Friday, June 16, 2006

Book Review: Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders

by Matt Sandler

One of the biggest joys of being a baseball fan is griping with our fellow fans about our favorite team. We are so sure that we wouldn’t make the idiotic mistakes that we see the managers and general managers in the majors make. How could Jim Duquette trade Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano? Couldn’t he have gotten the other Zambrano? Why oh why was Willie Randolph so stubborn last year in continuing to bat David Wright seventh in the lineup? Surely if we were in the same positions, we wouldn’t commit these colossal blunders.

The best current baseball writer, Rob Neyer, has written a highly entertaining and informative new book called Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders (Fireside, 2006). What is the difference between an error and a blunder? As Neyer writes, “Bill Buckner did not blunder when he let that ball squirt between his legs; John McNamara did blunder when he let Bill Buckner let that ball squirt between his legs.” There are three requirements for what Neyer considers a blunder, summarized as follows: “Premeditation. Contemporary questionability. Ill effects.” In other words, it has to be something that could be thought about in advance (hence Buckner’s error being excluded), clearly suspicious at the time (not just a second-guess), and negatively impacting a team’s performance (Bob Brenly is off the hook for questionable moves since the D’backs won the 2001 World Series). Therefore, a blunder can typically only be committed by owners, general managers, and managers. In fact, none other than Babe Ruth, who somewhat inexplicably was caught stealing second base to end the 1926 World Series, committed the only in-game player decision that is included in the book.

Many of the blunders were trades or free-agent signings that can be specifically correlated with a team missing out on a postseason berth one or more times. For instance, Neyer estimates that the Cardinals trading Steve Carlton to the Phillies before the 1972 season cost the Cardinals three division titles, and backs up this analysis with cold, hard facts. Of course, these analyses can suffer from the fallacy of preordained conclusions, that if the event in question hadn’t happened, everything else that followed would have remained the same. We know from the “butterfly flaps its wings” theory that this is not the case. But Neyer has earned enough trust through his superb column on, and the book uses accounts of Win Shares post-trades, that we do feel that we are seeing the best guesses as to the real impact of these GM decisions.

Neyer also does not shy away from more of the business and legal aspects of the sport, and shows himself to be as adept with this angle as he is with statistics. Some of the blunders committed by owners include hiring military man Spike Eckert, who compared baseball franchises to Air Force bases, as commissioner. They also didn’t realize the genius of fellow owner Charlie Finley’s idea of making every player a free agent every year. Coming from Finley (he of the orange baseball concept), this idea was mocked, but it was union head Marvin Miller’s private nightmare, as it would drive salaries down. But owners instead accepted the compromise that we have today, where players are locked up for six years before becoming free agents. Thus, every year, one or two stars at each position becomes a free agent, and there are many teams that need a player at that position, creating bidding wars. Finally, the owners participated in three off-seasons of collusion in the late 1980s, resulting in a huge settlement years later, and perhaps a permanent distrust of ownership by the players union.

The most entertaining chapters in the book (but let it be said that there is not one uninteresting chapter in the book) are reserved for in-game managerial decisions, which can be pinpointed as costing teams important regular season or playoff games. All the recent favorites are here. McNamara leaving Buckner in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Buck Showalter leaving David Cone in to throw 147 pitches in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS against the Mariners. Grady Little not taking Pedro Martinez out of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Joe Torre refusing to bring in Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the World Series against the Marlins because he was waiting for a save situation on the road. But the funniest chapters are reserved for the Cubs’ hiring of Dusty Baker (who said that “a player doesn’t reach his peak until he’s somewhere between thirty-two or thirty-six and beyond”) and the Mariners’ hiring of Maury Wills in the middle of the 1980 season. This chapter is laugh-out-loud funny, as Neyer says that Wills “just might have been the very worst manager ever.” It is astonishing how many mistakes Wills made in just three months of major-league managing (he was fired one month into the 1981 season). Some of the highlights include making out a lineup card with two third basemen but no center fielder, repeatedly saying he was going to increase the playing time of players who had been traded away, and, for good measure, developing an addiction to cocaine.

