Watching a game with the First Fan

On Thursday, June 17, 2010, I was having lunch in a restaurant near my home in Manhattan with Bill Marovitz, a friend from Chicago, where I was born and raised. Marovitz, of medium build and with a thick thatch of sandy hair, is a former Illinois State Senator and possesses a broad smile that surely helped him get elected several times in his Gold Coast district of lakefront Chicago. Marovitz is friends with Jerry Reinsdorf, principal owner of the Chicago White Sox, and the Chicago Bulls. When Marovitz was in the State Senate, in 1988, he co-sponsored a bill to keep the White Sox in Chicago rather than, as team ownership threatened, to have the franchise moved to Tampa-St. Petersburg unless it would get a tax break on building a new ballpark. Marovitz was the political face of the bill, appearing on television on numerous occasions and being quoted in newspapers with, “Let’s keep the White Sox where they belong, in Chicago. What’s it say about a city that can’t keep a valuable franchise like this big-league ballclub.”

And Marovitz meant it. He is a fervent sports fan, especially when it comes to the White Sox. (He had even been known to attend a play in a downtown theater while listening to a Sox game with a transistor radio ear-piece glued to his ear.) And the bill allowing the use of public funds passed, narrowly, enabling the White Sox to build and finance their present ballpark, U.S. Cellular Field, across 35th Street from old Comiskey Park (now a parking lot). The passing of that bill most surely had something to do with Reinsdorf later smiling when Marovitz would come into his view. And they became very friendly.

“I’m going to D.C. tomorrow,” Marovitz was now saying to me, “Strasburg is pitching against the White Sox tomorrow night and Jerry’ll be there in a suite.” Stephen Strasburg was the new pitching phenom for the Washington Nationals. “Why don’t you join us? It’ll be great.”

“He invited you?” I said.


“I’d love to see Strasburg pitch, but if I’m going to sit in Reinsdorf’s box, maybe you should ask him if it’s okay. If it’s not I still have my Lifetime Baseball Writer’s card. I’ll go down with you and sit in the press box. Been there before.”

“No, I’ll call Jerry. It’ll be fine. I’ll let him know you’re coming with me.”

In my 26 years as a sports columnist for The New York Times (retired in 2007), a writer for the paper wouldn’t want to be caught dead – even worse, alive – in the suite or box of an owner of a team you were covering. It would have the odor of non-objectivity, of being bought off for a chance to hobnob with the swells, something that one could never be accused of while ensconced in the press box. A stringent policy against cozying up – or appearing to cozy up – to Movers and Shakers had been laid down for years by Times editors. I’d been gone from the paper for three years now, and, yes, career experiences are hard to shake, but I considered myself a free agent, and decided to take up Reinsdorf’s – and Bill’s – offer.

I had known Jerry Reinsdorf for 30 years, and had a good journalistic relationship with him. As for Strasburg, this would be only his third game in the Major Leagues. In the previous two games, starting both, he had struck out a total of 22 batters – a record start for a pitcher. Some baseball pundits were calling him the next Bob Feller or Bob Gibson, Hall of Fame fire-ballers. June 18 would be his second start in a home game. Like most baseball fans, Reinsdorf  — who would be given a suite and adjoining box by the Nationals as is a league courtesy to a visiting team’s owner — was surely eager to see the 21-year-old Strasburg pitch – and now the heralded rookie was going up against his team.

On the morning of June 18, Bill Marovitz and I met at Penn Station on Seventh Avenue and we took the Acela train to Washington, checking the newspapers for late news on the game and on Strasburg – and the weather. We had no need for rain.

