By In Stuff

Phil’s Last Game

It is true, of course, that one disgusting game should not diminish the long and legendary career of Phil Jackson. It is true, of course, that one meltdown — no matter how complete and degrading — should not make anyone forget how great the Los Angeles Lakers have been the last three years, and really throughout the career of Kobe Bryant. It is true, of course, that random acts of frustrated violence perpetrated by Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum should not take anything away from the brilliance of Bryant or the urbane nature of Pau Gasol or the wonderful class of Derek Fisher.

That said: Is anyone else wondering why the heck the sports world isn’t a bit more outraged by the freak show that happened in Dallas on Sunday? The Lakers — the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers — lost by 36 to get swept by Dallas. They exhibited no pride whatsoever. They quit.

There is nothing whatsoever to admire about quitters, but it is also not especially interesting. Quitting is pretty common thing in sports. The Lakers probably understood pretty early in this series that they were outmanned by the Mavericks, that Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd — two of the best players in NBA history to never win a championship — were intensely focused and driven, that the Mavs were deeper and more athletic and, frankly, more determined to win. It takes a deep commitment to give anything close to the max in a doomed effort, and the Lakers as a team saw their doom and were unwilling to fight to the end. Hey, they’ve won their championships. Quit happens.

But what doesn’t often happen, at least not so openly, is for a quitting team to go rogue before our very eyes. Usually, quitting is by its nature a passive act. That is to say that if you can’t find the energy and enthusiasm to give an effort in a clinching game, you probably won’t find the effort to take a series of cheap shots either. But the Lakers found that cheap-shot energy. Lamar Odom plainly sent a flying elbow at Dirk Nowitzki and got himself ejected. Then, barely a minute later, Andrew Bynum threw his own elbow — even MORE flagrantly, if that’s possible — at a driving and defenseless J.J. Barea. Bynum got tossed out of the game too, though he managed to take off his shirt before exiting. So he had that going for him.

And, of course, Ron Artest got himself suspended for clotheslining Barea at the end of Game 2. The Lakers really covered themselves in glory.

We’ will want to say again (because it’s apparently the thing to say) that this shameful and abominable exit should not diminish from Phil Jackson’s long and breathtaking career … but it sure doesn’t leave a happy echo. No champion in memory has gone out with such a lack of class. No great team in memory had so little respect for their coach that they sent him off in such a disgraceful fashion. And what made this meltdown even more remarkable was the casual way that Odom and Bynum admitted after the game that, yeah, they kind of lost their heads and kind of did something naughty. Really? That’s it? Would you accept that if your nine-year-old told you that? How about your six-year-old?

“It’s a little embarrassing,” Odom told reporters afterward. “I’m a little embarrassed by it.”

Here’s a tip for Lamar for the next time something like this happens: Try not to use the word “little” twice when talking about how you cold-cocked someone because you were getting humiliated. At least Odom felt that slight embarrassment, Bynum said that the only embarrassment he felt was that Barea was schooling his team. “So I fouled the guy,” he said, as if it made perfect sense.

Even Jackson himself sounded pretty blase about the whole thing: “It was unnecessary,” he said of the cheap shots, “but I know they were frustrated.” How about that defense from the great man? Hey, they were frustrated. Well, OK, whoa, I didn’t take into consideration that they were frustrated. That certainly changes everything.

The NBA is a violent league. That is easy to miss on TV — just like the size of the players and their amazing athleticism is easy to miss. The players pound each other. Hard fouls are close to battery. Playoff hard fouls are like assault and battery. And even in this setting, the Odom and Bynum fouls were hideous. The whole “role model” card gets played way too often, and sometimes I think the expectations we place on our athletes can be unfair. But “Do not just punch a player when he’s driving the lane” — I don’t think it’s unfair to ask players to stick to that one.

I don’t know how leagues do their suspensions. I don’t know what charts they use. But it sure seems to me me that there aren’t too many worse things you can do in sports than purposely try to hurt your opponent because you are mad they’re winning. That seems to me to break fundamental rules that go way beyond so many other sports-centric things we argue about like steroids and filming opponents sidelines and so on. You can’t walk up to somebody and slug them because they beat you to the cab. You can’t reach across the table and club the person who isn’t offering what you deem a fair price on your house. Well, you CAN, but could find yourself in court. Sports isn’t like real life. But there are real life limits in sports too.

The Lakers exit was pretty stunning just as a sports story. Coming into the series, the Lakers had their reputation as a team that rises to the moment, and the Mavs, to be blunt, had their reputation as a team that has not. But Dallas utterly outclassed Los Angeles. And the Lakers handled that about as poorly as it is possible to handle it. They disgraced themselves, their team, their league and their coach. They managed to go from champions to the very opposite of the word in four short games.

A friend says he hopes Bynum gets some kind of massive, attention-grabbing suspension but he probably won’t. No he probably will get a two-gamer or something, and the world will move on. Heck, it seems like the world has already moved on. But Phil Jackson retires now, and if he stays retired then he cannot change that his final game represented the very worst of sports. Does it diminish the amazing career? No. But the amazing career also doesn’t lift up the lousy final chapter.

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Poscast With Kevin Harlan

The Poscast with Kevin Harlan.

Have a few thoughts about the Lakers disgraceful finish — will post those later today — but first I want to say something about my Poscast guest this week, TNT’s Kevin Harlan. We talk a whole lot of NBA, the fall of the Lakers, the excitement of this Hawks-Bulls Series, the magic of Boston-Miami … Kevin will be broadcasting tonight’s Celtics-Heat game.

I love enthusiasm for life and I despise fake enthusiasm, and I’m dumb enough to believe I can tell the difference. I can’t tell the difference, of course. As Sollozzo says in The Godfather: I’m not that clever. There are good actors and bad ones, people who feel enthusiasm but don’t publicly express it and the other way around.

But that doesn’t really matter. What I love about being around enthusiasm is not how real it is but what that enthusiasm does for me. How can you not love being around someone who loves what they are doing? How can you not feel good being around someone who is happy, unabashedly happy? I feel sure that this, as much as anything, gets at what I love about Bruce Springsteen. Sure, the music’s great. Sure, the performances are great. Sure the lyrics are interesting, and the band is awesome, and the sound is energy. But as much as than anything, what I hear when I listen to Springsteen is the sound of a man who is doing EXACTLY what he wants to be doing, what he has dreamed about doing. To be around that makes me love life just a bit more.

Kevin Harlan loves what he is doing. I know this on a personal level because I have known Kevin for a good while now. But, I know it anyway, just from listening to him broadcast games. He loves the stories. He is thrilled by the action. He is in awe of the players. And all of that … well, you can hear these things in every game he calls.

Sports announcers bring out powerful emotions in people. We like ’em. We can’t stand ’em. We are thrilled by ’em. We are annoyed by ’em. There are announcers out there who make me want to throw things at the television. And there are others who make the games twice as enjoyable as they would be with another voice. Some of these things are logical — most aren’t. Most of these things are deep-seated, involuntary, I couldn’t explain it, and I couldn’t convince you I’m right. I tell a friend that I love the Al Michaels-Cris Collinsworth team, I think it’s by far the best in football, and he says: “I can’t stand Collinsworth’s voice” … well, the conversation doesn’t really have any place to go. There are objective points to be made about announcers and how informed they are, how hard they work, how open they are to the game and how married they are to their own biases.

But I think much of our connection to announcers is gray area. Kevin Harlan, objectively, is an excellent announcer, I think. But more, much more for me, he sounds like he is the happiest guy in the room. He sounds like, if they turned off all his equipment and told him that nobody was listening, he would keep on announcing the game because he cannot imagine anything else would be more fun. I love that in people. When I listen to Kevin Harlan call games, I feel happier.

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Verlander And No-Nos

A few thoughts about Justin Verlander and his two no-hitters and why I think Verlander will throw at least more no-hitter before he’s finished.

* * *

Thirteen players in baseball history — including Justin Verlander — have thrown multiple no-hitters before they turned 29 years old. We’ll deal with 11 of those here. This is not to discount the other two — Christy Mathewson and Dutch Leonard. Mathewson is obviously one of the best pitchers ever, and Dutch Leonard in 1914 had an 0.96 ERA, the lowest for a qualifier in baseball history. But they both pitched their best during Deadball, and that doesn’t really relate to what we’re talking about here.

So we have eleven pitchers left. Justin Verlander is one of the 11, and he’s our focal point, so let’s leave him to the end. That leaves us with 10 pitchers to focus on.

The 10 are (as ranked by WAR):

1. Nolan Ryan (84.8 WAR) was actually something of a circus freak when he was 28 years old. He already had set the single-season strikeout record with 383 and had three times struck out 325 or more. He had also thrown FOUR no-hitters. But he had also led the league in walks three times, including his ground-breaking 202 walks in 1973. (In the century, only Bob Feller had walked 200 in a season. Feller will re-enter our story in a minute).

