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The Most Beautiful Word

I’m out on assignment which might explain the slight lag between posts — well, there’s the assignment and there was the awful case of stomach flu I endured the other night. I thought about giving you a blow-by-blow account of the stomach flu but decided that might be stretching our writer-reader relationship a bit. Several posts — about NFL players, about the Pro Bowl, about the Angels outfield — are lining up. For now, a quick post about writing … and a single word.

* * *

Lately, it seems, quite a few people have asked how I became a writer. It is an awkward question to answer because the premise is that I became a writer, and there’s something about that word that still feels a little bit distant. Am I a writer? Me? It reminds me of when I was 24 or 25 years old, and I was a columnist at The Augusta Chronicle, and a little boy walked up to me at a ballgame to ask for my autograph. I was entirely sure he had me confused for someone else, and I said (gently, I thought), “Oh, you don’t want my autograph.” Of course, the boy broke out into tears — suddenly I had turned into one of those jerks would wouldn’t give a little kid an autograph — and I think I gave him an autograph, bought him some cotton candy, gave him a piggy back ride, put money into his college education, anything I could think of to make up for my own stupid self-awareness problem.*

*It only now occurred to me that this was probably 20 or so years ago, and the boy was probably 8 or 9 years old … which would obviously make him 28 or 29 years old now. So there’s a 28 or 29 year-old man out there somewhere who remembers the time that he asked for a simple autograph from the nobody local sports columnist and was initially rebuffed …

Ever since then, whenever someone has asked me for an autograph I have enthusiastically signed it as if it felt normal … but that feeling of “You are confusing me for someone else” has never faded. And so it is when people ask about me being a writer. I don’t think of this as modesty, exactly. It’s more like a constant crisis of self confidence. I never feel more than a few minutes away from someone official calling me up and saying: “Um, listen, we let this sportswriting gig go on long enough. It’s time for you to start working for a living.”

So, how did I become a writer? Not once in my childhood — not a single time in memory — did I ever have anyone tell me I had any talent for writing. This wasn’t for want of good literary scouting; I am quite sure I never showed any talent. I did not like writing. I hear stories all the time of journalists and authors who have always known of their destinies, who started a family newspaper when they were 2 1/2 years old or who finished their first novel at the age of 7. I saw writing, any kind of writing, as a chore and a bore, and I didn’t do any except in mandatory situations like when I had to write reports with fascinating and cheery themes like “Ohio: The Buckeye State” or “The Aztecs: Ahead of their time.”

Still, the question has been asked enough times lately that I have asked myself: How? There had to be something in my childhood, some sign that I would someday write 4,000-word essays on Snuggies and the baseball Hall of Fame, that I would actually write books and columns for great American newspapers and stories for Sports Illustrated, for crying out loud.

My parents, I have mentioned a few times, were born in the former Soviet Union. They each moved around as children, each living colorful lives, and they came to America just three years before I was born. This gave me a pretty unique perspective, I suppose. At the time, it largely felt like they simply couldn’t understand how important it was for me to get the cool Reeboks rather than the vastly cheaper generic sneakers I usually ended up getting.

What I could not have seen at the time was that my parents, especially my mother, loved the English language in a way that was probably quite different from people who had grown up with it. My mother had studied English before she came to America, and she really made the critical decision to only speak English around me. They each spoke four languages and a bit of a fifth, and English was the last language they learned and even now, almost 50 years later, they each speak English adeptly but with thick accents that I forget about until some stranger tries to guess where they are from.*

*This happens all the time. But people never come even close to guessing — it’s quite comical, actually, to watch people try to play this “Guess the country” state fair game. Greece is by far the No. 1 guess. But through the years I’ve heard Germany, the Czech Republic and, my favorite, Brazil.

Despite this, they only spoke English at home. My Mom has always said that they just wanted to be sure that I — and later my brothers — understood the language. She and my father had moved around enough to deal with language barriers. They did not want any confusion. My mother undoubtedly wanted to raise a doctor or a lawyer, the great American dream, but she would read to me daily. I think back at how much she read to me — it’s quite staggering. We read all sorts of books together. We read all the kids books, of course, but we also read Agatha Christie mysteries, and the Diary of Anne Frank, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Moby Dick, and the Judy Blume collection and various other classics and many, many other books. My mother loved to read, and I think she wanted me to love to read. My mother loved movies, and I think she wanted me to love movies. I don’t think it had much to do with writing. I’m quite sure it had nothing to do with writing. But I don’t now that either of us understood then how closely reading and listening and writing really are.

In any case, I remember one moment in particular. It was the day my mother was telling me about the most beautiful word. I was probably in the second or third grade, and we all had to write poems or essays for some kind of school magazine. I brought home the magazine and, as always, I don’t remember any particular comment about the story I wrote (assuming mine made the magazine — I don’t remember … I’m sure I got a parental “very nice job”). Anyway one of my classmates wrote an essay that my mother particularly likes. He had used the word, and I can still remember my mother saying: “You know what word is beautiful?”

“What/”

“The word “For.”

“What? Four?”

“No. For. The word ‘for’ is a beautiful word. ‘For she was heartbroken.’ ‘For he had not realized how much he loved her.’ The word ‘for” if used right is really a beautiful word.”

Of course, our conversation was not like this word-for-word — this was 35 years ago at least. But it was probably pretty close. The memory is strong. I never quite forgot it. I had never thought that words could be beautiful, not before that conversation. And I probably didn’t think that words could be beautiful after that conversation either. But something stuck with me, something about the way my mother said that. “You know what word is beautiful?” Something kind of clicked with me, I think; it was a whole other way of looking at words. And over time I was start to think about that, how words sound together, how the pacing of language and how the velocity and tempo can create layers of meaning, the staggering power of the simplest words. That power of those simple words could be like the power of simple-looking chess movies or short right crosses or quick Mike Schmidt/Bob Horner baseball swings.

I don’t know that I have ever used the word “for” in its poetic and literary form, to mean “because” or “since” but my mother’s tastes have always run a bit more Victorian than my own and anyway I can hear why the words sounded so beautiful to her. I guess, in the end, I don’t know how I became a writer. I simply can’t think that way. But I do know that without realizing it my mother raised me as one, for she loved words, even the smallest ones, and without realizing it she passed that love to her oldest son.

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RIP Rosalia

Tony Pena’s mother Rosalia passed away at the age of 79.

This is the story I wrote about him … and her.

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Trading walks for hits

A few people have written in to ask about the methodology behind the 500 walks for 325 singles … which is kind of tragic because, of course, this is ME which means there IS no reasonable methodology.

But since people have written in, here is my thinking about the basic concept.

1. We estimate that 500 walks equals 325 singles. Bill James mentions that smart people have come up with this formula, which as Tom Tango points out really comes from Pete Palmer’s linear weights.

Pete estimates that a walk is worth .32 runs.

500 x .32 = 160 runs.

Pete estimates that a single is worth .48 runs.

333 * .48 = 160 runs

So, by linear weights, 500 walks would equal 333 singles. But to round it out — and because many people seem utterly incapable of appreciating the concept that a walk is worth anything close to a single* — we go with 325 singles.

*Quite a few people wrote in to make this very point — that a single is better than a walk. They then give reasons why it’s better than a walk. They then say that beyond those reasons there are fuzzy intangible reasons (such a fielder making an error on a single or the psychological effect of a single on a pitcher’s psyche) that a single is better than a walk.

I thought it was obvious from the first point: A single IS better than a walk. That’s the whole point of this thought experiment. That’s why you have to trade 500 walks for only 325 singles. That exchange rate is based on some pretty intensive study of the game. If you think the exchange rate is too high, OK. If you think the people who broke down the game bit by bit by bit to come up with the exchange rate didn’t consider the psychological effects enough, OK. But at some point don’t we have to concede that walks have some value compared to singles? Saying that walks are only worth about 65% as much as singles actually seems low to me, but I’m willing to go low to make the point.

2. Numerous people wonder what happens to the 175 plate appearances that are voided when we trade in the 500 walks for 325 singles. I don’t have the math chops to answer the question properly but it seems to me they have to just go away. We can’t count them as outs because they’re not outs. The formula is not “(500 walks) = (325 singles + 175 outs).” No, it’s a straight up trade.

I think the hardest part of this to mentally overcome is — this is a VALUE swap. This is not a literal swap. You are not, in fact, trading 500 walks for 325 singles. Someone wrote in to say that if Harold Baines made this trade, his 325 extra hits would push him over 3,000 and make him a sure Hall of Famer. But, as I see it, this is not at all how it works. You are not literally getting 325 extra hits (and if you were, 3,000 hits would not longer be as meaningful anyway). All we are trying to do here is move VALUE from one column to another. The overall picture should not change. We’re just trying to look at the same thing in a different way.

Think of it as red marbles and blue marbles. Say that a red marble is worth about a dollar. And the blue marble is worth about 65 cents.

Player 1 has 1000 red marbles and 400 blue marbles. That’s worth $1,260.

Player 2 has 800 red marbles and 800 blue marbles. That’s worth $1,320.

Now, let’s say that because of bias against blue marbles, most people remain CONVINCED that the first player is more valuable. People just don’t believe in blue marbles, don’t think they’re worth that much (or anything at all). They only care about red. And look: Player 1 has more red marbles. So Player 1 goes to the Hall of Fame while Player 2 falls off the ballot and is consigned to spending a life in Internet blog limbo being praised by obscure baseball writers with nothing else to do but come up with examples about FREAKING MARBLES. What is this, 1913? Spanky and the gang coming over? The Great Brain? Who plays marbles anymore?*

*Actually, my youngest daughter — for reasons I cannot quite fathom — brought home a book about marbles which included a small bag of marbles. And so we ended up playing marbles. This blog, as always, comes right out of my life.

Back to the marble experiment: One way you might try to PROVE that Player 2 is more valuable is to come up with a conversion rate and have him cash in those blue marbles for red so that people might get a different perspective. In this case, like in the walks for hits case, 500 blue marbles would be worth roughly 325 red ones. And that’s the whole trade. You don’t worry about the 175 fewer marbles that you’re getting. The point is value.

3. I think the biggest problem will all this is that none of this should be necessary. We should be able to look at the many, many stats we have — OBP, SLG, WAR, OPS+, wOBA, RC, VORP, ETC. — and come up with a pretty good picture of the player. But, the reality is that there are biases that are just difficult to overcome, and one of those is putting the proper value on walks. I am often reminded of Leigh Steinberg’s famous story about negotiating with Cincinnati owner Mike Brown — anyway, I’m pretty sure it was Steinberg who told me this. Brown had taken one of the Steinberg’s clients with a very high pick, and he sat down with Mike at their first negotiation and said something like: “OK, let’s get started.”

And Mike said: “I am wondering why we have to give a player a large signing bonus when he has never played a down in the NFL.”

