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Frenchy And Hope

There are two things to understand about Jeff Francoeur, two contrasting things that constantly have head-on collisions, two things that have made him one of the more talked about players in baseball the last five years.

First thing: He is the most joyous guy out there. He is the guy who is running hard during base running drills and slapping guys on the butt as they get to home plate and bringing energy to a lazy Arizona morning. He is the guy smiling during batting practice as he tries to steal an extra swing or two, the one talking up teammates as they take their swings, the one sprinting from field to field to get to the next drill. He is the guy kidding one television reporter about his golf game, the guy asking the kid who wants his autograph his name and age, the guy who lost 25 pounds so that once again at the start of spring he would be in the best shape of his life.

It is impossible — utterly impossible — not to root for this Jeff Francoeur.

Second thing: He is a corner outfielder who has proven — unquestionably and repeatedly — that he cannot hit well enough to be a regular in the Major Leagues.

Like they did on the old show “21,” we should probably take the second part first. Jeff Francoeur has been a regular since 2006, when he was an overhyped 22-year old player who had gotten off to a spectacular and unsustainable start. The overhyped part, I’m sad to say, was headlined by Sports Illustrated’s regrettable decision to put him on the cover shortly after he arrived in the big leagues. In truth, the decision to put him on the cover was questionable but understandable — Francoeur had come up to Atlanta as a 21-year-old in July, and in his first 19 starts he was hitting .432 and slugging better than .800. He was a local kid, he was photogenic, he was full of energy, he was exceedingly likable, and people all around baseball were talking about him. There are few things that get baseball people going like a phenom, and for a short while Jeff Francoeur was a phenom.

No, the cover decision was not entirely unreasonable. It was the wording that was egregious.

The Natural
Atlanta Rookie JEFF FRANCOEUR Is Off To An Impossibly Hot Start.
CAN ANYONE BE THIS GOOD?

Sigh. I’m never a fan of headlines in newspapers or magazines that have questions that can be answered with one word. “No,” would be the one-word answer to the question at the bottom of the Francoeur SI cover. Francoeur hit .239/.292/.420 after his impossibly hot 19 game start, and the Sports Illustrated jinx had nothing to do with the collapse. There simply was no question he wasn’t that good or anything close to that good. You could see it in his minor-league numbers — Francoeur was only hitting .275/.322/.487 in Class AA when he was called up. You could see it in his peripheral numbers — he did not walk A SINGLE TIME before the Sports Illustrated story was written.*

*Francoeur’s streak of 29 consecutive starts at the beginning of a career without a walk is one of the longest in baseball history, though the longest belongs to the remarkable Alejandro Sanchez who sporadically started 44 games between 1982 and 1986 and did not walk. He only walked once in his entire career, that was May 1 at Yankee Stadium. Dennis Rasmussen, after striking Sanchez out the first two times, walked him in the sixth inning. Rasmussen was immediately and understandably pulled from the game.

But even the question is not the part that makes this cover regrettable — that was just overeagerness, I think. No. The big problem was calling Francoeur “The Natural.” Because that was just wrong. Francoeur, even at his best, was anything but a natural. He was strong-armed and athletic but awkward and stiff — he was a football player in high school — and he had a long swing, and he struck out three times as often as he walked in the minors, and he was always going to have to make up for some things with effort and enthusiasm and attitude. He was in many ways the anti-natural. His future was going to be as a self-made player. Nothing was going to come easy for him.

And then at 21, he was on the cover of SI with “The Natural” stamped on his chest, and it was a really striking cover, a bold cover, a difficult to forget cover, and it’s hard to change that sort of narrative. But he was no natural. Frenchy was going to struggle mightily to turn himself into a big league player, nothing was going to prevent that. But now he would have to turn himself into that player under the glow of disappointment.

It’s impossible to continue at this point without at least mentioning Clint Hurdle. In 1978, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “This Year’s Phenom.” This was based on a fabulous year Hurdle had in Class AAA Omaha in ’77 and, probably even more, a massive home run he hit in his very first game in the big leagues. He hit the 425-foot homer in his second at-bat* … and afterward the stories were about how he was a little bit disappointed that he did not hit one in his FIRST at-bat. He hit another long home run on the day the Royals won their 100th game — I’ve been told by Royals players that was actually the home run that first inspired George Brett to say something along the lines of the Bull Durham quote, “Anything that travels that far ought to have a stewardess on it,” though I have since seen that quote credited to pitcher Larry Andersen.

*It was called a 425-foot homer in the paper the next day. By the time the Sports Illustrated story came out it was 450 feet. In later quotes, it became 500 feet.

Promising young players simply turn baseball people gooey. Royals director of scouting at the time said of Hurdle, “I bubble when I think about his potential.” Legendary hitting coach Charlie Lau said, “From the time he took his first swing there was no doubt in my mind.” George Brett predicted he would hit .300, which at the time was about the best thing you could say about a hitter. But the most telling quote of all was probably from manager Whitey Herzog who after gushing about his brilliant young prospect said: “Hurdle has to prove to me he CAN’T play.”

Well, Hurdle then went about proving it to Herzog. He actually hit a pretty decent .264 with some walks as a 20-year-old in ’78. Well, it was pretty decent for a regular 20-year-old. But of course it was viewed as a massive disappointment for Clint Hurdle, SI cover man, this year’s phenom. He did hit better two years later — .294/.349/.458 in 438 plate appearances — but already the narrative had changed, and he had become “This Year’s Bust,” and he had the inevitable injuries, and he never again played regularly, and he ended his career as a 29-year-old New York Met who pinch hit in three games.

Francoeur’s path was different because he was different. Unlike Hurdle who lost favor fast, people wanted so desperately to love Francoeur. They were always willing to see the best in him. For instance as a 22-year-old Francoeur hit well at home and managed 29 home runs and 103 RBIs for the season. His 87 OPS+ was second-worst in the league for corner outfielders — behind only Randy Winn — and his .293 on-base percentage was the worst for all corner outfielder in baseball. But those 29 home runs and his .315 home batting average, and his fun-to-watch arm and enthusiasm kept the faith high. Francoeur was going to be a big star. People had to believe.

Francoeur had his best year in 2007 — he played all 162 games, hit .293, walked a bit more than he had in the past, won a Gold Glove, drove in 105 RBIs which always gets people excited — but so much of it was illusion. His line drive percentage was still low, his home run power was draining, he swung and missed a lot. The higher batting average was mainly due to to his unnaturally high .337 batting average on balls hit in play. This meant a lot of ground balls were bleeding through. That, like the performance of his his first 19 games, was almost certainly unsustainable.

Here was the biggest problem about Francoeur’s 2007 season: In context, it wasn’t a particularly good season. Jeff Francoeur is a corner outfielder, and corner outfielders and first basemen are paid to hit big. That’s the job of the power positions. Francoeur did not hit big. Forty-eight corner outfielders and first-baseman in 2007 got enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Forty-two of them had higher OPS+ than Francoeur’s 102. The only ones who did not:

— Delmon Young (91 OPS+), a hyped 21-year-old who got traded after the year.
— Jason Bay (94 OPS+), who had a huge down year during another miserable Pittsburgh season.
— Shane Victorino (95 OPS+), who moved to centerfield the next year.
— Shannon Stewart (100 OPS+), who would only get 200 more plate appearances in his career.
— Mark Teahen (101 OPS+), who was really a third baseman and who in many ways has had a Francoeur-like career — people (including me) always want to see the best in him because he’s such a great guy.

In context — considering what you need from a corner outfielder — Francoeur’s very best season was not good enough to make him an everyday player. And he could not be that player for very long. In 2008, his luck turned and he hit .239/.294/.359 — his 72 OPS+ was the worst by far among corner outfielder, and his -3.0 WAR ranked him as the worst player in baseball. Midway through the 2009 season, his numbers were even worse and the Braves finally and regretfully traded him to the New York Mets.

There is one thing that Francoeur has managed to do pretty consistently and that is get off to hot starts in new places. You already know about the hot start that landed him on the cover of SI. Well, he went to the Mets and he hit .311 and slugged almost .500 in 75 games, perhaps his best sustained stretch of hitting as a big leaguers. The Mets rather excitedly brought him back for the 2010 season, and there was some hope that he had figured things out — and he hit .457 and was slugging .857 after 10 games. Thankfully, we didn’t put him on the cover of SI again. He went zero-for-seven on April 17, and he hit .136 over his next 35 games. On August 31, the Mets finally and regretfully traded him to the Texas Rangers.

Over his 15 games with the Rangers, he hit .340.

The numbers are stark. His career OPS+ is 91. The only player in the last 50 years at a power position — left field, right field, first base — to get more plate appearances than Francoeur with an OPS+ that low is Vince Coleman. And Coleman stole one hundred bases three times. The plain fact is that Jeff Francoeur has been given an almost unprecedented number of opportunities to prove himself in the big leagues. And, in 2011, he will start for the Kansas City Royals. Another chance.

And this takes us back to our first point: It is impossible — utterly impossible — to watch Jeff Francoeur, to talk with him, and not to root for him. He plays the game with the enthusiasm of a child who loves baseball. He treats everyone, from the most to least important people in his life, with respect and curiosity. My friend Vac, who will readily admit to having a serious strain of New York cynicism, would text me daily during Francoeur’s brief but glorious hot streaks. “He’s figured it out,” Vac wrote, or “He’s turned the corner.”

This is what I mean when I say that the two big points about Jeff Francoeur crash. His performance demands negativity. His attitude demands hope. The last few springs, you could count on a flurry of stories — from Atlanta, from New York, from a wandering national reporter — about how Jeff Francoeur has made an adjustment, how he has become more patient, how he has shortened his stride, how he has gotten into better shape, anything at all to offer the possibility that Francoeur would turn things around and once again be filled with the promise of photograph on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

On Tuesday, my young friend Sam Mellinger wrote the first (but undoubtedly not the last) of these stories for 2011, referencing all the old standbys — Francoeur’s maturity, his newfound patience, his simpler approach, his determination to swing easier and so on. Sam even brings up Jayson Werth as a comp, though Werth’s issue to overcome as a young player was not 3,500 plate appearances with a 91 OPS+, but an injury that bothered him throughout 2005 and kept him out in 2006.

I went to see the Royals in Surprise for an upcoming SI story, and I made a special effort to watch Francoeur. I saw just what I expected to see. He was bursting with life. He was hustling like mad. He was talking constantly, and making everyone around him feel a little better, work a little harder, smile a little more. And then I watched him take batting practice, and I locked in, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t see what looked to be a more direct swing than I had seen before. Sure, I told myself, everyone looks good in batting practice. But he hit a another line drive, and the sun was shining, and everybody in camp was happy, and he another line drive, and I’m pretty sure I saw Hall of Famer George Brett nod, and I’m pretty sure I heard batting coach Kevin Seitzer shout “atta baby,” and the day had warmed enough to take off my jacket, and I looked up Francoeur’s numbers again and saw that he and I share a birthday (17 years apart) and Frenchy hit another line drive, and his swing definitely looked more fluid and more powerful and the stark numbers of the last five years began to fade and …

And I had to remind myself that this is spring training, and this is baseball, and it wouldn’t be quite as much fun if you couldn’t at least root for Jeff Francoeur.

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The Duke

There have only been a handful of men in baseball history who could carry the title of “Duke.” Fast catchers have, at times, been called Dukes. The relatively speedy Deadball Era catcher Roger Bresnahan was called “The Duke of Tralee” — an homage to his Irish heritage — and former Royals catcher John Wathan who once stole 36 bases in a season is still called “Duke” around town, though that is mostly because he does a killer impression of John Wayne. Duke Sims couldn’t run, but he too was a catcher, and he once hit 23 homers in a season. There have been a few other scattered Dukes, catchers and otherwise.

But, of course, there is really only one Duke in baseball history, Edwin Donald Snider, the Duke of Flatbush. His father started calling him Duke when he was just 5, and he was one of those pure athletes who could pull off the name. There were always fanciful stories about the athletic abilities of Duke Snider — he supposedly could throw a football 70 yards, dunk a basketball without a running start though he was only 6-feet-tall, and in the words of Roger Kahn in the Boys of Summer he was “rangy and gifted and subtle. Duke could get his glove 13 feet in the air.” Kahn explained that Snider was so athletic he used center field wall at Ebbetts Field like a vertical trampoline.

Duke Snider was an outsized character — this should not be lost in death. He was flesh and blood, beloved beyond reason and booed beyond logic. As Bill James has written, “Sport Magazine in the 1950s used to alternate between two types of Duke Snider articles, the ‘Why is Duke Snider Such A Dog’ article and the ‘Why Doesn’t Duke Snider Get The Respect He Deserves” article. Phillip Roth (as Alexander Portnoy) called Snider “my king of kings, the Lord my God.” Others called him loafer.

There are no such contrasts with Mays or Mantle or DiMaggio — few in baseball history have ever animated both sides of the aisle quite like the Duke. You know, his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, with the memory of his moody brilliance and beautiful strikeouts still sharp, he received only 17% of the vote, the same as Phil Cavaretta. It took 10 years of slow and bumpy momentum — 17%, then 25%, back to 21%, up to 27%, a jump to 30% and so on — before the Duke finally got his Hall of Fame votes. In 1980, he received a stunning and overwhelming 86.5% of the vote. It was as if all the writers decided at once that 10 years on the outside was the proper penance for the Duke of Flatbush.

* * *

Penance? Penance for what? Duke Snider was indisputably a great player, with his career 140 OPS+, his high career peak, his excellent defensive reputation. Penance for what? I have two theories. The first is a pure baseball theory — it seems to me that Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle kind of ruined it for center fielders in the 1950s.

