By In Stuff

Poscast with my baseball hero

The Poscast with Duane Kuiper

There’s a baseball bat in my office that I sometimes pick up when stuck between paragraphs. I don’t swing the bat, at least not at full speed. No, I put it up against my shoulder and walk around with it for a little while. I let it quiver behind my head as I imagine standing in against fastballs. After a while, I put the bat down and return to my writing. I could say that the bat helps me think, a wooden muse, but that’s not exactly right. I could say the bat clarifies things in my head, sharpens them, and that’s true … but no that’s not quite right either. The bat reminds me exactly why I do this … and maybe why someone keeps paying me to do it … and maybe why I got so lucky.

* * *

One of the wonder of our games. I think, is that they are exactly as important or unimportant as you make them. A pitcher could throw a perfect game in the seventh game of the World Series, and it wouldn’t mean much of anything to my mother, for instance.* On the other hand, an intentional walk to Yuni Betancourt in a June Brewers-Marlins game might set me off on a 5,000-word post. It is not just perspective, it is commitment. It is all about how deeply you want to enter the world.

*Then again: what happens on Dancing With The Stars and American Idol means quite a lot to her, and absolutely nothing to me. All depends on your world.

When I was 10, I wrapped myself in the world of the 1977 Cleveland Indians. I don’t recall this being much of a choice, but looking back on it I guess it was a choice. Nobody I knew cared as much. Even though we were all 10 in school, there was a cynical strain running through the other kids in my class, and they mostly made the entirely sensible and terribly unromantic decision that the Indians were not worthy of their best hopes. Even by then, more than 30 years ago, the Indians had not been to the World Series in almost 25 years — an impossibly long stretch of time to a 10-year-old — and the last time Cleveland HAD reached the World Series it was upset and swept and humiliated by the New York Giants. The Indians were of great interest, of course, because we were kids, and they were our baseball team. But the other kids in school seemed to understand what I plainly did not … that the Cleveland Indians were not very good at baseball.

I pinned my hopes on them every year — full, unabashed, unchained hopes. I was not much into analysis. To me, Rick Waits could be Ron Guidry. Why couldn’t he? Rick Manning could be Fred Lynn. Buddy Bell could be George Brett. Jim Kern could be Goose Gossage. Charlie Spikes could be Dave Parker. I believed in the depth of potential, the certainty that any of us could wake up tomorrow and be someone else, someone better. I was, at the time, the shortest kid in class, the one wearing the thick glasses, the kid who so clearly wasn’t the smartest or the most athletic or most artistic or most musical or most anything.

But tomorrow, who knows? I kept believing in the power of tomorrow morning.

Duane Kuiper was my hero on those Indians teams. There was an uncomplicated reason for this. Kuip played second base and I played second base. When you are 10, you don’t need much more than that. The kid next door can be your best friend because … he’s the kid next door. Accessibility is 90% of everything when you are 10.

That said, I’m not sure that if I had played shortstop that Frank Duffy would have been my hero. There was something Duane Kuiper, something about the way he played baseball that deepened and strengthened the connection. I’ve tried to explain it before … Duane Kuiper, I feel quite certain, dived for more ground balls than any player of his era. Players would later tell me they called him “Step and a dive Kuiper,” and that matches my memory. He was ALWAYS on the ground. This seems kind of a funny thing now, a quirky thing, but then it only meant to me that Duane Kuiper cared more and made more plays than anyone else. It never occurred to me, not even once, that perhaps other second basemen, like the regal Frank White, were making the same plays standing up. I can assure you that no one in the South Euclid Little League dived for more ground balls than I did.

Duane’s weaknesses as a player have been well-covered on this blog. He could not get on base as often as you might hope for an every day player — his .325 career on-base percentage was below league average. He could not run particularly fast. His stolen base percentage — he stole 52 bases and was caught 71 times — is one of the worst in baseball history. Most famously, he hit one home run in a startlingly long career.

And yet, the career was long. Kuip got 1,000 games in the big leagues — more than any non-pitcher with one or fewer homers. Why did he play so long? I didn’t know for sure as a kid, but I’m sure I sensed it. Everybody loved Duane Kuiper. They loved how hard he played. They loved the cheerful attitude he brought with him to every game. They loved the knowledge that he would dive for every ground ball, and that he would almost always put the ball in play, and that he would play with everything he had all the time. It is human nature, I think, to lean to the C+ person who is giving everything over the B- person who is not. Duane Kuiper exuded joy and effort. For a 10-year-old boy entirely certain that he had been given no particular talents, that made Kuip everything I wanted to be.

* * *

I’ve written this before …  I never once, my entire childhood, had anyone tell me that I could write well. Not once. I know people in this crazy journalism business, a lot of them, who have always known their destiny, who started neighborhood newspapers when they were 3, who broke the story of lunchroom corruption when they were in the fifth grade, who wrote their first novel at 11. I meet more and more young people who know their destiny, and I admire and am even a bit jealous of their conviction.

Because no one ever told me that I could write, I was obsessed in my early journalism years with the concept of “talent.” I would ask myself (and anyone who would listen) the same question: Am I TALENTED enough to make a living as a sportswriter? The answers were generally unsatisfying. None of my closest friends knew any sportswriters. My parents did not know any sportswriters. And so, it was a foreign world for them. Was I talented enough? How would they know? I wasn’t a bad speller. I put too many commas in my sentences — cut down on those. Try not to use too many big words. Beyond that, though, none of them could really help me. Was I talented enough? The best plan, everyone agreed, seemed to be to keep doing it until they called me in and made me turn in my playbook.

But, it turns out, that plan was exactly right for me. It was the plan I had unknowingly learned from Duane Kuiper. See, he played in the big leagues without speed and without power, he played in the big leagues by showing up every day filled with energy and life and the stubbornness to dive for every ground ball, the hunger to put the ball in play over and over in the hopes that enough of them would squeeze through. Now, years later, I realize that THIS is talent too, maybe the most useful talent, the talent of the every day. I worked absurdly hard … I really did. I read everything. I wrote constantly. I traveled as far away as they would let me, to the smallest towns they could find, to write the stories that would appeal to the fewest people. And I did it all joyfully, because in time I found that I loved writing about as much as Duane Kuiper loved baseball. That was my talent. I loved this stuff.

I once heard Bruce Springsteen talk about the story behind one of his songs. And when he finished explaining the song, line for line, he said something like this: “How much of this was I actively thinking when I wrote the song? None of it. But how much of it was INSIDE me when I wrote this song? All of it.” That’s what I think about my connection to Duane Kuiper. I was just a short 10-year-old kid with glasses who lived in Cleveland. Had I grown up in Kansas City, I’m sure my hero would have been Frank White. Had I grown up in New York, it would have been Willie Randolph. Had I grown up in Boston, it might have been Rick Burleson. So when I flopped around and pretended to be Duane Kuiper day after day — in the backyard, in my basement, on the diamond-hard Little League fields of Bexley Park — I was not thinking about how much that connection would shape my life.

But all of it was inside me. I’m a prisoner of narrative — one of the hazards of the job, I suppose — but I remain convinced that a part of how I ended up doing what I’m doing and living the lucky life I live was that when I was a kid I watched Duane Kuiper play baseball and wanted to be just like him.

* * *

It was inevitable, I suppose, that Duane Kuiper would find out that he was my hero. I mean, I wrote about it a lot. Duane, as longtime announcer for the Giants, was certain to hear about it.

Duane is an extremely modest man … he knows exactly what kind of player he was. And, at the same time, I think he takes a lot of pride in his career, as he should. He played in the big leagues! How many people can say that? What’s more, he STARTED in the big leagues! Of all the kids in the world who play baseball, he was one of the few to reach the pinnacle, to really live the dream, and he loved it, every minute of it.

And, deep down, I think most ballplayers, maybe even all ballplayers, would love to think that they inspired someone. I would love to ask Barry Bonds that question. He seemed so bitter at times, so angry at times, so cheated at times … but deep down I can’t help but wonder: Didn’t he want to believe that there was a kid out there — maybe a bitter kid, maybe an angry kid, maybe a kid who felt cheated by life — who watched him play and was inspired and became something he might not have otherwise become? Corny, sure, but don’t we all wish that just a little bit?

