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The First Sports Poscast

Well, against my better judgment — and the better judgment of anyone who has ever heard me on radio — I have decided to start podcasting. This is not entirely because of my editor, who has been stalking me for more than a year to get me to do it. This is only MOSTLY because of my editor, who has been stalking me for more than a year to get me to do it.

The great thing about doing Sports Poscasts (at least in theory) is that I don’t have to do them alone … and I have the good fortune of knowing some great people who are much better at this than I am. I’m hoping to have them as regular co-hosts so they can carry me. We will see how it plays out.

My first Sports Poscast co-host is with one of those great people — Michael Schur, creator and Executive Producer of the fabulous Parks and Recreation on NBC (Thursday nights, right after The Office). Mike, as you probably know, is also one of the founders of the legendary Fire Joe Morgan Web site and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He’s also Paul. We preview the baseball season and, as you might expect based on this blog’s history, go way longer than we intended. Future Poscasts should be shorter. Comments, questions, suggestions, chocolate-covered strawberries can all be sent here.

You may notice, if you listen that long, that when we had the conversation, Bartolo Colon appeared slotted as the Yankees fifth starter. Please feel free to replace those words with the equally frightening words “Freddy Garcia.” Next time, we’ll get the thing up faster.

The next Sports Poscast, I’m hoping, will be with Bill James though I must admit that I’m not entirely sure Bill is completely out of hiding after the Kansas game just yet.

Here is the first Sports Poscast.

* * *

Postscript: I should add here that the Sports Poscast will be on iTunes, hopefully in the next couple of days. Will keep you updated. Also the sound quality should get better when we get all the equipment set up in and in working order. Until then, yes, we do indeed plan on continuing to record our Poscasts through a baby monitor.

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Who Am I To Argue?

My mother cannot quite tell a joke. I think my mother is very funny, and she has a great sense of what is funny, but she cannot quite tell a joke, which is a very different skill. She disagrees, of course, but there is quite a lot of family evidence going back years to the Posnanski famous, “I passed all the cars on the road,” punch-line. She was telling the rather famous joke about the man who is pulled over for speeding and says to the officer: “You think I was speeding? You should have seen the cars I passed.”

My mother’s version was: “You think I was speeding? I passed all the cars on the road.”

In any case, my mother’s favorite joke in my mind involves the correct way to respond when winning awards. That correct way is like so: “I don’t deserve this honor … but who am I to argue?”

In the last few days, I have been getting quite a bit of award consideration, and once again I have to admit I don’t quite know how to handle it. Every instinct in me says to be grateful but quiet about it. What we do as writers is so subjective that awards are pretty silly; the same story that wins an award from one organization can be called the worst story of the year by another. The gap can be, and often is, that wide. Anyway, praise — I believe this wholeheartedly — can be more dangerous than vicious criticism to a writer’s psyche if he or she takes it too much to heart. My awards are in a cupboard under a sink in my basement, and it’s important to me that they stay there. They day I really start believing I’m any good at this stuff, I fear, is the day I stop trying hard enough.

Fortunately, there are always people out there more than happy to tell me I’m no good at this stuff. So I’m good.

Here’s the thing, though: I do realize, that there is another purpose for awards … and that is to shine a light on journalism and writing. The Oscars might be a self-congratulating ego-fest, but because of the Oscars millions more people will see The King’s Speech, and Inside Job, and some of the best work the industry has to offer. The Grammy’s are kind of a joke, but maybe they open up a few more people to Buddy Guy or Arcade Fire or the White Stripes or Danger Mouse.

I believe that we are in a bit of a golden age of writing in America. I would not be able to put that in any great historical context, but I know that there is way too much wonderful longform writing for me to read, and I read a lot. I just listed three Web sites, the first three that came to mind, but there are dozens and dozens and dozens of such Web sites, and the book stores fill with writers like Franzen and Hillenbrand and Eggers and Auster and Maraniss and Roth (still writing at the top of his game) and McDermott and McCarthy, and it’s all too much. There is also incredible sportswriting going on now. This week in Sports Illustrated, if you’re a baseball fan, you will get an all-you-can-eat buffet of greatness, you will get the untouchable Gary Smith on the Philadelphia Phillies rotation and the best baseball writer going today, Tom Verducci, on radar guns. But the beauty of today is you don’t have to only wait for SI to write these stories, you can scan Baseball Think Factory and every day of the year you can find a wonderful story (and a few not so wonderful ones) for inspiration.

Heck, some of the more entertaining and passionate and frenzied writing out there is being done 140 characters at a time.

And yet … I’m not sure we appreciate how good it is out there because at the same time there’s also more terrible work out there than ever before, or anyway it seems that way. That’s the power of technology — there is just MORE, always, everywhere. It’s hard to keep up, and it’s hard to know which way to turn.

So, in this way, I admire the people who give out awards; I appreciate their quest to find quality. I appreciate groups like the NSSA (for sportswriters and sportscasters) that are working hard to encourage good work. I appreciate groups like the APSE that are trying to identify and reward the best sportswriting in newspapers and on the Web.

A couple of weeks ago, I was nominated for a National Magazine Award for this blog. I’m proud to say that I lost to the excellent Marc Tracy of The Scroll blog. And if you look at the smart and serious topic that leads the page now — What Libya has to do with the Holocaust — you will wonder how in the heck a blog focusing on Snuggies and Yuni Betancourt was ever in contention.

Yesterday, I was told that I won a National Headliners Award for Online Writing. That is given by the Press Club in New Jersey, and it is one of the more prestigious journalism awards in America. This is actually my second one (read Mother’s joke here). Read through the list of winners, if you have a moment, find some of the stories and photos and reporters. There is some amazing work being done.

And this morning I woke up to find that not only did I win the inaugural Baseball Bloggers Alliance writer of the year award but — no, I am not kidding — they are actually NAMING THE AWARD for me next year. The BBA’s awards are now named for Willie Mays, Connie Mack, Goose Gossage, Walter Johnson, Stan Musial and me. Perfect fit, right?

It’s all humbling and makes me feel uneasy, but against my better judgment I’m writing about it anyway because I want to make you aware of these fine organizations and the fine work they are honoring across the board. And, sure, I want to say how proud I am that they honored me too. I’ll do one more bit of name-dropping and irritating bragging because … well, because I’m this far along anyway so I might as well.

