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Upsetting

A group of us once got into a long argument about the quality of the thoroughbred name “Seattle Slew.” The people on my side of the argument believed that the name was awesome. The people on the other side of the argument believed that the name, well, was not awesome at all. The argument solved absolutely nothing, of course, because you can’t win or lose an argument about an entirely subjective thing like Ginger or Mary Ann, Unitas or Montana, or how good a name sounds. This, I think, is why many sports fans love to stay in the realm of the subjective. Nobody can ever lose an argument.

But my point here is not to explain why I think Seattle Slew is a great name (you either get that or you don’t) but to point out right at the start that I’m the kind of person who will waste numerous hours pointlessly arguing about it. I romanticize thoroughbred names. I can’t help it. OF COURSE, Secretariat ran away from Sham — how could it be any different? He was Secretariat. And he was Sham.

To me, the marvelously named Whirlaway HAD TO BE a wildly inconsistent horse — how could a horse named Whirlaway be anything but wildly inconsistent? Whirlaway would tend to drift in his races, as if daydreaming, and he lost plenty that he should have won. But, when right, when locked in, Whirlaway was unbeatable, as he was in the 1941 Kentucky Derby when he ran 2:01.4, a record at the time. He won the Preakness and the Belmont too.

Spectacular Bid made a spectacular bid for the Triple Crown, but lost the Belmont to Coastal. Is it a coincidence that Silver Charm, after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, lost the Belmont to Touch Gold? Zenyatta, after 19 consecutive victories, lost her final race on Saturday despite a remarkable closing charge down the stretch. What horse beat Zenyatta and sent horse racing fans into a Saturday night depression? Blame Blame, of course.

Think about the power of names like Northern Dancer and Majestic Prince and Damascus and Alysheba. One of the great questions in sports, is this: Do the names make the horses? Or do the horses make the names?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”
— Romeo and Juliet

“A rose by another other name would wither and die.”
— Alan Swann, My Favorite Year.

So what is it? Is Affirmed a great name? Is Seabiscuit a great name? Maybe, maybe not, but those horse were so wonderful that their names took on power.* Those BECAME great names.

*Though an inarguably bad name — like A.P. Indy or Buckpasser or Tom Fool — stays bad no matter how great the horse.

All of which finally leads us to our point: You probably know the story of Man O’ War, one of the great racehorses of all time. Man O’ War won 20 of his 21 races. Most people probably assume that Man O’ War won the Triple Crown — he did not. He probably would have won it, but his owner — Samuel D. Riddle — did not enter him in the Kentucky Derby. Riddle supposedly had something against the great state of Kentucky*. Anyway, Man O’ War did go to the Preakness where he breezed to a length and a half victory. He then went to the Belmont and won by 20 lengths. He won every race for the rest of his career, including the Dwyer Stakes, the Travers and so on. He retired after that year, universally celebrated as the greatest race horse of the age.

*Seventeen years later, Riddle’s horse War Admiral — sired by Man O’ War — was entered in the Kentucky Derby and did win the Triple Crown.

Man O’ War was so great and overwhelming that The Associated Press named him Horse of the Century AHEAD of Secretariat.

OK, so that’s background. Well, as you probably know, a legend has built up around Man O’ War — a legend so powerful and convincing that people simply refuse to believe it isn’t true. As mentioned, Man O’ War lost only one race in his extraordinary career. That was at Saratoga Springs, in New York, at the Sanford Memorial on August 13, 1919.

He lost the race to a horse named “Upset.”

Now, I had always been told and always believed that this event — Upset beating Man O’ War — was so shocking that the sports word “Upset” (meaning “an unexpected defeat of the favorite in a game”) was popularized that day. The legend is that every time you hear the word upset — like you do 4,853,953 times during the college football season — it goes back to that day when a little horse called Upset beat the great Man O’ War.

It’s a beautiful little story. It perfectly fits the imagination. Imagine it: A horse named Upset so shocks the world by beating an unbeatable horse, that his very name becomes a noun representing shock. It would be like calling modern upsets “Eruziones” or “Busters” — which would be awesome, by the way. But so far we are sticking with “upset.” And that was the name of the horse that beat Man O’ War. And yes, it’s a great story.

Unfortunately, it isn’t true. And, if you do a little bit of research, you will find that it’s not even close to being true and there’s no way it even could be true. We’ll get to all that in a second.

First, we look at the noun “upset.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “upset” as a noun meaning “an overturning or overthrow of ideas, plans, etc.” goes back to 1822 — almost 100 years before Man O’ War lost.

The OED offers three examples and the one in 1886 — “The result was a complete upset of all the predictions of the prophets” — seems pretty directly connected to the sports use of the word. So right away, we have get a pretty good hint that this story might not be true.

But, we can still argue that while the noun “Upset” might have been around for a long time, it might not have been used in a sports way before Man O’ War, right? Even the Oxford English Dictionary does not find a sports usage of the word until a 1921 tennis match (nice effort OED). So it’s possible …

No. It isn’t. For that we go to the Word Origins site, which tells us the story of researcher George Thompson. It seems that Thompson was one of the many people who believed this Upset story had to be bogus. But nobody had been able to prove it. Then, in 2002, given the full New York Times database for the first time, Thompson went back to look. And just in one paper, just in the New York Times, he found a whole bunch of sports uses of the word “Upset” that go all the way back to this in 1877:

“The programme for to-day at Monmouth Park indicates a victory for the favorite in each of the four events, but racing is so uncertain that there may be a startling upset.”

Well, there you go. That’s a horse racing use of the word Upset, and that’s 1877 — more than FORTY YEARS before Man O’ War. And as mentioned, it was used just in the New York Times many, many times after that and before Man O’ War’s loss.* It’s unfortunate, yes, but the Upset story simply isn’t true.

But, here’s where we get to what I think is even more interesting: This thing doesn’t even make sense as a sports story. See, Man O’ War’s loss to Upset wasn’t even viewed as a crazy upset on the day of the race. What people forget is that the loss came in Man O’ War’s sixth race. He was not viewed as the greatest race horse of his time, not yet, not even close. His greatest victories were still months away. True, he was an extremely promising young thoroughbred. True, he was the odds-on favorite to win that race of 2-year-olds, going off at 1-2.

True, he was already viewed as one of the great two-year-olds in recent memory. But that’s like a pitcher being the best 19-year-old in recent memory. Upset was hardly a slug; Upset was also viewed as a promising horse and was third choice at 7-1. Another horse, Golden Groom, was considered a very promising two-year-old and he was a 2-1. Everyone knew then like they know now — two-year-old horses are unpredictable. Yes, sure, people thought Man O’ War would win. People bet on him to win. But this wasn’t exactly the Soviet Hockey Team in 1980.

Put it this way — after Upset beat Man O’ War there were hardly ANY stories about the loss in newspapers across America. And this was in a time when horse racing was a major sport in America. It simply wasn’t that big a deal. A potentially great two-year-old had been beaten. Happens all the time.

And even more to the point: Nobody was disappointed in Man O’ War’s performance that day. In fact, it was widely viewed as a Man O’ War triumph of the spirit:

New York Times headline: “Man O’ War Furnishes the Thrill of Race but is Beaten by a Neck.”

Washington Post headline: “Poor Racing Luck Beats Man O’ War.”

This was the wide view. Man O’ War was blocked “two or three times” by other horses, had to go way outside at the finish and still finished only a half length back. Also, Man O’ War was carrying 15 more pounds than Upset and, as the Times wrote, “on the very performances of the two today, (Upset) would not appear to have a chance to win under an even break.” Man O’ War made a spectacular comeback, so spectacular so that the few writers who did cover the race wrote about it as if Man O’ War had won.

“Though defeated, Man O’ War not discredited,” The New York Times wrote. “On the contrary, the manner in which he ran this race stamped him, in the opinion of the horsemen, as the best of his division without question.”

That doesn’t really sound like the sort of victory that would bring the word “Upset” to the masses, does it?

On Sunday, through a series of events that only seem to happen on Twitter, I found myself tweeting that the Upset story is a myth. I received numerous somewhat pointed responses and emails that it most certainly IS NOT a myth, that it is ABSOLUTELY TRUE, that I should GO STUDY MY HISTORY. We want very much to believe in what sounds good. This is true of sports. This is true of life too. The Upset story is a great story, it really is. But I’ll leave you with the lead paragraph written by Harry N. Price in the Washington Post that day of the race, lines that should pretty much shovel the last bit of dirt on the Upset myth.

“Man o’ War, the Glen Riddle farm’s splendid chestnut 2-year-old, although beaten in the Sanford memorial this afternoon, really clinched the championship among juveniles when, after a lot of bad racing luck, he finished only a half length behind Harry Payne Whitney’s Upset … One might make all sorts of puns about it being an upset, and in faith it was, but Man O’ War in the opinion of nine out of ten observers, was far the best colt in the race.”

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Miracles in Sports

Football, I think, is the sport that most inspires absurd prayers. Sure, there are miraculous comebacks in all sports — the sorts of comebacks that inspire announcers to use that wonderful sports cliche “Well, stranger things have happened” — but dreamers can PLAN those miracles in football. We can sketch them out in our minds. In baseball, seven-run comebacks just kind of happen. A walk, an error, a close call that the umpire doesn’t call strike three, there are too many scenarios to imagine. In basketball, the action in the final minutes is so choppy and comebacks so reliant on missed-free throws and timeouts, that it doesn’t excite the imagination. Three goal comebacks in the final minutes happen in soccer or hockey, but bizarre and unplanned things have to happen.

But in football — well think about how many times you have thought something like this:

“OK, if they score here, get the onside kick, score again, stop them on three plays, score again …”

I spent most of my childhood coming up with bizarre and thoroughly implausible scenarios that would allow the Cleveland Browns to come back and win. And even though the Browns were known for much of my childhood as the Cardiac Kids for the way they came back, they almost never actually lived up to to my most inspired plans. I really remember it happening only once. That was against the New York Jets in the playoffs in January, 1987. The Jets took a 20-10 lead with about four minutes left. The Browns looked utterly dead. Most people would remember one play from the comeback, the Browns faced a third-down and 24 from deep in their own end and Mark Gastineau was flagged for roughing the passer, giving the Browns a huge first down. Most people think that was the game-changer.

