The science guy

“Why trust instinct when there is science?”

– Homer Kelley, author of “The Golfing Machine.”

* * *

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The sports kids are all into science. It started in baseball, of course, because baseball is a wonderful little laboratory where just about everything that happens on the field is logged in. For a long while, baseball’s compulsive scorekeeping inspired nothing more than quirky statistics and great trivia questions. Then came Bill James and sabermetrics and computers, and then there were all these advanced statistics, and then there were more analytics, and before long Ivy League educated economists were running Major League Baseball teams.

This trend, of course, seeped into other sports, where the basketball kids began going on and on about player efficiency ratings and true shooting percentage, and the hockey kids began talking about Corsi and Fenwick and other advanced stats that made Don Cherry’s face red with rage. The kids, of course, are not always actual kids – some are older – but they think new, and the trend toward analytics keeps heading skyward. It got to the point this year where the Cleveland Browns hired baseball guy Paul DePodesta; he was the Jonah Hill character from “Moneyball.”

So, yes, it was inevitable that some kid would come along with science and blow up golf.

That kid might just be a Kangol-hat wearing 22-year-old named Bryson DeChambeau.

You have no doubt heard that DeChambeau plays with a set of equal-length clubs, something that sort of blows the minds of many people. Golf clubs are supposed to be different lengths, or anyway that’s what everyone has long believed.

DeChambeau plays with the same-length clubs because he wants to swing every club on the same plane, and he says this same-plane swing is a big reason why he emerged from a so-so college player into a superstar, just the fifth man to win the NCAA title and U.S. Amateur in the same year. The other four are Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore, so that bodes pretty well for his future.

You have no doubt heard that DeChambeau studied physics at SMU and likes to talk about the science of how putts break, the various effects, the velocity and drag and spin rates. He and Phil Mickelson were having such a discussion early in the week when their practice partner Dustin Johnson shouted out in despair, “If I hang around you guys much longer, I’ll never break 100.”

You have no doubt heard that DeChambeau names his clubs. He calls the 60-degree club “King” after Arnold Palmer, who won the Masters in 1960. He called the 42-degree club “Jackie” after the great Jackie Robinson, who wore No. 42. He calls his 3-iron “Gamma,” which is the third letter of the Greek alphabet. And so on.

You have no doubt heard that when DeChambeau was 13 years old, his coach Mike Schy gave him a book, mentioned at the top of this column, called “The Golfing Machine.” That book was written by a quirky character named Homer Kelley, a not especially good player who dedicated his entire life to breaking down the golf swing to its very core. Kelley believed that just about everything that people taught about the golf swing was wrong and, worse, oversimplified.

“Treating a complex subject or action as though it were simple,” he wrote, “multiplies its complexity because of the difficulty in systematizing missing and unknown factors or elements. Demanding that golf instruction be kept simple does not make it simple – only incomplete and ineffective.”

With that in mind, Kelley broke the swing down to 24 components with 144 variations. He called it simple geometry and physics. For DeChambeau, it was like opening up a new world.

You have no doubt heard all of this stuff and formed an opinion about Bryson DeChambeau. That opinion might be: “Hey, this guy is revolutionizing golf by bringing science in and looking at the game in a whole different way. Good for him!”

Or your opinion might be: “Hey, who does this guy think he is, Galileo? He’s going to learn pretty quickly that it takes more than physics to win golf tournaments.”

Then again, you might just want to wait and see. Friday at the Masters, DeChambeau shot just about the wildest even-par round you will ever see. The conditions – gusting winds, fast greens, tough pin placements – made it pretty miserable for the players. It was the first time in almost a decade that not even a single player broke 70. Heck, Jordan Spieth shot his first over-par round ever at Augusta.

And in that environment, DeChambeau seemed to be playing a different course.

He made six birdies on the day, one of those a remarkable birdie at the all-but-impossible 11th hole. He pulled his second shot a bit too much to the left, but it ended up perfect. “Twelve feet from the hole,” he said. Then he corrected himself: “No, it was 8 feet from the hole. And I played 14-inches of break.”

Yes. Eight feet. Fourteen inches of break.

“It is soon apparent,” Kelley wrote in “The Golfing Machine,” “that the body can duplicate a machine.”

DeChambeau came to the 18th hole 3 under par for the day, and he was in second place, one shot behind Spieth. He then pulled a drive into a holly bush, couldn’t play it, went back to the tee and pulled another drive. This one rolled up to a concession stand, and he got to drop the ball some 40 yards away. He then hit it short of the green, failed to get it up and down and ended up with a triple-bogey 7. The science didn’t seem all that great on that hole.

“Everybody is going to go back to 18 and say, ‘Oh, he was nervous,’” DeChambeau says. “No. I hit two pulled drives. … (The driver) was only two degrees closed. That’s what does it.”

In sports – and other arenas too – there tends to be a growing divide between old school and new, between analytics and gut, between numbers and emotions. DeChambeau looks like he will bring that clash to golf, which could be fun. He has ideas. He is not shy about sharing them. He is not shy about his ambitions either.

“I mean, it’s as much for me about playing golf as it is growing the game,” he says. “If I can do that, that’s ultimately what I want to try and do, just like Arnold Palmer did and Jack Nicklaus.”

Bold stuff for a kid who is still an amateur and just played his second round at the Masters. But DeChambeau doesn’t mind being bold. Someone asked him what he learned playing with defending Masters champion and current leader Jordan Spieth the last couple of days. He talked about how amazing Spieth is at hitting his wedge shots. DeChambeau would like to hit his wedge shots like that.

“I’m definitely not there,” he says. “I hope to be soon. And if that part of my game comes along, it will be a fun, fun journey.”

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    Unrivaled

    AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tennis and boxing and professional wrestling and presidential politics are set up for great rivalries. Golf is not. It’s the nature of the sport.

    See, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer play all the time. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders go at it every day. You can always match up two great boxers. But in golf, so many things have to come together for two greats to climb to the top of a major championship leaderboard at the same time.

    And then, even when it actually does happen, both have to play well to make it interesting. They have to feed off each other, push each other, inspire each other, intimidate each other. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the greatest players of the last generation. And yet, they were never really rivals. They never had that major championship moment.

    Saturday, we hoped to see the emergence of a true rivalry – golf’s first since Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson – when Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy teed off in the final group of the Masters third round. It seemed perfect. Rivalries are made by contrasting styles, right? Well, here was Spieth, the thinking man, the scrambler, the genius with a wedge, the brilliant putter. And here was McIlroy, majestic, Superman, hitting some of the longest drives and some of the highest shots on earth.

    Spieth won the Masters wire to wire last year, then won the U.S. Open, then almost won the Open Championship and the PGA.

    McIlroy won a U.S. Open with the lowest score in the tournament’s history, and he won a PGA Championship by a record eight shots.

    We all thought this was the beginning of a beautiful rivalry.

    No. Maybe the rivalry will emerge someday, but that day was not Saturday. On Saturday, McIlroy shot a listless 77 and did not make even one birdie. Not one. It was the first time in 81 major championship rounds that he failed to make even a single birdie. Spieth had his own troubles late in the third round, which we will get into in a little bit. But the fight was long over by then. It was McIlroy who singlehandedly killed the rivalry spirit that buzzed around Augusta.

    McIlroy seems to have a bit of a Masters problem. Everyone knows by now that he needs only a victory at Augusta to complete the career Grand Slam. McIlroy knows it better than anyone, and he does not seem to know exactly how to go about it. He has always prepared intently for the Masters – coming early, playing as many rounds here as he could, studying every yard of this course – but that apparently wasn’t working, so this year he decided to go the other way.

    “I’m trying not to look too much into it,” he said at the beginning of the week. “I’m trying not to hit so many shots off tees into greens, around the greens. I’m just trying to approach it in a more relaxed way.”

    Does that make sense to you? There were others – including Phil Mickelson – who seemed puzzled by this laissez-faire approach. But hey, sure enough, there was McIlroy on Saturday, one shot out of the lead, playing in the final group with Spieth. So maybe the relax plan was working. There certainly was a lot of excitement about McIlroy and Spieth playing together on the weekend for the first time. Asked about it, Spieth was typically honest.

    “It’s exciting to play with Rory,” he said. “It’s even a little bit intimidating, he’s such a great player who can just overpower a golf course.”

    And what did McIlroy say coming in?

    “I don’t really look at the names on the left of the leaderboard. I’m looking at the number that’s on the very far right just to see how many shots I’m back. Doesn’t make a difference to me who it is up there.”

    OK, maybe you believe the whole notion that McIlroy wanted to relax for the Masters this year. But you CANNOT believe this bit of nonsense. There is absolutely no way that Rory McIlroy does not look at the names of players he’s trying to beat. There’s no chance of it. And the reason we KNOW there’s no chance of it is because, right, McIlroy himself said the opposite.

    “What Jordan did here last year, the U.S. Open and the whole way through the summer and what Jason Day did during the summer and this year, as well ‑ yeah, I don’t want to be left behind,” he said. “I want to be a part of that conversation. … [Jordan] is a phenomenal talent, and you know, it’s my job and Jason’s job and everyone else’s job to try to stop him from dominating.”

    Of course he knows. But it makes you wonder: Who was he trying to convince when he said “Doesn’t make a difference to me who is up there?” The answer seems clear: He was trying to convince himself.

    This speaks, I think, to McIlroy’s bewilderment at Augusta. He seems to be playing mind games with himself to get ready. And, of course, those mind games will break at the first sign of Augusta pressure. McIlroy looked unsettled and uncertain more or less from the first hole on Saturday. He hit drives into bunkers, he made a dreadful decision at No. 11 to hit the ball out of the pine straw toward the green (the ball rolled into the water because the ball ALWAYS rolls into the water on shots like that), he putted without confidence, he looked like he needed a friend.

    “I was playing tentative,” he admitted after the round. “I didn’t think anything was off, it was just … I was always trying to get something going, and I just couldn’t.”

    By the 17th tee, Spieth had turned his one-shot lead over McIlroy into an eight-shot lead, and McIlroy looked like he had been through a losing fight. The last two holes changed the dynamic some, but even so, McIlroy knows the score here. “It is his to lose,” McIlroy said. “He’s been in control of this tournament from the first day.” Then he did brighten a little. “I am feeling a little better standing here five behind than I felt on the 17th,” he said.

    Yes, now to Spieth and that stunning finish. He was fantastic for 16 holes. Oh, he had his problems too. He hit the ball all over the place early in the round. He made his own a dreadful double bogey at the 11th after a perfect drive. But he pushed through. He broke McIlroy’s spirit by scrambling out of trouble, by making impossible-looking putts. He won this rivalry day by TKO on the 12th hole, when he sank a 17-foot putt for birdie and then watched McIlroy miss his own significantly shorter birdie putt. At the 17th tee, Spieth had that eight-shot lead over McIlroy and a four-shot lead over everyone else. This tournament seemed all but over.

    And then, just say it, Spieth went haywire. He hit driver on the 17th though a 3-wood was the prudent play – Spieth never makes mistakes like that – and he drove the ball way right. Spieth then hit a nice punch shot that rolled to the front of the green but, for some reason, completely flubbed his approach shot and left it 20 feet shot. He made bogey.

    On the 18th, it was worse. He hit another drive way right. Another layup shot. He chunked a brutal approach that stopped 50 feet short of the hole. And his first putt was stunningly limp and stopped nine feet short. That was a double bogey.

    With that his score plummeted from 6 under to just 3 under par. He’s still in the lead but only by one shot over Smylie Kaufman, who sounds like someone who would win the Masters in a “Minions” movie, and by two over 58-year-old Bernhard Langer and Japanese superstar Hideki Matsuyama. Even more to the point, Spieth seemed to have buried the ever dangerous Jason Day and Dustin Johnson and Danny Willett. Now they are all just three shots back and very much in the game.

    Spieth beat himself up relentlessly for his two-hole carelessness.

    “It’s very difficult,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult. As I look at the leaderboard now, if I can just make three pars to finish … even just saying that, I can’t think that way. But that certainly brings anyone who is over par almost out of the tournament. And now, with very little wind tomorrow, someone gets on a run …”

    He went on this self-loathing bit for a while. Spieth was absolutely seething at himself for the finish. He tried to keep reminding himself that, hey, he’s in the lead – seventh consecutive round he’s led at Augusta, by the way, a record – and that was his goal. If someone had guaranteed him a one-shot lead going into Sunday, he would have taken it and not even played the last three days. But, of course, it’s not that simple. I asked Spieth how easy it will be for him to let go of the last two holes and get himself into a winning frame of mind Sunday.

    “I think it will be tough, personally,” he said. “I mean, honestly, I think it will be tough to put it behind me. I think I will, but that wasn’t a fun last couple of holes to play from the position I was in. I’m not going to dodge the question by any means. It’s not going to be fun tonight for a little while. Hopefully I just sleep it off, and it’s fine tomorrow. I imagine that will be the case.”

    This, to me, is part of what separates Spieth. He does not hide from the pressure. He does not try to pretend it away. He does not act as if playing with Rory McIlroy is no big deal, he does not run from the overwhelming expectations that now surround him, and he does not cover up his feelings. Spieth sees things clearly. He’s got a one-shot lead going into the final round of the Masters, and the weather is supposed to be calm, some of the players with a lot of firepower – including McIlroy – could string a bunch of birdies together and take the green jacket away from him if he doesn’t play lights out himself.

    But, knowing how Spieth’s mind works, I imagine he’s right. I imagine it will be fine for him on Sunday.

    Visit to the park

    AUGUSTA, Ga. – My friend Buck O’Neil, the great player, manager and spokesman of the Negro Leagues, would always ask strangers a question to break the ice: “What was the first baseball game you ever attended?” It was a fantastic question, and it always inspired huge smiles and great stories. See, almost everyone remembers something about their first baseball game. But it’s usually just that: You remember something.

    I remember three things from my first baseball game:

    1. Gaylord Perry started the game.

    2. Don Hood picked off somebody.

    3. Oscar Gamble hit a home run.

    I have had a very hard time locating that game … as it turns out, this is because it was two games. I should have guessed. My dad, being, uh, let’s go with “frugal,” believed strongly in the doubleheader. It was two games for the price of one. Why would you EVER go to just a single game?

