What’s in a name?

So, you probably heard that Toronto Blue Jays announcing legend Jerry Howarth will not say “Indians,” when referring to Cleveland’s baseball team during this year’s American League Championship Series. He apparently has refused to use the word since 1992, when he received an eloquent letter from a Native American about the hurt caused by such nicknames.

So I’d like to, once again, talk for a few minutes about the Indians name got started. I wrote a very long piece on this subject a couple of years ago and added an addendum a few days later. That piece is not quite that long (but it’s not short either).

When I was a kid, it was an accepted fact that the Cleveland Indians were named to honor a Native American player named Louis Sockalexis.

When I was older, it was an accepted fact that the Cleveland Indians DID NOT name the team for Sockalexis, and that whole story was an invention to cover up for the nickname’s racist origins.

And, as I wrote in the even longer piece, neither one is quite fact. The truth is not exactly in the middle either; it sort of floats from side to side like a balloon dancing in the wind.

Louis Sockalexis was a brilliant, haunted, inspired and troubled baseball player as the 19th century came to a close. He was the first full-blooded Native American to play baseball in the Major Leagues. In many ways, he was the first Native American to splash on the American sports scene. He predated Jim Thorpe by about 15 years.

Sockalexis joined the Cleveland baseball team in the same decade as the Wounded Knee Massacre, to give you an idea of the timing.

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He was a physical marvel, sort of a smaller Bo Jackson. His arm was legendary. It was said that he threw a ball across the Penobscot River, a throw of more than 600 feet. It was documented that in a college game at Harvard — this while he played center field for Holy Cross — he made a throw from centerfield that sailed for more than 400 feet. He plainly had blazing speed, and there is some evidence that he could hit with power. He was something else.

The Cleveland Spiders signed Sockalexis in 1897 when he was still at Notre Dame. There are various legends about that — I highly recommend Ed Rice’s informative “Baseball’s First Indian,” for details — but two things seem clear:

1. Socklaexis was an amazing talent. Cleveland reportedly paid him $1,500, a tidy sum. And his signing was pretty big news.

2. Sockalexis already had a drinking problem. He had been arrested while at Notre Dame for an incident at a bar. There is some evidence that Cleveland had a “no-drinking” clause in the contract.

Sockalexis was an immediate phenomenon. Part of this was his play. In his first six exhibition games, according to reports, he had eight outfield assists — four of them at the plate. But it was his ethnicity, as a full-blooded American Indian, that sparked the wonder of fans and the creative juices of reporters. Fans cheered and taunted him from the start. And reporters filled story after story with war whoops and tomahawks and firewater. The Sporting News called him “The Best Advertised Player In The Business.”

Here, in the Louisville Courier-Journal, would be one of the more positive mentions of Sockalexis:

“Sockalexis, the Indian, was cheered at almost every move,” wrote the Louisville Courier-Journal after his first game. “The crowd tried to have some fun with Socklalexis’ name and imitated the war whoop of various Indian tribes, to all of which the handsome Indian smiled good-naturedly. He is educated and cultivated.”

Most of the other stories were much darker.  At games, he received threats, was called every conceivable name, and he never could escape the whoops that echoed wherever he played. In the papers, he was called a savage (sometimes a noble savage), a red man, a redskin, and so on. Sometimes, he was called these things in a matter-of-fact way, the way you might call a pitcher a “lefty.” Sometimes, he was called these things in an obviously degrading way.

“Had I cared,” he told the Milwaukee Journal in 1898, “they would have driven me out of the business long ago. I got it from the very first day I played.”

This is not the story of Sockalexis, not exactly. What’s important to know is that his career turned sour very quickly. He might have been an alcoholic when he joined the Spiders, but his drinking grew worse as he endured the strain of being a pioneer. After a very good first year in 1897, his skills declined rapidly. By 1898, he was essentially done as a player. By 1899, he was out of baseball.

But, it is true that during his time he had a real impact on the Cleveland Spiders. During that time, the Spiders were often referred to in newspaper stories as “Indians” or “Red Men” or “Warriors” or some such thing. There are at least three reasons for this.

One, just about everybody DESPISED the Spiders nickname.

Two, the Spiders were a mediocre team (then a dreadful one) and even though they did feature Hall of Famers Jesse Burkett and Cy Young, Sockalexis was the most interesting thing going on.

And three, the “Indians” nickname was, more often than not, used pejoratively — “derogatory slurs directed at Sockalexis,” as Ed Rice writes.

People tend to think there’s a direct line between the Cleveland Indians today and the Spiders of Sockalexis, but it isn’t so. The Cleveland Spiders played in the National League and for various reasons — mainly because the Spiders’ owner bought a team in St. Louis and decided to abandon Cleveland — the team drew so few fans in 1899 that they were forced by the other teams to play 112 of their 154 games on the road.

After the season, the Spiders were contracted along with teams in Washington, Baltimore, and Louisville. It was that outrage that, in part, led to the ascension of the American League.

And it was a completely different Cleveland team that debuted with the now-major-league American League in 1901. The team was supposed to be called the Cleveland Bluebirds, because that apparently was the only name anyone could think of that was more humiliating than Spiders (and the players were sent out wearing bright blue uniforms).

For headline use, the name was shortened to Blues, but nobody liked that either. In 1902, the players voted to call themselves the Bronchos because of course they did*. Nobody bought the Bronchos name though, and then during the 1902 season the team acquired the phenomenal Nap Lajoie.

*It’s sort of like the way Brian decided to call his crime-fighting gang the “The Bruntouchables” on “Limitless.” I miss that show.

Lajoie was already a legend. He’d won two batting titles, and he’d hit .426 for Philadelphia in 1901. The American League was, in many ways, built around him. So when Cleveland got him, the team almost immediately started being known as the Naps. They were the Naps for a decade or so.

By 1914, though, the Naps name seemed pretty ridiculous. The team was terrible and Lajoie was 39 years old and done. More than one joke was made about how the team needed a Nap. Lajoie limped back to Philadelphia for a couple more seasons, and Cleveland needed a new nickname.

It’s often said that there was a contest to name the 1915 Cleveland baseball team, but that isn’t exactly right. Owner Charles Somers put together a task force of sportswriters from the four Cleveland newspapers and charged them with coming up with a name for the team.

Best I can tell from all the research, there were two major factors in choosing Indians.

1. Native American names were all the rage in 1914 because that was the year of Boston’s Miracle Braves, who were in last place on July 4 and then somehow won 70 of their last 89 games to win the National League by 10 1/2 games. Boston then swept the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. The nation was whooping for the Braves, and so a Native American nickname made a lot of sense.

2. Cleveland did have that Sockalexis connection from the 19th century when the team was often called the Indians. This from the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“Many years ago there was an Indian named Sockalexis who was the star player of the Cleveland baseball club. As a batter, fielder and base runner he was a marvel. Sockalexis so outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team. The fans throughout the country began to call the Clevelanders “the Indians.” It was an honorable name, and while it stuck the team made an excellent record. It has now been decided to revive this name.”

People will argue forever about whether the Indians name was created in a cynical ploy to both mock and cash in on Native American culture — not unlike singing in blackface — or if it was a way to honor a pioneering Native American baseball player who, for a short time, thrilled people with his play. People will forever argue if the Chief Wahoo logo, which apparently was inspired by the “Little Indian” cartoon that would run in the newspaper, is a harmless caricature or a racist one. The split is fierce and passionate.

I have made my opinion clear on the subject: Even as a lifelong Cleveland baseball fan I still would LOVE for the team to change its name and, even more, I would LOVE for that Chief Wahoo logo to disappear. Getting rid of both seems to me such an easy way to raise the discourse at a time in America when we could use that.

Others fight ferociously to keep the name and the logo because they believe it has tradition (and, they might add, too many don’t respect tradition) and they will say it clearly is not meant to demean anyone.

In other words: The nickname fight has come to stand in for other larger fights, fights over political correctness and the scope of empathy and the power of history and the importance of connecting with and breaking from the past. That stuff sounds a lot like politics. We try not to do politics here.

In other words, I think there is only one thing we all can agree on: Bronchos is a cool name. The H is what makes it cool.

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    Well, that was weird

    It’s easy to lose sight sometimes of just how much baseball has changed over the last few years. This came into focus during the ninth inning of the Giants-Cubs game on Tuesday night.

    The Giants led the Cubs 5-2 going into the ninth. And let’s just say, for fun, that you were watching the game in The Good Place with late great managing stars Earl Weaver, Casey Stengel, Walter Alston and Sparky Anderson.

    “$*%$*#*!” says Weaver. “How did the $%#*$#* Cubs get into the playoffs?”

    Yes. Well. San Francisco did lead 5-2 in large part because Giants starter Matt Moore, somewhat absurdly, had pitched an absolute gem. Moore had once been the best pitching prospect in baseball, but that was before he snapped his UCL.

    “What in the world is a UCL?” Alston asks.

