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Top 32 NFL Coaches as Players

So here’s what I was thinking about the other day … why is it important that a professional sports coach or manager (especially in baseball) be a former player? In baseball, as I have already written here, at least 80% of the managers in baseball played in the big leagues, and just about every player was a star ballplayer at some reasonably high level*.

*Even Buck Showalter, who takes more than his share of heat as a non-player, hit .324 one year in Class AA one year and struck out only 24 times in 615 plate appearances.

In the NBA, by my quick count, 22 of the 30 coaches who ended the season last year with teams played in the NBA. And in basketball, unlike baseball, many of the greatest players ever — Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Bob Cousy, Dave Cowens, Bill Russell, Dan Issel, Bob Lanier, even Wilt Chamberlain briefly while playing — have tried their hand at coaching. Few of the all-time great baseball players, especially in recent years, have become managers.

In the NHL, I count 21 of the 30 coaches as former NHL players though remarkably some of the best hockey names in coaching — Guy Boucher, Peter DeBoer, Barry Trotz — did not play in the NHL. They did play hockey at high levels, though,

So the question is: Why? Why is it that playing the sport at a high level is widely viewed as a prerequisite for becoming a coach those three sports? I think you could come up with a million reasons if you want, but I have chosen three:

1. Players’ respect. There’s a sense among general managers and owners that players will be more likely to respect and follow a manager who has played at or near the highest level (or maybe the converse is more true: That players are more likely NOT to respect and follow a manager who has not played at or near the highest level). Pro sports, people will often tell you, are about people. These are not tabletop games — I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that while writing about sports. And so, to earn the players respect (the thinking goes) you need that history as a player.

2. A sense of understanding. There’s a sense among many that to understand the game at the extreme heights necessary to coach the game, you need to have played it very well. This is why 72.4% of the nasty emails I get contain the phrase “Did you ever play?” Obviously, sports understanding is 1,000 times more important for coaches than for sportswriters, and and the sense among many is that you need to have been in those situations. You need to have been on the court with the game on the line, or in Game 148 with your body aching, or on the ice in the heat of the playoffs.

3. A natural connection between playing and coaching. Anyway the connection seems natural in those sports. While baseball (through gritted teeth) has come to accept various highly educated General Managers who never played baseball above high school (if there), the idea a non-playing MANAGER being hired still seems jarring to the mind. And most people will tell you it couldn’t work. The idea of someone like Bill Belichick — a low-level college football player who basically learned the game by studying film in his father’s basement — becoming a baseball manager is simply foreign to the mind.

And that leads us to the point: None of my three reasons have any effect on football. Below, I’ve ranked the 32 NFL coaches as players … and I should say that it was almost impossible to do because I HAVE NO IDEA how good a player most of these guys really were. That’s because only five coaches of the 32 had real NFL careers (two more were NFL replacement in 1987). Only a handful beyond that had even remotely memorable college careers. One coach never played football at all — he really did want to be a professional golfer. Another almost died on a football field in college and never played another down. There are more coaches in the NFL from Wesleyan College than from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, USC, Oklahoma and Nebraska combined. And there are more coaches from Eastern Illinois than Wesleyan College.

So how do you explain it? NFL coaches certainly must demand respect. How do they do it without playing in the league? NFL coaches certainly need to have that understanding of the sport — how do they gain it if they never played at the highest level? Football, you would think as much as any sport, should have that strong connection between playing and coaching. But in the NFL playing in the league is certainly no prerequisite … as you will see below only five NFL head coaches legitimately played in the NFL (two seem to have had brief careers as replacement players in 1987). Frankly, when you look hard at the coaches who get hired, you would think that having played in the NFL would be a negative on your resume.

Bill Walsh didn’t play a down in the NFL — he (like many NFL coaches) became a graduate assistant while pursuing a Masters degree. Dick Vermeil followed the same path. Marv Levy didn’t play in the NFL — he went to Harvard for graduate work in English history. Jim Mora didn’t play in the NFL — he joined the Marines. Bill Parcells didn’t play in the NFL, though he actually was drafted in the seventh round out of Wichita State. Jimmy Johnson didn’t play in the NFL, though he was part of the great 1964 Arkansas team as a player. And so on. Even Vince Lombardi didn’t play in the NFL (though it was a fledgling league then, and Lombardi was one of the famed Seven Blocks of Granite at Fordham).

And so on. Though some of the great NFL coaches — Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and others — did play in the NFL, it almost seemed beside the point. The NFL decision makers (and in many ways the NFL decision makers alone) had come to see coaching football as a completely different career track from playing football.

