One man’s ballot

Before we get to this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, let’s consider Joe DiMaggio for a moment. The Yankee Clipper retired after the 1951 season, and at the time was widely (and rightly) viewed as one of the game’s all-time greats, there with Ruth and Gehrig and Wagner and the bunch. In those days there was just a one-year waiting period before a player went on the Hall of Fame ballot, so DiMaggio first appeared on the ballot in 1953.

There were two contrasting views of DiMaggio going into that Hall of Fame vote. There was the dominant view that DiMaggio would get elected with near-unanimous consent.

“Joe DiMaggio, the famed Yankee Clipper, seems almost certain to be elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility,” wrote the Associated Press’s Will Grimsley. “Early returns from among 300 writers indicate that DiMaggio, who retired after the 1951 season, is well out in front in the balloting.”

“It is the countrywide belief,” Grantland Rice wrote, “that Joe DiMaggio will be the next star to enter baseball’s Hall of Fame.”

“Not only is it likely that Joe DiMaggio will make the grade,” wrote Allan White of the Lima (Ohio) News, “but that he may draw more votes than any previous candidate.”

The minority view belonged to United Press, which wrote days before the election that DiMaggio had almost no shot of election.

“Should DiMaggio be elected, though the odds are against it, his election to the Hall of Fame would be the second-quickest in history. Lou Gehrig, the late Yankee first baseman who retired May 29, 1939, after playing in 2,130 consecutive games, was elected in that winter’s balloting. No player before or after Gehrig has ever been ushered into the shrine so quickly.”

Chalk one up to United Press. DiMaggio was not elected in 1953; in the end he was not even close. Dizzy Dean and Al Simmons were elected, Bill Terry just missed, and DiMaggio got only 44.3 percent of the vote, eighth among players on the ballot.

In the aftermath, there was a fine blend of outrage (“Even Red Sox fans would not argue with DiMaggio’s Hall of Fame credentials,” one particularly aggrieved sportswriter suggested) and relief. It seems many of the voters — more than half of them — believed that there was an unwritten rule that a player should have to wait five years after retirement to be elected to the Hall of Fame. They felt it was an affront that DiMaggio was put on the ballot so quickly and that people were so eager to vote for him before he waited five years.

As it turned out, the Hall of Fame agreed with the make-them-wait crowd. Later that year, they created the rule that a player could not appear on the ballot until five years after retirement. Not only that, but they also took a shot at the writers who DID vote for DiMaggio by saying that the rule was being put into place to avoid the “popularity contest,” of the 1953 DiMaggio vote.

DiMaggio was grandfathered on to the ballot in 1954, but again, he finished shy of election. In 1955 – after a four-year waiting period – he was elected, but with only 88.8 percent of the vote. DiMaggio would likely have received 97 or 98 percent of the vote under normal circumstances but even in 1955, there were writers bitter that DiMaggio was cutting in line.

The point? Baseball Hall of Fame voting has always been emotional in ways that don’t necessarily make much sense. Unwritten rules, weird allowances for history, differing views on what “character” means, writers standing on principles that aren’t entirely clear to others – this has been Hall of Fame voting more or less from the start.

This year’s ballot might be the most stacked since the original vote in 1936. There are fifteen players with 60 or more Wins Above Replacement. The career and single-season home run leader is on here and the only pitcher to win seven Cy Youngs is on here. You have perhaps the greatest left-handed pitcher ever, you have perhaps the pitcher with the highest peak ever, you have two of the greatest postseason pitchers ever. You have a guy with 3,000 hits, three guys with 500 home runs (not counting the all-time leader), a player with 800 stolen bases, two batters who hit .300/.400/.500 for their careers, a shortstop with a higher OPS than Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken or Honus Wagner, the all-time home run leader among second basemen, and let’s throw in perhaps the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history.

It’s almost a silly ballot, but then we are coming off the almost-silly Bud Selig Era which mashed together home runs and absurd numbers and tiny strike zones and chemistry and congressional hearings and a whole bunch of other things. I have already taken a look at the 16 players I predict will not get five percent of the vote this year.  Here are the other 18, including my prediction for the percentage they will receive and whether or not I would put them into my Hall of Fame. At the end, I will reveal my actual Hall of Fame ballot.