That was the starting point of negotiations: The elimination of signing bonuses. It’s like the negotiation was starting in 1958, like the first offer was for room and board. That’s how I feel sometimes when it comes to walks. People — real baseball fans in 2011 — will actually say things like, “Anyone can talk a walk,” or “what’s the big deal of watching four bad pitches go by?”

More astute baseball fans will downplay the walk totals of power hitters because apparently much of their walking is simply pitchers refusing to face them. But the walk rates of power hitters shifts madly — just among the 300-home-run club from Pudge Rodriguez (5%) to Ted Williams (20.6%). Andre Dawson didn’t walk. Jim Rice didn’t walk. Orlando Cepeda didn’t walk. Ernie Banks didn’t walk. Dave Kingman didn’t walk. Lee May … Willie Horton … Dave Parker … Matt Williams … Joe Adcock … some of the most intimidating hitters in the history of the game did not walk hardly at all. Walking is a real skill.

Let’s face it: Many people just don’t like walks. There’s something insubstantial about them; for many a walk is like getting on base on a technicality. And that’s OK. You don’t have to like walks. I don’t like pennies. I think they’re pointless and stupid; they clog up my pockets and my car ashtray, they clang around in the dryer, they drive me nuts. But 100 pennies is a dollar … 10,000 pennies is $100 … and a hundred million pennies is a million dollars. And if you are 12 cents short of a toll, you would be happy to find 12 pennies.

A walk is worth a lot more than a penny. A walk, I think, is worth a lot more than most people realize. That’s why I did this crazy exercise. To make that point.

OK … so now we’re through the explanations, we have come this, I figure I might as well go all the way and figure out something like a true batting average for every player with more than 5,000 plate appearances. This is just a simpler and dirtier version of some of the much, much, much better offensive stats out there like wOBA. All I did was trade in all of a players walks for singles … at a .65 exchange rate. That gave me a value batting average and a value slugging percentage (on-base percentage is now irrelevant). I multiplied those two numbers which gave me … something or other, I don’t really know. But it’s kind of a cool list. I’ll give you some of the highlights below.

First I’ll tell you: The best value batting average, as you might have guessed, belonged to Ted Williams (.440). The best value slugging percentage, as you might have guessed, belonged to Babe Ruth (.732). The worst value batting average belonged to the late great George McBride, who must have been the greatest fielder in the history of baseball because from 1911-14 he hit .220/.290/.270 … and he got MVP consideration EVERY YEAR. George McBride’s value batting average (.254) was quite a bit lower than anyone else’s. McBride’s value slugging percentage (.298) was BY FAR the worst in baseball history.

OK, so we’ll give you a list of the best players … skipping around after we get through the top few. The score is their 300*(value batting average * value slugging). Why 300? No reason — it just gave the numbers a little more oomph — I like showing Babe Ruth’s score a 95.0 rather than the percentage (.317). The order would be the same either way.

One more thing: These numbers are raw — I don’t have the math skills to consider park factors or era or any of that. I don’t really have the math skills to do what I’ve done. And so these numbers are skewed toward big offensive eras. If someone wants to do this with era and park considered … I’ll happily give you the blog for a day.

1. Babe Ruth (95.0)
2. Ted Williams (90.7)
3. Lou Gehrig (83.1)
4. Barry Bonds (79.5)
5. Albert Pujols (78.0)
— Yep, there’s Pujols. Fifth on the list. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the contract — I think the smart thing for him to do is stay in St. Louis. But I do know that another three or four more years of playing at his ordinary pace, we will have to start talking about whether Albert Pujols is the greatest hitter in baseball history. We really could start talking about it now.

6. Jimmie Foxx (77.1)
7. Rogers Hornsby (74.4)
8. Hank Greenberg (73.2)
9. Manny Ramirez (71.0)
— I think it’s fair to say there has never been another player like Manny Ramirez. I actually heard a couple of people arguing about whether Manny will ever go to the Hall of Fame. He has the steroid stain, he was a goofball, he often played defense with heroic indifference. And he almost always played for winners, and he’s one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game. How do you solve a problem like Manny?

10. Todd Helton (70.6)
— Here’s the irony of Coors Field: It undoubtedly helped players put up ENORMOUS numbers. And at exactly the same time, it undoubtedly made those numbers look like mirages. Todd Helton’s career numbers are .324/.424/.555 which are absurd. And you get the sense that if he had put up significantly WORSE numbers but played his whole career somewhere else, his career might be valued higher.

11. Mickey Mantle (70.3)
12. Frank Thomas (69.7)
13. Stan Musial (69.6)
14. Joe DiMaggio (67.9)
15. Mark McGwire (67.5)
16. Jim Thome (66.9)
17. Ty Cobb (66.7)
— If you told pretty much any baseball fan that you think Mark McGwire or Jim Thome was a better hitter than Ty Cobb, they would think you were off your rocker. And they might be right. But Cobb played a long time ago and baseball was a very, very different game. There was a much smaller pool of players to choose from — not only because the game did not include African Americans or dark-skinned Latinos, not only because the game did not extend out to other countries, but also because America was a much smaller country. There were only 83 million people living in America in 1905, when Cobb entered the Major Leagues. The game was played in the day, in the East, with a dead ball for most of Cobb’s years. I don’t have any reason to believe McGwire or Thome could have gone back to that era and played as well as the rough-and-tumble Cobb. But, similarly, I don’t have any reason to believe Cobb could be transported to our era and be as valuable as Thome or McGwire.

18. Lance Berkman (66.7)
19. Larry Walker (66.0)
20. Mel Ott (65.9)
— From here on, we will pick out a few interesting players. You have probably noticed that just about everyone on this list is from a certain time period — either the 1920s and 1930s or the Selig Era. Those were just the big offensive eras. There is nobody yet on the list who played predominantly in the 1970s, for instance. Only Mantle among the list so far got significant at-bats in the 1960s, and he was a very different player after 1961 (.277/.412/.508) than he was through 1961 (.308/.429/.579)

21. Chipper Jones (65.7)
— Wildly underrated even by people who pause to call him wildly underrated.

23. Jeff Bagwell (65.4)
— Third guy on the Hall of Fame ballot. Even beyond steroids, the numbers of the era were dramatically inflated. Rob Neyer brings up the point — and he’s right — that even forgetting PEDs we should try to keep the numbers of the Selig Era in context. A pitcher with a 2.50 ERA during Deadball is viewed very differently. A hitter with a .500 slugging percentage during the Selig Era should probably be viewed differently as well. Maybe, in the end, that is how we will all come to some consensus on the era — by simply marking everyone down a certain percentage.

28. Alex Rodriguez (64.5)
— Question for you: What has a better chance of happening?

1. Tiger Woods breaks Jack Nicklaus’ major record.
2. Alex Rodriguez breaks Barry Bonds’ home run record.
3. Both.
4. Neither.

31. Willie Mays (63.7)
— Someone could say that a system that ranks Willie Mays this low is, by definition, faulty. I would not disagree with that. This system is ridiculous.

37. Hank Aaron (61.9)
38. Albert Belle (61.5)
— How about this combination?

49 Dick Allen (60.4)
50. Gary Sheffield (60.2)
— Or this one?

54. Mike Schmidt (59.6)
— I was surprised he scored this low. But even with all his walks, his value batting average was “only” .344.

60. Jackie Robinson (58.3)
— He really was a great player even beyond his contribution as a pioneer.

69. Wade Boggs (57.6)
— The only player in the Top 84 who did not value slug .500.

82. John Olerud (56.6)
— He’s the guy who started this whole mess … Bill James thought that people were not valuing Olerud properly. On this list he ranks one below Juan Gonzalez, and one spot above Eddie Collins.

102. Al Kaline (54.6)
103. George Brett (54.6)
— Ridiculously low for two all-time greats. Their just wasn’t much offense going on during their eras.

167. Roberto Clemente (51.4)
— And if Kaline and Brett’s low ranking wasn’t enough to make you mad … hey, I’m just recording what those numbers show. This is as good a time as any to remind you that we are only talking offense here — and in a limited way. We are only talking about average and walks and power. There’s no measurement of speed or defense or arm, we’re not trying to say who are the best players but simply trying to find the hidden value of players who walked a lot. Clemente did not walk at all. His power numbers were crushed by the pitchers era he played in. This isn’t his kind of list.

196. Robbie Alomar (50.3)
197. Harold Baines (50.3)
— A couple of Hall of Fame ballot guys, the top guy got in, the bottom guy got knocked off the ballot. Of course, the top guy could run a little and played some pretty good defense.

247. Ichiro Suzuki (48.9)
— Like Clemente, this exercise doesn’t really do him justice. He doesn’t walk or hit with power.

265. Andruw Jones (48.5)
— The newest Yankee is two spots above Alfonso Soriano, three spots ahead of Tino Martinez.

291. Bobby Grich (47.9)
292. Lou Whitaker (47.9)
— Snubbed Hall of Fame victim Grich please meet Snubbed Hall of Fame victim Whitaker.

299. Tony Perez (47.6)
— I love Doggie, love the guy, and am very, very happy that he is in the Hall of Fame. But there’s no question that he’s one of those players — like Catfish Hunter, like Kirby Puckett, like Jim Rice, like a bunch of guys from the 1940s — who inspires lobbyists to crow about various other borderline candidates.

315. Johnny Damon (47.1)
— Reports have him signing with Tampa, which means he will be playing for his fourth different team in seven years. I do believe Johnny Damon will get to 3,000 hits. He is 429 hits short, and he’s just turned 37, and I have to think he has three years left in him — Bill James estimates his chances at 3,000 hits at 57%. Interesting though: I used to think that, hey, if Damon gets to 3,000 hits he would probably get to the Hall of Fame. That’s not to say I think Damon is a Hall of Famer. But it’s still a TINY group of players who have 3,000 hits — only 24 since 1900 — and truth is that every eligible 3,000 hit guy in the last 50 years not only went into the Hall but went first ballot.

UNTIL this year …when Rafael Palmeiro got almost no support despite his 3,000 hits. Now, Palmeiro’s lack of support has nothing whatsoever to do with his numbers. His perception problem is more chemical in nature. But I can’t help but think that once you exclude one 3,000-hit guy, for whatever reason, the standards change. Until 1991, every single player with 400 homers was inducted into the Hall of Fame. This caused a now-funny bit of Millennium Bug panic when Dave Kingman hit his 400th homer. What would the votes do? Dave Kingman was clearly not a Hall of Famer. But he hit 400 home runs! What would the voters do?

What the voters did was give Kingman exactly three votes. And from that point on, 400 homers was no longer a Hall of Fame standard. Darrell Evans hit 400 homers, and he walked a lot (Evans value is 47.9 — excellent for his era), and he offered defensive value, especially in his younger years. He got eight votes. The 400 home run line no longer existed, not because it meant less but because a one-dimensional slug like Dave Kingman achieved it. I think Palmeiro’s 3,000 hits — though it has nothing to do with the achievement — will end the 3,000-hits as automatic Hall of Famer standard as well.

