By In Stuff

Sweeney: An Essay

A comedian friend told me this once … I’m paraphrasing: “People think the punch line is the most important part of the joke. But it isn’t. The punch line is nothing. If you tell a joke right, you can say 50 different punch lines and all of them will be funny. If you tell a joke right, you can grab a kid out of the crowd and have him come up and give the punch line.

“It isn’t the punch line. It’s the set-up. Everything is in the set-up. You ever hear about the biggest laugh in the history of television? They say it was Jack Benny … you remember he was famous for being cheap. Simple gag, a mugger holds up Jack Benny, which already is funny. Then the mugger says ‘Your money or your life.’ And Jack Benny just stands there. Doesn’t say a word. The laughter grows louder and louder and louder. He just holds it, that look on his face, and by the time he gives the punchline — “I’m thinking” — everybody’s howling. Nobody even HEARD the punch line they were laughing so hard. Why? Jack Benny had been setting up that joke for 40 years. The punch line had nothing to do with it.”

Pick a day any day. Make it a Tuesday. Make it a Tuesday in August. That seems as bland a day as any. Of course, it could be a Wednesday in May or a Sunday afternoon in July or a Monday as the days grow shorter and September bleeds into October. The point, the only point, is it could be any day, because the days of a losing baseball season don’t change much. They repeat, they rerun, nothing especially important changes. At first, when there’s hope, you know that you have to be in Detroit on Tuesday. Once hope fades, you only know that it’s Tuesday because you are in Detroit.

So, make it a Tuesday in August, and the Kansas City Royals are out of the pennant race because by August the Kansas City Royals are ALWAYS out of the pennant race. By August, the Royals players have also reached acceptance. At first, in April, maybe even into May, the players believe in themselves, believe that this year will be different, that if this pitcher can be at his best, and this hitter can have a few balls drop in, and this outfielder can run down a few more balls …

By late June, the best of them still cling to the belief that things can be turned around, that it isn’t hopeless. There might be a team meeting. Occasionally someone will say something in the local paper, something about how they have to get their act together. The manager and general manager will try something bold — send this guy to the minors, move that guy to the leadoff spot, put the other guy in the bullpen — and praise his team for refusing to quit. The general manager will talk about how he isn’t giving up on this team, there’s too much talent here, there’s no time to panic, the guys just have to stop TRYING so hard, they’re putting too much pressure on themselves.

By August, though, illusions are gone. Oh the players still understand — if understand is the right word — that they are lucky people, that they play baseball for a living, that they get paid a lot of money to do it. But by August the muscles ache constantly. Arms feels dull, slightly dead. The games are only as important as the imagination can make them. Some days the imagination allows them to see the 10-year-old boy they used to be, the boys who dreamed only of playing big league baseball. Some days, though, that picture is cloudy. The body doesn’t want to run out hopeless double-play ground balls. The arm doesn’t want to throw another 3-1 fastball to a hitter whose eyes are as large as cantaloupes. None of them want to face another collection of reporters who want to ask, yet again, what went wrong. By August, many hide in the weight room and the shower until the reporters and television cameras dissipate. The ones who come out do so out of duty. But, then, everything by August in a losing season feels duty-ridden. You play hard because you are supposed to play hard. You give your best because you owe it to your teammates, your fans and yourself. You try because to not try would tell you something bad about yourself.

But it all only matters because you tell yourself so.

So it’s a Tuesday in August, in Kansas City, the Royals are 25 or so games back, the manager has already been fired, Raul Ibanez is in the Kansas City clubhouse getting ready. Raul is one of the good ones, a self-made player who never stopped believing that he was good enough even though there was plenty good reason to stop believing. This is the first year he has been given 500 plate appearances in a season. He’s 30 years old.

He’s getting himself ready for the game mentally, physically, emotionally, and he knows he will do it … but it’s a chore. Raul cannot help but feel the dreariness of the season creeping up on him. He looks around at his teammates and knows it creeping up on them too. The losing has burned them out … it’s like standing in the sun too long, something else they have all done. It’s 103 degrees outside. Or something like it. One of the first English phrases Ichiro Suzuki learned playing in the big leagues is that August Kansas City in hotter than two rats f——- in a wool sock.

That’s how hot it is outside, and that’s how blah it is inside in the clubhouse, and Raul Ibanez feels the eyes of the younger players on him. They aren’t quite sure how to deal with all this. How are they supposed to react when baseball has stopped being fun? How much spirit are they supposed to show when playing only for pride? And even though Ibanez is new to this stuff too, he’s older, and they are watching him, watching how he goes about things, they are watching to see if he will show any signs of despair. He has to brace himself against it. He has to come up with jokes, in English and Spanish, light talk, something to show that he’s still into this season. He has to listen to some pumping music, something like that, to inspire himself, to forget about how much his body’s hurting, to make all the losses disappear, to remind himself that just because they’re LOSING does not make them LOSERS. It’s a Tuesday in August, another mostly meaningless day in another mostly forgettable season, and the reporters are asking their exhausted questions, and maybe 10,000 or 12,000 fans are still coming to the ballpark, and the ballplayers are pretending that it is still fun …

And all of a sudden Raul hears singing. Happy singing … “isn’t life wonderful?” singing … “aren’t we the luckiest people on planet earth?” singing … Raul Ibanez looks up and stares in crazy disbelief.

It’s a beautiful morning!

Ahhhh, I think I’ll go outside a while!

And just smile!

That … is Mike Sweeney.

* * *

Mike Sweeney, you probably know, is a part of the Philadelphia Phillies now, which means he is in the playoffs for the first time in his life. Mike Sweeney played in 1,454 regular season games before he got his first at-bat in his first postseason game. It was a hit, a bloop single, off preposterously hard-throwing Aroldis Chapman. Sweeney always could fight off a fastball.

So that was 1,454 games without a playoff appearance, and of course his teams lost most of them. Sweeney spent the bulk of his career — parts of 12 seasons — playing for the Kansas City Royals. The Royals had losing records in 11 of those seasons. The Royals lost 100 or more games in four of them, 90 or more in four other seasons. In Kansas City, he played for four managers, not including the two interims, played in five All-Star Games, signed an under-market deal that somehow made him look greedy later, almost won a batting title, almost won an RBI title, played hard though his body disintegrated, and by the end heard a few boos mostly because he could not stay healthy.

Put it this way: In Kansas City he had 1,398 hits in 4,669 at-bats. That’s a .299 batting average.

Had he managed 1,399 hits in those 4,669 at-bats — one more hit — he wold have hit .300.

That was the not-so-charmed story of Mike Sweeney in Kansas City. And all the while, he sang. He cared. He endured. He signed the autographs, and he appeared at all the charity events, and he served as media spokesman for defeat. Oh, sure, it backed up on him sometimes. People around town still remember the time he snapped when Detroit pitcher Jeff Weaver shouted something at him that, as Sweeney delicately put it, “Webster never put in his dictionary.” Sweeney threw his helmet at Weaver and charged after him. He would be suspended for 10 days, though his teammates (and, quietly, a few of Weaver’s teammates in Detroit) only gained more respect for him after the incident. “Believe me,” one said, “Weaver had it coming.”

Anyway, there was that, and there were other times when he expressed frustration at the organization or teammates who he didn’t think were giving their all and so on. There were times he felt the mean sting of the fans’ disapproval when he was really trying the best he could to get healthy.

But mostly, day after day, he came into the clubhouse singing, he spent every game playing hard as he can, he came back too soon from injuries, he played through intense pain … all for a mostly-hopeless team that was usually playing out the string. The other players looked at him like he was a freak. They all loved baseball, grew up with it, dreamed about it, but still they wondered: How could ANYONE love baseball — especially this kind of losing baseball — as much as Mike Sweeney?

* * *

Mike Sweeney was born a few days premature — “Couldn’t wait to get into this world,” he will say (yes, he will really say this). So when he was put in the incubator his father, Mike Sr. — Big Mike, everyone calls him — also put in a toy plastic bat.

Big Mike had wanted to play big league ball. He hacked around in semi-pro ball for a while, tried to make a go of it in the Angels minor league system, but when his first son was born he gave it all up and drove a beer truck. On the side, Big Mike would teach kids how to hit baseballs over at the Home Run Park batting cage in Anaheim. The one kid who would not come out of the cage, of course, was Mike Sweeney Jr.

