By In Stuff

How I May Improve It

A few people have asked me to every now and then write a little bit about writing. So, I’ll try to do that, and I’ll begin with my favorite movie line of the last year.

* * *

“Don’t provoke me. You will find yourself in that pit.”
“Lucky Ned Pepper has warned you that if you molest me in anyway he will not pay you. He means business too.”
“I fear he has no idea of paying me. I believe he has left me, knowing I am sure to be caught when I leave on foot.”
“He promised he would meet you at the ‘The Old Place.'”
“Keep still. I must now think over my position and how I may improve it.”
— True Grit, Charles Portis

My friend Tommy Tomlinson has talked lately about writing a book about writing. I very much hope he does it, though I won’t tell him that because I have been trying to convince ANOTHER friend to write a book about sportsmanship for years now, and it seems he’s less likely to write it now than he was when I started the convincing. So we’ll leave Tommy to his own muses.

But I hope he writes it because, bluntly, most of the books on writing I have seen are pretty awful. No, wait, that’s not quite fair. I’ll put it another way: Most of the books on writing I have seen don’t speak to me at all. They seem to focus on tricks or rules or shortcuts. These are the very things that made me believe, throughout my childhood up through my first couple of years in college, that writing is a horrible chore that a person must endure, not unlike a weight-loss diet.

It’s going to hurt. There’s nothing we can do about that. But read this book, and we’ll make it hurt as little as possible.

I’m obviously biased, but I don’t think writing — the REAL stuff — hurts at all. I think it is, as Woody Allen once wrote, as much fun as you can have without laughing. I don’t think I’m alone. You can tell by the proliferation of blogs on the Web that a lot of people love to write. They may not love to write briefs or reports or reviews, but give a person something her or she is passionate about, something they know a little bit about, and it’s natural — it’s HUMAN — to just start communicating about it. Writing, talking, gesturing … it all comes from the same place.

I remember when our air conditioning went out, I was talking with the guy who came out to fix it. Nice guy. And for some reason, I asked why he used the screwdriver he used. Well, he went into a five-minute soliloquy about screwdrivers, how they feel in the hand, how he had found this one in a bargain bin near the front of a Lowe’s and he picked it up and just KNEW that it was the one for him, not unlike the way wizards pick wands in “Harry Potter.” He didn’t say the Harry Potter bit, but he was almost using J.K. Rowling’s words. He explained how easily the thing twisted in his hand, how his hand never cramps up, how he didn’t like using electric screwdrivers because of the way they could strip the screws (or something), and anyway he liked the FEEL of the screws coming loose, on and on. It was fascinating, I thought.

A few minutes later, he was telling me: “I just don’t know how you do that writing thing. I could never do that.”

Only he could. And he did. Writing, to me, is about reaching inside yourself. And that, I think, is what many of the books about writing get wrong for me. They are about the form. And they are not enough about the words.

I’ve known Tommy for more than 20 years, and we’ve talked about just about everything — life and death, sports, life and death in sports and so on. As you might guess, we’ve talked endlessly about writing. But as I think about it, we have not talked often enough about words, how they fit together, how they can spark emotion, how some words make us angrier than other words, how some words make us laugh harder than other words, how some can reach down through our throats and grab the heart.

The conversation at the top of this post is pulled from Charles Portis’ enjoyable book “True Grit.” The book, which has now inspired two movies, is told from the perspective of an older woman, and it is about the time when she was 14. If you have not read the book or seen either movie, this might have a spoiler in it … I don’t think so but if you would really like to see the movie and you would rather not know anything, you can stop here.

I’ll try to keep it pretty basic. True Grit is the story of the girl who wants to have the man who killed her father brought to justice. For this, she turns to a drunken and haunted old marshall named Rooster Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original movie (he won his only Academy Award for the portrayal) and played by Jeff Bridges in the most recent version, directed and written by the Coen Brothers.

In the scene above, the girl finds herself face-to-face with Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. He is, in all versions, a stupid and contemptible man, and he speaks in a stilted, unnatural, ultra-literal way. You can see it in the scene above. Read aloud his lines. “I fear he has no idea of paying me. I believe he has left me, knowing I am sure to be caught when I leave on foot.” Read it again in as many different accents you like. To me, the words just plink off key against the ear. Dialogue, for me, is like this throughout the book.

I do not know if:

1. The author intentionally makes the words stilted and unnatural because the perspective of the book is from an old spinster remembering her childhood and this is the only way she knows how to remember these conversations.

2. This is simply how dialogue is written in Western adventure books — I must admit that have not read many.

3. The dialogue is just kind of supposed to be ultra-literal and somewhat unrealistic to make a point.

I suppose there could be other reasons too. In any case, after a while when you read the book the dialogue begins to feel natural because everyone talks this way. But then you come to the final line in the above section — and that is probably the most strained line in the whole book.

“Keep still, I must now think over my position and how I may improve it.”

Nobody talks like this. The line is so strained, in fact, that they simply left it out of the original True Grit. The original, I think, is really a pretty hokey movie. though watching it again I got to see the young Dennis Hopper and the young Robert Duvall (not to mention a fine little role for the late John Fiedler, who was omnipresent on TV in the 1970s though I remember him best as Juror No. 2 in 12 Angry Men). The movie, in retrospect, seems designed to win John Wayne his Oscar, and it did that. Anyway there were many seemingly awkward lines in it, but they did not use the “I must now think over my position” line. I simply don’t think they saw a way to make it work.

That’s something about words … they have to sound or read as authentic or they have no power at all. I remember going to see the original “Wall Street” with a friend, and there was the closing scene, what was (you would think) supposed to be a somewhat dramatic scene where Bud Fox was coming face to face with the abyss and all that. And suddenly he says: “I’m going to jail Dad, and you know it.” And those words in that moment were so ridiculous that my buddy and I both started laughing hysterically and could not stop.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, we went to see the new True Grit a few weeks ago. Josh Brolin plays the wicked Tom Chaney in this movie. And, in a rather amazing if brief performance, he plays Chaney as a pure simpleton, someone who says precisely what is happening in his mind. He has no filter … so much so he barely seems aware that people can actually hear what he is saying. It really is a brilliant turn.

So when this Tom Chaney says those same words — “I must now think over my position and how I may improve it,” it comes out brilliant. It suddenly has so many layers. I didn’t see many movies this year — we never do anymore — but I did see Social Network and Toy Story 3 and a few others and for me this was the best movie line I heard all year.

When I got home, I wrote on Twitter that the Coen Brothers amaze me with what they do with language. They just invent a whole new way of talking that sounds ALMOST like how people really talk, but not quite. You can see this in Fargo, in Raising Arizona, especially in The Hudsucker Proxy and Millers Crossing. The Coen Brothers dialogue tends to be something between conversation and poetry. Mamet conversations are like that too.

When I wrote that, several people wrote in to argue that the Coen Brothers didn’t do anything with language in True Grit, that they basically used the dialogue of the book. This is absolutely true. But that’s not as easy as it seems. It isn’t just the words. It is how you hear them. It is how you set them up. It’s how you make them fit together. The dialogue above, from the book, well people can argue about the point behind it, but to me it sounds ludicrous. The Coen Brothers, though, heard the music of the conversation, and they put that music on the screen, and the words soared.

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Running the football (Pittsburgh Add)

Got into a minor but annoying little Twitter snit after my story on Pittsburgh ran. The large point of the Pittsburgh piece (I hope) was not that the Steelers run the ball a lot, but that they stand for the same things that they’ve always stood for, one of these things being a power running game. This seems pretty obvious to me.

But a few people wrote in to rather bluntly deny this. They say that Pittsburgh is now a passing team and has been for more than five years. They say that I completely missed this development. And this would not be surprising … I miss many developments. But in this case, though my original point was not that Pittsburgh is a running team, I feel pretty sure that I’m right that Pittsburgh is still about running the football.

Start here: In today’s NFL, every team is a passing team. The rules make it so. In 2010, every single team in the NFL gained more yards passing the ball than running. Same was true in 2008* and 2007. Every year, the vast majority of teams gain more passing than rushing.

*We skip 2009, because the Jets actually gained more rushing than passing that year.

So what makes a running team? I would suggest a running team is the kind of team that runs the ball more often than other teams. The last five years (which is the time frame we’re talking about), only two teams in the NFL — the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens — ran the ball more than the Steelers. That would seem to qualify them as a running team. Six years ago, the Steelers ran the ball more often than any team in the NFL.

The last five years, only the San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills have thrown the ball FEWER times than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The last five years, only the Atlanta Falcons (50.4%) have run the ball more often as a percentage of plays than the Pittsburgh Steelers (50.3%).

All of this seems to suggest to me pretty strongly that they still believe in running the ball in Pittsburgh. Of course, show people those numbers and they quickly point out that they are skewed because the Steelers are ahead all the time and are running out time in the fourth quarter, and that’s why it LOOKS like they run the ball a lot.

But is that right? I don’t think so. The most successful teams of the last five years are New England and Indianapolis. They were two of the top seven in pass attempts that last five years. The Patriots ran the ball 45.7% of the time, the Colts 42.6%.

In fact if you look at percentages, over the last five years the Eagles, Packers, Rams, Saints and Colts have thrown the ball most often and four of those five teams have had a lot of success. The Falcons, Steelers, Panthers, Titans and Jets run the ball most often and, collectively, that’s not as impressive a group.

Also: It seems to me that part of being a running team is exactly this: You try to take leads and pound the ball down people’s throats in the fourth quarter.

Yes, the Steelers have been throwing for more yards than ever before. Ben Roethlisberger set the team record last year by throwing for 4,328 yards last year. But it seems to me that’s more about the times than about any change in philosophy. Pittsburgh this year, as Brilliant Reader Dustin pointed out, ran for 920 more yards than opponents, which tied them with the New York Jets for highest differential. Which sort of gets to my point: Run the ball and stop the run. It’s timeless. They come for your heart in Pittsburgh.

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The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Steelers)

Think about the Pittsburgh Steelers for a moment. Close your eyes if you like. What do you see? It’s a pretty clear image, isn’t it? You see those black and gold uniforms. You see howling defense. You see a running back powering through the middle, maybe led by a bruising fullback. You see a big and sturdy quarterback who doesn’t so much throw the ball as muscle it down the field. You see those golden Terrible Towels spinning throughout the stadium. You see those black helmets, with the single golden stripe, and the Steelers logo — a white circle, the word “Steelers,” and the three astroid shapes taken from the logo of U.S. Steel — on one side of the helmet, always one side.