322. Ryne Sandberg (46.9)
— I have a friend, a Cardinals fan, who has what even she would admit is an unhealthy dislike for Ryne Sandberg. When I once mentioned that maybe Sandberg could manage the Cardinals after La Russa left, she gave me a very dangerous look.

361. Cal Ripken (46.0)
— At age 30, Ripken was hitting .279/.349/.467 … which probably doesn’t look like much now, but that was after the 1991 season and it meant that he had a 126 OPS+. For a good defensive shortstop who played every single day, those were pretty extraordinary numbers, almost unprecedented numbers. You really had to back to the young Ernie Banks to find a shortstop who was that good as hitter for more that just a handful of years (Robin Yount became a terrific hitter his last five years as a shortstop; Rico Petrocelli had his moments, etc).

After age 30, Ripken hit .271/.329/.424 … which is certainly worse, but not seemingly that much worse. Take out his last two years and the line is .276/.336/.428 — about the same hitter but with the inevitable loss of power. His OPS+ after age 30? A not-so-robust 94. Ripken did change, no question. He lost much of his defensive footing, and his power dropped, and he never had a great year after 1991. But while everyone talks about how much Ripken changed, I think the era changed ever more.

665. Omar Vizquel (37.3)
759. Rabbit Maranville (33.2)

— I was just reading somewhere … Omar Vizquel has a chance this year to tie a couple of players (Luke Sewell and Rabbit Maranville) for most season in a career with an OPS+ less than 100. Sewell was a remarkably powerless catcher (he hit 20 homers in more than 6,000 plate appearances) who every now and again would hit for a decent average and suddenly get MVP consideration. He must have been some kind of remarkable defensively. Maranville is one of the early legends of the game, a Hall of Famer, a defensive marvel, a topic of many stories, despite his career 82 OPS+.

Vizquel is one of the legends of his time, he has been a defensive marvel and a topic of many stories despite his career 83 OPS+. Vizquel is a lot like Rabbit Maranville. The differences come from era (Maranville spent a lot of time in deadball). Realistically, neither one could hit, but they both “didn’t hit” for a long time. Both left people awestruck with their defense. Both did things on the field that stick with you. I suppose that it comes down to this: If you think Rabbit Maranville belongs in the Hall of Fame, you probably should think Omar Vizquel belongs. If not … not.

802. Ozzie Guillen (29.7)
— “I couldn’t hit for %##%@^#%.”

813. Mark Belanger (26.6)
814. Sandy Alomar Sr. (26.1)
815. Mickey Doolan (25.9)
816. Ed Brinkman (25.8)
817. George McBride (22.8)
— And that’s the end of the list.

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Behind the Back Page

Every now and again, someone will ask how I choose what to write for Sports Illustrated. It’s not an easy process to explain. It’s rarely a linear thing. Stories tend to come out of good conversations with editors and openings in the magazine’s space and sudden turns and good pitches and interesting twists of thought and a lot of passion. It’s kind of a magical thing, or at least it still feels that way to me. I have a list of story ideas in my computer that probably takes up more memory than Microsoft Word. And I know that 95% of them will become blog posts or will disappear into the ether. A few will somehow become magazine stories.

Saturday, Jan. 8 was my 44th birthday. I celebrated it by taking both girls to their basketball games and then, in early afternoon, flying to Phoenix for the BCS Championship Game. It was during my layover in Minneapolis that I heard something about a shooting in Tucson. The details were fuzzy, but it seemed that a congresswoman had been shot, some were reporting that she had died, some others had been shot too. Before anything had been cleared up, it was time to board a plane.

When we landed in Phoenix, it was dark, and I got lost on the way to the hotel — an event that happens with such regularity that I now incorporate it into my itinerary. I read something about the Arizona shooting when I got to the hotel, saw that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was alive but others had died. And I went to sleep.

All of that is to say that I did not see or hear the name Christina Taylor Green until I woke up early Sunday morning. I wake up early at hotels because my body refuses to accept the basic fact that my young daughters are not there to wake me up. It was still dark in Phoenix when I started to read about Christina. I didn’t know anything about her background then — that she was the daughter of Dodgers scout John Green or the granddaughter of Dallas Green. No, the thing I noticed, the thing that made me keep reading and keep reading was this: Christina was born in 9/11.

Our oldest daughter Elizabeth was born on 8/30 — 12 days before 9/11.

There were many, many people who lost a piece of themselves on 9/11. Beyond that, everyone in America has some connection. Mine was having a tiny baby girl sleeping in my arms as I watched the television, as we watched the towers crash to the ground. We were first time parents, and we were emotional anyway, and we were exhausted, and we were hopeful, and we were scared … and now we were watching everything go to hell. The clash of the promise of a little girl and the smoke at Ground Zero, it was too much for us to understand. When I saw when Christina was born, I thought of Elizabeth and I could not stop thinking of the two of them, the same age, liking many of the same things, being so much alike. And then I read how Christina had asked the neighbors to take her to meet Giffords because Christina had been elected to her school council and wanted to learn more about politics.

That’s about when I started crying. I don’t cry. I don’t say that proudly or with any shame, it just is, I am not an outwardly emotional person. But there, alone in a Phoenix hotel room, staring at a computer screen, I sobbed. I knew I wasn’t alone.

And not long after that I learned that John Green was her father and Dallas Green was her grandfather.

I didn’t go to Tucson knowing that I would write about this awful thing. I just needed to go. At Christina’s school, I saw a memorial made by children — teddy bears, ballet shoes, posters, billboards, photographs, ribbons, roses, all sorts of bright colors, the sort of thing you might expect to find in nine-year-old heaven. Behind the Safeway, where the shooting had taken place, I saw a parking lot surrounded by police tape, and I saw a father standing there with three well-dressed children. The two girls were wearing matching dresses. The boy was wearing a little jacket and a tie. I saw the father stand the three children against the police rope, with the crime scene in the background, and I saw him step back a few paces, pull out a camera and take their picture.

How do we make sense of this kind of madness? Six died here because of the loose wiring in the head of a lost soul. A woman was clinging to life in a hospital bed. Around the nation people argued about what it all meant — some arguing for gun control, some arguing for watching the mentally ill with more vigilance, some arguing for less vitriol, some arguing for less political opportunism, some arguing because there is always more time to fill. And a man took his family photograph in front of the police tape in a bloody parking lot.

I decided to write about John Green because I was overwhelmed by the strength he showed. He and his wife Roxanna, the way the handled themselves, the words they spoke — these seemed the one real thing to cling to in the swirling madness. Where does that strength come from? How do we keep going? I talked with some of John’s friends, his fellow baseball scouts, to ask them if the John Green that we were all seeing on television was the John Green they had known. It turned out he was. “A John Wayne character,” his friend Logan White said.

Sportswriters — we deal with losses that aren’t real losses. That’s part of what’s fun about the job. News reporters deal with tragedy all the time. They interview people who have lost everything. They talk with loved ones who are unsure how they will go on. They try to bring some kind of reason to madness. There is the old newspaper line — if it bleeds, it lead — and I suppose that cynicism will always be a big part of the way we digest the world around us. But, maybe it isn’t that people want to read or hear about tragedy. Maybe we want to read or hear about strength in the face of tragedy. Maybe we just want to believe, through it all, that people somehow go on.

My story on John and Christina Green is here and on the back page of Sports Illustrated this week.

My conversation with colleague Richard Deitsch about the story is here and in this week’s SI iPad app.

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Snow Day

Well, you voted for “Snow Day.” So here’s a Snow Day post. I have no idea what it’s about.

* * *

My favorite kind of snow days were always the kind I didn’t know about when I went to bed the night before. That goes along with a theory of life I came up with when I was about 11 years old — you never, ever are more comfortable than when you need to be doing something else. I have since come to realize that this is not a theory but fact, and that I did not come up with the theory anymore than I came up with the miraculous concept of changing my team’s sporting luck by shifting into a different watching position.*

*Many years ago, when I was just starting out at The Charlotte Observer, I went to Fayetteville, NC and wrote a story about Putt Putt founder Don Clayton. I was too young to fully appreciate his story, I think, because Clayton was one of those rare people you run into who is half myth, half real. He was kind of the Evel Knievel of miniature golf. He was a self-made millionaire who (if you believed the stories) once lived in a brothel and was once almost shot by his stepfather and once almost had a nervous breakdown when he was trying to sell insurance and so on. I wasn’t yet equipped to deal with the many layers of that sort of story. It was like giving a student driver a Formula One car. Don died about 15 years ago.

Anyway, I could only follow the basics: One day after playing miniature golf on some crummy dirt course swarming with bees and lazy windmills that turned half-heartedly, Don decided that he could do way better. And so he created a classier kind of miniature golf, with green mats that were cleaned daily and multi-colored balls (that disappeared on the 18th hole) and no windmill gimmicks. Over time, he added fun centers with video games. Over time, he started promoting Putt Putt with commercials (“Putt Putt for the fun of it!”) and with a televised Putt Putt competition which featured putting savants and was announced by Clayton and Billy Packer. Billy was a GREAT Putt-Putt announcer, by the way.

In any case, I bring him up here because of one extraordinary thing he told me that I DID include in the story. He said that wherever he would go around country and around the world — because he built Putt Putt courses in many other countries — he would see the same thing again and again. He would see a child, no older than 3, trying to putt the ball into the hole. And after ineffectively smacking the ball around a few dozen times, they would all do the same thing. They would grab the ball, put it right next to the hole, and putt it in. They never put the ball IN the hole. No. They put it right next to the hole and putted it in. When our youngest daughter was three, she played miniature golf, and sure enough she did PRECISELY the same thing.

And I’m sure she thought she had invented it.

My version of the “You are never more comfortable” theory goes like so: You are lying on the couch watching something kind of pointless on TV — for me it might be a cooking show where the host is making something with artichokes and cabbage, or a home improvement show where the host is tearing down a wall to expand his bathroom. I will never do either of these things, ever. But in that bored stupor, I will start thinking about it. No, I don’t like artichokes and cabbage, but maybe if I add leeks the flavor will entirely change. And, hey, maybe I could tear down the wall in the downstairs bathroom and make that thing bigger. There’s absolutely no chance of these things happen — it is literally a zero percent chance, zero, it is more likely that someone will invent a flying pill and I will away fly to China before either of these things happen. Still, I will watch these shows when I have nothing else to do (or nothing else that I particularly want to do).

And in that situation, I am never entirely comfortable. Ever. I want a Diet Coke to drink. The volume’s too loud or too quiet. The couch cushions aren’t right, or I’m a little bit hot, or the sun is coming through the windows in an annoying way, or it’s too dark in the room or SOMETHING.