Third base has often been described as sort of a tweener position — a position that doesn’t have the defensive demands of shortstop and but has enough demands that many of the best hitters simply cannot play the position for very long — and because of this there are fewer third baseman in the Hall of Fame than any other position. But if you look only at the 111 players who were voted into the Hall by the Baseball Writers, you will find that there have been just as few listed center fielders voted in as third basemen.

1B: 9
2B: 10
SS: 10
3B: 7
LF: 11
CF: 7
RF: 13*
C: 8
P: 36

*I never know what to do with Andre Dawson … I’ve mentioned that Tom Tango says you have to list him as a centerfielder because that’s where he was at his best. But he started 240 more games in right field. For the point I’m making here, temporarily we will call Dawson an “Outfielder.” Then again, one of the seven third basemen is Paul Molitor who was really a designated hitter. And Tony Perez played a lot of third base. So the point is probably muted. Either way, there are not many centerfielders voted to the Hall.

This at first seems strange because centerfield seems such a glamour position, the only baseball position to inspire a No. 1 rock song* and the position of Willie, Mickey and the Duke. But maybe the glamour is exactly WHY so few center fielders are voted into the Hall of Fame. What I mean is … well, Ted Williams was, at best, an indifferent left fielder. Reggie Jackson, for most of his career, was an indifferent right fielder. Ralph Kiner could do two things: Walk and slug. Lou Brock was a surprisingly poor outfielder. Willie Stargell, from his youngest days, couldn’t run. Jim Rice was undoubtedly better defensively than his reputation, but that’s in part because his defensive reputation was bad. Dave Winfield won a bunch of Gold Gloves though, other than the joy of watching him uncoil and throw, there is little supporting evidence that he was even an average right fielder in New York. And so on.

*If you call John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” rock … maybe I’ve just heard it too much.

Point is, for corner outfielders we tend to be pretty lenient when it comes to apparent flaws. If the guy could hit, really hit, and he had a reasonably long career, the voters check the Hall of Fame box no matter how little he may have offered in every other phase of the game. Manny Ramirez, I have little doubt, will go to the Hall of Fame someday. This is true for other positions too — Ozzie Smith, for most of his career, was a below-average hitter.

But we accept few flaws when it comes to centerfielders. I have little doubt that, at their peaks, Fred Lynn and Dale Murphy and Jimmy Wynn and Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds were better baseball players, markedly better, than any number of corner outfielders in the Hall of Fame. But the position took its toll on their bodies. Their career credentials are imperfect. And when it comes to centerfielders, Hall of Fame voters have little tolerance for imperfections.

I think that Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle inspired that feeling in voters — DiMaggio too. They made centerfield unrealistic. They made the five-tool player seem like a natural thing. Andruw Jones in his younger days might have been the greatest defensive centerfielder in baseball history. His defensive statistics are otherworldly, and in this case the defensive statistics matched the eye. He was absurdly wonderful out there. And he also hit with immense power — he averaged 35 homers a year between 1998 and 2007. But he hit for fairly low averages then, and he struck out a ton, and he regressed almost defiantly, and I don’t think people will appreciate his brilliance over the years.

The problem is: Willie Mays did the same things as Jones, but he did them longer, and he hit better, and he ran faster …

The problem is — as I have written before — nobody comes off looking too good when compared to Willie Mays.

So, I think that was Duke Snider’s first issue. He, more than anyone, was compared daily to Mays and Mantle, and he was beat up often in the process. Snider, best I can make out, was good defensively but certainly no Mays. He hit for great power — he led the league in homers in 1956 and hit 40-plus three other times — but he was certainly no Mantle. He walked a lot but not like Mantle, he could run well but not like Mays, he had a powerful arm when he was young but hurt it and was never quite the same after he turned 30 while Mays went along brilliantly until he was 40 or so — even the star-crossed and oft-injured Mantle almost won an MVP in 1964 when he was 32.

Being about 70% to 80% as good as Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays still qualifies someone as a great baseball player, but it’s hard to think of it that way. It seems to me that the centerfield brilliance of Willie Mays has crowded our imagination and left us slightly jaded and numb to the notion of mere greatness.

My second theory revolves around something I’ve written about before and that is what I call the curse of gracefulness. Raul Ibanez is one of my favorite people, and one of my favorite players, but even I would not call him graceful as a player. He runs like my old Ford Escort drove uphill. You can almost hear the engine revving. He is all energy, all the time, legs pumping, arms pumping, sweat everywhere. When he is chasing a fly ball, he might get there, he might not get there, but there is little question about his sense of purpose.

The same is not true for Carlos Beltran … or at least Carlos Beltran before he got hurt. Beltran was infinitely faster than Raul, and I mean infinitely — if they were racing around the bases Beltran would round the bags an infinite number of times before Ibanez would round them once. Raul would admit this without hesitation. For this reason and others, Beltran was clearly and unquestionably a much better outfielder.

And yet … I have absolutely no doubt that Beltran has been booed countless more times for his defense than Ibanez. Why? Well, in part because Beltran has the curse of gracefulness.* Beltran never quite looks like he is giving full effort. He never seems to be pushing against the edges of his potential. There may be some truth to this — maybe Beltran has not always given full effort, and maybe he has not always lived up to his potential. But who does? Anyway, he is trying much harder than it looks like he’s trying.

*For you Mets fans, I wrote an essay on Beltran for Amazin’ Avenue which I am told will be in stores this week.

Duke Snider had this problem. For unto whomsoever much is given, shall be much required. Everything with Duke was grace and ease. His swing was beautiful and easy. His stride was natural and easy. The word is “easy.” There’s a telling story about Snider in The Boys of Summer about this time he was benched by manager Charlie Dressen for loafing on a fly ball. Kahn does not get into whether Snider actually was loafing — he wasn’t at that game — and anyway the point of the story seemed to be that some of the writers ripped Snider which caused him to threaten to punch Dick Young in the face and so on.

Then, there is this rather startling paragraph:

“Three days later, Snider was back and for the rest of the season he played brilliantly. Dressen’s impersonal brutality worked. I don’t know what was more disturbing, that or the way Snider while hitting at a .400 pace, continue to discard his bat jubilantly when walked, joyous, as (writer Bill) Roeder had observed, not to face another challenge.”

Kahn liked Snider a great deal, but even he could not help but think of Snider as a player uneasy with his own immense talents — an underachiever. This, I think, is the curse of gracefulness. After he was benched in 1952, Snider hit .345 with 9 doubles and eight homers in 36 starts. He cracked two home runs against Cincinnati on Sept. 15 with the Giants trailing by only three games, and hit another homer the next night to lift the team to win over Pittsburgh.

But here’s the big thing — he walked a grand total of five times in those 36 starts. Five. Snider was generally a patient hitter. In 1955, he walked more than 100 times, and in 1956 he led the league in walks. But for more than a month, he swung freely, an obvious effort to turn up his aggressiveness. But even so, many years later Roger Kahn remembered Snider longing to walk, remembered Snider being thrilled for any reprieve against putting his own great talents to the test yet again.

I just think that certain people play their games so gracefully and make it all look so easy that people cannot help but judge them … and judge them harshly. Coaches always thought Eric Dickerson wasn’t running all out because he ran so gracefully. And Duke Snider’s grace — along with his own difficulties to deal with the impossible expectation — led to a perception of him, a perception that led to those competing stories in Sport Magazine, that he was a dog and that he was not given his due respect.

* * *

One thing that’s funny about Duke Snider is that, on almost every All-Time Centerfielders List I see, he is ranked the seventh-best centerfielder in baseball history. Yes, some will have him sixth, others eighth, but it’s almost always seven. I think it’s kind of funny to have that sort of consensus about someone being seventh, but if you look at the players ranked ahead of him it actually makes sense.

1. Willie Mays is first on almost every list. Occasionally, someone will throw Ty Cobb up there for argument’s sake, but it’s usually Mays.

2. Ty Cobb is probably second, unless you are one of those people who put him first. Occasionally someone will put Mantle or DiMaggio up here, knock down Cobb for the era when he played and his general surliness, but that seems kind of petty.

3. Tris Speaker is third in WAR — both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. Bill James puts Mantle here.

4. Mickey Mantle probably belongs here, but the lists I’ve seen bounce all over the place — from DiMaggio to Griffey to Speaker …

5. Joe DiMaggio seems the right choice, but again it’s all over the place — I’ve seen everyone mentioned up to now except Mays in this spot.

6. Ken Griffey seems sixth by most references, but again it’s tricky. I’ve seen a couple of lists Negro Leagues great Oscar Charleston here, which I find a little strange. Many people who saw Charleston — including Buck O’Neil — say he was the best to ever play. And of course, most people never saw him at all. So I don’t really understand ranking him sixth. I’m guess he was either one of the all-time greats or he wasn’t, but he probably wasn’t sixth. Bill James boldly ranks Charleston the fourth-best player of all time — only Mays ahead among centerfielders — and I would probably think along the lines.

7. Duke Snider.

It’s crazy. No matter what order the Top 6 seem to be in, no matter what players are in there, people tend to put Snider seventh. It’s almost as if everyone sees Duke Snider as not QUITE as good as the legends, but ALMOST as good. Well, every great player has his own legacy, and this is the legacy of the Duke.

* * *

In 1955, Snider should have won the MVP award. Well, in fact, Willie Mays was probably the best player in ’55, but Mays was probably the best player in the National League in 1954, ’55, ’57, ’58, ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64 and ’65, and they weren’t about to give him 10 MVP awards, so this was a good year to give it to someone else. The writers DID give it to someone else.

And it seems pretty apparent to me that Snider was the right choice. He was second in the league in on-base percentage (.418) to Richie Ashburn, second in slugging (.628) to Mays, led the league in runs scored (126), led the league in RBIs (136) and so on. Some of this was helped along by the hitter-friendly Ebbetts Field, but it was still a great year.

Snider’s teammate Roy Campanella had a great year too … but in my mind it was decidedly not as great as the Duke. For one thing, he played 25 fewer games as catchers will. For another, Snider put up bigger numbers offensively. And while catching is unquestionably the most demanding defensive position — physically and mentally — centerfield as mentioned is plenty tough too and Snider was a good centerfielder.

Anyway, Campanella had already won two MVPs by then which should not play into voters thinking but in almost every case DOES play into their thinking. But not this time.

So what happened? Well, for one thing, Snider was a difficult guy. In late July, he was hitting .330 and slugging better than .700 and looked on his way to a season for the ages. Then he went into a pretty massive slump, the fans started booing him — the fans in Brooklyn, like Sport Magazine, loved him and despised him in equal measure — and he snapped that they were the “worst fans in the league.” He started hitting again after that, and pretty soon everything was forgiven.

Well … maybe not everything. When the season ended, though Snider had clearly the better counting numbers, he and Campanella both got eight first place MVP votes. The other eight votes went to Ernie Banks (six votes), Robin Roberts (one vote for what was actually a down season for him) and, somewhat absurdly, Pee Wee Reese (one vote). Reese was a terrific player, a Hall of Famer, but he was 36 that year, and he was quite apparently declining (he never had another good year) and he so clearly did not have as good a year as either of his teammates.

In any case, because of the split vote the thing was really decided by the other ballots, and when everything was totaled up Campanella beat out Snider by five points. The final scoring looked like so:

Campanella: 8 first place votes (112 points); 6 second place (54); 3 third place (24); 4 fifth place (24); 3 seventh place (12). Total: 226.

Snider: 8 first place votes (112 points); 4 second place (36); 2 third place (16); 5 fourth place (35); 3 fifth place (18); 1 seventh place (4). Total 221.

You can look through that and figure out who you think deserved it based on the breakdown. Campy had more second and third place votes which I think is pretty telling. But another way to look at it is that Campanella appeared on all 24 ballots. Snider appeared only on 23. And that’s where the story turns.

The story that has been told — most recently by Tracy Ringolsby — is that one of the voters who was in the hospital (this turns out to be important later) had put Campanella down both as a first place vote and fifth place vote. The assumption was that he meant to put Campy first and Snider fifth (or the other way around) but had put Campy down twice by mistake. The assumption was strengthened by the fact that Snider was nowhere else on the ballot.

Tracy writes that the BBWAA “never could get a clarification of the voter’s intention,” which seems bizarre to me but I can only guess that’s where the hospital part comes in. Anyway, if the man’s ballot had been disqualified, as it probably should have been, Snider would have won by three points. If they had put Snider into the fifth spot instead of Campy, he would have won by one point. But the decision made instead was plain bizarre — they decided to accept a flawed ballot with Campanella getting a first place vote and a blank spot in fifth place. And that’s how Campy won his third MVP.

The story sounds a bit too pat, doesn’t it? They couldn’t find the voter’s intention? Why not? Why was he in the hospital? Did he die? And it just so happens that the writer had the second Campy FIFTH so that it would have given Snider a one-point victory? Like I say, it all sounds a bit too convenient, and I have learned from Rob Neyer that convenient stories are rarely entirely true.

BUT when I went back into the newspaper archives I found that it is indeed documented that there was one ballot that left off Snider entirely. That was mentioned in a Stars and Stripes story, not as an outrage but as a simple statement of fact. It’s also possible that someone left off Snider entirely out of spite — Snider was not a favorite of sportswriters.

Whatever happened — whether it was a sick writer or an angry one — one thing that is striking about the post-MVP stories is that there a bit of an outrage. Arthur Daley, in fact, wrote in the New York Times that Campanella was the right choice, others in smaller papers seemed to follow.

