Stuff
Category

By In Stuff

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.

Read more

By In Stuff

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.

Read more

By In Stuff

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.

Read more

By In Stuff

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.

Read more

By In Stuff

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.

Read more

By In Stuff

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.

Read more

By In Stuff

What’s Coming

So I am writing this quick post on my iPad, using the wireless on a plane, which means two things.

1. I am balancing on the very cusp of modern technology. A flying car just might be waiting for me in San Francisco to take me to my hotel room.

2. The usual assortment of misspellings, grammatical catastrophes and double double words should be double doubled. It’s like a family-size pack of blunders!*

*And let me just mention this: I really don’t mind when people put grammatical corrections in the comments … Helps me correct things. But I could use a little less snide. You know there is a copy-edited version of this blog at joeposnanski.si.com. If you want a cleaner version (cleaner … Not necessarily clean) go there. This is backstage.

Here is what’s coming, though veterans of this blog will know that means “Here is a list of blog posts I will definitely do unless I am sidetracked by work or family or a sandwich or I get bored or whatever.”

– 32 greatest NFL defensive players.
– 32 most complete players in baseball history
– 32 best movie endings
– Texpensives
– The now laughably late iPad review
– Ron Washington
– Personal heroes
– Darkness on the edge of my life
– The Chrysler Town and Country commercial
– The Golden 32
– The person I miss most at World Series time
– An in depth look at NPR and the political scene in America (no, I’m just joking)
– 32 best stadiums/arenas, all sports
– The overdue 32 sports books
– Lyrics to a song I once wrote and an explanation
– Matt Cain

As always, suggestions are encouraged.

Read more

By In Stuff

Too Much Info About Game 1 Starters

Here’s a beautiful thing about baseball: It’s probably happened. Whatever you’re thinking. It’s probably happened. Nine hits in a game? Yep, that happened: Johnny Burnett of the Cleveland Indians smacked nine hits against Philadelphia in an 18-inning game (same game that Jimmie Foxx had six hits, three of them homers, and eight RBIs).*

*Philadelphia’s Eddie Rommel had one of the greatest pitching lines in baseball history that day: 17 innings, 29 hits, 14 runs (only 13 earned), 9 walks, 7 strikeouts, 2 wild pitches. And Rommel — who was 34 at the time and was in the last year of a good career — was used mostly in one-inning appearances that year.

Reporter: Skip, when did you know it wasn’t Eddie’s night?

Connie Mack: I thought after the 26th hit he gave up, he started elevating his pitches. But his stuff was still good.

Six wild pitches? Yep, that’s actually happened three times — twice in the same year. J.R. Richard was the first to do it, April of 1979, against the Dodgers. He allowed just one run in nine innings despite six hits, four walks and those six wild pitches. Phil NIekro did it later that year on a day when his knuckler was REALLY knuckling. Bill Gullickson matched them in 1982.

And so on. Baseball is just one of those games … it’s been around for a LONG time, and each season has LOTS of games, and so whenever you see just about anything interesting happen you might think, “I’ll bet that’s never happened before.” But … it probably has.

For instance: Texas’ Cliff Lee on Wednesday will start World Series Game 1 for the second year in a row. You will remember he started Game 1 for Philadelphia last year against the Yankees. Not only is starting Game 1 for the second straight year, but he will be doing it for two different teams. And not only THAT but he will be doing it for two different teams in two different leagues. Crazy right?

Yes. Crazy. But not unprecedented. All three of those things have happened before. Searching for this led me to do WAY too much research in the history of World Series Game 1 starters. I have no illusion that you care at all about this. But, damn it, I looked it up. So here you go.

The last starter to start back-to-back World Series Game 1s was Jack Morris in 1991 and 1992. I originally missed Morris — many Jack Morris Hall of Fame fans think I miss him all the time — and thought that the last starter to go back-to-back was Dave Stewart, who actually started three in a row from 1988-90. But no, it was Morris … more on Stewart in a minute.

