By In Stuff

It Had To Be Done (Simpsons Follow)

Nerdy stat guy 1: As a pitcher Cliff Lee is CLEARLY superior to Zack Greinke.
Nerdy stat guy 2: Yes I completely agree with the following colossal exception: Before the fourth inning, after a road loss, in a domed stadium. Then it’s great to be Greinke!

— Moneybart episode, The Simpsons

If you saw this Simpsons episode, you probably remember the scene — Lisa went to the back of Moe’s Tavern to find a little SABR convention going on. They were having this talk, where one was saying that Lee was better, and the other said it was true except, well, you see it above — before the fourth, after a road loss, in a dome.

Well, you knew that at some point I was going to look it up, right? I mean … it had to be done. Cliff Lee? Zack Greinke? A nerdy stat like that? OF COURSE I’m going to look it up. The only surprise is that it took this long.

I went back to 2008. I did not have to go back any more. It turns out that Zack Greinke pitched six games in domes after road losses (I counted retractable roof stadiums like Toronto and Seattle). And, by pure coincidence, Cliff Lee ALSO pitched six games after road losses.

I was praying for The Simpsons’ statistic to be right. I figured they had 50-50 shot at it, and I figured that maybe, just maybe, some geek on the staff looked it up just to be sure.

Unfortunately …

Zack Greinke in domes before the fourth inning after road losses: 18 innings, 12 earned runs, 6.00 ERA.

Cliff Lee in domes before the fourth inning after road losses: 18 innings 0 earned runs, 0.00 ERA.

Sigh.

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By In Stuff

Friday Inspiration

Here’s the photographic story of how my brother, Tony, lost 220 pounds (and counting).

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By In Bruce

The Promise

Johnny works in a factory. Billy works downtown.
Terry works in a rock and roll band looking for that million dollar sound.
Got a job down in Darlington. Some nights I don’t go.
Some nights I go to the drive in. Some night I stay home.

— Bruce Springsteen. The Promise.

(more…)

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By In Stuff

The Jeter Question

I asked a thoroughly unfair question of New York Yankees fans a few days ago … but I asked it in good faith. I honestly was curious about it. And so, before I give the results, I am going to warn you that this column is about Derek Jeter and, given that premise, this column is probably not what you will be expecting.

I made a Twitter point the other day that this Miami Heat team has to be the most hated team in America since … well, who? The Pistons Bad Boys of the late 1980s? The Soviet hockey team in 1980? Vic Morrow’s team in The Bad News Bears? The team that gave us the movie “Gigli?”

I started hearing suggestions about most hated teams — the Duke basketball team, the undefeated New England Patriots, the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys and mostly, of course, the New York Yankees every single year. But I think these miss the point. My point about the Heat is that they have a very small fan base. Relatively speaking, few people actually ROOT for the Miami Heat. Someone named Adam Sherk tried to gauge fan interest last year based on Twitter and Facebook followers … and the Heat ranked 27th out of 30 teams and, best he could tell, did not even HAVE a Facebook page. That figures. The Heat certainly has fans in South Florida, but they have been pretty much a zero nationally, even with the eminently likable Dwayne Wade playing the starring role. LeBron James brought over some fans, but he brought over exponentially more Heat Haters.

And those other “hated” teams? They have LOTS AND LOTS and LOTS of fans. The Patriots? Are you kidding me? All of New England roots for the Patriots. Duke basketball has a huge fan base, an enormous fan base, a much, much, much bigger national fan base than a small private school in North Carolina (attended by Richard Nixon, Drew Rosenhaus, Ken Starr, Barack Obama’s personal aide and the guy who was John Gotti’s attorney) could possibly expect. The Cowboys fan base is almost certainly the largest in the NFL.

And the Yankees. Yes, of course, many people despise the Yankees. But year after year, the Yankees are also America’s most popular baseball team. According to the Harris Interactive poll, the Yankees have been America’s most popular team every year since 2003. In the decade, the Yankees easily drew a more road fans than any other team — only some of them buying tickets to boo. The Yankees are hugely popular in addition to being hugely unpopular. It amazes me that some people miss that.

Because the Yankees are hugely popular nationally … there is probably a greater diversity inside the Yankee Nation than any other team. There are lifelong Yankees fans who remember those days when the Yankees were basically the only team around. There are New Yorkers who want to be connected to the city. There are people who like winners. There are people who like the Yankees history. There are Mickey Mantle fans, there are Joe DiMaggio fans, there are Babe Ruth fans, there are people who moved to America and wanted to like baseball and thought that meant liking the Yankees, there are Billy Martin fans, there are Reggie Jackson fans, there are television executives, there are casual fans who like being seen at the ballpark, there are people who like the hat …

The person who brings all these various Yankees factions together, I think, is Derek Jeter. We write a lot about Jeter here, some good, some not so good, and and over time I have been called a Jeter hater and a Jeter apologist (though more hater, I suppose). The thing that annoys non-Yankees fans about Jeter, I think, has less to do with Jeter himself and more to do with the intense campaign to spin him into the perfect ballplayer. He is great enough as is. He’s been a terrific hitter — one of the three best, I think, to ever play shortstop — a durable player, a smart player, a leader, a good teammate, a credit to the game. He’s going to the Hall of Fame the first day he’s eligible, and I will be one of those people proudly voting for him.

Trouble is, when Jeter wins his fifth Gold Glove — like he did on Tuesday — even when the best statistical evidence suggests he has been a well-below average defender throughout his career, well, that’s the stuff that drives people nuts about Jeter. There are “How did Jeter win another Gold Glove” posts popping up every eight seconds on the Internet (there will be 48 new ones by the time you finish reading this post)*.

*I was talking about how the Gold Glove voting works with an editor, and something struck me that I had not thought about before. You probably know that the Gold Gloves are voted for by managers and coaches. And really … this is the only award they’ve got. They don’t vote for the MVP, for Rookie of the Year, for Cy Young, for Manager of the Year, for the Hall of Fame, for almost anything. They vote for the Gold Gloves. That’s it.

And I think that, in many of their minds, the Gold Gloves probably take on a larger meaning. Sure, it’s about defense. But I wonder if for many it really is about rewarding those players who PLAY THE GAME RIGHT. The advanced stats always suggested that Ken Griffey Jr. was overrated defensively, but he won the Gold Glove every year in part, I think, because the way he played appealed to managers and coaches. There are a lot of guys like that. And if you look at the Gold Gloves that way — not as the best defensive players, exactly, but as the players who most appeal to managers and coaches for the way they play — it starts to make a whole lot more sense.

And in this scenario, sure, they vote for Derek Jeter. Let’s be honest, there has been a void of great defensive shortstops in the American League the last few years. The Fielding Bible has been choosing the best defensive players in baseball for five years, and none of the winning shortstops have been American Leaguers (except Jack Wilson who played half a season in Seattle). The top two Fielding Bible choices this year — Troy Tulowitzki and Brendan Ryan — were both National Leaguers and they were both far and away better than anyone in the American League. The top American League choice was Chicago’s Alexei Ramirez, who did seem to have a good defensive year but he was pretty average last year and it’s not like we’re ready to crown him as Mark Belanger just yet. After Ramirez, there’s Elvis Andrus, who looks like a terrific shortstop but actually did not have a great numbers year by the two most prominent advanced defensive stats, Dewan Plus/Minus or UZR.

So, if you’re a manager, and there’s a vacuum at shortstop anyway, why not vote for Derek Jeter? This is your one chance to say you appreciate the way the guy plays. Looking at it that way, Jeter’s five Gold Glove suddenly seem a lot more logical (though no less infuriating to the anti-Jeter crowd).

Point is, when announcers Jeterate Jeter — when they go on and on and on and on about something Jeter did that basically anyone would have done — when superhero myths build around him*, when the Jeter intangible talk gets hot and heavy, yes, that’s when non-Yankees fans begin to feel nauseous.

*Did you know that Jeter is now hitting lower and has a lower on-base percentage in the postseason than in the regular season?