The kid’s life was a Brady Bunch episode — anyway, that’s how Mike Jr. remembers it. They grew up, big Irish Catholic family, in a house on Tam O’ Shanter Lane. His memories are of Sunday morning trips to church, picnics when they would listen to Vin Scully on the radio, California Angels ballgames where he would watch his favorite player, a catcher-outfielder named Brian Downing. All that stuff. His one brush with the law happened when he and a friend toilet-papered a house. The officer told him he was going to jail for a long time. In memory, Mike Jr. believed it.

He was a catcher — probably because Downing was a catcher — and the Royals took him in the 10th round of the 1991 Draft. His catching did not leave anybody too impressed, but he started hitting with power when he was 21and the thing is he almost never struck out. All those days in the batting cage had given him an almost freakish ability to swing hard and make contact. From 1999 to 2002, Sweeney would hit .324/.396/.535 and would be in the Top 10 in fewest strikeouts per at-bat each of those four seasons.

By then, the Royals had given up on him as a catcher. They tried hard to make him a first baseman, and Mike tried hard to make himself a first baseman, and whenever you would ask scouts or coaches how he was doing defensively they would usually say the same thing: “Mike Sweeney can REALLY hit.” The effort to make Mike a first baseman was probably best expressed by one coach who, while watching Sweeney take extra ground balls, muttered: “That guy would rather face Nolan Ryan in a phone booth on Christmas in the dark that take a ground ball.” But Sweeney kept taking those extra ground balls. As one Royals player would say: “Mike isn’t a great first baseman. But he’s as good as he can be, I know that.”

The hitting went better. The first year the Royals gave him a shot to play every day, that was 1998, Sweeney hit .322 with 44 doubles and 22 home runs. Every thing was a line drive. The next year he hit .333 and set the Royals record with 144 RBIs. The next year he smashed 46 doubles. The next year he hit .340 and went into the final weekend with a shot at the batting title. He played every day, he carried himself with grace, he was a force in the community, he was the face of the Royals.

And it was just before that 2002 season that the Royals and Sweeney agreed to a semi-strange deal. The Royals offered Sweeney a five-year, $55 million — a deal that was so far under market value that, according to numerous people at the time, Sweeney took quite a bit of guff about it from the players union.*

*Later, after things took a bad turn, people would remember this differently, would think of Sweeney being wildly OVERPAID, though his newly minted $11 million deal put him only tied for 36th in baseball in 2003, not much for a 29-year old hitter coming off four very good years.

The odd part of the deal (if you don’t think a player taking an undervalued deal to stay in Kansas City is odd enough) is that the Royals gave Sweeney an out. They put in a small-print exit clause: If the teams did not finish .500 or better in either 2003 or 2004, Sweeney would be released from the final three years of his contract and could become a free agent. This seemed like a sure thing. The Royals had eight straight losing seasons going into 2003 — and they had lost 100 games in 2002.

Only, wacky things happened in 2003. The Royals, against all logic, won 16 of their first 19 games. They then started the inevitable losing but, of all things, were re-energized by the re-emergence of an almost forgotten pitcher named Jose Lima. In mid-August, the Royals improbably were still in first place. They clinched winning season on Sept. 22. They promptly lost five of their last six. But Sweeney was locked in.

And Sweeney … was happy about t. Yes, his body was beginning to betray him; in 2003, for the first time in a while, he did not hit .300 and he only played in a 108 games. But all he ever really wanted was to play for a winner in Kansas City, and 2003 seemed like a promising sign. He was as happy playing baseball as he ever had been …

He did not know then that the mirage of 2003 would be followed by three impossibly awful seasons, 100-plus losses in every one. He did not know then that his back would never again be right, that his hamstrings would pop like strings on a tennis racket, that the next four years would a a succession of pain and disappointment, that he would miss game after game. He did not know then that the under-market-value contract that he had signed because he loved Kansas City would soon be viewed as pure greed by some fans who grew tired of seeing his name on the disabled list, who grew sick of seeing his bat speed slow, who needed someone on the field to blame for all the Kansas City losing. By the last year of his contract, Sweeney hit just .260 in only 74 games, and for this he got paid $11 million, and there was a lot of anger and cynicism swirling around him.

Still … Sweeney kept singing his way into the clubhouse. It was something to see. He kept playing as hard as his body would allow him, harder even. He kept trying to lead, kept trying to inspire, kept strong with his faith, kept trying all the while … anytime the players would take a “nicest guy in baseball” poll, Sweeney’s name was always at or near the top. He went to Oakland, then to Seattle, offered a little value as a pinch-hitter and occasional first baseman, the word was always that he was going to retire. But he figured that as long as somebody was willing to give him a job, he’d keep on playing the game for the minimum salary.

Whenever I would see him, he would rush over, talk about his family, ask about mine, and say the same thing: “Can you believe I’m still here playing this game?”

* * *

In August, the Phillies needed a little help, they traded for Sweeney. He was thrilled. He was suddenly, unexpectedly, for the first time in his life, part of a great team. And now here he is, in the playoffs for the first time. His role is tiny, almost insignificant. He will pinch-hit, maybe.

But that doesn’t matter. When you’ve been through all those losing seasons, that doesn’t matter at all. When or if Mike Sweeney steps to the plate during this National League Championship Series, the announcer will undoubtedly say something like this: “And here’s Mike Sweeney, who after so many losing seasons in Kansas City is finally playing in his first postseason.” And most people will miss it. Most people will miss it because, well, they weren’t there. They don’t know, and probably don’t care about all those terrible seasons, all those hopeless games, all those teammates he inspired, all that Kansas City humidity, all those injuries that made him feel helpless, all the fans who lost patience, all that singing …

“It’s funny,” Sweeney says. “When I was a kid, I would be getting ready in the morning. And my sister would say, ‘Be quiet already!’ And I’d say, ‘What? What was I saying?’ And she would say, ‘You were singing again.’

“I’d say, ‘I was?’ And then, sure enough, I’d hear myself singing. And I’d tell her, ‘I can’t help it!’ “

Now Mike Sweeney’s finally in the playoffs. That’s the punch line. But of course, the punch line isn’t important. That’s the secret of a good joke … and a good life. The punch line is just the punch line. The set-up, that’s what matters.

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32 Greatest Sports Calls

Here, finally, is that list. Could that big iPad review finally be coming soon after?

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The Baseball Playoffs

I wrote a piece yesterday about the book Death to the BCS, and this post isn’t EXACTLY connected to that. But it is in the same neighborhood. This piece is about the extra round of baseball playoffs. And how, in the larger context, I don’t like them.

* * *

I once got in a fairly heated argument with my buddy Vackie on the following subject — one of the few times we have ever been fiercely opposed in an argument that does not involve Billy Joel. So I am fully aware that many people, perhaps most people, perhaps a vast majority of people not only disagree with what I’m about to write but disagree with a fury. But here it is anyway:

I … do … not … like … the … extra … baseball … playoffs.

I don’t like them. I don’t need them. I don’t want them. If we lived in some sort of strange baseball dictatorship where I was the only person deciding baseball’s fate, I would get rid of the wildcard, return baseball to a world with two divisions in each league, a championship series, then a World Series. I wouldn’t be opposed to getting rid of the playoffs altogether and just taking the best team from each league and going right to the World Series*.

*If we did that, by the way, the World Series since the strike would have looked like so:

2010: Rays vs. Phillies

2009: Yankees vs. Dodgers

2008: Angels vs. Cubs

2007: Red Sox vs. Diamondbacks

2006: Yankees vs. Mets

2005: White Sox vs. Cardinals

2004: Yankees vs. Cardinals

2003: Yankees vs. Braves

2002: Yankees vs. Braves

2001: Mariners vs. Astros/Cardinals

2000: White Sox vs. Giants

1999: Yankees vs. Braves

1998: Yankees vs. Braves

1997: Orioles vs. Braves

1996: Indians vs. Braves

1995: Indians vs. Braves

Now, this isn’t decisive because we don’t have a balanced schedule. Still, it’s interesting. As you can see, the Braves would have been in the World Series five years in a row and seven times in nine seasons. That might have gotten a bit old. The Yankees would have been in the World Series five times in the 2000s. Notice that 2008 match-up …

I’m going to quickly give you my reasoning before moving on to reality … I think first thing, it’s worth asking what do we want from a professional sports season? Obviously, the overall goal of any professional sports league is to entertain, inspire, excite fans. That is to say in pro sports, the goal is not to build the character of the players or teach them life lessons or make sure they have fun. These things play a role in big-time college sports (people argue about how much of a role). These things play a larger role in non-big time college sports, in high school sports, in rec league sports and so on. Not pro sports, though. If pro sports help a player grow as a person, great, that might make for a nice magazine piece. But that’s not the GOAL. The goal is to give fans their money’s worth. The goal is to provide thrilling and presumably fair competition for people to enjoy.

