Joe Posnanski

Fire and desire

The story has been the hunger. This has not been the most artistic of World Series. Game 1 had the electricity of Opening Day. Game 3 was a minor classic, an old-fashioned 1-0 pitching duel with new-fashioned pitcher usage. Game 5 was tense and suspenseful and it came down to a pitching cyborg throwing 102 mph and overmatched hitters doing all they could to stay alive at the plate.

But all in all, this once-in-a-century World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians has not been notable for the baseball. It has been notable for the intense desperation. Players and teams obviously want to win the World Series every year. This year, though, absurd cliché or not, it feels like they want to win just a little more.

Take Game 6, one the Chicago Cubs grabbed in the first inning and never surrendered. Chicago led the game 3-0 after a bizarre first inning where Cleveland center fielder Tyler Naquin and right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall both avoided a somewhat routine fly ball. Naquin, a rookie, seemed entirely spooked one night after Halloween — all night he ran around aimlessly, like someone only vaguely familiar with the duties of center field. He perfectly demonstrated the anxiety that crackles all around this series.

Two innings later, it was 7-0. The key blow came after Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin was pulled — he had been valiant all of October but on three days rest and with marginal stuff to begin with, his pitches stopped fooling anybody — and Dan Otero came in for relief. He faced Chicago’s Addison Russell, a 22-year-old prodigy of a shortstop with the perfect Cubs name. Russell is a defensive wonder; offensively, he swings hard and for the fences. After Otero fell behind 2-0, he threw an 89-mph sinker that did not sink. Scouts call this sort of pitch “middle-middle.” Russell deposited it in the center-field stands, where it bounced in front of an exit sign, made its way onto the concourse and no doubt bought a hot dog.

This was the Cubs’ night, start to finish. That happens sometimes in a Game 6. Two years ago, Kansas City beat San Francisco 10-0 in Game 6. In 2001, Arizona swamped the Yankees 15-2. Yes, sure, Cleveland occasionally made small comeback noises, but all night they never got within four runs, and Cleveland manager Terry Francona made clear from his moves that he was readying his ammunition for a Game 7.

The Cubs used Aroldis Chapman anyway.

No, it was more than that: Cubs manager Joe Maddon put in Chapman — one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the long history of baseball — in the SEVENTH INNING of a game that he led by five runs. By win expectancy, the Cubs were 97-percent sure of winning. Maddon had an entire arsenal of pitchers who had solid years and certainly could put this game away. And, not incidentally, just two days earlier, Chapman had thrown more innings and pitches than at any point in his career. Also, yeah, Maddon might need a fully-charged Chapman for Game 7.

Still: He went for Chapman. That’s the hunger and sense of desperation that has been on display all series. When Francona feels even the slightest twinge of doubt, he rushes in his own super-weapon, Andrew Miller. Starting pitchers get yanked the instant they inspire even the slightest spasm of uncertainty. Lineups get shuffled around. Hitters swing impossibly hard and at pitches barely in their field of vision. Fielders dive for balls that they know, in their hearts, they can’t reach.

In Game 6, Cleveland’s magnificent young shortstop Francisco Lindor made two spectacular diving stops on ground balls. He had no chance of throwing out the batter on either one, but he threw the ball anyway because this has been that kind of series. Everyone tries to do too much. Everything feels just a little bit more important.

Then, this is probably what we should expect from a once-in-a-century series between one team that has not won a World Series since Harry Truman was in office and another that has not won since Henry Ford built his first Model T. Every single thing that happens in this thing seems to trigger some connection to ancient times. When Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis hit a three-run homer in Game 4, it was mentioned to him that the last visiting player to hit a three-run homer in a World Series game at Wrigley Field was none other than Babe Ruth.

“Wow,” Kipnis said, though the stat is both arcane and baffling. “Anytime you can be connected to Babe Ruth …”

This is that kind of series. Everything points forward and backward at the same time.

And now it is Game 7 — the most-anticipated Game 7 of our lifetimes, in many ways, and both teams have reasons to be hopeful. The Cubs have won the last two games and have have National League ERA leader Kyle Hendricks starting on full rest. Their two best hitters — Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo — appeared fully locked-in Tuesday. Bryant, the all-but-certain league MVP, crunched a room-service 77-mph curveball for a titanic homer that started the scoring; he proceeded to get four hits on the night. Rizzo ended the night with a blast of his own on a hanging changeup. Other than being on the road, it couldn’t be a much better setup.

Then, Cleveland has its own reasons to believe. It’s pretty clear that the Cubs are a better baseball team than this beat-up version of the Tribe. The Cubs won 103 games this year and played about as well as any team in recent memory. Cleveland, meanwhile, is missing its best hitter and second-best starter (the third-best starter was too injured to start a single game all postseason; the fourth-best blew up his pinkie in a drone accident). This whole thing has been a magic carpet ride.

And yet, here is the Tribe, playing Game 7 at home, with their best pitcher Corey Kluber — admittedly on short rest again — starting and with their super-bullpen fully rested and ready to pitch as many innings as necessary. It’s about as much as they could have hoped for when this series began.

Game 7s tend to be a mixed bag. They can be classics, like two years ago when Madison Bumgarner took over or in 2001 when Arizona somehow got to Mariano Rivera or in 1991 when Jack Morris refused to yield. They can also be anticlimaxes, like in 2011 when the Cardinals breezed to victory after a circus-ride Game 6 or 1985 when the Cardinals melted down and Kansas City won 11-0. The pressure and anticipation of a Game 7 produces many different kinds of chemical reactions.

But one thing is sure in this series: Both teams — and both managers — will sell out entirely to win. Francona will bring Andrew Miller into the game in the first inning if he feels the game slipping. The Cubs’ Javier Baez will swing at a rumor of a pitch in another state if he believes that he has a chance of driving in a run. Every bar in Chicago will be filled with folded hands and eyes pointed to heaven, and downtown Cleveland will be awash in prayer. It’s always like this in the World Series. This time, though, it’s just a little bit more.

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    Cleveland Against the World

    There’s a dusty Catskills joke that goes roughly like this: A man walks into a shoe store and says he would like to buy a pair of size-6 dress shoes.

    “Sir,” the shoe salesman says, “I’m looking at your feet. There is no way you are a size 6.”

    “No,” the man admits. “I’m an 8. But I always wear size-6 shoes.”

    “Doesn’t that hurt?”

    “Oh yes,” the man says. “It hurts terribly. I have blisters. I have bruises. It’s often unbearable.”

    “So,” the salesman asks in horror, “why do you do it?”

    “Because,” the man says, “after suffering all day long I get home, and I sit in my chair, and I take off those shoes. And I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything in the world.”

    That joke made a lot more sense in more troubled times, back when the smallest of pleasures in the midst of the Depression or war was all anyone could hope for. So it doesn’t exactly fit Tuesday night in Cleveland, but I kept thinking about it anyway. For 50-plus years — 48 of them in my lifetime — everything about being a Cleveland sports fans was about pain and blisters and bruises. The vast majority of Cleveland teams were egregious, and the few that were good were guaranteed to break your heart at the end.

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    And then it was Tuesday night. Cleveland Night. The Cavaliers were raising a banner to the rafters and getting their championship rings. The Tribe was rolling to victory against Chicago in Game 1 of the World Series. It was an embarrassment of riches. Here was everyone celebrating unabashedly in downtown Cleveland, in a ballpark and a basketball arena that were built a quarter-century ago in the desperate hope of turning around a city’s fortune.

    It really did seem like we would NEVER get to take off those shoes two-sizes too small.

    * * *

    The thing about Cleveland’s greatest sports night is this: It is, in many ways, the first night to really enjoy the Cleveland sports turnaround. Most Cleveland fans really didn’t get to enjoy the ride to the Cavaliers’ championship. Yes, of course, everyone in Cleveland and from Cleveland relished WINNING the championship, but that’s not exactly the same thing.

    You might remember: During the Cavaliers’ run, the crushing ending seemed obvious and inescapable. Sure, the Cavs were plenty good enough to make it to the Finals — the unconvincing Eastern Conference remains nothing more than a 25-piece jigsaw puzzle for LeBron James — but they couldn’t beat Golden State. EVERYONE knew that*.

    *There were obviously some true believers who DID believe the Cavs would beat the Warriors, and they are writing frantic emails right now about their faith. To them, all I can say is: Congratulations.

    The Warriors were all but unbeatable, and they had home-court advantage, and soon they had a decisive 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.The Cavaliers’ comeback was the greatest experience of my Cleveland sports lifetime, but it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. When the Red Sox won their first World Series in 2004, they won it forcefully, a four-game sweep over St. Louis that was a carnival all the way.

    This was different. Few of us really BELIEVED the Cavaliers would win until about 48 seconds after the final buzzer of Game 7. There was no moment to take it all in, to feel optimistic and confident, to ride the wave. It was all nerves and doubt and dread … and then Kyrie Irving made the shot … and then it was over … and then there was this sort of unglued euphoria because Cleveland had already won.

    Tuesday night was the moment to stop and breathe it all in, to fully realize — after a half-century of doormat stompings and punches to the face — what it feels like to win a championship and to be on doorstep of another.

    “So,” I wrote to my friend and fellow Clevelander Scott Raab, “was a tear shed?”

    “Oh yeah,” he wrote back. “But it wasn’t copious weeping. It was … dignified, at least by my standards.”

    Right, this wasn’t a night for wedding day elation — that part has happened already. This was a night to take off those tight shoes, delight in how good it feels and contemplate the most ridiculous thought: “Wow, after all these years, this is really happening for Cleveland.”

    * * *

    Corey Kluber, in many ways, perfectly fits the ideal image of a Cleveland pitching ace. To be fair, he probably fits the ideal image of a Milwaukee pitching ace, too, or Washington or Philadelphia or Seattle or Houston or any other city, but the point on this night is Cleveland, and the point is that Kluber’s persona perfectly matched Tuesday night’s mood.

    Kluber has probably been baseball’s second-best pitcher the last three years, behind only Clayton Kershaw, but few people know it. He doesn’t care, or he gives no signs whatsoever of caring. They call Kluber, “Klubot,” because of his emotionless exterior when he is pitching, and it’s a good nickname. But it isn’t exactly right. Kluber is not emotionless on the mound. He’s serious. That’s different. He has the look of a man at a factory looking over a gnawing problem and thinking, “How am I going to fix that machine when we don’t have the broken part?” There is something comforting for fans about a pitcher like that.

    A serious man is just what Cleveland needed on this emotional night. There was so much going on. Cleveland was crackling with excitement. Writers and television cameras wandered the streets and museums and shores of Lake Erie in search of the city’s beating heart. Every fan in the whole town probably got interviewed. Also, the Chicago Cubs brought their own ghosts and wonder to the game — they’re obviously the BIG story.

    And so this had all the trappings of a major Cleveland anti-climax, like in “Brian’s Song” when Gale Sayers gives a teary-eyed speech before the Chicago Bears play Baltimore and dedicates the game to Brian Piccolo, who was dying of cancer.

    “Now listen to me,” Piccolo tells Sayers and the rest of the Bears from his hospital bed. “Listen now. When you dedicate a game to someone you are then supposed to go out and win it, idiot.” The Bears had lost 24-21.

    This easily could have happened Tuesday night — the Cavs would get their rings, raise the banner, the Tribe would get introduced to the roaring crowd almost giddy with disbelief — and then both would lose. Anti-climax was lurking. But, no, not this night. The Cavs beat the Knicks by 29. And Kluber’s uber-seriousness was on display from the first pitch. He struck out five of the first seven Cubs he faced. He didn’t come to lose.

    * * *

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    The seventh inning was the crescendo of the night. Kluber had been all-but-untouchable for six innings. Cleveland’s hitters had rattled Chicago ace Jon Lester just enough to scrape three runs against him. It had been somewhat easy. But all year the Cubs have proven to be a great baseball team, one of the best of my lifetime. Even on Cleveland’s night, they undoubtedly would have their moment.

    And the moment happened in the seventh when Ben Zobrist cracked a leadoff single to knock Kluber out of the game. In came Andrew Miller. It’s hard to imagine four more terrifying words.

