By In Stuff

The Greinke Trade

A few years ago, Bill James told me something I had never thought about before but now think about all the time, especially after trades like this one: Every single baseball team has prospects. Every one. The best teams. The worst teams. The smartest teams. The dumbest teams. They all have prospects. Not only that — every team has enough prospects to fill out a Top10 list. You never see a team’s “Top 7 Prospects” list because the team did not not have enough to fill out 10. No. They all have 10.

Not only THAT but every year Baseball America puts out its wonderful and indispensable prospect handbook — and every team has THIRTY prospects listed. Even the worst minor league system of the last 30 years will produce 30 prospects in the Baseball America book.

This is worth remembering. Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers traded four young players — all four, I think, still fit the definition of “prospect” — to Kansas City for Zack Greinke. The Royals also moved one of my favorite blog topics, Yuniesky Betancourt, to Milwaukee in the deal. The Royals have now traded away or released three of my favorite blog topics — Greinke, Betancourt and Brian Bannister. Hmm. It’s almost like they don’t want me writing about them anymore.*

*Though the Royals were nice enough to pick up Jeff Francoeur, who will probably inspire a post or two.

The Royals got prospects* from Milwaukee, but that in and of itself means nothing. See: Prospects mean nothing. Every team has them. The question from Kansas City’s perspective is this: Did they get PLAYERS who can help them win? I have spent the day asking baseball friends that very question. The answers are mixed. This trade, from Kansas City’s perspective, is complicated and foggy and, in the end, probably pretty unsatisfying (if you’re a Royals fan). We’ll get to all that in a minute.

*Technically, I suppose, Escobar and Cain might not fit the description of “prospect” because they both have enough Major League time that they will not be considered rookies in 2011. But I’m using the term loosely here as players you might expect to be significantly better as they mature and develop. Neither Escobar or Cain have proven anything on the big league level yet.

The trade from Milwaukee’s perspective, I think, is easy to categorize. It is glorious. Yes, they did deal four interesting young players — 24-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar , 25-year-old (in April) centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, 23-year-old reliever Jeremy Jeffress and 21-year-old (in March) pitcher Jake Odorizzi — and yes they now appear stuck with Yuni Betancourt as their every day shortstop, and yes their farm system is now utterly depleted (though I’ll bet they still have 30 prospects in the Baseball America book).

But they got one of the best pitchers in baseball in Greinke, a pitcher who quite possibly will be more dominant in the National League without having to face the designated hitter and as many stacked lineups (also Greinke fashions himself quite a hitter and will now get to prove it).Greinke now gets together with my breakout pick of 2011 Yovani Gallardo*, the promising Shaun Marcum and the still sometimes good Randy Wolf. It’s not the Phillies rotation by a longshot, but it’s pretty darned good, and with a lineup that finished fourth in the NL in runs in 2010, they certainly come into the season as serious contenders in the NL Central.

*Hey, my last two breakout picks were Zack Greinke and Ubaldo Jimenez so in this, and this alone, I have a pretty good record.

Perhaps just as important: The Brewers are clearly serious about winning. They’ve got Prince Fielder coming up on the end of his contract. They have not been in the World Series in almost 30 years — only Seattle, Pittsburgh and Cubs have had a longer drought (and the Washington Nationals if you count their Expos years). The win now approach can be deadly if you are not in the right position, but the National League Central is not a great division, the Brewers are just a couple of years removed from a 90-win season, and if they don’t win they have no shot at keeping Fielder to go with Braun as one of the best back-to-back hitters in the league. Getting Greinke seems to me a pretty serious victory for the Brewers, especially when you consider they did not give up a single player who would have been on anybody’s list of, say, the 25 or 50 or even 100 best young players in baseball.

And this is the point I’ll keep coming back to as we move on to the Royals: Milwaukee didn’t give up a single player likely to become a star. Zack Greinke is a star. He’s under control at a pretty good price for two years. Of course things can happen. Greinke can get hurt. Greinke can disappoint. Greinke can not fit in. Or the Brewers may find that winning with Yuniesky Betancourt as an every day shortstop is no easy trick. But you always take your chances on a trade. This one seems to me very likely to be a huge victory for Milwaukee. That’s the crux of my Milwaukee opinion.

The Royals side is quite a bit harder to break down. It begins with some recent history.

Over the last 10 or so years, the Royals have built up an annoying but predictable pattern. They develop a star player and then trade him away. This began in 2000 when the Royals traded away Johnny Damon. They had done many things to help Damon feel at home in Kansas City. They actually bought him a house in town. They made him their face in the community. In 2000, Damon led the league in runs scored and stolen bases. When the season ended, he made it clear that unless the Royals intended to make a huge financial commitment to build a winner, he did not want to stay. The Royals traded him away. Damon still gets booed when he comes to Kansas City.

Two years later, it was Jermaine Dye — coming off the year when, improbably, he started the All-Star Game. It is hard to imagine a Royals player ever again starting the All-Star game. Oh it will happen, but who knows when? Dye was not a homegrown product — he had come from Atlanta — but he did find stardom in Kansas City. He too seemed about ready to price himself out. And just as that was about to happen, the Royals dealt him for Neifi Perez in what was probably the most disastrous trade in team history.

Finally, there was Carlos Beltran, probably the only true five tool player the Royals farm system has ever developed (though George Brett was certainly a complete player, and Bo Jackson was a phenomenon). Beltran could hit, hit with power, he’s still the most successful base stealer in baseball history, he’s won multiple Gold Gloves in center field. He made it clear that he intended to go with the best deal when he became a free agent. The Royals knew they weren’t going to give him the best deal. They decided to trade him for a third baseman and a catcher — they made this clear before making the trade. They ended up getting John Buck and Mark Teahen.

Why bring up that background? Because the bulk of Kansas City fans have lost faith in the system. They know, absolutely know, that as soon as a player gets good he will be traded. It is simply a fact of Kansas City life. And not only will he be traded, but he will be traded for players that average baseball fans have never heard of.

So … the Greinke trade comes as no surprise in Kansas City. It also comes as no surprise that the four players they got in return are complete unknowns except to the most intense of baseball fans. The Royals will say that the four players are good prospects, and they have upside, and this may be true. In Kansas City, though, these words have mostly lost their meaning. The future has been Kansas City’s promotional tool for a long time now. And yet the future never gets any closer.

I have spent much of Sunday talking to friends in baseball, getting scouting reports of the four players in the deal … and individually all the players have both promise and rather obvious flaws:

— Shortstop Alcides Escobar: He’s a by all accounts a gifted athlete with above average speed and brilliant defensive ability. There are even those who think he will eventually hit. He was a good enough prospect last year that the Brewers dealt away J.J. Hardy and made him everyday shortstop. But in his first year, he did not hit a lick (.235/.288/.326). His 67 OPS+ — well, not many hitters in baseball history have rebounded from that to have a good offensive career. Ozzie Smith did. Terry Pendleton did. Not many others. Escobar also did not put up especially good defensive numbers, if you put any stock in those. The upside for Escobar is as a superior defensive shortstop who will get on base enough to steal bases and be an offensive plus. But that’s certainly no guarantee and his future is further clouded as numerous scouts question Escobar’s work ethic and motivation.

— Centerfielder Lorenzo Cain: Nobody questions Cain’s motivation, he seems to be a terrific athlete with even better makeup. The two names I heard most often in comparison are Denard Span and Torii Hunter, a couple of Twins centerfielders who the Royals have jealously gawked at the last few years. Cain, though, turns 25 in April, and his minor league march has been slow and uneven and injury plagued. He has only played 22 games in Class AAA. He has shown absolutely no power and only average plate discipline. He has the speed and instincts to be a fabulous defensive center fielder, which he could really show off in the enormous outfield at Kauffman Stadium.

— Right-handed pitcher Jeremy Jeffress has a great arm — he has been clocked at 100, and he worked 94-to-98 mph. His problem has been control — both on and off the field. He has twice been suspended for testing positive for marijuana. You can pass your own judgments on that, but at the very least the second positive test suggests a player who has not taken his career very seriously. One more positive test, and he’s banned for life. And in the minors he walked 188 batters in 306 innings, though his command came on enough in 2010 that one baseball executive said it “improved dramatically.” He appears to be a reliever now — especially because he has not found an effective third pitch. You never know exactly how relievers with great stuff and questionable command will do.

— Right-handed pitcher Jake Odorizzi is probably not worth spending too much time on right now — he’s still years away. He pitched well in Low A, and some of the people I spoke with like him, think he projects as a No. 3 starter. Others aren’t excited by his stuff and think he will struggle as he moves up in competition. There’s no telling for sure with a pitcher in Class A.

And so, those are the four guys — and you probably notice the same thing I do: There are no potential stars in the group. Not one. Oh, someone like Cain could emerge as a star, but it would be a surprise. The Royals got two players who figure to start in 2011, and a reliever who could have a significant role in the bullpen too. So they will get some production out of this deal. But there’s nothing exciting here. Zack Greinke is one of the most exciting pitchers in baseball. He’s one of the most exciting pitchers ever developed in Kansas City. And he’s gone.

There is definite logic behind what the Royals did. The Royals have the best minor league system in baseball — that seems to be the unanimous opinion — and so the plan is to be successful in 2012 and 2013. This trade helps fill in some missing pieces. The Royals were intensely weak defensively up the middle — now with Escobar (assuming they can motivate him) and Cain, they have a chance to make up-the-middle defense a real strength. The Royals farm system is loaded with high-end power hitters to play the corners — remember the names Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers (who may still be a catcher but is more likely an outfielder) — and so this move potentially gives the team speed that it otherwise lacks. The two arms they got can both be helpful and added to the truckload of good arms the Royals have in the minors. Royals GM Dayton Moore is a big believer that a team like Kansas City needs TOO MUCH young pitching because pitchers are so fragile, both from a health standpoint and a confidence standpoint.

So, from that point of view, it’s easy to understand why the Royals made the trade. And it’s easy to see what they hope to get out of it. There’s no way to say right now that this is a BAD deal because if Escobar and Cain are good big league players for the next few years and key middle-of-the-field contributors, then the trade could work out fine.

But … two days ago the Royals were on top of the baseball world. For once, they had a chip that nobody else had — they had a young and talented pitcher with an affordable contract. They had rich teams out there with HUGE motivation to make a deal. The Yankees and Rangers had lost out in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. The New York Mets should be desperate to make a push considering how good the Phillies look. The Toronto Blue Jays are desperate to stay tough in the most competitive division in baseball. And so on. The Royals, for one of the few times in the last decade or two, were in the eye of baseball’s hurricane. They had what lots and lots of teams wanted.

And, from an outside perspective, there was no rush to make a trade. Yes, Zack Greinke had made it clear he wanted to be traded … he even switched agents. But so what? The Royals have him under control for two years. Greinke would have had to understand — and if not understand, certainly accept — that the Royals were trying to get the best deal for him. Why deal him now? Why not let the price build and build, as it certainly would. Why make a deal without a potential superstar return? What was the hurry?

Certainly the Royals know more about the situation than anyone else. Maybe they were worried about Greinke causing problems if they waited too long. Maybe they were worried about how he would pitch in a Royals uniform this year. Maybe they knew Greinke would simply refuse to go to any of the teams that could offer them more than Milwaukee did, and so they made the best deal they could make.