BUT … as someone who has watched that game at least 10 times, I believe that wasn’t the real game changer. No, following that penalty, Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar BADLY missed on two consecutive passes. They looked utterly lost. On third down, Kosar completed a dinky little pass, and the receiver was tackled short of the first down. BUT the official gave the Browns an absurdly good mark, giving Cleveland the first down.

Jets coach Joe Walton went bonkers. He was screaming like a mad man, trying to get the attention of the officials. And given those few seconds, the Browns regained their balance. They drove right down the field and scored the touchdown to make it 20-17 with two minutes left. They tried the onside kick and failed, but they still had a couple of timeouts and the Jets lost their minds (trying a quarterback draw which stopped the clock, committing a penalty on the punt that changed field position, committing a pass interference penalty) and the Browns tied the game (they could have won it in regulation but wasted time celebrating). They won it in double overtime (on Mark Moseley’s second field goal attempt — he missed a 23-yard field goal in the first overtime. Yes, a 23-yard field goal). It was awesome. The comeback happened just the way I wrote it up in my deluded mind.

I bring all this up because a football miracle happened Saturday — and I suspect almost nobody noticed. There was no real reason for people to notice — the game was between Kansas and Colorado. Kansas is terrible this year. Colorado is terrible this year. Almost nobody in Kansas or Colorado even cared about this game.

But they played the anyway. And Colorado destroyed Kansas. Absolutely crushed them. At one point, I went out to run an errand and the game was on the radio. Bob Davis, the radio voice, was describing a Kansas drive with his “Well, maybe the Jayhawks can get a consolation touchdown here” voice. Bob has had to use that voice plenty in his 27 years as Kansas play-by-play announcer. The color commentator said something about how the Jayhawks were not going to win the battle of the scoreboard, but they might win this fourth quarter.

The Jayhawks trailed 45-17. There were about 12 minutes left in the game.

There are not too many Kansas football fans this time of year. But there are some. And I have no doubt that somewhere, there was a Jayhawks fan, at least one, was was as irrational as I was as a kid, someone who was trying to work out the math that would lead to a Kansas victory. Stupid math. Dream math. No team, and certainly no team as ineffective as Kansas, can pull off that comeback.

The Jayhawks plodded their way down the field as I listened. The Jayhawks faced a third and 1 deep in Colorado territory and got stuffed for no gain. The clock wound down as the Jayhawks tried to decided what to do. They called timeout with 11:28 left. “They’ll go for it,” Bob Davis said with that inflection in his voice. The Jayhawks gave the ball to James Sims on fourth down and he shoved ahead for the first down, though not by much. The clock kept winding. On the next play, they gave the ball to Sims again, and this time he broke through the line, scored from 13 yards out. The Jayhawks were down 45-24. There was 11:05 left. They had their consolation touchdown. I turned off the radio.

Of course, the Jayhawks tried the onside kick — desperation, and all — and they actually got the ball back. It’s always a thrill when the kicking team recovers an onside kick. The offense plodded around — no gain, a two yard gain, a third-down pickup, the clock ticked down to under 10 minutes. Then quarterback Quinn Meacham connected with Johnathan Wilson* on a 38-yard touchdown pass. And then the score was 45-31. And there was 9:26 left.

*This is, I think, the first time I have seen someone spell his name “Johnathan” with the two Hs. But I think it makes perfect sense.

Now, Colorado had to be a little bit freaked out. The Buffaloes had not won a Big 12 game, and they were on the road, and a 14-point lead with nine minutes left is no longer anything close to insurmountable. The Jayhawks kicked deep and the Buffaloes got the ball on the 22. After a couple of clock-draining runs that did not drain nearly enough clock — what was the hurry? — Colorado picked up a first down on a good pass. They were in good position. On first down, they gained 5 yards, and the clock was at 8:00 … 7:59 … 7:58 … for those remaining Colorado fans it must have felt like classic Larry Munson line: “Somebody poured molasses on the clock!”

With 7:44 left, Colorado receiver Toney Clemons got his first carry of the game on a reverse. He fumbled. Kansas’ Tyler Patmon scooped it up, ran 28 yards for a touchdown. And the score was 45-38.

Colorado, undoubtedly, was now in full-fledged panic mode. The Buffaloes had built their lead with a blistering passing attack led by quarterback Cody Hawkins and when they got the ball back they decided they needed to get back to that attack. Of course, as every football fan believes, once things start turning bad, they tend to stay bad. Hawkins completed a short pass on first down, and on second down he threw an interception to the aforementioned Tyler Patmon. Five plays later, Sims scored from six yards out and tied the game at 45. There was still 4:44 left. The Jayhawks had scored four touchdowns in a little more than six minutes.

The rest of the game played out as it had to play out. Kansas kicked off and stuffed Colorado in three plays — the last a sack of Hawkins. A short punt, Kansas got the ball on its own 37. And five plays later, Sims scored on a 28-yard touchdown run. There were 52 seconds left in the game.

Colorado promptly drove right down the field thanks to a dumb Kansas penalty and a couple of big passes, but they failed twice to score from the Kansas 7 and that was it. Kansas had come back from a 28-point fourth quarter deficit with time to spare. It wasn’t big news, wasn’t really even small news nationally, because at the end Kansas isn’t good, Colorado isn’t good, the stadium was less than half filled when the miracle happened. That’s OK. It was still great. Stuff like this happens. And that’s why we keep watching sports even when there seems no realistic hope left.

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Steering Wheel Desk

Brilliant Reader Dave Yeager points us to this absolutely remarkable product.

It is called the “Auto Exec Wheelmate Steering Wheel Desk Tray.”

Really. A desk for your steering wheel. This truly may be the most dangerous product that has ever been released for public consumption. I mean, there’s an FDA that is supposed to protect us from dangerous drugs or at the very least make the drug company read this comical list of side effects in their commercials. How can there not be a SDA — Stupidity and Danger Association — out there to protect people from something THIS DEADLY.

Who would even think of something this absurdly dangerous? A desk for the steeling wheel. Sure. How about a trampoline for gutter cleaning? The kitchen knife for roller coasters? The toaster shower?

My favorite part of the product is a sentence stuck near the end of the product description: “For safety reasons, never use this product while driving.”

No, wouldn’t think of it. I’m just buying a desk for my steering wheel in case I’m planning on doing a little correspondence while, um, tailing a suspect?

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Certain Hall of Famers (Baseball)

One of the fun questions in sports is this one: Who is a Hall of Famer? Not: Who WILL be a Hall of Famer? Not: Who has a CHANCE to be a Hall of Famer?

But who is a Hall of Famer? Right now? If the career ended tomorrow in some startlingly undramatic way — turf toe, like Jack Lambert, or simply walking away like Mike Mussina — who has already done enough to get into the Hall of Fame?

There are the obvious ones across the sports landscape. Brett Favre — he’s basically a Hall of Fame bust right now (a cement Hall of Fame bust tied to the legs of the Minnesota Vikings and thrown into the ocean). Shaq — Hall of Famer who is still trying to bring “aura” to teams. Ken Griffey Jr. was trying to play the “Hall of Famer as distinguished presence” game for the Mariners and it didn’t go so well.

But the interesting ones are the Hall of Famers who are STILL GOOD, the ones you can point out to your kids, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your cousin from Malaysia, and say: “Watch that player right there because he is one of the greatest who ever played.”

But who are these players? Well, this won’t surprise you, Bill James put together a baseball formula to determine the Hall of Famers. You can read all about the formula in the Bill James Handbook 2011, which I am assuming you already own and have already read because, otherwise, why would you be here reading this garbage? Bill uses two different systems, and remember he’s trying to determine the players who have ALREADY QUALIFIED for the Hall of Fame. These are the ones who will be playing in 2011:

— Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals.
OK, do you want to know how good Albert Pujols is? Do you want to know? I’ll give you a staggering tidbit here based on Bill’s study. The way he figured it, a player who scored 100 is a fully qualified Hall of Famer. You of course can go to the Hall of Fame will less than 100, and maybe people have. It’s not easy to get to 100. To give you an idea how hard it is, Mark McGwire does not have 100. Pedro Martinez does not have 100. It’s hard to get to 100.

OK … so … Albert Pujols at age 30 (or whatever age you want to believe) has already scored a 148. I’m going to repeat that: He has ALREADY scored a 148. He’s well on his way to putting up his SECOND Hall of Fame career.

But that’s not the tidbit. Here’s the tidbit: Bill breaks down his list by birth year. Pujols was born in 1980. So was, Mark Teixeira. Terrific player, Mark Teixeira. Same position as Pujols. They’re the same age. Pujols has played a couple of years longer, but Tex was only in the minor leagues for one season. Teixeira has scored a 55. That is awesome, well on his way to the Hall of Fame — the only player born after 1978 who has a score that high is Joe Mauer with 57.

And Albert Pujols basically has THREE TIMES MORE points that Tex.

He’s pretty good.

— Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees
Bill brings up a great point when discussing the steroid question; we haven’t had a real Hall of Fame test case yet. Yes, Mark McGwire had a great career. But there are legitimate non-steroid knocks on McGwire. I happen to think McGwire is a Hall of Famer, but he’s certainly not the slam dunk Hall of Famer that, say, Clemens is or Bonds or A-Rod. There would have been some people who would not have voted for McGwire no matter what because he hit .263 for his career and he couldn’t run and his defense was not helping much (the Gold Glove he won, notwithstanding) — virtually all of his value were in home runs and walks (two pretty good things, mind you, but still he was hardly multi-dimensional). If a man’s Hall of Fame case is built around home runs, and you believe steroids dramatically increases a player’s ability to hit home runs, well, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at all that McGwire has received so little Hall of Fame support.

And maybe it isn’t that telling. We don’t know yet. By the time A-Rod is eligible, we will already have gone through the Clemens-Bonds-Sosa gamut and will know pretty much where everyone stands on the issue. But until that happens, I’m not sure we do know.

— Vladimir Guerrero
One of my favorite players ever to watch — er, well, at the plate, not in right field. There’s no telling where he will play next year or how much longer he can go — he was looking rather ancient in the World Series — but cherish every chance you get to see him swing at a pitch five feet outside the strike zone (and smack it to right for a base hit). If you’re wondering (and I know you are) how many right-handed hitters have hit .320 with 400 homers and 150 stolen bases … there’s only one.

