Starting IX: Channel 33 podcasts

There are a lot of good podcasts out there. In fact, there are so many good ones that I have about 20 hours of episodes backed up on my “Podcast DVR” right now. Later this week we’ll take a look at the Starting IX of best podcasts out there, but as that list was being compiled, it was clear that Channel 33, the Bill Simmons podcast network at HBO, was going to dominate the list, so I decided to simply branch the network off into its own Starting IX. Sidenote: Leaving the “Bill Simmons Podcast” off this list since it’s technically its own branch, and it will star in the Starting IX of all podcasts later this week.

Just a reminder: Starting IX is a corny, baseball-themed way to simply make a “Top Nine” list. It uses the positions on the baseball diamond – starting pitcher through right field – and uses the ascending order of their position when scorekeeping. For those that have done baseball scorekeeping before, skip ahead, for those who haven’t, you could probably use those strong context clues you learned in fourth grade, but let’s spell it out: Starting pitcher (SP) = 1; catcher (C) = 2; first base (1B) = 3; second base (2B) = 4; third base (3B) = 5; shortstop (SS) = 6; left field (LF) = 7; center field (CF) = 8; right field (RF) = 9. Other than that, the only rule is no touching of the hair or face. (Of course.) And that’s it. Now let’s do this:

RF) Bachelor Party

This is one of Channel 33’a more niche podcasts, dealing with the ABC show, “The Bachelor.” So although Juliet Litman is one of the more talented podcast personalities at Channel 33 (more to come on her in a bit), as a non-viewer of “The Bachelor” myself, I was just lost. It’s actually impressive that the podcast held my attention for parts of three or four episodes before I jumped ship entirely.

Highlight: Bill Simmons’ wife, the Sports Gal, getting some run.

CF) The Andy Greenwald podcast

As much as I enjoy the rapport of Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, when they branch off, Greenwald just doesn’t really do it for me. This is one where I have to be interested in who Greenwald is interviewing. Again, not bad, just not as much my cup of tea.

Highlight: The Michael Schur episode.

LF) The Pivot

It says a lot that we’re already at “The Pivot,” since this is a pod I thoroughly enjoyed listening to in the lead up to, and during, the NCAA tournament. It’s hosted by Ringer editor, Mallory Rubin, and podcast producer Tate Frazier. The biggest weakness of this pod is actually what is so great about Bill Simmons ideology in respect to his process. Fresh out of college (National Championship runner-up UNC, no less), Tate Frazier is definitely a bit raw at times. However, Simmons is willing to invest in Frazier, and the podcast has already improved noticeably through just the first six episodes.

Highlight: Somehow both hosts having their alma maters make the Final Four.

SS) Keepin’ it 1600

Another strong pod that seems to get better each week, “Keepin’ it 1600” is the Channel 33 political podcast. It is hosted by Jon Favreau, the former Director of Speechwriting for President Obama and Dan Pfeiffer, the former Senior Advisor to Obama for Strategy and Communications. The biggest knock against the pod is that there are simply so many awesome political podcasts out there that it can’t stand out as much.

Highlight: Tom Perez. Dude is awesome and was a great interview for “Keepin’ it 1600.”

3B) NFL Draft podcast

Robert Mays is back! Simmons has the offensive line savant and former co-host of the “Grantland NFL Podcast” (bets on how long it takes him to get Bill Barnwell back?) back on his team after Mays announced he was joining the Ringer team with an NFL Draft pod with the aforementioned, and exceptionally versatile, Mallory Rubin. The two have a solid rapport, and are a perfect ying and yang of ideas regarding college football and how these prospects will turn out in the draft. Only rated fifth for me personally because football just isn’t that great…

Highlight: Rubin naming Todd Heap her favorite player of her childhood. May or may not have matching Heap jerseys with my buddy that we may or may not have worn out on the town one night.

2B) ShackHouse

We’re getting into the top tier here, and really splitting hairs. Geoff Shackelford and Joe House talk golf, and Simmons was right when he introduced the podcast – there simply aren’t that many great golf podcasts out there. ShackHouse does a good job knowing that the majority of their listeners may not be watching 40 hours of golf a week, but also doesn’t talk down to the listener. Too bad I didn’t listen and grab Danny Willet in my Masters pool.

Highlight: When House describes anything as “tasty.” Food, betting lines, golf shots – doesn’t matter, it’s all great.

1B) Jam Session

Juliet Litman and Amanda Dobbins talk about pretty much whatever the eff they want. And it’s glorious. The pod features both talented podders (podcasters? podsters?) in their absolute element, and they (running theme alert) have a very natural rapport – not feeling like they have to agree constantly, but usually being on the same page. Excited that I have a few of these saved up to listen to. (Only haven’t listened yet because they aren’t as time-sensitive as some other podcasts on the “DVR.”)

Highlight: Their conversation regarding Jennifer Garner. Wasn’t a fan of Garner before; now am a big-time fan.

C) The Watch

When Grantland was shut down what I was most worried about was losing touch with pop culture. I read and watch enough sports that although there would never be another collection of sports writers like that, I could at least find some sort of facsimile for the sports coverage. (Simply googling each ex-Grantland writer every day has worked out well enough.) The pop culture coverage was going to be harder to keep up with. Enter “The Watch,” and Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald doing their thing once or twice a week. Order was restored.

