Baseball is not dying

Baseball is no longer The National Pastime. Of this, there can be no doubt. Indeed, one of the sport’s greatest authorities noted it in pretty stark terms:

“Professional baseball is on the wane. Salaries must come down, or the interest of the public must be increased in some way. If one or the other does not happen, bankruptcy stares every team in the face.”

If it’s not the lack of public interest, it’s the money that that will do the game in. A Hall of Famer who has been noted as particularly financially-savvy made this perfectly clear when he said

“Baseball today is not what it used to be. The great trouble with baseball today is that most of the players are in the game for the money and that’s it, not for the love of it, the excitement of it, the thrill of it.”

And of course, one can’t ignore the fact that other sports have grown tremendously over the years, making baseball just one of many options for fans looking to spend their time and money. A respected journalist identified this trend when he wrote that baseball . . .

“ . . .has begun to topple from its ancient pedestal, as the one-time fervid fans turn to new sports.”

Baseball has an age problem too. As in, the kids don’t play it as much as they used to and the talent pool has become far too shallow. A former big league pitcher noted this trend, saying that while the best players are as good today as they used to be . . .

“ . . .there aren’t enough of ‘em . . . boys don’t take the game as seriously as we used to. I remember when we ate, slept and lived baseball.”

Such big problems identified by such knowledgable authorities has to worry the men and women who work for Major League Baseball and upon whose efforts the very future of the game depends.

Or, at least they would if those quotes hadn’t come from Albert Spalding in 1881, Hall of Famer Ty Cobb in 1925, journalist Jack Kofoed in 1929 and former major leaguer Hooks Wiltse in 1937, respectively.

The first professional baseball team began play in the spring of 1869.  People began lamenting its demise approximately fifteen minutes later. And they haven’t stopped, not even for a moment, since then.

Baseball’s obituary-writing usually starts in the fall, when football begins to crowd baseball off the front of the sports pages. We’ve already seen a couple of examples of these, and we will see more as September wears on and the zeitgeist favors football over the sport which is still, mostly for historical reasons, referred to as the National Pastime. It will certainly come no later than October, when the playoffs begin and baseball’s national TV ratings fall short of meaningless regular season NFL games between non-contenders. We see these obituaries every year. Often several times a year. Columns written in major newspapers and soliloquies offered by TV or talk radio hosts about how baseball is no longer vital, popular or important. Arguments — some of them quite dumb — about how baseball is boring and anachronistic and broken and corrupt and unfair.

[insert-quote text=”The first professional baseball team began play in the spring of 1869.  People began lamenting its demise approximately 15 minutes later.” align=center]

These obituaries will cite any number of causes of baseball’s death. A terminal case of high salaries brought on by an aggressive and invasive strain of player greed. A lingering demise brought on by the continued existence of its slow, 19th century pace in today’s kinetic 21st century world. A death by negligence, occasioned by the lack of interest in baseball by our nation’s youth and by our nation’s minorities who, in football and basketball at least, make up the bulk of the participants. Death by misadventure, as today’s players — with their bat flips, slow home run trots and air-mailed throws past the cutoff man — lack the fundamentals, mettle and respect for the game possessed by their predecessors. Most often, however, the obituary describes a sudden, violent death at the hands of a much stronger and vital adversary in the form of the National Football League and its enormous television ratings and cultural cachet.

Baseball fans might be sad when they read their favorite sport’s obituary, but to be honest, we should’ve known it was dying. We’ve had so many warnings. Like the ones from Albert Spalding, Ty Cobb and Hooks Wiltse going back 120 years or more.  

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Or maybe — just maybe — baseball isn’t dying.

Maybe baseball’s economic model makes ballpark attendance, local broadcast ratings and local broadcast revenues far more important than national television ratings. And maybe those national TV ratings aren’t actually as bad as everyone says.

Maybe team revenues and franchise values have escalated so dramatically over the past two decades that player salaries represent a smaller portion of a team’s revenue than they used to.

Maybe, salaries notwithstanding, more teams are turning in winning seasons, making the playoffs and winning championships in baseball than they do in the other major sports and far more than they did during baseball’s so-called “Golden Age.”

Maybe, while fewer kids and especially fewer U.S.-born blacks play baseball today than they used to, the game is nonetheless more racially and ethnically-diverse than it ever has been.

Maybe those brash, showboating kids who allegedly don’t respect the game actually represent a solution to one of baseball’s actual problems: attracting younger fans to a game that is perpetually fighting the perception that it is staid, boring and uncool.

Or maybe there’s no maybe about it. It’s clear that baseball is no longer be The National Pastime. But it’s a healthier sport today than it ever has been. It’s better off financially, better off competitively and better off culturally. And, the naysaying of baseball’s obituary writers notwithstanding, there has never been a better time to be as baseball fan.

