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Royals Sign Francoeur (Of Course)

Let’s start with the thing I like about the Royals’ signing of Jeff Francoeur: It’s honest. And by “honest” I don’t mean “predictable,” though, of course, the signing is also comically predictable. People have been predicting that the Royals would sign Francoeur or trade for Francoeur or steal Francoeur in the middle of the night pretty much since the day Royals general manager Dayton Moore took over and made clear his goal of making Kansas City a baseball suburb of Atlanta. Also, Francoeur was one of the few established players utterly incapable of getting on base the Royals had not yet reeled in.

This was going to happen sooner or later.

But, no, I don’t mean predictable. I mean honest. Last week, I wrote a piece for the magazine about Scott Pioli and some of his friends and their view of team building. And one thing that both Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro and Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff went on and on about is how easy it is to TALK about the philosophy of building a team. It’s easy for a baseball GM, for instance, to talk about wanting to build a team that plays great defense. It’s harder to put a guy out there who really fields well but also hits .227. It’s easy for a football GM, for instance, to talk about wanting players who care about team above individual. It’s harder when you desperately need a big play receiver to stretch the field and a big play receiver with a huge ego and attitude problem is willing to sign.

I don’t think it’s malicious hypocrisy or anything like that when teams go against their avowed principles. Not exactly. I just think professional sports is a tough racket. There are 30 or 32 teams going at it, and most of those teams are run by pretty smart people, and there is only so much money and there is only so much talent and there are countless pressures attacking you from all sides.

Take Royals GM Dayton Moore. He made it clear from the day he began that he wanted to build something meaningful in Kansas City. Dayton is a religious man, a family man, a principled man, and he wanted — still wants, I assume — to build a team that embodies those principles. He wanted — still wants — “a team Kansas City can be proud of.” He came into town and swept out some of the players who seemed like knuckleheads and headcases. At first, he was actually taking quite a few hits for some of his high-falutin’ moralism — nobody in town particularly wants a religious and principled family to play baseball at Kauffman Stadium, they want a team that will win some bleepin’ ballgames. And if the Royals happen to have a few good people, hey, so much the better.

But Dayton viewed it this way: The Royals, as a small-market team in the heartland with a long-run of losing, need to be about something more than just winning. And the point is not whether you agree or I agree or anyone else agrees. Dayton Moore is the GM. He was the one hired. And this is what he believes. He was public in his goal to build a winning atmosphere around players who stood for many of the same principles he stands for, who were willing to work harder than most, who were good teammates, great leaders, and all that stuff.

And then … he tried to trade for Milton Bradley. Look: It is possible that Milton Bradley is misunderstood. But it’s hard to say that you are trying to build a team of good teammates when you try to trade for Milton Bradley. Moore signed Jose Guillen. Moore signed Kyle Farnsworth. Moore signed Juan Cruz. Moore traded for Yuniesky Betancourt. Well, you tell me … great teammates? Great leaders?

I don’t think Dayton Moore ever felt like he was betraying his principles. I think he felt like he was being pragmatic. Here’s why I say that: Behind the scenes, he has worked and slaved and pushed to build what is now pretty much unanimously viewed as the best minor league system in the game. The Royals are loaded with prospects who should start trickling into place in 2011 and should start pouring into place in 2012. And in building the future, the Royals (best I can tell) have stuck hard to Moore’s principles, drafted and recruited and signed players they consider both talented and of high baseball character and intelligence. If Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and Mike Montgomery and Wil Myers pan out, then the Royals should not only have a good baseball team but it seems they will also have a good clubhouse with stand-up players who hold themselves and their teammates accountable, which is all you could ever hope for when building a team.

So I think Moore has been true to his core when it comes to building the future. It’s the present that is more of a challenge. Moore talked about how he wanted the Royals to improve their on-base percentage and he promptly brought in guys whose defining characteristic as players is that they can’t get on base. Moore talked about how he wanted the Royals to play better defense, and they put average-to-below-average defenders all over the diamond (the Royals for the third straight year finished dead last in the league in John Dewan’s total runs saved — their minus-88 in 2010 was their worst total yet and 32 runs worse than 13th-place Boston). Moore talked about how pitching was the important thing, the Royals had to load up on pitching, get more and more and more pitching, and yet after Zack Greinke the Royals best starter in 2010 was probably Bruce Chen, an ex-Brave prospect they picked off the scrap-heap just before the season began. And, of course, Moore talked about how he wanted players who were mature and dependable and accountable … and then he gave Jose Guillen the biggest per-year contract in Royals history.

I think Moore did these things because it’s a jungle out there. The Royals have limited resources. They (like every other team) have an owner who can be unrealistic. They have a rightfully frustrated fan base. They cannot be players for big-money free agents — not only because they lack the money but because, let’s face it, what viable free agent is coming to Kansas City the way things are now? Don’t get me wrong. I think Moore deserved all the slings and arrows for spending an outrageous fortune on Guillen and Farnsworth and Cruz and Alberto Callaspo Sidney Ponson and Rick Ankiel and Jason Kendall and …

… but wait. Kendall is not quite the others. I have made it very clear through the years that I do not like Jason Kendall’s game at all. AT ALL. I wish I had even bigger type for “AT ALL.” I cannot think of an offensive player I have less use for than Jason Kendall. You know, last year he had 490 plate appearances without a triple OR a home run. That was the most plate appearances without a triple or homer in 30 years and had Kendall not gotten hurt he had a real shot at Frank Taveras’ record of 598 plate appearances. I don’t think Kendall is a particularly good defensive catcher or handler of pitchers either, or anyway his assets defensively are too subtle for me to pick up.

BUT … Kendall as a person does fit what Dayton Moore said he wanted. Kendall is unquestionably all ballplayer. He wants to play every day. He is the guy in the locker room who talks after wins or losses. He lives for the game and he desperately wants to win. He seems unafraid to take the blame himself or — and this is perhaps an even rarer skill — make sure his teammates take their share of the blame. I don’t think you can win with Jason Kendall because he is no longer a good enough ballplayer to be out there every day, but here I am not talking about my own opinion about baseball teams. I’m talking about Moore’s philosophy, and Kendall is the kind of person Moore wants for the Royals.

So is Jeff Francoeur. I don’t need to go over his playing ability again. I will … but I don’t need to. I have written this before: Francoeur is simply not good enough to play every day. He is a corner outfielder of debatable defensive skill — he has a good reputation and a strong arm but he was in the negatives on the Dewan Plus/Minus each of the last two years and he had a minus UZR two of the last three years. Anyway, even assuming he’s a very good defender, the job of a corner outfielder is to hit, and Francoeur has an 83 OPS+ the last three years. Over those three years, he has hit .256/.301/.389 which is abominable for even a defensive wizard at shortstop or a brilliant catcher. It’s unthinkable for a corner outfielder. And that’s over about 1,800 plate appearances — there’s no mistake here, nothing has been overlooked, no magic switch. This isn’t about adjustments or new batting stances or getting him with a different hitting coach. The guy can’t hit at the big league level. He tries hard. He has a great attitude. He can’t do it.

Matt over at Fangraphs pointed this out but it’s worth pointing out again. The three least valuable players by FanGraphs WAR from 2008-2010 are Jose Guillen, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jeff Francoeur. Dayton Moore signed the first to the richest everyday player contract in Royals history, traded for the second when the Mariners were at their wits’ end and just signed the third to a $2.5 million contract.* The man knows how to acquire ludicrously bad hitters.