* * *

Jeff Bagwell

Will he get elected this year: No.

Predicted percentage: 59

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

I’ve written many times about my why I will vote for players who admitted or were essentially caught using drugs before baseball instituted drug testing. In my view, performance-enhancing drugs were a systemic problem in baseball – the way racism was a systemic problem in baseball before Jackie Robinson broke the color line, the way gambling was a systemic problem before Kenesaw Mountain Landis came down hard, the way amphetamines were a systemic problem before the lords of the game took it somewhat seriously.

By “systemic” I don’t mean that individuals shouldn’t bear responsibility. I mean that PEDs were quietly accepted throughout the game. There were undoubtedly PED users before the baseball strike of 1994, but after the owners and players tried to blow up the game, baseball was in desperate need of something exciting. Home runs had thrilled America when the game lagged in the past. And home runs thrilled America again.

Well, how do you get home runs anyway? Maybe you tighten up the strike zone a little bit. Maybe you juice baseballs a touch. Maybe you build ballparks that cater to hitters. And maybe, just maybe, you don’t test for steroid use. Maybe you don’t ask any questions when players come into camp with 30 pounds more muscle. Maybe you don’t say anything when you suspect a teammate is using something extra. Maybe you figure that if everyone seems to be doing it you better do it too.

Nobody knows who to blame for baseball’s blatant racism in the first half of the 20th century. Mostly you hear people say it was an American problem, not a baseball problem, and that’s true. But who takes the blame for the unwritten rule that prevented even one team from signing a black baseball player for a half-century? Every now and again, you will hear Cap Anson’s name thrown out there as the scapegoat; Ty Cobb is often singled out for his racism; Landis or one of the owners will get mention. But the large point is that a terrible injustice was being done – a much greater collective injustice than PED use – and the players, the owners, the management, the media and the fans did not stop it from happening.

With steroids, most have decided to blame the players – specific players in most cases, generally hitters who dared hit home runs – and they undoubtedly used PEDs. But just about every sign from the Commissioner’s Office, the player’s union, the manager’s offices, the owners’ suites, the press boxes and the bleachers spurred them on. I’m not endorsing what they did, and I’m not denying that they knew it was wrong. I’m saying that they were doing what they were paid and cheered to do.  I’m saying that almost nobody cared what they were taking; but everyone cared if they stopped hitting. There was an indistinct line between illegal PEDs and legal things like andro and creatine; people jumped that line and jumped back and jumped forward again. Then it got out of control, and too many home runs left the ballpark, and beloved records were broken, and then people started to get ticked off about it and went looking for who was responsible for taking Henry Aaron’s home run record.

Jeff Bagwell has denied using steroids, and there is no conclusive evidence I know that he used. Still, there is no question at all that he has fallen short of the Hall of Fame largely because a big block of voters suspect that he used. I think it’s a shame – not because I feel strongly that Bagwell did not use (I have no idea) but because this quixotic attempt to rewrite history is a doomed one. The Selig Era happened.

There is little doubt in my mind that there are players in the Hall of Fame who dabbled with steroids; heck we KNOW Mickey Mantle had an unfortunate steroid encounter in 1961. We know steroids were readily available in the 1970s and 1980s. We know Hall of Famer Pud Galvin back in the late 19th century somehow consumed monkey testicles. We know many players – including some of the most beloved in the game’s history – took amphetamines to pep up their games. So think about what we don’t know. This “one guy looks dirty, another guy doesn’t” parlor game is not just unfair, it’s pointless; it’s like Paul Newman says in “Road to Perdition: “There are only murderers in this room.”

In my view the best baseball players from the Selig Era should go into the Hall of Fame. The players who tested positive after the game made an effort to clean up – A-Rod, Braun and the like – I think they are a different conversation. But baseball was played a certain way in the 1990s and early 2000s. I think the Hall of Fame should include the best players from that time. For me, that definitively includes Jeff Bagwell.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Craig Biggio (Getty Images)”]

Craig Biggio

Will he get elected this year: I’m pretty sure he will

Predicted percentage: 74-79

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

Biggio’s career demonstrates the weirdness of the Hall of Fame. On the one hand, he was a great and underappreciated player throughout the 1990s – you might have read Bill James in the New Historical Abstract making the case that, year-in, year-out, Biggio was a better player than the consensus best player in the game, Ken Griffey.

