The Irishman

Hi everybody. In this week’s newsletter, we’re talking the new Scorsese movie and a little Superman, but let’s start with some updates.

At The Athletic

It looks like we are going to start the Baseball 100 at The Athletic in two weeks, December 17. Why? It’s because my awesome editor Kaci figured out that if we start on that day and count down the 100 greatest baseball players ever in 100 days, the series will end right on Opening Day.

Wow, 100 stories in 100 days. This series is probably the most massive undertaking I’ve ever attempted — the whole thing will end up being 200,000 or more words, that’s more than twice as long as The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. I’m writing furiously, I can tell you that.

Point being — again this week I was so busy with Baseball 100 writing that I only had time to write one piece for The Athletic. But it was a doozy: The Browns lost in Pittsburgh again. Cleveland head coach Freddie Kitchens thought it a good idea to wear a “Pittsburgh Started It” T-shirt out in public two days before the game, then made a bunch of excuses about it. Quarterback Baker Mayfield looked so panicked and out-of-his-depth in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, that I put up a Twitter poll about him. It offered discouraging views, only 4% of people view him as a future start while 30% see him as being below average and 15% more determined he just doesn’t have the stuff.

Sigh. The Browns.

Look this week for a preview of next week’s veteran’s committee Hall of Fame vote. I will find the time to write it, somehow.

Stuff

— I’ll be at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee on Thursday, Dec. 12 to talk about Houdini. Come on out! Admission gets you a Broken Wand Cocktail, which sounds delicious and magical, and I’ll sign books afterward. I’ll happily inscribe something nice about Jim Gantner, if you like.

— I’ll be in Atlanta on Saturday Dec. 14 for the Mercer Authors Luncheon. Really excited about it … there will be some amazing authors there I cannot wait to meet. I mean — Thomas Mallon? Lynne Olson? How did I get this invitation? Also, I’m currently reading Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen’s book about the Atlanta Olympic bombing, which is a source for the upcoming Clint Eastwood movie “Richard Jewell.” They will be at the luncheon too.

Seriously, how cool is this?

— I won’t say any more about it, but we have two holiday PosCasts coming up over the next couple of weeks that should set new standards for PosCast lunacy.

The Irishman

Someday, someone is going to make an absolutely amazing movie — not a documentary but an actual movie — about the making of Martin Scorsese’s new movie The Irishman, and I am going to be first in line to see it. I’m impossibly fascinated by the story of four old friends and legends — Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci — getting together to make one more gangster movie. I want to know everything.

And I don’t care at all about Jimmy Hoffa.

That’s what I kept thinking about while watching The Irishman itself: I wish I was there watching them make this movie. I wish I was there to see these four go on what might be their last journey together, to see them each reach deep into themselves and pull out just a little more brilliance. Look:

Martin Scorsese is 77.

Robert De Niro is 76.

Al Pacino is 79.

Joe Pesci is 76.

Think of all the great movies they have made, all the unforgettable performances, all of the exchanges. The story of them, their artistry, their shared history all of that is so much more interesting to me than the story of a hit man named Frank Sheehan and the rest.

Oh, understand, I deeply admired The Irishman. It’s gorgeously made. The performances — particularly Pesci’s splendidly understated portrayal of mobster Russell Bufalino — were astonishing. There were times I literally gasped, the acting was that good. And Scorsese plays in the movie … not as an actor but by turning the camera itself into one of the film’s main characters. Mesmerizing.

So, yes, The Irishman, even if it is, as you have undoubtedly heard, very, very long.*

*“Pack a lunch,” a friend advised me before I began, and indeed it took two separate sittings to take the whole movie in. I did have lunch between.

I admired the movie but didn’t love it, and there is a specific reason why. I’ve read some of the reviews and vaguely agree with many of the points about it being overlong and feeling a bit self-indulgent and derivative and aimless. Though I don’t think it’s fair to say that The Irishman was just a remake of Goodfellas or Casino (or The Sopranos or The Godfather or Hoffa), it didn’t feel new. The breathtaking power of Goodfellas, for me, was its sweeping ambition — Scorsese made a movie that, in an explosive and singular way, explores both the allure of the mob and the inevitable doom of the mob life. You want in. You want out. It’s inescapable.

The Irishman tries to be a big story, but it didn’t feel bit. It felt like the story of a hit-man who can barely find humanity in himself. It was lovingly portrayed, yes, But it seemed to me like well-covered ground.

