Stuff
Category

By In Stuff

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.

Read more

By In Stuff

Honesty

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?

Read more

By In Stuff

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.

Read more

By In Stuff

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:

* * *

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.

Read more

By In Stuff

Poscast with Mike Vaccaro

So, I did my second Poscast … this time with longtime friend and brilliant man Mike Vaccaro, sports columnist of the New York Post, author of three wonderful books along with just being a gentleman, scholar and noted Godfather expert.

I should say that Mike and I once hosted our own radio show. Once. The only thing I remember is the beginning which went roughly like so:

Me: Welcome to the show. I’m Joe Posnanski.
Mike: And I’m Mike Vaccaro.
Me: Um …
Mike: (silence)
Me: OK, now what are we supposed to do?
Mike: (silence)

So you will definitely want to tune into this one.

I’m still getting the feel of the Poscast — in other words, I have no idea what I’m doing — but this one is more of a rambling conversation about many things from the Knicks to baseball to Tiger Woods and the Masters. I think I’m still pretty early in the process in figuring out exactly how these things will go. I’m not saying that I’ll ever figure it out.

Three things: One, the sound quality on this one is a little bit better than last week, I think — thanks in large part to the brilliant production work of Margo Posnanski — but we still have not set up the Poscast studio. Hope to set that up sometime this week so that the next Poscast will not sound like it was broadcast in the Holland Tunnel. We’re working on it.

Two, I’m told that the Poscast should be on iTunes by the end of the week. There’s a process you have to go through to get such things done, and good folks like Jake, Larry and my wife Margo are working all that out.

Three, congratulations go this week to Alex Birdsall for recording the first Poscast theme song titled, wonderfully, “I Have No Idea What I’m Doing.” For recording the Poscast theme, Alex will get all sorts of wonderful prizes or a couple of autographed books. Thank you to all the people who entered — yours are still being considered for future Poscast themes — and if you would like to record a theme song and potentially win fabulous prizes, send me an MP3 of the song to the Poscast email.*

*Along those lines, I’d like to give a little shout-out to brilliant reader Jonah and his band The Cinammon Fuzz. Got a great 80s sound, which of course gets me every time. They are trying to win the Billboard Battle of the Bands, and they’re pretty great, and I’m pretty sure I can get a Poscast theme song from them for this plug.

Sports Poscast with Mike Vaccaro

Read more

By In Stuff

The Madness of March

Basketball is probably the most predictable of all our team sports. Well, it only makes sense. Everything in basketball is on a smaller scale in basketball. The court is smaller. There are fewer players on each team. There are fewer players on each roster. There are fewer angles, fewer moves, fewer countermoves. One great basketball player can make a larger impact, I suspect, than one great player on any other team sport.

If you need proof of basketball’s predictability — look at the NBA. While baseball fans complain endlessly about the lack of competitive balance and while the NFL constantly legislates new ways to make its game fair and balanced, the NBA is more unbalanced than Charlie Sheen*.

*Charlie Sheen jokes never get old, do they?

How predictable is the NBA? Here are three NBA facts that might blow your mind:

1. Of the last 59 NBA Finals, 38 of them featured either the Celtics or the Lakers, often both.

2. Since 1984, only seven different teams have won an NBA title. Seven! And only one of them — the Miami Heat — won only one title.

Let’s put this in a little bit of perspective:

Number of teams that have won their championship since 1984:

World Series: 18
Super Bowl: 14
Stanley Cup: 13
NBA Finals: 7

3. By my quick count, there are 10 NBA teams — admittedly, some of them are expansion teams but still — 10 NBA teams that have not even reached an NBA Final in the city where they are playing. That’s one-third of the league that has not even been to a final … ever.

By contrast, only four NFL teams — Cleveland, Detroit, Houston and Jacksonville — have never been to a Super Bowl, and Cleveland and Detroit won NFL Championships before the Super Bowl. By contrast, only Seattle and Washington have not been to a World Series, and almost every team (other than the lamentable Cubs) have been there in the last 35 years.

Basketball is just a game for dynasties, for predictability, for sameness. One great player — one Michael Jordan, one Tim Duncan, one Larry Bird, one Kobe Bryant — can order the cosmos. One great collection of players under the tutelage of Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson or John Wooden can dominate an entire generation.

