Same old Browns

During strength and conditioning for another grueling year as a Cleveland Browns fan, I have to admit it: I was semi-excited about Robert Griffin III. I do realize that there wasn’t necessarily any great REASON to be excited. But I was anyway. It might have been because I more or less stopped paying attention to him and Washington football back in 2012, when RGIII was a rookie sensation, when he was doing Subway commercials and Gatorade commercials and Nissan commercials and EA Sports commercials and … back when Andrew Luck v. RGIII was still an open question.

It was sort of eye-opening when, a few months ago, I was talking with huge Washington football fan Dale Earnhardt Jr., and I asked him what he thought of RGIII, and he made one of those comical faces kids made when you embarrass them in public by trying to say something hip or by dancing or something.

Well, hey, I was only vaguely aware of his various injuries and perilous fall in Washington. Sorry. I suppose it’s like waking up from a coma and finding out that Robert De Niro doesn’t just do movies like “Dirty Grandpa” … he ONLY does movies like “Dirty Grandpa.”

Whatever. Robert Griffin III would be the 25th different starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns since their return in 1999 — for comparison, the old Cleveland Browns existed for almost 50 years and had just 27 starting quarterbacks — and I chose to believe in him. Hey, it’s a new season. What’s the point of rooting for an NFL team — even the Cleveland Browns — if you can’t get excited about something? Yes, the Browns are on their eighth new GM and their eighth new head coach (not counting interim coach Terry Robiskie) and their ninth defensive coordinator (Ray Horton, like Grover Cleveland did, is serving his second non-consecutive term). And they don’t even HAVE an offensive coordinator. Hue Jackson will call the plays.

That didn’t work so well when Chris Palmer tried it.

So, yes, let’s get excited about RGIII. He’s still young. He’s got an accurate arm. He can run. When he’s decisive — throws the ball in 2.5 seconds or less — he’s terrific, with a 99.9 quarterback rating according to Pro Football Focus. True, if he holds on to to the ball for longer than 2.5 seconds he’s pretty miserable, but let’s focus on the positives.

A new year! RGIII! Let’s play some football.

You already know how this thing is going to end.

***

A blissful 74 seconds passed in the Cleveland Browns-Philadelphia Eagles game before the Browns committed their first stupid penalty of the 2016 season. It was an offsides penalty by defensive tackle Xavier Cooper on third down and 3. He apparently fell for a hard count.

The announcers — including my old pal from Kansas City Trent Green — relentlessly praised Philadelphia rookie quarterback Carson Wentz for that hard count, for jolting a defensive tackle into a blunder on only the third play of his NFL career. Yes, the kid does look pretty good, but let’s not kid anybody: Every time a butterfly flaps its wings in China, a Cleveland Browns defensive player jumps offside to give an opponent the first down.

The Eagles followed the blunder by scoring a touchdown — this on Wentz’s first career drive, of course. It was easy. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that after the drive Wentz thought to himself, “Hey, the NFL really isn’t any different than North Dakota State.”

On offense: The Browns’ Gary Barnidge — often called “Sure-handed Gary Barnidge” by those of us who know and love him — dropped the first pass of the new season.

***

A relatively untroubled 15 minutes, 10 seconds passed before the Cleveland Browns tried and failed on their first nonsensical fake punt of the season. I was thrilled when the Browns hired Hue Jackson to be head coach. He did a great job in Cincinnati, and I like his style. I like the way he talks about trick plays and opening things up and playing bold football. In this way, he reminds me of my childhood hero Sam Rutigliano, who told everybody that his Browns were going to throw the ball downfield because anything else would be boring.

Look: The Browns are going to be terrible this year and for the foreseeable future, so absolutely they should go for it — fake punts, double-reverses, hooks-and-ladders, hidden-ball tricks, behind-the-back passes, Statue of Liberty plays, pull down the referee’s pants … try everything Hue.

That said, Jackson’s first fake punt was such a misguided play that our intrepid announcers did not seem to understand what was going on while it was happening. It wasn’t a fake punt in the normal sense where the team actually fakes a punt. Instead, the Browns just lined up in punt formation — but without a punter. Maybe Hue and Company were hoping that the Eagles would be so thrown by the idea of a ghost punter that they would run screaming like in the horror movies.

Instead, when the ball was snapped to Duke Johnson, the entire Eagles team including past players such as Herm Edwards and Bill Bergey and Chuck Bednarik, jumped on him for a million-yard loss.

And this year began to feel a whole lot like every other year with the Browns.

***

There was something special about this game. As mentioned, the Browns have had 25 different starting quarterbacks since beginning anew in 1999. I keep a list in my computer so that any time someone wonders, “Hmm, who has started the fourth-most games in new-Browns history?” I can say, “Why, it’s Brandon Weeden of course with 20. He’s just behind Colt McCoy’s 21 and just ahead of Charlie Frye’s 19!” This is great for parties.

But Sunday’s game was the first time that one of the illustrious 25 Browns quarterbacks was the head coach of the opposing team. That was Eagles coach Doug Pederson who started eight glorious games for Cleveland in 2000. He went 1-7 in those starts and threw just two touchdowns against eight interceptions, but he did lead the Browns to a huge 19-11 win over Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Yeah, that was before that guy Brady came along but as a Clevelander you take the football wins where you can get them.

In any case, I am rooting for Doug Pederson in the hope that hiring old Browns quarterbacks as head coaches becomes a trend. Ken Dorsey is quarterbacks coach for the Carolina Panthers. Kelly Holcomb is offensive coordinator at Riverside High in Tennessee. Spergon Wynn is an energy broker in Houston. Let’s find these people and give them NFL teams to run.

***

CBS showed a marvelous graphic during the game. It was meant to highlight the sports renaissance happening in Cleveland but instead gave us a clear look at this Cleveland Browns season coming up.

It looked a bit like this:

Cavaliers: Won championship

Indians: First place

Browns: ?????

I’m thinking there will be no need to update that graphic this year.

***

All right — did the Browns hit all their marks this week?

— Obligatory snap over quarterbacks head for safety? Check.

— General inability to stop either the run or the pass? Check.

—  Overmatched offensive line leading to quarterback injury? Check.

— Inexplicable decision regarding quarterback injury? Check.

Yes, well, late in the game, RGIII crashed into a defender and hurt his left shoulder. It seemed pretty bad at the start. And of course, this being the Cleveland Browns, it turned out VERY bad. He’s now on injured reserve and is out at least eight games. As my pal Michael Schur texts:

“It doesn’t get much more ‘Browns’ than signing RGIII, playing one game, losing badly and placing him on IR.”

Well, you have to add one more thing: After the injury the Browns had one meaningless possession just to run off the final few seconds. They were losing 29-10 so realistically the game was already over and they knew it.

So what did they do? They put Robert Griffin III (with a broken left shoulder) BACK IN THE GAME to hand off the football. What possible reason could they have had to do that?

How many times has a Browns fan had THAT thought?

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    Pep and The Special One

    Year: 2016
    Runtime: 14:31
    Originally aired on: NBCSports.com

    Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have a rivalry that goes well beyond the bounds of Manchester, where they each manage a Premier League titan. They have repeatedly clashed while each becoming an enduring icon of the sport.

    Cam and the Fumble

    CHARLOTTE — Superman stood on his own 16-yard line, and the world spun away from him. Sequences like these are shown again and again, in slower and slower motion, from angle after angle, until all mystery is lost, until all of the supersonic chaos of the moment fades away and it just becomes a THING. Ball dribbles through Bill Buckner’s legs. Scott Norwood’s kick floats wide right. Scott Hoch’s putt skims the left edge of the hole. Cam Newton doesn’t go for the ball. A THING.

    Newton did not know any of this would become a THING, not yet. The Broncos’ fantastic defense was frustrating him. The ball had just been knocked from his hand, it bounced erratically and then settled on the field. He saw the ball clearly but not as clearly as 112 million across America watching the Super Bowl on television. They saw the ball, and they also saw the score (Denver leading Carolina by seven), and they saw the clock (about four minutes left). They saw it all with crystal clarity. If Carolina did not recover the fumble, the game was lost.

    Newton took one quick step toward the ball, and then a second step. He got to the ball at the same time that Denver’s DeMarcus Ware, who was on the ground nearby, reached out his left arm for it. America braced itself for a mighty collision.

    Then Cam Newton stopped. He jumped back a little.

    Watch: Panthers-Broncos (8:30 p.m. ET on NBC)Rotoworld Fantasy Football Kickoff (3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Live)

    After several others arrived on the scene, Newton fell to his knees in a less-than-convincing effort to join the ball-chasing fray. The ball popped free, rolled behind him. Denver safety T.J. Ward fell on it at the Carolina 4-yard line. And the game was over.