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As the train whizzed along through the New Jersey countryside and past towns that emerged however briefly outside the car window, I’m sure we talked about the previous two outings of Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the major league draft of 2009, who was a pitching marvel at San Diego State and in a brief minor-league career. In his major-league debut on June 8, 10 days before Bill and I boarded our train to Washington, Strasburg had struck out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates – including every batter in the starting lineup – only one strikeout short of the record for a rookie debut. His fastball was clocked as high as an astounding 100 mph. Strasburg’s second outing five days earlier, against Cleveland, was only a bit less impressive, eight strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. His won-lost record was now 2-0. “He was,” wrote Sports Illustrated, “the most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in Major League history.” Perhaps an exaggeration, but name one pitcher more hyped and more closely watched. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:

“Doc Gooden of the Mets?” said Bill.

“Not quite like this in his first games, I don’t think,” I said.

“Bob Feller?”

“No TV in his day. And he played for Cleveland, not a big national newspaper story, either.”

“Christy Mathewson?”

“Hardly even radio in his time. And the telegraph wouldn’t have done the trick. When was the Pony Express, anyway?”

And thus the train rattled on to D.C. Trenton came and went. So did Philadelphia and Wilmington.

“Do you think Obama might show up for the game?” Bill mused. “He’s a great White Sox fan, and a great baseball fan.”

“Great sports fan. He loves basketball, still plays. I have friends who played with him at the East Bank Club.”

“I worked out there with him – in the weight room! When he was in the Illinois Senate.”

“Well, in basketball, a friend who has played with him there said that they close off the court and if you guard him too closely the Secret Service guys run out and push you back.”

“Hadn’t heard that,” said Marovitz, with a chuckle. “Funny thing, when Obama was asked to throw out the first ball at the All-Star Game in St. Louis last year, MLB wanted him to wear a Cardinals’ jacket. He refused.”


“Yeah, he insisted on wearing a White Sox jacket. And that’s what he wore.”

“I remember him wearing the jacket.”

“He threw out the first pitch at the Nationals’ opener in April, and wore the Nationals jacket – but he wore his White Sox cap – he had hid it in his glove.”

“Doesn’t give up.”

“But I’ll bet he’s as curious about Strasburg as everyone else,” said Bill. “Hey, Reinsdorf‘s even coming in from Chicago for the game.”


“So if Obama’s in town I’d bet he’d give it serious thought. Jerry told me that he invited him to the game but doesn’t know if he’d come.”

“But he is kinda busy these days – dealing with the world. …”

“You never know,” said Marovitz.

“That would be something,” I said. Years later, I learned that Secret Service had checked out the stadium a week prior to the game just in case the President was able to make it.

Bill had known Obama for several years. Besides having worked out with him, he had also organized a fundraiser for him at the Park West concert hall in Chicago when Obama was running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, in 2004, and elicited entertainers like Stevie Wonder and Robin Williams to perform. Marovitz acted as master of ceremonies for the event.

We rumbled out of a stop in Baltimore and very soon we were at Union Station, D.C. Bill and I made our way through the throngs, caught a cab to our hotel, dropped off our stuff, freshened up, and at around 4:30 caught the Metro subway Green Line to Nationals Park and the first pitch of the game, which would be with Strasburg on the mound in the top of the first inning, scheduled for 7:05.

As we emerged from the train station, it was still rather early for the game but we saw despite that that traffic was heavy around the park. It was a beautiful, balmy night. In the twilight of a clear sky, with only a hint of twinkling stars, the stadium lights glowed in the distance. Bill and I flowed into the mostly shirt-sleeve crowd of fans, some topped by cherry red Nationals caps with the letter “W” scripted on the front and others with cameras looped about their necks. There was a palpable anticipation. I imagine it’s that way with aficionados in Madrid streaming to the Plaza de Toros to see the new hot toreador, or, in Medieval times in England, a crush of nobles and vassals in sight of the castle battlements to check out the latest, greatest jousting knight. We walked the long block along Half Street to our destination.

