Chess

The other day, I had a moment of grace. Well, I don't know if it was grace, exactly, but it was something like that. Enlightenment, maybe? Illumination? (Where are the Minions?) It's a hard thing to describe but here's what happened: I was looking at the little chessboard on my phone -- I was in the middle of a random three-minute game against somebody or other.

And I saw it.

What did I see? Again, it’s hard to describe. I saw more than one thing if I’m being honest. The whole chessboard opened up to me. I saw geometry and possibilities and, yes, the future. I saw exactly what my opponent’s plan was, and how I was going to deflect it. I saw how my own plan was going to lead to an inescapable checkmate for the poor shlep on the other side of the internet. You know that scene in The Matrix where Neo starts seeing everything in code? That’s how I felt for the briefest of moments, and it was beautiful, I saw three moves ahead, four moves ahead, five moves ahead, and I moved my pieces quickly and with confidence, and everything went exactly as I had foreseen. The checkmate was as gorgeous as a sunset.

When you play online games at Chess.com, you can analyze afterward to see how accurate your moves were compared to the chess engine’s recommendations. In this game, my moves were body temperature accurate, 98.6%. I had played the game just about as well as it could be played. And I thought to myself, yes, I finally understand this game.

The next game, I hung my queen.

The game after that, I hung my queen.

And the game after that … I hung my queen again.

Hanging your queen means leaving your most powerful piece unguarded for no reason.

This is not a good thing.

I hate chess.


My father taught me chess when I was very young. My father was an excellent chess player in those days, a master-level player, in fact. I didn’t think much about it then because, being brutally honest, my father was good at everything in the world that I thought mattered — he was also a terrific bowler, a shooting gallery marksman, a superior cards player and a creditable sleight-of-hand magician. But chess was his truest love, and he once won some level of the Cleveland Open. He passed along the rules of chess to his sons. I do not remember a time when I did not know how chess pieces moved.

For a little while, I showed just enough interest that he would give me small lessons. I remember a delightful afternoon when he taught me how to mate with just a rook and king. It’s a laborious process that involves slowly and deliberately forcing the opponent’s king to an edge of the board and then getting the two kings to face off before bringing in the rook for the kill. Mating with a rook and king is one of the few life skills I have — it’s hard to think of many others. I am able to smoothly step onto a moving sidewalk, if that counts.

In any case, my interest in chess lasted exactly as long as my delusions of being a chess prodigy. Once it became clear that I did not see chess pieces on the ceiling and could not visualize the board while blindfolded, I left the game behind for other things I wasn’t much better at, stuff like baseball and tennis and dating.

Every now and again, though, I would feel a little chess twinge, and I would pick up a chess book to read or play a few games with friends. People in Kansas City might remember that, for a time almost two decades ago, I played a weekly chess match against Chiefs’ star-running back Priest Holmes. For me, the chess was secondary — I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to understand the mind of a great player at the height of his game. But since he beat me week after week, I tried (and failed) to get somewhat better. My problem was one of staying power. Time after time, I would get into potentially winning positions but Priest knew, with the certainty that lives within superior athletes, that soon or later I would make the blunder that would cost me the game.

And so it went.

“How good a chess player is Joe?” someone asked Priest at an autograph session.

“He’s a good player,” Priest said seriously. “But he chokes.”

True in chess. True in life. I sometimes think that those words should be on my tombstone.

When Holmes retired from football I retired from chess again. Nobody missed me. Once in a while, a friend would say something like, “Hey, we should play some chess.” But it never really happened.

Then, a few months ago, with seemingly all other interesting pandemic possibilities strained — piano lessons thudded again, my decision to read the entire Lord of the Rings series died on page 17, tennis elbow kicked in — I decided: You know what? I should make a serious effort to get good at chess. Why not, right?

So I started watching opening videos and I started following numerous chess streamers and I started reading chess books and I even started working with a chess coach.

And let me tell you: What I have learned from the experience.

I hate chess.


OK, I want to tell you about my favorite chess streamer, an International Master named Levy Rozman who goes by the handle “Gotham Chess.” I actually like several chess people — I subscribe to the Twitch channels of Daniel Naroditsky and Eric Rosen, and I engage on Twitter with the marvelous @chessmench, and I have actually bought merch from the world-renowned Agadmator, who begins every YouTube video with a cheery “Hello Everyone!”*

*That’s what the T-shirt says.

But Gotham Chess is my favorite for a couple of reasons, the main one being a series that he calls “Guess the ELO.” But before I get into that, I should tell you that chess streaming is WAY bigger than I ever thought. This, admittedly, is because until a few months ago, I didn’t even know that the chess streaming business even existed. I was vaguely aware that an American chess grandmaster and superstar named Hikaru Nakamura was trying to expand the popularity of chess, but I only knew this because, through a complete coincidence, I met Hikaru about 10 years ago when I was working on a story about, yes, Stan Musial.

You will ask: What the heck does Stan Musial have to do with Hikaru Nakamura and chess? Well, it’s not as weird as you would think: St. Louis, it seems, has become the chess capital of the country and one of the chess capitals of the world. It’s a thriving and bustling chess community that stars, among others, the delightful Eric Rosen who I mentioned earlier, one of the legends of American chess Ben Finegold, another legend of American chess Yasser Seirawan (who my father played many years ago), and various others. I guess the World Chess Hall of Fame is in St. Louis now too, though I have not yet formed any opinions on who should or should not be in there.

In any case, I was in a restaurant to interview Bob Gibson when I was introduced to Hikaru, who was super fun to talk with and explained some of his plans about making chess more popular. I think we exchanged numbers as I had this idea of doing a story on him, but that never happened, which I regret.

In any case, I was aware of Hikaru but I was unaware that he had made significant inroads in building chess. He has more than one million YouTube subscribers now and some of his videos will get several million hits. Incredibly, he is not alone. Agadmator has even more YouTube subscribers. Gotham Chess passes a million subscribers recently. And then there are any number of big-time chess streamers and content creators like Anna Rudolph and the Botez sisters and Qiyu Zhou and the Ginger GM and Magnus Carlsen himself and … I can’t get into all of them. This apparently was a pretty thriving community before the “Queen’s Gambit” was such a TV sensation, but it has definitively blown up in the months since then.

So what do these people do in their chess streams and videos? Well, you wouldn’t think it, but there are a lot of ways to make chess content fun for people who play. They can break down games between the greatest players, they can do instructional videos, they can play games live online. But it goes deeper. Take Eric Rosen. I began watching him mainly because he began teaching a remarkable strategy called the “Stafford Gambit.” Without getting too chessy on you, most people start their chess games by pushing the pawn in front of their king two spaces —e2 to e4 in chess notation. The opponent usually follows by pushing the king’s pawn two spaces as well.

