By In Stuff

Talkin’ Baseball (Stats)

Here’s a funny thought that struck me the other day: I don’t think I have ever met a baseball fan who does not like baseball stats. Not once. I have never really thought about it exactly in those terms before — I have friends who I always would have called anti-stats and others who I might have called geeks like me.

But that’s not just oversimplifying … it’s wrong. This struck me when talking with a good friend who I would loosely call “anti-stats” or, to be more precise, “dubious about advanced stats.” This is the kind of friend who wants the Oakland A’s to fail so that the Moneyball people (including me) will shut up. This is the kind of friend who sees letter configurations like xFIP or UZR or WAR and begins to show facial tics. This is the kind of friend who, modern and open-minded as he tries to be, as good a friend as he tries to be, cannot help but believe that many of these blog posts are written from my mother’s basement.

But … but … but he is ALSO the kind of friend who will quote batting averages with passion, who will get a jolt of excitement when he thinks about how many RBIs Manny Ramirez had in 1999 (165, as he can tell you), who can quote pitcher wins like scripture.

The guy loves baseball stats. He just loves HIS baseball stats.

And I’ve come to believe this is the reality: NOBODY who cares about baseball hates all baseball stats. Well, I shouldn’t say nobody. I’m sure that there is the rare bird who likes to go to games to partake in the geometric greenery of the game or whatever — but I don’t know that person.

See baseball is a game of context. You want to know who the best hitter is. You want to know how good the pitcher is. And we instinctively know that while we can tell SOME things with our eyes, we can’t tell everything. Baseball is with us every day of the summer, and the action without context is not especially gripping (which is why the “baseball is boring” gripe has been with us for more than 100 years). To see a pitcher throw a fastball past a hitter is not especially thrilling on its own … you probably don’t often stop the car to watch baseball games being played along the road. Strikeouts happen at every one of those games. But if that pitcher is Tim Lincecum and that hitter is Josh Hamilton, and you know how good Lincecum is (he has led the National League in strikeouts three straight years — something only Randy Johnson had done in the last 50 years) and you know how good Josh Hamilton is (he hit .359 and led the league in slugging!), the moment takes on life and electricity and joy.

So, yes, I think people need baseball stats to enjoy the game. It’s just that many people — and I understand this impulse — want to stick with the stats they’ve enjoyed all their lives. These stats are as familiar as family. And while they may know those stats are flawed, they prefer the flaws in their favorite statistics over the flaws of the newer ones. Why? Maybe the newer stats feel too much like math. Maybe, to them, the newer stats seem to dehumanize the game. Maybe they just just don’t connect with Wins Above Replacement in the way that they CONNECT with RBIs as a statistic, the way they CONNECT with wins as a statistic, the way they can CONNECT with errors as a statistic. These stats they can infuse with emotion and feeling and history.

For some of us, it will always be fun to explore the new numbers, to try and separate what a pitcher does from what the defense does, to break down a hitter by what he contributes to winning and losing rather than by how many hits he gets per at-bat, to judge a player’s defense beyond the occasional diving catch and by how often the ball boinks off his glove. As I’ve always said, there are a lot of ways to enjoy baseball. And there is no wrong way.

So with that as my preamble, I’ve been thinking about the most basic baseball stats — and five very simple ways I would improve them. And let me say up front that my suggestions would not make the basic stats more advanced — the opposite. They would make the basic stats even more basic, which I think would be good.

1. Team wins = pitcher wins

Assuming you’re a baseball fan, you probably know most of the convoluted rules it takes to get a win these days. As a starter you have to go five innings, your team has to be in the lead if you are taken out of the game, your team cannot surrender that lead when you are out the game, and so on. It seems simple but it really isn’t. And as a reliever … well, it can get REALLY tricky for a relievers.

Simplify. I’ve never hidden my disdain for pitcher wins as a statistic, especially in modern times when hardly anybody pitches a complete game, but if you’re going to use this stat anyway (and let’s be honest, it ain’t going anyway), fine. Just keep track of how often a team wins the game when the pitcher starts. That’s all. Eliminate the no-decision, which if you stop to think about it is actually a bizarre concept. There are no “no decisions” in baseball. Somebody wins. Somebody loses.

So, make it so that the only pitcher who can get a win or a loss is a starting pitcher. This won’t hurt anything — nobody cares about reliever wins anyway. We’ll come up with a better statistic to judge reliever performances. Make it the starter’s game. If the starter goes 2/3 of an inning, give up 8 runs, but the team comes back and wins — he gets the win. If he goes 9 innings, give up no runs, and the team loses in the 10th, he gets a loss. Chris Carpenter “went” 16-9 in 2010. But what does that even mean? He made 35 starts. Isn’t it more telling that his team went 22-13 when he started a game?

And don’t hit me with “But that wouldn’t always be fair to the pitcher.” It’s not fair now. It’s less fair now.* If a starting pitcher’s job is to keep a team in the game, give a team the best chance to win, then let’s see how often the team wins and loses when he pitches.

*I feel about this the same way I feel about awarding the All-Star Game winner homefield advantage in the World Series. I think it’s a dumb way to do it. BUT it’s certainly less dumb than the old way when they just alternated homefield advantage. Sometimes, you have to judge something against its history.

2. If it’s a sacrifice, make it a sacrifice.

Consider this scenario: Man on second, nobody out. Batter is asked to bunt the runner to third. He fails on his first attempt. He fails on his second attempt. And with two strikes, he takes a goofy swing and chops the ball to second base, which moves the runner to third.

In this scenario, he gets an at-bat. He’s zero-for-one. Why? If he had managed to get the bunt down, he would not have been charged with an at-bat. He’s zero-for-zero. Why? There’s no reason why. A bunt and a chop to second accomplished precisely the same thing. The reasoning seems to be that a bunt is a TRUE SACRIFICE, meaning that the hitter is entirely giving himself up for the sake of the team, while the chop to second is only a PARTIAL SACRIFICE because he might luck into a hit. But, of course, the bunter might have gotten a hit too. And anyway, I think the chop to second is a much truer sacrifice because the hitter is sacrificing his own stats.

I say count ’em. All of them. I’m all for keeping up with sacrifice hits and sacrifice flies so that we can know who are the scrappy gamers, and the gamey scrappers out there. But to me, all sacrifices should count as at-bats. You made an out. That should count against your batting average. That, to me, is what sacrifice means. You are giving up something for the betterment of the team. You are willing to reduce your individual statistics in order to help the club win. I have no special appreciation now for the unselfishness of someone who lays down a bunt — big deal, it doesn’t hurt the average. I have no special respect for the generosity of spirit of someone who hits a sac fly — for hitting the ball in the air, he gets an RBI, and he gets fist bumps, and he gets heaped with praise by announcers AND it doesn’t count against his average either.

I say count ’em. If you bunt over a runner, if you drive them in from third base with a fly ball, you get credited with a sacrifice, you get the appreciation of teammates and fans, you get known as a team player. But your batting average goes down. That’s a true sacrifice, my friend.

3. Simplify RBIs.

In many people’s minds, there is nothing more noble in all of baseball than driving in runs. Yes you can scream — I have screamed — about how RBIs are context stats, they are a reflection of a team and the batting order as much as the skills of a player and so on. RBIs might be the most deceiving popular statistic in baseball because people love it so much.

But, people DO love it. So, to me, if you are going to to give out RBIs — give ’em out. In this spirit I would make two recommendations:

— If a run scores based on your hitting, you get an RBI. Basic baseball statistics are way too judgmental. I’ve often told the bit about the first baseball story I ever wrote for a newspaper. My mother, a decided non-baseball fan, read the story and, being a supportive Mom, said she liked it except for one part: I had referred to a run as an unearned run. Well, who was I to say that a run wasn’t earned?

Same goes with RBIs. If someone hits into a double play, and a run scores, the run still scored. Give ’em the RBI. If a player hits the ball and it is botched and a run scores, the run still scored. Give ’em the RBI. I’d say any batted ball that results in a run scoring should get a run batted-in.*

*I still would not give an RBI for a run scoring on a wild pitch or passed ball since the term is Run BATTED In. I’m actually surprised, based on baseball’s statistical history of disregarding the walk, that they credit a batter with an RBI if he walks (or is hit by pitch) with the bases loaded. But I’m glad they do.

— I would make it so that you do not get an RBI for driving yourself in with a home run. This is not just double counting — it’s triple counting. The guy who hits a home run already gets credit for the home run. He already gets credit for the run scored. I don’t think he should ALSO get credit for the RBI. Making this small change would clarify some things anyway — it would bring back the rarity of the 100 RBI season for one. Anyway, my sense is that with RBIs we are really looking for how often they drive in OTHER runners. By “Good RBI Man” people tend to mean the guy who will drive in the runner from second with two outs or the guy who can get the runner home from third. Tacking on their home runs muddies up the concept, I think.

