Joe Posnanski

Birds of a feather

You can sum up the American League Wild Card game by simply saying that Tuesday night, Baltimore and Toronto played a tightly-pitched,11-inning game and Orioles manager Buck Showalter used seven pitchers, none of whom were reliever Zach Britton. Inexplicable is a word that comes to mind.

Only, we have to be honest about this: It isn’t inexplicable at all.

Let’s look at two key situations from Tuesday night:

First, it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, the score is tied, and Toronto has runners on first and second with only one out. Russell Martin comes to the plate. If you are Baltimore, you are one single away from losing the game and going home for the winter.

The obvious thing you would want in this situation is (A) a strikeout pitcher or (B) an extreme ground-ball pitcher who will coax the double play.

Zach Britton, conveniently, is both. He strikes out 10 batters per nine innings. But more to the point, he’s the most extreme ground-ball pitcher in baseball — his 80-percent ground-ball percentage this year was the highest EVER RECORDED.

Instead, Showalter put in 33-year-old Darren O’Day. Now, it’s true that O’Day has proven to be something of a strikeout pitcher in his circuitous career, though he’s not exactly Aroldis Chapman. But as for Plan B, no, he doesn’t induce grounders. At all. He’s a pure fly-ball pitcher (35-percent ground-ball percentage last two years). He had not thrown a double-play grounder all year — and he had only thrown four in his entire career. Again, inexplicable is a word that comes to mind.

So what does O’Day do? He gets Martin to hit a double-play ground ball. Because: Baseball.

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“So hilarious seeing these stats heads get so worked up about Buck’s bullpen moves,” tweeted my friend and stat-needler C.J. Nitkowski. “Experience & instincts > your spreadsheet.”

We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Second situation: It’s the bottom of the 11th inning, score still tied, one out, and the top of the Blue Jays’ lineup is due up. The top of the Blue Jays’ lineup is pretty darned good. Devon Travis hit .300 this year with some power. Josh Donaldson won the MVP award last year and was almost as good offensively this year. Edwin Encarnacion has hit the second-most home runs in baseball the last three years.

Now, once again, you are in peril of losing. What you would want in this situation is your best available pitcher. That is obviously Zach Britton. He had one of the greatest relief-pitching seasons ever, regardless of which type of statistic you want to use — he had an 0.54 ERA, the league slugged .209 against him, he was 47 for 47 in save opportunities, he led the league in win probability added and so on.

Instead, Showalter put in 32-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez. Until one month ago, Jimenez was pitching so badly it was fair to wonder if the Orioles would release him even with another $13-plus million due to him. In September, though, he pitched better. It was only five starts, but the Orioles won four of them, and as they said on TV, Jimenez had a 2.31 ERA over that time — like ERA over five starts means anything.

“No one has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo,” Showalter said, not only spouting the nonsense philosophy of small-sample size but also just being ridiculous. Over those five starts, Jimenez’s batting average on balls in play — the famed BABIP — was a ludicrously low .176. The rest of the year, it was .355. Do they really think that he suddenly learned how to get hitters to direct the ball right at fielders? The guy was good in September, but he was also lucky. Either way, he’s not Zach Britton. Once again, inexplicable is a word that comes to mind.

Travis smashed a line-drive single to left, couldn’t have hit it harder.

Donaldson smashed a line-drive single to left, couldn’t have hit it harder.

First and third, one out, season on the line, Showalter decided his best bet was to let Jimenez pitch to Encarnacion. The 440-foot bomb that Encarnacion smashed was only surprising in that it wasn’t 450 feet.

A little while later, Nitkowski tweeted a photograph of a hand waving a white flag.

But I think C.J.’s original tweet is more to the point: Experience and instincts. Showalter isn’t the only major league manager who would have gone to absurd lengths to avoid pitching Zach Britton in a tie game on the road. He’s in the majority.

There’s a notion all around baseball, one that has been hammered home by constant reinforcement for 30-plus years, that it takes a special kind of person to pitch the last inning with a small lead. Pitching in a tie game — any good pitcher can do that. Pitching with a small deficit — any good pitcher can do that. But to close out a lead, yes, that takes someone with unique and ineffable skills.

In managers’ minds, closers are the brain surgeons of baseball. Others can operate on your liver, your prostate, even your heart. But you don’t want any of those doctors messing around with your brain.

So, if the Orioles were ever going to score a run (an unlikely possibility based on the feebleness of their lineup in the late innings) Showalter wanted, NEEDED, his brain surgeon. No one else could bring the team home. It’s not inexplicable. It happens practically every day all around baseball.

It is, however, ludicrous and illogical and many of Nitkowski’s spreadsheet friends have been making that case for years. People often argue about the value of a closer. This year, many people think that Britton should win the American League Cy Young Award even though he only pitched 67 innings, and even though he mostly pitched in games that the Orioles were all-but-certain to win anyway.

But Showalter just gave a dramatic demonstration of why Britton ABSOLUTELY SHOULD NOT win the Cy Young Award.

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Look: Here’s a very general little chart to pull out whenever a closer comes into a game in the ninth inning. This is the team’s general likelihood of winning a game with a lead going into the last half-inning:

When up one run: 79-82 percent.

When up two runs: 90-92 percent.

When up three runs: 95-97 percent.

Britton saved all 16 of his one-run save opportunities, which is impressive. You would expect an average pitcher to blow three of those, a good pitcher would probably blow one or two. Britton did not allow a single run in one-run save opportunities, which speaks to his awesomeness (and let me state for the record, I do think Britton is awesome … this is about role, not player).

Britton saved all 16 of his two-run save opportunities, which is a bit less impressive. It’s like a 91-percent free-throw shooter making 16 straight free throws or a 91-percent kicker from 40-yards-and-in making 16 consecutive kicks of that length. Nice but hardly earth-shaking.

Britton saved all 15 of his three-plus-run save opportunities (he had two four-run saves because he came in with men on base). These were a complete waste of his time and talent. You would expect any pitcher to save those. Putting in a pitcher to blow any of those games would have been like finding one of the three percent of climate scientists who do not believe the Earth is warming or (if it is warming) that human beings are the main cause.*

*I would not normally use a politically-charged topic like global warming as an example, but when you type in 97 percent into a search engine, you are flooded with the 97 percent climate scientist consensus. I could have used the three percent of customers who apparently are not satisfied with Geico, but that would have been pretty obscure.

All of which to say: Zach Britton had a closer year for the ages … and it really didn’t add up to all that much because of how he was used. Yes, of course, every win counts, and closing out all those one-run leads matters. But the limitations managers put on these great pitchers is absurd. Throwing your best pitcher only when you have a lead is self-defeating; you are probably going to win those games anyway. It’s the tossup games, when you are tied, even when you are down a run, that demand greatness.

All of this has been obvious to the spreadsheeters for a long time, but the Orioles gave us a vivid display of it on Tuesday. No, the Orioles didn’t lose because of Showalter’s choice to leave Britton in the bullpen. They lost because they didn’t get a hit the last five innings of the game. They lost because Michael Bourn misjudged a catchable fly ball. And so on.

But a manager cannot win or lose a game anyway. What a manager can do is give his team the best chance to win, to extend their chances. When you are tied on the road and your offense is tanking, your pitchers cannot win the game for you. What they can do is give you more time. In the bottom of the ninth, the Orioles desperately needed just to make it to the 10th. In the bottom of the 11th, the Orioles desperately needed just to make it to the 12th.

Showalter decided to take his chances based on experience and instincts and the overriding belief that he needed Britton and only Britton in case the team got a lead.

Unfortunately, the lead will not come until next April.

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    Star Light, Star Bright

    When an actor dies young, we might think of moments, scenes, pictures, of Marilyn Monroe’s dress rising up as she stands over a grate, or Heath Ledger in grisly makeup embodying pure evil or Philip Seymour Hoffman telling the kid not to worry about being unpopular because he will meet his classmates again on the long journey to the middle.

    When a singer dies young, we might think of the music, of Janis Joplin’s wail, of Kurt Cobain’s raspy growl, of Whitney Houston’s soaring national anthem that skyrocketed over the Super Bowl.

    But when an athlete dies young, we think of a future that should have been.

    Jose Fernandez was one of the best young pitchers in baseball history. We don’t want to get bogged down with statistics, not in the tear-choked aftermath of this tragedy, but there is a statistic called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). It attempts to break apart the things a pitcher firmly controls (strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed) from things that are at least somewhat beyond his command (hits allowed).

    All but one of the top 30 starting pitchers in FIP are from the dead-ball era, when spitballs were legal, when soiled and scuffed baseballs were put back in play, when home runs were freak events. There is only one exception among the 30: Jose Fernandez. His FIP of 2.43 is so absurdly good, so much better than any of the great pitchers of the last 100 years, that it leaves you wondering if he was simply playing a different game than everyone else.

    He was born in Cuba and almost from the time he was old enough to dream, he dreamt of defecting to America. His stepfather, Ramon, made it out in 2005, when Jose was 12. He and his mother, Maritza, would try again and again for the next three years to join him. They were caught and stopped three times. After one of the failed escapes — when his boat was boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard with the lights of Miami flickering just off in the distance — Jose was returned to Cuba and spent three months in prison. He was expelled from school. He was threatened repeatedly. But the American dream would not die.

    The fourth time Maritza and Jose tried to defect, they made it into the boat. For three days, they tossed and turned in the waves. At one point, the story goes, Maritza fell into the Gulf of Mexico and Jose dove into the water and brought her back. He was 15 years old.

    He was not a baseball phenom, not yet. When Orlando Chinea, a former Cuban pitching coach and guru, first saw Fernandez pitch, he saw a young man with a fastball that topped out in the low 80s and a curveball that barely curved. Neither of these things promised future stardom. But Chinea saw something. They began working together, but not with a baseball. Fernandez chopped wood. He flipped tires. He swam, and he stretched, and he ran up hills, and he pushed cars. Chinea’s imagination for drills — he once had Fernandez run around with a snorkel mask to give him better lung capacity — was endless. So was Fernandez’s work ethic. He would tell himself, again and again, that America was a big country and that the only way he would ever succeed in such a big country was to work harder than anyone else.