A few years ago, I was named the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors for the first time. It was thrilling, of course, because some of my heroes in sportswriting had won the award before me. But it was also disconcerting. I try to hide my insecurities best I can, but people who really know me know that I never, ever like what I do. Those insecurities can blossom and bloom when people start saying really nice things about me, so I often shut down in those situations.

And, so, I kind of shut down when I won that columnist award. And then I got the nicest call from — here comes the name drop — Tom Watson. He called to congratulate me but, more, to tell me that I should take great pride in being honored by my peers and to allow myself a few moments to bask in the sunshine. He said that when he was honored by his fellow golfers, at first he did not quite know how to take it. He felt unworthy. But then he decided that it wasn’t his business to feel unworthy. It was his business to feel grateful and proud and happy.

In other words: I don’t deserve these honors … but who am I to argue? I guess I passed all the cars on the road.

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Chinese Jibberish

“And then I was looking at the little Chinese lady. There was a beauty to her — she was just a tiny little Chinese lady, I was staring at her because I was fascinated by her. I don’t know anybody like her, and I am SO not a little old Chinese lady.

“Then I look and I think, ‘What are her thoughts?’ That’s what I was burning inside with. ‘What is she thinking right now?’ I can never know. And my dumb brain is telling me she’s just thinking: ‘Ching chung cheeng, chung cheeng chaing.’ That’s how dumb I am, that I think Chinese jibberish that I made up is in her actually Chinese mind.”

— Louis CK

I have several mostly done baseball stat posts — a couple of them completely done — but I haven’t posted them yet. There’s a reason for this. I do think that in the next couple of days, I will put up a a pitcher rating system that I’ve developed with the help and inspiration of Tom Tango and Bill James. I will also post my 32 best players in baseball.

But the reason that I haven’t posted any of them quite yet, I think, is because it just feels to me like there’s this point I can’t quite articulate about the stat vs. gut argument in baseball. I keep feeling like I’m circling the runway. I’ve tried to write a post about why some sportswriters seem to feel unease — if not outright contempt — toward the advanced stats. I’ve tried to write a post about why some baseball managers and very smart baseball people say things that can be so easily proven false by just the quickest glance at the numbers. But, like I say, it still feels like I’m running in circles.

Saturday, doing my usual Baseball Think Factory reading, I came across Dan Steinberg and his blog about a couple of Washington Nationals radio ads, narrated by manager Jim Riggleman. The first ad is a celebration of old-time baseball (“Smart ball,” in Riggleman’s description). The second is a mild repudiation of stats against the power of humanity, not to mention a radio gala commemorating the competitive spirit of Ian Desmond.

Here’s what Riggleman says in the first commercial:

“How many ball games are won by one run? Last season: 732. A walk, a bunt, a well-placed single and a sacrifice fly. You call it small ball; I call it smart ball.”

And here’s what he says in the second:

“In baseball there’s a stat for every situation. Tie game, man on second, Ian Desmond at-bat. In day games, he’s batting .219. That’s what the stats say. Do you pinch hit for him? Absolutely not. Sometimes, you believe in the stats. Sometimes, you believe in the players.”

These commercials, for whatever reason, kind of clarified something for me that has been foggy in my mind: Baseball people really don’t get at all what people like Bill James and Tom Tango and Pete Palmer and the like are doing at all. They might THINK they know. But in the end, they are just assuming that the Chinese jibberish that they make up is what is actually happening in the minds of the most brilliant sabermetric minds.

I actually don’t think the Riggleman stuff here is all that bothersome. I like Riggleman. And he likes small ball. And he likes to stick with his players (a noble quality, I think). And he likes to go with his gut sometimes as a manager. That’s fine. I mean, no, it’s not really “fine” in that that I wouldn’t want him to be the manager of my team, but that’s because I have a particularly strong distaste for small ball (“smart ball”) and overconfidence in gut instincts. The second commercial is particularly silly along those lines … it is touching that the manager would stick with Ian Desmond in that situation because of his faith in the heart, but it should be noted that Riggleman has twice led the league in pinch-hitters used so he apparently buys into day batting averages more than most.

But it’s that .219 day-game average that stands out in the commercials — no self-respecting sabermetric thinker would ever quote a .219 day batting average. This is exactly the sort of thing people MAKE UP when talking about sabermetric thinker. This is Chinese Jibberish. You will hear people, in their mocking voice, say stuff like: “Oh, what does he hit on Thursdays after full moons during Republican administrations?” This is their terrible impressions of stat people.

Only … one of the fundamental principles of sabermetrics is the principle of sample size. If anything, smart people like Tom Tango have a MUCH LARGER sample size requirement than the average person. They believe that there is ALMOST NOTHING to be learned from a few at-bats during the day time, that Ian Desmond’s .219 batting average in 197 plate appearances during the day tells you ALMOST NOTHING.

This is one of the real ironies of stat vs. gut — the gut people often make fun of stats and yet they are the ones most likely to rely on the least telling of them, the ones with small sample sizes (day batting averages, 10-at bat matchups with pitchers, batting average with runners in scoring position) that they probably don’t mean a thing. This is not some side-thing either with sabermetrics; this is one of the founding and fundamental beliefs. BEWARE SMALL SAMPLE SIZE.*

*Advice I wish my beloved SI would have taken before putting Jeff Francoeur on the cover with “The Natural” label.

Take Tango’s invention “FIP.” FIP means “Fielding Independent Pitching” and it’s an effort to measure a pitcher’s performance based specifically on things he is responsible for — these would include strikeouts, walks and home runs.

FIP has taken a beating in the gut-based community because it doesn’t FEEL right. It reduces pitching to its skeleton shape, and we have come to know pitching as something much larger than a skeleton, something beyond just strikeouts and walks and home runs, something ethereal, something artistic, something grand. Reducing pitching to strikeouts, walks and home runs feels, in a way, like Dr. J. Evans Pritchard’s attempts to reduce poetry to a chart in “Dead Poet’s Society.” This is the sort of thing that baseball people despite. This is the sort of thing that suggests to them that stat people are trying to take the humanity and poetry out of baseball.

Two problems with that sort of thinking. One, the FIP concept is right: Pitching IS largely strikeouts and walks and home runs. People seem unable to believe it — I’m often unable to believe it — but starting pitchers have very little control of anything else. There’s a very simple statistic people call BABIP — Batting Average on Balls In Play — and it gives you exactly what it promises, the batting average of a hitter on balls hit into the field of play.