*Interesting, I think, the three worst in Baseball Reference WAR are Jeff Francoeur, Mark Teahen and Jose Guillen — also three Royals, though it’s not quite the same because Moore inherited Teahen. Francoeur is actually sixth on the worst list, ahead of Ryan Spillborghs and Wes Helms.

But let me get back to the point. Francoeur, for all his flaws as a player, IS EXACTLY the sort of person Dayton Moore said he would try to acquire. He is, by all accounts, a great guy and an awesome teammate. He’s the sort of guy that you meet, you love, you hope. I remember seeing this last year, when Francoeur went to the Mets and he got off to a sizzling start, was hitting .457 after a few games, and my buddy Vac (a sensible sort under normal circumstances) was saying “He’s figured it out! He’s turned things around!” I told him that this was not likely at all, but he was adamant, he was one of many who have fallen under the Frenchy Spell. Francoeur, of course, got 12 hits in his next 97 plate appearances and was hitting .237 at the end of August when he was dumped on the Texas Rangers. He had a bit of a hot streak in 15 games with them too, once again leading many Frankie fans to hope that something had clicked. But there’s no clicking here. Francoeur doesn’t walk at all, he doesn’t hit with enough power to be dangerous, and he’s just not an everyday player no matter how desperately everyone (including me) wants him to be one.

But those things Moore cherishes — loyalty, work ethic, leadership skills — Francoeur has those in Costco size bulk. Someday, somebody is going to do Jeff Francoeur a favor and use him in a way that will magnify his talents. He hits lefty pitchers. He may or may not be great defensively, but he’s undeniably alert defensively and capable of helping a team in the late innings out there. He is terrific with the media and takes on the burden for other players. He’s a supportive teammate and an energetic presence. And it’s not impossible that as he gets older he could refine his skills. Used right, with limited at-bats, say 400 a year, he could be a valuable player. Maybe the Royals will be the team that figures this out.

Or maybe not. Already Francoeur has made his intentions clear (“I do want to play every day … I’m not the greatest guy to sit on the bench,” he told the Star’s Bob Dutton. “I’ve always got ants in my pants.”). Already the Royals are talking about how if he loses a little weight, if he improves his plate discipline, if he does better at recognizing pitches, if he improves his power …

Ah well. The Royals are just treading water anyway until the gaggle of big-time prospects are ready to play at the big league level. The Jeff Francoeur signing in some ways is kind of sad because it is another “hit on 20 and hope for an ace” kind of move for Kansas City. It’s something for everyone around baseball get a good chuckle about. You KNEW the Royals would sign Frenchy. Good ol’ Royals.

But in other ways, maybe, it isn’t so bad. The Royals aren’t going to win in 2011 anyway. They are just trying to get through the year, develop a few players at the big league levels, let their remarkable Class AA rotation (probably featuring five legit big league prospects) pitch, allow their three or four or five supremely gifted hitters to get a look at another year of minor league pitching. And if they’re just getting through the year anyway, it’s worth going in with the good baseball people that Dayton Moore talks about all the time. Jeff Francoeur, if nothing else, is good baseball people.

In other words: Somebody was going to get that $2.5 million. I’d rather Jeff Francoeur get it than Royals owner David Glass.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

This one’s personal. Very personal. This is an essay about my daughter and Harry Potter. There is not much sports in it, though there is some Bill James and some Quidditch and even a quick mention of relief pitching. But mostly it’s about a Dad and a daughter and imagination. You have been warned.

“For the Harry Potter novels, J. K. Rowling invented a sport, Quidditch, which is played by magical peoples.   But in inventing the sport she made an obvious mistake.   She placed a very high value—150 points—on catching the golden snitch.    What is obvious to a sports fan is that this would, in effect, make the game unplayable; the too-high value for the snitch would crush all of the other objectives of the sport, making the entire game revolve around capturing the snitch.  In practice, every player would be basically committed to spotting the snitch, rather than just the Seeker, so that the game would not in fact play out the way that Rowling assumes that it would. “
— Bill James

There are probably not many people in the world who can say this: I started reading the Harry Potter books because of Bill James. Well … Bill James and my wife. I have never been drawn to fantasy. It is a shortcoming of my imagination, I think. I am, in many ways, a literal and linear thinker, not unlike the woman comedian Garry Shandling once took on a date to the movie E.T. As the bicycle was flying across the moon, the woman turned to Shandling and said: “Yeah. Right.”

To which he thought: “I don’t think it’s a documentary.”

Or anyway, that’s how the joke goes.

I remember once in high school playing Dungeons and Dragons with some pseudo-friends. Once. I was nerdy enough and reclusive enough to play Dungeons and Dragons, but not near-creative enough, and when asked what “powers” I craved for my character (I’m still not sure I ever quite understood the rules) I could only think of wanting to fly, being bulletproof and having X-ray vision. Superman was at the farthest reaches of my imagination and needless to say I was not asked back into the game. I never did quite get it. I never read The Hobbit or anything like it; I still have seen only the first of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and I didn’t understand it at all. The Harry Potter books offered no appeal whatsoever.

My wife Margo is very much into such things, though, and she kept pushing me to read them, and I had my stock answer: “I will definitely read them when I run out of grown-up books.” This set piece of sarcasm did not dull her enthusiasm — she knows me too well, knows I wear down in the later rounds — and she kept hammering away at me to read the books, read the books, read the books.

And then Bill James came in for the kill. Bill, in the cliche of public opinion, seems a man without imagination or a sense of romance. He is, in public readings, the man who has turned baseball into a row of numbers. He has come to accept this as the price of being able to live a baseball life. But it has nothing at all with Bill James himself. When it comes to baseball, he loves the romance of the game more than anyone I know. He loves the way the grass smells, the way base runners go from first to third, the way pitchers kick at the dirt, the way the game’s history (and I mean the ENTIRE history going back into the earliest known moments of baseball in the 19th Century) plays on every current moment. He also doesn’t much like damn nonsense, and he will work numbers and create formulas to cut through. But that doesn’t cut into his love of baseball or of literature or Bob Dylan. People are never as simple as the cliche. Anyway, Bill suggested I read Harry Potter, and I always do what Bill tells me, so I started the first book, and two weeks later I had finished the first six and on the first day it was out I bought and read the seventh.

There are many things I love about the Harry Potter books. Quidditch is one of those things. It is — as I’m sure you know — the game J.K. Rowling invented that features players on broomsticks, three goals that look like the hoops children use to blow bubbles, a quaffle (a soccer-ball sized thing the players use to try and throw through the goals), two bludgers (rather large iron balls the players use to knock other players off their broomsticks) and the Golden Snitch, which Bill referenced above. The Snitch is a tiny enchanted ball with wings that is released at some point and is almost impossible to catch (which is why catching it is worth 150 points vs. the 10 points you get per goal). The game ends only when the Snitch is caught, and Rowling imagines great games in Quidditch history that went on for months and months because neither side could quite catch it. One player on each team tries to catch the snitch — he or she is called the seeker. Harry Potter, of course, is a seeker.

And, despite Bill’s absolutely correct statement about the value of catching the snitch being too high*, the game is wonderful, just another piece of the books’ wonder. It seems so silly to say this because it has been said so often, but J.K. Rowling is a marvel. She conjured up this complete world that is like ours and unlike ours, and as a writer I am awed by how her mind works. I have nothing to compare with Harry Potter, nothing all, because of course I have not read other fantasy books. I cannot and would not tell you that the books are somehow better than the Lord of the Rings Series or the Golden Compass series (which my wife loves) or the vampire books or the Rick Riordan books or anything else. I have no idea. And I will always have no idea — unless Bill James recommends another of those series, I guess.