Then white — in chess white always goes first — usually moves out its kingside knight to attack black’s pawn. Throughout history, I would say there have been billions of games that have begun with these three moves.

Well, what the Stafford Gambit does is allow white to take that pawn — that’s what a gambit is, it is all about sacrificing material in order to get an advantage elsewhere. The Stafford Gambit is particularly devastating if the player with the white pieces doesn’t know how to deal with it, and Eric Rosen has created numerous funny, charmingly goofy and thrillingly instructive videos on how to play the Stafford Gambit and utterly destroy an unprepared opponent. I have used the Stafford Gambit myself a few times online, and the feeling of crushing an unsuspecting player is — well, being honest I feel guilty how good it feels.

Point is that these chess streamers keep finding all sorts of new ways to make chess interesting, hilarious, joyful. These people are taking this ancient game with its archaic reputation and turning it upside down. I cannot begin to tell you how many hours I have spent watching chess content since I began my quest to become good at the game.

I also cannot begin to tell you how bad I still am at the game.

I hate chess.


OK, I want to tell you about my favorite guy, Levy Rozman, but first I should probably explain the chess coach thing. Several weeks ago, I saw a series of videos by chess grandmaster Eugene Perelshtyn called “Every Gambit Refuted.” It was really good — I mentioned the uncomfortable joy I felt when demolishing an opponent with the Stafford Gambit. Well, now imagine the other side, imagine what it feels like to GET demolished by some tricky gambit. So I watched Eugene’s videos to help prevent that from happening to me (with mixed success — I hate chess) and then I wrote to Eugene to ask if he would be willing to help me with my game.

Unfortunately, he was too busy to do that … but he offered me something even better. He told me that his father, Mikhail Perelshtyn, still teaches chess, and he would be available.

So I began having weekly video calls with Mikhail. It was wonderful. Mikhail has this joyful way of expressing his disapproval. We would go over the games I played, and after I make a terrible move that seemingly has no purpose whatsoever, he will give this little frown and say something like, “Why not knight like this?” and then he will show me the move I should have made … as if I was not a brain-dead sportswriter who had moved out of mental desperation but an international master who had simply been going back and forth between two sensible moves and chose the wrong one.

“Yes,” I would say. “The knight would have been better.”

“Right?” he would ask. “Knight move is better, yes?”

“Yes,” I would say again. “Moving the knight would have been better than blundering my queen there.”

“Good,” he would say, and we moved on to the next thing.

Mikhail has unquestionably made me a better player. He has helped me see the board more vividly (allowing moments of grace as I mentioned at the start). But what he didn’t tell me about chess — what I didn’t know at the start — is that the better you get in chess, the worse you get. This is because the more you understand chess the more ridiculous you feel when you screw up. When I began on this journey, I was only aware of roughly 5% of the mistakes I was making, so while the game made me feel stupid, it was only a surface kind of stupid.

I put rook where it taken.

I leave King where it heckmated.

I miss win by focusing on dumb thing.

But now, I’m aware of, maybe, 40% of my mistakes. Now, I can see that if I move this piece now, I will regret it in two or three moves. But then I move the piece anyway because I got distracted by some shiny opportunity. I’m better, no doubt, but I don’t feel better. I feel worse. Much worse.

I hate chess.


OK, so I don’t know Levy Rozman’s story beyond what I’ve seen on the internet. I do know he’s an International Master or IM — this is not quite a grandmaster, which is the highest FIDE* title, or super grandmaster, which is not an official title but is still used regularly for the very best players on earth. I know he grew up in New York — Gotham Chess is his handle, after all — and that he was something of a prodigy having become a National Master when he was 15 years old.

*FIDE is the International Chess Federation — the acronym is for the French Fédération Internationale des Échecs.

He does a lot of different kinds of chess content. He offers commentary on the top-level tournaments. He teaches different openings and strategies — I’ve bought a couple of his courses. He mixes chess and pop culture, like when he broke down the game Sherlock Holmes played against Professor Moriarity at the end of the Robert Downey Jr. movie. He exposes chess cheaters — those people who use computers to always play the best moves.

But my favorite thing, as mentioned, is this series called Guess the Elo. When you play on Chess.com — or, I suppose, other chess online places like lichess — you will after a while get an Elo rating. The rating was named after the physics professor Arpad Elo, who created the system for calculating such ratings.*

*For a while, Baseball-Reference used an Elo system to rank baseball players; that was a lot of fun. And soon — not to give anything away — I might be breaking out my own Elo system for a new project. More details to come.

In any case, here’s what Gotham does. He will ask his subscribers to submit games that they played. And then he will go through those games on video and, in the end, guess the Elo of the subscriber. So, he will guess if the player is rated 700 or 800 (which is more or less a beginner), rated 1100 or 1200 so (intermediate-range) maybe 1700 or 1800 (a truly excellent player) or above 2000 (really, really good).

But it is not the guessing — it is the way he goes through the games that has me absolutely hooked. Because the outrage he displays when he sees one of his subscribers make a mistake, well, it’s all-consuming.

“Boss!” he’ll shout. “Boss! What are you doing? Did you forget how pawns move?”

“Bro! Bro! What is that? I thought the whole point of you moving your bishop there was to take the rook. Why did you move your bishop there if you weren’t going to take the rook?”

“OK, I don’t know what that was but maybe chess isn’t for you. Checkers is better. The pieces all move the same. Maybe checkers is your game. Or maybe you should forget games altogether.”

I’ve been trying to think about why I love the guy so much. On the one hand, it’s easy — Gotham is very funny and his videos are filled with instructional nuggets that stick with me. But there might be something else, something that I suspect goes beyond chess. I think the reason I hate chess so much is that it never lets me forget just how limited I am, how dumb I am, how forgetful I am, how mistake-prone I am. In real life, you and I can pretend this stuff away. OK, I messed that up, I didn’t follow through on that, I forgot to do the other thing … so what? Life goes on.

But in chess, that mistake, well, that leads to checkmate. And there’s no looking away.

So Gotham’s faux rage when he sees mistakes on a chessboard — it is exactly the rage I feel when I screw up. I hear Gotham’s voice in my head. Boss, do you know how rooks move? Bro, did you think that was a good idea to trap your own king? My friend, maybe chess isn’t for you. Maybe Candyland is more your speed.