    Quickly (because you don’t care about my first game), Gaylord Perry started the first game of a May 4 doubleheader at Cleveland Municipal Stadium and got utterly lit up in an 11-1 loss to Baltimore. That tracks both with my memory and my history as a sports fan – OF COURSE my team lost 11-1 in the first game I ever saw. Don Hood did pick off Ken Singleton in the second game and Oscar Gamble homered as Cleveland won 4-3.

    The point is that my first game did not MATTER except to me. I suspect none of the PLAYERS who were in that game remember it. There was nothing great about it. That’s how it almost always goes. I just asked Paul Arnett, sports editor of the Honolulu paper, if he remembered his first game – he remembered that it was 1964, he was 9 years old, and that his hero, Mickey Mantle, went 0-for-5.

    This is fun: I just asked legendary sportswriter Dave Kindred if he remembered his first baseball game – he told a story of going to Sportsman’s Park in 1951. Then I asked Associated Press columnist Jim Litke, and he remembered going to Wrigley Field when he was 9, and it was all but empty and all he really remembers was one of his friends yelling at Cubs middle infielder Jimmy Stewart, “You play like a girl.” Nine-year-olds were just as witty in 1964 as they are now.

    And so on. Nobody’s first game ever MEANS anything.

    Then there’s Jack Nicklaus’ first baseball game.

    Nicklaus was talking about his first baseball game Thursday morning just after he and Gary Player ceremoniously teed off the Masters while Arnold Palmer watched. The ceremonial tee shot is one of the cooler things in sports. It’s nostalgic for those of us old enough to have watched those guys play, but it’s also very cool for kids who have only heard stories about Nicklaus. Someone asked Nicklaus if he could relate to the feelings of those kids who watch him hit.

    “Oh sure, absolutely, of course you do,” Nicklaus said. And then he told the story of his first game. In many ways, Jack Nicklaus’ first baseball game tells you everything you need to know about his golfing life.

    Nicklaus grew up in Columbus, Ohio, of course, but he was visiting cousins in New York when they decided to go to Yankee Stadium for a ballgame. It was July 22, 1948, a Thursday night and Cleveland was in town.

    Something crazy happened between the Yankees and Cleveland in 1948 – the two teams played 17 dates (including five doubleheaders) and drew almost 900,000 fans, an average of more than 52,500 per game. This was at a time when average attendance across baseball (not counting Cleveland and New York) was less than 15,000 per game. Those Yankees-Indians games were the biggest thing in American sports in 1948, and an 8-year-old Nicklaus got to go to one of those games.

    But he did not go to just ANY of those Cleveland-New York games. Young Jack Nicklaus went to an all-time classic. Hall of Famer Bob Feller started for Cleveland and the Indians had three Hall of Famers in their lineup – Joe Gordon, Lou Boudreau and Larry Doby. The Yankees also had three future Hall of Famers in their lineup – Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio.

    Cleveland took a 2-0 lead, but Feller gave it back when he allowed a two-run homer to a fantastic player named Tommy Heinrich. Cleveland took a 3-2 lead into fifth when Feller gave up a leadoff single to Snuffy Stirnweiss and back-to-back walks to Heinrich and King Kong Keller. That loaded the bases for DiMaggio, who mashed a grand slam. Feller, the newspapers reported, was roundly booed.

    And as if that’s not enough – Bob Feller pitching, Joe DiMaggio slam, Yogi Berra behind the plate – the greatest thing of all happened next. Satchel Paige came into the game for Cleveland. He had been signed just two weeks earlier after becoming a legend in the Negro Leagues. He pitched two scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out Joe DiMaggio. The Yankees held on to win 6-5.

    It’s hard to imagine a more iconic regular season game in baseball history.

    So, OF COURSE that was Jack Nicklaus’ first baseball game. Because that’s Nicklaus. His greatness as a golfer is not easily defined. Yes, in his prime, he hit the ball higher and farther than anybody else. Yes, he was a spectacular clutch putter who never seemed to miss the important ones. Yes, Nicklaus was the smartest golfer, the one who never seemed to make a strategic mistake.

    But there was also something charmed about Nicklaus, something the legendary writer Dan Jenkins put like so: “You can’t compare Jack with anyone else. It was almost as if he felt it was his birthright to win major championships.” Nicklaus so deeply believed in his destiny … and why not? Look: In his first game, he saw Joe DiMaggio hit a grand slam off Bob Feller in his very first baseball game, then saw Satchel Paige strike out DiMaggio in the same game.

    First game. After that, how can you not believe that you are meant for something great?

    Putt-putt

    AUGUSTA, Ga. – At the end, Ben Hogan would just stand over the golf ball, frozen, unwilling or unable to even bring the putter back. “Putting,” he said, “is just like 18 trips to the blood bank in a day to me. Don’t you think I’m embarrassed? Don’t you think it’s embarrassing to hear all those people say, ‘Why don’t he just hit the damn thing?’”

    At the end, Tommy Armour so feared the short putts – he once missed 21 putts of 3 feet or less in the same tournament – that he came up with a name for his disease: The yips. “I reached the point,” he told sportswriter Grantland Rice, “where I dreaded to walk on the green, and the putter looked like a fer-de-lance (a venomous pit viper).”

    At the end, Sam Snead – who old-timers will tell you had the most beautiful swing in history – was so overwhelmed by his inability to putt the ball in the hole that he began putting croquet style, straddling over the ball, reaching down with his right hand to the bottom of the club and hitting the ball forward. “Here,” Snead once said as he held a putter in the air, “is my personal strait jacket. Me puttin’ is like watching a monkey sitting on a football.”

    Why do these tiny little shots, ones children love hitting even around windmills and through clowns’ mouths, bring down the greatest players of the sport? It’s one of the great mysteries of the game. The only thing that isn’t mysterious at all is how painful it is to watch great players suffer.

    Thursday, we watched four-time major champion Ernie Els suffer like no great golfer ever had.

    “You have snakes and stuff going up in your brain,” Els said sadly as he tried to piece together the calamity that had just happened. “You know. It’s difficult.”

    First hole Thursday, and Ernie Els felt pretty good. He was hitting the ball pretty well. His putting problems the last few years – and particularly the last six months – are well known, but he had been working with a coach on it and felt like it was going reasonably well. “I felt the same way I normally feel in a major,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of these things.”

    First hole Thursday, and Els hit a wayward second shot and pitched up to 2 feet. It seemed a certain par and a solid enough start on a windy afternoon in Augusta. Els stood over the putt, brushed it, and hit it about 2 inches left of the hole. It rolled to 3 feet away. That’s putt No. 1.

    “I couldn’t get the putter back,” Els would say. “I’ve made thousands of 3-footers, and I just stood there, and I couldn’t take it back.”

    Els quickly walked around the hole to his ball and, without thinking, stood over the ball to knock it in for a frustrating bogey. Once again, he pulled the ball about 2 inches left of the hole. It rolled to 3 feet away. That’s putt No. 2.

    “What holds you from doing your normal thing?” Els asks. “I don’t know what it is. I can go to the putting green right now and make 20 straight 3-footers.”

    Els raced around the hole again and, again, didn’t stop before he putted the ball. He just wanted the darned thing to go in. He just wanted to get off the green and live with his embarrassment. You know that thing kids do at a Putt-Putt course? They will hit the ball back and forth, and then finally they will just pick up the ball and put it right next to the hole before knocking it in. Els had to be thinking about that. He hit the putt and, yes, knocked it 2 inches to the left of the hole. That’s putt No. 3.

    What else in sports can compare to this? People often talk about Willie Mays falling down in the outfield. They talk about John Unitas getting sacked and beat up and barely being able to throw downfield. They talk about Kobe Bryant missing jumper after jumper. But those aren’t the same. Those are things that mere mortals like us can’t do even on our best day. Here was Ernie Els, one of the greatest golfers ever, already a World Golf Hall of Famer, and he was missing 2-foot putts badly. “We’ve all been there,” he said, but truth is even the hackers kind of shook their heads. Even they hadn’t been THERE.

    For the fourth putt, Els backed off to gather himself. It was a wise move. Other people have four-putted at Augusta. This wasn’t yet a singular moment. The most famous of those four-putts was the great Seve Ballesteros who, when asked to recap it said simply: “I miss. I miss. I miss. I make.” Els looked at the short putt for a couple of seconds, then stepped to the ball, set his putter, got his balance and pushed the putt 2 inches to the right of the cup. That’s putt No. 4.

    None of the four putts, you will note, even GRAZED the hole.

    “There’s a short up there somewhere,” Els said of his own brain. “And you just can’t do what you normally do. It’s unexplainable. You know, a lot of people have stopped playing the game, you know, getting that feeling.”

    At this point, Els was so frustrated – and the ball was so close to the hole – that he just reached out the putter with one arm and chipped at the ball. For the first time, the ball actually hit the hole, and then it spun out. That’s putt No. 5.

    The last putt, the one that finally went in, was a little backhanded motion, the sort of frustrated “I give up” motion that golfers do when their brains have tilted. That’s putt No. 6. There were those on the Internet who thought that Els actually raked the last putt in, which would be an illegal stroke, but 1) I don’t think it was a rake and 2) Who would be cruel enough to call that on Els after he had to endure that six-putt hailstorm.

    Anyway, at first people called it a seven-putt – as if a six-putt is not bad enough. It’s still unclear why that happened; the video clearly shows him making six putts. The rumor was that there was some phantom putt that did not make it onto video. “Someone counted it properly,” Els said glumly.

    At least that.

    “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that,” his playing competitor Jason Day said. “I feel for Ernie … I just want Ernie to get back to what he used to do.”

    Yes, we all want that. Ernie Els does not deserve this fate. Nobody does, of course, but Els in particular has been a great player and a credit to the game, and he should have the long sunset that comes with such a career. But as simple as it seems to get over the yips, few do. Maybe nobody does. Someone once asked Hogan how to get over those haunting putting issues. His response: Stop playing golf.

    “What do you do?” someone asked Els.

    “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe a brain transplant. You tell me.”

    Competitive imbalance

    The 2016 American League preview can be found here.

    Admission: Every time I hear people seriously talking again about adding the designated hitter to the National League, I can’t help but think: “Is this still a thing?” Here’s the reason: I know a lot of people who love National League teams, and I can’t think of one who wants to add the DH. Not one.

    At the same time, I know a lot of American League fans — many more because I have lived most of my life in American League cities — and while I think most of them are perfectly content with the designated hitter, there are actually a few purists among them who wish that the AL would drop the DH.

    In other words: I have no idea where the momentum for adding the DH even begins. Is there an underground movement of DH-loving National League fans that I just don’t know about?

    As I wrote in my AL version of the previews, the DH is the last wall between the two leagues. If the NL did add the designated hitter, then there is no persuasive reason I can see to keep them as two leagues. Maybe it would be a good thing for baseball, which has become such a regional sport, to go to an Eastern and Western Conference, like in the NBA. I know there are a lot of people around the game who believe that.

    Maybe. But best I can tell, National League fans, in general, believe the non-DH version of the game is “purer” and creates a nicer rhythm to the games. American League fans, in general, believe that watching the pitcher hit is boring and prefer watching, say, David Ortiz. I don’t see much energy in the efforts to change that.

    * * *

    I used to write an annual column in Kansas City called “Why the Royals will win.” It was never right, but I wrote it because every team’s fans deserve hope on Opening Day. This is an extension of that column — I write why every team will win in 2015. I will admit up front: This was a much harder challenge in the NL. Speaking realistically: There or five or six teams in the NL that have a chance to lose 100 games.

    * * *

    National League East

    Favorite: Mets seems to be the favorite of most.

    Contenders: Nationals. 

    1. The Mets will win because …

    … rotation, rotation, rotation.

    By the end of 2015, the Mets had turned into a pretty good offensive team. It didn’t look that way early, but then Lucas Duda got hot (mashing 15 homers in the last 41 games) and Wilmer Flores emerged (hitting .300 with some power the last couple of months) and the Mets acquired Yoenis Cespedes, who was so good he actually got MVP votes for two months’ work. David Wright also returned from injury and seemed to be finding a bit of his old form.

    All those guys are back along with middle infield additions of Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera — this team will score enough runs.

    Then again, this team won’t need many runs, not with that now familiar power-arm rotation of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz (with the mega-talented Zack Wheeler coming off Tommy John surgery). While several American League teams are following the Kansas City Royals strategy of backloading their best pitchers for the late innings, the Mets go old school, proving that having the better starting pitcher out there night after night is a pretty good strategy for winning a pennant.

    All of those pitchers are young enough that they should be better this year. Scary stuff — of course the Mets will win.

    2. The Nationals will win because …

    … this year they will stay healthy and together.

    The Nationals were overwhelming favorites coming into the 2015 season. I have a friend who is a huge Nationals fan, and he had his office do a poll predicting how many games Washington would win. The most pessimistic choice was 90 wins. That was if EVERYTHING went wrong.

    Well, as former Royals manager Buddy Bell once said during a bad spell, “I never say it can’t get worse.” The Nationals were a sitcom of blunders, injuries and a wide variety of choking. They wasted one of the great offensive seasons of the last decade by Bryce Harper. They wasted the superb pitching (for the most part) of Max Scherzer. They were already under-performing when they made the disastrous trade for Jonathan Papelbon, which led to the all-too-predictable collapse from within.

    But all that can distract us from something that is easy to miss: This Nationals team STILL is loaded with talent. Harper is only 23 years old; he might be even better in 2016 if that’s possible. Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg all missed a huge chunk of the season with injuries. They’re all healthy now.

    Also, Daniel Murphy. They got Daniel Murphy. Remember how he turned into Babe Ruth last October?

    Last year, the Nationals’ manager was Matt Williams, and he looked on edge more or less every minute of every game. Now, the manager is Dusty “I’m too old to worry” Baker. With a looser clubhouse and fewer injuries, the Nationals will be unstoppable.

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    3. The Marlins will win because …

    … every decade, at some point, they just do.

