By In Stuff

Talk and Reality

You’ve noticed this, no doubt, but there really are many, many things we talk and write about in sports that have nothing whatsoever to do with reality. Think about how much talk there was this off-season about Cliff Lee pitching for the New York Yankees. There was discussion about it, and concern about it, and excitement about it. The Cliff Lee talk filled up countless talk radio hours, used up a whole lot of newsprint in newspapers across the country, overloaded web servers from coast to coast. The talk was so pervasive, in fact, that it transcended the basic “How good will the Yankees be with Cliff Lee?” conversation and moved on to how unfair the game is that the Yankees, needing starting pitching, can just go out and sign the guy.

Well, of course, Cliff Lee did not sign with the Yankees. And all that talk, all those words, all that computer memory, all them just disappeared into the ether. It wasn’t just that the talk was meaningless … it became entirely empty, like it had never even happened. We live in the era of the Story Mirage. Once Lee signed with the Phillies, all those stories became less than worthless. They became invisible.

And, it seems that invisible talk has become the norm in sports talk. Maybe it was always like this. Sports, thankfully, are so unpredictable that almost everything that is said in advance of a game or an event or a decision are likely to be wrong. The other day, ESPN ran a little segment on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, and they had probably 10 different NFL GMs talking about him.

And the two things that struck me about what these men were saying was:

1. How utterly meaningless their words sounded. I realize that GMs don’t want to reveal their hand, but in this case there’s nothing to reveal. Everyone knows that Cam Newton is the No. 1 pick in the draft. And still, these men who have spent their whole lives playing football, studying football, living football, they were saying things like: “He has a great arm,” and “He’s a terrific athlete.” I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that if you got 10 moderate football fans — and I mean moderate, the sort who watch like three games a year — they would have said EXACTLY the same things as these NFL GMs were saying, word for word.

2. How they really have no idea how good an NFL quarterback Cam Newton will be.

If NFL general managers who study the game 18 to 20 hours every day don’t know, really know, how good the Heisman Trophy winner will be, then how do any of us know anything about anything? And the truth is, we don’t know anything about anything. This is obvious in a million ways, but the most obvious of the ways is the “Keys to the Game” the color commentators offer on TV before each game. These keys usually have a goofy title that ties in with the name of the announcer like “Phil-osophy” or “Millen’s Mistakes” or something. But, like the NFL GMs on Newton, the keys are almost always either (1) Inane* or (2) Completely wrong.

*Win the turnover battle. … Get off to a fast start … Don’t settle for field goals … Run the football … Stop the run … Blocking and tackling … Convert on third down … Win the battle of field position … Play with fire …

Of all the many ways that we talk nonsense about sports, I would say the “How will this team/player react after a tough loss?” question is probably the most nonsensical. Michael Schur and I talked a bit about this on the Poscast — we talked about how fans and players have very different approaches to the games — but this struck me again the other day. I heard Charles Barkley talk at length about how he was really curious, REALLY CURIOUS, to see how the Dallas Mavericks would react after blowing a huge lead against Portland in Game 4 of their series.

I thoroughly enjoy Charles Barkley on TV. He makes me laugh, he makes strong points that others seem unwilling to make, he is one of those rare announcers who turns a game on TV into an event. That said: I was stunned to hear him say that bit about how the Mavericks would react. I was stunned to hear it because it was SO MUCH like the studio cliche and SO LITTLE like how Charles Barkley really talks.

Barkley was one of the greatest players in NBA history. He is one of the all-time lancers of pointless pregame cliches. The man announced he wasn’t a role model, for crying out loud. And yet, he was curious how the Mavericks would react? Really? Did he actually think that the Dallas Mavericks, who have averaged more than 55 wins a season for a decade, a team of ancient stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion and Jason Terry would somehow BE AFFECTED by blowing an NBA lead? There is absolutely no way he could have thought that.

But he said it. And he said it again. And he talked more about it. Apparently something happens to us when we start talking sports. We can’t help but create stories in our minds, stories that have nothing to do with reality. Kenny Smith was so taken aback by Barkley’s line of thinking that he reminded Barkley how his Rockets twice blew huge playoff leads to Barkley’s Suns and still won the series. “What you really think is, ‘Wow, it’s really easy to get a big lead on them,” Smith said, which was a great bit of insight, I think, into the mind of a high-level athlete.

The story has been told over and over and over again in sports. Albert Pujols nuked that homer off Brad Lidge, as crushing a home run as any of the last 50 years … the Astros won the next game.

Carlton Fisk beat the Reds on one of the most famous home runs in baseball history off the foul pole … the Reds won the next game.

Jerry West made his legendary 60-foot shot … the Knicks won in overtime.

The Broncos beat the Browns on the drive … they lost 39-20 in the Super Bowl.

The Broncos beat the Browns on the fumble … they lost 42-10 in the Super Bowl.

The 1985 Lakers lost to Boston by 34 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals … they won the series in six games.

The 1951 New York Giants won the pennant, won the pennant, won the pennant in the most dramatic fashion imaginable and won two of the first three games of the World Series. They promptly lost three in a row.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

Momentum, like experience, like chemistry, like the ability to deliver in the clutch, like so many other vague sports traits we talk about all the time — hey, I’m not saying that these things do not exist or do not play any role in our games. I’m saying that we talk these things up, again and again, not because of their importance (we don’t really know their importance) or because of their significance (they are almost NEVER significant). We talk about them because they make for good talk.

Inevitably, the talk rarely adds up to anything. The Mavericks easily beat the Blazers on Monday night. Nowitzki went for 25, Terry for 20, Kidd handed out 15 assists, Tyson Chandler grabbed 20 rebounds. Not surprisingly, they did not seem shell-shocked or even slightly bothered in the least by what had happened in Game 4. And if you think even a little bit about it, well, of course they weren’t.