Here are your home run minus RBI leaders in 2010. You might be surprised by who is No. 1.

1. Alex Rodriguez, 95
2. Delmon Young, 91
3. Miguel Cabrera, 88
4. Vlad Guerrero, 86
5. Carlos Gonzalez, 83
6. Evan Longoria, 82
7. Casey McGehee, 81
8. Robinson Cano, 80
9. Ryan Braun, 78
(tie) James Loney, 78

4. Give me “every run average” rather than “earned run average.”

The funny thing about xFIP and how much some people despise it is that it’s hardly a new effort. People have been trying to pinpoint and separate a pitchers individual ability from the team’s defense for 100 years and more. That’s the whole concept behind the earned run. The idea is that if a fielder makes an error, well, that’s NOT THE PITCHER’S FAULT. And if it’s not the pitcher’s fault, then why should you count it against his statistics?

This, of course, leads to all sorts of ridiculousness. My mother really was right. For one thing, we don’t add runs to the pitcher’s “earned run” total when the fielder makes a spectacular run-saving catch. We don’t add a home run to the pitcher’s home runs allowed total if an outfielder leaps at the wall and brings a home run back. In those cases, the pitcher and the fielders are all in it together. So why discount the pitcher’s ERA because of errors? Why mess with reality?

Second, you do know how unearned runs are figured, right? The official scorer goes through the inning and attempts to RECREATE the inning without the error. That is to say, a third baseman boots an easy ground ball with two outs, the official scorer makes the determination that the inning SHOULD be over. That’s why every run scored after that error is called “unearned.” Sometimes, believe me, this sort of recreation can go beyond absurdity. Let’s say a guy is on second with one out. A ground ball is to short. The shortstop throws the ball away, and the batter goes to second. Well, at the moment, that’s an unearned run because the guy would not have scored. But if the NEXT GUY hits a single, then it becomes an earned run because now it’s assumed the guy would have scored. There are a lot of assumptions like that.

Third, of course, an error is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a moving target. An error in Cincinnati isn’t necessarily an error in Baltimore. Baseball stats should not change and shape-shift at the whim of some official scorer. Make it ERA — Every Run Allowed — after all, it’s a pitcher’s job to work around errors, to make the best of any and every situation.

2010 Leaders in Every Run Average
1. Josh Johnson, 2.50
2. Roy Halladay, 2.66
3. Adam Wainwright, 2.66
4. Clay Buchholz, 2.85
5. Felix Hernandez, 2.88
6. Tim Hudson, 2.91
7. Ubaldo Jimenez, 2.96
8. Roy Oswalt, 2.98
9. Johan Santana, 3.03
10. David Price, 3.06

5. Create simple but effective middle-reliever stats.

These poor middle relievers. Starters have wins. Closers have saves. But the middle relievers, who are becoming a bigger part of the game every year, don’t have anything. Yes, I know, people have tried to make the “hold” catch on … but it lacks the simplicity and power that a mainstream statistic must have. More on that in a minute.

As you know, I’m in favor of giving ALL wins to the starting pitcher. So I would be in favor of a couple of special and very simple middle reliever stats. I’m not smart enough to invent these statistics, but I would make recommendations:

— Inherited Runners Stranded. I would have this as a simple counting statistic — how many innings did you end with other pitcher’s runners on base? You could also do this as a percentage, though I love the idea of a counting stat so that a pitcher could lead the league in IRS. We could even give out the Orosco Award — no pitcher in baseball history* stranded anywhere close to the 790 baserunners Jesse Orosco stranded. And Orosco stranded them at a 75% clip — a very, very high percentage. It’s the highest percentage for an pitcher who inherited more than 500 baserunners.

*I assume — the stat only goes back so far but relievers weren’t as big a part of the game before the stat.

This year’s Orosco Winner would be San Diego’s Joe Thatcher, who stranded 54 base runners (Orosco’s career high was 57). Here are the Top 10 in IRS (with the IRS percentage in parentheses):

1. Joe Thatcher, 54 (81%)
2. Randy Choate, 51 (77%)
3. Javier Lopez, 48, (84%
4. Peter Moylan, 47 (69%)
5. Randy Flores, 46 (78%)
6. Santiago Casilla, 41 (87%)
7. Pedro Feliciano, 41 (82%)
8. Todd Coffey, 39 (65%)
9. Darren O’Day, 37 (74%)
10. Tony Sipp, 36 (80%)

— Clean Innings could be quite simply the percentage of full innings thrown where the reliever did not give up a run.

— A Setup. The setup stat could be simply be how often a pitcher hands off the lead to the ninth inning. You might even do this with the same rules as a save, only for the eighth inning.

Finally, all this gets at one more point: I don’t know that we do as good a job as we can of explaining the power of some of the best advanced statistics. WPA, for instance, is a wonderful statistic, one of my absolute favorites. WPA simply looks at every situation and credits or debits each players account based on how his actions helped or hurt the players chances. For instance, with the score 3-3 in the fourth inning, a guy hits a double with two outs. Well, his team now has a better chance of winning than it did before. That better chance is put into the hitters account. But at the same time, the pitchers team has a slightly smaller chance of winning. So that same amount is taken OUT OF HIS account. If they pitcher strikes out the next batter to end the inning, well, the chance for his team to win is now better, so that amount is put into the pitcher’s account, and it is taken out of the account of the batter who struck out. You see? It’s figures EVERY CONTRIBUTION (including fielders contributions) and EVERY SETBACK and and puts them into a season-long bank account.

It’s a great statistic, but it’s hard to take mainstream because:

1. It’s a somewhat more complicated concept than most people want.
2. It’s not something that a kid can figure out at home at the breakfast table.
3. It just took me a lengthy paragraph to explain and I’m still not sure I explained it well.

People do want baseball statistics — they want them, they need them, they rely on them, they argue about them, they cherish them. But the statistics must have at least the illusion of simplicity. On-base percentage, as I have pointed out many times, is a much simpler statistic than batting average — people will always say “Batting average is simply hits divided by at-bats” without explaining exactly how they got that at-bats total in the first place. On-base percentage is also a much more telling statistic than batting average.

But so far, anyway, on-base percentage does not have the power that batting average has. In part, I think it is because we have not yet come up with good verb for it — a guy can “hit” .300, but he can’t “on-base” .400. In part, I think it is because there are strong anti-walk feelings out there. In part, I think it is because batting average has been part of the American baseball landscape for more than 100 years and on-base percentage has not. I think the more we talk about on-base percentage, the more it will become ingrained in the baseball statistical landscape. But it takes a long, long time — and a lot of power — for a statistic to go mainstream. It’s not enough to yell “This statistic is better!” It may be better. But it has to grab the baseball fan’s heart. In the meantime, they’ll keep talking RBIs.

Read more

By In Stuff

The Negro Leagues Museum

Less than two years ago, I wrote what in some ways was the saddest blog post I’ve written. I wrote about how I was breaking away from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. In the time since I wrote it, people keep asking me to write again about it and, more, to give my heart back to the place. I just couldn’t do it. I’m just being honest. Something broke inside.

The NLBM — that not-so-memorable abbreviation that the museum has long used to identify itself — was a big part of my life for many years. This was, in large part, because of my friendship with Buck O’Neil. I loved Buck, of course, and because of that I loved the museum in Kansas City that was, in large part, his vision. It was built on the corner of 18th and Vine, that famous corner for the Kansas City jazz scene. Buck wanted people to know about the Negro Leagues. Before Jackie Robinson, before 1947 (and for a few years after), there was no Major League baseball dream for African Americans (or dark skinned Latinos). Baseball was the only grand American team sport then, the true National Pastime, and for black children across the country there was no Major League hope, no New York Yankees daydream, no St. Louis Cardinals wish.

