By In Stuff

The Win Is Dead, Long Live The Win

So, at first, in honor of Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young win on Thursday I was going to do something kitschy you know, make this thing read like an obituary for the pitcher’s win, or write it as a eulogy for pitcher’s win, or, you know, make some other sort of contrived reference to the day the win died.

But in the end, you know what? The win did not die on Thursday. In fact, Thursday was not even an especially bad day for the win. The real win revolution began a long time ago — more than 30 years ago. I’ll get to that in minute.

Yes, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young despite a 13-12 record. Yes, he won it even though C.C. Sabathia won 21 games — only the second American League pitcher the last five years to win more than 20 games.* Yes Hernandez won it handily even though there was a lot of hand-wringing — a couple of those hands being my own — over the question: Can a pitcher win a Cy Young with 13 wins and 12 losses?

*Sabathia has now led the league in victories in back-to-back years and not won a Cy Young award. The last guy to lead the league in wins in back-to-back years was Roger Clemens in 1997-98 — and he won the Cy Young both years.The last guy to lead the league in wins in back-to-back years and NOT win at least one Cy Young wasWilbur Wood in the early 1970s.

A quick look:

Leading the league in wins in back-to-back years:

C.C. Sabathia (2009-10): No Cy Youngs
Roger Clemens (1997-98): 2 Cy Youngs
Greg Maddux (1994-95): 2 Cy Youngs
Tom Glavine (1991-92-93): 1 Cy Young
Roger Clemens (1986-87): 2 Cy Youngs
LaMarr Hoyt (1982-83): 1 Cy Young
Jim Palmer (1975-76-77): 2 Cy Youngs
Catfish Hunter (1974-75): 1 Cy Young
Wilbur Wood (1972-73): No Cy Youngs

All of this King Felix love suggests that the era of wins being the dominant pitching statistic has come to an end — anyway, that was my first reaction. But as I thought about it more, I kind of changed my mind. The win isn’t dead, nothing close to dead. People are just looking at it differently. The truth is that King Felix’s 13 wins are not CLOSE to the record for fewest wins for a Cy Young pitcher. The truth is that a 13-12 record is not even CLOSE to the least impressive record in Cy Young history.

And in the end, I’m not sure that Hernandez’s Cy Young award really has anything at all to do with the devaluing of the win. I think Felix Hernandez was just an unusual pitcher in an unusual year. Look: It’s not often that a pitcher as great as King Felix — someone who was already ACKNOWLEDGED as great even before the year began — plays for an offensive team as pitiful as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. Well, first of all, it’s not often that there even IS an offensive team as pitiful as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. This really was a stunningly bad team.

How bad? Well, for fun, I punched in Steve Carlton’s amazing 1972 season into the Mariners season. Repeat: I did this for fun. The 1972 and 2010 seasons are not especially similar. Teams scored about 14% more runs in 2010 than in 1972. And Carlton made 41 starts and completed 30 games in 1972, which obviously would not happen now. But I was curious — Carlton went 27-10 in low-scoring 1972 for an abominable Philadelphia team that lost 97 games. What if you mirror his season — Game 1 for Game 1, Game 37 for Game 37, Game 104 for Game 104 — and give him Seattle’s run support. What would the record look like then?

Well, I’ll tell you: He would have gone 20-10 with Mariners run support. That’s making 41 starts and with little bullpen use. Does that give you an idea how bad the Mariners offense was? If you adjust for era, put Carlton on a five-man rotation, give him the Mariners bullpen — yep, he probably would have gone something like 13-12.

See, this was just a strange year. The guy who most people would consider the best pitcher in the league played for a team so odious offensively that the won-loss record was simply pointless. And people were paying attention. That’s a good thing. For years, writers and analysts have talked about “hard luck” pitchers. Well, Hernandez had such hard luck, that finally people realized it wasn’t luck at all. It was absurdity. Anyone who reads this knows I don’t like won-loss records anyway, but more often than not the record gives you at least SOME reflection of how well a pitcher pitched. But in King Felix’s case, it did not and everyone understood it. Plus Hernandez’s other basic stats were so good — he led the league in starts, in ERA and was just one behind in strikeouts — that he was more or less the obvious choice no matter his record.*

