Best of the rest

SAN DIEGO — First things first: This list shocked me. It shocked me because the only reason I even did it was to highlight Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant and Dick Allen and Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat and some of the fine players who, once more, did not get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. I thought: Let’s put together a list of the 25 greatest baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. That will be a good chance to write about those great players who were snubbed one more time.

Here was the problem.

Not one of those guys on this year’s Golden Era ballot made my list.

Now, to be fair, this list is not necessarily the players most WORTHY of the Hall of Fame. You might see that as a different thing. For instance, Minnie Minoso seems to me an obvious Hall of Fame choice because, in addition to being a great player for a decade or so, he was the first great dark-skinned Latin player in Major League baseball, and the first black player in Chicago. He was a pioneer. His case is, to me, very similar to Hall of Famer Larry Doby – and Minoso might have even been a little better player than Doby. The Hall of Fame is poorer without him.

But this list is much more specific: These are my 25 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. No caveats.  No character clauses. No bonus points for being a pioneer. This list includes current players and players who are ineligible for the Hall for various reasons.

The list proved one thing to me: There are a LOT of great players not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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25. Shoeless Joe Jackson

If you get a chance, go over to Baseball-Reference’s fun MLB EloRater, which is this system they use to have fans rank the greatest players in baseball history. As a way to actually rank the best players, the system falls a bit short for me. But as a way to read how fans VIEW baseball, it’s pretty fascinating.

Right now, the Top 5 everyday players on the list are: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays. You will notice one thing about those five – not one of them played in the last 40 years.

The pitching list is even more ridiculous: Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson are the top five – for crying out loud you’re telling me the five greatest pitchers in baseball history ALL played 100 years ago? There has not been a single pitcher in the last CENTURY who was better than those guys? Not one? Is this some sort of joke? Could you imagine any other sport suggesting such nonsense?

But that’s the sport I love, a sport buried in its past. And here I am falling for it, too. This player should not be Shoeless Joe. It should be Manny Ramirez, Larry Walker or, frankly, lots of people – I feel very sure that, if you’re really measuring the two on a level field, Manny Ramirez was a much better hitter than Shoeless Joe Jackson.

But the Shoeless Joe mythology is overpowering; I simply could not leave him off the list. In his time, Shoeless Joe could hit. He could run. He could field. He could come back to life through a cornfield. He could get Kevin Costner together with his father. And so on. But, seriously, that was a LONG time ago. He had his best season more than 100 years ago, in 1912 – how long ago was that? Well, it was the same year that the first world record for the 100-meter dash was set by Donald Lippincott. The record was 10.6 seconds. Usain Bolt could run that backward.

But there’s that Jackson mythology  — .356 lifetime average, he hit .408 in his first full season, he hit triples and stole bases, his glove was where triples went to die, all that – and he will always have a strong contingent of fans who fight to get him into the Hall of Fame even though he admitted taking money from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series.

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24. John Smoltz

People will undoubtedly say I have him too low – maybe I do.  I’m just not as persuaded as others by Smoltz’s two-tiered career as a starter and reliever. That combination got Dennis Eckersley into the Hall – I think Eck at his best was a little bit better starter than Smoltz, and he was a revolutionary closer while Smoltz merely dabbled in the art of finishing games.

Don’t get me wrong, Smoltz was a terrific pitcher. He is in my Hall of Fame. I just have a few other pitchers above him. And, to be honest, my ranking system (which I would explain if I actually understood it myself) had him and Roy Halladay in a dead heat.

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23. Mike Piazza

Paul Bacosa, Jim Greenlee, Juan Price and Phil Mendelson – among others – would occasionally get a call from reporters in the 1990s. The reason? They were drafted in the 62nd round of the 1988 June Amateur Draft. And so was Mike Piazza.