But it’s curious. And after the long history of Royals botching these sorts of trades — though it should be said the previous deals were not Dayton Moore’s — there’s a lot of room for doubt here. Kansas City got four prospects Sunday and they may work out. They may not. Everybody’s got prospects. But now only Milwaukee has Zack Greinke.

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By In Stuff

The Social Network

A few years ago, Gary Smith wrote one of my favorite magazine pieces. It was called “Crime and Punishment.” The main character in the story is a one-time high school basketball star named Richie Parker, who was convicted of sexual abuse after high school. The complex story is about the many efforts to both save and punish Parker for what he did.

There is a line in the story that I have thought about many times. Toward the end, Parker talked about how much he had learned from the pain and the hope and the fear of what would happen … but Gary did not use most of what Richie Parker said. Here is Gary’s explanation: “And he said a lot more, but it would be improper to let him do it here, for it might mislead the reader into thinking this was a story about Richie Parker.”

I have often wondered if Gary did the right thing using that line. Part of me thinks that it should have gone unsaid — that comes from the “if you have to explain a joke, it didn’t work” school of thinking. But another part of me remembers the jolt of recognition that clicked in me when I read the line the first time. I don’t think the story would have had quite the same power for me if he had left it out.

All of which is just my excuse to say this: Despite how it may look, the following story is not about really Jose Canseco.

* * *

Twitter
@JoseCanseco I am looking for active or x major leaguers to be in a comedy movie acting as themselves,if interested email me at …

* * *

The first pitch is high, and a 46-year-old man in a gray sweatshirt, black sweatpants and what appears to be a driver’s cap swings the bat with some force. He is standing inside a box of green netting, which is inside a batting cage, which is inside a rectangle of video on a YouTube Page. Above the rectangle is the headline: “Jose Canseco bat speed.” Below the rectangle are 12 comments, which can be more or less summed up by two near the top:

“Just give it up, buddy.”

“your swing looks like shit.”

Inside the rectangle, the crack of ball meeting bat does not sound quite full. It sounds more like a single firecracker going off in a driveway a couple of beats after the rest. But the camera shakes, suggesting that something powerful has happened. Jose Canseco does not admire his work. He taps the bat on the plastic mat where he stands. He waves the bat around in what seems to be a practiced flourish. And he taps the bat on the mat again.

He has done this many times before. You do not need to know his name to know this. For one thing: He does not move his feet as he swings. This is telling. The pretenders often have jumpy feet. The man’s feet are still, his legs are still, it is his hips that he moves to shift weight — first back into the ready position and then, suddenly and violently, forward. Hitters and their coaches talk about weight shift. Jose Canseco shifts his weight without any apparent effort. This is the result of swinging a baseball bat a million times. The swing is a part of him.

You might even say the swing is him.

* * *

@JoseCanseco I have been working hard I am reay to play just need a team

* * *

The second pitch seems a perfect hitter’s pitch, belt high, center-plate, and the man swings with a little bit less force. Canseco is swinging a 36-inch, 35-ounce bat — longer and heavier, he will tell you, than most players in the Major Leagues. The man is trying to prove a simple point: That he is still very strong. His muscles bulge in the video.

Jose Canseco once hit 44 home runs in a big league baseball season. That was not the most home runs he hit in a season — in later life, as an earthbound designated hitter in Canada, he hit 46 home runs, but nobody cared because that was 1998, the ragtime stage of the Selig Era, when Canseco’s one-time teammate Mark McGwire hit 70 and a similarly muscle-bound righty named Sammy Sosa hit 66. Canseco’s 46 home runs that year merely tied him for sixth in baseball and left the man consigned in the jail he seems to hate most … the prison of the unnoticed.

But his 44 home runs in 1991 left everyone appropriately awed. The 44 homers tied him with a beefy man named Cecil Fielder for the most home runs hit in all of the Major Leaguers. But Canseco’s 44 was more impressive because he played his home games in one of the game’s biggest and toughest-hitting ballparks — the Oakland Coliseum. And so, to reach that home run total, he hit 28 on the road. It was one of the better road shows in baseball history. No matter where you lived, the man would come to your town and put on a show.

He was a phenomenon then; he might have been the biggest star in baseball. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was photographed shirtless by Annie Leibovitz. The autograph seekers rushed him nonstop. The women banged on his hotel room door late at night. The piles of money, as he joked happily, was brought to him by wheelbarrow. He sometimes said he felt trapped by it and wondered aloud why his life could not be more normal. But more often, much more often, he wondered aloud why he wasn’t even more famous and rich and successful. He hit impossibly long home runs. What more could anyone want from him?

The second pitch in the YouTube is down the middle, but the 46-year-old man’s swing is a touch late. The ball hits the top of his bat and goes straight up in the air. Canseco holds out his left hand as if it stings. Or it might be disgust.

* * *

@JoseCanseco I remember always being happy when I was on the field playing.I guess my addiction is baseball what a high when you hit a homerun

* * *

The third pitch is knee high, and the man’s swing is pure. He powers through the ball. The crack of the bat has more bass, it echoes. The man sniffs his approval. He never did handle failure well. He always believed that his own unquenchable desire to win and to be famous and to be more famous, his pathological fear of being a failure or a nobody, his never-ending quest to hear more cheers and more boos and more everything, all of that came from his father, Jose Sr.

Jose Canseco Jr. was actually the second twin born on July 2, 1964 — his brother Ozzie was born two minutes early. Osvaldo was named after a brother who died young. Jose was given the burden of his father’s name.

Jose Sr. had built himself up twice. He built himself into a successful businessman in Cuba. And, when Castro rose to power, he managed to get his family out of Cuba, to Miami. There, Jose Sr. worked three jobs and made a success of himself a second time. He was, Jose Jr. would often say, a man without humor. He taught his sons baseball the same way he taught them everything. There was a right way and a wrong way. Jose Jr. had a knack of doing things the wrong way.

“You’re going to grow up and work at Burger King or McDonald’s,” Jose Jr. would remember his father yelling at him. “You’ll never add up to anything.”

Things seemed to come more easily to Ozzie. He was more natural. Ozzie was popular in high school. Jose would remember being an outcast. Ozzie was drafted in the second round of the amateur draft by the New York Yankees. Jose was drafted in the 15th round by Oakland and it took an unusual threat by the great Cuban pitcher Camilo Pascual to get the deal done. When the A’s balked at Canseco’s rather meager $10,000 asking price, Pascual said he would pay the bonus himself if that’s what it took to get the deal gone.

Jose Canseco obviously went on to great things in baseball despite all that. And no matter how well Jose Jr. did, he found that he could not please his father. A three homer day would prompt questions about the fourth at-bat. The tale of the son striving to win his father’s approval, once and for all, is so common (especially in sports) it has become cliche. But that does not make feel any less true.

* * *

@JoseCanseco Life is about beleivinging in something

* * *

The fourth pitch is a bit inside, and Jose Canseco comes out of his swing — comes off the ball, as they say — and pounds it into the ground and into the left net. That is probably a groundout to shortstop in a real game. Of course, it might get through too. That’s is the beauty of baseball. The ball always might get through.

Canseco never did handle success any better than he handled failure. In his best baseball days, he drove his car recklessly. He carried guns around with him. He made the news for confusing domestic disputes that seemed to be tinged with violence, though he always denied it. Maybe it was this: He had trouble being generous — or anyway a certain KIND of generous. Oh, stories would pop up quite often about some good deed Jose Canseco did, some money he spent on a charity, some time he spent with a sick child. There was always someone around, it seemed, to say that the man had a good heart.

But generosity of spirit — that one was harder. It never seemed enough. He raged at other players. He mocked history. He trumpeted himself. When Ali said, “I am the greatest,” there was a joy in his voice, and while he may not have meant it you could hear in his words “WE are the greatest.”

When the man said “I am the greatest,” you knew exactly who he was talking about.

When Ali came back too many times — his terrible final bout against Trevor Berbick was fought on a dusty and dilapidated old baseball stadium with a cowbell used to chime the beginnings and ends of rounds — there were always people rooting for him, always people willing to hope against hope. And when it ended, there were tears.

When Jose Canseco put up a video of his batting practice swing and links to it on Twitter, he gets hammered with dozens and dozens of responses from who tell him to go someplace and die.

* * *

@JoseCanseco I hit in the batting cages and dream of playing in the majors again,well I guess we all have dreams

* * *

The fifth pitch is very low, and the man reaches down with the bat and, with one hand, flips at the ball and hits it in the air. This is a trick of great skill for any hitter, especially a man who is 46 years old. The balls are coming at 94 mph. To hit a ball that low and moving that fast requires skill that can only be acquired with thousands of hours of batting practice. The main thing is how effortless it looks.

He always had the ability to make things look effortless. Perhaps that was why people suspected him of steroids before anyone else. The writer Tom Boswell wrote, simply, “He is the most conspicuous example of a player who had himself great with steroids,” and this was 20 years ago, long before baseball and steroids grew connected. People would sometimes shout “Steroids!” at the man mashing long home runs.

Truth is … most of the time, people just enjoyed the show. One year, he hit 40 home runs and stole 40 bases, and no one had ever done that before. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and others talked about how they COULD have done it, but they never tried, they didn’t know it was a big deal. Canseco huffed that maybe they could have done it. Maybe not. But he DID do it. And that was the difference.

Of course, he denied using steroids then. There was no percentage in admitting it then. As he would tweet:

@JoseCanseco the system and the american way allowed us to become great ay any cost and endorsed the use of steroids at one time

Later, he admitted using steroids in a book that helped changed the baseball landscape. That was probably not the main reason he wrote the book, though.

* * *

@JoseCanseco I guess I wrote the book juiced out of blind anger cause baseball was taken away from me.I am truly sorry for that

* * *

The sixth pitch turns out to be the YouTube crescendo. The man unleashes the full power of his swing and, in the words of baseball people, he hits the ball on the screws. The sound and video makes it clear that this is the high moment, but as usually goes the confirmation of sound and video is not enough in today’s world. “That was a good one,” a headless voice says over the video and Canseco holds his bat high for just an instant longer than for his other swings. That feeling of hitting a baseball on the screws, well, that is undoubtedly still a wonderful feeling.

Jose Canseco says he has regrets. The man is reportedly broke. The man is a pariah — he has been excommunicated by the high priests of baseball. He seems to believe this is because he told the truth about some things, because he admitted using steroids and named a few other players who used them as well. Perhaps he is right. And perhaps no one is ever entirely right.

The man wrote two books, though the second one was not widely viewed as a book as much as it seemed like a scream for attention. The first book, though, was a book in most of the ways that such things are measured. He told the story of his life as he saw it. And he wrote, of course, about steroids, using them, sharing them, discussing them. The release of the book called “Juiced” drew him attention, not all of it good, but he had no doubt learned over years that attention, like all drugs, comes with some nasty side effects. He appeared on various talk shows. and he was a guest star on a couple of reality TV shows, one of them called “Stripper’s Ball” and another called “The Surreal Life.” His name was in the news, and this led to opportunities. He tried his hand in the fight game. He was knocked out by former NFL player Vai Sikahema in the first round. He and the child star from the Partridge Family, Danny Bonaduce, fought to a draw. He did come back to defeat a 45-year-old man named Todd Poulton who had only recently lost his job as a special ed teacher.