Highlight: Dark Siiiiiiiide

SP) Sources Say

Litman and Ryan are the two best podders (yeah, maybe we should just call them hosts) at Channel 33, so it’s no surprise that when they combine it’s hard to top. Sure, it would be great to have the full NBA After Dark crew with them (RIP Sharp), but these two lock it down well, and I’m already excited for a tasty Jason Concepcion guest spot. As someone who loves the NBA minutiae as much as anything else in the world, this is basically the perfect pod. So many Instagram revelations and possibly true, probably false rumors.

Highlight: The sheer excitement in Chris and Juliet’s voices when they start each pod. Good stuff


Starting IX: Most entertaining writers on the interwebs

This is the first of the non-book associated Starting IX lists that will pop up every now and then on this website/blog/online notepad. Here’s a brief rundown on how these lists work:

Starting IX is a corny, baseball-themed way to simply make a “Top Nine” list. It uses the positions on the baseball diamond – starting pitcher through right field – and uses the ascending order of their position when scorekeeping. For those that have done baseball scorekeeping before, skip ahead, for those who haven’t, you could probably use those strong context clues you learned in fourth grade, but let’s spell it out: Starting pitcher (SP) = 1; catcher (C) = 2; first base (1B) = 3; second base (2B) = 4; third base (3B) = 5; shortstop (SS) = 6; left field (LF) = 7; center field (CF) = 8; right field (RF) = 9. Other than that, the only rule is no touching of the hair or face. (Of course.) And that’s it. Now let’s do this:

There is currently as deep a pool of talented writers on the internet than there ever has been, in part because the internet has only been around for so long, but mostly because the internet is the greatest proof of crowd-sourcing the world has ever seen. We, as an internet collective, have done an excellent job of discovering the best writers out there and given them the following they deserve. This Starting IX will be focused not on the best writers on the internet (sorry Luisa Thomas, Zach Lowe, Kathryn Schulz, and David Aldridge), but rather the most entertaining. The only criteria is they have to be writing frequently enough to satiate our need for content (sorry Bill Simmons, Ta Nahesi Coates and Chuck Klosterman). Without further ado, here are the nine:

RF) Bethlehem Shoals – SBNation, GQ, The Classical, Victory Journal, among others

One of the busiest writers on the internets, Shoals broke on to the scene with, and solidified his post as one of the most entertaining voices on the NBA with the subsequent FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, a must-read for any hoops fan. He’s one of the few I google every day to see if any of his work has popped up anywhere around the interwebs that afternoon.

CF) Jamelle Bouie – Slate; CBS News

Slate’s ace political writer, Bouie balances deep knowledge of political history (thanks to that degree for the University of Virginia, Wahoo Wah!) and a unique perspective with an incredible writing style. Slate can get bogged down in their collective bias at times, but Bouie offers facts over opinions, and makes it much harder for readers to dispute the claims of each article’s thesis. He’s also as busy a Twitter follow as you’ll find, if you like to make sure your Twitter scroll is always full.

LF) Jason Concepcion – The Ringer

Concepcion, formerly known as Netw3rk, is one writer who could potentially move up this list once he gets back to writing full-time. One of the most versatile writers out there, Concepcion was writing about basketball, Game of Thrones, and video games among other topics at Grantland before the modern marvel was shut down by “The World Wide Leader in Sports, sarcastic quotations added” ESPN. It appears he’ll be used in a similar role at The Ringer, Bill Simmons next venture, which is good news for readers that enjoy his pitch-perfect metaphors and relatable tone.

SS) Rembert Browne – Vulture

Another ex-Grantland writer (there are plenty on this list), Browne has one of the highest ceilings of any of these writers. His article on Ferguson in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting was arguably the best piece of writing of the year if not the last five years. His annual “Who won the year?” article is a must-read and one of the most entertaining pieces of writing without fail year-after-year. The only thing holding Browne back in that he is writing less for Vulture than he did for Grantland, and sometimes his pieces shoot for the moon and fall a little flat. Still one of the best writers around, however.

3B) Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic

Similar to Bouie at Slate, Friedersdorf offers a more even-keeled approach than some of his fellow writers at The Atlantic, and demands a “Command + F” search for his name on the front page during the daily stop over to The Atlantic. For someone who considers himself logical almost certainly to a point of failure at times, Friedersdorf’s writing holds heavy appeal for me, as he lays out his points as logically as anyone out there, and is one of the few writers around that can convince readers to change their mind on issues, or at least be informed of another perspective than their own.

2B) Will Leitch – Sports on Earth, New Republic, Bloomberg Politics

OK, I might have lied when I said Shoals was the busiest writer on the internet earlier. It’s Leitch, and it may not even be close. The founding editor of Deadspin, Leitch has his hand in about as many different outlets and topics as one possibly can. He’s a die-hard sports fan, but also writes plenty about culture for New York and Bloomberg Politics, and reviews movies with his childhood buddy Tim Grierson for The New Republic. Oh, he’s also written four books and is only 40 years old. Somehow despite being this busy, his work never suffers, and he is one of those writers you just find yourself nodding along with as you read his/her work.