Nobody in the papers I saw stood up for Duke Snider. Nothing was ever easy with Duke Snider, except for the easy swing and the easy grace and the easy name. Few baseball player have ever been called Duke. Only one was The Duke.

* * *

I should add one more thought here: I was talking to a friend on Monday who grew up in Chicago in the 1950s, and he told me that at Wrigley Field he once saw Duke Snider strike out swinging three times and then crush a grand slam home run that won the game. This too seemed like something make believe, like something someone might romantically remember but never really happened …

… except it did. On May 15, 1951, the Dodgers and Cubs played at Wrigley, and Bob Rush started for the Cubs and he struck out Snider swinging three times. The Duke wasn’t exactly a legend then — he was just 24 — but he had led the league in hits the year before, and he led the league in strikeouts in ’49 and he had a reputation.

“Look out,” my friend remembers his father saying when Pee Wee Reese walked to load the bases in the seventh. The Cubs led 4-3. Snider walked to the plate. “He had that way of walking,” my friend said. “Unforgettable.”

Rush had tired. Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish was pitching for the Cubs. Cal McLish said that his father had named him. He was known for many things, mostly his name, but also for the time when he was pitching for Cleveland against Boston in May ’57 and gave up a homer to Gene Mauch, followed by a homer to Ted Williams, followed by a walk to Jackie Jensen, followed by a homer to Dick Gernert, followed by a homer to Frank Malzone.

In any case, Duke Snider crushed a long home run against McLish, the grand slam, and what my friend remembers is watching Snider run around the bases while Chicago peoiple booed. What he remembers even more, though, is probably the most telling thing anyone could say about Duke Snider.

My friend remembers that in that moment he knew he would never forget.

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Oscar Picks

I noticed making my Oscar picks this year that I’ve actually seen quite a few of the movies. This, I take as a very bad sign. The only way I’ve found to pick the Oscars with any level of accuracy is to know as little about the movies themselves as possible. I have found this is also true for me when it comes to picks the NCAA basketball tournament. Looks like another dreadful picking year.

In my family, the Oscars are a holiday, and we’ve been picking them at least since Annie Hall, maybe since Rocky. I cannot remember for sure if we picked the Oscars the Rocky year, but I seem to remember getting it right because, of course, “Rocky” was cool and about boxing while the superior “Network” was about something beyond my 9-year-old mind. Like I say, the less I know …

If you are actually wagering on the Oscars, or actually know a lot about movies, you’d probably be better off to stop reading now rather than allow the following nonsense to pollute your mind.

Supporting actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
— Actually have not seen this year, but have only heard great things.

Supporting actress: Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
— I thought Hailee Steinfeld was amazing in “True Grit,” and I’ve heard great things about Melissa Leo in The Fighter — I suppose she is the favorite. But one thing I like to do when I pick my Oscars is ride what seems to be the hot movie. I have a feeling The King’s Speech is going to really rack up this year.

Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
— Seems like a lock to me. Some critics seemed to think it was the best picture of the year period. I liked it, but not that much.

Art Direction: Alice in Wonderland
— No idea, haven’t seen it, not even sure what this category really involves, but it just seems like the art was probably directed well in Alice.

Cinematography: True Grit
— Could be blunder No. 1 based on having seen the movies. I don’t REALLY know what Cinematography is, but True Grit seemed to me to have a lot of it.

Costume Design: The King’s Speech
— Thought hard about Alice in Wonderland, but I already gave it Art Direction. I actually was not overly impressed with the Costumes in The King’s Speech, but everything seemed authentic and British and that seems to impress Oscar voters.

Documentary Feature: Inside Job
— Exit Through the Gift Shop was probably my favorite movie experience of the year, but it seems a bit too controversial to win the Oscar. Inside Job, which I also saw, was pretty powerful and feels to me more in Oscar’s wheelhouse.

Documentary Short: Strangers No More
— No reason. I can just see someone like Vince Vaughn, after a few lame jokes about the category, saying “And the winner is ‘Strangers No More.'”

Film Editing: The Social Network
— A couple of months ago, I thought for sure The Social Network would sweep pretty much everything. But the movie business moves fast, and The Social Network kind of feels like yesterday’s news. But I’ll give it this one.

Foreign Language: Blutiful
— A movie from Mexico about Popeye and Olive Oyl and … wait … that’s not right?

Makeup: The Wolfman
— I’ve never heard of any of the three movies nominated. I’m sure their makeup is great, but I have a problem with the whole category. Sure I want brilliant makeup people rewarded as much as anyone, but seeing “Oscar winner” on the DVD case of The Wolfman is a bit much.

Original Score: The King’s Speech
— Might go to How To Train Your Dragon, I hear. But I’m thinking King’s Speech original score is swept up by the wave.

Original Song: We Belong Together from Toy Story 3.
— It’s not a great song, I don’t think, but Randy Newman has only won one Oscar. And he didn’t win for the very good “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” from the first Toy Story. Makeup call, I think.

Animated short film: Day & Night
— I hear this one is about both day AND night. Both squeezed into a short film? Amazing.

Live action short film: Na Wewe
— No idea, as always, but I will not pass up the chance to vote for anything called “Na wewe.”

Sound editing: Inception
— I don’t have an ear or eye for it, obviously, but I suspect Inception will win the bulk of technical awards. The movie was stunning for the senses.

Sound mixing: The Social Network
— I keep thinking there’s a chance I’m betting on the wrong horse with The King’s Speech and actually The Social Network has more momentum behind it than I’m thinking. This is me hedging my bets a little bit. Inception will probably win here, right?

Visual effects: Inception
— Slam dunk, I suspect.

Adapted screenplay: The Social Network
— I loved True Grit’s screenplay — and it was truly and honestly adapted from the book. But after seeing Social Network come out, I gave it a rare 29 VOOB — that’s Value Over Originating Book. It was just so much better than the book, and I’m a big fan of author Ben Mezrich.

Original screenplay: The King’s Speech
— The only knock I’ve heard on the movie is that at times it feels more like a play than a living, breathing film. I didn’t see it that way, but even if the movie felt static, the writing and acting was wonderful.

Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
— Lock of the night.

Best actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
— A lot of people seemed to like Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right” and she could win. She’s been nominated four times now and she didn’t win the first three. But I think it’s Portman’s year.

Best director: David Fincher, The Social Network
— I see the rare director/movie split happening this year because of that weird momentum thing I was talking about earlier. I think Fincher — who seemed to impress everyone with that Curious Case of Benjamin Button thing, even though I found that movie to be interminable — wowed everyone with the movie. I think it’s an amazing thing to make the founding of Facebook into a fascinating movie. Give him the Oscar.

Best movie: The King’s Speech
— If The Social Network wins here, and it certainly could, my whole strategy has gone down in flames.

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Beautiful

Every city and town in America has a Bill Grigsby. And no other place on earth but Kansas City has a Bill Grigsby. That’s about the only way I know how to tell you about my old friend. Cities across America have certain people who are only famous within the boundaries of their hometowns. They are distinctive disc jockeys or longtime newspaper columnists or local politicians who fight the good fight. They are storytellers or local historians or police officers or former mayors or people who seem to be involved in every charity or just quirky characters who are famous because they are famous, and you have to live in the town for a little while just to understand. They are the backdrop for the places where we live.

Bill Grigsby was an announcer for The Kansas City Chiefs for almost 50 years. This would be the way you would describe him to people outside Kansas City if they asked, “Who is this Bill Grigsby guy?” But that description is like calling chocolate “A food produced from the seed of the Cacao tree.” It is technically right. And it entirely misses the point.

Bill Grigsby was an announcer. He was also salesman. He was a promoter. He was a storyteller. He was a businessman. He was a bar owner. He was an insurance salesman. He was a pool hustler. He was a job recruiter. He was a guy who worked for the Kansas City A’s in the years when they were dreadful and largely irrelevant — this would cover all the years of the Kansas City A’s — and when people would call the office to ask what time the game started he would reply: “What time can you get here?”

He was a guy who was a part owner of the short-lived Kansas City Scouts NHL hockey team … and with his sports background he helped scout players. Unfortunately, he did not know a single thing about hockey and so he helped by picking the ones whose names sounded most to him like hockey names. This was how the Scouts got players like Simon Nolet, Guy Charron, Jean-Guy Lagace, Wilf Paiement, Bart Crashley and Butch Deadmarsh. This was also how the Scouts won only one of their last 44 games before moving to Denver.

He worked for a while with the nuns at St. Theresa’s school and at that same time he was a wrestling promoter, which led to one of his favorite lines, which was that when the phone rang he could never be sure if it was Sister Bernice or Dick the Bruiser. He claimed to beat the great Willie Mosconi in three-cushion billiards, though when asked if he was a successful pool hustler he would say: The thing that scares you about hustling pool is that you will run into somebody with less money than you have.

He used to say that he had a lot of stories, and some of them were even true.

One of those true stories was about the time he went up to St. Joseph to do a speaking engagement with former Chiefs coach Hank Stram. There was a long version to this story, and an even longer version, but the short one is that they had decided to split the money. While Stram was speaking, they handed Grigsby an envelope. He sneaked off to the bathroom and saw there was $400 in there — way more than he had expected. He skimmed $100 off the top, resealed the envelope, and came back. When Stram was finished talking, Grigsby gave him the envelope and did his talk.

When Grigs was finished, he went over to Stram and said: “How’d we do Henry?”

And Stram said: “Great. We’ve got $200 to split right down the middle.”

If I tell you that Bill Grigsby had literally an unlimited number of these kinds of stories, I would still not be doing him justice. I used to say to him that he must sit at home and think them up. He did not deny the charge. I think that’s what struck me most about him. Bill saw life through a prism of stories and one liners and wonderful little memories. “I will never forget …” is how he began so many of his sentences, and he never did forget, and he sometimes remembered a bit too happily, which he saw as the greatest gift of all.

He once announced seven basketball games in one day. He relayed this by saying that for weeks afterward he would call his wife “Fran, a shooting guard from Georgia Southern.” He was radio announcer for the Joplin Miners when they had a raw and young shortstop named Mickey Mantle. He remembers this with the line: “Mantle made so many errors at shortstop that after games I used to have to hold his beer for him.” He called the famous triple overtime National Championship game between Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas and North Carolina. “Wilt was the greatest athlete I ever saw,’ he would say.

“No funny line?” I would ask.

“Wilt was the greatest athlete I ever saw,” he would say again.

He lived life at a frenetic pace. He often told me he never felt comfortable, not after growing up during the Depression. If he wasn’t doing something, he was dying. And Bill had no intention of dying, not before his time. “I’m 108 years old,” he said whenever anyone asked his age. I thought that was telling. Satchel Paige stayed 39 forever. Most people want that. Bill Grigsby was 108 years old long before he was even 80.

“Enthusiasm is what keeps me going,” he would say. “I believe in enthusiasm. I think it’s the best medicine. I think it’s the best exercise. I think it’s the best way to live.”

He became known in town mostly for the way he said the word “Beautiful” before Chiefs games. That was his trademark. He would growl a bit at the beginning, and stretch out the vowels as long as he could — especially the E — so it sounded like BEEEEEEEEEEEE-yooooooo-teee-fuuul. Every day was beautiful, of course, even when the rain turned the field to mud, even when cold turned the streets to ice, even when the sun and humidity turned Kansas City into a sauna, even when the economy was bad and the news was bad and there was sadness lingering in the air. It was OK to feel sad, he thought. But nothing could keep the day from being beautiful.

A few weeks ago, another Kansas City character, an old trumpeter named Tony DiPardo died at 98. With Tony, like with Grigs, a one word summation like “trumpeter” feels entirely wrong because his life was so much richer than that. He was known in Kansas City for playing the trumpet at Chiefs games from the very beginning, but his life was one of music and family and bringing joy to people who knew him. Then again, in Kansas City, people knew him. They knew his heart. People in Kansas City didn’t need too many words to trigger their own feelings about Tony. The word “trumpeter” was enough.

And so it goes with Bill Grigsby. Outside of Kansas City, most people didn’t know his name. He never minded that. Inside Kansas City, he was loved. Bill Grigsby died Saturday. He was 89 years old. I could tell again his story of the midget women wrestlers or the one about Len Dawson at the first Super Bowl or the many about A’s owner Charlie O. Finley or the one about golfing with Tom Watson or a thousand others. I’m sure I will tell many of those stories over the rest of my life. For now, though, I think only of that one word, his favorite word, the word that doesn’t just describe his life but how he felt about life. The word, of course, is beautiful.

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The Buck O’Neil Award

My good friend Sam Mellinger wrote a column today for The Kansas City Star about the Baseball Hall of Fame giving the first Buck O’Neil award to Roland Hemond. Sam’s point is that while Hemond is a perfectly fine choice, he’s not a sexy choice, not a show-stopping choice, and that is a disappointment.

I’m very proud of Sam. I’ve known him since he was a kid in this business, and I’ve watched him grow throughout his life as as a journalist and as a person, and I could not be happier or prouder that he is writing my old column at The Kansas CIty Star.

I could not disagree with him more.

* * *

When Buck O’Neil died — and we’re closing in on five years ago now — there were people who believed he died with a broken heart. My own thought is that everybody who thought that got it wrong. Buck died of old age — he was almost 95 years old when he passed away in October of 2006. And the life he lived, the pain he overcame, the barriers he burst through, the joy he expressed for people and life and baseball, believe me when I tell you that you could not break that beautiful man’s heart.