    Ulnar Collateral Ligament. It’s the tissue that connects the inner arm to the inner forearm — right around the shoulder. It’s the ligament that Tommy John had repaired in that miracle surgery.

    “Ah yes,” Alston says. “I do remember Tommy. Good sink on his pitches.”

    In any case, he struggled after that and his former team, the Tampa Bay Rays …

    “I apologize,” Stengel says. “Did you say there is a Major League Baseball team playing in Tampa?”

    Well, technically, they play in St. Petersburg, but yes, they’re in that Tampa Bay area.

    “Wonders never cease,” he says.

    Point is, Tampa Bay gave up on him this year and dealt him to San Francisco. And he pitched moderately well for the Giants. But on this day, Moore pitched eight marvelous innings, striking out 10, allowing just two hits and only one — a hanging breaking-ball homer to Chicago’s David Ross — of consequence. And then, of course, he was pulled before the ninth inning.

    “What exactly is happening?” Alston would ask. “Why is he out of this game? Is he hurt again? I never did trust that Tommy John surgery.”

    No, you explain. It’s just that he has already thrown 120 pitches.

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    “Is that a lot?” Alston asks. He starts to wonder how many pitches he’d allowed Koufax to throw before the guy’s arm almost fell off.

    Yes, you explain, in modern times it is quite a lot. Pitchers almost never throw 120 pitches these days. Only 13 pitchers all years threw more than 120 pitches in a game (though one WAS Matt Moore back in August when he threw an Earth-shaking 133 pitches).

    “That’s the biggest &$&#*$&# I’ve ever ##^$*#@ heard,” Weaver says. “Jim Palmer wasn’t even warmed up until he threw 120 pitches.”

    Well, see, it is done to protect pitchers’ arms from injury.

    “What a load of $#&$&#*#*,” Weaver says.

    “No, Mr. Weaver, wait just a minute,” Casey Stengel says. “It is true that in my day a pitcher’s arm was indeed an endangered species. I remember one pitcher for Dubuque, threw a good live fast one, until one day I see him walk in limping. Says he hurt his arm. I say, well if it’s your arm that’s ‘a hurtin’, why you limping …”

    Sorry, Casey, the game is getting ready to start here again.

    “I guess my point is, it’s good to limit these pitchers because, I assume, they don’t ever get hurt now that they’re limited.”

    No, pitchers still get hurt a lot.

    “Ah,” Stengel says. And he rubs his chin.

    Well, anyway, pitch count is not the only reason Moore was pulled. If Giants manager Bruce Bochy had stayed with Moore, he would have been facing the Cubs’ lineup for the fourth time.

    “So?” Anderson asks.

    So, you say, there is solid evidence that shows pitchers do not fare well when facing the lineup for the fourth time.

    Alston makes a particularly sour face.

    “Yes,” Anderson says. “I can see that. So who is this Derek Law fellow? He the Cubs’ best pitcher, I assume.”

    Well, no, Derek Law is not actually the Cubs’ best pitcher. He is a 25-year-old rookie who had kicked around the minors for years. But he’d been given a chance this year, and he pitched pretty well, and, even more, he had shown real moxie in pitching two scoreless innings in Game 3.

    “Well,” Weaver says, “I like moxie. OK, this is why you $#&$&#* trust the manager. Bochy is following his hunch. I like that. I respect it. Let this kid finish it off.”

    Well, no, he wasn’t put in to finish it off. He was put in to retire Chicago’s Kris Bryant, the probable National League MVP. Instead, Bryant hits a ground-ball single off Law to lead off the inning. Bochy goes to the mound.

    “Where is he going?” Alston asks.

    He’s pulling Law out of the game to bring in Javier Lopez, of course.

    “What the $($&$^@*#?” Weaver asks.

    Well, see, lefty Anthony Rizzo is coming up. And Lopez is a lefty reliever who Bochy tends to bring in to face lefty batters.

    “So he’s bringing in this young man to get one batter out?” Alston asks.

    Well, he’s not that young. He’s 38 years old.

    “That’s young to me,” Alston says.

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    OK, well, Bochy does this pretty often. He has brought Lopez in to face one batter 40 times this year.

    “This Lopez must have an impeccable record of success to be kept on the team if his job is only to get one batter out,” Stengel asks.

    Well, not really this year. He kind of has control problems. See, look how he walks Anthony Rizzo.

    “That seems unfortunate,” Stengel says.

    “So you’re telling me he’s coming out of the game now?” Alston asks.

    Yep. Here comes Sergio Romo.

    “Oh,” Stengel says, “yes. I’m well aware of this gentlemen. I believe he pitched a few speedy ones against us in the ‘62 Series.”

    No, he’s not quite that old. But he was the Giants’ closer a couple of years ago.

    “What in heaven’s name is a closer?” Alston asks.

    He’s the guy that closes out games.

    “What does a closer close if there is not a game to close?” Stengel asks.

    He sits and watches.

    “Wait, so if the Giants have a closer, why have they not called him out to pitch?” Alston asks.

    Good question. It seems the Giants have lost faith in their closer, Santiago Casilla. He had some poor outings in the second half.

    “My head hurts,” Sparky says as Ben Zobrist doubles to score one run and put runners on second and third base with nobody out. The score is now 5-3.

    Shortstop Addison Russell is coming up, and he hits right-handed and, no, wait, it looks like Cubs manager Joe Maddon is hopping into action. He’s going to pinch-hit Chris Coghlan, a left-handed batter.

    “Excuse me,” Sparky says.

    Yes.

    “I’m looking at your statistics here, and it shows that this Russell kid had 95 RBIs this year.”

    Yes, that’s right.

    “Why in the world is the manager pinch-hitting for a guy who had 95 RBIs?”

    Well, um, teams don’t really use RBIs much these days to judge players’ performances.

    “You’re joking,” Sparky says.

    No, see, RBIs are a contextual statistic that rely heavily on teammates and timing. There are more telling statistics such as, well, maybe we don’t need to get into that right now.

    “You’re telling me this manager prefers a .188 $(%*%&# hitter over a clutch player with 95 $^#^$*# RBIs?” Weaver asks.

    It’s complicated.

    “Well, I’m at a loss,” Sparky says.

    Please, let’s not start talking about pitcher wins and losses. Point is, pinch-hitting Coghlan is probably just a deke by Maddon. He probably just wants to inspire Bochy to take Romo out of the game. And it’s working. Look, here comes Will Smith.

    “The Fresh Prince!” Weaver shouts.

    The other managers all look at him curiously.

    “I had a $#$&#*# television,” he says.

    No, it’s not the same guy. This Will Smith is another lefty specialist.

    “How many lefty specialists can one team employ?” Stengel says.

    “Say,” Alston says. “Does this Joe Maddon fellow have a right-handed hitter to use here?”

    Good eye, Mr. Alston. He does, a darned good one, a rookie named Wilson Contreras. Contreras hit .282 with some power this year.

    “What about his RBIs?” Sparky says. “Is he clutch?”

    Well, he’s clutch in this situation. Contreras hits a ground-ball single to tie the game up. Now, it’s Jason Heyward’s turn to hit. He bunts …

    “Yes, finally something I understand,” Alston says.

    “I $&#^#^#* hate the bunt,” Weaver says.

    Yes, Mr. Weaver, you are quite famous for that. People will love you for your aversion to the bunt. Many consider you the father of modern baseball strategy.

    “They do?” Weaver asks. “You hear that Sparky?”

    “How many World Series did you win again, Earl?” Sparky says.

    “&^$]$#*#* you,” Weaver says.

    Anyway, the bunt fails — should be a double play — but shortstop Brandon Crawford throws the ball away. So Heyward ends up on second base with one out and the score tied. Now, Bochy pulls Will Smith because a righty is coming to the plate. In comes reliever Hunter Strickland.

    “I’m afraid I’ve lost track,” ol’ Casey says. “How many pitchers does that make this inning?”

    That would be five pitchers.

    “I believe that equals the number of pitchers I used for the entire 1950 World Series,” he says.

    Yes. That is true.

    “Yes,” Stengel says, and then he turns to Sparky Anderson and says, “Sir, how many World Series did YOU win?”

    “Three,” Anderson says fiercely.

    “Very good,” Stengel says happily and he hums a happy tune to himself.

    Strickland gets an 0-2 count on the Cubs’ young star Javier Baez, and then he drills a ground ball up the middle for a base hit. That scores Heyward. And the Cubs lead 6-5.

    “OK, can we take this from the top?” Walter Alston asks. “Why was it again that this Moore youngster could not pitch in the ninth inning?”

    I’m afraid we have to keep moving forward, Mr. Alston. The Giants come up in the bottom of the ninth, down a run, against Aroldis Chapman. The side strikes out on 12 pitches. The Cubs are going to the National League Championship Series.

    “Well,” Weaver says. “I don’t know much. But I’ll tell you one thing. That $(#*$*#&#*@ Chapman guy throws %(#*$*#* hard.”