On the other hand, Biggio was a generally unhelpful player just clinging to a job the last six years of his career. He put up a 92 OPS+ those last six years (100 is league-average), didn’t get on base, played the outfield poorly and then returned to second base after he couldn’t handle the position.

So what’s weird? Well, it’s those last six years that will get him into the Hall of Fame. In those last six years he moved up the charts in all sorts of offensive categories so that he finished his career 15th in runs (1,844), fifth in doubles (668) and 16th in games played (2,850). More than anything, he passed 3,000 hits, which has long been a Hall of Fame trump card. Without 3,000 hits, I don’t think Biggio would have any shot at getting 75 percent of the BBWAA vote, though he would deserve it. Getting 3,000 hits has little to do with what made Craig Biggio a Hall of Fame player.

* * *

Barry Bonds

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 30-34

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

I think Bonds’ percentage will again go down this year.

Where would Barry Bonds rank all-time if his career had tapered off naturally? We’re guessing, of course, but let’s guess. The accepted storyline seems to be that in 1998 – while watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa win over America – Bonds made the decision to bulk up and show people what a muscle-bound superhero REALLY looked like.

He turned 33 that year. His career numbers at that point: .290/.411/.556 with 403 doubles, 411 homers, 445 stolen bases, 1,216 RBIs, 1,364 runs.

For his age he ranked fifth all-time in Wins Above Average, which is different from Wins Above Replacement and better, I think, in judging all-time greatness:

  1. Rogers Hornsby, 92.9 wins above average
  2. Babe Ruth, 90.3
  3. Ty Cobb, 79.6
  4. Willie Mays, 78.8
  5. Barry Bonds, 74.2
  6. Mickey Mantle, 73.9
  7. Lou Gehrig, 71.4
  8. Henry Aaron, 70.2
  9. Stan Musial, 67.4
  10. Tris Speaker 65.9

Bonds had a superb 1998 season, hitting .300, slugging .600, cracking 44 doubles and 37 homers, stealing 28 bases. In other words, he wasn’t exactly slowing down. Bill James in his Historical Abstract ranked Barry Bonds the 16th best player ever, and that was based only on Bonds’ career through the 1999 season. “When people begin to take in all his accomplishments,” James wrote then, before Meathead Barry Bonds became a video game character, “Bonds may well be rated among the five greatest players in the history of the game.”

I think Top 10 is pretty certain. He would have reached 500 homers, and might have reached 500 stolen bases. It’s hard to say how he would have aged. Mantle did not add much to his career value after his age 33 season, and Lou Gehrig was 36 when he realized he couldn’t go on. Meanwhile, Aaron was a great old player, so was Musial, and obviously the above list doesn’t include two of the greatest old players in baseball history, Ted Williams and Honus Wagner. Others like Joe DiMaggio are hard to judge because of World War II. I still feel confident Bonds would be somewhere in that Top 10. I think Barry Bonds was a criminally underrated player before he bulked up. Of course, nobody really cares about that now.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Barry Lamar Bonds (Getty Images)”]

Roger Clemens

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 30-35

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

Like Bonds, I think Clemens’ percentage will drop slightly this year.

Putting PEDs and everything else aside, Roger Clemens has the strongest case of anyone since Walter Johnson as the greatest pitcher in baseball history.

The Big Train is kind of in his own category because he pitched in a very different time. In the modern, post-Dead Ball era, here are the pitchers (other than Clemens) who I think have the strongest case as best pitcher ever:

— Greg Maddux

— Tom Seaver

— Pedro Martinez or Sandy Koufax

— Randy Johnson

— Lefty Grove

— Warren Spahn

Now compare those pitchers to Clemens. Lefty Grove is from a very different era – he began his career in 1925 — and it’s very hard to make any real comparisons. Grove has his points, Clemens has his points.