*Though perhaps this view is based on Harry Potter being so good at catching the snitch. It is clear from reading the books that catching the snitch is supposed to be ridiculously, absurdly, comically hard, but it’s not THAT HARD for Harry. He seems to catch it with relative ease every time (except when the Dementors … well, let’s leave that for now). He is like the early 2000s Barry Bonds without performance enhancers — if someone without any sense of the rules had watched Bonds, and only Bonds, they might have concluded that a home run was too easy to make the game much fun.

In any case, I am reading the Harry Potter books again — this time aloud to my 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth. We are in the fourth book now. And reading them aloud has struck something in me about words and language and the power of imagination. Elizabeth is not like I was as a child. She is bewitched by fantasy, by werewolves (that scare her beyond reason) and vampires (she is infatuated with them, which does not make me especially happy) and witches and wizards and dark magic and castles and secret entrances and potions and all that. I have mentioned here before that Elizabeth does not have much use for sports* — she is the daughter who will sit on my lap during games and occasionally ask “Daddy, when will the commercials come back on?” — but she even loves Quidditch enough to ask basic strategic questions (“Why don’t they work harder to protect Harry from the bludgers?”).

*I say that my daughter does not know or care about sports but as any father or mother can tell you, kids are probably listening harder than you think. A few weeks ago, we had longtime friends stay with us, and their son (who I have known since he was born) was with them, and he is Elizabeth’s age and already a pretty promising baseball player. He throws right-handed, swings left, and his swing already looks a bit like Billy Williams’. In any case, Elizabeth was asking him what position he played. And with wonder I heard this conversation.

Boy: “I am a shortstop and a pitcher.”
Elizabeth: “What kind of pitcher?”
Boy: “What do you mean?”
Elizabeth: “Well, are you a starter or a closer?”
Boy: “What’s a closer?”
Elizabeth: “A closer is the pitcher who comes in the ninth to make sure you don’t lose.”
Boy: “Oh, I’m not that.”

I was going to finish that off with a joke, with Elizabeth saying something like “That’s good because I don’t particularly like the constricting role many managers have for their closers,” but that would have reduced the effect because the above really is pretty much word for word what Elizabeth said, and my jaw dropped. I had no idea. If someone had asked me what Elizabeth knew about baseball, I would have said: “That she can get nachos with cheese at the stand on the top of our section.” They really are paying attention more than you expect.

Elizabeth loves the Harry Potter books — and through her I love them even more. Every jolt, every laugh, every thrill, every annoyance I felt reading the book myself is magnified ten fold through Elizabeth. Every night (more or less) we read a chapter. And she falls for every literary trap. She comes out of those traps with her eyes wide open. She loves characters and despises them and is constantly surprised by them, which I think makes for the best sort of reading and also educational on an entirely different level from, say, history books or science books. She has learned through just the first three books that not all is what it seems, that bad is sometimes good, and good is sometimes bad, and that almost everything is neither good nor bad but instead a shade.

She asks questions, constant questions, and I always tell her to wait and see, but she isn’t any good at waiting, and in this way she is just like me as a father. I’m no good at waiting either. I have been known to read ahead, to fast forward, to read the CliffsNotes. But I do not answer her. I want her mind to work. I want her soul to sing. One day while we were reading the third book, she came home and said that a friend (who had seen the movie) gave away a key secret. I was furious. Elizabeth is not even allowed to watch the movie until she has finished each book. The thing is the tension, the effort to get to the answer, the way the imagination paints the picture. But, the truth is, you can’t protect them from learning secrets.

All of which leads to this: At the end of the month, I am probably going to go to Florida for bowl games, and I’ll bring along the family. And you probably know there is this new Harry Potter World at Universal Studios in Orlando — The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the official name. I hear from friends that it is an amazing place. And, of course, Elizabeth wants to go. She more than just wants to go, she is utterly desperate to go. She wants to see Hogsmeade (the wizard town in the book) and she wants to buy candy at Honeydukes (the magical candy shop from the book) and she wants to ride a Hippogriff (I’m not going to keep explaining these things in parentheses — if you care, you already know). She is desperate to do all these things and many more, and I want her to do these things too, and I have begun to look into buying the tickets …

… but it’s a strange thing. As I look at purchasing tickets, I find myself worrying. Not about the prices, though amusement park tickets are definitely texpensives. I do not worry Harry Potter World will be a disappointment or not worth the money or any of that. It’s kind of the opposite. I don’t have the exact words, but I guess I worry that Harry Potter World will replace the Harry Potter world of her imagination. I worry that Harry and Dumbledore and He Who Shall Not Be Named and the Great Hall and the invisibility cloak and the sorting hat and all the wonderful and magical things that J.K. Rowling placed in Elizabeth’s mind will lose a bit of their magic and become something more earthy and plain and touristy and …

I don’t know. Maybe this is why we don’t want kids to find out about Santa Claus. We don’t want their worlds to have limitations. We don’t want their worlds to lose their magic. I know we will go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with a million other fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and I know it will be wonderful. And I guess I’m afraid that we’ll get home and I will curl up next to Elizabeth to read another chapter of Harry Potter and she will say: “Oh Dad, I’ve already seen it. I’m grown up, you know.” I know those words are coming. I’m not ready for them. I know I won’t ever be ready for them.

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Dandy Don

We hear all the time about people who are “one of a kind.” We especially hear this when they die. I think that’s right and proper. I’m sure you have been to a funeral or two in your life where you get no sense of the person who died, no memory to cling to, no idea about their favorite ice cream flavor or what phrase they repeated again and again or what music they might sing along with or what TV shows they loved to watch or what joke made them laugh unexpectedly hard or what is the one thing they loved doing most of all. These empty funerals always make me saddest of all, because I think we all really are one of a kind, at least in some way, and the hope is that people will notice and maybe even remember.

But there are some people who really are one of a kind, and Don Meredith was one of those guys. Dandy Don. He was like something out of a Dan Jenkins novel — a quarterback, all-Texas, all-guts, all-heart. He played his high school football in Texas, and he played his college football in Texas, and he played his pro football in Texas, and all the while he believed in throwing the ball deep and running the ball with abandon. He played for Tom Landry, a serious man, which wasn’t always health because Meredith was not a serious man. It didn’t go so well in the early years. Then, in 1964, the Dallas Cowboys drafted the world’s fastest man, Bullet Bob Hayes, and he joined the team in 1965, and Don Meredith was the guy who threw the ball deep to him. The Cowboys won a lot of games, and lost twice in the Green Bay Packers with the Super Bowl at stake. It was one beautiful party with a few hangovers, and if there was one thing Don Meredith realized it was that if you can’t handle the hangovers you shouldn’t go to the party.

“Why do they call you Dandy, anyway?” he was asked once.

“Because I am,” he said.

But that’s not what made him one of a kind. No, there have been other Texas quarterbacks who loved throwing the ball deep, day and night. What made Don Meredith one of a kind … well, when he retired from football he was hired to become a broadcaster for this new thing called Monday Night Football. That was 1970. He had no broadcasting training. He was not exactly known for his detailed study or his intense work ethic. Nobody really knew how his Texas twang would play on a medium then known for the deep and crack-free voices of professional announcers

How did it go? Well, I’d say this and I doubt too many people would disagree: No color commentator — not in the long history of professional football on television — ever made professional football games as much fun as Dandy Don Meredith.

