2015 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, Part 2

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When I left you hanging in the manner of the Hardy Boys at the end of Part 1, you had suffered through a 4,000-word post just to eliminate the flotsam from this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. I had crossed out 19 of the 34 names, which still left 15 to share the 10 votes I’m allowed. So I’ve provided the shortcut above for those who just want the bottom line and aren’t up for another 5,000 words. If that’s you, there you go, and see you around. For the rest of you, masochists that you are, here we go.

The 15 names that remained after Part 1:

Starting pitcher: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling.

Hybrid pitcher: John Smoltz.

Relief pitcher: Tom Gordon, Lee Smith.

Catcher: Mike Piazza.

First base: Jeff Bagwell.

Second base: Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent.

Shortstop: Alan Trammell.

Third base: Edgar Martinez. (Right. I know. But that’s how they do it.)

Left fielder: Tim Raines.

Center fielder: None.

Right fielder: Larry Walker.

I began, as I did in Part 1, with Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system to get a feel for what the quants would say. The 15 candidates are listed in order, from best to worst, based on their premium or deficit to the average JAWS score of players at their position already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. As a reminder, JAWS is the average of a player’s career wins above replacement and that player’s “peak” WAR — the total of his best seven seasons.  The theory, and I stress the word theory, is the perfect blend of longevity and awesomeness. Presumably, if you believed the JAWS method delivered on this theory, you would vote for the first 10 names on this list and be done with it, especially because the first 10, conveniently, are above the average of the players at their position already in the Hall, and the next five are below. The idea behind JAWS is to prevent dilution of the quality of players in the Hall by inducting only players equal or superior to the existing residents.

  1. Randy Johnson (+20.2)
  2. Jeff Bagwell (+9.7)
  3. Pedro Martinez (+9.3)
  4. Mike Piazza (+8.1)
  5. Alan Trammell (+2.8)
  6. Curt Schilling (+2.7)
  7. Tim Raines (+2.3)
  8. Mike Mussina (+2.0)
  9. Edgar Martinez (+1.0)
  10. Larry Walker (+0.5)
  11. Craig Biggio (-3.6)
  12. Tom Gordon (-5.1)
  13. John Smoltz (-7.6)
  14. Lee Smith (-9.0)
  15. Jeff Kent (-11.6)

In Part 1, I wrote a bit about the difference between quantitative and qualitative analysis. In this case, I am using JAWS to represent quantitative analysis and my own subjective “eye test” — did the dude look like a Hall of Famer to me — to represent the qualitative. (If you want to know why Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose JAWS scores are off the charts, are not on this list, you need to go back and read Part 1, where they are listed under the category “Obvious cheaters,” and this will refer you back to my post on last year’s ballot, where I described at length my thought process on the PED issue as it relates to the Hall of Fame.)

Appraising the quantitatively-derived list with my subjective, qualitative eye, several anomalies jump out.

Anomaly No. 1: Craig Biggio.

Considered by most observers a lock for the Hall since the day he retired, Biggio, according to JAWS, was an inferior player to the average second baseman now in the Hall. He was the top vote-getter in his first year on the ballot, 2013, the year nobody was inducted, receiving 68.2 percent of the vote.  Last year, leapfrogged by first-timers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, he received 427 votes from the 571 voters, or 74.8 percent. Had he received two more votes, he would have joined Maddux, Glavine and Thomas in the class of 2014.

Significantly, Biggio’s JAWS score is inferior to that of Lou Whitaker, the under-appreciated longtime Tigers second baseman who failed to receive the minimum 5 percent required to stay on the ballot in his sole appearance in 2001. That, of course, is a crime against nature and baseball, as is the continuing under-appreciation of his teammate and double-play partner, Alan Trammell, on the ballot this year for the 14th time. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

How is it possible that Whitaker, the second-best second baseman in history not to be inducted (Bobby Grich is the first) according to JAWS, would get 2.9 percent of the vote on his first try and Biggio, his inferior by quantitative analysis, would get 68.2? Well, as the old lady in the church says at the end of The Birdcage when asked to identify the mother of the groom, whose parents are Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, “I just don’t know.”

Prone as I am to stirring up trouble, and knowing the howls of outrage this would trigger among veteran members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, I might hypothesize that race had something to do with it — Whitaker is black, Biggio is white — and order up a quantitative analysis of voting on comparable players by race, and a parallel analysis of the racial makeup of the voting population. I don’t know what such a study might find on the first question, although I would note that Tony Gwynn and Frank Thomas sailed in a lot faster than some white comparables, and Jim Rice got in with a JAWS score lower than Minnie Minoso, Lance Berkman and Jose Cruz. On the second, my guess is the racial makeup of the voting population looks something like the racial makeup of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, which is why the hypothesis must be considered.

Another hypothesis would be that the absence of a significant sabermetric influence in 2001 revealed an embarrassing blind spot in qualitative analysis. Whitaker’s offensive numbers in the traditional, non-sabermetric categories — .276/.363/.426, 244 homers, 1,084 RBI — while above average for a second baseman, were nowhere near the numbers generally required of hitters who played the corner positions or the outfield. And while he was known as a smooth fielder, few voters were probably aware this would translate into 15.4 defensive WAR.

Given what’s happened to Trammell, who has been treated slightly better but has earned nowhere near the level of support the quantitative analysis would suggest, maybe it’s some strange prejudice against Detroit.

In any case, this is one of the more remarkable divergences between quantitative and qualitative analysis in the history of the Hall, and I admit to being totally on the quants’ side on this one. Whitaker was a wonderful player who belongs in the Hall and with any luck will be installed by some iteration of the veterans committee. But it is not his absence that is outrageous; it is the failure of the BBWAA to consider him even worthy of consideration.

Let’s return for a moment to our discussion in Part 1 of the bias of WAR for longevity. The career stat, as I mentioned, is basically an adding machine. A vastly complicated series of calculations and adjustments reduces everything to a single number per season — let’s say these inscrutable calculations produce four wins above your average replacement player for our guy in a particular season. And let’s say his number is somewhere around there for much of his career. His total WAR will be largely a function of how many years he plays.

JAWS attempts to mitigate the longevity bias by averaging the career WAR total with the seven-year peak WAR total, but the poor standing of Sandy Koufax in the JAWS rankings demonstrates that peak WAR’s mitigation of the longevity bias is insufficient. So let’s try something else. Let’s eliminate longevity as a factor altogether and see what happens. It’s easy enough to do. Take a player’s career WAR total and divide it by the number of years he played, yielding his average single-season WAR. And let’s establish a minimum 10 seasons, since that’s required for consideration for the Hall.

Here are the top 20 second basemen in history based on JAWS, the number in parentheses representing the average of that player’s career WAR and peak WAR:

  1. Rogers Hornsby (100.2)
  2. Eddie Collins (94.1)
  3. Nap Lajoie (83.8)
  4. Joe Morgan (79.7)
  5. Charlie Gehringer (65.6)
  6. Rod Carew (65.4)
  7. Bobby Grich (58.6)
  8. Frankie Frisch (57.4)
  9. Ryne Sandberg (57.2)
  10. Jackie Robinson (56.8)
  11. Lou Whitaker (56.4)
  12. Chase Utley (55.3)
  13. Roberto Alomar (54.8)
  14. Craig Biggio (53.4)
  15. Joe Gordon (51.4)
  16. Willie Randolph (50.8)
  17. Robinson Cano (49.4)
  18. Jeff Kent (45.4)
  19. Billy Herman (45.1)
  20. Bobby Doerr (43.8)

Now let’s see how that list changes if we order the players by annual WAR average:

  1. Jackie Robinson (6.2)
  2. Rogers Hornsby (5.5)
  3. Joe Gordon (5.2)
  4. Robinson Cano (5.2)
  5. Chase Utley (5.1)
  6. Nap Lajoie (5.1)
  7. Eddie Collins (5.0)
  8. Dustin Pedroia (4.8)
  9. Joe Morgan (4.6)
  10. Rod Carew (4.3)
  11. Charlie Gehringer (4.2)
  12. Ryne Sandberg (4.2)
  13. Bobby Grich (4.2)
  14. Lou Whitaker (3.9)
  15. Roberto Alomar (3.9)
  16. Frankie Frisch (3.7)
  17. Bobby Doerr (3.7)
  18. Billy Herman (3.6)
  19. Willie Randolph (3.6)
  20. Tony Lazzeri (3.6)
  21. Craig Biggio (3.3)
  22. Jeff Kent (3.2)

This list is quite different. In effect, we have gone from asking “Who was responsible for the most career wins,” a volume stat, to “Who was responsible for the most wins per year,” a pure performance stat.

Suddenly, all the best second basemen in history didn’t play 100 years ago. Why is that? Well, the guys who played 100 years ago played longer and benefited more from WAR’s longevity bias. Hornsby played 23 seasons; Collins, 25; Lajoie, 21. The principal reason Morgan gets up there with these golden oldies is that he played 22. By failing to adequately mitigate this bias, JAWS reinforces  it.

You will note that Biggio and Kent both benefit from the longevity bias. Their per-year averages drop them from 14th to 20th and 18th to 21st, respectively. Whitaker is a better player than both by both measures.

A key factor here is defense, where both Biggio and Kent are rated below average. That’s a pretty important fact to know about a second baseman. Whitaker’s career defensive WAR, as mentioned, is 15.4. Kent’s is -0.7, Biggio’s -3.9.

The result of this analysis is that I changed my mind about both Biggio and Kent. I voted for Biggio in each of his first two years on the ballot. I wanted to vote for Kent last year, his first, but, like this year, ran into the problem of more worthy candidates than votes, so I didn’t. This year, I won’t be voting for either, which reduces my list of candidates to 13.

That doesn’t mean I won’t go back to voting for them at some point in the future when the ballot backlog clears. This year, having more worthy candidates than votes, I don’t have to reach the ultimate question of whether they belong. I only have to reach the conclusion that there are 10 candidates more deserving of my votes.

Anomaly No. 2: John Smoltz.

With a 7.6 deficit to the average JAWS score of starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, Smoltz would be eliminated from consideration fairly quickly if you accept this result. So I go back to my litmus test for this tool as it applies to starting pitchers. Koufax has a deficit of 14.3 to the average JAWS score of starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame. This fact by itself is enough to marginalize JAWS for me in the examination of pitchers.

Koufax suffers, of course, from the longevity bias in both WAR and JAWS. He pitched only 12 seasons, and half of those were unremarkable. Kevin Appier, who pitched 16, is 13 places ahead of Koufax in the JAWS rankings. If I had been Jaffe while he was developing this system, I would have looked at this result alone and seen that I was failing to adequately mitigate WAR’s longevity bias. But quantitatively-oriented minds may simply see Koufax as an outlier who cannot be accounted for by any formula.

Even when you eliminate longevity as a factor, the result in Koufax’s case is puzzling. He has a career WAR of 49, which gives him an average for each of his 12 seasons of 4.1. Forget all the categories in the WAR formula, forget all the math, and just ask yourself: If you put Joe Blow average pitcher out there every fourth day in Koufax’s place, he’d win four fewer games over the course of a season? Really?

