By In Stuff

Being There With Greinke

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Twitter Feed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“It was like a book,” he added.

“Well, I hope you liked it.”

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

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By In Baseball, History, RIP

Bob Feller

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


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By In Stuff

Great Four Man Rotations (w/Bill James)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Cy Young Winners from 1993-1998:

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

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

The Braves Big 3 from 1993 to 1998:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Roy Halladay: 6.9

— Roy Oswalt: 5.1

— Cole Hamels: 4.7

— Cliff Lee: 4.3

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Expendable Brendan Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blogger Ethics

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

* * *

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

Blogger Murray Chass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The One Day Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vote away! And complain away in the comments!

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Genius Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Royals Sign Francoeur (Of Course)

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

This was going to happen sooner or later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

This one’s personal. Very personal. This is an essay about my daughter and Harry Potter. There is not much sports in it, though there is some Bill James and some Quidditch and even a quick mention of relief pitching. But mostly it’s about a Dad and a daughter and imagination. You have been warned.

“For the Harry Potter novels, J. K. Rowling invented a sport, Quidditch, which is played by magical peoples.   But in inventing the sport she made an obvious mistake.   She placed a very high value—150 points—on catching the golden snitch.    What is obvious to a sports fan is that this would, in effect, make the game unplayable; the too-high value for the snitch would crush all of the other objectives of the sport, making the entire game revolve around capturing the snitch.  In practice, every player would be basically committed to spotting the snitch, rather than just the Seeker, so that the game would not in fact play out the way that Rowling assumes that it would. “
— Bill James

There are probably not many people in the world who can say this: I started reading the Harry Potter books because of Bill James. Well … Bill James and my wife. I have never been drawn to fantasy. It is a shortcoming of my imagination, I think. I am, in many ways, a literal and linear thinker, not unlike the woman comedian Garry Shandling once took on a date to the movie E.T. As the bicycle was flying across the moon, the woman turned to Shandling and said: “Yeah. Right.”

To which he thought: “I don’t think it’s a documentary.”

Or anyway, that’s how the joke goes.

I remember once in high school playing Dungeons and Dragons with some pseudo-friends. Once. I was nerdy enough and reclusive enough to play Dungeons and Dragons, but not near-creative enough, and when asked what “powers” I craved for my character (I’m still not sure I ever quite understood the rules) I could only think of wanting to fly, being bulletproof and having X-ray vision. Superman was at the farthest reaches of my imagination and needless to say I was not asked back into the game. I never did quite get it. I never read The Hobbit or anything like it; I still have seen only the first of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and I didn’t understand it at all. The Harry Potter books offered no appeal whatsoever.

My wife Margo is very much into such things, though, and she kept pushing me to read them, and I had my stock answer: “I will definitely read them when I run out of grown-up books.” This set piece of sarcasm did not dull her enthusiasm — she knows me too well, knows I wear down in the later rounds — and she kept hammering away at me to read the books, read the books, read the books.

And then Bill James came in for the kill. Bill, in the cliche of public opinion, seems a man without imagination or a sense of romance. He is, in public readings, the man who has turned baseball into a row of numbers. He has come to accept this as the price of being able to live a baseball life. But it has nothing at all with Bill James himself. When it comes to baseball, he loves the romance of the game more than anyone I know. He loves the way the grass smells, the way base runners go from first to third, the way pitchers kick at the dirt, the way the game’s history (and I mean the ENTIRE history going back into the earliest known moments of baseball in the 19th Century) plays on every current moment. He also doesn’t much like damn nonsense, and he will work numbers and create formulas to cut through. But that doesn’t cut into his love of baseball or of literature or Bob Dylan. People are never as simple as the cliche. Anyway, Bill suggested I read Harry Potter, and I always do what Bill tells me, so I started the first book, and two weeks later I had finished the first six and on the first day it was out I bought and read the seventh.

There are many things I love about the Harry Potter books. Quidditch is one of those things. It is — as I’m sure you know — the game J.K. Rowling invented that features players on broomsticks, three goals that look like the hoops children use to blow bubbles, a quaffle (a soccer-ball sized thing the players use to try and throw through the goals), two bludgers (rather large iron balls the players use to knock other players off their broomsticks) and the Golden Snitch, which Bill referenced above. The Snitch is a tiny enchanted ball with wings that is released at some point and is almost impossible to catch (which is why catching it is worth 150 points vs. the 10 points you get per goal). The game ends only when the Snitch is caught, and Rowling imagines great games in Quidditch history that went on for months and months because neither side could quite catch it. One player on each team tries to catch the snitch — he or she is called the seeker. Harry Potter, of course, is a seeker.

And, despite Bill’s absolutely correct statement about the value of catching the snitch being too high*, the game is wonderful, just another piece of the books’ wonder. It seems so silly to say this because it has been said so often, but J.K. Rowling is a marvel. She conjured up this complete world that is like ours and unlike ours, and as a writer I am awed by how her mind works. I have nothing to compare with Harry Potter, nothing all, because of course I have not read other fantasy books. I cannot and would not tell you that the books are somehow better than the Lord of the Rings Series or the Golden Compass series (which my wife loves) or the vampire books or the Rick Riordan books or anything else. I have no idea. And I will always have no idea — unless Bill James recommends another of those series, I guess.

