By In Joe Vault

Rafer Johnson and the Power of 10

First event: 100-meter dash

Rafer Johnson came into the decathlon 50 years ago — at the 1960 Olympics in Rome — as the heavy favorite and the world-record holder. He got off to a bit of a rough start. There were three false starts in his 100-meter heat, and on the third he ran about halfway before realizing that he had to come back. The extra energy he exerted may have depleted him, and Johnson ran a 10.9… slow by his high standards. He had run a 10.6 when setting the world record at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., just months earlier.

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By In Baseball, History, Joe Vault

Is That All I Did?

Bob Gibson smiles hard. It’s about to happen again. Over the years, Gibson has learned to tell when someone is about remind him how ferocious… heartless… intimidating he used to be. He has learned to brace himself for those peppy, ‘You were vicious!” compliments (they are compliments, right?) and the awed “You were a killer out there!” tributes (they are tributes, right?). He has learned to see them coming, the fans — they’re definitely fans — who remember him fondly for that glare and those up-and-in fastballs, who think of him as young and raging and invincible, with fury and pride and the purest annoyance oozing from his forehead instead of sweat.

“Mr. Gibson,” this man says. “Oh, do I remember the way you pitched. I remember all those batters you hit. They were so scared of you.”

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By In Baseball, Joe Vault

The Imperfect Game

There was something beautiful lost in the Jim Joyce fiasco, something that I hope I remember for as long as I remember the blown call. Yes, it’s hard to think about beautiful things when you have just watched one of the most absurd injustices in the history of baseball. But I’m a father of two young kids. And fathers find themselves looking for lessons. And there was something beautiful in the Jim Joyce fiasco.

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By In RIP

John Wooden

Most people can live with the vague. For instance: What is success? Well, um, you know, um, there’s that old line about art: I know it when I see it. I know it when I feel it. Success is like that, right? I can’t quite put it into words what success means, and other things like “happiness,” or “class,” or “integrity,” but I don’t need the words, right? These are things that come from wordless places deep inside, things that cannot be defined, things that we believe transcend definition. That’s OK. We KNOW what success means, even if we can’t really SAY what it means. Most of us can live comfortably in that hazy world.
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By In RIP

Paul Splittorff

You will hear people say all the time that they don’t want to live in the past. But I think that, more often than not, is a half-truth. Don’t we all want to live at least a little bit in the past? Don’t we all want to remember those moments when the sun was brightest, when the children were little, when the hole-in-one dropped, when we were the ninth caller to the radio station? Don’t we all save the scribblings and trophies and photographs that remind us? I once made a volley in tennis between the legs, a winner that scraped the line, a shot so perfect that Federer could not have done it better. I think about it often.

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By In Baseball, RIP

Harmon Killebrew

The gentleman the sportswriters somewhat desperately called “Killer” was just 23 years old in 1959 — but by then Harmon Killebrew already had played parts of six seasons in the major leagues. Six seasons. He was of that peculiar bonus baby time, when owners (as owners tend to do) went looking for convoluted and spectacularly destructive methods to control their own spending. Certainly, they might have controlled spending by not spending as much money. But that was deemed unrealistic.

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By In Golf, RIP

Seve Ballesteros

There’s a moment at the 1997 Ryder Cup that I think of now. That Ryder Cup was at the Valderrama Golf Club, in Sotogrande, along the Alboran Sea, almost in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar. The captain of the European team was Seve Ballesteros, and even with all the beautiful scenes there in and around Sotogrande, it was Seve who was the overpowering presence. He was everywhere.

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By In Baseball, History, RIP

Robin Roberts

A few years ago, I came home and found a message on the answering machine from someone who claimed to be Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher. The person was calling because he had read some of my work, and he liked it, and he happened to be in Kansas City to see his brother and he wanted to meet me at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum so he could tell me some baseball stories.

My first thought was that it had to be a put-on. Hall of Famers don’t just call up sportswriters they don’t know because they want to chat. But I also had to admit that I didn’t quite get why anyone would pretend to be the pitcher Robin Roberts (as he had to be known so as not to be confused with the television anchor Robin Roberts). And then, I had to admit that I really didn’t know that much about the pitcher Robin Roberts.

