Book Review: Fun city by Sean Deveney


Author: Sean Deveney
TitleFun city : John Lindsay, Joe Namath, and how sports saved New York in the 1960s
Publication Info: New York : Sports Publishing, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Jonathan Mahler’s excellent book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning examines New York City in 1977 through the lens of that years highly contested mayoral election and the New York Yankees championship season, despite the high conflict within the team.  Deveney takes a similar approach to New York City in the 1960s, albeit over a longer period of time. The political point covers the election and first term of liberal mayor John Lindsay, perhaps the last good Republican. The sports angle focuses on quarterback Joe Namath who would lead the New York Jets to an unlikely Super Bowl championship in 1969.  Both men are characterized by their youth, good looks, individuality, and celebrity that defines the “New Breed” of 1960s New York.  They also both make a lot of mistakes are subject to hefty amounts of criticism.

There’s a lot of nostalgia by proxy for me in this book as this was the New York City of my parent’s teenage and young adult years, a legendary time in “Old New York” that I would only later realize happened just a few years before I was born. Nevertheless, a lot of the issues in the book are startlingly contemporary: structural racism, angry white resentment that minorities are getting too much attention, conflicts over public education, growing inequality, disinvestment in municipal services, resources going to war taking away from resources that could be used to alleviate poverty, et al  Other issues are from a different time such as the frightening increase in crime or unions with the power to dictate terms to the Mayor while still calling multiple strikes.

The book follows Lindsay and Namath’s careers from 1965-1970, with in-depth details of city politics and the New York Jets football.  Occasionally, Deveney veers into other things happening in New York during the period, such as Muhammad Ali fighting a title bout that would be the last fight  in the old Madison Square Garden and coincidentally would also be Ali’s last fight before his draft protest would get him suspended from boxing.  Deveney also documents the demise of establishment teams, the New York Yankees and New York Giants, contrasting them with the rise of the fresh, new teams the Mets and the Jets. Lindsay, not a sports fan, attaches himself to the Mets’ 1969 World Series drive as part of his reelection campaign, which proves a successful strategy. A final chapter on the New York Knicks also winning their first championship in 1970 seems more an addendum than tying into the themes of the rest of the book.

I think Deveney is more effective as a straightforward sports writer than political analyst, but overall it’s still a good history of an interesting time in New York City history.

Recommended booksLadies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler and Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh
Rating: ****

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Major League Baseball Expansion: A 48 Team Option


Last week I wrote about the possibility of Major League Baseball adding two expansion teams and what a 32-team baseball league might look like. I proposed using expansion as an opportunity to radically change some ways that MLB is currently contested while bringing back some traditional elements.  These changes would make the regular season and postseason more fair and competitive as well as drawing more fans and increasing television ratings.

This week I will propose an even more radical change to Major League Baseball as we know it: adding 18 new teams and creating a 48-team league! In my previous post, I made a list of 25 cities that could possibly become homes to a new baseball club.  So let’s award expansion teams to Buffalo, Charlotte, Columbus, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Louisville, Mexico City, Monterrey, Montreal, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Portland, San Antonio, San Juan, and Vancouver. You may ask, how on Earth can Major League Baseball handles something as unwieldy as 48 teams in cities across North America? The answer is by creating a promotion and relegation league system.

What is a Promotion and Relegation System?

Developed in the 19th century for the English Football League, promotion and relegation originated to guarantee that the league competition by expelling the teams with worst records at the end of the season and bringing in new clubs for the next season. Eventually a pyramid of football divisions grew so that each season the top division would “relegate” its worst-performing teams the second division and “promote” the second divisions best teams to the first division. This happens between the second and third divisions, third and fourth divisions, and so on.  The promotion-relegation model is common in European sports leagues and is used in various leagues across the world except in the United States in Canada.

The reason for the lack of promotion and relegation in the United States and Canada goes back to the formation of the first professional baseball league, the National League in 1876.  While the English Football League hoped to promote competition among the best of the existing football clubs, the National League awarded franchises to a limited number of owners to create teams with exclusive territorial rights, and other sports leagues in the US and Canada have followed the same model.  No matter how poorly a team performs it will be guaranteed a spot in the league the next season (as long as the owner keeps the team financially solvent). No matter how well a team in a lower division performs, it will not gain access to the Major Leagues.

In fact, over time lower divisions became known as the Minor Leagues and were developed as a “farm system” where teams affiliated with Major League teams to develop players. Minor League games are more about watching individual players develop and on-field entertainments than winning or losing games which is rendered meaningless by the farm system. The only way Minor League cities have been able to break into the Majors is via infrequent expansions which involve hefty expansion payments to the existing teams, and little chance to develop a cohesive team before beginning play, which means expansion teams are almost universally awful in their first years. The United States is generally regarded as being the beacon of free-market capitalism, and yet while promotion-relegation leagues is a merit-based system, the closed shop of US sports leagues is akin to socialism.

Transition Period

So 18 new baseball clubs are born – and we’ll use the 18 cities I cited above in this example – now what?  To ease us into the new paradigm, lets have a five-year transition period. The current 30 MLB teams will become the MLB First Division and function pretty much as it does today with two leagues of 15 teams each arranged into 3 divisions, with a tiered playoff.  The 18 new teams would play in the MLB Second Division, likely arranged in 3 divisions of 6 teams each with their own postseason competition.

At the end of the five-year transition period, the six MLB First Division teams with the worst cumulative regular season records over those five years will be relegated to MLB Second Division. Just for this example, I determined that the six MLB teams with the worst cumulative records from the 2013 to 2017 regular seasons are the Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati, Miami, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and San Diego.  These teams will be relegated to MLB Second Division in the example below.