It’s fascinating to me that football is like this and has been like this for so long. You would think, from an outsiders view, that football would be the MOST insular of sporting worlds not the LEAST. Football seems so regimented, so stuck in its ways … but when it comes to hiring coaches owners and general managers are almost bizarrely open-minded and revolutionary. When Scott Pioli, who had so much success in New England, took over Kansas City and went looking for a coach, he hired a man who had never played football on ANY level, a man who wanted to be a professional golfer, Todd Haley, And while the jury is still out on Haley — and while former running back Larry Johnson did call out Haley on Twitter — the Chiefs have made strides in 2010 and it seems to me that kind of hire would be almost impossible in baseball.

OK, so now here are all 32 coaches loosely ranked 1-32 as players.

1. Mike Singletary (San Francisco): Absolutely no question who is in the top spot. He was, of course, a Hall of fame linebacker, and the anchor of the legendary 1985 Bears defense.

2. Jack Del Rio (Jacksonville): A pretty clear No. 2 choice as well. Del Rio had an eleven year pro career, with the Kansas City Chiefs, Cowboys and Vikings, and he made one Pro Bowl in 1994. He might be best known for his staunch pro-union stance — he was so pro-union he was once photographed with a shotgun while in a picket line, and he got into a brief skirmish with Chiefs legend Otis Taylor, who was serving as a scout at the time.

3. Ken Whisenhunt (Arizona): He was a sturdy NFL tight end for the Atlanta Falcons — he started from 1986-88 and caught 53 passes over those three years.

4. Gary Kubiak (Houston): He played his entire career as a backup to John Elway in Denver, which is not a bad way to make a living. He did start five games, and he had some talent. His senior year he led the SW Conference in touchdown passes at Texas A&M.

5. Jeff Fisher (Tennessee): He was a star defensive back at USC, and he actually played 49 games for the Chicago Bears, mostly on special teams. He had one punt return for a touchdown.

6. Lovie Smith (Chicago): Well, we’re all done with our non-replacement NFL players. That’s it: FIVE guys played in the NFL, two made Pro Bowls. The ranking definitely gets trickier from here. Smith played linebacker and safety at Tulsa and was chosen a second-team All American by the AP in 1978.

7. Wade Phillips (Dallas … at least as I type this): He was a three-year starter at the University of Houston where it was said that he set a school record for tackles.

8. Tom Coughlin (New York Giants): He set the Syracuse record passing yards, though — through no fault of his own — he was by far the least successful player in the Orangeman backfield when he played (he played in the backfield with TWO future Pro Football Hall of Famers, Larry Czonka and Floyd Little). Coughlin is old enough that when he played, his position was called “Wingback.”

9. Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati): He was a very good linebacker at Idaho State — making first-team All-Big Sky three times.*

*This has nothing to do with anything — and I hesitate to tell this little story because people might think I’m making fun the Big Sky conference and I absolutely not. They play good and fun football in the Big Sky, and they absolutely should have All-Conference teams. But I do think these “All-Whatever Teams” can get carried away. One year my good friend Chuck Culpepper was covering the Great Alaska Shootout, and he was pondering whether to put a guy on first-team All-Great-Alaska Shootout. He was asking me about it, and it suddenly hit me and I found myself asking him what I thought was a rather remarkable question: “Do you mean there’s a SECOND TEAM All-Great Alaska Shootout?” It turns out, there was.

10. Tom Cable (Oakland): He was a star offensive lineman for University of Idaho. It has been written in several places that he was briefly a Colts replacement player in 1987, though I cannot find any official record of it. That little tidbit, though, is actually included in his official Raiders biography (“he spent one year with the Colts”) which is surprising since the Raider tend to keep just about everything, including their last eight seasons, as hush-hush as possible.

11. Sean Payton (New Orleans). Payton was DEFINITELY a replacement player — he played in three games for the Chicago Bears in ’87, completing 8 of 23 passes. What does it say about the NFL that not one but TWO replacement players are head coaches? Payton was apparently a very good quarterback at that hotbed for NFL coaches, Eastern Illinois.

12. Mike Tomlin: (Pittsburgh). He played wide receiver at William & Mary, and was a good player there. He had school record with 20 touchdown receptions. He was good enough there that he has his own YouTube video.

13. Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis). He was a four year starter as defensive back at Iowa, which is not quite as impressive as it sounds. Iowa was struggling quite a bit then. The Hawkeyes went 0-11 one of this seasons. But teammates say he was a good player.

14. Andy Reid (Philadelphia): Offensive lineman at BYU. Apparently, according to his own bio, one of his quirks as a player is that at the same time he was a writing a column for the Provo Daily Herald and, yes, that he loved Jim Murray and dreamed of writing at Sports Illustrated. Maybe we could change jobs for a day or something.