*A few other people seem to have made this point but it’s worth making again: Felix Hernandez DID NOT win the Cy Young because of new-fangled advanced stats. I realize that this has been written by a couple of people, but it just isn’t true. He did not lead the league in Fangraphs WAR — in fact he finished third behind Cliff Lee and Justin Verlander. He was also third in xFIP — that ERA that attempts to cut out defensive contributions — behind Francisco Liriano and Lee. The Baseball Reference numbers were better for him — he did lead in Baseball Reference WAR and Win Probability Added — but even there he was second in ERA+ to Clay Buchholz. The advanced numbers made plain that Felix had a great year, but other pitchers were very similar. It wasn’t odd-looking acronyms that won Felix the Cy Young but things like ERA and strikeouts, you know, the stuff about as old as baseball.

I have mentioned a couple of time that the anti-win revolution began a long time ago. Yes, of course, wins have played a huge role in Cy Young voting. In 1983, LaMarr Hoyt probably wasn’t one of the 10 best pitchers in the American League — he wasn’t in the Top 10 in ERA, just as a starting point — but he got an inordinate amount of run support (an astonishing 19 games where the White Sox scored five or more runs for him) and he won 24 games. Bob Welch won 27 games in 1990 and won the Cy Young though Roger Clemens ERA was a full run lower and he was inarguably the more dominant pitcher.Jack McDowell won 22 games and won the Cy Young in 1993 when Kevin Appier only won 18 and pretty clearly pitched a lot better. And there are other examples.

But, still, the significance of the win in my mind began dwindling way back in 1974, when a pitcher won the Cy Young with (gasp) a 15-12 record. Are you kidding me? A 15-12 record? And that was way back in 1974? How did that happen? And that was nothing. Five years later, a pitcher won the Cy Young with a 6-6 record. SIX AND SIX. And in the years since then, pitchers have won Cy Youngs with nine wins, with seven wins, with six wins, five wins (FIVE STINKING WINS?) and, it’s almost impossible to believe, with four wins (no way, four wins? No way. That didn’t happen).

If you know your Cy Young history, you could probably put names by those records. Mike Marshall won with that 15-12 record. Then Bruce Sutter won with the 6-6 record. After that it was Willie Hernandez who won with nine wins, Dennis Eckersley with seven, Rollie Fingers with six wins, Steve Bedrosian with five and the ever-popular Mark Davis who won with a 4-3 record. Of course, these are all firemen/relievers/closers, and it has been obvious for more than 35 years that these pitchers absolutely were not to be judged by wins. No, they were to be judged by a new statistic called “saves.” The Baseball Writers embraced saves pretty quickly. Of course it was one of the legendary baseball writers, Jerome Holtzman, who invented it.

The point, I think, is that the all-mighty win really started to lose its mojo then. Baseball observers began to realize that the game was changing, and that pitchers who only threw the late innings could be as valuable, could even be MORE valuable, than starters with lots of wins.

Yes, plenty of people continue to love the win as a statistic. Just this week, National League Cy Young winner Roy Halladay threw his support behind the win. So did a few writers. They came hard at us with that old logic: “A pitcher’s job to win games.” Of course, it really isn’t. It’s a TEAM’S job to win games. Anyway, the game isn’t the same. As starters complete fewer and fewer games, as they pitch fewer and fewer innings, as relievers play a bigger and bigger role, well, it’s plain silly to look at pitcher wins the way we did even a few years ago. I think Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young award just punctuates the point.

But this is not an obituary. And this is not a eulogy. The win ain’t dead, and I don’t think the win should be dead either. Seems to me the won-loss record is a perfectly fine thing to look at, a fun thing to talk about, a connection to the past, and it’s simple to understand. You can use it to teach math to kids. Plus it often tells us something very interesting. For instance, I think Hernandez’s won-loss record was quite revealing. It told us that the Mariners were ghastly at hitting baseballs. Fortunately, the voters* realized that this wasn’t Felix Hernandez’s fault.

*I should point out here — or somewhere, I guess — that I was one of the American League Cy Young voters. My ballot looked like this:

1. Felix Hernandez, Seattle
2. C.C. Sabathia, New York
3. David Price, Tampa Bay
4. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles
5. Cliff Lee, Texas

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Paterno In Autumn

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Someone asks Joe Paterno a question about missed tackles. Think about that for a minute. Think about how many times someone, over 45 years as a head coach at Penn State, over 61 years in coaching, think about how many times someone has asked Joe Paterno about missed tackles. A thousand at least, right? A thousand times would be fewer than two times per game coached. It has to be a thousand, minimum. What in the world could Joe Paterno have left to say about players missing tackles?