Well, yes, because Koufax doesn’t begin to assemble WAR of any kind until his career is half over. We forget that he was a quite forgettable young hurler in the late 1950s. Koufax’s peak, among the most brilliant in the history of the game, was only six years long. He was an all-star in all six after never having been one before. He won three Cy Young awards and finished third for a fourth. He received MVP votes after all six campaigns, winning it once and finishing second twice.

Now get this: Koufax loses 4.2 career WAR — or the equivalent of a full season — because he was a lousy hitter. Seriously. But even eliminating that silliness, he accumulated 88 percent of his career WAR over the final six seasons of a 12-year stay in the big leagues. If you calculate his average annual WAR over those six seasons, it’s 7.8, which is more like it, although I’m still not sure the formula is adequately valuing him. In 1963, when he wins both the Cy Young award and the MVP, he’s 25-5 with an ERA of 1.88. His WAR that year is 10.7. So if the Dodgers had sent Joe Blow average pitcher out there in his place that year, Joe Blow wins 14 games? Really? Jim O’Toole and Bob Friend tied for ninth winningest pitcher in the National League that year with 17. Fourteen wins is a pretty good year for Joe Blow.

Anyway, when you take the skepticism for JAWS you have learned from the Koufax case and apply it to Smoltz, you see quite quickly why the formula values him so much lower than it values his former teammates, Maddux and Glavine. Smoltz had a five-year stretch right in the middle of his career in which he started only five games. He missed all of the 2000 season following Tommy John surgery and returned in 2001 as a reliever, although he got all five of his starts between 2000 and 2004 that year. In 2002, he saved a league-leading 55 games and finished third in Cy Young voting and eighth in MVP voting. His WAR that year was 1.2. So presumably Joe Blow saves 54 of those games.

I tell you one thing I’m learning here: I’m grabbing Joe Blow in the Rule 5 draft at the first opportunity.

Because of his unusual double as one of the best starters and one of the best closers of his time, Smoltz really has only one comparable, and that’s Dennis Eckersley. Eck spent about half his career in each role. He was a pretty good starter, getting double-figure wins 10 times and winning 20 once, but not as good as Smoltz. He was a better closer by volume because he did it so much longer, but it’s hard to beat what Smoltz did in those three seasons on a qualitative basis. Eck, who is in the Hall as a closer, trails Smoltz in career WAR, 66.5-62.5. Smoltz is the only player in baseball history to amass at least 200 wins (213) and 150 saves (154). Eckersley fell three wins short of 200. I have not done exhaustive research on this, but so far as I can tell, Smoltz is the only player in history to have led his league in both wins (twice) and saves (once).

For the 11 seasons before his injury, Smoltz averaged 3.95 WAR per year, including 7.3 in 1996, when he won the Cy Young award and went 24-8. So presumably Joe Blow wins 17 that year; I totally want to sign this guy. Smoltz’s annual WAR as one of the best closers around are 1.2, 3.3 and 2.2. If you bump these up to the average he’d established prior to that, he jumps up the JAWS rankings to the Bob Feller, Roy Halladay neighborhood, and now he’s a serious candidate even by JAWS standards, although he still has a deficit to the average JAWS score of pitching Hall-of-Famers. When he returned to starting at the age of 38, he put up consecutive annual WARs of 4.9, 5.9 and 4.6. If you give him that annual average during his three years as a closer — 5.1 — he improves his standing further. At some point, you get lost in this hypothetical math, so I’m going to stop.

Bottom line: In my opinion, WAR and JAWS are inadequate to account for an anomaly like Smoltz. To my subjective eye, he was every bit Glavine’s equal, if not quite Maddux’s, and held his own very nicely in that select company for many years. He was a wonderful starter, a wonderful reliever and a superb postseason competitor (15-4, 2.67). I’m voting for him.

Anomaly No. 3: Larry Walker.

I admit I bring a clear bias to this part of the conversation, but I contend that my bias is largely a reaction to the bias of most baseball writers and analysts not located in the Rocky Mountains — meaning all but about a dozen of them — against performances put up at Coors Field. Everybody knows it is the park that produces the biggest offensive numbers most of the time, therefore those numbers have to be discounted.

Which is where all these advanced metrics come in, right? They do that. They adjust for ballparks. So that should take care of it. According to JAWS, Walker is the 10th best right fielder in baseball history. The nine ahead of him are all in the Hall of Fame. Three of the four immediately behind him are in the Hall. If he were inducted tomorrow, his JAWS score would be slightly above the average of his new peer group. And yet, he’s getting barely cursory consideration from Hall voters. Last year, he finished 19th of 36 candidates. One in 10 voters checked him off.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know how to compensate for the effects of Coors Field. I’m not that into the mathematics of baseball. So I accept the ballpark adjustments the sabermetricians make. I don’t know exactly what they are, but this is what they do, right? They take the above-average offensive output at Coors and they multiply performances there by some factor to normalize them. I assume this is what they do.

So once Walker’s traditional stats have been put through these various wringers to produce his WAR and JAWS numbers, why don’t they count? Why don’t most of the voters take him as seriously as his JAWS score suggests they should?

Having spent quite a bit of time in press boxes during my days as an active BBWAA member, I would say this is because of a sort of sneering, smirking prejudice against Coors Field and Colorado and anything done here — yes, I’m writing from elevation, and no, I can’t seem to throw a breaking ball — on the part of most baseball writers. A lot of them honestly don’t think, even after 22 years, that Denver is a suitable place for big league baseball. The game is too weird here, not real, not legit.

If you cheer for the Rockies, you may feel the same way. Based on that 22-year data set, there are statistical anomalies here that are really discouraging with respect to the home team’s chances of sustained success. Pitchers blow out here, both physically and mentally. No good pitcher in his right mind wants to pitch half his games here. The few pitchers who experience success here can’t sustain it. No pitcher has won 100 games in a Rockies uniform. No pitcher has won 80. So elevation is a big issue in terms of the team’s ability to compete.

But if the math can adjust for the outsized numbers put up here, why should a player of Walker’s quality be penalized for playing much of his career in a place the snobs of baseball don’t take seriously? Here’s something the discounters don’t pay enough attention to know: Rockies hitters traditionally struggle when they head out on the road after a homestand because they have to readjust to the sharper bite of breaking balls and sinkers again. So while it is true that their offensive output at home is exaggerated by the Coors Field effect, their offensive output on the road is also depressed by it; hence the dramatic home/road splits that critics attribute entirely to the magnification at home. The road numbers are the “real” numbers, they say. They consistently fail to acknowledge the established phenomenon of the destructive effect each and every time hitters return to sea level. Back in the day, Dante Bichette brought a “curve ball machine” on the road with him in an attempt to reacclimate. An inventor in Greeley, Colorado has proposed a pressurized batting cage in which the Rocks could work against pitching in normal (read: sea level) atmospheric conditions in preparation for each road trip. There is no adjustment for this phenomenon in the advanced metrics that I know of. Walker’s numbers at Dodger Stadium would be adjusted for the park in the same way as everybody else’s, even if he’s coming from a mile-high elevation and experiencing a phenomenon that only his teammates face.

Walker got MVP votes after eight seasons, winning the award in 1997. He batted .384 at Coors that year, but he also batted .346 on the road. He hit 29 of his 49 homers on the road. In “late and close” situations, baseball’s measurement for clutch, he hit .352. Heck, he batted .322 in 1994 playing his home games in Montreal’s ghastly Olympic Stadium. He was a marvelous outfielder with a terrific arm and one of the best baserunners of his generation. He played an all-out style that produced various injuries that hurt his volume numbers, but he still overcomes the longevity bias of both WAR and JAWS. He and Harry Heilmann played the fewest seasons (17) of anyone in JAWS’s top 10 right fielders. His JAWS score is better than that of Hall-of-Famers Paul Waner, Sam Crawford, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield and a bunch of old-timers you may not have heard of. Gwynn, you may recall, was elected to the Hall on his first try, with 97.6 percent of the vote.

According to the eye test, Walker was an obvious Hall-of-Famer when healthy, a five-tool player who simply played the game at a higher level than everybody else. But there was always that sneaking suspicion about the enhancing effect of Coors Field on his numbers, that those three batting championships, that incredible run of six seasons — .366, .363, .379, .309, .350, .338 — was some sort of mirage. I voted for him his first two years on the ballot based on my subjective view of his talent, but I left him off my ballot last year when there were so many deserving candidates.

I’m grateful for the sabermetrics here because I didn’t know how to adjust for the Coors Field factor and they do, or at least they think they do. The quantitative analysis says Walker was one of the best right fielders ever to play the game. And here’s the important point: The quant analysis says he is the best right fielder in history who is not in the Hall of Fame.

The privilege of watching him every day produced the same conclusion from the eye test. In this case, it seems to me, the quantitative analysis finds a great player and the qualitative analysis of most writers is buried in prejudice and ignorance about Colorado and Coors Field. With my subjective view reinforced by the quants, I will not only vote for Walker this year, I will reserve one of my votes for him for as long as he is on the ballot and I have the privilege of voting.

These are the most interesting and/or difficult issues I wrestled with this year. According to JAWS, neither Tom Gordon nor Lee Smith meets the standard of an average Hall of Fame relief pitcher, and subjectively, I agree. As we’ve seen in Smoltz’s case, advanced metrics have difficulty valuing closers. It’s ridiculous, in my opinion, to suggest that a top closer means only one or two wins a year over an average closer, but I sympathize with the difficulty of the task. It’s such a specialty, it’s a little like a kicker in football, and those guys don’t generally make the Hall of Fame, either.

Eliminating Biggio, Kent, Gordon and Smith gets me down to 11, and there I’m stuck. I would vote for all remaining 11 if I could. And who knows, if I had more votes I might vote for Biggio, Kent and Gary Sheffield, too. As I mentioned earlier, I never reached that point because I knew I didn’t have enough votes.

Because of the logjam when Maddux, Glavine and Thomas hit the ballot last year, I didn’t vote for either Curt Schilling or Mike Mussina, having voted for Schilling the year before. But after studying their numbers, both advanced and basic, my subjective view that they are qualified was confirmed, Schilling, frankly, more so than Mussina because of the unbelievable postseason record. But, in examining my eye test on these guys, I had to admit to a personal bias against Mussina because he left the Orioles as a mercenary and signed with the Yankees. I hate players who do that within a division because it makes the smaller market team look like part of a feeder system to the bigger market team and undermines the illusion of competitive balance.

Mussina went for the money and the improved chances of a championship on a team willing to field the best players money could buy. Do you believe in karma? The Yankees won a championship the year before he arrived, in 2000, and the year after he retired, in 2009. But not during the eight years he was there. As Mel Allen used to say, how ’bout that. Still, he gave the O’s 10 good years and they had losing records his last three seasons there. I still don’t forgive him for the treachery of signing with the Yankees. He could have gone anywhere else without seeming to throw over his girlfriend to go date the richest girl in school. I still haven’t forgiven Reggie Jackson, either, and he spent only one season with the Birds, biding his time until free agency. If anyone was ever meant to play in New York, it was Jackson, but I still have the SI cover with him in an Orioles uniform. He looked good. But I digress. I will vote for Mussina and his 270 wins and 3.68 ERA and JAWS score slightly above average for Hall of Fame pitchers.