The book is chock-full of good nuggets such as these. One of its main pleasures is being reminded of names that we may have vague recollections of, but around which we do not have a lot of context. Quick: did Tigers outfielder Chet Lemon play in the 1920s, 1950s, or 1980s? Answer: the 1980s. Did you know that White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson (he of the “You can put it on the board…YES!!!” call) had a disastrous stint as the Sox’ GM? Every time I read a column by Neyer, I come away with a substantive and interesting fact I didn’t know before. Multiply that feeling by a thousand, and you understand what it’s like to read this book.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan", appears alternate Fridays

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A-Rod and the Fallacy of the "Not Clutch" Label

by Scott Silversten

What will today’s caveat be?

Sometimes it’s the opponent, or maybe the inning. If the hit comes with the game tied, or the Yankees winning by a run, then it cannot be a “clutch” situation. Nationally televised games are preferable, unless it’s raining, because as we all in the rain just aren’t that big!

This is not meant to defend Alex Rodriguez, only to point out that his big moments always, ALWAYS, come with a disclaimer. And this ridiculous mentality will vanish only when A-Rod delivers a game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the World Series against the New York Mets.

NOTE: That hit must come with the Yankees trailing in the game. If the game is tied, the pressure would obviously be minimal.

For those that believe the previous four paragraphs are just hyperbole, you are not paying close enough attention. Rodriguez dominated the 2004 American League Division Series, but that was only the Minnesota Twins. He was the Yankees’ best offensive weapon in the first 3 ½ games of that year’s AL Championship Series, but of course, only the last 3 ½ are what matters.

Rodriguez hit a huge ninth-inning homer in Boston last year off Curt Schilling. However, let us all not forget that the game was only tied, Schilling was still battling back from his ankle injury and games in July are just meaningless exhibitions until the real season starts in October.

Sure, the Yankees won the AL East in 2005 by virtue of winning the regular season series with the Red Sox by one game, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good caveat!

That brings us to 2006, a year in which the Yankees offense has been decimated by injuries. Outfielders Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui will be out of the lineup until at least September, and both Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi have missed time recently after being hit on their hands. This is the time for A-Rod to step up. This is the big moment! This is why he gets $252 million!

Instead, Rodriguez is slumping. He’s letting his team down. He never performs in the big moment. Never gets clutch hits. The only problem with this argument is that fans and media only apply “big” and “clutch” adjectives to the times in which Rodriguez fails.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Yankees were in trouble. A long time ago, a month far, far away...or May if you want to get technical. After dropping two of three at Shea Stadium to the Mets – remember, Mets games are bigger than the rest – the Bronx Bombers proceeded to get pounded, 9-5, on a Monday night in Boston.

The next day’s newspapers had sports journalists delivering last rites. The Yankees were flailing and Boston was set to grab a stranglehold on the division. Mediocre Jaret Wright was to pitch on Tuesday, followed by struggling Randy Johnson. The Red Sox would sweep and virtually end New York’s season.

In what to date arguably stands as the Yankees’ biggest game of the year, the biggest hit was delivered by Rodriguez, whose three-run, seventh-inning homer stood up as the difference in the Yankees’ 7-5 triumph. Here’s the caveat: The Yankees were winning 4-1 at the time, so “clutch” that home run cannot be.

That victory began a 7-1 stretch for the Yankees to close out the month. During those eight games, Rodriguez was at his best. Following a troubling loss to Kansas City, he belted two homers the following afternoon in a rout. Of course, neither homer really counts. Why?

1. It was the Royals.
2. Neither came in the seventh inning or later.
3. The game was a blowout (never mind the fact that the two home runs are THE REASON it was a blowout).

Rodriguez remained hot the following week, helping the Yanks win three straight in Detroit against the team with baseball’s best record, the Tigers. Of course, the Tigers can’t be for real. It’s not like he had that success against, say, the Mets.

You see where this is going? Rodriguez has been a slight disappointment in pinstripes, but other than possibly the first baseman in St. Louis, no smart baseball person in their right mind would even think of trading A-Rod for anyone in the game. He is a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame performer, won the AL Most Valuable Player last year, is one of the hardest-working players in the game and a man who has never shied away from the responsibility that comes with a $252 contract.

