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Wash Your Sins Away (The Car Ride Essays)

In 2008 Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington led all of baseball with 20 Intentional Walks that bombed. Bill has been keeping this intentional walk stat for a while now. He breaks down all intentional walks into three categories:

1. Good — these are the intentional walks that “work.”

2. Not Good — these are the intentional walks that don’t quite “work” — a run scores — but doesn’t lead to a big inning.

3. Bomb — big innings.

There is a more detailed explanation in the Bill James Handbook, but for our purposes that’s enough. Washington led the league with 20 intentional walk bombs in 2008, which was more or less in line with his philosophy on the subject. He intentionally walked his team into 11 bombs in 2007 which was also a very high number. I would not try to explain how Ron Washington manages baseball teams — it seems to me some combination of feel, improvisational jazz, likability and Wile E. Coyote — but it seemed pretty clear that he did not want other teams best players to beat him. This seemed to be a core philosophy. And this led to baseball disaster quite often.

Then last year, all of a sudden, without warning, Ron Washington basically stopped intentionally walking people. His total intentional walks dropped from 44 to 14. And his bombs dropped all the way to three. This actually led the American League in FEWEST bombs. This year, though Washington intentionally walked a few more guys (from 14 up to 24) he became the first manager since Bill has been tracking this stuff to not have a single intentional walk blow up in his face. Not even one.

That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround. So … what happened? We both figured that Wash probably had a heart-to-heart with the Rangers front office folks, who are savvy people, and they probably came to the conclusion that the intentional walk was hurting the team more than it was helping them.

But more … we both figured that it spoke well of Washington that after getting burned a few times he stopped sticking his hand in the fire. One of the striking things we both have sensed after years of writing about sports is that it is absurdly rare that people actually CHANGE in sports.

Oh, people change in subtle ways all the time. They mature. They start laying off the in-the-dirt slider. They learn to sometimes throw the ball away. They learn use screens better to set up their shots. And so on. There are a million small changes like this.

But in core ways … well, here’s the funny thing: It sometimes feels like some people would rather be wrong than admit they are wrong. There are a million examples. A manager or general manager will pay someone a lot of money, realize quickly that it was a mistake, and keep playing that person even if it hurts the team. A player will decide a play can’t work, go at it half-heartedly, and blow a play that MIGHT HAVE WORKED. A coach will stick with his conservative style even when he has players lose and are clearly better suited to aggressive and non-conservative play*.

*Why do we call a coach who punts the ball on fourth and 1 “conservative” but not call the coach who tries crazy stuff like onside kicking to start the game “liberal?”

More, people really don’t change the core philosophies much. A manager who likes the sacrifice bunt usually sticks with it. A coach who enjoys wide open offenses usually coaches the team to play wide open. I always thought Don Shula was unusual because his 1972 Dolphins were about as conservative as a team can be — two 1,000-yard rushers, 24th out of 26 teams in pass attempts, defense and field position — and his Dan Marino Dolphins were about as wide open as a team can be.

But even then, Shula didn’t change so much as he adapted to his surroundings — a great trait for a coach but not exactly what I’m talking about here. It’s possible that Ron Washington was simply ordered to stop walking people. But I don’t think so. And I don’t think he adapted to his environment either, not exactly. I think he listened to what people said, drew off his experience, and did a 180 (at least a 150) on something I suspect he had pretty strong feelings about. It is human nature to rebel against change, I think. It is human nature to say, “Well, these intentional walks are bombing on me, but I know they are right and they’ll even out in the end.” But Ron Washington didn’t do that. He instead became extremely selective in when he used to the intentional walk. He challenged his pitchers to get out of jams without walks. And it worked for him.

And then, in the World Series, as you no doubt are screaming right now, he did NOT intentionally walk Edgar Renteria. I don’t think he should have intentionally walked Renteria, but what I think doesn’t matter — Renteria homered, and I suppose that would have to go down as an anti-matter bomb, an non-intentional walk that failed.

And it’s worth asking: Will that experience change Ron Washington again?

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Riding In The Car With Bill James

Well, I knew I was going to write about the “Future of Sports” panel I was on in St. Louis Monday evening, a panel wonderful moderated by my friend Michael MacCambridge and featuring three of my heroes: Bill James, Bob Costas and Gerald Early. It really was great. There were about 700 people there (I’m told — I’m terrible at estimating crowds) and the discussion there will supposedly be on line within the week, and if you can’t wait for that you can find some fine reviews of it here, here, here and here.

It was a terrific panel discussion, I thought, probably the best I’ve ever been on. There were so many things to think about. But, as is obvious to anyone who has been on a few panels, there are limitations to the genre. I think the biggest is that you sometimes get bogged down on one question that nobody is especially interested in — for instance, we spent a good 15 minutes discussing whether boxing will die for an audience that pretty decisively believes boxing is dead already. And the answer could have been summed up like so:

No, it absolutely won’t die entirely.

We eventually got there, and there absolutely were some gems along the way*, but panel discussions, even the best of them, sometimes feel like giant boats and it takes a long while to make a turn.

*Listening to Gerald Early talk about boxing is like listening to Charlie Parker play saxophone.

In any case, I was going to write about the panel discussion but because it seems well covered and because you will be able to see it for yourself if you so choose, I have taken a turn. Instead, I’ll be posting a series of essays about my car ride with Bill James. You may know that Bill lives in Lawrence, Kan., and I live in Kansas City, and so we figured the smartest thing we could do was drive to St. Louis together. It’s about a four hour drive each way. That means I got to spend eight hours just in the car with the man I consider the best and most influential baseball writer ever.*

*Well, Roger Angell and Red Smith among many others were pretty good too, and Henry Chadwick and Jerome Holtzman among many others were pretty influential too — Bill is just my personal choice and I felt that way before we became friends.

I’d say in the eight-plus hours (terrible traffic in St. Louis) we had about 90 seconds of silence combined. This is largely because I’m a blabbermouth, and because when I have someone like Bill stuck in the car with me I want to constantly pick his brain. I love the way Bill’s mind works. So since we were the only ones in the car, and there was nobody filming or recording, I thought I would riff off a few of the things we talked about. I hope to have three or four essays up before the end of the day.

I should say as a disclaimer that these essays are not necessarily Bill’s opinion at all or what we talked about — in fact, all of these essays would probably go with the “This movie was inspired by real and actual true and factual facts” tag. I was driving there in the rain and Bill drove home as if flurried snow and we were just talking about stuff and none of the conversation was meant for the record. So these essays were sometimes inspired by a single word or thought.

But … hey … we’re all just friends on a drive …

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Posts Coming Up

So I’m facing a ludicrously hectic week … won’t go into great detail here except to say I can’t remember a week exactly like it. What this means for the blog is that I have about 15 half-written blog posts and I’m not entirely sure when I will finish them or how I will finish or even which ones I will finish.