Every now and again — and it’s a rare, rare thing — the whole chessboard really does open up for me. It’s an amazing feeling. But the feeling ripens and goes bad faster than raspberries. Between paragraphs, here, I played an online game. I was playing pretty well too, I took an early advantage, I could see exactly the way I would win.

But then I hung my knight, which led to me hanging my rook, which led to me hanging checkmate.

“Boss,” I heard in my head, “did you forget that they are allowed to move their pieces too?”

I hate chess.

The Greatest Set of Tennis Ever

The word “ever” has been attached to the three of them for a long time now. Roger Federer was first to it, the first to be called the greatest ever. From Wimbledon 2004 to the Australian Open 2010, 19 grand slam tournaments in all, Fed reached the final in all but one. He won 12 of them. He was the all-time record holder for grand slam titles before he turned 29. There hadn’t been anything like that in modern tennis times.

Beyond numbers, though, there were the aesthetics. He was an artist at the net, a slugger with the forehand, a dancer at the baseline. He didn’t hit serves so much as he carved them, sculpted them, painted them, chiseled them.

The great ones — the Lavers, the Navratilovas, the McEnroes, the Everts, the Samprases — simply loved watching him play.

Rafael Nadal was next, and he proved a perfect foil for the perfect player. His game was all sweat and muscles and effort and topspin. If there was the slightest crack in Federer’s game it was in his one-handed backhand and Nadal pounded it relentlessly, sending buzzing topspin shots at it until Federer wilted. On clay, Federer didn’t stand a chance. No one did against Rafa. But even on grass and hardcourts — Fed’s home offices — Nadal began to make inroads, winning the classic 2008 Wimbledon final, winning the 2009 classic Australian Open final, setting up a stirring Ali-Frazier, Martina-Chrissie, Magic-Bird, Manning-Brady kind of rivalry.

Most of this happened before Novak Djokovic was fully operational. When he came on the scene in 2007 as a 20-year-old, he was an enigma. He didn’t look especially serious about anything. He was not in great shape, he retired from some matches, he often seemed unwilling to engage. But he was a tennis prodigy from the start, a counterpuncher who turned his opponent’s power inside out. He reached the U.S. Open Final that year (losing in three close sets to Federer), and he won the 2008 Australian Open. Still, he was little more than a bit character in the big tennis movie. Nobody saw 2011 coming.

In 2011, Djokovic blazed by Federer and Nadal. He has talked about it many times — Djoker became more serious about everything, he completely changed what he ate and how he worked out, he became the fittest player out there. Yes, there were times when the world did not seem ready for a third wheel getting in the middle of Federer-Nadal (and if there had to be a third wheel, the world seemed to prefer Andy Murray), but Djokovic belligerently kept throwing himself in there anyway, beating Nadal repeatedly, beating Federer on grass, becoming No. 1 in the world and staying there.

Because those three players so thoroughly dominated tennis — with one of them winning every single grand slam tournament between 2017 and last year’s weird U.S. Open — everything about them seems outsized. Ever. All-time. Tennis history. Each tournament brings another startling new achievement. Federer was the first man to 20 grand slam singles titles. Nadal became the second. Djokovic, always playing catch-up, got to 18, but did break the record for most weeks at No. 1.

And the best matches between them might be the best matches period — Nadal-Federer, 2008 Wimbledon … Federer-Djokovic, 2011 French Open … Djokovic-Nadal, 2012 Australian Open … Nadal-Djokovic, 2013 French Open … Djokovic-Nadal, 2018 Wimbledon … Djokovic-Federer, 2019 Wimbledon. You could write entire books about each and every one of them.

Friday, Nadal and Djokovic went at it again, 58th time, this one in Paris. No setup is required. Nadal has won 13 French Open titles. No one is close. On the Roland Garros clay, he had played Djokovic and Federer a total of 14 times, and he lost just once, to Djoker in 2015. And, it should be said, that one was somewhat tainted — Nadal was coming off an injury that had wrecked his body and he was not in form.

This time around, Nadal was in form — before dropping a set in the quarterfinal to the plucky Diego Schwartzman, he had won 34 French Open sets in a row, just shy of his own record. He responded to Schwartzman’s insolence by winning nine games in a row to put the match away.

Djokovic, meanwhile, seemed to bring a lot of emotional baggage with him into the match. It had only been a few months since he had faced Nadal in an odd October French Open final, and he had been obliterated 6-0, 6-2, 7-5. In all, he had not beaten Nadal on clay since 2016, when both men were still in their 20s. When Nadal took a 5-0 lead to start off the match, the inevitable seemed inevitable.

But Djokovic did something then that, I think, changed the complexion of the entire match. Rather than toss the set away to conserve energy for the fight ahead, Djokovic dug in. He held serve and then in, an epic game, broke Nadal. He held serve again, forcing Nadal to try again and serve out the first set. Nadal did serve it out in a tense game, but the entire story had flipped. Yes, the score was still 6-3, yes Nadal was still up a set (and, yes, Nadal basically NEVER loses a match when he wins the first set) but Djokovic had sent the clearest of messages: He would be here all day and all night.

The second set was joyous, back and forth, Djokovic getting the break, Nadal breaking back, Djokovic breaking again, epic points, drop shots on drop shots, overhead smashes returned with fire, one corner to the other, one end to the other, it was jaw-dropping stuff. Earlier in the day, two of the best young players in the world — Stephanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev — had played an entertaining five-set semifinal of their own, but that was simply a different brand of tennis, big serves, heavy winners, lots of errors, occasional brilliance, occasional breakdowns, it’s the sort of tennis the greatest mortals play.

But Djokovic and Nadal, they do not play like mortals. At their best, it does not seem possible to get a ball by them. At their best, they turn a losing position into a winner with one strike. At their best, they are tennis dementors, stealing all hope from their opponents. And what happens when a dementor plays a dementor? Djokovic was left standing, winning the second set 6-3.

And all of that was just a setup for the greatest set of tennis I’ve ever seen, the third set between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the semifinal of the 2021 French Open.

I don’t even know how you describe it — boxing probably offers the best analogy. There are moments in the greatest boxing matches ever fought when one fighter seems to be the conqueror and the other seems to be finished. Then, in an instant, the script flips, and the roles reverse, and the fighter who had been out lands ferocious punches and the fighter who had been conquering is wobbling and in trouble. And then, impossibly, the script flips again. And again. I think of the first round of Hagler-Hearns. I think of the 10th round of Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe. I think, of course, of the Thrilla in Manilla.