And yet, still, he considers the question. He doesn’t exactly love these weekly media sessions, but hey, he’s here, and the question is asked, and this is how Joe Paterno’s mind works. He breaks down questions. That’s his life’s work. He breaks thing down and breaks that down and breaks that down more. That’s coaching. That’s life. It is about obliterating the vague, it is about cutting through the shadows and fog, it is about figuring out what you stand for. Missed tackles, you say? Well, let’s think about that for a moment. What do you mean when you say missed tackles? What exactly causes missed tackles?

“When you miss tackles, obviously, it’s one of two things,” he begins. “Either you did a lousy job in your technique tackling. Or the other guy is that good, he’s that quick, he sets you up well, he gets you a little bit off-balance, he sets you up well enough that he can beat you.”

And I have to tell you, simple as that sounds — and it sounds ludicrously simple — I never thought about it exactly that way. MIssed tackles had always seemed to me a concrete thing, a stationary and motionless thing, the player is there, you tackle him, and if you don’t, it’s a missed tackle. But of course it isn’t like that at all. Sometimes a missed tackle is a missed tackle. Sometimes it’s a great move. Sometimes it’s a runner with power. Nothing in football is static. Everything in football is motion and interaction and violence and deception, each piece of the game is a tiny duel, and sometimes you win the duel, and sometimes you lose the duel.

“I think it’s a combination,” Paterno continues, “Most games we have tackled pretty well. … We have had a little problem on the corners and on the edges with our linebacking, at times we have missed tackles. But you’ve got to give the other guy credit. I think we have played against some people that have blocked solid, made it tough for us to penetrate, and the backs have had a little running room, and when they have had some running room, they have been good enough to make us miss at times.”

People keep wondering how long Joe Paterno will continue to coach. That is the question that seems to override everything at Penn State University, especially in a season like this when the Nittany Lions are young, and building, and taking a few thumpings in the Big 10. Well, sure, it’s understandable. The man is 83 years old, will turn 84 the day after Christmas. When Joe Paterno showed up at Big 10 Media day looking sickly — he was in the midst of fighting off a nasty reaction to medication given in a dental procedure — there were some not-so-quiet whispers that he might not finish the year. When he showed up at his weekly press conference a week ago Tuesday, just two days after he was carried off the field for his 400th victory, the buzz was about how he seemed disoriented and several times needed questions repeated. There were some who began charting how many times Joe Paterno needed questions repeated. The Internet has been ablaze all year with rumors about Paterno’s departure and theories about when it will happen.

But the man sitting behind the microphone now, with that familiar blue Penn State banner behind him, the one talking about missed tackles, well, this man isn’t going anywhere. Not yet. His mind still turns over those football questions. Missed tackles still interest him after all these years. Blocking techniques still interest him after all these years. Building young teams — 59 players on Penn State this year are freshmen or sophomores — still interests him. Someone asks him about that: How does he feel about this team in the future? Well, yes, that’s interesting — no, not the question itself (he’s been asked this question MORE than a thousand times) but what it makes Paterno’s mind think about. He breaks the question down. How does he feel about the team in the future? Well, what does the future look like? What are the challenges of the future? The game is tougher now, isn’t it? It takes longer to develop a young players in today’s world, doesn’t it?

“It’s not the way it used to be,” he says. “The defenses are much more sophisticated. The coverages are more sophisticated. The blitzes are all a little bit tougher to handle than they used to be. So there are some people that have to really be exposed. … There are a lot of things that go on now that takes a little longer to develop into a real steady, consistent football team.”

These are the things that still occupy his mind. Joe Paterno isn’t going anywhere yet because he feels good, he feels sharp, and the challenge of building a team in this tougher new world excites him the same way it always excited him.