1B) Andrew Sharp – Sports Illustrated

The Great Philosopher Andrew Sharp is one of those writers who makes you exceptionally self-conscious about your age. The youngster has already had gigs at Grantland and Sports Illustrated, my (and many other sports fans) two dream jobs. It’s not without reason that he has enjoyed such success, however, as he is a young, Bill Simmons-type, who writes in a perfect fan voice, while exploring “what if” style questions you and your friends would debate at the bar after a couple beverages on a Friday. You never find yourself skimming his articles or zoning out for a paragraph or two because the articles are consistently engaging from start to finish.

C) Grant Brisbee/Jonah Keri – SBNation (Brisbee); CBS Sports/Sports Illustrated (Keri)

Two of the preeminent voices on baseball, Brisbee is the national baseball writer for SBNation for going on five years, while Keri splits time between CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated. I really can’t separate these two because not only are they my two favorite writers about my favorite sport, but they have similar, heady and nuanced writing styles that sneak in the occasional pop culture reference for those who like their baseball with a touch of the outside world. There are tons of great baseball writers that could have made this list (Joe Posnanski, Jeff Sullivan, Christina Kahrl, Jay Jaffe, Joe Sheehan, Sam Miller, Rob Neyer, Ben Lindbergh and innumerable beat reporters), but these two stand out even from that loaded field.

SP) Shea Serrano – ex-Grantland, probably The Ringer, currently releasing his weekly “Basketball (And Other Things) newsletter

It was Serrano’s most recent newsletter that spurred the idea for this list, so he gets the honor of the top spot. If you don’t agree, you’re the police.

Seriously, though, if you haven’t signed up for his newsletter or read any of his stuff, Serrano is (hands down in my opinion) the most entertaining writer (and Twitter follow) on the internet right now.

Book exerpt: Joe Mauer

Mauer burst onto the professional scene in 2004, when he slashed .308/.369/.570 in 35 games in his debut season. However, Mauer was already known to most MLB fans since he was the top pick of the 2001 MLB Draft. As far as Minnesotans were concerned, Mauer was already well known to them, as the handsome St. Paul native was the first-ever athlete to win the U.S.A Today High School Athlete of the Year in two different sports: As a quarterback his junior year, and as a catcher his senior year. The multi-talented Minnesota native decided on baseball, and timed his entrance to the big leagues perfectly, as the Twins made him the number one overall pick.

Of course, there are plenty of stories that start this way and end in sorrow and misery both for the player and team, as the heightened expectations can often crush a Hometown Hero like Mauer. The smooth-swinging lefty has somehow exceeded expectations for most of his career, though. Mauer won four Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, three batting titles and an MVP in his first seven seasons in the big leagues, all coming while playing the most demanding position on the diamond. Don’t believe that catching is the hardest position, consider that when Mauer won his first batting title in 2006 he was the first catcher to win a batting title in American League history. He is currently the only catcher with three batting titles, and the only catcher to lead the league in each of the triple slash categories (BA, OBP, SLG) in a single season when he did so in 2009. In a four-year span from 2006-2009, Mauer managed to win as many batting titles as a catcher as all other catchers in MLB history had at the time! Buster Posey has since won a batting title, but seriously that about that previous stat for a second.

Speaking of 2009, Mauer’s MVP 2009 season was incredibly impressive (and with hindsight, a bit of an outlier), as he hit a career-best 29 home runs in addition to his typical high batting average (.365). This was not some ordinary career-high either, Mauer has not topped 13 home runs in any other season, and certainly doesn’t appear to be headed anywhere near that total again as his career winds down.

More so than his production, however, Mauer was (and still is) beloved because of the turn around the franchise made while under Mauer’s leadership. Along with Justin Morneau, Johan Santana and Rod Gardenhire, Mauer helped lead the Twins to four division titles in those first seven seasons. Coincidentally or not, since Mauer’s numbers took a hit in 2011, the club has bottomed out a bit. There are obviously other factors in play (like, you know, pitching), but it is a fitting metaphor.

Back to his early days, they read like one of the old-timey baseball legends that are starting to show up more and more often in this book. There’s the story of how Mauer was asked to leave tee-ball because he was hitting the ball too hard, or the fact that he only struck out once in his entire high school baseball career. Every statistic from his high school days are remarkable in fact, and having spent a few years in Minnesota, it’s even more impressive that he could become such a good baseball player when the spring sports season is typically cut at least in half because it’s still too cold.

Mauer’s swing is about as smooth and efficient a swing as there has been in baseball in his generation, and he’s a scout’s wet dream. He looks like a baseball player through and through, and does everything the scouts love. Mauer may have slid from his lofty spot among baseball’s elite hitters at this point, but his prime should not be discounted for the awe it inspired.

It’s fitting that Mauer looks like he is the type of player to play his whole career in one city; his hometown no less. Mauer is the epitome of Minnesota, and one of the easiest selections in this book. I mean, how many guys can say people in their hometown have worn fake versions of their sideburns, as Mauer can claim after the Metrodome starting selling fake versions of Mauer’s famous sideburns.

