There’s an inverse relationship between age and the romance of sports. As fans get older the sheen starts to fade because of the revelation that athletes are just people who happen to be really good at running or hitting. But what doesn’t change is the allure of strategy.
I’m embarrassed whenever I have to admit how little I know about baseball or basketball. I like watching them both just fine (not much beats washing down hot dogs with cold, overpriced beer in the middle of summer) and could listen to people talk about them all day.
Two weeks ago Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers was a guest on Bill Simmons’ podcast, The B.S. Report. The two obviously got into music, but the best parts were when they sparred over the Celtics/Lakers rivalry. Basketball isn’t even close to as fun to argue about as hockey but hearing two lifelong fans of the game, especially one from Boston and the other from L.A., is good listening for anyone even remotely interested. I think basketball is a selfish sport about the stars, but could listen to stories about Phil Jackson’s Zen basketball strategies until the day I die.
They also got into how much credibility league commissioner David Stern lost when he overruled the first Chris Paul trade immediately following the lockout. Who would’ve won the trade? Who won after the makeup trade went through? I have no idea but in every sport chemistry is the difference. Hearing about the philosophy and preferences of each GM is riveting stuff. How they have to weave through the league rules, organizational policies, and their own egos is what seems to separate the greats from the rest of the pack.
Which is why the movie version of Moneyball was such a disappointment. We’re at a point where the traditional sports story is boring. Outcast coach/player leads team of weirdo’s/losers/underachievers to the championship overall incredible odds has been done. In Michael Lewis’ book, we’re taken into the backrooms of the Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane. It’s fascinating to read why Jason Giambi became who he is, or why the A’s drafted fat boy Jeremy Brown so high.
In the movie, Brad Pitt’s Beane couldn’t have been more flat. He was a smart guy who couldn’t stand to watch his team play and cared about his daughter, whoop-de-doo. The real life character was better than the movie one. I loved hearing all the arguments between the scouts about the draft and how Beane was eventually blacklisted by other GM’s after he was able to turn their fringe players into studs.
Scorecasting is a book that, albeit lacking a narrative, exposes a similar underside to sports. It’s a collection of shorter essays that each take on a different argument but the theme is clear: the jocks are wrong. Writers Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim look at statistical analysis on every major sport. They explain how refs really do give makeup calls, home teams have a 10% advantage across the board, the benefits of going for it on 4th & 1, and debunk a litany of other myths.
They get into what makes Bill Belichick one of the most successful coaches ever and aren’t afraid to call out his big name, ESPN detractors. Another highlight is when they say that a hockey team pulling the goalie would be wayyyy more effective if it happened a few minutes sooner than with only a minute or so left in the game.
A lot of athletes might be arrogant idiots and teams might gouge fans for money, but at least there’s always new angles and personalities to consider.