How a MLB Will Work With Two Divisions

We now have two divisions of 24 teams each.  Much like I proposed for the 32 team option, these teams would be aligned regionally into three leagues of 8 teams each in both divisions.  The 8 team leagues would be a shorter 154-game schedule with no interleague play.  The regional proximity within the leagues would help reduce the wear and tear of travel, encourage rivalries, increase attendance with fans of the away team able to travel to more games, improve broadcast ratings by having most games in the same time zone and starting at consistent times, and playing a balanced schedule that most fairly judges which teams are the best teams.

After the regular season ends, the top team in each league would be awarded the pennant and 8 teams would advance to a postseason tournament. This would be the top two teams from each of the two leagues, and two wild card teams from among the third place finishers.  The teams would be seeded to play in a best-of-5 quarterfinal series, with the winners advancing to a best-of-7 semifinal series, and a best-of-7 World Series.  MLB Second Division would also play a similar postseason tournament.

Here is what the two divisions would like in the first season of the promotion and relegation model:

MLB First Division

EAST CENTRAL WEST
Atlanta Chicago Cubs Arizona
Baltimore Cleveland Houston
Boston Colorado Los Angeles Angels
New York Mets Detroit Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Yankees Kansas City Oakland
Toronto Milwaukee San Francisco
Tampa Bay Pittsburgh Seattle
Washington St. Louis Texas

MLB Second Division

EAST CENTRAL WEST
Buffalo Chicago White Sox Las Vegas
Charlotte Cincinnati Mexico City
Miami Columbus Monterrey
Montreal Indianapolis Oklahoma City
Norfolk Louisville Portland
Orlando Minnesota San Antonio
Philadelphia Nashville San Diego
San Juan New Orleans Vancouver

Promotion and Relegation

Most people are most familiar with promotion and relegation from the English football league system.  Each season, the three worst teams from the Premier League (the first division) are relegated to the EFL Championship (the second division), and three teams from the EFL Championship are promoted to the premier league (in this case, the top two teams from the regular season and the winner of a playoff among the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th place teams). Across the world’s sports leagues there are different models of how many teams are promoted and relegated, and what determines which teams will be promoted and relegated.

My plan would have three teams promoted and three teams relegated each season.  1 team from each league in MLB First Division – East, Central, and West – is relegated and replaced by a team from the respective leagues in MLB Second Division. Instead of simply relegating the team with the worst regular season record from each league, instead the teams relegated would have the worst cumulative record over two seasons.  I propose this rule for three reasons:

  1. No team will end up being relegated for having just one bad season. They’ll have a chance to prove themselves the next season.
  2. Since every team will want avoid relegation by having a strong 2-year cumulative record, a team will have the incentive to try to win every game possible, even late in the season when the team’s been eliminated from postseason contention.
  3. A team promoted from the lower division will have a minimum of two seasons at the higher division, giving them a year to find their footing in the new division, and avoid teams popping back and forth between divisions each year.

Promotion would involve simply advancing the pennant winner from each second division league to the first division league.  I tried to come up with a way that the second division playoffs could be used to determine some or all of the teams promoted, but strictly basing it on the best performances in the regular season seems most fair to me.

Minor Leagues

Even with 48 teams playing in the Major Leagues, there would still be a lot of Minor League teams and each MLB team could affiliate with at least 4 MiLB teams.  Ultimately though, I think it would be imperative to rethink the farm system and expand the promotion and relegation system.  There are enough cities currently at the Triple A and Double A levels of Minor League Baseball that could create a 3rd and 4th division of 24 teams each.  Expanding the promotion and relegation system would make competitive professional baseball available in cities across America. The Minor Leagues could be streamlined then to just two affiliated teams per MLB team: one for development, and one as reserves.

With 48 (or 96) teams, obviously the best players will cluster in the MLB First Division. Teams in lower divisions will try to scout and acquire players to improve themselves and get promoted to a higher division. But there would also be opportunities for teams in the lower division to improve their team and/or financial status by trading their best players or selling their contracts to top division teams.  I would also suggest that MLB adopt player loans, where teams that have a player under contract can temporarily have that player play for a team in another division.  This would be a benefit for top division teams who have young talent that they want to get more playing time, but a team in a lower division going through a rebuilding period may also keep their best players happy by allowing them to play for a more competitive team.

 ***

I won’t go into in this post, but for this new model to work, other things that will need to be adjusted include free agency eligibility rules, the amateur draft, territorial rights, and even MLBs antitrust exemption.  And I’m sure that there are hundreds of little things I’ve overlooked.  Nevertheless, I think this would be an effective approach for MLB to consider in growing baseball and making it more competitive in more cities throughout the continent, while establishing a means to continue to grow into the future.

Major League Baseball Expansion: A 32 Team Option


The prospect of expanding Major League Baseball from 30 to 32 teams has become increasingly likely in recent years, with even MLB Commisioner Rob Manfred suggesting  potential expansion cities.  Baseball writers such as Jayson Stark for the Athletic (the article is behind a paywall, but is outlined on SBNation) and Tracy Ringolsby for Baseball America have written about what a 32-team baseball league might look like.  Since I like thinking about these things, I figured I’d take a stab at where MLB may expand, and how that could change MLB for the better through realignment.

A History of Growth and Change in Major League Baseball

Baseball historians recognize the National League – founded in 1876 with 8 teams – as the first true Major League.  For its first quarter century, the National League fluctuated between 6 and 12 teams, with many teams relocating, folding, or being expelled over time.  The NL faced competition from three competing Major Leagues during that time, but was able to survive while other leagues collapsed until the birth of the American League in 1901. The NL and AL champions met in the first World Series in 1903, but perhaps even more remarkable is that year was the first in an incredible string of consistency where the two leagues operated with 8 teams each with no relocations, withdrawals, or expansion.