I know Duane wished it. In a long history of baseball players, Duane Kuiper does not stand out except for the single home run he hit off Steve Stone. But in his own history, in his own life, his is a remarkable story. He is the son of a Wisconsin dairy farmer. To this day, he wakes up early every morning. He worked hard on the farm, and he worked hard at baseball, making himself the best player he could become. I know Duane wished that there was someone, maybe a few someones, out there who were just a little bit inspired by his story.

A year or so ago, a long tubular package came by mail. It was in my office when I first saw it. I opened it up … and inside was a Duane Kuiper used bat. He thought I might like it.

Whenever I’m stuck between paragraphs, I pick up that bat and let it remind me … of something … something as important to me as just about anything.

* * *

This week, as mentioned, the Poscast is with Duane Kuiper. Among the many great bits her shared was this: Duane is almost certainly the only player of recent vintage, probably ever, to seriously consider failing a physical so that he could stay in Cleveland. He is, undoubtedly, the only person to get married in Hawaii and honeymoon in Cleveland. He is also the greatest guy in the world; there’s no better feeling than having your hero live up to all your expectations and go beyond.

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Who Will Stand Up For Manny?

Peter over at Cleveland Frowns has a passionate post about Manny Ramirez and the Hall of Fame, and it made me think about Lyndon Johnson. This, I suspect, gives you a pretty good idea about how my ridiculous mind works and why I didn’t get many dates as a young man.

In truth, I’m reading Robert Caro’s amazing and mesmerizing “Master of the Senate” about Johnson … and so just about EVERYTHING I hear at the moment makes me think about Lyndon Johnson, which makes it hard to read children’s books to the kids.*

*”And then the guy who wouldn’t eat Green Eggs and Ham, um, arranged for a filibuster by promising to vote with the pork states and then raised trumped up charges of Sam I Am being a communist.”

There’s a great baseball story in the book, by the way … Johnson, as you probably know, was frighteningly ambitious. I mean FRIGHTENINGLY ambitious. When he won his seat on the Senate (blatantly stealing votes to get there) he had every intention of skipping ahead, beating the seniority rules that defined the Senate, taking over the joint. But how? Well, one of his main objectives was to win over Georgia Senator Richard Russell — Johnson had figured out early that it was Russell who wielded more power in the Senate than any other.

Russell, it seems, was a huge baseball fan. He loved the Washington Senators (of course). According to Caro, Russell had the Senators up-to-the-minute batting averages in his mind every day.

Well, as you probably guessed already, before too long Lyndon Johnson would be seen out at Senators baseball games with Richard Russell often. In fact, it happened so often that when Russell was asked about it, he explained that he liked Johnson quite a lot. “We’re both baseball fans,” Russell said.

The punchline? At one point, future Texas Governor and Secretary of the Navy John Connally, then a Johnson aide, said in a teasing way: “I see you’ve become a baseball fan.” Connally knew that Johnson had never liked baseball or any other sport — his only connection to baseball was, as a kid, owning the only good baseball in his hometown, which he would take home whenever they did not let him pitch.

Johnson smiled and said to Connally: “You know I’ve always loved baseball.”

In any case, it seems to me that one of the overriding themes of Lyndon Johnson’s life — all his life, really, but especially his time in the Senate — was that he bullied his ambitions through. He destroyed people. He flattered people. Sometimes he flattered AND destroyed the same people. He was outsized … there was, best I can tell, no gray area with Lyndon Johnson and no tact with Lyndon Johnson and no subtlety with Lyndon Johnson. He wanted something, he went after it with almost cartoon-like fury. That to me is one of the real revelations of the book … and of power. In sports, we talk about one team wanting something more than another. It’s a cliche in sports and I think it’s only occasionally true. But in politics, I think it tends to be true pretty often. Lyndon Johnson always wanted things more than his opponents. He was always willing to go a little bit deeper, a little bit meaner, a little bit edgier. And he won.

Manny Ramirez is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. I wrote a quick column on him when he retired, and made note of the fact that Manny Ramirez is the only player in baseball history to hit .310 or better with 525 homers and 525 doubles. You can always have fun with numbers … like so:

Only player to slug .650 or better: Babe Ruth.

Only player to have .480 or higher OBP: Ted Williams.

Only player to hit 140 triples and 500 home runs: Willie Mays.

Only player to score 2,000 runs, drive in 2,000 runs and get 3,000 hits: Hank Aaron.

Only player to hit 400 homers and steal 400 bases: Barry Bonds.*

*He’s the only member of 500/500 club too.

Only player to hit 700 doubles, 150 triples and 400 home runs: Stan Musial.

Only player to hit one homer with 300 runs and 250 RBIs: Next Poscast guest Duane Kuiper.

And so on. Every player is unique in some way. Still, the 525 homer, 525 double club is pretty exclusive — there are only five members (Aaron, Bonds, Palmeiro, Frank Robinson and MannyBManny). Raise the career average to .300 and there are only two — MannyBManny and Hank Aaron. Raise the average to .310 and Manny stands alone.

And, convoluted as the numbers may be (and as much as they say about the offensive era when he played), they numbers do say SOMETHING about how hard Ramirez hit baseballs for 17 or so years. He was a great hitter … one of the greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history. By OPS+ he is tied for 11th on that right-handed hitters list with Frank Robinson. By runs created, he’s eighth on the all-time list, just behind A-Rod. By WAR Runs, he’s seventh between Albert Pujols and Robinson. The guy could hit like few in baseball history.

Of course, nobody denies that. The question being asked a lot is what Manny Ramirez’s legacy should be … more specifically: Should he go into the Baseball Hall of Fame?

I’m not as interested in the question as I am in something else … the LJF … the “Lyndon Johnson Factor.” Because it seems to me there are two sides to the MannyBManny argument, but there’s really only side being argued passionately.

Side 1: Manny Ramirez was a great baseball player and, as such, should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Side 2: Many Ramirez tested positive for PEDs twice and is an embarrassment and a sham and should definitely not be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Even as I express the basic viewpoints of each side, you probably noticed something … there’s a whole lot more passion on Side 2. There’s a clarity, a focus, a rage to the anti-Manny crowd that is simply not there on the pro-Manny crowd. Best I can tell even the people who think Manny absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame tend to hem and haw a bit (which is why I like Peter’s piece because there’s no hemming … no hawing). Nobody, except maybe Steve Phillips, wants to come out as pro steroids in today’s world.

So the LJF here leans HEAVILY anti-Manny (and the other PED candidates). If you have two guys in a room, and one thinks Manny Ramirez belongs in the Hall and the other thinks he doesn’t, the second almost unquestionably will be louder, more forceful, more certain. The second almost unquestionably will go deeper, meaner, edgier. The second will hammer home that steroids are wrong, that cheaters do not belong in the Hall of Fame, that it would set a terrible example for kids, that it would be disgraceful …

You could counter these arguments, of course, counter perhaps that the “steroids are wrong” argument is fraught with contradictions and illogical turns, that there are plenty of cheaters prominently and proudly in the Hall of Fame (cheating has long been a celebrated part of baseball), that the bad-example-for-kids argument is lazy and is the one people tend to go to when they’ve mostly run out of ideas. But none of those counters has much punch — nuance doesn’t have much punch. When Lyndon Johnson was destroying Leland Olds in a confirmation hearing, he kept saying: “I want a simple yes or no answer.” Olds replied that the question was too complicated for a yes or no. Olds was technically right. But Lyndon Johnson won.

So … who will stand up for Manny? Who will stand up for Mark McGwire? Who will stand up for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro, not to mention the players who have never been accused of steroid use except through shadowy whispers? They all have different stories, different levels of likability, their Hall of Fame cases feature different shades of gray, but who will stand up for all of them?

Who will come out and say that baseball is a game, played by imperfect men who since the very beginning have pushed the boundaries and broken the rules to win? Who will shout passionately that the Baseball Hall of Fame should be a place where the very best baseball players are enshrined? Who in this Viagra commercial world, in this side-effects-include-death-and-dismemberment country, in this play-to-win-or-face-the-wrath culture, who will say that using steroids or HGH to become a better, healthier, wealthier, more powerful baseball player is cheating but also maybe not worthy of lifelong excommunication.