    I don’t normally give out fantasy advice because I am terrible at such games and don’t know very much — but Wei-Yin Chen might be the sleeper you are looking for. Chen was a four-WAR pitcher last year in Baltimore. That was in the hard-hitting American League East while pitching half his games in hitter-friendly Camden Yards. Put him in Miami, with a happier ballpark for pitchers, with few designated hitters to worry about, I think he’s up for a big year.

    And in doing that, he leads a rotation that will be really good. Jose Fernandez will be limited coming off injury, but when he pitches, he dominates. Young Adam Conley wowed them in spring training. And so on.

    And then you look at the offense — this is the year that Giancarlo Stanton hits 50 homers (don’t tell me about his wrist injury), and young Christian Yelich hit .300 last year and Dee Gordon will be a force again. And the Marlins win the World Series and then, quickly, tear the team apart and start over. It’s just what the Marlins do.

    4. The Philadelphia Phillies will win because …

    … miracles happen.

    They do happen. Look around you. Trees are a miracle, am I right? The flowers. Miracles happen every day you know, and I’m totally not fooling you with this bit, am I? You know that I’m rolling snake eyes in my effort to come up with a Phillies winning season.

    The Phillies really do have some promising young pitching, led by Vincent Velasquez, who has one of the best young arms in the game, and Jerad Eickhoff, who has good breaking stuff and has made huge leaps forward. The Phillies really do have one of the best prospects in the game in shortstop J.P. Crawford, who some compare to former Phillies great Jimmy Rollins but others say matches up well with Cleveland’s superb young star Francisco Lindor. Philadelphia will take either version.

    There is some progress forward but, look, it will take a while to dig out from the extraordinary mess that was left behind after the Phillies tried to extend their late 2000s dominance for too long. They still owe Ryan Howard $35 million, sort of a parting gift from the past. But at least, they are digging their way out.

    And, in all seriousness, miracles do happen. If there’s one thing we have seen in baseball the last few years, it is that young teams can develop more quickly than expected. So that’s the hope for 2016 and beyond in Philadelphia.

    5. The Atlanta Braves will win because …

    … those guys in the movie “Major League” won.

    The Braves are not trying to win. They are in fact trying, quite hard, to lose and lose and lose and then build a new, super team out of the ashes. That shining team of the future will play in a sparkly new ballpark in the suburbs with microbrews raised and local superstar Dansby Swanson at short. It will be so much fun.

    This team meanwhile is built to be very bad, with poor Freddie Freeman playing the role of cheery veteran who keeps things positive (well, not so poor — he did sign an eight-year, $135 million deal).

    And as mentioned, this strategy did work in “Major League” and if A.J. Pierzynski can be the Tom Berenger old catcher with one more year in him, if Ender Inciarte can be Willie Mays Hayes, if Hector Olivera can hit the fastball good like Pedro Cerrano … well, we’ve seen that work before.

    * * *

    Naitonal League Central

    Favorites: Cubs. Wait, the Cubs?

    Contenders: Cardinals and Pirates.

    1. The Chicago Cubs will win because …

    … this is the year. Really, no, come back here. This is the year. It is. Stop laughing. This is the year.

    Even Cubs fans don’t want anymore hype on this team. They are loaded. This is the year.

    2. The St. Louis Cardinals will win because …

    … they’re the St. Louis Cardinals and they always win.

    I happen to be friends with numerous Cardinals fans and the word I would use for them this off-season is “bemused.” That’s such a good word. It means “bewildered or puzzled” but there’s a touch of amusement in the confusion. Cardinals fans have had such a good time watching Chicago Cubs fans try to kick the football Charlie Brown style. I have one friend who keeps a long list of her favorite Cubs fiascos.

    Now, though, it seems to me Cardinals fans are both:

    A. Aware that these Cubs are super-talented and are worried that they will actually win a World Series.

    B. Fairly certain that this attempt to kick the football will end up comically like all the other ones.

    The Cardinals Way — if I might use that controversial term — is so overpowering that even when the Cardinals lose Jason Heyward and John Lackey to free agency and even when star pitcher Lance Lynn has to have Tommy John surgery, they somehow still put a near flawless team on the field. The Cardinals have that fantastic blend of old and new — with Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter representing the old, and Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Kolten Wong representing the new.

    Lynn’s injury is trumped by the return of Adam Wainwright. Lackey’s role will be played by Mike Leake, a sound and underrated pitcher. The bullpen continues to throw very fast fastballs. The Cubs owned the offseason but as Cubs general manager Theo Epstein himself has said many times, nobody wins anything in December. The season begins. And baseball seasons belong to the St. Louis Cardinals.

    More: Posnanski on Cubs’ sky-high hopes | Ian Desmond pays in flawed system | Let Bryce Harper live

    3. The Pittsburgh Pirates will win because …

    … we are family.

    If you have been only semi-paying attention to baseball, you might not know that the Pirates have made the playoffs each of the last three years and had a significantly better record last year (98-64) than the San Francisco Giants did in any of their three World Series championship years.

    The Pirates’ secret is this: They’re better than you think. Everybody knows by now about the awesomeness of center fielder Andrew McCutchen but it was easy to miss that, by wins above replacement, Starling Marte was even better last year. Everybody knows by now that young Gerrit Cole is turning into one of the league’s best pitchers, so it’s easy to miss that veteran Francisco Liriano is pretty amazing himself.

    Third baseman Jung Ho Kang came from South Korea and was an impactful third baseman as a rookie last year. Gregory Polanco is 24 years old and, in his brief time in the big leagues, he has flashed power and speed. Mark Melancon is a much-traveled pitcher without a huge fastball, but that didn’t prevent him from leading the league with 51 saves last year.

    And there are some big arms like Tyler Glasnow on the way.

    In Pittsburgh, I sense, nobody really wants the rest of America to figure out that the Pirates are actually a fantastic team.

    4. The Cincinnati Reds will win because …

    … it’s the 40th anniversary of the Big Red Machine’s greatest triumph.

    In 1976, the Cincnnati Reds led the National League in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The Reds led the league in doubles, triples, home runs, stolen bases and walks. It was perhaps the most versatile offensive team ever. The Reds scored 87 more runs than any other team in the league and, after stomping to a 10-game victory in their division, they swept the Pirates in the playoffs, then swept the Yankees in the World Series.

    I’m doing that stalling thing again, aren’t I?

    The Reds will win this year because their veterans — Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and so on — will all have big years and young pitchers like former Royals John Lamb and Brandon Finnegan will develop quickly and the whole team will be inspired by all the 40th-anniversary celebrations. That’s the best I have.

    A quick word about Joey Votto: The Reds still owe him $192 million on a contract that will go out well into the second term of President Trump, and that will undoubtdly be an albatross around some team’s neck, presumably the Reds. But for now, Votto will remind us every now and again just how awesome he really is. In the second half last year, Votto hit .363, slugged .617 and, most remarkably, had a .535 on-base percentage.

    Those are bulked-up Barry Bonds numbers.

    5. The Milwaukee Brewers will win because …

    … it will serve them right for trying so hard NOT to win.

    The Brewers hired former Astros assistant general manager David Stearns presumably to help them do what the Astros did: Lose a lot of games and then lose a lot more games and then lose even more games after that … and then be really good.

    It’s a cynical formula, but hey, winning is a cynical business. The Brewers still owe more than $100 million to the already-fading Ryan Braun, so that’s one thing they will have to deal with. They need to stall for time while some of their prospects, led by superb shortstop Orlando Arcia, develop and become established big league players. And they need to add a lot more talent to the system.

    And this year is a stopgap — they got veterans like Aaron Hill and Chris Carter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Chase Anderson to sort of hold down the fort until then. I am being outrageously optimistic in these previews, but Milwaukee does not want optimism. Milwaukee wants high draft picks. The Brewers should get their wish.

    * * *

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    National League West

    Favorites: Dodgers or Giants, a toss-up.

    Contender: Arizona. 

    1. The San Francisco Giants will win because …

    … It’s an even year.

    With the Giants, I don’t even look anymore to see if their moves make sense. They give Barry Zito an outrageous contract — they win the World Series. They give big money to Aubrey Huff — they win the World Series. They sign the aging Hunter Pence to a gargantuan deal — they win the World Series.

    So it doesn’t even matter if I think Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija were massive overpays. It doesn’t matter that their entire outfield is filled with 30-somethings. It doesn’t matter because they are the Giants, and they know black magic, and when the years are even, they shall reign supreme.

    In all seriousness, though, this is a pretty fantastic team. Cueto and Samardija might not be great in five or six years when their contracts run out, but they should be awfully good in 2016, and teamed with Madison Bumgarner, that’s a pretty great rotation. The offense was fifth in the league in runs last year and Denard Span should make them better. The bullpen in San Francisco always just works.

    And one final word about catcher Buster Posey: Is it even possible to be more majestic? Year after year, game after game, he hits his .300-plus, cracks out his 20 or so homers, drives in his 90-100 runs, plays his good-to-excellent defense, and is just positive every single day. He’s the guy you wish was your best friend. He’s like baseball’s version of the Big Man on Campus. If the Rocky Mountains were a baseball player, they’d be Buster Posey.

    2. The Los Angeles Dodgers will win because …

    … talent and stuff.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers have something like a $253 million payroll … and they will still have the likely rookie of the year with Corey Seager at shortstop. They also have probably the best pitching left-handed prospect in the game in Julio Urias, and they have one of the better right-handed pitching prospects in the game in Jose De Leon. It doesn’t seem right to have all that money and all that big league talent and also have the best minor-league system in the game.

    Of course, the Dodgers have had a lot of talent for a while now and have not been to the World Series since 1988. Many thought the problem was manager Don Mattingly and while I’m skeptical of that, well, maybe Dave Roberts is a difference-maker.

    I do know this: When you start with the best pitcher on planet Earth in Clayton Kershaw, throw in the offensive firepower of Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez and close it all out with the all-but-unhittable Kenley Janson, yeah, you are in a pretty good position to win. Only a few things have to go right after that. This will be the year it all goes right in Los Angeles.

    3. The Arizona Diamondbacks will win because …

    … they were actually good BEFORE they made their big moves.

    Every so often you will see a team try to skip ahead in line by signing a couple of big-name free agents or by making a massive deal. It rarely works. The reason it rarely works is because the teams almost always miscalculate their timing. They make moves BEFORE the team is really ready to compete. They think they are one or two players away from contention when, in fact, they are not.

    The Diamondbacks are different. This was a young, impressive team BEFORE signing Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller. Paul Goldschmidt is one of the top five players in baseball. The entire lineup that finished second in the league in runs last year was made up of 20-somethings and the bullpen has a lot of nice pieces.

    Now you add in the remarkable Greinke and potentially the best No. 2 starter in the league in Miller and … wow.

    Note: Even in an overtly-positive preview like this one, you cannot ignore the unfortunate injury suffered by center fielder A.J. Pollock, one of the best players in the league. It stinks. And it hurts. Let’s hope he returns soon.

    One final word on Miller’s 2015 season: The guy lost SEVENTEEN games for the Braves even though he had a 3.02 ERA. He had a 124 ERA+ — meaning his ERA, when you consider ballpark factors and such, was roughly 24 percent better than the league average — and still finished 6-17. No pitcher in the last 75 years has had comparably bad luck when it comes to wins and losses.

    How did it happen?

    April 30: 7 innings, two earned runs, loss.

    May 28: 7 innings, one earned run, loss.

    June 18: 5 2/3 innings, one earned run, loss.

    July 19: 6 innings, one earned run, loss.

    July 24: 7 innings, one earned run, loss.

    And so on. From May 28 to September 27, Miller went 0-16 despite making 13 quality starts. That’s one bad team you’ve got around you, pal. He must feel like he’s gone to heaven.

    4. The San Diego Padres will win because …

    … San Diego deserves a break.

    As a Clevelander, I think I know a little something about sports heartbreak. But you know what? San Diego is a wildly underrated market for sports pain. Maybe it’s because we’re talking about, you know, San Diego and they have the weather and the beaches and the beautiful people.

    But from a sports perspective, look: The Chargers have been to one Super Bowl and they got demolished. The San Diego Padres have been to two World Series and they got demolished. The San Diego Clippers were SO bad that when they left nobody cared. Sure, San Diegans can wash away their sorrows by drinking Mai Tais and getting tan and catching some waves. But it’s still a lousy sports existence.

    This year’s Padres team will win because, um, OK, so the rotation could be good. Tyson Ross has quietly developed into a very good pitcher, and James Shields still has something left. The offense, well, Matt Kemp stayed healthy and had a nice year last year and Will Myers, if he stays healthy, can really hit and Fernando Rodney, um, he might be good again.

    I’m stretching. I feel your pain, San Diego. I do.

    5. The Colorado Rockies will win because …

    … there’s something in the water in Colorado. That’s what the Coors commercials say.

    Can we talk for a minute about Nolan Arenado, the Rockies third baseman. That guy is Spiderman. Last year, he hit 42 homers, drove in 130 runs and that wasn’t even the most special part of his season — his defense is ridiculous. Do youself a favor and, when you have a moment during this baseball season, just wander over to the Rockies’ video page to see if there’s video of Arenado making a play. I’m currently writing a book about Harry Houdini and, from what I can tell, watching Arenado make some of those plays down the line and in foul ground is like watching Houdini escape from a strait jacket.

    As for the rest of the team, you know, Carlos Gonzalez hit 40 homers last year and Charlie Blackmon stole 43 bases and as far as the rotation goes well, someone has to throw the pitch so that hitters can rifle shots down the third base line so that Arenado can perform magic.

    Our Time was Our Time

    Dale Murphy was talking with his wife Nancy about this supposed rift between generations. You probably have heard something about it. Bryce Harper wants the game to be more fun, livelier, with more feeling expressed, with bat flips and fist pumps and raw emotion. A few other younger players have said similar things either with words or, in the case of Jose Bautista, with an epic bat flip for the ages.

    And in the last couple of weeks, a couple of great players from my childhood — Goose Gossage and Mike Schmidt — took issue with Harper’s words and Bautista’s tactics and the young players’ desire to be more demonstrative. Schmidt wrote that such displays “show a lack of respect for your opponent and the history of the game.”

    Gossage concurred. “It was a bleepin’ disgrace,” he said.