15. Chan Gailey (Buffalo): He was a three year letterman at quarterback for University of Florida. I’m not sure how much he played. I do know two things (1) He ran the wishbone; (2) He IS an Eagle Scout. I mention this last bit because once in writing a story about Gailey I mentioned that Gailey WAS an Eagle Scout. I heard from half of the world’s Eagle Scouts who alerted me that once you are an Eagle Scout you are ALWAYS an Eagle Scout, there is no past tense there, it is a lifelong title.

16. Mike Smith (Atlanta): Well, the rankings keep getting trickier and trickier as I get less and less information to work with. Smith was a linebacker at East Tennessee State, and was good enough to twice be named team MVP. I’ve also seen that he played briefly in the CFL.

17. John Fox (Carolina): He played defensive back at San Diego State with Herm Edwards, and Herm said he was a good player. But now that I think of it, Herm always said it in sort of a semi-serious “Oh, John was a good player, yeah, good player” kind of way, so I don’t know.

18. Norv Turner (San Diego): Here we are, barely even halfway through the list, and already we’re talking about backup college players. Turner was a three-year letterman at Oregon though if he’s known for anything there as a player it is for backing up a pretty decent quarterback named Dan Fouts.

19. Pete Carroll (Seattle): He played free safety at University of the Pacific and was good enough to win All-Conference honors.

20. Eric Mangini (Cleveland). He was a nose tackle at Wesleyan University, and it says that he holds the single season and career sack records there. I have no idea what to make of this information except that he was a better player than Bill Belichick.

21. John Harbaugh (Baltimore). He was a defensive back at Miami University, the cradle of coaches. The word I’ve heard is that he was a talented player who had his career slowed by a nasty knee injury.

22. Mike McCarthy (Green Bay). I’m not sure how good a tight end Mike McCarthy was at Baker University, but he certainly takes great pride in the school. He and the Packers have more than once made generous donations to Baker.

23. Jim Schwartz (Detroit): A story about Schwartz at Georgetown’s own Web Site does not go into any detail about how good a player he was … only that he “played linebacker.” Hmm. The story does say that he’s an avid chess player*, and he uses lots of statistics in his coaching.

24. Josh McDaniels (Denver). He played some quarterback and some wide receiver at John Carroll. Hard to find any information about how good a player he was.

25. Raheem Morris (Tampa Bay): He was a safety at Hofstra — that’s about all any of the bios about Morris say. No idea how much he played.

26. Tony Sparano (Miami): He did start at center for the University of New Haven … and the training center is named for him, though I suspect not because of his play. He was a successful coach at New Haven, twice coaching the team into the Division II playoffs.

27. Bill Belichick (New England): He played center and tight end at Wesleyan University. but football was probably not his best sport. He was captain of the lacrosse team his senior season.

28. Rex Ryan (New York Jets): He was a defense end at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Hard to tell how much or how well he and his twin brother Rob played, but apparently they raised enough hell that at least once their father, Buddy, was called to bail them out of jail.

29. Mike Shanahan (Washington): He was a quarterback at Eastern Illinois, but he suffered a horrible injury during the spring game — he ended up losing a kidney, doctors at the time said his life was in danger. He obviously never played again.

30. Brad Childress (Minnesota): Talk about eerie. Childress was a quarterback who transferred from Illinois to Eastern Illinois, though he never played a down at Eastern Illinois… because he suffered career-ending injury before the season began. That makes TWO NFL coaches who not only went to Eastern Illinois but had their careers ended by freak injuries.

31. Steve Spagnuolo (St. Louis): He was a starting wide receiver at Springfield College. Hard to tell how good a player he was, but he was a good enough student that he won the school’s male scholar-athlete award his senior year.

32. Todd Haley (Kansas City): He never played football — his connection to football was through his father, Dick Haley, who was one of the architects of the Steel Curtain Steelers of the 1970s. Dick Haley, it should be said, DID play in the NFL. Todd wanted to be a golf pro, and while there are no coaches who played FOOTBALL at the University of Miami, Todd did play golf at the U.

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Bunting on Mariano

You may or may not have noticed — I probably shouldn’t point this out in case you missed it — but I picked the Minnesota Twins to beat the New York Yankees in the ALDS. I had what seemed to me like solid reasons at the time: I really thought that the Twins would be tough to beat at home, and I thought the Yankees starting pitching problems after C.C. Sabathia would bite them.

More than that, I think I once again underestimated something, something I tend to forget until I see the Yankees play again. Then I remember. That something is this: The Yankees the last couple of years (I think) have put together one of the greatest postseason recipes in baseball history:

The recipe is this:

1 dominant starter

9 or 10 good-to-great hitters to wear down opponents.

