Monday, July 28, 2008

Gossage is Finally a HoFer but the Hall Still Refuses to Properly Honor Buck O'Neil

On Sunday, the Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed six new members: Barney Dreyfuss (Pirates owner who helped create the World Series), Bowie Kuhn (MLB Commissioner, 1969-84), Walter O'Malley (Dodgers owner whose team won four World Series championships and 11 NL pennants), Billy Southworth (St. Louis manager won two World Series championships), Dick Williams (Oakland manager won two World Series championships, later became second skipper to guide three different franchises to the World Series) and ace reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage, who finally received this much overdue honor. As Tom Paciorek once said after facing Gossage in his prime, "You need a cape to face Gossage, not a baseball bat."

It took the voters nine times to do something that they should have done as soon as Gossage became eligible. I've never understood the Byzantine set of unwritten rules that govern Hall of Fame elections, particularly with baseball but in other sports as well: certain guys are deemed worthy but not "first ballot worthy," other players receive virtually no consideration initially but then their candidacies mysteriously gain ground over the years even though their statistics have obviously not changed and other people who clearly belong in the Hall simply never receive enough votes. In this context it must also be mentioned that the Baseball Hall of Fame changed its rules after Pete Rose's lifetime ban specifically to keep Rose--a first ballot Hall of Famer if there ever was one--out of a shrine that is filled with mementos denoting his numerous achievements (people on MLB's banned list were not barred from being on the HoF ballot until after MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti excommunicated Rose from the sport).

I could document all the reasons that Gossage should have been inducted nearly a decade ago but the great William Nack--longtime writer for Sports Illustrated--beat me to it with a wonderfully descriptive article that is based on some firsthand reporting that Nack did during Gossage's prime. You really should read the entire thing but here is a taste to whet your appetite:

"No pitcher in the modern era brought a more palpable aura of menace to his work. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, drooping handlebar mustache and all, his eyes as big as pie tins, Gossage would turn his back to batters as he wound up--actually facing toward left field and showing them his number--then explode towards home plate in a tangle of arms and legs, like a man falling out of a tree, hiding the ball until it finally came spinning out of the pinstriped blur. It's no surprise many opposing hitters would wonder, does he have any idea where this pitch is going? And then, discreetly, step to the back of the batter's box."

On October 2, 1978, Gossage's New York Yankees faced the Boston Red Sox in a one game playoff to decide the AL East title. The Yankees led 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs and two men on base when another Hall of Famer, Carl Yastrzemski, stepped into the batter's box to face Gossage, who had literally dreamed about such a matchup: "I went to bed the night before thinking about coming into the game, and I thought I might be facing Yaz with the game on the line. I thought about facing him because he was such a great clutch hitter...It might have been the biggest game of my life."

Gossage induced Yaz to pop up and Nack, who was seated behind home plate, vividly describes the scene: "That they could preserve that moment, in a diorama under glass, in some small corner at Cooperstown--the roaring crowd going instantly silent, as if cut off by a switch. Nearly 33,000 horrified faces looking up, all mouths open. The ball seeming to rise forever, hanging like a blue moon over Fenway, before plunging like an arrow into the heart of...Graig Nettles' glove."

Nack recounts that Gossage was so unhittable that sometimes his catcher would not even try to hide the signs, blatantly letting the batter know that a fastball was coming. It wasn't like there was anything anybody could do about it; Gossage sometimes struck out the side on just 10 or 11 pitches. Closers often work just one inning now but 193 of Gossage's 310 career saves required more than three outs. Nack concludes, "Of the big closers who preceded him to the Hall, including Rollie Fingers (341 saves) and Bruce Sutter (300 saves), Gossage was by far the most fearsome and intimidating, the guy you'd really want facing Yaz in the bottom of the ninth."

At least Gossage finally has been inducted and he lived long enough to enjoy this special day; the great Buck O'Neil passed away and the Hall still has not rectified the injustice that it did to him. O'Neil played 12 seasons in the Negro Leagues and also won multiple Negro League championships as a manager. Statistics from that era are not always reliable but if there was any question about whether his playing credentials earned him induction in the Hall of Fame then his decades-long service as a great ambassador for the sport--including his pivotal role in the creation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City--should have sealed the deal without question. He played an instrumental role in prodding the Hall of Fame to grant induction to many Negro Leaguers whose achievements had been neglected for decades but in a sad and twisted irony O'Neil fell short of the required votes when he was placed on a special Negro League Hall of Fame ballot in 2006. If this unjustified slight made the then-94 year old bitter he did not let those feelings show publicly, declaring, "God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful." The Hall invited O'Neil to introduce the new Negro League Hall of Famers at the 2006 induction ceremony that should have been a crowning honor for him. Many people would have told the Hall exactly where to stick that invitation but O'Neil came there and stole the show. He passed away just a few months later.

It is obvious that O'Neil should have been inducted in the Hall of Fame but the Hall cannot seem to bring itself to correct this error; instead, after O'Neil's death the Hall built a statue of O'Neil to be placed in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and created a Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. The first winner is none other than O'Neil himself. I can't recall another example of an award being created to honor the person for which it is named but I guess this is the Hall's way of admitting it messed up without actually admitting it messed up.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 A Youth Sports Community for Coaches, Parents, Kids and Teams is a new online youth sports community that unites kids, parents, coaches, and professional athletes. Jake Rosenberg of YouCast Corporation informed me via email, "It's a great way to interact and network with people who share the same love for sports. Weplay also features exclusive footage and blogs from professional athletes such as Lebron James and Tony Parker." Currently, Brandi Chastain, Derek Jeter, Jennie Finch, LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Ryan Howard, Shaun Alexander, Summer Sanders and Tony Parker each have blogs at the site. I found out I have something in common with Brandi Chastain: her favorite video game is Galaga. She asks rhetorically if that 80's classic still exists and I am happy to report that in 2001 a 20th anniversary edition of it was released and you can find it in sports bars and other establishments that have video games--and if you can't find any place in your area that has Galaga you can play it online at Smilie Games.

