ways. Looking at it one way, the final 2, the 2 of clubs, HAS to be the most valuable card. I mean it showed up out of nowhere and hit the walk-off homer or got the ninth inning save — it was the difference maker! It delivered the win! Zack Greinke — after all I’ve tried to impart upon him — would probably pick the 2 of clubs because, as he so eloquently told Bob Dutton, the two most important stats are probably “innings and wins.”*

*Zack … Zack … Zack … even with all the hard work Brian Bannister and I have put in, you’re still showing Joe Morgan announcing signs at age 26. It’s not good. Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, C.C. Sabathia ALL had more innings and wins than you did last year. I know you didn’t enjoy winning the Cy Young last year, and I know you’ve grown overwhelmingly frustrated with pitching for the losing Royals City, but come on.

Back to the card game. So, some people would say the last 2 is your MVP, your Cy Young winner, whatever. Trouble is, how do you differentiate that 2 of clubs from the 2 of hearts and 2 of diamonds? They’re all of the same importance. So what’s the difference? Timing? Clutch performance? RBIs? Wins? And anyway, how can a TWO be the most valuable card in the game? It’s a two.

Looking at it another way, the king should be the most valuable player card. It was the best card on the winning team, and the MVP award is often just that — best player on a winning team. Trouble is the king didn’t really play much of a role in winning the game and anyway it wasn’t the best card in the game.

So that’s another way to look at it: The ace has to be the most valuable card because it’s the highest value card. It clearly had the best season. Trouble is, the ace played for a losing team. And even on that losing team, he did not play much of a role.

Looking at it still another way, the 8 of clubs could be the most valuable player card. How do I come up with that one? Well, if the 8 of clubs had gone to the other team, he* would have been the difference maker, he would have made that the winning hand (three 8s would have been decisive). By having the 8 of clubs, you prevented the other team from getting him. Trouble is, you really have to kind of stretch your mind to even come up with that philosophy.

*Eight is a very masculine number.

What’s the right answer? That’s the beauty of this thing … there is no RIGHT answer. This is all just a goofy Batman could beat Superman talk. Hands, not cards, win poker games. The first hand won not because of one card but because of the three twos. The second hand lost because three of a kind beats two pair. It’s likely that if you ever won a game like that with that much on the line, yes, you would always view the 2 of clubs as your favorite card. You would come away thinking that’s your lucky card, you’d have a T-shirt made with the 2 of clubs on it, the 2 of clubs would become famous among your circle of friends. But it took a whole series of events, and a collection of cards to win. And remember, if that last card had been the 2 of spades or another king, you still would have won.

You can bring a little of that to baseball too … we try to calculate individual players’ value because it’s fun and because we want baseball cards to increase in value, and we want posters to hang on our walls. But it isn’t individual players who win games. Put the 1923 Babe Ruth on the 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates — even assuming that he would have the same kind of year, the Pirates will still stink. They will stink less, certainly, but teams win games and teams win championships and it’s telling that many of the greatest seasons in baseball history ended without the team even making the playoffs:

Walter Johnson’s 1913 season? Senators finished second.

Rogers Hornsby’s 1924 season? Cardinals finished sixth.

Ted Williams’ 1941? Red Sox finished second.

Stan Musial’s 1948? Cardinals finished second.

Steve Carlton’s 1972? Phillies finished last.

Dwight Gooden’s 1985? Mets finished second.

Barry Bonds 2001? Giants finished second and out of playoffs.

And these are some of the very greatest seasons in baseball history. Poker HANDS win. Baseball TEAMS win.

Still … it’s a fascinating exercise to think about how much less the Pirates would stink if they replaced Lastings Milledge with the 1923 version of Babe Ruth. Murray Chass on his non-blog blog printed a “letter,” from one of the “obviously intelligent, articulate people,” who agree with him on the absurdity of advanced stats like WAR. A few of the the letter’s obviously intelligent, articulate words:

When an MVP-level candidate is rated 6 to 8 (wins above replacement), you can’t help but shake your head. Because, of course, it means that an MVP is ONLY WORTH six to eight more wins than a “replacement’ player.” If that’s the case, then let’s stop going to Major League games, and cheer for AAA players, who must be only one or two games less worthy than their average peers in the Majors. Indeed, we’d all save a lot of money at the ballparks if we only embraced a WAR-inspired commitment to Triple A.