The reason people thought he died with sadness is because seven months earlier a special committee did not vote him for the Hall of Fame. There’s no question that it stung Buck a bit. His accomplishments as a player (a Negro Leagues batting champion), a manager (his Kansas City Monarchs teams were the best in Negro Leagues baseball multiple times), a coach (he was the first African American coach in baseball), a scout (signed Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Joe Carter, Lee Smith among other) and a celebrator of the game (impossible to sum up) were well known. Everyone had seemed so sure that the committee would honor him — and I have little doubt that was the Hall of Fame’s intention when they formed the committee — and the no vote on that day in February when 17 others were elected came as a jolt. I was there. I saw it.

He handled it with dignity, of course. He was quiet for a little while. And then, just minutes after that, he started wondering if he might be asked to introduce the 16 dead men and one dead woman who were elected. And when I asked him why he would consider doing that — indeed, he DID introduce them in Cooperstown in one of his his last public appearances — he said to me words that still echo in my head: “Son, what has my life been about?”

What was Buck’s life about? It was about baseball, of course. It was about love. It was about faith. It was about honoring those who, in their own small ways, had helped changed the world. And it was about doing his best to make sure people did not forget. Again and again, across the country, he would tell people small stories about Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson and Oscar Charleston and many others. He would talk about the pulse of neighborhoods in black communities in the 1930s and 1940s, with jazz playing on neon-lit Saturday nights and baseball on brilliantly bright Sunday afternoons.

“And,” he would always say, “we could play.”

There’s no question the Hall of Fame vote stung him a bit, but I think people always assumed it hurt him much more than it did. After a little while, it seemed to embarrass him when people wandered over to tell him how much he deserved to go to the Hall of Fame. He had suffered countless and infinitely bigger disappointments in his life — he was not allowed to attend the white high school, not given a chance to play baseball in the Major Leagues, not even allowed to coach on the field with the Chicago Cubs — and these left no mark on his sense of hope, his exuberance for life, his optimism for the future, his love of people. If you just showed up at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, there was a good chance he’d be there, and he would say: “How would you like a tour?” And then he would take you around, tell you some stories, leave you feeling like the most important person in the world. And then he would hug you. And suddenly you had a day you would never forget for the rest of your life. Which, I think, was the point.

I tell you a bit about Buck O’Neil because after he died people lined up to honor him. More than a million dollars was raised for the “Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center.” Months later, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush. Not too long after that, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that they would build a statue in his honor. And they announced that on occasion, they would give out a new award they called “The Buck O’Neil Award,” for “distinguished achievement and extraordinary efforts to enhance the game’s positive impact on society.”

Of course, I desperately wanted Buck to be elected into the Hall of Fame while he was alive. The snubbing undoubtedly hurt me more than it hurt him because Buck was my friend and because, of course, I do not have Buck’s strength of character. That said, when he died I sincerely hoped that the Hall of Fame would not posthumously induct him into the Hall. I thought in some ways that would have been an insult to what the man’s ideals and principles — it would have smacked of pity and regret, two things that Buck had no use for.

But when they announced the Buck O’Neil Award, well, I thought the Hall of Fame got it exactly right. They got it perfect. Son, what has my life been about? Here they would have a chance to honor all those people in baseball who have not been honored, all those people who have helped make baseball fantastic and joyful but have not been celebrated and not been inducted into the Hall of Fame. It seemed to me that this was EXACTLY the way to honor Buck’s memory.

Then … I waited. The Hall of Fame did not give out the award that first year, or the second year, or the third year. I started to wonder if they had forgotten all about it. But I was told by some people that they wanted to wait until 2011 to give out the first one. Buck would have turned 100 this year.

Tuesday, they gave the first Buck O’Neil Award to longtime scout and executive Roland Hemond. And it was an utterly beautiful choice. Hemond has been in baseball for 60 years, and he has breathed life and triumph and delight into the game for all those years. The danger of talking about people like Hemond — and Buck, for that matter — is that a list of accomplishments can come off as cold and impersonal and unconvincing. Hemond was one of the creators of the Arizona Fall League. He helped build the expansion California Angels (then the Los Angeles Angels) and Arizona Diamondbacks. He has been a lifelong advocate for scouts (scouting was always so close to Buck’s heart), and he was a lifelong advocate for giving minorities opportunities in the game, and he was named executive of the year a couple of times, and many, many other things. He was a huge influence on some pretty great baseball people. He hired a young Tony La Russa, a young Jim Leyland, a young Walt Jocketty, a young Dave Dombrowski, and so many others.

But maybe the best way to describe Roland Hemond is to tell the story of when Bill Veeck bought the Chicago White Sox. Hemond was the general manager, and Veeck told him he needed to “let your imagination run.” Many other owners and managers will tell their people to think out of the box, but with Veeck you know that when he said think of out of the box, he meant WAY out of the box.

So when Hemond showed up at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida — site of the Winter Meetings — and took one look at the lobby, his imagination took hold. He rushed to see Veeck and said: “What if we grab a table and put up a sign that says ‘Open for Business?'”

Of course Veeck loved it. And they did it — had a table right in the middle of the lobby, with that sign on it, and open chairs for any general manager who wanted to sit down. They made four trades in a flurry of an afternoon — a couple right at the deadline — and no one who was there that day will ever forget it.

Does a fun story like that tell you how much Roland Hemond did for baseball? Of course not. But it might tell you a little bit about the man, how he embraced the game, how he thought it was supposed to be fun and wild and unconventional and full of spirit. Some of the teams he ran played very well. Some of the players he helped discover turned into big stars. Some of the stands he took helped people in baseball who might otherwise have been overlooked. And there’s no counting how many people he made happy with his presence and story telling and exuberance. There are few who have given so much of themselves to the game. Yes, in my mind, Roland Hemond was exactly the right choice for the first Buck O’Neil Award.

The other argument is that the award should have gone to someone more famous, more iconic — Hank Aaron or Ernie Banks or Joe Morgan or someone like that? To be blunt about it, the award would have lost meaning for me if the Hall of Fame had gone in that direction. We all know of those men’s greatness. What is another award thrown on top of the pile of awards already given to those men? If they had given the Buck O’Neil award to someone already in the Hall of Fame, it would have been just another award, another honorary doctorate, a nice honor to accept, and smile for the cameras, and give a pleasant little speech about (“I can’t tell you how much this award means to me”) … just like a thousand other nice honors.

Roland Hemond broke down in tears when he won the award. That’s what the award should be about. That, I think, is what Buck O’Neil’s life was about — it was about not letting wonderful moments and wonderful people drift away unremembered.

Buck always wanted to tell people the story of Oscar Charleston. I heard him talk about Oscar Charleston dozens of times. He always said that while Willie Mays was the greatest Major League player he ever saw, Charleston was simply the greatest player he ever saw. He said Charleston could hit you 50 home runs, steal you 50 bases, run down every fly ball hit, and he had a bit of a mean streak too. He was going to beat you every way you could be beaten.

There were people who thought Buck told Oscar Charleston stories again and again to honor Oscar Charleston. But as I look back on Buck’s life, I don’t think that’s quite right. Oscar Charleston was dead a long time by then. No, I think Buck told those stories to honor … us. He thought WE should know about Oscar Charleston. He thought knowing that such a great baseball player once roamed the outfields of the world would make OUR lives a little bit richer, a little bit fuller, a little bit more colorful. That to me should be — and I think is — the spirit of the Buck O’Neil Award. I expect for the next few months people will share many Roland Hemond stories that most of us have never heard before. I expect Roland himself might share a few. And we’ll all be richer for hearing them.

And that, I think, I hope, I believe, is what Buck O’Neil’s life was about.

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Pushing Back Time

Jack Nicklaus always said that he loved hearing a competitor complain about the conditions at a golf tournament. He loved it because that meant he could cross that guy off the list. The greens are too choppy? Boom — you can’t win. The rough’s too high? Boom — you can’t win. The fairways are too narrow? Boom — you can’t win. The golf course is unfair, the wind is coming from an unfamiliar direction, the crowd control is not what it should be, the course is set up for long hitters, for left-to-right players, for right-to-left players, for great putters*, the course is set up for high scores or low scores … the way Nicklaus figured it, they were all playing under the same conditions which, by definition, meant it was fair. It’s always fair. To Nicklaus, every complaint was just a preemptive excuse.

Nicklaus’ Law: If you’re complaining before the thing even starts, you ain’t winning.


*I remember talking about the Masters once with Johnny Miller, and he kept referring to it as the “United States Spring Putting Championship.” I thought this was a very funny line, though it is probably telling that Miller never won a Masters. He finished tied for second three times.

I thought about Nicklaus’ Law again this week when I read that Derek Jeter has been working on shortening his stride and speeding up his bat — these adjustments mean to get him back on the fastball again. I thought about Nicklaus’ Law this week while reading that Tiger Woods’ much-talked about swing changes finally clicked when he was playing a practice with John Cook. He looked like his old self again, Cook gushed.

And so we introduce a corollary to Nicklaus’ law — we will call it Steve Carlton’s law:

You cannot adjust your way out of getting old.

You can go back through recent history and find quote after quote after quote from 30-something athletes who believe they have figured out a way to fight off age. They have figured out a way to delay the end. And here’s the thing: Their adjustments don’t only sound reasonable, they sound positively believable … hey why CAN’T YOU just shorten your stride a bit to make up for lost bat speed? Why CAN’T you just rework your golf swing to make up for an aging body that is no longer as flexible and reactive as it once was? Why can’t you use your experience to be a good quarterback or point guard after the body begins to lose some of its life. It just makes sense. The mind is sharper than ever. The experience level is higher than ever. An adjustment here and there should fix the problem of the years, or at least put off the problem indefinitely.

Look: I sincerely hope both of these guys, Jeter and Woods, beat their age for a long, long time. I root hard for them. Derek Jeter is one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history, he was at the center of the greatest baseball moment of my life (his game-winning homer in the 2001 World Series), he has been a class act and pro’s pro and I would be thrilled to see him play well for many more years. Tiger Woods is simply the most extraordinary competitor I’ve ever seen, any sport, he has made golf exciting and commercial and fun, and I would love to see him win 10 more major championships and leave behind the sad personal drama of his recent life. I always root for great athletes to fight off the inevitable end.

But here’s the thing: Steve Carlton’s Law is unbreakable. It is, on occasion, BENDABLE for a little while. But only on occasion. And only that.

We call it Steve Carlton’s law because no athlete of the last 50 years fought harder to fight off the effects of age. Carlton had all sorts of new-age and mystical training techniques. He would run a lot (at a time when pitchers often said their main form of exercise were 12-ounce curls), and he did all sorts of Martial Arts exercises, and he was probably most famous for moving his arm around in a barrel of rice. He felt certain that all this work, and the mental drive he had for fighting off age, would allow him to pitch effectively until he was at least 48 years old. And he DID win his last Cy Young when he was 37 and pitch effectively at 39 … both pretty extraordinary achievements when it comes to age-postponing.

But then he turned 40. And he was done. Few in baseball history have ever raged as hard against the dying of the light. Carlton played for five different teams after he turned 40 — and though he went 16-36 with an 84 ERA+ over those years, he STILL did not believe he was done when baseball mercifully retired him. His last career start was for the Minnesota Twins, and it was against the Cleveland Indians, and he gave up nine runs. He felt sure he still had something left. All he needed to do was make a couple of adjustments.

Carlton is just one of the more obvious examples of this phenomenon. Muhammad Ali, after he was destroyed by Larry Holmes, believed that he had simply lost too much weight too fast and he needed one more embarrassment — a terrible loss to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas with a cowbell ringing between each humiliating round. Jim Palmer tried to come back at 45 because he felt sure he had figured out a way to defy the years — it took him only one spring training start to see the light. Mark Spitz at 41 had convinced himself that age was, as Satchel Paige family said, merely mind over matter (“If you don’t mind, it don’t matter”) and he tried to qualify for the 1992 Olympics. He could not even swim fast enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Yes, time is unbeaten. And it seems to me that when you start hearing great athletes talk about these magical elixirs to beat time, or training techniques that can beat time, or little adjustments that can beat time … well, I get a little sad. Because if Derek Jeter is getting old, if Tiger Woods is getting old, that means I’m getting old too.

We’ve covered this at some length with Tiger. People want to believe that golf allows players to stay great well into their 40s … which can be true but mostly isn’t true. Yes, every now and again a golfer like Mark O’Meara or Vijay Singh will emerge in their 40s. Yes, every now and again a full-fledged old golfer will have a magical week — like Watson at Turnberry (though, sadly, he did not win). But the average age for major winners since 1970s is 32. Golfers rarely win major championships after age 36. Time can steal a golfers nerve, putting steadiness, consistency for four days and audacity on Sundays. Something may have clicked in Tiger Woods’ swing, and he might indeed start winning consistently again. Like I say: I hope so. But I don’t think so. I think the decline has begun.

It’s even clearer to see the decline in baseball. If you go to Derek Jeter’s Baseball Reference page you can find 10 players who compare pretty well to him through age 36.

1. Robbie Alomar. A Hall of Famer. Took a significant drop as a player after age 33. Never had even an average offensive year after that. Played his late game at age 36.

2. Craig Biggio. A future Hall of Famer, I believe. Got 3,000 hits. Developed some power late in his career — hit 24 homers as a 38-year-old, and a career high 26 at 39 — which increased his value somewhat. But he could no longer get on base, and he was a defensive liability.

3. Frankie Frisch. The Fordham Flash is in the Hall of Fame. He retired at 38 with the realization he could no longer play. He had not been a great player for five or six years by that point.

4. Ted Simmons. An odd match to Jeter … I don’t think a shortstop can really compare to a catcher. Still, Simmons was a mostly ineffective player after age 33, which I suspect is a big reason why people have not taken his Hall of Fame case as seriously as they might.

