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Hall of Fame: The First Round

Every year, the ballot features a few players who, frankly, look kind of silly on a Hall of Fame ballot. The funny thing about most of these players is that they are probably better than we remember. For instance, last year Todd Zeile was on the Hall of Fame ballot. Todd Zeile? He did not receive a vote, to no one’s surprise.

But you know what? Todd Zeile was a good player. He got 2,000 hits in the Major Leagues. He drove in 90-plus runs five times. He played five positions, and even pitched a couple of innings.

He was not a Hall of Famer, not close to a Hall of Famer, but that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? To play 10 years of Major League Baseball — a qualification just to get on the ballot — means you must be one of the very best baseball players on earth .

You are better and more determined than all those players whose baseball lives stopped in little league, all those good enough to make their high school teams but no more, all those who went on to play college at some small school, all those good enough to go to a Division I school but were not drafted, all those promising and resolved young players drafted or signed outside of North America who stalled in the low end of the minor leagues, all those who topped out low Class A, in high Class A, in Class AA, in Class AAA, all those who made it through it all to get to a cup of coffee in the big leagues, all those who worked their way up to a small and temporary role in the big leagues, all those who endured and became regulars in the big leagues for two or three or four years before being retired.

To achieve so much … to reach the very height of your profession … it is an extraordinary thing to be a baseball player with 10 years of big league experience, an even more extraordinary thing to achieve enough to get on the Hall of Fame ballot. And then, you get there and it is STILL still miles and miles and miles to go before you get to the Hall of Famers. It is still the gap between Todd Zeile and Cooperstown.

Here are the 12 players on this year’s ballot who are clearly not Hall of Famers, but they are worth spending a few minutes remembering:


* * *

— Carlos Baerga: You know, 200 hits is a fairly rare thing. The last 50 years, it has been done by 110 players. And only 39 of those have done it more than once. Many of the players with more than one 200-hit season — Puckett, Gwynn, Molitor, Rice, Carew, Brock, Clemente, Billy Williams, Cal Ripken and George Brett — are already in the Hall of Fame and a few more like Ichiro and Derek Jeter will go someday.

The point is, it felt like something meaningful when Carlos Baerga had back-to-back 200-hit seasons at age 23 and 24. He was the first second baseman in seventy years to have a 200-hit, 20 homer, 100 RBI season, and he did it two years in a row. Only Rogers Hornsby among second basemen had done it two years in a row. Baerga could flat hit a baseball.

Then, he more or less stopped hitting. He had some injury problems. But, more, he seemed to age about 10 years overnight. He hit .314 and was an All-Star in 1996. He hit .271 with an OPS+ of 80 for five teams the rest of his career.

— Bret Boone: He was one of my favorite people when I wrote columns about the Cincinnati Reds from 1994-96. The Reds got him in a trade from Seattle before the 1994 season, and he responded with what at the time seemed like a career year. He was hitting .320 when the strike hit. He never really hit again in Cincinnati, but he seemed solid enough with the glove (there was a perpetual effort get him rewarded with a Gold Glove, an effort that finally paid off in 1998), and he seemed one of those reliable types who kept teams together through long seasons. He took on more than his share of media responsibility. He could gently — but convincingly — talk to teammates who had fallen into a rut. I always thought he was a solid professional, the kind managers like having around.

Then, in 2001, suddenly and absurdly he hit .331/.372/.578 with 206 hits, 37 homers, 118 runs scored and 141 RBIs. Two years later, he hit .294/.366/.535 with 35 homers, 111 runs and 117 RBIs. By Wins Above Replacement, his 2001 season was the greatest for any American League second baseman since World War II. His 2003 season was in the Top 10.

And then, just as suddenly and absurdly, he went back to being unable to hit. He was out of baseball after the 2005 season. The remarkable thing is those two historic seasons … well, they almost certainly hurt Bret Boone’s baseball legacy, if you want to call it that. Before those two years, he was viewed as a try-hard kind of player who could field a bit, hit a bit, help a team. Afterward, well, Boone was mentioned by Jose Canseco as an “obvious” steroid user. Boone has denied it vehemently. I have long stopped trying to guess about such things. What I do think is that Bret Boone’s two fabulous seasons don’t leave most people with the impression that he was a great player for a couple of years. The opposite, actually.

— Marquis Grissom: Until I looked it up, I had completely forgotten that Grissom had twice led the league in stolen bases as a young player. I remembered the middle-aged Grissom, a solid player, a good center fielder (he won two Gold Gloves), a pretty good hitter (hit .300 twice) with occasional power (hit 20 homers four times).

But he was actually a rare kind of power and speed player. Only 21 players have stolen 75 bases in a season. Only 10 of them have done it more than once.

And of the players who have stolen 75 or more bases multiple times, only two have also had 20-plus homer years at some point in their careers: Rickey Henderson and Marquis Grissom.

— Lenny Harris: I remember Lenny Harris too from my days writing about the mid-90s Cincinnati Reds. He was a fine pinch hitter.

— Bobby Higginson: The thing that stands out for me about Bobby Higginson — and I admit, this is sad — is his contract. The Detroit Tigers had some amazing contracts in those days. I remember they gave Damion Easley some kind of absurd contract that paid him more than six million bucks in 2002, when he hit .224 in 85 games. They picked up Jose Lima’s contract in 2001and paid him more than $7 million that same year when he went 4-6 with a 7.77 ERA. They paid Dmitri Young something like $35 million for five years of fewer than 500 games.

But the big one was Higginson. He was a good young player. From 1996 to 1998, he posted a 130 OPS+. He was a no-nonsense kind of player, too, the kind of player who was often credited for being a good fielder (he had a very strong arm), the kind of player who didn’t shave much. The Tigers felt like he was the future. They signed him to a massive deal that would pay him almost $12 million as a 32-year-old and almost $9 million each as a 33- and 34-year old.

Sadly, he was finished as a player all three of those years. He had injuries, but basically he was done anyway — he hit .235/.331/.370 over those three years when he raked in about 40 million clams.

Also: He played 11 years and never once played for a team with a winning record.

— Charles Johnson: He won Gold Gloves his first four years in the big leagues and then, as if everyone at precisely the same time came to the conclusion that he was overrated defensively, he never won another. I’ve always been amazed how that works. Another ballot member, Benito Santiago, had the same odd Gold Glove pattern.

Johnson really was a marvel throwing out base runners in those early years — he threw out 48% in 1996 and 47% the next year when the Marlins won the World Series. But he obviously never quite fulfilled those “next Johnny Bench” predictions. Johnson hit well in that World Series, and in 2000 he hit .304/.379/.582 for two clubs with 31 home runs. But in general he was a disappointment as a hitter, and he stopped hitting at all after age 30.

— Al Leiter: He didn’t make it to the big leagues to stay until he was 27, and he had some serious early control problems — he led the league in walks in 1995 and 1996. He would generally have high walk totals throughout his career because he was trying to get by with a variety of curves and a sinkerball — there was no percentage in throwing the ball over the plate.

But he would make up for his walks it by allowing only 8.1 hits per nine innings over his career (almost precisely the same as Marichal, Drysdale and Lemon). He knew what worked for him, and he did not give in, and he won 129 games and pitched almost 2,000 innings after he turned 30 which is not in Jamie Moyer’s class but it’s pretty darned good.

— Tino Martinez: He knocked in 100-plus RBIs six out of seven years from 1995 to 2001. Even so, he was only SIXTH in total RBIs over those seven years, and he was more than 100 RBIs behind Sammy Sosa. That should tell you how crazy the offense was in those seven years.

— Raul Mondesi: Do you remember in the early years when people were comparing Mondesi to Roberto Clemente? Why not? He could hit (he hit .306 in 1994 when he won Rookie of the Year, he hit .310 in 1997), he had power (he hit 30 homers three straight years from 1997-99), he had speed (he stole 30 bases three times), he had this preposterously great arm in right field (he won two Gold Gloves, much of it based on his arm). As much as we talk about five-tool players, there really aren’t too many who have actually shown all five.

And then, suddenly, one day Mondesi was not viewed as the next Clemente. He was, instead, widely viewed as a bloated underachiever. I was never exactly sure how it happened. I guess he didn’t hustle much. And I guess he wasn’t much fun to have around. He played for five teams his last three years and was out of baseball at 34.

— Kirk Reuter: How about Kirk Reuter’s career start? He won the first 10 decisions of his career. As a rookie with Montreal he was 8-0 with a 2.73 ERA though it wasn’t too hard to see that wasn’t going to last. He had only 31 strikeouts in 85 innings. It’s hard to win games striking out fewer than four batters per nine innings.

But Reuter found ways throughout his career. He won 130 games while recording an absurdly low 3.84 strikeout per nine innings. In the last 30 years, Only Scott McGregor (3.75 Ks per nine) won more than 100 games striking out that few.

— Benito Santiago: The throwing-out-base-stealers-from-his-knees trick was pretty cool. It won him three Gold Gloves in his early years along with a Rookie of the Year award. He had two or three pretty good offensive years, including the one year he hit 30 homers in Philadelphia.

— B.J. Surhoff: He was a perfectly fine player who three times hit .300 and once hit .299 … and he is one of the few to have played all nine positions in the major leagues. His best year was probably 1999 when he played all 162 games and hit .308 with 28 homers and 107 RBIs. But offense was so out of control in 1999, that none of the three totals even ranked in the league’s Top 10.

You probably remember that Surhoff was the first pick of the 1985 draft out of North Carolina. Well, my buddy Chardon Jimmy has a brother who pitched for Ohio U around that time, and he once got to face Surhoff. Needless to say, it did not go well. Surhoff crushed a home run that, according to Jimmy, was still going up when it was last seen. It was a monster homer, the sort of brush with greatness that nobody in the family ever forgets. Whenever Surhoff would show up on television for the next two decades, Jimmy would call his brother and say: “Um, Surhoff is up. I was just thinking: Hey, you faced him. What would you throw him here?”

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Hall of Fame Week

You know how crazy I am when it comes to writing about the Baseball Hall of Fame. Well, this is Hall of Fame week — the ballots are due by Dec. 31. And I have been writing … and writing … and writing. I really need to see a doctor or something. In any case, I have written so much about it, that I have decided it’s probably best to just split up the writing throughout the week.

So that’s what I’m doing.

Today: The Intro
Tuesday: The Easy Nos
Wednesday: The Close But Not Quites
Thursday: The Definitive Hall of Famers
Friday: The Borderlines Guys Who Keep Me Up At Night

I don’t imagine you will be rushing to the computer at 6 a.m. and constantly refreshing this blog in anticipation … but at least this way you know what is coming.


* * *

Bill James told me something a few years ago, and I have never been entirely sure if he was serious or not. That’s the thing about Bill: You can never been sure. He told me that if he was voting for the Hall of Fame he would always prefer to max out his vote every year … that is he would always at least try to vote for 10. Ten is the most you are a voter is allowed to choose.

Bill said this for the very sensible reason that if everybody votes for 10, only two or three will be elected (since election takes 75%) but if people leave spaces empty, the expectation goes down dramatically. Bill says he doesn’t like it years when nobody gets elected. He likes it when there’s a steady stream of new players coming into the Hall to keep it alive and current and vibrant.

Now, I should say that I have never voted for 10 players before. I have never come especially close to 10 before. I think this is because I have bit of an inner conflict about the Hall of Fame. What I mean is this: If you asked me if I am a Big Hall or Small Hall kind of person — am I more inclusive or exclusive when it comes to the Hall of Fame? — I would undoubtedly say “Big Hall.” I think the Hall of Fame (in some ways) has become too exclusive the last 40 or so years.

Here’s what I mean: Take a look at the percentage of every day players who got into the Hall of Fame (among those who got at least 5,000 plate appearances):

Players whose careers ended before 1920: 9 out of 44 (20.4%)
In the 1920s: 9 out of 49 (18.4%)
In the 1930s: 27 out of 54 (50%)
In the 1940s: 19 out of 66 (28.8%)
In the 1950s: 13 out of 40 (32.5%)
In the 1960s: 9 out of 64 (14.1%)
In the 1970s: 13 out of 72 (18.1%)
In the 1980s: 10 out of 116 (8.6%)
In the 1990s: 12 out of 93 (12.9%)

The stunning takeaway is that half of the sturdy everyday players who retired sometime in the 1930s are in the Hall of Fame. This, of course, is absolutely ridiculous. If you raise the bar to 8,000 plate appearances, an almost unbelievable 17 out of 20 are in the Hall of Fame. In the 1980s, only 10 out of the 40 players who retired with 8,000 or more plate appearances are in the Hall, and this leaves out some very good players who will likely never get any more consideration for the Hall of Fame, players like Ted Simmons, Dave Concepcion, Graig Nettles, Bobby Grich and, of course, Pete Rose.

Now, some of this is simply time. And some of this is because of the ever-changing Hall of Fame veteran’s committee. Truth is, there used to be a very active veteran’s committee that put 91 players in the Hall of Fame. The structure and standards of the committee changed so that in the last 10 or more years the Veteran’s Committee has turned into a grumpy bunch of scrooges who seemed to come out once a year for the expressed purpose of not voting for Ron Santo or Marvin Miller. They’ve only put in one player since 2001,* tough they did manage to get Bowie Kuhn in there. So that’s a big part of things.

*That was Joe Gordon, who retired in 1950.

But there’s something else. I also think that baseball fans, more than fans of any other American sport, worship history to the point of distraction. Babe Ruth will probably never be transcended as the greatest player of all time in the minds of most, no matter that he played ball in a dramatically different era, under vastly different circumstances, in an all white league. Maybe Ruth was the greatest ever. Maybe he wasn’t even the greatest of his time with Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson being banned from the Major Leagues. Either way, there’s a tendency in baseball to believe that the best baseball was the stuff played years and years and years ago, and the Hall of Fame reflects that belief. I don’t know too many people who would want to argue that Pie Traynor was a better third baseman than Ron Santo or Ken Boyer or even Graig Nettles, but the writers voted Traynor into the Hall of Fame pretty quickly while Santo (topped out at 43.1%), Boyer (topped out at 25.5%) and Nettles (topped out at 8.3%) never even got close in the writer’s vote.

I’m not saying that the standards of the Hall should stay the same. Obviously when Pie Traynor was voted into the Hall of Fame, there were not many great third baseman to choose from. Some people actually argued in the 1940s and 1950s that Traynor was the best third baseman ever. Then Brooks Robinson came along, and Santo, and Boyer. And after that George Brett and Mike Schmidt completely redefined what a “great” third baseman even looked like. Standards change and grow as the game gets older, and that’s how it should be. I fully appreciate that Pie Traynor (and Freddie Lindstrom and George Kell and Jimmy Collins) are in the Hall of Fame as much for WHEN they played as HOW WELL they played. Timing, as we will discuss throughout this Hall of Fame series, plays a big role in things.

Still, I can’t help but think that we have lost some of our generosity through the years. I can’t help but think we have failed to appreciate just how good, historically, Lou Whitaker was as a second baseman, or Bert Blyleven was as a pitcher, or Dale Murphy was an outfielder. You will hear people say all the time that someone doesn’t FEEL like a Hall of Famer. But where does that feeling come from? Is it something lacking in the player? Is it the power of hype in today’s sports world? Or is it that we have grown more cynical and less open to wonder?

If Alan Trammell had played shortstop in the big leagues the 1920s and 1930s he would have gone into the Hall of Fame first ballot, almost unanimously, and would have been ranked just behind Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop who ever lived. He could do it all. He hit. He fielded. He could run. He hit with some power. He played smart. He led.

But because he played in the 1980s and 1990s, and he didn’t field quite as well as Ozzie, didn’t hit with quite as much power as Ripken, didn’t run quite as well as Larkin, he has garnered stunningly little Hall of Fame support. He was in my mind a better player than more than half of the 19 shortstops in the Hall of Fame, but it seems he is destined to play out his 15 years on the ballot and then land on that list of players the veteran’s committee annually turns down.