Morris, as I’m sure you remember, is also the last one to start back-to-back Game 1s for different teams. In 1991, he started Game 1 for the Minnesota Twins, and he pitched seven solid innings, allowing only two runs, and the Twins beat the Braves. In 1992, he started Game 2 for the Toronto Blue Jays, and he pitched what I have started to call the “solidy start” — solidy rhyming with quality — six innings and three runs. This is the absolute minimum a pitcher can do to qualify for what is generally called a quality start. It’s possible that “solidy” can be used in other forms of “absolute minimum qualifier” — a one-inning, three-run save might be called a “solidy save” for instance, or getting exactly 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists might be called a solidy triple-double.* A comedy that gives you JUST enough laughs to make it worthwhile might be called solidy. I’m still working on it.

*In case you were wondering — and I know you were — the solidy triple double (10-10-10) has been done in the NBA three times since 1986. Jason Kid was the last guy to do it in 2006 — he did it against Milwaukee. Andre Iguodala and Penny Hardaway were the other two to pull a solidy.

Anyway, Morris had a solidy start and was out-pitched by Tom Glavine.

Morris was the last to go back-to-back, and the last to do it for two different teams. But what about the last guy to do it for two different team in opposite leagues?

Yep, it has happened: Don Gullett in 1976 and 1977. In 1976, he pitched against the Yankees for the ultra-dominant Big Red Machine. In 1977, he pitched FOR the Yankees against the Dodgers. That was at the beginning of free agency, when many people throughout baseball were certain that the game was doomed — and Gullett was used as a major example. But Gullett got hurt, his career prematurely ended. And baseball, for a variety of fascinating reasons, entered a period of remarkable parity. From 1978-1990 — 13 seasons — we had 12 different World Series champs (only the Dodgers won more than once).

So, yes, the two straight years for two teams in two leagues things has happened before.

Some Game 1 numbers: There have been 156 different pitchers to start a World Series Game 1. This Game 1 start, of course, meant a little more back before 1969, before the playoffs, back when teams, more or less, could ALWAYS pitch their No. 1 starter in Game 1. It’s not like that now. I was thinking that if the Yankees had managed to extend the Rangers series one more game, then Texas would not have started Lee on three days rest. And we would have had this exciting Lee-Tim Lincecum match-up taken away from us.

The 10 best pitchers to NEVER start a World Series Game 1:

1. Randy Johnson

2. Pedro Martinez

3. Steve Carlton

4. Robin Roberts

5. Juan Marichal

6. Gaylord Perry

7. Ferguson Jenkins

8. Nolan Ryan

9. Phil Niekro

10. Roy Halladay

Of the 156 pitcher to start Game 1 of the World Series, 34 did it more than once. One of these pitchers was named Orval Overall. He won 20 twice for the Chicago Cubs.

The pitchers who started three Game 1s in a row include Allie Reynolds for the Yankees in the early 1950s, Ken Holtzman for the Bad Boy A’s of the 1970s, Don Gullett as mentioned, and Dave Stewart. You know Dave Stewart had an utterly remarkable career — and not just because he had the odd Mike Tyson voice when he talked. He was called up to the Dodgers as a 21-year-old pitcher in 1978, threw in one game with the Dodgers behind 12-3. He got out of his first jam by getting Bob Shirley to line into a double play.

They called him Smoke, and it appeared that would define his career. Smoke. By the time he turned 30 he had been traded twice and also released. He had a 39-40 record. After a promising 1983 season, he had problems on and off the field until he arrived in Oakland in 1986.

And the next four years, he won 20 games each season. We’ve often gone over the problem with judging a pitcher by wins, but hey, 20 victories is 20 victories, and anyway over the last 50 years only six pitchers have won 20-plus four straight seasons. It was a remarkable change, not only in performance but also in the way he was perceived, the aura he projected. Quite suddenly, Smoke Stewart was viewed as one of the toughest pitchers in baseball, the guy you wanted on the mound when the team needed a victory. He not only started the consecutive World Series Game 1s, he also started three consecutive American League Champions Series Game 1s. In the 1988 World Series Game 1, he threw eight solid innings and was in position to win the game when this guy, oh, what’s his name, you know, Kirk somebody came up with two outs and a man on base against Dennis Eckersley*.