But as always, I like to lists off a few blog posts that might be coming up:

— The remarkable run of Jimmie Johnson.

— Reading Harry Potter to My Daughter

— 32 great NFL defensive players.

— More on the setup man and closers (featuring some Tom Tango data)

— He Who Shall Not Be Named Returns To Cleveland

— The Sure NFL Hall of Famers

— Texpensives; still working on this concept.

— The long-awaited, much-anticipated, never-likely-to-be-finished iPad review.

— Why I No Longer Vote for the Heisman

— The Future of Sports*

*Based on the panel I will be on tonight at Washington University in St. Louis. I will be there with Bob Costas, Gerald Early and Bill James. In fact, Bill should be here in a little bit so we can drive up to St. Louis together. I might need a post on the car rides there and back as well.

Listening to the Beatles

— 32 best all-around baseball players ever

— 32 best sports books for the holiday season (it was supposed to be a summer-reading post; it may become one yet again)

— 32 best defensive players in baseball history.

— Da Bears

There are a bunch of others but let’s stop there since I probably won’t do most of these.

Three other things:

1. I believe that SI will today post my Sportsman of the Year nomination. I don’t think my nominee will come as any surprise.

2. I have two big pieces running in the magazine this week, one I don’t think will come as any surprise to blog readers, the other is on Chiefs GM Scott Pioli and some of his friends in sports and the concept of team building.

3. I will be one of the co-hosts on “Live From E Street Nation” on E-Street Radio this Friday, starting at 10:30 Eastern Time. E-Street Radio is available on Sirius/XM, and if you don’t have it, well, frankly you should go out and buy it just so you can hear this. You can return the system afterward.*

*I am not sure this return policy would actually work.

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The Age Of The Setup Man

I came across a fascinating baseball trend the other day — or non-baseball trend, I guess — and it’s one of the more surprising things I have seen since I have been tinkering with baseball. I’m pretty sure there have been studies done on this before, but I had never seen them, and so I was blown away with my FTOD — Faux Thrill Of Discovery.*

*I have a friend who is convinced — CONVINCED — that he invented the “throw the ball off the stoop” game. I have told him a hundred times that the game was invented many years before he was born, but he refuses to believe it, he is convinced that one day when he was very young (long before he could have heard of such a game) he was looking at the stairs and thinking, “You know, if one player throw a ball off the stairs, and another player was the fielder…” In a way he DID invent it thought it had been invented a half million times before. That’s FTOD.

So, here’s how it happened: I was looking over the American League rookie of the year match-up, and I was kind of studying Neftali Feliz’s season. Feliz had 40 saves, an .880 WHIP, a 71-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, it was quite a year. And then I saw that the Rangers went 73-6 when they had a lead going into the ninth inning, an impressive .924 winning percentage.

Only … is that impressive? As I thought about it a bit more, I guessed it probably wasn’t impressive. And I was right. That .924 winning percentage with a lead going into the ninth is actually below league average — quite a bit below league average in fact. The league average of games won with a team going into the ninth with a lead was 95.5%.

Top six winning percentages with leads entering the ninth inning:
1. Tampa Bay .988 (81-1)
2. San Diego .987 (77-1)
3. St. Louis .987 (74-1)
4. Oakland .986 (73-1)
5. Detroit .986 (70-1)
6. Kansas City .981 (53-1)

Bottom six winning percentages with leads entering the ninth inning:
30. Baltimore .869 (53-8)
29. Los Angeles .908 (69-7)
28. Milwaukee .914 (64-6)
27. Arizona .923 (60-5)
26. Texas .924 (73-6)
25. Colorado and Houston .932 (69-5)

Feliz was not responsible for all those blown leads, by the way. But my point had shifted. Now, I wasn’t interesting so much in Feliz; I was interested in something else. We all know that the role of the closer has evolved over the last 40 or so years. Even the name has evolved — we really used to call them “firemen,” which was awesome. They used to come out to the mound on those cool little bullpen cars, which was awesome. They used to have mustaches and stomp around on the mound like pro wresters and have nicknames like “Goose” and “The Inspector” and “Sparky” and “The Mad Hungarian” and “Quiz” and “Bedrock” and “The Terminator” — all of which was awesome. Man the closer role used to be so much more awesome than they are now.

But the point is that the closer has evolved, his role has crystallized, his salary has gone up, his importance in the game has obviously increased exponentially. And so I wondered just how much more often teams are winning now when they lead going into the ninth than they did before the closer became such a part of things.

You may already know the answer to this. But if you don’t, I’d like you to take a guess how much more often teams with close out ninth inning leads than they did 10 years ago, 25 years ago, 50 years ago.

I can tell you now the answer shocked the heck out of me. I conservatively estimated that teams win about 5% more often now with ninth inning leads than they did before the closer really came into the vogue. I suspected it was a conservative estimate but that was my guess anyway. Here’s why: One of the things that always surprises me about baseball is how little any one thing affects the percentages of the game.

That is to say: There are charts that suggest how you arrange a lineup will have very little effect on how many runs your team scores in the long run. There are formulas that suggest that stolen bases — once you incorporate the caught stealing — will have a surprisingly small impact on the game. One of the biggest beefs people have with stats like Wins Above Replacement and some of the more advanced defensive stats is that they always seem to come out low, they always seem not only to disprove big swings (like the idea that Ozzie Smith saved 100 runs a year with his defense or that a single great player was worth 25 extra wins) but they actually MAKE FUN of those big numbers. Baseball in the long view is stunningly consistent and predictable and no one thing or one person shifts it much.

So, I guessed that all the advances — the creation of the bullpen as weapon, the evolution of the closer, the Mariano Rivera cutter, all of it — only made teams about 5% more likely to win games in 2010 than in, say, 1952.

I was wrong.

The truth is that all the bullpen advances have had ABSOLUTELY ZERO EFFECT on how much more often teams win games they’re leading in the ninth inning. Zero. Nada. Zilch. The ol’ bagel.

Teams won 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 2010. Teams won 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 1952.

Well, shocked the heck out of me. Well, it’s not quite that simple. There have been a few anomalies, yes. For instance, in 1957, teams won only 92.7% of their ninth inning leads — easily the lowest percentage over the last 60 years. That was a year for comebacks. And the highest percentage was in the strike year of 1981, when teams won 97.6% of their leads — that probably would have normalized over a full schedule.

Other than that, though, the best winning percentage for ninth-inning leads is .958. It has happened four times — 2008, 1988, 1972 and 1965. That pretty much covers the entire spectrum of bullpen use. It doesn’t change. Basically, teams as a whole ALWAYS win between a touch less than 94% and a touch more than 95% of the time. This has been stunningly, almost mockingly, consistent. The game has grown, the leagues have expanded, the roles have changed, the pressure has turned up, but the numbers don’t change.

