Yesterday my friend Yakut emailed me the article “Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in the New York Times’ Play Magazine on August 20, 2006 (available here). Wallace penned an immaculate piece on Roger Federer, who also happens to be my favorite tennis player these days. As per his custom, Wallace resorts to 17 footnotes, provides detailed accounts of what he terms “Federer Moments” from the Nadal v. Federer Wimbledon Final of 2006, comments – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, of course – on the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and the tournament’s rules. It is a great ode to Federer, and contains a healthy rebuke of Nadal – who happens to be my least favorite pro these days. If you’re a tennis – and DFW – fan, enjoyed his essays in Consider the Lobster, and do not have the guts to restart Infinite Jest just yet, but would like to continue reading some brilliant prose, you should definitely check it out.
1. It’s that time of year again, sports fans. Time to break out the pail and the stool and start milking that billion-dollar cash cow called the NCAA men’s basketball tournament but universally known by its brand name -- March Madness -- along with its ever-growing herd of clichés, including The Dance, the bubble, Selection Sunday, bracketology, the office pool, one and done, Cinderella, the First Four, the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, and finally, mercifully, sometime in early April, the Final Four. Along the way, since every last game of the tournament is now televised, we’ll get our fill of shrieking coaches, 40-minute games that drag on for more than two hours, players paved with tattoos who hang on the rim and weep on cue and sometimes manage to remind us, despite the increasingly long odds, that college basketball can still be a thing of spontaneous, unpredictable, crazy beauty. We’ll also get squads of robotic cheerleaders straight out of the uncanny valley, adorable mascots in furry costumes, close-ups of fans in body paint, fans waving giant human-head cutouts, fans acting like they’re being electrocuted whenever they sense the hot red eye of a TV camera -- all of it chopped up by a seemingly endless parade of commercials urging us to buy this or that brand of car, cell phone, fast food, insurance, soft drink, sneaker, credit card, or beer. During the championship game, advertisers will pay $1.5 million for 30 seconds of air time. How did this come to pass? How did a beautiful game played by unpaid teenagers get turned into an advertising bonanza for corporate America? The short answer is: big money. In 2010, CBS and Turner Sports paid the National Collegiate Athletic Association $11.5 billion for the rights to broadcast the tournament for the next 14 years. The slightly longer answer is that stroke of evil genius that made the big money possible: the TV timeout. Today there is a stoppage of play at the first whistle after the 16-, 12-, 8- and 4-minute marks of each 20-minute half in every televised college basketball game. The games stop cold, pure and simple, so that advertisers can pitch their wares. These TV timeouts, along with the five regular timeouts awarded to each team, destroy the essence of a game that used to be all about momentum and flow. The only flow that matters today is the cash flow. I thought the TV timeout was a relatively recent abomination, but I was surprised to discover that basketball purists have been railing against it for nearly half a century. 2. On March 12, 1967, The New York Times sports page carried this headline: Coaches at N.I.T. Disturbed by TV Time-Outs During Play. The story reported that the televised National Invitational Tournament game between Providence and Memphis State at Madison Square Garden was interrupted 10 times by timeouts -- eight of them called by a CBS employee who sat courtside and signaled to the referees when to stop and resume play so the network could air commercials. Providence coach Joe Mullaney was furious that Memphis State’s rally was given an unfair boost by the CBS-dictated timeouts. “Also,” the article noted, “each time-out lasted 75 seconds instead of 60.” The long slide down the slippery slope into the money pit had begun. As the Times writer so deftly put it: College basketball rules give each team the right to call five time-outs during a 40-minute game. A basic element of strategy is proper use of the time-outs: some must be husbanded to set up plays in the closing seconds of a close game, others may be used to provide rest at a crucial moment or break the momentum of the opposition. The eight TV timeouts during NCAA tournament games now routinely drag on for three minutes, while the halftime break has been stretched from 15 to 22 minutes. As a result, the games are robbed of flow, they last too long, and there’s no premium on fielding a deep bench because the starters get regular breathers while corporate America gets to sell stuff and the NCAA gets rich. The big loser is the game of college basketball. 3. So when exactly did the term “March Madness” enter the glossary of American sports clichés? That depends on who’s answering the question. Eddie Einhorn, who died on Feb. 24 at 80, was a key engineer of college basketball’s transformation from regional winter diversion into global televised spectacle. His telecast of the 1962 NCAA title game between Cincinnati and Ohio State was not seen outside of Ohio. This was not satisfactory for Eddie Einhorn. In his book How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America, Einhorn pegs the birth of the malady to a game on Jan. 20, 1968. Played before a crowd of 52,000 in the Houston Astrodome, it was the first college basketball game televised nationally in prime time. With millions watching on TV, Elvin Hayes and his Houston teammates ended the 47-game winning streak of mighty UCLA, led by Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Smelling money, NBC began broadcasting the NCAA tournament the following year. In his book When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, Seth Davis argues that the pivotal moment was the championship game on March 26, 1979, between Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson, and Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, a dream TV matchup between two charismatic stars that would generate the highest Nielsen rating of any basketball game ever played. “The game of basketball was about to change forever,” Davis writes in the strangely purplish yet bland style of the