Looking through some of the other athlete blogs, Manning says that his dream job is "relief pitcher w/ a 100 mph fastball," Howard's favorite team of all-time is the 90's Bulls, Sanders' favorite teams are "Sacto Kings, Buffalo Bills and Team USA" and Tony Parker's favorite team is "San Antonio Spurs, of course."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Shark Falls Short in Bid for Third British Open Title

For Greg Norman, a British Open that started out as such a wonderful and completely unexpected fairy tale story came with a very familiar ending: he entered Sunday's final round with a two stroke lead and finished up in a tie for third, six strokes behind winner Padraig Harrington, who claimed this title for the second year in a row. This is the seventh time that Norman held or shared the lead in a Grand Slam event going in to the final round but did not win the tournament; he won the 1986 British Open after having a 54 hole lead and he also won the 1993 British Open despite trailing going into the final round. Those are Norman's only Grand Slam wins, though he famously "won" the so-called "Saturday Slam" in 1986: Norman led after the third round in all four majors only to come up empty each time other than his British Open victory.

When Norman electrified the golf world by taking the lead in this year's British Open, the Chicago Tribune's Mike Downey rightly noted that no one should feel sorry for Norman because of his previous disappointments in the final round of Grand Slam events. After all, Norman still must be considered one of the greatest golfers of all-time. He topped the end of the year Official World Golf Rankings seven times (1986-87, 89-90, 95-97) and finished second on three other occasions (1988, 1993-94). Only Tiger Woods (nine) has ranked first at the end of the year more times than Norman has. Norman spent a total of 331 weeks ranked as the number one golfer in the world, second only to Woods' 504 weeks at the top--and the next closest competitor is, frankly, not even close: Nick Faldo was ranked number one for 98 weeks. Norman was the leading money winner on the PGA Tour in 1986, 1990 and 1995 and in 1989-90 and 1994 he won the Vardon Trophy for posting the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour.

It is hard to understand or explain why such a talented and highly accomplished athlete has fallen short so many times in Grand Slam events. It is easy to mock Norman as a "choker," but that label is clearly inappropriate regarding this year's British Open: he set a record by becoming the oldest player to hold the 54 hole lead in a major championship and finishing third is quite an accomplishment for a 53 year old who hardly even plays golf anymore. This result is so much better than anyone could have reasonably expected that it cannot be classified as a failure for Norman, particularly considering how well Harrington played in the final round.

As for Norman's disappointing Grand Slam finishes during his prime years, they are frankly quite puzzling; he obviously won a lot of big events in order to maintain his world number one ranking, so it's not like Norman does not know how to manage final round pressure and emerge victorious. I don't believe in luck but Norman seemed to have a lot of bad fortune that directly coincided with good fortune for his opponents in those situations. Perhaps the best explanation is that the traits that make Norman great also leave him vulnerable: he is a confident, aggressive golfer, so the same bold strokes that enable him to carve out big leads can also result in bogeys at the most inopportune times.

Woods is something of an "anti-Norman" in terms of Grand Slams. While Norman will forever be known as the Shark who let many "fish" get away, Woods has never lost a Grand Slam after having the 54 hole lead. As I mentioned in a July 23, 2007 post titled "The Difference Between Winners and Champions," "I hear golf analysts make much of the fact that on the one hand Woods rarely gives up a lead on Sunday but on the other hand he has never come from behind on Sunday to win a major. I think that the former is much more significant than the latter. When Woods has his 'A' game, as he would put it, he wins, point blank--he gets a lead, he keeps it and they put his name on the trophy. When he has his 'B' or 'C' game, he still may be in contention just because he is so good but someone else who is having the tournament of his life may end up winning."

According to the standard that I mentioned in that post, Woods is a "champion" while Norman is a "winner" but I wonder if in this case that harsh distinction is really fair or accurate. Norman spent the better part of a decade ranked as the number one player in the world in his sport and he did win two Grand Slams. Even though Norman has come up short so many times in Grand Slams, I must say that he is still a champion--just not as great a champion as Woods, who seems to be on a path to become the greatest champion in golf history and one of the greatest champions in sports history.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Favre May Discover that 38 is Not So Special for Quarterbacks

Brett Favre had an excellent season in 2007 and there seems to be an assumption that if he plays in 2008 then he will pick up right where he left off but that is not necessarily the case. Favre turned 38 early last season and, as Don Pierson noted in a December 29, 2006 Chicago Tribune article (a free abstract is available at or you can read the entire piece by paying a small fee), "As peculiar and arbitrary as it may seem, age 38 represents a wall for so many quarterbacks it's impossible to ignore." Pierson notes the obvious--that many NFL quarterbacks don't even make it to 38 in the first place--but he lists a number of quarterbacks whose health and/or effectiveness declined markedly at or around that age. Here is a summary of what happened to several Hall of Fame quarterbacks who found out that 38 is not so special:

1) Dan Marino turned 38 during his last season (1999). He missed five games and posted the lowest passer rating of his 17 year career (67.4, 12.6 points worse than his 1998 rating).