You know Piazza’s story: His father, Vince, loved baseball. He was into real estate and used cars and made enough money that he tried for a while to get into a Major League Baseball ownership group. That did not work out, but he made a lot of friends in and around the game; when Mike was 12 or 13 he got a hitting lesson from Ted Williams. Vince convinced a friend, Tommy Lasorda, to take a flier on his kid late in the draft. The Dodgers used their last pick on Piazza.

After two mediocre but not terrible minor-league seasons, Piazza smashed 29 homers as a 22-year-old at a couple of minor-league stops. Suddenly, the kid was a real prospect. In his first year in the big leagues, he hit .318 with 35 homers and 112  RBIs. He won Rookie of the Year and finished Top 10 in the MVP voting.

Greatest hitting years for catchers by batting runs:

  1. Mike Piazza, 1997 (.362/.431/.638, 40 homers, 100-plus runs and RBIs, 69.42 batting runs)
  2. Joe Mauer, 2009 (.365/.444/..587, 28 homers, 57.75 batting runs)
  3. Buster Posey, 2012 (.336/.408, .549, 39 doubles, 24 homers, 55.52 batting runs)
  4. Mike Piazza, 1996 (.336/.422/.563, 36 homers, 53.12 batting runs)
  5. Johnny Bench, 1972 (.270/.379/.541, 40 homers, 125 RBIs, 49.65 batting runs)

The reluctance to put Piazza in the Hall of Fame seems to be wrapped around unfair whispers about PEDs and fair whispers about his defensive liabilities. He’s the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history, I think.

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22. Jim Thome

The Thomenator is one of my favorite ever people in sports so I can’t be unbiased when writing about him. I can talk about his 612 home runs, his .402 lifetime on-base percentage, or how he is Top 25 all-time in just about every meaningful hitting statistic – slugging percentage, OPS, runs created, extra-base hits, walks, (strikeouts too), at-bat per homer and so on. Instead, I’ll mention one of the million Thome stories I keep handy:

In 1998, he came into a tie game in the ninth to face the Angels’ Troy Percival, who in those days threw about as hard as anybody in the world. Thome liked fastballs. You could get him to swing and miss a lot on pitches with any kind of wiggle. But straightball – Thome hit it very much.

So this seemed like what analysts call “a classic matchup.” Only it wasn’t. Percival had no chance at all. None. Thome hit a ridiculous bomb to left-field that only landed last Tuesday to win the game.

Two years later, Cleveland playing the Angels again, Percival’s pitching again, Thome comes up with the Indians down 10-9. Percival’s pumped up for this one. And … Thome cranked the game-winning homer, hitting it even HARDER than the first time. He lumbered around the bases like he always did with the big, goofy grin on his face. You could not throw a ball hard enough when pitching to Thome.

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21. Ivan Rodriguez

He was just a ridiculously good defensive catcher. Ridiculously good. He also was a good hitter for a catcher – certainly not in Piazza’s league, but he hit 300 homers and hit .300 or better 10 times – but Rodriguez’s defense was off the charts. His arm should be on display at the Smithsonian. That arm was not only absurdly strong, he also had a lightning quick release, and his throws would land on the corner of the bag again and again and again. He led the league in caught-stealing percentage nine times.

Rodriguez, like so many players, was a shell of himself the last few years of his career, and I fear that’s the guy so many people remember. As a young man, he was a wonder.

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20. Craig Biggio

I feel sure he will get elected into the Hall this year. He fell just two votes short last year – he’s got the 3,000 hits and he’s fifth all-time in doubles and 15th all-time in runs scored and all those things. He’s got the counting stats. He will get elected.

Biggio was a truly great player in the mid-90s. Superfan Bill James often talks about Biggio’s 1997 season – he hit .309/.415/.501, had 310 total bases, stole 47 bases, walked 84 times, got hit by 34 pitches, won a second-base Gold Glove and didn’t hit into a single double play all year. He had four or five other years that were comparable.

In a way it was a shame Biggio hung around at the end; many people just remember the shell of that player. But realistically he’s going to the Hall of Fame because he hung around at the end and got that 3,000th hit. Without it, I suspect he would be a cult favorite like Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and the like.