For 50 years the same 16 teams played in the same 10 cities in the Northeast and Midwest.  By the 1950s, growing cities – especially in the West – were frustrated by their inability to crack the MLB hegemony, while the teams in the older cities found themselves struggling with attendance. The Boston Braves finally broke the seal, moving to Milwaukee to start the 1953 season. The St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles in 1954, and the Philadelphia Athletics ventured west to Kansas City in 1955.  The biggest shocker came in 1958 when the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers – two of the National Leagues most popular and successful teams in America’s most populous city – packed up for San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively.

The desire for New York to have another team alongside the Yankees, and for cities like Minneapolis, Denver, and Toronto to get their first major league teams, lead to the announcement of the Continental League in 1959.  This third league never played a game, but convinced the National and American Leagues to create 8 expansion teams over the next decade.  The American League expanded first in 1961, putting a team in the Los Angeles market, and new Senators team in Washington, to replace the old Senators who were simultaneously moving to Minnesota to become the Twins.  The National League followed suit in 1962 with expansion teams in Houston and New York.

The peripatetic Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1966, and the Athletics completed their trip across the continent by moving from Kansas City to Oakland in 1968.  Each league expanded by two teams again in 1969.  The National Leagued added teams in San Diego, and the first Canadian franchise in Montreal.  Meanwhile, the American League returned baseball to Kansas City and a new team in Seattle.  In 1969, the two leagues were also split into two divisions each with a playoff series added before the World Series.

The Seattle Pilots lasted only one year before packing up to fill the baseball gap in Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers.  Washington once again lost their Senators who resurfaced in Texas as the Rangers in 1972.  The American League expanded once again in 1977 to 14 teams, giving Seattle a second chance and breaking into the Canadian market in Toronto.  The National League chose not to expand, and the leagues remained unbalanced for the next 16 seasons.

In 1993, the National League finally grew to 14 teams by expanding to Miami and Denver.  The following season the leagues were split into three divisions adding a Wild Card and another round of playoffs, albeit a player’s strike canceled the 1994 postseason, so the expanded playoffs would debut until 1995.  In 1997, Major League Baseball scheduled interleague games between American and National league teams for the first time.  The following season, MLB decided to add two more teams, one to each league, with the NL getting a team in Phoenix and the AL entering Tampa Bay.  This would mean that each league would have an odd number of teams – 15 each – but since MLB wasn’t ready to schedule interleague games every day of the season, Commissioner Bud Selig moved his team, the Milwaukee Brewers, from the AL to the NL.

The Montreal Expos struggled financially and with attendance after the 1994 strike, and MLB even took over the franchise.  In 2005, for the first time in 33 years a MLB team relocated,  coincidentally returning to the last city that lost a franchise, and the Expos became the Washington Nationals. In 2012, MLB allowed a second Wild Card team to qualify for the postseason, adding another round to the playoffs.  And in 2013, MLB decided that they were ready to schedule interleague games every day and balance the two leagues at 15 teams apiece.  But instead of returning Milwaukee to the American League, they moved the Houston Astros from the NL to the AL.

And that is where we stand today…

25 North American Cities That Could Host an Expansion Team

Here are 25 potential candidates for MLB expansion.  For each city listed, I took into account the city and surround region’s population, the history of baseball in that city, and other big sports teams currently based in those cities.