As we got closer, a bright red sign on the façade came into view: “Nationals Park.” Beyond it, a portion of the blue-seat upper decks seemed beckoning. To the left was the center-field scoreboard, a kind of colossus. Bill and I turned left on N Street to the Will Call window, and picked up our tickets, the tops of which read “Natstown,” and below that, under “Row,” it stated “ Lincoln Suite II.” I still carried my Baseball Writer’s card in my pocket just in case there was a problem, and I’d simply repair to the press box, if need be.

At the elevator the luxury suites we ran into Jerry Reinsdorf, waiting to ascend. Reinsdorf seemed pleased to see us. “Great night for a game,” he said greeting us, his voice gentle, though a bit raspy. His graying hair was combed in a boyish wavelet at the top of his high forehead, his eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses were direct. He carried a slight paunch. Reinsdorf had been a powerful voice among the owners, most notably in toppling then Commissioner Fay Vincent and elevating Bud Selig to the post. Reinsdorf can be sentimental to his roots, which are in Flatbush, Brooklyn.  Though he left Brooklyn to attend Northwestern University Law School and remained in Chicago and amassed a fortune in real estate, he has hung on the walls of his Chicago office photographs of Flatbush’s long-gone Ebbets Field. Reinsdorf also can be self-deprecating: Some 20 years earlier we had gone to dinner in Chicago and went to his private club. I had insisted on paying, since The Times’ policy was to foot the bill at all times, if possible, but this was his private club and he would just sign the bill, so I’d have to take a rain check on buying him dinner. He hadn’t made a reservation and asked the tuxedoed maître d’ if he had a table. “Of course, sir,” the man said, “right this way.” “It’s amazing,” Reinsdorf whispered to me as we walked, “the influence you can have if you happen to know Michael Jordan.” Reinsdorf, after all, was the owner of the basketball team in Chicago that Air Jordan played for.

Both Reinsdorf and Marovitz wore sport jackets with shirts open at the collars. I wore just a long-sleeve shirt, no jacket, and so was, for a sportswriter, even a former one, under-dressed, I felt, though not quite as rumpled as, say, the Odd Couple’s “Oscar Madison.”

At the door to the second-tier suite, we were met by two well-built men in business suits who were checking IDs, and with a list of names on clipboards. “Odd, they aren’t your conventional ushers,” I thought. “Is this how suites work?” Inside were hot plates with a variety of food and drinks and an assortment of people as well, including the mustachioed David Axelrod, the senior adviser to President Obama, and who was friendly with Reinsdorf and obviously now a guest of his. I had met Axelrod several months earlier, when my wife and I were invited to his office in the White House, following an exchange of emails. We had a Chicago political connection of sorts – he being a political consultant in the city and I was the son of a former Chicago precinct captain under the first Mayor Daley. We had a newspaper connection, as well, since he had been a political columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He was also a baseball fan, a season-ticket holder with the Cubs, but he also followed the White Sox and was a basketball fan, like his boss in the Oval Office. On a shelf in his office Axelrod proudly displayed a basketball signed by Bill Russell who rarely signed autographs, but did for Axelrod when the former Boston Celtic great had been honored at the White House. This autograph read simply, “Yo David. Bill Russell”.

There was some small talk: I remember Axelrod asking Reinsdsorf if the Bulls had a chance to land LeBron James, then a free-agent from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Reinsdorf said that he and a few members of the Bulls had gone to Akron, LeBron’s home town, to try to lure him to Chicago. “I don’t think we persuaded him,” said Reinsdorf. I was about to say something when Axelrod put his hand on my arm. “Wait,” he said, with a smile, “this might be breaking news!” Reinsdorf continued, “But I think he’s going to stay with the Cavs.”  It turned out that Reinsdorf was only half right about LeBron – no Bulls and no Cavs, either; James, of course, signed with the Miami Heat.

It was getting close to game-time. Most of us walked out from a door of the glass-enclosed suite and into the box. Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania, and Janet Napolitano, then the Homeland Security Secretary, remained in the suite for much of the game, as I recall. Reinsdorf did as well – and almost never sat down while nervously rooting for his team.