    At some point, Fox announcer John Smoltz talked about how difficult it is to face Miller because he’s a 6-foot-10 behemoth who throws from from the side and has this wasp of a slider that dives away from left-handed hitters and attacks righties. Miller, though, is not 6-foot-10. He is 6-foot-7. The extra three inches represent the mythology Miller has created.

    The first batter he faced is a myth-in-the-making too: Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber had missed the entire season with a knee injury. He was facing big-league pitching for the first time since April. And, as he stepped in against Miller, he had already left everyone slack-jawed when he rocketed a double off the top of the wall against Kluber earlier. That was otherworldly, like that scene in The Natural when Roy Hobbs first takes batting practice. Schwarber should have had no chance against Miller, but he worked a walk to move the runners to first and second.

    Then came Javy Baez, who singled. That loaded the bases with nobody out.

    This was the Cubs’ time; you could feel it. This was their chance to grab this series and never let go. Momentum is wildly overstated, of course, but it would be hard to imagine Cleveland coming back from a Game 1 loss on the most magical sports night in the city’s history, especially if their unhittable weapon, Andrew Miller, was rendered merely human.

    Turns out: Miller is no still a superhuman. He overpowered Wilson Contreras and forced him to hit a bloopy little fly ball to center. It should have been a double play — Schwarber’s hitting talents might be turnkey, but his baserunning instincts are still drifting into spring training mode. Schwarber took off running even though the ball was fairly easily caught by center fielder Rajai Davis. It turns out that Davis did not see Schwarber running so he threw home instead, but it did not matter. Miller struck out the next two betters and ended the Cleveland tension.

    In the eighth inning, there was a miniature version of this — the Cubs put two runners on base. But Miller struck out Schwarber to end the threat, Roberto Perez hit his second homer to end any Cubs illusions, and that was that. It really was Cleveland’s night.

    * * *

    A few final words … about Cleveland manager Terry Francona. He’s now 9-0 in the World Series. I don’t know exactly what that means. It’s probably one of those things better appreciated than analyzed.

    But there was a decision he made Wednesday that I appreciated — it was, strangely, the most emotional moment of the night for me. Yes, as a born-and-raised Clevelander who has endured all those sports heartbreaks that don’t need to be mentioned again, it was touching to see the first sports banner of my lifetime raised. Yes, it was beautiful to see a World Series game again played in downtown Cleveland. Yes, it meant the world to get texts and emails from all those Cleveland friends, all with the same general theme: “Can you believe this?”

    But there was something about the way Francona managed this game — and this series — that somehow cut to the essence of what it feels like now that Cleveland, my hometown, is finally on top of the world.

    See, Cubs manager Joe Maddon is an extraordinary manager, a force of nature, and he might very well lead his team to a World Series title. I love the way the guy manages. But on this night, he showed a few signs of hesitancy. He started .188-hitting Chris Coghlan in right field rather than go for broke and find a way to get the brilliant young Willson Contreras into the lineup. He did not pinch-hit for defensive-specialist David Ross with the bases loaded and the game on the line. He was conventional in the way he used his bullpen. All this stuff can work and does work …

    … but Francona manages the postseason with a hunger and near-desperation that, well, matches what it has been like being a Cleveland sports fan. All we Cleveland fans ever wanted was the same thing that sports fans in every city want, for it all to work out … just one time.

    And In the ninth inning, with Cleveland up 6-0, Francona sent in closer Cody Allen to finish things off.

    On the surface — and really, even below the surface — this made no sense at all. Allen had quietly been as good as Miller this postseason. He has not allowed a run. Coming in, he had pitched late innings in six of Cleveland’s seven victories. He will undoubtedly be one of Francona’s most important weapons as this series goes on, and burning him even for a few pitches with a 6-0 lead seemed pointless. Anyone can close out a 6-0 game. That was certainly my first thought.

    Then, there was a second thought: Yes! Send in Cody Allen! Get this victory! These games are so precious. These chances come along so rarely. This is the whole point of the Cleveland experience. This is the whole point of Tuesday night. For 50 years, it did not happen. And then it did. Next door at the arena, they celebrated that championship, celebrated what it felt like to finally take off those tight shoes.

    But at the ballpark, Terry Francona was trying to win a ballgame.

    Curses!

    There are no curses left in the world. None. Break a mirror? It’s fine. Open all your umbrellas indoors? Rock an empty rocking chair, cross a black cat, walk under a ladder, step on a crack, stay in room 1313 on Friday the 13th — that’s all over with.

    The Chicago Cubs are in the World Series. They are playing the Cleveland Indians. And one of these teams will WIN the World Series. The age of curses is over!

    Hi everyone. Mike Schur here. Just popping in real quick, right here at the beginning of this piece, with a public service announcement: There is no such thing as curses. Joe is waxing poetic here, and I know that he knows that there is no such thing as curses, but anytime anyone mentions a “curse,” with respect to baseball franchises and their histories of futility, I feel the need to remind everyone that there is no such thing as curses. There is only decades-old systemic mismanagement, and haplessness, and random chance. So, really, that first paragraph should technically read thus:

    “There are no curses. None. There never have been. The Cubs were owned by incompetent owners and run by a string of mostly incompetent general managers and managed by mostly incompetent managers, and now they are not. So. The Chicago Cubs are in the World Series.”

    (It’s not as fun. I get it.)

    Hey, wait a minute — how did you get in here?

    You shared the Google doc with me, man. This is 100 percent on you.

    I don’t know technology, man. Anyway, if I had known we were doing this together again, I would have toned down the opening a little bit. It’s true, there are no such things as curses. Michael and I, when we have the time, do plan on going on a national mission to force hotel management teams to call their 13th floor “the 13th floor,” because we do not believe that we can advance as a species until this is done.

    That and ending “Black Friday” shopping riots. We are doomed as a people until there are no more humans injured in shopping malls trying to fight each other over a 20-percent-discounted flat screen TV.

    So yes, it’s also true that the Chicago Cubs have not made the World Series for the last 71 years because:

    1. For a time, kooky owner Philip K. Wrigley did not believe in farm systems. He thought the minor leagues should be entirely independent, a noble thought that wasn’t shared by the Dodgers, Giants and Braves. So those teams won. And the Cubs lost.

    Shocking.

    1. For a time, kooky owner Philip K. Wrigley believed in sending a hypnotist on the road with the team to put hexes on opponents. This did not work.

    Shocking.

    The Cubs then tried an experiment where they would rotate managers throughout the year. This also did not work.

    Had a better chance of working than the hex thing.

    1. The Cubs had a few teams good enough to get to the World Series. They just didn’t. They lost decisive playoff games in 1984 and 2003, not because of curses or a loyal fan named Steve Bartman, but because even really good baseball teams lose quite often.

    The Cubs’ history is the light beer version of the Red Sox’s history. At least the Cubs’ owner wasn’t a virulent racist (as far as I know), who had the chance to sign Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays and passed on both of them because, um, they weren’t good enough to make the team? (Sure, let’s go with that.) These “cursed” teams are just franchises run by goobers who actively hurt their own on-field product with incompetence.

    You would have to think that even the biggest racists in Boston at that time would have thought — “Yeah, I know, but he’s WILLIE MAYS!”

    Anyway, the story of racist and dimwitted owners bumbling through history with ludicrous free agent signings and 10-cent beer nights is so much less poetic. We’re writers man. It’s baseball. Can’t we at least use the Billy Goat curse and Curse of Chief Wahoo as a background to tell the story of this landmark World Series between Chicago and Cleveland, the two most cursed baseball teams in America?

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    No.

    OK, then. To be fair, there was a wonderful moment of non-curse clarity in the ninth inning of the Cubs’ super-simple 5-0 clinching victory over the Dodgers in Game 6. Aroldis Chapman was pitching, which, admittedly, doesn’t perfectly fit the Disneyesque ending. One out. Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz was at the plate.

    Ruiz turned on a Chapman fastball but didn’t quite get it — he pulled it foul. The ball floated toward the left-field stands and into the same general area where in 2003 Steve Bartman innocently reached for a foul ball and had the entire world crash down on him. It wasn’t exactly the same spot, but it was close enough to unearth that memory.

    What was striking was that nobody cared. There wasn’t any sense of foreboding, no scary music, no shadows lurking in the dark. It was like dad FINALLY walked into the kids’ closet, opened it up and shouted “See! No monsters in here! Go to sleep!” The super-talented Cubs kids didn’t worry AT ALL about ghosts or skeletons or witches or any of that Halloween stuff. They just decided to win, because (gasp) they are better at baseball.

    So, I’m a Red Sox fan. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that before.

    What? Boston Red Sox? When did this happen?

    And this is exactly the point that gave me comfort, back in 2004, when things got dicey — none of the players cared about Babe Ruth, curses, Johnny Pesky holding the ball, Bucky Dent, any of it. I would repeat that to myself, over and over: “Kevin Millar does not care about Bucky Dent. Bill Mueller does not care about Bucky Dent. Manny Ramirez has never heard of Bucky Dent, and certainly doesn’t care about Bucky Dent, and also literally does not know the names of half of his own teammates.” The same is certainly true of this Cubs team. Javier Baez is way too busy doing superhuman baseball things to think about the ancient history of the city he plays in.

    This gets to the heart of baseball — of sports — in so many ways. We assign so much meaning to everything these players do, right? Curses. Legends. Myths. We turn losing streaks into existential crises and good coaching moves into fits of surpassing brilliance and crucial sports confrontations into epic poems — the pitcher, the hitter, all them reaching within, summoning the courage and grit and audacity, finding the hero inside. We do this because it makes sports fun. But, realistically, Manny Ramirez hit .327 in his career with runners in scoring position and I doubt there were any sonnets going off in his brain at that moment.

    In 1994, Manny Ramirez walked into his clubhouse (in Cleveland) and saw people gathered around the TV, talking about how the police were looking for O.J.  He then got very concerned, because he didn’t know what his teammate, Chad Ogea, had done to make the police look for him.

    He never thought about the historical implications of the Red Sox’s futility streak. I promise.

    Now, it’s true, Manny Ramirez is a bit of an extreme example. But I suspect that most player mindsets are much closer to that of Manny than that of, say, Roger Angell or Bob Costas or someone finding the larger meaning of it all. My suspicion is that if the Chicago players — or Cleveland’s players — start to think about what has happened in their city the last half-century, what their teams have come to represent, what winning might mean to all those people that are being written about, they will collapse into a heap of stammers and coughs.

    But they won’t. That’s the whole point. The final double-play groundball of the Cubs-Dodgers series went Addison Russell-to-Baez-to-Anthony Rizzo — sort of a modern day Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance — and they executed it perfectly because they’ve trained to do it that way. And they weren’t thinking about billy goats or black cats or Ernie Banks. They’re kids who play baseball with joy and preposterous skill.

    Here’s what’s scary: they’re not only the best team in baseball, they’re also one of the youngest. Russell is 22 years old. Baez is 23. Bryant is 24. Rizzo, the grizzled veteran, is 27. That’s your infield — all of them All-Stars — for the next five years, at least. They’re so good they could absorb losing 23-year-old Kyle Schwarber for the year, and skip right over Jason Heyward’s 26-year-old season being a complete wash, and not miss a beat. This team is so young! I bet every night after the game David Ross has to dress all of them in their grown-up clothes and make sure they drink their juice.

    David Ross is 39 years old. I remember a time, not so long ago, when I thoroughly enjoyed making fun of 39-year-old athletes. Here’s a cool little bit on David Ross: He has hit 106 career home runs, which means he has had a very nice career. Can you name the pitcher off whom he hit his first homer? It was first baseman Mark Grace, who was put into the game because Arizona had run out of pitchers. The homer made the score 18-1.

    And while we’re talking David Ross trivia, do you know how he got into that game? He came in as a pinch-hitter for … current Dodgers manager Dave Roberts! Nutty!

    David Ross is a low-key baseball Forrest Gump.

    Do you think this is the kind of trivial nonsense that makes non-baseball fans despise the game and us?

    Who cares? It’s awesome.

    The Cubs really are absurdly young. And that means they will probably be the favorite to win the World Series for the next five years. In other words, they better enjoy being the lovable Cubs because, as Red Sox fans know (you are a Red Sox fan, right?), that lovability goes away quickly. After this Cubs team has won three World Series in five years, EVERYONE will despise them.