Point is, nobody at that point knew if Ryan was a GREAT pitcher or merely a singular one. It is certainly true that nobody had ever seen a pitcher quite like him. And yet his 105-98 record and 111 ERA+ suggested he was more fascinating than masterly, more impressive than effective.

Had Ryan burned out as a pitcher after 28 as, say, Sam McDowell did, he probably would be viewed (like McDowell) more as an oddity than an all-time great. Look:

Nolan Ryan at 28: 105-98, 3.06 ERA, 1,758 Ks, 111 ERA+.
Sam McDowell at 28: 122-109, 2.99 ERA, 2,159 Ks, 119 ERA+.

McDowell had more strikeouts at 28 than any pitcher ever. He burned out because of his own demons. Ryan, though, kept pitching in his difficult-to-catalogue way until his mid-30s, and then in perhaps the most shocking turn of his shocking career, he became an even better pitcher in his late 30s and early 40s. That’s the final and most compelling surprise of his career. The best old starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame are probably Phil Niekro, Warren Spahn, Cy Young and Nolan Ryan — and Ryan was quite unlike the other three.

Anyway, Ryan threw three more no-hitters after he turned 29.

2. Bob Feller (66 WAR) was already legendary by 28, even though he had missed almost four full seasons for World War II. Well, his story is one of the most famous in baseball history — from walking off an Iowa farm into the big leagues at 17, to his dominance in the three years before the war, to his epic return to baseball in 1946.

Feller’s 1946 season — 42 starts, 36 complete games, 348 Ks, 371 innings, 10 shutouts, and so on — is one of the best ever for for a pitcher; it might be the best pitcher’s year between Walter Johnson’s 1913 and Sandy Koufax’s 1963. Anyway, by the time he was 28 he had led the league in strikeouts six times, shutouts four times, innings pitched five times and so on.

He had also thrown two no-hitters by then. He would throw a third in 1951, when he was 32 and fading. Feller would only have two or three more good seasons and no transcendent ones after he turned 29.

3. Sandy Koufax (54.5 WAR) was, at 28, probably the best pitcher in baseball — but only just. He had become a terrific pitcher by the early 1960s, but his breakout year of 1963 had happened when he was 27. He won what some people like to call the pitcher’s Triple Crown — he led the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts.*

*What a shame … the pitcher’s triple crowd is as uninteresting and unrevealing as the hitters’ Triple Crown.

Koufax pitched brilliantly for two more years and famously retired at 30. He also threw a fourth no-hitter.

4. Jim Maloney (34.7 WAR) seemed on the path for a Hall of Famer career when injuries crashed his career at 29. He is unquestionably a caution for those of us who believe Verlander will continue to pitch at a high level and will throw more no-hitters. Maloney was probably the third-best pitcher in baseball from 1963-66, though few noticed because the two best pitchers were fairly noticeable: Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal.

Maloney had a Verlander-like fastball — or, more correctly, Verlander has a Maloney type fastball — he could pump it up near 100 and stay there until the end of games. He threw five or more shutouts four times, struck out 200-plus four times, and as he was turning 30 he had a 120 ERA+ and almost 1,600 strikeouts. He also had those two no-hitters — one of them a 10-inning no-hitter (with 12 strikeouts and 10 walks, yikes), the other a 13-strikeout game.

Those injuries wrecked him. He not only never threw another no-hitter after 29, he never won a big league game he turned 30.

5. Dean Chance (31.9) counts, of course, but he gets in on a technicality. Not only was one of his no-hitters just five perfect innings on a rainy day in Minnesota, he allowed a run in his GOOD no-hitter (allowed it in the second inning on two walks, an error on Cesar Tovar, and a wild pitch). Chance was a very good pitcher, and without exaggeration he threw at least a dozen games in his career that were better than his nine-inning no-hitter, and 70-plus games that had a higher Game Score than his five inning no-hitter.

Chance at age 23 probably had the best year for any American League pitcher in the decade. He threw an amazing 11 shutouts, posted a 1.65 ERA, and won 20. He was never again that good, but he was still a very good pitcher in 1967 and 1968. He had a painful-looking windup and he battled with injuries and ineffectiveness after he turned 28. He threw two one-hitters and nine two-hitters in his career. When he was mowing them down, he was mowing them down.

6. Don Wilson (30.2 WAR) is one of the sadder stories in baseball history. Wilson died at 29, while sitting in his running Ford Thunderbird in the garage. The death was ruled an accident (his young son in the house also died, and his wife and daughter were hospitalized) and it remains a tragic mystery.

Wilson was a good pitcher who had thrown his second no-hitter by the time he was 24. He also had an 18 strikeout game. It certainly looked like there would be other no-hitters, and he did throw a one-hitter in 1971* but he never again threw another no-no.

*That was a weird game. The hit was a double given up to Tony Perez in the second inning, so there was never really a no-hitter threat. After Perez’s double, Wilson walked Bernie Carbo, hit George Foster with a pitch, and walked Pat Corrales to allow a run. Darrel Chaney promptly hit into a triple play, and Wilson did not give up a hit the rest of the way.

7. Ken Holtzman (27.5 WAR) was traded by the Cubs to Oakland for Rick Monday before the 1972 season, and at that point he was mostly known just as the slightly above average pitcher who had thrown two no-hitters. He was actually one of the better pitchers in the league in 1970, but few noticed because his 17-11 record and 3.38 ERA didn’t get anyone too excited. He was 75-69 with a blah-looking 3.59 ERA in Chicago. Thing is, he was better than his numbers. He pitched half his games at the hitter-friendly confines of Wrigley Field, and he was playing for a doomed Cubs team.

After a poor 1971 season, he was traded to Oakland where suddenly he was pitching in a fabulous pitchers park for a team that would win the next three World Series.Voila: he suddenly “became” a great pitcher. He went 59-41 with a 2.85 ERA those three years and made his only two All-Star appearances.

Was Holtzman a better pitcher in Oakland than in Chicago? Probably not. HIs two best WAR seasons are 1969 and 1970 in Chicago. What seems to have happened is that, with a better defensive team behind him, in a much better hitting ballpark, he simply threw the ball over the plate (his strikeouts plummeted, and so did his walks) and batted balls were turned into outs. And the team scored more runs for him. He never threw another no-hitter after 29, and never really came particularly close to throwing one.

8. Johnny Vandermeer (22.5 WAR), of course, threw back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, the first against the Boston Braves, the second against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Vandermeer was just 23 years old, and he had a great fastball (he would yet lead the league in strikeouts three times) and he certainly looked like a future great. During an eight-game stretch that year — which included the two no-hitters — he went 8-0 with a 1.38 ERA and the league hit .139 against him.

Vandermeer had injury issues in 1939 and 1940, then put together those three seasons when he led the league in strikeouts. In those three seasons, he had nine games where he allowed three hits or less, though he never again threw a no-hitter. He went to fight in the war in 1943, and he was not the same pitcher when he returned in 1946.

9. Steve Busby (15.5 WAR) threw his two no-hitters in his first two full seasons — the only pitcher to do that — and I suspect he would have thrown at least one more had he stayed healthy. He had a great defensive team behind him, he refused to come out of games (he threw 38 complete games in those two years and stories of his refusals to leave are legendary), and he seemed to be improving as a pitcher. Then he tore his rotator cuff and though he was the first to have rotator cuff surgery and he actually returned to baseball, he was never again entirely healthy or effective.

10. Bill Stoneman (7.7 WAR) almost certainly had the least-effective career among those who had throw multiple no-hitters as a young pitcher. He was already viewed a subpar pitcher at 28 — he had a great arm, but he had only made a name for his ability not to control his fastball. He had twice led the league in walks, and twice more led the league in hitting batters. When he was on, he was on — he threw 15 shutouts in his career, tying him with Blue Moon Odom for the most among non-Deadball-pitchers with a 90 or worse ERA+. After 28, his career would collapse entirely. He went 5-16 with a 6.55 ERA in two painful years.

So that’s all of them. What does this tell us about Verlander? Well, first we have to ask what kind of pitcher Justin Verlander is: In his career, he is 86-55 with a 118 ERA+, he had led the league in strikeouts and he has thrown 100 mph fastballs in the ninth inning of games. I actually think Verlander’s been even better than that — his record and ERA+ are marred by his one bad season, 2008, when things just didn’t go well. Take away that season, as I’m sure he would like to, and he’s actually 75-38 with a 125 ERA+ and a better than 3-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio.