Schilling, of course, was obtained by the Orioles in a great trade — from the Red Sox, who drafted him, along with Brady Anderson, for Mike Boddicker — and then shipped out in one of the worst trades of all time — with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch, for Glenn Davis. This is not relevant to the discussion in any way; just thought I’d mention it. Davis played 185 games over the next three seasons and retired. Schilling, Finley and Harnisch all went on to have long, productive careers. JAWS says Schilling is better than the average pitcher now in the Hall, and I know he was better in the postseason, when he went 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA. In the World Series, he was 4-1, 2.06.

Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez are no-brainers I won’t dwell on. Johnson is one of 24 pitchers in history to win at least 300 games (303). He led the league in strikeouts nine times, won five Cy Young awards and finished second for three more. He had records like 18-2 in 1995 and 20-4 in 1997 for the Mariners, 21-6 in 2001 and 24-5 in 2002 for the Diamondbacks. At 6-10, the Big Unit and his unwinding windup were unique.

Martinez won three Cy Young awards, finished second for two more and won five ERA titles with these numbers: 1.90 (Montreal, 1997), 2.07 (Boston, 1999), 1.74 (Boston, 2000), 2.26 (Boston, 2002) and 2.22 (Boston, 2003). That year in between titles in Boston? He sagged to 2.39. From 1997 to 2000, there was nobody better, not even Johnson.

I’m voting for Piazza and Bagwell on the same basis I voted for them last year — their numbers obviously qualify them and I don’t have enough evidence of cheating, despite the rumors that followed them, to disqualify them on that basis. Piazza is the fifth-best catcher in history, according to JAWS, better than Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane. The only catchers who score better are Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez and Carlton Fisk. Bagwell is the sixth-best first baseman of all time, JAWS says, better than Frank Thomas, elected on his first try last year, Eddie Murray and Willie McCovey, Hall-of-Famers all.

I’m voting for Raines and Trammell, as I have consistently, in declining hope that advanced metrics will make more voters wake up to how good these guys were. The persistent and determined undervaluation of Trammell and Whitaker remains a mystery to me. Maybe it’s a Detroit thing. Been a while since Al Kaline and Sparky Anderson. Trammell has a better JAWS score than Derek Freaking Jeter, who will be serenaded into the Hall on a bed of rose petals at the first opportunity. Trammell was not as good an offensive player, although a lifetime average of .285 with 185 homers ain’t too shabby for a shortstop, but he was a much better defensive player at arguably the most difficult defensive position in the game. Trammell’s career defensive WAR is +22. Jeter’s is -9.7.

Raines’s JAWS score justifies his election, too. He’s the eighth-best left fielder in history, according to JAWS, and the only ones above him not in the Hall are Bonds and Pete Rose. He was also the best base-stealer I ever saw. He finished fifth all time with 808, but the amazing part was his percentage. He was successful 85.7 percent of the time. Only Carlos Beltran, who tried less than half as often, has a better rate. As with Trammell, I am encouraged that advanced metrics bolster Raines’s case, but doubtful that my colleagues in the BBWAA will see the light in time. The new rule allowing candidates to remain on the ballot only 10 years instead of 15 will hurt Raines more than anyone else. He has three years left instead of eight, in the midst of the current wave of superstars becoming eligible. Trammell was grandfathered into the 15-year stay, but has only two of them remaining. The both deserve inclusion, as the advanced metrics confirm, but they will have to rely on the kindness of the veterans committee.

So that leaves Edgar Martinez as the odd man out. I wish I could vote for him. I voted for him last year. He was a lifetime .312 hitter, a two-time batting champion, one of those guys who was born to hit a baseball. Unfortunately, there is also a major weakness to his game, which is defense. He was a sub-par defender when he played third for the Mariners and then he played no defense at all in 68 percent of his games, which is not an insult but a fact. He became a designated hitter. That didn’t keep me from voting for him last year, and it won’t in the future when the logjam clears, but it’s the distinguishing factor among worthies that takes him off my ballot this year.

In the end, even with the criticisms I’ve expressed about JAWS, I end up with only one change from the JAWS top 10 of this year’s class of eligibles after my exclusions for obvious cheating. I remove Edgar Martinez and add John Smoltz.

My 2015 ballot:

1B Jeff Bagwell

P   Randy Johnson

P   Pedro Martinez

P   Mike Mussina

C   Mike Piazza

LF Tim Raines

P   Curt Schilling

P   John Smoltz

SS Alan Trammell

RF Larry Walker

Happy new year.


2015 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, Part 1

This makes two years in a row, consecutively, that the U.S. Postal Service has delivered my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot to the correct box and not inserted it into a 300-page holiday catalog. That’s a good sign for 2015 and appropriate celebratory measures were taken.

Any year now I’m confident the Hall will transition to electronic voting, but this is baseball, so one step at a time. This year’s innovation: For the first time, they will confirm receipt of ballots.

Before the ballot arrived, I knew I would want to vote for more candidates than the maximum of 10 the Hall permits. My first scan of the ballot, with no benefit of statistical analysis or divine wisdom, produced 14 players that would get my vote. So this year’s consideration was less about the usual issue — Hall worthiness — and more about distinguishing among worthies to cull the list to 10.

Cutting is something newspaper people know about, and we don’t like it. It simplifies, it misleads, it sometimes make you look like an idiot. So I decided to protect myself. For the first time, I used sabermetrician Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system (the humble acronym for Jaffe WAR Score) as my initial screen to get down to the difficult qualitative choices.

In previous years, I looked at lots of numbers to confirm or dispute my impressions, but mostly I relied on the eye test, my totally subjective judgment of whether a player looked like a Hall of Famer. This year, it turned out there wasn’t that much difference between the two, and there were areas of agreement that I found encouraging, not so much for the reliability of my vision as for the chances of certain players I’ve been supporting to no avail up until now.

This happy coincidence is not always the case. For example, when I did my JAWS work last year, I found Jack Morris down so low among the starting pitchers I had to add memory to my laptop to find him. His deficit to the JAWS average of starting pitchers already in the Hall of Fame was massive. So I looked at some of the names above his and asked myself if I would rather have them start a big game. Guys like Mel Stottlemyre, Bartolo Colon, Camilo Pascual, Brad Radke, Jamie Moyer, Carlos Zambrano, Jimmy Key, and so on. The answer in all those cases was no.

The calculation of wins above replacement (WAR), whichever version you subscribe to, is too complex to permit easy diagnostics of the anomalies, but in Morris’s case, I imagined earned-run average was a major culprit. He ranks No. 394 at 3.90, putting him between Joe Nuxhall and Ben McDonald.

On the other hand, if you sort the list by wins, he bounds up to No. 44 all-time with 256. His neighbors here are Red Faber and Carl Hubbell, Hall of Famers both. Now, wins have become a deeply unfashionable stat for pitchers, owing to the many extraneous factors that affect them, but this is also slightly ironic because wins are what WAR allegedly measures.

Anyway, I’m not trying to re-litigate the Morris matter. His eligibility expired last year after he received 351 votes out of 571 ballots cast, or 61.5 percent. I think he has a pretty good shot to make it eventually through some iteration of the veterans committee because he was a horse and a hell of a competitor and for a while there, the dominant pitcher of the 1980s. But again, I digress. He’s a good example of the difference between quantitative and qualitative analytical methods in certain cases.

Let’s back up and explain the basics of the quantitative screen I used this year to get down to the serious calls. Here’s a link to the Baseball Reference explanation of JAWS; here’s one to the BR explanation of its version of WAR.

If you’re reading a 4,000-word post on this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot marked “Part 1,” you probably know that WAR is a complicated formula — so complicated that it’s effectively impenetrable for non-math geeks — that attempts to boil down to a single number the overall value of a baseball player. It speaks to the combination of two human needs — certainty and simplicity. So long as the evaluation of players is based on many different categories, as it was for generations, it is messy, and the emphasis any one judge puts on each of those various categories can and often does change the outcome of the inquiry. That’s neither certain nor simple.

WAR’s many calculations and adjustments introduce subjectivity themselves — BR recently changed its definition of an “average” replacement player — or contribute subjectivity in the weight they are accorded in the overall formula. Since most fans like the sport a lot more than they like equations, especially complicated equations, they stop paying attention to the details pretty quickly. Like the passer rating in football, it’s a nice, simple number that many fans use and few can explain in detail. We have two main versions of WAR at present, which make slightly different subjective judgments along the way, and produce slightly different results.

At its most basic, WAR is an adding machine. Player A was X amount better than the average guy at his position, plug that into a formula and you get 2.4 extra wins for his team that year. Then you add up all those little premiums over the course of his career. Even though its modifications and adjustments are considered ameliorating factors, it rewards longevity in a big way — the more years of little numbers like that, the bigger the career total is going to be.

So, for example, Sandy Koufax, one of the best starting pitchers of all time according to pretty much anyone paying attention to the game when he was pitching, ranks No. 85 in the JAWS system, with a considerable deficit to the average JAWS score of starting pitchers already in the Hall of Fame. He’s down around a bunch of guys who aren’t in the Hall and aren’t likely to get there — Kevin Appier, Chuck Finley, Orel Hershiser, Tommy John, Frank Tanana, Wilbur Wood, et al. The JAWS system attempts to compensate for the longevity bias of WAR by averaging a player’s career WAR with his “peak” WAR — the seven highest annual scores of his career.  This is supposed to cover for players like Koufax, who were brilliant, but whose careers were cut short.

But, clearly, it doesn’t. Koufax’s peak WAR is higher than any of the guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but not by enough to make much difference in the overall calculation. Luckily, there was no WAR when Koufax became eligible for the first time in 1972 and he was elected on the first ballot with 87 percent of the vote, leading a class that also included Yogi Berra and Early Wynn.

I bring this up because it also contributes to this year’s biggest anomaly when using the JAWS system, which is John Smoltz. The former Braves hurler is on the ballot for the first time, following by one year former teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, both of whom were elected on the first try. The voters and JAWS agreed on Maddux. Not so much on Glavine. Maddux ranks 10th all time on the JAWS meter, ahead of immortals like Bob Gibson and Warren Spahn, and pending immortals like Pedro Martinez. Glavine ranks 30th, behind all those guys, and behind a couple more on this year’s ballot — Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina. JAWS counts Maddux as way above the average Hall of Famer at his position, Glavine as barely above average.

Smoltz ranks 58th, well below average for the Hall of Fame, down around guys like Jim Bunning and David Cone. This is mostly because he quit starting for a while to help his team. From 2002-04, Smoltz registered 144 saves with ERAs of 3.25, 1.12 and 2.76. He received MVP votes four times in his career, and three of them were after those three remarkable years as a closer. The Braves made the playoffs in all three seasons. He’s credited with 6.7 wins above replacement for those three seasons combined. He got more than that (7.3) in 1996 alone, his Cy Young year as a starter.

