Shock value

The single most joyous home run of this or any other year happened Saturday night in San Diego. It was a home run so majestic, so unlikely, so thoroughly wonderful that even the guy who gave it up, James Shields, was intoxicated by the moment. “I’m happy for him,” Shields told the New York Daily News. In truth, he should be happy for all of us.

Bartolo Colon was not the worst hitter to ever hit a home run. We will get to that in a minute. But he was the oldest — just days shy of his 43rd birthday — to ever hit his first home run. And, yes, he’s Bartolo Colon, Big Bart, Big Sexy, a player who has had one of the most ridiculously fascinating careers in the history of baseball, a player who you can’t take your eyes off of because, well, he’s Bartolo.

Colon was an exciting young pitcher, a fireballer for some great Cleveland Indians teams. He was then traded to Montreal in one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history — the Expos traded Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee AND Grady Sizemore to get him. That’s some haul. The Expos made the trade look even dumber when they traded Colon away to the White Sox six months later for pennies on the dollar.

It should be said: Even though Colon was only with Montreal for six months, he is the last Expo. And that’s something.

Colon pitched one good year with the White Sox and then signed a rather large four-year deal with the then-Anaheim Angels. In his first year, he somehow won 18 games despite a 5.01 ERA. How did he do that? Because on days he was good, he was good — in his 18 victories, Colon had a 2.16 ERA and threw a quality start 16 times. In the rest of his games, his ERA was 9.29 and he gave up an almost-unbelievable 26 homers in 83 innings.

The next year, Colon won the Cy Young. He probably did not DESERVE the Cy Young. That would have been a good year to give the award to Mariano Rivera, who never did win one, or they could have given another Cy Young to Johan Santana, who was considerably better than Colon that year. But those were the dwindling days when win-loss records still won pitchers Cy Youngs, and Colon went 21-8.

Anyway, after he won that Cy Young, he was finished. Colon tore his rotator cuff. He barely pitched for the rest of his Angels contract. He signed a minor-league deal with Boston. He made it back to the big leagues and threw a few innings but then left for the Dominican Republic to tend to personal matters. The Red Sox didn’t seem to miss him. The next year, he went back to the White Sox and blew out his arm again.

And then he was gone, out of baseball for a while. He seemed to be retired.

Then, you will remember, there was that strange stem cell transplant that nobody quite understood. It seemed a bit like the “We can rebuild him” opening scene from the old “Six Million Dollar Man” series. Baseball investigated the surgery — trying to determine if human growth hormone was used — and could not find anything conclusive. Colon came back to pitch for the New York Yankees.

He threw almost nothing but fastballs. He went to Oakland and was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for testosterone. That seemed certain to end the career. Instead, he came back at age 40 and had probably his best season, leading the league with three shutouts, posting a career-low 2.65 ERA (and career-low 3.23 FIP), making the All-Star team and finishing sixth in the Cy Young voting.

Then he signed a deal with the New York Mets. And the story got more absurd and fabulous.

And you have to say it: Nobody else looks quite like Bartolo Colon. I have a 1995 Colon baseball card — he’s listed at 185 pounds on the back. Now, he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 285 pounds. Remember when David Letterman stirred things up by calling Terry Forster a “fat tub of goo” on the old Late Night show? Colon has at least 20 pounds on Forster and he’s four inches shorter. Far be it for me, of all people, to say anything too cutting about Colon’s weight, but let’s face it: I don’t have to put on a baseball uniform. It’s fair to say that Colon is unique.

And watching him hit, yes, it’s a singular joy of baseball.

This is especially true because Bartolo Colon is a terrible hitter. But he’s not the worst to ever hit a home run. Who is? Well, you could argue for Mark Clark. In his career, Clark hit .058 in 280 plate appearances. Going into the game on June 14, 1997, he was hitless in his previous 43 at-bats.

That day, though, he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, which was sort of a big deal because this was back when the New York Mets had never thrown a no-no. Every near-no-hitter was treated like Independence Day. Clark’s no-hitter ended in what you might call typical Mets fashion. Boston’s Reggie Jefferson was mistakenly called “Reggie Jackson” by the public address announcer. He promptly lined a single to left.

But in the middle of the game, Clark hit a home run off Tim Wakefield on, what else, a knuckleball that did not knuckle. Clark only had three other extra-base hits in his career, all doubles. Clark was a worse hitter than Colon.

Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm was also probably a worse hitter than Colon. Wilhelm provided one of the most unlikely moments in the history of the game — he homered in his first plate appearance. He cracked it into the lower right-field stands off a pitcher named Dick Hoover. That was 1952, the day Wilhelm got his first victory.

Wilhelm played for another 20 years — 492 more plate appearances — and never hit another home run. In truth, he never came close.

Still, nobody understood the significance of Wilhelm’s homer, and nobody really cared about Clark’s homer. But Colon, yes, everyone stops to watch Bartolo Colon hit. He came up in the second inning and the Mets already had a 2-0 lead. There was a man on second base. Colon in 2016 had come up nine times. He struck out six. The other three: Groundout, foul-out, bunt pop-out. He had not even come close to hitting the ball out of the infield.

Shields did what pitchers tend to do against helpless hitters like Colon. He threw fastballs. The first one missed. The second one was a called strike.

And the third one …

“Bartolo has done it!” Mets announcer Gary Cohen yelled. “The impossible has happened.”

And then: “This is one of the great moments in the history of baseball.”

Yep. He cranked it into the left-field stands, where a longtime Mets fan named Jimmy Zurn happened to be sitting. Zurn caught the ball and returned it happily. Colon’s home run trot took 30.5 seconds, a fairly astonishing time to run 110 meters. That’s longer than the Kirk Gibson home run trot in the World Series, longer than Mike Tyson’s knockout of Marvis Frazier, longer than it took Clint Dempsey to score that World Cup goal against Ghana. The thing is, even in the bruised feelings world of baseball, no one was mad because:

A) This was such a glorious moment for Colon.

B) It’s not entirely clear he would have put up a much better time had he gone full speed.

The Hall of Fame sent someone to collect something from the scene (though they didn’t get the ball or the bat). Topps made a special baseball card featuring Colon hitting a homer. Twitter blew up.

And we’re left to ask: Why did we all love it so much? Well, I think it’s this: He shocked us. And so little shocks us. Giancarlo Stanton hits a 500-foot homer, and it’s amazing, but we’ve seen it. Steph Curry drains another halfcourt shot, and it’s amazing, but we’ve seen it. Adrian Peterson makes a defender grab at air, Alex Ovechkin smashes a shot through a 6-inch crack, Novak Djokovic chases down a backhand and hits a winner from the split position, and it’s amazing. But we’ve seen it.

The Colon homer? We’ve never seen it before. We’ll never see it again.

Scroll Down For:

    Toast of the town

    LEICESTER – The sun was beating down on the city of Leicester on a day it will never forget.

    On May 6, 2016, the city’s club, Leicester City FC, lifted the top-flight title for the first time in its 132-year history.

    In the place where King Richard III’s remains were found in 2012 and reburied in 2015 amid huge headlines, there hasn’t been much else in the past which rivaled the spotlight that the club has  received over the past nine months.

    The world now knows where the city of Leicester is, along with the local club’s players and manager who delivered the Premier League title. After facing 5000-to-1 odds to secure the title last summer, the group is now immortal.

    This is the tale of the biggest party in the East Midlands city’s history and how this season will never, ever, be forgotten.

    * * *

    Wandering around the streets on the morning of Leicester City’s final home game against Everton, after which they would receive the Premier League trophy, the party was already in full flow. It had been brewing for quite a few days.

    The club’s flag was flapping from the flagpole at the city’s famous cathedral. Shop windows were dressed in blue and white with the messages mostly stating, simply, #backingtheblues. Pictures of the players and manager Claudio Ranieri were hanging from lampposts across the main streets in the city.

    A huge band of Italian fans were rampaging around the streets singing songs about Ranieri and Co. Many had arrived in England that morning from all over Italy as they wore shirts of every Italian club imaginable. They had flown over simply to celebrate the Italian manager’s achievements and their presence certainly added something special to the occasion.

    The global appeal of the Foxes’ story has been remarkable. Over the past few months, during multiple trips to Leicester, I’d heard tales about Foxes fandom from the U.S. to Thailand, Iceland to Australia and many other places as the bandwagon rattled along. Locals were amazed by becoming headline news around the globe.

    Pubs were packed in the city way before noon. Down the cobbled side streets, which led from the already bustling market, the local taverns enticed fans in – they didn’t have to try hard. As evidenced below, the waterholes often paid tribute to the club’s stars for advertisements.

    One group of fans let off blue flares and chanted “Championes, Championes, ole, ole, ole!” as camera crews descended on Leicester’s already-bustling side streets. There was still over five hours until kickoff.

    To try and explain the atmosphere, think of teams from the same North American city winning the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup on the same night, then about the celebrations which would follow. You’d be about halfway to the mood and scenes here.

    Outside The Globe pub, which has been around since 1720, one man stood on his own, in the local club’s shirt, holding a pint as he leaned against a lamppost. Groups of fans were laughing and joking and this one guy was just stood there taking it all in.

