by Julian Spivey
I’m obviously not a part of the BBWA (Baseball Writers Association of America) that has the opportunity to fill out a ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame. But, every year I like to fill out a mock ballot of which players I would vote for if I did have a real ballot. I don’t understand how there are members of the BBWA who aren’t filling out 10 spots on their ballot recently. There are so many worthy players on the ballot now that I had to leave some players that I think are worthy of the hall of my ballot. And, I’ll come right out and say if you’re looking for players like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens on my ballot I will never include players we know to have used performance enhancing drugs on my ballot.
Chipper Jones is without a doubt one of the 10 greatest third baseman to ever play the game. He might even be one of the five best to ever play the game. He should be a no-brainer for first ballot selection. The only thing that could keep him out is seemingly some writers leaving him off their ballots because they don’t like him as a person – and honestly writers admitting to such should lose their ballots. Jones finished his all-star career with a .303 batting average, 468 home runs and 1,623 RBI. He won the 1999 National League MVP, the 2008 National League batting title and was a member of the 1995 World Series champion Atlanta Braves.
Jim Thome is one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history and should also be a no-brainer first ballot hall of famer, but it doesn’t feel as if many believe him to be a no-brainer. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if he isn’t simply because he played in the steroid era and we’ve seen that affect players like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell before. Yes, Thome hit 612 home runs, eighth most in baseball history, but he’s never really been one of the suspicious names you hear about. I say if there isn’t reasonable evidence that he used PEDs it’s not right to punish him.
Vladimir Guerrero is one of the purest hitters I’ve ever seen play the game of baseball. There’s also never seemingly been any PED suspicion surrounding him. I don’t understand how he wasn’t a first ballot hall of famer last year and hopefully the BBWA rights its wrong this year and inducts him. The 2004 American League MVP was a nine-time All Star that finished his career with an incredibly .318 average (again, how was he not a first ballot guy?) with 449 homers and 1,496 RBI.
I’ve contended for years that Fred McGriff is the most screwed player from baseball’s steroid era. McGriff didn’t use PEDs, which makes his terrific offensive numbers not as impressive as the astronomical numbers of those who did. And, while the BBWA punished players (rightfully so) who did use PEDs they fail to consider that numbers like the ones McGriff compiled over his career (493 homers, 1,550 RBI, .284 average) would’ve gotten him into the hall of fame had he played in any other era. It’s clear McGriff is going to fall off the ballot and that’s a travesty. But, I have high homes that the veterans committee will one day elect him to Cooperstown.
The BBWA continues to show that they don’t believe designated hitters belong in the hall of fame and that’s wrong. I’m not a fan of the DH. I wish baseball had never allowed it and wish they would abolish it, but I’m not going to let my feelings toward the DH keep one of the best pure hitters of his era out of the hall of fame. I do believe Martinez is a borderline hall of famer, but he’ll appear on my ballot nonetheless. A .312 career average with two batting titles, 1,200-plus RBI and more than 2,000 career hits is enough for me. If Martinez ever makes the hall he’ll have to wait for a veteran’s committee.
Mike Mussina never won a Cy Young Award, given to a league’s best pitcher, and I believe it’s the one thing that’s keeping him out of the hall of fame thus far. I don’t believe that’s right. There’s only so many Cy Young and MVP awards to go around and Mussina pitched in the same league as Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez for his career. Mussina’s 270-153 career record and 3.68 ERA are good enough for me, not to forget he’s one of the best defensive players ever at his position with seven Gold Gloves.
The BBWA has always had something against closers. Trevor Hoffman retired with the most saves in baseball history and the primary job of a closer is to nail down saves. Arguably Mariano Rivera, who will obviously be a first ballot hall of famer when he’s eligible, was the only better player at the closer position in the history of baseball than Hoffman. Let him in.
Jeff Kent has more home runs than any second baseman in the history of Major League Baseball. He hit 377 in his career. Kent also had a very good .290 career batting average and almost 2,500 career hits. He also won the 2000 National League MVP and was a five-time all-star. For the second base position these seem like obvious hall of fame numbers. Yet, he’s never come close to being inducted in many years on the ballot. Why? The era he played in. People just don’t trust that he did it clean, especially because his career seemed to get off to a slow start and he didn’t really become the slugger he did until he teamed with notorious PED user Barry Bonds in San Francisco. But, I’m a fan of innocent until proven guilty and there just isn’t enough for me to keep Kent out of Cooperstown.
Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel
Here’s where my most controversial decisions come in. I’m not 100 percent sure that I believe Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel are hall of famers. They are two players that may fall more into the “very good” instead of “legendary” category. But, I don’t believe either should fall off the hall of fame ballot in their first year of eligibility, and I believe there’s a chance either one of them or both will. That’s why I would use a spot for them over say Curt Schilling who won’t fall off the ballot. Jones and Vizquel have some offensive numbers that say “yeah, put him in the hall,” but mostly they should be considered for the hall of fame because they are two of the greatest defensive players to ever play the game. Jones won 10 gold gloves in center field and is one of only six outfielders to win 10 or more Gold Gloves (the other five are either in the hall or will be). Vizquel won 11 gold gloves, which is second to only Ozzie Smith all-time among shortstops. Smith made the hall of fame essentially only on defense – so why not Vizquel?
by Julian Spivey
Over the years I’ve kind of come to terms with the fact that I’m just not a college football fan. I think I once was when I was younger and didn’t have responsibilities or anything better to do on Saturday afternoons, but not anymore. I haven’t seen a single college football game from start-to-finish all season. I intended to watch the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn all the way through, and it was on my television the entire time, but other things took my interest away. It just doesn’t matter to me much and this is something that’s hard to admit because it makes me an anomaly in the South and more importantly, I think it hurts my credibility as an all-around sports fan. But, you know I don’t really watch hockey, soccer or tennis either. So, I guess that was already out the window.
