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Stones

When I was in Japan a few years back to write a story about former Royals manager Trey Hillman, I woke up in the middle of the night with a kind of crazy back pain. I wrote a bit about it — and how Bruce Springsteen’s “Girls in their Summer Clothes” helped save me. But the thing is I never really knew what happened that night. I figured that it had something to do with how hard the bed or something. The funny part is that I was talking about it with Dave Owen, brother of Spike, who was Trey’s bench coach in Japan. And Dave said: “Well, at least it wasn’t kidney stones.”

And I said: “Well, that’s good to hear. I was actually worried that it was kidney stones.”

And he said: “Oh, if you have kidney stones, you will know. Worst pain of my life.”

Sunday morning I started feeling a bit of back pain. I will not take you through the awful next couple of hours except to say that soon a little bit of back pain turned into quite a bit of back pain turned into quite a lot of back pain. There were other symptoms I’d rather not describe. But the back pain was the thing and after a little while I decided I better go see a doctor. We happen to be in Florida, which made things a bit more complicated.

We went to a nearby doctor, and we sat in the waiting room for about 20 minutes. It’s fair to say that things did not get better at that point. I will explain the symptoms just slightly for effect … I could not sit down so I walked across the room and grunted like a madman. People were holding on tight to their children. I twice had to go to the bathroom where I unloaded comical vomiting sounds that could be heard pretty much throughout Tampa, which was bad since we are in Orlando. At that point, I told Margo that we probably should go to the emergency room because it was possible that an alien was trying to emerge from my stomach.*

*I have little doubt that scene was inspired by a bout of kidney stones.

I actually did not tell Margo that exactly. What I said was “URRUEOJOFHGHHH!” There was no light joking going on during the intensity phase of this thing. When my daughters were saying, “Are you OK, Daddy,” I wanted to say, “Oh, yes, don’t worry, Daddy will be fine, I apologize to you both for delaying our spring vacation.” But what I said was “URRUEOJOFHGHHH!” No comedian, not even Louis CK or Chris Rock, could work the kidney stone wing of the emergency room.

That’s where we went … to the emergency room next, where I got to sit in a waiting room that held roughly the population of the Fox River Cities. I certainly do not want to make any comment whatsoever on the health care debate — we all know that I try to avoid politics — but I will say that after having to wait more than three hours to get anyone to even look at me when it felt like an alien was coming out of my stomach … you can finish the thought.

After waiting an hour I went up to the front to give them what I considered a rather alarming bit of news about what I had done in the bathroom. They alerted me that there were only 10 people in front of me. Ten. This is not a joke.

The one thing they did keep doing was asking me to rank my pain, 1 to 10 — one being “pain free” and 10 being “the worst pain you have ever felt in your life.” They repeated that exact phrase at least a dozen times: “Rank your pain 1 to 10, one being pain free, 10 being the worst pain have ever felt in your life.”

Nothing at that moment felt funny at all, but if you think about it this is really a funny question to ask someone. The pain, seemed to me, to be A LOT. I mean, we all know I’m kind of a statistical guy — I have another baseball stat post ready to go for later today — but I really didn’t have any great way to rank the pain beyond “A LOT.” On the one hand, I didn’t want to seem like a wimp. On the other hand, I wanted them to give me a pain killer that would knock me unconscious, if necessary. Sure, if I’d had my computer with me, I could have tried to whip up a little formula for POPC — pain over paper cut.

But in that setting, without a calculator around, I didn’t really have any reference point. I could not remember the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. It could have been one of my many accidents as a kid. It could have been the feeling after I had my adenoids removed. It could be the time I slipped on the ice, fell back on concrete stairs and was sure I had paralyzed myself.

But this pain had one strong advantage over those in that I was feeling it RIGHT THEN. And that was my feeling. I wanted to say, “Compared to all the pain I am feeling right now, this pain is really the most excruciating. The time I cracked my head open on the window sill when I was 8 does not really hurt now.”

I decided to go with 5 on the pain scale at first, which was convenient because before the day was done I would say the pain doubled, which would have made it 10. Of course, I never said “10.” The highest I ever went was “7 or 8,” which made me feel tough, but perhaps did not reflect the urgency of the situation. I was in the emergency room for more than 12 hours. They gave me three different kinds of pain killer. The first was morphine and it did nothing — the worst pain I felt all day happened after I took it. The second worked a little bit better. The third knocked out the pain, though I suspect this was not so much because of the pain killer but because the kidney stone moved.

The pain killers and intensity of the pain turned me kind of loopy I guess … I know at some point I started telling a doctor why I wear a fedora on my photo on the back page of SI.* Mostly I drifted in and out of some kind of weird sleep with crazy dreams. One, I distinctly remember, involved Cameron Diaz and popcorn.

*That’s a conversation I wish I remembered because, frankly, I don’t really know why I do wear a hat.

There’s plenty more — I guess I was so dehydrated that it took them eight shots and three nurses to draw blood, which would normally have really bothered me but compared to the back pain that was like nothing. I know you don’t care about it. I don’t even care about it. At about 2 a.m. they let me go with prescriptions for half the medicines in the place. I was pretty much pain free at that point, though I don’t think the kidney stone has passed. I feel OK now, a bit tired, but without pain. I took a cab back to the hotel so not to wake up the family, and when I went into the cab the driver said: “How are you doing today?”

I said: “Well, it was kind of a rough day.”

He said: “You need to be positive. You will get a good night’s sleep and tomorrow will be a great day.”

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My Guide to Stats: Offense

Last week, I made a mistake on Twitter. That’s a pretty common sentence, I suspect. In this instance, I was talking about how I will almost certainly (and, I suspect, stupidly) buy the iPad 2 within the first couple of days, and I said that this is because I’m a “technology geek.” I meant this as self-mockery. I meant geek in the textbook definition of the word, geek being “a person with eccentric and unhealthy devotion to a particular interest.” The trouble is, geek has taken on new definitions in 2011 America. Best Buy has a Geek Squad. It is often said that the Geeks — Bill Gates and that Facebook Guy being the most obvious examples — are taking over the world. Computer geeks are viewed as the kinds of people you want as friends, or at least friends when your computer screen turns bright purple.

Geek has come to mean “somewhat socially inept but incredibly brilliant person when it comes to one subject.” Well, I’m not that kind of geek I don’t know squat about technology. I just like buying the overpriced latest thing. It is why my wife and I owned what I have to believe was the third or fourth DIVX machine ever built (or, certainly, one of three or four LAST DIVX machines ever built), it is why I have about 50 stupid and pointless gadgets stacked around my house, it is why the other day I made a specific run to the Verizon store so I could spend a half hour looking at the new XOOM tablet even though I ALREADY HAVE an iPad and ALREADY DECIDED I’m going to get the new one as soon as possible. I have an unhealthy obsession for buying new technology though I know absolutely nothing about it. There’s no word I know for “Dumb Geek.”*

*Deek?


* * *

I bring this up because I have been at spring training in Florida for a while, and I thought it would be a good time to explain again some of the sabermetric baseball terms that I use quite often in these blog posts and the baseball theories that I am fascinated by. But I need to first make it clear that I am not a sabermetrician. I’m not even an amateur sabermetrician. I know quite a few of these people, and I can tell you that my own efforts to add anything of any worth to the sabermetric community have been comically inept, and my own understanding of some of these sabermetric principles is pathetically simple and probably only about 40% right.