It Doesn’t Matter That Baseball’s National Television Ratings Kinda Stink

On October 18, 2010, the Yankees played the Rangers in Game Three of the American League Championship Series. The Series was tied 1-1, and the teams represented baseball’s largest and fifth-largest television markets. On that same night, The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans played each other on Monday Night Football. Both teams were pretty awful that year, with the Jags finishing 8-8 and the Titans finishing 6-10. Both teams play in two of the NFL’s smallest markets. In the television ratings, the matchup between the lowly Titans and mediocre Jags topped the matchup between two of baseball’s best and most popular teams fighting for the pennant. Topped it by quite a margin, actually.

Though this is not a terribly uncommon occurrence, much was made of it at the time. Much is made of it each year when a regular season NFL game beats a baseball playoff game in the ratings.

The numbers are what they are, of course. But comparisons to the NFL tell us very little about baseball’s health. Nothing does as well as football does in the ratings. Not the most popular entertainment shows. Not news shows. Not even Presidential debates. Indeed, to compare anything to football’s ratings is to illuminate nothing due to football’s status and primacy in the national consciousness, which is beyond dispute.

Baseball does quite well, however, when one considers the overall television ratings trends. Unfortunately, hardly anyone ever considers those trends when piling on baseball’s allegedly low TV ratings. Indeed, baseball is almost exclusively compared with the anomalous NFL — or, more often, its own history — as opposed to current television programming and the inexorable fragmentation of the TV viewing audience.

Watch this segment from Keith Olbermann’s ESPN show last October and tell me if the deck isn’t stacked against baseball when television ratings are concerned:

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Olbermann argues that baseball has become culturally irrelevant by comparing the 2013 World Series‘ ratings to that of the Orioles-Pirates matchup in 1971. He’s not alone in doing this. Watchdog sites such as Sports Media Watch characterize the numbers in terms such as “Game 2 was baseball’s third-lowest-rated World Series game of all time,” which is a comparison dating back to the first World Series broadcast in 1947.

What if CBS and the producers of “The Big Bang Theory” got this treatment? “The Big Bang Theory” was the highest-rated entertainment show during the 2013-14 season (second overall behind NBC’s juggernaut, “Sunday Night Football”). It averaged a Nielsen rating of between 10 and 11 and a share of around 18. In 1971-72, the highest rated primetime show was “All In The Family.” It averaged a rating of 34.4 and had a share of 54.  If “The Big Bang Theory” were on in 1971 and got the same ratings, it wouldn’t have cracked the top 20.

Where are the “The Big Bang Theory” is dying stories? Nowhere, obviously, and not just because “The Big Bang Theory” wasn’t on in 1971. They don’t exist because such comparisons make no sense. The primary purpose of TV ratings is to determine advertising rates and to guide the business decisions of networks. For this purpose historical comparisons are pointless. It’s also pointless because, in the 1970s, there were only three television networks. Cable had barely made any inroads. The ability to stream all manner of entertainment on the Internet didn’t exist. Viewers today have hundreds of competing entertainment options and, as such, success is measured differently than it was measured 30 or 40 years ago.

Baseball, however, is presumed to be competing against old ghosts like the 1971 World Series. And it never gets the benefit of television viewer fragmentation and the seismic shift in America’s entertainment consumption habits when its ratings health is assessed.

[insert-quote text=”Viewers today have hundreds of competing entertainment options and, as such, success is measured differently than it was measured 30 or 40 years ago.” align=center]

When judged on its own, current terms, however, baseball is doing quite well, thank you:

  • In 2012, a World Series which many cite as a low water mark due to a short, uneventful series between the less-than-marquee-worthy Tigers and Giants, Fall Classic ratings beat every entertainment show on the fall primetime schedule in multiple key age groups: Men 18-34, Men 18-49, Adults 18-34, and Adults 18-49.
  • Game Two of the 2013 World Series — the Saturday night contest between the Red Sox and Cardinals which Sports Media Watch referred to as the “third lowest World Series game ever” – Fox averaged a 7.4 rating, which was up 21 percent over the Saturday night World Series game from the year before. It drew a 37.2 rating in St. Louis. It drew a 32.4 rating in Boston.

Those aren’t NFL-level numbers obviously — pro football has proved to be an exception to the overall rule about audiences getting smaller — but baseball is not getting beat by much else. Indeed, in terms of total viewers, The World Series typically delivers to Fox the same number of eyeballs an entire season of a top 10 entertainment program delivers. And it does so over the course of one week.

But those national ratings represent one of the least relevant metrics of baseball’s overall health and vitality. Why? Because . . .

Baseball Is A Local Game And Baseball Is Booming On The Local Level.

Walk into a sports bar in New York on a Sunday afternoon in November and you’re likely to see a half dozen TVs tuned to a half dozen different NFL games. Sure, if the Giants are playing most people are watching them, but say the Giants are playing the Sunday night game.