*You know what I had forgotten? Mike Davis had pinch-hit right before Kirk Gibson’s at-bat, and he had drawn a walk — an utterly amazing thing in that:

1. Dennis Eckersley almost never walked anybody.That year, he had walked 11 batters — two intentionally. the next year, he would walk three.

2. Mike Davis had spent the bulk of his career NOT walking. He had a career .313 on-base percentage.

Mike Davis walked. Jack Buck could have done his “I don’t believe what I just saw” thing right there. And then Davis stole second base — not bad for a 30-year-old who had lost much of his speed. Had Gibson merely singled Davis in there instead of homering and the Dodgers gone on to win, that walk and steal might be pretty famous.

In the 1989 Game 1, Stewart threw a shutout against San Francisco. And in the 1990 Game against Cincinnati — after two dominant performances in the ALCS against Boston — Stewart gave a up two-run bomb of a home run to Eric Davis that really let everyone know that the Reds meant business. Stewart was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the fifth — the only of his 10 World Series starts that he did not go at least six innings.

The King of Game 1 starts is Red Ruffing. Between 1936 and 1942, Ruffing started Game 1 in five of the seven World Series. You know, Dan Shaughnessy really built up the curse of Babe Ruth in Boston, but in many ways the curse of Red Ruffing was just as powerful and baffling. Ruffing was an astonishing 39-96 for the Red Sox, he led the league in losses twice, he was 25 and going nowhere when the Red Sox in a fit of disgust (I can only assume) dumped him on the Yankees for a no-hit outfielder named Cedric Durst, who had made a small name for himself by homering off Pete Alexander in the 1928 World Series (two batters before Babe Ruth did the same). Durst would also hit one home run for the Boston Red Sox before retiring (or being retired) at the end of the season.

And Ruffing would go 234-124 in his years with the Yankees. He started 10 World Series games and the Yankees won seven of them. Only once did the Yankees lose a Game 1 with Red Ruffing on the mound, that was in 1936 when the Yankees were befuddled by the great Carl Hubbell.

But while Red Ruffing is the King … Whitey Ford is the Ace of Game 1s.

Most World Series Game 1 starts

1. Whitey Ford, 8

2. Red Ruffing, 6

3. Allie Reynolds, 4

(tie) Chief Bender, 4

5. Jack Morris, 3

Dave Stewart, 3

Don Gullett, 3

Ken Holtzman, 3

Paul Derringer, 3

Carl Hubbell, 3

Waite Hoyt, 3

Ford started four Game 1s in a row from 1955-58 — that little feat has only happened twice in baseball history. The other time? Whitey Ford, from 1961-64.

He started against Don Newcombe, Sal Maglie, Warren Spahn (in back to back years), Jim O’Toole, Billy O’Dell, Sandy Koufax (who actually only started one World Series Game 1, and sat one out for Yom Kippur) and Ray Sadecki.

Ford didn’t always pitch well in his Game 1s. The Dodgers ripped him in ’56. The Dodgers and then the Cardinals got to him in 1963 and ’64. On the other hand, he threw a two-hit shutout against the Reds in 1961, and allowed just one run in a complete game win against Milwaukee in 1957. Interestingly enough — at least to me — his best individual World Series came in 1960 against PIttsburgh, the year the Yankees DID NOT throw him in Game 1. They went with Art Ditmar in Game 1 and lost. Ford pitched Games 3 and 6 of that series and threw shutouts in both (the Yankees won those games 10-0 and 12-0). Someone hit a famous home run in Game 7 for PIttsburgh.

So there’s a little Game 1 history to impress people at the office. This is one of the more exciting World Series Game 1 match-ups ever, no doubt about it, with a two-time Cy Young winner in Lincecum, against a Cy Young winner and resident artist in Cliff Lee. And they’ll be pitching in a pitcher’s park, with just about every hitter in both lineups likely feeling some World Series jitters. Lincecum vs. Halladay in the NLCS was exciting — and Halladay’s Game 5 performance with a pulled groin is memorable — but I’m not quite sure either game quite lived up to the hype (that, admittedly, I was pushing as hard or harder than anyone else). This game won’t have quite the same hype, I don’t think. But it could, should be terrific.