Who? Nobody. Not now. The passion is on the side of the accusers. The sense of purpose is on the side of the righteous. To the true believers go the spoils.

Manny Ramirez was a great hitter, and he was a notable figure, and he was one of the most colorful and talked about players of his time. He inspired as many thrills and shouts and laughs and barroom discussions as any baseball player of the last 20 years. He led the Cleveland Indians to a resurgence fans had waited 40 years to feel and Boston to a World Series that had passed by three generations of New England fans.

And there is talk, serious talk, that he might not even get the 5% necessary to stay on the Hall of Fame ballot (forget him actually getting INTO the Hall through the writers). The argument against Manny Ramirez is being made daily and furiously and with the sort of political conviction that eliminates opposition. Lyndon Johnson used to say, when faced with an important vote, “I don’t want to guess how it will turn out. I want to KNOW.” With MannyBManny, we know.

But … who will stand up for Manny?

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The Poscast with Bill James

OK, the new Poscast is up … our first installment with (I hope) semi-regular co-host Bill James.

Here is the Poscast on iTunes.

And here it is at Sports Illustrated.

A couple of things. One, we are hoping to make a quantum leap forward in sound quality with this coming week’s Poscast. We now have a lot of sound equipment, and while I suspect we may have to take the stuff out of their boxes, I am told that this will make the sound next week much better. Like everything with the Poscast, it’s a work in progress. The Poscast with Bill James this week was done under less-than-ideal circumstances — in Augusta, with a less-than-stellar Internet connection — so I hope that the great stuff Bill is saying will make up for any sound quality gaps.

Two, I can tell you that it is my hope to have two regular co-hosts — regular the way Charo was a “regular” guest on The Love Boat. I’m hoping, for instance, that the next month will look like follows:

April 18: Special guest (and if I get who I’m trying to get, it will be INCREDIBLE*).
April 25: Poscast with Michael Schur.
May 2: Special guest (again, potentially incredible).
May 9: Poscast with Bill James

*At least for me.

I’m kind of hoping that each month will look something like that — incredible guest, Michael Schur, incredible guest, Bill James and so on.

This week’s Poscast I talk with Bill about college hoops, the meaning of bad starts, how well past performance predicts future and a bunch of other fun things. Bill also reiterates my own belief that we all think baseball is at its most perfect when you are 10 years old. Bill, as you might expect, puts it in better words.

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I know Tara Sullivan a little bit. We have several of the same friends, and because of this we have gone to several dinners together. I like her very much. We have talked quite a lot about Springsteen and family and her father, who grew up with George Carlin. She’s good company.

On Sunday, after the Masters ended, I found myself in a small pack of reporters chasing around the crumbled but proud figure that was Rory McIlroy. He had shot a miserable 80 and, after leading the Masters for three rounds, had dropped to 15th. He was very willing to talk — I was so impressed with the way he handled himself — but at Augusta National they make nothing easy so they had him talk for three minutes by the 18th green, then cut him off, then had him talk another two minutes by the clubhouse, cut him off, and finally they allowed him to speak another eight or nine minutes inside the clubhouse locker room. He was shocked and introspective, human and defiant, and I came away hoping he wins the next 10 majors.

In any case, as I was walking out I noticed that Bill Plaschke of the L.A. Times was talking with Tara, giving her a few of the quotes. I did not think much of it. I drove to Atlanta.

One thing I DEFINITELY did not think in 2011 was that Tara needed the quotes because she had been barred from the locker room because she is a woman. But, alas, this is what happened. Apparently, this was because of a “misunderstanding.”

My point in this post is not the sexist policies of the Augusta National … I’m pretty sure there will be no movement in how people feel about those. But I should pause for a moment to say that “misunderstanding,” seems the wrong word choice here. Restrictive clubs do not have misunderstandings. They have policies they hope nobody will challenge. They have neanderthal views they mostly cloak in public and happily and pompously share behind closed doors — after those closed doors are locked. Yes, they make the rare exceptions to their restrictive policies to keep things legal — women reporters ARE, in fact, supposed to be allowed in the locker rooms during the Masters; longtime golf writer Melanie Hauser has been there often. I suspect that memo doesn’t always get circulated.

The Club, as is its legal right, is an openly and defiantly misogynistic club … its members once broadcast the Masters without commercials rather than allow their beloved sponsors to face the wrath of fair-minded people who believe that maybe 90 or so years after women got the vote in this country, America’s most beloved and sought after private golf club might consider inviting a woman or two to join in all its reindeer games.

I also have to admit I have a hard time building up much rage about the Augusta women membership issue. I don’t want my daughters to face closed doors and glass ceilings in their life. That’s one of the driving purposes of my life. On the other hand, I REALLY don’t want them to be members of Augusta National. A ludicrously rich group of men will not invite a ludicrously rich woman to join their ludicrously exclusive club with its shameful history of denying anyone even slightly different? That’s not in my world.

But this — not allowing a woman to do her job because she’s a woman? That is in my world. And excluding women is not a “misunderstanding” at Augusta. The word is laughable. Excluding women is a policy. It’s an overriding theme of the place. Should the guard have known that women reporters during Masters week are an exception to that policy of no women allowed. I would hope so. Maybe she was told and forgot. Maybe not. But you know how they say it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. At Augusta National it’s easier to bar women first and declare misunderstandings later.

But, again, revisiting Augusta National’s close-mindedness is not my point here. No, my point is Tara, and the dignified way she handled this. And, more, some of the reaction to that. The comments. One of the touchstone issues of our era are the comments below stories you see on the Internet. They are sometimes vile, hateful, racist and sexist. They are sometimes mean-spirited, vicious, anonymous and cold-hearted. The are sometimes so crude and painful that you can’t help but hope that you do not live next door to any of these people.

I can remember The Kansas City Star once writing a story about the employees who had been laid off because of the terrible new economics of the newspaper industry. These were my friends, many of them, good people who work hard and have families and didn’t deserve that sort of terrible blow in their lives. Below the story was comment after comment from giddy, grotesque and anonymous people crowing that those people deserved to be fired because the Star is such a terrible newspaper. And my heart ached.

I’m not sure what it is about comments that can bring out such terrible words from people. Anonymity, maybe? The ease of typing? I must admit that I’ve watched in wonder the comments in this blog because they are almost always (and I mean 99.9%) well reasoned, thoughtful and overwhelmingly kind. I don’t just say that because of the nice things people say about me, though I obviously appreciate those. Even when people disagree or don’t like something, it’s most often done in the spirit of generosity. When someone steps over a line, other commenters almost always step in and say we don’t want that kind of viciousness here. We don’t need it. Go comment somewhere else. And, surprisingly often, the angry commenter will step back, perhaps even apologize. People often ask me why I dedicate so much of myself to the writing on this blog, why I write my heart out for it, and the answer is too complicated to explain (maybe even too complicated for me to understand) but one of the core reasons are the commenters, your intelligence, your friendliness, your thoughtful points both for and against. As my Dad likes to say, “Boy do you have smart commenters.” I feel lucky that we have our own little corner of the Internet.

But I also realize that it is a small corner. I almost never read the comments below stories anywhere else because they can depress me to the point where I don’t want to leave the house.

Well, I read Tara’s recap of the Augusta National saga. And the thing that struck me about it was its undeniable reasonableness. There was no shouting in it. No exclamation points. No Norma Rae sign holding. There was not even any anger, and she deserved some anger. You could tell, without even knowing Tara, that she wished more than anything that this hadn’t happened. You could tell that she wanted nothing more than being allowed to do her job. You could tell by the simple way she explained what had happened.

She was in our group of reporters following Rory McIlroy into the locker room — I did not see her, she was apparently in the back of the group. She was stopped by a female security guard and told she was not allowed in. Tara tried to explain that she needed to go in, that this was her job. She was told again no. She looked for a Masters official and could not find one. She did not make a scene. She did not start a fight. She simply waited outside and, as I saw, got the quotes from Bill Plaschke. Other reporters offered her the quotes as well.

Then she went back to her desk and tweeted this: “Bad enough no women members at Augusta. But not allowing me to join writers in locker room interview is just wrong.”