2) During the 1999 season, Steve Young sustained a career-ending concussion two weeks before his 38th birthday. In the three games he played in that year, Young compiled a 60.9 rating, his worst since his second year in the league and a whopping 40.2 point decline from his 1998 rating.

3) John Elway retired after the season in which he turned 38 (1998), though to be fair he did not seem to be on his last legs at the time. He missed three games due to injury but was healthy enough to lead the Broncos to their second Super Bowl title in a row.

4) Johnny Unitas hung around until he was 40 but in his last three seasons he registered just three, four and three touchdown passes.

5) Similarly, Len Dawson played until he was 40 but was not an effective full time starter after he turned 38.

6) Sammy Baugh attempted just 33 passes in the 1952 season before retiring at the age of 38.

7) Even the legendary ageless wonder George Blanda was not immune to the effects of turning 38. He reached that milestone in 1965, the last year that he was a full-time starting quarterback. He played for 10 more seasons but primarily served as a kicker.

Pierson also mentions a couple exceptions, most notably Warren Moon, who had Pro Bowl seasons at 39 and 41. Still, there is no denying that health and productivity tend to rapidly decline for NFL quarterbacks at or around 38, even for players who had been healthy and productive right up to that age. Just because Favre turned back the clock last season does not mean that he can do so again this year.

Perhaps the most dramatic cautionary tale for Favre is what happened to Y.A. Tittle. In 1963, the 37 year old Tittle led the NFL in touchdowns (36), completion percentage (60.2) and yards per attempt (8.6) while directing the New York Giants to an 11-3 record and a 14-10 Championship Game loss to the Chicago Bears. Those individual numbers--and the close loss to the eventual NFL Champion--eerily mirror what Favre and the Packers did in 2007. However, in 1964, Tittle's numbers dropped dramatically (10 touchdowns, 52.3 completion percentage, 6.4 yards per attempt average) and the Giants fell to 2-10-2. Tittle retired after that campaign.

While some people may think that it is foolhardy for the Packers to not welcome Favre back so that they can replace him with the untested Aaron Rodgers, there is a sizable amount of historical evidence that suggests that Favre is hardly a sure bet to be successful in a season during which he will turn 39. Last year was a fairy tale for Favre and the Packers but the clock could very well strike midnight if he plays in 2008.

Above and beyond the numbers, the problem that I have with what Favre has done is the complete selfishness that he is displaying. No one begrudges him the right to leave the game on his own terms, whether that consists of retiring after a storybook season or continuing to play--with another team if necessary--until his wheels fall off. However, Favre is holding an entire team and its fans hostage with his vacillating. If he wanted to play, then he should have said so during the spring. After Favre made his tearful retirement announcement, the Packers quite naturally devoted their offseason planning to getting Rodgers ready to take the helm. Favre recently said that he understood that the Packers have moved on, as if he is making a big concession. Did he think that the Packers would just put their plans on hold after Favre made it quite clear that he had no intentions of playing again? If Favre had originally said that he wanted to keep playing then the Packers surely would have welcomed him back with open arms but now he has placed the team in an untenable situation: if they bring him back then they have wasted their whole offseason but if they grant Favre his release then he may go to a division rival and hurt them. The Packers are under no obligation to do something that could damage them competitively just to satisfy the whims of a diva who suddenly decided that he wants to be in the spotlight a little while longer. Is there anything more pathetic than a future Hall of Famer whining to a gushing Greta Van Susteren about how unfair life is?

None of this tarnishes Favre's legacy as a quarterback. Whether he stays retired, comes back and plays well or comes back and plays poorly, he will remain one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. After all, no one dwells on Unitas' last days as a Charger or Joe Namath's brief run as a Ram. However, the selfish, petulant and classless way that Favre is handling himself does tarnish his legacy as a person. Just imagine for one second that Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Kobe Bryant or any other athlete who is a lightning rod for criticism did what Favre is doing. How do you think the media would portray the situation? How would fans react? Favre has received some criticism--and deservedly so--but he has been given a free pass compared to the treatment that those guys would get if they were involved in a similar scenario.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Michael Young Helps MLB Avoid its Worst Nightmare: Another All-Star Game Tie

Michael Young's sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 15th inning not only gave the American League a 4-3 win over the National League in the All-Star Game but it averted the potential of yet another major embarrassment for Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bud Selig. The abominable 11 inning, 7-7 tie in the 2002 All-Star Game was bad enough but if this contest resulted in a tie or turned into a farce with position players pitching it would have been yet another black eye for a sport that has seen plenty of them during Selig's reign. Ever since the 2002 fiasco, the All-Star Game has decided home field advantage in the World Series, so apparently this time around the teams would have stayed on the field until some position player blew out his arm trying to pitch.

J.D. Drew went 2-4 with a two run home run, a walk and a stolen base to claim MVP honors and the relief on Selig's face was palpable when he awarded Drew the MVP trophy. The game obviously did not have too many offensive highlights and, frankly, the first six innings were pretty boring. The only truly memorable plays during that time were a solo home run in the fifth inning by Matt Holliday and a great throw by Ichiro Suzuki to gun down Albert Pujols at second base, though replays indicated that Pujols probably beat the tag; still, it is amazing that a small guy like Ichiro has such a howitzer for an arm and Fox analyst Tim McCarver said that Ichiro is the best defensive right fielder he has seen since the legendary Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.