Or, I should say, that’s the OVERALL goal. The more specific goal of the season, then, is to crown a champion in the most entertaining and justifiable way. It seems to me that there’s no right way or wrong way to do this — right or wrong is too stark — you want whatever makes the fans happiest.

In many sports, playoffs are the best way to find and crown a champion. For instance, playoffs are great for pro football. A regular season of 16 games is enough to determine who are the better teams in football, but I don’t think 16 games against different competition is enough to determine THE VERY BEST teams. So, you put them in divisions, you play out the season, you use obscure tiebreakers, and then you have a playoff of the 12 teams that qualify. it works for the NFL for numerous reasons, one of those being that a football game — more than another American sports — is a self-contained season. The best team wins a high percentage of the time. A single-elimination playoff is widely viewed as a perfectly good — and wildly exciting — way to determine a champion.

Basketball and hockey … the playoffs work for those sports too but I think for a different reason. The basketball and hockey seasons are 80-plus games, which probably IS enough time to determine the best teams, or at least come close enough where you could pick a final four or whatever.

But to me the key is that hockey and basketball are great playoff sports. GREAT playoff sports. They are not really November games. Oh, they’re fun to watch year round, but I think that basketball and hockey are intensity sports. That is to say they are better games when played at high intensity … and it’s simply impossible for players to maintain that high level of intensity through a long season. The players CAN raise their intensity for a playoff, which takes the whole game to another level. It seems to me that in hockey and basketball, the more playoffs the better.*

*This is true of college basketball too. There’s nothing especially FAIR about the NCAA basketball tournament. That is to say that if, in a vacuum, you wanted to pick the best college basketball team in America, you probably would not throw 65 teams into a three-week, multi-site, single-elimination tournament. But it’s a blast, and the games are played with crazy intensity, and we basketball fans have happily made the trade-off: Excitement in exchange for the better team often getting knocked out in Boise or Albuquerque or East Rutherford or whatever.

Which brings us to baseball. To me: Baseball is not like football, and it’s also not like hockey/basketball. It’s not like football because the season at 162 games is PLENTY long enough to determine the best teams. When you play virtually every day for six months, you will have to deal with all of the vagaries of life — injuries, slumps, crises, good luck, bad luck and those fleeting moments when you feel invincible. In my opinion, there has never in the history of American sports been a more certain and decisive way of picking the best teams than putting them into a 162-game season. The best team is the one with the best record.

Then, baseball is also not like basketball and hockey in that in my view it is not a sport designed for playoffs. It’s not an intensity sport. There have been many great baseball postseason games, of course, but I don’t think the sport is generally PLAYED BETTER in the postseason. That’s just not what baseball is about. And beyond all that, in baseball – compared to football, basketball and hockey — the lesser teams wins short series A LOT. You know how people always say that in baseball the playoffs are a crapshoot. Well, there’s a reason they say that: It’s because the playoffs are a crapshoot. Since 1998 — an arbitrary cutoff point, yes, but I’ll give you the whole set of numbers in a minute — since 1998, teams with better regular season records are 42-42 in series against teams with worse records. You can’t get much more crapshooty than that.

I did these numbers quickly, so they may be off a win or two. But still:

Since 1995 (expanded playoffs):

Better record: 55 wins.

Worse record: 47 wins.

From 1969-1993 (Division Series and World Series):

Better record: 39 wins

Worse record: 32 wins.

From 1920-1968 (World Series only)

Better record: 24 wins.

Worse record: 22 wins.

There are a few ties in there as well — opposing teams with exactly the same record — which is why those numbers don’t all add up. All in all, the better record teams have a 117-102 record, a .534 winning percentage. Crapshoot (especially when you consider that often the team with the better record had homefield advantage). Five game series are especially so.

So, you ask, what’s wrong with a little crapshoot in baseball? Nothing. It’s just not necessary for me as a fan. Yes. I like upsets. I like do or die baseball. Look: If they played 20 rounds of baseball playoffs, I’d be the guy watching — baseball can’t lose ME as a fan.

But I still think it’s artificial. It’s not necessary. And then there’s the thing it hurts most: Pennant races.

I LOVE pennant races. To me, the most exciting games in baseball are these, in this order:

1. The World Series.

2. Important pennant race games in late September.

3. Important pennant race games in early September.

4. League Championship Series games.

5. Important pennant race games in August.

6. Cool mid-season match-ups between great starting pitchers.

7. Division Series games.

I know people disagree. I KNOW people disagree. But that’s just how I feel. I love pennant races. I love the heat between two teams coming down the stretch, one will win the championship, one will go home unhappy. I love that stuff. And that’s why I don’t like extra playoffs. Because playoffs, by their very nature, cut into the drama of pennant races. Nobody gave a damn who won the American League East this year since both teams were making the playoffs. There were people who thought it would be advantageous to NOT win the division (since not winning it would mean playing the playoff-hapless Minnesota Twins and my much admired and playoff-hexed skipper Ron Gardenhire … that’s how it turned out too).

That was the worst pennant race ever. But it might have been one of the most awesome races ever if the team that lost the division did not make the playoffs. That’s tension. That’s drama. That’s what I love. And very, very, very few pennant races have even a bit of that edge these days.

And wildcard races, well, they just don’t have quite that same tension for me. I mean, they’re often all we get — like this year’s bit between San Diego and Atlanta — and I’ll take whatever pennant race morsel I can find. But playing for that spot as the best team that does not win a division … meh. I would happily give up the extra week of playoff baseball just to go back to two divisions in each league and have only a Championship Series all to get pennant races back.

BUT … despite what seems apparent from my writing, I’m not stupid. Or, anyway, I’m not THAT stupid. I know baseball ain’t cutting cutting back on the playoffs. I know baseball ain’t giving up the wildcard. I know it, I get it, so the real question is how can we get back the pennant races? I don’t think it’s an easy fix.

The thing you would have to do, I think, is put the wildcard team at a powerful disadvantage. But how? Bob Costas suggested quite a while ago that you could make it so the wildcard teams did not get a home game in the playoffs (or maybe it was just one home game, I can’t remember). I think there’s something to that, but frankly homefield advantage in baseball is just not big enough. Home teams the last 10 years have won about 55% of the time. Even the very best home teams win less than 70% of the time at home. It’s not like football, where good teams can go undefeated at home or the NBA where the best teams can win between 90 and 95% of their home games or even hockey where good teams will only lose five to 10 time at home a year.

So what else could you do? Well, there has been some controversial talk about adding a wildcard in each league and having a one- or three-game playoff between the two wildcards. The hope is that it would add importance to winning divisions which might give September more meaning. The Yankees would definitely have played it a bit different down the stretch if losing the division meant having to face the Red Sox in a playoff.

But, this has obvious problems too … I already talked about how I don’t like baseball playoffs, so do we really want to add MORE playoffs to an already playoff-soaked October? I suspect not. And it might take away the little bit of wildcard drama we actually have now — such as the Padres-Braves race in the NL. Plus, it brings up another issue that a lot of people have emailed me about: If we’re doing two wildcards anyway, what’s the point of having divisions in the first place? Shouldn’t the teams with the five best records in each league get in?

And if we do THAT then we have to go back and look at ANOTHER spent topic … is it fair that some teams, because they are in larger cities and have bigger television deals, make significantly more money and can easily spend a lot more money to build their teams? Is it fair to have small-market teams competing more directly against the Yankees or Red Sox or Phillies or Mets? That’s the one advantage of the division setup. Kansas City fans can complain about the Yankees, but they don’t have to BEAT the Yankees to get into the playoffs.

You can go round and round and round on this thing. Like I say, there are no easy answers. And let’s be honest: These are mostly wasted words because I think a lot of people are fine what what is out there now. I think a lot of people prefer playoffs to September ball. There is clarity in playoff rounds. The do-or-die games are much more obvious. There is no question that the first round of the baseball playoffs have offered thrills that would not have been possible without them. As one friend tells me: “Just pretend that the first round of the playoffs are the last week of September, and each team has to win three of five games to get to the Championship Series.”

I guess I could do that. It doesn’t have the same heat as a pennant race for me though. Whatever the case, I’m glad the first round of playoffs is over. I am preposterously excited for Saturday’s Tim Lincecum-Roy Halladay game in Philadelphia. I’ll be there. I’m interested to see what Texas can do against the Yankees even if the Rangers’ one hammer, Cliff Lee, cannot start until Game 3. I understand the value of the first playoff round, I know it brings more cities into the baseball postseason, it gives us more chances for baseball thrills, it increases champagne — or ginger ale — sales. I know.