He managed to get signed by an a team in San Diego that played in the Golden Baseball League, and Independent Baseball League. Canseco said he wanted to reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher as well as a hitter. He was traded one day later. He quit before year was out. In time, the Golden League would successfully sue Canseco for more than $250,000. That was four years ago.

The YouTube video is an attempt to get people to see how much speed he has left in his swing.

* * *

@JoseCanseco My dad is very ill he is in the hospital fighting cancer let’s all of us send him a big hug so he will get better thank you

* * *

The seventh, eighth and ninth pitches don’t offer any more insight into the baseball skills of a 46-year-old man in a gray sweatshirt, black sweatpants and what looks like a driver’s cap. He hits the last three pitches with various degrees of success. He appears to be breathing heavy. The last pitch seems to hit the end of the bat, and the bat rattles a bit his hands.

When Jose Canseco was 18 and 19 years old, he looked like he was going nowhere. As an 18 year old in Class AA ball, he struck out 114 times in 93 games. He was entirely overmatched at High A. There are 18- and 19-year-olds who overcome such dreadful starts, of course, but not too many of them — and certainly not many who were 15th round draft picks. Most of them find themselves working 9-to-5 jobs and smiling whenever someone talks about how close to the big time they had come.

Then, when Canseco was 19, his mother died. And when Barbara died, Jose Canseco realized that he had better get his life straight. He had made a promise to his mother, a promise that he would make something of himself, the promise children often make to their mothers. Shortly before she died, she went to visit a psychic who said that one of her sons wold become very famous. When she died, Jose went about his job of making the psychic, er, psychic. He turned things up. He took steroids, sure, but even the most staunch of anti-steroid zealots would not suggest that this, and this alone, can turn someone into a ballplayer. He worked out like a madman. He rebuilt his swing, one toss at a time.

And as a 20-year-old, everything changed. He hit 41 home runs over three levels — the last level being the Major Leagues. One of his five big league homers sailed over the left fielder roof at old Comiskey Park. Before his rookie year, he was already on the cover of the Oakland media guide as “The Natural.” His hitting coach, Bob Watson, called him “a mixture of Willie Stargell, Dick Allen and Roberto Clemente.”

And he found — after a few bumps — that he LIKED being famous. He was good at it. His batting practices were shows long before Mark McGwire became the Toast of the Batting Cage. He became a just the ninth player to hit 200 home runs before he turned 27, and every one of the first eight would become Hall of Famers. Anyway, his home runs were longer than the garden variety, and he was the most exciting player in the game — you only needed to ask him for confirmation.

He played for all or parts of 17 seasons. He mashed 462 home runs, which is more than 96 of the 115 hitters in the Hall of Fame. He stole exactly 200 bases which is more than 76 of the 115 hitters in the Hall of Fame. And then he drifted into baseball oblivion, as so many good players do, finishing his career on six different teams in his last six years. And like all players, he has had to find a life after the cheering fades. He has struggled with that part, but many have. That story is as old a sports, as old as life.

In the 1 minute, 3 second YouTube video, the man hits nine pitches. And now the YouTube shows Canseco getting back into his stance and suddenly saying: “That’s enough.” Then, as confirmation, he adds “Stop there.” And he grimaces. He starts to shakes his hand. The YouTube video ends there. The video has received about 4,000 views. When the video ends, there are suggestions for other videos you might like to see. One of these is titled “White Sox bat boy hit in the nuts by Jose Canseco.”

Of course he thought it would last forever. Who doesn’t?

* * *

@JoseCanseco Life is funny I only have you guys to talk to on twitter and I appreciate the emotions and honesty.this is like therapy for me thanks

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Being There With Greinke

Russian Diplomat: “Tell me, Mr. Gardiner, do you by any chance know Krylov’s fables? I ask this because there is something, there is something Krylovian about you.”
Chauncey Gardiner: “Do you think so? Do you think so?”
Russian Diplomat (with a pleased smile): So you know Krylov?
(He leans forward to say a few words in Russian. Chauncey Gardiner laughs knowingly).
Russian Diplomat (happily): So you know Krylov in Russian, do you?
— Being There

* * *

I have written about Zack Greinke many times, for many years, and there’s one thing I can say without even the slightest doubt: I have no idea what’s going on in his head. Of course, you never really know what’s going on in anybody’s head, and that often includes your own. But with Greinke … I feel confident in saying that I’m not even close.

This hasn’t changed now that Greinke has become America’s most wanted pitcher. When Cliff Lee shocked everyone by signing with Philadelphia rather than New York or Texas — giving the Phillies what is potentially one of the greatest four man rotations in baseball history — Zack Greinke suddenly moved to the head of the line. He isn’t just the best pitcher who might be on the market (the Royals appear open to dealing with him) he is probably the only potential No. 1 who is not tied down with Gulliver ropes. America’s Most Wanted Pitcher just turned 27 years old, and he has a mid-90s fastball, a devastating slider, an often tantalizing slow curve and a sometimes baffling change-up. He has won a Cy Young Award. Ever since being moved back into the starting rotation toward the end of the 2007 season he has thrown almost 700 innings and he has a 3.17 ERA, and a 637-to-162 strikeout to walk.

But with Zack Greinke, as you no doubt know, there’s always more to consider.

The first time I became aware of Zack’s, um, unique nature was when he was still a minor leaguer. He was brought to Kansas City to accept his award as the team’s minor league pitcher of the year. I had interviewed him a few times by then, and the conversations were never exactly free-flowing, but they were genial enough, and in general he seemed like an offbeat but fairly typical 19-year-old athlete, confident but awkward, friendly enough but suspicious, the whole thing.

His trip to Kansas City included a team-mandated tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. All of the Royals prospects invited to Kansas City went on the tour — there were probably 10 or 15 players. Buck O’Neil led the tour, told a couple of stories, and so on. And what I remember is that Greinke seemed more obviously moved by the museum than anyone else. He seemed to stop at every picture and wordlessly study it for a few beats longer than anyone else. Over time, the tour moved ahead, but Greinke never tried to catch up. He stayed back. He took it all in. Or anyway, that’s how it looked to me.

“Excuse me Zack,” a television reporter began. “Can we get a few minutes?”

“Um,” Greinke said, and he looked up at the ceiling. “No. This is not a good time. I don’t really feel like it …”

*I should say here that almost every Zack Greinke sentence ends with ellipses. He doesn’t finish sentences so much as he lets them drift off, like projects he intends to complete at some undisclosed later date. This can take some getting used to, though I do think that after a while the fade-out sentences become one of his many charms.

The reporter was not quite sure what he meant by “This is not a good time.” She was under the impression that the Minor Leaguers were there to see the museum AND talk to the media — all of the other players and media types seemed to be under the same impression. She asked him when he would be willing to talk. He stared at the ceiling for a few seconds and then said 10 minutes. And so she went away, he looked a bit longer at the Negro Leagues photographs and baseballs and displays. She came back to him about 10 minutes later, asked again if he could talk. He said OK and they did the interview.

Now … what was that? Everybody around seemed to have a different opinion at the time. Some thought he was messing with the reporter. Some thought he was lost in thought the first time she asked and needed to regain himself. Some thought he was so caught up in emotion as he thought about those Negro Leagues players who never got a chance to play in the Major Leagues that he wanted to spend a bit more time thinking about them. Some thought he needed to psyche himself up to do the interview. Some thought he was hoping that he would postpone for 10 minutes and the reporter would forget to come back.

But here’s what strikes me: While nobody seemed to believe the same thing … everyone was SURE they were right. This was one of Zack Greinke’s great talents from the start: He gives people the impression that they get him. Scouts get him. Reporters get him. Fans get him. Managers get him. Teammates get him. Even now, all these years later, I have no idea why Zack did that weird 10-minute thing, just like I have no idea why Zack has done just about anything. My guess now is that the right answer, if there is a right answer, may very well be none of the guesses. But that did not stop people then or ever again from feeling certain that they understand Zack in some cosmic way, they know where he is coming from, know what troubles him, what inspires him, what motivates him.

Chauncey Gardiner from the movie “Being There” was the simple gardner of a rich man who wandered into the world and found people eager to infuse their own hopes and ideas and thoughts into his childlike words. Greinke is not simple, and his words are not childlike, but here he is, America’s Most Wanted Pitcher, and everybody seems to know what he wants, where he’d succeed, where he’d fail. So you know Krylov in Russian, do you? Some may be right. Some certainly are wrong. But if there’s one thing I have learned about Zack Greinke that I feel confident in saying it is this: Nobody really knows.

* * *

Royals GM Allard Baird (out loud): “Hey, I hear there’s supposed to be some hotshot young pitcher out here.”
Zack Greinke (standing on the mound and staring at the ground): “Yeah. And you’re going to be impressed.”
— First day of spring training, 2003

When Zack Greinke walked away from baseball during spring training 2006, nobody really understood it. Greinke certainly didn’t understand it. He would say that every day felt like a gray day. That was the closest thing to an explanation. Of course many people — me included — wanted to pin some of Greinke’s depression and anxiety on his miserable 2005 season. Oh, it was miserable. Greinke had gone 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA as a 21-year-old pitcher. It was staggering and awful to watch. One day in Arizona, Royals manager Buddy Bell left him out there for 4 1/3 torturous innings — he allowed 15 hits and 11 runs and at some point it seemed that by leaving Greinke out there Bell was breaking laws of the Geneva Convention.

Greinke had never failed as a pitcher before. He had never even liked pitching — he liked to hit, liked to play every day, liked to golf and so on. But, as a pitching talent, well, he was too big to fail. He pitched one year in high school, his senior year, and he was the Gatorade National High School Pitcher of the Year. He had an 0.55 ERA and a 118-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The things about pitching that seemed difficult to other kids — commanding pitches, repeating delivery, throwing strikes to both sides of the plate — came so easily to him that he did not understand why it was a big deal. Truth is: He did not think it WAS a big deal. The Royals made him the sixth pick in the draft though about half of the Royals decision makers were apprehensive about something in Greinke’s makeup (something they had a hard time putting into words, of course) and preferred another high school phenom named Prince Fielder. Greinke’s natural talent for pitching won out.

The minor leagues were not much harder for Greinke than high school baseball had been. He made 14 starts in High A Ball when he was 19 years old and he went 11-1 with a 1.14 ERA. He moved up to Class AA and more than held his own. He was just about unanimously considered the best pitching prospect in baseball. I saw him pitch in the 2003 Futures game — a typically great collection of talent that included Joe Mauer, Kevin Youkilis and Grady Sizemore — and several pitchers topped 100 mph on the Chicago radar gun that day. Greinke wandered out, looked frail, and never threw a single pitch harder than 92. This is a prospect? Only, he sliced and diced hitters — he threw a perfect inning with two strikeouts. His recap afterward was both odd and mysterious: “It was just kind of crazy,” he said. “I mean I don’t know how, but it’s like everything I threw just kept going over the plate … and it didn’t just go over the plate, but it went over the corners.”