How did he do it? You don’t think there are television executives wondering that very thing? They have tried everything. They hired a comedian to be in the booth. They hired a funny newspaper columnist to be in the booth. They hired stars to sing the football openers. They designed some animated robot to dance after commercials. They hired every funny player and coach they could find. They have brought in guests, they have brought in impersonators, they have worked up insane graphics, they have worked up a million angles. But they have never quite recaptured when Don Meredith had when he was in the booth with Howard Cosell.

Maybe Meredith was just an unusual combination — a truly great football player who didn’t take football all that seriously. He brought authority and irreverence. He’d sing in the booth, of course. Turn out the lights! The party’s over! Well, he was always singing. He’d crack jokes that were always just a little bit rascally, jokes you had to be a certain age to understand (“Fair Hooker,” he said, repeating the name of the Cleveland Browns receiver. “I haven’t met one yet.”). As one person who worked closely with Meredith said, he was just one of those people who had life beat. Howard Cosell, with his big words and big mind and hyper-sensitivity, never stood a chance.

“Oh come on, Howard,” he’d say whenever Cosell got too puffed up and America would laugh and Cosell would shrink. Cosell would often say that he liked Meredith — “DAYN-dy DON!” — because he thought Meredith’s rustic charm played well off his own lawyerly bombast. But it really was the other way around. Meredith was the Fonz. Cosell was Potsie. Sure, Cosell was one of a kind in his own way too, and his great strength was that he made the games matter. But Meredith made the games fun. And fun is what games were meant to be.

People do tend to romanticize things. Monday Night Football — now Sunday Night Football — is in some ways more popular now than it was in the 1970s. And it’s better produced, and it’s wonderfully broadcast — I think Cris Collinsworth is the best color commentator in the game. He’s funny and direct and incisive. Times have changed, and expectations for announcers have changed, and Collinsworth fits his time.

But there was an unmistakable magic to the time when Frank Gifford would make the call, and Howard Cosell would irritate the masses, and Don Meredith would sing. It was apparent, just from being around him on Monday nights, that Meredith loved life. And that love of life poured through the television set. I still don’t think there has ever been anything quite like that.

In the 25 years that have gone by since he walked away from broadcasting, television scouts have tried desperately to find someone for the booth with some of Meredith’s spirit, someone who could broadcast not only the passion of football, not only the intensity of football, not only the tactics of football … but also the joy. Dandy Don Meredith died Sunday of a brain hemorrhage. He was 72 years old. And the television folks can stop looking. They won’t ever find another one like him.

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Texpensives

I have this theory about job offers: I think employers have this special and secret chart they use so that they can offer you PRECISELY as much money as it will take to make your decision ridiculously hard. They will never offer so much money that you go, “Oh, that’s a no-brainer*.” And they will never offer you so little that you think, “Well, that’s humiliating, forget that.” Nope, they will find the perfect middle, they will offer salaries that are just enough to keep you tossing and turning all night.

*Except in John Grisham books.

In this way, I think most things in life are priced at levels that meet our eye. That’s not to say that stuff isn’t overpriced — I’d say one-quarter of all conversation revolves around how expensive stuff is.*

*The conversation chart around my life looks a bit like this:

33% Weather
25% How stuff is too expensive
15% General hotness level of various people.
12% Pop Culture
5% Sports (overall)
5% Sports specific to Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods and LeBron James
3% “The coach/manager/server at this restaurant/neighbor/pilot/doctor/anyone else suck at what they do.”
1% Religion and politics and family and science and current events and stuff like that.
1% Justin Bieber

But my feeling is that while stuff IS expensive, it’s usually not bizarrely expensive. By that I mean, yes, someone may point out that a night out at a middling chain restaurant might cost too much money.* They can’t believe movie ticket prices these days. They find that they actually WILL pay a lot for this muffler.

But after a while, unless you’re one of those people who keeps getting surprised by the same thing, the effect of price will wear off. Yes, at first, it sure seemed like coffee at Starbucks cost an unreasonable amount of money since coffee used to be a dime with all the refills you ever wanted. But now, when someone complains about the price at Starbucks, it sounds dated, like people who still use Roseanne as a reference point for culture jokes. A movie ticket is 14 bucks or 18 bucks or 20 bucks … but the only people who are shocked by this are people who don’t go to movies.

Then … there are some things that ALWAYS seems preposterously expensive no matter how many times you see the price. These I have decided to call: Texpensives. Yes, it’s my latest word. A texpensive (noun) means something (person, place, thing) that seems bizarrely, even comically, overpriced. It can also be used as an adjective, I suppose, though I don’t like it as much that way. Still it could. Example: Buying a World Cup is texpensive.

The word origin is pretty easy to explain. “Expensive” is obvious. The “Tex” part of it, can refer to state of Texas, where the state takes great pride in making everything absurdly large. But the real inspiration is Mark Teixeira. Really, the word should be spelled “Teixpensives” but having once lost a spelling bee on the word “chocolate” — who needs that second “o” anyway? — I don’t like unnecessarily complicated spelling words.

Tex is a terrific player, absolutely terrific, and I don’t want anyone to miss that point. But his contract seems to be bizarrely out of step with his reality. His contract is eight years, $180 million. Starting this season, he will get $22.5 million per year for the next six years. It is the fifth-largest total value contract ever given out (two of those are Alex Rodriguez deals), and Teixeira will be the third-highest paid every day player in baseball in 2011 (behind only Alex Rodriguez and Joe Mauer).

Why? Is Mark Teixeira the third-best player in baseball? No. Is he the best first baseman in baseball. No. That’s Albert Pujols. Is he second best? Third best? Fourth best? Maybe. But maybe not. After a while you look at the other best first basemen — and you realize a lot of them can hit about as well as Teixeira. Here are the Top OPS+ for first basemen over the last five seasons:

1. Albert Pujols, 177
2. Miguel Cabrera, 152
3. Joey Votto, 151
4. Lance Berkman, 143
5. Adrian Gonzalez, 141
6. Ryan Howard, 141
7. Prince Fielder, 140
8. Mark Teixeira, 138
9. Justin Morneau, 137
10. Carlos Pena, 134
11. Kevin Youkilis, 131
12. Paul Konerko, 126

Tex is a better fielder than many of these, so that adds value. He’s 30, so you would hope he still has some awesome years left in him. But that contract just seems a bit out of touch with the excellent but not exactly unique player that is Mark Teixeira. Why him? He seems like a texpensive to me.

The most obvious texpensive in today’s America, I think, are these high end razor blades. No matter how many times I see the futuristic names of these razors (Fusion! Mach 3!) and the absurd star-studded commercials, no matter how many times I hear the promises of getting a shave that will be just one notch below sex, I still cannot fathom how much razor blades cost. Both 16 razors the other day at Costco — I needed to have someone co-sign the loan.

Food around Times Square is texpensive. It’s a cliche, but it’s real. The other day, we went to lunch at Maxie’s — one of about 594 famous delicatessens near Times Square — and there were three of us, and each of us ordered something like an open faced cheese sandwich. The sandwiches all looked identical — like grilled cheese sandwiches not pushed together. One might have had tuna in it, another bacon, but basically three cheese-based sandwiched. And three sodas. Go ahead, give me a guess — how much do you think? Understand, if you ordered that exact thing at Carolyn’s Kitchen in Marysville, Kan., it would cost you, tip included, $8.50, maybe, and that’s if they decided to charge you at all (“All you want is cheese, honey?”).