There was, instead, the Negro Leagues — a bumpy, wonderful, insolvent, successful, willful, troubling and glorious gem of a league where players played joyous and violent baseball for love and, for the most part, a barely living wage. Everything about the Negro Leagues was contrast and conflict including the reason for its very existence. There is little doubt that some of the greatest players in baseball history — Oscar Charleston, Leon Day, Turkey Stearnes, Smokey Joe Williams, Bullet Joe Rogan, Martin Dihigo, Mule Suttles to name only a few — played in the Negro Leagues, and even less doubt that almost nobody remembered them. People knew Satchel Paige, certainly. Baseball fans might have known Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. But America’s collective memory had no place for the leagues and for those extraordinary men who played before their time began, before 1947.*

*I often make this point, but it is worth making again: Do you want to know how good the Negro Leagues were? Well, consider who came out of the Negro Leagues in those early years:

1. Jackie Robinson (1947)
— Hall of Famer, one of the great second basemen ever).
2. Larry Doby (1947)
— Hall of Famer, a 141 OPS+ from 1947-55, when he was one of best players in the game.
3. Hank Thompson (1947)
— Busted in first call-up with dysfunctional St. Louis Browns, but returned to Giants in 1949 and was a good player for eight seasons.
4. Willard Brown (1947)
— Busted in short call-up to same dysfunctional Browns, but was already 32. Hall of Famer for his play in Negro Leagues.
5. Dan Bankhead (1947)
— Was considered a can’t-miss prospect but, according to his son, he never could handle the extreme pressure that was placed on him as first African American pitcher in big leagues.
6. Roy Campanella (1948)
— Hall of Famer, three-time MVP, one of the great catchers in baseball history.
7. Satchel Paige (1948)
— Hall of Famer, and was already a legend by the time he was called up to the big leagues at, well, whatever age he wanted to be.
8. Don Newcombe (1949)
— Rookie of the Year, Cy Young winner, MVP winner.
9. Monte Irvin (1949)
— Hall of Famer, didn’t get his chance in big leagues until he was 30, still was a terrific player. Led the league in RBIs in 1951.
10. Sam Jethroe (1950)
— The Jet did not make the big leagues until he was 33, but he still twice led the big leagues in steals and in power-speed number.
11. Minnie Minoso (1951)
— One of the best “old” players in baseball history, he was absolutely one of the best players of the 1950s and, in my mind, should be in the Hall of Fame.
12. Willie Mays (1951)
— Hall of Famer, of course, is introduced at Giants games simply as “the greatest player in baseball history.” And if he isn’t, he is certainly in the photograph.

That’s it — first four years of call-ups, 12 players and of those 12, seven are in the Hall of Fame (and you might have the best pitcher and best all-around every day player in baseball history), an eighth (Minoso) could be in the Hall of Fame, a ninth (Newcombe) was a truly great player. So you tell me: How good was the Negro Leagues? Nine out of the first 12 were remarkable players. And over the next few years Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, who played briefly in the Negro Leagues, would become big leaguers, and so would MVP Elston Howard.

So, now in your mind, back up the breaking of the color barrier to 1937. And instead of those guys the names might have been Josh Gibson (of course) and Buck Leonard and Leon Day and Hilton Smith and Willie Wells and Cool Papa Bell.

The Negro Leagues remain a difficult thing to celebrate. For obvious reasons, almost nobody mourned its death. If anything, people mourned that it had ever existed at all. How do you celebrate an anachronism? How do you commemorate a piece of America that was not touched by what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature? And yet, as Buck would say, these guys COULD PLAY, MAN. These teams were centerpieces of bustling black communities. The biggest games were played on Sundays after church, following Saturday nights overflowing with jazz — this is American history too. Buck dedicated the later part of his life to keeping this history alive, these memories alive, to keeping the players alive, to reminding people that, yes, Willie Mays was the GREATEST MAJOR LEAGUE player he ever saw, but Oscar Charleston was the GREATEST PLAYER he ever saw.

I was lucky enough to be one of many infused by Buck’s energy, his enthusiasm, his optimism. Whatever Buck wanted me to do to help, I did. Over the years, I served as a master of ceremonies or panel member or something for dozens of Negro Leagues events. I spread the gospel. We as a family donated a lot of money — or at least a lot of money for us. There are so many good causes, and I want to help out in as much as I can — don’t most of us want to help as much as we can? — but the NLBM was personal to me, special to me. I say all this only to offer context. I loved the place.

When Buck died, he made it clear what he wanted to happen. He wanted Bob Kendrick to run the museum. I have always had to be careful here because Bob is one of my closest friends, and one of the best people I know. Bob was also the marketing director at the museum and the man at the heart — from my point of view — of the remarkable success the museum achieved. The place built up from a one room rental office (with various people around town taking turns to pay the rent) into a national treasure, honored by Congress, visited by the biggest names in sports and life, and I thought Bob was the imagination and energetic force behind it all.

And this is where the story turns. In a process where the less said the better, the board did not hire Bob Kendrick to run the museum. Instead, by one vote, they voted in a man named Greg Baker. I did not know (still do not know) Greg Baker — which was troubling to me since for almost 10 years I had attended or hosted more or less every major Negro Leagues museum event, and I had never once seen him. But it was the various stories I started hearing from people that concerned me more. I don’t think it’s right to go into it here. But it was made clear to me that the museum was going in a different direction, away from the vision of Buck O’Neil, away from the ethos that had made me fall in love with the museum and the story in the first place. I will tell you that The Kansas City Star did a long interview with Baker where he laid out his new vision for the museum — a vision that included only two kind of things: 1. Things that were utterly impossible; 2. Things that the museum had long been doing though he seemed unaware of it.

Sometimes, I badly want to be wrong. I often AM badly wrong, but not usually on those things. When the Royals hired Buddy Bell, I thought it was a badly mismatched hire … but because Buddy is among my favorite people in baseball I wanted to be wrong. I never wanted more to be wrong than with the Negro Leagues Museum direction. But I was pretty sure I wasn’t wrong. I was pretty sure that the direction they were taking the thing could only lead to money failure and disconnection from the community and a crisis. Then the economy tanked, which hurt badly but also offered an excuse. When stories leaked out about the NLBM’s terrible money problems, the inevitable quotes blamed the bad economy. It never felt worse being right.

This week, after less than two years, Greg Baker stepped down from the NLBM. I’ve heard from many people around town about it, and while the details would only muddy things up I can tell you that from what I have heard everything I feared happened in triplicate. The museum is not just in danger but in grave danger. And they are looking for someone to lead.

My friend Bob Kendrick now is executive director in the KC office for the National Sports Center of the Disabled — he just put on a wonderful event in town featuring pitcher Jim Abbott. I don’t know if he has been approached. A good man, Ray Doswell, who has been curator for a long time, serves as interim director. I’ve been told by several people that the museum will now return to the dream of Buck O’Neil. I hope so. I very much hope so. The Negro Leagues Museum was never going to survive as a tourist attraction. It can only survive, I think, as an ideal that inspires us, and challenges us, a place that makes us happy and sad all at the same time. That’s one of the tougher tricks in the world — happy and sad together.

“I wish you had seen us play,” Buck used to say to me all the time. “We could play, man!”

Happy and sad together.

Read more

By In Stuff

What’s Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, suggestions are encouraged.

Read more

By In Stuff

Too Much Info About Game 1 Starters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Randy Johnson

2. Pedro Martinez

3. Steve Carlton

4. Robin Roberts

5. Juan Marichal

6. Gaylord Perry

7. Ferguson Jenkins

8. Nolan Ryan

9. Phil Niekro

10. Roy Halladay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most World Series Game 1 starts

1. Whitey Ford, 8

2. Red Ruffing, 6

3. Allie Reynolds, 4

(tie) Chief Bender, 4

5. Jack Morris, 3

Dave Stewart, 3

Don Gullett, 3

Ken Holtzman, 3

Paul Derringer, 3

Carl Hubbell, 3

Waite Hoyt, 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more

By In Stuff

The Hawaii Chair

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

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

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

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

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

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

But … then there’s The Hawaii Chair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the testimonials!

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

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

… he said abs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue the song:

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

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

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

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

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

Read more

By In Stuff

Pain and Injury

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more

By In Stuff

More On The Intentional Walk

I noticed this comment from Brilliant Reader Keith K. about the intentional walk, and it is something I have thought about quite a bit over the years so I wanted to mention it here:

First the comment:

I am with Joe in his anti-IBB stance in that it often is a bad strategy that leads to more runs. I don’t agree on the “anti-competition” angle (that, in Joe’s words, “you are showing no confidence,” “taking away a potentially exciting moment from the fans, “refusing to take the game head on,” and “inviting bad karma.”)

In that sense, an IBB is not unlike a quarterback opting never to throw in the direction of a shutdown cornerback, or a basketball team double-teaming a star post player so he never gets the ball, or a tennis player consistently hitting the ball away from his opponent’s lethal forehand, etc. All are valid strategies that may frustrate the fans but increase the chances of victory. I don’t think you can criticize the move on that basis.

As mentioned, I have thought quite a bit about this — trying to figure out why I dislike the intentional walk so much compared to similar strategies in other sports. I came to two conclusions which you may disagree with, but hey, it’s my blog.

1. I don’t think there ARE similar strategies in other sports. I think baseball is, at least among the most popular American sports, the only one that offers an opportunity quite like the intentional walk. That’s in part because baseball is the only sport that forces a set lineup on a team. You have to go in order in baseball. Every player in the lineup must get the same opportunity. You don’t do that in football, in basketball, in hockey, in tennis, etc. In basketball, you can get the ball to Wilt every time and he can score 100 points. In football, you can give the ball to Emmitt Smith every time and he might gain 300 yards. In hockey, you can get the puck on Wayne Gretzky’s stick every time. Nothing in the rules prevents these things. In baseball, Albert Pujols comes up when he comes up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I think the intentional walk is a unique strategy that plays upon the uniqueness of baseball.