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The Most Important Baseball Book (to me)

The Poscast this week is our regularly scheduled chat with Michael Schur, executive producer of Parks and Recreation (Entertainment Weekly calls it the smartest show on television). But we did something a bit unusual this week. We divided the thing up into two parts. The first part is us talking about a bunch of stuff — the Red Sox, Tom Brady, the difference between fans and players, the awesomeness of Chris Paul (more on this in the next day or two) and so on.

The second part, which just went up, is the first ever baseball book fantasy draft. We each chose five baseball books. And then at the end, we both determined, that I picked better than he did.

You can listen to both Poscasts here.*

Or, if you want to just listen this minute to the baseball book draft, you can listen on this handy-dandy player.

*I believe the sound quality — note the word “sound” before quality — for these podcasts is improving pretty dramatically. I am now using various pieces of fancy looking equipment, and I think that it no long sounds like I’m in the Lincoln Tunnel (more like the Holland Tunnel now). I’m hopeful that as I actually learn how these pieces of equipment work that the sound will keep on improving to the point where you will actually hear the angels that sing in my office (they sound AWESOME). I appreciate people sticking with it. Then again, I also appreciate the number of people who have written or called in to say that the sound is dreadful and they will never listen again. Hey, I appreciate everybody.

On the Poscast, Michael and I each selected our five favorite baseball books, or our choices for the five best baseball books or something like that … but the truth is that if I put together a Top 5 baseball book list tomorrow and another one next week and another one in a month, I’m pretty sure that all three lists would be different, maybe even wildly different. I ranked my five favorite baseball books for an excellent Web site called The Browser — it’s not up yet — and those five are different from the five I chose in the fantasy book draft. I think with baseball books, feelings change all the time, at least for me.

But I will say that probably the most important baseball book to me is one I never put on any of my Top 5 lists. No, it’s not this book. And it’s not this one either.

The most important baseball book to me is one called Hang Tough, Paul Mather, by Alfred Slote. It is a kids book, or in the language of book people, a “Young Adult” book.*

*I’ve never quite understood the young adult thing. Isn’t a “young adult” a lot like being an “ugly Brad Pitt” or “good hitting Yuni” or “bashful Vitale?” An old adolescent, yes, I an see that one. But young adult? Isn’t a 25-year-old a young adult? The only truly young adult I’ve heard of was Doogie Howser, and now he’s playing an old adolescent.

Hang Tough, Paul Mather is about a gifted young pitcher who has leukemia. It is, in my memory, a well-written book with a touching story. You should read it to your baseball-loving 10-year-old. But what I remember even more was the impact the words had on me. I was probably 10 when I read it, and at that time I felt certain that I did not like to read. At that time, reading was work … and it was hard … and the Six Million Dollar Man was on TV … and, no, I didn’t want to read.

But Hang Tough … that didn’t count. That is exactly how I thought of it: It didn’t count. That wasn’t really reading. That was fun. It was about baseball. It was a cool story about a kid who was my age. That wasn’t reading. That was something else. READING was trying to get through Uncle Tom’s Cabin. READING was trying to decipher olde English words and wirds the auther mispelled on purrposs. READING was stuff about the Incas or the layers of the earth or Taft-Hartley. Man, I did not like READING.

But, Hang Tough, Paul Mather was about as good as watching television. It was interesting and funny and reached down to me. It was about the world I knew or at least the world I wanted to know. After a while, I read other books by Alfred Slote and books by one of my heroes Matt Christopher. And then I started to read autobiographies — one on Ron Guidry, I remember, one on Bernie Parent, one on Brian Sipe. And then I started to read other books, some of them not about sports …

And so I fell in love with words without noticing. I now hear kids say that they do not like to read, and I suspect some really don’t, but I suspect others would love to read if they found themselves with the right book. Hang Tough, Paul Mather was exactly the right book for me at exactly the right time.

Years later, when I was bored in class, I would scribble out little sports stories. I didn’t think of that as writing. I, of course, despised WRITING. But that’s a whole other story.

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Daughters and Roller Skating

This rambling story will end up being about my youngest daughter and roller skating, so you can stop reading now if you like. Nobody will hold that against you.

But before we get to my Katie … we hear a lot about overbearing parents in sports. I was thinking about this the other day: I can go months, even years, without anyone bringing up, say, Roger Staubach in conversation. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and he hardly ever comes up. And, of course, it isn’t only Staubach. It’s also true for Whitey Ford or Alex English or Jari Kurri or Mel Blount or a hundred other great players.

But I’d say at least once on a month, someone will bring up the story of Todd Marinovich. He started eight games in his NFL career, threw more interceptions than touchdowns, was about as unmemorable a player as a first round quarterback can be. And yet, because his father, former USC football star Marv Marinovich, rather famously tried to raise him as the perfect quarterback (the story ALWAYS seems to include the detail that Todd never got to eat a Big Mac as a young man), people never seem to tire of his story. The story of Earl Woods … Mutt Mantle … Richard Williams … Gloria Thompson Connors … these and countless others are a vivid part of the sports landscape.

And that’s fine, but there’s actually a whole other trend in sports, probably a more prominent trend, that I’ve come to appreciate as a Dad. As part of the job, I get to talk to a lot of parents of really cool kids — academic All-Americans, role models in their communities, leaders on their teams or in their classes — and when I ask those parents the secret to raising such awesome overachievers they will almost always say: “Oh, I didn’t have much to do with it.”

I have always thought they were being modest. At least I did when my daughters were young. Then, we pretty much controlled every phase of their lives. We had a pretty strong influence in just about everything they did — when they ate, when they slept, what music they listened to, what TV shows they watched, how much TV they watched, what clothes they wore. We pretty much called all the shots. I think we knew that wouldn’t last. But knowing and KNOWING are two different things.

We used to live next door to this wonderful family with three sons. To tell you how wonderful a family they were … well, I’ll divert here and tell you one of my more embarrassing stories. One day my car was dead in the garage. Well, the battery had died. We had one of those side garages, you know, the kind where you pull into a long driveway, go behind the house and then make a 90-degree right turn to get into the garage. This little fact is important for the story. The garage faced the neighbors wood fence and backyard.