That’s all. A simple tweet. Tara was all so utterly reasonable that people around her want to be ANGRY FOR HER. In her recap, she gave Augusta National a full opportunity to apologize and call it a misunderstanding. And in fact when Augusta DID apologize, Tara broke away from her deadline story (she wrote a fine piece about McIlroy) and gave Augusta National two tweets.

In her wrap-up, she explained — as she should not have to explain — that barring a woman from doing her job in America is illegal (she didn’t even get into it being immoral). She did not explain that there was nobody else in the locker room, and that McIlroy was only going in there to pick up some mail and things. She was not just fair in her recap, she was OVER THE EDGE fair, like a referee swallowing the whistle in the final minute of an NBA game. I don’t see how there could be any reaction other than “Good on ya, Tara.”

The second comment below her story asked if men are allowed in WNBA locker rooms (of course we are).

The third comment had the amazing sentence, “This nonsense about equality goes a little too far sometimes.”

The seventh comment questioned why Tara wanted even more information, as if her reporter instincts were off.

The ninth comment appeared to be a word representing someone crying.

A comment from the much-beloved philosopher Shortbusdriver, makes the perfunctory point: “You got what you needed. End of discussion.”

There you go. Shortbusdriver says, “End of discussion.” That pretty much closes this thing out, right? Hey, Shortbusdriver said so. There are others like that, angrier and angrier as they go. And some of the comments, at least according to one commenter, were taken down. I can only imagine how bright those comments must have been.

I know that Tara has gotten a lot of support from people. I know many, many people have contacted her to stand with her. Still, I wonder sometimes what these comments say about the world where we live. I wonder how Shortbusdriver or anyone else would handle that sort of open, in your face discrimination … being told openly that you are not worthy of the same rights as everyone else, you cannot do your job like everyone else, because, after all, you are a woman or black or Jewish or Catholic or blue eyed or Harrison Ford. I wonder because, hey, these people are this angry NOW …

Last week, when Butler played VCU during the Final Four game, I happened to be sitting near a very loud Butler fan. And all game long he screamed at the officials. It was non-stop. “Where’s the traveling call, ref? … How could you miss that foul? … That’s over the back … When are you going to call this thing fairly? … Why won’t you let them play? … When are you going to make a call?” On and on and on and on. I’ve heard people yell at officials pretty much all my life, but I can never remember hearing anyone so determined.

At some point, I started to wonder what motivates someone like that. What could possibly keep him screaming? Is he unhappy with his life? Does he have terrible frustrations he needs to unload? Is he an amateur referee who simply cannot abide bad calls? As the game went on, it became clearer and clearer that Butler was going to win, but his anger to the referees never subsided. It never even diminished. In the last minute, with Butler up by nine, he was still yelling at the referees, just as loud, just as intently, with the same fury.

I was pretty close to going up to him to ask why he kept yelling. I was really interested. But I had work to do and anyway I suspect he wouldn’t have given me much of an answer. He might have punched me in the face. He probably would have thought I was making fun of him. But I was really curious and I am really curious: What is it that drives people to be so angry? Maybe it’s just the fog of the times. Maybe, in the end, we all just want to be heard.

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The Best To Never Win A Major

You have no doubt heard the stories of hyperinflation in German in the early 1920s after World War I — no doubt heard how people would have to carry their money in wheelbarrows and suitcases and how a loaf of bread would cost you 200 billion marks.*

*You can only imagine how much Mach 3 razor blades cost.

In a weird way, that’s what Tiger Woods did to golf majors the last 10 or 15 years, at least for himself. On June 16, 2008, he won his 14th major championship … and the assumption was that he would not only break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 but race by that record without even pausing to take pictures. Scott Michaux, the fine columnist for The Augusta Chronicle, predicted then that Woods would break Jack’s record at the very Masters that they are playing now, and that was a perfectly reasonable prediction at the time. Five majors? What is five majors to Tiger Woods?

Of course, a lot has happened to Tiger since that final round at the U.S. Open — surgery, scandal, swing changes, and so on. One thing that has not happened … he has not won a major championship. He still needs five major championships to get Nicklaus.

There are many who still expect him to get it. He might get it. He’s in contention here at Augusta after a spectacular Friday back nine — though Saturday he looked considerably less steady. Once you know Augusta and have conquered it, as Jack Nicklaus proved until he was well into his 50s, as Fred Couples proves often, you can contend here anytime, for a long time.

But the point here is not to once again rehash the Tiger Woods debate but instead to remember just how hard it is for everyone else to win even a single major championship. Tom Kite won one major. Lanny Wadkins won one major. Gene Littler … Robert De Vicenzo … there’s a reason I’m listing just these men: They are all in the golf Hall of Fame. Outside of the Hall of Fame, there are many others — too many to list — who have been great players, terrific players, and won just one major championship in their entire career: Fred Couples; Davis Love; Jim Furyk; Tommy Bolt; Ken Venturi; David Duval; Paul Azinger; Craig Stadler; Lloyd Mangrum; Tom Weiskopf; on and on and on.

Or you can put it another way: Other than Tiger Woods, the only golfers to start at this year’s Masters with multiple majors were Phil Mickelson (4), Vijay Singh (3), Ernie Els (3), Padraig Harrington (3), Retief Goosen (2), Angel Cabrera (2) and Jose Maria Olazabal (2). If you win one major championship, golf fans will never forget you. If you win two, you might be a golfing legend. If you win three, you ARE a legend.

And there are more than a few terrific golfers who never won a major. We are in the midst of an absolutely fascinating Masters weekend, with young golfers and old golfers, with Tiger roaring again, but the two guys who strike me now are semi-contenders Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood because they have been wonderful golfers for a while now … and neither one has won a major championship. In fact, I feel quite sure that they are already two of the 10 best players to never win a major championship.

Which, of course, led to me making a list: The 10 best golfers to never win a major.

10. Norman Von Nida

He was an often overlooked star of golf … he grew up in Australia and came of age in his game just as World War II was raging. After the war ended, he came over to Europe and finished second in the Order of Merit. The following year, he led the Order of Merit. In 1948, he won the British Masters, the Australian PGA and he would win the Australian Open three times. He finished Top 6 in the British Open in 1946, ’47 and ’48 … his best finish was third.

He apparently had a famously hot temper … he once almost got into a fight with Henry Ransom during a tournament in Australia and the police had to be called in. He also was fairly well known for throwing his putters into the woods after they failed him on putts. But he lived to be 93 and generously gave time to young golfers in his later years.

9. Harvie Ward

He was one of the great amateur golfers ever — he won the British Amateur in 1952 and won back-to-back U.S. Amateurs in 1955 and 1956. He was low amateur at the Masters three times and at the U.S. Open once. He never lost a Walker Cup match. He also teamed up with Ken Venturi in a match against Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson in what Venturi would later call, “the best golf I’ve ever seen.”

Ward decided to stay an amateur through his prime — though a mixup briefly cost him his amateur status — but he did become a pro later, and he was Payne Stewart’s swing coach. He finished fourth at the Masters in 1957.

8. Jumbo Ozaki

He won more than 100 times around the world — 94 of those on the Japanese Tour — but he only played in a dozen major championships before he turned 40. He never really came close to winning a major championship (his best finish was sixth place at the 1989 U.S. Open) but in Japan he was widely viewed as unbeatable. He was a controversial figure in world golf, as best told in this classic story by John Garrity.

7. Bruce Crampton

Bruce Crampton won 14 times on the PGA Tour, and he twice won the Vardon trophy for lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour, though he is probably even better remembered for the four times he finished second in major championships. Why? Because he lost all four — 1972 Masters, 1972 U.S. Open, 1973 PGA Championship and 1975 PGA Championship — to Jack Nicklaus.

6. Steve Stricker

Here’s one for you: Steve Stricker is 11th all time on the PGA Tour money list. Obviously, the game has changed a lot, and the money has changed even more. Still … 11th.

Stricker has been one of the best players in the world the last few years; he was actually ranked second in the world to Tiger Woods at one point, and has been a staple in the Top 5 the last three years. He’s ranked seventh in the world now. There has long been a feeling that he would break through at a major. But after battling Vijay Singh on the final day at the PGA Championship in 1998, he really has not come particularly close to winning a major championship.