    Dale Murphy played when I was a kid too; he was a hero of mine. I have three Dale Murphy autographs in this house basically because, if you were a Dale Murphy fan, you just ended up with autographs the way that jeans end up with loose change. He was that kind of nice guy. Murphy was a fantastic player in the time of Schmidt and Gossage. He won back-to-back MVP awards just after Schmidt did. He faced Gossage 23 times, hitting just .130 against the Goose (Murphy did manage a homer against Gossage the very last time they faced each other).

    In any case, Dale was talking with Nancy about this goofy rift between old school and new, this disagreement between these crazy kids today with their antics and the staid, respectful players of old who kept their heads down, when Nancy interrupted. ‘Wait a minute? Wasn’t there a player in your time who used to come on to the field doing backflips?”

    That was Ozzie Smith, of course. And everybody loved it.

    “Funny thing about us old guys,” Murphy says. “We don’t always remember our own time so well.”

    * * *

    Dale Murphy was, in many ways, the quintessential old-school player. There’s no way to even count how many times people said or wrote some version of the “Dale Murphy played the game the right way” quote. Here are only a few:

    “Dale Murphy is the perfect player, son, father, husband,” Joe Torre said.

    “If I could designate a league full of athletes, I’d make it full of Dale Murphys,” the columnist Furman Bisher wrote.

    “There aren’t enough good words to describe him,” his teammate, Phil Niekro, said.

    “Dale may be the only guy I know who can call 24 guys in one locker room a good friend,” Don Sutton said.

    Yeah, there are a million quotes like that, but that’s the point isn’t it? Dale Murphy was the very essence of 1980s baseball. He was the center fielder on mediocre-to-terrible Atlanta Braves teams that Ted Turner dared call “America’s Team.” He was America’s Center Fielder. Nobody loved the game more. Nobody respected the game more. Nobody played harder. Nobody represented the time better.

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    And so when you talk to Dale Murphy, you might expect who lot of Gossage, a whole lot of Schmidt, a whole lot of “These kids today with their rock and roll music …” But, um, you actually get the exact opposite.

    “I hear what Bryce Harper is saying,” Murphy says. “He’s not talking about bat flips and hair and those specific things. He’s saying the players don’t want all these unwritten rules from the past. They don’t want to play the game that way. They want to inject their personality into the game. They want to show their emotions. They want to express themselves.

    “And I hear guys from my time — I get it, I understand — talking about when we played. Well, when we played was when we played. We’re not playing. They’re playing. Let them have their fun. Let them mold the game into what they believe it should be. It’s their game. Heck, maybe they’ll get more young people watching.”

    Murphy laughs. “There are enough old people watching baseball. We need some younger fans.”

    Let’s just say it: Dale Murphy is pretty much the coolest dad in the world.

    “Look, I’m not going to tell you that I agree with everything I see,” Murphy says. “When (Bautista flipped the bat) I’m sure I said, ‘Whoa!’ It definitely caught me by surprise. It got my attention. I probably thought, ‘Man, I wish I could have done that in the day without getting hit.’

    “I’m kidding, I probably didn’t think that. That wasn’t my style. But we had plenty of guys in our time who played with flair. What about Reggie (Jackson)? He did like a reverse bat flip, remember? He would throw the bat DOWN on a recoil. That was pretty demonstative. I remember playing with Gary Matthews. I loved playing with Gary. He played the game with flair. He would do this thing, I don’t know if you remember, where on a possible double he’d come out of the box and knock the helmet off his head. It would go bouncing on the ground behind him. He didn’t like running with his helmet. It was cool.”

    He is going now: “What about Pete Rose? Pete played the game with all kinds of flair. People loved him for it. People hated it for him. It was good for the game. Come on, it’s supposed to be fun. I love this game. I want the kids to see that it’s fun to play. When I see Bryce Harper saying that it’s a dead game, whoa, that stops me cold. That’s the MVP talking, that’s a guy who loves baseball, who plays hard, who wants the kids to play baseball. And he is a lot closer in age to the kids’  ages. He knows what they are thinking. He says, ‘It’s a dead game,’ we have to listen to him.”

    Maybe it’s just the constant thumping of old-time players in every sport moaning about how much things have changed, but I cannot begin to describe how delightful it is to talk baseball with Dale Murphy. Hey, he is quick to admit: He’s not immune from the intoxicating blend of nostalgia and back pain that infects all of us as we get older.

    “When I first got on Twitter,” he says, “I said something about all the messaging players do back to the dugout when they get to second base. You know all that stuff with the hand signals, making some signs, celebrating out in the open like that. Well, I wrote something like, ‘Hey, why don’t you wait until you get back in the dugout before celebrating.’

    “But I was just being an old guy. I’ve re-thought it. It really looks like they’re having fun. We didn’t do stuff like that in our time, so it surprises us. But it’s different now. They don’t see it as disrespecting opponents or disrespecting the game. I think that’s what Bryce Harper means. He wants players to be allowed to have fun, to write their own unwritten rules for baseball. I think that’s good for the game. They’ll protect the game. They’ll police it. They will know when lines have been crossed.”

    I ask Murphy if he would love to play in today’s game, and, of course, he says that he would. What older player wouldn’t want to play today? The money’s so much better now. The conditions are so much better now. There are so many more fans in the stands watching now. But then he says something the surprises the heck out of me.

    “I don’t think I could have played today,” he says. “Hey, I’d love to play now. But, you know what? These kids are better than us. They’re better players. We might not want to admit it, but we go back and look at old highlights of ourselves and compare it to these kids now: No comparison. Everybody throws 95 mph-plus. Their swings are so much more fine tuned. They’re in so much better condition. And they make plays — I watch them and I say, ‘Wow.’ Athletically, I don’t think I could compete today.”

    Yeah, that’s a pretty jaw-dropping thing to hear an older player say. I will always remember “George Brett’s dirt rule” which is: “The farther you get away from the dirt, the better player you think you are.” Dale Murphy might be the first person I’ve ever spoken with who breaks that rule. But I will also say:  Let me be quick to stand up for one of my all-time childhood heroes: Dale Murphy would be a fantastic player today. He was a great athlete, a 6-foot-4 catcher turned center fielder with a bazooka for an arm. He stole 30 bases one season and he hit tons of opposite-field home runs when very few people were doing that. Oh, he’d big a star again today.

    But his point about playing in today’s game is typically insightful: He sees the new challenges players face now. Yes, he would have all the advantages of today — better weight training, better video training, more intensive coaching, better conditions and all that. But he would also have the disadvantages of today.

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    “I would have struggled with a lot of the social media and notoriety that players have to deal with today,” Murphy says. “I had an understated personality. I played in Atlanta when it was considered a smaller market, and that was good for me. I belonged in my time. I would not have handled the extra pressure well. I made so many mistakes early in my career. Now that stuff would have been all over the world. I would have been so embarrassed by the public criticism. I don’t know if I could have come back from it.

    “But that’s my point, the point about how my generation — it’s not our game anymore. We’re done. We don’t know what these kids are dealing with now. We kind of want to control things, we don’t like letting go. We’re all like that, right? We get older, and whether it’s music or fashion or sports or entertainment, we want it to be like our own time. Aren’t there people saying that Steph Curry couldn’t play in their time I mean, seriously?”

    Seriously.

    Yes, seriously.

    But, of course, Murphy understands and is sensitive to the sentiments of players of his own time. Schmidt and Gossage are Hall of Famers. They were great players. And it’s not a lot of fun getting older. It’s not a lot of fun when you can no longer play the game you once dominated. It’s not a lot of fun when you see that the stuff that mattered so much to you as a player and a person doesn’t matter much to the next generation. It’s the tale as old as time and the song as old as rhyme. Hey, there were guys from the 1950s who said that players in the Gossage, Schmidt and Murphy generation didn’t respect the game.

    And there were guys from the 1930s who said those 1950s players didn’t respect the game.

    And all the way back.

    “I think baseball now is just great,” Murphy says. “I love it. I think what Bryce Harper is saying is: Let us be who we are. They don’t all have to play like Harper, and they won’t. Mike Trout plays the game a lot more like I did, I think, a lot more like the way Mike Schmidt plays. You know, quieter. And Bryce Harper plays with flair. Kids want to express themselves. I get it. We didn’t do some of this stuff, but you know what? Our time was our time. It’s their time now.”

    Best-case scenario

    The 2016 National League preview can be found here.

    Some years ago, the American and National Leagues started blurring together. You probably know the history. The American League was founded more than 100 years ago as a counterexample to the rough-and-tumble National League. In the AL, swearing was banned, arguing with the umpire was strongly discouraged and no salary ceiling was placed on players. And for years, the American League was viewed by many as the more entertaining league.

    Then, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the National League proved to be much more open to signing black players. While many American League teams held out, the National League became the far-more-exciting league with the addition of players like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson and Willie McCovey. You might remember that between 1963 and 1981, the NL won all but one All-Star Game. The league just had better players overall.

    In 1973, the American League broke away by adding the designated hitter — this remains the defining divider between the two leagues.

    But, as of late, the DH has proved to be just about the ONLY divider. There is no league pride now. Players easily travel back and forth between the AL and NL. Interleague play has taken away much of the mystery that used to tantalize baseball fans (what would happen if Bob Gibson faced Reggie Jackson?). The All-Star Game has become so insignificant in everybody’s minds that baseball now attaches World Series home-field advantage to it. There has been more and more talk of breaking down the last AL and NL walls and just making it one big superleague.

    Well, this year there’s a big difference between the AL and NL.

    This year, every single American League team is in it to win it. All fifteen teams come into the season with at least moderate hopes of winning their division. Some of those hopes are, as British announcers like to say about wild soccer shots from 40 yards away, “ambitious.” Some might even be “delusional.” But, as one general manager says, you wouldn’t be too surprised if any team in the American League wins 90 games this year. And you wouldn’t be too surprised if any team in the American League loses 90 games this year.

    This isn’t true in the National League. A quick rundown suggests that the five worst teams — maybe the six worst — all play in the National League. Six or seven or possibly even eight teams in the league are in rebuild mode, so much so that people inside the game do believe that tanking could become a major problem. There are probably eight teams playing for five playoff spots.

    And so, as far as overriding predictions go, you can predict that the teams with the best records will all be in the National League. Last year, you will recall, the National League Central was the first division ever to have three teams win 97-plus games. Meanwhile, no team in the entire American League won 97. There will be a lot of free victories in the NL this year; a 110-victory team could happen.

    Meanwhile in the American League, each division should be a dogfight, every team will be playing as a contender at least until reality exceeds hope. Don’t be surprised if an 85-win team makes the playoffs.

    * * *

    Back when I was columnist for The Kansas City Star, I used to write a column every year predicting that the Kansas City Royals would win the American League Central. This column was wrong every single year — the Royals did not become any good until I was long gone — but it was fun to think up best-case scenarios, even for lousy teams.

    Why even HAVE an Opening Day if you can’t hope?

    So here you go, team-by-team best-case scenarios. I start in the American League because, obviously, it is a lot easier to come up with these best-case scenarios. I’m already dreading coming up with some reasons to believe for a few National League teams.

    * * *

    American League East

    Favorite: Toronto, I guess, though it could be anybody.

    Contenders: All five teams could win 90 games or lose 90.

    1. Toronto will win the division because …

    … power is back in baseball, baby, and the Blue Jays mash baseballs. You probably heard that last year, in August and September, home run numbers skyrocketed. The good people at FiveThirtyEight looked into it without really figuring out what happened. It could have been the weather. In any case, no team took better advantage of that power surge than the Blue Jays.

    Look: On July 28, the Blue Jays were at 50-51 and eight games back in the division. They hit 131 homers in 101 games, which is a lot, and averaged 5.25 runs per game, which is also a lot. Their pitching improved considerably with the acquisition of David Price, and that was the general narrative — the Blue Jays finally got enough pitching and so they started winning. The narrative is, in part, true.

    But in addition to that, let’s not forget that Blue Jays started CRUSHING baseballs The Blue Jays averaged six runs per game over the last two months and hit an astounding 1.7 homers per game over that span. Edwin Encarnacion hit 20 homers the last two months, Jose Bautista mashed 19 homers, Josh Donaldson hit 16. Throw in a healthy Troy Tulowitzki (this is a best-case scenario story, remember) and this is a lineup that could hit 250 homers this year.

    The starting pitching has some holes, no question — not a lot of strikeouts in that rotation, and they couldn’t keep Price — but I think the bullpen will be better than many expect with the acquisition of Drew Storen, who the Nationals mishandled in near-criminal fashion. The pitching will be good enough, and the Blue Jays will batter their way to the division title.

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    2. Boston will win the division because …

    … of the kids and the bullpen.

    The Red Sox are weird. Think of the players they have drafted or signed over the last 15 or so years. A glimmer: Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia; Jacoby Ellsbury; Josh Reddick; Brandon Belt; Anthony Rizzo … and you can add the core young players on this year’s team, which includes the fantastic Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley, Jr.

    With scouting and development that good, why do the Red Sox keep insisting on spending ginormous piles of cash on panda bears and Hanley monsters and so on?

    There seem to be two reasons:

    1. The Red Sox have not been nearly as good at developing pitching as they have every day players. Boston was 14th in runs allowed last year, 11th the year before that and sixth in 2013 when they won the World Series. The only starter on this year’s team drafted and developed by Boston is Clay Buchhholz, and he has had a quirky, injury-plagued career. When you aren’t developing pitching, you will have trouble.

    2. You may have heard: The Red Sox sort of expect to win every year. Theo Epstein, when he was GM,  famously talked about having a bridge year to allow the kids a chance to mature. That just about set off a riot. Boston has no stinkin’ bridge years. Next thing you know, Theo’s Sox were throwing money in all directions in the hopes it would hit a Carl Crawford or something. Ben Cherington was GM when the Sox won the World Series, and he helped build the best farm system in baseball … and he was canned for Dave Dombrowski after two down years.

    So, that upward pressure always blows in Boston … and this year the Sox brought in David Price to anchor the rotation. That will help. But the Red Sox will win this year because of those young players. Betts and Boegarts are both superstars in the making, and several others will play big roles. Also, the Red Sox could have a killer bullpen with the acquisition of super-closer Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, who throws one wicked slider. Please read that last part in a thick Boston accent.