sportswriter. “The 1979 NCAA championship game helped catapult college basketball, and especially the NCAA tournament, into the national consciousness.” That year’s NCAA tournament grossed more than $5 million in TV revenue. Today the take is more than $1 billion a year -- 200 times as much. That kind of money can ruin just about anything, and the damage to college basketball goes far deeper than the insidious ways commerce has altered what happens on the court. Much darker is what happens behind the curtain, in the high-pressure world of recruiting “student-athletes,” of building a successful “program,” then staying on top. Elite coaches earn north of $6 million a year coaching unpaid players, and when the stakes are that high, sleaze is a virtual given. This year, for instance, two of the game’s most revered coaches will be sitting out the NCAA tournament because of violations. Louisville’s Rick Pitino, the third highest-paid coach in the land, coach of national champions at Kentucky in 1996 and at Louisville in 2013, has been sidelined by the Louisville administration because one of his assistants paid sex workers and strippers to have sex with basketball recruits, players, and their fathers at dorm parties that ran for four years. Two of the sex workers were daughters of the madam who orchestrated the fun, Katina Powell, who wrote a damning book called Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen. Louisville basketball, it turns out, is truly a family affair. An investigation by the NCAA is continuing. Southern Methodist University’s Larry Brown, who coached Kansas to the national championship in 1988, will also be watching the tournament at home this year. The NCAA banned SMU from postseason play and suspended Brown for nine games because one of his prize recruits, a McDonald’s All-American named Keith Frazier, had been admitted to the university even though he was academically unqualified, and then his grades were doctored to ensure his eligibility. When the scandal broke, Frazier left the team and transferred to North Texas. “The tragedy,” Michael Powell wrote in The New York Times, “is that the adults in big-time high school and college basketball...exert far more energy trying to churn out victories than trying to provide an education. Young men like Frazier, who just three years ago was Brown’s top recruit, are collateral damage.” This was not Larry Brown’s first brush with the NCAA sheriffs. Kansas was banned from postseason play in 1989 because Brown was caught on tape admitting to illegal cash payments, with assistants acting as bag men. At UCLA, Brown coached the team to the title game, only to have the tournament wins tossed out by the NCAA because Brown had fielded two players who were academically ineligible. But repeat offenders like Larry Brown are aware that after the storm blows over, the money and the recruits will keep pouring in. Asked if the sanctions had damaged his recruiting efforts, Brown replied, “Not one bit. I think it’s only helping.” 4. There may be something even more insidious about March Madness than the money and the cynical treatment of “student-athletes” like Keith Frazier. Maybe the most insidious thing is the carefully nurtured lie that the tournament is a wide-open affair, an equal-opportunity nationwide free-for-all in which all 68 teams have a legitimate shot at the title. This is another piece of the bedrock American myth that says anyone can get rich, anyone can become president, even Cinderellas make it to the dance. Nonsense. There are 16 seeds in each of the four regions in the tournament, and the lowest seed ever to win it all was #8 Villanova in 1985, which is another way of saying that far fewer than half of the teams have a realistic chance of winning the title. Of course some players and coaches are thrilled just to get a chance to appear briefly on the big stage, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And every once in a long while there are pleasant surprises, such as when Steph Curry and his unheralded Davidson teammates, a #13 seed, made a scintillating run to the round of eight in 2008. But let’s not lose sight of the facts that schools that make the tournament earn $1.67 million even if they never win a game, and a run to the Final Four brings in the handsome sum of $8.3 million. Simply put, in college basketball, as in the rest of American life, there are the haves and the have-nots, the blue-bloods and the also-rans. The rich will keep getting richer and everyone else will keep buying into the delusion that they can get rich too -- even though the deck is rigorously stacked against them. As Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio put it, “We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.” As if. Elite programs have the leverage -- the prestige, the facilities, the money, the fans, and, yes, the TV exposure -- that guarantees they will continue to attract the top talent. Meanwhile, March Madness will continue to feed the fantasy among American kids that they’re destined for a big-time college team and its natural payoff, a high-paying berth in the NBA. Many of those young dreamers will wind up like Keith Frazier, collateral damage who bought into the myth of the cash cow and found out the hard way that big money and college sports are a toxic mix. So be it. Time to crack open a beer, turn on the tube, and let the games begin. Sure, I’ll watch the final minutes of a few games this year because I’ve been playing basketball as long as I’ve been walking upright and I think the game is one of mankind’s few truly beautiful creations. In the bursts of action between the endless commercial breaks, I’ll get reminded, once again, that many of the kids who play the game today are insanely talented. Too bad they’re being so shamelessly exploited. Image Credit: Flickr/Håkan Dahlström.