Still, he is hated. If there was ever a player Yankees fans should embrace, it’s Rodriguez. He is a more talented player, by far, than the beloved Derek Jeter. In fact, it’s becoming more and more obvious that the worst decision Rodriguez ever made was deferring to Jeter and shifting to third base. He is doomed to forever live in the shadow the Yankees shortstop and captain.

Rodriguez could win four World Series rings, but of course, that likely means Jeter would have eight fingers adorned in jewelry. No amount of MVPs will live in baseball lore like some of Jeter’s most memorable moments.

Along with the rest of his teammates, Rodriguez struggled at the plate in the final three games of that 2004 ALCS, and the worst moment in Yankees history is still being blamed on the third baseman. Now, no matter what he does, it will never be enough.

With the Cleveland Indians in the Bronx this week, it is obvious who the Yankees need to replace Rodriguez. He should be immediately traded for...Aaron Boone.

Now there is a clutch hitter!

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Fall in Love with Corey Patterson

by Doug Silversten

As commissioner of my fantasy baseball league, it is my duty and privilege to communicate the final standings and congratulate the winner in a group email at the end of the season. At the end of the 2004 season, I had the pleasure of writing these beautiful words:

"In first place, winning $300,!"

Yes, I, Doug Silversten, was fantasy champion for 2004.

This moment is a close second in my list of "The Proudest Moments of My Life" behind the day I married my beautiful and lovely wife, Sarah….who is standing over my shoulder as I write this.

Phew…she’s gone. Who am I kidding…winning Fantasy is definitely #1. No comparison. And if you have won before, you know exactly what I mean. And if you think I am pathetic that winning my fantasy league was the best day of my life, you either have never played in a competitive fantasy league or you have, and are just jealous that you have never won yourself.

Later in my victory email, I wrote these words:

"I personally would like to thank Johan Santana (my 5th pick overall) for making this day possible. God bless him..."

And I meant it. I seriously considered sending him a note with some of my winnings. While I do take credit for expertly managing my team, Johan made the victory possible.

This year has been a struggle, but I somehow find myself in contention. And if I manage to pull off a miracle, I already know who my new savior is…

God Bless You Corey Patterson.

In late April, my team was really down in the dumps….just like our hero Corey Patterson. I was near the bottom of the pack, in dead last in several categories. I had some reason for optimism in some categories, but with Willy Taveras not running and Loco Coco Crisp hurt, I was in bad shape. But then, a gift from the Gods. Corey Patterson was….dropped! Yes, that’s right, the player who has personally saved my fantasy season from oblivion is a player I didn’t even draft! I can’t tell you how satisfying that is. It’s like winning the lottery from a ticket you found in the street.

I took a chance on Corey, and Corey has not disappointed. He must have been infuriated by fellow Baseball For Thought columnist Matt Sandler tossing him aside, because he suddenly became a fantasy stud. He began running like Forrest Gump, and thanks to the speed demon, I find myself near the top of the standings.

I do not know what the future will hold. My team is certainly capable of a complete collapse. However, thanks to Corey, I have the final 3 ½ months of the fantasy season to look forward to. And if the stars are aligned and I have a little luck, maybe another happy ending is in store. And Corey, if you are reading this, I just want to let you know that if that miracle occurs, expect a check in the mail...

"Wild Card Wednesdays" appears every Wednesday

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Primer: Steroids and HGH for non-medical students

by Alan Eliot

I am about to start my last year of med school. I often take that fact for granted when it comes to the more science-related aspects of the game. I get the body. I've studied its functions, delved into its details, and wrapped my head around its most intricate processes for three years. At a base level, one does this to pass. At a higher level, one does this to ultimately be a better clinician. But regardless of motive, the student leaves the four-year physician-making factory armed to the teeth with information, a vast soup of names and catch phrases and mneumonics, ready to diagnose and to treat.