2. The most similar-sounding of strategies — like the ones Keith mention — are actually in my mind not similar at all. I’ve thought a lot about this, thought a whole lot why triple teaming a receiver is any different from the intentional walk.

Here’s why, I think: triple teaming a receiver is an attempt to DEFEND that star player. Same with double-teaming a star-post player. You are not trying to avoid the player. You are actively trying to shut that best player down. That, for me, is at the heart of competition.

Keith’s examples — hitting a ball away from a player’s forehand or not throwing to a receiver covered by a shutdown corner — are I think utterly non-comparable. Not throwing to a covered receiver is simply an obvious part of being a quarterback. And hitting away from a player’s best stroke in tennis is an attempt to EXPOSE THE WEAKNESSES of an opponent. You also want to block Joe Frazier’s left hook. These are all at the heart of competition.

I think the intentional walk is quantifiably different. You are not attempting to defend the other team’s best player. You are not attempting to expose his weaknesses. You are not doing anything at all except simply granting him a base in any and all efforts to avoid facing him.

No other sport has this. There is no strategy in tennis that allows you to give your opponent a free point if he promises not to hit his first serve hard. There is no strategy in football or basketball that allows you to give the other team free points if they promise not to let their star player touch the ball. Even Hack a Shaq — which is a crappy strategy that makes basketball dreadful to watch — is an attempt to expose a player’s inability to make free throws.

Point is, these are STRATEGIES to beat a team. Baseball has plenty of strategies. You bring in a lefty to get out a lefty hitter. You throw sliders to a hitter who has shown an inability to throw sliders. You study a pitcher’s motion to get a good jump on a stolen base attempt. These are active strategies used to BEAT an opponent.

I don’t think the Intentional Walk is a strategy. I think it is a bargain. It is, fortunately, not an especially good bargain which is why we don’t see more of it. But it’s like a backroom deal you cut — we’ll give your guy first base but he’s not allowed to hit.*

*Even the sacrifice bunt is not a bargain — because both teams still have to DO things. You have to get the bunt down. The other team has to field it. A variety of things can happen. They can get the lead runner. You could beat out the bunt. It’s not a straight out for base trade. You don’t do anything in the intentional walk.**

**I just thought of this, so I’m adding it: Maybe this is what it comes down to … the intentional walk takes no skill. Maybe that’s at the heart of things. Every other-sport example that people bring up … it takes skill. Double teaming a receiver or defensive end still involves skill — receivers beat double teams all the time. Punting out of bounds to avoid a punt returner takes skill (though kicking off out of bounds does not — I think THAT would be a close equivalent, kicking off out of bounds and giving them the ball at the 40 — I’d hate that too). Putting 8-men in the box and actually stopping the run takes skill. But throwing four pitches off the plate, well, I can do that. No skill involved. No opportunity for the opponent to counter. Maybe that’s at the heart of what bugs me so much about it.

Look, I know deep down that there’s nothing to be done about the intentional walk. If it was discouraged by the rules — if, as I have at times wished, an intentional walk awarded TWO bases instead of one — then teams would just PRETEND to pitch to someone. The walk as avoidance is simply locked in the fabric of the game. But I do think it’s a flaw in the game. It’s a a cheap way for managers to avoid the other team’s best hitter in big situations. That’s why I hate it. And that’s why I love when it blows up in a million pieces.

Read more

By In Stuff

A Good Intentional Walk Day

Look, sometimes the intentional walk “works.” No matter how much I might despise the thing, I cannot deny that basic reality. One job of a manager is to, best of his ability, put his team in position to prevent the other team from scoring runs. And there’s no question that walking to avoid the other team’s best hitters, or walking a batter with the pitcher coming up, or walking to set up a double play … these things will often accomplish the goal. I hate the intentional walk so much that I sometimes fail to mention this. So I’ll start with it here. Sometimes, the damned thing works.

See, the intentional walk is not like a regular walk. It’s not as valuable. The Hardball Times did a fascinating bit on this a couple of years ago when they used linear weights to show how the intentional walk played out from 2005-2008.

Intentional Walk Situations 2005

Original situation: 932 expected runs.

After IBB: 1,148 expected runs.

After IBB: 1,038 actual runs.

Intentional Walk Situations 2006

Original situation: 1067 expected runs.

After IBB: 1,318 expected runs.

After IBB: 1,217 actual runs.

Intentional Walk Situations 2007

Original situation: 1,016 expected runs.

After IBB: 1,249 expected runs.

After IBB: 1,129 actual runs.

Intentional Walk Situations 2008

Original situation: 974 expected runs.

After IBB: 1,220 expected runs.

After IBB: 1,065 actual runs.

There’s quite a lot that you can take from these numbers, I think, but the main two are these:

1. After an intentional walk, teams as a whole score more runs than the original expectation … which is probably obvious since you are putting another man on base.

2. While that’s true, they score quite a bit less — almost 10% less — than the NEW expectation.*

*In other words, let’s say the opposing team has a man on 2nd with one out. According to Baseball Prospectus’ run matrix, in 2010 they would be expected, on average, to score .68 runs for the rest of the inning.

Now, let’s say your pitcher unintentionally walks a guy. Now there are runners on first and second with one out. So the expectation changes. Now your opponent would be expected, on average, to score .88 runs in the inning. The expectation obviously goes up.

But if it’s an INTENTIONAL WALK, the expected runs doesn’t go up quite as much. The new run expectation would land somewhere in the middle, somewhere between .68 and .88. The other team would not score as much as they would on a normal walk because there’s usually at least some logic behind the intentional walk — it’s usually done for reasonable match-up purposes.

So yes, absolutely, sometimes the intentional walk works. Sometimes it minimizes damage. Sometimes it helps your pitcher get out of the inning unscathed. Sometimes …

But I still despise it — as I’ve written many times — for two basic reasons. One is more of a gut reaction: I think the intentional walk basically wimpy and anti-competition. When you intentionally walk the other team’s best hitter, for instance, are you making it a better game? Absolutely not. In my opinion, you are doing the opposite. You are showing no confidence in your pitcher or team. You are taking away a potentially exciting moment from the fans. You are refusing to take the game head on. You are inviting bad karma. And you are bringing a boring, negative, final inning of The Bad News Bears vibe to the game. An intentional walk is like the prevent defense squared.

Two, in the larger sense, it doesn’t work. The intentional walk works just enough to keep the illusion going, but as you can see by The Hardball Times numbers above, teams, over a whole season, will allow more runs after an intentional walk than they would have been expected to allow otherwise. I do realize that managers don’t really care about the larger sense — they only care about the moment, and in the moment it seems to make a whole lot of sense to walk Albert Pujols, to walk Josh Hamilton, to walk to the pitchers spot. If it works in the moment, the manager and the fans certainly won’t care that, in the long run, walking somebody will make matters worse. People who win at blackjack don’t care that most people lose. I understand. But it’s still a negative strategy.

Tuesday, Texas vs. New York, was a glorious game for anti-intentional walk people like myself. Twice, pronounced intentional walk situations came up. One manager walked. One manager trusted his team. And, for one night at least, the baseball gods provided justice.

The intentional walk you will remember instantly — when an intentional walk backfires, there’s no hiding. I still have absolutely no idea why Joe Girardi intentionally walked David Murphy in the sixth inning. Even if if put on my “OK, let’s talk reasonably about intentional walks” hat, I have no idea why Joe Girardi walked David Murphy. I thought it was bizarre.

Let’s set it up again. Sixth inning. Yankees led Texas 3-2. Texas’ Nelson Cruz was on second base — he had hustled to second base on a long fly ball to center. A.J. Burnett was still pitching for the Yankees*.

*We can question that one too, but let’s stay focused.

OK, David Murphy came to the plate. David Murphy is a pretty good hitter, especially against righties. He’s not a great hitter, understand. He has never gotten 500 plate appearances in a season. But he’s a pretty good hitter. This year he hit .291/.358/.449 which is good. Over his whole career, he has been about that good against right-handed pitchers. In 22 plate appearances against A.J. Burnett — if you care about such things — he has been about that good: He hit .294/.455/.471 against Burnett.

On deck was Bengie Molina. And Molina had a dreadful offensive season. He hit .249/.297/.326 this year. Against righties over his whole career he has hit .265/.296/.384 — that on-base percentage, whew, it’s fair to say that Bengie doesn’t believe in walking (or running). He had only faced Burnett five times, and only managed one hit, so that doesn’t really tell us anything.

There’s no question that, in a vacuum, the Yankees would rather face Molina there. If baseball changed the rules (don’t tempt Bud) and allowed the opposing team to choose which hitter was sent to the plate, the Yankees would and should always pick Molina instead of Murphy. But that’s not what we’re dealing with here. What we’re dealing with here is:

— Facing David Murphy with the tying run on second.