And that’s the genius — the absolute genius — of March Madness. In a best-of-seven playoff system, basketball will be stunningly predictable. In a rigid seeding system where you give the very best team a first-round bye and and an easy schedule and ask them to win only four games to win the championship, you will get UCLA winning 10 championships in 12 years.

But what happens if you put 64 teams in a field — no, make it 68 — and no teams get byes and even the best regular season team has to win six games in a three-week free-for-all? What happens if seeding is really random because after a certain point you don’t REALLY know who is the 34th best team in the country and who is the 11th best, and so the No. 1 seeds sometimes face great teams while the No. 4 seeds sometimes don’t? What happens if you devise a tournament where the goal is not exactly to identify the BEST team in America but instead to create a monthlong celebration of basketball and hope and upsets and buzzer beaters and the spirit of college sports fans?

Here’s what happens: Every now and again, when the fog clears, you will get Butler against Connecticut, a bright young coach against a street-smart old one, a team of small-town Indiana kids against a team led by a charismatic New Yorker who is one of the greatest players in the history of the tournament. Nobody can really think that Butler and Connecticut — two teams that were not ranked among the top 20 teams for part of the year — are the two best teams in America. And, at exactly the same time, nobody can really think that Butler and Connecticut are NOT the two best teams in America. That’s the wonder of March Madness. It has redefined what “best” even means. It has turned basketball unpredictable.

* * *

Coaches cannot stand unpredictable things, by the way. Unpredictability is a coach’s biggest enemy. Coaches spend a hundred hours a week going through every scenario they can conjure up, even the most implausible — especially the most implausible — because there’s nothing scarier to a coach than being surprised. The thing that keeps them awake at night is not that their players might fall on their faces. It is, instead, that something will happen that they never saw coming.

Because of this, single elimination tournaments can make coaches crazy. North Carolina’s Dean Smith always wanted to point to his team’s remarkable consistency during the regular season — his Tar Heels won 17 ACC Championships, won more than 20 games and reached the tournament every year from 1975 to 1997 — as a TRUE measure of his team’s ability. Coach after coach, after losing in the tournament with great teams, have talked about the tournament as a crapshoot, have talked about wanting their players and fans to be proud of their great seasons.

But, to be honest, the randomness of the NCAA tournament has blunted much of that. Only North Carolina fans remember the ACC titles. Dean Smith is remembered much more for his two national championships — both with odd finishes — and all the ones his teams didn’t win. Kansas this year — after losing its three best players to the NBA — went 32-2 during the season, won its seventh straight BIg 12 championship, won its fifth Big 12 tournament in six years. And you know what people will remember? Kansas lost to VCU in the Elite Eight. The season is widely viewed as a disappointment — in many quarters the season is viewed as a HUGE disappointment. One bad game. One poor match-up. One day shots don’t drop. This is March. And it is Madness.

But we love it. That’s why it works. We love it. College football attempts to win over fans with what it calls the best regular season in sports … but despite the overwhelming popularity of college football almost nobody loves the college football ending. The BCS has the popularity numbers of influenza. Before VCU and Butler played on Saturday in probably the most unlikely Final Four game yet, several people said they were thinking about TCU’s undefeated football team and how it did not get its shot at the championship. There’s something about the NCAA basketball tournament that seems FAIRER than any other … even though you could argue that it’s not especially fair at all.

“There’s almost no advantage for being good during the season,” one Division I coach says. “I’m not complaining about it, but that’s just a fact. If you finish first in your conference or third or fifth, you pretty much start in the same place when the tournament begins. If you have a great year where your team comes together and plays great basketball but then have a player get injured or run into a team that makes 15 three-pointers, most people won’t see that you had a great year.

“All that said, the tournament is so great for our sport. I mean, it’s really great. It’s fun and everybody gets into it. We all know the deal. In football, your job is to go undefeated for the whole season, if you can. In basketball, your job as a coach is to do your best to get your kids ready to play, hopefully, six games in March.”