But that isn’t the quibble that sticks with me. What is it, then? The great film critic Roger Ebert used to talk about how some movies are so bad that they would be more interesting if you just had the actors sitting at a table talking.

The Irishman wasn’t bad or anything close to bad, but it took Ebert’s theme to a different place. De Niro is much more interesting to me than the Frank Sheehan character he played. Pacino is much more interesting to me than Jimmy Hoffa. Scorsese is much more interesting to me than this story was. Even Pesci is more interesting to me than his character, Russell Bufalino, who was, by far, the most interesting character in the film.

I kept watching (and watching) and enjoying The Irishman because it gives us all one more chance to soak in Scorsese’s genius, the ability of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci to dive into characters, the irresistible way they work together to bring another time and place to life.

But I walked away unfulfilled because, in the end, I wanted more of that stuff and less of the movie itself. The Irishman felt like an empty vessel for their talents and skills. I’m waiting for the movie about the movie.

I am (I am) I am Superman

There was a much discussed story in Variety this week about the trouble studios are having making Superman relevant to modern audiences. This led to various think pieces about Superman’s lack of relevance in today’s superhero-laden time. And that led to a backlash of people wondering how studios were having such a hard time finding a relevant story to tell about an immigrant who fled a planet that blew up because of global-warming deniers, then became a journalist and a hero who fought for the American way and against a rich oligarch with plans for world domination.

All of which I find very interested. Because, as I’ve written before, I’m a Superman guy.

I’ve always been a Superman guy … and there’s a specific (and, Mike Schur will tell you, extremely boring) reason for it: Superman is unfailingly good.

That’s my connection. That’s why I have a poster of him on my wall. He’s good. He’s not mostly good. He does not struggle to be good. He’s not inconsistently good. He’s just good.

They’ve tinkered with Superman’s goodness lately because goodness is not in vogue in the movies these days. It’s not enough to be a superhero in 2019. No, superheroes need to be dark, egotistical, conflicted, troubled. I get it: We’ve become much more interested in the reluctant heroes and antiheroes and all of their twisted motivations. The recent Superman movies try to go that route; they are filled with destruction and death and unintended consequences and Superman’s own doubts about the world and himself.

And maybe that’s just how it has to be — maybe there aren’t enough people left interested in a hero whose motivations are pure, someone who is only trying to help.

But none of that works for Superman. Because, again, he is good.

There’s an old line that good people make for bad biographies. I’ve never bought it, though. I find goodness to be pure magic whether in books, in movies, in sports, on television. Goodness is the one thing that consistently makes me cry. Whether it’s the town bringing money to save George Bailey, Ellie’s scrapbook in “Up,” Brian Piccolo helping Gale Sayers recover from his injury or a thousand other examples.

Superman does not HAVE to be good. That’s part of the wonder. He has a seemingly limitless number of powers — more get added all the time, I mean, does he really need the power to reverse time? — and his only real weakness is kryptonite, which is pretty rare (though usually poorly protected by the Metropolis Museum). He could do whatever he wants. There’s a great scene in the real “Superman” movie, the Christopher Reeve one, where the young Clark Kent complains that he could score a touchdown every single time he got the football.

And his father says, “I know now that as sure as we’re gonna see the moon tonight there’s a reason why you’re here. Don’t ask me what reason, don’t ask me whose reasons. But whoever and whatever, there’s one thing I know. … It ain’t to score touchdowns.”

Clark figures it out. He goes to the Fortress of Solitude. He becomes Superman. He chooses to save people and stop crime and improve the world. He chooses to get better every day.

But why? I think that gets at the heart of why Superman movies have gone off the rails and everybody keeps asking: Why? They probe at an internal struggle that I don't think exists. They have him wrestle with a dark side even though the whole point of Superman is that he doesn’t have a dark side. They mock the idea that he would save a cat from a tree even though, in my view, that reveals his character so much more than intergalactic special effect fights ever could.

He saves the cat from a tree because it makes a little girl happy. He always has time for that.

The Superman character I love is unapologetically and entirely good. He’s incorruptible. He’s corny. He’s tough but optimistic. He’s a flying Mister Rogers. Superman’s motivations are not hard for me to understand: He’s powered by the positive energy that comes from the world, and he’s bummed out that people can’t help but hurt each other. He’s molded by the failure of his destroyed home planet and the decency of his Kansas parents. He has these great powers and he believes unquestionably that he was meant to use his powers for good so he does not compromise, does not give in and constantly pushes his own boundaries to make the world better.