Rendell, Reinsdorf and Napolitano were talking about sports broadcasters. “All they do is talk about the obvious, work a few hours and then are off,” said Reinsdorf, with a laugh.

“Gee, sounds like a great job,” said Napolitano, “how can I get a job like that?”

Axelrod; a man named Eric Whitaker, a long-time friend of Axelrod’s; Ken Williams, White Sox general manager; Marovitz and I took our seats, which were located on the third-base side of the field. All of us were surely guests of the owner, and baseball fans. For whatever reason, I thought nothing more of it. There were two rows of cushioned seats, 14 in each row. We all sat in the second row. Axelrod sat to my left and Marovitz to my right, at the left side of the row of seats, with several seats empty to the right. Just below us over the railing was the grandstand, now mostly filled with the  baseball fans nestling into their seats – attendance would be listed at 40,325, nearly capacity — only soon to stand again for the national anthem (Jerry Krause, the former general manager of Reinsdorf’s Bulls, once told me that if he were to write a book of his experiences, he’d title it “Ten Thousand National Anthems”).

Beyond those fans just below us was the lush green and clean tan of the ball field, the stark white bases seemingly popping up like mushrooms on the base paths, the ballplayers trotting out to take their positions, and beyond that the bleachers and the hulking center-field scoreboard that nearly seemed out of place in this otherwise serene setting.

On the mound now taking his warmup tosses was the swiftly acclaimed rookie Strasburg, a strapping 6-foot-4 right-hander, throwing in a sweeping overhand motion, and looking quite cool as his pitches popped into the catcher’s mitt. His red cap was tugged low, his red jersey top bore the number “37,” his white knickers were tucked just below his knee and thus showed his long red stirrup socks. From my vantage point, I could also make out a clump, as it were, of facial hair clinging to his chin – perhaps a proud symbol of maturity for someone who was not considerably past voting age.

The White Sox, however, seemed not as altogether taken with Strasburg as was the local fandom, to say nothing of the rest of the country. Juan Pierre, the Sox speedy leadoff batter, managed a slow-roller to the first baseman, with Strasburg a little slow coming off the mound to cover first base for the toss. Base hit. Pierre was followed in the lineup by shortstop Omar Vizquel, who – a right-handed batter swinging late on a sizzling fastball– promptly lifted a bloop to right that wound up a double. Pierre stopped at third. Strasburg tugged again at his cap, kicked a little dirt around the mound in apparent slight frustration, and then got Alex Rios, next up, to ground out weakly to first, but Pierre scored. Vizquel made it to third, but went no farther as Strasburg struck out the next two batters. The crowd clamorously expressed its approval. However, despite no solid blows by Chicago, Strasburg’s team was behind 1-0 before it even came to the plate. On first sight, though – and in the first inning — it certainly appeared that Stephen Strasburg had a million-dollar arm – actually, $2 million, which was his salary for the 2010 season.

It was around this time that there was a sudden murmur in our box and we looked up to see coming through the door and down the few steps a tall, light-skinned black man in a black-and-white White Sox cap, a white short-sleeve shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers – followed by two young girls. It was the President of the United States and his daughters, 11-year-old Malia and 9-year-old Sasha.

The President was all smiles, and energetic, fairly bounding down the stairs, though not too bounding since he had a plastic cup of beer in his hand. It was as though, at least on this gentle night, and in only his 16th month as “The Leader of the Free World,” and commander in chief, the burdens for the 48-year-old President — from Congressional obstacles for his economic programs to the Mideast to say nothing of crumbling bridges and rutted roads  — seemed cast aside. He gave Bill a warm greeting, and shortly after, the President came to me.

“I’m Ira Berkow,” I said. He shook my hand firmly and said, “I know who you are. You wrote a lot of Knick columns with The Times, and you wrote ‘Rockin’ Steady’ with Clyde.”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I bought the book when I was…. “ (He paused, as though searching his memory.) “…I was 12 years old. I loved all the fashion stuff and how to catch flies with your bare hands.”