  • Buffalo -The home to the NFL Bills and NHL Sabres for decades, Buffalo is still without a MLB team. The city was home to three different major league baseball teams – all named the Bisons – in the early days of pro baseball, most recently in the Federal League in 1915-15. Even in the minor leagues, the Bisons have been enormously popular. In the late 80s the team outdrew some major league teams, and their ballpark built at that time remains the largest in the minors. The ballpark was built to be enlarged if Buffalo got an expansion team, but the 1993 expansion passed over Buffalo and the city received even less consideration in 1998. With other markets growing more swiftly, Buffalo’s best chance for an expansion team seems to have passed but it remains a dark horse candidate.
  • Charlotte – A growing market that is already the nation’s 17th largest city, Charlotte is home to the NFL’s Panthers, NBA’s Hornets, and NHL’s Hurricanes.  The Charlotte Knights have been a successful Triple-A team since 1993 and recently moved into a new ballpark (albeit one too small to expand to MLB size).  Charlotte is also located in a part of the country that’s quite a distance from existing MLB markets.  Assuming that a location for a new ballpark could be found, Charlotte would be a front-runner for MLB expansion.
  • Columbus – The 14th largest city in the United States (and the largest city in Ohio) is home to the NHL’s Blue Jackets and charter MLS club Crew SC, not to mention the Ohio State Buckeyes’ football team.  The Columbus Clippers have been a successful Triple-A team since 1977. The biggest challenge for Columbus is that Ohio is already divided between two baseball fan bases that were established over a century ago.
  • Havana – This one is a long shot due to political realities, but more plausible since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.  Havana is home to more than 2 million baseball-loving sports fans and the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano has a larger capacity than any MLB ballpark except Dodger Stadium.  The Havana Sugar Kings were a successful minor league team in the 1940s and 1950s prior to the Cuban Revolution.  Perhaps sometime in the distant future, Havana will have a place among North American ballclubs once again.
  • Indianapolis – The capital of Indiana has been home to the Indianapolis Indians, the second oldest minor league franchise, since 1902. Major League teams played there in the 19th century, and today the city is home to the NFL’s Colts, the Pacers and Fever basketball teams, and the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. An Indy MLB club would slot into natural rivalries with teams in neighboring Ohio and Illinois. Indianapolis is the 16th most populous city in the US, so really it would come down to the ability to finance a major league stadium.
  • Las Vegas – Once considered a tourist destination, Las Vegas is one of the most rapidly growing American cities. The NHL’s Golden Knights were an immediate success in their first season, and the NFL’s Raiders are scheduled to move to Vegas in 2020. The big question is if there’s enough of a permanent population to come out and support a MLB team over 162 games. A new ballpark is under construction for the city’s AAA team meaning the money to build or expand a ballpark to MLB standards (which almost certainly would need to be in a climate-controlled building with a movable roof) will not be available in the near future. Legalized gambling is obviously no longer scaring away sports teams from Las Vegas, but MLB tends to be more conservative in regards to gambling.
  • Louisville – Hillerich & Bradsby have been producing the famous Louisville Slugger but the city hasn’t had a major league team since the NL contracted after the 1899 season. Louisville is the 29th largest city in the US and the fourth largest city with no big league teams. Louisville could develop a swift rivalry with the Cincinnati Reds if they gained an expansion team.
  • Mexico City – The largest city in North America looks like an obvious market for MLB to want to break into. The problem is, Mexico City doesn’t have a lot of history of supporting baseball where fútbol is king. The city would also be a long road trip away from existing MLB cities, and the value of the peso to the dollar could make it challenging to compete financially. MLB still might want see if can find a fan base in the city (and be Mexico’s team by proxy) but it’s not a slam dunk.
  • Monterrey – This Northern Mexican city is less populous than the capital, but it has the advantage of being closer to MLB teams in the US, and in the heart of the Mexican region that most actively supports baseball. The Sultanes are one of the most successful teams in the Mexican League, and their home, the 22,000-seat Estadio de Baseball, has hosted regular season MLB games. The city tried to purchase the Expos in 2003, so it may be time for Monterrey to get a MLB franchise.
  • Montreal – The city in Quebec was home to successful minor league franchises dating back to the 1800s, and in 1969 became home to MLB’s first team in Canada. Since the Expos left for Washington after the 2004 season, there have been calls to return baseball to Montreal. An expansion team would face the same problems as the Expos, though. Stade Olympique is a money pit that was never a good ballpark and hasn’t aged well, so financing a new stadium would be key. The exchange rates of the Canadian dollar also make it a challenge for a Montreal team to compete for the best players. Still, every other city that lost an MLB team after 1900 has been able to return to MLB, so Montreal has to be in the running as an expansion favorite.
  • Nashville – The Music City is another rapidly growing city, and its right in a part of the country where there isn’t an existing big league baseball team nearby, so it could be a good place for MLB to break ground.  The city is currently home to the Tennessee Titans of the NFL and the Predators of the NHL, with a MLS team coming soon.  The Nashville Sounds have been the city’s minor league team since 1978, playing at the Triple A level since 1985.  The team recently moved into a new stadium with a capacity of 10,000 which may be a roadblock to building a MLB stadium in the city in the near future.
  • New Orleans – This historic and unique port city is home to two big league teams: NFL’s Saints and NBA’s Pelicans. It’s also the largest city along the Gulf Coast in a big gap between MLB teams in Tampa Bay and Houston. New Orleans has been home to a Triple-A team since 1993, but would fans come out on soupy summer nights to support a MLB team? The Superdome would be inappropriate to retrofit for baseball so the biggest obstacle would be funding and finding a place for a retractable roof ballpark.
  • New York City – Wait, you may be thinking, New York already has two teams! This is true, but in the past it was home to three teams and could host more. Consider London, England, a city with a similar population to New York currently has six football clubs in the Premier League. NBA’s Nets have put Brooklyn back on the sporting map, so maybe it’s time to bring baseball back to Brooklyn? Another possibility in the New York metropolitan area is Northern New Jersey, a densely populated region that is already home to the two “New York” football teams and the NHL Devils.
  • Norfolk – The Hampton Roads area of Virginia is the largest metropolitan statistical area in the United States that does not already have a big league team in any sport.  Norfolk and Virginia Beach are close enough to Washington and Baltimore to build a rivalry, but far enough away to establish their own fanbase.  On the downside, the population is spread out over a wide area and a large military presence may mean that people are too transient to establish a longtime fandom.
  • Oklahoma City – America’s 27th largest city recently entered into big league sports when the Seattle Supersonics of the NBA relocated and began playing as the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008.  The city has been home to a Triple-A team since the 1960s and also hosts several annual collegiate tournaments.  Like Charlotte and Nashville, Oklahoma City is distant from existing MLB cities presenting the opportunity to tap a fresh market of fans.
  • Orlando – Like Las Vegas, Orlando was once only thought of as a tourist resort, but has rapidly grown into a major city. The city is home to the Magic of the NBA and has the Orlando City SC MLS team has quickly gained a devoted following.  Orlando also hosts college bowl games and the NFL’s Pro Bowl.  Florida’s other two baseball teams have struggled at attracting fans, and with transient populations and blistering hot summers, a third Florida team may be a tough sell. On the other hand, if the Rays can’t find a good place for a new stadium in Tampa Bay, Orlando might be an inviting alternative.
  • Portland – The Rose City is growing in population and prestige and seems a natural destination for a new MLB club. The MLB’s current most isolated team, the Seattle Mariners, would be an automatic natural rival. The NBA’s Trailblazers have called Portland home since the 1970s and the MLS Timbers and NWSL Thorns soccer teams are among the top draws in their respective leagues. Soccer is so popular in fact that the long-time home of the city’s Triple A team was converted to soccer specifications.  There hasn’t been a minor league team in Portland since 2010, although a Single A team plays in the suburbs.  The question is, will Portland welcome a new baseball team at the major league level, and where would they play?
  • Sacramento – The capital of California is overshadowed by the Golden State’s other large cities, but ranking as the 35th largest city in the U.S. it is more populous than almost half of the existing MLB cities.  The Kings have played in the NBA since 1985 and the city has hosted a Triple A team since 2000. The biggest obstacle to Sacramento as an expansion city is that two teams already play in the Bay Area just two hours away.  But if the Athletics continue to struggle in Oakland, Sacramento could become their new home.
  • Salt Lake City – This is the smallest city to make this list, but the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan area has the advantage of no competing markets being anywhere remotely close to it.  Thus Salt Lake City has been able to be be to the Jazz in the NBA and Real Salt Lake in MLS.  Salt Lake City have had several teams in the Pacific Coast League over the past century, the most recent playing since 1994.  The Bees play in the largest stadium in the PCL and have set attendance records for that league.  Still, I’d consider Salt Lake City a longshot for MLB expansion.
  • San Antonio – America’s 7th largest city is home to a successful NBA franchise, the Spurs.  Surprisingly, despite the city’s size, San Antonio does not have a top level minor league team, with the Missions currently operating in Double-A baseball.  That will change in 2019 when the Triple-A Colorado Springs franchise will relocate to San Antonio and adopt the Missions nickname.  This means it may take some time for San Antonio to ready to make another jump to MLB level.  Austin, Texas, while not as large as San Antonio, is the 11th largest city in the United States, and the largest city without a big league team in any sport, so it may get the jump on San Antonio.
  • San Jose – Much like Sacramento, San Jose is a large city attempting to define it’s own sporting identity in a state that already has five major league baseball teams. The NHL Sharks and the MLS Earthquakes already call the tenth largest city in the U.S. home, and the NFL’s “San Francisco” 49ers play a few minutes away in Santa Clara. The Athletics tried to move to San Jose but were legally blocked by the San Francisco Giants.  If they won’t give the A’s permission to move into San Jose, it’s unlikely that the city would get approval for an expansion team.
  • San Juan – The capital of Puerto Rico is home to nearly 400,000 people and the center of an urban area of over 2 million.  Puerto Rican players have excelled in Major League Baseball and the island’s World Baseball Classic team has also performed well.  Major League Baseball has expressed a lot of interest in San Juan, hosting regular season games there, including several “home” games for the Montreal Expos in 2003 and 2004.  The Expos ended up moving to Washington instead of San Juan. The economic realities of Puerto Rico – especially as it continues to recover from Hurricane Maria – will mean that a MLB franchise will not be a priority for San Juan for the foreseeable future.
  • Santo Domingo – Baseball is the most popular sport in the Dominican Republic, and many Dominicans have become major league stars. The nation’s capital and largest city – which also the largest city in the Caribbean – is home to nearly a million people.  But much like Puerto Rico, the economic realities of the Dominican Republic and competing financially with teams in the United states would seem to make expansion to Santo Domingo to be frivolous at this time.
  • Vancouver – Canada’s third largest city, and only major city on the West Coast, is also the fifth most densely populated major city in North America.  Vancouver is home to the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions, the NHL’s Canucks, and the Whitecaps FC in MLS. The city also hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010 and the Women’s World Cup final in 2015.  While home to a Single Season A team in minor league baseball now, Vancouver was home to a Triple-A team from 1978 to 1999. Like Portland, Vancouver would be a natural rival to the Seattle Mariners.