    How quickly did Jose Fernandez emerge on the scene? In 2012, when he was 19, Baseball America — the bible of baseball scouting — wrote that he “profiles as a No. 2 starter, though he’ll need time to develop.” One year later, when he was 20, they wrote, “He could reach MIami by mid-season and has the stuff and mindset to become a true No. 1 starter.”

    As it turned out, Fernandez moved even faster than that. He made the Marlins out of spring training in 2013 and gave up one run total in his first two starts. The Marlins were careful with him, never letting him pitch a complete game, always watching his pitch count closely. He still won Rookie of the Year. By traditional statistics, he went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA — spectacular enough. But by various advanced metrics, Fernandez’s season was the best in almost 40 years dating back to a pitcher named Mark Fidrych.

    Crash Davis, in the classic movie “Bull Durham,” said that the secret to baseball is playing with fear and arrogance. That was Jose Fernandez. He astonished coaches and teammates with both his drive and his cockiness. Troy Tulowitzki told a wonderful story to Sports Illustrated about a time when he hit a line drive right back at the mound, and Fernandez somehow snagged it.

    “You caught that?” Tulowitzki shouted.

    “Yeah,” Fernandez said. “Abracadabra.”

    Well, he was magical. He talked trash, he stomped, he pumped his fist, he left no doubts about his self-belief. But he was also a force of nature who never stopped working harder than anyone else, who repeatedly came back from the abyss. At 21 years old, he became the youngest Opening Day starter since Dwight Gooden. A month later, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. A year later, he came back and, pitching through pain, picked right up as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Through it all, he won 17 consecutive home games, a record.

    Then came this year, and words cannot begin to capture how much fun it was to watch Jose Fernandez pitch. He decided to cut back on his miraculous two-seam fastball — a pitch that would sometimes seem to explode in mid-air it moved so much — because he thought it was too hard on his arm. Instead, he mixed in a few more curves and sliders and changeups. He would throw a high-90s fastball and follow it up with a curveball that moved like a slider (or a slider that moved like a curve) and then a change-up would bedazzle the hitter — it was symphonic.

    To quote one more movie, there’s the scene in “A River Runs Through It” where the narrator returns home after years away and goes fly fishing with his brother. He watches his brother’s remarkable form in the water.

    “And I realized that in the time I was away,” he said, “my brother had become an artist.”

    Jose Fernandez became an artist in 2016. He struck out an absurd 12.5 batters per nine innings, the highest rate since Randy Johnson some 15 years ago. He gave up one or fewer runs in half his starts. He made hitters look silly. And it was joyous.

    What is it about great athletes that connect so powerfully with us, that makes us feel like we know them? It’s a hard thing to explain, but I suppose it has something to do with the energy and force that radiates from them when they’re playing. Jose Fernandez was a big man, but there was a lightness about the way he moved. He had a face that changed dramatically with expression, so that he glowed when he smiled and he darkened when intense. He threw pitches that boggled the imagination. We did not have to know him to know him.

    This is how it is with athletes. Jose Fernandez was a man first, of course, a young man who by all accounts was coming into his own, figuring out his place in the world. But he was also a brilliant athlete, and in the minutes after hearing about his shocking boating accident, we ponder the loss of a 24-year-old pitching genius. The most powerful images are not of the past but of a missing future, of brilliant strikeouts that will not be, of those blaring cheers that will instead be silence, of a Hall of Fame ceremony for a kid who escaped Cuba and became a star that would have melted our hearts.

    The Fame Game

    Let’s start with the obvious: Google News counts don’t really tell us very much about where we stand as a society. There is too much static and noise in these things. “Kim Kardashian” (8,090,000) will always dwarf “Yo Yo Ma” (481,000). That doesn’t really mean we respect or care more about the first search string.

    Still, this seems pretty daunting to me.

    Google News search: “Tim Tebow” and “baseball,” and you get 475,000 results.

    Google News search: “Mike Trout” and “baseball,” and you get 109,000 results.

    It isn’t just the number of results either. On top of the Tebow string you have general news stories — Tebow workouts ready to begin, where Tebow’s baseball journey could go from here, etc.

    On top of the Mike Trout string are these headlines:

    “ESPN columnist: Mike Trout’s too boring to win MVP.”

    “Mike Trout has strong case for AL MVP, but no one cares.”

    “Baseball Superstar Mike Trout involved in vehicle crash.”

    “The Angels Should Trade Mike Trout.”

    Now, this thing is about Trout, not Tebow — I’m only using him as a point of comparison. Tebow is a young man of strong faith and deep conviction. He was a fantastic college quarterback, one of the best in the history of the sport. He graduated seven years ago. He was a contentious NFL draft choice because people disagreed how his skills (athleticism, running ability, powerful competitive spirit, winning history) and flaws (erratic arm, for starters) would play out in the NFL. His brief run as a starter in Denver, where his team won games but he proved to be profoundly inaccurate, did not settle the dispute. He played his last regular season NFL game in 2012. He decided a while ago to dedicate himself to baseball for the first time since high school, sparking both admiration and sneering from various sides.

    Mike Trout, meanwhile, plays baseball like Willie Mays more or less every day.

    So why is Tebow so much more interesting to us than Mike Trout? Why is the best player in baseball so far outside of the American Zeitgeist. Why is it that Tebow giving a public baseball tryout stops the sports world cold, but Trout proposing to his high school sweetheart by skywriter does not trigger even a tremor? Why is that the top-100 social media athlete (Facebook likes plus Twitter followers) will include numerous NBA players, NFL players, MMA fighters, pro wrestlers, golfers, tennis players, a dozen or more soccer stars, a diver, a snowboarder, a couple of skateboarders, a badminton hero, race car drivers and numerous retired athletes but no Mike Trout?

    This is where the story usually bends to gripe about baseball losing its place as a national sport. But I think there’s something else going on.

    The knock on Trout, as the headlines above suggest, is that he’s boring. But what does that really mean? Is he boring because he doesn’t say interesting things? That covers 90 percent of all famous athletes. Is he boring because he has an effective but monotonous style of play, like Tim Duncan? Absolutely not — the guy hits bombs, makes breathtaking catches, runs like the wind.

    So what makes him “boring?”

    Excellence. That’s all. Trout is consistently excellent in ways that no one else is, in ways that no one has been in baseball for a very long time. He’s consistently excellent on the field, of course, where by WAR he has been the best player in the American League every single year for the last five years. The last player to do that? Right: Babe Ruth.

    Other players come and go. At first, the argument for best player in baseball was between Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Then it was Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto. Last year, people talked about Bryce Harper challenging Trout as best player in baseball. This year, you have Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve and Kris Bryant.

    Always, though, it ends up with Trout. The staggering variety of his brilliance — his speed, his power, his patience, his defense, his bludgeoning consistency — wins out. But then there’s off the field, where Trout is a dream — irrepressibly modest, eager to deflect credit, thoroughly unselfish, a relentless autograph signer (especially for kids), everything you could possibly want in a sports star.

    And all this makes him boring.

    Well, yes, there are extenuating circumstances. He plays on the West Coast, for one, which means much of the country sleeps through his splendor.

    He also plays the one sport where even the best player on earth cannot carry a team very far. If LeBron James went to the worst team in the NBA, he would, through his own magnificence, make them a playoff team. Corey Crawford or Jonathan Quick, just as examples, have never played on losing teams and probably never will. Tom Brady’s career record is 172-51 and he’s played with hundreds of different players.

    That’s not to say that one player in football, hockey or basketball is enough to win a championship. But it’s enough to make a team pretty good.

    Not baseball. Mike Trout is having a transcendent year, one of the best of his transcendent career, and his Angels are brutal. In his five extraordinary full seasons, the Angels are 415-383, and even that blah record is only because things came together in 2014 when they went 98-64 and made the playoffs for the only time in Trout’s career. Combine the other four years, Trout’s teams have actually lost more than they have won.

    So, those things do add to Trout’s surprising anonymity. But, I think mostly it’s the excellence. There’s just stuff to TALK ABOUT with Tebow, you know? With Trout, it’s all oohs and ahhs. The writer W.P. Kinsella once said, “It’s hard to write a story about nice people in normal relationships. Stories about nice people who are happy usually are not very interesting.”

    I don’t entirely agree with that, but I do think that in sports, especially in today’s social world, we are drawn to stuff we can argue about. Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback? Should Kevin Durant have signed with the already awesome Golden State Warriors? How about that Ryan Lochte? What do you think about Colin Kaepernick? How do you think this Tebow baseball thing will end up? That’s a conversation. That, as George once said on Seinfeld, is a show.

    And there’s nothing to argue about with Mike Trout except whether he should win the MVP award. On the pro side, he’s the best player. On the con side, you know, let’s give the MVP award to someone who isn’t the best player because it would be more interesting. Now THAT is a boring argument.

    Signs of life

    Before we get into the pure genius that the Cleveland Browns have for losing football games, let’s focus on one of the most common issues of fanhood, something you might call: Announcer hallucination.

    If there is one thing football fans want to believe, it is this: Our team’s players are good. When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to believe that Browns middle linebacker Dick Ambrose was a star. Was he a star? I have no idea. He never made a Pro Bowl. He was never named to the All-Pro team. This would suggest that he was not a star. But he was the only middle linebacker the Browns had, and he was a Clevelander, and they called him “Bam Bam,” and he made a lot of tackles, and he was a brilliant guy who later became an attorney and a judge.

    But was he good? Well, announcers told us that he was. Every week, whatever announcer happened to be calling the Cleveland game talked about how Ambrose was one of the best linebackers in the NFL, right there with Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and those guys. I believed them. I believed in Dick Ambrose. And to this day, I still do.

    I bring this up because, in the opening five minutes of the Browns-Ravens catastrophe, the announcers — mainly CBS’ Chris Simms — told us that:

    1. Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor is a “freak of nature” and a “legit No. 1 NFL receiver”

    2. Andrew Hawkins is one of the quickest slot receivers in the NFL.

    3. Quarterback Josh McCown is a “big talent” because he’s big, can run and has a big arm.

    4. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is one of the best in the NFL.

    Now, you could argue, if you so chose, that Pryor has caught 16 passes in his four-year NFL career and has been released or traded four different times, including once by the Browns.

    You could argue that Hawkins is a 30-year-old, 5-foot-7 receiver who the Browns didn’t even TRY to throw the ball to in Week 1.

    You could argue that McCown is a 37-year-old quarterback on his eighth team, if you count his time with the Hartford Colonials.