And Lee IS in position to do something that nobody has ever done. He will start consecutive Game 1s for different teams in different leagues. But, as you know, he’s also a free agent after the season ends. And as you know, the Yankees enter this off-season in that two-hours-before-Christmas-Eve-and-I-still-need-presents hysteria. When Lee was throwing his masterful eight innings against the Yankees in the ALCS you could almost see his free agency tote board spinning higher and higher with every pitch, not unlike the National Debt Scoreboard in New York. The Yankees might offer him the richest pitching contract in baseball history, or they might even offer him a shopping spree at The American Girl Store — whichever ends up being worth more.

So, yes, it’s not impossible that Lee will pitch three straight World Series Game 1s for three different teams. That has never happened before. BUT three different people named Lefty — Lefty Grove, Lefty Gomez and Lefty Stewart — have started Game 1s. Also Babe Ruth did. Also a guy nicknamed Hippo. So that’s almost as amazing.

Read more

By In Stuff

The Hawaii Chair

OK, well, many of you probably know that I have been on a long quest to find the next Snuggie. Oh, yes, I’ve seen the Cami Secret which finally ends that long unsolvable problem women have had of hiding their cleavage (and also offers perhaps the greatest before and after photographs in the history of the world). I’ve seen the Shake Weight, where women can get muscular arms merely by holding on to some sort of vibrating dumbbell (and yes, that sounds dirtier than it really is). Yes, I have seen the dozens of emails Brilliant Readers have sent along suggesting the next great infoco post.

Trouble is … the Snuggie info-commercial really is a difficult thing to replicate. As I’ve written a time or two before, what makes the Snuggie brilliant and, in my mind, utterly unique in infoco history, is that here you have a product that:

1. Aims to fix a problem that does not actually exist (blankets don’t have sleeves)
2. Does not really fix the problem (Have you tried answering a phone in a Snuggie?).
3. Is still, for almost magical reasons, irresistible to many people.

That sort of magical infoco comes along maybe once a generation, Snuggie is the Willie Mays of info-commericals. How do you follow up? It’s a difficult two-step process. 1. t: How do you invent a problem people really don’t have? 2. How do you go about not fixing that problem with a cheap product you just invented? Thomas Edison never had to deal with such issues.

Infocos were always dumb — nobody REALLY needed a knife that could cut through a beer can — but I do believe Snuggies took them to a whole new level. Put it this way: There’s a mock-infoco running these days on TV for something called “The Neck Basket” where people walk around with a basket around their necks. It is not a real product, it is supposed to lampoon infocos, but it really does the opposite. The Neck Basket is a much more intelligent and believable product than, say, the Ear Lift, which was supposed to prevent sagging ears from women (and men, I suppose) who walked around wearing carburetors as earrings (sadly, the market proved doomed for the Ear Lift — damned Capitalism). In today’s era, there’s no way to satirize info commercials because they are ALREADY satire. They are used, basically, to — as the dictionary defines satire — “expose and criticize people’s stupidity.” And get their money.

So, no, it’s not easy to find another perfectly formed Made For TV product and commercial. Some are too stupid. Some actually try to solve a real problem, while others fail to solve a made-up problem. Most are just not especially funny.

But … then there’s The Hawaii Chair.

Oh, this thing is a beauty. You’ve probably seen numerous people review this product already — heck that link has already had 2.7 million hits — but if you have not seen it, you owe it to yourself to take one minute and six seconds out of your life and watch this thing. I can’t say this is going to be a classic anymore than I can say that Roy Halladay’s performance Thursday will be a classic. It’s too new. But it’s a beauty.

The Hawaii Chair is a chair where the seat spins around sort of like a miniature version of The Tea Cup Ride at an amusement park near you. You may ask yourself: “Why would I want such a product? I like my chair, the one where the seat does not spin around.” Ah, but see, you’re missing it. Cue the music:

Scene one (The Song): “Take the work out of your workout. The Hawaii Chair!”

I love this song. I absolutely love it. I am singing it right now, and I’m on a plane! The guy next to me is looking like he might just kill me! And I don’t even care! It is supposed to sound vaguely Hawaiian, I guess, which is why I think they are playing some kind of ukelele behind the words. And the words clearly foreshadow what is coming. This chair, this amazing Hawaii chair, can take the work out of your workout.