* * *

Only the NCAA Tournament could have given us a final like Butler and Connecticut. You know their stories. Butler, after coming together and becoming the unlikeliest team to reach a national championship in a quarter century, lost its best player to the NBA and then CAME BACK. Connecticut, after a turbulent up-and-down year led by the spectacular Kemba Walker, won five games in five days to win the Big East Tournament and came out of that flurry with a belief that it cannot be beaten.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen in other tournaments and playoffs. You probably could not get N.C. State beating Houston on a last-second dunk or Villanova making just about every shot in the second half against Georgetown or the rise of a program like Duke in other sports. In a country that loves the underdog, and thrives on the unexpected, and believes in the theme that it’s never too late to become great, the NCAA Tournament fits us better than almost anything else.

Now, we get this wonderful final … and one more time it’s hard to know what to expect. Connecticut did not begin the season in the Top 25. It played brilliantly at times during the season and also lost four of five and entered the Big East tournament as a No. 9 seed. Connecticut’s Walker really is having one of the greatest individual seasons in recent memory and belongs in the conversation with Magic Johnson and Danny Manning and Pervis Ellison and others in the way he has carried his team to this point. The rest of the team is mostly made up of young and raw players — freshman Jeremy Lamb has, at times, been a phenomenon — and so the Huskies have been good and inconsistent, hot and cold. They have surprised a lot of people.

Now, though, the Huskies are expected to win the national championship. That’s how fast it turns — underdog one day, sure thing the next. Well, the underdog role for this game is adamantly Butler’s. After last year’s miracle run, the Bulldogs often looked like a team that would not even make the tournament this year. They did make it as a No. 8 seed, and they promptly rode the March flying carpet — beating Old Dominion by two, surviving the foul-frenzy of the final seconds and beating Pittsburgh by one, persisting through a battering game against Wisconsin, overcoming Florida in overtime and finally smothering a VCU team that, on its biggest night, missed a whole bunch of layups.

Butler has its own terrific players, of course. Shelvin Mack is a 6-foot-3 guard who poured in 30 against Pittsburgh and 27 against Florida and seems to enjoy matching up against more famous and celebrated opponents like Kemba Walker. Matt Howard is a 6-foot-8 forward who coaches unanimously adore because of how hard he plays and how he always seems to grab a rebound or dive on a loose ball or score around the basket when you need it most, and how, like Traveler’s Insurance, he can take the scary out of life. The other Butler players seem to know exactly what they are supposed to do … and come March they do it.

So what happens? We don’t know what happens. That’s the beauty. Even more: That’s the point.

Read more

By In Stuff

A Celebration of Day 2

Few people celebrate the second day of the baseball season. Opening Day is flooded with remembrances and celebrations, reveries about spring and fathers and the timelessness of the game. Opening Day sparks packed stadiums, filled with color and pageantry and grass that is jarringly green and familiar scents and children pulled from school. And scorecards! How many people keep score on Opening Day? Everybody, it seems, and the scorecards are crisp and they are neat, every line drawn with care, every home run filled in with the precision of the SAT Test circles. Opening Day brings out the overwrought poet in baseball fans everywhere. By Day 2, though, the poetry ends. It’s a long season, and the second day is when baseball fans begin to settle in.

I suppose this gets to the heart of things. Opening Day is about hope … beautiful, glorious and irrational hope. And second days are about the slow and irretrievable loss of that hope. Opening Day is about being young. And Day 2 is about getting old. Stadiums in many places are now half-filled … no child gets to skip school to catch the SECOND game of the season. The lifers remain. Scorecards are creased and smeared and abandoned by the fourth inning. The drumbeat sounds. The long march of the season begins. The three-hit first day, in the slow and sure way of inevitability, morphs into that .263 batting that was preordained by the martial law of 600 plate appearances. The flawed teams begin their steady descent into the standings.

I’m a big fan of irrational hope. Every year, when I was columnist at The Kansas City Star, I would write a column about why the Kansas City Royals would win the American League Central. It was homage to an old Kansas City humor columnist who every year would pick the Kansas City Athletics to win the pennant. Neither of us ever got it right, of course. It was homage to Opening Day and limitless possibilities and that irrational hope that Opening Day inspires.

And then Opening Day passes, and it’s Day 2, and what’s left then?

You know who used to love the second day of the baseball season? Buck O’Neil. Today’s a good day to remember my old friend. You have, I suspect, heard Buck’s story about the three times in his life when he heard a sound unlike anything else he ever heard. Still, it’s worth telling again because it takes us through his life.