Maybe we’re too cynical for that that story. Maybe that kind of Superman can’t sell the 10 gajillion dollars worth of tickets worldwide necessary to make a movie in 2019. Maybe we really have lot our appetite for Superman.

I hope not. I love Superman still. I’d watch that movie.

Minor League Thinking

Hi everybody and happy Thanksgiving! Welcome to our weekly newsletter.

I’ve got a long rant about the minor leagues in this week’s newsletter so let me get to the news upfront.

What I’m Doing

At The Athletic, I wrote a piece about the Browns beating the Dolphins in what I believe might have been their most dominant performance since coming back to Cleveland (not that that is saying much).

That is the only piece I wrote for The Athletic this week because — I think this is pretty exciting — we’re closing in on my most ambitious project ever: I’m counting down the 100 greatest baseball players in 100 days! Let’s just say: I’m writing as fast as I can. We are not sure yet the exact day the countdown will begin — there’s a little inner debate going on about it. But it begins in December.

Of course, I’ll still find a way to write some other Hall of Fame stuff over the next couple of weeks as well.

Stuff!

— So proud to have The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini chose as one of Bookpage’s best lighthearted non-fiction books of 2019. To have the book called “somehow both befuddling and electrifying,” well, I feel seen.

— By popular demand, we have — for a limited time — brought back the “Fruit Pie is Delicious” and “Hot Fruit is Disgusting” T-shirts. Proceeds go to our charities — last year Mike Schur and I were able to donate almost $7,000 to our favorite charities. But that’s not the main reason to buy one. The main reason is that fruit pie is delicious.

You can also buy your own “Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini” shirt at the link.

— Mike and I just recorded a new PosCast, which should be up Wednesday morning.

— I’m going to be at the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee on December 12 to talk some Harry Houdini. And then on December 14, I will be in Atlanta at the Mercer University Authors Luncheon. Fun for the whole family.

— If you have not had a chance to see Seth Meyers’ “Lobby Baby,” on Netflix, it really is wonderful and joyful.

A Long Minor Leagues Rant

Philip K. Wrigley, president and owner of the Chicago Cubs for more than 40 years, was an odd and fascinating man. He used to say that his greatest ambition was to find a comfortable cave with no telephone in it, move in, and roll a giant rock in front of the opening so that no one could ever find him. It was a bizarre dream for one of America’s richest men, but he never did get over his desire to hide from the world.*

*One year, Cubs utility-player Pete LaCock asked for a rare face-to-face meeting with Wrigley. And at that meeting, when Wrigley asked what he wanted, LaCock said, “Oh, nothing, I just wanted to make sure that you were a real person.” 

Wrigley’s philosophy of baseball and life was pretty inscrutable -- it contained this strange blend of principles and greed, ideals and quirks. He was a baseball owner who, for much of his life, did not try all that hard to win. “Our idea in advertising the game and the fun and the healthfulness of it, the sunshine and relaxation,” he once said, “is to get the public to see ball games, win or lose.”*

*In many ways, Derek Jeter echoed this theme earlier this year when he talked about how he was more focused on giving fans a good experience, less on the winning and losing part.

He was conservative by nature and often was bizarrely opposed to change — he refused all his life to put lights in Wrigley Field — but at the same time he founded the most successful professional women’s baseball league in American history (and, yes, also abandoned the league when it became clear that World War II was about to end -- Penny Marshall got him mostly right in, “A League of their Own.”)

He believed in analytics; he hired the director of the Bureau of Institutional Research at the University of Illinois to help his scouting department. But he also believed in voodoo and once hired a hypnotist to put a spell on other teams. 

He came up with the wacky college of coaches, where the Cubs infamously alternated managers throughout the season.

*The most glorious year of the college of coaches was 1961 when all four of the team’s managers had losing records For trivia fun, can you name the four men who managed the Cubs in ‘61? These are the real names:

-- El Tappe (42-54)

-- Vedie Himsl (10-21 record)

-- Harry Craft (7-9)

-- Lou Klein (5-6)

That team lost 90 games despite having three future Hall of Famers in the everyday lineup.

How do you sum up such a person? You really can’t except to say this: Wrigley believed, deeply and forcefully, that the only way to win over baseball fans and keep them for life was to get them to come out to the ballpark, where they could experience the richness and joy of baseball.

And that’s what motivated him. As the owner of the Cubs, he had more ticket giveaways -- particularly for women and children -- than any other owner in baseball. As you know, during World War II, when he worried that fans would not get to see enough baseball and lose their connection to it, he founded the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

He also believed in the power of local television to spread the word. He became the first owner to allow a television station, WGN, to broadcast all his team’s home games.* Other owners thought he was a kook: Who would come to the games if they were already on TV? Wrigley understood that if people saw the game on television they would want to come and see baseball for themselves. And he was right.