Mozart’s genius was that he could create the brilliant music.

Salieri’s genius was the he could hear the brilliance of the music.

I’d say that I enthusiastically but barely even know what Salieri’s talking about.

But here we are, and it’s baseball season, and I do write a lot about BABIP and WAR and John Dewan’s plus-minus, and OPS+, and I do often mock wins and RBIs and batting average, and while this doesn’t get me within three European countries of Cuttingedge, it’s all I’ve got. Just remember — like it would be possible for you to forget — I’m not a baseball geek. I’m like a dumb baseball geek.

* * *

What’s the matter with batting average?

I have to admit that it stuns me when I hear prominent baseball executives and scouts publicly quote a player’s batting average like it means everything. LIke they will say: “This guy hit .305 last year, so he obviously had a really good year.”

Look there’s a very good chance that if the guy hit .305 last year he had a really good year. But as Bill James has said, ranking someone by batting average is like being a movie critic who ranks movies after only watching the first two-thirds. Hal Morris hit .309 in 1998 and, though he remains one of my favorite people, I must say that he was almost useless. Felix Fermin hit .317 for Seattle in 411 plate appearances in 1994, and was out of baseball within two years. Juan Pierre hit .327 in 2001 and led the league in stolen bases and was a thoroughly unhelpful offensive player. We can go on and on.

The problems with batting average are so obvious that it seems kind of stunning that we have overlooked them for more than 100 years. It probably says something about how once we all get going in one certain direction, it’s hard to change course. I think we would all agree that the goal of a big league baseball team is to win games. On the offensive side, this revolves around scoring runs. On the defensive side (including pitching) this revolves around preventing runs. If you score more runs, you win. If you score fewer runs, you lose. This is baseball at its simplest.

So how does batting average tell you almost ANYTHING you really want to know?

I’ve made the point before about how batting average SEEMS simple, but it is really one of the most advanced stats we have if you consider “advanced” to mean “bizarrely complicated and obtuse.” WAR and xFIP have NOTHING on batting average.

How do we figure batting average? Well, start with a players’ number of plate appearances. That would be the number of times the player comes to the plate.

Now, subtract the walks. No, seriously, just subtract those. We don’t care about those.

Now, subtract the hit-by-pitches. Get rid of them.

Now, subtract the times that the player hit a fly ball that allowed a runner to tag up and score from third base.

Now, subtract the times the batter bunted a runner from first to second base, or second to third, or third to home but still made an out. Do not subtract the plate appearance if the batter successfully made it to first base. Do not subtract it if he hit a hard smash that accomplished PRECISELY THE SAME THING as a bunt. Do not subtract it if he hit a check-swing dribbler that was KIND OF like a bunt but did not seem from the press box to be a purposeful bunt.

Remember to include the times he reached base but only because of a defensive blunder.

OK, you have that number? We call those “at-bats.” Now, what you want to do it take the number of hits and divide those by at-bats. What is a hit? Any time someone hits a ball that allows him to reach base. No, we don’t care what base he reaches. Double … triple … home runs … they’re all just “hits” when it comes to batting average.

Of course, if the batter gets on base because of a defensive error, that doesn’t count as a hit. That counts as an out. Even though he didn’t make an out. How do we determine if the defensive player made an error? Someone in the press box we call the “official scorer” will watch the game and make the determination based on whatever he happens to be thinking at that moment.

OK, now you divide the hits by at-bats. And that is your hits percentage. We call it batting average even though it is not an average of anything. And the person with the highest average will be named the batting champion, even if we have to carry out the division to five or six or seven decimal points. The team with the highest batting averages will be listed on top of the charts even if they scored 200 runs less than another team.

It seems at least possible that there’s a better way

* * *

Why isn’t OPS+ instead called “Special Ops?”

The two most basic statistics that seem to best define hitting are on-base percentage and slugging percentage. I don’t think I need to explain them here, but I will. On base percentage is times on base divided by plate appearances. It is basically “the percentage of time the batter did not make an out.” It is not exactly that — there are a few quirks revolving around errors and sacrifice hits — but it’s pretty darned close. Of all of the basic offensive stats, OBP is probably the most important because, as has been said many times, baseball doesn’t have a clock. Outs are the clock. In football, you get 60 minutes to score as many points as you can. In the NBA, you get 48 minutes. In baseball, you get 27 outs. Every out is one more step to the end. A batter’s job is largely to not make outs, and on-base percentage measures that.

Slugging percentage is total bases divided by at-bats. It is a good measurement of how much power a player offers. If a player gets 187 hits in 623 at-bats, he’s a .300 hitter. If they are all singles, his slugging percentage is .300. If they are all home runs, his slugging percentage is 1.200. And his slugging percentage can be anywhere in between.

In 2008, Justin Morneau got 187 hits in 623 at-bats. That’s a .300 average.

In 1958, Nellie Fox got 187 hits in 623 at-bats. That was a .300 average then too. By batting average that was exactly the same offensive season.

Morneau though hit 47 doubles to Fox’s 21 doubles. Fox actually hit more triples, 6-4, but Morneau hit 23 home runs and Fox hit, um, zero. Justin Morneau had a .499 slugging percentage. Nellie Fox had a .353 slugging percentage.

Because those are the two basic stats that seem to tell us most about the players, there have been several efforts to mash them together. Bill James multiplied them and then multiplied that by plate appearances to come up with what he called “Runs Created,” which is still a great way to judge the raw offensive contributions of a player.

Last year’s Top 5 in runs created:

1. Joey Votto, 144
2. Albert Pujols, 142
3. Miguel Cabrera, 141
4. Jose Bautista, 139
5. Josh Hamilton, 134

The more famous effort to mash on-base percentage and slugging percentage is simply adding of them together, a sum which we have come to call OPS — (On-base percentage Plus Slugging percentage). The 2010 leaders in OPS are the same as the leaders in runs created, only in different order:

1. Josh Hamilton, 1.044
2. Miguel Cabrera, 1.042
3. Joey Votto, 1.024
4. Albert Pujols, 1.011
5. Jose Bautista, .995

There are several problems with OPS, one of them being that apparently you should never add together two fractions that have different denominators (on-base percentage works with plate appearances; slugging percentage works with at-bats); another is that on-base percentage is actually much more important when it comes to scoring runs than slugging percentage is but in OPS actually counts for less (because on-base percentages are usually smaller). But I think OPS, even with its flaws, is a pretty good way to measure offensive contribution, certainly better than batting average, and its become pretty popular, and if that’s our best shot to get out of the batting average dark ages then I am all for it.

Adjusted OPS+ is an offensive number I might quote more than any other — it is OPS adjusted to include context … specifically the park the player hit in and the time when he hit. OPS+ is a great stat, I think, a single number that tells you so much about what the player’s season really means.

In 1995, Andres Galarraga hit .280 with 31 homers and 106 RBIs.

In 1908, Ty Cobb hit .324 with 4 homers and 108 RBIs.