I didn’t see a single college football game this season and due to my work schedule next week I won’t see much, if any, of the national championship game either, but I’m still kind of irritated that UCF (University of Central Florida), recently off their impressive Peach Bowl win over Auburn of the SEC, never had a shot to play in the national championship game.
I will state that I’ve never seen a single UCF football game in my life, so there isn’t some sort of bias here. I just feel like the entire system is wrong.
I believe this is partially why my interest in college football has waned or never reached the interest of the NFL over the years. I don’t believe college football has a format that leads to true champions. All other team sports in professional or collegiate levels do have playoff formats that lead to this. Sure, the recent college football playoff system is better than the old BCS system used to be. But, only taking four teams and those teams seeming to have to come from the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 conferences just leaves too many possibly worthy teams out of the picture. It’s not fair and, though I know I’m likely in a vast minority of people, I believe it hurts the sport.
Teams in other conferences like UCF in the American Athletic Conference that have perfect seasons should have the opportunity to compete for a national championship through the playoffs. Will they wind up defeating an Alabama or Ohio State or Oklahoma to make it to or win the entire thing? Likely not, but then again UCF beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl and Auburn beat Alabama and Georgia, the two teams competing next week for the national championship during the regular season.
It just doesn’t seem right for only five conferences to control college football the way they do. I love how every conference gets a shot to win it all in college basketball. In the college basketball tournament, which many call the greatest month in sports, you can see teams in smaller conferences like Butler or Gonzaga have a shot at winning it all. College football truly needs to at least go to an eight-team playoff, which if the playoff committee was doing their job at all, would give a team like UCF a shot. I realize the playoff committee only ranked UCF at No. 12, meaning they would’ve missed even an eight-team playoff, which is dumbfounding to me. Maybe in my wishful scenario they would have been the eighth seed and would’ve had to play the first seeded Clemson, but at least they would have gotten the chance to compete for the national championship. That’s all anybody could hope for.
UCF’s athletic director Danny White caused some controversy on Wednesday, Jan. 3 when he announced UCF were National Champions, as the only undefeated team in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) and that the university would be hoisting a national championship banner and would have a championship parade.
White told ESPN: “If you take the long view of the history of college football, there's an awful lot of national championships being claimed by universities that didn't accomplish what we accomplished this year in those respective seasons, so we feel we're more than justified to claim our first national championship, and we think it'll be the first of many. I don't think our kids should be penalized because we weren't respected by the College Football Playoff committee, nor should our program be penalized because we weren't around 20 or 30 years ago when people were claiming national championships left and right.”
I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to consider myself a college football fan again. Even if they made changes to the sport to give other teams a shot at the title I still might find better things to do. But, I do know that if I don’t feel like there’s a true champion in the sport it’s going to be mighty hard to be anything but indifferent toward it.
by Julian Spivey
Best Athlete: Tom Brady
There were a lot of athletes who could’ve taken this honor this year: Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Altuve, Russell Westbrook, Justin Thomas just to name a few would’ve all been deserving. But, I’m going to go with New England Patriots quarterback (and possibly the greatest QB in NFL history) Tom Brady, who’s still winning championships and getting things done as a 40-year old. In February, Brady led his Patriots to the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history after being down 25 in the second half to the Atlanta Falcons for his fifth Super Bowl ring and his fourth Super Bowl MVP. This season he’s led the Patriots to an AFC best 11-3 record thus far and a trip to an eighth Super Bowl certainly looks possible.
Best Team: Houston Astros
For the third year in a row my Best Team winner comes from Major League Baseball. The Houston Astros build the team from the ground up via the draft and their minor league system with great young players like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and others, added one of the game’s best pitchers Justin Verlander in a key last second trade deadline deal, and won the franchise’s first championship in a wild seven-game World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Astros seemed to be a team of destiny as Sports Illustrated’s now famous 2014 cover told us the Astros would be the 2017 champs. The Astros also lifted up the town of Houston, greatly in need of something special after flooding from Hurricane Harvey decimated the area in late August. It was a great team and great story all-around.
Best Coach: Cole Pearn
I fully expect this to be my most controversial honor of 2017 as many people likely have never heard the name Cole Pearn and truly great coaches Bill Belichick, Steve Kerr, A.J. Hinch, Roy Williams and Dabo Swinney all led teams to championships this year. I don’t believe any coach had an impact on a championship the way Cole Pearn did as crew chief (essentially the coaches of NASCAR) did for NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. Truex had three career Cup Series wins in a decade of racing prior to the 2016 season and in the last two years has won an incredible 12 races, including a series high eight in his championship season this year. I don’t believe it’s just that Truex is a late bloomer, but rather Pearn is a next level NASCAR crew chief who could be the next Chad Knauss for the sport.
Best Game: World Series Game 5
This is the third year in a row that a World Series game has taken my honor for best game of the year, meaning we’ve had a good run of good World Series (including the last two going the distance). I understand some might be confused as to why the Super Bowl wasn’t chosen this year, but that was a blowout for three quarters before the Patriots made an unbelievable comeback. Game five of this year’s World Series between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers was wild from the start. It also looked like it was over from the start when the Dodgers offense gave baseball’s best pitcher Clayton Kershaw a 4-0 lead through three and a half innings. The Astros offense got to work and scored four off Kershaw in the fourth. But, then the Astros bullpen gave the lead immediately back with the Dodgers scoring three in the fifth. That lead didn’t even last an inning though as the Dodgers let the Astros tie it back up in the bottom of the inning with three runs of their own. It would continue to go back-and-forth like this long into the night in a game that lasted more than five hours. The Astros would seemingly take the lead for good with four runs in the seventh. But, the Astros could not shut the Dodgers down giving up three runs in the ninth to tie the game up and send it to extra innings. The Astros wouldn’t make us wait very long though as third baseman Alex Bregman would hit a game-winning single off the best closer in baseball Kenley Jansen to win the game in the tenth inning. The wild game saw a record seven home runs hit, including five by the Astros. The Astros would go on to win the series in game 7.