The first time he heard the sound, he was just a kid in Sarasota, and he was standing behind the outfield wall in the hope of getting a few baseballs being hit by the Yankees in batting practice. He suddenly heard a booming sound — like a cannon being fired, he would sometimes say — and he climbed to the top of the wall to see. And there he saw Babe Ruth in the batter’s box.

The second time he heard the sound, he was a young first baseman for the Kansas City Monarch of the Negro Leagues. He would become a fine player, a good defensive first baseman, a batting champion. He would always say he was getting dressed when he heard that sound again, the boom that sounded like Babe Ruth, and he raced outside to take a look. And there he saw Josh Gibson in the batter’s box.

The third time he heard the sound, he was a longtime scout, one of the most respected in baseball. He had already lived a full baseball life. He had managed the Monarchs. He had been the first black coach in baseball history. He had played a huge role as a scout or an advisor or simply a friend for Ernie Banks and Lou Brock and Billy Williams and Bob Gibson and Joe Carter and too many others to count. This time he was out at the ballpark to watch a player people were already calling the most remarkable physical talent in the history of baseball. Buck O’Neil watched him crush an impossibly long home run the first time he swung the bat. And, yes, that sound boomed again. That was Bo Jackson.

Buck used to say he would go out to the ballpark every day because he wanted to hear that sound one more time before he died. He never did, or at least he never said that he did. But he heard a lot of pretty great sounds. He saw a lot of pretty great things. That’s the wonder of Day 2. Hope might fade. But you never know what you’re going to hear.

But that’s not the Buck O’Neil story I’m thinking about now. No. Bill James has a favorite Buck O’Neil story that fits Day 2. I happened to be there when Bill’s story happened. I had set up a baseball panel discussion at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Bill James was there, New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro was there — the second co-host for the Poscast, incidentally — and former Kansas City Royals assistant general manager Muzzy Jackson was there. I was the moderator. The conversation bounced around many different topics, but no Kansas City baseball conversation is complete without at least a mention of the New York Yankees and their dominance.

The Yankees have long been something of an obsession for Kansas City baseball fans. This goes back 70 or 80 years. The Kansas City Blues were for many years a New York farm team — in many ways the Blues were THE New York farm team. It was in Kansas City that Mutt Mantle threatened to take his son Mickey back to the mines in Oklahoma because he was not handling himself like a man. It was in Kansas City that Walter Cronkite, as he long remembered, used to catch Blues games featuring players like Phil Rizzuto and Jerry Priddy and Frenchy Bordagaray and then long after, late at night, play games of drunken hopscotch with the boys from the wire services. The Blues and Yankees were inextricably knotted together; Kansas City was Yankees territory.

When the Athletics moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City, the idea was that Kansas City would become its own territory. But that did not exactly happen. The early A’s, for various reasons, sort of continued to be a Yankees farm team. The A’s did not develop or acquire too many good players in the early years, but those few who did blossom tended to find themselves wearing Yankees uniforms before too long. The most famous of these was Roger Maris, but the list of useful players the Yankees took from the A’s is actually quite long, and this did not really change until Charlie O. Finley bought the team and began his zany reign.

Finley had his own Yankees quirks. For instance, he was told at one point that the real secret to the Yankees success was Yankee Stadium. So, naturally, he tried to retrofit Municipal Stadium in Kansas City so that its dimensions were precisely the same as Yankee Stadium. This did not work on any level, including the most basic “architectural level,” and the A’s continued to stink until Finley finally convinced baseball to let him move the team to the untapped market of Oakland. People in Kansas City have no fondness for Finley. But they will generally concede that he did not kowtow to the Yankees.

Then the Royals came to town, and from 1976 to 1980 they had a rivalry with the Yankees that matches anything in baseball history. Four times in five years, they faced each other in best-of-five playoff series to determine the American League pennant. “I hated the Yankees,” George Brett said. “I mean that sincerely. I HATED those guys.” One series ended on the famous home run of Yankee Chris Chambliss. Another ended with Kansas City’s Fred Patek in the dugout, his face red with tears. The only Royals victory of the four was clinched when Brett turned on a neck-high fastball from Goose Gossage. There were fights, there were titanic performances, there were famous moments like when Cliff Johnson threatened to fight Kansas City’s spiritual leader Hal McRae before one game, to which McRae replied: “I don’t fight extra men.”