— Facing Bengie Molina with the tying run on second AND the go-ahead run on first.

That’s a big difference in situation. Is it that big of a difference in hitter? I don’t think so. You know what the difference between a .249 hitter and a .291 hitter? You should know this from repeated viewings of Bull Durham. Over 500 at-bats, it’s 20 hits. The season is 21 weeks long. It is about one hit a week. One guy will get about seven hits in a 24-at-bat week. One guy will get about six.

To me, it’s a bad, bad bet — even if you believe in the intentional walk. Yes, in the Molina situation you have a slightly better chance of getting out of the inning without giving up a run. But you have a better chance of giving up MORE runs.*

*For fun (I did this once before with Albert Pujols) let’s look at typical Molina vs. Murphy in those situations — we’ll use the last two years as our guide. In parenthesis, I’ll put how many runs each outcome would produce over 500 plate appearances.

Murphy — runner on second, two outs.

— 65% of the time he will make an out (0 runs).

— 16% of the time he single (81 runs over 500 PAs)

— 5% of the time he will double (26 runs)

— Less than 1% of the time he will triple (2 runs)

— 3% of the time he will homer (30 runs).

— About 10% of the time he will walk or get hit by pitch (0 runs but extends the inning).

That’s a total of 139 runs. The inning continues 35% of the time.

Molina — runner on first and second, two outs.

— 71% of the time he will make an out (0 runs)

— 17% of the time he will single (85 runs)

— 4% of the time he will double (20 certain runs, add however many runs you get from Murphy scoring from first … I added 7 runs. So that’s 27).

— Less than 1% of the time he will triple (how Bengie Molina hit two triples the last two years I’ll never know — add 2 runs).

— 2.5% of the time he will homer (39 runs runs).

— About 5% of the time he will walk or get hit by pitch (0 runs but extends the inning).

That is a total of 153 runs. The inning continues 29% of the time.

So there’s your tradeoff. Are you willing to increase your chances of giving up ZERO runs by five or six percent by also increasing your chances of giving up more runs? I honestly do not see why you would. Not in this situation. I mean ninth inning, tie score, you have to get out of it to force extra innings, I get it. But here? You’re at home. You’re up a run. Why would you put the go-ahead run on base? Why would you walk David Murphy who, no disrespect, ain’t exactly Dale Murphy? And it’s not like Bengie Molina is incapable of heroics — the guy did hit three home runs against the Yankees in the 2005 ALCS. They showed those home runs back-to-back-to-back on TBS just before the at-bat, which led to a cool television moment …

… because, of course, Molina crushed Burnett’s first pitch into the left-field stands for a three-run homer that may have ended the Yankees World Series dreams. Baseball, as a game, isn’t really about justice, but everything about THAT home run felt just. You’re the manager of THE New York Yankees, for crying out loud, and you’re at home, and you’re up a run, and you intentionally walk David Murphy in the sixth inning? Yes, for us Intentional Walk Bashers, that Molina home run was like Mardi Gras.

But there was another, perhaps less-noticed situation just a half inning earlier. The Yankees had runners on first and second with one out. Lefty Derek Holland was on the mound. Alex Rodriguez was at the plate.

Now, here was a potential intentional walk situation — if such a thing exists. A-Rod, a righty, was at the plate. Robinson Cano, a lefty, was on deck. It is true that A-Rod throughout his career has hit lefties slightly WORSE than righties — and this year he hit only .217 against lefties. It is also true that Cano, while he does not hit lefties quite as well, does hit them well enough.

But you don’t need me to list off all the reasons why an intentional walk there is a bad choice. The point is, some managers would seriously consider an intentional walk here. Last year, teams walked A-Rod eight times to face Cano though it’s interesting to note that this year it only happened once*. When the situation came up I got a couple of emails and Twitter responses wondering why the Rangers would not intentionally walk A-Rod.

*It’s somewhat telling — both about the development of A-Rod and Cano — that Rodriguez was only intentionally walked once all year.

But, say what you will about Ron Washington’s, um, sometimes unconventional managing — he does not believe in the intentional walk. Only my guy Gardy in Minnesota intentionally walked fewer batters than Wash in 2010. I don’t know if Washington avoids the intentional walk for statistical reasons, for personal reasons, because he doesn’t want to back down — and I don’t care. The Rangers pitched to A-Rod. And A-Rod certainly could have hit a long home run, which would have left Washington forced to answer some hard questions. He could have drilled a double that scored two runs and left people shaking their heads.

But on this good intentional walk day, A-Rod hit into the inning-ending double play, setting up Girardi and the Yankees for their fateful meeting with intentional walk destiny.

Read more

By In Stuff

Natural Lee

Costello: Who has it?

Abbott: Naturally.

Costello: Who?

Abbott: Naturally.

Costello: Naturally?

Abbott: Naturally.

Costello: So I pick up the ball and throw it to Naturally.

Abbott: No you don’t! You throw the ball to Who.

Costello: Naturally.

Abbott: That’s different.

Costello: That’s what I said!

— Who’s On First

* * *

Mark Teixeira was the first New York hitter to strike out on Monday night at Yankee Stadium against Cliff Lee. Teixeira offered at an 86-mph change-up that was probably two-inches off the outside corner. That was Tom Glavine’s pitch, the one he dined on for 22 seasons and 305 career victories — a change-up just off the corner. There’s almost nothing productive a hitter can do with that pitch. The only effective way to deal with it is to let it go, make the pitcher come back to the plate next time, or (if it is really close) just try to spoil it, foul it back. The problem is, the pitch looks so easy to drive. It looks so big and fluffy in the batter’s line of sight. It really is the closest thing to the Bugs Bunny’s perplexing slow ball. Teixeira had to try and hit it. And he had to miss.

Alex Rodriguez was the second New York hitter to strike out against Lee. The count was 2-2 and Lee threw the same 86-mph change-up that baffled Tex, a change-up just off the plate, and A-Rod did the right thing, he fouled the ball off, gave himself another pitch. Lee then threw an 87-mph change-up another inch off the plate, and A-Rod again did the right thing, he let it go … only this time the pitch actually wasn’t a change-up. It was the cutter. The ball cut back toward A-Rod at the last second, flew over the outside corner of the plate. The umpire called strike three.

Marcus Thames was the third New York hitter to strike out against Lee. He went up there to determined to hold his own, he was swinging at everything, like a guy being attacked by bees. He fouled off a fastball on the outside corner, fouled off a cutter that buzzed inside, fouled off fastball that was up and in, fouled off that dreaded change-up on the outside corner. When a hitter fouls off so many hot pitches, you credit them for hanging in there, and Thames was hanging in there. But his head was spinning. He looked a bit dizzy. He struck out swinging on a cutter that broke in when he clearly expected it to break away.

* * *

It’s hard to know exactly when Cliff Lee became this sort of artist in residence. He wasn’t this kind of pitcher at all when he started pitching regularly for the Cleveland Indians in 2004. He was all power then, a somewhat moody 6-foot-3 lefty from Arkansas who could and did throw high-90s gas. He had other pitches, for whatever that’s worth … a mediocre slider, a promising but undeveloped curveball, a Fleetwood Mac change-up that would go its own way. He was an archetype then, a hard-throwing lefty without much of an idea. He’d strike you out, he’d walk you, he’d give up long home runs, he’d get in trouble with his other pitches and then, often enough, get out of it with his best heat. And when he did poorly, he’d get furious. He once threw his glove 20 rows into the stands.

He won 18 games in 2005 and lost only 5 and because of that differential he got some Cy Young votes he probably did not deserve (his 2.3 Wins Above Replacement that year was 33rd among American League starters). He was probably thought of as being better than he actually was as a pitcher. He won 14 more in 2006, though his 4.40 ERA was only slightly better than league average and scouts muttered that his fastball was losing velocity.

* * *

Jorge Posada was the fourth New York hitter to strike out Monday night. Lee threw him five fastballs to five different parts of the plate. There was nothing tricky involved. Lee threw a fastball low and outside, then one up and over the middle, a third belt high and inside, a fourth over the outside corner and finally that last over the inside corner. Posada swung through the last one. Every one of those pitches registered at 91 or 92 mph.

Curtis Granderson was the fifth New York hitter to strike out. He swung and missed a curveball. It was the fifth curveball that Lee had thrown on the night — and the first four were all called for balls. Lee generally seems to throw the curveball when he sees the concentric circles spinning in batters eyes, when he can tell their minds are muddled and they are guessing. Usually the hitters buckle and let the curveball go and hope for the umpire to call it a ball (something umpires often do — perhaps just to keep things fair). This time Granderson swung. He missed.

Derek Jeter was the sixth New York hitter to strike out. Pitchers all around baseball know that Jeter cannot hold back on high fastballs. They have always been his baseball temptress. He has had plenty of success on high fastballs, which makes them dangerous pitches to throw. But if you can throw the fastball just one inch higher than Jeter likes it, one inch, you can finish him off. Cliff Lee throws the 93-mph fastball one inch higher than Jeter likes it. And Jeter swung and missed.