Doctors are made, not born. There is no magic. Healing, sure. Art, of course. But no magic. To the average person, the body is something resembling a black box- food go in, poop comes out; meds go in, I feel better; I'm scheduled for surgery- two hours later, problem is solved and I have a scar. My car is a black box to me. A chinese manuscript is a black box to 80 percent of the world's population. But given enough time, pretty much anyone can learn to hone their skills at looking at a black box and pulling out relevant information. In that sense, we are all potential doctors, or mechanics, or translators of foreign languages. Claims of magic notwithstanding.

I cannot escape the doctor in me. I've gone too far. I see the world too differently. Everyone is a potential patient, and most variations in people explainable in terms of science- did I just hear you cough? Talk to me, tell me, when did it start? Let's look for rashes, signs of acute infection, a marker to tell me more, ...The kid in first grade who wore a patch over one of her eyeglass lenses for two months? Treatment for strabismus. My ex with the inconsistent periods? I have four explanations, all plausible. Now if only I could track her down to get some labwork done, we could move forward with the case...

And then there's baseball. Men with the "magic" ability to hit a round ball with a round bat (or to make other men miss the round ball with their round bat). Human men. Men who seem larger than life, but who in reality are as tied to the laws of medicine and nature as the rest of us. Patients, really. That player might have heart, but he's also got lungs, kidneys, a liver and a spleen. He gets colds. He needs vaccinations. He enjoys the occasional morning shit. Just like us, really. Or rather, just like us, only better at baseball. Or, they're just like me, only less adept with a stethoscope. Same difference.

No magic. Just science.

It is a shame to me, the sorta-doctor trapped in a baseball fan's body, that the terms of recent events are left so vague to the general population. He cheated. He took steroids. Steroids are bad. Steroids ruin your body, shrink your nuts (show video of inflated basketball deflating in locker room for effect), increase your risk for injury. Or how about they are all on growth hormone now that MLB is testing for steroids.

These are statements that are supposed to elicit shock and anger. And they do. But what I don't understand is how an issue as relevant to baseball in 2006 as performance-enhancing drugs can have its major terms left so undefined, and ultimately most likely misunderstood.

So without further ado, some science behind the "steroids go in, muscles come out":

Steroids: What's a steroid?
If steroids are evil, why did my doctor just prescribe them to my 5-year-old with asthma?

Steroids are hormones naturally produced by the human body. In simple terms, there are three main steroids that a male baseball player would be concerned with: cortisol, aldosterone and testosterone (androgen). All steroids have a similar structure, but very different functions. Cortisol and aldosterone are made in the adrenal glands (also where you get "adrenaline" from), as is a testosterone precursor. Testosterone is also made in the testes.

As an example, imagine the three Steroid brothers: Al (aldosterone) is always stressed, Andrew (androgen/testosterone) is macho and horny, and Cory (cortisol) is the pudgy peacemaker. As brothers, they all look alike, and are all classified as "Steroids", but act in completely different ways. Al's stress comes from aldosterone's role in the body as a hormone to increase blood pressure- consequently, some blood pressure meds work by blocking Al's role at the kidney.

Cory's peacemaking comes from cortisol's natural anti-inflammatory properties- a lot of cortisol will decrease swelling as well as suppress the immune system. Willis Reed's heroic stand at game seven of the 1970 NBA finals was made possible by this type of steroid (cortisol-related), injected into his knee to reduce swelling. It is also what is inhaled as long-term therapy for asthma patients- to reduce inflammation in the lungs. This type of steroid is the type referred to when transplant patients need to be on lifelong-steroids- in that case, to prevent the body from attacking the new tissue by suppressing its immune system. Unlike a performance-enhancing steroid, this steroid in excess will actually cause muscle wasting on the arms and legs, and will make you obese.

The last Steroid brother, the macho one (testosterone), is the one getting all of the press. In fact, to avoid confusion, rather than call this class "steroids" as is common in the media, this class should be referred to as "testosterone-related performance enhancers". That's all they are.

Andrew is macho and muscular because of testosterone's effects. Imagine puberty- Muscle and body growth. Body hair growth. Zits. Sexual desire. In fact, players take testosterone just for the muscle mass effect, but cannot avoid its other appearance altering effects (bacne). In fact, baldness too is a result of testosterone overdose, as testosterone is converted to another hormone (another steroid!) that naturally causes hair loss.