At Maxie’s, it cost us 91 bucks, though I should say that included tip. I’m sorry, I’m going to repeat that: It cost us 91 dollars. For three cheese sandwiches and Cokes.

Well, there are a lot of examples of texpensives — real estate in San Francisco, radio talk show hosts (last I heard, Howard Stern was making a billion-jillion-shmillion dollars a year), anything to do with landscaping and so on.

But I suppose baseball players are the main texpensives in the world today. Every year, several players who you never thought were especially good will get ludicrous contracts. Every … single … year you will hear about Jose Guillen or Oliver Perez or Juan Pierre getting a lot of money and you think … really?

Sometimes, often, the baseball texpensives are right handed pitchers just on either side of 30 who are league average or just above league average, usually coming off pretty good years. This seems to be the number one need in baseball — an “inning eater.” Who knew that league average innings were so valuable, but apparently they are gold.

A.J. Burnett is the ultimate example — he was a good-enough right-handed pitcher coming off a slightly-better-than-average season (2.9 WAR), and he had proven over a number of years to be at his height a slightly-better-than-average pitcher (sometimes) and the Yankees gave him a five-year, $82.5 million. It’s pretty clear they have absolutely no idea what to do with him now.

And while this is the most texpensive of the good-enough right-handed deals, it is hardly the most outrageous. Chan Ho Park is probably the original crazy contract — Texas gave him five years and about $64 million after he pitched fairly well in the intense pitchers park that is Dodger Stadium. Amazing how often brilliant people with millions and millions of dollars at stake will not look park effects — more on this in a minute. Kevin Millwood got a lot of money coming off his best year. And there are many others, to name a few: Jeff Suppan, Todd Stottlemeyre, Aaron Sele, Vincente Padilla, Jason Marquis, Carl Pavano, Gil Meche, Aaron Cook, Matt Clement, Kris Benson Carlos Silva … all of these and many others got paid big bucks around the time they turned 30 for being good but not great.

Teams have had different layers of success with these signings, but the main point is that right-handed pitchers who reach age 30 with some big league innings and just above league average numbers will cost way, way, way more than seems necessary. And that’s a texpensive (“Carlos Silva got WHAT?”)

Another baseball texpensive — the seven year, $126 million player. That is exactly $18 million a year for seven years, if you want to work the math, and this tasty deal has been given to three players in baseball history.

1. Barry Zito.
This signing probably got the worst instant reviews of any in baseball history. Zito of course won a Cy Young Award, but he had been a vaguely above average pitcher for three years before the Giants signed him to the seven-year, $126 million deal. He was turning 29, his stuff was clearly declining. Nobody really understood this move and it turned out from just about the first day to be even worse than most people expected. Zito has been below average for four years, he wasn’t even on the Giants postseason roster, and he has three years left.

2. Vernon Wells
A year ago, I called this the worst contract in baseball. That was when Wells was coming off his disastrous 2009 season when he didn’t hit, didn’t field, didn’t run and still had almost $100 million left on his deal. But I’ve amended this somewhat because Wells rebounded with a pretty good 2010. He hit well in Toronto, anyway.* But I should say that the main problems with this deal remain — Wells is turning 32 this week, he is closing in on unplayable in center field, he still doesn’t walk, he’s not running nearly as well on the bases. It’s not impossible that he could have a fine second career in his 30s, but it’s certainly no sure thing. And there are four big years and $86 million left on that contract.

*I didn’t realize this, but all of Wells improvement came at home in 2010. All of it.

At home, Wells hit a spectacular .321/.363/.628 with 20 homers. … This was after he hit .214/.285/.348 at home in 2009.

But on the road in 2010, Wells was, um, not too good. He hit .227/.301/.407 with 11 homers and 34 RBIs. That’s the player we all saw in 2009.

Of course a player gets 81 games at home … and so the overal year was pretty good. Anyway, I don’t know what this crazy split means. In 2009, Wells also had a huge split difference but it was a reverse split — he hit .300 with more power on the road while not hitting at all at home.

3. Jayson Werth
And finally, we come to Werth who just signed that magical 7-year, $126 million deal with Washington. Werth has been a good player for a while, and he was very good in 2010. He’s good defensively, he’s a good base runner, he led the National League in doubles, he will take a walk. He is a fine player. But …

Just that: But. No reason to fill in all the reasons this deal was wacko for the Nationals. Who signs a soon-to-be 32-year-old outfielder who has had exactly one outstanding season (and a couple of a good ones) to a seven-year-deal at $18 million per? Who does that?

There are so many reasons this deal is absurd that it’s hard to pick just one … but ballpark is not a bad place to start. Philadelphia is not the hitter’s haven people that so many think, but it is a good home run ballpark. It’s not a GREAT home run park like it was four years ago, but it’s good. And Washington is not a good home run park at all.

What does this mean for Werth? In 2010, he hit 27 home runs — 18 of them at home. In 2009, he hit 36 home runs — 21 at home. From this you would take that Werth’s home runs figure to go down, perhaps dramatically, in Washington. It strikes me as insane that Washington people would not see this …

… but then I thought of something else and looked it up. And sure enough, I was right.

In 2010, Werth hit .419/.500/806 in eight games in Washington.
In 2009, Werth hit .306/.359/.915 in eight games in Washington.

Yep. He crushed the ball in Washington. And, though I don’t know, I would not be surprised if these 16 games of hitting played in the Nationals thinking. Hey, look how well Werth hit in Washington! He loves this ballpark! He owns this place!

Of course, it’s only 16 games. And it was against Washington pitching. And it’s only 16 games. And also it’s only 16 games. But big-money baseball signings are often emotional things, no matter how much people try to eliminate their personal feelings. My guess is that Washington desperately wants a star, someone to spark their potentially rich baseball market. Stephen Strasburg is hurt and in limbo. Bryce Harper is still off in the future.

Is Jayson Werth a star? No, probably not in the mind of most people. But there is what I like to call a “small market squint.” That is general managers squinting until the player in question LOOKS like a star. The SMS is what make Jose Guillen look like a “proven run producer” to the Royals. It’s what made Jeff Suppan look like “a winner” to Milwaukee.” And Jayson Werth, well, he might be the biggest everyday free agent out there — The Red Sox wanted him! Scott Boras thinks he’s great! And he has played for a World Series Champ. And on top of that he loved hitting at Nationals Park. How could he miss?

I fear it’s simple thoughts like this that turn good players into texpensives.

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The Greatest Player Not In The Hall

There is something about the Baseball Hall of Fame — all Halls of Fame, really — that people don’t really like talking about. Somebody has to the best player not in it. There’s no way around this. It can be a big Hall of Fame or a small one. It can be an inclusive Hall of Fame or one as exclusive at Augusta National. Wherever you draw your line of greatness, there are remarkable people left outside.

For many years, Ron Santo’s identity was wrapped up in being left outside. He was, simply, the greatest player not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is not to say that he was a better baseball player than Dick Allen or Minnie Minoso or Bert Blyleven or Ken Boyer or numerous other terrific players who have not yet been elected and inducted. That is a matter opinion. This is not to say he was a more egregious oversight than any of these players or others. That too is opinion.