    3. The New York Yankees will win because …

    … the old guys will have have one more ride together, and are you even kidding me with that bullpen?

    I made a promise to my PosCast partner and Yankee-hater Michael Schur that I would say only good things about the New York Yankees this year. Last year I said that the Yankees were done, and those words filtered into the atmosphere and rained down as a karma whirlwind that turned Alex Rodriguez young and created Yankee heroes on a nightly basis.

    So enough of that. The Yankees win the division because this season turns into one of those old-Hollywood buddy movies where Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones and James Garner all get together to do some sort of space rescue. Thirty-five-year-old C.C. Sabathia will have a renaissance year as will soon-to-be-36-year-old Mark Teixeira and and soon-to-be-39-year-old Carlos Beltran. And 40-year-old A-Rod will lead the way.

    Plus: That bullpen. Holy cow, that bullpen. I’m of the belief that the Kansas City Royals set off a revolution by creating inning-by-inning closers for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The Yankees are like a 2.0 version of that with the unhittable Andrew Miller, the more unhittable Deilin Betances and the 294-mph-throwing Aroldis Chapman after he serves his suspension. Good night.

    4. Tampa Bay will win because …

    … they have the best starting pitching in the division.

    You will ask: How will they find a way to score enough runs?

    Well, um, Evan Longoria and, um, Evan Longoria. Corey Dickerson came over in a trade, and he has some power; he hit 34 homers the last two years in about 660 at-bats. Steven Souza has long had massive power potential. They will find a way — and that rotation is superb. Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi are both Cy Young Award candidates.

    Also, Kevin Kiermaier plays symphonic defense in center field. That may seem off-topic, but I don’t care, it has to be said: The guy catches everything out there. He had a .298 on-base percentage last year and STILL got MVP votes and ABSOLUTELY deserved them. If he finds a way to become even a good offensive player, he could win an MVP award.

    5. Baltimore will win because …

    … all their weird plans will work! Mark Trumbo will become a 30-double, 30-homer guy again. Pedro Alvarez will regain the form that saw him lead the National League in homers three years ago.Yovani Gallardo will start striking out people again, like he did four years ago, and be a Cy Young contender.

    All that will happen, along with Chris Davis again hitting 50 or so homers, Matt Wieters staying healthy for the first time since 2013, Adam Jones regaining his form of two or three years ago. And the Orioles bullpen will repeat its superb 2015.

    Also, Manny Machado.

    This might sound sarcastic — well, not the Manny Machado part but the rest of it — but I’m serious: Every year, things just work out for one team. It was the Cubs last year. Everything went the Cubs’ way, players developed faster than expected, the bullpen kept getting outs, the pitching dominated when the lineup was down and the lineup dominated when the pitching faded. It happens, and this year it happens for the Orioles.

    And Buck Showalter will win manager of the year … and he will deserve it.

    * * *

    American League Central

    Favorite: Kansas City, no matter what the projection systems say.

    Contenders: Everybody has an outside shot, but Cleveland and Detroit have to feel especially frisky about their chances.

    1. Kansas City will win because …

    … of course they will. The Royals always win. This is the new world order, my friend.

    The Royals will win despite whatever skepticism is still out there for the same reasons they won the World Series last year and the American League pennant two years ago. They will still play some of the best defense in baseball, especially in the outfield. They will still get fantastic bullpen work, especially out of the cyborg Wade Davis.

    That is to say: They will still play some of the best defense in baseball, especially in the outfield. They will still get fantastic bullpen work especially out of the cyborg Wade Davis. They will still get ENOUGH decent starting pitching out of Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura and newly acquired Ian Kennedy. Perhaps the most stunning thing about the Royals’ run the last two years is that they have won without even a single four-WAR season out of a starter. They’ll do that again.

    They will still get enough runs out of the same scrappy, high-energy, contact-driven offense. Last year, they were third in doubles, fourth in triples, sixth in runs behind the forceful play of Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon and the like. They’re all back, ready for a reprise.

    The Royals have created a new formula for winning. It might not make sense to everybody, but it works.

    More: Posnanski on Royals’ secret to success | Has Ventura lost White Sox clubhouse? | MLB’s fastball obsession

    2. Cleveland will win because …

    … oh, man, look at that rotation. Just look at it.

    Remember what the Mets did last year? Yeah, the Indians are doing that this year.

    The Mets won with four staggering arms. This Cleveland rotation has staggering arms. Corey Kluber has 514 Ks in 457 innings the last two years. Danny Salazaar closes in on 100 with his fastball; Carlos Carrasco throws just about as hard, and Cody Anderson seems to have the Bugs Bunny changeup. Anderson so wowed the Indians this spring that they moved the quirky Trevor Bauer out to the ‘pen, where he might throw 137 mph.

    The Indians have to find a way to score runs, but there are some weapons here. Jason Kipnis has been a superb offensive player two of the last three years.  Michael Brantley is one of the league’s most underrated playerers, Francisco Lindor as a rookie last year looked an awful lot like a young Derek Jeter in just 99 games — he’s special. They could use a resurgence from Carlos Santana and newly acquired Mike Napoli.

    But with that rotation, it won’t matter. They will blow people away with their arms. And they’ll score enough.

    3. Detroit will win because …

    … the top five or six in that lineup is still crazy good, and Justin Verlander is ba-a-a-ck.

    Five years ago, Verlander was Superman. He was the first starting pitcher in almost 25 years to sweep the Cy Young and MVP awards. It was no fluke; in 2012, he was almost exactly as good, though some of that was cloaked by his win-loss record. People still look at that.

    Then, he took a significant step down. He was still GOOD in 2013, but not great. And then, in 2014, voila, he was kind of terrible. There was no real warning for that. He gave up the most earned runs in the league in 2014. He struck out less than seven per nine innings for the first time since he was a semi-clueless rookie. His fastball lost velocity. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was almost certainly pitching hurt.

    Last year, he began the season on the DL and when he returned, well, ugh, straight fastballs. Straight curveballs. Hitters teed off. And this went on until late July when, suddenly, he had his first 10-strikeout game in a year and a half. The “Is Verlander Back” storyline began. And for the rest of year he looked remarkably like the old Verlander, pitching 91 innings, striking out 88 with a 2.36 ERA and holding the league to a .204 batting average and just five home runs.

    With that Verlander back and the addition of Jordan Zimmermann — who Washington could not have treated worse — and with a lineup that features the still-fierce Miguel Cabrera along with Victor and J.D. Martinez and the newly acquired Justin Upton, the Tigers win this thing.

    4. Minnesota will win because …

    … the kids will emerge. We’ve been waiting for a while now for Byron Buxton to become Willie Mickey or Joe Hobbs. This is the year. Miguel Sano has freakish power. This is the year he blasts 35 home runs. Jose Berrios led the minor leagues in strikeouts with a 95-mph fastball and a slam-on-the-brakes changeup. This is the year he emerges in the big leagues.

    The Twins somehow won 83 games last year, even with a negative run differential, and you could definitely begin to see the beginning of that youth movement that has been promised for a few years now.

    Yes, it’s true, the Twins have some fundamental flaws. For instance, the pitching staff was dead last in the league in strikeouts for the third straight year (they were second-last four years ago).

    Then, by the numbers (Dewan’s Teams Runs Saved is my number of choice), they were a dreadful defensive team for the third straight year. If you don’t strike ’em out and, you don’t catch the ball, it’s gonna be awfully hard to keep ’em from crossing the plate.

    But happy thoughts: This is the year for Buxton to bust out and become a star. And all the good things follow.

    5. Chicago will win because …

    … there won’t be any kids hanging around the clubhouse.

    No, sorry, we’re staying positive. The White Sox will win because they have perhaps the best pitcher in the American League in Chris Sale. That’s the starting point for good things. Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon could make this a terrific rotation. The White Sox should bang a few home runs with Jose Abreu and newly acquired Todd Frazier in the middle of the lineup. This will work.

    The White Sox were a trendy pick last year coming off their active offseason, and that didn’t work. So they had another active offseason. That’s one thing you have to love about the White Sox — they will just DO things. True, those things might include bringing in a 37-year-old Jimmy Rollins, along with a bunch of guys trying to rebuild a career like Mat Latos and Austin Jackson and Alex Avila.

    But, there is a “Don’t just stand there, DO something” energy in Chicago that you have to admire. In 2005, it all just came together magically. The magic is back this year.

    * * *

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    American League West

    Favorite: Houston with Texas a close second choice.

    Contenders: I suspect the other three teams believe they have a shot, but with a bad start any of the three could pack it in.

    1. Houston will win because …

    … have you seen this team? The Astros are ridiculously good. They might have the league MVP this year (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer are ALL viable candidates). They have defending Cy Young winner Dallas Kuechel, and Lance McCullers at age 21 showed remarkable stuff. And the Astros have a farm system LOADED with top-level prospects. This team is preposterously loaded now.

    The Astros seemed to get here by following a pattern that several teams — particularly in the National League — are now following: Spend no money on the big league club; lose big; cash revenue checks; take advantage of all the safety-net programs that baseball offers the downtrodden such as high draft picks. This Astros collapsed enthusiastically. They lost 106, 107 and 111 games from 2011-13, and no team had lost that many games in three consecutive seasons since the expansion Mets.

    There is unquestionably resentment around baseball about the Astros tanking, a resentment that I think comes from the gap in people’s feelings about the LETTER and SPIRIT of rules. The Astros certainly followed the letter of the laws; nobody argues that. They cynically but smartly built their way up.

    People who admire what the Astros have done feel like they followed the spirit of the rules too — they saw that this was the one way to turn around the franchise, and they did it effectively. “You can’t blame them,” one executive told me. “They took advantage of the rules.”

    People who disapprove of what the Astros have done believe they did not follow the spirit of the rules because they did not fulfill their basic task of fielding a competitive team. As a different executive said, “You have to try at least. It’s bad for the game. They just about killed baseball in Houston.”

    Either way, the Astros are going to win the division this year.

    2. Texas will win because …

    … the Rangers have one hot-hitting team, top to bottom in the lineup, and, with Cole Hamels, they now have a legitimate ace.

    Ponder for a moment the wonder of Shin-Soo Choo. He is the greatest everyday Major League baseball player ever from South Korea. That’s not especially close at the moment — Choo has about 30 career WAR, putting him in the class with guys like Don Baylor and Bobby Bonilla and Tim McCarver. The next-highest South Korean player on the list is Jung Ho Kang, who earned four WAR as a rookie last year for Pittsburgh.

    Imagine being the greatest at something in your country’s history. Everybody who plays Major League Baseball is the pride of a community somewhere, but Choo is the pride of a nation of 50 million people. And he’s such a fun player to watch.

    What does any of this have to do with the Rangers winning the division? Nothing, but hey they won it last year so you know exactly why they will win it this year.

    3. Seattle will win because …

    … it all has to work sometime.

    The Mariners have been poking and prodding and trying to figure out any way they can to win for their long-suffering fans and their great ace Felix Hernandez. It is staggering how good King Felix has been for the last 10 or so years. And it is even more staggering to see how little the Mariners have done with his genius.

    The Mariners owe this man some glory … and they’ve tried to make something good happen in their own halting fashion. They spent huge money for Robinson Cano and only slightly less huge money for Nelson Cruz. They have fired managers, switched up plans, tried to build around offense, tried to build around defense, tried to stack their bullpen.

    Well, this is the year that the plan will work. They completely re-tooled the bullpen, brought in starter Wade Miley, added a few offensive pieces including the ever-solid Adam Lind. And with Cano and Cruz primed for big seasons, the Mariners win the division.

    4. Oakland will win because …

    … Moneyball. Whatever that means in 2016.

    Moneyball has come to represent a specific philosophy — put aging catchers at first base, draft fat players, throw chairs through walls, never bunt and so on — but it always has MEANT something elusive: Find inefficiencies in the marketplace.

    The trouble with marketplace inefficiences is that, like rabbits, they move really fast, and they hide under bushes, and they eat out of your garden at night. For a time, on-base percentage was the grand market inefficiency, something general managers didn’t care too much about. But that isn’t true now. For a time, college pitchers were a market inefficiency — the scouts wanted to draft rawer high school kids. But that changed.

    It’s not entirely clear what the market inefficiency is now — but of course, that should be obvious. If you can SEE it, well, it wouldn’t be a market inefficiency. So when I say that it’s not entirely clear what the A’s are chasing right now, you can see that as a great compliment.

    The A’s have one of the best pitchers in baseball in Sonny Gray. They have other pieces to make the pitching staff formidable. They have a few good players like Stephen Vogt and Josh Reddick. They have …

    … yeah, it will take some magic. But that’s the Moneyball way, right? It works in the movies.

    5. The Los Angeles Angels will win because …

    … Mike Trout.

    You know that sales trick where you always push the customer’s attention back to the one good thing about the product your selling? They ask about the mileage on the car, and you point out the sun roof. They ask about the data plan, you point out how good the camera is.

    So go ahead: Ask me any quesiton you want about the Angels.

    You ask: How are they going to score any runs when their double play combination at the moment is Johnny Giavotella and Andrelton Simmons?

    My answer is simple: Mike Trout.

    You say Albert Pujols is now 36 years old and has finally conceded that he’s a DH. Well, Mike Trout to you too. Their rotation is looking a bit thin after Garrett Richards — and that’s even if Jered Weaver can somehow rediscover something. Yes, uh huh, Mike Trout, Mike Trout, Mike Trout.

    The Angels won 85 games last year despite being outscored by 14 runs, despite finishing 12th in runs scored and not having a single pitcher with a two WAR. How do you turn that into a winner? Mike Trout, of course.

    The Angels look absurdly shaky and old and … did I tell you how good Mike Trout is? Here are your all-time WAR leaders through age 23:

    1. Mike Trout, 37.9

    2. Ty Cobb, 36.0

    3. Ted Williams, 34.2

    4. Mel Ott, 31.4

    5. Ken Griffey, 30.1

    They are followed by guys named Mantle, A-Rod and Kaline.

    Put it another way: Two more seasons at this pace and Trout will already have put up a viable Hall of Fame career — THE WHOLE CAREER — and he will be coming his age-25 season.