    MORE: HardballTalk’s World Series preview | Game 1 reset: Lester vs. Kluber

    But the Cubs are lovable now, and this is awkward for my hometown of Cleveland. You might have heard this: Cleveland has had its own sports demons. Cleveland had a nice run as the lovable team. Now Clevelanders are like: “Hey, over here, um, you know, those Cubs have not won since 1908, we get it, but, just so you know, we haven’t won a World Series since 1948. That’s also a long time ago.”

    And the whole country is like: “YOU GOT YOUR CHAMPIONSHIP! SHUT UP!”

    If the Indians win, maybe people would start to grumble about Cleveland. But a city that’s been in the drought Cleveland’s been in gets at least two before everyone turns on them for no reason. Plus, you’ll always have the Browns to keep you humble.

    You had to bring up the Browns, didn’t you? Worst team in sports, right? I mean, nobody else is pulling off the Marx Brothers routine with the panache and spectacular comedic timing as the Browns.

    The Browns are remarkable. They never get better. How is it possible, to never get any better?

    Turns out if you keep drafting terrible players, the team doesn’t get any better. Who knew?

    We’ve gone over how there aren’t any real curses left in the world, but I think even two grounded, worldly, skeptical people can admit that Theo Epstein is a witch, right? Or wizard, whatever.

    Let’s go with wizard. Or supergenius. Or “Mike’s Best Friend, Probably, If They Ever Hung Out.”

    Really? OK, yeah, I can see it. Theo would have to be on anybody’s top five, “Guys that you really wish were your best friend,” list. I’m thinking the list should look like this:

    1. Lin Manuel-Miranda
    2. Theo Epstein
    3. Nick Offerman
    4. Steph Curry
    5. James Corden

    My list:

    1. Theo Epstein
    2. David Ortiz
    3. Steph Curry
    4. Beyoncé
    5. Whoever Beyoncé’s actual best friend Is (so I’d be one degree of separation away from Beyoncé)

    Back to Theo — it seems to me everyone in America can agree now that after ending the Boston Red Sox drought AND ending the Chicago Cubs drought in the same lifetime, he should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame immediately — no voting, no waiting period. And just inducting him is not enough. They should have a “Theo Epstein Hall of Fame Week” in Cooperstown — like Shark Week but with Cracker Jack — and then they should rename various baseball actions after him, like the double play (“grounder to short, flip to second, over to first, that’s a Theo Epstein and the inning is over”).

    I think there’s a very good case to make that no matter what happens, he has sealed his induction. Right? How many GMs have had better runs? With two “cursed” teams? Here are the only things he could do, at this point, that would be more impressive than what he has done:

    1. Take over the Cleveland Browns and win a Super Bowl
    2. Become Prime Minister of Mauritius and turn it into a global superpower
    3. Run Curt Schilling’s campaign for Massachusetts senator and get him to within 30 percent of a win

    You’re a Boston fan, right? This whole Schilling-running-for-office thing has to sting.

    Yes, not sure I’ve mentioned this but I am a Boston fan. We’re all trying to ignore it. He’s making it hard, but we’re trying. Curt, if you’re reading this, I beg you: Do not run for Senate. Go ahead and tweet whatever you want — it’s a free country, and we can all mute you, so go nuts. But don’t run. Every time you open your mouth, it’s like learning that Gregory Peck used to torture animals for sport.

    Back to Theo again. People are always trying to get him to say which achievement he finds more rewarding: Red Sox or Cubs? I’ve personally heard him asked that question a dozen times … and that was BEFORE the Cubs even got to the World Series.

    Seems to me that’s a pretty cynical question. Hey, Shakespeare, what did you like better, MacBeth or Hamlet? I mean, this guy guided the team of his childhood, the team his family idolized, to its first World Series in 86 years. And then he built baseball’s punchline, the Chicago Cubs, from the ground up, and now they’ve reached their first World Series since World War II.

    Why does one have to be better? I mean, can’t he enjoy them both equally?

    He’d never say it, but I think he might be “prouder” of this one. Simply because when he took over, the cupboard was so bare. In Boston, when he took over, they had Pedro Martinez, Manny, Johnny Damon and Nomar Garciaparra, plus Kevin Youkilis in the minors. He made a string of brilliant moves, but they had a core, and the Cubs had nothing close to that core. Boston’s win might have made him happier, but I bet a Cubs win would make him prouder.

    That’s a fair point. I know that after that stunning early success in Boston, Epstein craved the chance to build his own team. Boston was, as you might know, a blend of many different visions. Theo used to talk about the romance of taking over some small-market team like Milwaukee or Minnesota and somehow making them a winner despite the limitations. I can remember telling him that, having been around small-market teams, it ain’t that romantic.

    Then he got the PERFECT situation — a big-market team that had small-market sensibilities. I know he has loved working with GM Jed Hoyer and many other people to create a whole new vision for the Chicago Cubs (the first year, he proudly showed me this manual they called “The Cubs Way!” I think there was an exclamation point). And then, after they created that small-market vision, hey, what do you know, the Cubs had a few hundred-million dollars to get Jon Lester and Heyward (sigh) and Ben Zobrist.

    In that way, yes, I suspect the Cubs achievement does give him a bigger sense of pride. But I would bet he likes both accomplishments equally.

    One of the cool things about this World Series is that I think you are matching up the two best managers in baseball. Well, two of the top three — you have to throw Bruce Bochy in there. But if I was a baseball owner and I could hire any manager on earth, I’d only have three interviews. One would be Joe Maddon. Two would be Terry Francona. Three would be Beyonce.

    See, I’d meet with Beyoncé first, then Tito, then Joe. I bet ‘Bey has some very advanced ideas about infield platoons.

    Well, she is ***Flawless. See how I brought in a once hip pop-culture reference to make this thing lit?

    Yes. Great work, grandpa.

    These kids with their rock and roll and the pants hanging down … hey, how do you do that with Beyonce? Get the little e thing on the end? Beyoncé — like that?

    Yes. Option-e, then e again. (This is riveting journalism, right now.)

    Wow: é. Anyway, what makes Maddon and Francona so good? When I asked Epstein about his manager, he didn’t talk about Maddon’s practical tactical brilliance. He talked about how COOL Maddon is. As subjective as that is, I think there’s something to it. Yes, Maddon and Francona are strategists who push baseball boundaries. Yes, they both have a great sense for the moment — when to take the big gamble, when to hold back. Yes, they both know how to motivate players and they’re not weak-kneed about confrontation.

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    But beyond all that, Maddon and Tito are just cool people, the sort of people you want to do well for. Have you ever had a boss like that?

    …I mean, sure, they seem “cool.” I think what makes them good is that they do things like use Andrew Miller in high-leverage situations in the fifth inning, and employ well-researched defensive shifts.

    Or maybe it’s your “rad boss” theory.

    You mock, but there are plenty of good tactical managers out there. That is undoubtedly part of it, a big part. I think there’s something else too. Let’s face it: These are kids playing baseball. Even the veterans are mostly in their late 20s and early 30s. They are a few years out of high school and college and they are talented and rich and beloved and in demand. They play 200 games together in a year, including spring training and postseason, and they lose a whole bunch of them, and they go into nasty slumps that they can’t explain, and some smart-ass on the radio or on Twitter rips them and … I’m just saying I’d sure as heck like Maddon as my manager. Or Francona. Or Beyonce (Beyoncé).

    I heard Maddon on Mike and Mike, and they asked him what he said to his team after they got shut out twice in a row, and were down 2-1 to the Dodgers. He said, “I didn’t say anything.” I believe him — I feel like he isn’t the guy to give some big speech. He has low blood pressure. My favorite Maddon quote was when he was asked, last year, about feeling the pressure of the Cubs making a playoff run under the shadow of the “curse,” and he said, “I don’t vibrate at that frequency.” That’s a great quote. So maybe you’re right — it is that he’s a cool dude.

    You mentioned Andrew Miller, which I think is a nice transition to the “analytical” portion of our World Series preview. We definitely need something witty to call it like Phil Simms’ “Phil-osophy.”

    How about: “Joe and Mike’s Rambling World Series Preview-slash-Beyoncé Appreciation Hour?”

    Perfect. And don’t forget, “Plus sly little Hamilton references that most people will miss.” For Cleveland, clearly, it all comes down to two players. Well, it doesn’t really, it never comes down to two players, but you can’t have one of these analytical breakdowns without oversimplifying everything and avoiding the nuances and complications of real life.

    But you have to make them so big and broad that you can claim you were right. “Phil-osophy: This Super Bowl will come down to two things: The Broncos’ defense, and Cam Newton’s ability to score points.”

    The first of those players is Miller, Cleveland’s dark lord reliever who in these playoffs has this line:

    11.2 innings, five hits, zero runs, two walks, 21 strikeouts, .355 OPS against.

    That’s scary stuff, almost as scary as his awesome beard.  I’m not really a beard guy, but it works for him. The Yankees made a terrible mistake making him shave that beard … oh, and also trading him.

    Miller is worth a whole column of his own. He was a can’t-miss prospect as a starter, the sixth pick overall. Then he washed out of Detroit and Florida, and nearly out of Boston. I mean, the guy couldn’t throw a strike to save his life. As a starter, he walked between five and NINE guys per nine innings. Then, Boston converted him to a reliever, he cut his walks by two-thirds, and now he’s maybe the best three-to-six out pitcher in the game. You referred to him in our PosCast as a “superweapon.” That’s an apt analysis.

    Let’s give our pal Brandon McCarthy his due for the Miller line of the postseason when he wrote: “Baseball is so rooted in traditions that hitters still take their bats to the plate against Andrew Miller even though they’re not needed.”

    Miller does feel like a modern superweapon. He’s not — he’s more of a throwback to the 1970s fireman than a new invention. But it has been so long since anyone has seen anything like him (and no fireman in the 1970s was a 6-foot-6 lefty with a high-90s fastball and a blood-curdling slider). He pitches two innings every single time that Cleveland is in a winnable game. I can’t help but wonder if Miller is the guy who finally breaks managers out of their boring one-inning closer cycle.

    If not he, than who?

    Chapter review question: Buck Showalter. Why? Discuss.

    You’re talking about him not using Zach Britton, I assume. In which case the answer is: “Because he blew it.”

    In the meantime, with Cleveland’s rotation a wreck, it sure seems like Miller is Cleveland’s one hope against this Cubs lineup. He might pitch two innings every game. Maybe three. Heck, he might just start every game that Corey Kluber cannot (Kluber and Miller/and the rest is all filler).

    This is where we point out how amazing it is that the Indians are in the World Series despite losing Danny Salazar (for a long time) and Carlos Carrasco (for the season). Amazing.

    Definitely amazing. And don’t forget Michael Brantley — he was the team’s best hitter. He’s missed almost the whole year.

    The other Cleveland player to talk about: Francisco Lindor. I’m going to make a hard admission. Many people know that the Derek Jeter lovefest drove me absolutely crazy. It wasn’t Jeter himself — he was a fantastic player, a Hall of Famer, etc. But if anything good happened on planet Earth, big or small — a war ended, a stray dog was taken in, a lost iPad was returned, a disease was cured — Derek Jeter got the credit.

    The New York Times headline on Aug. 14, 1945 was “JAPAN SURRENDERS, END OF WAR, PEACE TREATY PAVES WAY FOR DEREK JETER’S BIRTH IN 29 YEARS”

    Now, I’m still against giving a player an overwhelming amount of credit for stuff that he has nothing to do with. But after watching Lindor with Cleveland … I understand the impulse. Lindor is a very good baseball player — a superior defender, a good hitter, a fine base-runner.

    But he also has this thing, the thing Jeter had, I don’t know, this energy, this charisma, this presence, and you see how his teammates respond to him, you see how the fans respond to him, you see how he’s the ONLY Cleveland guy hitting in the postseason (rest of the team hit .138 in Toronto series). And, yes, you find yourself thinking that this guy never does anything wrong and is responsible for all good things in the world.

    It’s very exciting to think about Lindor and Baez on baseball’s biggest stage. Two remarkable all-around players. Defensive magicians. They are about to become un-anonymous.

    Javy Baez. Now THAT is a whole column waiting to happen. But we’re 200,000 words into this one and so we have to go on. Leave it at this — Javy Baez: Wow.