    The Room Where It Happened

    KANSAS CITY — Not that it matters much, but I don’t believe that I’ve been in this room for 10 years. It’s smaller than I remember.

    Ten years. It seems impossible that much time has passed, but calendars reject sentiment. Ten years ago, Buck O’Neil died. He was 94 years old. He was a month away from 95. He had been sick for two months. Somehow, it still felt sudden.

    And here we are, sitting in a small conference room on the second floor of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and this was the place where Buck O’Neil taught his enduring lesson of grace. There is something jolting about sitting in here today.

    Buck O’Neil was a fine baseball player in the Negro Leagues — a good fielding first baseman who cracked enough line drives that he won one batting title and just missed a second. Buck was a tremendous Negro Leagues manager, respected and admired and beloved. Buck was a pioneering Major League scout; he signed Lou Brock and Joe Carter and Lee Smith and Oscar Gamble and, for all intents and purposes, Ernie Banks. He was Banks’ first professional manager and the man who facilitated Mr. Cub’s journey to the Chicago Cubs. More than any of that, Buck was Ernie Banks’ inspiration.

    “Let’s play two,” Ernie Banks would say many times. “That was Buck O’Neil.”

    Buck was the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues. He was the force behind the building of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He was the game’s ultimate storyteller, the conscience of the sport, the keeper of the Negro Leagues flame. And more than any of that, he was the most big-hearted person I’ve ever known.

    All of this led to that day, February 27, 2006, the day Buck O’Neil was going to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote a little something about that day already but being in this room, the room we were sitting in when Buck found out that he did not get enough Hall of Fame votes, makes me think of something a little bit different.

    That year, I was writing the book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.” It was my first book, and I had no idea how to do one. I kept doing these crazy outlines to map it out. I’d take out colored markers and draw all these lines. I’d take index cards and put them in dizzying shapes. I kept drawing arrows and thought bubbles. It goes without saying that I was getting nowhere.

    But one thing I knew: Buck O’Neil getting into the Hall of Fame was the big finish. That was the crescendo. When the movie version of the book came out (starring Morgan Freeman!), when the Broadway show came out (still pitching Lin Manuel-Miranda) it would end with sweeping music, with Buck O’Neil on that stage in Cooperstown, with Buck singing his theme song (“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you!”) and everyone singing along, and this wonderful man finally getting his due. It had to end that way.

    Then, of course, it didn’t. No, I was sitting in that chair over there, to the left, and Buck was sitting 10 feet away from me against the far wall, and Bob Kendrick — now president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — looked ashen as he said, “Buck, we didn’t get the votes.”

    And Buck did this little shudder. It was tiny, barely noticeable and it lasted a tenth of a second, if that. I often try to shake that shudder from my mind. Then he quickly said, “Well, that’s how the cookie crumbles.”

    I was so angry. A part of me wants to be angry again as I return to this room. It was just so WRONG. This man had lived the greatest baseball life the world had allowed him. Could he have been a big Major League Baseball star? We’ll never know. Could he have been Casey Stengel as a manager? We’ll never know. What we do know is that he had played with heart and managed with soul and dedicated himself to finding the next baseball stars, to bringing new fans into this sport he loved more than anything, to be sure that great players cheated by history were never forgotten.

    And even at the end, at the very end, they told him he wasn’t good enough.

    The anger subsided. Barely two minutes after being told he was not voted into the Hall of Fame, he said that he would be willing — honored, even — to speak on behalf of the 17 deceased Negro Leaguers who were elected. I was shocked.

    “You’d do that?” I asked him.

    “Son,” he said, “what has my life been about?”

    Two days after that, he called me and asked me to write a column thanking everyone for their support. “I never felt more loved,” he said. And I realized, more slowly than I should have, that this man didn’t need the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame needed him.

    And the Hall of Fame has embraced Buck. There’s a statue of him inside the museum. The Buck O’Neil Award, given to people around baseball who embody his spirit, is given out every other year. And along the way Buck O’Neil received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous other awards. Thursday, on the 10th anniversary of his death, Kansas City’s Broadway Bridge — one of the iconic structures in town — was renamed the John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil Bridge. It was touching and fitting. Buck O’Neil often talked about bridges. He used to say that we often honor the people who cross that bridge — Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso and so on.

    And we don’t often honor those who built the bridge.

    But even after I realized that Buck’s Hall of Fame snub was no tragedy — and it had no impact on his grand life — there was still a matter of how to end my first book. I no longer had that stirring, Disney-esque final scene. I thought about ending it with his beautiful Hall of Fame speech for the 17 deceased Negro Leaguers, a testament to his spirit. I thought about ending it with one of my favorite Buck O’Neil stories, the red dress story or the Nancy story or the Billy Williams story or … there are a million.

    In the end, unfortunately, there was only one way to finish the book. On Oct. 6, 2006, we bought a new piano. Our oldest daughter was four years old then, our youngest was just one, and we wanted them to grow up in a house of music. That night, I was pressing piano keys in some tuneless melody when the phone rang. Buck was gone.

    And I ended the book like so.

    Buck lasted a week longer than friends and doctors expected. Buck O’Neil died that October night I was trying to play jazz on a shiny new black piano. Baseball and jazz, he had always said, were the two best things in the world. Of course, I was just plinking keys on a piano. I wasn’t really playing jazz.

    “It’s all jazz,” Buck had said.

    Buck was ninety-four years old, almost ninety-five. He asked me not to cry when he died, but I did anyway.

    Ten years. I still think about Buck O’Neil at least once every single day.

    Birds of a feather

    You can sum up the American League Wild Card game by simply saying that Tuesday night, Baltimore and Toronto played a tightly-pitched,11-inning game and Orioles manager Buck Showalter used seven pitchers, none of whom were reliever Zach Britton. Inexplicable is a word that comes to mind.

    Only, we have to be honest about this: It isn’t inexplicable at all.

    Let’s look at two key situations from Tuesday night:

    First, it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, the score is tied, and Toronto has runners on first and second with only one out. Russell Martin comes to the plate. If you are Baltimore, you are one single away from losing the game and going home for the winter.

    The obvious thing you would want in this situation is (A) a strikeout pitcher or (B) an extreme ground-ball pitcher who will coax the double play.

    Zach Britton, conveniently, is both. He strikes out 10 batters per nine innings. But more to the point, he’s the most extreme ground-ball pitcher in baseball — his 80-percent ground-ball percentage this year was the highest EVER RECORDED.

    Instead, Showalter put in 33-year-old Darren O’Day. Now, it’s true that O’Day has proven to be something of a strikeout pitcher in his circuitous career, though he’s not exactly Aroldis Chapman. But as for Plan B, no, he doesn’t induce grounders. At all. He’s a pure fly-ball pitcher (35-percent ground-ball percentage last two years). He had not thrown a double-play grounder all year — and he had only thrown four in his entire career. Again, inexplicable is a word that comes to mind.

    So what does O’Day do? He gets Martin to hit a double-play ground ball. Because: Baseball.

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    “So hilarious seeing these stats heads get so worked up about Buck’s bullpen moves,” tweeted my friend and stat-needler C.J. Nitkowski. “Experience & instincts > your spreadsheet.”

    We’ll get back to that in a minute.

    Second situation: It’s the bottom of the 11th inning, score still tied, one out, and the top of the Blue Jays’ lineup is due up. The top of the Blue Jays’ lineup is pretty darned good. Devon Travis hit .300 this year with some power. Josh Donaldson won the MVP award last year and was almost as good offensively this year. Edwin Encarnacion has hit the second-most home runs in baseball the last three years.

    Now, once again, you are in peril of losing. What you would want in this situation is your best available pitcher. That is obviously Zach Britton. He had one of the greatest relief-pitching seasons ever, regardless of which type of statistic you want to use — he had an 0.54 ERA, the league slugged .209 against him, he was 47 for 47 in save opportunities, he led the league in win probability added and so on.

    Instead, Showalter put in 32-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez. Until one month ago, Jimenez was pitching so badly it was fair to wonder if the Orioles would release him even with another $13-plus million due to him. In September, though, he pitched better. It was only five starts, but the Orioles won four of them, and as they said on TV, Jimenez had a 2.31 ERA over that time — like ERA over five starts means anything.

    “No one has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo,” Showalter said, not only spouting the nonsense philosophy of small-sample size but also just being ridiculous. Over those five starts, Jimenez’s batting average on balls in play — the famed BABIP — was a ludicrously low .176. The rest of the year, it was .355. Do they really think that he suddenly learned how to get hitters to direct the ball right at fielders? The guy was good in September, but he was also lucky. Either way, he’s not Zach Britton. Once again, inexplicable is a word that comes to mind.

    Travis smashed a line-drive single to left, couldn’t have hit it harder.

    Donaldson smashed a line-drive single to left, couldn’t have hit it harder.

    First and third, one out, season on the line, Showalter decided his best bet was to let Jimenez pitch to Encarnacion. The 440-foot bomb that Encarnacion smashed was only surprising in that it wasn’t 450 feet.