1 Mariano Rivera

On the negative side, the ingredients will cost you a lot of money … you can’t even find them at Dean at Deluca. On the positive side, this recipe is so good I’m not even sure you need the dominant starter.

Friday, again, we saw how the Yankees win in the postseason. The Texas Rangers improbably built up a 5-0 lead against C.C. Sabathia and the Yankees, and the Rangers were at home, and the crowd was going crazy, and they STILL lost. Why? Well, they lost in part because Rangers kind of lost their minds. Manager Ron Washington went a little bit cuckoo in the eighth inning as he started throwing out relief pitchers the way a spurned lover throws clothes out a window (Washington used five pitchers in the eighth inning though none of the five happened to be his best reliever).* Ian Kinsler (unconvincingly playing the role of “tying run”) got picked off first by Kerry Wood in one of the more bizarre base running blunders of recent times. The Rangers players, as the air grew lighter and lighter, seemed to seize up, both at the plate and in the field. And so on.

*After the crazy eighth inning — when the Yankees scored five to take a 6-5 lead — announcer John Smoltz said one of the most curious things I’ve ever heard a baseball announcer say (and that is saying something). He was trying to make the point that the Rangers needed to put the bad inning behind them, realize that things weren’t dire, they were only down one run, they could still win the game. It was a good point to make: Don’t panic, don’t make too much of things. Only this is what he said:

“If someone had told the Rangers they would be down only one run in the eighth inning, they would have taken that.”

Huh? Or to be more specific: Huh? The Rangers would have taken being down a run to the Yankees in the eighth inning? Um, I don’t think so. I think it was just a misspeak to make the above point, but I think by saying it that way John actually made several other points that he didn’t want to make.

But it seems to me that the way teams continuously collapse against these Yankees in the postseason is no fluke and it’s no accident and it’s no coincidence. This is all part of the recipe. The Yankees bludgeon teams into mistakes the way Tiger Woods used to strangle major championships on Sundays. The Yankees FORCE teams to go out of character, force them to try absurd things, force them to believe that they had better be perfect or they don’t have a chance. The Yankees force it, and teams obligingly crumble.

The Yankees mostly do this with their lineup, their non-stop, no-break, every-inning-is-a-threat lineup — Jeter, Swisher, Teixeira, A-Rod, Cano, Thames or Berkman, Posada, Granderson, Gardner. You can start that lineup almost anywhere, and it’s still better than just about any other lineup in the league starting right at the top. When Posada makes the last out for an inning, for example, suddenly the lineup looks like so:








Thames or Berkman


Great lineup? Absolutely. No, Jeter is not really a No. 3 hitter at this point in his career — but he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and sure enough he smacked two doubles in the last two innings Friday night. But go ahead, play around with it … almost any combination of those nine hitters makes for a scary inning. Pitchers can work through three innings, five innings, seven innings, but sooner or later odds are that lineup is going to score runs, especially during that modern-baseball-era gap between the starter and the closer.*

*As I write these words, the Rangers have just taken a 5-0 lead over the Yankees in Saturday’s game. So, you could say that adding too much Phil Hughes could mess up the recipe. Then again, it’s only the third inning.

Here’s another way to think about it: Imagine your team, whatever your team is, down a run in the late innings. As a fan, you probably have a certain place in the lineup that you hope is coming up. If you’re a Rangers fan down a run, you probably would hope that Josh Hamilton, Vlad Guerrero, Nelson Cruz are coming up. Something like that. A Phillies fan would probably hope to get Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth up there. A Giants fan needs Aubrey Huff and Buster Posey. Even bad teams, say the Royals, would hope to get David DeJesus and Billy Butler to the plate.

But for the Yankees … it just doesn’t matter. Sure, they might want Teixera, A-Rod and Cano, but it’s certainly no problem if they get Posada, Granderson, Gardner, Jeter, Every inning they have the heart of the order up. They come crashing at you like waves hitting the shore.

Then, of course, if they have the lead in the ninth inning they send Mariano Rivera out there and that’s that. I don’t know how much stock to put into the Mariano Effect — that teams not only can’t hit Rivera but also try too hard in earlier innings because he’s always lurking — but I do suspect that Rivera plays on the mind. I’ve mentioned before that before the movie Gandhi came out, there was a real push in India to have him portrayed only by a ray of light, that he was too remarkable to be represented by a mere actor. With Rivera, I keep expecting a ray of light to come trotting in out of the bullpen.