Now think about something else: Think if you can name a single other team in American sports that has stood for exactly the same thing for the last 40 years.

My first thought was the New York Yankees. They are our most enduring team. Only, no, they’re really not. The Yankees were blah in the early 1970s, then they went through the turbulent and successful Bronx Zoo years, then they went through the bloated 1980s and early ’90s, and only when Joe Torre and Derek Jeter arrived on the scene at the same time did the Yankees become the team we think of today. That was 15 years ago, and 15 years is an eternity in sports. But the Steelers have been doing their thing for 40.

The Boston Celtics? People might forget that the Celtics went through a two-decade lull when they did not reach the finals and went through eight consecutive losing seasons. Alabama football? No, any Alabama fan will tell you the Crimson Tide has gone through many different phases and adjustments since the Bear passed on. North Carolina basketball? The Tar Heels have been numbingly consist, but even they went through a trying and confusing period in the years after Dean Smith stepped down.

Think about all the rise and falls in sports over 40 years. The Kansas City Royals were a consistent power from 1976-85. The Green Bay Packers had a 20-plus year lull after Lombardi when they hired five coaches, started eight main quarterbacks and made the playoffs twice. The Montreal Canadians have not won a Stanley Cup in approaching 20 years.

One team that has been consistent over 40 years is the Los Angeles Lakers. They have been good almost every year. But even they have changed personalities, from Jerry West to Magic and Showtime to the Shaq Attack to Kobe’s World. They Lakers are not a testament to constancy as much as they are a testament to changing with the times, the way only the best organizations can.

But the Steelers are something else. They don’t change with the times. They bend time to their own personality. If someone had gone into a coma in 1974, the first year the Steelers won the Super Bowl, and then come to consciousness in 2011, he would not recognize much of our world. He would be left breathless by the role of computers and high definition television and 24-hour news channels and the advances in medicine and the look of cars and these magical devices called cell phones. But he would recognize the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I’ve had concussions,” Pittsburgh’s Steelers linebacker James Harrison said this week at the Super Bowl. “It wasn’t bad enough to where I needed to come out of the game. I’ll put it like this: If you don’t tell them, they don’t know unless you get knocked out and you’re sitting there wit h your arm stuck in the air.”

Yes, the man definitely would recognize the Pittsburgh Steelers.

* * *

Let’s try putting a few numbers out there just so we can get a little perspective. The Steelers, after years and years of incompetence and buffoonery, made the playoffs in 1972 under a fourth-year head coach named Chuck Noll. The team had eight consecutive losing seasons leading into 1972, and nobody outside Pittsburgh (and few in it) really thought Noll knew what he was doing. But by ’72, the team that would win four Super Bowls was more or less in place. The quarterback was the young Terry Bradshaw. The running back was the talented and mercurial Franco Harris.* The defense was built around Mean Joe Greene and Jack Ham.

*Harris’ college coach, Joe Paterno, best summed up Harris when he said that when you told other players to run through a brick wall, they’d run through that brick wall. If you told Franco to run through a brick wall, he’d feel the thing for cracks.

Two years later, the Steelers would draft Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster — four Hall of Famers — in the first five rounds and would start winning Super Bowls immediately.

OK, since 1972, the Steelers have rather famously won six Super Bowls, and they are playing in their eighth Super Bowl on Sunday. They have made the playoffs 25 out of 39 seasons. They have been Top 9 in defense 28 times, and No. 1 in fewest yards allowed seven times. they have had six different backs run for 1,000 yards, not including Frank Pollard who ran for 991. They have had many different quarterbacks, but in some ways they’re all just attempts to reincarnate the big, strong, right-handed power-thrower Terry Bradshaw.

Bradshaw: 6-foot-3, 215 pounds.
Mark Malone: 6-foot-3, 223 pounds.
Bubby Brister: 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.
Neil O’Donnell: 6-foot-3, 228 pounds.
Tommy Maddox: 6-foot-4, 220 pounds.
Ben Roethlisberger: 6-foot-5, 240 pounds.

This list does not include Kordell Stewart, who did not really fit into the Steelers mold, though he had running back Jerome Bettis to bruise defenders and a savage defense to intimidate offenses and terminate drives, so everyone sort of put up with the whole Slash experiment for a while. Anyway, at least he was right-handed. Imagining a left-handed quarterback in Pittsburgh is like imagining Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Red Sox.

The consistency has been overwhelming. The Steelers too went through a championship lull — they did not win a Super Bowl between 1979 and 2005 — but even so they also never changed. Chuck Noll coached out his years, trying unsuccessfully the last decade or so to rebuild the Steel Curtain he had built in the 1970s. The team never got too bad, but never got too good again either. Then Bill Cowher came in and nothing really changed except results. The Steelers were still about the same things, about great defense, about power running, about big quarterbacks who could throw the deep ball. Only they started making the playoffs consistently again.

Cowher had a couple of lulls in his career too — and there was even a time (during the Kordell Stewart years) — when he will admit losing a little bit of touch with what had made the Steelers great. He got back to it and started making the playoffs again and won a Super Bowl.

When Cowher stepped down, Mike Tomlin stepped up to coach and he has said that he really didn’t talk with Cowher. He had to be his own man. But being his own man meant building a team just like Cowher’s teams, just like Noll’s teams, teams so Pittsburgh that they should film their games in the static-filled color of 1970s television.

“A study of history is a window into the future,” Tomlin says. And this: “You can learn so many lessons, formally and informally, from the experiences of those who have come before us, particularly the 1970s Steelers.”

This sort of consistency is not just breathtaking … it’s unique. Let’s face it: Times change in sports. Styles go out of style. Look along the side of the road in football and you can see discarded relics, the wishbone, the option, the run and shoot, the flex defense, on and on and on. Don Shula survived to become the all-time winning coach not because he stayed the same but because he changed, because he coached the exceptionally boring power game offense of the 1972 Dolphins and the high-flying, throw every-down free-for-all offense of Dan Marino. The America’s Team Cowboys that won in the 1970s little resembled in style or substance the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys of the 1990s.

But the Steelers are the Steelers are the Steelers.

* * *

So, now we have to ask: Why? The Steelers are not immune to the many changes in the league, the rule changes, the salary structure changes, the passage of time. Why have they been able to power through all that and stay the same? There is talk about stability. The Steelers have only had three coaches over the 40 years. The team has been owned by a Rooney the whole time. And that undoubtedly plays a role.

But there’s something else, too. I think it has something to do with the city of Pittsburgh. Yes, I tend to romanticize rust-belt cities, having grown up In Cleveland. I don’t think cities like Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Buffalo are any better than anywhere else. But they’re just as good.

And, I guess I believe, there really is something about growing up in harsh winters and blue collar neighborhoods with houses crammed next to each other that affects your perspective. In 2009, I went to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh — and as I’ve written before the Kittanning Firemen’s Band playing at halftime. They weren’t in any noticeable uniforms. They just played. That to me said Pittsburgh. There was no desire for some B-list rock band that once had a hit. Frankly there was no desire to have an A-list superstar who wanted to get a little TV time. There was no need for Pittsburgh to put on airs. The Kittanning Firemen’s Band was plenty good.

There’s something about people knowing who they are … this is part of the wonder and magic of the Green Bay Packers too. The Steelers’ owner is Dan Rooney, who of course is the son of Art Rooney, who owned the team for the four Super Bowl years. He is Pittsburgh through and through. He lives a low-profiled life in Pittsburgh. The Steelers players say he shows up to practice pretty much every day. “I think there are a lot of teams in the NFL that don’t see their owners at all,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. “We see him every day. I get to give him a hug every day. He gets to yank on my beard — Dan Rooney calls me Santa.”

“Well, it’s blue collar in Pittsburgh,” Keisel continues. “Pittsburghers lean on each other. They care about each other. We care about the city. … (Rooney) is one of us.”

It’s easy to let this sort of thing get blown out of proportion — everyone wants to believe they live in a special place, and every place is special if you get to know it. Pittsburgh is a great town and a great football place but so is Kansas City and Cincinnati and Cleveland and Seattle and Detroit and their teams have not won a Super Bowl in more than 40 years.

What seems different is that Pittsburgh really does seem to love its Steelers exactly the way they are. They don’t want the Steelers to change. It’s so rare for a city and team to be in harmony, for them to value the same things, for them to see each other and see themselves all at once. When Nebraska and Oklahoma football became passing teams, it was jarring for fans, but they mostly accepted this as part of the changing times and the price of being competitive. Steelers fans have never made that bargain. It helps that the team wins … but Pittsburgh has not won every year. They just haven’t shown up after a losing season suddenly running some goofy spread offense or playing some soft bend-but-don’t-break defense.

In the end, it’s about running the ball hard, it’s about sacking the quarterback, it’s about blocking up front, it’s about making receivers afraid to catch the ball over the middle, it’s about rolling around in the pocket and making a play. Lots of teams actually want to play this way. But in Pittsburgh, you HAVE to play that way because that’s the way the Steelers have played for a long time. And that’s what the fans expect. They don’t want it to change. The interesting thing is that Pittsburgh as a city has made changed dramatically. The city has largely moved away from steel and now focuses a lot on technology and banking. The downtown has a different look. Many people don’t realize this, but there is not a single steel mill left in the actual city of Pittsburgh.

That means that the Pittsburgh Steelers have changed even less than Pittsburgh itself. And, best I can tell, that’s exactly how people in Pittsburgh want it.

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Books on a Snowy Day

Tuesday, we got hammered with one of those biblical snowstorms that was so awesome I saw the spirit of Bullet Bob Hayes running around with his hands in his pockets. And the snowstorm got me thinking about getting a few new books. I used to rummage around bookstores several times a week, and must admit that with the Kindle App on my iPad I don’t do that nearly as often anymore. Instead, I go to my iPad, find books, and click on the “Buy with one click” button. It’s not quite as satisfying, but it’s much less time consuming giving me more time to, you know, write blog posts about infomercials and putting statistics.

In any case, there was no thought of going to a bookstore in the blizzard, so I did something I don’t often do: I sent out a recommendation call. I sent out a Tweet to the people who follow me asking for a single book recommendation … and I said I would buy the five books that struck me. This led to an avalanche of responses that I have still not made it all the way through. But I bought five books. They are as follows:

1. The End of Baseball, by Peter Schilling Jr

2. In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent

3. Doubt: A History, by Jennifer Hecht

4. The Greatest Show On Earth, by Richard Dawkins (which actually led me to buy a sixth book, Summer for the Gods, by Edward J. Larson, about the Scopes Trial).

5. Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

I will have to let you know how these are … but what struck me was how many people wanted to recommend good books. And, I have to admit, another thing that struck me was how many of these good books I had already read. I am a heavy reader — not just in weight* but in number of books — but it seems that there is a community of us who are reading and loving many of the same books. And so, I made Twitter a promise that I would mention a few of the recommended books that I have read and loved here on the blog.

*I am on a diet again. My weight has bounced up and down the last few years but, as they say, it has trended up. The problem I have is I think the problem a lot of people have … I have a hard time fitting healthy eating into my goofy schedule. If I’m at home, like I have been for a couple of weeks, I can eat well. It’s a controlled environment. But on the road, I simply fall down. I eat at terrible times, I eat instantly gratifying food, I love my french fries and pizzas and pastas. You would think I would learn from the weight-losing master, my brother, but basically he eats a lot of cauliflower (which I cannot abide) and has a lot more willpower than I do. In any case, I’m trying to keep a notebook on “MyNetDiary” and going with some kind of calorie counting thing and I’m hitting the road today so we’ll see if this sticks any better than the others.

I have long thought it might be good to do a book club type of thing on here, and maybe we still could. For now, though, here are a few of the great book nominations, and a thought or two about them:

@Fielding99 The Pitch That Killed, by Mike Sowell. Best sports book ever written.

— Never like to say any one book is the best anything … but I loved this book about the Carl Mays pitch that killed Cleveland’s beloved Ray Chapman.

@geogavino The Catcher Was a Spy by Nicholas Dawidoff. Story of journeyman catcher and OSS agent Moe Berg.

And this one about Mo Berg. Loved this so much that one year for the Kansas City Star baseball section I wrote a story about Berg that was spread out over the whole section, one sentence per page.

@keithlaw Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

— Keith was one of several to recommend this book, which I read and loved though it is not really in my genre wheelhouse. It’s a novel about two very different magicians and there’s some occult in there and some great footnotes and, well, it’s just a wonderful reading experience.

@J_Townsend3 How about (John) McPhee’s Levels of the Game?

— There are so many different kinds of writing that I like. But if I could write like anyone, I think that I would like to write like John McPhee (which is kind of funny since I suspect I’m on the other side of the writing spectrum). His work is so spare. So precise. Levels of the Game is about a single tennis match between Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe, and it’s tempting to say it’s about something more. And, of course, it IS about something more. But, at heart, it really is about a single tennis match. McPhee is an artist who doesn’t write like an artist, if that makes any sense.

@Ajtrader1 Reading Bill Bryson’s “At Home”. It’s fascinating and he’s an incredible writer.

— I have read everything Bryson has written because I love his work so much. I liked At Home, though I thought it dragged a bit at times. My favorite is one I picked up at Heathrow Airport on my first trip to London called “Made In America.” It is about the English language in America but it really is about American history and it’s very funny and charming. I also loved his “The Lost Continent,” where he travels around America in car, a very funny and scathing book, that I think (though I’ve never asked) inspired the equally wonderful “Road Swing” by Steve Rushin.

@MonicaDien Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness

I love chess books. I think this comes from my father — chess books were basically the only books he would read when I was growing up. Of course, he read books like “100 Classic Openings” and “The Endgame of the Grandmasters.” I prefer books with a touch more plot. I really liked Endgame, but have to say my favorite chess book was Mortal Games, by Fred Waitzkin (who wrote Searching for Bobby Fischer) about his relationship with Gary Kasparov. I’m realizing, of course, that I’m speaking to a pretty small subgroup or readers here.

@frampton54 Haven’t seen “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan on your list of recommendations

— I’d say this is probably the book that has been most recommended to me through the years, and it makes me feel unworthy because I didn’t love it. I read it years ago, when it first came out, and didn’t love it. Then so many people recommended it that I picked it up again a few years ago and started to read it and didn’t love it. Now, the recommendations keep coming in and I think I should try again — so many people cannot possibly be wrong. I isn’t that I disliked it, but it just didn’t blow me away like it has for so many. I just downloaded it to my Kindle. I’ll give it another run.

@tjd2001 James Ellroy’s American Tabloid – if you like it, it’s the first part of a trilogy, so lots more to enjoy.

— Ellroy used to live in Kansas City. Every now and again, I’m in the mood for something that tears away everything and is just page after page of pure and joyful cynicism. Sometimes, this will lead me to reading Deadspin or Matt Taibbi or P.J. O’Rourke or Christopher Buckley or Joe Queenan, but they’re purportedly writing about things that are actually happening. Sometimes I just want Ellroy’s alternate universe.

@stephapstein devil in the white city by erik larsen. reads like fiction, but it’s just incredibly well-researched.

— Great book. And it reminds me once again, if you haven’t yet ordered Bill James book Popular Crime, you will want that the day it comes out. It looks like it too will be available on the Kindle.

@matthewmu “The Things They Carried” Tim O’Brien

— Last year, on a story, I worked with a photographer who had gone to Vietnam with Tim O’Brien. He said there was a moment when they were by the water when O’Brien suddenly had a flashback to some tiny detail about how bullets hit water and the bubbles they form. We are so lucky, as human beings, to have people who think the way Tim O’Brien think and can share their angles with us. “In the Lake of the Woods,” is another masterpiece in my mind.

@mvtpr Have you read david sedaris? me talk pretty one day had me laughing out loud all the time…

— He’s hilarious, I probably laughed out loud (not fake LOL but real laughing out loud) fifty times during Me Talk Pretty. It’s so hard to be funny in print, I think. I tend to prove this daily.

@David Zeller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

— Life altering.

@mlw26 An oldie but a goodie, The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. Really anything by Tom Wolfe. He has way with word.

— So glad someone recommended this. It’s one of the five best books I’ve ever read. Above I said that I would love to write like McPhee. And it’s true. But if I could ever write a non-fiction book 1/10th as good as “The Right Stuff,” I would likely collapse from overachievement.

@jon_s_garelick What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer. The most enlightening book on American politics I’ve ever read.

— Me too. Breathtakingly good. To see someone write something that difficult, that well, it’s staggering … like watching an 800-page tightrope walk over America.

@royalsauthority Count me among those who have read The Power Broker. Outstanding book.

— I had tweeted that I was sure that Mike Vaccaro, Michael Schur and I were the only three people on earth to read every single page of The Power Broker, by Robert A. Caro. It is about how Robert Moses basically built New York. Of course, I was joking — the joke is that the book is about five million pages long. But I would say this: I would definitely be friends with anyone who read every page. Because it’s pure genius. And it’s a commitment.*

*Someone, I can’t remember who, was telling me that they tried to make it into a movie. That would be some achievement. The movie could be as great as The Godfather. Or it could be an unmitigated disaster. I guess it won’t happen.

@midwestspitfire Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. A new classic.

— Again, SO GLAD someone recommended this. I read it the same time I read Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” I liked Kavalier, which of course got enormous press and eventually won the Pulitzer for Fiction. Buit I loved Carter Beats the Devil. Just loved it.

Somewhat unrelated: Ann Patchett’s “The Magician’s Assistant” is breathtakingly good.

@mkud44 forgot last night, but if you loved The Shadow of the Wind, definitely check out The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox.

I’m never going to get through all these books, so I’ll end with this one. I cannot find the original nomination for The Shadow of the Wind, but I responded that not only have I read it but I got to talk at some length about it with Carlos Ruis Zafon, the author.

It was kind of a fluke — my favorite bookstore “Rainy Day Books” offers me recommendations quite often and they recommended “The Shadow of the Wind.” Said the author would be coming to town. So I read it, and loved it about as much as any book I can remember reading. It’s about books and mystery and forgotten pasts, you know, all the good stuff. Then Zafon came to town so I went to see him. About 12 people showed up. So I got to spend an hour talking with him after the event, he was incredibly nice and thoughtful. I wrote a column about the book. And, not long after that, the book became a sensation in America. I’d like to take credit for this. I cannot recommend The Shadow of the Wind more highly — if I could I’d buy it for each and every one of you.

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Puttering Around With Putts

With the Midwestern blizzard doing its thing outside — and this is the worst I’ve seen since I was a kid in Cleveland — I find myself yet again thinking about golf. It’s better than thinking about how my efforts to clear the driveway have been made utterly pointless by another wave of blizzard.

Gary McCord said something kind of interesting over the weekend. I like Gary. For one thing — and I’m not sure how many people know this — he has made some money in his life doing close-up magic. That is magic that you do right in front of the audience, no more than a few feet away. You probably know that I love magic, and the close up stuff is my favorite kind … I mean, sure, I like the grand illusions, the Vegas stuff, but more than anything I would love to sit down at a table with Ricky Jay and watch the master at work. McCord showed me a few things. He was good.

Anyway … McCord said that last year Bubba Watson missed one putt from three feet. One. This seemed to me to be quite impressive. Wow! Just one missed putt! But, the more I thought of it, the more I realized that I had absolutely no context whatsoever to know if this was great or not. For instance, if I told someone who knew nothing about basketball that I once made 123 layups in a row, that person might think this made me one of the great basketball player in the world. What is a three foot putt? How crazy is it for a guy to go a whole year and miss only one.

As it turns out … it’s really not that big a deal. Professional golfers on the tour last year made 99.2% of their three-foot putts, and this included the lamentable Joe Durant who missed 15 of them. Fourteen golfers missed one or fewer three-footers on tour last year — and yes, two guys (Greg Chalmers and Padraig Harrington) didn’t miss any. In 2009, four guys didn’t miss a single three-foot putt (and Greg Chalmers only missed once). Basically, every year there are 15 or so golfers who miss one or fewer 3-foot putts. It’s a nice achievement. But it’s probably not as great as it sounds.

Looking this up, however, gave me he opportunity to look a bit at putting stats. Golf stats really are quite incredible … in this way the game is a lot like baseball. Every single thing is charted. Everything. Distance. Successes. Failures. How people do from the sands … from the fringe … from the rough … from 75 yards away … from 225 yards away … from the center of the fairway and on and on and on. On the putting page alone there are 88 different statistical categories, everything from total 3-putts from greater than 25-feet to one-putt percentage in Round 3 of a tournament.

Of course, the way my goofy mind works these statistics are like pints of Ben & Jerry Chocolate Fudge Brownie … I’m helpless against them. I’ve actually always wondered how often PGA golfers make putts of a certain length. Maybe you have too (probably not, you’re smarter than I am). Well … it’s snowing bullets out there so I have nothing else to do: Here you go. These are the numbers of the 192 golfers on the Tour who in 2010 actually played enough to qualify for the chart. One quick thing — the distances are a little bit misleading. By the PGA calculations, a 10-foot putt is actually longer than 9 feet and NO MORE than 10 feet. So a 9 1/8 foot putt would qualify as a 10-foot putt, but a 10 1/8 foot putt would not. Got it? I know, confused me too.