But … there’s something here that I have never quite said before. My parents moved from New York to Cleveland just before I was born. And I know myself well enough to know that if things had been different, if I had been born and raised in New York, I’d be a huge Derek Jeter fan. An insufferable Derek Jeter fan. Why? Because Jeter is a great player. And, perhaps even more, because Jeter is a pro. I have watched for more than a decade now the way he has handled the responsibility and pressures of being the face of the Yankees, and I have been awed. He doesn’t hide from the media. He doesn’t complain about the expectations. He doesn’t brag, but he he doesn’t act falsely modest. He doesn’t say anything controversial, but he doesn’t back away from taking stands for the good of the team. Everyone here knows how much I love Joe Mauer, but I’m not sure how ready he is for all the stuff that comes with being one of baseball’s biggest stars. I saw him really struggling with the media and his role as face of the franchise after his big contract — and that’s in Minnesota. It’s not anywhere close to as easy as people think. Jeter has handled the biggest city and his place in the game it like he was born for it.

So, yes, Derek Jeter to Yankees fans really does mean a lot more than his numbers, his strengths, his flaws. It seems to me that Jeter, more than anyone else, has made rooting for the Yankees fun. It’s tempting to say that Yankees fans are more Machiavellian than other fans, that they don’t care who the players are as long as the players win … but I suspect this isn’t really true, not for most of them. It’s all well and good to pick up a Roger Clemens to make the team more dominant, but to build a whole team of Roger Clemens, a team of soldiers of fortune, well, maybe some Yankees fans would be OK with it, but I suspect most wouldn’t. The Yankees had those sorts of contract killer teams before, and the fans desperately clung to Don Mattingly, the real Yankee — who as New York Post columnist Joel Sherman has said and written was every bit as big to Yankees fans in the 1980s and early 1990s as Jeter is today.

Jeter — along with Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, a few others, but mostly Jeter — gave the Yankees a soul. And so, yes, I do understand why many Yankees fans romanticize Jeter even beyond his already substantial greatness. I know I would do the same.

Which leads to the unfair question I posed to Yankees fans: If you could trade Derek Jeter tomorrow to Florida for Hanley Ramirez, would you do it?

This question is unfair on many levels. One, it’s not possible. The Marlins (of course) wouldn’t trade Ramirez for Jeter, and the Yankees don’t even have Jeter under contract so could not trade him. Two, it’s not equitable. Jeter is 36 going on 37, Ramirez is 26 going on 27, Jeter is showing clear signs of decline, Ramirez (even taking into account a down year in 2010) is one of the best player in baseball. This is a trade that any non-Yankees fan would make in a heartbeat. It’s an absurd, talk-radio-caller kind of trade.

But I wasn’t looking for a baseball judgment. That’s obvious. I was looking to see just how sentimental Yankees fans are about the Captain. We all know that Jeter’s contract is up, and we all know he will end up playing for the Yankees next year because there’s really no viable option. But in the meantime, there has already been some testiness because there are many millions of dollars at stake, and Jeter is coming off by far the worst year of his career (a 90 OPS+, a league leading 515 outs, terrible defensive numbers), and there are numerous issues involved here.

So I wanted to know: How much do Yankees fans really love Jeter? Would they be willing, in his declining years, to consign him the Florida wilderness to get his 3,000th hit? Would they be willing, in his declining years, to trade him away for a younger and clearly superior player … and not just ANY younger and clearly superior player but one who has a reputation as a malingerer, a pain in the neck, in many ways the anti-Jeter.*

*Several Yankees fans responded that they would rather have Troy Tulowitzki. Well, OF COURSE you would rather have Troy Tulowitzki, but that’s not the question, is it?

The responses poured in … and I have to say almost all of them were terrific. I’ll list a few:

Brilliant Reader Jordan: “This Yankees fan would trade Jeter for Hanley in a cocaine heartbeat and never lose a moment of sleep over it.”

Brilliant Reader Rabbi Jason: “I know that Hanley is the better shortstop. He’s a better shortstop than Jeter has been in years. … But in my soft, mushy, Norman Rockwell painted, nostalgic soul, I still want baseball to be about more than winning in any way, at any cost. … I don’t want to live in that world, so I’m keeping my Jeter.”

Brilliant Reader John: “Of course Hanley would be a much better shortstop, but we couldn’t live with ourselves. Jeter can’t leave. … Now I have to point out that I have never been to a baseball game and I live in Norway. But I really believe many Yankees fans feel this way.”

Brilliant Reader Jeff: “Yes, I do the trade in an instant. Ruth didn’t get to finish a Yankee. Berra didn’t either. DiMaggio got pushed out when a better player was available in Mantle. Players are expendable and winning is what matters.”

Brilliant Reader Robert: “This is a wonderful question and you are a sinister and evil man for asking it. Because the answer is perfectly obvious – you make the trade. You make the trade for the good of the team.”

Brilliant Reader Al: “No way. Not for anybody. … You don’t trade the Empire State Building for the Bellagio.”

I love that. Al also added this caveat: “We’ll just sign Hanley (or whoever we need at the time) as a free agent when he becomes available.”

The answers poured in … some saying that anyone who wouldn’t trade Jeter in an obviously lopsided deal wasn’t a TRUE Yankees fan … some saying that anyone who WOULD trade Jeter wasn’t a TRUE Yankees fan … some saying that Jeter adds so much off the field that even now he still helps the Yankees win in a way Hanley Ramirez never could … some saying that they root for the New York Yankees, not Derek Jeter, and while they love the guy they know he won’t last forever and they’re ready to move on whenever the time comes.

It wasn’t a fair question, not at all, but I think the emotions involved are fair and real. What do you do when your favorite player gets older? What do you do when there’s still hope that he might be great again but the hope is fading. I’ll tell you the results of the poll, but you won’t believe them. More than 300 Yankees fans wrote in with an answer to that question: Would you trade Derek Jeter for Hanley Ramirez. Three hundred forty seven to be exact.

One hundred seventy three of them said yes.
One hundred seventy three of them said no.

And one, from Brilliant Reader Joey, who says simply: “As far as trading Derek Jeter for Hanley Ramirez, I answer wholeheartedly yes … and also no.”

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Farewell Joe Morgan

Joe Morgan from 1972-1976 was the best second baseman in baseball history. That’s my honest opinion. There are others who have strong cases. You certainly could argue, most people probably would argue, for Rogers Hornsby from 1921 to 1925 when he hit .402 over FIVE SEASONS. I’m sure that Joe Morgan the announcer would argue that Hornsby was better.

You could argue for Eddie Collins from around 1911 to 1915, when when he hit for a high average (.347), stole a bunch of bases, played superior defense and so on.

You could argue for Jackie Robinson when he got the call to the big leagues … you could argue for Craig Biggio in the mid-1990s … you could argue for Chase Utley the last five or six years … You could argue that Robinson Cano is coming into his own …

Here’s what Joe Morgan did, though: Everything.

You have to remember: Morgan was playing in one of the lower run scoring periods since Deadball. Over those five years, 1972-76, teams averaged just a touch over four runs per game. You have to go back almost 20 years — to 1992 — to find even a single season when offenses scored as few runs as teams did in those five years. Put it this way: Lots of people talked about 2010 being the year of the pitcher. Well, every year from 1972-76 was lower scoring than 2010.

And in that low run-scoring environment, Morgan was one of the great offensive players of all time. He hit for average (.303), hit for power (.499 slugging percentage was fifth in baseball over those years), and stole bases (only Lou Brock stole more bases in the era and Morgan stole them at a higher percentage). He walked 111 times or more every season. He led the league in on-base percentage four of the five seasons. He created way more runs than anyone — 659 in five years. And even that doesn’t tell us everything. You have to put that in context.

Considering that teams were averaging about four runs per game, that means Morgan created enough for about 162 games.

To compare, Hornsby, in his great five-year period, created a staggering 855 runs — almost 200 runs more. But since the average runs scored during Hornsby’s period was a much higher 4.81 runs per game, that comes out to creating enough runs for 177 games. So that’s more than Morgan, but not so much more.