I decided, being brilliantly smart about these things, that the best way for me to handle this car mini-crisis was to singlehandedly push the car out of the garage so that I could pull my wife’s car next to it and jumpstart the battery. This made absolute sense to me in the moment. You know how in sitcoms they always have the absent-minded clown who does bizarrely illogical things all the time but seems to BELIEVE that they are sensible. It’s no fun to realize that you are actually that person in real life.

So, I started to push the car out of the garage, and the plot might have worked if the driveway had been perfectly level. Of course, best I can tell NO driveway is perfectly level. There was a tiny little drop-off at the end of the garage, probably no more than a half an inch high, barely even noticeable. I had not noticed it, for instance. But, a half inch was enough. The back wheels of the car fell off that little drop-off, and the car, at that point, would have held up one of those “Oh Oh!” signs that Wile E. Coyote used when he dropped off a cliff. And the car began to roll away from me.

I will never forget the feeling of watching that car slowly roll away from me. My mind had about a thousand questions going on at once. What now? Can I run around the car and stop it? Can I jump into the drivers seat and slam the breaks? Can I grab the front bumper and stop it from rolling, the way the Incredible Hulk might? Why don’t more movie theaters have assigned seats? What sort of announcer would the Phillies lovable old first baseman John Kruk be? And 994 more questions. It is in moments like these that I fully realize just what an idiot I am when it comes to almost everything. When people say that I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to sports or writing, I think: “Man, you should see me in the rest of my life.”

The car just rolled away and at that point I had no bright ideas how to stop it. And so I watched. There was probably a 20 or 25-foot bit of driveway, and then a small strip of grass, and then the neighbors wooden fence. The car gathered just a bit of speed in the driveway part (I had not realized that it was gently downhill there), rolled over the strip of grass and knocked down the wood fence. At that point it stopped in the backyard, and the car looked at me as if to say, “I’m not entirely sure how someone as dumb as you made enough money to own a car.”

You can only imagine the awkward explanation that followed this incident. But there were three fortunate things. One, the family next door was absolutely wonderful — they must have asked me a thousand times if I was OK (they did not seem to understand the “I wasn’t in the car at the time,” part of the story … and why would they?). Two, the family next door was already vaguely aware that I was a goofball and seemed to accept me for it. And three, the family next door was the sort to look at a busted fence not as some sort of tragedy but as an bonding opportunity to build a new fence with their three sons.

Anyway … just about every day, I would see those three sons outside playing some sport or other, usually with the mom or dad watching or participating. Sometimes, not often but sometimes, I would play. They would play basketball in the driveway, throw the baseball against this pitch-back, throw the football around. They did this every single day. It was so great to watch them all together, and it was clear how much they loved each other, and I had little doubt that those boys were going to grow up and be successful in whatever they did. Then last year, we were driving by our old house, and we saw the dad in the driveway, and we pulled over to talk with him.

“Have you been busy?” we asked.

“Well, obviously with everything that’s been going on with Dan …” he said.

We didn’t know what was going on with Dan, the youngest of the sons (the one we really got to watch grow up). Turns out, Dan Tapko had become one of the most highly recruited tight ends in America. He ended up signing with Oklahoma after visiting Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri, etc. He’s this great kid, smart, committed, just like his brothers Sam and Luke, and at some point his Dad, Mark, said (with great pride): “I didn’t have a lot to do with it.” Only I know he did. I know exactly how much he and Julie had to do with it.

Then again, I also know that in many ways he was right too … or at least I know what he means. As our daughters get older, I am beginning to realize that there are things about your children that surprise you. Yes, there are many things that don’t surprise you. It doesn’t surprise me that at least 17 times every day I have to tell our daughters to “calm down.” It doesn’t surprise me that they are polite, that they love junk food, that they are constantly complimenting strangers, that they love to read, that they argue over the most extraordinarily pointless things like which one has to practice the piano first.

But there are other things … stuff that doesn’t quite fit. And I see these things more and more every day. I was — and in many ways am — a terribly unconfident person. I never liked standing out in a crowd. I would not raise my hand in classrooms. I would not wander over to a group unless invited. Even now, I find myself having to brace myself when approaching an interview subject or calling one … Frank Deford, I believe, once talked about how many people go into this crazy profession not because they are outgoing but for exactly the opposite reason, because they’re shy and the job gives them a professional excuse to talk to people. I feel that.

Our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, has many of my tendencies. She’s very social, but in large rooms she will go timid. She will hide behind me sometimes. She loses her confidence easily. I know this feeling. I understand it. I try to help her work through it.

But our youngest daughter, Katie, has none of this. None of it. She is bold and hyper-competitive and seems to realize at all times that she is as good as anyone else in the room. She is 6 years old, and so I have no idea how long it will last. But she has already learned this … things that, in many ways, I’ve never learned. I have seen this is many ways already, and I am surprised every time I see it. The roller skating incident, though, was the most surprising of all.

The elementary school near our house has a roller skating night every so often, and Katie had wanted to go for a long time. She is in kindergarten now, so she finally got to go this year. It’s probably worth mentioning here that Katie cannot roller skate. This was her first time. So she went out there and like all first-time roller skaters, worked her away slowly around the perimeter wall. Every so often she would try to brave the elements and go 3 or 4 feet away from the wall. She would inevitably fall or at least stumble back into the wall. It was, I regret to admit, quite entertaining.

Then, the music stopped, and the lights turns on, and the guy over the speaker asked everyone to clear the floor because it was time for the limbo … where the best skaters would try to limbo under the wooden pole, the winner would get some kind of prize, you know the drill. So the older kids — suddenly there were the high school aged kids — lined up to limbo.

And Katie would not leave the floor.

My wife Margo, who was trying to help Katie with her skating, said: “OK, we need to get off the floor now.” Katie refused. She said: “I want to limbo.” Margo told her that the limbo was for older kids. She refused to believe it. She said that it was everybody. Margo told her that the limbo was the best skaters. She refused to believe it. She said that the guy had not mentioned any skill requirements. Margo told her, “Honey, you can’t even stand up.” Katie refused to believe that too.