OK, so here we go:


Tour players make 99.2% of them.

Comment: An average PGA golfer who plays regularly on the tour might miss one of these every five or six tournaments. Some, as mentioned, won’t miss one all year. A 3-foot putt for these guys is about as big a lock as there is in sports. It’s more certain than an extra point (98.9% in 2010). Obviously some three-foot putts are much trickier than others. If you put these guys on a level green, or have them putting uphill all the time, they probably would make just about 100% of them. As it is, they’re pretty close to perfect.


Tour players make 90.9% of them.
Best in 2010: Padraig Harrington made 97 of 98.
Worst in 2010: Jeff Grove missed 19 of 78.

Comment: At 4-feet we’re still way ahead of a free throw. Harrington did not play that many tournaments on the tour, so his numbers are smaller than some others. Among those who played a lot, Jeff Quinney made 190 of 195. Golfers will miss 4-footers every now and again, though I’ll bet golfers who win tournaments don’t miss them that week.


Tour players make 80.2% of them.
Best in 2010: Paul Casey made 45 of 48.
Worst in 2010: Justin Bolli missed 20 of 51.

Comment: Paul Casey and Padraig Harrington were No. 1 and No. 2 when you consider all putts inside of five feet. I think golfers consider it a real failure when they miss a putt five-feet and in, kind of like an NBA player blowing a layup. Six feet — well, that’s when we start getting into the tricky zone.

6-foot putt

Tour players make 69.7% of them.
Best in 2010: Brian Gay made 74 of 85.
Worst in 2010: Steve Lowery missed more than half of his 6-footers — missing 29 of 57.

Comment: Yes, there seems to be a big gap between five foot putts (which are actually between 4 and 5 feet) and the six-footers. A golf pro once told me that this is the “body height” difference. He seemed to believe that if the distance of the putt was less than your height, it felt like an easy putt, and you tended to putt with confidence (and confidence is so important in putting). But, he said, if the putt is longer than your height, it weighs on the mind. I have no reason whatsoever to believe in this theory. But it is interesting.

7-foot putt

Tour players make 59.3% of them.
Best in 2010: Pat Perez made 52 of 63
Worst in 2010: Vijay Singh, poor guy, missed 31 of 53.

Comment: I once got into a fascinating discussion with Jack Nicklaus about why older golfers, in general, tend to lose their putting touch. Well, actually, now that I think of it, he was having the discussion with someone else, but I somehow wound up connected to it. I don’t remember his answer word for word, but he seemed to think that the older we get the less confident we get about everything. I suppose it’s true. On the positive side of sports, we call it “knowing your limitations.” This is why experience generally teaches quarterbacks not to try to squeeze the ball into double coverage and outfielders not to crash into walls for balls they’re not going to catch. But knowing your limitations is not a great trait in golf. Every 7-foot putt you miss is another one you have to try not to think about when you line up for a 7-foot putt. Nicklaus’ answer was in greater detail … I should see if I could get him to tell me that whole theory again.

8-foot putt

Tour players make 50.6% of them.
Best in 2010: Jeev Mikha Singh made 29 of 44
Worst in 2010: Vance Veazy missed 30 of 45.

Comment: I would say the 8-foot putt is the perfect middle ground. Any putt less than 8-feet, tour golfers will make more often than they miss. And any putt longer than 8-feet, tour golfers will miss more than they make. That’s a good thing to know when watching on television.

Phil Mickelson has had quite the history with 8-foot putts. In 2004, he led the tour by making 71.4% of his 8-footers. And, of course, he was regarded as one of the best putters in the world. In 2005, he was tied for 34th — still good. In 2006, he was 112th and made just 52%. Down another percent in 2007. He made just 49% of them in 2008. He made FORTY percent in 2009 — that was 174th on Tour. And last year he was at a still miserable 43.4%. And now everyone knows that Mickelson can be shaky on those mid-range putts. This does not seem to have had much effect on Mickelson’s overall results — he has done just fine since 2004. But it’s strange that he simply has lost his touch on these sorts of putts.

9-foot putt

Tour players make 45.5% of them.
Best in 2010: Retief Goosen made 23 of 34
Worst in 2010: Omar Uresti missed 35 of 47

Comment: Goosen is a marvelous putter. Of course, the only putt of Goosen’s I recall is the tiny little one he missed in at the U.S. Open Tulsa, forcing everyone to stick around one more day for a playoff.

10-foot putt

Tour players make 41.3% of them
Best in 2010: Alex Prugh made 28 of 44.
Worst in 2010: Greg Owen missed 22 of 28.

Comment: The best from 10-feet in 2010 was also Paul Casey … he made more than 90% of all his putts 10-feet and in. Retief Goosen also made more than 90%. Identifying the best putter from 10-feet in will generally give you a pretty good idea of who is playing well, or anyway who has a real chance of appearing on a Titleist commercial. Among the leaders in this category since 2002: Jim Furyk (twice), Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods.

10-to-15 foot putt

Tour players make 29.9% of them
Best in 2010: Bo Van Pelt made 90 of 239
Worst in 2010: Lee Janzen missed 149 of 188.

Comment: When you get out to 10 or 15 feet away, the gaps between the players is not that wide. The best made a little more than 37%, the worst a little more than 20%. Being the best in 2010 saved Bo Van Pelt about 19 shots above average over the whole season, which is certainly important but it’s less than a shot per tournament. And it cost Janzen about 22 shots.

The question — and it is posed in an interesting way in the new book Scorecasting, is this: How hard are golfers TRYING to make their longer putts? The issue is risk management: How many golfers are willing to really take a run at a putt and risk knocking in 5-feet by and risk the three-putt?

15-20 foot putt

Tour players make 17.9% of them
Best in 2010: Ian Poulter made 18 of 59
Worst in 2010: Cliff Kresge missed 82 of 90

Comment: I follow Ian Poulter on Twitter and gave him a mention in this week’s back page, and I also mention Banksy: My thoughts on the remarkable “Exit Through the Gift Shop” will be coming soon*.

*I hope … depends on if I can actually make it out of Kansas City for Dallas at any point. Other posts potentially coming: The 32 greatest defenders in NFL history, my favorite movie line of the year, why Mike Tomlin fascinates me (by being throughly un-fascinating) and, of course, my iPad review.

20-25 foot putt

Tour players make: 12.5% of them.
Best in 2010: Michael Sim made 17 of 80.
Worst in 2010: Mark Calcavecchia missed 39 of 40. When putting goes …

Comment: From 20 to 25 feet, the best golfers in the world on the best courses in the world are about a 1 in 8 chance of making it, about the same odds you have right now of picking up two dice and rolling a total of five. You could do it on your first try, certainly, and maybe again on the second, but if they are fair dice you won’t role five very often. Think about this the next time that you see a golfer miss a 22-footer and groan like “How did I miss that?”

25-plus foot putt

Tour players make 5.5% of them.
Best in 2010: Paul Stankowski made 24 of 238.
Worst in 2010: Garth Mulroy missed 184 of 187.

In 2002 the great Miguel Jiminez tried 76 putts from 25 feet or longer. He made one. He still smoked cigars and raced cars and live his full life so I doubt he let those misses bother him too much.

In 2007, Phil Mickelson made just five of 205 putts of 25-feet or longer.

In 2010, Boo Weekley actually made the most long putts on tour — he made 33 of them. Unfortunately for him he also tried 346 of them, one of the highest totals on tour. Gotta get it a bit closer to the flag. Nobody, the numbers show, is THAT good a putter.

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Losing As Destiny

The NBA does something strange: They consider Cleveland’s 24-game losing streak in 1982 to be the all-time record even though the thing was accomplished over two seasons. That year, the Cavaliers lost lost their last 19 games of the 1981-82 season, and their first five of the1981-82 season.

Don’t get me wrong — that was a spectacular streak and a spectacular wreck of a team. What makes the thing even better is that the Cavaliers broke the streak against a terrible Golden State Warriors team at home, but they needed overtime to do it. And they promptly lost seven more in a row, which means the Cavs were a Warriors regulation shot away from losing 32 in a row. I was a big Cavaliers fan at the time, and I remember just how bad those teams were. People called them the Cadavers, and rarely has any insulting nickname fit better. But it wasn’t their awfulness that made them stand out. It was their purpose. They seemed determined to rid themselves of any player that showed even the vaguest spark of talent.

The 1981-82 team had Bill Laimbeer, Mike Mitchell, Scott Wedman, James Edwards. That is not great, admittedly. But maybe with those four, a bunch of role players (something the Cavaliers did not lack — 23 different players wore a Cavs uniform that season) and some intensity, you could at least make things respectable. Those Cavaliers were the arch-enemy of respectability, of course, and so they traded away all four within two years. It was that systematic purging of anything resembling aptitude that made that team, in my opinion, unique in NBA history. Mike Mitchell was my favorite player at the time, for lack of options. He was a turnover machine, which was a special feat because almost never passed the ball. His defense was often purely theoretical. But he could put the ball in the basket. This was too much for Cleveland. He was traded before the streak began for Ron Brewer, Reggie Johnson and cash. Especially, cash.

Bill Laimbeer — by far the best player on the team, though to be fair the Cavaliers seemed hopelessly unaware of it at the time — was traded for Phil Hubbard, Paul Mokeski and for first and second round draft picks. With those picks, and I swear this is true, the Cavaliers took John Bagley and Dave Magley. Yes. Bagley and Magley. It’s like Dr. Seuss was running the organization.

Even so, even as gloriously bad as the those Cavaliers teams were, I don’t think you should count a losing streak over two seasons. A two-year losing streak is an oddity, might make for an interesting bar bet, but it’s not continuous. To me the longest losing streak in NBA history is 23 games, and for the next few days it will be held by the expansion 1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies and the 1997-98 Denver Nuggets.

Both those teams were ghastly, of course. The Grizzlies actually won their first two games of the season — they won at Portland to kick off the franchise’s history, and then won their first home game in overtime against a dreadful Minnesota team. At that point, they lost 19 games in a row. They played above themselves for a little while after that, winning 8 of 30, three of those wins in overtime. Then they lost six in a row. Then they beat Sacramento and went into their 23-game free fall. That Grizzlies team, even looking back had no real bright spots. Their best player was probably Greg Anthony, and with all due respect you can really be only so good when your best player is Greg Anthony. Heck, he was the third or fourth best player on his best college team, and that team lost to Duke.