    “Can you put your disappointment into words,” Newton was asked just moments after the game. He was not ready to talk. Later, he would express regret for his gloom and rage. Everything was anger and humiliation and a crushing sense of failure. He wore a hood over his head, and his expression was dead, and he spit out short answers with as much disgust as he could manage. This too would become part of the THING.

    ‘We lost,” he said. And after three minutes of pained two-word answers, he walked out.

    * * *

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/_iO2L0Cnv8pr?autoPlay=false]

    Athletes will tell you that the worst part of losing is not the pain. That fades after a while. No, the toughest is the wait that follows, the interminable wait for another chance.

    Carolina starts the new season tonight and at this particular moment in time — before the first kickoff, before the first interception, before the first big play — the Panthers are serious Super Bowl contenders. Who is better? Newton had a season for the ages last year, and the Panthers scored more points than any team in the NFL; the whole offense is back with the return of brilliant receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who had 1,008 yards receiving as a rookie but missed all of last season with a torn ACL injury.

    The defense, well, everyone knows just how good that front seven is led by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The secondary is a bit questionable with cornerback Josh Norman gone, but those linebackers are so good in coverage that no one expects the defense to fall off much, if at all.

    So, if you use the past as your guide, the Panthers should be great again and should give Newton another opportunity to win the biggest game in sports.

    But this is sports and so you can’t really use the past as your guide. Circumstances change. Expectations change. Motivations change. For the Carolina Panthers, 2015 was a free-flowing season. Nobody expected anything from them. Nobody really bought into them even after they started the year 7-0, then 8-0, then 9-0 and so on. For the Panthers, for Cam Newton, the whole season was one big dance party, with team selfies and giving footballs to kids and so on. The biggest question (and criticism) was: “Are Cam and the Panthers having TOO much fun?”

    Then, the Super Bowl, and the THING, and now it’s different. This whole Carolina Panthers season, this whole Cam Newton season is essentially about one thing: Getting back to the place they were so that this time they can get it right.

    And getting back is always harder than getting there in the first place.

    * * *

    We live in a time where athletes often speak through their television commercials, and the newest Cam Newton commercial for Under Armour is dark, dark, dark.

    It begins with a shot of Newton from behind. He’s standing in an empty field with a towel over his head. “All the world,” the narrator says, “will be your enemy.”

    We get a shot of Newton’s face. “Prince,” the narrator says, “with a thousand enemies.”

    The words are from Richard Adams’ marvelous novel “Watership Down” — the quote is from a story within the story, about a rabbit’s place in the world. In the Newton commercial, though, it takes on a significantly edgier theme. Newton drops pulls the towel off his head, stretches his neck a couple of times, and runs into the woods.

    “And whenever they catch you,” the narrator says, followed by the sound of a menacing growl. “But first they must catch you.” Newton runs through the woods, eluding trees, escaping darkness.

    “Digger,” the narrator says. “Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning.”

    Newton shouts and smashes through a tree.

    “Full of tricks,” the narrator says.

    Newton smashes through another tree. He stops to rest as two trees tumble behind him. He then walks to a dark and abandoned road.

    “Prince with a thousand enemies,” the narrator says. “Never be destroyed.”

    And it ends with a closeup of Newton’s face and then a close up of his feet as he walks down that lonely road.

    The narrator, you should know, is Cam Newton’s mother, Jackie.

    So, yeah, there’s a lot going on there. It is just a commercial, of course, but it might give us just a little insight into what drives Cam Newton now. Last year was about fun. This year is about enemies. Last year was about dancing and surprising and celebrating. This year is about avoiding destruction. Cam Newton has always had doubters, of course. But after the Super Bowl, after the THING, those doubters are enemies, a thousand enemies, chasing him, on his tail, pushing him.

    “I can’t even look back or dwell on the past,” he said this week. He’s right. But it’s not as easy as words.

    * * *

    Most athletes who have had to endure being the center of a THING never get a chance to make it right. There were no more World Series grounders for Buckner, no more chances for Craig Ehlo to stop Michael Jordan on the final play, no more Super Bowl-winning kicks for Norwood, no more Super Bowls at all for Dan Marino after the crushing first one.

    But it does happen sometimes. Dan Jansen did get one final race to win his gold medal. John Elway did get his chance to smash into the end zone after all those years of Super Bowl heartache. LeBron James did get his chance to give Cleveland a championship.

    Newton is just 27 years old, in the prime of his athletic career. He has already done things that no NFL player has ever done. He’s the only player to ever throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 700 yards in the same season — he did that as a rookie. He’s the only player to have at least 30 touchdown passes and rush for 10 touchdowns in a season — he did that last year.

    But as remarkable as the stats look, they do not fully describe what Newton can do at his best. He can turn third-and-four or less into automatic first downs because, realistically, how are you going to stop him? He forces teams to crowd the line because no team in the NFL runs more than than Panthers, and at the same time, he forces teams to play deep because of his phenomenally strong arm and fantastic ability to play-action pass.

    In other words, he’s fundamentally different — there just has never been a 6-foot-6, 260-pound quarterback who could plow over defensive tackles and outrun safeties and throw 50-yard lasers. He really is Superman.

    But that THING is there, in the air, in everybody’s memory including his own. You know, just know, that the next time the Prince with a Thousand Enemies is in that Super Bowl moment, with victory and defeat on the line, he will go after the ball with the fury he showed smashing through trees in the commercial. You know he will do it right next time.

    The question of this Cam Newton season — and every season — is: Will there be a next time?

    Legend of Darlington

    Year: 2016
    Runtime: 46:23
    Originally aired on: NBCSN

    Multi-platinum recording artist Darius Rucker narrates the special in tribute to his South Carolina roots. Current NASCAR drivers Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch are joined by Ken Squier and racing legends Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty and Jeff Burton, who reflect on how the Southern 500 became a stock car racing tradition.

    What’s the difference?

    The rabbit hole opens with that ridiculous argument, the one my pal Michael Schur calls the stupidest argument in sports: The semantic difference between the words “most valuable” and “most outstanding.”

    We can argue here — and have argued a million times already — that there is no important difference, that the two things mean essentially the same thing, that the “most outstanding” player is also the “most valuable” player and vice versa. But no matter how fervently I might believe that, the reality is: Many people don’t. Many people think “most valuable” is a different thing from “most outstanding.” You can see it most clearly when it comes to relievers and the Cy Young Award.

    The Cy Young Award is annually given out to the “most outstanding pitcher” in each league. There’s that word: Outstanding.

    Well, no relief pitcher has won the Cy Young Award in more than a decade; the last to do it was Los Angeles’ Eric Gagne in 2003. In the American League, you have to all the way back to 1992 when Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young. There are some people who see this development as progress — hey, sportswriters finally realize that relief pitchers throw too few innings to be the most outstanding pitcher. There are others, however, who see it as a slight to relievers. Relief pitchers, they argue, are a huge part of baseball and should be considered seriously for the Cy.

    This year’s American League Cy Young voting could be fascinating. At this moment, no AL starting pitcher is having what you would call a statistically dazzling season. Only one, Toronto’s young Aaron Sanchez, even has an ERA under 3.00. Nobody is going to strike out anywhere close to 300 batters; it’s likely no one will even strike out 250. Boston’s Rick Porcello has pitched well and should end up with an eye-popping win-loss record — he is 19-3 at the moment — but even die-hard traditionalists probably will concede that going 19-3 isn’t all that great a trick when your team is averaging seven runs per game when you pitch.

    In any case, there are some good starter candidates, including Porcello. Cleveland’s Corey Kluber is having a very good year with deceivingly lackluster-looking stats. Chicago’s Chris Sale and Texas’ Cole Hamels and the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka are having interesting years. Detroit’s Justin Verlander is having a wonderful comeback season. There are others.

    But, let’s be honest, the pitchers with the jaw-dropping stats this year are relievers. Dellin Betances is striking out almost 16 per nine innings. Andrew Miller has been ferocious for two teams. And, most of all, there’s Baltimore’s Zach Britton, who leads the American League in saves and has a 0.65 ERA. He has been virtually unhittable for a team fighting for the AL East title. There is a strong push for him to win the Cy Young Award.

    Then again, he has thrown just 55 innings — barely 30 percent of what the top starters are throwing.

    What to do? Can a reliever who throws so few innings be the league’s most outstanding pitcher?

    And so we revisit the “most valuable” vs. “most outstanding” discussion. Relievers do much better with the word “valuable” than they do with “outstanding.” You see this practically every year when comparing MVP voting to Cy Young voting.

