Sometimes I feel like the NFL is turning into the Arena Football League, or perhaps one of those low-end NCAA Division I conferences out west that treat us to regular 49-38 shootouts that grace our cable channels late on Saturday evenings. The season just opened with a Thursday night (???) contest between the Ravens, a team long known for staunch defense and a methodical offense, and Broncos combining for 800 passing yards and 9 touchdown passes. Despite the presence on the field of possibly the best all-around runner in the game, Ray Rice, both teams put up only the mildest pretense of running the ball. This game illustrates why passing (and receiving) statistics from the past 15 years have become meaningless. For the first 75 years of NFL history, one QB threw for 5000 yards in a season (Dan Marino, 1984). Since 2008 it has happened five times, thrice in one season (2011).
Like Major League Baseball was guilty of manipulating the game to produce more scoring at several times during its history, this offensive explosion in football is rooted in rule changes made specifically to light up the scoreboard. Hall of Fame defensive backs from years past would step onto the field today to learn that they can't so much as lay a finger on receivers without drawing a penalty, and offensive lines are given vast leeway to protect quarterbacks – in addition to the many rules in place to prevent QBs from getting injured. This is simple self interest from the league's perspective. The NFL is well aware that the "watchability" of its product depends heavily on having a decent or better QB on every team, and there aren't enough QBs to go around (let alone enough to give any team a second decent one as a backup). If you want to see some truly awful football, watch two teams with crappy QBs go head to head, or notice the sharp drop-off that occurs when a good QB leaves a game due to injury.
I understand the desire to protect the game's most important assets; the other rules, particularly the new emphasis on throwing penalty flags for any contact between defenders and receivers, are less beneficial to the game. Many of the TEs and WRs in the league today border on uncoverable if defenders are not allowed to get physical. Larry Fitzgerald? Jimmy Graham? Antonio Gates? How in the hell is anyone supposed to cover guys like that? Graham is my favorite example; at 6'7", 280 with arms like a 747 and the ability to run like a deer, the defenders might as well not be on the field if they can't make contact with the guy until after the catch.
The downside to all of these rules designed to boost offense was made clear this evening. I don't feel like that was a football game; that was Tecmo Bowl, or some Arena League game where one QB throws 15 TD passes. Everyone loves watching a good shootout now and then, but the NFL has turned the game one-dimensional. It went from a run-first league to pass-first to the pass-only game we're starting to see in the last few years. If we're going to continue down this path, just take the 12-15 teams with good QBs, put them in the playoffs, and forget about the regular season. I appreciate this game, brutal as it is, on a lot of different levels. I enjoy watching a good passing attack, but it's not the only thing I enjoy watching.
Ten years ago I attended an NFL training camp on the credentials of a website I used to do some writing for, and it really struck me to see up close and personal the toll that this kind of entertainment has on the athletes' bodies. We've all read the stories and seen the TV segments about concussions, knee injuries, or some retired athlete who is wheelchair bound by arthritis at age 43. We know, but we don't see it very much. It was revealing to see the scars, the constant injections (usually cortisone), the hematomas, the handfuls of painkillers morning and night, the creaky knees, and the "bell ringers" (i.e., concussions, i.e., traumatic brain injury). I've seen 25 year old men who need help getting in and out of a bathtub and yet perform at an elite level during games, thanks in no small part to the miracles of the pharmaceutical industry.
I don't need to re-hash the whole "tough guy" culture of sports here; needless to say these guys are under relentless pressure to play hurt. That said, everyone has a line. There is a point – torn muscles, blown ligaments, severe concussions – where that guy simply isn't going out on the field/pitch/ice again. Even the teams and team doctors have a limit, a point at which their long-term interests dictate that the injured should rest rather than play.
At least I like to think that line exists.
In the recent Stanley Cup Finals – those who follow G&T on Facebook know that my devotion to hockey borders on troubling – here is a brief selection of injuries that did not manage to keep players off the ice:
-Bryan Bickell, CHicago: Grade II knee sprain
-Marian Hossa, Chicago: Crushed vertebra in lower back, total numbness in right leg
-Michal Handzus, Chicago: Broken wrist, torn medial collateral ligament in knee
-Patrice Bergeron, Boston: broken ribs, torn chest cartilage, punctured lung, separated shoulder
-Jonathan Toews, Chicago: Concussion
Look at that list. Most of us could not get out of bed or walk around our kitchen with injuries of that type. Bergeron's injuries look like the aftermath of a typical car accident. In light of his decision to go out on the ice for (what turned out to be) the decisive Game 6, I'm not the only person asking…dude, where's the line? You'd think someone would say, "Gee Patrice, we know you're quite the competitor and all, but…maybe sit this one out. You know, with that hole in your lung."