Here are a few pitchers with their career BABIP. See if anything surprises you:

— Mario Soto, .255
— Eric Show, .267
— Jim Deshaies, .271
— Nolan Ryan, .271
— Scott Elarton, .277
— Johan Santana, .278
— Bob Forsch, .278
— Dan Quisenberry, .280
— Pedro Martinez, .282
— Bob Walk, .282
— Eric Milton, .285
— Neal Heaton, .285
— Roger Clemens, .286
— Greg Maddux, .286
— Brandon Webb, .291
— Kevin Brown, .293
— Roy Halladay, .294
— Roy Oswalt, .300

Yep, Jim Deshaies gave up fewer hits on balls in play than Nolan Ryan. Bob Walk had a lower BABIP allowed than Roger Clemens. Hit a ball against Dan Quisenberry’s slow sinker and you had less of a chance for a hit than managing to hit Pedro Martinez’s electric stuff.

And those are CAREER numbers, which means we have bigger sample sizes. If you talk about individual seasons, well, forget about it. The season numbers are stunning and illogical and prove the point that success after hitting a ball in play is largely due to chance and the alignment and skill of the defense. Who was the best pitcher in baseball last year? Probably Roy Halladay. Is this because Halladay broke a lot of bats and forced a lot of easy ground balls and constantly coaxed hitters to put the ball right where the fielders were standing? Nope. Halladay’s BABIP last year was FIFTY SECOND in the National League, behind, among others, Rodrigo Lopez and Brad Bergesen.

Josh Johnson, who led the National League in ERA, had an even higher BABIP — he allowed batters to hit .301 on balls in play.

The numbers point to the simple conclusion: Pitchers don’t have much control over balls in play. It seems impossible to look at the numbers and not draw that conclusion. Even a reliever you would assume does control balls in play, Mariano Rivera, really doesn’t. In his 12 best seasons, the BABIP against him has ranged from .212 to .296. And, believe it or not, the .296 year might have been better than the .212 year.

2003: BABIP .296. 40 saves, 1.66 ERA.
1999: BABIP .212. 45 saves, 1.83 ERA.

Pitchers — especially starting pitchers — have so much less control than we want to believe. This is true in large and small senses. People used to say, with all seriousness, that pitching (meaning starting pitching) is 90% of baseball. Bill James detonated that cliche in one of his funnier essays, but the fact it became a cliche — and the fact that every now and again you will still hear it — tells you its power.

Starting pitching in 2010 is about 25% of baseball. It’s easy to figure that percentage.

Step 1: Figure that run scoring and run prevention are each 50% of the game.

Step 2: Bill James figure that pitching is about 75% of run prevention with defense the other 25%. You can adjust this if you want, but it won’t change the overall number much. Anyway that seems about right.

Step 3: Starting pitchers averaged six innings per start in 2010. You have to go back almost 25 years, to 1988, to find a year when starting pitchers averaged even 6 1/3 innings per start.

Do the math ((.50*.75) *.66) and it means that starting pitching as a whole is about 25% of the game.

I hope that people start using that as the cliche, but they won’t. We want to infuse pitchers with bigger roles and larger purpose. That’s why we assign to them wins and losses. That’s why there seems a visceral reaction to stats like FIP.

I said above that there are two problems with the sort of anti-stat emotion out there — one is that many people don’t seem to realize how logical and well thought out these baseball stats are. They tend to create Chinese jibberish and believe that’s what the stats are really saying.

The second problem is that this stuff isn’t really foreign to baseball people. Tom Tango wasn’t the first guy to attempt to separate the contribution of a pitcher and his defense. No, that attempt goes back more than 100 years.

Introducing the statistic: ERA.

Think about ERA for a moment. Why was it invented? We were already counting runs allowed for pitchers, that was easy. But Henry Chadwick — back when the game was very different — did not want to blame the pitcher for runs that were clearly the fault of the defense (and defense was much more than 25% of run prevention then). Yep, he wanted to give pitchers credit (or blame) for what they did, and defenses credit (or blame) for what they did. This led to the invention of the error and, if you think about it, the ludicrous way that we actually go back and try to reinvent history (“if he makes that play, then the runner doesn’t go to second, and the next guy doesn’t hit the single that drives him in”) and parse runs into earned and unearned categories.

How silly is this? Well, what if I tell you that at the same time the error was invented there was also an attempt to label something called the “Good play.” Here’s how the “good play” would have worked: Someone in the press box would have determined whether or not a defensive player made a good play — that would be a play made that was above and beyond ordinary effort. And if a good play saved a run, that run would be charged to pitcher as an “unscored run.” Yes, we would charge pitchers for runs that did not score.

The previous paragraph, as far as I know, is complete fiction … I just made it up. I don’t think there ever was any effort to popularize the good play. But the good play is just the opposite of the error. It’s another bizarrely simplistic and subjective attempt to separate pitching from hitting. We’ve been living under the quirky nature of ERA all of our lives, and few complain about it despite its obvious biasses and general mindlessness. We credit pitchers for every run they saved except ones when a fielder makes a mistake so obvious that someone can notice it from the press box? That’s how we do it? Really?

Really. And yet, when someone like Voros McCracken discovers through the numbers that pitchers don’t control much beyond strikeouts, walks and homers … when Tom Tango invents a stat that gives us a much clearer view of pitchers … when Bill James invents something called “the strikeout-walk win-loss record” and really shows us that you can judge pitchers fairly and quite accurately based only on those two stats … many people tend to shudder and bellyache about these stat people who care only about how left-handed pitchers do on grass fields recently mowed four days after national holidays against right-handed batters with three syllables in their names and …

Yep. Chinese jibberish.

Back to Riggleman for a moment. In the first commercial he talks about the importance of those manufactured runs in a one-run game. But even in the commercial, even on his own terms, he gets it wrong. He says: “A walk, a bunt, a well-placed single and a sacrifice fly. You call it small ball; I call it smart ball.”

First off, if you give up an out to bunt the runner over to second, you would hope — HOPE — he would score on the well-placed single. It’s like Riggleman doesn’t even get his own manufactured run scenario right.

Second, if you have runners on first and third with one out and only get one run — as the sacrifice fly suggests — you are actually doing worse than league average. Teams tend to score about 1.2 runs in those situations. You are not GAINING runs in smart ball, you are losing them.

Third, they have been playing baseball for more than 100 years. And for more than 100 years, more runs have scored with a man on first and nobody out than with a man on second and one out. This has been true EVERY SINGLE SEASON for more than 100 years. Every single one.