5. Macdonald Smith

You want to talk a rough time: Macdonald Smith won 24 times on the PGA Tour, and he finished in Top 10 in a major championship 17 times (even though the Masters won not even founded until he was 42 years old), and he never on a major championship. And that’s not even the bad part. The bad part is that two of his brothers, Willie and Alex, DID win major championships. They both won U.S. Opens. In fact, Mac lost in a playoff to his brother Alex.

Macdonald Smith had what many consider the best swing of the early part of the 20th Century. Ben Hogan was said to have studied in relentlessly.

4. Sergio Garcia

The thing about Sergio Garcia is that the year he turned 22, he finished in the Top 10 at all four major championships. He had been the youngest player to ever play at the Ryder Cup, and he teamed with Jesper Parnevik to win 3 1/2 points. He was such a phenom that winning majors did not just seem inevitable, he was in contention so often that is almost seemed like he already HAD won major championships.

Only, he hasn’t. He’s won seven times on the PGA Tour and eight more on the European Tour. He’s put up one of the greatest even Ryder Cup records. He’s finished Top 10 in major championships 15 times, including a playoff loss to Padraig Harrington at the Open. And his game is so inconsistent now, that even though he’s 31 years old there’s just no telling how his game will evolve over the next few years. He has had good moments at these Masters, but at last check he had fallen off the leaderboard.

3. Harry Cooper

Lighthorse Harry Cooper won 31 times on the PGA Tour — the most for any player who has not won a major championship. Part of it was just circumstance. He played in only one British Open and the Masters did not begin until he was in his 30s (though he did finish second, fourth and second in three straight Masters from 1936-38). He won the Western Open in 1934 when it really was considered a Major Championship.

He was nicknamed Lighthorse by Damon Runyon, who appreciated his speedy style of play (Runyon had watched Cooper play a round in 2 1/2 hours). He lived to be 96 years old, and in his later life life he became a pro in Hollywood where he taught golf to Bob Hope.

2. Lee Westwood

Westwood is the only player without a major championship who has spent some time ranked as the No. 1 player in the world. It has been an interesting career. He really emerged on the scene in 1998, when he won four times on the European Tour. He won three more times in 1999, and in 2000 he topped the European Order of Merit.

And then he lost his game. He missed nine cuts in majors from 2001 to 2006. He dropped way down in the rankings. He seemed to feel burned out, he tried a bunch swing changes, it certainly seemed like it would never come back.

And then … it came back. He won twice in 2007, twice more in 2009 — the year he again led the Order of Merit. He began contending at majors, finishing third at the 2009 British Open and PGA, and second at last year’s Masters and British Open.

And he moved up to No. 1 in the world — though, to be honest, nobody really understands or particularly likes the World Golf Rankings. He has won 33 times around the world. He is on the cusp of contention at the Masters this year, though nobody has talked much about him.

1. Colin Montgomerie

In making this list, there are many players — Adam Scott, Bruce Lietzke, Paul Casey, Darren Clarke, Doug Sanders, several others — who could have made the Top 10. But nobody else is even close to No. 1. Montgomerie led the Order of Merit eight times. Eight. He finished second at five major championships. He finished as one of the 10 best players in the world every year from 1994 to 2000, topping out, poetically, at No. 2.

There seemed something doomed about Monty, something difficult to capture. There are certain people in sports who just seem to have the Charlie Brown cloud over their heads, and Montgomerie had that. He battled with the tabloids. He said things that got him in trouble. He often looked on the golf course like he could use a hug. But more than anything, he could not finish the job at Royal Lytham when he led after 36 holes, he lost the U.S. Open at Winged Foot when he had the lead going into the 18th hole, he lost a U.S. Open playoff to Ernie Els and a PGA Championship playoff to Steve Elkington.

It is hard to call him a tragic figure because he’s one of the best golfers of the last 30 years. But it’s also hard to be, almost unquestionably, the best golfer never to win a major championship.

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The Retirement of MannyBManny

One of my favorite bits of sportswriting is how quickly we will call someone a genius. If you devise a reasonably effective defense for the three-point shot … you’re a genius. If you get your team to play two somewhat different styles in back-to-back playoff games … you’re a genius. If you manage a bullpen so that you generally have your best pitchers throw when the game is close … you’re a genius. And so on.

I know this. I am among the worst offenders. In my first Poscast with Michael Schur, I found myself — in one of those moments of desperate hyperbole — trying to once again express my admiration for Ron Gardenhire. Yep, I called him “a genius.” Ron Gardenhire. A genius. That is so ridiculous — Gardy is a genius in the same way that I’m silent film star Buster Keaton — that I feel like I should have to write “Ron Gardenhire ain’t no genius” on a chalkboard 500 times*.

*Even if that double negative actually translates to mean that he IS a genius … which would force me to write 500 more times “No way, Gardenhire is not a genius,” but I’d forget to put that comma in there so it would read “No way Gardenhire is not a genius,” and we’d have a double negative again and I’d spend all month trying to make up for calling Gardy a genius, which would be a fitting punishment for saying something that ludicrous.

Point is, yes, I do realize that we in sportswriting and sports broadcasting set the genius bar pretty low for coaches and athletes. The only people who set it lower are the people at Apple, who essentially take a bunch of ordinary people, have them take two Macbook Pro classes and one on the iPhone, and then immediately graduate them to geniuses. These geniuses even get their own bars.

But I still maintain that Manny Ramirez was a hitting genius.

I wrote this once before, and I continue to admit it’s a bizarre notion. But what is a genius anyway? The dictionary definition is “a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.” MannyBManny is clearly not a generalist. The man has been ticketed for having the windows on his car tinted too dark. He has wandered to the outfield with a water bottle in his back pocket. In an era when nobody — and I mean NOBODY — with even two milliliters of sense would test positive for steroids, he apparently has now tested positive TWICE, the second time sparking his sudden and forced and merciful retirement from the game on Friday.

But in one particular respect … I never saw anybody hit a baseball quite like Manny Ramirez. You can — and I often do — a lot of crazy things with numbers. But do you know how many men in baseball history have hit .310 with 525 homers and 525 doubles? Of course you do. One. M-A-N-N-Y. He also hit 21 grand slams — only Lou Gehrig hit more. Yes, those numbers are skewed to single him out, but I’ll tell you one thing that those numbers do suggest: It’s possible that nobody ever hit more balls HARD than Manuel Aristides (Onelcida) Ramirez.

And he hit the ball that hard without even the slightest outward suggestion of anything resembling discipline or exertion or dedication. People may not have liked Barry Bonds but nobody could doubt the commitment he made to being a sensational baseball player. MannyBManny hardly seemed to care at all. I can only assume he DID care, and that he DID work hard on his hitting — it doesn’t seem even remotely possible that anyone could become that good at anything without extreme drive — but, yeah, he did an amazing job hiding that part of himself from the world. He cared so little that the main defense his fans had against the likelihood he was using steroids was that using steroids would take too much effort. He cared so little that at one point when he was still hitting rockets all over the park, the Red Sox put him on waivers. It was a bit like putting Alexander the Great on waivers just after he crossed the Tigris … only they didn’t just put him on waivers, they basically PRAYED that someone would claim him. Nobody did.

Of course, the story goes that the Red Sox were forced to keep him … and he led the league in slugging in 2004 and was named World Series MVP. In 2007, the Red Sox — with Manny playing a somewhat less prominent role — won the World Series again. In fact, Manny Ramirez’s teams always won. I looked this up once before in 2009 — at that time Manny Ramirez had never once played for a losing team in his 15 full seasons. His teams had made the playoffs 10 times and the World Series four times. He may have been a terrible teammate. He may have been an atrocious left fielder. He may have been the biggest pain this side of kidney stones. But the man hit baseballs hard. And because of him or despite him or both, his teams won.

In my own romantic view of baseball and the world, I tended to see Manny as baseball’s Mozart — an often vile personality who did one thing so beautifully that you could not turn away. He finished top five in batting average five times, top five in on-base percentage five times, top five in slugging 10 times. He faced Dennis Eckersley three times … he walked once and hit two home runs off him. He hit .643 against CC Sabathia. Here’s one that will blow your mind — there are 27 men out there who have had only one at-bat match-up with MannyBManny … and they will always be able to tell people that Manny hit a home run in that one at-bat.