At 20, he came up to the big leagues and posted a 120 ERA+ in 145 innings and was named the Royals pitcher of the year. To watch him pitch then was probably as close as I will get to watching a pitching prodigy. I don’t mean he was good — he WAS good much of the time. But he was so different. He was utterly unlike any young pitcher I’d seen. He seemed to throw his fastball different speeds every time. Sometimes I would just write down the MPH numbers on a piece of paper and look at them — 89, 83, 88, 84, 91, 88, 90, 86 — the way Russell Crowe stared at numbers in “A Beautiful Mind.” He mixed in a 55-mph curveball that once left Jim Thome standing in the rain. He once caught both Bernie Williams and the home plate umpire by surprise with a quick pitch. His fastball topped out in the low-90s then, he often pitched in the high-80s and when asked if he could throw harder, he responded with a nod. He could throw much harder. Why didn’t he? Simple. He did not want to throw harder.

If he threw harder, he seemed to be saying, the ball might not just go magically over the corners. It was like Zen.

Yes, he was different, right from the start, and then came his disastrous 2005 season when for the first time hitters battered him around. The Royals felt like it was good for him go through failure, for him to learn how to deal with it, I feel sure that’s why Buddy Bell left him out there to drown in Arizona. “(Zack’s) a smart kid,” Bell said after the game. “Sometimes that might get in the way.” Others didn’t think Zack’s problem was being too smart — they had different views. Some thought stubbornness. Some thought the Royals’ misery — they lost 106 games that year — affected Greinke Some thought he was bored by baseball — and there was some pretty solid evidence backing up that theory. Brian Anderson, who was Greinke’s teammate that year, remembered that once Greinke announced in the dugout that the next inning he intended to throw a 50-mph curveball. The next inning, he threw a curveball, and Anderson hopped to the top step to see the radar reading. Exactly 50 mph. It was like he was inventing little challenges for himself just to keep the game interesting, like someone who cannot watch a horse race without having a bet on it.

Then, spring of 2006, he walked away from baseball. Talked about being a golf pro. Talked about coming back as a hitter. And I know I wasn’t the only one who thought his miserable experience as a pitcher in 2005 was as big a reason as any why he walked away from the game in spring training 2006. I was as sure as everyone else.

But … Greinke says that isn’t right. Close friends say that isn’t right. While his 2005 pitching experience was certainly no fun, they say it was life away from the field that was wearing on him. As one doctor explained, just about the ONLY time Greinke felt at ease was when he was on the mound pitching. Social anxiety is a tough diagnosis, and there are many varieties, and those varieties affect people many ways — ways that they often cannot put into words themselves.

In his six weeks away from baseball, Greinke began taking medication. He began to feel more comfortable about things. He will tell you that he’s still not a social person. He will not feel all that comfortable in crowds or when people want things from him. But much of the gray lifted. He came back to the game as a reliever and began to love pitching again. He started to throw 96 and 97 and 98 mph. He enjoyed the speed. And, in pretty quick sequence, he became a good pitcher, then a great pitcher, then a Cy Young Award winner, then America’s Most Wanted Pitcher.

* * *
@EloquentGlamour: “Tougher” pitchers have failed in New York. No way it happens and I think it’s smart not to acquire (Greinke).
@RyPThomas: “Isn’t Greinke’s psyche, like, the antithesis of what a NYY needs to succeed?”
@CJZero: “Greinke won’t survive in New York if he couldn’t deal with KC.”
@SpudChapp: “Greinke is not suited for NY, unless we get his therapist as well.”

— Twitter Feed

I have written about Zack Greinke many times over many years, and other than my statement above (I have no idea what’s going on Greinke’s head) there’s almost nothing I can say about the guy with any real conviction. Well, there’s is one other thing I can say: Zack Greinke hates the losing.

For some reason, people rarely seem to realize this. People think because Greinke does not feel comfortable around crowds — he has said a couple of time that being on the cover of SI was awful because it encourages more autograph seekers — that he somehow lacks confidence or aggressiveness or competitiveness. No. The guy has those three things in bulk. He knows that he’s a great pitcher. He never backs off. And he HATES losing.

It’s startling to me that people keep missing this. Well, maybe it isn’t startling. I suppose that when you hear someone walked away from baseball, it’s natural to assume certain things. I suppose when you hear someone takes medication to deal with social anxiety it’s natural to assume certain things. But, as my old science teacher first told me, as he wrote the word “assume” on the chalkboard, you know what you do when you assume …*

*You have no doubt heard the “assume” wordplay: “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

Greinke craves pressure. I have seen it. I have listened to him talk about it. He craves big games. He hasn’t had many. You could make an argument that he hasn’t had ANY. I remember in 2006 when he came back to baseball, he was sent down to Class AA Wichita to be a reliever and to get his head together. And he found that he LOVED it. Yes, it was partly because he liked the bullpen (where he could pitch more often) and it was partly because he was on his medication and no longer felt quite so gray. But perhaps the biggest part of it was that the Wichita team was good. They were in a pennant race. The games mattered. When the Royals wanted to call him up to pitch for a third straight 100-loss team, Greinke found that he really wanted to stay in Wichita, where the action was happening.

Throughout his career, he has been at his best in April (before the Royals fall out of contention) and in September (when he can feel the season coming to an end). He probably deserved to start the 2009 All-Star Game, at least based on the way he pitched in the first half, but instead Roy Halladay started. Greinke pitched the fourth inning. He threw 10 pitches, eight strikes, and got a foul pop-up and two strikeouts. Absurdly small sample size? You betcha. But when you pitch for the Royals, and you are trying to find meaningful moments, there aren’t any big sample sizes.

I don’t know how Zack Greinke would do in New York or Chicago or any other big market. How could I know? But when I see people question his toughness or his psyche — either in direct words on Twitter or, infinitely more annoying, in read-between-the-lines quotes and stories — I guess they don’t know him any better than I do. If I had to pick the hardest place in baseball for Zack Greinke to pitch it would be … in Kansas City, with a dreadful defense behind him, with little run support, with little hope of contending now or anytime soon. I would guess that’s why Greinke last year, after playing the good soldier for so long (and signing a club-friendly contract), came out and said he didn’t want to go through another youth movement. He’s been through enough youth movements.

And, if we’re just talking guesses anyway, well, while many people would bet on him not being able to handle New York, I’d bet the other way. Sure, there’s more media in New York — but there are also strict guidelines (and Greinke would undoubtedly maintain his “I don’t talk except on gameday” stance; he certainly is not shy about saying “No” to media types — remember he refused to pose for the Sports Illustrated cover). While New York is a much bigger city with many challenges, well, let’s face it, there are certainly ways for multi-multi millionaires to weave around those (and anyway Kansas City and other places its size can be much more like fishbowls than big cities with countless big stars like New York). And when people ask me how Greinke would respond to being booed when he struggles … well, one more time, I don’t know, but I’d GUESS he’d handle that better than just about anyone in baseball. I don’t think he cares about that stuff at all. This is a guy who once said that fans cheering him madly in the midst of a good game was “kind of annoying.”

That’s not to say that Greinke would like New York or even be willing to play there. I don’t know that. The Yankees seem (publicly anyway) to be looking elsewhere which could mean that they have been alerted that Greinke won’t come there. It also could mean they don’t have — or don’t want to give up — the prospects necessary to pry Greinke away. It also could mean that they have their own opinions about how Greinke would pitch in New York. And, of course, it also could be a bluff.

I also think it’s possible that the New York Yankees — with all of their money, their background checks, their good scouting and everything else — don’t know Greinke any better than anyone else.

* * *

A couple of years ago, I wrote a long story about Zack Greinke for The Kansas City Star — probably the longest of all the stories I’d written about him. After it came out, Greinke approached me and told me a story. He said his girlfriend, now his wife, had called to tell him about the story. He was in the car at the time, and he asked her to read it to him. He had a 45 minute drive somewhere and was looking to kill the time. He said she started reading him … and she finished the story 45 minutes later, just as his drive had come to an end.

“That was a long story,” he said by way of conclusion.

“Yeah,” I said, “It’s probably the longest story I ever wrote about you.”

“It was like a book,” he added.

“Well, I hope you liked it.”

He smiled then, his classic Greinke style, and he looked up at the ceiling, and he said: “It was like a book.” Then he walked off, and to this day I have no idea what he meant.

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By In Baseball, History, RIP

Bob Feller

One of my earliest memories was seeing Bob Feller in a jacket and tie. My father took me to some sort of morning meeting in Cleveland — a small room, in my memory, filled with metal folding chairs placed in uneven rows — and Bob Feller stood behind a lectern (and perhaps in front of a chalkboard; for some reason I see a chalkboard). I do not remember a single thing he said. I only remember him standing in the front of the room, and the awe he inspired, and my father telling me this: “That’s Bob Feller. He threw the ball faster than anyone who ever lived.”

(more…)

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By In Stuff

Great Four Man Rotations (w/Bill James)

OK, let’s start with some history. There are two teams in baseball history that had four pitchers who made at least five starts and went to the Hall of Fame. It’s a fun piece of trivia. But it’s just that — trivia. To be honest, it’s never really happened that a team had four Hall of Fame starters.

Look: The 1930 New York Yankees had Lefty Gomez, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Red Ruffing. That’s four Hall of Famers. The Yankees that year actually had FIVE starters who went to the Hall of Fame because Babe Ruth started a game (he threw a complete game, allowed three runs and won). But those Yankees didn’t really have four Hall of Famers pitching for them. Lefty Gomez was just a 21-year-old kid and he was just called up and he made only six starts. Pennock was 36 and no longer an especially effective pitcher. And though Waite Hoyt was only 30, he did not pitch like a Hall of Famer that year or hardly ever again (except for a brief renaissance in Pittsburgh). That team had players who would go to the Hall of Fame, but they did not have not great pitchers. And that team finished third.

The 1949 Cleveland Indians also featured four Hall of Fame starters — Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Satchel Paige. Lemon was in his prime, Wynn was about to enter it and Feller at age 30 still had a couple of good years later. But Paige was a “rookie” of indeterminate age and he only made five starts. Incidentally, that team also finished third.

So no, it has never happened that a major league baseball team had four Hall of Fame starters all at once, all in or around their prime, all an equal and essential part of a pitching staff.

It could be happening now. Well, wait, let’s not get carried away. It’s way too early to talk Hall of Fame for the Phab Phour Phillies — Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Of the four, only Halladay seems a Hall of Fame lock at this point. But when the Phillies shocked everyone by signing Cliff Lee, they put together the most spectacular four man rotation since … well we’ll get to that in a minute.

First, let’s take a quick look at the resumes of the Phillies pitchers:

Halladay (33): Two Cy Young Awards, seven-time All-Star, dominant performer coming off perhaps his best year.

Lee (32): One Cy Young Award, postseason pitching beast, coming off season with 185-18 strikeout to walk ratio.

Oswalt (32): Former ERA champ, five times in Top 5 in Cy Young voting, perhaps most underrated pitcher of his era.

Hamels (26): The 2008 Championship Series and World Series MVP, not even 27 yet, throws one of the best change-ups in baseball.