Sigh. It’s amazing how irrational people get when it comes to making arguments against things they don’t like. How many wins WOULD this person say that an MVP candidate is better than a replacement player? Twenty wins? Thirty? Has he done the math on this? His intelligent and articulate calculations would seem to assume that a team of Class AAA players would win zero games in the big leagues — they wouldn’t. The Pirates are essentially a team of replacement plyaers plus Andrew McCutcheon and Neil Walker and a couple of other guys — but they’re not going to lose 162. They’re going to lose 100, maybe even 110. A full team of replacement players might lose 120, like the 1962 Mets.

More, the letter’s author seems to assume that a team with, say, three MVP candidates and the rest filled with Class AAA players would win 100 to 130 games. They wouldn’t. There are a million examples of this — but let’s just throw out the 1996 Mets. he Mets had three players who had great years. Todd Hundley mashed 41 home runs. Bernard Gilkey was fabulous, hitting .317 with 30 homers, 117 RBIs, 108 runs scored. Lance Johnson was excellent, hitting .333 and scoring 117 runs. The Mets had some other pretty good players, much better than Class AAA players. And the 1996 Mets still lost 91 games.

Great players don’t win games by themselves in baseball. They don’t. I thought that was one of the beautiful points of baseball, that teams win games.

Look: One of the great things about watching and enjoying sports is that there are no rules. You can believe what you want to believe. It’s supposed to be fun. Dan Quisenberry said the best thing about baseball is that there’s no homework … I would add there are no pop quizzes. If you want to believe that baseball is won entirely by heart, that RBIs and wins are the two most important numbers, that defense can be measured best and entirely by what you see, that Jack Morris and not Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame, that numbers deaden the sport, you are absolutely entitled — more than entitled, you are empowered to see the game as you want to see it, enjoy it as you want to enjoy it. I’m not sure what you’re doing here, 2,000 or so words into this essay about WAR, but you absolutely should watch all sports for the joy of it. I just hope you’re not running a team I like.

But I like WAR. I like it because while it is complicated — complicated enough that Baseball Reference and Fangraphs come up with different, often very different, results — it is also extremely simple and entirely sensible. And it attempts to answer the poker question of value and the Babe Ruth question of how much difference a player can make.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you wanted to calculate a player’s value. How would you do it? For an every day player — and we’ll stick with those for now — you would try to determine the player’s offensive and defensive value to his team, right? Maybe you would look at a players RBIs, stolen bases and errors. Maybe you would look at a players batting average, home runs and fielding percentage. Maybe you would look at a players wOBA, his Bill James base running numbers and his UZR. But, really, it’s all going for same thing. I think the last one is more precise than the first two, but we’re still going for the same thing.

And that’s really all WAR is — looking at a player’s value offensively and defensively. I know the replacement thing throws people — but I think you need to have a baseline to compare the player. You could do this any number of ways. You could pick a really HIGH baseline — you could make your stat read Wins Below Willie Mays (WBWM) or Value Under Albert Pujols (VUAB). But that wouldn’t be much fun to do and would probably tell us more about Willie Mays and Albert Pujols than the players themselves. You could look for value above average — that what OPS+ and ERA+ do, and those are valuable stats. But there are so many positions and so many roles that “average” is kind of a tricky concept in baseball (which is why ERA+ doesn’t make a lot of sense for relief pitchers, and a 100 OPS+ is really good for a shortstop, quite lousy for a left fielder).

Replacement level makes sense to me. On the most simplistic level, a replacement player is just what the word suggests — a player you could easily get in an emergency to replace someone. He is the sort of player that is lingering on the end of the bench or is pretty good in Class AAA — the sort of player who gets paid the minimum or could be picked up for “cash considerations” or the dreaded “player to be named later” in a minor trade that nobody would notice. Every team has loads of replacement players, even if they would not call them that. Some are starting for teams like the Royals.

Joe McEwing — he’s a replacement player. In many ways, he’s the perfect replacement player. He played nine seasons for four different teams, posted a 71 career OPS+, played every position but catcher, tried really hard and was always available. If you were going to put a name to replacement player, I would say Joe McEwing is perfect* — and it doesn’t hurt that his career WAR is 0.0. The stat could easily be WAM — Wins Above McEwing.