Now, different situation: I have to shovel the driveway right now. No, really, this is true. Our driveway is an absolute mess, and we have someone flying into town (for reasons I’d rather not get into), and I HAVE to go outside and shovel the driveway, there’s no way around it. And I have to tell you that my chair here in my office, which is slightly broken and leans badly to the right and was never especially agreeable in the first place, has suddenly become the most comfortable chair on planet earth. No, I’m completely serious. My wife is shouting from downstairs, the girls are getting dressed so they can “help,” and this stupid office chair suddenly feels like the bed they carried Cleopatra around in … I’m waiting for someone to drop grapes in my mouth.*

*Through the magic of time-lapse blogging, I am writing this Pozterisk AFTER I have shoveled the driveway. In truth, I don’t shovel anymore — that’s the wrong verb. I shoveled driveways until I was 43 years old. I believed in shoveling because I grew up in Cleveland, and I have been shoveling driveways since I was 6, and this was one theme that I carried with me, like the Cleve-bonic plague: Real people shovel driveways. Then last year, I had two revelations at about the same time. (1) People seem to have heart attacks while shoveling driveways and (2) Nobody else even understands my shoveling principle, much less admires me for them. So, I got a snow-blower, which inspired a third revelation: (3) What in the hell have I been thinking all these years?

So, I revved up the snowblower and cleaned out the driveway, opened up the paths to the neighbors (imagining all the while that the snowblower was Pac-Man chomping dots … hey, you clear your driveway your way, and I’ll do it mine), and about threw out my back because snow blower or not I’m in terrible shape. Now I’m back in my chair and, as expected, it it not one-one-thousandth as comfortable as it was before I went out there to shovel. In fact, this is the least comfortable chair in the bleepin’ house. My back hurts. This stupid chair leans so far to the right I feel like a tourist attraction. I have to finish this stupid post because I put up a poll about it. Nothing feels right at the moment.

Built around this theory — unexpected snow days were the best ever. I never slept better than I did on a surprise snow day. I’d wake up like one of those kids on Christmas morning in one of those holiday movies, sprightly, full of life, wondering why it was so bright, wondering why nobody had kicked my bed for school. And slowly it would dawn on me: SNOW DAY! And that was the best feeling in the entire world.

When you become an adult, snow days are not nearly as cool as they used to be … and by this I mean they suck. The roads suck. The other drivers suck. The biting cold sucks. Brushing snow off your car sucks. Waiting for the heat to kick in sucks. Slipping on ice sucks. Going to supermarket sucks. Going to work sucks (and except for a few there ARE no work snow days). The wind blowing snow back on your driveway after you’ve shoveled sucks. It all kind of sucks.

Except … this morning, woke up, and even thought it was cloudy outside it was also bright, the kind of glitter only snow provides. It’s sort of like turning up the brightness level on your computer only it’s that way for the WHOLE WORLD. The snow looks beautiful in the morning, before the footprints, before the plows push slush. Everything feels peaceful. The girls were running around in their pajamas, thrilled beyond belief about the snow day, the youngest looking every bit like Cindy Lou Who. They were so happy — for them this day is a little bit of a miracle. They were supposed to go to school. And then, God dropped a lot of cold white rain on the world and granted them a day of Polly Pockets, board games and sledding. They look in the refrigerator for carrots in case they get to build a snowman.

And, yeah, I don’t ever want to get old enough that I can’t help but get caught up in that, at least a little bit. I’m not that far removed from childhood, am I? I watch them, and I remember one of my best friends growing up, his father had a trick knee which would hurt whenever it was about to rain really hard or snow. This was in North Carolina, so snow didn’t come often, but the knee never failed to predict rain. I remember one day my friend calling me late and saying: “There won’t be any school tomorrow. Dad’s knee hurts.” I looked outside. It was clear. It didn’t seem very cold either. And it was North Carolina, where it didn’t snow. I set the alarm clock like always, and I went to bed.

The next morning, I woke up — my alarm clock had not gone off. It was bright outside. I was going to miss school. I jumped out of bed, started to do the fireman dressing thing, and then I looked outside … and there was snow everywhere. Everywhere. A miracle. My parents had turned off the alarm clock and let me sleep. The day was so bright I had to cover my eyes. That’s how it is outside now … so bright I have to cover my eyes. But I look at the girls and I remember: Kids don’t cover their eyes.

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The Mom Perspective

I wrote about our daughter’s first goal. Well, so did Margo. Leave a message, she’d appreciate it.

Also … have to pass along our good friend Tommy Tomlinson’s latest contribution to JoeWords.

Comflict (n): A stupid, silly argument that almost never happens in real life but happens all the time in sitcoms.

You can leave your own comflict suggestions in the comments.

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Trading 500 for 325

In Bill James’ epic series on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot — today he posted the third part of the four part series (subscription required) — he makes a statement that is a little bit different from what I had heard before. He wrote this: “500 walks, according to people who study this, have almost the same value as 325 singles.”

I suppose I HAVE heard things along this line — I have heard, for instance, that, walks are worth .6 or .7 of a hit, and this is really just a different mathematical way of showing the same thing. But I had never quite heard the conversion rate put plainly like that: 500 walks = 325 singles. When it is put plainly like that, I think it makes a lot of sense. Ask yourself this: When is a single significantly better than a walk? Or maybe it’s better to first ask: When is a single NO BETTER than a walk.

I’d say a single is no better in these situations:

— With nobody on base, a single and a walk are exactly the same — no difference whatsoever.
— If you have a runner on first who moves to second on a single — no difference whatsoever.
— If you have a runner on first and second, and a single loads the bases — no difference.
— If you have a runner on third, and a single somehow doesn’t score him (infield single, maybe) — no difference.
— If you have the bases loaded, and a single scores one run — no difference.

That seems to cover most of the scenarios. A single is more valuable when the baserunner can advance an extra base (going first to third, second to home, etc.) or when a runner can take a base that is not a FORCED base (scoring from third on a single, moving second to third on a single, etc.) People who have done the math on this figure that this makes singles about 35% more valuable than walks. I’d say that sounds like a good number. To be honest, my gut instinct would say that walks are closer in value to singles than that, but let’s go with that equation: 500w = 325s.

The question then is: What if we allowed players, at the end of their career, to cash in 500 walks for 325 singles? This would do three basic things for their Hall of Fame case.

1. It would make their batting averages look better.
2. It would make their on-base percentages a bit worse.
3. It would add a bit to their slugging percentages.

Bill brings up this walks-for-singles credit swam in reference to John Olerud, who Bill believes is not only a viable Hall of Fame candidate but a strong one. Bill thinks that the voters really missed it when it comes to Olerud*, and he makes a strong point. The point is made stronger with the 500 for 325 trade. Olerud hit .295/.398/.465 for his career. So he is one of those players who, much of his offensive value was in how often he walked. We probably should be at the point in our baseball timeline where everyone can appreciate walks for what they are, but ieven now their value often gets lost.

So, if Olerud trades in 500 walks for 325 singles, and his batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage line suddenly looks like this: .324/.386/.487.

That line might look a lot better to you. Does a first baseman with a lifetime .324 batting average belong in the Hall of Fame? Well every single eligible player with a .320 batting average is in the Hall of Fame except one (min. 6000 plate appearances). The one who is not in the Hall? The great Babe Herman, who hit .324, and according to legend, fielded at about that same percentage.

In any case, Olerud is one of the rare players in baseball history who can spare 175 times on base and still maintain a healthy on-base percentage. Most of the guys on the ballot can’t do it — some (like Raul Mondesi, Benito Santiago and, believe it or not, Juan Gonzalez) literally can’t do it because they did not walk 500 times in their entire careers. Others can’t do it because their on-base percentages would drop to about league average. Yes, Don Mattingly’s batting average would skyrocket to an impressive .338, but his on-base percentage would drop to an unimpressive .343. You need to be a certain kind of player to make the deal, a high-walk kind of player who could use a few extra batting average points to impress the voters.

One player on this year’s ballot who would be helped by the trade, I think, is Edgar Martinez. It’s not like Edgar’s .312/.418/.515 line lacks Hall of Fame sparkle, but it seems like Martinez — partly because he was a DH for much of his career, partly because he spent his career playing after a couple of time zones had called it a night, partly because he was overshadowed by some of the home run mashers of his era — is still not exactly appreciated for being the historically great hitter that he was. Well, we’ll get to him in a minute. Let’s take a look at the 500 for 325 trade for a few of the more interesting players on the ballot, and also a special guest star:

— Mark McGwire
Actual line: .263/.394/.588
After the trade: .300/.380/.609
Make the trade: Absolutely

Mark McGwire did two things remarkably well in his career.* He hit home runs. And he drew walks. The first thing everyone knows about, and it now largely discounted because of his steroid admission. The walking part, though, has been largely overlooked. McGwire — and, hey, I’ve been guilty of this too — has a low batting career average which makes him seem like a one-trick pony, a Kingman for the Selig Era. But he walked more than 1,300 times and so his .394 on-base percentage actually ranks him 10th out of the 25 players in the 500-homer club, ahead of among others: Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt and Alex Rodriguez.

So if McGwire traded in his 500 walks, his on-base percentage drops to .380 … which is still middle of the pack among the 500-homer guys. But now he has a shiny .300 batting average so that people will stop calling him a one-dimensional offensive player.

*A few people also brought up after my Gil Meche column that McGwire walked away from a $30 million extension at the end of his career because he knew he was not worth it. This is absolutely true and McGwire should be recognized for that. BUT, I don’t think it was quite like Meche. What happened was McGwire and the St. Louis Cardinals agreed verbally to a two-year, $30 million extension that McGwire did not sign. Then he had a miserable season — he was clearly done. I assume the Cardinals would have stuck to their word if McGwire demanded the contract be drawn up, but frankly had McGwire signed the extension then he would have been widely ripped and it would have created quite a scene and it would have led to two years of general ugliness. He gracefully stepped off the stage, but that’s not the same thing. What Meche did — retiring with $12.4 million still DUE to him — is, best I can tell, unique in sports history.

— Rafael Palmeiro
Actual line: .288/.371/.515
After the trade: .310/.361/.528
Make the trade: Probably not.

Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame problem is not his numbers. It is his positive steroid test and his lack of a great peak. He could make the trade and get his average over 300, but then his on-base percentage drops some, and I don’t think it would change the perception of him at all. Everyone knows Palmeiro was a good hitter.

— Fred McGriff
Actual line: .284/.377/.509
After the trade: .310/.366/.527
Make trade: Yes.

McGriff’s rate numbers are almost identical to Palmeiro’s. The problem with McGriff’s Hall of Fame resume is that:

(1) He didn’t QUITE last long to reach the magic numbers Palmeiro reached of 3,000 hits (he had 2,490) or 500 homers (he had 493).

