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Dandy Don

We hear all the time about people who are “one of a kind.” We especially hear this when they die. I think that’s right and proper. I’m sure you have been to a funeral or two in your life where you get no sense of the person who died, no memory to cling to, no idea about their favorite ice cream flavor or what phrase they repeated again and again or what music they might sing along with or what TV shows they loved to watch or what joke made them laugh unexpectedly hard or what is the one thing they loved doing most of all. These empty funerals always make me saddest of all, because I think we all really are one of a kind, at least in some way, and the hope is that people will notice and maybe even remember.

But there are some people who really are one of a kind, and Don Meredith was one of those guys. Dandy Don. He was like something out of a Dan Jenkins novel — a quarterback, all-Texas, all-guts, all-heart. He played his high school football in Texas, and he played his college football in Texas, and he played his pro football in Texas, and all the while he believed in throwing the ball deep and running the ball with abandon. He played for Tom Landry, a serious man, which wasn’t always health because Meredith was not a serious man. It didn’t go so well in the early years. Then, in 1964, the Dallas Cowboys drafted the world’s fastest man, Bullet Bob Hayes, and he joined the team in 1965, and Don Meredith was the guy who threw the ball deep to him. The Cowboys won a lot of games, and lost twice in the Green Bay Packers with the Super Bowl at stake. It was one beautiful party with a few hangovers, and if there was one thing Don Meredith realized it was that if you can’t handle the hangovers you shouldn’t go to the party.

“Why do they call you Dandy, anyway?” he was asked once.

“Because I am,” he said.

But that’s not what made him one of a kind. No, there have been other Texas quarterbacks who loved throwing the ball deep, day and night. What made Don Meredith one of a kind … well, when he retired from football he was hired to become a broadcaster for this new thing called Monday Night Football. That was 1970. He had no broadcasting training. He was not exactly known for his detailed study or his intense work ethic. Nobody really knew how his Texas twang would play on a medium then known for the deep and crack-free voices of professional announcers

How did it go? Well, I’d say this and I doubt too many people would disagree: No color commentator — not in the long history of professional football on television — ever made professional football games as much fun as Dandy Don Meredith.

How did he do it? You don’t think there are television executives wondering that very thing? They have tried everything. They hired a comedian to be in the booth. They hired a funny newspaper columnist to be in the booth. They hired stars to sing the football openers. They designed some animated robot to dance after commercials. They hired every funny player and coach they could find. They have brought in guests, they have brought in impersonators, they have worked up insane graphics, they have worked up a million angles. But they have never quite recaptured when Don Meredith had when he was in the booth with Howard Cosell.

Maybe Meredith was just an unusual combination — a truly great football player who didn’t take football all that seriously. He brought authority and irreverence. He’d sing in the booth, of course. Turn out the lights! The party’s over! Well, he was always singing. He’d crack jokes that were always just a little bit rascally, jokes you had to be a certain age to understand (“Fair Hooker,” he said, repeating the name of the Cleveland Browns receiver. “I haven’t met one yet.”). As one person who worked closely with Meredith said, he was just one of those people who had life beat. Howard Cosell, with his big words and big mind and hyper-sensitivity, never stood a chance.

“Oh come on, Howard,” he’d say whenever Cosell got too puffed up and America would laugh and Cosell would shrink. Cosell would often say that he liked Meredith — “DAYN-dy DON!” — because he thought Meredith’s rustic charm played well off his own lawyerly bombast. But it really was the other way around. Meredith was the Fonz. Cosell was Potsie. Sure, Cosell was one of a kind in his own way too, and his great strength was that he made the games matter. But Meredith made the games fun. And fun is what games were meant to be.

People do tend to romanticize things. Monday Night Football — now Sunday Night Football — is in some ways more popular now than it was in the 1970s. And it’s better produced, and it’s wonderfully broadcast — I think Cris Collinsworth is the best color commentator in the game. He’s funny and direct and incisive. Times have changed, and expectations for announcers have changed, and Collinsworth fits his time.

But there was an unmistakable magic to the time when Frank Gifford would make the call, and Howard Cosell would irritate the masses, and Don Meredith would sing. It was apparent, just from being around him on Monday nights, that Meredith loved life. And that love of life poured through the television set. I still don’t think there has ever been anything quite like that.

In the 25 years that have gone by since he walked away from broadcasting, television scouts have tried desperately to find someone for the booth with some of Meredith’s spirit, someone who could broadcast not only the passion of football, not only the intensity of football, not only the tactics of football … but also the joy. Dandy Don Meredith died Sunday of a brain hemorrhage. He was 72 years old. And the television folks can stop looking. They won’t ever find another one like him.

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Texpensives

I have this theory about job offers: I think employers have this special and secret chart they use so that they can offer you PRECISELY as much money as it will take to make your decision ridiculously hard. They will never offer so much money that you go, “Oh, that’s a no-brainer*.” And they will never offer you so little that you think, “Well, that’s humiliating, forget that.” Nope, they will find the perfect middle, they will offer salaries that are just enough to keep you tossing and turning all night.

*Except in John Grisham books.

In this way, I think most things in life are priced at levels that meet our eye. That’s not to say that stuff isn’t overpriced — I’d say one-quarter of all conversation revolves around how expensive stuff is.*

*The conversation chart around my life looks a bit like this:

33% Weather
25% How stuff is too expensive
15% General hotness level of various people.
12% Pop Culture
5% Sports (overall)
5% Sports specific to Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods and LeBron James
3% “The coach/manager/server at this restaurant/neighbor/pilot/doctor/anyone else suck at what they do.”
1% Religion and politics and family and science and current events and stuff like that.
1% Justin Bieber

But my feeling is that while stuff IS expensive, it’s usually not bizarrely expensive. By that I mean, yes, someone may point out that a night out at a middling chain restaurant might cost too much money.* They can’t believe movie ticket prices these days. They find that they actually WILL pay a lot for this muffler.

But after a while, unless you’re one of those people who keeps getting surprised by the same thing, the effect of price will wear off. Yes, at first, it sure seemed like coffee at Starbucks cost an unreasonable amount of money since coffee used to be a dime with all the refills you ever wanted. But now, when someone complains about the price at Starbucks, it sounds dated, like people who still use Roseanne as a reference point for culture jokes. A movie ticket is 14 bucks or 18 bucks or 20 bucks … but the only people who are shocked by this are people who don’t go to movies.

Then … there are some things that ALWAYS seems preposterously expensive no matter how many times you see the price. These I have decided to call: Texpensives. Yes, it’s my latest word. A texpensive (noun) means something (person, place, thing) that seems bizarrely, even comically, overpriced. It can also be used as an adjective, I suppose, though I don’t like it as much that way. Still it could. Example: Buying a World Cup is texpensive.

The word origin is pretty easy to explain. “Expensive” is obvious. The “Tex” part of it, can refer to state of Texas, where the state takes great pride in making everything absurdly large. But the real inspiration is Mark Teixeira. Really, the word should be spelled “Teixpensives” but having once lost a spelling bee on the word “chocolate” — who needs that second “o” anyway? — I don’t like unnecessarily complicated spelling words.

Tex is a terrific player, absolutely terrific, and I don’t want anyone to miss that point. But his contract seems to be bizarrely out of step with his reality. His contract is eight years, $180 million. Starting this season, he will get $22.5 million per year for the next six years. It is the fifth-largest total value contract ever given out (two of those are Alex Rodriguez deals), and Teixeira will be the third-highest paid every day player in baseball in 2011 (behind only Alex Rodriguez and Joe Mauer).

Why? Is Mark Teixeira the third-best player in baseball? No. Is he the best first baseman in baseball. No. That’s Albert Pujols. Is he second best? Third best? Fourth best? Maybe. But maybe not. After a while you look at the other best first basemen — and you realize a lot of them can hit about as well as Teixeira. Here are the Top OPS+ for first basemen over the last five seasons:

1. Albert Pujols, 177
2. Miguel Cabrera, 152
3. Joey Votto, 151
4. Lance Berkman, 143
5. Adrian Gonzalez, 141
6. Ryan Howard, 141
7. Prince Fielder, 140
8. Mark Teixeira, 138
9. Justin Morneau, 137
10. Carlos Pena, 134
11. Kevin Youkilis, 131
12. Paul Konerko, 126

Tex is a better fielder than many of these, so that adds value. He’s 30, so you would hope he still has some awesome years left in him. But that contract just seems a bit out of touch with the excellent but not exactly unique player that is Mark Teixeira. Why him? He seems like a texpensive to me.