    His name was John Reading, and the 64-year-old man was overcome with emotion when asked about his feelings.

    MORE: Posnanski: This will never happen againVardy: We’re all brothers | Watch: What a day for Leicester

    “It is just a dream. I’ve not stopped pinching myself, because nobody expected this. I’ve seen them lose four FA Cup finals, knocked out of the playoffs. And this is, it’s not… it’s not real. It is not real,” Reading said, shaking his head as his voice quivered. “I know how this story is going all over the world which is amazing. I’m getting choked up thinking about it.”

    Reading then wiped his eyes. A grown man in his 60s was moved to tears just at the thought of what his club has achieved this season. That shows you just how much it means to the local supporters.

    It is a city with a proper representation of England’s multicultural past and present. It has a diverse population and is the first city in England to have less than 50 percent of its population identify itself as “white British.”

    Members of the local Sikh community handed out free samosas to fans before the game. Drummers roamed in and among the crowds outside the stadium playing traditional music. It is a city which may have had issues with different communities clashing in the past but according to the many citizens I spoke to, this title success has brought everyone together.

    Outside King Power Stadium before the game, Dips Patel, his sister and his two cousins celebrated in the streets.

    Dips, 32, was born just around the corner at the Leicester infirmary. He was living out the greatest day in the club’s history like he never wanted it to end.

    “Unbelievable. In my lifetime, I’m almost 33, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Patel said. “I was born and bred here, we all were, and I’ve been supporting Leicester since I was a little kid. I was born in the infirmary around the corner.

    “We are on the map. The whole world knows small, little Leicester City. Three hundred thousand is our population. All cultures, all communities, all ages, all races… it has brought the city together. You can see it. It has done what the Olympics in 2012 did for London. This is the same, if not bigger and better. It has put us on the map.”

    * * *

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Now that the city and its club are on the map, the expectation levels will, inevitably, increase. However, among Leicester’s fans there is an acceptance that it was somewhat of a perfect storm which saw them win the title this season.

    Yes, Riyad Mahrez has been magic, Jamie Vardy has been clinical and N’Golo Kante has been everywhere, but the perennial giants (Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and last year’s champions Chelsea) all having a down year at the same time certainly played a big part in their success.

    With that in mind, where can Leicester finish in the PL next season with Champions League qualification causing somewhat of a distraction?

    “It doesn’t matter. The only thing is, as long as we don’t get relegated. Which is a possibility because it has just been such an unknown season,” Reading said.

    Sitting down with two lads in a pub – someone was ringing a bell, an ode to Ranieri and his now famous “Dilly-ding, dilly-dong” comments — in the heart of the celebrations around midday before the Everton game, friends Joe Longhurst and Jamie Stott, both 23 years old, couldn’t stop smiling.

    They are season-ticket holders in the East Stand and chatting with their friend (who couldn’t get a ticket to the game) over yet another celebratory pint, they admitted that this season feels like a one-off.

    “I think it is a one-off,” Stott said. “Next season, we will stay up, be mid-table, but this is a day we will tell our grandchildren about. We definitely won’t see this again.”

    Stott is from Melton Mowbray, the town where star striker Vardy lives and where the players celebrated the title success last Monday following Tottenham’s draw at Chelsea that sealed it. The fact that club secured the title before the game against Everton meant the day of celebration could be savored that much more.

    “It was crazy to be honest. I went up to Vardy’s house and the celebrations were outside his house in the street, people everywhere,” Stott said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

    Longhurst, grinning like a Cheshire cat, admitted that he hasn’t be able to stop smiling since his team wrapped up the title.

    He also agreed with Stott and was serious when he said the Foxes must first focus on surviving in the PL before they get ahead of themselves, while also discussing the likelihood of star players leaving in the summer.

    “Leicester needs to find consistency and be a Premier League team. That’s all we need, Premier League football,” Longhurst said. “We need to stay in the Premier League, that’s all we want. This is a one-off. Definitely.”

    If the Foxes were relegated next season, would it sour this season’s incredible achievement?

    “It doesn’t matter. I said from the start that if we get relegated, I’m fine with that,” Patel added. “But why can’t we repeat this? Dream big and be fearless. I put a bet on today, 100-1, that we win the Champions League.”

    Hey, after this season, why can’t it win the Champions League next season? It’s surprising that the odds weren’t greater.

    One Ladbrokes bookmaker across from the market had a sign in the window stating “Congratulations Leicester City, we’ve paid out over £3 million!” So bettors probably won’t be getting value for money out of the bookies when it comes to betting on Leicester for quite some time.

    Patel has some family coming over from New Jersey next week and he’s already given them memorabilia as the word about this fairytale continues to spread.

    “In America, you can get better odds on Kim Kardashian becoming the next president. We were 5000-1. That says it all. What we have done, I never thought I’d witness it in my lifetime,” Patel said. “The highlight of me being a Leicester City fan was in 1997 and 2000 when we won the League Cup and we built a statue in the town center and this is just massive.”

    He added, “(Claudio) Ranieri, I had my doubts. We had the great escape with Nigel Pearson but I love him. I’d marry him. He is a god. He is unbelievable. He is a humble, down-to-earth character. Mr. Nice Guy and they say that nice people never win. He’s come second with Roma, Monaco, Chelsea. He is 64, going on 65. What a man, a true legend.”

    The term “legend” gets thrown around a lot in the sporting world, but this team will become that. They are living legends.

    Each player is set to get a street in the city named after them and there’s also talk of statues and even knighthoods for each of them from the Queen of England. When Wes Morgan and Ranieri lifted the trophy together, the KP stadium shook with a huge, victorious roar. This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the supporters to witness.

    Still, many locals are worried about relegation in the 2016-17 season, which shows you just how out of the blue this season has been.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    * * *

    I turned around on the platform at St. Pancras International station in London last Saturday morning and there he was, my friend from Finland, fellow journalist Eero Laurila. Over the past few months, we’ve gotten to know each other well — usually on early morning trains from London to Leicester. We smiled, laughed and joked about how the city has become our second home and in truth, it has become that way for most of the world’s soccer media.

    As our train rattled through the English Midlands, he thumbed through the latest edition of the magazine for which he writes. In Finland, like everywhere, the Foxes’ success is big news. His nine-page special in the edition a few weeks back says as much.

    Laurila was also in Leicester last Monday night, in the pubs watching Tottenham’s game at Chelsea with the fans. One lady won £10,000 after putting on a bet at the start of the season. The celebrations were intense last Monday, too.

    “The next morning, I got the train back to London at 7 a.m. and there was an announcement, the train driver hadn’t turned up for work because he was still out celebrating the win!” Laurila said.

    Since Monday night’s celebrations, the media has descended on this city. Local market sellers have become its mouthpiece to the world and Richard III’s statue has been bombarded with photos as visitors also head in town.

    In the past few days, champagne has become a popular addition to breakfast, pubs have been working overtime to stock up for the weekend’s celebrations and, as the sun beat down on the city on the day the trophy arrived, it felt like this was meant to be. Everything had come together. Free beer, special edition packets of Walkers crisps were handed out to celebrate the win and free pizza was also flying around. It was everything you’d expect, and more.

    “Party all day today, sleep it off tomorrow and then back to work on Monday,” Reading said of his plan. “Today is the day. Everybody is going to be partying. We’ve got a famous singer coming to sing. It is going to be amazing.”

    That famous singer was world renowned tenor Andrea Bocelli. And it was amazing. Bocelli had promised his fellow Italian Ranieri that he would perform if they won the title. As he stood on the center spot with Ranieri before the game, wearing a Leicester City shirt belting out “Nessun Dorma” and “Con te Partiro,” it was like a dream. How has this happened?

    “We are the center of the universe,” Patel said, laughing as he held his beer into the air triumphantly. “Forget the headlines news on the EU referendum, forget the NHS, forget the Mayor of London. This is Leicester. We are No. 1. We are all celebrating, we are all partying, the police are onboard, entire families, wives… everyone.”

    Not everyone could get into the stadium, though. Dips and his family watched in the bar at the packed hotel across from the KP stadium, while thousands of others roamed around the streets watching in pubs. Others had more inventive ways of getting in.

    Graham Illife, 68 years old, is a lifelong fan of the team, but his only way in to the KP rested on the goodwill of the visiting fans.

    “The idea was that when the Everton fans arrived on the buses, I would say, ‘Look, I’ve supported Leicester for 60 years, you can have these programs and 60 quid. That’s all I’ve got. I’m retired,’” explained Illife.

    “This old Everton fan came over and I told him and he said ‘here you are mate, it says 40 quid on it, give me 40 quid.’ And I said here’s my programs and he said don’t worry about it. Then I shook his hand like I’ve never shook a hand before. It just shows you how football fans can be.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    * * *

    The friendliness of fans was portrayed in that story, but it hasn’t always been like that. Before this season, my only two visits to this city were as a fan many years ago.

    I experienced hooliganism on both occasions.

    The club I grew up supporting, Southampton, was a second-tier team, like Leicester, and after each game at the King Power Stadium I experienced violence. First, as my bus rolled through the city streets, it was pelted with bricks, some fans opened the doors underneath the bus and ripped up the front door and punched the driver in the face. Our bus drove into the back of another and I honestly thought I was going to get ambushed.