*I saw someone on Baseball Reference used Willie Bloomquist as his example — same principle. Others long-timers who fit the tag: Danny Bautista, Jeff Huson, Doug Strange, Matt Mieske, James Mouton, Luis Rivera, and so on and so on and so on. It should be noted that most replacement players don’t have the longevity of the players listed above. Those players offered SOMETHING that inspired people to keep bringing them back. Replacement players, necessarily, tend to have short careers.

Once you figure out what replacement level is, WAR then compares the player’s value to that level — depending on position, depending on ballpark, etc. The offensive part can be involved, but it’s the easier part. People disagree about the specifics of offense, but in a larger sense people agree that it’s about getting on base, it’s about advancing bases, it’s about avoiding outs, you know, all that stuff. Fangraphs WAR uses wOBA and Baseball Reference uses Rbat, but they’re both built around linear weights (a single is worth this, a home run is worth that, etc). Base running is also factored in — stolen bases, caught stealing, etc. Pretty straightforward.

Defense — that one’s tougher. Here’s the problem: Defense has played a very small role in the mainstream definition of a player’s value. Yes, sure, people give it lip service. GMs will constantly tell you that they are trying to improve the team’s defense. Then they will go out and sign some 90 RBI outfielder who can’t move. Media types like myself will say that defense is important and then vote defensive liabilities for MVP. You want to see something fascinating? I looked back at the MVPs in both leagues for the last 40 years. They break down like so:

First base: 17

Left field: 15

Right field: 11

Third base: 10

Shortstop: 7

Center field: 6

Second base: 6

Catcher: 5

OK, does that order look familiar at all? If you’re a fan of Bill James, it should. That order is almost a precise replica of Bill James Defensive Spectrum, which ranks the positions from easiest to hardest:

The Defensive Spectrum:

First base

Left field

Right field

Third base

Center field

Second base



Look at that: Except for a couple of extra MVPs to the glamour position of shortstop, the MVPs have gone in perfect order from easiest position to hardest. Why? Because the MVP is an offensive award. Because our idea of value in large part revolves around offensive contributions — and not just any offensive contributions but certain KINDS of offensive contribution. The last MVP to hit lower than .295 was Kevin Mitchell way back in 1989. We all know the MVP has been skewed toward RBI men. From what I can tell, the last position player to win an MVP award largely because of his defense was, I don’t know: Ryne Sandberg in 1984? Zoillo Versalles in 1965? Phil Rizutto in 1950?

All three of those players, you should know, led position players in their league in WAR.

And this is one of the big things I love about WAR — it really does attempt to look at the whole player. Defensive statistics are more advanced and more controversial than ever, and because of that Baseball Reference WAR and Fangraphs WAR can fluctuate pretty wildly (Baseball Reference uses Total Zone as their defensive stat; Fangraphs uses UZR). But the point to me is that WAR is TRYING to figure the defensive contribution. It’s TRYING to get at the whole player, and not just the obvious stuff. It’s TRYING to make an educated guess about a player’s total value. I don’t have to agree with all the conclusions. I don’t have to like the inconsistencies, don’t have to like that someone like Josh Hamilton is ranked as by far the most valuable player in all of baseball (by Fangraphs) and as the fourth most valuable player in the American League (by Baseball Reference). I don’t have to agree with all the conclusions. I can live in shades of gray, I really can. I can decide for myself what stats are worth. I can like WAR without having it determine every single thing I believe or like about baseball.

The question I asked a few hundred words back was this: How many more wins would this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates win if they had 1923 Babe Ruth in right field instead of Lastings Milledge? It’s a make-believe question without a real answer. Maybe the Pirates would pitch Ruth on days he didn’t play right. Maybe teams would intentionally walk Ruth every single time (which would actually ADD to his value). Maybe other players would be inspired by Ruth. Maybe they would play even worse because he was around. Maybe none of that would happen.

At the moment, the Pirates are on pace to win 55 games, lose 107. WAR says Ruth in 1923 had a WAR of 14.7. WAR says that Milledge, in 2010, is actually worse than replacement by 1.1 wins. So adding the numbers together, WAR makes the claim that 1923 Ruth would make the Pirates 16 wins better — taking them from 55-107 to 71-91. That seems to me about as good an answer as we can find right now.