The most obvious texpensive in today’s America, I think, are these high end razor blades. No matter how many times I see the futuristic names of these razors (Fusion! Mach 3!) and the absurd star-studded commercials, no matter how many times I hear the promises of getting a shave that will be just one notch below sex, I still cannot fathom how much razor blades cost. Both 16 razors the other day at Costco — I needed to have someone co-sign the loan.

Food around Times Square is texpensive. It’s a cliche, but it’s real. The other day, we went to lunch at Maxie’s — one of about 594 famous delicatessens near Times Square — and there were three of us, and each of us ordered something like an open faced cheese sandwich. The sandwiches all looked identical — like grilled cheese sandwiches not pushed together. One might have had tuna in it, another bacon, but basically three cheese-based sandwiched. And three sodas. Go ahead, give me a guess — how much do you think? Understand, if you ordered that exact thing at Carolyn’s Kitchen in Marysville, Kan., it would cost you, tip included, $8.50, maybe, and that’s if they decided to charge you at all (“All you want is cheese, honey?”).

At Maxie’s, it cost us 91 bucks, though I should say that included tip. I’m sorry, I’m going to repeat that: It cost us 91 dollars. For three cheese sandwiches and Cokes.

Well, there are a lot of examples of texpensives — real estate in San Francisco, radio talk show hosts (last I heard, Howard Stern was making a billion-jillion-shmillion dollars a year), anything to do with landscaping and so on.

But I suppose baseball players are the main texpensives in the world today. Every year, several players who you never thought were especially good will get ludicrous contracts. Every … single … year you will hear about Jose Guillen or Oliver Perez or Juan Pierre getting a lot of money and you think … really?

Sometimes, often, the baseball texpensives are right handed pitchers just on either side of 30 who are league average or just above league average, usually coming off pretty good years. This seems to be the number one need in baseball — an “inning eater.” Who knew that league average innings were so valuable, but apparently they are gold.

A.J. Burnett is the ultimate example — he was a good-enough right-handed pitcher coming off a slightly-better-than-average season (2.9 WAR), and he had proven over a number of years to be at his height a slightly-better-than-average pitcher (sometimes) and the Yankees gave him a five-year, $82.5 million. It’s pretty clear they have absolutely no idea what to do with him now.

And while this is the most texpensive of the good-enough right-handed deals, it is hardly the most outrageous. Chan Ho Park is probably the original crazy contract — Texas gave him five years and about $64 million after he pitched fairly well in the intense pitchers park that is Dodger Stadium. Amazing how often brilliant people with millions and millions of dollars at stake will not look park effects — more on this in a minute. Kevin Millwood got a lot of money coming off his best year. And there are many others, to name a few: Jeff Suppan, Todd Stottlemeyre, Aaron Sele, Vincente Padilla, Jason Marquis, Carl Pavano, Gil Meche, Aaron Cook, Matt Clement, Kris Benson Carlos Silva … all of these and many others got paid big bucks around the time they turned 30 for being good but not great.

Teams have had different layers of success with these signings, but the main point is that right-handed pitchers who reach age 30 with some big league innings and just above league average numbers will cost way, way, way more than seems necessary. And that’s a texpensive (“Carlos Silva got WHAT?”)

Another baseball texpensive — the seven year, $126 million player. That is exactly $18 million a year for seven years, if you want to work the math, and this tasty deal has been given to three players in baseball history.

1. Barry Zito.
This signing probably got the worst instant reviews of any in baseball history. Zito of course won a Cy Young Award, but he had been a vaguely above average pitcher for three years before the Giants signed him to the seven-year, $126 million deal. He was turning 29, his stuff was clearly declining. Nobody really understood this move and it turned out from just about the first day to be even worse than most people expected. Zito has been below average for four years, he wasn’t even on the Giants postseason roster, and he has three years left.

2. Vernon Wells
A year ago, I called this the worst contract in baseball. That was when Wells was coming off his disastrous 2009 season when he didn’t hit, didn’t field, didn’t run and still had almost $100 million left on his deal. But I’ve amended this somewhat because Wells rebounded with a pretty good 2010. He hit well in Toronto, anyway.* But I should say that the main problems with this deal remain — Wells is turning 32 this week, he is closing in on unplayable in center field, he still doesn’t walk, he’s not running nearly as well on the bases. It’s not impossible that he could have a fine second career in his 30s, but it’s certainly no sure thing. And there are four big years and $86 million left on that contract.

*I didn’t realize this, but all of Wells improvement came at home in 2010. All of it.

At home, Wells hit a spectacular .321/.363/.628 with 20 homers. … This was after he hit .214/.285/.348 at home in 2009.

But on the road in 2010, Wells was, um, not too good. He hit .227/.301/.407 with 11 homers and 34 RBIs. That’s the player we all saw in 2009.

Of course a player gets 81 games at home … and so the overal year was pretty good. Anyway, I don’t know what this crazy split means. In 2009, Wells also had a huge split difference but it was a reverse split — he hit .300 with more power on the road while not hitting at all at home.

3. Jayson Werth
And finally, we come to Werth who just signed that magical 7-year, $126 million deal with Washington. Werth has been a good player for a while, and he was very good in 2010. He’s good defensively, he’s a good base runner, he led the National League in doubles, he will take a walk. He is a fine player. But …

Just that: But. No reason to fill in all the reasons this deal was wacko for the Nationals. Who signs a soon-to-be 32-year-old outfielder who has had exactly one outstanding season (and a couple of a good ones) to a seven-year-deal at $18 million per? Who does that?

There are so many reasons this deal is absurd that it’s hard to pick just one … but ballpark is not a bad place to start. Philadelphia is not the hitter’s haven people that so many think, but it is a good home run ballpark. It’s not a GREAT home run park like it was four years ago, but it’s good. And Washington is not a good home run park at all.

What does this mean for Werth? In 2010, he hit 27 home runs — 18 of them at home. In 2009, he hit 36 home runs — 21 at home. From this you would take that Werth’s home runs figure to go down, perhaps dramatically, in Washington. It strikes me as insane that Washington people would not see this …

… but then I thought of something else and looked it up. And sure enough, I was right.

In 2010, Werth hit .419/.500/806 in eight games in Washington.
In 2009, Werth hit .306/.359/.915 in eight games in Washington.

Yep. He crushed the ball in Washington. And, though I don’t know, I would not be surprised if these 16 games of hitting played in the Nationals thinking. Hey, look how well Werth hit in Washington! He loves this ballpark! He owns this place!

Of course, it’s only 16 games. And it was against Washington pitching. And it’s only 16 games. And also it’s only 16 games. But big-money baseball signings are often emotional things, no matter how much people try to eliminate their personal feelings. My guess is that Washington desperately wants a star, someone to spark their potentially rich baseball market. Stephen Strasburg is hurt and in limbo. Bryce Harper is still off in the future.

Is Jayson Werth a star? No, probably not in the mind of most people. But there is what I like to call a “small market squint.” That is general managers squinting until the player in question LOOKS like a star. The SMS is what make Jose Guillen look like a “proven run producer” to the Royals. It’s what made Jeff Suppan look like “a winner” to Milwaukee.” And Jayson Werth, well, he might be the biggest everyday free agent out there — The Red Sox wanted him! Scott Boras thinks he’s great! And he has played for a World Series Champ. And on top of that he loved hitting at Nationals Park. How could he miss?

I fear it’s simple thoughts like this that turn good players into texpensives.

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The Greatest Player Not In The Hall

There is something about the Baseball Hall of Fame — all Halls of Fame, really — that people don’t really like talking about. Somebody has to the best player not in it. There’s no way around this. It can be a big Hall of Fame or a small one. It can be an inclusive Hall of Fame or one as exclusive at Augusta National. Wherever you draw your line of greatness, there are remarkable people left outside.

For many years, Ron Santo’s identity was wrapped up in being left outside. He was, simply, the greatest player not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is not to say that he was a better baseball player than Dick Allen or Minnie Minoso or Bert Blyleven or Ken Boyer or numerous other terrific players who have not yet been elected and inducted. That is a matter opinion. This is not to say he was a more egregious oversight than any of these players or others. That too is opinion.

What I mean is that Santo carried the title as Greatest Non Hall of Famer. Nobody else really wanted it. Every year, his name came up for the Hall of Fame — is this finally the year? And every year, he fell short. Fifteen times he was on the Baseball Writers ballot and needed 75% to be elected. He never once got even 50% of the vote. Three times he received the most votes from the Veteran’s Committee, but never once got the percentage he needed to qualify for the Hall of Fame. He handled all this with great dignity. In so many ways, it was the story of his career. He had grown used to being under-appreciated.