    A little while later, Nitkowski tweeted a photograph of a hand waving a white flag.

    But I think C.J.’s original tweet is more to the point: Experience and instincts. Showalter isn’t the only major league manager who would have gone to absurd lengths to avoid pitching Zach Britton in a tie game on the road. He’s in the majority.

    There’s a notion all around baseball, one that has been hammered home by constant reinforcement for 30-plus years, that it takes a special kind of person to pitch the last inning with a small lead. Pitching in a tie game — any good pitcher can do that. Pitching with a small deficit — any good pitcher can do that. But to close out a lead, yes, that takes someone with unique and ineffable skills.

    In managers’ minds, closers are the brain surgeons of baseball. Others can operate on your liver, your prostate, even your heart. But you don’t want any of those doctors messing around with your brain.

    So, if the Orioles were ever going to score a run (an unlikely possibility based on the feebleness of their lineup in the late innings) Showalter wanted, NEEDED, his brain surgeon. No one else could bring the team home. It’s not inexplicable. It happens practically every day all around baseball.

    It is, however, ludicrous and illogical and many of Nitkowski’s spreadsheet friends have been making that case for years. People often argue about the value of a closer. This year, many people think that Britton should win the American League Cy Young Award even though he only pitched 67 innings, and even though he mostly pitched in games that the Orioles were all-but-certain to win anyway.

    But Showalter just gave a dramatic demonstration of why Britton ABSOLUTELY SHOULD NOT win the Cy Young Award.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/0JvrrQdTccE4?autoPlay=false]

    Look: Here’s a very general little chart to pull out whenever a closer comes into a game in the ninth inning. This is the team’s general likelihood of winning a game with a lead going into the last half-inning:

    When up one run: 79-82 percent.

    When up two runs: 90-92 percent.

    When up three runs: 95-97 percent.

    Britton saved all 16 of his one-run save opportunities, which is impressive. You would expect an average pitcher to blow three of those, a good pitcher would probably blow one or two. Britton did not allow a single run in one-run save opportunities, which speaks to his awesomeness (and let me state for the record, I do think Britton is awesome … this is about role, not player).

    Britton saved all 16 of his two-run save opportunities, which is a bit less impressive. It’s like a 91-percent free-throw shooter making 16 straight free throws or a 91-percent kicker from 40-yards-and-in making 16 consecutive kicks of that length. Nice but hardly earth-shaking.

    Britton saved all 15 of his three-plus-run save opportunities (he had two four-run saves because he came in with men on base). These were a complete waste of his time and talent. You would expect any pitcher to save those. Putting in a pitcher to blow any of those games would have been like finding one of the three percent of climate scientists who do not believe the Earth is warming or (if it is warming) that human beings are the main cause.*

    *I would not normally use a politically-charged topic like global warming as an example, but when you type in 97 percent into a search engine, you are flooded with the 97 percent climate scientist consensus. I could have used the three percent of customers who apparently are not satisfied with Geico, but that would have been pretty obscure.

    All of which to say: Zach Britton had a closer year for the ages … and it really didn’t add up to all that much because of how he was used. Yes, of course, every win counts, and closing out all those one-run leads matters. But the limitations managers put on these great pitchers is absurd. Throwing your best pitcher only when you have a lead is self-defeating; you are probably going to win those games anyway. It’s the tossup games, when you are tied, even when you are down a run, that demand greatness.

    All of this has been obvious to the spreadsheeters for a long time, but the Orioles gave us a vivid display of it on Tuesday. No, the Orioles didn’t lose because of Showalter’s choice to leave Britton in the bullpen. They lost because they didn’t get a hit the last five innings of the game. They lost because Michael Bourn misjudged a catchable fly ball. And so on.

    But a manager cannot win or lose a game anyway. What a manager can do is give his team the best chance to win, to extend their chances. When you are tied on the road and your offense is tanking, your pitchers cannot win the game for you. What they can do is give you more time. In the bottom of the ninth, the Orioles desperately needed just to make it to the 10th. In the bottom of the 11th, the Orioles desperately needed just to make it to the 12th.

    Showalter decided to take his chances based on experience and instincts and the overriding belief that he needed Britton and only Britton in case the team got a lead.

    Unfortunately, the lead will not come until next April.

    Racing Roots: Kevin Harvick

    Kevin Harvick wasn’t supposed to be a NASCAR superstar. The Bakersfield, Calif., native started his racing career in back alleys and nondescript warehouses. Now, he’s flying around the world and winning Sprint Cup races at a breakneck pace.

    Harvick returns to his hometown on “Racing Roots” to track his journey from childhood race tracks to NASCAR’s Victory Lane.

    Star Light, Star Bright

    When an actor dies young, we might think of moments, scenes, pictures, of Marilyn Monroe’s dress rising up as she stands over a grate, or Heath Ledger in grisly makeup embodying pure evil or Philip Seymour Hoffman telling the kid not to worry about being unpopular because he will meet his classmates again on the long journey to the middle.

    When a singer dies young, we might think of the music, of Janis Joplin’s wail, of Kurt Cobain’s raspy growl, of Whitney Houston’s soaring national anthem that skyrocketed over the Super Bowl.

    But when an athlete dies young, we think of a future that should have been.

    Jose Fernandez was one of the best young pitchers in baseball history. We don’t want to get bogged down with statistics, not in the tear-choked aftermath of this tragedy, but there is a statistic called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). It attempts to break apart the things a pitcher firmly controls (strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed) from things that are at least somewhat beyond his command (hits allowed).

    All but one of the top 30 starting pitchers in FIP are from the dead-ball era, when spitballs were legal, when soiled and scuffed baseballs were put back in play, when home runs were freak events. There is only one exception among the 30: Jose Fernandez. His FIP of 2.43 is so absurdly good, so much better than any of the great pitchers of the last 100 years, that it leaves you wondering if he was simply playing a different game than everyone else.

    He was born in Cuba and almost from the time he was old enough to dream, he dreamt of defecting to America. His stepfather, Ramon, made it out in 2005, when Jose was 12. He and his mother, Maritza, would try again and again for the next three years to join him. They were caught and stopped three times. After one of the failed escapes — when his boat was boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard with the lights of Miami flickering just off in the distance — Jose was returned to Cuba and spent three months in prison. He was expelled from school. He was threatened repeatedly. But the American dream would not die.

    The fourth time Maritza and Jose tried to defect, they made it into the boat. For three days, they tossed and turned in the waves. At one point, the story goes, Maritza fell into the Gulf of Mexico and Jose dove into the water and brought her back. He was 15 years old.

    He was not a baseball phenom, not yet. When Orlando Chinea, a former Cuban pitching coach and guru, first saw Fernandez pitch, he saw a young man with a fastball that topped out in the low 80s and a curveball that barely curved. Neither of these things promised future stardom. But Chinea saw something. They began working together, but not with a baseball. Fernandez chopped wood. He flipped tires. He swam, and he stretched, and he ran up hills, and he pushed cars. Chinea’s imagination for drills — he once had Fernandez run around with a snorkel mask to give him better lung capacity — was endless. So was Fernandez’s work ethic. He would tell himself, again and again, that America was a big country and that the only way he would ever succeed in such a big country was to work harder than anyone else.

    How quickly did Jose Fernandez emerge on the scene? In 2012, when he was 19, Baseball America — the bible of baseball scouting — wrote that he “profiles as a No. 2 starter, though he’ll need time to develop.” One year later, when he was 20, they wrote, “He could reach MIami by mid-season and has the stuff and mindset to become a true No. 1 starter.”

    As it turned out, Fernandez moved even faster than that. He made the Marlins out of spring training in 2013 and gave up one run total in his first two starts. The Marlins were careful with him, never letting him pitch a complete game, always watching his pitch count closely. He still won Rookie of the Year. By traditional statistics, he went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA — spectacular enough. But by various advanced metrics, Fernandez’s season was the best in almost 40 years dating back to a pitcher named Mark Fidrych.

    Crash Davis, in the classic movie “Bull Durham,” said that the secret to baseball is playing with fear and arrogance. That was Jose Fernandez. He astonished coaches and teammates with both his drive and his cockiness. Troy Tulowitzki told a wonderful story to Sports Illustrated about a time when he hit a line drive right back at the mound, and Fernandez somehow snagged it.

    “You caught that?” Tulowitzki shouted.

    “Yeah,” Fernandez said. “Abracadabra.”

    Well, he was magical. He talked trash, he stomped, he pumped his fist, he left no doubts about his self-belief. But he was also a force of nature who never stopped working harder than anyone else, who repeatedly came back from the abyss. At 21 years old, he became the youngest Opening Day starter since Dwight Gooden. A month later, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. A year later, he came back and, pitching through pain, picked right up as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Through it all, he won 17 consecutive home games, a record.