Not only that, but since expansion in 1969, your chance of scoring a single run is better with a runner on first and nobody out than with a runner on second and one out. Get that? Your percentages for scoring ONE RUN is better.

Now, a manager may believe that these so-called numbers are wrong, that hundreds of thousands of innings and at-bats and situations are wrong, that what is right is the manager’s own instinct for avoiding the double play and putting his RBI guy up in the right situation. I don’t begrudge a manager for thinking that or a team for believing in that manager or fans for wanting it to be true. I just wouldn’t call it smart ball.

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Men of Honor

Years and years ago, I wrote a newspaper column that — technically, I guess — could have gotten me fired. It was a column about silence. I won’t go into too many of the details but I’ll tell you that the column involved a barber shop, a series of racist jokes and the disgraceful silence of the young man getting his hair cut, the young man being me. I just sat there, in that lost world between embarrassment and rage, while these racist jokes flew around the room. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t express my disgust. I didn’t walk out. I didn’t stand up and break out into a “To Kill A Mockingbird” speech. I just stayed quiet. The column was about my own shame, about the shame of being silent in the face of small injustices, about that “Hey, you can’t change the world,” feeling that I used as a crutch to make myself feel better.

The column did run, and I was told later that it created enough of a stir that the words, “Does someone need to be fired over this,” were spoken behind closed doors. But nobody really said anything to me about it except, “Stick with sports,” which I certainly understand. I think back 20 or so years, and I still don’t know how I feel about that column. Part of me is proud I wrote it. Part of me is embarrassed. Part of my feels like it took some courage to write it. Part of me thinks it was really a cowardly way out. It’s all true. I was very young.

I bring this up now because former New York Times sportswriter Murray Chass has written a post so vile and untrue and devoid of basic decency that I have found myself once again in that strange place where I’m not sure what to do. On the one hand, Murray Chass is a nobody now. He’s a bitter man with a past and a blog he refuses to call a blog. He seems to bring dishonor to himself and his work with such regularity now that I cannot help but wonder if he was in fact a vile hack throughout his newspaper career but few noticed because he happened to be on the right side of the baseball labor issue and the indomitable Marvin Miller.*

*I should say here that Chass has managed to disgrace Miller on several occasions with his recent work as well. It is quite possible that Miller, while closing on his 94th birthday, has lost his compass; either way he should probably stop talking to Murray Chass.

So part of me says that writing to stomp out the disgusting Murray Chass post about Stan Musial and Curt Flood will only draw more attention to it, will only spread his lies and malice to bigger lands. That part of me says that the way to deal with a man like this and a blog post like this is to ignore it and let it curl up and die unseen. Stay silent.

But another part of me says that some people DID see it, and if we let it go then a handful of people will wonder if maybe there’s some truth to it, if maybe this is not just bitterness and bile and revenge and a desperate attempt to be noticed but maybe there is a germ of truth in it.

I’ve obviously gone with the second part of myself or you would not be reading this (though I must say that as I write this sentence I am still not sure if I will ever post this).

Murray Chass wrote a post called Musial No Man Of Honor, Mr. President. The bulk of it is so unethical and vomitous — with almost comically irresponsible phrases like “said a lawyer with no first-hand knowledge of the incident” — that you could only imagine it being written by a man in prison about the judge who put him away. I won’t bother with the bulk of it, because the bulk of it is convoluted and absurd and sick or simply has nothing whatsoever to do with honor. Apparently, Chass and Miller feel like Musial, to their mind, was vaguely on the wrong side of the labor discussion. Whatever. Miller is diminished by allowing his name to be used in such stupidity but that’s his business.

But there is one very specific charge here that people will notice, one of racism against Musial, that is so grotesque that to allow it to stand is to do a great injustice to the man. The charge builds around a famous story Curt Flood told a couple of times. The story involves Flood and a woman walking into Musial’s restaurant in the late 1950s and being refused a seat because of the color of his skin and by order of the owner. Chass in the faux charitable way of frauds concedes that “the incident appears in some books about Flood.” What he does not say is that the story was told in the book WRITTEN BY CURT FLOOD, which seems pretty official.

In Curt Flood’s own version of the story, Flood was indeed turned away from the restaurant by someone (not Musial, of course) and went to Musial the next day to tell him about the incident and Musial was “livid,” and promised to take care of it. It is well known that Musial did not run the restaurant; he lent his name to it. Whatever, Flood said he did not go back to the restaurant for a long time but when he did go back he was treated like royalty, treatment he found ironic.

A couple of things. One, it has to be said that Musial has specifically said that the story did not happen that way — he says that Flood was turned away because the kitchen was closed and that he took it wrong. You can make your own judgment on that but it is true that Flood did not start telling the story for many years, until he began going through his own difficult fight.

Two, even if the story did happen exactly the way Flood describes it, Flood himself did not blame Musial. He made the clear point that Musial was livid. He made clear the point that Musial was always kind to him (though often inscrutable) with hitting advice. He thought Musial was naive but certainly not racist. Years after, he wanted Musial to be the Cardinals manager (admittedly because he thought that Musial would stay out of the way — Flood’s No. 1 goal for a manager).

Bob Gibson, who certainly has never backed down to racism, calls Musial the nicest man he has ever met in baseball. Joe Black, who as one of the first African American pitchers dealt with about as much racism as any baseball player ever, often told the story of the time Musial visited him in the clubhouse to boost his spirits. Lou Brock has personally told me story after story about the kindnesses of Musial.

Nobody would say that Musial was a civil rights pioneer — he’s not the sort to make speeches or waves; the man was a baseball player first and last — but he was unquestionably and unanimously a man of decency. In 1962, for spring training, he moved from his usual spot at the beach to a new location so that he could stay with the black players. No, he was not a freedom rider. He was not on the front lines of the fight. But, as Buck O’Neil used to say, he is a good, good man.

To smear a good, good man with a half-cocked version of a well-known and easily verifiable story is the work of an embittered mind. I would not tell you that Stan Musial is a saint or that he never felt any of the biases of his time, because that is impossible. But I know this because countless people have told me … Stan Musial has spent a life trying to make people happy. And it’s a shame that tragically unhappy people don’t know when they’ve run out of useful words.