So Smoltz fares poorly in the JAWS Hall of Fame analysis, in part because he’s listed with the starters and no allowance is made for all the starts he gave up to become one of the best closers in the game. For those of us not yet willing to sacrifice our own observations entirely to the gods of quantitative analysis, Smoltz requires an eye-test adjustment this year, which we will get to in Part 2. For the purpose of culling the field of 34 down to a more manageable number, JAWS was quite useful in quantifying the eye test results.

The no-hopers

1. 3B Aaron Boone

He’ll always have 2003, a moment seared into the memories of Red Sox fans who would not slay the beast for another year. Boone’s walkoff home run leading off the bottom of the 11th in Game 7 of the ALCS made him a Yankee hero, even though he played only 54 of his 1152 career games in Yankee pinstripes. His best days were in Cincinnati. He is ranked the 150th-best third baseman in big league history by his JAWS average (14.3). His deficit from the JAWS average for Hall of Famers at his position (40.7) is the greatest in this year’s class. The top comparable to him on Baseball Reference is Scott Brosius.

Every year, there are fans who squawk, “Why is he on the ballot?” I have known members of the screening committee and I agree with their bias toward inclusion. If you meet the basic requirements — a career of at least 10 seasons in the designated time period — I believe you ought to get your minimum one appearance on the ballot. A 10-year major league career is a big deal in any context other than this one. Appearing on the ballot once seems to me an appropriate reward. Boone won’t be back, and neither will the rest of the guys in this category.

2. 1B Tony Clark

Clark had a nice 15-year career with Tigers, Diamondbacks, Mets, Red Sox and Padres. He hit 251 homers with a lifetime .262 batting average and a career OPS of .824. The JAWS average for first basemen now in the Hall is 54.2. Clark’s is 14.2. That deficit (40.0) barely lost out to Boone’s for the title of No-hoper of the Year. His top comparable is Adam LaRoche.

3. SS Rich Aurilia

Aurilia played 15 seasons, mostly for the Giants, finishing with a long goodbye tour through Cincinnati, San Diego and Seattle. He was mostly a shortstop, but he played triple-figure games at each of the other infield positions as well. He had good power for an infielder, hitting double-figure home runs eight times, including an eyebrow-raising 37 in 2001, the year Barry Bonds hit 73 and a number of players looked like Popeye after the spinach. His JAWS deficit to Hall of Famers at his position is 37.3. No. 1 comparable: Brandon Phillips.

4. RF Jermaine Dye

Dye had some serious pop, hitting 44 homers for the White Sox, batting over .300 for the only time in his career and finishing fifth in MVP voting in 2006. He spent 14 years in the big leagues almost equally divided among the Royals, White Sox and A’s, with a nightcap in Atlanta. His deficit to the JAWS average of right fielders in the Hall is 36.4.

5. SP Jason Schmidt

Schmidt was an average starter for most of the first decade of his career, never pitching to an ERA under 4.00 until arriving in San Francisco in the latter part of the 2001 season. Quite suddenly, at the age of 30, he became an elite pitcher for the Giants, going 17-5 with a National League-leading ERA of 2.34. He finished second in Cy Young voting that year and fourth the following year, when he went 18-7 with a 3.20 ERA. As a result of this renaissance in San Francisco, the Dodgers gave him a big free-agent deal in 2007 — three years, $47 million. Alas, Schmidt blew out his shoulder and pitched just 43 mostly ineffective innings over two seasons for L.A. before calling it quits. He comes in at No. 284 on the starting pitchers’ JAWS list. His deficit to existing Hall of Famers is 33.4.

6. LF Cliff Floyd

Floyd was the 14th overall pick of the 1991 draft, and while he had a 17-year stay in the majors, he never became the star that early comparisons to Willie McCovey seemed to promise. He drove in more than 100 runs only once and hit as many as 30 homers twice. He was bedeviled by injuries and ended up playing for seven teams. Still, he finished with a career OPS of .840. His top comparable on Baseball Reference is Aubrey Huff. His JAWS Hall of Fame deficit is 27.9.

7. CF Darin Erstad

Erstad was a marvelous athlete whom the Angels made the first pick of the 1995 draft out of Nebraska. He was the punter for Tom Osborne’s ’94 Cornhuskers’ national championship team. Erstad arrived in the majors a year later and finished sixth in rookie-of-the-year voting despite playing only 57 games. He was an all-star at 24 and again at 26, receiving MVP votes both years. He was a five-tool player on the brink of stardom. After batting an astonishing .355 with a league-leading 240 hits in 2000, he never hit .300 again. After putting up double-figure home run totals in five of his first seven seasons, he never hit more than seven after the age of 28. His hustling style and proclivity for leaving his feet produced chronic issues with his shoulders, hamstrings and ankles. For most of the latter part of his career, he was battling one injury or another. His JAWS deficit to center fielders in the Hall is 26.7. On the bright side, he went back to Nebraska as a volunteer assistant for the baseball team in 2011 and Osborne, then the athletic director, named him head coach a year later. His top comparable at 23 was Jeff Bagwell. Ten years later, it was Mark Kotsay.

8. RP Eddie Guardado

Guardado would be a long way from Hall consideration anyway, but the fact that he’s a relief pitcher makes it impossible. He was a decent piece out of the pen for the Twins for years who suddenly became a closer, and a good one, for a four-year stretch from 2002-05. He was an all-star in ’02 and ’03, putting up a league-leading 45 saves in ’02 and following it with 41 the next year. The result was a nice free-agent deal with the Mariners and two more good years before he ran out of fuel. He’s No. 53 in career saves with 187. His JAWS deficit is 22.1. In the history of baseball, five relief pitchers have been inducted, so if you’re Eddie Guardado, you have no shot.

9. RP Troy Percival

Percival was a stud closer for a long time, so you’d think he’d have a chance, but keep in mind he’s way behind Lee Smith in the JAWS rankings and Smith got only 30 percent of the vote in his 12th season of eligibility last year. Percival is in the top 10 in career saves — No. 9 with 358. But again, the standard is the five incumbents — Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers. Mariano Rivera will make it six when he’s eligible. Percival ranks behind them all, and behind Smith, too. In fact, his JAWS average is worse than those of Steve Reed, Dick Drago and Dave Giusti. It’s just not happening. His deficit to the Hall average at his position is 18.1

My kingdom for 5 percent

1. RF Sammy Sosa

You wouldn’t think that one of only two players in major league history to hit more than 60 homers in a season twice, one of only eight to hit more than 600 in a career, would be in any danger of falling off the ballot in just his third season of eligibility, but Sosa treated his entire career like an SNL skit. Like Bonds, he used performance-enhancing drugs to such excess that he became a massive, hulking, comic book parody of his former self, then pretended he didn’t understand English when hauled before Congress to explain this amazing transformation. He got 12.5 percent of the vote in his first year and 7.2 percent last year. Half as great a loss of support this year would send him on his way. Even if he’d done it honestly, his JAWS average of 51 wouldn’t justify his election. The average of the right fielders already in the Hall is 58.1. Even through the eyes of a Cubs fan, Sammy doesn’t pass the eye test.

2. 1B Don Mattingly

It doesn’t seem fair that you could drop off the ballot for lack of support the day you’re dropping off anyway by virtue of having been there 15 years without getting elected, but that is a possibility for Donnie Baseball. His election return of 8.2 percent of the vote last year was his lowest total in 14 years of eligibility. He hasn’t been above 20 percent since his second year on the ballot. For a stretch in the 1980s, he was as good as it got, but back trouble limited him to just four years of WAR of 5 or more, and that’s nowhere near enough. He also faces competition from a bunch of other first basemen who aren’t going to make it but have better numbers than he does. On the JAWS list, he ranks behind Norm Cash, Gil Hodges, John Olerud and Will Clark, none of whom are in the Hall. He also ranks behind Carlos Delgado and Fred McGriff, who are on the current ballot and also have little or no shot. His JAWS deficit to the Hall average first sacker is 15.3.

3. 1B Carlos Delgado

Delgado isn’t a close call according to JAWS — he’s 14.8 average WAR behind the existing Hall standard at first — but he was a very productive power hitter for a long time, so you wouldn’t think he’d be in any danger of missing the minimum to remain on the ballot. He has a career OPS of .940 and drove in at least 87 runs in 13 consecutive seasons. Nevertheless, it’s a very strong ballot and Delgado’s JAWS average ranks below McGriff’s. McGriff fell to 11.7 percent of the vote last year, losing half the support he got just two years before. If there’s an argument to be made that Delgado is one of the top 10 players on this year’s ballot, I’m not sure what it is.

4. RF Brian Giles

I’m also not sure why Giles does better on the JAWS tote board than Delgado. I’d take Delgado every time, although Giles was certainly a nice offensive player. Delgado had way more homers and RBI, a slightly better OPS+ and trailed in batting average by 10 points. It is true he also struck out a lot more than Giles, but that’s the price of that power (1512 RBI to 1078; 473 homers to 278). Both were below-average defenders, but Delgado somewhat further below average. Giles is a classic very good player who is nevertheless significantly short of the Hall standard by both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Like Delgado, you would expect him to exceed the minimum necessary to stay on for another year if the ballot weren’t so loaded. And he still should. His JAWS deficit among right fielders already in the Hall is 14.0.

Obvious cheaters

1. 1B Mark McGwire

The only thing that saves Sosa from appearing here, where he belongs, is the fact that he might fall off the ballot altogether, earning him a spot in the previous category. McGwire, the only player other than Sosa to hit more than 60 homers in a season twice, comes dangerously close to joining him there. But Mac managed 11 percent of the vote last year, so I’m guessing he survives again, although his number has come down from 23.7 percent in 2010. I realize there is a fair amount of sentiment among sabermetricians that there is no such thing as right and wrong, or we’re not worthy to assess it, or only numbers matter, or something along those lines. If you’re interested in why I don’t agree with this, I went into some depth about it in my post on last year’s ballot. McGwire, by the way, has a small deficit — 2.3 — to the average JAWS score of first basemen now in the Hall.

2. SP Roger Clemens

Clemens’ numbers are ridiculous, which, in his case, is not just an expression. At the age of 42, suddenly he was as good as he had ever been. In fact, he won the ERA title with the best mark of his career (1.87). In court, personal trainer Brian McNamee laid out his doping program in gruesome detail. Clemens’ able defense team got him off perjury charges, but that’s not the same as being innocent. According to JAWS, he’s the third-best pitcher of all time, behind Walter Johnson and Cy Young. His surplus to the average starter in the Hall is 41.5, which would be the highest on the ballot if it weren’t for . . .

3. LF Barry Bonds

Clemens redux. Thanks to the journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, and their book Game of Shadows, we know pretty much exactly what Bonds took and why. Like Clemens, he had a chronology-defying, chemistry-enabled, Greek God-like renaissance very late in his career, winning four consecutive MVP awards at the ages of 36, 37, 38 and 39. We had never seen anything like it before and, assuming Rob Manfred is slightly more on the ball than Bud Selig — a low bar — we will never see anything like it again. Like Clemens, as many have pointed out, he was probably a Hall of Famer before he started cheating, but those sportsmanship and integrity criteria established by the Hall don’t have the luxury of time travel. His surplus to the average JAWS score of Hall of Fame left fielders is 64.3, a number almost as big as his body in those days.