    Then came this year, and words cannot begin to capture how much fun it was to watch Jose Fernandez pitch. He decided to cut back on his miraculous two-seam fastball — a pitch that would sometimes seem to explode in mid-air it moved so much — because he thought it was too hard on his arm. Instead, he mixed in a few more curves and sliders and changeups. He would throw a high-90s fastball and follow it up with a curveball that moved like a slider (or a slider that moved like a curve) and then a change-up would bedazzle the hitter — it was symphonic.

    To quote one more movie, there’s the scene in “A River Runs Through It” where the narrator returns home after years away and goes fly fishing with his brother. He watches his brother’s remarkable form in the water.

    “And I realized that in the time I was away,” he said, “my brother had become an artist.”

    Jose Fernandez became an artist in 2016. He struck out an absurd 12.5 batters per nine innings, the highest rate since Randy Johnson some 15 years ago. He gave up one or fewer runs in half his starts. He made hitters look silly. And it was joyous.

    What is it about great athletes that connect so powerfully with us, that makes us feel like we know them? It’s a hard thing to explain, but I suppose it has something to do with the energy and force that radiates from them when they’re playing. Jose Fernandez was a big man, but there was a lightness about the way he moved. He had a face that changed dramatically with expression, so that he glowed when he smiled and he darkened when intense. He threw pitches that boggled the imagination. We did not have to know him to know him.

    This is how it is with athletes. Jose Fernandez was a man first, of course, a young man who by all accounts was coming into his own, figuring out his place in the world. But he was also a brilliant athlete, and in the minutes after hearing about his shocking boating accident, we ponder the loss of a 24-year-old pitching genius. The most powerful images are not of the past but of a missing future, of brilliant strikeouts that will not be, of those blaring cheers that will instead be silence, of a Hall of Fame ceremony for a kid who escaped Cuba and became a star that would have melted our hearts.

    The Fame Game

    Let’s start with the obvious: Google News counts don’t really tell us very much about where we stand as a society. There is too much static and noise in these things. “Kim Kardashian” (8,090,000) will always dwarf “Yo Yo Ma” (481,000). That doesn’t really mean we respect or care more about the first search string.

    Still, this seems pretty daunting to me.

    Google News search: “Tim Tebow” and “baseball,” and you get 475,000 results.

    Google News search: “Mike Trout” and “baseball,” and you get 109,000 results.

    It isn’t just the number of results either. On top of the Tebow string you have general news stories — Tebow workouts ready to begin, where Tebow’s baseball journey could go from here, etc.

    On top of the Mike Trout string are these headlines:

    “ESPN columnist: Mike Trout’s too boring to win MVP.”

    “Mike Trout has strong case for AL MVP, but no one cares.”

    “Baseball Superstar Mike Trout involved in vehicle crash.”

    “The Angels Should Trade Mike Trout.”

    Now, this thing is about Trout, not Tebow — I’m only using him as a point of comparison. Tebow is a young man of strong faith and deep conviction. He was a fantastic college quarterback, one of the best in the history of the sport. He graduated seven years ago. He was a contentious NFL draft choice because people disagreed how his skills (athleticism, running ability, powerful competitive spirit, winning history) and flaws (erratic arm, for starters) would play out in the NFL. His brief run as a starter in Denver, where his team won games but he proved to be profoundly inaccurate, did not settle the dispute. He played his last regular season NFL game in 2012. He decided a while ago to dedicate himself to baseball for the first time since high school, sparking both admiration and sneering from various sides.

    Mike Trout, meanwhile, plays baseball like Willie Mays more or less every day.

    So why is Tebow so much more interesting to us than Mike Trout? Why is the best player in baseball so far outside of the American Zeitgeist. Why is it that Tebow giving a public baseball tryout stops the sports world cold, but Trout proposing to his high school sweetheart by skywriter does not trigger even a tremor? Why is that the top-100 social media athlete (Facebook likes plus Twitter followers) will include numerous NBA players, NFL players, MMA fighters, pro wrestlers, golfers, tennis players, a dozen or more soccer stars, a diver, a snowboarder, a couple of skateboarders, a badminton hero, race car drivers and numerous retired athletes but no Mike Trout?

    This is where the story usually bends to gripe about baseball losing its place as a national sport. But I think there’s something else going on.

    The knock on Trout, as the headlines above suggest, is that he’s boring. But what does that really mean? Is he boring because he doesn’t say interesting things? That covers 90 percent of all famous athletes. Is he boring because he has an effective but monotonous style of play, like Tim Duncan? Absolutely not — the guy hits bombs, makes breathtaking catches, runs like the wind.

    So what makes him “boring?”

    Excellence. That’s all. Trout is consistently excellent in ways that no one else is, in ways that no one has been in baseball for a very long time. He’s consistently excellent on the field, of course, where by WAR he has been the best player in the American League every single year for the last five years. The last player to do that? Right: Babe Ruth.

    Other players come and go. At first, the argument for best player in baseball was between Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Then it was Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto. Last year, people talked about Bryce Harper challenging Trout as best player in baseball. This year, you have Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve and Kris Bryant.

    Always, though, it ends up with Trout. The staggering variety of his brilliance — his speed, his power, his patience, his defense, his bludgeoning consistency — wins out. But then there’s off the field, where Trout is a dream — irrepressibly modest, eager to deflect credit, thoroughly unselfish, a relentless autograph signer (especially for kids), everything you could possibly want in a sports star.

    And all this makes him boring.

    Well, yes, there are extenuating circumstances. He plays on the West Coast, for one, which means much of the country sleeps through his splendor.

    He also plays the one sport where even the best player on earth cannot carry a team very far. If LeBron James went to the worst team in the NBA, he would, through his own magnificence, make them a playoff team. Corey Crawford or Jonathan Quick, just as examples, have never played on losing teams and probably never will. Tom Brady’s career record is 172-51 and he’s played with hundreds of different players.

    That’s not to say that one player in football, hockey or basketball is enough to win a championship. But it’s enough to make a team pretty good.

    Not baseball. Mike Trout is having a transcendent year, one of the best of his transcendent career, and his Angels are brutal. In his five extraordinary full seasons, the Angels are 415-383, and even that blah record is only because things came together in 2014 when they went 98-64 and made the playoffs for the only time in Trout’s career. Combine the other four years, Trout’s teams have actually lost more than they have won.

    So, those things do add to Trout’s surprising anonymity. But, I think mostly it’s the excellence. There’s just stuff to TALK ABOUT with Tebow, you know? With Trout, it’s all oohs and ahhs. The writer W.P. Kinsella once said, “It’s hard to write a story about nice people in normal relationships. Stories about nice people who are happy usually are not very interesting.”

    I don’t entirely agree with that, but I do think that in sports, especially in today’s social world, we are drawn to stuff we can argue about. Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback? Should Kevin Durant have signed with the already awesome Golden State Warriors? How about that Ryan Lochte? What do you think about Colin Kaepernick? How do you think this Tebow baseball thing will end up? That’s a conversation. That, as George once said on Seinfeld, is a show.

    And there’s nothing to argue about with Mike Trout except whether he should win the MVP award. On the pro side, he’s the best player. On the con side, you know, let’s give the MVP award to someone who isn’t the best player because it would be more interesting. Now THAT is a boring argument.

    Signs of life

    Before we get into the pure genius that the Cleveland Browns have for losing football games, let’s focus on one of the most common issues of fanhood, something you might call: Announcer hallucination.

    If there is one thing football fans want to believe, it is this: Our team’s players are good. When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to believe that Browns middle linebacker Dick Ambrose was a star. Was he a star? I have no idea. He never made a Pro Bowl. He was never named to the All-Pro team. This would suggest that he was not a star. But he was the only middle linebacker the Browns had, and he was a Clevelander, and they called him “Bam Bam,” and he made a lot of tackles, and he was a brilliant guy who later became an attorney and a judge.

    But was he good? Well, announcers told us that he was. Every week, whatever announcer happened to be calling the Cleveland game talked about how Ambrose was one of the best linebackers in the NFL, right there with Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and those guys. I believed them. I believed in Dick Ambrose. And to this day, I still do.

    I bring this up because, in the opening five minutes of the Browns-Ravens catastrophe, the announcers — mainly CBS’ Chris Simms — told us that:

    1. Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor is a “freak of nature” and a “legit No. 1 NFL receiver”

    2. Andrew Hawkins is one of the quickest slot receivers in the NFL.

    3. Quarterback Josh McCown is a “big talent” because he’s big, can run and has a big arm.

    4. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is one of the best in the NFL.

    Now, you could argue, if you so chose, that Pryor has caught 16 passes in his four-year NFL career and has been released or traded four different times, including once by the Browns.

    You could argue that Hawkins is a 30-year-old, 5-foot-7 receiver who the Browns didn’t even TRY to throw the ball to in Week 1.

    You could argue that McCown is a 37-year-old quarterback on his eighth team, if you count his time with the Hartford Colonials.

    And you could argue that Horton, before his second stint in Cleveland, has been defensive coordinator for three different teams (Arizona, Cleveland and Tennessee) and, at each stop, the head coach was fired in his first two years. This might be a coincidence, of course, but his last three defenses have finished 23rd or worse in points allowed.