Best Breakthrough Athlete: Aaron Judge
No offense to any other breakthrough athletes in 2017, but this one was a no-brainer. New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge was on absolutely nobody’s radar coming into the 2017 baseball season. He almost immediately took the nation by storm with his slugging that almost led him to becoming just the third player in MLB history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve deservedly won MVP instead. But, Judge set a MLB rookie record with an American League leading 52 home runs, while adding 114 RBI and hitting an impressive .284.
Best Play: Julian Edelman’s Super Bowl Catch
When you’re down 25 points in the second half in the Super Bowl you’re going to need a little bit of luck to eventually win the game. And, the New England Patriots got some of that with two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter on the way to the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady should’ve thrown an interception on the play, but an Atlanta Falcons defender tipped the ball into the air leading to a scramble by Pats receiver Julian Edelman and two Falcons defenders for the ball. The ball bounced around an assortment of body parts, before Edelman finally secured it just above the ground for a completion. The Patriots would end up tying the game, forcing overtime and winning the game on their first OT drive. Edelman’s catch likely surpasses David Tyree’s for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII as the greatest in Super Bowl history.
Best Upset: Mississippi State beats undefeated UCONN
All winning streaks must come to an end and all dynasties must fall – they don’t always occur at the same time, but in the Women’s College Basketball tournament in late March both sure did for the University of Connecticut Lady Huskies when the four-time defending champions saw their record 111-game winning streak snapped at the hands of Mississippi State when junior guard Morgan William sank a 14-foot jumper as time expired in overtime. It was the shock heard round the women’s college basketball world.
Best Media Personality: Jeff Gluck
NASCAR reporter Jeff Gluck took a major risk this year and it paid off brilliantly, and could become a playbook for other journalists. Gluck had covered NASCAR for USA Today, but when opportunities arrived for his wife on the west coast, he quit his job, packed up and went with her to chase her dreams. He still had a dream of covering NASCAR and set out to do it his own way with his own website (JeffGluck.com) crowdsourcing his way to races throughout the country and the year via Patreon. Gluck might be the best journalist NASCAR has to offer and it’s cool that it’s fans of the sport and fans of him that helped pave the way for him. It wouldn’t be surprising to see journalist in the future follow his example.
by Julian Spivey
James Hicks wasn’t my grandfather, but he may as well have been. I knew him better than two of my grandfathers and liked him a helluva lot more than my other one. I honestly don’t know what James did for his career, he was done with that by the time I knew him. The only things I did know were he was a soldier and a survivor shot down in a plane by Nazis in World War II and he was a bootlegger, and that one may not even be true. James probably told a lot of stories that weren’t true. It helped to build a myth. He always seemed like a man’s man, even though he was old, skinny and always seemingly frail when I knew him. He could have been John Wayne for all I knew when he was younger, except for that fact he actually served.
Even though he was closer with my brothers, whom he babysat when they were little, I always had a few things in common with James. We were both fans of NASCAR, country music and Western movies. It was NASCAR where we truly bonded. If he indeed had been a bootlegger it explains his love for the sport that grew out of illegally running whiskey across the South in hotrods fast enough to outrun the local authorities. He was a Dale Earnhardt fan. That wasn’t a surprise at all. Of course, James Hicks would like a driver known as “The Intimidator,” who could shake a driver in front of him so much he’d have to think about pulling over to let him pass or else fear being wrecked. I started watching NASCAR full-time shortly after Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, though I’d caught races from time-to-time previously. My favorite driver quickly became Jeff Gordon, the best driver of that era. Gordon was the driver Earnhardt fans loved to hate. Like many fans within Earnhardt Nation, James’ allegiances on the racetrack quickly shifted to Dale’s young son Dale Earnhardt Jr. The two drivers shared a name and a passion for racecar driving, but honestly not much else. But, the name and fact he was a racecar driver was enough for James and millions of others.
Him being an Earnhardt fan and myself being a Gordon fan meant we had us a little rivalry between us. This 70-something man and a teenager poking fun at each over about car racers driving around in ovals. Around this time there was an up-and-comer in the Busch Series, kind of NASCAR’s minor leagues, named Martin Truex Jr., who competed for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chance 2 Motorsports team. Truex Jr. would win the Busch Series championship with this team in back-to-back seasons in 2004 and 2005 and looked like he’d be a future star in the Cup Series. Being talented and affiliated with Dale Jr., Truex quickly became a favorite of James’ too.
Truex Jr. would soon become Dale Jr.’s teammate at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the team Dale Sr. had created. He would win his first race in his second season in the Cup Series at Dover. But, the following years would be a struggle for both Dale Jr. and Truex Jr. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would soon move to Hendrick Motorsports, where he’d finish his career a decade later. He would struggle off and on during this decade, but the highlights included his second Daytona 500 victory in 2014. Truex Jr. would go to Michael Waltrip Racing where he would continue to struggle. He would only win one race at MWR and after eight full seasons in the sport’s premier series had only two wins. He had been a major disappointment and it looked like his career could potentially over.