There are usually easy-to-understand factors that make anyone underrated. There’s no mystery about it with Ron Santo. He played baseball in a time when runs were especially hard to come by — and so his numbers are not jaw-dropping. He played third base, which has long been baseball’s vacuum — when Santo retired in 1974 there were only three third basemen in the Hall of Fame. Many of his skills were subtle — Santo twice led the National League in on-base percentage and four times led in walks — and these were not especially appreciated talents during his playing days.

Santo also played for losing teams, year after year after year. He never played in a single postseason game. In 1967, Santo may have been the best player in the NL — he hit .300 with 31 homers, he walked 96 times, he scored 107 runs, he drove in 98, he won a Gold Glove. The Cubs, in what would turn out to be one of their most successful seasons during Santo’s career, finished a mere 14 games back.

He was as solid as oak, the captain of the Cubs, and he put up virtually the same numbers year after year after year. Consistency is boring is underrated. From 1963 to 1970, he ALWAYS hit 25 home runs, and he ALWAYS drove in 94-plus runs, and he ALWAYS played 154 or more games. He won five Gold Gloves in those eight years, and he led third basemen in assists just about every year, and he led the league in sac flies three times, and he was good for 90-plus walks. It is true that he took advantage of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, where he did most of his good hitting. Over a career, he hit .296/.383/.522 in Chicago. And he hit .257/.342/.406 outside. He hit 216 of his 342 homers in Chicago. He scored 180 home runs and drove in 155 more RBIs at home.

But it is just as true that he played in a very low-scoring time in a very low-scoring league. Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement takes a pretty good measure of a player’s contribution. In the 1960s, in the National League, only Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente had a higher WAR than Ron Santo.

Most Wins Above Replacement, NL (1960-69):
1. Willie Mays, 84.1
2. Hank Aaron, 79.8
3. Roberto Clemente, 59.2
4. Ron Santo, 54.4
5. Willie McCovey, 46.0
6. Eddie Mathews, 42.1
7. Frank Robinson, 38.9
8. Vada Pinson, 38.7
9. Dick Allen, 37.2
10. Orlando Cepeda, 36.7

Now, this might be a bit misleading if you put too much faith into it — Robinson went to the American League, Dick Allen played 600-plus fewer games, and so on. But I’m not trying to make the point that he was the fourth best player in the NL during the decade but that his value was greater than his good numbers suggest and that whatever Wrigley Field gave, playing in an era of high mounds and high strikes took away. He was very good year after year after year after year.

And there was something else — Santo was a Type 1 Diabetic. He had no easy way to monitor his blood sugar so according to his son Jeff he learned to do it by his mood. He did not share that he was Diabetic for many years, and he kept his struggle hidden from teammates, and he refused to come out of the lineup. He quietly visited hospitals to talk with children with diabetes. Later, he made his fight against Diabetes a public fight so he could inspire people. There are those who would say that while his quiet (and later public) triumph over diabetes is admirable, it has little to do with his Hall of Fame case.

I suppose it depends on what you believe the Baseball Hall of Fame means.

Santo was so under-appreciated as a player that when he first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1980 he received exactly 15 votes. That was not even enough votes to get him on the ballot again in 1981. It was only in 1985 that a minor uproar reinstated him and a few other overlooked talents to the ballot*. This time around, Santo received 53 votes which hardly made him a Hall of Fame threat but did keep him comfortably on the ballot. And that’s how it would go for 14 more years — he never came close to getting into the Hall but he would always stay comfortably on the ballot.

*The reinstated players included Santo, Ken Boyer, Curt Flood, Vada Pinson, Harvey Haddix, Dave McNally, Ron Fairly (who had received zero votes the year before) and, most remarkably to me, Denny McLain.

Of course, he stayed around the game. He became an enthusiastic Cubs radio broadcaster. He remained a wonderful presence in Chicago. He was beloved. That’s the overwhelming feeling Friday after Ron Santo died at the age of 70. He was beloved as few ballplayers are ever beloved. I have little doubt he would have loved to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and my own baseball instincts tell me that it should have happened long ago. But when I was around him, when I listened to him, when I once interviewed him about the Hall of Fame, I never heard any disappointment or bitterness. I heard a man who loved the game and loved life.

And I look at this this way: Someone has to be the greatest player to not get into the Hall of Fame. Not everyone could handle that sort of thing. Ron Santo wore it beautifully.

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Travel Day

This was my Wednesday without too much embellishment:

6:30 a.m.: Get to the airport in plenty of time for my 7:30 a.m. flight into New York. I have numerous things going on in New York — including my Friday appearance as guest on E-Street Radio — and am alert and ready to go. When I arrive at the gate, I see TSA agents going through every single carry on bag by hand. It turns out that the X-Ray machines are broken. I do not know that having an agent examine my underwear and deodorant will be among the happier moments of the day.

7:30 a.m.: Flight is scheduled to leave but there is word of bad weather in New York and the flight is being delayed. The pilot intends to have us board the plane anyway so that we can leave as soon as we are cleared.

8 a.m.: The boarding is delayed because one of the airplane’s tires is loose. Gate agent says it will be better to delay than “Get to New York and find out the tire had fallen off.” Good point.

9 a.m.: Flight leaves for New York. The pilot says the hour and a half delay will be difficult to make up because we face a strong headwind and because the winds at LaGuardia are “up to 60 mph.”

9:55 a.m.: Pilot announces over loudspeaker that LaGuardia has been closed because of heavy winds and will not open for “at least an hour.” He then says, “We cannot make it for an hour, so there’s a chance we will be diverted so we can pick a spot of fuel.” He really says “spot of fuel.” He then adds that he will keep us in a holding pattern for a little while in case we get a break before the hour is up.

10:40 a.m.: Well, we get a break. The pilot says that because so many other planes have been diverted we will be able to sneak in. He says will be landing in New York in about 44 minutes.

10:43 a.m.: “Well,” pilot says, “if that last announcement sounded too good to be true … yeah, it was. We are going to be diverted to Pittsburgh.” He then says that we will pick up some fuel in Pittsburgh and hopefully not be delayed too long before going to New York. There is now quite a bit of grumbling on the plane.

12:40 p.m. (Eastern Time now): We land in Pittsburgh. It is snowing. The flight attendant says: “I hope you enjoyed your flight.”

1 p.m.: Pilot comes back to give us news — if anyone wants to go back home, they can arrange it. He still is not sure about New York, but he intends to find out.

1:18 p.m.: Pilot does not have good news. LaGuardia is closed (he says), there are no flights going in and out, the flight is canceled and there is no way whatsoever to get into New York through the air. BUT, the airline has decided to charter a bus. He says the bus ride is about 5 hours from Pittsburgh to New York. He does not say that this is only if Jimmie Johnson is driving the bus.

1:42 p.m.: After sitting on the plane for 24 minutes for no apparent reason a new guy comes in to say that he is trying to charter a bus for “anyone who wants to go to New York.” This seems like an odd qualification since we are all on a plane that purportedly was headed for New York. But he has been doing this for 25 years, and he is right … most people on the bus seem to be ready to go home. A quick count shows that only 32 people want to take a bus.

1:53 p.m.: The man comes back to lead us off the plane and announce that he has secured a bus to New York — it will leave at 4 p.m. and arrive in New York at midnight. A few more people drop out. There are now only 17 people waiting.

1:57 p.m.: The man takes a phone call and makes an announcement. The bus has been canceled. There are no flights available to New York — so everyone will have to stay in a hotel in Pittsburgh. And all the flights on Thursday to New York are sold out. This does not strike anyone as particularly good news.

2:02 p.m.: I finally realize that I just need to rent a car and drive to New York. I am told by a local that it is about a six-hour drive. I secure the one-day car rental for a mere $240 and tell the gate agent to take my name off whatever list he has …

2:03 p.m.: A young woman from China approaches me and asks if she can ride with me to New York. I have a hard time understanding her, but she seems close to tears and, of course, I tell her she can come along.

2:15 p.m.: The car may cost $240 but it’s a fully loaded Camry. Well, by fully loaded, I mean it has a steering wheel, brakes, several dents and only 26,000 miles on it. It also has a GPS and when I punch in New York, it tells me the ride is 6 hours and 47 minutes. This day is getting worse all the time.