Instead, all of these guys played injured. Visibly injured, in the cases of Hossa, Bergeron, and Bickell. I attended Game 2 and the entire stadium buzzed about something being obviously wrong with Bickell. Hossa missed one game and then returned to (by his own admission) limp around the ice and accomplish none of his usual feats. And Bergeron…before Game 6 the cameras zoomed in on him during warmups while the commentators spoke admiringly of his toughness. My dad and I, watching at home, immediately commented on how "not right" he looked. He moved around and flipped pucks at the net, but on the closeups I recognized immediately that dull, gauzy look of a man full of as many painkillers as the doctors could give him without rendering him unconscious. And so he zombie-skated through 17 largely ineffective minutes of playing time during the game.
Why? Why do they do this? Why do we pat them on the back for doing it? There has to be a point at which the players, coaches, doctors, etc. recognize that it's not worth it. Not the Super Bowl, not the Stanley Cup, not the Olympics…nothing. If nothing else, they should be persuaded that seriously injured, highly medicated players tend to accomplish very little in a competitive setting.
My favorite player to talk to at training camp came from a wealthy family, attended only the best schools, and was much more philosophical than the average player. I once asked him if he worried about the toll that football would take on his body. He thought for a minute and then said, "When I entered the league I measured 6'6". In my physical the other day, I was 6'4"." We sat there in silence for about 10 minutes. I couldn't think of a thing to say.
Like any sport, American football has evolved dramatically over the years due to changes in rules, equipment, and technique. The invention of the forward pass, for example, was coupled with the development of the easier to grip oblong ball used today (previously, a more rounded, rugby-style ball was used) to revolutionize the game. Other major changes followed advances like the West Coast offense (the timing-based passing game), the blitz, and so on.
Maybe the most significant rule changes for the modern game is totally foreign (foreshadowing!) to most fans today. True fact: even the worst kicker in the modern NFL is better than the best kickers of 40+ years ago. Today, kickers routinely hit 80%+ of their field goal attempts, whereas for most of the game's history field goals were a 40% proposition or worse. There are two reasons for this. First, kickers were rarely specialists before the 1960s. Someone who played another position usually pulled double-duty as a (lousy) kicker. Hall of Famers at other positions, like Lou Groza, Paul Hornung, and Bob Waterfield, were also kickers for their teams.
The second change was the development of the Soccer-Style kick. The SSK was to football what the Fosbury Flop was to high jumping. Kickers used to approach the ball straight-on and kick it with their toe and the bridge of their foot. Accuracy depended on how squarely they hit the ball, which is to say they were not very accurate under game conditions. The ball also left the foot at a very high angle, meaning that lateral distance was limited.
Then along came two Hungarian brothers – Pete and Karol (Charlie) Gogolak. They started playing football when their parents immigrated to the U.S. Having grown up playing soccer they kicked the ball with an angled approach and the instep/arch of their foot, like a soccer ball. Everyone noticed that the ball went much farther with much more accuracy. When Charlie took the NFL by storm, other teams were so desperate for their own soccer-style kicker that Peter, a kicker at Princeton, became the 6th overall pick in the 1966 draft.
Since American-born kickers couldn't shake the straight-on habits they had been using for years, NFL teams had to look overseas for soccer-trained Europeans who could adapt to the NFL game. (Trivia note: the last straight-on kicker, Mark Moseley of the Redskins, retired in 1986). That's how the NFL, representing a quintessentially American game with few if any foreign-born players, was suddenly flooded with Europeans, Latin Americans, and others who did not look like football players, had no skills other than kicking, and had funny names.
This became a punchline in the 1970s and 1980s – it seemed like every team had a foreign kicker (remember Homer Simpson's line, "This country was built on immigrants. We need them. Without them, who would train our tigers and kick our extra points?") Their contributions greatly improved the game by turning the kicking game into a strategy rather than a crapshoot. One of them, Norway's Jan Stenerud, is still the only kicker in the Hall of Fame.