(2) Though he has never been connected to PEDs, his numbers have sort of gotten lost in the post Selig Era jadedness.

McGriff walked more than Palmeiro and so can afford to make the trade a bit more. But more to the point, he needs something to jolt people, he needs the voters to take a harder look at him. While no one doubts Palmeiro’s number case, people have never quite warmed to McGriff’s number case. If he makes the trade, he has a glittery .310 batting for everyone to appreciate while his .366 on-base percentage is still better than average. I’d say he should do it.

— Jeff Bagwell
Actual line: .297/.408/.540
After the trade: .325/.396/.558
Make the trade: Sure, why not?

Bagwell’s actual .408 on-base percentage should blow away the voters … but it really doesn’t. Cash in a few walks, and his on-base percentage still stays around .400, but now his batting average is .325 and that his hard to ignore.

— Dale Murphy
Actual line: .265/.346/.469
After the trade: .294/.333/.490
Make the trade: No.

It doesn’t help the Murph’s case at all.

— Harold Baines
Actual line: .289/.356/.465
After the trade: .312/.345/.482
Make the trade: Probably

It doesn’t matter how you shift Harold Baines numbers … it keeps coming up “Professional hitter.” The trade would give Baines a .300 batting average, but it would drop his on-base percentage to just above league average. Eh, make the deal.

— Larry Walker
Actual line: .313/.400/.565
After the trade: .344/.387/.585
Make the trade: Yes.

Walker’s numbers are downplayed because of Coors Field. And that’s fair. But are people making TOO BIG an adjustment? His 140 OPS+ suggests he was a superior player, and OPS+ takes into account both the hitting joys of Coors Field AND the big numbers of his era. If he makes the deal his on-base percentage stays quite high. But now he’s stuffing a .344 batting average at you — that’s TED WILLIAMS batting average.* Sure, cash in those 500 walks.

*Speaking of Williams, no player in baseball history is more fit to make the 500 walks for 325 hits trade than Williams. His .482 career on-base percentage, in addition to looking like a misprint, is the best in baseball history. He can easily give away a few walks to pick up a few singles, and I have little doubt that he would have loved to do that.

In fact, Williams’ walk total is so high that he is actually in position to cash in ONE THOUSAND WALKS. For that, he would get 650 singles. His on-base percentage would then drop to .462, which would move him into second place behind Babe Ruth (third behind John McGraw if you want to count his 1890s numbers).

But his batting average would jump up to .395, and his slugging percentage would soar to .662. Yes, I think he’d make that deal.

— Dave Parker
Actual line: .290/.339/.471
After the trade: .314/.327/.488
Make the trade: Probably

He is off the ballot, so it doesn’t really matter. And making this trade would make his already suspect on-base percentage drop below league average. But Andre Dawson made it with a .323 career on-base percentage so I think Parker would make the deal and trumpet the impressive-looking .314 batting average.

— Edgar Martinez
Actual line: .312/.418/.515
After the trade: .341/.405/.536
Make the trade: Abso-freaking-lutely.

Edgar was so good at getting on base that he could just give away 175 times on base and STILL keep his on-base percentage above .400. His batting average would soar up to .341, and people might finally realize that when it came to hitting a baseball very hard, very often there are not many people in baseball history better than Edgar.

— Don Mattingly
Actual line: .307/.358/.471
After the trade: .338/.343/.495
Make the trade: No.

It would be nice for Mattingly to have that .338 career batting average for everyone to see. But everyone knows Mattingly was a great hitter — the questions about his Hall of Fame candidacy come down to his longevity and positional value. Anyway, Mattingly only walked 583 times in his career. He simply doesn’t half the walks to cash in.

— Barry Larkin
Actual line: .295/.371/.444
After the trade: .323/.356/.466
Make the trade: Yes.

If Barry Larkin had a .323 batting average — even if his on-base percentage dropped into the .350s — he’d have been elected first ballot. And he should have been elected first ballot.

— Alan Trammell
Actual line: .285/.352/.415
After the trade: .312/.334/.437
Make the trade: Probably not.

Bill, in his Hall of Fame breakdown, offers some statistics that suggest Trammell, while being Hall of Fame worthy, was not as good a player as Barry Larkin. Meanwhile, this WAR chart suggests that they were awfully, awfully similar. Either way, I don’t think that the increase in Trammell’s batting average would help his Hall of Fame case as much as it would help Larkin, especially because it would knock Trammell’s on-base percentage down into barely-average levels. I do hope that when Larkin gets elected next year — and I do believe he will get elected next year — that people will really take a hard, hard look at Alan Trammell’s career.

NOT ON THE BALLOT BONUS
— Lou Whitaker
Actual line: .276/.363/.426
After the trade: .300/.348/.447
Make the trade: Every day and twice on Sundays.

Bill gets into some theories about why Whitaker — who was the obvious baseball twin of his double-play partner and alter-ego Alan Trammell — fell off the ballot his first time around while Trams has coughed and wheezed on the ballot for a few years now. He discusses and dismisses a couple of theories (the race theory, the shortstop theory) before basically settling on the fact the Whitaker was kind of a space cadet as a player. Bill’s words: Space cadet.

I actually think the reason is something else. I think it simply comes down to Whitaker’s .276 batting average. I am usually against oversimplifying things, but in this case I think the simple answer is probably the right one. I think a lot of people looked at Whitaker, said: “Oh, nice player, but certainly not a Hall of Famer, not hitting .276.” And then they moved on. I don’t think there is a more bland looking number in baseball than the .276 batting average. There are a couple of players in the Hall — Cal Ripken and Roy Campanella — who hit .276, but Ripken had the streak and two MVPs, and Campanella had the quote (“You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in your too”) and two MVPs. Mostly .276 means Richie Hebner and Greg Luzinski and Bob Cerv — fine players but not quite Hall of Famers. And Lou Whitaker.

So, absolutely Whitaker makes this deal. It sends his batting average up to .300, his on-base percentage still stays above average, and people might come to appreciate just how good a player Lou Whitaker really was.

— Tim Raines
Actual line: .294/.385/.425
After the trade: .319/.373/.445
Make the trade: Yes

Raines, as I and many of his other fans have written and said many times, reached base more times than Tony Gwynn in a career of almost exactly the same length. To me, that’s all that really needs to be said. They are both corner outfielders and they are contemporaries. Tony Gwynn is in the Hall of Fame largely because he hit singles. Only five players since 1900 hit more singles than Gwynn. He also hit a lot of doubles (25th on the all-time list). Well, Raines mixed singles and walks and reached base even more than Gwynn … and of course, he stole 500 more bases than Gwynn while only getting caught 21 more times. It’s hard for me to see how you could think of Tony Gwynn as a Hall of Famer but not Tim Raines. And since almost EVERYBODY sees Tony Gwynn as a Hall of Famer … well, yes, it is frustrating that it is taking people so long to appreciate just how good Tim Raines was as a player.

Maybe if he cashed in a few of his walks, he could get people to see it. Would Raines be a more viable Hall of Fame candidate with a .319 batting average even if it meant giving up some on-base percentage points? I think for many people, yes, he would be more viable. Raines, in fact, might have more to gain with the trade than anyone else on the ballot. I wish we could make this trade for him just so people could see him a bit more clearly.

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The Retirement of Meche

From the start, I thought the Kansas City Royals got a bad rap when they gave Gil Meche a 5-year, $55 million contract. That was before the 2007 season, and up to that point Meche’s career numbers were 55-44 with an unimpressive 4.65 ERA, an equally unimpressive 96 ERA+, and a penchant for giving up walks and home runs. He had just turned 28 years old.

These numbers, and others like them, strongly suggested the Meche was not worth anything close to $11 million a year … strongly suggested, in fact, that the cash-poor Royals might have been out of their minds. Many people said this out loud. A few — like then-Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, who had been trying to sign Meche — also took some shots at Meche for lacking the fortitude to play for a team that had a chance to compete. It was a open season on the Royals and Meche. And, like I say, from the start I thought it was unfair.

Here’s why I thought it was unfair: Was Meche worth $11 million a year? Of course not … if you are measuring worth by the way we as fans perceive value. But based on the way baseball teams perceive value? He was a healthy 28-year-old pitcher with some experience, great stuff, and he was showing some signs of becoming a good pitcher. And pitchers of that genre get paid.

— A.J. Burnett at 32 got $16 million a year.
— Chan Ho Park at 29 got $13 million a year.
— Carlos Silva at 29 got $12 million a year.
— Vincente Padilla at 29 got $11-plus million a year.
— Darren Dreifort at 28 got $11 million a year.
— Jeff Suppan at 32 got $10-plus million a year.
— Carl Pavano at 29 got $10 million a year.
— Eric Milton at 29 got about $9 million a year.
— Matt Morris at 31 got $9 million a year.
— Andy Ashby at 33 got about $8 million a year.

And so on. Some of these pitchers had pitched better than Meche, but I think they are all in about the same age range, all with various talents, all with various drawbacks, all risks, all making about what Meche was offered by the Royals. Truth is that at least one other team, and perhaps two or three, had offered close to what the Royals offered in money per year terms, which tells you that a few baseball teams (and it only takes one) had set Meche’s price at about $10 or $11 million per year. The Royals, I feel certain, were the only team to offer a fifth year, and they did this because there was no other way they could sign the guy. And they wanted him badly. They thought he had a chance to have a stabilizing effect on a team that had lost 310 games the previous three seasons and had clearly lost its way. They also thought he was ready to emerge. They were throwing deep in an effort to begin turning around a crummy ballclub. And they got battered for it.

The Royals have not been right very often in the last couple of decades. But it turned out they were right on the timing of Gil Meche. He WAS ready to emerge. He had this power curveball that really was quite unlike what almost anyone else threw, and he had a good change-up to go along with his erratic but lively fastball, and perhaps more than anything he had reached a maturity level where he was now taking his baseball career quite seriously. Meche would say that at times things had come too easily to him — he had been a first-round pick out of high school, he was pitching in the big leagues with some success at age 20 — and he had never really dedicated himself to the craft.

And in 2007 and 2008 for the Royals he was one of the better pitchers in the American League. He posted a 117 ERA+, his strikeout to walk ratio jumped significantly (339 to 135), he pitched 210 innings both years, his Fangraphs value was about $19 million, which is almost precisely what the Royals actually paid him for those two years.