5. Robin Yount. Hall of Famer moved to center field as 29-year-old, and he had some of his best years out there. He stopped hitting at Hall of Fame level at 34 and he retired at 37.

6. Charlie Gehringer. Another Hall of Famer, he walked a lot in the latter part of his career to increase his value. But he was done at 38, and retired at 39.

7. Johnny Damon. He is about seven months older than Jeter, and is now facing many of the same challenges. He is on his third team in three years.

8. Cal Ripken. People will tell you that the streak wore Ripken down. Maybe it did. But Ripken’s career arc seems pretty much in line with the norm. He had his best year at 30 and had flashes of brilliance — but no brilliant seasons — after that. He retired at 40, but he was not really an everyday player after age 37.

9. Alan Trammell. Should receive a lot more Hall of Fame consideration, in my opinion, but probably won’t get more because he was effectively a part-time player after age 32. Injuries wrecked the last few years, and he retired at 38.

10. Pete Rose. And finally … the ageless wonder. But even Rose was never really a great player after age 35. He did hit .331 at age 38, and he led the league in doubles at 39. Rose was driven to hit, and then driven to break Ty Cobb’s hit record, and there wasn’t much that could stop a driven Pete Rose. He was, in the words of my friend Scott Raab, a “brick-bodied mother …” and late in career he became a manager and kept inserting himself in the lineup. In other words: Rose was unique to baseball history.

So where does this leave Jeter? He is undoubtedly driven. He is undeniably focused. He is undeniably great. He is undeniably baseball brilliant. He could develop power like Biggio, or increase his walks like Gehringer or simply bludgeon his way forward like Rose.

But he is also undeniably coming off his worst offensive season. He hit 21 points below his previous low. He slugged 35 points below his previous low. He slugged a startling and anemic .317 on the road.

Jeter’s offensive troubles last year are not hard to identify. He swung at more pitches outside the strike zone than ever before (28.2% — Jeter’s percentage at his best was closer to 15%), which seems to me a guy whose bat has slowed to the point where is guessing more. He also made more contact with those pitches than ever before (69.2%), which is not really a good thing. That led to a lot of weak ground balls. A LOT of weak ground balls. He hit 3.6 times as many ground balls as fly balls, and that ratio led all of baseball by a lot … followed by the not especially inspiring offensive cast of Elvis Andrus, Skip Schumacher, Juan Pierre and Michael Bourn.

Will shortening the stride and trying to make the stroke quicker reverse that trend? Will it allow Jeter to crack more line drives over a long season? Well, these are exactly the reasons why we watch sports because sometimes unpredictable things happen. But it seems unlikely to me. Derek Jeter did not come up with the idea of shortening the stroke to help catch up with the fastball. Great aging players have been trying to shorten their strokes for as long as there have been great aging players. Rod Carew was an artist with the bat — and he had a thousand different batting strokes. he stopped hitting .300 at age 37. Mike Schmidt is almost certainly the greatest third baseman in baseball history — he stopped hitting home after age 37. One of the smartest baseball players ever, Al Kaline, was essentially a part-time player after 36.

This is not to say Derek Jeter can’t squeeze out some more good-to-great years. It’s to say that the odds are against him. Once the decline begins, it rarely pulls back its choke hold. Nicklaus used to say that when he saw someone griping, he saw someone who was not going to win — almost without exception. I would say when I see a great athlete in his mid-30s talking about magical adjustments that will allow him to return to his younger self, I see someone who is closer to the end than any of us would like to admit.

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Thoughts in a bookstore

Before the literary world was taken over by iPads, Kindles and Nooks, I would go to bookstores all the time. I probably went two or three times a week — no exaggeration — and sometimes, like when I was finishing my book about Buck O’Neil, I went even more. Now, I don’t go very often. To be honest, I don’t go at all. It’s too easy to buy books electronically from a recliner. It’s too easy to have a book delivered (with free shipping). I keep saying that I will start going to bookstores again, but I don’t know that I will. Times change. The world changes.

But this week, I did go to a bookstore and wandered around. And this is what I thought about.


Here’s something I’ve noticed: Every bargain books section in every bookstore in the country has an entire shelf dedicated to bird watching. Illustrated Birds of North America. A Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic’s Field Guide of Birds. And, of course, The Complete Guide to Birds of the World, which, if you think about it, should really be everything you need.*

*Complete Guides are another specialty of bargain book sections. In the next row, there’s a bargain book called “The Complete History of the World.” It’s only $9.99. I don’t know why book stores don’t just put that book right in front of the store… and eliminate every other superfluous non-fiction book in the store.

Back to birds: I admit that I’m not especially interested in identifying birds. The only bird I ever really wanted to identify was the one that kept swooping down and threatening to attack me while I was trying to mow my lawn a couple of years ago … and that was only for the police report. But I know that there are many people who enjoy identifying birds, studying them, watching them and so on. My question is this: Why are these books always in the bargain section? The big book store owners — Robert Barnes, Charlotte Noble, Frank Borders, Sally Booksamillion — have certainly done numerous studies that suggest these bird books sell best when situated in a bargain book section and slapped with a “$5.99” sticker.

But why? Are there really people who are impulse buying these bulky, coffee-table books about birds? Are there really bird watchers who had looked hard at A Field Guide to the Birds of North America at full price and almost bought it but then decided: “Nah, I’ll wait for it to go on sale?” Were these books EVER at full price?

I’ve come up with two theories about why there are always bird books in bargain sections:

1. The big book sellers have come to realize from their data that bird watchers are, by their nature, the sorts of people who walk through the bargain sections of book stores.

2. The big book sellers know that the people who are buying these books are people looking to stock their waiting room tables … and they’re happy to buy impressive-looking bird books at discount prices.

* * *

Ricky Martin has an autobiography out. It is called “Me.” I wonder how he came up with that title. I wonder what title finished second.

I posed this question to the people of Twitter. My favorite was a response from brilliant reader Nelson. He figured the runner-up title was: “Book.”

* * *

The thing that constantly strikes me as I walk through bookstores is that every book in there, every single one, was published with the dream of selling many, many copies. All the mysteries with vaguely the same looking cover, all the books that will help you grow your money, the books with 1,001 dirty jokes (these would include John Updike’s novels), the books about how Democrats and/or Republicans are trying to destroy your way of life, the books about true crimes that seem so strange they could be fiction, the books about fictional crimes that feel so real they could be true, the sports books about baseball in the 1950s or how to shoot 80, the guide books marketed to self-aware idiots and dummies, the quirky history books, the books by once famous people (Roseannarchy?), the novels with grand ambitions, the novels with someone who looks like Fabio on the cover, the graphic novels, the children’s books, the books about the future and all the books that tell you how to be a better parent/gardner/investor/photographer/iPad user/sports fan/Jersey Shore viewer … all of them were published because someone out there believed that people would buy them.

As someone vaguely resembling an author, I feel for these books. As I walk through bookstores, I fight constant urges to buy books I would never read … I just want to help them out, spring them from book jail. I will rearrange books so that an ambitious novel that took a half a lifetime to complete or a deep history of philosophical thought will not find itself stuck next to “Britney Speaks Heart To Heart.” I turn some of my favorite books so that their cover shows and I hope that cover might be enough to stop some a hurried shopper — not unlike the way Claudette Colbert stopped a car by showing some leg in “It Happened One Night.”

The books that strike the most emotion in me are the ones I find in the wrong section. There are only two possibilities: One that the book was misfiled, which I find is unlikely. The second is that the book was almost bought. Some buyer had this book about Mark Twain or The History of Salt or The Pint Man or a book about the great Buck O’Neil and decided at the last minute to abandon it in the computer books section or in the section with all of the fancy journals that people buy as gifts.

The idea of these books almost being bought and then abandoned always leaves me surprisingly sad.

* * *

Mitt Romney has a new book called “No Apology.” I was not aware that people were demanding apologies from Mitt Romney, but apparently he will not give them the satisfaction.

I first see the Mitt Romney book in the “New Releases” section with all the other new books that have grand hopes of gracing the New York Times best-seller list. Later, I see “No Apology” again … in the bargain books section. Here it is selling for $5.98. This feels like some sort of grand mistake, but apparently it is not because there are a half dozen there, all marked down. It is, the first straight to bargain section book I can ever remember.

Maybe the title refers to the publisher’s official stance about people who paid full price.

* * *

The only logical reaction when you walk into the diet section of a bookstore is to appreciate that there are many, many ways to lose weight in only 60 days. And there are many more being devised while I write these words. By Tuesday, there will be at least a half dozen new ways.

I’ve actually read a few diet books, both because I am overweight and also I’ve long been preparing for the bestseller I plan to write someday soon: “The Sportswriters Diet.”

The amazing thing to me about diet books is how viciously they attack other diet books. I’ve read all the David Sedaris books, and not once do I recall him writing a sentence like: “Other humor writers will tell you that boogers are funny. They are entirely wrong. For the first seven chapters, I will show you the scientific evidence why booger jokes do not have any effect on the section of the brain that attends to humor.”

But sentences like this FLOOD the diet books. What everybody else is telling you is ALL WRONG. … THEY tell you to cut down on carbs/fat/protein/caffeine/cheese/breakfast cereals with cartoon characters on the front … THEY tell you to exercise until you puke, until you throw up, until you vomit, until you lose consciousness … THEY tell you to cook with olive oil or not to cook with olive oil, to count calories but don’t calorie count, to avoid all sources of carbs without losing healthy carbs though there are no healthy carbs … but WE will tell you why all the stuff THEY tell you inevitably and inexorably will make you gain 50 pounds and hate your family.

It is not easy to lose weight. I know this. We all know this. I’m in the midst of another weight loss program right now, and I’m in those heady days when I’m losing weight and feeling good about things and imagining the After Photo. But I’ve been here before, many of us have been here before … there’s a lot of time between now and the After Photo. And it seems to me that the millions of diet book authors might come to some kind of consensus that would help those of us. Calories? Carbs? Fat? Fiber? What the heck should we do?

And stop yelling at us.

* * *

How much weight did Gandhi lose during his 21-day hunger strike?

* * *

I love the section of “staff recommendations.” I remember someone in the business once telling me that the big bookstores will fake those recommendations — that they will tell staffers which books to pick. I’ve since been told that this isn’t true. I don’t have an leaning on the subject. I have noticed that the staff recommendations at bookstores across the country tend to be very similar. The recommendations always seem to include one Toni Morrison book, one classic by Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, a Bukowski, Burroughs or Palahniuk (recommended by the store rebel), a recent translation, and an Oprah book club selection. This doesn’t have to be planned. This could be because people who work in bookstores tend to have similar tastes.

I remember at one bookstore — in Arizona, I’m pretty sure –someone on the staff recommended The Bible. I thought that was great, and I wondered if anyone saw that and thought: “Well, I haven’t heard too much about this book, but I’ll buy it based on the recommendation.”

* * *

One thing I learned after writing my books is that you have no chance to sell any quantity of books in the big bookstores unless those books are placed on a table in front of the store. It’s called placement, I guess, and it’s extremely important. Books that never get on one of those front tables are apparently doomed, and so publishers will do many things to get their books placed in front — on the “New Arrivals” table, on the “Stuff We’re Reading” table, on the “Critically Acclaimed” table, on the “Dean Koontz” table.*

*Damn, Dean Koontz has written a lot of books. So have Janet Daily, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, James Patterson, Robert Ludlum … I feel like such a writing pretender.

I have little doubt that the “front of the store table” theory is based on countless amounts of sound research. And the theory itself seems sound. You would expect that people looking to browse for books are likely to stay near the front of the store and see what new and interesting books have been put out for them.

I bring all this up because once again I’m in the front of the store looking at the books on the front tables … and NOBODY ELSE is here. The bookstore is actually pretty jammed. People are milling around the fiction, the diet books, they are wandering through the kids section, there is one or two people in every aisle and a bunch in the history section. But nobody is up here with me browsing through the new books.

I have no idea what it means. But it is something I have noticed before. I actually like looking at the new books tables, seeing what’s out there, what the publishing houses are pushing, what member of the Jackson family has decided to write a new book, what political commentator has decided to lash out, what new thing authors think I’m doing wrong now … but I almost never run into anyone else looking at these books. I almost never see anyone actually buy these front table books.

I’m sure that this is just selective memory … I have no doubt that people do most of their shopping on the front tables, and that the only way to really sell a book is to have it in front of the store where people can find it, and I desperately hope that my next book will get the place of honor on that very first table in the front of the store, the one usually reserved for books about why the sitting president is evil, books about why the sitting president in misunderstood, or vampires.

* * *

They closed down the coffee shop in the bookstore where I’m walking. This upsets me. I can only remember one time in the last two or three years when I ordered coffee in a book store, and that was in Los Angeles when I was trying to kill an hour because I had arrived some place WAY early. This seems to me one of the dangers of living in Los Angeles, by the way. There is no telling how long it will take you to get through traffic, and so it seems to me you will always find yourself very early or very late.

In any case, drinking coffee in bookstores is not really a part of my life … but I like knowing that I can. And more, I like the smell of coffee, and the murmur of conversation, and the variety of people you see sitting at tables. The bookstore feels a bit dead to me without all that, with that corner of the store having gone dark.

* * *

The checkout line in bookstores alway seems to end about 20 feet away from the actual cashiers and their registers. You have to stand at this distance for reasons I do not quite know, and then you have to wait for them to point at you and go: “Next person in line,” like they are bakers and you are ordering wanting to order a cake. And when they do finally grant you an audience, you get to stagger that final 20 feet past a startling array of oddball items — artsy magazines, writers’ journals, Monopoly games featuring streets in your hometown, videos of movies that came out 17 years ago, Harry Potter candy, more bargain books (“The Complete History of Rock ‘N Roll”), fancy bookmarks, maybe a couple of current best sellers, a few in season books (“For Valentine’s Day put the spark back in your love life”), and, most of all, tiny pocket books.