    Take 2013: That year Craig Kimbrel was second among pitchers in the MVP voting, but tied for fourth in Cy Young voting. This discrepancy is always there. A year earlier, Kimbrel was the top vote-getter among pitchers in the MVP voting, but finished fifth in the Cy Young voting.

    In 2010, Rafael Soriano was the top pitcher in the MVP balloting but finished eighth in the Cy Young.

    Then there’s Mariano Rivera. In both 2005 and 2009, he was the top pitcher in the MVP voting. In 2005, he barely lost the Cy Young Award to Bartolo Colon. In 2009, he didn’t even place in the Cy Young voting.

    In 1997, Randy Myers finished FOURTH in the MVP voting, far and away the highest spot for any pitcher. He finished fourth in the Cy Young vote.

    These are just the most obvious examples; this happens in small ways all the time. Why? You can come up with a lot of theories, but I would say that the most logical one is that it comes down to those words “valuable” and “outstanding.” I imagine there are people right now who would vote Britton “most valuable” pitcher, but they would have trouble voting for him as “most outstanding.”

    Here’s the funny part, the rabbit hole part — I went back to the beginning. And as it turns out, the Cy Young was SUPPOSED to go to the “most valuable” pitcher. The words got switched at the last minute. And it’s unclear why.

    * * *

    The rabbit hole takes us all the way back to 1956 and the start of the Cy Young Award. Well, technically, it takes us back to November 1955. That is when the great pitcher Cy Young died.

    Young was more than a great pitcher. He was a very popular and iconic figure, a connection to baseball’s past. He always seemed up for an interview, always was ready to tell a story. Think back to when Yogi Berra or Buck O’Neil died. It was like that when Young died. Everyone looked for a suitable way to honor him.

    This gave commissioner Ford Frick a chance to champion one of his pet ideas: Frick wanted an award that honored pitchers. Sportswriters though Frick was irked by the fact that Robin Roberts had never won an MVP award. Roberts was, in the judgment of many, the best pitcher in the National League every year from 1950 to 1955. He almost won the MVP award in 1952, finishing a close second to Hank Sauer, but other than that he was overlooked. Frick thought pitchers deserved a chance to win their own MVP awards.

    And so, after Young died, Frick made his voice heard. He proposed a special award, named for Cy Young, to be given to pitchers. It was announced in early 1956 with a banner headline in The Sporting News:

    “Pitchers to Have Own MVP Award in the Future.”

    OK, you see that: It was to be the pitchers’ Most Valuable Player Award. Valuable was the key word in the story. It seemed pretty easy.

    As it developed though, the Cy Young thing became more controversial than Frick had expected. Turns out the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) wasn’t too crazy about the idea of the commissioner jamming some new award down their throats. Turns out, they didn’t particularly like Frick second-guessing their judgments about Robin Roberts. Turns out — in the least surprising development of all — the BBWAA didn’t really want change.

    Still, Frick kept pressing his case, and on July 9, at the All-Star Game, the BBWAA met to vote. First, they argued. There were arguments over the number of Cy Young Awards that should be given out each year. There were arguments over making pitchers ineligible to win the MVP award. There were arguments over the name “Cy Young Award” — some thought it should be named for Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson.

    The New York World-Telegram’s Dan Daniel argued that the new Cy Young Award would diminish the MVP award. Philadelphia’s Frank Yeutter argued that were already too many damn awards.

    And then, after the vote, there was an argument about the vote itself being unconstitutional.

    You can probably hear the squabbling in your head.

    In the end, the writers voted for the new Cy Young Award 14-12 — literally one person changing a vote would have killed the Cy Young Award before it ever started.

    But the BBWAA did vote for it with a couple of caveats:

    1. Pitchers would still be eligible for the MVP award; that, in everyone’s mind, was still the big award.

    2. They would only give out one Cy Young Award to the best pitcher in both leagues. It would be 11 years before they started giving out Cy Youngs to the best pitcher in each league.

    But the biggest news was the wording: Nobody really wrote about the wording then, but it was made clear the BBWAA determined that the Cy Young Award would go to the “most outstanding pitcher in baseball.” In every story I could find, valuable was left completely out.

    It is unclear what brought about the change. It’s possible that the voters didn’t even think of it as a change — they might have just thought (as I do) that “outstanding” and “valuable” are basically baseball synonyms. What’s more likely, though, is that they chose “outstanding” to separate it from the MVP award. The BBWAA was very sensitive about the MVP award.

    But then, it gets even weirder: The Cy Young Awards themselves DID use the word valuable. A quick internet search (h/t: Fangraphs and Tom Tango) shows that sometimes — like in 1963 with Sandy Koufax, in 1972 with Steve Carlton, in 1973 with Jim Palmer and perhaps as late as Lamar Hoyt in 1983 — it DID say “Most Valuable Pitcher” on it. Other years, more recent years, it said “Outstanding Pitchers.” And still OTHER years, it did not say either; it just had the pitcher’s name.

    In other words: I’m probably overthinking the whole thing.

    Check that. Delete the word “Probably.”

    I would ask again: Does the word choice have an impact? I would say: Overall, yes. It’s true that starting in the early 1970s with Mike Marshall, relievers did get real Cy Young support. Marshall barely lost the award to Tom Seaver in 1973 and then won it going away in 1974. That opened the floodgates: Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young in 1977; Bruce Sutter in 1979; Rollie Fingers in 1981; Willie Hernandez in 1984; Steve Bedrosian in 1987; Mark Davis in 1989 and Eckersley in 1992. Others like Goose Gossage and Dan Quisenberry came close.

    But, as mentioned, since Eckersley won the Cy Young/MVP double, relievers — with the one Gagne exception — have been shut out. And now there’s a powerful debate going on.

    There’s an interesting statistical side note to this. There are a couple of advanced statistics out there that people like to lean on. One is, of course, WAR, Wins Above Replacement, and relievers will almost never do very well with WAR because they do not pitch enough innings. By Fangraphs WAR, Zach Britton ranks 26th in the American League, nowhere near the Cy Young contenders.

    But then there’s a stat called Win Probability Added, WPA, that adds (and subtracts) the win probability for every play. So, for instance, if a home pitcher has a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth inning, the team’s win probability is roughly 87 percent.

    After getting one out, it jumps up to about 93 percent. So add six percent to the pitcher’s total.

    After getting a second out, it just up to about 97 percent. So add four percent to the pitcher’s total.

    Then, of course, third out moves it to 100 percent, so you add that.

    It’s a pretty simple formula, easy to add and subtract based on what happens. And when it comes to WPA, Britton is FAR AND AWAY the American League leader. His 5.2 WPA is a full win ahead of Andrew Miller and almost two wins ahead of the best starter, Toronto’s Sanchez.

    So, yes, it’s all in how you look at it. In a way, you could say that the difference between WAR and WPA is the difference between “outstanding” and “Valuable.”

    * * *

    One final thought on this — in going down the rabbit hole, I ran into numerous interviews with Cy Young. He was an opinionated man, especially about pitchers. I particularly liked this quote from 1951:

    “There are just too many pitchers,” he said. “Ten or 12 on a team. Don’t see how any of them get enough work. Four starting pitchers and one relief pitcher ought to be enough. Pitch ’em every three days and you’d find they’d get control and good, strong arms.”

    I think it’s fair to say that Cy Young wouldn’t be voting for Zach Britton.

    Style over everything

    A few weeks ago, I was playing tennis against a nice guy, pretty sure his name was Chris. He seemed like a Chris, I mean, as far as I know, every Chris I’ve met — including the Christines — have been very nice people.

    Anyway, when the very friendly match ended, and I had lost decisively, I had this overwhelming thought: I could play Chris one billion times and never beat him.

    It isn’t that Chris is a better tennis player than I am. He is better, but I feel sure he’d deny that. It’s probably true that I have a better forehand than he does, a better serve than he does, and I’m better at the net than he is. It’s true that he probably did not hit even five winners in the entire match and I probably hit four or five times that many. But none of this matters because I could never beat Chris, not ever, and we both know it.

    See, Chris is the sort of player who is in phenomenal shape and has unlimited patience and, as such, he runs down every single ball and bloops every single ball back.

    I can never and will never beat a player like Chris.

    You will ask, perhaps, what any of this has to do with French tennis star Gael Monfils, the supposed subject of this piece. I suppose it comes down to this: I could never play tennis like Chris. I would win way more often if I did play like Chris, but my brain just is not hardwired that way. I play tennis for the thrill of the shot. I will double-fault games away again and again because I crave the joy of the ace. I will make a million forehand errors in the odd hope of hitting one or two Federer-type winners. I go for the topspin lob even though I don’t have a topspin lob in my repertoire. I will crack backhands into the bottom of the net in the baseless hope that this time — this time — I will rip a backhand winner like Stan Wawrinka.