    And you could argue that Horton, before his second stint in Cleveland, has been defensive coordinator for three different teams (Arizona, Cleveland and Tennessee) and, at each stop, the head coach was fired in his first two years. This might be a coincidence, of course, but his last three defenses have finished 23rd or worse in points allowed.

    This is not meant to knock Pryor, Hawkins, McCown or Horton. I’d prefer to believe the announcer hallucination version of them. If I was a kid, I WOULD believe the announcer hallucination version. And I’d keep wondering: With players and coaches this good, why do the Browns keep losing?

    * * *

    We will have to get to the game at some point, I know, but first: You probably know that this will be the 14th straight year that the Cleveland Browns do not make the playoffs. You also probably know that this is not the longest streak in the NFL. The Buffalo Bills likely will make it 17 straight years without a playoff bid. In a league that prides itself on parity, this seems all-but-impossible.

    But the truth is: There are actually a bunch of long, active no-playoff streaks going.

    — Buffalo Bills, 16 straight years without making the playoffs.

    — Oakland Raiders, 13 straight

    — Cleveland Browns, 13 straight

    — Los Angeles Rams, 11 straight

    — Jacksonville Jaguars, eight straight

    — Tampa Bay Buccaneers, eight straight

    — Miami Dolphins, seven straight

    — Tennessee Titans, seven straight

    Look at that — one quarter of the league has not made the playoffs this decade. I would not have guessed that. By the way, the longest no-playoff streak of the Super Bowl era belongs to New Orleans. The Saints did not make the playoffs from 1967 to 1986 — 20 seasons. Football was different then, though. What Buffalo (and Oakland and Cleveland) is doing in this era of expanded playoffs and multiple wild cards is much more/less impressive.

    * * *

    OK, one more stall before getting to the game: The Browns unveiled a statue of Jim Brown on Sunday. In the same week, he won Syracuse University’s “George Arents” award for individuals who have made outstanding contributions in their chosen field.

    It seems pretty amazing that it took the Browns 52 years and Syracuse even longer to give those honors to the most dominant football player ever and an undeniable social force. But so it goes. Jim Brown is 80 years old now, and he obviously slowed down. But there’s still an aura about the man, a fear and admiration he naturally inspires. Sometimes, you meet a former great athlete and you find it hard to imagine them in their prime, hard to envision what exactly made them so great. Not Jim Brown. If you sit with the man, if you ask him a question or two, if you listen to him speak or watch him move, you just know: This man was impossible to tackle.

    He still is.

    * * *

    Fine. The game. There is always something a little bit more at stake when the Browns play the Ravens. It is certainly not Baltimore’s fault — and I certainly do not hold it against any of their fans — that the Ravens only exist because Art Modell yanked the Browns out of Cleveland. It happened a long time ago, and the new Browns are not so new anymore, and it’s time to move on. But for the old-timers, there’s still a little bit extra that goes into this game, especially because the Browns ALMOST NEVER win.

    So you could say there was just a little bit of joy when the Browns jumped to a 20-0 lead. The Browns’ first touchdown was perfect in every way, a 31-yard bomb from McCown to rookie Corey Coleman. What made it so awesome? Two things:

    1. Corey Coleman is the most exciting Browns player in a while. As a Browns fan you get so used to first-round busts that, after a while, you start to despise the draft and despise the players the Browns pick before they even can prove themselves to be busts. Coleman looks to be a real star, so that’s fun.

    2. The Browns scored the touchdown, in part, because nobody in America wants to watch the Browns-Ravens game. The game was so unimportant in the grand scheme of things that (I feel certain) they sent only a handful of cameras to the game. Because of this, they did not have a good camera angle on the touchdown. Because of this, the referees could not overturn the touchdown even though it’s all but certain that Coleman did not get his second foot in-bounds.

    The Ravens punted. Then, Isaiah Crowell busted an 85-yard touchdown run*.

    There is another thing announcers do that is kind of funny: They tend to hold onto things much longer than they should. For instance, the announcers here seemed convinced that this Ravens defense is great like all Ravens defenses in perpetuity. But it just ain’t so. The Ravens’ defense was 24th in the league last year in points allowed. Pro Football Focus, in its preview, ranked their front-seven 19th in the NFL and their secondary 24th. Ray Lewis is gone.

    After the touchdown, Joe Flacco threw a dreadful interception, and Coleman caught his second touchdown pass. It was 20-0 barely 10 minutes into the game.

    And I will admit I kind of knew it would not last. I remember something my old friend Gerry Faust said. He took over Notre Dame after years as a successful high school coach. In his first game, his team beat LSU and moved up to No. 1 in America. It didn’t go well after that. “I should have just taken a photo of the scoreboard,” Faust said, “and retired.”

    I should have just taken a screenshot of 20-0 and gone bowling or something.

    Instead, I watched as Patrick Murray’s extra point was blocked, and Baltimore’s Tavon Young ran it back for two points. Every Browns fan knew they would lose. Every football fan knew it would happen. The only question was: How?

    * * *

    The Ravens gave it their best to lose this game — you have to give that to them. Normally when teams, even bad teams, play the Browns, they realize fairly early on that there is no way for them to match Cleveland’s almost-mythical talent for losing football games. And so they just accept that, yes, they’re going to win.

    But the Ravens gave it their all. They did come back impressively, cutting the score to 20-12 by halftime, helped immeasurably by an ill-advised interception from Josh McCown. The Ravens made it 20-19 on the first drive of the second half. It should have been easy from there.

    Instead what followed was a classic battle between two teams determined to lose. The Ravens drove the ball to the Cleveland 29-yard line when Flacco threw a dreadful interception. The Browns then hit a huge completion to Coleman, but it was nullified because he stepped out of bounds BEFORE he caught the ball. The Ravens faltered. Then the Browns hit another big pass to Coleman and were at the Baltimore 16-yard line and in position to put the game away. Needless to say, they did not put the game away. They had one of those classic Cleveland series:

    First-and-10 from Baltimore 16: Crowell runs right and loses five yards. Browns tight end Randall Telfer hurt on the play.

    Second-and-15 from Baltimore 21: Crowell runs for two yards, but Coleman is called for an unsportsmanlike conduct. He and cornerback Jimmy Smith exchanged some sort of physical frustration, and I don’t know who really started it. It doesn’t matter. The rookie gets the penalty.

    Third-and-28 from Baltimore 34: McCown throws an incomplete pass.

    Fourth-and-28 from Baltimore 34: Murray’s 52-yard field goal looks as if it is shot out of the sky and falls harmlessly wide and short.

    Sigh. So the Ravens naturally drive for a field goal to take the lead. The Browns then hit a ridiculous 25-yard deflection pass to put themselves in business except, yeah, that’s also invalidated because the Browns were called for an illegal-man-downfield penalty. The man who got called?

    Center Cameron Erving.

    Ah, yes: Cam Erving.

    You might remember Cam Erving last year from the worst block in NFL history. Or you might remember him from other follies. At training camp this year, he expressed his anger at the criticism and said it fueled him to prove everyone wrong, something that would be marvelous. Then in Week 1, he snapped the ball over the quarterback’s head for a safety and committed an assortment of mistakes resulting in varying pain.

    But this one was something else. McCown escaped the pocket and Erving, assuming he would run, took off downfield to block someone. It was admirable enthusiasm except for this: There was NO WAY JOSH MCCOWN WAS RUNNING. He’s 37 years old. He probably separated his left shoulder early in the game (he might have separated it twice). It was third-and-long. There was not a chance in the world that he was going to start running, and so when Erving took off and canceled out what could have been the biggest play of the game, well, let’s just say it was not great.

    Later, Erving would hurt himself by smashing his face into the ground while completely whiffing on a block. It was that sort of day.

    All of this happened, and the Browns STILL had a chance to win the game. The Ravens, not being all that good themselves, staggered around a bit at the end and ran out of bounds for no reason. The Browns got the ball down only five with 2:53 left.

    And then McCown slowly, haltingly moved the Browns down the field. A quick pass to Duke Johnson. Another to Gary Barnidge. Another to Hawkins. The Browns improbably moved the ball to the Baltimore 30-yard line with a half-minute remaining, and then McCown hit freak-of-nature Terrelle Pryor with a 20-yard pass to put the Browns in the shadow of the end zone. A flag came flying in, but that was clearly on Baltimore and so victory seemed …

    And then, suddenly, another flag flew high in the air.

    I’m not exactly sure how to describe the taunting penalty called on Pryor, one that nullified the play and cost the Browns any realistic chance of winning. My best effort is to say that Pryor, after catching the ball, held it out and tried to flip it to the referee. Instead it sort of slipped out of his hand and plopped on the shoulder of Ravens defender Ladarius Webb, who was standing up at the time. That was it. That was the whole play.

    They called that taunting. They called THAT taunting.

    “We have to do a better job getting the ball to the referee,” Browns coach Hue Jackson told reporters after the game, a spectacular dodge that makes me feel even better about Jackson as coach. He could have complained, ranted, raged, drawn a huge fine. But he knows: There is so much dark magic entangling the Cleveland Browns right now that you can’t get bogged down by bad luck and bad calls.

    Yes, it’s true, the Browns could have won the game on Sunday. But the real problems — the general awfulness, the stupid penalties and plays, the overriding sense of doom everyone in Cleveland feels — these things will take time and a lot of positive energy to solve.

    And there were some good signs. Coleman looks to be for real (he made another dazzling catch and run for the sideline that set up the almost comeback). Crowell and Johnson were good. The defense, at times, played with energy. Joe Haden picked off two passes and looked healthy.

    They’re the Browns so they lost — on Twitter I called them the Lin Manuel-Miranda of losing — but there are a few signs of life. This is what this season is about. Yes, as the song goes, I may not live to see their glory. But I will gladly join the fight.

    Thrill of the moment

    A reader named John Warren sent in a fascinating comparison. John is a rabid Minnesota Vikings fan in the middle of Texas, which means he has no one to share his pain with. What pain is there for Minnesota Vikings fans? They are rarely bad. In the Super Bowl era, the Vikings have never gone more than four consecutive seasons without making the playoffs.