*I don’t know that enough was made about 2019 being the last year of Cubs baseball on WGN. Times change, of course. But WGN and the Cubs, as James Earl Jones might say, they’re a part of our past.

But, and here is where we get to the heart of things: Yes, Wrigley believed strongly in local television. But he was vehemently opposed to baseball on NATIONAL television. Sure, the World Series was fine. But when the league started putting more and more regular-season games on national television, he was so angry about it that he ranted to the commissioner: “I don’t want the money.”

Why?

He believed that baseball on national television would wreck the minor leagues.

The minors were Wrigley’s most passionate cause. He was enraged at how Major League Baseball owners had turned the minor leagues into their own personal playthings. He thought it would wreck baseball.

He was so serious about this that he actually suggested that Congress take away baseball’s antitrust exemption so that minor league teams could be free. He was so serious about this that for a long time he refused to build a farm system like every other team in baseball. That — not some Billy Goat Curse — was why the Cubs went into the tank after World War II. For years, believe it or not, Cubs minor league teams were welcome, even encouraged, to sell their best players to OTHER TEAMS if they offered more money than the Cubs.

I’m not saying this was all benevolent thinking — Wrigley was a minor-league owner himself, and he fought hard to make the Pacific League into a Major League because he owned the Los Angeles Angels.

But Wrigley’s belief was heartfelt that if fans in non-Major League cities across America didn’t have their own independent baseball teams to root for, they would not root for baseball at all. And the game would lose countless fans.

All these years later — I think he was largely right. No, this is not one of those “baseball is dying” bits of nonsense. The game is hardly dying. David Glass just sold the Kansas City Royals -- repeat, the KANSAS CITY ROYALS -- for a billion dollars. Local television ratings remain strong. Millions of fans remain passionate about the game -- attendance has dropped for eight consecutive seasons, yes, but it’s still way higher than it was in Wrigley’s time. 

But it’s inarguable that baseball has lost its place as the National Pastime. 

And it loses more of that place every single year.

And now the owners are talking about just killing 42 minor league baseball teams to save some money.

It’s all wildly self-destructive.

* * *

Let’s start with a stat you intuitively know but probably have not thought much about: Thirty-four states do not have a Major League Baseball team.

Also true: Twenty-six of the 50 biggest cities in America do not have Major League Baseball. A sampling would include:

No. 7: San Antonio (200 miles from closest MLB team)

No. 12: Jacksonville (140 miles)

No. 14: Columbus (105 miles)

No. 16: Charlotte (245 miles)

No. 22: El Paso (440 miles) 

No. 25: Portland (175 miles)

There’s also Louisville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Alburquerque, Raleigh, Birmingham, Omaha, New Orleans and so on and so on and so on. 

Now, think about what kind of baseball exists in those towns. I live in Charlotte, so I can speak directly to the question: The Chicago White Sox’s Class AAA team, the Charlotte Knights, are here. Here are the plusses: There’s a glorious ballpark downtown, a near-perfect place to watch baseball. The team has any number of smart and ambitious people who come up with fun promotions to make the game’s more enjoyable. Interesting prospects come through town, if you are interested in catching a glimpse of the future. The nachos are excellent as are the chili dogs.

There is, best I can tell, only one minus: It’s NOT CHARLOTTE’S TEAM.

No, they’re run from Chicago. Charlotte people don’t get to make any real decisions about the team. The most interesting players are in and out in a blink. They have no rivalries, no continuity, no shared history. The players want out. Well, of course they do — they’re in Charlotte so they can get to the Major Leagues. That’s the whole point of the minor leagues. The Charlotte Knights are a development team for the White Sox, nothing more, nothing less. Charlotte fans are simply invited to watch.

And while, sure, people root, root, root for the home team, the games lack the passion of REAL baseball.

Compare that with the passion people in Charlotte feel for North Carolina basketball or Clemson football or any number of other local and regional colleges — obviously, there’s no comparison.

You can see this passion chasm in the list of the 42 minor league teams that MLB is looking to eliminate. Think about how much more invested football and basketball fans are in Charleston, WV., Chattanooga, Tenn., Lexington, Ky., and State College, Pa., to name just four of the cities that are reportedly on the cut list.