All of which is to say that, by philosophy, I’m a big Hall guy. I think the Hall of Fame should be a living and breathing thing and it should celebrate the great players from every era, and I think there are quite a few great players from my era who are not in the Hall of Fame and are remembered wearily rather than being remembered as marvelous players.

But, I mentioned the inner conflict: I fully realize that my votes have not been consistent with my “Big Hall of Fame” belief. I have never maxed out my ballot, or anything even close. I also have found myself on the no side on three of the most celebrated borderline Hall of Fame cases of the last decade — Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice and Andre Dawson. So, I say I’m a Big Hall guy, but I suppose I vote more like a Small Hall guy.

Well, this year, I did max out my ballot. I didn’t do it to prove any point — I happen to think there are at least 10 guys on this year’s ballot who were Hall of Fame caliber players, and I think there are two or three or four more who have compelling Hall of Fame arguments. We’ll get to all that as the week progresses.

As far as predictions go, I’ll make those now. I think Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven will get elected this year, I think Jeff Bagwell will have a strong first year showing, but will probably fall short for reasons that few people will want to say out loud. I think Barry Larkin will take a nice step forward and perhaps put himself on the brink of election in 2012. And I think that once Bert Blyleven gets in, Jack Morris will put himself in position to get elected in the next two years.

I don’t know what will happen with Tim Raines, but I’m hopeful that people will begin to see just how great a player he really was. If there had never been a Rickey Henderson, I think Tim Raines might be remembered as the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history.

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The Agony of Defeat

The worst ending in the history of sports happened on January 4, 1981 on a frigid day in Cleveland, Ohio. This is an indisputable fact. The Cleveland Browns trailed the Oakland Raiders 14-12 with less than a minute remaining in the game. The Browns had the ball at the Oakland 13. See that number? Thirteen? Don’t tell me that the “13 is bad luck” concept is just a myth. Apollo 13. Friday the 13th. Ralph Branca wore 13. And the Browns had the ball on the Oakland 13.

I was 13 years old.

The wind-chill that day was minus-36, and Cleveland’s kicker Don Cockroft — who only that year had become the 10th player in NFL history to score 1,000 points in the NFL — had already missed two field goals and two extra points. Well, one of the extra points was blocked and the other was botched on the snap, but the point was that this was no day for kicking a football through uprights. This was a contributing reason why Cleveland Browns coach Sam Rutigliano decided on a pass play called “Red Right 88.”

Looking back, I think this fateful call was more about philosophy than anything else. You live by the pass, you die by the pass … that sort of thing. The Browns had become a team on the edge; they won and lost so many games with passes in the final minutes that they were called the Kardiac Kids. They were the first good Browns team in more than a decade, and they had Cleveland buzzing like no team I remember before or since. They inspired two songs that were played constantly on the radio in Cleveland, one a rather weird 12 Days of Christmas ripoff (“On the 12th day of Christmas Art Modell gave to me …”) and another based on the Kardiac Kids’ tendency to make every finish thrilling. I still remember the chorus:

They’re the Cleveland Browns
When they’re psyched up, there’s no getting them down.
Take your tranquilizers, pop your beer can lids.
It’s the Kardiac Kids.

Who says Cole Porter is dead? There was this powerful belief around Cleveland that the Browns were destined to win in the final seconds, always, and Rutigliano was the Vice President of the true believers. He called the Red Right 88 pass play because he was entirely certain that quarterback Brian Sipe (the league’s MVP) would throw the touchdown pass that would win the game in dramatic fashion. Well, maybe he wasn’t ENTIRELY sure. Maybe he was only 99.93% sure. As a bit of insurance, he did remind Sipe that if no one was open he should “throw the ball into Lake Erie.”

There were only two problems with Rutigliano’s advice. One, Sipe did not have a strong enough arm to throw the ball into Lake Erie … even if he was on a boat on the lake at the time. Sipe had serious trouble just throwing spirals. I say this with great love; Brian Sipe was my favorite football player. For a long time, my bank password was SIPE. But his arm was so weak that … well, I’ll put it this way. We used to have this older kid who lived on our street. Sometimes, he would play football with us; he would be be the quarterback for both teams. And he had me convinced at one point that he was getting a tryout to play with the Browns. I believed him completely. It was ridiculous. My father later asked me why I believed him. And I said: “Well, he does have a better arm than Brian Sipe.”

That’s one problem with Rutigliano’s “throw the ball into Lake Erie” charge. The second problem was that, well, you will notice that I called Rutigliano the VP of true believers? That’s because Sipe was President, CEO and Owner of the true believers. It was his extraordinary faith — in himself, in his teammates, in his weak arm, in what could be done in 90 seconds or less — that made the Cleveland Browns a playoff team in the first place. And it was his extraordinary faith that made it absolutely certain that Brian Sipe would see an open man, whether there was one or not.

And so Sipe threw the ball toward the blanketed Ozzie Newsome in the back of the end zone. The ball was intercepted by Mike Davis. The Browns lost the game. My childhood ended. The world’s supply of chocolate dried up. Saturday morning cartoons were outlawed. Ice cream was decreed to only come in vanilla except for people who liked vanilla in which case ice cream was also outlawed. Halloween changed its rules so that at each house people handed out homework instead of candy. Global warming started. Four banks collapsed. All the problems that face the world today, yes, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you that they began in that moment when Brian Sipe threw the interception at the end of the game.

Now, I will grant that it is possible that you don’t not think Red Right 88 game is the worst ending in the history of sports. You are wrong, but you might not have been a 13-year-old Cleveland Browns fan when it happened. And so you might actually believe that the worst ending in the history of sports happened to your team, perhaps when you were at an impressionable age, perhaps when you had a lot of money on the game, perhaps when you felt the joy of victory torn away from you. This is the problem with coming up with the 32 worst endings in sports history. They are entirely subjective. All lists are subjective, but this is probably the most subjective one I have ever done.

Why is this even more subjective than, say, the 32 best Sports Illustrated covers or the 32 best sports calls or the 32 best running backs? Well, here’s why: If I was a 13-year-old Raiders fan in 1980, the Mike Davis interception might have been the BEST sports ending ever. When I put out a Twitterequest for worst endings, one of the top choices for worst sports ending was the Music City Miracle — you know, that moment when Tennessee beat Buffalo on a kick-return lateral in the final seconds. Well, yeah, it was unquestionably a kick-in-the-gut ending for Buffalo. But it’s also one of the happiest sports moments in the history of the state of Tennessee. So how do you decide?

I went with a couple of basic ground rules.

1. The ending should not be based on a sensational play made by someone. There are are no game-winning home runs in this — no Mitch Williams, no Donnie Moore, no Ralph Branca. There are also no last second shots. Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo is one of the worst sports endings in my life, but I don’t think it qualifies. For an ending to be on the list, it needs to involve some horrible self-inflicted wound. Now, I realize that this is an ever-moving line. After all, this list was inspired by the remarkable ending of the Eagles-Giants game this week, and that involved a great return by Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson. But the entire Jackson sequence — from not being able to kick the ball out of bounds, to not coming close to tackling him — is so preposterously dumb that I think it still qualifies.

2. The ending must inspire some feeling of sheepishness in the victor. Don’t get me wrong: The feeling doesn’t have to be remorse or even sympathy. But in the very least there has to be some kind of “I cannot believe that we got away with that,” emotion. As a Cleveland Browns fan I pin the difference somewhere between The Fumble and The Drive.

— In The Fumble, the Browns were coming back against Denver, were about to tie the game, when Ernest Byner (who had been the team’s hero up to that point) fumbled the ball away (thanks in large part to a missed block by a receiver). That’s a terrible ending.

— In The Drive, Denver’s John Elway led his team 98 yards in the final minutes to tie the game against Cleveland, send it into overtime where the Broncos won (on a field goal I am still convinced missed wide left). That’s a great ending.

They both hurt — if anything Elway’s drive hurt more. But Elway’s drive was greatness. I can cry about it, scream about it, write angry songs about John Elway — and I have — but I know that’s not one of the worst endings in sports history. It is one of the best. I just happened to be on the wrong side of it.

Anyway, I try to maintain that spirit. Here are my 32 worst endings in sports:

* * *
Bonus: Strat-o-matic game between Packers and 49ers (1993).

My buddy, Chardon Jimmy, and I have had an almost 20-year argument about which one of us is the better coach. It’s one of those make believe arguments that doesn’t mean anything because, obviously, neither one of us is a coach, and neither one of us would be worth a damn as a coach. But it’s also the sort of argument that friends have, and we have attempted to settle our score with ferocious Strat-o-matic battles in baseball and football.

I won the most memorable of our baseball battles, a World Series between the late 1980s Red Sox and Reds. But he won the most memorable of our football battles, a game between the early 1990s Packers (coached by me) and the 49ers. I led by two late in the game when he drove his 49ers into long field goal range. With time running out and it being fourth down and long, he attempted the long field goal. And he missed. I had won. But there was a flag on the play — offsides on my team.

Offsides? On a field goal? Ludicrous. I screamed about the absurdity of this — “That would never happen!” — but rules are rules. He lined up for another long field. He kicked. It was no good. I had won.

Only …

Yeah, another penalty. Offsides. Again. I argued that this was, of course, impossible. There was no way this could happen. There was no way … but it did happen. The third kick was good. Chardon Jimmy won the game.

I fired my imaginary special teams coach the next day.

32. Dwayne Rudd’s Helmet Toss (2002)

There have been many, many awful endings to NFL regular season games. I include this on the list because I was there … and it was the craziest ending I ever saw. The Cleveland Browns were leading Kansas City 39-37 with 10 seconds left. Chiefs quarterback Trent Green dropped back, got in trouble, and just as he was about to be sacked by Rudd flipped the ball to offensive lineman John Tait. Rudd clearly thought he had gotten the sack and the game was over. He took off his helmet and threw it in the air in celebration. This, it turns out, was not an especially brilliant thing to do.

What Rudd did not know was that the ball was still live. Tait was running down the sideline. He plowed all the way to the Cleveland 26 with the ball as the clock expired. I cannot even imagine how many penalties were committed during that run, but the officials called only one: An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Rudd for taking off his helmet. The clock had run out, but because the game cannot end on a defensive penalty, the Chiefs were given the ball on the Cleveland 11. Morten Anderson promptly booted the short field goal for Kansas City, and the Browns lost the game.

31. T.J. Rubley (1995)

Rubley was the third-string quarterback for the Packers … and he was forced into action in a game against Minnesota when Brett Favre and Ty Detmer got hurt. The score was 24-24, the Packers were in position to try a long field late in the fourth quarter. On third and 1, Packers coach Mike Holmgren called for a quarterback sneak. Rubley, perhaps believing he saw an opening in Vikings defense and perhaps believing (rightfully so) that he would never get a chance like this again, audibled at the and line and changed the play to a rollout pass.

It goes without saying that he threw an interception, the Vikings ended up winning, and Rubley was released the next day.

30. Harvard beats Yale 29-29 (1968)

Harvard and Yale were both unbeaten, and Yale led 29-13 with less than a minute left. Yale was a huge favorite — the great Calvin Hill and Brian Dowling* leading the way — and had jumped to a 22-0 lead. Harvard kind of worked their way back to make it respectable.

*Dowling, you probably know, inspired the character B.D. in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip.

Then, in the final minute: Harvard, led by a backup quarterback named Frank Champi, scored a touchdown, and then got a ridiculously questionable pass interference call on their first attempt at the two-point conversion. The second attempt was good making the scored 29-21 with 42 seconds left.

Harvard then got the onside kick (Yale did not have an onside-kick coverage team — simply did not have one). They moved the ball down the field thanks in large part to a face mask penalty (the culprit, Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren, would admit in the wonderful documentary “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” that he was trying to hurt Champi).

On the last play of regulation, Champi threw a touchdown pass, and fans rushed the field. They were cleared, Harvard scored the two-point conversion, and yes, Harvard beat Yale 29-29.

29. Snake River Canyon (1974)

None of it ever made sense. We as kids were led to believe that Evel Knievel would attempt to jump the Grand Canyon on his motorcycle. Next thing we knew, he was actually jumping something called Snake River Canyon in some sort of steam powered rocket ship looking thing that was only a motorcycle by technicalities. He also didn’t make it. His parachute ejected too soon or something. We didn’t even know he was going to have a parachute.

28. Chelsea v. Manchester United (2008)

This was the Champions League final, and it came down to penalty kicks where John Terry, Chelsea captain and soul, slipped and missed his kick. Chelsea lost, and this paragraph that appeared in The Sunday Times probably sums up the awfulness of it all (to a frightening extreme):

“Avram Grant, the Chelsea first-team coach, has a perspective on life because of the traumas his family suffered in the Holocaust, but even he was struggling to find the words to ease the pain of Terry, who was white with shock.”

27. Novotna-Graf (1993)

This was Wimbledon, 1993, and Jana Novotna led Steffi Gray 4-1 and 40-15 in the decisive set. On 40-30, she badly double faulted — the ball was probably five feet past the service line. She then horrendously missed a volley, sending it 10 feet past the baseline. She then lost the game.

And it went downhill from there. MIssed overheads. Double faults. Pure collapse. Graf won the next five games, and the enduring image is of Novotna crying on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent.

26. Royals vs. Indians, 2005

There have been many, many, many terrible endings of baseball games through the years, and I am under no illusion that this one is the worst. But it is the worst one I ever attended. It happened on August 9, 2005. The Royals had come into the game having lost 10 in a row. They would, before it was all done, lose 19 in a row.

But it also seemed certain that they would win this game — they went into the ninth leading Cleveland 7-2. There’s no point in going over it moment by moment, but just so you know, there was a double, another double, a single, a strikeout (one out), another double, a single and a groundout (two outs). The Royals still led 7-6 when the second out was recorded.

And then Jeff Liefer lofted a fly ball to left field where someone named Chip Ambres settled under it. With the ball in the air, the overwhelming feeling was: “Well, at least the Royals held on to win, but it sure wasn’t easy — it’s never easy with the Royals.” And then, of course, Ambres dropped the ball. The locally famous call on radio by Denny Matthews went like so: “Fly ball to left and … he dropped it. Yes he did.”

The Indians ended up scoring 11 runs in the ninth inning and they won the game 13-7.

25. Devon Loch (1956)

The horse — owned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother — was about 50 yards away from victory in the 1956 Grand National when suddenly, inexplicably, Devon Loch jumped up and then made a perfect slide — better even than the slide of Sid Bream. Devon Loch was passed and lost the race. Nobody has ever been able to fully explain what happened.

The biggest after-effect of the race is that the jockey, Dick Francis, went on to become one of the most successful mystery writers in the world. Many of his mysteries are based on horse racing. Dick Francis has said on many occasions that he still doesn’t know exactly what happened to Devon Loch that day.

24. Tate vs. Weaver (1980)

I remember this fight so vividly. My father is a huge boxing fan, and I was raised on boxing even more than baseball or football. I remember that for some reason we were all at my Grandmother’s house, and we were watching the fight on her television which had its own special talent for static. But we could see enough to know that Tate (who was heavyweight champion at the time) was ahead on points going into the 15th round. All he had to do was stay away from Weaver and he would retain the title. Not that this an easy thing to do but Tate did a particularly poor job of it. With 40 seconds left in the fight, Weaver landed a ferocious left hook.

And this is what I remember: Tate fell FORWARD. My father said, “Um, that’s it.” He was right. That was it. Tate was unconscious for several minutes. When I asked my Dad how he knew Tate wouldn’t get up, he told me something that for some reason I have never forgotten: “If you see someone fall face first, the fight’s over.”

23. Minnesota Vikings (1999)

The 1998 Vikings are one of the greatest offensive teams in NFL history. They had scored 30 or more points in 11 games (and they won all 11). They were prohibitive favorites to go the Super Bowl and, from there, probably win it. They had Randall Cunningham (who had a remarkable comeback season) and the rookie Randy Moss (who caught 17 touchdown passes) and the great Cris Carter (12 more touchdown catches) and an overwhelming running game with Robert Smith and Leroy Hoard (who combined for 15 touchdowns). Those Vikings were a machine.