Are the TVs turned off? Of course not. Everyone is watching football, no matter where the games are being played. The same goes for a sports bar in Chicago or Baltimore or Omaha or Columbus, Ohio. Football is on because, well, that’s what everyone watches on Sunday afternoon. Everyone’s off work, they can eat wings and drink beer with impunity and they’ve devoted their day to football. It’s an event that comes once a week. Twice if you count Monday night.

Now, walk into a sports bar in New York on a Tuesday evening in July. Are there a half dozen TVs watching a half dozen east coast baseball games? Of course not. Everyone is watching the Yankees. If the Yankees are playing the late game out west you’d be lucky to see two TVs with any other baseball on before 10pm. Not that many people will be there for the 10pm west coast game, anyway. They have to work tomorrow morning. And they’d better take it easy on the wings seeing as though they just had dinner. Don’t even try to find a bar filled with baseball watchers in non-baseball cities like Columbus and Omaha. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Baseball’s Tuesday night watchers are not planting themselves in a sports bar and making a party out of it. They’re watching at home. After dinner but before a reasonable bed time. How can it be a party anyway? There are five or six of these games on a week and people have to pace themselves. They’re doing a pretty good job of pacing themselves too. A healthy number of dedicated viewers in local markets are watching their local nine night in, night out. And because of them, their local nine is making money hand over fist.

In 2013, Major League Baseball took in somewhere between $8-8.5 billion in revenue. Of that total, approximately $711.7 million — less than 10% — came from national television deals inked with Fox, TBS and ESPN. In contrast, the NFL’s revenue stands at someplace just north of $9 billion. It’s national television revenue from Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN is $3.085 billion, or around a third. Clearly, national television, however much it is discussed by baseball’s obituarists, is significantly less important to baseball than it is to football, rendering the citation of national TV ratings for baseball only part of the story. What baseball has that football doesn’t are local broadcasts. Lots and lots of local broadcasts. Lots and lots of highly-rated local broadcasts. Lots and lots of insanely lucrative local broadcasts.

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In 2010, the Texas Rangers signed a deal with Fox Sports Southwest which pays the team $85 million per year for 20 years and grants them a 10% equity stake in the network. Earlier this year the Philadelphia Phillies signed a 25-year, $5 billion deal with Comcast SportsNet. And, in the largest and perhaps most-publicized local television deal in baseball history, the Dodgers and Time Warner entered into a 25-year, $8.35 billion deal. While that Dodgers deal is unlikely to be matched by most teams — and while it’s quite possible that the Dodgers’ deal is evidence of a local rights fees bubble — it is a windfall that is attributable to the same dynamic enriching nearly every other team: the dramatic increase in value cable companies and local broadcasters are placing on live sporting events. Like baseball. People like watching local baseball games and are doing so in remarkable numbers.

According to Nielsen, between Opening Day 2014 and the week of July 24, the games of 12 of the 30 major league teams ranked as the top programming in primetime across all of television, including network broadcast television, in those 12 markets. The games of seven other major league teams placed either second or third in their markets.  In 2013, the top end of local baseball ratings look an awful lot like the numbers for “The Big Bang Theory,” actually. The Detroit Tigers averaged a 9.6 ratings last year. The St. Louis Cardinals averaged 8.7. The Pittsburgh Pirates, long a doormat but in 2013 a surprise contender, averaged 8.1. The Cincinnati Reds averaged 7.4, The eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox: 7.2. Overall, the average local rating for 2013 games for all teams is ahead of where they were five years ago. And, it should be noted, all of these numbers have come at a time when more teams are broadcasting their games on cable and are increasingly abandoning over-the-air broadcasts. In theory, fewer people should have access to their team’s games, yet more people are watching them now than they did in the past.

No, these aren’t football numbers. They’re not eye-popping. But they are evidence of sustained strength and growth in local markets. And it’s truly a volume business. Each baseball team plays a 162 games a season, generating around 500 hours of television programming with ratings which are improving year-by-year. The World Series ratings seem somewhat disappointing come October, but far more eyes have watched far more baseball than most people — especially most predictors of baseball’s demise — allow themselves to imagine between April and September.

When all of this is taken into account it is inescapable that, while baseball’s television edifice isn’t built nearly as high as that of football’s, its foundation is much, much wider.

“Greedy Players” Are Not Making Too Much Money

Each November or December, at least one nine-figure contract is handed out to a baseball free agent. Sometimes several of them. This year one will undoubtedly go to starting pitcher Max Scherzer. Last year the big deal went to Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano. The common fan’s response — and, quite often, the common sports writer’s response — to any large free agent signing usually includes complaints that baseball players make too much money. That they play a kids’ game that many of us would play for free. That, if Willie Mays never made as much as $200,000 in a season, how in the heck do modern baseball players get off making $200 million?