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19. Adrian Beltre

I hope this name surprised you. It sure as heck surprised me. It also surprised Bill James when I told him that I couldn’t find a way to get other players on the list because of Beltre. “Beltre?” he asked. “Really? He was one of my favorite players when he was with the Sox. I guess need to look into his career again.”

Look, I knew Beltre was a very good player. However, I did not appreciate that he’s got a real shot at 3,000 hits, he will pass 400 homers this year, he’s getting better with age like Clemente did. His last five years, he has hit .316/.364/.535 and averaging 36 doubles and 29 homers a year.

Throw in the fact that he is one of the greatest defensive third basemen in baseball history. What a player. He’s not only a Hall of Famer, he’s a first-ballot shoo-in – I now believe he’s one of the 100 best players in baseball history. And he’s got some years left in him.

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18. Mike Mussina

A great pitcher who went out on his own terms rather than clinging to the game in order to get 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts or any of that jazz. Mussina mostly pitched in hitters’ ballparks in the heyday of the American League East during the biggest offensive era in baseball history. And he was superb just about every year. There were always cosmetic forces working against him – he did not win 20 until his last year, his ERA was usually higher than 3.00, he joined the Yankees one year after their second-to-last World Series and he retired one year before their last.

A great Mussina story – you probably know that teams give out written tests to prospects in order to get some insight on how the prospect’s mind works. Well one team approached Mussina when he was at Stanford and gave him the test to fill out. Mussina looked at the test, looked at the scout.

“Nah,” he said. “I’m not doing that.”

That’s how Mussina’s mind worked. I’m pretty sure his answer was the right one.

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17. Ichiro Suzuki

I’m counting his years in Japan too. There has never been a player like him. When I put together my 100 greatest ever players (currently in review), I put up these charts about Ichiro:

Most seasons with 200-plus hits:

  1. Ichiro Suzuki, 10
  2. Pete Rose, 10
  3. Derek Jeter, 8

Most seasons with 210-plus hits

  1. Ichiro Suzuki, 8
  2. Paul Waner, Ty Cobb, 7

Most seasons with 220-plus hits:

  1. Ichiro, 5
  2. Rogers Hornsby 4

Most seasons with 230-plus hits

  1. Ichiro, 3
  2. Three players tied with 2.

Most seasons with 260-plus hits

  1. Ichiro, 1

(No one else has ever done it.)

Of course the game isn’t ALL about getting hits. Ichiro was also a great base-stealer. Ichiro was a great right fielder with a great arm. He didn’t walk at all, and he didn’t hit for power, and that has led some to say he was overrated. I suppose you could make the argument. But Miles Davis couldn’t hit, and Picasso couldn’t throw, and DeNiro can’t dunk. I’d prefer to appreciate genius for what it is.

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16. Mark McGwire

Yes, I know that the consensus is in, and it has judged McGwire an artificially enhanced terminator who would have had Dave Kingman’s career had he not juiced. It’s just that Mark McGwire is the greatest home run hitter I’ve ever seen in my entire life – including Bonds in his crazy home run year. McGwire would keep entire stadiums spellbound with his batting practice. He would hit baseballs so high and far that, even while they were suspended in air, you would laugh at the sheer insanity. He hit home runs so ridiculous that pitchers were PROUD to give them up – they would watch the ball defy all physical rules and think, “I had something to do with that!”

Comedian Hannibal Buress has a great, great bit about steroids in baseball. He imagines a scene where a father and son go to a Cubs game to see Sammy Sosa. And then in the ninth inning, the score’s tied, the father and son are standing and hugging each other and hoping, and then Sosa swings, and he hits the ball hard. The father and son are jumping up and down as Sosa takes that famous little hop step he used to take. They watch with sheer glee as the ball sails out of Wrigley. And then they hug even harder, and jump up and down together and they both know that they will never ever forget this moment.

“In other words,” Buress says, “if you are against steroids in baseball, you are against family.”