3:30 p.m.: It is snowing just outside of Pittsburgh, though the roads are not too slick yet. I am talking to my wife, Margo, and I do not mention the snow because she will have a panic attack. In the background, the woman is talking on her phone in Chinese. She is undoubtedly telling someone that she is 85% certain that I am not an axe murderer. Or she could be telling someone that she have found her next axe-murder victim. I do not speak Chinese.

4:30 p.m.: I am starving and so we pull into a McDonald’s where the woman asks me if I would like to try a McRib sandwich. Why do they do this at fast food restaurant drive-thru windows? I’m already there. I’m already going to buy something to eat. What difference does it make what I get?

4:33 p.m.: The GPS tells me to turn right to get back on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I turn right. Then, suddenly, the GPS says “Make Legal U-Turn.” Legal U-Turn? Where? Then the GPS says “Go 13 miles and then turn around.” Yep. Going east on the Turnpike when I’m supposed to be going West. Yep. Next exit is not for 13 miles. Yep. That’s 26 miles out of the way if you are counting at home. And, yep, the woman in the car says three of the 12 words she will say on this trip: “Going wrong way.”

4:58 p.m.: Passed the McDonald’s a second time. Glare at it. Chinese woman appears to be asleep. GPS says we are still four and a half hours away.

5:40 p.m.: Pitch black and snowing somewhere in Pennsylvania.

7:48 p.m.: It occurs to me at this moment that Pennsylvania is the longest bleeping state in America. I actually love to drive, but it now feels like I have been driving for nine days. Woman is still sleeping or pretending to sleep. I feel very tired myself.

8:30 p.m.: I celebrate 12 hours on the road. We are actually approaching the city now. I notice that New Jersey roads are quite smooth — smooth enough to …

8:31 p.m.: I am not asleep!

8:48 p.m.: Approaching the Holland Tunnel. Woman is paying all our tolls. By my quick estimate, she has handed out approximately $129 since we started. We now approach the Holland Tunnel and she sees that it costs another $8. She counts out 8 singles and says two more of the 12 words she says on the trip: “All gone.”

9:03 p.m.: We are in the city. I do not like driving in the city. This is because I have a terrible sense of direction and will naturally make a wrong turn. It is inevitable. I feel a little bit better because the GPS is telling me where to go and it is saying to go straight and …

9:04 p.m.: The woman says the remainder of her 12 words … she is hoping I can pull over somewhere here and drop her off near a subway stop so that she can go to Chinatown. This sounds reasonable to me. I turn left, pull off to the side, drop her off. She thanks me profusely … I feel good about myself. I have made it into the city — yes, it’s 14 hours after I arrived at the airport, but I have done something good and I am here. I just have to take my car to a rental car place on 48th street and …

9:06 p.m.: GPS tells me to turn left on a street. I look up. There is a big stupid sign saying “No Left Turn.” This is where a real New Yorker decides that going in the right direction trumps big stupid signs. I, unfortunately, am not a real New Yorker. The next street also says no left turn. And the next. And the next. And a no U-Turn sign follows that.

9:08 p.m: I know I’m tired and near delirious but I appear to be going up a ramp of some kind.

9:09 p.m.: This does not seem good.

9:10 p.m. This is definitely not good.

9:11 p.m.: I appear to be on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

9:14 p.m.: I now appear to be on the Long Island Expressway.

9:15 p.m.: I am now screaming at my GPS.

9:18 p.m.: I take the Maurice Exit and turn back around. I have decided to take over from the GPS and use my own spider senses to get me back into the city. I know this is a bad move, but I am so tired that I hope desperation will give me super-navigational-strength.

9:22 p.m.: I realize that I will actually have to go BACK through the Midtown Tunnel. I think to myself: “Do I have any cash?” I suspect not. As I consider pulling off on Van Dam to find a bank, I look in my wallet and see 5 bucks. Surely, that’s enough. I have not driven through the Midtown Tunnel in years but I remember it being only $3.50.

9:25 p.m.: Turns out the Midtown Tunnel is not $3.50. It is $5.50 Surely the guy will grant me the 50 cents.

9:26 p.m.: Conversation with toll booth guy goes like so:

Me: Sorry, hey, all I have is $5.
TBG: Check your car, man, there’s always spare change.
Me: Um, it’s a rental. There’s no change in here.
TBG: Check your pockets, there’s always spare change there.
Me: I don’t carry change. Really, all I have is 5 bucks.
TBG: All right, then.

(He pulls out an envelope and starts writing on it. Cars behind start honking. He keeps writing … it feels like he takes approximately 5 hours to do this).

TBG (handing me envelope): “All right man, put your money away. I’m doing you a big favor.”
Me (looking at envelope and seeing that this will now cost me $7.50): Thanks.
TBG: “You’re a lucky man.”

9:32 p.m.: Arrive at car rental place. My great friend Vackie is waiting for me there. We grab dinner at Juniors and he takes me back to hotel.

11:04 p.m.: I go up to my New York hotel room with a family of nine, none of whom has any idea what floor they are staying on. I enter the room and pop open my computer. There is an email from a Brilliant Reader that reads like so: “You promised you were going to write these Bill James Car Essays today? What have you been doing anyway?”

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The Heat Of The Moment

Tonight, it ends. Oh, sure, LeBron James obviously will go on, the Miami Heat obviously will go on, the drama will go on, the daily speculation about coach Erik Spoelstra’s job will go on, the calls for Pat Riley to come back will go on, the boos, the complaints about the boos, the over-analysis of the boos, the on-the-record sniping, the anonymous sniping, the marveling about how lousy a team the Heat are, the expectation that the Heat will still come together, the parade of daily stories and reports by the 987 writers and broadcasters embedded with the team … all of it will go on.

But it seems to me that tonight, the story really ends. Tonight LeBron James returns to Cleveland. Tonight my hometown will unload whatever emotions are left over from James’ callous (The) Decision (Powered By ESPN) to leave Cleveland and take his talents to South Beach. Tonight will be a charged night.

And Saturday the Miami Heat play at home against Atlanta — and are infinitely less interesting.

I guess this is the part that surprises me: The Miami Heat are boring. I didn’t expect that. When LeBron James announced that he would join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, I did not know exactly what to expect but I expected something electrifying. Maybe the Heat would be great, a new kind of superpower, designed by three players who decided it might be kinda fun to get together and change the world. Maybe the Heat would spectacularly crash into itself like a black hole of egos. Maybe the Heat would come together to give us a kind of basketball we only see in the rarest of moments, like when Michael Jordan’s Bulls were at their height or when the various Dream Teams played at their most inspired. The possibilities seemed endless.

And, I don’t know, for me, the possibilities no longer seem endless. The Heat play boring basketball. They win games in boring fashion and lose them in boring ways. They have no inside presence. They do not move the ball around well. They generally beat bad teams. They generally lose to good ones. They play pretty well at home. They play pretty lousy on the road. They may yet come together, but I don’t think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s even likely. James and Wade are great players, two of the five best in the world, and the expectation is that they would make magic together. But it turns out they are the same kind of player, and when they are on the floor together the result is less magic and more like a dance-off.

Anyway, it seems that way to me. The Heat may yet rip off 10 or 15 wins in a row, I don’t know. They may yet lift their games into the heavens, I don’t know. But I don’t think so. I think they are a puffed up superband, like Asia*, destined for a few hits and a lot of nights where people wonder why so much musical talent doesn’t make great music.

*’Cause it’s the heat of the moment! The heat of the moment! The heat of the moment showed in your eyes!

But it’s off the court that the Heat are especially boring. We live in a Reality TV culture. As a nation we have been peppered with survivors and amazing races and and top chefs and dancing stars and big brothers and bachelors and bachelorettes and real housewives and a million other reality situations, and it seems to me that one consequence of this is that a story has to be REALLY interesting or provocative or ridiculous to capture our attention. And I don’t think the Heat saga is any of those things. The dramatic effects surround this team aren’t good enough for an old Batman TV show.

— Will the Heat stick with their young coach Erik Spoelstra?

— Did LeBron purposely bump his coach or was it an accident?

— Will LeBron get serious about winning a championship?

— Will Dwyane Wade, who seemed to age two years this offseason, look like his younger self again?

— Will Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley come out from the shadows and coach again?

— Will Chris Bosh … well, actually there’s nothing even faintly interesting about Chris Bosh (and I actually mean this in a good way).