Here is my tribute to some of the scrawniest, most lovable foreign players to enliven the NFL during the Soccer Style craze and beyond.
More German Than German: Horst Muhlmann – A part-time bricklayer and soccer goaltender, Muhlmann was imported by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969. No, he did not have a handlebar mustache and he put up with plenty of Colonel Klink jokes. Honorable Mention: Uwe Von Schamann, whose name is more fun to say and who absolutely nailed the mustache befitting a German.
Adorable Little Fella Award: Garo Yepremian – Most Americans don't even know where Cyprus is, but football fans remember this Cypriot kicker. First, he looked less like a football player than anyone who ever lived.
Even non-fans recognize a line Yepremian shouted after kicking one game-winning field goal – "I keek a touchdown! I keek a touchdown!" – when it became one of Johnny Carson's favorite catchprhases. And finally, fans remember little Yepremian making one of the most embarrassing (and decisive) plays in Super Bowl history in 1973.
Polack of the Century: Czezlaw "Chester" Marcol – Packer fans fondly recall "the Polish Prince" for the time he ran one of his own blocked kicks in for a touchdown, which he later admitted he was able to do because he was high on cocaine. Look at this fucking guy!
Safety specs AND the single-bar facemask!
So British It Actually Hurts: Mick Luckhurst – If you're going to have a kicker from Redbourn, England, he better be named something as stereotypically British as Mick Luckhurst. Quite the handsome chap, too!
Speaking of Micks: Cornelis "Neil" O'Donoghue – Cardinals fans certainly remember this fucking twat, whose career highlights include missing the field goal that would have put them in the 1984 playoffs and the game in 1983 that ended in a 20-20 tie because O'Donoghue missed three (!!!) FGs in overtime.
The Flying Argentines: Bill and Martin Gramatica – After stellar college careers, these tiny sprites had only decent NFL careers. Older brother Martin, aka Automatica, kicked decently for Tampa and several other teams, while Martin is remembered solely for blowing out his goddamn ACL while celebrating a routine kick.
Colombian Superstar: Fuad Reveiz – This former Viking and Dolphin makes the list solely on the basis of his incredible nickname, "Fuad-o-Matic", and Chris Berman's habit of referring to his kicks as "Fuad Shots".
How Can I Only Pick One Swede? – Ove Johansson? Bjorn Nittmo? Ola Kimrin? I sure as hell can't pick just one. When I was 10, I was convinced that "Bjorn Nittmo" was the kind of name that takes you places, even if you're not talented (he wasn't).
Insert Hitler Joke Here: Austrian trio - Anton "Toni" Fritsch, Toni Linhart, and longtime 49er Ray Wersching all hailed from the land of the Fuhrer. Fortunately for them, I doubt most football players actually know Hitler was Austrian and not German.
The trend lives on today, with foreign kickers like Lawrence Tynes (Scotland), Sebastian Janikowski (Poland), and Shaun Suisham (Canada) currently kicking away. As the NFL becomes a bit more popular around the world, non-American players are hardly a surprise (Germany's Bjoern Werner was drafted in the 1st round last week). This is a great development for the league and for the game, but I have to admit that I could use the simple pleasure of the occasional lovably-accented placekicker named something like Olaf.
(Super Honorable Mention: Former Charger Rolf Benirschke was born in the U.S. to German parents, but he deserves mention because he retired after 9 seasons to become the host of Wheel of Fortune.)
I have the bad luck of being a devoted fan of three teams that have been very bad for a very long time, experiencing a modicum of success only recently. The White Sox had not won a championship since 1917 when they were victorious in 2005. The Cardinals managed the improbable feat of winning one playoff game between their NFL Championship in 1947 (!!!) and their run to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season. And the Blackhawks, saddled with the worst non-Donald Sterling owner in professional sports for decades, won a Stanley Cup in 1961 before experiencing four-plus decades of futility.
Even as a young Blackhawks fan in the 1980s it was apparent that the team would not win a championship until Old Man Wirtz died. The last decade of his horrible life was a dark time for Chicago hockey fans, immediately after the dynamic teams they fielded in the early 1990s (Roenick, Chelios, Belfour, Suter, etc.) but before the Cup-winning team of 2009 began to take shape (the current lineup of Toews, Sharp, Kane, Keith, etc.) To be blunt, the Blackhawks teams of the last few years before Wirtz's 2007 death were among the saddest excuses for hockey in the history of the sport.