When I wrote the Manny-is-a-genius piece, I talked to a few people in the game … and it was clear that these tough old baseball men who had no respect at all for the way Ramirez treated the game were almost absurdly awed by his talent. They talked of games he would play with pitchers during spring training to set them up later in the year. They talked of adjustments he would make pitch-to-pitch that were so remarkable they could only compare it to chess grandmasters. Bill James — co-host of the next Poscast, coming out Monday — insisted that Manny Ramirez would purposely get into 3-2 counts with a runner on first so that the runner would be on the move with the pitch and could then score on the double MannyBManny planned to hit.

I think “genius” — at least the way it has come to be understood — needs a bit of mystery. We can’t understand, most of us, understand how Einstein could have conceived of a whole new kind of universe or how Shakespeare could have written Othello, King Lear and Macbeth in a rush of two years or how the Beatles could have recorded Sgt. Pepper’s, Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road back-to-back-to-back. There is no mystery in Albert Pujols’ ability to hit a baseball. He works harder at it than anyone. He has a singular focus that obliterates all distractions. He has a deep faith, and he has a giant chip on his shoulder, and these things drive him to hit baseballs like almost no one in baseball history. It’s remarkable. But it’s not mysterious.

Same goes with Larry Bird — the mystery was not how he played such glorious basketball but what kept him out there on the courts, for hour after hour after hour after deathly hour, perfecting his shot, devising his moves, developing a sense of the game that could seem (if you did not know his work ethic) supernatural.

But Manny — I don’t know how he did it. Some will say he did it with steroids, but that seems a copout to me … I suspect a whole lot more players than anyone will ever admit used steroids. How many of them hit baseballs like Manny Ramirez?

Now, with him retired, the question will be asked about his Hall of Fame candidacy. I don’t think it’s much of a question. He has no shot … at least not with the baseball writers. None. Two positive tests AFTER the game started testing for steroid use? No shot. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong; I’m just stating the obvious. The writers, I think, were already shaky about his candidacy because of his defiantly awful defense (his minus-118 defensive runs ranks him the fifth worst outfielder in baseball history — tied with Frank Howard), because of his defiantly bad attitude, because of his plain defiance. Two positive tests is more than enough to end any chances. I suspect there’s a pretty good chance he won’t even get the 5% necessary to stay on the ballot.

Will I vote for him? Well, I have five years to sort that out. I do think positive tests AFTER testing began and steroid outrage exploded is a very different thing from using steroids when no one tested and no one cared. Then again, I’m a bad example for something like this. I vote for Mark McGwire. I’d vote for Pete Rose. I believe that the Hall of Fame is for the best baseball players, the ones who thrilled us with their play, who helped their teams win, who had a spectacular peak, who compare well with the best players already in the Hall. You will probably figure out before I do how I will vote.

I saw Manny Ramirez play in a spring training game this year. He looked horribly out of shape, and looked like he cared even less than usual, and I made the observation that the Rays had obviously lost their way signing that guy, even for one year, even for a relatively small amount of money. “Nothing good can come from this,” I said.

In the end, I guess I was right. But I will say this: MannyBManny came up to the plate. He looked more likely to collapse on the spot than swing the bat. But he did swing the bat. And he absolutely rocketed a single into the outfield. It was impressive. Sure, a minute later, he made a classic, “It’s hot out here and I don’t want to be on the bases” base-running maneuver and got himself thrown out. But he hit that line drive hard. Damn, he hit that line drive hard.

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The Slum of First Round Leaders

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The first golf course where I walked all 18 holes was Augusta National. That was 1992. I had never played a full round of golf. I had never covered a golf tournament. And suddenly I found myself writing the lead column at the 1992 Masters for The Augusta Chronicle, the hometown paper. It was pretty ridiculous. I was in the unique position where every single person who read my column — literally every one — knew more about golf than I did.

My one advantage was that I was working with David Westin, an Augusta sportswriting legend, and with infinite patience he explained some of the finer points of golf to me. “No,” he told me, “they are not allowed to just cut down a tree that’s in front of their ball.” And, “No, the caddy cannot carry the golfer if he gets tired.” Things like that.

But the one thing I remember most was that Jeff Sluman and Lanny Wadkins were leading after the first day. And I assumed that since they were leading I had to write about them … I mean they were LEADING THE GOLF TOURNAMENT. I may not have known much about golf, but I understood the concept of leading. I was furiously trying to learn all I could about Sluman and Wadkins.

That’s when David Westin first told me of Peter Jacobsen’s famous quote.

Jacobsen said: “The slums of Chicago are full of first-round leaders.”

And I must say that this is now my 20th Masters, and that quote is as valuable and true as it has ever been.

We’re all sitting in the press room listening to Rory Mcllroy because he is this year’s first-round leader. He shot what the Augusta members like to call “a wonderful 65.” The press room is packed, not an empty seat in the place, and Mcllroy is sitting above us and he’s a charming young man. He’s just 21 and he has finished third in a major championship three times already. He tells us how much he learned about himself at St. Andrews last year, when he blazed out to a 63 on the first day and followed it with a devastating 80. He offers a great and pithy summary of Augusta’s greens when he says, “I’d rather have 20 feet up the hill than 6 feet down.” He goes over his spectacular round — not only did he shot 65 but he had three pretty short birdie putts that he missed.

And, most entertainingly, he shares with us a little story about getting yelled at by a woman on Wednesday night because he was throwing a football around with friend and making a bit too much noise. Mcllroy is from Northern Ireland and he explains that he’s sort of getting into American football a little — he even has learned how to throw a spiral.

“Were you running patterns?” a reporter asks. Mcllroy stared blankly.

“I don’t even know what that means,” he says.

And it is all enjoyable, and Mcllroy is a terrific young player who absolutely could win the Masters. But, it means almost nothing. And we all know it. Mcllroy knows it. Every reporter in the room knows it. Every fan of golf knows it. In the last 25 years, there have been a total of 41 first round leaders including ties. One won the Masters. One. More first round leaders over the last quarter century have finished in 21st place than first. Only 17 of the 41 first round leaders even finished in the Top 10.

Jacobsen uttered his classic quote in 1990 — that year Mike Donald shot a 64 on the first day to lead the tournament. Donald shot an 82 the next day. Jacobsen was actually referring to himself in the quote, though. He shot a 67. He offered his quote. The next three days, as if to prove his point, he shot 75, 76 and 75 to finish tied for 30th, which apparently is the golf equivalent of the slums of Chicago.

This brings up a key point about golf tournaments that is often missed … there are A LOT of great golfers in the world. More than you might think at first blush. And there is a a LOT of variation in their games week to week. Again, more than you might think. When you go into a major tennis tournament … well, OK, the French Open is coming up in about a month or so. I can more or less guarantee you that the winner of the 2011 French Open will be Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer. Really, I can predict with confidence that the winner will be Nadal, but if I took those three and gave you the rest of the field I’d feel pretty good about my chances of success. It’s certainly POSSIBLE that someone else will win. But in tennis, Nadal is so much better than anyone on clay that it’s hardly likely.

Our minds are trained to think that way — the best dominating, winning more often than not. But golf doesn’t work that way. Nobody, not even Tiger Woods, wins five Masters in six years the way Nadal has with the French. Nobody, not even Jack Nicklaus, wins seven U.S. Opens in eight years the way Pete Sampras did at Wimbledon. There are too many variables in golf. There are too many talented golfers who can have the week of their lives. There is too big a shift in conditions — for instance, Thursday was a tame day in Augusta, the conditions were soft, the wind was down. But as the week goes on, with the weather is expected to be hot and dry, everything figures to dry up and speed up and golf balls could be running uncontrollably, like wrestlers thrown against the ropes.

It’s all just too unpredictable. Put it this way: Tiger Woods probably has dominated golf the last 14 years like no man in the history of the sport. Do you know how many men have won major championships since he won the Masters in 1997? Take a guess.

The answer: Thirty two. Yep. THIRTY TWO DIFFERENT MEN have won major championships in the last 14 years. There are so many good golfers, and those good golfers play so differently from week, that even after they play the first round of the a major championship we STILL really have absolutely no idea who is going to win this thing.