But for me: The baseball playoffs start now.

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Death to the BCS: A Eulogy (and update)

“You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”

— Vizzini in “The Princess Bride

* **

As it turns out, I know all three of the authors of the new book “Death to the BCS,” and because I do, I know that none of them is Sicilian. Despite this small inconvenience, I can still say without hesitation you don’t want to go in against them when death is on the line.

“Death to the BCS,” in case the title does not quite give it away, is not a desert cookbook. It’s also not a measured look at the current Bowl Championship Series system that selects 10 teams to play in five high-profile bowl games, including two teams for a BCS national championship game. The book is also not a carefully considered examination of college football and the, er, unique way it attempts to determine a national champ.

No, that’s not what authors Dan Wetzel, Jeff Passan and Josh Peter are going for here. This here is a rant, a metal chair to the head, a no-holds barred, no-mercy, none-dare-call-it-treason tirade — J’Accuse for jocks. If they could have, you get the sense that the authors would have nailed this book on the doors of every college president in America.

This sentence, taken from the introduction, more or less describes the tone of the book:

“So for now the BCS survives, a roach amid a typhoon of Raid, emanating coldness, ignoring the measured consideration of old coaching icons and dismissing fans’ bellows. Even the unyielding push of common sense is held off with mistruths and misdirection that turn the entire issue into a river or red herrings.”

Yes, this is what they are going for — page after page after page of hitting the BCS in the head with garbage cans. There is a theory I’ve heard from prosecuting attorneys that what you want to do in an argument is present the opposing point of view as fervently and honestly as possible and then tear it apart. This is absolutely NOT what “Death to the BCS” does. The arguments for the BCS are not presented with much enthusiasm here. But the arguments that the BCS is corrupt, emotionally bankrupt, unsporting, unwilling to cash in a $750 million annual payday so that all the power remains in the hands of few are all made with great relish and great power.

And while this may not make the book fair, it certainly makes the book a lot of fun to read and and as irresistible as a caged match. Poll after poll shows a vast majority of college football fans — 90% and higher — despise the BCS, and the basic concept of picking two teams for a national championship using awkward polling and highly questionable computer rankings. Many college football fans have been longing for a voice, preferably a voice at the top of its lungs, shouting down the injustice and unreasonableness of this system. “Death to the BCS” is that voice.

I cannot go into all the arguments of the book here — you’ll really need to buy the book and read for yourself — but I have chosen three of its most powerful. And then I follow up by talking about the “Death to the BCS” playoff solution, and my one beef with the book.

D2BCS Argument 1: The BCS argument that the current system gives us sports best regular season is a garbage argument.

I have to admit that, as a sports fan, I’ve had some affinity for the BCS argument that the college football season is the most meaningful in American sports. We all know the NBA and NHL regular seasons are a $5 cab ride from worthless. College basketball games in November and December are fun but relatively without meaning. The NFL season is significantly better but still tenuous enough that good teams will rest their starters at the end of the season. The baseball season is 162 games and as such should be decisive, but with the addition of the wildcard and talk of even more playoffs those games mean less and less all the time.

The college football season is indeed meaningful. If you lose even one game, there’s a pretty good shot that you are out of the championship picture. If you lose two, you are almost certainly out. I like the fact that the most important game of the season might have been South Carolina’s upset of Alabama in October. It makes every week feel important.

BUT … the D2BCS authors do a great job of destroying this argument by making what only afterward seems like an obvious point: Because NOT LOSING is all that matters, college football has been robbed of its big non-conference games. There’s no point in playing a good non-conference team. Quite the opposite. The intelligent way to become a national championship contender is to play a non-conference schedule of patsies so that you can be sure you enter the conference season undefeated. Bill Snyder figured this out years ago at Kansas State, where he turned around the worst college football program in America with terrific recruiting, brilliant coaching and careful scheduling. This was before the official BCS, but the idea was the same. The more easy games on your schedule, the better chance you have of going undefeated. When Bill and Kansas State would get ripped for its easy non-conference schedule, Bill would shrug: He knew he was doing the right thing. And sure enough, in 1998 Kansas State was a fumble away from being in the national championship game. A decade later, Kansas almost rode a ludicrously easy schedule into the national championship game.

The scheduling turns September football, for the most part, into mush. Just as an example: One week this year, every single Big 10 school played non-automatic qualifiers, the new name for cupcakes. This is a system that rewards playing teams you know you can beat. That’s not a system conducive to a great, good or fair regular season.

D2BCS Argument 2: The bowls are fun, but they are also evil.

I have to admit the authors viewpoint on bowls left me a bit frayed. On the one hand, they love the bowls. They are upfront about this. They are big college football fans, and so they want as many December and early January games as they can get. “We love bowl games,” they write. “The major ones and the little ones, the unusual matchups, the crazy comebacks, the nothing to lose finishes … while critics cry about too many bowls, we disagree. More football is never a bad thing.”

OK. But perhaps the most powerful stuff in the book DESTROYS the bowls. When you read the book you are left with this: The bowls are corrupt. They are money losers for schools. They waste taxpayer money. They are non-profits in name only. They do not serve their communities. They give a pittance to charity. They are run by self-serving executive directors who take ludicrous salaries for almost no work. They are used to line the pockets of coaches and athletic directors who work bowl bonuses into contracts. And so on. And so on. It is almost impossible to read the well-reported, body-slamming chapters on bowl games without thinking: “I want these bowl games dead.” Which you would think would serve the point since, as mentioned, “Death” is in the title of the book.

But the authors keep insisting that despite all this, bowl games would and should survive with a playoff system … in fact the authors think a playoff system, with the huge flow of money, is the best chance to keep the bowls going.

I think this was an overreach, an effort to have cake, eat too. Yes, one of the BCS’ main arguments is that a playoff would indeed eliminate bowl games, and all the good they offer. The book manages to hit hard the conflicting points that:

1. The bowl games don’t offer a lot of good.

2. They would not be eliminated with a playoff.

This left me confused as a reader. I have little doubt that the bowls COULD be kept going even with a playoff*. But after reading this book, I was left with a one-word question about that: “Why?”

*Another thing the book does well is knock down the argument that the bowls themselves could be used as a playoff. The authors think this is unworkable, and they make their case well: I believe they are right.

D2BCS Argument 3: Everything about the BCS is illogical from its methods of choosing teams to its very existence.

This is the thing most people talk about when talking about the BCS: The system itself isn’t fair. More to the point: It CANNOT be fair. Last year there were five undefeated teams in college football (the undefeated numbers keep going up as teams seem to play easier and easier schedules, see D2BCS Argument 1). In alphabetical order:

— Alabama

— Boise State

— Cincinnati

— Texas

— Texas Christian

Obviously the five did not play each other. They did not play many common opponents either. Their schedules were of varying degrees of difficulty, but even this is somewhat hard to determine because there are so many college football teams. The point is, that you can’t KNOW which of those undefeated teams was best because they are all undefeated. You can only GUESS. And the authors, as you might expect, score many points by hammering away at the BCS system. Chapters titles like “Nonsense Math” and “Fooling the Voters (Who Are Often Fools)” give you an idea of those arguments.

There’s much more, of course, but for our purposes the point is that Wetzel, Passan and Peter do a powerful job of demolishing the BCS. They leave very little standing upright.

The authors also offer their own playoff solution, a solid-sounding proposal. More than that, I think it’s the best playoff proposal I’ve seen anywhere. The authors recommend:

— A 16-team playoff.

— Eleven of the 16 teams would be conference champs; the other 5 would be at-large teams picked by a committee. The teams would also be seeded by a committee.

— The first three rounds would be played at home sites; the only neutral site game would be the championship game.

— They have talked to various experts who say this playoff system could earn more than $750 million a year.

And … so we come to my one beef with the book: The authors don’t turn their immense powers of deconstruction on their own playoff system. Among the issues that are not explored deeply enough for me:

1. More than 70% of players polled in a recent ESPN poll prefer the current system to a 16-team playoff. That’s not entirely revealing because the question specifically stated that a 16-team playoff would REPLACE the bowls, and the D2BCS authors have made it clear they would keep the bowls going.

Still, I do think this is fairly consistent: College players (much more than fans) seem to be very skeptical of a big playoff like this. And since college football players already are largely excluded from college football riches — Reggie Bush felt compelled to return his HEISMAN TROPHY for taking money for his family from an agent — I think we need a powerful reason to go against what appear to be the players’ wishes or what may be in their best interests. The authors really needed to delve deeper into this, I think.