And Hornsby was, by most accounts, a lousy defensive player and a lousy teammate. You certainly can’t BLAME Hornsby for the fact that his Cardinals those five years were mediocre-to-lousy, but it isn’t a badge of honor. Joe Morgan, meanwhile, was a very good defender — Gold Glove winner four of the five years, plus defensive WAR all five years — and by most accounts a very good teammate. And his Reds averaged a decimal more than 100 wins per season, never won fewer than 95, they took three pennants and two World Series.

Would those Reds with Bench, Rose, Concepcion, Perez and the rest have won with Hornsby at second instead of Morgan? Sure, I suspect so. But the point here is that Morgan was the best player on those great Reds teams; he helped the Reds win every way an everyday player can help a team win. Bill James called Joe the greatest percentage player in the history of the game. More on that in a second.

So yes, I think for those five years, he played better than any second baseman ever.

I bring this up because, as you certainly know, ESPN has decided to part ways with Joe Morgan after 20 years of announcing on Sunday Night Baseball. And … well, wait, before getting to the point of this, I should definitely go to the source and pull out a classic Joe Morgan quote for the occasion:

“They (Red Sox) cannot beat them (Rays) by outscoring them.”

OK. That out of the way … it’s weird to think the Internets won’t have Joe Morgan to kick around anymore. I’ve been trying to think of something to say about Morgan as an announcer, but I suppose most of it has already been said. I remember thinking that Morgan was a fresh voice when he first started out as a national announcer a couple of decades ago, and whether that’s just the fog of memory or that he actually was good when he first started and declined, well, I don’t know.

It doesn’t really matter. I don’t think color commentators are built to last. Danger of the job. Sooner or later, we’ve heard all their stories, we’ve absorbed all their shtick, we have grown annoyed by their stubborn opinions, we crave surprises that never come. It’s funny because when it comes to LOCAL broadcasters, we forgive many of these things — the repeated stories, the shtick, the sameness becomes cherished after a while. The announcer becomes OURS.

But national announcers don’t become OURS, not in the same way. After a while, they’re like annoying uncles who know two magic tricks, which they perform at every holiday. Joe Morgan, as he grew older, as he grew more intractable in his views, as he seemed to lose his sense of humor and put less work into his broadcasting, didn’t become more cherished. He became a punch line. In some ways, he was a victim of circumstance, I think. I never thought Morgan was worse than some of the other national broadcasters. Let’s be honest, Ken Tremendous and the boys could have called their site “Fire Tim McCarver*” and it would have had the same meaning. It could have been called “Fire Food Metaphors” or “Fire Woody Paige,” or “FIre David Eckstein” or “Fire Lots of People And Let’s Be Honest You Could Be Next.” The point was to find idiocy, snark at it, make everybody laugh.

*This, after all, is the description of Tim McCarver in the Fire Joe Morgan glossary: “The Fox Network’s #1 color commentator. And, without question, the worst color commentator in the history of the world, in any sport. By my estimation, Tim McCarver has said 94 of the 100 dumbest things anyone has ever said about baseball.”

But they called the site “Fire Joe Morgan,” and there’s no question that Joe became a symbol of something … a symbol of the past, I guess. Or, more specifically, he became a symbol of the closed-minded ballplayer-turned-announcer who believed in the power of heart, the magic of grit, and that to win you need winners, and that to become a winner you need to learn how to win, and that to learn how to win you need to win, and that to win you need winners.

Joe would go to bizarre lengths to avoid saying that teams with high on-base percentages often score a lot of runs and that pitchers who command their pitches and don’t give up home runs often pitch well. With Joe, after a while, it always came down to intangibles. Which is OK, I guess. But the tangible can matter too. Also, he hated Moneyball and never seemed to figure out that it wasn’t Billy Beane who wrote the darned thing.

Anyway, many national announcers — I’d even say most national announcers — have these same flaws. But Joe Morgan was out front. I think this is in part because he was the guy on TV every Sunday night. I also think this is in part because there has always been a weird contradiction surrounding Morgan, something that wasn’t there for McCarver or the rest. While Joe Morgan the announcer railed against modern baseball statistics, Joe Morgan the ballplayer lit them up like Paul Millsap against the Heat. While Joe Morgan refused to give any credence to the new baseball ideas that were popping up all around him, Joe Morgan the ballplayer had foreshadowed many of them.

Joe Morgan the announcer seemed utterly detached from Joe Morgan the amazing ballplayer. Morgan is a smart man. He lives in the moment. But, strange, it’s like he never understood his own genius for playing baseball. I’ve heard this same thing about a certain brilliantly funny Saturday Night Live actor who was in some of the funniest skits ever — that he didn’t entirely know WHY they were funny. He just did his part. He followed his instincts. And it worked.

Joe Morgan wasn’t great because he was a “winner.” He was great because he studied pitchers moves so that he could get good jumps (and steal 80% of his bases though he wasn’t brilliantly fast). He was great because he made pitchers throw him strikes, he made every at-bat a war of wills, and this often led to pitchers giving in (and walking him) or making a bad pitch (which he often hit with power). He was great because he worked out in the off-season (he liked hitting the speed bag) and built up his strength and so developed good power that belied his 5-foot-7 frame and Little Joe nickname. He was great because he worked hard on his defense and made himself from a below-average, to average to good second baseman. He was great because he challenged teammates to play at their best and he lived up to his own challenges.

He was great because, as Bill James wrote, he was the best percentage player ever, and the irony is that it takes someone like Bill James — a non-player who loves the game enough to study it intently — to fully appreciate just how good Joe Morgan really was. I mentioned Hornsby on top. Well, I’ve written before that Bill ranked Joe Morgan the best second baseman ever and ranked Hornsby No. 3. Bill later told me that he had heard that someone mentioned this to Morgan who immediately said something like: “That’s crazy. Rogers Hornsby hit .358. I didn’t hit .358.”

As if that’s what all of baseball comes down to: Batting average.

Other people disliked Joe Morgan the announcer more than I did. I liked listening to his partner Jon Miller so much that Sunday Night Baseball was always fun for me (I will miss Miller, who will also leave the booth). And I kind of got a kick out of the awkward silences and weird vibes that would ring between them. Plus sometimes Joe would say something that I thought was insightful or interesting. And I always knew the silly things he said would make for funny Internet fodder the next day.

In the end, ESPN did the right thing. It was time to move on, get some new voices, trying to bring a little life to the booth. I hope at some point in the near future they find a space for the excellent announcer Jon Sciambi, who I think is terrific. Dan Shulman is very good too. There have to be some terrific young color commentator prospects out there too. Whoever they put in will provide a spark at least for a little while, sort of the way a new coach provides a spark.

And as far as Joe goes … well, we have a huge bump at the end of our driveway. Every single day, I back out of our driveway and hit that bump. Every single day, I come in our driveway and hit that bump. It’s ridiculous, and I know I should get it fixed, and I suspect sometime soon my wife will make me get it fixed. Then it will be smooth going in and going out.

And I KNOW that in a weird way I will miss the bump.

I guess that’s how I feel about Joe Morgan leaving the booth.

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History Lessons With Bud

Look, I like Bud Selig. Veteran readers of this blog will know that when I start that way — with “I like Person X” — that usually follows with me attempting to then skewer Person X. Well, I can’t help it. I do like Bud. I like him for two main reasons, I think. One, he loves baseball. I feel sure that’s true. I couldn’t tell you that Roger Goodell loves football or that Paul Tagliabue loves football of that David Stern loves basketball or that Gary Bettman loves hockey. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, I don’t know (well, I don’t think Bettman loves hockey).

But I feel quite certain that Bud loves baseball and will happily spend his retirement days (if he ever retires) watching baseball games, eating hot dogs, talking baseball to whoever wants to listen. I’ve had enough conversations with him to pick up that he’s a fan. Yes, he’s also a fan of his own legacy, of pushing through his own agendas and all that stuff. But every commissioner is like that. Bud likes baseball and I generally like people who like baseball.

The second thing is more personal … and probably gets at the heart of why I start posts like this with “Look, I like Bud Selig.” I think Bud desperately wants to be liked. And I think that’s a rare thing among people of power. Most of them don’t care if they are liked or not. Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” said: “George, I’m an old man and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.” I think that’s probably the default position among the rich and powerful. And, probably because I have the same weakness, I tend to like people who really want to be liked. Bud certainly does.

