It's the most famous young face in the history of baseball—it's the symbol of purity corrupted, of the sport's loss of innocence in the face of organized crime and a gambling scandal that nearly ended baseball as young boys everywhere knew it.
Outside the courthouse there's a nervous crowd milling around, waiting for news. Suddenly there's a burst of activity and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, surrounded by well-wishers, ex-fans, photographers, reporters, and baseball players, pushes through the double doors and takes the steps with his easy grace. The crowd is shocked into silence—the reporters' questions are so much rhubarb—but one brave, stoic newsboy, carrying his accusing newspapers guiltily, steps into the baseball great's path and begs, his voice quivering with the weight of posterity on its back: "Say it ain't so, Joe! Say it ain't so!"
Having gotten his lede, the lucky reporter stalks back to the newsroom. But after his famous silence the fallen hero gives the newsboy a measured look and says, "Well, it depends on what you mean. Certainly I was mixed up with bad people who were doing bad things. But in the end either the facts or the sheer gravitas of my story will vindicate me, and that's all I can really ask for."
The baby-faced newsboy sniffles a little. No more than ten or eleven, by the looks of it, he's already an old hand at the business. "I—I'm glad to hear that, Joe, I really am, but that's not what I'm askin' about. Didn't you see the paper? Haven't you been paying attention? I got signed by the Royals!"
"Oh, Lord, kid," Joe says. "The Royals? That's a harsh break. But I'm afraid it's so."
"I know! I'm WonderBrad! I pitched 57 scoreless innings in a row in the minor leagues—and forget this rag," he says, "I was in the New York Times!"
"The first break-up is always tough. But I say you oughtta look at it this way: now that you're gone, the Cardinals fans you impressed all through that great season, and in your first few years as a reliever—well, that's how they're going to remember you! Not as the pitcher of last resort, or the guy who could only come in after a certain percentage of the TV audience had gone to bed."
"What's a TV?"
"The timeline is hazy, kid. Don't ask questions. It's like this—a role player's best moment is when he catches fire for those first few months and he can't do anything wrong. But his second-best moment is right now, after he's gone. From now on you're WonderBrad. Ten years from now they won't even remember that your fastball and your changeup eventually met in the middle."
The newsboy's face clears a little—a boyish glow takes hold. "I guess you're right, Joe." The matter settled, the crowd having grown bored and a little confused, the newsboy resumes plying his wares.
"Extra, extra—read all about it! Lincecum Cy Young of the National League!"
"Wait, kid, what'd you say? Lincecum?"
"It's so, Joe. Some people say it's a sea-change in how awards will be won. Other people are just really, really mad about it."
So here's what I still don't get. How can you look at what Wainwright did from a won-loss standpoint and essentially dismiss it in favor of Lincecum? As gifted a pitcher as Lincecum clearly is, he faltered down the stretch when his team was in the playoff hunt. In his last 10 starts, the San Francisco ace was only 3-4 with a 3.15 ERA. I'm sorry, but that has to mean something, doesn't it? If won-loss records are suddenly obsolete, why do we bother to keep the stat?
"Don't read any more unless you're gonna buy that."
"Okay, okay. There's something kind of haunting about that last line, isn't it? Like he's just a little worried somebody's going to say, 'You're right, why do we bother?' 'If switchboards are suddenly obsolete, why do we have all these people sitting in front of them?'"
"Give him his wins, Joe. They're a narrative, for goodness' sake. You should know something about that."
"Oh, wins and losses are great; nobody's ever going to occasion a parade when he breaks the 6 WAR barrier. And Wainwright and Carpenter both had great years. But it's a shame that this is the debate he's having, or trying to have, when there's a neighboring one that's a lot more important, especially considering a lot of these guys probably picked Lincecum because of his innings and his strikeouts, anyway: Does the Cy Young measure value, or does it measure what that value should have been?"
"This is why I never strike anybody out. I cut off philosophizing at the pass."
"Say we could eventually have a stat that measures the expected value of each swing, from a grounder to the second baseman to a ball that should be a home run. Is that a tool for MVP debates?"
"Is this about Keith Law's ballot?"
"Javier Vazquez had better peripheral stats than Wainwright. He should have been better. But all those runs Wainwright stranded were valuable, even if there's no reason to think he'll do that again. Vazquez is a perfect test case for this, too, since his ERA has always lagged his peripherals. But instead we're talking about wins like nobody's ever lost the Cy Young to a player with fewer wins before."
"This is a slippery slope, though. Do you give the MVP to the clutchest player, too?"
"Look, I don't know, Brad. I'm just a baseball player. I can't even read, to be totally honest—I just figured Bryan Burwell would be really mad and I made it up the best I could."
"You did good, Joe. We all have secrets," the newsboy says. "I'm actually 27 years old."