Realignment and scheduling

Once two more cities are selected, then Major League Baseball would have to decide where to fit them in the existing league structure and how to adjust the season schedule for the new teams.  Most likely each league would get one new team to bring them up to 16 teams each, and then those 16 teams would be aligned in four regional divisions of four teams each.

But I hope not.  The tiny divisions of four teams will inevitably increase the number mediocre teams winning their and going to the postseason while more talented second place teams in other divisions will stay home.  The necessity of an unbalanced schedule in divisional play will also increase the uncertainty of what teams are really the best and which ones just have easier schedules.

What I would propose instead is to bring an end to the American and National Leagues as we know them.  They’d be replaced by four leagues of eight teams aligned by regional proximity.  Interleague play would end and the eight teams would face one another 22 games each over a 154-game season.

There would be several advantages to this realignment:

  1. Long road trips over multiple time zones cause a lot of wear and tear for the players contributing to reduced performance and injury.  Regional leagues would reduce traveling and make for happier and healthier ballplayers.
  2. Regional rivalries (such as Red Sox-Yankees, Cubs-Cardinals, and Giants-Dodgers) are among the biggest draws in MLB.  The regionally aligned leagues would allow for more of games of these existing rivalries while also creating new rivalries among teams that share a city, state, or region.
  3. The closer proximity of all the teams in the league means that fans who follow their teams to road games will have the opportunity to go to more games close by, increasing overall attendance.
  4. There would no longer be road trips to distant time zones, meaning East Coast fans would no longer have to stay up past midnight watching their team play West Coast teams, and West Coast fans won’t have their team’s road games starting before they leave work. More consistent start times would improve broadcast ratings.
  5. The balanced schedule would make it far more clear to judge which teams are the best in each league while maintaining some mystery of how they’ll match up in the postseason.

Abandoning the league structure seems like a radical break from tradition but I’d argue that the National and American League differences have been eroding for some time. The advent of interleague play in 1997 ended the separation of the two leagues for good, and now interleague games are played everyday of the season. The movement of the Brewers and Astros between leagues also chipped away at that history. In fact, the two leagues ceased to exist as separate entities in 1999. The only difference now is that the AL has a designated hitter and the NL doesn’t. It’s long past time to adopt a consistent rule that all pitchers must hit or all teams may use a DH (although there is another alternative).