So — a lineup that will eventually get you, the best postseason reliever in baseball history, and (as a bonus) a few hundred million dollars in starting pitching — I’m not sure why I keep underestimating the Yankees. Even now, as I look ahead, I think the Phillies have the best team in baseball, and that remarkable Phillies starting pitching could neutralize the Yankees recipe. I keep thinking that the Rangers, if they can just get Cliff Lee out there, would have a shot of winning this series in seven games. But, you know what? Until I see someone break this particular Yankees blueprint for postseason success, I should probably assume that no team can beat them over a seven-game series …

All of this was just supposed to be a prelude to my real question of the day which is this: Is it smart to sac bunt against Mariano Rivera?

I was thinking about this Friday night, of course, because the Rangers bunted. Man on first, nobody out, needing one run to tie, the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus got down a successful sacrifice bunt (with two strikes). The Rangers, of course, did not score the tying run, did not even manage to get the runner to third base. But that doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong.

My first thought was: Wrong. It has to be wrong. We all know how good Mariano Rivera is … just giving him an out, it seems to me, is like giving Usain Bolt a head start. The only thing you have against Rivera are your three outs … they are precious, they are rare, and you have to use them absolutely as well as you can. To give them up for one base seems to me a bad deal.

But … the more I thought about it, the more wisdom I got from wise people like Tom Tango, the more I realized that this topic is a lot more complicated than that.

First, let’s state the obvious: Giving up an out for a base, the vast majority of the time, is a lousy deal. This is why you don’t see it happen very often — there were only 1,500 or so sacrifice hits in more than 185,000 plate appearances this year.

The numbers change, but generally speaking (I have been toying with Tom Tango’s run calculator to come up with these numbers):

— With a runner on first and nobody out, a team will score about 42-44% of the time.

— With a runner on second and one out, a team will score about 40-42% of the time.

Of course, it depends on the quality of hitters coming up, the quality of pitcher on the mound and various other things, but in a mathematically precise world the gaining of second base and losing of an out DOES NOT give your team a better chance of scoring a run. At most, it’s a break-even. If anything, it gives you a lesser chance. And, beyond the “how often you score” issue, it DEFINITELY hurts “how much you score.” This is why the sac bunt drives so many of us crazy, especially in the early innings, especially when you waste a good hitter by bunting*.

*Interestingly enough, bunting a runner from second to third with nobody out — a move I very openly despise — DOES accomplish that one limited goal of scoring more often. A team with a runner on second and nobody out should score 59-61% of the time. But a team with a runner on third and one out score score 67-69% of the time.

Now, I still think this is a lousy move most of the time because your overall expected runs goes down — this relates to the classic line about how if you play for one run that’s what you’ll get. But if you are a manager who wants or needs that one run and only that one run, then it seems by the numbers I’ve run that in many, even most situations, bunting a runner from second to third isn’t as bad a play as I’ve always believed.

OK, so that’s the general bunting scenario. But what about a specific question like this one: Is it worth sac bunting against Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning, down one run, in a postseason game. One of the problems with answering this question is that people tend to oversimplify the sac bunt, tend to turn it into a two-part multiple choice issue: Bunt works, bunt doesn’t work.

But that’s not realitiy. There are several other possibilities — here are eight of the more common sac bunt possibilities:

1. The runner moves to second, batter’s out, sac bunt.

2. The runner is thrown out at second, batter’s safe at first.

3. The runner moves to second, batter’s safe at first (a single or an error).

4. The runner moves to third on bad throw, batter’s safe at first.

5. The runner is thrown out at second, batter’s out too, double play.

6. The runner stays at first, batter pops up bunt.

7. The batters fails to bunt on first two tries, hits away two strikes.

8. The batter fails to bunt on first two tries, bunts again foul, strikeout.

Any and all of these are possibilities and each has its own value. A speedy runner who could turn a sacrifice bunt into a single 20% of the time would change the whole formula. A bad bunter who will foul off the first two bunt chances 75% of the time would change the whole formula. And so on.

So let’s simplify the Rivera question even more — let’s make it this: is it worth it in the larger sense to give up an out to move a runner to second base against the best postseason closer ever? So for this we assume 100% success rate on the sacrifice bunt, and we also assume the batter is out 100% of the time.

As it turns out, Tom Tango put this EXACT table in The Book — a Mariano Rivera scoring distribution table. According to the table:

Runner on first nobody one: Team will score 37.4% of the time.

Runner on second one out: Team will score 36.2% of the time.

So that seems to settle things — your percentages go down. Only, maybe not: As Tom explains, the better the pitcher gets, the percentages get closer and closer until finally, at some point, they flip and you actually have a better chance of scoring with a runner on second and one out than you do with a runner on first and nobody out.