Let’s let then-Rays’ manager Joe Maddon end this one. “I think when God made his blueprint for catchers, he stamped Joe out.”

Book excerpt: Brooks Robinson

A 23-year career, all with the O’s, resulted in Brooke Robinson being atop or nearly atop the majority of the Orioles’ career category leaders. (He trails a certain shortstop in many cumulative categories.) A consistently good hitter (nearly 3,000 hits), and a consistently great fielder, Robinson was the most popular Oriole for fans of his generation, and one of the most widely loved players around the league at the time. His nickname, “The Human Vacuum Cleaner,” was quite appropriate for a man who won 16 straight Gold Gloves, and deserved them all. Brooks’ ranks for each and every fielding category among third basemen all-time shows just how great he was: games played – first; assists – first; putouts – first; fielding percentage – first. Ya, he was the best defensive third baseman of all-time. Total Zone Runs are a measurement of how many runs above or below average a player is worth at their position based on their range, and fielding ability. Robinson not only leads all third basemen in this category historically, but is first among all fielders at any position, all-time. It isn’t even close; he is worth over fifty runs more than Andruw Jones who is second all-time (293-242). According to dWAR, Brooks won the Orioles nearly 40 games (38.8) during his career with his glove, and this total seems low for a number of reasons.

What people who aren’t stat-heads sometimes argue is that statisticians can sometimes overlook anything outside of the numbers. This is a huge straw man argument, since 99.9 percent of baseball statisticians are able to use statistics, along with what they see, to reach their conclusions. For example, numbers are an important part of assessing players, especially when they can help to compare more objectively between two players, but Robinson’s glove was almost certainly worth more than two games a season to the O’s over his career. For instance, how many times do you think the Orioles had a lead in a game, and their opponent started to make a little bit of a rally only to have Brooks make a sublime play at third, and completely kill their rally. A play like that might certainly help out his numbers (range factor, fielding percentage etc.), but the numbers would not do justice to the fact that that the play Brooks just made may have just won the game.

Another thing statistics sometimes can’t account for is some of the subtleties of having a true game changer. How many opposing batters do you think were trying to lay bunts down the third base line for hits with a dude named The Human Vacuum Cleaner over there? Not many. How much more confidence do you think his pitching staff had to be knowing Brooks was going to get anything near him, and – as I have mentioned before, and will certainly mention again, because I believe it’s a huge thing – a pitcher pitching with confidence and being able to attack the strike zone (especially low and in to right-handed batters) is a quality that can’t truly have its impact measured by statistics as yet. As Robinson himself said, “It’s a pretty sure thing that the player’s bat is what speaks loudest when it’s contract time, but there are moments when the glove has the last word.”

Robinson was also a very good postseason performer for the Orioles; winning a World Series MVP in one of his two World Series victories with the club. He posted a career .303 batting average in the playoffs, and actually hit over .500 for the 1970 playoffs as a whole. Although, his teammates almost certainly weren’t surprised, considering Brooks was the man who showed up for spring training before the 1970 season with luggage that read “1970 World Champions.”1 He also kept up his excellent glove work in the playoffs making Johnny Bench say of him, “I will become a left-handed hitter to keep the ball away from that guy.”

A final story that epitomizes Robinson’s fielding ethic. In his early days, when he had to prove himself, Brooks went face-first into a concrete ledge, chipping five teeth, and basically knocking him out. When he heard the trainer call for an ambulance, however, he shook it off, and went back out to the field to finish what he had started.

Somewhat ironically, Brooks Robinson, fielder extraordinaire, hit into record four triple plays during his career. In the words of Michael Scott, “How the turn tables.”

1 This is similar to the Jedi mind trick Doc Rivers pulled during the 2008 Ubuntu year, when he took $100 from each player and staff member of the Celtics and left it in the ceiling of the Staples Center during the Celtics only regular season trip to L.A. The meaning: The Celtics would have to return to meet the Lakers in the NBA Finals to reclaim that money. Of course, they did.

Book excerpt: Carlos Beltran = Steve Carell

Thesis: Carlos Beltran’s baseball career looks a bit like Steve Carell’s film career.1

Evidence: Both men burst onto the scene around the new millennium but in supporting roles. Carell stole the show in “Bruce Almighty,” and, even though no one could top Ferrell in “Anchorman,” Carell damned near did with Brick Tamland.2 Meanwhile Beltran won Rookie of the Year, and flew around the outfield somewhat overshadowed by Johnny Damon, and most certainly overshadowed by the fact that he played in Kansas City.

Both men were meant for stardom, however, and for Carell it came in the form of “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and to a lesser extent “Little Miss Sunshine.”3 For Beltran it was being traded at the deadline of the 2004 season. After arriving in Houston, Beltran cranked out 23 home runs and 28 steals in just 90 games, but that was just the beginning. In the 2004 postseason, Beltran hit eight home runs in the NLDS and NLCS combined, hitting well over .400 with a slugging percentage over 1.000.