My understanding is that Jack Morris took Verlander to task a bit the other day, called him a bit too infatuated with the strikeout, suggested that he has underachieved. Morris was a near-great pitcher and he has seen Verlander pitch much more than I have, so I don’t doubt his analysis. But I also think he might be a bit hard on the kid. Verlander’s been pretty darned good, and he only turned 28 in February.

I think Verlander at this point would probably compare with the top half of the multiple-no hitter list. Jim Maloney seems the best direct comparison, but Verlander throws about as hard as anybody ever including those top three guys, Ryan, Feller and Koufax. I think if you throw that hard, low-hit games are just a natural part of things. Look at some of the starters generally viewed to have the greatest fastballs:

— Nolan Ryan (seven no-hitters)
— Sandy Koufax (four no-hitters)
— Bob Feller (three no-hitters)
— Randy Johnson (two no-hitters)
— Walter Johnson (one no-hitter)
— Pedro Martinez (nine perfect innings, lost perfecto in 10th)
— Sam McDowell (zero no-hitters but four one-hitters)
— Roger Clemens (zero no-hitters but two 20-strikeout, zero-walk games)

And so on. Clemens’ lack of a no-hitter is kind of stunning — in fact, he only had a single one-hitter in his career. And if Roger Clemens can go a whole career with his stuff and never throw a no-hitter, well, that tells you how hard and random no-hitters can be.

But I expect that if Justin Verlander can stay healthy, if he can maintain his stuff for a while longer, he will be in position to throw more no-hitters. And he has shown that if he is in position to do it, he can finish the job. In his first no-hitter, he got two strikeouts and a fly ball in the final inning. In his last, he finished the job off with a strikeout of Rajai Davis with an 88-mph slider. Two pitches earlier, he had thrown a 100 mph fastball.

You never can predict health, and you never can predict the vagaries of pitching. But I think a healthy Justin Verlander will be one of the best pitchers in baseball for a while. And I think he will throw another no-no before he’s through.

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There’s a moment at the 1997 Ryder Cup that I think of now. That Ryder Cup was at the Valderrama Golf Club, in Sotogrande, along the Alboran Sea, almost in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar. The captain of the European team was Seve Ballesteros, and even with all the beautiful scenes there in and around Sotogrande, it was Seve who was the overpowering presence. He was everywhere.

He had a golf cart, of course, and it seemed to be souped up, and he drove fast from hole to hole, from group to group, and he was cheered on his team, coaxed them, pushed them, challenged them. This was Ballesteros in full. There has never been a more dashing presence in golf. The young Seve, like the young Arnold Palmer or the emerging Tiger Woods, well, these guys seemed more action hero than golfer. Severiano Ballesteros even had the action hero name to go with it.*

*Of course, they called him “El Matador.” What other image even came close?

He certainly had the action hero game. Ballesteros would drive the ball into the trees, into the rough, into the gallery, behind buildings, into villains lairs. Then he would invent some crazy shot — some hooking, slicing, rolling, skipping, dancing shot — that avoided that tree and and bounced over that trap and turned left at Albuquerque and right at Cucamonga and shot out the lights and avoided tripping the alarm and skidded to stop somewhere near the green. He would then hit some ridiculously soft chip shot that would roll right up to the hole. And if the ball didn’t go in, Seve would grimace because the way he saw it, he deserved the birdie. The birdie was his birthright.

In those early years, the ball seemed to go in all the time for Seve. He made so many birdies. He told us that he had learned the game in the sand — hitting three-irons on Spanish beaches when he was supposed to be at school. Maybe that was true, maybe it was an exaggeration, but he was a prodigy. He won the Dutch Open when he was 19, and he led the British Open after three rounds that same year. He led the European Order of merit at 19 and again at 20 and once more at 21. He won the British Open at 22, and won the Masters days four days after his 23rd birthday. The Masters victory was a golfing crescendo. He was, at the time, the youngest golfer to win the Masters — he was also the first European.

On top of that, he was the most exciting player to come along since Palmer had inspired armies. His victories inspired people throughout Europe, but especially in Spain — where his future Ryder Cup partner Jose Maria Olazabal was learning the game. You could not watch Seve Ballesteros play golf then and not think: I would love to do that.

Augusta was the perfect stage for Seve. There was no rough anywhere on the course, which meant golfers with imagination could hit the ball just about anywhere and find their way back to the green. And the greens were microwave fast, which meant that winning took the putting touch of an engraver. Those were two things Seve had in bulk — imagination and touch. He won the Masters again in 1983, and almost won in 1985 and 1987. It is telling that in the years between, he missed the Masters cut twice. Well, he was an all-or-nothing golfer. He either sawed the woman in half or, yes, it was kind of messy. That was part of what made him so mesmerizing.

He won the British Open three times — there too, on those bumpy and unpredictable links courses and in the wind, his beautiful creativity and ingenuity was rewarded and celebrated. He was never much of a factor at the U.S. Open. He did finish in the Top 5 three times because he was too talented not too, but the tight fairways and punishing rough generally did not suit his free nature. The U.S. Open was too much like real life. With Ballesteros, golf was about escape and about making art. He wanted to create something unforgettable. He did not like pars. I remember once talking to him about those solid pars — drive to the middle of the fairway, hit it on the green, knock the first putt close, knock the second putt in — that we were told again and again led to winning golf. “Boring,” he said.

The magic left Seve Ballesteros when he was in his early 30s. That was inevitable, I suppose. His game was high-stakes poker, it was baccarat with an exotic dealer. His game was not long-term investing. Those wild drives grew wilder. That deft touch around the greens dulled. His back throbbed. He four-putted at the Masters one time, and when he was asked how that happened, how one of the greatest putters in golf history could four-putt, he offered one of the classic quotes in golf history: “Miss … miss … miss … make.”

He was 34 when he last contended at a major championship. He made his last cut at the British Open when he was 37. He made his last cut at the Masters when he was 38. In those later years, he would show up in Augusta with the clear understanding that he would not be around for the weekend. Everyone understood.

The talk about Ballesteros in those later years would usually start with sadness — it was sad to watch him hit the ball out of bounds and sad to see him unable to come up with the brilliant recovery shots that had marked him as a young man. It was a bit like watching James Bond getting shot in the leg. But with Seve, you could never be too sad, and he would find some way to hook a shot onto the green from some absurd place and everyone would remember some impossible shot he had hit as a young man and everyone was happy again. Seve’s game, Seve’s presence, just inspired happiness.

Back to the Ryder Cup. In many ways, this was when Ballesteros was at his best. He loved the competition. He loved to prove that European players could play at the level of the best Americans. As a single player he won 20 of the 37 matches he played, halving five more, an excellent record. But it was as a team player — where he and Olazabal just lost twice in their 15 matches together — that he was all but unbeatable.

So, yes, he would say that 1997 Ryder Cup was the most important golf tournament of his life, an interesting thing since he did not play. No one knew how Ballesteros as captain could transfer his golfing brilliance to his players — it was Updike who wrote that immortality is non transferrable. But Seve sure tried. He seemed to be everywhere that weekend, a BBC announcer said: “There must be two of him.” He would read a putt for this player, run back a hole and tell that player how to hit his approach, ride two holes forward to hug another player for hitting a great shot. He also drove his players mad, making them play holes twice during practice if he didn’t like the way they played it the first time, neglecting to mention to them who would and would not be playing until the morning of the competition, driving wildly around the golf course in that cart of his and so on.

“Seve knows what he’s doing,” Colin Montgomerie said. “He’s the only one who knows what he’s doing.”

It was baffling. And it was also amazing. Nobody had ever run a golf team like this. The United States was heavily favored — after all, that was the year Tiger Woods emerged on the scene. But Seve brought did manage, somehow, to get his team to play wonderful golf. The Europeans built up a big lead and held on to win by a point. Ballesteros, after what he called the most emotional week of his life, broke down and cried.

The moment that comes to mind today, though, happened during a practice round that week. Ballesteros was driving all over the course when he saw Ian Woosnam looking at his ball in the woods. He was in trouble. And if there was anything that Seve Ballesteros understood, perhaps more than any golfer who ever lived, it was how to get out of trouble. He drove over and looked at Woosnam’s situation. And then he saw the way out.

“Do you see that crack up there on top of the tree?” Seve asked.

Woosnam squinted and looked hard for the crack. He did not see it.

“No,” Woosnam said.

“Up there,” Seve said more insistently. “Between the branches? See?”

Woosnam looked harder.

“No,” he said again.

Seve Ballesteros died early Saturday from a malignant brain tumor. He was just 54 years old. He spent his too-short life getting in trouble and, even more, getting out. He could see the openings others could not see. He always found a way out.