And while such things usually are overrated … he really did offer a kind of value to the Royals that is difficult to measure. For one thing, he talked a lot to Zack Greinke. You always saw the two guys off somewhere talking over things. Meche was an outwardly modest guy who would never take any credit at all for helping Greinke overcome some of the difficulties he faced. But Greinke gave him loads of credit. When Meche signed with the Royals before the 2007 season, Greinke was a 23-year-old reliever who had only a year earlier walked away from baseball. In 2009, Greinke won the Cy Young award. Meche played some role in that. Greinke signed with the Royals rather than becoming a free agent. Meche had some role in that too. It wasn’t just Greinke. Meche was always — ALWAYS — trying to help out. That was what the Royals had bet on. And that is what the Royals got.

I have written at great length about Meche’s doomed 2009 season. I’ll try to keep it a lot shorter here. He’d had some back problems in spring training, a bad sign for a 30-year-old pitcher, but he seemed to think that things would stretch out as the weather warmed up and as he reached full throttle. And he seemed to be right. By the middle of June he was pitching about as well as he had pitched in 2007 and 2008. He had a 3.70 ERA after throwing seven shutout innings at Cleveland. He threw 115 pitches in Cleveland — Meche tended to be a high pitch-count guy because of strikeouts and walks. Next time out, he was back home facing Arizona and he pitched brilliantly but, again, somewhat inefficiently. Royals manager Trey Hillman left him out there to throw 132 pitches in a shutout. It seemed a bit much for a guy with a balky back but Meche wanted to stay in, he expected to stay in, and you can’t blame a manager for sticking with his veteran guy. “He knows his body,” Hillman said, not for the last time.

At that moment, Gil Meche had a 3.31 ERA, and along with Greinke the Royals seemed to have a pretty good 1-2 pitching punch. You could not know at that moment that Gil Meche would never again be the same. But that’s kind of how it turned out.

His next two outings were miserable — 13 runs in 8 1/3 innings — and the Royals talked openly about skipping Meche’s next start because he was exhibiting “dead arm,” which, as I wrote at the time, does not seem like an official medical term. The Royals were always saying goofy things like “He has dead arm,” — I would not have been surprised if the Royals had started announcing injuries by saying that a player had a “hitch in his giddy-up” or a “major boo boo.” In any case, they thought about skipping Meche start but after a couple of days of not throwing Meche said he felt fine and the Royals, for reasons that are as baffling now as they were then, had Meche make his regularly scheduled start. The Royals were not in a pennant race, of course. They were not close to a pennant race, of course. The reasoning behind not skipping a start with a dead-arm pitcher they had paid $55 million was not even convoluted — it was nonexistent. Gil said he felt fine. That was it. That was the reasoning. So he pitched. The Royals did say that they would monitor Meche’s pitch count.

I have no doubt that the Royals “monitored” Meche’s pitch count, as monitor means “to observe and check the progress.” However, they did not actually take him out of the game. The details, as detailed in my piece above, are still as gory to me as the Marvin ear scene in “Reservoir Dogs.” They left him in for 121 pitches, the last 22 of them so labored and cruel that I expected malpractice lawyers to rush the scene. The explanations afterward had something to do with Meche wanting to stay in and that his stuff looked good, and I don’t know what else. It was just a mistake, though no one would admit it. The Royals, apparently trying to prove a point, let Meche throw 115 pitches the outing AFTER THAT. It was like jumping on top of him from the top rope two times in a row. Meche made one more start after that before going on the disabled list for a month. After he returned, he had an 8.14 ERA in four miserable starts. He started 2010 on the disabled list. His first nine starts in 2010, he had a 6.66 ERA and walked more than he struck out. That was when the doctors told him that he needed to shut it down and have shoulder surgery that would sideline him for more than a year, if not for the rest of his career.

He refused. He thought the Royals deserved better than that. Instead he went to the bullpen and tried to help out from there. Pitching one painful inning at a time he did manage six holds and a 2.08 ERA in 13 September innings.

Gil Meche has never blamed the Royals for what happened, not once, and in fact has said again and again and again that they did the right things and what happened would have happened no matter what. When a team gives a player a huge, long-term contract … their hope is that he will live up to it. Gil Meche pitched well when he was healthy, and when he got hurt he did all he could to get back on the field, and he always did everything he could do off the field to make the Royals better. He embraced the responsibility of his contract and gave the Royals everything he had including the continued use of his right shoulder. He did not make the Royals a winner or anything close because he could not, because the Royals had a mostly lousy team with no noticeable strengths except for a little bit of right-handed pitching. But he was a lot like the Black Knight from Monty Python. He kept on fighting, all the while shouting “It’s only a flesh wound.”

On Tuesday, Gil Meche finished off his contract in the most unbelievable way — perhaps the most unbelievable finish in Major League baseball history: He walked away from the money. He retired. He left behind $12.4 million guaranteed that was legally and rightfully his because he had determined that he could not help the Kansas City Royals anymore.

I’ve seen a few pieces on the Internet lauding his integrity for walking away from that money … but frankly I’m stunned at the rather passive way most of the people are lauding him. THE MAN WALKED AWAY FROM $12.4 MILLION DOLLARS. If that has ever happened before in the history of professional sports, I have never heard about it. If that has ever happened in the history of the world outside of the movie “Arthur,” I am forgetting the story. Gil Meche had earned that $12.4 million — earned it by signing with the Royals, earned it by pitching his heart out, earned it by working with Zack Greinke and others, earned it by giving up his baseball future, earned it by signing the contract on that day before the 2007 season.

But he doesn’t feel that way. He feels like he can’t pitch anymore, and so the right thing to do is retire. Sure, he could have had surgery and collected the money. Sure, he could have tried to pitch in relief and collected the money. What percentage of people would do that? I’d say 99.999999999%. Hey, that money was his — it was legally his for signing the contract, it was rightfully his for fulfilling his end of the contract, it was medically his for giving up his right shoulder for the Royals, it was ethically his because nobody could doubt he went above and beyond for the Kansas City Royals.

But he doesn’t feel like he can help the Royals by pitching in 2011. And so he is walking away. It would be wrong to call an extremely rich pitcher “heroic” for leaving behind money he doesn’t feel like he deserves — that’s just not the right word. I wrote a piece for the backpage of SI this week about John Green, father of Christina Green, and that’s where words like “heroic” should go. But there should be a word for what Gil Meche did. Astonishing is one.

“There’s no settlement,” Meche said on a conference call. “The team’s done enough for me.”

He said those words without irony. Four years ago, when the Royals were looking for someone to help change the culture of baseball’s worst team, they signed Gil Meche. For various reasons, it didn’t turn out exactly the way the Royals or Meche wanted. That happens. But it’s clear: The Royals signed the right man.

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The Payoff of Playoffs

We, as American sports fans, like endings. I think that speaks a little bit to who we are. We tend to think of September baseball games being more important than April games. We tend to think of sports heroics in the fourth quarter being more meaningful than heroics in the second. We tend to put more stock into great Sunday finishes in golf than great Thursday opening rounds. I think the vast majority of us believe in the fairness of playoffs over the fairness of extended excellence, the value of single elimination games over the value of many weeks of consistent winning. Like I say: I think that speaks a little to who we are.

Let’s start with a quick review of the NFL playoff system. This is the 21st year of the bye system as we know it in the NFL playoffs. Between 1978 and 1989 (not counting the 1982 strike season), there were only two games the first weekend — the two games featured the league’s four wildcard teams. There were only six divisions in the NFL then, so the six division winners would all get a first-week bye. The two wildcard winners would match up with the six division winners in Week 2. In those years, wildcard Oakland won the Super Bowl (winning at Cleveland in the Red Right 88 game) and the 1985 Patriots reached the Super Bowl before getting pulverized by the ’85 Bears. Other than that, wildcard teams had fairly limited influence on the playoffs.

Starting in 1990, the NFL changed the system, adding one wildcard team to each conference. That meant the division winner with the worst record in each conference stopped getting a bye and had to play a wildcard team that first weekend. That’s when the system we know it began — four teams got byes, the other eight (six which were wildcards) did not.

From 1990 to 2001, teams that had byes the first weekend went 39-9 in their first playoff game. That’s an 81% winning percentage. And that makes a lot of sense. Teams with byes SHOULD win a vast, vast, vast majority of the time, right? You have the best of the division winners, rested, playing at home, they should win something like 80% of the time. It was set up so that the best teams during the season were given huge advantages. And those advantages paid off almost every time. It’s instructive to take a look at those nine games when the bye team lost:

1992: Buffalo beat Pittsburgh 24-3.
— The teams had the same record (11-5), but Buffalo had to play the first weekend because of tiebreakers. They beat Houston that first weekend in the famous Frank Reich game, coming back from 35-3 in the second half. And they manhandled Pittsburgh; it’s pretty clear they were the better team.

1993: Kansas City beat Houston 28-20
— Again, the teams were pretty close during the season, Houston was 12-4, Kansas City 11-5. There always seemed something insubstantial about those run-and-shoot Oilers.

1995: Green Bay beat San Francisco 27-17.
— Two division winners again, both with the same 11-5 record. San Francisco got the bye because of tiebreakers. Green Bay had a young and ascending Brett Favre.

1995: Indianapolis beat Kansas City 10-7
— Our first major upset, and people in Kansas City have never stopped thinking about it. Lin Elliott missed three field goals for the Chiefs.

1996: Jacksonville beat Denver 30-27
— Our second major upset, and people in Denver probably have lived it down since the Broncos won the next two Super Bowls.

1997: Denver beat Kansas City 14-10
— The Chiefs had beaten the Broncos in the regular season on a last second 54-yard field goal by Pete Stoyanovich to secure the division and the bye. And the game itself, like all close NFL games, has been dissected again and again in Kansas City (you can ask any obsessed Chiefs fan about phantom holding penalties and whether or not Tony Gonzalez was in bounds). The Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl.

1999: Tennessee beat Indianapolis 19-16
— Both teams had gone 13-3 during the regular season, though the Titans had lost the division to the 14-2 Jaguars. They were very close in quality, I would say, and the game was very close. Peyton Manning, in only his second year, had a bad game and the rumblings about his ability to win playoff games would begin right around this time.

2000: Baltimore beat Tennessee 24-10
— Like in 2000, the two best teams in the conference were probably in the same division. Tennessee had won the division with a 13-3 record. But you could argue convincingly that the 12-4 Ravens were better. In fact, the Ravens made a rather convincing argument on the field, and in the Super Bowl too.

2001: Philadelphia beat Chicago 33-19
— Two division winners and though the Bears had the better record (13-3 to Philadelphia’s 11-5), they had the same point differential and the Eagles really beat up the Bears in Chicago.

There was order in the NFL playoffs. Yes, there were upsets but they clearly WERE upsets, things that did not happen often, things that usually happened for a reason.

In 2002, the system changed — but it didn’t seem a particularly big change. The league expanded to eight divisions. So that meant there were now eight division champions instead of six. To compensate, the NFL wisely (methinks) eliminated two wildcard teams, going back to four. So that meant there were still 12 teams getting into the playoffs. And four of those 12 — the two division winners with the best records in each league — got a first round bye.