James and I would enjoy giving each other hell over NASCAR during the brief period he lived in Arkansas, but he would eventually move back to Florida and I probably only saw him a few more times during his life. He died in either 2011 or 2012, according to my brother Jon. At that point neither of his favorite drivers had won a race in multiple seasons. I don’t even know if James kept up with NASCAR in his final years. The sport had changed so much, and many longtime fans had found it to be too much and had left it behind. Even some younger fans like myself had found it hard to adapt. I wonder what James would think of the current sport with its stage racing, 16-team playoffs, elimination rounds and a winner-take-all championship race that could see a dominant driver lose the championship to someone much less worthy?
After the 2013 season Truex Jr. would find his way to the single car team of Furniture Row Racing, which had had little success prior to him joining the team. But, they soon would be affiliated with the powerhouse of Joe Gibbs Racing and had hoped things would turn around. I’m not sure anybody knew just how much things would indeed change.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have his two best seasons in a decade in 2014 and 2015 combining for seven victories. It seemed like he was having the most fun of his career. Unfortunately, the next season concussion issues would derail it. He wouldn’t win again.
Truex Jr.’s career which seemed like it could’ve been over had gotten a rebirth at Furniture Row. He would win his third career race in 2015 and things had certainly begun to click for that team and for Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn. They would pretty much dominate the Cup Series the next two seasons. In 2016, Truex would win four races. His team dominated the mile-and-a-half tracks that frequented the NASCAR schedule. In 2017, the team was the most consistent all-season long. Truex and Furniture Row Racing really hit it off with the new points format with bonus points for winning race stages. He would enter the final race on Sunday with a series high seven wins.
My favorite driver Jeff Gordon retired in 2015. He left the sport as one of its five greatest of all-time and four championships. I think James would have told me, “the kid done good,” had he been around. He would’ve certainly thrown in, “but not as good as Dale.” Earnhardt Sr. having one three more championships than Gordon. I, of course, would’ve responded with how the changes to NASCAR’s point standings had cost Gordon potentially three more titles.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had announced his retirement from NASCAR about a quarter into the season and it kind of surprised people, but then again, the concussions had taken a toll on his life and he wanted to enjoy a life after racing with his new bride Amy. The two are set to have a daughter next May. Still it would be a huge hit to NASCAR to have its most popular driver retire right on the heels of champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Earnhardt Jr. had never won the championship in the Cup Series many expected from him, but his resume of 26 Cup wins and two Daytona 500s isn’t shabby. More importantly his humble attitude and graciousness meant more to the sport than a championship could’ve. Dale Jr. had gone from a kid when James and I had our little rivalry to a man that I grew to respect and root for on a weekly basis. There simply hasn’t been a better ambassador for NASCAR. I think James would be proud.
The championship race on Sunday would be Dale Jr.’s final race.
In the three previous seasons of this playoff format it took winning the final race for the champion to be crowned. Truex Jr. had been the best driver and his team had been the best team all season long, but the title race is now a crapshoot and all three of his competitors – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski - had won championships before and Busch and Harvick had done so in this format.
It would be a hard-fought race the entire day on Sunday with every one of the four championship eligible drivers leading the championship at one point. At the end of the race it became a dogfight between Truex and Busch. Truex had the lead, but it looked at one point like Busch had the faster car and might find a way to pass Truex to win the race and the championship. That never happened. Truex won his eighth race of the season, more races than he had won in his career coming into the year, and the championship just four years after it looked like he wouldn’t even continue in the sport. It was a feel-good story for many.
I don’t know where James is now, but wherever he is I hope he had the opportunity to see what his guys had become on Sunday in the final race of the NASCAR season. I wish I could pat him on the back and tell him “your boys done good.”
by Julian Spivey
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring after 18 seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series after this weekend’s season-ending race at Miami-Homestead Speedway. Earnhardt Jr. has won two Daytona 500s in his career that has seen him reach Victory Lane in NASCAR’s highest series on 26 occasions. Earnhardt Jr. has won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver honor a record 15 straight times and won the Busch Series (NASCAR’s minor leagues) championship in back-to-back seasons in 1998 and 1999. Most importantly Earnhardt Jr. has been one of the most likable drivers and great personalities in an era that saw the sport really boom in national popularity. The sport is certainly going to miss him on the track.
10. Most Popular Driver from 2003-2017
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a record for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, which is a fan-voted honor, that will never be broken. When he assuredly wins the award this year it’ll be his 15th consecutive honor. Earnhardt Jr. had this thing sewn up almost from the start gaining the bulk of his father’s fanbase upon Dale Sr.’s death in 2001 and gaining millions of fans on his right through his likable personality and perseverance among tragedy. It’ll be interesting to see which driver takes the torch from Dale Jr. as “Most Popular.”
9. Michigan snaps 143-race winless streak 2012
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has unfortunately had a few rather lengthy winless streaks in his career. It’s something that must be completely disheartening for a driver to experience, especially one who’s had as much success over his career as Dale Jr. Michigan seems to be the track for Dale Jr. when he’s on a winless streak. In 2008 he snapped a 76-race winless streak at Michigan Speedway. Then in 2012 amidst a 143-race winless streak, one race shy of four full seasons, Earnhardt Jr. dominated the race winning by more than five seconds to get the monkey off his back.
8. 2000 All Star Race – first rookie to win
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been on record saying that his favorite win of his career wasn’t even a points paying race. It was his first NASCAR All Star race in 2000, in which he became the first rookie to ever win the event (he remains the only to ever do so). Earnhardt Jr. passed defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett with two laps remaining in the race to take the victory. The reason for it being his favorite is his legendary father Dale Sr. got to spend the entire Victory Lane celebration with him. Dale Sr. had greeted Dale Jr. in Victory Lane twice before when Junior won his first career Cup race at Texas and his second race at Richmond, but both were brief exchanges. This time the father and son really got to experience the celebration together.