In the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, they had two horrible endings. The first came when kicker Gary Anderson — who literally had not missed a kick all year, he was 35 for 35 on field goals and had made all 59 extra points — missed a 38-yard field goal with about two minutes left. That was torturous enough.

But the real torture would come at the end of regulation when the Vikings got the ball back. They had it on their own 30 with about a half minute left and two timeouts. And that was when, impossibly, Denny Green decided to sit on the ball and wait for overtime. They had what might have been the greatest offense in NFL history at that point. The had two receivers who will be in the Hall of Fame. They needed to gain about 35 yards to have a viable shot at a field goal — and they had a kicker who had only missed one kick all year. And they had two timeouts.

He sat on the ball. The Vikings, of course, lost in overtime.

22. The Dean Smith Championships (1982 and 1993)

It is one of the quirks of sports that Dean Smith, one of the greatest coaches in sports history, won two national championships and both were marred by terrible endings. In the first — the freshman Michael Jordan made a jumper to give North Carolina a 63-62 lead over Georgetown with 17 seconds left. Georgetown moved the ball into the front court and then Fred Brown, thinking a teammate was next to him, flipped the ball instead to North Carolina’s James Worthy. The Tar Heels held on from there (though Worthy did miss both free throws).

In the second — North Carolina led Michigan 73-71 with 11 seconds left when Michigan’s star Chris Webber called a timeout that the Wolverines did not have. It also appeared the Webber walked, so you could make the argument that nothing good was going to come from that play. Still Dean Smith’s team appeared in 11 Final Fours, but they never could quite win a title without something weird happening at the end.

21. Hand ball (2010)

Ghana and Uruguay played a spirited game in the World Cup this year, and with the score tied in the final hectic seconds over overtime, Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan headed the ball toward the net and nobody was in position to stop it. Well, that’s not exactly right. Urugay’s Luis Suarez reached out with his hand and kept the ball from going in. This would have been fine had Suarez been Uruguay’s goal keeper. He was not.

The hand ball was punished as hand balls are punished. Ghana was granted a penalty kick. Suarez was given a red card (meaning he would have to miss the next match as well as the rest of this one). It is deservedly a stiff punishment, but in this case the punishment did not satisfy. Because Gyan missed his penalty kick. And Uruguay went on to win the match.

20. Punt Bama Punt (1972)

Alabama led Auburn 16-3 with about six minutes left in what is probably the most heated college football game in America. I mean, there’s nothing like Army-Navy, and nothing like Ohio State-Michigan either. But Auburn-Alabama touches on so many emotions that it’s hard to believe that the feelings are quite as raw in any other game.

In any case, Alabama led Auburn 16-3, when Auburn’s Bill Newton blocked Greg Gantt’s punt. Auburn’s David Langner scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone to make it 16-10.

A few minutes later, as time was running out on the game, Gantt punted again … and almost impossibly Newton blocked it, Langner picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. Auburn won 17-16.

The legend is that after this game, Bear Bryant decided that he would never again recruit a kicker who took three steps to punt.

19. The Play (1982)

The interesting thing about this play is that the background music is almost always Cal announcer Joe Starkey. The Cal players rush through Stanford’s sad excuse for kick return coverage, then through the Stanford Band, and it always ends with Starkey shrieking: “The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!” Because of this, The Play has always been viewed as one of the sports greatest endings … and it is.

But, it’s also terrible ending — for Stanford this ending took a remarkable level of clumsiness and general incompetence. Every time you see a team try some last second multi-lateral play these days you come to realize just how bad kick coverage has to be for it to work. And then the band ran on the field? Bad ending.

It was also John Elway’s last regular season game — in fact Elway played a pivotal role in the game that has not been publicized enough in my mind. He led Stanford on what looked like a game-winning drive — he really started his legend here — but he called timeout with eight seconds left for Stanford to kick the go-ahead field goal. Had he waited four more seconds, Stanford would not even have had to kick off.

Elway carried the pain of that loss with him for a long time … and, unfortunately, took it out on my Cleveland Browns and numerous other teams in his career.

18. Bartman (2003)

OK, hear me out here because I don’t want this misunderstood: This horrible ending has nothing whatsoever to do with Steve Bartman. As I wrote at the time, he was simply doing what fans do, reaching out for a foul ball that was headed his way. No, the horrible ending is ALL about how the Cubs utterly collapsed at that point. They were leading Florida 3-0, Florida man on second, Mark Prior was throwing a three-hitter. The Cubs were five outs away from their first World Series appearance in almost 60 years.

And after Luis Castillo hit a foul ball that Bartman tried to catch, they folded. No other way to say it. Left fielder Moises Alou screamed at Bartman (it is still not entirely clear that Alou could have caught the ball; different replays suggest different things). Then Prior walked Castillo (with a wild pitch to boot moving Juan Pierre to third). Ivan Rodriguez singled, then Miguel Cabrera hit a double play grounder to short that Alex Gonzalez flat booted. That was followed by a Derrek Lee double that tied the game.

And that inspired Cubs manager Dusty Baker to bring in Kyle Farnsworth. That’s really all that needs to be said.

The Cubs gave up eight runs in the inning, and the next day, again at home, they lost 9-6 with Kerry Wood starting and Kyle Farnsworth playing a key role.

And you know who many people wanted to blame for this collapse? You know what name has endured from this fiasco? You know what I titled this section? That’s right: Steve Bartman somehow took the hits for the Cubs meltdown. They threw Kyle Farnsworth in the two decisive games, they had a shortstop boot the ball, they completely fell apart and people wanted to blame a longtime fan who reached for a foul ball? That’s the very definition of a bad ending.

17. Buckner (1986)

“There’s a little roller up along first … behind the bag … it gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight! And the Mets win it!”

16. Harvey Haddix (1959)

Pittsburgh’s Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings against Milwaukee, probably the greatest game ever pitched. Unfortunately for him, his team did not score any actual runs for him in those 12 innings. In the 13th, Pirate Don Hoak made an error to end the perfect game. After a sacrifice fly and an intentional walk, Joe Adcock hit a home run that ended everything. Adcock’s homer was nullified because Hank Aaron left the basepath. It was eventually called a double, and it was eventually determined that Milwaukee won the game 1-0.

Whatever the ruling, whatever the score, Haddix still ended up losing the longest-held perfect game in baseball history.

15. Hull in the crease (1999)

I like hockey very much, but I have to admit being a novice. I do not understand many of the subtleties of the sport, and because of this I have never known exactly what to make of Brett Hull’s skate being in the crease when he scored Dallas’ game-winner against the Buffalo Sabres in the third overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup. The in-the-crease rule was confusing enough that I have heard people explain exactly why Hull’s goal should have been disallowed and I have heard people explain exactly why Hull’s goal was rightfully left standing and both make sense to me. The rule has since been rescinded.

All I do know is that Buffalo fans have had it rough. Scott Norwood. Hull in the crease. The Music City Miracle. I don’t include all these on the list because the list can’t be 500 items long but I can say this: Buffalo, I feel your pain.

14. Ruffian vs. Foolish Pleasure (1975)

It was a match race in those days when there was a real “Battle of the Sexes” vibe in the air. Ruffian was a filly who had won all 10 of her races and just about every major stakes race for fillies in 1974 and 1975. Foolish Pleasure had won the Kentucky Derby. The race drew quite a lot of attention just two years after Billie Jean King had beaten Bobby Riggs in the original sports battle of the sexes.

In the match race, with Ruffian ahead by a half length, she broke two bones in her right foreleg. She kept on running. She was operated on immediately after the race — for three hours they tried to save her — but as they expected the cast did not hold as Ruffian tried to kick it off in the paddock. She was euthanized shortly thereafter.

13. Daytona 500 (2001)

It’s not really right to put tragedy on a list that is mostly supposed to spark fun feelings. But the Daytona 500 where Dale Earnhardt crashed and died simply is one of the worst endings in sports history.

We go to games, to races, to events to make us feel good about life. When something awful happens — when Ruffian breaks down in a match race or Barbaro breaks down at the Preakness or someone gets paralyzed during a football game or there’s some horrible crash at an auto race — the pain strikes twice as hard. I remember the horrible pain we all felt after the Challenger crash … I think the death of Dale Earnhardt was a similar thing. The point was to be inspired. And the result, instead, was horror.

12. “What a stupid I am.” (1968)

Roberto De Vicenzo and Bob Goalby were tied at the end of the 1968 Masters and should have played in a playoff. But Di Vicenzo’s playing partner, Tommy Aaron, marked a par for Roberto on the 17th hole when he had actually scored a birdie. By rules of golf, if you sign a card that has a score HIGHER THAN YOUR OWN, that is officially your score. You know how golf loves its rules. And so, officially, Di Vicenzo finished a shot back, and the playoff never happened.

The interesting thing about this was the aftermath. Goalby has always seemed bitter that his victory on ’68 was tainted by the scoring error. He has spoken about it grumpily … or not at all. Di Vicenzo, meanwhile, has always taken his own defeat with grace. “What a stupid I am,” he famously said after the scoring error was revealed to him. And he refuses to blame Aaron for the honest mistake.*

*Though it’s not on the list, I think this entry also includes a little sympathy for poor Dustin Johnson, who seemed to qualify for the playoff in this year’s PGA Championship but officially finished two shots back because he grounded his club in a “bunker” that looked nothing at all like a bunker. Golf does love its rules.

11. Red Right 88 (1981)

See above.

10. “God bless those kids, I’m sick, I’m gonna throw up” (1994)

John Tyler High led 41-17 with just over four minutes left. Plano East came all the way back to take the lead. John Tyler won on a kickoff return. There will never be anything quite like it. And there is absolutely nothing I can say about this game that isn’t better put in this video.

9. The Slide (1992)

I was actually here, Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, covering it for The Augusta Chronicle. And what I remember most is how dead it was in Atlanta going into the ninth inning. The Pittsburgh Pirates led the Braves 2-0 going into that ninth. As crazy as it may sound now, the Pirates were absolutely going to the World Series. Doug Drabek had been masterful for eight innings, he had allowed only five hits going into the ninth. The Braves were finished.

Terry Pendleton led off the inning with a double, and that did get the crowd stirred up a bit. But the crowd didn’t really get going until the next batter, David Justice, hit a ground ball to second base. Pittsburgh’s Jose Lind booted it. That, I think, is when Braves fans started to believe that they might win the game. Drabek walked Sid Bream to load the bases. When he did it, the name “Sid Bream” did not carry the power of memory that it carries now. At that point, he was just an impossibly slow first baseman.

Stan Belinda came in for Pittsburgh. He allowed a sac fly to Ron Gant, and then he walked Damon Berryhill to load them up once more. Brian Hunter was sent in to pinch hit, and he popped out to shortstop. Two outs. Bases loaded. Pittsburgh leading 2-1. Crowd doing that tomahawk chop like crazy.

And pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera — who should never have to buy a beer in Atlanta ever — hit a line drive single over shortstop Jay Bell. Justice scored easily. And the Braves sent Sid Bream home. Bream really was impossibly slow. And he also had some sort of leg injury. But I doubt he ever ran faster. As Jim Rome has made a living out of saying, Barry Bonds threw the ball “from deep short.” But somehow Bream was able to slide under the tag, sending the Braves to the World Series, sending Barry Bonds to San Francisco, and sending the Pirates into a fog of 18 consecutive losing seasons.

8. The Miracle at the New Meadowlands (2010)

Well, there’s really nothing more to say about this. The Eagles were down 31-10 with about eight minutes left. That’s when Michael Vick when Michael Vick on them. The score was tied in the final seconds. The Giants, hoping to settle for overtime, decided to punt with 14 seconds left. Giants coach Tom Coughlin told his punter, Matt Dodge, to absolutely kick the ball out of bounds. Dodge, it turns out, could not do that. Punters often say kicking the ball out of bounds is harder than you think.

His kick ended up going down the middle to DeSean Jackson who fumbled it, picked it up, and then ran more or less untouched for the game winning touchdown. He ended the touchdown with a little flourish, running along the end zone line as if to not only kick the Giants fans in the gut but also make sure he was wearing his steel toe boots. Coughlin was seen tearing into Dodge, who has played nicely as the scapegoat though the Giants clock management in the finals minutes was stupefying (they once were totally unprepared for an onside kick) and it wouldn’t have hurt if somebody had actually come close to tackling Jackson.

So it goes. Miracles are often inspired by the incompetence of others.

7. The Imperfect Game (2010)

Armando Galarraga got 27 outs in a row against Cleveland, a perfect game. Unfortunately for him and for baseball, the 27th man was called safe at first base by a soon-to-be-sick umpire named Jim Joyce.

While the ending was as unfulfilling as any in sports history, there was joy in the aftermath as Joyce took full responsibility for his blunder and Galarraga shrugged it off and offered the classic line: “Nobody’s perfect.”

6. Greg Norman at Augusta (1996)

When Greg Norman played the Masters in 1996, I was a columnist for an afternoon paper, The Cincinnati Post. This only matters because we did not have a Sunday paper. This had a positive and negative effect. The negative effect is easy: I couldn’t write live about Saturday events, and you might know that Saturday is kind of a key day in sports. I couldn’t write live on Ohio State-Michigan or on big Kentucky basketball games or on important baseball games played on Saturdays. There were no blogs then either.

The positive is easy too: I couldn’t write about Saturday events. So when I went to various sporting events Saturday was, in a sense, a forced day off. We would call them Boast Saturdays (Boast for Post — long story) and we would enjoy watching our fellow writers working on NFL preview stories or deadline college football games and shrug. Sorry. Can’t write.

But I was so inspired by Greg Norman’s first three days at the Masters that, essentially, I reached the person who ran the Scripps Howard News wire (the Post was owned by Scripps Howard) and asked for a chance to write. I didn’t even care if anyone ran it. I just thought I had something to say.

Permission was granted — funny, nobody ever turns down requests to do more work — and I wrote an entire column about how they should shut down the Masters, not even bother to play on Sunday because Norman (who was ahead by five shots) had already won the thing. The rest, I wrote, was guaranteed to be anticlimax.

So, yeah, I was an itty-bitty bit off there. Norman’s ludicrous collapse (combined with Nick Faldo’s masterful 67) turned Augusta Sunday into a very lush psychiatrist’s couch. Even Faldo clearly felt bad for the guy. Norman came into the press tent afterward and, with great class, went through his emotions. He had wanted very badly to win a Masters. He never did.

5. The Fifth Down (1990)

Colorado was playing at Missouri, and the Buffaloes were very much in the mix for the mythical national championship.* Missouri led 31-27 with little time remaining. Colorado went on a spirited drive. With less than a minute left, the Buffaloes moved the ball just short of the goal line. Colorado tight end Jon Bowman caught a pass and probably would have scored except he slipped on the horrendous “Omniturf.” The television announcer for the Big 8 game of the week at that moment said “This turf is an embarrassment.” More on that in a second.

*They had the good sense in those days of calling it a “mythical” national championship.

OK. So, you have the setup. Quarterback Charles Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock. That’s one down. But something weird happened on the field, something hard to quite pick up. Maybe the scoreboard didn’t change. All we know for sure is that on the next play, the announcer on the broadcast said: “Second down … excuse me … first down and goal to go.” The dye was cast.

Colorado’s Eric Bienemy then took a handoff and powered into the line but was stopped just short of the goal line. That’s two downs. Colorado called timeout. There were 18 seconds left. It should have been third down and goal to go.

Here’s something interesting about the fifth down game that I never knew before because I had never before seen the TV broadcast: I had always been led to believe that the down marker was wrong on the field. But the announcers during the timeout had a weird back and forth that leads me to believe that they actually had it RIGHT on the field. See what you can make out of this:

Announcer 1: And I think the chains are wrong on the field. I think now it’s second down. They had second before, I believe it’s second and goal now.
Announcer 2: I was a little confused by that also.
Announcer 1: They threw the pass down there to stop the clock.
Announcer 2: That’s right. You’re right.
Announcer 1: So now it’s third down.