So, because I like Bud, I just kind of shook my head sadly when I saw Tommy Craggs’ story at Deadspin, the one where he prints a Selig letter that calls Baseball’s Easter Bunny* Abner Doubleday the “Father of Baseball.”

*Where does the Easter Bunny actually rest in the “Stuff we wants kids to believe until they get older” myth collection? Yes, I know, it’s sad when kids finally have it broken to them that there is no Tooth Fairy and that the money they found under their bed came actually came from a small group of Silicon Valley inventors who figured out the chemical combination of turning teeth and pillow cases into quarters. But what about the Easter Bunny? Does it rank up there with the great myths — with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus and George Washington’s cherry tree and Mikey having his stomach explode with pop rocks? Or is it really kind of a second-rate myth?

Personally, I guess I would rank the myths like this:

No. 1: Santa Claus
No. 2: Tooth Fairy
No. 3: Your parents know better
No. 4: If you make that face, it will freeze that way.
No. 5: I will stop this car on the highway.
No. 6: No, that mascot is real.
No. 7: Easter Bunny

But maybe I’m underestimating the Easter Bunny.

Back to Bud. It’s probably worth starting by printing the Commissioner’s full letter.

As a student of history, I know there is a great debate whether Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright really founded the game of baseball. From all of the historians which I have spoken with, I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the “father of baseball.” I know there are some historians who would dispute this though.

Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I hope that this has been helpful. I appreciate your interest in this most interesting historical subject.

Sincerely
Allan H. Selig

OK … OK … OK, where to begin. I suppose my first thought, my first hope, was that this was some kind of “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” kind of letter. That is to say, that my first hope that Bud Selig doesn’t REALLY believe that Abner Doubleday is the father of baseball, but he was saying it to keep alive the hopes of some innocent young child who desperately wanted to believe in Abner Doubleday. Yes, Jimmy, there is a Civil War Hero who invented baseball.

Unfortunately, this letter was not written to some innocent young child named Jimmy or Billy (or Josh) but instead to longtime autograph collector and autograph expert Ron Keurajian, who apparently is quite convinced that Doubleday invented baseball. Keurajian is writing a book on Hall of Famers autographs, and I suppose he wants to put in there his own version of Doubleday history.

This according to the Website HaulsOfShame: In (Keurajian’s) opinion, “A few ‘baseball historians’ with way too much time on their hands have attempted to rewrite baseball history. The Mills Commission included the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events of 1839. They ignore concrete evidence and wish to dethrone Doubleday as the game’s father. I suggest they find a new hobby, like bottle cap collecting.”

Fortunately, Keurajian’s sophisticated view* now has the endorsement of the commissioner of baseball.

*Bottle cap collecting? Do people really still collect bottle caps? What is this, 1937? This is a lot like those people who are always saying that people who like advanced baseball should “put away their slide rules.” Really? Slide rules? We’re figuring out baseball stats int he 17th Century?

I suppose it is worth once again laying out the basics of the Abner Doubleday myth. In the latter part of the 19th Century, there was quite a battle going on between two camps about the origins of baseball. The first camp, led by the writer and baseball missionary Henry Chadwick, believed that baseball had evolved from English game rounders. It didn’t hurt that he was from England. The second camp, led by pitcher, sporting goods magnate and and baseball pioneer Albert Spalding, felt certain that the game was purely American. It didn’t hurt that he was from America. The best guess now is that they were both wrong and that baseball, in some form, goes way, way, way back. But that’s not our discussion point here.

The argument was fun at first — you know, back when America had more visible issues such as the Civil War and Reconstruction — but then it started to get a bit testy. In 1889, after Albert Spalding had led a baseball tour to foreign lands, there was a big dinner held at Delmonico’s in New York on behalf of him and the baseball players (it is reported in many places that Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt among many others were there). The master of ceremonies was a man named A.G. Mills, who will become important in a minute. Mills apparently gave a heated speech in which he declared that baseball was most definitely an American thing. The crowd could not agree more and supposedly chanted “No rounders! No rounders!” Baseball as American Invention was becoming a nationalistic thing.

The debate went back and forth for a while, until Spalding decided in 1905, once and for all, that there needed to be resolution. Spalding, like many great men through history, wanted to get to the bottom of things and conclude he was right. And in this spirit, he put together a thoroughly biased committee to find the origin of baseball. He gave the committee a grand name: “The Special Baseball Commission to Establish the Origins of Baseball.” In history, it became known as “The Mills Commission.”

And this is because, yep, our old friend A.G. Mills who whipped that crowd up into a frenzy back in 1889 was put in charge of the commission. It’s clear that Spalding was not really looking for the origins of baseball. He was looking for the American origins of baseball.

Spalding and the Commission put out the word in newspapers and sports magazines that they were looking for any and all clues into how baseball was invented. It was sort of like Wikipedia in the Teddy Roosevelt Era. And like Wikipedia, the nutjobs came out. Some claimed to invent the game themselves. Others had crazed stories.

But one crazed story caught everyone’s attention. The following account is built from several sources but mostly David Block’s fascinating. Baseball Before We Knew It: A 71-year-old Colorado businessman with a bizarre past named Abner Graves happened to be in Akron, Ohio on business. He was in a hotel, he was reading the local paper, and there he saw a story about how LeBron James had jilted his … no, wait, that’s not right … he saw a story written by Spalding asking for information about how baseball was invented.

Well, it just so happened that Graves knew how baseball was invented. Perhaps he discovered it during one of his two stays in Iowa asylums. Really. Whatever, Graves sat down and wrote a letter to the Akron Beacon Journal, a letter which began with a brief introduction and then laid out 15 words that would change the game: “The American game of ‘Base Ball’ was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York.”

The letter was a rather involved explanation of how Abner Doubleday — “the same, who as General Doubleday won honor at the Battle of Gettysburg” — had come upon the not-especially-fun game of town ball in Cooperstown and had “made a plan of improvement” that included “calling it “Base Ball,” splitting the teams into 11-player sides and so on. Graves then listed off numerous people who played the game.

“‘Baseball’ is undoubtedly a pure American game, and its birthplace Cooperstown, New York, and Abner Doubleday entitled to first honor of its invention,” he concluded in his letter in to the paper.

It is perhaps fair to say that Abner Graves in today’s world would be known as a “kook.” But people were so eager to discover an American inventor of baseball that his letter was taken quite seriously, so seriously that the Akron Beacon Journal printed his story in the next day’s sports page. The understated headline: “Abner Doubleday Invented Base Ball.” The Akron Beacon Journal broke the baseball story of the century!

But it didn’t really matter. In those days, newspaper accounts — especially in smaller papers like the Akron Beacon Journal — did not make national ripples. Nobody cared. The story probably would have died right then and there except … someone sent it to the commission. And, well, the commission liked it. They liked it A LOT.

The story appealed to the commission people on several levels. One, Doubleday was an American, which was obviously a big part of their search. Two, even better, Doubleday was an American hero — a war hero, no less. Perfect. And three, there was a powerful connection between a couple of members of the commission and Doubleday. For one thing, according to historian Robert Henderson, A.G. Mills (a Civil War veteran) was a member of the honor guard that watched over the general’s body as it lay in state. So he was undoubtedly pleased to find out that Doubleday invented baseball!

And, Baseball Before We Knew It has a fascinating and convincing chapter on the connection between Doubleday and Spalding, a connection that involves the occult. You’ll want to read that one.

So, yeah, it was appealing to the commission to have Abner Graves not be a kook. Perhaps because of this, not one of them actually TALKED to Graves. This is the “bills don’t count unless you open the envelope” theory of business. Spalding did write a follow up letter to Graves, an absurdly enthusiastic follow-up letter when he basically PLEADED with Graves to please oh please oh please not be a kook. He wrote: “If the statement therein … can be verified by some supporting facts or evidence, I feel quite certain it will have great weight with the commission.”