2. The home-field concept sounds good — this way we will have full stadiums and home fans will not have to travel week after week — but if college basketball is a model, well, in college basketball they have constantly tried to get AWAY from homefield advantage. People get angry when highly ranked teams get to play TOO CLOSE to home. How will people respond to home playoff games in college football? Is that a workable plan?

3. Having every conference champion in the playoff is smart and probably the only way a playoff will work. That said, this means that last year East Carolina, Troy and Central Michigan would have been in the playoff. People accept small-conference champions in basketball because there are 64 teams. But will fans at Nebraska, Arkansas, USC, Wisconsin and various other places really buy into a 16-team playoff where East Carolina, Troy and Central Michigan are playing and they are not? Questionable.

4. Where will all that extra money go? The authors show well throughout the book how corrupt things are NOW. Imagine another $600 million being thrown into the picture. Will the players get no part of it? Will coaches salaries skyrocket even higher? Will television and advertisers have an even greater hold on the sport?

I think there are probably good answers to these issues … but there are a lot of loose ends. And frankly, you can’t have any loose ends when it comes to the BCS and a playoff. The last poll of coaches I saw showed that more than 90% of them prefer the current system to a playoff. I imagine a poll of university presidents or athletic directors would show similar numbers. The ESPN poll of 135 players in August was fascinating but largely unhelpful to the playoff cause.

— A majority of players — 62.2% — do want a playoff.

— BUT, as mentioned a bigger majority — 70.4% — prefer the current system to a 16-team playoff with no bowls.

— And 77% of players said they would prefer to play in a bowl game three times than replace it with one playoff appearance.

In other words, this is a huge uphill battle. Yes, there are individuals in the system who want a playoff, but at the moment they’re outnumbered at every turn. “Death to the BCS” makes a vivid and almost indisputable case that the BCS is a bad system. Maybe that will begin the process of change. But, realistically, with all the hurdles out there, a playoff is not very likely. Either way, when you finish reading, you are guaranteed to be mad as hell.

* * *

Update: My friend Dan Wetzel, one of the authors, sent along some answers to my questions above. I have included those here.

1. Referring to ESPN poll where more than 70% of players chose current system over a 16-game playoff.

Dan: “This poll asked: do you prefer a playoff or the bowl system? This is a question based on a false premise. You can, and will, have both. Of course the majority are going to say bowl system because 70 teams will play in a bowl this year and they have no idea how many could make a playoff — most probably thought just four. This poll result is worthless because the question is worthless. Naturally the BCS cites it ad naseum anyway. “

2. Referring to whether or not people would accept home field advantage in a playoff:

Dan: “Home field advantage is what will make the regular season matter even more. Does anyone in the NFL propose we move the playoffs to the Alamodome? Of course not. Deal with it. Playing games on sold out, historic, on campus environments is better in every way than half-filled municipal stadiums. You don’t like playing on the road? Have a better regular season.”

3. Referring to having small-conference champions in the playoff:

Dan: “Including the weaker teams may be counterintuative but they serve a couple of purposes. The biggest one is continuing to make the regular season so vital. By offering an easier first round to the highest seeds (in addition to homefield advantage) then winning every game is still a major reward. If you simply take the top 16 teams and play at neutral sites, then the difference between being a 1 seed and 5 seed isn’t great. It is in this case. This would drive interest and excitement in the regular season. It also invites Cinderella into the playoff. At some point, one of these teams will spring the upset, the exact kind of magic men’s basketball has cashed in on.”

4. Referring to where the extra money would go:

Dan: “In 2008 Division I-A schools needed over $850 million in student fees and general university funds to fund their athletic departments. That’d be a good place to start. Compensation for the players is a separate argument (an entire book really) and an idea we certainly support. This just wasn’t the place to hash it out.”

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Hancock: A BCS Defense

Bill Hancock is executive director of the BCS. I asked him to write a short defense of the BCS.

* * *

College football is flourishing. Eager fans are flocking to stadiums across the country. Folks are watching on television like never before.

The sport is decidedly healthy. There’s no reason to monkey with it.

Under the BCS arrangement, fans are enthralled as teams battle each week for bowl berths, including a spot in the prestigious national championship game. Bowl games provide a rewarding week in the spotlight, and create memories that athletes, others will cherish for the rest of their lives.

The regular season is the most exciting of any sport’s. In college football, the focus is broad; it shines on all teams and it grabs the nation’s attention from September through November. A fan cannot tune out—not even for one magnificent Saturday afternoon—because he or she would surely miss some shocking, surprising and meaningful event.

This magical three-month joy ride is followed by a unique, rewarding and captivating post-season. The BCS preserves and enhances the bowl games, which provide opportunities for thousands of students and other fans to enjoy post-season play.

The players like the BCS arrangement. When ESPN asked 135 college football student-athletes from all 11 FBS conferences whether they preferred three years in the current BCS-and-bowls system for their careers, or one shot at a playoff, some 70 percent chose the current plan.

Coaches like the BCS arrangement: in a survey by the American Football Coaches Association, 93 percent of FBS head coaches said they prefer the traditional bowl system to a playoff.

Why? Each person has his own reasons. It’s easy to identify a few. Coaches and players love the multi-day bowl experience. They also believe a 13 or 14 games are enough. They know that this model works best within the structure of higher education.

The BCS provides important annual support for every Division I football conference—both the Bowl Subdivision and its smaller cousin, the Championship Subdivision.

The BCS has created unprecedented access for all schools to the BCS bowl games. Teams outside the current automatic-qualifying conferences played in those four bowl games six times in the half-century years before the BCS; they have played in the games six times in the past six seasons.

The BCS is working extremely well. It enhances the spectacular regular season while maintaining the warm and cherished bowl arrangement. Why mess with success?

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The Simpsons Baseball Edition

Got to do something fun Sunday night: Went to Bill James’ house to watch The Simpsons. I do realize that under normal circumstances this might not sound especially riveting. But Sunday night, the Simpsons episode was called, “Moneybart,” and the plot revolved around the ongoing fight between statistics and tradition in the game. And Bill had a line.

If you have not seen the episode, you should probably be warned that there are all sorts of spoilers below. In fact, this whole thing is kind of a spoiler. Proceed at your own peril.*

*I assume everyone here as either seen The Simpsons or at least knows the basics … but, as pointless as it feels, I’ll put some very quick basics here: Marge and Homer are Mom and Dad. Homer is one of the great television characters ever. Bart, Lisa and Maggie are brother, sister and baby sister, Moe is bartender, Flanders is fussy neighbor and so on.

* * *

One thing many things I love about The Simpsons is that, often, the main implausible plot is sparked by an even more unlikely mini-plot at the start. In this case, we need to get to the point where Lisa is managing Bart’s baseball team. To get to this point, they bring in a former student who has gone on to attend an Ivy League school. And when Lisa expresses her own desire to go to an Ivy, the woman says that Lisa better get involved in more extra-curricular activities.

Marge: “Don’t worry, you can still attend McGill University, the Harvard of Canada.”

Lisa: “Anything that is the something of the something isn’t really the anything of the anything.”

At this point, Flanders, the fussy neighbor, comes by to say that he can no longer coach Bart’s Little League baseball team because he cannot live with his conscience after not complaining when an umpire calls his shortstop’s foul ball a home run (Flanders: “Call me Walter Matthau because I’m a Bad News Bearer”).

After Homer refuses to take over the team (Homer: “Sorry Marge, last time I stepped on a baseball field I got tazed”), Lisa becomes the team manager.*

*There’s a small moment here I love: Bart is walking by the baseball field when he happens to notice his teammates are practicing joyfully. He goes to the field to find out what’s going on. But in order to express the joyfulness of practice, you can hear the players shouting baseball things, including this shout from Nelson (the school bully): “Look at me, I’m Whitey Ford!” I just love that. It might be my second-favorite line in the show.

Bart, of course, expresses doubt that her sister — knowing nothing about baseball — can handle the job. Lisa has anticipated this bit of doubt:

Lisa: There have been plenty of female managers in baseball: Connie Mack, Sandy Alomar*, Terry Francona, Pinky Higgins.

Nelson: Those are dudes!

*I feel sure that, more than once, the brilliant writers of The Simpsons put in something wrong just to get baseball goofballs like myself to notice. This is one of those. Sandy Alomar never managed in the big leagues.

But Lena Blackburne did. So did Jewel Ens, Blondie Purcell and Jo-Jo White. And if you think that those writers didn’t do this just to get people like me to look up some managers who had women’s first names, you don’t know the evil powers of The Simpsons.