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By In Joe Vault

Rafer Johnson and the Power of 10

First event: 100-meter dash

Rafer Johnson came into the decathlon 50 years ago — at the 1960 Olympics in Rome — as the heavy favorite and the world-record holder. He got off to a bit of a rough start. There were three false starts in his 100-meter heat, and on the third he ran about halfway before realizing that he had to come back. The extra energy he exerted may have depleted him, and Johnson ran a 10.9… slow by his high standards. He had run a 10.6 when setting the world record at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., just months earlier.


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By In Baseball, History, Joe Vault

Is That All I Did?

Bob Gibson smiles hard. It’s about to happen again. Over the years, Gibson has learned to tell when someone is about remind him how ferocious… heartless… intimidating he used to be. He has learned to brace himself for those peppy, ‘You were vicious!” compliments (they are compliments, right?) and the awed “You were a killer out there!” tributes (they are tributes, right?). He has learned to see them coming, the fans — they’re definitely fans — who remember him fondly for that glare and those up-and-in fastballs, who think of him as young and raging and invincible, with fury and pride and the purest annoyance oozing from his forehead instead of sweat.

“Mr. Gibson,” this man says. “Oh, do I remember the way you pitched. I remember all those batters you hit. They were so scared of you.”


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By In Baseball, Joe Vault

The Imperfect Game

There was something beautiful lost in the Jim Joyce fiasco, something that I hope I remember for as long as I remember the blown call. Yes, it’s hard to think about beautiful things when you have just watched one of the most absurd injustices in the history of baseball. But I’m a father of two young kids. And fathers find themselves looking for lessons. And there was something beautiful in the Jim Joyce fiasco.


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John Wooden

Most people can live with the vague. For instance: What is success? Well, um, you know, um, there’s that old line about art: I know it when I see it. I know it when I feel it. Success is like that, right? I can’t quite put it into words what success means, and other things like “happiness,” or “class,” or “integrity,” but I don’t need the words, right? These are things that come from wordless places deep inside, things that cannot be defined, things that we believe transcend definition. That’s OK. We KNOW what success means, even if we can’t really SAY what it means. Most of us can live comfortably in that hazy world.

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Paul Splittorff

You will hear people say all the time that they don’t want to live in the past. But I think that, more often than not, is a half-truth. Don’t we all want to live at least a little bit in the past? Don’t we all want to remember those moments when the sun was brightest, when the children were little, when the hole-in-one dropped, when we were the ninth caller to the radio station? Don’t we all save the scribblings and trophies and photographs that remind us? I once made a volley in tennis between the legs, a winner that scraped the line, a shot so perfect that Federer could not have done it better. I think about it often.


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By In Baseball, RIP

Harmon Killebrew

The gentleman the sportswriters somewhat desperately called “Killer” was just 23 years old in 1959 — but by then Harmon Killebrew already had played parts of six seasons in the major leagues. Six seasons. He was of that peculiar bonus baby time, when owners (as owners tend to do) went looking for convoluted and spectacularly destructive methods to control their own spending. Certainly, they might have controlled spending by not spending as much money. But that was deemed unrealistic.


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By In Golf, RIP

Seve Ballesteros

There’s a moment at the 1997 Ryder Cup that I think of now. That Ryder Cup was at the Valderrama Golf Club, in Sotogrande, along the Alboran Sea, almost in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar. The captain of the European team was Seve Ballesteros, and even with all the beautiful scenes there in and around Sotogrande, it was Seve who was the overpowering presence. He was everywhere.


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By In Baseball, History, RIP

Robin Roberts

A few years ago, I came home and found a message on the answering machine from someone who claimed to be Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher. The person was calling because he had read some of my work, and he liked it, and he happened to be in Kansas City to see his brother and he wanted to meet me at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum so he could tell me some baseball stories.

My first thought was that it had to be a put-on. Hall of Famers don’t just call up sportswriters they don’t know because they want to chat. But I also had to admit that I didn’t quite get why anyone would pretend to be the pitcher Robin Roberts (as he had to be known so as not to be confused with the television anchor Robin Roberts). And then, I had to admit that I really didn’t know that much about the pitcher Robin Roberts.