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The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

When you first walk into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, you will find yourself looking at a baseball field with players on it. Only you will find yourself looking at that field and those players from the other side of chicken wire. The image, of course, was about separation. Through the years, I looked through that chicken wire with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols. Through the years, I stood by that chicken wire and listened to stories from Buck O’Neil and Double Duty Radcliffe and Connie Johnson and the great Monte Irvin, who on his best days, before the war and before integration, might have been the best who ever lived.

We’ll never know that about Irvin, of course, and this is the main thing I used to think about when I and looked through the wire at the statues on the field. We’ll never know. We’ll never know how good Oscar Charleston was … and we’ll never know how hard Smokey Joe Williams really threw … and we’ll never know how many home runs Turkey Stearnes hit … and we’ll never know what the Devil, Willie Wells, looked like fielding a ground ball … and we’ll never know just how fast Cool Papa Bell ran …

… and we’ll never know anything more than we can imagine.

That’s why I loved the museum so much. When people asked Buck how fast Cool Papa Bell was, he would say: “Faster than that.” In other words, Josh Gibson’s home runs traveled exactly as far as your imagination allows. And the museum was a place for imagination. It did not have a lot of memorabilia — too expensive and rare — and it did not have a lot of interactive exhibits. It was more of a spiritual experience. It was a place to think about the barbecue restaurants and the barbershops, where people would stand around and talk about whether Hilton Smith or Leon Day threw a better curveball. It was a place to think about Saturday nights in the city, neon everywhere, whiskey in the air, wild jazz playing through the windows, the wild jazz of late nights and long kisses and rattling dice, some of the music as disjointed and broken as shattered glass, some of it as new and baffling as Charlie Parker’s saxophone. It was a place to think about how good those players were, how much baseball fans lost by not getting to see Satchel Paige when he was still young, and also Jelly Taylor, the Ghost, Popsicle Toes, Mule Suttles, Ray Dandridge …

Dandridge. There’s a statue of Dandridge on the Museum’s baseball field, and Willie Mays stared at it through the chicken wire. You know when Willie Mays was a minor league playing in Minneapolis, Ray Dandridge was there too. He was in his late 30s by then, his career mostly behind him, but he was so good as a hitter (he hit .362, .311 and .324 in those years when batting average meant everything) and so smooth and beautiful a third baseman that the story goes that when the Giants told the Minneapolis team they wanted to bring up Mays, the response was “as long as you keep Ray Dandridge here.”

The Negro Leagues Museum was a place to tell those kinds of stories. For a long time, of course, the one doing most of the telling was an extraordinary man named Buck O’Neil. He did not build the museum himself — there were a lot of heroes in that painstaking story. But the museum was built in his spirit, and from my point of view it was his single-handed charm and force of will and humanity that made the museum a national success. He would be there all the time, ready to take strangers on tours. “Well, come on then,” he’d say, and people did.

A couple of years ago — and I wrote about this at the time — I broke with the museum. Well, that makes it sound more dramatic than it was. I had no official capacity with the museum — and you can’t really break from where you aren’t. I just loved the place, so I hosted most of their events, and I promoted them whenever I could, and we donated money, and I asked for many of my speaking fees to be donated to the museum and so on. I did this for friends like Buck, for my love baseball history, but more than anything because for me, the museum really was a place of imagination and, as much as anything, I believe in imagination.

A couple of years ago, though, things changed. I don’t want or need to go into it. The only part that matters now is that my dear friend Bob Kendrick — who was chosen by Buck O’Neil to run the museum after he died — was passed over and treated with contempt. I want to believe that this was done more out of blindness and arrogance than anything, but I don’t know that. I don’t want to know. I only know they made someone else president. They pointedly moved the museum away from the vision of Buck O’Neil. They lost their spirit (and a lot of money). It was reported and whispered, the museum moved to the brink of collapse. Imagination was gone.

And I stopped going to the place, stopped standing outside the chicken wire, stopped looking at the field and imagining. Every now and again, someone would ask me to come back, and they might even invoke Buck’s name … but Buck was the very reason I could not go back. The way I saw it, the museum was no longer about Buck. It no longer shared his vision, his singular purpose, his wonder, his joy. I stayed away.

Thursday, they will announce that Bob Kendrick has been named President of the Negro Leagues Museum. Bob had left the museum to run the Kansas City office of the National Sports Center for the Disabled. He loved working there — such wonderful people. But not too long ago, the board of directors seemed to realize what they had done, and they came to Bob and asked him to come back, to help the museum find its core again, to return the place to what Buck O’Neil stands for, to make it again a place of imagination.

I don’t want to speak for Bob … but I think I know his heart a little bit. He knows how hard it will be to make the museum successful again. He knows how the museum will have to do it without Buck, with a sluggish economy and with more than a few broken relationships to mend. He also knows that the board passed him over once before in a process that, well, the less said about it the better. He knows that the odds are stacked against the museum.

But … he also knows that the odds have always been stacked against the museum. It has always been a challenge to convince people that they should care about a baseball league that died a half century ago, a league of mostly unknown players from those days before Jackie Robinson stole home. It has always been a challenge to convince people that Josh Gibson might have been more powerful than Ruth, that Satchel Paige might have been more dominant than Koufax, that Oscar Charleston might have been better than Mays. It has always been hard to tease the imagination.

He knows all that, but more than anything else he knows that this museum is in his blood. He was working for the museum before it had a building. He was with Buck selling the stories before anyone knew who Buck was. He was there in meeting rooms, time and again, explaining to bored and cynical executives why they wanted to be part of this story, why they NEEDED to be part of this story, why the Negro Leagues were not about black athletes, why the Leagues were not about racism, why the leagues were not even about baseball. No, the Negro Leagues were about America, and looking through the chicken wire, and dreaming as big as the sky.

I tell a story in my book The Soul of Baseball about a time Bob, Buck and I were in the Atlanta airport, and we came upon an up escalator that wasn’t moving. We had to get upstairs, of course, and Bob wisely suggested we take the elevator. Buck, in a rare unwise moment, said we could make the walk.

And so we began climbing, step after step after step, and about a quarter of the way up I already started to feel winded. Admittedly, I was in terrible shape, but I was also 56 years younger than Buck. Bob started to sweat through his suit. And Buck … well, Buck did not look too good. Halfway up, we were even worse, but there was no going down at that point and we all knew it. What we did not know, seriously did not know, was whether Buck could make it. But we kept trudging, step by step, until finally and extraordinarily we reached the top. Buck sat down for a long time before he had enough wind to go again. I wanted to plant a flag by the Cinnabon.