Pedro/Koufax are their own category – their peaks were so dominant and so short that it’s hard to make a real argument for those guys over Clemens’ entire body of work. Even season to season, people forget just how good Clemens was at his peak. Clemens’ 1990 season (21-6, 1.93 ERA, 211 ERA+), his 1997 season (21-7, 2.05 ERA, 292 Ks), his 1986 MVP season (24-4, 2.48 ERA, .969 WHIP) and a few other others rank close to the very best of Pedro and Koufax.

Warren Spahn and Tom Seaver were absolute wonders but look at their careers:

Spahn: 363-245, 3.09 ERA, 119 ERA+, 2,583 Ks, 1,434 walks, 92.6 WAR.

Seaver: 311-205, 2.86 ERA, 127 ERA+, 3,640 Ks, 1,390 walks, 106.3 WAR.

Clemens: 354-184, 3.12 ERA, 143 ERA+, 4,672 Ks, 1,580 walks, 139.4 WAR.

Clemens seems to be the clear choice there.

I have often tried to make the case that Maddux (my favorite ever pitcher) was as good or better a pitcher than Clemens. I can fake a pretty convincing case, but Clemens had a lower ERA, a better ERA+, his fielding independent pitching numbers (which rely on walks, strikeouts and home runs) are better.

So how do I make the argument? I say that Clemens simply aged better than Maddux and it’s quite possible that PEDs had something to do with that.

Here are Maddux and Clemens through their age 36 season:

Maddux: 273-152, 2.83 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 146 ERA+.

Clemens: 247-134, 3.04 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 147 ERA+.

Close. Very close. You could still argue that, in context, Clemens was better, but it’s an argument.

Randy Johnson pitched 800 fewer innings than Clemens, had a higher ERA, a lower ERA+ and his fielding independent numbers are not quite as good. He was incredible. I think Clemens was a little bit better.

Clemens is also is the only one of this group who may never go into the Hall of Fame. I don’t think the BBWAA will ever vote him in. Then it will be the Hall of Fame’s move.

* * *

Randy Johnson

Will he get elected this year: Resoundingly

Predicted percentage: 97

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

I don’t know how anyone could leave the Big Unit off their Hall of Fame ballot. Was there ever a more fun pitcher? Why even be a voter if you can’t enjoy checking the box next to Randy Johnson’s name?

* * *

Jeff Kent

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 13-18

In my Hall of Fame: No

Jeff Kent hit more home runs than any second baseman ever. He and Rogers Hornsby are the only second basemen to slug .500 for a career. Kent also won an MVP Award. As such: He has a viable and easy to make Hall of Fame case.

He falls just short for me – I always thought Kent was a below-average defender (though his defensive statistics show him to be about average), he wasn’t a great baserunner and wasn’t especially good at getting on base. His case is power, and he played in the greatest power era in baseball history. In context, I don’t think he stood out quite enough.

* * *

Edgar Martinez

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 22-27

In my Hall of Fame: Yes, right on the line

Edgar Martinez was a great hitter. I think his Hall of Fame case is a slightly fuller version of the Tony Oliva case. Oliva won three batting titles, Martinez won two. Oliva led the league in doubles four times and hit the ball as hard as anyone in his generation. Martinez led the league in doubles twice, in runs once, in RBIs once and hit the ball as hard as anyone in his generation. Oliva was a lifetime .304 hitter in an era dominated by pitching. Martinez was a .312 hitter in an era dominated by hitting, but he also walked a lot more.

I think their cases are similar in a large sense. Martinez played 400 or so more games than Oliva, had much higher on-base and slugging percentages; he has a more compelling offensive case. But Oliva has his plusses too. He was pretty fast as a young man, a good baserunner and was seen as a good outfielder for much of his career (he won a Gold Glove). Martinez meanwhile was slow, and was mostly overmatched as a defensive third baseman; he played 70 percent of his games as a DH.

I think Oliva will get elected at some point by the veteran’s committee. I think Martinez will probably have to wait for a veteran’s committee to get his Hall of Fame nod.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Pedro Martinez (Getty Images)”]

Pedro Martinez

Will he get elected this year: Yes

Predicted percentage: 92-96

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

I don’t see how anyone could leave Pedro Martinez off their Hall of Fame ballot. Was there ever a more fun pitcher? Why even … oh, wait, I already said all this in the Randy Johnson comment. Let’s put it another way: The Hall of Fame was basically invented so that one day Pedro Martinez would be in it.