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Willie Mays Turns 80 Today

The most wonderful rock concert I ever saw was an outdoor show in Atlanta featuring Midnight Oil. This had to be 1993. This was wonderful not because Midnight Oil was somehow more talented musically than other great band. Midnight Oil is not one of my 10 favorite bands, maybe not one of my 25 favorite. This was not because lead singer Peter Garrett had a better voice than anybody else or because Rob Hirst hammered the drums harder or Bones Hillman played the bass better than anyone I ever heard. The concert was not louder than any other, and the songs were not better than a thousand other songs I liked, and I wasn’t even there with a girl I was in love with.

The concert was wonderful because of the joy. The joy was everywhere. The songs themselves were not built to be joyful — Midnight Oil was a pointedly political band, and the songs were performed to right wrongs — but the songs WERE joyful despite themselves, and Peter Garrett danced like a madman, and we in the crowd came close to crawling INSIDE the music. The weather was perfect, our seats were great, the band was on, Garrett was wound up, the music was in the perfect pitch to sing along, strangers kept wandering over to dance with us, and it just felt like everybody was happy, thoroughly and unambiguously happy, and for a few minutes there was nothing in the world but that happiness.

Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

* * *

There’s a famous story about Willie Mays scoring from third on an infield fly ball. It was while looking for the story that I came across a curious play-by-play from a game in 1967. The game happened on a Tuesday at the end of August, and it featured a Giants team that was 11 games back in the standings and a Dodgers team that was more than 20 games behind. The game was, in that way, the very definition of a baseball dog day. Willie Mays was 36 years old then. He was already a legend, already viewed as the best all-around player to ever play baseball. And he was in the middle of what was, by quite a lot, the worst year of his career to that point.

The play-by-play reads like this.

Bottom of the 5th. Giants leading Dodgers 4-1.

— Willie Mays walk
— Jack Hiatt single to RF (Mays scores)

That’s it. That’s the whole masterpiece. Mays walks. Mays scores on follow-up single. What? How? Here’s the most amazing part of all: Mays had by 1967 done these sorts of minor-miracles so many times, that the witnesses did not even feel the need to explain it anymore. There was an Associated Press photograph that appeared in papers the next day of Mays sliding under Jeff Torborg’s glove on the play. But even the cutline, even the accompanying stories, did not explain HOW Willie Mays scored from first on a single. He had to be moving on the pitch. He had to notice the way the outfielder was turned. He had to see how the cutoff man was set up. He had to …

Nothing. The only thing that papers said was that Willie Mays was at it again. That was enough. Heck, the night before he had scored from second on a wild pitch. Later that game he mashed a 400-plus foot home run. Yep, Willie Mays was at it again. Claude Debussy is the musician who said that music is the silence between the notes. Mays’ genius was the silence within the scorecards.

* * *

The most wonderful movie I ever saw was “This Is Spinal Tap.” Everything about the movie was madness, pure insanity, amps that went to 11, concerts played at the Isle Of Lucy, promoters begging band members to kick him in the butt, mimes serving hors d’oeuvres.

The movie may or may not have been the funniest I ever saw — there probably have been a hundred movies where I laughed about as often. But I saw it at the perfect age, on the perfect day, when I was in exactly the right mood. The theater was crowded, and it had just the right mix of old and young, and Spinal Tap was different enough from anything we had seen to leave us transfixed. And it was euphoric, the happiest movie you could ever see, a movie about the world’s loudest rock band getting second billing to a puppet show, a movie about the world’s most punctual rock band getting lost backstage in Cleveland.

And when the characters who were supposed to be representing the Druids danced happily around a 12-inch Stonehenge, I probably laughed harder than I had ever laughed before, harder than I ever laughed since, and everyone around me laughed too, and their laughter pumped up mine, and my laughter pumped up theirs, and that was one of the happiest incidents of my life.

Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

* * *

It was while looking for that story on the infield fly ball that I came across a doubleheader Willie Mays played on Easter Sunday at the Polo Grounds in 1957. This was a bizarre day across baseball. In Milwaukee, Don Hoak was the baserunner on second base when Wally Post hit a ground ball toward short. Hoak, running toward third, actually FIELDED THE BALL with his his bare hands and flipped it to Milwaukee shortstop Johnny Logan. Hoak would say he was just trying to protect himself. Logan said he was trying to prevent the double play. In either case, it might be the only time in baseball history that a player retired himself.

A doubleheader in Washington was called because of power failure, which was especially odd because it was (of course) a day doubleheader. In Brooklyn, Don Newcombe gave up back-to-back-to-back home runs to Pirates hitters, and in the same game Frank Thomas tried to pull the “hey kid, throw me the ball,” trick on Dodgers rookie pitcher Rene Valdes (it didn’t work). In St. Louis, Chicago Cubs pitcher Don Kaiser got a telegram saying: “Phone home immediately, Mother desperately ill. Dad.” Kaiser, who was only 22, pitched one of the better games of his career, lasted eight innings, and won. The stunt might have worked better if Kaiser’s mother had not died a year earlier. It was a goofy enough day that the Associated Press wrote a story about the many oddball happenings in baseball.

In New York, in the first game of the doubleheader, the score was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning. The great Robin Roberts was pitching — there were stories the next day across the country about how Roberts was giving up too many home runs and did not know what to do about it. And he gave up a home run to Hank Sauer in the second inning, but that was the only run he allowed through eight. In the ninth inning, with one out, Mays hit a ground ball to short. Chico Fernandez apparently felt rushed by Mays speed and threw it away. Mays ended up at second base. Mays promptly stole third. And he scored the game-winner on Sauer’s single.

Roberts would call it one of the toughest losses of his life. Many years later, he remembered Mays scoring the game winning run without a hit. “Mays could win games without doing anything,” Roberts would say. Once again, the papers had almost nothing about it. That was just Willie Mays doing what he did, even without doing anything at all.

* * *

The most wonderful book I ever read was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. One of the things that made the book so wonderful was that, at the time, I had not heard of Hornby. Nobody had recommended the book to me. I had not read any reviews of it. I was walking through a bookstore, and I still do not know how I came across the book. It was not even facing forward for easy viewing. The book was squeezed between two others — neither by Hornby — and something about it must have caught my eye because I pulled it out. I opened it up and read the first couple of sentences. And I knew that I would love it.

Like the most wonderful movie and concert, I would not say High Fidelity is anywhere close to the best book I’ve ever read. But that’s the distinction, isn’t it — between most wonderful and best, between something that is universally and fundamentally great and something that animates a moment in time. I was 28 years old when I saw that book in a bookstore, and I had broken up with a girlfriend, and I felt sure I was going to die alone. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do — write sports — but I felt sure that I did not deserve the job. I was in a Cincinnati that I did not know yet, living in an apartment that had old furniture someone had given to me, and I felt like I was drifting, and there was only one book that in that moment could capture exactly how I felt, and could make me laugh about how I felt, and could make me realize just how much fun life should be … and I happened to find that book hidden between two others at a Barnes & Noble next to a mall.

And Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

* * *

Willie Mays was not necessarily the best at any one thing thing. Well, he might have been the best defensive center fielder ever, but that’s a hard thing to define. Joe DiMaggio and his brothers Vince and Dom were all pretty great defensive center fielder too. Paul Blair was amazing. Devon White chased down everything, and Andruw Jones was like a genius out there, and Garry Maddox famously covered the one-third of the earth that wasn’t already covered by water. You could certainly say that Mays was the best defensive center fielder ever and few would argue. But it’s a matter of opinion.

Mays was, of course, a brilliant hitter, but he was not as good a hitter as Ted Williams or Stan Musial or Ty Cobb. He got on base at a very high rate, but even in his era there were others who reached base more. He had immense power, but his great rival and friend Mickey Mantle probably had more, and Hank Aaron lasted longer, and certainly going back Babe Ruth was a more forceful hitter. Mays could run like the wind, but Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock and Maury Wills stole many more bases, and plenty of players throughout history were probably faster.

What does any of this mean? Not much. If a player is one of the best defenders ever, one of the best hitters ever, ever of the best power hitters ever and one of the best base runners ever, he is almost certainly the best player ever, not just by acclamation, but by accumulation. And I think Willie Mays IS the best player ever by accumulation. There is nobody — save Barry Bonds, who has his own obvious drawbacks — who could do so many things brilliantly as Willie Mays. “He could beat you every way you could be beaten,” Buck O’Neil often said.

But I don’t think any of this does much of a job explaining Willie Mays’ magnificence. I did not see Willie Mays play until he was old and worn out, and even then I was too young to notice much. What I know about Willie Mays, I know from the stories people who watched him tell … and the stories people tell is of someone who enlivened the moment, a player who made them feel a little bit more alert, a little bit happier, a little bit lighter on their feet.