Just wide

1. Nomar Garciaparra

Nomar was a stud shortstop in a very impressive generation. Imagine a three-year stretch in which rookies named Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra enter the league playing the same position. The Red Sox made Nomar a first-round pick, the 12th overall, in 1994. Three years later, he was rookie of the year, an all-star and eighth in MVP voting. At the age of 23, he hit .306 with 30 home runs and 98 RBI. The next year was even better — .323, 35, 122 — and he finished second in the MVP voting to Juan Gonzalez. He won the batting title each of the next two years, at .357 and .372. If this was not the runup to a Hall of Fame career, it was hard to imagine why not. But it probably wasn’t. Injuries would turn Nomar old before his time and his 30s were nothing like his 20s. The average of his career WAR and peak WAR — 43.6 — is 11.1 below the average of shortstops already in the Hall. You can certainly make an argument for him. His JAWS rating puts him between Luis Aparicio and Joe Tinker, both of whom are in. The improvement in the offensive output at the position since then has changed the calculus.

2. 1B Fred McGriff

You look at those career numbers and it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t belong. Seven homers shy of 500. Twenty-one consecutive seasons of double-digit homers. An OPS just short of .900. MVP votes following eight different seasons. And yet, when you add them all up, he’s a full 10 wins over replacement short of the average for first basemen already in the Hall. In fact, he ranks behind Keith Hernandez, John Olerud and Will Clark, none of whom are enshrined. Of 20 first basemen in Cooperstown, McGriff’s JAWS average is better than four, worse than 16. He’d been getting about 20 percent of the vote in his first four years on the ballot, then fell to 11.7 percent last year as the ballot strengthened. Probably won’t do a lot better this year.

3. RF Gary Sheffield

Sheff had such a long, productive career, one is tempted to think of him as the Don Sutton of hitters, a guy who eventually makes it on sheer volume. It could happen, but advanced metrics don’t help him. He accumulated surprisingly modest wins above replacement value during his career and his JAWS average of 49 falls 9.1 short of the average of right fielders already inducted. Sheff’s average is worse than those of Bobby (not Barry) Bonds, Reggie Smith and Dwight Evans, none of whom is in. With more than 500 home runs, a career batting average over .290 and an OPS over .900, Sheff passes the eye test, at least for me. He might begin to build support after the current wave of stars passes. For now, he just has to hang around.

Coming in Part 2: The final fifteen


American history 101

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As you may know, I lost my job in June. For the first time in 39 years, pajamas were an all-day option. I was about to turn 60 and knew my demographic profile was a recruiter’s dream — old white male with a work history in a dying industry. What more could an HR department want?

Despite this enticing profile, I put off the LinkedIn recruiters eager to enlist new insurance sales people. Earning a paycheck — which, technically, they weren’t offering — was no longer my only consideration. Requiring only Wheat Thins, DirecTV and the aforementioned pajamas really reduced my expenses. Sixty being the new thirty, I figured I couldn’t afford to screw up the coming decade. It’s too promising as it is. I can schedule a dental appointment anytime I want, for just one example.

A friend and former neighbor in North Denver told me that she trusts her instincts about such things, and I should too. Then she sold her house and flew to India. I wondered if she meant I should trust her instincts and fly to India too. I’m a former sportswriter, so I don’t really know what to do if there’s no Marriott. Most of the interesting places in India don’t seem to have one.

So, while I was waiting for inspiration, I went out and blew my last paycheck on a boatload of American history books. This is what my instincts told me to do. Don’t ask me why. I suddenly wanted to know how we got here.

Not like how my immigrant ancestors got here. How we got here. Another election cycle has come around and I can’t even watch the baseball playoffs without hearing Cory Gardner insulted and then Mark Udall insulted and then Bob Beauprez insulted and then John Hickenlooper insulted and then some stuff insulted I don’t even know what it is.

How did we get here?

Is this the worst it’s ever been? I try to ignore politics at this point in the cycle and even I know everything I hear on these TV ads is a lie. If you know anything about the issues these insults refer to, you know both sides are twisting them with pretzel logic to make the other guy look like a creep. This is familiar to me because it’s kinda like sports: Do anything to win. I’m expecting steroids to come into play at some point.

As I began to study how we got here, I figured out a temporary solution. Digital TV has certain advantages. I learned if I hit rewind and watch an early half-inning over again, I can fast-forward through the rest of the commercial breaks. If I catch up to real time in the seventh, I rewind a little more. That’s just between us.

Anyway, I thought I’d start at the beginning, with fresh looks at three of the most celebrated founders: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson (2003), Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (2010) and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham (2012).

The first thing you realize when you read these books is our partisan political divide is nothing new. Any undergraduate student of American history could tell you that, but it’s been so long since I was an undergraduate that I remember almost nothing about it. Besides, I was too busy working on the school newspaper to go to class. I did know that newspapers went all the way back to Ben Franklin. They certainly weren’t going anywhere.

Back in the day, these guys were brutal. Here’s a dispassionate analysis of Franklin by John Adams, our second president, not an opponent but a colleague in Paris negotiating the peace treaty with Britain that ended the Revolutionary War:

“If this gentleman and the marble Mercury in the garden of Versailles were in nomination for an embassy, I would not hesitate to give my vote for the statue, upon the principle that it would do no harm.”

The rift between Federalists and Republicans that emerged out of the constitutional convention of 1787 and persisted through the terms of at least the first three presidents makes today’s partisan sniping look like a game of touch football. The crux of the debate was basically the same big government/small government divide that exists today. So, yeah, people have been arguing about the same stuff for at least 227 years. The difference is America had no experience with either at the time, so it was not only possible to conjure apocalyptic consequences from the other guy’s ideas, it was possible you were right.

The paranoia and nasty partisan media that accompany each side in our current federal gridlock are pale derivatives of their counterparts back in the day. Consider that Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, was arrested under the Alien and Sedition Acts for what he said about the Adams administration in a newspaper. Adams, famously, could dish it out a lot better than he could take it. Bache might have gone to prison for something he wrote if he hadn’t died of yellow fever first.

Federalists, including Adams, were so paranoid Jefferson would dismantle the new government in the name of individual liberty that they demanded assurances he wouldn’t before allowing him to assume the presidency (they had the opportunity to do this because Jefferson’s first election was thrown into the House of Representatives when his running mate, Aaron Burr, got as many votes as he did, an outcome the original electoral college, oddly, did not imagine).

Republicans like Jefferson, on the other hand, saw the threat of monarchy in every federal power, which is why the original Articles of Confederation gave the Congress — the sole federal branch of government at the time — virtually no power at all. It’s also why some high-profile American rebels, including Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, declined to attend the constitutional convention, wanting to leave the federal government powerless.

In long-lensed hindsight, each side’s paranoia has a certain logic. After all, the whole self-government thing was a grand experiment. Nobody really knew which design would work and which wouldn’t.

From the Republicans’ point of view, monarchy was the default governmental system in the civilized world and America had just fought a long war to get out from under one. They feared a strong central government would inevitably lead to an American monarch. For many of them, Washington’s main appeal as the first president was the fact that he didn’t have an heir.

From the Federalists’ point of view, the risk of monarchy came mainly from the possibility of anarchy, which they saw as the likely outcome of 13 sovereign states in constant conflict with one another and a federal government powerless to referee. Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts was fresh in their minds as an anarchist warning shot.

So who bridged this familiar ideological gap back in the day? Mainly, Washington and Franklin, the two most venerated leaders of the time. Their ability to cross the partisan divide came from very different experiences but a common determination to put the good of their new country ahead of whatever ideological biases they might have held personally.

At the age of 81, Franklin closed the constitutional convention in his hometown with a passionate defense of all the compromises in the document that would be instructive to many of today’s partisans:

I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.

Most men, indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, tells the Pope that the only difference between our two churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrine is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But, though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who, in a little dispute with her sister said: “I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.”

In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults — if they are such — because I think a general government necessary for us. . . . I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel, and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.

We have a tendency after all this time to lump the grand roster of founders together — all wonderful, all visionary, you know the honorifics. But given what appear to be intractable ideological divisions today, it seems worth noticing that Franklin and Washington were pretty much the only major players who were able to rise above partisanship. Republicans would cast Washington as a partisan Federalist during his second term, but in fact he was always a pragmatist, his belief in a strong executive fueled by the inability of Congress to help him or his army during the Revolutionary War. Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two other revered and important founders, were as partisan as they could be. They were both in Washington’s first cabinet and grew to despise each other.

It is not so well remembered that Washington, who solicited advice from his generals and later his cabinet on every big issue, grew so angry with Jefferson’s duplicity by the end of his second term that he pulled a Godfather. By the time he left office, Jefferson was dead to him.

And while Jefferson was America’s foremost political philosopher and a grand writer, he could also be . . . how to put this . . . an egotistical, duplicitous hypocrite, if that reminds you of anyone seeking office this season.

In April of 1796, the last year of Washington’s presidency, long after Jefferson had quit the cabinet and returned to Monticello, allegedly to retire from politics, he wrote a letter to an Italian friend named Philip Mazzei. In it, Jefferson ripped Washington, alleging he was leading a monarchical party “whose avowed object is to draw over us the substance, as they have already done the forms, of the British government,” according to Chernow’s account.

Jefferson had engineered similar attacks on Washington before, but he had never put his name to one. Instead, he had arranged for these attacks to be delivered by partisan newspapers. At the same time, he had written a letter to Washington after leaving his administration denying any responsibility for these scurrilous charges.

But this time, Mazzei chose to publish Jefferson’s letter in Italy, and it soon found its way into British and American newspapers as well. His duplicity exposed, Jefferson didn’t know what to do. “Think for me on this occasion,” he pleaded with his friend James Madison, “and advise me what to do.”

To suggest that Washington, who had stepped down voluntarily as commander in chief following the Revolutionary War and was about to step down voluntarily as president, wanted himself or anybody else to be king, was insulting and absurd, and there is no record that Washington ever spoke to his fellow Virginian again. “I never saw him afterwards,” Jefferson would say later.

At this stage of his life, federal power was still anathema to Jefferson, representing a slippery slope away from liberty and toward monarchy. Sovereignty, he and other Republicans believed, should reside with the individual colonies. But when he was in charge of the largest colony as governor of Virginia 15 years earlier, Jefferson dithered for two days after being warned that the traitor Benedict Arnold, by then a British general, was coming to attack Richmond. By the time Jefferson finally called up the state militia, it was too late. The Redcoats swept in, unabated to the quarterback, you might say, forcing state officials to flee the capital. A few months later, they came to arrest Jefferson at Monticello and he was forced to flee his home in the most embarrassing episode of his public life. His response was to pen a plea to General Washington to bring the Continental Army to Virginia’s defense.

This practical experience had no apparent effect on Jefferson’s thinking about the shape of the new government. He seems to have been worried chiefly about the effect on his reputation. He stepped down as governor shortly thereafter.