*Though perhaps this view is based on Harry Potter being so good at catching the snitch. It is clear from reading the books that catching the snitch is supposed to be ridiculously, absurdly, comically hard, but it’s not THAT HARD for Harry. He seems to catch it with relative ease every time (except when the Dementors … well, let’s leave that for now). He is like the early 2000s Barry Bonds without performance enhancers — if someone without any sense of the rules had watched Bonds, and only Bonds, they might have concluded that a home run was too easy to make the game much fun.

In any case, I am reading the Harry Potter books again — this time aloud to my 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth. We are in the fourth book now. And reading them aloud has struck something in me about words and language and the power of imagination. Elizabeth is not like I was as a child. She is bewitched by fantasy, by werewolves (that scare her beyond reason) and vampires (she is infatuated with them, which does not make me especially happy) and witches and wizards and dark magic and castles and secret entrances and potions and all that. I have mentioned here before that Elizabeth does not have much use for sports* — she is the daughter who will sit on my lap during games and occasionally ask “Daddy, when will the commercials come back on?” — but she even loves Quidditch enough to ask basic strategic questions (“Why don’t they work harder to protect Harry from the bludgers?”).

*I say that my daughter does not know or care about sports but as any father or mother can tell you, kids are probably listening harder than you think. A few weeks ago, we had longtime friends stay with us, and their son (who I have known since he was born) was with them, and he is Elizabeth’s age and already a pretty promising baseball player. He throws right-handed, swings left, and his swing already looks a bit like Billy Williams’. In any case, Elizabeth was asking him what position he played. And with wonder I heard this conversation.

Boy: “I am a shortstop and a pitcher.”
Elizabeth: “What kind of pitcher?”
Boy: “What do you mean?”
Elizabeth: “Well, are you a starter or a closer?”
Boy: “What’s a closer?”
Elizabeth: “A closer is the pitcher who comes in the ninth to make sure you don’t lose.”
Boy: “Oh, I’m not that.”

I was going to finish that off with a joke, with Elizabeth saying something like “That’s good because I don’t particularly like the constricting role many managers have for their closers,” but that would have reduced the effect because the above really is pretty much word for word what Elizabeth said, and my jaw dropped. I had no idea. If someone had asked me what Elizabeth knew about baseball, I would have said: “That she can get nachos with cheese at the stand on the top of our section.” They really are paying attention more than you expect.

Elizabeth loves the Harry Potter books — and through her I love them even more. Every jolt, every laugh, every thrill, every annoyance I felt reading the book myself is magnified ten fold through Elizabeth. Every night (more or less) we read a chapter. And she falls for every literary trap. She comes out of those traps with her eyes wide open. She loves characters and despises them and is constantly surprised by them, which I think makes for the best sort of reading and also educational on an entirely different level from, say, history books or science books. She has learned through just the first three books that not all is what it seems, that bad is sometimes good, and good is sometimes bad, and that almost everything is neither good nor bad but instead a shade.

She asks questions, constant questions, and I always tell her to wait and see, but she isn’t any good at waiting, and in this way she is just like me as a father. I’m no good at waiting either. I have been known to read ahead, to fast forward, to read the CliffsNotes. But I do not answer her. I want her mind to work. I want her soul to sing. One day while we were reading the third book, she came home and said that a friend (who had seen the movie) gave away a key secret. I was furious. Elizabeth is not even allowed to watch the movie until she has finished each book. The thing is the tension, the effort to get to the answer, the way the imagination paints the picture. But, the truth is, you can’t protect them from learning secrets.

All of which leads to this: At the end of the month, I am probably going to go to Florida for bowl games, and I’ll bring along the family. And you probably know there is this new Harry Potter World at Universal Studios in Orlando — The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the official name. I hear from friends that it is an amazing place. And, of course, Elizabeth wants to go. She more than just wants to go, she is utterly desperate to go. She wants to see Hogsmeade (the wizard town in the book) and she wants to buy candy at Honeydukes (the magical candy shop from the book) and she wants to ride a Hippogriff (I’m not going to keep explaining these things in parentheses — if you care, you already know). She is desperate to do all these things and many more, and I want her to do these things too, and I have begun to look into buying the tickets …

… but it’s a strange thing. As I look at purchasing tickets, I find myself worrying. Not about the prices, though amusement park tickets are definitely texpensives. I do not worry Harry Potter World will be a disappointment or not worth the money or any of that. It’s kind of the opposite. I don’t have the exact words, but I guess I worry that Harry Potter World will replace the Harry Potter world of her imagination. I worry that Harry and Dumbledore and He Who Shall Not Be Named and the Great Hall and the invisibility cloak and the sorting hat and all the wonderful and magical things that J.K. Rowling placed in Elizabeth’s mind will lose a bit of their magic and become something more earthy and plain and touristy and …

I don’t know. Maybe this is why we don’t want kids to find out about Santa Claus. We don’t want their worlds to have limitations. We don’t want their worlds to lose their magic. I know we will go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with a million other fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and I know it will be wonderful. And I guess I’m afraid that we’ll get home and I will curl up next to Elizabeth to read another chapter of Harry Potter and she will say: “Oh Dad, I’ve already seen it. I’m grown up, you know.” I know those words are coming. I’m not ready for them. I know I won’t ever be ready for them.