The 2003-2004 season – the impending lockout wiped out the following season, if you recall – was the Hawks' nadir as a franchise. Not only was the team awful, it was awful with no hope of future improvement. The players were old, anonymous journeymen (their top center was 33 year old Igor Korolev, who managed three goals all season) and young minor leaguers who…belonged in the minors. Their coach, Brian Sutter, was ordered halfway through the season to lose as many games as possible with the goal of getting a top draft pick. Being a somewhat self-respecting person, he refused. So the Wirtz's long-time hatchet man, GM Bob Pulford, developed a brilliant strategy of putting any player who showed a slight ability to play the game of hockey on Injured Reserve with mysterious ailments. This deprived the coach of what few half-decent players he had, and the team won exactly 3 of its final 20 games that year. It was brutal.
With two games left in the season the team was bad enough to be assured of the #1 overall draft pick. To be certain of that outcome, Pulford determined that the team's goaltenders – the eminently forgettable duo of Michael Leighton and Steve Passmore – were both "injured" and thus unavailable. They called up from the minors a failed former first-round pick named Adam Munro to play out the string. In the second to last game of the year, Mr. Munro stood on his head for 60 minutes in goal, stopping 41 of 42 shots by the equally terrible Phoenix Coyotes before surrendering a goal in overtime. In the NHL a loss in overtime is worth 1 point in the standings (compared to two for a win, zero for a loss). That one point knocked the Blackhawks out of contention for the first draft pick; instead they ended up with the third.
The first pick was some guy named Ovechkin, followed by Evgeni Malkin at #2. With the #3 pick, the Blackhawks took the legendary Cam Barker, who is currently disappointing his 5th NHL team. The Blackhawks have certainly turned things around in recent years, but I never see Ovechkin or Malkin without thinking, "Damn you, Adam Munro!" Oh, the possibilities.
We're in unanimous agreement that the NFL replacement refs just about ruined the game for a few weeks. If you think nothing could make the games more painful to watch, you're betraying your age (or lack thereof). You clearly don't remember 25 years ago when the NFL owners decided that they would continue playing games during a players' strike using replacement players.
The year was 1987. Nine year-old Ed had only recently discovered football and was thoroughly convinced that it was the greatest thing ever. No comic books or anything like that for me. Just sixteen football Sundays per year. I remember quite clearly turning on the first game after the players went on strike (a concept I understood only vaguely) and seeing the Chicago Bears play the Philadelphia Eagles. In those pre-satellite days I didn't have the option of watching the Cardinals, but I was still plenty excited. The recent Super Bowl champs! Walter Payton! Jim McMahon! Samurai Mike Singletary! All of the superstars would be there!
Imagine my shock when I saw not The Punky QB throwing to Sweetness but some asshat named Mike Hohensee throwing to the legendary Lakei Heimuli (and I am deeply ashamed to admit that I didn't have to look either of those up. I remember this shit.) The Eagles human highlight reel Randall Cunningham was gone, and their QB was named, I am not even shitting you, Guido Merkens. It turned out that the NFL owners thought we wouldn't notice if they took the familiar jerseys and helmets and slapped them on a bunch of…random dudes, essentially. Even at nine years old I noticed that all of the defensive linemen looked like guys who drove beer trucks, which was true because most of them were guys who drove beer trucks.
If you're too young to remember this, let me summarize: it sucked. In hindsight it was pretty hilarious – guys off the street playing in empty stadiums, often looking like they just met (which they had) and running high school or college type offenses. In a nationally televised game between the 49ers and Giants, Niners coach Bill Walsh had his team run the Wishbone while he and Giants coach Bill Parcells stood at midfield, shrugged, and laughed like two guys who know they're doing something really embarrassing.
The real players were back after 3 "replacement" games that, yes, counted in the standings. It was a crushing win for the players, who won the right to free agency (although full unrestricted free agency didn't arrive until the Federal courts mandated it in 1993) and the 25 year salary explosion that followed. And all the scab players just…disappeared. Never heard from again.* Never to play another game.