Yeah, I know, it’s confusing. But the takeaway seems to be that the announcers in the booth were completely crossed up on the down — and what they said here suggested they actually might have had it right on the field, at least at one point. But then, during that timeout, the cameras caught Colorado coach Bill McCartney arguing about something with the officials. It’s certainly possible that this was the point when the officials changed their mind about the down.

Then, what should have been third down, Bienemy rushed up the middle, leaped, but he was stuffed short of the goal line. And this was when some weird stuff started happening. The officials tried to unpile players but it was slow going and so they actually stopped the clock. I understand that the referee has the power to stop the clock if he feels like players are purposely trying to slow down the game — and I do think Missouri’s players were trying to do that — but it’s still something you almost never see. They stopped the clock, and players unpiled, and Colorado was given enough time to setup.

That was followed by something even stranger: Announcer No. 1 actually suggested that Johnson spike the ball. He had only seconds early said that he KNEW the correct down (“So now it’s third down”) but he still suggested in the heat of the moment that Colorado should spike the ball. And Johnson did just that. He rushed up to the line, spiked the ball to stop the clock with just two seconds left. Of course, that’s four downs. And that’s all a team is supposed to get.

The crowd booed … I’m not sure how many were booing because Colorado was about to get a fifth down and how many were booing because the official stopped the clock. I do know this, the announcers — after GETTING THE DOWN RIGHT during the timeout — never once mentioned that Colorado was getting a fifth down. It’s like everyone in the place was under some sort of Harry Potter spell or something.

And there was yet MORE controversy. On fifth down, Johnson ran right, tried to get into the end zone, and based on the rather flimsy replays available it seems that he may not have made it. There was no definitive replay, but all the replays certainly SUGGESTED that he did not make it. But the officials ruled it a touchdown. And so THAT became the immediate controversy rather than the officials blowing the fifth down.

I don’t think it’s possible for officials to do worse than this bunch did. They gave Colorado an extra down. They stopped the clock bizarrely as it was about to expire. They ruled a touchdown when it probably was not one. I tend to believe that mistakes are generally honest because incompetence is a big part of who we are … but if anyone ever reported that these officials were under some sort of orders to help Colorado win, I cannot say I’d be surprised.

A couple of other things have long bothered me about this play. When Colorado had called timeout they had to KNOW it was third down. So why did they call a running play up the middle when they had no timeouts left? If the officials had not stopped the clock, Colorado would have run out of time before running another play even GRANTING them a fifth down. So that was an impossibly dumb call on Colorado’s part.

Two … I never understood why Missouri didn’t make a bigger deal of it at the time. I mean, you would have expected that they all would have jumped up and down in victory, sent the offense on the field, the whole bit … at least make the officials aware that there was a controversy. But they never did, which indicates to me that they weren’t sure what down it was either.

Colorado went on to win that mythical national championship, at least according to the AP voters. And when McCartney was asked if he planned to do the honorable thing and forfeit the game, he said no. Why? “Because the field was lousy,” he said.

4. The Fumble (1988)

Poor Ernest Byner. Every time that something bad happens to Cleveland — even something that has nothing whatsoever to do with football such as LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach or the Indians losing a game in heartbreaking fashion or someone doing a story about unemployment in Northeast Ohio — people will show him fumbling at the end of the AFC Championship Game.

Byner absolutely does not deserve to be scapegoated for that game. The Browns were completely out of the game, at one point falling behind 21-3. And Byner brought them back. He led the team in rushing and receiving, willed his way to 187 total yards and two touchdowns, brought the Browns all the way. And he looked as if he was going to cap it off with a game-tying score with 1:12 left. On television, it was not immediately noticeable that the ball had been knocked out by Denver’s Jermiah Castille. It was plenty clear on replay after replay after replay after replay.

Byner was everything that a football fan loves. He was an overachiever — he had been a 10th round draft pick out of East Carolina. He made his bones on special teams. He succeeded without great speed or great power; he was only about 5-foot-10. The fumble tore him apart. He played one more year in Cleveland, but it was no good — though there had been a close relationship between him and the city, though the most knowledgeable fans understood that the Browns would not even have been IN the game without Byner, well, to much had happened. He was moved to Washington after a year. He ran for 1,000-plus yards his first two seasons there, and in the second the Redskins won the Super Bowl.

3. The Miracle at the Meadowlands (1978)

You certainly know what happened. The Giants had intercepted a pass that put the game away in the final minute. They led 17-12. On first down, the Giants ran the ball. On second down, quarterback Joe Pisarcik kneeled on it. The Eagles were out of timeouts, there was nothing they could do but watch the clock drain away. The Giants had to only run one more play. You know the game was over because on television they were going through the credits — “We thank our producer, Bob Rowe, our director, Jim Silman, and our CBS crew.” As a kid I always hated when they did that. I never wanted to the games to end.

The Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson — yes, Bob Gibson — called a running play for convoluted reasons that even 30-plus years later don’t quite add up. Apparently, he was worried that if Pisarcik tried to kneel again, the Eagles would try to rough up the Giants offensive linemen, start a fight, which could cause injury or (worse) stop the clock and give the Eagles the ball back. He called the safest running play in his playbook, 65-Power Up. The idea was simply to turn, hand the ball to fullback Larry Czonka, and end this crazy game.

Well, Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik took the snap, seemed to have trouble handling it, turned to hand it off to Czonka, and, well, you know what happened. Czonka kind of collided with the ball, it bounced free, and it then bounced up right into the arms of Herm Edwards, who scooped it up and ran for the game-winning touchdown. So many things had to happen, not the least of which was the ball popping right up to Edwards — had he simply fallen on the ball, the Giants probably still would have won.

The next day, Bob Gibson was fired. He opened a bait shop in Florida. He has never spoken publicly about the play.

2. Jean Van de Velde (1999)

This was my first British Open and I have to tell you … it could not have been more boring. The tournament was played at Carnoustie — I went because that was where Tom Watson had won his first British Open, and he suggested to me that he had the game to make another run (he did have the game … but his amazing British Open run wouldn’t happen for another decade). But Watson was dreadful. Well, it fit. Everyone was dreadful.

Someone named Rod Pampling was leading after Day 1 — he had managed even par.

Someone named Jean Van de Velde was leading after Day 2 — he was one over par.

That someone named Jean Van de Velde had a five shot lead after Day 3. It could not have been more boring.

And Sunday played out just as boring — Van de Velde played well enough that had a three shot lead going into the 18th hole. A double bogey and he won. He could hit nothing but putters and make double bogey (he really could — later he tried it just for fun and got his double bogey). Instead, he whacked his driver to the dismay of anyone with a working brain and the ball sailed way right into the rough.

Only he caught the strangest sort of bad break — when he got there, he saw that he had a PERFECT LIE. Why was this bad break? Because the lie was so good that it inspired Van de Velde to go for the green. Had it been in the rough he might have tried to chop the ball back into play, limped up to the flag and left with the Claret Jug. Instead, he went for the great shot — like Billy Conn, he went for the knockout — and he hit it into grandstand, where it bounced back into thick rough. He then hit the ball out of the rough into Barry Burn, the water that runs in front of the green. Van de Velde took off his socks and shoes, rolled up his pants, leading the BBC announcer to say something like: “This poor man has lost his mind.”

Eventually he decided not to try and hit the ball out of the water. He chipped into the bunker, then pitched to seven feet and then, in what can only be attributed to muscle memory, he made the putt for the triple bogey that at least got him in the playoff. Of course he wasn’t going to win the thing — and he didn’t. But it has always amazed me that after all that, he still made that triple-bogey putt. And it was the most painful ending I’ve ever watched in sports.

Van de Velde became a media star afterward. He was impossibly funny as he went over his round. “I talk about everything except 18, OK?” he asked as he walked into his press conference. Then he talked about 18 and pain and how life goes on.

1. U.S.-Soviet Olympic basketball game (1972)

I own a video called “Boxing’s Greatest Knockouts.” Unfortunately, I no longer own a VCR so I cannot watch it, which is a shame because I love the video. It isn’t so much that I love the knockouts themselves — I love the commentary. Boxing legend Archie Moore was one of the commentators and so was Emmanuel Stewart, the longtime trainer. One of the fights they showed was the classic Archie Moore-Yvon Durrelle fight. In that one Moore was knocked down four times before coming back to defeat Durrelle, a Canadian champion who spent his real life catching lobsters.

On the video, they showed Moore go down again and again (“He hit hard,” was Moore’s classic explanation). And then when they were discussing the fight, Stewart said something like this: “You know, it’s funny, I always remembered you going down MORE than four times. I thought you went down like seven or eight.”

What does this have to do with the U.S.-Soviet Union Olympic basketball game? Well, it seems to me that few people remember it exactly right; it has grown in memory. Three inbounds plays has turned in five or six in memory. An errant horn has turned sinister. It seems to me that the 1972 game was grotesque on its own merits, it doesn’t need embellishment. But the memory can’t help but embellish.

Here’s what happened: Doug Collins stole the ball in the final seconds with the United States trailing the Soviets by a point. The U.S. had never lost an Olympic basketball game. They were 63-0. Collins was fouled and stepped to the line with three seconds left to shoot what have since been called the two most important free throws in American basketball history. He made the first. And then, as he started to shoot the second, the horn went off. This has since been used by some as proof that there was a concerted effort to throw off Collins and hurt the American team, but there’s another possibility. Immediately after Collins free throw, the Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashin complained that he had called a timeout that had not been granted. It’s at least possible — and, in fact, sounds more realistic — that the horn was an attempt to get the attention of the referees.

Collins made the free throw anyway. The U.S. led 49-48.

The international rules forbid the Soviets from calling timeout AFTER Collins free throw so they were forced to take the ball out of bounds. So the Soviets had no choice but to pass the ball inbounds. It was dribbled to halfcourt, a setup for a desperation shot, when the clock was stopped with 1 second left. Why was the clock stopped? Well, there was a ruckus at the scorer’s table (over Kondrashin’s insistence that he had called timeout). The Soviet team had pilled on the court in protest. The U.S. contingency has long felt like a technical foul should have been called there because a Soviet assistant coach had run to the scorer’s table to argue about the non timeout. And the Russian contingency has long felt like no technical should have been called because the officials at the scorer’s table were well aware that they had messed up not granting the Soviets the timeout in the first place.

Whoever is right or wrong, there was a long delay, and the Soviets were able to confer about a play — in effect, they got the timeout they wanted. The referee rather oddly decided to put three seconds back on the clock and give the Soviets the ball out of bounds. It is not clear that this was within his power as a referee. Whether or not the timeout was missed, the clock HAD started again, and there is no loophole in the international rules that allows an assistant coach to charge the scorer’s table or a team to spill on the court effectively without consequence. One referee, in fact, fought against putting time back on the clock, but he was overruled. The referees blew it. But they were about to make it worse.

They set everyone up again out of bounds. But this time, they put the ball in play before the scorer’s table was ready. The clock was not set at 3 seconds. The U.S. camera was focused on the scoreboard clock (which showed 50 seconds) and not on play. The ball was suddenly inbounded, and Sergei Belov fired a full-length court pass … but the horn sounded after only one second. It would later be explained that the horn was not to signify the end of the game but was instead an effort by the scorers table to get the attention of the referees to say that they were not ready.

Of course, it SOUNDED like the game-ending horn and people swarmed the court and the U.S. team celebrated in triumph. There is no question whatsoever that if the ruling was to put three seconds back on the clock that the horn had sounded way too early.

And so, the referees cleared the court and reset everything — the Soviets got the ball out of bounds with three seconds left. To say the U.S. team was angry would be an enormous understatement. They considered walking off the court. They would later vote to not take their silver medal (for insight on that, please read Gary Smith’s classic piece). But in the moment, perhaps fearing a forfeit, they lined up for the final play.

Tom McMillen was hounding the inbounds passer and an official yelled at him, causing McMillen to back away even though there was no rule about such things in international play (the official has said, unconvincingly, that he did not tell McMillen to back away). Ivan Edeshko (with an open lane now) threw a full-length pass to Aleksandr Belov, who caught the ball and made the layup that led the Soviets to victory, the first U.S. loss in Olympic history, and the worst ending in sports history.

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Stuff that’s coming up

Here is a list of stuff that I hope to have up for your holiday reading in the next couple of weeks. As with all the “Stuff that’s coming up” posts … there are no promises and no guarantees.

— 32 worst sports endings. This will be up any time now.

— My Hall of Fame ballot (with a special Morris-Blyleven section just for my SI colleague Jon Heyman).

— My favorite loser.

— The iPad Review (I am required by law to put this on the list).

— The latest infomercial atrocity.

— What baseball prospects mean.

— Thoughts on the Beatles.

— The (last?) great hope for newspapers.

— Ms. Pacman and Galaga and why we cared.

— The Buck O’Neil Award.

— “A Personal Matter.”

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Uh Oh

As you might expect: There is a lot of back and forth going on in Kansas City over the Zack Greinke trade. And I think there will be a lot of back and forth about it for a long time yet. There is some anger — some of it pointed at the Royals, some of it pointed at Greinke — and there is a pretty wild range of opinion about whether the Royals got enough in return.

There is reason for Kansas City fans to have some optimism about this deal, I think. I don’t want that lost just because I happen to think the Royals should have gotten at least one superstar prospect. The optimism begins with shortstop Alcides Escobar. He was a Baseball America Top 15 prospect a year ago, and scouts seem pretty well in agreement that Escobar has superb defensive skills, above average speed and the ability to make contact at the plate. Whether those things will turn him into a good every day shortstop — there isn’t much agreement on that part.

The Top Rated Baseball America shortstop prospects:
2009: Alcides Escobar
2008: Brandon Wood
2007: Brandon Wood
2006: Justin Upton (followed by Brandon Wood)
2005: Joel Guzman
2004: B.J. Upton (followed by Kaz Matsui)
2003: Jose Reyes
2002: Wilson Betemit
2001: Antonio Perez
2000: Rafael Furcal

You can see, that’s a pretty mixed bag. It isn’t easy developing an everyday shortstop. The Royals certainly have had no luck doing it. The Royals and others like to compare Escobar to Texas’ Elvis Andrus, but I don’t quite see that. Andrus was much younger and showed offensive skills much earlier. I think a better comparison — and one the Royals should not be unhappy with — is the best of Cesar Izturis. When Izturis hit for a decent average — like he did in 2004 — he was a more than useful player. He posted a 3.7 WAR that year, he won a Gold Glove, the next year he was an All-Star. Of course Izturis has not hit in any other year, and that’s the challenge with Escobar. But there are definitely scouts out there who think Escobar will hit, and if he does hit even half-decently he should be a very good player.

There is also reason for optimism about Jake Odorizzi, the Class A pitcher that I’ve seen more than one person call the key to this deal. Odorizzi isn’t yet 21 and he was very good in the Midwest League last year. He struck out 135 in 120 innings, allowed only seven home runs, showed the sort of command that had some scouts apparently comparing him to Zack Greinke. The reports I got on Odorizzi from friends were not quite so cheerful, to be honest, but the Royals obviously like him a lot, and he could be the emerging guy from the deal, the one who in two years will be ready to star in the big leagues and everyone will say “Where did they get HIM? Oh yeah, they got him in the Greinke deal.”

Odorizzi was Baseball America’s eighth-ranked prospect in the Midwest League, by the way. Will Carroll asked the very logical question: What the heck does that mean?

Baseball America’s No. 8 prospects in the Midwest League:

2002: Shin Soo Choo
2003: Felix Pie
2004: Ian Kinsler
2005: Anthony Swarzak
2006: Wade Davis

Again, kind of a mixed bag, but there’s hope.