    You say Mike Trout ain’t enough. Well, I’ll tell you this, Trout is, as my friend Jeff Garlin likes to say, a big bowl of awesome sauce. And yes, I did name drop Jeff Garlin’s name to distract you from the fact that I haven’t given you a viable way for the Angels to win the division. That’s another sales technique. Also: Mike Trout.

    What do the Royals know?

    SURPRISE, Ariz. — Baseball, like all sports, is a game of imitators. When someone figures out a better way of doing something, everyone follows. When Dick Fosbury perfected a new way of high jumping — and won Olympic gold with it in 1968 — well, the Fosbury Flop almost immediately became the dominant jumping technique. When Lawrence Taylor began devastating offenses as a blitzing linebacker, every team in the NFL tried to get their own Lawrence Taylor (with mixed results). After Michael Lewis wrote the book “Moneyball” about the Oakland Athletics’ use of data to find inefficiencies in the marketplace, every team hired Ivy Leaguers and built their own analytics department.

    So the question: When will teams start copying the Kansas City Royals?

    And: How would they even go about doing that?

    Right now, when you talk to people around baseball, you just don’t hear much about the Royals, even if they are defending World Series champions and two-time defending American League champs and all that. Everyone is respectful. Everyone praises the Royals’ defense and their bullpen and their spirit. But few people around baseball seem to see the Royals as a blueprint for success: They won those back-to-back pennants without great starting pitching, they won it while hitting the fewest home runs and drawing the fewest walks in the league, they won it with almost-impossible-to-believe late-inning comebacks.

    Nobody I’ve talked with uses the word “luck.” But almost everybody dances perilously around the word.

    “I do wonder,” one baseball executive told me, “when people around the game will figure out that maybe the Kansas City Royals know something that we don’t.”

    * * *

    What do the Royals know? To this, Royals general manager Dayton Moore shrugs; he is uncomfortable with the question.

    “You know, we’re not smarter than anybody else,” he says. “This game has a lot of really smart people in it — a whole lot smarter than me. Let’s not kid anybody. We are not going to outsmart anybody.”

    We are sitting in a dugout by one of the practice fields at the spring training home of the Royals in Surprise. Everything is upbeat and, yes, a bit surreal. After all those dark years, yes, that World Series against the Mets really happened. Moore goes about his days, though, as if nothing has changed. He wears the same Royals sweatsuit every day; he has it washed nightly. The only difference for him is that it now the sweatsuit says “World Series Champions” on it.

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    “We work hard, but I certainly would not say we work any harder than anybody else,” he continues. “People all around this game live it just like we do.”

    He continues along this modesty thread for a while. The Royals do not have a better plan than other teams, he insists. The Royals do not have better judgment than other teams. The Royals have no “I told you sos” for all those who have and continue to doubt. Hey, those doubters are pretty smart too.

    Then, Moore stops talking about a moment and watches a couple of Royals clubhouse guys get into a golf cart and head over to run some errand. He watches them as they ride off.

    “Look at those guys,” he says. “They do their job. They’re out here, they are moving fast, their body language is good. You watch these guys, and you know how the organization is going. If people are treating them poorly, treating them with disrespect, using them basically, then they’re beaten down. Their attitude and their body language is very poor. That tells you everything about your organization.

    “But when you see them like that, just ready to go, upbeat, good body language, that’s everything. They’re focused, but they’re having fun. It’s baseball. It’s supposed to be fun. We all got into this game because it’s fun. It’s the one thing every one of us shares. And your team morale — people think it begins with the players and the manager. No. It begins with your clubhouse guys, your groundskeepers, your medical team, your strength and conditioning coaches, your hitting coaches. When they’re having fun and doing their jobs enthusiastically, that’s when you have something.”

    He smiles sheepishly: Here endeth the lesson.

    “We just wanted to build a good organization,” he says. “Winning the World Series, you know, that was great. But that’s not success. Success is building a good organization.”

    * * *

    1. Signing Gil Meche to a five-year, $55 million deal

    What do the Royals know? Dayton Moore discusses five moves — all of them somewhat contentious — that he thinks were the most important. He begins with his first high-profile move: The signing of pitcher Gil Meche almost 10 years ago.

    The Meche deal was the largest free agent deal in Kansas City history … and it was roundly mocked. Two reasons, really. One: Meche had a career 4.65 ERA in six years with Seattle, and he had never thrown 200 innings in a season. He was walk-prone, home run-prone, somewhat injury-prone, and there did not seem much reason to believe he would be a particularly effective starter.

    Two, the Royals were preposterously bad. They had lost 100 games three years in a row. They were coming off a season when their lone All-Star pick was pitcher Mark Redman, who finished the year with a 5.71 ERA. What possible good could come from giving Gil Meche all that money? It seemed about as useful as buying a diamond necklace for a party on the Titanic.

    Well, sure, the critics had a field day. Jon Heyman’s line that “Meche might be French for ‘Money down the toilet'” is representative.

    And how did the deal turn out? Well, that’s the interesting part. As a pitcher, Meche turned out to be a mixed bag. He had two very good years at the beginning of his contract — the two best years of his career. He made the All-Star team in 2007, and he finished among the league leaders in innings, strikeouts and wins above replacement in 2008. Then he struggled with injuries and inconsistency and retired one year before his contract expired, forfeiting $12 million. The last part was odd, but it will be important later. Meche said he gave up the money because: “When I signed my contract my main goal was to earn it. … Making that amount of money from a team that’s already given me over $40 million for my life and my kids, it just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

    So from a pure baseball perspective, it was probably a break-even deal. Fangraphs has Meche’s value at about $52 million, and he got paid about $41 million. Of course, in the bigger picture, the Royals were terrible before they got Meche, they were terrible with Meche, they were terrible after Meche. It didn’t seem to change anything.

    Only one thing did change. While people watched Meche’s contract, the young Zack Greinke emerged.

    “We knew that if we ever were going to get Zack Greinke back, a lot of things had to go right,” Moore says. “That’s why we were so aggressive and maybe overpaid to bring Gil Meche in. We felt like Gil could take the pressure off of Zack. We felt like Gil could be a bit of a mentor for Zack. We obviously thought Gil could help us a lot as a pitcher, but Zack was the big reason for the move. We needed Zack Greinke.”

    Understand: At the time, there was no reason at all to believe that Greinke would come back. He was a mega-prospect for the Royals, their best pitching prospect in decades when they rushed him up to the big leagues at age 20. As a rookie, he pitched pretty well for a terrible team. But then it all fell apart. In 2005, Greinke had a staggeringly bad season, going 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA — the league hit .309/.363/.483 against him. It was a disastrous season on the field, but more to the point, Greinke was struggling with still-undiagnosed anxiety issues. At spring training the next year, he walked away from the game. He considered becoming a professional golfer. He considered trying to come back to baseball but as a shortstop. His pitching future was very much in limbo.

    As he came to grips with his social anxiety disorder and began taking medication, he hesitantly returned to baseball. The Royals put him in the bullpen, and he liked that a lot better; that way he could pitch more (Zack always felt more comfortable on the mound than just about anywhere else). The Royals tried him back in the rotation at the start of 2007, and it was disastrous. Greinke made seven starts, the Royals lost six of them and the league hit .338 and slugged .579 against him. The Royals rushed him back in the bullpen.

    By the end of 2007, though, Greinke was back in the rotation and pitching well. Moore believes — will always believe — that Gil Meche was a key part of that. Meche insisted on taking the pressure off Greinke. He served as a mentor. He led by example. In 2008 Meche and Greinke combined to be among the better one-two combinations in baseball. And then in 2009, Greinke had a season for the ages and won the Cy Young Award.

    “Zack did it,” Moore says. “He gets all the credit. But I don’t think there’s any question that Gil took a lot of pressure off him. Gil was just a pro, came to the ballpark every day, ready to pitch, ready to perform. He was upbeat. He set a great example. We think he played a major role in helping Zack get back. … You can say that there’s no way to prove that, and you’re right. We can’t prove it. It was just something we instinctively felt. And we’re obviously happy with how it turned out.”

    How it turned out: Greinke was probably the most sought-after young pitcher in the game, and the Royals traded him to Milwaukee for a couple of players — shortstop Alcides Escobar and outfielder Lorenzo Cain — who are now the heart of the championship Royals.

    * * *

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    2. Putting the Royals’ future on the backs of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer.

    There was nothing at all controversial about the Royals drafting Moustakas (with the second pick in the 2007 draft) and Eric Hosmer (with the third pick in 2008). Both were big-time prospects that were high on every draft board around the Major Leagues.

    What was somewhat unusual, though, was that Moore and scouts gave both of those players a little bit of a Royals history lesson.

    “You might not know this,” Moore would remember saying, “but the Kansas City Royals used to be a model franchise. And you are the player who is going to make us a model franchise again.”

    Royals history had been a bit of a contentious subject in Kansas City in the 1990s and 2000s. It is true; the Royals were once a dominant franchise. They made the postseason seven times in 10 years, won a couple of pennants, took the World Series title in 1985. They were led by Hall of Famer George Brett, but the team overflowed with the sorts of players that John Updike once called “gems of slightly lesser water:” Frank White played balletic second base; Willie Wilson blazed around the bases; Bret Saberhagen pitched with the command of an orchestra conductor; Hal McRae hammered doubles into the gap and took out second basemen who did not get out the way fast enough.

    The trouble was that after a couple of losing decades, nobody wanted to hear about those Royals anymore. Even Frank White himself used to say, “I’m sick of the stories, and I lived them.”

    “I had a lot of people tell me that I shouldn’t talk about the old days,” Moore says. “They said, ‘you need to divorce yourself from ’85 (the last time the Royals had won the Series). You’ve got to move forward.’ I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to embrace our history.’ I want these guys to know our past. I want them to be proud to be Kansas City Royals. I want them to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.”

    When the Royals drafted Moustakas and Hosmer, Moore wanted them to know: The team was counting on them to not only be good players but to bring the Royals back. “It’s your job,” he used to tell them. “We in the front office can talk all about bringing back the Royals, but you are the ones who have to actually do it.”

    “I believe in honesty,” Moore says. “I wanted Eric and Moose to know — they were going to be the ones to bring us back. You could say that’s putting pressure on them, but I think those young men appreciate a challenge. They hunger for it. We believed in the leadership qualities of those guys, and so we were challenging them to lead us.”

    Moustakas and Hosmer came up in 2011, both went through some difficult transitions, but by 2013, the Royals were a good baseball team. In 2014, they went to the World Series. In 2015, they won the World Series. “We’re the Royals,” Hosmer would say in the aftermath of that World Series championship. “We find a way to win.”

    * * *

    3. Trading Wil Myers for James Shields … and getting a throw-in named Wade.

    Moore knew he would get hammered by some media types — including yours truly — when he traded top-10 prospect Wil Myers to get a couple of years worth of James Shields. The Royals were still dreadful then; they had lost 90 games for the eighth time in nine seasons. Myers, according to many scouts, was the Royals’ BEST offensive prospect, better even than Moustakas or Hosmer. A building team just doesn’t trade away a young player like that for a high-priced pitcher who will undoubtedly leave after a couple of years. Yes, I was among the vast majority that loathed that trade for Kansas City.

    But once again, the Royals knew something. For one thing, they knew that the team was ready to blossom; it just needed a boost.

    Moore: “We really did think that when we acquired Shields, everyone on the team would look around and think, ‘Now, we can compete with anybody.'”

    That worked. Shields pitched well in 2013, and the Royals improved by 14 games, going from a dismal 72-90 to 86-76, their best full-season record since the 1980s.

    “He brought a toughness, a swagger, an edge that I really thought we needed,” Moore says. “Our guys wanted badly to win. And here was a guy, in James Shields, who had been a part of winning teams. Again, I know that you can’t quantify it exactly, but we all felt like our team really needed then. They needed to be around someone who knew exactly how to win.”

    As it turns out, of course, the real key to the deal was not Shields at all. The Royals expanded the deal so they could get a young pitcher with a chance to be a good starter — Wade Davis.

    “I’m not going to lie, what I liked about Wade, what we liked about him as an organization, was that he had a chance to start,” Moore says. “We knew he could dominate in the ‘pen. That was always a pretty good fallback position. But we definitely thought he had the arsenal to start.”

    The Royals did try Davis as a starter in 2013, and it did not work out all that well. He was moved to the ‘pen during spring training of 2014, and he put up two of the most dominant seasons in recent memory. In 2014, he pitched 72 innings, did not allow a home run and had a 1.00 ERA. Last year, in many ways, he was even better, holding the league to a .144 batting average. In seven World Series appearances, he had struck out 18, walked zero and allowed zero runs. On a pitching staff with average starting pitching, Davis has been the difference-maker.

    “Do I make the deal if I knew that Wade wouldn’t be a starter?” Moore asks. “Probably not. But I still think he can do it.”

    “Wait,” I say. “You still think about Wade Davis as a starter?”

    “Absolutely,” Moore says. “Not right now. But just like with Zack going to the ‘pen and figuring things out, I think Wade would be a much better starter if we gave him a chance. They’re all evolving pitchers. You never know.”

    “Come on,” I say.

    “You never know,” he repeats.

    * * *

    4. Signing Salvador Perez (and then renegotiating the deal)

    Dayton Moore loves to say that catcher Salvador Perez was signed for his smile as much as anything else. Perez was a quirky prospect at best (Baseball America named him the Royals’ 17th-best prospect in 2011). He was slow. He was relatively unathletic. He could catch and throw well, but many scouts — even some within the Royals organization — felt sure he would never hit at the big-league level.

    But Perez was such an enthusiastic player, so full of life, that the Royals insisted on believing in him. They called him up in 2011, and he hit .331 in a limited tryout. Perez immediately wanted a long-term deal. Security meant everything to him.

    “We weren’t sure he was going to hit,” Moore says. “I felt at the end of the day that we all knew he was going to play defense. We knew he had leadership qualities. We knew he had a great heart to play. We also knew that he was very persistent about a long-term deal, to the point where, I’m not going to say it consumed him, but it was very important to him. We felt like a deal would help him become a quality player.”