Every time Bob or I come to an escalator in the Atlanta airport, we call each other to remember that absurd climb. Sure, it’s corny and overly simple to compare that climb to the climb of the Negro Leagues Museum from a one-room office with a scrapbook to a multi-million dollar building on the famous corner of 18th and Vine to a place beloved across the country and recognized by Presidents. But we do it just the same.

“Joe,” Bob said to me, and I don’t think he will mind me telling you this, “I’ve been offered the job to run the Museum. I have mixed emotions, and I know it’s a real challenge, but I know it’s the right thing to do. I know it’s what Buck would have wanted.”

“You’re right. It is what Buck would have wanted.”

“I’m going to need help.”

“You don’t even need to ask, Bob.”

And we talked for a long time about all sorts of things — baseball, community, family — but we especially talked about Buck and how he had this dream that there would be a museum to help people imagine what it was like when some of the best baseball players who ever lived played passionate games in their own league on dusty fields while most of America turned away. Buck is gone. His dream has flickered, but I hope it is still very much alive.

To join the Negro Leagues Museum, please go here. Memberships run for as little as $25.

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By In Joe Vault

The Biggest Winner

January 23, 2011
Weight: 247.3 pounds
Overweight by 71.3 pounds

What does inspiration mean in sports? Strip down the word. Remove its jewelry. I was there the night Derek Jeter hit the home run at Yankee Stadium while smoke rose from Ground Zero, and the crowd sang “New York, New York,” again and again long after the game ended, as if to shout “We’re still here!” And it felt … inspiring.


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By In Stuff

An Announcement

Growing up, I never could have imagined that I would write a book. In those days, I could barely imagine reading a book … unless it was something by Alfred Slote or Matt Christopher or someone like that. I remember when I was 8 or 9, my mother decided it was time I read Moby Dick. If someone had told me at any point during that agonizing process that I would write a book, any book, I would have undoubtedly thrown Moby Dick at them. And, as you know if your mother made you read Moby Dick, that would have hurt.

My first book, The Soul of Baseball, was, as the cliche goes, a labor of love. I traveled around the country with Buck O’Neil and wrote about the wisdom and joy of my friend. That book was more a calling than anything else, and I will never be prouder of a project than I am of that book. I’ll have a little more to say about Buck and callings in the next few days, by the way. There’s something very exciting happening there.

My second book, The Machine, is about the 1975 Reds and it is meant only to be fun. There are no grand literary aspirations in there (as if I have the talent to muster grand literary aspirations). There’s a lot of swearing. I had considered writing a lot of different kinds of books, most of them along the lines of Soul, but decided that what I really wanted was to write a romping baseball book from the time of my childhood, and that’s what I tried to do.

My third book … well, three is a magic number, isn’t it? I learned that back in the Schoolhouse Rock days. This time around, I really wanted to go for everything, I wanted to take on the project of my life, something that would get at how I feel about sports and life and competition and fairness and unfairness and the world around us.

Well, it’s not that easy to put together a project that can do all those things … and all the wordless things that I did not include there. I had two or three false starts. I came up with several projects that I would still like to write, but not yet, not now, not until I took on something really big and bold and exciting and meaningful.

In the last few weeks, that something big started to come together. I mentioned it in passing in a couple of interviews, teased it on Twitter, but did not say anything because … well, sure, I didn’t want it to fall apart. Well, it’s now signed.

So my announcement is that I will take the next 18 months or so to write a book for Simon & Schuster about the life and impact of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

I cannot begin to describe how excited I am about this project. I am, as you could probably tell from my previous stories on the man, a huge fan and admirer of Joe’s. But even more than that I am endlessly fascinated by him and his lifelong quest to do something large, to impact America, through football. So writing about Joe, his triumphs, his struggles, his journey, well, it really is everything I’ve ever wanted to do as a writer. I’ll be living in State College this fall, so you can stop in and see me.

My plan is to continue to write for SI and to blog, though the numbers (and, gasp, word count) will undoubtedly diminish a bit. I don’t think I’m the kind who can just disappear into a cave and emerge with a book … I shut down this blog once before to work on a book and three months later started writing even longer posts. So I won’t try that again. We’ll just see how it plays out.

In the meantime, thank you all so much for your support and your kind words and your criticisms and your spelling corrections … this blog has been one of the great experiences of my life. I said above that as a child I never would have believed that I would write even one book. But I feel sure that if you somehow could have explained to me what a blog was when I was 10 years old, I would have thought, even then, “Yeah, that sounds like fun.”

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By In Stuff

The Bonds Trial

So here’s the thing: I love courtroom scenes. Paul Newman in “The Verdict,” and Al Pacino in “And Justice for All?” Awesome. The jury room in “12 Angry Men?” Fabulous. The real culprit shouting out from the back of the court room, “Yes I did it! And I’d do it again!” in Perry Mason? Can’t get enough. I love the cross examination of Jack Nicholson (as unrealistic as the Perry Mason scenes), the literary recounting of Scopes in “Inherit the Wind,” the throwing of the briefcase on The Brady Bunch, and the yutes in “My Cousin Vinny.” Basically, I love them all.

The reason I love them, I think, is because no matter how good or bad they are, every courtroom scene offers something to root for. You want the bad guy to get punished. You want the wrongly accused to be set free. Sometimes, like in Primal Fear*, there’s a cool twist. But there’s always something to touch you emotionally.

*I have been working on a list of good movies with terrible names, and at last check Primal Fear was No. 1 on the list.

I think that, in the end, is why the Barry Bonds trial that is going on right now has no affect on me at all. I am numb to it. I hate that it’s happening. I don’t want either side to win. I don’t have a single rooting interest or a single reason to believe something good will come from this thing. I know that the ending, whatever the ending, will feel pointless and sad and like a horrible waste.

Here’s what I think most people believe: Barry Bonds used steroids to become a better baseball player. He, reportedly, does not even deny this. He does claim — and claimed before a grand jury — that he did not KNOWINGLY take steroids. To think that Barry Bonds took steroids, but not knowingly, seems ridiculous, absurd on its face, and it seems an insult to the question and the people asking it. For seven years now the U.S. Government has been trying to nail him for this unconvincing bit of nonsense.

So, on the one hand you have someone who is probably lying — and obviously we should not stand for people lying to grand juries. On the other, you have what seems an extreme use of government power and money and shaky methods to nail him for this lie. Supposedly at some point during this trial we are going to get a spurned girlfriend telling the court all about Barry Bonds’ sex life and mood swings. The whole thing feels unseemly.