I did a little research. The thing that jumps out at you when you look back at Roberts’ career are the complete games. From 1950 through 1956, Robin Roberts started 37 or more games and completed more than 20 games every season — that’s Deadball Era stuff. Roberts led the league in starts six straight years, in complete games five straight years, in innings pitched five straight years, in victories four straight years. He was, in those days, a force of nature. Put it this way: He threw 28 consecutive complete games in 1952-53, and he was so enraged when he got pulled after seven innings against Brooklyn* — Bums Send Roberts To Showers! — that, for perhaps the only time in his career, the genial Roberts refused to talk to reporters.

*It was July 9, 1953; to give you an idea about the time, that was the same day that Ted Williams announced that he would play for the Red Sox in 1954 (if they wanted him), one day before Ben Hogan won the British Open at Carnoustie and the same day when a reported shortage of barbers sparked the trend story that more and more men planned to cut their own hair.

There was no Cy Young Award then, but in the six years leading up to the award — 1950-55 — Roberts received some serious MVP consideration. Here’s how he ranked in MVP votes among pitchers.

1950: 2nd, behind only teammate Jim Konstanty
1951: 5th
1952: 1st; finished second overall, 15 points behind Cubs outfielder Hank Sauer
1953: 2nd, behind only the Braves’ Warren Spahn
1954: 2nd, behind only the Giants’ Johnny Antonelli
1955: 1st

So, he probably would have won two Cy Youngs in his prime, and maybe more.

The prime years and innings took their toll on Roberts, who was rarely a great pitcher after 1955. He had a losing record the rest of his career and a league average ERA. But he had already made his mark. Few in baseball history threw harder than Roberts did in those overpowering years. Bill James has guessed that Roberts probably threw in the upper 90s, topping 100 sometimes. And he pounded hitters with that fastball again and again, nine innings at a time, sometimes more than nine*, whatever it took. A force of nature.

*Roberts threw 21 games of 10 innings or more — he threw 17 innings in beating Boston in 1952 and 15 in beating St. Louis in 1954.

One other thing about Roberts’ career that you should know — he gave up home runs. Five times he led the league in home runs allowed. The 505 homers he allowed in his career is the all-time record — at least until Jamie Moyer , who is just seven behind, breaks it sometime this year. The funny thing, as you will see, is that Roberts was oddly proud of that home run record; he was proud of everything he did in the game. Hey, giving up home runs was part of his style — you are supposed to challenge the hitter. Roberts didn’t walk many. Sometimes he won, sometimes you won. That’s baseball.

Anyway, I called back the number left on the machine, and, of course, it really was Robin Roberts — it would not be much of a story if it wasn’t. We met at the museum that evening (“Here I am!” he said when I first saw him). We walked around the museum for a couple of hours, looking at the various photographs and exhibits, and I listened to Robin Roberts tell stories. He was 77 then and remembered everything. I will cherish that night for the rest of my life.

What was it like? Roberts saw a photograph of Satchel Paige, and he remembered that he had once faced Paige in a barnstorming game. Roberts wasn’t exactly a great hitter — his lifetime .167 average is dead last in baseball history for anyone with more than 1,500 at-bats — but he had grown up believing that he would be an every-day player, so much so that he was a switch-hitter. And Paige showed him no respect. He was toying around with him and threw him some sort of eephus pitch. Roberts lined a single to center.

What he remembered most, though, was going up to Paige years later and telling him about that hit.
“Roberts,” Paige said back, “I got a big black book of all the great hitters who got a hit off me. And you ain’t in it.”

All the stories Robin Roberts told me that night were like that: self-effacing, funny, warm, touching. He talked about the first time he saw Willie Mays hitting in a batting cage and how he saw Mays blast home run after home run into the upper deck. And he thought, “Well, here’s something new.” He talked about the consistent grace of Hank Aaron and his old teammate Brooks Robinson. He talked about what it was like to have Luis Aparicio and Richie Ashburn making great plays behind him. I remember that we went into the small theater to see the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum movie, which begins with a young man singing The Star-Spangled Banner. Roberts stood up and put his hand over his heart.

At one point, he saw a display for Jackie Robinson and he told me two of my favorite stories, both revolving around Robinson. One was about Robinson. One, I think, was more about Robin Roberts.