The point of this post, however, was not to go over the deal again but — as the headline might suggest — to point out one scary turn of events for Royals fans. My favorite player in the deal is centerfielder Lorenzo Cain. A couple of people have been kind enough to show me their scouting report on him … and it’s extremely promising. Cain is going to turn 25 years old at the start of the season, so he’s not exactly a kid. He has also had a bumpy minor league career — he hit just .218 in an injury-ruined 2009 minor league season — and has shown almost no power despite his sturdy 6-foot-2, 200 pound frame. So, yes, there are real questions about him.

But there are also many good signs. He is a terrific athlete with very good speed (in 2010, coming off knee injury, he stole 33 of 37 bases). He is, apparently, a good defensive centerfielder with the skills to be as good as anybody in the American League. He is, apparently, a player with great makeup; he has overcome many disappointments to get to the brink of the big leagues. He’s the kind of player you root for happily. The scouting reports on him range from fourth outfielder to Torii Hunter comp, so that’s a pretty wide range of outcomes. But of all the players in this deal, he seems to me the one who has the best chance in the short term to emerge. If I’m a Royals fan, much of my hope for this deal is placed in the future of Lorenzo Cain as the Royals center fielder.

So, this morning, I read Bob Dutton’s wrap-up of the deal, which, as all of Bob’s work is, was thorough and interesting and filled with in-between-the-lines hints. I think it was Bob’s story on Zack Greinke last year, the one where Zack first indicated his distaste for the Royals youth movement, that set the wheels in motion for this deal.

I read Bob’s story … and a quote jumped out of it and slapped me in the face and made me start this post with the “Uh Oh” headline. The quote is from Royals manager Ned Yost, who was, of course, manager of the Brewers and was undoubtedly a key factor in Kansas City making this deal. He was talking about how the first time he ever saw Escobar he saw a future All-Star (not inconceivable). He was talking about how he thinks Luke Hochevar is ready to step up and be this team’s No. 1 starter (pretty inconceivable).

Then he started talking about Cain, talked about his athleticism, how he and Escobar can help the Royals offense “just with their legs alone.” Then it all took a terrible turn.

“He’s a center fielder,” Yost told Bob about Cain. “But we’ll see where it fits in. I’m not projecting anything right now. We’ve signed Melky Cabrera (to play center field), and Lorenzo Cain only has (147) big-league at-bats.”

Uh oh. Bob asked Ned Yost about Cain … and the words “Melky” and “Cabrera” were in the answer? Melky Cabrera of the 83 OPS+ and .317 on-base percentage last year? Melky Cabrera of the minus-21 on the Dewan Plus/Minus for outfield defense last year (minus-9 in center fielder where he only played 385 innings)? Melky Cabrera of the minus-1.2 WAR last year — which made him by Fangraphs ratings the worst everyday player in baseball? That Melky Cabrera?

Are the Royals really going to block one of the young and promising players they just got for Greinke with Melky F. Cabrera? And this in a year when EVERYONE knows they are going to be absolutely terrible?

Maybe they won’t do it. Maybe that’s just what a manager has to say since the Royals did sign Cabrera and probably made him a few promises. But, I’m still thinking … Uh Oh.

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The Greinke Trade

A few years ago, Bill James told me something I had never thought about before but now think about all the time, especially after trades like this one: Every single baseball team has prospects. Every one. The best teams. The worst teams. The smartest teams. The dumbest teams. They all have prospects. Not only that — every team has enough prospects to fill out a Top10 list. You never see a team’s “Top 7 Prospects” list because the team did not not have enough to fill out 10. No. They all have 10.

Not only THAT but every year Baseball America puts out its wonderful and indispensable prospect handbook — and every team has THIRTY prospects listed. Even the worst minor league system of the last 30 years will produce 30 prospects in the Baseball America book.

This is worth remembering. Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers traded four young players — all four, I think, still fit the definition of “prospect” — to Kansas City for Zack Greinke. The Royals also moved one of my favorite blog topics, Yuniesky Betancourt, to Milwaukee in the deal. The Royals have now traded away or released three of my favorite blog topics — Greinke, Betancourt and Brian Bannister. Hmm. It’s almost like they don’t want me writing about them anymore.*

*Though the Royals were nice enough to pick up Jeff Francoeur, who will probably inspire a post or two.

The Royals got prospects* from Milwaukee, but that in and of itself means nothing. See: Prospects mean nothing. Every team has them. The question from Kansas City’s perspective is this: Did they get PLAYERS who can help them win? I have spent the day asking baseball friends that very question. The answers are mixed. This trade, from Kansas City’s perspective, is complicated and foggy and, in the end, probably pretty unsatisfying (if you’re a Royals fan). We’ll get to all that in a minute.

*Technically, I suppose, Escobar and Cain might not fit the description of “prospect” because they both have enough Major League time that they will not be considered rookies in 2011. But I’m using the term loosely here as players you might expect to be significantly better as they mature and develop. Neither Escobar or Cain have proven anything on the big league level yet.

The trade from Milwaukee’s perspective, I think, is easy to categorize. It is glorious. Yes, they did deal four interesting young players — 24-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar , 25-year-old (in April) centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, 23-year-old reliever Jeremy Jeffress and 21-year-old (in March) pitcher Jake Odorizzi — and yes they now appear stuck with Yuni Betancourt as their every day shortstop, and yes their farm system is now utterly depleted (though I’ll bet they still have 30 prospects in the Baseball America book).

But they got one of the best pitchers in baseball in Greinke, a pitcher who quite possibly will be more dominant in the National League without having to face the designated hitter and as many stacked lineups (also Greinke fashions himself quite a hitter and will now get to prove it).Greinke now gets together with my breakout pick of 2011 Yovani Gallardo*, the promising Shaun Marcum and the still sometimes good Randy Wolf. It’s not the Phillies rotation by a longshot, but it’s pretty darned good, and with a lineup that finished fourth in the NL in runs in 2010, they certainly come into the season as serious contenders in the NL Central.

*Hey, my last two breakout picks were Zack Greinke and Ubaldo Jimenez so in this, and this alone, I have a pretty good record.

Perhaps just as important: The Brewers are clearly serious about winning. They’ve got Prince Fielder coming up on the end of his contract. They have not been in the World Series in almost 30 years — only Seattle, Pittsburgh and Cubs have had a longer drought (and the Washington Nationals if you count their Expos years). The win now approach can be deadly if you are not in the right position, but the National League Central is not a great division, the Brewers are just a couple of years removed from a 90-win season, and if they don’t win they have no shot at keeping Fielder to go with Braun as one of the best back-to-back hitters in the league. Getting Greinke seems to me a pretty serious victory for the Brewers, especially when you consider they did not give up a single player who would have been on anybody’s list of, say, the 25 or 50 or even 100 best young players in baseball.

And this is the point I’ll keep coming back to as we move on to the Royals: Milwaukee didn’t give up a single player likely to become a star. Zack Greinke is a star. He’s under control at a pretty good price for two years. Of course things can happen. Greinke can get hurt. Greinke can disappoint. Greinke can not fit in. Or the Brewers may find that winning with Yuniesky Betancourt as an every day shortstop is no easy trick. But you always take your chances on a trade. This one seems to me very likely to be a huge victory for Milwaukee. That’s the crux of my Milwaukee opinion.

The Royals side is quite a bit harder to break down. It begins with some recent history.

Over the last 10 or so years, the Royals have built up an annoying but predictable pattern. They develop a star player and then trade him away. This began in 2000 when the Royals traded away Johnny Damon. They had done many things to help Damon feel at home in Kansas City. They actually bought him a house in town. They made him their face in the community. In 2000, Damon led the league in runs scored and stolen bases. When the season ended, he made it clear that unless the Royals intended to make a huge financial commitment to build a winner, he did not want to stay. The Royals traded him away. Damon still gets booed when he comes to Kansas City.

Two years later, it was Jermaine Dye — coming off the year when, improbably, he started the All-Star Game. It is hard to imagine a Royals player ever again starting the All-Star game. Oh it will happen, but who knows when? Dye was not a homegrown product — he had come from Atlanta — but he did find stardom in Kansas City. He too seemed about ready to price himself out. And just as that was about to happen, the Royals dealt him for Neifi Perez in what was probably the most disastrous trade in team history.

Finally, there was Carlos Beltran, probably the only true five tool player the Royals farm system has ever developed (though George Brett was certainly a complete player, and Bo Jackson was a phenomenon). Beltran could hit, hit with power, he’s still the most successful base stealer in baseball history, he’s won multiple Gold Gloves in center field. He made it clear that he intended to go with the best deal when he became a free agent. The Royals knew they weren’t going to give him the best deal. They decided to trade him for a third baseman and a catcher — they made this clear before making the trade. They ended up getting John Buck and Mark Teahen.

Why bring up that background? Because the bulk of Kansas City fans have lost faith in the system. They know, absolutely know, that as soon as a player gets good he will be traded. It is simply a fact of Kansas City life. And not only will he be traded, but he will be traded for players that average baseball fans have never heard of.

So … the Greinke trade comes as no surprise in Kansas City. It also comes as no surprise that the four players they got in return are complete unknowns except to the most intense of baseball fans. The Royals will say that the four players are good prospects, and they have upside, and this may be true. In Kansas City, though, these words have mostly lost their meaning. The future has been Kansas City’s promotional tool for a long time now. And yet the future never gets any closer.

I have spent much of Sunday talking to friends in baseball, getting scouting reports of the four players in the deal … and individually all the players have both promise and rather obvious flaws:

— Shortstop Alcides Escobar: He’s a by all accounts a gifted athlete with above average speed and brilliant defensive ability. There are even those who think he will eventually hit. He was a good enough prospect last year that the Brewers dealt away J.J. Hardy and made him everyday shortstop. But in his first year, he did not hit a lick (.235/.288/.326). His 67 OPS+ — well, not many hitters in baseball history have rebounded from that to have a good offensive career. Ozzie Smith did. Terry Pendleton did. Not many others. Escobar also did not put up especially good defensive numbers, if you put any stock in those. The upside for Escobar is as a superior defensive shortstop who will get on base enough to steal bases and be an offensive plus. But that’s certainly no guarantee and his future is further clouded as numerous scouts question Escobar’s work ethic and motivation.

— Centerfielder Lorenzo Cain: Nobody questions Cain’s motivation, he seems to be a terrific athlete with even better makeup. The two names I heard most often in comparison are Denard Span and Torii Hunter, a couple of Twins centerfielders who the Royals have jealously gawked at the last few years. Cain, though, turns 25 in April, and his minor league march has been slow and uneven and injury plagued. He has only played 22 games in Class AAA. He has shown absolutely no power and only average plate discipline. He has the speed and instincts to be a fabulous defensive center fielder, which he could really show off in the enormous outfield at Kauffman Stadium.

— Right-handed pitcher Jeremy Jeffress has a great arm — he has been clocked at 100, and he worked 94-to-98 mph. His problem has been control — both on and off the field. He has twice been suspended for testing positive for marijuana. You can pass your own judgments on that, but at the very least the second positive test suggests a player who has not taken his career very seriously. One more positive test, and he’s banned for life. And in the minors he walked 188 batters in 306 innings, though his command came on enough in 2010 that one baseball executive said it “improved dramatically.” He appears to be a reliever now — especially because he has not found an effective third pitch. You never know exactly how relievers with great stuff and questionable command will do.

— Right-handed pitcher Jake Odorizzi is probably not worth spending too much time on right now — he’s still years away. He pitched well in Low A, and some of the people I spoke with like him, think he projects as a No. 3 starter. Others aren’t excited by his stuff and think he will struggle as he moves up in competition. There’s no telling for sure with a pitcher in Class A.

And so, those are the four guys — and you probably notice the same thing I do: There are no potential stars in the group. Not one. Oh, someone like Cain could emerge as a star, but it would be a surprise. The Royals got two players who figure to start in 2011, and a reliever who could have a significant role in the bullpen too. So they will get some production out of this deal. But there’s nothing exciting here. Zack Greinke is one of the most exciting pitchers in baseball. He’s one of the most exciting pitchers ever developed in Kansas City. And he’s gone.

There is definite logic behind what the Royals did. The Royals have the best minor league system in baseball — that seems to be the unanimous opinion — and so the plan is to be successful in 2012 and 2013. This trade helps fill in some missing pieces. The Royals were intensely weak defensively up the middle — now with Escobar (assuming they can motivate him) and Cain, they have a chance to make up-the-middle defense a real strength. The Royals farm system is loaded with high-end power hitters to play the corners — remember the names Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers (who may still be a catcher but is more likely an outfielder) — and so this move potentially gives the team speed that it otherwise lacks. The two arms they got can both be helpful and added to the truckload of good arms the Royals have in the minors. Royals GM Dayton Moore is a big believer that a team like Kansas City needs TOO MUCH young pitching because pitchers are so fragile, both from a health standpoint and a confidence standpoint.

So, from that point of view, it’s easy to understand why the Royals made the trade. And it’s easy to see what they hope to get out of it. There’s no way to say right now that this is a BAD deal because if Escobar and Cain are good big league players for the next few years and key middle-of-the-field contributors, then the trade could work out fine.

But … two days ago the Royals were on top of the baseball world. For once, they had a chip that nobody else had — they had a young and talented pitcher with an affordable contract. They had rich teams out there with HUGE motivation to make a deal. The Yankees and Rangers had lost out in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. The New York Mets should be desperate to make a push considering how good the Phillies look. The Toronto Blue Jays are desperate to stay tough in the most competitive division in baseball. And so on. The Royals, for one of the few times in the last decade or two, were in the eye of baseball’s hurricane. They had what lots and lots of teams wanted.

And, from an outside perspective, there was no rush to make a trade. Yes, Zack Greinke had made it clear he wanted to be traded … he even switched agents. But so what? The Royals have him under control for two years. Greinke would have had to understand — and if not understand, certainly accept — that the Royals were trying to get the best deal for him. Why deal him now? Why not let the price build and build, as it certainly would. Why make a deal without a potential superstar return? What was the hurry?

Certainly the Royals know more about the situation than anyone else. Maybe they were worried about Greinke causing problems if they waited too long. Maybe they were worried about how he would pitch in a Royals uniform this year. Maybe they knew Greinke would simply refuse to go to any of the teams that could offer them more than Milwaukee did, and so they made the best deal they could make.

But it’s curious. And after the long history of Royals botching these sorts of trades — though it should be said the previous deals were not Dayton Moore’s — there’s a lot of room for doubt here. Kansas City got four prospects Sunday and they may work out. They may not. Everybody’s got prospects. But now only Milwaukee has Zack Greinke.

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The Social Network

A few years ago, Gary Smith wrote one of my favorite magazine pieces. It was called “Crime and Punishment.” The main character in the story is a one-time high school basketball star named Richie Parker, who was convicted of sexual abuse after high school. The complex story is about the many efforts to both save and punish Parker for what he did.

There is a line in the story that I have thought about many times. Toward the end, Parker talked about how much he had learned from the pain and the hope and the fear of what would happen … but Gary did not use most of what Richie Parker said. Here is Gary’s explanation: “And he said a lot more, but it would be improper to let him do it here, for it might mislead the reader into thinking this was a story about Richie Parker.”

I have often wondered if Gary did the right thing using that line. Part of me thinks that it should have gone unsaid — that comes from the “if you have to explain a joke, it didn’t work” school of thinking. But another part of me remembers the jolt of recognition that clicked in me when I read the line the first time. I don’t think the story would have had quite the same power for me if he had left it out.

All of which is just my excuse to say this: Despite how it may look, the following story is not about really Jose Canseco.

* * *

Twitter
@JoseCanseco I am looking for active or x major leaguers to be in a comedy movie acting as themselves,if interested email me at …

* * *

The first pitch is high, and a 46-year-old man in a gray sweatshirt, black sweatpants and what appears to be a driver’s cap swings the bat with some force. He is standing inside a box of green netting, which is inside a batting cage, which is inside a rectangle of video on a YouTube Page. Above the rectangle is the headline: “Jose Canseco bat speed.” Below the rectangle are 12 comments, which can be more or less summed up by two near the top:

“Just give it up, buddy.”