If you peruse the NFL records you'll find the curious phenomenon of guys who accomplished statistical feats despite playing only three games in the league. For example, Redskins fans might assume that the team's single-game receiving record is held by Hall of Famers Art Monk, Bobby Mitchell, Paul Warfield, or Charley Taylor. Nope. Turns out it's some gas-pumper named Anthony Allen, who developed magical chemistry with a human being named Ed Rubbert (!) who happened to be playing QB for the team that would go on to win the Super Bowl that year. Allen caught 255 yards worth of passes from (giggle) Rubbert against the then-St. Louis Cardinals, one of the top 20 performances in NFL history. His name is alongside guys like Jerry Rice and Steve Largent. Allen, in fact, was one of the few scrub players who actually stuck around past the strike. For one year, anyway.
In short, the players' strike was one of the last gasps of the old-school owners who had purchased or inherited their teams in the olden days and thought so little of the players (and fans) that they thought we'd swallow the shit sandwich and smile. It turned out they were quite wrong. We only put up with real players officiated by scrubs for three weeks; in hindsight it's stunning that the experiment with fake players lasted that long. Needless to say neither the fans nor the media were willing to take the fake players seriously, and the strike and its players quickly became a mere footnote. I wonder how I would have reacted to it had I been an adult at the time…but when the games are so bad that even a nine year old won't watch them, we can safely assume that it really was that bad.
*(The Bears QBs that day, Hohensee and Sean Payton, each played only those 3 scrub games but had 20 year coaching careers. Hohensee has been a fixture in the Arena League since it was founded and Payton is a Super Bowl winning – and suspended – coach of the Saints. So I guess they weren't all losers. They were just awful, awful players.)
Sometimes fate conspires to create natural rivalries between athletes. When two players begin their careers simultaneously (i.e., Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) and share similar roles it is obvious that their careers will be measured against one another. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the 1951 baseball season when two brilliant rookies – 20 year old Willie Mays and 19 year old Mickey Mantle – began their careers within weeks of one another. Over the next two decades they were inextricably linked as they smashed records, won awards, and on two occasions (1951, 1962) squared off in the World Series. Mantle enjoyed more success, winning an astounding seven World Series titles to Mays' one, while Mays racked up better numbers and was arguably the more complete player.
Obviously I was not alive in 1951, but most accounts of their rookie season indicate that the career path of both players was apparent the moment they reached the majors. That is, everyone knew as soon as they laid eyes on these guys that they would be superstars (although note that Mays' first great season didn't come until age 23, after a year of military service. Anyone else surprised to see that he missed a year for Korea? I certainly never knew that.) They both passed the eyeball test. Now certainly there is a hindsight bias in effect here; it is easy to look back on a superstar and say "Ah, I knew it all along!" Nonetheless, the near-immediate success of both players – Mantle led the league in OPS in his second season – suggests that it did not take a ton of prescience to recognize that these guys were both going to be incredible.
I feel like baseball fans are experiencing the same thing this season, a rare opportunity to see two young players who are quite obviously generational talents entering the league together. I'm referring to 19 year old Bryce Harper and 20 year old Mike Trout. Simply put, I've never seen two players enter the league at such a young age with such obviously elite talent (with the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez, who was similarly impressive at 20). Everyone knows about Harper, a #1 overall draft pick who has made headlines since he was 14, but if not for a baseball obsessed friend mentioning some of his mind-boggling minor league numbers I would not have been familiar with Trout before this season. Lots of young baseball players show the potential to be great, but not many of them are already great. Especially with Trout, it is so obvious to even the most casual fan that he has an astonishing level of talent that it would be more surprising if he wasn't a Hall of Fame caliber player 15-20 years from now.
Harper is playing a good CF – a position, mind you, that he never played in his life twelve months ago – and has more natural power than anyone this side of Josh Hamilton. His speed is above average but not elite, but he is likely to put up .300-35-100 seasons for the next dozen-plus years with the potential for 40-50 homer seasons. Trout, conversely, might top out power-wise at ~25 HR but he has ~.350 plate discipline and is probably the fastest player in the majors right now. There are some batting titles and 50+ SB seasons in his future, and probably a lot of them. More importantly, his talent looks completely effortless, whether he's leading the league in steals, winning the batting title by 20 points, or making over-the-wall catches he has no business making in center. He missed the first 20 games of the season languishing in the minors and yet he leads the league in three counting stats – runs, steals, and WAR – while putting up a ridiculous .356/.414/.606 at the moment. If he doesn't falter, he's likely to be just the third player to win RoY and MVP awards in the same season.
