The Wonder of Novak
I am exhausted. Yes, it was one thing to talk about how hard it would be to write 100 intensive essays about the 100 greatest baseball players ever … but actually doing it? It’s roughly five times harder than I expected. There are three main reasons for this.
I thought I would be able to lean a lot more on the essays written in previous Baseball 100 attempts. But the truth is that, other than a couple of early ones, I’ve basically been writing these things from scratch.
I thought I would keep the essays to 2,000 words. That’s why I predicted at the start that this thing in total would have roughly the same number of words as Moby Dick. See, Moby Dick has 206,052 words. That’s about what I was expecting to hit with 100 essays. But most of these essays are running at 3,000 words, some of them 4,000 words. And now that I’m getting to the greatest of the great, it’s not like I can cut back.
The pace is more excruciating than I expected. I wrote a bunch of essays before we even got started to give myself a bit of a cushion. But because these run EVERY SINGLE DAY that cushion has withered and withered and now the gap is uncomfortably small. And this is only adding to my panic.
I mean, look, you don’t need to hear my bellyaching. You have your own problems, and they’re undoubtedly more significant than a sportswriter complaining about writing a Christy Mathewson essay. But I’m just being honest. I’m pooped.
At The Athletic
It has been a week and a half since the last newsletter — apologies for that — so there have been a bunch of Baseball 100 essays that have run since last time. I know that I have been linking those individually but today I’m just going link the main page. At the bottom of that page, there are links for all the players.
I’m told that The Athletic is working on a cool new landing page as well as a few other treats. Will keep you updated.
I also wrote a column after the Chiefs won the Super Bowl (those words still look out of place).
Stuff I’m Doing
Heading to Kansas City Thursday for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum centennial announcement — which I think will be pretty spectacular. Commissioner Rob Manfred will be there. That should be interesting.
NLBM President Bob Kendrick and I were going to try to squeeze in something fun — a public tour or a conversation — but it doesn’t look like we will be able to do that. We will both be there at the museum Thursday night for the unveiling of the Graig Kreindler Art Exhibit, which should be pretty spectacular.
A Few Words
I’ll save most of my thoughts on this for later, but you have probably seen MLB float the idea of a new postseason plan. Basically, in this plan, they would add two more wildcard teams in each league (making it 14 out of 30 teams in the playoffs) and they would give the top team a bye. Then there would be best-of-three series with all three games played at the higher-seed ballpark
The second part of the plan is that the top two non-bye teams would get to choose their opponent. This draft apparently would be part of some kind of reality TV show.
I don’t want to get too deep into this now but it’s fair to say that I absolutely hate every single part of this. I know that this could get me tabbed as an old man shouting at clouds, but considering it’s the idea of an old man shouting at clouds I’m willing to take the chance.
I’m all for change. I’m all for DRASTIC change. I think baseball could use some vibrant new ideas, even uncomfortable ones.
But nothing in this plan interests me. Nothing.
Four more playoff teams? Yuck. I loathe it on every level. It rewards mediocrity. It makes the regular season less meaningful. It guarantees that, within a short period of time, a team with a losing record will not only make the playoffs but will probably get hot and win the World Series.
And what GOOD will it do? I suppose the goal is to make more teams compete, a worthy cause, but you know what? It won’t. You think teams are going to work harder to compete for the chance to play three games at a better team’s ballpark? Nah. Do you think the Chicago White Sox or Anaheim Angels would have been big spenders down the stretch in an effort to catch the 78-84 Rangers for the honor getting to go to Yankee Stadium for three games? Give me a break.
Here’s the deal: If you really want to do this, to add playoff teams, then you need to go all in. It makes absolutely no sense to play 162 games to eliminate about half the teams in baseball. If you’re going to do this, cut the season down to 120 games. Or 100 games. Or 81 games. Play a big postseason tournament with seven-game series all the way. Turn MLB into the NBA. I don’t think that’s a winner of a plan, but at least that would be a plan. This is nothing.
The second part, the choosing of your opponent, is simply the stupidest idea I’ve heard floated from MLB in a long time. It’s not stupid because it’s edgy or new. I wish it WAS edgy and new. No, it’s stupid because it will be absurdly predictable — unless there’s some odd circumstance, teams will ALWAYS just choose the team with the worst record — and it’s stupid because we’re talking about whether the second-best team in the league wants to play the fifth, sixth or seventh best team. WHO CARES?
There are so many cool, interesting, fresh, challenging ideas out there to make baseball more appealing to new fans. This idea will accomplish nothing good for the game. And, I totally expect MLB to do it.
The wonder of Novak
When Novak Djokovic was a young and still erratic player, he became somewhat famous around the tennis circuit for his tennis impressions. He could basically impersonate any player’s service motion, forehand, backhand, mannerisms between points etc. — Federer, Nadal, Williams, Graf, Sampras, McEnroe, you name it.
You might not expect that to be much of an act, but it was pretty funny. Djokovic even then had such a keen eye for detail and such a unique ability to physically take on the form of other players that it was surprisingly good. Great players were known to watch his impersonations and then say out loud, “Do I really do that?”
Eventually, he stopped doing it — publicly at least — because some people got offended by it.
Anyway, this picture of Djokovic doing tennis impressions came to mind two Sundays ago when he beat Dominic Thiem in five grueling and somewhat odd sets at the Australian Open.
First, there is something to be said about Thiem, who comes ever closer to finally breaking through not only for himself but for his entire lost generation of tennis players. Thiem has become an extraordinary player who, at his best, can blast anyone, including the Big Three, off the court with his serve, his ferocious forehand, his savage backhand down the line. He lost in straight sets to Rafael Nadal at the 2018 French Open, in four sets to Nadal at the 2019 French Open and in five sets to Djokovic in the 2020 Australian Open. The breakthrough does seem near.