Not bad, eh? Most people around baseball would tell you that there are probably fifteen true No. 1 starters in baseball at any given time. A quick list might look like so (and we are assuming health):

— Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals
— Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies
— Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
— Ubaldo Jiminez, Colorado Rockies
— Josh Johnson Florida Marlins
— Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
— Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
— Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
— Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia Phillies
— David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
— C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees
— Johan Santana, New York Mets
— Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
— Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
— Jered Weaver, Angels

Now, you could add a few guys to this list if you want — Matt Cain, Francisco Liriano, Dan Haren, Mark Buehrle, Chris Carpenter, Cole Hamels, young guys like Clay Buchholz and Clayton Kershaw, there are others — but I suspect that most people would go the other way and say some of the top guys listed are not true No. 1 starters. People tend to be pretty strict on the question of what makes a TRUE No. 1 starter. Point is that that while 30 teams have someone they CALL their No. 1 starter, the truth is that fewer than half of the teams in baseball have a real ace.

The Phillies now have two aces for sure with Halladay and Lee, a third (I think) in Oswalt if he’s healthy and pitches the way he did down the stretch (and as he has for most of his career). Heck, Hamels has a chance to be one as well. It’s staggering. At least it feels that way now, in December, with Opening Day a few months away.

* * *

So I asked Bill James what he thinks about all this. Well, the first thing — we talked about the greatest rotations since World War II. As it turned out, we agree that the best rotation is the 1993-98 Atlanta Braves. No team in baseball history has ever had three sure-fire Hall of Famers — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz — pitching together in their prime for that long. It is absolutely amazing. We will get back to the Braves in a minute but here’s a fun way to show you just how dominant those three starters were over those six years:

Cy Young Winners from 1993-1998:

1993: Greg Maddux (Tom Glavine finished third)
1994: Greg Maddux
1995: Greg Maddux (Tom Glavine finished third)
1996: John Smoltz (Greg Maddux finished tied for fifth)
1997: Pedro Martinez (Maddux finished second, Braves teammate Denny Neagle finished third)
1998: Tom Glavine (Maddux and Smoltz tied for fourth)

Now, of course, Cy Young voting is flawed and you don’t want to base too much on it — but that’s still a lot of fun. The Braves won five of the six Cy Young awards and usually played two in the voting. Another way to look at the Braves Three is to simply at their composite numbers over six seasons:

The Braves Big 3 from 1993 to 1998:

Greg Maddux: 107-42, 2.15 ERA, 1087 Ks, 199 walks, 196 ERA+.

Tom Glavine: 100-45, 3.07 ERA, 877 Ks, 464 walks, 137 ERA+.

John Smoltz: 89-51, 3.25 ERA, 1,204 Ks, 382 walks, 130 ERA+.

We’re also going to talk about Wins Above Replacement in a minute — let’s just say that only one team in the last 85 years has had three pitchers with a WAR 5.5 or above in a single season. That was the 1996 Braves.

OK, but because we’re talking about the Phillies, we really need to talk about FOUR man rotations. And the Braves were really a three-man rotation. Yes, a couple of times a fourth pitcher emerged with a good year (you see the 1997 Denny Neagle year). But, in general, it was really Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz.

So, what were the best four-man rotations since World War II? Bill says three come to mind:

– 1971 Orioles. That team is usually the first one people think about because all four pitchers — Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally — won at least 20 games. That only happened once before, way back in 1920, when four Chicago White Sox’ starters (Red Faber, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams and Dickey Kerr) all won at least 20. Few remember that because, of course, Cicotte and Williams were two of the Eight Men Out and they were were banned from baseball after the season. Anyway, 1920 was a different era. And now we see that 1971 was a different era too. We have not had four starters in BASEBALL win 20 games since 2008.

— 1966 Dodgers. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were the stars, Claude Osteen was the excellent third starter (he would go on to win 196 big league games) and the fourth starter was a 21-year-old rookie named Don Sutton. He would pitch for another 22 years after that and go to the Hall of Fame.

— 1955 Cleveland Indians. The 1954 Indians rotation is more famous because that team won 111 games (and lost to Willie Mays’ Giants in a World Series sweep) and had an aged but still feisty Bob Feller pitching along with Lemon, Wynn and the very good Mike Garcia. But we both think 1955’s rotation was a bit more impressive in retrospect. Feller was not really that team’s fourth starter in ’54 — their fourth starter was Art Houtteman, who had a few good years. But in 1955 — with Lemon, Wynn and Garcia still going — Houtteman was replace by a 22-year-old phenom named Herb Score, who promptly led the league in strikeouts. Lemon and Wynn, as mentioned, are in the Hall. Garcia wasn’t quite that good, but he was very good. Score had his career famously derailed, but not before becoming one of the greatest young pitchers in baseball history.

There are other interesting four-man rotations like the 1985 Royals (Bret Saberhagen, Charlie Liebrandt, Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza), the 1973 Oakland A’s (Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom), the 2005 Chicago White Sox (Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland) and even this year’s San Francisco Giants (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner, who at 20 only made 18 starts).*

*And, since we’re already winding all over the place, it’s worth taking a detour to look at the 1967 CIncinnati Reds. That is not remembered as a great pitching staff for clear-cut reasons, but it actually had a chance to be something remarkable. The team was led by 19-year-old Gary Nolan who, along with a young guy named Tom Seaver, looked to be the next great pitcher in the game. Jim Maloney was a big star who had thrown two no-hitters in 1965 and some say he threw even harder than Koufax. Milt Pappas was mostly known as the other guy in one of the worst trades in baseball history — “who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for god-sakes” — but he won 209 games and was a good pitcher for many years. And the fourth starter was Mel Queen, an outfielder turned pitcher who for one year threw some serious gas. He had only one pitch, his fastball, but he could throw the heck out of it, and that one year he finished fourth in hits per nine innings and fifth with a 137 ERA+. He won six games for the rest of his career.

Still, if you are talking about great four-man rotations, you probably stick with with the ’71 Orioles, ’66 Dodgers and ’55 Indians. Thing is, none of those staffs really matches up with this year’s Phillies. The 1971 Orioles were obviously terrific, but Pat Dobson while good that year was not a great pitcher over his career. The 1966 Dodgers were more of a fortunate coincidence than anything — that was Koufax’s last year and Sutton’s first, they just barely crossed paths. The 1955 Indians had four terrific pitchers, but the timing was off. Lemon was close to the end, Garcia was close to the end, and, of course, Score was just starting his fateful path.

We don’t know about the timing of these Phillies yet. But we do know that all four pitchers:

1. Are already bonafide.
2. Seem to still be in their primes.

Let’s look at this this way — I told you we would look at Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Well, here are the four pitchers’ 2010 WAR (according to Baseball Reference):

— Roy Halladay: 6.9

— Roy Oswalt: 5.1

— Cole Hamels: 4.7

— Cliff Lee: 4.3

What do those numbers mean? Well, to give you an idea: Halladay’s 6.9 WAR was second best in baseball (behind hot-starting Ubaldo Jiminez) — you will, on average, get one or two pitchers a year in baseball who post a WAR around 7. Post a number around 7 and you probably have a good shot at being the Cy Young winner. Every now and again you will get a pitcher who had an absurdly great year and might post an 8 or 9 or even 10 WAR (the last 10 WAR was Pedro Martinez in 2000, the one before that was Roger Clemens in 1997 and then you have to go all the way back to Dwight Gooden in 1985).

OK, so a 7 is a great WAR number, and so is a 6. A 5 WAR generally ranks you as one of the best pitchers in the league. And a WAR above 4 is more or less All-Star caliber. Last year, 25 pitchers in both leagues posted a WAR of better than 4.0. The year before that, 26 pitchers did. In 1997, there were 23. In 1980, when there were four fewer teams, there were 16 pitchers with a 4.0 WAR. And in 1968, the year of the pitcher, there were 26.

Point is a 4.0 WAR pitcher is pretty much without exception a very, very good pitcher. Matt Cain last year was just under 4.0 — he was 3.9. The point here is not to sell you on the merits of WAR but just to give you an idea how good all four guys were last year.

Anyway, only five teams in baseball history have had four starters with a better 4.0 WAR. Two of them — the 1909 Athletics and 1912 Red Sox — played during deadball and don’t really match up.

One of those teams was the 1967 Reds I referenced in the italics above.

The other two are 1990s Braves teams … and we finally come around full circle.

* * *

Yes, something like this Cliff Lee thing did happen once before. That was 1993. That was the year the Braves signed Greg Maddux to go along with the Braves already great rotation of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery. There was some of the same hype then as there is for this Phillies team now … and rightfully so. The Braves had won back-to-back pennants. Glavine had won a Cy Young award, Smoltz had led the league in strikeouts, Avery was just 23 and (like Hamels) seemingly limitless in potential. And Maddux was already Maddux — he had won the Cy Young for Chicago in 1992 and his 2.18 ERA was the lowest for a Cubs starter in almost 30 years.

Bill: “You know, when the Braves signed Maddux, they already had the best rotation in the National League, and people started talking immediately about it being the greatest rotation of all time. I remember telling a friend that they would bomb, because that seemed like that was how those stories always end; when expectations are THAT high, you always bomb.”

Of course, as Bill quickly points out — they didn’t bomb. They exceeded expectations and became perhaps the most enduring rotation in baseball history. But it is true that things did not go off without a hitch. There was the Steve Avery fall. Avery was widely viewed as more or less the equal of Glavine or Smoltz. And he followed this up with a very good 1993 season (that 1993 Braves team has an argument as the best four-man rotation in baseball history too). But he was never again even a serviceable pitcher. He had an arm injury, and he threw A LOT of pitches when he was young, and those things could have sparked his problems. Or maybe it was something else. In any case, the Braves had to go on without him. And, of course, they did.

If you want to be realistic, you have to figure something like that could happen to the Phillies four too. That’s baseball. That’s pitching. Hamels had a bizarre 2009 season when he struggled, you can’t know for sure what will happen with him. Oswalt and Lee and Halladay are all in their young 30s, and the odds suggest all three won’t be successful pitchers in their mid-to-late 30s. But, yeah, the simple truth is that this rotation has a chance to be remarkable.

The Braves went the playoffs all five years of their amazing pitching run (with 1994, obviously, being a non-year). They won two of five pennants, lost the other three in the NLCS. They won 100 games three of the four seasons that were not shortened by strikes. And, of course, they won only the one World Series … which has (fairly or unfairly) left those Braves branded with the black mark of UNDERACHIEVER.

What will happen to these Phillies? It’s hard to say. Their lineup IS getting old — every player in the lineup except Dominic Brown figures to be 30 or older. Their shortstop and soul Jimmy Rollins has been on a pretty steady decline since winning the MVP award back in 2007. Their second baseman and best player Chase Utley is coming off an injury plagued season and a postseason where he simply did not look like himself. Their power and glory guy, Ryan Howard, had a down year too, his power numbers were down, and his five-year $125 million deal doesn’t start until the year AFTER next. And so on.

But, oh, that rotation. Bill says he doubted that amazing Braves rotation but after seeing what they did, “I am less skeptical now, almost twenty years later. That’s some kind of a starting rotation, that’s for sure.” I think so too. With Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels the Phillies are clear cut favorites in the National League. They now have the burden of potentially great teams, meaning that they can only do two things: Win or disappoint.