Scene two (The setup): “You know Tamara, the Hawaii chair wasn’t just designed for home!”

So, who’s this guy in the Hawaiian shirt? I don’t know, but I can tell you he is happy. Pitch men are always happy. Sad doesn’t sell. Manic can sell, but this guy isn’t going for manic. He’s going for happy. And he is about to utter one of my favorite lines in the history of infocos, which is saying a lot. He’s trying to explain that while this chair WILL work at home, that is not the limit of its power.

He says this: “I mean after all, for some of us, at least FORTY HOURS of our week is spent sitting at our desk AT THE OFFICE!”

Oh, there’s so much here. First off, there’s the Bill Clinton, thumb-on-top-of-the fist-pump gesture, that I have noticed now is popular in both American parties. Have you seen that too? Democrats, Republicans, everybody, whenever they want to emphasize a point, they put their thumb on top of their fist, and they slowly pump forward, this is the Computer Age hand gesture, the sincerity exclamation point. I’ve started to call this the Clinton Pump, and it’s amazing that after eight rather, you know, interesting years in office, that the Clinton Pump might just be his enduring contribution to society.

Second, there’s the “Infoco Hot Woman No. 1” sitting in the background and shaking around because she is sitting one of of these Hawaii Chairs. And then camera pans to “Infoco Hot Woman No. 2.” And all the while this guy’s talking. The director HAD to be thinking: “Look, nobody is going to listen to a word this guy says anyway, so don’t worry about it.”

And that’s a third thing: What he says. But it isn’t so much what he says as how he says it. The man’s voice inflection is what really make this line work. You know how sometimes you will say something that you expect to shock people, and your voice will rise. Like you might say: “Did you know that the only golf course on Tonga has FIFTEEN holes on it?” The key is the word FIFTEEN since a regular golf course has, you know, however many holes a golf course has (it’s not 15).

So this guy is trying to make the point that a lot of people work, you know, and, like, in an office. And his voice very clearly goes into “You won’t believe this” mode when he says “at least FORTY HOURS of our week.” He says this like this is a revelation. LIke this is some hot new information he had just gotten from the research department. This would be like saying something like “Did you know that parents who have triplets have at least THREE MOUTHS to feed” or “Many streets have as many as FIVE HOUSES on them.” The 40 hours workweek — yeah, been pretty well established by this point. And later in the sentence, his voice raises again for the “AT THE OFFICE!” part, as if this is one of the most remarkable things this guy has ever heard. Imagine, not only sitting at a desk, but also AT THE OFFICE!

Forty-Hour-Workweek Guy then sends it off to some woman named Erin for testimonials.

Scene 3 (Testimonials): “Hi, I’m Erin Lee with Perfect USA. And today we brought The Hawaii Chair to a very busy work environment.”

OK, what the hell is “Perfect USA?” That’s the company? That’s their name: Perfect USA? And why is Pat Sajak sitting next to Erin?

Erin is clearly not having much fun. She’s going round and round on this stupid chair, and her legs are wobbling all around, and she either (A) Cannot remember her line or (B) Cannot say it straightforward because she is spinning around on this stupid chair. She has an awkward “Help me I’m spinning” pause between the words “very busy” and “work environment.” One thing that a good infoco NEVER does is show how utterly ludicrous the product actually is. No, for that you need a GREAT infoco. It is humanly impossible to see Erin on that chair and think, “Hey, I could do my work on that thing!”

To the testimonials!

Infoco Hot Woman No. 3: “Oh my gosh, this is amazing!” She says this while laughing, almost cracking up, which does makes this testimonial, um, a bit less than effective.

Infoco Distinguished Guy Who Looks Disturbingly Like Pete Carroll*: “It feels great on my abs …”

… he said abs.

*The real Pete Carroll on Twitter announced that he was throwing the challenge flag on his No. 19 ranking in my coaches as players list. Upon further review, it is possible Carroll was a better player than Norv Turner, John Fox and Mike Smith. But the angles that we have are inconclusive, not enough to overturn. Sorry Pete. The ruling on the field stands.