While the early going was not exciting, things heated up in the seventh inning when Drew's two run shot tied the score and then the latter innings of this game featured numerous tremendous defensive plays by both teams, including several gems by Miguel Tejada and a number of bang bang plays at home plate that kept the score tied.

ESPN's Jayson Stark notes that a staggering number of records were set or tied in this All-Star Game, including, "Longest game ever (290 minutes). Most runners left on base ever (28). Most players in a box score ever (63). Most pitchers in an All-Star box score ever (23). Even most strikeouts ever (34)." The 15 innings tied a record set in 1967 and you can also add to the list of records the three errors committed by National League second baseman Dan Uggla, who also struck out three times and grounded into a double-play in what Stark aptly described as perhaps the worst All-Star performance ever.

This extra innings marathon would have been a lot more thrilling to watch if not for the dark cloud that hung over the last few innings: the very real possibility that one or both of the managers would run out of pitchers. Based on some of the interviews conducted after the game, it sounds like there was some kind of mandate from Selig that the game must have a decisive outcome no matter what, which could potentially have led to home field advantage in the World Series being decided with a position player on the mound. The only thing worse than that would be a position player--a franchise player for some team--blowing out his arm while pitching in an exhibition game.

The reason why this kind of issue never came up until recent years is that in the "good old days" the starting All-Stars played longer and there was an understanding that not every single player would get on the field if the game only went nine innings. Now, by trying to get the best of all worlds MLB annually opens up the possibility of living out a nightmare scenario: the game "counts" yet the managers try to get every player on the field (except for a few pitchers who are on the rosters but whose regular teams don't want them to pitch). If the game goes nine innings then everyone is happy but if it goes extra innings instead of celebrating baseball everyone is suddenly focused mainly on the possibility of the game ending in a tie or a farce with All-Stars playing out of position.

The other problem with the way that the All-Star Game is run is that a terrible strain is being placed on pitchers who have to warm up, then sit down, then warm up, then sit down, then go into the game. Apparently, Brad Lidge had thrown upwards of 100 warmup pitches in a two hour period before he entered the game for the National League in the 15th inning and got saddled with the loss.

The solution is simple: the starting pitchers for each team should go at least five innings, unless of course one of them is getting shelled and needs to come out sooner. Then a relief pitcher should come in for an inning or two and that process should be repeated until the end of the game. That way, guys are not repeatedly warming up and then sitting down, because they will know exactly when they are going in the game. Just being selected to the All-Star team is an honor and it is not practical to get every single player in the game. The fact is, the players who the fans voted in should get the lion's share of the innings anyway.

No one had to tell the players in the 1970s and 1980s that the All-Star Game "counted"; back then, the players felt tremendous pride in trying to win to assert the superiority of their league and that is another reason that starters (position players as well as pitchers) used to play more innings than they do now. If the game really "counts" then it should be managed more like a real game. Pete Rose ran over catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star Game precisely because, in Rose's mind, the game "counted"; he often has said that he could not have looked his father in the eye if he had played any other way and that he would have felt like he was cheating the fans if he did not play 100% at all times. Perhaps Rose took things to an extreme in that instance but that also reflects the intensity of the rivalry between the leagues at that time.

Speaking of Rose, I could not help but think of MLB's all-time hits leader during the pregame introductions when 49 Hall of Famers took the field at their old positions and greeted this year's All-Stars. It was great to see so many of the game's legends on the same field at the same time, let alone on the hallowed (and soon to be closed) grounds of Yankee Stadium. I also like that rather than single out one Yankee as the greatest or most worthy of recognition that Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson and Rich "Goose" Gossage each simultaneously threw out ceremonial first pitches. Joe DiMaggio used to demand that he be introduced as the "Greatest living Yankee" but I like the way the Yankees chose to honor multiple stars (and eras) from their storied history.

Rose would surely have been a first ballot Hall of Famer if not for the Hall of Fame changing the rules after MLB banned Rose for life for the gambling that he did while managing the Cincinnati Reds after he retired as a player. In the first 55 years of its existence, the Hall of Fame never had a rule barring someone who is on the banned list from being on the Hall of Fame ballot but in 1991 the Hall hastily implemented such a rule just before Rose would have become eligible to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot. Thus, the Hall of Fame voters never had a chance to decide whether or not to vote him in, so Rose's situation differs completely from that of guys like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds; many people believe that McGwire and Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and thus McGwire has received few Hall of Fame votes and Bonds may also get much less support than he otherwise would have--but McGwire is on the ballot and as things stand now Bonds will be on the ballot as soon as he becomes eligible. Apparently, Rose is the only baseball player in history who MLB has decided is beyond redemption and forgiveness, something that is ironic and sad considering how Josh Hamilton is praised for overcoming his addictions and that the Hall of Fame has already opened its doors to someone who was suspended for one year for consorting with gamblers (Leo Durocher) and a player who was convicted of drug smuggling (Orlando Cepeda).

Rose was selected to the All-Star team 17 times and he started at five different positions (second base, left field, right field, third base and first base). If Rose had been allowed to participate in the pregame ceremony then MLB would have had to clone him in order for him to simultaneously be present at all the spots on the field where he played at an All-Star level. Yes, there are Hall of Famers who made the All-Star team at multiple positions but as far as I know Rose is the only player who started at five different positions in All-Star play.