My proposal offers a lot for traditionalists. Eight team leagues playing a 154-game schedule was the standard until 1960. No interleague games in the regular season is also tradition and my realignment would preserve the best of interleague play (Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, et al) while eliminating yawners like Twins-Padres or Mariners-Pirates. But mostly I think this alignment sets up the future of Major League Baseball for new traditions, new rivalries, and new pennant races that will make baseball history.

Here’s how I’d align the teams in the four new leagues, using Montreal and Charlotte as the expansion teams. Different expansion teams would require tweaking the leagues a bit, but it would be the same basic structure.  In order to preserve the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, I placed St. Louis in the Lakes League even though Cincinnati would fit better geographically, but I think the Cardinals and the Reds would not be adversely affected by this alignment.

Northeastern League
(3 AL, 4 NL, 1 expansion)

Baltimore
Boston
Montreal
New York
New York
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Washington

Lakes League
(5 AL, 3 NL)

Chicago Cubs
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland
Detroit
Milwaukee
Minnesota
St. Louis
Toronto

Southern League
(4 AL, 3 NL, 1 expansion)

Atlanta
Charlotte
Cincinnati
Houston
Kansas City
Miami
Tampa Bay
Texas

Western League
(3 AL, 5 NL)

Arizona
Colorado
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
Oakland
San Diego
San Francisco
Seattle

Postseason

A purist would insist that only the four league champions qualify for the postseason or maybe the top eight teams, but the larger postseason tournament has been a trend for some time and I don’t think it’s going away. So, I propose that the top 3 teams of each league advance to the playoffs for a total of 12 teams. This would be 2 more teams than are in the playoffs now, while the number of teams that don’t get into the postseason remains the same at 20.

The first place teams are seeded 1-4 by regular season record, second place teams are seeded 5-8, and third place teams are seeded 9-12. By virtue of having the best record over a grueling 154 game season, the first place teams will be awarded their league’s pennant, reviving the tradition practiced from 1876 to 1968. The pennant winners will also be rewarded with a bye in the opening round of the playoffs.

So the playoffs would go as follows:

  • Opening round, best of five series (5 v 12, 6 v 11, 7 v 10, and 8 v 9)
  • Quarterfinals, best of five series (survivors of opening round reseeded so it’s 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6, and 4 v 5)
  • Semifinals, best of seven series
  • World Series, best of seven series

So that’s my plan for expanding Major League Baseball to 32 teams and rethinking the paradigm of how top-level baseball is contested. But I have another plan in which baseball would expand to 48 teams, with the possibility to grow even further. But for that, you will have to wait until next week.

Movie Review: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World (2001)


TitleThe Shot Heard ‘Round the World
Release Date: July 11, 2001
Director: ?
Production Company: HBO Sports
Summary/Review:

This documentary goes back in time to when New York City was the capital of baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers fans hated the New York Giants, and the Giants fans hated the Dodgers, and they both hated the Yankees.  The 1951 season was pivotal in that the Dodgers took a huge lead in the National League and went on cruise control.  Late in the season the Giants went on a hot streak and tied the Dodgers on the last day of the season, leading to a best-of-three playoff.

In addition to the heated rivalry among players and fans of the teams, the documentary focuses on the Giants’ elaborate plot to steal signs during home games in the latter half of the season.  The jury is still out on how much this gamesmanship helped them catch the Dodgers since statistics show that their batting average dropped, pitching improved, and they won more games on the road than at home after it began.

The three game playoff is analyzed from several angles.  Many involved seem to point to Dodgers’ manager Charlie Dressen as the real goat for his poor decisions in game.  Special attention is given to the life stories and game experiences of the two pivotal figures of the final playoff game, Bobby Thompson who hit the pennant-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Ralph Branca, the Dodgers’ relief pitcher who surrendered the home run on his second pitch in the game.

Interviewees include ballplayers like Branca, Thompson, Willie Mays and Duke Snider as well as a number of fans including celebrities like Jerry Lewis and Larry King.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Upon Further Review by Mike Pesca


AuthorMike Pesca
TitleUpon Further Review
Publication Info: Twelve (2018)
Summary/Review:

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?

Favorite Passages:

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
Rating: ***1/2

2018 FIFA World Cup Rooting Preferences – Knockout Stage


After an exciting, weird, and sometimes disappointing group round, the knockout round of the 2018 World Cup in Russia begins tomorrow.  Following up on my picks for group play, here are my picks for the knockout rounds of the tournament.  Remember these are more wishes of what I’d like to see happen than predictions of what will actually happen.  I tend to favor the underdog, so these things are not likely to pass.

Let me know who you think will win this year’s World Cup trophy, and who you want to win it most (if that’s different) in the comments!

ROUND OF 16

June 30 – Uruguay vs. Portugal

I’m kind of partial to both sides, but I’ll lean toward Portugal since they’ve never won a title.

EDITED 7/3: It’s Uruguay, I’m ok with that.

June 30 – France vs. Argentina

Seems kind of early for a matchup of these powerhouses, and I like both of them, but I’ll go for Argentina for Messi’s sake.

EDITED 7/3: Messi needs better teammates.

July 1 – Spain vs. Russia

It will be nice to see a classy side like Spain bounce the hosts out of the tournament.

EDITED 7/3: This was a huge shocker!

July 1 – Croatia vs. Denmark

Hmm…no strong feelings on either team and neither are really a powerhouse nor an underdog.  I guess I’ll go with Denmark since Copenhagen is such a great city for biking, but if anyone has a good argument for Croatia, let me hear it.

EDITED 7/3: Well, Croatia has been the surprise of the tournament so good for them.