    This might, in the hands of the wrong reporter, be called “audacious tennis.” The proper phrase, however, is “stupid tennis.” I know it’s stupid. I know that every match I go for shots that I might — MIGHT — be successful one out of 50 times. I know that I will lose matches to players I should beat because I am trying things that I might have pulled off once before in my life. It’s beyond stupid.

    But I also know that while I would be a much more successful tennis player if I would pull back, get the ball over, wait for my opponent to make the first mistake, I’m incapable of doing it. I don’t mean I’m too stubborn to do it — although that’s true too. But competitive spirit — the willingness and ability to do whatever is necessary to win — is a talent, as sure as vertical jump and arm strength, and I don’t have it. I think of my tennis game much in the same way I think of the Han Solo scene in the original Star Wars, the one where where he breaks into the detention area and briefly tries to pretend he is an officer for the Empire.

    SOLO: “Everything is under control. Situation normal.”

    INTERCOM VOICE: “What happened?”

    SOLO: “Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction … uh, but, uh, everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now. How are you?”

    INTERCOM VOICE: “We’re sending a squad up.”

    SOLO: “Uh, um, negative, negative, we have a reactor leak here now, uh, give us a few minutes to, uh, lock it down, very dangerous.”

    INTERCOM VOICE: “Who is this? What’s your operating number?”

    At which point Han Solo blasts the intercom. “Boring conversation anyway,” he says.

    That’s how I’d be trying to play Chris tennis — I might be able to fake it for a minute or two, but sooner or later everything in me would revolt against the style of play, against the limitations it presents, against the crushing realization that I’ve given up on hitting the miracle shot. I’d give up and blast the intercom. I’d break apart and try the utterly pointless Gael Monfils between-the-legs volley (and probably kill myself doing so).

    Gael Monfils has never been Top 5 in the world, has never reached the final of a Grand Slam tournament and has never beaten Novak Djokovic in the 12 times they have faced each other. And still, Monfils is — in the word most prominently used by my 15-year-old daughter — lit. “Lit” apparently, if my daughter is to be trusted on such matters, is the current hip slang version of (in reverse time) da bomb, boss, awesome, cool, dyn-o-mite, way out, gone (Daddy-O), the cat’s meow, the bee’s knees. Point is, Monfils is wonderful in just about every way. I root for him to win every single major championship until he doesn’t.

    The thing that makes Monfils such a joyous player is that he is utterly incapable of toning down the turbulent magic in his game. He has tried for years. He is by all accounts the fastest player on tour, the most athletic player on tour, the most breathtaking player on tour. Every year — it has become an annual tradition like Breakfast at Wimbledon — there will be whispers about Monfils moderating his game, playing smarter, getting tougher. And tennis observers will note breathlessly that IF he ever did get his game under control, IF he ever did add competitive fire to his artistic splendor, IF he ever did play to win rather than to serve whatever higher lighthearted purpose that rattles around in his mind, he would be an overwhelming tennis force.

    Then, of course, Gael Monfils becomes Gael Monfils again, playing sporadically incandescent tennis to the beat of whatever music is playing in his head.

    There is always so much talk about what Monfils could be that I wonder if we don’t appreciate enough what he is. As a child, he was an athletic prodigy. He probably had the talent to be an NBA basketball player. He probably had the talent to be an Olympic sprinter. He probably had the talent to be an electrifying striker. He is basically Usain Bolt and Messi and Simone Biles rolled into one body. He could have been anything. This is a man who, in 2006, when he was just 19, showed up in Las Vegas to play in a tournament and, for fun, entered the Paddle Tennis Championships. He had never played paddle tennis before and he beat the player regarded as No. 1 in the world.

    Yes, anything, but he loved playing tennis. You get the sense that tennis was the sport that gave him the best chance to express himself.

    And this is what he does on a tennis court: Express himself. There was the time in Monte Carlo against Alexandr Dolgopolov that he hit a dreadful dropshot and turned his back to the ball in disgust. Only then at the last second, when Dolgopolov bashed the ball into the open court, Monfils suddenly awoke and somehow chased down the ball and hit a winner. It was impossible.

    There was the time at the U.S. Open against Alejandro Gonzalez when a ball floated toward him and he decided for whatever reason to jump straight up in the air (he probably could have been a high jumper too) and in one glorious motion unleash a titanic forehand that looked as if it was shot right out of a video game. It was impossible.

    There was the time in Montreal against Juan Carlos Ferrero, at the end of a 26-shot rally, when Monfils chased down a backhand, then raced across the court and somehow reached it to hit a running forehand. He was probably 15 feet off the court when Ferrero then hit a soft half-volley to the other side of the court. Most players in the world wouldn’t even try to chase it down. Monfils took off, reached it and with one hand, cracked a winner down the line. It was impossible.

    There was the time against Marin Cilic in Indian Wells when he chased down two overhead smashes and a follow drop volley to win the point. “He’s everywhere!” the Sky Sports announcer shouted in wonder. Yes, it was impossible.

    Well, there is a virtually unlimited number of these to talk about — you can go on YouTube and see for yourself. There you can find Gael Monfils’ Top 10 Awesome Points, Top 10 Funniest Moments, Best Points, Amazing Points, Top 10 Improvisations, and so on. If you go to a Monfils match, any match, your jaw will drop at least five times. But he also might lose the match.

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-7lzaC3WfQ&w=560&h=315]

    So what do you make of such a career? What do you make of a 30-year-old tennis player who has hit more amazing shots in the last decade than perhaps anyone, but has never come close to winning a major championship? What do you make of a player who on the day he feels right will fight to the brink of exhaustion, on the day he feels wrong will roll over, and on all days will say without hesitation that he looks at tennis as a sport and not as a job?

    Here’s what I make of Monfils: I love the guy. I love him because I relate to him, because I feel him, because I think he is playing tennis for the art and the fun. We have come to believe that winning is not just the most important thing, not just the only thing, but it is the very reason to play sports. Monfils is the antithesis of that. If you could hit miracle shots like Gael Monfils, wouldn’t you?

    A couple of weeks ago, Monfils played Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the Olympic quarterfinal. Nishikori is basically the highest version of the Chris that I played a few weeks ago — Kei might even mean “Chris” in Japanese. He has beautiful ground strokes, he chases every ball down and he wears you down. He obviously has some weapons, but more he wins by outlasting.

    The two played a thoroughly wonderful match, back and forth, and it ended in a third-set tiebreaker. Monfils promptly unleashed some of his sorcery and took a 6-3 lead in that tiebreaker. He was one point from winning the match and going to the semifinal. I was watching the match with my pal Dave, a former college tennis player, and we both said the same thing: Monfils absolutely could lose this.

    Sure enough, Nishikori won the next two points behind two good serves, and then it was Monfils’ turn to serve. He tried for a big first serve, of course, and missed. It was second-serve time.

    “Double fault,” I predicted.

    “Yep, he will go for too much and double fault,” Dave said.

    Monfils promptly went for too much (“To unbalance him,” he would explain later) and double faulted. He then lost the next two points to lose the match.

    Now, would it have been smarter for Monfils to make sure he made his second serve to give himself a chance to win the match? Probably. But as Fast Eddie says in “The Hustler:” “Percentage players die broke too, don’t they?”

    Monfils is back at another U.S. Open, and he’s the best tennis show on earth. He will also probably lose before too much longer, but until then, it will be fun to watch. As the scorpion and the frog story goes, it’s in his nature. And I love him for that because, while I know that I could never do any of the things that Gael Monfils can do, I also know: It’s in my nature too.

    Head of the class

    Six players in baseball history have hit 10 or more home runs in their first 25 big league games. Well, that’s not exactly right — only one player has hit MORE than 10 home runs in his first 25 games. That, as you probably know, is New York Yankees phenom Gary Sanchez. He already has 11, and he still has one more game to go to get to his 25th game. We will get back to him in a minute.

    The other five players hit exactly 10 home runs in their first 25 games.

    They are a bit of a mixed bag.

    * * *

    Zeke Bonura, 10 homers in 25 games, 1934.

    Zeke Bonura’s first bit of fame came not as a baseball player but as a track-and-field star. When he was 16 years old in 1925, he shocked everyone by breaking the American javelin record and coming within inches of the world record. His throw was five feet longer than the gold-medal throw at the Olympics one year earlier. His record would later be called wind-aided and nullified — there is some dispute about whether it really was wind-aided or if the AAU just did not want a previously unknown 16-year-old Italian to have the American record.

    He got his nickname “Zeke” indirectly from none other than Knute Rockne. The best version of the story is that Rockne came to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to recruit him and, upon showing up, said: “I want to see the one with the physique.” Physique was shortened by wiseguy teammates to “Zeke.” When Bonura made the big leagues, he was 6-foot and 210 pounds of muscle.