Graves responded with a second letter that was, in my humble opinion, even kookier than the first. In this one, Doubleday explained the rule directly to Graves while he was playing marbles. “I remember well Abner Doubleday explaining “base ball” to a lot of us. He was 5 years old at the time.*

*Actually, he may have been six or seven — Graves wasn’t entirely sure what year this happened. It was the commission that decided on 1839.

The various inconsistencies of Graves’ letters have been made somewhat famous (though not as famous as the original absurdity that Doubleday invented the game). Doubleday was most definitely at West Point in 1839 and so not in Cooperstown. In his voluminous writings and letters, Doubleday never once mentioned baseball in any form, much less that he invented the sucker which, you know, he might have remembered. There was — best anyone can tell — not even one other person who claimed that Abner Doubleday knew anything at all about baseball. And even then, it was well known that Doubleday didn’t invent the word “baseball,” that there was a game known as baseball long before 1839.

Also, a few years later, Graves shot his wife and lived the remainder of his days in an asylum, though obviously the commission could not have known it at the time (though they might have known he had twice been put in asylums had they bothered to check). Before shooting his wife, Graves talked with reporters and expanded his story into even greater absurdity. And as Block wrote, this came to head in the Graves obituary that appeared in the Denver Post, which stated Graves had played for the first baseball team at Green College in 1840. In the same obituary, it mentioned that Graves was born in 1834. So unless he was like the baby in those e-Trade commercials, the whole thing seems kind of stupid.

The commission, though, had what they wanted — “proof” that the game was not just American born, but American hero born. Myth is powerful in all histories. Amerigo Vespucci may not have ever been the America named for him. The Declaration of Independence was probably not signed on July 4th. Thanksgiving may or may not go back to the pilgrims (it may have started long before the pilgrims).

“So what?” many will say. We are not celebrating precise history, they will say. That’s not the point. The point is we are celebrating something else, something harder to describe, something larger. A feeling. In the end, surely, baseball wasn’t invented at all. Surely it evolved over many, many years. But don’t call me Shirley — what’s interesting about that?

The commission had their perfect myth — a war hero in Abner Doubleday, the beautiful village of Cooperstown, a clean beginning. The commission released its finding that Doubleday invented baseball in 1908, and yes within a year a man named Will Irwin completely blew up the the commission’s findings in Colliers. Many, many other people blew up the commission’s findings. It didn’t matter. Doubleday is still known. Cooperstown is home to the Hall of Fame. A strong myth — especially one that strikes at the heart of patriotism — will tend to be a lot more powerful than a vague truth.

And, yes, the myth of Abner Doubleday really was about patriotism as much as anything else.

“How any one could contend that a game which is so fast and which requires so much agility and quick thought could be of English origin is hard to understand,” they wrote in the Washington Post in celebration of the commission’s findings.

“One of the most attractive features,” the New York Times wrote of Spalding’s Official Guide of 1908, “is the decision of a special commission of the highest authorities declaring the origins of baseball to be strictly American.”

“Just in my present mood,” Graves finished off his letter to the commission, “I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball.”

There are various interesting historical side notes to all this — for instance, there may have been a DIFFERENT Abner Doubleday, a cousin of the General, who (if you want to give Graves the benefit of doubt, and I’m not sure why you would) may have introduced some new rules and a new name to Cooperstown (though he certainly did not INVENT anything). There is plenty of fascinating stuff if you’re interesting in the origins of baseball.

But the larger point is simply this: Abner Doubleday is not the father of baseball. He’s not the older brother of baseball. He’s not a great uncle of baseball twice removed. He’s not related in any way to baseball. No historians disagree on this point. No historians EVER thought he was the father of baseball — the Mills Commission did not have any historians on it.

And Bud Selig should know this. Maybe he does know this. Whatever, as commissioner of baseball has embarrassed himself with this letter. If Bud Selig has ever spoken to even one historian who believes that Abner Doubleday had anything at all to do with the invention of baseball then he owes it to the world to name the historian so that either:

A. This historian can present evidence that has never been presented.

or

B. Other historians can laugh at this historian at parties.

Of course, Bud doesn’t just say there was one historian. He suggests there were many. “Of ALL of the historians” — he says. Yep, there are apparently many historians out there, a secret society of them who write scholarly papers like “The Great Pumpkin: Linus was right!” and “How Music Boxes Really Work (The Tiny Little Ballerina Theory)”. And these historians divulge their evidence to the commissioner that Abner Doubleday did indeed invent baseball no matter what anyone says.

I like Bud Selig. I really do. I like him so much, that I make this offer: Bud, if you ever find yourself in this sort of position, where you are debating whether or not to tell someone that he thinks Abner Doubleday is the father of baseball, just call me. Really. I’ll tell you my honest opinion about what you should do. In this case, my advice would have been: Uh, really, don’t.

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Upsetting

A group of us once got into a long argument about the quality of the thoroughbred name “Seattle Slew.” The people on my side of the argument believed that the name was awesome. The people on the other side of the argument believed that the name, well, was not awesome at all. The argument solved absolutely nothing, of course, because you can’t win or lose an argument about an entirely subjective thing like Ginger or Mary Ann, Unitas or Montana, or how good a name sounds. This, I think, is why many sports fans love to stay in the realm of the subjective. Nobody can ever lose an argument.

But my point here is not to explain why I think Seattle Slew is a great name (you either get that or you don’t) but to point out right at the start that I’m the kind of person who will waste numerous hours pointlessly arguing about it. I romanticize thoroughbred names. I can’t help it. OF COURSE, Secretariat ran away from Sham — how could it be any different? He was Secretariat. And he was Sham.

To me, the marvelously named Whirlaway HAD TO BE a wildly inconsistent horse — how could a horse named Whirlaway be anything but wildly inconsistent? Whirlaway would tend to drift in his races, as if daydreaming, and he lost plenty that he should have won. But, when right, when locked in, Whirlaway was unbeatable, as he was in the 1941 Kentucky Derby when he ran 2:01.4, a record at the time. He won the Preakness and the Belmont too.

Spectacular Bid made a spectacular bid for the Triple Crown, but lost the Belmont to Coastal. Is it a coincidence that Silver Charm, after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, lost the Belmont to Touch Gold? Zenyatta, after 19 consecutive victories, lost her final race on Saturday despite a remarkable closing charge down the stretch. What horse beat Zenyatta and sent horse racing fans into a Saturday night depression? Blame Blame, of course.

Think about the power of names like Northern Dancer and Majestic Prince and Damascus and Alysheba. One of the great questions in sports, is this: Do the names make the horses? Or do the horses make the names?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”
— Romeo and Juliet

“A rose by another other name would wither and die.”
— Alan Swann, My Favorite Year.

So what is it? Is Affirmed a great name? Is Seabiscuit a great name? Maybe, maybe not, but those horse were so wonderful that their names took on power.* Those BECAME great names.

*Though an inarguably bad name — like A.P. Indy or Buckpasser or Tom Fool — stays bad no matter how great the horse.

All of which finally leads us to our point: You probably know the story of Man O’ War, one of the great racehorses of all time. Man O’ War won 20 of his 21 races. Most people probably assume that Man O’ War won the Triple Crown — he did not. He probably would have won it, but his owner — Samuel D. Riddle — did not enter him in the Kentucky Derby. Riddle supposedly had something against the great state of Kentucky*. Anyway, Man O’ War did go to the Preakness where he breezed to a length and a half victory. He then went to the Belmont and won by 20 lengths. He won every race for the rest of his career, including the Dwyer Stakes, the Travers and so on. He retired after that year, universally celebrated as the greatest race horse of the age.

*Seventeen years later, Riddle’s horse War Admiral — sired by Man O’ War — was entered in the Kentucky Derby and did win the Triple Crown.

Man O’ War was so great and overwhelming that The Associated Press named him Horse of the Century AHEAD of Secretariat.

OK, so that’s background. Well, as you probably know, a legend has built up around Man O’ War — a legend so powerful and convincing that people simply refuse to believe it isn’t true. As mentioned, Man O’ War lost only one race in his extraordinary career. That was at Saratoga Springs, in New York, at the Sanford Memorial on August 13, 1919.

He lost the race to a horse named “Upset.”