They would watch Mays chase race into the gap — his hat, of course, flying off his head — and chase down a fly ball … they would watch Mays steal second base, watch the throw bounce a few feet from the shortstop and then see him take off toward third … they would watch him flail and miss at a slider in the dirt, his corkscrew swing pulling him off balance, his hat again falling off his head, and then crush the next fastball into the left field bleachers at Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium or Candlestick Park … and it was one of those rare times in life when they could step out of time, when everything felt particularly in focus, when there was nothing at all in the world except joy and wonder and the unmistakable gladness of being being alive.

The moment passed, of course. And nothing real changed. After the moment, bills were still due, marriages still broke up, wars still raged, hate still bubbled up inside people, all that. But that moment was not meaningless either. It was remembered. People held on to the moment. It was that moment that made people who met Willie Mays later in life cry. It was that moment that parents shared with their children. I once had a teacher who heard I was a baseball fan. He asked me who was the greatest player who ever lived. I don’t know who I said. Babe Ruth, maybe? Reggie Jackson, maybe? Duane Kuiper, maybe? I was just a kid. I just know I didn’t say the right answer.

“Wrong,” he told me. “The greatest player who ever lived was Willie Mays.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He just was,” he told me, and he had this happy look on his face that I have not forgotten though that must have been 35 years ago.

Willie Mays turns 80 years old today.

* * *

I never did find the precise details for story about the sacrifice fly. I’ve heard the story from several people, particularly Jeff Torborg who was there. The story goes that the Giants were playing the Dodgers, and Mays was at third base. Someone hit an infield fly ball toward second.

The Dodgers’ Jim Lefebvre caught the ball, and Willie Mays bluffed like he was going to run home. Lefebvre then bluffed like he was going to throw home. And the two players looked at each other and smiled. The Giants and the Dodgers had been through so many intense games, and here was a moment in time — like two heavyweight fighters touching gloves at the start of the final round — where everyone could relax for just a second and think about how many times Willie Mays had done something extraordinary.

Lefebvre then dropped his head slightly and began to run the ball back to the pitcher. And Willie Mays took off for home. He scored, of course, at least according to legend.

The story may not be exactly right. There is an easily-found story about Lefebvre fielding a ground ball, looking Mays back to third, and then throwing to first … while Mays raced home to score. Then again, there is a day in 1956 — May 8 — when Mays scored from first on a single TWICE. There was a day at Crosley Field in 1957 when Mays twice reached base and then promptly stole second and third — he hit a home run that day too. There was a day in 1954 when Mays scored five runs, one a a teammate’s double, one on a teammate’s triple, two on a teammate’s home run, and the fifth on an error. There was the day in 1961, at County Stadium, when Mays hit four home runs (and Hank Aaron hit two — the wind was obviously blowing out) — but even more Mays hit two or more home runs 63 times in his beautiful career, which means that 63 times in his career he gave baseball fans in the stands a day that they would remember the rest of their lives.

There are literally thousands of Willie Mays stories that people remember and hold on to even now. Mays had this unique gift, this unrepeatable gift, for exuding joy. He made people feel like they (and they alone) had discovered him. He had this unique gift for making people feel happy. He had this unique gift for making every day feel like the perfect day to watch him play.

In other words, there is no way to sum up Willie Mays, but it is the smile in the sacrifice fly story that I think about today. It is not always easy to explain what it is that makes an instant wonderful, to explain why certain dunks bring us out of our seats while equally great dunks don’t, to explain why Bruce Springsteen’s version of Born To Run in Kansas City soared while the same song four days earlier in Milwaukee felt a bit flat, to explain why a certain joke made us laugh hysterically. “You had to be there,” is often the best explanation we can muster.

I wasn’t there for Willie Mays. But I can see that smile. I can see the years behind the smile — all the times he raced home when no one expected it, all the times he caught fly balls nobody thought he could reach, all the times he looked utterly helpless and baffled at the plate only to turn on the next pitch. The smile said: “Heh, you thought I was going to go, didn’t you?” Lefebvre’s return smile said: “Yes, I did.”

And then Willie Mays went. And then he scored.

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The Sub Derek Jeter All-Stars

Here’s a little something to cheer up you Derek Jeter fans. Here’s a pseudo All-Star team made up of players who have an OPS+ LOWER than Derek Jeter’s 62.

1B: Carlos Pena (49 OPS+)
2B: Mark Ellis (35 OPS+)
SS: Hanley Ramirez (59 OPS+)
3B: Miguel Tejada (43 OPS+)
LF: Carl Crawford (41 OPS+)
CF: Alex Rios (52 OPS+)
RF: Vernon Wells (52 OPS+)
C: A.J. Pierzynski (59 OPS+)

For the American League, we’ll even throw in Adam Dunn as a DH even though his OPS+ is actually 63, one point higher than Jeter. Designated hitters are graded on a curve.

That is about $100 million worth of ballplayers right — $96,500,000 if you want to be exact — and if you had been given that team at the beginning of the year, you would probably feel at least decent about your chances. Maybe by year’s end, it will all work out.

One final thought: We all know Albert Pujols is struggling at the plate in a way that he has not throughout his career. He has one double all season. He has hit into 10 double plays — TEN DOUBLE PLAYS — and his batting average is almost 100 points lower than his career average. He’s clearly starting to get a bit concerned … he’s talking about not watching video for a few days, just to freshen up, and as I wrote about Jeter it’s not too good a sign when hitters start changing their swings or start talking about odd stunts to kickstart their season, stunts like not watching video.

That said, if you want to know how much offense is down in 2011: Albert Pujols is hitting .233/.309/.417, which is stunningly bad for him. His OPS+? It is exactly 100 — league average.

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The Captain and Denial

This week’s Poscast is with columnist, author and all-around great guy Ian O’Connor. Ian’s excellent new book, The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter, has created some sparks. We talk about those, whether or not Derek Jeter is done as a good player, and so on.

The Poscast with Ian O’Connor.

We also talked at some length about Tiger Woods … really the topic of age and sports was pretty prominent in our discussion. Which led to this little essay on getting old.

* * *

The more years pass, the more I respect the power of age. I was thinking about this the other day when, for incomprehensible reasons, I started to run a few sprints beside my daughter’s soccer practice. I’ve been trying to get in shape, as you might know, and I’ve dropped a pretty good amount of weight, and I’m sort of, kind of, training for something or other. No idea what I might be training for — a 5K run, a return to tennis (the world awaits!), an attempt to tackle the game of golf, a baseball comeback, River Dancing! — but I know that I need something as motivation. For some reason, running sprints just seemed the thing to do.

Well, my left knee didn’t think so. I have never, to my knowledge, had any trouble with my left knee. I’ve had plenty of trouble with just about every other part of my body, but the left knee has been good. On about my third sprint, the left knee announced that it was no longer part of the program. The unspoken conversation went something like this.

Me: I’m young! I’m fast! I’m …

Left knee: Have you lost your mind?

Me: What? I’m running.

Left knee: You are 44 years old. You cannot just start running sprints out of nowhere. Are you crazy?

Me: I don’t feel 44 years old. I still feel young.

Left knee: Trust me, you’re not young. Just look at the music on your iPod, man.

Me: What? I’ve got some hip hop on there.

Left knee: Yeah … The Sugarhill Gang. Dude, I’m not even going to argue with you. Stop running. Go do what you do best … sit in a recliner, prop me up, and watch sports.

Me: No. I can still …

Left knee: OK, sorry pal, you’ve left me no choice. This is going to hurt you more than it’s going to hurt me.

This the trouble with age. Nobody tells you that you are too old to do something. It just happens. It’s like Chris Rock told my friend Scott Raab in a typically brilliant line about Christian Slater: “I remember I used to see Christian Slater movies all the time. One day they just stopped making ’em. He didn’t get a memo. No one passes you a note.”

That’s how it goes with age too. No memos. No notes. One day, you simply find that you cannot run as fast, cannot jump as high, cannot react as quickly, cannot sprint without sparks of pain flying off your left knee. There comes a day when you are in the car, going somewhere, and suddenly you think: “Wait, where am I going?” There comes a day for most of us — not all of us, but most of us — when the music starts sounding the same (and too loud), when the fashions stop making any sense to us, when the agony of the morning after outflanks the thrill of the night before. One minute you’re singing how you hope you die before you get old. The next minute you’re playing halftime at the Super Bowl. Nobody tells you it’s going to happen.

Well … no … wait, that’s not right. People DO tell us it’s going to happen. People DO tell us we’re going to get old. But we don’t believe it. We can’t believe it. Or even if we do believe it, we believe it in a vague and general way, the way we believe that we are going to die someday. If someone tells me I will someday be too old to do something or other, I will believe them. But I will not believe them if they say that someday is actually tomorrow.

Getting old is, of course, more stark in sports than just about anywhere else in life. This is because there is a constant influx of youth in sports. There are always new kids in sports. Our games do not get older. The average age of the players stays stunningly constant through the years. It’s the players individually who get older.