    The Cubs are easier to analyze: They’re awesome. The whole team. They’re have the best starting pitching in baseball. They have a ridiculous lineup with fantastic young hitters. They are an absurdly great fielding team. They’re better than a healthy Cleveland team. They’re considerably better than this Cleveland team.

    They would basically have every check mark on the matchup chart except bullpen — and the guy at the end of their bullpen throws 87 million mph.

    I am going out on a limb here: I think their reliance on Chapman is their weakness. Yes, he throws impossibly hard, but he is hittable. He is more hittable than Kenley Jansen, more hittable than Miller for sure — and in his career he has walked more than four guys per nine innings. He would make me very nervous, were I a Cubs fan.

    Totally agree. If the score is tied in the sixth or later, I’d feel better about Cleveland’s pen. If the Cubs are up one run, I don’t think the Cleveland hitters would feel the same helplessness as Cubs hitters might against Miller. Still, it should be said again that Chapman throws 87,000,000 mph.

    And it’s baseball. It’s a short series. Jared Diamond at the Wall Street Journal just wrote a piece about how the Cubs are so good they have (to quote the headline) “built a team to transcend the crapshoot nature of playoff baseball.”

     

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    Well, I don’t buy that at all. The Cubs needed a miracle inning to beat the Giants in Game 4 or else they would have faced a rested Johnny Cueto and the indestructible Madison Bumgarner in Game 5. Heck, it was only a few days ago that the Cubs were down 2-1 to the Dodgers and, realistically, they got some help from the Dodgers in the one game they won. I don’t think any team is built so well that they are immune to the crapshootiness of baseball.

    The Warriors lost. The 18-0 Patriots lost. The 116-win Mariners lost. No team in any sport is immune to short-series variance. Except the 2016-17 Warriors. They are going to win every game they play, by 50, with their starters playing 18 minutes a game.

    The crapshootiness — I like that word — gives us some legitimate questions to ask:

    First: Will Cleveland run wild on Jon Lester, who seems unable to make a pickoff throw to first base?

    Here’s something you don’t know about me: I’m a Red Sox fan.

    Wait? Since when?

    And I have to say that Terry Francona instructing his players to take advantage of Jon Lester’s throwing-to-first-base yips fills me with a deep existential sadness that I’m not sure I will be able to come back from. If Mike Napoli, or Coco Crisp, steals on Lester at Francona’s command, I will start crying very hard.

    The Lester throwing yips is one of the weirdest things in the world, right? I mean throwing a baseball is ALL HE DOES. He has impeccable command and control when pitching a baseball but he can’t flip a ball to first base? I know there are other examples of such maladies, like Mackey Sasser’s inability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. But Lester’s thing feels different. I mean: His whole job is throwing a baseball, something he does about as well as anyone on earth. It’s like finding out that Eric Clapton can’t play “Louie Louie.”

    What’s even weirder is that the Dodgers didn’t try to take advantage of it, more. He has managed to compensate a little by varying his pause, and by shortening his leg kick out of the stretch, but he literally can’t throw to first. Why are you not running on every pitch?!

    That was weird, wasn’t it? The Dodgers’ runners would take these HUGE leads, like they were on the playground shouting “Na-na-na–boo-boo!” just DARING Lester to throw over — and he would not. And instead of just taking the stolen base, they would go back to the bag as he pitched like, “Aw! That didn’t work.”

    Second question: What the heck has happened to Jason Heyward? I mean, it’s true, he was never a GREAT hitter. He made his bones (and his $184 million contract) with versatility and multiple talents. He’s a great outfielder. He’s a terrific base-runner. He hit well enough and with some power. He was a package deal, like one of those do-everything gadgets you get at Brookstone.

    Now: Can’t hit. I mean: CANNOT HIT. It’s like an amnesia scene in a movie. He’s hitting .071 in the postseason, and he’s looked worse than that. I’m not exactly sure what Maddon does with him.

    He plays him, I think, against righties. But he is the first guy out in a double switch. Every at-bat is fastball strike one, fastball strike two, slider down-and-in strike three (swinging). He’s utterly lost. If the rest of that Cubs lineup weren’t so deep and solid, he would be getting an enormous amount of scrutiny. (But also, this is the World Series, and if he hits one seventh-inning home run to put his team up in a game they win, all is forgotten.)

    If he strikes out, though, with the bases loaded in the ninth, it becomes a much bigger deal.

    So, yeah, if you want to pick at the Cubs’ scabs, you can. Which Jake Arrieta will we see? Will the Cubs’ bats go silent again like they did for periods in the Giants and Dodgers series? Can Cleveland win Kansas City Royals-style: scrape together for a few runs, shorten the game and then blow the Cubs away in the late innings with their bullpen?

    Possible. But, there’s this: The Chicago Cubs are the best team in baseball. That doesn’t stop sounding weird, but it is true. They’re one of the best teams so far this century, I think. And it sure feels like this is their year.

    Agree. To quote the Mountain Goats: Cubs in Five.

    You just quoted the Mountain Goats. I think Cubs in six or seven, but holding out for the hometown Tribe. One thing I think we can all agree on is that the Curse of Chief Wahoo is much more powerful than the Curse of the Billy Goat.

    Objection. Asked and answered.

    1. Maybe this will be the Series that Cleveland finally decides to retire that logo. Can’t they just see that the “C” is SO MUCH BETTER … and also does not mock an entire group of people? Can’t they just let it disappear?

    Now THAT is something we can all root for.

    Also Beyonce. Or, sorry, Beyoncé.

    Tito’s secret

    Let’s be honest: What you want in a manager of your favorite team is someone who wins. It doesn’t need to go too much deeper than that.

    Yes, of course, you would prefer it if your team’s manager or coach has a vivid personality — funny, outrageous, thoughtful, loyal, loony, whatever you like. Bears fans famously loved Mike Ditka with his tough football history and boss mustache and in-your-face approach to life. Spurs fans surely love Gregg Popovich, his refusal to tolerate foolishness always on display along with a passionate insistence on playing the game right.

    And, of course, Patriots fans mostly love Bill Belichick, not in spite of his obvious flaws but because of them, because he buries himself in the game, because he cuts through the nonsense, because he cares so little about others’ approval that he wears a hoodie to games, because he’s both unromantic and romantic and will do what he needs to do to win.

    But, really, all of it comes down to that last part, right? Winning. No managers/coaches remain beloved for very long while losing. Cowboys fans adored just about everything about Tom Landry for a quarter-century. They weren’t as crazy about him at 3-13.

    So, yes, you want a winner. But it’s even more than that.

    Every fan deserves, for at least a while, to have someone like Terry Francona coach or manage their team in the postseason.

    There is a lot to like about Tito … including the fact that people call him Tito, like his Dad, who led the American League in doubles while playing for Cleveland in 1960. This has always been one of my favorite ever baseball cards — that’s Terry’s father along with Rocky Colavito on the legendary “Power Plus” card from 1960:

    power-plus-rocky-colavito-tito-francona

    Tito — and from now on we’ll be using that name to refer to Terry himself — is an extremely likable person. That isn’t exactly why you would want him as manager, but it certainly helps. You spend any time with him at all and you wish you could spend more. He’s all those things that make people appealing — he’s interesting, occasionally hilarious, thoroughly engaging, loyal to a fault.

    He’s one of those rare successful people who listens carefully, not because business manuals say leaders should listen, but because he’s genuinely interested in what another person is saying.

    He’s one of those rare successful people who craves success but not credit. You probably saw how, after Cleveland took out Toronto in Game 5 of the ALCS, Francona just disappeared from the postgame interview scene for a few minutes.

    “Where did you go?” he was asked by a slightly unnerved Turner’s Ernie Johnson, who clearly had been looking for him everywhere.

    “They deserved to have their own moment,” Tito said, and he was talking about Cleveland Indians president Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff. Francona realized that if he was standing there waiting to be interviewed, Antonetti and Chernoff would get quickly pushed aside the way presidents and GMs always are in such settings. After all, the people want to hear from Tito.

    But then Francona left, and with him gone, Antonetti and Chernoff were asked a series of questions until he came back. They got to talk for longer, I suspect, then any president/GM combination in the history of postgame TV interviews. That’s Tito in a nutshell.

    So all of these are reasons to LIKE Francona. Then again, I could give you many reasons to personally like Buddy Bell or Ray Knight or Tony Pena or a few dozen other engaging managers. Francona has something else.

    In the postseason, Tito comes to win.

    Now, of course, his teams don’t always win. He couldn’t get things going in Philadelphia at the start of his managerial career. He led the Red Sox to two World Series, yes, but he also managed some postseason failures like the three-game sweeps by the White Sox in 2005 and the Angels in 2009. His first Cleveland team got entirely shut down at home against Tampa Bay in the Wild Card game three years ago. The Francona force of personality doesn’t always work.

    Then again: Nothing ALWAYS works. Managers are not magicians. Nobody should think that the right move always works or that the optimum strategy guarantees anything at all in a short series. Talent … luck … timing … will … concentration … the reasons for winning and losing go on and on and on.

    But what Tito gets — and what a surprising number of managers do not — is that while regular-season managing is about balance and trust and (some) strategy and relationships and keeping everyone loose and (mostly) talent, the postseason is something else entirely. I once talked to Tito about regular-season managing, and he told a story about how his friend, former Patriots and Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, wandered into the clubhouse in June or July and was annoyed by the loud music and how relaxed everyone looked. Where was the hunger? Where were the game faces?

    “I have to tell him all the time, ‘Scott, we play 162 of these things,’” Tito said. “It’s different in football, where they play one game a week and it is, like sacred. We do this every day. And if we put too much emphasis on one game, if we have too many team meetings, if we get up for every game the way they do in football, it’s not going to work.”

    That’s a perfect summation of regular-season managing. To be a successful regular-season manager — and it’s a hard one — is to guide a team through the long season, to shorten funks, to ride the good waves as long as you can, to play the long game, to energize and relax players, to stifle problems before they become too large to handle. If you manage a baseball team like a football team, you won’t make it out of April.

    But the postseason — that IS football. Every game is sacred. You get up for every game. One loss is devastating. It’s no wonder that so many managers, even fabulous regular-season managers, do not know how to turn on that postseason switch. Buck Showalter is one of the best regular-season managers ever. But even now he seems to believe that not pitching his best pitcher, Zach Britton, in a one-game extra-inning playoff loss was the right strategic move. Over a long season, maybe there are sound reasons for that decision. In a win-or-go-home scenario, it’s utterly inexplicable.

    The truth is, though, that few managers can turn up the volume for the postseason. It’s just not in their nature. Joe Torre did. Bobby Cox could not. There are more Bobby Coxes out there than Joe Torres.

    Tito is a good regular-season manager, but he TRANSFORMS come playoff time. His managing this postseason has been triumphant. This Cleveland team had no business winning anything in these playoffs. They are now without 60 percent of their starting rotation. They are missing the team’s best hitter the last two seasons. They even lost their starting catcher, Yan Gomes. Sure, the esteemed Cleveland baseball writer Paul Hoynes took a lot of guff for declaring the season over back on Sept. 17 after Carlos Carrasco broke a bone in his pitching arm, but he was just stating the obvious. How in the heck was THIS team going to win in the playoffs?

    Tito went to work. He did not hide from the obvious challenges — he embraced them. It is like he said to his team: “Look, guys, the only way we can win is if we stick together, do whatever we can to help the team and take a whole bunch of chances.”

    So they did. Tito didn’t throw his ace, Corey Kluber, in Game 1 of the Boston series, choosing instead to give him just a little more time to recover from his own injury issue. He started Trevor Bauer and then brought the dark lord, Andrew Miller, into the fifth inning for the first time in years, and then brought in Brian Shaw, and then brought in Cody Allen. Against all logic, Cleveland hit a bunch of homers and won 5-4.

    Then Tito had his ace, Kluber, rested and healthy for Game 2, and Cleveland won convincingly. That was more or less the series.

    It will forever remain a mystery how Cleveland beat the Blue Jays four out of five games with less than half a rotation and the entire team hitting .168 (and scoring a grand total of 12 runs). Once again, Tito managed every game like it was the last game, never worrying about tomorrow, never holding back. He used up his best relievers. He put his best home run hitter, Carlos Santana, in the leadoff spot (where he didn’t hit much but DID hit two critical home runs). He sent Kluber out on short rest. The urgency crackled through his team. By comparison, the Blue Jays looked spent.