    But they have never been good enough, never won the Super Bowl. For many years, their story was one of late-season heartbreak. There are those four Super Bowls they lost under Bud Grant, including the one where Kansas City’s Hank Stram was doing a colorful sideline play-by-play call (“65 Toss Power Trap!”) and the one that introduced America to Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain. There were a couple of NFC Championship crushers, including the one where Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season in an overtime loss to Minnesota almost 20 years ago.

    Lately, though, it’s been different: The Vikings have been in that infuriating dead zone — sometimes OK, sometimes lousy, never great, and this is despite having one of the greatest offensive weapons in NFL history, running back Adrian Peterson.

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    This has led John to muse non-stop about Peterson. He finally came to his conclusion.

    “Here is the great truth,” he writes. “Adrian Peterson is Nolan Ryan.”

    Ryan is among the most awesome pitchers in baseball history with “awesome” being defined as, “inspiring great admiration, apprehension or fear.” Ryan inspired all those things in his mind-blowing 27-year career. He threw harder than anyone, ever. He struck out more batters than anyone, ever. He was more unhittable — he threw a staggering seven no-hitters — than anyone, ever. When you assume that these big things are the ones that define greatness, you assume that Nolan Ryan had to be the greatest pitcher in baseball history and must have carried team after team to the mountaintop.

    But it just isn’t so. Ryan is not the greatest pitcher ever and he never started a World Series. He was marvelous, of course, a first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Famer, but the things that kept him from becoming Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver or Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson or Walter Johnson or Roger Clemens were the little things that always add up to more than you would expect. Ryan walked more hitters than any pitcher ever will (his 2,795 career walks are almost 1,000 more than any other pitcher and more than Koufax, Maddux and Grover Cleveland Alexander COMBINED). He was so slow to the plate that base stealers ran on him with abandon. He did not field his position. He threw many more wild pitches than anyone since 1900; heck, he threw 50 more wild pitches than second-place Phil Niekro, who threw knuckleballs his whole life.

    All of this added together made Ryan more marvelous than successful. Pitcher win-loss records can be deceiving, but Ryan’s 324 career victories and 292 career losses do seem to tell the tale. He was impossibly fun to watch. But if it was Game 7, there are many other pitchers you would rather throw.

    Adrian Peterson runs the football about as well as anyone who ever played in the NFL. His 96.7 yards per game is fourth all-time, behind only Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis. His 4.9 yards per carry is third all-time (among running backs with 2,000 or more carries) behind Brown and Sanders. If this year goes reasonably well, he will move well into the top 10 all-time in rushing yards and into the top five in rushing touchdowns. We are talking about an all-time great.

    So, why have his teams been so wildly inconsistent, fluctuating from good to dreadful? Why has there, in John’s words, always been this gnawing feeling that Peterson is sort of overrated, that he doesn’t quite match up to those running backs like Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis and the like who have carried their teams to championships?

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    The first thing you must say is: A running back can only do so much for a team. Walter Payton was impossibly good for almost a decade before the Bears finally started winning. The Vikings have had a half-dozen starting quarterbacks during Peterson’s run, and the defense for a time couldn’t stop anybody, and you can’t blame any of that on a running back.

    That said, like Ryan, Peterson’s obvious brilliance — the long runs, the insane moves, the bone-crushing broken tackles — overwhelm a million little things. Peterson doesn’t pass-block. He fumbles. He doesn’t really catch the ball. He commits penalties. Last year is a great example. Peterson led the NFL in rushing (1,485 yards) and tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns (11). You would think this made him the most valuable back in football.

    But, according to the incredible work of the folks at Pro Football Focus, there were 13 running backs who were on the field for 600-plus snaps in 2015, and Peterson graded ninth among those 13, just barely ahead of Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy. This is because while Peterson’s running was extremely valuable and he broke more tackles than anyone except Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin, he graded negatively on pass plays and when blocking.

    Pro Football Focus graded a player like Detroit’s Theo Riddick much higher than Peterson because of his ability to catch the ball and block.

    For years, I’ve had an argument with numerous people but especially my pal, ESPN’s Dave Fleming, over the question of Barry Sanders vs. Emmitt Smith. I concede the obvious: Sanders was the most wonderful runner in the history of the NFL (or at least tied with Gale Sayers). He could do the impossible on the football field. He escaped from tackling strait-jackets. He disappeared and reappeared at will. He was magnificent in every sense of that word. I would much rather watch him run than watch Smith or just about anyone else.

    And, assuming I was a coach trying to win the Super Bowl, I would take Smith every single day and twice on Sundays (four times on Super Bowl Sundays). Why? Because Sanders didn’t catch the ball, didn’t block, and his go-for-broke-on-every-play running style motivated his coach to take him out on third down and short. It was the great irony of Sanders’ electrifying career. If you needed a running back to go 50 yards, you would take Sanders over anyone who ever played this crazy game. If you needed a running back to go one yard, you would take someone else.

    Smith, on the other hand, couldn’t do magic. But he plowed ahead, he scored touchdowns, he picked up first downs, he caught the ball and he didn’t make mistakes. Sure, people always said he was essentially made by the Cowboys’ incredible offensive line and outside threats. But I never thought that was right. In 1993, when he held out for more money, the Cowboys — as defending Super Bowl champions — played the first two games without him. They lost both games, turned the ball over repeatedly, couldn’t run the ball at all and seemed lost. Then they paid Smith, he came back, led the NFL in rushing in just 13 starts, helped the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl where he ran for 132 yards and scored two touchdowns.

    I’m just saying: As a fan, I love watching the thrilling player, and Adrian Peterson — like O.J. Simpson, like Eric Dickerson, like Chris Johnson in his heyday — is thrilling to watch run. But that’s not the same thing as being a winning force.

    The Vikings have decided this year that they need to go for it, largely because Peterson is 31 years old and he won’t be this great for too much longer and the window closes. They’re betting that Peterson is not just one of the most exciting players in NFL history, he’s also good enough to lead a team to the Super Bowl. Big Vikings fan John, down in Austin, hopes they’re right. But he doesn’t really believe it.

    Same old Browns

    During strength and conditioning for another grueling year as a Cleveland Browns fan, I have to admit it: I was semi-excited about Robert Griffin III. I do realize that there wasn’t necessarily any great REASON to be excited. But I was anyway. It might have been because I more or less stopped paying attention to him and Washington football back in 2012, when RGIII was a rookie sensation, when he was doing Subway commercials and Gatorade commercials and Nissan commercials and EA Sports commercials and … back when Andrew Luck v. RGIII was still an open question.

    It was sort of eye-opening when, a few months ago, I was talking with huge Washington football fan Dale Earnhardt Jr., and I asked him what he thought of RGIII, and he made one of those comical faces kids made when you embarrass them in public by trying to say something hip or by dancing or something.

    Well, hey, I was only vaguely aware of his various injuries and perilous fall in Washington. Sorry. I suppose it’s like waking up from a coma and finding out that Robert De Niro doesn’t just do movies like “Dirty Grandpa” … he ONLY does movies like “Dirty Grandpa.”

    Whatever. Robert Griffin III would be the 25th different starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns since their return in 1999 — for comparison, the old Cleveland Browns existed for almost 50 years and had just 27 starting quarterbacks — and I chose to believe in him. Hey, it’s a new season. What’s the point of rooting for an NFL team — even the Cleveland Browns — if you can’t get excited about something? Yes, the Browns are on their eighth new GM and their eighth new head coach (not counting interim coach Terry Robiskie) and their ninth defensive coordinator (Ray Horton, like Grover Cleveland did, is serving his second non-consecutive term). And they don’t even HAVE an offensive coordinator. Hue Jackson will call the plays.

    That didn’t work so well when Chris Palmer tried it.

    So, yes, let’s get excited about RGIII. He’s still young. He’s got an accurate arm. He can run. When he’s decisive — throws the ball in 2.5 seconds or less — he’s terrific, with a 99.9 quarterback rating according to Pro Football Focus. True, if he holds on to to the ball for longer than 2.5 seconds he’s pretty miserable, but let’s focus on the positives.

    A new year! RGIII! Let’s play some football.

    You already know how this thing is going to end.


    A blissful 74 seconds passed in the Cleveland Browns-Philadelphia Eagles game before the Browns committed their first stupid penalty of the 2016 season. It was an offsides penalty by defensive tackle Xavier Cooper on third down and 3. He apparently fell for a hard count.

    The announcers — including my old pal from Kansas City Trent Green — relentlessly praised Philadelphia rookie quarterback Carson Wentz for that hard count, for jolting a defensive tackle into a blunder on only the third play of his NFL career. Yes, the kid does look pretty good, but let’s not kid anybody: Every time a butterfly flaps its wings in China, a Cleveland Browns defensive player jumps offside to give an opponent the first down.

    The Eagles followed the blunder by scoring a touchdown — this on Wentz’s first career drive, of course. It was easy. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that after the drive Wentz thought to himself, “Hey, the NFL really isn’t any different than North Dakota State.”

    On offense: The Browns’ Gary Barnidge — often called “Sure-handed Gary Barnidge” by those of us who know and love him — dropped the first pass of the new season.


    A relatively untroubled 15 minutes, 10 seconds passed before the Cleveland Browns tried and failed on their first nonsensical fake punt of the season. I was thrilled when the Browns hired Hue Jackson to be head coach. He did a great job in Cincinnati, and I like his style. I like the way he talks about trick plays and opening things up and playing bold football. In this way, he reminds me of my childhood hero Sam Rutigliano, who told everybody that his Browns were going to throw the ball downfield because anything else would be boring.

    Look: The Browns are going to be terrible this year and for the foreseeable future, so absolutely they should go for it — fake punts, double-reverses, hooks-and-ladders, hidden-ball tricks, behind-the-back passes, Statue of Liberty plays, pull down the referee’s pants … try everything Hue.

    That said, Jackson’s first fake punt was such a misguided play that our intrepid announcers did not seem to understand what was going on while it was happening. It wasn’t a fake punt in the normal sense where the team actually fakes a punt. Instead, the Browns just lined up in punt formation — but without a punter. Maybe Hue and Company were hoping that the Eagles would be so thrown by the idea of a ghost punter that they would run screaming like in the horror movies.

    Instead, when the ball was snapped to Duke Johnson, the entire Eagles team including past players such as Herm Edwards and Bill Bergey and Chuck Bednarik, jumped on him for a million-yard loss.

    And this year began to feel a whole lot like every other year with the Browns.