Around 1994, the Yankees took on a new and sinister meaning in Kansas City — they came to represent the monetary unfairness of the game. This was probably always true, but the numbers had grown more stark, and the Royals were at the bottom of the starkness. More and more, Kansas City baseball fans felt like poker players with a perpetually short stack of chips. “How can we compete?” Royals fans shouted while management traded away Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran and anyone else who was deemed too expensive. The answer seemed to be: “You can’t.” The Yankees, meanwhile, seemed to buy whatever player they wanted.

So that’s what we were talking about on the panel — the Royals utter inability to compete with the Yankees — when suddenly Buck O’Neil raised his hand. He was in the crowd, and he stood up, and here’s what he said: “OF COURSE we can beat the Yankees.” Everybody in the room stopped, because that’s what Buck’s voice did to a room. I don’t have his words memorized, but he said something like this:

“OF COURSE we can beat the Yankees. It’s not even a question. The Yankees can only play nine players at a time. They can’t sign all the good players out there and play them. They can’t use more than one pitcher at a time. They can’t play two shortstops or three center fielders. They have nine guys, we have nine guys. They might be able to get nine more expensive guys, but that doesn’t mean they get nine BETTER guys.

“Baseball is the fairest game in the world. It doesn’t matter if the other guy is bigger than you or taller than you or stronger than you or faster than you. The only thing that matters is who plays the game better. I’m sick of excuses. People say we can’t beat the Yankees. That’s ridiculous. We beat the Yankees before when we had players like George Brett and Frank White and Amos Otis and Willie Wilson and Hal McRae. Yeah. We just need to find the players and develop them into good players. If we don’t do that, it’s not the Yankees fault.”

This might not quite as good if you can’t hear Buck O’Neil’s voice saying it. But it had a mesmerizing effect on the room … as I say, Bill James will never forget it. Buck was the most optimistic man I ever met. To him baseball wasn’t about the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day. It was not about irrational hopes that this player might have a career year or that player might suddenly reach his potential or any of that. For Buck, the baseball season about Day 2 and beyond, and no excuses, and his heartfelt belief that if you put nine good men on the field you could beat anybody. Baseball is the one game where the really bad teams win 40% of the time. Baseball is the one game where the very best teams will lose 60 times a year. Sure, over long seasons, good teams tend to be good, and bad teams tend to be bad, but that doesn’t make it predestined.

“We could win it all this year,” Buck would say, and he would say it long after Opening Day.

To borrow another man’s words, Buck never thought there was anything irrational about hope.

Read more

By In Stuff

Top 32 Players In Baseball

This should go big on the Sports Illustrated site tomorrow, but if you would like an early look .. here is is my 11,000-word monstrosity on the Top 32 players in baseball.

The 32 Best Players In Baseball For 2011

Read more

By In Stuff

An Interview With UZR

Brilliant Reader Jon sent in this story by my friend Pat Reusse called “You can take your UZR and …”

The story is actually quite a fun read. I mean, yes, there are a couple of shots at statistics and the people who love them. So what? My friend Dave Krieger in Denver wrote about me being abducted to Planet Bill James (the cable channels up there are INCREDIBLE). I sometimes wonder why anybody in this crazy business of sports would take him or herself too seriously.

Anyway the core of Pat Reusse’s article is an interview with Jim Fregosi, and it’s clear that Fregosi has a pretty good sense of the stats. And he makes some excellent points about the right and wrong way to use them, like this quote:

“If I’m looking for a leadoff hitter, I don’t care about a combination of numbers — don’t care about his slugging percentage. I want to know how often he gets on base and if he can run.”

If the manager for my big league baseball team ever said something that sensible, I would jump up and down and buy a new team cap to wear around town. I’m not kidding. I’m so used to managers saying that they want leadoff hitters who can “handle the bat” or guys who “will fight up there” or some other vague trait that doesn’t mean anything. A few weeks ago, Royals manager Ned Yost was explaining to Bob Dutton why he plans to hit Mike Aviles in the leadoff spot.