Yes, now, we have reached the crux of the episode. Lisa must learn baseball. For this she goes to Moe’s to seek the council of her father and men watching the game on television.

Moe: “The only thing I know about strategy is that whatever the manager does, it’s wrong. Unless it works in which case he’s a button pusher.”

Moe then points her to the corner … where a mini-SABR convention has broken out. There are four nerdy guys with computers and stat books discussing the game.

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!*

*I would love to believe that I played a small part, just a tiny part, in inspiring this scene. But I think it’s more likely that the word “Greinke” is funnier than, say, “Roy Halladay.”

Lisa is impressed by their knowledge, and here she is told that the key to understanding baseball is sabermetrics: “The field was developed by statistician Bill James,” Nerdy Stat Guy 2 says.

At this point, he shows Lisa his computer, where there’s a picture of Bill. And Bill utters his one line: “I made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes!”

It was quite the moment at the James household. Everybody applauded and, during a commercial break. Bill did the line again for us with some Shakespearean zeal. There have been many achievements for Bill James. The man was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people, for crying out loud. But playing himself on The Simpsons? I’m not sure it gets a whole lot bigger than that*.

*Though I should say that there are plans in the works — I don’t want to jinx it, but there are plans in the works — for me to be a guest DJ on E-Street Radio. More on that as details firm up.

Lisa — armed with her newfound statistics — turns around Bart’s team. She moves the fielders around so that they are always perfectly situated*, which absolutely will NOT inspire me to make a Brooks Conrad joke.

*At one point, Lisa moves her first baseman into the crowd, and sure enough a foul ball is hit right to him. A good gag, but once again they did something for goofballs like me to notice: The first baseman was left-handed when he was put in the crowd. But he turned into the right-handed Ralph when the foul ball was hit to him. I wonder how much fun they have over there putting in these little details they know 99.999% of the people won’t notice, but will drive the other .001% mad.

Lisa’s maneuvers are making the team a winner, but Bart cannot help but feel that the joy of the game is being drained. When Lisa tells him to not swing — the pitcher is wild — he is furious.

Bart: “But I’m on a hot-streak.

Lisa: “Hot streaks are a statistical illusion.”

Bart: “I wish YOU were a statistical illusion.”

Lisa: “Well, there’s a 97% chance I’m not, so do what I say.”

He disobeys her and hits a walk-off home run. His teammates pick him up and chant his name (“Bart! Bart! Bart!”) and while they’re doing it, she throws him off the team leading to a new chant (“Conflicted! Conflicted! Conflicted!”).

Now, of course we have family strife. Marge and Homer take sides:

Marge: Flyballs and fungoes come and go. But families are forever.

Homer: Sorry Marge, I’ve got to call bullcrap on that. The ’69 Mets will live on forever. But you think anyone cares about Ron Swoboda’s wife and kids? Not me. And I assume not Ron Swoboda.”

Marge: Think of Bart’s feelings!

Homer: Boys don’t have feelings. They have muscles.

That night, Marge reads to Bart a slightly altered version of the three little bears. Homer reads to Lisa the story of Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse in the All-Star Game.

The baseball season goes on without Bart (Lisa: “He thought he was better than the laws of probability. Anyone else here think he’s better than the laws of probability?”). Lisa moves Nelson into the leadoff spot because of his on-base percentage*. The team wins again and earns a spot in the Little League Championship (Announcer who sounds quite a bit like Vin Scully: “It’s a triumph of number-crunching over the human spirit, and it’s about time.”)

*OK, this has little to do with The Simpsons … but I have watched just about every inning of every postseason game so far. This means two things:

1. I have now seen so many “Glory Daze” promos that it is now beginning to invade my own personal memories. I find myself thinking about that time I agreed to have myself branded. Also, I would love to strangle that guy who goes on that emergency run for the doughnuts in that car commercials. I do not believe in hate. But I hate every single thing about that guy.

2. I have noticed that national announcers, in general, still call games almost EXACTLY like they did 25 years ago. I mean exactly — with batting average, home runs, RBIs, pitcher wins, the idea that pitching is 75% of baseball, the same cliches about bunts and intentional walks, like there’s no other side.

I’m actually OK with this for the most part. I think baseball games are to be enjoyed, not to be infused with a lot of statistical analysis. And I know most fans want what is familiar to them, I get it, I really do. It might drive me nuts, but I’m not a typical viewer.

Just one thing: I really wish that they could at least mention on-base percentage. Just that. I get that many people are never going to like advanced stats, never going to appreciate the Dewan plus/minus or WAR or xFIP or whatever. I get that. I know that people don’t necessarily want a discussion of BABIP in the sixth inning of a 2-2 game.

But if I could have any impact on the game at all, any impact, I would love for it to be helping to making OBP more mainstream. Just that.

In The Simpsons, there’s a funny little moment where Lisa is looking at her stats book and there’s a confusing looking formula for OBP. It looked like so:

H + W + HBP / AB + W + HBP + SF

That does indeed look confusing, doesn’t it. Probably would not look as confusing if you did this:

Times on Base / Plate Appearances (minus sac hits).

Yeah, that looks a bit simpler doesn’t it? Frankly I don’t even like the sac hit adjustment. Personally, I would just do times on base over plate appearances, simple as it gets. But even so, it’s still pretty simple. OBP tells you as simply as possible how often you get on base, and how often you make an out.

Now, let’s look at batting average. Most people think the system is simply “Hits / At-bats) and it is. But let’s look at it in a different way.

TOB – W – HBP / PA – W – HBP – SF – SH.

There’s your simple, not-advanced batting average statistic. At-bats are a completely invented number that removes a bunch of pretty important things — especially walks, but also illogical things like sacrifice hits. You already know that if you BUNT a runner over from second to third it’s a sacrifice and doesn’t count in your batting average. But if you give yourself up by hitting a ball to the right side, and move the runner from second to third, it DOES count against your batting average. And so on.

And don’t even get me started on the hit/error conundrum.

Batting average as calculated IS a complicated thing and an advanced stat. It’s just an advanced stat that we grew up with so it seems simpler than it really is, not unlike the plot for the Star Wars movies. On-base percentage is a much simpler statistic, I have no doubt in my mind about this. It is NOT an advanced stat, not compared to batting average. OBP is also a much more telling statistic.

And I just wish these national baseball announcers would mention it every so often. Just mention it. Instead of wondering why Carlos Pena with his .196 batting average is even in the lineup (“Well, he hits with power”), you could at least mention that he walked 87 times, and while his .325 on-base percentage is not good, it’s not tragically bad either.

The last few minutes of the Simpsons include a fine performance from Mike Scioscia (when he loses a World Series ring while riding on a roller coaster, he says: “That’s OK, I’ll win another one”), the obligatory steroid mention (Ralph is juiced — he is surrounded by juice boxes and is saying, “I didn’t know what I was putting into my body!) and a classic shot, best line of the show, from the radio/television announcer:

Announcer: “That’s why anyone who invested with Lenny Dykstra really should call that number, lawyers are standing by.”

And it ends with Bart trying to steal home, which leads to two plot breakthroughs. (1) It allows Lisa to finally see the excitement of the game beyond the numbers; (2) Cost his team the championship because of course he is out at the plate. That sounds about right.

“You made me love baseball,” Lisa told Bart afterward, “not as a collection of numbers, but as an unpredictable passionate game beaten in excitement only by every other sport.”

* * *

UPDATE: I did not mention the opening, because it was not baseball. But I suspect for Simpsons fans, it will be what it remembered from this show. It was done by the guy the Internet calls “Infamous graffiti artist Banksy.” It’s a brilliantly dark portrait of laborers making Simpsons merchandise — including the making of DVDs using a worn-down unicorn.

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America The Beautiful

My buddy Tommy Tomlinson asks an eternal question — what’s more quintessentially American, Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful or John Wayne reciting the Pledge of Allegiance?

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Halladay and Lincecum

Game Score is a Bill James invention, a little statistic that gives you a quick and easy, single-number look at how well a pitcher pitched. My sense is that it has always supposed to be little more than a bit of shorthand fun … but I think it has turned out to be one of Bill’s more delightful inventions. The numbers just FEEL right.

In Game Score, a 50 is just about an average game.

In Game Score, a 100 is pretty much perfection. It’s a crazy hard thing to get a 100 Game Score. No pitcher in the history of the baseball postseason has thrown a 100 Game Score. There have only been 63 Game Scores of GREATER than 100 in all of baseball history, and only three of those happened in nine-inning games:

1. Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout, 0-walk game (105 Game Score).