    There was something special about this game. As mentioned, the Browns have had 25 different starting quarterbacks since beginning anew in 1999. I keep a list in my computer so that any time someone wonders, “Hmm, who has started the fourth-most games in new-Browns history?” I can say, “Why, it’s Brandon Weeden of course with 20. He’s just behind Colt McCoy’s 21 and just ahead of Charlie Frye’s 19!” This is great for parties.

    But Sunday’s game was the first time that one of the illustrious 25 Browns quarterbacks was the head coach of the opposing team. That was Eagles coach Doug Pederson who started eight glorious games for Cleveland in 2000. He went 1-7 in those starts and threw just two touchdowns against eight interceptions, but he did lead the Browns to a huge 19-11 win over Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Yeah, that was before that guy Brady came along but as a Clevelander you take the football wins where you can get them.

    In any case, I am rooting for Doug Pederson in the hope that hiring old Browns quarterbacks as head coaches becomes a trend. Ken Dorsey is quarterbacks coach for the Carolina Panthers. Kelly Holcomb is offensive coordinator at Riverside High in Tennessee. Spergon Wynn is an energy broker in Houston. Let’s find these people and give them NFL teams to run.


    CBS showed a marvelous graphic during the game. It was meant to highlight the sports renaissance happening in Cleveland but instead gave us a clear look at this Cleveland Browns season coming up.

    It looked a bit like this:

    Cavaliers: Won championship

    Indians: First place

    Browns: ?????

    I’m thinking there will be no need to update that graphic this year.


    All right — did the Browns hit all their marks this week?

    — Obligatory snap over quarterbacks head for safety? Check.

    — General inability to stop either the run or the pass? Check.

    —  Overmatched offensive line leading to quarterback injury? Check.

    — Inexplicable decision regarding quarterback injury? Check.

    Yes, well, late in the game, RGIII crashed into a defender and hurt his left shoulder. It seemed pretty bad at the start. And of course, this being the Cleveland Browns, it turned out VERY bad. He’s now on injured reserve and is out at least eight games. As my pal Michael Schur texts:

    “It doesn’t get much more ‘Browns’ than signing RGIII, playing one game, losing badly and placing him on IR.”

    Well, you have to add one more thing: After the injury the Browns had one meaningless possession just to run off the final few seconds. They were losing 29-10 so realistically the game was already over and they knew it.

    So what did they do? They put Robert Griffin III (with a broken left shoulder) BACK IN THE GAME to hand off the football. What possible reason could they have had to do that?

    How many times has a Browns fan had THAT thought?

    Cam and the Fumble

    CHARLOTTE — Superman stood on his own 16-yard line, and the world spun away from him. Sequences like these are shown again and again, in slower and slower motion, from angle after angle, until all mystery is lost, until all of the supersonic chaos of the moment fades away and it just becomes a THING. Ball dribbles through Bill Buckner’s legs. Scott Norwood’s kick floats wide right. Scott Hoch’s putt skims the left edge of the hole. Cam Newton doesn’t go for the ball. A THING.

    Newton did not know any of this would become a THING, not yet. The Broncos’ fantastic defense was frustrating him. The ball had just been knocked from his hand, it bounced erratically and then settled on the field. He saw the ball clearly but not as clearly as 112 million across America watching the Super Bowl on television. They saw the ball, and they also saw the score (Denver leading Carolina by seven), and they saw the clock (about four minutes left). They saw it all with crystal clarity. If Carolina did not recover the fumble, the game was lost.

    Newton took one quick step toward the ball, and then a second step. He got to the ball at the same time that Denver’s DeMarcus Ware, who was on the ground nearby, reached out his left arm for it. America braced itself for a mighty collision.

    Then Cam Newton stopped. He jumped back a little.

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    After several others arrived on the scene, Newton fell to his knees in a less-than-convincing effort to join the ball-chasing fray. The ball popped free, rolled behind him. Denver safety T.J. Ward fell on it at the Carolina 4-yard line. And the game was over.

    “Can you put your disappointment into words,” Newton was asked just moments after the game. He was not ready to talk. Later, he would express regret for his gloom and rage. Everything was anger and humiliation and a crushing sense of failure. He wore a hood over his head, and his expression was dead, and he spit out short answers with as much disgust as he could manage. This too would become part of the THING.

    ‘We lost,” he said. And after three minutes of pained two-word answers, he walked out.

    * * *

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Athletes will tell you that the worst part of losing is not the pain. That fades after a while. No, the toughest is the wait that follows, the interminable wait for another chance.

    Carolina starts the new season tonight and at this particular moment in time — before the first kickoff, before the first interception, before the first big play — the Panthers are serious Super Bowl contenders. Who is better? Newton had a season for the ages last year, and the Panthers scored more points than any team in the NFL; the whole offense is back with the return of brilliant receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who had 1,008 yards receiving as a rookie but missed all of last season with a torn ACL injury.

    The defense, well, everyone knows just how good that front seven is led by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The secondary is a bit questionable with cornerback Josh Norman gone, but those linebackers are so good in coverage that no one expects the defense to fall off much, if at all.

    So, if you use the past as your guide, the Panthers should be great again and should give Newton another opportunity to win the biggest game in sports.

    But this is sports and so you can’t really use the past as your guide. Circumstances change. Expectations change. Motivations change. For the Carolina Panthers, 2015 was a free-flowing season. Nobody expected anything from them. Nobody really bought into them even after they started the year 7-0, then 8-0, then 9-0 and so on. For the Panthers, for Cam Newton, the whole season was one big dance party, with team selfies and giving footballs to kids and so on. The biggest question (and criticism) was: “Are Cam and the Panthers having TOO much fun?”

    Then, the Super Bowl, and the THING, and now it’s different. This whole Carolina Panthers season, this whole Cam Newton season is essentially about one thing: Getting back to the place they were so that this time they can get it right.

    And getting back is always harder than getting there in the first place.

    * * *

    We live in a time where athletes often speak through their television commercials, and the newest Cam Newton commercial for Under Armour is dark, dark, dark.

    It begins with a shot of Newton from behind. He’s standing in an empty field with a towel over his head. “All the world,” the narrator says, “will be your enemy.”

    We get a shot of Newton’s face. “Prince,” the narrator says, “with a thousand enemies.”

    The words are from Richard Adams’ marvelous novel “Watership Down” — the quote is from a story within the story, about a rabbit’s place in the world. In the Newton commercial, though, it takes on a significantly edgier theme. Newton drops pulls the towel off his head, stretches his neck a couple of times, and runs into the woods.

    “And whenever they catch you,” the narrator says, followed by the sound of a menacing growl. “But first they must catch you.” Newton runs through the woods, eluding trees, escaping darkness.

    “Digger,” the narrator says. “Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning.”

    Newton shouts and smashes through a tree.

    “Full of tricks,” the narrator says.

    Newton smashes through another tree. He stops to rest as two trees tumble behind him. He then walks to a dark and abandoned road.

    “Prince with a thousand enemies,” the narrator says. “Never be destroyed.”

    And it ends with a closeup of Newton’s face and then a close up of his feet as he walks down that lonely road.

    The narrator, you should know, is Cam Newton’s mother, Jackie.

    So, yeah, there’s a lot going on there. It is just a commercial, of course, but it might give us just a little insight into what drives Cam Newton now. Last year was about fun. This year is about enemies. Last year was about dancing and surprising and celebrating. This year is about avoiding destruction. Cam Newton has always had doubters, of course. But after the Super Bowl, after the THING, those doubters are enemies, a thousand enemies, chasing him, on his tail, pushing him.

    “I can’t even look back or dwell on the past,” he said this week. He’s right. But it’s not as easy as words.

    * * *

    Most athletes who have had to endure being the center of a THING never get a chance to make it right. There were no more World Series grounders for Buckner, no more chances for Craig Ehlo to stop Michael Jordan on the final play, no more Super Bowl-winning kicks for Norwood, no more Super Bowls at all for Dan Marino after the crushing first one.

    But it does happen sometimes. Dan Jansen did get one final race to win his gold medal. John Elway did get his chance to smash into the end zone after all those years of Super Bowl heartache. LeBron James did get his chance to give Cleveland a championship.

    Newton is just 27 years old, in the prime of his athletic career. He has already done things that no NFL player has ever done. He’s the only player to ever throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 700 yards in the same season — he did that as a rookie. He’s the only player to have at least 30 touchdown passes and rush for 10 touchdowns in a season — he did that last year.

    But as remarkable as the stats look, they do not fully describe what Newton can do at his best. He can turn third-and-four or less into automatic first downs because, realistically, how are you going to stop him? He forces teams to crowd the line because no team in the NFL runs more than than Panthers, and at the same time, he forces teams to play deep because of his phenomenally strong arm and fantastic ability to play-action pass.

    In other words, he’s fundamentally different — there just has never been a 6-foot-6, 260-pound quarterback who could plow over defensive tackles and outrun safeties and throw 50-yard lasers. He really is Superman.

    But that THING is there, in the air, in everybody’s memory including his own. You know, just know, that the next time the Prince with a Thousand Enemies is in that Super Bowl moment, with victory and defeat on the line, he will go after the ball with the fury he showed smashing through trees in the commercial. You know he will do it right next time.

    The question of this Cam Newton season — and every season — is: Will there be a next time?

    What’s the difference?

    The rabbit hole opens with that ridiculous argument, the one my pal Michael Schur calls the stupidest argument in sports: The semantic difference between the words “most valuable” and “most outstanding.”

    We can argue here — and have argued a million times already — that there is no important difference, that the two things mean essentially the same thing, that the “most outstanding” player is also the “most valuable” player and vice versa. But no matter how fervently I might believe that, the reality is: Many people don’t. Many people think “most valuable” is a different thing from “most outstanding.” You can see it most clearly when it comes to relievers and the Cy Young Award.

    The Cy Young Award is annually given out to the “most outstanding pitcher” in each league. There’s that word: Outstanding.

    Well, no relief pitcher has won the Cy Young Award in more than a decade; the last to do it was Los Angeles’ Eric Gagne in 2003. In the American League, you have to all the way back to 1992 when Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young. There are some people who see this development as progress — hey, sportswriters finally realize that relief pitchers throw too few innings to be the most outstanding pitcher. There are others, however, who see it as a slight to relievers. Relief pitchers, they argue, are a huge part of baseball and should be considered seriously for the Cy.

