Author: Mike Pesca
Title: Upon Further Review
Publication Info: Twelve (2018)
This collection of essays posits many “what-ifs” from American sports history, focusing less on “what if this team won the game instead of the other team” and more on general trends in sports history that changed on split decision or error.
Some of the essays are just really silly and played for laughs.
“What if the Olympics Had Never Dropped Tug-of-War?” – Nate Dimeo. Honestly, a world in which the world’s top athletes fought for the gold in tug-o-war would be a good place.
“What if Basketball Rims Were Smaller Than Basketballs?” – Jon Bois keeps the one-note gag going for EIGHT PAGES.
“What if Game 7 of the 2016 World Series Had Turned Into Every Sports Movie Ever Made?” – Josh Levin. If that final game of the Cleveland Indians-Chicago Cubs World Series wasn’t absurd enough, imagine if it had ghosts, a dog, and an ape joining in?
Some posit that the long term outcome wouldn’t change much.
“What if the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Had Lost the World Cup?” – Louisa Thomas recounts everything that actually happened after the USWNT won the 1999 World Cup with the idea that the attention the team drew was a bigger motivator in what did (and didn’t) happen in in the aftermath.
“What if Major League Baseball Had Started Testing for Steroids in 1991”.- Ben Lindbergh. Turns out that the 1990s/early 2000s would still have been an era of great offensive output but with fewer outliers, so Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens would not have been quite so great, and Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire probably wouldn’t have been all that remarkable at all. Even the popular idea that the McGwire/Sosa home run race “saved baseball” is challenged by evidence that baseball was already rebounding, and whatever gains it gave were lost to fans who stopped watching after the PED crisis was exposed.
Some decide that on the whole, things would have ended up a whole lot better.
“What if Jerry Tarkanian Had Beaten the NCAA and Liberated College Basketball?” – Jonathon Hock. College basketball should pay it’s players and in this world they create a successful league.
“What if the Dodgers Had Left Brooklyn?” – Robert Seigel writes from an alternate reality where the Dodgers stayed in Brooklyn and became a dynasty and Brooklyn became a prosperous independent city. Somehow in this reality, New York still gets the Mets, but the Giants and the Cubs move to California.
“What if Bucky Dent Hadn’t Homered Over the Green Monster in 1978?” – Stefan Fatsis. Technically, Fatsis’ story is from the perspective of his younger self skipping school to cheer for the Yankees at Fenway, so it’s supposed to be disappointing when it results in the Red Sox starting a dynasty and the Yankees wallow in mediocrity, but I definitely think that’s an improvement.
Some see a world where things end up much worse.
“What if Baseball Teams Played Only Once a Week?” – Will Leitch. Baseball becomes a weekly EVENT like football & Leitch tracks the changes which are all awful.
Some imagine a world where niche sports are much more popular.
“What if Horse Racing Was Still the Most Popular Sport in America?” – Peter Thomas Forntale. Horse racing maintains it’s mid-20th century popularity by consolidating under one organization, linking tv broadcasts with college football games, and making state lotteries based on horses rather than ping pong balls. The result is the opening of a luxury track in Brooklyn by Jay-Z and Beyonce.
“What if a Blimp Full of Money Had Exploded over World Track Headquarters in 1952?” – Paul Snyder. A somewhat more ludicrous premise leads to a similar outcome as the horse racing essay, where track & field ends up attracting the nation’s top professional athletes.
Some focus on broader social issues.
“What if Muhammad Ali Had Gotten His Draft Deferment?” – Leigh Montville. In this essay, Ali regains his prime years as a boxer, but loses his place as a heroic icon.
“What if the United States Had Boycotted Hitler’s Olympics?” – Shira Springer. It would’ve been the right thing to do, and according to Springer it was both an opportunity to stand up to Nazism and nip the IOC sportocracy in the bud.
“What if Nixon Had Been Good at Football?” – Julian E. Zelizer. Apparently Richard Nixon loved to play football but wasn’t very good at it. Zelizer hypothesizes that youthful success on the gridiron could’ve made Nixon less bitter and paranoid, and thus a better leader and President.
These are some fun what-if’s. Perhaps someday I’ll write my own. Here are the topics I have in mind if you want to take a stab at them.
- What if the Mets fully renovated and rebuilt the Polo Grounds and played there for decades instead of moving to Shea Stadium?
- What if the NASL survived? Or even, what if the American Soccer League of the 1920s-1930s survived?
- What if Major League Baseball brought in 2 to 4 complete teams from the Negro Leagues in the 1950s, instead of just signing the best players?