— Derek Jeter
I have a much longer post coming up on him, but I have a question — for Yankees fans only. And the question is this: If you could trade Derek Jeter tomorrow for Hanley Ramirez, would you do it? As you can tell, there’s a reason I’m not asking NON-Yankees fans this question because their answer would be: “Duh, yes, of course, no question, are you insane, why even ask, that’s ridiculous, that’s just stupid, nobody would do that, of course you trade him …” And so on.

But I’m not asking you. I’m only asking Yankees FANS. So if you’re a big Yankees fan, an insane Yankees fan, I ask you the question: Would you trade Jeter to Florida for Hanley Ramirez?

Send your responses here — please ONLY Yankees fans.*

*If you are a non-Yankees fan, I’ll ask YOU a question so you won’t feel left out: Be fair and honest, what would you offer Derek Jeter to keep him in New York?

— Ichiro Suzuki
I think Bill’s system is right — I think Ichiro is a Hall of Fame lock right now. I don’t think you need to include his Japan stats to make it so. You have a two-time batting champ who has led the league in hits seven times, had 200-plus hits 10 straight years, who has the record for most hits in a season, who has won a Gold Glove nine straight seasons (and will surely make it 10 this year) and has made the All-Star team 10 straight seasons, and has won an MVP and rookie of the year … well, he’s in his own category. Nobody quite like him. I think he’s in right now.

— Manny Ramirez
So, who are the best hitters to not win an MVP award? I think we have to start in 1931, when the Baseball Writers started to give it out …

By OPS+, your Top 10 non-MVP hitters are:
1. Mark McGwire (162 OPS+)
2. Johnny Mize (157 OPS+)
3. Mel Ott (155 OPS+)
4. Manny Ramirez (155 OPS+)
5. Ralph Kiner (149 OPS+)
6. Jim Thome (147 OPS+)
7. Edgar Martinez (147 OPS+)
8. Lance Berkman (145 OPS+)
9. Miggy Cabrera (145 OPS+)
10. Albert Belle (143 OPS+)

Obviously, this list will shift a bit — Berkman is entering the decline phase of his career now, Miggy will likely win an award at some point, etc. But I hope you noticed that three of the best hitters to never win an MVP — Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Albert Belle — were all drafted and developed by the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s. No point except to say that’s pretty amazing. Between 1987 and 1995, the Indians had a knack for drafting hitters who would go on to distinguished — if not better than distinguished — big league careers.

Cleveland picks between 1987-1995 who got at least 3,000 plate appearances:
Albert Belle: 2nd round, 1987 draft
Jim Thome: 13th round, 1989 draft
Brian Giles: 17th round, 1989 draft
David Bell: 7th round, 1990 draft
Manny Ramirez: 1st round, 1991 draft
Richie Sexson: 24th round, 1993 draft
Dave Roberts: 47th round, 1993 draft
Russell Branyan: 7th round, 1994 draft
Sean Casey: 2nd round, 1995 draft

Over the same period of time, the hitters drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates who got 3,000 PAs:
Mickey Morandini, 7th round, 1987
Kevin Young, 7th round, 1990
Tony Womack, 7th round, 1991
Jason Kendall, 1st round, 1992

— Mariano Rivera
I appreciate that Mariano Rivera might be good forever. It’s looking more and more that way. The beautiful thing about Rivera is that it’s not like he’s staying unnaturally young. No, he’s clearly getting older. He’s balding. He’s getting more wrinkles. His cutter is clearly losing some steam. In 2010, his strikeouts were way down, his walks were up a tick. And it STILL DOESN’T MATTER. The guy is as unhittable as ever — two home runs all year, another flawless playoffs, the second lowest WHIP of his career. Remarkable.

But if that “It Happens Every Spring” juice ever wears off … I’ve got to believe at some point the Yankees are going to make a serious run at Kansas City’s Joakim Soria. In 2010, Soria had another Rivera-like year — 43 saves, 1.78 ERA, 71-to-16 strikeout to walk, 4 home runs allowed and so on. He looks like Rivera when he pitches. He seems entirely unflappable (which in Kansas City is revealed by how well he handles playing on a terrible team that can go weeks without giving him a save opportunity). For a Yankees team that has for 15 years has built much of its plan for winning around the closer — and with the collapse of Joba Chamberlain — I have to believe Joakim Soria looks really, really, really important to folks in New York.

Soria told the Kansas City Star’s Bob Dutton that he likes Kansas City, wants to stay, believes in the Royals’ plan for winning, which is good to hear. The Royals do have perhaps the most promising minor league system in baseball at the moment, and if they can finish off the development of exciting players like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Aaron Crow, Tim Melville, Christian Colon and so on, yes, the future, finally, might arrive.

Thing is, I’m not saying the Royals should trade Soria. I’m saying that the Yankees should come after him. That’s a different thing.

— Trevor Hoffman
He may retire this off-season — I expect he will. The Brewers just declined his option.

— Chipper Jones
Chipper is so underrated that I completely overlooked him the first time I did the list. He scores a 107. I also think he’s a Hall of Fame slam dunk.

OK, so that’s all. You will notice that there are some fairly big names not on the list — I would say the biggest are Pudge Rodriguez (99), Todd Helton (92), Jim Thome (91), Miguel Tejada (83), Andy Pettitte (53), Roy Halladay (52) and Omar Vizquel (48). I tend to think Pudge and Thome are in right now and Helton is awfully close. Halladay just has to finish out his career — he’s only 33. Vizquel is a fascinating subject, and one that we can go into another time.

Before moving on, I will point out something interesting — six different everyday players born in 1968 are qualified Hall of Famers by Bill’s system. They are: Frank Thomas (121); Mike Piazza (120); Jeff Bagwell (107); Robbie Alomar (105); Gary Sheffield (101) and Sammy Sosa (100). An interesting group, isn’t it? Just after those definites, you have serious Hall of Fame candidate Jeff Kent (77).

I don’t know that all seven will get in — there are obviously other considerations. But there has not been a birth year like it in more than 100 years. Take a look at the biggest years (this is only for everyday players, not pitchers — I’ll explain why in a minute):

1934 (4): Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente, Luis Aparicio.
1931 (4): Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews.
1954 (3): Andre Dawson, Ozzie Smith, Gary Carter.
1918 (3): Ted Williams, Pee Wee Reese, Bobby Doerr.

Now, 1903 has a remarkable number of Hall of Famers — Paul Waner, Charlie Gehringer, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Mickey Cochrane, Chick Hafey and Travis Jackson. That’s seven. But that’s a LONG time ago. So what why was 1968 such a big Hall of Fame birth year? Of course, there’s just pure chance which is usually your best bet. But the other thing is that all of them came of age EXACTLY when the offensive explosion hit baseball.

Now look at players born to peak in the low-hitting 1970s — say 1951. Dave Winfield is in the Hall. But Dwight Evans, Dave Parker, Buddy Bell, Cesar Cedeno, Bill Madlock — these were big-time players. None of them are in the Hall of Fame, and I suspect none of them will go. What would have happened had THEY been born in 1968? Would we think of them the way we think of the ’68 group?

Next: Pro Football Sure Hall of Famers

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George and Sparky

“Of course. We all have to lead more than one life.”
— Robert Frost, A Visit With Robert Frost

* * *

He was, like many men, two men. The big difference is that in addition to being two men he also had two names. He was George Anderson, Georgie to friends who liked gardening, watching the news on television and sleeping in the sun. George was the son of a hard-edged housepainter in inner city Los Angeles. George dreamed about baseball, but he sold cars and not especially well. He was a soft touch. He never could sell cars to people who he knew could not afford it. His boss. Milt Blish used to funnel a few dollars his way, just to keep him afloat.

Yes, he was George Anderson, the kind of man who could not send back a steak because he did not want to be a bother, the kind of man who would read the Bible sometimes as he tried to make sense of the world around him, the kind of man who would not write notes, not ever, because he felt embarrassed by his spelling and a little bit empty because he didn’t learn much in school. “I only had a high school education,” George used to say, “And believe me, I had to cheat to get that.”

No. Wait. It wasn’t George Anderson who said that. No … that’s Sparky.

Yes, that was Sparky Anderson — baseball manager, entertainer, leader, conservative, comedian, psychologist, enemy of pitchers, teller of tall-tales, botcher of the Queen’s English, defender of the game … no one description could possible contain all the energy and force and contradictions of Sparky Anderson, though a ballplayer name Lee May tried to sum up on a bus in 1970.

“You,” May said, “are a minor-league mother——.” Everyone on the bus howled. Anderson set his jaw. And he coaxed and threatened and inspired that very team to the World Series.

A radio man nicknamed George Anderson “Sparky” way back in early 1950s, in the minor leagues, back when George was doing what he always did — screaming at an umpire and getting himself tossed out of the game. The radio man said: “Look at the sparks fly! That’s one sparky fella!” George was out of control then — all spark and no plug. He only wanted to be a ballplayer, and he had no idea what would happen to him if he did not become a ballplayer. When he was growing up in California, he joined a local team just so he could steal equipment for the boys to use in the neighborhood games. He could not imagine his life without baseball, and the hard truth was so painful he could barely consider it: He wasn’t good enough at player baseball. He could field but he could not hit. And so, George Anderson became Sparky. And he raged.

Over time, though, Sparky became something more than spit and fury. Well, first he got himself booted out of the game. He was not entirely a a minor leaguer — he played a full year for Philadelphia. He never once hit a ball that hit the wall (“Not even on a roll,” he would say). He went back to the minor leagues, but nobody had much need for a no-hit second baseman who had no control over his temper. That’s when Sparky became George again, went home, sold cars for Milt Blish. He didn’t expect to get another chance in baseball. But he knew how he would change if he did get another chance, knew just how he could adjust the volume on Sparky, make him more likable, less crazy, more of a storyteller, less of a tyrant, more of a leader of men. Sparky would not lose his edge — he could not lose his edge — but he would bring the best out of talented young men. He could do that!

Sparky Anderson got another chance. He made the kids winners in minor league towns like St. Petersburg, Fla., and Modesto, Calif., and Asheville, N.C. The kids feared him and they liked him too. Not that it mattered. “A player doesn’t have to like the manger,” Sparky would say, “and a player doesn’t have to respect the manager. All the player has to do is obey the manager.” He became a coach in San Diego. He got offered a coaching job with the California Angels. The day he took that job, he was called to be manager of the Cincinnati Reds for the 1970 season. “Sparky Who?” it said in The Cincinnati Enquirer.