    This year’s American League Cy Young voting could be fascinating. At this moment, no AL starting pitcher is having what you would call a statistically dazzling season. Only one, Toronto’s young Aaron Sanchez, even has an ERA under 3.00. Nobody is going to strike out anywhere close to 300 batters; it’s likely no one will even strike out 250. Boston’s Rick Porcello has pitched well and should end up with an eye-popping win-loss record — he is 19-3 at the moment — but even die-hard traditionalists probably will concede that going 19-3 isn’t all that great a trick when your team is averaging seven runs per game when you pitch.

    In any case, there are some good starter candidates, including Porcello. Cleveland’s Corey Kluber is having a very good year with deceivingly lackluster-looking stats. Chicago’s Chris Sale and Texas’ Cole Hamels and the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka are having interesting years. Detroit’s Justin Verlander is having a wonderful comeback season. There are others.

    But, let’s be honest, the pitchers with the jaw-dropping stats this year are relievers. Dellin Betances is striking out almost 16 per nine innings. Andrew Miller has been ferocious for two teams. And, most of all, there’s Baltimore’s Zach Britton, who leads the American League in saves and has a 0.65 ERA. He has been virtually unhittable for a team fighting for the AL East title. There is a strong push for him to win the Cy Young Award.

    Then again, he has thrown just 55 innings — barely 30 percent of what the top starters are throwing.

    What to do? Can a reliever who throws so few innings be the league’s most outstanding pitcher?

    And so we revisit the “most valuable” vs. “most outstanding” discussion. Relievers do much better with the word “valuable” than they do with “outstanding.” You see this practically every year when comparing MVP voting to Cy Young voting.

    Take 2013: That year Craig Kimbrel was second among pitchers in the MVP voting, but tied for fourth in Cy Young voting. This discrepancy is always there. A year earlier, Kimbrel was the top vote-getter among pitchers in the MVP voting, but finished fifth in the Cy Young voting.

    In 2010, Rafael Soriano was the top pitcher in the MVP balloting but finished eighth in the Cy Young.

    Then there’s Mariano Rivera. In both 2005 and 2009, he was the top pitcher in the MVP voting. In 2005, he barely lost the Cy Young Award to Bartolo Colon. In 2009, he didn’t even place in the Cy Young voting.

    In 1997, Randy Myers finished FOURTH in the MVP voting, far and away the highest spot for any pitcher. He finished fourth in the Cy Young vote.

    These are just the most obvious examples; this happens in small ways all the time. Why? You can come up with a lot of theories, but I would say that the most logical one is that it comes down to those words “valuable” and “outstanding.” I imagine there are people right now who would vote Britton “most valuable” pitcher, but they would have trouble voting for him as “most outstanding.”

    Here’s the funny part, the rabbit hole part — I went back to the beginning. And as it turns out, the Cy Young was SUPPOSED to go to the “most valuable” pitcher. The words got switched at the last minute. And it’s unclear why.

    * * *

    The rabbit hole takes us all the way back to 1956 and the start of the Cy Young Award. Well, technically, it takes us back to November 1955. That is when the great pitcher Cy Young died.

    Young was more than a great pitcher. He was a very popular and iconic figure, a connection to baseball’s past. He always seemed up for an interview, always was ready to tell a story. Think back to when Yogi Berra or Buck O’Neil died. It was like that when Young died. Everyone looked for a suitable way to honor him.

    This gave commissioner Ford Frick a chance to champion one of his pet ideas: Frick wanted an award that honored pitchers. Sportswriters though Frick was irked by the fact that Robin Roberts had never won an MVP award. Roberts was, in the judgment of many, the best pitcher in the National League every year from 1950 to 1955. He almost won the MVP award in 1952, finishing a close second to Hank Sauer, but other than that he was overlooked. Frick thought pitchers deserved a chance to win their own MVP awards.

    And so, after Young died, Frick made his voice heard. He proposed a special award, named for Cy Young, to be given to pitchers. It was announced in early 1956 with a banner headline in The Sporting News:

    “Pitchers to Have Own MVP Award in the Future.”

    OK, you see that: It was to be the pitchers’ Most Valuable Player Award. Valuable was the key word in the story. It seemed pretty easy.

    As it developed though, the Cy Young thing became more controversial than Frick had expected. Turns out the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) wasn’t too crazy about the idea of the commissioner jamming some new award down their throats. Turns out, they didn’t particularly like Frick second-guessing their judgments about Robin Roberts. Turns out — in the least surprising development of all — the BBWAA didn’t really want change.

    Still, Frick kept pressing his case, and on July 9, at the All-Star Game, the BBWAA met to vote. First, they argued. There were arguments over the number of Cy Young Awards that should be given out each year. There were arguments over making pitchers ineligible to win the MVP award. There were arguments over the name “Cy Young Award” — some thought it should be named for Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson.

    The New York World-Telegram’s Dan Daniel argued that the new Cy Young Award would diminish the MVP award. Philadelphia’s Frank Yeutter argued that were already too many damn awards.

    And then, after the vote, there was an argument about the vote itself being unconstitutional.

    You can probably hear the squabbling in your head.

    In the end, the writers voted for the new Cy Young Award 14-12 — literally one person changing a vote would have killed the Cy Young Award before it ever started.

    But the BBWAA did vote for it with a couple of caveats:

    1. Pitchers would still be eligible for the MVP award; that, in everyone’s mind, was still the big award.

    2. They would only give out one Cy Young Award to the best pitcher in both leagues. It would be 11 years before they started giving out Cy Youngs to the best pitcher in each league.

    But the biggest news was the wording: Nobody really wrote about the wording then, but it was made clear the BBWAA determined that the Cy Young Award would go to the “most outstanding pitcher in baseball.” In every story I could find, valuable was left completely out.

    It is unclear what brought about the change. It’s possible that the voters didn’t even think of it as a change — they might have just thought (as I do) that “outstanding” and “valuable” are basically baseball synonyms. What’s more likely, though, is that they chose “outstanding” to separate it from the MVP award. The BBWAA was very sensitive about the MVP award.

    But then, it gets even weirder: The Cy Young Awards themselves DID use the word valuable. A quick internet search (h/t: Fangraphs and Tom Tango) shows that sometimes — like in 1963 with Sandy Koufax, in 1972 with Steve Carlton, in 1973 with Jim Palmer and perhaps as late as Lamar Hoyt in 1983 — it DID say “Most Valuable Pitcher” on it. Other years, more recent years, it said “Outstanding Pitchers.” And still OTHER years, it did not say either; it just had the pitcher’s name.

    In other words: I’m probably overthinking the whole thing.

    Check that. Delete the word “Probably.”

    I would ask again: Does the word choice have an impact? I would say: Overall, yes. It’s true that starting in the early 1970s with Mike Marshall, relievers did get real Cy Young support. Marshall barely lost the award to Tom Seaver in 1973 and then won it going away in 1974. That opened the floodgates: Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young in 1977; Bruce Sutter in 1979; Rollie Fingers in 1981; Willie Hernandez in 1984; Steve Bedrosian in 1987; Mark Davis in 1989 and Eckersley in 1992. Others like Goose Gossage and Dan Quisenberry came close.

    But, as mentioned, since Eckersley won the Cy Young/MVP double, relievers — with the one Gagne exception — have been shut out. And now there’s a powerful debate going on.

    There’s an interesting statistical side note to this. There are a couple of advanced statistics out there that people like to lean on. One is, of course, WAR, Wins Above Replacement, and relievers will almost never do very well with WAR because they do not pitch enough innings. By Fangraphs WAR, Zach Britton ranks 26th in the American League, nowhere near the Cy Young contenders.

    But then there’s a stat called Win Probability Added, WPA, that adds (and subtracts) the win probability for every play. So, for instance, if a home pitcher has a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth inning, the team’s win probability is roughly 87 percent.

    After getting one out, it jumps up to about 93 percent. So add six percent to the pitcher’s total.

    After getting a second out, it just up to about 97 percent. So add four percent to the pitcher’s total.

    Then, of course, third out moves it to 100 percent, so you add that.

    It’s a pretty simple formula, easy to add and subtract based on what happens. And when it comes to WPA, Britton is FAR AND AWAY the American League leader. His 5.2 WPA is a full win ahead of Andrew Miller and almost two wins ahead of the best starter, Toronto’s Sanchez.

    So, yes, it’s all in how you look at it. In a way, you could say that the difference between WAR and WPA is the difference between “outstanding” and “Valuable.”

    * * *

    One final thought on this — in going down the rabbit hole, I ran into numerous interviews with Cy Young. He was an opinionated man, especially about pitchers. I particularly liked this quote from 1951:

    “There are just too many pitchers,” he said. “Ten or 12 on a team. Don’t see how any of them get enough work. Four starting pitchers and one relief pitcher ought to be enough. Pitch ’em every three days and you’d find they’d get control and good, strong arms.”

    I think it’s fair to say that Cy Young wouldn’t be voting for Zach Britton.

    Style over everything

    A few weeks ago, I was playing tennis against a nice guy, pretty sure his name was Chris. He seemed like a Chris, I mean, as far as I know, every Chris I’ve met — including the Christines — have been very nice people.

    Anyway, when the very friendly match ended, and I had lost decisively, I had this overwhelming thought: I could play Chris one billion times and never beat him.

    It isn’t that Chris is a better tennis player than I am. He is better, but I feel sure he’d deny that. It’s probably true that I have a better forehand than he does, a better serve than he does, and I’m better at the net than he is. It’s true that he probably did not hit even five winners in the entire match and I probably hit four or five times that many. But none of this matters because I could never beat Chris, not ever, and we both know it.

    See, Chris is the sort of player who is in phenomenal shape and has unlimited patience and, as such, he runs down every single ball and bloops every single ball back.

    I can never and will never beat a player like Chris.

    You will ask, perhaps, what any of this has to do with French tennis star Gael Monfils, the supposed subject of this piece. I suppose it comes down to this: I could never play tennis like Chris. I would win way more often if I did play like Chris, but my brain just is not hardwired that way. I play tennis for the thrill of the shot. I will double-fault games away again and again because I crave the joy of the ace. I will make a million forehand errors in the odd hope of hitting one or two Federer-type winners. I go for the topspin lob even though I don’t have a topspin lob in my repertoire. I will crack backhands into the bottom of the net in the baseless hope that this time — this time — I will rip a backhand winner like Stan Wawrinka.