On the surface, it would not seem the system should change much. The same number of teams were making the playoffs. Two of the wildcards were replaced with division winners … but that just seems to be cosmetics. In 2002, everything looked about the same. The four bye teams all won their first playoff games and by a total of 115-52. Only one of those games — Tennessee’s 34-31 overtime win over Pittsburgh — was even remotely close.

But something kind of bizarre has happened since 2003. That something might just be a fluke or a statistical anomaly, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

Since 2003, bye teams have gone just 18-14 in their first playoff games.

Since 2005, it’s even more stark — bye teams are just 12-12.

Think about that for a moment. Bye teams have:

(1) The best regular season records.
(2) Home field advantage.
(3) An extra week to rest and prepare.

That’s a pretty sizable advantage, isn’t it? You take what looks like the superior team, you play the game at their stadium in front of their fans and you give them an extra week’s preparation. You would expect that team to win almost every time wouldn’t you? But the last six years, the bye team has lost as many times as it has won.

Is this good for pro football? I would say largely that it is. I love the NFL playoffs. I love the randomness of it. The NFL is built around that Any Given Sunday credo, and the game thrives largely because of that. You really don’t know what’s going to happen. But the question I think about, the question I want to ask here: WHY do we love that sort of randomness?

I bring up the BCS again. Lately, it feels like I have been arguing a lot in favor of the BCS which is a weird thing because I don’t like the BCS system, don’t have any desire to argue for it, and I absolutely would prefer a well-designed college football playoff. My problem, I guess, is that I want to have discussion, and it seems that almost nobody wants to talk about it. It seems like just about any time I bring up the question — is a playoff really MORE FAIR — I get yelled at, even by close friends. The BCS has been demonized past the point of absurdity, past the point where anyone even LISTENS when someone suggests that, hey, maybe it’s not that bad.

Is a playoff really MORE FAIR? What does fair even mean? This year in college football, the BCS system had Oregon play Auburn for a trophy they called the national championship trophy. This left out other very good teams, particularly undefeated TCU. This wasn’t fair. There was much griping about it, and rightfully so. It is absurd and somewhat arrogant to believe that we can use our eyes and our computer systems and our innate sense of the game to look at more than 100 Division I football teams playing somewhat self-determined schedules and simply pick the two best teams. The flaws in the system are obvious.

But aren’t the playoff flaws obvious too? This year in the NFL, the playoff system included a seven-win team and took one 10-6 wildcard team while leaving two other 10-6 teams at home. The system made a 12-win team and two 11-win teams go on the road for their first game while three teams with 10 or fewer wins (including the NFL’s first seven-win playoff team) played home games. This year, the NFL rewarded New England and Atlanta for their 14- and 13-win seasons by giving them an extra week to heal and homefield advantage. This seems like a seismic advantage. But is it really? We cannot argue that they promptly lost convincingly — making that one loss much more important than their stellar 16-game seasons. We cannot argue that 12 of the last 24 bye teams have lost their first week.

There might not be any specific REASONS why bye teams have lost the last few years. It could just be one of those things. But I can think of a few reasons why it might be happening.

1. There’s the NFL scheduling system. As you know, the scheduling system is intended to reward teams that had terrible years. In 2009, the Kansas City Chiefs went 4-12. As a result, their non-conference schedule featured these 10 teams (in parentheses I’ve included their 2009 records):

Cleveland Browns (5-11)
San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
Indianapolis Colts (14-2)
Houston Texans (9-7)
Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9)
Buffalo Bills (6-10)
Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
Seattle Seahawks (5-11)
St. Louis Rams (1-15)
Tennessee Titans (8-8)

The ten teams’ combined record was 73-87. This was intended to be an easy schedule. It turned out to be even EASIER because the five teams that were .500 or better on the list — the 49ers, Colts, Texans. Cardinals and Titans — ALL took huge steps backward in 2010. The Chiefs went 10-6, won their division, and beat one playoff team all year, that one playoff team being the 7-9 Seahawks. Were the Chiefs a lot better in 2010? Sure. How much better? Why don’t we ask the question next year when the Chiefs play the four teams that remain in the playoffs (Chicago, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets) along with New England and Indianapolis.

This is how the system works. Lose and they try to ease your path. Win and they try to put boulders in your way. Scheduling is a big, big part of what the NFL calls parity. And so records can be illusions.*

*Since writing this several people have pointed out that since 2002, teams in the same division play 14 of the same games — only two are determined by how good or bad a team is supposed to be (the rest by divisions matching up with other divisions). So, for instance, the only two team difference between the 2010 Chargers (who had won the division in 2009) and Chiefs (who had finished last) was that the Chargers played New England and Cincinnati while the Chiefs played Buffalo and Cleveland.

It’s a fair point — and I missed it. Two games out of 10 non-division games is not insubstantial — and if the Chiefs had played the Patriots instead of the Bills they probably would not have won the division. But the NFL schedule does not tilt as much as it once did, and so I would agree that this is not quite as big a factor as I had originally thought.

2. Homefield advantage seems to be losing some of its advantage in the NFL. For some of this, read Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim’s fascinating piece on homefield advantage in this week’s Sports Illustrated.* They point out that a big reason (the biggest reason?) for homefield advantage is unintended referee bias. Well, you’ll have to read the piece.

*I just got their book Scorecasting and am ready to dive in. I’ll give you a full report and see if we can get Jon to come on here for a conversation.

But … with instant replay, the NFL might be taking a lot of unintended referee bias out of the game. Add in that officials surely bear down for playoff games (and they tend to be the best officials), and maybe homefield advantage isn’t quite what is used to be. Maybe there aren’t as many penalties called against the road team as there used to be. Maybe fumbles (or non-fumbles) that used to be called for the home team are overturned a little more. The speaker in the helmet thing seems to help too — it doesn’t seem that teams are nearly as bothered by crowd noise as they used to be.

The numbers don’t exactly bear this out — teams ARE winning a little less often at home, but it doesn’t seem earth shattering:

1970-79: 1087-813, 57.2%
1980-89: 1344-998, 57.4%
1990-98 (year before replay): 1239-839, 59.6%
1999-10: 1593-1205, 56.9%

Not a big deal. But the last five years, the numbers are down a bit more (56.1%). Anyway, with the playoffs you are are dealing with small margins. In baseball, you hope and expect that over 600 plate appearances you will get something close to true value. But the NFL in many ways IS about small numbers. In the NFL, especially in the playoffs, one loss is devastating. Until 2005, road teams in the playoffs won 30% of the time. The last six years, they have won 45% of the time.

These are just thoughts, of course. I am not trying to suggest they are right. We’re just talking.

3. It seems like there is more REAL parity in the NFL than ever before — not just the illusion of schedules, but a real tightening of talent. These would be the effects of the salary cap and the draft and various other things. It does seem true that there really isn’t a lot separating the top two or three teams from the 10th or 11th teams.

The question, I think, is this: What’s the competitive point of an NFL season? Is it to determine the BEST team in the NFL? Or is it to give us a fun and easy-to-follow trail on the way to our Super Bowl party? The New England Patriots won 14 of 16 games, including their last eight. They beat all four of the remaining teams during the regular season (they also lost to the Jets in Week 2 during the regular season). In those four wins, only Green Bay even stayed close. They outscored opponents by 205 points — the best point differential in the NFL since New England’s 16-0 season, and the second best in the NFL since 2001.

And on Sunday, after getting a week’s vacation, getting to play on their home field, they were obliterated by a New York Jets team they had already played twice. The Jets had a great gameplan, and they played a sharp game, and Tom Brady looked confused, and the Patriots looked flat. And now their 2010 record is meaningless. Their season is mud. All the winning they did, well, nobody cares. That happened BEFORE the playoffs, before it really mattered. Is this fair? I think most of us would say that absolutely it’s fair. We are a playoff nation. The Patriots lost on the field. Fair or unfair, either way, it made for good television.

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SI Sports Fact of the Day

For the holidays, I was given a Sports Illustrated desktop facts calendar — it is one of those that you tear off a page after each day. I have gotten these sorts of calendars before — Today in American History; Today in Birthdays; Today in New Wave Music; Today in Golf Tips — but they have been pretty useless because I would forget to tear off the pages for, oh, seven or eight months. It would be August 27th, and my calendar would still show “January 23.” And then I would remember about the calendar and tear away months and months of pages at one time, and I would never look at the facts, and then I would forget for another three or fourth months, and by that time the year was almost over, and the whole thing was just kind of pointless.

We’re only 14 days into the new year, but this year I have actually been keeping up daily. Here’s why: I cannot wait to see what utterly random sports fact I will turn up the next day in my SI calendar. The randomness has become a joyous part of my daily life. Every day, I go to my desk, and I can’t wait to tear off the page and find a fact that has absolutely nothing to do with the season we’re in, what day it’s printed on, what sport people are actually playing. For instance, here’s the January 6th fact:

“In 1959, it took three days for NASCAR officials to study a photograph of the first Daytona 500 finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp before awarding the trophy to Petty.”

What is that? My first thought: Is this the anniversary of that race? No. The race was held on Feb. 22. Then I thought: Is this the start of the NASCAR season? No. The season does not start for more than a month. At first I was baffled. The next day’s fact didn’t cease my bafflement:

The January 7th fact was this:

“Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox — known as the greatest hitter who ever lived — ended his famous 1941 season with a .406 batting average.”

Ted Williams? In early January? And this “fact” seems kind of opinionated, doesn’t it? Some people know Ted Williams as the greatest hitter who ever lived. Some don’t. His .482 career on-base percentage is the highest of all time, which might have been a nice fact for the page. In fact, do you know how many players other than Williams had an on-base percentage higher than .482 in a single season? The answer: Nine. And that’s in just one season. The list:

1. Babe Ruth (9 times)
2. Ted Williams (8 times)
3. Barry Bonds (4 times)
4. Rogers Hornsby (3 times)
5. Mickey Mantle (2 times)
6. Frank Thomas (1994)
7. Norm Cash (1961)
8. Arky Vaughan (1935)
9. Tris Speaker (1920)
10. Ty Cobb (1915)

A few things. One: Every player on the list except one had a Hall of Fame career on the field — that one would be Norm Cash. And Cash, while I don’t think he’s quite a Hall of Famer because his career didn’t last long enough, did have career numbers that are stunningly good including a 139 OPS+, which is higher than every single hitter voted into the Hall of Fame since Mike Schmidt in 1995. Cash’s remarkable 1961 season was later dismissed because he admitted using a corked bat. After that, studies showed corking a bat doesn’t really do anything. Around that time people started shooting themselves up with steroids which kind of put the whole corked bat controversy to bed.

Point is, that to have a .482 on-base percentage, even for a single season, is really a remarkable thing. Williams did it for a career.