Naturally, this set unbelievably high expectations for both of these men. Carell was given leads in “Evan Almighty,” “Dan in Real Life,” and “Get Smart.” Beltran was given a seven-year, $119 million dollar contract from the Mets, the biggest contract they had ever signed a player to. Because of these heightened expectations, despite the fact that both men performed quite comparably to previous levels, they were deemed unsuccessful. In Carell’s case, “Evan Almighty” is considered one of the biggest busts of all-time, and people began to question whether Carell could take the lead in a great film. For Beltran he will always be remembered for watching Wainwright’s curve go past him to end the 2006 NLCS. What will be forgotten is the fact that he was worth 8.2 WAR during the regular season, and had hit three home runs in the NLCS already, as good as any other Met. Also, that pitch from Wainwright might have been the nastiest fucking pitch of all-time, and the sign of a great pitcher announcing his arrival.

Once these men had been labeled busts, or at least had been knocked off the perch they were briefly on, they began to exceed expectations again. Carell partnered with Tina Fey in “Date Night,” which may have been his best career move, and allowed people to ignore “Dinner for Schmucks” and focus on his better projects like “Despicable Me” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”4 For Beltran a move out of New York meant a move out of the spotlight, which was more than all right with him. In his first two seasons removed from New York, he was named an All-Star each year, and was regularly tabbed as an underrated part of the Cardinals’ success.

What is ignored about both men is that they really performed the same throughout their careers,5 it was just the expectations that changed so much. In Kansas City, Beltran put up 24.6 WAR in 795 games (.0309 per game), and in New York he put up 31.1 WAR in 839 games (.0371 per game). The same thing is true of Carell. “Dan in Real Life” and “Get Smart” are the same Carell6 as “40 Year Old Virgin” just surrounded by immensely different talent, and with much higher expectations of Carell. Both men underwent the same rollercoaster ride of expectations while performing consistently well above average just never reaching the true extended pinnacle reserved for the greats. Of course the parallel goes on with both men having their strong suit – Beltran’s playoff numbers, and Carell’s TV career – being taken at less than face value. In Beltran’s case because the playoffs are such a small sample size, and, since it is a requirement for every sabermetric baseball fan to mention that clutch hitting does not exist at least fifteen times a day, the worth of Beltran’s incredible postseason output is diminished. For Carell, there is still a stigma to TV work, although, thankfully, it is starting to be worn down by the likes of the Kevins – Bacon and Spacey – among other stars (the True Detectives) making the move to TV.

Time will tell how each ages (Carell has a bit more flexibility with aging in his profession), but the comparison holds for now.

1 We’re going to table his role on “The Office” because I am far too in love with the show, and Carell’s Michael Scott, to be a fair judge.


3 Only to a lesser extent because he was not the lead – the movie is brilliant.

4 One of the most re-watchable movies in existence.

5 Again, we’re ignoring Carell’s TV career, in which he clearly make vast improvements from Michael Scott Season 1 to Season 2.

6 Evan Almighty is the 2005 Carlos Beltran – let’s just pretend they didn’t happen. If only Carell had an injury to blame.

Just what role should sports play in our lives?

It’s time to tackle an age-old question that every sports fan has asked themselves throughout their lifetime, and seems more relevant than ever in today’s society: Just what role exactly do we want sports to play in our society? And maybe more specifically, in our own personal lives?

For many people sports are the release from the day-to-day troubles and worries of life. Sports are a way to unwind after a long and stressful day at work, and simply kick back and enjoy the relatively stress-free act of cheering on one’s team. (Although once playoffs come around, this supposedly stress-free activity becomes anything but stress-free.) Having to worry about real-life issues during a sporting event sometimes seems to fly in the face of the very driving force behind sport.

The top two definitions of “sport” in the dictionary make note of an activity requiring skill or physical prowess, but it is the third definition of “sport” that is possibly the most intriguing: “diversion, recreation, pleasant pastime.”

Two of those words stand out in particular, “diversion” and “pleasant.”

If the very definition of the word implies not having to worry about real-life issues when watching sports, how are we supposed to deal with situations like Floyd Mayweather and his pattern of domestic abuse, or Adrian Peterson and the jaw-dropping pictures of the aftermath of what he did to his child?

In the weeks leading up to the “Fight of the Century” between Mayweather and Pacquiao, there was a groundswell movement that promoted the idea to boycott watching the fight out of protest to Mayweather and his treatment of women.

Of course, because of modern society, there was backlash to that backlash, as people pointed out that Mayweather is going to make his money no matter what, so there’s not really any point to boycotting the fight.

Both sides had valid points. There is no way that we, as a society, should be so invested in a man whose track record with women is a disgrace and embarrassment to not just the boxing world, but society as a whole, that he makes far more than the GDP of some countries in less than an hour of “fighting.” On the other hand, what good would not watching the fight really do? Sure, you could mount your high horse and ride all the way into work the next Monday spouting off about how you refused to support the event, but in all reality you did nothing to stop it.

Of course, dealing with athletes with questionable morals are hardly a new phenomenon. Ty Cobb was about as awful a human being as has existed in sports in the 20th century, but if T-Shirt jerseys existed in his time, there would have undoubtedly been hundreds of thousands of people walking around Detroit wearing The Georgia Peach’s name on their backs.