The ceremony was great but I found myself wondering which position Rose would have represented and how big of an ovation he would have received. He received louder cheers than anyone else when MLB had to begrudgingly include him in a similar ceremony in 1999 when the All-Century Team was chosen. The difference in that case is that corporate sponsor MasterCard insisted on including Rose, a strong indication that MLB's stance regarding Rose is hypocritical and not truly a moral stance based on upholding the integrity of the game: basically, if the price is right then MLB will recognize Rose but otherwise he is ostracized. Rose committed a serious offense and I don't think that he should be allowed to manage again but it is terrible for MLB to act like his honestly achieved playing accomplishments never took place and it will be disgusting if even one PED cheater is inducted in the Hall of Fame, especially if Rose continues to be banned.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Morneau Wins Home Run Derby but Hamilton Steals the Show

Justin Morneau defeated Josh Hamilton 5-3 in the final round to win the 2008 Home Run Derby but Morneau seemed almost apologetic when he received the trophy--and for good reason: Hamilton put on a stunning show in the first round by blasting a Derby record 28 home runs, hitting 13 straight out of the park at one point. Hamilton hit so many home runs that he did not even need to take a second round swing to advance to the final round but he decided to take a few cuts to stay loose. By the final round, both players were clearly exhausted, taking full swings but only displaying warning track power for the most part. Hamilton finished with 35 home runs overall--even though he only used up four of his 10 outs in the second round--while Morneau had 22 home runs.

We have seen these kinds of anticlimactic finishes in several previous Home Run Derbys and the reason for this is obvious: the derby lasts too long and fatigue inevitably sets in, all but ensuring that the best slugger does not win because he wears himself out in the early rounds. It makes no sense that after carrying over the home runs from the first round to the second round the totals are reset before the final round; it's like we are supposed to imagine that we did not really watch Hamilton put on one of the most amazing exhibitions of batting practice power ever. Hamilton blasted several of the longest shots in Home Run Derby history, including a 518 foot rocket that is the third longest ever launched in the event, trailing only Sammy Sosa's 524 foot homer in 2002 and Frank Thomas' 519 foot homer in 1994.

Leave it to Major League Baseball to provide two hours of great entertainment and still find a way to end the night on a down note. I have nothing against Morneau, who performed well, but it was almost painful to watch he and Hamilton struggle to hit the ball out of the park in the final round. Instead of being dramatic, the final matchup was sloppy and unsatisfying. The Home Run Derby should either reduce the number of outs per round or, even better, simply eliminate one round entirely. That would lead to a much more high quality event and make it more likely that the best slugger on that night actually takes home the trophy.

The Home Run Derby is baseball's version of the Slam Dunk Contest and the two events will always fascinate and captivate young and old fans alike for a simple reason: the vast majority of people can neither dunk a basketball nor hit a pitch--even a grooved batting practice pitch--out of a baseball stadium. It is truly wondrous to see the greatest athletes in a sport put their talents on display. Watching Hamilton hit home runs or Dwight Howard dunk is seeing a perfect blending of talent, timing and explosive power.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eric Davis: "Like Having an Atomic Bomb Sitting Next to You in the Dugout"

Baseball has never thrilled or excited me the way that some other sports--particularly basketball--do but a handful of great baseball players have captivated me as much as any athletes in any sport and right at the top of that list is the wondrous Eric Davis. In 1986 and 1987 it seemed possible that he might become the greatest all-around baseball player ever. If that statement sounds absurd to you, then check out the words that the equally incomparable Ralph Wiley used to open his May 25, 1987 Sports Illustrated cover story about Davis:

Let's get it straight from the beginning. Eric Davis is not Willie Mays or Henry Aaron or Roberto Clemente. Eric Davis is E. That's it, just E, the single-letter nickname his friends know him by. E's friends are everywhere now, and many of them never saw Mays or Aaron or Clemente. Children who play on scarred inner-city blacktops, manicured suburban lawns and wide-open country fields join E's legions with every sweet, vicious swing of his 32-ounce bat. That's E, as in Everything—which is what the new Cincinnati Reds star has.

"Eric is the one guy who can lead our league in home runs and stolen bases," says Pete Rose, Davis' manager. "Name me another cleanup hitter who can steal 100 bases. Name one. It's like having an atomic bomb sitting next to you in the dugout."

"Eric," says the Reds' six-time All-Star outfielder Dave Parker, "is blessed with world-class speed, great leaping ability, the body to play until he's 42, tremendous bat speed and power, and a throwing arm you wouldn't believe. There's an aura to everything he does. I tell you frankly that I'd pay to see him if I had to."

Everyone who has paid to see Eric Davis lately has gotten his money's worth. As most of America knows, E is off to one of the all-around best starts in National League history. His numbers: .358 average, 15 homers, 36 runs scored, 16 steals, 38 RBIs, and two weeks still remaining in the month of May. But it's the ease with which he has amassed these stats that has astonished older fans and enraptured younger ones. Meanwhile, baseball cognoscenti are left with an inescapable conclusion: To find an appropriate comparison for the soon-to-be 25-year-old outfielder, one must hark back to the '50s and '60s, to Mays and Aaron and Clemente.