The Nuggets lost the first 12 games of the season. After two nondescript weeks, they lost their 23 in a row. After a nondescript three weeks, they lost 16 more in a row. That Nuggets team was so depressing, I get sad just going back and looking at their roster. Their best player really and truly might have been Anthony Goldwire who started two games for the rest of his NBA career. Their leading scorer was one of my favorite NBA guys, Johnny Newman, who was already on his seventh team.

Yes, those teams were bad, and they are deserving of the consecutive loss record. Or they were worthy of it. This year’s Cleveland Cavaliers have lost 21 games in a row. They have not even forced overtime.* They should tie the Vancouver/Denver consecutive-loss record Friday at Memphis. They should break it at home against Portland on Saturday. They should lose by roughly 75 points next Monday at Dallas to break what the NBA considers the official record. And from there, the ground’s the limit.

*This Cavaliers losing streak is already the longest regulation streak in NBA history — that is nobody has lost 21 consecutive games without at least forcing overtime once.

Of course, they don’t have to tie or break the record at all. A few well-placed shots, a burst of inspiration, it’s not impossible that they will beat Indiana at home on Wednesday. But it’s pretty close to impossible. That’s because this Cavaliers team is playing worse than any team ever. The thing began on Dec. 2, when they played an impossibly overhyped game against the Miami Heat and the best player in Cleveland Cavaliers history LeBron James. There’s no need to go over the James saga again, at least not now. It’s just worth saying that the air was charged that night, and at that point the Cavaliers were wearing the impostor clothes of the overmatched-but-scrappy underdogs. They had won seven of 18 games, including an opening night shocker against the Celtics. it did not seem impossible going in that the Cavaliers could win the game on adrenaline and karma. It soon proved to be impossible. The Cavaliers embarrassed themselves both on the court and off, losing by 28 and chumming it up with LeBron during breaks in the action. Two nights later they lost at Minnesota (Minnesota!) by 34. That was in the midst of a 10-game losing streak, the losses by an average of 17.5 points.

The Cavaliers somehow beat the Knicks 109-102 in overtime on December 18. That, of course, was their last win. But it isn’t just losing — they have been getting annihilated night after night after night. They have lost by eight points or more in 19 of the 21 losses — the only two close games include a one-point loss against the unbearably bad Minnesota Timberwolves and a two-point loss at the unbearably bad New Jersey Nets.

Other than that, it’s freak show. They lost by 28 at Denver, by 22 at Utah, by 18 at Golden State, by 17 at Boston. Of course, they lost by 112-57 at Los Angeles, which set all sorts of records. At one point in that game, the score was 92-41, and as my friend Stone says, it’s is likely that at no other point in NBA history has a team ever led another team 92-41, not ever, not even for one possession.

This Cavaliers team is awful, no question about it. And they’ve lost Anderson Varejao for the season and Mo Williams for some indefinite period of time — those were probably their two best players last year with the exception of that guy named LeBron.

But I think there’s something else going on here too. I think teams, collectively, can start to believe in a narrative. Teams can start to believe “nobody beats us at our place” or “we are great at making comebacks” or “we’re better conditioned and will win in the fourth quarter.” I’m not saying that a bad team can believe itself into being good, or even that the power of belief is quantifiable. But I do think that in the razor thin margins that separate the most talented players and their teams, there is something real about narrative, something about what a team believes about itself.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, with LeBron James, had the best record in the NBA each of the past two seasons. Players like Varejao and Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson, J.J. Gibson were part of that. Were they going to be bad this year without James? Of course. But it seems to me that after they were humiliated by James and the Heat in front of their home fans, a narrative was established: This Cavaliers team was hopeless. They were simply the wreckage left behind The Decision. There was no point in fighting the inevitable. And the inevitable has happened.

The immediate future of this Cavaliers team looks bleak. Monday night, the Cavs played at Miami, and everyone knew they would lose, and they were down 35-20 after one quarter. They were outscored 51-33 in the second half, even though LeBron played halfheartedly and Chris Bosh was more or less sleepwalking. The Cavs lost by 27, but the score was literally whatever Miami wanted the scored to be — the Heat could have won by 60. The reality is that a team starting Manny Harris, J.J. Hickson, Ramon Sessions and Christian Eyenga isn’t going to win often. Give that team a reason to fail, and history can happen.

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Get Rid of the Pro Bowl

Yesterday, I wrote a bit about why the Pro Bowl doesn’t matter (but I would watch anyway). Then, I made a big mistake. I actually did watch the Pro Bowl. I watched every awful minute of it. I wasn’t alone — the Pro Bowl drew its best ratings in a decade. As expected, more people watched it than watched baseball’s All-Star Game, which not too long ago was a big day in sports television. Perhaps unexpected, more people watched it than watched Game 3 of the World Series.*

*As my buddy Michael Rosenberg tweeted: “Our country is doomed.”

I would normally say these ratings were good for the NFL — the league is so powerful and popular that a substantial number of people will even watch the Pro Bowl. How can that be anything but good? But, as mentioned, I actually watched the Pro Bowl this year. I watched linebackers back away from tackles. I watched defensive linemen stand up and chat with offensive linemen after the snap. I watched Jay Glazer try some sort of goofy stunt where he called a play or something — it was embarrassing enough that I had to turn away from the TV. Hawaiian shirt. I heard two Goo Goo Dolls songs. It is not something expect to recover from any time soon.

The big moment was the last score — there, Matt Cassel threw a pass to Dwayne Bowe. After he danced around a bit — defenders seemed uninterested in tackling him — Bowe pitched he ball back to Montell Owens, who was apparently taking a break from his Money Mutual commercials.* Owens danced around a bit too, defenders seemed as uninterested in him as they were in Bowe. When they finally surrounded him, he pitched the ball back to Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack, who made the Pro Bowl as a second alternate. Mack ran around a bit, then kept running, and nobody really cared, and he scored a touchdown.

*Oh, sorry, that’s Montel WILLIAMS. Montell Owens is a special teams guru on the Jacksonville Jaguars.

For some reason, this caused much hilarity and joy in the FOX booth. “Good for that young man,” FOX’s Thom Brennaman said about Mack, as if he had just won a Rhodes Scholarship or something. This pathetic play where the NFC simply allowed the AFC to score because, well, nobody cared, made the score 55-41, in case you were keeping score, which, of course, you were not.

And, maybe it just hit me wrong. But I thought it was grotesque. I mean really, truly, grotesque. The laterals, the refusal to tackle, the absurdity. And it hit me, all at once, that in this one instance I don’t think good ratings are good for the league. No, after spending years and years developing their brand, after years of creating the aura of the National Football League (as they always call it), after years of Butkus and Lombardi and Taylor and Payton and Emmitt, no, they don’t want people watching this garbage.

Or anyway, they shouldn’t want it. Yes, people know the Pro Bowl doesn’t matter. But when they put it on prime time on the Sunday before the Super Bowl, they are begging people to watch. And when people watch, they see this joke of football, barely two-hand touch, everyone going half speed, guys trying silly maneuvers that don’t work and aren’t fun to watch, teams conceding touchdowns to centers and guys in the booth saying it’s great. As I wrote the other day, football is a more serious sport than the others. The NFL should know that since it has been peddling seriousness for many years. You don’t put roman numerals after your games unless you want to be taken seriously.

I’ve always thought that the NFL should just keep playing the Pro Bowl because it’s a tradition, and because Hawaii is awesome, and because the whole thing seems fairly harmless. But after actually sitting through a whole game, I don’t think that anymore. I think the NFL has outgrown the Pro Bowl in its current state. Maybe they could turn Pro Bowl week into a celebration of the best players — maybe an ESPY-like celebration hosted by Chris Rock, a few skills competitions, a tricked-up football format. But the idea of playing a real game, 60 minutes, with pads and coaches and announcers and this facade of authenticity … I don’t think it works anymore. The players don’t care and don’t want to play. The fans, largely, don’t care and don’t want to watch. And the fans who DO want to watch generally find what they’re seeing to be pretty unappetizing.

Or anyway, that’s how I felt about it. I don’t expect linebackers to brace themselves and plow into running backs in the Pro Bowl. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch them scurry away. I don’t expect to see players rushing the punter in the Pro Bowl, maybe blowing out ACLs or whatever. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch them just stand there and chat. People like watching the action in action movies. Nobody really wants to watch the air punches during rehearsals.

The NFL has bigger things to worry about right now than the fate of the Pro Bowl. Los Angeles looks ready to make its NFL move. A lockout, I’m told, is a real possibility and the men in charge are in serious negotiations. The concussion issue isn’t going away. And the Pro Bowl just drew its biggest ratings in a decade. So this is low on the list. But, the funny thing is, I think those high ratings might lead to the end of the Pro Bowl as we know it. Too many people saw it. To many people saw just how pointless and awful it is.

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Turning Back Time

There were no poetic words written for Babe Ruth’s final game at the stadium he built. Nobody mused about Gods and letters. The game was Sept. 23, 1934. It was well known before the game even started that this would certainly be his last home game as a regular, and probably his last home game as a Yankee. About 2,000 people showed up to see it. Ruth walked for the 104th time that season — one thing the man could still do was draw a walk — and then he came out of the game for what the papers called a “charley horse.” Ruth did finish off the season on the road, playing three games in Philadelphia and Washington, and he went to Boston the next year to play 28 sad games as a gimmick for the Braves. This proved, in the reverse of those immortal words by John Updike, that Babe Ruth did not know how to do the hardest thing: Quit.

But the point here is, people quit on him. He was 39, going on 40, and it was clear to everyone that he was done as a player (even though, with all those walks, he still posted a .448 on-base percentage in 1934). The Yankees offered him a minor league manager’s job then, upon his request, dumped him. After a few bad games in Boston, he retired. The point is, people understood that even the great Babe Ruth could not go on forever.

The same is true of Michael Jordan. He was, in the mind of most, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. I certainly believe that. His last six full seasons as a player in Chicago, he led the NBA in scoring and carried his Bulls to six championships. But when he came back to play for Washington at age 38, while there was a lot of buzz, there was no sense that he was the same, no sense that he could suddenly become young again. He still had enough fire and knew enough tricks to make himself a reasonable player, but nobody expected him to one day just become the invincible Michael Jordan again. And he never did.