This was Djokovic-Nadal in that third set. It wasn’t just that match went back and forth, one break, another break, another break, another. It was that one player would hit a shot that simply defied belief — a Nadal crosscourt backhand on a ball that was already behind him, a Djokovic lob on a ball just inches off the ground, a Nadal forehand that seems to start two feet wide and then curved into the court, a Djokovic return of serve hotter than the serve itself — but it was how unfazed the other guy was by it. For much of the set, Djokovic did not make a single unforced error, but he still could not separate himself. For much of the set, Nadal would hit two, three, even four shots in a point that would be a winner against just about anybody else in the world but against Djokovic the ball would come back just the same.

It was simply heaven. If forced to pick one point to describe this set — and no one point ever could — it was when Djokovic led 3-2 but Nadal had a break point to even the set. Djokovic served and the two tested each other’s nerves with some high, loopy shots, the sort that nervous players will sometimes spray wide or long. But, again, that’s the stuff for mortals, neither of them was going to miss in this moment.

So Nadal cracked a crosscourt backhand that forced Djokovic all the way to the deuce corner. Djokovic responded by pounding a heavy forehand down the line, exactly what Nadal was hoping. He ranged over and unleashed a forehand into the other corner. Djokovic chased it down and hit crosscourt, again exactly what Nadal wanted. The setup was complete. Nadal unleashed the down-the-line forehand that for more than 15 years has put away every player on the planet, Djokovic included.

Only this time, Djokovic chased it down and desperately hit a squash shot — a slice forehand — that landed deep in the court. The point had been reset. Nadal’s backhand was a little bit short and now it was Djokovic’s turn, he unleashed his forehand at a short angle crosscourt. It too might have been the winning shot against someone else, but Nadal stretched and managed to slice a backhand back. Djokovic pounded and hit what was surely a winner, a crosscourt backhand deep into the corner. Nadal chased this one down too.

And only then was Djokovic able to hit the ball back into that same corner, wrong-footing Nadal, winning the point after 23 absurd shots.

That was this whole set. There was nothing to separate the players. Djokovic’s particular genius is his ability to become whatever kind of player the situation demands, so in this set, he turned up the topspin on his forehand and would not miss. Nadal’s particular genius is his fighting spirit and feel for hitting exactly the right shot at the right time, so in this set, he kept finding answers when he seemed down and out.

And then, I realize, I mischaracterize these two slightly when I say they are non-mortal or dementors — their humanity was certainly on display. They are not robots. Djokovic served for the set but missed a wide-open, middle-of-the-court forehand, the sort of shot he never misses. In the tiebreak, at the end of an extraordinary scramble point, Nadal missed a forehand volley, the sort of shot he never misses.

But mostly, this set was just played at such a high level that it was hard to comprehend — as if all the tennis played before, all the Lavers and Kings and Rosewalls and Everts and Borgs and Navratilovas and Ashes and Connors and McEnroes and Grafs and Lendls and Seleses and Agassis and Venuses and Samprases and Serenas and even Federers — was prologue. Djokovic served for the set but Nadal came up with ungodly winners to thwart him. Nadal had a set point and Djokovic unleashed a mind-boggling drop shot to stay alive.

In the end, Nadal’s missed volley in the tiebreak was decisive. Djokovic finished off the set with an ace and a steady rally and that put him up two sets to one. And Nadal was spent. Physically. Emotionally. I’d say physically mostly — he seemed to have some trouble with his ankle. The man is 35 years old and the two had played grueling tennis for four hours. Djokovic took the final set and will play Tsitsipas in the final.

There’s a lot to say about where this puts Djokovic on that imaginary greatest of all time list — he now has a chance to become the first player of the Open Era to win each grand slam twice, he would move to within one grand slam of Nadal and Djokovic with a seemingly brighter future ahead, he can now say that he has beaten all the greatest players of his era on the biggest stages and on their favorite surfaces.*

*Yes, he had beaten Nadal at the French Open before, but as mentioned, there were extenuating circumstances.

But we can save our Djokovic case for another day. This is a day to savor one golden set played by two of the best to ever take the court. Chris Evert, when asked what the movie title would be, tweeted this.

She tweeted that after the set. Because of how the match ended, I don’t know that the match itself qualifies for that … I think it would be one of the other great matches featuring Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. We have been so lucky to watch these three play tennis. We’ll never see anything like it again.

Osaka

Empathy is the toughest emotion, isn’t it? Yes, it’s fairly easy to empathize with people we naturally connect with. Show me a reasonably optimistic 50-something bald guy with a wife, two daughters, and a love of baseball, and there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be able to relate to his problems, his joys, his fears, and all the rest.

But now, show me a 23-year-old tennis genius who makes $50 million a year and has become one of sports’ leading activists for social justice and … maybe it’s hard for any of us to share exactly what she is feeling.

This the only explanation I have for why the Naomi Osaka story went off the rails first. I’m hopeful that maybe the tide has turned on that, hopeful that maybe now more people can see her. But first, there was the backlash. We live in a time when the backlash almost always comes first.

The whole thing began a week ago Monday when four-time major champion Naomi Osaka announced that she would not appear at any press conferences during the French Open, which is going on now in Paris. Osaka has since admitted that the statement was not worded particularly well:

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. … If the organizations think they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re going to be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”

This sounded to many like an attack on the French Open and sports journalists rather than what I think it really was … a cry for help. But we will get back to that: The immediate reaction was a furious blast, some people ripping Osaka for being soft and selfishly not supporting her sport and other people ripping tournaments and sports media having inane and unnecessary press conferences in the first place. Why should she answer dumb questions? What gives her the right to walk away from her responsibilities?

Naomi Osaka became a hot take because that seems to be what happens now, and the issue at the heart of things, her mental health, was essentially lost.

Every single person is different, of course, but I vividly remember in 2006 when Zack Greinke decided to walk away from baseball. He was roughly Osaka’s age and, though he wasn’t yet a star big-league pitcher — certainly wasn’t the global sensation that Osaka has become — he’d been surrounded by hype and expectation since he was 18 years old. He’d already developed a reputation for bluntness, quirkiness, flakiness, and it’s clear that nobody really understood what he was going through.

One day during spring training, he walked into an office with general manager Allard Baird and manager Buddy Bell and announced that he needed to leave. He needed to go home. He couldn’t deal with the baseball life.

Baird and Bell didn’t really understand — how could they? The social anxiety Greinke felt was not easily understood or explained. He said it didn’t affect him on the mound; sometimes Greinke thought like the only place in the world he felt OK was when he was on the pitchers’ mound. Social anxiety, social phobia, social withdrawal, depression, these are all different things, and they affect people differently. Baird and Bell are not psychologists; they readily admitted that they found it all confusing.