I always stop to look at the pocket books. They fascinate me. I fully understand why people make them, and why people buy them. They make for great little gifts. You have pocket books for parents … for siblings .. for teachers … for Star Wars fans … for people who like knock knock jokes … for bird lovers … for cat lovers … for dog lovers … for sports lovers … for love lovers … for people who like to quote The Wire … for pretty much every single person you know. It’s manipulative, sure, but when we buy gifts aren’t we sometimes looking for something a little bit manipulative. “Hey, I really don’t know you at all, but I remember you once telling me you liked Mini Coopers. Well here’s a little book with a whole bunch of photos of Mini Coopers.”

What fascinates me, though, is not the concept of pocket books but the idea of actually reading one once you leave the story, Sure, it’s easy to read in the store … you pull it out, open it up, flip through it. But how would you actually read one of these at home? Are you really going to climb into a recliner, lean back, and pull out a book roughly half the size of a regulation box of Good & Plenty? Are you going to turn the pages, one by one, laugh at a little joke, then turn to the next itty-bitty page? And where will you keep the book when you’re done? Can you have a tiny little bookshelf with a bunch of these books, a miniature library of pocket books — not unlike Seinfeld’s closet of socks on those little hangers that they’re sold on?

I always expect — but almost never get — any real interaction with the checkout person at one of the big book stores. Sometimes, they will recognize me or my name, which is not my favorite thing but it’s fine and anyway that’s not the kind of interaction mean. What I mean is that they will almost never say something like “Oh, I read this book and loved it,” or “If you like this book you should read this book” or even “Oh, I’ve really been meaning to get to this book I’ve heard great things.” I will get this often at my favorite Independent bookstores, like Rainy Day Books in Kansas City, but not at the big ones. They will cash out the book, ask if I have a rewards card, spend way too long trying to find my rewards card on the computer, and then ask if I want a bag.

I don’t know why I expect more. When I buy stuff at Target, I never expect — but often get — a cashier who wants to tell me how good the movie is that I’m getting or that the shampoo I’m buying made her boyfriend’s hair turn a little green. I don’t expect supermarket people to review my bread choices, and I don’t expect the Best Buy person to tell me that the new Radiohead sounds just like the old Radiohead, or whatever.

Still, there’s something strangely disappointing about not getting any reaction at all to buying books at a store. I can’t exactly say why. Maybe it’s because I still think of books as magical, as something that connect us. If you saw the same movie that I saw, well, big deal. Shell out $10 or $15 or $20 or whatever it costs to see a movie in a town near you, and you see the movie. You saw The King’s Speech, I saw The King’s Speech, we both liked it, whatever. Neither of us worked too hard.

You go into a store and buy Bruce Springsteen, Cee Lo Green, REM, Postal Service, Ella Fitzgerald, David Wilcox and the Gaslight Anthem just like I would … that’s great, we obviously share musical tastes, but that’s not a relationship. There’s no commitment. We just like some of the same sounds.

But to read a book … it’s an effort. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes understanding. And if you read all the way through The Power Broker, and found it rewarding and fascinating, we are probably pretty similar in some ways. If you read Then We Came To The End, and loved it, we are probably pretty similar in some ways. If you find yourself almost daily diving into some new place in Bill James New Historical Abstract and just reading happily, we are probably pretty similar in some ways.

Connection. That seems to be the thing that books can offer that is a little bit different from anything else … a way to bridge that gap, a way to cut the space between us. Sometimes when I’m in a bookstore, I will see someone I don’t know looking at a book I loved, and I want to run over and shout: “You don’t know me but please buy that book! I don’t know you, but if you are the kind of person I hope you will love it!”

Of course I don’t ever do that. And nobody ever does that to me. Not even the person at the checkout counter.

* * *

One thing the checkout counter person does ask is if I want to buy a book for a child. I’m not entirely sure of the particulars of this program — I’m not sure if she is asking me to buy a book for a single child, or for a school, or for some kind of organization like “Reading Is Fundamental” that hands out books to children.

If I could buy a book for every child it would be the beautiful children’s book “Some Dogs Do” by Jez Alborough. It is a book about a dog name Sid who finds out one day that when he gets really happy he can fly. He announces this at school, where all the other dogs mock him and call him a liar and laugh at him. He finds himself depressed, until he comes home and finds a secret. And, finally, there are the beautiful final words.

Do dogs fly?
Is it true?
Some dogs don’t.
And some dogs do.

I love that book for so many reasons … but mostly I love it because it’s about the power of imagination. And this happens to be the same reason I love bookstores.

* * *

I was in this very bookstore once when Buck O’Neil called me. This was in the last few months of Buck’s life, and it was also in the last few months of me writing my book about Buck. I had not written a book before, and I had no idea how to do it. I still don’t, but I knew even less then. So I would go to bookstore five or six nights a week, and just wander around, try to soak it all in. I would pick up books and read first paragraphs. I would read last paragraphs. I would try to feel what form my book should take. I don’t know know that I figured it out, but I think I learned a lot trying.

In any case, I remember everything very specifically about the night Buck called. I had just walked out of the sports section, and I was wandering over to fiction when my phone buzzed. I don’t think Buck ever called me on my cell before … I can remember being surprised he even knew my cell phone number.

He had called mostly to ask a favor. A couple of days before, there had been an election to add Negro League players and contributors into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The committee essentially was given free reign to add as many people as they wanted, and they took advantage of their freedom by adding an astounding 17 people. It was a free-for-all. All of the 17 were dead, long dead, decades dead. And more or less the one viable person they did not add was probably the one person the Hall of Fame wanted honored when they put together the committee in the first place: My friend Buck O’Neil.

Buck played well in the Negro Leagues, managed brilliantly in the Negro Leagues, scouted the Negro Leagues and spent more than half his life fighting to keep alive the memory of the Negro Leagues. It was a shock when he was not inducted, and, to his friends and fans, an insult. Tears mixed with fury. Buck, of course, handled it with the beautiful grace that marked his life. On the day of the inductions, he introduced the 17 new inductees and led people in song.

The favor was classic Buck. He wanted me to thank people for all the support after Hall of Fame day. He wanted them to know he never felt more loved. This was five years ago, almost to the day, and I told Buck that I would certainly let everybody know how he felt. Then there was a long pause. I was walking by the S authors in the fiction section. I remember seeing Salinger. And then Buck said this:

“You know … a few weeks ago, a guy asked me: ‘Who is that white boy who is following you around all the time?'”

I had followed Buck for a year, from New York to San Francisco, from Chicago to Houston, from Atlanta back home to Kansas City. I had heard him tell story after story — sometimes word for word — and I had heard him sing, and I had watched baseball games with him, and I had shared many meals with him (ALWAYS with desert) and I had hugged him many times. I had listened again and again to his peaceful words. I had no idea how to turn all that into a book, how to make people feel the spirit of Buck, how to make people hear the music of Buck, I had no idea. I only knew that I had to do it, that this was as important as anything I would ever write. This is why I wandered around bookstores at night.

“What did you say?” I asked Buck.

Another pause. There’s a certain light in a bookstore that I have come to love. It’s bright enough to make the words clear, but dark enough to keep your head from throbbing. I was standing still then, right next to Steinbeck’s “Winter of Our Discontent.” I remember thinking that I had not read it.

Buck said: “I told him, ‘Can’t you tell? That’s my son.'”

Five years ago. Buck died that October. You want to know why I went to the bookstore? I went for Steinbeck’s “Winter of Our Discontent.” It wasn’t there. They said they could order it, but the sad thing is that those days are gone. I can order it myself.

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Messing with numbers

I woke up this morning, my oldest daughter was a sick, my youngest daughter wanted to argue that purple and red are a perfect match for school clothes, my wife had another tax question, and I wondered who would make up the baseball All-Star Team of my lifetime. I suppose that’s too long a sentence for a epigraph, but I’d say that sentence more or less encapsulates the absurdity of my life. I live in a sitcom that nobody would watch.

When the various family dramas were worked out, I sat here at this computer and started to work out the question: Who would make up the baseball All-Star team of my lifetime?

I was born in 1967. My first blurry memories of baseball come from 1972. That year, I went to my first game (I remember nothing except that Gaylord Perry pitched), and I watched my first World Series game (I remember nothing except for the yellow uniforms the Oakland A’s wore). My first sturdy memories come from 1975, when I was 8, when the Reds were amazing (someone should write a book about that team) and when I first became acutely aware of the differences between players. For instance, I very clearly remember going to a game at old Cleveland Municipal and seeing Don Hood pick off a batter. “He’s good at that,” my father told me. Sure enough, he WAS good at that — he had seven pickoff that year. So, I learned that some pitchers are good at picking off baserunners (Don Hood was also good at wild pitches). I also saw Buddy Bell hit a home run … for a while it seemed whenever we would go to a game we would see Buddy Bell hit a home run.*

*I’m pretty sure that the game in question was this one, a Sunday afternoon in Cleveland. Everything about it fits into my memory, including that it was a Sunday. My father worked in the factory six days a week, so almost every game we attended was a Sunday.

Anyway, that just puts the timing on things. I was wondering who would make up the all-time team from 1967 to now … with a heavy emphasis on players performances after 1975, the players I remember best.

People, surprisingly often, ask why I love sports numbers so much. There are probably a lot of different answers, but one of them is that I have the kind of goofy mind that wakes up with dumb imaginary questions like who is the greatest defensive left fielder ever or who had the best arm in NFL history or could the NBA’s all-time fourth team beat the NBA’s all-time best team?*

*Let’s say the all-time NBA team looks like so:

G: Magic Johnson
G: Michael Jordan
F: Larry Bird
F: Bill Russell
C: Wilt Chamberlain

And the No. 2 all-time team looks like so:

G: Oscar Robertson
G: Jerry West
F: Tim Duncan
F: Elgin Baylor
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

And the No. 3 all-time team looks like so:

G: Bob Cousy
G: Kobe Bryant
F: Lebron James
F: Hakeem Olajuwon
C: Shaq

And the No. 4 all-time team looks like so:

G: Isiah Thomas
G: John Havlicek
F: Julius Erving
F: Karl Malone
C: Moses Malone

Now, obviously those are not my top four teams — I picked those names off the top of my head. You can mix and match, add or subtract, throw in a Bob Pettit or a Charles Barkley or a John Stockton or whoever. The question is if you put those four teams on the floor as is, would the No. 1 team definitely be the best? It looks like that to me … but what if Chamberlain and Russell don’t mesh? What if Jordan can’t play with Magic? What if the old timers turn out to not be able to play with the kids?

And how would this team compete against those teams?

G: Chris Paul
G: Dwayne Wade
F: Kevin Durant
F: Kevin Love
F: Dwight Howard

These are the stupid things that I think about.

So I wake up wondering about these things. There is no right or wrong answer to them — it’s like when I asked Bill James how he thought Babe Ruth would play in today’s era and he said: “Fortunately, I don’t have to think about that.” But I then go to the numbers to kind of explore those things. The weird part is that I’m not really looking to the numbers for ANSWERS to the question. I mean, deep down, I don’t really care who makes up the baseball All-Star team of my lifetime. I would imagine off the top of my head the team looks like this:

1B: Albert Pujols
2B: Joe Morgan
SS: Alex Rodriguez
3B: Mike Schmidt
LF: Barry Bonds
CF: Ken Griffey
RF: Reggie Jackson
C: Johnny Bench
DH: Frank Thomas
SP: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson.
Multiple inning closer: Dan Quisenberry.
One inning closer: Mariano Rivera

And if I look at the numbers … well, I’ve looked at the numbers enough — Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Win Shares, etc. — that I know they will back me up on this. They might suggest that Pujols hasn’t done quite enough to surpass Jeff Bagwell or Rod Carew just yet, or they might push for Cal Ripken or Derek Jeter since they played shortstop longer than A-Rod or they might try to nudge me into finding a place for Pete Rose on the team. But generally speaking the numbers won’t tell me much …

… but the awesome thing about sports numbers is that they always take me in unexpected directions — and 2,500 word blog posts. For instance, by looking at the numbers I was able to come up with a Top 5 or so at each position. This is the best consensus I can find using those three numbers — Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Reference WAR and Win Shares — and my own best judgment.

First base:
1. Albert Pujols
2. Jeff Bagwell
3. Rod Carew
4. Eddie Murray
5. Jim Thome
Just missed: Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire.

Second base:
1. Joe Morgan
2. Lou Whitaker
3. Craig Biggio
4. Roberto Alomar
5. Bobby Grich
Just missed: Ryne Sandberg, Willie Randolph.

Shortstop
1. Alex Rodriguez
2. Cal Ripken
3. Derek Jeter
4. Robin Yount
5. Barry Larkin
Just missed: Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammell.

Third base
1. Mike Schmidt
2. George Brett
3. Wade Boggs
4. Chipper Jones
5. Scott Rolen
Just missed: Darrell Evans, Graig Nettles.

Left field
1. Barry Bonds
2. Rickey Henderson
3. Pete Rose
4. Manny Ramirez
5. Tim Raines
Just missed: Carl Yastrzemski, Jose Cruz.

Center field
1. Ken Griffey
2. Jim Edmonds
3. Andre Dawson
4. Reggie Smith
5. Kenny Lofton
Just missed: Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltran, Bernie Williams.