Tom’s Rivera chart refers to the 2007 version of Mariano Rivera, when he gave up 3.2 runs per game. It does not refer to his postseason work. In the postseason, Rivera has an 0.72 ERA in 137 innings of work. He has given up two unearned runs on top of that, so he has given up .85 runs per nine innings.

So, with Tom’s help — and by help I mean “Tom did this” — we calculated some percentages using Rivera’s numbers in the playoffs.

If you use Rivera’s exact postseason numbers — this is assuming he is and will be as good as he has been in the postseason — the math looks like this:

Runner on first nobody out: Team will score at least one run 21.8% of the time.

Runner on second, on out: Team will score at least one run 26.8% of the time.

Even if you tinker with the numbers, make Rivera a bit more hittable, the bunt still works out as a good play.

And there you go. It really does seem that if you need one run against Rivera you do have a better chance of doing it with a runner on second and one out than a runner on first with nobody out. Of course, it’s not that simple. How easy is it to bunt successfully against Rivera? Where are the Yankees playing? Who is coming up? And so on.

But I do think that in a game where Ron Washington made some, er, unusual moves, well, I think my initial reaction in the ninth inning was wrong and I think Washington probably made the right mathematical call by having Andrus bunt.

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The Night Of The Pitcher

Now, this little tidbit doesn’t mean much, but it’s a good place to start as we prepare for one of the most exciting pitching matchups in postseason baseball history, Saturday night’s game between Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay and San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum. I cannot begin to tell you how psyched I am for this game. Well, actually, I will tell you quite a bit about that.

But let’s start with this bit of obscurity …

There have only been nine postseason matchups ever between multiple Cy Young Award winners. They are as follows:

— 1966, World Series Game 2: Jim Palmer vs. Sandy Koufax.

Comment: What I did here was look for any match-up between pitchers who EVENTUALLY were multiple Cy Young winners. In 1966, Jim Palmer was only a rookie and it would be seven years before he won even his first Cy Young. Koufax, meanwhile, was fully formed, having just finished his last and perhaps greatest season. In other words, this game would only be seen as a great pitching match-up years later. And, so of course, it did not go at all like expected. Palmer flashed some of his future brilliance throwing a four-hit shutout while Koufax, not exactly helped by four of the six errors the Dodgers committed, was pulled after only six innings (and having allowed four runs, one of them earned).

— 1968, World Series Games 1 and 4: Bob Gibson vs. Denny McLain.

Comment: In this case, neither of the pitchers were multiple Cy Young winners while the Series was going on. Neither had won a single Cy Young yet. Gibson would win the 1968 award after the World Series and then win his second Cy Young in 1970. And while people tend to remember McLain for his 30-win season and the various legal troubles he had afterward, he did win back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 1968 and 1969. McLain at 25 had already won 114 games and two Cy Young Awards, pretty amazing.

Their match-up was wildly hyped in ’68, of course. Both had just come off seasons for the ages. McLain had won 30 and Gibson had finished with a 1.12 ERA. Anyway, both of their games turned out to be pretty terrible pitching matchups. In Game 1, Gibson had one of the most dominating performances in World Series history, he threw a shutout, and he struck out 17 which is still a World Series record. McLain, meanwhile, only lasted five innings and gave up three runs — walks to Roger Maris and Tim McCarver, back-to-back singles by Mike Shannon and Julian Javier, an error thrown in, and that was the end.

Game 4 was even more lopsided. Gibson allowed one run and struck out 10. McClain could not even get out of the third inning. Lou Brock, one of the great postseason performers by the way, led off the game with a homer off McLain. The Cardinals added an unearned run in the inning — that run coming on a McLain error — and then battered McLain in the third.

McLain came back to pitch a brilliant complete game in Game 6. And Gibson battled — and lost — the seventh game to the Tigers and the irrepressible Mickey Lolich.

— 1995, NL Division Series Game 4: Greg Maddux vs. Bret Saberhagen.

Comment: There wasn’t a lot of hype about this one because by 1995, Saberhagen was a shell of his younger self. He had won his second Cy Young way back in 1989, and though he had pitched reasonably well since then (he was terrific in the strike-shortened 1994 season for the Mets) he had not pitched a lot. Injuries had drained much of his young brilliance.

Maddux, meanwhile, was about to win his fourth straight Cy Young Award and was at the height of his powers. He would still have, I figure, four excellent seasons, and a handful of good ones, but he would never again have as good a year as he had in 1994 and 1995. Over those two seasons, Maddux was 35-8 with a 1.60 ERA, a 266 ERA+, 337 Ks to 54 walks, six shutouts, the master of everything. I have never enjoyed watching a pitcher more than I did Maddux in those years.