What I mean is that Santo carried the title as Greatest Non Hall of Famer. Nobody else really wanted it. Every year, his name came up for the Hall of Fame — is this finally the year? And every year, he fell short. Fifteen times he was on the Baseball Writers ballot and needed 75% to be elected. He never once got even 50% of the vote. Three times he received the most votes from the Veteran’s Committee, but never once got the percentage he needed to qualify for the Hall of Fame. He handled all this with great dignity. In so many ways, it was the story of his career. He had grown used to being under-appreciated.

There are usually easy-to-understand factors that make anyone underrated. There’s no mystery about it with Ron Santo. He played baseball in a time when runs were especially hard to come by — and so his numbers are not jaw-dropping. He played third base, which has long been baseball’s vacuum — when Santo retired in 1974 there were only three third basemen in the Hall of Fame. Many of his skills were subtle — Santo twice led the National League in on-base percentage and four times led in walks — and these were not especially appreciated talents during his playing days.

Santo also played for losing teams, year after year after year. He never played in a single postseason game. In 1967, Santo may have been the best player in the NL — he hit .300 with 31 homers, he walked 96 times, he scored 107 runs, he drove in 98, he won a Gold Glove. The Cubs, in what would turn out to be one of their most successful seasons during Santo’s career, finished a mere 14 games back.

He was as solid as oak, the captain of the Cubs, and he put up virtually the same numbers year after year after year. Consistency is boring is underrated. From 1963 to 1970, he ALWAYS hit 25 home runs, and he ALWAYS drove in 94-plus runs, and he ALWAYS played 154 or more games. He won five Gold Gloves in those eight years, and he led third basemen in assists just about every year, and he led the league in sac flies three times, and he was good for 90-plus walks. It is true that he took advantage of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, where he did most of his good hitting. Over a career, he hit .296/.383/.522 in Chicago. And he hit .257/.342/.406 outside. He hit 216 of his 342 homers in Chicago. He scored 180 home runs and drove in 155 more RBIs at home.

But it is just as true that he played in a very low-scoring time in a very low-scoring league. Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement takes a pretty good measure of a player’s contribution. In the 1960s, in the National League, only Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente had a higher WAR than Ron Santo.

Most Wins Above Replacement, NL (1960-69):
1. Willie Mays, 84.1
2. Hank Aaron, 79.8
3. Roberto Clemente, 59.2
4. Ron Santo, 54.4
5. Willie McCovey, 46.0
6. Eddie Mathews, 42.1
7. Frank Robinson, 38.9
8. Vada Pinson, 38.7
9. Dick Allen, 37.2
10. Orlando Cepeda, 36.7

Now, this might be a bit misleading if you put too much faith into it — Robinson went to the American League, Dick Allen played 600-plus fewer games, and so on. But I’m not trying to make the point that he was the fourth best player in the NL during the decade but that his value was greater than his good numbers suggest and that whatever Wrigley Field gave, playing in an era of high mounds and high strikes took away. He was very good year after year after year after year.

And there was something else — Santo was a Type 1 Diabetic. He had no easy way to monitor his blood sugar so according to his son Jeff he learned to do it by his mood. He did not share that he was Diabetic for many years, and he kept his struggle hidden from teammates, and he refused to come out of the lineup. He quietly visited hospitals to talk with children with diabetes. Later, he made his fight against Diabetes a public fight so he could inspire people. There are those who would say that while his quiet (and later public) triumph over diabetes is admirable, it has little to do with his Hall of Fame case.

I suppose it depends on what you believe the Baseball Hall of Fame means.

Santo was so under-appreciated as a player that when he first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1980 he received exactly 15 votes. That was not even enough votes to get him on the ballot again in 1981. It was only in 1985 that a minor uproar reinstated him and a few other overlooked talents to the ballot*. This time around, Santo received 53 votes which hardly made him a Hall of Fame threat but did keep him comfortably on the ballot. And that’s how it would go for 14 more years — he never came close to getting into the Hall but he would always stay comfortably on the ballot.

*The reinstated players included Santo, Ken Boyer, Curt Flood, Vada Pinson, Harvey Haddix, Dave McNally, Ron Fairly (who had received zero votes the year before) and, most remarkably to me, Denny McLain.

Of course, he stayed around the game. He became an enthusiastic Cubs radio broadcaster. He remained a wonderful presence in Chicago. He was beloved. That’s the overwhelming feeling Friday after Ron Santo died at the age of 70. He was beloved as few ballplayers are ever beloved. I have little doubt he would have loved to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and my own baseball instincts tell me that it should have happened long ago. But when I was around him, when I listened to him, when I once interviewed him about the Hall of Fame, I never heard any disappointment or bitterness. I heard a man who loved the game and loved life.

And I look at this this way: Someone has to be the greatest player to not get into the Hall of Fame. Not everyone could handle that sort of thing. Ron Santo wore it beautifully.

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Travel Day

This was my Wednesday without too much embellishment:

6:30 a.m.: Get to the airport in plenty of time for my 7:30 a.m. flight into New York. I have numerous things going on in New York — including my Friday appearance as guest on E-Street Radio — and am alert and ready to go. When I arrive at the gate, I see TSA agents going through every single carry on bag by hand. It turns out that the X-Ray machines are broken. I do not know that having an agent examine my underwear and deodorant will be among the happier moments of the day.

7:30 a.m.: Flight is scheduled to leave but there is word of bad weather in New York and the flight is being delayed. The pilot intends to have us board the plane anyway so that we can leave as soon as we are cleared.

8 a.m.: The boarding is delayed because one of the airplane’s tires is loose. Gate agent says it will be better to delay than “Get to New York and find out the tire had fallen off.” Good point.

9 a.m.: Flight leaves for New York. The pilot says the hour and a half delay will be difficult to make up because we face a strong headwind and because the winds at LaGuardia are “up to 60 mph.”

9:55 a.m.: Pilot announces over loudspeaker that LaGuardia has been closed because of heavy winds and will not open for “at least an hour.” He then says, “We cannot make it for an hour, so there’s a chance we will be diverted so we can pick a spot of fuel.” He really says “spot of fuel.” He then adds that he will keep us in a holding pattern for a little while in case we get a break before the hour is up.

10:40 a.m.: Well, we get a break. The pilot says that because so many other planes have been diverted we will be able to sneak in. He says will be landing in New York in about 44 minutes.

10:43 a.m.: “Well,” pilot says, “if that last announcement sounded too good to be true … yeah, it was. We are going to be diverted to Pittsburgh.” He then says that we will pick up some fuel in Pittsburgh and hopefully not be delayed too long before going to New York. There is now quite a bit of grumbling on the plane.

12:40 p.m. (Eastern Time now): We land in Pittsburgh. It is snowing. The flight attendant says: “I hope you enjoyed your flight.”

1 p.m.: Pilot comes back to give us news — if anyone wants to go back home, they can arrange it. He still is not sure about New York, but he intends to find out.

1:18 p.m.: Pilot does not have good news. LaGuardia is closed (he says), there are no flights going in and out, the flight is canceled and there is no way whatsoever to get into New York through the air. BUT, the airline has decided to charter a bus. He says the bus ride is about 5 hours from Pittsburgh to New York. He does not say that this is only if Jimmie Johnson is driving the bus.