I did a little research. The thing that jumps out at you when you look back at Roberts’ career are the complete games. From 1950 through 1956, Robin Roberts started 37 or more games and completed more than 20 games every season — that’s Deadball Era stuff. Roberts led the league in starts six straight years, in complete games five straight years, in innings pitched five straight years, in victories four straight years. He was, in those days, a force of nature. Put it this way: He threw 28 consecutive complete games in 1952-53, and he was so enraged when he got pulled after seven innings against Brooklyn* — Bums Send Roberts To Showers! — that, for perhaps the only time in his career, the genial Roberts refused to talk to reporters.

*It was July 9, 1953; to give you an idea about the time, that was the same day that Ted Williams announced that he would play for the Red Sox in 1954 (if they wanted him), one day before Ben Hogan won the British Open at Carnoustie and the same day when a reported shortage of barbers sparked the trend story that more and more men planned to cut their own hair.

There was no Cy Young Award then, but in the six years leading up to the award — 1950-55 — Roberts received some serious MVP consideration. Here’s how he ranked in MVP votes among pitchers.

1950: 2nd, behind only teammate Jim Konstanty
1951: 5th
1952: 1st; finished second overall, 15 points behind Cubs outfielder Hank Sauer
1953: 2nd, behind only the Braves’ Warren Spahn
1954: 2nd, behind only the Giants’ Johnny Antonelli
1955: 1st

So, he probably would have won two Cy Youngs in his prime, and maybe more.

The prime years and innings took their toll on Roberts, who was rarely a great pitcher after 1955. He had a losing record the rest of his career and a league average ERA. But he had already made his mark. Few in baseball history threw harder than Roberts did in those overpowering years. Bill James has guessed that Roberts probably threw in the upper 90s, topping 100 sometimes. And he pounded hitters with that fastball again and again, nine innings at a time, sometimes more than nine*, whatever it took. A force of nature.

*Roberts threw 21 games of 10 innings or more — he threw 17 innings in beating Boston in 1952 and 15 in beating St. Louis in 1954.

One other thing about Roberts’ career that you should know — he gave up home runs. Five times he led the league in home runs allowed. The 505 homers he allowed in his career is the all-time record — at least until Jamie Moyer , who is just seven behind, breaks it sometime this year. The funny thing, as you will see, is that Roberts was oddly proud of that home run record; he was proud of everything he did in the game. Hey, giving up home runs was part of his style — you are supposed to challenge the hitter. Roberts didn’t walk many. Sometimes he won, sometimes you won. That’s baseball.

Anyway, I called back the number left on the machine, and, of course, it really was Robin Roberts — it would not be much of a story if it wasn’t. We met at the museum that evening (“Here I am!” he said when I first saw him). We walked around the museum for a couple of hours, looking at the various photographs and exhibits, and I listened to Robin Roberts tell stories. He was 77 then and remembered everything. I will cherish that night for the rest of my life.

What was it like? Roberts saw a photograph of Satchel Paige, and he remembered that he had once faced Paige in a barnstorming game. Roberts wasn’t exactly a great hitter — his lifetime .167 average is dead last in baseball history for anyone with more than 1,500 at-bats — but he had grown up believing that he would be an every-day player, so much so that he was a switch-hitter. And Paige showed him no respect. He was toying around with him and threw him some sort of eephus pitch. Roberts lined a single to center.

What he remembered most, though, was going up to Paige years later and telling him about that hit.
“Roberts,” Paige said back, “I got a big black book of all the great hitters who got a hit off me. And you ain’t in it.”

All the stories Robin Roberts told me that night were like that: self-effacing, funny, warm, touching. He talked about the first time he saw Willie Mays hitting in a batting cage and how he saw Mays blast home run after home run into the upper deck. And he thought, “Well, here’s something new.” He talked about the consistent grace of Hank Aaron and his old teammate Brooks Robinson. He talked about what it was like to have Luis Aparicio and Richie Ashburn making great plays behind him. I remember that we went into the small theater to see the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum movie, which begins with a young man singing The Star-Spangled Banner. Roberts stood up and put his hand over his heart.

At one point, he saw a display for Jackie Robinson and he told me two of my favorite stories, both revolving around Robinson. One was about Robinson. One, I think, was more about Robin Roberts.