There’s even the dilemma of whether or not to support athletes who aren’t necessarily bad people, but espouse different beliefs than you have. Torii Hunter seems like a great guy, but he and I certainly do not see eye-to-eye on some big non-baseball issues. And that’s the thing. These are non-baseball issues, what real role do they have in deciding if I want to cheer for the Twins’ right-fielder?

At this point, this article has gone a bit off the rails, and raised a lot more questions than it has answered. But that’s the thing with the whole debate; there really aren’t great answers. Every time I begin to think I’m all right just shutting my brain off when I watch sports, something heinous like the Ray Rice video comes out, and it simply becomes impossible to remove sports from the real world. Maybe that’s part of the beauty of modern society that we have enough of a collective consciousness that instead of being able to remove ourselves from what we are watching – like the Romans filling the Coliseum to watch the Gladiators – we feel the need to step up and say something when we see something that demands our attention.

Then again, maybe that’s what you hate about modern society. There’s no true stress releases anymore; no one can take a joke without getting offended; everyone is on hyper alert 24/7 with the PC police looking to make mountains out of mole hills.

I think I usually skew towards the former of those two paragraphs, but there are certainly times when I’m all about the second paragraph.

I started out writing this column because I wanted to find out for myself how I felt, and oftentimes writing is the best way for me to do that. This issue is so divisive, though, that I’m honestly still not 100 percent sure how I feel about it. I do think that sports can play a key role as a vessel for society’s problems. Just look at how much it meant to not just baseball, but the United States as a whole, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

That being said, there does have to be somewhere people can go to escape real-world issues. Maybe with the ever-increasing role that sports plays in society it can no longer be that escape, but if it isn’t then some other institution has to emerge and take up that mantle.

I’m looking at you, Cupcake Wars.

Book excerpt: The magical mystery arc of Dick Allen’s playing career

Bill James once described Allen as someone who ‘did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball.’ On the surface, Allen’s actions down the stretch in 1976 might appear to at least suggest as much. But beneath it, when focusing on actions that hindered the club’s potential, one wonders if anything Allen might have done in ’76 could match the organization’s long-standing reluctance to embrace and encourage the development of black ballplayers in Philadelphia in the decades leading up to that season. Viewed through this lens, perhaps the succession of events that transpired during the club’s ’76 stretch run caused the organization to finally confront a demon it mistakenly thought it had slayed through its relocation to the Vet and the transition in ownership from father to son. As such, perhaps it was Dick Allen, more than any other factor, who finally compelled the organization to modernize its approach to black athletes at last.”

Mitchell Nathanson

When a player bio starts out with a quote within a quote, it’s probably not too surprising to find out that Dick Allen was one of the most interesting and divisive characters in the history of baseball.

As is noted above, Bill James was famously harsh in his criticism of Allen, but in the years since, there has been a pushback to James’ comments, a sentiment that, while it may not go as far as to call Allen the world’s best teammate, is a far cry from the stand that James (and a lot of the media from Allen’s time) took. More on that in second, however.

With his appearance on this Starting IX, Allen makes his third stint with the team, as he began his career in Philly, playing with the squad from 1963-1969 before a return from 1975-1976. During his two stints with the team, Allen had an OPS+ of 153, and hit over 200 home runs despite playing in an offense-depleted era. Today the mighty slugger is best known for his relationship with the city, media, and fans than his on-field achievements, though. When you have never received more than 20 percent of the vote for the Hall of Fame,1 but have an entire “Baseball Research Journal” dedicated to busting the myths around how you are remembered, the on-field stuff tends to fall by the wayside.

The case that James made against Allen was that Allen tore the locker room apart wherever he went, and was entirely handicapped by his immaturity. From the modern perspective, there’s a lot more evidence against this claim than for it.

For one, the team’s winning percentages with and without Allen paint a clear picture of a team that needed Allen more than the other way around. From 1964-1967, with Allen playing the Phillies had a .542 winning percentage, but without him they had just a .469 winning percentage. In terms of the bigger picture, Philly’s winning percentage for the six years before Allen: .433; then with Allen: .499; and after Allen: .452. Granted there were other factors, but still, those numbers are hard to deny.

Don’t like numbers? How about testimonials from those teammates and coaches that he supposedly tore apart? In the 1995 edition of Baseball Research Journal, Craig R. Wright interviewed many teammates and mangers of Allen, all of whom said that not only was he never a divisive member of the clubhouse, but he also was a player that they would have traded for (had he not already been on the team) in an instant thanks to his incredible talent. The only complaint many had was that he was notoriously tardy, but all those who mentioned that negative also noted that it never affected his on-field performance ever, with the exception of one game to which he was late because he had not realized the time of the game had been moved up. Chuck Tanner (Allen’s manager in Chicago) said of Bill James’ take on Allen, “[James] is full of shit and you be sure to tell him that.”