    This is not meant to knock Pryor, Hawkins, McCown or Horton. I’d prefer to believe the announcer hallucination version of them. If I was a kid, I WOULD believe the announcer hallucination version. And I’d keep wondering: With players and coaches this good, why do the Browns keep losing?

    * * *

    We will have to get to the game at some point, I know, but first: You probably know that this will be the 14th straight year that the Cleveland Browns do not make the playoffs. You also probably know that this is not the longest streak in the NFL. The Buffalo Bills likely will make it 17 straight years without a playoff bid. In a league that prides itself on parity, this seems all-but-impossible.

    But the truth is: There are actually a bunch of long, active no-playoff streaks going.

    — Buffalo Bills, 16 straight years without making the playoffs.

    — Oakland Raiders, 13 straight

    — Cleveland Browns, 13 straight

    — Los Angeles Rams, 11 straight

    — Jacksonville Jaguars, eight straight

    — Tampa Bay Buccaneers, eight straight

    — Miami Dolphins, seven straight

    — Tennessee Titans, seven straight

    Look at that — one quarter of the league has not made the playoffs this decade. I would not have guessed that. By the way, the longest no-playoff streak of the Super Bowl era belongs to New Orleans. The Saints did not make the playoffs from 1967 to 1986 — 20 seasons. Football was different then, though. What Buffalo (and Oakland and Cleveland) is doing in this era of expanded playoffs and multiple wild cards is much more/less impressive.

    * * *

    OK, one more stall before getting to the game: The Browns unveiled a statue of Jim Brown on Sunday. In the same week, he won Syracuse University’s “George Arents” award for individuals who have made outstanding contributions in their chosen field.

    It seems pretty amazing that it took the Browns 52 years and Syracuse even longer to give those honors to the most dominant football player ever and an undeniable social force. But so it goes. Jim Brown is 80 years old now, and he obviously slowed down. But there’s still an aura about the man, a fear and admiration he naturally inspires. Sometimes, you meet a former great athlete and you find it hard to imagine them in their prime, hard to envision what exactly made them so great. Not Jim Brown. If you sit with the man, if you ask him a question or two, if you listen to him speak or watch him move, you just know: This man was impossible to tackle.

    He still is.

    * * *

    Fine. The game. There is always something a little bit more at stake when the Browns play the Ravens. It is certainly not Baltimore’s fault — and I certainly do not hold it against any of their fans — that the Ravens only exist because Art Modell yanked the Browns out of Cleveland. It happened a long time ago, and the new Browns are not so new anymore, and it’s time to move on. But for the old-timers, there’s still a little bit extra that goes into this game, especially because the Browns ALMOST NEVER win.

    So you could say there was just a little bit of joy when the Browns jumped to a 20-0 lead. The Browns’ first touchdown was perfect in every way, a 31-yard bomb from McCown to rookie Corey Coleman. What made it so awesome? Two things:

    1. Corey Coleman is the most exciting Browns player in a while. As a Browns fan you get so used to first-round busts that, after a while, you start to despise the draft and despise the players the Browns pick before they even can prove themselves to be busts. Coleman looks to be a real star, so that’s fun.

    2. The Browns scored the touchdown, in part, because nobody in America wants to watch the Browns-Ravens game. The game was so unimportant in the grand scheme of things that (I feel certain) they sent only a handful of cameras to the game. Because of this, they did not have a good camera angle on the touchdown. Because of this, the referees could not overturn the touchdown even though it’s all but certain that Coleman did not get his second foot in-bounds.

    The Ravens punted. Then, Isaiah Crowell busted an 85-yard touchdown run*.

    There is another thing announcers do that is kind of funny: They tend to hold onto things much longer than they should. For instance, the announcers here seemed convinced that this Ravens defense is great like all Ravens defenses in perpetuity. But it just ain’t so. The Ravens’ defense was 24th in the league last year in points allowed. Pro Football Focus, in its preview, ranked their front-seven 19th in the NFL and their secondary 24th. Ray Lewis is gone.

    After the touchdown, Joe Flacco threw a dreadful interception, and Coleman caught his second touchdown pass. It was 20-0 barely 10 minutes into the game.

    And I will admit I kind of knew it would not last. I remember something my old friend Gerry Faust said. He took over Notre Dame after years as a successful high school coach. In his first game, his team beat LSU and moved up to No. 1 in America. It didn’t go well after that. “I should have just taken a photo of the scoreboard,” Faust said, “and retired.”

    I should have just taken a screenshot of 20-0 and gone bowling or something.

    Instead, I watched as Patrick Murray’s extra point was blocked, and Baltimore’s Tavon Young ran it back for two points. Every Browns fan knew they would lose. Every football fan knew it would happen. The only question was: How?

    * * *

    The Ravens gave it their best to lose this game — you have to give that to them. Normally when teams, even bad teams, play the Browns, they realize fairly early on that there is no way for them to match Cleveland’s almost-mythical talent for losing football games. And so they just accept that, yes, they’re going to win.

    But the Ravens gave it their all. They did come back impressively, cutting the score to 20-12 by halftime, helped immeasurably by an ill-advised interception from Josh McCown. The Ravens made it 20-19 on the first drive of the second half. It should have been easy from there.

    Instead what followed was a classic battle between two teams determined to lose. The Ravens drove the ball to the Cleveland 29-yard line when Flacco threw a dreadful interception. The Browns then hit a huge completion to Coleman, but it was nullified because he stepped out of bounds BEFORE he caught the ball. The Ravens faltered. Then the Browns hit another big pass to Coleman and were at the Baltimore 16-yard line and in position to put the game away. Needless to say, they did not put the game away. They had one of those classic Cleveland series:

    First-and-10 from Baltimore 16: Crowell runs right and loses five yards. Browns tight end Randall Telfer hurt on the play.

    Second-and-15 from Baltimore 21: Crowell runs for two yards, but Coleman is called for an unsportsmanlike conduct. He and cornerback Jimmy Smith exchanged some sort of physical frustration, and I don’t know who really started it. It doesn’t matter. The rookie gets the penalty.

    Third-and-28 from Baltimore 34: McCown throws an incomplete pass.

    Fourth-and-28 from Baltimore 34: Murray’s 52-yard field goal looks as if it is shot out of the sky and falls harmlessly wide and short.

    Sigh. So the Ravens naturally drive for a field goal to take the lead. The Browns then hit a ridiculous 25-yard deflection pass to put themselves in business except, yeah, that’s also invalidated because the Browns were called for an illegal-man-downfield penalty. The man who got called?

    Center Cameron Erving.

    Ah, yes: Cam Erving.

    You might remember Cam Erving last year from the worst block in NFL history. Or you might remember him from other follies. At training camp this year, he expressed his anger at the criticism and said it fueled him to prove everyone wrong, something that would be marvelous. Then in Week 1, he snapped the ball over the quarterback’s head for a safety and committed an assortment of mistakes resulting in varying pain.

    But this one was something else. McCown escaped the pocket and Erving, assuming he would run, took off downfield to block someone. It was admirable enthusiasm except for this: There was NO WAY JOSH MCCOWN WAS RUNNING. He’s 37 years old. He probably separated his left shoulder early in the game (he might have separated it twice). It was third-and-long. There was not a chance in the world that he was going to start running, and so when Erving took off and canceled out what could have been the biggest play of the game, well, let’s just say it was not great.

    Later, Erving would hurt himself by smashing his face into the ground while completely whiffing on a block. It was that sort of day.

    All of this happened, and the Browns STILL had a chance to win the game. The Ravens, not being all that good themselves, staggered around a bit at the end and ran out of bounds for no reason. The Browns got the ball down only five with 2:53 left.

    And then McCown slowly, haltingly moved the Browns down the field. A quick pass to Duke Johnson. Another to Gary Barnidge. Another to Hawkins. The Browns improbably moved the ball to the Baltimore 30-yard line with a half-minute remaining, and then McCown hit freak-of-nature Terrelle Pryor with a 20-yard pass to put the Browns in the shadow of the end zone. A flag came flying in, but that was clearly on Baltimore and so victory seemed …

    And then, suddenly, another flag flew high in the air.

    I’m not exactly sure how to describe the taunting penalty called on Pryor, one that nullified the play and cost the Browns any realistic chance of winning. My best effort is to say that Pryor, after catching the ball, held it out and tried to flip it to the referee. Instead it sort of slipped out of his hand and plopped on the shoulder of Ravens defender Ladarius Webb, who was standing up at the time. That was it. That was the whole play.

    They called that taunting. They called THAT taunting.

    “We have to do a better job getting the ball to the referee,” Browns coach Hue Jackson told reporters after the game, a spectacular dodge that makes me feel even better about Jackson as coach. He could have complained, ranted, raged, drawn a huge fine. But he knows: There is so much dark magic entangling the Cleveland Browns right now that you can’t get bogged down by bad luck and bad calls.