Sosa didn’t quite make my list, though he hit 60-plus homers three times. McGwire was even better at hitting baseballs out. He did have a few other skills (he walked a lot and wasn’t a bad first baseman, early in his career especially) but being the greatest home run hitter ever – his one homer per 10.6 at-bats is the best ratio in baseball history – is enough for me.

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15. Curt Schilling

He has the greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history, and he was one of the greatest postseason pitchers ever. I have absolutely no idea why the voters seem so skeptical about him. He was (and is) a divisive figure, I guess, and his career had some severe peaks and valleys. He’s still a clear Hall of Famer – last year, he lost almost 10 percent in the voting, I sure hope that trend reverses quickly.

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14. Mariano Rivera

Much like when I was ranking the Top 100 players, I did not know where to put Rivera. This spot is either way too high or way too low. He might have been the greatest player at WHAT HE DID in baseball history. I don’t just mean he was the greatest closer. I mean he was as great at closing games as Roberto Clemente was at throwing a ball, as Willie Mays was at catching them, as Babe Ruth was at hitting home runs.

Now, what’s the value of a closer in baseball? Open question. Should Rivera be ranked higher than really good pitchers who threw almost three times as many innings, like Mike Mussina or Curt Schilling? Nobody knows for sure. I’m quite sure that Rivera will sail into the Hall of Fame first ballot, 90-plus percent of the vote, while Mussina and Schilling are facing uphill battles. So the voters certainly are decided on the issue of Rivera’s relative greatness.

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13. Tim Raines

I’ve written so much about Raines that I’m not sure what’s left to say. You know that he reached base as often as Tony Gwynn, right? You know that he was the greatest percentage base-stealer in the history of the game, right?

Every now and again, someone will remind me that it’s called the Hall of FAME – their point seems to be that the Hall should reward the most famous players. I do not think it means what they think it means – I think the Hall is supposed to BESTOW fame on people, not just recognize it. But there is a point in what they’re saying. Tim Raines was not famous enough when he played. He had the misfortune of playing in Rickey Henderson’s time – Henderson was the greatest player of his kind (leadoff hitter, walks a lot, steals a lot, scores a lot). Raines, the second-greatest, had to look up. Raines also played his early days on the same team as Andre Dawson, so he was overshadowed from that direction too. Raines played his best baseball in Canada. He never won an MVP award because people didn’t appreciate his true value. People filed him in the “good but not great” box and kind of just left him there even though he was clearly misfiled.

Other players – Steve Garvey, Jack Morris, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Maury Wills and others – were filed in the “great” box, even though there are some who would argue they were also misfiled. And so they have sticky Hall of Fame cases. Raines is not in the Hall of Fame yet because a lot of people who watched him play just never quite thought of him that way. It’s hard to get that first impression out of the mind

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12. Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera’s No. 1 hitting equivalent, comparable on Baseball Reference, through age 31 is Henry Aaron, and that’s fitting. Miggy, like Aaron, seems to be this perfectly calibrated hitting device who hits .325 every year, 35 homers every year, 100 RBIs every year, 100 runs every year. Then, some years, he hits even better.

Cabrera grew up with a baseball field right next to his house in Venezuela. He was a natural from the start – the Marlins gave him a $1.9 million signing bonus, which set some kind of Venezuelan record. Here’s a fun little fact for you – when Cabrera was in Class A ball he roomed with Adrian Gonzalez, who was a year older. Gonzalez helped Cabrera get comfortable with English and the pressures of being a big prospect – the next year, Miggy hit 43 doubles, and the following year he destroyed Class AA by hitting .365 and slugging .609 in 69 games – he was just 20 but those were the last minor-league games he would play.

It will be interesting to see how Cabrera ages – big first baseman tend to decline pretty rapidly. Cabrera’s already got his reservation for Cooperstown.

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11. Jeff Bagwell

Here’s all you need to know about the crazy offense of the 1990s:

In 2014, Giancarlo Stanton led the NL with 37 homers. Bagwell had six seasons with more.