But they could see that Greinke had reached a breaking point.

He went home to work on himself. In that time, he considered quitting baseball and taking up professional golf. He considered quitting pitching and coming back as an everyday player — maybe, he thought, that would help. He has since admitted that he never expected to return.

He stayed away for months. The Royals, to their everlasting credit, tried only to be patient and supportive. In time, Greinke did return, and the team slowly brought him back, and then they put him in the bullpen so he could see more regular action, and Greinke worked on himself. In 2009, he had one of the greatest pitching seasons of the century. He has since become a Hall of Fame pitcher.

The connection I see here was that Greinke remade his baseball life so that he could thrive as an athlete and as a person. During that extraordinary 2009 season, Sports Illustrated wanted to put him on the cover. He refused to pose for a photograph.* When asked about winning the Cy Young, he said he’d rather not because it’s a big hassle. When asked about throwing a no-hitter, he said he’d rather not because it’s a big hassle. When asked about starting the All-Star game, he said he’d rather not because it’s a big hassle. I think “big hassle” is code. Greinke only does press when absolutely necessary, and he does them reluctantly and perfunctorily. This is how he copes.

*Which actually led, in my view, to one of the great covers in the magazine’s history, a brilliant photograph by the brilliant Robert Beck .. it is a photo from above and behind of Greinke toeing the rubber. You don’t see his face.

And I think this is what Naomi Osaka is trying to do. I think she’s looking for a way to cope with her life. She admits going through significant waves of depression since launching on the world stage as a 20-year-old when she won the U.S. Open. This isn’t easy to see; she is such an extraordinary player, she often flashes an enormous smile, she has been outspoken on issues that matter to her. But like with Greinke, there are signs that you can see in retrospect, such as this quote from her coach Sascha Baijin during her U.S. Open run in 2018:

“I thought she was a little more of a diva because she didn’t talk much. She doesn’t really look at someone’s eyes, but that’s because she was always so shy. She would just keep her head down a little bit, which is cute now. Back then I didn’t know for what reason. I feel bad for prejudging.”

When Osaka announced that she would not do press in Paris for her own mental health, the prejudging began again. Prima donna! The press is the worst! She owes us answers! The questions are worthless! The French Open shamefully threatened suspension. Other Grand Slam tournaments piled on. The very concept of the press conference was debated and mocked and defended and torn apart. That’s, admittedly, an easier and more fun thing to fight about than a heartfelt and difficult discussion about mental health. We all have opinions about the worth or worthlessness of press conferences.

But, that isn’t the story here. The story here is empathy. Maybe it doesn’t come easily or naturally. But Naomi Osaka is in pain. If that didn’t come through in her first statement, she expressed just a small part of it in her second, the one she released after withdrawing from the French Open.

Listen.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. … I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”

And now her announcement about skipping press conferences becomes clearer; she was trying to remake her life so she could cope. Like Greinke. Like countless others. It feels like only now after she left Paris, people begin to understand what’s at the core here. The French Open released a newer and more supportive statement, and the conversation, at last, turns to the obvious but still vitally important point that everyone, including the world’s most successful people, struggles with their mental well-being. It seems to me that as we hopefully come out of a worldwide pandemic, this conversation about mental health is more important than ever.

Yes, of course, there are still people who want to fight other fights, argue other points, yell about player responsibilities, talk about the questions that get asked at press conferences. We can discuss that at another time.

What matters now is that the tennis community does all it can to support Naomi Osaka, the player and the person.

A little personal news ...

So, Mike Schur and I just finished recording what will be the last PosCast we do for The Athletic. I realize looking at that sentence that it sounds much more ominous than I intend for it to sound … we’ve had a blast at The Athletic. I’ve had a blast at The Athletic. They’re good people. But I’ll be leaving The Athletic a bit later this summer and, as such, we’re taking the PosCast and I’m taking my writing to new lands.

I hesitated to tell you this for a couple of reasons. One, the natural and reasonable question to ask is: "Why are you leaving The Athletic?” And it’s a particularly reasonable question to ask when a person has bounced around the way I have the last few years. Am I just Larry Brown?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer that wouldn’t bore you to tears. What I can say is that we are living through a particularly baffling and volatile time in media. Stuff is constantly changing, opportunities open and close at venus fly trap speeds, and we’re all just doing the best we can. I’ve been one of the lucky ones. The Athletic made me a kind offer to stay, but it isn’t the right offer for me at this moment in my life.

The second question is: Now what? And that one’s tougher because there are things in the works that I can’t talk about yet. I can tell you that I’m super excited about what’s coming, and I promise to let you know as soon as things become official. I hope you’ll be at least a little bit excited about it too. I’m hoping it will be really great.

I can honestly tell you that every day I take a moment to be thankful about my extraordinarily fortunate life. I have no earthly idea how the underachieving son of immigrants ended up traveling the world and writing about the greatest athletes of our time and being connected to so many remarkable people. “Bubba,” the great columnist Ken Burger used to say to me, “we are living the life, aren’t we?”

Yes we are. Thank you again for reading. More to come.

The Willie Mays Hall of Fame (Redux)

The best player in baseball history turns 90 today, Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid, the player who blended speed and power and joy and poetry and enthusiasm like no one else. A few years ago — well, wow, it’s probably a decade ago now — I wrote something I called “The Willie Mays Hall of Fame.” People still mention it to me pretty often. So in honor of the man and his 90th birthday, I thought it might be a good idea to update and rerun it here today.

Happy birthday, Say Hey Kid.


I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have received an email or text or tweet or actual conversation starter that goes something like: "Willie Mays -- now THAT is a Hall of Famer.”

This usually follows when I make a pitch for someone — say, Luis Tiant or Minnie Miñoso or Lou Whitaker or Dwight Evans or Dan Quisenberry or any number of others — to be considered for the Hall of Fame. The reflex response from many is that those people do not FEEL like Hall of Famers somehow. The Hall of Fame, they insist, is Willie Mays! Was Scott Rolen as good as Willie Mays? Obviously not. Case closed.

The reality, of course, is very different. I imagine that the average baseball fan — even people who would consider themselves to be somewhat passionate baseball fans — would know barely half of the people in the Hall of Fame. For every Ruth there is a Kelly, for every Mantle there’s a Lindstrom, for every Collins you’ve heard of there’s a Collins you have not heard of, for every Aaron there’s a Schalk, for every Satchel there’s a Bancroft.

But it is is no crime to romanticize the Hall of Fame. In fact, it’s almost required. People want to believe in a Hall of Fame where the standard is Willie Mays.

