Being a sports fan is to realize, at some level, just how silly it all is. You are watching people: bat a ball with a wooden stick; hit a puck while wearing ice skates; try to deposit a small dimple-shaped ball into a hole several hundred yards away; injure each other's brains in a tableau of masculine aggression; slice a ball over a net into an impossible corner for their opponent to reach; use their feet to move a (soccer) ball down a field; or shoot a ball through a hoop attached to a net.
Stepping back, the emotional investment in all of this is amazing. But that's the point -- in the moment there's no stepping back. Perspective is for losers. Let the emotions fly, high five your friends when things go well, hang your head when they do not.
I experienced all of this last weekend, as the Northwestern Wildcats made their first ever trip to the NCAA basketball tournament. The bracket I filled out in advance had Northwestern winning it all -- a ridiculous claim, of course, but it felt good to assert it. They squeaked through in the first round, against Vanderbilt. Then the mighty test, against # 1 seed Gonzaga, awaited.
During the first half the Cats looked terrible, and were down 38-20 at intermission. (For a long time they had only scored 6 points). There were a lot of hanging heads in dismay at the Northwestern alumni watch party.
But then the Cats awakened in the second half, clawing back to within 5 points: 63-58. Here the crucial sequence occurred. Gonzaga goaltended against NU, in what should have been 2 points for Northwestern. (This is not just an admittedly biased fan talking; the NCAA confirmed this after the game). So it should have been 63-60, with momentum clearly on the Cats side.
Goaltending was not called. In response Northwestern coach Chris Collins stormed the court while the ball was in play, causing a (deserved) technical foul. Collins's actions were justified in the moment, I say; sports is about emotion, not logic. But they were costly too. Gonzaga made both free throws on that technical foul. Instead of 63-60, the score was 65-58. The Cats could not surmount that deficit, losing 79-73.
Counterfactuals are the glory of sports. Had goaltending been called, say Cats fans, Northwestern would have been won. Well. Maybe Gonzaga would have responded with a flurry of 3 point shots and won the game that way. We'll never know. This is why Cats fans will say forever that the refs blew their chance at their first ever Sweet Sixteen spot. I'll join the chorus sometimes, while knowing that the real story is more complicated.
In an excellent and wide-ranging column this past weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle's David Talbot concludes that, "The American people need to maintain a healthy skepticism as we are bombarded with allegations from both sides of the Trump-deep state divide."
I agree with Talbot. Believing every rumor about Trump is a recipe for exhaustion and enervation. Always being outraged plays right into the President's hands, by making it easier to dismiss all critics as unhinged and angry.
That said, Talbot's argument is not airtight. He claims that critics of the current President understate the likelihood that Trump was wiretapped last year: "Despite the outraged denials from the Obama camp, Trump might indeed have been tapped during the presidential campaign. On the eve of the November election, an intriguing national security blogger named Louise Mensch — a former Conservative Party member of British Parliament with strong intelligence ties — reported that the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes government spying, had granted a warrant for the FBI to conduct surveillance of certain Americans as part of the bureau’s investigation into possible links between Russian banks and Trump’s corporate empire."
In the fullness of time it may well emerge that Trump was wiretapped, but the issue is that he alleged that President Obama himself personally and of his own accord ordered this action. This is the detail that Talbot elides in his retelling.
This is an area in which outrage is needed, even if it plays into the hands of the caricature of the always angry protestor. If we just meekly accept this as "Donald being Donald," his next claim will be even more outrageous. Like the frog that does not know it is boiling because the heat goes up just one degree at a time, we would have a country in which all facts become fiction and total fiction becomes received reality. Whenever the president challenges the concept of truth itself, we must resist. The stakes are too high to do anything else.
Baseball is our best game, with the richest history and the most intricate strategies. It is also often our slowest game -- a fusillade of second strike foul balls sure slows things down, as does endless calls for time from the batter's box, and so too those innumerable consultations between catcher and pitcher at the mound.
Ergo improving pace of play, as current MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred wishes to do, makes sense. For better and worse, we now live in a frenetic society of people glued to their phones even when nothing at all is happening. The stately, steady, slow pace of baseball is not as attuned to our times. This means that Manfred has to be concerned about audience size. If passionate baseball fans are too purist, refusing to allow for any changes (or at the least fighting every proposed changed tooth and nail), we could end up just watching the games ourselves as the vast majority of people tune out. This is enough of a concern that, just today, many Times sports journalists offered their advice about how to improve pace of play.
And yet, and yet...I do not support the recent decision to no longer require four pitched balls for every intentional walk. Now the manager can simply signal for the intentional walk, and the hitter trots on down to first base. This does have the appeal of less strain on the pitcher's arm, which perhaps would mean fewer Tommy John surgeries down the line. But the trouble here is that there is always a possibility of a wild pitch in the intentional walk scenario, which would affect the state of play on the field. A flubbed intentional walk could be the occasion for high drama, which is why things should remain as they are now.
This leads to a general principle: MLB should improve pace of play by cutting back on activities that do not affect live action on the field. Limit the number of pitcher-catcher consultations. Only allow hitters to call time twice during an at-bat, not an infinite number of times. And so forth. I am certain that fans will quibble with these ideas, finding somewhere in history where the 10th pitcher-catcher consultation of an inning made a huge difference. OK. There are trade-offs in all decisions. I'll stand by these ideas, and anything else that trims at the arcana of baseball without affecting its live action in any appreciable way.