Who cares? Really. The Heat are 12-9. They are an OK basketball team with a couple of big names. There are a lot of teams like that. They are viewed as underachievers and everybody waits for them to click and start winning. There are a lot of teams like that. They are generally too good to lose to below average teams — I fully expect them to beat Cleveland tonight — and they have no answer against the best teams. There are a lot of teams like that. They have coaching drama — hell, who doesn’t?

And still, they are being covered like they are important, like these stories are unique, like THEY are unique. And if there’s one thing they have proven in just 21 games … they are not unique. LeBron is a great player who doesn’t like being told what to do. Heard that one before. Wade is a great player who doesn’t seem entirely sure how to handle the LeBron zaniness. Fascinating. Bosh seems to me just a guy who seems interested in playing basketball without all the drama. Yawn. This reality TV story would never make it to network television.

And Pat Riley? I know people keep waiting for him to jump in the fray and become head coach, but my guess is that he wants no part of this mess. The Heat’s problems as a team are very real. They are weak inside. They are one dimensional offensively. There’s no percentage in actually coming back and coaching this team to a bland 45-to-55 win season and a second-round playoff loss and inevitable disappointment. Better to keep standing on the outside as the savior while Erik Spoelstra keeps coaching this overhyped mess and taking a beating from inside and outside. Maybe something can be done in the offseason to fix some of this team’s problems — maybe then it would be worth jumping in.

As for LeBron … after years of building up a lovable reputation featuring Nike puppets and flying rosin, I would say he has done very little right for LeBron James Inc.. The decision to do a show about The Decision was obviously a public relations nightmare — they will be teaching classes in universities about that for years to come. He then came to Miami with the obvious belief that this would be easy based on the formula:

((James * Wade) + (Bosh))/(Hype + Spoelstra) = Championship.

But it’s not easy. It’s not remotely easy. It wasn’t easy for Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or Bill Russell or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or anyone else. This is the NBA, the best basketball league on earth. The Cleveland Cavaliers spoiled LeBron James any and every way they knew how. They invented special rules for him. They tried to get players who fit him. They never seemed to tell him no. These things had their rewards — James carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, and he twice was league MVP as he led the Cavaliers to the best regular season record.

But these things had their price too … James clearly started to resent the expectations that went along with the special treatment. He made a statement last year after his worst playoff performance that even at the time sounded ridiculous but in the ensuing months have come to sound like a philosophy: “I spoil people with my play.” At the moment it just felt like a narcissistic statement by someone who was feeling sorry for himself — which can be understood in the heat of the moment (the heat of the moment showed in your eyes!). But pretty much everything James has done since then suggests that’s how he really feels. He’s taking HIS TALENTS to South Beach. He’s asking “What Should I Do?” in a bizarre Nike commercial. He’s talking about how he’s playing too many minutes, and the offense isn’t exactly right for him, and someone — someone anonymous, of course — is saying that Erik Spoelstra is being too hard on him.

See, he’s not living up to his great potential as a basketball star, no, he’s spoiling people with his play. And I think he came to Miami to escape some of those expectations, to be in a crowd of talent, to win a championship the easy way. And apparently nobody told him it just doesn’t work that way.

Many people have asked me how I feel about LeBron James coming back to Cleveland tonight. I don’t really have many feelings about it. All those feelings were emptied out back when he made (The) Decision (powered by ESPN). I wish he had treasured his connection to Cleveland. I wish he had seen not only what he meant to the city but what the city meant for him. I wish he had left with more class.

But if wishes were horses and all that … LeBron is now part of what seems to me a flawed team and a cliche-infested soap opera and a media circus filled with people who will wonder more and more what they’re doing there. Tonight, it’s still a story. Tonight everyone will attempt to measure the emotions of my hometown, and LeBron James will try to show that he’s made of sterner stuff, and it will be moderately interesting I suppose.

But an NBA season pounds at the senses. Saturday, the Heat play at home at Atlanta. Monday, they’re off to Milwaukee. Wednesday’s they’re at Utah. Then they’re at Golden State. And so on … and so on … and, in the end, who beside for some people in Miami will care about a pretty good, star-laden, self-indulgent NBA team that plays boring basketball? There are so many star-laden NBA teams that play wonderful basketball. If I were one of those poor shleps forced to follow around this Heat team, I’d beg to be reassigned to Oklahoma City.

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Wash Your Sins Away (The Car Ride Essays)

In 2008 Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington led all of baseball with 20 Intentional Walks that bombed. Bill has been keeping this intentional walk stat for a while now. He breaks down all intentional walks into three categories:

1. Good — these are the intentional walks that “work.”

2. Not Good — these are the intentional walks that don’t quite “work” — a run scores — but doesn’t lead to a big inning.

3. Bomb — big innings.

There is a more detailed explanation in the Bill James Handbook, but for our purposes that’s enough. Washington led the league with 20 intentional walk bombs in 2008, which was more or less in line with his philosophy on the subject. He intentionally walked his team into 11 bombs in 2007 which was also a very high number. I would not try to explain how Ron Washington manages baseball teams — it seems to me some combination of feel, improvisational jazz, likability and Wile E. Coyote — but it seemed pretty clear that he did not want other teams best players to beat him. This seemed to be a core philosophy. And this led to baseball disaster quite often.

Then last year, all of a sudden, without warning, Ron Washington basically stopped intentionally walking people. His total intentional walks dropped from 44 to 14. And his bombs dropped all the way to three. This actually led the American League in FEWEST bombs. This year, though Washington intentionally walked a few more guys (from 14 up to 24) he became the first manager since Bill has been tracking this stuff to not have a single intentional walk blow up in his face. Not even one.

That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround. So … what happened? We both figured that Wash probably had a heart-to-heart with the Rangers front office folks, who are savvy people, and they probably came to the conclusion that the intentional walk was hurting the team more than it was helping them.

But more … we both figured that it spoke well of Washington that after getting burned a few times he stopped sticking his hand in the fire. One of the striking things we both have sensed after years of writing about sports is that it is absurdly rare that people actually CHANGE in sports.

Oh, people change in subtle ways all the time. They mature. They start laying off the in-the-dirt slider. They learn to sometimes throw the ball away. They learn use screens better to set up their shots. And so on. There are a million small changes like this.

But in core ways … well, here’s the funny thing: It sometimes feels like some people would rather be wrong than admit they are wrong. There are a million examples. A manager or general manager will pay someone a lot of money, realize quickly that it was a mistake, and keep playing that person even if it hurts the team. A player will decide a play can’t work, go at it half-heartedly, and blow a play that MIGHT HAVE WORKED. A coach will stick with his conservative style even when he has players lose and are clearly better suited to aggressive and non-conservative play*.

*Why do we call a coach who punts the ball on fourth and 1 “conservative” but not call the coach who tries crazy stuff like onside kicking to start the game “liberal?”

More, people really don’t change the core philosophies much. A manager who likes the sacrifice bunt usually sticks with it. A coach who enjoys wide open offenses usually coaches the team to play wide open. I always thought Don Shula was unusual because his 1972 Dolphins were about as conservative as a team can be — two 1,000-yard rushers, 24th out of 26 teams in pass attempts, defense and field position — and his Dan Marino Dolphins were about as wide open as a team can be.

But even then, Shula didn’t change so much as he adapted to his surroundings — a great trait for a coach but not exactly what I’m talking about here. It’s possible that Ron Washington was simply ordered to stop walking people. But I don’t think so. And I don’t think he adapted to his environment either, not exactly. I think he listened to what people said, drew off his experience, and did a 180 (at least a 150) on something I suspect he had pretty strong feelings about. It is human nature to rebel against change, I think. It is human nature to say, “Well, these intentional walks are bombing on me, but I know they are right and they’ll even out in the end.” But Ron Washington didn’t do that. He instead became extremely selective in when he used to the intentional walk. He challenged his pitchers to get out of jams without walks. And it worked for him.

And then, in the World Series, as you no doubt are screaming right now, he did NOT intentionally walk Edgar Renteria. I don’t think he should have intentionally walked Renteria, but what I think doesn’t matter — Renteria homered, and I suppose that would have to go down as an anti-matter bomb, an non-intentional walk that failed.

And it’s worth asking: Will that experience change Ron Washington again?

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Riding In The Car With Bill James

Well, I knew I was going to write about the “Future of Sports” panel I was on in St. Louis Monday evening, a panel wonderful moderated by my friend Michael MacCambridge and featuring three of my heroes: Bill James, Bob Costas and Gerald Early. It really was great. There were about 700 people there (I’m told — I’m terrible at estimating crowds) and the discussion there will supposedly be on line within the week, and if you can’t wait for that you can find some fine reviews of it here, here, here and here.