This is an understandable impulse. At the end of last season, the average major leaguer’s salary stood just north of $3.39 million. The average American’s salary? Around $42,000. And the gap between those numbers has increased dramatically over the years, with baseball players’ average salary standing about 20 times more than it did in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, the average American’s salary is basically flat once you adjust for inflation.

But while it is absolutely true that baseball players are making a tremendous amount of money while firefighters and teachers are making a pittance, the idea that inequality in salaries between ballplayers and average Americans means that something is fundamentally wrong with baseball is a load of hooey.

High salaries aren’t, in and of themselves, problems. They’re problems when people are making insane amounts of money that is in no way connected to the products or value they create. When they find themselves in that position, not because of their hard work or effort, but because they were simply granted that benefit by privilege or favor not available to everyone else. This is decidedly not the case for baseball players who, unlike a great many overpaid corporate executives, compete in what is about as close to a genuine meritocracy there is. One in which one’s worth is tied directly to how hard one can hit or throw a baseball.

Baseball players make a highly specialized and extremely valuable contribution to a nearly $9 billion industry. People around the world spend that $9 billion for no other reason than some 750 players entertain us by doing what hardly anyone else on the planet can do. Baseball players are creating value in terms of butts in seats, hot dogs and beer consumed and team merchandise sold. So why shouldn’t they be paid for it?

If anything, they should be paid more for it. Sure, salaries are rising, but they aren’t keeping up with rising baseball revenues. As Matt Swartz of The Hardball Times noted in March, since 2002, the average major league baseball team payroll has gone up by 58 percent. Meanwhile, baseball revenue has gone up by 122 percent. Over that same period of time, total baseball player salaries as a share of revenue have declined from 56 percent to 40 percent. Baseball players are routinely singled out even among other professional athletes for their allegedly unreasonable salaries, but baseball has the lowest percentage of total revenue going to player salaries than the other three major North American sports, all of which pay players around 50 percent of revenues.

[insert-quote text=”Baseball players make a highly specialized and extremely valuable contribution to a nearly $9 billion industry. … If anything, they should be paid more for it. ” align=center]

When we observe this trend in society at large we wring our hands about wealth being concentrated in the hands of the few at the expense of the workers. When it occurs in a situation where those wealthy few are owners of major league baseball teams and the workers are baseball players, we somehow conclude that the workers are the ones being unjustly enriched. This despite the fact that any one baseball player contributes far more to his industry’s bottom line than any one factory worker does to his industry’s bottom line or any one teacher does to society at large. We may not like that very much — it may make us feel bad that teachers aren’t paid like elite center fielders — but we are collectively responsible for our choices as to how we spend our money and what sorts of behaviors we reward. We’ve decided, as a society, that the center fielder is worth more.

Rich teams are not making it impossible for poor teams to compete.

On the eve of Super Bowl XLV in January 2011, HBO’s Bill Maher offered his thoughts on competitive balance in football compared to that of baseball in the form of both a TV rant (flanked by noted sports experts Michael Steele and D. L. Hughley) and a column at the Huffington Post. There, Maher made a political analogy:

“With the Super Bowl only a week away, Americans must realize what makes NFL football so great: socialism. That’s right, for all the F-15 flyovers and flag waving, football is our most successful sport because the NFL takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poor teams … football is built on an economic model of fairness and opportunity, and baseball is built on a model where the rich almost always win and the poor usually have no chance . . .

“The small market Pittsburgh Steelers go to the Super Bowl more than anybody – but the Pittsburgh Pirates? Levi Johnston has sperm that will not grow up and live long enough to see the Pirates in a World Series. Their payroll is about $40 million, and the Yankees is $206 million. They have about as much chance at getting in the playoffs as a poor black teenager from Newark has of becoming the CEO of Halliburton. That’s why people stop going to Pirate games in May, because if you’re not in the game, you become indifferent to the fate of the game, and maybe even get bitter . . .”

It’s a wonderful quote. And some of the jokes he offered in support of his belief that baseball’s economic model is broken are almost funny enough to make us forget that Maher purchased an ownership stake in the New York Mets a year after saying these words. Indeed, there’s almost enough wit here to let us ignore the fact that the Pirates made the playoffs last year, are in the thick of the race this year and that the Yankees are on the verge of spending their second straight October watching playoff games on TV.

Not that Maher is alone in his belief that rich teams in big cities have made it impossible for the poorer teams in smaller cities to compete. Indeed, it’s a belief that is widespread. Books have been written about it. Scores of commentators have promoted the idea that a class system has been created in baseball consisting of those teams which can compete for the top talent and those who cannot. Which, they argue, creates teams who can always count on being competitive and those who are, for all intents and purposes, eliminated from contention before a pitch is even thrown on Opening Day. This mindset is practically a religion unto itself.