7. Wrangler #3 - 2010 Daytona
While Dale Earnhardt may have been best known for his pitch-black Goodyear car that helped gain him the nickname “The Intimidator” it was his first ride with Richard Childress in the blue and yellow Wrangler No. 3 car that Dale Jr. liked the best. Dale Jr. got the chance of a lifetime to drive this very paint scheme and that very number in the 2010 July Daytona Xfinity Series race. You just got the sense going into the race and the entire night that Dale Jr. absolutely had to put the car in Victory Lane, despite not having won in any NASCAR series in more than two years. He did just that and afterward said, “This is it. No more 3 for me.” It was a moment fans of both him and his father had always wanted to see and never will forget.
6. 1998 & 1999 Xfinity champ
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been derided occasionally over his career for not winning a NASCAR Cup Series championship, but in his defense, he has raced in the most competitive era in NASCAR history. Still he did become a NASCAR champion in 1998 and repeated in 1999 in the Busch Series (now Xfinity). Earnhardt Jr. thoroughly dominated the series in those two seasons winning 13 races, more than 20 percent of those he entered. The greatest part of it all for Dale Jr. had to be that he accomplished it driving for his father’s Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team.
5. 2000 Texas – first win
The first career win is always going to be one of the most memorable moments in any driver’s career, and if he’s lucky he’ll experience many more. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first career NASCAR Cup Series victory came at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000 during his rookie season. One of the greatest aspects of this victory was his dad, Dale Sr., joining him briefly in Victory Lane where he said, “He got a good race car, a good engine and the boy drove a good race.”
4. 2002-2003 4 straight Talladega wins
Restrictor plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway has been referred to as a crapshoot because you’re way more likely to get caught up in a big wreck than you are to win this race. Winning consecutive races at Talladega is a hard task to do. Winning four consecutive races at Talladega is almost Godlike. But, Earnhardt Jr. did just that sweeping the Cup Series races at the Alabama track in 2002 and 2003. Some said Dale Jr.’s father could see the draft and it seemed like the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s six career Cup wins at Talladega are his most of any track and is tied with Jeff Gordon for second all-time; only his father with 10 had more.
3. 2014 Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has compiled eight of his 26 career Cup Series wins while racing for Hendrick Motorsports, but none greater than his second career Daytona 500 victory in 2014, which came on the heels of a winless 2013 season. Earnhardt Jr. led a race high 54 laps to become the 11th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s.
2. 2004 Daytona 500
It famously took Dale Earnhardt Sr. 20 years to win the Daytona 500, a race that was obviously the most important to him and many felt he was owed after years of dominating only to fall short. It only took his son five tries to win the Crown Jewel of the NASCAR schedule. Dale Jr. led 58 laps of the race and held off laps leader Tony Stewart at the finish to win at the track and race that ended his father’s life just three years before.
1. 2001 Daytona July Race
The 2001 July race at Daytona was an emotional one with the sport coming back for the first time to the track that Dale Earnhardt Sr. had been killed at on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Everybody had their eyes on Dale Jr. There may not have ever been a race in NASCAR history where seemingly everybody watching wanted the same outcome: for Dale Jr. to win the race. In the Daytona 500 earlier in the season Dale Jr. had helped draft his Dale Earnhardt Incorporated teammate Michael Waltrip to victory. The roles would be reversed for the July race and it seemed like nobody could top the dominate DEI cars. Waltrip would push Dale Jr., who lead a race high 116 laps, past the finish line for the most emotional victory that many in the NASCAR community had ever seen. Dale Jr. would say, “Other than the wins I had when my father was there, that’ll be the day I always remember.”
by Julian Spivey
I don’t have a vote for Most Valuable Player in baseball, but if I did here would be the top five on my American League ballot and the reasons why I chose these five players …
5. Jose Ramirez (Cleveland Indians)
Jose Ramirez in the span of about two seasons has gone from a utilityman to one of the most underrated stars in the American League for the Cleveland Indians. Ramirez was the Indians most consistent offensive player this year and did so playing all over the field splitting time between second and third base this year. Ramirez hit .318 (fourth in the league) with 29 home runs 83 RBI. His 186 hits were good enough for fifth in the A.L., as well.
4. Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels)
It’s a testament to how truly great Mike Trout is that he could only play in 114 games and still be among the five best players in his league. Trout hit .306 this season with 33 homers, 72 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Trout led the American League in slugging and on-base percentage and his 6.4 WAR was the third best in the league.
3. Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians)
Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber was arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball this year and should be the front-runner for his second Cy Young Award. Kluber led the A.L. with a 2.25 ERA and his 18-4 win-loss record was the best in baseball. His 265 strikeouts were second to only Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale in the A.L.
2. Aaron Judge (New York Yankees)
Aaron Judge came out of nowhere this year for the New York Yankees to stun Major League Baseball. There is a very good chance that Judge could join only Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki as players to win both Rookie of the Year (for which he’s a lock) and MVP in the same season. Judge led the American League with 52 home runs, a new rookie record. His 114 RBI were second in the A.L. to Seattle Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz. Judge also hit a very respectable .284 and led the A.L. with an 8.8 WAR. His only downfall was leading the league in strikeouts and a sizeable drought during the second half of the season.