    He made it in 1934, after a five-year stretch in the minor leagues, and upon his arrival, he hit 10 home runs in his first 25 games. He reached 10 in style, hitting two home runs off Philadelphia pitching in Game 24 and hitting two more off Boston’s George Pipgras and Johnny Welch in Game 25. It was a time in America for ethnic profiling, of course, and so as a reward for his historic start, Bonura got his photograph in the Chicago Daily News eating a big plate of spaghetti. “Spaghetti Eating Plutocrat, Bonura Is Ballplayer, Too,” was the headline.

    He was often called “Spaghetti Zeke Bonura” after that.

    Bonura was a superb hitter. In his first six seasons — his only six full seasons — he hit .313/.386/.504, hit 20-plus homers three times, scored 100 runs twice and drove in 100 RBIs four times. He actually owned the White Sox RBI record for 62 years until Albert Belle broke it in 1998 and Frank Thomas broke it again two years later.

    But, despite the hitting, Bonura was mostly known as a sort of flake during his playing days. Stories of his inability to read signs became legendary — his manager Jimmy Dykes would tell of the time that they kept flashing the bunt sign at Bonura and he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, read it. Finally, Dykes would say, he just shouted “Bunt! Bunt!”

    “And,” Dykes said to finish off the joke, “the SOB still swung away.”

    This was in the day when managers felt free to insult their own ballplayers at will. Dykes also never hid his belief that Bonura was the worst first baseman in entire world.

    “It was never established that beyond the shadow of a doubt that Bonura was the worst fielding first baseman in the majors,” Shreveport Journal sports editor Otis Harris wrote, echoing Dykes. “But the consensus was that he would do until another one came along.”

    Funny thing is, it’s not clear at all from the record that Bonura was a bad first baseman. In truth, he looks like a very good one based on the limited stats we have. He rarely made errors (he led the league in fielding percentage three times). And while the knock on him was that he was about as mobile as a sleeper-sofa, he led the league in in range factor FOUR TIMES in six years. Yes, this could be a limitation of the statistics we have — people who saw Bonura play seem almost unanimous in their belief that he was a dreadful defender. But let’s be honest, it also could be that people tend to see what they want to see.

    There is one more fun part of all this — in 1937, Bonura was one of a handful of athletes featured on the front of a Wheaties Cereal box. On one of the panels, Bonura was given the task to explain the proper way to play first base.

    Bonura went to war in 1940 and received the Legion of Merit for his work as athletic director for the army in Algeria. He died in 1987.

    * * *

    George “Boomer” Scott, 10 homers in 25 games, 1966

    Scott, like Bonura, grew up in Mississippi. George’s father worked on a cotton field and died when George was two years old. It wouldn’t be long before George himself worked in the cotton fields to help his mother, who was trying to keep the family afloat by working three jobs.

    He was a baseball phenom — according to Ron Anderson’s SABR profile, Scott was such a powerful hitter as a boy (he had a six-game stretch where he hit multiple homers every game) that he was briefly thrown off his team because he hit too many home runs. They thought he was older than he claimed. Scott was more than a baseball phenom, though. He was a fantastic athlete who starred in football and basketball, too. He would later say he loved those sports more, but he knew that baseball was where he could make his living.

    Believe it or not, Boomer Scott was a second baseman and shortstop when he first went into the minor leagues — it was probably that middle-infield dexterity that helped Scott win eight big-league Gold Gloves at first base. He didn’t flash real power until he went to Pittsfield in 1965 when he was 21 years old. There, he mashed 25 home runs along with 30 doubles and nine triples. His last at-bat in Pittsfield was cool. He needed a home run to win the batting title, the home run title and the RBI title. So he hit the home run. And as it turned out, in addition to giving him the triple crown, the homer won the game that clinched the playoffs for PIttsfield.

    When he came to Boston for spring training, he was not the resident phenom. That was Joe Foy, who had hit .302 in Triple-A Toronto and was widely viewed as the real can’t-miss superstar. The two were often compared that spring training with Foy getting most of the accolades.

    But once the season began, Boomer made clear who the real star was. He hit nine home runs in a 13-game stretch, and he hit his 10th in his 21st game. The Sporting News did a big story on him then (“Great Scott!” was the headline, the first of approximately 10 billion times Scott would see it) and though it doesn’t have too much information, it does have one fun exchange. Scott has huge hands and so the reporter asked him if he could palm a basketball.

    “Don’t know,” Scott said.

    “Haven’t you ever tried?” the reporter asked.

    “No,” Scott said. ‘When I got the basketball, I put it in the basket.”

    Boomer went on to a fine major league career. He hit 271 home runs, led the league in homers and RBIs in 1975 and twice led the league in total bases. He died in 2013 at the age of 69.

    * * *

    Kevin Maas, 10 homers in 25 games, 1990.

    When Kevin Maas hit his first big league home run — on July 4, 1990 — absolutely nobody noticed. This is because on the very same day, in the very same game, Bo Jackson unleashed a 450-foot megabomb that crushed what was destined to be the worst Yankees team in almost 80 years.

    Maas was not really a prospect. He had been taken in the 22nd round four years earlier, and he had not blown anyone away in the minor leagues. But with the Yankees in utter free fall and with hero Don Mattingly in sudden decline, there was a lot of hope pinned on Maas. He was left-handed, had a sweet swing that was perfect for Yankee Stadium, and when the team went to Texas for a three-game series, he homered in each game, once off Kevin Brown, once off of Bobby Witt and once off of Nolan Ryan. The last was when Ryan was trying to win his 300th game (he would have to wait until his next start).

    Six days later, he homered off Detroit’s Dan Petry, and two days after that he mashed two more homers off Tigers pitching. That gave him 10 homers in 25 games. He hit a few more home runs — for the year, Maas hit 21 home runs in just 254 at-bats. Lots of people were doubling those numbers and considering the possibilities.

    The Maas era did not last much longer, however. He hit 23 home runs in his second year and he walked 83 times. But he hit just .220 and slugged just .390 — it was becoming clear that he just did not make enough hard contact to stick. He kicked around for a while longer and played a year in Japan for the Hanshin Tigers.

    * * *

    Chris Davis, 10 homers in 25 games, 2008.

    He was a pretty big prospect when he got the call. Davis had 36 home runs in the minors as a 21-year-old and he was so battering the Pacific Coast League (having hit 10 homers in just 31 games there) that the Rangers brought him up in late June. He hit an opposite-field three-run homer in his second game. He took Jamie Moyer deep in his fourth. He hit four home runs on a long road trip to end his first 25 games — hitting his 10th homer in that 25th game off of Justin Duchscherer in Oakland.

    Davis, like Maas, more or less stopped making contact in his second year — he hit 21 homers but had just a .284 on-base percentage, largely because he walked just 24 times but struck out 150. He couldn’t get it back in Texas and was dumped on Baltimore for reliever Koji Uehera. The Rangers didn’t get the best of Uehera either; he left for Boston after two years and became almost unhittable.

    Davis, of course, reemerged in Baltimore in 2012 and has 191 home runs the last five seasons, the most in baseball.

    Most home runs, 2012-2016:

    1. Chris Davis, 191

    2. Edwin Encarnacion, 187

    3. Nelson Cruz, 167

    4. Miguel Cabrera, 159

    (tie) MIke Trout, 159

    * * *

    Trevor Story, 10 homers in 25 games, 2016

    Is it weird that two of the six players to hit 10 homers in their first 25 games came along this year? Yeah, but it’s no weirder than the obscene jump in home runs this year. In 2014, teams were averaging .86 homers per game and 139 homers per year.

    In 2016, teams are averaging 1.16 homers per game — that’s 187 homers per year and the second-highest home run average in baseball history behind only 2000.

    What gives? Well, that has been the point of much speculation, from the juice in the baseball, to the juice in the players, to the juice in the bats, and so on. The sudden uptick of home runs after the All-Star Game last year suggests something rather sudden happened, but it doesn’t necessarily add up that way. There are many factors when it comes to home runs and if we are going to get a clear picture we have to look at everything. Just as an example, weather plays a huge role in hitting, and this has been the hottest summer on record.

    Thing is, other than home runs, offense is at an all-time low. Hitters are striking out at a considerably higher rate than ever before, and they’re not walking much. Hitters are batting .256, which is below historic norms, and hitters aren’t hitting doubles and triples at a particularly high rate (triples have been at historic lows this entire decade). It’s just home runs. And while cynical fans give knowing looks, the truth is we don’t exactly know why hitters are knocking baseballs out of the park at a crazy rate.