What’s that: You say some people think the game has passed him by? Hell, there have ALWAYS been people who have thought that about Joe Paterno, going back to 1966 when his first team went 5-5. Anyway, didn’t Penn State beat LSU in a New Year’s Day bowl game this year? Didn’t Penn State go to the Rose Bowl last year? This team, young as it is, as tough as its losses to Iowa and Ohio State and and Illinois have been, can still win its seventh game against Indiana Saturday, can win its eighth against Michigan State. This team had Ohio State down at halftime, this team can still play in another New Year’s Day bowl. What do people want? What do people expect?

Familiarity breeds boredom — that’s a reality of life. Joe Paterno has been around for so long, his success has been so numbingly consistent (75% win percentage, 75% graduation rate, the Joe and Sue Paterno library at the center of campus), that eyes glaze over. What sounds to an outsider like thoughtful and interesting football talk undoubtedly sounds to insiders like he’s avoiding the question. Maybe he IS avoiding the question. “Joe has always had his answers,” a longtime observer of the program says. “If the questions happen to match up, so much the better.”

But he is also talking about football. And if you love football, isn’t this the ultimate privilege — listening to Joe Paterno talk? That’s how I always felt when talking basketball with John Wooden. That’s how I felt traveling the country and talking baseball with Buck O’Neil. That’s how I feel when talking with Bob Knight (once you got past the expletives). That’s how I always feel when talking with Earl Weaver or Whitey Herzog or Vin Scully.

And that’s how it is with Joe Paterno. He’s the legend. And he’s still sharp, still engaged, still determined. No, it isn’t like every word he says is a nugget of gold. But there are lessons to be learned, lessons he is constantly teaching, lessons about how you last, lessons about how you overcome, lessons about not making stuff too complicated. And there are stories. Someone asks Paterno what he expects this weekend since the Penn State-Indiana game won’t be at Indiana but instead at a “neutral” site in Landover, Md. — neutral in quotes since the crowd should be pretty heavy Penn State.

Well, Paterno says he doesn’t have any expectations since he never had his team play a neutral site game in Maryland before, and there’s no point in expecting anything. But in saying that he remembers that many years ago, when he was still an assistant coach at Penn State, the Lions played Illinois at a neutral-site game in Cleveland, in the old stadium. That was 1959. He said there wasn’t much of a crowd (he’s right, there were only 15,000 or so there at Municipal Stadium). He said that Penn State beat a good Illinois team (he’s right, Penn State won 20-9). And he remembered that Illinois had this middle linebacker that was pretty good and was about to become pretty well known across America.

He said it so matter-of-factly, weaved it so easily into the answer, that there was no follow-up … I suspect nobody really cared. But I cared. This was history. I thought he was talking about Dick Butkus — and how cool is that that Joe Paterno remembered coaching against Dick Butkus in college. So I went back and looked and found that Butkus didn’t play for Illinois until 1962 — Joe Paterno had his years mixed up. I was disappointed. Ah well, it’s understandable after all these years, right?

Then I looked more closely. And I realized that Illinois DID have a terrific middle-linebacker (and nose guard) in 1959 named Bill Burrell. He is one of the great jewels in college football history, a consensus All-American in 1959 and he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Joe Paterno still remembers coaching against Bill Burrell at a nearly empty Cleveland Municipal Stadium more than 50 years ago.

And people are worried about how many questions he needs repeated?*

*I should point out here that Joe’s hearing probably isn’t great, but half the questions at these press conferences are asked over a speaker system and I didn’t understand half of them either.

Ah, but those missed tackles. Coaches can’t go on forever. We all know that. But break it down: Why do coaches fade? I think it’s because over time coaches can lose energy, they can lose focus, they can lose touch with the times, and perhaps more than anything they can lose their coaching values. Yes, that’s the big thing. The temptation as you grow older, I think, is to take a few more shortcuts, let a few more things go, rest a little more on what you’ve already accomplished.

But I don’t think any of that is happening with Joe Paterno. Yes, he cuts some things out of his schedule. Yes, he has to deal with some of the physical tolls of age. Yes, he will sometimes ask for questions to be repeated and sometimes think reporters mumble. But the rest of it, the important stuff — he seems as energetic about football, as focused on winning, as curious about the questions as ever before. And the team still responds. No, he’s not going anywhere.

The morning after Paterno won his 400th game, there was still a buzz in the Penn State football offices, still a sense of excitement, and when Paterno arrived he gathered people together and said: “That was wonderful. But now that’s over.” He may not do everything he once did — but he stands for all the same things.