July 2 – Belgium vs. Japan

I’ll be pulling for Japan here as the last surviving representative of Asia.  Sadly there will be no one from Africa to root for as well.

EDITED 7/3: Hah, I forgot I picked Japan and was actually rooting for Belgium while I was watching it.  What an exciting game for both sides! Belgium is my favorite surviving side from Europe.

July 2 – Brazil vs. Mexico

No offense to Brazil, but I’m pulling for our neighbors to the south, and based on what I saw in group play, I think that they could pull it off.

EDITED 7/3: The result here was not surprising.  Brazil seems to have the best chance of a non-European side winning the Cup, but they’re not new and exciting either.

July 3 – Sweden vs. Switzerland

Hmm…another match that doesn’t promise to be exciting, but I’ve enjoyed Sweden’s play thus far.

EDITED 7/3: Well, bully for Sweden.

July 3 – Colombia vs. England

Colombia all the way! Perhaps one of the most fun teams to watch and a South American underdog who’ve been bubbling under for some time. And what better team to user England out the door?

EDITED 7/3: The team I most wanted to win lost to the the team I most wanted to lose.  What a bummer!

QUARTERFINALS

July 6 – QF #1: Portugal vs. Argentina

Every tv station in the world is rooting for Ronaldo vs. Messi.  I expect that if Argentina makes it this far, Messi won’t be able to carry the team any further, and Portugal will get a deserved win.  Doesn’t necessarily mean that Ronaldo is better, although that is the conclusion every sports pundit will make.

EDITED 7/3: Uruguay vs. France

Leaning toward Uruguay, but like elements of each side.

July 6 – QF #2: Mexico vs. Japan

Sticking with Mexico here.

EDITED 7/3: Brazil vs. Belgium

Cheering for fancy beers and peeing boys.

July 7 – QF #3: Spain vs. Denmark

Spain will win this, although I’ll root for Denmark to be the final surviving Scandanivian side.

EDITED 7/3: Sweden vs. England

Lets go Sweden! <clap, clap, clapclapclap>

July 7 – QF #4: Sweden vs. Colombia

Colombia may my favorite remaining team, so this is easy.

EDITED 7/3: Russia vs. Croatia

Croatians must have some score to settle with the former Soviet Union, right?

SEMIFINALS

July 10 – SF #1: Portugal vs. Mexico

This would be an interesting, albeit unlikely, matchup.  I’ll give Portugal the nod.

EDITED 7/3: Uruguay vs. Belgium

Should probably go with Uruguay as the last non-European side in this scenario, but I’m really liking Belgium.

July 11 – SF #2:  Denmark vs. Colombia

Still with Colombia.

EDITED 7/3: Croatia vs. Sweden

Keep the Croatian win streak going

THIRD PLACE

July 14 – Mexico vs. Denmark

El Tri for Third Place!

EDITED 7/3: Uruguay vs. Sweden

Uruguay gets the bronze.

FINAL

July 15 – Portugal vs. Colombia

Colombia all the way!

EDITED 7/3: Belgium vs. Croatia

The biggest victory since Waterloo!

After writing this out, I know how ridiculous this all looks, but hey, if it actually happens…

Video Replay in Sports


This year the FIFA World Cup is using video assistant referees (VAR) to correct or confirm questionable calls made by the referee on the field.  VAR has already played an instrumental role in several matches, including both of Monday’s Group B games where the referee reviewed plays in the 90th minute of Spain vs. Morocco and Iran vs. Portugal.  One of the joys of soccer that distinguishes it from other team sports is that the clock never stops and excepting the oddity of stoppage time, 90 minutes on the clock is generally close to 90 minutes of real time. So it’s a bit of a drag to see the referee staring at a video monitor for several minutes at the height of a game.

FIFA is not the first sporting body to adopt video replay review. The NFL started using replay review in 1986, adopting their current system in 1998, and many other sports leagues have followed suit. Major League Baseball began using instant replay on a limited number of types of plays in 2008 and then expanded it to greater usage in 2014.  Obviously, it can be very exciting when a call is reversed in favor of your team, especially in a big game, but these instant replay reviews can be interminable, delaying the game and sucking momentum from the action while the officials watch the clips over and over. (I speak for myself in not enjoying reviews, as my son enjoys going to the MLB sight to watch reviews from various different games).

Now, I’m not a Luddite opposed to the use of technology.  There is a place for replay reviews and I’m certain many games in the past would’ve been improved if umpire’s miscues were overruled. Who can forget these famous blown calls in MLB history, all of which were followed with apologies from the umpires in post-game interviews?

1996: Derek Jeter awarded a home run in a playoff game when a fan reaches over the wall to catch the ball.

1999: Jose Offerman called out despite Chuck Knoblauch failing to tag him.

2010: Armando Galarraga’s perfect game is ruined when the umpire inexplicably calls a base runner safe.

(Note that 2 of these 3 plays benefit the Yankees in line with the statistic that 66% of blown calls in MLB history favor the Yankees)

I think there is a place for video replay review when an umpire or a referee makes a call that anyone watching the game on tv (or after an initial replay) is glaringly wrong.  I don’t think it benefits the game when “too close to call” plays are analyzed for several minutes at multiple speeds from different angles to see if the point of a baserunner’s spikes poked the base milliseconds before or after a fielder brushed his uniform with the lace of his glove.

So I propose that all of these sports should use video replay review with a time limit.  The referee would have 30 seconds or 45 seconds tops to watch a replay and confirm or overturn a call.  If a decision cannot be reached in that time, the call on the field stands.  I think that would bring the full benefit of video technology to making sure that sporting games are free of the most glaring errors with out falling down the rabbit hole of full-on forensic analysis of a play that drains that urgency from a game.