“your swing looks like shit.”

Inside the rectangle, the crack of ball meeting bat does not sound quite full. It sounds more like a single firecracker going off in a driveway a couple of beats after the rest. But the camera shakes, suggesting that something powerful has happened. Jose Canseco does not admire his work. He taps the bat on the plastic mat where he stands. He waves the bat around in what seems to be a practiced flourish. And he taps the bat on the mat again.

He has done this many times before. You do not need to know his name to know this. For one thing: He does not move his feet as he swings. This is telling. The pretenders often have jumpy feet. The man’s feet are still, his legs are still, it is his hips that he moves to shift weight — first back into the ready position and then, suddenly and violently, forward. Hitters and their coaches talk about weight shift. Jose Canseco shifts his weight without any apparent effort. This is the result of swinging a baseball bat a million times. The swing is a part of him.

You might even say the swing is him.

* * *

@JoseCanseco I have been working hard I am reay to play just need a team

* * *

The second pitch seems a perfect hitter’s pitch, belt high, center-plate, and the man swings with a little bit less force. Canseco is swinging a 36-inch, 35-ounce bat — longer and heavier, he will tell you, than most players in the Major Leagues. The man is trying to prove a simple point: That he is still very strong. His muscles bulge in the video.

Jose Canseco once hit 44 home runs in a big league baseball season. That was not the most home runs he hit in a season — in later life, as an earthbound designated hitter in Canada, he hit 46 home runs, but nobody cared because that was 1998, the ragtime stage of the Selig Era, when Canseco’s one-time teammate Mark McGwire hit 70 and a similarly muscle-bound righty named Sammy Sosa hit 66. Canseco’s 46 home runs that year merely tied him for sixth in baseball and left the man consigned in the jail he seems to hate most … the prison of the unnoticed.

But his 44 home runs in 1991 left everyone appropriately awed. The 44 homers tied him with a beefy man named Cecil Fielder for the most home runs hit in all of the Major Leaguers. But Canseco’s 44 was more impressive because he played his home games in one of the game’s biggest and toughest-hitting ballparks — the Oakland Coliseum. And so, to reach that home run total, he hit 28 on the road. It was one of the better road shows in baseball history. No matter where you lived, the man would come to your town and put on a show.

He was a phenomenon then; he might have been the biggest star in baseball. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was photographed shirtless by Annie Leibovitz. The autograph seekers rushed him nonstop. The women banged on his hotel room door late at night. The piles of money, as he joked happily, was brought to him by wheelbarrow. He sometimes said he felt trapped by it and wondered aloud why his life could not be more normal. But more often, much more often, he wondered aloud why he wasn’t even more famous and rich and successful. He hit impossibly long home runs. What more could anyone want from him?

The second pitch in the YouTube is down the middle, but the 46-year-old man’s swing is a touch late. The ball hits the top of his bat and goes straight up in the air. Canseco holds out his left hand as if it stings. Or it might be disgust.

* * *

@JoseCanseco I remember always being happy when I was on the field playing.I guess my addiction is baseball what a high when you hit a homerun

* * *

The third pitch is knee high, and the man’s swing is pure. He powers through the ball. The crack of the bat has more bass, it echoes. The man sniffs his approval. He never did handle failure well. He always believed that his own unquenchable desire to win and to be famous and to be more famous, his pathological fear of being a failure or a nobody, his never-ending quest to hear more cheers and more boos and more everything, all of that came from his father, Jose Sr.

Jose Canseco Jr. was actually the second twin born on July 2, 1964 — his brother Ozzie was born two minutes early. Osvaldo was named after a brother who died young. Jose was given the burden of his father’s name.

Jose Sr. had built himself up twice. He built himself into a successful businessman in Cuba. And, when Castro rose to power, he managed to get his family out of Cuba, to Miami. There, Jose Sr. worked three jobs and made a success of himself a second time. He was, Jose Jr. would often say, a man without humor. He taught his sons baseball the same way he taught them everything. There was a right way and a wrong way. Jose Jr. had a knack of doing things the wrong way.

“You’re going to grow up and work at Burger King or McDonald’s,” Jose Jr. would remember his father yelling at him. “You’ll never add up to anything.”

Things seemed to come more easily to Ozzie. He was more natural. Ozzie was popular in high school. Jose would remember being an outcast. Ozzie was drafted in the second round of the amateur draft by the New York Yankees. Jose was drafted in the 15th round by Oakland and it took an unusual threat by the great Cuban pitcher Camilo Pascual to get the deal done. When the A’s balked at Canseco’s rather meager $10,000 asking price, Pascual said he would pay the bonus himself if that’s what it took to get the deal gone.

Jose Canseco obviously went on to great things in baseball despite all that. And no matter how well Jose Jr. did, he found that he could not please his father. A three homer day would prompt questions about the fourth at-bat. The tale of the son striving to win his father’s approval, once and for all, is so common (especially in sports) it has become cliche. But that does not make feel any less true.

* * *

@JoseCanseco Life is about beleivinging in something

* * *

The fourth pitch is a bit inside, and Jose Canseco comes out of his swing — comes off the ball, as they say — and pounds it into the ground and into the left net. That is probably a groundout to shortstop in a real game. Of course, it might get through too. That’s is the beauty of baseball. The ball always might get through.

Canseco never did handle success any better than he handled failure. In his best baseball days, he drove his car recklessly. He carried guns around with him. He made the news for confusing domestic disputes that seemed to be tinged with violence, though he always denied it. Maybe it was this: He had trouble being generous — or anyway a certain KIND of generous. Oh, stories would pop up quite often about some good deed Jose Canseco did, some money he spent on a charity, some time he spent with a sick child. There was always someone around, it seemed, to say that the man had a good heart.

But generosity of spirit — that one was harder. It never seemed enough. He raged at other players. He mocked history. He trumpeted himself. When Ali said, “I am the greatest,” there was a joy in his voice, and while he may not have meant it you could hear in his words “WE are the greatest.”

When the man said “I am the greatest,” you knew exactly who he was talking about.

When Ali came back too many times — his terrible final bout against Trevor Berbick was fought on a dusty and dilapidated old baseball stadium with a cowbell used to chime the beginnings and ends of rounds — there were always people rooting for him, always people willing to hope against hope. And when it ended, there were tears.

When Jose Canseco put up a video of his batting practice swing and links to it on Twitter, he gets hammered with dozens and dozens of responses from who tell him to go someplace and die.

* * *

@JoseCanseco I hit in the batting cages and dream of playing in the majors again,well I guess we all have dreams

* * *

The fifth pitch is very low, and the man reaches down with the bat and, with one hand, flips at the ball and hits it in the air. This is a trick of great skill for any hitter, especially a man who is 46 years old. The balls are coming at 94 mph. To hit a ball that low and moving that fast requires skill that can only be acquired with thousands of hours of batting practice. The main thing is how effortless it looks.

He always had the ability to make things look effortless. Perhaps that was why people suspected him of steroids before anyone else. The writer Tom Boswell wrote, simply, “He is the most conspicuous example of a player who had himself great with steroids,” and this was 20 years ago, long before baseball and steroids grew connected. People would sometimes shout “Steroids!” at the man mashing long home runs.

Truth is … most of the time, people just enjoyed the show. One year, he hit 40 home runs and stole 40 bases, and no one had ever done that before. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and others talked about how they COULD have done it, but they never tried, they didn’t know it was a big deal. Canseco huffed that maybe they could have done it. Maybe not. But he DID do it. And that was the difference.

Of course, he denied using steroids then. There was no percentage in admitting it then. As he would tweet:

@JoseCanseco the system and the american way allowed us to become great ay any cost and endorsed the use of steroids at one time

Later, he admitted using steroids in a book that helped changed the baseball landscape. That was probably not the main reason he wrote the book, though.

* * *

@JoseCanseco I guess I wrote the book juiced out of blind anger cause baseball was taken away from me.I am truly sorry for that

* * *

The sixth pitch turns out to be the YouTube crescendo. The man unleashes the full power of his swing and, in the words of baseball people, he hits the ball on the screws. The sound and video makes it clear that this is the high moment, but as usually goes the confirmation of sound and video is not enough in today’s world. “That was a good one,” a headless voice says over the video and Canseco holds his bat high for just an instant longer than for his other swings. That feeling of hitting a baseball on the screws, well, that is undoubtedly still a wonderful feeling.

Jose Canseco says he has regrets. The man is reportedly broke. The man is a pariah — he has been excommunicated by the high priests of baseball. He seems to believe this is because he told the truth about some things, because he admitted using steroids and named a few other players who used them as well. Perhaps he is right. And perhaps no one is ever entirely right.

The man wrote two books, though the second one was not widely viewed as a book as much as it seemed like a scream for attention. The first book, though, was a book in most of the ways that such things are measured. He told the story of his life as he saw it. And he wrote, of course, about steroids, using them, sharing them, discussing them. The release of the book called “Juiced” drew him attention, not all of it good, but he had no doubt learned over years that attention, like all drugs, comes with some nasty side effects. He appeared on various talk shows. and he was a guest star on a couple of reality TV shows, one of them called “Stripper’s Ball” and another called “The Surreal Life.” His name was in the news, and this led to opportunities. He tried his hand in the fight game. He was knocked out by former NFL player Vai Sikahema in the first round. He and the child star from the Partridge Family, Danny Bonaduce, fought to a draw. He did come back to defeat a 45-year-old man named Todd Poulton who had only recently lost his job as a special ed teacher.

He managed to get signed by an a team in San Diego that played in the Golden Baseball League, and Independent Baseball League. Canseco said he wanted to reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher as well as a hitter. He was traded one day later. He quit before year was out. In time, the Golden League would successfully sue Canseco for more than $250,000. That was four years ago.

The YouTube video is an attempt to get people to see how much speed he has left in his swing.

* * *

@JoseCanseco My dad is very ill he is in the hospital fighting cancer let’s all of us send him a big hug so he will get better thank you

* * *

The seventh, eighth and ninth pitches don’t offer any more insight into the baseball skills of a 46-year-old man in a gray sweatshirt, black sweatpants and what looks like a driver’s cap. He hits the last three pitches with various degrees of success. He appears to be breathing heavy. The last pitch seems to hit the end of the bat, and the bat rattles a bit his hands.

When Jose Canseco was 18 and 19 years old, he looked like he was going nowhere. As an 18 year old in Class AA ball, he struck out 114 times in 93 games. He was entirely overmatched at High A. There are 18- and 19-year-olds who overcome such dreadful starts, of course, but not too many of them — and certainly not many who were 15th round draft picks. Most of them find themselves working 9-to-5 jobs and smiling whenever someone talks about how close to the big time they had come.

Then, when Canseco was 19, his mother died. And when Barbara died, Jose Canseco realized that he had better get his life straight. He had made a promise to his mother, a promise that he would make something of himself, the promise children often make to their mothers. Shortly before she died, she went to visit a psychic who said that one of her sons wold become very famous. When she died, Jose went about his job of making the psychic, er, psychic. He turned things up. He took steroids, sure, but even the most staunch of anti-steroid zealots would not suggest that this, and this alone, can turn someone into a ballplayer. He worked out like a madman. He rebuilt his swing, one toss at a time.

And as a 20-year-old, everything changed. He hit 41 home runs over three levels — the last level being the Major Leagues. One of his five big league homers sailed over the left fielder roof at old Comiskey Park. Before his rookie year, he was already on the cover of the Oakland media guide as “The Natural.” His hitting coach, Bob Watson, called him “a mixture of Willie Stargell, Dick Allen and Roberto Clemente.”

And he found — after a few bumps — that he LIKED being famous. He was good at it. His batting practices were shows long before Mark McGwire became the Toast of the Batting Cage. He became a just the ninth player to hit 200 home runs before he turned 27, and every one of the first eight would become Hall of Famers. Anyway, his home runs were longer than the garden variety, and he was the most exciting player in the game — you only needed to ask him for confirmation.

He played for all or parts of 17 seasons. He mashed 462 home runs, which is more than 96 of the 115 hitters in the Hall of Fame. He stole exactly 200 bases which is more than 76 of the 115 hitters in the Hall of Fame. And then he drifted into baseball oblivion, as so many good players do, finishing his career on six different teams in his last six years. And like all players, he has had to find a life after the cheering fades. He has struggled with that part, but many have. That story is as old a sports, as old as life.

In the 1 minute, 3 second YouTube video, the man hits nine pitches. And now the YouTube shows Canseco getting back into his stance and suddenly saying: “That’s enough.” Then, as confirmation, he adds “Stop there.” And he grimaces. He starts to shakes his hand. The YouTube video ends there. The video has received about 4,000 views. When the video ends, there are suggestions for other videos you might like to see. One of these is titled “White Sox bat boy hit in the nuts by Jose Canseco.”

Of course he thought it would last forever. Who doesn’t?

* * *

@JoseCanseco Life is funny I only have you guys to talk to on twitter and I appreciate the emotions and honesty.this is like therapy for me thanks

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Being There With Greinke

Russian Diplomat: “Tell me, Mr. Gardiner, do you by any chance know Krylov’s fables? I ask this because there is something, there is something Krylovian about you.”
Chauncey Gardiner: “Do you think so? Do you think so?”
Russian Diplomat (with a pleased smile): So you know Krylov?
(He leans forward to say a few words in Russian. Chauncey Gardiner laughs knowingly).
Russian Diplomat (happily): So you know Krylov in Russian, do you?
— Being There

* * *

I have written about Zack Greinke many times, for many years, and there’s one thing I can say without even the slightest doubt: I have no idea what’s going on in his head. Of course, you never really know what’s going on in anybody’s head, and that often includes your own. But with Greinke … I feel confident in saying that I’m not even close.

This hasn’t changed now that Greinke has become America’s most wanted pitcher. When Cliff Lee shocked everyone by signing with Philadelphia rather than New York or Texas — giving the Phillies what is potentially one of the greatest four man rotations in baseball history — Zack Greinke suddenly moved to the head of the line. He isn’t just the best pitcher who might be on the market (the Royals appear open to dealing with him) he is probably the only potential No. 1 who is not tied down with Gulliver ropes. America’s Most Wanted Pitcher just turned 27 years old, and he has a mid-90s fastball, a devastating slider, an often tantalizing slow curve and a sometimes baffling change-up. He has won a Cy Young Award. Ever since being moved back into the starting rotation toward the end of the 2007 season he has thrown almost 700 innings and he has a 3.17 ERA, and a 637-to-162 strikeout to walk.

But with Zack Greinke, as you no doubt know, there’s always more to consider.

The first time I became aware of Zack’s, um, unique nature was when he was still a minor leaguer. He was brought to Kansas City to accept his award as the team’s minor league pitcher of the year. I had interviewed him a few times by then, and the conversations were never exactly free-flowing, but they were genial enough, and in general he seemed like an offbeat but fairly typical 19-year-old athlete, confident but awkward, friendly enough but suspicious, the whole thing.

His trip to Kansas City included a team-mandated tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. All of the Royals prospects invited to Kansas City went on the tour — there were probably 10 or 15 players. Buck O’Neil led the tour, told a couple of stories, and so on. And what I remember is that Greinke seemed more obviously moved by the museum than anyone else. He seemed to stop at every picture and wordlessly study it for a few beats longer than anyone else. Over time, the tour moved ahead, but Greinke never tried to catch up. He stayed back. He took it all in. Or anyway, that’s how it looked to me.

“Excuse me Zack,” a television reporter began. “Can we get a few minutes?”

“Um,” Greinke said, and he looked up at the ceiling. “No. This is not a good time. I don’t really feel like it …”

*I should say here that almost every Zack Greinke sentence ends with ellipses. He doesn’t finish sentences so much as he lets them drift off, like projects he intends to complete at some undisclosed later date. This can take some getting used to, though I do think that after a while the fade-out sentences become one of his many charms.