This brings up another point: There was a headline in my old paper, the Chronicle, before the tournament even started: “It’s Lefty’s To Lose.” That more or less seemed to be the consensus among the people who know a lot more about golf than I do. Phil Mickelson loves the Masters. He’s won it three times. He also won last week, which suggests his game is in good shape. Mickelson was the clear favorite, but as the headline suggests it went beyond that. It’s Lefty’s to lose.

Only, let’s face it, that is absolutely ridiculous. Mickelson might well win the Masters. But if he was leading by a shot going into the back nine on Sunday it would still not be his to lose. Golf doesn’t work like that. Nobody is just given a golf tournament. What if Mcllroy shoots a wonderful 65 all four days? He will win, and Mickelson will have nothing whatsoever to say about it. What if Tiger finds his old magic and goes low on Friday and Saturday? And it’s not just Tiger … there are 50 other golfers who could go low on Friday and Saturday. What if a howling wind comes in … what if Mickelson’s ball takes an odd kick and ends up behind a tree … what if Ricky Barnes or Rickie Fowler or some other Rickey sinks a bunch of putts in a row … what if something unexpected happens because something unexpected almost always happens.

We spend a lot of time in sports writing about things that won’t happen. We write about trades that never materialize and match-ups that inevitably do not matter and scenarios that almost never play out like we expect. That is part of the beauty of sports, I think, building expectations and having those expectations dashed, making predictions and having those predictions crushed, thinking hard about what is going to happen and then having our best thoughts turned upside down. This is never more true than in golf.

My favorite moment of the Mcllroy conversation happened when someone asks him if he would rather be in the lead after the first day or back a couple of shots where nobody is paying attention to him. This would be a bit of an odd question in another sport … asking a football coach after the first quarter if he would rather be leading or trailing would probably not get a particularly satisfying response.

But Mcllroy understands the spirit with which the question is asked, and says he would rather be in first. “I don’t think there’s any better position than that,” he says, and he smiles, and he knows: There are three days left at the Masters. He hasn’t accomplished anything yet. But, hey, he is tied for the lead. In this wild world of major championship golf, that’s about the best he could do after one day.

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A lot has happened to Nick Charles since I wrote a back page column about him at Sports Illustrated. HBO had him broadcast one more fight. CNN spent a couple of days with him and wrote this beautiful and heartbreaking story about him. I understand that Dr. Sanjay Gupta had an intimate conversation that will be broadcast soon. Nick and his wife Cory are beginning a charity to fight child labor in the Philippines … more on that soon.

Also, thousands and thousands of people have written to him to say they are thinking about him, they care about him, they are praying for him.

I was talking with another friend about Nick and why it is that his story so moves us. You might know that Nick has Stage 4 bladder cancer, and he will die in the next few months. If that sounds overly blunt, well, that’s how Nick Charles wants it. He has no illusions. He wants no illusions. He tried hard for a long time to beat the cancer. But, he says, sometimes you have to know when the fight is over.

Of course, there’s the touching part of the story. So many people remember Nick from his days as sports anchor during the early days of CNN. So many people know him from his boxing work the last few years. Television, probably more than any other medium, brings us close to people, makes us feel like we know them in deeper ways. There is no doubt that part of it is just the feeling that something terrible has happened to a friend.

There is something more, though. There is something about honesty that I think touches us in places few other things reach. Nick Charles is an honest man. He is honest about his death. And his honest about his life too. “I have made a lot of mistakes,” he told me. “But I never wanted to hurt people. I know that. I know that I never wanted to hurt anyone.”

We were talking about this sort of honesty, this friend and I, and I told him a story from my college days … a story that, for no obvious reason, I have told three or four times in the last couple of weeks. It’s funny what sticks with you from school. It’s funny what lessons stand out of all the classes and all the lectures and all the friendships and relationships and everything else.

“Have you ever written that story?” the friend asked.

“No,” I said.

“I can’t believe you’ve never written that story,” he said.

So, here is that story: I took a film class in college. The teacher, and sadly I don’t even remember his name, was a Vietnam veteran, and he was in a wheelchair. I mention this because it becomes an important part of the story.

The class was amazing, one of my favorites … while so much of college is now a blur, that class still seems impossibly clear to me. I remember the way we broke down Citizen Kane … and Time Bandits … the way we talked about the copout that was the ending of The Color Of Money … I remember a lot of things from that class, and almost nothing at all from most of my others. I know this was because of the professor.

Most of all, I remember watching The Stunt Man. There’s a scene in The Stunt Man, and I will forget the particulars, where the stunt man is running through a battlefield, and a thousand bullets are chasing him, but, of course, none ever hit him. Only the scene is so long, and there are so many bullets and missiles and bombs, that after a while it becomes clear that the absurdity is exactly what is being emphasized. It gets funny after a while. And so, there was laughter in the room.

The professor stopped the movie then, and told us a story. He said that as absurd as that might seem, he’d actually seen it in real life. He had never talked to us about Vietnam, not that I recall, but in that moment he told us this story of a Vietnamese soldier running through a field, and everyone fired at him, but nobody could hit him. The man just kept running and running, bullets whizzing by him, and it seemed utterly impossible, but there it was, the power of fortune in war, the extraordinary authority of chance over everyone’s lives, a man somehow running through bullets.

And then we started watching the movie again and didn’t think much more of it.

The next class, the professor began like this: A couple of days ago, I told you the story about the man running through the field. I have always promised myself, ever since I got back from Vietnam, that I would never lie about the war. That was the deal I made with myself. That was how I was going to keep myself sane. I would always tell the truth.

He paused here, and I remember that the room felt airless, suffocating.

What I told you the other day was true. There was a man. And there was a field. He ran through the field, and everyone fired at him, and nobody could hit him. He ran and ran, and nobody could hit him. I have never seen anything like it. Nobody could hit him.

He paused again. His voice was strong. It did not crack.

And he said this: And then, the part I left out: I shot him, and I killed him.

I don’t think I’ve gone a month without thinking about that moment. There is not another moment from college or high school that I remember as vividly. I remember the shock. I remember the pain. I remember the confusion.

I’m still not sure I know the lesson. It changes on me all the time. Sometimes I think it’s about the horror of war. Sometimes I think it’s about the deals we have to make with ourselves. Sometimes I think it’s about the daily terror and outrage and sadness people must endure while nobody notices.

Now, though, I think it’s about something else. I have not seen that professor even one time in almost 25 years, but I thought about him again and again as I talked with Nick Charles about what to do when you know you are going to die. “I want to feel everything,” he told me, and I thought I knew what he meant. I thought he meant that he wants to breathe in the mountain air, and really taste the calamari, and take in every reaction from his beautiful little daughter Giovanna. And I know he did mean all those things and more.

But I also think he means he wants to feel EVERYTHING. He does not want to lie to himself. He wonders if he has spent too much time lying to himself. He does not want to withdraw even for moment. He knows that people are watching, and they can be inspired. He knows that his wife and daughter are with him, and every moment is precious. He knows that he has so few good days left, and as he told me: “I don’t have time for the BS. I just don’t. I’m dying.”

And if we are honest with ourselves, truly and devastatingly honest, maybe we should ask: Is it really so different for any of us?

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The Poscast Hits iTunes

A few of you have asked me to let you know when the Poscast will be available on iTunes.

Well … the Poscast is available on iTunes.

Not only that but, for the moment, it is the No. 1 sports podcast on iTunes. I fully appreciate that this is only because it is new and it will fall back into its rightful spot in at 1,483,473 soon enough. But, hey, I got a screen capture of it. I can prove it happened. Thank you all for downloading and listening.

As for downloading the Poscast MP3 through something other than iTunes … I’m asking to see what can be done.

I do have to say that this Poscast thing is more fun than I expected … I have some ideas for guests over the next few weeks that, if they work out, will be pretty awesome.

Got one more post coming before the end of the day, a non-sports request post from a friend.

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Tiger: A Counterpoint

You may know that this is not the first time my great good friend Michael Rosenberg and I have disagreed on the future of Tiger Woods. Yes, Michael is back again to shout that Tiger Woods will be great again and really soon. A year or so ago, Michael wrote that people who write off Tiger Woods are dead wrong … and doing him a personal favor by giving him extra incentive. I disagreed with both points. I thought the people who wrote off Tiger — depending on what we mean by “write off” — were more likely right than wrong, and anyway I never thought Tiger Woods has done well in an “us against the world” scenario. I don’t think he’s a guy who feeds of disrespect. I think he likes it best when everyone knows that he’s the best player going.