You can see it. Children are raised on football there, raised on basketball there, they get to root for teams in those sports where the games really matter, where there are true and heartfelt emotions on the line, where there’s a larger community of people who feel connected. Football and basketball are nationwide, there’s are always games near you that MATTER.

And minor league baseball? Eh. It’s fun. You want to go to game today? Who’s playing? Who knows? But it’s Rockin’ to the 80s night.

This isn’t by mistake — this is the system MLB beat. The people who have run MLB through the years, armed with their handy antitrust exemption, decided long ago that the ONLY baseball that matters is Major League Baseball. Everything else is not just inferior but unimportant. They created a different kind of monopoly. Imagine if the NFL did everything in its power to destroy college football. Imagine if the NBA did everything in its power to destroy college basketball.

Well, that’s the case in baseball — teams fight hard to get ALL the best high school players, leaving college baseball to subsist on players who insisted on getting educations and those who might bloom late.* Plus those aluminum bats.

*More than 20 Division 1 baseball programs have been eliminated in the last 25 years

MLB buys all the talented young players it can and sends those players to whatever city seems like the right fit for the player’s personal development — the minor league teams’ themselves are not consulted nor is their opinion considered or appreciated. The MLB team decides which manager is right for that city, which coaches are right, which programs are right.

And then the MLB team pays the players a less-than-living wage.

All of this is good for MLB … but I would argue that none of it is good or has been good for baseball, the sport. When Phillip Wrigley began to fight against MLB’s destruction of independent minor leagues, Gallup ran a poll asking Americans to name their favorite sport. Thirty-eight percent of Americans said it was baseball. That was the late 1940s.

In the last Gallup poll, NINE PERCENT of Americans called baseball their favorite sport, the lowest number in the poll’s history (and the first time that baseball finished third — behind football and basketball). And as if that isn’t daunting enough, the true picture is much worse. Among those from ages 18-54, the percentage drops below seven percent and baseball is solidly behind football, basketball AND soccer.

This isn’t to say that MLB’s hostile takeover of the minor leagues — and the effect that has had on would-be baseball fans in most of the country — is the main reason why the passion for baseball dwindles. But I think it’s a part of the picture.

And NOW, they’re talking about actually cutting 42 minor league teams. Why? Because they can. MLB (again, armed with the antitrust exemption) has already shut off pretty much any and all competitive professional baseball in this country. Now, they can — on a whim — say that there are too many players, that cities aren’t paying enough for their facilities, that team movement is making it too hard for MLB to use the minor leagues for the main purpose which is, as clearly stated, developing players for MLB.

Look, I don’t know if, in the end, MLB actually will cut those minor-league teams. Politicians, led by Bernie Sanders, are now getting interested in the subject, and that’s dangerous territory for MLB. They’re talking about tearing away teams in 21 different states, and that means 42 angry senators from both sides of the aisle, and I’m thinking that threat should be enough to give MLB pause. Let’s just say that MLB cherished antitrust exemption has not made sense in years, and I don’t think MLB would want to see Senators arguing about it.

But, whether it’s now or later, MLB will keep trying to squeeze the minor leagues and all those cities, large and small, that are not fortunate enough to have Major League Baseball.

And I think it’s impossibly, recklessly and self-destructive. MLB needs people to come back to baseball. They need to raise the next generation to love the game. They can make a quick buck here, and owners have always shown that they appreciate a quick buck, but I agree with Philip K. Wrigley. I truly believe the fact that the vast majority of Americans do not have their own free hometown baseball team to root for is an existential threat. And MLB should think long and hard about that.

Celebrating Raul

Hi everybody. Here is my first weekly newsletter! I’m wide open to ideas and suggestions about improving it. I’ll put up a thread tomorrow so you can ask anything, suggest anything, talk about anything.


Celebrating Raul

The Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is out. It will look a little something like this (h/t to the incomparable Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs) and the BBHOF Tracker Team):

There is much to say, and I among others will spill many, many words saying some of those things over the next few weeks (including a few more in the next section.

But I want to begin by congratulating my dear friend Raúl Ibañez for appearing on this ballot.

Raúl is one of my favorite people in the world, but that isn’t saying much: Everybody who knows Raúl has him on their all-time favorites list. He’s just that good a guy. We have a particularly special connection because his first son and my first daughter were born on the same day, which led to us comparing father notes when we both had no idea what was next. This led to us challenging each other to online chess, which led to us just becoming friends beyond the field.

Raúl is not a Hall of Famer. He would be the first to tell you that. In fact, when I texted him congratulations for being on the ballot on Monday, he wrote back, and I quote, “I am? LOL!” That tells you a whole lot about Raúl, by the way.