It was a terrific panel discussion, I thought, probably the best I’ve ever been on. There were so many things to think about. But, as is obvious to anyone who has been on a few panels, there are limitations to the genre. I think the biggest is that you sometimes get bogged down on one question that nobody is especially interested in — for instance, we spent a good 15 minutes discussing whether boxing will die for an audience that pretty decisively believes boxing is dead already. And the answer could have been summed up like so:

No, it absolutely won’t die entirely.

We eventually got there, and there absolutely were some gems along the way*, but panel discussions, even the best of them, sometimes feel like giant boats and it takes a long while to make a turn.

*Listening to Gerald Early talk about boxing is like listening to Charlie Parker play saxophone.

In any case, I was going to write about the panel discussion but because it seems well covered and because you will be able to see it for yourself if you so choose, I have taken a turn. Instead, I’ll be posting a series of essays about my car ride with Bill James. You may know that Bill lives in Lawrence, Kan., and I live in Kansas City, and so we figured the smartest thing we could do was drive to St. Louis together. It’s about a four hour drive each way. That means I got to spend eight hours just in the car with the man I consider the best and most influential baseball writer ever.*

*Well, Roger Angell and Red Smith among many others were pretty good too, and Henry Chadwick and Jerome Holtzman among many others were pretty influential too — Bill is just my personal choice and I felt that way before we became friends.

I’d say in the eight-plus hours (terrible traffic in St. Louis) we had about 90 seconds of silence combined. This is largely because I’m a blabbermouth, and because when I have someone like Bill stuck in the car with me I want to constantly pick his brain. I love the way Bill’s mind works. So since we were the only ones in the car, and there was nobody filming or recording, I thought I would riff off a few of the things we talked about. I hope to have three or four essays up before the end of the day.

I should say as a disclaimer that these essays are not necessarily Bill’s opinion at all or what we talked about — in fact, all of these essays would probably go with the “This movie was inspired by real and actual true and factual facts” tag. I was driving there in the rain and Bill drove home as if flurried snow and we were just talking about stuff and none of the conversation was meant for the record. So these essays were sometimes inspired by a single word or thought.

But … hey … we’re all just friends on a drive …

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Posts Coming Up

So I’m facing a ludicrously hectic week … won’t go into great detail here except to say I can’t remember a week exactly like it. What this means for the blog is that I have about 15 half-written blog posts and I’m not entirely sure when I will finish them or how I will finish or even which ones I will finish.

But as always, I like to lists off a few blog posts that might be coming up:

— The remarkable run of Jimmie Johnson.

— Reading Harry Potter to My Daughter

— 32 great NFL defensive players.

— More on the setup man and closers (featuring some Tom Tango data)

— He Who Shall Not Be Named Returns To Cleveland

— The Sure NFL Hall of Famers

— Texpensives; still working on this concept.

— The long-awaited, much-anticipated, never-likely-to-be-finished iPad review.

— Why I No Longer Vote for the Heisman

— The Future of Sports*

*Based on the panel I will be on tonight at Washington University in St. Louis. I will be there with Bob Costas, Gerald Early and Bill James. In fact, Bill should be here in a little bit so we can drive up to St. Louis together. I might need a post on the car rides there and back as well.

Listening to the Beatles

— 32 best all-around baseball players ever

— 32 best sports books for the holiday season (it was supposed to be a summer-reading post; it may become one yet again)

— 32 best defensive players in baseball history.

— Da Bears

There are a bunch of others but let’s stop there since I probably won’t do most of these.

Three other things:

1. I believe that SI will today post my Sportsman of the Year nomination. I don’t think my nominee will come as any surprise.

2. I have two big pieces running in the magazine this week, one I don’t think will come as any surprise to blog readers, the other is on Chiefs GM Scott Pioli and some of his friends in sports and the concept of team building.

3. I will be one of the co-hosts on “Live From E Street Nation” on E-Street Radio this Friday, starting at 10:30 Eastern Time. E-Street Radio is available on Sirius/XM, and if you don’t have it, well, frankly you should go out and buy it just so you can hear this. You can return the system afterward.*

*I am not sure this return policy would actually work.

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The Age Of The Setup Man

I came across a fascinating baseball trend the other day — or non-baseball trend, I guess — and it’s one of the more surprising things I have seen since I have been tinkering with baseball. I’m pretty sure there have been studies done on this before, but I had never seen them, and so I was blown away with my FTOD — Faux Thrill Of Discovery.*

*I have a friend who is convinced — CONVINCED — that he invented the “throw the ball off the stoop” game. I have told him a hundred times that the game was invented many years before he was born, but he refuses to believe it, he is convinced that one day when he was very young (long before he could have heard of such a game) he was looking at the stairs and thinking, “You know, if one player throw a ball off the stairs, and another player was the fielder…” In a way he DID invent it thought it had been invented a half million times before. That’s FTOD.

So, here’s how it happened: I was looking over the American League rookie of the year match-up, and I was kind of studying Neftali Feliz’s season. Feliz had 40 saves, an .880 WHIP, a 71-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, it was quite a year. And then I saw that the Rangers went 73-6 when they had a lead going into the ninth inning, an impressive .924 winning percentage.

Only … is that impressive? As I thought about it a bit more, I guessed it probably wasn’t impressive. And I was right. That .924 winning percentage with a lead going into the ninth is actually below league average — quite a bit below league average in fact. The league average of games won with a team going into the ninth with a lead was 95.5%.

Top six winning percentages with leads entering the ninth inning:
1. Tampa Bay .988 (81-1)
2. San Diego .987 (77-1)
3. St. Louis .987 (74-1)
4. Oakland .986 (73-1)
5. Detroit .986 (70-1)
6. Kansas City .981 (53-1)

Bottom six winning percentages with leads entering the ninth inning:
30. Baltimore .869 (53-8)
29. Los Angeles .908 (69-7)
28. Milwaukee .914 (64-6)
27. Arizona .923 (60-5)
26. Texas .924 (73-6)
25. Colorado and Houston .932 (69-5)

Feliz was not responsible for all those blown leads, by the way. But my point had shifted. Now, I wasn’t interesting so much in Feliz; I was interested in something else. We all know that the role of the closer has evolved over the last 40 or so years. Even the name has evolved — we really used to call them “firemen,” which was awesome. They used to come out to the mound on those cool little bullpen cars, which was awesome. They used to have mustaches and stomp around on the mound like pro wresters and have nicknames like “Goose” and “The Inspector” and “Sparky” and “The Mad Hungarian” and “Quiz” and “Bedrock” and “The Terminator” — all of which was awesome. Man the closer role used to be so much more awesome than they are now.

But the point is that the closer has evolved, his role has crystallized, his salary has gone up, his importance in the game has obviously increased exponentially. And so I wondered just how much more often teams are winning now when they lead going into the ninth than they did before the closer became such a part of things.

You may already know the answer to this. But if you don’t, I’d like you to take a guess how much more often teams with close out ninth inning leads than they did 10 years ago, 25 years ago, 50 years ago.

I can tell you now the answer shocked the heck out of me. I conservatively estimated that teams win about 5% more often now with ninth inning leads than they did before the closer really came into the vogue. I suspected it was a conservative estimate but that was my guess anyway. Here’s why: One of the things that always surprises me about baseball is how little any one thing affects the percentages of the game.

That is to say: There are charts that suggest how you arrange a lineup will have very little effect on how many runs your team scores in the long run. There are formulas that suggest that stolen bases — once you incorporate the caught stealing — will have a surprisingly small impact on the game. One of the biggest beefs people have with stats like Wins Above Replacement and some of the more advanced defensive stats is that they always seem to come out low, they always seem not only to disprove big swings (like the idea that Ozzie Smith saved 100 runs a year with his defense or that a single great player was worth 25 extra wins) but they actually MAKE FUN of those big numbers. Baseball in the long view is stunningly consistent and predictable and no one thing or one person shifts it much.

So, I guessed that all the advances — the creation of the bullpen as weapon, the evolution of the closer, the Mariano Rivera cutter, all of it — only made teams about 5% more likely to win games in 2010 than in, say, 1952.

I was wrong.

The truth is that all the bullpen advances have had ABSOLUTELY ZERO EFFECT on how much more often teams win games they’re leading in the ninth inning. Zero. Nada. Zilch. The ol’ bagel.