And, yes, there are certainly great disparities between the highest and the lowest revenue teams. But lost in all of this is the fact that baseball engages in plenty of socialism, to use Maher’s term. The league redistributes millions of dollars each year from  big-market teams to the lesser ones through its revenue-sharing plan. A large portion of MLB’s central fund, which comes from national broadcasts and national marketing initiatives, is likewise set aside and allocated to teams based on their revenues, with the lower revenue teams benefitting the most. Baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax, more commonly known as the “Luxury Tax,” punishes teams for having high payrolls, taxing them at a rate between 17.5% and 50% for exceeding a payroll of $189 million. By 2016, there will be even more giving from the rich to the poor, as the fifteen teams in the largest markets in baseball will be disqualified from receiving any revenue sharing at all.

While revenue sharing and the Competitive Balance tax have not transformed Major League Baseball into the socialist paradise baseball’s critics apparently wish it to be, the stuff that actually matters — results on the field — have been just as equitable in baseball as they have been in the National Football League.

As Allen Barra pointed out in his article at The Atlantic last April, 27 different teams have played in the 48 Super Bowls, with 18 of them winning it. The last 48 World Series have featured 27 different teams playing and have had 20 different champions. And the trend has not skewed in the NFL’s favor since the Yankees broke the $100 million payroll barrier for the first time in 2001, ushering in an era in which people blithely claim that a team with sufficient means can simply buy a championship.

Between 2001 and 2013, 15 NFL teams played in the Super Bowl, with eight teams winning it. During that same period, 14 different baseball teams have played in the World Series with nine different teams winning. Once you factor in that the NFL has two more teams than baseball and allows a higher percentage of its teams into the playoffs than baseball does, it’s impossible to argue that baseball’s competitive balance, which most people assume to be atrocious, pales compared to that of the fair and just NFL.

[insert-quote text=”‘You’d have a slightly better chance of predicting playoff participants simply by using alphabetical order than by using payroll numbers.’ — Brian MacPherson” align=center]

Money’s inability to buy championships is clearly on display in the 2014 baseball season. Just two weeks ago Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal noted that the correlation between money and winning is nothing like it used to be. He found that, ten years ago, a team’s payroll accounted for around 25 percent of its success. Today team payroll accounts for barely more than four percent of a team’s success. Indeed, MacPherson found that the correlation coefficient between payroll and wins this season is even smaller than the correlation between the standings and the first letters of the cities in which teams play. “In other words,” he noted, “you’d have a slightly better chance of predicting playoff participants simply by using alphabetical order than by using payroll numbers.”

There are a lot of reasons for this. Smarter front offices have taken to locking young players up to long term deals while they’re still under team control, thereby neutralizing the rich teams’ financial advantage in free agency. There is more overall money available to smaller revenue teams due to those large TV deals we discussed previously. There have been numerous changes to the rules surrounding the amateur draft and the international free-agent signing period, capping the amount of money teams can spend. The reduction of performance-enhancing drugs in the game means that fewer older players (i.e. the players who can be acquired via free agency) are making impacts like they did back when they had an artificial fountain of youth at their disposal.

Of course it never hurts to be rich. Having money can help patch over a lot of mistakes. But being rich will not help you scout and draft well and being rich is no longer a prerequisite to retaining the good players you develop. To do that you don’t need Steinbrenner dollars. You just need a brain. And almost every team has a brain running its front office these days. If anything, the playing field is more level now than it ever has been. Maybe someday baseball’s doomsayers will take note of this.

Baseball Is Not Lacking In Diversity, And To The Extent Kids Don’t Play Baseball, It’s Not Because It’s “Uncool.”

On April 27 of this year, in a game against the Boston Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays lineup featured six players from the Dominican Republic: shortstop Jose Reyes, outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista, first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, designated hitter Juan Francisco and right fielder Moises Sierra. That set a major league record. It may have been a bit of a fluke and something of a coincidence — Sierra only played 13 games for the Jays before being waived — but it wasn’t intended as a gimmick. It was simply a reflection of the composition of the Blue Jays’ roster at the time. Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Encarnacion, for what it’s worth, usually occupy the top four spots in the Blue Jays lineup.

The Jays’ Dominican-heavy lineup was noted by the baseball press for a day or two, but it didn’t make big news. It didn’t because large numbers of Latinos playing major league baseball isn’t news. Their numbers have been growing for decades. Thanks to expanded scouting efforts and the establishment of baseball academies in Latin America, the increasing number of Japanese and Korean players coming to play in the United States and the promotional efforts of Major League Baseball through the World Baseball Classic and other initiatives, the game has gone international in a major way.

But you wouldn’t know it if you listened only to the game’s detractors. Rather, you’d assume that baseball is exclusively the province of white, American players, with racial minorities increasingly squeezed out. This criticism, while containing a core of truth, misses the larger picture of baseball’s demographics and generally misplaces the blame for baseball’s alleged lack of diversity.