    This might, in the hands of the wrong reporter, be called “audacious tennis.” The proper phrase, however, is “stupid tennis.” I know it’s stupid. I know that every match I go for shots that I might — MIGHT — be successful one out of 50 times. I know that I will lose matches to players I should beat because I am trying things that I might have pulled off once before in my life. It’s beyond stupid.

    But I also know that while I would be a much more successful tennis player if I would pull back, get the ball over, wait for my opponent to make the first mistake, I’m incapable of doing it. I don’t mean I’m too stubborn to do it — although that’s true too. But competitive spirit — the willingness and ability to do whatever is necessary to win — is a talent, as sure as vertical jump and arm strength, and I don’t have it. I think of my tennis game much in the same way I think of the Han Solo scene in the original Star Wars, the one where where he breaks into the detention area and briefly tries to pretend he is an officer for the Empire.

    SOLO: “Everything is under control. Situation normal.”

    INTERCOM VOICE: “What happened?”

    SOLO: “Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction … uh, but, uh, everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now. How are you?”

    INTERCOM VOICE: “We’re sending a squad up.”

    SOLO: “Uh, um, negative, negative, we have a reactor leak here now, uh, give us a few minutes to, uh, lock it down, very dangerous.”

    INTERCOM VOICE: “Who is this? What’s your operating number?”

    At which point Han Solo blasts the intercom. “Boring conversation anyway,” he says.

    That’s how I’d be trying to play Chris tennis — I might be able to fake it for a minute or two, but sooner or later everything in me would revolt against the style of play, against the limitations it presents, against the crushing realization that I’ve given up on hitting the miracle shot. I’d give up and blast the intercom. I’d break apart and try the utterly pointless Gael Monfils between-the-legs volley (and probably kill myself doing so).

    Gael Monfils has never been Top 5 in the world, has never reached the final of a Grand Slam tournament and has never beaten Novak Djokovic in the 12 times they have faced each other. And still, Monfils is — in the word most prominently used by my 15-year-old daughter — lit. “Lit” apparently, if my daughter is to be trusted on such matters, is the current hip slang version of (in reverse time) da bomb, boss, awesome, cool, dyn-o-mite, way out, gone (Daddy-O), the cat’s meow, the bee’s knees. Point is, Monfils is wonderful in just about every way. I root for him to win every single major championship until he doesn’t.

    The thing that makes Monfils such a joyous player is that he is utterly incapable of toning down the turbulent magic in his game. He has tried for years. He is by all accounts the fastest player on tour, the most athletic player on tour, the most breathtaking player on tour. Every year — it has become an annual tradition like Breakfast at Wimbledon — there will be whispers about Monfils moderating his game, playing smarter, getting tougher. And tennis observers will note breathlessly that IF he ever did get his game under control, IF he ever did add competitive fire to his artistic splendor, IF he ever did play to win rather than to serve whatever higher lighthearted purpose that rattles around in his mind, he would be an overwhelming tennis force.

    Then, of course, Gael Monfils becomes Gael Monfils again, playing sporadically incandescent tennis to the beat of whatever music is playing in his head.

    There is always so much talk about what Monfils could be that I wonder if we don’t appreciate enough what he is. As a child, he was an athletic prodigy. He probably had the talent to be an NBA basketball player. He probably had the talent to be an Olympic sprinter. He probably had the talent to be an electrifying striker. He is basically Usain Bolt and Messi and Simone Biles rolled into one body. He could have been anything. This is a man who, in 2006, when he was just 19, showed up in Las Vegas to play in a tournament and, for fun, entered the Paddle Tennis Championships. He had never played paddle tennis before and he beat the player regarded as No. 1 in the world.

    Yes, anything, but he loved playing tennis. You get the sense that tennis was the sport that gave him the best chance to express himself.

    And this is what he does on a tennis court: Express himself. There was the time in Monte Carlo against Alexandr Dolgopolov that he hit a dreadful dropshot and turned his back to the ball in disgust. Only then at the last second, when Dolgopolov bashed the ball into the open court, Monfils suddenly awoke and somehow chased down the ball and hit a winner. It was impossible.

    There was the time at the U.S. Open against Alejandro Gonzalez when a ball floated toward him and he decided for whatever reason to jump straight up in the air (he probably could have been a high jumper too) and in one glorious motion unleash a titanic forehand that looked as if it was shot right out of a video game. It was impossible.

    There was the time in Montreal against Juan Carlos Ferrero, at the end of a 26-shot rally, when Monfils chased down a backhand, then raced across the court and somehow reached it to hit a running forehand. He was probably 15 feet off the court when Ferrero then hit a soft half-volley to the other side of the court. Most players in the world wouldn’t even try to chase it down. Monfils took off, reached it and with one hand, cracked a winner down the line. It was impossible.

    There was the time against Marin Cilic in Indian Wells when he chased down two overhead smashes and a follow drop volley to win the point. “He’s everywhere!” the Sky Sports announcer shouted in wonder. Yes, it was impossible.

    Well, there is a virtually unlimited number of these to talk about — you can go on YouTube and see for yourself. There you can find Gael Monfils’ Top 10 Awesome Points, Top 10 Funniest Moments, Best Points, Amazing Points, Top 10 Improvisations, and so on. If you go to a Monfils match, any match, your jaw will drop at least five times. But he also might lose the match.


    So what do you make of such a career? What do you make of a 30-year-old tennis player who has hit more amazing shots in the last decade than perhaps anyone, but has never come close to winning a major championship? What do you make of a player who on the day he feels right will fight to the brink of exhaustion, on the day he feels wrong will roll over, and on all days will say without hesitation that he looks at tennis as a sport and not as a job?

    Here’s what I make of Monfils: I love the guy. I love him because I relate to him, because I feel him, because I think he is playing tennis for the art and the fun. We have come to believe that winning is not just the most important thing, not just the only thing, but it is the very reason to play sports. Monfils is the antithesis of that. If you could hit miracle shots like Gael Monfils, wouldn’t you?

    A couple of weeks ago, Monfils played Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the Olympic quarterfinal. Nishikori is basically the highest version of the Chris that I played a few weeks ago — Kei might even mean “Chris” in Japanese. He has beautiful ground strokes, he chases every ball down and he wears you down. He obviously has some weapons, but more he wins by outlasting.

    The two played a thoroughly wonderful match, back and forth, and it ended in a third-set tiebreaker. Monfils promptly unleashed some of his sorcery and took a 6-3 lead in that tiebreaker. He was one point from winning the match and going to the semifinal. I was watching the match with my pal Dave, a former college tennis player, and we both said the same thing: Monfils absolutely could lose this.

    Sure enough, Nishikori won the next two points behind two good serves, and then it was Monfils’ turn to serve. He tried for a big first serve, of course, and missed. It was second-serve time.

    “Double fault,” I predicted.

    “Yep, he will go for too much and double fault,” Dave said.

    Monfils promptly went for too much (“To unbalance him,” he would explain later) and double faulted. He then lost the next two points to lose the match.

    Now, would it have been smarter for Monfils to make sure he made his second serve to give himself a chance to win the match? Probably. But as Fast Eddie says in “The Hustler:” “Percentage players die broke too, don’t they?”

    Monfils is back at another U.S. Open, and he’s the best tennis show on earth. He will also probably lose before too much longer, but until then, it will be fun to watch. As the scorpion and the frog story goes, it’s in his nature. And I love him for that because, while I know that I could never do any of the things that Gael Monfils can do, I also know: It’s in my nature too.

    Head of the class

    Six players in baseball history have hit 10 or more home runs in their first 25 big league games. Well, that’s not exactly right — only one player has hit MORE than 10 home runs in his first 25 games. That, as you probably know, is New York Yankees phenom Gary Sanchez. He already has 11, and he still has one more game to go to get to his 25th game. We will get back to him in a minute.

    The other five players hit exactly 10 home runs in their first 25 games.

    They are a bit of a mixed bag.

    * * *

    Zeke Bonura, 10 homers in 25 games, 1934.

    Zeke Bonura’s first bit of fame came not as a baseball player but as a track-and-field star. When he was 16 years old in 1925, he shocked everyone by breaking the American javelin record and coming within inches of the world record. His throw was five feet longer than the gold-medal throw at the Olympics one year earlier. His record would later be called wind-aided and nullified — there is some dispute about whether it really was wind-aided or if the AAU just did not want a previously unknown 16-year-old Italian to have the American record.

    He got his nickname “Zeke” indirectly from none other than Knute Rockne. The best version of the story is that Rockne came to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to recruit him and, upon showing up, said: “I want to see the one with the physique.” Physique was shortened by wiseguy teammates to “Zeke.” When Bonura made the big leagues, he was 6-foot and 210 pounds of muscle.

    He made it in 1934, after a five-year stretch in the minor leagues, and upon his arrival, he hit 10 home runs in his first 25 games. He reached 10 in style, hitting two home runs off Philadelphia pitching in Game 24 and hitting two more off Boston’s George Pipgras and Johnny Welch in Game 25. It was a time in America for ethnic profiling, of course, and so as a reward for his historic start, Bonura got his photograph in the Chicago Daily News eating a big plate of spaghetti. “Spaghetti Eating Plutocrat, Bonura Is Ballplayer, Too,” was the headline.

    He was often called “Spaghetti Zeke Bonura” after that.

    Bonura was a superb hitter. In his first six seasons — his only six full seasons — he hit .313/.386/.504, hit 20-plus homers three times, scored 100 runs twice and drove in 100 RBIs four times. He actually owned the White Sox RBI record for 62 years until Albert Belle broke it in 1998 and Frank Thomas broke it again two years later.

    But, despite the hitting, Bonura was mostly known as a sort of flake during his playing days. Stories of his inability to read signs became legendary — his manager Jimmy Dykes would tell of the time that they kept flashing the bunt sign at Bonura and he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, read it. Finally, Dykes would say, he just shouted “Bunt! Bunt!”

    “And,” Dykes said to finish off the joke, “the SOB still swung away.”

    This was in the day when managers felt free to insult their own ballplayers at will. Dykes also never hid his belief that Bonura was the worst first baseman in entire world.