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The Expendable Brendan Ryan

“(Brendan) Ryan became expendable for the Cardinals after they acquired infielder Ryan Theriot from the Los Angeles Dodgers last month. Theriot was billed immediately as the Cardinals starting shortstop, and they let other teams know that Ryan was available.”

— From Derrick Goold’s story on the Cardinals trading Brendan Ryan to Seattle for a Class A reliever.

I wrote this on Twitter: I can rarely remember reading a baseball notion quite as comical as Brendan Ryan becoming expandable BECAUSE the Cardinals acquired Ryan Theriot. I’m sure that there are other reasons Brendan Ryan really became expendable — most of these having to do with manager Tony La Russa — but sure enough they keep pushing the Ryan Theriot thing.

“The reason that Ryan Theriot was traded for is we have a chance to win,” La Russa told reporters.

“We didn’t try to get (Blake) Hawksworth off the club,” La Russa told Tim McKernan about the Hawksworth for Theriot deal. “We had some right hand relief depth and we were able to use him to get a player that we really like in Ryan Theriot.”

I have to admit: I don’t fully understand why the Cardinals really like Ryan Theriot. He’s a 31-year-old shortstop with a career 82 OPS+ (he did have a good on-base percentage in 2008) and a fading reputation as an adequate defensive shortstop. In fact, last year he hardly even played shortstop. The Cubs moved him to second base to make room for 20-year-old Starlin Castro. Then they traded him to Los Angeles, and the Dodgers did not play him even once at short even though their starting shortstop Rafael Furcal was hurt. The Dodgers preferred to put Jamey Carroll out there, though Carroll had not played a single game at shortstop in the big leagues in three years.

Brendan Ryan, meanwhile, posted the best defensive numbers at shortstop in baseball last year. He really is a defensive marvel. It’s also true that he didn’t hit a lick. His .223/.279/.294 line was abominable and probably unplayable. Maybe that reflects his true offensive value. But maybe not. The year before, he hit .292/.340/.400. The difference seems to have been an abnormally high batting average on balls in play in 2009 (.332) and an abnormally low BABIP in 2010 (.253). He may have been lucky in 2009. He also may have been unlucky in 2010. Maybe his true value is somewhere in the middle.

If he can hit something closer to what he did in 2009, with the way he fields he can be one of the most valuable shortstops in the American League. You know, unless Derek Jeter rebounds, there’s an opening for best shortstop in the AL. You know who led league shortstops in combined-WAR in 2010? We are combining Fangraphs WAR and Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement … it was Oakland’s Cliff Pennington. Ryan can certainly be a Pennington kind player. Seattle has been a team that has tried to win with a certain strategy — with defense playing a big part — and it seems to me that getting Ryan for a minor league arm could work out for them the way getting Frankie Gutierrez did two years ago.

Then again, Ryan might not hit at all and end up on the bench by mid-May. Nobody really knows. My point here is not that the Mariners may have made a good move. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. My point here is that the Cardinals traded for the veteran presence of Ryan Theriot (and they’re paying him more than $3 million) and then believed this trade made Brendan Ryan “expendable.” That just seems bizarre.

And we really may be getting to the point where Tony La Russa’s year-to-year decision to manage or retire is badly and visibly hurting the Cardinals. Because it does not feel like that Cardinals are building a team as much as it feels like they are trying to cobble together one more winner for Tony La Russa.

Look: Brendan Ryan isn’t exactly a kid, but he is two years younger than Theriot and has at least proven to be superior defensively. What Ryan Theriot offers is that sort of veteran comfort and general scrappiness that makes Tony La Russa happy. They signed soon-to-be 35 year old Lance Berkman when he is coming off the sort of year that makes you wonder if his terrific career is on a serious downslope. More veteran comfort. The Cardinals are sending out all sorts of weird vibes about what they think of their one gifted young everyday player, Colby Rasmus — it’s hard to wade through it all but it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of love going on there.

There are other signs of one-yearitis — uncomfortable signs, I think, if you’re a Cardinals fan. Tony La Russa is one of the great managers in baseball history. He has won a World Series and two pennants with the Cardinals and guided the Cardinals to the playoffs seven division titles and more than 1,300 victories. But at this point, he does not seem especially interested in being patient or in developing players. He wants now. And who can blame him? He’s 66 years old, he has been managing big league teams for 32 years, there’s no great motivation to think about future years.

And I just don’t think that sort of short-range strategy works much. The Kansas City Royals, at the end of owner Ewing Kauffman’s life, were desperate to give him one more winner. This actually led to one of the most remarkable and stunning facts you will ever hear — in 1990 the Kansas City Royals had the highest payroll in all of baseball. This was because the Royals had given absurd contracts to Mark Davis and Storm Davis, and they gave a big extension to Mark Gubicza. and they actually made 42-year-old Bob Boone one of the highest paid players in baseball and so on. Those financially reckless Royals.

Of course it didn’t work. The Royals after winning 92 games in 1989 were dreadful in 1990, going 75-86 and finishing sixth in the American League West. They were sixth again the next year even after falling to seventh in total payroll. They lost 90 games in 1992. And in 1993, Ewing Kauffman died. The effort to get him one more pennant was noble. But it seems to me that you don’t build winners with that kind of short-sighted strategy.

And now, it seems like the Cardinals are using that same strategy. The Cardinals have enough talent to honestly believe they can contend. In 2010, they had the best player in baseball, a generally hard-hitting outfield, a great defensive shortstop, got 96 starts out Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia (combined 2.79 ERA and 524-183 strikeout to walk) and had an often decent bullpen. But even with all that, they only won 86 games. And they have not won a single playoff game since winning the World Series four years ago. Now they’ve gone out and traded for Ryan Theriot in the hope that will help make them a winner. As a friend of mine says about anything: “It COULD work.” I’m just not sure they’re seeing straight in St. Louis these days.

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Blogger Ethics

Been putting together a few quick baseball thoughts — was going to throw them together into one massive blog post. But then I thought that it would make me look so much more productive if I separated them and posted them throughout the day. So that’s what I’ll do. We start with the Murray Chass saga.

* * *

“Tom Verducci wrote in his SI.com blog that contrary to what I wrote, he voted for (Marvin) Miller. I have no first-hand knowledge of that fact any more than I had of my reporting that he didn’t vote for Miller. The Hall of Fame does not disclose how its committee members vote. However, in this instance I will take Verducci’s word.”

Blogger Murray Chass

I think we have all learned to appreciate the art of the apology in sports over the last few years. Lord knows we have had to hear a bunch of them. But I have to give it up to Murray Chass, a New York-based blogger, for inventing something that seems kind of new and promising: The snide apology.

Last week, Chass blogged with “no first-hand knowledge” that my colleague Tom Verducci did not vote Marvin Miller into the Hall of Fame. He was thisclose to being right — if only he had left out the word “not.” Chass was apparently told this bit of falsehood by Miller himself, though Chass fully understood that Miller had had no more first-hand knowledge than he did. Also Miller is 93 years old, and he’s been through this absurd Hall of Fame ringer a few times, and he undoubtedly had some powerful emotions going. Miller has since apologized directly to Verducci. Chass has since blogged six paragraphs under the subhead “My Personal Journalism Lesson.”

I should say before getting into Chass’ lesson, that in the original post he did not just blog that Verducci was one of five Miller no-votes. He also blogged in detail about WHY Tom did not vote for Miller, throwing in this perky little judgment: “I’m not sure what Verducci, the Sports Illustrated writer, thought of Miller, but I know he didn’t think much of the job Miller had. When Verducci covered baseball for Newsday, the Long Island daily, he hated covering baseball labor. And when he did cover it, he wasn’t very good at it.”

Lovely. Now, Chass was obviously emotional about Miller missing the Hall of Fame — it seems that before he was a New York based blogger he spent some time working in the mainstream media and covered Miller. I fully understand this and actually feel empathy for his feelings. I was extremely emotional when a Negro Leagues committee did not vote Buck O’Neil into the Hall of Fame (but voted in 17 long-deceased players and executives). Still, to call someone by name without proof is not just a violation of journalistic ethics, it is a disgusting thing to do.

And then — there’s this pathetic non-apology. It’s funny, I was over at Baseball Think Factory reading a few comments, and a couple of people actually PRAISED Chass for this absurdity, actually thought he took responsibility for his journalistic atrocity. Are you kidding me? Have our standards fallen so far that THIS excuse for an apology can be viewed by anyone as taking responsibility? Tom Verducci went to the Hall of Fame, asked them if he could go public with his vote to clear his name, and then said publicly he voted for Miller. And Chass STILL blogs that he has “no first hand knowledge of the fact any more than I had reporting that he didn’t vote for Miller?” WHAT? You have Tom Verducci’s first-hand statement RIGHT THERE. He is the MAN WHO VOTED. He’s TELLING YOU what he did. And Chass is now blogging to us that he did “reporting” before to find that Tom didn’t vote for Miller? Last I heard, what Chass did isn’t called reporting. It’s called “assassination of character.”

But at least “in this instance” he will take Tom’s word. Bloody decent of him.

Later, while Chass admits that his reporting was shoddy, he makes clear that it’s the first time he’s EVER done shoddy reporting. Really. First time ever. At first he says that 99.9% of the time he reported with great fervor and ethics but he immediately makes it 100%. He has not been shoddy even one out of a thousand times. Yep, this is the very first time he has ever done anything like this, which, you know, is kind of funny because barely two weeks ago Chass blogged that Texas manager Ron Washington’s explanation that he used cocaine for the first time “defied credibility, but everyone bought it, never questioning the likelihood of a 57-year-old man using cocaine for the first time and being tested randomly at just that time.” Apparently, everyone is now supposed to buy that Chass, a man in his 70s, has for the very first time in his life “taken a shortcut.”

And what caused him to break from his perfect 100% record as a reporter? His words: “I was unable to (check reporting) because I was out of the country on vacation with no access to information, such as telephone numbers or e-mail addresses, for people who might have known.” As a father, I am growing used to hearing lame excuses. But I would hope that my nine-year-old, at least, would have already known not to use something that lame. If Chass was out of the country and on vacation, he shouldn’t have blogged his false post in the first place. And the only email that seems to matter to me is Tom Verducci’s — and that one’s not hard to find.

I’m not saying this was the worst apology of the last few years because there have been some doozies. I’m just saying that it’s a good thing most bloggers have higher journalistic ethics than Blogger Chass.

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The One Day Event

To your right, you will see a poll asking for your opinion on the greatest one day event in American sports. This is actually a tie in to something I did for the magazine this week — my first backpage column. More on that in a bit.

In any case, I tried to explain this on Twitter but it’s not easy to explain things in 140-character chunks so let me try to explain what I’m after here.

It seems to me we have a few American sports events that are truly one day events — no lead-up and no follow-up. The Army-Navy is one of those events. The game stands entirely on its own as an event. Yes, Army and Navy play full seasons, and they have other big games, and so on. But Army-Navy is separated from everything else.