Nobody (except perhaps wide-eyed Arizona management) expected Emmitt Smith to suddenly become his old dominant self when he went to play for the Cardinals at age 34. There was quite a bit of hype when Joe Namath went to play for the Rams at age 34, but only the people who believe in fairy tales could have thought that he was going to become Broadway Joe again (not with his knees shot and considering that he hadn’t really been worth a damn for three or four years). There was a desperate need by many (including me) to believe that Muhammad Ali had one more burst of brilliance left in him, one more butterfly dance and bee sting, and the house made a killing off those few naive souls who bet with their hearts when Ali fought Holmes. The house has built cities on the backs of naive souls who bet against time.

We often talk about how sad it was to watch Willie Mays flounder around at the end, to watch John Unitas get sacked time after time in a San Diego uniform that clashed with his football life, to watch Jim Palmer or Mark Spitz or Jim Brown begin “comebacks” that felt instead like sports funerals. They are sad, but I don’t know that we ever consider these things surprising. Somewhere inside, we understand and bow to the power of the years. Somewhere inside we know that even the greatest ever, even Dr. J., even Hogan, even Sampras and Aaron and Musial and Palmer, even Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Nicklaus, all of them get old. And when you get old you don’t get young again. It’s the unbreakable rule.

And we all understand it: Nobody goes back in time.

Except … we keep thinking Tiger Woods will go back in time.

The “we” in that sentence is getting smaller, no question about it. The “Tiger will be great again” school seems to be shrinking. The more we see Tiger Woods flail about on the golf course, like he did again this past weekend at Torrey Pines, the more people do seem to wonder about his future. But there is still something about Tiger Woods that seems to bend our perception of time. I can’t remember another athlete quite like him in this way …

… no, that’s not quite right. There is another athlete who bent time: Mike Tyson. In 1990, you will obviously recall, Tyson was knocked out by a no-name boxer named Buster Douglas. It remains one of the most remarkable sporting events I have ever seen in my life, and there is a powerful back story involving Douglas’ mother and his father, and there is no question that Douglas for one day lifted himself and found something in himself that nobody really knew he had.

But there’s another way to tell the story: A no-name boxer named Buster Douglas (who was knocked out by Evander Holyfield shortly thereafter) knocked out Mike Tyson. And that was it for Tyson. He was never a great fighter again. He was never a good fighter again. He had interesting but hardly titanic back-to-back fights with Razor Ruddock. He was arrested and convicted of rape. He had a series of pathetic comeback fights against setup guys like Peter McNeeley and Buster Mathis Jr., before getting knocked out by Evander Holyfield. He fought Holyfield again and bit his ear. He failed a drug test after fighting the comical villain Andrew Golota. He was knocked out and thoroughly outclassed by Lennox Lewis.

And yet, time after time, no matter how low he felt, there was a group of people who seemed certain that Mike Tyson would re-emerge as a great fighter again. It didn’t matter how bad he looked, how weird and pathetic he became, there were many people who just kept expecting him to show up one day and be the Mike Tyson who scared Michael Spinks to the canvas in 90 seconds and knocked Trevor Berbick senseless. It made no sense, at all, none, but there it was –it’s like there was a blind spot in the Tyson mirror, an inability to see him as anything except the hyped and spartan young man who wore black trunks and became the youngest heavyweight champion ever. We could not imagine him growing old and toothless.

It seems to me there’s a bit of that same blind spot with Tiger Woods. Let’s look at a few facts about Woods: After the 2007 golf season, he had won 13 professional major championships, and he was turning 32, and there seemed little doubt that he would break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors and semi-officially clinch his place as the greatest golfer who ever lived. In many people’s minds, he already WAS the greatest golfer who ever lived — Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, among others, say no one ever played at his level — but golf, like baseball, is a game of numbers and most agreed he needed to win six more majors to surpass the great Nicklaus. At the time, of course, it seemed like a foregone conclusion.

He finished second at Augusta in 2008, but it was a cosmetic second — he didn’t really challenge Trevor Immelman at any important point. This “failure” (which would have been a career highlight for almost anyone else ever) drove him. He went to the U.S. Open and put on the greatest show of his career. He basically won the U.S. Open on one leg. He beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff, though he grimaced on virtually every shot. That was his 14th major. Two days later, he had had reconstructive surgery done on his ACL. He missed the rest of the season.

He came back in 2009, and played well enough to sort-of, semi-contend at the Masters and the U.S. Open. He played miserably at Turnberry and missed the cut. He was still playing great for the most part — he won six times in 2009 — and at the PGA Championship he shot 67 on the first day, and led after the second and third days too. Tiger Woods had never lost a major championship he led going into the final day. Tiger Woods had never lost ANY tournament on American soil that he led going into the final day. But he lost that day. A no-name golfer named Y.E. Yang did not just beat him but crushed him in the final holes, eventually winning by three shots. It was as so stunning that people wrote it off. Like Buster. A fluke.

Three months later, Tiger Woods drove his Cadillac Escalade into a hedge, a fire hydrant and a tree at 2:30 a.m. We all know what happened after that.

Now, let’s look at this: You have a 35-year-old man who has not won a major championship since having reconstructive surgery on his knee — and in the last major where he contended he was taken out on Sunday. He has not won a tournament of any kind in a year and a half. He has gone through a very public divorce and a seemingly endless string of public embarrassments. He has changed swing coaches and has tried desperately and futilely to find a swing that fits his body and his age. Before this past weekend, he talked about how well he was hitting the ball at home, and he went to his favorite course, where he had won seven times, and after a pretty good couple of days (“I hit it as pure as I could possibly hit it starting out,” he told reporters) he played miserably over the weekend, shooting 74-75.

Sure, it’s just one tournament — and just the first of the season. Sure, it doesn’t mean anything — all of Woods’ preparation is focused on Augusta and the majors (that’s how Nicklaus was too). Sure, Woods’ game is still in transition — once his new swing kicks in, things might take off.

Sure, he could return to form, have another chapter as the greatest golfer in the world, win five more major championships* and claim his rightful place on the top of the list. But at this point, I think all that is a staggering long shot. He COULD have a glorious second career, absolutely. But I think at this point we have to say the opposite is more likely.

*I never think people realize just how unlikely it is for Tiger Woods to win five more major championships. Think about Phil Mickelson for a moment. He has been on tour for 16 years, since he was 25. He has won 38 times on the PGA Tour. That’s a Hall of Fame career — Phil Mickelson is almost certainly one of the 25 greatest golfers who ever lived. He has won FOUR majors in 63 starts. Does Tiger Woods have an entire Phil Mickelson career (plus one major) left in him over the rest of his career?

I was reminded of something watching the Farmer’s Insurance Open, a blatantly obvious but perhaps forgotten part of golf: To win a golf tournament, any golf tournament, you have to score lower than 100 or so of the best golfers in the world. That is: You have to beat the golfer who that week is draining every putt. You have to beat the golfer who who found a groove in his swing and is hitting every fairway. You have to beat the golfer who luckily chips in a couple of times, making his score artificially low. You have to beat the golfer who gets hot, makes five or six or seven birdies in a row, and rides that high. And you also have to beat the other great golfers, the ones who have extreme talent and burning competitiveness and want desperately to be the best in the world. At the major championships, all of this doubly true.

This is why even the best who ever played — Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Faldo, whoever — they didn’t win half the tournaments they entered or one-third of the tournaments they entered or even a quarter or one-fifth of the tournaments they entered. From 1962 to 1980, Nicklaus’s prime, he won 17 major championships — a glorious achievement. He finished second (or tied for second) 14 more times, which blows the mind. But that also means he finished below second 45 out of 76 times. And that’s the man who won more than anyone.

There are no cheap wins in golf, certainly not in the tournaments Tiger Woods plays. In tennis, you might get an easy bracket, your toughest opponent might withdraw with a hamstring injury, something strange might happen. But in golf, somebody is going to shoot a terrific score for the conditions. To win, you have to beat that score.

This makes what Tiger Woods has done — from 1999-to-2008, 10 years, he won 13 of the 38 majors he entered, and 58 of the 173 PGA tournaments he entered — beyond legendary. But people cannot possibly expect Tiger Woods — at his age, after surgery, after his slog through the tabloids and, mostly, after his golf swing confusion — to become that player again.

But many people do. There’s something about him that makes us think that. Nobody thinks Roger Federer is going to become the dominant force in tennis again. But people do think Tiger can (or will). Even I think that. As I write these words, a part of me is shouting “Come on, you’re not REALLY writing off Tiger Woods.” And I’m not. I think he is too mentally strong, too competitive, too knowledgeable to just disappear from the landscape. I don’t see him going dry like Arnold Palmer (who won his last major at 34) or Tom Watson (who won his last major at 33) or Nick Faldo (who won one major after he turned 35). I think he will have great moments yet.

But I think he is going to enter a new phase, where he will contend occasionally, like other golfers. He is going to enter a phase where it will be difficult to play well for four rounds. He is going to enter a phase where those 10 foot putts that were automatic will not be automatic anymore. I think things have changed for Tiger Woods, and they’re not going back. You can’t ever go back. And I don’t know how he is going to handle that. Nobody knows how he will handle it. Over the weekend, on one of his favorite courses, he looked lost. His swing was off. His short game was off. His putting was off. Yes, it was just his first tournament, but Tiger has always done really well in his first tournament — this was part of his game, he was always more ready to go when the seasons began than anyone else.

Anyway, what was as striking as anything was how uninterested he looked. I have never seen an athlete more laser focused than Tiger Woods. This was his greatest gift. He was locked in, all the time, it never stopped, on the course or off. He was driven to be the greatest golfer who ever lived, and every putt was to save the earth, and every shot was time stamped for history. No matter what question anyone asked him, the answer was: “I’m here to win.” No matter what challenge was thrown at him, the answer was: “I’m here to win.”

Does Tiger Woods still want to win? I have little doubt. Does Tiger Woods want to win in the same way he did four, five, six years ago, when he was young, when he felt healthy, when he was idolized, when his golf swing felt as natural to him as breathing? He came to the 18th hole on Sunday, and he needed to make a putt to shoot a 74, which is a lousy score for Tiger Woods and utterly irrelevant for scoreboard purposes. But it is better than a 75. That has always been the driving force for Tiger Woods. One shot better.

No one but Tiger Woods can know what he was thinking at that moment. All we can know is that he missed the putt, tipped his cap to the crowd, and went to sign his scorecard. “I have some work to do,” he told reporters.