But the guy had an extraordinary career. He was a 36th round pick out of Miami-Dade College, and 36th-round picks don’t have long and vibrant league careers. He had, by far, the best career of any 36th-round pick in the history of the draft. Second is probably Junior Spivey, to give you an idea.

Ibañez had to prove himself again and again and again just to stay in the game. He was drafted by Seattle and kept in Class A ball for three years despite hitting pretty well each of those years. He hit in Class AA and again in Class AAA and got a a four-game call-up to the big leagues. He was already 24. Then it was back to Class AAA, where he hit again, enough to get an 11-game call-up.

Then he got a big-league shot, didn’t hit, and got sent back to Class AAA. Same next year. Same next year. He was already 29 years old when the Mariners gave up on him, and a Kansas City Royals general manager, Allard Baird, took a shot because why not? The Royals were almost entirely devoid of talent then, devoid of prospects, they had all sorts of job openings. They gave Ibañez his first regular spot in the lineup, and Raul hit well enough to play his first full season in 2002, when he was 30 years old. Ibañez hit .294/.346/.537 with 24 homers and 103 RBIs, and he that was more less what he would do for the next decade.

He ended up with more than 300 home runs, more than 2,000 hits and more than 1,200 RBIs, which is pretty darned good for a guy who had fewer than 200 hits before he turned 30. He made himself into a good hitter. He was not fast, but he hustled so much that he became an average base runner and, for a few years in his early 30s, an above average fielder. He squeezed every last drop out of his talent and in the process became an All-Star and a postseason hero and everybody’s favorite teammate.

He’s not a Hall of Famer. But that ain’t a bad baseball life.


A Few Ballot Thoughts

This year’s ballot is one of the most interesting in a long time for one key reason: There are not 10 slam-dunk Hall of Fame choices on here. And that should bring a whole new energy to the voting.

Let’s use Jay Jaffe’s excellent Hall of Fame JAWS statistic to make this point. JAWS, as most of you know, is a system that uses Wins Above Replacement and combines a players CAREER WAR with his PEAK WAR (seven-year peak). The idea is to identify the players who were good at their best AND good over their whole careers.

In 2013, which was the year that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and a whole bunch of other controversial figures jumped on the ballot, there were 10 players who qualified for the Hall of Fame by JAWS and another three or four who were awfully close. You will recall that voters can only choose up to 10 players.

And the great players kept on coming. Here are how many JAWS-qualified players by year:

2014: 14
2015: 12
2016: 11
2017: 10
2018: 10
2019: 10

It should be said each of those years in addition to the fully qualified Hall of famers there were any number of players, between 3 and 7, who were SUPER CLOSE to being JAWS-qualified. These ballots were overstuffed with great players who inspired a lot of emotions, and that muddied up everything. People argued about what sort of strategy to use — should you pick the ten best or spread out your picks to help those who needed the votes most?

Well, this year’s ballot is different. There are only SEVEN JAWS-qualified players. Four of them are controversial (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and Manny Ramirez), two are either wildly underrated or wildly overrated depending on your view of WAR (Larry Walker and Scott Rolen) and one might get voted in unanimously (Derek Jeter).

That leaves the voters with much more freedom than we’ve had in years. That’s both exciting and, I expect, a bit scary. It’s exciting because, finally, the Hall of Fame backlog has been drained, and we don’t have to leave off worthy Hall of Fame candidates simply because there are no vacancies on the ballot.

But it’s a bit scary, I suspect, because now we can’t use the “I would have voted for him but I didn’t have room for him on the ballot” reasoning. Is Gary Sheffield or Andrew Jones or Todd Helton a Hall of Famer? None of us really had to answer that question in the last few years because there weren’t one of the 10 best players on the ballot.

Now, they probably are.

As such, it will be absolutely fascinating to see how many people this year (1) Vote for 10 players and (2) Spread around those extra votes. Will Scott Rolen get a huge boost? How about Sheffield, Helton or Jeff Kent? Does Omar Vizquel soar? Will this be a good year for Billy Wagner? It really will be fascinating.


The New Ones

There are three new players (even beyond Raúl Ibañez) who I will be watching closely. One is Bobby Abreu, who is one of those players who was always better than you thought. He finished his career with 60/60 WAR, which puts him firmly on the Hall of Fame borderline.