    The worst feeling as a sports fan is when your team loses a big game it could have — or SHOULD have — won. Timidity leaves behind scars. You watch your team lose because they went into the prevent defense too early or they left their best reliever on the bench or they were not willing to risk anything to close out the victory … that’s just the worst.

    And so, it’s just the best when you have a manager like Tito, who embraces the big moment and takes big risks. Of course, that stuff can blow up in your face, too. Cleveland knows that better than most — one of the most painful losses in Cleveland sports history happened when Sam Rutigliano had Brian Sipe throw the Red Right 88 pass rather than just settling for a nice makeable game-winning field goal.

    It cuts both ways. The bottom line is still winning. But winning is especially fun when you have a manager like Tito throwing everything against the wall.

    Lost at C

    Jason Heyward was a somewhat controversial player even before this year. Some baseball people loved him. Others just never saw what the big deal was. He was a darling of advanced statistics, like Wins Above Replacement (WAR), but his more traditional numbers left you yawning. When he got $180 million from the Chicago Cubs before the season, many thought that it was a genius move. And many others wondered if the entire world had gone mad.

    Now, after one of the most dismal offensive season ever for a 26-year-old star, the question is: What the heck is going on here?

    Start with this: Through 2015 — that is, through Heyward’s age-25 season — he had 31.1 WAR (as calculated by Baseball-Reference). That is a lot. Bryce Harper, through five seasons, has just 21.5 WAR. Heyward’s WAR at such a young age placed him in the land of the baseball giants, in the neighborhood of Barry Bonds and Roberto Alomar, alongside Stan Musial and George Brett. Now, you can legitimately ask how a 25-year-old player with a .268 batting average, a player who averaged 15 homers per season and had never scored or driven in 100 runs, could find himself in such a pricey neighborhood.

    The answer, at least according to WAR metrics, was that Heyward’s value was built up not with flashy offensive numbers but because he did EVERYTHING well. It’s the ants theory from “Bull Durham.” “You get three ants together,” Annie Savoy said, “and they can’t do ****. You get 300 million of them, they can build a cathedral.”

    Heyward was building cathedrals. A bit more than 40 percent of his WAR value came from his fantastic outfield defense. This was his true talent. Then, his offensive value was boosted tremendously because he was also a terrific base-runner (he stole bases, was rarely caught, did not hit into many double plays, scored often from second on singles, etc). He walked enough to keep his on-base percentage comfortably above league average. And then he hit with just enough power and just enough consistency to finish the cathedral.

    Heyward’s 2015 season in St. Louis was, in many ways, his most perfectly contentious season. He hit .293 with 13 homers, blah numbers, and yet, he received MVP votes. Again, it was his defense and small-scale offensive skills that impressed his advocates. He finished fifth in the league in WAR but 20th in runs created and 50th in RBIs. He won a Gold Glove. He was the league’s most underrated or most overrated player depending on your point of view.

    The Cubs took the more optimistic view and gave him a gigantic contract. “He fits our organization perfectly,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said, “because he’s the right age, he’s a complete player, his skills complement the rest of what we have so well. He perfectly addresses so many of our weaknesses.”

    The Cubs’ two perceived weakness coming into 2016 were that outfield defense and their strikeout habit. Heyward, with his superior outfield skill and ability to put the ball in play, did seem a perfect match.

    Then, the roof caved in. It would be difficult to overstate just how bad Heyward was offensively in 2016. He hit .230 and finished 66th in total bases (only one full-time player, Miami shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, had fewer total bases). Only eight outfielders this century have played every day and slugged .325, like Heyward did. And Heyward had this disastrous season at the time when baseballs flew out of ballparks at a near-record rate.

    Even that doesn’t quite get to the heart of this shocking cave-in. Good players have down seasons, sometimes even frightful seasons. It happens. But it almost never happens in their age-26 season. Those sorts of years happen when they are young and still figuring things out or when they are in their 30s and declining faster than expected. But at 26, right in the heart of a player’s prime, well, what Heyward did is unheard of. Heyward’s age was one of the big reasons the Cubs gave him a big contract. They anticipated that he would have three or four of his best seasons before he began to decline. It obviously did not work out that way.

    It’s hard to find a comparable collapse. I asked people on Twitter to think of one, and the most mentioned player was B.J./Melvin Upton. There are similarities, but it doesn’t seem like a perfect fit. Yes, Upton had a strong first full season when he was 22 years old. He hit .300/.386/.508 with 24 homers and some speed. The next year, he had a .383 on-base percentage and stole 44 bases. He fell off dramatically from there.

    But Upton was a different sort of player — a mercurial swing-for-the-fences type who struck out a lot and, as a result, was wildly inconsistent. He was an aggressive but, by the numbers, not very effective base runner, and he was a sub-par outfielder. Yes, he did collapse when he went to Atlanta as a 28-year-old (hitting .184), but there were signs that it was happening. With Heyward, there were no such signs. He had just put up four similar offensive seasons.

    There are others — Carlos Baerga, Carl Crawford, Carlos Gomez, even Robinson Cano for a year — who have had their own mysterious falls, but their stories are different from Heyward’s. He seemed too together, too consistent, too athletic and too skilled to fall apart like this. It should be said that while his offense caved in, his defense was still superior and he ran the bases well. As Chicago play-by-play announcer Len Kasper says, he still helped the team. But it was ALL defense and base running. He badly hurt the team with his bat, something that is particularly hurtful come the postseason and during short series.

    There are numerous theories about Jason Heyward’s offensive collapse. Some believe he is pressing to impress his new team and to prove that he’s worth the money. He’s admitted as much. Some blame his swing, which was always unconventional but now looks like an awkward dance move. He definitely has numerous technical adjustments to make.

    Some think that he is just lost — completely devoid of confidence — and that theory does seem to have some merit when you look at how pitchers have been confronting him. They are basically just challenging him with fastballs. That’s it. More than 65 percent of the pitchers Heyward has faced this year are fastballs, one of the highest percentages in baseball and by far the highest percentage of his career. Pitchers are not ever bothering to change speeds against him. They just throw fastballs in full confidence that he can’t catch up. They attack Jason Heyward much in the way they attack opposing pitchers.

    Tuesday’s game provided a revealing and, for Heyward fans, painful example. He did not start against lefty Rich Hill — manager Joe Maddon realizes he just can’t afford Heyward’s bat as the Cubs struggle to score runs. He was sent in to pinch-hit against the Dodgers’ Joe Blanton, who is a slider-first pitcher these days. According to Pitchf/x numbers, Blanton only threw his fastball 21 percent of the time this year.

    But with Heyward at the plate, Blanton threw a 90-mph fastball over the inside half of the plate. Heyward watched it go by for a strike. Blanton then threw another 90-mph fastball over the inside half of the plate. Heyward watched that one go by for a strike, too.

    Then, Blanton threw his slider, and Heyward swung and missed it by about 200 miles. It was as bad an at-bat as you will ever see from a good player, a crushing illustration of just how far Heyward has fallen.

    And it left little hope that Heyward can still save this season with some postseason heroics. He is 2-for-19 in the playoffs and, with the Dodgers having a lefty-dominated rotation, it’s unlikely that Maddon will give him too many at-bats.

    Whatever ails Heyward will need to be fixed in the offseason. Can he fix it? There’s no telling. But his bet will be to try far away from the spotlight, away from all the people who shake their heads because they can’t understand how it went wrong and others who shake their heads because they never got the fuss about him in the first place.

    Now or never

    On the surface, it makes no sense to start Corey Kluber on short rest for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The issues are clear:

    One, Kluber has never started on three days’ rest and so there is no history for him or Cleveland to fall back on. Nobody, including Kluber, knows how it will play, but it’s likely that there will be some performance fall-off because of the missing day.

    Two, Cleveland is already up 3-0 in the series, meaning they could easily sacrifice Game 4 in order to get a fully-rested Kluber in Game 5. Ask yourself: How much better of a chance does Cleveland have of winning a game with a rested Kluber? Ten percent better chance? Twenty? More? When you only need one more win, you want to put your ace in the best position to get that win.

    Three, Game 4 is in Toronto. You can’t really learn anything too valuable from Kluber’s two career starts in Toronto — it’s not enough of a sample size — but somewhere in the back of your mind you do know that he got shellacked in Toronto early this season, failing to get out of the fourth. This leads to the more salient point: The Blue Jays crush the ball in Toronto. They hit 24 points higher and slugged 36 points higher in Toronto in 2016. The slugging gap was even wider in 2015. Obviously, yes, even if you held Kluber for full rest, he would pitch Game 5 in Toronto. But this only strengthens the point: If you have to put Kluber in Toronto to clinch a World Series bid, you would obviously want a locked-and-loaded Kluber.

    Four, if Kluber loses Game 4 — and you have put him in a more likely position to lose — Terry Francona has a staggeringly slim set of options going forward. He will have to start a rookie with 11 innings in the majors, Ryan Merritt, in Game 5. Lose there, and he goes with the gutsy, but not exactly intimidating, Josh Tomlin in Game 6. And then it’s back to Kluber, but once again on short rest, for Game 7. None of this looks especially appealing from a Cleveland perspective.

    Blue Jays fans know, even down 3-0, this series is still there to be won if they can take Kluber out in Game 4.

    So, yes, all the reasons for NOT pitching Kluber tonight are easy to see.

    But all of those reasons ignore one simple fact: It’s a flippin’ miracle that Cleveland has gotten this far in the first place. This is just the scant remains of what was one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball. Carlos Carrasco, for much of the season, was a leading Cy Young candidate. He last pitched on September 17. Danny Salazar was striking out 10.6 batters per nine innings with his high 90s fastball and wipeout change-up. He too was a viable Cy Young candidate in July. He last pitched on September 9.

    Trevor Bauer was alternately terrific and dreadful all year, but he was the wildcard, the flaky and bold who might just show up and strike out 13 like he did against Toronto back in August. He blew up his pinkie finger playing around with a drone. He called it a non-issue in a wide-ranging interview on Sunday where he also called “Phantom Menace” his favorite Star Wars movie because Darth Maul is “one of the coolest villains.”*

    *Tom Tango posits that this is both understandable and even admirable because Bauer was eight years old when “Phantom Menace” came out and, as I have written many times, baseball and other stuff is always best when you are eight years old. I see and even enjoy the logic of that but don’t accept it — “Phantom Menace” was an abomination upon the earth and while, yes, at the time I thought the 1975 Cleveland Indians were the best team ever, growing up has disabused me of that absurd notion.

    But of course the drone injury was a major factor, and Bauer couldn’t even make it through the first inning in Game 3. He’s certainly done as a starting pitcher for this series.

    There you go: Three-fifths of the rotation, gone. This is why, if this series goes five games, Francona will have no choice but to make some sort of Ryan Merritt/Steve Clevinger mixtape and probably burn up the bullpen again.

    So here’s Sophie’s Choice for Francona:

    Do you do the Merritt/Clevinger thing in Game 4 so that you can have a rested Kluber in Game 5?

    Do you throw Kluber out there in Game 4, gambling that he will be a lesser version of himself, and try to end the series now, understanding the consequences if you don’t?

    And when you put it that way, frankly, I don’t think it is a choice.

    I think, as long as Kluber wants to pitch on short rest (and he does), you HAVE to do exactly what Francona is doing and pitch him in Game 4, even with all the negatives that come with it.

    Here’s why:

    First, for the Merritt/Clevinger thing to work, it’s likely that Cleveland’s sensational bullpen will need to be rested. And it isn’t. The bullpen was a used-up force in Game 3, covering eight-plus innings. Cleveland’s six best relievers all pitched, and they were stretched out. Brian Shaw, who was mostly a one-inning pitcher this year, went one and two-thirds. Cody Allen, Cleveland’s closer, entered the game in the seventh inning for the first time all year and threw 27 high-pressure pitches. Then, Lord Voldemort (aka Andrew Miller), came in to close things out, doing his usual strikeout thing.

    You don’t want to go into a game the very next day more-or-less knowing that you will need all those guys again, and might need them for multiple innings. Yes, of course, it could work out that way even with Kluber on the mound, but you have to take a shot. Francona knows that if he is not careful, he could mess up his bullpen for the rest of the series.