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Dandy Don

We hear all the time about people who are “one of a kind.” We especially hear this when they die. I think that’s right and proper. I’m sure you have been to a funeral or two in your life where you get no sense of the person who died, no memory to cling to, no idea about their favorite ice cream flavor or what phrase they repeated again and again or what music they might sing along with or what TV shows they loved to watch or what joke made them laugh unexpectedly hard or what is the one thing they loved doing most of all. These empty funerals always make me saddest of all, because I think we all really are one of a kind, at least in some way, and the hope is that people will notice and maybe even remember.

But there are some people who really are one of a kind, and Don Meredith was one of those guys. Dandy Don. He was like something out of a Dan Jenkins novel — a quarterback, all-Texas, all-guts, all-heart. He played his high school football in Texas, and he played his college football in Texas, and he played his pro football in Texas, and all the while he believed in throwing the ball deep and running the ball with abandon. He played for Tom Landry, a serious man, which wasn’t always health because Meredith was not a serious man. It didn’t go so well in the early years. Then, in 1964, the Dallas Cowboys drafted the world’s fastest man, Bullet Bob Hayes, and he joined the team in 1965, and Don Meredith was the guy who threw the ball deep to him. The Cowboys won a lot of games, and lost twice in the Green Bay Packers with the Super Bowl at stake. It was one beautiful party with a few hangovers, and if there was one thing Don Meredith realized it was that if you can’t handle the hangovers you shouldn’t go to the party.

“Why do they call you Dandy, anyway?” he was asked once.

“Because I am,” he said.

But that’s not what made him one of a kind. No, there have been other Texas quarterbacks who loved throwing the ball deep, day and night. What made Don Meredith one of a kind … well, when he retired from football he was hired to become a broadcaster for this new thing called Monday Night Football. That was 1970. He had no broadcasting training. He was not exactly known for his detailed study or his intense work ethic. Nobody really knew how his Texas twang would play on a medium then known for the deep and crack-free voices of professional announcers

How did it go? Well, I’d say this and I doubt too many people would disagree: No color commentator — not in the long history of professional football on television — ever made professional football games as much fun as Dandy Don Meredith.

How did he do it? You don’t think there are television executives wondering that very thing? They have tried everything. They hired a comedian to be in the booth. They hired a funny newspaper columnist to be in the booth. They hired stars to sing the football openers. They designed some animated robot to dance after commercials. They hired every funny player and coach they could find. They have brought in guests, they have brought in impersonators, they have worked up insane graphics, they have worked up a million angles. But they have never quite recaptured when Don Meredith had when he was in the booth with Howard Cosell.

Maybe Meredith was just an unusual combination — a truly great football player who didn’t take football all that seriously. He brought authority and irreverence. He’d sing in the booth, of course. Turn out the lights! The party’s over! Well, he was always singing. He’d crack jokes that were always just a little bit rascally, jokes you had to be a certain age to understand (“Fair Hooker,” he said, repeating the name of the Cleveland Browns receiver. “I haven’t met one yet.”). As one person who worked closely with Meredith said, he was just one of those people who had life beat. Howard Cosell, with his big words and big mind and hyper-sensitivity, never stood a chance.

“Oh come on, Howard,” he’d say whenever Cosell got too puffed up and America would laugh and Cosell would shrink. Cosell would often say that he liked Meredith — “DAYN-dy DON!” — because he thought Meredith’s rustic charm played well off his own lawyerly bombast. But it really was the other way around. Meredith was the Fonz. Cosell was Potsie. Sure, Cosell was one of a kind in his own way too, and his great strength was that he made the games matter. But Meredith made the games fun. And fun is what games were meant to be.

People do tend to romanticize things. Monday Night Football — now Sunday Night Football — is in some ways more popular now than it was in the 1970s. And it’s better produced, and it’s wonderfully broadcast — I think Cris Collinsworth is the best color commentator in the game. He’s funny and direct and incisive. Times have changed, and expectations for announcers have changed, and Collinsworth fits his time.

But there was an unmistakable magic to the time when Frank Gifford would make the call, and Howard Cosell would irritate the masses, and Don Meredith would sing. It was apparent, just from being around him on Monday nights, that Meredith loved life. And that love of life poured through the television set. I still don’t think there has ever been anything quite like that.

In the 25 years that have gone by since he walked away from broadcasting, television scouts have tried desperately to find someone for the booth with some of Meredith’s spirit, someone who could broadcast not only the passion of football, not only the intensity of football, not only the tactics of football … but also the joy. Dandy Don Meredith died Sunday of a brain hemorrhage. He was 72 years old. And the television folks can stop looking. They won’t ever find another one like him.

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