    “It was never established that beyond the shadow of a doubt that Bonura was the worst fielding first baseman in the majors,” Shreveport Journal sports editor Otis Harris wrote, echoing Dykes. “But the consensus was that he would do until another one came along.”

    Funny thing is, it’s not clear at all from the record that Bonura was a bad first baseman. In truth, he looks like a very good one based on the limited stats we have. He rarely made errors (he led the league in fielding percentage three times). And while the knock on him was that he was about as mobile as a sleeper-sofa, he led the league in in range factor FOUR TIMES in six years. Yes, this could be a limitation of the statistics we have — people who saw Bonura play seem almost unanimous in their belief that he was a dreadful defender. But let’s be honest, it also could be that people tend to see what they want to see.

    There is one more fun part of all this — in 1937, Bonura was one of a handful of athletes featured on the front of a Wheaties Cereal box. On one of the panels, Bonura was given the task to explain the proper way to play first base.

    Bonura went to war in 1940 and received the Legion of Merit for his work as athletic director for the army in Algeria. He died in 1987.

    * * *

    George “Boomer” Scott, 10 homers in 25 games, 1966

    Scott, like Bonura, grew up in Mississippi. George’s father worked on a cotton field and died when George was two years old. It wouldn’t be long before George himself worked in the cotton fields to help his mother, who was trying to keep the family afloat by working three jobs.

    He was a baseball phenom — according to Ron Anderson’s SABR profile, Scott was such a powerful hitter as a boy (he had a six-game stretch where he hit multiple homers every game) that he was briefly thrown off his team because he hit too many home runs. They thought he was older than he claimed. Scott was more than a baseball phenom, though. He was a fantastic athlete who starred in football and basketball, too. He would later say he loved those sports more, but he knew that baseball was where he could make his living.

    Believe it or not, Boomer Scott was a second baseman and shortstop when he first went into the minor leagues — it was probably that middle-infield dexterity that helped Scott win eight big-league Gold Gloves at first base. He didn’t flash real power until he went to Pittsfield in 1965 when he was 21 years old. There, he mashed 25 home runs along with 30 doubles and nine triples. His last at-bat in Pittsfield was cool. He needed a home run to win the batting title, the home run title and the RBI title. So he hit the home run. And as it turned out, in addition to giving him the triple crown, the homer won the game that clinched the playoffs for PIttsfield.

    When he came to Boston for spring training, he was not the resident phenom. That was Joe Foy, who had hit .302 in Triple-A Toronto and was widely viewed as the real can’t-miss superstar. The two were often compared that spring training with Foy getting most of the accolades.

    But once the season began, Boomer made clear who the real star was. He hit nine home runs in a 13-game stretch, and he hit his 10th in his 21st game. The Sporting News did a big story on him then (“Great Scott!” was the headline, the first of approximately 10 billion times Scott would see it) and though it doesn’t have too much information, it does have one fun exchange. Scott has huge hands and so the reporter asked him if he could palm a basketball.

    “Don’t know,” Scott said.

    “Haven’t you ever tried?” the reporter asked.

    “No,” Scott said. ‘When I got the basketball, I put it in the basket.”

    Boomer went on to a fine major league career. He hit 271 home runs, led the league in homers and RBIs in 1975 and twice led the league in total bases. He died in 2013 at the age of 69.

    * * *

    Kevin Maas, 10 homers in 25 games, 1990.

    When Kevin Maas hit his first big league home run — on July 4, 1990 — absolutely nobody noticed. This is because on the very same day, in the very same game, Bo Jackson unleashed a 450-foot megabomb that crushed what was destined to be the worst Yankees team in almost 80 years.

    Maas was not really a prospect. He had been taken in the 22nd round four years earlier, and he had not blown anyone away in the minor leagues. But with the Yankees in utter free fall and with hero Don Mattingly in sudden decline, there was a lot of hope pinned on Maas. He was left-handed, had a sweet swing that was perfect for Yankee Stadium, and when the team went to Texas for a three-game series, he homered in each game, once off Kevin Brown, once off of Bobby Witt and once off of Nolan Ryan. The last was when Ryan was trying to win his 300th game (he would have to wait until his next start).

    Six days later, he homered off Detroit’s Dan Petry, and two days after that he mashed two more homers off Tigers pitching. That gave him 10 homers in 25 games. He hit a few more home runs — for the year, Maas hit 21 home runs in just 254 at-bats. Lots of people were doubling those numbers and considering the possibilities.

    The Maas era did not last much longer, however. He hit 23 home runs in his second year and he walked 83 times. But he hit just .220 and slugged just .390 — it was becoming clear that he just did not make enough hard contact to stick. He kicked around for a while longer and played a year in Japan for the Hanshin Tigers.

    * * *

    Chris Davis, 10 homers in 25 games, 2008.

    He was a pretty big prospect when he got the call. Davis had 36 home runs in the minors as a 21-year-old and he was so battering the Pacific Coast League (having hit 10 homers in just 31 games there) that the Rangers brought him up in late June. He hit an opposite-field three-run homer in his second game. He took Jamie Moyer deep in his fourth. He hit four home runs on a long road trip to end his first 25 games — hitting his 10th homer in that 25th game off of Justin Duchscherer in Oakland.

    Davis, like Maas, more or less stopped making contact in his second year — he hit 21 homers but had just a .284 on-base percentage, largely because he walked just 24 times but struck out 150. He couldn’t get it back in Texas and was dumped on Baltimore for reliever Koji Uehera. The Rangers didn’t get the best of Uehera either; he left for Boston after two years and became almost unhittable.

    Davis, of course, reemerged in Baltimore in 2012 and has 191 home runs the last five seasons, the most in baseball.

    Most home runs, 2012-2016:

    1. Chris Davis, 191

    2. Edwin Encarnacion, 187

    3. Nelson Cruz, 167

    4. Miguel Cabrera, 159

    (tie) MIke Trout, 159

    * * *

    Trevor Story, 10 homers in 25 games, 2016

    Is it weird that two of the six players to hit 10 homers in their first 25 games came along this year? Yeah, but it’s no weirder than the obscene jump in home runs this year. In 2014, teams were averaging .86 homers per game and 139 homers per year.

    In 2016, teams are averaging 1.16 homers per game — that’s 187 homers per year and the second-highest home run average in baseball history behind only 2000.

    What gives? Well, that has been the point of much speculation, from the juice in the baseball, to the juice in the players, to the juice in the bats, and so on. The sudden uptick of home runs after the All-Star Game last year suggests something rather sudden happened, but it doesn’t necessarily add up that way. There are many factors when it comes to home runs and if we are going to get a clear picture we have to look at everything. Just as an example, weather plays a huge role in hitting, and this has been the hottest summer on record.

    Thing is, other than home runs, offense is at an all-time low. Hitters are striking out at a considerably higher rate than ever before, and they’re not walking much. Hitters are batting .256, which is below historic norms, and hitters aren’t hitting doubles and triples at a particularly high rate (triples have been at historic lows this entire decade). It’s just home runs. And while cynical fans give knowing looks, the truth is we don’t exactly know why hitters are knocking baseballs out of the park at a crazy rate.

    Story came into this year as the Rockies’ eighth-best prospect, according to Baseball America. He was a top prospect once, but that was way back in 2013. Then, he struck out a staggering 183 times in 130 games in Modesto as a 20-year-old. He never hit even .280 in the minors, and he only managed to hit 20 homers in one of his five minor league seasons. Few thought he would make enough contact to be an impact hitter.

    Then he came up and splashed like no one ever had — he hit two homers in his first game in Arizona, another in his second game, another in his third and two more in his home debut against the Padres. That’s six homers in four games, and then he hit his seventh homer in Game 6. He slowed down considerably from there, but still managed to hit his 10th homer in Game 21 to be part of this club.

    * * *

    Which brings us back to Gary Sanchez.

    Scouts have loved Sanchez’s talent since the day the Yankees signed him at 16 years old. They gave him a $3 million signing bonus — that’s the sort of talent they saw. Of course, sixteen-year-old kids are impossible to scout — at the same time, the St. Louis Cardinals gave $3.1 million to Wagner Mateo, who never hit and he bombed out at age 21. That’s a much more common tale.

    Sanchez rushed through the low minors as if in a hurry to make his name, but then he stalled. He stopped hitting. He was benched for off-the-field stuff. He was dressed down for insubordination. And, perhaps most strikingly from a baseball perspective, questions grew about his dedication to the game. “All the talent in the world,” one scout said. “If only they could get him to care.”

    All of this might just have been growing pains, of course. You give a 16-year-old kid in the Dominican $3 million, then put him into a situation where he needs to overcome a language barrier and the doubts of others, it’s amazing that anyone comes through that. But the good ones find a way. In 2014 and 2015, Sanchez reestablished himself as one of the best prospects in baseball, a unusually gifted receiver with emerging offensive skills. He hit well in the International League.

    And even with all that, his debut has been jolting. Of course, it’s jolting to see someone hit .383/.448/.819 with eight doubles and 11 home runs in his first 24 games. Nobody has ever done that in baseball history. But what’s perhaps just as amazing is how good he looks doing it — there is absolutely nothing about Sanchez’s swing, his approach or his general posture that doesn’t point to superstardom. There are some fond remembrances now of one-time Yankees freak Shane Spencer, but — and with absolutely no offense meant for Spencer — it’s pretty clear that Sanchez isn’t the same story.

    * * *

    A final word … about Shane Spencer. I was surprised not to see him on this list. It turns out he just missed it, hitting his ninth and 10th home runs in Games 26 and 27. It isn’t really fair though because he didn’t get an at-bat in his first game and had just one plate appearance in seven other games. He hit 10 home runs in 73 plate appearances in his magical run during that magical Yankee season of 1998.

    Spencer, unlike Maas and Story and even Sanchez, was a minor-league masher. He hit 32 homers in the minors in 1996 and 30 more the next year. Nobody thought that would translate to the big leagues, but the power was there. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was stocky and had a good swing, especially against fastballs.

    When he came up to hit in that crazy-good Yankees lineup, he was fed a lot of fastballs — and Spencer knew what to do with them. He just kept hitting homer after homer after homer, much to the delight of Yankees fans who were already luxuriating in the riches of an almost unbeatable team. After 1998, Spencer was thrown a lot more off-speed and sliders, and he settled into a solid utility player. He, like Maas, went to play for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan after he fell out of the Major Leagues.