Teams won 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 2010. Teams won 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 1952.

Well, shocked the heck out of me. Well, it’s not quite that simple. There have been a few anomalies, yes. For instance, in 1957, teams won only 92.7% of their ninth inning leads — easily the lowest percentage over the last 60 years. That was a year for comebacks. And the highest percentage was in the strike year of 1981, when teams won 97.6% of their leads — that probably would have normalized over a full schedule.

Other than that, though, the best winning percentage for ninth-inning leads is .958. It has happened four times — 2008, 1988, 1972 and 1965. That pretty much covers the entire spectrum of bullpen use. It doesn’t change. Basically, teams as a whole ALWAYS win between a touch less than 94% and a touch more than 95% of the time. This has been stunningly, almost mockingly, consistent. The game has grown, the leagues have expanded, the roles have changed, the pressure has turned up, but the numbers don’t change.

Here, I’ll give you another example. Most of us would agree, probably, that Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in the history of baseball, right? I mean, we can have that argument another time, but I think it’s Rivera, and you probably think it’s Rivera, and since he became a closer in 1997, the Yankees have won a rather remarkable 97.3% of the time when they lead going into the ninth inning. I don’t have an easy way to compare that to everyone over the same time period, but I’d bet that’s the best record for any team. In 2008, the Yankees won all 77 games the led going into the ninth. Most years they lose once or twice.

So that would seem to indicate that Rivera DOES make a difference. And I think he does make a difference — compared to other closers.

But … consider the 1950s New York Yankees. Dominant team, of course. The bullpen was an ever shifting thing, though. One year, Ryne Duren was their main guy out of the pen, another year it was Bob Grim or Art Ditmar or Tom Morgan or Tommy Byrne or Jim Konstanty … well, the names changed all the time. The bullpen changed all the time. Casey Stengel seemed to shift strategies every now and again, probably to keep things interesting, starters finished many more games, and anyway the game was very different then and …

From 1951-1962, the New York Yankees won 97.3% of their ninth inning leads. If you carry it another decimal point, they actually won a slightly HIGHER percentage of their ninth inning leads than the Mariano Yankees.

Well, it shocked the heck out of me, anyway. I didn’t do extremely detailed research on this because (A) The numbers for winning ninth-inning leads are not searchable as far as I know; (B) I’m not researcher. But just the little bit I did do tells me that all of this bullpen maneuvering, these end-of-game innovations, these big money closer contracts, they may make sense for individual teams, but they have had almost no visible impact on the game itself. Teams have always won a very higher percentage of their ninth inning leads, no matter what their strategy for doing so. The good teams win almost every single time.

Well, anyway, I think it’s fascinating. But you may notice that the title of this blog post is about setup men. Well, here is what I came out of all this thinking — there really isn’t much a team can do with the ninth inning. Teams worry about it and fret over it and spend tons of money on it and … it’s really kind of a static thing. In 2010, the Kansas City Royals were all but unbeatable with a ninth-inning lead and they lost 95 games. In 2010, the Texas Rangers were near the bottom of the league when it came to protecting ninth inning leads, and they were in the World Series. It seems to me that there just isn’t much wiggle room here. Teams, good and bad, with great closers and terrible ones, are going to win the game almost every time they lead going into the ninth inning. Sure, you want to maximize the ninth inning, but I think it’s probably a lot more important to HAVE LEADS going into the ninth inning.

And thus … the setup man. In 2010, teams won 91.7% of the time when they led going into the eighth inning. And that was the highest percentage over the last 60 years. It could have been a statistical blip. It probably WAS a statistical blip. But it seems interesting just the same. I think the setup man is becoming the new closer. I think on many teams, managers and general managers think the setup man is even more valuable than the closer for two reasons:

1. As mentioned, the ninth inning is predictable and has been going back at least to 1950. A hot closer can give you a bit of a boost, but if you are a good team you are not going to blow ninth inning leads very often.

2. Because of the save statistic and current group-think, the closer is pretty much immovable. You have to start him in the ninth inning with the three-run-or-less lead. Every now and again, a manager will go against convention, bring in the closer to finish off the eighth, or start off the ninth with a lefty-lefty match-up before bringing in the closer. But almost every time the closer is used in only one way, and that’s stifling for managers.

But the setup role is not as settled, and so managers can use their setup men in many different ways. They can bring them into the game in the seventh. They can wait until runners are on base in the eighth. They can use the setup man for one out, for four outs, for six outs, when the team is in trouble in the sixth inning, it’s an open canvas.

And, yes, I think some teams (like the Chicago White Sox with Matt Thornton*) are making their best relievers setup men instead of closers.

*Several people pointed this out to me a couple of months ago when I wrote that I really didn’t want to see Matt Thornton pitch in the All-Star Game. I was probably a bit off in trying to make my point — Thornton is a terrific pitcher. I really just meant I would like to see the stars pitch in the All-Star Game, I think only starters should pitch. But that’s just me.

I think I would do this too — put my best reliever as a setup man. I mean, yes, I would still love to see someone tear the whole thing down and try and create bullpen without specific roles. But I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, and I don’t know — human nature being what it is — that it would work. I think there’s a chance it would not work. This isn’t just about people liking to have roles. I think the way it works now, there’s a clear progression for a reliever. You work the middle innings, then if you do that well you work the later innings, and if you do that well you have a shot at being a closer where the big money and fame is. I think that speaks to players ambitions. They have something to shoot for.

So, assuming that we’re not yet in a place where you can go with a no-roles bullpen, I think I would make my setup man my star. Sure, you would want a good pitcher as a closer. But I think that’s enough. Put someone good in that role and you will win 95-to-100% of the games you lead going into the ninth inning.*

*I’ve been thinking lately how utterly ludicrous it was that Dennis Eckersley won the 1992 MVP Award. Eck is a fascinating media creature — he raced in as a first ballot Hall of Famer without anyone really thinking twice about it, and he won the 1992 Cy Young AND MVP award, the last pitcher to do that. He had 51 saves and a 1.91 ERA and an amazing 93-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio that year. No question: It was a terrific year.

But it was really about the same year Bryan Harvey had in 1991 (46 saves, 1.80 ERA, 101-17 strikeout to walk) and Harvey didn’t even get a single first place Cy Young vote, much less any MVP consideration. It was not too different from the year Doug Jones had in 1992 (only 36 saves, but a 1.85 ERA, 30 more innings than Eckersley, a 93-17 strikeout to walk). And Jonesie didn’t even get a third-place Cy Young vote.

To the larger point, the Oakland A’s went 81-1 when leading going into the ninth. A fabulous record. But the Toronto Blue Jays went 83-1, and neither Tom Henke nor Duane Ward (who had a higher WAR than Eck, by the way) got ANY recognition or consideration at all — neither one even made the All-Star Team. And the Kansas City Royals that year went 64-0 when leading going into the ninth, but nobody was pushing Jeff Montgomery for the MVP award.

Eckersley — perhaps because of his amazing story as once-good starter turned into fabulous closer — just had a way of seeming larger than life.

My feeling is: If you put in someone good — your second or third best reliever — into the closer role, then you will have your best pitcher to use in key situations. You will have him to secure the eighth inning, of course, but you could also use him at other crucial times. I think the game is shifting that way now. I think that’s what some of the smarter teams are quietly beginning to do now. Take Boston: There’s all this talk about how good a closer Daniel Bard can be for the Red Sox. But I think they might be better off with him dominating in the role he’s in now and someone else, someone not as good, in the closer role. We’ll keep an eye on that.

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By In Stuff

Live Thanksgiving Blog

2:00 p.m.

New England quarterback Tom Brady is obviously not underrated. He’s not overrated either … everybody realizes just how good Tom Brady is and how good he has been.

That said: You hear SO MUCH about Tom Brady’s intangibles, his leadership skills, his team building talents, that it’s easy to forget something — the guy has a bazooka for an arm. I don’t know how many quarterbacks can make ALL the throws — five quarterbacks maybe? Brady is one of them. He can throw the deep ball, of course. He has the touch for the swing passes and screens. He has the strength of arm to throw those deep down-and-outs.

And just now he made a couple of powerful throws over the middle that had enough juice on them that the safety had absolutely no chance to get over in time. Tom Brady’s greatness as a quarterback is a complex thing made up of decision-making and quick thinking and versatility and toughness and a good sense for how to deal with teammates and many other things. But the guy also has some kind of arm, and I think sometimes people miss it.

* * *

12:44 p.m.