He was the youngest manager in baseball — he turned 36 during his first spring training. And, already, his hair was shock white. He carried a can of black hair dye with him on those first few road trips before he came to realize that it didn’t much matter, he wasn’t really fooling anybody. The hair, like the optimism, like the exaggerations, like the malapropisms, like the inconsiderate pulling of pitchers (they called him Captain Hook), like the winning would all become a part of Sparky Anderson persona. In 1972, Johnny Bench began calling Sparky’s overbearing spring training schedule “Stalag 13.”

“But we still like Sparky,” Bench said.

“Why?” a reporter asked.

“Because … we just do,” Bench said.

Some played for his approval. Some played to spite him. Some played to live up to the ludicrous expectations he had placed on them.* Some played to prove him wrong. Before spring training in 1975, he gathered his team together and told them that there were four stars on the team — Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez — and the rest of them were turds. That was the word he used. Turds. The stars played like stars. The others had T-shirts made with “Turds” on the front and, most of them, they also played like stars. And the Reds won 108 games and probably the greatest World Series ever played.

*Examples:
1. “Don Gullett is going to the Hall of Fame.”
2. “Kirk Gibson is the next Mickey Mantle.”
3. “Chris Pittaro is going to be a great ballplayer, and that’s etched in cement.”
4. “Barbaro Garbey is another Roberto Clemente.”
5. “Mike Laga will make you forget ever power hitter that ever lived.”
6. “We’ve got some great hitters in Cincinnati, and Dan Driessen might be the best of them all.”

Sparky had his baseball ideas, of course. He didn’t care much for the bunt. He preferred speed to power, though he liked having players who could provide both. He believed as a young man that pitchers were disposable, that if they weren’t getting outs then it was his job as manager to find someone would would. In 1975, he went 45 straight games without allowing a pitcher to complete a game, a record in those days — the nightly hooks were so shocking that people in CIncinnati booed Sparky even though the Reds were leading the division by 10 games. “If you want to stay in the game, it’s like dance steps boys,” Sparky would say. “You need to play the song in your head like a waltz — one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. Play it like that, and I’ll just sit right here in the dugout and enjoy it. But you start going one-two-three … four … five … well, we’ll see you later.”

Funny thing: As an older manager, Sparky’s Detroit Tigers led the league in complete games once and were among the leaders several other times. His explanation wasn’t that he had changed philosophies. His explanation was that his starting pitchers were better.

“I always believed Sparky hated pitchers,” his pitcher Gary Nolan said, repeating the theory often proposed by Anderson’s pitchers, “because he couldn’t hit them.”

Yes, Sparky had his baseball ideas. He had his life ideas too — he believed ballplayers should have short hair and shiny shoes and they should wear jackets and ties when away from the ballpark. The hardest defeat he suffered — he would tell friends — was when the Reds lost to the 1972 Oakland A’s. It wasn’t because the A’s weren’t great — they would go on to win three straight World Series teams. It was because the A’s wore their hair long. He could not believe his Reds — HIS REDS — lost to a team of hippies.

Most of all, Sparky Anderson success built out of the bond he created with his players. He became famous for some of his quirky sayings like “Pain don’t hurt” and “You don’t invent winning” and “I got my faults but living in the past is not one of them … there’s no future in it.” But so much of what made Sparky Anderson a successful manager was unspoken.

“I don’t know why we did the things we did for Sparky,” Pete Rose said. “But we all did. All of us. Johnny. Joe. Me. All of us.” In 1975, middle of the year, Sparky Anderson asked Pete Rose to move from the outfield to third base, a position he had not played in 10 years (and had hated when he did play there briefly). And Pete Rose moved. “We wanted to win for Sparky,” Rose said. “He just had this way about him.”

Over a lifetime of baseball, Sparky Anderson won three World Series championships — two in the National League, one in the American. He managed three of the best teams of the last half century — the 1984 Tigers and the 1975 and ’76 Reds. He coaxed the best out of men as different (and as similar) as Pete Rose and Lou Whitaker, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan, Don Gullett and Jack Morris, Alan Trammell and George Foster, Rawly Eastwick and Willie Hernandez. And he did it with arrogance and modesty blended together in a way that was quite unlike any other manager. “The players make the manager,” he often said. “It’s never the other way.”

He retired in 1995, and though it seemed like he had been managing forever (he did manage 26 consecutive years), he was only 61 years old. In 2010, there were eight big league managers who were 61 or older. But Sparky Anderson had enough. He’d gone through that ridiculous strike, he’d refused to manage replacement players, he didn’t need that stuff anymore. He did some broadcasting. He’d show up now and again to speak somewhere or throw out a pitch or be with his former players at a reunion of some kind. Sometimes, he would go to Reds reunions, and he would talk about how great the players were — Rose and Bench and Morgan and the like — and former Reds pitcher Jack Billingham would be in the stands and he would shout out: “Hey Sparky, amazing how you won all those games without any pitchers on your team at all.” And they’d laugh.

Mostly, though, he went back home to Thousand Oaks, Calif., and he became George Anderson again. In the last couple of years, there were whispers about his health — often with those dreaded five words that wait at the end: “Good days and bad days.” He would show up in public every now and again, looking ever more frail. Anderson died on Thursday from complications of dementia. He was 76 years old. He spent the last months of his life with family. It was a sad ending, but it was a happy life. As Sparky Anderson often said: “I can’t believe they pay us to play baseball — something we did for free as kids.”

Over the last couple of years, in writing my book The Machine about the 1975 Reds, I talked with many players and coaches about Sparky Anderson. They all had funny stories about him. And they had different feelings about him. Some — like Rose — loved Sparky still. Others would not call their feelings for Anderson “love” or anything close. But all of them, to a man, understood that Sparky Anderson had been the driving force behind their success — as father figure, as needler, as big brother, as minor-league mother—— — and also a driving force in their lives. As one player said: “I couldn’t stand that son-of-a-bitch, but I never played better than I did for him.”

At one point during the research, I tried to reach Anderson. I suppose this was when his health had started to fade, though I had not heard anything about that yet. I had sent him a letter, I had been in contact with some of his friends, but I had been unable to reach him. It was odd: I had spoken with Sparky Anderson many times through the years, and he had always been available and helpful and joyous, and it was strange to not be able to reach him. Finally a friend gave me a telephone number — a number that looked suspiciously like the one I had called to no answer. I called, and this time a woman answered the phone.

“Hello,” I said. “I was hoping to reach Sparky Anderson.”

There was a pause on the other end. I understand that pause now. Then I heard her say — sadly, I thought — “There’s no one here by that name.” And she hung up the phone.

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Weakest World Series Winners (since 1946)

So in my effort to find out the worst baseball team to win the World Series — just to see where the Giants might fit in — I ran into a few interesting bits. One is this: Did you know that the Oakland A’s, every championship year of the early 1970s, way underperformed their baseball pythag? I know that some people don’t buy into the whole baseball pythag team — this is a formula Bill James came up with to estimate what a team’s record should be based on how many runs they scored and how many runs they allowed.

It’s probably more fun than science. Still, it’s an interesting thing, and, in general, World Series champs tend to outperform their expected record. Seventy of the 106 teams that have won the World Series outperformed their pythag and another seven broke even. Another 12 just barely underperformed — by one game. So that’s 89 of 106.

But those 1972-74 A’s who won three World Championships all underperformed by more than one game. The 1974 A’s were particular culprits. They finished third in the league in runs scored, led the league in ERA, and won only 90 games — seven less than expectation. The 1972 A’s (93 wins against expectation of 97) and 1973 A’s (94 wins against an expectation of 96) also fell short of their pythag. I’m not saying this means something — it surely doesn’t. But it’s an interesting quirk. Those A’s were always known as mavericks and outcasts and all that, and they were mostly underdogs in the playoffs those years. In 1972, they beat a pretty heavily favored Cincinnati Reds team in a seven-game World Series. In 1973, they beat a very good Baltimore team in five games, then scraped by the Ya Gotta Believe Mets in seven games (the A’s WERE favored in that one). In 1974, they beat Baltimore again and beat the Dodgers and both those teams had better records. The word on those A’s is that they were only good when they needed to be good. The run differential probably doesn’t add anything … but it’s one of the cool quirks that make baseball blog posts on this site longer than they should be.

In any case, I did a very and dirty formula — based on wins and losses, runs scored and runs allowed — to determine just where the 2010 Giants might rank among the World Series winners since 1946. It’s not a great formula, but it did give a pretty good Top 5:

1. 1998 Yankees
2. 1939 Yankees
3. 1975 Reds
4. 1927 Yankees
5. 1970 Orioles

I am, of course, partial to the ’75 Reds but that seems pretty legitimate to me, or anyway it seems enough to make the list at least somewhat viable. The 1970 Orioles tend to be overlooked, I think, because that was the year in between when Orioles were upset by the 1969 Mets and upset again by the 1971 Pirates. Earl Weaver’s Orioles won 100-plus games five times from 1969 to 1980, and they had a winning record every season, and they only won the one World Series. It seems that Weaver — not Billy Beane — was the original “My $*#&$ doesn’t work in the playoffs” guy.

That should not detract from JUST HOW GOOD that 1970s Orioles team was. They won 108 games, they led the league in runs and runs against, they had two Hall of Famers in the lineup (Brooks and Frank Robinson), another in the rotation (Jim Palmer) the league MVP (Boog Powell), one of the greatest defensive teams ever (with Paul Blair in center and Mark Belanger at short) and two more pitchers who were multiple 20-game winners (Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally). Not bad.

Picking best and worst World Series winners is tricky because it’s very difficult to say how much better baseball is now than it was in years past. There are many people who would say it’s NO better, which strikes me as somewhat absurd. But how much better? How much worse? Can you really rank the 1953 Yankees straight up against the 1986 Mets against the 2007 Red Sox? If so, how about the 1927 Yankees? How about the 1909 Pirates? How much should you discount baseball before video/ study? Before the popularizing of the slider? Before Jackie Robinson? Before the improvement of gloves? Before modern training techniques?

The worst World Series winner — based purely on baseball talent — probably played during World War II for all the obvious reasons. It was probably the 1945 Detroit Tigers. Their hitting star was Roy Cullenbine, a 31-year-old outfielder who had been traded four times and released once and whose best skill was his rather remarkable ability to draw walks. He led the league with 113 walks that year (striking out just 36 times), and two years later he walked 137 times despite hitting just .224. He was like a walking savant — his .408 career on-base percentage is 38th all-time in baseball history.