Galarraga had an OPS of .842 built largely on his .511 slugging percentage.

Cobb had an OPS of .842 built largely on his .367 on-base percentage.

Who had the better year? You will probably assume it was Cobb. You may even assume it’s not close. But OPS+ tells you — Galarraga didn’t even have a GOOD offensive year. He had a 97 OPS+ … 100 is average. He didn’t walk. His slugging percentage was largely a function of the offensive time when he played and the absurd Coors Field ballpark where he played.

Cobb meanwhile LED THE LEAGUE with a 169 OPS+. He, of course, played during deadball, when runs were at a premium. This was especially true in 1908, when Cobb led the league with a .475 slugging percentage, when only two other guys hit even .300, when only two guys scored even 100 runs and Cobb’s 108 RBIs led the league by TWENTY-EIGHT. The thing is most people do not know the history of baseball well enough to know that run scoring was ESPECIALLY bleak in 1908, and soon enough few will remember the insanity of the early days of Coors Field.

But if you put it like this …

Cobb in 1908: 169 OPS+ (led league)
Galarraga in 1995: 97 OPS+ (below average)

… you will know very quickly that there is no comparison between Cobb’s season and Galarraga’s season.

And, I don’t know why we don’t call it Special Ops. That would be awesome.

* * *

WPA? Is that a new deal?

One of the coolest stats out there is WPA, which stands for Win Probability Added, which is a name that I don’t think helps the cause much. There are certain words that scare the bejeebers out of people. Linear Weights were like that for me. I would see anything mashing those words together — “linear” and “weights” — and I would kind of freak out. For years, this prevented me from reading or thinking too much about the great work of Pete Palmer and others even though the concept of linear weights — giving values to various offensive things — is really not complicated at all.

Win Probability Added is not only an offensive stat, but I’m including it for offense … the concept is that at every point in a game, each team has a certain chance of winning. Take the Pittsburgh-Milwaukee game of July 20th last year. The game started and obviously both teams had exactly a 50% chance of winning.

Milwaukee did not score in the top of the first. At that point Pittsburgh’s chance of winning moved up to 55%, and Milwaukee’s dropped to 45%.

Pittsburgh promptly scored nine runs. Yeah, nine. Each of those runs obviously increased the Pirates chances of winning the game. For fun, here is a quick chart only of the runs:

— Pedro Alvarez grand slam (Pittsburgh 4-0)
Chances before the home run: 64%
Chances after the home run: 86%

— Lastings Milledge scores on error (Pittsburgh 5-0)
Chances before run: 88%
Chances after run: 91%

— Jose Tabata hits two-run double (Pittsburgh 7-0)
Chances before runs: 92%
Chances after runs: 96%

— Delwyn Young hits run-scoring double (Pittsburgh 8-0)
Chances before run: 96%
Chances after run: 98%

— Neil Walker hits run-scoring double (Pittsburgh 9-0)
Chances before run: 98%
Chances after run: 99%

In the top of the second, Milwaukee scored three runs. This moved their winning percentage up from one percent to 5%. Alvarez homered again moving Pittsburgh’s percentage from 95% to 97%. And so on. It turned out that this was a wild game and at one point Milwaukee cut the lead to 10-9 on a Ryan Braun homer — when Braun hit that homer, the Brewers winning percentage jumped from 14% to 30%.

This is a simple concept to understand when you only talk about scoring runs. Its quite easy to understand the math when you say that the Yankees up 2-1 in the eighth have a better chance of winning than the Red Sox down 2-1 in the eighth.

What gets a little bit tougher is to realize that EVERY PLAY increases or decreases a team’s chance to win the game. If the Red Sox leadoff hitter in the eighth draws a walk, the Red Sox chances go up. If that is followed up with a single, so that there are runners on first and third, Boston’s chances chances go up yet again. If Joba Chamberlain then strikes out two, the Red Sox chances go down. If a single scores the tying run, the chances go up. And so on. Every play, from the first to the last, changes the percentages, sometimes in an almost unnoticeable way (a one out groundout in the third) sometimes in earth shattering ways (a game-winning walk-off grand slam).

What WPA does is add up all the percentages. It doesn’t only do this for hitters — it does it for pitchers and fielders too. But for now, we focus on hitters. WPA simply adds up how much a hitter changes his teams chances to win. It adds up EVERYTHING. The clutch hits. The key strikeouts. And more, much more, the mundane at-bats that our minds simply cannot keep track of.

Here were the Top 10 in WPA in 2010 by Fangraphs:

1. Miguel Cabrera, 7.42
2. Joey Votto, 6.85
3. Josh Hamilton, 6.25
4. Albert Pujols, 5.38
5. Adrian Gonzalez, 5.11
6. Jason Heyward, 4.82
7. Shin-Soo Choo, 4.59
8. Matt Holliday, 4.10
9. Delmon Young, 4.06
10. Jose Bautista, 3.93

Tom Tango is quick to point out that WPA is not a great way to evaluate the TALENT of a player, but it’s a good way to evaluate HOW MUCH THAT PLAYER CONTRIBUTED during the year. That may sound odd, but it gets another point about fairly obvious point about offense that I should make here, a point about clutch hitting.

The baseball community has long celebrated players for their ability to lift their game when the chips are down, when the moment is bleak, when the game is on the line. And the sabermetric community has for a while now scoffed at the notion that players CAN consistently lift their games in the clutch moments. The baseball community builds its case on waves of emotion and selective memory. The sabermetric community builds its case on the fact that so far nothing has been found in the numbers to suggest that players, no matter how good, no matter how celebrated for their heroics, are capable of predictably and reliably being better in the biggest moments.

So statistically, if you want to judge the talent of a hitter, you would not use WPA — would not use a statistic that rates some at-bats as being much more important than other at-bats. But if you want to judge a player based on how much he contributed to the team, there are few stats better suited for that than WPA.

* * *

Wascally BABIP.

BABIP stands for “Batting Average on Balls In Play” and it’s a different kind of stat from the rest here. It doesn’t tell you much about how good player is. It migt tell you how hit lucky he has been … and how likely he is to improve or fall off in the future.

To figure BABIP, you take all the balls in play and subtract the home runs. Then you figure the batting average. It’s really simple. Last year, batters hit .297 on balls in play. The number stays right around there. The year before it was .299. The year before it was .300. The year before that it was .303.

So it’s always around .300. Players who hit a lot of line drives will have a higher BABIP, of course. Joe Mauer has a career .344 BABIP. But in general, BABIP can swing wildly from one season to the next, and a lot of it appears to be Crash Davis luck — hitting one extra flare a week, just one, a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail.

Last year, Josh Hamilton had an abnormally high .390 BABIP. The year before that it was .319. His line drive percentage was almost exactly the same. He popped out more. But he hit many more ground balls, and those ground balls went through, and that was a big contributor to his massive season.

Is that repeatable? There’s is a lot of dispute about that. Some think Hamilton is due for a big drop-off in 2011. Others think he will have a huge season. It’s just something to think about.

wOBA wOBA!