So, she stayed out there for the limbo. If I could list the 100 things I would have been least likely to do when I was 6 years old or 10 or 18, staying out for the limbo when I couldn’t skate would have been 99 of them. To be honest, it wouldn’t even have been on the list because “least likely” suggests there’s a slight chance I would actually do it. And there would have been NO chance, exactly 0.0000% chance. Someone could have offered me jewels, Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, a lifetime baseball pass and the electric Lego set I craved my whole childhood … and I still would not have done it. I would not do it now either.

But Katie insisted on doing it. And, technically, she WAS right. It was open to everybody. There were no other little kids out there, true, but they could have stayed. Katie stayed out there. She made it under the first time (with obvious help from Margo) and Margo told her: “OK, you did it, let’s go,” and she again said, “No. I want to limbo.” So she stayed out there for a second time, and this time she fell down and was knocked out of the competition.

And here’s the kicker to the whole thing: When she got knocked out, she was not sad. She was not happy either. She was … MAD. She was convinced that she was going to win the thing. She’s 6 years old, and she can’t skate, and she was 100% certain — not 75%, not 93% but 100% — that she was going to win the limbo. And when it ended, after getting beyond the anger she felt at herself for falling, she was certain that with practice she would win the next one.

Watching her out there was one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever had as a parent. I was proud and embarrassed, nervous and uncertain. I did not teach her this. I could not teach her this. If someone had told me then, “Wow, your daughter has such amazing confidence,” I would have to say — as so many parents have said to me — “I had nothing to do with it.

I desperately hope she keeps that confidence, that verve, that fearlessness. I believe that stuff can change the world. That is the confidence I see in so many people I admire, people who are doing things, fixing things, achieving things. Thing is, I don’t know if she will keep that verve because, frankly, I don’t know where it came from in the first place. There’s only so much as parents you know. Every year, that becomes more apparent.

And I think that’s one of the many wonders and challenges of parenthood. Even in the most extreme cases, there’s only the parent much you can do. Marv Marinovich raised a son good enough to be a quarterback, but one who obviously felt the walls closing in around him. Earl Woods raised a son ready to conquer the golf world, but perhaps one not quite able to handle the life that goes with it. Mutt Mantle raised a most remarkable baseball player but one who struggled terribly with living. At some point, I guess, all you can really do is expose them to the world, push their curiosity, teach them to say please and thank you, help them with the school project they only just remembered, and try to help them navigate their way through the rights and wrongs and massive gray areas in between.

“Daddy,” Katie told me, “next time I’m going to win the limbo.”

“You might,” I told her as we walked out of the rink. “You just might.”

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Greatest Rock Band In The World

So, I went to see The National and Arcade Fire last night, which was a blast. I’m not going to write a full review because I don’t feel like I know enough about either band to give a full review, but I will say that it was the best non-Springsteen concert I’ve been to in years.*

*Even though, as I tweeted, I’m pretty sure I was one of the 12 oldest people at the show.

And I will say that while the National is a fun rock band — Mr. November is a great song — Arcade Fire is almost like something else. Arcade Fire has (and I’m only estimating here) about 493 members. And, best I can tell, all 493 play different instruments every song. So there’s something almost magical about the band because there are so many things happening at once. You’ve got two drummers, two violinists, someone on piano, someone on organ, a ukelele, an accordion, four guitars, someone blowing into a Good ‘N Plenty box, it’s a free-for-all, and yet it sounds so together. Like I say, almost magical. The albums are really good. The live show was something beyond.

I went to the show with Pop Warner, my buddy who is a bigwig at Warner Music, and he is the most knowledgable music guy I know. After the show — which he thought was fabulous — I asked him the question: What is the greatest rock band in the world right now?

The world’s greatest rock band — like the heavyweight champion of the world — used to be pretty well known. I mean, sure, there were massive disagreements. You would have people arguing between Led Zeppelin and the Who, between Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, between the Stones and the Beatles, between U2 and the E-Street Band, between the Ramones and the Clash or whatever. But the players were pretty well established. And anyway, it didn’t matter if you LIKED the World’s Greatest Rock Band, you knew the accepted choices and acted accordingly.

But now … I have no idea who are even the nominees. I am old and probably SHOULD have no idea. But I’m still curious. I asked Brian if Arcade Fire would be considered in the running for World’s Greatest Rock Band. He said he thought so. He said Muse would probably be in the running. He said Wilco and the Flaming Lips and some others … then he said: “And U2 is about to start another stadium tour.” But U2, as much as I love them, is not in the running anymore. Neither is Springsteen or REM or anyone else who had their time. I’m curious about who is TODAY’S best rock band.

So I throw it open to nominations. Who do you think is the World’s Greatest Rock Band? Throw your nomination below — add a couple of sentences why if you feel like it. I’ll put the nominations into a poll, and we’ll try to have some fun with it.

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The Hall of Not Famous Enough

So, in my last post, I had a Posterisk about John Olerud and The Hall of Not Famous Enough. I’ve gotten quite a lot of email about it, and based on some of that I’m not sure I explained the concept quite as well as I would have liked. In fact, I know I didn’t explain as well as I would have liked. So I’m going to try again, with a little expansion.

The idea is this: There are players who are very clear Hall of Famers in just about everybody’s mind. We know the players. Tom Seaver. Willie Mays. Babe Ruth. Roberto Clemente. Those sorts of players.

There are players who are not quite as self evident, but over time become viewed more and more as Hall of Famers, players whose Hall of Fame cases for various reasons build up momentum, players like Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven and Jim Rice.