Right field
1. Reggie Jackson
2. Dwight Evans
3. Tony Gwynn
4. Larry Walker
5. Dave Winfield
Just missed: Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Ichiro Suzuki.

C
1. Johnny Bench
2. Carlton Fisk
3. Ivan Rodriguez
4. Gary Carter
5. Mike Piazza
Just missed: Ted Simmons

DH
1. Frank Thomas
2. Paul Molitor
3. Edgar Martinez
4. Harold Baines
5. David Ortiz
Just missed: Don Baylor, Hal McRae

There are some quirks with positioning … I wasn’t really sure what position to put Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Reggie Smith, Jim Thome, Robin Yount, A-Rod and a few other players. I tried to put them where they best fit, even if it didn’t exactly fit with where they played the most. Pete Rose defensively seemed best in left field — it’s where he put up his best Total Zone numbers. Molitor played more games in the field than at DH, but he really had his best years as DH. Hey, it’s my team, and it’s my life. Andre Dawson was at his best as a center fielder.

Anyway, this is roughly what the numbers showed me … and then comes the fun part. What do these numbers say? It seems to me that they say some pretty interesting things. We talk a lot about number and the Hall of Fame here, but I would like to think we’re not REALLY talking about the numbers or the Hall of Fame but are instead talking about baseball, and how players are remembered.

Whitaker

For instance, Lou Whitaker is simply not remembered as a great player. That’s just reality. Players of his time, fans of his time, sportswriters of his time … they just didn’t see him that way.

But the numbers say he WAS a great player. Here is a Fangraphs chart I’ve shown before, Whitaker compared to Robby Alomar and Ryne Sandberg. You will notice that in career value, Whitaker tops both of them. The thing that seems to hurt Whitaker’s baseball reputation is that Sandberg had two or three seasons that were better than Whitaker’s best. Alomar probably had two seasons that were better than Whitaker’s best. Because of this we have a clear vision of them as greater players than Whitaker.

Whitaker’s thing was his consistency — he had 15 what I would call very good seasons. Alomar had 11. Sandberg had 7.

Consistency doesn’t necessarily excite the masses.

Grich

Bobby Grich has a different problem. Grich’s three best seasons were almost certainly better than the three best of Sandberg or Alomar (or Whitaker, for that matter). He might have been the best player in the American League from 1974-76.

His problem is nobody from 1974 to 1976 realized this because he hit .263 over those three years, and batting average was where baseball analysis began and ended. You can’t hit .263 and be a great hitter, everybody knew that then. Many people still know that now.

Grich was a brilliant defensive second baseman, he hit with some power, he had a bit of speed, and though nobody noticed, he walked 100 times or so a year, got hit by some pitches, and was among the Top 10 in on-base percentage each season. There used to be a saying among Dominican player that you don’t walk off the Island. That may or may not be true. But you definitely don’t walk into the Hall of Fame or into baseball people’s imaginations.

Catchers

Where we draw the Hall of Fame line … I find that endlessly fascinating. I suspect the Top 5 catchers on the list — and catcher was the only position where all the statistics I used spit out the same five players — will make the Hall of Fame. But the unanimous choice for sixth-best catcher of my lifetime, Ted Simmons, got almost no support and was bounced from the ballot after one appearance. I’m not saying this is wrong: I think all five of those guys were better than Ted Simmons. It’s the abruptness off it that’s jolting.

But maybe the Hall of Fame line is right there between Gary Carter and Ted Simmons.

Corner outfielder vs. Center field

You clearly have a better shot at the Hall of Fame as a corner outfielder than you do as a center fielder. Nobody could argue the point. There have been 13 Hall of Famers in my lifetime who played predominantly one of the corner outfield positions. By WAR (since 1967):

1. Rickey Henderson
2. Reggie Jackson
3. Tony Gwynn
4. Carl Yastrzemski
5. Dave Winfield
6. Willie Stargell
7. Hank Aaron
8. Jim Rice
9. Roberto Clemente
10. Frank Robinson
11. Billy Williams
12. Lou Brock
13. Al Kaline

Barry Bonds will join this group sooner or later. Down the road, I’d bet Ichiro will get inducted. MannyBManny will tough to keep out. I hope Tim Raines will join this group. More on Gary Sheffield in just a moment.

But first: How many center fielders from that same time frame were elected to the Hall? Three.

1. Willie Mays
2. Andre Dawson
3. Kirby Puckett

It isn’t just the difference in numbers. I don’t remember Willie Mays — he’s not really of my era. So it’s down to two. Andre Dawson — Tom Tango convinced me — should be remembered as a center fielder, and I honor him that way. But he did play more right field than center. And Kirby Puckett had a short career and many think he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. None of the statistical systems I used had Puckett as one of the 10 best center fielders of my lifetime.

Now, Ken Griffey will go in and probably pretty close to unanimously. But no one else on the list of best center fielders is likely to go in. I guess we will see how Jim Edmonds is received as a Hall of Fame candidate, but I have not sensed much buzz or excitement about him.

Center field is a much more demanding position than left field. We understand this instinctively. And yet when WAR shows Jim Edmonds above Dave Winfield or Andruw Jones (Andruw Jones!) above Billy Williams or Kenny Lofton above Jim Rice, people tend to think the stat must be horribly flawed. And maybe the stat is horribly flawed, I’m not here to argue that.

Still: At some point we might get the concept that center field defense offers much more value than left field defense, and that a player’s contribution to winning baseball games is the sum of many smaller contributions. I think center fielders, especially great defensive center fielders, deserve a little more consideration than they’re getting. It seems to me that of the other tough defensive positions — the Top 5 catchers are going to the Hall, the Top 5 shortstops will go to the Hall, at least four second baseman look to be Hall bound, at least four third baseman look to be Hall bound. But as it looks right now, only two center fielders from my Top 7 seem likely to go to the Hall. Maybe this is because there just haven’t been many great center fielders in my life. Or maybe we underrate the position.

Sheffield and the Hall of Fame

All of this leads to Gary Sheffield. He officially retired on Thursday, I guess, though he didn’t play at all in 2010. He was a scary hitter. We sometimes joke around about how often people call a hitter “feared.” But if any hitter of the last 44 or so years was truly scary to face, it was Sheffield with the way he waved that bat around, the absolute look of pure hate on his face, his almost magical ability to hit the ball wherever it happened to be thrown, his eagle eye … all of it led to a gut-wrenching experience for pitchers.

The guy just obliterated mediocre pitchers:

— Jamey Wright: .519 average, 6 homers in 27 at-bats.
— Bruce Chen: .481 average, 5 homers in 27 at-bats.
— Kent Bottenfield: .458 average, 3 homers in 24 at-bats.

But he cranked against great pitchers too, especially if they happened to be left-handed. He hit .389 against Jamie Moyer. He slugged .629 against Tom Glavine. He hit .474 against Kevin Brown. He got only 19 appearances against Roger Clemens but he hit .611. I’ll repeat that. He hit .611. He slugged .537 against Pedro.

Point is, the guy was scary. And you look at some of his numbers — 500 homers, 140 OPS+ — these are Hall of Fame numbers.

But getting back to the point of the last section: Corner outfielders hit. That’s what they do. They are, in most cases, not fast enough, gifted enough or good enough defensively to play one of the key defensive spots. Sheffield was by the numbers and reputation a poor defensive player who had to be moved off third base after he made 34 errors in 1993 and his outfield defense wasn’t much to speak of either. So you would think that for Sheffield to be considered one of the great players in his era, he had to outhit just about everybody.

But did he? Bonds was a better hitter. MannyBManny was a better hitter. I think Bagwell was a better hitter, Thome was a better hitter … I would argue that Edgar and Larry Walker were better hitters too.

For a long time, when someone would ask me if I thought Gary Sheffield was a Hall of Famer, I would say that I hadn’t studied it but my first thought was: Yes. But after looking a bit, I’d say that my second thought is: No. I think, all things considered, there were at least five right fielders of my lifetime who were better players. Dewey got very little Hall of Fame support. Larry Walker has a long, uphill climb. I’d say Sheffield has a long line ahead of him.

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Behind the back page

My Point After in Sports Illustrated this week is about the Cleveland Cavaliers and the rather remarkable way that the city has tolerated the longest losing streak — and perhaps the least competitive team — in NBA history. Here are a few thoughts behind the column.

It is always fun to go back to Cleveland. The temperature was 9 degrees when I landed, though nobody around seemed to notice. This is a beautiful part of my memory of growing up in Cleveland — by February, the weather has been so absurd for so long that you no longer even think about it. There’s no complaining. Nobody talks weather. It’s just cold, and it will always be cold, and there’s snow everywhere, and there’s more snow coming, and there will always be snow on the ground, and it will never melt, it will never ever get warm or green ever again. That’s why spring always felt like a beautiful surprise. There is no better season on planet earth, I am convinced, than spring in Cleveland (or Buffalo or Detroit, etc). The best weather days in my memory was always that first semi-warm day of Cleveland spring when I could wear tennis shoes outside and I felt like I could jump four feet in the air.

I was coming back home to see how the city was taking the collapse of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs had the best record in the NBA the last two years. And this year, when my plane touched down, they had lost 25 games in a row, the longest losing streak in NBA history, one of the two longest in the history of American professional team sports. What struck me about the losing streak was how uncompetitive the Cavs had been. They had not forced even a single overtime game during the losing streak. They had lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 112-57, then two nights later they lost by 22 at Utah, and the night after that they lost by 28 at Denver. They were as overmatched as any NBA team ever.

This was, of course, the nightmare scenario. When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach, everyone understood that the Cavaliers were about to have a great fall, one that would baffle all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. But nobody knew for sure just how bad that would be. The Cavaliers started off by beating Boston, and after 16 games they were 7-9, and at that moment it seemed like they had at least an outside chance of being a lousy-but-not-too-lousy team that would play hard and beat the dregs of the NBA.

And a few days later, LeBron James and the Heat came to Cleveland, humiliated the Cavs in front of a passionate crowd, and nobody was left with any illusions after that.

“The problem,” former Cavs star (and one of my childhood heroes) Jim Chones said, “is that we have a lot of guys on this team who didn’t understand what he did. They didn’t appreciate how hard he worked. They thought they were pretty good, and didn’t realize that he was the one making them look pretty good.”

Chones said this without hesitation — though as you can see Chones went to sometimes comical lengths to not say the name “LeBron James.” The Cavs utter collapse isn’t entirely about James. Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal were contributors, and they left too. Anderson Varejao was almost certainly Cleveland’s second best player, and he got hurt during the losing streak. But the collapse is ALMOST ENTIRELY about James. And everybody around the team and the city knows it.

Then again, I didn’t go to Cleveland to write about LeBron James. I went to see how my city was handling once again having the worst team in the NBA … and so soon after having one of the best. And what I found, I must admit, surprised me.

The city seems to be handling it just fine. More than that … Cleveland is sticking with this team in a way that seems kind of remarkable.

“I think it’s impossible to say that that Cavs fans haven’t been exceedingly tolerant of this team,” says Peter Pattakos, a Cleveland lawyer who writes the Cleveland Frowns blog. I really wanted to go to Peter on this one because he often has a different take on these things. In this case, we really seemed to sense the same thing. Cleveland can be a savage sports town. Cynicism comes with the weather. But there’s something about this Cavaliers team that seems to capture the hope of the city.

“Just compare to the Browns of recent years,” Peter says. “This is unquestionably a football town first, and folks were ready to run Eric Mangini only a few weeks after he got here in ’09 even though everybody knew it was an obvious rebuild year with the roster in tatters. There’s nothing close to the same feeling toward Byron Scott and the Cavs here, and they have to be setting some kind of record for ‘losingest team with the best attendance’ or something like that.”

At last check, the Cavaliers were third in the league in attendance. Now, certainly a lot of that was due to the LeBron hangover. But they were also seventh in TV ratings, which tells you something. And Cavs president Len Komoroski told me that they are well into the upper half in merchandise, which is certainly not all just leftover Lebron momentum.

More, the fans at the games don’t boo much. Hardly at all. I was there for the Cavaliers-Pistons game last week, and it was one of the saddest displays of pro basketball I have ever seen. The Pistons were on the second of back-to-back games, they were on the road (where they had won just six times all year) … and the Cavs were never even in the game. You almost never see an NBA game where one team doesn’t make at least one serious run or take the lead in the fourth quarter or something.

But the Cavaliers played … here’s the rather astonishing phrase that comes to mind: Arrogant basketball. They played as if they thought this game was in the bag. They had lost TWENTY FIVE GAMES IN A ROW, and they played as if they were overconfident, as if the Pistons were an easy win. It was staggering. The loss was so embarrassing that even Byron Scott, who had been a pillar of bland “just get me through this season” stability, flashed some temper. “I’m mad as hell,” he said, and though he didn’t finish it off with an “and I’m not going to take it anymore,” it was something.

But the fans pretty much took it all in stride. The signs were almost all of the “We’re with ya!” variety. There were only a smattering of boos at the end, and even that was barely a smattering. There was a lot of cheering, even when the game was clearly out of reach. A friend remembered one Cleveland Indians game at the old stadium where fans halfway through started cheering for the Detroit Tigers because it had gotten that ridiculous. I can remember Browns games where the fury toward the home team was so intense that you would NEVER have known these were actually Browns fans. My school bus driver every Monday after a Browns loss would spend the entire ride screaming about how much he hated the Browns, meaning of course that he loved them. That’s Cleveland.