As a sports-crazed child of 1980s New Jersey, I had relatively few options to extend my mania beyond the games themselves. My parents weren't cable subscribers, so there was no ESPN, no groaning Chris Berman puns. The Internet, with its microblogs and highlight gifs, was still a full decade away. What I had were sports segments on the six o’clock news (I was partial to CBS’s Warner Wolf, whose exclamations of “swish!” during basketball recaps passed for genuine excitement) and sportstalk radio, a still-nascent medium with a decidedly blue-collar feel. I also had newspapers. My father was a William S. Burroughs-level crossword-puzzle junkie, each morning heading to the newsstand to return with his daily fix: The Times, the Post, The Star-Ledger, and the New York Daily News. As he cast each aside following its puzzle's completion -- he never bothered to read anything beyond the crossword clues -- I would scurry forth, raccoon-like, to retrieve their precious sports sections. I would then spread them out on the dining-room table with my cereal and juice to look at the pictures, scan the scores, and be debriefed on possible trades. I would read about games that I had watched just 10 or 12 hours before, amazed by the fact that someone had written a story about it, often a dramatic one, and that the account now sat before me. It was a little bit of proof that what I had seen was real. Twenty-five years later, only scraps of that era have survived. Wolf, nearing 80, is still in broadcasting, but nightly recaps such as his have slid into obsolescence. One could say the same thing about those newspapers. Six years ago, my parents sold their house -- dining-room table and all -- and my father died of a heart attack two years after that. Up until the end, he still worked the daily puzzles, but he'd stopped buying newspapers, choosing instead to go online each morning and dutifully print them out. One constant, however, was my favorite newspaper writer: the Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica. He started there in 1977, and aside from two brief jumps to rival publications, he's been there ever since. Like anything that seems to last forever -- Tom Wolfe, Bob Dylan, The Simpsons — Lupica's longevity is comforting, even though I don't pay as much attention to him as I once did. Technologies may disrupt, houses may change hands, death may suddenly hit, but Lupica is eternal. Even though I had never heard him speak, when I read him as a kid, I could hear him talk to me. He was impassioned and skeptical, and he wrote in a conversational, inclusive way that made me feel welcome despite my age. I had generally experienced sports as serious adult pursuits -- grim and epic battles with John Facenda narration and the occasional leavening “swish” -- but there was a sort of youthful, buoyant joy to Lupica's style. When good things happened to a New York team, his pieces took on an appealing sepia tint, as if you were already reading history. Here’s a passage from his column the day after the Yankees’ win over the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series -- the team’s first championship in almost 20 years: Whether the next great New York team comes from basketball or football or hockey, we will compare that team to the Yankees of 1996. We will measure things against this October for a while...“The hardest game to win in sports is one more,” Pat Corrales, a Braves coach and an old baseball warrior, said before Game 6 last night. The Yankees won one more game last night, one more World Series. One more game to remember, from a baseball month no one around here will soon forget. One of those forever teams. When things went poorly in New York, he was relentless in his criticism, a self-appointed athletic ombudsman. His hit pieces -- in which he railed against various team owners, steroid cheats, and sundry other villains -- had a mounting, three-beers-deep quality that I later tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic as a sports columnist for my high school newspaper. Here’s a bit of a typical Lupica screed against the Knicks’ perpetual mismanagement: The coaches come and go. The general managers come and go. They still trade off the distant past, and make us appreciate a less distant basketball past at Madison Square Garden. It took things being this bad for this long to make us appreciate just how good we had it. World’s most famous arena. Famous for what now? Or this, amid a 2005 piece on the Yankees’ high-priced futility: [$1] billion spent over five years. No World Series won. Two hundred million and change on the '05 Yankees. Out in the first round. Four million in attendance, at least $50 million in the hole. There has always been the economy for the rest of baseball, and the Yankee economy. Yankee money and everybody else's. Maybe that is finally about to change. Steinbrenner still has the deepest pockets. But guess what? He doesn’t just want that new stadium because he loves his fans. It doesn’t matter which pocket it’s coming out of, nobody wants to lose money like this. Lupica not only made me want to become a writer; he made me want to be a persuasive and convincing one. He taught me the value of having a viewpoint and seeing it through. I still occasionally buy the Sunday Daily News, in no small part to read Lupica’s “Shooting From the Lip” column. As has become the case with newspapers in general, this is more out of habit than need -- but as habits go, sipping coffee over a Lupica article is a fairly pleasant one. His attitude and cadence haven’t changed in the past 30 years, and his columns allow me to feel, for a couple of minutes, that I'm still at my parents’ table -- that my dad is back there in his easy chair, frowning at a crossword puzzle. The illusion couldn't last forever. During a lull in a recent Mets broadcast, the announcers mentioned “layoffs at the Daily News” in a tone usually reserved for jumbo-jet tragedies. It was well-known that the paper was in dire straits, losing roughly $20 million a year, and trying, with an unsurprising lack of success, to find a buyer for itself. As all modern newspapers must, it had been cutting staff for years. But when I went to my phone to see who the latest casualties were, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Mike Lupica would not have his contract renewed when it expired at year's end. Others who I’d also read for years -- Bill Madden and Filip Bondy among them -- were being shown the door. “The News always used to be read back to front -- like the Torah,” the Post quoted an observer as saying. “It looks like they gave up the franchise.” It’s too dramatic to say that I felt gutted by the news, but it was in that territory. The Daily News without Lupica was, to me, the Lakers without Magic Johnson, the Stones without Mick Jagger. He was unquestionably its biggest star at a time when newspapers didn’t really have “stars.” He was Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success: a writer of wide influence, equally loathed and beloved. He was a holdover from an earlier era, a time when a columnist could claim celebrity -- and his contract’s non-renewal represented a severing of the present from two distinct and parallel pasts: newspapers’ and my own. And with a jarring lack of ceremony, that was apparently that. After nearly 40 years in the pages of the News, Lupica seems to be done. He hasn’t said much about his situation -- a few terse and cryptic comments to the press -- and the paper, on its way to bleeding out completely, has offered even less. His columns still appear, and will continue to, one assumes, until his contract does run out. All in all, a disappointing and feeble end. It’s tempting to say that there won’t be any more like him -- columnists whose opinions and craft make young readers want to become writers themselves. But that’s obviously untrue; if anything, there are more Lupicas now than ever. ESPN’s Grantland has a stable of them; so do Deadspin, SB Nation, and dozens, if not hundreds, of others. Lupica himself will likely wind up on one of these sites, carping about Eli Manning and the Knicks in his death-by-a-thousand-cuts way. But what’s also likely is that I won’t be reading him when he makes the jump. Not because I wouldn’t enjoy it or because I’ve outgrown him, but because I won't bother to seek him out. Excised from the paper, he'll just be one more voice rushing past in the Web's endlessly flowing river. Rather than hurrying alongside to catch his words, I'll let him careen on past. I’ll allow the Mike Lupica whom I read in the Daily News — like my parents’ house, my father, and probably, very soon, the News itself — to live on as its own sepia-toned memory. Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes.
At the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he studied fiction, Tom McAllister became known as "the ultimate Philly guy." No wonder, considering he grew up in a row house, attended La Salle University, teaches at Temple, and even worked in a cheesesteak shop. But a person cannot be so reduced, as McAllister explores in his new memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. His book is a look at how his relationship with two of the major forces in his life -- his father and the Philadelphia Eagles -- have shaped him as a man and as a writer. As Justin Cronin says, "Within these unflinchingly honest pages lies a profound and personal meditation on manhood itself—on fathers and sons, on the inheritance of place, on the customs of a tribe and finding one’s place within it." A moving and very funny memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey transcends mere sports writing to form a portrait of an individual through the prism of the team and city he loves. The Millions: I’m curious about the structure of this book. It opens with the Eagles in the Super Bowl and you in your friend’s basement, watching the game. From there, we move forward and backward in time before eventually arriving back in that basement. Was this always how the book opened? How did you decide that the Super Bowl had to be the opening? Tom McAllister: I had originally considered starting with the eventual second chapter, which had been published as an essay in Black Warrior Review. I still think that’s probably the best written chapter in the book, and one that presents a good overview of all the issues in the book: the football obsession, the message boards, my dad’s death, my relationship with my wife, and so on. Pretty much the only major theme it doesn’t cover is the stuff about growing up in Philly. I decided to start with Super Bowl XXXIX, though, for two reasons. First, it was very pivotal time for me, both personally and as a fan: the Eagles, obviously, were at their peak, but I was at one of my lowest points, as I was drowning in grad school, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, and still struggling with my dad’s death, among other things. In hindsight, I realized how much I’d pinned my hopes on the Eagles, as if a Super Bowl win would somehow save me, which, of course, is short-sighted, but which is a pretty common trope in sports (think of all the stories about how the Saints Super Bowl last year made post-Katrina New Orleans all better). Second reason: once I started writing that scene, I came up with the eventual first line (“This book, like so many other stories in this city, begins and ends in the same place.”) and right away, I knew that line was exactly how I wanted to open the book. It hit the exact voice and tone I wanted to establish. Okay, one more reason: I was very focused on organization in this book, and was determined to avoid a chronological retelling of my life as a fan. That seemed a) boring, and b) not conducive to good storytelling, because I didn’t want to have to go season-by-season. That would have killed any narrative drive I tried to establish. TM: Considering that this is a deeply personal story and one that couldn’t have been easy to tell, were you ever tempted to make it a work of fiction, to try to process your relationship with your father through the veil of a story or novel? McAllister: I was most tempted to make it fictional when the real-life details were inconvenient to the narrative. There’s a chapter that’s focused entirely on a winter night I spent camping outside Veterans Stadium for Eagles tickets, along with 5000 other drunk Philadelphians. People were wild, starting fights, breaking into the bowels of the stadium, setting everything on fire to stay warm, and even then my friends and I were sure we were on the verge of a riot. And if the book were a novel, it absolutely would have escalated to bloodshed. But what happened in real life is that everyone inexplicably stopped being crazy and in the morning stood in a single file line to quietly buy their tickets and go home. So I had to write a sad disclaimer within the chapter saying, essentially, “I know this is disappointing, but that’s what happened.” When it came to the personal stuff, that wasn’t as big an issue for me. Initially, I had to clear the hurdle of revealing myself, but I really enjoyed the level of self-analysis required by this project. If I’d gone with some sort of thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, I think I would have been too tempted to go easy on myself, to be less revealing and less emotionally honest. I can see how the fictional approach would be important for some writers, but for me, the only way I felt like I could do this story justice was to just lay all the facts on the line and let them speak for themselves. TM: I’ve written about my own internet message board obsession here before, and an Eagles message board plays a pretty significant role in this book (it’s the first memoir I’ve read in which a message board is a prominent setting). How do you think the internet has changed sports fandom? What has it offered you as a fan that you can’t get from your friends – many of whom are also Eagles fans? McAllister: As I see it, Internet sports coverage makes us more cynical. The relentlessness of the news cycle means there's a constant pressure to expose us to every bit of corruption and stupidity in sports, the kinds of things that may have been overlooked in the past are now front page news (i.e.