Years later, when Jefferson became president, he agreed to the Louisiana Purchase, his most famous accomplishment, without consulting Congress, almost certainly the greatest unilateral use of executive power in American history to that point. It proved to be a wise move, but it expanded the executive power that Jefferson had always claimed was too great to begin with. If Washington had done such a thing, there is little doubt Jefferson would have skewered him for adopting the powers of a monarch. (An exasperated Washington would say during his second term that while Jefferson and his allies saw a monarchist behind every tree, he didn’t believe there were a dozen men in the country who actually favored an American monarchy.)

Meacham, an unabashed Jefferson fan, says the Louisiana Purchase shows his “flexibility.” That’s one way to look at it. Another would be that Jefferson’s idealistic ideology proved impractical and he refused to admit it, even when forced to abandon it in order to run the country.

Jefferson, of course, was far from the only partisan ideologue around. The Federalists lost control of the government two years after Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. At that point, Republican fears of a tyrannical central government seemed plenty real. When Adams sought a second term, Jefferson (and Burr) defeated him handily.

About the only thing that kept the hostility between Federalists and Republicans from tearing the young country apart was Washington, a military hero greeted as a celebrity everywhere he went after the war. Washington assiduously cultivated alliances on both sides, well aware that keeping the country from fracturing was his most important responsibility.

Washington’s ability to understand both sides of the partisan divide came largely from the war, the transformative experience of his life. He had been an aspiring aristocrat as a younger man, lobbying incessantly for a commission in the Royal British Army and for land grants to expand his wealth and holdings. It was the British refusal to give him the former and condescending method of adjudicating the latter that initially alienated him from the empire.

But during his eight years as commander in chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, he grew so attached and so loyal to his men, who came from every walk of life, that he developed egalitarian values uncommon among plantation owners at the time.

Franklin came by his political moderation a different way. As a 17-year-old runaway landing in Philadelphia long before anyone thought of revolution, he was an aspiring leather-aproned tradesman, a printer. Through his prolific writing, much of it satiric, he became America’s first champion of the middle class. He believed in hard work as the path to success and was suspicious of welfare programs for the poor, believing them an invitation to indolence.

On the other hand, he had a natural rebellious streak that made him skeptical of authority, particularly authority based on birthrights rather than virtues or talents. He viewed hereditary titles and wealth with disdain, believing the rich had no more right than the poor to unearned bounty. He was equally suspicious of the aristocracy and the great unwashed. He most admired the tradesmen and shopkeepers he saw as the backbone of the new world.

Some of Franklin’s ability to play the conciliator at the constitutional convention was a function of his reputation and age, but a lot of it was a function of his personality. He was a great storyteller who managed to make the most ardent partisans laugh at various moments of tension. (My favorite example of his off-the-wall sense of humor is an essay he wrote while in Paris urging the Royal Society of Brussels, which had solicited ideas for scientific experiments, to study whether consuming certain foods might improve the aroma of farts. Perhaps sensing this was a bridge too far even for him, Franklin printed the satire but did not distribute it.)

Washington and Franklin were diametrically different personalities, but they shared two key traits — pragmatism and a belief in behaving virtuously for its own sake. It was pragmatism that convinced Washington the federal government needed more power than Jefferson and the Republicans believed. As commander in chief, he was continually thwarted by a Congress powerless to raise money or do much of anything else. He watched his soldiers die by the hundreds for want of adequate clothing and supplies, then visited Philadelphia and found the privileged enjoying grand balls and feasts. Liberty from tyrannical authority was the point of the exercise, but if the colonies were to become a country, they would need a government that could raise and outfit an army for its defense, and that would require a federal authority to tax, among other things.

Coming at the debate from a different angle, Franklin was all about practical applications in his scientific experiments. He was far less interested in the why than the how. From bifocals to the lightning rod to the Franklin stove, his investigations were always geared to solving practical problems. He had more of a natural Republican bent than Washington, writing a constitution for Pennsylvania that called for proportional representation in a single legislative body, and he proposed the same solution for the national constitution (it was rejected in a compromise with smaller states, which demanded equal representation in at least one house of Congress, just one of many defeats at the convention he accepted with equanimity). But Franklin, too, saw the practical need for federal power to run a country, particularly with respect to finances.

Due mainly to its intractable partisanship, Congress today is less popular than root canals, colonoscopies and the rock band Nickelback. (It does beat out telemarketers and gonorrhea.) So the obvious question is this:

Where is the Franklin of today? Where is the Washington? These were great men who spent most of their lives serving their country, compromising and cajoling to get things done. Surely great men and women will always be rare, but these two were produced by a population less than 1 percent the size of today’s. There must be 21st century men and women with similar inclinations toward moderation, with similar abilities to see both sides of the partisan divide and work toward compromise for the good of the country.

Right?

The modern day examples that come immediately to mind are few and far between. Among them would be Alan Simpson, the Republican former senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the Democrat and former Clinton chief of staff from North Carolina. The Simpson-Bowles Commission drafted a long-term plan to address the federal budget deficit. Both men ended up endorsing provisions they disliked in order to forge a compromise that might be acceptable to all sides. In our current environment, of course, it was acceptable to no one and was dead on arrival in Washington, the capital named for the original moderate.

When I was younger, there were lots of politicians who tried to occupy the center of the spectrum. I spent part of my childhood in Illinois, where Charles Percy was the rare politician who succeeded without the help of the corrupt Democratic Party machine. He was what they called a “liberal Republican” at the time, and nationally he was not alone. Similarly, there were politicians called “conservative Democrats,” which included southern segregationists, but also northerners such as Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, who was as hawkish on foreign affairs as any Republican. Today, there is little or no overlap.

So here’s one conclusion I’ve drawn from my new hobby: Political partisanship is nothing new. Politically partisan media are nothing new. The only thing we seem to lack today is the great leaders willing and able to bridge the gap.


New Baseball Hall of Fame voting rules

Baseball HOF letter 9.9.14

In my snail mail this week was a letter from the Baseball Hall of Fame dated Sept. 9, reproduced above, in which it outlined changes in voting procedures beginning with this fall’s balloting for the class of 2015.

The two biggest changes are the length of time a player may remain on the ballot (down to 10 years from 15) and administration of the voting, which is being moved from the Baseball Writers Association of America to the accounting firm Ernst & Young.

Three players already beyond their tenth year on the ballot have been grandfathered in and will remain on the ballot for 15 years, assuming they aren’t elected prior to that — Lee Smith, Alan Trammell and Don Mattingly. The one quibble I have with this transition is the effect it has on players nearing the new 10-year limit, namely Mark McGwire and Tim Raines. McGwire, in his ninth year on the ballot, will actually be kicked off before Smith, in his 13th. That doesn’t seem right.

The timing of the changes is especially unfortunate for Raines, who was making steady progress, from 24 percent of the vote in 2008 to 52 percent in 2013. In a four-year period, from 2013 through 2016, an unusually star-studded wave of newly-eligible players came along — Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa in 2013; Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas in 2014; Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield and John Smoltz in 2015. The wave culminates with Ken Griffey Jr. in 2016.

Under the old rules, Raines might have ridden out this wave and then resumed his assault on a Bert Blyleven-like renaissance near or at the end of his eligibility. Cutting his remaining eligibility in one fell swoop from eight years to three dramatically reduces the possibility of his being elected. As a Raines voter, I can only hope some version of the veterans committee rights this wrong in the future.

The rest of the procedural changes are mainly to bring more seriousness to the voting process after last year’s instance of an eligible voter offloading his vote to ineligible voters. Whatever you think of the voting bloc, it is to be expected that the Hall would want to control who gets to vote. Commitment to a code of conduct will now accompany voter registration.

The process is brought into the electronic age with online registration and research materials but remains in the Pony Express days with actual submission of ballots by snail mail. The Heisman Trophy has had electronic voting for some time now, so I assume Ernst & Young will ultimately employ this innovation as well. But not yet.

From the standpoint of voters, the new procedure offers the innovation of confirming receipt, never before available because the BBWAA didn’t open ballots until it was time to count them, by which time it would be too late to replace a ballot lost in the mail anyway.

There is no change to the much-discussed limit of 10 votes per voter. Many voters expressed regret that they could not vote for more than 10 last year. I was one of them. I left Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina off my 2014 ballot because I was not willing to abandon candidates I had supported longer — including Raines, Trammell and Jack Morris.

The 10-year eligibility limit will turn over the names more quickly, reducing this ballot congestion problem to some extent, but off the top of my head I can name more than 10 players I’d like to vote for this year.

Here’s a look, courtesy of Baseball Reference, at 2015 eligibles.


Standing Pat

Pat Bowlen card 8.7.01_0005

The card reproduced above was postmarked Aug. 8, 2001, one day after my column on Pat Bowlen’s pursuit of a new stadium for the Broncos was published in the Rocky Mountain News:

“Dear Dave, Thanks for the nice article. I felt good reading something as nice as that this morning with my coffee. Let’s have another run. You will kick my ass! Pat”

The reference was to a run we shared in Greeley 17 years before, in Bowlen’s first summer as Broncos owner and my first as a Broncos beat writer for the Rocky, which I’d referenced in the column. The joke about feeling good when he read it referred back to a part of the interview in which he described his feelings reading the papers during the stadium campaign.

Here’s the column, published in the Rocky on Aug. 7, 2001:

Always Standing Pat

For Broncos owner Bowlen, running from critics or his beliefs hasn’t been his style

Eighteen summers ago, when Pat Bowlen was the 40-year-old rookie owner of the Denver Broncos, I was a rookie beat writer assigned to cover the team.

Competition between Denver’s daily newspapers on all matters Broncos-related was even fiercer than it is now, in part because there were only two big-league teams in town. Without baseball, our football season began about Memorial Day.

I knew two things about Bowlen: He was Canadian, and he’d just finished 135th out of more than 1,400 competitors in Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon, a remarkable achievement for a man his age. I fancied myself in his league, having run a high-altitude marathon a couple of months earlier. I thought I might use this to my advantage in the ongoing beat war.

I invited the new owner to go for a run between practices in Greeley’s stifling midday heat, thinking we would form a bond and I would get an impeccable source of information.

Math was not my strong suit. I hadn’t bothered to figure his likely training pace. He ran me into the ground, to be blunt about it, and the conversation was kept to a minimum, owing chiefly to my struggle for oxygen.

Having watched any number of his players lose their breakfasts doing Dan Reeves’ suicide sprints, I remember thinking the Broncos might be the only team in sports with an owner in better shape than his players. I wondered if Bowlen’s athletic drive would make him a better owner than most of his brethren, whose idea of exercise remains martini curls in the owner’s box.

And I wondered if he meant it when he said he’d be Broncos owner until they carried him out in a pine box.

All these years later, I have my answers. Now 57, running the Broncos is Bowlen’s life. And as popular a target as he has been in the intervening period, it seems to me undeniable that he has grown into a model owner, maybe the best in sports.

***

In less than three weeks, the Broncos will play their first game in the new $400 million, taxpayer-financed stadium Bowlen worked for years to have built.