These are the sort of events I’m looking for — the Super Bowl is obviously America’s biggest sports day. But it is not a single event. It is the culmination of a season. Sunday at Augusta is one of my favorite days in sports, but again it is not a single event. It is the culmination of four days of golf. My favorite single day in sports might be the first day of the NCAA Tournament — but it is not a one day event either. It is the beginning of three weeks of basketball.

I want single events where you have a beginning and an end all in one day. Yes, there is qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, but the race itself is one remarkable day. Yes, there are other triple crown races after the Kentucky Derby, but the Derby itself is a one day event separate from everything else. Yes, there is a home run derby before baseball’s All-Star Game, but I pretend it doesn’t exist because just thinking about it makes me hear Chris Berman shouting. Anyway, it has nothing to do with the game itself.

That’s my loose definition of one day event. I probably could have — maybe even should have — put the Rose Bowl on the list. But I wanted to keep it to one thing in each sport and I already have Army-Navy.

Vote away! And complain away in the comments!

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Genius Recommendations

I miss lousy music. Yes, I know, that’s a ridiculous thing to say, it sounds like Dana Carvey’s grumpy old man character from Saturday Night Live (“Everything today is improved … and I DON’T LIKE IT!”). And anyway, lousy music seems an odd thing to miss because, of course, I can get it any time I want. I have more access to lousy music today than anyone ever has in the history of the world. If I wanted to listen to John Tesh or Kenny G, I could do so in about five clicks. Give me seven clicks, I could probably listen to them TOGETHER. I can get lousy music any time I want.

But the truth — and I know this probably doesn’t make much sense, this whole thing probably won’t make much sense — the truth is I can’t get lousy music anytime I want, not really, because lousy music is not something you purposely go out to get. Lousy music is the stuff that just pours into your life, like unexpected rain showers and insects splatting against the windshield and bills you forgot were coming. Or, anyway, lousy music used to pour into our lives. And I miss lousy music.

I thought about this the other day when I was looking for new music to download on iTunes. Every now and again, I will go to iTunes and run through their “Genius* Recommendations.”

*Apple people do tend to throw around that word “Genius” quite a bit, don’t they? Want new music? Here’s our Genius Recommendation. Need help with your Apple device? Well, make an appointment at the Genius Bar. You didn’t make an appointment? Well, we’ll see if you we can sneak you in with one of our Geniuses between scheduled appointments. What exactly would Apple do if, say, Albert Einstein or Copernicus or Mozart went to work there? Would the Apple people come up with a new word to describe them? Would all of Cupertino fly apart in the bright-white light of supergenius imploding into itself?

So I was going through the process, downloading a few songs, when it suddenly occurred to me that I have not heard Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” in quite a while. I should say unequivocally that SFAIR is absolutely NOT the worst song ever recorded. That’s “We Built This City.” And it’s not the second worst (“Broken Wings”) and it’s not even the worst Billy Joel song ever (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”). It’s just a blandly awful song, the sort of song that has made my teeth hurt for many years now. Yes, it did sort of make me want to hit Billy Joel with a bottle of white or a bottle of red (or perhaps a bottle of rose’ instead).* But the feeling usually passed quickly.

*Of course, I am speaking as someone who despises these songs and Billy Joel’s music. If you like these songs and love Billy Joel as you are certainly entitled to do (and many of my friends do), please insert songs you hate into their places. I am not trying to make a musical point here. And I do not believe in pushing my own flawed musical tastes on anyone else.

In any case, though I have despised SFAIR since the first time I heard it, I have still heard it many, many times. Why? I don’t know why. I guess it has played on the radio and I didn’t switch the channel. I heard it walking through a mall. I caught it working out at the gym. I heard it a wedding or two, at a friend’s house, in a restaurant or five, I don’t know all the places I’ve heard it, I just know I’ve heard it many times, and I know the song thoroughly, could probably sing along with most of it, the song is embedded in my brain like some wartime journalist and it ain’t coming out. There have to be a thousand songs in my head that I like even less.

But the point that struck me is that there is almost no chance that I will ever hear SFAIR again (though writing this makes it more likely that I will hear it sometime today). There is no place in my life for lousy music. I don’t listen to radio — I listen to my own iTunes library. I wear headphones most places where there’s music playing overhead. My life is defined more or less the way I define it now. I listen to music I like. All the time.

That’s great, right? Sure it is. And yet … there’s something kind of heartbreaking by it all. Because it isn’t only music. I generally read only what I like too. I do most of my reading online or on the iPad. I used to devour newspapers in whatever city I happened to be in at the time which led to me reading stories that I had no interest in. Hey, look, Penelope Ann Miller turns 40 today! Oh oh, they’re cutting back on money spent for sewers in Tallahassee. Hey, it looks like they’re re-releasing a Brenda Lee collection. Stuff like that. Yes, sometimes, I’d read those stories and pick up an interesting tidbit. Most of the time, though, I’d feel like they were a waste of my time. But I’d read them. And now I don’t. Now, I read what comes through my RSS Feed or what people recommend to me. I read what I like. All the time.

I used to love spending hours in bookstores, walking up and down every aisle, even the computer book aisle, even the calendar aisle, even the cookbook aisle, just in case something jumped out at me. It isn’t like I made impulse buys … the whole POINT was the impulse buy. I would drift around the bookstore, making lap after lap, waiting for the impulse to strike, waiting to learn something about myself.* This wasn’t a particularly effective or terribly practical way to find a book I would actually enjoy. And, much of the time, the books I walked out with were terrible. But sometimes, every now and then, they were life-changing. I remember once, years ago in Cincinnati, walking out of a Barnes & Noble with a book called “High Fidelity.” I’d never heard of the author, a guy named Nick Hornby. Nobody had recommended it. I remember the book wasn’t even particularly noticeable — it wasn’t like they put it on the front shelf or even turned it sideways to give it room to breathe. The book was just kind of jammed in there — no idea how I found it. But I did, and that’s one of my favorite reading experiences because I knew nothing about it and I loved it and so many other impulse buys like that one had been horrible flops.

*Once, I remember, I bought a copy of Plato’s Republic out of the discount bin, not because I had any real expectation of reading it but because it was leaning up against a book about the New Kids on the Block, and, I don’t know, I just couldn’t stand to think that some of the most brilliant ideas in the history of our flawed civilization (even if I didn’t understand them at all) were jammed up against the weepy stories of Joey McIntyre’s teenage years. It cost me $3.95 to liberate Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).”

I don’t walk around bookstores much now. I generally download the books I want, and I download them based on reviews or friends recommendations. I rarely begin a book that turns out to be lousy. And if a book doesn’t capture me now in the first 50 or so pages, it tends to disappear in the “I’ll get back to that” pile (or folder). And, of course, I never do — get back, that is.

I used to watch lousy television too. I know I could watch lousy television now — more options for lousy television than ever before. Heck, I saw that even James Belushi has something new out there. But I don’t. I watched lousy television before because there was nothing else on, because there were five channels to choose from, and after that there were five channels and basic cable (which included 36 new channels, all playing Perry Mason reruns), and lousy television wasn’t just a part of life, lousy television WAS life. I’m not saying this way was better. It wasn’t. I rarely turn on the television without purpose — to watch a game or a show I Tivoed — but when I do I always can find something good, a History Channel feature on World War II, a Biography Channel feature on Al Capone, a Charlie Rose interview with someone, an HBO documentary on someone interesting, an episode of Wipeout where me and my daughters get to watch people crash into giant rubber balls and fall in mud. I don’t ever even watch games I don’t care about, there’s always another better one on. It’s a golden age. And I’ll never have to watch the painful final years of Happy Days again.

So why do I miss the painful final years of Happy Days?

Like I say, it’s hard to explain. I went on iTunes the other day, like I was saying, and I saw that Bruce Springsteen had recommended a song by The National called “Mr. November.” Well, obviously I was going to download that, and even though the song is not about Derek Jeter working through his anger issues and re-signing with the Yankees for $50-plus million, it is a great song with the great refrain:

“I wish that I believed in fate
I wish I didn’t sleep so late
I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.”

Anyway, it’s a terrific song, one of my favorite singles in quite a while. So then I went to the Genius Recommendation to find songs like “Mr. November” and it led me to “Swimmers” by Broken Social Scene and “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and “Pasadena” by the Broken Skirts and “Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo, the name which, of course, comes from a baseball story.*

*The story, which you have no doubt heard, comes from the legendarily bad 1962 Mets. It seems that center fielder Richie Asburn, a great player who in the winter of his career found himself stranded on what is widely regarded as the worst team in National League history, kept colliding with shortstop Elio Chacon. The problem, they soon realized, is that they simply did not understand each other. Chacon was from Venezuela and spoke no English at all. So Ashburn, being an amenable teammate, decided to do something about it. He learned how to say “I got it” in Spanish. That’s “Yo La Tengo.”

And there came the game when a pop-up was dropping into that no-man’s land in short left-center and Chacon went after it and Ashburn went after it. Ashburn screamed out “Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!” Chacon, hearing the words of his country, backed off. Ashburn contentedly settled under the ball — and an outfielder from Pittsburgh named Frank Thomas plowed right into him.

I’d say I downloaded a dozen or so songs based on Genius Recommendations, and then listened to them in the car. Some of the songs I liked. Some I wasn’t crazy about. And here’s what happened. The songs I wasn’t crazy about were eliminated from the playlist, cast out into the iTunes abyss where they are destined to never even get a second play. I know this is absurd because it always takes me two or three listens to fairly judge whether I like a song (just like it takes me 50 pages to know if I’m reading a good book). But I don’t have time or patience or room for two or three listens in my life anymore. I don’t have time or patience or room for much of anything … except what I have time, patience and room for, if that makes sense.

Of course, people talk about this all the time, about how technology has allowed us to retreat into ourselves. You can — you do — find yourself surrounded by opinions you share, shielded from things you find offensive or uninteresting, living in a world where everything you see or hear or read or touch is, like the prizes at the end of the Newlywed Game, “chosen just for you.”

This is not a bad thing. It’s progress. But in progress, sure, as we gain things maybe we lose things too. Maybe we lose a little bit of our edge because we don’t find our ideas challenged often. Maybe we lose a bit of community because few of us ever seem to be watching or listening to the same thing at the same time. Maybe we grow a little bit angrier, maybe Republican and Democrat, heartland and coasts, country and city, all of us move farther apart, because we never really have to listen to each other, we can instead listen to ourselves and our own thoughts every minute of every day, pumping again and again, an endless echo chamber, until the only possible conclusion we can reach is that we are entirely right.

Maybe we lose the surprises. Some 17 or 18 years ago, I was driving around Athens, Ga. late at night for something or other. And I had the radio on the University of Georgia radio station. They were playing various alternative songs, most of which were dreadful, or anyway I thought so. And then they played this song, and it was a beautiful song, one of those rare songs that I hear once and immediately love. I don’t remember anything about it except how it sounded — there was a woman singer, and piano and guitars going in some sort of fusion, and it was great. I remember the DJ saying the band’s name afterward, and I told myself to remember it. But I didn’t. The music went on, the next song was terrible, so was the next, at least I thought so. I only remember that the band had the name of a month in it. For a while, I thought it was “The 25th of May” but I have since heard the 25th of May and while they have their own virtues, they clearly had not performed the song I had heard.