    I remember a guy in front of me on the bus saying “get your coat, let’s go and sort them out!” and I just looked at him like he had two heads. By now, there was a baying mob outside our bus as we were stuck in traffic in the heart of Leicester. It was not good. I had no interest in leaving the bus.

    Eventually, due to police intervention, we escaped and made it home, but police investigations followed.

    On my second trip to this city a few years later, a lot of the same team we’re seeing now were playing for the Foxes. They beat Southampton 3-2, and on my way out of the stadium, one fan jumped in my face, tried to headbutt me and pushed others as Leicester fans piled into the away supporters.

    As you can imagine, I tried not to let my view of this city become skewed by those previous trips. It hasn’t. Like many of the provincial cities in the United Kingdom, the locals are hugely passionate and protective of their team. Leicester have a huge rivalry with other East Midlands clubs such as Nottingham Forest and Derby County, while Chelsea and others have historic rivalries which go way back. I’ve heard legendary tales of fans running the daunting gauntlet of the streets in and around the club’s old Filbert Road stadium.

    But there was a different atmosphere in the streets Saturday.

    “After the game, we were outside the stadium for a few hours. Singing, dancing, having fun. Not a single ounce of trouble even though lots of booze had been consumed,” Patel reflected. “On the way in to town you couldn’t get hold of a cab. On the 15-minute walk we continued on partying. Car horns going, shouting, chanting. A sea of flags in blue and scarves. Unbelievable scenes. After 12 hours of partying, drinking, shouting, loads of emotions, tiredness, we simply carried on into the night… as our team has done all season.”

    As I walked over a mile from the KP back toward the center of town, it was like walking along the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro or Las Ramblas in Barcelona after a big win for their respective teams.

    Fans weaved in and out of traffic. Cars honked their horns incessantly as fans hung out of windows, waving flags. The party had been building to this moment all day.

    Is this the biggest party Leicester has ever seen? Speaking to Illife and his son, Chris, 32 years old, who had traveled down from Scotland just to be in the city, they agreed it was.

    “Yes, this is the biggest party by far,” Graham said. “Nothing comes close to it.”

    “It was an amazing day, the atmosphere was special and it was great to just see everyone smiling and chanting,” Longhurst said. “The whole of Leicester was buzzing until the early hours. I woke up on Sunday with no voice!”

    The bars were rammed on Saturday night. Everywhere you looked, people sung and drunk in the streets. One man was somehow hanging upside down with his legs around his friend’s head as they stumbled around. “We’ve F***** won the league!” he screamed, repeatedly. Predictably, Leicester infirmary reported twice as many casualties as a usual Saturday night. The people of the city went for it. Big time.

    This party is far from over, too.

    On May 16, an open-top bus will parade through the streets of Leicester with the biggest crowds in the city’s history expected as Ranieri and his players show off the trophy.

    On May 28, rock band Kasabian, who hail from Leicester, will perform a one-off concert at King Power Stadium.

    Kasabian are huge fans of their local club. A few years back when they were touring in the U.S., a friend of mine arranged for us to go and see them play at Terminal 5 in New York City.

    After the concert, we had a connection to go and meet the band back stage. We had drinks with the lads after they’d just blown the crowd away, but the first thing Serge, the lead guitarist and songwriter, asked when he found out I was English, was “who is your team?” We then discussed Leicester’s chances of getting back into the Premier League as the Foxes were a second-tier outfit at the time. The passion lives within.

    Ranieri has spoken about his love and passion for Kasabian’s song, Fire, and how it plays after every goal they score at the KP stadium. Now, the local lads will give their city another huge party to close out the season in style.

    After living through one of the finest periods in the city’s history, it may never stop celebrating this incredible season.

    No matter what happens in the future, a toast to the boys of 2015-16 will always be appropriate.

    Walk it out

    Baseball is a magnificent game, my favorite game, but it is not perfect. There are various flaws. Why do they let new pitchers warm up for a while on the mound before actually pitching? Hey, pal, just be ready when you get in there like substitutes in every other sport. Managers wearing baseball uniforms — really, is that necessary? And isn’t there a better way to deal with tie games than potentially never-ending extra innings?

    More than anything: There is the intentional walk.

    I’ve written at great length about the horrors of the intentional walk. I even invented The Intentional Walk Rage System to identify the most egregious of these walks. But in the end, the point is pretty simple: The intentional walk is a weakness of the game. It is a loophole, an opportunity for managers and pitchers to take the easy way out and avoid the very best players in the game without giving up too much. People often try to compare the IBB to other sports strategies — the Hack-a-Shaq or punting away from a good returner or marking a top scorer with two defenders — but, as joy-crushing as those strategies might be, they are not quite like the intentional walk.

    The Hack-a-Shaq preys on a player’s weakness: Shaq can’t shoot free throws. The intentional walk allows teams to elude players’ strengths.

    Punting away from a good returner requires skill. It often doesn’t work. Even when it does work, it often yields 15 or 20 yards in field position. Intentionally walking someone is so easy, I could do it.

    Marking a scorer with two defenders requires skill, it forces you to leave others open — plus, a great scorer can beat even a double team. A hitter, no matter how skilled, cannot beat the intentional walk.

    The biggest trouble with the intentional walk is that the penalty doesn’t match the action. An intentional walk is just like any other walk. It’s only one base, and it only forces runners to advance one base. It’s often a dumb strategy, but it also works a lot. And, realistically, the penalty should be harsh enough to deter teams from doing it. If you made defensive pass interference a five-yard penalty with no automatic first down, defensive backs would mug receivers on every single play.

    Anyway, it’s not the strategy of the intentional walk that is so repulsive. Using the intentional walk is anti-competitive, it’s deathly boring, and it’s terrible for the sport. It replaces tension and excitement with 30-plus seconds of two men playing catch. In a time when sports stars inflame the imagination — Steph! Cam! Messi! — it’s a free card in baseball for any manager to avoid the other team’s star when the game matters most. “Hey kids, come on out to the ballpark. You might get to see Bryce Harper walked.”

    Harper did something on Sunday against the Chicago Cubs that had never been done before in the long history of baseball. He came to the plate seven times … but left no footprint behind. He got zero at-bats.

    First plate appearance: Walk on four pitches.

    Second plate appearance: Walk on five pitches.

    Third plate appearance: Intentionally walked.

    Fourth plate appearance: Hit by the first pitch.

    Fifth plate appearance: Walk on five pitches.

    Sixth plate appearance: Intentionally walked.

    Seventh plate appearance: Intentionally walked.

    Look at that: It’s astonishing. Sunday afternoon at Wrigley, game between two of the best teams in baseball, and Bryce Harper came to the plate seven times and faced 27 pitches, two of which were strikes. And, because of the rules of baseball and the breakdown of follow-up hitter Ryan Zimmerman, there wasn’t really a price to pay.

    The intentional walk — and the less-egregious “pitching around someone” — have been a part of baseball for so long that some people get upset with questioning it. Hey, it’s part of the game … you do whatever’s necessary to win … it’s called “strategy” … and so on. And that’s true. The Cubs walked Bryce Harper THIRTEEN TIMES in their four-game series and made him just the fourth man in baseball history to walk six times in a single game on Sunday. The Cubs also won all four games. You can’t blame Joe Maddon for taking this road. His job is to help the Chicago Cubs win ballgames, and they win games at an astonishing rate.

    But Joe Maddon isn’t responsible for the overall game of baseball. He doesn’t care (or, certainly, doesn’t care very much) that people across the country might have passed on hockey or basketball playoffs, might have passed up on interesting golf or tennis, so that they could tune in to see Jake Arrieta face off against Bryce Harper. What a matchup. Arrieta for the last year has been pitching about as well as anyone ever. Rocket, Maddux, Pedro, Koufax, Gibson, you name it. And Harper, wow, he has a chance to be this era’s Mickey Mantle, this era’s Babe Ruth. This matchup could have been baseball’s Brady-Manning, baseball’s James-Curry, baseball’s Crosby-Ovechkin.

    Instead …



    Intentional walk.

    Come on down to the ballpark, and bring the kiddies.

    Later in the game, in extra innings, Harper came up with runners on first and second. The score was tied. This was the moment, the crescendo of the game and — cue the sad “Price is Right” music — the Cubs intentionally walked Harper and loaded the bases rather than face him. Zimmerman dutifully dribbled a grounder to third to end the threat.

    Are there solutions? Of course, there are numerous imaginative ideas to discourage the intentional walk and its slightly less odious variations. Bill James has suggested that to pay homage to the long history of baseball, you could give hitters the option to turn down walks. You probably know that the early baseball rule makers hated the idea of the walk. At first, it took NINE balls for a walk. Then it was reduced to eight, to six, to five and finally, in 1888, to four. They were so eager to force pitchers to throw strikes that for a year they counted walks as hits. Nobody wanted hitters walked. Nobody wanted pitchers to have the option just to avoid the best hitters.

    Well, the idea of hitters being able to turn down walks would be interesting. It’s likely hitters would almost never turn down a walk … but in certain situations, they might. And if they did, the at-bat would start over and a second base-on-balls would result in a two-base walk — with everyone moving up two bases, even those not forced.