Then there are players who split the vote, players who many think ARE Hall of Famers and many think ARE NOT Hall of Famers. Some get in. Some do not. I would call these players Hall of Fame Cause Celebres because their cases become about as famous as they did as player. Jack Morris … Ron Santo … Dick Allen … Pete Rose (of course) … Joe Jackson (of course) … Don Mattingly … these are just a few of the cause celebres, they are talked about all the time, they are FAMOUS enough to get in the Hall of Fame but there is heated and passionate discussion about whether they belong.

I put Santo in my original Hall of Not Famous Enough … and I realize that was a mistake. Santo is a clear-cut cause celebre. His Hall of Fame case has been been banged about more than just about anyones. He’s plenty famous enough to get into the Hall of Fame. His career successes have simply not convinced enough people (which is a shame … Santo belongs in the Hall of Fame).

In any case, when I talk about the Hall of Not Famous Enough, I’m talking about something different: I am talking about players who upon close examination at around the level of the average Hall of Famer at his position but still got almost NO Hall of Fame consideration, not just from the voters but from the fans too. It’s the second part that matters as much as the first. The point here is that these players got almost no Hall of Fame support, and there were barely a peep about it from the general public.

John Olerud really is the perfect example. Olerud got just four Hall of Fame votes. And almost nobody cared. I have seen that on Twitter someone has tried to get a #OlerudForHoF hashtag going, though at the moment he seems to be the only one using it. Olerud’s career is not just underrated — it’s quietly underrated. And I do believe, for reasons mentioned in the last post, that Olerud played baseball about as well as the average Hall of Fame first baseman.

I’m going to break this down position by position, and I’m going to use Baseball Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as my guidepost. I realize that people have their problems with WAR, and I don’t think it’s perfect. But for a quick reference point, which is what I’m looking for here, it’s awfully good. It’s especially good at Baseball Reference because of the search capabilities.

OK. Let’s start with first base. There are 12 first basemen in the Hall of fame. The middle range for Hall of Famers is about 56 WAR — Hank Greenberg had 56.8 WAR, Bill Terry had 55.4 WAR.

John Olerud had 56.8 WAR, placing him above that line. So he was a good enough player. And he was CLEARLY overlooked. So he fits. He belongs.

There are three first other basemen who meet the Hall of Not Famous enough criteria. I am not including Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro for what I hope are obvious reasons, and I’m not including Jeff Bagwell because I believe he will start to get a lot more support. At least I hope so.

First basemen in the Hall of Not Famous Enough:

— Keith Hernandez (61 WAR). It amazes me that Hernandez, who won an MVP, played a prominent role for a championship team in in New York and starred both in Seinfeld and those I Can’t Believe this gloop is Hair Dye commercials* is not famous enough to go to the Hall of Fame. But that seems to be the case. He’s widely acknowledged to be the best defensive first baseman ever. And yet, he never got even 11% of the Hall vote, and he disappeared from the ballot without much fanfare, and it seems like the New York lobby group got behind Don Mattingly instead.

*I guess this is not what the product is actually called.

— Will Clark (57.6 WAR). He spent one year on the ballot, got 23 votes, disappeared and nobody seems to be fighting for him even though you could make an argument that for about three years in the late 1980s he was as good as anybody in baseball.

— John Olerud (56.8 WAR). The poster child for the Hall of Not Famous Enough.

Second base

WAR requirement: 60 (between Billy Herman’s 55.6 and Ryne Sandberg’s 62)

— Lou Whitaker (69.7). Perhaps the biggest omission by the baseball writers in the last couple of decades. He got just 15 votes in his one year on the ballot and disappeared from sight. There is an effort to make Whitaker a cause celebre, but with his name long gone from the ballot it seems unlikely that his real Hall of Fame case will ever take off.

— Bobby Grich (67.6). He IS a cause celebre among a very small circle of sabermetrically inclined people, largely because his skills (great defense, power, walked a ton) were wildly under-appreciated. He got just 11 votes his one year on the ballot, which was 30 less than Pete Rose got write-in votes. He also got almost 100 fewer votes than Maury Wills though he was a clearly superior player. Wills, of course, is a pretty famous cause celebre.

— Willie Randolph (60.5). Randolph is such a perfect candidate for the Hall of Not Famous Enough that I actually left him off my original list. (Leading to the zen-like question: Can someone be not famous enough for the Hall of Not Famous Enough?) I guess at the time my thinking then was that I would make the WAR requirement 62, same as Sandberg. But 60 is more representative of the Hall of Fame second basemen, and Randolph — another famous New York player who for some reason has just not captured the imagination of the masses — got just five Hall of Fame votes, though his .373 career on-base percentage is superb. He is absolutely one of the best second basemen ever even if people don’t remember him that way.

Shortstop

WAR requirement: 60 (between Lou Boudreau’s 56 and Joe Cronin’s 62.5)

— Alan Trammell (66.9). Trammell and Barry Larkin are the only two non Hall of Fame shortstops with a 60 WAR or better and Larkin will go next year. Trammell does have a chance to become a bit of a cause celebre once Larkin goes in, but I don’t think it will happen. Trammell and Whitaker, one of the most famous double play combinations in baseball history, figure to stay together in the Hall of Not Famous Enough.

Third base

WAR requirement 65 (between Home Run Baker’s 63.7 and Brooks Robinson’s 69.1)

I originally put the WAR at 60, to match shortstop and second base, and that list would have included Graig Nettles (61.6), Buddy Bell (60.8) and Sal Bando (60.6). But upon further review I see based on the third basemen in the Hall of Fame that the WAR standard for third basemen is higher.

Should the WAR standard for third base be higher? I don’t think so, but this is reality. There are more cause celebre third basemen (Santo, Ken Boyer, maybe even Darrell Evans) than any other position. I suppose this is because third base is a tweener position — the players generally don’t field like shortstops, and they don’t hit like corner outfielders — and as such the Hall of Fame has been tough for third basemen to crack.

So, at this time, I don’t think I’m putting any third basemen into the Hall of Not Famous Enough. it’s almost like the WHOLE THIRD BASE POSITION belongs in the Hall of Not Famous Enough.