That core of truth: it is an indisputable fact that fewer U.S.-born blacks play the game than did in the past. And, to be sure, it is a regrettable fact. Following Jackie Robinson integrating baseball in 1947, black players became an increasingly important part of the major league landscape, with some if not most of baseball’s greatest stars from the 1950s into the 1980s being black. That’s not the case these days. Or at least not nearly the case it was as recently as 20 or 30 years ago. Each spring this topic is raised anew when The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) releases its annual report on the racial and ethnic makeup of professional sports and shows us how baseball breaks down demographically.

But no matter how regrettable a fact this is, those who use this fact as a vehicle to criticize Major League Baseball — including the many, many columnists and commentators who spend the week or two following the TIDES report writing think-pieces in the media characterizing this trend as some horrible indictment of the sport — are almost always off base in their attacks. There may be fewer U.S.-born blacks playing major league baseball these days, but baseball is a strikingly diverse sport. More diverse than it has ever been, in fact.

Major League Baseball’s racial diversity roughly mirrors that of the U.S. population. In 2012, when the most recent comparable data is available, whites comprised about the same share of the general population — 63 percent — as they did in Major League Baseball. Latinos are overrepresented in baseball, comprising over 28% of major league ballplayers, while they comprise around 17 percent of the U.S. population. Blacks and Asians are underrepresented, comprising around 13 percent and five percent of the general population, respectively, but only eight percent and two percent of major leaguers. In the early 1980s, when U.S.-born black representation in the majors was at its height, just under 19 percent of ballplayers were black.

Yes, fewer U.S.-born blacks are playing major league baseball. And yes, the sport could be more diverse than it is. But compare this to the NFL (66.3 percent black, 30.1 percent white, 0.7 percent, Latino 1.1 percent); the NBA (76.3 percent black, 19 percent white, 4.4 percent Latino, less than one percent Asian) and the NHL (not even measured by TIDES, but estimated to be between 93-95 percent white) and ask yourself which sport is more diverse. Or, maybe the better question to ask is what diversity truly means. There is probably no one right answer to either of those questions, but nor is it at all reasonable to say that baseball is truly and singularly wrong in this regard or that it’s any kind of extreme outlier.

Nor is it all reasonable to say that baseball’s alleged lack of diversity is of its own doing. Which baseball’s critics often say, actually, claiming that baseball is too conservative, too boring, too slow and generally too uncool to appeal to today’s youth. Particularly black youth. It is argued that young black kids who do not have black role models in baseball and are increasingly choosing to play other sports such as football and basketball. It’s an explanation that feels satisfying because it conforms with a lot of stereotypes — stereotypes about the sports themselves, the people who run them, the fans who root for them and the kids we see playing them — but it’s lacking in one crucial area: data.

On a very basic level, this analysis is akin to the off-base criticism of baseball’s television ratings in that it fails to account for the fact that baseball is no longer alone at the to of the competitive landscape. When baseball was beginning to sign, draft and develop its wide base of black talent in the 1950s and 60s, the NFL, still in its pre-Super Bowl years, was not yet the cultural behemoth it has since become. The NBA’s reach was hardly a national one. It didn’t even have national television contracts in place from 1956 through 1962 and again from 1965 through 1972. Just as baseball had a much greater part of the television broadcast field to itself then than it does now, it had a far greater platform from which to market itself to would-be players.

But it’s probably unwise to put too much stock on those marketing efforts anyway, because it’s not at all clear that young talent flows to baseball based on how visible, marketable and cool baseball seems to the kids who are exposed to it in the first pace.

In June, our friend Matt Swartz of the Hardball Times attempted to find some connection between geographic areas which featured black superstar major league baseball players and youth participation in baseball by blacks. After all, if it was all about marketing and cool-factor and role models, one would think that having Hall of Fame-caliber black ballplayers play for the local nine would influence kids’ choices about which sport to play. That having a Tony Gwynn, Frank Thomas, Rickey Henderson, Derek Jeter or Barry Larkin around would lead to increased baseball participation by black youth in San Diego, Chicago, Oakland, New York or Cincinnati, for example.

Nope. Swartz found no connection between black children choosing baseball and their exposure to local black stars. Where a connection can be found, however, is a connection between income and weather on the one hand and youth baseball participation on the other. The richer you are and the warmer your weather happens to be, the more likely you are to play baseball. This holds for children of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

The weather part makes sense: baseball must be played outdoors in pleasant weather, and the more pleasant weather one gets, the more reps one gets playing the game and thus the greater chance one has to develop excellent baseball skills. The money part is far more troubling.