- a philandering athlete now somehow necessitates the use of live helicopter footage of his home, whereas it was just kind of okay for guys like DiMaggio and Mantle). Every time someone accomplishes something remarkable, there's suspicion of performance enhancing drugs. It's harder to be a fan who just watches the game and loves what they're seeing, because when you look out on the field, you see a quarterback with two DUIs, a halfback who cheated his way through college, a tight end with seven children in six different states, an offensive lineman who's been accused of steroid use, etc. Not that it's bad to expose corruption. It's just very different. TM: There are a couple of moments in the book when you have a chance to meet one of the Eagles in person. You chase [Eagles defensive back] Sheldon Brown on the freeway and run into [Eagles tackle] Tra Thomas at a Whole Foods. But you don’t actually talk to either of them. Do you think in the pre-internet era you might have acted differently? McAllister: I think I may have been even more reluctant to approach them, pre-internet. There was a greater distance between player and fan then, and it was harder to view these guys as regular people. But now you have access to all the information you could possibly want-- including athletes' Twitter and Facebook pages-- so it's not entirely unreasonable to convince yourself that you're already friends with each other, in a way. By the time I saw Tra at Whole Foods, I knew pretty much everything one could reasonably know about him: hometown, college, the size of his family, marital status, health status, religious views, and so on. So it became easier to fall into the delusion that maybe, if I just followed along, he might want to talk to me or be my friend or something. Same deal with Sheldon-- he was my favorite player for years, so I knew even more about him than I did about Tra. I doubt I would have been able to “know” him so well if not for all the online access. The Internet, in this case, served to deepen my obsession and to fuel my desire to meet these guys. The only thing that held me back from actually speaking to them was my own social awkwardness, which is sometimes powerful enough to keep me from even saying hello to my neighbors when they're waving to me from across the street. TM: So has the web improved sports at all or just created this veneer of companionship? McAllister: There is a positive angle to sports coverage on the internet, because one of the big promises of the web is that you can always find a community of like-minded people. No matter what crazy thing you're interested in, you can find someone out there who is just as interested, and who can help you to deepen your appreciation. You can know that there's someone else out there who cares about the things you do, and who feels the same way you do when your team blows a big game. There's an enormous comfort in that kind of knowledge. For as lonely as it can be to be reading a message board at 2 AM, at least you've still got an outlet to talk to someone. At least you know you're not completely alone. TM: You say that at Iowa you felt that writing didn’t offer the catharsis you hoped it would. Do you feel any differently now that you’ve written this book and it’s out there in the world? McAllister: Surprisingly, yes. Not so much re: my dad’s death. I think it was just time that softened the blow on that one—we’re 7 years removed from his death now, and after a while, wounds will heal themselves, even if they do leave a scar. But the act of writing this book has been tremendously cathartic as far as my fandom goes. I used to do everything I could to fit the obnoxious Philly fan stereotype. I was proud of myself for hurling beer at opposing fans and generally having no regard for human decency on gameday. I thought everyone else was crazy for not flying into a rage when the team lost, and I had no qualms about breaking bottles, punching holes in walls, sulking for weeks after a playoff loss. But writing about it all from a distance, forcing myself to confront the reality of my behavior, I felt like I was getting that all out of my system. I like to think I’m a rational, reasonably intelligent person, and there’s no way I could continue to think of myself like that if I wrote this book and then immediately went back to acting like a lunatic on Sundays. I finished working on it in early summer 2008, a few months before the start of football season. I didn’t watch any preseason games or read any articles online; I detached myself almost completely, as if going into detox. It got to the point that my wife asked what was wrong with me, and I had to explain that I was just trying to distance myself a bit. For the record, I still watch every game and still read about the team just about every day, but I do feel like I’ve found a happy medium. It’s been a long time, for example, since I woke up on Monday morning with a football hangover, still dwelling on yesterday’s loss. TM: You talk about the inherent bias against sports in the book, and it seems to me that football is especially victimized in this regard. It’s always been acceptable to be a baseball fan, and recently, more and more intellectuals seem comfortable with basketball, but football remains the sport of cretins in the minds of many so-called intellectuals. How do you view the book – as a writer and as a fan – in light of what you know will be a bias? Do you even consider this book to be a work of sports writing? McAllister: Sometimes when people ask me for a synopsis, I see them losing interest as soon as I say the word “football.” They say, “I’m not really into football. But my brother is!” as if that’s somehow a consolation for me. One thing I try to do is emphasize that while football is the driving force in the book, the real heart of the memoir is about relationships and maturation. Often, they don't believe me, and they patronize me for a bit before moving on. Despite its amazingly complex play designs and intricate strategies, football bears