Another thing I’m thankful for: The yellow first down line on television. Technological gimmicks like that usually doesn’t work. The glowing puck in hockey was an obvious failure. I’m not crazy about the strike zone box they show during baseball games. But the yellow first down line in football is one of the great television innovations that seamlessly becomes part of the viewing experience. It’s so great that whenever I see games WITHOUT the yellow line, it feels a bit empty.

You know what it’s like? I do probably 75% of my book reading now on my iPad. Well, with iPad readers like iBooks or the Kindle, you can press down on a word and instantly get its definition. That’s a great thing, and now when I read a real book I found myself tempted to press down on a single word in the hopes that it will magically pull out a dictionary and define the word for me.

* * *

12:00 p.m.

So, you may have noticed that this year — for the first time in a few years — the league leaders in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement won the Most Valuable Player award. Josh Hamilton led all of baseball with an 8.0 WAR. Joey Votto led the National League with a 7.4 WAR. The last time it happened was 2003, when F-WAR leaders lAlex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds won the MVP. Over the last 20 years, it’s happened three times — it also happened in 1994 and 1990.

American League F-WAR Leaders (and MVPs):
2010: Josh Hamilton 8.0 (Josh Hamilton)
2009: Ben Zobrist 8.4 (Joe Mauer 8.0)
2008: Grady Sizemore 7.1 (Dustin Pedroia 6.6)
2007: Alex Rodriguez 9.2 (Alex Rodriguez)
2006: Grady Sizemore 7.3 (Justin Morneau 4.3)
2005: Alex Rodriguez 9.4 (Alex Rodriguez)
2004: Ichiro Suzuki 7.2 (Vladimir Guerrero 6.2)
2003: Alex Rodriguez 10.7 (Alex Rodriguez)
2002: Alex Rodriguez 9.8 (Miguel Tejada 4.5)
2001: Jason Giambi 9.3 (Ichiro Suzuki 6.1)
2000: Alex Rodriguez 9.6 (Jason Giambi 7.8)
1999: Manny Ramirez 7.5 (Ivan Rodriguez 6.9)
1998: Alex Rodriguez 8.4 (Juan Gonzalez 5.3)
1997: Ken Griffey 9.4 (Ken Griffey)
1996: Ken Griffey 10.2 (Juan Gonzalez 3.7)
1995: John Valentin 8.4 (Mo Vaughn 5.2)
1994: Frank Thomas 7.8 (Frank Thomas)
1993: Ken Griffey 9.0 (Frank Thomas 6.7)
1992: Frank Thomas 7.7 (Dennis Eckersley 3.0)
1991: Cal Ripken 11.1 (Cal Ripken)
1990: Rickey Henderson 10.5 (Rickey Henderson)

National League F-War Leaders and MVPs)
2010: Joey Votto 7.4 (Joey Votto)
2009: Albert Pujols 8.7 (Albert Pujols)
2008: Albert Pujols 9.3 (Albert Pujols)
2007: David Wright 8.6 (Jimmy Rollins 6.3)
2006: Albert Pujols 8.3 (Ryan Howard 6.5)
2005: Andruw Jones 8.3 (Albert Pujols 7.9)
2004: Barry Bonds 12.2 (Barry Bonds)
2003: Barry Bonds 10.7 (Barry Bonds)
2002: Barry Bonds 13.0 (Barry Bonds)
2001: Barry Bonds 12.9 (Barry Bonds)
2000: Todd Helton 8.6 (Jeff Kent 7.6)
1999: Jeff Bagwell 8.2 (Chipper Jones 7.7)
1998: Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire 8.8 (Sammy Sosa 7.4)
1997: Craig Biggio 9.7 (Larry Walker 9.4)
1996: Barry Bonds 9.1 (Ken Caminiti 7.6)
1995: Barry Bonds 7.7 (Barry Larkin 5.3)
1994: Jeff Bagwell 7.8 (Jeff Bagwell)
1993: Barry Bonds 10.6 (Barry Bonds)
1992: Barry Bonds 9.8 (Barry Bonds)
1991: Barry Bonds 7.9 (Terry Pendleton 6.4)
1990: Barry Bonds 10.1 (Barry Bonds)

Of course, F-WAR is just one statistic, and it too sometimes spits out interesting choices like Ben Zobrist last year or John Valentin in 1995. But I think the point I take from this is that while an advanced stat like F-WAR isn’t often EXACTLY the same as the subjective view, they are usually pretty similar. And I think it’s easy to miss that point. Again and again, we hear about the conflict between advanced stats and observation, between what these numbers tell us and what we believe about baseball. It’s supposed to be a war (lower case).

And yes, every now and again the MVP voting spits out a weird winner like the Dennis Eckersley in 1992 choice. Yes, every now and again RBIs seem to play a disproportionate role and Justin Morneau or Miguel Tejada or Juan Gonzalez or wins. But more often than not, I think F-WAR and what we see are not very different. This year, the NL MVP could have been Joey Votto or it could have been Albert Pujols, and they were separated by .1 F-WAR which, really, means absolutely nothing. The AL MVP could have been Josh Hamilton or Miguel Cabrera or Robinson Cano, and all three had at least 6.0 F-WAR, which means they all had very good years.

The best baseball stats do a couple of things, I think. One, they reflect what we believe about the game. And two, they tell us something that we may not have noticed. I think F-WAR (and Baseball Reference WAR, just as a starting point) does that. I don’t always agree with what F-WAR suggests, or what Baseball Reference WAR suggests, or what xFIP suggests, or what any one number or one angle or one philosophy suggests. But I really don’t think the gap is nearly as wide as we so often say. Stats tell us things, and our eyes and sense of the game tell us things, and they probably agree 90% of the time. There may be some people who think Miguel Cabrera should have won the MVP over Josh Hamilton. But I don’t think anyone would deny Hamilton was pretty great.

* * *

8:40 a.m.

I love Thanksgiving. I mean, seriously, I love everything about it. I love turkey. I love cranberry sauce. I love how the house smells on Thanksgiving day. I love falling asleep in my recliner. I love that one a day a year I’m allowed, no, encouraged, no, commanded by American law and the powers of tradition to sit in front of the television and watch the Detroit Lions play football. I love hearing the kids ask what time dinner will begin.

I love the blitz of “wake up at 4 a.m. so you can get stand in line and get the most cheaply made DVD player on the market for 19 bucks” commercials.

I love going to the airport like I will today and seeing the last remnants of families coming together for the holiday — not many people travel on Thanksgiving, I guess, but the ones who do are committed. They are often military families. They are often sons and daughters who could not get off work before today. It’s a good scene.

I love that the Christmas lights are glowing already, and people complaining because it seems too early to have them out — “pretty soon people are going to start putting them out on the fourth of July,” someone will mutter grumpily* — complaining like they do every year and yet it changes the way everything looks in a happy and familiar way.

*With the same inflections as the summer “hot enough for you” voices.

I love that we all just agreed that one day, at least, we should feel thankful. I’m a thank you addict anyway. Always thank you. It’s like a nervous tic. I say thank you to airport security. I say thank you to the police officers who give me tickets. I say thank you to annoying sales call to the house. At big sporting events, reporters will get dozens and dozens of pages of notes and quotes and various other press releases, and they always come one at a time so that it feels like you are constantly bombarded by a parade of interns and junior public relations people stuffing these mostly-meaningless pages at you — and yet I always say thank you, every single time, not because I’m exceedingly polite, not because I’m an especially thankful person, but because those are the words that come out. It’s pure habit at this point. I couldn’t quit if I tried.

And so I love that there’s a day when I can think about all the stuff I’m really thankful for … for quite a few years I wrote a Thanksgiving column in The Kansas City Star where I wrote about those thankful things. People came to realize that mostly I was thankful for food — Arthur Bryant’s burnt ends in Kansas City, Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, Basso56 in New York, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, the Slanted Door in San Francisco and, oh a hundred other places. But I was always thankful for other things too. It was never a particularly hard column to write.

This year, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t write the column for The Star. I love my 13 years there, treasure them, am more thankful for them than anything I’ve ever done professionally. But the Star has a terrific young columnist now, my friend Sam Mellinger, and they just hired a new sports editor who I hear great things about, and they don’t need an old ghost haunting the place.

Instead, I’m writing this Live Thanksgiving Blog — updating it throughout the day with thoughts, ideas, a little football commentary, some of the half-written blog posts I’m not going to finish and, of course, a few thank yous, starting with the corniest one: Thank you for reading.

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