    The Royals offered him a deal that now looks almost comical by baseball terms — five years, $7 million with a couple of very team-friendly club options tacked on at the end. But at the time, the Royals were making a bet. Perez signed a long-term deal after only 34 days of Major League service. Moore is pretty sure that no catcher in baseball history got a long-term deal so soon after debuting in the big leagues.

    “I didn’t know he was going to become a three-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, whatever else,” Moore says. “We just wanted him to feel comfortable.”

    Well, Perez did become those things. Here is a list of all the catchers in baseball history who had three All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves by age 25:

    — Johnny Bench (6 of each)

    — Ivan Rodriguez (6 of each)

    — Bill Freehan (4 All-Star Games, three Gold Gloves)

    — Salvador Perez

    Not bad. Perez is also the only one of the four to lead a team to a World Series title by the age of 25 … and he did lead. No one ever doubted that Perez, who has caught more games than any catcher in the American League the last two seasons, was the soul of the Royals. Of course, when you take all of that into consideration, well, suddenly a five-year, $7 million deal doesn’t look all that appetizing for the player. Early in the offseason, Dayton Moore was asked if maybe the Royals would renegotiate even though they were under absolutely no obligation to do so. “I don’t know that there have been examples of restructuring deals like this one,”  Moore said after the World Series title last year. “But you know, we love Salvy. He’s family. We’ll see.”

    Three months later, the Royals did restructure that deal, giving Perez a new five-year, $52.5 million contract.

    “Of course, he was an underpaid player,” Moore says. “So we realized that as we continue to fight for our culture — every team has to do that, every team has to fight for its culture — we asked ourselves: ‘How are you going to bring other players into the clubhouse if you don’t do right by Salvy?’

    “It was the right thing. That’s why we did it. Everybody in the organization believed it was the right thing to do. You can sit here and say players when they underperform they’re not going to give the money back. I don’t expect them to … though Gil Meche did give money back. We’ve been a recipient of this too.

    “In the end, I know this: Managers, leaders get paid to make sure that things are done right. I think giving Salvy the new deal right thing for us to do.”

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    * * *

    5. Signing Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million deal

    OK, this just happened in January, and nobody knows how it will turn out. But when the Kansas City Royals signed 31-year-old Ian Kennedy to the deal, there were some feelings of déjà vu. The response felt an awful lot like the response after the Royals signed Gil Meche. Why would the Royals give Ian Kennedy all that money?

    Kennedy had a strange year. On the surface, it was a bad year. He gave up so many stinkin’ home runs (31 in just 168 innings) that his season was semi-disastrous. His 4.28 ERA was among the league’s worst for starters, and it looked even worse because he pitched half his games in San Diego, annually one of the league’s best pitcher’s parks.

    What do the Royals know? When you get through everything, it might just come down to something Moore repeatedly tells his scouts and executives and coaches, something that doesn’t sound especially profound: “I tell our people all the time that it’s our job to LIKE players.”

    It’s our job to like players. Now, really, what does that mean? Well, in baseball, it’s easy to dislike players — not personally, but as players. See, baseball is a hard game to play. There are only a handful of celestial beings out there who do everything well, only a few Mike Trouts or Bryce Harpers or Andrew McCutchens. The rest are mortals with lead feet, holes in their swing, limited defensive range, inconsistent changeups and a lack of control.

    Almost every player has huge odds against him. Look at Baseball America’s top 10 prospect list from 10 years ago. Remember, these are the 10 BEST prospects, the 10 who looked like they would be stars. How many became stars? One: Justin Verlander (No. 8). Matt Cain (No. 10) became a semi-star in his mid-20s before fading, and Francisco Liriano (No. 6) has been good and occasionally great. But the No. 3 prospect was Brandon Wood, who couldn’t stick. No. 4 was Jeremy Hermida, who couldn’t quite become a big league starter. No. 9 Lastings Milledge flamed out quickly. And the No. 1 prospect, Delmon Young, mostly disappointed. It’s such a hard game, even for those who seem to have the gifts.

    In other words, it’s easy to become cynical, easy to check the “No” box on every player. But the Royals’ philosophy is to LIKE players, to see the possibilities. Kennedy had an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio last year (174-52). The Royals say: We can work with that. Kennedy has one of the best changeups in baseball. The Royals say: Kauffman Stadium is a great changeup park because even when you make a mistake, it’s a tough park for home runs. Kennedy is a fly-ball pitcher. The Royals say: That fits because Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson should make up the best defensive outfield in baseball.

    And as far as all those home runs last year, well, the Royals have an analytics department too, and those guys crunched some numbers and found that last year was an anomaly season for Petco Park — there were a lot of home runs hit there, especially early in the season. They believe Kennedy’s homer numbers will come down in Kansas City.

    When I tell him that many feel the Royals wildly overpaid, Moore smiles. Maybe they did overpay. “But we like Ian Kennedy,” he says. “We think he’s a great fit. We like pitchers who work quick, command the fastball, field their position, hold runners and have good changeups. I’m not saying we’re smarter than anyone else. We just like Ian Kennedy a lot.”

    Yes, to hear Dayton Moore tell it, the Royals don’t KNOW more than anyone else. They might just believe a little harder.

    One of a kind

    When Romain Grosjean crossed the line to finish the first race of the 2016 Formula 1 season in Australia in sixth place, it was a result of immeasurable magnitude.

    For in Haas F1 Team’s very first race, it had not only beaten many of the field’s most established and experienced teams and drivers, but it had achieved something that many critics believed was not possible.

    Scoring points on debut was not the shock. Instead, it was the fact that Haas had made the grid at all that was the real achievement. An American team had not raced in F1 for 30 years, during which time the series had enjoyed drastically varying fortunes in the United States. Many of the newest F1 projects had failed miserably, casting doubt on the viability of future entries.

    And yet team owner Gene Haas had done it. His dream had been realized, offering F1 one of its most positive and important stories in the sport’s recent history.

    * * *

    Humble Roots

    The idea of an American F1 team was nothing entirely new when Haas’ interest in joining the grid was first piqued. Before the Australian Grand Prix, the last team to race under the star-spangled banner was the unrelated Haas Lola operation that folded at the end of the 1986 season.

    In 2009, a team called US F1 announced its intention to join the grid, headed up by experienced American engineer Ken Anderson and journalist Peter Windsor. As the name suggested, the fact it was an American team looking to enter a European-centric sport was its prime selling point. It wanted to be the only F1 team to not be based in Europe, setting up shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, and wanted two American drivers.

    The wheels ultimately fell off US F1. Despite being granted a place on the grid for the 2010 F1 season amid concerns of a possible breakaway series being formed, a loss of financial backing saw the team close down without ever hitting the track. It arguably became best remembered for a parody YouTube series involving toasters.

    It was widely regarded as being just the latest example of F1 and the USA. not being a happy match. A race had not been held in the United States since 2007, with the damage of the farcical 2005 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that saw just six cars take part proving to be irrevocable, while US F1 had been fruitless.

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    Or so it seemed. Despite never racing, US F1 did sow a seed in the mind of Gene Haas following a meeting with ex-Jaguar F1 team principal Günther Steiner at a steakhouse one night.

    “Günther approached Joe [Custer, executive vice-president of Stewart-Haas Racing] and myself at dinner one night,” Haas said. “We’d been involved with Ken Anderson in his project. He said: ‘Hey, are you guys interested in some F1?’ He preached customer cars, which were on the table at the time.

    “We spent time dillying and dallying when the customer car concept was around. But like everything else, you put these things out on the table, and hardly anything actually gets approved. So customer cars never happened, and a couple years wasted there.

    “Then Günther said: ’What do you want to do?’ We talked to Bernie (Ecclestone, F1’s CEO and ringmaster) a bit, and he was a bit standoffish. It was like, ‘If you want to be serious… you’re welcome to take a shot.’ But I don’t think he took us seriously. He was kind of, well, ‘I have people ask all the time. But of 100 people, hardly anyone makes it.’

    “After three years, we put forth a tender. And it went from there.”

    And so in January 2014, following a call for expression of interest in joining the grid by the FIA (F1’s governing body), Haas confirmed his intentions to enter a team into F1. Three months later, it had been given the green light. Haas F1 Team had an entry for as early as 2015.

    The timing of Haas’ decision to enter F1 led many to treat it with great skepticism. Not only was the failure of US F1 still fresh in the memory, but it came at a time when a number of teams were facing grave financial problems.

    Before Haas, the latest batch of ‘new’ teams came in 2010. Three teams originally named Lotus Racing, Hispania and Virgin Racing joined the grid, with the fourth intended to be US F1. As newcomers operating on a shoestring budget compared to that of the major manufacturers in F1 such as Mercedes and Ferrari, their place at the back of the grid came as little surprise to begin with.

    Four years later though, much had changed. Lotus Racing became Team Lotus and then Caterham F1 Team. Virgin Racing turned into Marussia F1 Team. Hispania evolved into HRT before collapsing at the end of the 2012 season, never to return. And all the while, they remained at the back of the grid.

    Caterham closed its doors at the end of the 2014 season after entering administration, while Marussia remarkably survived a simultaneous financial collapse and lives on as Manor Racing — albeit still at the back of the grid.

    Having seen these three teams try and largely fail, those setting up the Haas project knew they had to do things differently.

    “Three tried and didn’t achieve a lot, so we said if we do more of them, we’re not more clever than these guys, there’s a limit to how clever you can be. We said we need to find a new idea,” Steiner said.

    Customer cars — essentially a year-old model of a bigger “parent” team’s car — had been banned in F1 for some time, but this did not put Haas off. Instead, he took an ideal he had successfully tried out in NASCAR and applied it to F1. Much as Haas CNC Racing had enjoyed as much support and technical help as allowed by the NASCAR rules from Hendrick Motorsports since its debut in 2003, Haas sought a technical partner to help his F1 team get off the ground.

    This is where Ferrari came in. After opting to delay entry until 2016 so that the team could prepare appropriately, Haas announced in September 2014 that it would be working with Ferrari ahead of its F1 debut, enjoying a supply of as many parts as possible — including engine, gearbox and suspension.

    The end result was that come the team’s on-track debut in February 2016 at preseason testing in Barcelona, the car itself was immediately strong, leading to Grosjean’s success in Australia

    “Thanks to the collaboration with Ferrari and the rules being a little bit more in favor of us that we can buy some parts, that helped,” Steiner said after the race. “I would say without the help of Ferrari, we wouldn’t have achieved what we achieved today.”

    * * *

    Building Momentum

    With the Ferrari deal confirmed and Haas’ F1 debut still over a year away, a quiet optimism began to grow. This continued when the team picked up Marussia’s factory in Banbury, England, when the team was forced to sell off its assets after entering administration. The plan was to balance the Haas operation between bases in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Banbury, and in Italy where the chassis was being designed by Dallara.

    Naturally, attention soon turned to the identity of Haas’ drivers. Being an American team, there was a certain air of expectation that at least one of the drivers would be American, which made Alexander Rossi the obvious option.

    Rossi had come close to making his grand prix debut with Marussia in 2014 after working as a reserve driver with the team and tasting success in GP2, F1’s support series. However, Steiner confirmed in September 2015 that he was not on Haas’ radar for its debut season despite talks being known to have taken place.

    “There is nobody out there at the moment,” Steiner said. “Yes, there are drivers in GP2 and Formula Three, but having a rookie in a new team – that is difficult for both sides. The potential of such a partnership failing is pretty high.

    “So at the moment we’d rather not be looking at that avenue, because you are also not helping an inexperienced driver – he could be burned in one season. We are new, so we need a known quantity in the team.”

    In terms of known quantities, the drivers on offer were plentiful. Due to Ferrari’s involvement with Haas, either Esteban Gutierrez or Jean-Eric Vergne, its reserve and development drivers, were expected in at least one of the seats. The second, however, remained up for grabs.

    Much as Haas had acted quickly when the Marussia factory was up for sale, it was similarly opportunistic in securing the services of Romain Grosjean for its debut season. Since debuting in 2009, Grosjean had turned his F1 career around from being a crash-kid in 2012 to one of the most coveted drivers on the grid. As the future of his Lotus team remained unclear amid financial difficulties in 2015, Grosjean began to look at his options for 2016. And Haas came calling.

    “I heard they were moving to start from 2015 to 2016. Then in Barcelona 2015, we had conversations,” Grosjean said. “Then I got a bit more deep into it, trying to understand, trying to get a few ideas from people I’ve known in the past; from engineers in the paddock, guys from Dallara I was trying to get information.

    “And then Monza, I met the guys, and next week everyone was happy.”

    And that was that. Soon after the Italian Grand Prix, Grosjean was presented to the world as a Haas driver, marking a major coup for a brand new team. Despite lacking prior F1 experience, it offered stability to the Frenchman — something he craved after a difficult spell with Lotus.

    “The team is stable. The base is there,” Grosjean said. “Gene is coming to Formula 1 not just to be in Formula 1. He’s coming here for a long time to be successful as he has been in his life in everything he has done — automation, NASCAR, and now F1.

    “The whole project is based on a solid construction, so yeah, it’s good to be here. Günther has done a really good job of finding the guys. It’s like it’s a team that has been running quite a long time. Everyone works well together, so that’s quite impressive.”

    Grosjean’s teammate was confirmed at the end of October when Haas took advantage of the Mexican Grand Prix weekend to announce Esteban Gutierrez’s return to full-time F1 racing at his home race. Gutierrez had spent two years with Sauber in 2013 and 2014 before walking away from the team to join Ferrari as a reserve driver.

    “Knowing the philosophy and the approach they have in NASCAR, everything made sense,” Gutierrez said. “Considering the achievements that they have done in NASCAR with the approach that they had, trying to implement that into the Formula 1 project takes a very good sense. I think it took a bit of time to bring everything together, but it was the right decision.

    “It’s a completely different approach. A team like Sauber, one of the targets is to survive. In a team here, it is to grow, to do lots, projects and visions. It is a completely different philosophy.”

    * * *

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    Walking The Walk

    With the drivers now in place, attention turned to preseason testing in Barcelona, Spain, where the new Haas car would be unveiled to the world before making its on-track debut.