Because of this we see those individual players age in fast-forward. It isn’t fair. If Michael Jordan had played in an NBA that did not let in new players, a league that aged as the players age, I feel sure he would STILL be the dominant force in basketball. He’s almost certainly the best 48 year old basketball player around. Willie Mays would not have looked diminished had he played in a league where the average age was 42 years old. In real life, we tend to gather around people our own age and so the effects do not seem quite so sharply defined. Your left knee hurts? What a coincidence my left knee hurts too!

But in sports, Roger Federer has to defeat players who are much younger, whose bodies are much fresher, men who grew up in a world where Federer’s brilliance was not stunning and revolutionary but merely the new standard to be achieved. Federer’s a young man in our world. He’s an old man in his world.

And the older I get the more I bet on the years to win. It’s a bit cynical, I admit — it’s a lot more fun to root for people to beat age for as long as possible. And I still do root for that to happen. But, when you start to feel yourself getting older, you realize that it’s all about postponing the inevitable. Yes, maybe a guy will be successful at 36. But he won’t be at 37. Or he might be an all-star at 37. But he will stink at 38. Sooner or later, age wins. Every time.

Which, of course, brings us to Derek Jeter. When I see Derek Jeter’s horrible struggles, my younger self shouts what Jeter is no doubt thinking: That it’s just a phase, that he will figure something out, that he will find a way to adjust. But the left-knee part of my brain tells me that Derek Jeter is done, and I think that part of the brain is right. It isn’t just that Derek Jeter is hitting .250. It isn’t just that he has two extra-base hits (both doubles) this year. It isn’t just that he’s coming off by far the worst year of his career.

Look at the breakdown of Derek Jeter’s 25 hits this year:

Infield singles: 11.
Ground balls through left side: 2 (one a double).
Ground balls up middle: 4.
Ground balls through right side: 3 (one a double).
Looper to right field: 2.
Line drives: 3.

We’re only talking about 110 or so plate appearances, and as Jeter says a couple of four hit games and he’s right back in it. But look at that collection of hits. Almost half of Derek Jeter’s all-to-rare hits were infield singles. Only five of the 25 were hit in the air. Derek Jeter is as smart a baseball player as any in his generation, and he’s relentless, and he still runs hard on every ball, and I have little doubt that given enough at-bats that he will find a way to compensate for this inability to hit the ball in the air and hit at least SOMEWHAT better than this. For years, we had a giant bump in our driveway. We learned how to turn the wheel just so and the bump wasn’t too bracing. Human beings adjust to their circumstances.

But the idea that Derek Jeter — who is hitting .267 and slugging .343 since the beginning of last season — will be a good hitter again, well, to be honest I’m just getting too old to believe in those sorts of miracles.

A couple of years ago, Ian O’Connor and I got into a little argument about Jeter. Ian thought that Jeter would make a run at 4,000 hits. I told him there was no chance of that happening. We talk a little bit about this on the Poscast, and to be fair, Ian admits defeat and makes the point that he made his prediction in the glow of Jeter having his marvelous 2009 season (which I believe is the best for a 35-year-old shortstop in the last century). Ian’s feeling was that Jeter took such good care of himself and he was so driven (at the time, Jeter privately was telling people that he planned to play well into his 40s) that he would sustain his game for a long time.

That all made some sense, sure. But sense doesn’t have much to do with getting old. Logic doesn’t turn back the years. Willpower doesn’t stop the clock. Ty Cobb burned with a hunger for baseball perhaps unmatched. He stopped hitting. Babe Ruth stopped hitting. Ted Williams stopped hitting. Stan Musial stopped hitting. Willie Mays stopped hitting. Hank Aaron … George Brett … Rod Carew … Frank Thomas …

No, I don’t bet against age, not anymore. I didn’t think Jeter would get anywhere close to 4,000 hits. Now, I’m older, and I don’t even see how he’s going to finish his contract as an every day player. I don’t think Alex Rodriguez is going to break Barry Bonds home run record — or Hank Aaron’s. I don’t think Tiger Woods is going to break Jack Nicklaus’ record for professional majors.

I absolutely could be wrong. I hope I am wrong. I hope that Derek Jeter has a renaissance where line drives jump off his bat again. But, hey, I hope that my left knee won’t hurt the next time the urge to sprint hits me. I think it will hurt. I’m actually pretty sure about that.

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The Lowest Payroll In Baseball

You probably know that the Kansas City Royals have the lowest payroll in baseball. The average payroll in baseball in 2011 is about $93 million. The median payroll in baseball is about $87 million. The Yankees, of course, have a $200 million payroll — fifth year in a row — and a record 12 teams have at least a $100 million payroll.

The Royals payroll, just a touch over $36 million, is the lowest by about $5 mil.

And with revenue sharing hitting new highs, Royals owner David Glass figures to pocket a whole lot of money this year no matter how bad the Royals play.

I bring this up now because, best I can tell, there really isn’t much of an uproar in Kansas City about this. Oh sure, there are the usual grumbles about Glass being cheap and the Royals being a cut-rate team and so on. But mostly — and this is new, I think — mostly people don’t care that the Royals are spending so little on talent. In fact, people almost seem to be cherishing it.

Now, this is certainly due in large part to the fawning press the Royals minor league system has received from pretty much everybody (though ESPECIALLY me) — everybody knows that 2011 is kind of a mulligan year and the future looks promising and so why spend a lot of money now? Also there was the Royals hot start (which, predictably, has screeched to a halt — the Royals have lost six in a row, giving up 17 homers in the process).

But I think there is something else. I think Kansas City baseball fans have grown sick of money. It’s an odd thing to say, but there you go. For years and years, Royals fans — and you can point to other places as well but I’ve seen it first-hand in Kansas City — have spent a substantial portion of their time griping about the unfairness of the business baseball, and they had their fair points. A league where one one team makes five or 10 times the money of another, and can by rules spend infinitely more than another, well, yeah, it’s not easy for the little guy to compete.

There has not been a GOOD time to be a Royals fan for approaching 20 years, but always thought the worst time was the off-season when teams were teams were signing big names, making big moves, and the Royals were simply MIA. It was during these off-season months that the Royals did not even feel like they were a part of the major leagues. They were never mentioned on Baseball Tonight. They were never written about in the various Hot Stove stories. The very idea that the Royals might be in on a C.C. Sabathia or Carl Crawford or whoever was laughable. That’s the word. Laughable. The Onion would make jokes about the Royals being able to compete for those sorts of players with those sorts of demands. And this complete disconnect from baseball, this annual pressing of noses against restaurant windows, I think this wears on fans in ways that go beyond wins and losses and beyond decades without competing. Professional sports build around hope. Royals fans, for good reason, found it hard to hope.

So what changed? Well, I think a couple of things changed. For one, every small market team except Pittsburgh and Kansas City have competed in recent years. The definition of “small market” changes all the time, but in the 2000s Oakland, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Cleveland all made the playoffs at least once. Tampa Bay went to the World Series. Florida won a World Series. The owners really do share more quite a lot more revenue now, and while there is still a wide disparity in payroll and various other baseball operation spending, and while you would expect the Yankees to make the playoffs every year in perpetuity, the game does seem to have corrected somewhat. Minnesota was brought up for contraction not too long ago. And the Royals are really competing against Minnesota.

But the second change is what interests me here … I really think Royals fans in particular have grown sick of money. That is to say: Money brought Kansas City fans Jose Guillen. Money brought them Gil Meche. Money brought them Jason Kendall and Rick Ankiel and Mike Jacobs and Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz and Odalis Perez and Juan Gonzalez and if that’s what money brings, really, you can just keep your money.

Of course, there are wiser ways to spend money … everybody knows that. But it’s become clear that the Royals don’t know those wiser ways. Even this year, with the lowest payroll in baseball, the Royals found $3.75 million to pay Kendall, who is injured but when healthy has slugged .310 the last three years and last year went 434 plate appearances without hitting a triple OR a home run. The Royals found $2 million for Jeff Francis, who was a fine pitcher in 2007 but, on the other hand, he was a fine pitcher in 2007. He has had injuries and hurdles ever since and is now throwing his fastball about 83 mph.

The Royals found $2.5 million for Jeff Francoeur, who is hitting great and wouldn’t that be a great story? To be blunt about it, Francoeur always seems to hit great his first 100 or so plate appearances in a new situation, and then things start to go downhill as pitchers remember they don’t have to throw him strikes. So I wouldn’t rush out and buy his rookie card in bulk just yet. But maybe this time it’s real, and nobody would be happier than I would … I’m already preparing the Francoeur Arrives story. In any case, nobody else seemed to want Jeff Francoeur. The Royals found the money to get him.