    Second, pitching Kluber fits the philosophy that Francona has preached all postseason: Win today, worry about tomorrow then. For such a beat-up Cleveland team (and let’s not forget they are also without Michael Brantley, their best hitter), that theme has been energizing. They feed off Miller, who will come in at any time in any situation to save the day. They feed off Francisco Lindor, who helps the team in countless ways. They feed off Francona.

    Kluber wants to sacrifice for this team, too. It’s part of the spirit Francona has helped build. You’ve gone this far with it, you have to keep going.

    Third, and perhaps most important: Francona literally does not have a Game 7 starter if he doesn’t do this. Yes, of course, this cuts against the “worry about tomorrow then” concept, but I mean, you need SOMEBODY to start Game 7. Who? If you start Merritt in Game 4, are you going to bring an inexperienced rookie back on three days rest? No. Clevinger? You’re really going to start a 25-year-old kid with a 5.93 ERA in 10 career starters in Game 7 at home for a chance to go to the World Series?

    No, this is it. Cleveland has come absurdly far when you consider the journey. They’ve bluffed their way to the brink of the World Series with a pair of twos and one heck of a poker face. They’re still holding a pair of twos, but it’s too late to back out now. It’s the ultimate cliché but also the first rule of poker: You play the cards you are dealt.

    Return of the ‘Fireman’

    This postseason, as you no doubt have noticed, has been all about the shifting roles of relief pitchers. It has been fun to watch — like watching history in fast forward. The transformation began with an old-fashioned decision by Baltimore’s Buck Showalter to keep his best reliever, Zach Britton, in bubble wrap because the game was tied, a decision Buck drowned with. It continued with Terry Francona’s dazzling use of Cleveland’s super-reliever Andrew Miller in high-leverage middle inning situations.

    In San Francisco, Bruce Bochy tried to close out the Chicago Cubs with a tedious batter-by-batter matchup strategy, and that didn’t work out. Thursday night in Washington, the Nationals’ Dusty Baker tried his own version of that with a record-breaking six-pitcher inning. That one didn’t work out either.

    And finally, there was the Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, who decided to call for season-long closer Kenley Jansen with nobody out in the seventh and let him pitch until his arm fell off. Jansen threw more pitches than he ever had in a major league game and, when he’d run out of juice, Roberts went to the pen to bring out Game 4 starter and living legend Clayton Kershaw, which led to a stirring final two outs and a Dodgers victory.

    But before looking ahead to see what it all might bring, let’s look back at the remarkable story of John Hiller and his 1973 season for the ages. His past just might be baseball’s future.

    * * *

    John Hiller grew up in Canada, just outside of Toronto, and so he grew up loving hockey, not baseball. He used to say that he would have given up one year of professional baseball for just one game as goaltender of the Maple Leafs.

    But his talent was for throwing a baseball. “He has a weight problem,” Baseball Digest reported in 1967, “but that can be cured. Looks promising.” The best Canadian pitcher in baseball history before Hiller arrived on the scene was probably a Deadballer named Russ Ford, who won 99 games (though 26 of those was for the Buffalo Buffeds of the Federal League). In 1965, though, two Canadians made their debut. One was Hiller. The other was future Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins. It was a Canadian bumper crop.

    Hiller began his career as a multi-use pitcher for the Detroit Tigers in the mid-to-late 1960s. He started. He relieved. He did whatever was asked. He pitched effectively for the World Champion Tigers in ‘68. He was less effective in ‘69. He rebounded a bit in 1970. He seemed destined to be someone on one those of middling baseball cards that show up in every pack.

    Then, in January of 1971, something shattering happened to John Hiller: He had three heart attacks on the same day.

    Doctors were able to save his life, of course — it wouldn’t be much of a baseball story if they had not. But they told Hiller that his baseball career was over. Hiller, of course, refused to accept it. The Sporting News recounted Hiller’s wonderfully understated conversation with Tigers GM Jim Campbell after he returned from the hospital.

    HILLER: “I’ll be a little late for spring training.”

    CAMPBELL: “What’s the matter?”

    HILLER: “I had a little heart flareup.”

    CAMPBELL: “When did this happen?”

    HILLER: “January. I was in the hospital for four weeks and now I’m home.”

    CAMPBELL: “Why didn’t you say anything?”

    HILLER: “I didn’t want to worry anybody.”

    Hiller’s recovery was movie stuff.  He returned home to Duluth, Minn., and worked as a furniture salesman. But during various breaks and his lunch time, he worked out. The doctors would not let him even throw a baseball — not entirely sure why — but he ran two miles every day. He swam at least a mile. He played various sports like paddleball. He lost 40 pounds and dropped his cholesterol to what one of his doctors called “the level of a 12-year old.”

    “The doctors have never even hinted that I’d be able to pitch again,” he admitted to reporters in early 1972.

    Even after doctors cleared him to go to spring training, the Tigers remained doubtful. The entire sports world — but particularly people in Detroit — were still traumatized by the on-field death of Detroit Lions receiver Chuck Hughes. He had collapsed while running to the huddle toward the end of a Lions-Bears game in 1971, and he died shortly afterward of a massive heart attack.

    The Tigers reluctantly agreed to let Hiller come back, but only as a minor-league instructor. And it was during his time as an instructor that Hiller picked up a new kind of change-up, one that would complete his pitching arsenal. Mixing his good fastball with a wipeout slider and that new change-up, he became a whole new pitcher. He threw so impressively enough for scouts that the Tigers called him up in early July even though he had not pitched in a single minor-league game. He gave up a bomb to Dick Allen in his first appearance back. But he allowed just two runs in his next 11 appearances. The Tigers determined he was back.

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    ***

    On October 1, with the Tigers closing ground on the first place Red Sox, Hiller got a start against Milwaukee, and he threw a complete game, allowing just one run. In the ALCS against Oakland, he made three appearances and did not allow a run. The Tigers’ manager decided that Hiller was ready to become something new.

    That Tigers’ manager was a son of a gun named Billy Martin.

    Billy Martin is not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he might not ever get there, but the man was a fantastic manager. He was not fantastic because of his famous rage — that’s part of what kept him from becoming legendary. He was fantastic, I think, because he was not just willing to break with the times, he INSISTED on it. The man smashed conventions, broke all the dishes, did what other managers were too earthbound to do. If he needed to have his starters finish every game to win, he’d do that (in 1980, Oakland starters went at least eight innings 105 times, most in the last 70 seasons). If he thought a star like Reggie Jackson should bunt (either for strategic reasons or just to humble the man), he would make Reggie Jackson damn well bunt no matter what the fallout might be. He would send Rickey Henderson EVERY SINGLE TIME the guy got on base.

    Heck, if he wanted to shake up the team, he might put all their names in a hat and draw a lineup out of a hat.*

    *This has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but I can’t let the opportunity pass to tell the story of Detroit’s August 13, 1972 game against Cleveland. It was the first game of a doubleheader. The Tigers had lost four in a row and 10 of their last 13. They were fading. Martin was going out of his head. So that day he decided to pull the lineup out of a hat. And, man, that lineup was a gem.. Thirty-seven year old slugger Norm Cash led off (for only the second time in his career). Ed Brinkman (he of the .300 career slugging percentage) hit clean up. Al Kaline and Bill Freehan didn’t even make it into the lineup.

    And so what happened? Magic happened of course. The Tigers won 3-2. They beat Gaylord Perry, who would go on to win Cy Young Award. And the key player? Cleanup slugger Eddie Brinkman, who doubled home the tying run and scored the winning.

    In 1973, Martin decided to make John Hiller into a weapon. All year, whenever the Tigers got into a big situation — didn’t matter the inning, didn’t matter how many or few hitters were on base, all that mattered was that Martin felt that buzz of uncertainty — he brought in John Hiller.

    The baseball term “high leverage” was not a thing in 1973. Neither was the statistic Win Probability Added. But Martin brought Hiller into every high-leverage situation the team faced — when the season ended, Hiller had what to that point was the highest Win Probability Added of any relief pitcher in baseball history. Nobody knew it then, but it was also the sixth-highest WPA for ANY pitcher since 1930, higher than any Sandy Koufax year, higher than Bob Gibson’s 1968 season, higher than Tom Seaver’s 1969 year.

    Win Probability Added is just that — you add (and subtract) the win percentages based on what a pitcher or hitter does. It is a quirky and contentious statistic because it makes some outs much more valuable than others. Retiring the first batter of the game, for instance, will be worth much less than getting an out in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and the pitcher’s team up by one one run.

    In other words, it’s the perfect statistic to quantify Hiller’s 1973 season. He came into clutch situations time after time after time. And he was spectacular. Martin brought Hiller in to tie games, in to close games, in the early innings, in the middle innings, in the late innings. Nine times, Martin brought Hiller in just to get the final out. Four times, Martin brought Hiller in and left him out there for at least four innings. Hiller saved 38 games, a then-Major League record. But he also won 10 games because Martin kept using him in non-save situations too. He came in with 84 runners on base, which is a lot. He stranded 71 of them, which was mind-blowing.

    How amazing of a year was it? Baseball Reference calculates he was 8.1 wins above replacement that year. That WAR is the second-best ever for a reliever (behind only Goose Gossage’s absurd 1975 season) and ahead of many of even the great starting pitching seasons. Nolan Ryan, for example, never had an 8.1 WAR season. But more to the point, modern day closers can’t even come close to that kind of production. Mariano Rivera is the best modern day closer, just about everyone would agree, and he never had more than 5.0 WAR in a season (and that 5 WAR season was before he became a closer — his WAR high as a closer is 4.3).

    If you add Trevor Hoffman’s TWO best seasons together, it doesn’t add up to 8.1 WAR.

    But maybe you don’t like WAR as a statistic, especially for relievers. There are numerous other ways to quantify how much more valuable John Hiller was in 1973 than any of the star closers of the last 25 years. And it was something new. Yes, there had been relief pitchers who were used in many different situations — Hoyt Wilhelm, Dick Radatz, Tug McGraw, Mike Marshall among others — and were extremely valuable. But no reliever — not even Mike Marshall, who pitched practically every day — had ever been used in so many important situations.

    In many ways, Hiller was the first “Fireman,” a term that gained much more popular usage in the 1970’s. He was called to put out fires. And over the next decade or so, the fireman reined. Goose Gossage in 1975 was an extraordinary fireman. Bruce Sutter threw 107 innings in 1977 and had a 6.5 WAR, which would have led the National League this year.

    Jim Kern in 1979 for Texas … Doug Corbett for Minnesota in 1980 … Willie Hernandez in his 1984 MVP season … these were firemen. In 1983, Dan Quisenberry set the record with 26 saves pitching at least two innings. The next year, he had 27, which remains the record. Bill Campbell in 1977 had 11 THREE inning saves. Gene Garber (remember him?) had 13 career FOUR inning saves. Rollie Fingers got to the Hall of Fame as a fireman; he had 131 career multi-inning saves, which is the most all time. Lee Smith was a fireman early in his career (though he morphed later into a more modern closer) Kent Tekulve was a fireman. Sparky Lyle … Jeff Reardon … Gary Lavelle … Roger McDowell, among others.

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    ***

    So what happened? When talking about the modern closer, we’re talking about a pitcher who, with only rare exceptions, comes into the game to start the ninth inning when his team has a (relatively) small lead. That’s his job. Get three outs. The modern closer really began to gain acceptance in the late 1980’s. Most people consider Tony La Russa to be the creator of the modern closer because of the way he used Dennis Eckersley in Oakland.

    But, in truth, the true father of the idea might be, drum roll please, Pete Rose. Before 1987, no reliever in baseball history had even 20 one-inning saves in a season. But in 1987, Rose’s Cincinnati Reds had a dreadful starting pitching staff. And they had a 26-year-old John Franco. Rose decided to make him really the first modern day closer — 25 of Franco’s 32 saves were the one-inning variety. That was basically unheard of.

    By 1990, the one-inning reliever had arrived. That year, Dave Righetti had 32 one-inning saves, a ridiculous total. But he was trumped by Chicago’s Bobby Thigpen, managed by Jeff Torborg. Thigpen utterly smashed the major league record for saves with 57. It was awesome enough that he finished fifth in the MVP voting. But 41 of those saves were one-inning saves. It turned out that one-inning saves were a lot easier to rack up than the old fireman saves.