Here, I’ll give you another example. Most of us would agree, probably, that Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in the history of baseball, right? I mean, we can have that argument another time, but I think it’s Rivera, and you probably think it’s Rivera, and since he became a closer in 1997, the Yankees have won a rather remarkable 97.3% of the time when they lead going into the ninth inning. I don’t have an easy way to compare that to everyone over the same time period, but I’d bet that’s the best record for any team. In 2008, the Yankees won all 77 games the led going into the ninth. Most years they lose once or twice.

So that would seem to indicate that Rivera DOES make a difference. And I think he does make a difference — compared to other closers.

But … consider the 1950s New York Yankees. Dominant team, of course. The bullpen was an ever shifting thing, though. One year, Ryne Duren was their main guy out of the pen, another year it was Bob Grim or Art Ditmar or Tom Morgan or Tommy Byrne or Jim Konstanty … well, the names changed all the time. The bullpen changed all the time. Casey Stengel seemed to shift strategies every now and again, probably to keep things interesting, starters finished many more games, and anyway the game was very different then and …

From 1951-1962, the New York Yankees won 97.3% of their ninth inning leads. If you carry it another decimal point, they actually won a slightly HIGHER percentage of their ninth inning leads than the Mariano Yankees.

Well, it shocked the heck out of me, anyway. I didn’t do extremely detailed research on this because (A) The numbers for winning ninth-inning leads are not searchable as far as I know; (B) I’m not researcher. But just the little bit I did do tells me that all of this bullpen maneuvering, these end-of-game innovations, these big money closer contracts, they may make sense for individual teams, but they have had almost no visible impact on the game itself. Teams have always won a very higher percentage of their ninth inning leads, no matter what their strategy for doing so. The good teams win almost every single time.

Well, anyway, I think it’s fascinating. But you may notice that the title of this blog post is about setup men. Well, here is what I came out of all this thinking — there really isn’t much a team can do with the ninth inning. Teams worry about it and fret over it and spend tons of money on it and … it’s really kind of a static thing. In 2010, the Kansas City Royals were all but unbeatable with a ninth-inning lead and they lost 95 games. In 2010, the Texas Rangers were near the bottom of the league when it came to protecting ninth inning leads, and they were in the World Series. It seems to me that there just isn’t much wiggle room here. Teams, good and bad, with great closers and terrible ones, are going to win the game almost every time they lead going into the ninth inning. Sure, you want to maximize the ninth inning, but I think it’s probably a lot more important to HAVE LEADS going into the ninth inning.

And thus … the setup man. In 2010, teams won 91.7% of the time when they led going into the eighth inning. And that was the highest percentage over the last 60 years. It could have been a statistical blip. It probably WAS a statistical blip. But it seems interesting just the same. I think the setup man is becoming the new closer. I think on many teams, managers and general managers think the setup man is even more valuable than the closer for two reasons:

1. As mentioned, the ninth inning is predictable and has been going back at least to 1950. A hot closer can give you a bit of a boost, but if you are a good team you are not going to blow ninth inning leads very often.

2. Because of the save statistic and current group-think, the closer is pretty much immovable. You have to start him in the ninth inning with the three-run-or-less lead. Every now and again, a manager will go against convention, bring in the closer to finish off the eighth, or start off the ninth with a lefty-lefty match-up before bringing in the closer. But almost every time the closer is used in only one way, and that’s stifling for managers.

But the setup role is not as settled, and so managers can use their setup men in many different ways. They can bring them into the game in the seventh. They can wait until runners are on base in the eighth. They can use the setup man for one out, for four outs, for six outs, when the team is in trouble in the sixth inning, it’s an open canvas.

And, yes, I think some teams (like the Chicago White Sox with Matt Thornton*) are making their best relievers setup men instead of closers.

*Several people pointed this out to me a couple of months ago when I wrote that I really didn’t want to see Matt Thornton pitch in the All-Star Game. I was probably a bit off in trying to make my point — Thornton is a terrific pitcher. I really just meant I would like to see the stars pitch in the All-Star Game, I think only starters should pitch. But that’s just me.

I think I would do this too — put my best reliever as a setup man. I mean, yes, I would still love to see someone tear the whole thing down and try and create bullpen without specific roles. But I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, and I don’t know — human nature being what it is — that it would work. I think there’s a chance it would not work. This isn’t just about people liking to have roles. I think the way it works now, there’s a clear progression for a reliever. You work the middle innings, then if you do that well you work the later innings, and if you do that well you have a shot at being a closer where the big money and fame is. I think that speaks to players ambitions. They have something to shoot for.

So, assuming that we’re not yet in a place where you can go with a no-roles bullpen, I think I would make my setup man my star. Sure, you would want a good pitcher as a closer. But I think that’s enough. Put someone good in that role and you will win 95-to-100% of the games you lead going into the ninth inning.*

*I’ve been thinking lately how utterly ludicrous it was that Dennis Eckersley won the 1992 MVP Award. Eck is a fascinating media creature — he raced in as a first ballot Hall of Famer without anyone really thinking twice about it, and he won the 1992 Cy Young AND MVP award, the last pitcher to do that. He had 51 saves and a 1.91 ERA and an amazing 93-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio that year. No question: It was a terrific year.

But it was really about the same year Bryan Harvey had in 1991 (46 saves, 1.80 ERA, 101-17 strikeout to walk) and Harvey didn’t even get a single first place Cy Young vote, much less any MVP consideration. It was not too different from the year Doug Jones had in 1992 (only 36 saves, but a 1.85 ERA, 30 more innings than Eckersley, a 93-17 strikeout to walk). And Jonesie didn’t even get a third-place Cy Young vote.

To the larger point, the Oakland A’s went 81-1 when leading going into the ninth. A fabulous record. But the Toronto Blue Jays went 83-1, and neither Tom Henke nor Duane Ward (who had a higher WAR than Eck, by the way) got ANY recognition or consideration at all — neither one even made the All-Star Team. And the Kansas City Royals that year went 64-0 when leading going into the ninth, but nobody was pushing Jeff Montgomery for the MVP award.

Eckersley — perhaps because of his amazing story as once-good starter turned into fabulous closer — just had a way of seeming larger than life.

My feeling is: If you put in someone good — your second or third best reliever — into the closer role, then you will have your best pitcher to use in key situations. You will have him to secure the eighth inning, of course, but you could also use him at other crucial times. I think the game is shifting that way now. I think that’s what some of the smarter teams are quietly beginning to do now. Take Boston: There’s all this talk about how good a closer Daniel Bard can be for the Red Sox. But I think they might be better off with him dominating in the role he’s in now and someone else, someone not as good, in the closer role. We’ll keep an eye on that.

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Live Thanksgiving Blog

2:00 p.m.

New England quarterback Tom Brady is obviously not underrated. He’s not overrated either … everybody realizes just how good Tom Brady is and how good he has been.