    Story came into this year as the Rockies’ eighth-best prospect, according to Baseball America. He was a top prospect once, but that was way back in 2013. Then, he struck out a staggering 183 times in 130 games in Modesto as a 20-year-old. He never hit even .280 in the minors, and he only managed to hit 20 homers in one of his five minor league seasons. Few thought he would make enough contact to be an impact hitter.

    Then he came up and splashed like no one ever had — he hit two homers in his first game in Arizona, another in his second game, another in his third and two more in his home debut against the Padres. That’s six homers in four games, and then he hit his seventh homer in Game 6. He slowed down considerably from there, but still managed to hit his 10th homer in Game 21 to be part of this club.

    * * *

    Which brings us back to Gary Sanchez.

    Scouts have loved Sanchez’s talent since the day the Yankees signed him at 16 years old. They gave him a $3 million signing bonus — that’s the sort of talent they saw. Of course, sixteen-year-old kids are impossible to scout — at the same time, the St. Louis Cardinals gave $3.1 million to Wagner Mateo, who never hit and he bombed out at age 21. That’s a much more common tale.

    Sanchez rushed through the low minors as if in a hurry to make his name, but then he stalled. He stopped hitting. He was benched for off-the-field stuff. He was dressed down for insubordination. And, perhaps most strikingly from a baseball perspective, questions grew about his dedication to the game. “All the talent in the world,” one scout said. “If only they could get him to care.”

    All of this might just have been growing pains, of course. You give a 16-year-old kid in the Dominican $3 million, then put him into a situation where he needs to overcome a language barrier and the doubts of others, it’s amazing that anyone comes through that. But the good ones find a way. In 2014 and 2015, Sanchez reestablished himself as one of the best prospects in baseball, a unusually gifted receiver with emerging offensive skills. He hit well in the International League.

    And even with all that, his debut has been jolting. Of course, it’s jolting to see someone hit .383/.448/.819 with eight doubles and 11 home runs in his first 24 games. Nobody has ever done that in baseball history. But what’s perhaps just as amazing is how good he looks doing it — there is absolutely nothing about Sanchez’s swing, his approach or his general posture that doesn’t point to superstardom. There are some fond remembrances now of one-time Yankees freak Shane Spencer, but — and with absolutely no offense meant for Spencer — it’s pretty clear that Sanchez isn’t the same story.

    * * *

    A final word … about Shane Spencer. I was surprised not to see him on this list. It turns out he just missed it, hitting his ninth and 10th home runs in Games 26 and 27. It isn’t really fair though because he didn’t get an at-bat in his first game and had just one plate appearance in seven other games. He hit 10 home runs in 73 plate appearances in his magical run during that magical Yankee season of 1998.

    Spencer, unlike Maas and Story and even Sanchez, was a minor-league masher. He hit 32 homers in the minors in 1996 and 30 more the next year. Nobody thought that would translate to the big leagues, but the power was there. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was stocky and had a good swing, especially against fastballs.

    When he came up to hit in that crazy-good Yankees lineup, he was fed a lot of fastballs — and Spencer knew what to do with them. He just kept hitting homer after homer after homer, much to the delight of Yankees fans who were already luxuriating in the riches of an almost unbeatable team. After 1998, Spencer was thrown a lot more off-speed and sliders, and he settled into a solid utility player. He, like Maas, went to play for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan after he fell out of the Major Leagues.

    The Anthem

    You might already know this story: On September 5, 1918 — during Game 1 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox — the crowd stood up for the seventh-inning stretch. Nobody knows for sure how far back the seventh-inning stretch goes, but it probably has its roots in the very earliest professional games ever played. There are those who believe the stretch became official in 1910 when President William Howard Taft (all 335 pounds of him) stood up during a game. Well, the seventh-inning stretch is a story for another time.

    The point is that during this game, something unusual happened. As the sparse crowd at Comiskey Park (Wrigley was too small for a World Series game) stood to shake off the boredom of what had been something of a snoozer (Babe Ruth was pitching for the Red Sox, but he was not yet Babe Ruth), a band began to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

    It was such a stirring moment that The New York Times’ story the following day led with it:

    CHICAGO, Sept. 5 — Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball was the great moment of the first world series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, which came at Comiskey Park this afternoon during the seventh-inning stretch. As the crowd of 10,274 spectators — the smallest that has witnessed the diamond classic in many years — stood up to take their afternoon yawn that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations, the band broke forth to the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

    The yawn was checked and heads were bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music. Jackie Fred Thomas of the U.S. Navy was at attention as he stood erect, with his eyes set at the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field. First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It as at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.

    How big of a deal was this? Well, this is what was written in the inning-by-inning recap:

    SEVENTH INNING — Cubs — The band halted proceedings by playing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The players, with the exception of Thomas, stood at civilian salute, the Great Lakes sailor coming to the military pose. Kiffler flied to Strunk, Vaughn hit far to Scott’s right, but the Boston shortstop skidded over and made a one-handed pickup, throwing his man out at first. Flack grounded out, Scott to McInnis. There were less than a half dozen balls pitched this inning. NO RUNS. NO HITS. NO ERRORS.

    So, yes, playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a big enough deal to even get into the play-by-play. This was during World War I, so American patriotism was at a fever pitch. And the hero of the story was unquestionably third baseman Fred Thomas (the “Jackie” in the main story is in reference to him being a Navy sailor), whose instant patriotic response deeply touched everyone in Comiskey Park. His statement was as obvious and powerful as could be — it said, “I am proud to be an American.”

    And his statement resonated with the fans, of course. The Cubs had a band play “The Star-Spangled Banner” again the next two games. The reaction was, again, powerful. When the series returned to Boston, the Red Sox decided to not only play the song, but to play it before the game even began. Again the players and fans stood at rapt attention.

    The timing of all this was striking. At that exact moment there was powerful momentum — led, in part, by a man named Henry McDonald, who was Director-General of the New York City Mayor’s Committee of National Defense (don’t ask) — to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem. At the time, there were several songs — “My Country Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” “Hail Columbia” and others — that were played as unofficial national anthems.

    On the day the Series went back to Boston, McDonald announced that more than a thousand musicians would play “The Star Spangled Banner” in theaters and motion-picture houses and town squares all around America to “develop greater patriotic interest in the words and music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”

    It worked. While there have always been people who fought against “The Star-Spangled Banner” — too hard to sing, the tune of a British drinking song, lyrics that are too connected to war, etc. — Americans’ emotional national response to “The Star-Spangled Banner” was just more powerful than it was for the other songs. After the 1918 World Series, more and more baseball teams began playing the song before their games. Soon, every baseball team did. When Congress officially made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem in 1931, it was just a rubber stamp — the song was already the national anthem. It was played before every baseball game and, as such, before every American sporting event.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/E_m_QqBU8ihh?autoPlay=false]

    It’s good, every now and again, to remind ourselves why the national anthem is played before games — it was nobody’s plan. It is a tradition built up because, almost 100 years ago, during a yawn-inducing ballgame, the anthem awakened powerful emotions in the crowd. And the businessmen running baseball teams took notice.

    People in and around sports have been using the national anthem to make their own political and business statements for a century. What do we think the NFL is doing when they have military flyovers just as the anthem comes to a close? What do we think teams are doing when they have soldiers unfurl the world’s biggest American flag, one big enough to stretch across the entire field? What do we think people are doing when they put their hands over their hearts, when they stand with their hands at their side at attention, when they sing along, when they shuffle their feet and forget to take off their hats?

    All statements. And, as we know, athletes make individual statements too, some purposeful, some not. Olympic athletes often cry during the anthem — that means something. John Carlos and Tommie Smith held black-gloved fists in the air while the anthem played –that meant something. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf closed his eyes and silently said an Islamic prayer during the national anthem — that meant something (he would always insist that this protest eventually cost him his NBA career).

    For a short while last year, there was a story rolling around about how not enough Minnesota Twins players came out to the field to stand for the national anthem. That might or might not have meant anything, but people argued about it. There was an even briefer (and sillier) bit during the Olympics about gymnast Gabby Douglas not having her hand over her heart during the national anthem.

    And so on.

    Of course, now we’re talking about Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem. He has made it absolutely clear why he does this — it is a personal protest against what he views as racial injustice in America.

    The responses have been overwhelming and from all sides. Some agree with him wholeheartedly and see his stand as an extension of Muhammad Ali. Some disagree with his stance but applaud his courage. Some disagree and don’t applaud his courage, but concede it is his right as an American to protest. Some say that the national anthem is no place for a protest. And some are so outraged they lash out at him. Also playing in the background is the Jay Glazer report that says Kaepernick is about to get released, not because of his politics, but because he’s not an effective quarterback.