On the other hand (pun intended), if there’s no statute of limitations on video replay reviews, I’d like VAR to go back to 2002 and evaluate this play.

2018 FIFA World Cup Rooting Preferences


The FIFA World Cup starts today.  I’ve been finding it hard to find the enthusiasm I usually have this year partly because corrupt FIFA is holding the tournament in corrupt Russia.  (Finding out that North America will be getting a share of that corruption, er, soccer excitement in 2026 takes away the sting a little bit).  Of course it also sucks that the USA failed (miserably) to qualify, and my backup squads in Ireland and the Netherlands are also staying home.

With that it mind here is who I’ll be rooting for in each group (I’m not event going to make an attempt to predict the outcome for this thing):

Group A – Egypt is the natural underdog here, appearing in their first Cup in 28 years with their superstar Mohamed Salah.  I also have a fondness for Uruguay, who tend to punch above their weight in the soccer world.

Hoped for outcome: Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia

Group B – No strong feelings in any direction here.  I’ve come to appreciate Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal through reading children’s biographies.  I also like to see African teams succeed.

Hoped for outcome: Portugal, Morocco, Spain, and Iran.

Group C – Peru emerged from the tough South American qualifying group for their first World Cup in 36 years and thus the natural feel-good story for this group.  I also have a fondness for Australia as the antipodean counterpart of the US national team.

Hoped for outcome: Australia, Peru, France, and Denmark.

Group D –  OMG, how can you root for anyone but Iceland!  I’m also hoping Lionel Messi can do something good in what is likely his final World Cup.

Hoped for outcome: Iceland, Argentina, Nigeria, and Croatia.

Group E – Costa Rica won hearts and minds, if not quite enough games in 2014.  Let’s hope they bring the CONCACAF Thunder in 2018! And may Brazil atone for their embarrassment versus Germany.

Hoped for outcome: Costa Rica, Brazil, Switzerland, and Serbia.

Group F – I know I’m supposed to hate Mexico, but, screw it, I’m rooting for Mexico.

Hoped for outcome: Mexico, South Korea, Germany, and Sweden.

Group G – Panama qualified for their first World Cup at the USA’s expense, so they’d better make it worth it.  No strong feelings on the rest of this group, but it seems deserving for England to make an early Brexit.

Hoped for outcome: Panama, Belgium, Tunisia, and England.

Group H – Colombia was another exciting team in 2014 that I’d like to see go farther this year.

Hoped for outcome: Colombia, Senegal, Japan, and Poland.

 

And if any of this comes to pass, I’ll be the most surprised.

Are you watching the World Cup this year? If so, who are you rooting for?  Let me know in the comments!

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 26


99% Invisible :: Curb Cuts

An important history of the disability rights movement and how curb cuts ended up benefiting society in a broader sense than originally intended.

WGBH News :: On ‘Melnea Cass Day,’ Remembering The Boston Civil Rights Activist And Her Legacy In Roxbury

A day for a great Bostonian.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Don’t Call Me Extinct

The story of rehabilitating the scimitar-horned oryx population.

Upon Further Review :: How Actor Jesse Eisenberg Doomed the Phoenix Suns

A funny story of how a young fan’s guilt over a letter to his favorite basketball player.

Movie Review: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Z” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “Z” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleZidane: A 21st Century Portrait
Release Date: May 24, 2006
Director:  Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno
Production Company:  Anna Lena Films
Summary/Review:

Zinedine Zidane, the French football player of Algerian descent, is widely considered to be one of the greatest football players of all time.  In his career, he played for top European football clubs – including Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid – winning domestic league championships, Champions League titles, and numerous individual awards.  For the French national team, Zidane scored 2 goals in the championship game of the 1998 World Cup, leading France to its first ever World Cup title.  And if you don’t know him for any of those things, you probably know him as the guy thrown out of the 2006 World Cup championship for headbutting an Italian player.  Today he continues his career as a manager for Real Madrid.

This film documents one game Zidane played as midfielder for Real Madrid on April 23, 2005 against Villareal at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.  17 synchronized cameras were set up around of the stadium, all of them set to follow Zidane in real-time.  This is a high concept idea that challenges the way a spectator watches a game, which usually means following the ball rather than an individual player.  Fortunately, Zidane is usually in the center of action, if not actually holding the ball himself.

Some things one can observe from watching one player is that Zidane, late in his career, has lost a step in speed and conserves his energy for when he’s going to run.  In quieter moments we get to see him adjust his socks or share a joke with a teammate.  The microphones are also good at picking up sounds off the field that one doesn’t usually hear over the crowd. It’s a chippy game, and we get to Zidane and others hit the ground hard as dirt and grass fly artistically in the air.

Still, it’s hard to maintain interest in an ordinary football match from 13 years ago.  For one thing, Zidane keeps running off-screen and the images are often out of focus.  The editing is jarring and seems to obscure what Zidane is doing in context of the game much of the time. I mean the whole concept was to follow one player with 17 cameras – you had one job!  Some parts of the film have a crawling subtitle with quotes of Zidane describing his thoughts during a game.  It’s a somewhat interesting addition, but also seems to be an admission that the film of the match itself is not enough to hold the viewer’s attention.  Portions of the film are scored with music by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, which while I like the music, doesn’t seem suited to the pace of the match. Finally, Zidane is red-carded near the end of the match for brawling which is kind of hilarious and makes you wonder what the filmmakers would have done had he exited the game earlier.

I’m going to chalk this up to an interesting concept, poorly executed.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I watched this over the course of three nights because I kept dozing off.  High-def images of Zidane running around accompanied by Mogwai is a good sleep aid.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Go watch a game of any sport and focus exclusively on your favorite player and see what happens.

Source: I watched this movie on YouTube
Rating: **