- What if VAR existed in 2002 and after review, Torsten Frings of Germany was called for a handball in the World Cup Quarterfinal, giving the USA men’s team a chance to score?
- What if kickball became a professional sport?
- The New York Knicks have only won championships in seasons when my mother was pregnant. What if she had a third child?
A better argument can be made in the other direction. What if he hadn’t lost that time? Those missing years were what defined his career, what made his life so different from all the other boxers who came along before or have come along since. How could he have been the Greatest of All Time, the icon of icons, an important figure in politics and art and everyday life if he had plugged along on a normal athletic arc? How could he have been Muhammad Ali if he simply… boxed? Blessed with speed, strength, and charisma, Ali worked to achieve great mastery of the skills of his sport. But it was this ordeal, these troubles, that made him everything he became. – Leigh Montville
Without football, we’d have a lot less to argue about on sports radio, which would possibly mean a lot less sports radio. I admit that does make the demise of football sound like the polio vaccine. – Jason Gay
t should be noted that while gambling adds to racing’s appeal, it is one part of the mosaic. No sane person would lecture you on the history, pageantry, strategy, or majesty of pulling the arm of a slot machine. Racing is built on all of those things. But the lottery, table games, and slot machines do offer a steady dopamine gambling rush that racing can’t hope to compete with. Consider racing a sip of single-vineyard Barolo from a hand-blown crystal glass, whereas a scratch-off ticket is like taking a deep pull off a bottle of Mad Dog. – Peter Thomas Fornatale
In other words, there’s solid statistical backing for the intuitive sense that with earlier testing, we wouldn’t have seen the standout seasons that define that era in modern fans’ minds—particularly those by Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa. Those players probably would have aged out of the game earlier or failed to post stats that defied credibility. Which likely means that the home run records of Roger Maris and Hank Aaron would still stand, instead of Bonds’s single-season and career marks looming over the sport like the now-regarded-as-unbreakable women’s track times that suspected steroid users Florence Griffith Joyner, Jarmila Kratochvílová, and Marita Koch recorded in the 1980s (although that trio was tested). While other factors might have made the mid-to-late nineties and early-to-mid aughts a high-offense era regardless, testing could have compressed the range of individual stat lines such that the sport would have looked more like 2016, when the league as a whole hit tons of home runs but only seven players topped 40 (and the leader hit 47). Without the disillusionment caused by those instinctively asterisked 60-and 70-homer seasons, more recent outlier years wouldn’t have prompted as much skepticism from fans and writers. It’s also possible that fewer players would have sought out PEDs, not only because testing could have functioned as a partial deterrent, but also because clean players would have felt less pressure to keep up with their blatantly performance-enhanced peers, as Bonds reportedly did after seeing the fanfare that greeted McGwire’s and Sosa’s home run heroics. – Ben Lindbergh
it’s such a difficult game to play, is the constant churn of games. In Barry Svrluga’s The Grind, a book chronicling the toll a 162-game Major League Baseball season takes on everyone who’s a part of it, most players say that the hard part of baseball isn’t baseball; it’s that there is always baseball. This is why baseball is sneakily as physically taxing as any other sport, if not more so. Sure, in one individual baseball game, players move less than in the other sports. But over a season, one game almost every day for six months is grueling. It is an endurance test in a way no other sport is. The baseball season today begins at the beginning of March for Spring Training and extends into October—late October if you’re lucky. NFL teams play sixteen games a year; the NBA and NHL play eighty-two. Baseball doubles that and occasionally throws in two games in one day. It leads to a numbing, often disorienting march that affects the lives of everyone connected to the game. – Will Leitch
Once-a-week-baseball does up the hype, the excitement, and the drama. It imbues the once pastoral sport with a football-esque insistence. It strips away nuances that can be observed only after repeated viewing. It accelerates the sport’s resting heart rate and obviates the languorous tobacco spitting and sunflower seed expectoration that characterizes optimal dugout bonding. I wonder if the words clubhouse or ballpark would be applied to a pursuit with such crisis-level stakes. I cannot see an organist leading a swaying crowd in a sing-along of a song written in 1908 in a sport with so much on the line; there is nothing languid when baseball is played at this pace. I cannot see the administration of a hot foot being countenanced given the seriousness of every moment. I cannot see a chicken becoming a beloved team mascot. In short, though I am the author of this alternative supposition, I have to say I believe it would be horrible and would ruin everything I love about baseball. Which means, of course, it would be incredibly popular and remunerative. – Will Leitch
Recommended books: The Curious Case of Sidd Finch by George Plimpton, Almost America: From the Colonists to Clinton : A “What If” History of the U.S. by Steve Tally, and It’s Game Time Somewhere by Tim Forbes