Everything about it has been controversial, from the enormous cost to the public financing to the corporate name that defrayed not merely taxpayer expense, but also Bowlen’s.

When you consider it from a Broncos fan’s point of view, there is nothing controversial about it, other than maybe the name. The new stadium provides the local franchise with a state-of-the-art venue and, perhaps more important, state-of-the-art revenue.

Whether such extravagance in the service of sport represents a reasonable public priority is a fair question. But Bowlen’s job is not to determine public priorities. Bowlen’s job is to represent the interests of his team. This he did most successfully.

“The process was remarkable when you look back at what happened and where we’re at now,” he told me. “We really started this thing back in the mid-’90s, and here we are a few weeks from playing a game there, and a month from opening up Monday night, in a facility that I believe is the best ever. I really do.

“Of course, everybody laughs, ‘Hey, there’s Bowlen boasting and bragging, self-serving statements,’ but I’ve been in all the stadiums and I think I can have a slightly objective view, and I think history will show it as being one of the better stadiums built, especially for football.”

His role as the point man in a campaign to win public financing made him a lightning rod for criticism.

“When we were going through this, when we were soliciting the taxpayers to continue that tenth of a percent (sales) tax that built Coors Field, I could get up every morning and pick up the paper and somewhere in there there’d be an article about me. None of them would be very good. Some of them would be a little better than others, but most of them would be pretty negative. You know: ‘Bowlen reaching into the taxpayer’s pocket, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’

“I’d read that, drink my coffee and go out to the Broncos facility and forget about it. I think at some stage in my life it would have made me very upset. It’s not that you ignore it, it’s just you say, ‘Well, that’s their point of view. And here’s my point of view.’

“I know I never want to go through it again. I’ve never wanted to be a politician, and I sure as hell was a politician. I might as well have been running for governor during that period of time. So that’s the way you’ve got to approach it: Your opponent is going to say bad things about you. And you just go on and hope that your position prevails.

“It did, and as time goes by, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of critics of what we did. There will be people that say, ‘I still don’t support a tax-supported stadium.’ But now we’ve got it and it has been supported by the taxpayers. I think they’ll say, ‘This is a great new facility. I still don’t agree that we should have paid for it, but we got our money’s worth.'”

***

Bowlen admits his transition from private businessman to public figure was a rocky one. From the fur coat he brought from Edmonton to a tolerance for players of dubious character, he took plenty of shots.

But he never ran and hid from his critics, as many owners do. And his team has been consistently successful during a period in which he has been the lone constant. The Broncos have been to the Super Bowl five times in the 17 seasons Bowlen has owned them, winning the NFL championship twice.

John Elway and Mike Shanahan get most of the credit, as they should. But Bowlen’s relationship with both men is an underappreciated factor. He let Reeves go when it was either Reeves or Elway. In Bowlen’s office hangs a LeRoy Neiman rendering of Elway — a gift from the quarterback. It is a possession Bowlen prizes.

He hired Shanahan and got out of his way while remaining in daily contact as club president. While we were speaking, Bowlen took a call from Shanahan for a report on that morning’s training camp workout.

“I was very shy of public exposure, and shy, period,” Bowlen said. “So the exposure to Denver and the publicity was initially really a big shock. You can’t explain that to anybody when they’re coming in. But you learn fairly quickly that you’ve got a very short honeymoon period and that ownership is always a pretty easy target. And I think you’ve got to accept that as an owner. If you can’t take that kind of heat, then you shouldn’t be in that position. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Why not hide?

“The more you try to do that, the worse you make the situation,” he said.

Bowlen declines comment from time to time but has remained consistently accessible to the media, no matter how many shots he takes.

“I think that’s important, because we’re in the entertainment business,” he said. “Quite a few owners aren’t actually running their clubs, so they have a president or somebody else that’s doing most of the talking for the club. I choose to have that position, so I’ve got to be prepared to follow through on it. That’s just part of our business.”

***

The lows were more common than the highs in his first decade, despite generally stellar regular season records.

“The toughest times, I know for sure, were losing three Super Bowls. Those are the toughest days that I can remember,” Bowlen said.

The best days are just as obvious. Both of them.

“Especially Super Bowl XXXII,” he said. “Not that XXXIII wasn’t a big thrill, too, but winning your first Super Bowl in that fashion, and being able to hand that trophy to John Elway, that’s the highlight of my career.”

Outside his office is an enormous photo of him in the locker room after that game, orange tie still tight, Vince Lombardi trophy clenched in one hand, mouth open in joy.

Next to it is a similarly sized blowup of Elway under center, calling signals, Terrell Davis in soft focus behind him. At the end of the hall is another, Shanahan in his headset on the sideline.

This is the tradition Bowlen has built.

***

A recent poll commissioned by the Rocky Mountain News and KCNC-Channel 4 confirmed the Broncos’ place atop Denver’s crowded sports scene. More than half of Colorado sports fans identify the Broncos as their favorite local team.

You can attribute that to tradition, but having been around since 1967 didn’t help the Denver Nuggets, who finished behind “None.” Success drives fan loyalty, as the transplanted Colorado Avalanche proves.

Fans and media are reluctant to give Bowlen much credit. He’s not warm and cuddly. It’s easier to like players and coaches.

“To say I didn’t care about it would be a lie,” Bowlen said. “But I know enough about this industry, and Denver’s a pretty fierce place when it comes to its sports teams. So I’m extremely blessed with that, that I have a very solid city here that’s very supportive of the Denver Broncos. We’re No. 1, and that’s where I always want us to be.

“So I can’t get really upset about my image — my good image or my bad image. Because I realize if I do this for the rest of my life and they carry me out in a pine box, that’s when my image will be the best. That’s when they’ll say the best things.”

He laughed, then mentioned the late Art Rooney, who became beloved in Pittsburgh only near the end of his life. Of course, the Steelers were dreadful for a long time under Rooney.

Elway is gone and the Broncos are still Super Bowl contenders. Shanahan runs a tight ship, but someone hired him. Someone sets the tone.

If meddlesome, egotistical, venal owners are responsible for much of sport’s foolishness, then smart, dedicated, competitive owners must be responsible for some of its achievement.

In the past two decades, the Broncos have become a model franchise. That happens to be the Pat Bowlen era. And it ought to be recognized before he has any need of that pine box.

-30-

Much has been and will be written about Bowlen’s contribution to the Broncos’ emergence as NFL royalty during his three-decade run in the corner office. These days, with high-profile owners like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban running around, it’s no longer remarkable for an owner to act as chief executive of a franchise, but it still was in 1984. This is why the onset of what was today acknowledged as Bowlen’s Alzheimer’s disease presented something of a journalistic dilemma.

As our conversation 13 years ago reflected, Bowlen was his team’s chief spokesman on big-picture issues regarding the franchise for most of his time in charge. Several years ago, he stopped speaking publicly. Broncos fans, naturally, became curious about why. As a local columnist, I got questions about it regularly. Among people in and around the organization, his cognitive issues were an open secret. With Shanahan having consolidated power over all football-related matters, Bowlen’s silence didn’t seem like a big deal from a news standpoint. Shanahan could and would address pretty much anything that came up.

Shanahan’s firing at the end of the 2008 season changed all that. There were legitimate questions about the process that led to the selection of young Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as his replacement, as well as McDaniels’ rapid accumulation of total control of the football operation, something the organization had said would not happen again after Shanahan. These decisions were attributed at times to Bowlen and at times to Joe Ellis, who had become the owner’s right-hand man. Ellis was and is a business guy, not a football guy, a fact he readily acknowledges. After Jeff Legwold and I broke the initial story of Spygate II in the Denver Post on Nov. 27, 2010, I came to the conclusion that disarray in the Broncos organization required a look at the leadership of the franchise.

I told Jim Saccomano, the Broncos’ former head of media relations and by then vice president of corporate communications, that I intended to research a column about Bowlen’s health and the state of the Broncos’ leadership as the club began a new coaching search. Jim referred me to Ellis, who agreed to speak with me on Dec. 1, 2010. Shortly before we were scheduled to talk, I received a call from the media relations staff letting me know the interview was off.

The next day, shortly after noon, I received an email from the sports editor at the Post, Scott Monserud, addressed to all three Post sports columnists — Woody Paige, Mark Kiszla and me. It instructed us not to write about or publicly discuss Bowlen’s health unless Bowlen chose to discuss it. Woody had already written his piece referring to Bowlen’s admission of “short-term memory loss.” We were to go no further. The instructions came from “the top, the very top,” according to Monserud. This was as clear as he could make it that they came from Dean Singleton, then owner and publisher of the Post, who had a close relationship with the Broncos. But just in case, Monserud added that the instructions came “from (editor) Greg (Moore), via Dean, to make sure we’re all on the same page.” I surmised that Ellis had called Dean, who told Moore to squash my inquiry.

I’d known Bowlen a long time and liked him very much. Our shared interest in endurance sports as younger men had created a bond of sorts, even if I couldn’t keep up with his six-minute miles. From a journalistic perspective, there was no question in my mind that he qualified as a public figure. And the many questions surrounding the Broncos following McDaniels’ firing made it seem to me an obvious and necessary avenue of inquiry.

I had no desire to cause Bowlen or his family any more pain than a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s does on its own, but I believed then and still do that the ability of a major business in town to call the local publisher and suppress an uncomfortable story was unhealthy.

Fortunately, Bowlen and/or Ellis salvaged the situation brilliantly by hiring Elway to run the football operation. A year later, Elway signed Peyton Manning to play quarterback and the glory days were back. The questions surrounding Bowlen’s health receded again until today’s announcement.

Until the last few years, Bowlen was as down-to-earth and accessible as any owner in sports. He devoted himself completely to his team’s success, and he achieved it. Thirty summers later, Colorado is poorer for his exit from the stage.


Hiatus

IMG_1184

As you may have gathered, the blog is on hiatus until further notice. Of my small cadre of loyal readers, a few will reply, “What do you call what it’s been on since the last post?”

Well, wise guys, that was more like suspended animation, waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the words of the Big Lebowski, there were a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. In the end, KOA decided to go in a different direction with its afternoon drive programming and let me go.

My media credentials to all local teams, venues and universities are invalid because they all say I’m representing KOA. For now, at least, I no longer have access to players and coaches, which is pretty important to the reporting I’ve done on the blog.

I don’t have any idea what happens next. For the last decade or so, I’ve been employed by three organizations that had one thing in common — they were shrinking. Layoffs and rumors of layoffs; buyouts and rumors of buyouts; an incessant, relentless emphasis on cutting, cutting, cutting.

I’d like to find a way to get on the other side of this curve if I can, to find an organization that’s growing and ambitious and trying to do more, not less. Maybe that’s in the media and maybe it’s not. It may be a pipe dream but there’s only one way to find out.

My plan is to let things shake out a bit, let it be known that a (ahem) veteran free agent is available and, you know, see what happens. My preference is to stay in Colorado, but my first priority is finding something inspiring to do with myself. If that turns out to require relocation, then that’s what’ll happen.