    Yes, it’s true, the Browns could have won the game on Sunday. But the real problems — the general awfulness, the stupid penalties and plays, the overriding sense of doom everyone in Cleveland feels — these things will take time and a lot of positive energy to solve.

    And there were some good signs. Coleman looks to be for real (he made another dazzling catch and run for the sideline that set up the almost comeback). Crowell and Johnson were good. The defense, at times, played with energy. Joe Haden picked off two passes and looked healthy.

    They’re the Browns so they lost — on Twitter I called them the Lin Manuel-Miranda of losing — but there are a few signs of life. This is what this season is about. Yes, as the song goes, I may not live to see their glory. But I will gladly join the fight.

    Thrill of the moment

    A reader named John Warren sent in a fascinating comparison. John is a rabid Minnesota Vikings fan in the middle of Texas, which means he has no one to share his pain with. What pain is there for Minnesota Vikings fans? They are rarely bad. In the Super Bowl era, the Vikings have never gone more than four consecutive seasons without making the playoffs.

    But they have never been good enough, never won the Super Bowl. For many years, their story was one of late-season heartbreak. There are those four Super Bowls they lost under Bud Grant, including the one where Kansas City’s Hank Stram was doing a colorful sideline play-by-play call (“65 Toss Power Trap!”) and the one that introduced America to Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain. There were a couple of NFC Championship crushers, including the one where Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season in an overtime loss to Minnesota almost 20 years ago.

    Lately, though, it’s been different: The Vikings have been in that infuriating dead zone — sometimes OK, sometimes lousy, never great, and this is despite having one of the greatest offensive weapons in NFL history, running back Adrian Peterson.

    Watch Live: Packers vs. Vikings (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC and the NBC Sports app)

    This has led John to muse non-stop about Peterson. He finally came to his conclusion.

    “Here is the great truth,” he writes. “Adrian Peterson is Nolan Ryan.”

    Ryan is among the most awesome pitchers in baseball history with “awesome” being defined as, “inspiring great admiration, apprehension or fear.” Ryan inspired all those things in his mind-blowing 27-year career. He threw harder than anyone, ever. He struck out more batters than anyone, ever. He was more unhittable — he threw a staggering seven no-hitters — than anyone, ever. When you assume that these big things are the ones that define greatness, you assume that Nolan Ryan had to be the greatest pitcher in baseball history and must have carried team after team to the mountaintop.

    But it just isn’t so. Ryan is not the greatest pitcher ever and he never started a World Series. He was marvelous, of course, a first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Famer, but the things that kept him from becoming Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver or Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson or Walter Johnson or Roger Clemens were the little things that always add up to more than you would expect. Ryan walked more hitters than any pitcher ever will (his 2,795 career walks are almost 1,000 more than any other pitcher and more than Koufax, Maddux and Grover Cleveland Alexander COMBINED). He was so slow to the plate that base stealers ran on him with abandon. He did not field his position. He threw many more wild pitches than anyone since 1900; heck, he threw 50 more wild pitches than second-place Phil Niekro, who threw knuckleballs his whole life.

    All of this added together made Ryan more marvelous than successful. Pitcher win-loss records can be deceiving, but Ryan’s 324 career victories and 292 career losses do seem to tell the tale. He was impossibly fun to watch. But if it was Game 7, there are many other pitchers you would rather throw.

    Adrian Peterson runs the football about as well as anyone who ever played in the NFL. His 96.7 yards per game is fourth all-time, behind only Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis. His 4.9 yards per carry is third all-time (among running backs with 2,000 or more carries) behind Brown and Sanders. If this year goes reasonably well, he will move well into the top 10 all-time in rushing yards and into the top five in rushing touchdowns. We are talking about an all-time great.

    So, why have his teams been so wildly inconsistent, fluctuating from good to dreadful? Why has there, in John’s words, always been this gnawing feeling that Peterson is sort of overrated, that he doesn’t quite match up to those running backs like Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis and the like who have carried their teams to championships?

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    The first thing you must say is: A running back can only do so much for a team. Walter Payton was impossibly good for almost a decade before the Bears finally started winning. The Vikings have had a half-dozen starting quarterbacks during Peterson’s run, and the defense for a time couldn’t stop anybody, and you can’t blame any of that on a running back.

    That said, like Ryan, Peterson’s obvious brilliance — the long runs, the insane moves, the bone-crushing broken tackles — overwhelm a million little things. Peterson doesn’t pass-block. He fumbles. He doesn’t really catch the ball. He commits penalties. Last year is a great example. Peterson led the NFL in rushing (1,485 yards) and tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns (11). You would think this made him the most valuable back in football.

    But, according to the incredible work of the folks at Pro Football Focus, there were 13 running backs who were on the field for 600-plus snaps in 2015, and Peterson graded ninth among those 13, just barely ahead of Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy. This is because while Peterson’s running was extremely valuable and he broke more tackles than anyone except Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin, he graded negatively on pass plays and when blocking.

    Pro Football Focus graded a player like Detroit’s Theo Riddick much higher than Peterson because of his ability to catch the ball and block.

    For years, I’ve had an argument with numerous people but especially my pal, ESPN’s Dave Fleming, over the question of Barry Sanders vs. Emmitt Smith. I concede the obvious: Sanders was the most wonderful runner in the history of the NFL (or at least tied with Gale Sayers). He could do the impossible on the football field. He escaped from tackling strait-jackets. He disappeared and reappeared at will. He was magnificent in every sense of that word. I would much rather watch him run than watch Smith or just about anyone else.

    And, assuming I was a coach trying to win the Super Bowl, I would take Smith every single day and twice on Sundays (four times on Super Bowl Sundays). Why? Because Sanders didn’t catch the ball, didn’t block, and his go-for-broke-on-every-play running style motivated his coach to take him out on third down and short. It was the great irony of Sanders’ electrifying career. If you needed a running back to go 50 yards, you would take Sanders over anyone who ever played this crazy game. If you needed a running back to go one yard, you would take someone else.

    Smith, on the other hand, couldn’t do magic. But he plowed ahead, he scored touchdowns, he picked up first downs, he caught the ball and he didn’t make mistakes. Sure, people always said he was essentially made by the Cowboys’ incredible offensive line and outside threats. But I never thought that was right. In 1993, when he held out for more money, the Cowboys — as defending Super Bowl champions — played the first two games without him. They lost both games, turned the ball over repeatedly, couldn’t run the ball at all and seemed lost. Then they paid Smith, he came back, led the NFL in rushing in just 13 starts, helped the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl where he ran for 132 yards and scored two touchdowns.

    I’m just saying: As a fan, I love watching the thrilling player, and Adrian Peterson — like O.J. Simpson, like Eric Dickerson, like Chris Johnson in his heyday — is thrilling to watch run. But that’s not the same thing as being a winning force.

    The Vikings have decided this year that they need to go for it, largely because Peterson is 31 years old and he won’t be this great for too much longer and the window closes. They’re betting that Peterson is not just one of the most exciting players in NFL history, he’s also good enough to lead a team to the Super Bowl. Big Vikings fan John, down in Austin, hopes they’re right. But he doesn’t really believe it.

    Sharing the joy

    Hope was all they had, and some days it wasn’t enough.

    So they cried. They cursed. They questioned their fate. No matter how many pleas to God they made or comforting hugs they received, hope could not always shield them from the devastating truth that they could not have a baby.

    “I felt inadequate as a woman,’’ said a wife who suffered nine miscarriages.

    Another wife — with a prisoner’s dedication — knows how many days it has been since she and her husband began trying to conceive. The number exceeds 1,000.

    “It feels like you get farther and farther behind as the world keeps moving on,’’ the husband said. “That’s pretty crushing.’’

    Kyle and Samantha Busch know such distress. They tried for years to have a child, but NASCAR’s baby boom went on without them.

    After yet another negative pregnancy test one day, Samantha collapsed and bawled on a bathroom floor as Kyle consoled her. They had a list of names, the color for the baby’s room and the theme selected, but no child.

    “I just … felt like a failure,’’ Samantha said.

    The despair lifted for Kyle and Samantha Busch after trips to a Charlotte, North Carolina, fertility clinic. In vitro fertilization, where an egg and sperm are combined in a laboratory dish and transferred to the woman, led to the birth of son Brexton in May 2015.

    “His smile makes everything better,’’ Samantha said.

    Not every infertile couple can afford the life-changing treatment, which can cost between $15,000 and $20,000. Insurance doesn’t cover every procedure. That leaves some financially shackled couples with little chance of having children.

    Facing such odds, one wife admitted that she had a “hard time (seeing) the light at the end of the tunnel. It was like the tunnel was closed.’’

    After Kyle and Samantha Busch made it through their journey to have Brexton, they wanted to give infertile couples hope … and help.

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    Sometimes the question comes on a couple’s wedding day. Other times it’s asked at gatherings with friends and family. Or it occurs at work, usually posed by someone with pictures of their children nearby. The response often is filled with laughs and jokes.