And then there’s the most startling one of all — the folks are Royals Authority did a post with the rather frank headline: “Kyle Davies Is Historically Awful.” It seems a harsh judgment for a nice guy like Kyle. but it’s also pretty much indisputable. I like their numbers, but I’ll try to do it even more simply:

Highest ERAs in baseball history with 125-plus starts:
1. Kyle Davies, 5.59
2. Jimmy Haynes, 5.37
3. Kevin Ritz, 5.35
4. Scott Elarton, 5.29
5. Jose Lima, 5.26

Three Royals on that list. Hmm. Anyway …

At 125 starts, Davies has the fifth-highest WHIP ever — and he comes by it honestly. His 4.29 walks per nine innings is absurdly high. His 10.21 hits per nine is, historically, even worse. His 78 ERA+ — which adjusts ERA by era — is the third worst ever behind Phil Ortega and Wade Blassingame. He has the sixth-lowest WAR. He is one of only 19 pitchers to start at least 125 games without throwing a single shutout. Over his entire career, major league hitters are hitting .286/.364/.461 which means he basically turns every hitter in the game into Ron Santo.

Here’s my favorite one: Davies has a 32.8% quality start percentage — meaning he throws a quality start fewer than one out of three times. That is the lowest percentage since 1950, which is how far back Baseball Reference figures the stat. No starter in the last 60 years has been LESS likely to throw you at least six innings and give up three or fewer runs.

What does this tell you? To be honest, I don’t think it tells you that Kyle Davies has been dreadful. There have been thousands and thousands worse pitchers. What it does tell you is that, unlike those thousands and thousands, Kyle Davies has received a HISTORIC opportunity to keep starting games at the big league level. Pitchers don’t get 125 starts in the big leagues once they’ve proven they cannot get batters out. They get shuffled to the bullpen, or they get sent to the minor leagues, or they get released.

But the Royals are one of those teams that simply cannot let go of a player’s potential. The Cleveland Indians or my youth were like that too. Rick Waits had one moderately good year for Cleveland and it took three and half more before the team was willing to let go. Neal Heaton had one so-so year and it took two and a half more before the Indians were willing to let go. This is a trait of struggling teams, I think. They have so little good going on that they desperately fear giving up on someone too soon.

Davies basically had a couple of good Septembers — in 2008 and 2009 — and because September comes at the end of the season it gives the Royals the unmistakable sense that there’s a good pitcher in Davies just waiting to come out. Maybe there is. Heck, after watching what has happened to Jose Bautista, I’m not willing to write off ANYBODY. I can’t blame the Royals for being patient with Davies. They like his stuff. They like his makeup. They don’t really have anyone else. Why not keep giving the guy a chance?

But circumstances changed this past off-season. Kyle Davies was arbitration eligible, which means the Royals would actually have to pony up some pretty decent coin to bring him back. Of course, there was an obvious solution to this — you don’t bring him back. If Kyle Davies had been non-tendered, he probably would have signed a major league deal with somebody for a million bucks or less. But the Royals decided they had not quite given up hope on Davies. And so they tendered him an offer for $3.2 million this year.

I’m going to repeat that: The Royals offered Kyle Davies $3.2 million this year. Davies is now 1-3 with a 7.98 ERA, though at the moment he does lead the American League in starts.

My point really is not to bash Davies’s performance, but to say that the Royals have the lowest payroll in baseball and there’s still PLENTY of waste in there. And I think in the end, this is why the Royals fans don’t seem to care too much about payroll. Years ago, payroll represented opportunity and hope and potential. Now, it represents tendering Kyle Davies. It’s almost like the feeling is this: The Royals have built a team for $36 million that will probably lose 90 or 95 games. Imagine how much worse they could be if they spent more.

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Life Lesson with Tom Watson

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about starting a little feature called “Life Lesson.” I haven’t done it at least in part because I cannot stand the name “Life Lesson.” The idea would be to write about a single lesson we can learn from an athlete — not some hazy and nebulous thing like “Be a good sport,” or “Give 110%” but something a bit more real. I just spent some time with Tom Watson and thought: “I ought to try that Life Lesson” thing again. So, what the heck, I’m trying it here. We’ll see where it goes.

Spent Wednesday evening having a public discussion with Tom Watson about his new book The Timeless Swing. I’ve done public events through the years with Tom … I’m beginning to think we should take our act on the road, go from town to town, spread the gospel of strong grips and good posture in golf.

The fun thing about our discussions, I think, is that (as Tom plainly understands) I know absolutely nothing about strong grips or good posture or downward planes or any of the stuff that Tom Watson knows as well as anybody in the world. I don’t play golf. I have not played a full round of golf since 1992. I didn’t actually play a full round of golf in 1992 either, but I almost did. I’ve told that story before.

What the heck? I’ll tell it again. I used to be sports columnist at The Augusta Chronicle, which was one of the stranger jobs in sportswriting. For fifty or fifty-one weeks a year, it was like any other job at a small-to-midsized newspaper. I would write a lot about high school sports, minor league baseball and local celebrities. During the fall, I wrote quite a lot about University of Georgia football, with a little Clemson and South Carolina football thrown in for good measure. Three or four times a year, I would go to Atlanta to write about the Braves or Falcons. It was a great job for a kid trying to figure out how to become a writer. I could make mistake after mistake and people in Augusta were generally forgiving and offered helpful advice.

But one week a year, I was center stage for one of the biggest sporting events in the world. This was before the Internet got hopping, so basically we were it. Golf fans who came to town, golf journalists from around the world — DAN JENKINS and HERBERT WARREN WIND, for crying out loud — the CBS TV people, the golfers (Jack Nicklaus called me by name!) all of them read our paper. Which meant they were forced to read me. Which meant for one week I was absurdly, comically overmatched.

Well, one of the other features of working at the Chronicle was that one day a year they let us who covered the Masters play Augusta National. They did not let us play until the end of May, when the course was just about used up (you may not have known this but they actually close down Augusta National during the summer when the heat rolls in). But it’s still an amazing perk, obviously. And it was completely wasted on me. I don’t play golf. I wandered out there with my starter set of golf clubs — a driver, a 3-wood, the odd irons, a wedge of some sort, two putters (one a putter that helped me finish second at a local putt-putt tournament) — and with a swing I had tried to fashion out of Ben Hogan’s Five Principles and two buckets of balls at a local driving range. It was every bit as disastrous as you might imagine. As I tell people — and this is absolute truth — on the first hole I somehow managed to get the ball to the fringe without breaking anything. From the fringe I five-putted. FIVE putted. This means that if they had put the tee on the fringe for me, I would have bogeyed the hole.

In addition to my general golfing incompetence, there was something else. One of my best friends, Greg Barrett, was getting married the next day in Hilton Head. Greg was a terrific feature writer at the Chronicle then — he has since written this amazing book about Father Joe Maier and his work in Bangkok — and he was marrying the awesome Margaret, and they were such a beautiful couple that, honest truth, the photo on Greg’s desk looked exactly like the photo that comes with the picture frame. Everybody said that. Well, Greg wanted to play Augusta National too so the plan was for us to play the round and then get to Hilton Head by that night.

The one hitch to the plan was that we needed to catch a ferry to go where we needed to go — it was apparently my job to make sure to get Greg to the church on time — and the last ferry of the day was at something like 7 p.m. So even under the best of circumstances we were cutting it pretty tight. And, of course, with me playing golf there was no way we were dealing with the best of circumstances. As I shot eight after eight, it became clear that we were not going to make the ferry if we played the full 18 holes.

And so that’s how I got to play 16 holes at Augusta National. Yep. Friends start crying when I tell them this. But when I got the chance to play Augusta National, I left after 16 holes to get a friend to a wedding. I have a feeling Rory McIllroy would have liked to do the same.

Of course, I wrote about my round in the paper because, for someone like me, what would be the point of playing Augusta National if I couldn’t write about it? Various members, seeing my honest recap, made the entirely sensible suggestion that I not play Augusta National ever again. I think the original suggestion was that I not be allowed back in the state of Georgia. But we cut a deal, and so I have not played a round of golf since my 16 holes at Augusta National.*

*People ask me if I will play golf again, and I say: “Yes, when I find a better golf course.”

It’s possible that I might start playing a bit of golf for reasons that I will explain soon. But the whole point of this is that I don’t know the game at all, certainly not from a playing perspective. And yet, I find listening to Tom Watson talk about golf utterly fascinating. I think it’s because I do believe that there are life lessons in sports … not vague, ethereal life lessons that barely mean anything at all but direct, practical life lessons.