Adrian Gonzalez led the NL with 116 RBIs. Bagwell had five seasons with more.

Anthony Rendon (yes, Anthony Rendon) led the NL with 111 runs. Bagwell had five seasons with at least that many.

Justin Morneau led the NL with a .319 batting average. Bagwell had two seasons where he hit higher. Andrew McCutchen’s .410 on-base percentage led the league. Bagwell had six seasons with a higher OBP. And so on.

Point is: The silly numbers of the 1990s and early 2000s have made it hard to judge any of the best players. Throw in the PED suspicions and admissions and you have a fog. You have a guy like Jeff Bagwell, who has never admitted nor been charged with PED use, whose numbers say he’s one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, and who seems to be losing traction in his Hall of Fame bid. I feel sure he will get elected, but it might be a little while.

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10. Derek Jeter

There’s nothing more to say about Derek Jeter. He was the most essential, the most beloved, despised, talked about, argued about player of his time. In the end, he finished sixth all-time in hits, 10th all-time in runs. He won five Gold Gloves for defense, one of the inspirations for a word I coined, Jeterate, which means to praise someone for something that he is entirely unworthy. He finished Top 10 in the MVP voting eight times but never won one. His teams won five World Series, and Fortune Magazine once called him the world’s 11th greatest leader.

In other words, it was a wonderful career.

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9. Chipper Jones

He was called “Chipper” because he was a chip off the old block, that block being his father Larry Wayne Jones Sr.

Question 1: What would Chipper’s career have been like if he had been called “Larry Jones?”

Question 2: Did you know there has never been another “Larry Jones” to play in the Major Leagues? That doesn’t quite seem possible – the names seems way too common. There have been a couple of Larry Jones in other sports – Larry Jones coached Florida State to an 0-11 record in 1973. Larry Jones was a high-scoring guard for the Denver Rockets of the old ABA; he actually led the ABA in scoring in 1968-69.

Anyway …

Chipper Jones is one of only 19 players in one of my favorite baseball clubs – the .300, .400, .500 club. That is: .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage, .500 slugging percentage. He won an MVP award, and he won a batting title, but for the most part he did his work quietly and effectively and for great teams.

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8. Pete Rose

The irony, of course, is that the Hit King is way more famous and talked about for not being in the Hall of Fame than he ever would be if he had been elected 20 years ago.

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7. Ken Griffey Jr.

When I lived in Cincinnati, I lived near a supermarket which had a small X marked in the parking lot. That X was where one of Junior’s home runs had landed back when he was in high school.

Junior hit 630 home runs in his career, sixth all-time, but until he got into his 30s it seemed like he (and not his contemporary Barry Bonds) would make a serious run at Henry Aaron’s record. But his body took a beating those first 10 or so years. He played 161 games as a 28-year old, 160 as a 29-year-old … and he never played 150 games in a season again. Aaron’s 755 home runs were a testament to a relentless life – he was waves beating against the shore. Junior was a better home run hitter than Aaron, but he was not a GREATER home run hitter than Aaron … he couldn’t stay on the field long enough.

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6. Pedro Martinez

I’ve said it before – if I needed a pitcher to shut down the Devil’s team and save my soul, I’d pick Pedro Martinez circa 1999-2000. There’s Koufax in the mid-1960s, Gibson in 1968, Feller and Ryan when they threw harder than anybody, Clemens or Big Unit in attack mode, Maddux when he carved the plate like it was Thanksgiving. But none of them, in my mind, was as good as Pedro at the height of the Selig Era, with hitters wearing body armor, the strike zone shrinking daily, and home runs flying absurd distances. They just couldn’t hit him.

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5. Albert Pujols

This is a bit obscure, but when I was a kid Orson Welles used to show up in the weirdest places. He used to do these Paul Masson wine commercials where he promised that they would sell no wine (sigh) before its time. He would do these little magic tricks on talk shows. He would show up on game shows. I knew him, but had absolutely no idea why he was famous – it was later that I learned about “Citizen Kane” and “War of the Worlds” and his youthful genius.