1:42 p.m.: After sitting on the plane for 24 minutes for no apparent reason a new guy comes in to say that he is trying to charter a bus for “anyone who wants to go to New York.” This seems like an odd qualification since we are all on a plane that purportedly was headed for New York. But he has been doing this for 25 years, and he is right … most people on the bus seem to be ready to go home. A quick count shows that only 32 people want to take a bus.

1:53 p.m.: The man comes back to lead us off the plane and announce that he has secured a bus to New York — it will leave at 4 p.m. and arrive in New York at midnight. A few more people drop out. There are now only 17 people waiting.

1:57 p.m.: The man takes a phone call and makes an announcement. The bus has been canceled. There are no flights available to New York — so everyone will have to stay in a hotel in Pittsburgh. And all the flights on Thursday to New York are sold out. This does not strike anyone as particularly good news.

2:02 p.m.: I finally realize that I just need to rent a car and drive to New York. I am told by a local that it is about a six-hour drive. I secure the one-day car rental for a mere $240 and tell the gate agent to take my name off whatever list he has …

2:03 p.m.: A young woman from China approaches me and asks if she can ride with me to New York. I have a hard time understanding her, but she seems close to tears and, of course, I tell her she can come along.

2:15 p.m.: The car may cost $240 but it’s a fully loaded Camry. Well, by fully loaded, I mean it has a steering wheel, brakes, several dents and only 26,000 miles on it. It also has a GPS and when I punch in New York, it tells me the ride is 6 hours and 47 minutes. This day is getting worse all the time.

3:30 p.m.: It is snowing just outside of Pittsburgh, though the roads are not too slick yet. I am talking to my wife, Margo, and I do not mention the snow because she will have a panic attack. In the background, the woman is talking on her phone in Chinese. She is undoubtedly telling someone that she is 85% certain that I am not an axe murderer. Or she could be telling someone that she have found her next axe-murder victim. I do not speak Chinese.

4:30 p.m.: I am starving and so we pull into a McDonald’s where the woman asks me if I would like to try a McRib sandwich. Why do they do this at fast food restaurant drive-thru windows? I’m already there. I’m already going to buy something to eat. What difference does it make what I get?

4:33 p.m.: The GPS tells me to turn right to get back on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I turn right. Then, suddenly, the GPS says “Make Legal U-Turn.” Legal U-Turn? Where? Then the GPS says “Go 13 miles and then turn around.” Yep. Going east on the Turnpike when I’m supposed to be going West. Yep. Next exit is not for 13 miles. Yep. That’s 26 miles out of the way if you are counting at home. And, yep, the woman in the car says three of the 12 words she will say on this trip: “Going wrong way.”

4:58 p.m.: Passed the McDonald’s a second time. Glare at it. Chinese woman appears to be asleep. GPS says we are still four and a half hours away.

5:40 p.m.: Pitch black and snowing somewhere in Pennsylvania.

7:48 p.m.: It occurs to me at this moment that Pennsylvania is the longest bleeping state in America. I actually love to drive, but it now feels like I have been driving for nine days. Woman is still sleeping or pretending to sleep. I feel very tired myself.

8:30 p.m.: I celebrate 12 hours on the road. We are actually approaching the city now. I notice that New Jersey roads are quite smooth — smooth enough to …

8:31 p.m.: I am not asleep!

8:48 p.m.: Approaching the Holland Tunnel. Woman is paying all our tolls. By my quick estimate, she has handed out approximately $129 since we started. We now approach the Holland Tunnel and she sees that it costs another $8. She counts out 8 singles and says two more of the 12 words she says on the trip: “All gone.”

9:03 p.m.: We are in the city. I do not like driving in the city. This is because I have a terrible sense of direction and will naturally make a wrong turn. It is inevitable. I feel a little bit better because the GPS is telling me where to go and it is saying to go straight and …

9:04 p.m.: The woman says the remainder of her 12 words … she is hoping I can pull over somewhere here and drop her off near a subway stop so that she can go to Chinatown. This sounds reasonable to me. I turn left, pull off to the side, drop her off. She thanks me profusely … I feel good about myself. I have made it into the city — yes, it’s 14 hours after I arrived at the airport, but I have done something good and I am here. I just have to take my car to a rental car place on 48th street and …

9:06 p.m.: GPS tells me to turn left on a street. I look up. There is a big stupid sign saying “No Left Turn.” This is where a real New Yorker decides that going in the right direction trumps big stupid signs. I, unfortunately, am not a real New Yorker. The next street also says no left turn. And the next. And the next. And a no U-Turn sign follows that.

9:08 p.m: I know I’m tired and near delirious but I appear to be going up a ramp of some kind.

9:09 p.m.: This does not seem good.

9:10 p.m. This is definitely not good.

9:11 p.m.: I appear to be on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

9:14 p.m.: I now appear to be on the Long Island Expressway.

9:15 p.m.: I am now screaming at my GPS.

9:18 p.m.: I take the Maurice Exit and turn back around. I have decided to take over from the GPS and use my own spider senses to get me back into the city. I know this is a bad move, but I am so tired that I hope desperation will give me super-navigational-strength.

9:22 p.m.: I realize that I will actually have to go BACK through the Midtown Tunnel. I think to myself: “Do I have any cash?” I suspect not. As I consider pulling off on Van Dam to find a bank, I look in my wallet and see 5 bucks. Surely, that’s enough. I have not driven through the Midtown Tunnel in years but I remember it being only $3.50.

9:25 p.m.: Turns out the Midtown Tunnel is not $3.50. It is $5.50 Surely the guy will grant me the 50 cents.

9:26 p.m.: Conversation with toll booth guy goes like so:

Me: Sorry, hey, all I have is $5.
TBG: Check your car, man, there’s always spare change.
Me: Um, it’s a rental. There’s no change in here.
TBG: Check your pockets, there’s always spare change there.
Me: I don’t carry change. Really, all I have is 5 bucks.
TBG: All right, then.

(He pulls out an envelope and starts writing on it. Cars behind start honking. He keeps writing … it feels like he takes approximately 5 hours to do this).

TBG (handing me envelope): “All right man, put your money away. I’m doing you a big favor.”
Me (looking at envelope and seeing that this will now cost me $7.50): Thanks.
TBG: “You’re a lucky man.”

9:32 p.m.: Arrive at car rental place. My great friend Vackie is waiting for me there. We grab dinner at Juniors and he takes me back to hotel.

11:04 p.m.: I go up to my New York hotel room with a family of nine, none of whom has any idea what floor they are staying on. I enter the room and pop open my computer. There is an email from a Brilliant Reader that reads like so: “You promised you were going to write these Bill James Car Essays today? What have you been doing anyway?”

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The Heat Of The Moment

Tonight, it ends. Oh, sure, LeBron James obviously will go on, the Miami Heat obviously will go on, the drama will go on, the daily speculation about coach Erik Spoelstra’s job will go on, the calls for Pat Riley to come back will go on, the boos, the complaints about the boos, the over-analysis of the boos, the on-the-record sniping, the anonymous sniping, the marveling about how lousy a team the Heat are, the expectation that the Heat will still come together, the parade of daily stories and reports by the 987 writers and broadcasters embedded with the team … all of it will go on.

But it seems to me that tonight, the story really ends. Tonight LeBron James returns to Cleveland. Tonight my hometown will unload whatever emotions are left over from James’ callous (The) Decision (Powered By ESPN) to leave Cleveland and take his talents to South Beach. Tonight will be a charged night.