And there you have it- your classic muscular baseball player who is balding and has bacne.
Mark McGwire once noted how his new drug, androstenedione, not only helped him bulk up but would also make girlfriends very happy with their boyfriends. Andro naturally is converted eventually to testosterone-like compounds in the body. Big Mac was probably referring to a boyfriend's increase in libido and sexual performance- with the unsaid hope that the female in question wouldn't mind her boyfriend's new zit-covered face and new bald spot. Or shrunken testicles.

So steroids are not really banned after all...
Correct. Just testosterone-related ones, aka testosterone-related performance enhancers, aka anabolic steroids.

And every person naturally makes steroids...

So how can MLB test for them if people are naturally full of them?
What does an "undetectable steroid" mean?
Anabolic steroids are generally synthetically made compounds meant to mimic testosterone's effect in the body. They are not naturally made by the body, and their presence indicates that they have come from a source outside the body. It is helpful to think of them as "testosterone plus"- you essentially start off with what amounts to a testosterone molecule in the lab and add a side chain or two to it (or take one off). Sometimes this is done to change the potency of testosterone as a muscle builder. Other times this is done to mask the compound. This is a weakness of current testing- you can only find exactly what you are looking for. There are nearly infinite ways to manipulate the molecule slightly without changing its effects. It is then "undetectable", until MLB hears about it, adds it to the banned list, and the lab makes another small change and makes the new compound "undetectable". An equivalent analogy would be Andrew, the cunning brother, is being sought after by police. He draws a moustache on his face, and passes undetected- until a new bulletin is released with a picture of Andrew with moustache. So he puts a ring on his index finger. And is undetected. Then police update. So he changes his t-shirt from green to white. And is undetected. And it goes on.

So what is human growth hormone (HGH) and how is it a performance enhancer?
Imagine puberty again. There was the accompanying growth spurt at the time as well. This was due to the brain (specifically, the pituitary gland) making and releasing growth hormone. Your bones got longer, and you got taller. Growth hormone also caused your soft tissues, including muscles, to grow.

HGH is a synthetic growth hormone made specifically for children with a rare disorder in which they don't make enough growth hormone. It is illegally used, however, by baseball players, due to its effects in increasing muscle mass. Hence, it is another "performance enhancer".

w would I spot an HGH user?
Of course, as is the case with someone using a testosterone-related performance enhancer, a dramatically increased bulk over a very short time would be a tip off.

Additionally, you'd see other classic signs. Excess growth hormone causes a condition called acromegaly, usually caused by a pituitary tumor. Since bones are already fused by adult age, HGH in an adult won't cause bone lengthening as it does in a child. But enough of it will cause an acquired acromegaly- where the bones of the hands and feet all enlarge and widen, and where the cranium and bones of the face actually increase in size. This may cause a jaw-squaring, or jaw-protrustion, and for spaces for form between teeth. Of course, HGH will cause other enlargement, to internal organs such as the heart, which can eventually be lethal.

Typical HGH abuser? Player with history of sudden increased muscle mass, who's head seems to have grown in recent years (perhaps like a certain very prolific home run hitter who plays in California). In fact, there is a certain very famous actor who was once a bodybuilder, and who has admitted to using performance enhancing drugs, including HGH and steroids, whose classic teeth spacing and square jaw may be a result of his HGH use. Think of a very "clutch" lefty batter in the AL with a gap in his teeth and whose head also seems to have grown since he was called up.

Speculation? Of course. But what part of this terrible scandal isn't? As a player- you may escape detection by MLB authorities, but you can never escape the suspicion of an educated fan. And as a fan- as long as you base it in science, you may be able to prove it to yourself- cause we may never be able to prove it any other way.

Finally, this all comes to a head as Jason Grimsley was recently found to be in possession of HGH in his home. He has apparently cooperated with authorities, and named names in a now published affidavit at The names have been blacked out, but they will eventually become public- possibly shedding light on a hidden epidemic of HGH use in the MLB, especially with new steroid testing, and players still looking for an "undetectable edge".
We marvel at how a not-so-bulky non-hitter who wasn't even good was using performance enhancers, and who openly admitted to how rampant their use was in the majors. And it makes us look at the heroes of our generation and wonder, "who else?"