Davis was the Swiss Army knife of five-tool players; he had more tools than Home Depot: Davis could hit for average, hit for power, run, field his position with amazing range/stunning grace and throw like he had a bazooka attached to his shoulder. He specialized in using whatever tool was necessary to win a particular game, delivering game winning RBI, game saving catches and game breaking steals with equal aplomb. Wiley noted that after a 2-0 Reds victory over the Mets during which Davis scored a run, stole three bases and robbed Darryl Strawberry of a home run with a catch of which Rose said, "I didn't think Superman could get to that ball," Mays commented, "It's an honor to be compared to Eric Davis. I hope Eric is honored." Aaron declared, "Eric Davis has unlimited ability—awesome ability. I don't think he'll be Willie Mays. That would take some doing. But, on the other hand, I don't think he has a weakness, either."

In that magical summer of 1987, Davis set NL records for grand slams in one month (three in May) and most home runs by the end of May (19). He won the NL Player of the Month Award in April and May. Although injuries limited him to 129 games, he still finished with 37 home runs (fourth in the NL), 100 RBI (eighth), 120 runs scored (third), 50 stolen bases (fourth), a .593 slugging percentage (second) and a .293 batting average. At that time he was just the seventh 30-30 player and he reached those numbers earlier in the season than anyone ever had. Davis was the first 30-50 player in MLB history, a feat later matched by Barry Bonds.

The previous season, Davis put up these gaudy numbers while playing in three more games but with 59 fewer at bats: 27 home runs (fifth in the NL), 71 RBI, 97 runs scored (third), 80 stolen bases (second) and a .523 slugging percentage (which would have ranked second if he had enough at bats to qualify). Davis and Rickey Henderson (who had 28 home runs and 87 stolen bases in 1986) remain the only 25-80 players in MLB history.

It may be hard for younger fans to believe but before Mark McGwire did whatever he does not want to talk about and Barry Bonds (allegedly) used various performance-enhancing drugs to become the not so jolly home run bashing Giant, a 30-plus home run season was quite an accomplishment, because 40 home run seasons were exceptional and 50 home run seasons were very rare. Only one player hit at least 50 home runs in a season between 1965 and 1976 (Willie Mays hit 52 in 1965), while between 1977 (George Foster, 52) and 1990 (Cecil Fielder, 51) no MLB player hit 50 or more home runs in a season; in many of the years between 1965 and 1990, 37 would have been good enough to be a league-leading total and Davis blasted that many home runs in 1987 despite missing a fifth of the season and being a premier base stealer.

Davis won three straight Gold Gloves (1987-89) and in both 1987 and 1989 he made the All-Star Team and won the Silver Slugger Award. He also won the 1989 Home Run Derby. Davis ranked in the top ten in the NL in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS (on base percentage plus slugging) each year from 1986-89. He was not only a prolific base stealer but also a very efficient one: Davis was never caught stealing in high school or in his first year of pro ball and his stolen base percentage of 84.1 ranks second in MLB history behind Tim Raines (84.7) ; Davis' 85.0 NL stolen base percentage is also second behind Raines (85.7).

In 1990, Davis had 24 home runs and 86 RBI for a Reds team that led the NL West wire to wire and then swept the powerful Oakland A's in the World Series. Davis hit a two-run home run in his first World Series at bat to give the Reds a 2-0 first inning lead in game one, setting the tone for a 7-0 victory over the defending World Champions. Davis was not able to celebrate the sweep with his teammates because he suffered a potentially life threatening kidney laceration while diving for a ball in the outfield during game four. He was hospitalized for 11 days. Reds' owner Marge Schott did not even pay for his plane ride back to Cincinnati and after Davis labored through an injury-riddled 1991 season the Reds traded him to the L.A. Dodgers.

Davis continued to struggle with his health and in 1993 the Dodgers traded him to the Detroit Tigers. A disc injury in his neck limited him to just 37 games in 1994 and he retired after that season. However, by 1996 Davis had recuperated sufficiently from his various ailments to attempt a comeback and he was literally a smashing success, blasting 26 home runs and 83 RBI in 129 games for the Reds. He even stole 23 bases. Davis won the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award but did not get along well with Manager Ray Knight and thus decided to sign with Baltimore as a free agent. Davis' Baltimore career hardly began before he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He vowed to return before the end of the season and was true to his word, overcoming surgery and chemotherapy to rejoin the team's lineup in September. Davis hit a ninth inning home run in the Orioles' 4-2 victory in game five of the ALCS but the Cleveland Indians won game six to advance to the World Series. Davis won the Roberto Clemente, Hutch and Tony Conigliaro Awards in 1997, honors that acknowledged his character, fighting spirit and ability to overcome adversity.

Although Davis was no longer a base stealing threat, in 1998 he proved that at 36 years of age he still had a lot of pop left in his bat, ranking fourth in the AL with a career high .327 average while hitting 28 home runs and notching 89 RBI. Davis ranked eighth in on base percentage (.388), ninth in slugging percentage (.582) and 10th in OPS (.970). He also had a 30 game hitting streak that season, setting an Orioles franchise record. Davis finished his career by playing two seasons in St. Louis and one in San Francisco.

We will never know for sure what Davis could have accomplished had he been healthier during his career but he hit at least 20 home runs in eight different seasons and he persevered long enough to amass 282 home runs and 349 stolen bases in 17 MLB seasons.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rafael Nadal Is Coming for That Number One Spot

"Whoa! Don't slip up or get got! (Why not man?)
I'm comin' for that number one spot!"--Ludacris, "Number One Spot"

The official computer rankings still say otherwise but Rafael Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7 victory over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon Final certainly seems to signal a changing of the guard at the top of the tennis world. Nadal became the first male player to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year since Bjorn Borg, who incredibly accomplished this feat three years in a row (1978-80). Federer retains his number one overall ranking but no one can really consider him to be the best player in the world now: Nadal not only owns a 12-6 head to head advantage over Federer but Nadal defeated Federer in this year's French Open and Wimbledon Finals. The clay at Roland Garros is Nadal's best surface and he has won four straight titles there, matching Borg's record (1978-81), but Wimbledon's grass had been home turf for Federer, who was seeking to break another Borg record by capturing a sixth straight Wimbledon title.