But not yet. No, the story again was Djokovic and there is history to be discussed.
This was Djokovic’s eighth Australian Open championship, which is a record (but, then again, so was seven Australian Open titles). As far as the grand slam thing goes, Djoker now has 17, Rafael Nadal has 19, and Roger Federer has 20. That race gets tighter. The three of them have won the last 13 grand slams, and Nadal will, of course, be favored to win in Paris, and Federer seems to have at least enough magic left to make another run at Wimbledon.*
*Their domination simply cannot be overstated.
— The three of them have won 14 of the last 15 Australian Opens.
— The three of them have won the last 14 of the last 15 French Opens.
— The three of them have won 15 of the last 17 Wimbledons.
— The three of them have won 12 of the last 16 U.S. Opens.
Djokovic has the wind at his back now. He is younger than Roger and Rafa, and he still seems to be finding higher levels. The three-way conversation about the greatest ever tennis player is fun but ultimately futile — they each have their case and their fans will not let go. Federer got there first, set the bar for tennis genius, and is regularly called “GOAT” by his competitors. Nadal brought a new force into the game, he owned Federer for most of their careers, and he is inarguably the most dominant clay-court player in the game’s history.
And Djokovic? He came along third, after the other two had framed the argument, but he is the only one of the four to have held all four titles at the same time, he is 13-6 in finals against Federer, he is 15-11 in finals against Nadal (including the only straight-set victory Rafa ever suffered in a Grand Slam final), and he has every chance (and every intention) of winning the most grand slam titles by the time he’s finally done.
He has a chance, statistically and logically, to make the argument his and his alone.
There is something more tangible, though, that I noticed about Djokovic as he plodded his way through that five-set match against Thiem: It seems to me that Djoker, unlike Roger or Rafa, has the ability to become someone else on the tennis court.
That is to say, Roger Federer is always Roger Federer. He spots his serve like no one ever has. He moves with such perfect rhythms, it’s as much like dancing as tennis. His forehand can end points from anywhere in the stadium, in the later stages of his career he turned his backhand into its own gorgeous weapon, and nobody commands the net like he does. He does surprising things — tweeners between the legs, no-look shots into the open court, drop shots that land and sink into the ground — but he himself is never surprising.
Rafael Nadal is always Rafael Nadal. He plays every point like it is his last. He makes his opponent hit three, five, eight balls that would be winners against almost anyone else. He hits his shots with such vicious topspin that each one must feel like a boxer’s body blow, and he attacks moments of weakness like few ever have. He grunts and sweats and plods and opponents know that he will never stop, never, and that might just be the scariest feeling in sports.
It is nothing but a compliment to say that they are who they are.
But Djokovic is different, He — more than the other two, more than any player in this game’s long history, I would argue — is amorphous, adaptable, variable. He changes from point to point. The great tennis impressionist transforms before your very eyes.
He can play some of Federer’s game — twice in the match against Thiem, he faced a break point that, had he lost, probably would have cost him the match. Both times, he served and volleyed. “That not really what I do,” he said after the match ended, except that it is what he does when the time is right. He is a genius at the net when the situation calls for it. He loves facing his opponent just on the other side of the next, two of them barely 10 feet apart, in a game of quick-draw.
He can play Nadal’s game — sometimes, against Thiem, he just stood a few feet behind the baseline and chased down anything and everything Thiem smashed at him. It was awe-inspiring to see him return fire until Thiem, mentally exhausted, deeply frustrated, tried a shot that even he did not quite have the talent to pull off.
He can be offensive or defensive. He can punch or counter punch. He can beat you with his serve, he can beat you with his return. Djokovic also has his own game — the closest thing he has to a tangible style — where he returns serves right at your feet, takes hold of the point, never lets it go, moves you from side to side to side to side until you wilt.
He has so many choices of what kind of tennis player he can be — I sometimes wonder if this is at the heart of the frustrations he often shows on the court. Numerous times a match, Djokovic will look up to his coaching box, not for emotional support but to complain about something that doesn’t easily or obviously connect to the action.
“Why is he screaming at them?” you will think after an opponent hits a winner against him or when he hits a shot just wide.
My best guess, much of the time, is that he’s complaining about the persona and his team had chosen, as if to say, “Well, if I knew he was going to play like THIS I would have been someone different today.”
During the Thiem match, Djokovic had a brief and inexplicable loss of energy. He still doesn’t know what happened exactly. He won the first set with his usual breathless tennis, and the second set was 4-4 when he had a bit of a meltdown and got broken — it didn’t help that he was given two time-violations by a perhaps overzealous chair umpire. He promptly lost six games in a row and his shots lost all their shape and power. He did not look angry. He looked beaten.
When Djokovic was young, at the same time he was famous for his impersonations, he would occasionally lose energy and flat give up. He did this once against Federer, who held it against him for a long time. But Djokovic evolved like few athletes ever have. He went vegan, became something of a fitness nut, hardened his mind, and became utterly ruthless. People call Rafa the great warrior, and he is, but it is Djokovic who has the better five-set record now at 30-10 (Nadal is at 22-12).
And so Djokovic found his energy and found himself — or more to the point found who he needed to be — and he took the fourth set, and then he got his service break in the fifth set and he calmly and professionally served it out. Thiem does get closer. Young players like Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev surely will have their day. Nadal and Federer each have life left in them.
But until further notice, it is Novak Djokovic’s world and will remain so until someone can summon a game he cannot counter.