* * *

Nothing went right from the start in 2007 for Cliff Lee. He injured his groin in spring training. He was not quite ready for his fastball to lose some of its heat. The Indians were badgering him to throw more of his secondary pitches, to not rely so much on his fastball.

And, though he’d had some success, he really did not know how to be a pitcher. That lack of certainty finally bubbled to the surface. Hitters teed off. Lee gave up 28 doubles and 17 home runs in fewer than 100 innings. Those secondary pitches still had no shape, and his fastball was not getting him out of trouble anymore, and Lee felt the world closing in. He beaned Sammy Sosa on the night Sosa was being honored for hitting his 600th home run and did not even leave the mound to check on him (sparking an argument between Lee and his catcher, Victor Martinez). Lee mockingly tipped his cap to booing fans. The Indians had a very good team in 2007, and they really did not need that sort of thing. Lee was sent to the minor leagues.

It isn’t like everything changed in the minor leagues, either. It doesn’t work like that. Lee walked 25 in 41 Class AAA innings down there. But getting sent to the minor leagues when you’re a 28-year-old pitcher is a challenge moment, a “Who am I going to be?” kind of moment. Many don’t make it back. Lee found a whole other pitcher in himself.

* * *

Nick Swisher was the seventh New York hitter to strike out, and at this point Lee was so mesmerizing that Swisher was actually CELEBRATED for his strikeout. Hey, at least he made Lee work. He fouled off six straight pitches — an up-and-away fastball, a cutter that worked its way back over the plate, an up-and-in fastball, a down-and-in cutter, a fastball that brushed the outside of the plate, and a fastball that brushed the inside of the plate. None of those pitches, not one of them, was a good pitch to hi, but they were strikes anyway, and Swisher spoiled them one after another, and maybe this was the only way to get to Lee, maybe the only real plan was to keep fouling off pitches until he made his mistake. Lee then threw a cutter outside and at the knees and Swisher swung over it. No mistake this time.

Thames was the eighth strikeout victim. Last time he was fooled by a cutter. This time he swung over a curveball that bounced just beyond the plate. Catcher Bengie Molina chased down the ball and threw it to first to complete the strikeout.

Granderson was the ninth strikeout. Lee and Molina apparently realized he first time through that Granderson could not lay off Lee’s curveball. That pitch had become hypnotic for Granderson. So Lee threw the curve with two strikes and Granderson did swing though he managed to foul it off. He was not completely asleep yet. Lee threw a low and away fastball that Granderson fouled off, and then threw the curveball again. This time Granderson amenably swung and missed.

* * *

Lee was a thoroughly different pitcher in 2008. There’s the famous story about the jazz genius Charlie Parker, how he was nothing particularly special as a saxophonist, then he went away for a while and when he came back he was, in the words of Buck O’Neil, “blowing sounds nobody had ever heard before.”

Cliff Lee started off the 2008 season by winning his first six starts. His seventh start he threw nine shutout innings but took a no-decision. His ERA then was 0.67. His strikeout to walk ratio was 44-to-4.

What happened? Suddenly, Lee’s control was pinpoint, his curveball was unhittable, his change-up was tantalizing, his cutter was devastating. Baseball people talk all the time about “the light coming on.” That was the usual line about Lee in 2008 — he suddenly figured things out. The light came on.

But … what light? It’s not like Lee figured out one or two things. He was inventing a whole different kind of pitching. What other lefty could come at you with five pitches, all commanded, all controlled? Who else could be a little bit of Glavine AND a little bit of Maddux? It was startling, not because Lee had become a great pitcher — that always seemed possible — but because he had become THIS KIND of great pitcher. He walked just 34 batters all year. He gave up the fewest home runs per nine innings in the league. He led the league in ERA. He was preposterously good in a whole new way. He had become a power pitcher AND a finesse pitcher. And hitters were dizzy.

And then, because of his circumstances, Lee became something else — gun for hire. The Indians could not afford him, so Lee was traded to Philadelphia where he had one of the great postseasons ever, winning four games with a 1.56 ERA. But there was something weird about his relationship with the Phillies, something just a little bit off, and the Phillies traded him to Seattle before this season after getting Roy Halladay, an odd move that nobody quite understood. Then it looked like he would be traded to the Yankees, and he ended up in Texas instead.

And this year, despite injuries and a brief slump, Lee walked 18 batters in 212 innings. Eighteen batters. He doesn’t give up home runs. He throws complete games. His 10.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best ever for a pitcher who has thrown 200 innings. Best. Ever.

And though Halladay threw a no-hitter, and Lincecum had his brilliant game against the Braves, this has been Lee’s postseason. He is the master at work.

* * *

Jeter was the 10th strikeout. The Yankees had actually managed to get the leadoff man on base for the first time in the game … and that leadoff man was burner Brett Gardner. There was little doubt he would try to steal. The TV announcers seemed a bit excessive in their praise Jeter for allowing strike two — an inside-corner fastball — go by so that Gardner could steal second base. They did not say much of anything, when Jeter swung and missed another temptress fastball an inch higher than useful.

Which for some reason reminds me of this exchange in the movie Gandhi.

Gandhi: You’re a temptress!

Margaret-Bourke White: Just an admirer.

Gandhi: Nothing is more dangerous, especially for an old man.

Thames was strikeout No. 11. By now, poor Marcus seemed struck out before he ever stepped into the batter’s box. Lee threw five pitches, all on the inner half of the plate, the last a high fastball that Thames swung under. He might have been expecting something else. Or he might have given up expecting. This was his third strikeout. On this night, it’s clear Thames could not hit a ball off a tee if Cliff Lee had been the one to put it there.

Posada was strikeout No. 12. He could have been called out on a two-strike curveball that just barely missed the outside corner — the announcers would say it went “around the strike zone,” a common phrase in baseball though my friend and former big-league umpire Steve Palermo told me that such a thing is impossible. He said the ball doesn’t bend that much — CANNOT bend that much. “A ball cannot go around the strike zone!” Palermo says with authority. Maybe Posada was pondering this question when he watched a 92 mph fastball go over the inside half of the plate for strike three.

Finally, Brett Gardner was the 13th strikeout. Gardner had gotten the only clean hit against Lee — Posada had managed a bloop single — and he had almost beaten out an infield hit with what is becoming his trademark slide-into-first-base maneuver. So he was the one guy in the Yankees lineup who seemed to have an idea of how to hit Lee.

So Lee had one last guy to figure out. He had the rest of the Yankees utterly defeated. He had fooled Jeter with high fastballs and Granderson with low curves. He had make Teixeira look foolish on slow change-ups, and he baffled A-Rod with his cutter. He had sent some frustrated Yankees fans home.

Lee threw a fastball on the outside corner for called strike one.

Yes, some of the Yankees crowd had gone home. They had come to the ballgame for a party; they did not need to see any more of this Cliff Lee making a shambles of this three-quarter-of-a-billion-dollar lineup. It is hard to appreciate artistry when it is done at your team’s expense, in your ballpark, in your city …

Lee threw a fastball on the outside corner for called strike two.

Eric Clapton has said that music can be condensed to a single note, if that note is played with the right sincerity. Cliff Lee stood on the mound with an 0-2 count against Brett Gardner and he could have thrown an infinite variety of pitches. He could have thrown his change-up away, his cutter in, his curveball down, his fastball up, his slider (which he rarely throws anymore) down and in, and he could have mixed and matched any of those pitches and those locations. It wouldn’t really matter. He now had Brett Gardner as captivated and spellbound as everyone else. He could do pretty much anything, as long as he did with sincerity. All he had to do was throw the ball to who. Who? Naturally.

Cliff Lee threw a fastball on the outside corner. And Brett Gardner watched it go by for strike three.

Read more

By In Stuff

The Tony Pena Story

The story about now-Yankees bench coach Tony Pena ran in The Kansas City Star back in 2003. I went to the Dominican Republic with Tony … and though it may sound goofy to say this, well, for me the experience was almost, spiritual. So this is one of my favorite stories … and I thought it might be fun to dust it off in anticipation of the Yankees and Rangers playoff game tonight.

On the road to Villa Vasquez, Tony Pena cried, not for the first time that day and not for the last.

“No,” he said. “Not that story. I will not tell that story.”

His Mercedes raced through dust and bugs and waves of heat, past emptiness.

Nobody lives on the road to Villa Vasquez. It is too hot and too dry. They say that when revolutionaries were killed — in the Dominican Republic, revolutionaries were often killed — their bodies were buried here.

They say that at night, you hear ghosts.

“Not that story,” Pena said again. He shook his head. “I will tell you everything. But not that story. Some things, the heart cannot bear to hear.”