Their pitching star, of course, was Hal Newhouser, a Hall of Famer who dominated the war years and 1946 as well. And other than those two, the team was made up mostly of old guys — 39-year-old Doc Cramer, 35-year-old Eddie Mayo and Skeeter Webb, 34-year-old Hank Greenberg and Al Benton. And so on. The Tigers were a good team in 1946 built around Newhouser, Greenberg’s last great year, the emergence of the young George Kell. But they would not win another pennant for more than two decades.

Since the weakest World Series teams would mostly be war-teams, I have decided instead just to list the weakest since World War II. And here we go:

10. 2010 San Francisco Giants.
— Did you expect them to be a bit higher (or lower) on the list? The thing about the Giants is not that they are weak. They are not. But they ARE one of the most lopsided teams to win the World Series.

Look: Of the 106 teams to win the World Series, 20 of them led the league in BOTH runs scored and ERA. These well-rounded teams include some of the greats — the ’86 Mets, the ’27 Yankees, the ’70 Orioles, the ’84 Tigers and so on.

Another 25 of the World Series winners led the league in runs scored but not in ERA. These are teams that lean offense. Of these, the most lopsided is probably the 1913 Athletics who bludgeoned teams with a lineup featuring Home Run Baker and Eddie Collins but finished sixth in the league in ERA.

And 20 teams won a World Series by leading the league in ERA but not leading the league in runs scored. These are teams that lean pitching. The 2010 Giants are one of those — they finished ninth in the league in runs, but they led the league in ERA. That’s EXACTLY what the 2005 White Sox did. That’s EXACTLY what the 1995 Braves did too. And the 1965 Dodgers were eighth in runs while leading the league in ERA.

I think this gets at the heart of what people mean when they say: “Pitching wins championships.” I don’t think that’s quite right. I think there are more great offensive teams that have won the World Series than great pitching teams. It’s just that most of the great offensive teams also had at least good pitching. The 1992 Toronto Blue Jays heavily leaned offense — they finished ninth in ERA. But that’s pretty unusual.

On the other hand, several of the best pitching teams to win the World Series — and the 2010 Giants fit right in — had subpar offenses (at least until the playoffs). So I don’t know that it’s right to say that pitching wins championships. But I do think it’s fair to say that you have a better chance to win a championship with great pitching a terrible hitting than the other way around.

9. 1982 Cardinals.
— Here’s a team that didn’t hit particularly well OR pitch particularly well. They hit 67 home runs the whole season — that’s the whole team. Always thought it was kind of poetic that the 1982 Cardinals won by hitting fewer home runs as a team than Mark McGwire hit in 1998 (when the Cardinals finished third). In those years, pitcher wins told a bit more because starters completed a lot of games, and no Cardinals starter won more than 15 games.

So how did the ’82 Cardinals do it? Well, they got on base (they led the league in on-base percentage). They ran the bases with abandon (led the league in triples and stolen bases). Manager Whitey Herzog drained his bullpen, especially Bruce Sutter who threw more than 100 innings and was third in the Cy Young balloting. And to be blunt, they took advantage of a weak season in the National League. They only won 92 games, but that was the most in the league. They beat an absurdly weak Braves team 3-0 in the Championship Series. And they won the last two games of the World Series against Milwaukee by a combined scored of 19-4. Not every year is created equal.

That said, that was a special Cardinals team because I’d say no other team in baseball history quite won it the way they won it.

8. 1959 Dodgers
— Bill James has written about this before; it’s absolutely ludicrous that the late ’50s Braves did not get more out of their talent. There was a lineup with two all-time greats — Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews — right in their primes, and they had other stars like Joe Adcock and Del Crandall and Johnny Logan. On the pitching side, they had Warren Spahn of course, and Lew Burdette was very good, and Bob Buhl was very good. And so on. That was a legitimately great team, or anyway should have been.

So how did the ’59 Dodgers — this, remember, is before the emergence of Sandy Koufax — beat them? Offensively, the Dodgers were a shell of the Boys of Summer — Hodges was 35, Snider 32, Furillo 37, Jackie Robinson was retired. But they led the league in walks, steals and were second in on-base percentage. The pitching staff was like a prequel to the great 1960s staffs — you could begin to see it emerging. Drysdale led the team with 17 wins, Koufax struck out 173 in 153 innings. It was enough to win 88 games, which was enough to get them to the World Series. And once there, they beat a similarly overachieving Go Go White Sox team to win the championship.

7. 1964 Cardinals
— People remember 1964 mostly for the Phillies collapse. So they tend to forget just how flawed that Cardinals team was that won the World Series. That was a very good offensive team with the sudden, and rather shocking, emergence of Lou Brock (who hit .348 and stole 33 bases in the last 100 or so games), and the steady excellence of Bill White and league MVP Ken Boyer.

The pitching wasn’t much. Bob Gibson at 28 was only then beginning to come into his own. Curt Simmons at 35 had his last productive season. Ray Sadecki at 23 won 20 games and flashed promise of greatness that would instead lead to a long and wildly inconsistent career. In any case, the 1964 Cardinals were not a great team. They were only 48-48 in late July. But they played great down the stretch and the beat the Yankees in seven uneven games, the last of the seven won by Gibson who refused to come out even though he gave up two home runs in the ninth.

6. 1996 Yankees
— Five things people forget about the first of the Joe Torre Yankees to win a World Series:

Thing 1: The Yankees only won 92 games. And they only won that many because they were terrific in one-run games, going 25-16.

Thing 2: Those Yankees were pretty brutal offensively. The league had become an offensive show, and the Yankees finished ninth in runs scored. The Yankees main cleanup hitter that year was the 738-year-old Cecil Fielder, who had been traded for the 696-year-old Ruben Sierra (who had been the Yankees cleanup hitter previously).

Thing 3: Those Yankees were pretty brutal on the pitching side too. They had a 4.65 team ERA. Their best starter, David Cone, had a serious injury and only started 11 games.

Thing 4: The Orioles took out the 99-win Cleveland Indians — probably the best team in the league. Then, of course, the Yankees beat the Orioles, helped at least in part by a young man named Jeffrey Maier.

Thing 5: The Yankees fell behind Atlanta 2-0 in the World Series. And the Braves somehow, some way, blew a 6-0 lead in Game 4 of the Series. In Game 5, the Yankees survived Torre’s bizarre decision to allow Andy Pettitte to hit for himself in the ninth inning. It all just went right.

5. 2003 Marlins
— Florida finished eighth in the league in runs scored, seventh in the league in runs allowed, the Marlins only won 91 games, and they only made the playoffs because of a 15-6 finish. They beat the Giants in large part because of a brutal error by Jose Cruz. They beat the Cubs thanks to a complete and utter Chicago collapse that everyone wanted to blame on some poor Cubs fan who tried to catch a foul ball. They beat New York in the World Series because a 23-year-old kid named Josh Beckett went all Bob Gibson on the Yankees in the clincher.

4. 1985 Royals
— Many view the ’85 Royals as the worst team to win the World Series in 50 years, but it’s a similar illusion to the 2010 Giants. The Royals had a lot of really good pitching.

Offensively, though, yeah, it was a nightmare. Call them George Brett and the Eight Outs. I’ve often thought that Brett should have been MVP in 1985, not necessarily because he put up the best year (Rickey Henderson’s year was awesome; Don Mattingly was certainly great) but because it would have been a nice gesture after making him play on that lineup all year. I think it would be hard, as you look through baseball history, to find a player have THAT GOOD an offensive season on a lineup THAT BAD. Maybe Ralph Kiner in ’51. But I don’t think so.

The Royals second-best offensive player that year was probably 39-year-old Hal McRae. Their third-best offensive player was Steve Balboni — that would be Steve Balboni. Their fourth-best was, well, take your pick, any of them. Those were the only three to manage even league average OPS+. Willie Wilson and Lonnie Smith stole some bases. Frank White hit some homers. But the Royals finished dead last in the league in on-base percentage. That’s the worst lineup ever to win a World Series even WITH George Brett having a remarkable season.

But oh that pitching — Saberhagen, Jackson, Liebrandt, Gubicza, Quiz — it was really good. Which reminds me — people keep asking if Tim Lincecum is ALREADY a Hall of Famer. After all, he has won two Cy Young Awards, he has led the league in strikeouts three times, and he doesn’t turn 27 until next June.

Well he is not a Hall of Famer yet. He’s not close to one. That’s no knock, he’s one of the great young pitchers in baseball history, I think. But the Hall of Fame is a career-thing, you have to be very good for a very long time to make it work. Consider another pitcher who had won two Cy Young Awards BEFORE he turned 26. When he turned 26, he was coming off a season when he led the league in wins, ERA, complete games and, though nobody knew it then, Wins Above Replacement. He already had led a team to a World Series championship, he had otherworldly command and he looked to be about as sound a pitcher as any in memory.

How much would you have bet on Bret Saberhagen going to the Hall of Fame then?

3. 2000 Yankees
— That was the Yankees third straight World Series championship, of course. The first team, in 1998, won 114 games and is in the discussion for greatest team ever. So how can a team two years later, built around the same core of players, be considered in the discussion for worst World Series winner since World War II?

Well, the 2000 Yankees only won 87 games. It’s funny now, when you consider how brutal the American League East is, that only 10 years ago it was probably the weakest division in the American League. The Yankees had the fifth-best record in the league. They would not even have finished second in either of the other divisions. They had trouble scoring runs (6th in the league) and trouble preventing runs (4.76 ERA). Derek Jeter* had a typically good year in 2000, Bernie Williams had a typically good year, Jorge Posada had a typically good year but that was really about it among the every day players. Pitching was spotty. The Yankees were simply not especially good in 2000.

*Here’s something funny about the Derek Jeter career — the biggest knock on Jeter, I think, has not really been a knock on the player but on the aura that has built around around him. And yet, in a weird way, there’s a case to be made that Jeter was pretty solidly UNDERRATED throughout much of his career, at least in the MVP balloting. Everyone knows about him finishing second in the MVP voting to Justin Morneau in 2006, though Jeter really seemed to have a noticeably better season.