The reporter was not quite sure what he meant by “This is not a good time.” She was under the impression that the Minor Leaguers were there to see the museum AND talk to the media — all of the other players and media types seemed to be under the same impression. She asked him when he would be willing to talk. He stared at the ceiling for a few seconds and then said 10 minutes. And so she went away, he looked a bit longer at the Negro Leagues photographs and baseballs and displays. She came back to him about 10 minutes later, asked again if he could talk. He said OK and they did the interview.

Now … what was that? Everybody around seemed to have a different opinion at the time. Some thought he was messing with the reporter. Some thought he was lost in thought the first time she asked and needed to regain himself. Some thought he was so caught up in emotion as he thought about those Negro Leagues players who never got a chance to play in the Major Leagues that he wanted to spend a bit more time thinking about them. Some thought he needed to psyche himself up to do the interview. Some thought he was hoping that he would postpone for 10 minutes and the reporter would forget to come back.

But here’s what strikes me: While nobody seemed to believe the same thing … everyone was SURE they were right. This was one of Zack Greinke’s great talents from the start: He gives people the impression that they get him. Scouts get him. Reporters get him. Fans get him. Managers get him. Teammates get him. Even now, all these years later, I have no idea why Zack did that weird 10-minute thing, just like I have no idea why Zack has done just about anything. My guess now is that the right answer, if there is a right answer, may very well be none of the guesses. But that did not stop people then or ever again from feeling certain that they understand Zack in some cosmic way, they know where he is coming from, know what troubles him, what inspires him, what motivates him.

Chauncey Gardiner from the movie “Being There” was the simple gardner of a rich man who wandered into the world and found people eager to infuse their own hopes and ideas and thoughts into his childlike words. Greinke is not simple, and his words are not childlike, but here he is, America’s Most Wanted Pitcher, and everybody seems to know what he wants, where he’d succeed, where he’d fail. So you know Krylov in Russian, do you? Some may be right. Some certainly are wrong. But if there’s one thing I have learned about Zack Greinke that I feel confident in saying it is this: Nobody really knows.

* * *

Royals GM Allard Baird (out loud): “Hey, I hear there’s supposed to be some hotshot young pitcher out here.”
Zack Greinke (standing on the mound and staring at the ground): “Yeah. And you’re going to be impressed.”
— First day of spring training, 2003

When Zack Greinke walked away from baseball during spring training 2006, nobody really understood it. Greinke certainly didn’t understand it. He would say that every day felt like a gray day. That was the closest thing to an explanation. Of course many people — me included — wanted to pin some of Greinke’s depression and anxiety on his miserable 2005 season. Oh, it was miserable. Greinke had gone 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA as a 21-year-old pitcher. It was staggering and awful to watch. One day in Arizona, Royals manager Buddy Bell left him out there for 4 1/3 torturous innings — he allowed 15 hits and 11 runs and at some point it seemed that by leaving Greinke out there Bell was breaking laws of the Geneva Convention.

Greinke had never failed as a pitcher before. He had never even liked pitching — he liked to hit, liked to play every day, liked to golf and so on. But, as a pitching talent, well, he was too big to fail. He pitched one year in high school, his senior year, and he was the Gatorade National High School Pitcher of the Year. He had an 0.55 ERA and a 118-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The things about pitching that seemed difficult to other kids — commanding pitches, repeating delivery, throwing strikes to both sides of the plate — came so easily to him that he did not understand why it was a big deal. Truth is: He did not think it WAS a big deal. The Royals made him the sixth pick in the draft though about half of the Royals decision makers were apprehensive about something in Greinke’s makeup (something they had a hard time putting into words, of course) and preferred another high school phenom named Prince Fielder. Greinke’s natural talent for pitching won out.

The minor leagues were not much harder for Greinke than high school baseball had been. He made 14 starts in High A Ball when he was 19 years old and he went 11-1 with a 1.14 ERA. He moved up to Class AA and more than held his own. He was just about unanimously considered the best pitching prospect in baseball. I saw him pitch in the 2003 Futures game — a typically great collection of talent that included Joe Mauer, Kevin Youkilis and Grady Sizemore — and several pitchers topped 100 mph on the Chicago radar gun that day. Greinke wandered out, looked frail, and never threw a single pitch harder than 92. This is a prospect? Only, he sliced and diced hitters — he threw a perfect inning with two strikeouts. His recap afterward was both odd and mysterious: “It was just kind of crazy,” he said. “I mean I don’t know how, but it’s like everything I threw just kept going over the plate … and it didn’t just go over the plate, but it went over the corners.”

At 20, he came up to the big leagues and posted a 120 ERA+ in 145 innings and was named the Royals pitcher of the year. To watch him pitch then was probably as close as I will get to watching a pitching prodigy. I don’t mean he was good — he WAS good much of the time. But he was so different. He was utterly unlike any young pitcher I’d seen. He seemed to throw his fastball different speeds every time. Sometimes I would just write down the MPH numbers on a piece of paper and look at them — 89, 83, 88, 84, 91, 88, 90, 86 — the way Russell Crowe stared at numbers in “A Beautiful Mind.” He mixed in a 55-mph curveball that once left Jim Thome standing in the rain. He once caught both Bernie Williams and the home plate umpire by surprise with a quick pitch. His fastball topped out in the low-90s then, he often pitched in the high-80s and when asked if he could throw harder, he responded with a nod. He could throw much harder. Why didn’t he? Simple. He did not want to throw harder.

If he threw harder, he seemed to be saying, the ball might not just go magically over the corners. It was like Zen.

Yes, he was different, right from the start, and then came his disastrous 2005 season when for the first time hitters battered him around. The Royals felt like it was good for him go through failure, for him to learn how to deal with it, I feel sure that’s why Buddy Bell left him out there to drown in Arizona. “(Zack’s) a smart kid,” Bell said after the game. “Sometimes that might get in the way.” Others didn’t think Zack’s problem was being too smart — they had different views. Some thought stubbornness. Some thought the Royals’ misery — they lost 106 games that year — affected Greinke Some thought he was bored by baseball — and there was some pretty solid evidence backing up that theory. Brian Anderson, who was Greinke’s teammate that year, remembered that once Greinke announced in the dugout that the next inning he intended to throw a 50-mph curveball. The next inning, he threw a curveball, and Anderson hopped to the top step to see the radar reading. Exactly 50 mph. It was like he was inventing little challenges for himself just to keep the game interesting, like someone who cannot watch a horse race without having a bet on it.

Then, spring of 2006, he walked away from baseball. Talked about being a golf pro. Talked about coming back as a hitter. And I know I wasn’t the only one who thought his miserable experience as a pitcher in 2005 was as big a reason as any why he walked away from the game in spring training 2006. I was as sure as everyone else.

But … Greinke says that isn’t right. Close friends say that isn’t right. While his 2005 pitching experience was certainly no fun, they say it was life away from the field that was wearing on him. As one doctor explained, just about the ONLY time Greinke felt at ease was when he was on the mound pitching. Social anxiety is a tough diagnosis, and there are many varieties, and those varieties affect people many ways — ways that they often cannot put into words themselves.

In his six weeks away from baseball, Greinke began taking medication. He began to feel more comfortable about things. He will tell you that he’s still not a social person. He will not feel all that comfortable in crowds or when people want things from him. But much of the gray lifted. He came back to the game as a reliever and began to love pitching again. He started to throw 96 and 97 and 98 mph. He enjoyed the speed. And, in pretty quick sequence, he became a good pitcher, then a great pitcher, then a Cy Young Award winner, then America’s Most Wanted Pitcher.

* * *
@EloquentGlamour: “Tougher” pitchers have failed in New York. No way it happens and I think it’s smart not to acquire (Greinke).
@RyPThomas: “Isn’t Greinke’s psyche, like, the antithesis of what a NYY needs to succeed?”
@CJZero: “Greinke won’t survive in New York if he couldn’t deal with KC.”
@SpudChapp: “Greinke is not suited for NY, unless we get his therapist as well.”

— Twitter Feed

I have written about Zack Greinke many times over many years, and other than my statement above (I have no idea what’s going on Greinke’s head) there’s almost nothing I can say about the guy with any real conviction. Well, there’s is one other thing I can say: Zack Greinke hates the losing.

For some reason, people rarely seem to realize this. People think because Greinke does not feel comfortable around crowds — he has said a couple of time that being on the cover of SI was awful because it encourages more autograph seekers — that he somehow lacks confidence or aggressiveness or competitiveness. No. The guy has those three things in bulk. He knows that he’s a great pitcher. He never backs off. And he HATES losing.

It’s startling to me that people keep missing this. Well, maybe it isn’t startling. I suppose that when you hear someone walked away from baseball, it’s natural to assume certain things. I suppose when you hear someone takes medication to deal with social anxiety it’s natural to assume certain things. But, as my old science teacher first told me, as he wrote the word “assume” on the chalkboard, you know what you do when you assume …*

*You have no doubt heard the “assume” wordplay: “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

Greinke craves pressure. I have seen it. I have listened to him talk about it. He craves big games. He hasn’t had many. You could make an argument that he hasn’t had ANY. I remember in 2006 when he came back to baseball, he was sent down to Class AA Wichita to be a reliever and to get his head together. And he found that he LOVED it. Yes, it was partly because he liked the bullpen (where he could pitch more often) and it was partly because he was on his medication and no longer felt quite so gray. But perhaps the biggest part of it was that the Wichita team was good. They were in a pennant race. The games mattered. When the Royals wanted to call him up to pitch for a third straight 100-loss team, Greinke found that he really wanted to stay in Wichita, where the action was happening.

Throughout his career, he has been at his best in April (before the Royals fall out of contention) and in September (when he can feel the season coming to an end). He probably deserved to start the 2009 All-Star Game, at least based on the way he pitched in the first half, but instead Roy Halladay started. Greinke pitched the fourth inning. He threw 10 pitches, eight strikes, and got a foul pop-up and two strikeouts. Absurdly small sample size? You betcha. But when you pitch for the Royals, and you are trying to find meaningful moments, there aren’t any big sample sizes.

I don’t know how Zack Greinke would do in New York or Chicago or any other big market. How could I know? But when I see people question his toughness or his psyche — either in direct words on Twitter or, infinitely more annoying, in read-between-the-lines quotes and stories — I guess they don’t know him any better than I do. If I had to pick the hardest place in baseball for Zack Greinke to pitch it would be … in Kansas City, with a dreadful defense behind him, with little run support, with little hope of contending now or anytime soon. I would guess that’s why Greinke last year, after playing the good soldier for so long (and signing a club-friendly contract), came out and said he didn’t want to go through another youth movement. He’s been through enough youth movements.

And, if we’re just talking guesses anyway, well, while many people would bet on him not being able to handle New York, I’d bet the other way. Sure, there’s more media in New York — but there are also strict guidelines (and Greinke would undoubtedly maintain his “I don’t talk except on gameday” stance; he certainly is not shy about saying “No” to media types — remember he refused to pose for the Sports Illustrated cover). While New York is a much bigger city with many challenges, well, let’s face it, there are certainly ways for multi-multi millionaires to weave around those (and anyway Kansas City and other places its size can be much more like fishbowls than big cities with countless big stars like New York). And when people ask me how Greinke would respond to being booed when he struggles … well, one more time, I don’t know, but I’d GUESS he’d handle that better than just about anyone in baseball. I don’t think he cares about that stuff at all. This is a guy who once said that fans cheering him madly in the midst of a good game was “kind of annoying.”

That’s not to say that Greinke would like New York or even be willing to play there. I don’t know that. The Yankees seem (publicly anyway) to be looking elsewhere which could mean that they have been alerted that Greinke won’t come there. It also could mean they don’t have — or don’t want to give up — the prospects necessary to pry Greinke away. It also could mean that they have their own opinions about how Greinke would pitch in New York. And, of course, it also could be a bluff.

I also think it’s possible that the New York Yankees — with all of their money, their background checks, their good scouting and everything else — don’t know Greinke any better than anyone else.

* * *

A couple of years ago, I wrote a long story about Zack Greinke for The Kansas City Star — probably the longest of all the stories I’d written about him. After it came out, Greinke approached me and told me a story. He said his girlfriend, now his wife, had called to tell him about the story. He was in the car at the time, and he asked her to read it to him. He had a 45 minute drive somewhere and was looking to kill the time. He said she started reading him … and she finished the story 45 minutes later, just as his drive had come to an end.

“That was a long story,” he said by way of conclusion.

“Yeah,” I said, “It’s probably the longest story I ever wrote about you.”

“It was like a book,” he added.

“Well, I hope you liked it.”

He smiled then, his classic Greinke style, and he looked up at the ceiling, and he said: “It was like a book.” Then he walked off, and to this day I have no idea what he meant.

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Great Four Man Rotations (w/Bill James)

OK, let’s start with some history. There are two teams in baseball history that had four pitchers who made at least five starts and went to the Hall of Fame. It’s a fun piece of trivia. But it’s just that — trivia. To be honest, it’s never really happened that a team had four Hall of Fame starters.

Look: The 1930 New York Yankees had Lefty Gomez, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Red Ruffing. That’s four Hall of Famers. The Yankees that year actually had FIVE starters who went to the Hall of Fame because Babe Ruth started a game (he threw a complete game, allowed three runs and won). But those Yankees didn’t really have four Hall of Famers pitching for them. Lefty Gomez was just a 21-year-old kid and he was just called up and he made only six starts. Pennock was 36 and no longer an especially effective pitcher. And though Waite Hoyt was only 30, he did not pitch like a Hall of Famer that year or hardly ever again (except for a brief renaissance in Pittsburgh). That team had players who would go to the Hall of Fame, but they did not have not great pitchers. And that team finished third.

The 1949 Cleveland Indians also featured four Hall of Fame starters — Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Satchel Paige. Lemon was in his prime, Wynn was about to enter it and Feller at age 30 still had a couple of good years later. But Paige was a “rookie” of indeterminate age and he only made five starts. Incidentally, that team also finished third.

So no, it has never happened that a major league baseball team had four Hall of Fame starters all at once, all in or around their prime, all an equal and essential part of a pitching staff.

It could be happening now. Well, wait, let’s not get carried away. It’s way too early to talk Hall of Fame for the Phab Phour Phillies — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Of the four, only Halladay seems a Hall of Fame lock at this point. But when the Phillies shocked everyone by signing Cliff Lee, they put together the most spectacular four man rotation since … well we’ll get to that in a minute.

First, let’s take a quick look at the resumes of the Phillies pitchers:

Halladay (33): Two Cy Young Awards, seven-time All-Star, dominant performer coming off perhaps his best year.

Lee (32): One Cy Young Award, postseason pitching beast, coming off season with 185-18 strikeout to walk ratio.

Oswalt (32): Former ERA champ, five times in Top 5 in Cy Young voting, perhaps most underrated pitcher of his era.

Hamels (26): The 2008 Championship Series and World Series MVP, not even 27 yet, throws one of the best change-ups in baseball.

Not bad, eh? Most people around baseball would tell you that there are probably fifteen true No. 1 starters in baseball at any given time. A quick list might look like so (and we are assuming health):

— Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals
— Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies
— Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
— Ubaldo Jiminez, Colorado Rockies
— Josh Johnson Florida Marlins
— Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
— Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
— Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
— Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia Phillies
— David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
— C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees
— Johan Santana, New York Mets
— Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
— Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
— Jered Weaver, Angels

Now, you could add a few guys to this list if you want — Matt Cain, Francisco Liriano, Dan Haren, Mark Buehrle, Chris Carpenter, Cole Hamels, young guys like Clay Buchholz and Clayton Kershaw, there are others — but I suspect that most people would go the other way and say some of the top guys listed are not true No. 1 starters. People tend to be pretty strict on the question of what makes a TRUE No. 1 starter. Point is that that while 30 teams have someone they CALL their No. 1 starter, the truth is that fewer than half of the teams in baseball have a real ace.