For now, I’m going to enjoy the always spectacular Colorado summer and take my time. I don’t want to rush into the wrong thing. For example, I already have an offer to become an insurance salesman. All respect to Needlenose Ned Ryerson, probably not going to do that.


End of the line

Image

Minnesota winger Nino Niederreiter’s winning goal in overtime of Game 7 bounced out of the net and hit Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov in the back of the leg before he could turn around.

The final score of the series was 22-20 over seven games. Three were empty-net goals, two by Minnesota and one by Colorado. Eliminate those and the final score was 20-19 in favor of Minnesota. Close, in other words.

But a pattern that developed over the first-round playoff series repeated itself in the decisive seventh game so insistently that it was hard not to get the point. In spurts of awe-inspiring talent, the Avalanche would take the lead. In long stretches of determined, opportunistic aggression, the Wild would catch the young Avs in mistakes and come back.

Colorado went up two games to none in the friendly confines of its own building, then scored one goal in two games in Minnesota as the Wild evened the series. The Avs took a 3-2 lead. The Wild tied it.

So it came down to one game, the fabled Game 7, which turned into a microcosm of the series. The Avs went up 1-0. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 2-1. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 3-2. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 4-3. With two minutes, 27 seconds remaining in regulation, the Wild tied it, taking a page out of the Avs’ book.

And then, like a pool hustler, the Wild took its first lead of the game and first lead of the series with a game- and series-winning overtime goal, its fifth of the game. Suddenly, Minnesota is moving on, to play Chicago. Colorado, which had led or been tied the whole way, is done.

On the bright side, it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to the San Jose Sharks, who went up three games to none on the Los Angeles Kings, then lost four in a row. That’s embarrassing. What happened to the Avs was not embarrassing. It was a rite of passage for a team whose best players range in age from 18 to 23.

“When you learn how to win, not how to win, but you have more experience in the playoffs, then obviously you start to know how to win those big games,” said Patrick Roy, whose first season as Avalanche coach ended on a bittersweet note.

“Those two goals, our neutral zone forecheck was good all night long and then all of a sudden we start making a couple mistakes here and there and they took advantage of it. This is a team that went through that last year with Chicago, got beat by, I think, four straight by Chicago, or five, I can’t remember the exact number [it was five], but it’s a learning process, and I think next year our guys in the playoffs might be a little more calm in those situations and react differently.”

Interesting concept, knowing how to win. The Avs proved they can win with desperation. They did it twice in the series, tying a game in the final two minutes, then winning it in overtime. But in a certain sense, desperation is easy. Your job is to go full bore to score because if you don’t, you lose. If your opponent scores into your empty net, well, you were going to lose anyway.

Protecting a one-goal lead is a different, more complicated art. You must be more concerned with defense, of course, but you can’t be so concerned with defense that you give away all aggressiveness and momentum, because at that point it’s just a matter of time before your opponent’s onslaught produces a goal. Whenever the Avalanche had the lead, in Game 7 or in the series, it seemed to be unsure how to handle it.

“It was a back-and-forth game,” said Matt Duchene, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season who returned from a knee injury to play in the last two games of the series, both losses as it turned out.

“What we can take away from this is at the end of a game like that when we need to clamp it down, we need to execute even better with the puck. And without it, we have to be sharp. You don’t let your heart race too much. You’ve got to stay in control and just get it done. It’s too bad we couldn’t get it done but we were right there. We were right there all night. We got the lead, I think, all game. Their only lead was the one that wins the game. So, disappointing.”

The enduring appeal of Game 7 has to do with finality. It’s like a Supreme Court decision. There is no appeal. This can produce an excruciatingly boring, careful sort of hockey, but it certainly didn’t Wednesday night at Pepsi Center.

This Game 7, the first for most of the Avs and a fair number of the Wild, started with a goal credited to Avalanche defenseman Nick Holden on a rebound just 2:52 into the game. As the puck was crossing the goal line, Avs winger Jamie McGinn was sliding into the cage and its tender, Darcy Kuemper. The goal was first waved off as goalie interference, then the light went on, then it was approved on appeal by Big Brother.

“That’s one of those plays where, obviously, when it goes in your net, you’re going to be frustrated about it,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “I would think that if we were on the other side, we would probably be expecting kind of a similar call. What I give our guys an awful lot of credit for is we didn’t get caught up in any of that stuff. We didn’t alter. There’s a lot of games through this series where I thought that we were playing very well through a game, something bad happened, and then we kind of got away. I thought just the composure, the character, to stay with our game, to stay with the process that we’ve set out and to trust it all the way through, that’s real impressive for our group.”

The Wild responded 8:04 into the first period when team captain Mikko Koivu fired a shot from the left circle. With Avs goaltender Semyon Varlamov hugging the right post of the goal, Koivu hit the inside of the left post, the first of a series of shots that appeared to be steered by a satellite-controlled global positioning system.

The Avs took the lead for the second time when Joey Hishon centered the puck from the right boards for McGinn, who didn’t shoot it so much as redirect Hishon’s pass on net. The puck slithered between Kuemper’s skates. After one period, the Avs led 2-1.

Minnesota tied it for the second time 7:27 into the second period. It was not recorded as a power play goal, but it grew out of a power play formation. A penalty to Hishon for high sticking had been over for two seconds when Mikael Granlund tried to replicate Koivu’s shot, aiming for the right-hand edge of the goal from the left offensive circle. Varlamov slid to his left to block it with his leg pad.

Unfortunately, the puck never got there. It hit Holden in the backside, ricocheted off McGinn’s shin pad and bounced to the ice, right in front of veteran Wild winger Dany Heatley. As the puck ran away from him, Heatley took a swipe and sent a knuckleball into the space Varlamov had vacated to block Granlund’s shot. When the second period ended, the score was 2-2.

The Avs took their third lead 2:55 into the third period. Winger P.A. Parenteau made a beautiful pass from behind the Minnesota net out to Paul Stastny, between the circles. Stastny one-timed it right back on net, hitting the inside of the left post and watching it bounce in.

The Wild tied it for the third time less than four minutes later, 6:33 into the third, when winger Nino Niederreiter took a pass at the top of the right circle and rifled a shot over Varlamov’s right shoulder. You could hear the sound of the puck hitting metal. I’m not sure if it was the crossbar or the left post. I’m also not sure I’ve ever seen a game in which so many goals struck metal on the way in.

The Avs took the lead for the fourth time at 11:16 of the third, on a play that began with Parenteau splitting two Minnesota defensemen — Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin — and getting a point blank shot on Kuemper. The Wild goaltender made the save. Duchene, crashing the net, flicked the rebound over to the right circle, where Parenteau, circling back, passed it to defenseman Erik Johnson up high, by the Stanley Cup logo. Johnson drilled it past Kuemper.

Kuemper left the game shortly afterward and was replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov, who started Games 1 and 2 before being relieved. Kuemper conferred with the Minnesota trainer before departing. Bryzgalov would spend 13 minutes, 15 seconds in net. He would be credited with one save. It was a good one.

The Wild tied it for the fourth time with 2:27 left in regulation. By Avalanche standards, this was not exactly crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. Yeo hadn’t even pulled his goaltender yet. The Avs tied Game 1 with 13.4 seconds remaining. They tied Game 5 with 1:14 left. This time, they were 2:27 away from winning the game and the series 4-3 and advancing to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the next round.

Then Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, the one faked off his feet by Avs rookie Nathan MacKinnon in Game 2, took a pass in the right offensive circle. MacKinnon, hanging out between the circles, suddenly realized Spurgeon was uncovered and raced over. Spurgeon waited patiently, using the recovering MacKinnon’s momentum against him, just as MacKinnon had used Spurgeon’s against him five games earlier. Once MacKinnon slid helplessly past, Spurgeon lifted a shot over Varlamov’s right shoulder, hitting the inside of the left post and watching it ricochet into the net.

Afterward, the 18-year-old MacKinnon blamed himself for the tying goal.

“I think Mac learned a lot tonight,” Roy said. “It’s a different game. He knows what he can do offensively. Now he’s learning sometimes defensively he’s going to have to do some things a little different. But that makes him already a better hockey player, and that’s what you want. But I don’t want any of my players blaming themselves for the loss. We win and we lose as a team and tonight we lost as a team.”

It was 4-4 at the end of regulation. The Avalanche had its best chance to win the game in overtime a little more than two minutes in. MacKinnon had the puck on the left side as part of a three-on-two with Johnson in the middle and Gabriel Landeskog on the right side. MacKinnon stopped by the left boards, gathered the puck and centered it to a trailing Stastny, who lifted it toward the top right corner of the goal. Bryzgalov got just enough of his left shoulder on the shot to deflect it wide of the post.

Moments later, Minnesota had a chance to win when Granlund beat Duchene to the puck and took a point-blank shot at Varlamov, trying to squeeze it inside the left post. Varlamov kicked it away.

Almost five minutes into the overtime, the Avs had another chance when Johnson centered the puck for Parenteau in the crease. The pass was deflected out to Heatley, who passed it up the ice to center Kyle Brodziak, who found himself alongside Niederreiter with only Avs defenseman Andre Benoit between them and the goal. Brodziak passed the puck to Niederreiter. Benoit retreated, trying to cover them both.

As Niederreiter approached the net from the right side, Benoit slid to the ice and tried to get in front of him to block his shot. Niederreiter lifted the puck just wide of Benoit over Varlamov’s right shoulder. It hit the crossbar and ricocheted into the back of the net with such velocity that it bounced back out and hit Varlamov on the back of the leg before he could turn around to see where it had gone. The officials had to review it to make sure it had gone in. The overhead camera confirmed it did.

The Wild exulted by the boards, feeling all the jubilation of its first lead in the game, first lead in the series, and a series victory all at once. The Avs stood around for a few moments in disbelief that their first moment trailing in the game, first moment trailing in the series, could also be the end of the whole thing.

“We felt confident,” said Landeskog, the team captain. “We felt like we had it. Every time we scored I felt like we had all the momentum. And then they came back, whether it was off the rush or whatever it might have been, and yeah, I mean, they did a good job. We’ve got to tip our hats to them. They deserved this one. They made nice plays. Every single goal was nice. So it’s tough. We worked so hard. Game 7, we had the crowd with us and we worked so hard and then it goes the wrong way. It’s a weird feeling.”

Center-turned-winger Ryan O’Reilly was angry.

“We didn’t become a team in the toughest times,” he said. “Our performance was embarrassing on the road, and it’s something we have to learn. Definitely if you can’t win on the road, you’re never going to win a Cup. We were lucky to have a chance to win tonight with how inconsistent we were all series. Definitely not happy with this. This is embarrassing for us. We could have done a lot better. It sucks. It’s frustrating.”

In time, this will be a relatively easy one to swallow. The Avs are ridiculously young. As an organization, it was the first trip to the postseason in four years. It was also the first season under Roy as coach and Joe Sakic running the front office hockey operation. In time, it will look like a preview of coming attractions.

Still, they had persuaded themselves they could do more right away.

“As much as we were dreaming it would be possible to win the Stanley Cup, we knew it would be tough for us to win the Stanley Cup because we’re not there yet,” Roy said. “It’s hard to say that, but it’s a fact.”


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