At that time, my opinion was a pretty distinct minority. I certainly wasn’t alone on the “Tiger will probably never be the same” airplane, but I do know there were plenty of empty seats and plenty of overhead storage available.

In the last year, though — a year in which Tiger spit on the green, threw clubs, blew a four-shot lead in his own tournament … when his average finish was 25th (not even counting the time he missed the cut or the time he withdrew) — the conventional wisdom has certainly shifted. Nobody seems willing, and nobody should seem willing, to call Tiger Woods finished. He’s earned more respect than that. He’s been too great for that. But the majority opinion now seems to be that Tiger probably won’t ever dominate the game again.

In other words, I admire my guy Rosenberg because now his opinion seems to me to be in the minority. He believes that Tiger is on the brink of another great run. And he absolutely could be right. But I don’t think he is right. And I have three reasons:

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1. Age.

I can, in three steps, make a case that C.C. Sabathia will win 400 games.

Step 1: Sabathia has 157 wins, and he is 30 years old.

Step 2: Jamie Moyer won 233 games after he was 30 years old.

Step 3: Sabathia is better than Jamie Moyer.

So there you go. Add Moyer’s 233 to Sabathia’s 157 — that’s 390 victories. Sabathia’s better so he should get at least 10 more wins. That’s 400 victories.

So what’s wrong with that logic? Everything. There’s is almost zero chance that Sabathia will win anywhere close to 400 games … 300 will be tough. People age differently. Mariano Rivera is the best closer in baseball history, but that doesn’t mean he will pitch in his 40s the way Hoyt Wilhelm did. Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player who ever lived, but Karl Malone was a better player in his late 30s. Dan Marino might be the best pure passer in the history of the NFL, but at age 37 or 38 I’d have taken Rich Gannon first.

So to say that because Angel Cabrera won a Masters at age 40 that Tiger Woods can do the same rings like a false argument to me. To say that Phil Mickelson won three majors after he turned 35 is interesting but doesn’t necessarily relate to Tiger (Mickelson won two of them the year he was 35, by the way).

History suggests that golfers decline noticeably in their mid-to-late 30s, and while there are exceptions they are just that … exceptions. Could Tiger Woods be an exception? Sure. But he’s 35 now, and he does not seem to be off to a roaring start. His best finish as a 35-year-old is 10th.

Oh, and I have to call Michael on one of my pet peeves — the statistical misdirection. In the piece, he mentioned that seven of the last 16 Masters winners were 35 or older. Always beware when you see a strange-looking number like “16” in a statistic.

Yes, it is true that seven of the last 16 Masters winners were 35 or older — Mickelson twice, the gracefully aging Vijay Singh and Mark O’Meara, the old timers with one more burst of glory Faldo and Crenshaw, and the aforementioned Cabrera. But there’s a reason that Michael cut it off at 16. It’s also true that only eight of the last 32 Masters winners and only 10 of the last 45 Masters winners were 35 or older.

Anyway, Tiger Woods will age how he ages. Does he have bursts of glory left in him? I would guess yes. Great golfers can have magical weeks long after their prime has set. But that’s not really what we’re talking about. Will Tiger win again? Sure. Will he win another major? Probably. But the question is: “Can he become the best player in the world again?” And that’s a whole different thing. And the odds are against him.

One thing that entertains me, I must admit, are the people who say Tiger will age well because of his grueling training regiment. Maybe. On the other hand, I’m not sure you can make the argument that that Tiger Woods has lived a particularly restful life up to now … or that he’s a young 35.

* * *

2. Swing changes

One thing Tiger and the people who believe he will be dominant again like to point out is that he’s been through slumps like this before. For instance, after he won the Masters in 1997, he then went through a series of swing changes and did not win a major for more than two years … a period that some people seem to be referring to as a slump.

He had another 2 1/2 year major drought from mid-2002 to the Masters in 2005. Again, people call it a slump. As Tiger has said: “I’ve been through this before.”

Only … he really hasn’t. Those “slumps” were very different. In 2003 and 2004, he won six times, won more money than anyone except Vijay Singh, finished in the Top 10 some 25 times. It was only a “slump” in the remarkable world of Tiger Woods. And in 1998 and 1999, he won nine times, won more money than anybody in the world, and he was only 23 years old.

This is fundamentally different. He’s older. He’s had serious knee surgery. he’s been caught from behind. He’s not changing his swing — like he did at 23 — with an eye on immortality. He’s changing his swing now because he’s hitting the ball into nearby fast food parking lots. And he’s just not playing well. It’s not that he’s not playing well for Tiger Woods — he’s not playing well for a top PGA Tour golfer. He has not won a tournament of any kind since 2009 even though he only plays tournaments that are custom built for his game. Since finishing fourth at last year’s U.S. Open, he has finished out of the Top 20 more often than he has finished inside the Top 20. He has only finished in the Top 5 once, and that was at his own tournament when he blew a big lead.

And there’s something else: Tom Watson famously changed his swing after winning his first British Open in 1975. This led to a disappointing 1976, only Watson was not disappointed because he felt certain that his new swing could help him become the best player in the world. He was right. In 1977, he out-dueled Jack Nicklaus at Augusta and Turnberry. He became the best in the world and was PGA Tour player of the year six of the next eight years.

When Watson started to struggle a bit with his game — he won his last major at 33 — he changed his swing again. And the swing changes worked beautifully. Watson will tell you he hit the ball better at 40 than he he did at 30, might have hit the ball better at 50 than he did at 40. Approaching 60, he could still hit the ball so well he almost won a British Open for the ages.

But, even a master of ball-striking like Tom Watson did not win any more majors after 33. He could not sustain his place on top of the golfing world. You know why: He stopped sinking putts. Tiger Woods’ putting and chipping — long the most underrated part of his miraculous game — no longer seems quite as sharp. If that part of his game drops even a little bit … well, as one pro golfer once told me: “We’re all two eight-foot putts a day away from the championship. And we’re all two eight-foot putts a day away from getting real jobs.”

* * *

3. The Harshness of Golf Reality

You have probably seen the famous footage of an old Joe Namath holding his hand up as he runs into the end zone. The hand up is a clear, “Don’t hit me I’m absurdly old,” gesture. And the defensive players — out of respect, I assume — don’t hit him.

Other sports offer a human element that is not really present in golf. Derek Jeter might be struggling with his own age issues, but it is true that he will face pitchers who grew up idolizing him. He will face teams that will respect him for all that he’s done. He will be judged by home plate umpires who admire him. This isn’t to say that anyone will take it easy on him — that obviously won’t happen — but it is to say that Derek Jeter, the name, does still carry a bit of weight in baseball.

Tiger Woods certainly cashed in on his name through the years — many golfers, seeing his name on top of the leaderboard, would subtly change their games. This was especially true on Sunday. Golf has never had a better frontrunner than Tiger Woods.

But golf, the game itself, does not bend to Tiger’s will. He will be exactly as good as his score, no better and no worse. it doesn’t matter if he gets mad, if he feels confident, if he tries harder, if he believes that he’s read the putt well … none of it matters except how many swings it takes for him to put the ball in 72 holes. Golf is a cold game that way. Tiger Woods could be in the best place mentally of his entire life. But if he shoots 74, he shoots 74. If his putt lips out, his putt lips out.

That harshness has always suited Woods. He’s never been sentimental about golf. The first time he showed up in Augusta he was a 19-year old amateur, and he was asked what he hoped to accomplish his first time around. “To win,” he said. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew exactly where he was going.

Now, though, I don’t think Tiger Woods is quite sure. This Masters feels like a big tournament for him. If he can contend — if he can win — it will once again make him the biggest story in sports. And that could springboard him right back to the sort of run that Michael is talking about. It would be foolish to say that’s not possible.

But “possible” and “likely” are two different things. And if Woods hacks it around a bit in Augusta, never really works into contention, plays the way he has played for the last year or so, well, I think it’s just one more sign that we’re all getting older. The years tend to go in only one direction.

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