That said: You hear SO MUCH about Tom Brady’s intangibles, his leadership skills, his team building talents, that it’s easy to forget something — the guy has a bazooka for an arm. I don’t know how many quarterbacks can make ALL the throws — five quarterbacks maybe? Brady is one of them. He can throw the deep ball, of course. He has the touch for the swing passes and screens. He has the strength of arm to throw those deep down-and-outs.

And just now he made a couple of powerful throws over the middle that had enough juice on them that the safety had absolutely no chance to get over in time. Tom Brady’s greatness as a quarterback is a complex thing made up of decision-making and quick thinking and versatility and toughness and a good sense for how to deal with teammates and many other things. But the guy also has some kind of arm, and I think sometimes people miss it.

* * *

12:44 p.m.

Another thing I’m thankful for: The yellow first down line on television. Technological gimmicks like that usually doesn’t work. The glowing puck in hockey was an obvious failure. I’m not crazy about the strike zone box they show during baseball games. But the yellow first down line in football is one of the great television innovations that seamlessly becomes part of the viewing experience. It’s so great that whenever I see games WITHOUT the yellow line, it feels a bit empty.

You know what it’s like? I do probably 75% of my book reading now on my iPad. Well, with iPad readers like iBooks or the Kindle, you can press down on a word and instantly get its definition. That’s a great thing, and now when I read a real book I found myself tempted to press down on a single word in the hopes that it will magically pull out a dictionary and define the word for me.

* * *

12:00 p.m.

So, you may have noticed that this year — for the first time in a few years — the league leaders in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement won the Most Valuable Player award. Josh Hamilton led all of baseball with an 8.0 WAR. Joey Votto led the National League with a 7.4 WAR. The last time it happened was 2003, when F-WAR leaders lAlex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds won the MVP. Over the last 20 years, it’s happened three times — it also happened in 1994 and 1990.

American League F-WAR Leaders (and MVPs):
2010: Josh Hamilton 8.0 (Josh Hamilton)
2009: Ben Zobrist 8.4 (Joe Mauer 8.0)
2008: Grady Sizemore 7.1 (Dustin Pedroia 6.6)
2007: Alex Rodriguez 9.2 (Alex Rodriguez)
2006: Grady Sizemore 7.3 (Justin Morneau 4.3)
2005: Alex Rodriguez 9.4 (Alex Rodriguez)
2004: Ichiro Suzuki 7.2 (Vladimir Guerrero 6.2)
2003: Alex Rodriguez 10.7 (Alex Rodriguez)
2002: Alex Rodriguez 9.8 (Miguel Tejada 4.5)
2001: Jason Giambi 9.3 (Ichiro Suzuki 6.1)
2000: Alex Rodriguez 9.6 (Jason Giambi 7.8)
1999: Manny Ramirez 7.5 (Ivan Rodriguez 6.9)
1998: Alex Rodriguez 8.4 (Juan Gonzalez 5.3)
1997: Ken Griffey 9.4 (Ken Griffey)
1996: Ken Griffey 10.2 (Juan Gonzalez 3.7)
1995: John Valentin 8.4 (Mo Vaughn 5.2)
1994: Frank Thomas 7.8 (Frank Thomas)
1993: Ken Griffey 9.0 (Frank Thomas 6.7)
1992: Frank Thomas 7.7 (Dennis Eckersley 3.0)
1991: Cal Ripken 11.1 (Cal Ripken)
1990: Rickey Henderson 10.5 (Rickey Henderson)

National League F-War Leaders and MVPs)
2010: Joey Votto 7.4 (Joey Votto)
2009: Albert Pujols 8.7 (Albert Pujols)
2008: Albert Pujols 9.3 (Albert Pujols)
2007: David Wright 8.6 (Jimmy Rollins 6.3)
2006: Albert Pujols 8.3 (Ryan Howard 6.5)
2005: Andruw Jones 8.3 (Albert Pujols 7.9)
2004: Barry Bonds 12.2 (Barry Bonds)
2003: Barry Bonds 10.7 (Barry Bonds)
2002: Barry Bonds 13.0 (Barry Bonds)
2001: Barry Bonds 12.9 (Barry Bonds)
2000: Todd Helton 8.6 (Jeff Kent 7.6)
1999: Jeff Bagwell 8.2 (Chipper Jones 7.7)
1998: Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire 8.8 (Sammy Sosa 7.4)
1997: Craig Biggio 9.7 (Larry Walker 9.4)
1996: Barry Bonds 9.1 (Ken Caminiti 7.6)
1995: Barry Bonds 7.7 (Barry Larkin 5.3)
1994: Jeff Bagwell 7.8 (Jeff Bagwell)
1993: Barry Bonds 10.6 (Barry Bonds)
1992: Barry Bonds 9.8 (Barry Bonds)
1991: Barry Bonds 7.9 (Terry Pendleton 6.4)
1990: Barry Bonds 10.1 (Barry Bonds)

Of course, F-WAR is just one statistic, and it too sometimes spits out interesting choices like Ben Zobrist last year or John Valentin in 1995. But I think the point I take from this is that while an advanced stat like F-WAR isn’t often EXACTLY the same as the subjective view, they are usually pretty similar. And I think it’s easy to miss that point. Again and again, we hear about the conflict between advanced stats and observation, between what these numbers tell us and what we believe about baseball. It’s supposed to be a war (lower case).

And yes, every now and again the MVP voting spits out a weird winner like the Dennis Eckersley in 1992 choice. Yes, every now and again RBIs seem to play a disproportionate role and Justin Morneau or Miguel Tejada or Juan Gonzalez or wins. But more often than not, I think F-WAR and what we see are not very different. This year, the NL MVP could have been Joey Votto or it could have been Albert Pujols, and they were separated by .1 F-WAR which, really, means absolutely nothing. The AL MVP could have been Josh Hamilton or Miguel Cabrera or Robinson Cano, and all three had at least 6.0 F-WAR, which means they all had very good years.

The best baseball stats do a couple of things, I think. One, they reflect what we believe about the game. And two, they tell us something that we may not have noticed. I think F-WAR (and Baseball Reference WAR, just as a starting point) does that. I don’t always agree with what F-WAR suggests, or what Baseball Reference WAR suggests, or what xFIP suggests, or what any one number or one angle or one philosophy suggests. But I really don’t think the gap is nearly as wide as we so often say. Stats tell us things, and our eyes and sense of the game tell us things, and they probably agree 90% of the time. There may be some people who think Miguel Cabrera should have won the MVP over Josh Hamilton. But I don’t think anyone would deny Hamilton was pretty great.

* * *

8:40 a.m.

I love Thanksgiving. I mean, seriously, I love everything about it. I love turkey. I love cranberry sauce. I love how the house smells on Thanksgiving day. I love falling asleep in my recliner. I love that one a day a year I’m allowed, no, encouraged, no, commanded by American law and the powers of tradition to sit in front of the television and watch the Detroit Lions play football. I love hearing the kids ask what time dinner will begin.