Now, I had always been told and always believed that this event — Upset beating Man O’ War — was so shocking that the sports word “Upset” (meaning “an unexpected defeat of the favorite in a game”) was popularized that day. The legend is that every time you hear the word upset — like you do 4,853,953 times during the college football season — it goes back to that day when a little horse called Upset beat the great Man O’ War.

It’s a beautiful little story. It perfectly fits the imagination. Imagine it: A horse named Upset so shocks the world by beating an unbeatable horse, that his very name becomes a noun representing shock. It would be like calling modern upsets “Eruziones” or “Busters” — which would be awesome, by the way. But so far we are sticking with “upset.” And that was the name of the horse that beat Man O’ War. And yes, it’s a great story.

Unfortunately, it isn’t true. And, if you do a little bit of research, you will find that it’s not even close to being true and there’s no way it even could be true. We’ll get to all that in a second.

First, we look at the noun “upset.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “upset” as a noun meaning “an overturning or overthrow of ideas, plans, etc.” goes back to 1822 — almost 100 years before Man O’ War lost.

The OED offers three examples and the one in 1886 — “The result was a complete upset of all the predictions of the prophets” — seems pretty directly connected to the sports use of the word. So right away, we have get a pretty good hint that this story might not be true.

But, we can still argue that while the noun “Upset” might have been around for a long time, it might not have been used in a sports way before Man O’ War, right? Even the Oxford English Dictionary does not find a sports usage of the word until a 1921 tennis match (nice effort OED). So it’s possible …

No. It isn’t. For that we go to the Word Origins site, which tells us the story of researcher George Thompson. It seems that Thompson was one of the many people who believed this Upset story had to be bogus. But nobody had been able to prove it. Then, in 2002, given the full New York Times database for the first time, Thompson went back to look. And just in one paper, just in the New York Times, he found a whole bunch of sports uses of the word “Upset” that go all the way back to this in 1877:

“The programme for to-day at Monmouth Park indicates a victory for the favorite in each of the four events, but racing is so uncertain that there may be a startling upset.”

Well, there you go. That’s a horse racing use of the word Upset, and that’s 1877 — more than FORTY YEARS before Man O’ War. And as mentioned, it was used just in the New York Times many, many times after that and before Man O’ War’s loss.* It’s unfortunate, yes, but the Upset story simply isn’t true.

But, here’s where we get to what I think is even more interesting: This thing doesn’t even make sense as a sports story. See, Man O’ War’s loss to Upset wasn’t even viewed as a crazy upset on the day of the race. What people forget is that the loss came in Man O’ War’s sixth race. He was not viewed as the greatest race horse of his time, not yet, not even close. His greatest victories were still months away. True, he was an extremely promising young thoroughbred. True, he was the odds-on favorite to win that race of 2-year-olds, going off at 1-2.

True, he was already viewed as one of the great two-year-olds in recent memory. But that’s like a pitcher being the best 19-year-old in recent memory. Upset was hardly a slug; Upset was also viewed as a promising horse and was third choice at 7-1. Another horse, Golden Groom, was considered a very promising two-year-old and he was a 2-1. Everyone knew then like they know now — two-year-old horses are unpredictable. Yes, sure, people thought Man O’ War would win. People bet on him to win. But this wasn’t exactly the Soviet Hockey Team in 1980.

Put it this way — after Upset beat Man O’ War there were hardly ANY stories about the loss in newspapers across America. And this was in a time when horse racing was a major sport in America. It simply wasn’t that big a deal. A potentially great two-year-old had been beaten. Happens all the time.

And even more to the point: Nobody was disappointed in Man O’ War’s performance that day. In fact, it was widely viewed as a Man O’ War triumph of the spirit:

New York Times headline: “Man O’ War Furnishes the Thrill of Race but is Beaten by a Neck.”

Washington Post headline: “Poor Racing Luck Beats Man O’ War.”

This was the wide view. Man O’ War was blocked “two or three times” by other horses, had to go way outside at the finish and still finished only a half length back. Also, Man O’ War was carrying 15 more pounds than Upset and, as the Times wrote, “on the very performances of the two today, (Upset) would not appear to have a chance to win under an even break.” Man O’ War made a spectacular comeback, so spectacular so that the few writers who did cover the race wrote about it as if Man O’ War had won.

“Though defeated, Man O’ War not discredited,” The New York Times wrote. “On the contrary, the manner in which he ran this race stamped him, in the opinion of the horsemen, as the best of his division without question.”

That doesn’t really sound like the sort of victory that would bring the word “Upset” to the masses, does it?

On Sunday, through a series of events that only seem to happen on Twitter, I found myself tweeting that the Upset story is a myth. I received numerous somewhat pointed responses and emails that it most certainly IS NOT a myth, that it is ABSOLUTELY TRUE, that I should GO STUDY MY HISTORY. We want very much to believe in what sounds good. This is true of sports. This is true of life too. The Upset story is a great story, it really is. But I’ll leave you with the lead paragraph written by Harry N. Price in the Washington Post that day of the race, lines that should pretty much shovel the last bit of dirt on the Upset myth.

“Man o’ War, the Glen Riddle farm’s splendid chestnut 2-year-old, although beaten in the Sanford memorial this afternoon, really clinched the championship among juveniles when, after a lot of bad racing luck, he finished only a half length behind Harry Payne Whitney’s Upset … One might make all sorts of puns about it being an upset, and in faith it was, but Man O’ War in the opinion of nine out of ten observers, was far the best colt in the race.”

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Miracles in Sports

Football, I think, is the sport that most inspires absurd prayers. Sure, there are miraculous comebacks in all sports — the sorts of comebacks that inspire announcers to use that wonderful sports cliche “Well, stranger things have happened” — but dreamers can PLAN those miracles in football. We can sketch them out in our minds. In baseball, seven-run comebacks just kind of happen. A walk, an error, a close call that the umpire doesn’t call strike three, there are too many scenarios to imagine. In basketball, the action in the final minutes is so choppy and comebacks so reliant on missed-free throws and timeouts, that it doesn’t excite the imagination. Three goal comebacks in the final minutes happen in soccer or hockey, but bizarre and unplanned things have to happen.

But in football — well think about how many times you have thought something like this:

“OK, if they score here, get the onside kick, score again, stop them on three plays, score again …”

I spent most of my childhood coming up with bizarre and thoroughly implausible scenarios that would allow the Cleveland Browns to come back and win. And even though the Browns were known for much of my childhood as the Cardiac Kids for the way they came back, they almost never actually lived up to to my most inspired plans. I really remember it happening only once. That was against the New York Jets in the playoffs in January, 1987. The Jets took a 20-10 lead with about four minutes left. The Browns looked utterly dead. Most people would remember one play from the comeback, the Browns faced a third-down and 24 from deep in their own end and Mark Gastineau was flagged for roughing the passer, giving the Browns a huge first down. Most people think that was the game-changer.

BUT … as someone who has watched that game at least 10 times, I believe that wasn’t the real game changer. No, following that penalty, Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar BADLY missed on two consecutive passes. They looked utterly lost. On third down, Kosar completed a dinky little pass, and the receiver was tackled short of the first down. BUT the official gave the Browns an absurdly good mark, giving Cleveland the first down.

Jets coach Joe Walton went bonkers. He was screaming like a mad man, trying to get the attention of the officials. And given those few seconds, the Browns regained their balance. They drove right down the field and scored the touchdown to make it 20-17 with two minutes left. They tried the onside kick and failed, but they still had a couple of timeouts and the Jets lost their minds (trying a quarterback draw which stopped the clock, committing a penalty on the punt that changed field position, committing a pass interference penalty) and the Browns tied the game (they could have won it in regulation but wasted time celebrating). They won it in double overtime (on Mark Moseley’s second field goal attempt — he missed a 23-yard field goal in the first overtime. Yes, a 23-yard field goal). It was awesome. The comeback happened just the way I wrote it up in my deluded mind.

I bring all this up because a football miracle happened Saturday — and I suspect almost nobody noticed. There was no real reason for people to notice — the game was between Kansas and Colorado. Kansas is terrible this year. Colorado is terrible this year. Almost nobody in Kansas or Colorado even cared about this game.