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The Pro Bowl Doesn’t Matter (But I’ll Watch)

I was thinking the other day about ABC’s Wide World of Sports. There was a time in America — and not so long ago — when the concept of a show like Wide World of Sports made sense to all of us. The concept was best described in the famous lead-in, read by the incomparable Jim McKay:

“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports. The thrill of victory. And the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”

Not many people know this, but that lead-in was actually written by a man named Stanley Ralph Ross who had one of the more wondrous careers in entertainment. He wrote the shows in the old Batman and Wonder Woman series, came up with story lines for shows like “All in the Family” and “Columbo,” did various parody songs, played bad guys in gloriously awful kids shows like “Far Out Space Nuts” and “The Lost Saucer,” showed up now and then on “Falcon Crest,” appeared in movies like “Helter Skelter” and “Sleeper,” and did voiceovers for countless cartoons — he was Braniac on the Superfriends, for instance. Wikipedia also says he became an ordained minister and officiated Burt Ward’s third wedding. Talk about someone’s cup running over.

Anyway, those Wide World of Sports words carried a lot of power back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. Enormous words. We were willing to watch pretty much ANYTHING back then that fit within those parameters. Wide World of Sports would bring us rodeo and racquetball and surfing and loggers trying to make other loggers fall off of logs, and people on skates jumping over barrels and demolition derbies and Evel Knievel jumping busses on his motorcycle and the Harlem Globetrotters … we watched them all. Yes, there were some sports that we’d probably consider more serious too; we’d get big time boxing matches on Wide World of Sports, and huge track and field events and world championship gymnastics competitions and so on. But in many ways the point was that some weeks it was more important, some weeks less, but we watched it all — the constant variety of sports.

And I never once remember asking: Why are we watching this? We watched because it was sports. We didn’t need an actual reason. Anyway, there wasn’t anything else on.

The point is: It did not have to matter. To be blunt about it: Sports almost NEVER mattered, not in the way we think about today. Why would we watch a mishmash of professional athletes and actors compete in stupid superstars competitions or “Battle of the Sexes” match-ups? Why not? There was a little thrill of victory, a little less agony of defeat, and what else were we going to do anyway? The landscape was just different. People often wonder about the bowl setup in college football — how did a system so ridiculous ever get come together? But the system is only ridiculous when viewed through today’s prism. Well, for a long time in America, we lived in a bowl nation — a sports landscape of match races and boxing match-ups (we actually called the people who put these things together “matchmakers”), and odd professional wrestling matches and quasi-interesting exhibitions and barnstorming and now-quaint events like when the NFL Champions would face off against a team of college football All-Stars.* In that setting, it made perfect sense for men in ugly jackets to scout games and determine what might be a fun match-up for people to watch on Dec. 28th. That’s how we determined pretty much everything in sports.

*Though I’ve already had my 44th birthday, I like to think of today as my real birthday because I was born on the Sunday of the first ever Super Bowl bye week. I was born in those years when fathers were expected to wait nervously in the lobby while their children were born — all the while clutching celebration cigars to hand out to complete strangers upon hearing “It’s a boy!” — and my parents still talk to this day about how the moment I was born my father was watching pro football on TV. This, in and of itself, is no big deal. What I love is that the game he was watching was the now departed Playoff Bowl, a bizarre and long-forgotten NFL exhibition that would face off the third and four-place teams in an effort to determine, once and for all, who deserved to be third. That day, the Baltimore Colts beat the Philadelphia Eagles 20-14.

The landscape, of course, has changed drastically. We have little use for the constant variety of sports — quite the opposite. I hear people constantly griping that they want LESS variety, that they don’t care about soccer (boring) … track and field (come on) … tennis (who’s that guy?) … hockey (icing?) … golf (get over yourselves) … auto racing (that’s a sport?) … women’s basketball (they don’t even dunk) … baseball (too slow) … the NBA regular season (doesn’t matter) … college bowls (stupid system) … college basketball until March (no brackets) …. even the current NFL (not as good as it used to be). In many ways, it seems to me, today’s sports discussion is more about what we DO NOT care about than what we do care about. It’s all one blur. We are like candy store kids who can no longer taste the difference between Rolos and PEZ and no longer care. We just want the sugar rush.

All-Star Games don’t fit into our brave new sports world. This is true of all sports. Baseball’s All-Star Game, by far the most famous and well-regarded of the games, received its lowest ratings EVER this year. There were many attempts to explain this away, some of them technical TV jargon. Apparently: “Nobody gives a damn about all-star games” was not good enough. Up to 1986, the All-Star Game pulled a 20 rating every single year but one (1969 — not sure what happened that year). It often pulled 25 ratings. In 1976, when I was nine, it pulled a 27.6 rating. That’s about the rating that the AFC Championship just pulled — twice the rating of American Idol. Everybody watched. This year’s All-Star Game rating? Right: 7.5. A little less that “The Good Wife” will get most weeks.

Sure, television has changed — there were countless fewer TV options in 1976 — and baseball has changed too. But it seems to me that the feelings about all-star games have changed even more. There was a time when we would all gather around just to watch athletes play their sport, nothing had to be on the line, nothing had to be at stake, the ruled did not even have to make sense. We just wanted to watch, just like there was a time when we would gather around to hear the late Fred Travalena do a few of the same impressions, watch Donny and Marie do a few skits, watch that “You doesn’t have to call me Johnson” guy do that same annoying bit. Basically: We were stupid. And we didn’t have any other choice.

But now … no, people aren’t going to watch the All-Star Game just to see Albert Pujols get a couple of at-bats. We can see that any time we want. Nobody cares. Yes, the NBA has smartly turned their All-Star Game into a weekend of stunts — watch these guys dunk, watch these guys shoot three-pointers, watch Charles Barkley say something funny — and there’s a certain fun in that. The NHL has pulled out the North America vs. the World gimmick, which doesn’t seem to excite people nearly as much as playing games in odd places like Fenway Park (I think the NHL All-Star Game should be in some new odd place every year — (“Hey, they’re playing the All-Star game on the 14th green at Augusta! Awesome!”). Even staid baseball has tried to liven up its game with the interminable home run hitting contest. Basically, these ploys keeps these things afloat. But the basic theme remains: Nobody cares.

And the Pro Bowl — well, everyone agrees its the worst of the bunch. They’ve moved the thing around. They’re trying to mike up more players. Nothing works. I asked around to find why people think the Pro Bowl is widely viewed as the worst of the already lifeless lot of All-Star Games? They generally broke it down to three things:

1. It’s the only one played at the end of the season, not in the middle. For this, perhaps, it doesn’t feel as integrated.

2. It’s the only one where the players are specifically prohibited from playing their sport to the best of their abilities — no blitzing, for instance. If the game means so little to the league, how can it matter to fans?

3. Football, more than the other sports, requires perfect coordination between players. In baseball, nine strangers who have never seen each other can go out and win a baseball game.* In basketball and hockey, yes, more coordination is required, but that can come together naturally, during a game, in the flow of action, without much practice. In football, though, you have 11 players on each side doing 11 different things, and no matter how skilled they are individually their success relies so much on each other. And it really is a team sport — individual excellence really is of minor importance. In other sports, you might watch to marvel at Sidney Crosby’s feel for the game, Kevin Durant’s pure shooting touch, Roy Halladay’s ability to paint the corner. But if the Pro Bowl game itself is boring — and it’s pretty much ALWAYS boring — it won’t be salvaged by watching the blocking talents of Kris Diehlman or the instinctive movement of Jonathan Vilma. That’s just not the thrill of watching football.

*I’m reading John Thorn’s quite excellent Baseball in the Garden of Eden (coming soon), and he makes a point that I don’t think is made quite enough. Most people, unlike poor sap Bud Selig, know that Abner Doubleday did not invent the game of baseball, had nothing to do with inventing the game of baseball, probably never even played baseball and that believing in this myth is a bit like believing there’s are little tiny singers and bands performing inside your radio. But it has become common to believe that while baseball was not really “invented,” the man who came closest was Alexander Cartwright. He and a committee wrote down a set of rules in 1845 after forming the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. It is said on his Hall of Fame plaque that Cartwright set the bases 90 feet apart, established 9 innings and 9 players per team as standards and carried baseball to Hawaii. As Thorn writes of the Hall of Fame plaque: “Every word of substance is false.” But I’ll let you read the book.

The point that never gets old is that we are supposed to believe that Cartwright and the Knickerbocker fellas invented baseball, just came up with the rules. And then they played the very first game of baseball ever, the first game under the Cartwright rules, against a ballclub of ragtag players, a club so new and undistinguished that they did not even have a name (they are often called the “New York Nine”). So you would expect the Knickerbockers to have a bit of an advantage since we are supposed to believe they invented this new game.

As Thorn points out: The Knickerbockers lost the game 23-1 in four innings.

I think there’s at least one more reason the Pro Bowl matters less to us than the others — something else about football the game. I think football is a more serious game than the others. We may take everything in sports more seriously than we once did, but this is five times more true for professional football. Every game is staggeringly important. We accept the carnage of football — the concussions, the broken bones, the injury timeouts, the Coors Light coach commercials — because the games are so important.

But if you take away that staggering importance, football feels empty. This is why exhibition football games are unwatchable. Te Pro Bowl has no chance in this environment. People still argue about Pete Rose crashing into Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game and perhaps altering his career. It might be the most famous moment in All-Star Game history. Some think Rose was a jerk, some think he was just playing the game hard, and some think he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

But imagine something similar in the Pro Bowl, imagine a linebacker blindsiding some gifted young quarterback, say Aaron Rodgers, and busting up his career. NOBODY would look at that as something worth arguing about. It would be a travesty. It would be a criminal act. Nobody wants to see someone get hurt in a stupid Pro Bowl. In baseball, you will hear people longing for those days when the All-Star Game mattered and players desperately wanted to win for their league. Nobody I know feels that way about football.

Of course, as much as people say they don’t care about the Pro Bowl … it’s a near certainty that more people will watch tonight’s Pro Bowl than any of the other all-star games. Many of us will watch, but we won’t really care. And, no, that would not make for nearly as compelling a Wide World of Sports opening.

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Angels in the Outfield

In the next few days, I have a post coming on hitting at home and on the road. It is based on the fun new book Scorecasting by my colleague Jon Wertheim and his lifelong friend Tobias J. Moskowitz. More on all that soon … maybe even a conversation (a Pozcast?) with Jon himself.

In any case, the book has re-energized many of my questions about why players generally hit better at home than they do on the road. Why? In the cases of players like Jim Rice or Dale Murphy or Todd Helton, it is fairly obvious that they spent (or spend) their home games playing in great hitting ballparks. So, obviously they hit better at home. Chuck Klein is in the Hall of Fame largely because of the absurd dimensions of his home ballpark, the Baker Bowl. He is not the only one in the Hall of Fame based on perception and context (and a liberal veteran’s committee).