* * *

Fred McGriff

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 15-20

In my Hall of Fame: No

McGriff was a fine hitter whose offensive numbers line up pretty well with Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. But Murray was great for a bit longer, he won Gold Gloves, he was a better all-around player. McGriff’s best case seems to be that he hearkens back to the time before PED use, when 35 home runs was sometimes good enough to lead the league (like in 1992). That’s nostalgia, and it’s an important part of baseball. I’m not sure it’s enough for McGriff.

McGriff, like Kent, does have a compelling case. He’s just seven home runs shy of 500 and the 500-homer club used to be like a passport to Cooperstown. He’s right on the border for me, but I pass because right now there are a handful of hitters — guys like like Dick Allen, Will Clark, Dwight Evans – who I would put in Cooperstown first.

* * *

Mark McGwire

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 3-8

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

Realistically, Big Mac could fall off the ballot this year. There’s nothing more to be said about him except that I wish people would have embraced his steroid admission and apology more. I understand that many felt it wasn’t sincere enough, but to date he’s really the only viable Hall of Fame candidate from the era who came forward in a very public way, admitted using steroids and apologized for it. People say, “Well he just did that so he could become a hitting coach.” Like being a hitting coach is a glamorous life. McGwire wanted to be part of the game, and though he’s a generally inarticulate man he came forward and spoke from the heart. I admire him for it.

McGwire’s home run chase in 1998 was one of the most dazzling shows I’ve ever seen. Maybe it was partly an illusion. But it was thrilling.

* * *

Mike Mussina

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 25-30

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

See comment on John Smoltz.

* * *

Mike Piazza

Will he get elected this year: I don’t think so

Predicted percentage: 66-71

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

The wait is almost over for Piazza – who has his case as the greatest hitting catcher ever – but I think the wait lasts one more year. He got 62 percent of the vote last year; I don’t think he can get all the way to 75 on such an overstuffed ballot. That said, I think the wind is at his back now and, unlike Jeff Bagwell, he is a lock to be elected in the next couple of years. Bagwell’s future is quite a bit murkier.

* * *

Tim Raines

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 53-58

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

Raines slid back last year for some reason, but I think he will rebound in the voting. Many of us have made his case religiously using Tony Gwynn as a mirror. Raines was a different kind of player from Tony Gwynn, but they were about equal in value. Gwynn did it with batting artistry, Gold Gloves and smart baserunning. Raines did it with an uncanny ability to get on base, a knack for scoring runs and the most perfect base-stealing technique the game has ever seen.

They were both such wonderful players. They should both be in Cooperstown.

* * *

Curt Schilling

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 40-45

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

See comment on John Smoltz.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Curt Schilling (Getty Images)”]

Lee Smith

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 17-22

In my Hall of Fame: No

For a time, Hall of Fame voters fell in love with closers. In the 2000s, the BBWAA did not vote in a single starting pitcher, but they voted in closers Dennis Eckersley (mostly, he was a closer), Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. Before that they elected Rollie Fingers.

If the closer role had not been invented, baseball writers would have found it ludicrous to elect pitchers with fewer than 2,000 innings pitched. Even Koufax had more innings than that. The only starter with fewer than 2,000 innings pitched in the Hall is Dizzy Dean, and he was essentially done at 27.

But there was something compelling about closers, something satisfying – closers came into the biggest situations, and they faced down the opponents’ last, most desperate attempts at victory. Writers liked that. It was dramatic. We liked the save statistic. We liked building up these guys. We started giving closers Cy Young Awards, even MVP awards, and then we started voting the best of them into the Hall of Fame even though they didn’t approach the level of production that we expected from Hall of Fame starters.

Lee Smith held the save record for a pretty good while, and because of this he debuted with an impressive 42.3 percent of the Hall of Fame vote and, soon after, passed the magical 50 percent. At that point he looked like he would get elected.