The Phillies now have two aces for sure with Halladay and Lee, a third (I think) in Oswalt if he’s healthy and pitches the way he did down the stretch (and as he has for most of his career). Heck, Hamels has a chance to be one as well. It’s staggering. At least it feels that way now, in December, with Opening Day a few months away.

* * *

So I asked Bill James what he thinks about all this. Well, the first thing — we talked about the greatest rotations since World War II. As it turned out, we agree that the best rotation is the 1993-98 Atlanta Braves. No team in baseball history has ever had three sure-fire Hall of Famers — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz — pitching together in their prime for that long. It is absolutely amazing. We will get back to the Braves in a minute but here’s a fun way to show you just how dominant those three starters were over those six years:

Cy Young Winners from 1993-1998:

1993: Greg Maddux (Tom Glavine finished third)
1994: Greg Maddux
1995: Greg Maddux (Tom Glavine finished third)
1996: John Smoltz (Greg Maddux finished tied for fifth)
1997: Pedro Martinez (Maddux finished second, Braves teammate Denny Neagle finished third)
1998: Tom Glavine (Maddux and Smoltz tied for fourth)

Now, of course, Cy Young voting is flawed and you don’t want to base too much on it — but that’s still a lot of fun. The Braves won five of the six Cy Young awards and usually played two in the voting. Another way to look at the Braves Three is to simply at their composite numbers over six seasons:

The Braves Big 3 from 1993 to 1998:

Greg Maddux: 107-42, 2.15 ERA, 1087 Ks, 199 walks, 196 ERA+.

Tom Glavine: 100-45, 3.07 ERA, 877 Ks, 464 walks, 137 ERA+.

John Smoltz: 89-51, 3.25 ERA, 1,204 Ks, 382 walks, 130 ERA+.

We’re also going to talk about Wins Above Replacement in a minute — let’s just say that only one team in the last 85 years has had three pitchers with a WAR 5.5 or above in a single season. That was the 1996 Braves.

OK, but because we’re talking about the Phillies, we really need to talk about FOUR man rotations. And the Braves were really a three-man rotation. Yes, a couple of times a fourth pitcher emerged with a good year (you see the 1997 Denny Neagle year). But, in general, it was really Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz.

So, what were the best four-man rotations since World War II? Bill says three come to mind:

– 1971 Orioles. That team is usually the first one people think about because all four pitchers — Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally — won at least 20 games. That only happened once before, way back in 1920, when four Chicago White Sox’ starters (Red Faber, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams and Dickey Kerr) all won at least 20. Few remember that because, of course, Cicotte and Williams were two of the Eight Men Out and they were were banned from baseball after the season. Anyway, 1920 was a different era. And now we see that 1971 was a different era too. We have not had four starters in BASEBALL win 20 games since 2008.

— 1966 Dodgers. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were the stars, Claude Osteen was the excellent third starter (he would go on to win 196 big league games) and the fourth starter was a 21-year-old rookie named Don Sutton. He would pitch for another 22 years after that and go to the Hall of Fame.

— 1955 Cleveland Indians. The 1954 Indians rotation is more famous because that team won 111 games (and lost to Willie Mays’ Giants in a World Series sweep) and had an aged but still feisty Bob Feller pitching along with Lemon, Wynn and the very good Mike Garcia. But we both think 1955’s rotation was a bit more impressive in retrospect. Feller was not really that team’s fourth starter in ’54 — their fourth starter was Art Houtteman, who had a few good years. But in 1955 — with Lemon, Wynn and Garcia still going — Houtteman was replace by a 22-year-old phenom named Herb Score, who promptly led the league in strikeouts. Lemon and Wynn, as mentioned, are in the Hall. Garcia wasn’t quite that good, but he was very good. Score had his career famously derailed, but not before becoming one of the greatest young pitchers in baseball history.

There are other interesting four-man rotations like the 1985 Royals (Bret Saberhagen, Charlie Liebrandt, Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza), the 1973 Oakland A’s (Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom), the 2005 Chicago White Sox (Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland) and even this year’s San Francisco Giants (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner, who at 20 only made 18 starts).*

*And, since we’re already winding all over the place, it’s worth taking a detour to look at the 1967 CIncinnati Reds. That is not remembered as a great pitching staff for clear-cut reasons, but it actually had a chance to be something remarkable. The team was led by 19-year-old Gary Nolan who, along with a young guy named Tom Seaver, looked to be the next great pitcher in the game. Jim Maloney was a big star who had thrown two no-hitters in 1965 and some say he threw even harder than Koufax. Milt Pappas was mostly known as the other guy in one of the worst trades in baseball history — “who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for god-sakes” — but he won 209 games and was a good pitcher for many years. And the fourth starter was Mel Queen, an outfielder turned pitcher who for one year threw some serious gas. He had only one pitch, his fastball, but he could throw the heck out of it, and that one year he finished fourth in hits per nine innings and fifth with a 137 ERA+. He won six games for the rest of his career.

Still, if you are talking about great four-man rotations, you probably stick with with the ’71 Orioles, ’66 Dodgers and ’55 Indians. Thing is, none of those staffs really matches up with this year’s Phillies. The 1971 Orioles were obviously terrific, but Pat Dobson while good that year was not a great pitcher over his career. The 1966 Dodgers were more of a fortunate coincidence than anything — that was Koufax’s last year and Sutton’s first, they just barely crossed paths. The 1955 Indians had four terrific pitchers, but the timing was off. Lemon was close to the end, Garcia was close to the end, and, of course, Score was just starting his fateful path.

We don’t know about the timing of these Phillies yet. But we do know that all four pitchers:

1. Are already bonafide.
2. Seem to still be in their primes.

Let’s look at this this way — I told you we would look at Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Well, here are the four pitchers’ 2010 WAR (according to Baseball Reference):

— Roy Halladay: 6.9

— Roy Oswalt: 5.1

— Cole Hamels: 4.7

— Cliff Lee: 4.3

What do those numbers mean? Well, to give you an idea: Halladay’s 6.9 WAR was second best in baseball (behind hot-starting Ubaldo Jiminez) — you will, on average, get one or two pitchers a year in baseball who post a WAR around 7. Post a number around 7 and you probably have a good shot at being the Cy Young winner. Every now and again you will get a pitcher who had an absurdly great year and might post an 8 or 9 or even 10 WAR (the last 10 WAR was Pedro Martinez in 2000, the one before that was Roger Clemens in 1997 and then you have to go all the way back to Dwight Gooden in 1985).

OK, so a 7 is a great WAR number, and so is a 6. A 5 WAR generally ranks you as one of the best pitchers in the league. And a WAR above 4 is more or less All-Star caliber. Last year, 25 pitchers in both leagues posted a WAR of better than 4.0. The year before that, 26 pitchers did. In 1997, there were 23. In 1980, when there were four fewer teams, there were 16 pitchers with a 4.0 WAR. And in 1968, the year of the pitcher, there were 26.

Point is a 4.0 WAR pitcher is pretty much without exception a very, very good pitcher. Matt Cain last year was just under 4.0 — he was 3.9. The point here is not to sell you on the merits of WAR but just to give you an idea how good all four guys were last year.

Anyway, only five teams in baseball history have had four starters with a better 4.0 WAR. Two of them — the 1909 Athletics and 1912 Red Sox — played during deadball and don’t really match up.

One of those teams was the 1967 Reds I referenced in the italics above.

The other two are 1990s Braves teams … and we finally come around full circle.

* * *

Yes, something like this Cliff Lee thing did happen once before. That was 1993. That was the year the Braves signed Greg Maddux to go along with the Braves already great rotation of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery. There was some of the same hype then as there is for this Phillies team now … and rightfully so. The Braves had won back-to-back pennants. Glavine had won a Cy Young award, Smoltz had led the league in strikeouts, Avery was just 23 and (like Hamels) seemingly limitless in potential. And Maddux was already Maddux — he had won the Cy Young for Chicago in 1992 and his 2.18 ERA was the lowest for a Cubs starter in almost 30 years.

Bill: “You know, when the Braves signed Maddux, they already had the best rotation in the National League, and people started talking immediately about it being the greatest rotation of all time. I remember telling a friend that they would bomb, because that seemed like that was how those stories always end; when expectations are THAT high, you always bomb.”

Of course, as Bill quickly points out — they didn’t bomb. They exceeded expectations and became perhaps the most enduring rotation in baseball history. But it is true that things did not go off without a hitch. There was the Steve Avery fall. Avery was widely viewed as more or less the equal of Glavine or Smoltz. And he followed this up with a very good 1993 season (that 1993 Braves team has an argument as the best four-man rotation in baseball history too). But he was never again even a serviceable pitcher. He had an arm injury, and he threw A LOT of pitches when he was young, and those things could have sparked his problems. Or maybe it was something else. In any case, the Braves had to go on without him. And, of course, they did.

If you want to be realistic, you have to figure something like that could happen to the Phillies four too. That’s baseball. That’s pitching. Hamels had a bizarre 2009 season when he struggled, you can’t know for sure what will happen with him. Oswalt and Lee and Halladay are all in their young 30s, and the odds suggest all three won’t be successful pitchers in their mid-to-late 30s. But, yeah, the simple truth is that this rotation has a chance to be remarkable.

The Braves went the playoffs all five years of their amazing pitching run (with 1994, obviously, being a non-year). They won two of five pennants, lost the other three in the NLCS. They won 100 games three of the four seasons that were not shortened by strikes. And, of course, they won only the one World Series … which has (fairly or unfairly) left those Braves branded with the black mark of UNDERACHIEVER.

What will happen to these Phillies? It’s hard to say. Their lineup IS getting old — every player in the lineup except Dominic Brown figures to be 30 or older. Their shortstop and soul Jimmy Rollins has been on a pretty steady decline since winning the MVP award back in 2007. Their second baseman and best player Chase Utley is coming off an injury plagued season and a postseason where he simply did not look like himself. Their power and glory guy, Ryan Howard, had a down year too, his power numbers were down, and his five-year $125 million deal doesn’t start until the year AFTER next. And so on.

But, oh, that rotation. Bill says he doubted that amazing Braves rotation but after seeing what they did, “I am less skeptical now, almost twenty years later. That’s some kind of a starting rotation, that’s for sure.” I think so too. With Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels the Phillies are clear cut favorites in the National League. They now have the burden of potentially great teams, meaning that they can only do two things: Win or disappoint.

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The Expendable Brendan Ryan

“(Brendan) Ryan became expendable for the Cardinals after they acquired infielder Ryan Theriot from the Los Angeles Dodgers last month. Theriot was billed immediately as the Cardinals starting shortstop, and they let other teams know that Ryan was available.”

— From Derrick Goold’s story on the Cardinals trading Brendan Ryan to Seattle for a Class A reliever.

I wrote this on Twitter: I can rarely remember reading a baseball notion quite as comical as Brendan Ryan becoming expandable BECAUSE the Cardinals acquired Ryan Theriot. I’m sure that there are other reasons Brendan Ryan really became expendable — most of these having to do with manager Tony La Russa — but sure enough they keep pushing the Ryan Theriot thing.

“The reason that Ryan Theriot was traded for is we have a chance to win,” La Russa told reporters.

“We didn’t try to get (Blake) Hawksworth off the club,” La Russa told Tim McKernan about the Hawksworth for Theriot deal. “We had some right hand relief depth and we were able to use him to get a player that we really like in Ryan Theriot.”

I have to admit: I don’t fully understand why the Cardinals really like Ryan Theriot. He’s a 31-year-old shortstop with a career 82 OPS+ (he did have a good on-base percentage in 2008) and a fading reputation as an adequate defensive shortstop. In fact, last year he hardly even played shortstop. The Cubs moved him to second base to make room for 20-year-old Starlin Castro. Then they traded him to Los Angeles, and the Dodgers did not play him even once at short even though their starting shortstop Rafael Furcal was hurt. The Dodgers preferred to put Jamey Carroll out there, though Carroll had not played a single game at shortstop in the big leagues in three years.

Brendan Ryan, meanwhile, posted the best defensive numbers at shortstop in baseball last year. He really is a defensive marvel. It’s also true that he didn’t hit a lick. His .223/.279/.294 line was abominable and probably unplayable. Maybe that reflects his true offensive value. But maybe not. The year before, he hit .292/.340/.400. The difference seems to have been an abnormally high batting average on balls in play in 2009 (.332) and an abnormally low BABIP in 2010 (.253). He may have been lucky in 2009. He also may have been unlucky in 2010. Maybe his true value is somewhere in the middle.

If he can hit something closer to what he did in 2009, with the way he fields he can be one of the most valuable shortstops in the American League. You know, unless Derek Jeter rebounds, there’s an opening for best shortstop in the AL. You know who led league shortstops in combined-WAR in 2010? We are combining Fangraphs WAR and Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement … it was Oakland’s Cliff Pennington. Ryan can certainly be a Pennington kind player. Seattle has been a team that has tried to win with a certain strategy — with defense playing a big part — and it seems to me that getting Ryan for a minor league arm could work out for them the way getting Frankie Gutierrez did two years ago.

Then again, Ryan might not hit at all and end up on the bench by mid-May. Nobody really knows. My point here is not that the Mariners may have made a good move. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. My point here is that the Cardinals traded for the veteran presence of Ryan Theriot (and they’re paying him more than $3 million) and then believed this trade made Brendan Ryan “expendable.” That just seems bizarre.

And we really may be getting to the point where Tony La Russa’s year-to-year decision to manage or retire is badly and visibly hurting the Cardinals. Because it does not feel like that Cardinals are building a team as much as it feels like they are trying to cobble together one more winner for Tony La Russa.

Look: Brendan Ryan isn’t exactly a kid, but he is two years younger than Theriot and has at least proven to be superior defensively. What Ryan Theriot offers is that sort of veteran comfort and general scrappiness that makes Tony La Russa happy. They signed soon-to-be 35 year old Lance Berkman when he is coming off the sort of year that makes you wonder if his terrific career is on a serious downslope. More veteran comfort. The Cardinals are sending out all sorts of weird vibes about what they think of their one gifted young everyday player, Colby Rasmus — it’s hard to wade through it all but it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of love going on there.

There are other signs of one-yearitis — uncomfortable signs, I think, if you’re a Cardinals fan. Tony La Russa is one of the great managers in baseball history. He has won a World Series and two pennants with the Cardinals and guided the Cardinals to the playoffs seven division titles and more than 1,300 victories. But at this point, he does not seem especially interested in being patient or in developing players. He wants now. And who can blame him? He’s 66 years old, he has been managing big league teams for 32 years, there’s no great motivation to think about future years.

And I just don’t think that sort of short-range strategy works much. The Kansas City Royals, at the end of owner Ewing Kauffman’s life, were desperate to give him one more winner. This actually led to one of the most remarkable and stunning facts you will ever hear — in 1990 the Kansas City Royals had the highest payroll in all of baseball. This was because the Royals had given absurd contracts to Mark Davis and Storm Davis, and they gave a big extension to Mark Gubicza. and they actually made 42-year-old Bob Boone one of the highest paid players in baseball and so on. Those financially reckless Royals.

Of course it didn’t work. The Royals after winning 92 games in 1989 were dreadful in 1990, going 75-86 and finishing sixth in the American League West. They were sixth again the next year even after falling to seventh in total payroll. They lost 90 games in 1992. And in 1993, Ewing Kauffman died. The effort to get him one more pennant was noble. But it seems to me that you don’t build winners with that kind of short-sighted strategy.

And now, it seems like the Cardinals are using that same strategy. The Cardinals have enough talent to honestly believe they can contend. In 2010, they had the best player in baseball, a generally hard-hitting outfield, a great defensive shortstop, got 96 starts out Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia (combined 2.79 ERA and 524-183 strikeout to walk) and had an often decent bullpen. But even with all that, they only won 86 games. And they have not won a single playoff game since winning the World Series four years ago. Now they’ve gone out and traded for Ryan Theriot in the hope that will help make them a winner. As a friend of mine says about anything: “It COULD work.” I’m just not sure they’re seeing straight in St. Louis these days.

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