“He’s a guy who has a chance to hit .300. He’s a guy who can steal bases. He’s a guy who will give you a decent at-bat, and he finds a way to get on.”

Mike Aviles’ career on-base percentage is .327. That’s below league average. He has walked 42 times in more than 1,000 big league plate appearances. He didn’t walk much more than that in the minors. He has been hit with pitches three times. I think Mike Aviles is a very useful player, and he might even be the Royals best option as a leadoff hitter. But he most definitely DOES NOT find ways to get on. And when you say stuff like that you make it pretty clear what your priorities are — and on-base percentage is not the priority.

So, I like Fregosi’s summation of a leadoff hitter: “I want to know how often he gets on base and if he can run.” That order. I like it. And he also said: “There are too many things that can’t be seen through statistics.” I agree entirely with that too. He talked about how OPS is not especially relevant when he’s looking for a utility infielder. Agree with that too. Almost everything Fregosi said in the article, I agree with.

Fregosi then said that he despises UZR — Ultimate Zone Rating, one of the advanced defensive metrics out there. “I can watch any player for three days and tell you if he has range,” Fregosi said. “And I’ll tell you more accurately than a chart in a computer.”

Jim Fregosi absolutely may be right here too. There are real issues with Ultimate Zone Rating. But I will say one thing … we only ever hear from people like Fregosi on this topic. That is to say we are constantly hearing from baseball people who know how to measure defense better than some statistic like UZR. We are constantly hearing from people who, through well-honed powers of observation and years of visual training, can determine a player’s range and skill and defensive production better than UZR. They don’t need any statistic to tell you who can or cannot play defense. As the headline says, you can take your UZR and …

And you know who we never hear from on this topic? That’s right: UZR herself.

Q: Thank you so much for joining us. I understand this is your first interview.

UZR: Well, I’ve been jumping from mother’s basement to mother’s basement, and I really have not had any free time.

Q: I’m glad you …

UZR: Oh the underwear I’ve seen.

Q: Right. So let’s get right down to it. You are a defensive statistic and one of the more prominent ones out there. First, can you explain yourself.

UZR: What I try to do is determine how many runs a fielder saves his team over the average player. I look at the players arm, his range, his errors and the number of double plays he helps turn.

Q: So you are trying to ruin the game?

UZR: Is this going to be one of those interviews?

Q: No. I just wanted to see how you would react. By the way, you look good, have you been dieting?

UZR: Well, I’m park adjusted.

Q: I thought so. So, you’ve heard what people say about how imprecise you are … what do you say those people.

UZR: I’d agree with that wholeheartedly. I’m a defensive statistic. There are all sorts of quirks and blips involved with measuring defense. I always tell people never to use just a year of me. You have to use at least three years to get real value out of my numbers.

Q: Three years?

UZR: Oh yes. AT LEAST three years. Defense is a complicated matter you know. If I may, I heard what Jim Fregosi said about me, and let me say that I’m a big fan of his. We met once, years ago, but he wouldn’t remember … anyway, I don’t doubt that he could watch a player for three days and determine if the player has range. I bet he could watch a player for two days or one day and say if he has range. I could never do that.

But that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to tell you how much a defensive player is helping his team. And I’m doing it with numbers. The managers look at Derek Jeter and tell you he’s a great defensive player, right? They give him the Gold Glove every year. Well, he might be a great defensive player by the eyes. He might be the smartest player in the world. He might have a sense that no other player on earth has. But I rank him 42 runs below average since 2002 because that’s how the numbers add up. I don’t judge based on how good or bad he looks. I mean, he looks good, he’s Derek Jeter, come on. I don’t care if he dives or doesn’t dive. I don’t care about any of that stuff. Does he make the play? Does he get to the ball? Does he turn two? These are the data points in my statistic.

Q: So you’re saying …

UZR: I’m saying that the human mind is better for writing poetry. The closest thing I’ve ever come to poetry is this: “Hat … Pat … Sat.” I’m still thinking a name for it. The human mind is better for literature, for music, for art, for comedy. The human mind is better in billions of different ways that I could never conceive. The human mind is especially better at narrative.