The first story was about the Whiz Kid Phillies of 1950. While people often talk about the collapse of the 1964 Phillies, they tend to forget that the 1950 Phillies tried to do it first. Those Phillies were up 7 1/2 games on the Brooklyn Dodgers on Sept. 20. They were still up five games a week later, on Sept. 27. But then they lost five straight games, and that Sunday they had to beat the Dodgers in Brooklyn or be forced into a playoff. Roberts was 24 years old and was sent out to lead the Phillies to their first pennant in 35 years. He was pitching on two days’ rest.

He pitched 10 innings. The only run he allowed was on a Pee Wee Reese home run. Roberts worked his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth — thanks in large part (as Roberts himself said) to a perfect throw by Ashburn to nail Cal Abrams at the plate. He also led off the 10th inning with a single… that eventually led to Dick Sisler hitting a three-run homer. Roberts finished things off in the bottom of the 10th, and the Phillies won the pennant.

After the game, Roberts was sitting there on his stool, champagne dripping from his hair, when he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. He looked up. It was Jackie Robinson. “Congratulations,” Robinson said.
“Think about that,” Roberts told me. “Think about how much class that took. I couldn’t have done it, I’ll tell you that.”

Of course, Robin Roberts would have done it. He was like that. And that leads to the second Jackie Robinson story. In 1951, everyone remembers that the New York Giants came back from oblivion to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers and then beat them on Bobby Thomson’s “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” home run. What many people don’t realize is that the Dodgers actually had to win their final two games against Philadelphia just to force that playoff. They beat Roberts 5-0 on a Saturday. But the Sunday game was quite a different story.

In the Sunday game, Robinson started off terribly. He hit into a double play, booted an easy ground ball that allowed two runs to score, took a called third strike, threw wild on another play. He would make up for it. In the eighth inning, the Phillies led 8-5, but the Dodgers pulled within a run. And Roberts was put into the game even though he had pitched the day before. He gave up a single to Carl Furillo that tied the score.

Then, Roberts pitched five gutsy scoreless innings. It looked like the Phillies were going to win in the bottom of the 12th inning — they loaded the bases and then Eddie Waitkus lined what looked to be a sure single up the middle… so sure that Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe began to walk off the mound in disgust. Instead, Robinson made a diving catch just inches off the ground — so close that there were Phillies fans who remained certain decades later that he did not catch it. Robinson hit the ground so violently that play was stopped for five minutes as he regained his breath.

Two innings later, with curfew just a shade of dark away, Robinson hit a home run off of Roberts to give the Dodgers the lead and force the classic playoff with the Giants. Robinson would call it the biggest hit of his career.

You may have already known all that, or at least the basics of it. But what struck me that day in the Museum was how Robin Roberts remembered it. He was, well, proud of it. He was proud of his whole career. He pitched hard. He gave his all. And Robinson beat him. No shame in it. Sometimes he pitched the game-winner. Sometimes he gave up the big home run. And it was all part of his beautiful journey in baseball.

“If I don’t give up that home run to Jackie,” he told me, “there is no Bobby Thomson home run. There is no playoff. It’s a good thing I gave up that homer to him, isn’t it?”

And then, he smiled: “Of course, one thing I could do was give up home runs.”

That’s how I remember him. That smile. That humble line. Robin Roberts died on Thursday at his home in Florida. He was 83 years old. I had talked to him a few times since we met at the museum, and he was always the same: Humble, kind, eager to avoid hurting anybody’s feelings. He lived a big life. He was in the Army air corps. He was a star college basketball player at Michigan State. He was a great big league pitcher. He was one of the pioneers of the baseball players association — he, along with Jim Bunning, pushed for the hiring of Marvin Miller. He was deeply involved with the Baseball Hall of Fame. He has had his number retired in several places, and he is in numerous Halls of Fame, and he has had a stadium in his hometown of Springfield, Ill., named for him.

But I still tend to remember him most as the modest man who could not help being proud of the home run he had allowed to Jackie Robinson, the one that set up perhaps the greatest moment in baseball history. “You want to be proud of your successes,” he told me, “but you want to be proud of your failures, too. The important thing is try hard.” And Robin Roberts always did.

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By In Stuff

Snuggies

As everyone here certainly knows, I love infomercials. It’s a sickness, I know, but I’m turning 42 this week, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m probably not changing much from here on in. And I love infomercials. I have spent way too many hours in my life sitting in a recliner and watching someone sell:

 (1) The miraculous pasta pot, that has little holes on top so that you can drain the boiling hot water without ever taking the pasta out of the pot! Sure, I bought one. It’s great. Only trouble is that the top really doesn’t stay on all that well, and also your chances of scalding yourself while trying to to pour out the water is roughly 1 in 2. Current use: Planter.