But they played the anyway. And Colorado destroyed Kansas. Absolutely crushed them. At one point, I went out to run an errand and the game was on the radio. Bob Davis, the radio voice, was describing a Kansas drive with his “Well, maybe the Jayhawks can get a consolation touchdown here” voice. Bob has had to use that voice plenty in his 27 years as Kansas play-by-play announcer. The color commentator said something about how the Jayhawks were not going to win the battle of the scoreboard, but they might win this fourth quarter.

The Jayhawks trailed 45-17. There were about 12 minutes left in the game.

There are not too many Kansas football fans this time of year. But there are some. And I have no doubt that somewhere, there was a Jayhawks fan, at least one, was was as irrational as I was as a kid, someone who was trying to work out the math that would lead to a Kansas victory. Stupid math. Dream math. No team, and certainly no team as ineffective as Kansas, can pull off that comeback.

The Jayhawks plodded their way down the field as I listened. The Jayhawks faced a third and 1 deep in Colorado territory and got stuffed for no gain. The clock wound down as the Jayhawks tried to decided what to do. They called timeout with 11:28 left. “They’ll go for it,” Bob Davis said with that inflection in his voice. The Jayhawks gave the ball to James Sims on fourth down and he shoved ahead for the first down, though not by much. The clock kept winding. On the next play, they gave the ball to Sims again, and this time he broke through the line, scored from 13 yards out. The Jayhawks were down 45-24. There was 11:05 left. They had their consolation touchdown. I turned off the radio.

Of course, the Jayhawks tried the onside kick — desperation, and all — and they actually got the ball back. It’s always a thrill when the kicking team recovers an onside kick. The offense plodded around — no gain, a two yard gain, a third-down pickup, the clock ticked down to under 10 minutes. Then quarterback Quinn Meacham connected with Johnathan Wilson* on a 38-yard touchdown pass. And then the score was 45-31. And there was 9:26 left.

*This is, I think, the first time I have seen someone spell his name “Johnathan” with the two Hs. But I think it makes perfect sense.

Now, Colorado had to be a little bit freaked out. The Buffaloes had not won a Big 12 game, and they were on the road, and a 14-point lead with nine minutes left is no longer anything close to insurmountable. The Jayhawks kicked deep and the Buffaloes got the ball on the 22. After a couple of clock-draining runs that did not drain nearly enough clock — what was the hurry? — Colorado picked up a first down on a good pass. They were in good position. On first down, they gained 5 yards, and the clock was at 8:00 … 7:59 … 7:58 … for those remaining Colorado fans it must have felt like classic Larry Munson line: “Somebody poured molasses on the clock!”

With 7:44 left, Colorado receiver Toney Clemons got his first carry of the game on a reverse. He fumbled. Kansas’ Tyler Patmon scooped it up, ran 28 yards for a touchdown. And the score was 45-38.

Colorado, undoubtedly, was now in full-fledged panic mode. The Buffaloes had built their lead with a blistering passing attack led by quarterback Cody Hawkins and when they got the ball back they decided they needed to get back to that attack. Of course, as every football fan believes, once things start turning bad, they tend to stay bad. Hawkins completed a short pass on first down, and on second down he threw an interception to the aforementioned Tyler Patmon. Five plays later, Sims scored from six yards out and tied the game at 45. There was still 4:44 left. The Jayhawks had scored four touchdowns in a little more than six minutes.

The rest of the game played out as it had to play out. Kansas kicked off and stuffed Colorado in three plays — the last a sack of Hawkins. A short punt, Kansas got the ball on its own 37. And five plays later, Sims scored on a 28-yard touchdown run. There were 52 seconds left in the game.

Colorado promptly drove right down the field thanks to a dumb Kansas penalty and a couple of big passes, but they failed twice to score from the Kansas 7 and that was it. Kansas had come back from a 28-point fourth quarter deficit with time to spare. It wasn’t big news, wasn’t really even small news nationally, because at the end Kansas isn’t good, Colorado isn’t good, the stadium was less than half filled when the miracle happened. That’s OK. It was still great. Stuff like this happens. And that’s why we keep watching sports even when there seems no realistic hope left.

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Steering Wheel Desk

Brilliant Reader Dave Yeager points us to this absolutely remarkable product.

It is called the “Auto Exec Wheelmate Steering Wheel Desk Tray.”

Really. A desk for your steering wheel. This truly may be the most dangerous product that has ever been released for public consumption. I mean, there’s an FDA that is supposed to protect us from dangerous drugs or at the very least make the drug company read this comical list of side effects in their commercials. How can there not be a SDA — Stupidity and Danger Association — out there to protect people from something THIS DEADLY.

Who would even think of something this absurdly dangerous? A desk for the steeling wheel. Sure. How about a trampoline for gutter cleaning? The kitchen knife for roller coasters? The toaster shower?

My favorite part of the product is a sentence stuck near the end of the product description: “For safety reasons, never use this product while driving.”

No, wouldn’t think of it. I’m just buying a desk for my steering wheel in case I’m planning on doing a little correspondence while, um, tailing a suspect?

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Certain Hall of Famers (Baseball)

One of the fun questions in sports is this one: Who is a Hall of Famer? Not: Who WILL be a Hall of Famer? Not: Who has a CHANCE to be a Hall of Famer?

But who is a Hall of Famer? Right now? If the career ended tomorrow in some startlingly undramatic way — turf toe, like Jack Lambert, or simply walking away like Mike Mussina — who has already done enough to get into the Hall of Fame?

There are the obvious ones across the sports landscape. Brett Favre — he’s basically a Hall of Fame bust right now (a cement Hall of Fame bust tied to the legs of the Minnesota Vikings and thrown into the ocean). Shaq — Hall of Famer who is still trying to bring “aura” to teams. Ken Griffey Jr. was trying to play the “Hall of Famer as distinguished presence” game for the Mariners and it didn’t go so well.

But the interesting ones are the Hall of Famers who are STILL GOOD, the ones you can point out to your kids, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your cousin from Malaysia, and say: “Watch that player right there because he is one of the greatest who ever played.”

But who are these players? Well, this won’t surprise you, Bill James put together a baseball formula to determine the Hall of Famers. You can read all about the formula in the Bill James Handbook 2011, which I am assuming you already own and have already read because, otherwise, why would you be here reading this garbage? Bill uses two different systems, and remember he’s trying to determine the players who have ALREADY QUALIFIED for the Hall of Fame. These are the ones who will be playing in 2011:

— Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals.
OK, do you want to know how good Albert Pujols is? Do you want to know? I’ll give you a staggering tidbit here based on Bill’s study. The way he figured it, a player who scored 100 is a fully qualified Hall of Famer. You of course can go to the Hall of Fame will less than 100, and maybe people have. It’s not easy to get to 100. To give you an idea how hard it is, Mark McGwire does not have 100. Pedro Martinez does not have 100. It’s hard to get to 100.

OK … so … Albert Pujols at age 30 (or whatever age you want to believe) has already scored a 148. I’m going to repeat that: He has ALREADY scored a 148. He’s well on his way to putting up his SECOND Hall of Fame career.

But that’s not the tidbit. Here’s the tidbit: Bill breaks down his list by birth year. Pujols was born in 1980. So was, Mark Teixeira. Terrific player, Mark Teixeira. Same position as Pujols. They’re the same age. Pujols has played a couple of years longer, but Tex was only in the minor leagues for one season. Teixeira has scored a 55. That is awesome, well on his way to the Hall of Fame — the only player born after 1978 who has a score that high is Joe Mauer with 57.

And Albert Pujols basically has THREE TIMES MORE points that Tex.

He’s pretty good.

— Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees
Bill brings up a great point when discussing the steroid question; we haven’t had a real Hall of Fame test case yet. Yes, Mark McGwire had a great career. But there are legitimate non-steroid knocks on McGwire. I happen to think McGwire is a Hall of Famer, but he’s certainly not the slam dunk Hall of Famer that, say, Clemens is or Bonds or A-Rod. There would have been some people who would not have voted for McGwire no matter what because he hit .263 for his career and he couldn’t run and his defense was not helping much (the Gold Glove he won, notwithstanding) — virtually all of his value were in home runs and walks (two pretty good things, mind you, but still he was hardly multi-dimensional). If a man’s Hall of Fame case is built around home runs, and you believe steroids dramatically increases a player’s ability to hit home runs, well, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at all that McGwire has received so little Hall of Fame support.