We will include one more stat because it is prominent in a stat I will come back to in the end, WAR. The stat wOBA looks scary because any word where you make the first letter lower case and the rest upper case is scary. It doesn’t matter how harmless or happy the word really is. Look:

eLMO

bABY

fARVE

wOBA stands for Weighted On-Base Average. And as they say over at Fangraphs, this is the statistic that realizes that every time you reach base, it’s worth SOMETHING.

Here is an approximation of what each thing is worth:

Non-intentional walk: .72
Hit by pitch: .75
Single: .90
Reached base on error: .92
Double: 1.24
Triple: 1.56
Home run: 1.95

Funny, isn’t it, that reaching on error is worth just a touch more than a single, or that getting hit by a pitcher is worth a touch more than a non-intentional walk. I’ll have to look more closely at that. Anyway, you multiply all that out, divide by plate appearances and, voila, you have wOBA. An average wOBA should be about an average on-base percentage — .330 or so. Last year Josh Hamilton led the American League with a .447 wOBA. Joey Votto led the National League with a .439 wOBA.

How did they get to these numbers. If you are really interested, you can read this and then look around the Internet. But the larger point is that these weighted numbers do a pretty amazing job of estimating runs scored. And it’s worth remembering one more time that scoring runs is, in fact, the goal of the team at the plate.

OK, I have no idea if I will ever have the strength to do part two, but if I do it will be on pitching.

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Quick Update

Got a bunch to say — about baseball stats, about the Tremendous writer’s retreat we just finished, about the subject of my favorite ever sports event, about the iPad 2, about the 32 best players in baseball, about my favorite day in the NBA, about something that is still secret — but I’m running in so many directions at the moment that I’m not sure how or when I’ll get to any of it.

In the meantime, through a series of misunderstandings, I ended up downloading William Hazlitt’s “Lectures on the English Poets Delivered at the Surrey Institution.” I assume that this is a classic because I was able to download it for free, but I must admit I knew nothing whatsoever about it or Hazlitt or really English Poets. I am reading it now and I am shocked to report that … it’s is absolutely wonderful and mind-blowing.

Two quotations — the first a bit longer — about poetry, but really about writing, but really about life:

“Fear is poetry, hope is poetry, love is poetry, hatred is poetry; contempt, jealousy, remorse, admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness, are all poetry. Poetry is that fine particle within us that expands, rarifies, refines, raises our whole being: without it ‘man’s life is poor as beast’s.’ … The child is a poet, in fact, when he first plays hide-and-seek, or repeats the story of Jack the Giant-killer; the shepherd-boy is a poet, when he first crowns his mistress with a garland of flowers; the countryman, when he stops to look at the rainbow; the miser, when he hugs his gold; the courtier, who builds his hopes upon a smile; the savage, who paints his idol with blood; the slave, who worships a tyrant, or the tyrant who fancies himself a god.”

The second quotation is the best description I have ever heard of blogging.

“It is the perfect coincidence of the image and the words with the feeling we have, and of which we cannot get rid in any other way, that gives an instant ‘satisfaction to the thought.’ This is equally the origin of wit and fancy, or comedy and tragedy, of the sublime and the pathetic.”

If I ever thought something as awesome as “the perfect coincidence of the image and the words with the feeling we have,” I’m pretty sure my life would be complete. Though I did write that thing about Snuggies.

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The Joy Of Rooting Against LeBron

The bitterness, if it ever was really bitterness, has subsided for me now. I know it hasn’t for everyone. I know that my friend Scott Raab still regularly unleashes “Careful … hot plate” Tweets against the man he calls “The Whore of Akron.” The book will be coming out soon. I know a few friends back home in Cleveland who still refuse to say his name, who will refer to him only (and rarely) as “traitor.” I have one friend, a lifelong NBA fan, who in the last couple of weeks says he has simply given up on professional basketball; he says it’s no fun if the players can simply demand trades and choose friends to play with like it’s a high-priced pickup basketball game.

“I’m not saying that I’m right,” he says (he’s a lawyer). “The players have every right within the rules to do what they’re doing. I’m just saying that it’s no fun for me as a fan anymore.”

Well, obviously everybody had their own take on the LeBron James saga — his bizarre final playoff series in Cleveland*, his 2010 Lebron James Recruitment Tour, his fateful Decision (powered by ESPN) to take his talents to South Beach, the Cleveland backlash led by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and his Comic Sans font rant and so on — and I wouldn’t tell anyone how they should feel about it. Some thought LeBron was a traitor. Some thought he was smart to leave Cleveland. Some will never forgive him. Some will never forgive his accusers. Most people are in the hazier middle ground.

*I asked one NBA deep insider about that final series between the Cavaliers and Celtics, the one where it certainly appeared like LeBron James and the Cavaliers quit. He shrugged and said something curious. He said: “It will make one hell of a 30-for-30 series someday.”

As a born and raised Clevelander, I was taken aback that LeBron James didn’t feel the same connection to the city that that the city felt for him. I thought the whole Decision Show — though it supposedly did earn some much-deserved recognition and money for the Boys & Girls Club — was a farce, and a slap at my hometown, and just a poor public relations choice by a 25-year-old man who I suspect has been told of his own infallibility too many times. I don’t know if the reaction would have been different had he handled things a different way. But I think it’s at least possible. And, I think LeBron’s self-image is too far gone for him to even understand that there was a classier way to take his talents to South Beach.

But all that is in the past, and I mean it when I say I no longer feel any resentment toward LeBron James — if I ever really felt any resentment. In fact, I have come to a whole different place. I love watching LeBron James play basketball again. My feelings surrounding him have turned back to joy. I LOVE rooting against LeBron James.

I don’t mean this in a mean way. I mean it quite literally. I truly love watching Miami Heat games and rooting for them to lose. Thursday night, I passed the kids off to my wife, got a Diet Coke, and settled in front of the TV to watch an NBA game. I cannot TELL you the last year I did that for a regular season game. Sure, I watch plenty of pro basketball games, but only to keep up or to pass the time. Regular season NBA games are not events for me, not ever. But this was an event, a Thursday night game between Orlando and Miami. LeBron has done this for me. In the weirdest way, he has made me care.

I think rooting against players and teams is a big and underrated part of being a sports fan. Growing up, I Clemenated* the Pittsburgh Steelers … the Dallas Cowboys … the Oakland Raiders … the Boston Celtics … the New York Yankees … the Montreal Canadiens … the Edmonton Oilers (I know, how can you Clemenate Gretzky? But I was a New York Islanders fan).

I Clemenated Kevin McHale … Terry Bradshaw … Robert Parish … Mickey Rivers (Mickey Rivers? Hard to explain) … Roberto Duran … Drew Pearson … Jim Palmer … Ken Anderson … Sixto Lezcano (but only because I would get his baseball card in EVERY pack) … John Elway, of course …

*Clemenate: (KLEM-a-nayt), verb, to hate an athlete (or a team) in an entirely healthy, fun sports way (rather than hating them in a crazed, stalking, loaded gun, insane sort of way).