So that’s my mission: To create the Willie Mays Hall of Fame.

To get in, a player:

1. Has to achieve a consensus of greatness. I like those words. Could make for a good book title: "Consensus of Greatness." The player had to be viewed as an all-time great by the majority of people, more, the VAST majority of people. This is by far our No. 1 goal here, to find those people who are viewed as legends.

2. Has to be so good that there's no one precisely comparable. This is very important. One of the most annoying parts of the Hall of Fame to those people who want it reduced to the core is that people keep saying: "Well if Bill Mazeroski is in the Hall of Fame the n Frank White has a case to be in there" or "Well if Catfish Hunter is in the Hall of Fame then Luis Tiant has a case to be in there." The truth of these statements seems to annoy the hell out of them. They would rather Maz and Catfish were OUT rather than putting other people IN. So, we need players without annoying comps.

3. Should pass what Tom Verducci calls "the eyeball" test. We're talking gut feeling here.

4. Had to be in the same league with Willie Mays as an all-around ballplayer.

And here we go.

First thing we do is eliminate everyone who was not a first-ballot Hall of Famer. There officially have been 57 first-ballot Hall of Famers. This does not include Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott, Rogers Hornsby or Carl Hubbell who, were not voted in on their first ballot appearance. The voting rules were different then. I’ll include those four to make it 61 players who we are considering here.

Now, it should be said that this list of 61 excludes many, many, many great players -- including a great player like Arky Vaughn who was actually NEVER voted in by the writers. Vaughan might be the second-greatest hitting shortstop in baseball history, behind only Honus Wagner. His omission by the writers -- he never got more than 29% -- is one of the real black marks on our voting record (I say "our record" though Vaughan was off the ballot the year after I was born — like it’s MY fault.

Lefty Grove is another black mark -- guy has a powerful case as the greatest pitcher who ever lived, and he got in on fourth ballot . There were some extenuating circumstances but this is the Willie Mays Hall of Fame so he’s out. So is Yogi Berra — more on him in a minute -- did not get in first ballot either.

Remember, we're not exactly trying to build a Hall of Fame of the BEST players by any statistical measure or any historical standard. We're trying to build a consensus Hall of Fame, a Hall where every member in it would be widely viewed as a true Hall of Famer. We're shooting for a 90 to 95% approval rating here. For that, we can only have the first-ballot Hall of Famers.

So we start with those 61 players (a list that does not include Roberto Alomar since the voters had to get in their "tsk tsk" for the spitting incident and not vote him in until the second ballot). That means we have already cut out 243 people! We are off to a roaring start.

But 61, I would say, is WAY too many for this kind of Hall of Fame. The 61, for instance, includes Kirby Puckett. And there's way too much controversy about Puckett because of his short career and because some view him as pretty wildly overrated and because he inspires way too many Don Mattingly comparisons. He's obviously out.

So, there are a couple of ways to cut out all the Pucketts. One is to not only choose first ballot Hall of Famers, but resounding first-ballot Hall of Famers. That is to say, we're looking for those players who received a vast majority of the vote. Let's say minimum 85-90%. We'll have to massage this a little bit, as you will see, but this is a good way to start cutting out some people.

Mel Ott is already out -- his first ballot credentials were shaky to start with. He didn't get in until his third ballot. Not good enough. Robin Yount is out. More than 100 writers did not vote for him. Can't have it. Lou Brock (80 no-votes) is out. Ivan Rodriguez (106 no-votes), Roy Halladay (99), John Smoltz (94), Frank Thomas (93), Kirby Puckett (92), Dennis Eckersley (85), Roy Halladay Dave Winfield (80), Willie McCovey (79), Paul Molitor (75), Willie Stargell (75), Eddie Murray (73), they are all out.

But by eliminating players who did not get resounding vote totals, we have a few challenges.

-- Jackie Robinson received only 77.5% of the vote. I'm going to assume that most of the 36 people who did not vote for him were, let’s just say, not worldly baseball scholars.

-- Eighty-one people did not vote for Joe Morgan. I'm not exactly sure why Morgan should get an exemption that the players above did not get ... but I also have this gut feeling (and this is the Hall for gut feeling) that people DO consider Morgan an inner-circle, no-doubter, 95% approval rating Hall of Famer. I think the reason he didn't get a higher percentage of the vote is because voters then put way too much stock in batting average and looked at his .271 career batting average and said: "I don’t care that he walked a billion times" Plus I wrote a book about the 1975 Reds, so maybe I’m just going soft. I'm going to keep Morgan on the list for now, but he's teetering.

-- Rogers Hornsby is widely viewed now as one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, but he had a very shaky Hall of Fame election experience. He did not make it until his fifth ballot, though admittedly he was still playing (barely) for the first two votes, and had only just retired the second two (which is why I still qualify him as a first-ballot guy). HOWEVER, the thing I cannot overlook is that he still only got 78.1% of the vote when he actually made it in. Fifty-one of the 233 writers did not vote for him.

I don't know about you -- but I never saw Rogers Hornsby play. I take his greatness on faith, based on the remarkable statistics I've seen and the stories I've read and the research I've done. But more than 20% of the people who saw Hornsby play did not vote him into the Hall of Fame his FIFTH TIME ON THE BALLOT. Rogers is out. And, anyway, he was a jerk.

-- There are four others players who did not get 85% of the vote. I want to keep all four of them on for the same reason I want to keep Morgan on because I have this gut feeling that people do view them as all-time, inner circle guys. They are:

Bob Gibson (84%) Walter Johnson (83.6%) Ernie Banks (83.8%) Warren Spahn (83.2%)

Unfortunately, I can't keep on all four. We still have some trimming to do, and this is basic stuff getting a massive majority of the writer's vote. Walter Johnson gets to stay because his 83.6% was actually achieved in the first year of Hall of Fame voting, when -- as you might imagine -- there was a rather crowded ballot. And for now, Bob Gibson gets to stay too because I suspect none of the 64 people who did not vote for him would publicly admit it. Banks and Spahn, sadly, don't make the cut because I can't think of a good enough reason to keep them on. Hey, you want a Willie Mays Hall of Fame, you have to make some vicious choices.

So now we're down to 48.

Now, we try to eliminate the comps problem. What we want to do here is drop all the players who create comparison player headaches. For instance: Tony Gwynn is one of our 48. Well, Gwynn's contemporary Tim Raines reached base more times than Gwynn in almost precisely the same number of at-bats, and he was one of the two or three greatest base stealers in baseball history. When it comes to value, Raines' peak was probably higher and even over a career it was about as high. Well, you can see the chart for yourself.