After Federer beat Nadal in a tough five set match in last year's Wimbledon Final, I predicted that Nadal would flip the script this year: "I think that Nadal is closer to beating Federer on grass than Federer is to beating Nadal on clay and that 2008 could very well be Nadal's opportunity to match another Borg feat: winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year." Then, when Nadal destroyed Federer in straight sets in this year's French Open Final, I declared, "For quite some time, people have been trying to anoint Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time but despite his impressive accomplishments it makes no sense to confer that title on him when it is not even certain that he will be considered the best player of the current era: his main rival Nadal owns an 11-6 head to head record against him and has come much closer to beating him on the grass at Wimbledon than Federer has come to defeating him on the clay at the French Open. Considering that Nadal is almost five years younger than Federer it is entirely possible that he will eclipse what Federer has done; after all, five years ago Federer had just won his first Grand Slam, while Nadal already owns four Grand Slam titles, beating Federer along the way each time."

It is interesting that it takes the combined efforts of the two best players of this era to challenge the marks that Borg set three decades ago; Nadal has been taking aim at Borg's French Open records, while Federer has been pursuing Borg's Wimbledon standards. By winning at both venues this year Nadal has elevated himself above Federer and if Nadal adds some more Wimbledon and French Open trophies to his collection then it will be possible to compare his career to Borg's.

Prior to the Federer-Nadal Wimbledon Final, three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe recalled his two Wimbledon battles with Borg. In the 1980 Wimbledon Final, McEnroe won the fourth set tiebreak and seemed poised to end Borg's Wimbledon winning streak at four titles, but Borg bounced back to capture the fifth set and thus earn his fifth Wimbledon crown. McEnroe recalled, "When I won that fourth set breaker, I said, 'This thing is over. I think I'm going to get it done. He's won four in a row. He can't dig that much deeper and want it that much more badly.' He taught me a lesson that true champions--great, great champions--find another gear and find some more willpower. He made me hungrier. I think there is a very similar situation with what happened last year with Federer. He was in the fifth set and Nadal had him on the ropes...I know Nadal thought he should have won the match and I know I thought that I should have won that match in 1980. Federer showed that extra will...(In 2008) Nadal has found another gear and he's gotten quite a bit better." McEnroe's words proved to be very prescient.

McEnroe added, "We should really appreciate this moment for what it is, the magnitude of the occasion for our sport. We do try to build up every Final but in this particular case I think that it is justified. When I played Borg in 1981 and won that match little did I ever think that that would be his final match here at Wimbledon. Who would have thought that (Justine) Henin would quit 10 days before the French Open? I'm not suggesting that's going to happen with Federer...but I think that we should enjoy this for the spectacular occasion that it is."

Nadal jumped on Federer right from the start, taking advantage of three of his first four break point opportunities to claim a two sets to none lead; Federer actually had more break point opportunities during those sets (six) but he only converted one of them. As ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe put it late in the second set, "Every crucial point somehow Nadal has found a way to win it." While Nadal was making points, Federer was making excuses, visibly upset that gusts of wind affected some of his shots; of course, the same thing happened to Nadal as well and Patrick McEnroe said, "Federer has to get it out of his head because nobody is going to remember that it was windy if he loses this match."

Federer did not convert any of his break point opportunities in the third and fourth sets but he scored "mini breaks" in both tiebreakers to win those sets. Nadal raced to a 5-2 lead in the fourth set tiebreaker and later squandered two match points, including one on his serve. Incredibly, after taking a two sets to none lead Nadal came within three points of losing the match in the fifth set before rallying to win the 14th game. Nadal then broke Federer--the first break by either player since the second set--and held serve to win the match.

Nadal and Federer both played at a very high level in this match and it is doubtful that any other player in the world could have beaten Federer on Sunday. Nevertheless, Federer's candidacy for the hypothetical title of greatest player of all-time has taken a serious beating this year. The lack of a French Open title is a giant hole in Federer's resume, as is the fact that his main rival is much younger than he is and has a dominant score in their head to head encounters; it does not seem likely that Federer will be able to do much to address either situation: if Federer could not win the French Open or have an overall advantage versus Nadal during his prime years then it is not logical to expect him to reverse those trends now.

Even when Federer was at the absolute peak of his powers Nadal still held the head to head advantage, a fact that some people dismissed by noting that the vast majority of Nadal's wins over Federer came on clay--but that is not relevant in a discussion about the greatest player of all-time, because the greatest player of all-time should be able to win on multiple surfaces and should not have a losing record against his main rival. Nadal is just entering his prime years but he already owns four more Grand Slam wins than Federer did at the same age. Just like I thought that it was too soon to call Federer the greatest of all-time two or three years ago, I think that it is too soon to call Nadal the greatest of all-time now--but in many ways Nadal seems to be making a more potent case to claim that title than Federer ever did. Who can say for sure that in four or five years Nadal won't own more career Grand Slam titles than Federer's 12? Nadal has more speed and hits with more power than Federer and Nadal is also in better physical condition; perhaps Federer has a more delicate touch on certain shots but that is not enough to cancel out Nadal's advantages. The closeness of the Wimbledon Final--Nadal scored just five more points than Federer--is a little deceptive because, as Patrick McEnroe noted, Nadal seemed to win all of the big points. Obviously, that is not literally true or else Nadal would have triumphed in straight sets but whatever mystique or aura that Federer has relative to other players simply does not affect Nadal at all.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Torres' Tough Training Pays Off