I can’t help but wonder if some of that will happen to Albert Pujols. He has so many years left on his contract, and I’m sure he will have some pretty good years … but as time goes on will people forget his youthful genius, when he was not only the best player in the game but one of the best players of all time? From 2001-10, he hit .331/.426/.624, averaged 41 homers, 123 RBIs, 119 runs. Pujols won three MVPs (and should have won one or two more) and two Gold Gloves (and should have won three or four more) – his worst year was better than just about anybody else’s best year.

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4. Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez hit more home runs than any player through 25, through age 26, through age 27, through age 28, through age 29. At age 31, he had 50 more home runs than any other player and 120 more than Henry Aaron at that point in his career.  Here’s the thing – when he played his most recent game at age 38 he STILL had more home runs than any player at that age in the history of the game.

Well, A-Rod is now 39 years old. He’s disgraced. He didn’t play all last year. Nobody particularly wants him to play this year. All of the great controversial figures in baseball history – Bonds, Clemens, Cobb, Rose – have their supporters. Best I can tell, nobody likes Alex Rodriguez.

None of that changes that he’s one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. At his best, there was nothing beyond his talents. He hit pop-ups that sailed 450 feet. He threw runners out on ground balls fielded in left field. One year, he hit 40 homers and stole 40 bases. One year, he hit 57 home runs and won a shortstop gold glove. He scored 100 runs and drove in 100 in 11 consecutive seasons – something only Lou Gehrig had done.

People write off A-Rod’s career, which is a shame because it’s a unique career.

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3. Randy Johnson

I saw Big Unit pitch in Jacksonville back in 1987; he was already 23 years old and sort of a living Nuke LaLoosh. He struck out 163 and walked 128 in 140 innings. Hitters talked about how scary it was to face him, but he seemed more oddity than prospect – the tallest pitcher in baseball history. For the first few years of his big-league career, it was the same. He first led the league in strikeouts when he was 28. He had his first great season when he was 29. And after that, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball history.

Here are the top five pitchers in Wins Above Average after age 30:

  1. Randy Johnson, 63.8.
  2. Lefty Grove, 55.7
  3. Roger Clemens, 49.6
  4. Phil Niekro, 48.0
  5. Curt Schilling, 44.8

* * *

2. Roger Clemens

Someday there will be an Oscar-nominated movie about this guy. I despised him. And I think he’s the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

* * *

1. Barry Bonds

One Barry Bonds fact will suffice. Here are a few random all-time players and their single-season career high in walks.

— Barry Bonds, 120.

— Albert Pujols, 115

— Willie Mays, 112

— Stan Musial, 107

— Alex Rodriguez, 100

— Ken Griffey, 86

— Henry Aaron, 92

— Derek Jeter 91

Pretty impressive huh? Oh, wait, that’s not Barry Bonds’ career high in walks. That’s Barry Bonds’ career high in INTENTIONAL WALKS. Yeah, 2004, Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times. And people aren’t voting this guy into an institution called the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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(Best of the rest: When I began the list, I fully expected to have some of my favorite Hall of Fame candidates on there – Larry Walker, Lou Whitaker, Manny Ramirez, Roy Halladay, Dwight Evans, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, Scott Rolen and Luis Tiant among others. They did not make the list. They are as worthy, I suppose, as the last nine of ten players on my list – it’s all very, very close. I don’t really feel good about leaving off some of these guys (and I’m sure you won’t either) but such are the complications of lists.)

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

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    Once more, with feeling

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

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

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

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

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

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

    Did he?

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

    * * *

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

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

    “No sir.”

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

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

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

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

    The fourth wheel

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

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

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

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    One for the history books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And so, this race is for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Promises, promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What do you know?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Magic Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No more fun and games

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

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

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

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

    But something has obviously changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

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

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

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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