(2) The revolutionary wok-like pan device that allows you to cook fast in the steam. Make pasta dishes in a snap! Steam the greenest vegetables ever! Sure I bought one. It’s great. Only trouble is, it really doesn’t work any differently from the actual Wok we have other than it’s more cheaply made. Current use: Space eater in pantry.

(3) The Magic Bullet. Little tiny blender allows you to make awesome smoothies, delicious cheese cake and the famous six second scrambled eggs! Sadly, my family has never let me buy one.

(4) The Infinity Razor. This was, by far, my favorite infomercial-type item — I blogged about this already. It’s the razor that comes with a lifetime guarantee, meaning you will NEVER need to replace it. Ever. And it will always stay sharp. Forever. And, by far my favorite part of it, was that if you bought one they would give you one free. Even I wasn’t stupid enough to buy one/two.

(5) The magical-white stuff that makes scratches on your car disappear forever. Say you have a scratch on your car. Well, you put this white goop on top of it, buff it with this incredibly flimsy shammy-type device that rotates the soft pad at speeds up to 1 revolution per minute — seriously, this thing moves around about as fast as those plastic little kiddie toy windmills * — and, voila, the scratch is completely gone, your car is just like new. Current use: Lost in garage.

*I never understood why these toy windmills were supposed to be fun. Hey, look, I can make this thing go around! I mean, how many minutes of entertainment can even the smallest kid get out of that? It’s like those party favors that you blow, and the little paper unwinds and you hear that kazoo sound … really, you do that twice and haven’t you more or less drained all the possibilities?

But, after being set straight by Holly and Mechelle I now have a new favorite infomercial-type commercial. I appreciate that I’m a bit late to the party … but let me be the millionth person to say it: That Snuggie Blanket has to be the most amazing commercial I’ve ever seen on television. I know you have seen this thing over and over already, but just in case, here is the idea: The Snuggie is a blanket with sleeves. I’m not saying that as some vague description, that’s their slogan. Snuggie: The Blanket With Sleeves.

Now, at first glance, you may think: Hmm, a blanket with sleeves. Sounds like, I don’t know, a SWEATSHIRT. Or a SWEATER. Or a FLEECE PULLOVER. But the brilliance of the Snuggie is not in the innovation. It is in the way they sell it. The commercial (which you can see at the end of the post, though I suspect you won’t) is pure brilliance from beginning to end.

Scene 1: Woman sitting on couch in thin white sweater of some kind. She appears to be cold based on the way that she is shivering while crossing her arms. The narrator says, quite reasonably: “You want to keep warm when you’re feeling chilled but you don’t want to raise your heating bill.” The raising of the heating bill is symbolized by a cartoon arrow with dollar signs on it going up in the air and the sound of a cash register bell going off. Tension has already been set in motion. This early scene is shot in stark black and white, like it’s “Double Indemnity.”

Scene 2: Woman laying down on couch, only now she’s trying to cover herself in a thread-bare blanket … and she’s having one heck of a difficult time with it. The blanket simply will not cooperate. The narrator says: “Blankets are OK, but they can slip and slide.” I love the early concession — Blankets are OK. This is not an attempt to put blanket people out of business, they want that clear up front. There is a cordless telephone next to the woman … this will play a key role in our next scene.

Scene 3: Woman TRIES to reach for the phone. But the blanket will not allow her to get it immediately. It takes at least .8 seconds for her to get the phone. The narrator says: “And when you need to reach for something, your hands are trapped inside.” This has to be the single greatest moment in television history; this moment when an actress is attempting to demonstrate how difficult it is to reach for a telephone when your hands are trapped inside a blanket. She makes O.J. trying on the glove look like Coppola in Godfather III. She tries to reach for the phone, but she can’t quite get it right away, and then she has the most priceless look in the world, this look that says: “Oh, wow, haven’t we all been here, trying to get that doggone phone when we’re wrapped in a blanket, oh, if they can put a man on the moon and find a cure for polio, why oh why can’t they find a way to free my hands from a blanket.”