I smiled. “Some memory,” I said. Not only did he recall specifics in the book, he referred familiarly to my co-author, Walt Frazier, as “Clyde,” the former star Knick guard’s basketball nickname. At the compliment, Obama smiled with all his bright white teeth – a smile that editorial cartoonists love to depict — adding an incandescence to the box.

“’Rockin’ Steady’ is being reissued in hardcover in October,” I added. “I’ll be happy to send you a copy.”

“Why don’t you and Clyde come to the White House and give me an autographed copy?”

“Oh, absolutely,” I said.

I knew, of course, that he was a great basketball fan, and when he was 12 he was probably thinking of making the Punahou High School basketball team in a few years (he was sixth man on its Hawaiian state championship team), and “Rockin’ Steady,” an off-beat coffee-table basketball instructional book, was popular, especially with fans of Clyde. Besides how to dribble and shoot, the book also highlighted Clyde’s unusual, if not sometimes weird, wardrobe, along with diagrams of Clyde demonstrating his quick hands by catching flies both in the air and in a standing position. (I neglected to ask the President how his fly-catching was these days, though a year before he was shown killing a pesky fly in the Oval office during a televised interview – he watched, waited, and then when the buzzing fly to landed on Obama’s left hand he then swifly, with cupped right hand, swatted down and it was curtains for the intruder  – impressive, but not quite the same thing, alas, though maybe “Rockin’ Steady” served as inspiration. Retrieving a napkin after the TV interview, Obama neatly picked up the deceased fly from the carpet.)

The President asked me what I thought of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, in which the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics, played the night before. I said I thought it was exciting, if not artistic. He nodded, and then his attention was diverted to say hello to someone else, and moved on, though not too far, since it was a small box.

While the Presidential kids took a seat in the first row with two men not identified to me, I assumed they were Secret Service, Obama eventually took a seat to the right of Marovitz in the second row. Shortly before, I had overheard Bill asking Axelrod, “What should I call him? Barack or Mr. President?” He hadn’t called him anything yet.

Since the two were sitting essentially inches from me, I leaned over, as a participant in the conversation.

Bill said, “Mr. President, the Mideast, and peace, that has to be a tough thing to deal with.”

“I’m doing the best I can for peace over there. Not easy,” said Obama. Indeed, one of his first actions in office was to send Sen. George Mitchell to Israel and Palestine. Mitchell had recently negotiated a peace in Northern Ireland and Obama hoped he could some of the same there. “I want to ensure security for Israel, and have sovereignty for the Palestinians. But I keep running into roadblocks.”

“Netanyahu?” said Bill, referring to the Israeli prime minister.

“To a certain extent,” replied Obama. “Yes, it’s frustrating.”

Bill said, “So tell me, how do you handle all the critics, the criticism coming at you all the time?”

“Keep doing what you feel is right. What’s in your heart.”

Bill said, “You know, just a few short years ago we worked out together at the East Bank club, and then I was in Arizona when you were making a speech, who would have thought it would end up like this, you President of the United States?”

Obama smiled that broad smile. “I would have,” he said evenly.

We talked some baseball. Later Marovitz said, “He exhibited a knowledge about the White Sox that was as great as any ordinary fanatical fan. He was optimistic about the team. He’s an optimistic guy.”

Strasburg struck out another batter in the second inning, and it caught the President’s attention. “He’s the real deal, isn’t he?” he said.