Abreu did so many good but boring things as a player — I used to call him the MBGPIBH (Most Boring Good Player In Baseball History). He’d foul off a million pitches. He’d draw walks. He would steal 30 bases, but without you noticing. He led the league in triples one year, in doubles another, he always drove in 100 runs, always scored 100 runs, but none of it ever seemed to register. He made two All-Star teams. He never got any real MVP consideration. But he was really good.

Jason Giambi was an all-time great hitter. His Hall of Fame case is bogged down by all sorts of things — the steroid stuff, his allergies to leather, his rapid decline after age 31, etc. But from 1996-2002, he hit .312/.418/.559, won an MVP, could have won another, led the league in various categories including on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+ and doubles. He didn’t do much else but at the plate, wow, he was a sensation.

And third is Cliff Lee. Again, I don’t think there’s a compelling Hall of Fame case for Lee, because his career was short. But he was one of only a handful of players I’ve seen who I would call an athletic genius. Lee at his best hypnotized hitters. The ball followed his command, jumped or dived to wherever he wanted, and it was utterly mesmerizing.


Baseball 100 Update!

So, as you probably remember — the New (New) Baseball 100 begins this winter at The Athletic. It will feature 100 players in 100 days, so this is the real deal. We’re going to finish it this time. This is happening, people.

I originally said that this version of the Baseball 100 will mirror the one I was doing here at JoeBlogs. I’m thinking now that it will actually be different. Two reasons:

  1. I found a somewhat major math problem with my ranking calculations. To be fair, it didn’t make THAT much of a difference, but correcting that error has shuffled things up just a little.

  2. Many of you suggested that you liked the Baseball 100 better when I included Negro Leaguers, 19th Century Players and others. I did not do this in the recent 100 because I was trying to do a corresponding Shadowball 100 list.

    Now, instead, I think I will go back and include everybody so it will be a true “100 greatest baseball players ever” list. I think that’s more fun.

By the way, if you would like to participate, I have created a pretty dastardly (but hopefully fun) baseball rating poll here. It’s kind of hard, I’ll admit. But, really, what else are you doing?


Stuff I’ve Been Doing

In The Athletic

Wrote about how Harold Baines’ odd election last year could affect the candidates on this year’s Modern Era Ballot. By my calculations, even though I do believe that every player on the ballot has a better case for the Hall of Fame than Baines did (this despite Baines being a terrific player), four players could be directly affected. Spoiler: I think Steve Garvey is the one who could benefit the most.

—Wrote a piece about how difficult it is to know what kind of cheating actually breaks through in today’s world. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I pulled this one off. It seemed like too many people took away from this that I was somehow downplaying the Houston Astros’ apparent cheating by using cameras to steal signs. That wasn’t my intention. I think that is blatant cheating and should be punished as such. But I don’t know that it will because I don’t know what forms of cheating infuriate people and what forms of cheating are basically accepted as “part of the game.”

— Wrote two pieces about the helmet-swinging Myles Garrett fiasco at the end of the Browns’-Steelers game.

The first was an immediate reaction where I went back to the famous Turkey Jones-Terry Bradshaw sack, and then I wrote about how shocking it was to see the Browns find a way, at the very very end of one of this franchise’s biggest victories in 20 years, to both become the nation’s villains AND lose their best defender.

The second is a look at how Cleveland fans are backlashing because they feel like the nation is piling on Garrett and the team. I think all groups of fans are like this, by the way. But one of the funny parts is that many of those fans are backlashing against yours truly because in the first story, I wrote that the Garrett play had left me shaken. They saw this specific quote on Twitter and took this mean that I was shaken by the violence of it and have been raging ever since. What I had meant, as seems pretty clear in the story, is that I was shaken that the Browns could even screw up a win against Pittsburgh. Funny.

Book News

— The “Did I Mention” Tour about my book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, has been going really well, lots of amazing reviews, some excellent media coverage, it’s been wonderful. And there are still more dates to come. We just added a night in Milwaukee, December 12, at the Jewish Museum. Apparently each ticket includes a “broken wand cocktail.” I don’t know what a broken wand cocktail is, but I’m here for it.

— So excited to announce that The Soul of Baseball, will be made into an audiobook and it will be narrated by the amazing David Sadzin, who actually grew up in Kansas City. When Soul came out in 2007, well, that was before audiobooks became a thing. Heck, it was before the iPhone. To have it be made into an audiobook all these years later, and with such a great narrator, well, my heart is full. I know Buck would love it.