At one point, someone asks Joe Paterno at the press conference if he can find any value in studying Indiana’s crushing loss to Wisconsin last week. Paterno breaks down this question too, and offers up an answer that can probably be used for most questions.

“You watch it, and you look at it,” Paterno says, and then he sort of smiles, just a little bit. “Whether we come to the same conclusion of some of you experts is debatable.”

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The Single Wing And A Prayer

Per request, I’m going to try and do a bit more linking here at the ol’ blog.

We’ll start with this one: Here’s a great story about a legendary coach named Keith Piper. It’s written by my good friend Todd Jones.

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Banny Log Once More

Long time readers of this blog in all of its various forms know that Brian Bannister is one of my all-time favorite people in sports. For a good while, I would do a Banny Log every time he pitched, reviewing his performance, discussing his theories about pitching and so on. It was fun. After a while, though, I stopped doing it. It was a conscious decision. I started to think I was putting too much pressure on the guy.

See, Banny’s quest to become a good big league pitcher speaks to my sentimental sports heart. Banny comes at hitters with a high-80s, low-90s fastball that has some cutting action on it. That’s his base pitch and like many league average pitches, it has its ups and downs depending on his command and where his fielders are positioned and how well the hitters are seeing the ball come out of his hand. Banny has tried to compliment that pitch with dozens of others, the most prominent of them being a four-seam fastball that he sometimes could ride up in the strike zone, a change-up that was intended to make hitters pound the ball into the ground (and often did have that effect), a curveball that Banny will tell you has never had great definition but could change the hitter’s perspective, a slider that had its up and downs and he finally gave up on, a cutter that was really like his fastball only slower, and so on and so on. Banny has been the great tinkerer, moving the numbers around on his own personal toy number slide, hoping to make them all go in order while working around that ever-present missing space.

There has always seemed to me something literary about Banny’s quest, some huge overriding theme — man trying to overcome his own limitations, man reaching for something beyond his grasp, you know, that sort of thing. It’s like Moby Dick with a seventh-inning stretch. I appreciate that not everybody feels this way. There were those, for instance, who thought the Banny Log was (in the memorable words of one emailer) “a lot of words written about a kinda crappy pitcher.” But I never saw it that way. Well, yeah, it was often a lot of words. But Banny’s quest was, and is, endlessly fascinating to me. He tinkers and analyzes and studies and plots and creates and destroys and invents and experiments — a mad scientist in the lab — all because he desperately wants to pitch in the big leagues. It’s impossible for me to watch him pitch without thinking that he is what I would be if I had any baseball talent at all.

Well, sadly, the Banny story ends in Kansas City. Last week, the Royals outrighted Banny, and Banny refused to accept the Class AAA assignment, and you really couldn’t blame either side. The Royals are loaded with bottom of the rotation guys. They picked up two more potential fourth or fifth starters last week when they dealt David DeJesus to Oakland for Vin Mazzaro and minor-leaguer Justin Marks. They go along with Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies and Sean O’Sullivan and possibly Bruce Chen, and the Royals are loaded with pitching prospects in the minor leagues, and it’s fair to say the bottom of the rotation is filled. It’s possible that one or two of these guys will emerge and become a No. 2 to compliment Zack Greinke at top of the rotation, but that’s a different question, and in the meanwhile the Royals really didn’t have room for Banny, an arbitration-eligible pitcher who made more than $2 million last year and who has been 23-40 with a 5.58 ERA the last three years.

On the other side, Banny is turning 30 and has to believe (HAS to believe) that if he can just stay healthy, if he can find the right situation, well, he can still help a big league club. The National League, where the lineups aren’t as stacked, where the pitcher hits (Banny is a good hitter), where there are some great pitcher’s parks, yes, the National League has to look like an oasis. So he will become a free agent and try to find that oasis (San Diego, you listening?). Like I say, you can’t blame either side.