And Saturday the Miami Heat play at home against Atlanta — and are infinitely less interesting.

I guess this is the part that surprises me: The Miami Heat are boring. I didn’t expect that. When LeBron James announced that he would join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, I did not know exactly what to expect but I expected something electrifying. Maybe the Heat would be great, a new kind of superpower, designed by three players who decided it might be kinda fun to get together and change the world. Maybe the Heat would spectacularly crash into itself like a black hole of egos. Maybe the Heat would come together to give us a kind of basketball we only see in the rarest of moments, like when Michael Jordan’s Bulls were at their height or when the various Dream Teams played at their most inspired. The possibilities seemed endless.

And, I don’t know, for me, the possibilities no longer seem endless. The Heat play boring basketball. They win games in boring fashion and lose them in boring ways. They have no inside presence. They do not move the ball around well. They generally beat bad teams. They generally lose to good ones. They play pretty well at home. They play pretty lousy on the road. They may yet come together, but I don’t think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s even likely. James and Wade are great players, two of the five best in the world, and the expectation is that they would make magic together. But it turns out they are the same kind of player, and when they are on the floor together the result is less magic and more like a dance-off.

Anyway, it seems that way to me. The Heat may yet rip off 10 or 15 wins in a row, I don’t know. They may yet lift their games into the heavens, I don’t know. But I don’t think so. I think they are a puffed up superband, like Asia*, destined for a few hits and a lot of nights where people wonder why so much musical talent doesn’t make great music.

*’Cause it’s the heat of the moment! The heat of the moment! The heat of the moment showed in your eyes!

But it’s off the court that the Heat are especially boring. We live in a Reality TV culture. As a nation we have been peppered with survivors and amazing races and and top chefs and dancing stars and big brothers and bachelors and bachelorettes and real housewives and a million other reality situations, and it seems to me that one consequence of this is that a story has to be REALLY interesting or provocative or ridiculous to capture our attention. And I don’t think the Heat saga is any of those things. The dramatic effects surround this team aren’t good enough for an old Batman TV show.

— Will the Heat stick with their young coach Erik Spoelstra?

— Did LeBron purposely bump his coach or was it an accident?

— Will LeBron get serious about winning a championship?

— Will Dwyane Wade, who seemed to age two years this offseason, look like his younger self again?

— Will Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley come out from the shadows and coach again?

— Will Chris Bosh … well, actually there’s nothing even faintly interesting about Chris Bosh (and I actually mean this in a good way).

Who cares? Really. The Heat are 12-9. They are an OK basketball team with a couple of big names. There are a lot of teams like that. They are viewed as underachievers and everybody waits for them to click and start winning. There are a lot of teams like that. They are generally too good to lose to below average teams — I fully expect them to beat Cleveland tonight — and they have no answer against the best teams. There are a lot of teams like that. They have coaching drama — hell, who doesn’t?

And still, they are being covered like they are important, like these stories are unique, like THEY are unique. And if there’s one thing they have proven in just 21 games … they are not unique. LeBron is a great player who doesn’t like being told what to do. Heard that one before. Wade is a great player who doesn’t seem entirely sure how to handle the LeBron zaniness. Fascinating. Bosh seems to me just a guy who seems interested in playing basketball without all the drama. Yawn. This reality TV story would never make it to network television.

And Pat Riley? I know people keep waiting for him to jump in the fray and become head coach, but my guess is that he wants no part of this mess. The Heat’s problems as a team are very real. They are weak inside. They are one dimensional offensively. There’s no percentage in actually coming back and coaching this team to a bland 45-to-55 win season and a second-round playoff loss and inevitable disappointment. Better to keep standing on the outside as the savior while Erik Spoelstra keeps coaching this overhyped mess and taking a beating from inside and outside. Maybe something can be done in the offseason to fix some of this team’s problems — maybe then it would be worth jumping in.

As for LeBron … after years of building up a lovable reputation featuring Nike puppets and flying rosin, I would say he has done very little right for LeBron James Inc.. The decision to do a show about The Decision was obviously a public relations nightmare — they will be teaching classes in universities about that for years to come. He then came to Miami with the obvious belief that this would be easy based on the formula:

((James * Wade) + (Bosh))/(Hype + Spoelstra) = Championship.

But it’s not easy. It’s not remotely easy. It wasn’t easy for Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or Bill Russell or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or anyone else. This is the NBA, the best basketball league on earth. The Cleveland Cavaliers spoiled LeBron James any and every way they knew how. They invented special rules for him. They tried to get players who fit him. They never seemed to tell him no. These things had their rewards — James carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, and he twice was league MVP as he led the Cavaliers to the best regular season record.

But these things had their price too … James clearly started to resent the expectations that went along with the special treatment. He made a statement last year after his worst playoff performance that even at the time sounded ridiculous but in the ensuing months have come to sound like a philosophy: “I spoil people with my play.” At the moment it just felt like a narcissistic statement by someone who was feeling sorry for himself — which can be understood in the heat of the moment (the heat of the moment showed in your eyes!). But pretty much everything James has done since then suggests that’s how he really feels. He’s taking HIS TALENTS to South Beach. He’s asking “What Should I Do?” in a bizarre Nike commercial. He’s talking about how he’s playing too many minutes, and the offense isn’t exactly right for him, and someone — someone anonymous, of course — is saying that Erik Spoelstra is being too hard on him.

See, he’s not living up to his great potential as a basketball star, no, he’s spoiling people with his play. And I think he came to Miami to escape some of those expectations, to be in a crowd of talent, to win a championship the easy way. And apparently nobody told him it just doesn’t work that way.

Many people have asked me how I feel about LeBron James coming back to Cleveland tonight. I don’t really have many feelings about it. All those feelings were emptied out back when he made (The) Decision (powered by ESPN). I wish he had treasured his connection to Cleveland. I wish he had seen not only what he meant to the city but what the city meant for him. I wish he had left with more class.

But if wishes were horses and all that … LeBron is now part of what seems to me a flawed team and a cliche-infested soap opera and a media circus filled with people who will wonder more and more what they’re doing there. Tonight, it’s still a story. Tonight everyone will attempt to measure the emotions of my hometown, and LeBron James will try to show that he’s made of sterner stuff, and it will be moderately interesting I suppose.

But an NBA season pounds at the senses. Saturday, the Heat play at home at Atlanta. Monday, they’re off to Milwaukee. Wednesday’s they’re at Utah. Then they’re at Golden State. And so on … and so on … and, in the end, who beside for some people in Miami will care about a pretty good, star-laden, self-indulgent NBA team that plays boring basketball? There are so many star-laden NBA teams that play wonderful basketball. If I were one of those poor shleps forced to follow around this Heat team, I’d beg to be reassigned to Oklahoma City.

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Wash Your Sins Away (The Car Ride Essays)

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

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

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

3. Bomb — big innings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Riding In The Car With Bill James

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

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

No, it absolutely won’t die entirely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posts Coming Up

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

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

— The remarkable run of Jimmie Johnson.

— Reading Harry Potter to My Daughter

— 32 great NFL defensive players.

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

— He Who Shall Not Be Named Returns To Cleveland

— The Sure NFL Hall of Famers

— Texpensives; still working on this concept.

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

— Why I No Longer Vote for the Heisman

— The Future of Sports*

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

Listening to the Beatles

— 32 best all-around baseball players ever

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

— 32 best defensive players in baseball history.

— Da Bears

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

Three other things:

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

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

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

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

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