Buck's secrets for living

Twenty years ago today, Buck O’Neil told me some of the secrets of life. It was Prince’s party year, 1999, and Buck was turning 88 years old, and all the talk was about the new millennium. What would the next 1,000 years bring? Would all the machines break down? Would they take over? This was before iPhones, before Facebook, before anyone “Googled” things or looked at Wikipedia. This was back when AOL was the biggest thing and people guiltily (or not so guiltily) used Napster to get music.

Ol’ Buck, having been born on this day in 1911, never expected to see a new millennium. He was the grandson of a slave. He grew up working in the celery fields of Sarasota, Fla. His life was framed by the boundaries that white America built all around him. He could not attend the white high school in Sarasota. He could not go to the white colleges all around. He could not stay at most hotels, could not eat in the dining room of most restaurants, could not sit in most train cars, could not even try on a hat in a store without immediately buying that hat. Humiliations, big and small, waited at every turn.

He could dream of playing baseball, they couldn’t outlaw dreams, but he was not welcome to play in the leagues that were written about in the biggest newspapers. He heard about the Negro Leagues, though. He never forgot the boiling hot day he was in the celery fields, and he shouted out in anguish, “Damn, there’s GOT to be something better than this.” And his father told him there was something better, but he had to go out there and get it.

So he went out there and played ball. He was so admired that almost from the start everybody began calling him “Cap,” for “Captain.” He played ball with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, with a 40-something legend named Oscar Charleston and the fastest man who ever played, Cool Papa Bell (“How fast?” you would ask Buck; “Faster than that,” he would reply). Buck was good at playing ball, a defensive whiz at first base, a line drive hitter good enough to win a batting title. He could really run in those days. He stole home a time or two. 

Buck interrupted his career to fight in World War II, but he came back, and he became a successful manager; Buck was born to be a manager, but there were no black managers in the minor or major leagues then. He became one of the first black scouts in the Major Leagues, and then he became the first black coach in the Major Leagues for the Chicago Cubs. 

The Cubs never let him coach on the bases, though. That was too close to the field.

Buck was impossible not to love, impossible not to admire. He saw the best in people. He saw the best in things. When he faced injustice, he felt assured that things would change. When he came up against hatred, he insisted that there were more good people than bad. I’ve told the story countless times about an Astros game we watched together. A ball was tossed into the crowd, a man reached over a boy’s head to catch the ball and take it away.

“What a jerk,” I said.

“Don’t be so hard on him,” Buck said. “Maybe he has a child of his own at home.”

It was so immediate, so natural for him to think of people that way. That was his superpower. I saw a jerk in a suit taking a ball away from a kid. He saw a father excitedly -- perhaps even too excitedly -- seeing a baseball to take home to his child.

‘Wait a minute,” I said. “If this guy has a kid, why didn’t he bring the child to the ballgame?”

“Maybe,” Buck said without missing a beat, “his child is sick.”

And I knew then -- as I’d always known, I suppose -- that I could never beat him at this game, never break that endless chain of optimism and hope that he carried with him always. You already know that when the call came that he had fallen a vote shy of election into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he instantly said, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” And after a moment of reflective silence, he began to think about what he would say in Cooperstown if asked to speak on behalf of the 17 others from the Negro Leagues who were elected.

“You would really do that?” I asked, incredulous because I was angry for him, we were all angry for him, and he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, what has my life been all about?”

And in his last public appearance, as he approached 95 years old, Buck O’Neil spoke in Cooperstown on behalf of 17 people who could not speak for themselves. And then he led the crowd in his favorite song, one that in his mind only had 10 words: “The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you.” Buck died two months later.

Today, on what would have been his 108th birthday, I think about those things. But more, I think about a few of those secrets of life he told me 20 years ago. 

-- Drain the bitterness from your heart.

-- Sing a little every day.

-- Tell people you love them.

-- Do a little showboating now and again. Remember, it was the so-so ballplayers who came up with that word “showboat.” If you have something to show, go ahead a showboat a little.

-- Don’t let anger boil up inside you. There’s too much anger out there already. 

-- Hold hands with the person next to you. That way they can’t get away. And neither can you.

-- Don’t worry none. Everything will be just fine. You can’t spend your life worrying about things.

-- Always be on time. There’s no use in being late.

-- Be there for old friends.

-- Learn your history. We have come so far. We still have a ways to go but that your job, and your children’s job, and your children’s children’s job.

-- Live a long life. Yeah. You get to see a whole lot that way.

I can still hear his voice. I hear it every day. Negro Leagues President Bob Kendrick and I talk all the time about Buck and how he altered out lives. As Bob likes to say, it’s hard to live like Buck. But we try. Every day, we try. It’s all we can do.

Loading more posts…