To make the comparisons more compelling, Harper and Trout have personality differences similar to Mays and Mantle. Mays was flashy, a big talker, and an anomaly in an era when black athletes were expected to Know Their Place. Harper is similarly brash – the words "arrogant" and "asshole" have been bandied about over the years – reflecting his healthy ego. Mantle, on the other hand, was seen as the quieter, all-American (read: white) boy with almost unbelievable five-tool talent, similar to Trout. Let's hope Trout doesn't turn out to be a surly closet alcoholic too.
There are only two previous times that I saw a player and immediately thought, "This guy is going to be in Cooperstown if he doesn't get hurt" – A-Rod and Frank Thomas, the latter of whom clearly lacked the all-around skill sets of guys like Trout and Harper. Even Ken Griffey Jr. didn't strike me as great immediately, and the numbers reflect that it took him several years to build up to superstar-level numbers. No one can predict the future, of course, and Harper/Trout might blow out a knee tomorrow and never be the same player again. It's also possible, albeit unlikely, that this is just a fluke and they will revert to being average players soon enough. Caveats aside, if I had to bet my life savings ($57) on one or both of these guys modeling for a bust in Cooperstown 25 years from now, I would do it with confidence.
Ever have one of those days where you feel like everything you do is right? Like you're in the zone and nothing can stop you? Yeah, me neither. But apparently it happens to even the lowliest among us sometimes.
I'm on record as an admirer of the perfect game, a feat so rare that despite an anomalous burst of four in four years, there are still fewer people who have done 27 up, 27 down in the Major Leagues (19) than have orbited the moon (24). Baseball fans are unsurprised that the list includes legends and Hall of Famers like Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning,* and Roy Halladay, or solid All Star players like David Cone, David Wells, Mark Buehrle, Kenny Rogers, and Dennis "El Presidente" Martinez. We might expect that in a large sample of pitchers of that caliber, a few of them would accomplish a statistically improbable feat over time. What is more surprising, and I think more interesting, is the presence of pitchers like Don Larsen (Career record: 81-91, ERA+ 99), Len Barker (74-76, ERA+ 93), Dallas Braden (26-36, 4.19 career ERA), and, as of Saturday…Philip Humber?? Philip Humber, he of 12 career wins, zero complete games, and, on Thursday night, nine runs surrendered in his follow-up start? How does that happen?
This, I think, is one of the more intriguing aspects of baseball in particular and sports in general – the potential that on any given day, some slob can stroll out on the field/court/etc and enter a zone of complete perfection. We expect to see Michael Jordan or Arnold Palmer or Roger Federer approach perfection. They do it all the time. We never expect to see the guys we've never heard of come out and accomplish things that even the legends of the game rarely approach.
In 2001, I was watching so much baseball that it was probably detrimental to both my health and my personal life. Yet on September 3, 2001, just a few days before sports became the last thing on our minds, a gentleman by the name of Bud Smith, allegedly of the St. Louis Cardinals, threw a no-hitter. It's not quite on par with the perfect game, but it is a rare and difficult feat in its own right. And I looked at the TV and said aloud to no one, "Who in the hell is Bud Smith?" Bud threw the no-hitter in his 13th career start, aged 21. He was not considered a hot prospect. He would start less than a dozen more games in the majors after that day. He was out of baseball by 23. Career record: 7-9. ERA: 4.95. Bud Smith, ladies and gentlemen.
The sheer randomness of such feats from a player who either has no talent or is clearly unable to harness his talent even semi-consistently is fascinating to me. I suppose it comes down to the law of large numbers, of the million monkeys with a million typewriters who, given the time, will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. Psychologically it must be very challenging to try to re-create that level of perfection throughout one's career only to face the cold, hard reality of regressing to the mean – that is, returning to mediocrity. What did I do on that day that made me perfect, and why can't I do it again? I don't expect that Philip Humber will be out of baseball in a year like Bud Smith, nor will he become a dominant player. We often write off failures to randomness and bad luck – Don't worry about it, it just wasn't your day! – but are less eager to do the same for successes. "Luck" is not the right word here, but the fact remains that people like Humber can simply have a day where everything goes their way. Every stoplight on the way to the stadium is green, the wind is blowing in the right direction on every pitch, and the players on the other team are all in slumps. If and when such a day ever comes for me I hope I'm able to recognize it while it's happening and enjoy it, knowing well that it's unlikely to happen again.