And we talked basketball. Bill raised a question about whether a superstar player like LeBron James can dictate strategy to his coach, as was rumored he had in Cleveland. “The best coaches run the show – Phil Jackson, Popovich, Sloan,” said Obama. “They make certain that they, not the star player, decide the strategy. K. C. Jones told me a story of when he was coaching the Celtics in a playoff game. It was something like 91-91 with 10 seconds to go in the game and the Celtics called time-out. Larry Bird comes back to the team huddle and says, `Give me the ball. I wanna take the last shot.’ Jones says, `You don’t run this team. You don’t tell me what plays to run. Go sit down!’ Then Jones says to the other players, `OK, here’s what we’re going to do. We inbound the ball to Bird and let him take the last shot.’”

Obama told it well and got a genuinely good laugh in response. At about this time Sen. Kent Conrad, a progressive Democrat from North Dakota, came by to greet Obama. The President bade him to take the empty seat to his right. I wasn’t able to catch the conversation, though admittedly I tried (a reporter’s blood continues through my veins, after all). I remembered that Obama grew more intense and spoke quietly with Conrad. While he periodically kept his eye on the ball game, Obama also seemed to focus intently on what Conrad was saying.

A few years later, I had an opportunity to speak with Conrad, and asked him if he remembered the conversation with Obama.

“I certainly do,” he said. “He seemed kind of down. He was taking heavy criticism for his economic policy. I thought he felt under siege. Wow, he’s trying to pull the country from out of a ditch. I remember saying to him, `There needs to be a narrative, remind people of what you inherited. This country was on the brink of Depression. What was occurring before you took office. Bush would have vetoed any chance for regulation of business practices. We had massive debt.  The stew that was cooked there was hard to choke down. Republicans were against anything and everything he tried to do. I told him, `Stick with your narrative. Gotta keep reminding people. Connect the dots.’ He has a high level of natural intelligence, and he’s no ideologue. He wants what’s best for the country. But I think part of that problem is that because of his makeup he gets bored saying the same thing over and over – in this business you have to. You can’t effectively get bored hearing yourself say the same thing over and over, and still lead. Those of us more pedestrian don’t necessarily get bored that way.”

“I was trying to buck him up,” added Conrad. Strasburg had recorded a few more strikeouts during the conversation, and Conrad remembered Obama saying “Whoa, this guy can bring it!”

When Conrad got up to leave, he gave Obama a manly hug and heard him say, “Stay strong.” Obama thanked him.

Annette Lerner, wife of the Nationals’ owner, Ted Lerner, had left her own box to chat briefly with the President. Then Stan Kasten, the president of the Nationals, and one-time president of the Atlanta Braves baseball and Atlanta Hawks basketball teams, dropped by to say hello to Obama. He asked Obama if he had called Phil Jackson to congratulate him on the NBA championship.

“I spoke to Phil,” said Obama, “and I tried to reach Doc but couldn’t get him.” (He referred to Glenn (Doc) Rivers, coach of the Celtics, which came in second to Jackson’s Lakers.) Kasten said, `Let me try.’” (Rivers used to play for the Hawks and maintained a friendship with Kasten.)

“Hey, Glenn,” said Kasten on his cell phone. “I have the President here, he wants to say hello.” Kasten handed Obama the phone and Obama and Rivers chatted for a few minutes. “Okay,” said Obama, signing off, “talk to you soon,” and returned the phone to Kasten. (Kasten smiled and, when leaving, said quietly to me, “I can get Doc Rivers on the phone and the President of the United States can’t?”)

Periodically, Obama took out his BlackBerry and fiddled with it for messages. Axelrod now suggested that we change seats – he had wanted all of us to have some chance to sit next to the president for a chat. And now it was my turn.

I said to the President, “I saw film clips of you shooting a basketball. Looks like you have a nice shot.”

“I have some game,” he said, with pride.

“Growing up, did you model your game after anyone?” I asked.

“I liked Clyde a lot, but it was Lenny Wilkens. He was a lefty, too.”

“I once did a magazine article on Lenny when he was coaching Seattle,” I said. “Before going out there, I saw Clyde and asked if he had a question for Lenny. He said, `Yes, I always knew he was going left, but I could never stop him. Ask him why.”