Scene 4: Everything bursts in full color! And the narrator says: “Now, there’s the Snuggie. The blanket that has sleeves!” The woman demonstrates by putting on this very red robe type thing that you put on the same way that you put on hospital gowns. Narrator: “The Snuggie keeps you totally warm, and gives you the freedom to use your hands.“ The woman then demonstrates how easy it is to reach for the phone while wearing the Snuggie — it is easy. And she has this wonderful smile on her face, one that says: ”Yes! American technology!“ It seems a tad bit unfortunate that she is using a cordless phone that looks like it’s right out of 1989, but I’m guessing people with 1989 cordless phones would probably be the target audience.

Follow-up scenes: Man in Snuggie who looks a lot like Friar Tuck sits in a recliner and shows conclusively that the Snuggie does not constrict remote control freedom of movement … Older woman in Snuggie reads a book (but you say: Isn’t it too dark there to read a book? We’ll get back to you on that one!) … Fairly young man wearing Snuggie goes to work on his computer while the narrator says, ”Use your laptop without being cold!“ … Friar Tuck is back, this time he’s hungry and wants to have a bowl of popcorn — and he CAN because the Snuggie has sleeves.

Product Close-up of Snuggie: A hand goes lightly over the top while narrator tells us about the Snuggie’s softness.

Older woman is back, now she’s knitting with the Snuggie which seems an odd thing to do since I thought the whole point of this commercial is that actual CLOTHES have become obsolete. … Original woman is back now, and she’s reading a book to a young girl who looks absolutely nothing like her but is apparently supposed to be the daughter. The daughter is wearing a Snuggie too. A new slogan, ”Wrapped in Warmth!“ appears on the screen.

And so on. There are some amazing follow ups — a man and a woman standing next to each other, both wearing Snuggies, looking like they are in some kind of monastery; a woman proving she could hold a baby OR a dog with her Snuggie; a campfire scene right out of the ”Blair Witch Project With Snuggies;“ a young woman sitting in her college dorm room wearing a Snuggie, apparently content to live a dateless life on campus and so on. And then, believe it or not, there are two scenes that top all the rest:

1. There’s a scene of the family — the guy who was working on his laptop, the woman who was so frustrated reaching for the phone, their daughter who looks nothing like either one — all of them at a ballgame, surrounded by people dressed in normal clothes like coats. And the three of them are sitting in the middle of it all, wearing these preposterous Snuggies, looking, seriously, like they are in some sort of very frightening fleece cult. It’s no wonder the people around them are trying desperately to ignore the dangerous Snuggie Family and just watch the game. It’s like a Cohn brothers movie.

2. The narrator says: ”Similar products sell for up to sixty dollars.“ I appreciate that every infomercial must have the ”similar products“ line in it. But in this case, well, one — similar products? Really? There have been previous unsuccessful attempts to sell the blanket with sleeves? And two — these failed entrepreneurs decided that sixty dollars was about the right price point? The narrator then offers the Snuggie for the amazing price of $14.95, which really is an amazing price. And it comes in three colors.

The commercial reiterates the many features of the Snuggie — you can use your remote, it will keep you warm, it has sleeves — and then they offer the bonus prize … a ”compact, press-and-open book-light,“ apparently so Grandma in her Snuggie can read the third Twilight book without raising her electricity bill.* That’s a $15 value absolutely free.

*I often wonder how they decide which cheap contraption gets to be the main item and which one has to be the lousy bonus prize. Like, couldn’t this have been a whole commercial about the ”press-and-open book-light,“ and as a bonus you get the blanket with sleeves? I’m sure they have market analysts who study it.

For people like me who love infomercials, this is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, this is The Contest, this is Starry Night, this is the best there has ever been — utterly worthless product based on entirely absurd premise sold by actors who are apparently from outer space. It’s a masterpiece. And I should add that my 7-year-old daughter Elizabeth just came in her and watched the infomercial and said, ”I want a Snuggie.“ I’m beaming. Like father like daughter.

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By In Baseball, History, RIP

Mark Fidrych

Maybe baseball just seems a touch more magical when you’re 9 years old. It just so happened that I was 9 the year that Mark Fidrych came on the scene. And, even now, it seems to me that was a time for magical young pitchers. They called John Montefusco “The Count,” and he would guarantee victories before he pitched. They called Randy Jones “The Junkman,” and he baffled hitters with a fastball that, Pete Rose said, wouldn’t be caught speeding in a school zone. If you wanted hard fastballs, well, you had J.R. Richard and Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan. They threw so hard, you could hear their pitches buzz.
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