But as I was looking back on his career, I have to ask: What the heck happened in 1999? There’s a strong argument to be made that Jeter was the best everyday player in the league in 1999. He hit .349, had a .438 on-base percentage, was second in the league in runs scored, led the league in runs created and times on base, all while playing shortstop (perhaps not that well by the numbers, but well enough to build a reputation as a good defender). His 9.3 offensive WAR led the American League, and his 8.0 overall WAR tied with Manny Ramirez for the league lead (that was the year Manny drove in 165). If there was some rush to celebrate Derek Jeter, he should have won that MVP unanimously.

And you know what happened instead? Jeter finished SIXTH in the MVP voting, behind the clearly inferior Pudge Rodriguez.

As the person who invented the word “Jeterate” — I do believe there is a contingent of people who glorify Derek Jeter beyond all reason. But I also think, in the larger picture, the Jeter thing is quite a bit like the “New York bias” that people always talk about but can’t actually find in the Hall of Fame or in the awards voting. The way some sing Jeter’s praises will create the impression that he has been wildly overblown. And in some ways he has. And yet, I don’t think it will reflect all that well on the generation’s sportswriters that he never won an MVP.

Back to the Yankees. They were not especially good during the regular season. And come playoff time, well, they traveled cross country to Oakland after getting destroyed 11-1 and scored six runs in the first inning of Game 5 to win that one. You know Billy Beane says his $%#%# doesn’t work in the playoffs — well, starting Gil Heredia in the clincher probably isn’t going to work no matter how good you are at identifying market inefficiencies.

The Yankees then pounded the Mariners into submission — that was the series that Roger Clemens threw his rather remarkable one-hit, 15-strikeout game. And the Yankees, looking very much like their dominant selves, beat the Mets four games to one in the series when Roger Clemens mistook a bat for a ball.

2. 2006 Cardinals
This spot for St. Louis is a bit misleading because those mid-decade Cardinals were pretty great. They won 105 games in 2004 and 100 in 2005. And the 2006 team was essentially the same team. The Cardinals were playing typically good ball in late July when suddenly, almost inexplicably, they lost eight games in a row. They were kind of beat up, but it went beyond that — they seemed sort of tired. I think that kind of thing can happen to a team that keeps getting close but can’t quite win the championship. There’s a “well, what’s the point?” kind of vibe that’s hard to suppress.

They played uninspired ball the rest of the season. Fortunately for them, everyone else in the division played even MORE uninspired ball, and on Sept. 19 the Cardinals had a seven game. lead. But they promptly went into another spiral, losing eight of nine, and four of those losses were to the suddenly hot Houston Astros, and the Cards lead was only a half game. They squeaked into the playoffs with an 83-78 record, the worst for any eventual World Series winner.

But in the playoffs they looked again like the very good team they had been the previous two seasons. A team with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen (though he was hurting), Chris Carpenter, a young Adam Wainwright — that’s a good baseball team. Jeff Suppan pitched his heart out, David Eckstein scrapped his heart out in the World Series, and the Cardinals won the World Series.

1. 1987 Minnesota Twins
If you were trying to build a World Series champ, you would likely do the opposite of what the 1987 Twins did. They built a mediocre offense but an even worse pitching staff. Their bullpen was mostly awful, and the hitters couldn’t get on base. They were on pace to be a 104-loss team on the road — 29-52 for the season, if you can believe that — and a Metrodome official admitted that he adjusted the ventilation system to help the Twins hit better at home.

Did it work? Well, the Twins did average more runs at home. But surprisingly the big difference was in pitching, where the Twins gave up a run and a half less per game in the Dome. Frank Viola was almost unbeatable in the Dome (11-3, 2.69 ERA) and reliever Juan Bernguer, who is like the Forest Gump of baseball in that he’s pretty much everywhere (’84 Tigers? Yep. ’87 Twins? Yep. ’91 Braves? Yep) was 5-0 with a 2.31 ERA at home.

Yes, something about about the Dome brought out the magic in those Twins. I mean — not a lot of magic. The Twins only won 85 games, which would have put them fifth in the American League East. But they American League West was dreadful. They beat the Tigers in five, actually clinching the thing in Detroit.

And then in the World Series, they lost all three games in St. Louis and scored a total of five runs. But at home they clubbed six home runs (by six different players, one of those by the 411-year-old Don Baylor) and won all four games. In 100-plus years of baseball, you inevitably will have those teams that have everything go right. The ’87 Twins are the most charmed team in baseball history. And with the ventilation system, yeah, they probably cheated too — you know, sometimes charm is not enough.

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VOOB

So, I saw “Social Network” tonight, and I liked it quite a lot, and it made me think of about this concept: VOOB.

That would be: Value Over Originating Book.

I think “Social Network” has a very high VOOB. I’m a fan of Ben Mezrich, who wrote the excellent Bringing Down The House (which was turned into the inferior 21 — a minus-7 VOOB). But I was not a fan of Mezrich’s “The Accidental Billionaires” the book which “Social Network” was based on. I just thought it got swallowed up by the many gaps that were impossible for a reporter to fill.

But the movie — and movies can do this because they don’t have to be quite so faithful to the facts — used those gaps to create something deeper (and filled other gaps with stuff that probably isn’t exactly true — I guess Mark Zuckerberg has basically said the movie is fiction). In any case, I thought the movie was a 29 VOOB — the highest in recent memory. In other words, the movie was WAY better than the book.

I actually tweeted that it was the highest VOOB ever, but of course that was a rash tweet and people immediately started listing off dozens of movies that had higher VOOBs. Social Network does not have the highest VOOB ever. That was a pretty clear fanbole.

But what does have the highest VOOB? Well, that’s why we have a comment section here. Pick the highest VOOB of your life — that is the movie that most thoroughly thrashed the quality of the book it was based on. But choose wisely, for I only want one good movie per commenter.

And while your at it, you can also choose one movie that scored the lowest VOOB — which, I think, is infinitely easier to choose. I personally gave the Twitter Title to Bonfire of the Vanities, which I scored at a minus-498483747. But then someone mentioned “The Great Gatsby” and I realized that it wouldn’t be so easy.

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Mensch Dispatch

I love the Yiddish word “mensch.” It is defined as “a person of integrity and honor,” but to me it really means something more subtle than that. It’s more like … if someone borrows your car and fills it up with gas before returning it, that’s a mensch. If a family is sitting apart on a plane and someone offers to give up the seat for a slightly worse one so the family can be together — that’s a mensch. If a ballplayer leaves the park, and he’s exhausted, and he still stops to sign autographs for kids — that’s a mensch. If someone has a snowblower, and he takes extra effort to clear the driveway of the elderly couple down the street — that’s a mensch. And so on.

In any case, one of the complaints we often hear in journalism is that we don’t report enough mensch news (“All you guys ever write is bad stuff”). Then again, another one of the complaints we often hear in journalist is that we TOO OFTEN report mensch news (“I don’t care that this guy gives to charity, he’s a terrible quarterback!”)

Well, I’ve been getting quite a bit of mensch news over the last few weeks, and I haven’t really had a place to put it all. So I’m starting something here called “The Mensch Dispatch.” I realize, of course, that this could lead to me getting MORE press releases, which is not really something I want. But I also believe — believe more firmly — that when people are trying to do good things, they should get our support.

So, our first bit of mensch news involves Kansas City readers. Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Branden Albert is having a bowling event in Kansas City Tuesday night — that would be tomorrow, Nov. 2. The event goes on from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. There’s a $20 cash cover, which includes bowling shoes, three hours of bowling and the proceeds going to the awesome Make-A-Wish Foundation.

You can go here for details and if you want to buy tickets in advance.

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Talkin’ Baseball (Stats)

Here’s a funny thought that struck me the other day: I don’t think I have ever met a baseball fan who does not like baseball stats. Not once. I have never really thought about it exactly in those terms before — I have friends who I always would have called anti-stats and others who I might have called geeks like me.

But that’s not just oversimplifying … it’s wrong. This struck me when talking with a good friend who I would loosely call “anti-stats” or, to be more precise, “dubious about advanced stats.” This is the kind of friend who wants the Oakland A’s to fail so that the Moneyball people (including me) will shut up. This is the kind of friend who sees letter configurations like xFIP or UZR or WAR and begins to show facial tics. This is the kind of friend who, modern and open-minded as he tries to be, as good a friend as he tries to be, cannot help but believe that many of these blog posts are written from my mother’s basement.

But … but … but he is ALSO the kind of friend who will quote batting averages with passion, who will get a jolt of excitement when he thinks about how many RBIs Manny Ramirez had in 1999 (165, as he can tell you), who can quote pitcher wins like scripture.

The guy loves baseball stats. He just loves HIS baseball stats.

And I’ve come to believe this is the reality: NOBODY who cares about baseball hates all baseball stats. Well, I shouldn’t say nobody. I’m sure that there is the rare bird who likes to go to games to partake in the geometric greenery of the game or whatever — but I don’t know that person.

See baseball is a game of context. You want to know who the best hitter is. You want to know how good the pitcher is. And we instinctively know that while we can tell SOME things with our eyes, we can’t tell everything. Baseball is with us every day of the summer, and the action without context is not especially gripping (which is why the “baseball is boring” gripe has been with us for more than 100 years). To see a pitcher throw a fastball past a hitter is not especially thrilling on its own … you probably don’t often stop the car to watch baseball games being played along the road. Strikeouts happen at every one of those games. But if that pitcher is Tim Lincecum and that hitter is Josh Hamilton, and you know how good Lincecum is (he has led the National League in strikeouts three straight years — something only Randy Johnson had done in the last 50 years) and you know how good Josh Hamilton is (he hit .359 and led the league in slugging!), the moment takes on life and electricity and joy.

So, yes, I think people need baseball stats to enjoy the game. It’s just that many people — and I understand this impulse — want to stick with the stats they’ve enjoyed all their lives. These stats are as familiar as family. And while they may know those stats are flawed, they prefer the flaws in their favorite statistics over the flaws of the newer ones. Why? Maybe the newer stats feel too much like math. Maybe, to them, the newer stats seem to dehumanize the game. Maybe they just just don’t connect with Wins Above Replacement in the way that they CONNECT with RBIs as a statistic, the way they CONNECT with wins as a statistic, the way they can CONNECT with errors as a statistic. These stats they can infuse with emotion and feeling and history.

For some of us, it will always be fun to explore the new numbers, to try and separate what a pitcher does from what the defense does, to break down a hitter by what he contributes to winning and losing rather than by how many hits he gets per at-bat, to judge a player’s defense beyond the occasional diving catch and by how often the ball boinks off his glove. As I’ve always said, there are a lot of ways to enjoy baseball. And there is no wrong way.