In the old days, you could argue: "Yeah but Gwynn hit .338 for his career while Raines only hit .294" but even the most stubborn and crotchety "The Hall is way too big" zealots are beginning to understand the absurdity of measuring a player by batting average. There just seems very little separating Gwynn and Raines as players. This means Tony Gwynn has to go.

Ozzie Smith may have been the greatest defensive shortstop in baseball history. But he already is encouraging too many Omar Vizquel fans, and so he's out.

Brooks Robinson is a very tricky case. Everyone loves Brooks Robinson, as well they should. He's one of my fathers two or three favorite players, and so one of mine. But, let's not kid anybody: He really was a subpar hitter for much of his career. His career numbers of .267/.322/.401 are kind of an eyesore as is his career 104 OPS+. Of course, he was a marvelous defensive third baseman -- most would argue he was the greatest defensive third baseman ever. But we can't have all the great defensive third baseman lobbyists -- the Graig Nettles lobbyists, the Clete Boyer lobbyists, the Billy Cox lobbyists -- hammering on our door. Brooks is out.

Carl Hubbell has kind of been holding on for dear life for a little while now. He did not, technically, make it into Cooperstown on his first ballot. He survived that round because we were being very liberal with our definition of "first ballot," but, no, I don't think he's going to make it this round. His career record was 253-154 with a 2.98 ERA. He had three great years, three or four more very good years. He finished out the career 83-60 with a 3.45 ERA his last seven years. But here's the big problem: His No. 1 comps are Juan Marichal (who did not get in first ballot), someone named Charlie Buffington and a deadball era pitcher called Iron Joe McGinnity. Sorry Carl.

Jim Palmer's No. 1 comp? The barely survived Bob Gibson. Bob Gibson's No. 1 comp? Jim Palmer. Are these two trying to sneak into the Willie Mays Hall of Fame together? Gibson's No. 2 comp is Jack Morris, and Morris appears on Palmer's comp list as well, and though Morris has a bizarre level of support among the supposed "Willie Mays Hall" type people, it's not anywhere near the level of support that we are talking about here. If Jack Morris is on your comp list, you are out. That means Palmer and Gibson are out*. And alas they’re going to have to take Tom Glavine with them, which is a shame because Glavine is one of my all-time favorite players and people.

*There is an exception to this rule -- the War Exemption. Because Jack Morris also appears on Bob Feller's comp list. But Feller missed three years during World War II and so remains on our list.

Eddie Mathews is causing us some major problems here. Here's why: Mathews is not on our list. The writers did not vote him in until his fifth ballot -- that means he clearly falls way, way, way below our standard of entry. But Mathews is the highest-rated comp on three of our remaining players: Mike Schmidt (a 920 similarity score), George Brett (an 854 similarity score) and Mickey Mantle (also an 854 similarity -- shouldn't this make Brett and Mantle, like identical twins?). This is problematic because we do not want Eddie Mathews fans shouting about how he belongs in our Hall when we so clearly know he does not. So ... Schmidt and Brett are out. We hate to lose 'em -- because if they’re out then Chipper Jones is out too. This means we will not have a third baseman in our Hall. But you know, third base is kind of a minor position anyway, right? I mean, if they could play defense, they'd be shortstops.

Sammy Sosa is causing equally difficult conundrums. Obviously, Sammy Sosa is not in the Hall of Fame, certainly not in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame, and yet he is the No. 1 comp of Jim Thome. He’s also on the comp list with Ken Griffey Jr. We’ll keep Junior on here for now, but Thome, alas, is gone.

Christy Mathewson's 905 similarity score to the Pete Alexander disqualifies him -- Alexander did not get into Cooperstown until third ballot and he was an alcoholic and if he threw anything like Ronald Reagan, who played him in the movie, then he couldn't have been very good at all. Christy Mathewson is out.

What to do about Sandy Koufax? His No. 1 comp is Ron Guidry who is CLEARLY not going into the Willie Mays Hall of Fame since he's not even in the liberal Hall of Fame. But it's also true that Koufax's peak was much higher than Guidry's, and was, in fact, one of the best peaks in baseball history. And Koufax scores like a 1,048,384 on the gut factor, many people would argue he's the greatest pitcher of all time. But that Guidry comp makes it tough. And while some see his retirement at 30 because of arm troubles as sad, another way to look at it is that he didn't last long enough. He's out.

But if Koufax is out, then what do we do with Pedro Martinez? He was the greatest pitcher I ever saw, but isn’t his Hall of Fame case basically the Sand Koufax case, that he was dominant for a too-short period of time? Remembering that this is the Willie Mays Hall of Fame, and one of the things that Willie Mays WILLIE MAYS is that he was so good for so long. I guess Pedro’s out too.

Reggie Jackson has the three-homer World Series game, and he was undoubtedly one of the bright lights of his era, and he had the candy bar named for him. But his No. 1 comp is Gary Sheffield. I don't think I need to say anything more. He's out.

I have no idea how Steve Carlton lasted this long, by the way. His No. 1 comp is Don Sutton which, obviously, means immediate banishment.

Al Kaline's No. 1 comp? Harold Baines. Gone. ... Carl Yastrzemski's No. 1 comp? Dave Winfield. Didn't we just eliminate Dave Winfield? I can’t even remember anymore. Yaz gone. And take Cal Ripken with you since his No. 1 comp is also Dave Winfield. ... Joe Morgan, I stayed with you as long as I could. I really wanted you in there. But your No. 1 comp? Lou Whitaker? Do you know what Lou Whitaker did on his one Hall of Fame ballot? Sorry. Gone. ...

Joe DiMaggio is lucky he has the war exemption because he was not elected first-ballot AND his No. 1 comp is Larry Walker. He’s just begging to be booted.

Robert Clemente. Oh, man, this is a tough one. Clemente obviously was not only a great player, but he was also a hero and one of the great forces for good in baseball history. On the other hand his No. 1 comp is the so-clearly-not-Willie-Mays-great Zack Wheat. There is a great debate about Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline, which one was the better player. I suppose that argument should be held outside the Willie Mays Hall of Fame because Kaline has already been pushed out. Sorry Roberto. Usted esta fuera.*

*Four years of Spanish talking ... there is absolutely NO DOUBT I got that wrong.

One more -- this is the trickiest one of all, I think. Johnny Bench. He is similar to Yogi Berra, who did not make it into Cooperstown on his first ballot which suggests that the writers did not see Yogi as a slam-dunk, no-doubt Hall of Famer. Of course, this could just be because the writers had lost their minds. Many people -- Bill James included -- think Yogi Berra was actually the greatest catcher of all time, and he's one of the two or three most famous wordsmiths in the history of the game. So having Yogi Berra as a comp shouldn't mean immediate expulsion. That said, if Yogi Berra is out -- as he must be -- then I don't see how we can keep Johnny Bench in.