the stigma of being a sport for dumb brutes to run into each other arbitrarily. Of course, football does little to combat this notion: when a player expresses outside interests, he's mocked and his priorities are questioned. Myron Rolle probably lost out on about $5 million because he was a Rhodes Scholar, and NFL coaches didn't trust someone who seemed a little too smart. So with this stigma in mind, I’ve tried to be very clear with the publisher that I don’t want this memoir marketed as “just a sports book.” I worried that it would be relegated to the ghetto of the sports section in the bookstore, which many serious readers avoid assiduously. There's a perception that sports writing equals bad writing. It's not a totally unfair perception either; things sure have changed in the world of popular sports writing since the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck writing for Sports Illustrated. Do I consider this book sports writing? On one hand, sure of course it is sports writing. On the other, it seems different from the most popular sports books on the market, which are almost entirely focused on reporting stats and facts, with little room for introspection. If pushed to categorize this book, maybe I would go with literary sportswriting? Is that a category? Maybe it should be. TM: Agreed, it should be. I actually think it’s a great contribution to what might be called the literature of the fan (as distinct from the whiskey-infused, good-old-boy sports writing that professionals do). I’m thinking here of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (to which you refer in the book), and even some of Bill Simmons’ early work, before he went all Hollywood. It’s a book about the way we actual live with sports, about what it does to us and how it shapes us as people. Where should they shelve that? McAllister: Where would they put it or where should they put it? Sometimes shelving decisions are mystifying to me. I went to a local Barnes & Noble on my release date to see what my book looked like on an actual shelf, and I found it in the Pennsylvania section (which I didn't know existed) filed next to something about the history of rivers in PA. About 15 feet away, there was a big display table with a sign that said “Vampire Books!” Anyway, I think the place to put something like that would be, ideally, between the Fiction/Literature section and the Non-fiction section, as kind of a bridge. Actually, I wouldn't mind an overall revision of the way we categorize fiction and non-fiction anyway. Not to horn in on David Shields' territory, but it seems to me that they're much more similar than we often like to admit. Maybe I'm thinking like this because I recently read Geoff Dyer's amazing Out of Sheer Rage, which has no regard at all for traditional distinctions of fiction vs. non-fiction. But that's all a bit ambitious, perhaps. TM: I can’t let you go without getting your take on the Donovan McNabb situation (I realize I’m now pinning you into that role of “go-to guy for Philly sports takes” that you found yourself playing in Iowa). In the book, you argue that much of the criticism of McNabb is tinged with racism – that he’s too "uppity," etc. At this point, do you think he’s done? Too banged up to win? Did the Eagles make the right choice going with Kevin Kolb as their quarterback? (Full disclosure: I’m both a Redskins fan and a Syracuse football fan, from back when they still played D1 football and McNabb was their star quarterback.) McAllister: I thought it was time for a change in Philly. I was ready for the change about halfway through the ’08 season, but then they went on a totally unexpected hot streak to get to the conference championship. When they blew it again, it should have been clear the old core wasn’t good enough to win a championship. So last year was just more of the same, and they finally had to make a move. I don't know if Kolb is the right replacement, or if the trade will work out in the long run, but I do think the concept of moving McNabb made sense, because it was time to close the book on that era. He's not as good as he was-- too inconsistent, too streaky-- but still a solid NFL quarterback; definitely an upgrade for the Redskins, but not someone I think is capable of winning a championship at this point. But I don’t hate McNabb like some in Philly do-- a local sports anchor went to a Philly bar after the trade for people's reactions, and about ninety percent of the people he spoke to were giddy about the Eagles having just traded one of the best players in franchise history. The next morning, a sports talk radio show counted down the top 10 reasons they hated McNabb as a person. He never seemed as funny as some people said he was, and I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to meet him for happy hour, but I never got why so many people here truly despised him. If he weren't a Redskin I would wish him well. But since he is a Redskin, I hope he never wins again, and I get to see hundreds of shots of [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder clenching his tiny fists in impotent rage.
It would be difficult to overstate the ambivalence I felt toward the looming release of Bennett Miller's Moneyball, the new movie about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. Take whatever it is that’s important to you – knitting, perhaps, or mountain biking – and then imagine waiting for a feature windows10explained film about it. Would you be excited or nervous? Or a mix of both? Or would you simplymoncler black friday salebe dreading how Hollywood would manage to fuck up your passion? I’d wondered what an adaptation of Michael Lewis' Moneyball would be like ever since the film went into development…eight years ago. Would they be able to translate the plot, in so far as there is one, to the screen? Or would Moneyball be based on the book in the same way that Syriana was “inspired by” Robert Baer’s See No Evil, an adaptation in name only (So much so that Syriana was nominated for 300-206 Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars)? By the time of the film’s release, I had overcome enough of my anxiety to be firmly in the excited camp. No matter how bad the movie was, at least I’d get to laugh at idiots like Joe Morgan for two hours, right? Before the screening, when my wife and I were standing 70-494 in the concessions line, she asked me what kind of Windows 10 Professional product Key sale candy I wanted. “Are you kidding?” I said. “We’re about to watch a movie about advanced statistical