Neither pitcher threw well in this game. Maddux got rapped around a bit, allowing 10 hits, two homers and four runs in seven innings. Saberhagen got the worse of hit, lasting only four innings and giving up six runs, five of them earned.

— 1999 ALCS Game 3, Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens.

— 2003 ALCS Games 3 and 7, Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens.

These should have been the most anticipated pitching matchups in recent postseason history — perhaps the two most dominant pitchers of the era and two powerful personalities going at it — but for whatever reason I don’t remember them that way. Maybe it’s because none of the games turned out to be remarkable pitching duels.

The 1999 game turned into a joke and fast. Clemens lasted only two innings, he gave up a homer to John Valentin in the first, gave up a couple of doubles, a single and a walk in the second, got pulled after one batter in the third. Pedro, meanwhile, cruised for seven shutout innings, striking out 12.

The third game of the 2003 ALCS was better, but still hardly a classic. Pedro gave up four runs in seven innings — the Derek Jeter homer and Hideki Matsui’s run-scoring ground-rule double are what stand out — and Clemens gave up two runs in six innings. What I really remember about that game is what I tend to remember about many Yankees postseason triumphs: Mariano Rivera threw two perfect innings to close it out.

The seventh game of the 2003 ALCS is a classic, but only because everyone remembers Grady Little refusing to take out Pedro in the eighth and Aaron Boone’s 11th inning homer. It’s easy to forget — I DID forget — that Clemens actually started that game for the Yankees. He got pulled after three ineffective innings. Over his career, Roger Clemens had one of the greatest postseason performances ever — his 15 strikeouts, one-hit shutout against Seattle in the 2000 ALCS — and his two-hit, no-run performance against the Mets in the 2001 World Series was both controversial (throwing the bat toward Piazza) and indisputable. But he did start 32 other postseason games and throw 182 other postseason innings, and his ERA in those was 4.10.

— 2001 NLCS Game 1, Greg Maddux vs. Randy Johnson.

This could have — maybe even should have — become the Ali-Frazier pitching matchup of the era, two utterly dominant pitchers doing it two completely different ways. Unfortunately, this was the only time they matched up in the playoffs.

The game was indeed a bit of a pitching classic. The Diamondbacks scraped a run in the first helped along by a Marcus Giles error — it was not an unearned run, but the error clearly played a role. Craig Counsell singled, moved to third when Luis Gonzalez reached on the Giles error. Then Reggie Sanders singled in Counsell.

Counsell scored the Diamondbacks second run too, that was in the fifth when he doubled and scored on Gonzalez’s single.

That was it — two runs for Arizona. It was plenty. Unit threw a complete game, three-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts.

— 2001 NLCS Game 5, Tom Glavine vs. Randy Johnson.

Different multiple-Cy-Young winner for the Braves facing Unit, same story. Glavine was 35 by the time of this game, and though he would still have some good moments left, he was no longer quite as great as he had been. He allowed a run in the fourth, but the Braves tied it in the bottom of the inning when 498-year-old Julio Franco homered off Unit — the first run the Braves managed against Johnson. But as Braves fans will remember clearly, the next half inning Craig Counsell reached on an error, and pinch-hitter Erubiel Durazo homered off Glavine to give the Diamondbacks a lead that they would not lose.

OK, so that’s all of them. As you can see, these match-ups have been a mixed bag. If you want to go to the time before the Cy Young Award, yes, there certainly were some remarkable postseason pitching match-ups … you have Koufax against Whitey Ford, you have Lefty Grove against Burleigh Grimes, you have Lefty Gomez against Dizzy Dean, you have Christy Mathewson against Eddie Plank and so on. But the truth seems to be this: Two truly great pitchers, both in their prime, facing off in the postseason … it’s a rare, rare thing.

And we get it tomorrow night in Philadelphia.

At the moment, this is NOT YET a match-up of multiple-Cy Young winners. But it will be — Tim Lincecum has already won two Cy Youngs, and when the voting is announced in a few weeks we’ll get official confirmation that Roy Halladay will win his second Cy Young in 2010. It will be, I believe, the first ever matchup between last year’s Cy Young winner and this year’s.

And more than the awards, this is a matchup between perhaps the two most striking pitchers in the game. The best of rivalries — Ali-Frazier, Brady-Manning, Evert-Navratilova, Watson-Nicklaus, Magic-Bird, Sampras-Agassi, Tom-Jerry — offer something beyond ferocious competition, something beyond compelling games. They offer clashing styles, interlocking pieces, thrust-parry, point-counterpoint.