The biggest knock inside baseball circles on Banny — other than the obvious knock that he doesn’t have a dominant pitch — has been his tinkering. There are quite a few players out there who understand and consider the advanced stats, but nobody did it as publicly or as intensely as Brian. He took a lot of bleep for it. Banny has a mathematical mind. He just thinks that way. So when he had a very good rookie season in 2007 — 12-9, 3.87 ERA, third in the rookie of the year voting — he came to believe that he had simply been dealt aces all year long. He believed he had been lucky. His strikeout total was very low (77 in 165 innings), he was a fly ball pitcher who somehow didn’t give up many home runs, and hitters had an unnatural .262 average on balls hit in play. Most pitchers would not have thought much about it. Banny thought about little else. His xFIP — what is basically his estimated ERA once you take fielding and luck out of the equation — was 5.04. He wondered if (hoped?) maybe his cutting fastball, which has a different action on it from most pitches, would allow him to keep his pitching luck and keep that batting average low. He thought about numerous changes he could make to his game. He worked on many, many adjustments.

And his next season was absolutely miserable. That happened to be the season I started writing Banny Log, and I wonder if him being on a stage — even a small stage like this blog — magnified his troubles and made things worse. Banny tried all sorts of things. He tried to strike out more batters (and did — his strikeout rate jumped from 4.2 to 5.6). He tried to get more people to hit the ball on the ground — to little effect. He got off to a good start, and even by mid-June he was a league average pitcher, maybe even a touch above. He was 7-6 with a 4.47 ERA. And then the roof caved in. He made 16 more starts the rest of the year, and the Royals won only five of them. His ERA was 7.29. One game against the Yankees, he lasted one inning and allowed 10 runs. He couldn’t get out of the fourth at Minnesota. He gave up home run after home run. It was hard to watch.

He looked at each problem analytically, which is his style, but to a lot of baseball insiders his study of xFIP and PitchFX and so on did not seem quite as charming when he was struggling (to be fair, many of them did not find it charming even when he was pitching well). “Thinks too much,” became his scouting report. And, I don’t know, maybe Brian does think too much. Maybe Crash Davis was right, maybe fear and arrogance really are the secret to the game, maybe Banny would have been better off sticking with the pitches that got him his good rookie year and not worrying about those advanced numbers. Of course, I don’t think so. I think his luck just turned. When you pitch without a dominant pitch, you are pitching on the edge. Banny’s xFIP in his miserable 2008 season was actually BETTER than his xFIP in his terrific rookie season.

Anyway, I felt bad for my friend … and I started to think that maybe I was making things worse for Brian by writing about his exploits game after game. And so I stopped writing Banny Log. Brian pitched very well his first 20 starts in 2009 — he was 10-10 with a 3.59 ERA for a lousy team, which I consider pitching very well — and then wore down and got hurt and struggled the rest of the way. He did not pitch as well in 2010, though like usual he was better in the first half (7-5, 4.50 ERA through his first 12 starts) then the second half (2-10, 8.73 ERA through his last 12 games). There was an injury or three in there too. It was time for a break-up, and the Royals and Brian Bannister broke up.

There’s no telling what happens next. In addition to everything else, Brian is the son of Floyd Bannister who in many ways as a pitcher was everything his son is not. Floyd was left-handed and ludicrously gifted. He was the first pick in the draft. He led the league in strikeouts in 1987, and led the league in strikeouts per nine innings two other seasons. He threw absurdly hard and won 134 big league games over a 2,388-inning career. I’ve always been fascinated by sons and daughters who go into their famous father’s business — Mike Brown running a football team like his father Paul, Frank Sinatra Jr. going on torch-song tours, Bruce Allen trying to put together an old football team like his father George once did.

Brian has wide interests — he loves photography, movie-making, statistics, he has the makings of being a fabulous television color commentator. But I know he wants a much longer baseball career. He will go to camp for somebody, and he will face the same challenges he has been facing his whole career. His stuff is still only so-so. His body and arm tend to wear down over a long season. And when he misses by just a little bit he tends to get hit hard — there’s not even the tiniest margin there. But he’s also beaten the odds time and again. When it comes to Brian Bannister, it’s probably not best to analyze. It’s probably just best to root for the guy.

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It Had To Be Done (Simpsons Follow)

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

— Moneybart episode, The Simpsons

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately …

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

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

Sigh.

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Friday Inspiration

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

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The Promise

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

— Bruce Springsteen. The Promise.

(more…)

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The Jeter Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Farewell Joe Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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History Lessons With Bud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But maybe I’m underestimating the Easter Bunny.

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

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

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

Sincerely
Allan H. Selig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or

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

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

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

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