    That only masks the pain.

    Don’t be mistaken — it’s there. Some days the anguish can be buried and even forgotten, but it lurks, waiting for someone to ask: “When are you going to have a baby?’’

    Then the searing pain returns, suffocating and boundless. It’s the fear of not fulfilling a long-sought goal, the anxiety of not passing along one’s genes, and the rage of not understanding why this is happening.

    But few see that. Or the tears.

    Fans, eager to celebrate another baby in NASCAR, often asked Samantha and Kyle Busch when they would have a child. More than a dozen children were fathered by Sprint Cup drivers in the three years before Samantha and Kyle had Brexton. It only seemed natural to fans that the couple, married on New Year’s Eve in 2010, would join the baby brigade. But when? So they asked.

    “You don’t really understand the hurt you can actually cause someone by asking a friendly question about when are you going to have your children, when are you going to get pregnant or what’s the deal?’’ said Kyle Busch, the reigning Sprint Cup champion.

    Samantha Busch could not understand why she and Kyle struggled to have a child. They were athletic, ate healthy and took care of themselves. But infertility is sinister. Appearances and attitudes don’t matter. That leaves couples to wonder what’s wrong as others celebrate births.

    Infertile couples aren’t alone, even when they feel like it. About 12 percent of U.S. women between the ages of 15-44 have trouble getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In approximately 40 percent of infertile couples, the male is either the sole cause or contributing cause of infertility, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

    As couples face the possibility they might not have children, they are often bombarded by news from those who have no trouble conceiving. It appears as a baby announcement on Facebook, a burgeoning belly on Instagram, or an emoji-filled message on Twitter.

    Hannah Harris, who had nine miscarriages, said friends and family tried to hide their baby news from her.

    “They thought it would hurt my feelings if they were happy,’’ she said.

    Sometimes, friends and family avoided bringing their children when visiting Hannah and husband Damarlon, fearing that would upset them.

    Hannah stopped that.

    “That’s your kids,’’ she told them. “That’s your blessing. I’m happy for you. We’ll have ours whichever way it is, if it’s meant for us to have children or adopt.’’

    Still, Hannah admits each time it was easy to question “Why me?’’

    She didn’t show her feelings, but the pain was there.

    * * *

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    Samantha Busch could not wait. Although she and Kyle had been told it would take about two weeks to find out if she would become pregnant after their in-vitro procedure, she couldn’t wait another four days.

    She took a pregnancy test in their Chicago hotel room in September 2014, shortly before Kyle would leave for media activities surrounding the start of NASCAR’s playoff.

    There, in the bathroom, they awaited the results.

    Two lines appeared.

    Pregnant.

    Samantha sobbed. Kyle had tears in his eyes.

    They called family, but Samantha was so overcome that she couldn’t talk to her mother. She handed the phone to Kyle to give his mother-in-law the news.

    * * *

    Three previous treatments had failed to help Will and Susan Carswell have a child. As they sat in a meeting with a financial adviser at the REACH Fertility Clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina, they were told that in vitro fertilization would cost between $12,000-$16,000. Their insurance would not cover it.

    “How do people pay for this?’’ Susan said.

    The financial advisor said that some couples seek a loan or withdraw some of their retirement savings to pay for the procedure.

    Saddled with student debt and other bills, Will, a 29-year-old state police investigator, and Susan, a 30-year-old small business owner, could not afford additional loans.

    Their path to having a child was blocked.

    As they left to shed tears, Will saw a poster on the clinic’s wall. It was for the Bundle of Joy Fund, which provides grants to couples seeking infertility treatments but don’t have the money.

    The grants are from the Kyle Busch Foundation.

    Samantha and Kyle Busch started the fund after their struggles to have Brexton. They wanted to help infertile couples by providing financial gifts to pay for treatments.

    As part of the application process, each applicant is required to write an essay on why they seek funding to have a child. The commentary can be poignant and profound.

    “Every single one of those essays, you want to give them everything they want,’’ Kyle Busch said.

    When they first awarded grants last September, they fulfilled the requests for all five couples who applied. The grants totaled more than $47,000.

    Soon the need outgrew funding. There have been more than 50 applications each of the past two times grants were awarded. In January, five couples received more than $58,000 combined. In June, three couples received more than $34,000 total.

    In each case, the needs of at least 45 couples could not be met.

    “It’s not easy to sit there and help one family,’’ Kyle Busch said, “and then not be able to help another family.’’

    * * *

    Susan Carswell prayed on the 45-minute trip with husband Will from their Cherryville, N.C., home to the REACH Fertility Clinic in Charlotte.

    They thought their June 22 meeting was for an interview for the Bundle of Joy Fund, another step toward possibly receiving a grant.

    “I was just a bundle of nerves,’’ Susan Carswell said.

    “I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to be better than the next guy,’” Will Carswell said. “’I’ve got to come up with something that makes me a little more noticeable.’’’

    Will is not easy to forget, with a barrel chest ready to pop out of his polo shirt, arms as big as a child’s thigh and an easy-going manner that Susan said helped her during her darkest times with infertility.

    Before he could figure out what he could do to stand out, he and his wife were escorted to a room where Samantha Busch awaited behind an office desk.

    “When I saw her,’’ Susan Carswell said, “I thought … ‘This is a good sign.’”

    She started to cry.

    “I’m so sorry you guys have been trying for so long,’’ Samantha told them. “I know what that’s like and it’s an awful time.’’

    Susan and Will Carswell nodded.

    Samantha Busch then told the couple they would receive $12,600 “to start their journey.’’

    Will shook his head and bowed it, resting it on his right hand, as he tried to contain the tears. Susan lurched forward in her seat. Will embraced his wife and said to Samantha in a muffled voice: “Thank you so much.’’

    * * *

    Hannah Harris had never heard the heartbeat. Nine previous times, the heart in the child she was carrying had stopped when doctors checked within the first eight weeks of her pregnancy.

    Hannah, 32, and husband Damarlon, 31, had kept trying to have children because, as Damarlon said, “We always wanted to be young with them and grow up with them and not have them so late that by the time they were teenagers or in their 20s, we couldn’t really do anything, go out hiking or biking or shooting ball and stuff.’’

    Each failure brought more doctor appointments, procedures, hope and misery. It became a cruel cycle as constant as the seasons. They were told without in vitro fertilization, they would never have kids of their own.

    “I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life,’’ said Hannah, who cried that day, aware that insurance would not cover such treatment and they could not afford a loan.

    Hope returned when they found out about the Bundle of Joy Fund and applied, although Hannah recalled thinking: “Why would they pick us out of everybody?’’

    They received a grant last September.

    “I honestly don’t remember anything after they said $12,000,’’ said Hannah of the gift.

    Her husband does, especially when they got back to their car.

    “Oh my God! Oh my God! Can you believe it?’’ Hannah screamed. “Am I dreaming right now? Will you pinch me?’’

    A month later, Hannah was pregnant.

    At eight weeks, she went in for another doctor’s visit.

    “We heard the first heartbeats,’’ Hannah said.

    Twins.

    * * *

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    Darmarlon II — Little D as he’s called — arrived first at 9:29 a.m. on June 4. His sister, Aniyah, followed a minute later. They were born at 34 weeks and two days. He was four pounds, 11 ounces and 17.5 inches long. She was four pounds, 15 ounces and 18.5 inches long.

    The son was named for the father. The daughter, well, Hannah wanted a name that ended like her name. She came across a version of the daughter’s name that meant “God answers.’’

    God had answered Hannah’s prayers.

    The babies are the third and fourth to be born since Kyle and Samantha Busch began awarding grants through the Bundle of Joy Fund. Three other couples are expecting.

    “It’s awesome to hear when a Bundle of Joy baby is born,’’ Samantha said. “I think what’s so great about it, Kyle and I look at Brexton and we think what these families are going to go through.’’

    Will and Susan Carswell will get those experiences. After 1,095 days, they found out last month that Susan was pregnant.

    That last day was the longest. She had tests that morning to see if she was pregnant. The results were expected early that afternoon but didn’t come until hours later.

    “It was one of the worst days,’’ Will said of waiting for the test results “and it turned into one of the better days of my life.’’

    Their baby is due in April.

    “We’re just excited,’’ Susan Carswell said. “I’ve always struggled with patience. I want that baby here now where I can take care of it.’’

    * * *

    What starts with tears of despair turns to tears of joy for couples who receive a grant from the Bundle of Joy Fund. Tears return upon a positive pregnancy test. Then come the major milestones. Hearing the heartbeat. Feeling the baby kick. Seeing the child for the first time.

    After the birth, the moments build — the child grabbing dad’s finger, gazing at mom’s face and mom and dad seeing their child’s personality unfold. Each day becomes a new adventure, a new experience and more reasons to be thankful.

    Some day, Samantha Busch says, maybe son Brexton and all of the children born through the Bundle of Joy Fund can get together to “have a play date.’’

    That’s her hope.