And here you go. Halladay personifies persistence, mind-numbing persistence, he pounds the strike zone again and again and again with similar pitches, a fastball that cuts and a cutter that’s fast, over and over, almost always on the inside corner or the outside corner, over and over, fastball and cutter three-quarters of the time, with an occasional change-up or curveball to throw a wrench into the machine and send the hitter’s body into convulsions. Halladay set a career high in strikeouts this year — he did throw his swing-and-miss change-up more than ever before — and he walked just THIRTY batters, and more than anything he kept on coming at hitters relentlessly. No starter in the game throws a heavier pitch; when you see how the ball thuds off the bat you would swear Halladay is throwing billiard balls. Boxing (like chess) has become more of an example than spectator sport — that is to say it’s more fun to compare stuff to boxing than to actually watch boxing — but it does seem true that Halladay works the body, scoring points and wearing down opponents with every pitch. He’s remarkable to watch because he’s so unremarkable to watch. He’s a master craftsman. He pitches older than his 33 years.

Tim Lincecum, meanwhile, personifies youth, excitement, genius. There’s nobody QUITE like him. There has never been anyone QUITE like him. He has that weird windup that inspired people to call him Freak, the mid-to-high 90s fastball that seems to be thrown out of a sling shot, the absurd curveball that at times still seems to move like one of those toy remote control helicopters, and the even more absurd change-up that flutters around erratically, even emotionally, like an 8-year-old child in Toys R Us. And, of course, he’s maintaining that skateboard-dude vibe (as an editor pointed out to me, he is kind of the spitting image of the skateboard bully Dolph from the Simpsons), and so you are never entirely sure what he’s going to do.

Halladay is a classic black and white movie starring someone like Humphrey Bogart — you could see him pitching in a tux.

Lincecum is a 3D comedy adventure starring Adam Sandler — you could see him pulling out a guitar and singing a funny song on the mound.

And this takes the match-up to new heights — I can never remember being so fired up for a postseason pitching duel. Of course, pitching duels can fizzle quickly — a bad early inning by either pitcher more or less ends the fun. But I don’t think this one will fizzle. They are both breathtakingly good, at the height of their powers, coming off legendary performances. The scene will be crazy in Philadelphia. Everything lines up.

And the beautiful thing is we could see the duel again in San Francisco. As I’ve written before, I never entirely bought into the idea that 2010 was “The Year of the Pitcher.” Go back and look at the numbers from 1968 … THAT was the year of the pitcher. There was plenty of offense this year. But Saturday should be the night of the pitcher. For a night, we might just go back to 1968.

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Sweeney: An Essay

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it all only matters because you tell yourself so.

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

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

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

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

It’s a beautiful morning!

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

And just smile!

That … is Mike Sweeney.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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32 Greatest Sports Calls

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

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The Baseball Playoffs

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

2010: Rays vs. Phillies

2009: Yankees vs. Dodgers

2008: Angels vs. Cubs

2007: Red Sox vs. Diamondbacks

2006: Yankees vs. Mets

2005: White Sox vs. Cardinals

2004: Yankees vs. Cardinals

2003: Yankees vs. Braves

2002: Yankees vs. Braves

2001: Mariners vs. Astros/Cardinals

2000: White Sox vs. Giants

1999: Yankees vs. Braves

1998: Yankees vs. Braves

1997: Orioles vs. Braves

1996: Indians vs. Braves

1995: Indians vs. Braves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since 1995 (expanded playoffs):

Better record: 55 wins.

Worse record: 47 wins.

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

Better record: 39 wins

Worse record: 32 wins.

From 1920-1968 (World Series only)

Better record: 24 wins.

Worse record: 22 wins.

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

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

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

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

1. The World Series.

2. Important pennant race games in late September.

3. Important pennant race games in early September.

4. League Championship Series games.

5. Important pennant race games in August.

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

7. Division Series games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for me: The baseball playoffs start now.

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Death to the BCS: A Eulogy (and update)

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

— Vizzini in “The Princess Bride

* **

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. They would not be eliminated with a playoff.

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

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

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

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

— Alabama

— Boise State

— Cincinnati

— Texas

— Texas Christian

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

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

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

— A 16-team playoff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Referring to where the extra money would go:

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

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Hancock: A BCS Defense

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Simpsons Baseball Edition

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nelson: Those are dudes!

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

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

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

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

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

Nerdy stat guy 1: As a pitcher Cliff Lee is CLEARLY superior to Zack Greinke.

Nerdy stat guy 2: Yes I completely agree with the following COLOSSAL exception: Before the fourth inning, after a road loss, in a domed stadium. Then it’s great to be Greinke!*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bart: “But I’m on a hot-streak.

Lisa: “Hot streaks are a statistical illusion.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marge: Think of Bart’s feelings!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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America The Beautiful

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

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