1. Jose Altuve (Houston Astros)
It wouldn’t surprise me if Aaron Judge wins the MVP based on a stunning rookie season and mostly an East Coast/New York bias, but I believe Houston Astros diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve should be the MVP. Altuve has won the American League batting title for three consecutive years and is still somewhat underappreciated. He led the A.L. this year with a .346 average, which is 16 points higher than the next guy (Avisail Garcia). Altuve’s power numbers continue to rise with him hitting 24 homers and driving in 81 runs this season while also being one of the game’s best speedsters with 32 stolen bases, third in the A.L.
by Julian Spivey
I don’t have a vote for Most Valuable Player in baseball, but if I did here would be the top five on my National League ballot and the reasons why I chose these five players …
5. Charlie Blackmon (Colorado Rockies)
Sure, his offensive numbers are likely aided by playing at Coors Field in Denver, but Charlie Blackmon’s numbers from the leadoff spot simply can’t be ignored. Blackmon set the record for most RBI from the leadoff spot this season with 104, breaking Darin Erstad’s record. He also hit 37 home runs while winning the National League batting title with a .331 average.
4. Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals)
I believe Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer should be the National League Cy Young winner this season as the N.L.’s best pitcher, but I also believe he should receive some MVP votes (which I know is controversial for some). Scherzer was the league’s most dominant pitcher this year compiling a 16-6 win-loss record with a 2.51 ERA (second in the league behind Clayton Kershaw) and a league high 7.2 WAR for pitchers.
3. Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies)
It might be controversial to have two Colorado Rockies on my MVP ballot top five, but the Rockies did surprise many this year by winning the second wild card in the National League and making the playoffs. It’s hard to argue with Arenado’s offensive numbers and he’s also a gold glove defender. Arenado finished third in the N.L. with 37 homers and second in the league with 130 RBI while hitting over .300. Arenado has hit 37 or more homers in each of the last three seasons.
2. Paul Goldschmidt (Arizona Diamondbacks)
Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is the seemingly popular pick to win the National League MVP award this season with terrific all-around numbers that include 36 home runs (fourth in the league), 120 RBI (fourth in the league) and a .297 average. Goldschmidt led the surprising Diamondbacks to a playoff appearance this season and has been one of the most underrated players in baseball for much of his career.
1. Giancarlo Stanton (Miami Marlins)
Some people have a bias where they don’t believe players on teams that miss out on postseason don’t deserve to win the MVP award. In most case I believe the MVP should come from a playoff team, but Giancarlo Stanton’s 2017 offensive numbers were out of this world. Stanton hit 59 home runs, the third most all-time by a non-PED user. His 59 homers were a whopping 20 more than the runner-up in his league (Cody Bellinger). Stanton’s 132 RBI also led his league and his .281 average was 13 points higher than his career average. His 7.6 WAR also led the N.L.
by Julian Spivey
I believe it was about month ago I had a Texas Rangers game on the television while I was working on other stuff, as I often do with random sporting events, and Joey Gallo – who bounced between third base, first base and outfield this year for the Rangers – launched a moonshot. It was number thirtysomething on the year for him and I texted my friend Bobby, as I often do random baseball stats throughout the day, that Gallo was on pace for the worst 40 home run season in baseball history. I didn’t have the stats before me now, but he was hitting around the Mendoza line (.200) and almost half of his base hits on the year had left the park. I couldn’t imagine a 40-homer season being any worse and I’ve lived through the career of Adam Dunn.
In the Rangers penultimate game of the season on Saturday against the Oakland A’s Gallo, who looked for a while like he might come up short of the 40 number, hit home runs No. 40 and 41 on the year. They were his 93rd and 94th base hits of the season. He didn’t play in the Rangers final game of the season on Sunday, but if he had he would’ve needed six hits just so as not to become the first player in baseball history to hit 40-plus homers without reaching 100 hits on the season.
This brings up the question I posed to Bobby about a month ago: is Joey Gallo’s 2017 season the worst 40-homer season in baseball history?
It’s not the easiest question to answer, honestly, because baseball is no longer a game of if you hit for a high average and drive a lot of runs in you’re having a good year. In the sabermetrics world you can strikeout 208 times like New York Yankees rookie slugger Aaron Judge did this season and have a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 8.0 and potentially win a MVP Award.
Still, I looked up a bunch of bad to terrible 40 home run seasons to determine what I felt was the worst of all-time, which honestly wasn’t that hard because most such seasons have been done in the last two decades of the game.
I settled upon three 40-plus homer seasons to decide upon as the worst of all-time, each of which have come within the last six seasons. Those seasons were Adam Dunn’s 2012 year for the Chicago White Sox, Chris Carter’s 2016 season for the Milwaukee Brewers and, of course, Gallo’s season this year.
Here are some numbers I’ve highlighted for those three seasons:
Adam Dunn (2012): .204 average, 41 home runs, 96 RBI, 110 hits, 222 strikeouts, .800 OPS and 1.4 WAR
Chris Carter (2016): .222 average, 47 home runs, 94 RBI, 122 hits, 206 strikeouts, .821 OPS and 0.9 WAR
Joey Gallo (2017): .209 average, 41 home runs, 80 RBI, 94 hits, 196 strikeouts, .869 OPS and 3.1 WAR
It should be noted right away that if you’re into sabermetrics and not much else you’re probably going to want to eliminate Gallo’s season from contention right away because his OPS (On-base plus slugging percentage) is quite a bit better than Carter or Dunn’s. You’ll also note his WAR is more almost two points higher than that of the other two seasons.
There are two things I absolutely can’t get over with Gallo’s season: as previously mentioned it’s the only 40-homer season in baseball history in which the batter didn’t have 100 hits. Getting hits would seem to be the most basic thing about baseball. Well, that’s actually getting on base. Gallo and Dunn’s seasons had an identical .333 OBS (on-base percentage) and Carter had slightly less .321. It should be noted that Dunn did lead the American League in walks in 2012 with 105, despite the fact he couldn’t hit a lick with a .204 batting average (the worst average of any 40-homer season I could find). Dunn also led the A.L. in strikeouts that season with 206. Gallo did not lead the A.L. in striking out this year. He struck out 196 times compared to Judge’s 208, but it should be noted that Judge had almost 100 more at-bats this season than Gallo. How many more strikeouts would Gallo have had with those extra ABs? How many more homers would he have hit too?