    And it went from there. In 1992, three pitchers had 25 or more one-inning saves. In 1993, it jumped to seven pitchers. By 1998, it was 11. In 2015, 18 different pitchers had 25 or more one-inning saves.

    This list showing percentage of saves that are exactly one inning is revealing:

    1975: 16.1% (lowest percentage in modern baseball history — age of the fireman).

    1985: 23.1% (about average for all years leading up to it).

    1995: 63% (the age of the one-inning closer is upon us).

    2005: 78.1% (the era of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman).

    2015: 84.2% (just down from the all-time high of 87.6% in 2013).

    That’s how much of a copycat world we live in. But now, for the the first time in 30 years, we see managers really questioning the wisdom of the one-inning closer. The percentage of one-inning saves has declined each of the last three years — not by much, but every little bit counts. And this playoffs is showing the power, at least in a short series, of breaking the chains and using your best reliever in multiple situations, in stretching him out, in challenging his limits.

    Yes, some will say that it’s all well and good to break the chains in the playoffs but over a long season you need structure. Maybe. Some will say that over 162 games, pitchers need specific roles to succeed. Maybe. But perhaps we underestimate what modern closers can do. Perhaps we can look back, to the remarkable story of John Hiller. At some point during his crazy comeback, he was asked how he did it. And he said, “You never know what you can do until you’re given the chance.”

    What’s in a name?

    So, you probably heard that Toronto Blue Jays announcing legend Jerry Howarth will not say “Indians,” when referring to Cleveland’s baseball team during this year’s American League Championship Series. He apparently has refused to use the word since 1992, when he received an eloquent letter from a Native American about the hurt caused by such nicknames.

    So I’d like to, once again, talk for a few minutes about the Indians name got started. I wrote a very long piece on this subject a couple of years ago and added an addendum a few days later. That piece is not quite that long (but it’s not short either).

    When I was a kid, it was an accepted fact that the Cleveland Indians were named to honor a Native American player named Louis Sockalexis.

    When I was older, it was an accepted fact that the Cleveland Indians DID NOT name the team for Sockalexis, and that whole story was an invention to cover up for the nickname’s racist origins.

    And, as I wrote in the even longer piece, neither one is quite fact. The truth is not exactly in the middle either; it sort of floats from side to side like a balloon dancing in the wind.

    Louis Sockalexis was a brilliant, haunted, inspired and troubled baseball player as the 19th century came to a close. He was the first full-blooded Native American to play baseball in the Major Leagues. In many ways, he was the first Native American to splash on the American sports scene. He predated Jim Thorpe by about 15 years.

    Sockalexis joined the Cleveland baseball team in the same decade as the Wounded Knee Massacre, to give you an idea of the timing.

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    He was a physical marvel, sort of a smaller Bo Jackson. His arm was legendary. It was said that he threw a ball across the Penobscot River, a throw of more than 600 feet. It was documented that in a college game at Harvard — this while he played center field for Holy Cross — he made a throw from centerfield that sailed for more than 400 feet. He plainly had blazing speed, and there is some evidence that he could hit with power. He was something else.

    The Cleveland Spiders signed Sockalexis in 1897 when he was still at Notre Dame. There are various legends about that — I highly recommend Ed Rice’s informative “Baseball’s First Indian,” for details — but two things seem clear:

    1. Socklaexis was an amazing talent. Cleveland reportedly paid him $1,500, a tidy sum. And his signing was pretty big news.

    2. Sockalexis already had a drinking problem. He had been arrested while at Notre Dame for an incident at a bar. There is some evidence that Cleveland had a “no-drinking” clause in the contract.

    Sockalexis was an immediate phenomenon. Part of this was his play. In his first six exhibition games, according to reports, he had eight outfield assists — four of them at the plate. But it was his ethnicity, as a full-blooded American Indian, that sparked the wonder of fans and the creative juices of reporters. Fans cheered and taunted him from the start. And reporters filled story after story with war whoops and tomahawks and firewater. The Sporting News called him “The Best Advertised Player In The Business.”

    Here, in the Louisville Courier-Journal, would be one of the more positive mentions of Sockalexis:

    “Sockalexis, the Indian, was cheered at almost every move,” wrote the Louisville Courier-Journal after his first game. “The crowd tried to have some fun with Socklalexis’ name and imitated the war whoop of various Indian tribes, to all of which the handsome Indian smiled good-naturedly. He is educated and cultivated.”

    Most of the other stories were much darker.  At games, he received threats, was called every conceivable name, and he never could escape the whoops that echoed wherever he played. In the papers, he was called a savage (sometimes a noble savage), a red man, a redskin, and so on. Sometimes, he was called these things in a matter-of-fact way, the way you might call a pitcher a “lefty.” Sometimes, he was called these things in an obviously degrading way.

    “Had I cared,” he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1898, “they would have driven me out of the business long ago. I got it from the very first day I played.”

    This is not the story of Sockalexis, not exactly. What’s important to know is that his career turned sour very quickly. He might have been an alcoholic when he joined the Spiders, but his drinking grew worse as he endured the strain of being a pioneer. After a very good first year in 1897, his skills declined rapidly. By 1898, he was essentially done as a player. By 1899, he was out of baseball.

    But, it is true that during his time he had a real impact on the Cleveland Spiders. During that time, the Spiders were often referred to in newspaper stories as “Indians” or “Red Men” or “Warriors” or some such thing. There are at least three reasons for this.

    One, just about everybody DESPISED the Spiders nickname.

    Two, the Spiders were a mediocre team (then a dreadful one) and even though they did feature Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett and Cy Young, Sockalexis was the most interesting thing going on.

    And three, the “Indians” nickname was, more often than not, used pejoratively — “derogatory slurs directed at Sockalexis,” as Ed Rice writes.

    People tend to think there’s a direct line between the Cleveland Indians today and the Spiders of Sockalexis, but it isn’t so. The Cleveland Spiders played in the National League and for various reasons — mainly because the Spiders’ owner bought a team in St. Louis and decided to abandon Cleveland — the team drew so few fans in 1899 that they were forced by the other teams to play 112 of their 154 games on the road.

    After the season, the Spiders were contracted along with teams in Washington, Baltimore, and Louisville. It was that outrage that, in part, led to the ascension of the American League.

    And it was a completely different Cleveland team that debuted with the now-major-league American League in 1901. The team was supposed to be called the Cleveland Bluebirds, because that apparently was the only name anyone could think of that was more humiliating than Spiders (and the players were sent out wearing bright blue uniforms).

    For headline use, the name was shortened to Blues, but nobody liked that either. In 1902, the players voted to call themselves the Bronchos because of course they did*. Nobody bought the Bronchos name though, and then during the 1902 season the team acquired the phenomenal Nap Lajoie.

    *It’s sort of like the way Brian decided to call his crime-fighting gang the “The Bruntouchables” on “Limitless.” I miss that show.

    Lajoie was already a legend. He’d won two batting titles, and he’d hit .426 for Philadelphia in 1901. The American League was, in many ways, built around him. So when Cleveland got him, the team almost immediately started being known as the Naps. They were the Naps for a decade or so.

    By 1914, though, the Naps name seemed pretty ridiculous. The team was terrible and Lajoie was 39 years old and done. More than one joke was made about how the team needed a Nap. Lajoie limped back to Philadelphia for a couple more seasons, and Cleveland needed a new nickname.

    It’s often said that there was a contest to name the 1915 Cleveland baseball team, but that isn’t exactly right. Owner Charles Somers put together a task force of sportswriters from the four Cleveland newspapers and charged them with coming up with a name for the team.

    Best I can tell from all the research, there were two major factors in choosing Indians.

    1. Native American names were all the rage in 1914 because that was the year of Boston’s Miracle Braves, who were in last place on July 4 and then somehow won 70 of their last 89 games to win the National League by 10 1/2 games. Boston then swept the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. The nation was whooping for the Braves, and so a Native American nickname made a lot of sense.

    2. Cleveland did have that Sockalexis connection from the 19th century when the team was often called the Indians. This from the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

    “Many years ago there was an Indian named Sockalexis who was the star player of the Cleveland baseball club. As a batter, fielder and base runner he was a marvel. Sockalexis so outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team. The fans throughout the country began to call the Clevelanders “the Indians.” It was an honorable name, and while it stuck the team made an excellent record. It has now been decided to revive this name.”

    People will argue forever about whether the Indians name was created in a cynical ploy to both mock and cash in on Native American culture — not unlike singing in blackface — or if it was a way to honor a pioneering Native American baseball player who, for a short time, thrilled people with his play. People will forever argue if the Chief Wahoo logo, which apparently was inspired by the “Little Indian” cartoon that would run in the newspaper, is a harmless caricature or a racist one. The split is fierce and passionate.

    I have made my opinion clear on the subject: Even as a lifelong Cleveland baseball fan I still would LOVE for the team to change its name and, even more, I would LOVE for that Chief Wahoo logo to disappear. Getting rid of both seems to me such an easy way to raise the discourse at a time in America when we could use that.

    Others fight ferociously to keep the name and the logo because they believe it has tradition (and, they might add, too many don’t respect tradition) and they will say it clearly is not meant to demean anyone.

    In other words: The nickname fight has come to stand in for other larger fights, fights over political correctness and the scope of empathy and the power of history and the importance of connecting with and breaking from the past. That stuff sounds a lot like politics. We try not to do politics here.

    In other words, I think there is only one thing we all can agree on: Bronchos is a cool name. The H is what makes it cool.

    Well, that was weird

    It’s easy to lose sight sometimes of just how much baseball has changed over the last few years. This came into focus during the ninth inning of the Giants-Cubs game on Tuesday night.

    The Giants led the Cubs 5-2 going into the ninth. And let’s just say, for fun, that you were watching the game in The Good Place with late great managing stars Earl Weaver, Casey Stengel, Walter Alston and Sparky Anderson.

    “$*%$*#*!” says Weaver. “How did the $%#*$#* Cubs get into the playoffs?”

    Yes. Well. San Francisco did lead 5-2 in large part because Giants starter Matt Moore, somewhat absurdly, had pitched an absolute gem. Moore had once been the best pitching prospect in baseball, but that was before he snapped his UCL.

    “What in the world is a UCL?” Alston asks.

    Ulnar Collateral Ligament. It’s the tissue that connects the inner arm to the inner forearm — right around the shoulder. It’s the ligament that Tommy John had repaired in that miracle surgery.

    “Ah yes,” Alston says. “I do remember Tommy. Good sink on his pitches.”

    In any case, he struggled after that and his former team, the Tampa Bay Rays …

    “I apologize,” Stengel says. “Did you say there is a Major League Baseball team playing in Tampa?”

    Well, technically, they play in St. Petersburg, but yes, they’re in that Tampa Bay area.

    “Wonders never cease,” he says.

    Point is, Tampa Bay gave up on him this year and dealt him to San Francisco. And he pitched moderately well for the Giants. But on this day, Moore pitched eight marvelous innings, striking out 10, allowing just two hits and only one — a hanging breaking-ball homer to Chicago’s David Ross — of consequence. And then, of course, he was pulled before the ninth inning.

    “What exactly is happening?” Alston would ask. “Why is he out of this game? Is he hurt again? I never did trust that Tommy John surgery.”

    No, you explain. It’s just that he has already thrown 120 pitches.

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    “Is that a lot?” Alston asks. He starts to wonder how many pitches he’d allowed Koufax to throw before the guy’s arm almost fell off.

    Yes, you explain, in modern times it is quite a lot. Pitchers almost never throw 120 pitches these days. Only 13 pitchers all years threw more than 120 pitches in a game (though one WAS Matt Moore back in August when he threw an Earth-shaking 133 pitches).

    “That’s the biggest &$&#*$&# I’ve ever ##^$*#@ heard,” Weaver says. “Jim Palmer wasn’t even warmed up until he threw 120 pitches.”

    Well, see, it is done to protect pitchers’ arms from injury.

    “What a load of $#&$&#*#*,” Weaver says.

    “No, Mr. Weaver, wait just a minute,” Casey Stengel says. “It is true that in my day a pitcher’s arm was indeed an endangered species. I remember one pitcher for Dubuque, threw a good live fast one, until one day I see him walk in limping. Says he hurt his arm. I say, well if it’s your arm that’s ‘a hurtin’, why you limping …”

    Sorry, Casey, the game is getting ready to start here again.