*Yes, it's common knowledge that Bunning is only in the Hall because he was a powerful Senator at the time of his election. There are politics involved.
I'm not the world's biggest college football fan. Not only does the NCAA steadfastly refuse to institute a simple playoff system, but they even managed to butcher the nonsensical Bowl game system that they use in its place. The Bowls all used to be on New Years Eve or New Years Day, which made them an annual tradition for hungover Americans. Now they're scattered all the hell over the place between Thanksgiving and January 10, with hardly any games of significance held on the traditional date. This scheduling change is due in part to the fact that there are now dozens of Bowls – 35, to be exact, meaning that a whopping 70 of the 119 FBS (I-A) teams go to a Bowl. How else will the nation be treated to epic tilts like 6-6 Illinois vs. 6-7 UCLA? How else will the timeless rivalry between San Diego State and Louisiana-Lafayette be resolved?
Colleges love going to Bowl games; it's a nice payday. Big time, major games like the Rose or Orange Bowls have payouts well into eight figures. It's also a mark of prestige for the program. In theory. I mean, it's pretty cool to describe your team with the phrase "Sugar Bowl champions." Unfortunately some of the "bowls" to which we are now subjected make that difficult. It's pretty hard to get excited about going to, or even winning, a game with a ridiculous name. Here's a quick breakdown of the least-bragworthy Bowl games of this year and years past:
1. Bowls named after depressing geographic locations: Admit it, you were all jazzed to see Temple clash with Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl, right? How about the Mobile Alabama Bowl, the Fort Worth Bowl, the St. Petersburg Bowl, or the ever-popular Seattle Bowl?
2. Bowls named after bizarre, obscure corporate sponsors: This category brings us classics like the BBVA Compass Bowl (formerly the equally lame Birmingham Bowl), the Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl, the galleryfurniture.com Bowl, the TicketCity Bowl (new for 2011!), the EagleBank Bowl, or the Insight.com Bowl.
3. Bowls with just plain stupid names: There exists a game called the "Beef O'Brady's Bowl St. Petersburg." This not only fails the most basic naming convention – ending in "Bowl" – but it names the game after a seriously disgusting regional fast food chain that is unknown to most of the country. Is the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (formerly the MPC Computers Bowl) a real thing? Honorable mention: the defunct "Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl Presented by Bridgestone."
4. Established Bowls we still laugh at: Even though it has a long history, does anyone say San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl without laughing? The Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas (formerly the EV1.net Houston Bowl) seems like it has been around for a while, only if one confuses it with the former Meineke Car Care Bowl, which is now the Belk Bowl (after the Southern department store where old people pass the time waiting to die). Does a team even accept the trophy from something called the "Meineke Car Care Bowl" or is it best to forget the whole thing happened? What university wouldn't be proud to say it won the GoDaddy.com Bowl (formerly the housing crisis-inducing "GMAC Bowl")?
5. Honorable Mention, Wussy-Sounding Names Division: It's hard to tell if the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl or the Roady's Truck Stops Humanitarian Bowl are charity events, 5k fun-runs, or football games. And just wait until you see the shitstorm of pink that will be the forthcoming (2012-13) Susan G. Komen For the Cure Bowl, hopefully featuring a halftime show by a Cure cover band made up of breast cancer survivors. Let's not forget the defunct Charity Bowl, Bluebonnet Bowl, Mercy Bowl, and the eminently fragile Glass Bowl.
Seriously, NCAA: enough. Knock it off. An eight team playoff will take all of three weeks. For the love of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, stop all of this insanity.
The over-the-top sycophancy with which ESPN covered Derek Jeter's quest for 3000 hits almost irritated baseball fans enough (check out Jeter Filter, the Chrome app that removes Derek Jeter from your internet) to obscure what a remarkable feat #2 accomplished. While in practical terms the milestone represents an arbitrary act repeated an arbitrary number of times, from a baseball perspective the 3K Hit Club is among the more difficult to join. It almost inevitably requires a player to break into the majors full-time at an early age (preferably no later than 23), play more than 18 seasons without losing any significant time to injury, and remain productive into ages (40+) at which most men injure themselves getting out of bed.