    That certainly would be intriguing, but it might be too revolutionary for you. There are other ideas. Some say that after an intentional walk, everyone should move up a base whether forced or not. Some suggest that catchers should not be allowed to stand up behind the plate, making the intentional walk a little bit harder to do. One intriguing idea I’ve heard has every four-pitch walk as a two-base walk.

    Of course, any of these ideas — and I don’t for a minute believe baseball will go for any of these ideas — would undoubtedly create new problems. But I also don’t think anyone would be surprised if Maddon’s treatment of Harper becomes the norm around baseball. Look: Strikeouts are way up, at their highest point in baseball history. Batting averages are at their lowest point since 1972. But hitters are banging a lot of home runs. The convergence of those three things seems to make the intentional walk more viable than ever. It’s never been more likely to work.

    As one Washington fan told me after this weekend’s fiasco: “I don’t know why anyone would throw a strike to Bryce Harper for the rest of the season.” If I were commissioner Rob Manfred, I wouldn’t want that to be the game’s slogan.

    Caps and Downs

    PITTSBURGH — A hockey goal is in many ways a random act of God. Yes, certainly, there are elaborately formed strategies involved with scoring goals. Countless hours of practice go into it. Superhuman skills of strength and speed and timing are necessary — the ability to redirect a puck in mid-air traveling at 110 mph is the sort of thing Homer would have written epic poems about.

    But, in the end, a puck actually going into the net is a little bit about fate too. The puck requires just a touch of destiny. And the only fair conclusion to make at this point is that providence, for whatever reason, frowns upon the Washington Capitals.

    The Caps have played for 41 seasons. They have made the playoffs 26 times. They are now on the brink of going 0-for-41 Stanley Cups.

    Of course, they are not the only team to be on such a sustained Stanley Cup drought — heck, the entire country of Canada has been without the Stanley Cup for 23 years — but the Capitals have faced their own particular agony on the road to nowhere. Six times, they have blown commanding playoff leads by getting beaten in three straight games. No other team can match that.

    This year was supposed to be different. This has been, in many ways, the best of those Capitals teams. Their 120 points was the most in the NHL by a lot. They had the second-highest scoring team in the league, along with the second-best defense. They surrounded the great Alexander Ovechkin with the sorts of superb players John Updike once called “gems of slightly lesser water” — T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and so on. Braden Holtby was again sensational in net. For a team always pointing to next year, it finally seemed that it would be this year.

    It still can be this year — the curtain has not yet fallen. But it’s closing rapidly.

    Washington, after their heartbreaking overtime loss on Wednesday, now trails the Pittsburgh Penguins 3 games to 1. That’s not insurmountable. As mentioned, the Capitals have blown such playoff leads so often it seems almost normal. The Capitals blew a 3-1 lead to the Rangers just a year ago.

    “We have to take that experience and turn it around our way,” Ovechkin says.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    The trouble is that nothing in the Capitals’ long history of heartbreak suggests that the 3-1 comeback trick works the other way.

    The series is 3-1 Pittsburgh largely because the puck just will not go into the net for the Capitals. That’s obvious enough, of course, but the Capitals have done all the right things to make the puck go into the net. In Game 3, they controlled the game more or less from start to finish and peppered rookie goalie Matt Murray with 49 shots. He somehow turned away 47 of them and Pittsburgh won 3-2.

    The Penguins were better in Game 4 even without star defenseman Kris Letang, out on a one-game suspension. Still, the Capitals certainly had their share of glorious scoring chances. One puck went through Murray’s legs but then slid wide, while others seemed to overwhelm Murray but ended up bouncing harmlessly off of him. And so on.

    Meanwhile, the Penguins scored one goal when Trevor Daley fired a shot to the net. The puck was slowed by Washington’s Karl Alzner, but it kept willfully sliding toward the net, looking for all the world like Bugs Bunny’s slowball. Holtby was sufficiently perplexed and, like everyone else, he could do nothing but watch it slide into the net.

    “Things are going their way a little bit,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz admitted. “Pucks seem to be following them a little bit more. Some of the goals are deflecting off people and finding the back of the net, where ours are just sort of missing the net.”

    This can sound like sour grapes and maybe it is — everyone in hockey knows that you have to make your own breaks. And it isn’t like every puck has bounced Pittsburgh’s way. But Trotz’s frustration touches on a fundamental point about playoff hockey — maybe even THE fundamental point about playoff hockey. Goals, unlike touchdown passes or out-of-bounds plays, can rarely be choreographed neatly. They emerge out of chaos.

    Jim Murray, the legendary columnist of the Los Angeles Times, used to write that before he died he did not want to see Paris or Rome. He wanted, just once, to see a hockey goal. It’s a fair point. Everything moves so fast, the puck bounces and dances so erratically, while power plays can change the basic geometry of the action. Goals still require just a touch of magic.

    Take Patric Hornqvist’s overtime goal Wednesday. Pittsburgh’s Conor Sheary flipped a shot toward the net and it was blocked by Washington’s Mike Weber. The puck bounced and stopped right in the high slot, just about the most dangerous place on the ice when Sidney Crosby skates nearby. Weber, in a near panic, swiped at the puck just to get it out of there. His swipe unintentionally ended up knocking the puck to the wrong guy, a wide-open Hornqvist. It could not have been a better pass. Hornqvist took it in stride and then banged home the first playoff game-winner of his career.

    Now is that luck? No. The Penguins’ pressure put the puck in a dangerous place. Crosby’s presence forced a rash move. Hornqvist’s positioning set him up for the chance. And he still had to beat Holtby.

    “At the end of the day, that’s why we play,” Hornqvist said happily.

    But there was luck in there. There usually is. And that luck, well, the Capitals never seem to have quite enough of it.

    “That’s why it’s sudden death,” Trotz said sadly. “That’s what it feels like.”

    The Capitals — and you can’t blame them — try to hang on to the idea that they were the better team in Game 3 and were at least even in Game 4. The Penguins would agree with that. “I don’t know if we were thrilled with how we played,” Murray would say after Wednesday’s game.

    So, the Capitals tell themselves, if they continue to be the best team on the ice, the luck will turn, the tide will turn, and they can win three in a row, two of them on home ice. It’s sound logic, but the wonder and agony of the Stanley Cup playoffs is that logic doesn’t always have much to do with it. You don’t have to be the best team. You just have to be the team that scores the most goals.

    “I think this team has a lot of character,” Ovechkin says.

    Then he adds: “I think it sucks.”

    Up to speed

    The only real knock on Nyquist coming into Saturday’s Kentucky Derby was, well, that he is not fast. This is kind of a bummer for a racehorse. Nyquist had done all the typical Superhorse things. He was undefeated in seven races. He was two-year-old Horse of the Year. He had dominated all the top Derby contenders. These things might have gotten people excited.

    “He’s undefeated, taken his show on the road and won at multiple distances,” renowned trainer Todd Pletcher warned a couple of days before the Derby. “He deserves more respect and credit than he’s getting.”

    But, hey, you know: Not fast. The Beyer Speed Figures — the currency of the horse racing world — attempt, in the words of the Daily Racing Form, to offer a “numerical representation of a horse’s performance based on the final time and the inherent speed over the track which the race was won.” Nyquist’s Beyer Speed Figures were blah. He had only topped 100 once, and that is the very minimum speed for what might be considered to be a great horse. American Pharoah, just as an example, had topped 100 four times before his Kentucky Derby win and earth-shaking Triple Crown run.

    Nyquist also ran a somewhat pedestrian 94 when winning the Florida Derby, the longest race he ran before Saturday. That did not bode well either.

    Yes, of course, everyone admired Nyquist’s intangibles. He always shows up to race. He is, in the words of his trainer Doug O’Neill, “such a professional,” meaning that every day he goes about his work with a quiet but ruthless intensity. He was installed as the Derby favorite because, well, how could you NOT make the undefeated two-year-old champion the favorite? But there wasn’t much excitement surrounding him. He might be the best of this mediocre crop of three-year-olds, many experts said. But, you know: Not fast.

    Then Nyquist ran a Kentucky Derby for the ages.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    In so many ways, Nyquist’s story is the story of sports these days. Everywhere you look, you see stars who have transcended the numbers stacked against them. Did anyone see Golden State’s Draymond Green emerging from the rummage sale that is the NBA draft’s second round and becoming a singular force, a defensive whirlwind who can guard all five positions and an offensive wizard who specializes in triple-doubles? Did anyone see Jordan Spieth, a young golfer who does not drive the ball particularly far or straight, putting himself in position to win five consecutive major championships? Did anyone see the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta, after five frustrating and ultimately disappointing seasons, emerging into one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball?

    How good was Nyquist on Saturday? Everyone knew coming in that the speedy Danzing Candy would set a brisk pace. But no one knew that he would run that first half-mile in 45.72 seconds, the ninth-fastest half-mile fraction in Kentucky Derby history. As announcer Larry Collmus said, he was “setting a solid pace which could help these late closers here.”