    “I guess my point is, it’s good to limit these pitchers because, I assume, they don’t ever get hurt now that they’re limited.”

    No, pitchers still get hurt a lot.

    “Ah,” Stengel says. And he rubs his chin.

    Well, anyway, pitch count is not the only reason Moore was pulled. If Giants manager Bruce Bochy had stayed with Moore, he would have been facing the Cubs’ lineup for the fourth time.

    “So?” Anderson asks.

    So, you say, there is solid evidence that shows pitchers do not fare well when facing the lineup for the fourth time.

    Alston makes a particularly sour face.

    “Yes,” Anderson says. “I can see that. So who is this Derek Law fellow? He the Cubs’ best pitcher, I assume.”

    Well, no, Derek Law is not actually the Cubs’ best pitcher. He is a 25-year-old rookie who had kicked around the minors for years. But he’d been given a chance this year, and he pitched pretty well, and, even more, he had shown real moxie in pitching two scoreless innings in Game 3.

    “Well,” Weaver says, “I like moxie. OK, this is why you $#&$&#* trust the manager. Bochy is following his hunch. I like that. I respect it. Let this kid finish it off.”

    Well, no, he wasn’t put in to finish it off. He was put in to retire Chicago’s Kris Bryant, the probable National League MVP. Instead, Bryant hits a ground-ball single off Law to lead off the inning. Bochy goes to the mound.

    “Where is he going?” Alston asks.

    He’s pulling Law out of the game to bring in Javier Lopez, of course.

    “What the $($&$^@*#?” Weaver asks.

    Well, see, lefty Anthony Rizzo is coming up. And Lopez is a lefty reliever who Bochy tends to bring in to face lefty batters.

    “So he’s bringing in this young man to get one batter out?” Alston asks.

    Well, he’s not that young. He’s 38 years old.

    “That’s young to me,” Alston says.

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    OK, well, Bochy does this pretty often. He has brought Lopez in to face one batter 40 times this year.

    “This Lopez must have an impeccable record of success to be kept on the team if his job is only to get one batter out,” Stengel asks.

    Well, not really this year. He kind of has control problems. See, look how he walks Anthony Rizzo.

    “That seems unfortunate,” Stengel says.

    “So you’re telling me he’s coming out of the game now?” Alston asks.

    Yep. Here comes Sergio Romo.

    “Oh,” Stengel says, “yes. I’m well aware of this gentlemen. I believe he pitched a few speedy ones against us in the ‘62 Series.”

    No, he’s not quite that old. But he was the Giants’ closer a couple of years ago.

    “What in heaven’s name is a closer?” Alston asks.

    He’s the guy that closes out games.

    “What does a closer close if there is not a game to close?” Stengel asks.

    He sits and watches.

    “Wait, so if the Giants have a closer, why have they not called him out to pitch?” Alston asks.

    Good question. It seems the Giants have lost faith in their closer, Santiago Casilla. He had some poor outings in the second half.

    “My head hurts,” Sparky says as Ben Zobrist doubles to score one run and put runners on second and third base with nobody out. The score is now 5-3.

    Shortstop Addison Russell is coming up, and he hits right-handed and, no, wait, it looks like Cubs manager Joe Maddon is hopping into action. He’s going to pinch-hit Chris Coghlan, a left-handed batter.

    “Excuse me,” Sparky says.

    Yes.

    “I’m looking at your statistics here, and it shows that this Russell kid had 95 RBIs this year.”

    Yes, that’s right.

    “Why in the world is the manager pinch-hitting for a guy who had 95 RBIs?”

    Well, um, teams don’t really use RBIs much these days to judge players’ performances.

    “You’re joking,” Sparky says.

    No, see, RBIs are a contextual statistic that rely heavily on teammates and timing. There are more telling statistics such as, well, maybe we don’t need to get into that right now.

    “You’re telling me this manager prefers a .188 $(%*%&# hitter over a clutch player with 95 $^#^$*# RBIs?” Weaver asks.

    It’s complicated.

    “Well, I’m at a loss,” Sparky says.

    Please, let’s not start talking about pitcher wins and losses. Point is, pinch-hitting Coghlan is probably just a deke by Maddon. He probably just wants to inspire Bochy to take Romo out of the game. And it’s working. Look, here comes Will Smith.

    “The Fresh Prince!” Weaver shouts.

    The other managers all look at him curiously.

    “I had a $#$&#*# television,” he says.

    No, it’s not the same guy. This Will Smith is another lefty specialist.

    “How many lefty specialists can one team employ?” Stengel says.

    “Say,” Alston says. “Does this Joe Maddon fellow have a right-handed hitter to use here?”

    Good eye, Mr. Alston. He does, a darned good one, a rookie named Wilson Contreras. Contreras hit .282 with some power this year.

    “What about his RBIs?” Sparky says. “Is he clutch?”

    Well, he’s clutch in this situation. Contreras hits a ground-ball single to tie the game up. Now, it’s Jason Heyward’s turn to hit. He bunts …

    “Yes, finally something I understand,” Alston says.

    “I $&#^#^#* hate the bunt,” Weaver says.

    Yes, Mr. Weaver, you are quite famous for that. People will love you for your aversion to the bunt. Many consider you the father of modern baseball strategy.

    “They do?” Weaver asks. “You hear that Sparky?”

    “How many World Series did you win again, Earl?” Sparky says.

    “&^$]$#*#* you,” Weaver says.

    Anyway, the bunt fails — should be a double play — but shortstop Brandon Crawford throws the ball away. So Heyward ends up on second base with one out and the score tied. Now, Bochy pulls Will Smith because a righty is coming to the plate. In comes reliever Hunter Strickland.

    “I’m afraid I’ve lost track,” ol’ Casey says. “How many pitchers does that make this inning?”

    That would be five pitchers.

    “I believe that equals the number of pitchers I used for the entire 1950 World Series,” he says.

    Yes. That is true.

    “Yes,” Stengel says, and then he turns to Sparky Anderson and says, “Sir, how many World Series did YOU win?”

    “Three,” Anderson says fiercely.

    “Very good,” Stengel says happily and he hums a happy tune to himself.

    Strickland gets an 0-2 count on the Cubs’ young star Javier Baez, and then he drills a ground ball up the middle for a base hit. That scores Heyward. And the Cubs lead 6-5.

    “OK, can we take this from the top?” Walter Alston asks. “Why was it again that this Moore youngster could not pitch in the ninth inning?”

    I’m afraid we have to keep moving forward, Mr. Alston. The Giants come up in the bottom of the ninth, down a run, against Aroldis Chapman. The side strikes out on 12 pitches. The Cubs are going to the National League Championship Series.

    “Well,” Weaver says. “I don’t know much. But I’ll tell you one thing. That $(#*$*#&#*@ Chapman guy throws %(#*$*#* hard.”

    The Room Where It Happened

    KANSAS CITY — Not that it matters much, but I don’t believe that I’ve been in this room for 10 years. It’s smaller than I remember.

    Ten years. It seems impossible that much time has passed, but calendars reject sentiment. Ten years ago, Buck O’Neil died. He was 94 years old. He was a month away from 95. He had been sick for two months. Somehow, it still felt sudden.

    And here we are, sitting in a small conference room on the second floor of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and this was the place where Buck O’Neil taught his enduring lesson of grace. There is something jolting about sitting in here today.

    Buck O’Neil was a fine baseball player in the Negro Leagues — a good fielding first baseman who cracked enough line drives that he won one batting title and just missed a second. Buck was a tremendous Negro Leagues manager, respected and admired and beloved. Buck was a pioneering Major League scout; he signed Lou Brock and Joe Carter and Lee Smith and Oscar Gamble and, for all intents and purposes, Ernie Banks. He was Banks’ first professional manager and the man who facilitated Mr. Cub’s journey to the Chicago Cubs. More than any of that, Buck was Ernie Banks’ inspiration.

    “Let’s play two,” Ernie Banks would say many times. “That was Buck O’Neil.”

    Buck was the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues. He was the force behind the building of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He was the game’s ultimate storyteller, the conscience of the sport, the keeper of the Negro Leagues flame. And more than any of that, he was the most big-hearted person I’ve ever known.

    All of this led to that day, February 27, 2006, the day Buck O’Neil was going to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote a little something about that day already but being in this room, the room we were sitting in when Buck found out that he did not get enough Hall of Fame votes, makes me think of something a little bit different.

    That year, I was writing the book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” It was my first book, and I had no idea how to do one. I kept doing these crazy outlines to map it out. I’d take out colored markers and draw all these lines. I’d take index cards and put them in dizzying shapes. I kept drawing arrows and thought bubbles. It goes without saying that I was getting nowhere.

    But one thing I knew: Buck O’Neil getting into the Hall of Fame was the big finish. That was the crescendo. When the movie version of the book came out (starring Morgan Freeman!), when the Broadway show came out (still pitching Lin Manuel-Miranda) it would end with sweeping music, with Buck O’Neil on that stage in Cooperstown, with Buck singing his theme song (“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you!”) and everyone singing along, and this wonderful man finally getting his due. It had to end that way.

    Then, of course, it didn’t. No, I was sitting in that chair over there, to the left, and Buck was sitting 10 feet away from me against the far wall, and Bob Kendrick — now president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — looked ashen as he said, “Buck, we didn’t get the votes.”

    And Buck did this little shudder. It was tiny, barely noticeable and it lasted a tenth of a second, if that. I often try to shake that shudder from my mind. Then he quickly said, “Well, that’s how the cookie crumbles.”

    I was so angry. A part of me wants to be angry again as I return to this room. It was just so WRONG. This man had lived the greatest baseball life the world had allowed him. Could he have been a big Major League Baseball star? We’ll never know. Could he have been Casey Stengel as a manager? We’ll never know. What we do know is that he had played with heart and managed with soul and dedicated himself to finding the next baseball stars, to bringing new fans into this sport he loved more than anything, to be sure that great players cheated by history were never forgotten.

    And even at the end, at the very end, they told him he wasn’t good enough.

    The anger subsided. Barely two minutes after being told he was not voted into the Hall of Fame, he said that he would be willing — honored, even — to speak on behalf of the 17 deceased Negro Leaguers who were elected. I was shocked.

    “You’d do that?” I asked him.

    “Son,” he said, “what has my life been about?”

    Two days after that, he called me and asked me to write a column thanking everyone for their support. “I never felt more loved,” he said. And I realized, more slowly than I should have, that this man didn’t need the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame needed him.

    And the Hall of Fame has embraced Buck. There’s a statue of him inside the museum. The Buck O’Neil Award, given to people around baseball who embody his spirit, is given out every other year. And along the way Buck O’Neil received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous other awards. Thursday, on the 10th anniversary of his death, Kansas City’s Broadway Bridge — one of the iconic structures in town — was renamed the John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Bridge. It was touching and fitting. Buck O’Neil often talked about bridges. He used to say that we often honor the people who cross that bridge — Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso and so on.

    And we don’t often honor those who built the bridge.

    But even after I realized that Buck’s Hall of Fame snub was no tragedy — and it had no impact on his grand life — there was still a matter of how to end my first book. I no longer had that stirring, Disney-esque final scene. I thought about ending it with his beautiful Hall of Fame speech for the 17 deceased Negro Leaguers, a testament to his spirit. I thought about ending it with one of my favorite Buck O’Neil stories, the red dress story or the Nancy story or the Billy Williams story or … there are a million.

    In the end, unfortunately, there was only one way to finish the book. On Oct. 6, 2006, we bought a new piano. Our oldest daughter was four years old then, our youngest was just one, and we wanted them to grow up in a house of music. That night, I was pressing piano keys in some tuneless melody when the phone rang. Buck was gone.

    And I ended the book like so.

    Buck lasted a week longer than friends and doctors expected. Buck O’Neil died that October night I was trying to play jazz on a shiny new black piano. Baseball and jazz, he had always said, were the two best things in the world. Of course, I was just plinking keys on a piano. I wasn’t really playing jazz.

    “It’s all jazz,” Buck had said.

    Buck was ninety-four years old, almost ninety-five. He asked me not to cry when he died, but I did anyway.

    Ten years. I still think about Buck O’Neil at least once every single day.