2. Nolan Ryan’s 16-strikeout, no hitter in 1991 (101 Game Score).

3. Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965 (101 Game Score).

All the other greater-than-100 Game Scores were extra inning performances — Joe Oeschinger’s 26-inning, 1-run game in 1920 has the highest Game Score ever at 153. Well, the man pitched 26 innings … give him his due. Carl Hubbell’s 18-inning shutout against the Cardinals scored a 132. Gaylord Perry’s 16-inning shutout against Cincinnati scored a 112. Juan Marichal’s 16-inning shutout against Milwaukee scored a 112. Those Giants have had some long shutouts.

Harvey Haddix’s 12 2/3 inning, one-hitter — which began with 12 perfect innings — scored a 107.

So, 100 is just about perfect. In fact, Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2004 scored precisely 100. So did Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters in 1972 and 1973.

A 90 or better is pretty close to legendary. Roger Clemens’ 20-strikeout game scored 97. Tom Seaver’s 19-strikeout game scored 96. Clay Buchholz’s no-hitter scored 93.

An 85 or better is sensationally good. Edwin Jackson’s 8-walk no-hitter was an 85. Complete game shutouts usually score in the 80s, though there are exceptions. Milt Gaston’s rather remarkable shutout in 1928 — when he allowed 14 hits and struck out only two — only scored a 59. In the last five years, there have been 275 complete-game, 9-inning shutouts thrown. Of those, 233 scored at least in the 80s. The lowest Game Score was Pat Misch’s shutout against Florida in 2009. He allowed eight hits, walked three, struck out only two and scored a 70 Game Score, which is still very good.

The best Game Score of 2010 was Brandon Morrow’s complete-game one hitter where he struck out 17. That scored exactly 100 on the scale. Roy Halladay’s perfect game scored 98. Dallas Braden’s perfect game scored score 93. Armando Galarraga’s imperfect game scored 88.

Again, I don’t think Game Scores are supposed to be considered gospel; but they are fun ways to compare some of the great pitched games (and, frankly, a fun way to compare some of the lousy ones — Scott Kazmir’s 5-inning, 11-hit, 13-run game this year scored a minus-8 for instance). And figuring them is pretty easy.

— Start with 50 points.

— Add a point for each out, and two more for each inning completed after Inning 4.

— Add one point for each strikeout.

— Take away two points for each hit, 4 points for each earned run, 2 points for each unearned run and 1 point for each walk.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing. It really is an elegant little formula.

OK, so all of this is just another way to put into perspective the two remarkable pitching performances we saw the last two days. In the long history of postseason baseball there had only been had only been 11 Game Scores of better than 90. Remarkably two of those performances were by Randy Johnson in the 2001 postseason. He had a pair of 91s, one of them against Atlanta in the NLCS (9 innings, 3 hits, 11 Ks, 1 walk) and one of them against the Yankees in the World Series (9 innings, 3 hits, 11 Ks, 1 walk — eerie).

The best ever postseason Game Score was recorded by Roger Clemens against Seattle in 2000 — he threw a 9-inning one-hitter with 15 strikeouts. That scored a 98. After that you had Dave McNally’s 11-inning shutout against Minnesota in the 1969 ALCS and Babe Ruth’s 14-inning, one run performance against Brooklyn in the 1916 World Series. Both of those scored 97.

Then there was Don Larsen’s perfect game (a 94) and Ed Walsh’s 9-inning, 2-hit, 12-strikeout game against the Cubs in the 1906 World Series (also a 94).

Which brings us to 2010. On Wednesday, Roy Halladay threw that no-hitter against the Reds. What was most remarkable to me about the no-hitter was the same thing that was so remarkable about Halladay’s perfect game early in the year — his overwhelming brilliance choked the life out of the baseball drama. That is to say: Once he got going, as a baseball fan I never had any doubt that he would throw the no-hitter. No doubt at all. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat wondering if the Reds would get a hit. I knew they wouldn’t.

Halladay’s no-hitter was so dominating that when he walked Jay Bruce, my only thought was: “Oh, that’s too bad. Now he will only throw a no-hitter instead of a perfect game.” And that was in the fifth inning. And that was two or three innings AFTER I felt sure that the Reds would not get a hit.

In my lifetime, only Halladay has given me that sense of certainty. Pedro Martinez at his peak is the best pitcher I ever saw. Greg Maddux at his peak was my favorite pitcher, the closest thing to an artist I ever expect to see on a baseball diamond. Roger Clemens’ dominance, Randy Johnson’s dominance, Dwight Gooden’s dominance in 1984 and ’85, Johan Santana’s dominance in the middle part of this decade, Steve Carlton’s dominance, Tom Seaver’s dominance, Ron Guidry’s dominance … they all had their own special character.

But only Halladay — for me, anyway — pitches with what I call “retroactivity.” When Halliday is on, like he was against the Reds, it honestly feels like I’m watching him on replay, in a Ken Burns documentary, like the thing has already happened and it’s already famous like the Thrilla in Manilla or the Texas-USC game. I feel like I’m watching it for the fifth or sixth time. It’s a bit like a new song that sounds like you have already heard it a hundred times before.*

*In case you were wondering, the new Ben Folds-Nick Hornby album is out. I have been waiting for it for months and months — I’m a huge fan of both Folds as musician and Hornby as writer — and I have been DYING to see how this collaboration would work. I bought the thing on release day. And, well, I’m not going to lie to you: It’s not as good as I hoped … maybe it will work better for me after a couple more spins. Maybe I’ll give it a full review then.

But I can tell you there’s one great song on there — a song called “Belinda” about a one-hit wonder singer who is asked nightly to sing the popular love song he wrote for someone he left many years ago.There’s a song within the song which Ben Folds tried to make sound like an old song that would sound unnaturally familiar. I think he did a pretty remarkable job of that. The song within the song sounds like something you heard years ago even though, of course, you did not. Somehow, some way, that connects to Halladay for me.

Halladay’s genius against Cincinnati drew a 94 Game Score … same as Larsen’s perfecto. Halladay struck out eight, walked one, broke bats, broke Cincinnati hearts, left them all in helpless heap and scored the second-highest postseason Game Score of the last 40 years.

And one day later … Tim Lincecum outscored him. Watching Lincecum for me sparks very different emotions from watching Halladay. Everything about Lincecum is fresh, new, unpredictable, alive. Halladay’s greatness (and I love this about him) feels like it is in grainy black and white, like we are watching Christy Mathewson or Three Finger Brown or Pete Alexander. Lincecum’s greatness is in 3D, it pops off the screen, it drops your jaw.

At one point in Thursday’s mind-blowing game, Lincecum struck out on Brooks Conrad on some sort of ridiculous super pitch — Conrad seemed to literally swing through the ball (he foul tipped it). Bob Brenly called it a change-up. I shouted, “Come on Bob, that wasn’t a change-up. That was a curveball.” And so I rewound the thing and watched it. And I said, “Oh wait, maybe he was right. Maybe it was a change-up.” I rewound again and watched and said, “No, that wasn’t a change-up. That was a slider.” I rewound again and watched and said, “No, wait, I think that WAS a curveball.” I rewound again and finally settled on it being a slider. But really it was some sort of shape-shifting pitch. It could be whatever you wanted it to be.

That’s the sort of pitch Lincecum throws several times a game — the sort of pitch that made Satchel Paige say: “I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I toss one that ain’t been seen by this generation.” Lincecum threw 10 or 15 generation pitches on Thursday, sliders that burned out and disappeared like they were entering the earth’s atmosphere, change-ups that sputtered and coughed on the way to the plate like old Buicks, fastballs that seem to skip double-dutch just as they arrive at the plate. Maybe the skateboard-dude persona adds a little to the act. Maybe the crazy motion that convinced too many scouts to pass on him in the draft adds a little to the act.

Whatever … watching Lincecum pitch is like watching Magic Johnson in his prime, like watching Gale Sayers when he was healthy, like watching John McEnroe when he was in shape and at the top of his game. There’s the greatness part, and then there’s something a little extra, this buzz of hope that you will see something that you have never seen before. Lincecum struck out 14, walked 1, allowed two hits and so electrified the San Francisco crowd I could feel AT&T Park shaking from 1,500 miles away. I have never seen that before. Not quite that.