I love the blitz of “wake up at 4 a.m. so you can get stand in line and get the most cheaply made DVD player on the market for 19 bucks” commercials.

I love going to the airport like I will today and seeing the last remnants of families coming together for the holiday — not many people travel on Thanksgiving, I guess, but the ones who do are committed. They are often military families. They are often sons and daughters who could not get off work before today. It’s a good scene.

I love that the Christmas lights are glowing already, and people complaining because it seems too early to have them out — “pretty soon people are going to start putting them out on the fourth of July,” someone will mutter grumpily* — complaining like they do every year and yet it changes the way everything looks in a happy and familiar way.

*With the same inflections as the summer “hot enough for you” voices.

I love that we all just agreed that one day, at least, we should feel thankful. I’m a thank you addict anyway. Always thank you. It’s like a nervous tic. I say thank you to airport security. I say thank you to the police officers who give me tickets. I say thank you to annoying sales call to the house. At big sporting events, reporters will get dozens and dozens of pages of notes and quotes and various other press releases, and they always come one at a time so that it feels like you are constantly bombarded by a parade of interns and junior public relations people stuffing these mostly-meaningless pages at you — and yet I always say thank you, every single time, not because I’m exceedingly polite, not because I’m an especially thankful person, but because those are the words that come out. It’s pure habit at this point. I couldn’t quit if I tried.

And so I love that there’s a day when I can think about all the stuff I’m really thankful for … for quite a few years I wrote a Thanksgiving column in The Kansas City Star where I wrote about those thankful things. People came to realize that mostly I was thankful for food — Arthur Bryant’s burnt ends in Kansas City, Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, Basso56 in New York, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, the Slanted Door in San Francisco and, oh a hundred other places. But I was always thankful for other things too. It was never a particularly hard column to write.

This year, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t write the column for The Star. I love my 13 years there, treasure them, am more thankful for them than anything I’ve ever done professionally. But the Star has a terrific young columnist now, my friend Sam Mellinger, and they just hired a new sports editor who I hear great things about, and they don’t need an old ghost haunting the place.

Instead, I’m writing this Live Thanksgiving Blog — updating it throughout the day with thoughts, ideas, a little football commentary, some of the half-written blog posts I’m not going to finish and, of course, a few thank yous, starting with the corniest one: Thank you for reading.

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Jeter and Comfortable Movies

The Derek Jeter thing is fascinating to me for a couple of reasons. One, it’s Derek Jeter and everything about Derek Jeter is pretty interesting.

Two, there’s a CMQ — Comfortable Movie Quality — to this Yankees-Jeter negotiation. I have spent too much of my time thinking about this: How many movies would you say you KNEW the ending before it happened? I’m not talking about you figuring out the ending of Sixth Sense or Usual Suspects or Memento or whatever (good for you, Nostradamus). No, I’m talking about movies that are essentially made with the premise that you will know the ending. You know the killer will die. You know the guy and girl will get together. You know the planet will be saved. You know the home team will win. You know George Clooney will end up in a tuxedo. You know the castaways will not get off the island.

You know because you are supposed to know, the director expects you to know, the producer expects you to know, the actors essentially act like you know … KNOWING is part of the experience. This is why sometimes you will hear people, when asked about a movie, say something like: “Oh, well, it was predictable, but it was still pretty good.” There is in some of us a capacity to not only like a predictable movie, but like it BECAUSE of it’s predictable. There are a lot of not-quite-A-level movies – The Family Man, Doc Hollywood, The Sure Thing, Invincible, Major League, Splash, The Fabulous Baker Boys and a hundred others I’m not thinking of now — where, once the premise was laid out, I doubt I felt even the tiniest tinge of surprise at any point. And yet, I liked the movies anyway.

Maybe it’s the James Bond creed: You KNOW he will win. You just don’t know how.

We KNOW Derek Jeter will play for the New York Yankees in 2011. There is no chance for a surprise there. This is not 90% likely or 95% likely or even 99% likely. It is Hurricane Insurance In Kansas likely. There is simply no even remotely plausible scenario I can imagine where Derek Jeter goes. The Yankees have already offered him three years, $45 million which, you know, unless Dan Snyder buys a baseball, well, that’s probably 50-100% more than any other team would offer. And that offer is ALREADY on the table.

Now, it appears from reports that Jeter and his people are unhappy with the offer, perhaps even insulted by the offer. Jeter’s agent Casey Close has even invoked the name of Babe Ruth which I must say — to reference another CMQ movie — is a bit like the agent Jerry Maguire when he’s trying to negotiate for his receiver (before the receivers has the great catch on Monday Night Football):

GM: “I want a prototypical wide receiver, not some shrimp who bitches.”
Jerry: “Dennis, I’m asking you for a favor. I introduced you to your wife. We’ve spent Christmas together. How about some holiday cheer?”
GM: “Jerry. You’re reaching.”

Casey, yes, you’re reaching. Derek Jeter means a lot to the New York Yankees and their fans and baseball, no question about any of it. But he has been paid ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY NINE MILLION DOLLARS the last ten years. That is, even now ten years later, the third-highest gross contract ever given to one baseball player, and the first two are Alex Rodriguez and Alex Rodriguez. Even the Joe Mauer contract, even the Mark Teixeira contact, even the C.C. Sabathia contract did not come out to $189 million.

Has Jeter been worth it? Absolutely. But it seems a bit bold to say that the Yankees have not already pay Jeter plenty for being an icon and a role model and a true Yankee and everything else. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR, Derek Jeter was the 10th most valuable player over the last 10 years:

1. Albert Pujols, 83.8 WAR
2. Alex Rodriguez, 64.8
3. Barry Bonds, 55.7 (despite only playing about six seasons)
4. Ichiro Suzuki, 55.2
5. Carlos Beltran, 51.1
6. Chipper Jones, 47.5
7. Scott Rolen, 46.6
8. Todd Helton, 44.7
9. Lance Berkman, 43.8
10. Derek Jeter, 43.1

That’s really good. That might even be $189 million good. But I don’t think I’d be sticking an “amount still due” bill under the Steinbrenners’ door. I’d say Jeter has been paid quite well for his efforts, tangible and intangible. And anyway, Babe Ruth is probably not the best example for Casey Close to use since Ruth was released by the Yankees when he overplayed his hand (he wanted to be manager) and he ended his career in misery, playing 28 games for the Boston Braves.

In any case, the air between Jeter and the Yankees seems to be getting chillier and chillier, and at this point it’s hard to see exactly how things will break. There is absolutely no reason I can see for the Yankees to raise their offer to Jeter. They know they have already put on the table the best offer Derek Jeter will get. They know Jeter wants to play quite a bit longer and he doesn’t want to play for any other team. They know that while some fans think they look ungrateful (by merely offering to pay him by far more than any other shortstop in baseball), these are millions of dollars we are talking about, and it’s tempting to forget just how much a million dollars is. I don’t believe even the Yankees, with more money than Jobs, are willing to pay $15 or $20 million extra dollars so they can look appreciative.