Outfield

WAR requirement: 60 (between Dave Winfield’s 59.7 and Goose Goslin’s 63.0)

There are a lot of outfielders in the Hall of Fame with very low WAR scores. There are the famously bad choices like Lloyd Waner (24.3) or Chick Hafey (29.5). More to the point, though, there are players of a more recent vintage like Jim Rice (41.5) and Andre Dawson (57 … I mistakenly put 43.6 earlier). So it’s tough to say — are Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, as the last two Hall of Fame choices of the writers, the new Hall standard? You certainly could make that argument. Or are they (as I suspect) players voted into the Hall based on the romance of memory?

Rice is obviously the key here. There are 38 non-active outfielders with a 41.5 WAR who are currently not in the Hall of Fame. And while some of them have drawn some cause celebre consideration (Tony Oliva, Minnie Minoso), most have not (Cesar Cedeno, Ellis Burks, Augie Galan, etc.).

I went with 60 as as WAR requirement to keep things simple.

— Tim Raines (64.6). I am desperately hoping that his case is gaining steam and that people are beginning to realize just how great a player he was. For now, though, I get the sense that he still belongs in the Hall of Not Famous Enough.

— Dwight Evans (61.8). I’d say that Keith Hernandez is the most baffling member of this Hall of Not Famous Enough — I have no idea why he was not more famous and why his case has not been taken on by more people. But Dewey is close. He was a prominent player in a famously passionate baseball city. Everyone knew he was terrific. He had a nickname. He had the great arm. He made famous plays. He made one of the most famous catches in World Series history. It’s fascinating to me that Rice and Dawson became cause celebres when each of them had a teammate who was, in my view anyway, the better player and yet keeps getting very little Hall of Fame consideration.

Catcher

WAR requirement: 51 (between Gabby Hartnett’s 50.3 and Mickey Cochrane’s 51.2)

No non-Hall of Fame catcher quite hits the standard — Mike Piazza, who goes on the ballot next year, is at 59.1, well above the standard. Piazza’s Hall of Fame story will be interesting to watch for various reasons that are worthy of a whole other long post.

I originally had Ted Simmons on my list, but his 50.4 WAR puts him a touch below the median, and I wanted to to be sure that the players in the Hall of Not Famous Enough were pretty clearly good enough as players. Simmons was a terrific hitter. But, right or wrong, he had a reputation as a poor defensive catcher, so when arguing about Simmons the points are usually about that and not about anything else.

Starting Pitcher

WAR requirement: 60 (between Ted Lyons 58.8 and Jim Bunning 60.1)

— Rick Reuschel (66.3). Maybe the pitching version of Olerud. Didn’t get any Hall of Fame consideration (two votes his one year on the ballot). Nobody seemed to think he should have gotten any more support. And yet, he was a terrific pitcher for a long time and might have been the best pitcher in baseball in 1977. His WAR number is staggering, isn’t it?

— Kevin Brown (64.8). There was a little bit of outrage in select circles about Kevin Brown getting knocked off the ballot after one year. Mostly, though, people didn’t care because nobody really liked Kevin Brown. He actually might be in the Hall of Not Likable Enough.

— Luis Tiant (60.1). His case is a fascinating story of bad timing. He got more than 30% of the vote his first year and seemed well on his way to at least becoming a cause celebre, and maybe even earning induction. That 30% was way more than Bert Blyleven (17.5%) or Jack Morris (22.2%) or various other famous cases. Then, unfortunately for El Tiante, an unprecedented stretch of 300-game winners hit Hall of Fame eligibility all at about the same time: Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro and Steve Carlton (not to mention excellent non-300 game winners like Jim Palmer and Fergie Jenkins).

Tiant fell off the map at that point. He lasted 15 years on the ballot, but never again came close to 30%, not even in his last year of eligibility.

Meanwhile, Catfish Hunter — whose career is stunningly similar to Tiant — hit the ballot three years earlier. His timing was exquisite, and he was in the Hall by 1987.

Relief Pitcher

WAR requirement: 33 (Between Bruce Sutter’s 25 WAR and Rich Gossage’s 40 WAR).

No pitchers qualify. The closest is Lee Smith with a 30.3 WAR. That But this not really a fair category because:

(1) There are only four pitchers — Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers — who are in the Hall of Fame solely based on their relief pitching. You could add Dennis Eckersley, but he won 151 games as a starter which was important in his Hall of Fame case. Four pitchers is not enough to give us a decent standard.

(2) Most people will tell you that WAR is not a particularly fair way to judge relievers.

The feelings about closers is still evolving, and evolving very quickly. It blows my mind that four pitchers have won MVP awards since 1975, and three were closers. Most people do understand that a great starter is more valuable than a great closer — relievers only rarely win the Cy Young — but for a time during the 1980s and early 1990s there was this desperate desire to turn closers into rock stars. Randy Johnson never finished higher than sixth in the MVP voting. Greg Maddux never finished higher than third. But Willie Hernandez won an MVP and so did Dennis Eckersley despite throwing only 80 innings.

Dan Quisenberry, as I have written many times, had a career that is eerily similar to Bruce Sutter. Quiz got almost no Hall of Fame support. Sutter became a cause celebre and is in the Hall. I have written about this many times because I loved Quiz, and I love his family, and because he was great and too few people remember that. But, to be blunt, I don’t think Sutter was a Hall of Famer, so it’s a troubling argument. I am certainly willing to open to the doors to the Hall of Not Famous Enough, and I think Quiz would be a strong candidate. But I think the opening class should be without closers.

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A 16-Game Baseball Season

A few people — including my most excellent colleague Joe Sheehan — have been thinking about a 16-game baseball schedule. We’re right about at the 16-game point now. And what’s happening? The Cleveland Indians are in first place with the best record in baseball. The Boston Red Sox are 5-10. The Colorado Rockies look unbeatable, which usually doesn’t happen until September, and the Kansas City Royals are on pace to win 100 games which usually takes the better part of two seasons.

Needless to say, 16 games doesn’t tell you very much.