analysis in baseball. Get whatever you want.” We weren’t, of course, about to watch a movie about sabrmetrics -- the use of advanced statistical analysis to evaluate baseball players and teams -- and how the cash-strapped Oakland A's used it to remain competitive with free-spending teams like the New York Yankees. A part of me knew that going in; such a movie fridaysboutiquewould bore 99.9 percent of the audience and probably infuriate the remaining tenth of a percent. No, the filmmakers ADM-201 had to do something to make a more cinematic story of Lewis’s 2003 book. The question was not would the movie differ from the book, but how. Moneyball is the story of an idea. The thesis of the book is that major 300-208 league baseball teams had long ignored valuable statistical information about their players, relying instead on eye-witness evaluation by seasoned scouts. These scouts used observation and intuition to identify the best players (For example, one scout in the film claims a player is no good because his girlfriend isn't attractive enough. “He’s got an ugly girlfriend. An ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”). As one might expect from such an unscientific method, it produced variable results. One of the players traditional scouting misidentified as a future star was none other than Billy Beane, who fizzled out after a mediocre major league career. All of this led to an inefficient Windows 10 Professional product Key Oem sale market in baseball talent. Some players were radically undervalued, while others earned much more money than they deserved. Operating from a position of financial weakness, Billy Beane and his Oakland A's bucked traditional scouting methods and employed deep statistical analysis to find the undervalued players they could afford. To build a movie out of a book Windows 10 Professional OEM Key about an idea, the filmmakers made several important compromises. First, they decided to narrow the scope of their film to Billy Beane. Interlacing Beane’s backstory with the primary narrative of building a team from the scrap heap of unwanted players was a brilliant choice, as it provided a psychological motivation for his skepticism of traditional baseball scouting. From the very beginning, we see Beane’s doubt come to the fore. “If he’s such a good hitter, how come he doesn’t hit good?” he asks his scouts. “You keep giving me the same 'good face' nonsense like we’re selling jeans here.” He challenges Peter Brand (the stand-in for A's Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, who refused to allow his name to be used in the film): “Would you have drafted me in the first round?” It’s obvious what answer Beane’s hoping for, and when he gets it, an odd couple is created -- the athletic Beane (played by demigod Brad Pitt) and the, well, not-so-athletic Brand (a not-yet-thin Jonah Hill). Beane plays Galileo -- the lone voice of rationality in a world that worships superstition-- and Hill is, I don’t know…Galileo’s assistant? The pairing works because it plays to each actor’s strengths -- Pitt’s arrogance is tempered by his sense of humor and creates a fairly convincing portrait of a man obsessed with being right. Hill, for his part, stammers and blinks his way through awkward scene after awkward scene, his 300-320 comedic timing stealing many of them. Good casting also helps the film eke every ounce of goodness out of the story of Scott Hatteberg, the one-time catcher whose career CISSP appears to be over after a freak nerve injury. Hatteberg, played by loveable oaf Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation), sees his career resurrected by Beane and Brand, who value his innate ability to do the single most important thing in baseball -- get on base. Pratt isn’t given much screen-time to work with, but he makes the most of it, giving soul to a character who might have easily been overlooked. The other major compromise the filmmakers settled on is significantly 700-039 less successful. A major reason for Oakland’s success in the early 2000s was their dominant starting pitching. Blessed with “The Big Three” -- Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito -- three of the best pitchers in the game, Oakland was able to count on a solid performance from its starting pitching three out of every five games. For instance, during the 2002 season depicted in the film, the A's got roughly 685 innings of all star-caliber 300-070 pitching from The Big Three alone, including 230 innings from Cy Young-winner and singer-songwriter Barry Zito (The late Cory Lidle was no slouch himself, contributing nearly 200 above-average innings, as well). Without these contributions, no number of walks would’ve mattered. Leaving these players out of the film is a bit like filming the New Testament and never mentioning that Jesus fellow. And yet, the words “Hudson,” “Mulder,” and “Zito” are never uttered in the film. The only pitchers given any screen-time are relievers Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon. Bradford, whose bizarre throwing motion was so off-putting it disguised his extraordinary abilities as a relief pitcher, is a central part of Lewis’s book. In the film, he gets a 10 second mention early in the film, and then a condescending scene that plays his religiosity for laughs. It seems that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to handle more stats, and so they chose simply to focus on the offensive side of things, and hammer home the mantra of “get on base.” This might very well have been necessary for storytelling’s sake, but it means providing a skewed version of events. Scott Hatteberg had a fine year, especially when judged against his salary, but his 136 games of 116 OPS+ play was hardly the reason Oakland challenged for the pennant in 2002. Ironically, Moneyball may have succumbed to the casual baseball fan’s long-standing bias in favor of offense and position players. More troubling, in my opinion, is the lack of depth with which the film explores the various “moneyball” principles that Beane employs. It’s all well and good to talk about getting on base, but why? Why is it important to get on base? Sure, you score more runs, and yes, you burn out the other team’s pitching staff, but the real reason is that you simply aren’t making outs. As Beane says at one point, “Why bother attacking? There’s no clock in this game.” Outs are the clock in baseball, and if you don’t make them, you can live forever. Likewise, if your pitchers get people out, you don’t much care whether they are