    Yes, this sort of breakneck pace was supposed to play precisely to Nyquist’s weaknesses. He was running up front because this is his style, the style with which jockey Mario Gutierrez has always ridden him. And, even though Gutierrez was holding Nyquist back a bit — “I wasn’t going to battle him,” he would say — the expectation still might have been for Nyquist to tire down the stretch of his first mile-and-a-quarter race and get passed by one of the great finishers, like Exaggerator.

    Only, Nyquist did not tire. At the quarter pole, Nyquist began to pull away. His speed was breathtaking. He built a five-length lead and all the way down the stretch, Gutierrez kept looking back to see if anyone was threatening. No one was. Exaggerator made a late charge but still finished a length-and-a-half back.

    “I thought I had him,” Exaggerator jockey Kent Desormeaux said. “But Nyquist is the champion that he is.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Nyquist’s time of 2:01.31 is the fastest since 2003 and almost two seconds faster than American Pharoah’s last year.

    So, yeah, it turns out Nyquist is plenty fast. But this is the wonder of the Kentucky Derby: You just don’t know. You take a bunch of promising young horses — 20 horses this year — and put them all in their first 1 1/4-mile race, and that is when we find out which thoroughbred can maneuver through the madness, which one has the real speed, which one can go the distance.

    Now we know: Nyquist just might be special. There was one other thing dampening Nyquist’s expectations, something that you might call the American Pharoah hangover. Pharoah last year became the first thoroughbred in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. There was a thrilling singularity to American Pharoah’s performance. Story after story after story had been written through the years that the Triple Crown was dead, that with the money that had come into horse racing (and, especially, into breeding) and because of various technical matters involving training, no horse would ever again win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in a five-week span.

    Then Pharoah broke through, and there was this sense that we had seen a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It didn’t seem possible that another dominant horse could emerge so soon after that.

    But here we are: Nyquist’s domination through the Derby surpasses that of Pharoah. He became the first undefeated two-year-old of the year to win the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew back in 1977. He is likely to be a heavy favorite at the Preakness, which is a shorter race and thus gives the closers less time to catch him. Then, should Nyquist win in Baltimore, there will be the question of the Belmont, the longest of the three races.

    But Nyquist keeps answering every question no matter how many people underestimate him.

    “He’s such a special horse,” O’Neill said. “You can see it in his eye on a daily basis. … You felt like you were going to the gym with Kobe Bryant. You just knew he was going to figure out a way to pull it out at the end. And he did.”

    Saving the day

    PITTSBURGH — This sort of thing can only happen in hockey. It is a few minutes after Game 3 of the Penguins-Capitals series, and the Pittsburgh locker room is quiet and subdued.

    “I think we have to forget about that one,” Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said sadly.

    “We just have to put that game out of our minds,” right winger Patric Hornqvist said.

    “They had the puck all night,” coach Mike Sullivan griped. “And we didn’t.”

    “We’d better be much better in Game 4,” the star, Sidney Crosby, said mournfully.

    Meanwhile, over on the Washington side, there was a sense of joy about what had just happened.

    “That’s our game!” Capitals coach Barry Trotz gushed. “If we can stay with that game … that will be our game.”

    All of that would make some sense except for the one thing you already know: The Penguins actually won the game, 3-2.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    The reactions were not out of line. This is hockey, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Capitals dominated the game. They out-shot the Penguins by a staggering margin of 49-23. They spent pretty much the whole game in the Penguins’ zone. They had 12 shots from in front of the net — Pittsburgh had two.

    But the Penguins won anyway because Pittsburgh’s rookie goalie Matt Murray played out of his mind. He made 47 saves, but the number doesn’t begin to describe the numerous times he just seemed to materialize in front of what looked to be an open net. “Best player on the ice,” Hornqvist said. “Without him, there is no way we win this game.”

    Singular players can influence games in other sports, of course. A great pitcher can essentially shut down a baseball game. A great defensive player can blow up an offense in football. A great player like LeBron James or Cristiano Ronaldo or Carli Lloyd or, yes, Draymond Green, can set the entire rhythm of a game.

    But it’s different in hockey because it’s the only sport where one player, one goaltender, can entirely counteract and silence a team that is actually dominating the game. In baseball, yes, a pitcher can vanquish a lineup, but then, by definition, that lineup is, you know, vanquished. A goaltender cannot prevent a team from peppering the net with great shot after great shot. He cannot stop a team from controlling the puck all night. All he can do is keep the puck out of the net.

    Of course, that’s all he has to do.

    The Capitals should have won Monday’s game by three goals. Instead, they needed a late flurry just to lose 3-2. They made a couple of dreadful mistakes in their own zone, and that cost them two of the three goals allowed.

    Then, Murray simply would not allow the puck to go by him, no matter how many shots Alex Ovechkin and company fired at the net.

    “Their goalie was very good,” Trotz said. “No question, he was the reason they had success.”

    Murray’s overwhelming performance is a good reminder of just how fickle the Hockey Gods can be. He’s 21 years old — five months ago, he was the goaltender for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. He had flashed potential in the AHL, even setting the league record for most consecutive minutes without allowing a goal (304 minutes, 11 seconds). But that’s the AHL. The Penguins had their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who led the NHL in shutouts last year and was in goal the last time the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009.

    Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31, though, and Murray was pressed into action. He was good. At times, he was very good. Still, it was hard not to look to the bench to see when Fleury would be ready to play again. As it turned out, Monday was the day — Fleury returned to the bench and seemed ready to go. When he was shown on the video board, the crowd erupted with some of the biggest cheers of the night.

    So, with Fleury’s return distracting things, few seemed to realize for quite some time just what a spectacular night Murray was having. The Penguins led 3-0 after two periods even though they had been outshot 28-13. There was an easy feeling about the game in Pittsburgh. Washington’s long history of playoff doom, along with a growing sense that the Penguins really do have their mojo back, was carrying the night.

    But the third period ended all illusions. The Capitals bombarded the net and the Penguins were all-but-helpless to stop them. There was a theory after the game that the Penguins got too defensive in an effort to hold on to their lead, but it really seemed that the Capitals’ will just overpowered them. Ovechkin — who was sensational all night — scored the first goal, then with a minute left he hit the post with a shot and Justin Williams banged in the rebound.

    In the final minute, the Capitals had chance after chance to tie it up, and the crowd groaned at least five relieved “Ohhs!” before time finally expired.

    “We could have had two or three go in,” Trotz said.

    Teammates and coaches talk all the time about Murray’s extraordinary composure; nothing seems to rattle him. “That was a busy one,” he said of his 47-save evening. He seemed less impressed by what he had done than just about everyone else. “He was awesome all night,” Fleury said. “He kept us in the game. I’m proud of him.”

    It’s unclear what the Penguins will do in net the rest of the way. Fleury is one of the best goalies in hockey, if healthy. Murray just won a game single-handedly and has been terrific the entire playoffs.

    After the game ended, it was unclear who had really won — it was a bit like a political debate with each side spinning like crazy. The Capitals say they won because they outplayed the Penguins on Pittsburgh ice and because it was obvious right away that the Penguins defenseman Kris Letang would be suspended for at least some time for his hit on Marcus Johansson (he was suspended for Game 4). Trotz talked about how this game reminded him of the Game 3 loss to the Islanders last year, one where he felt like the Capitals came together. “I feel good,” he said.

    Meanwhile the Penguins say they won because, you know, they actually won, and they now lead the series 2-1 and because, as Crosby says, “good teams find ways to win when they are not at their best.”

    None of it matters if Murray keeps playing like that. That’s hockey.

    In a League of their own

    Leicester City have won the Premier League, and do you know what this story is like?


    Nothing. That’s what it’s like. It’s not like the Miracle Mets of 1969 winning the World Series. It’s not like the St. Louis Rams winning the Super Bowl with a grocery-store-stocker-turned-quarterback. It’s not like the U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the Soviets in 1980. It’s not like Jim Valvano’s N.C. State team winning the NCAA title. It’s not even like Milan High School — the tiny school that inspired the movie “Hoosiers” — winning the Indiana state basketball title.

    It’s not like anything we can comprehend in America because the Premier League is not like anything we know in America. The Premier League is the world’s biggest sports league, and it is almost flawlessly designed — or so it seemed — to make sure that a team like Leicester City NEVER wins the Premier League.

    See, the Premier League is capitalism in almost-pure form. There is no salary cap. There is no draft. There is as little revenue sharing as possible. There are few incentives to help the small teams. Nobody even pretends that fairness is the goal. In this environment, the richest teams are meant to win and, as the Premier League has exploded in popularity, the richest teams always do win.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    This is why Leicester City was a 5,000-to-1 shot this year. No American sports team — not even the Cleveland Browns — face anything close to 5,000-to-1 odds to win a championship. What does 5,000-to-1 mean? The Mirror listed off things more likely to happen, and these included Simon Cowell being the next prime minister (a bargain at 500-to-1) and Hugh Hefner admitting he’s a virgin (at 1,000-to-1, oddsmakers considered this five times more likely than Leicester City winning the Premier League).

    There’s no American comparison because 15 months ago it did not even look like Leicester City would be in the Premier League.  The Foxes were just promoted to the Premier League last year, and like so many newly promoted teams, they promptly spent 140 days in last place. No team in Premier League history had been at the bottom for that long and avoided relegation. It took the Foxes winning seven times in their last nine matches (a “Great Escape,” as the English fans call it) just to move up to 14th place and enjoy the safety of another year in the Premier League.