Two: People really do under-appreciate Arky Vaughan’s crazy-good 1935 season. He was, based on his reputation at the time, not a great defensive shortstop. But he was a shortstop and probably average or better defensively. And in 1935, he hit .385, led the league with 97 walks, banged 34 doubles, 10 triples, 19 home runs. He slugged .607. In the New Historical Abstract, which isn’t so new anymore, Bill James wrote that it was the greatest offensive year for a shortstop other than Honus Wagner. I think even including Alex Rodriguez’s amazing 2000 and 1996 seasons, even including Derek Jeter’s best year (probably 1999), even including the best of Nomah (2000 when he hit .372) that remains true. I simply cannot imagine what the writers were thinking when they failed to vote in Arky Vaughan. I’m just glad I wasn’t around because that would have meant an Internet barrage of words that would make my Blyleven-Morris oeuvre look like a postcard from the beach.

Three: I was stunned that Ty Cobb only reached the .482 on-base percentage line once — and that was actually in a year when he “only” hit .369. For some reason, Cobb walked 118 times that year — he had never before walked more than 64, and he would never again walk more than 85. I’m not sure why Cobb walked so much that year other than he just wanted to — 1915 was also the year he stole 96 bases, which would be considered the modern record until broken by Maury Wills. He was caught 38 times, and that record would last even longer — until broken by Rickey Henderson in 1982.

Anyway, you see what’s happening here? This seemingly pointless fact on my SI calendar — I’d say most adult baseball fans even passably interested in history know that Williams hit .406 in 1941 — spurred me to go back and look up Arky Vaughan and Norm Cash and Ty Cobb and …what at first seemed like an odd and random sports fact actually got me thinking about all sorts of things, not unlike the fortune in the fortune cookie.

The January 8 and 9 sports fact: “Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees also took the 1941 season to new heights with a 56-game hitting streak, the best of all time.”

OK, first off, and I say this with great love: What, we can’t get a new sports fact for each weekend day?

But then, I had to look it up — here are the longest hitting streaks each year the last 20 years:

2010: Josh Hamilton (23)
2009: Ryan Zimmerman (30)
2008: Ian Kinsler (25)
2007: Moises Alou (30)
2006: Chase Utley (35)
2005: Jimmy Rollins (38)
2004: Carlos Lee (28)
2003: Albert Pujols (30)
2002: Luis Castillo (35)
2001: Moises Alou and Ichiro (23)
2000: Gabe Kapler (28)
1999: Vlad Guerrero (31)
1998: Eric Davis (30)
1997: Nomar Garciaparra and Eric Davis (30)
1996: Hal Morris (32)
1995: Jim Edmonds (23)
1994: Rafael Palmeiro (24)
1993: John Olerud (26)
1992: Lance Johnson (25)
1991: Brett Butler (23)

I think, looking at that, you can get a good feel for how difficult — and how random — a hitting streak can be. Nobody has come even close to challenging DiMaggio, of course, and most years nobody even gets to 30. I’ve had a this discussion with various people in the game: When does a hitting streak become news? I will hear announcers or writers refer to a “modest six-game hitting streak” and I will think “Yeah, modest enough you shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

I say that for local fans, a hitting streak probably begins around 10 — that is, if someone on your favorite team gets a streak to 10, you probably would like to know.

For regional fans, you probably have to get it up above 15 — that is, if someone in your division (or on your fantasy team) gets a hitting streak to 16 or 17, that’s fairly interesting.

For national fans, I think you need to get it higher than 20. I don’t think it is even worth mention on Baseball Tonight until it’s at least 21 or 22 games. It’s not worth getting on SportsCenter until 25 or more.

And for non-baseball fans — people only interested in baseball when something outsized happens — I think you need to get it to about 35. At 35, people who don’t care much about baseball might take notice. There have only been two non-baseball-fan streaks in the last 20 years — Luis Castillo’s 35-gamer in 2002 and Jimmy Rollins’ 38 gamer in 2005.

OK, so where does my mind go from here? Exactly: Who has the longest consecutive game streak for getting on base? Glad to know we’re thinking together. I’ve often wondered about this, but I never went back and actually looked at the numbers. Baseball Reference’s remarkable Play Index goes back to 1920 so this does not include, say, Ty Cobb’s amazing 1915 season when he probably got on base 60 or 70 games in a row. But since 1920, players have gotten on base in 56 straight games in a single season* 18 different times. Ted Williams has done it twice.

*Derek Jeter has pulled off the feat twice — but not in one season. From the end of 2006 to the beginning of 2007, he reached base 65 times in a row. From the end 1988 to the beginning of 1999 he reached base 57 times in a row. Others have also pulled off the feat over two years. But we’re going to stick with single season feats for now.

It will not surprise you to know that the record (since 1920) for most consecutive games reached belongs to Ted Williams, who reached base in a preposterous 84 straight games in 1949. His record was almost reached by Wade Boggs in 1985, when the Chicken Man reached base in 81 straight games. The most amazing thing about both of these records is that I don’t remember ever hearing about either. The Boggs thing is particularly amazing because I was a particularly eager baseball fan in 1985. I remember hearing all sorts of crazy facts about Boggs then 0- one year he didn’t pop-up in the infield, one year he hit .310 with two strikes on him, stuff like that. I had no idea he reached base in 81 straight games.

People have done the math on DiMaggio hitting in 56 straight games … I am right now reading the excellent Kostya Kennedy’s upcoming book about DiMaggio’s streak. I suspect the math would be about as impressive for Ted Williams’ 84-game on-base streak, or Wade Boggs’ 81-gamer or — and how about this for an amazing streak — DALE MURPHY’s 74-game on-base streak in 1987. Yes. Dale Murphy’s streak for reaching base in 1987 was exactly as long as DiMaggio’s in 1941.

Here is a list of all the on-base streaks that were 56-games or longer.

1. Ted Williams 84 (1949)
2. Wade Boggs 81 (1985)
3. Dale Murphy 74 (1987)
Joe DiMaggio 74 (1941)
5. Ted Williams 73 (1941)
6. Jimmy Wynn 66 (1969)
7. Orlando Cabrera 63 (2006)
8. Solly Hemus 60 (1953)
9. Joey Votto 58 (2010)
Duke Snider 58 (1954)
11. Johnny Damon 57 (2005)
Barry Bonds 57 (2003)
Ryan Klesko 57 (2002)
Billy Goodman 57 (1955)
George Kell 57 (1950)
16. Tony Gwynn 56 (1987)
Carl Yastrzemski 56 (1969)
Arky Vaughan 56 (1936)

Orlando Cabrera’s 63-game on-base streak in 2006 is the longest of the last 20 years and the most unlikely since Cabrera’s lifetime on-base percentage is .320. DURING THE STREAK his on-base percentage was only .372. But it was uncanny. Look: T he streak lasted from April 25 to July 6.

April 25-30: 5-game hitting streak
May 1: Walk
May 2-5: 4-game hitting streak
May 6: Two walks.
May 7-13: 6-game hitting streak
May 14: Walk
May 16: Three hits.
May 17: Walk
May 18-31: 12-game hitting streak.
June 2: Two walks.
June 3-9: 6-game hitting streak
June 10: Walk
June 11-13: 3-game hitting streak, all multiple hits.
June 14: Walk
June 15-16: 2-game hitting streak
June 17: Walk
June 19: Walk
June 20-28: 8-game hitting streak
June 30: Hit by pitch
July 1: Walk
July 2-6: 5-game hitting streak.

And there you go — 63 straight games of reaching base. I don’t remember hearing a word about it.

See what these SI facts do to me? Today’s SI fact is what got me started with this blog post in the first place:

January 14: In 2000, Mark Calcavecchia became 10th golfer in PGA Tour history to surpass $10 million in career earnings.

Now, your first reaction might be: What? Who cares? What does that even mean? Ah, but it’s clear you have not come to appreciate the genius of this SI sports calendar. Because as soon as I saw that, I immediately thought: Wait, that was 10 years ago. How many golfers have now won $10 million on the PGA Tour?

I’m glad you asked: The answer is 105. Yes. That’s right. There are now 105 golfers who have won $10 million or more on the tour, and these include Pat Perez and Chris Riley, who I have never heard of. I’m sure right now every member of the Pat Perez and Chris Riley fan clubs are writing in angrily to scold me for not knowing about them and to give me many fascinating details about Pat Perez’ and Chris Riley’s golfing careers, and they are right, I should have heard of him, I’ll be glad to hear about them now. I feel sure I should have heard of them because in between two on the career money list — just above Pat Perez and just below Chris Riley — is a golfer I have heard of, I think, a guy by the name of Tom Watson.

It’s inanely fogeyish to talk about how much more money players make today than they did many years ago — fogeyish and generally wrong-headed since each individual dollar is worth quite a bit less now than it was long ago, and golf as a professional sports industry makes many, many many times more than it made years ago. Still, it’s kind of fun. David Toms has long been one of my favorite golfers because we got to know each other a little bit when we were both starting out band because he was born four-days before I was born. I have followed his career pretty closely because of this. I had no idea that he has made more than $33 million on the PGA Tour.

Justin Leonard, who I have always thought of as golf’s Michael Chang — won the British Open when he was young, looked like he might overcome his relative size disadvantage and become one of the best in the world, popped up every now and again to win a tournament but never won another major — has made more than $30 million on the Tour. The Top 20 has Appleby AND Allenby AND Oglivy. Mark Calcavecchia — who I unfairly will always think of as the guy sniping at Arnold Palmer for playing at Augusta at age 70* — has made more than $23 million.

*Calcavecchia snapped off about Arnie after playing a slow and poor round with Palmer at Augusta … Calcavecchia suggested it might be time for the King to hang ’em up. I was there when he did it. Mark apologized madly for a long while after that and wrote a long and reportedly heartfelt apology letter to Palmer. I do think he was sincere in his apology and had really just mouthed off because he was mad at himself for playing a lousy round. I don’t think anyone should hold any hard feelings against the guy. I certainly don’t. But, still, when I hear the name Calcavecchia, that’s the image that pops into my mind. That’s the problem with having a terrible public moment. It stands out in the mind and never quite goes away.A

Tiger Woods, of course, is the all-time leader with more than $94 million. There are, as mentioned, 105 golfers who have made $10 million. There are 179 that have made more than $6 million. Here are a few of the others:

189. Jack Nicklaus ($5.7 million)
249. Lee Trevino ($3.4 million)
278. Johnny Miller ($2.7 million)
327. Arnold Palmer ($1.8 million)*
332. Gary Player ($1.8 million)

*He’s not even close to the highest paid Palmer — Ryan Palmer has made more than $9 million.

This means absolutely nothing. But maybe that’s missing the point. When you’re looking at the SI Sports Facts, I have finally figured out, you’re not looking for meaning. You’re looking for something help you get through the day.

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