“And what did he say?” asked the President, leaning forward in his seat.

“He said, `Clyde always knew I was going left – but he never knew when.”

“That’s like me!” Obama said. “I can still go left against 25-year-olds.They know I’m going left, but don’t know when!”

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We laughed. I said, “I was talking one day to Jonathan Alter –“ “He’s a good guy,” said Obama. “Yes, he is,” I continued, “and we were talking about you and he said, `Have you read Obama’s book “Dreams From My Father’? I said I hadn’t. He said it was terrific, beautifully written. He said that when he saw you after reading it, he told you, `You’re ruining it for the rest of us.’ So I did  read it and I agreed all around with Jonathan, ” I said.

Obama smiled. “Thank you,” said Obama.

“Like a lot of people, though, I wondered if you had really written the book yourself,” I said. “I had noticed in the Acknowledgements that Ruth Fecych was one of your editors – “

“She’s a really good editor,” he said, “and I had been with another publisher but didn’t get the manuscript in on time and had to go to her publisher – “

“Yes, she’s a fine editor. She edited two of my books. And I called her and asked if Obama had really written that book himself. I believed I’d get a straight answer from her. And she said, `Yes.’” And I said, with a recollected mutter, “Son of a bitch.” (The essence, which I hoped he caught, was, again, “You’re ruining it for the rest of us”.) He laughed, I’m happy to report.

Malia came by and told her father that there were now desserts in the suite. “Daddy, do you want some cake?” she asked. “No,” he replied, but noticed the rather large chocolate cookie she had. “Can I have a bite?” he asked. Malia handed the cookie to him. He took a generous bite out of it – about half the cookie – and returned it to its owner, who looked with some surprise at the cookie, but said nothing.

At the seventh-inning stretch we all stood up and sang, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The President seemed in good tenor voice. The fans nearby had turned more to the President in his box than to the field itself, and waved and shouted hellos and snapped photos with raised smart phones. Upon seeing the President, whose presence was never announced, those fans had to have been utterly surprised, if not totally shocked.

After seven innings, Strasburg was taken out of the game. He had thrown 85 pitches and the manager, Jim Riggleman, was trying to limit the wear and tear on a young pitcher’s arm. But Strasburg had given the crowd its money’s worth. He allowed just that one run in the first and then shut the White Sox down for the next six innings, striking out 10, to set a major-league record for a pitcher’s first three career starts, with 32 Ks. His control was superb; he walked no one . At one point, he retired 15 batters in a row, and in the sixth he recorded two straight strikeouts, on 90-mph changeups for the third swinging strikes, and the last two outs of the inning. However, Washington could score just one run off the Sox Gavin Floyd, and so Strasburg left the game at 1-1. He would receive a “no decision,” neither a win nor a loss. With Strasburg gone, it seemed Obama rooted more openly for the White Sox, with an occasional whoop, “Let’s go!” and a hand clap.

With the score still tied at the top of the ninth, Obama rose to leave, but first went down to the first row of the box and reached out to shake hands and make small talk and smile for photos with some of the nearby fans. I noticed that one of the Secret Service men standing in the aisle looked on, if not glowering, then eyeing the situation quite closely, like a hotel detective checking out a suspicious character possibly loitering in the lobby.

Reinsdorf, when he invited the President to the game at first got a No, then a Maybe, still wasn’t sure he’d show up — until he did. The President told Reinsdorf at the game that he was not going to stay through nine innings, for the same reason he had come a little late for the start of the game. “He told me that he didn’t want his motorcade to snarl traffic,” said Reinsdorf, which, I’m sure, was appreciated by the non-Presidential motorists around the ballpark.