    One day before test running began at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Haas released images of the VF-16 car — ‘VF’ standing for ‘very first’, as used in the naming system for Haas Automation’s CNC machines. Despite being noticeably bare of many major sponsors besides Haas’ own companies, the design of the car was original. It was not a mirror image of the Ferrari as many had expected; it was very much a Haas.

    On Monday, February 22, 2016, the Haas dream became a reality as its new F1 car rolled out onto the track for the first time in the hands of Grosjean, who came back with very positive feedback.

    “It felt very good in the car. First impressions were great, which is important,” Grosjean said. “It carried over a lot of numbers from the wind tunnel, from the paper. The most important one is the feeling of the driver. It was good to be able to go out there straightaway, find a pace, be comfortable in the car. Generally very happy with the first feeling.”

    Gutierrez nearly echoed his thoughts when he jumped in the car one day later, marking his first allocation of extensive running in an F1 car for almost 18 months.

    “It is a very good feeling that I have on the car. The most important thing is that I enjoyed the driving and I think that’s a very good first step,” Gutierrez said. “It has exceeded my expectations in different ways. Honestly, I was very well aware of what we could expect, but actually from the installation lap I could get really a very good feeling, very solid, very consistent, so I think as a good baseline, it’s very good.”

    To enjoy such a strong on-track debut is very rare in F1. Somehow, it seemed that Haas had produced a competitive and reliable car straight out of the blocks that would leave the rest of the field concerned.

    Reality bit during the second week of testing, though, which, perhaps, wasn’t a bad thing. A series of issues sprung up on the car as the team continued to adjust to life as an F1 team, offering little indication of Haas’ true standing in the pecking order ahead of its debut in the Australian Grand Prix.

    Such signals were expected in the first practice session of the new F1 season, only for rain to wash much of Friday out. When qualifying came about, Grosjean and Gutierrez were left 19th and 20th on the grid respectively after falling foul of the new elimination format. Given the perceived pace and reliability of the cars ahead, there appeared to be little hope of debut points for Sunday’s race.

    What followed would be the fairy-tale start that Haas and Steiner would not have dared dream of when chatting over a steak six years prior.

    Grosjean and Gutierrez both had quiet starts in Melbourne, with the latter reporting an issue on his engine in the early stages. It appeared to clear up quickly, allowing Gutierrez to continue. Haas had opted to run both drivers on long first stints in the hope of taking advantage of a safety car and making a risky one-pit- stop strategy work, giving its drivers a chance to vault up the order.

    Gutierrez would not be so fortunate, though. On lap 16 of the race, he crashed out of the race after a terrifying crash involving McLaren driver Fernando Alonso. Alonso’s McLaren ran over the back of Gutierrez’s car, causing the Spaniard to spear into the wall at 200 mph. His car then spun in the air after digging into the gravel before coming to rest upside down by the wall. Incredibly, both drivers walked away from the accident unharmed, with Alonso later saying he felt lucky to be alive.

    Haas now had just one car in contention, but the accident had played into Grosjean’s hands. The race had to be suspended under a red flag due to the massive amount of debris left by the crash on the track. All drivers were duly sent to the pit lane. Here, Haas rolled the dice and switched Grosjean onto the medium compound tire, allowing him to go to the very end of the race without pitting again.

    Restarting the race in ninth, Grosjean began to work his way up the order as cars ahead pitted again. With 25 laps to go, the Frenchman was running sixth, albeit with Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas — two of F1’s biggest up-and-coming talents — lurking just behind.

    Grosjean did not crack under pressure though. As the laps ticked down, he kept his Haas car ahead by perfectly managing his tires, leaving Hulkenberg and Bottas without answer. After 57 laps of racing, Grosjean crossed the line to be greeted by his Haas crew hanging over the pit wall, celebrating as furiously as the Mercedes team that had seen Nico Rosberg win the race. Grosjean had finished sixth in Haas’ debut grand prix. It was a stunning achievement.

    “It’s a win for us – it’s like a win!” Grosjean cried over the radio to his engineer, holding back the tears — before then blurting out: “I don’t even know where we finished?!”

    Speaking after the race, Grosjean said: “We did it. A bit lucky in the race with the red flag but nonetheless we had a good car. We threw it on track with no setup work, no chance to do anything during the weekend and here we are, P6 at the end.

    “I told the guys that this is a win for you, this is a win for the whole team, for the work that has been done in the last few weeks, few months. They haven’t slept much. They made it possible and this is incredible.”

    Gene Haas had made the trip to Australia to see his F1 team make its debut, and was just as delighted.

    “It’s been a long time in the making to do this,” Haas said. “A lot of people have contributed to it, so you have to think all the people starting with Günther who put this all together and kept pushing me to go out and try this.”

    Gene’s dream had become a reality.

    * * *

    Flying The Flag

    Haas’ success on debut did not just mark a victory for the team. It was a victory for F1 as a whole.

    The sport’s relationship with the United States has been frosty at best over the past decade or so. US F1 was a low ebb to hit, yet by 2012, a new race had been established at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, to widespread acclaim, boosting the sport’s profile in the USA.

    The race recently survived a financial wobble after a wash-out last October and a subsequent cut in funding from the state of Texas, but has secured its place on the 2016 calendar to ensure that fans will be able to cheer on an American team on home soil.

    As popular as the grand prix has been in Austin, in the arrival of Haas, Americans have a team to actively get behind and support. A strong connection can be forged that, in Haas’ eyes, has not been possible in the past.

    “People love sports in America. They like that competitive feeling when they’re watching sports,” Haas said during the preseason. “I think more than just being a sport though they want to have some association with it. You watch some nationals and if there’s an American team out there and Americans know that you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, Americans will be very interested in that.

    “I think the problem with F1 in the past is that they never really had any association. These are a bunch of Europeans, who are these people. I think an American in a European sport, people are going to want to see two things. They’re going to want to see how badly you do, or if you can beat these guys.

    “And if we can beat them or at least keep up with them, people are going to want to watch. They’re going to want to watch to see if you can beat them, and if you don’t, how badly you crash.”

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    Curiously, the American fans who braved the early hours to watch the Australian Grand Prix saw both ends of that very spectrum last weekend with Grosjean and Gutierrez.

    Nationalism is not a key concern for Haas in F1 though. It may race under the U.S. flag, but with factories in England and Italy, French and Mexican drivers and an Italian team principal, keeping it all American — one of US F1’s key aims — was not the priority.

    “Certainly we like to be an American team, whatever we can do to promote that, but we haven’t specifically gone out there to say we’re doing this because we’re an American team,” Haas said. “We’re doing this because we’re in motor racing and we just happen to be an American team.

    “We want to put the best pieces that we can obtain and right at the moment we felt like having a really experienced driver like Grosjean, who’s French, was the best nut to put on the steering wheel. That’s what we’re doing.

    “We’re not kind of looking at nationalism when we put this team together, we’re looking at obtaining the best possible people and products and engines and transmissions that we can so that we can win races. That’s what we’re here for, we’re here to win races. We’re not here to do it the hard way.”

    The wider success for F1 was that Haas debunked the long-running myths about new teams in the sport. It proved that given the right planning and the right approach, a startup operation did not have to settle for seeing out a spell at the very back of the grid. Turning up and being competitive from the off is entirely possible.

    And this will not have gone unnoticed. This entirely new approach to racing in F1 could be set to change the way in which new teams join the grid. Manufacturers will obviously want to keep everything in-house and promote their own technologies, but privateer operations will take note of what Haas has done.

    It’s a change in philosophy that could spark a sea change when it comes to future startup teams. The technical partnership with Ferrari is beneficial to all involved, and until Haas has designs on beating the Italian marque on-track and seeks an alternative engine supply — unlikely in the near future — being its de-facto B-team is hardly a bad thing.

    In the six years from US F1’s failure and the first seeds of thought being planted, the Haas story acts as a remarkable show of how even in the most hostile of sporting environments, success can be found. The F1 paddock is dubbed the “piranha club” due to its ruthless, high-pressure nature, but the enormity of the task is not lost on Haas.

    “Well, I tell you all of a sudden I’m sitting here in awe that I’m sitting among all these team principals from Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault and Honda and Red Bull, that’s pretty awesome,” Haas said in Australia.

    “To be sitting among this group of elite is humbling, I can say that. It’s been a long journey, I’m not sure how I really got here but here I am.”

    The Haas story is only just beginning. It may be very, very early days, but already, its arrival on the grid looks to be a force for good for both F1 and for motorsports as a whole in the United States.

    I wanna go fast

    On August 20, 1946 — almost 70 years ago — Bob Feller threw what was being called in the papers a “world record fastball.” Before his start against Washington, the U.S. Army had set up at home plate some sort of unwieldy contraption that was variously called a “Lumiline Chronograph” and “Sky Screen Cronograph.” The Army supposedly used this device measure the speed of rifle bullets.

    At that moment in time, the world record in the 100-meter dash was held by Jesse Owens at 10.2 seconds. It is now Usain Bolt’s record of 9.58 seconds.

    The world record in the 100-meter freestyle was held by Alan Ford, who had swam a special race in 1944 when the Olympics were canceled for World War II. He swam 100 meters in 55.9 seconds. Brazil’s Cesar Cielo now has the record at 46.91 seconds.

    Les Steers owned the high-jump record then at six feet, 11 inches. The seven-foot jump was something of an obsession then, and it would another 10 more years before Charlie Dumas did it. The record is now eight feet, held by Cuba’s remarkable Javier Sotomayer.

    All of this is mentioned to clarify what Bob Feller did that day in Washington. He was starting the game against the Senators (he lost) so it seems unlikely that he threw every bit as hard as he could for some quirky speed test.

    Even so, his fastball sailed through the army’s speed measuring device and was clocked at 98.6 mph. That’s pretty good, right? If you went to the ballpark, watched a starting pitcher throw a fastball and then saw 99 mph pop on the giant radar gun, you’d be pretty impressed even now. The hardest throwing starter in 2015 was Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura, who averaged about 96 mph and topped out at 101.

    But here’s the thing that’s easy to miss: Yordano Ventura and all pitchers today are having their fastballs clocked just as the ball is leaving their hands. Feller’s fastball was clocked as it was crossing home plate, 60 feet, 6 inches away.

    What’s the difference? Well, I will leave that to the scientists of Jonathan Hock’s terrific new documentary “Fastball,” which is in some theaters on Friday and available on iTunes and Amazon and all those places. Let’s just say: It’s a BIG difference.

    I should say, right up front, that I worked with Jon Hock on “Fastball,” which not only puts me one degree away from Kevin Bacon (I am in “Fastball” with Kevin Costner, and Costner was in JFK with Kevin Bacon) but also makes me a bit biased about the movie. Still, I was not THAT involved and what I love about “Fastball” has nothing to do with the parts I’m in.

    There’s a theory out there that people are throwing the ball harder than at any point in baseball history. This is because 100-mph fastballs used to be a bit like shooting stars and now they light up radar guns in every stadium practically every night. Aroldis Chapman is the king of the 100-mph fastball — Statcast had him throwing the 62 fastest pitches in 2015 — but THIRTY-SIX pitchers broke 100 last year (thank you MLB.com)*. Every team seems to have at least one bullpen guy who, on the right night, can light up triple digits.

    *I have to show you the top-five list of pitchers who broke 100 mph just you get a sense of the absurdity of Chapman:

    5. Bruce Rondon, Tigers, 53 times.

    4. Kelvin Herrera, Royals, 66 times

    3. Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees, 75 times

    2. Arquimedes Caminero, Marlins, 77 times

    1. Aroldis Chapman, Yankees nee Reds, 453 times.

    And so many more 100-mph pitchers are on the way. At Royals camp, for instance, former closer Jeff Montgomery — who was unusual because he did not rely on a fastball but instead was a four-pitch reliever — finds himself wandering around wide-eyed. “These kids throw so hard!” he says shaking his head. “It’s amazing.”

    But are pitchers really throwing harder than ever? There’s no question that MORE pitchers are throwing hard now than ever before but you might explain that like so:

    1. More and more of the game’s best arms are coming out of the bullpen. When a pitcher comes into the game and just blows it all out for an inning, he obviously throws harder — he can often add two, three or four mph to his fastball compared to starters. Back to Kansas City, Wade Davis is a great example. As a starter, he averaged about 92 mph and almost never broke 95 mph. As a reliever, he AVERAGES 96 mph and will sometimes close in on 100.

    2. There is so much more reliance on the radar gun today. It’s a star-marking device. A pitcher now knows that if he throws 100 mph, he has a fastpass to the big leagues and a place in someone’s bullpen. This means pitchers are now straining their arms to get every last mph. Which leads to:

    3. Tommy John surgery and other medical advancements are putting pitcher arms back in the game at just about full strength. Matt Harvey, for instance, underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the whole 2014 season. In the days before Tommy John surgery, he likely would have been finished as a big league pitcher. But, as it stands now, he was one of the 36 pitchers who broke 100 in 2015.

    Still, as compelling as it is to see so many pitchers throwing hard, this does not get to the original question of the fastball which is: Are people throwing HARDER than they ever did? We know the top sprinters are running faster, the top swimmers are swimming faster, the best high jumpers are jumping higher. But does anyone throw the ball harder than Walter Johnson … or Bob Feller … or Nolan Ryan … or Steve Dalkowski?

    I don’t want to give away too much from the movie — all four of those men play a major role in it, as does Chapman and the revived Justin Verlander and the remarkable Bob Gibson and the ever-talkative Goose Gossage — but what I think “Fastball” does best is explain one of baseball’s great mysteries. Why does baseball feel unbound by time in a way that no other American sport does? Why is it that in baseball, you will routinely hear people say that men who played many generations ago — Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Oscar Charleston, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Satchel Paige — are the greatest who ever played the game? You would never hear that sort of thing in football or basketball or hockey. Why is baseball different?

    As I think “Fastball” explains beautifully, the difference just might be the timelessness of the fastball. While athletes in every sport have become bigger, stronger and faster, while training methods and medical treatment have improved exponentially, while new drugs have enhanced players performances, the fastball remains. How hard did Bob Feller actually throw that day in 1946? Let’s just say that, when you see the final total, well, even Aroldis Chapman might be impressed.