    It’s an odd thing: Because of Fred Thomas almost 100 years ago, I have probably heard the national anthem more than 5,000 times in my sportswriting career. I’ve been lucky enough to hear it played on six continents, in at least 40 states. I’ve heard it played by a 10-person marching band on a high school field in the middle of Kansas, and I’ve heard it played by giant military bands before Army played Navy. I’ve heard it sung by celebrities and would-be celebrities, by children and World War II veterans, by teachers and firefighters and Elvis impersonators. I’ve heard it played on guitar, on flute, on trumpet, on violin, on piano, on the xylophone and on the harmonica.

    I’ve heard it booed in other countries, and I’ve heard it cheered so loud that the words are drowned out. I’ve heard it stretched out to excess — usually by a young singer who seems to believe that this is a tryout for “The Voice” — and I’ve heard it spoken because the singer had no intention of trying to hit the high note. I’ve heard the words messed up, forgotten and sung with such power that people were on the brink of tears. I’ve heard them stress the “O!” in Baltimore, shout out “Chiefs” in place of “Brave” in Kansas City, cheer madly before Blackhawks games in Chicago.

    I’ve heard it in wartime and peace, after tragedy and after triumph, and mostly I’ve heard it on just another night before just another game.

    And, every now and again, I look around to see the reaction of the crowd while “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. You see all kinds. You see veterans salute the flag. You see people drinking their beer and talking. You see people singing along. You see people sitting and yapping on their phones — or playing games on them. You see people at attention and people laughing, people holding their children and facing the flag and people drinking beer and looking around for something or other.

    These are political statements. They might mean, “I love my country.” They might mean “I am thinking of a relative who died during the war.” They might mean, “Oh, man, I forgot to let the office know to send out that email.”

    They are all statements, thoughtful or thoughtless, heartfelt or inadvertent, patriotic or unthinking. If you think about it, playing the national anthem before every single sporting event is weird — we don’t play it before plays, before concerts, before the opera or ballet, before movies, before speeches or before comedy shows. But we play it before every game; we take just a moment to think of what it means to be American. Yes, you may disagree with what Colin Kaepernick thinks it means to be an American.

    But he is making his statement, boldly, unflinchingly, fully ready to face whatever comes his way. And if you’re being honest with yourself, you know the truth: The statement most of us make during the national anthem is simply this: “Come on, let’s get on with the game already!”

    The lost years of Pujols

    Albert Pujols is about to finish his fifth year with the Los Angeles Angels. Fifth year. It does not seem possible that he left the St. Louis Cardinals that long ago, but he did. It has been so long that there is now a generation of young baseball fans — probably just about every fan 13 and younger — who know him only as this, a cautionary tale against big contracts, an overpaid designated hitter in the middle of the lineup for a going-nowhere Los Angeles Angels team. That’s the shame of it. Albert Pujols was amazing.

    Before we get into that, though, we should first get the sad stuff out of the way: Albert Pujols is no longer a great, good or even average baseball player — and he probably won’t ever be again. Yes, sure, there will be an effort by some to say Pujols is actually having a pretty good year because, you know, RBIs. He has 100 of them as of August 26, just one off the American League lead, which means he could end up with 120 or so by year’s end. He could lead the American League. We are so conditioned to think of RBIs as a meaningful statistic that it seems illogical that someone could put up 120 RBIs and have a bad year. But that’s the case with Pujols.

    He has all these RBIs for two simple reasons:

    1. He comes to the plate with more runners on base than any player in baseball — and it isn’t even close. It’s nice to hit behind Mike Trout, who leads the league in on-base percentage. It’s also nice to have Kole Calhoun and Yunel Escobar hitting in front of you because they both are getting on base this year, too. As of the moment, Pujols has come to the plate with 428 runners on base, 22 more than second-place Anthony Rizzo and 50 more than the next-closest guy in the American League, Carlos Correa.

    2. Pujols does still swat the occasional homer (he’s got 24 of them), and he has timed his hits pretty well. Sixteen of his 24 homers are with runners on base. He’s hitting .310 with men on base, .200 without. You can chalk this up to his clutch hitting abilities if you are in that camp (though last year he hit better with the bases empty). But the larger point is that if you took one of a half-dozen Triple-A sluggers, put them in the middle of that Angels lineup and kept them there every game no matter how badly they hit, they would rack up plenty of RBIs.

    When you look past RBIs, it’s pretty bleak. Pujols can no longer play the field. He can no longer run the bases. He doesn’t walk anymore. He doesn’t hit line drives anymore. He makes a lot of soft outs. His slugging numbers are down. He has more double-play grounders than doubles.

    The Angels and everyone else should have seen this coming, of course. Pujols is 36 years old. And 36-year-old baseball players, for the most part, are done. We tend not to think about it this way; we tend to believe that most good players aren’t really done until they are 39 or 40. But it just isn’t so.

    Why do we continue to believe that players age better than they do? There are a lot of reasons, of course, some of them psychological: It’s hard for our minds to get around the idea that a player can be really good YESTERDAY and be completely shot TODAY. We do understand this in football, probably because of the violence. Nobody was really all that surprised that, say, LaDainian Tomlinson was otherworldly at 27 years old (1,815 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per carry, an NFL-record 31 touchdowns), somewhat less great at 28, barely average at 29 and expendable at 30. We get that it happens that way in football, especially for running backs.

    But in baseball, we just continue wanting to believe that guys play well until their late 30s. Bill James brings up another reason why the age illusion in baseball is so powerful, one that I had not considered before.

    Think now about baseball players between 35 and 40. Who do you see?

    Well, first thing, you probably see David Ortiz, who is having a ridiculous year. He leads the league in doubles, slugging and OPS. He’s hitting baseballs harder than anyone else in the game. It’s awe-inspiring. And he’s 40.

    Then you might see Jose Bautista, beat up, struggling, looking close to the end.

    Adrian Beltre at 37 is still a phenomenon; this guy is a first-ballot, no-doubter, inner-circle Hall of Famer.

    Mark Teixeira at 36 has already announced his retirement.

    And so it goes, around the league, a mixed bag. Rajai Davis at 35 leads the American League in steals. Ryan Howard at 36 swings for the fences and is on waivers. Ben Zobrist at 35 is still versatile and valuable. Justin Morneau at 35 is just hanging on. Back and forth: Victor Martinez is hitting .300, Alex Rodriguez was hitting .200 before retiring, Matt Holliday and Curtis Granderson and Pujols himself are putting up some counting numbers with adding a whole lot of overall value.

    So, it’s easy to build this idea in your mind that 35-plus players are sometimes useful, sometimes not.

    But here’s the hidden part of the puzzle, the thing your mind doesn’t consider: Most good baseball players now in that 35 to 39 age bracket are OUT OF BASEBALL. And so, we just don’t think about them.

    Shane Victorino is out of baseball. Alex Rios is out of baseball. David DeJesus was a fine player — he’s out of baseball. Nick Swisher was an All-Star — he’s out of baseball. Andruw Jones put up a near-Hall of Fame career. Rafael Furcal was a superb shortstop for a good while. Michael Cuddyer, Adam Dunn, Dan Uggla, Adam LaRoche, Eric Chavez, Brian Roberts, Aramis Ramirez, Orlando Hudson, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner … none of these guys are even 40 years old.

    The list keeps going. When was the last time you thought about Kevin Youkilis? He was, for a time, a fantastic player, an MVP candidate, a Boston hero. He’s been out of baseball for three years now. He’s younger than Albert Pujols.

    How about Josh Hamilton? It wasn’t so long ago that Tom Verducci was calling him the best player in baseball. He might give it another shot next spring, nobody knows for sure, but essentially he’s out of baseball. He’s younger than Albert Pujols.

    Grady Sizemore. Amazing player. He probably deserved to be MVP when he was 23 years old. At 25, he hit 33 homers, stole 38 bases, walked 98 times and won the Gold Glove. He has tried comeback after comeback and has not played a full season since 2009. He’s younger than Albert Pujols.

    Josh Willingham. Corey Hart. Cody Ross. Carlos Quentin, Mark Ellis, Jason Bay, Chone Figgins, Aaron Rowand … we can keep going on like this for a lot longer. Jack Cust. Bill Hall. Rocco Baldelli. Hank Blalock — remember him? Jose Lopez. Brandon Inge. Adam Everett. None of these players are in the league of Pujols, of course. But they were all viable Major League players, all had good careers, and they all aged out. This is what happens.