But the Cavaliers are drawing a different emotion from the fans. Before the game — and I found this amazing — Nicki Minaj’s “Blazin'” played over the sound system. Of course, I did not know the name of the song, I had to use my Shazam app. But the reason I even used my Shazam app was because I heard the words: “As long as I’m in the game, you’ll never win.” That really seemed a strange thing to play at that moment. Then I looked up the lyrics and saw this in there.

Before the storm comes the calm.
Hope you can take the heat, like LeBron.

Am I wrong? That seems like a very strange thing to play before the Cavaliers go out to try and break a 25-game losing streak. But, nobody seemed to mind. The timeout entertainment mostly seemed to revolve around rewarding people who had renewed their season tickets. Nobody seemed to mind. The Cavaliers played dismal, uninterested basketball. Nobody seemed to mind.

“I think that part of that is definitely due to Clevelanders being good sports fans generally, but that most of it is due to what we’ve been through with LeBron,” Peter says. “To the latter, it’s not just the bad feelings that many folks have toward LeBron, because even if LeBron would have been lost to injury, or something more ‘natural’ than the Decision, it’s still hard to let go of something as special as what the LeBron era was here for the last seven years.”

I think that’s right. I think in part LeBron made himself the enemy when he went on television and snubbed the city that loved him, and if LeBron is the enemy then the players wearing Cavaliers uniforms — no matter how bad they might be — are the allies. “Like family,” former Cavs star Campy Russell told me, and I think that’s probably pretty close to right. We all have family that, in one way or another, are like the 2010-2011 Cleveland Cavaliers.

But I think there’s something else. The LeBron years were fun. The last two playoffs were frustrating, but in general LeBron was brilliant and Cleveland was the center of basketball for a few years. Fans got to watch one of the greatest players ever at his peak for a few years — an Akron native, no less — and the scene in the arena was as wild and wonderful as anyplace in Cleveland in the last 50 or so years.

LeBron’s decision turned those years into mud for many … but that impulse of being in the middle of it all, that hunger for championship basketball, that doesn’t go away. Cleveland, I really believe, is a city of realists. Miracles happen elsewhere. Worst to first happens elsewhere. You’re not going to wake up one morning and find that a foot of snow in the driveway has miraculously melted. The only way for this Cavs team to again compete for a championship is to land a couple of stars in the next couple of drafts. And the best way for that to happen is for this Cavs team to lose spectacularly. Which is what they’re doing.

I did not get a good feel for where the LeBron anger is at now. My sense is that, unlike the Art Modell anger which never stopped boiling, the LeBron anger is only at about medium-high. I’m sure it will pick back up during the playoffs, but as mentioned I’ve long thought of Cleveland as a town of realists. Think it’s cold today? Wait until that blizzard hits next week. The Browns are starting over again. The Indians look pretty dismal. The Cavaliers lose 26 in a row.

“You know what’s true about Cleveland,” an old friend of my said. “It makes you tough.”

I think that’s right. And because of that I don’t think Clevelanders will exactly FORGIVE LeBron. But maybe over time, those years of LeBron playing his heart out, rosin flying, the warmth of the arena making the blizzard outside go away, maybe all that will feel like good memories again. Maybe over time, these Cavaliers — who seem committed financially and structurally to do everything to become a great team again — will rebuild into a special team.

Maybe it’s just another long winter. Two days after I watched the Cavaliers lose their 26th in a row, they beat the Clippers at home in front of a pretty rowdy and hopeful crowd. The officiating seemed a tad one sided in that one, but hey, whatever it takes to break an absurd losing streak. Two days after that, in case anyone had forgotten just how bad the Cleveland Cavaliers are without LeBron, they became the first team all year to lose to the Washington Wizards at home. They were losing by 22 at halftime in that one.

“We just need a go-to scorer,” Jim Chones told me. “And a guy who can set up the offense. And we have to keep them off the glass. And we need to play smarter. We’re really pretty close to turning this around.”

* * *

Postscript: Just watched the Cavaliers beat the Los Angeles Lakers in a rather shocking development — yes, the Lakers team that had beaten them 112-57 earlier in the year. The Cavaliers played inspired basketball, particularly Ramon Sessions (32 points, eight assists, three steals) and J.J. Hickson on the glass (9 offensive rebounds), and Kobe Bryant played one of the worst games I’ve ever seen him play — 8 of 24 shooting, seven turnovers, looked completely out of sorts — and the thing just kept kind of going and going, the crowd getting more and more into it, the Lakers looking more and more uncertain. It doesn’t change anything important, of course. But it was nice for a night.

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Cashing In Without The Yankees

Well, it looks like the expected is happening — the Cardinals and Pujols will not reach a deal, Pujols will spend the year not talking about his contract, and then the best player will become a free agent. After that, there are many possibilities.

One common thought about the Albert Pujols negotiations — handled ably here by Mark Kriegel — is that his efforts to get a huge deal will be badly hindered because the biggest of the big market teams are already locked in at first base. This mostly means: No New York Yankees. I’ve had that thought myself. The Yankees, of course, have Mark Teixeira at first base (8 years, $180 million). The Phillies will have Ryan Howard playing first base no matter what happens to his game* — his 5-year, $125 million contract doesn’t even START until next year. The Red Sox have the absurdly young (and thus absurdly affordable for one more year) Adrian Gonzalez and though he apparently has not signed a once-reported extension, the common feeling is that Gonzalez-Boston seems a good fit.

*That Howard contract still blows my mind. Ryan Howard the last three years — we can now put this in three-year increments — hit .269/.350/.541. He was TENTH among first basemen in WAR over those three years, closer to Lyle Overbay (Howard’s 9.7 WAR to Overbay’s 9.1) than Joey Votto. He’s 31 years old, he had an injury-plagued 2010, he has mostly stopped walking, his strikeout numbers have always been huge, his numbers are on clear descent and he has a history of being unable to hit lefties. I’m going to beat the rush and preemptively call that the worst contract in baseball.

Anyway, the thought is that without those three big spenders in the mix — OK, let’s be honest, without the New York Yankees — Pujols’ options for the big money are dramatically limited, perhaps even doomed. The thought is that to get a record breaking contract, which seems to be what Albert Pujols wants, you need to have the Yankees to drive up the price.

As mentioned, I’ve had that exact thought. But then I remembered something.

The craziest contracts in baseball history have almost NEVER been given out by the New York Yankees.

Think about this for a moment. What are the craziest contracts in baseball history? You could start, I suppose, with Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year $275 million deal if you want. The Yankees did give that one out. But that deal was a direct descendent of the truly insane 10-year, $252 million deal that Tom Hicks gave A-Rod before going broke. The Yankees just ended up holding the bag on that one. Hicks was trying to get attention, apparently with money he really didn’t have, and after A-Rod had big years and the Rangers still stunk the Rangers and basically were just looking anywhere and everywhere to abandon that contract. Not long after, the Rangers found themselves in bankruptcy court.

The craziest deals? San Francisco’s deal with Barry Zito comes to mind. Toronto’s deal with Vernon Wells comes to mind. The Cubs deal with Carlos Zambrano … the Angels deal with Torii Hunter … the Nationals deal with Jayson Werth … the Cardinals deal with Matt Holliday … the Mets deal with Jason Bay … the Dodgers deal with Andruw Jones … the Rangers deal with Michael Young … the Rangers deal with Chan Ho Park … the Cubs deal with Alfonso Soriano … the Royals deal with Gil Meche or Jose Guillen … the Angels deal with Bartolo Colon … the Mets deal with Carlos Beltran … the Dodgers deal with Jason Schmidt … the Orioles deal with Miguel Tejada … Philadelphia’s deal with Ryan Howard. …

Some of these worked better than others, of course. I’m not saying these were all bad deals or that they were all ill-advised. Baseball talent costs a lot of money. And I’m not discounting that the Yankees have some doozies too — A.J. Burnett, Jason Giambi and so on. The Mark Teixeira deal could be a real albatross when the Yankees are paying him $22.5 million a year in 2014 and 2015 and 2016.

But when it comes to breaking the bank, it seems to me that the Yankees might get too much credit — or blame — for driving the market price. A friend who once sold luxury cars told me that the most likely person to overspend for an absurdly expensive car is not the richest guy in the room but the one who LONGS to be the richest. A look at the amazing Cot’s Baseball Contracts page gives a fascinating look at the highest paid players (based on average annual salary) in baseball history at each position.

NOTE: I’m putting the team that gave the player the gigantic contract.

Starting pitcher:
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia. ($24 million per)
— The Phillies have two of the top four of all time, with Roy Halladay on the list as well.

Relief pitcher
Mariano Rivera, Yankees ($15 million per)
— The best ever in the town that made him famous; Philadelphia’s Brad Lidge gets $12.5 million per.

Designated hitter
Travis Hafner, Cleveland ($14.25 million per)
— The cash-poor Indians gave a designated hitter more than $14 million a year. Injuries and age have wrecked him, but even so this was a dreadful signing from the start.

Catchers
Joe Mauer, Minnesota ($23 million per for eight years)
— The feeling in Minnesota was that the Twins HAD to sign their hometown hero. I wouldn’t argue with the thought, but it’s the “HAD to sign him” impulses that give us some remarkable contracts. The second richest contract was Jorge Posada with the Yankees, but it’s for $10 million a year less.

First baseman
Ryan Howard, Philadelphia ($25 million per)
— The Yankees gave Teixeira what looked to be a break-the-bank deal. Maybe that played a role in Howard’s contract, but now Howard’s deal is the standard Albert Pujols’ folks are salivating over.

Second baseman
Dan Uggla, Atlanta ($12.4 million per year)
— I originally thought Uggla had signed the deal with Florida before he was traded to Atlanta. He did not. That’s an Atlanta deal. … Robinson Cano figures to destroy this deal.

Shortstop
Derek Jeter, Yankees ($18.9 million per year)
— He’s making $17 million per year now. Troy Tulowitzki is signed for 10-years, $158 million. The Rockies can only hope it works out as well as the Jeter 10-year deal worked for the Yankees.

Third base
Alex Rodriguez, Yankees ($27.5 million per year)
— This it the deal that Pujols reportedly is looking to eclipse.* Our own Jon Heyman reports that the Cardinals offered an eight-year deal worth more than $200 million (but, apparently, less than $240 million). If that’s true then … well, already some people are saying it’s not true. Who really knows?

— Here’s something that will give you an idea of just how much money we are talking about here: Pujols reportedly asked for a 10-year, $300 million deal. The 10 years sound ludicrous — it really IS ludicrous when looked at specifically — but I think the point is that Pujols wants the $300 million to break A-Rod’s full package deal, which was worth a total of $275 million. The 10 years is just to make it happen. I’m sure he’d take $300 million for six years if they wanted to give that to him.

How gigantic a package are we talking about here? Well, someone asked if the Cardinals could make an offer so that Pujols’ last five years would be included in the contract. In other words, could the Cardinals offer Pujols a five-year deal that, added together with the last five years of his current contract, would total $300 million and get him the record he seems to crave (without having to stretch out for 10 more years).

OK — do you know how much money per year the Cardinals would have to pay Pujols the next five years to make that happen? Take a stab in the dark. … Pujols the last five years — including this year which is a club option year — will have made $84 million. To get him to $300 million, the Cardinals would have to offer him a 5-year, $216 million deal — or $43.2 million per year.

I’d take that.

Left field
Manny Ramirez, Dodgers, ($22.5 million per year)
— The Red Sox’ Carl Crawford deal (7 years, $142 million) is really more lucrative. … Special mention must be given here to Houston for the 6-year, $100 million deal they gave to Carlos Lee. I’m not even sure you could call the contract a “disappointment” because that would suggest that the Astros thought Lee would play better than he has. Lee is, by the numbers, an abysmal outfielder and was when the Astros signed him. He was 31 when he signed the deal. He hit .300 the first three years of the contract and drove in 100 runs before descending into the abyss last year. So I’d say he has absolutely lived up to whatever the Astros could have expected. Now, he has still two more years left on the deal and he’s turning 35 and he’s coming off a year when he was one of the worst players in baseball. That contract was historically atrocious the day it was offered … and history has simply played out.

Center field
Andruw Jones, Dodgers ($18.1 million per year)
— The Angels Torii Hunter got $18 million per year, but his was a five-year deal compared to Jones’ two years. The funny thing about the Torii Hunter deal is that according to all parties, he was just about to sign with the Kansas City Royals when the Angels swooped in with the biggest money package offered to a center fielder since Ken Griffey. So it was the KANSAS CITY ROYALS who drove up the price. … Vernon Wells also got $18 million per year from Toronto.

Right field
Ichiro, Seattle and Jayson Werth, Washington ($18 million per year)
— That Jayson Werth contract alone should tell you that you don’t need the Yankees to get an absurd deal. The line from Citizen Kane fits here: “It’s no trick to make an awful lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money.”

And I think that’s where I stand now: If Albert Pujols and his people are determined, at any cost, to get that $300 million deal, I think they have at least a fair shot of getting it. Fangraphs does a nice job breaking down Pujols’ projected value, and some other people do as well, and their figures generally show that it’s unlikely for Pujols to be worth that much money if you look at aging patterns and so on. But here’s the thing: He’s the best player in baseball. He’s widely acknowledged to be the best player in baseball. There are a lot of owners out there who would like to say that the best player in baseball plays for their team.

I also think Albert Pujols still means more to the St. Louis Cardinals than he does to any other team. I don’t know how much the Cardinals offered, and I don’t know if there are bad feelings between the two sides now, and I don’t know where Pujols’ head is when it comes to playing the rest of his career in St. Louis. But I think once all that fades, the Cardinals will be in the bidding process. And I think that the money will be flying, even without the Yankees cash in the whirlwind.

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