    Then, in June, seemingly out of nowhere, Leicester fired manager Nigel Pearson, who had been the one credited with turning the team around in the first place (this is a team that, seven years ago, had been playing in the THIRD tier, sort of the Class-AA of English football). After a curious search, they settled on Claudio Ranieri, who had been the manager for FOURTEEN different clubs and had never won a top-level championship at any of them. Ranieri was so uninspiring a choice that it prompted Hall of Famer Gary Lineker, the greatest player in Leicester City club history, to tweet this:

    It is so touching and perfect to see that the first response to Lineker’s tweet, from the now-famous Stephen O’Reagan, was: “Crazy. Will he last till Christmas.”

    It wasn’t just Ranieri. The Foxes’ best goal scorer, Jamie Vardy, had been playing for a non-league club called Fleetwood Town FC.

    The Foxes’ best player — and, remarkably, the Pro Football Association Player of the Year — is Riyad Mahrez. He was playing for a French Ligue 2 club when he first heard about Leicester City. He assumed it was a rugby team.

    The Foxes’ heart and soul, Wes Morgan, had spent his entire career playing for local rival Nottingham Forrest.

    MORE: Leicester’s miracle run game by game | Twitter erupts in celebration | Leicester supporters party in streets

    No, those 5,000-to-1 odds were not a miscalculation. They were based on hard mathematics. Leicester City had almost no chance to win the Premier League. This is a team that has never won a major trophy of any kind. This is a team spending one-eighth or one-tenth of what the top teams pay for players. Lets face it: The biggest and richest sports teams in the world, teams with spectacular histories, always win the Premier League. Always. Teams like Manchester United and Manchester City and Arsenal and Chelsea and Liverpool. For a long time in baseball, small-market teams would grumble about how they had no chance against the Yankees. But the Yankees are just one team, and one team can have a down year. The Premier League has five Yankees.

    But again, trying to compare it to baseball is pointless. If the Topeka Train Robbers of the Pecos League won the World Series, maybe that would compare to Leicester City winning the Premier League. If the Cleveland Gladiators of Arena Football would move outdoors, get into the NFL and then win the Super Bowl, maybe that would compare. If Jay Wright’s Villanova basketball team somehow was invited to play in the NBA and they won the title, maybe that would compare.

    So instead of trying to put it into context, the better question to ask is: How the heck did this happen?

    Fortunately for this, I can turn to my friend Matt Drew, formerly of Opta, the official EPL data provider for the Premier League. Matt is also a huge fan of American sports, and so in exchange for explaining Premier League football to me, I tell him that his beloved San Diego Padres (don’t ask) will be terrible again. Of course, he already knew.

    Matt says the Leicester miracle cannot be explained — certainly not well enough — but that there are seven factors that might describe how a 5,000-to-1 shot came in.

    1. Stars align

    I mentioned above that there are five Yankees in the Premier League. Well, this was the first year in, I don’t know, forever, that all five had down/weird years:

    Defending champion Chelsea ran into the Jose Mourinho blues. Mourinho seems to have developed a pattern as a manager. First, “The Special One” takes over a team and wildly (and colorfully) tears things apart and makes huge promises. Second, the team fulfills those promises and wins a championship. Third, Mourinho leaves or the team falls apart or both. This was the inevitable third stage for Mourinho at Chelsea. He was gone before Christmas.

    Manchester United, the most successful of all Premier League teams, still have not figured out how to replace legendary manager Alex Ferguson. Manchester United might save the job of Louis van Gaal if they win the FA Cup, but then again, maybe not. If he goes, the Red Devils will have their third manager since Ferguson’s retirement.

    Liverpool, one of the England’s greatest teams, are going through what can delicately be called a transition period.

    Manchester City have been going through all sorts of weird and inexplicable management issues.

    And Arsenal, a team that is always near the top of the table and tends to win the Premier League in bizarre years like this one, just didn’t come together.

    It’s an almost supernatural series of calamities happening at once to England’s greatest teams.

    2. Luck

    Matt says there are numbers that suggest just how lucky Leicester City has been. “They are in the first percentile for shot conversion against, for instance,” he says. And the Foxes have not faced any significant injuries. But perhaps the best way to describe the luck is to point out the 1-0 victories. The Foxes have won 1-0 seven times, most in the league. More importantly, though, they won four consecutive matches 1-0 in late March and early April, when everyone expected the dream to die.

    This is not to say that winning 1-0 is pure luck, but it certainly requires SOME luck.

    “A Spurs-supporting friend,” Matt says, “has suggested to me that their goal is protected by a forcefield.”

    MORE: Vardy: Never felt anything like this | Andy King has seen it all | Emotional Ranieri thanks Chelsea

    3. Rest

    The big clubs play A LOT of matches. They play FA Cup. They play League Cup. They play in Europe. But Leicester City dropped out of the Cup tournaments very early, and they did not qualify to play in any international tournaments. So here, at the end of the season, they are still fresh enough to play the sort of ferocious defense that has marked this magical season.

    4. Underestimation

    Matt brings up a good point: Nobody could POSSIBLY have thought that Leicester City would win the Premier League. But the Foxes might not have quite-so-shocking a story if people had dug in a little bit and looked at the team more analytically. “If Baseball Prospectus or Football Outsiders existed for football,” he says, “then Leicester would’ve been the team they annually predict might surprise a few people and finish at .500.”

    In other words, the Foxes might have been a 1,000-to-1 shot or something like that rather than 5,000-to-1. It’s a subtle difference, but part of the amazement this year could come from the fact that few appreciated how last year ended for Leicester.

    And, of course, it’s likely that other teams underestimated Leicester City for a long, long time, though that might not be that big a factor. A month ago, everyone realized that Leicester City was a real threat to win the League. But the Foxes are still undefeated in their last ten matches with seven victories.

    5. Vardy

    More comparisons? Why not. Vardy’s out-of-nowhere brilliance might be like Kurt Warner coming out of indoor football to instantly become the NFL’s best quarterback. It might be like Jose Bautista, after six middling years for a bunch of different teams, suddenly hitting 54 home runs. It might be like Jeremy Lin coming out of Harvard undrafted and becoming something of a sensation.

    But it might be something different from all of them. The single most valuable athletic skill on planet earth is the ability to score goals. If you can score goals — and it doesn’t matter if you live in a Portuguese cluster of islands, in the largest city of Cameroon,  200 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, or in the suburbs of California — you will be found, and you will be paid obscene amounts of money, and you will be treated like an emperor.

    And here’s Vardy — overlooked, playing for low-level teams — when Leicester City finds him. He has scored 22 Premier League goals. He has emerged as one of the great goal scorers in the world.

    “I have no explanation for this,” Matt says.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    6. Analytics

    Matt says that Leicester City use analytics extensively when it comes to recruiting and signing players. And the signing of Vardy and Mahrez along with the superb central midfielder N’Golo Kante is staggering. Matt (that American sports fan coming out) compares it to the 1974 Steelers draft when the Steelers drafted Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

    But, yet again, it’s not really comparable. As amazing as that Steelers draft was, it was still a draft — meaning that once those players reached their slot, Pittsburgh could just take them. The signing of Vardy, Mahrez and Kante are staggering because any of the big clubs could easily have outbid Leicester for those players if they were interested.

    7. Ranieri

    He is, by all accounts, a decent man from Italy who has jumped all around the football world but had never won the big prize. He was coming off some rough times. He had been named coach of Greece’s national team, but he was sacked after just four matches, the last a humiliating defeat by the Faroe Islands.

    Ranieri is a character. He has been known to pretend to ring an alarm bell and shout “dilly ding, dilly dong” when his players drop their energy level during practice (this has inspired Leicester City supporters to sing “Dilly dong, dilly dong!” during matches). He has been known to be hard on players, and he has been known to be friendly and supportive. Everyone talks about how likeable he is.

    No one thought he could be the manager of the most surprising and wonderful team in the world.

    “It’s important to finish the story,” he said, “like an American movie.”

    OK, good idea, is there an American movie that can compare to this Leicester City story? Rocky lost the first fight. Rudy got to play but, you know, he didn’t score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl or anything. The Karate Kid … that was just the All-Valley Karate Championship.

    Well, wait, I just thought of one. Remember when Luke Skywalker fired that proton torpedo into the thermal exhaust port, blowing up the Death Star? What was it that Han Solo said to him after that?

    “Great shot kid!” Han Solo shouted. “That was one in a million.”

    Right. One in a million.

    Eh, actually, Luke had the force. Leicester City still wins.

    Pitch perfect

    It couldn’t happen now. The Orioles would never allow a player with a seven-year, $161 million contract to win an early-season game by pitching two innings. But, that was long before the pitcher won two home run titles and inspired the Crush Davis madness.

    On May 6, 2012, Chris Davis was a player with just seven home runs in his first few months with the Orioles, and someone who his manager turned to because he had no else to pitch.

    The Orioles had a great start to the 2012 season. They’d won 18 of their first 27 games, and had the best record in baseball. Fresh off a rare series win at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles were trying to do the same at Fenway Park.