He stared through the windshield ahead and did not talk for a moment. The silence was unlike him. Pena cannot bear quiet. He has always needed noise in his life — music, applause, laughter, bat cracks, glove pops, cheers, whistles, chatter, snores, the ringing of cell phones. Pena has three cell phones. When one does not ring for even a short while — a rare occurrence — he instinctively checks to make sure it works.

“No,” he said again, and then “No” again to fill the silence. Tears trickled from beneath his sunglasses. His hands tightened on the steering wheel, and blood rushed to his fingertips. He pushed the car even faster. The cactuses blurred past. After a while, a small shack appeared. Another. A farmer. A goat. We had reached Villa Vasquez. The ghosts were behind us.

“Now,” Pena said, his tears already dried, “I will show you where it all began.”

* * *

Every year, Tony Pena takes this sentimental journey. It is something he must do. The journey begins at the baseball field in Villa Vasquez. Pena stood outside, wrapped his fingers around a chain-link fence. As always, dozens of children played baseball on the field. Some wore gloves. Others wrapped their hands in rags. Some threw baseballs, others threw stones swathed in tape.

“They are me,” he said.

Pena had come to this field more than 25 years ago to try out for the legendary old Pittsburgh scout Howie Haak. In those days, in the smallest towns of Latin America, there was only Howie Haak. He was la esperanza. The hope. Haak was the kind of man who could chew tobacco for hours without spitting. He was the only man who would hold a tryout camp in Villa Vasquez.

“I was just a skinny little kid,” Pena said. He pointed at one of the thinnest kids on the field, one who wore a torn Houston Astros T-shirt.

“Like him,” Pena said.

Memories rushed back at him like 95-mph fastballs. He called over Royals general manager Allard Baird and pointed at different children, some who threw with a certain snap in their wrists, some who wore tattered sandals on their feet, some who reminded Pena so much of himself.

Look now. Pena is manager of the Kansas City Royals. He caught for almost two decades in the major leagues. He owns one of the biggest bottled-water plants in the Dominican Republic. His driveway is jammed with luxury cars that can push high speeds on the narrow two-lane roads that wind through his country. His swimming pool is shaped like a baseball. He is rich and utterly beloved.

He keeps coming back to the field in Villa Vasquez.

“I was so hungry,” he said of that day when he tried out for Howie Haak. Pena lived in Palo Verde, some 30 miles away. He was 18. He slipped out of school early, ran part of the way, hitched a ride the rest. He had not eaten for a day and a half. When he got to the field, he felt weak. He could not have weighed even 140 pounds.

But he still hit home runs to left field, center field and right field. He threw low and hard to second base. There were 50 dreamers there. Howie Haak chose only him.

“Mrs. Pena,” Haak said to Tony’s mother, Rosalia. “We want your son to play baseball in America.”

“I have heard you,” Rosalia said. “Now get out of my house.”

* * *

“Look,” Tony Pena said. He was driving away from Villa Vasquez on the bumpy two-lane road toward Palo Verde, where he grew up. People along the road recognized the car and waved wildly.

“Look,” he said again, and he pointed out the window to the top of a distant mountain. “Can you see it? If you look very hard, you can see the crane up there. Can you see the crane? Can you see where they are building?”

He kept pointing to the spot.

“That is the highest spot in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “From up there, you can see everything. You can see the valley. You can see the ocean. You can see the whole island. I used to look up there and dream.”

“Now,” he said, as he rolled up the window, “they are building my house up there.”

* * *

In Palo Verde, the old woman nodded and shrugged. And Tony Pena walked in.

Sunlight slipped through cracks in the roof. The walls warped inward. Pena pointed to a wall and a framed photograph of Pedro MartInez, perhaps the greatest player to come off this island. “Right there,” Pena said, “there used to be a picture of Jesus.”

This was his home. Six Penas lived in this tiny house with its dirt floors.

Octaviano Pena worked 14 hours a day in an irrigation ditch. He made the equivalent of a few dollars a week. Rosalia taught school for less. Tony slept with his three brothers in the side room, about the size of a walk-in closet. From the front porch, they could see the banana trees that foretold their future.

“Hope?” asked Luis Silverio, Pena’s longtime friend and the Royals’ first-base coach. “What hope? This was so long ago. There were no baseball scouts in the Dominican then. There were no academies. To dream about playing baseball in America took a big imagination then.”

Pena dreamed anyway. It was Rosalia who taught him baseball. Octaviano was too busy, too exhausted, too beaten down by life. Tony liked to say, with a strange pride, that his father did not even know on which hand to wear a baseball glove. “He worked,” Pena said, “every minute of every day.”

Rosalia taught them baseball. She had been a softball star, and she would place two little Penas in the outfield, one in the on-deck circle and one in the batter’s box. She pitched. “She had some kind of arm,” Tony said. “Hitting her was like trying to hit Nolan Ryan.”

She didn’t consider baseball a career option for Tony. Boys in the Dominican were supposed to play baseball — it added color to a dreary life of farming and burning sunshine. But that was all. Tony Pena’s life was already laid out. His future wife, Amaris, lived three houses down. He was strong enough to work in the banana fields. He would have children and live his life in Palo Verde. When the baseball scout asked to take Tony away to America for baseball, he might as well have asked to take him on a spaceship to Pluto.

“Please,” Tony said to his mother. And then he said something that can only be loosely translated to mean: “Baseball is all that is in my heart.”

Rosalia remained unmoved.

“If I don’t make it in one year,” Tony said, “I will come home.”

Rosalia considered the offer. Octaviano did not agree, but it was Rosalia who would decide. And she nodded. She was sitting right there, Tony Pena would say more than 25 years later, and he pointed to a table under a straw roof. His voice began to choke a little. He walked out into the sunshine.

“Thank you so much,” Allard Baird said to the old woman who had let everyone into Pena’s old house. “Thank you so much. That was so nice.” The woman looked puzzled.

“That was nice of her, wasn’t it?” Baird said to Pena.

“What do you mean?” Pena asked.

“Well, for her to let us into her home.”

“I own this home,” Pena said. “It is my home.”


“Yes,” he said. “I let this woman live here. She is a friend.”

Pena took one more look back at the little house.

“I have only one condition. She must leave it exactly the same. Exactly the way it was when I was a child here.

“Exactly the same,” he said. “Forever.”

* * *

Tony Pena handed out Royals caps outside his old house. Dozens gathered around him. People poured out of their homes to get a hat and to shake Pena’s hand and to tell stories. Allard Baird watched from a distance.

“The first time I remember seeing Tony Pena,” Baird said, “he was with Boston. He was catching. Roger Clemens was on the mound. Clemens was all over the place. He couldn’t throw a strike. He had no command. He was awful.

“And all of a sudden, I see Tony Pena call timeout. Joe Morgan, the Red Sox manager, starts to walk out, but Pena told him to go back into the dugout. He’s got it under control. Tony walked to the mound and just started screaming at Clemens. I mean, he went nuts. He’s pointing and yelling and getting into Clemens’ face. The umpire was afraid to go up there.

“And you know what? Clemens took it. I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think there was anybody else on earth who could talk to Roger Clemens that way. He just listened, and when Pena went back behind the plate, Clemens pitched an unbelievable ballgame.”

As Baird finished, Pena walked over to get more Royals caps.

“I was just telling the Clemens story,” Baird said.

“The one where I told him to (bleep bleep)?” Pena asked.

“That’s what you told him?”

“Yes. That’s nothing, though. You should tell the story about when I went to the mound and hit our closer Jose Mesa in the head.”

“You hit Jose Mesa in the head?”

“Yes,” Pena said as he went back to give out some more caps. “He wasn’t paying attention.”

* * *

The grass stopped growing on the field Tony Pena built in Palo Verde. Pena wanted to build a little paradise here, where he had played ball as a child.

When he played, it had been a dirt field, hard as tile, with cracks and bumps and craters. He built outfield walls, carved a soft infield, planted the greenest grass to be found for 40 miles.

The Dominican heat baked the field. The grass stopped growing.

“It used to be … ” Pena began, but he stopped.

“Ah,” he said. “Everything used to be something.”

Tony Pena did not want to come back to his old life. That was what pushed him to play baseball with an almost deranged passion. There was this day, when he was playing in the rookie leagues — and not playing much — when Howie Haak called Pena over.

“Kid,” Haak said, “you better start playing. ‘Cause they’re gonna cut you.'”

“How,” Pena asked in halted English, “can I get them to give me a chance to play?”

“I don’t know,” Haak said. “But you better figure it out.”

Figure it out how? Pena did not speak English well enough to talk to anybody. In a way, though, that shielded him from the hard truth: Nobody in the Pirates organization thought he could play. They decided he was too weak to hit home runs, too impatient to lay off bad pitches, too erratic to catch in the major leagues.