For instance, my favorite bit from Wednesday’s conversation with Tom was when he talked about how every shot counts in golf. I was asking him about Rory McIlroy’s self-destruction at Augusta, and he said that he wished Rory had fought harder. “I never once saw Jack Nicklaus give away a stroke,” he said. The key to golf is that if you are on pace to shoot 80, you have to try to shoot 79. If you are on pace to shoot 90, you have to try to shoot 89.

And, Tom makes clear, this is not just about making the best of the situation. No, this is about defining who you are as a person. “When you’re hitting the ball well,” he says, “it’s EASY. … And golf is not supposed to be easy.” The most successful people, Tom believes, are the ones who can stay fully committed to the moment, who will be dedicated to do their best even after it’s clear that things are not going to work out as well as they had hoped or planned.

Tom told the story of Byron Nelson, after shooting a 72, griping about what a terrible round he’d played at the Masters. He’d only hit six greens in regulation. He was hacking the ball all over the place. He was grumbling afterward that it was as bad as he could remember playing. And his friend Eddie Lowery, who was Francis Ouimet’s 10-year-old caddy when he won Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open, said: “On the contrary, this was the FINEST round you have ever played. Because you played that badly and you STILL shot a 72.”

That, to Tom Watson, is the gold standard. Most days in life, you are not going to shoot 63. You just aren’t. The wind will be blowing. The ball will bounce funny. The putt will hit a spike mark. Life is simply not set up for five-for-five days at the plate, for 19-of-21 shooting days, for hat tricks and four-sack days and rounds with 10 birdies. If you’re lucky, you will have a few of those days in your life, days when everything seems to click, Ferris Bueller’s day off. And those days are to be enjoyed, cherished, but that’s not real life.

Real life is shooting 72 when you hit only six greens. Every shot counts.

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Goodell To The Last Drop

In the point after of this week’s SI, I wrote a little something about Bud Selig … and how people cannot help but underestimate him. This has to do with Bud’s almost mythical ability to look baffled. Who can forget the Bud after the All-Star Game tie? Who can forget his rambling press conference when he held up the rule book after the rain-delayed World Series game? Who can forget … well, he’s just Bud. One day, he will come out and say that maybe Abner Doubleday did invent baseball and he will come out another day and say that he had never even heard of steroids until two weeks ago and so on.

But Bud Selig has utterly transformed baseball. I’m not saying he’s always transformed it for the better. That’s a discussion for another time. But at the end of the day, baseball has been transformed — expansion, wildcards, interleague play, increased revenue sharing, drug testing, relative labor peace, new stadiums, All-Star games that determine homefield advantage, the World Baseball Classic, on and on. Maybe baseball stumbled into some of these things. Maybe it was pulled kicking and screaming. But this stuff happened. And Bud, unquestionably, was a force behind this stuff happening. He works the back rooms. He coaxes and ponders and considers. And sometimes he boldly acts. When he rushed in and took the Dodgers away from Frank McCourt, he was not really doing anything out of character. Bud Selig might be the most influential baseball commissioner ever.

But he does not SEEM that way, does he? He just does not present that sort of image. You know that story about the difference between a schlemiel and schlimazel — the schlemiel is the guy who spill the soup, and the schlimazel is the guy who gets the soup spilled on him. Bud Selig seems like, well, both.

I bring this up now for an entirely different reason: Roger Goodell is clearly no schlemiel or schlimazel. Roger Goodell looks, as the cliche goes, right out of central casting. He’s a powerful looking guy, fills out a suit, gives every impression of being in charge at every moment of every day. If you were in a group stuck on an elevator with Roger Goodell, there is no question he would be in charge even if you had CEOs of companies and three-star generals. There are just people who exude authority, people who will walk down the street and people will just know that they are CEO of something or other. Goodell has that aura.

But, while watching this NFL labor mess, something has occurred to me, something that cuts completely against looks and aura and everything else. It has occurred to me that Roger Goodell might about 20,000 leagues over his head. It has occurred to me that while Bud Selig is destined to be underestimated because of the way he carries himself, that Roger Goodell is destined to be overestimated for exactly the same reason.

Here’s my thinking: The owners, under Goodell’s leadership, decided to go for broke as they try to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. They did this at a time when the NFL is, by far, the most successful sports league in America, perhaps the world. They did this at a time when the league is a $9 billion entity, when television networks are sending flowers and chocolate, and when reports are coming out constantly about the horrible damage football does to its players. Goodell, in representing the owners, had the gall to cry poor, to demand a billion more right off the top for their billionaire owners, to say that the game could not possibly continue like this, to take money away from players who seem to be dying young and suffering terribly in later years, to actually demand expanding the season.

At this point, the feeling had to be that Goodell knew what he was doing. The NFL is on some kind of crazy winning streak when it comes to building the game — pro football just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Heck, the NFL DRAFT is now one of the biggest sporting events on the calendar. And that’s just a bunch of people in a room writing names on index cards. The league seems invulnerable to harm, and destined only to get richer and more popular and more powerful. On top of that, Goodell just embodies confidence and certainty. If the league officials figured this was the time to take a bunch of money away from the players, hey, who could argue with their record.

Still, there were signs early on that things were not going as planned. In sports’ work stoppages, at least in my view, the majority of Americans automatically tend to side with the owners … or anyway they tend to side AGAINST the players. I think the reasons for this are involved and complicated and worthy of a 10,000-word post of its own. But generally people seem to get angrier at the players they know than the silhouettes of the owners they don’t.

But not in this case. Oh, sure, there were plenty who blamed the players, almost out of habit. More than usual, though, seemed to realize that the players were not really asking for anything. It was the owners shrieking that the system was irreparably broken, that they needed more money, that they needed to add games, that they were in big trouble. And when the players asked them open the books and actually PROVE they were in any sort of trouble at all, well, suddenly crickets chirped.

So I think many people blamed the owners for this whole fight. I know I did. I think the NFL owners already have by far the best deal in sports and are driven by pure greed to get more. Roger Goodell’s attempts to change this perception seemed to me pretty pathetic and unconvincing. He kept trying to call the attempt to add two games to the regular season a mere “reconfiguring” of the schedule (and he kept saying the fans wanted it though every poll suggested that fans overwhelmingly did not). He kept talking in vague generalities about the financial doom that the league would face if they did not rework the CBA … and nobody really believed him. He sent what seemed to me an ill-conceived letter to the players association. He sent what seemed to me a ridiculous letter to the fans. And, as expected, he presided over a lockout of the players.

Right now, that lockout looks to be the most self-destructive move a league has made in a long, long time. The lockout was enjoined by a judge on Monday, meaning it’s now over. The league is appealing Judge Nelson’s ruling, but from what I can tell the league’s appeal seems on shaky ground, and as our own Michael McCann says the league now has a whole lot to worry about. The players, assuming the ruling is not overturned, now have serious negotiating power. The owners, assuming the ruling is not overturned, now have a serious problem convincing anyone that they aren’t already overflowing in money. This thing has a chance to become a major embarrassment for the NFL owners … and perhaps more than just an embarrassment. It could be a financial catastrophe.

And based on Goodell’s letter to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. it looks like the impressive NFL commissioner is completely out of ideas. I wrote on Twitter that the only thing missing from this ludicrous letter was exclamation points. You could tell right away that this letter was untrustworthy when in the second sentence he wrote “For six weeks, there has been a work stoppage,” as if that was caused by some sort of natural disaster and was not a result of the owners locking out the players. He then talks about how great the NFL system has been for everyone without even taking one sentence to mention the inconvenient fact that it was the owners, not the players, who wanted to blow up the old system in a bald money grab. He then offers an utterly unrealistic and devious doomsday scenario “if the players win,” which he knows will never happen and is only in play now because of the owners greedy lockout that was slammed down by the courts.

It all screamed of desperation and, frankly, it felt a bit incompetent too. If Bud Selig ever wrote a stroy like that, people would be pulling out their torches and pitchforks. Roger Goodell is undoubtedly a brilliant guy, and he has a strong history with the league, and he is trying to represent a a group of very different owners who probably resent they have to give ANY of their money for the players. But that’s the job of commissioner, and right now it looks like Goodell is flailing.

Of course, maybe he isn’t. Maybe he has expected everything that has happened and has contingency plans that are not easily seen now. Maybe everything is going exactly according to plan. I have mentioned that I am reading Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate” about Lyndon Johnson, and the amazing thing about LBJ as Senator was how he manipulated people without them knowing it, how sometimes he wanted bills he supported to fail, and how sometimes he wanted people he differed with on his side, and how he had a clear plan that he did not want anyone to see until it was too late.

Maybe Goodell is like that too. That is is certainly the reputation he has built in many quarters. I am beginning to think, though, that reputation is way, way off. Bud Selig is clearly much more effective and authoritative than he lets on. I can’t help but wonder if Roger Goodell is exactly the opposite.

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