Lincecum’s 96 Game Score ranks fourth all-time in postseason play. It also scores higher than Halladay’s no-hitter. There will be some people who don’t like the way Game Score weighs strikeouts and walks, who think no-hitters and perfect games should ALWAYS score higher than non-no-hitters and non-perfect-games and I get that. But there is another side to the issue. There are people who believe that these are the only things a pitcher has any real control over: Strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. There is a lot of fascinating statistical evidence on the subject.

Not that it matters. I don’t know which was the better-pitched game. It’s hard to pick against a no-hitter. But it’s also hard to pick against a 14-strikeout shutout. It’s hard to pick against searing, inevitable dominance. It’s also hard to pick against buoyant, overpowering pitching joy.

In the end, they were two of the greatest postseason performances ever in the postseason. There has been a lot of Year of the Pitcher chirping all year, and I’m not sure I ever really bought in. There have been dozens and dozens of better years for pitchers in baseball history. Put it this way, pitchers had a lower ERA every single year between 1954 and 1986 than they did this year.

Still, unquestionably, there was a shift this year. Pitchers did record their lowest ERA since 1992. We did have two perfect games. We did have a whole bunch of no-hitters and near no-hitters. We did have a serious drop in batting — hitters hit only .257 and slugged only .403, and you have to go back to before the strike to find hitting numbers that low. There are countless off-the-cuff explanations for this which you can find all over the Internet.

But it’s fun when you can move beyond the explanations and just enjoy the moment. We are in an era of some pretty remarkable pitchers — Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Ubaldo Jiminez, Josh Johnson, Adam Wainwright, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Matt Cain, David Price, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Jered Weaver, Zack Greinke, Francisco Liriano and so on, I’m not going to name them all.

And in this remarkable era, we got to see perhaps the two best, Halladay and Lincecum, on back-to-back days throw playoff games for the ages. Not bad. Not bad at all.

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Bad Calls In Baseball

The replay discussion in baseball has grown so ubiquitous, so overbearing, so boring that — like the revenue/payroll disparity in baseball — it’s simply no fun to talk about anymore. Everybody knows about the problem. The problem never seems to get fixed. After a while, the talk feels as pointless as complaining about the humidity in St. Louis in July.

But, as boring as it is, Thursday was a banner day in baseball’s grand losing battle to umpiring legitimacy. In the Tampa Bay-Texas game, the umpires seemed to miss a checked-swing third strike call against Michael Young. Given a reprieve, Young homered, and soon after Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon was tossed, and the Rays lost.

In the Minnesota-New York game, the home plate umpire seemed to miss a strike three call against Lance Berkman.* The next pitch, Berkman crushed a double that gave the Yankees the lead they would never relinquish. Soon after, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire was tossed.

*Though Yankees fans and others will point out that the umpire probably missed a call on the second pitch of that same at-bat, calling a strike on a pitch that was probably at least a couple of inches outside.

And in the Atlanta-San Francisco game, the second-base umpire seemed to miss a clear tag on Buster Posey on a stolen base attempt. The umpire wasn’t the only one to miss it … the television announcers did not mention it even though they showed several replays (they seemed more interested in the quirks of Posey’s awkward slide — they picked up on it a few innings later) and Bobby Cox, who has never been shy about coming out of the dugout, stayed put. There wasn’t even an argument on this one, though Posey was clearly out. Soon after, Posey scored the only run of the game.

A banner day, yes. Of course, this came a day after the umpires clearly missed a catch/trap call that should have ended the Twins-Yankees game, and the umpires missed a hit-by-pitch against Carlos Pena in the Rays-Rangers game. There were probably other misses, but those were the lowlights.

I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little here, but I think baseball has a real problem on its hands … a very serious problem. And it goes beyond all the replay talk. I don’t want this to sound too monumental or anything, but, what the heck, you can read this next sentence in your John Facenda voice: Baseball is facing a serious legitimacy issue. Anyway, I think so.

It’s a different kind of legitimacy issue from the gambling problems of the 1910s or the shameful color barrier before Jackie Robinson or even the steroid issue. It’s different … but it’s still dangerous for the game.

Legitimacy for a sports league simply means this: People have to believe in the fairness and authenticity of the sport. This is why the BCS is so unpopular — nobody believes in its legitimacy. The NHL and NBA regular seasons have legitimacy issues because so many teams make the playoffs. The Tour de France has legitimacy issues because, as we have only recently learned, contaminated meat is causing positive drug tests. Golf tournaments without Tiger Woods over the last few years have had legitimacy issues because Woods was so much better than anyone else. NASCAR had legitimacy issues when nobody really understood their scoring system. And so on.

I have no idea if baseball umpires are worse these days than they used to be … I suspect they’re probably not worse. I suspect they’re probably better. But that doesn’t matter. Times have changed. Technology has changed. Every game is on television somewhere. Every television game has multiple angles. You could be a brutal umpire in the days of Casey, and all people could really do was yell “Kill the umpire!” They had no replays to use as proof. Now, these days, there are so many hours to fill on sports channels, and there is infinite space on the Internet, and people are killing the umpires on Twitter night after night after night. And they have pictures to back them up.

And this is the point — it doesn’t matter how good umpires were before all these new technologies, just like it doesn’t matter anymore if you have the fastest horse and buggy in the county. We SEE the missed calls now. And those missed calls are embarrassing the game. More, they are making the results of these games questionable. Why was gambling an issue? Because it made the results questionable. Why were steroids an issue? Because they made the results questionable. And here we are in 2010, and umpires are missing hugely important calls, loads of them, and games are being influenced by these blown calls, and baseball folks are just standing by and saying that the human element is part of the game? No, that’s can’t last.

See, sooner or later, people aren’t going to stand for it. I suspect some people already are just shaking their heads in frustration. The more bad calls, the more people are going to turn off to baseball. The more times a fan’s team gets cheated, the more likely he or she is to simply stop caring. “Bad calls are a part of baseball,” might be a good enough answer for some traditionalists, but there aren’t enough traditionalists to keep ANY game popular and vibrant. You really can’t have playoff games, World Series games, perfect games sullied, ruined, altered by terrible umpire calls while baseball gurus just sit back like the wrestling referee who doesn’t happen to notice that one guy brought a metal chair into the ring.*

*Even as I write this now, they are showing the blown stolen base call over and over and over on TBS — five or six times in a row. Baseball can’t have this.

What can be done? Well, yeah, we probably have to delve back for a moment into that tiresome talk about replay. There are numerous problems with replay in baseball. Nobody wants the pace of the game slowed even more. Nobody wants more of those life-draining delays while umpires gather together to talk. Nobody wants baseball to turn into a conditional sport, where you have to wait for the appeal before unleashing your cheer. And frankly there are some calls — like ball and strike calls — that probably do not fit replay as we have it now. The Berkman call, frustrating as it may have been for Twins fans, is probably not reversible yet, not until ball-strike technology gets better.

But to me it’s a simple reality: You just can’t have these missed calls and maintain your authenticity. You just can’t. Not over time. And replay seems the most viable answer.* So if baseball has to give up some time and a bit of tradition to get the calls right, then I think sooner or later — sooner — they will have to do that.

*It may not be the only answer, though. I was talking to a baseball insider who says that baseball could fix a lot of these problems by rethinking how umpires do their job. He thinks umpires could work together better as a team (could the third base umpire have helped out on that Buster Posey stolen base), he thinks they could be positioned better, he thinks they could be trained better. I’m skeptical … but I’m also for any answer that will get us the right calls much more often.

Here’s what I do know: While some people talked about Tim Lincecum’s remarkable pitching performance after the Giants game, I kept thinking that Posey was out. While some people were talking about the shocking Rangers upset of the Rays, I kept wondering if the Rays might have come back in that game had the umpire called Michael Young out on that check swing. While people talked about the Yankees dominance and the Twins having lost 11 playoff games in a row, I kept wondering if the game might have been a little different had the umpire rung up Berkman.

What-ifs are great for sports. They’re not great when the umpires are the ones sparking the what-ifs. Twenty-five years later people in St. Louis STILL blame umpire Don Denkinger for the Cardinals loss to Kansas City in the 1985 World Series. That’s a part of baseball history. Now, because of better technology, more replay angles, we’re getting multiple-Denkinger moments ever single day. Sooner or later, people will have enough. There were a couple of managers and a lot of fans on Thursday who decided they already had enough.

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The Seven Tools (And Other Stuff)

Baseball Thoughts, Day 2 begins with a WAY too long discussion of the five tools of baseball. And, of course, we’ll update throughout the day.
Again, if you have questions, comments, post them here. I didn’t get to many yesterday, I’ll try to do better today.

Joe Posnanski � Posts Baseball Thoughts, Day 2 �

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