But now that the ballot is overcrowded with great starters like Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, who are having trouble getting any traction, the Lee Smith love fades. He dropped to 30 percent last year, and I think he’ll probably drop another 10 points or so this year. It’s weird – he has exactly the same Hall of Fame case that he does when he retired after the 1997 season. But since then Mariano Rivera has smashed his record, and new relievers like Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland show a new kind of dominance, and voters have fallen out of love with the old-fashioned closer.

* * *

John Smoltz

Will he get elected this year: Yes

Predicted percentage: 88-92

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

OK, so there are three starting pitchers on this year’s ballot – Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina and John Smoltz – who have very similar Hall of Fame cases.

Schilling’s case: Best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history, dominant postseason performances, 3,000 strikeouts, SI Sportsman of the Year in 2001.

Mussina’s case: Won 270 games and retired after winning 20 – so did not just stick around to get 300. Most wins above replacement (82.7) of the three pitchers. Seven-time Gold Glove winner. Top 20 all-time in strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and various more involved statistics like Win Probability Added.

Smoltz’s case: Won the Cy Young as a starter, finished third in the Cy Young as a closer, twice led the league in wins and once in saves, his 15-4 record in the postseason is one of the best in baseball history.

If you put their numbers side by side, it’s hard to choose between them:

Schilling: 216-146, 127 ERA+, 3,116 Ks, 711 walks.

Smoltz: 213-155, 125 ERA+, 3,084 Ks, 1,010 walks, 154 saves.

Mussina: 270-153, 123 ERA+, 2,813 strikeouts, 785 walks.

So why is John Smoltz going to coast into the Hall of Fame first ballot while Schilling and Mussina can’t get any traction at all?

Everyone has a theory. In mathematical form it seems to look like this:

Smoltz + saves > Schilling.

Smoltz + postseason greatness > Mussina.

My theory is that it comes down to the Eck factor. Dennis Eckersley coasted into the Hall of Fame first ballot even though there had never really been a viable Hall of Fame candidate quite like him. He was a perfectly fine starter for a dozen years comparable to, say, Dan Haren or Burt Hooton. He then became a one-inning closer deluxe – for five years, he posted a 1.90 ERA, almost won the Cy Young Award in 1988 and won both the Cy and MVP award in 1992.

What do you do with a two-headed monster like that? It’s really a subtle question. He was clearly not a Hall of Fame starter. And nobody could get into the Hall of Fame for being a very good closer for five years – heck, Doug Jones had six years. But if you put it all together, tack on a few years where Eck collected a lot of empty saves, well, the voters enthusiastically voted him in first ballot with 83.2 percent of the vote. The voters did not have a precedent so they set one.

Now that precedent is set. Smoltz was a much better starter than Eckersley, but he wasn’t as good a closer. More to the point, I don’t think he was as good a starter as Mussina or Schilling, so you have to ask how much do those three years as a closer add to his overall case? I think the voters in general will give Smoltz too much credit for those seasons. By WAR, he only added 6.7 WAR in those three seasons combined … that’s one very good year as a starter or two pretty good ones.

In my Hall of Fame ranking, I have them like so: 1. Schilling; 2. Mussina; 3. Smoltz.

But I readily concede almost everybody disagrees with me. Anyway, I have all three as clear-cut Hall of Famers.

* * *

Alan Trammell

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted perecentage: 18-23

In my Hall of Fame: Yes

On Sunday, I asked this football question: Would you rather your team have a quarterback who is clearly terrible and must be replaced or a quarterback like Andy Dalton who has shown the ability to maneuver the team in the playoffs but, unless he proves otherwise, does not seem good enough to win games in the playoffs.

I ask because I wonder who got the better deal, Alan Trammell or Lou Whitaker.

They were practically one player when they were the Tigers double-play combo – Alan Whitaker and Lou Trammell, Allou Trammaker, they are linked in the mind like Abbott and Costello, Guns ‘N Roses, Jack and Diane.

Whitaker got 15 votes the one year he was on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2001 and quickly fell off. He deserved a better hearing. Whitaker really was a sensational player who was overlooked because his greatest skills – he got on base, he hit with steady but not flashy power, he was staggeringly consistent – tend to be underrated.