On the other hand, Derek Jeter has good reason to believe he should get more. The Yankees ARE offering him a substantial pay cut — this would be more than 20%. They are offering to pay him less than they pay A.J. Burnett. Jeter did finish third in the MVP balloting in 2009, which was just last year. And Jeter does take on responsibilities — on the field, in the clubhouse, in the city — that are of great value to the Yankees. Finally, Jeter is a proud athlete who undoubtedly feels like he will have a huge bounce-back year in 2010, age and history and an off-year be damned.

So this thing could go on a while longer. I do wonder how much longer the two will beat on each other when they both know exactly how this thing will end, how it HAS to end. Will Jeter keep fighting a public fight when he knows that he will be the starting shortstop on Opening Day? Will the Yankees keep making public sport of Jeter’s decline, when they also know he will be the starting shortstop on Opening Day.

I suspect before it’s all done, the Yankees offer Jeter something like 3 years, $51 million, Jeter holds a typically classy press conference where he says that he knows he’s getting older but he still thinks he has a lot to offer the Yankees, and everything is forgotten by Game 2, when Cliff Lee allows three hits in a breezy seven innings, and Jeter gets the 2,928th and 2,929th hits of his career. The ending here is as sure as the final scene of Richard Gere carrying off Debra Winger, or Richard Gere carrying off Julia Roberts, or Richard Gere … well, you know. Everything that happens between now and the inevitable ending is probably pointless. But it should be fun to watch anyway.

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The Future Of Sports

Working on about five blog posts at once, so we should be adding something or other before the end of the day.

But in the meantime, an announcement: f you happen to live in or near the St. Louis area* I am going to be part (a small part, I would hope) of a remarkable panel at Washington University next Monday. The panel will feature Bob Costas, Gerald Early, Bill James and, yeah, me as we talk about a rather broad topic called “The Future of Sports.” My friend Michael MacCambridge — author of “America’s Game,” the best book on the history of the NFL — put the panel together and will be the moderator.

*Or have access to air travel, I guess … it’s a small world, after all.

I don’t think I need to tell anyone here about the coolness factor of Costas, Early and James. We are talking about three of the great sports thinkers of the last 50 years. Three of the great thinkers, period. I’m still holding out hope that at the last minute they will realize that I have nothing to add and let me sit in the crowd and watch.

It should be great. The discussion will be Monday, Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. on the Washington University campus — the Lab Sciences Building if you want to be specific. And as if just putting together a panel with Costas, Early and James isn’t cool enough, admission is free (Free! Ridiculous!) and open to the public. All you have to do is RSVP here.

— While I’m making announcements about ridiculously cool things I should not be allowed to do, it now looks like I will be in New York and a guest on E-Street Radio on Friday, Dec. 3. More details as they become available.

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The Win Is Dead, Long Live The Win

So, at first, in honor of Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young win on Thursday I was going to do something kitschy you know, make this thing read like an obituary for the pitcher’s win, or write it as a eulogy for pitcher’s win, or, you know, make some other sort of contrived reference to the day the win died.

But in the end, you know what? The win did not die on Thursday. In fact, Thursday was not even an especially bad day for the win. The real win revolution began a long time ago — more than 30 years ago. I’ll get to that in minute.

Yes, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young despite a 13-12 record. Yes, he won it even though C.C. Sabathia won 21 games — only the second American League pitcher the last five years to win more than 20 games.* Yes Hernandez won it handily even though there was a lot of hand-wringing — a couple of those hands being my own — over the question: Can a pitcher win a Cy Young with 13 wins and 12 losses?

*Sabathia has now led the league in victories in back-to-back years and not won a Cy Young award. The last guy to lead the league in wins in back-to-back years was Roger Clemens in 1997-98 — and he won the Cy Young both years.The last guy to lead the league in wins in back-to-back years and NOT win at least one Cy Young wasWilbur Wood in the early 1970s.

A quick look:

Leading the league in wins in back-to-back years:

C.C. Sabathia (2009-10): No Cy Youngs
Roger Clemens (1997-98): 2 Cy Youngs
Greg Maddux (1994-95): 2 Cy Youngs
Tom Glavine (1991-92-93): 1 Cy Young
Roger Clemens (1986-87): 2 Cy Youngs
LaMarr Hoyt (1982-83): 1 Cy Young
Jim Palmer (1975-76-77): 2 Cy Youngs
Catfish Hunter (1974-75): 1 Cy Young
Wilbur Wood (1972-73): No Cy Youngs

All of this King Felix love suggests that the era of wins being the dominant pitching statistic has come to an end — anyway, that was my first reaction. But as I thought about it more, I kind of changed my mind. The win isn’t dead, nothing close to dead. People are just looking at it differently. The truth is that King Felix’s 13 wins are not CLOSE to the record for fewest wins for a Cy Young pitcher. The truth is that a 13-12 record is not even CLOSE to the least impressive record in Cy Young history.

And in the end, I’m not sure that Hernandez’s Cy Young award really has anything at all to do with the devaluing of the win. I think Felix Hernandez was just an unusual pitcher in an unusual year. Look: It’s not often that a pitcher as great as King Felix — someone who was already ACKNOWLEDGED as great even before the year began — plays for an offensive team as pitiful as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. Well, first of all, it’s not often that there even IS an offensive team as pitiful as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. This really was a stunningly bad team.

How bad? Well, for fun, I punched in Steve Carlton’s amazing 1972 season into the Mariners season. Repeat: I did this for fun. The 1972 and 2010 seasons are not especially similar. Teams scored about 14% more runs in 2010 than in 1972. And Carlton made 41 starts and completed 30 games in 1972, which obviously would not happen now. But I was curious — Carlton went 27-10 in low-scoring 1972 for an abominable Philadelphia team that lost 97 games. What if you mirror his season — Game 1 for Game 1, Game 37 for Game 37, Game 104 for Game 104 — and give him Seattle’s run support. What would the record look like then?

Well, I’ll tell you: He would have gone 20-10 with Mariners run support. That’s making 41 starts and with little bullpen use. Does that give you an idea how bad the Mariners offense was? If you adjust for era, put Carlton on a five-man rotation, give him the Mariners bullpen — yep, he probably would have gone something like 13-12.