Infoco Hot Woman No. 3: “I can really feel this working!” And there’s no question the chair is “working.” She is saying this in that George Jetson like “Um, yeah, I can really feel thing thing working, how do you turn it off again?” sort of way.

And … that ends the testimonial portion of the commercial. Two people, one of them laughing.

Scene 4 (What can it do?): Our old friend Erin says “Hawaii Chair while answering phones! … using the computer … balancing books or filing paperwork.”

Really? Hawaii Chair while answering phones? OK, yes, I’m getting nit-picky here. But, seriously, “Hawaii Chair” is now a verb? The product has already climbed that “Xerox” and “Frisbee” language ladder. It took the word “text” YEARS to become a verb. These guys want that corner office promotion in one info-commercial?

The video that goes along with Erin’s narration is, of course, hysterical, as your very eyes tell you that you absolutely cannot Hawaii Chair while answering phones, while using a computer or while balancing books or filing paperwork. I mean, what, they couldn’t have gotten stunt people to do this to make it look like it’s actually humanly possible to do work while sitting on this chair? Couldn’t they have found a couple of those carnies who can climb that rope ladder at the state fair? That one woman trying to simply get a folder while the chair throws her around is clearly overmatched. And this is what that woman actually typed while spinning on that chair.

“Tkeeeeee wirrvl brrrronnwwn ntpemm foxxxx junmpepd odver tehe lllqaazzzyd= 48d9=og93.”

Scene 5 (Close the deal): Erin Lee, “You can hardly call this work. With the Hawaii Chair, it takes the work out of your workday.”

Erin doesn’t look any more comfortable in the chair now than she did the first time … at one point it looks like she’s holding on to the table for support. But what interests me is the tricky way she changed the chair’s slogan. You might recall from the original song — and how could you forget? — that the Hawaii Chair takes the “work out of your workOUT.” I took from it that this chair made it easier to work out. But Erin, that shifty little Erin, she made it so that it takes the work out of your workDAY. A chair with a spinning seat can actually making working out easy AND regular old working fun. You wonder why Copernicus didn’t come up with it first.

Cue the song:

Scene 6 (The final song): “If you can sit. You can get fit. The Hawaii chair!”

Perfect. A good info-commercial plays on the weak part of our mind, the part you can’t shut out, the vapid part that despite itself thinks: “Yeah, you know, it WOULD be nice not to spend $20 a month on paper towels anymore.” But only a great info-commercial can leave you more baffled at the end than you were at the beginning.”

And maybe this is the secret. Maybe people will buy the Hawaii Chair — like they bought the Snuggie — because at the end of the commercial they could not help but think: “That’s the dumbest product I’ve ever seen. Maybe I should get it. Nobody would make a product that stupid, there must be some redeeming quality in it that is just not coming through on the commercial.”

That’s how I feel. It SEEMS impossibly dumb. It SEEMS impossibly ineffective. It SEEMS impossible that someone would not only build a chair with a motor on the bottom that spins your butt around but also create a whole system to sell them to the public. But things aren’t always as they seem.

It is also true that things very often are exactly as they seeeeeememememmeemdm. Sorry. I Hawaii Chaired there.

Read more

By In Stuff

Pain and Injury

After the game, (James) Harrison said he tries to hurt opposing players because it helps the Steelers win, although he doesn’t try to injure players.
— AP story about James Harrison saying he might retire from football.

* * *

It’s all there, I think. The whole NFL issue — right there in one seemingly incongruous English sentence. You already know that Harrison, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, had two helmet hits in the game against Cleveland Sunday, one that caused a Joshua Cribbs concussion, the other that caused a Mohammed Massaquoi concussion.

The Massaquoi hit was particularly savage — savage enough that the NFL fined Harrison $75,000 (though not savage enough to draw an actual penalty during the game). Harrison was so outraged — and perhaps puzzled — by this fine that he was excused from practice Wednesday, apparently so he could ponder his future. He had said on the radio that he was not sure he could go on playing in a game that was foreign to him. Those hits, he says, were exactly what he had been TAUGHT to do on a football field. They were clean hits. They were textbook hits. And now, to have those hits referred to as dirty, to be fined for them and perhaps (down the road) to be suspended for these kinds of hits — as the NFL is now threatening — well, supposedly Harrison isn’t sure he wants to play that game.