The first story was about the Whiz Kid Phillies of 1950. While people often talk about the collapse of the 1964 Phillies, they tend to forget that the 1950 Phillies tried to do it first. Those Phillies were up 7 1/2 games on the Brooklyn Dodgers on Sept. 20. They were still up five games a week later, on Sept. 27. But then they lost five straight games, and that Sunday they had to beat the Dodgers in Brooklyn or be forced into a playoff. Roberts was 24 years old and was sent out to lead the Phillies to their first pennant in 35 years. He was pitching on two days’ rest.

He pitched 10 innings. The only run he allowed was on a Pee Wee Reese home run. Roberts worked his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth — thanks in large part (as Roberts himself said) to a perfect throw by Ashburn to nail Cal Abrams at the plate. He also led off the 10th inning with a single… that eventually led to Dick Sisler hitting a three-run homer. Roberts finished things off in the bottom of the 10th, and the Phillies won the pennant.

After the game, Roberts was sitting there on his stool, champagne dripping from his hair, when he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. He looked up. It was Jackie Robinson. “Congratulations,” Robinson said.
“Think about that,” Roberts told me. “Think about how much class that took. I couldn’t have done it, I’ll tell you that.”

Of course, Robin Roberts would have done it. He was like that. And that leads to the second Jackie Robinson story. In 1951, everyone remembers that the New York Giants came back from oblivion to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers and then beat them on Bobby Thomson’s “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run. What many people don’t realize is that the Dodgers actually had to win their final two games against Philadelphia just to force that playoff. They beat Roberts 5-0 on a Saturday. But the Sunday game was quite a different story.

In the Sunday game, Robinson started off terribly. He hit into a double play, booted an easy ground ball that allowed two runs to score, took a called third strike, threw wild on another play. He would make up for it. In the eighth inning, the Phillies led 8-5, but the Dodgers pulled within a run. And Roberts was put into the game even though he had pitched the day before. He gave up a single to Carl Furillo that tied the score.

Then, Roberts pitched five gutsy scoreless innings. It looked like the Phillies were going to win in the bottom of the 12th inning — they loaded the bases and then Eddie Waitkus lined what looked to be a sure single up the middle… so sure that Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe began to walk off the mound in disgust. Instead, Robinson made a diving catch just inches off the ground — so close that there were Phillies fans who remained certain decades later that he did not catch it. Robinson hit the ground so violently that play was stopped for five minutes as he regained his breath.

Two innings later, with curfew just a shade of dark away, Robinson hit a home run off of Roberts to give the Dodgers the lead and force the classic playoff with the Giants. Robinson would call it the biggest hit of his career.

You may have already known all that, or at least the basics of it. But what struck me that day in the Museum was how Robin Roberts remembered it. He was, well, proud of it. He was proud of his whole career. He pitched hard. He gave his all. And Robinson beat him. No shame in it. Sometimes he pitched the game-winner. Sometimes he gave up the big home run. And it was all part of his beautiful journey in baseball.

“If I don’t give up that home run to Jackie,” he told me, “there is no Bobby Thomson home run. There is no playoff. It’s a good thing I gave up that homer to him, isn’t it?”

And then, he smiled: “Of course, one thing I could do was give up home runs.”

That’s how I remember him. That smile. That humble line. Robin Roberts died on Thursday at his home in Florida. He was 83 years old. I had talked to him a few times since we met at the museum, and he was always the same: Humble, kind, eager to avoid hurting anybody’s feelings. He lived a big life. He was in the Army air corps. He was a star college basketball player at Michigan State. He was a great big league pitcher. He was one of the pioneers of the baseball players association — he, along with Jim Bunning, pushed for the hiring of Marvin Miller. He was deeply involved with the Baseball Hall of Fame. He has had his number retired in several places, and he is in numerous Halls of Fame, and he has had a stadium in his hometown of Springfield, Ill., named for him.

But I still tend to remember him most as the modest man who could not help being proud of the home run he had allowed to Jackie Robinson, the one that set up perhaps the greatest moment in baseball history. “You want to be proud of your successes,” he told me, “but you want to be proud of your failures, too. The important thing is try hard.” And Robin Roberts always did.


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