    We like the illusion that baseball players can be good until their late 30s or even early 40s. And every now and again, a player like that does come along — you can look at what Ortiz is doing now. But it’s a rare, rare thing. Albert Pujols is doing EXACTLY what the Angels should have expected. They signed a 32-year-old player already showing signs of decline, moved him into a tougher hitters ballpark in a new league. If you take emotion out of the equation and forget that his name is Albert Pujols, his decline into oft-injured designated hitter who hits a few home runs would have been as predictable as the Anaheim weather.

    But we can’t just take emotion out — what fun would baseball be without emotion. And so it’s important to remember just how good Pujols was and why the Angels wanted to believe.

    First, look at Albert Pujols’ numbers in St. Louis: .328/.420/.617, an average of 40 homers, 117 runs, 121 RBIs.

    Just look at those numbers. And it’s not like he compiled those numbers by having a few amazing years and a few more average years — no, he basically put up those numbers EVERY SINGLE YEAR. He was a phenomenon. They called him “The Machine.”

    In St. Louis, Pujols was essentially a combination of Stan Musial, Henry Aaron and Cal Ripken. He was the best hitter. He was a great fielder. He was not fast, but he made himself into a fantastic base runner. He played to win, always, and that earned him his teammates’ respect and admiration. He was, more or less, the perfect ballplayer.

    The thing that made Pujols different was that he was not physically gifted like so many of the all-time greats. He was no phenom. You know the story: He was drafted in the 13th round because scouts thought he had a bad body and thought that he had no natural defensive position. The Kansas City Royals famously passed on him again and again even though he went to high school 20 minutes from Kauffman Stadium.

    What they didn’t see — what they couldn’t see — was that Pujols was going to make himself into a great baseball player whether the scouts liked it or not. He had the Tom Brady “prove everyone wrong” chip on his shoulder, and he had an incredible capacity for work, and he had physical gifts that are not easily seen — breathtaking hand-eye coordination, marvelous balance and a genius’ sense of what his body could and could not do.

    When Pujols was a rookie — and he had one of the all-time great rookie seasons hitting .329 with 47 doubles and 37 homers — he struck out 93 times. This is actually a pretty low number for a modern-day slugger, but it sickened and embarrassed Pujols. He determined that he would never strike out that many times again, and he never has. From 2006 to 2012, Pujols ranked in the top 10 every year in fewest strikeouts per at-bat.

    When Pujols was 25, he decided that he needed to become a better base runner. It was something missing from his his game. Pujols was not blessed with much natural speed — he’s a big-bodied athlete and rated slow on the 20-80 scout scale — but that year he had 16 stolen bases, led the league in runs scored again and was five runs better than the average base runner.

    When Pujols first came up, he played several different positions — first, third, a lot of outfield. This was the big knock on him, his defensive liabilities, and it’s true that he wasn’t an especially good defender at any of those positions Then at 24, he finally got a position of his own, first base, and he decided he would become the best defensive first baseman in baseball. He quickly became the best defensive first baseman in baseball. He won two Gold Gloves, two Fielding Bible awards and and probably would have won more except that people had a hard time believing just how good a defender he had become.

    Of course, the big thing with Pujols was how hard he hit baseballs — he had that impossibly wide stance, and he hit baseballs squarely. Most people who were there would agree: The most VIOLENT hit in baseball history might have been the three-run home run Pujols mashed off Houston reliever Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS. The Houston crowd, sensing it was on the brink of the team’s first World Series, was thunderous, and even so you could still hear the impossibly loud crack of the bat as Pujols turned on the pitch. When he hit it, silence fell across the land so suddenly that it felt like something biblical.

    And that was Albert Pujols again and again in those days.

    Pujols will put up more numbers before his career is out — he still has five years left on that $240 million contract. He will probably challenge 700 home runs if he stays reasonably healthy. If he has a hot year or two, he might even push for the record. And when he passes various marks — when he gets his 600th homer (next year), his 3,000th hit (2018), his 2000th RBI (2018 or 2019), his 700th homer (?) — we will once again tell the story of the young Albert Pujols and how awesome he was.

    But I’m not sure the kids will understand it because it’s clear that he will never be THAT Albert Pujols again. When I was a kid, I got to see Frank Robinson play. The old-timers talked at length about how impossibly great Frank Robinson was back when he won the Triple Crown, when he won MVPs in both leagues, when he dominated games with his power, his speed and mostly his will.

    Well, I looked down and all I saw was an old player-manager in a silly cherry-red uniform who would insert himself into lineups every now and again because, well, why not? I believed the old timers about Frank Robinson, and I would see highlights of the man in action, but I didn’t get to see Robinson in his prime. I missed it. That always made me just a little bit sad.

    Cautionary tale

    RIO de JANEIRO — All of his life, Ryan Lochte has been looking for the thing that would make him famous. He is not alone in this way. Fame is a powerful narcotic. It has driven generals and movie stars, writers and doctors, philosophers and humanitarians and groundbreakers and reality TV show stars to do extraordinary things and ludicrous things, righteous things and terrible things, to change the world and to become clowns.

    In Ryan Lochte’s case, the draw of fame drove him to do all those things and then some.

    No one on earth worked harder in the pool. He was not always the most reliable of souls, but when he showed up, when it was time to work, he became a force of nature. The stories of his workouts are legendary — they include the time he did one hundred 100-meter swims at nearly full speed. That’s 10,000 meters, more than six miles of all-out swimming. It is insanity. But Olympic stars become famous. And Lochte wanted to be famous.

    He said ridiculous things — his main contribution to literature being “one word describes that race: ‘Jeah!’” — in the hope they would make him famous. He tried to become “The Bachelor” in the hope that would make him famous. He did a much-smaller scale but similarly ridiculous reality TV show — Episode 5: What would Ryan Lochte do … in Hollywood? — in the hope it would make him famous. He bleached his hair blonde (only to see it turn slightly green after clashing with the pool’s chlorine) in the hope that would make him famous.

    When his Olympics ended — one gold medal for swimming the 4x200m freestyle relay — he scheduled as many interviews as he could get. He talked about how he was sure (pretty sure) that Michael Phelps would come back for the Tokyo Games in 2020. He said he wanted to come back for those Games himself. He talked about leaving sleepy Charlotte and moving out to California. West Coast life, jeah! He talked about, well, whatever anyone wanted to talk about.

    He also announced that he’s on Tinder.

    Sunday morning, at the end of a bleary stretch of partying, Ryan Lochte and three swimming teammates got into a prolonged dispute with a couple of guards at a gas station. The details, even now, even with security camera footage, are sketchy. There was, best anyone can tell, some vandalism and a gun, and money definitely changed hands. Was it citizen justice? A robbery? A shakedown? Your mileage may vary.

    Whatever happened it unquestionably was not the story Lochte decided to tell — one of fake police and guns to the head and our hero muttering “Whatever” as he hipster-stared down the danger.

    One of the questions you hear most here in Brazil is: Why? Why would Ryan Lochte tell any story at all? Why wouldn’t he just let whatever happened fade away with the hope that it never came up again?

    But this is the easiest question in the world to answer: He’s Ryan Lochte. He’s a man who would swim one hundred 100-meter races at full speed, a man who would do a reality TV episode called “What would Ryan Lochte do … if he got plastered?,” a man whose bizarre hair color screamed out his hunger for fame. Now, he had a story that people actually wanted to hear, a chilling story that would make international headlines and put him at the top of newscasts across the world and make him the man of the hour.

    With that in mind, what were the chances that Ryan Lochte would NOT tell that story — as big and bold and self-aggrandizing as he could make it?

    Fame and infamy are not opposites; this is what you learn as you grow older. They are twin brothers, the sort few can tell apart. And so now, yes, the world mocks and tears apart Ryan Lochte.

    “Ryan Lochte is the dumbest bell that ever rang,” Sally Jenkins writes in The Washington Post.

    “Ryan Lochte — Ugly American with a truly ugly hairstyle — did it,” Mike Vaccaro wrote in the New York Post.

    “First, pretend you are stupid,” Bruce Arthur led off his column explaining Lochte to readers of The Star in Toronto.

    “Here,” The Daily Mail reported, “we chart how Lochte turned Saturday night and Sunday morning into hours and hours of shame for his nation.”

    And so on. It will get worse. USA Swimming will be heard from. Sponsors will have to back away from him. Friday, Lochte put out a statement that some will view as a heartfelt expression of regret and others will see as a muted half-apology. Mostly, it expresses the inner struggle for Lochte to both be sorry and be defiant.

    “I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend,” it begins.

    “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave …” it continues.

    “Of worldly fame is but a blast of wind,” Dante Alighieri wrote more than 700 years ago, “That blows from diverse points, and shifts its name.”

    Whatever. Ryan Lochte was only doing that thing he had been doing all his life, that most American of things — chasing fame. He’s now very famous. It probably doesn’t feel like he thought.