And … for what? I have seen it written in numerous places that this trial will help us “get to the bottom” of the Selig Era in baseball. But, one thing that seems absolutely certain to me is that this won’t help us get to the bottom of anything. People already know Barry Bonds used steroids. People already know Mark McGwire used steroids. People already know that Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield and Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner and Ken Caminiti and numerous pitchers and many others used steroids or some kind of illegal performance enhancing drug. There are no questions left that steroid use was prominent among the biggest stars in baseball, and many non-stars too. There is nothing left on that front to “get to the bottom of.”

What we don’t know is what it means. How we should feel about it. How prevalent it was. How we should view the Selig Era. And this Barry Bonds trial most certainly will not help shape a clearer picture there.

The most popular complaint about PED use — steroid use in particular — builds around home runs. Few seem to care much about PED use in pro football, for instance. Few seem to spend much outrage about PED use by pitchers or non-home run hitters (Roger Clemens excepted, but Clemens has always been a contentious figure). The thing is home runs, and the thing can be pointed out like so:

Players who hit more than 45 home runs between 1972 and 1986:
1. George Foster
2. Jim Rice
3. Dave Kingman
4. Mike Schmidt

Players who hit more than 45 home runs between 1987 and 1994:
1. Mark McGwire
2. Juan Gonzalez
3. Cecil Fielder
4. Kevin Mitchell
5. Andre Dawson
6. George Bell

Players who hit hit more than 45 home runs between 1995 and 2010:
1. Alex Rodriguez (5 times)
2. Sammy Sosa (5)
3. Mark McGwire (4)
4. Ken Griffey (4)
5. Barry Bonds (4)
6. Ryan Howard (3)
7. Albert Pujols (3)
8. Jim Thome (3)
9. Albert Belle (3)
10. Prince Fielder (2)
11. David Ortiz (2)
12. Rafael Palmeiro (2)
13. Juan Gonzalez (2)
14. Jose Bautista
15. Carlos Pena
16. Alfonso Soriano
17. Derrek Lee
18. Andruw Jones
19. Adam Dunn
20. Adrian Beltre
21. Todd Helton
22. Shawn Green
23. Luis Gonzalez
24. Troy Glaus
25. Jeff Bagwell
26. Greg Vaughn
27. Vinny Castilla
28. Jose Canseco
29. Larry Walker
30. Andres Galarraga
31. Brady Anderson

Whew. No matter how many different ways you put together the home run list since the 1994 strike, it boggles the mind. And, as you can see, many of the players on the last list have either admitted steroid use, tested positive at some point or were implicated in some way. And many of the others are strongly suspected — so strongly suspected, in fact, that it has affected their Hall of Fame cases. With home runs so dominating the era, and the players hitting home runs at a pace unmatched in baseball history, we want to know what’s real and what’s unreal.

In this, the Bonds trial will not give us any satisfaction. The only satisfaction will be to those who want to see Bonds punished or to those who want to see the government case fall on its face. And that’s not much satisfaction at all.

Baseball has a flawed history. Until 1947, African Americans and dark-skinned Latin players were barred from the Major Leagues. Until the mid-1970s, players were basically the property of the teams and relied almost entirely on the generosity of owners to make their living. Great pitchers scuffed and spit on the baseball. Great hitters corked their bats. Players took amphetamines to jolt them through the long seasons. Some bet on their games, some even tried to fix those games. “Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it,” Leo Durocher rather famously said, and that philosophy, as much as any, has governed the game.

So the steroid era is not really out of character for baseball history, no matter how many old-time players say it is. Players found that using steroids could make them stronger. Baseball did not test for it — which was like an open invitation to use whatever you wanted. Baseball was coming off a devastating strike and pro football had long before surpassed baseball as America’s pastime and everyone wanted — needed — the games to be more exciting than ever before. Players from every single era, given those circumstances, would have widely used steroids. I believe that wholeheartedly. As the ultra-honest Buck O’Neil said: “The reason we didn’t use steroids is because we didn’t have them.”

We don’t know how much of a role steroids played in the power numbers. We may THINK we know. But we don’t, not really. Sure, we know they played a significant role … but there were other factors too like smaller strike zones, better home run parks, harder bats, expansion, perhaps a livelier ball. Everything was geared toward home runs and bringing people back to the park. For a long while, America celebrated baseball’s glorious new era of extreme power. Comic books were made. Commercials were filmed. Chicks dig the long ball! Baseball dominated the summer of 1998 like it had not dominated a summer in decades. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were heroes — so much so that they were on the cover of SI as ancient Olympians.

It seems to me, that it really wasn’t until Barry Bonds started hitting home runs like mad that feelings really turned. Bonds, throughout his career, was almost like a cartoon villain. He could be arrogant. He could be unfriendly. He could seem a bad teammate. I often compared him in his younger days to Ted Williams, who was also a genius of a hitter and also widely despised. I had this weird relationship with Bonds (though “relationship” is overstating things) where it seemed like whenever I needed to talk with him for a story, he was friendly and helpful and thoughtful. He could be like that. Most of the time, he was not. Anyway, when he started hitting so many home runs that managers simply stopped pitching to him, everyone seemed to agree at once that this steroid thing had gone too far. It was one thing when lovable Sammy Sosa and titanic Mark McGwire were hugging. But Bonds … no, that was too much.

So I would say Barry Bonds, more than any other player, formed the public and media sentiment on steroids in baseball. He hit 73 home runs, often to boos. He passed Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list to almost unanimous boos and angry columns. He offered some cockamamie story to the grand jury about having taken steroid-type substances from his friend (and convinced steroid distributor) Greg Anderson but he insisted that he did not know what it was, and he insisted that only his doctor actually gave him injections. Anderson has since gone to jail — and he is going back to jail — rather than talk about it.

And so, the federal government — particularly the seemingly obsessed Jeff Novitzky — has gone hard after Barry Bonds. Now, they have Bonds in court. They may get him thrown in jail for a while. They may not. They will undoubtedly embarrass him. Bonds meanwhile counters with a high-priced defense team that will stop at nothing to protect their client. They may get him acquitted. They may not. They will undoubtedly embarrass the government.

And the whole thing will end, and we will be right back where we started when trying to figure out the Selig Era. Well, we won’t be right back where we started … we’ll all be a little sadder. And then, we can look forward to Roger Clemens trial this summer.