Science. Not magic. Performance enhancers such as steroids and HGH were used for years by baseball players looking for an edge, with a magical "inject here, grow there" approach. Players who fell for the allure of the quick gains were almost certainly not thinking of long-term consequences of their actions, whether to their bodies, or to the game itself- ruined in both cases. But what's dictated by reality and science is that you can't grow muscle in isolation using these drugs. There are always side effects- whether physical, like the balding, acne-prone star, or the bulked-up player with the new hat size, or spiritual.

What has become increasingly clear is that a lot of men sold their souls to performance enhancing drugs for an edge. Their collective lack of ethics is incredibly disheartening, as the game and its integrity now stand trial for the sins of its finest, as well as its mediocre. As a fan, you hope that the issue is being blown out of proportion by an overzealous media, that in fact the problem was very small and involved a small minority of players. The evidence is increasingly showing a very different picture, thought, which is scary- because very little evidence has thus far been presented. You wonder, with the coming weeks and evidence and accusations only set to increase, how nasty that final picture will ultimately be.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, June 12, 2006

When Wins And Losses are Meaningless Stats

by Doug Silversten

“Lies. Damned Lies. And Statistics.” I am sure you’ve heard that expression countless times. And for those who are ignorant of the power of statistics, it is often their mantra. While statistics can often mislead if interpreted incorrectly, they also have the power to reveal objective truths that the “gut feels” and “scouting reports” never can. Overall, I’m definitely in the “Moneyball” camp. However, having said that, there are a certain statistics that really are meaningless. And this column is about one of the most meaningless ones.

Wins and Losses.

What? Wins and Losses? Isn’t that the most important statistic? Well, yes, from a team standpoint. It is the ultimate stat. A team’s record is all that matters. All that other stuff on how they got there can be interesting and revealing, but at the end of the day, wins and losses are all that matters. As Bill Parcells put it, “You are what your record says you are.”

And nothing could be further from the truth for starting pitchers.

When a pitcher takes the mound to start a game, his mission is to give up as few of runs as possible. He doesn’t know if the game will be a 1-0 nail-biter, a 10-0 laugher, or somewhere in between. Yes, there is something to be said that a possible indication is the quality of the other starter. However, I feel that more affects the offense and how a game is managed than the pitcher’s approach. His job is simple: don’t let the other team score. Once the game progresses, sure, things may change. But, in general, it is tough to argue with the fact that a pitcher cannot control how many runs his team scores, only what the opponent does. Nor can he control what his bullpen does after he departs. So, having said that, let’s play a little game:

Pitcher A: 7-5.
Pitcher B: 6-2.

Who is having the better year? Tough to tell? I agree.

Pitcher A: 80.0 IP, 1.41 WHIP, 5.63 ERA, 63 Ks
Pitcher B: 85.2 IP, 0.89 WHIP, 2.94 ERA, 97 Ks

Who is having the better year? If you didn’t answer pitcher B, you are on the wrong site. Click here for something more your speed. The point is, all those other stats supplied information that provided evidence (strange word, I know, for many anti-Moneyballers) of performance. What additional information does the Wins and Losses provide? Does the fact that A went 7-5 and B 6-2 add any additional support for evaluating performance? Sure, it gives you a hint about run support. But performance? None, unless you really believe in the whole “pitch to the score.” And if the stat provides no support of anything of any kind, doesn’t that mean, by definition, it is meaningless?

Of course, if you watched both pitchers the entire year, you don’t need stats to tell you that Pedro Martinez (Pitcher B) is having another amazing year and Randy Johnson (Pitcher A), well, sort of sucks. But no one can follow every player on every team, and while I am all for scouts, occasionally you may want to evaluate talent on statistics. And for the love of common sense, ignore the letters “W” and “L” when judging a starter’s performance.

One more piece of that strange “evidence” word again:

Pedro in the month of May: 6 starts, 6 innings or more in each start. 42 IP. 55/6 K/BB ratio. 25 Hits. 10 ER.

Pedro’s record in May: 0-1.


Doug Silversten's column, "The Big Picture", appears alternate Mondays
"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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