Somewhere along the way, I think that overpowering emotion of despising certain teams and certain players has faded somewhat for all of us. Oh, sure, people still Clemenate the Yankees or the Cowboys or the Lakers or certain players. But it’s just different, especially for players. I will never forget that for a long time I really, really, really, really, really disliked the pitcher Jack McDowell. For one, I thought he was tragically overrated — his Cy Young win in 1993 was an all-time joke. In my view, there were at least five pitchers in the American League better than him, starting with Kansas City’s Kevin Appier, whose ERA was three-quarters of a run better, and continuing with Seattle’s Randy Johnson who became the first American Leaguer not named Nolan Ryan to strike out 300 in more than 20 years. There were others. McDowell won the Cy Young because he won 22 games. And he won 22 games because the White Sox scored a boatload of runs for him. In eight of his wins he gave up four or more earned runs in non-complete games.

So, I didn’t like him because I thought he was overrated and because of other stuff too — I couldn’t stand that “Black Jack” nickname, and I didn’t like the way he carried himself, and there was just something about him set me off as a fan. As a reporter, later, I actually enjoyed him and a friend who knew him well speaks highly of him and so on. But I never disliked him PERSONALLY. It never had anything to do with that. I disliked him as a fan, and when you are a fan, I think you are allowed to dislike anybody you want. I know I’ve had many fans ask me about a certain player, and when I say, “Oh, he’s a good guy,” they recoil and say, “No, I can’t stand that guy I don’t want to hear anything good about him.” That’s part of being the joy of fanhood. I Clemenated Jack McDowell.

And then … McDowell signed with my childhood team, the Cleveland Indians. Well NOW what? This is more and more likely all the time, with all the player movement in sports, you can Clemenate a player and he can end up on your team, you can Clemenate a team and your favorite three players might end up there next week, it’s all so fluid, and it’s all so temporary. My buddy Chardon Jimmy cannot stand Ben Roethlisberger — it’s not even the personal stuff, he despised Roethlisberger long before anyone knew any of that. He cannot tolerate the way he plays.

“But if he was playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, you’d love him wouldn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” Chardon Jimmy said because he’s Bengals fan and an honest man.

LeBron James’s decision freed me from all of these shackles. I can root against him without hesitation, without restriction, without concern. And it’s WONDERFUL. It has made this NBA season so much more interesting for me than any season in years. LeBron James is absolutely one of the best players I have ever watched, he’s extraordinary, he’s like a shape-shifter — one minute he’s Magic Johnson, the next he’s Karl Malone, the next he’s a runaway train like Shaq on the fast break. It’s thrilling to root against someone that great.

And that Orlando-Miami game was as fun for me as any game in years. You know Miami built up a 24-point lead and I thought — “Ah well, you win tonight LeBron.” Only then, Orlando started coming back. I’m a college basketball fan first, and as a college basketball fan it’s difficult to remember that enormous deficits in the NBA are not insurmountable. I was working out on the treadmill with the sound down as Orlando slowly began to chip away at the lead. It seemed pointless at first. Only then they cut it to under 20, and soon it was 15 or 16 and after a way it was 13 or 11, and that’s when I thought: “Hey, NBA teams come back from 11 down all the time.”

The fourth quarter was magical. Orlando went on an 18-0 run. Miami looked completely lost and disorganized and discouraged. All year, the best teams have beat up on the Heat. All year, Miami has lost close games. I don’t know if there’s any real trend here or if this is just one of those statistical flukes that don’t mean much — but their record against great teams and in close games fits my image of LeBron’s Heat as classic bully. The Heat can (and do) crush and humiliate terrible teams, but when a good team actually stands up to them, suddenly their flaws — no point guard, shaky inside defense, on-again-off-again chemistry between James and Dwyane Wade — pop out like junior high school acne, and they do not know quite what to do.

That’s certainly oversimplifying things, but the numbers are hard to overlook:

Record against teams with:
0-.200 win pct: 3-0 (20.3 margin of victory).
.201-300: 11-0 (14.7 margin of victory)
.301-400: 7-1 (10 margin of victory)
.401-.500: 8-1 (7.2 margin of victory)
.501-.600: 11-6 (4.35 margin of victory)
.601-.700: 4-2 (6.5 margin of victory)

.700-better: 0-8 (-8.25 point margin of victory)

There are four teams with a .700 winning percentage right now — Boston, San Antonio, Dallas and Chicago.

Then there’s this:

Record in games decided by 5-points or less: 5-12
Record in games decided by 15 points or more: 14-3

There was always something that felt to me … well, I guess the word is “unsubstantial” about LeBron’s Superfriends vision. The way he talked, the things he said, it seemed to me he did’t just want to “win a championship.” He wanted to do it easy. He wanted an instant championship, just add water, and then maybe win another two or three or five more. That attitude just rubbed me wrong. It’s not easy. It’s NEVER easy. It took the Oscar Robertson 11 years and a young teammate named Alcindor to get his title. Is LeBron James a more dominant in his time than Oscar Robertson was in his? Jerry West and Elgin Baylor — two of the all-time greats — played together for 12 years without winning a championship, and they didn’t win one until Wilt Chamberlain joined in not to mention Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich. And that was in a different NBA, an NBA that wasn’t as deep, wasn’t as spread out, wasn’t as important on the American sports scene … point is it’s plain HARD to win a championship, I think LeBron James believed he had outsmarted the system.

Miami has two of the best players on planet earth and a third in Chris Bosh who is pretty darned good and it would be absurd to overlook them. Then again, let’s not kid anybody, the Heat are in no danger of being overlooked. Everybody’s watching. LeBron James went there in the most public free agent move ever to build a Superteam, the sort of team that would leave everyone standing in pure awe. And Superteams do not to go 5-12 in games decided by five points or less.

The last few minutes of that Orlando game were pure bliss for me. Orlando plays a high-risk, high-reward game that would drive me a bit nuts if I was a Magic fan, but when Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson are making three-points, whew, they are not beatable. Everybody was making three pointers in the second half. And absurdly, after being down 24 just minutes earlier, Orlando built up a seven-point lead. At that point, I figured James or Wade would take over. But … no. Wade made two free throws in the fourth quarter. James didn’t score at all.

With eight seconds left, Miami needed a three-pointer to tie. Chris Bosh ended up taking that three, which might tell you something right there. After a flurry and a rebound by Mike Miller, the ball was kicked out to LeBron James who was wide open for a three. He missed. And Orlando beat the Heat, who at that moment had lost three times in four games. This led to much speculation about how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are getting along on the court. This has led to much speculation about the coaching situation. Ah, the joys of South Beach talents.

Friday night, Miami played San Antonio, and I watched excitedly again. This game offered a different kind of fun. San Antonio outclassed Miami. It was mind boggling and wonderful. The Spurs embarrassed the Heat in the first quarter and led 36-12. The Heat made a reasonable second half comeback and trailed by only 12 at the break leading the announcers to suggest that Miami was still in the game. Miami was not in the game. The Heat’s halftime adjustment appeared to be: “Stop guarding them.” By the middle of the fourth quarter, San Antonio led by 31, and the camera kept cutting to Miami coach Erik Spoelstra because, let’s be blunt, he’s going to get fired really soon unless things get better pretty fast. The old line has never been more true: You can’t fire the players.