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By In Stuff

Terrible Timeouts

I love just about everything about the first week of March Madness. I love the wall-to-wall games. I love the upsets. I love the blowouts. I love the great individual performances. I love the close final minutes. I love the enthusiasm of the players, the fans, Kevin Harlan. The regular college basketball season doesn’t do much for me, but March makes it all worthwhile.

Except for one thing … I am SO sick of the studio hosts talking again and again and again about the officiating.

This hit home today after the North Carolina-Washington game when they spent a good 20 minutes arguing whether or not Washington (after heaving a half-court shot that a North Carolina player lost out of bounds) deserved to have a few tenths of a second more than then 0.5 seconds they actually got to take a last three-point shot. Yikes. I mean they brought in the head of officials, they they replayed it 20 times, they showed an angry Washington coach several times, they talked about it like this was one of the most important questions of our time. And even after showing it all those times:

1. I’m pretty convinced the officials got it right.
2. If they had added two- or three-tenths of a second, that almost certainly wouldn’t have meant ANYTHING.

But that was NOTHING compared to the endless and pointless talk about officiating at the end of the Texas-Arizona game. Here’s what happened. Arizona led most of the game, but Texas took the lead 69-67 with about a minute left. Arizona then had several chances to tie the game, but kept missing. With 14 seconds left, Arizona had a shot blocked, and Texas’ Jordan Hamilton got the ball. And then, inexplicably, he called timeout.

No, really, it was inexplicable. It was as bad a timeout as I can ever remember in a college basketball game. You are up two points with 14 seconds left and and the clock is running — you are breaking about 500 rules by calling timeout there. You don’t want to stop the clock. You don’t want to have to inbound the ball against a set defense (especially because you cannot move after a timeout). You don’t want to give the other team any chance at all to regroup. YOU DO NOT WANT TO STOP THE CLOCK!

I sat there with my jaw dropped open.

And neither Marv Albert — my favorite ever basketball announcer — or Steve Kerr said one word about it. I don’t think I know a lot about basketball, so I figured maybe I was somehow wrong. I didn’t really see how I could be wrong, i could not see how that timeout could possibly do ANYTHING but hurt Texas. But hey …

Of course, what followed is that Texas could not get the ball inbounds. The Longhorns did try to call timeout before the five-second call, but the official didn’t give it to them. So that was a turnover, a terrible turnover, a turnover directly caused by Texas calling a timeout they absolutely should not have called. And STILL the announcers did not talk about it. Then, Arizona did not just score but got fouled for a three-point play to take the lead — so apparently that scenario was not covered by Rick Barnes in the timeout. And then Texas went down the court, missed a shot, got a rebound and time ran out.

There are not too many cases, in my mind, where a dreadful strategic move actually costs a team a game. But I think this one was pretty close. If Texas does not call timeout, Arizona HAS to foul him. If he makes both free throws, Texas wins. If he makes one, Texas can’t lose in regulation. There were only a couple of ways Texas could lose the game in regulation with the ball in its hand, up two with 14 seconds left. Calling timeout there made one of those insane scenarios come true.

Anyway, after the game, there was not one word about the terrible timeout. Not one word. Instead, there was just minutes of tedious talk about the officials and whether they should have called a foul at the very end (it looked like time had run out). Look, basketball is a hard game to call. I have no doubt there are some bad calls being made, some mistakes being made, but frankly I’m really sick of hearing about it. If the officiating plays a major role — as it did at the end of that crazy Pittsburgh-Butler game — then, sure, talk about it.

But arguing (and I mean ARGUING) about whether the officials should have bailed out Texas with 0.1 seconds left like THAT was what the game was about?

It’s crazy. As much as college basketball coaches are lionized this time of year, as much as studio hosts talk about the coaches’ genius non-stop — so much so that in the studio the players often seem to be like extras — it would have been nice to point out that the officials didn’t cost Texas the game. The Longhorns cost themselves.

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By In Stuff

Lamp Posts

Brilliant Reader Elmaquino5 just put into absolutely perfect words why I find that anti-stats crowd so baffling. He puts it it perfectly in back to back sentences in a comment, the first sentence his own, the second sentence a famous quote by Vin Scully:

First sentence: “That’s why I’m content with averages, HRs, etc. I just don’t see why you have to get too specific.”

Second sentence: “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: For support, not illumination”. –Vin Scully.

Why do people who so dislike advanced baseball statistics not realize that counting home runs is figuring a statistic. Batting average is a statistic. Wins — statistic. RBIs — statistic. Not only that, they are statistics first figured by the cellar-dwelling, skivvies-wearing drips of the late 19th century and early 20th century. They are the best statistics people had before computers, before the Baseball Encyclopedia, before Bill James, before Pete Palmer, before Rob Neyer, before Fangraphs, before Baseball Reference, Retrosheet, before smart people did a little figuring and determined, “These statistics are fuzzy, and they are often unrevealing, and they can lead us in the wrong direction.”

I’ve often heard people do what Elmaquino does — use the poetic Vin Scully quote to defend their own desire to avoid and jeer at the advanced statistical world. And that’s fine. I’ve always said that people should enjoy baseball the way they want to enjoy baseball. It is a sport, and it is meant to be loved, and if you love it by doing spreadsheets, if you love it by sitting down the third base line with a beer and without even knowing the players names, if you love it for its history, for its pace, for its drama, for its familiarity, for its connection to spring, for its apparent simplicity, for its apparent complexities, for the way the game reveals character, for the way the game reveals talent, for the way the game rewards consistency, for batting average and wins and RBIs, for UZR and Runs Created and FIP, for whatever … that’s great. Love the game your own way.

But Vin Scully did not first say that quote. It was probably — though this is somewhat hazy — Scottish poet Andrew Lang who said, “An unsophisticated forecaster uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts — for support rather than illumination.” Lang died in 1912, long before WAR or VORP or xFIP or wOBA or Win Shares or any of the other stats people try to mock with the quote. Even when Vin Scully first said it, that was also before WAR or VORP or xFIP or wOBA or Win Shares.

In other words: Stick with batting average if you like. Quote wins if you want. Enjoy the game because, damn it, that’s why they play the game. But I would suggest that at the very least you keep the superiority levels to a minimum. Because there’s a pretty good chance when you quote batting average and wins and RBIs and the like as definitive and authoritative and certain … well let’s just say you probably ought to hold on to a lamp-post.

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