As ESPN’s Tim Keown put it last year, youth baseball has become “a business enterprise designed to exclude those without the means and mobility to participate.” And to be sure, baseball has become a pay-for-play sport at the youth level over the past couple of decades. The local parks and recreation league is fine for those who aren’t terribly serious, but children who show promise — with said promise identified at as young as age six in some instances — are steered toward more intense leagues, with high costs of entry and equipment. These leagues also involve a lot of travel, favoring those kids who have either a stay-at-home parent or one with a flexible work schedule. All of these factors select for wealthier participants and, as such, they have had a far greater impact on black participation than Major League Baseball’s marketing efforts or the perceived “coolness” of the various sports.

But even if the causes of decreased participation by black kids are out of its hands, Major League Baseball has not been blind to the problem. In 2013 Major League Baseball created an on-field diversity task force, the mission of which is to address the talent pipeline that, for financial reasons or whatever other reason it may be, has increasingly excluded black players. It has likewise long-maintained and recently beefed up what it calls its “urban baseball initiatives,” such as the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program and Jr. RBI program which are MLB-backed leagues for inner-city kids between ages 5 and 18. It has established MLB Urban Youth Academies which provide free, year-round baseball instruction and education opportunities in several baseball-related concentrations, including umpiring, groundskeeping, broadcasting, and journalism. It has also poured increasing amounts of money into various grassroots programs around the country designed to encourage more black kids to pick up and stick with the sport.

None of these things are a panacea. Baseball has a long history with committees which accomplish little. And no amount of charitable work in inner cities will overcome the fact that the basic unit of ballplayer development — the individual club — has zero incentive to develop raw talent in the United States the way it may in, say, the Dominican Republic. In Latin America you can sign the kids you identify and develop when they’re 16-years-old. In the United States there is a draft and why on Earth would any team pay to develop a young player if the competition is far more likely to get him than you are? Applying effort on the league level to developing black players is commendable. Allowing teams to engage in behavior that is more ruthlessly talent-development-oriented would be truly effective.

But even if Major League Baseball is unwilling to chuck the draft and send its scouts into our nation’s cities to find and develop talent, the league’s diversity — particularly in its representation by Latino and, increasingly, Asian players — is nothing for which it should be ashamed. Its efforts to acknowledge and address its shortcomings in this area have been earnest and, one hopes, will be shown over time to be effective.

That Player Who Is “Disrespecting The Game” May Very Well Be Saving It.

A funny thing has happened over the past several years: many of the very same people who claim that baseball is uncool and that it doesn’t appeal to minorities or kids have gone out of their way to criticize any player — almost always a Latino player — who dares enjoy himself on a baseball field, claiming that his antics are the harbinger of the game’s very doom.

This usually plays out in the same way. A talented young player bursts onto the scene. He’s a bit of a showboat. He ruffles some feathers and, occasionally, shows some immaturity. The chorus of critics then chimes in, claiming that he’s arrogant and entitled and doesn’t know how to Play The Game The Right Way. The brash young player is talked about as though he needs to be tamed and taught and called on the carpet. He needs to be reminded that Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken or Hank Aaron would never have acted that way. And that if he doesn’t straighten up and fly right he’s gonna find himself out of baseball.

We’ve seen this play out with Yasiel Puig, Bryce Harper, Carlos Gomez and many others. Players who need to learn to “respect the game.”

But like so many ideas that seem to exist only in the world of cranky old columnists and sports talk shout-fests, the phrase “respect the game” is as ridiculous as it is meaningless. It’s a cliche that allows its user to take any subjective criteria, smatter it with a healthy helping of armchair psychology — and, on occasion, racism — and turn a matter of opinion or aesthetics into some quasi-objective assessment. Repeating that phrase more like a religious incantation than an actual idea. Demanding that some cocky young kid who flips his bat, trots around the bases too fast (or, sometimes, too slow), shows off his powerful throwing arm or, worst of all, acts jubilant when jubilance would seem to be warranted, adhere to the codes and behavior of players past.

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The problem with this is, of course, that there were a lot of players who might have been said to have disrespected the game before Yasiel Puig, Carlos Gomez and Bryce Harper came along if today’s strangely puritanical standards had been applied to them.

Why didn’t Ozzie Smith’s backflips make anyone angry? Or Mark Fidrych talking to the baseball or grooming the mound? Satchel Paige would, on occasion, ask the defenders behind him to move of the field and then proceed to strike out the opposing side like a tightrope walker going without a net. Babe Ruth allegedly called a home run shot in the World Series and was almost as big a character off the field as he was on it. Bill Veeck sent up a little person in a game that counted in order to draw a walk. Rickey Henderson referred to himself in the third person and had no qualms about calling himself the greatest of all time, even before he had developed the resume which, actually, made that a pretty darn plausible claim.

Maybe those players did make a few people mad at the time. But it was only for a short time. History has judged them to be some of baseball’s greatest characters, greatest competitors and greatest draws. The people who made baseball fun or exciting and who, almost certainly, brought in fans who might not have otherwise paid attention. The players, managers and owners who, through their flamboyance or cockiness, gave baseball its vibrance even though some now claim that their modern counterparts are hastening its demise.