When Reinsdorf saw that Obama was preparing to leave, he went into the closet to get some presents (just in case he’d come to the game) for Obama’s daughters. They were from Scott Reifert, the Sox publicity director.  Reifert’s daughters and Sasha and Malia were friends from Chicago and Reinsdorf had placed the gifts in the suite closet prior to Obama’s possible arrival. “Just as I reached in to get the presents,” said Reinsdorf, “I saw a leather brief case that hadn’t been there before. I bent to move it out of the way when a very strong hand grabbed my arm and said, `Don’t touch that!’ I guess it was `the football’ and the guy with that grip was Secret Service, or a plain-clothes military aide. As I learned “the football,” carries with it nuclear information, including retaliatory options, and is always near the president’s side, or, as in this case, just a few feet away hidden in a closet.

Obama said farewell to those in the box. When he came to me, I could think of nothing more to say than repeat Sen. Conrad’s good-bye, “Stay strong.” He looked me in the eye and offered a good hand-shake. And then he was gone.

The White Sox went on to win in 11 innings, 2-1. A news report the next day stated that the President left the park at 9:18 and his motorcade arrived back at the White House — which is down the road a piece on Pennsylvania Avenue from Nationals Park — at 9:31, having traversed from southeast Washington to northwest Washington. The last out of the game was made at precisely 10:00, Nationals center fielder Nyjer Morgan grounding out to second base. My guess is that the President, with or without his Sox cap, watched the end of the game from the Lincoln bedroom, or thereabouts, and was pleased with its outcome.

Marovitz and I had planned to catch a cab back to our hotel, but thought we’d have trouble getting one in the crowd. “I imagine Jerry came in a limo,” said Bill. “Do you think I should ask him for a ride back?”

“Why not?” I said. “That’s the least he can do for us.” (When as a young reporter I was once told by an old sportswriter, “When you free-load, bitch, you maintain dignity.”)

Jerry said he came on the team bus and we were welcome to ride back with him and the players, and naturally we accepted. It wasn’t the Presidential motorcade, but it was fine. And the end to a most remarkable night.

Scroll Down For:

    Peter King goes 1-on-1 with Cowboys’ Jason Witten

    Year: 2017
    Runtime: 19:25
    Originally aired on: NBC

    Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has done it all during his 15-year NFL career. The two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards and is third in franchise history in touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer let Peter King of The MMQB and Football Night in America behind the scenes for a look into Witten’s recovery process. The end result is an incredibly rare shot of what it takes for an NFL player to take his body from gameday to gameday and perform at their absolute best week after week.

    Off Script: Jeremy Roenick opens up on career, family

    Jeremy Roenick was as outspoken as he was talented during his 20-year NHL career.

    Now 47 years old and almost a decade out of the league, the NHL on NBC analyst opens up to Kathryn Tappen about trouble with coaches, life after getting traded, close family ties and much more in the debut episode of “Off Script.”

    Once more, with feeling

    NEW YORK — Again and again, over and over, they ask him how he FEELS. Well, this is the question to ask, isn’t it? The bus crawls through New York traffic and takes Jimmie Johnson from office building to office building. People wait inside. Kelly Live waits. Charlie Rose waits. USA Today … Mad Dog Radio … NFL Radio … TMZ. They wait for him on top of the Empire State Building. They wait for him outside the Time Life Building.

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    How does it FEEL to come from nowhere to win your seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie? How does it FEEL to tie the two enduring legends of your sport, “The King,” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt? How does it FEEL to be the best at what you do, to be inside a race car, rushing at the speed of chaos with 39 maniacs around you barely holding on? No, really, break it down for our audience, how does it feel to be you, Jimmie Johnson, championship race-car driver, part-time triathlete, millionaire philanthropist like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, loving husband, adoring father, everybody’s best friend and somehow, still, the nicest guy?

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    “Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

    “Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

    “I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

    We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

    “Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

    “Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

    “I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

    There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

    WATCH: NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards on Dec. 2 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN,, the NBC Sports app)

    That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

    Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

    He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

    “Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

    * * *

    Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

    Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

    Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

    As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

    “OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

    Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

    Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

    Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

    Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

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    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

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    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

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    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

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    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

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    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?