In the end, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the Heat come playoff time. I think Boston, Chicago or Orlando in the East is pretty capable of taking them out, and I like that Atlanta team a lot, and the Knicks sent a message the other day if that matchup somehow happens. But I also think that with James and Wade, the Heat could rise up and play a much higher level of basketball. You can’t discount the possibility. Announcer Mark Jackson kept saying of the Heat “They’ll be fine,” whatever that means.

And they might be fine. I don’t think so … but I don’t know. Some people say, “They might not win this year but they’ll definitely win next year or the year after that or the year after that.” We’ll see. That’s the beauty of this. That’s the beauty of competition. In the end, LeBron James gave me a surprising and great gift, something I never expected after The Decision. I don’t feel any ill feelings about him at all. I think he’s a wonderful player. I treasure his years in Cleveland, when he singlehandedly made the Cavaliers matter again. And I love watching him play again. True, I love watching him play so I can root wildly for him and his team to lose. But, you know, love is love.

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By In Stuff

Behind The Back Page

The best part was talking boxing. It’s hard to explain how good it made me feel to be around Nick Charles for the Point After this week, hard to explain because this is one of the saddest stories I’ve ever written. Nick Charles is dying. How is it possible to feel anything but deep sadness in moments like that?

But believe me when I tell you: I did not feel sad being around Nick Charles. Certainly, of course, there was sadness in the air. Wistfulness. Nick talked about everything. He cried some and apologized for that. I felt a lump or two in my throat now and again and tried to keep Nick from seeing. But the tone was joy, and the themes were life, and the connection was family. We talked about growing up, and about our favorite books, and about watching Barbie movies with our daughters. We both think The Three Musketeers might be the best one. Neither of us was crazy about Mermadia.

When I told people that I had gone to see Nick, they inevitably said: “Oh I never could have done that. It must have been so depressing.” And maybe I would have thought the same thing. And there was no way to explain to them that it wasn’t depressing — it was the opposite of depressing. I left regretfully, I wished I could have stayed longer, I left filled with powerful feelings about life and how precious it is and how powerful the human spirit can come through if you allow it to come through.

The best part was talking boxing. I do not follow boxing anymore, not out of any sense of morality — I can’t see how boxing is any more dangerous or brutal than pro football at this point — but because the sport has no rhythm, no narrative, it is a messy and unseemly mishmash of $50 pay-per-view cards featuring boxers I don’t know fighting for championships that sound unfamiliar. I can tell you, and probably for the first time in my life, I truly do not know who is the heavyweight champion of the world. I can go on Wikipedia and find out — I guess Vitaly Klitschko is one, and David Haye is another — but I don’t know. Corruption has always worked the corners in boxing, but now the whole sport is a blur. And even if you could get by that, the boxing game itself is like a mildly interesting television series, but I missed the first 10 shows. I don’t have the patience or the time to try and catch up. There is too much else going on.

But there was a time when I knew about as much about boxing as I did any other sport. That comes from my father, who was (and is) an enormous boxing fan. My father loves many sports, but if there was a 24-hour boxing channel that showed new fights every hour, he would never watch anything else. He did not try to make me a boxing fan, but boxing was always on our television, and I grew attached. I cried when my father told me one morning that Muhammad Ali lost to Leon Spinks. I wanted to stay in my room all day and sulk when Sugar Ray Leonard was taken apart by Robert Duran in their first fight (and I danced like a fool when Leonard won the No Mas fight the second time). I thought about boxing all the time, I thought boxers all the time, just their names would get me going — Little Red Lopez and Carlos Zarate and Lupe Pintor and the wily Wilfredo Gomez and the classy Alexis Arguello (of course) and the bleeder Vito Antuofermo and Dwight Braxton (who became Dwight Muhammad Qawi) and Boom Boom Mancini (of course) and …

In many ways, my love of boxing ended on the day that Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in Japan. It did not end BECAUSE Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. I did not know Douglas, and I did not like Tyson, and watching that fight was mesmerizing and thrilling. If someone had asked me after the fight, “Do you think you’ll stop being a boxing fan now?” I’m sure I would have thought the question was insane. I was excited after that fight. But somehow boxing kind of stopped being interesting for me after it. I liked Evander Holyfield and sort of kept up with him. I wrote about Ray Mercer a few times, and got to know a young boxer from Augusta named Vernon Forrest who went on to great things. I was amazed by the talents of Roy Jones and Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao and some others. I still love writing about boxers. But, as a fan, I can never remember being truly excited about a fight or a fighter after Tyson-Douglas.

Nick Charles lights up when he’s talking about boxing. He still feels the same way about it as he always did. He does not apologize for loving the sport. He concedes the brutality and corruption. “But,” he says, “I know a lot of people whose lives were saved by boxing too.” In any case, we were not talking about the rights and wrongs of boxing but about the fights and fighters. We were talking about the fury of the Hagler-Hearns fight, and the sadness of Muhammad Ali in the end, and the impossible energy of Arguello-Aaron Pryor and so on.

And then Nick Charles told me something about the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight that I did not know, something that summed it up for me in a way that nothing else ever had. The thing that is hard to explain, even 20 years later — and will be even harder in another 20 or 40 years, assuming people remember boxing at all — was just how unlikely it was for Buster Douglas to even stay on his feet against Tyson, much less beat him. The odds were astronomical, of course, but odds can be bloodless numbers. Anyway, even odds don’t give a sense of just how invincible Tyson seemed at that moment in time, how utterly inconceivable it was for ANYONE to go into a boxing ring and withstand his fury much less some relative journeyman like Buster Douglas. I don’t think you can go back in time to FEEL the jolt of a instant, to FEEL just how unlikely it was for the United States hockey team to beat the Soviets in 1980, or the New York Jets to beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III or, perhaps more than any of them, for Buster Douglas to defeat Mike Tyson.

But Nick Charles put it in perspective this way: He was there, in Japan, and before the fight the reporters had a pool. Reporters always have a pool of some kind going. Of course it would have been foolish to have a pool about who would win the fight, so the pool simply asked: “What round will Mike Tyson knock out Buster Douglas?”

That’s amazing enough. But wait until you hear this: So many writers picked Tyson to knock out Douglas in the first round that they had to start splitting up the round. At first they split it in half, then by minutes, then by half minutes. In the end, so many writers picked Tyson in the first round, that they had to split up the round by 10-second increments. When Douglas survived the first round, almost everybody in the pool was out. Needless to say, nobody picked Buster Douglas by knockout.

“I can tell you,” Nick Charles said, “I have never felt anything that compares to the shock of that Tyson fight.”

He smiled. We both knew that he had felt bigger shocks, much bigger shocks, but not in the playground world of sports. And that’s the world where we lived for an afternoon. It wasn’t only boxing. We talked about Joe Montana and Willie Mays and the people who show up at Churchill Downs at 6 a.m. We talked about how Mike Tyson calls him sometimes. We talked about CNN’s head-to-head battles with ESPN, how people would always want to set him up against Chris Berman or Dan Patrick or Keith Olbermann but he genuinely LIKED those guys. He always liked people. No, it wasn’t sad. Nick wouldn’t let it be said. “Today is a good day,” he said once, twice, three times, a bunch of times before I finally had to go. Those were the five words I used to start my story.