    As that Sunday afternoon turned into evening, pitcher after pitcher came into the game. Tommy Hunter started, and couldn’t get through the fifth inning.

    After eight innings, the game was tied at 6, and the Orioles had already used five pitchers.

    As scoreless inning after scoreless inning ended, Buck Showalter began thinking. At what point would he run out of pitchers?

    Four relievers would work as long as Showalter would allow them, two innings each while his hitters couldn’t touch the Red Sox bullpen, either.

    “I knew exactly how many innings I could get out of my bullpen,” Showalter remembers.

    And when those innings were gone, he’d have to think about an alternative, an unthinkable one.

    A year before, the Orioles trailed by 12 runs after one inning at Yankee Stadium, but Showalter refused to use a position player to pitch merely to save his bullpen. That would make a mockery of the game, he said.

    Showalter himself was used as an emergency arm in the minor leagues, a left-handed knuckleballer, but he didn’t want to use a position player in a game that was already lost.

    But, to win a game, now that was something else.

    Showalter had a few alternatives. He had a third-string catcher, the rarely-used Luis Exposito, who surely had a good arm. He also had Nick Markakis, who pitched for Greece in the 2004 Olympic Games.

    He also had someone else, a left-hander with some real pitching experience. That was Davis.

    “You do your homework, first of all. There was a lot of talk of him being drafted as a pitcher coming out of high school, in JUCO,” Showalter knew.

    “I didn’t tell him until the last second. It’s not something you start talking about in the 12th inning. I knew in what inning I would need somebody else, and he was DHing that day, and I also knew I wouldn’t lose my DH.”

    Showalter looked down to Davis when Boston went out in the 15th. Jim Johnson had worked two more shutout innings, and the Orioles’ supply of relievers was exhausted.

    “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey Chris, come get your glove.’ I waited and waited, and he’s right there with me. I said, ‘you’re pitching next inning. Go warm up down there in the bullpen.’ He probably told you he didn’t have time to think about it,” Showalter said.

    Davis had another thought.

    “It was crazy. It was absolutely crazy,” Davis says now.

    Davis was having a horrible day as the Orioles’ designated hitter. He’d struck out his first five times at bat and grounded into a double play in his sixth. He’d end his day hitless in eight at-bats, but few remember.

    “Of course, I can pitch. I pitched my whole life. At that time of the day, I wasn’t exactly the greatest hitter so, maybe I’ll give them a shot off the mound,” Davis said.

    No one really knew him then. The previous July, he and Hunter came over from Texas for reliever Koji Uehara, a trade that would turn out to be one of the best in team history.

    “I was Mr. Irrelevant,” he jokes.

    Many of the names that played in that game are recognizable: J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters. Darren O’Day got two outs in the seventh.

    But, some of those names have long been forgotten by even the most avid of Orioles fans: Endy Chavez, Matt Lindstrom, Nick Johnson and Ronny Paulino.

    The second baseman that day was Robert Andino, tormentor of these same Red Sox the previous September, eliminating Boston from the playoffs and giving the Orioles hope that 14 straight losing seasons were about to end.

    Could this be about to change?

    “I don’t know if that was the start of the team being good. I think that happened maybe September of 2011 where we realized, ‘we can win, we’re good,’ and we kind of carried it in to 2012 and ever since,” Hardy said.

    But before Davis could pitch the bottom of the 16th, Boston manager Bobby Valentine tried to argue that a designated hitter couldn’t pitch. Showalter knew he was wrong, and a half-inning later, Valentine sent his own DH, Darnell McDonald to the mound.

    Showalter badly wanted to win the game, but as he put it:

    “You reach a point in a game where there are diminishing returns for a W, and that’s where we were, and I’m sure they felt the same way,” Showalter said.

    In retrospect, it seems so logical to put Davis in the game, but it was a tough call.

    “You always have to live to fight another day, so the number one thing is you can’t put anyone in harm’s way physically. One, he wasn’t in the field, and he doesn’t play a position that required his arm to feel perfect the next day. These things you think about for five hours. Constantly as a manager you have to think of ‘what if?’” Showalter said.

    “There’s a certain karma of a game, too. There’s an aura that certain games have. There’s nothing worse than facing a pitcher who’s a position player because if they hit a home run, well, they’re supposed to.”

    It was time for Davis to take the mound, and after getting the first two outs in the bottom of the 16th, Marlon Byrd reached on an error by third baseman Wilson Betemit.

    Mike Aviles hit a long drive to left-center. Jones fielded it off the wall and threw to Hardy.

    Third base coach Jerry Royster sent Byrd, but Hardy’s throw to Wieters caught him.

    “Jonesy fielding the ball off the wall, throwing a perfect strike to J.J. J.J turning and throwing a perfect strike to Wheaty. It was one of those baseball moments that you don’t get to see every day,” Davis said.

    Hardy had a great day offensively, too. Five hits, a pair of home runs and a game-saving relay.

    “It takes a good throw to get him out. Jonesy made a perfect throw to me. I think Wieters made a tough pick. I don’t think it was a great throw to the plate. It was kind of an in-between hop. There were a lot of things on that particular play that went right for us,” Hardy said.

    Jones deflects praise for the throw.

    “That’s fundamentals. I don’t need gloating for doing my fundamentals. That’s what I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to hit the cutoff man. I don’t need any praise for that,” Jones said.

    It was time for the 17th inning. It was McDonald’s turn to pitch.

    With one out, Hardy doubled, Markakis walked, and Jones hit a long home run down the left-field line.

    The Orioles led 9-6.

    Davis had a three-run lead as he continued to throw fastballs in the low 90s.

    Tiring, Davis gave up a single to Ryan Sweeney and walked Dustin Pedroia. He struck out Adrian Gonzalez, and McDonald came up as the tying run.

    McDonald hit into the game-ending double play.

    Jones, who likes to tweet #stayhungry had one thought: Food. The game had lasted over six hours, and it was time to eat.

    His greatest memory?

    “Taking my friend Darnell McDonald deep, then taking him out to dinner afterwards,” Jones said.

    Four years and two postseasons later, Showalter remembers every detail from that day.

    “It was a lot of fun. It was cold. It was the typical challenges you have in Fenway Park. Our guys just refused to lose. It was the epitome of a team winning a game,” he said.

    “It was kind of an accumulation of everything we talked about to be good. That game really exposed what we were capable of doing.”

    Showalter has won more than 350 games since then, but that one was special.

    “When you get through the game, and you’re almost laughing more than … that’s a form of being happy. The entertainment factor was so good,” Showalter says.

    “It was conventionally unconventional.”

    After his pitching day, Davis was interviewed countless times about it.

    “That’s the way I am. Anything I would do, I’d do as hard as I can. It’s funny because I never imagined pitching in the big leagues and I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that would have gone that way. I work hard on every area of my game. I think it’s one of those things where I was in the right situation at the right time.”

    More than 160 home runs later, Davis says people often talk about that day with him.

    “It comes up a lot. I think it was cool for the fans because it showed some selflessness, but it also showed some perseverance,” Davis said.

    When he re-signed in January, Showalter publicly promised never to pitch him again. That’s fine with Davis.

    “I’ll never pitch again. There’s no need to. You can’t do that again. You can’t duplicate that,” Davis said.

    “It’s probably one of the best memories I have in the game because of the uniqueness of it. I think from a health standpoint, it’s probably better that I probably don’t go out there and pitch again because I’ve never been that sore.”

    Hunger games

    Something changed in the NFL draft in 1998. Well, wait, before we get to that, let’s begin with a concept Bill James taught me, one I’ve come to call the “Top 10 Prospects” principle. If you follow baseball, you know that every team has its own list of prospects. Google “Phillies top 10 prospects” or “Tigers top 10 prospects” or “Padres top 10 prospects” and various lists will appear.

    That’s the principle: Every team has top 10 prospects.

    So that’s obvious, right? Well, yes, but what’s easy to miss is that these lists are independent from the overriding reality. Yes, every team has a top-10 prospects list because every team has a bunch of minor league players. But that doesn’t mean that the team ACTUALLY has 10 good prospects. They might have 20 good prospects. They might have 7. They might have none.

    The Washington Nationals’ No. 1 prospect is Lucas Giolito, a 6-foot-6 force of nature who throws an upper-90s fastball and backbreaking curveball. He’s just about major league ready, the scouts say, and a potential superstar.

    The Seattle Mariners’ top prospect is, well, maybe Alex Jackson, an extremely raw 20-year-old who is said to have extreme power potential but hit .157 with zero home runs in 28 games with Class-A Clinton last year.

    They’re both No. 1 prospects.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Now, it must be said: It’s possible that Alex Jackson will end up being a better player than Lucas Giolito. We can’t really know yet. But that’s not how you would bet. The point is that saying someone is the Mariners’ top prospect is not the same as saying that someone is the Nationals’ top prospect.

    With that in mind: Every single year there are top quarterback prospects available in the NFL draft. That’s obvious. There will always be star quarterbacks coming out of college. This year, it’s Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Last year it was Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. The year before that it was Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.

    Every year, every single year, there will be quarterback prospects.

    But are they REALLY prospects? And more to the point: Does anyone even know anymore?