He hit .214 his first minor league season, all in part-time duty, and he was shuffled out to left field and third base, where he was completely lost. Soon after, they moved him to catcher, and he set a league records for errors. They were ready to give up on him. It’s a common Dominican story. He did not know how to convince them he could play.

The answer, unexpectedly, came in Buffalo, Pittsburgh’s Class AA team. Pena noticed there was a short fence in right field. And that short fence was his escape. Every winter, Pena returned home to the Dominican Republic, milked the cows, worked the land, listened to his father grumble that it was time for him to give up this baseball foolishness. “It is time for real life,” Octaviano said.

Instead, Tony Pena ran the stairs in front of the biggest church in Santiago to build up his stamina. He taught himself to crouch with one leg sticking out, so he could give pitchers a low target and still spring up and throw out base runners. He would swing a heavy bat for hours every day to gain strength. He prayed at night for God to show him the path.

And when he saw that wonderful short fence in Buffalo, he understood. That was his path. He practiced poking long fly balls toward that short right-field fence. He had shown no power until then. But he hit 34 home runs in Buffalo — more than twice as many as he would ever hit again.

And he was noticed. Two years later, he was in the big leagues, where he would stay for 18 seasons, win four Gold Gloves, play in five All-Star games and two World Series.

“He and Johnny Bench were the two best catchers I ever saw,” said Jose Cruz Sr., who played 19 seasons in the major leagues himself. “Soft hands. Strong arm. A leader. That was what made Tony Pena special. He was a leader.”

* * *

Tony Pena drove slowly on the bumpy dirt road, past banana trees. “Juan Marichal lived not so far away,” he said softly. But his mind drifted elsewhere. He was quiet again. He could not stop looking at the trees.

“People don’t know how heavy bananas are,” he finally said. “You drag them and drag them until you cannot move. People don’t know. Your whole body hurts. You can’t even sleep at night because your whole body hurts.”

Pena said he has never lived a day — not a single day as player or coach or manager — when he did not think about what might have been. He imagined himself pulling bananas, the way all his friends, all his loved ones, everyone he grew up knowing, ended up pulling bananas.

“People in the Dominican are so happy,” he said. “That’s what I love about my country. People are so poor. They have no money. They live in these little houses. Everybody thinks they must be very sad. But they are not. They are so happy.”

He cried again. And he drove over a ditch into a little town. In the center of town, there was a dirt field. Children played baseball.

“Look,” he said. “My country.”

* * *

Tony Pena has a sentimental streak wider than the road to Santiago. He brought pieces of the Dominican with him to baseball. When he hurt his thumb, he holed out a lemon, poured salt inside and kept his thumb in there. “This is how we heal in the Dominican,” he told amused reporters.

But he played that night.

Whenever he would get a new catcher’s mitt, he would spend an hour or more bashing it with a baseball bat. “It’s too new,” he would say. “In my country, you never see a new glove.”

And all during his career, he saved things. He saved every glove he ever used. He saved every bat that delivered an important hit. He saved buckets of baseballs, often asking teammates to sign and date them. Now, the lettering on those baseballs has faded. He cannot tell which ball means what. It does not matter. He has a room in his home in Santiago with every ball, bat, glove, trophy, plaque and photo he could bring back. They all mean something.

“Whenever I go in that room,” he said, “I see something, and it makes me remember. I like to remember.”

His favorite photo is of the last time he went up to hit. He was the manager of Aguilas, a team in Santiago that is probably more beloved than any other team in the Dominican Republic. Every winter, without fail, Pena played for Aguilas. His jersey is retired in Aguilas Stadium, along with the jersey of his brother, Ramon. There were years, Tony suspects, when he caught 170 games in the major leagues, including spring training, then caught 75 more in Santiago. He does not know how he did it.

“People have loved Tony Pena because of the way he played,” Silverio says.”But he became a hero because he came home.”

“Everybody in the Dominican,” Royals second baseman Carlos Febles said, “wants to be Tony Pena.”

In his favorite photograph, Pena is surrounded by his Aguilas players. And they all point toward the field. Pena had decided to send up a pinch hitter. And his players demanded that he go out and hit himself.

Pena looked at the photo. “I can hear the crowd chanting my name,” he said.

Flags waved. Feet stomped. Pena shook his head, “No, no, no,” but eventually he did go out to the plate. The photo does not show what happened when Pena went up to hit.

“Base hit,” Pena said. “Base hit off of Jose Mesa. And we won.”

* * *

Tony Pena weaved his car in the twilight, through small towns, through a police checkpoint, around entire families riding on mopeds, past long lines of men walking along the side of the road. “They are looking for work,” he said. “When they get tired, they will go to sleep by the side of the road. And tomorrow, they will walk to the next town.”

He parked by the water in Monte Cristi, where he was born. He stepped out, and mosquitoes attacked with vengeance. Monte Cristi is one of the oldest towns in the new world — Christopher Columbus landed not so far away. Pena walked out to the water, to the largest boat on the docks that overlooked the north Atlantic Ocean. The boat is his. He climbed in and leaned against the railing and looked over the water. He talked about how the Royals would win, despite everybody picking them to lose. They would win because they would believe.

Pena said he has always known how to make people believe.

“You know,” he said, “after I finished playing, there were teams that offered to make me a coach. Right away. Chicago wanted me to be a coach. Houston wanted me to be a coach. I said, ‘No.’ I didn’t want to be a coach. I wanted to be a manager. So I told them, ‘Send me back to the minor leagues.’

“And they said, ‘You don’t want to go back to ride buses and all that.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do. Send me back.’ They sent me to New Orleans for three years. It was hard. But I learned so much. You have to go back to learn. You have to go back to the beginning.”

He nodded and swatted at mosquitoes. In the Dominican, as the old line goes, they treat Tony Pena as something larger than a man and something smaller than a saint. He played baseball with joy, made millions, became a manager, and then, most important, he came home.

He still comes home. Every day, all winter, strangers come to his door. They need medicine or food. He offers it to them quietly. Politicians seek his approval. Mothers push their children toward him to reach for his hand so maybe something will rub off. His Royals play on television all summer.

“I’m not sure that people in Kansas City realize who Tony Pena is,” one Dominican journalist said. “You have hired our national hero.”

“I have seen people forget where they came from,” Pena said. “They buy expensive things — houses, cars, boats — and they forget. I cannot forget. I must not forget. I tell myself this every day. If you forget where you came from, you forget who you are.”

* * *

“All right,” Pena said softly as he drove through the dark, back to his home. “I will tell you the story now.”

The sun had gone down. The air was cool on the road back to Santiago.

“When I signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates,” he said, “my signing bonus was $4,000. That was more money than my father made in a year. It was so much money, there was no place near my home to cash the check. We had to go to Santiago, to the bank there, to cash it.

“When we got there, we cashed the check, and I tried, I tried to … “

Pena started to cry again. He stumbled on. He tried to give the money to his mother. But Rosalia would not take it. The money was his, she said, to save, to use if baseball failed, to give to his children. Tony told her that he would make it. She did not believe him. And she would not take the money.

“Proud,” Pena said softly and angrily. “So proud.”

A few days later, some men came and took away what little furniture filled the Pena home. Octaviano could not make the payments. Tony ran up to the men and offered his money, but Rosalia shouted at him. “No,” she said. “That’s yours. That’s yours for your life.”

Then, to the men, she said, “You may not have his money.”

Tony pleaded with her. He said they could not live in an empty home. He could not leave knowing that the house was empty. He begged her to take the money. But she would not listen. So one day, he quietly slipped out of the house and went to the company that took back the furniture. He gave them $800 and bought back all the furniture. He had it delivered to the house.

Rosalia was so angry, she would not speak to him.

“Bye, Mama,” he said to her as he headed to America to play baseball. She said nothing at all.

Years later, long after such things were forgotten or at least not talked about, Tony Pena and his mother went driving. They often went driving after Pena bought his first car. By then, he was one of the best catchers in baseball, a rich man, a Dominican hero.

They drove around a beautiful community near Santiago. “Isn’t this nice?” he asked his mother.

“Yes,” she said. “It is beautiful.”

They then drove through a neighborhood of homes. It was a neighborhood they had driven through before, many times. “I love these homes,” Rosalia said.

“I know,” Tony said. “I know.”

And they pulled up to the nicest home.

“What do you think of this one?” he asked her.

“It is the home of my dreams,” she said.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key, gave it to her.

“It is yours,” he said. They both cried for a long time.

“All the things I have done in my life,” Tony Pena said, “that is the greatest. I bought my mother a home. It is the greatest thing a man can do.”

Rosalia Pena still lives in that home. Tony Pena still returns to the Dominican every winter.

And, in Santiago, there is an open bank account. In it is $3,200 plus 25 years or so of interest. It is every remaining penny of the bonus the Pittsburgh Pirates gave Tony Pena a long time ago.

Read more