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By In Stuff

1955 MVP: A Detective Story

Sometimes, I simply cannot let go of something. That’s kind of strange because I hardly am the type of person who holds on to things. Most of the time I don’t have the patience to hold on to anything. I don’t do puzzles. I’m not the type of person who needs to make the last basket I shoot before leaving the court, or the type of person who avoids stepping on cracks in the sidewalk or even the type of person who cares that a chewed piece of gum has been on my desk for three months. Hey’s IT’S WRAPPED.

But every now and again, something gets stuck in my head and I have to try and solve it or it drives me bonkers. This was the case a couple of years ago with the Stan Musial story about the umpire overruling a key Musial hit. The story was relayed several different ways in the various books and magazine articles I read about Musial, and I retold the story as it was recorded, and then someone pointed out that it couldn’t be true as published. So I scoured — and I do mean scoured — old newspapers accounts for a long time before I finally found the true story, which was similar but not exactly the same.

Were the stories different enough that it REALLY mattered? I guess it depends on your point of view. Like I say, my crazy mind wouldn’t let go.

So, my mind is stuck on another one: The 1955 MVP race between Duke Snider and Roy Campanella. I must find an answer. And so … I started looking.

I mentioned the controversy of 1955 in my long Duke Snider piece but I can’t ask you to go back through that whole thing, so I’ll retell it at some length here. Feel free to skip ahead. In 1955, Duke Snider led the National League in runs and RBIs and was up there in pretty much every offensive category. For much of the year, he looked like he might win the triple crown. On July 29, he and Richie Ashburn were tied for the league lead in batting average, Snider led Ted Kluszewski in homers by two, and he had 23 more RBIs than anyone in the league.

Snider promptly hit .189 over his next 23 games, which led Brooklyn fans to boo, which led the Duke to say that they were “the worst fans in the league.” Everything righted at that point, Snider hit .356 the rest of the way, that fans tentatively loved him again, but the triple crown was lost. He ended up fourth in homers and a distant ninth in average — which was still viewed then (and to some people, now) as the most telling of all baseball stats.

So Snider had a great year, but he was not DECISIVELY the best player in the National League. I don’t even think he WAS the best player in the NL (that was Willie Mays). But he was pretty clearly the best player on what was BY FAR the best team, which will get you the MVP Award pretty often. My point here is that Snider’s MVP case was no knockout case, which means it went to the judges.

And Snider was not especially well liked by those judges.

And, predictably I suppose, those judges gave the MVP to the more approachable and more likable and, well, sturdier Roy Campanella.

“It is pretty far-fetched to argue that Campanella was better than Snider,” Bill James says. “You would have to exaggerate his defensive value to heroic proportions.”

Well, we baseball writers — as we have seen through the years — are more than capable on certain occasions of stretching some vague quality like leadership or presence or defensive value to GARGANTUAN proportions.

Here are Snider’s and Campanella’s offensive numbers from 1955 — you decide:

Snider: .309/.418/.628, 34 doubles, 6 triples, 42 homers, 126 runs, 136 RBIs.

Campanella: .318/.395/.583, 20 doubles, 1 triple, 32 homers, 81 runs, 107 RBIs.

WAR (Baseball Reference)
Snider: 8.3
Campanella: 5.5

WAR (Fangraphs)
Snider: 8.6
Campanella: 6.4

Win Shares
Snider: 36
Campanella: 28

It really wasn’t especially close between the two players. That Campanella had already won two MVPs while Snider had not won any despite fabulous years in 1953 and ’54* also might have swayed the voters toward Snider had they wanted to be swayed. But there was a clear and present undervaluation of The Duke in his prime — whether this was because the writers didn’t like him or because they thought his numbers were empty or because they thought him too flawed emotionally to be seen as a leader and star is unclear. It’s probably all that and more. But year after year, Duke Snider was clearly one of the best players in the National League. And year after year, the writers found a way to vote someone else MVP.

*Snider probably had a better year than Campanella in Campy’s ’53 MVP season too — though that one was closer. Snider’s great 1954 was (methinks) rightfully beaten by a legendary season from Willie Mays, though Snider’s value was closer to Mays that year than you might have guessed.

OK, so there’s the background. Both players got eight first place votes, but the arrangement of the remaining votes gave Campanella a five-point victory and his third MVP trophy. The points break down as follow — 14 points for a first place vote, 9 points for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth and so on down to 1 point for a 10th place vote.

In this case, the breakdown looked like so:

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

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

This is one of the closest MVP victories ever — it might be THE closest, I’ve seen conflicting reports. You probably notice a couple of things right away … Campy got more second and third place votes, which gave him the victory. Snider got five fourth place votes, though, and Campy didn’t have any — he had seven votes that were fifth or seventh place.

But there’s one other thing that you already know if you’ve followed this story at all — Campy was named on all 24 ballots while Snider was only named on 23. Someone left Duke Snider entirely off his ballot … this in a year when Frank Thomas got a vote while hitting .245 for 94-loss Pittsburgh, in a year when Del Crandall hit .236 in part-time duty for also-ran Milwaukee and got eight MVP points, and ESPECIALLY in a year when rookie reliever Jack Meyer got three points for going 6-11 and throwing 110 innings as a reliever for a mediocre Philadelphia (he did lead the league in saves, though Jerome Holtzman had not yet invented saves). Jack will reappear in our story, I predict.

How could this happen? Certainly NOBODY could have thought Duke Snider was not one of the TEN most valuable players in the league, or even one of the FIVE most valuable. If that ballot had him in the Top 5, he would have beaten Campy.

Well, from what I can tell little was said about all this after the vote itself. There was no real outrage on behalf of the Duke. The New York writers, who were the dominant sportswriters of the day, were likely plenty happy about Campanella beating out Snider. That is certainly the vibe I picked up. The most direct column about the subject was written by the New York Times Arthur Daley who essentially came to the conclusion that Campy was the right choice for various intangible reasons.

This quote from an unnamed Brooklyn Dodgers official about the close MVP vote appeared in Marion Jackson’s “Sports of the World” column in the Atlanta Daily World: “In 1954, Snider had a great year and Campanella a poor one and we didn’t win. In 1955, Snider slumped slightly and Roy had a great season and we won. Does that answer it for you!!!”

Yes … THREE exclamation points, though it should be said that the Daily World was Atlanta’s black newspaper with the Civil Rights movement gaining steam and had a rooting interest in Campanella.

The Pittsburgh Courier’s legendary Wendell Smith had a go as well after Snider was quoted in an article about how much he didn’t like the baseball life. “Where Snider finds baseball comparable to slavery,” Smith wrote, “Campanella has played and loved it for more than 18 years.”

And so on. Point is, even though it was mentioned now and then that Snider was completely left off a ballot and that the vote was somewhat controversial, nobody seemed to care enough about Snider to make a fuss about it.

And it might have been left that way … except many years later Duke Snider wrote an autobiography called “The Duke of Flatbush.” And when it came to the 1955 MVP voting, well, the Duke had a story to tell:

“There was a controversy about the voting … The reason for all the fuss was the ballot was cast by a Philadelphia writer who was sick and in the hospital. On his list of ten candidates for the award, he put Campy down twice and didn’t put me down at all. The argument was the ballot was invalid and the Baseball Writers Association of America, which conducts the voting among its members, should have thrown the ballot out. No one knew if the writer did it accidentally or on purpose, but instead of voiding the ballot, the officials counted the writer’s first place vote for Campy and simply disregarded the fifth place vote for him.”