The biggest black mark on Allen’s name came in 1965, when Allen was just establishing himself as a super-star in Philadelphia. Veteran teammate, Frank Thomas, made a comment that Allen perceived as racist, and when Allen confronted Thomas, the two came to blows, with Allen punching Thomas in the face before Thomas hit Allen in the shoulder with a bat. The incident had numerous repercussions. The most immediate was that the Phillies cut the 36-year old veteran Thomas the next day, a casualty that Phillie fans would hold against Allen for the remainder of his time in Philadelphia. The incident didn’t just impact Allen’s off-field legacy, however, as the injury greatly hindered Allen’s defensive abilities at third base, and he eventually had to make the move to the far less demanding first base spot he fills here. One could even make the “Butterfly Effect” argument that without that incident, Allen would have played his whole career in Philadelphia and gone down as one of the franchise’s most beloved players. Of course, Allen was indeed a volatile man, and Philadelphia was a city in the midst of some incredibly nasty race riots when Allen – a black man – played for the team, so maybe it was only a matter of time until the relationship between this headstrong man and headstrong city crumbled. And boy did it crumble. Allen took to wearing a helmet when playing in the field to protect himself from projectiles from the crowd… In his home stadium. He said of the city, “I can play anywhere, first base, third base, left field, anywhere but Philadelphia.”

By the end of his time with the club, it was pretty clear that the fans didn’t want him there – although they cheered pretty loud when he hit them home runs which he did with the best of them – and that Allen didn’t want to be there either. He would trace, with his cleat, “Boo” and “Oct. 2,” the date of his final game under contract with Philadelphia, into the infield dirt in front of his first base position.

Throughout this time, the local media often portrayed Allen in his surliest moments, choosing to focus on the fact that he wanted to leave town2 instead of the loyal work he put in, playing through numerous injuries during his time in our nation’s first capital. There was also the fact that Allen was absolutely demolishing American League pitching, and helping to single-handedly make the Phillies a respectable offense. In 1968 – the year of the pitcher – Allen drove in 90 runs, while no other Phillie drove in more than 48. Remember, this is when he was supposed to be forcing his way out of town as a malcontent.

Eventually both Allen and the Phillies got their way, and if the two were a couple, Allen was the girlfriend who took up yoga, dropped 15 pounds and completely won the break up. The Phillies were the boyfriend who thought he was going to go out and kill it, and then realized he had the same unused condom in his wallet eight months after the break up. Allen won the MVP for the White Sox in 1972 with one of the best seasons in MLB history, a near Triple Crown that saw him lead the league in plethora of offensive categories.

As is almost always the case, it wasn’t too long before the ex wanted the suddenly-much-more-attractive ex-girlfriend back, and Phillie announcer, Richie Ashburn spear-headed the cause to get Allen back in Philadelphia. One would be fair to wonder how on earth Allen ended up back in Philadelphia just five years after their acrimonious divorce, but lo and behold the two were indeed reunited in 1975. Of course, like any relapse, even though it started out all right, it was doomed from the get go. To make a long story3 short, sooner than later the clubhouse was splintered and Allen had seemingly once again worked his “magic” on an up-and-coming team. Some folks went so far as to say that Allen had managed to poison Mike Schmidt, making him the man who could never really lead the Phillies into a 1980s dynasty.

Of course the mere fact that Philadelphia was so willing to take Allen back seems like a pretty succinct argument to the claim that Allen, “did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball.” Unless the Phillie owners were really into S&M, why bring a guy like that back? Occam’s Razor would certainly seem to imply that he really wasn’t a cancer, and that the idea of him as one was an illusion created by the fans and media about a man who once said one of the saddest and most telling quotes I have ever heard when he said, “I had been hearing I was a bum for so long that I began to think maybe that’s just what I was.”

Allen eventually retired in 1977 after half a season in Oakland as injuries wore him down and forced him to step away from baseball at the relatively young age of 35, an under-appreciated and often misremembered part of baseball history.

1 Allen’s potential spot in the Hall of Fame is a whole nother matter that won’t be covered in this section, but has been laid out in certain spots online, including a strong piece by Christopher Williams on Older but not Wiser.

2 With his own fans throwing stuff at him, could you blame him? If you are the Philadelphia media, yes.

3 And it is a very interesting long story, written by Mitchell Nathanson in the 2013 edition of The National Pastime

Marshawn Lynch, Russell Westbrook, and The Player’s Tribune: The future of sports media

Throughout the NFL season, Marshawn Lynch has made headlines for his relationship with the media. Sometimes aloof, sometimes dodgy, and sometimes just plain absent, Lynch has made it clear that he has no interest in giving reporters a quote after the Seahawks play on Sunday.

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Last week, Russell Westbrook did his own Marshawn Lynch impression, repeating, “we executed well,” or “good execution” as a response to every answer asked of the Thunder point guard. He went as far as telling one reporter that he didn’t like him, and was clearly agitated the entire interview.

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Before his retirement this fall, Derek Jeter was infamous for his outstanding relationship with the media, seemingly always having the perfect stock answer to maintain his humble persona, and promote the idea of Jeter as one of the game’s last true competitors in an era of selfish athletes.

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How are these three guys related? Well, Lynch and Westbrook would seem to be in the same boat, but it’s really Jeter who may be the most interconnected with the two. When Jeter retired, he launched The Player’s Tribune. The site’s masthead hails the site as, “a new media platform that will present the unfiltered voices of professional athletes, bringing fans closer to the games they love than ever before… The Player’s Tribune aims to provide unique insight into the daily sports conversation and to publish first-person stories directly from athletes.”