But by being better at narrative, the human mind can and will shift things to make them fit. The human mind will find trends in randomness, and stories in fog, and that’s one of the beautiful parts. I can count better than you can. I don’t mean that in a bragging way. I just can. I can count better, and I can ignore unnecessary data better, and I cannot be influenced by beauty or awkwardness. If you have one day to determine if a guy can play defense, or a week, or a month, you are better off to use your eyes because I need more than three days. If we have five years of data, I’m pretty sure I’ll beat your analysis every time.

Q: Do you understand why people take shots at you?

UZR: Sure I do. I sometimes spit out numbers that don’t match up to what the eyes suggest. It’s not personal with me. But it is personal with baseball fans, and it should be. They are watching the game with love. And they don’t want to be told that their eyes are misleading them, that they might not see the game as well as they think, that their hero doesn’t get to nearly as many balls as they believe.

I tell people that I’m a tool. See, a person would never say call herself a tool. Heh heh. That’s statistical humor. It breaks them up at the conventions. Point is, I’m not perfect. I’m not close to perfect. I’ve gotten better since I was young, and I will keep getting better. Baseball defense has been widely miscalculated for many, many decades. People have judged players on whether or not they fielded ground balls that hit their gloves, or made throws that sailed over their targets. People have judged players on how far they ran to catch a ball or how spectacular their dive. That’s all wonderful to watch, but that’s not what defense is about. Defense is about preventing runs. Defense is about turning batted balls into outs. Over seasons, I believe I can tell you which players are good and not so good at doing that. And I believe I can do it better than you can do it with good eyes and a great memory.

Q: OK, before you go, tell us … which of the advanced statistic is the best.

UZR: Oh, I could never choose, they’re all my friends. But I can tell you that VORP is hilarious — I told you stats are not very funny, but VORP is the exception. He told this one the other day … let’s see if I can remember it: How many RBIs does it take to change a light-bulb? Who cares — RBIs are context-based stats that overstate the importance of certain middle-of-the-lineup hitters! Oh, he had us rolling in the aisles with that one. Also WAR does a great Dave Krieger impression.

Read more

By In Stuff

Sports Poscast Theme Song

So, here’s the deal. The Poscast needs a theme song. Well, if you want to get technical about it, the Poscast needs a better studio host, an iTunes home, better sound quality, crazy sound effects like they used to have on the old Hanna Barbera shows, and, of course, free Buffalo wings for everyone.

Some of these things are coming, I think. Well, the better sound should be coming once I get my XML Supercharged Micro-fliptometer with balance lock and hypo-dexterity quasi-mixer and, no, I really have no idea what I actually need to make the sound better. I was speaking jibberish* there. But I know I ordered something or other and I have a couple of people helping me so the sound should be better soon enough.

*I am aware, incidentally, that jibberish is actually spelled “gibberish.” I don’t like it that way. I do not mean “gibberish.” I mean “jibberish.”

One thing the Poscast definitely needs is a theme song. We started the first one with some kind of jaunty “From the Wacky World Of Sports!” kind of theme that came free on Garage Band, but we really need something original.

So, that’s where you come in because I know — KNOW — that one thing you definitely were thinking today was, “Hey, I’m a musician, and I have this great idea in my mind for the Sports Poscast theme song.”

So here’s the deal — we’re having a contest. You record your ORIGINAL version of the Poscast theme song at the Poscast number (206.202.3157). And if your song gets picked — and you have to feel pretty good about your chances, I mean how many people do you REALLY think are going to enter here? — you will get one of the following great prizes*:

— Two autographed books from yours truly.
— A new Lexus
— A dream date with someone I know.
— A working calculator

*As selected by me.

You will also by honored by the Poscast, where dozens of people from around America will hear your name and smile.

All musical styles are welcome except for anything inspired by John Tesh. I don’t want to stifle your creativity here, but I will say that if you do decide to go with lyrics that getting the Poscast slogan — “I have no idea what I’m doing” — can only help your chances.

The next Poscast with Bill James will, I hope, be recorded sometime soon. So don’t delay. Act now. Operators are standing by.

* * *

Postscript: Brilliant reader Ryan almost immediately after this post went up wondered why I would make my little joke about John Tesh when he is the man behind this. Well, Ryan’s right. You have to give the man his due.

Read more