Wow. What a story. It has a little bit of everything … a sick writer, a vague scent of corruption, a powerful scent of incompetence and so on. If the ballot had been disqualified, Snider would have won. If the ballot had been accepted except that the Campanella names canceled each other out, Snider would have won. If the judges had given the first place spot on the ballot to Campanella and the fifth place spot to Snider (assuming the writer mistakenly repeated Campy in the fifth spot where he meant to put Snider) then Snider would have won. It seems like a major accounting error took place here.

But much of this story seems confusing. What does the writer being “sick and in the hospital” have to do with things? Why didn’t they just ask him what his intentions had been? Was the guy dying? Was he in a coma? How could the BBWAA make a decision THAT stupid? Like I say, it’s baffling. But, hey, baffling things happen all the time.

Over time, this story has become more or less accepted as fact, though nobody seems able to point to a source beyond Duke Snider’s own memory. Wikipedia makes a strong mention of the story in a section on Snider’s bio page titled “1955 Most Valuable Player balloting controversy.” It sources Tracy Ringolsby’s fine story on the Duke. But when I emailed Tracy to ask where he heard the story, he at first sent me a link to … Wikipedia.*

*Let me quickly point out that Tracy sent me other stuff later that was crucial and … well, stick with me.

I had heard that Bill James first reported this story of the sick writer, but Bill said he had never heard of it or at least had no memory of it. He too linked Wikipedia. I heard Rob Neyer was the first to report it outside of Duke’s autobiography, but in his memory his source WAS Duke’s autobiography. Round and round we go.

So I went to the papers. And I searched. And I picked. And I searched more. I have real work to do, you know, but I was on the trail. And then. I found my first actual source of the story. You won’t believe who it was. No. really, you won’t believe it.

The source was: Bob Feller.

Yep. Bob Feller wrote a column in 1956 that was syndicated in various papers. And he wrote this column under the headline “Most Valuable Player Awards? Let me tell you …”: “Well in 1955, one writer accidentally named Campanella twice — for first and sixth place — but left out Duke Snider, whom everybody else mentioned. … Not wanting to be accuse of tampering, the committee didn’t check back with the writer, gave Campy 14 points for the first place vote, nothing to Snider. Campy beat Duke by five points — five that Snider probably would have had gotten if the writer hadn’t erred.”

AHA! Wouldn’t you know that behind every good story, there’s my old friend Bob Feller. He finished off his column with the kicker: “If that’s the way the Awards are going to be determined, I’m almost glad I never won.”

Even in a joke, he had to put the word “almost” in there. That’s the beautiful Bob Feller.

But, anyway, this story has a bit more of a ring of authenticity. For one thing, in this version the second Campy appears sixth on the balloting — which means if you just replaced him with Snider the two would have tied. That feels a little bit less like myth (it always bothered me that the ballot just HAPPENED to have Campy’s second name fifth, the spot where Snider would have won by one point). For another, Feller reporting this in a syndicated column that appeared in small papers (I found this one in the Roanoke paper) tells me the story was somewhat well known, at least among baseball insiders and players. I felt confident that Bob Feller did not break this story.

Even though the Feller version sounds a little bit better, the story still had two major problems for me:

1. It still didn’t add up why they didn’t just go to the writer … the “tampering” charge makes no more sense to me than the “sick Philadelphia writer in the hospital thing” did. You go to the guy, say “Buddy, you put Campy down twice” and go from there. It doesn’t seem that hard.

2. There is a major mathematical problem with the whole story, as pointed out to me by brilliant reader Hizouse. The problem: The numbers add up. With 24 ballots and the scoring system in place there were 1,416 possible points. And if you add up all the points on the Baseball Reference Awards Page you get … 1,416 points. There was no dropped fifth or sixth place vote. There was no switcheroo by the Baseball Writers. There was no story, or at least no interesting story.

Except … there WAS an interesting story.

The break was sparked by Tracy Ringolsby, who sent me to Duke Snider’s Baseball Library chronology page which mentioned a story by Sid Keener in The Sporting News. I could not get to the Sporting News story because the archives weren’t working right — a horribly frustrating moment, I must say — but I kept searching for Keener and The Sporting News and finally, finally, finally ran into a little box in SABR’s The National Pastime from 1990. The box is under a story by Michael Burke, but it does not have a tagline or byline and I’m not sure who wrote it, but I want to thank him or her with everything I’ve got. Because this box was like Jed shooting for some food and up through the ground came ‘a bubbling crude.

Here’s is what the box says happened: There was indeed a writer who put Roy Campanella first and also sixth on his ballot, just like Feller said. Whether this was done by a writer who was sick and/or from Philadelphia is not made clear, and is probably not important. The BBWAA could have invalidated the ballot, and it must have been considered. But they did not. And they also did not just give Campanella the top spot and erase the fifth spot.

What they did was this: They moved everybody below five up a spot — six to five, seven to six, and so on. And for the bottom spot they inserted, yep, our favorite Philadelphia relief pitcher Jack Meyer.

Why did they do this? Well, the box doesn’t say because nobody knows for sure because the BBWAA never would acknowledge that the event even happened. But I have a pretty strong guess what happened. I would guess they DID contact the writer and tell him about the mistake. I would also guess that Bob Feller was right — they probably did not want to tamper by saying something like “You know you left Duke Snider off our ballot” or “Did you mean to put Duke Snider down the second time?” They probably just said: “Hey, you put Campy down twice, how do you want to handle that?”

And the writer, either with disdain for Duke Snider or with sheepishness that comes from being a goofball or with the incompetence that had inspired him to write Campy’s name twice in the first place, said something like: “Oh, move everybody up one and put Jack Meyer on the bottom … I was thinking hard about voting for him.”

THAT all makes sense to me. THAT all adds up mathematically. And what we have here is not so much a clerical error by the BBWAA but either an error of stupidity or a deliberate effort to keep Snider from winning the MVP. Duke Snider was right to be mad about not winning the MVP award in 1955, but he was pointing in the wrong direction. I don’t think it was because of some vague and somewhat incomprehensible ruling. I don’t think it was because some writer MEANT to put him on but put Campy down twice instead. I think it was because of some bungling writer messing up his ballot … probably twice.

And with that I can finally sleep easy having found the answer — or at least a sensible answer — to the 1955 MVP balloting. And so what’s the takeaway? Well, in 1956, Duke Snider had a great year though nobody seemed to notice it. He led the league in WAR (both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference) and Win Shares, led the league in homers and walks, scored and drove in 100 runs, played terrific defense in center field. Bill James thinks Snider was CLOSE to the best in ’53, ’54 and ’55 but never quite the best in the league. He feels pretty strongly Snider was the best player in the National League in 1956.

Duke Snider finished 10th in the MVP voting that year.

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Frenchy And Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Duke

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, there is this rather startling paragraph:

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Duke Snider.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oscar Picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visual effects: Inception
— Slam dunk, I suspect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No funny line?” I would ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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