OK, the players remaining are unique enough, I think, that we can generally avoid the "Well, if he's in, then he should be in" kind of arguments. Now comes the second-toughest test of all -- the gut test. I can tell you that right away Rod Carew and Wade Boggs are out. Fine players. But there is no way that the gut has them as Willie Mays Hall of Famers. Out.

I've got to be honest with you ... I'm not too comfortable with Honus Wagner being in the Willie Mays Hall. Sure, he was an amazing player in his time, and a great person, and all that. But the guy began his career in the 1890s. Baseball wasn't even baseball then. He began playing before shinguards, before the sacrifice fly, before the baseball had a cork center, when baseball gloves were about as useful as raw steaks. Sure, he dominated his time, but baseball's nothing like that now. Put up an exhibit of him in the museum. But as for Willie Mays Hall? He's out.

And, you know, Walter Johnson has similar issues. He started in 1907 and pitched most of his time in the Deadball Era which, well, look at the name of the era: "Deadball." He was super great for his time. So was Johnny Weissmuller. He's out.

I don't know what to do with Nolan Ryan because no one knows what to do with Ryan -- he was great fun to watch, and he undoubtedly threw a ball as hard as anyone, and he had all those strikeouts and no-hitters and all. But he also had all those walks and wild pitches. He's the most unhittable pitcher who ever lived, and his ERA was a bland 3.12 and his .526 winning percentage is kind of brutal and, back to the walks, he walked almost ONE THOUSAND more batters than any man who ever lived. He is, I feel certain, the most unique pitcher of all-time. But is he truly one of the best? There's too much static here. He's out.

Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson. They were nothing alike, and yet you look at their careers and see kind of a mirror-imagine thing going. Both 300-game winners. Both won many, many Cy Youngs. Both led the league in ERA and wins many times. Both dominated in a great offensive era. But you know what? I think you could argue that Roger Clemens is better than both of them.

Roger Clemens is not in the Hall of Fame and we don’t need that sort of mess around the WIllie Mays Hall of Fame.

They’re both out.

Now, we have to look hard at the war guys -- lower case "war" -- Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller. There is no question they were both great when they played. And then they served our country with distinction during World War II -- during which time they lost prime years of their careers. Had Feller pitched, he might have won 100 more games. Had DIMaggio played, he might have reached 3,000 hits and won a total of five or six MVP awards. But we are dealing with the world of imagination now. They also might have gotten hurt and not been able to complete their careers. If we are to assume one thing, what is to prevent us from assuming the other? It hurts to say it but we must judge their careers on what they did and their careers were not very long and ... they're both out.

And then ... Jackie Robinson. He's the most important figure in baseball history. He's one of the most important American figures of the 20th Century, I believe. Former Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson used to include a quote on the bottom of his emails from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Jackie Robinson made it possible for me in the first place. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did."

That said, the Willie Mays Hall of Fame is more interested in finding players who were as great as Willie Mays. And while I overlooked Robinson's low Hall of Fame vote total and overlooked that his No. 1 comp was someone named George Grantham and tried to give him as much credit as I could being, you know, one of the most important reasons Willie Mays got to play in the Major Leagues, well, he was not quite as good as Joe Morgan or Rogers Hornsby, and neither of them is in. So Jackie Robinson is out.

OK, has been fun and ... oh, wait. We just knocked Bob Feller out, didn't we? Well, Tom Seaver's No. 1 comp is Bob Feller -- and not only that, they have a stunning 988 similarity score. They're almost identical. If Feller is out, Seaver has to be out too.

So, finally, we are down to the 11 players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame. And they are ...

Hold on. I forgot something. Let me go back up and look ... oh yeah. I forgot the fourth qualification for the Willie Mays Hall. They have to be in Willie Mays' league as players. Well, that's going to be tough, isn't it?

Ted Williams couldn't field or run with Willie. He's out.

Stan Musial couldn't field or run with Willie. He's out.

Ken Griffey Jr. was great at his peak, no question, but after age 30 he hit .262/.355/.493 and had to be moved from center field. That’s not Willie Mays.

Frank Robinson was a terrific player. But he wasn't quite as good as Willie Mays in just about anything.

Lou Gehrig. Iron Horse. Great player. Great man. But the standard is Willie Mays. Gehrig played first base, and he wasn't fast.

Mickey Mantle ... how did he get through with Eddie Mathews as his No. 1 comp? Oh yeah: The Seinfeld Exemption — the fact that George wanted to name a baby “Seven” after Mantle. Also Bob Costas still carries a Mickey Mantle baseball card with him. Mantle was the fastest thing anyone had ever seen before he hurt his knee. But he did hurt his knee, and after that he could not run or field with Willie Mays. He also did not endure like Mays, who was still a great player at 37 and 38. Those late nights got him. He’s out.

Rickey Henderson had a different kind of greatness from Mays. But different, in this case, doesn't help him. He didn't have Mays' power or his batting ability and he certainly didn't play centerfield like Mays.

And we are down to four. The four players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame are ...

Babe Ruth ... though now that you mention it, there are persuasive reports that Ruth corked his bat throughout his career. It is true that some science has shown that corking the bat does not really make any kind of difference. But ... cheating is cheating.

OK, so, make it three. The three players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame are ...

Ty Cobb ... oh, come on, how did he get in here? Are you kidding me? We're really going to have a controversial guy like Ty Cobb who at one point in his career was charged with being involved in a gambling scandal in the WILLIE MAYS HALL OF FAME? No. We're not.

OK, so, make it two. The two players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame are ...

Henry Aaron. He was, as the line goes, Willie Mays without having his cap fly off. Of course, he also did not play center field like Mays. And, now that you mention it, he has actually admitted using amphetamines once when they were vaguely against the rules of baseball and …

Well, it ends where it had to end. The one player in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame is ...

Willie Mays.

So, congratulations to Willie for ... what's that? Willie also may have used amphetamines? But there's no real proof and ... what's that you say? Mays was once suspended from baseball after his playing days for his involvement at a casino? And Mays was on the 1951 Giants team that, it has been proven, rigged up some sort of sign-stealing system that undoubtedly helped them come back and win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant? And he didn't turn himself in? He didn't turn in any of his teammates?

Ah well. Come visit the Willie Mays Baseball Hall of Fame. It is in a desk drawer in my office.

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