And maybe it isn’t that telling. We don’t know yet. By the time A-Rod is eligible, we will already have gone through the Clemens-Bonds-Sosa gamut and will know pretty much where everyone stands on the issue. But until that happens, I’m not sure we do know.

— Vladimir Guerrero
One of my favorite players ever to watch — er, well, at the plate, not in right field. There’s no telling where he will play next year or how much longer he can go — he was looking rather ancient in the World Series — but cherish every chance you get to see him swing at a pitch five feet outside the strike zone (and smack it to right for a base hit). If you’re wondering (and I know you are) how many right-handed hitters have hit .320 with 400 homers and 150 stolen bases … there’s only one.

— Derek Jeter
I have a much longer post coming up on him, but I have a question — for Yankees fans only. And the question is this: If you could trade Derek Jeter tomorrow for Hanley Ramirez, would you do it? As you can tell, there’s a reason I’m not asking NON-Yankees fans this question because their answer would be: “Duh, yes, of course, no question, are you insane, why even ask, that’s ridiculous, that’s just stupid, nobody would do that, of course you trade him …” And so on.

But I’m not asking you. I’m only asking Yankees FANS. So if you’re a big Yankees fan, an insane Yankees fan, I ask you the question: Would you trade Jeter to Florida for Hanley Ramirez?

Send your responses here — please ONLY Yankees fans.*

*If you are a non-Yankees fan, I’ll ask YOU a question so you won’t feel left out: Be fair and honest, what would you offer Derek Jeter to keep him in New York?

— Ichiro Suzuki
I think Bill’s system is right — I think Ichiro is a Hall of Fame lock right now. I don’t think you need to include his Japan stats to make it so. You have a two-time batting champ who has led the league in hits seven times, had 200-plus hits 10 straight years, who has the record for most hits in a season, who has won a Gold Glove nine straight seasons (and will surely make it 10 this year) and has made the All-Star team 10 straight seasons, and has won an MVP and rookie of the year … well, he’s in his own category. Nobody quite like him. I think he’s in right now.

— Manny Ramirez
So, who are the best hitters to not win an MVP award? I think we have to start in 1931, when the Baseball Writers started to give it out …

By OPS+, your Top 10 non-MVP hitters are:
1. Mark McGwire (162 OPS+)
2. Johnny Mize (157 OPS+)
3. Mel Ott (155 OPS+)
4. Manny Ramirez (155 OPS+)
5. Ralph Kiner (149 OPS+)
6. Jim Thome (147 OPS+)
7. Edgar Martinez (147 OPS+)
8. Lance Berkman (145 OPS+)
9. Miggy Cabrera (145 OPS+)
10. Albert Belle (143 OPS+)

Obviously, this list will shift a bit — Berkman is entering the decline phase of his career now, Miggy will likely win an award at some point, etc. But I hope you noticed that three of the best hitters to never win an MVP — Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Albert Belle — were all drafted and developed by the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s. No point except to say that’s pretty amazing. Between 1987 and 1995, the Indians had a knack for drafting hitters who would go on to distinguished — if not better than distinguished — big league careers.

Cleveland picks between 1987-1995 who got at least 3,000 plate appearances:
Albert Belle: 2nd round, 1987 draft
Jim Thome: 13th round, 1989 draft
Brian Giles: 17th round, 1989 draft
David Bell: 7th round, 1990 draft
Manny Ramirez: 1st round, 1991 draft
Richie Sexson: 24th round, 1993 draft
Dave Roberts: 47th round, 1993 draft
Russell Branyan: 7th round, 1994 draft
Sean Casey: 2nd round, 1995 draft

Over the same period of time, the hitters drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates who got 3,000 PAs:
Mickey Morandini, 7th round, 1987
Kevin Young, 7th round, 1990
Tony Womack, 7th round, 1991
Jason Kendall, 1st round, 1992

— Mariano Rivera
I appreciate that Mariano Rivera might be good forever. It’s looking more and more that way. The beautiful thing about Rivera is that it’s not like he’s staying unnaturally young. No, he’s clearly getting older. He’s balding. He’s getting more wrinkles. His cutter is clearly losing some steam. In 2010, his strikeouts were way down, his walks were up a tick. And it STILL DOESN’T MATTER. The guy is as unhittable as ever — two home runs all year, another flawless playoffs, the second lowest WHIP of his career. Remarkable.

But if that “It Happens Every Spring” juice ever wears off … I’ve got to believe at some point the Yankees are going to make a serious run at Kansas City’s Joakim Soria. In 2010, Soria had another Rivera-like year — 43 saves, 1.78 ERA, 71-to-16 strikeout to walk, 4 home runs allowed and so on. He looks like Rivera when he pitches. He seems entirely unflappable (which in Kansas City is revealed by how well he handles playing on a terrible team that can go weeks without giving him a save opportunity). For a Yankees team that has for 15 years has built much of its plan for winning around the closer — and with the collapse of Joba Chamberlain — I have to believe Joakim Soria looks really, really, really important to folks in New York.

Soria told the Kansas City Star’s Bob Dutton that he likes Kansas City, wants to stay, believes in the Royals’ plan for winning, which is good to hear. The Royals do have perhaps the most promising minor league system in baseball at the moment, and if they can finish off the development of exciting players like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Aaron Crow, Tim Melville, Christian Colon and so on, yes, the future, finally, might arrive.

Thing is, I’m not saying the Royals should trade Soria. I’m saying that the Yankees should come after him. That’s a different thing.

— Trevor Hoffman
He may retire this off-season — I expect he will. The Brewers just declined his option.

— Chipper Jones
Chipper is so underrated that I completely overlooked him the first time I did the list. He scores a 107. I also think he’s a Hall of Fame slam dunk.

OK, so that’s all. You will notice that there are some fairly big names not on the list — I would say the biggest are Pudge Rodriguez (99), Todd Helton (92), Jim Thome (91), Miguel Tejada (83), Andy Pettitte (53), Roy Halladay (52) and Omar Vizquel (48). I tend to think Pudge and Thome are in right now and Helton is awfully close. Halladay just has to finish out his career — he’s only 33. Vizquel is a fascinating subject, and one that we can go into another time.

Before moving on, I will point out something interesting — six different everyday players born in 1968 are qualified Hall of Famers by Bill’s system. They are: Frank Thomas (121); Mike Piazza (120); Jeff Bagwell (107); Robbie Alomar (105); Gary Sheffield (101) and Sammy Sosa (100). An interesting group, isn’t it? Just after those definites, you have serious Hall of Fame candidate Jeff Kent (77).

I don’t know that all seven will get in — there are obviously other considerations. But there has not been a birth year like it in more than 100 years. Take a look at the biggest years (this is only for everyday players, not pitchers — I’ll explain why in a minute):

1934 (4): Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente, Luis Aparicio.
1931 (4): Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews.
1954 (3): Andre Dawson, Ozzie Smith, Gary Carter.
1918 (3): Ted Williams, Pee Wee Reese, Bobby Doerr.

Now, 1903 has a remarkable number of Hall of Famers — Paul Waner, Charlie Gehringer, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Mickey Cochrane, Chick Hafey and Travis Jackson. That’s seven. But that’s a LONG time ago. So what why was 1968 such a big Hall of Fame birth year? Of course, there’s just pure chance which is usually your best bet. But the other thing is that all of them came of age EXACTLY when the offensive explosion hit baseball.

Now look at players born to peak in the low-hitting 1970s — say 1951. Dave Winfield is in the Hall. But Dwight Evans, Dave Parker, Buddy Bell, Cesar Cedeno, Bill Madlock — these were big-time players. None of them are in the Hall of Fame, and I suspect none of them will go. What would have happened had THEY been born in 1968? Would we think of them the way we think of the ’68 group?

Next: Pro Football Sure Hall of Famers

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