But how little does it tell us? Should Indians fans be excited about this team? Should Red Sox fans be panicking? Is Matt Kemp going to hit .400? Will A-Rod slug .800? Will Jered Weaver strike out 300 batters? Will Carl Crawford hit .180?

Probably not, no. But that’s part of what makes early season baseball fun.

Question 1: How likely is it that a team that is in playoff position after 16 games will make the playoffs at the end of the season?

I only looked back five years … but that was really as far back as I needed to look. The answer is: Not likely. From a quick summary after 16 or so games, only 14 of the 40 teams that eventually made the playoffs the last five years were even tied for a playoff spot. Three of the 14 were the Boston Red Sox, so that should tell you something.

Here’s pretty much what you need to know: The last five years, the New York Yankees were only in playoff position once after 16 games. The year? Yep: 2008 — the one year since the strike that the Yankees did not make the playoffs.

Teams that were in playoff position after 16 games the last five years: Baltimore (twice!), 2009 Kansas City, 2008, 2009 AND 2010 Florida, Oakland four times and so on. You might be aware that none of these teams made the playoffs.

A good start can spur a surprising season, I suppose. The 2009 Mariners got off to a great start and then played surprisingly good baseball all year long … that season becomes more surprising every day. The Mariners were 10-6 after 16 games, 12-6 after 18, and won 85 games for the season. They have won 66 in the season and change since then.*

*What in the heck happened to Chone Figgins? Up to 2010, Figgins was an extremely useful player who got on base, stole a lot of bases at a decent rate, could and would play just about any position and play it very well, he seemed to give a good effort all the time, he seemed likable … you wanted to have Chone Figgins on your team.

The Mariners then gave him a four-year deal with a vesting option — which at age 32 doesn’t look like the most astute of moves. But Figgins was coming off a terrific year when he deserved to be in the MVP discussion and anyway the Mariners in 2009 looked to be a pretty shrewd organization. So it seemed a positive move.

Wow. What a disaster. Figgins took an offensive step backward last year — his OBP dropped 55 points, his superior defense dulled (and he played only one position, second base), he got into a squawk with his manager, it was a basically dreadful year all around. And this year? Well, it’s only a few games into the season, but you can’t be encouraged. At this writing, he’s nine for 60 (.150 average), one for two in stolen bases, zero for two in answering questions from reporters Saturday night and generally seems determined to turn himself into the sort of player you DESPISE having on your team (and with two full years and that now-beachfront-property-in-Missouri looking vesting option to come).

Players do not age well. This is both the most obvious and least appreciated fact in baseball. The people who were predicting doom for Derek Jeter this year and beyond were not doing so because they didn’t like Jeter … or at least most of us were not doing it for that reason. As mentioned, I happen to like Jeter a lot. But he’s turning 37 in June. That isn’t just past prime, it’s WELL past prime. Jeter has aged very well — his age 35 season is probably the best for a shortstop the last 100 years. But nobody holds off age forever, and while Jeter certainly should have good moments again, he was clearly slowing down last year, and then he started trying various adjustments, and now he’s all but incapable of hitting the ball in the air, and it’s a tale as old as time.

Most players start to seriously decline well before they get to 37, and maybe that’s what is happening to Figgins. Well CERTAINLY that is what is happening to Figgins, a quick glance at his numbers suggest he’s hitting fewer line drives, more ground balls and is having serious trouble with the fastball (can’t catch up with the fastball — the all-time age cliche). But this precipitous a drop makes you wonder if there’s something else going on. I happen to love gray days, but I’ve heard again and again that the constant gray days in Seattle can bring you down. Possible?

The Royals got off to 16-3 start in 2003 and rode that for a shocking five months. The Atlanta Braves of 1982 started off 13-0 and won seven of their last 10 to win the division. But in general, it seems that after the first 16 games of the season, we know no more, and might know even less, than we did after reading the preseason magazines before Opening Day.

Question 2. Who hit the most home runs in the first 16 games of a season, and how did they end up?

So glad you asked. Right now, Troy Tulowitzki has seven home runs. Lance Berkman, who at 35 is looking reborn in St. Louis, has six, as does Jonny Gomez in Cincinnati.

The most home runs hit in the first 16 games — well, it’s a tie. Mike Schmidt hit 12 home runs in the first 16 games of the 1976 season. That included his four-homer game at Wrigley on April 17. There were nine home runs hit that day — two by Rick Monday — and the Phillies won 18-16 in the 10th on, of course, Mike Schmidt’s fourth homer of the day. At the time Schmidt was just 26 years old, and he had led the league in homers the previous two seasons, so there was no telling how many home runs he might hit over the whole season. It was pretty exciting. The Maris countdown was on (Maris did not hit his 12th homer until his 40th game). But Schmidt went on a power drought in late May and early June, going 21 games without a home run. He ended up with 38, which did lead the league.

Alex Rodriguez his 12 homers in the first 16 games of the 2007 season. Of course by 2007, home runs were no fun anymore, and if anything baseball fans FEARED that A-Rod would hit some outrageous number of home runs, 84 or 91 or something, and make even more of a mockery of the record books. A-Rod did hit 54 homers which in 1995 would have tied him for the seventh highest total in baseball history and made him the first non first baseman or outfielder to hit that many homers. By 2007, the list of players who hit 54 or more homers in a season included:

— Barry Bonds
— Mark McGwire (3 times)
— Sammy Sosa (3 times)
— Ken Griffey (2 times)
— David Ortiz
— Ryan Howard
— Luis Gonzalez

A-Rod had done it once before too. He does remain the only non-first baseman or outfielder to hit 54-plus homers in a season, so there is that.

Other great 16-game homer starts include:

Albert Pujols, 2006, 11 HR (49 for season)
Willie Mays, 1964, 10 HR (47 for season)
Luis Gonzalez, 2001, 10 HR (57 for season)
Ken Keltner, 1948, 10 HR (31 for season — he hit one in August).
Willie Stargell, 1971, 10 HR (48 for season)

Question 3: If you’re hitting .500 through 16 games, are you probably a really good player?