This is actually a common reaction among some players to the NFL’s recent reaction to big hits. The league has talked about really cracking down on these hits to protect players, and I’ve read numerous comments from players who think that’s a lousy thing. Most of it is summed up in what Brian Urlacher told the Chicago Tribune, in the midst of a rather entertaining tirade: “”You know what we should do? We should just put flags on everybody. Let’s make it the NFFL — the National Flag Football League. It’s unbelievable.”

But to get back to the line at the top — I think whole thing is wrapped up there. Read it again.

— Harrison wants to hurt opponents.
— Hurting opponents helps win games.
— Harrison doesn’t want to injure opponents.

The town between Hurt and Injure. The valley between Pain and Damage. This the tiny little sliver of land where the National Football League tries to exist. Pro football is about hard contact, it has always been about hard contact. There’s Chuck Bednarik standing over an unconscious Frank Gifford. There’s Raiders owner Al Davis explaining his basic strategy for winning: “The quarterback must go down. And he must go down hard.” There’s Turkey Joe Jones throwing Terry Bradshaw on his head. There’s Butkus, snarling, breathing smoke even on warm days, tackling with such ferocity that you can almost feel him trying to finish the play off by biting off the running back’s head. “I never set out to hurt anybody deliberately,” Butkus would famously say, “unless it was, you know, important, like a league game.” There’s Lawrence Taylor breaking Joe Theisman’s leg on Monday Night Football, and the Gifford himself, now as announcer, telling you turn away if you cannot handle the gruesomeness.

And as the players get bigger, strong, faster, the hits get harder, louder, more spectacular. The NFL may claim otherwise … but the league wants this. We as fans want this. Big hits equals big action. It’s not that hard to understand. The NFL releases videos with the most ferocious of these hits, set to music, with stories about the hits being told lovingly, Crunch Course, Crunch Course II, Big Blocks and King Size hits. Steve Atwater once told me he would put his kids to bed at night with the story of the preposterously crushing hit put on running back Christian Okoye.

We love big hits. We remember them. We talk about them forever — who can forget running back Earl Campbell lowering his head into the chest of Isaiah Robertson and sending him flying backward (Campbell would always feel bad about that hit; he said for a while it ruined Isaiah Robertson’s life — it is still shown quite often in highlight packages). In different cities, the NFL teams celebrate the most breathtaking hits on the scoreboard, that big hit usually sponsored by a local company, a brick company, maybe. This is FOOTBALL man. We can’t tolerate missed tackles. We want receivers to fear the middle. We watch the linebacker close in behind the quarterback, the blind side, and the quarterback can’t see him coming, and we know it, and the cheers grow louder, the anticipation thicker, we wait impatiently for it, a hit so hard that the ball will go flying and the quarterback will seem to bend backward and …

But we don’t want anyone to get injured. Not seriously injured, for sure. That’s the worst, that moment when the game has stopped, the doctors are huddled over someone on the ground (“He’s not moving!”) and the players surround the scene, many of them with their helmets off, on one knee, like they’re praying, some are praying, the football game has turned into a funeral scene, no, nobody wants that. Isn’t that why fans always cheer as players come off the field, either under their own power or on a stretcher? We are with you! We are thinking about you! Nobody wants to see a player seriously hurt, his life forever altered. Nobody wants to meet a former NFL hero in a mall or an airport, and see them limp and groan as they walk. No, nobody wants that. No we want them all to pop back up, like Wile E Coyote always pops up no matter how many times he falls off a cliff, no matter how many times he is crushed by a boulder, no matter how many times his Acme rocket collides head on into cactus.

And here is the riddle of football — how can you hurt without injuring, how can you weaken without harming, how can you send a receiver flying backward and have him pop right back up, good as new, Wile E. Coyote gone back to the drawing board? The NFL keeps wanting us to believe there’s a real answer to this riddle. The league makes the equipment better — or at least that’s what we keep hearing and desperately want to believe. They make the pads more secure, we hear. They make the helmets safer, we are told (though the New York Times had this haunting story Wednesday). The trainers tape every bendable part before before every practice and every game as if the players are windows in the eye of a hurricane — or at least that’s what we choose to believe.