So with that as my preamble, I’ve been thinking about the most basic baseball stats — and five very simple ways I would improve them. And let me say up front that my suggestions would not make the basic stats more advanced — the opposite. They would make the basic stats even more basic, which I think would be good.

1. Team wins = pitcher wins

Assuming you’re a baseball fan, you probably know most of the convoluted rules it takes to get a win these days. As a starter you have to go five innings, your team has to be in the lead if you are taken out of the game, your team cannot surrender that lead when you are out the game, and so on. It seems simple but it really isn’t. And as a reliever … well, it can get REALLY tricky for a relievers.

Simplify. I’ve never hidden my disdain for pitcher wins as a statistic, especially in modern times when hardly anybody pitches a complete game, but if you’re going to use this stat anyway (and let’s be honest, it ain’t going anyway), fine. Just keep track of how often a team wins the game when the pitcher starts. That’s all. Eliminate the no-decision, which if you stop to think about it is actually a bizarre concept. There are no “no decisions” in baseball. Somebody wins. Somebody loses.

So, make it so that the only pitcher who can get a win or a loss is a starting pitcher. This won’t hurt anything — nobody cares about reliever wins anyway. We’ll come up with a better statistic to judge reliever performances. Make it the starter’s game. If the starter goes 2/3 of an inning, give up 8 runs, but the team comes back and wins — he gets the win. If he goes 9 innings, give up no runs, and the team loses in the 10th, he gets a loss. Chris Carpenter “went” 16-9 in 2010. But what does that even mean? He made 35 starts. Isn’t it more telling that his team went 22-13 when he started a game?

And don’t hit me with “But that wouldn’t always be fair to the pitcher.” It’s not fair now. It’s less fair now.* If a starting pitcher’s job is to keep a team in the game, give a team the best chance to win, then let’s see how often the team wins and loses when he pitches.

*I feel about this the same way I feel about awarding the All-Star Game winner homefield advantage in the World Series. I think it’s a dumb way to do it. BUT it’s certainly less dumb than the old way when they just alternated homefield advantage. Sometimes, you have to judge something against its history.

2. If it’s a sacrifice, make it a sacrifice.

Consider this scenario: Man on second, nobody out. Batter is asked to bunt the runner to third. He fails on his first attempt. He fails on his second attempt. And with two strikes, he takes a goofy swing and chops the ball to second base, which moves the runner to third.

In this scenario, he gets an at-bat. He’s zero-for-one. Why? If he had managed to get the bunt down, he would not have been charged with an at-bat. He’s zero-for-zero. Why? There’s no reason why. A bunt and a chop to second accomplished precisely the same thing. The reasoning seems to be that a bunt is a TRUE SACRIFICE, meaning that the hitter is entirely giving himself up for the sake of the team, while the chop to second is only a PARTIAL SACRIFICE because he might luck into a hit. But, of course, the bunter might have gotten a hit too. And anyway, I think the chop to second is a much truer sacrifice because the hitter is sacrificing his own stats.

I say count ’em. All of them. I’m all for keeping up with sacrifice hits and sacrifice flies so that we can know who are the scrappy gamers, and the gamey scrappers out there. But to me, all sacrifices should count as at-bats. You made an out. That should count against your batting average. That, to me, is what sacrifice means. You are giving up something for the betterment of the team. You are willing to reduce your individual statistics in order to help the club win. I have no special appreciation now for the unselfishness of someone who lays down a bunt — big deal, it doesn’t hurt the average. I have no special respect for the generosity of spirit of someone who hits a sac fly — for hitting the ball in the air, he gets an RBI, and he gets fist bumps, and he gets heaped with praise by announcers AND it doesn’t count against his average either.

I say count ’em. If you bunt over a runner, if you drive them in from third base with a fly ball, you get credited with a sacrifice, you get the appreciation of teammates and fans, you get known as a team player. But your batting average goes down. That’s a true sacrifice, my friend.

3. Simplify RBIs.

In many people’s minds, there is nothing more noble in all of baseball than driving in runs. Yes you can scream — I have screamed — about how RBIs are context stats, they are a reflection of a team and the batting order as much as the skills of a player and so on. RBIs might be the most deceiving popular statistic in baseball because people love it so much.

But, people DO love it. So, to me, if you are going to to give out RBIs — give ’em out. In this spirit I would make two recommendations:

— If a run scores based on your hitting, you get an RBI. Basic baseball statistics are way too judgmental. I’ve often told the bit about the first baseball story I ever wrote for a newspaper. My mother, a decided non-baseball fan, read the story and, being a supportive Mom, said she liked it except for one part: I had referred to a run as an unearned run. Well, who was I to say that a run wasn’t earned?

Same goes with RBIs. If someone hits into a double play, and a run scores, the run still scored. Give ’em the RBI. If a player hits the ball and it is botched and a run scores, the run still scored. Give ’em the RBI. I’d say any batted ball that results in a run scoring should get a run batted-in.*

*I still would not give an RBI for a run scoring on a wild pitch or passed ball since the term is Run BATTED In. I’m actually surprised, based on baseball’s statistical history of disregarding the walk, that they credit a batter with an RBI if he walks (or is hit by pitch) with the bases loaded. But I’m glad they do.

— I would make it so that you do not get an RBI for driving yourself in with a home run. This is not just double counting — it’s triple counting. The guy who hits a home run already gets credit for the home run. He already gets credit for the run scored. I don’t think he should ALSO get credit for the RBI. Making this small change would clarify some things anyway — it would bring back the rarity of the 100 RBI season for one. Anyway, my sense is that with RBIs we are really looking for how often they drive in OTHER runners. By “Good RBI Man” people tend to mean the guy who will drive in the runner from second with two outs or the guy who can get the runner home from third. Tacking on their home runs muddies up the concept, I think.

Here are your home run minus RBI leaders in 2010. You might be surprised by who is No. 1.

1. Alex Rodriguez, 95
2. Delmon Young, 91
3. Miguel Cabrera, 88
4. Vlad Guerrero, 86
5. Carlos Gonzalez, 83
6. Evan Longoria, 82
7. Casey McGehee, 81
8. Robinson Cano, 80
9. Ryan Braun, 78
(tie) James Loney, 78

4. Give me “every run average” rather than “earned run average.”

The funny thing about xFIP and how much some people despise it is that it’s hardly a new effort. People have been trying to pinpoint and separate a pitchers individual ability from the team’s defense for 100 years and more. That’s the whole concept behind the earned run. The idea is that if a fielder makes an error, well, that’s NOT THE PITCHER’S FAULT. And if it’s not the pitcher’s fault, then why should you count it against his statistics?

This, of course, leads to all sorts of ridiculousness. My mother really was right. For one thing, we don’t add runs to the pitcher’s “earned run” total when the fielder makes a spectacular run-saving catch. We don’t add a home run to the pitcher’s home runs allowed total if an outfielder leaps at the wall and brings a home run back. In those cases, the pitcher and the fielders are all in it together. So why discount the pitcher’s ERA because of errors? Why mess with reality?

Second, you do know how unearned runs are figured, right? The official scorer goes through the inning and attempts to RECREATE the inning without the error. That is to say, a third baseman boots an easy ground ball with two outs, the official scorer makes the determination that the inning SHOULD be over. That’s why every run scored after that error is called “unearned.” Sometimes, believe me, this sort of recreation can go beyond absurdity. Let’s say a guy is on second with one out. A ground ball is to short. The shortstop throws the ball away, and the batter goes to second. Well, at the moment, that’s an unearned run because the guy would not have scored. But if the NEXT GUY hits a single, then it becomes an earned run because now it’s assumed the guy would have scored. There are a lot of assumptions like that.

Third, of course, an error is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a moving target. An error in Cincinnati isn’t necessarily an error in Baltimore. Baseball stats should not change and shape-shift at the whim of some official scorer. Make it ERA — Every Run Allowed — after all, it’s a pitcher’s job to work around errors, to make the best of any and every situation.

2010 Leaders in Every Run Average
1. Josh Johnson, 2.50
2. Roy Halladay, 2.66
3. Adam Wainwright, 2.66
4. Clay Buchholz, 2.85
5. Felix Hernandez, 2.88
6. Tim Hudson, 2.91
7. Ubaldo Jimenez, 2.96
8. Roy Oswalt, 2.98
9. Johan Santana, 3.03
10. David Price, 3.06

5. Create simple but effective middle-reliever stats.

These poor middle relievers. Starters have wins. Closers have saves. But the middle relievers, who are becoming a bigger part of the game every year, don’t have anything. Yes, I know, people have tried to make the “hold” catch on … but it lacks the simplicity and power that a mainstream statistic must have. More on that in a minute.

As you know, I’m in favor of giving ALL wins to the starting pitcher. So I would be in favor of a couple of special and very simple middle reliever stats. I’m not smart enough to invent these statistics, but I would make recommendations:

— Inherited Runners Stranded. I would have this as a simple counting statistic — how many innings did you end with other pitcher’s runners on base? You could also do this as a percentage, though I love the idea of a counting stat so that a pitcher could lead the league in IRS. We could even give out the Orosco Award — no pitcher in baseball history* stranded anywhere close to the 790 baserunners Jesse Orosco stranded. And Orosco stranded them at a 75% clip — a very, very high percentage. It’s the highest percentage for an pitcher who inherited more than 500 baserunners.

*I assume — the stat only goes back so far but relievers weren’t as big a part of the game before the stat.

This year’s Orosco Winner would be San Diego’s Joe Thatcher, who stranded 54 base runners (Orosco’s career high was 57). Here are the Top 10 in IRS (with the IRS percentage in parentheses):

1. Joe Thatcher, 54 (81%)
2. Randy Choate, 51 (77%)
3. Javier Lopez, 48, (84%
4. Peter Moylan, 47 (69%)
5. Randy Flores, 46 (78%)
6. Santiago Casilla, 41 (87%)
7. Pedro Feliciano, 41 (82%)
8. Todd Coffey, 39 (65%)
9. Darren O’Day, 37 (74%)
10. Tony Sipp, 36 (80%)

— Clean Innings could be quite simply the percentage of full innings thrown where the reliever did not give up a run.