Dara Torres' intense training methods have helped the 41 year old, nine-time Olympic medalist to qualify for her fifth Olympic appearance. On Friday night she won the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials and on Saturday at the Olympic Trials she set an American record in the 50-meter freestyle, winning her semifinal heat in 24.38 seconds. Torres will swim in the 50-meter freestyle final on Sunday to attempt to qualify for a second event in the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

Torres celebrates setting an American record in the 50-meter freestyle.

Torres hugs Emily Silver on Friday night after Torres won
the women's 100-meter freestyle.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Brett Favre's Selfishness

Brett Favre is not Michael Jordan, the Green Bay Packers are not the Chicago Bulls circa 1995 and the NFL is not the NBA. In other words, a Favre comeback is unlikely to lead to even one championship for Green Bay, let alone three. Favre acknowledged this reality when he announced his retirement four months ago, saying that anything less than winning a Super Bowl would be a failure for him at this point and that the odds were against the Packers doing better in 2008 than they did in their dream 2007 season during which everything came together perfectly. So why is Favre reprising his role as Achilles in the tent pondering whether or not to return to battle?

Despite the constant attempts by his fawning fans in the media to airbrush his image, Favre has demonstrated his selfishness on several occasions. For instance, in 2004 when wide receiver Javon Walker made the Pro Bowl and wanted to restructure his contract with the Packers, Favre--who of course already had his big money deal in place--publicly took management's side, breaking the "code" that players do not interfere with other players' contract negotiations. Walker ultimately reported to camp without getting a new deal and promptly suffered a season-ending knee injury. Favre is also notorious for not providing much guidance for his backup Aaron Rodgers; at one point, Favre bluntly said that the Packers were paying him to play, not to be a coach. Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics had a completely different approach when they won 11 championships in 13 seasons: sixth man Frank Ramsey schooled John Havlicek in the ways of the NBA and veterans like Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman similarly helped K.C. Jones and Sam Jones.

For the past several years, Favre has effectively held the Packers' future hostage with his annual vacillations about retiring--and it's not like Favre has been leading the Packers to championships during this time: they went 4-12 in 2005 and 8-8 in 2006 before their 13-3 storybook campaign last year. Favre has a 3-5 playoff record since 2002, with 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in those games; the three times that he had a passer rating over 100 the Packers won but he also had three games with a passer rating lower than 56 and the Packers lost by at least 14 points on each of those occasions.

The Packers do not want Favre to come back but if anyone in the organization says that then they will be painted as the bad guys. Meanwhile, Favre holds the franchise, the players and the loyal Packer fans in limbo while he decides what he thinks is in his best interest. No one can question Favre's skills, toughness or competitive zeal--but any other player who repeatedly displayed such selfishness would be loudly condemned.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dara Torres Turns Back the Clock in Bid to Make Olympic Team for Fifth Time

Dara Torres has already won nine medals in four different Olympic years (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000) but she is far from resting on her laurels: the 41 year old swimmer, who set the first of her three world records as a 14 year old in 1982, is employing a unique stretching and conditioning program that is enabling her to beat competitors who are less than half of her age. You can read all about her in this New York Times article by Elizabeth Weil.

Here is some visual proof of how well conditioned Torres is:

MLB Should Not Accept McGwire Until He Says the Magic Words

Mark McGwire is either a home run hitting hero whose good name has been wrongly smeared or a one dimensional player who augmented his main skill--crushing baseballs--by taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Ever since he infamously told a Congressional panel in 2005 that he did not want to "talk about the past," McGwire has been in de facto baseball exile. He has all but disappeared from the public eye and the slugger who briefly held the single season home run record received less than a fourth of the vote both times he has been on the Hall of Fame ballot (a candidate must receive 75% of the vote to be inducted).

Now, McGwire and some of his friends are testing the waters to see if MLB and the general public would be willing to accept the idea of McGwire returning to the big leagues, this time as a hitting instructor. As Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast my friend." Unlike Pete Rose, McGwire has not been formally banned by MLB, so any team is free to hire him if he and the team think that they can deal with the inevitable public relations backlash--but there is a lot more at stake here than p.r. Point blank, either McGwire cheated or he didn't. If McGwire did not cheat, then he should explain why he clammed up in front of Congress and he should reveal everything he knows about the PED culture that permeated MLB during his playing days; if McGwire did cheat, then he should be a man and forthrightly say exactly what he did and when he did it. In either case, he should become actively involved in efforts to cleanse his sport of PED cheaters.

Until McGwire comes clean--one way or the other--and says a lot more than "I'm not here to talk about the past" MLB should continue to keep its distance from him. McGwire's silence not only calls his own feats and statistics into question but casts doubt on many ball players who did not cheat but had the misfortune of playing during the "Steroids Era."MLB literally dropped the ball by not instituting testing and not monitoring this situation until long past the time that it became a serious problem and thus we may never know for sure who cheated and who did not. As a central figure in this drama, it is McGwire's responsibility to set the record straight about exactly what he did and what he knows. If he is not willing to do that, then he should remain in exile.