    Something changed in the NFL draft in 1998. That was the year, you might recall, that Indianapolis was forced to make the tough decision between Tennesee’s Peyton Manning and Washington State’s Ryan Leaf. Though that choice seems comical now, it was quite a big deal back then. Leaf was a 6-foot-5 quarterback with a bazooka of an arm. I had an NFL coach tell me flat out that he would take Leaf because, as he said, “He’s got that look in his eyes!” The Colts believed — rightly, as it turns out — that with the first pick in the draft they were making a colossal decision that would shape the entire future of the organization. They decided not to use the “look in his eye” technique and they took Manning.

    As the guy said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: They chose wisely.

    And, it seems that there was a fundamental shift in the NFL thinking then. Before 1998, if you look back at the drafts, NFL teams drafted quarterbacks high ONLY when they believed those quarterbacks were good enough to be impact players. The teams weren’t always right. But they were much more discerning.

    In 1997, Jim Druckenmiller was the first quarterback taken — with the 26th overall pick. In 1996, no quarterback was taken in the first round. Sure, when a potential star quarterback came along — a Drew Bledsoe, a Troy Aikman, even a Jeff George — teams would grab him with the No. 1 overall pick. But when there were no particularly interesting quarterback prospects to choose from, teams would move on.

    There are numerous ways you can show this:

    1. Since 1998, there have been 49 quarterbacks drafted in the first round — almost three per draft.

    In the 28 drafts before that, there were only 47 quarterbacks drafted in the first round — less than two per round.

    2. Since 1998, there has been a quarterback taken in the first round EVERY YEAR.

    In the 28 drafts before that, there were five years where a quarterback was not taken.

    3. Since 1998, the average place for the top quarterback is the second overall pick. In 12 of those 18 drafts, a quarterback was the first overall selection.

    In the 28 drafts before that, the average place for the top quarterback was the 15th pick. In only eight of those 28 drafts was the quarterback the first pick.

    There are more teams drafting now than there were in those earlier drafts, of course, so that explains part of the difference. But mainly it seems that teams, knowing what franchise quarterbacks can mean for success, are going all-in on whatever quarterback class happens to be coming out. It turns out great the year that Cam Newton comes out. It’s not quite so good the year JaMarcus Russell comes out.

    And you wonder if teams can even tell the difference. Since 1998, the Cleveland Browns have taken four quarterbacks in the first round — Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and the lamentable Johnny Manziel. That hasn’t worked out great for them, which might be why they traded out of the No. 2 spot in the draft this year. Jacksonville has taken three pulls at the roulette wheel with Byron Leftwich, Blaine Gabbert and, most recently, Blake Bortles. Detroit has taken Matthew Stafford and Joe Harrington with No. 1 overall and No. 3 picks. Hey! Look! Quarterback! Take that guy!

    Just about every NFL mock draft now has quarterback Jared Goff going No. 1 overall to the Rams and quarterback Carson Wentz going No. 2 to the Eagles. I guess some think it could be Wentz first, then Goff. But that really leads to the same question.

    Are Goff and Wentz REALLY potential franchise quarterbacks?

    Maybe they are. I’m just saying it’s a pretty stunning coincidence that there happen to be two franchise-type quarterbacks in this year’s draft, and there were also two in last year’s draft, and there were three in the 2012 draft and four in the 2011 draft and so on. That seems like A LOT of potential franchise quarterbacks.

    Goff and Wentz were not considered the No. 1 and No. 2 prospects in the draft back at the beginning of the year. Most projections then had Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil as the first pick. Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves, UCLA’s Myles Jack — these were the top guys. Goff was viewed as a top-10 pick, but maybe closer to 10. There were mock drafts that did not have Wentz going in the first round.

    Now, they’re franchise-makers. Were their combines THAT good?

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Here is a “scout’s take” on Goff in Nolan Nawrocki’s always-entertaining draft preview:

    “Goff doesn’t feel pressure at all. He telegraphs his throws. … He is accurate. He can throw the deep ball. … I think he’s a solid quarterback. I don’t think he is Aaron Rodgers.”

    And here is Nawrocki’s take on Wentz:

    “Prototype-sized, smart, light footed, small school passer … is loaded with upside … is not yet ready for prime time and ideally will have some time to be groomed behind an established veteran.”

    That sounds reasonable. Both of them have talent. Both of them, in the right situation and with development, might turn out to be terrific. But you can’t help but wonder if the hunger of NFL teams to find that next franchise quarterback makes them lose all sense of perspective. They’ve become like Vegas gamblers who have started digging into their nest eggs.

    Since 1998, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck have all been No. 1 overall picks. But so have Joey Harrington, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, David Carr, JaMarcus Russell and the ever-drifting Sam Bradford and RGIII.

    Jared Goff, assuming he’s the first pick, will be expected to carry a new franchise in California.

    Carson Wentz, assuming he’s the second pick, will be jumping from North Dakota State to the firestorm that is Philadelphia Eagles football.

    Are they the sort of singular talents good enough and prepared enough to handle that sort of jump? Obviously teams have to come up with their own answers. But you wonder if teams are even asking the question. You wonder if they’re not just saying: Well, these are the top prospects. They must be good.

    Stick to what you know

    One of my dream jobs is to become a political sports consultant. It works pretty simply. Let’s say that Carly Fiorina decides during her Iowa caucus campaigning to send what she might later call a “tongue-in-cheek” tweet about how she loves her alma mater Stanford, but she’s “rooting for a Hawkeyes win today” in the Rose Bowl.

    I would tell her: Don’t do it. That’s all. If it is a joke, nobody will get the joke. And if it’s a pander, hey, that’s fine, but it’s a terrible pander. No real sports fan in Iowa would expect you to root against your alma mater in a bowl game.

    Or let’s say Ted Kennedy was planning to introduce the home run kings of 1998, and he planned to call them “Mike McGwire and Sammy Sooser.

    I would tell him: Don’t do that.

    I would tell President Barack Obama that even though he’s a Chicago Bulls fan and that’s all well and good, he should not be out there recruiting LeBron James. I would tell Martha Coakley when running for Senate in Massachusetts, you probably don’t want to call Curt Schilling “another Yankee fan.” I would tell President Richard Nixon that he might not want to name Texas as college football national champion. I would tell Hillary Clinton that, as a lifelong Cubs fan, putting on a Yankees hat and saying that you have always been a Yankees fan will not impress real Yankees fans or even fake ones. And on. And on. And on.

    Best I can tell, the consulting fees would never stop coming in.

    I bring this up now, obviously, because I sure as heck wish that presidential candidate Ted Cruz had come to me first. He was in the gym where they filmed much of the movie “Hoosiers,” and he was referring to the scene where coach Norman Dale has his players use a tape measure to show that the rim is the same height in Indianapolis as it was in little ol’ Hickory.

    “The amazing thing is,” Cruz said, “that basketball ring in Indiana, it’s the same height as it is in New York City and every other place in this country.”

    Basketball ring. He called it a basketball ring.

    “Fortunately,” the writer Anthony Castrovince tweets, “It was in Indiana. Not a big basketball state.”

    Great “Spinal Tap” reference. Anyway, I feel like one of those “superheroes” who helplessly watches a senseless calamity. I could have stopped him.

    It’s hard to know exactly where “basketball ring” falls in the list of awkward sports talk by politicians. At first glance, it seems like THE most awkward because, honestly, nobody on planet earth has ever referred to a “basketball ring” except when pointing out that Carmelo Anthony hasn’t won one. Put it this way: My 14-year-old daughter laughed, and she actively loathes sports.

    Unlike Bruce Springsteen’s “speedball” reference in “Glory Days” (which people still argue about*), “basketball ring” is universally understood to sound ludicrous. “Basketball ring” sounds like what the Steve Martin alien character Captain Smek from the movie “Home” might call it.

    *There are those who would defend the Boss’ use of “speedball” because the term does have some historical significance and it sounds kind of folksy, the way the Springsteen narrator was meant to sound. As one of the world’s biggest Bruce Springsteen fans I have to say: Nah. Come on, he blew it. The word is “fastball.” We can admit it, right? Also, Steve Miller, there’s no way that “Texas” and “facts is” rhyme and it sure as heck doesn’t rhyme with “taxes.”

    So you might say that “basketball ring” for sheer awkwardness and clumsiness is in a class all its own.

    Then you remember that President Obama, a White Sox fan ever since he moved to Chicago, couldn’t name one White Sox player, and seemed to call the old stadium Kaminsky Park.

    Then you remember that John Kerry called the Green Bay Packers’ legendary stadium “Lambert Field.” He did that in Milwaukee, so, yeah, that wasn’t good.

    Then you remember that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, when asked his favorite Chicago player, said “Ron Santos.”

    Then you remember that Texas governor Greg Abbott’s social team sent out a congratulations to the Houston Astros before their playoff game with the Kansas City Royals game was over. Of course, the Royals came back and won because, you know, comebacks are possible.

    All of it makes me wonder just how stupid I sound whenever I’m talking about something other than sports. I mean, sure, I sound plenty stupid talking sports, but at least I know that those basketplayers hurtle the orange-orb through a basketball hoop. Come on, everyone knows that.