— A Setup. The setup stat could be simply be how often a pitcher hands off the lead to the ninth inning. You might even do this with the same rules as a save, only for the eighth inning.

Finally, all this gets at one more point: I don’t know that we do as good a job as we can of explaining the power of some of the best advanced statistics. WPA, for instance, is a wonderful statistic, one of my absolute favorites. WPA simply looks at every situation and credits or debits each players account based on how his actions helped or hurt the players chances. For instance, with the score 3-3 in the fourth inning, a guy hits a double with two outs. Well, his team now has a better chance of winning than it did before. That better chance is put into the hitters account. But at the same time, the pitchers team has a slightly smaller chance of winning. So that same amount is taken OUT OF HIS account. If they pitcher strikes out the next batter to end the inning, well, the chance for his team to win is now better, so that amount is put into the pitcher’s account, and it is taken out of the account of the batter who struck out. You see? It’s figures EVERY CONTRIBUTION (including fielders contributions) and EVERY SETBACK and and puts them into a season-long bank account.

It’s a great statistic, but it’s hard to take mainstream because:

1. It’s a somewhat more complicated concept than most people want.
2. It’s not something that a kid can figure out at home at the breakfast table.
3. It just took me a lengthy paragraph to explain and I’m still not sure I explained it well.

People do want baseball statistics — they want them, they need them, they rely on them, they argue about them, they cherish them. But the statistics must have at least the illusion of simplicity. On-base percentage, as I have pointed out many times, is a much simpler statistic than batting average — people will always say “Batting average is simply hits divided by at-bats” without explaining exactly how they got that at-bats total in the first place. On-base percentage is also a much more telling statistic than batting average.

But so far, anyway, on-base percentage does not have the power that batting average has. In part, I think it is because we have not yet come up with good verb for it — a guy can “hit” .300, but he can’t “on-base” .400. In part, I think it is because there are strong anti-walk feelings out there. In part, I think it is because batting average has been part of the American baseball landscape for more than 100 years and on-base percentage has not. I think the more we talk about on-base percentage, the more it will become ingrained in the baseball statistical landscape. But it takes a long, long time — and a lot of power — for a statistic to go mainstream. It’s not enough to yell “This statistic is better!” It may be better. But it has to grab the baseball fan’s heart. In the meantime, they’ll keep talking RBIs.

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The Negro Leagues Museum

Less than two years ago, I wrote what in some ways was the saddest blog post I’ve written. I wrote about how I was breaking away from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. In the time since I wrote it, people keep asking me to write again about it and, more, to give my heart back to the place. I just couldn’t do it. I’m just being honest. Something broke inside.

The NLBM — that not-so-memorable abbreviation that the museum has long used to identify itself — was a big part of my life for many years. This was, in large part, because of my friendship with Buck O’Neil. I loved Buck, of course, and because of that I loved the museum in Kansas City that was, in large part, his vision. It was built on the corner of 18th and Vine, that famous corner for the Kansas City jazz scene. Buck wanted people to know about the Negro Leagues. Before Jackie Robinson, before 1947 (and for a few years after), there was no Major League baseball dream for African Americans (or dark skinned Latinos). Baseball was the only grand American team sport then, the true National Pastime, and for black children across the country there was no Major League hope, no New York Yankees daydream, no St. Louis Cardinals wish.

There was, instead, the Negro Leagues — a bumpy, wonderful, insolvent, successful, willful, troubling and glorious gem of a league where players played joyous and violent baseball for love and, for the most part, a barely living wage. Everything about the Negro Leagues was contrast and conflict including the reason for its very existence. There is little doubt that some of the greatest players in baseball history — Oscar Charleston, Leon Day, Turkey Stearnes, Smokey Joe Williams, Bullet Joe Rogan, Martin Dihigo, Mule Suttles to name only a few — played in the Negro Leagues, and even less doubt that almost nobody remembered them. People knew Satchel Paige, certainly. Baseball fans might have known Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. But America’s collective memory had no place for the leagues and for those extraordinary men who played before their time began, before 1947.*

*I often make this point, but it is worth making again: Do you want to know how good the Negro Leagues were? Well, consider who came out of the Negro Leagues in those early years:

1. Jackie Robinson (1947)
— Hall of Famer, one of the great second basemen ever).
2. Larry Doby (1947)
— Hall of Famer, a 141 OPS+ from 1947-55, when he was one of best players in the game.
3. Hank Thompson (1947)
— Busted in first call-up with dysfunctional St. Louis Browns, but returned to Giants in 1949 and was a good player for eight seasons.
4. Willard Brown (1947)
— Busted in short call-up to same dysfunctional Browns, but was already 32. Hall of Famer for his play in Negro Leagues.
5. Dan Bankhead (1947)
— Was considered a can’t-miss prospect but, according to his son, he never could handle the extreme pressure that was placed on him as first African American pitcher in big leagues.
6. Roy Campanella (1948)
— Hall of Famer, three-time MVP, one of the great catchers in baseball history.
7. Satchel Paige (1948)
— Hall of Famer, and was already a legend by the time he was called up to the big leagues at, well, whatever age he wanted to be.
8. Don Newcombe (1949)
— Rookie of the Year, Cy Young winner, MVP winner.
9. Monte Irvin (1949)
— Hall of Famer, didn’t get his chance in big leagues until he was 30, still was a terrific player. Led the league in RBIs in 1951.
10. Sam Jethroe (1950)
— The Jet did not make the big leagues until he was 33, but he still twice led the big leagues in steals and in power-speed number.
11. Minnie Minoso (1951)
— One of the best “old” players in baseball history, he was absolutely one of the best players of the 1950s and, in my mind, should be in the Hall of Fame.
12. Willie Mays (1951)
— Hall of Famer, of course, is introduced at Giants games simply as “the greatest player in baseball history.” And if he isn’t, he is certainly in the photograph.

That’s it — first four years of call-ups, 12 players and of those 12, seven are in the Hall of Fame (and you might have the best pitcher and best all-around every day player in baseball history), an eighth (Minoso) could be in the Hall of Fame, a ninth (Newcombe) was a truly great player. So you tell me: How good was the Negro Leagues? Nine out of the first 12 were remarkable players. And over the next few years Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, who played briefly in the Negro Leagues, would become big leaguers, and so would MVP Elston Howard.

So, now in your mind, back up the breaking of the color barrier to 1937. And instead of those guys the names might have been Josh Gibson (of course) and Buck Leonard and Leon Day and Hilton Smith and Willie Wells and Cool Papa Bell.

The Negro Leagues remain a difficult thing to celebrate. For obvious reasons, almost nobody mourned its death. If anything, people mourned that it had ever existed at all. How do you celebrate an anachronism? How do you commemorate a piece of America that was not touched by what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature? And yet, as Buck would say, these guys COULD PLAY, MAN. These teams were centerpieces of bustling black communities. The biggest games were played on Sundays after church, following Saturday nights overflowing with jazz — this is American history too. Buck dedicated the later part of his life to keeping this history alive, these memories alive, to keeping the players alive, to reminding people that, yes, Willie Mays was the GREATEST MAJOR LEAGUE player he ever saw, but Oscar Charleston was the GREATEST PLAYER he ever saw.

I was lucky enough to be one of many infused by Buck’s energy, his enthusiasm, his optimism. Whatever Buck wanted me to do to help, I did. Over the years, I served as a master of ceremonies or panel member or something for dozens of Negro Leagues events. I spread the gospel. We as a family donated a lot of money — or at least a lot of money for us. There are so many good causes, and I want to help out in as much as I can — don’t most of us want to help as much as we can? — but the NLBM was personal to me, special to me. I say all this only to offer context. I loved the place.

When Buck died, he made it clear what he wanted to happen. He wanted Bob Kendrick to run the museum. I have always had to be careful here because Bob is one of my closest friends, and one of the best people I know. Bob was also the marketing director at the museum and the man at the heart — from my point of view — of the remarkable success the museum achieved. The place built up from a one room rental office (with various people around town taking turns to pay the rent) into a national treasure, honored by Congress, visited by the biggest names in sports and life, and I thought Bob was the imagination and energetic force behind it all.

And this is where the story turns. In a process where the less said the better, the board did not hire Bob Kendrick to run the museum. Instead, by one vote, they voted in a man named Greg Baker. I did not know (still do not know) Greg Baker — which was troubling to me since for almost 10 years I had attended or hosted more or less every major Negro Leagues museum event, and I had never once seen him. But it was the various stories I started hearing from people that concerned me more. I don’t think it’s right to go into it here. But it was made clear to me that the museum was going in a different direction, away from the vision of Buck O’Neil, away from the ethos that had made me fall in love with the museum and the story in the first place. I will tell you that The Kansas City Star did a long interview with Baker where he laid out his new vision for the museum — a vision that included only two kind of things: 1. Things that were utterly impossible; 2. Things that the museum had long been doing though he seemed unaware of it.

Sometimes, I badly want to be wrong. I often AM badly wrong, but not usually on those things. When the Royals hired Buddy Bell, I thought it was a badly mismatched hire … but because Buddy is among my favorite people in baseball I wanted to be wrong. I never wanted more to be wrong than with the Negro Leagues Museum direction. But I was pretty sure I wasn’t wrong. I was pretty sure that the direction they were taking the thing could only lead to money failure and disconnection from the community and a crisis. Then the economy tanked, which hurt badly but also offered an excuse. When stories leaked out about the NLBM’s terrible money problems, the inevitable quotes blamed the bad economy. It never felt worse being right.

This week, after less than two years, Greg Baker stepped down from the NLBM. I’ve heard from many people around town about it, and while the details would only muddy things up I can tell you that from what I have heard everything I feared happened in triplicate. The museum is not just in danger but in grave danger. And they are looking for someone to lead.

My friend Bob Kendrick now is executive director in the KC office for the National Sports Center of the Disabled — he just put on a wonderful event in town featuring pitcher Jim Abbott. I don’t know if he has been approached. A good man, Ray Doswell, who has been curator for a long time, serves as interim director. I’ve been told by several people that the museum will now return to the dream of Buck O’Neil. I hope so. I very much hope so. The Negro Leagues Museum was never going to survive as a tourist attraction. It can only survive, I think, as an ideal that inspires us, and challenges us, a place that makes us happy and sad all at the same time. That’s one of the tougher tricks in the world — happy and sad together.

“I wish you had seen us play,” Buck used to say to me all the time. “We could play, man!”

Happy and sad together.

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