See, this was just a strange year. The guy who most people would consider the best pitcher in the league played for a team so odious offensively that the won-loss record was simply pointless. And people were paying attention. That’s a good thing. For years, writers and analysts have talked about “hard luck” pitchers. Well, Hernandez had such hard luck, that finally people realized it wasn’t luck at all. It was absurdity. Anyone who reads this knows I don’t like won-loss records anyway, but more often than not the record gives you at least SOME reflection of how well a pitcher pitched. But in King Felix’s case, it did not and everyone understood it. Plus Hernandez’s other basic stats were so good — he led the league in starts, in ERA and was just one behind in strikeouts — that he was more or less the obvious choice no matter his record.*

*A few other people seem to have made this point but it’s worth making again: Felix Hernandez DID NOT win the Cy Young because of new-fangled advanced stats. I realize that this has been written by a couple of people, but it just isn’t true. He did not lead the league in Fangraphs WAR — in fact he finished third behind Cliff Lee and Justin Verlander. He was also third in xFIP — that ERA that attempts to cut out defensive contributions — behind Francisco Liriano and Lee. The Baseball Reference numbers were better for him — he did lead in Baseball Reference WAR and Win Probability Added — but even there he was second in ERA+ to Clay Buchholz. The advanced numbers made plain that Felix had a great year, but other pitchers were very similar. It wasn’t odd-looking acronyms that won Felix the Cy Young but things like ERA and strikeouts, you know, the stuff about as old as baseball.

I have mentioned a couple of time that the anti-win revolution began a long time ago. Yes, of course, wins have played a huge role in Cy Young voting. In 1983, LaMarr Hoyt probably wasn’t one of the 10 best pitchers in the American League — he wasn’t in the Top 10 in ERA, just as a starting point — but he got an inordinate amount of run support (an astonishing 19 games where the White Sox scored five or more runs for him) and he won 24 games. Bob Welch won 27 games in 1990 and won the Cy Young though Roger Clemens ERA was a full run lower and he was inarguably the more dominant pitcher.Jack McDowell won 22 games and won the Cy Young in 1993 when Kevin Appier only won 18 and pretty clearly pitched a lot better. And there are other examples.

But, still, the significance of the win in my mind began dwindling way back in 1974, when a pitcher won the Cy Young with (gasp) a 15-12 record. Are you kidding me? A 15-12 record? And that was way back in 1974? How did that happen? And that was nothing. Five years later, a pitcher won the Cy Young with a 6-6 record. SIX AND SIX. And in the years since then, pitchers have won Cy Youngs with nine wins, with seven wins, with six wins, five wins (FIVE STINKING WINS?) and, it’s almost impossible to believe, with four wins (no way, four wins? No way. That didn’t happen).

If you know your Cy Young history, you could probably put names by those records. Mike Marshall won with that 15-12 record. Then Bruce Sutter won with the 6-6 record. After that it was Willie Hernandez who won with nine wins, Dennis Eckersley with seven, Rollie Fingers with six wins, Steve Bedrosian with five and the ever-popular Mark Davis who won with a 4-3 record. Of course, these are all firemen/relievers/closers, and it has been obvious for more than 35 years that these pitchers absolutely were not to be judged by wins. No, they were to be judged by a new statistic called “saves.” The Baseball Writers embraced saves pretty quickly. Of course it was one of the legendary baseball writers, Jerome Holtzman, who invented it.

The point, I think, is that the all-mighty win really started to lose its mojo then. Baseball observers began to realize that the game was changing, and that pitchers who only threw the late innings could be as valuable, could even be MORE valuable, than starters with lots of wins.

Yes, plenty of people continue to love the win as a statistic. Just this week, National League Cy Young winner Roy Halladay threw his support behind the win. So did a few writers. They came hard at us with that old logic: “A pitcher’s job to win games.” Of course, it really isn’t. It’s a TEAM’S job to win games. Anyway, the game isn’t the same. As starters complete fewer and fewer games, as they pitch fewer and fewer innings, as relievers play a bigger and bigger role, well, it’s plain silly to look at pitcher wins the way we did even a few years ago. I think Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young award just punctuates the point.

But this is not an obituary. And this is not a eulogy. The win ain’t dead, and I don’t think the win should be dead either. Seems to me the won-loss record is a perfectly fine thing to look at, a fun thing to talk about, a connection to the past, and it’s simple to understand. You can use it to teach math to kids. Plus it often tells us something very interesting. For instance, I think Hernandez’s won-loss record was quite revealing. It told us that the Mariners were ghastly at hitting baseballs. Fortunately, the voters* realized that this wasn’t Felix Hernandez’s fault.

*I should point out here — or somewhere, I guess — that I was one of the American League Cy Young voters. My ballot looked like this:

1. Felix Hernandez, Seattle
2. C.C. Sabathia, New York
3. David Price, Tampa Bay
4. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles
5. Cliff Lee, Texas

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Paterno In Autumn

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Someone asks Joe Paterno a question about missed tackles. Think about that for a minute. Think about how many times someone, over 45 years as a head coach at Penn State, over 61 years in coaching, think about how many times someone has asked Joe Paterno about missed tackles. A thousand at least, right? A thousand times would be fewer than two times per game coached. It has to be a thousand, minimum. What in the world could Joe Paterno have left to say about players missing tackles?

And yet, still, he considers the question. He doesn’t exactly love these weekly media sessions, but hey, he’s here, and the question is asked, and this is how Joe Paterno’s mind works. He breaks down questions. That’s his life’s work. He breaks thing down and breaks that down and breaks that down more. That’s coaching. That’s life. It is about obliterating the vague, it is about cutting through the shadows and fog, it is about figuring out what you stand for. Missed tackles, you say? Well, let’s think about that for a moment. What do you mean when you say missed tackles? What exactly causes missed tackles?

“When you miss tackles, obviously, it’s one of two things,” he begins. “Either you did a lousy job in your technique tackling. Or the other guy is that good, he’s that quick, he sets you up well, he gets you a little bit off-balance, he sets you up well enough that he can beat you.”

And I have to tell you, simple as that sounds — and it sounds ludicrously simple — I never thought about it exactly that way. MIssed tackles had always seemed to me a concrete thing, a stationary and motionless thing, the player is there, you tackle him, and if you don’t, it’s a missed tackle. But of course it isn’t like that at all. Sometimes a missed tackle is a missed tackle. Sometimes it’s a great move. Sometimes it’s a runner with power. Nothing in football is static. Everything in football is motion and interaction and violence and deception, each piece of the game is a tiny duel, and sometimes you win the duel, and sometimes you lose the duel.

“I think it’s a combination,” Paterno continues, “Most games we have tackled pretty well. … We have had a little problem on the corners and on the edges with our linebacking, at times we have missed tackles. But you’ve got to give the other guy credit. I think we have played against some people that have blocked solid, made it tough for us to penetrate, and the backs have had a little running room, and when they have had some running room, they have been good enough to make us miss at times.”