Short answer: Yes.

Right now, Matt Kemp is leading baseball with a .459 average and Joey Votto is hitting .429 and while the “Can anyone hit .400?” is not worth asking at the moment, they are both very good players.

Which made me wonder: If someone is hitting some sort of crazy number, like .500, sixteen games in, does that tell you anything? Is it at all likely that some bland or less-than-bland player, say Yuni Betancourt or someone like that, will just start off the year scorching hot and be hitting .500 on April 20 or so leaving everyone wondering if the world has spun off its axis?

Well, actually, no. Not if they are hitting THAT good. Best I can tell, there have been seven players hitting .500 or better after 16 games (assuming they actually played in all the games). And of the seven, six are in the Hall of Fame. Hey, it’s HARD to get one hit every two at-bats over any stretch of time, much less over three weeks of baseball games. Here is the list:

— Paul Waner, 1930, .566
— Stan Musial, 1958, .516
— Hank Aaron, 1959, .516
— Bob Fothergill, 1927, .509
— Eddie Murray, 1982, .500
— Rogers Hornsby, 1920, .500
— Harry Heilmann, 1923, .500

Well, you will note that Bob Fothergill kind of stands out in that group. But he doesn’t stand out as much as you might think. Fats Fothergill hit .325 over a 12-year career with the Tigers, White Sox and Red Sox. He didn’t have much power, and he hardly ever walked, but he also hardly every struck out and hit for very high averages throughout his career. He hit .367 in 1926. In 1927, he started the year on an 18-game hitting streak, which included four consecutive three-hit games and a four-hit game against the Indians.

The hottest player I ever saw in the early season was John Olerud* in 1993. I saw him rifle seven hits in 12 at-bats in three games at Cleveland, and I mean he was scorching the ball. At some point, he was so ON the ball I thought: This guy’s going to hit .400. And sure enough, he was hitting .400 in August. This made me feel really smart, though I’m not kidding anybody … it was just a coincidence.

*I know people have come up with various versions of the “Hall of Very Good” … but I wonder if there is something else in baseball, something like: “People who are absolutely good enough to be in the Hall of Fame but, for whatever reason, won’t ever go, and few people even seem to care.” I do realize that would make for a very long and unwieldy acronym.

Maybe we could call it the “Hall of Not Famous Enough.”

John Olerud was probably a better player than all but seven or eight first basemen in the Hall of Fame. His WAR of 56.8 would tie him for sixth with Hank Greenberg. His OPS+ of 128 would rank him 10th, just behind Eddie Murray. His best season was probably 1993, when he hit .363 with a league leading 54 doubles, a .473 on-base percentage and 109 runs scored with 107 RBIs (and played excellent defense as he did his whole career) That season ranks with the best seasons of the Hall of Fame first baseman (Gehrig and Foxx excepted). But Olerud’s 1998, when he hit .354/.447/.551 with the Mets was a terrific season too. Truth is, he had six seasons with a WAR higher than 5 — among Hall of Famers only Lou Gehrig, Johnny Mize and Jimmie Foxx had more.

John Olerud is not going to the Hall of Fame. He got four votes his one year on the ballot, and there was no outcry that he deserved more. I’m not saying Olerud should be in the Hall — I can’t say that because I didn’t vote for him — but I am saying that he was as good as or better than most of the players of his position in the Hall. There are just some players who are cursed to be under-appreciated.

Players in the Hall of Not Famous Enough (PED players excluded):

First base: Keith Hernandez, Will Clark, John Olerud, Norm Cash.
Second base: Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich.
Shortstop: Alan Trammell (assuming Barry Larkin goes next year).
Third base: Ron Santo, Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Sal Bando.
Outfield: Tim Raines, Dwight Evans (with Kenny Lofton, Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds on the horizon).
Catcher: Ted Simmons
Right-handed pitcher: Luis Tiant, Kevin Brown, Rick Reuschel (with Mike Mussina on the horizon).

Question 4: Who had the most strikeouts after 16 games?

1. Sam McDowell, 1966, 59
2. Nolan Ryan, 1973, 54
3. Bob Feller, 1946, 48
(tie) Nolan Ryan, 1978, 48
5. Gaylord Perry, 1975, 44
(tie) Mickey Lolich, 1970, 44
(tie) Pedro Martinez, 1998, 44
(tie) Pedro Martinez, 2001, 44
(tie) Randy Johnson, 1999, 44
(tie) Roger Clemens, 1998, 44

They are all Hall of Famers except for Lolich, who received enough Hall of Fame consideration to stay on the ballot for 15 years, and Sam McDowell, who did not get a single Hall of Fame vote. Sudden Sam … amazing how little people consider his career. He led the league in strikeouts five times. He led the league in WAR twice. He pitched in six All-Star Games. Until Koufax in 1960, no starting pitcher had ever struck out 10 per nine innings. McDowell in 1965 struck out 10.71, which was a record. It actually was the record for two decades, until the 19-year-old Dwight Gooden struck out 11.39 per nine inning back before hitters figured out how to lay-off the nose-high fastball.

Conclusion: There is no conclusion, certainly not to a winding, all-over-the-place post like this one. It’s probably fair to say that there isn’t much you can learn from the first 16 games of the baseball season.

If the baseball season was REALLY only 16 games, it would be very different. They would play once a week, probably, so you would only see the very best pitchers. Rosters might be 25 men, but they would only have five or so you would see a lot of specialists, match-ups, that sort of things. The games would be more tense, probably more violent, and they would last four hours, except for Red Sox-Yankees games, which would go six. I suspect it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

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Poscast with my baseball hero

The Poscast with Duane Kuiper

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


* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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Who Will Stand Up For Manny?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But … who will stand up for Manny?

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The Poscast with Bill James

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

Here is the Poscast on iTunes.

And here it is at Sports Illustrated.

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

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

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

*At least for me.

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

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

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Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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