Trammell, meanwhile, had many of those same skills, but he had a couple of standout years – he probably should have been the MVP in 1987 – and so has stayed on the ballot for 13 years now.  A couple of years ago, he even got 37 percent of the vote.

You would think Trammell got the better deal, but I’m not so sure. He will not get elected by the BBWAA. So what’s the point? Every year, his name comes up, many people say nice things about him, but others make the point how he was not a Hall of Famer  … and then 70 or 80 percent of the electorate leaves him off their ballot. Is it really an honor to be turned down year after year? Maybe it’s better to be Whitaker … there are people who still push his case, but he doesn’t get the yearly reminder that he’s not a Hall of Famer.

* * *

Larry Walker

Will he get elected this year: No

Predicted percentage: 5-10

In my Hall of Fame: On the line, but yes

Here’s another weird Hall of Fame thing: Larry Walker’s career numbers were boosted by playing so many games at Coors Field. But, at the same time, Coors Field hinders his Hall of Fame case because people don’t take his numbers seriously.

Walker was a very good player before he joined the Rockies. In 1994, in just 103 games, he hit .322 with 44 doubles – if they had played that whole season he might have challenged Earl Webb’s single-season double record of 67. He was a ferocious line-drive hitter, a tremendous right fielder, an excellent base runner, a wonderful all-around player.

Then he went to Coors Field when the place the place seemed to have the same gravitational pull as the moon, and he put up loony numbers.

Well, just look at his Coors Field numbers:

1995: .343/.401/.730 with 24 homers

1996: .393/.448/.800

1997: .384/.460/.709

1998: .418/.483/.757

1999: .461/.531/.879

Yeah, he hit .461 and slugged almost .900 at home in 1999. These are cartoonish statistics and my suspicion is that rather than enhance Walker’s case, they have confused it. What was real? What was altitude? Walker’s career was a bit short, so it’s hard to get your arms around his Hall of Fame case.

For me, his case is this: Few players in baseball history have been good at everything – hitting for average, getting on base, hitting for power, stealing bases, running the bases, playing good defense, throwing brilliantly. Walker did all those things. He wasn’t Stan Musial, even if his numbers in the mid-to-late 1990s looked like Stan the Man’s. But he was a lot like Andre Dawson only he got on base more … I think he’s a Hall of Famer. But he, like McGwire, is in danger of falling off the ballot this year.

[parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Larry Walker (Getty Images)”]

OK, enough stalling, it’s time for my ballot. If you were paying attention, you will notice I would put 15 of these 18 players would be in my Hall of Fame. There were a couple of others I mentioned in my last article – Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield – who I would strongly consider. So that’s 17. And I could only vote for 10.

So, what to do? Well, there are numerous strategies a voter could employ. The voter could vote strategically – that is, for example, vote for Sheffield to try and keep him on the ballot and leave off someone like Randy Johnson, who is certain to get in, or Barry Bonds, who is certain not to get in. I did think about that. I thought about voting for Biggio because he needed my help more than, say, Raines who won’t get elected this year.

But after asking around, I decided to stick with what Bill James advised: Vote for the 10 best players. “I don’t believe in trying to outsmart the system, no matter what the system is,” Bill said. “I think it backfires on you much more often than it works.”

So, here are the 10 players I voted for:

— Bonds

— Bagwell

— Clemens

— Johnson

— Martinez

— Mussina

— Piazza

— Raines

— Schilling

— Smoltz

I offer deep apologies to Craig Biggio, who might really need my vote. But at the end, it came down to Smoltz, Piazza and Biggio for the final two spots, and Biggio was third of the three for me.

Scroll Down For:

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

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

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

    Off Script: Jeremy Roenick opens up on career, family

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

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

    Once more, with feeling

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

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

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

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

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

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

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

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

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

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

    * * *

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

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

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

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

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

    Did he?

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

    * * *

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

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

    “No sir.”

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

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

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

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

    The fourth wheel

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

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

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

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    One for the history books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And so, this race is for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Promises, promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What do you know?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Magic Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No more fun and games

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

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

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

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

    But something has obviously changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

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

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

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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