The NFL tinkers with the rules constantly to prevent the most dangerous of hits — the chop-block, the clip, the clothesline, the horse collar, the helmet-to-helmet, the trip, the facemask grab, the forearm shiver, the punch, the unloading on a defenseless receiver and whatever devastating tackle they will come with next. The NFL makes the injuries part of the fabric of the sport so that they sound bland … they even release injury reports each week with the tamest-sounding of conditions — probable, questionable, out. Probable means they’re playing no matter how much pain they’re in. Questionable means they might not play, but they also might. Out means out. Put someone else on your fantasy team.

And with all this, we want to believe that it’s all not as bad as it looks. We need to believe it so we can enjoy the games. We LOVE pro football. And when we see something like this — those are the 57 injuries this week listed as concussions, head injuries or migraines — well, it’s tough to know exactly how to feel. The town between Hurt and Injure. The valley between Pain and Damage. We want to believe this place exists. We LOVE pro football.

Some years ago, I wrote a story about the pain my friend Priest Holmes would feel after every single game. Priest Holmes was a running back in the NFL for 10 years, a great one. He suffered a torn ACL, a devastating hip injury, and at the end there were times when he lost feeling after hits. He carried the football 1,780 times, caught another 334 passes, and that means even if you take away his 94 touchdowns that would mean he still was tackled more than 2,000 times, which of course doesn’t include the many times he had to block, or his time as kamikaze man on special teams. It doesn’t include what happened after the whistle. Defenders would do just about anything to stop him, intimidate him, discourage him — you don’t want to know what goes on inside those piles of pads and players. After games, he would walk slowly to get a long rubdown, he would sit in hot tub of water for a long time, and we reporters — being reporters — would gripe about what was taking him so long.

When I wrote about his extreme pain, I got a surprising number of emails from people who made it clear: They didn’t want to hear it. One response in particular stands out in my mind, it was an email tirade from a very angry guy who said he worked hard for a living, and he didn’t care how much Priest Holmes hurt. It was his job to hurt. And anyway, the man wrote, he doubted the pain was even that bad. Priest was just complaining to get attention. He wasn’t tough enough. He wasn’t durable enough. And those hits are not THAT bad.

I was disgusted by the callousness of the man. Disgusted. And then I realized, no … my disgust … had little to do with the man … I was disgusted because … haven’t I believed many of those same things? Haven’t I thought, “Oh that hit didn’t look that bad?” Haven’t I thought, “Oh, he’s faking the injury?” Haven’t I thought, “Come on, how long should a leg injury keep you out?” Doesn’t loving professional football DEMAND that you believe many of those same things?

So where are we now? There’s a real momentum now to stop the most bloodthirsty of hits. We do, many of us, most of us even, worry that the game is getting too scary, too painful, it’s hard to maintain our suspension of disbelief. We want the NFL to do something about the injuries. But, what? We still want the NFL to still be about pain. We want both those things, same time. And are we really willing — in that place deep down, in what what Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” called “places you don’t talk about at parties” — really willing as fans to give up pain to stop injuries?

“We should just put flags on everybody,” Urlacher said, you will remember. “Let’s make it the NFFL — the National Flag Football League. It’s unbelievable.” How many fans do you think cheered when he said those words. How many fans felt like he was taking those words right out of their own gut?

I should add here that in the actual interview, Harrison explained the difference between hurting a player and injuring them — or at least the difference in his mind. “I don’t want to see anyone injured,” he told reporters. “But I’m not opposed to hurting anyone. … There’s a difference. When you’re injured, you can’t play. But when you’re hurt, you can shake it off and come back. I try to hurt people.”

How can someone — even a former NFL defensive player of the year — tackle someone hard enough to hurt them but not injure them? Harrison didn’t explain it. And, of course, he hasn’t exactly walked that fine line. He was reportedly thinking about retiring before playing in a league where he could not cause as much pain, but Harrison is back at practice today. Turns out that he has decided he loves football too much to retire from it. Yep. That’s about where most of us stand.

Read more