But even beyond the extreme cases, players hit better at home, and I will talk a bit about that that later. But for now, I want to show the home and road statistics of one Vernon M. Wells from 2010:

Home: .321/.363/.628 with 20 homers, 44 runs, 54 RBIs.
Road: .227/.301/.407 with 11 homers, 35 runs, 34 RBIs.

Something kind of weird happened in the Rogers Centre in Toronto in 2010. For one year, the place kind of turned into a launching pad for right-handed hitters. It seems to happen every now and again in Toronto. Most years, it’s a pretty neutral place, but in 2006, for instance, righties found it to be a nice home run park. That year, Troy Glaus mashed 38 homers (25 at home) and Wells hit 32 homers (24 at home) and Alex Rios showed his first real signs of power, hitting 12 of his 17 homers at home.

But then in 2007, it was back to normal. It’s weird — the right-handed power thing just shows up every now and again, like Charo on The Love Boat. Maybe it’s the quirks of opening and closing the roof. Maybe it’s just chance — you really shouldn’t judge a park based on only one season. Or maybe it’s my imagination. Whatever the case, in 2010 right-handed hitters absolutely bombed Rogers. Of course, the most noticeable of those was Jose Bautista who, having never made any impact on anybody, suddenly mashed 54 home runs, 33 of them in the friendly confines of Canada’s Wonderland.*

*Of course, this still means Bautista hit 21 homers on the road, which is rather stunning. Still, that .737 home slugging percentage stands out.

Aaron Hill didn’t really hit anywhere, but he did hit 15 home runs at home. And, of course, you see Wells’ numbers above. It did not work that away for everyone, but Bill James’ park numbers show a 131 home run park factor for righties in Toronto, second-highest in the league behind that all-around wonderful home run playground in Chicago*.

*Adam Dunn, get ready to have some fun.

We’re focusing now on Wells because, as you know, the California Angels (as I continue to insist on calling them) have what I think is the most expensive outfield in baseball history — especially if you consider ALL of it. Wells is the centerpiece of that outfield, of course — he will be paid $23 million (though it now seems that $5 million will be paid by the Blue Jays). Torii Hunter will get $18 million. Bobby Abreu will get $9 million. And the Angels will pay the long-absent Gary Matthews Jr. $11 million for the one-time privilege of watching him not hit, listening to him demand a trade, then finally finding a team willing to take him (as long as that team did not have to pay his salary).

With fourth outfield options like Reggie Willits, the Angels will have about $56 million of outfield debt in 2011, which will be more than six or seven teams entire payroll. It really is an extraordinary thing. The bulk of the Angels’ payroll responsibilities are for four outfielders — Wells, Hunter, Abreu (now a DH) and the departed Matthews. The youngest (Wells) is 32. None of the four have has won an MVP … or ever finished in the Top 5 in MVP voting. The four have started a total of three All-Star Games. None of the four has ever hit 35 homers in a season or led the league in runs scored or RBIs or batting average or on-base percentage or slugging percentage or OPS or just about anything else (Abreu and Wells have led the league in doubles). None of the four was rated even a league average defender last year by Total Zone rating system or Ultimate Zone Rating or John Dewan’s Plus/Minus. None of the four stood out as a good base runner in 2010.

I’m not saying any of these things — especially the MVP voting, the All-Star Game starts and those flawed offensive stats — mean anything. Most of those things don’t mean anything at all. In fact, I usually rip those very measures when talking about Hall of Famers. But I’m not trying to make any point about the players VALUE. I’m just trying to make the point that this diamond-studded outfield is utterly inexplicable even on those ridiculous terms. At least if one of those guys was a former MVP or a perennial All-Star, you could see how someone might have been tricked into paying that kind of money.

Of the four, Bobby Abreu is clearly the best deal. For one thing, he’s the cheapest of the lot. For another, he has been unquestionably the best player over his career. Abreu’s great downfall in the minds of the masses is that he’s legendarily and indisputably boring. The boring part comes from both his mind-numbing consistency and his C-Span II excitement level at-bats.

The mind-numbing consistency? Bobby Abreu has hit exactly 20 home runs five times in his career — most in baseball history. And I would argue that nothing — NOTHING — is more boring than a 20-home run season. What IS a 20-homer season. Is it good? Is it bad? Does it tell you anything at all? No. It’s like driving across Kansas. You’ll be happy to know that Professional Hitter Harold Baines has the second-most 20-homer seasons (4) which is exactly as it should be.

Bobby Abreu has six seasons between 100 and 105 RBIs — again, most in baseball history. Boring. He has seven seasons between 95 and 104 runs scored — tied with Joe Cronin for the most in baseball history. Boring. Abreu has been absurdly sturdy — he has played more than 150 games in 13 different seasons, which is as many as Willie Mays and just one season behind that wonder of reliability Brooks Robinson — and that’s boring. He has walked a whole lot, which has made him more valuable than people realize but watching him foul pitch after pitch, take forever to dig back in, let pitches go that are 1/10th of an inch outside, no, it isn’t Spielberg. And he has put up the sort of consistent numbers that make him both admirable and invisible all that once. There probably is not another player in baseball history quite like Abreu.

Whatever the case, he had his worst season in 2010 — he hit .255/.352/.435 and coughed around in the outfield — and it’s likely that he is in serious decline. He will move to DH. He’s turning 37 in March. It’s hard to see much good happening from here on in. Abreu has two years and $19 million left on his deal. Got this wrong. Abreu has one year left on his $9 million deal and another $9 million option for 2012 … with a more likely $1 million buyout.

Torii Hunter has actually had perhaps his two best offensive seasons the last two seasons, which has made his signing look better than it looked on deal day. Hunter has always been a flawed offensive player because he doesn’t get on base much. His lifetime on-base percentage is .332 — and that’s actually up quite a bit from the .324 OBP he had when the Angels gave him a monster 5-year, $90 million deal. Hunter’s value was in his spectacular center field defense (though it is true that his defense never quite scored as high as expected on any of the big three defensive scales), his nice combination of power and speed and his general sturdiness in the clubhouse and community. Torii Hunter was the kind of player you wanted to have in your clubhouse, and the kind of player you wanted to cheer from the crowd.

Hunter has become a better offensive player with the Angels — he has hit .285/.353/.477 in three seasons, which is quite a bit better than his time in Minnesota — but he’s getting to that age where it could easily fall off at any time, and his defensive reputation has fallen enough that the Angels moved him out of center field in 2010. His numbers don’t really play all that well at the corner outfield spots. He was also, according to the Bill James system, one of the worst base runners in the game in 2010. He has two years and $36 million left on his deal. Can’t see how that will end well.

Gary Matthews … he was just a mistake and everyone has no choice to admit it now. But that deal was stillborn from the day it was signed. Nobody really understood what the Angels were doing when after the 2006 season they gave him a five-year, $50 million deal when he was 32 years old and had a career OPS+ of 97. He was coming off a good offensive season in Texas … but there you go. It was in Texas. Always look at those home and road splits when you see someone coming out of Texas. Granted, Matthews was pretty good on the road that year, but he hit .324/.396/.512 in that Texas hitters haven.

Up to 2006, Matthews had hit .249/.327/.397.

After 2006, Matthews has hit .245/.322/.377 and the Angels are stuck paying him even though he’s long gone.

Sometimes, you just wonder what is going through people’s minds.

Which brings us, finally and happily, to Vernon M. Wells. Two years ago, I wrote that Wells had the worst contract in baseball, even beating out Barry Zito and Jose Guillen, whose contracts were spectacularly bad. Then Wells — and I give it up to him — had a big rebound year in 2010. He’s still almost unplayable in center field, at least by the numbers I believe, but he was at least somewhat better defensively. And offensively he posted a 127 OPS+, mashing 31 homers and slugging .515.

Now, even if he would maintain those numbers (and the Angels plan on moving him to right field so his defense should be less of a problem … but also of less perceived value), he would not be worth anything close to the unbelievable $86 million he still has left on his contract ($23 million this year, $21 million next year, $21 million in 2013 AND $21 million more in 2014 … this contract goes on FOREVER).

But I would say that it is almost a sure thing that he will not maintain those numbers. Vernon Wells is 32 years old. And he is exactly the sort of player — .280 or so hitter, few walks, inconsistent power — who falls off a cliff around age 32. There is just example after example after example of this — George Bell, Kevin McReynolds, Carl Everett, Jose Guillen, Richie Zisk, Jeff Burroughs, Bobby Murcer, Amos Otis, Chet Lemon, Gus Bell … I could go on like this forever. Reggie Smith was a part-time player at 34. Raul Mondesi was mostly done at 31. Dale Murphy went into free fall at 32. Shawn Green, Greg Luzinski … obviously you could argue that Wells is different from some of these players — maybe even all these players. But the point is you don’t want to bet on ANY player to be great in their mid-to-late 30s, but especially not sporadically good offensive outfielders who don’t walk like Vernon Wells.*

*The best comp for Wells would be Andre Dawson … the hope would have to be that Wells could put together a career second half like Dawson did. There are not many Andre Dawsons in baseball history.

And yet, the Angels went out and got him and took on all that salary … and actually traded semi-useful players to make it happen. It’s almost like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the game; if a deal like this happened in your fantasy baseball league you would invalidate it on the assumption that one player didn’t know what he was doing. When writing my worst contracts a couple of years ago, I wrote that you could almost forgive the Angels for the Matthews contract because they keep winning despite what seem to be irrational moves. But the Angels didn’t win in 2010. And they don’t look especially healthy for 2011. And you wonder if it’s all just caught up with them.

Now, look, if Vernon Wells goes on to have great years, I will be the first one to congratulate the Angels for seeing something that was not apparently there. But I have to say, having read this story in the LA Times where Angels owner Arte Moreno defends the move not by saying that Wells will be a great player worth the money but by saying that he won’t have to raise ticket prices … well, yeah, this looks like it will be every bit the disaster that everyone except for the most intense and optimistic Angels fans knows it will be.

Maybe the weirdest part of all is that the Angels will be spending all that money on their outfield, but their centerfielder looks to be a 24-year-old, former 10th-round pick named Peter Bourjos, who can run a bit, and showed a great feel for the outfield in 51 games out there last year while hitting .204 over those same 51 games. Scouts and baseball people disagree about his future as an offensive player, but everyone agrees that he’s special defensively. He will get paid the minimum in 2010.

“It’s our money,” Moreno told Bill Shaikin of the TImes. Well, actually, not anymore.

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