By In Stuff

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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By In Stuff

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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The Buck O’Neil Award

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

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

I could not disagree with him more.

* * *

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By In Stuff

Pushing Back Time

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

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


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

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

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

You cannot adjust your way out of getting old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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