Put it this way: 200 hits is considered a remarkable season, a feat managed by only a handful of players annually. If a player played 15 seasons, say from ages 23 to 38, he would need to average 200 hits per season to total 3000. For reference, only two players (Ichiro and Pete Rose) have ever gotten 200 hits ten times in a career. So yes, we saw something rare when Jeter crossed 3000.**
The question is, when might we see it again? A brief overview of the active leaderboard suggests that we may be waiting for some time. Some players who appear close have reached the dead end of their careers, while the number of promising young players is small.
Before we take a look, I consider 2000 hits by age 35 to be a useful cutoff point. If a player has not reached that, his odds of reaching 3000 are essentially nil unless he A) can rack up an improbable 200 hits per year from 36-40 or B) plays productively to 42-45. It's not impossible, but the odds are very long.
The closest active players are Ivan Rodriguez (2842, Age 39) and Omar Vizquel (2835, 44). I-Rod has tried valiantly to be the first catcher to join the club, but he is now hitting a feeble .210 in part-time duty with the Nationals. His next stop is the glue factory. Vizquel is already well beyond a reasonable playing age and is riding the bench for the White Sox. He has 36 hits this season, so he would probably need to play four more years, i.e. to 48 or 49, at his current rate to reach 3000. Nope.
The next two players are more likely, Alex Rodriguez (2762, 35) and Johnny Damon (2678, 37). A-Rod's challenge is to stay healthy at this point. He's declining but still productive. 250 hits in 3 or 4 more seasons should be a snap, but he's also regularly missing months at a time with various ailments. Odds of success: 80%. Damon, conversely, is healthy but no longer the player he once was. He has averaged over 150 hits annually since 2006, so his challenge will be to find a team that will let him play full time for two more seasons – while hitting about .270 without power, defense, or speed. His odds are about 50/50.
Vladimir Guerrero (2526, 36) seemed like a good candidate for most of his career, but he is the kind of player who ages terribly. And he has. With his body falling apart and his swing-at-everything approach suffering at the hands of Father Time, I don't see a team offering him full-time DH duty for 3 or 4 more seasons while OPSing .720. 20% chance. Chipper Jones (2567, 39) has better odds of impregnating another Hooter's waitress.
No other active players have 2500 hits. In the 2000-2500 club, most contenders are too old and/or clearly shot. Miguel Tejada (2357, 37) is embarrassing himself at this point, OPSing .600 as a utility man. Bobby Abreu (2353, 37) and Todd Helton (2338, 37) are still decent hitters but too far away for their age. Magglio Ordonez (2127, 37) is broken down and even farther away. Jim Thome (2255, 40) is on his last legs. Edgar Renteria (2297, 34) started strong, playing full time at age 20 and reaching 2000 hits before 30, but just fell apart when he turned 30. No way. Carlos Lee, Orlando Cabrera, and Scott Rolen (all < 2100 and Age 36) are all in serious decline; only Lee is a full time player anymore.
So if A-Rod and Damon fail, who will be next?
The odds are in favor of the youngest members of the 2000 hit club: Albert Pujols (2005, 31) and Adrian Beltre (1996, 32). Pujols seems like a lock, but we will need to see where he is in 3-4 years to get a better idea of how his production changes as age takes hold. 80% chance. Beltre is in the Guerrero class – swings at everything, never takes a walk, and won't age well. I'd put his odds lower, around 20%. Juan Pierre (1959, 33) seemed like a good bet throughout his 20s (four 200 hit seasons!) but now is such a liability in the field and at the plate that he won't be a full time player for much longer.
Of players still in their twenties, the current hit leaders are: Carl Crawford (1559, 29), Miguel Cabrera (1521, 28), Jose Reyes (1261, 28), David Wright (1202, 28), and Robinson Cano (1201, 28). Crawford is on a good pace, but is he having a fluke bad year or is 2011 a sign of bad things to come? Of this group, who are all too far away to project, the best odds would seem to belong to Crawford and Cano, who is entering his prime and shows durability. Cabrera may make it if alcohol and weight don't do a number on his body.
The short answer, then, appears to be that if A-Rod or Damon do not make it in the next 2 or 3 seasons, we will probably be waiting a decade or more to see another player reach 3000 hits. That Jeter fellow may be overrated and overexposed (not to mention the worst defensive player in baseball) but what he has accomplished at the plate is indeed historic.
**The same could be said for Craig Biggio, but I don't recall ESPN caring much about that one.