I have never heard that song again. I know that if I ever did hear it, I would recognize it. Every now and again, I will scan the Internet for bands with names of months in them, but I have not yet found the song, and I don’t expect to ever hear it (Heck, at this point, I’m not even sure the band HAD the name of a month in it, maybe I’m remembering it wrong). And, the strange thing is that I kind of I like that. I might not even like the song if I heard it now … the point was never the song, it was the discovery, it was finding something wonderful in the midst of noise on a backroad in Georgia late one night.

It’s not like that now. Now, I go to iTunes and let the Genius tell me what I’d like. The Genius is often right.

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Royals Sign Francoeur (Of Course)

Let’s start with the thing I like about the Royals’ signing of Jeff Francoeur: It’s honest. And by “honest” I don’t mean “predictable,” though, of course, the signing is also comically predictable. People have been predicting that the Royals would sign Francoeur or trade for Francoeur or steal Francoeur in the middle of the night pretty much since the day Royals general manager Dayton Moore took over and made clear his goal of making Kansas City a baseball suburb of Atlanta. Also, Francoeur was one of the few established players utterly incapable of getting on base the Royals had not yet reeled in.

This was going to happen sooner or later.

But, no, I don’t mean predictable. I mean honest. Last week, I wrote a piece for the magazine about Scott Pioli and some of his friends and their view of team building. And one thing that both Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro and Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff went on and on about is how easy it is to TALK about the philosophy of building a team. It’s easy for a baseball GM, for instance, to talk about wanting to build a team that plays great defense. It’s harder to put a guy out there who really fields well but also hits .227. It’s easy for a football GM, for instance, to talk about wanting players who care about team above individual. It’s harder when you desperately need a big play receiver to stretch the field and a big play receiver with a huge ego and attitude problem is willing to sign.

I don’t think it’s malicious hypocrisy or anything like that when teams go against their avowed principles. Not exactly. I just think professional sports is a tough racket. There are 30 or 32 teams going at it, and most of those teams are run by pretty smart people, and there is only so much money and there is only so much talent and there are countless pressures attacking you from all sides.

Take Royals GM Dayton Moore. He made it clear from the day he began that he wanted to build something meaningful in Kansas City. Dayton is a religious man, a family man, a principled man, and he wanted — still wants, I assume — to build a team that embodies those principles. He wanted — still wants — “a team Kansas City can be proud of.” He came into town and swept out some of the players who seemed like knuckleheads and headcases. At first, he was actually taking quite a few hits for some of his high-falutin’ moralism — nobody in town particularly wants a religious and principled family to play baseball at Kauffman Stadium, they want a team that will win some bleepin’ ballgames. And if the Royals happen to have a few good people, hey, so much the better.

But Dayton viewed it this way: The Royals, as a small-market team in the heartland with a long-run of losing, need to be about something more than just winning. And the point is not whether you agree or I agree or anyone else agrees. Dayton Moore is the GM. He was the one hired. And this is what he believes. He was public in his goal to build a winning atmosphere around players who stood for many of the same principles he stands for, who were willing to work harder than most, who were good teammates, great leaders, and all that stuff.

And then … he tried to trade for Milton Bradley. Look: It is possible that Milton Bradley is misunderstood. But it’s hard to say that you are trying to build a team of good teammates when you try to trade for Milton Bradley. Moore signed Jose Guillen. Moore signed Kyle Farnsworth. Moore signed Juan Cruz. Moore traded for Yuniesky Betancourt. Well, you tell me … great teammates? Great leaders?

I don’t think Dayton Moore ever felt like he was betraying his principles. I think he felt like he was being pragmatic. Here’s why I say that: Behind the scenes, he has worked and slaved and pushed to build what is now pretty much unanimously viewed as the best minor league system in the game. The Royals are loaded with prospects who should start trickling into place in 2011 and should start pouring into place in 2012. And in building the future, the Royals (best I can tell) have stuck hard to Moore’s principles, drafted and recruited and signed players they consider both talented and of high baseball character and intelligence. If Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and Mike Montgomery and Wil Myers pan out, then the Royals should not only have a good baseball team but it seems they will also have a good clubhouse with stand-up players who hold themselves and their teammates accountable, which is all you could ever hope for when building a team.

So I think Moore has been true to his core when it comes to building the future. It’s the present that is more of a challenge. Moore talked about how he wanted the Royals to improve their on-base percentage and he promptly brought in guys whose defining characteristic as players is that they can’t get on base. Moore talked about how he wanted the Royals to play better defense, and they put average-to-below-average defenders all over the diamond (the Royals for the third straight year finished dead last in the league in John Dewan’s total runs saved — their minus-88 in 2010 was their worst total yet and 32 runs worse than 13th-place Boston). Moore talked about how pitching was the important thing, the Royals had to load up on pitching, get more and more and more pitching, and yet after Zack Greinke the Royals best starter in 2010 was probably Bruce Chen, an ex-Brave prospect they picked off the scrap-heap just before the season began. And, of course, Moore talked about how he wanted players who were mature and dependable and accountable … and then he gave Jose Guillen the biggest per-year contract in Royals history.

I think Moore did these things because it’s a jungle out there. The Royals have limited resources. They (like every other team) have an owner who can be unrealistic. They have a rightfully frustrated fan base. They cannot be players for big-money free agents — not only because they lack the money but because, let’s face it, what viable free agent is coming to Kansas City the way things are now? Don’t get me wrong. I think Moore deserved all the slings and arrows for spending an outrageous fortune on Guillen and Farnsworth and Cruz and Alberto Callaspo Sidney Ponson and Rick Ankiel and Jason Kendall and …

… but wait. Kendall is not quite the others. I have made it very clear through the years that I do not like Jason Kendall’s game at all. AT ALL. I wish I had even bigger type for “AT ALL.” I cannot think of an offensive player I have less use for than Jason Kendall. You know, last year he had 490 plate appearances without a triple OR a home run. That was the most plate appearances without a triple or homer in 30 years and had Kendall not gotten hurt he had a real shot at Frank Taveras’ record of 598 plate appearances. I don’t think Kendall is a particularly good defensive catcher or handler of pitchers either, or anyway his assets defensively are too subtle for me to pick up.

BUT … Kendall as a person does fit what Dayton Moore said he wanted. Kendall is unquestionably all ballplayer. He wants to play every day. He is the guy in the locker room who talks after wins or losses. He lives for the game and he desperately wants to win. He seems unafraid to take the blame himself or — and this is perhaps an even rarer skill — make sure his teammates take their share of the blame. I don’t think you can win with Jason Kendall because he is no longer a good enough ballplayer to be out there every day, but here I am not talking about my own opinion about baseball teams. I’m talking about Moore’s philosophy, and Kendall is the kind of person Moore wants for the Royals.

So is Jeff Francoeur. I don’t need to go over his playing ability again. I will … but I don’t need to. I have written this before: Francoeur is simply not good enough to play every day. He is a corner outfielder of debatable defensive skill — he has a good reputation and a strong arm but he was in the negatives on the Dewan Plus/Minus each of the last two years and he had a minus UZR two of the last three years. Anyway, even assuming he’s a very good defender, the job of a corner outfielder is to hit, and Francoeur has an 83 OPS+ the last three years. Over those three years, he has hit .256/.301/.389 which is abominable for even a defensive wizard at shortstop or a brilliant catcher. It’s unthinkable for a corner outfielder. And that’s over about 1,800 plate appearances — there’s no mistake here, nothing has been overlooked, no magic switch. This isn’t about adjustments or new batting stances or getting him with a different hitting coach. The guy can’t hit at the big league level. He tries hard. He has a great attitude. He can’t do it.

Matt over at Fangraphs pointed this out but it’s worth pointing out again. The three least valuable players by FanGraphs WAR from 2008-2010 are Jose Guillen, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jeff Francoeur. Dayton Moore signed the first to the richest everyday player contract in Royals history, traded for the second when the Mariners were at their wits’ end and just signed the third to a $2.5 million contract.* The man knows how to acquire ludicrously bad hitters.

*Interesting, I think, the three worst in Baseball Reference WAR are Jeff Francoeur, Mark Teahen and Jose Guillen — also three Royals, though it’s not quite the same because Moore inherited Teahen. Francoeur is actually sixth on the worst list, ahead of Ryan Spillborghs and Wes Helms.

But let me get back to the point. Francoeur, for all his flaws as a player, IS EXACTLY the sort of person Dayton Moore said he would try to acquire. He is, by all accounts, a great guy and an awesome teammate. He’s the sort of guy that you meet, you love, you hope. I remember seeing this last year, when Francoeur went to the Mets and he got off to a sizzling start, was hitting .457 after a few games, and my buddy Vac (a sensible sort under normal circumstances) was saying “He’s figured it out! He’s turned things around!” I told him that this was not likely at all, but he was adamant, he was one of many who have fallen under the Frenchy Spell. Francoeur, of course, got 12 hits in his next 97 plate appearances and was hitting .237 at the end of August when he was dumped on the Texas Rangers. He had a bit of a hot streak in 15 games with them too, once again leading many Frankie fans to hope that something had clicked. But there’s no clicking here. Francoeur doesn’t walk at all, he doesn’t hit with enough power to be dangerous, and he’s just not an everyday player no matter how desperately everyone (including me) wants him to be one.

But those things Moore cherishes — loyalty, work ethic, leadership skills — Francoeur has those in Costco size bulk. Someday, somebody is going to do Jeff Francoeur a favor and use him in a way that will magnify his talents. He hits lefty pitchers. He may or may not be great defensively, but he’s undeniably alert defensively and capable of helping a team in the late innings out there. He is terrific with the media and takes on the burden for other players. He’s a supportive teammate and an energetic presence. And it’s not impossible that as he gets older he could refine his skills. Used right, with limited at-bats, say 400 a year, he could be a valuable player. Maybe the Royals will be the team that figures this out.

Or maybe not. Already Francoeur has made his intentions clear (“I do want to play every day … I’m not the greatest guy to sit on the bench,” he told the Star’s Bob Dutton. “I’ve always got ants in my pants.”). Already the Royals are talking about how if he loses a little weight, if he improves his plate discipline, if he does better at recognizing pitches, if he improves his power …

Ah well. The Royals are just treading water anyway until the gaggle of big-time prospects are ready to play at the big league level. The Jeff Francoeur signing in some ways is kind of sad because it is another “hit on 20 and hope for an ace” kind of move for Kansas City. It’s something for everyone around baseball get a good chuckle about. You KNEW the Royals would sign Frenchy. Good ol’ Royals.

But in other ways, maybe, it isn’t so bad. The Royals aren’t going to win in 2011 anyway. They are just trying to get through the year, develop a few players at the big league levels, let their remarkable Class AA rotation (probably featuring five legit big league prospects) pitch, allow their three or four or five supremely gifted hitters to get a look at another year of minor league pitching. And if they’re just getting through the year anyway, it’s worth going in with the good baseball people that Dayton Moore talks about all the time. Jeff Francoeur, if nothing else, is good baseball people.

In other words: Somebody was going to get that $2.5 million. I’d rather Jeff Francoeur get it than Royals owner David Glass.

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