People keep wondering how long Joe Paterno will continue to coach. That is the question that seems to override everything at Penn State University, especially in a season like this when the Nittany Lions are young, and building, and taking a few thumpings in the Big 10. Well, sure, it’s understandable. The man is 83 years old, will turn 84 the day after Christmas. When Joe Paterno showed up at Big 10 Media day looking sickly — he was in the midst of fighting off a nasty reaction to medication given in a dental procedure — there were some not-so-quiet whispers that he might not finish the year. When he showed up at his weekly press conference a week ago Tuesday, just two days after he was carried off the field for his 400th victory, the buzz was about how he seemed disoriented and several times needed questions repeated. There were some who began charting how many times Joe Paterno needed questions repeated. The Internet has been ablaze all year with rumors about Paterno’s departure and theories about when it will happen.

But the man sitting behind the microphone now, with that familiar blue Penn State banner behind him, the one talking about missed tackles, well, this man isn’t going anywhere. Not yet. His mind still turns over those football questions. Missed tackles still interest him after all these years. Blocking techniques still interest him after all these years. Building young teams — 59 players on Penn State this year are freshmen or sophomores — still interests him. Someone asks him about that: How does he feel about this team in the future? Well, yes, that’s interesting — no, not the question itself (he’s been asked this question MORE than a thousand times) but what it makes Paterno’s mind think about. He breaks the question down. How does he feel about the team in the future? Well, what does the future look like? What are the challenges of the future? The game is tougher now, isn’t it? It takes longer to develop a young players in today’s world, doesn’t it?

“It’s not the way it used to be,” he says. “The defenses are much more sophisticated. The coverages are more sophisticated. The blitzes are all a little bit tougher to handle than they used to be. So there are some people that have to really be exposed. … There are a lot of things that go on now that takes a little longer to develop into a real steady, consistent football team.”

These are the things that still occupy his mind. Joe Paterno isn’t going anywhere yet because he feels good, he feels sharp, and the challenge of building a team in this tougher new world excites him the same way it always excited him.

What’s that: You say some people think the game has passed him by? Hell, there have ALWAYS been people who have thought that about Joe Paterno, going back to 1966 when his first team went 5-5. Anyway, didn’t Penn State beat LSU in a New Year’s Day bowl game this year? Didn’t Penn State go to the Rose Bowl last year? This team, young as it is, as tough as its losses to Iowa and Ohio State and and Illinois have been, can still win its seventh game against Indiana Saturday, can win its eighth against Michigan State. This team had Ohio State down at halftime, this team can still play in another New Year’s Day bowl. What do people want? What do people expect?

Familiarity breeds boredom — that’s a reality of life. Joe Paterno has been around for so long, his success has been so numbingly consistent (75% win percentage, 75% graduation rate, the Joe and Sue Paterno library at the center of campus), that eyes glaze over. What sounds to an outsider like thoughtful and interesting football talk undoubtedly sounds to insiders like he’s avoiding the question. Maybe he IS avoiding the question. “Joe has always had his answers,” a longtime observer of the program says. “If the questions happen to match up, so much the better.”

But he is also talking about football. And if you love football, isn’t this the ultimate privilege — listening to Joe Paterno talk? That’s how I always felt when talking basketball with John Wooden. That’s how I felt traveling the country and talking baseball with Buck O’Neil. That’s how I feel when talking with Bob Knight (once you got past the expletives). That’s how I always feel when talking with Earl Weaver or Whitey Herzog or Vin Scully.

And that’s how it is with Joe Paterno. He’s the legend. And he’s still sharp, still engaged, still determined. No, it isn’t like every word he says is a nugget of gold. But there are lessons to be learned, lessons he is constantly teaching, lessons about how you last, lessons about how you overcome, lessons about not making stuff too complicated. And there are stories. Someone asks Paterno what he expects this weekend since the Penn State-Indiana game won’t be at Indiana but instead at a “neutral” site in Landover, Md. — neutral in quotes since the crowd should be pretty heavy Penn State.

Well, Paterno says he doesn’t have any expectations since he never had his team play a neutral site game in Maryland before, and there’s no point in expecting anything. But in saying that he remembers that many years ago, when he was still an assistant coach at Penn State, the Lions played Illinois at a neutral-site game in Cleveland, in the old stadium. That was 1959. He said there wasn’t much of a crowd (he’s right, there were only 15,000 or so there at Municipal Stadium). He said that Penn State beat a good Illinois team (he’s right, Penn State won 20-9). And he remembered that Illinois had this middle linebacker that was pretty good and was about to become pretty well known across America.

He said it so matter-of-factly, weaved it so easily into the answer, that there was no follow-up … I suspect nobody really cared. But I cared. This was history. I thought he was talking about Dick Butkus — and how cool is that that Joe Paterno remembered coaching against Dick Butkus in college. So I went back and looked and found that Butkus didn’t play for Illinois until 1962 — Joe Paterno had his years mixed up. I was disappointed. Ah well, it’s understandable after all these years, right?

Then I looked more closely. And I realized that Illinois DID have a terrific middle-linebacker (and nose guard) in 1959 named Bill Burrell. He is one of the great jewels in college football history, a consensus All-American in 1959 and he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Joe Paterno still remembers coaching against Bill Burrell at a nearly empty Cleveland Municipal Stadium more than 50 years ago.

And people are worried about how many questions he needs repeated?*

*I should point out here that Joe’s hearing probably isn’t great, but half the questions at these press conferences are asked over a speaker system and I didn’t understand half of them either.

Ah, but those missed tackles. Coaches can’t go on forever. We all know that. But break it down: Why do coaches fade? I think it’s because over time coaches can lose energy, they can lose focus, they can lose touch with the times, and perhaps more than anything they can lose their coaching values. Yes, that’s the big thing. The temptation as you grow older, I think, is to take a few more shortcuts, let a few more things go, rest a little more on what you’ve already accomplished.

But I don’t think any of that is happening with Joe Paterno. Yes, he cuts some things out of his schedule. Yes, he has to deal with some of the physical tolls of age. Yes, he will sometimes ask for questions to be repeated and sometimes think reporters mumble. But the rest of it, the important stuff — he seems as energetic about football, as focused on winning, as curious about the questions as ever before. And the team still responds. No, he’s not going anywhere.

The morning after Paterno won his 400th game, there was still a buzz in the Penn State football offices, still a sense of excitement, and when Paterno arrived he gathered people together and said: “That was wonderful. But now that’s over.” He may not do everything he once did — but he stands for all the same things.

At one point, someone asks Joe Paterno at the press conference if he can find any value in studying Indiana’s crushing loss to Wisconsin last week. Paterno breaks down this question too, and offers up an answer that can probably be used for most questions.

“You watch it, and you look at it,” Paterno says, and then he sort of smiles, just a little bit. “Whether we come to the same conclusion of some of you experts is debatable.”

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The Single Wing And A Prayer

Per request, I’m going to try and do a bit more linking here at the ol’ blog.

We’ll start with this one: Here’s a great story about a legendary coach named Keith Piper. It’s written by my good friend Todd Jones.

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