throwing 100 miles per hour or using a herky-jerky delivery to do so. The reason Chad Bradford, with his funky underhanded pitching motion, got batters out was because he made the batter hit the ball on the ground. It’s very difficult to hit the ball over the fence when you’re hitting it on the ground (In fact, it’s impossible). But you’d never know that from watching the movie. Moneyball gets at the why of Oakland’s success without ever really examining the how. Of course, from the average moviegoer’s perspective, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. The basic tenets of the sabrmetric philosophy are clearly presented in the film, and while it’s sometimes a bit broad, the movie does a remarkable job of dramatizing the concepts. The sins of the film – such as giving Beane too much credit for his strategy (Other GMs, including Sandy Alderson and even Branch Rickey, the legendary GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, studied statistics as part of their evaluation methods) --are often those of the book, as well (and I would argue that Pitt’s performance does more to show Beane’s arrogance than Lewis’s somewhat rose-colored portrait does). The major argument against Moneyball has always been that Beane failed to win the World Series (or any other post-season series, for that matter). This is where the film truly shines, in my opinion, as the drama is not so much whether the A's will win the World Series, but whether Beane and Brand’s crazy idea will work. The idea does work, as demonstrated in the chapter of the book called "The Speed of the Idea." This chapter produced my favorite scene in the film. Beane, after a remarkable season, is summoned to Boston to meet with the new owner of the Red Sox, billionaire hedge fund manager John Henry. Henry is enamored with Beane’s strategies and wants to hire him. Oakland has offered Beane a new contract, though, one Beane would be happy to accept. Henry asks Beane why he even bothered to come to the meeting then. “Because you hired Bill James, for one thing,” he replies. James, the patron saint of statistical baseball study, had never had a job in the game before Henry decided to give him one; he was too hated. This gives Henry an excuse to explain to Beane that whenever a new idea threatens the status quo -- whether that’s in government, business, or sports -- those in power fight it tooth and nail. What choice do they have? Their livelihoods are at stake. “Anybody not out there right now remaking their team with your principles is done. They’re dinosaurs,” Henry says. Watching this scene in the theater, I found myself thinking not of baseball, but of another spectacularly inefficient industry that’s close to my heart -- the publishing business. For the past two centuries, publishers have relied primarily on that most ephemeral and unscientific of qualities, editors’ taste, to decide which books to spend their money on and which books to decline. Their results are not much better than the scouts Beane summarily dismisses in Moneyball (Though, presumably, with less chewing tobacco). In a recent Vanity Fair article about the publishing industry, Keith Gessen writes: “If it is the writer’s first book, and she has no sales track, you can come up with similar-seeming books (“comp titles”) and see how many copies those sold. But this is precision masquerading as insight. No two books are the same book, and no two authors are the same author. The fact is: no one has any idea how many copies of a book will sell.” With that in mind, how long will it be before the Billy Beane of the publishing world finds a better way? After all, “We’re not selling jeans here.” Selling jeans or not, if you pay to see a sports movie you expect to see some sweat. It’s telling that the most physical exertion we see is not on the field but in the weight room, as Billy Beane prefers to pump iron in the bowels of the Oakland Coliseum rather than watch his team play. I found myself wondering at one point whether this was much of a sports movie at all. In the end, I decided it must be, since it looked a lot like Friday Night Lights -- tortured close-ups, jittery hand-held camerawork, sports talk radio overlays, silenced crowd shots, and Explosions in the Sky-esque soundtrack. If Hoosiers were remade today (Note to Hollywood: Don’t get any funny ideas.), it would look a lot like this. In the end, Moneyball isn’t Syriana. In fact, it has more in common with another adaptation of recent years -- The Social Network. Both are compelling dramas about recent history that are probably better considered fiction than nonfiction. Still, I must admit that I felt something special while watching Moneyball. True, it didn’t cover everything I wanted it to (There wasn’t, for instance, any mention of Beane’s Ahab-like quest to acquire Mexican on-base machine Erubiel Durazo, and there was apparently no time to work in a vignette about the great challenge trade of Billy Koch for Keith Foulke), but it was still a rare thrill to watch a movie about a subject I cared about and to see it rendered with love and humor. We should all be so lucky.
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John Feinstein is one of the big names in sports journalism. He's written books on a number of headline-getting sports stories and consequently can be heard often on sports radio as an expert guest. Feinstein's background is as a newspaper guy, writing for the Washington Post among others. The Last Amateurs is about college basketball in the Patriot League, a (mostly) non-scholarship league that struggles to survive in the world of big time college ball. To Feinstein, this is one of the last bastions of unadulterated amateur basketball in the United States. These kids play for little more than the love of the game and the glory of winning the league's one berth to the NCAA Tournament. He follows the seven teams from schools like Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Navy through a whole season, focusing on the personalities, on the struggles peculiar to this one of a kind league, and on the great basketball games that never came close to showing up on a Sportscenter highlight reel. Feinstein's newsy writing and copious background anecdotes keep the book moving at a fast pace. It isn't, however, the transcendent sports writing of a Roger Angell. Instead, the book reads like a dozen Sports Illustrated articles strung end to end. As such, this is a fantastic book for fans of college basketball, as it really captures what is best about that game.