The site’s mission is pretty clear: let’s cut out the middleman i.e. the media.

As a 24-year old who just quit his job teaching, and moved halfway across the country to pursue a job in sports media, one might think this is a bit disturbing for me.

And it is to a certain extent.

However, to a certain extent, I can empathize.

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Let’s go back to Jeter as a player for a minute. Jeter, although practically deified in the New York media, infamously would never give the reporters anything to really work with. He gave the perfect answer to every question, but the perfect stock answer to every question. The New York newspapers, which thrive on Lynch and Westbrook types, loved Jeter as a player, but in terms of giving them a juicy, “our manager needs to go,” or “this teammate is hurting the team” type answers, he simply went with the stock answer.

That was no mistake. As part of the launch of The Player’s Tribune, Jeter commented on how much effort he put in to “saying nothing.” He knew the media could twist his words if he gave them even anything close to an interesting quote, so he avoided those quote like the plague.

With his, “new media platform,” Jeter is hoping that athletes will be able to truly say what they want without getting any part of their quotes twisted and used against them. It’s a very understandable for Jeter and certain athletes to worry about this, ESPN is purely magical at doing this exact thing to get more clicks on their website.

With modern social media as it is, there may not really be a need to even have these crowded locker room post-game interviews anymore; at least not in their current state.

With teams nowadays having so(oooooo) many different outlets that cover their team (just look at the Super Bowl media day, for god’s sake), modern athletes would be hard-pressed not to be a bit overwhelmed by all this.

If I had to answer questions from 12-15 people every day, right after work, I’m sure there would be times I’d be really sick of it. Granted, these athletes make approximately a billion times more than I do, and they signed a contract agreeing to meet with the press after the game, but if there’s a better way to do it, why not do so?

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That’s where Jeter and The Player’s Tribune come back into the picture. I’m not sure Jeter has entirely perfected the idea, but I think he might be on the right track. One of the first criticisms, or maybe more accurately, observations, about The Player’s Tribune when it launched was that it seemed pretty clear that a lot of these players were having their stories ghost-written for them. While that ghostwriting led to the site getting some guff, it actually may be a step in the right direction towards a compromise from the players and the media.

Why not have one or two media members, who the player gets to know and trust, conduct each post-game interview?

With the way social media is now, all the other beat reporters could easily send their questions via Twitter into the one reporter interviewing the player, as basically an instantaneous response. The onus would still be on the outgoing news outlet to not twist the player’s words, but if the player was being interviewed by a reporter who he trusts, we, as sports’ fans, might actually get an interesting, in-depth answer every once and a while.

Back when the post-game interview was established, reporters all had to be in the locker room in person to get their quote, because otherwise their news outlet would miss out entirely on any quotes. With email and Twitter etc. there’s no way any reporter could complain about a delay in their story, as they could incorporate their quotes basically in live time.

Reporters might feel that this is taking away a chunk of their responsibilities, but instead, it’s simply using technology to their advantage. Modern reporters face a lot more pressure in other aspects of their job, as news is now a second-by-second affair, instead of the day-by-day affair it used to be. Sports reporters are also expected to be better versed with statistical knowledge of their sport than ever before, and lots of the best sports writing doesn’t even include quotes from players anymore.

In fact, most fans of my generation have learned to basically skip over what the player says in the game recap because it is so frequently a stock answer. Getting the players to trust their sources once again, and opening the door for the players to give a better look behind the curtain (one of the driving ideas behind The Player’s Tribune) would be an awesome addition to any sports fans daily reading.

Yes, it’s a bit scary to think that the future of sports media is looking to cut out the middleman. However, here’s the thing: As has been noted, those athletes are not writing their own pieces for The Player’s Tribune. The job of a beat reporter isn’t going to die off just because they can’t go into the locker room and have Player X tell them, “both teams competed hard tonight, but I think we were more focused and motivated.” Honestly, with the way it is now, reporters could simply create a cheat sheet stock answer guide, close their eyes, and point to one of the answers and probably not be far off what the athlete said in response to their question.

There’s a lot more to sports writing than getting quotes, and many of the generation’s best sports writers have discovered that. Usually the best answers come in a one-on-one setting with the player, the exact setting I would recommend the future of sports writing look towards.

Change never comes easy, and I’m sure there are some solid arguments against that I simply haven’t thought of (when I brought it up with a sports writing buddy over the weekend, he seemed to disagree strongly), but I think it’s something that should definitely be considered.

Watching Marshawn Lynch, an undeniably shy guy, having to do the part of his job he almost certainly hates most week-in and week-out is painful, and just totally unnecessary.

Even if you think Lynch should suck it up, we all have parts of our job we hate (why hello, transcribing), it seems undeniable that a more comfortable athlete would lead to a more open athlete, which would lead to more interesting comments after the game.

The Player’s Tribune isn’t quite there. They need admit there are ghost-writers and give them their credit, and it may not be as live, up-to-the-minute as it needs to be, but it just may be that Derek Jeter, the man who gave all those perfect interviews in front of hoards of New York reporters, is finally the man who kills the hoards.