Many modern-day baseball stats nerds don’t value the RBI (run batted in). I understand this because it can be an inflated statistic. The number of RBI a player has is dictated by the number of teammates he has on base in front of him to drive home. Gallo only had 80 RBI this season, which is also the lowest number of RBI in MLB history for a 40-homer season and a whopping 12 fewer than the next lowest number, which was Adam Dunn’s 92 for the Cincinnati Reds in 2006 (maybe the fourth worst 40-homer season in baseball history based on my research).
Here’s the thing though the Rangers were in the top 10 in the league in runs scored this season, and have the most of any time that didn’t make the playoffs and scored more than the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, which won the A.L. East and N.L. West divisions respectively. I don’t know if the guys directly in front of Gallo in the lineup just had the bad knack for not being on the pond when he came to the plate, but I’ve got to feel he had plenty of opportunities to drive in more runs. Also, I still value the RBI more than most. Maybe I’m too old school, but that’s me.
So, how should I decide which 40-homer season is the worst of all-time? This may be a little too simplistic, but what I’ve done is I’ve taken the three seasons from Gallo, Carter and Dunn and the key statistical categories listed above and given the three hitters a rank from first to third in each category. I then added those five categories up and divided by five. The highest average of the three seasons would take the cake. Here’s how the numbers came out: Chris Carter 1.8, Adam Dunn 2.0, Joey Gallo 2.2.
It is my determination – though not scientifically as you can see – that Joey Gallo’s 2017 season is the worst of any 40-homer season in baseball history.
The Rangers have a lot of excitement about Gallo’s future, and they should. This was only his first full-time season and his numbers looked better than the cups of coffee he had the two previous years. But, for him to really have the future the Rangers hope from him he’s going to have to learn there’s a little more to the game of baseball than being an all or nothing player.
by Julian Spivey
The NASCAR playoffs begin today (Sept. 17) at Chicagoland Speedway for the Monster Energy Cup Series. Here are my rankings of the 16 playoff drivers from least likely to most likely to win the NASCAR championship:
16. Jamie McMurray
15. Kasey Kahne
14. Ryan Newman
13. Austin Dillon
In today’s NASCAR, you must consistently be a threat to win races to have any shot at winning the championship and these four drivers just don’t threaten Victory Lane often enough, despite three of these guys winning a race this year. McMurray hasn’t won a race since 2013. Newman and Dillon’s wins this season both came on pit strategy, which doesn’t exactly stoke expectations of being able to win on their own. Kahne’s win at the Brickyard 400 at Indy was impressive, but his first win in three seasons. You really must be a threat to win multiple times in the playoffs to win a championship. These guys can’t win multiple times a season.
12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Coming into this season Stenhouse’s career had been a complete disappointment. In fact, I didn’t believe he belonged in the Cup Series any longer. Then he won first career race at Talladega in the Spring and backed it up with a second win at Daytona this summer. The only problem with this is he only seems capable of winning at restrictor plate tracks. To his advantage Talladega is in the second round of the playoffs if he can reach it and a win again there would automatically move him to round three. But, can any driver win three consecutive plate races?
11. Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott has yet to win a NASCAR Cup race in his first two seasons, but I’m going a little easier on him than I did McMurray, Kahne, Newman and Dillon because he’s young and I believe once that first win comes the floodgates will open much like they did for Kyle Larson.
10. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney got his first career Cup win this season at Pocono in his second full-time season, but he may be a little too young in his career to threaten for a title now. It is fantastic to see the Wood Brothers Racing team in the playoffs, though.
9. Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth is the highest driver on this list who hasn’t won a race this season and, in fact, he was the very last driver to qualify for the playoffs on points. Still, there are two reasons why he’s in the top 10: 1) he’s a veteran who won’t worry much about his winless streak 2) he drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, which I believe is still the most dominant team in NASCAR. I hope Kenseth does well too because he currently doesn’t have a ride for next season and a good performance might sure one up.
8. Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch won the season-opening Daytona 500 and hasn’t won a race since then. I honestly don’t believe his chances at winning the title are very high, but I do have him in the top half of playoff drivers based on his veteran status. The champion will almost certainly come from the top seven drivers on this list.
7. Brad Keselowski
Penske Racing has seemingly been a little bit down this year, especially with Joey Logano missing the playoffs (the biggest surprise of the season maybe thus far), but Brad Keselowski is always a threat to win race, he’s won two this year, and his aggressiveness may benefit him in the playoffs. It could just as easily hinder him, as well.
6. Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, has been the most consistent driver in NASCAR over the last three to four seasons and it’s that consistency that has me believing he’s a major threat. However, he’s only found Victory Lane once this year, at the road course at Sonoma. There’s reason to believe the Stewart-Haas Racing switch from Chevrolet to Ford has hurt the team a bit with its four drivers only combining for two wins through 26 races.
5. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin is my prediction for the driver to just miss out making the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway this season. He’s consistently been Joe Gibbs Racing’s second-best driver this year and recently won his second race of the season at Darlington Raceway two weeks ago.
4. Jimmie Johnson
I will never count Jimmie Johnson out. He showed us last season exactly why you shouldn’t do such a thing when he won his record-tying seventh championship. His season this year is like last season’s. Johnson has won three races this season, but all three came within the first quarter of the year. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have seemingly shown the ability in the past to be able to turn it on whenever needed.
3. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson is a lot of people’s favorite to win the championship this year and his four wins this season are tied with Martin Truex Jr. for most in the series. I have no questions about Larson’s talent, but I do have some about his experience. Can he keep his head together and make the final race of the season? I also wonder if his team Chip Ganassi Racing can keep up with Gibbs, Hendrick and the Furniture Row team aided by Gibbs.
2. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch is the most talented driver in NASCAR. Kyle Busch drives for the best and most competitive team in NASCAR with Joe Gibbs Racing. The 2015 champion must be considered a title threat always. Busch’s two wins this season aren’t exactly indicative of how close he’s been to Victory Lane all season.
1. Martin Truex Jr.
There’s absolutely no way I could consider any other driver a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series championship favorite other than Martin Truex Jr., who’s seemingly made the series his playground this season along with crew chief Cole Pearn, who I believe is the actual star of this team. Why do I believe this? Truex had three career wins in a decade of racing before teaming up with Pearn. He’s won eight races in the less than two seasons they’ve been together. Honestly, Truex should have won even more than the series-leading four he’s won this season, but has experienced some late race bad luck.
by Julian Spivey
This week on his weekly Sirius XM NASCAR channel radio show 2014 NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick made waves when he accused 14-time Most Popular Driver winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. of stunting NASCAR’s growth by being the most popular driver, yet not its most successful.
Harvick said: “For me, I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach, but he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. The growth in the sport has not reached the levels that it should have because our most popular driver has not been our most successful driver. He hasn’t been anywhere close to our most successful driver.”
Those comments have unsurprisingly irritated a lot of fans of the sport and were called “hurtful” by Earnhardt Jr.
Speaking to ESPN’s Bob Pockrass, Earnhardt said on Thursday (August 10): “I have an incredible amount of respect for him [Harvick]. I found some of those comments hurtful. I still respect him as a champion and ambassador for the sport. That’s just the way it is, I guess. I hate that’s how he feels.”
As for how his career has impacted the sport of NASCAR Earnhardt hoped he hadn’t negatively impacted it, while admitting that he hadn’t lived up to everyone’s expectations, but had his own.
“I put a lot into this sport, and I know that I might not have met everyone’s expectation, but I certainly exceeded my own and I’m super proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish. I hope that I brought something to the table and left a good impact,” Earnhardt Jr. told ESPN.
Earnhardt’s response to Harvick’s commentary was as gracious and professional as you would expect from the driver who may be the nicest guy in the NASCAR garage, in addition to being its most popular.
Harvick’s commentary was kind of unexpected because you wouldn’t expect anyone to take a shot at the sport’s most popular driver amidst his farewell tour, but then again that’s who Harvick is – a jerk. He speaks his mind and that can often be a good thing, but let’s face it, what he did in this instance is sheer asshole-ish. It’s also incredibly dumb.
NASCAR is in trouble as a sport. There’s really no denying that – though the sport and even some of those who cover it for a living try to or at least hide the fact. But, there is no reason to believe Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had anything to do with stunting the growth of the sport. The number one culprit for stunting the sport is the way NASCAR runs things and can’t go a year without seriously changing how the sport operates. That’s too big to get into here though.
Another culprit likely has more to do with drivers like Harvick than ones like Earnhardt. Frankly, there are more unlikable drivers in the sport of NASCAR now (and have been for a while) than there are likable ones. Drivers with prickly attitudes like Harvick, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch can make it hard to like the sport, despite their talent on the track. Many fans would probably rather root for a nice guy who doesn’t win than a winner who acts like a jerk. But, when you’re seeing the jerks win way more than the nice guys it’s hard to continue watching. Many of the up-and-coming young drivers in the sport, however, do seem to be likable with good personalities like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney giving hope for this trend to come to an end sooner rather than later.
Harvick may just have sour grapes. He’s a champion who thinks he’s deserving of more attention and fans than Earnhardt, who has never won a title and has 10 fewer Cup Series wins in one more season.
As for Earnhardt’s career-long disappointment. It’s a shame that many do and have always viewed him this way. If Earnhardt’s last name was Smith or Jones he wouldn’t receive this distinction. He only does because he’s the son of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt was Babe Ruth. It’s not fair to act like Dale Jr. should’ve been a champion and legend on the track just because his father was, but it’s a standard he has been held to since day one and was magnified the day his father died in the Daytona 500 in 2001. Due to his father’s death, his fan base almost certainly more than doubled. He’s always had to live under his father’s shadow and he’s not his father. He’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one helluva guy.
I’ve been watching this sport on a weekly basis since shortly after Dale Earnhardt died, during Dale Jr’s second full season. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a nicer presence in the sport and that includes my all-time favorite driver Jeff Gordon, who always seemed like a generally great guy. There’s just something incredibly approachable about Dale Jr. He’s the kind of guy you feel like you could honestly sit down, have a beer and play some Madden on the PS4 with and not feel out of place. On multiple occasions this season, which hasn’t been a fairytale farewell season for him, upon crashing out of the race I’ve seen him sign autographs for fans just after leaving the infield care center. This is something many drivers wouldn’t even consider doing (and I honestly don’t blame them). It feels like his fan base means as much to him as he has to them – which is something I don’t think you could say about Harvick and many others.
Anybody who has watched this sport over the years knows that Dale Jr.’s career hasn’t been what anybody other than himself probably envisioned. We’re all a part of that unfair comparison to his Hall of Fame father. That’s on us. It’s completely our fault. That has nothing to do with Dale Earnhardt Jr. All he can do is be who he is – and he’s been a damn good ambassador to the sport of NASCAR.