Players like Yasiel Puig, Carlos Gomez and Bryce Harper — or whoever the next cocksure young phenom happens to be — are just as important to the promotion and health of baseball today as their showboating predecessors were. Maybe even more so. We lament baseball’s relative decline in popularity and note — with good reason — that the demographics of baseball fans has skewed older. But has it occurred to anyone that new fans — including young fans — may be drawn to baseball precisely because there is an emerging type of player who doesn’t “respect the game” in a certain, narrow and conventional way? Has it occurred to them that a lot of fans in this country would like to see the flamboyant and, at times, reckless style of play seen in Cuba or the Dominican Republic make greater inroads into the majors? Such fans cannot and should not be told that the players they enjoy watching are somehow bad for the game. Doing such a thing is far more likely to kill baseball than a Yasiel Puig bat flip is.

Baseball is in no more need of being respected by any one player in any one specific way than the sun is in need of being respected by cosmic dust. Baseball is way bigger than any one player and can survive — and even benefit from — players who are alleged to be so lacking in respect. Guys who don’t take everything so damn seriously all the time. Guys who sometimes lose their cool. Guys who use baseball as a vehicle for humor or for ego or for showmanship. Baseball has always survived them. At times, it has even embraced them. The game has never been weakened by them. Indeed, it is often made stronger. They get butts in the seats.

Baseball’s Alleged Golden Age Wasn’t All That Golden. And Baseball Certainly Isn’t Dying Now.

Anyone with a lick of common sense has to acknowledge that baseball is no longer the only game in town. Nor is it the most popular game in town, let alone The National Pastime. It no longer has the sort of cultural currency and relevancy it once did.

But so what?

What did the game’s prominence and popularity do for it back in the 1950s? It didn’t add any money to the bottom line of the many teams which struggled to make ends meet and which were forced to sell off their players or move from city to city. It didn’t give fans a better product. Unless, of course, the fans happened to cheer for the Yankees.

Ballparks were far emptier then than they are today. In 1957, the defending World Series champion Yankees drew 1.497 million fans, leading all of baseball. In 2013 the team with the worst attendance was the Tampa Bay Rays. They drew 1.510 million fans and their support is talked about as if it were a dire crisis. What is often called the greatest game of all time — the 1951 National League playoff between the Giants and the Dodgers which featured Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” took place in a ballpark with nearly 20,000 empty seats.

Between 1946 and 1964, 19 World Series were played. The Yankees played in 15 of them and won 11. The Dodgers played in nine of them and won four. Those teams also outspent the competition at an astounding rate, to the point where some major league teams were actually spoken of as if they were defacto minor league teams whose purpose it was to serve them.

While Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, several teams — particularly in the American League — were slow to integrate. the Boston Red Sox did not have a black major leaguer until 1959. The game was not truly integrated, including a significant number of Latino players, until some time in the 1960s. By then, however, most people tend to say baseball’s “Golden Age” had passed.

Maybe there was a lot less showboating in the 1940s and 50s. There was also a lot more drinking and carousing and smoking and players doing all manner of things which prevented them from performing at their best and thus prevented their teams from competing at their best. Players were also paid a fraction of their worth and many of them had to sell cars or work on farms or dig graves — yes, literally dig graves — in the offseason in order to pay their bills.

So why the love for the baseball of yesteryear and the belief that baseball today is a dead game walking?

I imagine it’s inextricably tied up with nostalgia and that tendency for people to declare that that which existed when they were young was the best example of that which ever existed. The sportswriters and commentators who have come to speak most loudly for the National Pastime — or, as it may happen, against it — are the Baby Boomers. The ones who were children when Mickey Mantle was baseball’s biggest star and football was a relatively minor sport. When people were led to believe that ballplayers were just happy to be there and that they never played for the money. Who believed that, even if the Yankees won the World Series every damn year, hope somehow sprang eternal for their local nine because no one was around to explain that, no, the Kansas City Athletics really didn’t have a shot this year. Men who have idealized the baseball of their childhood and who, as a result, find anything which deviates from that norm to be inferior and infirm.

It’s an understandable impulse. But it’s one which has led so many astray. Because those led astray tend to speak from such prominent platforms, it has convinced so many people who didn’t live through the so-called Golden Age that it actually represented a baseball ideal. And to believe that today’s game is rife with problems that really aren’t problems at all.

Not that baseball is perfect. There are a lot of things wrong with it, in fact. There are a lot of things baseball could do so much better than it does. We chronicle them here at HardballTalk all the time and will continue to do so, even if we won’t claim that the sky is falling like so many people seem to enjoy doing.

But baseball isn’t dying, you guys. Indeed, compared to almost any time in its history, it’s positively thriving. The century-long impulse to write its eulogy notwithstanding.

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, NBCSports.com, 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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, NBCSports.com 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?